September 27, 2010 § Leave a comment
By Mick Stepp
Stumbling from the bar, stepping from curb to street, he goes down. Approaching, Kyle grips the shirt collar and with a forearm under the man’s armpit, lifts him up.
“Huh? Your back?”
“Back to Ruby.”
Kyle contemplates the request as the light changes and cars move toward them. Who the fuck am I to argue? Where I was headed myself.
Loping back, arms around shoulders in a friend’s embrace, they go. Kyle and Jimmy.
“I already cut you off Jimmy,” says Tonya as she dries a glass with a towel. Sets it up-side-down beside two others on a second towel spread on the bar.
The Ruby Cafe is as murky and cool as an autumn dusk while the afternoon August sun bakes the pavement outside. Cool despite the broken air-conditioner. Ceiling fans provide the breeze.
“One more Tonya. He needs it. You’re not going to get him more fucked up than he already is.”
Tonya silently stares at Kyle. Wipes her hands with the towel. The faintest hint of a smile. A scar runs from the middle of Tonya’s right cheek, at ear lobe level, down and over her cheekbone. Then an inch of unmarred flesh before the scar continues for an inch more on the hollow of her throat. It’s an old scar but it’s still angry. Though not as angry as the criminally jealous ex-boyfriend still doing time.
Tonya has a soft spot for Kyle. She’d do pretty much anything he asked and some that he wouldn’t have to.
“This one’s on me,” Kyle says as Tonya sets ‘em up.
P.B.R and a shot of Jameson for Jimmy who smiles sheepishly. Drunkenly and sheepishly. He knows not to speak, not to emphasize his incapacitated state with slurred words. The Jameson is down the gullet before Tonya sets the Burning River in front of Kyle. She tries to make eye contact but Kyle is studying Jimmy.
Studying Jimmy’s worried expression. Jimmy worries about his drunken state. Worries about his nearly empty wallet. Worries about the cat that hasn’t been fed in days. Worries about the street he will eventually have to cross. On his own.
“Haven’t seen you in a while, Jimmy.”
Kyle tips the Burning River longneck to his lips. Looks away from Jimmy to Tonya who has moved to the other side of the horseshoe bar to attend to the only other 3 p.m. customer on what she always calls melancholy Monday.
Firm, fine rump and nicely defined calves.
“Jush got out.”
“What this time?”
“…” Kyle takes another sip.
“an zist’n ‘rest.”
Jimmy can still think clearly. The words form perfectly in his mind. They just don’t come out right. And his limbs have turned to jelly. His ears ring. If he hadn’t fallen, he’d be home.
Shoulda’ kept going. Home to feed Jinxie. She hates Meeces to pieces. Stop smiling. They already think you’re nuts. Shoulda’ refused the drink. A loser and a mooch. That’s what they think. I’ll show ‘em. Never come back to Ruby’s again. This shithole.
Jimmy takes a drag off the P.B.R. Slides off the stool with the cracked vinyl top, stuffing peeking out of the wounds. Staggers to the bathroom. A glimpse of himself in the mirror as he passes. Sandy, disheveled hair receding. Bleary blue eyes. No comb in his pocket. Closes himself up in the stall. Sits barely in time for the eruption. All is gone in a single explosion. Elbows on knees, head bent low. Too despondent to wipe.
“He’s been here since I opened,” Tonya says.
“Says he just got out of jail.”
“They released him and he came straight here. He said I’d have the honor of being the last bartender to serve him. He’s done after today.”
Tonya has hitched a hip on the edge of the cooler, her good side facing Kyle. Her slender arm rests atop the shiny bar top, freshly lacquered a few weeks ago. Refurbishments at the Ruby are infrequent and either celebrated or derided by the regulars. Hands still pretty despite the washing and wiping. Small hands with unpolished nails clipped short. Soft and brown and unadorned with rings. Out of the corner of her eye she sees the brown bottle resting in the recessed edge of the bar. She walks over and sets a fresh one in front of a laconic customer she does not know. He has been here almost as long as Jimmy. The empty clinking into the tall trash can.
Clean of ass and retrousered, Jimmy spins around and drops to his knees. Knees on the sticky toilet floor, embracing the bowl as the poison gushes forth. Filthy drool hangs from his lips. Jimmy gasps, teary eyed. He feels better almost instantly despite his disgust at the sight before him. Vomit covered shit.
‘Pull up a seat,” Kyle says.
“Jimmy was sitting there.”
Kyle nods. Ted picks up the three-quarter full P.B.R. and sets it to his left.
“Must’ve fallen in,” Kyle says nodding to the bathroom door. Tonya sets a Bud in front of Ted and a fresh Burning River in front of Kyle.
“Doubt it. He just got out of the klink. You’ll have to ask him.”
Stepping from the restroom, Jimmy hesitates. Asshole’s here.
“Hey, Jimmy. How’s it hanging?” asks Ted.
Jimmy acknowledges Ted with a nod but doesn’t speak. Sits at his re-assigned seat and takes a drink.
“Here, Jimmy. This will do you good.” Tonya sets a pint glass of ice water with a slice of lemon in front of him.
Tonya moves to the cash register and pulls her purse from the shelf underneath. Rummages in its bowels. Consciously looking for nothing, subconsciously looking for a smoke. It has been ten months but she still craves it, especially when she’s in the bar. She has never cheated. She knows if she does she’ll be right back at it again. And she knows that she can’t hide it. The smell gives her away. Kyle would know, not that it fucking matters. He hates smoking and smokers. Disgusting habit he reminded her over and over. Now what does he offer? “Good for you,” he says. She shouldn’t be looking for approval from anyone anyway, she thinks. It’s just something she needs to do.
“You play any more, Jimmy?” Ted asks
Jimmy shakes his head.
“You guys could rock,” Ted says looking back and forth from Jimmy to Kyle. “What happened?”
Kyle shrugs his shoulders and finishes his second beer faster than he should. Jimmy remains mute and solemn. Drinks the cold, citrus flavored water.
“Linda thinks you were the best. Guitarist, I mean. Not so good at other things, huh, Jimmy?” Ted laughs and punches Jimmy on the shoulder, not hard but almost enough to push the wavering Jimmy off his stool. Linda is Jimmy’s ex-wife and Ted’s current one.
I’m going to kick your ass as soon as I sober up. I’m going to beat you to a pulp and then I’m going to piss on your Armani suit and shit on your hundred- dollar haircut.
“Tonya, will you turn that shit off?” Kyle says, referring to the ESPN broadcast on the wall-mounted big-screen T.V. “I want to play the juke box.”
“The T.V.’s mute, it’s close-captioned,” Tonya says
“I know but it’s distracting. Hey, buddy,” Kyle calls across the bar to the somber, solitary drinker, “mind if we turn the TV off and put on some music?”
The drinker shakes his head.
“Mike’s not going to like having it off,” Tonya says, as the screen goes dark.
“Fuck Mike. He won’t be here for another hour or two anyway.”
Was that a dig? The smoking. Now this. I have to do what I have to do. What’s he doing here on a Monday afternoon anyway? Stay the fuck away and let me live my miserable life in peace.
The first song starts as Kyle punches the last button in the series and turns to walk back to his seat. He always plays the same songs.
– I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire, says Peggy Lee. “Lord, help us,” said Tonya before the music started but she sings along in a soft, low voice. When Tonya lets go, when she lets her rip, she sounds like Grace Slick, Kyle thinks.
As Kyle remounts the stool, he says, “Randy Newman…”
“… provided the orchestral arrangement and conducted. You’ve told me a thousand times,” says Tonya.
– Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is
Kyle with a hurt expression. He likes telling stories about songs.
“And the lyrics were inspired by a Thomas Mann story. Disappointment,” says Tonya.
“Disillusionment,” says Kyle.
“You always play the same crap,” says Ted. “Why don’t you play some good music for a change?”
“Who are the fucking musicians in the room, asshole?” asks Kyle.
“Yeah,” says Jimmy emerging from a deep, dark place in his mind. The P.B.R. has gone warm on the bar. He is working on his third glass of water.
– Then one day he went away and I thought I’d die, but I didn’t
and when I didn’t, I said to myself, “is that all there is to love?”
“I think a little gratitude is in order here, Bub. Who got you that cushy job?” asks Ted.
Tonya perches herself back on the cooler and says to Kyle, “You didn’t answer Ted’s question. “Why don’t you and Jimmy play anymore?”
– when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath, I’ll be saying to myself
Is that all there is, is that all there is
“No time for it. And look at Jimmy.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re too busy selling printing. Newspaper inserts. Chasing the American dream,” she says and casts a disparaging look at Ted. Ted is clueless.
“Remember the Riverfest gig?” Jimmy asks with alarming clarity and diction. He talks across Ted who is busy with his smart-phone.
“One of our best performances,” Kyle says.
“Nick on the drums. A lunatic,” says Jimmy.
“Possessed,” says Kyle.
“And the new song you wrote. And the dancing bear dances no more.” Jimmy sings the line slightly off-key.
“You gents enjoy your stroll down memory lane,” Ted says standing to leave. He puts a twenty on the bar. “I’m covering the next round for the arteests. The rest is yours,” he says to Tonya. “I’ll talk to you in the morning after the press check.” Ted’s narrowed eyes, finger pointing at Kyle.
“Don’t need your fucking beer,” Jimmy says, shoving his half-full PBR toward Tonya. He takes a gulp of the water.
“Have it your way,” Ted says as he moves to the door. “I’ll give Linda your regards.”
And I’ll cut your balls off if given half a chance.
“Don’t let him get to you,’ Kyle says as the door closes behind Ted. “He and Linda are on the rocks, anyway.”
Kyle sees Mike’s Cadillac Escalade pass the front window, through all the garish beer signs. He’s earlier than usual.
“You know those songs are on the box because of me,” says Tonya.
“And because you and Mike both know that the minute they are gone, I am too.”
“Mike doesn’t give a shit if you’re here or not.”
“I don’t think that’s true. For a variety of reasons.”
Mike steps into the Ruby. He is a shadow. An eclipse. A dark and featureless form against a world on fire.
Kyle remembers asking Mike, “How much does Budweiser pay you to advertise for them?”
With a confused expression Mike said, “The signs are free.”
“And you think somebody is going to walk into this dump because you have a cheap fucking Budweiser sign. Did they offer you a free forehead tattoo?
“When you own the Ruby you can make the business decisions. How’s that sound?” Mike said as he wandered into the back to get a case to ice down.
“Sheep,” said Kyle but Mike didn’t hear him.
Mike doesn’t much care for Kyle. The feeling is mutual. Mike knows about Tonya’s infatuation. Still, business is business and I’ll tolerate the prick if he keeps drinking the expensive stuff, he thinks.
The next week Mike had added a Corona Extra sign and a Miller mirror embossed with NFL logos and cheerleaders.
– The room was humming harder,
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink,
The waiter brought a tray
“Looks like the peanut gallery is already here,” Mike says in a booming voice. He bends to kiss Tonya. She turns and defiantly offers her damaged cheek. He hesitates a moment before giving her a peck. Tonya is self-conscious about the scar. When she is not working, seated at the bar or in a restaurant she’ll rest her jaw on the palm of her hand to hide the scar. Lately, though she has been taunting Mike with it. Mike knows a plastic surgeon. He says he can help. He can’t eliminate the scar but he can soften it. Smooth it out, the surgeon says. He can also enhance her boobs like Mike wants. The facial procedure is scheduled for next month. On Mike’s tab. The boob job isn’t on the docket yet. Kyle has told Tonya that he loves her little titties and that the scar accentuates her beauty. Says that the imperfection calls attention to her creamy complexion and delicate jaw-line. She doesn’t know what to think. Why the fuck should she care what Kyle thinks? But she does.
“I need you to stay. I’ve got errands to run,” Mike tells Tonya. Great. Another double shift.
“I have plans.”
– And so it was later
As the miller told his tale,
That her face at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale
“I love Procol Harum. I love Whiter Shade of Pale,” Tonya says to Kyle.
“The song is about a drunken seduction,” he tells her.
“So you’ve told me. I love drunken seductions.”
A pretty woman. Alone. A very pretty woman. She halts after a few steps into the Ruby and looks around. Her eyes adjust to the change of light and the unfamiliar surroundings. A newbie. Everyone looks, even the middle-aged stranger. Everyone except Tonya, who gauges Kyle’s reaction.
The newbie takes a seat on the busy side of the bar, two seats down from Kyle rather than on the other side with the older man drowning his sorrows. Kyle studies the young woman, and she, smiling, returns his gaze.
Tonya throws the bar towel on the cooler and tells Mike she’s taking a break. She marches to the cigarette machine and, with a flourish, buys a pack of Capri Menthol 100’s. They thud into the tray. She snatches them up.
Lights up in the blistering heat. Sidewalk like a griddle. She takes a few pulls off the Capri and feels nauseous. Drops the cigarette onto the sidewalk and grinds it with the toe of her shoe. Walking to her car in the un-metered alley. No Parking signs but she gets away with it. The meter cops know her and don’t give shit. She drops the pack of Capri’s into the green garbage can as she turns the corner of Rubicon and Tinsley. The beige Camry has a crease along its side from a hit and run. A Ruby’s customer no doubt. A drunken coward. Inside she cranks the air conditioner to the maximum setting. And begins to cry.
“Christie,” says the pretty woman in response to Mike’s question. She has ordered a Cosmopolitan and Mike is stalling for time. He hates making mixed drinks. Tonya will be back in a minute or two.
Mike learns that Christie is newly arrived in town. She’s getting settled in her new apartment on Riverside. Then she’ll look for a part time job. She’s starting Law School in the fall.
– There must be some kinda way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
“Bob Dylan wrote this and recorded it on John Wesley Harding. This Jimi Hendrix cover is the most famous,” Kyle says, looking at Christie’s slightly equine profile. She turns and smiles and nods.
“What kind of work do you do?” Mike asks her as he looks irritably at Kyle.
“Customer service or bartending.”
“Same thing,” Mike says. He opens the cash register, lifts the cash drawer and takes an employment application from underneath. “Here. Just in case,” he says putting the form in front of her.
– Business men, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line
Know what any of it’s worth
“We know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” Kyle says to no one in particular.
Mike glances at his watch. He is furious with Tonya.
– Outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl
Mike sets a drink of dubious quality in front of Christie.
“Only the outsider, the least serious of all, understand the value and seriousness of life,” Kyle says to Christie. She doesn’t respond. She is bent over the application.
“Hendrix’s guitar builds the anticipation. The shit is about to hit the fan,” Kyle says.
When Tonya returns, Mike glares at her. “Forty minute fucking break,” he says under his breath. He sees that she has been crying so he decides to confront her later.
The Ruby has caught the attention of residents in the newly renovated apartments on Riverside. A four-some of Riversiders sit at a table up front, near the jukebox. Fresh, young shiny faces, like polished apples. Kyle fears they’ll punch up some of their crap music that Michael, desperate to curry favor, had loaded on for them. The young crowd love the Ruby for its dive atmosphere and they are doing everything they can to ruin it.
One of the shiny apples comes to the bar to order drinks. He asks Tonya to turn on the pre-game show. Mike has left to run his errands, leaving Tonya with stern instructions to clean up the liquor shelves. She tells the shiny apple the television is broken. Kyle takes $15.00 from his pocket and punches in his songs, over and over in a loop. Tonya turns up the volume.
Kyle has taken a thin book from his bag. He found Claire Rabe’s Sicily Enough in a used bookstore. He has read it a half dozen times consecutively. He takes a pile of bar naps from the plastic container with the Johnny Walker logo and begins to write. Flipping back and forth between the sections he has highlighted, scribbling on the napkins, crumpling some and throwing them aside. Tonya and Jimmy watch.
Kyle shuffles the little napkins into an appropriate order and hands them to Tonya.
“It’s about her isn’t it? Your new inspiration.” Tonya nods to the empty stool. Christie has gone to the Lady’s Room.
I arrive, dogshadow thin
Broody men watch me bending
Mandolins in the tavern
Desire never ending
He stares at my thighs
Lick, suck, squeeze away loneliness
Hate is better than an empty bed
Desire flares inside me
As the sun on my back
Hot as hell and red in corners
Deep like that
Thick smell of sex everywhere
Lets my name out with his sperm
We make love like religion
Fills my vagina, I fill time
Adored like no virgin
Waiting for an end
Lick, suck, squeeze away loneliness
Hate is better than an empty bed
Some nights I want to be held
The purpose of my being
In a kiss there is not time
Only constant eating
I grow not old, only deeper
Here on my knees in filth
Licking away at my self esteem
Praying at the altar of a groin
What’s it mean?
A witch ensnared by a fool
Lick, suck, squeeze away loneliness
Hate is better than an empty bed
She cannot respond.
“It’s about you. Pretty much everything I have ever written is about you.”
“. . .”
Kyle takes the napkins from Tonya’s fingers, though she doesn’t want to let go, and hands them to Jimmy. “Set it to music.”
“Too many words,” Jimmy says.
“We’ll shorten it.”
“Some of the rhyming is awkward.”
“We’ll fix it.”
“It’s not the kind of stuff we usually do.”
“I know. Time for a change. Trust me. Just write it. It’ll occupy your mind while you’re riding the wagon.”
Jimmy pushes himself away from the bar and the warm beer. He is steady on his feet.
“I didn’t mean right now,” Kyle calls over Jimmy’s shoulder but he doesn’t stop walking. “Your phone still out?”
Jimmy nods yes and stops just short of the door.
“Track me down here some evening when you’ve finished.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Right. Come over to my place. This Friday. You too Tonya. We need your voice.”
Christie returns to witness Jimmy’s exit. The expressions on Tonya’s and Kyle’s faces tell her that something momentous but unknowable is unfolding.
In the restroom, Kyle splashes his face with cool water gurgling from the faucet. Wipes face and hands with the coarse brown paper towels. Rakes a comb through his dark hair, shorter than before but still too long for the corporate world. Looks in the mirror and wonders who is looking back. He takes a small leather case from his breast pocket, containing business cards. Kyle McGee, Account Manager. He pulls the cards from the sleeves and drops them into the waste can. Fingers the grain on the case and tosses it in after them.
Tonya picks up Christie’s application, abandoned beside the cash register. Pretends to study it.
“You’re hired. You start now.”
“What?” asks Christie, setting down her Cosmopolitan.
“You have anything better to do?”
“I guess not. But I’ve been drinking.”
“So? Come here and I’ll show you the cash register.” Tonya writes the security code and her phone number on the back of a bar check. Takes her Ruby keys from her purse. “Last call is 1:30. Lock up at 2 so nobody new comes in. All drinks off the bar and patrons out the door by 2:30. Don’t worry about the drawer. Mike can do it in the morning. You punch in the code on the keypad by the door. Walk out and lock it. It’s that simple. Call me if you run into trouble.”
“You’re not staying?”
“For a little while. To make sure you’ve got the hang of it. Trust me. This is the easiest bartending job on the planet.”
“What do I tell Mike when he returns?”
“He won’t. If he does, tell him anything you want. Tell him Tonya said to go fuck himself.”
Tonya takes a seat to the right of Kyle.
“I’ll have a Gin and Tonic,” she says to Christie who looks awkward and anxious in t-shirt and shorts, like it’s “take your kid to work” day.
When Christie sets the drink down, Tonya says. “There’s a price list taped above the register. Gin and Tonics are $5.00 but mine are on the house. At least for now.”
The song repetition has driven the Riversiders away but there’s an 8 p.m. crowd of ten or so. Kyle leans and whispers into Tonya’s ear. She giggles and blushes, looking around to see if anyone has noticed. A Whiter Shade of Pale is the next song up. He stands and offers Tonya his hand. Leads her to an area with a little room to dance. She lays her ruined cheek against his.
When the song and the dance end, they leave.
September 18, 2010 § Leave a comment
A cheap Sears Reader’s Club Edition of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, with a lime green cover and my Dad’s elegant signature on the title page is all that remains. His “library” consisted of a single, ordinary bookcase with five crowded shelves. There were always books and magazines laying about the house. He frequently read when he was at home, which wasn’t as often as the family would have liked. He carried books and magazines in the old leather duffel bag that rode shotgun in the cab of the 18-wheeler.
I don’t recall much about his taste in books. If Steinbeck is an indicator, it was at least respectable. The magazines included Popular Mechanics, Field and Stream, Look, Life and a box of Playboys tucked in a space behind the basement furnace. Mother wouldn’t permit that stuff upstairs. I never saw Dad read Playboy. I didn’t read them either but I knew them intimately, very intimately. Mother was of the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books persuasion. There were dozens of them in her personal bookcase. I think she liked the uniform, colorful, decorative spines. The two collections were not allowed to intermingle.
I was home from college for the summer, working the night shift at the paper mill to pay next year’s tuition, when he left us. Dad suffered indigestion and his treatment of preference was a tablespoon of baking soda in a small glass of water. Mother heard him fall and the sound of breaking glass. Massive coronary occlusion is death certificate language for a heart attack. Mother lived for only a few more years and, without much of an estate, her life was smaller and more austere in the interim between their deaths. She sold the house. Excess possessions were parceled out to relatives and friends. I don’t know what became of the books. College students can’t accommodate much in the way of tangible objects. It’s mildly disturbing that I have no recollection of acquiring East of Eden. I’ve been schlepping that worthless book around, from city to city and house to house, for decades. I haven’t even read it. I can’t account for that either, except to say that I own more books than I can possibly read. It’s not a very good excuse. Maybe I’m afraid that I’ll hate it. Hate the single possession passed forward from father to son.
My parents were not well educated. Mother never graduated from high school. Secondary education in the hollows of Breathitt County in eastern Kentucky, in her time, meant boarding school. I believe Dad had a high school diploma though I never saw it and can’t be certain. I’d ask a surviving sibling if I believed it was, in any way, important. May father was a smart man. I have learned not to confuse education with intelligence.
I’ve tried to locate the source, the mouth, the headwater, of my reading malady. They say avid readers are a product of parents who read. I’m skeptical of the claim. My sister reads hardly at all and my own habit bloomed rather late. Adolescence for me had many distractions. Some were blonde, others brunette. And if you’re a serious college student, which I was, you read a great deal but not much by choice and not much fiction if you’re an Economics Major.
I think literary fiction, like single malt Scotch and oysters, is an acquired taste. A close friend who I’ll call X, has never read a novel, cover to cover, in his life. His is a proud assertion, not a whispered confidence. X reads snippets of newspapers, magazines or on-line articles. He reads memos, executive summaries and chunks of proposals and contracts. X’s reading always has an objective, a practical purpose. I hope mine does, as well. I just don’t know what it is. I read few business books these days. I call business books “buy low, sell high” stories. They are long on the “what to do” and short on the “how or why to do it”. They are the worst kind of fiction. X is derisive of my reading habits. The apparent lack of purpose confuses him. He may consider me subversive. I choose not to defend myself. He has a point. X is, after all, more financially successful than I. Perhaps a great fondness for literature is just as debilitating as a great fondness for Scotch.
I married and fathered early. The union was fractured before it was formed. Reading was an escape. I thought it a less destructive escape than drinking (though I did a fair amount of that too). Now I’m not so sure. My reading irritated M. She would rather we go to the mall, watch television or do that other thing that got us into the pickle in the first place. The more she complained, the more I read. I probed American classics and near classics. The Sun Also Rises. The Great Gatsby. An American Tragedy. Theodore Dreiser elicited dreams of M and I, the two of us, alone and unobserved, boating on a deep, cold lake. I awaked drenched in sweat. We divorced instead. My son turned out to be a voracious reader. Madness inherited.
Once divorced, my habit took a harder and meaner turn. More emboldened and driven. Less diversionary and recreational. I latched onto to the hard stuff. Publix Bookstore in downtown Cleveland became my dealer. I’d spend the better part of Saturdays there. The more off-beat, exotic, foreign or neglected, the more I was drawn to it. No best sellers for me. It was like leaving Budweiser and Miller behind after that first sip of a hoppy, I.P.A. “So that’s what beer and fiction are supposed to taste like!” Each discovery led to another. Some authors proved to be one-hit wonders. Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (with that oddly lyrical cadence and sentence structure that would flunk you out of English Composition). I wrote in sentence fragments for years after reading The Ginger Man.
Pulled by the tide
I still do
Authors can be forgiven for having only one great book in them. One great book is a miracle.
Even a one trick pony is not a dead-end. Follow the crumbs. The back cover of a favorite might reference Elie Wiesel or V.S. Naipaul. And away you go. I gorged myself on the likes of Max Frisch’s Montauk and Homo Faber, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Project for a Revolution in New York and The Erasers, Jakov Lind’s Ergo and Landscape in Concrete, Stanley Elkin’s The Franchiser and The Dick Gibson Show, Barry Hannah’s Ray, during those wonderful years in that city by the burning river. I neglected my marital responsibilities. I wrote but submitted only book reviews for publication. It was a hoot seeing my name in the Plain Dealer Book Section on Sunday. But the serious, creative stuff I kept to myself. The greatness that came from Publix intimidated as much as inspired. The more I read, the more self-conscious and perfectionist I became. I’d re-write the same pages day after day, sometimes looping right back around to a version similar to the first draft. I was becoming Jack Torrance in The Shining. “All work and no play…” For sanity’s sake, I stopped writing altogether but read all the more.
I’m a hedonist, a pleasure seeker. Reading is a delight. But it’s more. I assimilate books more than consume them. Books become a part of me. They define who I am. At Publix and beyond, I acquired a taste for dark or at least darkly comical, fiction. Berger, Bernhard, Buzzati, Camus, Gaddis, Hamsun, Powys, Rulfo, Saramago, Timm. Did I find them or did they find me? Most of what I read involves pain and failure and loss and futility and injustice. Where’s the delight in that, you ask? Life is absurd and the world is largely malevolent, and yet, paradoxically, hopeful. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Is there an Albert Camus Clinic for the Existentially Deranged where I can go dry out for a few months?
One day, when I was fifteen years old, my Uncle A, my mother’s brother, came to visit and to speak, specifically and purposefully, with me. A was a like a second father. Sons of long haul truckers need auxiliary fathers. I was rebelling against irrelevant schoolwork. Algebra or maybe Latin or History, I can’t remember. With an arm around my shoulder he said, “Mick, you need to understand that nothing you learn goes to waste. Someday, perhaps when you least expect it and maybe when you need it the most, there it will be. It’s all connected.” I took A’s advice because it sounded right and because he had never been wrong before.
I wish Uncle A was still around. I need his advice. I want to believe that it all hasn’t been a waste of time. That it is all going to add up someday though late is the day it is. That it will be there when I need it. If reading literature really doesn’t make sense, then I’m screwed. Because I’m about to crack open another one.
September 18, 2010 § Leave a comment
You see them
Slender and graceful
Shapely brown limbs
But no tits, what-so-ever
Or silky lush hair
And an over-bite
An echo of beauty
In thickening form
Like warmed over soup
But with a voice
Like breaking glass
Pale, creamy moon face
Complete with craters
An enticing hourglass
With too much sand
Settled at the bottom
Clear blue eyes and pert nose
With a wattle
And straw-like hair, gathered up into a crested
With real rather than purchased teeth
Framed with creases
Like parenthesis ’round a well crafted clause in an
Elegant and shapely, unblemished by age
A wasted asset
Like the fat bank accounts of the too old
They are the last to go
They’ll outlast you
Planted with your husk deep under the ground like
September 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
Summers in the wood as cool as a cave. Perpetual dusk. Crunch under foot from that which has succumbed and now nourishes. Twigs. Leaves. Kicks at the toadstool and watches the spores poof into the air. Hears the creek. Don’t wade, there are sink holes and water moccasins, she says. Poisonous and stealthy, gliding through the gentle, dark current. Green moss on a rotting log. What was that? Branches rustling in the breeze? An animal?
Untold hours in this cool, quiet refuge. While the sun bakes the tin roof of the farmhouse, the side that is not shaded by the big oak. Ticking and popping. Metal trying to breath. Flexing and twitching like a sleeping dog.
Alone and without playmates. Nary a companion, save the trees and the water and the unseen beasts. How naturally unnatural he realizes as an adult smothered by asphalt and machines and crowds and devices that speak and listen but without knowledge or wisdom. Worlds away from the boy who would shed his clothes in the forest. Unafraid and unashamed.
At the edge, a field, a bottom that floods. Tires and beer cans when the water recedes. And then a sloping manicured patch surrounding the house. A quilt-like pattern from wild to tamed to civilized. A man and a woman and a child hold forth, fending off nature that would reclaim what is hers. At the border between field and home a gnarly tree, solitary, bursts with small, green globes. The ground littered with sour fruit. The boy plucks a prize from a branch. Holds the apple to his mouth and exhales. Polishes the apple on his shirt. The dull dusty matte shines and makes him smile at his meager achievement. From his pocket a shaker, purloined from the kitchen, filled with crystals. Licks the skin of the apple and shakes, salt sticking to wet greenness. Don’t eat so much of that, she says, it will dry out your blood. Bites into the tartness rendered oddly sweet by the salt. Summer salted fruit. Apples. Watermelon. Musk melon.
Throws the apple core into the field. Takes a full stemmed orb, rotting on its underside, from the ground and heaves it. Mentally measuring the distance. Farther than last year. Not as far as next. Shaker back in one pocket, a small apple in the other, he walks home. Happy where he is and with his own company.
A man sits in the heat in the heart of a city and writes. Wishing he had a salted apple to eat.
And another to throw.
September 14, 2010 § Leave a comment
A radio personality with a microphone urges people to step up and participate in an ice cream eating competition. He sounds like he’s talking from inside a well or a culvert. The person who can eat a quart of Creamery Brand Ice Cream fastest wins a year’s supply.
Nate steps up on the stage where a long table is laid out with intermittent spoons.
You can choose from a variety of Creamery flavors. Most of the contestants choose vanilla because it is bland and will melt quickly under the withering sun, thinking they may be able to drink their way to the finish.
Except Nate, who chooses Mint Chocolate Chip even though it has big slabs of dark bitter chocolate that he will need to chew. He chooses it because it is his favorite.
When the contest starts, the competitors frantically shovel great gobs of ice cream into their wide mouths, many swallowing the frozen cream whole without savoring, tears in their eyes from the cold pain.
Nate calmly scoops a small spoonful with a bit of the chocolate as he looks around at the desperate, cream-slick mouths and soiled shirts. He loves the tingle of the mint, the way his mouth comes alive when he draws a breath.
By Nate’s fourth spoonful, a contestant rises from his seat and brandishes an empty carton. The winner is declared. During the cheers, Nate, with most of his carton intact, wanders down the makeshift steps from the stage and onto the Square, leisurely enjoying his treat. Eyes of confusion or mirth follow. The Creamery Ice Cream Representative and the Radio Personality are not amused. Nate sits by the fountain and scrapes the paper carton with the wooden spoon. Tosses both into a waste can.
At the far end of the Square, a group of people wear stickers that read My Name Is on their breasts. They sip cocktails in clear plastic glasses within a velvet roped area. Signs and buttons read Re-elect Senator Collins. An effusive young woman asks Nate if he is a registered voter and satisfied with his answer and his signature and fictitious address and phone number, writes NATE with a Sharpie in big block letters on a label and slaps it on his shirt pocket. Ms. Effervescence smiles and moves on to another unlabeled human.
Nate looks down at his pocket and seeing, from his perspective, his name upside down, peels it off and inverts it.
Nate makes small talk with the guests. Answering questions about his place of residence and livelihood, making it all up on the fly. He sips at his gin and tonic. When an interrogator tells him his name tag is upside down, he looks at his breast and says it looks right to him. They are amused and take him for a prankster. They thrust business cards in his face. Nate accepts the cards though he has none to offer in exchange. After he has accepted enough cards to warrant five weak gin and tonics he moves to the narrow opening in the velvet rope where he encounters a young woman who blocks his path and says, “Hello.”
“I’m Andrea,” she says offering her small, soft hand. “Nate,” says Nate taking her hand in his. He does not shake it but holds it delicately as though he has been handed a Faberge egg. When her hand is released, she takes a business card from a small leather grained sleeve. “Do you have a card?” she asks.
“I have several,” Nate says as he withdraws a stack from his pocket. He flips through them. “I think this is my favorite,” he says handing a card to Andrea. He smiles, steps around her and walks through the enclosure.
Andrea watches him for a moment before she looks at the card. It reads Margaret Tomlin, Vice President of Sales, Hummingbird Communication. There is a colorful hummingbird, snout poised above a honeysuckle flower, in the upper right hand corner of the card. Andrea knows Margie Tomlin. She laughs and shakes her head. She studies the gathering, busy sipping and chatting and gazing and listening and posturing. Looks at faces she recognizes. Then she turns and follows Nate, who becomes ever more diminutive in the distance.
Nate crosses the street against the light. A car skids to a halt inches from his thigh. Horn blaring, Nate passes. The driver drops his window, flips the bird and curses. Nate neither looks nor responds.
Andrea has quickened her pace but can’t close ground in her fashionable heels.
She’ll lose him now, she thinks, but looking through the traffic she sees him turn into an alley. She should reverse course and return to the party, to her friends, but she doesn’t. She crosses the street. At the alley she pauses. What if he isn’t just a handsome, eccentric prankster? What if he is dangerous?
She presses on into the poorly lit alley where she discovers the Delirious Dissident Bookstore. Inside, Nate is talking to a man across a counter. Everything is normal. Harmless. It’s just a bookstore. But what will she say? What is her excuse for following a man she has just met into a dark alley? The card, of course. A mistake. Captivated and befuddled by her beauty, she’ll say, he mistakenly gave her someone else’s card. A card that he perhaps needs for future reference. She can play the game, be coy and clever, sensing his erection while she speaks.
Sweating profusely in her three piece suit, she peels a lock of hair from her sticky forehead. Steps into the shop that has no air conditioning. She is greeted by a blast of air from a large, swiveling pedestal fan. The fan’s thrust lifts her fine, silky hair from her shoulders and makes her skin tingle like the taste of mint. The bookstore clerk and Nate look at her. The shop holds only the three of them and the books that smell pungent and ripe. Nate smiles. The speechless clerk shifts his questioning gaze to Nate.
“Curiosity kills the cat,” Andrea says, not meaning to allude to danger but happy to dispense with the game, the courtship ritual.
Nate continues to smile but says nothing.
“You’re so odd. The name tag. The business card. Walking against the light. I just had to know.” Andrea plops down in one of the old over-stuffed chairs scattered about the shop. She scans the bookshelf nearest her. Dusty volumes of books by a guy whose name she can’t pronounce, Noam Chomsky, and beside those several copies of a newer book, Confront and Defeat the Coming Neo-Feudalism by Nathaniel Chalmers. She kicks her shoes away from her tired, hot feet as if she has arrived from a long journey. Home at last.
“It’s practice,” Nate says. “A kind of conditioning for what is to come. I’m getting my attitude ready.”
“Ready for what?” Andrea asks, kneading a foot cocked upon her knee, aware that she is showing too much thigh. A chocolate Labrador Retriever has arrived from the back of the shop, tail swishing vigorously, pulling his rump to and fore. The dog tries to push his nose into Andrea’s crotch. She grasps the dog’s big head with both of her hands, kneading the fur and scrunching his ears in her palms. The dog tries to launch himself up to lick her face.
“Zhivago!” the clerk scolds.
Zhivago turns and looks at his owner with a contrite expression. Then backs away and sits, slobberingly admiring his new friend.
“Ready for what?” she repeats. Zhivago puts his head into Andrea’s inviting lap.
She closes her eyes and enjoys the breeze from the fan. She feels like a hummingbird probing an exotic, beautiful and unknown blossom.
Wary but thrilled with discovery.
September 13, 2010 § Leave a comment
Three beautiful actresses served as physical inspirations for Molly in my just completed novel “The Wave Collapses”. The following is a photo gallery of Natalie Wood, Mathilda May and Sean Young plus the chapter where Molly is introduced.
Molly and Michael and Spence
– Dew Drenched Petals, Overmatched at the Plate; Ice Sculpture; Clanging and Banging
Leggy and dark with almond shaped eyes. Who knows from what stock she was spawned? Molly was adopted. A Slav in the woodshed perhaps. Beautiful and exotic. Like Natalie Wood or Sean Young. Or maybe Mathilda May in Life Force but with less glorious tits. Poor Spence. A hillbilly astronaut confronting an irresistible and invincible alien life force.
Molly was Michael’s girl. The perfect couple, right out of central casting, stunning, dark Molly and Michael, all wavy, dark hair, square jaw and athletic good looks. Having never set foot in a college classroom or on a football field did nothing to tarnish Michael’s big-man-on-campus image. Molly, texts clutched to her breast like a suckling child, shows up in Spence’s classroom wearing a short navy blue pleated skirt and three quarter sleeve blouse. Do you know what a little pleated skirt does for her kind of legs? Well, he didn’t either until then. Michelangelo couldn’t have chiseled those ankles and wrists. Like stepping in a bear trap. A cartoon character seeing stars after being hit with a falling anvil. A life changing event.
If you want a lover
I’ll do anything you ask me to
And if you want another kind of love
I‘ll wear a mask for you
If you want a partner
Take my hand
Here I stand
I’m your man
Molly would wear the short, pleated skirt whenever Spence requested. She would meet him in the classroom around dinnertime when the room was unused, Lucas Hall all but deserted with only a few students milling about, checking the bulletin boards, chatting in the hallways, waiting for their next class if the walk from Dorm or apartment to classroom was too far. Not much risk of being discovered but the danger was, after all, part of the excitement. Spence would hoist her up on the edge of the desk and spread her open, panty-less, a fleshy flower with dew drenched petals, her hot breath at his neck, smelling her, not the perfumed Molly but the real Molly, and listening to the sounds of sex in the hushed classroom. Little waves slapping and sloshing against a breakwater. Molly breathing quicker. Clutching. Trying not to cry out.
The pleated skirt became a signal, like a hoisted flag or the flared, colorful, plumage of wild creatures. Spence no longer needed to suggest the skirt. Molly wore it whenever she wanted sex. She wore it often. “I think about sex all the time,” she confessed one day. “I’ll be anything you want me to be,” she also said one steamy afternoon from her perch on the scarred oak desk before they knew what they would become. Girlfriend, lover, concubine, whore, wife… suggesting that the choice was Spence’s own though he knew, even then, that it wasn’t true.
Michael suspected something from the start. He followed them to the bar just off campus where Molly and Spence had felt safe. Anonymous and secluded, they thought. Breaking Spence’s nose with a single punch and ruining a new shirt did not have the desired effect. Michael lost Molly that day. Spence’s nose still whistles when he sleeps. Molly and Spence were married within a year.
Molly doesn’t carry grudges so it didn’t take long to make amends, to exchange apologies for her infidelity and Michael’s violence and to renew a friendship. She even invited him to the wedding. Michael declined the invitation but sent them a case of expensive French wine. Spence wasn’t happy about the extravagant gift, threw a fit actually, but he got over it. It is hard to stay mad at Chateauneuf du Pape.
To always be in the company of a very beautiful woman, Spence would learn, is to spend your life playing the children’s game of King of the Hill. They are always out there, the aggressive alpha males, staring and flirting. Every day trying to protect your prize. It’s exhausting. Spence tried to keep his anger in check but it would sometimes go sideways and Molly would blame him even though it was she, her very essence that was at fault. Spence used his minor celebrity status as a weapon, trying frantically to build his budding reputation. Though broad of shoulder and narrow of hip he was still overmatched at the plate. Spence knew how it felt to out-punt your coverage. Exhausting. Exhausting and paralyzing.
Their first apartment on West Boulevard, the fifth floor of an old Tudor style building. The elevator had a manually operated gate. If the gate wasn’t securely closed the elevator couldn’t be called. Spence learned that the elevator usually got stuck on the fourth floor or the lobby. Walking up five flights or down one to grab the elevator, gate ajar, became an intolerable inconvenience. Spence spent the entire first winter trying to learn who was abusing the lift. The early suspect was an elderly widow but she turned out to be spry and alert and attentive in the extreme. It was the kid Bobby in # 407 who worked nights as a security guard. Spence caught the uniformed and uniformly surly Bobby as they crossed paths in the lobby early one morning. Spence waited until the elevator deposited Bobby on four where it remained as Spence furiously pounded on the call button.
Molly wanted to call a tenant meeting to discuss the problem before levying accusations. Spence went for the direct approach, choosing a Saturday morning, when he knew Bobby would be sleeping off his third shift, to rap on the boy’s door. The conversation did not go well. Bobby’s attitude quickly devolved from denial to a conclusive “up yours”.
“If I catch you leaving the elevator gate ajar again I will drag your sorry ass, feet first, down the staircase to the lobby and back up again,” Spence shouted at the door slammed in his face. Thus the war began.
Bobby left the elevator gate ajar even more often than usual and one morning, the coldest in a record cold winter, Spence was greeted with four flat tires on his old Toyota. The tires weren’t slashed. They had been methodically deflated, the little caps to the tire stems laying somewhere under the fresh snow. Molly’s pleas for restraint went unheeded. The next morning, as cold as yesterday and after Spence was sure that Bobby was sleeping, toasty-warm, he carried bucket after bucket of water to the parking lot. It took hours. Such was Spence’s rage that by noon Bobby’s old V.W. Bug was an ice sculpture. Quite beautiful!
Spence with beer in hand, watched from the window as Bobby chipped away at the Bug, laughing as Molly shook her head in dismay. After an hour of futility, Bobby triumphantly decided to pour hot water over the Bug to melt the ice. The glass cracked all around.
Fisticuffs in the parking lot the very next day, both men bruised and bloodied, failed to crown a victor but succeeded in venting the steam and ending the feud. The lesson learned, according to Spence, was that war was a lot more expensive and painful than diplomacy but a hell of a lot more fun. Molly refusing to console him or to dress his wounds had learned a different lesson.
They spent four years in that apartment with it’s flawed elevator and steam heat radiators cranked so high that you’d suffocate in winter if you didn’t throw open a window. The apartment, windows steamed and sweating, was a sauna but Molly, putting a positive spin on everything, said her skin had never been healthier and more supple nor her sinuses clearer.
The radiator clanked in the middle of the night like somebody was banging it with a monkey wrench as the hot water coursed its way through the old building’s circulatory system, impeded by rust and gunk like the arteries of an octogenarian. The clanking awakened them in the middle of the night and it would start, the entanglement, the juices, the smells and the thrusting and grunting and the final release and the incredibly sound sleep thereafter, unperturbed no matter how loud the radiators. Covers thrown off, the sleeping beauty at his side.
Life on West Boulevard, along with their Italian sojourns, represented heaven on earth and the happiest days of their lives. Spence’s at least.
September 12, 2010 § Leave a comment
The bridge is higher than it looks from a distance, or even from the latticed road surface below. You can look through the steel grid to the placid water. The bridge hums when strummed by rubber tires. Up here the perspective is different. High, but not so hard to climb. She was always agile, able to scale the trees faster than the boys.
Did she bring enough? She thought so. After anchoring it with a triple knot she lets it unfurl from her hand, then gathers it back up. Enough. Just enough. He’ll be able to see. A gust of wind tosses her hair and ripples the thin fabric of the blouse he bought her. Nearly tips her into the void. A crumpled mess below is not what she wants. A spectacle is what she wants. Wants to be a spectacle for the first and only time in her life.
There is little traffic on this lonely back road that leads to his cabin. She can lay low if a stranger comes by. The cabin that she enjoyed so much. The peaceful stillness. Having him all to herself, feasting on champagne and promises. He’ll come in a bit, she tells herself checking her watch. She can rely on his habits, his punctuality. In the meantime she’ll sit and enjoy the view of the rolling farmland, the wood on the hillside. A bird lights a few feet away, eyeing her quizzically as if to question her motives. She remains as still as the bridge and in a moment the bird flaps away. Still and placid as the river and unafraid. Beyond emotion, all of that drained long ago like a festering abscess. Everything now is perfunctory. She is already gone. A ghost atop a bridge over a narrow river.
She sees the cloud of dust before she spots the car. The green British sports car comes into view, motoring fast over the rough road. So fast that she must hurry to slip it over her head. Snug with a tug under her throat. Rumbling and crunching the gravel, the M.G. reaches the edge of the bridge as she lets go. Not jumping, merely stepping into space. Her last complete thought is, “there is a passenger in the car.”
It’s a long fall, putting the car in position below her rather than in front as she had intended. The terminal snap at the end of the rope does not stop her descent, nor does the thin rope snap, but rather pops her head off like a yellow dandelion from a delicate stem, her visual field suddenly shifting to the side, to the river, though she knows not why and has not the time to ponder. The light goes out. And that is all.
The beheaded mass drops into the lap of a young woman in mid-laugh, enjoying the sunshine in a jaunty car with her charming lover. The two-seater M.G.B clears the bridge and veers from the road, down an embankment into the river. With three passengers.
The head rolls to the edge of the bridge where it comes to rest on her left ear, the side she sleeps on. With her fine blonde hair draped softly over her cheek she could be slumbering though her eyes are opened wide as if watching the commotion below.
The petite, headless woman weighing barely 100 pounds with her head attached struck Peggy with such impact that her hip is dislocated. Despite the mouthful of muddy water from the river’s bed, Peggy manages to shed the cradled burden and extract herself from the submerged convertible. In considerable pain she floats to the surface. Thrashes her way to shore and crawls out of the water before losing consciousness. When, hours later at dusk, her passerby rescuer arrives, detecting the young woman prostate in the mud, dress hiked up over her nice thighs. He assumes the worst from her blood stained dress but it is not Peggy’s blood. Her wounds are not fatal. Her embryo of which she had just yesterday become aware has also survived the assault.
In the driver’s seat clutching the steering wheel.
Dirk remains below.
The Doll House
Like a dollhouse, it is. A loveseat instead of a full size sofa in the single room intended for socializing, dining and cooking. A tiny stove and refrigerator, painted pink as if to emphasize their toy-like quality. A 13” television peep-hole into a black and white world. The bed, the only regulation piece of furniture in the apartment, dominates the bedroom, leaving barely enough clearance to fully open the drawers of the small chest. A closet of a bathroom with a shower but no tub, pedestal sink mashed up against a very round toilet bowl such that you can rest your arm on the cool porcelain while you shit.
An enema bag hangs indelicately over the towel rack.
Charlene, unaccustomed to guests, pours boiled water over the Nescafe crystals. He had asked for a beer but she has none. No alcohol whatsoever though she is not opposed to it and now understands its utility for entertaining. Fortunately, he is not expecting dinner because she is ill prepared in that regard as well. Mother is keeping the baby. Doing her part to further the romance with the dashing man of means. Married or not, he has made promises. He’s good for his word, Mom says convinced though her advice has always been suspect.
Laboring over her on the appropriately named piece of furniture, his elbow wedged beside her ear, digging into the crease between cushion and sofa-back. His feet pushing against the sofa’s arm to gain leverage. Thrusting and grunting like a wild boar nosing for truffles. His chin at her forehead, she can feel the thickness that is part of her for only a while. The quickening and pulsing, the lengthening thrusts, the head pleasantly popping in and out like a stopper, tells her that the end is near.
He leaves a deposit before his withdrawal.
Must he go so soon?
“I gotta go,” he says, stuffing the tail of his shirt into his trousers. Checking his pockets for keys. Face flushed and suddenly edgy, repeatedly checking his watch.
Charlene doesn’t move from the love seat. Her skirt, rumpled now from the hurried tryst, pulled back down over her knees. She stares at her panties lying in a small pink feminine heap on the floor. Innocent. Incriminating. Inconsolable.
Doesn’t move when he opens the door and with one foot across the threshold, says “I’ll call you about tomorrow.” Not even when she hears his heavy footsteps climbing the short steps from her basement apartment to the ground floor landing. Not even when she hears the engine crank and rumble and the car pull away with a throaty roar.
Not even when.
Dirk pulls into the driveway and kills the engine. The house is dark. He takes the quart of tepid beer from the passenger seat, lifts it out of the paper bag. The opener from the glove box.
Several healthy gulps from the brown bottle. Pungent graininess. He quits the M.G. and with beer bottle in hand walks around to the back of the house. He sits on the lowest step leading up to the back porch. Takes another drink though he has no true appetite for it. Pours beer on to the palm of his left hand and splashes it on his cheek and neck as you would with aftershave. He takes another drink but doesn’t swallow. Swishes the beer in his mouth, chewing the frothiness and spits it onto the lawn. He drains the bottle onto the grass and sets the empty carefully into the galvanized garbage can sitting against the low porch railing. Gathers his courage. Good Nadine or bad Nadine. One never knows.
He practices his drunken stagger on the porch on the way to the door. Inserts the key and enters noisily but not so much so that he will awaken Kevin. No one stirs. After finishing his toilet he pads shoeless into Kevin’s room. Sprawled with the sheet tossed to the side, the way Dirk slept when he had a bed of his own. He watches the child’s chest rise regularly, clad only in underwear. Kevin doesn’t like clinging, confining pajamas. Dirk doesn’t either. Dirk kisses the tips of his fingers that smell like beer and brushes them against the child’s cool, cherubic cheek.
Dirk slips under the sheet, trying not to disturb Naddy, believing he no longer needs to pretend to be intoxicated.
“You smell like a brewery,” she says before he can close his eyes.
“Did you win?”
“No Ned ‘susual,” he says back to play-acting. He didn’t tell her who he was playing cards with before he left so she couldn’t check up on him but now he has to establish credibility.
“Why do you continue to play if you never win?” She still faces away from him, toward the open window with the fan. The way she always sleeps.
“I’ll show you what’s fun.” Nadine rises and pulls down the sheet. Into a kneeling position. She is naked. She doesn’t sleep in the nude. She was waiting in ambush. She kneels over and tugs at his shorts. Dirk lifts his ass off the mattress to accommodate her. She bends over and puts his limp penis in her mouth. Uncurls from her kneeling position, stretches out and gets comfortable for the job ahead. Flicking her tongue. Tonight it’s good Nadine. Old Reliable is erect in moments. As he fills her mouth Nadine becomes more excited, moaning and shoving him into her throat, lips nearly to the root. He erupts but there can’t be much sperm. She has to know. She just has to. She swallows and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. Resumes her sleeping position, facing away. She doesn’t get up to put on a nightie.
“You taste funny.”
“It’s all she remembers. A sort of selective amnesia. Her memory, her life reduced to a single incident. The tragedy,” says the man standing over her. Says it to a colleague who also wears white with a stethoscope draped around his neck.
“She’s replaying the scene over and over in her head.”
“Yeah, like a record skipping.” He reaches to grasp Peggy’s wrist between his thumb and forefinger, counting off the pulse. “Only what’s in her lap isn’t the beheaded suicide but a headless child.”
“Yes. And she searches. Searches for the head.”
“Under the cover?” the second doctor asks, watching Peggy lift the hospital-white sheet and stare down at her feet.
“Under the covers. Under the bed. Under the tin that covers her meal on the tray. Everywhere she is. Everywhere we take her. She knows something is broken and she wants to reassemble it.”
“. . .” The second doctor shakes his head.
‘That’s my read anyway although she says very little. Mostly, “Where is it? Where is the head?” She can’t converse at all. Listens to not a word I say. She transmits but does not receive. I’m no psychiatrist,” he says shaking his head. Head shaking. Everyone. It’s all they can do.
“What’s to be done? Such a pretty young woman.”
“She’s healed up and ready to go as far as I’m concerned. Physically, that is. I consulted with the Callahans, her parents, again this morning. It took us a while to find them. Something of a run-away she is. From California.”
“Are they taking her home.”
“That was the original plan. I think I’ve talked them out of it. She belongs at Glenhaven where they can treat her mind and her maternity. Maybe she’ll snap out of it. With time. With help.”
“Will she carry to term?”
“I don’t see why not. Healthy as an ox. Beautiful birthing hips. Healthy specimen, she is.”
“Most likely the driver they fished out of the river. Fished him out only to plow him under. He was married with a child of his own. I hope it was worth the ride, if you know what I mean.”
“What a shame.”
“If you keep worrying like that, you’ll wear your insides out,” Charlene says. She looks at Dirk, with the sun behind his back she shades her eyes with a flattened hand. Grimaces. Always grimacing. Even Charlene’s smile is a grimace. A cute grimace. Dirk is used to her look. He likes it. He likes it a lot. Likes the uneven part in her hair. Likes the full eyebrows that he talked her out of plucking to a thin line, thicker at the edges near her nose and swooping upward like apostrophes.
“I’m not worried now.”
“Mom likes you,” she says lowering her voices and her eyes. It sounds like a confession.
“I know.” Charlene sits close to him in the cool unlit room with the sculpted sofa and the sculpted carpeting. In her grandmother’s house, her knees primly held together, hands folded in her lap. Dirk loves Charlene. Loves her simplicity. Loves her simple family and their simple lives. Loves their poverty. Loves the wringer washer and the galvanized tub on the back porch of the old asbestos shingled house.
An absence of men. Father and grandfather dead and gone. Erin’s father overseas in the service, divorce in process. Dirk is the top dog here because he is the only dog.
Mom and grandma gossip quietly and sip their iced tea, letting the young couple have their time together but watching, always watching out of the corner of their eyes, watching every sign as they look into the glasses with brown liquid and ice and a wedge of lemon as if reading the tea leaves.
The oldest grandchild, the daughter of Charlene’s older sister Linda, also unattached and away, working her cashier job, bursts into the room. Erin hot on her heels, sweaty from running and playing outside. Luke should be here playing with them. There’ll be time enough for that later on. Dirk reaches out and snatches the little girl and lifts her onto his lap. She squirms for a moment, but then relaxes, reflexively thrusting a thumb into her mouth. Charlene with a scolding gaze, “You’re not a baby, Erin,” she says. Erin leans back onto Dirk’s shoulder. Permission and protection, sucking all te more vigorously. The blonde child gives off an aroma similar to her mother’s. Spitting image. Charlene with a sideways smile, a false rebuke, as she takes a mental snapshot. Dirk nuzzles the child’s damp hair, thinking of his own son. Why can’t the pieces fit together?
Sweet, sweet children.
“She’s howling like a dog. I think you better come look,” Sherry says, panting from the jog down the hallway. Her shift just starting. She was making her first rounds for a quick look-see. Checking notes on the charts. Bonnie had bolted as soon as the clock struck 3. After a bare minimum hand-off briefing. Lazy bitch.
“How long has she been. . . vocalizing?” asks Dr. John. That’s what everybody calls him, staff and patient alike. Dr. John. Familiar yet formal. Affectionate but official.
Dr. John takes vitals, stethoscope to Peggy’s swollen abdomen. She lets loose with another howl, straightening Dr. John from his bowed position. “How long? There’s nothing on the chart,” he asks Sherry.
“I just got here. Bonnie…,” she stops herself, not wanting to level accusations against a co-worker no matter her good-for-nothing reputation. Shrugs her shoulders.
“Contractions. Her water hasn’t broken. I better have a look.” Lifting back the sheet and pulling a stool that rolls and rotates up to the foot of the bed. Peggy’s legs already parted. While he examines, another animal howl. Sherry backs away, a couple of feet, hands to her mouth like she is witnessing something obscene.
“Most I’ve heard from Peggy all year,” Dr. John says, trying to make light of the situation. “Finally got something to say, huh Peg?” he says into Peggy’s pelvis.
“Should I continue my rounds?” Sherry asks, hoping for a reprieve.
“Not yet. I still need you.” Dr. John stands. “Fully dilated. She’s ready whether she knows it or not.” Another squirming convulsion and a moan and, as if on cue, the water gushes from Peggy’s delta.
Dr. John back on the stool. In with his hand, feeling limbs.
“Shit. A breech. No time to move her. Run get Dr. Evans. I need help.”
Sherry, still as a statue. Aghast.
In moments Dr. Evans and a very pale Sherry arrive, Peggy is screaming like a banshee. Other, less self-aware patients on the ward have joined in like a pack of wolves under a full moon.
“You ever?” Dr. John asks.
“Delivered a breech? No,” Dr. Evans says. “Birthing isn’t exactly our specialty here. We’re not set up for it.”
“We should have transferred her to Mercy last week.”
“She’s early. She wasn’t due till next month by our best guess. Too late now, anyway.”
Gurgling, grunting Peggy starts to push, involuntarily, not consciously aware of what is happening.
“See if you can guide the legs. Grasp them and pull forward. Keep them from bending back and lodging,” Dr. Evans says, hunkered down beside Dr. John.
Sherry moistens a towel from a bedside pitcher. Brushes Peggy’s beaded forehead with the damp cloth. Takes Peggy’s hand in hers. Two patients have gathered at bedside. Gawking. Bewitched. Perhaps titillated. She shoos them away. A patient from across the room wails, unprovoked. Another responds.
“Son of a bitch. She’s going to do this on her own,” says Dr. John as Peggy grunts and pushes. He can feel Dr. Evans hot breath on his ear as the older M.D. peers over his shoulder. The tiny legs protrude from the cavity. The buttocks slide out. Dr. John has both hands in Peggy feeling for the arms.
“Now comes the hard part,” says Dr. Evans. “Help me slide her off the end of the bed,” he says to Sherry. “We’ll get her into a squat.”
“What?” asks Dr. John.
“Her instincts have taken over. She can do this. All you have to do is catch.”
Once in a squat, Peggy delivers the final massive push. Done. The baby is cradled in Dr. John’s big soft hands. The baby is blue. The umbilical cord is wrapped three times around the baby’s neck. Dr. Evans reaches under Dr. John’s outstretched hands and lifts the child to his mouth. Three puffs of breathe into the child’s mouth. It sputters and begins to squall. Patients shriek. Peggy howls. Sherry bawls.
“Smart kid. Other way around and the cord would have strangled her,” Dr. Evans says as he severs the umbilical cord with a pocketknife he carries in his trousers.
Dr. John tentatively presents the child to Peggy who looks at her with exactly the same disinterest as she views her meal trays.
8lb. 11oz. Eve Callahan, to be known as Evie, named by her maternal grandparents, comes into the world as some choose to leave it.
Falling feet first.
Dr. Theodore Traynor treats the traumatized. Survivors of armed combat. People who walk away from plane crashes. Who have watched their relatives slaughtered. Victims of abduction and gang rape. He has an amazing success rate of restoring a shell of a life to something closer to its original package, refilling the vessel with healthy emotions. Mr. and Mrs. Callahan are paying Dr. Traynor $500 an hour to bring Peggy back to them. His usual bag of tricks isn’t working.
He has one more ace up his sleeve. It has worked several times before and it has also delivered disastrous results on a few occasions. Instead of his usual method of creating a safe zone for the patient, a road of sunshine and flowers and love and hope, the method that is failing with Peggy and draining the elderly Callahan’s bank account, it involves a brutal confrontation. To cut through Peggy’s veil of denial, Dr. Traynor will force her to relive the horror. Armed with police photographs and the texts of graphic on the scene accounts, Dr. Traynor will brutalize Peggy in order to elicit a response. Peggy, the runaway, the rebel, is tough at her core, Dr. Traynor reasons. She’ll be able to take it and will emerge as if after an icy shower, shocked but renewed. Her mind again as open as her eyes. The Callahans have signed off on the gambit. Peggy didn’t arrive until the Callahans were in their early forties. They were too old for a rambunctious, high spirited daughter. They are certainly too old to raise Evie. She needs her mother. They must take the risk.
There were already signs of hope. Peggy had given up searching for the missing head months ago, before Evie was born. But that was replaced by a walking zombie, a being searching for nothing. At least it was change. A sign that her mind was in a state of flux despite her outwardly static state. She responded to stimulation. Would turn toward a noise, the comment or question of another, but she would not engage. Something was going on in her head, Dr. Traynor said. Something so important and all absorbing that she couldn’t be bothered with the real world. We need to replace that with something equally compelling, even if it’s awful. Peggy feels pain, at least physical pain. She flinches when pricked with a pin. We must use pain to reach her, says Dr. Traynor.
Peggy does, in fact, become responsive. But not in the way they had hoped. Peggy becomes a human parrot. Whatever Dr. Traynor says, whatever her parents say, whatever crazy Louie, the patient who formulates sentences in his mind and recites them backwards, says, Peggy says, not with the intent to mock, not maliciously but matter-of-factly, as if practicing a foreign language, trying to comprehend. She strikes odd poses, an arm outstretched before her in a Nazi-like salute or standing on one leg or her head cocked at an impossible angle. Sometimes she’ll mimic the poses of others but usually the instructions come from within. She will remain contorted for hours unless a well meaning nurse repositions her in a manner deemed more comfortable. Someone would always reposition her but not always with good intentions. Mischievous orderlies would seat her at the door of the ward, arms outstretched, the middle finger of both hands obscenely pointing upward, or both index fingers shoved up to the knuckles in her nostrils, or sucking her thumb. An arm thrust up her robe, fingers in her vagina. The nurses would correct the insult, usually before it could be discovered by Dr. John or Dr. Evans. Most of the games would occur at night, during the third shift.
Peggy was a favorite among the third shift orderlies. A beautiful, flexible, uncomplaining doll. The younger men, testosterone intoxicated, began requesting the usually unpopular late shift. The women and the older married men were only too happy to oblige. The morning nurse began finding Peggy on the bed with her legs spread, toes reaching for the sky or on the floor on all fours, doggy style.
It was the ever observant Dr. Evans who noticed.
Her swollen tummy