Wednesday, December 31, 2008
There seem to be three legs to my milking stool of a life, and I can almost always keep my balance if I have two of them. They are: Designing (with a heavy dose of collaboration), Walking my solitary urban hiking trails that I've devised to keep my sanity, and Producing written language worthy of even one reader. I love doing all of these without passing through the conventional tollbooths of job interviews, walking buddies, and editors.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
She stretched out on the carpet near Ricky Ford’s feet, looking up at his tired face. He was not looking at her, but he was colored by the orange reflection of the flowers outside. The professor had stood over her after the first time he knocked her to the floor, but he had not looked down at her either. She remembered his drawn face, above her and looking away, colored by an extraordinary sunset, monochromatic light coming through the loft’s paned windows on every side of her. Was it really that beautiful, she thought, or am I remembering the movie? She had wanted to stand and watch the sun, but when she tried to get up, his fist came down on her head hard enough for her to see two images of him, and she tried to fix her eyes on the one image that was slowly drifting away, splitting from his body like a cell in division, because she thought it was his soul departing.
After he kicked her a few more time, she figured out that it wasn’t his soul, that it was that other man, the man who made her say things that were worth writing down, who was abandoning her. Covered with blood from her nose, her mouth , her left ear, and a compound fracture to one of her hands, too weak this time to stand up, she had to smile for a minute at her epiphany, realizing for the first time that this man had lived in the bodies of all of her lovers until he had worn them out. In his haste to abandon her, he ran from the room like a coward, but she could always forgive him. The worst part of the beating was that she might not get back this man she really loved because he had been literally knocked out of her head, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to write without him. She wanted him back so badly that she made up a name to call him. She felt like she had to now that she had seen him so clearly just as he was heading for the door. Bobby was the name she came up with, a name she didn’t even particularly like, but it was the right name for the man who made her say things, and she screamed it at the top of her lungs for hours to the empty loft.
Damn you, Bobby, she thought now, pulling at Dave Bridges’ carpet, don’t leave again. Not now, when I really need you. But she knew it was too late. She looked up at Ricky Ford again. There was an emptiness behind his eyes that told her she could stop expecting to hear Bobby’s voice when she buried her face in his neck. Bobby’s gone and he’s not coming back, she thought. Forget him. He is still as undeserving of my faith as he was the first time he told me what to write when I was eighteen years old.
Now Evelyn is sitting on Makena Beach, watching the tip of Ricky Ford’s snorkel in the shallow waves. They have this arrangement, since she is a weak swimmer, that he checks out the fish and reports back to her. Today the water is clear and the show is like being inside an aquarium, he says. She considers the prospect of the spectacle and is no longer surprised that inside her head is not poetry but utter silence.
He lies back on the towel exhausted from his swim, and she is sure to twist on her elbow so that her head and shoulders shade his eyes from the sun. Look, Ev, he says, are you sure you’re all right? How are you doing, really, since your mom? And she says, Hey listen, why don’t you let me take care of you for a while? I’m not writing, I don’t have anything to do, so let me worry about you for a change. He reflects, he whispers, I think I’d like that, I’d like that very much. You still don’t get it, she thinks about telling him. I never wrote a thing, I never controlled it. But she keeps it to herself. She has given up trying to recall the sound of Bobby’s voice. For the moment, she feels she has been set free.
But Evelyn is going to get home and find a packet of photographs some relative has mailed her from her dead mother’s house. A number of them are of her father, Ed Johnson, who died when she was fifteen, but the most important one is the picture of him from the war, handsome American Soldier on German soil. In it he is down on one knee, holding a small black and white dog by the front paws, and this is significant because she remembers that he didn’t like dogs very much. He didn’t like the war very much either, but in this photograph he is so healthy and happy, he could be another man entirely, could deny the dog and the whole damn thing had he not written on the back in his unmistakable hand, “Me and Butch, 1943.”
She is going to look at that picture for a long time, and then she is going to scream, “Damn it, Bobby, goddamn you to hell. You are me making say things, but now I have no desire to write them down.”
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Evelyn met Ricky Ford Alton four years ago on the set of the movie that was being made from her first novel, the one that she had based more or less on her own life. He was cast as the English professor who beat her viciously at his loft in downtown L.A. She was twenty when the real incident occurred. As she wrote about it in the novel and in the subsequent screen play, the professor, having hit a dry spell in his own writing career, beat the living shit out of her in a fit of envy because the art came to her so effortlessly and was flowing through her, as though to drown him in his parched river bed of silence, like a flash flood through a canyon. The scene was difficult for her to watch during the filming because she had made it too real, his rage and brutality that had almost killed her, the fact that he left her lying in her own blood on the floor of the loft in no light but that of a strange vermilion dusk, and that she lay there sobbing all night for someone she called Bobby to please come and help her until the professor had the good manners to come back the next morning and call an ambulance for her.
In the novel and screenplay, Bobby was the ghost of an older brother that had died, but she confessed on the set that she was an only child, she had made him up. That night, as they were leaving the studio, Ricky Ford was walking beside her. "So who was the real Bobby, then?" he asked. She forced a knowing smile and kept walking. She wanted to pass it off as some sort of private joke, to push him aside like a gate in her path, but he wouldn’t let her. "I’m serious, it would help me to know," he said.
"He was an imaginary friend," she said and tittered in that superior tone he would come to recognize as the sign that he had found some great subcutaneous truth. She wanted to walk off alone, but she made the mistake off looking back at his face. He was mouthing the word "don’t", she thought, although she couldn’t hear him.
"Don’t what?" she said, spitting both the t’s.
"Don’t go through this alone, Evelyn. Whatever horrible thing is being dredged up for you, let somebody…I don’t know…Let somebody in…Just talk about it. Talk to me." On the set, he acted brilliantly. He shot her glances between takes, glances encoded with deep admiration, seeking her approval, wondering if he was anywhere near the truth as only she would know it, but she knew that he didn’t need her advice to act the part. Out here, however, it appeared that he had no skill at all, no idea what he was doing. He held his hands out, palms up, in a gesture of helplessness. The edges of his body were illuminated by a security light high overhead behind him, and his face was in shadow. She felt the light relentlessly revealing every crease of her own face as his shaded eyes pleaded with her, teach me, Evelyn, teach me to feel what I only know how to act.
“Since when do you read Atlantic anyway?” she asked him. They were half way up Haleakala in the Jeep he had rented.
“Matthew reads it all the time. He showed me your poem. Then he showed itto the rest of the cast and crew.” Matthew was the director of the film that had just wrapped on the aircraft carrier.
“That raises my opinion of Matthew a notch. I wasn’t all that sure he could read. He’s never been able to understand my scripts…”
“Now, now,” he said. “We want to keep rising stars like Matthew as our friends.”
“Anyway, I didn’t have another poem to send them when they asked. I haven’t written much lately that I’m satisfied with.”
“Well that’s perfectly understandable given the circumstances.” He kept his eyes fixed on the winding road ahead, but she watched his roving irises through the side of his Raybans. “You can cut yourself some slack, Ev. Your mother just died.”
“It goes back before that, unfortunately,” she said and turned to watch the tops of the sugar cane spiraling in the wind. “I thought you would have noticed that the computer was in the closet the last time you were home.”
He’d said bravely that he would meet her at the Maui airport, that he didn’t think anyone would recognize him in his post-aircraft-carrier state, the look being so uncharacteristic for him. The aorport was small, and he could wait for her right on the tarmac, and there he stood, in his khaki shorts and tanned but slightly knocked knees, surrounded by men and women unaware and never expecting to see him, oblivious to the magnitude of his stardom, when she descended the steps of the plane.
“Look at you,” she said coyly, taking hold of the lapels of the flowered rayon shirt he was wearing. “All dressed up like Magnum P.I. or something.” The parts he played always changed him, just long enough for Evelyn to feel like she was cheating on him with the character he had become. The more physical the change, the harder it was for him to shake it off. This time, he was tan and he had worked out before the film until he looked ten years younger and leaner than when he’d played the battering professor. Without saying a word, he pushed the Raybans up on top of his head and tried to kiss her passionately, pulling her off her feet with both arms, until she stiffened. “Wait,” she said, touching the lei around his neck that they were about to crush. “This is lovely.”
“Oh yeah…here…Aloha, baby,’ he said in the cheesy actor voice as he passed it over their heads and onto her shoulders. Then she kissed him hard, the lei crushed between them anyway.
“Does this mean I’m getting ‘lei-ed’?” she asked, in her pissy writer voice, suppressing the superior titter so he wouldn’t know how pleased she was to see him in this fit condition after so long at sea.
“Oh yes…” he said, turning her toward the exit with one arm on her waist. “Yes, it most certainly does.”
He still looked the part, a renegade ex-Navy officer who hijacked an aircraft carrier to the Middle East to make trouble for the lesser-paid actors who were supposed to be the good guys of the U.S. Navy but in reality were making nuclear arms sales to a maniac dictator, but he was laughing under his breath with her again, the old Ricky Ford coming up through the layers of the movie character. As he lifted the Raybans back down to his face, the long gray hair he had grown for the part was pulled out from behind his ears, and he looked even less like himself than before.
It was turning out to be a long drive to the house, way up on the west slope of Haleakala, and the mood hadn’t held, at least not completely. She was dissatisfied with what he had to say about her writing. He was too eager to pin all her anxiety on her mother’s death, she thought. “Perfectly understandable given the circumstances” had become his answer for everything that went wrong with her. Angrily she realized that living with her was probably the easiest it had been for him in over a year, now that he could find an explanation for her moods in one word, grief, even though he knew the explanation was both illogical and inadequate. She turned back to face him. “So did you mean what you said about the film?” she asked. “Are you really ruined?” She thought his eyelids lowered for a second, as though he knew she had asked the question to torture him.
He started to speak, but she wasn’t listening. Watching his lips move from that angle reminded her of being with him in another place. Evelyn went on location with him once to North Carolina in the Great Smoky Mountains, and she convinced her mother to drive the two hundred miles from her home to stay in the same lodge with them for a few days. She was seeing him now that first night at dinner, speaking so charmingly of his two teenage sons, talking while he chewed on a little ball of food wedged in his cheek which wasn’t rude at all because her mother did the same thing. He lapsed into his Southern drawl, something he longed to do more often than he should, telling her mother that he grew up the same distance from this place that Evelyn had but in the opposite direction of her home in North Carolina, two hundred miles deep into Tennessee. Evelyn fell out of the conversation early on, but she didn’t mind. She just sat back and watched him as though she were watching him on screen, especially fond of the way he said words like ‘cook’, as in Cookville, Tennessee, flattening the syllables as though they had no vowels. Evelyn learned enough at those dinners with her mother to know, when she found a framed picture in his home of Ricky Ford at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, that the woman he had his arm around was his sister and that his brother’s name was somewhere on the wall behind them. “Right here,” he said, pointing through the glass, stroking the back of her neck as she held the frame, “you can just make out his name over my shoulder.” In the photograph, the two of them looked so weary, his sister slightly averting her eyes from the lens, their faces drawn like they had both been crying. Then he told her more about his family than he had told her mother, the poorest family in Cookville, the failed shoe stores they’d owned, the house burning down, the love that healed them, the ones who died young, both parents besides the brother in Vietnam. “We’re really dragging the river tonight,” he said as they were lying in bed, afraid that he had overwhelmed her, but she knew he was smiling in the dark as he said it, and she got lost in his metaphor of the river, imagining each dead body as it rose to the surface had a smile on its bloated face, too, so happy to still be loved and remembered.
“So we’ll wait and see. There are plenty of idiots out there who won’t care how bad it is if they hear there are some big tits in it,” he was saying. The road straightened long enough for him to look at her. “You know what I mean?"
“Yes, unfortunately, I do,” she said. “If that’s your biggest problem it’ll probably be a huge hit.”
“No, actually,” he said, starting to laugh, “I think my biggest problem is that the asshole in charge of continuity forgot to have me wear the same damn shirt for all these consecutive scenes, but Matthew wouldn’t let me do them over. Can you believe, he wouldn’t re-shoot the stupid scenes? It’s going to look like I brought a valet or something to help me do quick changes while I hijack the boat. Like I changed into this other shirt to say three lines.” They turned off the main highway, and the new road skirted a pasture full of beavertail cactus and two black and white cows, as pristine as ceramic cream pitchers. For some reason, the sight of them was enough to make Evelyn laugh until she cried.
A second after he went into the house, she shook his question from her head, hoping to hear the voice she hadn’t heard lately, but nothing happened. She joined Ricky Ford in the kitchen as he flipped open the miniscule phone book. "Dave Bridges, I think," she said. "Rhodes or Bridges, one of those."
He ran his finger down one page of the phone book until he saw the name. "Hey, that’s it," he said. "David Bridges is right here." He took her face in his hands and kissed her, then guided her head to his shoulder, enclosing her back with his arms. She fidgeted a bit to get his hair out of her eyes and then inhaled deeply against his neck, pressing her forehead to his skin, knowing that Ricky Ford could occasionally be a surrogate, a vessel from which she could hear that other man’s voice, hoping a stream of brilliant thoughts would again pass by osmosis to her own less saturated mind.
Dave Bridges only worked out of his house these days, a craftsman-style mansion in the middle of a five acre protea farm, but he had consulted with all the biggest stars in Hollywood when he lived on the mainland. He had a great talent for putting people at ease, evaporating their self-consciousness, that got even the most insecure of them to open up. Once he had them in the palm of his hand, he asked them what they really wanted him to do with their hair. They were invariably so relaxed that they answered as though drugged by sodium pentothal, and he cut their hair the way they told him to. It was that simple.
This morning he had a fire going in his big stone fireplace, and it was having a similar effect on Evelyn. She slipped off his couch and onto the carpet, her legs curled up beneath her, while he cut Ricky Ford’s hair.
“Jet lag catching up with you?” Dave asked as she yawned and lowered her head to the floor.
“Yeah, I guess. I woke up way too early this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep.” At dawn, she stood on the deck, the fog pink from the sun rising behind Haleakala, covering everything up to exactly the level of their street so that the isthmus completely disappeared beneath it. West Maui looked like an island, just the top of the peak visible above the otherwise undisturbed field of clouds. About an hour later, Ricky Ford shuffled onto the deck with a mug of coffee. “I have an irrational urge to try to walk across the clouds to West Maui,” she told him.
“They’ll burn off in an hour and you’ll fall to your death over the Pukalani Country Club,” he said. He leaned back on the chaise and closed his eyes.
“Yeah, but what a way to go, huh?” she said. He didn’t answer. She thought he was disappointed that she had not stayed in bed with him. He had nothing else to say until it was time to go to his appointment.
to be continued..
Monday, October 27, 2008
LAMENT OF THE WIFE/GIRL WHEN THE HUSBAND IS SINGING ON THE ROAD
Is it all right for me to doubt his faithfulness?
How long can the man of my dreams go on without me?
I wonder, what did Penelope think?
No, my Ulysses is not at sea (a sea of people maybe,
Yes, I know what I’m talking about, the women who wait beside the stage,
The ones who wait behind the amplifiers? I’ll tell you a secret:
They have no ears.
In my dreams, I whisper in their faces
“It’s okay: he’s not saying anything anyway.”)
--So why don’t I meet you, babe, in a hotel room,
I’ll fly there, fly you once around the room, and then I’ll fly home.
I’ll be both your wife and the girl with the band,
(which makes the wife part really unnecessary, doesn’t it?)
But I’ll still have my ears,
So remember my name.
To her, the poem had “adolescent girl” written all over every line, and she wondered why her agent and the editors hadn’t seen right through it. Evelyn closed the magazine and stuffed it deep into the seat-back pocket in front of her. She had lost interest in reading what other people had to say since her own voice had become so fragile and intangible. Her present state of mind afforded her little more than sentence fragments. She could easily blame it all on her mother’s dying, but her uneasiness had been around much longer than these three weeks. For almost a year, she’d begun each day with a vague sense of anxiety, unfocused and irrational, as her therapist would say, that attached itself to nothing and no one. At first, she had used it as the seed of her writing. She had pumped out a couple of screenplays, an unfinished novel, and some short stories she would really rather never saw the light of day, but not a single poem. Then one day the vagueness became solid paralysis, like a steel door slamming down between her and the computer screen. She cramped up so she couldn’t make another keystroke. It wasn’t until two weeks later, three thousand miles away, that her mother suddenly dropped dead.So no, Evelyn’s problem had nothing to do with her grief. It had a lot to do, however with this man, not Ricky Ford but the one whose voice she heard in her head off and on. Lately, she hadn’t been hearing him at all. It was obvious—and this was the real reason why she didn’t go back to her therapist after returning from her mother’s funeral, because the therapist might come to the conclusion that she was insane—that the man with the voice had control over her, because she needed to hear him, to talk back to him, or she could not write.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
THE MAN WHO MAKES HER SAY THINGS
The only thing she’d written in the last five weeks, Evelyn observed, was this obituary next to her mother’s printed face. Sixteen days ago, she wrote it using a ballpoint pen on a legal pad offered to her by the matron of the Funeral Notices desk. Two weeks ago, they printed it, and today a copy of the hometown paper arrived in the mail.
The phone rang, and she dropped the newspaper on the kitchen counter. There was a long silence after she answered, but his voice finally pushed through the static, “Hey, Ev, so what does this mean?” She recognized the familiar lag from the satellite that was connecting them.
“What does what mean?” She stared out the kitchen window across the Pacific Ocean as though it were just a fence between their backyards.
“This scary poem by Evelyn Johnson in this month’s Atlantic. Is there something you want to tell me?” Sometimes his voice could be too sharp, too rich, too obviously that of an actor. “The whole crew has been on pins and needles since we found it.”
“Oh, that. Pins and needles, eh? You’ve all got too much beach sand up your asses. I wrote that poem when I was eighteen. I thought it was okay, this once, to cheat a little…”
“A little poem from the early years, huh?”
“Shut up a minute. I was about to say… you realize, of course, we’re not telling anyone I wrote it when I was eighteen,” she said. “No one needs to know that I’m that desperate for material.” She knew he was laughing under his breath now, because he loved it so much when she sounded a little jaded.
“Really, though, how are you?” he asked, dropping the cheesy actor voice. He had complete control over it, and he only used it to amuse her on occasion, to bring on her pissy writer voice.
“I’m okay,” she said without commitment. “It’s been five weeks. Thirty-three days.”
“I know,” he said. “How was it going back for the funeral? I should have called. I’ve been on this damn aircraft carrier, and there just hasn’t been a good time to place a call.”
“No,” she said, “no, I don’t mean since my mom. I mean since I wrote anything decent.”
I know what you mean, Ev. I’m just sorry that I haven’t been able to call. I wish I could have been there with you. Ev, between you and me, this thing is going to suck in a big way. I may not have a career left after people see it.” He cleared his throat.
“I’m sure you were great, whatever the rest of it looks like.”
“I just want to forget about it until it comes out. Maybe they’ll burn it in the editing room after they see how screwed up it is. Accidentally on purpose and get some insurance money. We’d all get our percentages, and hey—none of us would be ruined. But listen, I’m going to stay here on Maui for a week or so. I lose the apartment the producers rented tomorrow, but why don’t you come out, and I’ll try to get us a house so we don’t have to stay in a hotel?” there was nothing he hated more than staying in a hotel. He would always stay as far as he could from the resorts, the tourist traps, from the gangs of ogling fans.
“Okay,” she said and looked at the folded newspaper under her hand. “Sure, why not?”
Saturday, October 11, 2008
But in the past few weeks, it has dawned on us that we are really getting this:
Middle-aged middle-class Americans are getting a severe history lesson, a first hand encounter with the kind of class rage that caused 18th century France to erupt in a purging violence that necessitated the invention of the guillotine.
I was once challenged by a friend, if I did not believe in a personal god, heaven, hell or the authority of the Bible, then what was the ultimate source of moral balance—for example, who punishes evil, greedy, self-centered people with no respect for the rights or needs of any of the rest of us? Good question, especially when the consequences of their actions, intended or otherwise, create havoc beyond our control. Where can I file an appeal?
In my religion, which has no name and has one, maybe two devout members, those evil, greedy people will create their own hell right here in the midst of our everyday lives. Something, perhaps insignificant to the rest of us, will destroy them. It will be something particularly petty—say, the painters don’t get the shade of green just right and ruin the exterior of their 12,000 square foot home—that will break their pitiless spirit and create their pain. I have to believe that.
I wish I had a fortune cookie I could still eat, I thought. I trashed the flotsam and jetsam of my lunch and went to the loo. When I came out, I saw that the counter nearest the front window was unoccupied and perfectly clean save one intact cellophane-wrapped fortune cookie. I took it, opened it and ate it on the way to my car. The fortune in the second, edible cookie was this:
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
For a week or so after Frank died, I had one dream over and over again. I would be in a house with immaculate white walls and miles and miles of thick blue carpet. There was furniture, but I could never remember what it looked like. I was wandering this very large house looking for something, I don’t know what, but I knew that if I was to find it, it would have to be inside one of these rooms because outside of every window was the densest green jungle I had ever seen. I woke up one morning after the dream, and something finally occurred to me. It struck me that, in his whole life, Frank had never seen the ocean. Emily was almost eight, and she had never seen one either.
The following month, as soon as Emily’s school let out, we went to Baraterre. Touring around the island the day we arrived, I showed her the sites that represented the beginning of my life. Fat Billy’s was now run by a small Vietnamese woman, and the sight of her made me miss Fat Billy, even though I had never once met him since the age of eleven months. He was a part of that other time that should have just been history to me, but I was always confusing history with memory.
I hired a boat to take us to Church Cay for the day. As Emily and I scrambled up the bluff to the plateau, I watched the boatman reclining with a cigarette in his boat, watching us. “Your father built the shill church, heh?” he had asked me, amused. I wondered if he felt enough ridicule to try to scare us by leaving us stranded. I supposed that my mother had wondered that every day she was here, and she might have sometimes felt the same derision toward my father.
The church was just as I had pictured it at the high end of the island. All its paint had worn off or had been bleached away in the sun, and its bare wood was as gray and tufted as the fur of an animal. It felt like a doll house. Emily tugged on the iron handle of the front door, and the whole structure shook. She pouted and then turned her back on it, running off to explore the ruins of the older houses. I was relieved to have her playing away from the cliff. I stood near the front of the church myself and looked down for the first time at the trench a hundred feet below. Beneath the small crests on the water’s surface, the smoothness of the patch of dark blue surprised me. I knew there was a very old church down there. I pictured its pews, its hymnals, someone’s forgotten Sunday hat. But they had been completely absorbed in the uniformity of that field of blue. Emily hummed happily as she sat braiding leaves next to a grave marker, and it seemed inevitable that the cemetery and all of its contents would be consumed by the trench too. The dead were headed for oblivion, and that made me happy for them. They were in their own vortex, waiting to be dropped out into a strange land for the last time. I decided that I loved the underscaled building that stood before me, the shill church, for its ridiculous appropriateness at being so empty.
Emily was so content playing there that I put off our leaving until I heard the boatman call up to us. On the way back to Baraterre, she sat with one arm around my waist and the other outstretched, her hand cupped to catch the wind. Every few minutes she rushed her hand to her open mouth. She was tasting the air, doing the exact same thing I had taught Jeff to do as a baby on our long Sunday morning car rides to the church where our father would be preaching.
Twelve years have passed since that summer, and now I live in Baraterre. When the men told me that my father’s church had fallen into the ocean, they said that so much of the cliff had eroded that the edge now broke inland right up to the boundary of the old cemetery. I imagine that in a few years, the ancient coffins might come spewing out of the hillside to find their way down onto the rocks below, or if they are lucky, slide right into the trench. The scant human remains will spiral back down to the crude depths of life’s origins, the sea.
This is the story of my life, and I am back where I began. Make something out of it if you can. My story, that is.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
A nurse brought restraints while another injected him with a sedative, and I pleaded with them to let him shout as much as he wanted, but they told me there was no use. They said that reliving some childhood incident was a sure sign that a person’s brain was dying.
Frank was calm after that except for a couple of times that he murmured meaningless phrases. When I felt sure that there would not be another outburst, I decided that it was time for Emily to say good-bye to her father. On that day, I brushed his hair and shaved him. I uncurled his fists myself and laid his hands on top of the covers. His hands were so thin that his wedding ring slipped easily over his knuckle, and I removed it so it wouldn’t get lost in the sheets.
Outside his door, I decided to tell Emily that he might say things or move suddenly and she should not be scared of him, or that he might not show that he knew she was there at all. But she needed to tell him that she loved him, I explained, because he should hear it from her before he died. Then I told her, say anything you want to him, Sweetheart, because he just wants to know you’ll remember him.
I found a stool for her to stand on, and when she did, she leaned over Frank’s face and said matter-of-factly and rather loudly, “I love you, Daddy—I love you.” After that she rubbed noses with him and kissed him on the mouth, and then she sat down on the stool and took his hand. She sat like that, telling him what her days had been like recently and about her pals from next door. When she ran out of stories about her playmates, she laid her cheek on his hand and sat without making a sound until it was time for us to go home.
Frank died one morning before I got to his room. I asked for a few minutes alone with him, and the nurse sympathetically obliged me. When she left the room, I felt behind Frank’s neck for the ties of his hospital gown and then pulled it down so I could touch his bare shoulders and chest. Frank had the most beautiful shoulders, and they were always soft-skinned and white because, no matter how hot it got, he wore a T-shirt in the sun. I laid my hand on the side of his neck until the skin was quite warm, and then I kissed the place where my hand had been.
Monday, September 22, 2008
As I drove home from work yesterday, almost to my exit, I saw a train stopped on the tracks paralleling the freeway. This isn’t unusual since my neighborhood has a lay-by for passing trains. But there were people and police cars hanging around the locomotive, and at first glance I was afraid there had been a horrible accident. There was something weird about the engine, smoke curling away from the top—my god, it was a steam engine. Not only that (by now I was off the freeway, heading for the frontage road) it was a steam engine pulling a train of 22 vintage Pullman passenger cars.
Apparently a group of private railcar owners was having its annual gathering in LA. They chartered an antique steam engine to take them daytripping from Union Station to San Diego, and the Pullmans were parking in our siding for the day. The locomotive was soon detached from the train and before I could get parked and down to the siding, it motored off South to an Amtrak station to be picked up by a diesel engine that would take it back north of its own passenger cars in the lay-by. That was the beginning of its four hour odyssey to and from a turntable, prepping it for its return trip to LA.
I summoned my husband and kids at about the first half-hour mark, and the wait for the steam engine to return was excruciating. I really thought nothing could be worth the effort it was taking to stave off fatal boredom. I worried what the kids would think when it was all over and they had spent their whole Sunday on a weedy dirt bank. I apologized to my husband for no reason.
Then it came. It came backing down the track with the two diesel engines that power-assisted amenities like lights and AC for the passengers. At last it slid into the coupling of the last Pullman car. It was ferocious and complicated and enormous, but it could move an inch at a time.
I won’t try to describe it. (Its wheels were 80 inches in diameter.) I don’t have to tell you if it was worth it. At this point either you’re with me or you aren’t. The steam engine stayed in our humble siding for the next hour while the Pullmans’ combined crews got the passenger cars powered up. I could have let my eyes wander its surface of glossy geometry and grainy curves for the entire time, but my son insisted that we stay poised at a distance down the track that would allow us to see the massive pistons and wheels at speed when the train finally left. (Good call.)
It was an amazing day. Something I couldn’t have planned and would never have committed to even if I could have planned it. There were instances when the anticipation and awe I felt toward that locomotive must have been identical to what someone would have felt a hundred years earlier the first time a steam engine came into their world. I think yesterday was no different than a day at the beach—a full day spent in anticipation of something looming just beyond the horizon (it was always supposed to be here any minute), and when the thing arrived, kind of like the way it feels to look at the ocean, it brought a raging stillness.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
When Emily was seven, Frank had a massive brain hemorrhage. By that time, Grandfather had passed away, and we were living in his old house down the road from Frank’s parents. But on this evening, Emily and I were fixing dinner with Frank’s mom in her kitchen when the men came in for the day. Frank said that he had a bad headache and wanted to lie down upstairs in his old room. At dinner time, I looked for Emily to send her upstairs to get her daddy, but she had run outside to play with a neighbor’s child. I found Frank lying strangely unconscious, clearly not just asleep, curled up on his side. He had vomited on the pillow next to him.
He lay in a coma in the hospital for five weeks. Some days I would find him in the fetal position, his fists clinched like paws and drawn up to his neck, but when the nurses came in to change his bedclothes, they would always help him onto his back and lay his arms beside him so that he looked like he was sleeping. On the seventh day after the hemorrhage, he sprang into violent activity while I was sitting next to his bed. His eyes opened wide, his brown irises razor-thin like a madman’s. He screamed and sobbed as though he were being tortured, or worse, utterly forsaken. He cried out just one word that I could understand, “Mama! Mama!” deepening my horror that he could not perceive anything now but total abandonment.
to be continued
Thursday, September 4, 2008
We never talked about God, and I was almost sure that Frank was an atheist, even after he told me his grandfather was a priest. If he had ever asked me, I would have told him without hesitating that even if God existed, I would reject Him. But now I don’t think Frank would have agreed with me. He held peacefully onto a belief he never spoke of. I could always tell by the way he moved when he was physically tired from farming that he counted on his strength to come from something beyond his body. I began to imagine what he felt when the fields were waist-high with wheat and my own body was exhausted from the last months of pregnancy. The summer winds made depressions in the bronze grass like giant, restless lovers rolling on a bed of satin sheets. If this invisible force were the hand of God, I thought, running its fingers with so much love through the hair of its only child, I would let it caress my entire being.
My baby Emily reminded me so much of my brother Jeff that I missed him more than ever. She took in the whole prairie with her eyes the way Jeff had as a baby in my eight-year-old arms. She let herself see things that adults don’t believe they can see, believing instead that the thing before them is just too big to be comprehended, so they stop looking. She noticed every bit of movement and pointed at every piece of machinery in the fields, identifying them all as he daddy. Watching her, I imagined myself in my mother’s arms on Baraterre experiencing the ocean. I thought sometimes that I could remember the blue of the ocean even though I knew that was impossible. In that false memory, the prairie must have been my ocean, the golden color of the waves recorded for some reason in its negative, blue.
to be continued
Monday, September 1, 2008
We were married by his widowed grandfather, a retired Episcopal priest, at what had once been his little church in the middle of the vast prairies of North Dakota. We risked a lot traveling that distance to be married at the end of February, given what the weather could have done, but we didn’t want to wait until spring. Frank was particularly concerned that we marry before I started showing, although by the time we got there, his whole family knew that I was pregnant and didn’t seem to mind. I think Frank was worried that I would be embarrassed later by our wedding pictures if I was visibly with child. Frank was like that, the kind of man who would anticipate how other people might hurt themselves, no matter how slightly, and then do everything in his power to save them.
My mother rode with us to North Dakota on the bench seat of Frank’s pickup truck. We gathered in the church on a Thursday morning, the two of us, my mother, Frank’s mother and father, and his little brother. Outside the sky was clear and aquamarine as ribbons of cream-colored light and ochre shadows snaked through the fields of waving winter grasses on a mild breeze, but in his parents’ car on the way to the church, the radio had said it was nine below zero.
“Her hands are like ice!” Frank said as our families stepped to each side, leaving us standing alone before Grandfather’s open book of prayer. He rubbed my hands quickly but gently, and I thought of the glasses he’d washed and dried a hundred times each at the bar and had never broken one. The hand rubbing warmed my whole body, and I felt like I was floating in warm water while my mother’s lace wedding dress began to lose its starch and swirl around me. Frank put his hand firmly on the back of my arm, thinking, he told me later, that I’d looked like I was going to faint.
In a couple of days, we sent my mother home on the bus, but Frank and I had decided by then to stay. I wanted to have our baby there with his family, and there was plenty for him to do to help his dad make the farm ready for the spring planting of wheat.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
At first I couldn’t understand why Frank would have his eye on me with someone like Dee around, but little by little I observed that men did not look at Dee the way I would have expected them to. She had something wrong with her back that caused her to limp. It didn’t seem to cause her much pain, but I could tell that she had altered all of her clothing to help hide the fact that one hip was a little higher than the other. In spite of her classically beautiful face and perfect hair, she must have looked like damaged goods to the men who came in the bar. I asked Frank once, didn’t he think Dee was beautiful, and he said he didn’t know. He said she was a good waitress, but it just hurt to look at her.
As for me, I tried not to think about the attention I got from the bar customers. The roadhouse had regulars, men and women, but it was so far from town that the majority of the patrons were one-timers, mostly men, truckers and such on their way to somewhere. If I wanted good tips I had to talk nice to them and dress in a manner that would give them a little hope, but hope was all they got. If Frank saw a customer looking at any part of me except my face, the white towel would get cranked down harder and faster into the glasses, and he would tell me to be careful. Under Frank’s watch, Dee and I never had much trouble. After closing and before he did the books each night, Frank would make sure that we got to our cars safely on our way home, in our opposite directions. Soon after that started, I started staying until Frank finished up, and soon after that, I started following him home in my car, but this time he knew I was driving right behind him. He invited me there. I walked in his bedroom. I saw my reflection on the inside of the window as my old self hiding outside, waiting to watch us make love for the first time, and I made Frank pull down the shades.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
When I got older, on the other hand, I went to work after school hours in a roadhouse bar. I was sixteen, and I would never let my parents forget that I was born in a room over a bar. I came home late from the roadhouse smelling like smoke and beer, and no matter how quiet I was, my mother said that I always woke up the whole house with that smell. Nobody liked it, but I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t sit in that house at night and listen to my father write his sermons.
The bar belonged to a twenty-seven-year-old guy named Frank, and Frank tended the bar. I knew from the first night I worked there that Frank had a passion for me. The first week I was there, he let me catch him making out his grocery list one night. The last item on the list was “grip.” I asked him what a grip was, and he said a grip was just one more thing he needed to get because he had lost his.
His hands were always moving and his knuckles were always cracked and red from washing glasses. I fell in love watching him dry glasses one night, three fingers twisting a white towel into the bottom of each glass. After work, I pretended to go home, but I went to his house and waited in the dark outside for him to come home from closing up. When he went inside and turned on the lights, I could guess where the bedroom was in the one-story house, and I waited outside the window to see him undress. I had never seen a naked man before, and I knew I loved him, so I thought it would be beautiful. But I remember now how I felt once he was naked as I stood and watched him walking around the room. His body was fine, but seeing him like that wasn’t beautiful, it was awful. I was so ashamed of myself, I had to hold myself with my arms to stop from shaking. As I tried to calm down, I just stood there and concentrated on his white shoulders, thinking I wasn’t so bad if I only looked at him from the waist up. Each muscle cast a faint shadow from the overhead light, and his chest was covered in light swirls of black hair that became so dense over his belly that it obscured his navel. His shoulders were perfectly bare and white, though. Down his arms were gradations of pinker skin, forearms slightly burned from the sun, hands red and chapped from the endless washing of glasses. I let my eyes follow the contour of his arm below his waist, and I was surprised at the appearance of his penis, redder than his hands, in its nest of black hair. There was nothing wrong with it, it just wasn’t what I had imagined. The only one I had seen before that was Jeff’s, and I hadn’t seen his since I stopped bathing him when he turned six.
I never told anyone that I had spied on Frank, not even Dee. Dee was the other waitress in the evenings in the bar. She was closer to Frank’s age, so she wasn’t someone that I could have known from school, but I felt like I had known her all my life. Dee was one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen. One of her beauty secrets, she said, was to never sweat. She was much slower as a waitress than I was because she would stand for minutes at a time in front of the air conditioner if she felt a drop of perspiration coming on, her supple neck arching back and dry wisps of her long blonde hair streaming from her temples as though she were in freefall.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
After I was born, my father decided it was time to become a minister, and my parents waited in Baraterre for their first assignment from the Methodist Conference back home. It was a full eleven months before they were placed. Because my parents had come to the Exumas on their own, there was no income from the church, only what was left of their savings. They continued to rent the one-room flat over Fat Billy’s Ball ‘n’ Chain, and that alone is testament to their poverty, because my parents were teetotalers. We survived, ironically, through the grace of Billy, who passed on to us the condiments from the bar each night—a lot of nuts and citrus—and once a week, his brother would just happen to have caught a few extra fish, and the windfall became ours. My mother was never able to tell the story of our Christmas there without crying. Billy brought her a chicken, a precious commodity on Baraterre, on Christmas Eve, saying that his brother had accidentally run over it with his truck. When my mother showed skepticism about the wrapped carcass, Billy assured her that it was freshly dead and that the only trauma it had endured was from the wheel of the truck. My mother thanked him and took it, only realizing after he was gone and she unwrapped it that the headless chicken was otherwise whole. It could not have been hit by a truck and still be so deliciously intact, she knew. It must have been picked out and slaughtered especially for us.
When his assignment arrived, my father thought he was being sent to Colorado to minister to an Indian reservation, and that thrilled him. But since he couldn’t get his hands on any kind of map of the U.S. in Baraterre that was less than forty years old, he couldn’t be sure. There were no Indian reservations in eastern Colorado, though, just little towns like First View and Wild Horse that, if they were going to keep their faith alive in those days, depended on a Methodist circuit rider to drive from church to church preaching all day on Sundays.
He should have been happy, doing the Lord’s work among the already saved, but at the time he had no idea that the Conference was going to forget about us, that all four of us (I soon had a little brother, Jeffrey) would be staying there for the next sixteen years until we dried up like dead leaves, crazy enough to let that great spiraling tendency life has fling us apart.
Eastern Colorado is flatter than Kansas. My brother Jeffrey, four years younger than me, seemed to be attracted to the immenseness of it from the day he was born. Whenever we took him outside in the daylight, you could see his little eyes, just barely able to focus, zeroing in on the farthest objects, sometimes the horizon itself. In the summers when it was hot, when he got a little older, we’d often find Jeff lying under the house with one side of his face pressed against the cool ground, staring out across the plain.
Jeff is an opera singer now, a tenor, one of the best in the world, and he is known for reaching into the back rows of the largest opera houses and pulling the hearts right out of the patrons’ chests with his voice. But I think he does it with his eyes. He learned to communicate with big empty spaces as a child.
To be continued…..
Sunday, August 3, 2008
My parents shortly learned, while they mulled over their unusual situation from the relative civility of Baraterre, that the church, on its grand bluff, had been visible from half a dozen islands grouped in a curl away from the main archipelago. A hundred years ago, the Christianized inhabitants of those outer cays came to the church for their weddings, their baptisms, to bury their dead in its well-tended cemetery. But when the last missionary died, no one was sent to replace him. So for the ensuing generations, the outer islanders returned to the practice of burying their dead at sea. No one set foot in the church from that time on, but the sight of it across the water gave the disparate islanders a kinship, a common knowledge of something beyond their immediate existence.
My father was not a stupid man, but he was such an innocent one. He could not have failed to see from the geography of the islands and the gaping mouth of the trench just below where he stood that the cay was slowly pulling out from under him as it had pulled out from under the church. But my father would not be deterred from his mission. He did not know what the first church had looked like, nor could he tell much from the wreckage that lay at the bottom of the cliff. It had been down there so long that most of it had floated out to sea as driftwood, and what would not float had become a part of the bottom of the trench. There was no trace left of even a foundation, if one had ever existed.
So my father brought long boards and white paint on an armada of small boats from Baraterre to the island he christened Church Cay. The locals, some loving an eccentric, some fearing a zealot, helped him carry the rough goods and the hand tools to the top of the cliff, but none volunteered nor were they asked to stay and help him. He and my mother cleared out one of the homes to be their base camp, and it was my mother’s responsibility to catch and clean something each day to supplement the canned goods they had brought with them, but she returned to Baraterre when the advanced stage of her pregnancy made it impossible for her to climb out onto the rocks to fish at the shallow end of the island.
All alone, then, my father built a perfect scale replica of a white clapboard New England style church, steeple and all, achieving a height of twenty-three feet. Its exterior was flawless in proportion, but lacked a lot of detail, and the interior was, well, non-existent. The front door was a fake, nailed onto the outside, and the church was hollow, like a cardboard Christmas model for the mantel to be surrounded by angel hair snow.
Friday, August 1, 2008
Just after their marriage, my mother and father went in search of a nameless cay in the Exuma archipelago where, they had heard, a few people lived who were badly in need of a sense of community, a connection to the Lord. At that time, and still today, none of the islands northwest of Great Exuma had a name except Baraterre which might as well be a part of Great Exuma it is so close. But the cays beyond it are spread out across the Atlantic like the bones of a great dissected spine and are not considered to be inhabited, but only because no one takes the time to see if they are. Descendants of the ‘Indians’ who lived throughout the Caribbean before the European migration swept most of them up as slaves or killed them with Old World diseases are still living in the Exumas, in some cases only one or two families to a cay, living their lives much as their ancestors did with the exception of two things. One is that the children are all gone. They have commuted to the present, transported off to the main island schools for a better education, and they have not come back home. The other is that those who stayed behind were all converted to Christianity. My father learned of this forgotten flock with their church crumbling into the surf from an obscure reference in National Geographic. He used the magazine as his atlas in seminary as he planned his life as a missionary, but unlike some of his classmates, he was not evangelical; he did not advocate proselytizing Christianity to other religions. So the idea of rebuilding the church on the cay was irresistible to him, serving a gathering of ready saved souls that needed a pulpit placed before it. He convinced my mother, a junior Bible college graduate, to marry him and join him on his crusade.
What they found when they got there was an island that had been abandoned long before the church had shrugged its shoulders and collapsed into the sea. The tiny cay was shaped like a melted slice of cheesecake, the graham cracker crust being a magnificent broad cliff a hundred feet high, the melted-down tip a shallow and treacherous point of submerged rocks. At the base of the cliff, the ocean opened up into a deep blue trench that looked like a bruise when viewed from the top of the ravine left by the landslide that had taken the church. Any boat that arrived at the island had to land midway between the two ends, necessitating a short precipitous climb to the habitable surface. Three small houses still stood in a crescent around the site of the church’s demise, but they were overrun with vegetation.
Thursday, July 31, 2008
This is the story of my spiraling life, and I’ll try to be brief. Maybe you can make something out of it. My story, that is, up to this point.
I was born on an island in the Exuma chain in the Caribbean. My parents were white missionaries, southerners. I was born about as close to godlessness as I possibly could be, under the circumstances, above a bar in Baraterre called Fat Billy’s Ball ‘n’ Chain. My mother was living there above the bar in a rented room, but my father was on another island by himself building a church with no windows, no doors, and no prospect of a congregation. In other words, a house of God that not even God would set foot in, if he could find a way inside.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
thinking about getting a dog
not gaining weight
not reading Joyce
reading about the festivals in NME in the aisles of Borders
designing sets for operas.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
I slept for the remaining two hours that Diedre guided us in climate-controlled comfort through the countryside. We arrived at the first antique store, all a little groggy from the long car ride. My mother paused outside the car in the overbearing heat to powder her face with her little compact, while the humidity was already varnishing my hair to the sides of my face. But we returned to air conditioning as soon as we filed into the front of the store. Just inside the door, an item caught my eye, a heavy dark oak chair with a severe, straight back and thick arms. I touched it tenderly, like it was familiar to me, imagining it embellished with leather straps stained with years of nervous sweat, copper plates smeared with handprints, hand-tightened nuts and bolts. Aunt Cookie saw me and said, “I thought you’d like that. It’s a lot like that Mission style of furniture you saw so much of out in California, isn’t it?” I just smiled at her and nodded. She had no idea what she was talking about and even less what I was thinking.
I sat down in the chair and felt the leather straps tightening in swift jerks across my chest. In my own way, I’d killed a couple of people, too, avoiding eye contact with anyone who might have the smell of gas on his hands, or wear the scent of cheap musk cologne or the scent of my past. I thought of poor Sid, how for years until today I remembered him as nothing more than the stupidest kid in school, and how liberating it was to admit that by doing so, I had sort of helped the world to kill him. Back in high school, we were already examining the moist, hanging bits of bruised flesh of other people, trying to find someone else’s deformity, hopefully worse than our own.
Now Sid’s bones would be scraped clean, and he could simply be no one. A condemned man, once he is past his fear, most know that good feeling. I saw my aunt in the back of the store, talking to the owner, pointing my way and laughing. I heard her tell him about me in the chair, “Look, Wendell, I do believe she’ll take it.”
Saturday, June 28, 2008
When I woke up I was already walking inside of an old institutional building, a hall of doorways with transoms evenly spaced on both sides, and Diedre was at my side, pushing me along from the back of my arm. We were in a hallway adjacent to Death Row in the state penitentiary. I was surprised that no one was there to stop us, but Diedre’s momentum kept us moving right into one of the rooms. It was like a classroom in the oldest building at my high school, dirty green walls with darkly over-stained wood trim around everything from the dusty hardwood floors to the high water-stained ceiling. All that was missing was a chalkboard. “Diedre,” I said, “our moms?”
“Asleep,” she said. “Don’t worry. I left the AC on.”
Immediately inside the door I recognized the prison electric chair from what I’d seen on TV, but it was much smaller than I had envisioned. The cleaning people, all of them old and black, were in the process of taking it apart, producing things in their pink wrinkled palms for us to inspect. Some copper plates had been removed, and an old woman in a kerchief held one up to me. It was just a little bigger than her outstretched hand. I laid my hand on it, and where I made contact it was cool to the touch for just a moment before it reached body temperature. She held it silently, never looking into my face. The workers all seemed cowed by our presence, tentatively presenting the small parts in their calloused hands to Diedre and me before wiping them with rags and returning them to the chair. She took back the copper plate and wiped it free of my handprint, and before she laid it on the chair’s thick oak arm she showed me that it was clean. It was as though she and the others believed Diedre and I belonged there.
At the far end of the room, two skeletons were sitting upright on a church pew. Their postures were like riders waiting at a bus stop, aloof and unaware of one another. The skeletons weren’t as pristine as the one I’d seen in science class. Some flecks of flesh were still attached to the bones. As we moved farther into the room, the chair cleaners ignored us. Next to the church pew, a box was piled up with miscellaneous bones, disconnected ribs sitting on top, scraped clean of most of their tissue. I glanced around but did not see anyone scraping bones. Tucked between the box and the pew was a lone skull, one that looked more like an ape’s than a human’s, like the skull of a prehistoric man. I knelt down to it and saw something familiar about the shape of its empty eye sockets. This must be Sid, I thought. Cro-Magnon man, we used to call him. Waiting for his bones to be reassembled to make a skeleton like the others that had been seated on the pew.
So there had been three executions, I guessed, Tim, Sid, and some guy I didn’t know, and if I’d guessed right about the skull being Sid, then one of the two skeletons on the church pew must be Tim. Tim and Sid, neither particularly good students, were both going to spend eternity as props in some classroom.
Diedre was examining something that looked like an intact spine. The snake-shaped thing was in a box on a low square table and had the most flesh still attached to it of all the specimens lying around. The fresh tissue was pink and glistening, but it showed signs of severe trauma, red and purple splotches and scorches like a bruised gum. Diedre was leaning down so close to the spine that her shirt sleeve was brushing against it, becoming wet in the surrounding fluid. I was disgusted, almost crying. Clearly someone had died in agony only a short time ago. Diedre had a spinal birth defect, a deformed vertebra she once told me, that caused her chronic pain. She was probably examining the disembodied vertebrae with her own in mind, performing her own personal autopsy. It might not be Sid, I thought. It might be from the corpse of the guy I didn’t know about until we arrived in this room. The stranger seemed to exist to diminish my horror for the same reason that one gun in a firing squad is always loaded with blanks.
“Poor old Sid,” I said, tearing up, “poor old Sid,” just like I was eulogizing a beloved pet. He was a classmate, but he had never been my friend. Now he was dead and Tim was dead, too. Tim’s bones sat on that church pew just like he was ready to start shooting the shit with the stranger, looking right through me from the bench outside the school cafeteria, waiting for Kay Bradley to finish her lunch and come outside. His death already seemed old to me, and I accepted it because it was acceptable. But dear God, for some reason I just couldn’t get over poor Sid.
To be continued…
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
the Arctic Monkeys at Glastonbury, summer 2007
'Poor Sid' will return one day soon.
Vernon Reid, leader of the band Living Colour, was asked to provide commentary on 2 films that will be shown at the new visitors center at Bethel Woods, NY, the site of Woodstock in 1969. In speaking of the influence of that event on the future experiences of younger musicians, he articulates a philosophy that has become a religion for me: the need for openness of heart and mind to opportunities that exist in each moment. In other words, in my own spiritual terms, God=Opportunity. That’s all; recognizing the opportunities that lie in our path, often disguised as obstacles, is the same as recognizing this Being or Force or Spirit that is supposed to give cohesion to our lives.
I was only 9 the summer of Woodstock, and I think Vernon Reid was even younger, but he tapped into what became possible that summer when he said, “It was about being where you are, in the moment you’re in, and making things happen as much as you could in that moment. That’s something that’s not tied to any one time period; that’s a value. When my snare drum gets torn, when things go wrong, what do I do next? Woodstock, from beginning to end, was a series of things exactly like that—a production that ran on spirit, will and improvisational experience.”
Monday, June 23, 2008
I saw Tim one time when I was home from college, pumping gas into his rusty Buick at the StarFlite while I was sitting in the back seat of my father’s mint green Cadillac in my Sunday clothes. He had gray bags under his eyes, and the beginnings of a gut extruded over his belt beneath his T-shirt. He had puffed up like a rooster to become the overweight redneck his adolescent frame had foreshadowed, but his hair was still dirty black and straight to his shoulders. Our eyes met, and I slid away from the window to the hump over the transmission (which is pronounced even in a Cadillac) so that I made myself into an unapproachable princess stuck up there on the middle of the seat, not even acknowledging that I knew him.
Sid McCarthy was the other kid that was executed that night that I had known. I hadn’t seen him since High school, but I remembered Sid as The Dumb One, a big sweet blonde jock that everyone liked but thought was really stupid. Recently, I had to rack my brain to know how I’d ever had a class with someone as dumb as Sid, but then I remembered that Sid was surprisingly good at math and ended up in my calculus class senior year. He was sort of an idiot savant of derivatives.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
A new short story, working title POOR SID
Part 1 (Deidre)
Deidre and I had taken turns driving our mothers on about half a dozen of these jaunts since I moved back from California. She was two years older than I was, so she didn’t pay much attention to me and my friends in high school. But I told her last night when we were planning this trip that I was a classmate of the two guys whose pictures had taken up half of yesterday’s front page. I confided to her that I was particularly uneasy about Timmy Reardon—I’d always felt pretty bad that I had snubbed a lot of people in those days when I decided I was going to California (never to return, of course), snubbed them on principle because they were still here, Deidre included, and I was ready to be anywhere but.
However, since I failed at what I went there to do, I came back to swallow my pride, and for the time being, live with my widowed mother.
Part 2 (Mom)
I shrugged at Deidre from the front porch where I had been holding the screen door open for about three minutes while my mother disputed something Aunt Cookie, Deidre’s mother, was saying in the kitchen.
Deidre was smart to be in the car. I was sure she already had the air conditioning on full blast because I saw dry wisps of blonde hair blowing straight back from her temples. The AC was so palpable that I almost smacked my lips in anticipation of it. When I stamped my foot impatiently, for Deidre’s benefit only, it was because I knew my mother would never be able to find her missing Cover Girl pressed-powder compact if she was preoccupied, so I prayed silently that Aunt Cookie would just shut up for a minute.
“You count your carbohydrates, not your calories,” Aunt Cookie said, explaining the diet for the second time.
“How do you lose weight if you don’t count calories?” My mother’s voice trailed from the kitchen to the hall, her eyes trained down to any surface where she might have left the compact.
Because you count your carbohydrates, Gracie,” Aunt Cookie insisted, as though my mother were missing the brain cells needed to understand her premise. Each time she repeated her new dieting mantra, her pitch rose and fell like the refrain from a nursery rhyme. Like jack and Jill went up the hill to count their carbohydrates. Like Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall, Humpty Dumpty counted them all.
Finally, my mother found her compact in her other purse, and they were out the door. We now had a two hour drive ahead of us through the flat Carolina piedmont to the old country road known as Antique Row. My sweet cousin Deidre smiled at me in the rear-view mirror, and I smiled back. I suddenly felt very tired. Deidre agreeably kept silent, and I sank down, wedging my head between the seat and the window so it wouldn’t do the dashboard-bobble-head-dog roll that it always did when I slept in cars or on the plane.
Part 3 (Timmy)
At two minutes after midnight the night before, the state electrocuted two men I’d known when I was younger. The two were executed for shooting a family in their station wagon—the mom, the dad, the three kids in the backseat—who happened to pull into the parking lot of the convenience store Tim and Sid had just robbed, momentarily blocking in the getaway car.
One of the men was Timmy Reardon. He had been a kind of thuggy kid that I once liked in that way that adolescent girls say they “like” someone. Tim wore his black hair long, and it separated into greasy strands where it broke against his shoulders. In seventh grade he wore zippered velour shirts that matched his Peter Max corduroy pants, a sure sign that his mother still picked out his clothes. He was my boyfriend for three glorious days that year until he found out my rival Kay Bradley had broken up with her beau. To this day, if I catch the scent of cheap musk cologne in a drug store, it reminds me of that moment with my face against Tim’s chest, the cologne making an odd caricature of the vestiges of baby fat that concealed his chest muscles, just before he walked away from me to Kay’s waiting arms across the school cafeteria. But Tim and I stayed friends, and that year at Christmas he gave me a tiny gold-plated cross on a delicate gold chain. He said that he’d asked his mother to help him pick it out. I wore it even though it turned my neck green, and eventually the little cross was completely encrusted with a pale husk of aquamarine brine.
To be continued…
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Now there are five people here in this house who love me, if you count the baby, four in this room and Estrella, it has just dawned on me, in the kitchen. Should I say it out loud? “Three year ago I would have been standing in this room alone. Now there are four people here who love me, if you count the baby.” My wife smiles up at me from the couch and says, “Ummm.” My boy and the little girl take their eyes off the baby’s face for a moment, look at me, and wonder if I’m going to cry or say something else. The baby continues to breathe.
I’m standing in this room of perfect love. At this minute my family is poised before me like a snapshot of all my desires being fulfilled. I am struck by a vision of Estrella kneeling behind my wife and supporting her as the baby is pushed out into my trembling hands, Estrella’s smooth brown hand calmly stroking the side of my wife’s face. She is whispering a prayer in Spanish.
It will be another year before I sleep with the maid, and one of those times will be just inches away from the very stain the baby’s birth left on the carpet. When my wife finds out and I tell her it meant nothing she will say, “She is our maid, for God’s sake. You screwed her in the afternoon and three hours later you sat here and ate the meatloaf she made for dinner. How can you compartmentalize your life like that?” She will be pointing at the head of the table where we eat, but my eyes glide past her hand to the floor. I can’t answer her. By then I will have realized that desires are never fulfilled; they are only temporarily satiated.
In five years we will try to have another baby. My firstborn son will be married, and my wife will turn to me as we leave the church, the gleam of hope in her eyes utterly crushing me. During the ceremony she prayed to be pregnant, she will tell me. At that moment I will pray that Estrella, who is no longer our maid but still my lover, is not.
In ten years I’ll be diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Close to the end, I will tell my wife she and the children are going to be all right without me. My wife will cry, “No, I won’t. We were supposed to spend the rest of our lives together.”
“This is the rest of my life.”
But Estrella will tell me with her eyes the very last time we make love, “I will know you beyond the grave.”