We sit cross-legged on the scatter rug and listen to the rain peck at the windows. The water fractures itself against the screen and it draws patterns I want to trace with my fingers. We have a box of candles on the kitchen table, for when the dark comes back inside. She leans into me whenever the rain turns loud, and her face is solemn and so still. Outside, the wind carves itself into the hickory trees. She can’t hear me offer up comfort, so I lean back into her. We listen. We wait.
Compelled to stir the ashes, of what was cruel, what was unadorned. And still I reach for those extinguished minutes and years, and walk into the smoke, shoulders broke, bending to grief’s provocation, aroused by what could have been.
Elani was the most gifted of us, but it was hard to watch her subtract herself from happiness. She was the good girl, the kind girl, the quiet girl who leaned into the shade of a river birch while others swung from ropes and imprinted the water with their thrashing bodies.
She was not destined for great things, and she did not pursue them. The current ran deep, and she found comfort in her aloneness and sandpapered memories. She had no quarrel with pain. She reconciled it as the great truth of life, and saw strength as a punch in the belly, holding back the yelps, damming the tears behind waxwork eyes.
Ricky laughed. “Speaking of opening the door. Guess who was waiting on me to open the joint this morning?”
“Hell, yeah.” He combed through his hair with his fingers. A quick task since all that was left were gray bristles. The boy he had been rode a Harley Softail and had hair down to the middle of his back. Now he looked like a retired drill sergeant. It was like looking at a double exposure. An old habit from a fractured past. How many of us want to look at age straight in the face? “I mean, how many times have we tossed him? Eight? Twenty? So he’s standing there – shaking there – and he starts bitching how I was five minutes late opening up. Did you know he’s still parking his van behind the bar? Sleeps there, I guess. He can’t afford another DUI, so he forces himself to walk those twenty extra steps.”
“I wonder if we can do something about that,” I said. “Convince him to take his business elsewhere.”
“It’s not like we’re getting rich off the guy. We’re the idiots for serving him. He’s stiffed us more times than I can count.”
“I told you not to serve him. Show him the door. Head first, if needed.”
Ricky nodded. “Aww, I feel sorry for him, Bart. He’s harmless. But you’re right. There’s other places he can go to weasel a few drinks. Gilly’s would fit him better. It’s a dive. And he ain’t exactly supporting our pension fund.”
“This isn’t Cheers,” I said. “And he isn’t Norm. He’s probably draining off customers. Nobody likes a drunk, even in a bar. A tire iron to his windshield would do it.”
“Yeah, probably would.” He grinned, but I didn’t grin back. “You serious?”
“Serious as suicide,” I said and regretted it. It hurt in all the wrong places. “We can do it tonight, after closing. I’m done with Drunk Larry.”
“Uh huh. Christ, Bart, one shot of Chivas and you’re ready to go full-on, ain’tcha? Oh, and by the way, he was rambling on about something he saw at Wolf Creek last week. Something about moving shapes. It was all mixed up. He was a fucking moving shape.”
I studied Ricky’s face, and it was calm. “What do you think? You worried?”
“Me? Nah. He was stewed. It’s been too many years to mean anything. Something would have come out by now. He’s just a nervous drunk, afraid of being caught sober. I figure he spends a lot of time out there, hunting for beer bottles to cash in at the Depot. The Creek’s where all the kids go to drink. His brain is as pickled as Einstein’s.”
“You think so?”
“Sure. It’s been years and years since–”
“All right,” I said, and considered. “Two beers a night, Ricky. Whatever’s on tap. And then show him the door.”
“You worried about him? Seriously? I’m sorry I mentioned it.”
“Don’t be. It’s probably nothing. But it bears watching, right?”
“Everything bears watching, Bart. You taught me that.”
“Did I?” I asked. It was a real question.
“I love her, you know.”
“Everyone loves her.”
“But, yeah. I mean really.”
“She’s a nice girl. But c’mon. You’re too young. She’s too young.”
“Doesn’t mean it isn’t real, Efrim.”
“Well don’t tell her. She’ll get all upset.”
“Just because. You don’t know, David. She’s… flighty. She gets these big romantic ideas and she doesn’t know what to do with them. She cries at the end of movies. She keeps a diary and draws hearts on the cover. She thinks the Partridge Family is real. If she thought things like that were real… well, I dunno. She’d take it too serious. She’d imagine wedding cakes and sparkly placemats. She’s not old enough to know that those things aren’t ready for her yet. If she knew that you loved her, she’d think bad things could never happen. And bad things always happen, especially to kids.”
“Maybe not this time?”
“Just wait, David. Please.”
“But I love her.”
“Then you should wait. Okay? You wanna shoot off some firecrackers?”
The move to Wishing was the best thing. Frank Cobin wasn’t a big shot in town anymore, engorged with bravado and insolence. He was the stranger in town, and had no favor with the thin-faced men: the corner-men, the hustlers, the scammers, the casually dangerous.
The move to Wishing was the worst thing. Marooned from his pals, Frank took his temper out on his wife and kid, bullied them with his knuckles and insults. His ambitions were volatile, written in chalk, scribbled and wiped clean every day.
Eldridge caught him with his pants down, with that woman from downtown, that woman who worked at Bibby’s Department Store, and his old man didn’t have much to say about that. He had a weakness for the Negro women, he told his boy, and
runnels of sweat ran down her round belly, clean like rain water. Her breasts rose with every inhalation, nipples hard like rock candy, hips churning to a hallowed beat. Eldridge could smell the woman’s sweat, and it was not fear-sweat, but a submissive heat-sweat, her face straining for pleasure, her eyes greedy, flooded with inside light, and
don’t tell your mother, don’t let her know.
And his father cried and groveled, but not for forgiveness. He needed to preserve that secret, that deep echo of himself, and he begged his boy not to draw out that darkness.
Eldridge never did tell, but the secret exhausted him. It was a guilty-belly, hungry-belly secret, like a tongue against a throbbing tooth. His father stopped using his fists, and Eldridge learned to use his. He discovered his own appetite that night, and the shades pulled down on his childhood. The shadows, he understood, never went away. They clove to everything, and soon the headaches began, and his temper grew more sour.
Eldridge stared down at his father, his old and ruptured flesh, and heard Frank’s impious excuses for the last time. He ended that part of his life for good. No one ever knew.
“The father of children”, he said, “has a duty to protect them, not bury them.” That was what Frank Cobin did. He buried his son in a lie.
“The father of children needs to be accountable,” he said, and kneeled on his father’s shoulders. The old man had turned scrawny in his old age, dry as jerky, so it wasn’t hard. It was like resting on a piece of shredded hickory.
“You punished us for the smallest mistakes,” he said. His voice was calm, almost soothing. He lowered the heel of his hand on his father’s throat, and he felt its pulse, irregular but strong. “You betrayed your wife and your child for the sake of a whore.”
“No whore,” the old man wheezed.
“You couldn’t be trusted. Who do I trust now? You made us feel like dirt, like we were useless. And you were whoring around like a man of the town, laughing at us behind our back. And the only thing you’ve ever been ashamed of is that you were caught. How do you think that makes us feel? At least Mom was spared. I protected her.” He sunk his hand deeper into Frank’s throat. He felt bone and gristle, paper thin.
Then things got fuzzy around the edge of his temper.
**Excerpt from The Stone Age — a work in progress**
He still listens for sirens. He doesn’t hear them, not exactly, but he waits for them, waits for the whole damned thing to come down.
A police siren, a plain blue warble, and you don’t know if they’re coming for you or heading somewhere else.
That town, swear to God, moved and breathed, and the only thing you could smell was its filthy haunches. Sometimes it smelled like the detritus of the dieback wheat, and sometimes it smelled like his father, cotton work pants and Wildroot cream. But mostly he remembers the dark reek of potato vodka slopping on the old man’s undershirt.
The summer Eldridge turned ten, those sirens cut apart his sleep. When your world was a flat plate of broom corn and empty wind, sirens busted everything open. When you’re feverish from the day heat, still slick at ten o’clock at night, you remember. Most times, the silence was so thick you could feel it crawl around your ears. But when those sirens cut through the night like a squall, it scratched scars on your memory.
The sound terrified Eldridge, and made him giddy. Maybe his old man had been knifed in the downtown beer parlor, or maybe he was the knifer. Didn’t matter. When his father slammed the porch screen at 2:30 the next morning, Eldridge was still awake.
“Boy got runned over on Little Route,” his old man said. “Thought it might be you, but I was pitching nickels with Thimble Wyatt and one of them Ostrander fellas, and didn’t have time to check. Now fetch me a beer and get on back to bed.”
And on and on through a hollow span of days and nights, until they moved away from that awful Oklahoma town for good. But the sirens kept chasing him down. One day they’d be for him, and for good reason.
**From The Stone Age — a work-in-progress**
The funeral was simple but elegant. There were few in attendance, other than his father’s former colleagues whom David barely remembered. He recalled dim dinners with them, and the unappetizing fare such as oysters and fowls that were not chicken. There was wine and cognac, and peach-based desserts. Sometimes there was a sweltering ham, sliced thick, and rich, lumpy potato salad, and that felt more honest. The men would talk about academia, and the women would discuss complex novels and romantic poetry. It was a rarefied environment, full of big ponderings and show-offy intellect, and David understood none of it. He reckoned they were trying to impress one another when they debated the arcane, pausing only to parse each other’s words until they had no meaning. Dull and dull. The nights usually ended with Donald at the piano, playing something “bawdy by Bach”, played barrel-house style. That was the best part of those nights, and David loved his father most when he riffed on the keys and then gave David a broad, unselfconscious grin.
He recognized only one of the pallbearers, Stanley Olay, a fat man not much younger than his father. He used to pull nickels out of David’s ear, and bring the latest copies of The New Yorker, where they were displayed on the coffee table and gathered dust until his next visit. Occasionally, he would pull out a packet of photographs, usually of his children, or his favorite restaurant architecture, and he and Donald would sit on the porch and discuss college politics, who was up for tenure, who was retiring. David remembered those visits only because because Stanley Olay was friendly and unimpressive. He didn’t try to be the smartest person in the room.
**Excerpt from The Stone Age, a work-in-progress**