Either the Fat Lady has sung her last and made a hospice of my noggin, pressing her three hundred and forty-two pounds of dying flesh into the three pound cavity still occupied by my quarter ounce brain, or I have a righteous sinus infection, or the flu. Regardless, I wish the EMTs, Paramedics, Fire Marshall, Jaws of Life, AAA—somebody—would come and remove whoever’s swollen ass (because judging from my appetite, it’s most likely the Fat Lady's), has taken up residence just below and behind my eyeballs, and bury the whole lot of it in a piano case somewhere in New Mexico.
Mike Lloyd and I were out in the shop, bullshitting, one day last week when James dropped in and shocked us with this bit of news. Not that James dispersed it as such.
‘What’ve you been into this morning, Mr. Hammock?’ Mike asked when James poked his head in the door.
Mike’s a big man. From Ohio originally. In his late sixties I think; white, round and rosy in all of the places that Santa Claus is white, round and rosy. Mike’s got a twinkle in his eye too, but with a bit of a mischievous slant. ‘Oh...’ James said, closing the door behind him. James is in his early forties. His features and physique are headed in much the same direction as Mike’s, only with a dyspeptic twinkle. ‘...not much. Just came in from feedin’ my cows and dog. Saw your truck Mike. Thought I’d come over and see what ya’ll were up to.’
Mike and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised in big question marks. 'Dog'? Mike mouthed. I shrugged. It was the first I had heard of it.
You see, in James’s own words, he don’t care nothin’ for no damn dog. The few he has had in his lifetime were coon dogs—working dogs, kept outdoors and admired for their skills, but never extended any more affection than a rewarding pat and ‘attaboy’—and those he had when he was as a kid.
‘Oh really? Mike said, ‘A dog?’
‘Yep,’ James said, examining a piece of lumber I had standing near the door. He wouldn't look at us directly.
‘What kind of dog?’ Mike asked.
‘Oh, it’s that old dog of Bret’s. He’s taken up with my cows.’
'You're feedin' him?'
Bret’s another guy who doesn’t care for dogs. Neither does his wife. To appease their six children, though, they packed one home. Two, actually. One took sick as a pup and Bret put it down. The survivor was Max, the dog with James's cows.
Max grew up to be a lanky dog, not quite a short-hair but not a long-hair either, mostly white with black and brown blotches. It’s said his father was a Great Pyrenees. Mom must have been a Pointer and the dominate gene donor.
As it turns out, Bret’s kids don’t care much for dogs either. Max apparently realized this and spent a good deal of the last three months wandering, the Pyrenees in him in search of a more appreciative herd to watch over. Apparently he found it in James’s cows, some six miles up the road.
Mike and I knew better than to pester James about his new dog. James would probably run Max off just to proove he hadn't gone soft. I told James about Max's Pyrenees blood and we all agreed Max would be good at keeping an eye on the cows.
I went out with James the other day to check on the herd and to feed Max, who James still referred to as 'that dog.' I was surprised to learn that Max was no longer being fed scraps alone. James had bought Max twenty pounds of the cheapest dog food he could find. He bitched the whole drive over to the pasture about the nine dollars it cost him, a sure sign he was proud of his generosity.
I saw Max from the road, flopped out in the sunny grass beside his new bovine family. He raised a lazy eye to us when we pulled up to the gate, then, when he recognized the truck, got up and came running.
‘Max!’ I hollered, as he came up the hill. He was thin, but his tail was wagging. He looked happy.
‘Is that his name? Max?’ James asked, emptying the can of dog feed right there on a patch of roofing tin beside the gate. Max devoured it.
‘Yep.’ I thought everyone knew Max's name.
‘You watchin’ my cows Max?’
Max looked up and wagged his tail. He was doing his job.
We went out and walked around and among the cows. Max fell in beside James. I slipped back and followed the two of them, listening to James as he pointed out the good and bad among the herd. Max would come back to me, briefly, from time to time, maybe because he knew me, knew I would scratch him, but he always ran back to James’s side. He would nudge James’s hand with his nose. And once, just once, and barely at that, without even a downward glance, James scratched the back of Max's ear.
So it's plan A again, a quiet place under the big white oak out back. I can see no other way to rid myself of the clutter I’ve accumulated. (Only so much can be given to charity, burned.) And too, I’m a fad. I have no enduring value. As things are, I’d never be a mantelpiece long—if at all. At some point I’d have to be dragged from the attic, discarded. I’ll spare you the bother.
The onanist in 312 has thrown in the towel, so to speak, and shacked up with a chick he met on the internet: Jen. She caught me at the door Thursday. They'd been redecorating, she said, and planning a paint party for Saturday. She asked if I'd like to come.
Jen’s my kind of disconcerting—dark hair, petite, lazy right eye, bites her lower lip while she’s waiting for my answer. I’d had a couple of Newcastles down at O’Malley’s, and as much as I hate painting and parties, I couldn’t say no.
In hindsight, I might have dubbed the Onanist prematurely. His real name is Mark. He seems like a good enough guy: wears ties to work and brings home leafy groceries in a canvas Trader Joe’s bag. The thing is, our johns share a common wall. Back when I first moved in, I was sitting on the can and heard something kind of funny coming from over there. Mark could have been brushing his teeth or plunging the toilet for all I know. But I’d just run across ‘onanism’ in the dictionary. It was an unfortunate coincidence. Anyway, maybe I can rectify the moniker if I paint his walls.
The party started at twelve. I drank a couple of cold beers and left my place at a quarter after. I couldn’t resist bringing an organic blush.
The door was open. I gave it a couple of warning raps, stepped in. Hey! It’s the guy from three-thirteen, come to paint. Everything was covered. Something slow was playing on a hidden stereo, a deep, funky groove that didn’t sound like Mark or Jen.
Jen came out from the back, cheeks speckled in ceiling-white. Nice freckles, I said. Oh, god, I know, she said, brushing hair from her eyes with the back of her hand. I gave her the wine. Thanks. We’re all in the bedroom. Come on.
I followed her to the master. Mark was on his knees cutting in the base. The other two painters—girls—I didn’t recognize. Jen made introductions, friends of hers from work: Alyson and Sarah. I was the only tenant who showed. There were a couple of pizzas on the floor. Hope you’re hungry, Jen said, nodding at the boxes. We ordered six.
After a slice of pepperoni, I was sent to the bathroom with a four inch Purdy chisel and a can of something blonde. Sesame, Jen said. It’s a base coat. I’m sponging.
There were no new nicknames in the john. Everything was covered and taped. I had the corners behind the toilet cut in when Alyson showed. I’m supposed to keep you company, she said. She had a clean brush in one hand and two open Heinekens in the other. Mark thought you were a beer man. She forwarded me a cold one. Thanks, I told her, taking the bottle. Mark guessed right. Good, she said, I can’t paint sober, and I hate drinking alone.
So you’re single? Alyson asked after our third Heineken.
More of Marks speculations?
Yes, I’m single.
I’m… occupied. I write.
Ah. That explains the hair, Alyson said. Celibate, onanist or prowler?
Yeah. Do you ja…
I know what onanism is.
Suddenly the funky music made sense. Onanist, I admitted. Purely medicinal.
Meg first slept in the guest bedroom when Rocky came home sans left leg. It made better sense then for Rocky to convalesce in the marital Sleep Number California Queen. He consumed most of any bed: his three remaining limbs spread wide to displace his weight or, possibly, to achieve some sort of buoyancy that might lift his needled hide from the sheets. Meg had even thought (then), that Rocky deserved the better bed, ‘for all that he had been through’. Of course there was also the fear of bumping the raucous stump.
Meg’s opinion however, of what Rocky had ‘been through’, changed dramatically by the time the prosthetic had arrived. His morphine induced prattle leaching through the baby monitor Meg had purchased and placed on the nightstand beside the Guest Twin, ‘for emergencies’, had kept her awake for nearly two weeks, giving her plenty of time to re-evaluate Rocky's state.
Meg’s sleep deprived mind made no attempt to gloss the truth: Stupidity had cost Rocky his leg. Rocky's mother and brother both lost limbs (and subsequently their lives), to diabetes. He knew full well how to avoid the same fate and had ignored everything the doctors instructed, choosing instead to pray and expect a miracle.
Meg brought Rocky his breakfast in bed until he was able to crutch himself to the table, the blank in his pajama bottoms sewn up and out of the way. She watched him eat eggs over-easy and spread the jam on his white bread toast that he refused to go without; spoon pure sugar into his coffee. He needed a couple vices, he told her.
It was at the breakfast table that Meg began to notice Rocky’s eccentricities, the odd smackings and grindings that had never made her skin crawl before. It was at the breakfast table, too, after hobbling out on his titanium replacement, that Rocky had asked her when she was coming back to the Sleep Number.
Meg was kind enough to tell Rocky that she had come to enjoy the Guest Twin, the smallness of the bedroom. In truth though, Meg saw Rocky with the remainder of his extremities shed, one for each dollop of jam he ate on his white bread toast. He was a freak, an ignorant pink lump. She could never sleep beside him again.
A week later, Meg boxed up Rocky’s left shoes and took them to the Diabetes Center. She learned with the donation that not everyone lost limbs to diabetes because of ignorance, like her husband had. She had begun to think that, begun to put all diabetic amputees into Rocky's shoes. Rocky's shoe. The knowledge helped. Some. Though nothing would stop her from picking away at what remained of Rocky, until finally, he vanished entirely and Meg slept like a baby in the Guest Twin.
Midday, the muck of low clouds became a steady, gentle rain.
On the thatch roof, its murmuring reminded Anna of breezes that once ran through her father’s fields of ripened wheat. In the heat of those younger summers, the sound had been a comfort, drawing out the poison of loss like loving fingertips.
Anna let some of her worry fall with the tender patter. Maybe they wouldn’t search in the rain—question.
She let drift her focus, from the gateway she had been watching, to the beads of rain gathered on the window pane. In the tiny convexes she found gap-toothed smiles, Mayan ruins.
Anna wondered what Maria would see in the droplets: lovers entangled, a bandersnatch. Maria had the imagination, the dreams. Anna's head had always been full of numbers and useless facts.
She took her father’s watch from her dress pocket. Two-thirty. Maria was late. She looked back at the gateway anxiously.
Anna had been instucted to leave at three ‘o clock, regardless. But how on earth was she supposed to do that, when Maria had the change of clothing, the food, the names, the route. This was her dream. All Anna had was the money. Same as ever.
‘Just go!’ Maria would say. ‘Try! Live!’
Anna left the window. She found a knife and cut the star from her dress. It's dark image remained above her breast, a brand, she was sure, her money couldn't erase if she was captured.
Maria would have gone anyway; taken the risk. But she wasn’t Maria. Hope had always been harder for Anna to find.
Dusk followed the rain. Under its cover, Anna went to the well behind the farmhouse, a waste-high ring of stone under a limed shed. She took the coil of rope from its peg and fed the bucket down into the well's mouth.
Anna washed her face in the icy water she had drawn. Maria was gone. They had her. She was certain of that now. She wanted to cry, but couldn’t. Hatred and atrocities had worn that ability thin. She looked out over the fading landscape. Even if she could reach the border and cross, would she be free, carrying this loss?
Anna fussed with the rope’s knot, slick and swollen tight to the bucket’s handle. When it wouldn't come loose, she placed the bucket over her head, handle under her chin. Tipping the brim back enough to see, she swung her legs over the edge of the well. She glanced once more at the empty gateway, then fell into the dark mouth of the well.
In a crowd of heavies only the keenest minglers note my signature spears of juniper, my wilting inlets, draping the sallow masonry that would otherwise grace porcelain shoulders.
I suppose I could brag. Frankly, where would they be without me? The Plains? Another blazing sunrise?
I prefer though, to remain the bright glade in passing, turning the occasional head, whose accolades never loose their savor, fading in mass, until unnoticed like valleys, bridged behind a masterpiece.
She had just settled in when the violets began to arrive.
The gifting women, in various shades of gray, introduced themselves as so-and-so’s wife, from this farm or that.
‘Here’s a little something for the house,’ each told her, forwarding the tiny potted plants, like casserole dishes in the wake of a grave loss.
She accepted the gifts graciously; coaxing the women, one by one, off of the June porch and into the parlor.
The wives were never able to stay more than a minute or two, and gravitated toward the kitchen in search of an eastward window. 'African violets aren't true violets,' they explained, 'and do best in the morning sun.'
'Is that chiffon you're wearing dear?’ the wives had asked, remembering their own first years—how things were for ‘new couples’—exclaiming that it looked like the Welcome Wagon had already been there, when they saw the crowd of mock-violets growing on the sill, above the sink.
She ended up with an even dozen and questioned her husband about the gifts, clearly a tradition.
For his lifetime of living there, he couldn’t explain the plants. ‘Women around here do things different,’ he had told her. ‘That’s why I went to town for you.’
It was enough.
She cared for them, as the wives had instructed and the little plants thrived in the warmth of the deep sill.
When the first dead foliage appeared, she realized that she had yet to touch the velveteen leaves or lush purple flowers. Frank hostilities were all she knew of Africa. She had half-expected to be stung by the plants.
She had laughed though, at her racing heart, when finally, she held the dry leaves in her palm. She had stood down the lion.
Alone that summer, as long as daylight remained, she discovered Britannica’s in the attic.
Waiting for the growing season to pass, she explored the book's glossy worlds, learning of an Africa, tender and tropical enough to nurture her violets.
When winter set in though, she found she would be alone, regardless the light.
Day after day, she watched her husband over the violets, driving up the lane for his dinner, his supper. As the years passed, it became harder and harder for her to distinguish the man from the machines and the redundant landscape, until finally, she no longer noticed him returning at all.
Now, in the glass of the new bride’s front door, she could see herself on the porch, holding the tiny potted plant: another gray tradition, bearing flowers to an early grave.
She left without knocking.
At the end of the drive, she nosed the car toward her home town—toward something chiffon. Silk maybe... violet.
Carry your saplings back down the mountain, your tubers and your seed. I have penance yet, for the Edens I scorned in youth, for the garlic that I let grow under my left heel, and the onion, under my right.
He’s gentle, the big orange Tom. Pads tenderly for permission, then pleads, with sleepy green eyes, to be lapped; caressed. He doesn’t seem to have it in him, the inherent midnight brawl, that boxed his ear, dotted his eye. Maybe his heart is the culprit— why he brings so many scars home with the sunrise.
I know your voice well enough, your silhouette. Which is why I worried your wife was who the ambulance had come for last night. Back and forth you stomped in the tiny, cluttered yard as the headlights accumulated.
“…it hurts all over,” you rumbled, and I wondered what she could be dying of.
I imagined her, praying for the sound of sirens in her hopeless pink night-shirt, so very afraid, as they loaded her on the stretcher, apologizing for the house, her hair; reaching for her babies, who watched with odd knowing, from a kitchen, or a den maybe.
Then there was only your yellowed porch light and the consuming silence of a night on the verge of spring. I stood there a while in my own darkness, with your fears, crying. I had never wanted you there. Not just you, anyone... that trailer. But I would never ask that you leave like that—afraid.
In the morning, I was relieved to hear that it was you and not her, that you had thought you were having a heart attack, but had been down to the store for cigarettes already, so you must be all right.
Later, I felt the sting of old resentments when they told me that your ‘heart attack’ was nothing but the DT’s, that you had depleted your prescription of morphine tabs by crushing and snorting them—that was why you had 'hurt all over'—and that you had squandered thousands in disability money and pawned off appliances kind hearts had gifted you.
“I’ve been hooked and I've squandered and pawned,” I said, trying to make some sense of it.
“You ain’t like them, though,” they told me. “They’ll never amount to nothin’.”
That may be. But I’ll have to pray and wait for the sound of sirens just the same.
I'm thinking thatsome women just shouldn't wear pink...
My neighbor for instance.
Yesterday was near enough like spring for her to venture out of the trailer and ‘get some sunshine’, as they say 'round here.
I might have preferred drawing my conclusion from a greater distance, but, one of her Pitt Bulls got loose and ran up the road to my place. So, here she came, stalking after the dog, like someone’s Olympic power lifting Valentine, pumped from clearing a 520 bench, wearing bubble-gum pink capri’s and blush T.
It was in the road's dappled sunlight were I first noticed how the color amplifies the lack of femininity in certain wearers. Much like a tutu would a lady rhino.
The fact that she was calling for the dog wasn’t helping matters in the least.
Rumor has it; she and her man are both ex truck drivers. My guess is from the Conway Twitty, Pall-Mall and PBR era—heavy on the Pall-Malls. She has a certain Wolfman Jack quality to her voice, an emphysema soaked timbre. And don’t forget, this is the South.
“Mongo baby!” she calls, tender, motherly, gurgley. “Mongo!”
Then, at the top of her lung,
“MONGO! GET OVER HERE!"
Mongo pays no heed, and up the road she continues, alternating between redneck mommy and flat-out redneck.
Do they call it a beer-belly on women? I would hope, at her age, she’s not pregnant.
Whatever the name, it's well beyond muffin top and the saving graces of vertical stripes.
I waved hello.
Mongo was now being enticed with his bone.
“I’ve got your bone baby!”
We could probably add use of the word ‘baby’ to the color pink.
Mongo caved to the bone.
If I had any doubts about my theory before, they were squelched when the two stalked home.
Not that my gaze lingered, but my neighbor has one of those unfortunate flat butts, possibly from her years of truck driving, that seem to be perpetually clenched. I’ve seen them a lot in Wal-Mart.
I haven’t investigated the physics, but the nature of this butt type, will, in a matter of minutes, inflict a sort of wedgy on its possessor. It looks horribly uncomfortably, even from a distance, and always makes me wonder if the person doesn’t need some assistance, say with a stick, to unhitch the garment.
I’m no Fashionista, but I would think a darker color would go a long way in disguising this dilemma. Certainly not pink.
A I dreamed I was in a theater, something old; operatic.
I was with people, friends maybe, talking about some absurd adventure I felt compelled to undertake. We’ll say it was a mountain climb. That seems right. Nothing too cold and deadly though.
Anyway, there are two women sitting in front of me. Between their shoulders, I can see the woman on the left nudging the woman on the right as I’m talking. Nudge, laugh, nudge, laugh.
The more I talk, the more the nudge and laugh seems timed with my every mention of climbing.
Finally, the woman on the right, who appears to have a crick in her neck, turns and says, “Why don’t you take me climbing with you?”
She’s beautiful, in a Nicole Kidman now kind of way, same hair, gracious features. Not something I look for, but certainly something I can appreciate.
Clearly, I think, out of my league. I figure she’s being a smart ass.
I smile. Apparently with a bit too much “F you,” though, and not enough apology for my talking to loud, because the woman on the left is offended now.
“Oh… No. That’s not what I mean,” the woman on the right said, reading my face. She calms her friend.
“I’d love to go with you on your mountain climb,” she said. “Really. Only you’d probably have to carry me most of the way. Look.”
The two women part enough for me to look over their shoulders at the odd twist of her body in the chair. She has a brace on her leg. Both legs?
“Look at this,” she said, drawing her dress off her shoulder.
She turns her head, wincing a little, and a bone pushes up, like the crescent of a blanket chest’s lid stay. The bone seems about to burst through her pale skin. She turns back and it recedes.
“Touch it,” she says. “It’s crazy.”
I didn’t much want to touch it. Not because the bone was ‘crazy’... because it looked like the action caused her pain and didn’t need repeating for my sake. Besides, what if I touched her… it… the wrong way? Ruined everything? Was there something? It seemed like there was something. Obviously I was smitten. It was bad enough I'd probably have to leave this place plagued by her spirit for the rest of my life. Why add the warmth and softness of her skin to my misery.
“Come on. Chicken.”
I pressed my fingertips against the hollow of her shoulder. She turned her head. It was indeed crazy.
Turns out, there was something.
Suddenly, we’re walking through what looks like a shopping mall. But instead of stores, there are dance floors and live music and people sitting at tables waiting to be asked to dance. There is a store for old women and young women and women in between, and men, too; cowboys and Buddhists and brooding writers—a store for everybody looking for a dance partner.
She can walk. Not pretty though, and not for long. Eventually I have to carry her, something I seem to enjoy. She’s tiny; a feather.
She is… we are… looking for someone.
“There, there!” she says finally, pointing to a woman sitting on the tiled, planter bench-wall.
The woman is wearing white; glowing, maybe a bit too Galadriel for a dance-partner shopping mall.
My girl… since I don’t know her name… wants down.
She walks me over to Galadriel-lady, takes the woman’s hand and holds it up where I can see a ring on the woman's finger. It’s an engagement ring: big diamond, still in the whole Rivendell motif; beautiful.
“Is this your mother’s ring?” my girl asks me.
“Yes,” I say.
She takes it off of Galadriel’s finger.
“Thank you,” she says to Galadriel.
Galadriel doesn’t seem to mind a bit. In fact, it seems she might have been waiting for us.
My girl puts the ring on her finger.
“There,” she says. “Wasn’t that easy?”
I nod my agreement, though I kind of wanted to put the ring on her finger myself. She’s already walking away though, the best that she can, anyway.
“Come on,” she calls back over the crazy-boned shoulder.