Shoulders squared, she recalls. You must wear a calm, unremarkable smile. Unaware, her left hand rests on his calf, ring finger prominent for her half of the photograph. She wears an apricot dress, freshly pressed for Mass, and pineapple decorative ruffle sandals, flat on the floor, hair gathered in a complex construct of barrettes and pins. You look wifely, he says, mid-level lovely, he says, whatever he thinks that means.
Lamentation does not counter your sins, she says to her unborn child; sadness does not excuse all the bad things we’ve done. Smile for the camera, sit next to your father; this is who we are, this is what we do: we smile unremarkable smiles and we are celebrated for our self-regard.
Photographer Samuel — a Gen X artiste who wears a Nevermind tattoo on one bicep, and keeps his belly as flat as a frozen hamburger disc– shifts his lighting umbrella a degree, mostly to impress them, and something to distract himself from thoughts of his aggravated assault charge, his public intoxication record, the delayed shame of fucking the undocumented waitress on top of flattened bed-in-a-box cartons behind the Light of Kings Korean restaurant. Or maybe he’s just a blue-collar guy, a mensch, someone who calls his mother twice a week, dates a Presbyterian girl he met at Bingo, teaches photography part-time at the community college. She considers his prison shoulders, those narrow meat-grinder hips, and it doesn’t really matter who he is. He could take her right here, right in front of the Winter Wonderland backdrop, without so much as a pre-game analysis. She is, after all, mid-level lovely.
And now, melancholy, she turns to her husband. There is a daub of shaving cream smeared beneath his ear, a washed-ashore otter sort of gray. I will not mention this, she decides. I was trapped in my body at such a young age. Where were you when I was frail, hiding from life, biding my time for my time to arrive? I was never further away from you than I am now. What do you think of Samuel? Should he take me here inside the filtered lighting? Should we smoke Chesterfield Kings after the flash bulbs pop? What do you think? What would you say?
“Your hubby says you’re expecting,” says Photographer Samuel, and nods with approval. She despises the word ‘hubby’. It indicates a lateral kind of masculine arrogance, as her mother would say. A word you would present in bold type for a late-morning Saturday cartoon: Hubby and Wifely, Crime-Fighters. Or something. Did it really matter? “It shows,” he says, and then stammers a disclaimer. “I mean that in a good way, of course. I mean the glow.”
“You know. The expectant-mother glow. Congratulations, is all I mean.”
“Oh. Yes. Thank you. I am glowing, I suppose.” She examines the words in her mouth, tastes them carefully, then swallows. Hubby and glow. What’s next? With child? I am with child with my hubby, and I currently glow. How nice. Those words need to be put to death, of course. She smiles an unremarkable smile. She will save the good smile for later, when it matters, in that fractured disconnect between say cheese and atta girl, you got it right!. Samuel, who is, after all, just a young guy wearing a gray Hanes T-shirt spotted with pizza grease, and retro-60’s mustard-yellow bell bottoms, cannot stop himself:
“I don’t mean ‘glow’ in the traditional sense, in a cliché kinda way, you know? I mean far-out glowing, the way Jackie Kennedy glowed, post-assassination, pre-Onassis, you know?” He grins at the logic of his cleverness.
“She gets it, Sam,” says hubby, finally irritated. “We’re not paying you by the hour, are we? Because all this glowing has got to fucking stop.”
“Oh. Sorry,” says not-so-clever Samuel. He folds his soft arms together and scratches them. “Just making convo.”
Hubby sighs loudly, then waves his hand. “Don’t worry about it. Bobbi booked this without telling me about it until last night, so my day’s already shot. Don’t take it too seriously.”
“Hey, no problem.”
“That your Mercedes parked out front? The red one?”
“Yeah, man, that’s the’65. A 230 SL, used to be my dad’s.”
“Sweet looking ride.”
“Oh yeah, it is. Only thirty-four thousand original miles, and”
The fabric of the day has changed, she decides. The boys tore it up and altered it into something else, something not dependent upon a woman’s presence. Sorry, Samuel, I have decided not to fuck you now. It’s not your fault, we were doomed from the start. I have too many original miles on me.
Bobbi drifts into the soft babble that surrounds her.
“Babe?” he says in a pretend whisper.
“You have a smudge. Your lips?”
“I have a smudge?”
“I guess. It looks off. The color, I mean.”
He means it’s not perfect. He can wear his hair uncombed and eyebrows untrimmed, and leave a brick of shaving cream below his ear, but the photo will be ruined, completely Armageddonly awful, if her lipstick is presumed to be a microbe “off”.
“Maybe you should pee, while you’re at it,” he whispers. “You’re squirming.”
“Maybe I should pee and de-smudge,” she says. “Yes.” What did he not understand about women? Does he think those things are done simultaneously?
“Hey, no problem,” she says, and Samuel points to the hallway.
“Second door on the left,” he says. “Knock first, I share it with the dentist’s office next door.”
Shoulders squared, she recalls. You must wear a calm, unremarkable smile as you press your key sharply against the doors and hood of a Mercedes-Benz. Remember always to sign the damage prominently in your hubby’s name.
Lamentation does not counter your sins, she says to no one as she walks around to the passenger side. Sadness does not excuse all the bad things we’ve done.
All your scarecrows are spurned in Issaquena, blighted and lonesome and gray. Listened to the hollow burs as we walked, somehow kept time to their fidgety rattle. Some soldiers, the young ones, reached down to snag one, press their fingers along the stems, as if they never saw cotton before, as if they were herding children to their lessons instead of deserters to the noose.
When we reach Mayersville after dawn, there is nothing there but age: a few old women boil coffee in front of their shacks, a small number of old men poke their heads around splintered door frames so they can sniff at the air we bring with us. There are no children here, only the peculiar noise of absence.
The soldiers march us single file to Little Sunflower River. There are five of us — four, now that Denham has fallen — barefoot and scabbed from the iron that scrapes our wrists and ankles. We walk with what remains of our shirts tied around our waists, and with our chins, we rub the sweat from our arms.
Lord, give me just a small string of words to comfort me, something to recite to myself, a testament of some weight.
I see Sergeant Rochester fiddle with a length of rope soon to be draped around someone’s neck, maybe my neck, maybe even his own. I cannot say who the criminal is, because I cannot remember my crime, and he has yet to confess to his.
Lord, she wakes me, and it is almost Christmas:
You were crying, she says.
Yes. Something about ropes and cotton.
She draws me near, and I close my eyes to her.
I don’t remember, I say.
You have them a lot.
Yes. I suppose.
Talk about it?
Not now. I want to listen to you breathe.
She laughs. Now I’ll have to think about you listening to me breathe.
She kisses my shoulder and it feels like summer on my skin.
Just breathe, I say, and I’ll do the same.
She turns off the light,
and I cling to her for warmth.
I wonder if the Christmas tree is too close to the heating vent,
and what is hanging from each branch.
An eruption of artillery, and we fall towards the sawgrass.
He presumes to understand the cat sanskrit writ across the front mud yard, the vigorous dialect of entrails, the still-wet scribbles collected around the jacaranda tree trunk. He takes a rake to the mess, gathers bones in a small paper sack, folds dirt over the killing ground. This has become his morning ritual, and he has not yet told his children about the deeds of their second-favorite pet.
All six sisters sit staunchly upright on an iron bench in front of Ay’s Grocery, waiting for the milk wagon. Some days the girls seem smaller as the early morning fog captures them wearing identical linen dresses.
“That’s alright, Papa,” said Mira, the oldest. “The birds are just waiting for us to die, anyway.”
To each child, a gift is given. The cruelty may be that it may not be discovered, so a father cannot nourish it, thinking it absent. Mira was twelve. He was forty-two and a half, if his birth certificate was correct. It was possible it was not.
“They are all sadness, these blessings,” said Cora, the fourth girl; that something so important could be so simply said.
His girls spoke things that felt substantial. He did not train them to do this. Their mother taught them quietly and privately, so they could save him from his grief.
He presumes to understand the cat sanskrit writ across the front mud yard, but he still cannot quite read the language of his daughters. They already know he hides the birds’ remains from them, and yet still choose to buy fresh milk each morning for their second-favorite pet.
He sits upright against the jacaranda tree trunk and lays his hand upon the wounded dirt. He waits for them to emerge, one girl at a time, from the morning fog.
But first an otherworldly version of “He Leadeth Me” by Olive Sallee’s two grown boys, Ronny and Quick. That’s them, standing before God and all His corn, and also Justin Ryder’s half-blind Appaloosa, Mary-Ellen. They are pulling the notes out of their fiddles like they were chicken gizzards, all for the good of the Jurystown Baptist Church’s Sunday Revival.
Those noises help to advance the pass-along jar between the clusters of those womenless boys in the crowd who are tap-tap-tapping their quick-short fingernails on the sleeves of their thermal undershirts like they’re counting down the beats until it’s all over. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s something that needs to stop being one thing so it can start being something else.
Olive loves her boys, just as she loves the king-size Newport menthols she smokes at the very back of the canvas tent at the very end of every revival meeting, when Brother Rex lays down his Bible with one declarative thump and stomps down the aisle with his arms raised like a welterweight, sniffing up all the stink from a congregation that smells like the inside of a Sunday morning mason jar. Yes, she loves her boys maybe as much, though they are both fools: Quick, more than the other one.
Sometimes, though, all those sounds accidentally start to weave themselves into real music, if you let the notes drift away from you, off into the air, above your thinking mind.
Douglas Hauck, who has gathered up all the attention over there at that cottonwood tree, sways to something he probably has heard before. It’s not so much what you think you hear, it’s how it all carries, into a wide stillness, into the soft unborn skin of nightfall. Douglas, all forty-two troubled years of him, sways because he doesn’t know how to do anything different anymore.
Beryle Bean, who is frequently called Saint Beryle — and not for any good reason other than she is unmarried and not especially ashamed of it — watches for her two dogs, who scattered off into the nearby cornfield. Twenty minutes, now, without any distinctive bark, she can still hear their hooooools far off, practically into Benny Thompson’s potato field. Those hounds make a more tolerable kind of music, in her opinion, than those boys who play their confounding fiddles.
“Olive, I am struggling,” Douglas says to her after the service. He lights her third Newport cigarette of the post-sermon with the disposable lighter he keeps in his jacket pocket to impress the smokers in the congregation. The women smokers. He thinks it makes him look acceptably sexual.
There is a hard slate sky carved upon the horizon, and Olive studies it carefully. She knows the wrecking ball nature of the weather this time of year — they all do — and this sky promises meanness.
“We all struggle, Douglas,” she says. “Each in our own way. We try not to talk about it to the uninterested, which, frankly, includes me. We look to Brother Rex for answers.”
“Yes, well. Him. I’m not sure he’s as well qualified as he claims. I asked him before his sermon if I could see his official papers — proof of theological courses, or degrees or even certification — and he said God Himself chose him, not any particular college. He said he is a man who has been blessed, unlike me, or anyone else in this rabble. He said his job was — is — to save those in frantic need of salvation. That’s a direct quote, by the way: ‘anyone else in this rabble.’ And then he asked me if my bank might consider making a donation to next month’s Great Pals’ Family Picnic Day over in Oslee Valley.”
Olive sighs.“Boy, that’s a long and strained answer to a question I did not ask,” she says, and clears her throat. “Like I said, we all struggle, and now isn’t the time to whimper about it. But I’m sure you have more important things on your mind this afternoon, don’t you? Like the color of Saint Beryle’s panties? Or the beads of sweat that trickle between those thin bosoms? I see how you stare at her chest, Douglas. Studying that little sunburned patch of skin. Would it interest you to know that Beryle doesn’t bother to wear underpants anymore? Not since she caught that infection. Maybe you’d like to consult with Brother Wade about that. I hear it cleared up for him. Eventually.”
“This thing. This creature of marrow and conceit, of blood and retribution.” Brother Rex exhaled, exhausted and loud, and he palmed his face with an already damp handkerchief. “This thing,” he said again, and wiped away the appropriate number of tears, which was the exact number as Christ’s disciples.
“Why would you say that?” says Douglas. “Beryle and I are friends. We sit beside each other at Bible study, that’s all. We — sometimes we — why would you say that, Olive?”
“I see the way you look at her, Douglas. And Brother Rex has noticed. It’s painful to watch you swerve so far off the path he’s set for us. That you think he’s unqualified is an insult. We know about you.”
“You know about me?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I have no idea what you mean. Beryle and I are friends, that’s all.”
“We know what you say when you think you can’t be overheard. We know your heart, Douglas.”
“My heart? You don’t even know my address, Olive. You don’t even know the names of my cats. You don’t know my desires, how could you? I don’t write them down, I don’t tell myself what they are. I live with them, and I pray for them to go away. You don’t know me. You said it yourself: you’re uninterested.”
Olive Sallee hears the singular sound of her boys’ fiddles drift down from a great distance, somewhere from inside an inimical churn of wind not quite ready to strip away the corn and tear out the bruised throats of Beryle Bean’s awful hounds.
“That boy, Douglas. That drowned boy from Sunbury Lake. Do you still remember him?”
I have just about worn my legs out, swimming, far past four o’clock, far past the dock, far past the dogs, past anyone who might recognize my bobbing shape so far from the narrow thumb of a hardpan beach.
I am premeditatedly naked, for the first time wholly hip to my fully-charged young man’s skin. There is young Connor and his older half-sister Anna, and I want to impress her and I regret that I forget him. He follows me, oh, just follows me further than I intended to swim, being so submerged in so subversive a bliss that it’s been denied me ever since. The boy followed me beyond the shallows and Anna spit on my face, a prolonged roar at my disgrace, humiliates my soft boyish body, and I ought to forgive myself, ought to restrain myself from these aqueous desires, and some days I become submerged again, dead-skinned and numb to it all over again.
I have just about worn my legs out, running, far past those days, all a miserable haze, oh, dear Beryle/Anna, all in a wildly orgasmic maze, and you will never hear me cry out in any of my remaining prayers how much I want to be near you, to lay down beside you, how much I want to reach for you, but, yes, I am only a fallen leaf shaped like water disguised as a leaf, and I drift, you know, I just drift so close but distant and out of your way.
“So long ago,” Douglas says.
Irregular laps of lake water clutched the shore, sideways swirls formed from below, each swathe more luxuriant and urgent as he pulled the boy in. Everything was liquid and impermanently drawn, except for the boy. Connor was a doughy little boy at five, and still alive, as most boys are at that age, and not this sodden and heavy little shape with blue lips and cold plastic flesh. He used to have spindles for limbs and hair as yellow as corn, and now everything was the ash and purple clump Douglas pulled behind him. Connor probably used to wear a grin that disappeared behind shyness, he was just a little guy, after all. Just a regular, everyday little boy, who hid when the Polaroid came out of the box, who likely sought treasure under decomposing trees, and who quite possibly laughed at farts and toads and things that fell out of his nose. A typical boy who just solidly closed the door on everything good in the rest of Douglas Hauck’s life.
“Douglas?” Olive says, her voice a flinty caw. “Earth to Douglas, hello? Can you hear me?”
Of course he hears her. He has heard her all his life. Oh, she assumes different names and genders, and always finds different excuses for humiliating him, but the tone is consistent: cruel and impatient, beneath a thin veneer of pity. A ‘why aren’t you normal?’ taunt that transcends schools and jobs and conversations. He can’t make that voice go away. God himself frequently uses that tone on him.
“I hear you,” he says quietly. “Of course I hear you, I always hear you.”
And he screams.
And Ronny’s and Quick’s fiddles stop making whatever noise it was they were making.
The high and righteous Brother Rex saith unto Saint Beryle, “Let there be long nights and slick thighs between man and woman in this darkness,” and it did not come to pass, as the woman declined the advances of such an imperious ass.
“Nothing ventured,” he said, and moved on to the next princess: this week, it was that cute divorced redhead, Loren Clayton, daughter of Wilfred, owner of the infamous Bait and Bar down on Oxford Street.
Rex. Was that even his real name, Rex? Why not just call himself, ‘Would you like to see my Dong, Sweetheart’? Amen, put it away, stud, not interested. It was the same thing every Sunday, the same dirty dance between the closure of the sermon and the opening of the potato salad bowls behind the big tent.
There was a sacrament of cruelty in Brother Rex’s services. Beryle herself was a New Testament kind of gal, but Rex kept pounding out those Golden Oldie Testament favorites about revenge and pride:
But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. Good old Exodus, a real people-pleaser. And “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “All is vanity.” Ah, yes, Ecclesiastes. Brother Rex really was color blind.
Never mind. It was hard to mind such things when her two hounds, Rosie and O’Donnell, were loose in a wide open cornfield. It wasn’t like them to burst out of the Ford and chase whatever scent they caught. They were better trained than that… unless those big thunderheads unnerved them. Once she got the girls back into the truck, she’d head home, not hang around for the fellowship supper. A good chance this could turn into a night down in the storm cellar, stuck with a couple of shamed dogs, stripping the corn silk out of their fur.
A scream — or something else, something more primitive, more deeply wounded (burn for burn, wound for wound) — lifted from the big cottonwood, now steeped in cloud cover and surrounded by clots of white short-sleeved shirts and beige linen skirts. The scene resembled an unfinished painting that mimicked motion, the finishing strokes yet to be determined.
“Hey, I know that guy,” she heard herself say, then realized she could not remember his name, or even who he was.
“I never meant for him to bleed so much,” Olive Sallee says. “I never saw Ronny move so fast, with Quick right behind him. Dropped their fiddles right there on the grass. As soon as that guy — Douglas, I guess his name was — as soon as he pushed me, both my boys come running. I mean, can you blame them? The guy was crazy. I never meant for him to bleed so much. I was only teasing him a little. Ruined my good Sunday blouse, too. Then the sky opened up like that, I don’t know what happened next. Hey, did anyone ever find Brother Rex?”
Sometimes, all those sounds accidentally start to weave themselves into real music, if you let the notes drift away from you, off into the air, above your thinking mind.
Me and Fo’ were well-digging since 6:30 that morning — same as every day since the middle of August — at Missus Bryant’s place near the edge of the Tallahatchie, and we looked exactly as what we claimed: gritty all the way under our hats and teeth. Miss Francine, Fo’s older cousin from Chicago, said she was curious about where folks went to dance in Dollar, and he told her, “in our kitchens, mostly. But sometimes in the grass when the night is particularly dark and clear. We take turns at the radio dial — we hope for some Dinah Washington, but maybe come across Buster Benton, or turn it up REAL loud when we finally find Little Richard (if we can find a station that plays him) — and when we’re not dancing, or listening, we watch for stray headlights that might be bringing bottles of Something Special to folks who carry more than just cherry Lifesavers and carpenter’s pencils in their pockets.” And that was the most expansive speech I ever heard Fo’ give, but I was aware that he wanted to impress Miss Francine, and was a little bit infatuated with her besides. He grunted at me when I asked him to explain how anyone he knew would bother with a carpenter pencil when it would be just as efficient to mark a measurement with a sharp stone. Miss Francine turned to me and she smiled her most famous big city smile and she asked me, “Do you dance, Bennett, and not just with scarecrows, but with real girls? I don’t expect you to know how to dance with a woman, so don’t you dare be nervous if you have to say no.” And I said, “Miss Francine, I can dance the ears off a row of corn when I have a mind to. Why, that corn becomes ashamed of itself and wishes it could be half as worthy as old dry cabbage or a leaf of backfield tobacco than have to endure another minute of the spectaculation of my feet.” Fo’ made a sound like the backfire from his uncle Joby’s Massey-Harris. “It’s Friday night, Bennett,” she said. “I suppose a boy like you knows where to find a hot spot to dance, other than a nearby cornfield. Or with an ear of corn.” I blushed. I did not know any dancing place nearby, but I told her: “Yes, ma’am, I do,” and Fo’ leaned over and jabbed a skinny knuckle just below my rib cage. “Boy,” he said, “you don’t even know where to find a working radio in your Mama’s house.” I meant to swat him, but he side-stepped me and I almost fell into the hood of Miss Francine’s Chevrolet, which would have had a ruinous effect after my dance story. “Steady there, corn boy,” Fo’ whispered. “There is a cotton gin barn in Glendora,” I said to Miss Francine, and Fo’ raised his eyebrows. “I heard that they sometimes hold dances there for young people. They keep ice buckets of Coca-Cola and sell them for two cents a bottle and they run a generator for a jukebox.” This was not entirely untrue, because both Fo’ and I heard the story from my sister’s boyfriend Henry, who was only unreliable half the time. We were also told that it was a place for older boys, nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, and that we should stay away from there unless we wanted to trade our curiosity for a beating. Fo’ was fifteen and I was almost fourteen (but looked older). And Miss Francine was a grownup woman with a car, so I didn’t think it was necessarily a stupid idea. “That’s a stupid idea, Bennett,” Fo’ said, and Miss Francine only shrugged, and that was the end of that. So we spent most of that night behind Fo’s grandma’s house, drinking lemonade and ice water, and the place stood out for me like a sandcastle under a three-quart moon, fading in and out, washing away and retreating under all kinds of wavering shadows. We heard cries in that still night, or what I thought were cries , and some screams, though I imagined and dreamed of all kinds of things in the days that followed. We heard about the boy the next day. Miss Francine’s brother RickyLee drove her back home to Chicago soon after. We shook hands and said goodbye, and I could see the relief in her eyes that she’d never have to come back here. I wanted to go with her, and not just because I liked her (I did), but because I wanted to be far away from everything here that was so broken and mean.
They found that boy’s body, the boy they called Bobo, and what was done to him, I can’t describe, and I won’t. It made me give up on learning how to be a boy. All at once, the idea of being foolish for the sake of being foolish seemed so badly foolish, and I ran from it fast. Me and Fo’, we stopped being boys right away. We gave up on digging wells for thirty-cents a day for Miss Bryant and her ilk, and spent a lot of time trying to figure out what kind of men we wanted be. Some days it still matters, I guess. I asked Fo’ years later what his grandma thought about us staying in her backyard that night. “Don’t think she stitched the two things together,” he said. “ But she was always kind about you, in spite of you sometimes being a world-class fool. ‘You boys act properly around Miss Francine? Ricky’s girl?’ ‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said. ‘We amused her plenty. She’s a nice girl and we were very respectful.’ Granny nodded, like that was what she expected. Then she rubbed her eyes, like she was suddenly weighed down by a lifetime of tiredness. ‘Nice is good, Fo’, she said. ‘Being reliable is good. But taking care of one another… making each other feel safe in the other’s company. That is especially good. And you are good, Fo’ You are especially good.’ And then she told me an old story about a dance contest she entered when she was a girl. I heard the story a hundred times before, but this time it gave me shivers, Bennett. You know? It still does. We could have gone dancing at the wrong place that night.”
That was the only time we ever cried together, and it rained down hard out of our eyes.
In this twice-awful summer, we’ve become seasoned to the swell of black powder and scorched cedars coming in from Dorian Bandy’s old tobacco farm. One pretty day, I’ll invite you to see for yourself the swath of red-dirt graves stretched out like a shadow across that particular valley.
Joselia, it’s not just us who lost their boys.
Every day takes them further away from us. Their personal effects – freckles above the hairline, tides of peasant temper, pitches of overweening laughter — will fade. Memory will become unreliable again, or, worse, untrue. Our boys ought never have become explanations for our failures. I find myself wandering in and out of those years, restless to settle into a time that wants to keep me.
Write to me when you have the time or inclination, etc. There are some names I can’t remember that need remembering; they’re like table settings that suffer from mismatched cutlery. Not important anymore, but still….
I remember a woman you used to like until you didn’t. I remember everything about her except her name. It scares me, what I’ve forgotten.
Robert, while you think about the names you need to keep, I consider distance. The great spaces between a mourning father and — what was it you called me last winter? — a bitter maw. It all falls in the span of summer minutes, between the lightning bugs and the cicadas. I think of the states lovers find themselves during wartime, when that war is fought over a misspoke word or a misdirected eye. Lines are drawn, fences built, promises buried. The wounded, the lost, the dead.
I don’t consider either of us blameless. Boys going off to war is not something we decided for them. Boys must let loose their vitality in a meaningful way. Were we proud of them? Of course. Were we afraid for them? If I’m to be honest, I would say not as afraid as I should have been. We were on the side of right, weren’t we? We believed in better angels. We — I — worried they might come home lightly damaged, their packaging torn a little. But this. This! It is the price we pay for such righteous pride. War does not care about mothers or fathers, does it? We were not excluded, we were not exceptional. There is this distance between what we thought we were and what was done to us. It was this burden of false expectation that changed who we are to each other. That was my culpability.
You worry about the names of women from twenty-two years ago. Robert, you are an ass.
I am disinclined to accept your invitation to survey your local gravesite, regardless of how pretty the day. Robert, were we always doomed in this regard? It is a serious question, and I have been asking it for the past fourteen months. Write back or not, depending on how long your pout.
Regards, etc., Joselia
We bathed in the limestone waters of Cutcheon Creek this morning. The rain lashed us hard for twelve days, and we emerged with willful appetites. Sally (her name was Sally) said she could hardly see Bent Leather Church, said it resembled a salt block slung crossways in the mud.
“She will never know, Robert,” she said, and I was eager to agree with her.
You tell me about the elasticity of mourning, and I still don’t think you know what that means. Laurel, am I supposed to shoetree this, fit it into something comfortable for you? How do you carry it, all this anger, and more; do you expect me to carry it for you?
So. Here it is. Not quite my definitive image of him, but it’s probably the one you expect. It’s simple, but not unexamined.
leaning over me as I squirm on the floor, belt coiled around his fist, staccato of leather busting me open like a pomegranate. Oh, and the buckle makes a jangly tambourine noise, did I tell you that? How it crashes against my bare ass, bloodies it, pulps me into low-grade meat? I don’t know if you still remember him as he was back then, slender and wiry. Without that belt cinched around his waist, his pants begin to slide. He’s forced to tug on them with his free hand, and that changes the arc of his swing. He hits thigh meat for a few smacks, his accuracy noticeably off. This makes him angrier. I try to roll, and, for a moment I can see the band of his underpants, which are robin’s-egg blue. This is a surprise, because I can’t understand how a man who would wear such colorful underwear could strike me with such ferocity.
That isn’t the image — not the main one — I want to carry, but it’s the one that muscles in whenever I think of him.
Ha, listen to me: whenever I think of him. Almost fifty years later, and there it is, waiting for me. The belt, the buckle, the blood.
You were off at Northeastern, your first year, and you were nervous about everything, so you didn’t know how bad it could get. I was never one to come crying to you.
Laurel, I remember every angle, every discoloration on those yellow kitchen walls, every grunt he made, every squeak from his heels on that old linoleum. Hell, I can’t remember my own phone number some days, but I can remember that. It’s kind of remarkable, isn’t it, the terrible things we force ourselves to examine? The cancer of memory, the curse of a forebrain, the meat function of the amygdala. We learn fear, but we can’t unlearn childhood. And that’s what’s really pathetic. We can’t unlearn who we were, or how we were tempered.
Sweaty white undershirt, green twill trousers, zipper not completely zipped. Brown penny loafers, gravel-scuffed toes and insteps. Bit of shaving cream on the left earlobe, a torn square of bloodied toilet paper on his chin. Mid-morning sunlight pulling through those grimy lace curtains — remember them, stained by all those wet, humid summers? — and the entire downstairs smells like boiled onions and Pabst Blue Ribbon. I wore my favorite brown corduroys, washed the day before, and of course they were ruined by lunchtime. And the floor still had small Cheez Whiz blots from the previous weekend, when we cooked up a big pot of macaroni-and. My blood was wiped up quick enough, but that Cheez Whiz is probably still stained on that goddamn beige flooring.
“Don’t. You. EVER. Steal. AGAIN!”
I could hear him, Laurel, inside each one of my howls, I could still hear him. He may have even just mouthed those words to me, in between wallops. I don’t know.
That was all he said. Those five words. He didn’t ask me to explain, or offer an apology when he threw down rags for me to clean myself. He didn’t speak to me again for days, not until you came home for Thanksgiving. I guess he assumed I learned my lesson and would never steal again.
And I haven’t. I won’t even park in a spot where there’s still time left on the meter. If I didn’t pay for it, it’s not mine. Pretty simple, right? He made me an honest boy. I must be one of God’s chosen, despite, you know, all the boozing that came later.
Don’t look at me like that. I know.
Three divorces and two kids who won’t talk to me anymore. Look at me, I am one of God’s chosen. Ha. There are all those innocent bystanders to consider, standing in front of the wreckage I became. I know that, Laurel, I truly do.
Yeah, sorry, there is a point, and I’m still digging for it.
Such moments of clarity pay a steep price. It’s in the simplicity of it, that sparkling blink of purity I saw it in him, once. You asked me for my definitive image of him? It wasn’t in that beating. There was a moment when I got to see him cleanly and clearly.
Maybe this will help, it’s all I’ve got:
Early May, the year I turned 17, the year I finally moved out. You were still dating that Paul guy, the one with the Corvair and the platform shoes. The guy who turned out to be a real asshole to you? Anyway, me and the old man were still swimming together in that house, and everything about us felt like drowning. We weren’t even trying to tread water. There was community college for me in the fall, and he was still working as a security guard at that Five and Dime over on Rochester Street — Jesus, how long ago was that? We had our meal times together, four or five nights a week, and we watched a few ball games on the tube if there was nothing else to do. You know, quality time.
One morning, he decides he’s going to mow the front yard. That was usually my job, but he surprised me. The sky was practically varnished with turquoise, and the sun poured down this honey-colored light that washed over everything. So he puts on an old undershirt and holey pair of jeans, and he pushes that old mower across our 30-by-30 front yard, maneuvering around the half-dead hedges beside the driveway, and he whistles a tune I never heard before, something simple, not too showy. It was… elegant, you know? I see the sweat on his shoulders and chest, around his eyes. Laurel, he looked like a younger man, his dark hair shiny with sweat and all that honey-bearing light.
He calls me over, and he puts his arm around my shoulders, pulls me in for a hug. I can smell his perspiration, the Brylcreem, the crumbles of tobacco inside his pockets. It was all him, a very large and real him, and his half-hug is warm and masculine and kind, and I think he means to kiss the top of my head, but then the garbage truck rumbles from down the block, right in front of Jerry Redman’s place, with all those noisy trash cans they used to put out.
The sky turns back to being ordinary blue, and the sun, an ordinary sun, and he smells like just another sweaty guy standing in his yard. He pushes me away gently, then lights up a smoke. He exhales for a long time. I go back inside and turn on the radio, turn it up loud. I can see him from the living room window, and he looks lost, like a boy. Like an innocent boy, smoking his first cigarette. And I am lost again. I think that was the last time I ever cried.
So this is how I carry it, Laurel. This is what I carry instead of the anger. I know you see ruination before you, a great self-inflicted loss in me, but I’m doing okay. I’ll stand by that grave site today, and I’ll be still. I don’t think I’ll cry — I still don’t know how to fake tears, not after all these years — but I will honestly grieve. I’ve had years of practice, you know? And I think you have, too.
How do you expect to carry it all, Laurel? When this is all done, I hope you’ll want to come over to the house. But come alone. You know you’re always welcome, and there will always be fresh coffee in the pot. Then you can tell me how you’re really doing. You can tell me how you want to tote this thing. I know it’s a hard thing to do by yourself, but I think I’ve finally figured it out.
The trade winds have roughened since yesterday. There’s a cinnamon whiff of Carolina allspice in the air, another thing that’s blown in from the south. It doesn’t remind me of home, but it does remind me where I came from.
Each thing in this room is balanced by another thing, and each of them falls, eventually. Do you remember telling me that?
I smell the rain, hear it erase the miles between rest stops and parking lots. There’s a suitcase in the back I haven’t touched since Cincinnati, or maybe Youngstown. Things I packed for you, things I can’t bear to lose. I keep my things in a duffle bag, something I have to remind myself is still mine. Your hand-drawn map is still on the dashboard, yellowed from old sunshine. The miles, dear, the miles, all contained in the briefest of thoughts.
“Do you know where you are now?” she asks.
“Yes, silly, but where?”
“Mecca? I think that’s what the sign said. I drove through a covered bridge.”
And she is silent, and I wonder where I am.
All the flags were at half-staff as I drove north through Kentucky. “You still don’t like to drive, do you?” she asks.
“The drivers try to drive me off the road.”
“Of course they don’t. Follow the map I drew for you. You’ll find your way.”
And she is silent, and I wonder where I am.
I have become a brief collection of things to her, of aching bones and tired griefs and driving tantrums. “Way where?” I ask again.
“My name isn’t Ward,” I say, an old joke of which I have forgotten its origin. “Am I That Easy to Forget?” is on the radio. The Jim Reeves version, I think.
The westerlies have roughened since yesterday. There’s an industrial whiff of cabbage in the air, another thing that’s blown in from the north. It doesn’t remind me of home, but it does remind me where I am going.
This is the place where the story becomes unbearable if left untold, he said. This is where the tale-teller sacrifices everything that bears the weight of all that noise.
I listened to him rant, again. It was always about the providence of the tale-teller, never about the other participant, the sacrificial listener. He could have preserved this blather in plastic and strung it from the rear-view mirror, or his neck. That was his rosary, his familiar.
Do you trust me, he asked, and he drove the Volvo into the big elm at the corner of Chatham and Colborne Streets, June 17, 1974. Neither of us survived.
He was right, though. You never know what the face of any given story will be until it can complete itself.
She wakes to the sound of a street sweeper every Monday morning, every other Thursday. A small town delight, he calls it, but that insistent deep hum, that whir of machinery, has become an irritant. She sets the radio alarm to wake her before its scheduled arrival, but that hum always buries the squalid tin noise.
Your anger with it, he says, makes it louder, you know. Go to the door, stand outside, wave at the man. You’ll come to enjoy it. It’ll become just another sound in your routine.
Routine. Like the one where he leaves every morning, 6:38. He’s never heard the sweeper, the angry, hypnotic thump it makes as it bumps against the curb. He’s never heard Sugar Sugar squawk on the radio, or Hey Jude flattened by machinery. Routine. How bourgeoisie. Let them eat Twinkies, indeed.
We were not yet dry though
the gin bottle was, an age ago
we were an age
that never impressed us much.
Where was the boy who wrote that, she thinks. Whatever happened to him?
The street sweeper shakes her from another deep sleep.