Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’ve heard it both ways. I was born at the Boyce Clinic in Hohenwald Tennessee, or at my grandparents’ house in Napier in Lewis County, a defunct ore mining community deserving of a metal sign. They are one and the same. My father was a locomotive mechanic stationed in Belgium at my birth. It was World War Two. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a storyteller and a desired social presence in the community. Everybody wanted to be around him. I spent a great deal of time basking in his glow. My mother had a knack for keeping track of all the goings on in the community, but she had no desire whatsoever to record it on paper. Perhaps it was because her recall was so sharp. She thought everybody was built that way. As far as she was concerned the stories would survive regardless.
And that’s where I come in. Both of them came out in me. I was a sponge. I absorbed it all. Maybe it was the blood, and she was a little bit right.
However, I had no interest in repeating their stories verbally. I could never touch them in that department anyway. I was a television child. At an early age I saw the connection between the stories in my head and the television screen, but my natural medium was paper. I always wanted to be a writer. It felt right to see their stories come to life, more or less permanently. I also learned a story can always be improved on with a little dose of imagination.
That’s where I am. I’ve been at it full time for the last fifteen years nonstop.
You Don’t Meet Many Poets Down at the Slaughterhouse Anymore
Walt waited half asleep at the kitchen table with a little whiskey smoking sweetly in his brain. He waited for the throaty sound of the three hundred and fifty dollar a month Camaro snaking up the lane with its contrails blotting out everything in its wake.
It was about time to go to work, but he drew a lot of slack from Tom owing to his being the best carpenter in the county. Tom knew it too. Even if they were running behind Tom knew Walt would come through in the dark, if he had to.
The Camaro announced itself from half a mile up the blacktop, a roar first heard by the seers on Madison Avenue and passed on to the engineers in Detroit. The sound cut back dully at the mailbox long enough for her to reach out the window, pluck the bills from the mailbox and advance onto the shallow tracks of the lane.
He knew the look she had on her face. Skeptical. Like she thumbed through somebody else’s spending. She didn’t remember it any more than the man in the moon, but why should she? This stuff had to do with matters she left behind a year ago. Now she operated in a whole new universe, one filled with feelings of making things better for a whole new clientele. The blur of the blackberry bushes erased the woman she used to be, the one he knew how to move the levers and get the right results. Now that woman was long gone. The new woman he couldn’t get to. Like somebody cut the cables, and you could work the levers and punch the buttons till you were blue in the face but they only drew thin air. He was still working those levers, and he knew it, but he didn’t know what else to do and that was as comfortable as anything else he could think of. It left him a little hold on reality.
He took another little drink. The bottom of the glass smiled back at him pecan colored. The Camaro jolted to a stop outside the front door rearranging its innards. He glanced at the clock surrounded by an expanse of solid pink. The wall was grainy, cement. He didn’t know of another house like it. He thought about that. It took him as far from the present as a cloud takes a man alone on his back in an open meadow.
The doors sounded in order. He bet the engineers were proud of their three hundred and fifty dollar a month creation. He filed that away in the back of his mind. At least his money was going toward something worth the wheat, like unbowed level studs in a wall. His mind flashed on Tom. He would be waiting too. He gazed at the clock. Not much time left. Even for him. Tom would be getting impatient.
He heard her running up the cement steps. The house had once belonged to a bootlegger, been built by a bootlegger before him, and the first bootlegger built hollow keeps in all his foundations to store product. Apparently he’d witnessed his brothers raided because there was no wood to splinter with axes.
The keeper-spring groaned and sung and she was on the threshold knocking off her shoes just out of his sight. He could see through the wall her flowered cotton print dress heavy on white background and light on tiny gold pansies precious as stones. Her white swan neck dipping down into the hint of separation between her breasts where more pansies congregated due to a natural gather. She rounded the corner with her mouth a straight line and her hair in a new bob, something he’d never seen on her before. Below the new face hung two full paper sacks of groceries she seemed anxious about, either of falling before she reached the kitchen table, or just too heavy for their own good.
“I got eggs,” she said, “Move over out of the way.”
He slid back his chair and watched her like some curiosity heard whispering just past his ear many times in the past but come into the light for the first time.
“He’s coming over tonight for supper.”
Walt clicked his tongue.
“Well, as much as I’d love to stick around and argue about it,” he smiled thinly.
He slid his work boots up under where his hips sat on the edge of the plastic.
“I got to go to work.”
She plopped the groceries down. If she’d been worried about eggs it didn’t show.
“Don’t say nothing tonight,” she pleaded with pale gray eyes. So pale as to be a memory in a faded photograph.
He held up his hands in surrender.
“Far be it from me to raise a fuss over my wife carrying on with another man right under my own roof. Where’s the bills?”
“I left them by the lamp.”
She began to disassemble the grocery bags.
“That’s a good place,” he nodded.
“Don’t say nothing else.”
“What else is there to say?” he retorted with apparent good humor.
She stopped with the milk carried by the neck at the fridge door and gave him half a look. She thought about it for a second. The refrigerator logo stood a weak silver color at her right earring. The fridge’s cold breath played with loose wisps of her hair.
“I guess nothing,” she replied blankly, “Nothing I’ve come across so far.”
He wanted to say something back halfway smart, but he held back. Instead he went into the living room and retrieved the mail. He thumbed through it briefly just the same as he knew she did at the mailbox, but he came up with little hammer blows to his sinking heart with each one whereas she didn’t. He wished he could take their fragile existence so small. They all had numbers. He put them away as best he could for now and went out the door. The day accomplished before him as it had been for some time now. A shelf of white clouds trembled in the heat. They reminded him of an island. Like everybody else he wondered about clouds and islands. Could you live in one? Could you live on the other? He was pretty sure about the island, but it might take some getting used to. The cloud was another story.
His old hound, Roscoe, slithered up twisting and turning into impossible knots, none held for more than a nanosecond, and lifted his head to his knee with his brown ashamed eyes. He’d long ago forgiven Roscoe his henhouse ways, and those days seemed to be done what with arthritis taking over pretty quick, but he carried in him the memory lit behind his eyes like some kind of recurring minor hellfire. Walt reached down and roughed up his ears.
The dog hunkered down on his belly and reveled in the attention.
He gazed up from where he squatted and came eye to eye with the Camaro’s headlamps. The racing stripes rose and peeled back white from the brilliance of the chrome. He rose to his full height to assess the rising cowl bent smooth. The orange paint shone to infinity in the sun. Yes. It was worth it when you looked it over close. He imagined it was probably worth it more behind the wheel but he didn’t venture there. The Camaro was for her and her new life.
He fetched his tool belt from the old cedar porch swing and threw it over his shoulder. The ancient yellow Ford truck awaited to the right of the Camaro. He skipped down the stairs and made a beeline for the swelled door that opened to a voluminous cabin of needled instruments and cracked vinyl. The stick shift stood up like a divider to the halves of the cab. One side was all business while the other looked hollow and felt reserved for observation and negative comment. There was enough room under the hood for a man to sleep there if he was so of a mind. He threw the loaded tool belt in the seat thinking just how she would sound when he turned the key.
On the road in the distance a tiny bullet shaped car labored through the heat plates.
He fired off the motor. The cabin rocked and trembled for a time with the sound of some metallic prehistoric monster choking on another like being and ever so slowly regaining its breath. Without looking back he reversed her and swung back to the opposite side of the Camaro where he promptly ground it in first and took off shambling up the lane with an accompanying barbed wire escort slowly sewing the green background.
The asphalt when he reached it offered up only the resistance of the climb. Not a car in sight in either direction. The front wheels rode up and changed the view skyward momentarily until the back tires caught up and spun the landscape sideways into a black ribbon of gentle curves encompassed by healthy green.
He was on the main road a long time. The needles jiggled in their slots.
He tried not to think about anything during this space of already great remoteness. No good could come of him dwelling on the past. How to fix it. That was the problem. He’d been working on it for a year and didn’t seem to be making much headway.
A small billboard on the right announced Friar’s Landing. He turned the truck’s nose into a former logging road now dusty talc and evolving still further in the near future to cement. The gate to the community was going in ahead of schedule. Stacks of brick lined the road and the pedestals took shape vertically. The wrought iron lettering lay flat on the ground out of order on a canvas. Completed homes not yet occupied began to appear on both sides of the street with their patchwork sods and myriad sprinklers flashing stored light in every imaginable direction. Then the stark hulls took over and spread up side streets like thrown dice. He pulled into a debris strewn dirt yard with driveway footers staked out and cut the switch.
Monk was already on break smoking a cigarette. Monk was a burnt wick of a man perpetually somebody’s apprentice. A jack-of-all-trades who never graduated.
Walt leaned out the window.
“What kind of a mood is he in?”
Monk showed his teeth. They were incredibly bright against his brown skin.
“Good. Good for me, so I guess great for you.”
Walt nodded and got out. He fetched up his tool belt.
“I’m thinkin about leavin him,” Monk said.
He studied the more interesting end of his cigarette like he had a philosophy on employers and Tom violated one of his rules.
Monk thought it over.
“I don’t know exactly.”
“Where would you go?”
“To the slaughterhouse over in Reston. Pays thirteen dollars an hour. That’s two dollars better than Tom.”
“Well, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”
Monk looked a long way off. Then he regained himself and squinted at Walt.
“You interested? We could split the drivin.”
“No. Not me. I’m not going anywhere.”
Monk ground his skinny rump into the dry cement bag.
“Well, thought I’d ask.”
“Appreciate you thinking of me, Monk. By the way, you got a car? I’ve never seen you in one.”
Monk flipped the half smoked smoke off into a pile of jagged glass.
“Oh, alright then. Guess I better get to it. We got to keep that good mood going for another eight or nine hours.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
Walt turned his back and walked from sun to shade over to where Tom’s extension ladder leaned against the only built-out wall. They were awaiting supplies for the rest, but it was framed out and the roof on. He fetched up the ladder, slid the halves about two thirds of the way full and swung it into place where he left off. A bundle of shingles already waited at the top, but he hoisted a second on his shoulder and ascended to make up time lost.
He toiled slowly, carefully making sure each shingle leveled in place before knocking it down with his nail gun. A neat row of shingles accumulated quickly to the heavens. It felt like he was getting too close to the sun. He didn’t like going back though and his process was both smooth and efficient. The sun tracked his progress mercilessly through the morning hours while he watched Monk down below through another smoke break and came out the other side. Monk looked like his body went straight down from his head to his feet with nothing in between, a stomped on version of the spindly copper man with the perpetual cigarette and the outraged expression. Down again for more materials. He stopped to take a draught of Gatorade from Tom’s cooler and swabbed his face and neck with a wet handkerchief Jody gave him for Christmas, one of a boxed set. He thought there were five, all colored brightly, differently, one for each day of the work week. Monk was gone when he looked up, and he guessed Tom’s good mood was holding out because he heard no conversation from the other side of the wall, only drywall being tacked in with gentle taps.
He grabbed another load of shingles and commenced up the ladder. It was a little harder this time, but he recognized the pull of the sinew in his legs as still pretty low on the scale of where it would be by evening and it heartened his efforts in that way a man has of gauging his remaining strength at any particular hour of the work day. At noon he came down and ate his lunch alone. Tom and Monk had already been there looking up at him while they chewed their sandwiches like another species at the zoo studying their neighbor. With all the wrappers stuffed inside he closed the cold pack firmly, took a deep breath and once again ascended the ladder.
He didn’t know why, but something he couldn’t name urged him on. The shingles flew in place like some hand from heaven flung them there. He had only to shoot compressed air from the nail gun. When he looked up he was peeking over the edge to the other side. When he turned Tom stared up at him, nodded, grinned big as a Cheshire cat and got into his truck. Monk was already inside smoking out the passenger window, and the fire was climbing the hair of his arm.
By the time he got home his own arm had gone numb. The dark overtook him somewhere on the road, and the house was shyly lit like remorseful eyes. Steve’s old blue and white van was there parked in his spot next to the Camaro. The hydraulic lift in back shone silver in his headlights. He half circled both vehicles and parked perpendicular at the nose of each.
Wearily he got out, closed the door and hoisted his tool belt from the back to his shoulder. Roscoe sought him out in the dark, a shadowy figure of phantom leaps with an erratic wet nose brushing his hand. Walt ignored him and made his way up the sidewalk. Finally Roscoe gave up and skulked off into the darkness. He climbed the hollow steps and tossed the tool belt onto the porch swing to announce himself. Stepping into the light at the door he moved half inside and sized things up.
Steve’s crutches leaned against the immediate wall. He turned toward the kitchen. The table was set. Steve sat at the table with his eyes coming out of his head. He didn’t look up. Ramona flitted about the stove in a crisp white dress gathering up steaming food on white platters and scalloped bowls of various rainbow hue. She had on makeup. He’d not seen her looking so pretty in quite a long time, certainly not in the house with just the two of them. She smiled thinly Walt’s way. The smile ran away from her face in a hurry as he surveyed Steve with a wicked frown. Each setting had on its right a burgundy cut glass of iced tea. When he looked back Steve was sipping on his.
“Evening, Steve,” he said deadpan.
Steve sipped on the tea seemingly intent on boring a hole in the wall.
Walt crossed the linoleum. After awhile in which he washed his hands in the kitchen sink Steve answered.
By this time Ramona finished ushering food to the table.
“Well, now,” she said in a kind of singsongy breath.
She clapped her hands together feigning appetite. Walt gave her a look. Then he made a beeline to the cabinet and retrieved the mostly empty whiskey bottle.
“Drink, Steve?” he asked in a deliberately husky voice.
Ramona gave him a dirty look. Without waiting for an answer he extracted two glasses between his fingers and traversed the floor back to the table.
“Let’s eat then,” Ramona offered nervously in the same singsongy voice.
Walt heard it a lot since Steve came into their lives. He pulled the head-of-the-table chair from its slot and seated himself. He then proceeded to fill both glasses with whiskey and offered one to Steve. Steve refused with a vehement nod of his partly skinned head while Ramona looked on alarmed from high above. He inhaled the aroma of fear.
“Suit yourself. Looks good, honey.”
He looked over the table approvingly. Then he winked at her. Ramona took her seat with some trepidation. Steve stole a glance at him with those wild tormented eyes. Then he was all face forward again staring hard into Ramona’s breast. She looked a little embarrassed.
For some time he’d been catching little glimpses of other women who looked a lot like her only to find they weren’t the woman he married when he got up close. This was one of those times.
They passed the food around in silence. He ate with a hearty appetite. Steve played with his food. So did Ramona.
“Is it not any good?” he inquired of Steve.
Steve stiffened. For all his scrambled brains he could still recognize threat.
“Yeah, it’s good.”
“Then why aren’t you eating?”
“I don’t know.”
Ramona bit her lip. He could tell she was either about to explode, or disappear, one of the two, but he didn’t know which. He decided to roll the dice.
“Tell me, Steve. Why does somebody pick blackberries in the dark?”
Steve looked at Ramona.
“Best time,” he finally croaked.
“Best time,” Walt let the words roll off his tongue, “Best time. Best time.”
He threw back the other shot and placed the glass gently on the table.
“That was wonderful, honey. I need a cigarette now. Nothing like a smoke after a great meal.”
He scooted his chair back from the table, rose and exited the kitchen. He fumbled for the doorknob on the way out, his blood like needles in his veins. Outside he got his breath looking off into a purple cloud massed the length of the dark blue sky. His body took to the hard contours of the porch swing and he worked up a cigarette in the dark. When it got going good Steve came out on his V. A. legs. He clambered to the top step and laboriously collapsed his collective bulk on the concrete with crutches splayed on either side.
“Nice out here,” Steve mused.
“You don’t get me, do you?”
“No, Steve. I don’t get you.”
“I don’t get me either.”
Walt thought about that. He puffed on the smoke while he crafted a response.
“Listen, Steve. I don’t hate you. I just hate I don’t have a boy anymore.”
The blood rushed through his head like a tidal wave just for saying it.
Steve nodded his head repeatedly as if it sat on a broken swivel.
“She don’t fuck me.”
Steve made it sound like a complaint, but he figured that might be the PTSD coloring what he meant.
“I didn’t think she did,” he lied.
Then there came a long uncomfortable silence as though they’d both risked a lot and came out the better for it though they expected something way different.
“Well, Walter. I guess I better go home now.”
“You need any help?”
“No. The V. A. is going to redo me. She tell you?”
He pulled on the cigarette. Steve rose clumsily on the alloy and drew the crutches to him.
“Yeah. They’re going to fix me inside and out.”
“Well, good luck to you, Steve.”
Steve alternated crutches down the steps and on the sidewalk edges to the van. Walt heard him get in though he couldn’t see him. The headlights came up and he watched the twin beams progress out the lane till they were pins. Then he took a last pull on the cigarette and went inside.
The next day was a workday, a Thursday. There’d been no argument, just a whole lot of quiet, not quite silence though. Silence was fragile. Quiet had a comfort to it. She was still one of those other women though, a lookalike, perhaps a little softer, a more pleasing version than any of those occupying her body up till now.
He let the whiskey go for the day. He brewed a pot of coffee, drank a single cup, removed the grounds so it wouldn’t get bitter and looked in on her before leaving the house. She lay wrapped in a tangle of white breathing softly through her mouth. Little anonymous whispered sounds played around the vicinity of her head and her hair spilled neatly on the pillow.
He drove down to the Tip Top and sat for a plate of eggs. He guessed this was the last diner in the world where you could still see a sailboat hat. The early early crowd had already been through and the early crowd was just accumulating. Big shiny trucks with big bank notes against them took up most of the plate glass. Rough looking men with their faces polished like imperfect new moons awaited their eggs at tables of four nursing coffee. Each at his right hand a pack of cigarettes in precisely the same spot. Some were ahead of the game smoking. Others held out for low talk. Still others participated in both, loving their smokes with their fingers.
He passed through to the counter acknowledging nods as he went. He eased down on a stool at the counter. Robin tentatively eyeballed him from behind the silver quadruple coffeemaker. He smiled. She winked in return and went about her business of repacking the filters with new grounds and setting them off with cold water.
He ordered from Louise. She wasn’t gone more than three minutes before she was back with a steaming platter. He cut up his eggs crossways and wolfed it all down with the general buzz of the diner working at the fringe of his brain. Then somebody ventured a dollar in the jukebox and that was enough to make him glad for the door. He left a hefty tip.
When he got to work Monk waited on break smoking a cigarette like he always seemed to be. He thought there ought to be a statue of Monk somewhere in malingerers hall of fame.
Monk saluted him with his smoke.
“Well, I’m goin,” Monk volunteered.
“Yeah,” Monk craned his neck like he’d just bought a yacht, “Start on Monday. They made me a good offer. Sure you won’t change your mind?”
“Well, fifteen dollars a hour ain’t nothin to sneeze at,” he crowed.
“Well, they got them a good man,” Walt remarked.
Monk digested this. His brow furrowed. Then he seemed to run it through some kind truth test in his brain and when he got to the point he thought there might be something to it he looked back a little quizzically.
“Just one thing, Walt?”
“Which’d you rather kill, pigs or cows? I got my choice.”
“To tell you the truth, neither one.”
“Yeah, but if you had to pick?”
“Is this one of those questions like whether you’d rather freeze to death or burn?”
Monk thought it over.
“Naw. Nothin like that.”
“Well, pigs then.”
“They’re ugly. Cows are sweet.”
Monk scratched his head with the lit cigarette.
“I guess that’s the truth,” he said resolutely.
“How’s Tom?” Walt wanted to know.
Monk came back to earth.
“Oh, he’s good. I told him and he’s still good.”
“Well, I reckon I better get to it.”
Walt gestured toward the roof.
That evening he got off early. The roof was done and the rest of the wall materials were due the next morning, so Tom figured on an early start on Friday for everybody, including Monk who’d begun to make noises about needing a little breathing room. But Tom said payday wasn’t until after work Friday.
He decided the time was ripe to visit Hammer on the way home. He’d been meaning to for a week, but too many things got in the way. Robbie Hammersmith and he had been best friends since second grade. Robbie couldn’t take the world after the millennium though, what with everybody on an ever tightening hair trigger and nobody willing to take responsibility for anything, much less themselves. He especially hated the politicians who didn’t set the fires but handed out the matches like candy.
Robbie was a political prisoner by nature and a flower child by choice. He lived in an old falling-down farmhouse several low water bridges and a half dozen dirt roads from town with tenuous power connections the county hadn’t got to yet and might never get to. He did it the old fashioned way, retailing weed. Walt had a deal with Robbie that probably benefited one over the other, but it was hard to tell which. Walt fronted him money to purchase bulk marijuana from a mystery source in Panama City. Robbie did the roadwork and ran all the risk while Walt supported Robbie’s fragile hold on the times.
Robbie was fond of the beat poets of the fifties. No one knew why, maybe not even Robbie himself. Walt couldn’t remember them ever coming up in all their association, but Robbie had them any way you could get them, paperback, hardbound, looseleaf and on his secondhand Dell hard drive in case of fire. His favorites were the founders, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac, but he had them all.
Walt watched the house slowly take shape in a grove of muscular sweet gums through the curve in his windshield. It looked like something Bette Davis might prefer. The paint was gone. The eaves trembled with leaves from seasons gone by. He doused the low beams in the picture window to let Robbie know he’d arrived. One of his lamps died in a spiderweb of partially broken glass. Then he got out and stood in the fold of the door stretching his legs to give his friend a little time to peek out from behind the sheet hung over the window.
Robbie opened the door and disappeared back into the house leaving the door ajar. That was their signal. Walt trod the distance to the front door past stems of head high goldenrod and crabgrass the size of cabbages on a narrow footpath of packed dirt.
He ventured his head inside ahead of his body.
Robbie came back to the door carrying two beers. He wore impossibly faded jeans and a worn out black tee shirt with Allen Ginsburg’s crazed kisser plastered on the front.
“Come on in,” he said in a low voice, “Deb’s taking a bath.”
He motioned Walt into the dark musty living room. It was littered with beanbag chairs, dated electronics and heavy glass ashtrays of every translucent hue. Two giant orange cats with enormous golden eyes moved sullenly to one side like liquid, jelled in place and watched his progress over their shoulders. He walked deliberately feeling his way till he reached a pool of multicolored light cast on the wood floor by the big screen TV. There he chose his chair and turned to Robbie. The TV was silenced by Robbie beforehand, probably before he ever got to the house. Robbie had a sixth sense about such things, and though he’d phoned he couldn’t help but feel Robbie had his antennae on him for some distance.
Robbie handed him a beer.
“Good to see you.”
By his smile he meant it.
“I got your part in the bedroom.”
“No hurry. Good to see you, Hammer.”
Robbie swept the room with his off hand. Walt settled into a cracked brown leather chair with brass buttons festooned down both arms. It didn’t have a bottom, so he felt suddenly smaller. He lay his arms across the chair arms even with his shoulders and looked across at Robbie with flickering light crawling all over him.
“You got time to do one?”
Walt knew this was coming. He eyeballed his electric friend for a short time.
“Not this time. It’s already getting dark.”
“Mind if I do?”
“No. Of course not. Go ahead.”
Robbie drew a perfectly rolled joint from a knock off pack he had at his side on the end table. He fired it off with a book of paper matches tucked in the cellophane pack. He inhaled deeply till it glowed red and held the smoke. Walt watched him. The cats watched Walt. Robbie blew out the smoke. It seemed to take forever.
“Say, you remember The Night Porter?”
Robbie gestured with the joint.
“It’s a movie. Italian. From 1974. Deb and I are going to watch it tonight. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling after the war in a cheap hotel. He was a Nazi jailer hiding out after the war. She was an ex-prisoner, Jewish, but she never got out in her head, you know? He makes her crawl around on her knees for sweet jam and cheese, really creepy.”
“I don’t believe I know it.”
“Well, do you know how rare it is on DVD?”
Walt took a plug of his beer.
“Real rare. I’m not a collector, but I bet somebody would pay through the nose.”
“And you identify with somebody in the film?”
“Both, I guess. Her more than him. The mind is a strange place, Walt. It can free us in a box, or lock us up in a universe.”
Robbie inhaled again and held the lit joint at distance judging it.
“How’s it going with you and Ramona?” he managed the question with his lungs full.
“There’s some things….” Walt began.
He stopped and shook his head.
“Well, to tell the truth, I just don’t get it, Hammer.”
The words rushed out.
“I mean I was over there too.”
“So you were.”
Robbie gave him that faraway look of his.
“Over there you were strong or you weren’t. I was strong. I came back whole. I came back for them. Ramona was a good mother. She loved Jody better than anything. I get back and try to miss this guy with my car that, unfortunately, didn’t come back whole and my boy ends up dead and my wife freaks out and takes up with the guy who caused the wreck that killed him.”
Walt felt obligated to take a long pull of beer to cover his embarrassment at the way the words ran from his mouth in such a hurry. Robbie studied him across the dancing light. Allen Ginsburg seemed to be laughing now.
“Maybe he wanted you to hit him.”
“I thought of that. He may have.”
“Maybe he wanted you to hit him and you didn’t hit him hard enough and now he’s burning down your house.”
Robbie jabbed the air with the half smoked joint.
“Karma went out before we got to middle school, Hammer.”
Walt could see his friend’s brain stall momentarily as he digested this news. He took a swig of beer. Then Robbie seemed to seize on the first thing to come along. Robbie had a way of doing that. You never stumped him though you never came away satisfied with whatever new direction he took either.
“It didn’t go out, Walt. Computers drove it underground,” Robbie crowed triumphantly, “It’ll come back when people find out they got gypped.”
Walt had to admit he was impressed. It wasn’t often Robbie’s pronouncements made this much sense. He thought he’d follow it a little farther down the line.
“When people get over themselves,” Robbie stated thoughtfully, “All that narcissism unleashed at one time is a bad thing though. Could take a while.”
Walt let it go. He didn’t think he wanted to hear how the world would fall into another dark age and reconstitute itself enlightened on the other side. The joint was now a roach and Robbie didn’t need to smoke roaches anymore. He was much too prosperous though you wouldn’t know it by how he lived.
“Well, I guess I’ll say adios then.”
He didn’t say Ramona would wonder where he was like he usually did because he was the one doing all the wondering these days. He struggled up from deep in the bowels of the chair.
“Okay, brother. I’ll get your part. Be right back.”
Allen Ginsburg rose broad as a billboard and Robbie’s back exited the room in the streaming light waves. The cats watched Walt as he imagined they might a suspicious new toy.
“Skoal,” he saluted his watchers and took a gulp.
The cats’ eyes flickered somewhat alarmed but not alarmed enough to move from where they lay ensconced. He wondered what kind of shape their brains were in considering the secondhand smoke. But then again cats were whacked at birth. They couldn’t be too much worse off. He took a another gulp and placed the half empty bottle in the ring Robbie left on the table. Robbie came back, smiled broadly and handed Walt three hundred and twenty dollars in old crumpled twenties.
“Thanks, Hammer,” Walt patted Robbie on the back, “Why don’t you clean up and run for office? You could prevent the apocalypse.”
“No way. You know me. I’m not made for what passes for freedom in this country nowadays, but I’ll be there to pounce when the atmosphere clears.”
“So very true,” Walt observed, “Good luck. See you in a month or two.”
“See you, Walt. Take care of yourself, hear?”
“I will,” Walt answered solemnly.
Then when they got to the door Robbie’s mood took a sharp turn.
“Charlotte Rampling!” he cackled.
He mugged for a Walt halved between between fading electricity and rushing night. Walt took his performance with good humor and retraced his steps past the now black goldenrod heads stark against the gray. The crabgrass was hopelessly lost in the dark. The sky had a purple cast to it in the middle distance. Only a thin ribbon of slate between them. He heard Robbie shrieking far off. Like a madman he kept calling the name of Charlotte Rampling.
Walt grinned big as the dark swallowed him whole. Some things would never change and Robbie Hammersmith was surely one of them. In light of his current situation he took a little comfort in that, but it didn’t hold the long term warmth he craved.
He didn’t go home. At the main turn on the highway a whim took hold of him and he drove the other way. The lost sky ran with sculpted creations of amazingly bright white clouds against a bruised window in a falling line on either side of the road. Coming to a point somewhere in his future, he knew not where. It felt friendly and foreign at the same time to be approaching where he lost Jody. Ramona too but via a different route and further down the line. He slowed the truck’s progress. The blackberry patch came up on the left phosphorescent and beat down from a recent deluge. The asphalt shone silver and black. He pulled off onto the shoulder, cut the switch and sat. He sat for a long time looking at the spot. Nothing moved. The blackberry bushes gave back a million little pins of yellow light in the corner of his eye. The highway was cleaned up except for the orange paint from the accident report. The only other trace that remained was two raw red ruts veering off the road into the pines. The ruts were deep and he recognized the worn tread in the clay as the Pontiac’s, one side on each a bit deeper than the other. He half expected Steve to come barreling through somewhere along the stand at the edge of the trees like a clattering metal maniac, bucket in hand, the blackberries about to fly.
He waited. No one came. It seemed all traffic avoided him, perhaps out of kindness but maybe just to keep safe of him. He told himself his leg was going to sleep, so he got out and stood in the fold of the door for a while. Here he could taste the blackberries in the air. Apparently the shower ignited the sweet aroma and sent it rising adrift in the doldrums. He waited and waited. Nothing happened to tip the scales in his head one way or the other. He got back in the truck, turned her over and drove away.
Monk showed up for work on Friday driving a pay-by-the-week 96 Mazda. The motor was running on constant choke. He grinned from ear to ear as he glided in, the car’s various parts scattering in a thousand different directions at once. When he shut it down and dismounted he didn’t have his customary cigarette between his lips. This was the first time Walt could remember Monk without fire. He thought about it. Something monumental was surely in the works but he didn’t know what, something beyond the slaughterhouse.
“I guess you’re going?”
“Yeah, I’m goin. Got me a slick deal.”
Monk’s face lit up like a Christmas tree.
“Is that right?”
“Yeah. Last chance. You comin?”
“No. I guess not.”
“Your loss then.”
Monk looked away down the freshly paved street stroking his coarse stubble.
“Say, you got a cigarette?”
Walt thought it over. Monk usually bought cigarettes over milk and bread.
“Did you give cigarette money for the down payment?” he inquired.
“Naw. I’m just short on payday. I bet you are too.”
Monk avoided Walt’s eyes.
“Well, you got me there.”
Walt let him off the hook. Monk came to life and rubbed his hands together vigorously.
“I guess we better get at it then. Tom here?”
“Behind that wall.” Walt pointed.
“I wonder if he’s got a cigarette?”
Monk sprung from the spot and rounded the corner. Walt could hear him formally reporting for duty. Walt went about his business framing out the three car garage. It took most of the day without coming into contact with the two men on the other side of living room wall. The day went relatively rapidly with the sun clocking to his eye in a visible arc.
Monk’s car stood watching leaning uneasily to one side. The car’s owner didn’t come around at break. Walt imagined him behind the wall entertaining Tom to the best of his ability in order to keep the smokes coming, but Tom was no fool and Monk must have had to put out at a rate he was unaccustomed to, so for once Tom was getting his money’s worth.
Late in the day Monk emerged around the wall at a run. Walt was seated on a cement block drinking Gatorade.
Without looking back Monk threw his spindly frame behind the wheel, made the motor cough then explode and took off down the street giving off electric static. Walt went around the wall.
“How’d he do?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Tom responded shaking his head, “If I could get him to work half that hard three days a week I’d eat the other two.”
“Well, I’m through.”
Tom mopped his deeply tanned brow with a dark blue bandanna.
“All right. Let’s call it a day. We won’t work till Monday. That suit you?”
Tom looked at the quaking blue sky and squinted.
“Rain’s supposed to be fifty fifty tomorrow anyway. I think we’re running a little ahead, don’t you?”
“Yeah, that’s what I think.”
“Well, here’s your check, Walt. I appreciate you.”
“I appreciate you too. See you Monday.”
Saturday morning brought the aftermath of a hard shower somewhere in the middle of the night. The grass glistened all the way to the road where it entertained a pencil mark break of gray and carried on into infinity. The Camaro stood with big beads of translucent black water the sun moved at will. The pickup drank the rain and looked dull as ever, as though there’d been no shower.
She slept in.
Walt got up and brewed coffee sitting in the porch swing. When it was done he fetched a cup and moved into the living room rocker and muted the news. After awhile she arose, put on her robe and went into the bathroom. He caught a glimpse of her passing through the hall with her hair strewn about. She didn’t look at him on purpose. Thirty minutes later she emerged every hair in place wearing makeup.
“I’ll make pancakes.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I want to,” she announced.
“You want thick or thin?”
“Thin. Stacked high.”
She rummaged around in the kitchen. He could hear her extract the electric tray from the pantry and place it on the counter. Then came the clop of batter falling to a bowl and the sizzle of water. The electric mixer whirred.
He stared into the belly of the coffee cup. Something felt different. Normally she’d be gone by now headed to Steve’s. To cook or clean or whatever he needed and the day called for. He got up and went to refill his cup. She had butter spattering on the grill with great ferocity and the batter hoisted up under her arm, poised to pour. She looked up just briefly and he saw in her eyes something amiss. She withdrew the look at lightning speed and adopted a casual slope to her shoulders. He looked at the clock on the wall.
“Aren’t you running late?”
“I’m not going today.”
She made it sound like a confession. He poured a fresh cup and nodded to himself.
“Well,” he said.
He didn’t dare say anything more for fear it would tear up the mood.
Instead he returned to the rocker. Cartoons overtook the news, really silly cartoons he couldn’t stand though Jody taught him there were good ones. He shut it off, sipped the coffee and rocked gently wondering what came next. They hadn’t been here in over year though a few kind words didn’t amount to an old yesterday. There is nothing so frighteningly beautiful as a woman changing her mind. It might happen in an instant or it might take weeks, but it required of a man an even temperament and in the latter case a lot of patience. He decided to be deferential and bide his time. The time would probably go proportionally to the weight of the blow. He ambled into the kitchen and sat at the formica like the old days. She glanced at him from behind a frill in the apron strap of her left shoulder. He sipped his cup. She tended the pancakes, a solid half dozen of them, bubbling white. She tested the edges with the spatula.
She made the sign with the spatula.
“Hear it rain?”
“Yes, about two o’clock. It come a hard shower. Lasted about thirty minutes, I guess.”
She frowned on the pancakes as though she wished they would hurry up and be done before small talk edged off into weightier matters. He nodded.
“You want juice?”
He got up from the table and made a beeline for the refrigerator.
“I like your hair,” he said from afar.
She ran one hand over her new haircut to smooth it.
“Time for something different.”
She shrugged her shoulders sounding unsure. He poured orange juice from a carton into a short squat glass with a tilted rim.
“Well, it’s nice.”
She flipped the cakes on the grill and pressed them down.
“Monk quit Tom.”
She looked up and she wasn’t trying to protect herself anymore. She looked genuinely caught up in the conversation.
“Went to the slaughterhouse.”
“More money, he says. Bought him a car.”
“Will he stay?”
“I don’t know. You got to be a special breed to work there, but if he ain’t lying he’d be making more money than he’s ever made in his life.”
She stopped and thought about it.
“Walt, let’s let this slaughterhouse talk go during breakfast.”
“Yours is ready.”
“Pipe it to me,” he said.
She stacked the cakes and handed him the full plate. Then she poured six more and stood fussing over them. He slathered the cakes with butter taking care each layer got a pat and poured hot syrup over all till it stood at the rim.
“How many you want?”
“You eat them,” he pointed, “Then pour me another half dozen. I’ll tend them while you eat.”
She nodded. They ate in silence. To Walt it felt a little normal. He had no idea where she was but it was somewhere past Steve. While he tended his seconds she finished. He watched her watching him with the napkin to her mouth. Presumably she critiqued him flipping pancakes but it could have been more. Better not to get ahead of himself.
“What are you going to do with your day?” he asked as he sat back down and began buttering.
He took care not to look at her directly. She put down the napkin.
“I don’t know.”
“Do we need groceries?”
“Yes. Yes, we do.”
“Then I’ll do that. Is there a list?”
“Then I’ll make one.”
She got up from the table and proceeded to stick her head in the pantry.
“Here’s money on the table.”
He extracted Robbie’s dope money from his pocket and laid it on the table near her dirty plate.
“What are you going to do today?”
Her voice was caught in a bell.
“Well, first I’m doing these dishes. Then I think I’ll watch the ball game and maybe take a nap.”
He gathered the dirty dishes. He squirted Dawn in the sink and doused the blue spot full blast with hot water. She reappeared and totted down notes.
When she returned home she wore a flowered dress he’d never seen before. He helped her unload groceries and lay back down on the sofa. He didn’t say anything about the dress though he wondered. She went about her business of sorting and storing the food. Then she sashayed through the living room into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
At bedtime he crawled into the bed beside her. She appeared to be asleep but he couldn’t be sure. Her breath hung a little shallow in the air. The flowered dress hung on an over-the-door hook. He couldn’t be sure it was deliberate but he thought so. After awhile a night shower came along to put him to sleep. He awoke to the red glow of the numbers on the nightstand clock. He rolled on his side to find she wasn’t there, just her shape sunk in the sheet. He didn’t call her name. Instead he arose and traipsed down the hall getting his bearings. He thought he knew where she would be, for better or worse. He went to the doorway of Jody’s room and gazed into the quarter-light dispersed on the floor. The bears on the bedspread gaped at her sitting naked against the wall. She looked up at him blankly. She had a somewhat welcoming look to her mouth.
“I’ve been thinking of letting you go.”
She spoke softly.
“No,” he shook his head, “No, you’re not. You’re coming back to bed.”
He could tell how her eyes cut the light she heard him. Then she seemed to digest what he said and put it up for consideration.
“And leave that gun where it’s at on the floor.”
She looked where the pistol lay as though surprised to find it there. She gave him a wan smile. He eased over and offered his hand. She took it. He lifted her off the floor and guided her down the hall into their bedroom. Her skin felt foreign, remote. She allowed herself to be neatly placed into the hollow where she lay formerly and nestled there with no word on her lips, just the yellow pins of her eyes appraising him like some small half wild creature caught up out of the woods. He gently planted one hand on her hip, let it rest there for a time and when he thought it safe closed his eyes.
He repeated the ritual with her twice more during the night. The gun disappeared from the floor while she slept. On Sunday she slept well past noon while he awoke ragged and worn and relived the demons of the night. She’d been walking a fine line and now he had to match her step for step. He wasn’t sure he was up to it, but he set his jaw in the rocker, coffee in hand, and awaited her waking. At quarter of one she emerged from the bedroom fully dressed. She must have used a compact mirror for she wore red lipstick and every hair was tucked in. She wore the new dress. He was still in the rocking chair empty cup in hand.
“Where are you going?”
“Out for a little while.”
He nodded and chewed on it a little bit while she stood there seemingly unable to move without his blessing.
“No. Steve’s getting fixed. He doesn’t need me.”
She looked away.
She patted her foot on the floor impatiently.
“Just out. Can’t I go out without your having every little detail?”
“Yes, but last night got me a little more concerned than I might otherwise be. You can see why that might be, can’t you?”
She bit her lip.
“Yes,” she admitted.
“I won’t say.”
“Will you be good then?”
“You know what I mean, don’t you?”
“What do I mean?”
“I won’t hurt myself.”
She started for the door then stopped on a dime in front of him.
“What will you do?” she wanted to know.
“Nothing. I’ll be right here.”
“You won’t follow me?”
“No. I’ll make me something to eat.”
His eyes met hers full. She looked inward far harder than he’d been during his interrogation of her.
“Okay,” she finally said, “I’ll be back.”
She practically ran out the door, negotiated the steps in her low heels and climbed into the Camaro, firing off the motor and rumbling up the lane with pent up anger. The wheels slewed dangerously in the ninety and threw red rock like they always did when she had something on her mind and sometimes when she didn’t.
He was good as his word. He thawed some ground beef under the hot water tap and opened a can of Manwich. When the red concoction bubbled he laid out six slices of white bread on two paper plates and slathered on mustard. He sat and ate every bite at the kitchen table staring out the window after the Camaro like it left cardboard likenesses strung down the road. He put the dirty skillet in the sink, ran hot water over half of it and threw in the fork. Then he lay down on the couch and slept for a long while.
The Camaro came back at dark. It ceased its roar in her accustomed niche. He heard it just that way and knew it was her and not some stranger come bearing bad news. He also knew the news could be just as bad with her the bearer. He relaxed a little but didn’t bother to get up. She came through the door with a kind of repressed rage playing at her lips as though she held something in that, once loosed, might set them back from where they began the day. She kicked off her shoes on the small rug set there by her own hand. His gaze fell to the discarded shoes. There was mud caked around the soles. The shoes were dazzling white when she left and now they were smudged all over.
“Well, hello,” he said.
She didn’t answer. The dress didn’t look right anymore either. The big flowers had ill defined black specks between them from the waist down.
“What did you do?” she demanded.
“Slept. What did you do?”
She looked down at the shoes.
“I went to see Jody.”
He raised up off the couch expectantly.
“Okay. Why don’t you sit down and tell me about it.”
She surveyed the living room and frowned.
“The kitchen?” he suggested.
In their married life family matters had always been dealt with at the kitchen table. She nodded assent. He got up. She went ahead of him and assumed her accustomed spot at the table. He lazed his way in and quietly took his seat at the head of the table. There was a tension in the air between them but it didn’t feel deadly, just slightly edged like a just honed knife. You had to be wary of it the first using. She put her elbows on the table, cupped her chin in both hands and gazed pensively out the window. The air in the room felt unbearably thin. Her eyes had a faraway quality to them, something like Monk’s.
“You go first,” he said, “I need to know what I’m up against.”
She thought it over. Her mind seemed to work maddeningly slow.
“You didn’t get him a stone,” she declared softly.
He felt like she hit him with a cushion.
“Oh. Well, that’s right. I’d been meaning to, but I had my hands full.”
“I think our boy ought to have a stone,” she stated succinctly.
“Yeah. Me too.”
“He’s the only one out there that don’t have one.”
He felt so relieved he could hardly stand it but he couldn’t let her know. He thought the house of cards they’d constructed together over the last couple of days might collapse.
“Yeah. I thought about it.”
He nodded his head.
“So we go out and look,” he responded with a small open smile, “I’ll get Tom to let me off early tomorrow.”
“All right then,” she said.
She got up from the table and disappeared into the bedroom. After a while she came back out wearing a peasant blouse and a pair of faded jeans.
On Monday he went to work in a good mood. This latest iteration of Ramona made him think maybe they’d turned some decisive corner and there wouldn’t be any going back. All he had to do was keep her between the guard rails. He put on a big grin for himself in the yellowed rear view mirror. Tom had drywall stacked on the ground near the garage and fresh mud buckets placed strategically along the wall awaiting his arrival. It took two to heave the drywall in place due to the extraordinary height of the three car garage. Half the morning ran by with the two of them working steadily.
At break time Monk rolled up in the coughing Mazda. He flashed his teeth out the window and killed the switch their side of the Ford pickup. Walt looked at Tom. Tom didn’t let on anything. He just calmly mopped his brow. A word came to his lips as Monk got out but it never sounded. Walt couldn’t tell if it was for good, or bad, or just the patience most people had to exercise with Monk. Monk closed on them quickly looking a shade more charred with each step.
“Well, would you look at this,” Tom uttered, “The prodigal son returns.”
Monk whirled and looked behind him to discover who Tom meant.
“He means you, Monk.”
Walt spoke up. He felt like he owed it to Tom to keep him from having to go through a long dissertation from the Bible. Monk’s mind finally skipped ahead.
“Oh, okay then….”
“Oh, well sir…..”
Monk propped one foot on a broken concrete block and lit a cigarette. When he got adequate breath to suck on the fire his face drew up into a persimmon and his eye slits narrowed.
“Well, they lied to me is what they done.”
“You mean about the money?”
It was Walt again. Monk regarded the cigarette in front of his wizened face as if it were a minor curiosity.
“Nope. It was the pigs,” he announced.
“The pigs? Are you kidding? What about them?”
A thought began to form in Walt’s brain but he didn’t want to acknowledge it in front of Tom..
“Well, remember I told you they said I could have my pick of which one to kill, pigs or cows?”
“Yeah,” Walt answered sheepishly.
“Well, they said they had enough help killin pigs and would I kill cows instead, so I said no and they said they couldn’t use me then, so I backed out of the deal.”
Monk proudly showed his teeth.