Claiborne Barksdale: Fiction: Sept 2021

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I practiced law for 25 years and ran a public education literacy organization in Mississippi for 15 years.

On the Doorstep of Bukowski’s America

Sam is an artist. He paints big, messy, powerful paintings. We’ve been friends for decades but there’s rarely enough time. I don’t see him that often. I’m an entertainment lawyer with an office downtown on the fifteenth floor of a barely-functional, ugly building, and he lives by himself fifteen miles down-valley in a drafty, small stone house, a cottage really, with a detached studio. Surrounded by wildflowers and honey locust trees. In the winter while I’m on a ten a.m. conference call he puts on hiking boots and moleskin pants, a ripped, faded green corduroy jacket with vast swatches of paint all over it, and takes long walks through the woods. In the spring and summer he rides the county backroads on his rebuilt vintage Ducati Corsa in zoris and torn shirts and shorts. A woman is usually tucked up tight and holding on.

By standard conventions Sam isn’t physically attractive. He stoops, drinks too much wine, smokes, has a paunch and bad skin and shaggy hair, once blond now gray, and when he squints through thick glasses you can see his uncared-for teeth. A busy face. He doesn’t believe in air-conditioning or deodorant. He made it to Triple A with the Reds, catcher, before admitting he was too slow and too smart. All he’s got to show for it is what he calls sprung knees.

Women can’t resist him. He knows how he feels about things; he gets to the end of a sentence and stops. He’s on good terms with two of his three ex-wives. 

He’s not a well-known artist, his abstractions don’t go well over people’s sofas: “I’m not a professional fucking decorator, Larry.”

He comes in and out of my life, the large, familiar white bird you’re glad to spot every now and then landing in a tree across a field from you. I’ll run across him in town, usually at the hardware store or the bookstore, and we’ll go to the bar for a mid-afternoon drink. Invariably, just when we’re about to discuss something intimate, something worth talking about, someone will walk up. 

Sam doesn’t mind long, formidable silences. Ask him a question and he’ll stare into space and chew on it for thirty seconds. This makes most people uncomfortable. They think they’ve lost his attention. 

One night I took a date, Sherry Willmott, to a party at his house. It had been snowing all day. The fire was going in his messy studio crowded with loud people and books and overgrown, lush plants and Sam’s three old cats. Sherry was a budding actress who briefly made her mark. Much younger than Sam and I. I introduced them. 

“What may I get you to drink, Sherry?” He said this with a twinkle in his good eye. He had on his green jacket. He needed to wash his hair.

“Rum.” He poured her a drink, and she started chatting him up. I could’ve been a hat rack. Sam didn’t say ten words. The quieter he got the more she sprinkled stardust. As always, he was marvelously polite, nodded and smiled and said, “oh, really” and “ah” at the appropriate places, then excused himself and went back to his other guests, floating around the room like a ship. 

An hour later back in my car I asked her if her feet were as cold as mine. “I can’t feel my toes,” I said.

She sighed and stared out her window, then declared in an urgent, whispery voice, “I am desperately in love with Sam.” 

Another time we had dinner with a beautiful woman up in Baltimore. Elaine somebody, an exotic last name I can’t remember. She needed contract help with some theater-related business. Sam was a last-minute tag along with me. I may have suggested that he could do the scenery for the play. Little Foxes. We ate in a very dark Italian restaurant. Elaine and I talked throughout dinner, Sam concentrated on his fish and wine. Not rude, just quiet, we all drank a lot of wine. 

After a few days I called her. I told her secretary that we’d had dinner, where I was calling from. Elaine picked up the phone: “Is this Sam?”

Last snapshot: I told him about a poet I had gone out with a few times. She was published, serious, taught at Vassar. One day he and I were in the bookstore and I showed him a book of her poems. He opened it at random, read two of them, and handed the book back to me. “That’s not poetry,” he said.

So now here we were, Sam and I, the morning of our third day in the backwoods of North Carolina, two old, sixties progressive patriots set forth on The Children’s Crusade to save the country from galloping fascism, driving through the scruffy, expropriated, rural Blue Ridge foothills, a slightly tonier subset of the grimmer Appalachians, up around Mt. Airy and Pilot. Andy Griffith country, six miles from the Virginia border. We’d eaten greasy breakfast sandwiches and drunk too much coffee. I was driving our rent car. Co-pilot Sam was supposed to be navigating but he kept forgetting how to work the GPS on his phone – he said it stood for Goddamn Piece of Shit – and he was distracting both of us, reading and laughing and shouting out poems by Frank O’Hara and Charles Bukowski and William Carlos Williams. We kept getting lost every other potholed turn in the road. 

We hadn’t been assigned very fertile territory. Signs for the would-be despot were everywhere. The white, rural, totally fucked-over broke-dick poor had been co-opted by the urgent moral imperatives of gays, God and guns. For a while we counted good signs versus bad then quit. It was too depressing. 

When we managed to find a targeted, lonesome, favorable house, we’d pull up in the gravel drive, sit in the car, read a short benedictory poem, usually involving drugs and women who enjoyed horse races and fucking, go up to the house and urge the residents to get out and vote. I carried a trusty stick. This looked like exactly the sort of place where a troublesome dog would sneak up on us.

Mid-morning we were on a back mountain road. It had just about stopped raining. We came to a ramshackle house with the usual random crap strewn the length of the front porch: washing machine, bird cage, ripped sofa, dead plants. 

“Are you sure this is the right place,” I asked. I said it didn’t look like a very progressive household to me, there was a good chance somebody was cooking meth up in there. “Nobody’s coming to the door unless they think we’re Publisher’s Clearinghouse with a fat check.”

Sam looked at the info sheet. “This says woman of the house is with us, doesn’t want anybody to know. Or her stepfather and her boyfriend will take turns beating the shit out of her.” 

“Okay,” I said. “Your turn, Pal. Good luck.” 

He lit a cigarette – a useful prop here in tobacco country – and walked to the house.

I stood in the yard for back up with my dog stick while he dodged large rain puddles, bravely stepped onto the porch, and knocked. No one answered. He knocked again and stepped back from the door so as not to threaten. A rifle might well be aimed at his head. I was about to tell him to come on, let’s go, when a skinny red-head came to the screen door. She was bent over, wearing a loose t-shirt, struggling to hold back a brindled pit bull. I could see her long, tattooed legs and hear music. She had the gaze of a veteran stripper.

In his quietest, most soothing of voices, charming Sam tipped his rainhat to her, introduced himself, said he hoped we weren’t bothering her, and began the spiel: the need to get out and vote, when, where, how. He held out our literature. She didn’t take it, she was wrestling with the dog. She wasn’t listening.

After a minimal chat, she said something to Sam I couldn’t make out and closed the inside door. We went back to the car and headed back into town for lunch.  

“What did she say to you?”

“She said her boyfriend was in there and we needed to leave.”

“Probably for the best.” 

“If democracy is depending on us, Larry, democracy is well-nigh fucked.” 

We headed down the mountain. He read a wonderful, rambling Bukowski about writing, jumping trains, and boarding houses. We pulled into the parking lot of a barbeque joint and studied the menu on the billboard.  

I said, “I’m thinking pulled pork and a beer. You?”

Nothing.

The restaurant door opened and a couple came out and walked to their car. A waitress stared out the window at us.  

Finally, after a full minute of silence, in a hushed voice of childlike bewilderment, genuine wonderment – he might as well have been talking to himself – Sam said, “I had my first really serious girlfriend, Katherine Willoughby, when I was twenty-three. You never met her. This is when I was living in Iowa. In a trailer outside Ames. She was a cardiac ICU nurse, five years older than me. She’d held people’s hearts in her hands. One night she pulled a knife on me, next night she wanted us to get married.”

“Did you love her?”

“Half the time I did.” He laughed to himself then went silent again. The rain started back up. “The rain. That red-headed woman. The smell and music coming out of the house. I remember one October morning not unlike this, Katherine and me, screwing our brains out on the ratty sofa I’d picked up off the side of the road. I remember the rain pounding down on the trailer roof, how the mildewed sofa smelled, how she smelled, the broken springs stabbing me in the ass. Ten-thirty in the morning, the radio on, laughing and fucking in rhythm with Mozart’s Jupiter.” He looked at me. 

“And?”

He shook his big head and said, very slowly, “And that … will never … happen again.”

We ordered our food and sat in the car staring out the windshield, listening to the rain that was really coming down.