From songs the conversation turned to poets; the Commandant remarked that they were a bad lot and bitter drunkards, and advised me, as a friend, to give up writing verses, for such an occupation did not accord with military duties and brought one to no good.
Pushkin, "The Captain's Daughter"
To Lenny, Ben's story was not a new one, but Lenny, over the years had grown used to hearing the same stories in "somewhat altered versions," as was said. In the course of telling one of his stories, Ben, Lenny's friend and sometimes mentor of many years, rambled all over creation, mixing up lies and truth in a shameless manner. When he'd reached either an end or a stopping point, Ben would push himself back from the table, rise, and say, with a wink or something verging on a sneer, "Of course, that was all lies," as though anyone who expected the truth from him ought, as a legendary Hollywood figure once said of those who believe in psychoanalysis, to have his head examined.
But at the beginning Ben would say something like this:
"Let me tell you about my first wife."
Ben's first wife–his only wife with the papers to prove it–had been twenty, maybe thirty, years junior to him when he married her, and had probably put up with a lot before finally decamping. Her name, Lenny knew, was Martha. And, when Ben married her, she had no money, or any prospect of money. So, on the day she dragged her suitcase through the streets of San Luis Obispo, heading for the bus station, she wasn't worse off than when she had arrived. Older by a couple years and a tad fonder of the bottle perhaps, but no poorer, no richer.
Ben's lean, muscular arm lay stretched along the back of booth, one of his fingernails tracing the curve of a C someone had carved in the wood. Lenny thought at first it was someone's initial, carved by one hand and inked in by others over the years, but then later, when Ben, engrossed in the story he was telling, leaned forward on his flanneled elbows, Lenny saw that it wasn't an initial at all, but rather the first letter of the word CUNT.
The bar, called Harold's, stood kitty-corner from a gas station/grocery combo in one of those little crossroads towns on the plains that seemed to consist only of a bar, a grocery, and a grain elevator.
Above their heads, grimy fans turned lazily and dingy, water-stained squares of composition board still managed to soak up some of the clatter and chatter from several farmers or ranchers or garage mechanics at the two pool tables beyond the three or four tables between the booths and the door to the gents' and ladies' rooms.
Ben gazed for some moments past the backwards red-neon script of the faintly humming Coors sign, out the grubby window, and beyond his mud-encrusted, red pickup truck to where the two-lane highway lay, with its whirls of dust that kicked up when some car or truck passed by, and then turned back to Lenny, who was toying absently with the zipper of his windbreaker.
"Ever been down in Presidio, Sonny Boy?"
Lenny shook his head, his long, brown hair.
"Well, it ain't much, lemme tell you. It's pretty much due south of Marfa, down there on the Rio Grande about halfway between El Paso and the Bend. A real pisshole. But there's a nice Mexican town named Ojinaga right across the river."
His eyes drifted out the window again and across the road. Not much to see there at the moment–just some crumpled beer cans, scraps of paper, some heaped-up tumbleweed along a fence, an uncollared mutt of some kind sitting on the shoulder opposite, looking first one way and then the other. A guy in gray and white striped coveralls holding a pool cue dropped a quarter in the jukebox and some stompin' music came on. Lenny, younger and more impatient than Ben, waited for more of the familiar story. Ben, having finished his bacon cheeseburger, eyed Lenny's mostly uneaten one, and then, reaching over, scooped it off Lenny's plate and took a bite out of it that nearly finished it off. When Ben's hand then reached out for some of Lenny's fries, Lenny lightly batted it away.
"And? And?" Lenny, tuning out the country music and the pool table chatter, drummed the table nervously with his left hand.
"Well, to make a short story long, Martha was working at a greasy spoon called Sancho's there, just about the only decent place to eat in town. You know, where you could get something besides enchiladas, tacos, and beans. She'd come into town with some guy, and they were heading vaguely for the coast, but he'd just taken off one morning before she woke up, and she never heard from him again.
"So, she started waitressing at Sancho's and saving her pennies. But the pennies came slow and hard in that town, so she just had to start selling it."
Ben looked narrowly at him. "Whatever you suppose she had to sell."
Lenny blinked. A new wrinkle in the old tale.
"And then one night I was in there. I'd been down at the Bend camping in the Chisos for a couple days, and was on my way to a teaching gig in El Paso. Martha was sitting down and chatting with me since there weren't many customers in the place, and this guy comes in–a real valley redneck type–and starts in on Martha. He's drunk, of course, so he doesn't listen to me when I tell him to back off. So, he's pawing her and breathing on her, and I grab his shoulder and pull him off. But he takes one swing at me, and I'm out like a light."
Ben scrutinized the landscape beyond the window again. The dog had vanished. A Greyhound bus lumbered past.
"Well," and here Ben leaned forward on this elbows, and Lenny saw over his shoulder the word carved in the wood behind him. "Well, when I came to I was in Martha's bed. She had a small room up over a feed store there. She was holding a cold washcloth to my jaw, and my head felt like it was about to explode. But my gut was exploding too. I must've collected something from the water down by the Bend because I was out for days in that little room. I'd wake up with the sweats, and Martha would be cooling me off with washcloths and towels and alcohol rubs. And then I'd wake up with chills, and she'd climb into bed with me to keep me warm."
Now Lenny turned to stare out the window.
"And listen to this." Ben reached out and tapped the younger man's wrist.
"While I was there, thrashing about in chills and sweats, you know what she did?"
Lenny shook his head. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.
"She phoned up the school in El Paso I was going to teach at and told them I'd been taken sick and wouldn't make the first week of classes. It was right at the beginning of September all this happened. And they told her if I didn't make the first class at the beginning of the second week to forget it. And that made her so mad she told them to take the job and stuff it. And that's just what they did.
"And what did you do?"
"Well, I was sick enough I didn't do anything for a while, but when she finally told me what she'd done all I could do was laugh."
"Oh, we just lived together there in Presidio for a while. It was probably nearly November before I was really over it."
"And she took care of you?"
"Yep. I'd sort of been counting on that job though. I had some money, but not much. Enough to get us to the coast. I knew some people in Cruces and Yuma, and she knew some in San Diego. That helped. You know, they fed us and let us sack out at their places until we'd decided where to go or what to do next."
"And when did you get married?"
"We got married right there in Presidio, believe it or not. In fact, that was the only way I could get her to leave town with me, even as down and out as she was."
Lenny's gaze drifted out the window, and when he turned back to Ben, the older man was smiling.
"Did you like that one, Sonny Boy?"
He took Lenny by the chin and shook it. "Well, it was lies, all lies, Sonny Boy. And don't you forget it."
They'd known each other for less than a month when Ben first regaled Lenny with a version of this story. Years later, after Ben had disappeared and all that, Lenny sat talking with one of Ben's fans, a writer from the East Coast, somewhere in Virginia maybe, who was compiling a collection of interviews of people, other writers mainly, who had known and cared for Ben and/or his work. They were sitting in Lenny's pay-by-the-week motel room on the outskirts of Pueblo, Colorado, where, after shifting piles of books and papers onto the top of the dresser, they'd pulled a rickety writing table away from the wall and placed chairs on either side of it. On the table between them were two glasses, a bottle of Kentucky straight corn whiskey, a bowl of ice cubes, and a Sanyo tape recorder–a postmodern still life.
Lenny, over the last couple years, had grown tired and wary of interviewers. In fact, he'd stopped giving interviews about Ben altogether, but Karla, for some reason or other, had urged him to talk to this one–Art Gilmore, a short, slightly overweight man with dark brown hair, who was loosening Lenny up for the formal interview. The tape recorder wasn't running yet.
"I'll just begin by asking you about how you met Ben, and we'll go on from there. Does that sound okay?"
Lenny looked up from the frayed, mustard-colored carpet near the French doors. "Fine with me."
Lenny wasn't very worried. Gilmore had seemed genuine when he promised to send a transcript of the interview for Lenny's approval. That was standing operating procedure for interviews of this sort, although in the years since Ben disappeared Lenny had been badly burned once or twice.
They heard several long, loud blasts on the horn of a diesel engine and then the clangorous passage of a long chain of boxcars moving up the long, slow incline across the highway from the motel. The noise was so loud that, for a several minutes, they just sat, watching and listening, shrugging their shoulders and smiling small smiles at each other.
Then Gilmore, when it was quieter, looked across the table at Lenny and said, "Ready?"
Lenny nodded grimly.
Gilmore leaned over the table, punched a button on this tape recorder and spoke loudly and clearly into the machine's built-in microphone: Art Gilmore interviewing Leonard Reed, Nov. 8, 1990, Carson Motel, Pueblo, Colorado.
Then he sat back, took a couple ice cubes from the bowl, dropped them into a glass and poured over them a few fingers of amber fluid from the bottle. He pushed the glass across the table to Lenny and poured another for himself. Gilmore sniffed at what he called "the corn," and then took a delicate, slow sip and cleared his throat.
Gilmore: Tell me, please, about how you met Ben.
Reed: Ben and I shared an office at UN-Reno back in the sixties. That was long before it was UN-Reno, of course. Back then that campus was the University of Nevada.
Gilmore: Right. Reno was one of Ben's first teaching jobs, wasn't it?
Reed: Yeah, well, there were a couple gigs before Reno that didn't amount to much. He told me about one in Omaha, where he was teaching at a convent, one of those orders where you weren't supposed to see the sisters, and where they weren't supposed to speak.
Gilmore: Quite a challenge.
Reed: Yeah, Ben had to teach his first class twice.
Reed: Well, he got there an hour early and didn't know it. So, he did his thing and left, sort of amazed at how quiet they all were. And then the Mother Superior or someone comes running after him outside, hollering, "Mr. Garrison, Mr. Garrison, where are you going? Your class begins in five minutes."
Gilmore: Great story!
Lenny was thinking, Yeah, there's probably not a word of truth in it. Though, God knows, he'd heard Ben tell the story often enough. Much more elaborately, of course, and with the sort of variations in detail he'd come to expect of him. But, facing Gilmore, he was suddenly amazed that until that very moment it hadn't occurred to him that the entire story might be a lie. Ben still, it seemed, might have a trick or two up his sleeve.
Gilmore: Do you remember your first meeting?
Reed: Sure! I'd been given the number of my office, and when got there the door was open so I just walked in, and there he was. He was a long drink of water. You could tell that even when he was sitting down. He was sitting, of course, with his boots up on the desk–almost on my desktop; our desks were back to back. He was wearing a brownish-gray polyester suit, a white shirt, a perfectly horrible string necktie, and cowboy boots. He stuck out his hand and said, "Hi! I'm Ben Garrison, your lord and master. Welcome to Reno, the Biggest Little City in Storey County."
He acted as though he'd been there forever at first, but we were both new hires. He'd just made it a point to get to the office first. He took the better of the two desks, the larger one, the one with the view out the window. He'd filled most of the bookcases with his books, seen to it that he didn't have to get up to answer the phone, and so on. Typical.
Gilmore: [Chuckles] So you two hit it off right away.
Reed: Like oil and water, you might say.
Gilmore: Really, did it take long? Most of the people I've interviewed talk about how easy it was to like him.
Reed: Ben was a shit and a liar. No, I'll probably want you to take that out. But let's leave it in for now, though.
Gilmore: Okay. We can take it out later, no problem. Anything else about those early days?
Reed: Just the lord-and-master stuff, I suppose.
Gilmore: What do you mean?
Reed: Well, just that he meant it. He did seem to believe he was my lord and master. I was the poet, and he was the real writer. He didn't have much use for poetry in those early days, though he did come to try his hand at it toward the end.
I was the poet, so I got the smaller desk, the one with only a view of him and his feet. And he'd been published too. He'd had stories in a few of the littles, and even had nibbles from Esquire on a couple of things, though nothing had panned out there yet for him. I, on the other hand, had been hired on the basis on one little chapbook of poems and a master's degree plus some hours from the University of Toledo. Not even that. The guy they'd originally hired for my job had been killed in a car crash on his way over from California, and I was the only one they could find who could fill in on such short notice. Even though there were more jobs than teachers in those days. It wasn't like it is now.
Gilmore: So, he lorded it over you?
Reed: To the max. I was Sonny Boy to him, even at the end.
"Why don't we take a little break? Stretch our legs for a while."
Gilmore turned off the machine, and they both stood up.
"Good idea," Lenny replied. He was trying to figure out why this little guy from back east was touching a nerve with him, when all those other interviewers hadn't. It wasn't the questions he asked, or the way that he asked them. It wasn't anything in the way he acted.
"Anyplace decent to eat around here?"
"Well, there's a diner called Mom's down the road a bit. No guarantees though. Remember the old line? 'Never eat at a place called Mom's, never play cards with a guy named Doc, never sleep with a woman whose troubles are . . .'"
"Sounds fine to me," Gilmore said. "It's on me."
Lenny began to protest. "No, no . . ."
"I mean it's on my publisher."
"Well, that's different!"
What was bothering him, Lenny realized during lunch at Mom's, was that Gilmore had been sent to him by Karla. That's what he couldn't figure out. Ever since Ben's disappearance, Karla had been guarding his reputation, certainly his literary reputation, with a vengeance, never letting any but his first-rate (and perhaps some top-drawer second-rate) work see the light of day. Why would she send Gilmore to him? She knew he wouldn't lie to the man, certainly not about Ben, not to save Ben's proverbial skin, or even her own.
What Lenny hadn't mentioned to Gilmore, but what he assumed Gilmore already knew was that he and Karla had been married when the two of them arrived in Reno. In fact, they'd been married ever since their grad-school days in Toledo a few years before.
Sure enough, when the two men sat down again at the table in the motel, the question of Karla was what came up first.
Gilmore: Would you tell me, please, about you and Ben and Karla?
Reed: Surely you know all about that, don't you? I think the whole world does.
Gilmore: I'd like to hear you tell your own . . . side of it.
He almost said "version," Lenny thought.
Reed: Okay then.
Lenny thought back. After grad school, Karla and he had both worked various teaching jobs around Cleveland, but when Karla was diagnosed with emphysema her doctor told her not to spend another winter in Cleveland. So, they'd both started firing out letters to practically every school on the West Coast and in the Southwest, and just about when they had given up and resigned themselves to another Cleveland winter there was a phone call from Reno. The school couldn't hire them both, but somebody coming in to teach poetry writing had been killed in a car crash and could Lenny take the job? No guarantees about a second year, of course, but there'd be two full terms (with benefits), maybe something during the next summer, and a good chance of having his contract renewed.
So, with Karla jumping up and down beside him, her blonde ponytail flying up and down, Lenny had said, "When would I have to be there?"
"We start classes on September 9. If you get here a couple days early, we can get all the paperwork done and help you find someplace to live, maybe in faculty housing."
A week later they were on the road, their black VW beetle pulling a rented trailer that held everything they owned. Their black Lab named Grendel was in the back seat, running back and forth from one side of the car to the other.
The road? US 6, naturally. What other road for two writers, the image of Jack Kerouac burned in their brains, standing for hours in the rain near the Bear Mountain Bridge in New York, dreaming of a ride that would take him all the way to California on US 6. Of course, Kerouac had wanted to do US 6 all the way west, but never got farther than the Bear Mountain Bridge and so took a bus down into New York City and started again from there. And US 6 wouldn't get Lenny and Karla all the way to Reno, but it would get them well into Nevada before they'd have to take US 50 over to Reno. Close enough, they thought.
Gilmore: So you arrived in Reno, and Ben pulled his lord-and-master routine. What next?
Reed: That first term was a killer. I was doing a poetry writing class and about four sections of comp. The bastards hadn't told me about those. And Karla was going crazy from nothing to do. Reno wasn't Cleveland, by a long shot, or even Toledo, and it wasn't much warmer as it turned out. It was drier, though, and that helped with her breathing. But Karla was bored as hell. And the faculty wives . . . well, enough said.
Ben was soon bored too, and started drinking pretty heavily. I don't know if that was the beginning of his drinking problem or just a new chapter of it. Probably the latter.
Gilmore: From what I hear it might have been the beginning, though some of his problem might have been genetic.
Reed: Anyway, he started drinking a lot, and his being lord and master and all didn't stop him from coming around at all hours. Luckily, at first, there were a number of people he'd drink with. But when he started coming around at four or five in the morning on some sort of crying jag, doors began to get slammed in his face, and he ended up doing most of his crying with Karla and me.
Gilmore: That must have been rough.
Reed: Well, I would have slammed the door too, but Karla wouldn't let me. She sort of adopted him, took him on as a project, I guess. I tried to talk her out of it, said I had to work, needed sleep. She said, "Go get your sleep. I'll sit up with him," And she did–couple, three nights a week sometimes.
Gilmore: He was writing some of those great early stories that winter, wasn't he? You know, "The German Problem," "Small Changes"–stuff like that.
Reed: Yes, those are two of my favorites. But God knows when he had time to write them. He was doing as much comp as I was, and he didn't slack off on the papers either. I saw some of them, just covered with notes and suggestions, little arrows running here and there.
He never did a public reading there in Reno. Not in those days anyway, though he maybe did later.
Gilmore: At least three that I know of. In fact, I was at the last one in '87. He read "Small Changes" too, and they loved it.
Reed: Uh-huh, they would love it now, but they wouldn't have loved it then. You can be sure of that.
Gilmore: You mean because of his send-up of that dean? What was his name?
Reed: You got it. His name was . . . I forget now too. Same guy that told me I was being hired to replace a corpse.
Gilmore: What did he cry about?
Reed: Oh, it could have been anything. Sometimes it was Martha. Sometimes it was his parents. Sometimes it was somebody he knew in the service–you know, in Korea. Sometimes it was just the sad state of the world.
Gilmore: You never knew Martha?
Reed: No, but I heard enough about her from Ben, and later from Karla, who met her once or twice. Most of the stories Ben told me about her were probably lies. That's just the way he was. Ben told me they'd met in Texas somewhere, but Karla later learned for a fact that they'd met each other someplace in California–San Luis Obispo maybe, or Chico. I don't know.
Gilmore: Tell me more about that first year in Reno.
Reed: Well, it was more of the same, mostly. Ben went off somewhere during the Christmas break. We never knew where. But, to our surprise really, he was back for the start of the spring term.
The drinking began again though and got worse rapidly. He didn't make it to spring vacation. When he started missing classes, they just fired him on the spot and kicked him out of faculty housing.
Gilmore: He did have a contract, didn't he?
Reed: Yes, but they paid him off for the rest of the term, and on top of that they gave Karla one class to finish up and divvied up the rest among the four of us who were already teaching comp.
Gilmore: Quite a load.
Reed: Yes, but all of us thought it was worth it to be rid of him.
Gilmore: Still not friends?
Reed: No, not then.
Gilmore: When did things begin to change?
Reed: Well, it wasn't until that summer.
Lenny relaxed a bit, took a sip of corn whiskey. That was the summer Ben showed up at the door of their house in a brand-new pickup truck. God knew where he'd gotten the money or the credit to buy it, but somehow he had. And Lenny and Karla had just about resigned themselves to a hot, dusty summer in Reno with no courses to teach, no money to spend, and no car to run around in. Their VW had just about killed itself pulling that trailer two-thirds of the way cross the country, and didn't make it much past winter.
So, Ben showed up, and Karla ran out and flung her arms around his neck. Even Lenny was delighted to see him. And, better yet, he was entirely sober. Lenny kept a wary eye on him, but there were no bottles hidden away in his suitcase. After the first night, Ben checked into a nearby motel and they didn't see much of him for a few days. But then he showed up again, beaming. "Well, it's finished. But I don't have a title for it." He held up a sheaf of stories. "This is it," he exclaimed. "The first book."
Karla grabbed the MS out of his hand and flipped through it. Many of the stories there were entirely new, but some were ones she knew. "How about 'Houselights'?" she suggested.
Ben, after a moment's thought said, "Yes, indeed. That should do it."
Gilmore: When did you know that he'd come back for Karla?
Lenny reached over and turned off the machine. "You're the interviewer from hell, aren't you?" He stood up and walked away from the table.
"Calling it quits?" Gilmore asked, without getting up.
Lenny thought for a moment, tempted. But then he said, "No, but let's call it a day. You got someplace to stay around here?"
"I'm right across the way there–number 15." And Gilmore gathered up his bottle and his tape recorder and left.
The summer in question was one of the best/worst in Lenny's life, one during which he acquired a friend who made enemies seem superfluous, and lost a wife to him–at least for a while. Lenny never knew for sure whether anything had happened between Ben and Karla during those first school semesters in Reno, but there was, he remembered, some point during their travels together that summer at which he knew clearly that Karla was, for the first time, more with Ben than with him.
Crammed into Ben's red pickup, the two men shared the driving, and Karla functioned as navigator and tour guide as they explored the Wild West. They began with short excursions out of Reno–over to Tahoe City on the California side of the lake, north to Pyramid Lake and the Indian reservation there, southeast to Hawthorne and the Excelsior Mountains. They explored little towns like Fallon and Wadsworth and Lovelock. When the excursions grew longer, they bought sleeping bags and a tarp and would, weather permitting, just stretch themselves out under the stars at night. They'd eat out of stores, or at truck stops or small dusty restaurants along the highway. The three of them would wrangle for hours about stories and poems and writers. Ben thought that Lenny should stop writing poetry and get into fiction "where the action is." And Lenny would nod, as though he agreed.
"Nobody reads that stuff anymore," Ben would say, and Lenny would nod and smile, this time in genuine agreement. But he'd keep on scribbling on a steno pad he always carried around with him, and he would occasionally show them something.
When he did, Karla, who'd never liked poets or poetry much until meeting Lenny, and still did not by and large, would be surprised that she didn't dislike it more than she did, and Ben–well, Ben would just scratch his neck and shake his head.
Since Ben's enforced departure from Reno, he'd taken to wearing blue jeans and plaid shirts, along with a leather cowboy hat he'd picked up somewhere.
"I just don't get it," Ben would say, "–why a talented guy like you would spend his life nibbling around the foothills when there are peaks out there to climb."
"You're mixing your metaphors, Ben," said Lenny, annoyed suddenly at the folksy westernisms of this guy who'd been west of the Mississippi barely longer than he himself had.
"Oh, fuck my metaphors. Why don't you just listen for a change?"
"Take it easy, Ben," said Karla, the Peacekeeper.
"Butt out," said Ben, annoyed with Karla now.
And Karla would sit there looking glum while the two of them clubbed each other over the head with theories, debating points, and so on, until they were both so exhausted they could hardly see or talk straight.
The story, Ben argued, was where the real world hit the page, where real people reached down into themselves and dragged up the tattered remnants of their souls for all to see. Lenny had no argument with that, but would claim that the poem was way out in front, out where language gave birth to itself.
"Fuck that," Ben said, reaching for Karla's crotch. "This is real. You're just jerking off."
Gilmore: Was that when you knew?
Reed: No, Karla just laughed and swatted his hand away. But there was something in the way she did it, something that told me she didn't really mind being Ben's touchstone of reality.
Gilmore: And when did the actual breakup occur?
Reed: Oh, a week or two later. We'd been back in Reno for a couple days, and she just came into my study one morning and said, "Lenny, I'm going with Ben for a while."
I said, "What?"
And she said, "I'm going away with Ben for a while."
Gilmore: And they left? Just like that?
Reed: Just like that.
Gilmore: You know Ben's story called "Saturday"?
Reed: Of course.
Gilmore: Would you give me your thoughts about that?
Reed: You're a real asshole, you know? The guy steals my wife and then writes a story about it from my point of view. What do you think I think about that?
Gilmore: Just thought I'd ask.
There's a story by Ben Garrison called "Lacrymosa" that is about two men and a woman who go camping together in the Mogollon Mountains, just west of the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico. The area is a wild one, and they've been traveling on old logging roads for three or four days, and they haven't seen other human beings but themselves. The story is told from the woman's point of view.
In the story, they've been traveling together all summer, and the woman is painfully conscious of being in the process of leaving the younger man for the older one. The older man, whose name is David, has been prodding her in this direction for some time now. The younger man, whose name is Les, is not quite aware of what's going on yet.
The climax of the story occurs on one of those cold mountain nights that can come even in mid- or late summer in those desert mountains.
We came down off the mountain to a flat, grassy place near the bank of a stream. It was nearly dark when we stopped and began to set up camp. I'd swear the temperature dropped twenty degrees the minute the sun dropped behind the mountain.
Les and Dave put up the tent, while I started gathering wood for a fire.
"Let's get all the deadwood we can find before it gets any darker, and we'll make us a big one tonight, one that'll last all night long."
I began to drag branches and brush and stuff into the center of the clearing, near where the tent was going up, and when Dave and Les had all the pegs hammered in they joined in the collecting of firewood.
First, we made a small fire just for cooking, and after we'd eaten our beans and corn we started piling on heavier stuff. Sparks and smoke flew up to the treetops and disappeared into blackness. The guys were jubilant, excited by the roar of the blaze. Somehow that day I'd made a decision. I wasn't sure when or how.
Dave shouted to Les across the crackling fire, "Let's throw on everything we can lay our hands on. It might really last all night then."
The fire they made was so big, so hot we couldn't get within ten feet of it at first. So we stood back away, stamping our feet, and blowing into our hands–hot and cold at the same time.
I let the guys take the tent, and laid my bag on a tarp on the ground outside, where I could watch and be warmed by the fire. High above the fire were sparks mixed with stars.
I thought about Les, and I thought about David, and then I slept.
During the night, I awoke every so often to see, each time, the fire growing smaller, weaker, less bright. In the early morning, an hour or so before dawn, I heard, far off, a woman crying–great wrenching sobs that seemed to be coming closer.
At breakfast, David said, "Did you hear that mountain lion last night?" Les hadn't heard it, but I said yes, as though I'd known what it was. And to me it was still a woman crying–for Lester, for David, for all of us.
Before leaving Pueblo the next morning, Gilmore promised he'd send Lenny a transcript of his interview with Martha Landridge as soon as she'd okayed it, which, Gilmore thought, should be a matter of days. But it turned out to be more a matter of months. In the meanwhile, Lenny finished up the workshops he was teaching in Pueblo and moved on to another gig. Karla had exploded, of course, when she learned of the Landridge interview, just as Lenny had thought she would. In fact, she'd reneged on her many commitments to and agreements with Gilmore, and absolutely refused to let him use the interview he'd done with her as long as he went ahead with his plan to use the one with Martha.
Karla also tried and failed to pressure Lenny into withdrawing from Gilmore's project. Lenny stood firm. "Why the fuck did you send him to me if you didn't want me to talk to him? This doesn't make any sense, Karla. What difference does it make whether he talked to Martha or not?"
"Well, if you don't understand, Lenny, I'm just not going to explain it to you." And then she hung up.
"Women," Lenny muttered to himself as he fixed another drink.
At the time of Ben's disappearance, Lenny and Karla had indeed intended to remarry, but time and events worked against that. A document turned up among Ben's papers that made Karla the legal executor of his estate, which involved a considerable amount of money Ben had made during those last couple years. She was fairly well off. And very, very busy.
But they stayed in touch by telephone, and Lenny supported her in every way he could, though he wouldn't let her push him around.
When the transcript caught up with him, Lenny was halfway through the spring term in Fort Collins, Colorado–living at a motel, as usual, and–not as usual–involved with a redhead in his senior poetry workshop who had managed, much to his amazement, to revive his interest both in sonnets and in sex.
The transcript arrived in a hefty manila envelope with Gilmore, 56 Ransome Road, Roanoke, Virginia, in the top left-hand corner. Lenny tossed it onto a pile of papers on the chest of drawers and let it lie there for a couple days while he waited for a good time to read it, but then a newspaper got tossed on top of it, and then something else, and between sex and classes and some pretty heavy drinking, it might have disappeared entirely if one night Sharon, the redhead, naked and damp and pink from the shower hadn't idly started looking through the heap on the dresser.
"What's this, Len?" she asked, waggling the envelope at him.
Lenny, half-drunk and sleepy from sex, narrowed his eyes, tried to focus. Finally succeeding, he saw the name Gilmore.
"Oh, that's the interview with Martha."
"Who's Martha?" asked Sharon.
"Nobody you'd know," said Lenny, immediately regretting the tone.
"Come on, Len. Who is she? Some old flame of yours?" She'd seemed to ignore the tone in Lenny's voice.
"Not a girlfriend, no. Just a friend of a friend. A former wife of a former friend, actually."
"Who's the friend?"
"Ben Garrison," Lenny replied. "Know his stuff?"
"You knew Ben Garrison?" Lenny wondered for a moment if she was putting him down. But Sharon seemed simply delighted. "I think I've read everything he ever wrote."
"Not everything," Lenny said. "Not everything he wrote has been published."
But Sharon didn't hear him. She was away in memory land. And when she returned she said, "He read here in Fort Collins back when I was a freshman. He read that story called 'Houselights.' Do you know it?"
"That was one of the great ones." Lenny found her slipping out of focus.
"Yes, he read that and some poems, but the story was the thing."
"That's what he was good at. Did you sleep with him?"
Sharon smacked Lenny's naked rump with the flat of her hand.
"Can I read it?"
"What, the interview?"
"What do you think?"
Her finger was already into the envelope, tearing the flap away and destroying the entire envelope in the process of opening it.
"Well, why not? Why don't you read it out loud?"
Lenny poured himself a bourbon and dropped an ice cube in it.
"Want a drinkie?"
No, thanks. I'm going to have to drive, looks like."
So, they settled back on the bed, and she began.
"There's a letter here. Want me to read it to you?"
"Sure. Go ahead."
"It says, 'Dear Lenny, Sorry to be so long in getting this to you, but Martha took longer with it than I expected. It's still a bit rough around the edges, but she finally approved the gist of it.
"'As you probably know by now, Karla's pulled out of the Garrison project. When she heard that I was going to use Martha's interview, she just called it quits. I reminded her of her agreements with me, but that didn't do a bit of good. She just refuses to have her interview appear in the same book with Martha's. And I, of course, couldn't back down. The Martha material is important, as you'll see.
"'Quite frankly, I don't know what Karla's problem is. If you have any idea, maybe you'd let me know. I doubt, though, that Karla will change her mind. She seemed quite adamant.
"'Thanks for your cooperation on this, by the way. The book will be much better because of it.
"'Keep in touch. Yours, Artie Gilmore.'"
Sharon looked over at Lenny, who was slowly shaking his head from side to side. He held out his glass, and she reached for the fifth of Jack Daniels on the nightstand. She poured him a drink and then passed him the bottle. "Here, put it on your side."
"Oh, my. Oh, my," Lenny said, mournfully.
Sharon stretched herself out on the bed, her body returned from pink to freckled white. Next to her, Lenny felt tan. She fluffed up the pillows behind her head and began once more to read. Lenny watched her for a while, saw how the fingers of her right hand, the hand not holding the transcript, continually ran up and down her body, over her breasts and rib cage and stomach to the mound at the top of her thighs, where they twisted themselves into curly red hair, even redder than the hair on her head. But after a while, he rolled over on his back and stared up at the ceiling.
Art Gilmore interviewing Martha Landridge, October 15, 1990, Cielo Vista Hotel, Owensburg, California.
For several months, Martha Landridge refused all my requests for an interview. Our conversations would be by telephone, and they were invariably short. I'd give her reasons, and she'd refuse. She never talked publicly about Ben Garrison. That was it. She said.
Then, just as I was about to give up hope of ever putting questions to her, I met, just by chance, a Los Angeles painter who'd known her during the two or three years she lived in LA back in the early eighties. The painter offered to intercede with Martha, and the result was that Martha agreed to meet me for half an hour at the Cielo Vista Hotel in Owensburg, California. I promised, as is customary, that she'd get to check out the transcript of the interview and make corrections and changes. I also promised her that no photographs of her, from whatever source, would appear in the book or in any publicity for the book.
So, that's how things stood. Our conversation on October 15, as you will see, ran considerably longer than half an hour.
Gilmore: Do you remember the first time you saw Ben Garrison?
Landridge: As though it were yesterday. I was thirteen going on fourteen, and he was about a year older. We lived in Schenectady, New York, and were both going to the same high school, and one fall day he just started to chat after school and wound up walking me all the way home.
Gilmore: You know, people have told me over and over that Ben was twenty years older than you.
Landridge: Well, that's just nonsense. We were about a year apart; he was a sophomore when we met, and I was a freshman.
Gilmore: Why would Ben lie about that? And what about Presidio?
Landridge: Well, that's just the way Ben was. He'd bend the truth a bit, to serve his own purposes, or often just for fun. And Presidio?
Gilmore: Yes. According to Ben, you were waiting tables there, and he got in a fight over you, got knocked out by some redneck, and wound up being nursed back to health by you.
Landridge: Right. And I climbed into bed with him, to keep him warm when he had the chills, right?
Gilmore: That's what I was told.
Landridge: Have you ever read Tolstoy? "Master and Man"? Well, two men in that story, a Russian nobleman and his servant, get caught in a raging blizzard, and the servant uses the heat from his very own body to keep his master alive through the night. And have you read Hemingway? A Farewell to Arms? Remember Lieutenant Henry and Catherine, his nurse? Well, there you are–two of his favorite stories when he was in high school.
And you know what else? He told that Presidio story of his to some writer from Chicago, who used it himself, only in his version it's a sixty-year-old man climbing into bed with his eighty-year-old father to keep the old man from pulling the tubing out of his arms so that he can die.
[Laughs] Ben never let go of a good story, and he didn't mind spreading good stories around either. Never got mad when somebody cribbed something of his.
Back in the sixties, know what he'd do? He'd take one basic story, dress it up in various ways, and send it out to six or seven magazines all under different names. He loved to do that. Do you remember "In the Thicket"?
Gilmore: Of course.
Landridge: That was in Houselights, his first collection back in '65 or so. Remember?
Gilmore: Yes, I do. It was a fine story.
Landridge: Well, "In the Thicket" must have been in about twelve different magazines, and some of them biggies too. You know, The Paris Review and such like. He used to call "In the Thicket" his All-time Champion (capital A, capital C). Later, I think he played the same game, but stopped keeping score.
Gilmore: When did you and Ben get married?
Landridge: March 10, 1962, in Westminster, Maryland. He'd been off to college and even out of college for two years before we ran into each other again.
Gilmore: What were you doing during those years?
Landridge: Me? Oh, this and that. Mostly working as a dorm counselor in a private girls' school in Virginia.
Gilmore: And how did you and Ben get together again?
Landridge: Would you believe, he came to that school on a teaching gig. There's a short, four-week term they squeeze in there between the fall and spring terms, and he'd been hired to replace some Israeli writer who'd canceled out at the last minute because he needed a prostate operation. Ben was hired to teach poetry writing. Can you imagine? They must have been desperate. [Laughs]
Gilmore: Well, poetry wasn't his strong suit back in those days, was it?
Landridge: You know, he thought it was.
Gilmore: No, did he?
Landridge: I think he found poetry easier at the time. He was antsy in those days, and didn't like to commit the large blocks of time that fiction writing demanded. Poetry he could toss off and come back to whenever he had time or was is the mood. He told me once about writing a poem at the same time that he was hectoring a freshman comp class about comma splices or some such thing. I mean, literally writing it out while he was talking about something else.
Well, I did my best to talk him out of it.
Gilmore: Out of what?
Landridge: Out of writing poetry! I really hated poetry (and poets too) in those days. Couldn't stand the stuff. It was all so prissy and precious and yucky. And the poets! All that too-sensitive-for-this-world stuff–I really hated it.
Gilmore: And now?
Landridge: [Laughs] Well. I've found one or two I can stomach, believe it or not. In fact, I've been living with a poet for the last couple years. [Laughs again] Maybe I'm just going dippy in my old age.
But, more seriously, one reason I wanted him to stop writing poetry was that poetry writing left him with too much time on his hands. And I figured that if we were going to make it together he'd have to cut down the amount of time he had available for drinking and womanizing.
Gilmore: Did it work?
Landridge: You know the answer to that one. It did for a while, long enough for him to crank out some really good work. But when he started making money at it, the money started buying him time, and we were back at square one. I went through two or three cycles of that with him and then I got off the merry-go-round.
Gilmore: That was in '74, when you got divorced in Vegas.
Landridge: Well, Vegas was where we split up, but we never did get divorced.
Gilmore: Come on, I don't believe it! Divorces are a matter of public record.
Landridge: Have you ever checked it?
Gilmore: No, but I could easily enough.
Landridge: Go right ahead, my friend. But you'd be wasting your time.
Gilmore: You could have been divorced anywhere.
Landridge: Then you'd be wasting even more time, wouldn't you? Why don't you just take my word for it? Why would I lie?
Gilmore: Why would he lie? About that?
Landridge: Just for the fun of it, most likely.
Gilmore: That means that . . . Do Karla and Lenny know?
Landridge: I seriously doubt it. They will, though, when this comes out. Won't that be fun? Gilmore: But if you're still legally married to him, what about the money, and his "literary remains" so to speak?
Landridge: Oh, pish, Artie–I've never needed Ben's money, and Karla's doing just fine with his remains. She'll hold the banner high, if anyone will.
Gilmore: What about "Night Life in the Desert"?
Landridge: Did Karla show you that? It's never been published, you know.
Gilmore: It's coming out in Esquire next month.
Landridge: Wouldn't you know. Well, more power to her. Anyway, the gist of the story is true, but not the part about the divorce. And did Karla tell you about the title of that story?
Landridge: Well, the original title was "Flamingo." Ben talked the manager of the Flamingo Hotel down in St. Pete into paying him about five hundred dollars to use the name of the hotel in the title of his story. Can you believe that? And then, just before the story was published, Ben changed his mind, and for years afterwards he joked that the hotel had probably put a hit man on his trail. [Laughs]
Sharon laughed to herself and began to ask Lenny if he thought that might be true, but Lenny, she saw, was asleep, even snoring lightly.
She kissed him lightly on the forehead and climbed out of bed. Gathering up her clothes from here and there on the furniture and floor, she went in the bathroom and dressed. She used the toilet, washed her hands in the washbasin, finger-combed her long red hair at the mirror, and then back out to the bed, where Lenny was still asleep, his thin, graying hair disheveled, his mouth wide open, a slender trail of drool making its way down from the corner of his mouth.
The transcript of the interview lay on the bed where she'd left it. Sharon picked it up and began to read again, but not aloud anymore. Then she, glancing at her watch, she tossed the transcript onto the dresser where she had first found it, and went out to her car, a sporty red number with Colorado plates that said "2 SWIFT."
She turned the ignition key and sat quietly staring off into the darkness for a minute or two, the engine purring softly. Then she hopped out of the car, slipped quietly back into Lenny's room, took the transcript from the dresser and went out again, pulling the door quietly shut behind her. With the transcript beside her on the empty bucket seat, she drove off into the night, already excited at the thought of reading it alone–at home, in her own bed.
(from A Little More Than Kin)
His father made it sound as wholesome as cooked cereal in the morning. "There's nothing like fresh air and country living," said the powerful figure effulgent in summer suiting as he hoisted Boone's duffel bag onto the luggage rack. Exactly what he had said the night before when Boone announced he didn't want to go. To which he had added (Boone's mother venturing to suggest ten was too young, a great-uncle and great-aunt too old) that it would be a valuable learning experience. None of which made four weeks on a farm sound like much of a vacation. Good Humor trucks, stickball in the streets, firecrackers in the park, hand-to-hand combat with wet towels along the slippery edge of city pools, the jerky stop-and-stop wending homeward from the beach on traffic-jammed Sundays–those were the proper treats of summer.
Almost in tears, Boone sought to wave goodbye from the window of the slowly gliding train, but his father had not stayed, was even then being borne aloft at a stately but inexorable pace. Years later, studying the Greeks, Boone was to recognize the machine that lowered and raised the god on stage as the Union Station escalator.
To any child the first trip from home is an interplanetary journey, and in fact Boone's remembrance in those later years could have been mistaken for a lunatic recounting by some crackpot claiming to have been abducted by a UFO. A world of purple trees and yellow sky. Weird beings with metal objects sprouting from their heads. Aunt Flo was reduced in time to that: steel-grey hairpins popping out of steel-grey hair. And Uncle Eban to a porkpie hat. But the house, the house he remembered in all its Queen Anne glory, a result no doubt of all those hours spent lying on his back in a field that seemed a level plain when he stood erect but which betrayed a definite declivity when he threw himself supine–a saucer on whose rim were aligned all the taller structures of the farm. There the barn, whose cool interior smelled half of stable, half garage. There the longer, lower shed that stank of pure cow. There the wooden silo, a listing barrel that had burst its staves. There the metal one, nosing the sky like a rocket on a launching pad. And there the house.
Long after the features of Aunt Flo and Uncle Eban had become an amorphous blur, he could recall every aspect of that jumbled pile, every scallop, filligree and furbelow, every crazy angle of separate pitched roofs varying in direction of their axes according to the whim of each new generation. And rising above them all, the topmost little roof, fitting like a conical cap–the crow's nest with its oval eye of colored glass.
That was such a place from which a child plucked from the civic hearth and perched on high might witness the great and unspeakable, initiand to Eleusinian Mysteries.
"Did you have fun?" his father asked, forcefully as was his wont, when Boone returned looking, as his father said, fit as a fiddle, covered with wholesome scabs and scratches.
"No," said Boone. After so long an abstinence, ambrosial was the smell and taste of take-home pizza. "There weren't any other kids around, they don't even have TV."
"It's high time you learned to manufacture your own entertainment," his father said, and his mother nodded yes, yes, yes. Boone had never thought of fun before as a skill to be learned, like tying shoelaces.
Stretching out then tonguing up the rubbery strings of cheese, Boone wondered if he should tell his parents the kind of entertainment people manufactured when they didn't have TV. The game Aunt Flo and Uncle Eban played of an evening was mostly picking him apart, vying with each other at finding fault. Don't tell me that's all you eat at home, you'll never reach a man's full growth. Don't tell me your ma just packed you shorts, bare legs won't do for walking through them fields. Don't tell me you just had your hair cut, you'll be taken for a girl. Don't tell me you don't go to church--We was just funning, Aunt Flo explained, when he broke down and cried.
"And did you learn to milk a cow?" his mother asked. The way she leaned forward, elbows on the kitchen table, both hands spread to cup her pointed chin, lent great importance to the question. Boone shook his head, shame-faced admission to a failing grade. He had gone into the cowshed only once, didn't like the smell.
His father laughed. "I don't remember much of my one summer on that farm, but I do remember that–they made me clean it out."
Boone lavished all attention on the last morsel of his pizza as if he doted on burnt crust. No reason he could see to admit that Uncle Eban had tried to make him do the same, but he had hidden until they gave up looking, gave up calling. Either the crow's nest was forgotten or it wasn't worth the climb.
The little round window was of colored glass. Yellow and purple It was midday but through that window the light was forever a dying afternoon's. From his eyrie, Boone looked down on the squashed porkpie hat, never doffed indoors or out. Uncle Eban was cleaning out the cowshed by himself. The usual overalls, flailed into pale blue lifelessness by Aunt Flo's laundering, had been replaced by the old shirt and trousers kept hanging in the shed for just such jobs. The one time he went inside, Boone had brushed against them, jumped back in alarm, not recognizing them as clothes to be worn. On his uncle, mounding the manure into a dark volcanic cone, they seemed made not of cloth but of some old dark metal, heavy and durable as iron, as seasoned in their way as the cast-iron skillet on Aunt Flo's stove.
It was Aunt Flo's entrance that gave the scene a disconcerting turn. She was wearing a too-large raincoat of smoky transparency, strange suff that reminded Boone of the isinglass windows on the ancient car rusting in the barn. Why a raincoat, was the puzzle. Boone peered up. Not a cloud in the yellow sky. Not a shadow of a cloud near the purple sun. Squeezed tightly under her arm, a plump chicken squirmed. Its beak took chopstick bites out of empty air. A frisson of terror–or was it delight?–rippled over Boone's skin. He knew, even as the chicken seemed to know, what came next.
I'll wring your neck. Her customary expression of mild annoyance. You track mud over this floor just once again, boy, I'll wring your neck.
Boone remembered back to breakfast, what she had said. Not for you to watch, don't even let the other chickens watch, she had said. All Boone heard from Uncle Eban was a contemptuous expulsion of air through the hairy marshland in his nose, but shut up, Aunt Flo commanded, taking a steel hairpin out of her hair and glaring across the table as if she meant to plunge it into Uncle Eban's heart, stuck it instead into another part of her scalp. It's not like the boy's brought up to it, she said. Take me, it's been my chore since I was eight years old, when Ma got her bursitis. My sister Edna now, she never done it till she was married. You should have seen her, boy, that first time, she left her new husband high and dry, with no supper on the stove, come crying home to Ma and me, all covered with the blood. We thought at first Billy done beat her–with all that carrying on you couldn't make head nor tails of what she said.
Uncle Eban addressed a snort to "your sister Edna," but Aunt Flo's patting of her thick grey hair, her groping for the lethal hairpin was purely automatic. Hers was the foolish out-of-focus smile that grownups wore when remembering good times past. Poor Edna, she had laughed.
Poor chicken. Boone heard the furious pounding of the tiny heart under the feathered breast. It took the silent mouthing of the figures far below to make him realize the heartbeat was his own. They were yelling. The mouths spat and twisted and opened wide in silent roars. He could hear nothing, he was missing all the fight. He wiped the stained glass porthole with his shirttail as if cleaning wax out of his ears. Uncle Eban flung his shovel to the ground and yelled again. One hand still binding tight the chicken's legs, Aunt Flo used her other to tear into her hair, jerking out, jabbing in the pins, her mouth working away. When it happened, it took Boone completely by surprise. Reversing her hold, its head now in her hand, she began to whirl the chicken around and around, the way he whirled his model planes into flight. Oh ho, he's going to get it now, Boone laughed to himself, as silently as those titans cursing each other below–she's going to throw it at him. And so she did.
The chicken took off straight for Uncle Eban, but its head stayed in her hand. Boone saw the reason for the raincoat then. Uncle Eban was soaked with blood, stunned with blood. Aunt Flo's head was far back, her mouth open, drowning in laughter. The chicken kept on going, floundering about the bare yard, a geyser of blood spurting from the open neck, its wings flapping vigorously as if still convinced it could escape in flight. He did not see Uncle Eban plow his shovel into the manure pile but he heard Aunt Flo's scream, faint and shrill as a train whistle miles down the track.
Uncle Eban dripping with blood. Aunt Flo, buttoned up in her raincoat as if forearmed against droppings from the sky, drowning in that other stuff. In her hair, plastered to her face, oozing from her mouth. And the chicken careening around them both, its blood now jetting in a finer spray, a lawnsprinkler wetting the thirsty earth in a time of drought.
"I learned how to kill a chicken," Boone said to his mother, who had shown her disappointment that he hadn't learned to milk a cow. He felt resentful when she made a face. It was a learning experience, he would have thought.
His father took it more in stride. "Okay, so you can kill a chicken, hot stuff. What else did you learn?"
Boone opened his mouth to tell them, then shut it tight. There is no child so young he does not know what happens to those who witness the unspeakable and bring back a report.
The Cocktail Hour
(From View To the North,
Coming November, 2004)
My mother and I are having our first preprandial drink in what they call the den, though it's no snug and private retreat, merely an area of a vast green ambience that also includes the formal living area, rarely used, a card nook, and the dining area, all more or less open to each other and arranged upon a meadow, a grassy lea of sculptured green carpet that yawns from wall to distant wall where windows frame trompe l'oeil views of sea and sky in colors so improbable that they can only be real. As Angie said, there's a lot of bad art in nature.
But there is more bad art in art, examples of which hang on these walls, chosen by my father whose eye for style fails him beyond the boundaries of the garment district where he so successfully labored for much of his life. There are three paintings of tropical beaches, purchased on a trip to some Caribbean paradise, white sailboats on the horizon painted in day-glo colors. The dominant painting is of a bowl of wax fruit, a still-lifeless, Angie called it, or nature double-morte. It reminds me of the apartment Angie and I shared, the one I fled for New Hampshire, whose ugly little lobby was decorated with a fake fountain ringed with artificial flowers, changed seasonally by the superintendent, daffodils and tulips in spring, roses in summer, mums and dahlias in autumn. In the winter it's bare, except at Christmas when a frosted white plastic tree appears with blinking electric candles. Art and artifice. Angie loved it. The one brief time she was down here with me she loved these paintings, too, remarking that what was so exciting was that the perpetrators were sincere, as my father was, or so she assumed, and that like books, whether they're literature or entertainment, they all say something about the society we live in. The difference is in the long run. Like the fake flowers, entertainment needs constant renewal.
"But what about these pictures?" I asked. "My parents are permanently satisfied with them."
"They hung them and never saw them again," Angie said, "and, besides, the long run takes longer."
Angie's studio is three flights up in an old warehouse off Hudson Street. It's what she calls The Serious Place, and, unlike anywhere or anything else of hers, it's surprisingly neat and well organized. There she's in complete control. She knows where everything is and every space has its reason. A good carpenter, she built handsome off-the-floor cupboards and stalls for her finished work, and shelves for her supplies, and movable wall-sized panels where she hangs the more recent paintings, those she's working on and the finished ones she still needs to have around her. A toilet and sink stand unenclosed in a corner, and next to the sink a small table with a hotplate, and on the hotplate a red enamel saucepan, and off in another corner a cot with a blanket and three pillows, and these, and the separate receptacle for emptied wine bottles, are her only concession to her non-painting self.
It's a large square room with good light, but the light can hardly matter since when she is what she calls "inside the painting," she sometimes paints all night, and if the electricity were to go off, she would paint by candlelight. One blizzardy February morning, because she hadn't come home all night, I stopped by to make sure she was all right and to bring her some breakfast. She was completely absorbed in the painting she was doing, that she'd been doing all night, despite the fact that the heat had failed. She wore layers of sweaters under her coat and her fur-lined snow boots, a knitted hat pulled far down over her ears and a muffler wound around her neck. Only her hands were bare and they were two shades of blue, one from the cold. She looked as if she could barely keep hold of the brush, but the face she turned toward me when she was aware of my presence, was haggard and feverish with excitement. And what a painting it was!
"I can't stop now," she said in a faint, breathless voice, dismissing me.
Later, during our summer in the Montana Rockies, I saw that Angie's colors were all out of those landscapes of her childhood, though the landscapes themselves, the mountains, trees, lake, snow, aren't recognizably there. The paintings are lyrical and mysterious, almost mystical, but they have the depth and movement of those landscapes with their winds and waters, weathers and seasons.
Angie, Angie. She was christened Evelyn-Angelica, with the hyphen. Only her mother ever called her by that given name, and never with love. She was a strict, rigid woman of German stock, hardworking, demanding, unimaginative, and severe. "Every Monday the furniture was polished," Angie told me. "Every Tuesday dinner of my early life was split pea soup. Every day of the week was like that, with its appointed chores and unchanging menu. I can't hear the word Thursday without smelling its smells and hearing its sounds. Thursday smells of cabbage and ham hocks and sounds of carpets on a line being whacked with a carpet beater."
"What's a carpet beater? What are ham hocks?" I asked, loving her. "God, Angie, you're so exotic!"
"And all around us the most improbably beautiful scenery in the world." I hadn't seen it yet. "The towering snow-capped mountains, the great, tall, looming firs, the vast cherry orchards sloping down to the shores of the huge lake with its changing colors, its moody surface; the wild sunsets, the endless sky." Her father, an engineer, was on his way to a job in California when the scenery stopped him in his tracks. He took a job with the national parks service as a forest ranger, never making it to the coast. Her mother was a schoolteacher. The teachers were shamefully underpaid. "We're paid one third in dollars, two thirds in scenery," they said. "Though I doubt my mother ever said that; she was humorless. Anyhow, the contrast between that wild and powerful landscape and our rigid narrow domestic life was impossible to reconcile. It's why I'm incapable of doing anything I'm supposed to do, or in the way I'm expected to do it. I hate schedules, routines. I can't have my meals according to the clock, or go to bed because it's supposed to be bedtime, or get up because somewhere a cock is crowing."
I had just finished setting the table. There were candles and fall flowers and I stood back to admire the festive look of it. It was seven-thirty. Acting on a compelling familial urge left over from my recent past, I'd spent the last four hours making a turkey dinner with, as they say, all the trimmings. It was our first Thanksgiving together, my first ever without blood relatives of any kind. Jed was with Herbie for the long weekend, Nick was in school way out west, too far to come home. I wasn't exactly lonely, but I did want a semblance of something like roots, tradition, a small pocket of warmth and ceremony in the improvisational schemelessness of our time together. But Angie wasn't having it. She was sipping burgundy and reminiscing and the apartment was full of rich, delicious smells that were making me mad with nostalgia and hunger.
But the turkey was drying out in the oven. The marshmallows had long since melted into the sweet potato casserole, and the gravy had a skin on it. My beautiful dinner. "Damn it," I said, "it's Thanksgiving, the only holiday I like. Think how hard I've been working to provide some semblance of normal home life."
"There's no such thing."
". . . a lovely, traditional occasion. Just this once, if I promise never to do it again, couldn't you make an exception?" What I hadn't yet learned was that, like most alcoholics, Angie wasn't hungry.
"The magic, the mystery," she said, lifting her hands, opening them out like a Balinese dancer, as if shaping the contours of a vase of exquisite, ghostly blooms. She talked a lot about magic and mystery, two things of which I was the murderer. Angie put down her glass and came and stood on my feet. She was smaller than I and didn't weigh much, and she was barefoot and she liked to stand on my feet, her arms around my neck.
"I'm standing on your feet," she said.
"You can't be mad at someone when they're standing on your feet." I laughed. Angie laughed. We began to dance that way, with Angie standing on my feet. Earlier, we had made love and we still smelled faintly of each other. I was overcome with love. And I was hungry.
"Okay," I said. "I'll do this feast solo. You can pick at it whenever."
"No, my darling, my love," she said, opening a new bottle of wine and filling our glasses, "Sit down. We'll do this one together. You cooked. I'll serve."
My eyes, following thought, move from that other interior time to absorb the details of this present, so very different one. The cluster of furniture in the den area includes a reclining (heart-ease) chair where my mother is sitting; my father's desk on which mail, much of it from the financial sector of New York City where most of his money is conservatively invested, is piling up; a convertible sofa, uncomfortable in both its functions, on which I am sitting; an entertainment center which includes a mammoth French provincial bleached fruitwood console that houses a 26-inch color TV set and an AM/FM stereo radio and phonograph, the latter rarely used. The television console, its huge eye staring blindly, is flanked by two narrow bookcases. Among the detritus on their shelves, some of my life's work is included, two slender volumes, a few chapbooks, a couple of anthologies containing several of my poems and short stories, and a handful of literary quarterlies in which I am also modestly represented.
Not much. I was a late bloomer.
"You've become an early drinker," I tell my mother, because it's barely half past four and because Angie is still present. Ah, the cocktail hour, I'd say, watching Angie pour her first drink of the new day, not long after opening her bleared, bloodshot eyes to it. This drink was restorative, would clear and brighten her gaze, briefly transform her into that fey and funny, lighter-than-air creature I adored. But there would be more drinks. Gradually, she would slide into the pouting, mumbling child, and soon the angry child, the still angrier child, and then the monster spewing hate and venom, unbelievable hours of that with its wake of violence and destruction, with its incredibly bottomless energy that, thank God, finally gave way to the sodden exhausted vegetable collapsing into something deeper than sleep, only a little less than death. She was on what she so innocently called "a toot." My poor lost Angie. I genuinely grieved when I could allow disgust to give way to pity and despair. The toots were growing more and more frequent, and I had no idea why or what to do about them.
My mother explains that she only drinks before dinner. And dinner is so early, six o'clock.
"Well, then, why is dinner so early?" I ask. My mother is smoking, and I try not to think about it. Why do they shorten their days as they grow older and the days grow fewer? Does it have to do with energy and the fear that it will give out before they've performed the fewer and fewer acts the day will hold? I don't yet realize, as I will later, that time shortens itself. How the world narrows with all the compromises age exacts, and especially with the shrinking future that scarcely stretches beyond tomorrow, next week, next month. Energy and time. My poem, sitting up north in my typewriter, yellowing, waiting in my head. I look at my mother, wondering when that moment arrives, and if it arrives all at once, that moment when you lose the belief that there is still time for everything, when you know you may never finish Proust, never learn mushrooms. How does it feel, that first and most decisive death? My mother is admirable and brave, devoid of self-pity, uncomplaining, and absolutely unready to slip into decrepitude. I blur the focus of my gaze against the betraying skin and see that she still looks young and trim in outline if not in detail, gamely defying the years, hiding behind cosmetics that grow more ingenious as the need grows greater. Her strawberry blonde hair is teased into an elaborate arrangement and frozen there by some fixative that gives it a texture so far removed from the original that if someone tried to sell her a wig of the same material she'd be furious, horrified. I have a vision of her waking each morning to confront her image, seeing it more and more as the armature on which to sculpt the self she daily sends forth. Hers is a fierce and indomitable pride, the habit of vanity so common to beautiful women.
"How long are you planning to stay there, Annie?" she asks. "In New Hampshire?" I watch the smoke slowly curling out of her mouth, her nose, feeling the longing inside my own mouth that may never leave me. How long? Measures of time. "You've been gone three rolls of toilet paper," Angie once wrote. "Please come home."
"I don't know," I say, honestly.
My mother sighs. "I only want you to be happy. I can see you're not happy."
"I'm not unhappy."
"Have you met anyone out there? In New Hampshire?"
"I wish you'd stop saying New Hampshire as though it's an emerging nation."
"You know what I mean."
What she means is have I met a man, the one I am going to marry next. I watch her light another cigarette, feeling in my own fingers, lips, mouth, the lovely lost gestures and sensations. "You never give up," I say.
"No, why should I? I can't stand the thought of you living alone. It isn't natural."
She's right, of course. Living alone isn't natural.
"I like living alone," I lie. "It's a luxury."
She snorts. "Some luxury!" We are silent for a while, thinking our own thoughts. Then she says, "There's someone here I want you to meet."
"As soon as Daddy gets out of the hospital, I'm going to arrange it."
"I don't want to meet anyone."
"Why not? You know I won't die happy . . ."
"Nobody dies happy. Anyhow, you're a long way from dying."
"Does it hurt to meet someone? Don't you think you've been divorced long enough?"
I can't tell her that I don't think I can love a man again, that I've developed a sweet tooth. My mother smiles lovingly at me, not saying that I will always be her child, as she usually does, but gets up, instead, to go to the kitchen to freshen her drink. I follow, not reminding her that I was married for twenty years, gave her two grandchildren, raised them to manhood, have already gone that route. Ah, when I think of it! The mystery isn't what will become of me, how my life will change, but who that earlier person was. I feel so little connection, so little continuity. What remains of that other life? The children, of course, though they aren't children any more. The relics: books, photographs in albums, papers still in the vault. Memories. A few people. Yet it could as well have been someone else's life. I think, sometimes, of that earlier self as if she were a daughter who died, except that I don't miss her. I think of her in the third person.
"Lots of women remarry at the first opportunity," my mother says. "There must be forty widows down here for every available man, and every one of them would give their eyeteeth, if they still had them."
I can only sigh.
"This one's very nice looking," my mother says. "And not that old."
"Not what old?"
"He's a real catch, Annie. His wife's family was Plaza Paper Products. You know, the PPP commercials? He's extremely wealthy."
"How long since she died, the PPP princess?"
"It must be at least a month."
She laughs. "It's not as though it was sudden. It was a lingering death. She was sick for years."
The White Duck
How was she supposed to find time to do anything when she had to carry this screaming baby around? Worse, he didn't even seem to like her, pulling his red ears in anger as she walked back and forth, back and forth. When his screams got too big for the dark holes of her ears, pushing into the pores of her skin, threatening to enlarge entrance places all over her body, even under her clothes, she set the baby in his port-a-bed against the wall, on top of the old-fashioned desk where her research was piled in stacks.
When she came back with a cup of coffee, she couldn't find the baby. She looked on the floor and she looked all over the desk, even behind it, thinking maybe he was lost among the papers. She was well-known by her husband and friends as a pleasant but sloppy housekeeper, very disorganized. She patted and smacked everything she could see, feeling for an unfamiliar lump. She already knew that Galen must have taken him somewhere, picking up the baby while she was in the kitchen, and walking off. It was simply a question of finding her. She sipped her coffee, last night's. The great tragedy of motherhood was that she never had time to play. She said out loud, "The baby's large enough, he's bound to turn up."
Nobody answered. She thought of looking inside the drawers, maybe on top of her unfinished thesis, but she found her daughter with the baby in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet seat with her back to the door, holding the baby, her striped polo pulled up. Galen whirled around when the door opened. Lulu saw the baby clamped to her daughter's flat chest, sucking her nipple.
"I hate this, it's horrible." Galen thrust the baby at her. "You said it would be soft and melting, like a rosebud. It's awful. He wants to suck me into his mouth, like he's trying to gobble me down."
"Be careful! Don't drop him on the tiles."
Galen looked stricken. Lulu knew that was because of the fight they'd had before the baby was born, when Lulu, tired of Galen's smart mouth, went after Galen, and Galen crouched, trying to make herself small, crying, "Get away from me with your windmill arms!" She laced Lulu right in the belly. "An accident!" she shouted.
("It's the age, you remember?" Lulu's new husband soothed.)
Galen was old, almost twelve, almost old enough to have a baby herself, like whispers at school, girls she knew, Sharon Walsh who the boys called Whale-Tail and took into the stables, and Audry Odum who was so tiny they said she did it with a needle.
"Did I make the baby sick?"
"What do you think? Of course not."
Secretly Lulu obsessed that the baby was going deaf. He had a cold practically since birth, a bad ear infection. Phlegm ran from him like a mudslide. Four, five times a day Lulu clapped or yelled and dropped heavy objects to see the baby jump and cry. Other times she sang to him. Galen's brow knotted like an old lady's. Lulu wished she'd kept her mouth shut. The last thing the kid needs now--guilt. Last week Galen had shaved her head. Now she looked like an old man.
"I hate your hair," Lulu said to Galen. "You're a cross between a baby and an old geezer."
"I'm starting fresh. I can let my hair grow in any way I want. I'm going to pretend to people who don't know me that I'm a boy. Do I look like a boy?"
Lulu shook her head. "No way."
Galen bared her teeth at herself in the mirror. "What do you think of this for a song title? 'Smashed on the Highway of Life'?" Galen wanted to be a country-and-western songwriter. "Or would it be better this way? 'They Found Me Smashed on the Highway of Life'?"
"I don't like songs about drunks or druggies," Lulu said.
"It's about road kills, you know. Skunks and cats with their guts squashed out, only a person who feels like that instead. How about 'Squished, Squashed and Flattened on the Highway of Life'?"
"How about 'Splish-Splash I Was Taking a Bath'," Lulu said. "Did you ever hear that one?" She jogged the baby on her shoulder to comfort him. "How old is this person who feels flattened on the highway? Is she a boy, or is she a girl?"
Galen turned away. Lulu hummed a Fats Domino tune. The baby began pulling at his ears. He turned red. Lulu, frightened, raced into the kitchen and snatched up two pot lids she left out for emergencies and clanged them together.
The baby screamed.
Lulu pushed her face into the baby's tummy to comfort him now that she'd been comforted by his reaction. He smelled fertile, like watered soil.
"What do I smell like?" Galen asked.
Lulu grabbed Galen and kissed her. "You smell funny," she sniffed.
"Like what? Like men's aftershave? I tried some of Rod's this morning. Or has it worn off?"
Galen smelled rancid. Like old meat, like blood.
A nasal hallucination? "Not men's aftershave," Lulu said.
"Hey, Ma! Stop sniffing. You're using up my air!"
The baby gummed onto Lulu and played with buttons of her blouse. He was so little and perfect. The soft spot on top of his head sucked up and down when he breathed. He wheezed and rattled from the cold. His fingers curled and caressed her breast.
Lulu jogged the baby around the back yard next to the lake. Right up until her last month she'd run three, four miles a day to keep in shape, more before she found out she was pregnant because she'd been training for the marathon. Now the baby constantly needed to be cuddled and jogged, a jumpy, anticipatory baby.
Lulu was swinging the baby on the glider on the front deck when one of the flat-faced Spivey boys walked down the middle of the road with another boy, and he cupped his hands and bullhorned to Galen by the mailbox, "Yo, Galen! How'd you like to take a peek at a great big smoking cigar?"
"Get off my road!" Galen yelled. "I'll have you arrested for trespassing. I'll get my stepfather after you."
Lulu started, surprised. The baby thrashed his arms. Lulu bent over the baby's toes, sucking them like lemon drops, popping them out of her mouth with a fleshy smack. The baby flared his eyes.
"How do you like this for a song title, Ma? 'You Give me Cold Loving at the Old Hot Sheets Motel?' Or would it be better to call it just 'Cold Living'?"
"What do you know about hot sheet motels, anyway? What is this song about?"
"You tell me, you're the one with experience, Ma."
"Watch your mouth," Lulu said. But Lulu smiled.
Lulu watched Galen in the back yard by the lake through her bedroom window, screened from Galen's view by the big peach tree. Silver and gold afternoon light jumped on the water. The day was sunny but shivering. For two weeks now her daughter had been both sulky and cutting her eyes flirtatiously at the bag boys in the supermarket where they went shopping. Galen's hair stubble grew in spiky, almost stylish. Color puddled down her cheeks, her cheeks puddled down her jaw, but Lulu could see the baby fat leaving her daughter, revealing the bones below. Her lips stayed full and pouty. But Galen still played with dolls. She costumed puppets. She hid them, so her friends wouldn't see when they sauntered in with her after school. In seven more weeks school would end for the summer. Lulu would never have freedom then to work on her own career between the baby and Galen.
The weather turned warmer. Lulu and Galen spent after-school afternoons outside by the lake, watching the white ducks. Tall grass grew by the water's edge, shaggy thick grass in matted clumps, moving along with the light and the air, the wind tossing new leaves and blades first green side up, then silvery side. Lulu, cross-legged, watched Galen rise. Galen opened her mouth and the wind gusted right into her body.
"It's so beautiful out here, Ma! So pure. Why don't you stay outside?"
"Shh! The baby's napping. I'm going to take him in. I think maybe I can do some work for awhile. When he's up, he's cranky."
Galen twirled slowly, spreading her arms and legs beneath the clothesline.
"Look! The wind is holding me up. The wind is billowing me like a tree."
"That sounds more like a New England transcendental poet, not a country & western song title."
"Maybe I'll be a poet too. Didn't you used to write poetry?"
Laundry heaped in a dripping canvas basket under the tree. Clothespins bulged out of a side pocket. Galen worked on the line, shaking out baby undershirts and sleepers, while her mother worked on her thesis inside. Then the ducks floated by, sweet and streamlined, effortless on the dappled water, gliding. Galen edged closer down the bank so she could see their orange feet beating madly beneath the surface, working away like crazy, ruining the illusion of ease.
"Galen!" Lulu stuck her head out the screen door. "The sun is going to go in before you get even one line filled. You know the dryer is broken."
"I'm doing it, I'm doing it. It seems like all I do now, day after day. I hate to come home from school."
The ducks swam past Galen again in neat formation. That was the thing about it, the ducks were always so neat, the tame white ones and even the brown-colored wild ones which didn't come around much anymore since Malone Buck and the Spivey twins shot a couple of rounds of buckshot at them. Galen loved the wild ducks, of course, but she loved the white ones even more. The white ones clamored when she fed them, following as she quacked hugely, convincingly, like a duck herself, holding out old bread. The ducks climbed up the slope of lawn, comical on stiff legs, walking the way her mother had waddled before the baby, carrying that stupid belly, too big for her legs.
"Doing it, I'm doing it," Galen cried. She jammed clothespins down over row after row of tiny soft white baby shirts and baby overalls, matching shoulder to teeny-weeny overlapping shoulder.
The ducks began squawking. Rasping with excitement, splashing competitively. Old spotty-looking Mrs. Shagam fed them around the bend of the lake. Mrs. Shagam stamped down the slope wafting an apron full of home-baked broken-up white bread. "My specialty," she boasted. "Fresh substantial bread, good for people, good for ducks, bearing no resemblance, living or dead, to any plastic white fluff you buy in the store, all chemicals."
"I like white bread better," Galen said. "Lasts longer."
Galen and her best friend, Abby, vied to hold warm loaves of Mrs. Shagam's bread to their cheeks when Mrs. Shagam brought over fresh loaves though. The warmth, the yeastiness, made the girls swoon. Galen nose-dived suddenly into the fresh white softness beneath the crust. Galen plunged, wadding her mouth, filling up, tearing into the bread with her teeth, shaking the bread, animal-like, without hands, and spitting out crumbs. Then she rolled the remaining pieces into dough balls, dough balls dark from dirt on her fingers, until little putty-colored curls of bread lined up on the kitchen counter like bee-bee shots.
That night she fell asleep on the floor of her mother's bedroom, on the far side of Rod, the baby's father, who organized training videos for fast-food restaurants and smelled like fried chicken, her own stomach all swollen and hard, sloshy too, because she'd had to eat the second bread to hide it from Rod and her mother. To keep from throwing up she drank glass after glass of water, hoping to weigh the bread down. She crept in and lay in the dark air, listening to her mother's soft breath, to Rod's staccato snores, and the baby sleeping wheezily nearby. She pushed her fists into the hollows of her cheeks to control the sickness.
The ducks sounded crazy. Galen had a clothespin stuck into her mouth, but she plucked it from between her teeth and laid it on top of the rolled-up clothes and turned towards the lake. She expected to spot ducks behind the hedges, half hidden out of sight where the grass twisted, high and unmowed.
Lulu flung open the window after a bath. She heard the duck's commotion too.
At first Lulu had a hard time figuring out what was happening in the middle of the lake--one duck arching its neck, turning its beak to touch its tail feathers, then diving under, plummeting below before leaping wildly and clamping its orange bill onto the neck of another duck, jamming it like Galen and the clothespins, forcing the first duck to sink. The first duck whipped its head, fighting to surface, trying to break free. The other ducks shivered their wings and floated fast, quacking, beaks turned, heads smooth.
"A duck has gone crazy! Look, it's drowning the other duck," Galen shouted. "Help, help!"
Lulu wrapped her head in a blue towel. "What's the matter? Galen, what are you shrieking about? Sound travels on water. Don't you know what's happening? Everyone all over the lake can hear you."
The wind scattered her voice.
"Killer duck! Killer duck! We have to save the other ducks. Help, help!"
"Get back in the house." The towel fell off her wet hair and out the window onto a rosebush and hooked.
Galen grabbed up stones from the driveway. She heaved, lunging forward. The submerged duck, weakened, quivered its wings and squawked. The stones missed. The ducks flapped nervously. The stones scattered in dented water holes of light, breaking into shimmering circles.
Galen flung herself into the water, running hard. The soft bottom bubbled up from her feet, brown surface weeds tangled--dead cane and late spring blossoms, already crumbled. Galen kicked out fast and clumsy, her jeans, heavy, stiff, pulling at the crotch, swimming directly at the ducks, hauling arm over arm.
"Galen? Galen, what are you doing? Come back!"
Lulu ran outside, dragging a duster over her underwear.
Galen didn't twist to look back. She plunged ahead, shrieking threats and splashing. The ducks stretched and flew, landing together at the other end of the lake.
"I'm coming to get you!"
Lulu couldn't tell if Galen was in trouble--a cramp, a cottonmouth attack?--but she hadn't believed her own younger brother either when he fell out of a tree, telling him to "Stop crying, act like a man, for heaven's sakes!" although after that he was gimpy for the rest of his life. She dived in after Galen.
The lake was deep. Lulu swam fast. Her daughter swam faster. Galen kicked her feet wildly, but Lulu was long and strong and buoyant. She closed in on Galen, grabbed Galen's foot. Galen started scratching and beating at her, punching the water, beating and chopping at Lulu's encircling arm, collapsing into a dead weight, pulling her down, down.
Lulu gasped. She spit out water. "What are you trying to do, drown me? You get back in the house or I'm going to knock the shit out of you."
Galen sidekicked away. "I hate you, I hate you," she said.
"It's because of you we have that stupid baby. Don't you ever want to finish graduate school? What kind of example are you setting for me?"
"I'll show you an example." Lulu hurled herself at Galen. If she could have, she would have hauled Galen home by the hair. "I'll show you two examples."
They fought and cursed and scissored the water together, right into the murky shallows. Mud sucked at their ankles. Mud clumped on their clothes. Lulu's maternity bra flapped open. Galen's shirt tore. "My God, what if Mrs. Shagam is watching?"
"Probably, she is," Galen yelled at her mother.
They reached the bank. Gobbets of lake bottom and strands of grass hung off Lulu. Lulu brushed mud from Galen's forehead. "I'm sorry, sweetheart, baby, my big baby, you ignorant fool, but you can't help the ducks, the ducks are fucking."
"They're not." Galen pulled away from her and started splashing at her mother again. "They're not, they're not, these are the tame ducks, not the wild ones."
"You're really stupid, I feel sorry for you." Lulu laughed, an angry eruption, pulling Galen forwards on the slope. "'Fuck a Duck at the Old Hot Sheets Motel,' how's that for a new song title?"
"It stinks," Galen said.
No laughter. She spat muddy water onto the ground.
"Stupid baby," Galen said. She shivered and held on to herself, trailing green shore scum.
Lulu laughed again. "Yeah, the whole thing is pretty damn stupid. Were you really trying to drown me?"
Galen glared blackly. "Of course not, I almost drowned myself."
"A good thing. I'll always be stronger."
"Not always." Galen's round lids trembled dreamily over her large eyes.
Lulu resisted a sensation of tugging, a rush forward to Galen to protect her in a watery embrace, hugging bones and fierce angles, pressing the child back to her breasts. Instead, she gave Galen a hard smack on the rump. "Go take a bath. What do you think," Lulu said. "In this world of random violence I have nothing better to do than save the life of a duck?"
Galen grinned. "Now maybe there's an idea for a song title."
The wind whipped up again, mingled with insect noises and the spring peepers. Lulu pictured herself forever chasing, holding back, racing forward, heeding, forever rescuing. The sky glinted, sullen and coppery.
"Are you coming, Ma?"
"I am, I am."
Galen took her hand. Lulu slicked back her hair.
They went inside to the baby.
I looked straight into Hugh's eyes, one of which was orange from a stream of sunlight, that also bisected the table into almost equilateral triangles, one brown, the other gold. He smiled shyly, his delicate sharply bowed lips closed, pursing at the same time as if his lip muscles were in conflict with the smile signal from his brain. I stared at him and held up my right middle finger.
"I'm not giving you the finger," I said, noticing the look of hurt surprise conflict with the already achieved tentative smile. "See that nail?"
All my nails were pale transparent ovals I was proud of, except that now, the central one ended directly at the juncture of attachment to my finger, destroying the symmetry, a tangible reminder of the previous night. "He bit it off," I said.
It was difficult for an impatient person like me to wait for Hugh, who seemed to think everything over for ten minutes before committing himself to a response. It used to make me nervous, as if he'd forgotten his lines in front of a huge audience, and we were going to die of embarrassment together. Or that he wasn't going to respond at all. His pretty mouth would continue subtly working while his genius brain sifted through complex and varied material, organizing an answer simple enough to verbalize.
"Hugh," I interrupted, as I often did, "it's not the nail so much. I mean, he didn't bite off my finger, or smack me. It's that I just didn't know what he could do, how far he could go. I unknowingly provoked him, giving him what he thought was the right to do . . . something."
"What did he do, I mean really?" asked Hugh. I could sense his hesitation about really knowing
"He bit this. He bit my nail right down to the quick, and in such a weird way. He could have hurt me, but he bit it just close enough to get it all off. Gently. But it was an aggressive act.
"I'm going to keep it in my mouth," Jim had said, showing me the transparent crescent, mine, lying like a pale half moon on his large moist tongue.
It was funny that I was even telling this to Hugh, whose dark moodiness had also frightened me once, when we'd been lovers, a long time ago. In those days the words that wanted to emerge from Hugh's mouth often didn't manage to get out at all, and he was often depressed besides. I was so affected by his moods that instead of dragging him along on my energy, I became rigid with fear of him, the anger and blackness I imagined he felt engulfing me. Later I realized that Hugh was, if anything, too gentle, too fragile and careful for me. I felt that I could crush him to death by accidentally hugging him too hard--his eyes would look up at me questioning, hurt, as he'd fall limply to the ground, all his ribs, lateral and femoral, completely imploded.
"My god, what have I done?" I shout too loudly, as his eyes slowly push tears onto the porches of his lower lashes. "I was only showing affection."
So I'm the opposite of too sensitive–and that's what I'm trying to get across–that I'm not imagining any danger here.
Hugh is eating slowly, spearing small curds of scrambled eggs neatly with his fork as he carefully considers whether or not he still wants the bacon he forgot to order. The waiter and I wait for his decision.
"What did you do that made him so mad?" he asked.
"I made fun of Jesus."
Hugh looked up, a huge wad of toast just resting in his mouth, now passively being attacked by salivary enzymes. "We were lying on my couch, talking and joking with my roommate Mara, the dancer from Yugoslavia? He was sort of turned on by her. He was wearing my fruit bowl on his head. He just happened to mention Jesus Christ. I laughed. He got angry.
"You're only joking," I said. "You don't really believe in Jesus Christ? I mean really?"
"I believe in Jesus more than I believe in myself." He was suddenly serious. He removed the fruit bowl from his head and placed it slowly and carefully back on the coffee table with a gentle consideration that was incongruous with his size and how he usually moved.
"Are you really serious?" I asked again.
"I find it hard," I said, "to believe that Jesus is the son of God when I know he was just another Jewish person."
"He embodies the spirit of the Lord," said Jim. "Every time I jump from that airplane I pray for him to take my soul."
"Don't you mean, keep your soul?" I asked, thinking that meant keeping him alive.
"No. I mean if anything happens, like if the chute doesn't open. I pray for him to take my soul. I believe in the hereafter as much as I believe in anything."
"I believe in the now," I said, stupid joviality masking my discomfort at actually being close to, or physically intimate with someone who, not only really believed in God and Heaven, but without irony. I decided, though it wasn't really a decision, to forego discussing the possible ramifications of how that difference in belief might create different actions. An impossibility of reconciliation. Yet it was tempting to, if not have the last word, have another. "I belong to an entire race who don't have the comfort of believing in a hereafter."
Mara giggled, but offered no opinion, using her lack of English in the service of diplomacy. "I guess I'll leave you two alone," she said.
His heavy work boots already off, he rolled his pants-leg up to his knee and began untying lengths of ace bandage from his ankle, which was hurt when, while skydiving, his parachute landed hard.
"Why did you make fun of me?" he asked.
"I didn't," I said, feeling defensive because I felt guilty about, not my beliefs, but my irony. And too, the accusation felt unreal. I hadn't realized that Mara's image of him was an issue. "You made fun of me in front of Mara." He slowly rolled the bandage up along his knee.
"I didn't," I said. "I really didn't know you believed in Jesus, were religious. I've known you for two months and you've never once mentioned Jesus. Mara has her own problems with her married, black lover and her job as a white geisha in a Japanese teahouse on Fifty-seventh Street, and trying to obtain a green card. Besides," I said, remembering now, "when we first met you told me you were half Jewish, along with that other lie–that you weren't married."
"We're only living together," he said. But I didn't have to say anything. He knew what I meant.
When he worked on the roof of the building under construction half a block away, it was easy to spot him from my ninth-floor window, framed only by sky. He had an amazing stride, probably because of his size. He held his head back and his stomach out–only slightly, but enough to make his stance unique. Watching him work on the roof from my window, I was reminded of old illustrations of Paul Bunyan.
One day, when I, with all my supermarket bundles, had to detour once again around all the construction barriers that made me cross the street and then cross back again, he came up to me and said hello. "Are you a dancer?" he asked.
"No," I said.
"Are you married?" he asked.
"No," I said. I looked at his enormous soft brown eyes; the thick lashes that went from one corner of each eye to the other reminded me of caterpillars. Having watched him working for so long, I felt as if I knew him. Yet seeing his face up close was a new and exciting experience. We drove, in his construction van, the one block to the White Horse bar.
"Have you ever been married?" I asked, maybe so I would find out if he was married now. Instead of answering, he went to the bar to order, while I sat down at one of the small wooden tables and watched him.
"I don't just do construction," he said. "Carpentry is an art with me." He poured some beer from the bottle to his glass, took a sip and sucked beer from his moustache. "Have you ever heard of the Zen of carpentry?"
"I know what you mean," I said. I poured my own beer, which looked greenish, against the tilted glass slowly, so it wouldn't get a head. After a small silence, he answered my previous question. "I lived with someone for three years," he said. "We have a kid."
"How come you're not together?"
"She was crazy," he said. I couldn't help looking at him for a long time, suspicious, as one might be in such clear-cut indictments of former partners, that perhaps he was the crazy one.
"Really crazy," he said, sipping. "By the time I left, she thought I should fund her imaginary special nursery school for special space children which would be run by her, the Queen of the Universe, and her own special emissaries."
"We have something in common," I said. "My former husband thought the conspiracy was making complex plans to get rid of him. So he tried to do it himself, before they could get to him. He didn't succeed."
By the time we each had finished another beer, I pictured Carole, the Queen of the Universe, at the moment Jim described falling in love with her, as she turned, and her long red hair swung around in an arc, while standing at the top of the stairs, when he came one day to paint her house. If we'd all known each other then, Philip could have been protected from retribution by the conspiracy for his misdeeds, by Carole and her Universal Armies.
"I liked his passion," I told Hugh, "the way he came after me so unambivalently. He called me as soon as I got home from seeing him to tell me how much he enjoyed being with me. He called me again, the next morning. So what if it even turned out that we had nothing to say to each other. At least love with him could be simple, because he wasn't the kind of person who could be in love, and think love, or being in love, was ridiculous, at the same time.
I watched him devour a double order of barbecued spare ribs and chicken, then wash his entire beard with a packaged Wet Nap, the next time we got together. There was something, I don't know what, but I had the feeling he was living with someone.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I said. "That wasn't fair."
He blushed. "I'm leaving Lorretta," he said. "I'm getting my own apartment. I was going to tell her this past weekend, in fact, but decided not to be selfish and make her miserable, until I actually found an apartment." His huge moustache curled at the top of the tiny cocktail straw he sucked his martini through impatiently. Then he threw the straw on the floor, and drank it all in one gulp. "Lorretta and I just aren't interested in the same things," he continued, burping. "All she wants to do is brush her cat and make dinner for me."
"Most men would love that," I said. "And how do you know I wouldn't be exactly the same? Besides, I've heard all that crap before." I sucked my strawberry daiquiri too fast, and felt a freezing pain in my chest, right above my heart. "What was the point of not telling me? So I'd go to bed with you once or twice before I found out? What then?"
Hugh smiled, broadly, for him. "That sounds brilliant," he said. "Is that sarcastic? What do you mean?"
"For most men, going to bed with you once or twice would not be pointless. That would be the point." He still grinned stupidly, almost triumphantly, as if he felt some kind of power from our basic differences in our understandings and desires about relationships even without our discussing those.
I twisted one corner of my mouth down in disgust. "That's not the point, anyway." I paused.
"Are you finished?" the waitress asked Hugh. His oval dish was completely empty, devoid of all but a few pale yellow circular strokes that retained the ridges of the bit of English muffin he'd wiped it up with. I smiled at the question; Hugh, without seeming conscious of it, turned so his eyes could follow her hip rolls, as she ambulated into the distance with his dish.
"I felt comfortable being quite stupid with him," I said. "One reason I liked him was that I could say what came into my mind on the most primal level, even if it wasn't the least bit logical or showed no sign of human thought or intelligence or intellectual ability. He never examined what I said, analyzed it, or thought it was ridiculous. I thought he was willing to understand me on a very basic level, without using intellectual analysis of our primal communications as a barrier, or as a way of annihilating me. It didn't occur to me that perhaps we weren't communicating on any level. It didn't occur to me how dangerous that could be."
Later, we lay on my bed and looked out at the roof of the building his construction crew was working on.
"The only way these guys I work with will respect you is to look them straight in the eye without flinching. He removed his hand from where it absently tickled the back of my neck, I could see his eyes staring at me earnestly, unflinching, in the dark. I almost mumbled uh huh, the way you do when everyone is falling asleep and anything said is simply some sort of communication . . . that, relaxed, nearly asleep, nothing of import is about to be discussed or argued. But, for some reason, it bothered me.
"Isn't that macho bullshit?" I asked. He turned away, and said nothing for a long time. Well, macho bullshit, wasn't that the relating on a primitive level that I thought I liked so much? Then he fondled my hair, near my ears and the back of my neck, so gently. I touched my lips to his, also gently, hardly touching. His lips were soft, and his tongue was long and he stuck it way into my mouth.
I had my period, and as he pulled in and out of me, his penis looked like a bloodied sword. "Give it to me, baby, give it to me," he said, when I was about to come.
I kissed him goodbye in my doorway, which framed his enormity closely.
"By the way," he said, "don't stand around near the window with only your underwear on. All the guys at work look at you."
I flushed, feeling embarrassed and exposed. I hated that they saw me without my knowing, that they shared me, and that, because of Jim, I wasn't just anonymous. I also felt as if I was bad somehow, finding out that I'd been seductive. If I could see them, why did I imagine they couldn't see me? Because they were standing on a roof, in bright sunlight, and I thought it was impossible to see from light into dark. But I didn't say that.
"So what?" I said. "Don't watch me. It's my window. It's my privacy they're invading. They must have binoculars in order to see whether I'm dressed or undressed. I hope they all masturbate themselves to exhaustion and get fired for not getting any work done." I was panting.
"That may be true," he said, "but if you tempt them, and they see you on the street, you never know what they might do."
"Surely you're joking. You know they have no right to do anything, no matter how much they've been tempted . . ."
"Don't tell me. It's not me. It's them."
But was it them? Did he think that way too? That was scary because there was no way of knowing, really, when you'd tempted someone. I was, for once, upset and embarrassed by his elemental naïveté. I didn't want to see him again. Yet now I was afraid to be direct.
"Since you're still with Lorretta," I said, feeling a bit of used tissue in the pocket of my satin robe, "maybe you should stay with her. You both must have something in common if you were together for three years. I don't want to break anything up, and I don't want to be with someone who's with someone."
"Lorretta doesn't interest me," he said. "She'll do anything I say. If I say roll over, she'll roll over."
I tried to imagine Lorretta doing everything Jim said. It was hard to picture; the idea seemed both unbelievable and repulsive. And intriguing.
"Will you still see me anyway?" asked Jim, looking down at me from what seemed like a great distance. His soft brown eyes looked liquid in the dim hallway.
"Do you love him?" asked Hugh.
I just looked at him. What a strange question for Hugh, of all people, to ask. The longer I thought about it, the more I had no answer. What is love, anyway? etc., etc.
Suddenly I pictured Jim skydiving, making his way out onto the wing of the small plane, all jittery, the pilot trying to make the divers laugh by allowing the hundred-and-fifty-mile-an-hour wind to sculpt strange expressions on his face.
"Whatever makes you want to do it?" I asked.
"If you want to know," he said, "jumping makes me feel like a man."
I remember thinking then, about his choice of words. Did he mean that if I did skydiving I'd feel like a man? Doesn't he mean, instead, masterful? Or fearless. That it gives him an intense sensation of being alive? Of power? On the other hand, I did appreciate the metaphor of jumping as a strong and long orgasm–and the pleasant, even joyous, but drained sensation afterward. I could picture his enormous body poised on the wing of the plane, going a hundred thirty-five miles an hour. The wind screams by, blowing back his skin. He can feel his face become a skull, his eyelashes pressed back into his eyes, his hair and shirt flapping so loudly it seems as if he's in the center of a crackling conflagration. Suddenly he lets go. He hurtles downward while he makes the effort, against all natural inclination and the speed of his falling body, to count slowly, one . . . two . . . three . . . He pulls the cord and the chute opens . . . pop . . . and he convulses slightly. Arms out, like Jesus on his cross, his body straight, but on a slant, drifts downward slowly now, softly slicing the air.
Soon after that he called me from work. "Hi," he said, in a particularly distinctive lilt, slow and low, which I knew was his way of projecting calm. The more slowly he spoke, the more tension he was feeling. I didn't even get a chance to respond before he began shouting at co-workers.
"What are you doing, pissing on the sand? We got two bathrooms here!"
To me: "I can't believe it, these guys actually piss on the sand that we have to use."
To co-workers: "I don't feel like handling the sand after you guys use it as a toilet."
To me: "I have to go."
"Why did you bother to call me? Don't bother anymore. I don't want to see you anymore," I said.
Silence. Then: "But why? We have a good time together and we have great sex."
"Because I don't want to have a good time and great sex. I don't want to have a good time whenever it's convenient for you or for Lorretta. I don't care whether you don't like your present girlfriend or you're being harassed by your old girlfriend . . . wife, whatever."
"As a matter of fact," he said, playing for sympathy, I thought, or for a way back into something between us, "Carole came here, right to my job, right here while I was working, with my kid. She started screaming in front of everybody. She tried to hit me."
I pictured the thin redhead he'd told me about trying to hit the enormous Jim. "Maybe she needs money, some help with your son." My sympathy was with Carole, but nevertheless I was still talking to Jim.
"I gave her some. All I have. But I'm getting a court order. I can't have her coming over anytime she wants and attacking me, or busting up my car windows, like last time."
"You poor thing," I said. "With all you have to worry about like not getting along with Lorretta, and Lorretta jealous of Carole, and Carole wanting you to be King of the Universe once again, plus, trying to earn a million dollars a week doing construction, don't you think you'd be better off without having to hide me, a lover, from Lorretta? Do you really want all that trouble? What is it you want from me?"
"If you want to know," he said, "intellectual stimulation. Please," he said, "I've been leaving notes for you on my car, taped to the mirror. The guys here are beginning to read them and laugh at me."
"What's the point?" I shouted. "So we'll have fun a few more times. Then what? It's not fun. It's delimited and boring. I don't want to get laid every time you have a coffee break, and then on weekends not hear from you at all." Silence. I knew he'd respond, not to my rejecting words, but to my shouting.
Later I smiled about his liking me for intellectual stimulation when it was exactly the opposite of why I liked him–because with him I could forget all that, lose consciousness of myself. Lose control.
"Sometimes I get feeling all black," he said, one night when he'd told Lorretta some lie about work, so he could stay over. We'd planned it. I'd been getting his messages, love notes scribbled on notepad paper, roughly taped to his windshield or the mirror of his truck, always parked between my apartment house and his construction site. It was romantic. It reminded me of third grade. The notes said things like I love you. Or I'm mad about you. Meet me soon or I'll go crazy. Yet he was so late, I'd thought he wasn't coming.
"You could have called if you were going to be four hours late." I didn't ask him to leave, but he hesitated a moment before moving past the doorway. Mara's door was closed. I followed him into the living room, and we sat on the couch. I was aware of the rough fabric, and the fact that we hadn't kissed or touched in greeting for the first time since we met.
"I didn't realize," he said, "that this is the anniversary of when I was wounded in Vietnam. That was the first time I felt black."
"Do you want something? Coffee? Beer?" I couldn't sit still. "What do you mean, black?" I asked, finally, a little afraid.
"Black," he said again. "Like nothing." He looked straight ahead, not at me. "We were being shot at, and we shot back, killing anything in our way. We could have been shooting at American soldiers–we didn't have time or inclination to find out. After that battle, only two of us out of our entire unit, were left–me and one other guy. And I was injured."
I looked at where I knew his scar ran, from his chest up near his shoulder down his arm, nearly to the elbow, its length now covered by his faded blue work shirt.
"We were finally picked up by helicopter and brought to another unit. The guy who was with me wouldn't talk, or lie down, or anything. He just kneeled in a corner, shaking and holding his rifle. I lay nearby. One of the soldiers bent over to him to try to calm him down. 'It's all right,' he told him, 'it's all right.' The kneeling soldier, without, it seemed, even a second's interval raised his rifle and shot the guy who tried to comfort him, and another soldier who was standing nearby. 'Don't tell me everything's all right,' he said. And no one touched him. He'd just wasted two Americans, but no one touched him."
Half off the couch, sort of hypnotized, I said nothing. Then I kissed his eye gently, running my tongue slowly across the length of his eyelashes. He moaned.
"Run your tongue inside my eye," he said.
I ran the pointy tip of my tongue along the albumin of his nearly closed eye. It felt very much like the smooth, moist, shiny-feeling inside of his mouth.
"Do the other one," he said.
I did the same thing to his other eye, this time aware of his accelerated and hot breathing on my chin and my neck.
"You really have to trust someone to let them do that," he whispered.
We went from the couch to the bed, half dragging our clothes, which we shed like drugged snakes. I had my hand wrapped around his bicep. I was aware of the scar on it, like the bark on a tree branch.
His arm, tense, trembled somewhat as he balanced above me, barely touching, just connected to me by his penis, which I could feel filling my entire body, and by his knees pressing against my inner thighs. A few drops of sweat on his chest melted into each other and ran down his abdomen and onto my chest.
"Thank you. Thank you," I heard him mumble into my hair as I came. After a few moments, he turned me over gently, and pulled my behind up with one large hand on each of my hips, near my groin. I moaned. I was relaxed, limp, and he was so huge, so tense, I felt he could move me any way he wished. From the corner of my eye, I watched him wet his forefinger in his mouth. But when I felt the coolness near my backside, I began to cry.
"What's wrong?" he asked, reclining slowly beside me as I lay sniffling, on my stomach.
"I was scared or something," I said. "I just felt so vulnerable."
"Look," he said, guiding my finger around his soft buttocks with his hand. I put my finger slowly and gently into his anus, which, once past the muscle, felt as smooth and fluttery as the inside of his mouth.
Then we kissed, and I felt better.
"That will teach you to play games and make me look ridiculous in front of your roommate."
"That happened awhile ago," I said. Besides, you're the only one who can make yourself feel ridiculous, I almost said, but thought better. "I said I was sorry."
He took my hand in his, and putting my middle finger into his mouth for a moment, he slowly bit off my middle nail, from one end to the other, right down to my skin, as if eating corn. He put out his tongue and displayed the transparent crescent lying there, like he had just received the wafer. There was no longer any question of who was right, or any question of possible misunderstanding to be discussed. I was to be punished for feelings Jim had, a scapegoat for their emergence. What was frightening was not only that I didn't know the game or the rules, but that it was all out of my control. Jim ignored all the rules governing relationships, which I had taken for granted and which had protected me. It was as if he were from a culture I didn't understand–he went by one set of rules, and I by another. But his was an unforgiving culture, for if I made what he considered a faux pas, I was to be punished.
I lay there–frightened, angry, unmoving. He ran his fingers over my back tenderly, then began to spank me on my backside, briskly, but not hard enough to hurt. He seemed to know exactly how to modulate that. I had no idea whether he was really angry, or if this was just a sex game. What was even more frightening was that I didn't know whether or not I might have gotten excited if the boundaries were clear, if I trusted that he knew the rules, if we made rules. But I didn't want to play this way.
"Take off your bracelets," he ordered.
"No," I said, turning over, moving away. He raised my slender wrist and began fiddling with the catches of the three narrow gold bangle bracelets. I felt oppressed and violated, but I was frightened, so I let him remove two of them. The other had no lock, and had to be pulled off over my hand, which lay passively in his large palm as he concentrated on rolling the tight bracelet over the wider bone near my thumb.
This sensation of oppression and passivity on my part felt familiar, I recognized it, but couldn't recall the circumstances. Was it when Harold Tannenbaum used to wait for me after school each day on the corner of Thirteenth Street to beat me up? I was too terrified to hit him back, and just as afraid to tell my mother.
"Go home," I said in a small voice. I had no idea how he'd react. He concentrated on rolling off the bracelet, and continued to study it in the dark without looking at me.
"Say that one more time and I will," he said softly.
"Go home," I said again. I held my breath. He rose and stretched his long arm toward me. Standing up, he looked gigantic. He removed the tiny moon of nail from his mouth, where, unbelievably, he'd kept it, and handed it to me. Then went into the other room. Remaining rigid, I listened for sounds, clues to what he was doing, hoping I'd hear him leave. But I heard him, moving oh so slowly, smoke a cigarette, go up to the bathroom, take a shower, then come downstairs. I could hear him getting dressed. My ears so attuned, so attentive, I could hear his shoelaces being tied. He never came back into the bedroom, and I remained as still as I could, not wanting to encourage him to do so. Finally I heard him shut the door carefully and quietly. He could have just pretended to leave, I thought, and be waiting somewhere for me to get up so he could beat me up. He could have ripped up the entire apartment while I lay there. I had no sense of his boundaries, whether or not he felt rage, whether or not I'd be held responsible for it. Whether or not he'd be violent.
"Well," said Hugh, handing the waitress the check and some money. I realized I was trembling. "He really didn't do anything after all. Right?"
"I guess not," I said, unsure. I looked around to make sure Jim hadn't followed me into the restaurant and listened to me relate the entire thing to Hugh.
"Then I had a dream," I said, recalling suddenly. "He was very handsome, and I liked his intensity, so it didn't bother me when this man I'd just met told me his name was Vlad, and that he was a Count.
"Count Dracula," I said, impressed. But then I thought, so what? Things will never get that far since I know what to look for. I can take what's positive. His eyes were black, enormous and velvety, and I reveled in the sensation of sinking into them. Once there, I was in another world. We are eating dinner in his castle. I am impressed by the lavish setting, intrigued by the foreignness of the style, as well as my enjoyment of its ornateness. He picks up a piece of lettuce with his fingers, and trims it around carefully, delicately, with teeth white and sharp in spite of their age. I tingle all over, feeling my skin chill and contract, goosefleshing, as if I am the lettuce, and his teeth are outlining my body. Yet I feel so safe; he is very different from me, and we won't be together long. I also get the feeling he's married. I know about Dracula, and his possible attack is never out of my mind, but he makes no move toward me. I watch for a glimpse of his sensual incisors, canines. Finally, strangely, I find myself becoming seductive, flirtatious, making the moves. I'm aware of my giggle; I touch him whenever I can. He seems less frightening than ever; his size and his formal clothing seem more and more familiar. Our faces move closer. I sense a mist of electricity between us, a field of energy, accentuated by the rasping of our accelerated breathing. When his lips meet mine, it feels entirely natural and I pant with the desire to merge into him entirely. I squirm and wiggle with the effort, covering him with my hair, and then baring my neck. Opening myself to him completely, I feel as if I'm melting. He doesn't rush. I can feel the tiny elegant tips of his teeth near my neck, my exposed, white, pulsing neck. He waits for the full sensation to overcome me, and then I move up to him, convulsing with the pleasure and sweetness, as he, firmly and decisively, at just the right moment, bites down. Suddenly I am limp, resting along his strong arm as he holds me just above my slender waist. I want to leave, but feel so weak. The Count's arm is, in fact, my only support.
"What do you think it means?" I asked Hugh, placing a few dollars on the table, out of the way of most of the concentric rings of moisture.
"Nothing," said Hugh, after considering a moment. "The fear must be from something primal. Don't worry," he added, giving me a tentative goodbye kiss on my cheek. "You'll be all right."
I watched him walk down the street for a moment. He turned. I waved. The breeze on my exposed fingertip reminded me, and I could feel Jim's soft, moist lips surround the entire chosen finger, tickling luxuriously, his small and even teeth clipping my nail neatly with tiny restrained bites, his warm breath anesthetizing the hand I seem to willingly, passively offer up to him.
(Chapter One from Dwight's House)
There were many explosions the year the comet returned: Space Shuttle Challenger, the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, Mummar Qaddafi's house in Libya. Far fewer people heard the explosion at the lake. A slow, steady, muffling snow had fallen for two days. On the East shore, winterized houses began to light up as the skiers came in, but the West shore houses were dark except for one on the water's edge and one back in the hemlocks.In her father's fishing cottage in the hemlocks, Susan Hurlburton sat wrapped in a garage sale afghan, holding a book in her lap, trying to remember its name. The book was wedged between her thumbs and forefingers, so she could tell by feel that it was a paperback, but she couldn't remember the title. A mild panic spread through her body and she peered around the room. The double lump on the couch was her boys, the bigger lump in the chair was her daughter Fern. Maybe the gray winter fog had crept into the room and her mind. On the television, by squinting, she could make out the tracer light of the exploding space shuttle again.
Nearsighted, she could, of course, have simply looked down and resumed reading, but she was caught up in the sensation of panic. Sensations had always occupied her, resided longest in her memory. She remembered with great vividness Dwight's grin the day they met and rain trickling down his laugh lines. She remembered her other lover, too, her first lover, Smitty, especially his voice when he said, "I drift with a restless wind, babe, but I'll always remember you." She remembered Smitty's exact tone—which was fake cowboy whereas Dwight's was real hillbilly—and how it ran over her shoulders and down her spine. Smitty was the first person she ever felt skin to skin. He would slowly move his nose and upper lip over her whole body—neck, collarbone, shoulder and down her back. As long as she wanted, just traveling over her skin.
That sensation and the music of his farewell were always within easy reach. The consequences: embarrassment, terror of childbirth, blame—usually lost in the fog. But the memory of the babies' skin stayed: Fern and then Mikey and Junior. Skin-to-skin with the babies was the loveliest sensation she ever knew.
The rest of her life was slivers and snapshots: the boys as babies, a cotton knit dress of Fern's with a spring print of tiny strawberries on her first day of school. A Christmas table decorated with pine cones sprayed gold. All the Halloween costumes, although not in order and not whose was whose. She remembered her mother's illness and Pop's sobs, and Dwight's hands on Pop's shoulders. But she did not remember the funeral or the wedding.
Lately she had begun to forget what she was reading. She knew the book in her hands was not a classic, and she was pretty sure it wasn't a biography, because she could remember being sad when she finished the stack of biographies: Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland and Eleanor of Aquitaine. The book was not a romance either, because she had let Dwight and Fern throw those away when they moved back to western Massachusetts. She could feel herself getting closer: tracking down the title. She remembered her conviction that the woman in the story was about to be killed. It wasn't anything in the plot that told her this, just reading so many books. The woman was about to be discovered in a pool of blood with a small red bullet hole in her forehead, or maybe her throat slashed like a second mouth. So it was a book with violence in it.
Susan's eyes fell on the rug: chocolate-green, it had been there since she was a little girl and her father had bought this cottage at Three Mile Lake. Pressed into the rug were fragments of potato chips, paper curls from spiral notebooks, chips of plastic from stepped-on toys. Her mother would never have stayed out here without a vacuum cleaner. Her mother would have refused. Even in the summer, her mother would never sleep over. They would come for a cook-out, and her dad would stay over so he could get up and fish in the dawn, and once or twice Susan got to sleep over, but her mother never did.
And if she had—thought Susan. If her mother had been stuck out here in winter, with no vacuum cleaner, there would not have been potato chips in the rug anyhow. Her mother had been large and thick, her hair white as long as Susan had known her, with an old-fashioned weak heart, but her mother would have been on her knees panting, huffing and puffing, picking at the bits of dirt. The kitchen sink would have been clear of dirty dishes and the drainer emptied.
This cottage, thought Susan. This cottage is a crime—
It came to her now. The book was an Elmore Leonard crime novel. There had been a stack of Elmore Leonards at the Paperback Exchange, and she had bought them for their titles. She liked them at first, especially the ones set in Miami, but after awhile it had begun to bother her, the throbbing certainty that the decent people were doomed.
She wished for something not grim and not squalid.
She wished for her romances back. They were like bags of miniature chocolate bars that you ate till you felt sick, but she could read the same one over a month later and get the same pleasure from it. They were dependable friends. She wished very much for a friend. She felt vaguely that cleaning up the cottage would be possible if she had a friend. She still had her best books, Jane Eyre and Gone With the Wind, but they weren't the kind of friends who encourage you to clean the house.
She needed the kind of friend who gave advice. She had always liked loud mouthed women who wore big earrings and laughed a lot, like Janet Tasso in high school or Reva Byrd in Detroit. If they could have kept the apartment in town instead of coming out to the lake, she might have gotten to know the woman downstairs a little. One of those women, Janet or Reva or the woman downstairs, would have said, "Now look here, Susan, you tell that Dwight– "
It was actually Reva's voice she heard, Reva from Detroit. A mountaineer twang, like Dwight's, but tougher and kinder. Reva saying, "He's going to make you move again, Susan? I'd say to him, look here Dwight– " but she couldn't remember the rest.
He had moved them from Berkshire County to Detroit, and from neighborhood to neighborhood out there, and then back here, which had made her hopeful for a little while. Moving back here had made her think Mikey and Junior would get to join the Scouts and go hiking. But Dwight hated pumping gas, and he hated being bossed and got himself fired again, and they couldn't pay the rent. He wouldn't move in with Pop, so they came out here to the fishing cottage, temporarily. Dwight was not, of course, responsible for the weather. Dwight hadn't known the car would break down beyond his ability to fix it, that a deep snow would come early. That Pop would go on a drunk and forget to bring them groceries. The kids not go to school.
Between her eyes and the book, Susan brought out the principal dancers. When she was small, she used to read all the books in the library about ballet, then made up these imaginary ballerinas. They were about the size of a three year old child, but with the lithe figures of adults. Each one had her own pastel color—skin, hair, and leotards. They filled empty spaces and hid ugliness.
Sometimes they lightly toed on her bare arm, across her back, moving with grace and dignity and beauty. They made her want to cry the way she cried at the good parts of Gone With the Wind and Jane Eyre.
They danced through the faint smell of propane gas that clung to everything, they danced over the stains on the plasterboard walls where someone had thrown coke or beer. She needed them because Junior wouldn't sit in her lap anymore and Dwight didn't shave most days and his cheeks were rough and his eyes angry and his knuckles had oily dirt deep down in the wrinkles that he never scrubbed out.
The principal dancers were the balance to, the protection from, the other ones, the hatchet faced ones she was not permitted to look at directly. If she could either read or watch the principal dancers, instead of thinking of the other ones, the ones in the corners, everything was okay.
Down here in the cold, only the touch of the principal dancers didn't chafe her skin, so dry and scaly. Everything else chafed. Dwight in particular. She tried not to notice, she tried to keep the principal dancers in front of her eyes when he wanted to have sex, but she knew he knew, and she knew it made things worse.
Reva Byrd said once, "They aren't worth much to start with, honey, so if you don't like what they do in bed, you just might as well walk out now."
Susan thought that maybe her daughter Fern was going to be one of those brave women. Fern stood up to Dwight the night he broke a kitchen chair and put a hole in the bathroom wall. He started screaming "Goddam it I'm not going to hit anybody, why doesn't anybody believe me? Nobody believes in me, no wonder I have such a hard time getting it all together when nobody believes me. Your wife is supposed to believe in you. A woman is supposed to stand by her man!"
And Fern, who was fourteen, put a hand on her hip and said, "Isn't that a song, Dwight? Isn't that some stupid country music song? God, I hate those whiny songs, Dwight."
Dwight stood there, made a fool of, dropped the chair, and grabbed his jacket and went out. That was when the car was still working, before they got snowed in. He came back after they were in bed, and she heard him all night in the kitchen with hammer and nails, fixing the chair, patching the wall. He was good at fixing and making. He used to make shelves for her, first thing, wherever they lived. He didn't use the metal runners and brackets, he always built real wooden shelves, sturdy enough to sleep on. In one apartment he had rehung the windows, taking the wood apart and repairing the rope that held the little counterweights for ease of lifting.
And when Fern said, after that night with the chair, "Mom, you should leave him," Susan had thought of his left hand, with three fingers relaxed, taking no weight, just lightly balancing on the pine board while his thumb and forefinger held the nail. And he never missed and never cursed and never smashed his finger.
H A M I L T O N S T O N E E D I T I O N S
p.o. box 43, Maplewood, New Jersey 07040