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Absinthe and Flames – Chrystal BercheRead More (Untitled)
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Absinthe and Flames – Chrystal BercheRead More (Untitled)
The potato has its own eyes,
dry as a sermon.
It’s a cruel, hard, inviolate vegetable,
able to live in a burlap bag
with a hundred others of its kind.
As she peels its dull skin,
her fingers form a cold compromise
with the blade.
If the cut is slow and even,
it will leave her flesh alone.
And, if her eyes are to water,
they must do it on their own.
Her husband’s in the military.
In his world, potato peeling
She hasn’t seen enough of him lately
to appreciate the irony.
There’s no gruff sergeant standing over her
unless life itself is a gruff sergeant.
She looks up every now and then
but that’s not where the orders come from.
She much prefers onions.
They attack her eyes
from the first invasion of their skin.
Tears well up
and who’s to say where they’re coming from.
A potato is indifferent.
An onion sympathizes.
My neighbors were staring at two large black men from across the street. They were the ones carrying Helene’s body. Both were two of the biggest people I ever seen. They came down the stairs and looked no different than movers with a coffee table. As if it weren’t bad enough everybody was standing around to watch her get carted away, I also saw her hair fall out from the way it was tucked under that blanket. Those men didn’t stop. They continued on as her hair nearly swept the pavement.
I’d seen her hair only once before.
It was one of the hottest days I can remember, so hot that every house on our block had their air conditioners on all day. I should say mostly every house had it turned on. We weren’t so lucky to have it in our house. The heat made nearly everyone stay inside for most of the day. At least they did until after the sun went down. Then some of the older ladies always pulled their chairs out onto their porches to gossip with one another.
It weren’t much past noon. My friends and I were taking turns under the fire-hydrant. We took turns giving a free wash to the few cars that let us. The water from the hydrant was coming out so fast that it pushed us onto the road each time we dared to duck in front of it. Some of our parents joked that Emery Street turned into Wildwood in August. The water fizzled near the middle of the street and ran back towards the curb. Some of the younger kids played in the soapy water that formed there. Ookie squatted and straddled the hydrant. I knew better than to get too close to him. My Mom had told me he spent most of his childhood bouncing between foster homes and detention centers and that he was born with a defect of mean spiritedness. She said he was luckier than heck that Mrs. Beattie ever took him in but that he sure never acted like it.
He was laughing and snorting up a storm while sitting behind the hydrant. Then he clenched up his chubby fists into a ball and forced them into the hydrant’s mouth and if you closed your eyes just then you would have sworn he had made it rain.
After a while I quit the hydrant and decided to grab my first basemen’s mitt and toss a ball against the pizza shop wall. I did this quite a bit and the sound of thud, clump…clump was heard by my neighbors nearly every night in the summer. They said it was as recognizable to them as the sound of my own voice. I threw against the wall each and every day, sometimes until I could hardly see the ball bouncing back to me. I’d been practicing like this most of the summer. Interest in baseball seemed to be at an all time low so over and over again I found myself having a catch with the same stucco partner.
The hydrant blasted into its second full hour. Most of the older kids took up a game of suicide while Ookie stood by to dictate which little one could go next.
“Not you,” he said. “You had a turn. Now back of the line.”
“But Ookie,” the kid pleaded.
“Back of the line, Squirt!” Ookie shouted. They all followed Ookie’s demands and he’d even go as far as to give tasks to those waiting a turn.
“Benji,” he said, picking on the undersized, pale boy on our block, “You’re gonna stick your head under that thing and we’re gonna see if it might just fly right off.”
Sure enough Benji stuck his head into the eye of the hydrant but to Ookie and his gangs’ disappointment it remained intact. It was a shame how they looked up to him but I was happy he clung to them and not me. Oookie went from boy to boy, sucking his finger before sticking it into an unsuspecting ear. I tried ignoring him and just kept on throwing my ball off the wall. I made up games like that people’s lives were at stake if I missed the ball. That kept it interesting.
I fielded a nice one going to my right and I turned and flicked the ball towards the wall in one sweet motion. “Double play!” I shouted. I didn’t realize I had said that out loud and saw smirks from Ookie and his gang.
A patrol car turned down our street going the wrong way. Ookie quickly grabbed his wrench and slid it under his Phillies towel. The patrolman pulled his car into the parking lot near the hydrant. He walked over with his own wrench and turned at its top until the wave turned into a drip.
“Sorry kids, hate to do it on such a hot day.” He pulled an orange cover from his car and locked it in place, mounting it to the hydrant’s opening, “But you can play under the hydrant as long as you like now.”
The officer turned it back on and it drizzled onto their heads. As he drove off Ookie puffed up his chest and went over and turned it off again. He wrinkled his eyebrows at the younger kids, hollering and pointing, “Youse are better off gettin’ outta here – This thing ain’t worth a piss to us now.”
Helene’s house was only a few feet from where we played. It was buried between an abandoned pizza shop and roofing company. Her house sat about ten feet behind the other buildings with a giant barbed wire fence in front. We’d always see her curtains pulled aside when she was watching us play. The smaller kids just kind of lingered before dividing into groups and heading to their own blocks. I was one of the few who stayed out, throwing my ball against the wall.
Ookie trotted over to me and pushed me off of my feet. I hit the ground glove first and popped up just as quickly.
“What’s that about?”
“Come on China, you played enough bouncie-off-the-wall for one day.”
“What’d ya want?”
“I got somethin’ that’ll teach that old baggy-ass battle axe from calling the police on us every damned day.”
Helene’s blinds were closed and I could clearly see an “S” shaped crack that zigzagged from the top of her window. Her cats were climbing over one another to get a spot on her window sill. Helene was coming out. Ookie told me to distract her somehow.
“But I wouldn’t know what to say.”
“Say what the fuck comes in your head. What do I know?”
“I don’t know…”
Ookie grabbed me by the sleeve and pulled me to within an inch of his face.
“Stop being a pussy.”
Helene walked from her home with her bike in hand. I could see she was struggling to remove the chains from her fence. Finally she opened the gate and walked her bike down the street a few feet and leaned it against the pizza shop wall before returning to lock up again.
“Let’s go, China,” Ookie whispered, nudging me towards her.
“Helene,” I said, “Can I help you with that chain?”
She looked at me and smiled and she said, “Oh yes, thank you.” I started to pull the chain tightly around her fence. I could hardly believe how heavy it felt in my hands. I could feel it clicking harder with each tug. It sounded like my grandfather’s old lawn sprinkler, the way it would click…click…click on its way from one end of the lawn to the other. I reached for the last of the chain, then I heard the words “got it” and turned and saw Ookie running away from Helene after pulling the wig from her head. She was silent at first and then she cried, putting her hands on her bobby-pinned scalp. She cried again and again and Ookie wouldn’t quit. He danced in the street as his crowd of misfits circled around him. He swung her hair above his head. She was quiet. I was still holding a piece of her chain in my hand. Ookie danced his way through and around the crowd. They were cheering his name and laughing. Helene kept trying to cover her head.
“Why would you do this to me?” She moaned and cried as the neighborhood had come outside to see what happened. Eventually the crowd and Ookie trotted off down the street and I watched as he tossed her hair aside like it were an empty bag of Cheetohs.
Helene looked at me. Her cheeks mottled red and white. I was left standing in the same place holding the last piece of her chain in my hands. Her eyes were painted with tears and mascara, and her hands had dropped from the top of her head. I looked at her hair. It was white and shiny as she pulled those pins from her scalp. She turned and looked in my direction but I couldn’t take my eyes off the pavement. She grabbed her bicycle from the side of the pizza shop and headed back towards her home. I took the chains off and opened her gate. Helene walked past me, grabbing the chains from my hands. She put her bicycle against the wall and pulled the gate tightly closed. She pulled the chain over and over again until finally she clamped the lock in place. I looked once more at her from behind. I couldn’t believe how white her hair was. I decided to quit throwing my ball a little early and headed across the street to my home.
The older ladies rocked back and forth on their porches, murmuring about how long she had been dead. They asked one another who had found her that way, and whether her daughter had heard. One cried out what a shame it would be for her to hear it on the news. “The poor thing,” the other said.
Ookie and his gang ignored the excitement. They were too caught up in a game of fast-pitch stickball to pay her any attention. Ookie was pitching from across the street. His wind-up was always dramatic, lifting his hands high above his head before pulling them back to his waist. He twisted himself almost completely around and slung his arm forward with each pitch. The batter cocked his hands back and swung away, fouling off Ookie’s fastball.
“Oh damn,” Ookie said dancing on the mound, “Nolan Ryan is cookin’ today.” The ball trickled from the wall and skipped through a puddle before landing back into Ookie’s hands. Ookie twisted himself back into his wind-up and delivered the next pitch. The batter didn’t swing. The ball left a mark on the wall behind him inside the taped up strike-zone.
“That’s two for me and notta-chance in hell for you!” Ookie danced again as the ball bounced to the middle of the street.
An unfamiliar boy laughed while bicycling through the neighborhood.
“Hey,” he shouted from a distance, “Wiggy finally bit it.” He laughed again, racing away.
A handful of Ookie’s fielders started laughing too. The batter stepped out from his imaginary box and bowed his head. He grabbed his cross from his chest and looked to be saying a silent prayer.
Ookie waited a moment, then picked up the ball from the pavement and threw it in his general direction, missing his head by just a few inches.
The men wheeled the stretcher to the back of their large black car. They opened the door and with a tug lifted and pushed her body into the back of it. The entire process of removing her body seemed to last an hour, but in reality it was no longer than a few minutes. The car pulled away and my neighbors quietly went their own way. After a little bit I was the only one left looking at her house.
The coroners left her gate wide open – her large chain dangling from the fence. I walked to Helene’s yard and lifted the chain into my hands. The brown rust smeared my palm. I pushed with all of my might to get the gate closed. Like I seen her do it a million times, I locked one end of the chain in place and listened as it rattled through my fingers.
– Hollace M. Metzger and Rehan Qayoom
I remember the day that AM radio first called me to life. It was June 1968, and I was eleven years old. The song I remember best on that day was The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain.” Birmingham’s WSGN must have played it three times that afternoon. It was an especially tough year to be living in Birmingham: I knew people who laughed when Dr. King was killed and who called Bobby Kennedy a “nigger-lover” even after Sirhan-Sirhan murdered him in a service area. The kids who laughed and rejoiced weren’t inherently ignorant, poor, or trashy. But they were hard on anyone who was shy or plain, anyone whose skin color was dark, anyone who didn’t fit into the crowd. It was difficult and usually impossible to buck these kids, that is, if you wanted to be part of the most popular group around.
On Facebook today, these no-longer kids are the ones “liking” the “Duck Dynasty” family. I can’t lie. What they say still matters to me.
But one of the great equalizers in our youthful era was the AM radio. In Birmingham, that meant WSGN, WVOK, and WAQY. These stations, contrary to other public institutions in Birmingham, knew no racial bias, at least not in their playlists. Neither did they discriminate among popular genres, playing healthy doses of Rock, Pop, Soul, R&B, and Country from Led Zeppelin to Marvin Gaye to Ray Price. Even the semi-classical theme from Love Story and Judy Collins’ version of “Amazing Grace” made it to mainstream Birmingham airwaves. And if no one in my crowd admitted to loving Judy or Marvin, or Lynn Anderson’s “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden,” then explain to me why these songs lingered in the Top Ten week after week?
Hardly a day goes by when I’m not reminded of this era. I pass a fast food drive-in or sit in some carpool line; sometimes I’m even walking through the Prague airport and hear a piece of music I subjected my parents to. Or I read something about my culture, as I did last night when I picked up the latest issue of The Oxford American and ran across a beautiful, insightful journey into the history and fandom of Country star Charlie Rich. While the article should be required reading for anyone who cares about the 60’s, or the South, or rawboned music, what hit me was the first page, the lyrics to Rich’s most beloved song: “Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world?”
Why do song lyrics, or just those words on a page, make me travel to certain streets–to houses that I saw frequently but never entered? Why, when I hear Rich singing those words, do I remember a girl I barely knew from my high school days?
The music from that era is one thing. The era itself, quite another. I can’t say that I was happy living then, happy that I was living then. For so many reasons I didn’t fit: my long hair, my father who in the land of the protestants was Jewish; my refusal to hate Black people. But in one area at least, I was horribly normal, breathtakingly average.
In elementary school, I didn’t understand what being class-conscious meant. What I knew was that some kids couldn’t afford to bring lunch money or wear heavy coats in winter. That some kids smelled bad or didn’t wear underwear and had to walk to school no matter the weather. My parents explained that some of these kids were so unfortunate that they didn’t get to eat breakfast or might not have a parent waiting for them when they got home. That possibly their mothers or their daddies had left home years before, or were still there but drank excessively.
Once, my mother showed me a newspaper photograph of the mother of one of my second grade classmates. She had left her home, been arrested for some form of theft, and sent off to the women’s prison near Montgomery.
“She’s crazy,” my mother said. “She just left those kids!”
And all three of her children were in my second grade class: a pair of twins who had been held back in first grade and their younger sister.
I knew these kids, knew they were poor, though I couldn’t have told you why. I asked them, once, where they lived.
“Down Arlington. In the projects,” the younger one said.
In one of the parts of our town that wasn’t segregated, though not by anyone’s choice.
They don’t teach economics in second grade, but it was enough to see how many of the poorer kids struggled with basic reading and arithmetic. Many of my friends called these kids “dumb,” said they had “cooties,” and laughed at them often to their face.
And sometimes I did too. For I was privileged: a middle class boy with two parents who worked, cooked, and provided everything I needed, and often even what I wanted.
But in the supposed great equalizer of public school, middle-class kids like me got exposed to other kids who truly were left behind or who commonly used words like “bitch” or “bastard” or “nooky.” I’m sure I would have learned these words anyway, but the fact is that I learned them in 1966 from kids who lived in broken down houses–kids who saw or experienced a world I was blessedly insulated from.
So in time, I became aware that “poor” meant low class, crude, and trashy. “Poor white trash.” That was the phrase we used. It followed me throughout high school, as I saw and judged kids who weren’t exactly poor and certainly not trashy, but who lived in parts of town that were a step or two down from my neighborhood in the south hills of town where some of the earliest town pillars formerly dwelled before they moved to the exclusive Lakewood community just west of town. I knew these poorer kids were off limits as friends. I shouldn’t want to play or ride with them, and certainly I shouldn’t invite them to my house or set foot in theirs.
And as I moved through puberty, I knew that I could never think of dating anyone from such straitened places.
In my junior high days, I aspired to the highest of social cliques. But the closest I could get was to hover near these kids. I’d occasionally be invited to the right parties or have one of the cool guys over to spend the night with me. And even when I officially made it into the clique—though how I made it or why or even exactly when, I don’t know—I still couldn’t find a girlfriend within this crowd. I’d write notes and call and ask these girls out. They’d talk to me, sometimes for hours on the phone. But if I ever hinted at a date, they’d shut me down:
“Sorry, Momma’s calling me.”
“Don’t you know that I like Don?”
“I’m not allowed to date someone who doesn’t go to my church.”
These were only the tips of my rejected iceberg.
Yet despite my frustrations and “striking out,” I never considered asking out a girl who was “beneath” my social class. If I thought about it, I’d hear Johnny Rivers singing “The Poor Side of Town,” and then I’d look again to the goddesses of my class—the Mary Jane’s or Melissa’s or Robyn’s—and my fantasies would evaporate into the reality that if I asked out a girl who wasn’t quite in my economic class, I’d be ridiculed or worse:
I might be considered one of them.
Today I see that some of the girls I liked in that highest clique were not so well off either. Their houses were small and plain, though clean and set in “acceptable” neighborhoods. Acceptable, at least, by the lower middle class standards of our insular community. I really don’t know how I judged these things back then other than I listened to too many class-conscious people who passed their judgments on to me.
Judgments that kept me from seeing the most beautiful girl in that particular time and world: the one who sat right behind me in homeroom every day.
Karen was tall. “Lissome” is the word I’d use now. Golden brown hair hanging to her shoulders and in some years even longer. Her eyes were brown and set fairly wide apart. She used a heavier black eye shadow than most girls of that era, or at least most girls who moved in my circles. Her mouth was wide too, but it was hard to care because her lips were so full—not red exactly. In fact, I remember them as pale pink, and I don’t remember her wearing lipstick or even gloss. Some of my friends said Karen had a Chinese look, though as far as I know, her parents were Caucasian.
I never met her parents; never saw them even once. Somehow though, I knew her father was gone, though I didn’t know whether he had died or just left them. She had a sister, Debbie, two years older, equally tall with darker hair. Debbie epitomized the term “hippie chick” for me, especially when I spied her at the local mall, tooling down the corridors in bell-bottom jeans, brown moccasins, and beads dangling from her neck. I might not be remembering this correctly, but I think Debbie got pregnant early in life, not long after or perhaps even before she graduated high school. I knew that wasn’t supposed to happen to kids in my group, though some time after I graduated, I realized that a couple of the supposedly “better” kids got a little too close in our junior year: one of those situations where the girl wears oversize coats for a couple of weeks, then one Monday, she looks just like her old self. Her old coatless self. And she remained in the popular group. If anyone in the group knew then, they just looked the other way—the way that all of that class can look because, of course, their class allows it. Funds it.
But Debbie chose otherwise. Or maybe she had no choice at all.
Karen’s house sat on one of our main routes to the mall, at the intersection of Clarendon and Ninth Street, a neighborhood that middle class people escaped once their incomes said they could. If you looked to the left before you turned onto Ninth, you’d see it, second from the corner, on the opposite side of the street. Two rocking chairs sat on the front porch, and in all seasons, one or both of the sisters would be rocking in them, talking, looking out to the street, thinking about guys or music, or something I’ll never know that went on in the world within their house.
In our alphabetically ordered high school homeroom, Karen sat next to Mary Kate Blake who had bleached-blond hair set in a semi-beehive. I don’t believe they were just desk-friends, for I could hear them discussing more than homework on those occasions that my own desk-mate, Gary Barlow, wasn’t trying to talk to me. I’d be lying if I said I could recount anything Karen or Mary Kate said after all these years. But I’d guess that their boyfriends were often in the mix. I don’t know who Mary Kate liked, but for some of these years, Karen liked an “older” boy, Ricky Russo, whom I’d had seen around since first grade. He was one grade above us, and as far as I know, was a nice enough guy.
Once, I intruded on Karen and Mary Kate’s talk, informing them that the football game that week was being played not at home, but in Oxford. “My Dad’s driving some of us,” I said, and as I looked into their faces, or more correctly, into Karen’s face, I know a part of me hoped she’d say, “Oh…could I have a ride?” But of course she didn’t. As marginally in that upper clique as I was, Karen knew that my world and hers would never get any closer than that three feet of desk separating her chair from mine. I know she knew this. I knew this.
But I never considered that she might have hoped otherwise; I can only wonder now if she ever did.
That’s how life went back then. Eventually I dated four or five different girls in my high school years; some I brought home to meet my parents, others, I didn’t. Whenever I did get a date, though, it wasn’t my parents’ approval I sought, for my first date was with a Baptist girl—a girl I didn’t pick solely because my mother had “forbidden” me to date a Baptist girl. But with my friends, I tried to pick girls that met their approval. Or stay away from those who didn’t. I can’t believe it now, but I know I did.
Or maybe I should admit that I believe it now all-too-well.
Some time after we graduated, my best friend Jimbo confessed that he found Karen to be exotically attractive. Jimbo had come out of the closet by then, but in high school could have had any girl he wanted. Most of the girls he wanted—and many that he got—were also the ones I wanted, but never got. So if he had told me in tenth grade that he thought Karen was worth going after, maybe I would have considered talking to her.
It was only when I got to college that I realized that the “in group” I tried so hard to belong to wasn’t worth it—that they were, in the end, that era’s high school snobs. And it was only then that I realized who Karen was: a girl I snubbed; a girl I couldn’t appreciate.
A girl who never looked down on me.
The C-Shell Lounge, circa 1975. I’ve just finished my freshman year in college, and my roommate and I are having beers to celebrate. He’s from my hometown: Rodney Rockett, a guy I’ve known since kindergarten though we didn’t become good friends until we were thrown together as dorm mates.
The C-Shell Lounge is the bar in Bessemer’s Ramada Inn–one of the few places in Bessemer where you can get draft beer and dance–named after its proprietor, Claude Shell, a 70-year old man whose “assistant” was a 30-ish woman named Phoebe.
I’ve often wondered what it must feel like to name a Ramada Inn lounge after yourself.
The lounge itself is dark with swiveling black faux leather chairs and a murky-colored shag carpet, perhaps reminiscent of a beach bar somewhere. I’ll know the C-Shell better next summer when I become the part-time handy-man at the motel, which means that every Sunday morning I’ll get to clean the bar and cart twenty-five enormous garbage bags full of Pabst and Bud bottles to the dumpster. Not to mention all the plastic cups and cigarette butts. All for minimum wage, which in the summer of 1976 is $2.25 an hour. My earnings go toward helping pay for one semester’s tuition and room/board at The University of Montevallo, which the self-proclaimed “best bargain in higher education” in Alabama. I would have rather gone to Birmingham-Southern or “Sewanee” with my best friends, but tuition in those institutions is three times what I’m paying, and there just aren’t enough Sunday morning beer cans in the C-Shell Lounge.
So Rodney and I are sipping our Buds and feeding the jukebox, which contains a sordid combination of rock/pop and country and all points in between. Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” has just finished, and true to his name, Rodney has also punched in “Rocket-Man,” and he sings along as if the song was written for him. About that moment I look up and see two girls I know enter the bar: Susan, who lives just down the street from me, and Karen.
They sit at a table near us, and then Susan calls my name. Though we’ve known each other since 7th grade, we’re the sort of acquaintances who will always speak to each other, maybe exchange neighborhood gossip, but that’s usually it.
They move to the table next to ours. Susan and I talk, and every time I glance over at Karen, she looks down. Is she shy? Ashamed? I don’t know, but she’s wearing flared-brown jeans and a loose top with sleeves hanging to her wrists. Her hair is longer now too, straight and lush. So far, we haven’t said a word.
An upbeat song pours from the jukebox: “Let Your Love Flow” by The Bellamy Brothers. This is their one pop hit, for afterward they will declare for the Country side of things and I will forget that they ever made the pop charts, except when I recall this scene: the definite beat, the precious melody. The moment when I ask Karen to dance.
She finally looks at me and says,
“Well, it’s not that bad. Besides, it’s just dancing.”
I don’t know what makes me say any of this, what I’m thinking other than there’s music, a dance floor, a girl who’s pretty beyond reason sitting next to me. She takes my hand and we move to the dance floor, joining two or three other couples. I’m used to dancing at urban clubs where a more pulsating early Disco beat from Van McCoy or Silver Convention prescribes all moves. “Let Your Love Flow,” however, seems to beg a beat, to insist that you put one foot here, another there as if you wouldn’t know what to do otherwise. Also, it’s not a sexy song: “Let your love flow, like a mountain breeze, and let your love flow to all living things.” Maybe this is what Karen questioned when I asked her to dance. But she’s game, and we’re both trying to hit that perfect beat and not look stupid doing it. I don’t know what music she’s used to dancing to, and I don’t know what she’s looking for in this bar with its seedy furnishings. And honestly, I don’t know what I’m looking for either.
After the song, we return to our table, and the four of us talk. Both girls have been living at home this year, working, temporary jobs in retail. Rodney tells them about his communications courses–that he’d like to get into TV production.
“I’m planning to major in Social Work so that I can help the disadvantaged and downtrodden.”
And I actually used those words. It wasn’t like the girls’ eyes glazed over when I spoke, but something happened. Something vacant and disinterested. Or maybe something worse.
Each of us ordered another round of beers. The music got even more predictable. The last song I remember was by another pop band, Exile. Their hit was a love song underlain with a pseudo-disco thump: “Kiss You All Over.” They, too, would later abandon pop for country. So strange.
We didn’t dance to this song, but when it ended, almost by mutual consent, we all decided it was time to go. There was still a lot of night left in our summertime.
But in that time, we were all still living at home. With our parents.
I’ve told myself until now that it was that reality that stopped me from pursuing anything with Karen.
But hearing those old songs, seeing Charlie’s lyrics: I know it was actually the held-over stigma from the preceding years of actually getting closer to a girl who wasn’t part of “the crowd” I normally hung with. Even though there was none of my former crowd around.
Even though I had just spent a couple of hours in a lounge named for a man who was living some sort of playboy dream.
So in the parking lot of the C-Shell Lounge out near the Bessemer Super Highway, I watched Karen get in Susan’s car and drive away, maybe to her home, or maybe to another seedy club where the night was still as young as she needed it to be.
I went home too, and though I can’t say that I kept thinking about that her as I lay in bed that night and the ones after, I didn’t exactly forget her either. Bob Dylan might have chastised me that “I threw it all away,” that night, but he wouldn’t be right except in the way that I couldn’t see then beyond the hills of my own class.
I couldn’t see then, as I do now, that class isn’t an illusion.
Five years after high school, a few grads think it’s a grand idea to reunite the senior high class of 1974. They rent a party hall at the Ramada Inn. The same one where I worked three summers earlier, emptying beer bottles and checking the pool for chlorine levels, and on occasion, moving a bad TV out of a room and swapping it for a marginally better one so that the poor tenant could choose from Rockford or Magnum and then give me a barbecue sandwich as a tip. He had gotten two by mistake from Pike’s Barbecue just down the road. I took the sandwich but told him that Bob Sykes’ Barbecue was better.
The C-Shell Lounge, for some reason, was off-limits to we former seniors. So we crammed into a party room about the same size as a double classroom from our high school days.
Apropos of the strained integration of those high school years, the white alums sat in one half of the room, the Black grads in the other. There was a middle aisle where occasional mixed ex-students gathered. I stood there for a while talking to senior class president Henry Scott, and later to Coach Moton who was maybe supposed to be chaperoning, or maybe just wanted to relive the good times. He was a fair-minded man who once found my stolen gym socks and got them back for me. I wondered back then what sort of a person stole sweaty gym socks. But Coach Moton seemed to know quite well. I don’t think they could have possibly paid him enough back then, even though he was assistant head coach, imported from the now-closed all-Black high school.
Eventually, he got the head-coaching job, but by then, most of the white families had pulled out of the Bessemer public system.
But on this night, like the rest of us, he watched all that hadn’t really changed in our lives. Most of the white guys in my former in-group wore white oxford-cloth shirts and khakis. Their wives looked matronly already. Some had been married since graduation; others were even divorced.
I was still single and heading off to graduate school that coming fall. I wore a pair of un-dyed Levis that Jimbo sent me from New York. They looked sharp with my black boots, or at least I thought they did. My hair was frighteningly long for Bessemer, even in 1979. It’s true that I felt and looked different from my peers. It’s also true that part of me still wanted to fit in.
The music was a DJ playing tunes from our high school era mixed with newer bands like Bad Company and Heart. At some point, the soul of Al Green and Earth, Wind, and Fire morphed into disco, and I might be crazy, but I think the DJ even played “Rapper’s Delight.”
I remember dancing with my friend Jim’s wife for a while, and then catching up with Jo Beth, a girl I sort of dated back when Todd Rundgren sang “Hello It’s Me.”
About an hour or so into the night, as I was wondering how long I’d really stay at this event, Karen walked in. She was dressed in a plain gray skirt, sleeved blouse, and matching gray pumps. She came by herself, carrying an umbrella, for the summer rain was coming down and it wasn’t so gentle.
I watched her look around, walk to a semi-occupied table, and place her umbrella against it. She stood there looking beautiful.
She stood there looking at me.
So I got up and walked over to her. She smiled, and so did I. There wasn’t much to say, and if there was, I certainly didn’t know what.
I keep thinking now of that episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” where Andy’s high school flame returns for their reunion. Barney calls theirs the most “natural romance” of any couple in their class. Well, Karen and I weren’t natural anythings.
But I asked her if she’d like something to drink, and she said yes.
We stood there acknowledging all the other couples, the kids she never knew well; the ones I knew better than I could say.
I didn’t know what had happened in the four years since I saw her just a few hundred yards away at the C-Shell Lounge on the night she rode away with Susan. But it felt like a lifetime of college had never occurred for me. It felt like I had left her just the night before.
The dance floor was remarkably alive, and as we wondered what would play next, I recognized the opening bars of a song from that senior year—one that played all the time on our AM stations but that none of use much acknowledged.
For it simply wasn’t cool to say you liked, or in my case loved, Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.”
“My baby makes me smile, Lord don’t she make me smile…”
I didn’t have to ask Karen this time. We just walked to the dance floor and held each other for the next three-and-a-half minutes.
When the song ended, she looked at me and said,
“I have to go; I’m leaving town tomorrow.”
“Because I’m joining the Air Force.”
I stared at her a minute, thinking that whatever I’d expected to happen, this wasn’t it. But I also surprised myself. I accepted her reality, something that was maybe her dream and certainly her way out of this world, this “Bessemer.” In that moment I was happy for her. She seemed happy at least, and more than that, she seemed brave. In that moment, she outclassed everyone at the dance.
“Well, I’ll walk out with you.”
So she put on her coat, took up her umbrella, and without saying goodbye to anyone else, we walked out the door to her car. Standing there in the light of the Ramada Inn sign, I leaned over and kissed her. We parted once, kissed again, and then she said calmly,
“I better go.”
“Yes. Because if I don’t leave now I…”
She slowly pulled away from me. I watched her as she left the inn. As she left my life.
I left then too, and though I went to other reunions, Karen was never there.
I’ve been married for thirty years to the woman I was supposed to marry, someone of whom most of my old Bessemer friends would have never approved, much less understood. We married on a summer day, June 21st, the longest day of the year. My wife is from Iran, but I didn’t marry her in consideration or in spite of those old friends. That much, at least, I learned from Karen. To my face, one of my old friends once referred to my wife as a “sand-nigger.” That’s the dark side of Bessemer, and I’m sure there are even darker spots—spots that I now believe Karen knew all-too-well. I wonder what it would have been like had I recognized back then that these “friends” weren’t really that. I wonder what might have happened had I seen and known Karen and been friends with her. What did she feel or see back then? She chose her own way and didn’t seem to care what anyone in our class thought about it. Or anyone I knew, at least.
Recently I learned that while in the Air Force, she met and married a commercial jet pilot. They travel the world together now and are reported to be quite happy.
Life truly is a revolving door. Just this evening, visiting my old hometown, I decide to drive by the brick house where Karen used to live. I know the house when I see it. And for a second, I think I see two rocking chairs there on the front porch as I approach. But that isn’t true after all. Instead, there is an aluminum barbecue pit and a folding chair. Otherwise, the house looks just as I remember it. I wonder who’s living there now. It looks like a good place to live, just as it always has.
I hope it was a good place for Karen, but like with so many other things, I’ll never really know what went on behind those doors, in a world that I finally see was not so far from mine.
I watched them swaying. They’re terrified I thought;
or is it me who is so afraid to fall?
What’s it like to be the leaf, knowing you are as important as a penny in a millionaire’s hand?
What’s it like to be cautious with every breeze, your fingers frozen to the tips,
and Winter comes like an abusive Father,
down the stairs, your heart breaking with every step?
Or is the Leaf ready for anything? A lover of risk and fate’s cold stare?
There’s the skin I want to be in, when the time comes:
to be like that, and guard against nothing,
to ride the wind, and cradle the air, and fall, and fall, and fall.
Dec 10, 2013
i. Lax Dog Days
“The earth…had entered the phase when cars wear out
more quickly than the soles of shoes.”
– Italo Calvino, The Daughters Of The Moon
Traffic snarled front of a bus stop near LAX, I hear chuffing sounds
from a brooding Van Gogh sunburst vacancy whose pincered fingers pick
imagined bugs out of an absent left ear while euuing crowds hector
the young woman in some sort of high-pitched heat likely No comprender.
Off in the crabgrass, Messr. picks at hair lice, scratches brindled scalp scabs.
ii. Prostate Reveries
One of those smogged-in drizzly days missing the 405 interchange,
a fraught evening commute sours on the Harbor Freeway cloverleaf.
I panic because Sweetie forgot to pack my bladder medicines.
Everyone’s pissed when a hearse cuts us off at Cemetery exit.
iii.Mister Lonelyhearts By Way Of Nathanael West Et. Al.
“Driven by a desperate hunger to the arms of a neon light,
the heart is a lonely hunter when there’s no sign of love in sight!”
― Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Mini Cooper a crushed meringue just ahead of my steel blimp, I’m prey
to day-glo Sgt. Peppers deployed all over Hollywood’s on-ramp.
Caught behind the toy car, windows up to avoid street pagans’ buckets,
surrounding gawkers roll his/hers down to drop in cash contributions
no matter panhandlers’ apparent cause. Which makes me the smug alien
among lifeforms who can fall in love with everyone a little bit.
The chrome handle reminds the four-year-old boy of a glimmering star he saw through his bedroom window the night before. The handle is attached to the rear suicide door of his father’s blue ’49 Mercury sport sedan. The boy stares at the handle. It’s there for the jiggling, a shiny temptation not to be denied.
He fiddles with the handle as it reflects his face. He sticks out his tongue and laughs. He wrinkles his nose, which looks long and crooked in the handle’s mirror-like surface. Then he shakes his wavy brown hair. The reflection makes it look as if he has a sea creature’s tentacles jangling from his scalp.
Sitting with him in the back seat, big sister Samantha shakes her head and says, “stop fooling around J.J.” He jiggles the handle again, just because he can. He looks at his sister, hears her sigh heavily and turn away, and he smiles at her reaction.
He runs his finger across the top of the handle. Its arc reminds him of a swan’s neck. At the tip of the handle there are four grooves. He runs his fingernails between the grooves. He imagines small armies of space creatures in each of them. At the point where the handle is attached to the door, there is a circular fitting, etched with three rings, each ring of slightly greater diameter than the last, so that the fitting increases in size the closer it is to the door. It looks like the future to J.J., like something you see on a rocket ship built for intergalactic travel.
His father bought the Mercury just weeks before, used but in “like-new” condition, as all cars were in the gleaming, go-go 1950s. The salesman didn’t use the words “suicide doors”; he said “rear-hinged” instead. He said they offered easier exit and entry, especially convenient for the back passenger compartment, and they were stylish too. He didn’t mention that rear-hinged doors open much easier than front-hinged ones when the car reaches a certain speed. Never give the buyer more information than needed: that was the salesman’s motto.
The car moves along at thirty-five miles per hour in heavy fog and a gray afternoon rain. The rain looks like it will last forever. Through the mist the car approaches an automobile junkyard in a ravine in which Studebakers, Oldsmobiles, and Packards huddle, alone with their thoughts. The boy thinks they look like the giant, rust-red bodies of dead space monsters. Who brought them to earth? What did they want? Why did they die? Are they really dead? Or do they lie in wait for the right moment, to take over the world?
The boy’s mother drives, nervously tapping her fingertips on the steering wheel, which is as large as a bicycle tire. She’s thinking of everything and nothing. She looks at the radio, brightly lit like a jukebox, and turns it off, then on again. She looks at herself in the rearview mirror, runs her slim finger along the lipstick line of her upper lip. Faint creases appear at the sides of her brown eyes when she hears “J.J. won’t stop messing with the door handle, Mom.”
The mother says nothing. Silence as thick as fog.
“Look, I can’t say any more, Jodene. I’m sorry, that’s the way it’s gotta be. I had to make a final decision sooner or later. I needed to let you know right away.”
Bobby Steerforth listens to the silence on the other end of the line. Then he hears a crackle. Is there an electrical storm in the vicinity? The forecast calls for steady rain all day, but no thunder or lightning. He’s surprised at how bad the phone connection is even though it’s a local call. He hears a sniffle.
“But it was so good, Bobby. Didn’t you like those nights at the Snowflake?”
“I just can’t anymore.”
“My God, you call me and say ‘that’s it, over, done, finished!’ Where you calling from, Bobby? You at work?”
“Yeah. I’m in the back office. I can’t talk for long. We got a lot of work today and I’m short one guy. He’s got a cold, or so he says.”
“A year, Bobby. Jesus, a year of my life I spend sneaking around with a guy who runs a Texaco gas station. What kind of chump have I been?”
“Jodene, I have to go. Miriam and the kids will be here soon. They were going to stop by on the way to her mother’s place.”
“You don’t love her, Bobby. Those nights at the Snowflake? A man doesn’t act the way you acted with me if he loves his wife. A woman can tell.”
“It has to be this way. There’s no way out.”
“Make a call, drop the mistress. Like discontinuing a magazine subscription, huh?”
“Jodene, you knew I was having doubts. I told you. You had to know all along I’m not going to get a divorce. I’ve been thinking about it for months. I can’t sleep. I’m drinking too much. I have responsibilities. J.J.’s getting to the age where he needs a father around. He’s smart as a whip, and he’s a handful. And Samantha seems so unhappy, so anxious. A ten-year-old should be happy. I have to be there for my kids.”
“You’re not married to your kids, Bobby. You’re married to her, and you told me you couldn’t stand looking at her some days. You told me you couldn’t stand waking in the same bed with her. You said all that, you poured your guts out, and you said it more than once. I should’ve taken notes and shown you your words. Have you forgotten you said that?”
“And is it still true? Is it Bobby?”
“Jesus.” He raises his hand to his forehead. The throbbing in his temples goes on like the steady rain on the garage roof.
“Look, Bobby, you were both too young. My God, seniors in high school. And she got pregnant. Walk away from it. You can still see your kids. You can work out an arrangement.”
“Bobby, use your thick skull. Do you love her, Bobby? Do you love her?”
“Do you love me, Bobby? Do you love me like you told me you did? Tell me! Or were you lying? Did you just fuck me all those times for the hell of it? Just because you wanted a little snatch? You bastard. Just wait, Bobby, this isn’t the last you’ll hear of Jodene Walsh…”
The click resounds like the backfire of an old Chevy. As if someone had kicked him in the gut, Bobby winces.
The rain falls. It’s the only sound he hears now, along with the beer commercial playing softly from the radio in the garage bay. “From the Land of Sky-Blue Waters.”
He walks into the bay and under the red Oldsmobile up on the hoist. The old oil, sludgy and black, has almost drained into the white receptacle with the tall silver neck and funnel. He has four quarts of new oil lined up on the counter at the back of the garage. All he needs to do is replace the drain plug, let the car down, pour the new honey-colored oil in. Then he’ll start up the Olds, let it run for a few minutes while he writes up a service sticker for the driver’s side doorpost. The sticker has a big green “T” emblazoned on a red star inside a circle outlined in black. Below the logo, small black print: Steerforth Texaco. 3328 Colfax Ave. Benton Harbor, Michigan. Broadway 5-7239. Date: August 2, 1954. Next service: November 2, 1954 or 28,500 miles.
He walks to the open garage door where the overhang stops. He extends his arm, feels the gray rain on the palm of his hand. He’s sweat through his shirt, the humidity is so bad, but the rain feels like ice entering his veins. He thinks of the time he was ten years old and fell through a thin spot on the frozen pond where he and friends skated. When they pulled him out he thought the chill would last a lifetime.
He looks south, down the wide avenue on which Miriam and the kids should be driving up in the Mercury any minute now. He hopes Jodene won’t call back today. He looks up into the sky, then south again. But the Mercury doesn’t come, and he has three more oil changes lined up, and business is good.
Samantha tells J.J. one more time to leave the door handle alone. She thinks of how it was better—it must have been better—before her brother came along. She hates how he runs around and shoots her with his outer space blaster. How he pedals his tricycle around the driveway, not caring if he splashes mud on her yellow Sunday dress. The other day he almost hit her as he rolled past her and squashed a large green caterpillar that squirted its insides all over her favorite pink shorts. She hates how he pokes her in the ribs and runs down the long flight of wooden stairs into the basement, where she’s always afraid to go.
Samantha feels the pressure of knowing and seeing. J.J. is too young and dumb to realize what’s happening. He doesn’t hear his parents’ fights at two in the morning while she covers her head with blankets. How could J.J. sleep through that? He doesn’t hear her creeping out of bed in the middle of the night, tiptoeing to the living room, seeing her father passed out with one foot on the couch, the other on the floor, a bottle of foul-smelling stuff tipped over nearby. J.J. doesn’t see his mom alone in the kitchen, standing at the counter in the middle of the afternoon, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, and she hasn’t even been chopping onions.
J.J. should be dead because he is a pest and nothing bothers him and she hates him. She hates her mother and father for not giving her a sister instead. And she hates the world because she wants everything to be okay, and it’s not.
As Miriam Steerforth switches the radio on and off, she thinks of Ron, the man at the shoe store who sold her the black suede flats she’s wearing now. It was the day before yesterday. Ron is wearing a dark blue suit and crisp white shirt with a burgundy tie. He is the assistant manager of the most stylish shoe store in town. Rumor has it he’ll be manager soon because he’s so bright, personable, hard-working. Miriam is smiling as she thinks of their conversation.
“How do those feel Miri? They look great on you. Simple but elegant.”
“Like they were made for me, Ron. But maybe I should try on the brown ones just to make sure.”
“Yup, it’s always a good thing to try on several. Never buy on first impressions, even if the shoe fits like this one does.”
Ron takes both shoes off Miriam’s feet, places them in their box and takes a brown shoe of the identical style from another box. With his right hand he gently cradles her ankle as he slips the shoe on her foot with his left. As he reaches for the other shoe, Miriam admires Ron’s long fingers and remembers how they explored her body her senior year in high school, in the back seat of his father’s Ford. She presses her knees together and feels her face flush.
Having quickly chosen the black shoes, she chats with Ron at the register.
“Everything okay these days, Miri?”
“Really wonderful. Bobby’s business is going well, the kids are growing. My boy will start kindergarten in a few weeks. My girl’s going to need braces. So many things to think about. And you Ron?”
“Just so-so. You heard that Sheila and I broke up. Or did you?”
“I heard. I was so sorry to hear that. You two seemed made for each other. Maybe things will still work out.”
Ron nods. He rings up the sale as Miriam counts out the dollar bills on the counter. She’s proud she can always pay in cash these days. He takes the money, places it in the till, hands Miriam the hand-written receipt. He smells her perfume and is tempted to take her hand in his, if only for a second. No one would notice. The store’s not that busy right now.
He resists, but says, “You know, I still think about us sometime. After all these years.” He closes the till.
“I know,” replies Miriam. “And I—.”
She turns on her heels clutching the shoebox under her arm. “Excuse me, please,” she says as she brushes past a customer entering the store. Suddenly she remembers how Ron tasted, and how different it was with him than with Bobby. In her left eye a small tear forms.
“Mom,” says Samantha very calmly, “J.J. is gone.”
Then, eyes widening in sudden realization, she screams. “Oh my God, Mom, he’s gone! Oh don’t make him gone!”
Miriam’s daydream is cut short as she slams on the brakes.
In the instant in which the door springs open and a whoosh of rain-soaked air rushes into the passenger compartment, J.J. thinks of how his mother reads to him. She doesn’t read kid’s books but good stuff, like Tom Swift. He imagines he’s Swift himself, but without his interstellar lab or backpack rockets. He’s free, soaring. His eyes are wide with what might be mistaken for elation. But his mouth gives him away. His lips are parted and curled downward. His jaw seems three times its normal size as his teeth clench. His neck is drawn tight, like a rubber band pulled to the breaking point. He is on a roller coaster, but the scariest roller coaster ever, the kind that makes it impossible to think.
The gravel shoulder races at his wide-open eyes. He’s never seen the ground move so quickly. He can feel the scrape of a thousand limestone and granite pebbles against the palms of his small hands. He can feel the sharp ends of the pebbles pierce his skin and embed themselves in his body. His hands don’t break his fall, so now it is his face’s turn. For a moment he hears muted sounds, as if he’s underwater. He hears the crack of a wooden bat as it meets a baseball, then the soft, dull thud of the watermelon his mother dropped on the kitchen floor a few days before. He hears a snap and imagines his leg has curled so far back that his toes touch the nape of his neck. Or does he only imagine it? Maybe his leg twisted off and he’d have to go back later to fetch it from the side of the road.
Arms flailing, his body hurdles down the embankment, past milkweed leaves, bright green on the top but silvery green on the underside. He sees Purple Loosestrife, like green spiky sea-creatures rearing purple heads into the gray rain. He sees sumac green edged with red. The embankment turns from green to muddy brown as he rolls toward the bottom of the ravine and the rust-red Studebakers and Chryslers.
In the ravine there is silence except for the light patter of rain on defeated metal hulks. Then J.J. hears a distant tumult, cries and shouts up on the road, strained through the fog. He thinks the noise might be coming from thousands of miles away, from distant galaxies only Tom Swift knows about.
He lies in front of a shattered Pontiac, its engine compartment crushed by some terrible force. The boy looks up into the mist at the car’s Indian head hood ornament. Its chrome is dull and cloudy, pocked with gray and black spots. The amber-colored face is cracked. It looks like it will shatter into dozens of tiny lucite shards at any moment. It’s the most hideous thing J.J. has ever seen, far scarier than unaided space flight; it sends shivers up his spine.
Emerging from the rain, a gray suit with a black fedora comes tumbling through the green of the embankment. J.J. notices mud on the man’s shiny black shoes. He sees beads of rain on the fedora and wonders if the man is his father. But it isn’t his father. J.J. thinks it must be the Good Samaritan from Sunday School. Or maybe he’s a space creature in human disguise, an ally of the rust-red aliens all around him. From under the fedora come the words, “don’t die on me, okay, kid? We’re gonna get help.”
Then fevered movement, first up the embankment, the gray suit struggling, carrying a limp and bloodied body—whose body?—sliding on sloppy ground, profanities, past the milkweed and Purple Loosestrife and red sumac. Then onto the gravel shoulder, where the gray rain will not stop. J.J. hears his mother, thank you, thank you, as she frantically clutches the arm of the Good Samaritan from outer space. Then into an ambulance that seems louder than anything J.J. has ever heard before. Are they joining Tom Swift in his space lab? J.J. thinks he is in a movie at the Sundown Drive-In.
They go through double doors and into an elevator and someone in a white coat looks down at him. All turns black.
He lies in a hospital bed. His head is encased in bandages; so is most of his body. He can’t move his arms, they’re heavy, wrapped in white. He sees a distant leg in a giant white cast suspended from a skinny body. He wiggles the toes: they must be connected to him in some way.
J.J. wonders why the men and women in white suits don’t smile when they look at him. He wonders why, except for those toes far off on the horizon, he can’t move. He senses his mother somewhere nearby but can’t be sure. He can’t be sure of anything except that his eyes see with the precision of Tom Swift’s Ultra-Vision Machine.
Fifty Augusts later and a continent away from the ravine and the Mercury and the Texaco, J.J. remembers how he kept wiggling his toes, and how blue and white and withered his leg looked when it emerged from the plaster cast, and how the doctors and nurses finally smiled when he walked through the hospital’s double doors into October sunshine.
J.J. recalls how for weeks his eyes worked the room. He saw his mother and father come and go. Saw them walk right past one another as if neither existed. Saw his sister, biting her nails, tugging at her hair, twisting inside herself. He remembered his mother sleeping on a small cot in the hospital room. He recalled her crying, and his wishing he could go over and stroke her auburn hair, tell her it’s okay, he’s had an adventure, he’ll be fine.
He understands now how their eyes talked to him. Their eyes said more than silences or words. He saw gray foreclosure, eyes tarnished like the horrific Pontiac ornament atop the crushed hood.
And he recalls how soon he realized the Mercury handle hadn’t opened a door to space ships and intergalactic aliens. It opened the door to a future in need of jiggling. A future not foreclosed but open, not dull but shining someplace far away.
hot sticky day
yellow dogs lie
in the shadow of the silo
the night is stirring
by the arroyo
Salton Sea Bar
the sun prays
for another round
you flourish your dishcloth
through the swinging doors
It’s September, before Geneva’s thirteenth birthday. Martin Fry walks into Roberts Hardware, veers past Geneva as she dusts Royal Albert cream and sugars, right to the glass covered cabinet of expensive knives. Geneva’s father is out delivering an electric heater. Her mother stands behind the counter and stiffens her back when Martin walks in. “Is there something you’re looking for?” says Mrs. Roberts. She doesn’t sound at all like she wants to make a sale.
“How much?” he says, pointing to a fish knife.
“Those are expensive.”
“I’d have to look it up,” she says then finally pulls out a price list, traces her finger downward and announces, “Fourteen ninety-five.”
Martin walks toward Geneva’s mother then stares right past her at the boxes of Imperials and Canucks and Whiz Bangs, stacked like the cartons of cigarettes in Lee’s Grocery Store. He stands there, his broad back to Geneva, arms hanging uncommonly still and doesn’t say another word. He turns abruptly and walks down the aisle. Floor boards creak, rope and cable, axes and saws, and bins of nails jangle and islands of china and glassware rattle. Martin bolts out the door leaving static in his wake.
Geneva has never encountered Martin before. He was born the year the town of Bradshaw planted Northwest poplars along the residential section of Main Street. By the time she was born, right at the end of the war, the poplars had already formed a solid column of shade and protection out her front door. They are part of her assumed territory along with the caragana hedge, the Siberian crab, the open veranda, even the moon and the stars. As a child she skipped along the sentried boulevard whenever she wished, to and from the hardware.
With hindsight people judge Martin according to their favorite view of human behavior. He developed, as small town boys do, into a freewheeling explorer with few constraints beyond suppertime curfews. But in his seventh grade picture he stands in the back row, looking like he could lift bales much easier than the gangly farm boys who were required to do so, his complexion pale, his smile ironic, like he is sharing an insider’s joke, yet his eyes are intense and estranged from others.
At the time Martin was considered a regular boy who was mainly drawn to car engines and gopher hunting. He hung out atRalph’s Motors – so often you might have thought he was Ralph’s son (his own father was missing in France) – and tracked home engine grease into Emily Fry’s spotless house. Like other boys he carried buckets of water to nearby stubble fields to flood gophers out of their holes and whack them dead. When he turned twelve he used a .22 rifle to shoot them instead, before cutting off their tails. The difference between Martin and other boys was that he always did this alone, always in private, before taking his booty into Roberts Hardware for pocket money, a penny a tail.
Mr. Roberts collected the tails in tins and shipped them off to Fish and Wildlife for compensation. Mucking with cars and gophers rankled Emily Fry who complained to both Ralph and Geneva’s father as if they were to blame for Martin’s pastimes. That her son was a loner was irrelevant.
All this Geneva has learned by listening to adults reminisce and try to make sense of Martin Fry’s life. That her father kept collections of gopher tails is the bigger revelation.
“That guy’s up to no good,” says Geneva’s mother.
“How would you know?” says Geneva who has begun contradicting her mother, turning cheeky, even though Martin Fry gives her the willies.
“He’s back from Ponoka,” says Mrs. Roberts as if this explains it all.
“So? Aunt Terry and Uncle Bill live in Ponoka.” Geneva is bating now since she knows exactly what her mother means. They sometimes drive to the grounds of the mental hospital on Ponoka’s outskirts to admire the gardens. No one mentions they might also view the patients, yet once they enter the grand circular driveway they invariably grow silent as if conversation will instigate some mad uprising.
The hospital has its own water tower and power plant with groves of trees planted here and there. Geraniums and shrubs front the brick anterior while a plotted garden and fields of hay can be seen at the back. It is a large estate with its residents seemingly mute. The most Geneva has ever heard above the hum of her parent’s Ford Fairlane is a magpie bragging or a robin scolding. The inside, she surmises, is hushed and sterile with men and women in their separate wings, secretly watching through wire meshed windows, as Martin Fry might do, though now he would be on the outside looking in.
Geneva’s father has returned to the store and Martin is peering in the window, his nose not quite touching the thick pane of glass.
“He was in here looking at knives and gun shells,” Mrs. Roberts says to her husband. “And he had a strange look about him. Maybe we should talk to Pierce.”
No one in town calls Danny Pierce constable or officer or anything like that. He’s twenty-three, a neophyte and new to Bradshaw, therefore an object of curiosity and skepticism. Corporal Jensen is, as everyone knows, on vacation in Vegas so Pierce has been left in charge.
Geneva often watches Pierce slip on his regulation hat as he goes down the steps of the RCMP detachment, right across the street from the hardware store, and into the Royal Hotel. Aside from the coffee shop (she rarely sees Pierce there) most of the hotel remains uncharted territory. She sometimes waits outside the beer parlour with her friend Darla, inhaling stale draught and cigarette smoke while Darla tags her parents for money and permission to go to the Roxy.
Geneva intends to tell Darla how Martin Fry has been staking out Roberts Hardwareand how Pierce could come to the rescue if Martin gets out of hand. She’ll leave out the part where Pierce falls in love with her, sinceDarla would be hoping for the same.
In Gigi, the town’s prevailing picture show, Maurice Chevalier sings Thank Heaven for Little Girls and then Louis Jourdan, as confirmed bachelor Gaston, sings about what a fool he’s been, how the much younger Gigi, groomed by aunts to be some rich man’s mistress, has grown up before his eyes yet he’s been blind to notice. Suddenly he realizes he’s in love and marries her.Geneva imagines herself with Pierce; him waiting for her to turn sixteen and eventually walk down the aisle in a silk gown and flounced veil with all of Bradshaw watching.
“I’ll deal with him,” Geneva’s father says to her mother. “You go over and tell Pierce.”
“If he sees me over there he’ll put two and two together and blame me if he gets caught and sent back.”
“I’ll go,” says Geneva. “He won’t notice me. I’ll talk to Pierce while you keep Martin busy.”
Her parents look at each other and mull the idea. “Okay,” says Mr. Roberts, “if Martin comes in I’ll distract him while you slip over to the office. Be discreet.”
“I will.” If she could, Geneva would go directly to the phone. Darla, you won’t believe what’s happening.
“You just keep dusting over there until he has his back to you. Don’t let him notice you.”
Just then Martin walks in, straight down the aisle, straight to the counter where Geneva’s parents await him. He didn’t acknowledge Geneva earlier and this time is no different. Does he know she exists? He nods at Mr. Roberts.
Martin stares behind the counter at the stacks of gun shells. “What do you recommend?”
“Depends on what you want them for.” Geneva’s father looks over Martin’s shoulder, raises his eyebrows and gives her the go-ahead look. For a moment she freezes (Martin could turn and actually look at her) then she slips out the door, turns right to be out of view, crosses at the intersection (people only J-walk in Bradshaw) and walks toward the office of the RCMP.
Through the door’s window she sees Pierce with his cropped sandy hair, feet up on an oak desk, talking on the phone. Potent energy percolates through his fingers as he taps the desktop and flips a pencil from one digit to another. He smiles into the receiver and, when he happens to look toward Geneva, his eyes widen and his feet slide to the floor. He motions to her to enter.
“Okay. Gotta go. Ditto. Bye,” he says then turns to Geneva, his smile fading. “So, what can I do for you?”
“Uh, it’s Martin Fry…my dad wanted me to tell you…he’s in the store right now, Martin is, and he’s looking at knives and gun shells and my parents want you to know.”
“You’re the Roberts girl?”
Her face flushes. Who else would she be? She nods at Pierce and replies, “From the hardware.” Now she’s angry. Maybe those questions about Pierce’s competence have some warrant. “And my name’s Geneva!”
“Well Geneva Roberts I’ll have to make a note of this.” Pierce enters something into a log book, then goes over and peers through the venetian blinds. Martin Fry is just coming out onto Main Street. “I see he’s left the store. I’ll talk to your dad.”
“They don’t want Martin to know I’ve come over.”
“Mums the word.”
“They don’t want Martin to know he’s reported, in case it backfires.”
“It’ll be taken care of,” says Pierce in a serious tone, unlike the one he used earlier, when he was on the phone, when his voice was soft and musical. “So how old are you Geneva?”
She considers an explanation of being almost thirteen but replies, “Thirteen.”
“Hmm.” He smiles vaguely as he looks her over.
The song Gigi plays in her head.
“Thanks Geneva. I’ll see you around.”
So this is how it goes? Her stomach flutters. See you around?
There is a faded quarter moon. The flank of poplars outside the Roberts’ house wore flashy green and yellow uniforms in daylight then darkened, as evening progressed, into rogue footmen. A figure, under one expansive tree, stands aligned with the gnarled trunk, arms hanging uncommonly still.
Liver infiltrates every room of the Roberts’ house. There’s no escaping this weekly dose of butchered iron prescribed and cooked by Geneva’s mother in a frying pan with butter and onions and a sprinkling of salt. The smell has fanned out from the new electric stove to the dining and living room at the front and the bedrooms along the side. Geneva, with legs draped over the back of a kitchen chair and head and shoulders down on the seat, is on the phone with Darla. “I was right there in his office…he asked me how old I was…and he’s going to keep an eye on us, watch out for Martin Fry…ooh he gives me the willies. So, you want to go to the show on Saturday?”
Mr. Roberts is reading Ellery Queen in his green easy chair and Mrs. Roberts irons sheets while listening to Frank Sinatra on the radio.
“Will you close the curtains and blinds dear?” says Geneva’s mother. “By the way, Gladys Hartley wants you to baby-sit Saturday night. Call her tomorrow, just to be sure.”
“But I was planning to go to the show with Darla.” Geneva stands at the picture window, staring at the Northwest poplars. One of them, the third one from the end, the most abundant one, seems different.
“It’s still Gigi. And you’ve already seen it twice.”
“But I want to go again before it changes.” Her voice trails off.
“What’re you looking at?” her mother asks.
“Nothing, I guess.” She yanks the cord so the curtains swish together.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be alone, with just a baby, in someone else’s house. You know, with Martin Fry around.” She moves to close the venetians on the side windows.
“The police will take care of Martin. Your dad talked to Pierce and he’ll handle it.”
“Maybe we should lock the doors.”
“If it would make you feel better.” Mrs. Roberts sets the iron on its end while Frank Sinatra sings a Gershwin tune about wanting to be watched over. Mr. Roberts keeps right on reading while Mrs. Roberts goes to the front door, turns the barely used lock then lifts one corner of the lace panel to take a peek. She immediately screams her head off.
Mr. Roberts drops his Ellery Queen and runs over to her. “What in heavens name…?” Geneva stands frozen, her hands to her mouth.
“He’s out there. His face was right up to the window – looking right at me. Oh my God, lock the back door, call Pierce.”
Frank continues singing about someone who carries a key to his heart.
“Turn that damn radio off,” says Geneva’s father as he hustles to the back door and locks it up. He calls the operator. “Get me the RCMP. What do you mean he’s not there?” Eva Shantz, the operator, knows how to reach everyone in town. Between her rubber necking and people treating her like an answering service she has the goods on most everyone. “Yes it’s important, dammit. Why else would I be calling? Well put me through to the hotel then, if that’s where he is.”
Geneva is almost in shock but not to the point of missing this tidbit on the whereabouts of Danny Pierce.
Her father mutters, “Why would he be there, just when we need him?”
Her mother answers, “I heard he’s got a love nest.”
Then he’s back on the line. “Hello. Hello Pierce. We’ve got problems with Martin Fry. He’s looking in our windows. God knows what he’s up to. You gotta come and get him. Well get some backup! I don’t give a damn who you get, just get over here.”
“Next thing you know he’ll have her pregnant,” says Mrs. Roberts.
Love nest? Pregnant? Geneva stares at her parents.
“He’d better get here soon,” says Mrs. Roberts. “Martin must know we reported him. He must have seen Pierce come over to talk to you. That damn Pierce! Oh my God, close all the windows. What about the basement?”
“I am calm. I am calmly thinking of all the possibilities. And don’t just stand there!”
Mr. Roberts goes around to the bedrooms then down to the basement while Mrs. Roberts waits at the top of the stairs. “He’s crazy. They never should have let him out,” she natters into the stairwell.
Geneva stares at the enameled front door. Suddenly there’s a knock, hard and persistent. “Someone’s at the door.”
Her mother hollers down. “You’d better get up here. He’s knocking at the door.”
Mr. Roberts comes up out of breath; his eyes dart as he gauges the situation. He goes over and pushes aside the lace curtain to face the knocker and Geneva and her mother lean forward to see what they can see.
Martin’s face is contorted; his mouth forms words they can’t hear. He points toward the driveway at the side of the house.
“What? What’s that you’re saying? You’re calling me a fat liar?” Geneva’s father hollers through the glass; neither one can hear the other.
Martin yanks at the door and raises up his hands, exasperated. Suddenly two figures emerge from the shadows of the caraganas: one small and hunched, the other broad, bold and in uniform. There’s a thump on the door and scuffling on the veranda. Voices fade and a car door slams. Then comes an officious knock and Mr. Roberts opens up.
“Okay we’ve got him!” Pierce looms in the doorway, “We’re driving over to Ponoka tonight,” he says to Mr. Roberts. “By the way you have a flat tire.” He points to the side of the house.
Geneva and her mother rush to the front window and push aside the curtains. As Pierce opens the cruiser door and the interior lights flash on they spot his backup, Emily Fry.
“Thank God,” says Mrs. Roberts, “and poor Emily. So it’s true about Pierce and Shelly Walsh?”
“Who cares,” says Geneva. “Who cares?”
Mrs. Roberts has proved prophetic. Shelly Walsh got pregnant while her husband Dennis was in Drayton Valley working on the rigs – Darla’s mom said everyone knew that he cheated on Shelly right from the start but just the same she shouldn’t have gone and got pregnant. Shelly has escaped to her sister in Red Cliff and Pierce has been transferred to Medicine Hat, which, according to Darla’s mom, is a move up the totem pole and only about ten minutes from Red Cliff.
It’s spring and the tulips are in bloom. The Roberts take a Sunday drive to Ponoka and invite Darla along for the ride. The girls giggle and whisper in the back seat of the Ford Fairlane and sing Great Balls of Fire, then they all fall silent as Mr. Roberts turns into the hospital driveway.
“I wonder what room he’s in,” whispers Darla. “Look, there’s someone watching, up on the second floor. It could be him. My mom says they shocked him with electricity, cleared out his brain, so he wouldn’t recognize us anyway. Won’t remember anything. Can you imagine?”
Geneva remembers the last thing Pierce said to her – Here’s looking at you kid! – when he stopped at the hardware to say goodbye. She can barely conjure up the faces of Martin Fry or Danny Pierce nowadays but she can still see the look, fleeting as it was, on the face of Emily Fry: mouth pinched and curled into an ironic twist, eyes intense and estranged from everyone…including her son.