Read 420 Characters Online

Authors: Lou Beach

420 Characters (4 page)

BOOK: 420 Characters
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I CORK HER NAVEL with a ruby, bring her saffron and pomegranates, dates, and cool water from the well. We sit together on the balcony, silk cushions beneath us. The air smells of jasmine from the gardens. We gaze out at the sea. A fisherman is pulling in his nets, back bent and straining, his catch nothing but seaweed and bad luck. I pour tea.

 

HE WAS HANDCUFFED to the seat beneath the window. He leaned out and tipped his hat to her with his free hand. She smiled and left the station platform. What a nice young man, she thought. The cats wove around her ankles when she opened the door. They reminded her of a painting of two golden fish she had seen in a picture book about Japan. They were on a green background, one facing up, the other down, nose to tail. Japan, imagine that.

 

I READ somewhere that Hitler loved dogs, was sentimental, too. Now, I'm a sucker for a hound, and a Charlie Rich song can fog up my glasses, so I started in to wondering about myself, you know, like deep down, could I maybe have mass murderer tendencies or something? Then I read he believed in astrology and felt a whole lot better, 'cause I'm a good Baptist. And also, I'm a Virgo, and we are very focused in our beliefs.

 

THE SERVANTS SEEM PECULIAR lately. The kitchen help, the housekeeper, and the gardener move about in a shuffle, mumbling, glazed. When I confront them they appear startled, as if just awakened. Only Claude, the chauffeur, retains his old demeanor, sneering or scowling, smoking a Gauloises as he leans against the Packard, wiping a long black fender with my cashmere sweater.

 

STUMBLE was our first line of defense when the cops swept the blocks. With one leg shorter than the other, he was an easy grab. The rest of us ran for our hidey-holes and waited it out while the popo twisted Stumble's arm and laid his face open. They broke a couple of his teeth once so he was known as Mumble for a while. Ma hated the nicknames so at home I had to call him Randolph.

 

I QUIT the vinyl-siding gig ... that guy was an asshole. My lucky day ... got a job at a bait and tackle shop. What I know about fishing you could fit on the side of a rubber worm, but the owner said I look like a pirate and I know how to make change, so the tourists'll be happy. If Gina wears a bikini and sits in the window, he'll pay extra.

 

MICK JAGGER BLEW HIS NOSE into the scarf hanging around his neck; our time together was coming to a close. I had my story after a week on the road discussing women and drugs and blues and shoes. Keith was jealous, said Mick never talked shoes with him. Charlie yawned, picked his teeth with a gold tiepin, wiped it on Keith's shirt and returned it to its place—piercing a lovely puce and chartreuse regimental tie.

 

"WANT A SANDWICH? I got baloney, cheese, some of that Jewish bread." He still wore an apron in the kitchen, like a short-order cook, but couldn't peel an onion. I drew a bunny on the steamed-up window and followed the drips to the sill, looked into the yard where Ronnie used to chase me with a stick. It was full of gray snow, a couple of animal dents. "No, I ain't got time. I just dropped by, see how you were doing."

 

I'M THE ONLY DADDY in the carpool. Carpool Daddy. When it's my turn to drive, I want to kiss each Mommy and give her ass a little squeeze, tell her to have a nice day, that I can't wait to see her in the evening when I get home. The kid gets in the car, I pull away and watch Mommy in the rearview mirror. I memorize what she's wearing as she waves to us before going back inside.

 

SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, fragile and afraid, a peacock in a hailstorm. We sat together on the couch, waiting for the car horn. It sounded at last and I held her hand as we pushed through the snow in the driveway. I turned away after I buckled her into the back seat. Don wouldn't look at me, but reached back, touched her knee. I watched them drive off, then walked back to the house, careful not to step into her footprints.

 

THERE IS A DEEP HOLE where the lies go. Not just downright falsehoods, but misaligned intentions, omissions of truth, innuendos, and the like. And don't go nosying up for a look-see, hear? Because there's a hand that will come up, quick as THAT! and grab your ankle or your coattail, see? And it won't let go, you'll be captive. And it won't let go, oh no no no.

 

WE ARE ON A RIDGE overlooking their encampment. Only women and children, the old and infirm, remain; the men are gone hunting or raiding. As I draw my saber and point it at the camp, I see the reflection of my horse's wild eye in the shiny metal. He knows there will be fire and screaming, the smell of blood and smoke before he can drink from the river.

 

Blood, Jeff Bridges (0:25)

 

KISS ME A QUESTION, ask me again with your eyes and I'll answer with my fingers, trailing reasons down your spine. There's a theory behind your knees and a postulate in that sweet spot on your neck, and I'll respond to your query with a smooch and a holler, roll you up against the sink and wash your hair, make love till the plates fall off the shelf.

 

THE HOTEL WAS ON FIRE, the guests marooning out front in evening clothes, pajamas, wrapped in towels. The building was saved from major damage by an efficient and powerful overhead extinguisher system that also managed to ruin furniture and clothes and TVs and books and laptops. A sprinkler intervention took place in room 807 as I spread an ounce of coke on the table.

 

I HAD AN IDEA that lasted more than four hours. I called my doctor. He said it should be removed. I said that's a good idea. He said: "Which? Your idea or the removal?" I said: "I have no idea." He said: "Fine, then we'll bill your insurance."

 

Idea, Dave Alvin (0:16)

 

I HAD NEVER used a chain saw. When I plunged it into the neck of the tree it stuck, and I pulled hard, fell backwards. The saw sliced off part of my scalp, deli style, on the way down, then sputtered, scuttled away like a mad crab. I passed out, woke later to a low growl. Lucky was lapping at the pool of blood next to my head. I was glad to see him, his yellow eyes.

 

 

THE ROAD CLUTCHES at the side of the mountain as if it's afraid of falling. Narrow and rocky, it winds up the eastern slope as the engine labors and gripes about the load. The exhaust mingles with the smell of the sea, which is beyond our view. Paul and I are hauling lumber to Norma's camp and will build her cabin, give her the chance to measure our worth, each of us hoping not to be the one who drives back down alone.

 

ANN O'DYNE, nurse, had healing hands, wee mitts sprung from the cuffs of her crisp white tunic. Her voice was gold, a brook in a meadow. It washed away fear and anger, discomfort and pain. She was the pride of the ward, the whole hospital, the surgeon's pal, the patient's savior. At home, her feet hurt, she drank, slept with a butcher, called talk-radio programs, ranted about illegal immigrants and the Jew-run media.

 

I LIVE IN THE POCKET of a bright paisley shirt —silk—and when the light is just so, I'm in my own private cathedral. I lie back and push out against the fabric with my feet, and the colored light falls in like kids' breakfast cereal. I lived in a canvas shirt once but the guy was always sweating so much it recalled that tent in Ireland near the sea where I first got this assignment.

 

IN '98 Pasker and I subcontracted to paint a suspension bridge that spanned the M'pozo River in Congo. One day while adjusting the compressor we saw thirty or forty paramilitary guys running our way with machetes and AK-47s. We were terrified, but as they got closer they began to laugh, pointing at the spreading wet stain on the front of Pasker's pants, and ran past us. Once again, Pasker had saved our lives.

 

THERE WAS A MAN on my lawn. I saw him through the window. He was sitting with his legs straight out in front of him, hands in lap, back very erect. I armed myself with a baseball bat, went outside. "What are you doing here?" I said. He smiled and said: "I am Right Angle Man." Relieved that he was harmless, I laughed, said: "Where is your cape?" He looked up at me. "I am not a superhero. Are you with the Yankees?"

 

I RISE at 3
A.M.
to walk my bladder to the bathroom, then return to bed and wait for my face and pillow to come to an agreement. I lie on my right, my left, my stomach, my back, as if attempting an even tan, until I find the Goldilocks spot. The only sound is the hum of the planet, and the whistling and chirping of the little birds who live in my nostrils.

 

THE NURSE LEFT. Ann's eyes were closed so I dumped her meds into my shirt pocket, snapped it shut. I looked around the room, put her laptop in my backpack. I leaned over to give her a goodbye peck on the forehead. She smelled like her next bath was going to be in the Ganges. Her eyes flew open, she grabbed my wrist and said: "Ronnie, give me a smoke."

 

THERE IS A PLACE I visit, where no one else goes. The rocks are slippery and sharp, the drop to the dark sea below makes me dizzy. The sun never muscles its way through the gang of clouds that hover overhead, shedding a mist that plasters my thin hair to my head, makes me turn up my collar. No, you can't go with me, I don't want a sandwich to take, thermos of hot chocolate, though your asking may keep me home.

 

SHE LOVED SECRETS, stole magazines, makeup, sauntered through the office pulling at the hem of her sweater, hiding her hips. Her hands were pudgy and dainty, dimpled like a doll's, always used a paper napkin to hold her fried chicken. "Hello, Jerome," she purred as I put down my briefcase, hung up my coat, "what's on YOUR agenda today?" "Regulators coming in." "I can help!" she said. "I can help."

 

THE RHUBARB grows in wild patches against the wooden fence separating our backyard from that of Mrs. Bonkowski next door. I snap a stalk and dip it in sugar, gnaw and suck on it until my teeth hurt. Divisions of plastic army men engage in battle with pill bugs and earwigs in the rhubarb forest, the dirt on my knees and elbows testimony to the conflict. A truce is called for dinner; peace prevails.

 

THERE'S A GLASS on the nightstand, a smear of lipstick along the rim. It is empty. On the dresser, an assortment of bracelets, earrings, her wedding band, a framed photo of her father in uniform. There is a stain on the bedspread, peeking out from beneath the suitcase that lies open, ready to receive. She pulls hard at the closet door, which has stuck ever since they moved here. He's never gotten around to fixing it.

 

SHINBONE AND NUSBAUM sit in a rear booth facing the door, able to see whoever walks in. They are patient, serious, comfortable sitting for long stretches eating pie and drinking cold coffee. Shinbone looks at Nusbaum. "Hey, Nussy, you heard about the Jew what fell offa Hoover Dam?" Nusbaum picks something out of his cup, flicks it at the window, where it splats and slides to the sill. "Shut up, Bone," he says.

 

THE TRAIN pulls into Jawbone at 1:07. I'm on the platform waiting for you but the only passengers off the car are three old farmers. I stand there for a while, look around, hoping you'll appear out of the heat. The engine chugs off into the dust and I retreat to the Red Dog, drink until I'm numb, then stumble past the livery barn to lie down on the tracks. I put my ear to the rail, close my eyes and listen for you.

 

"DON'T DRINK the tap water," she said with science in her eyes. I ran out the back door to the fields and started husking. I was overwhelmed with affection for the kernels festooning the shucked ears. I lay down between the stalks, pressed my face to the deep soft earth and inhaled. There is no other life.

 

I CAN'T HEAR YOU, my thumb's up my ass. The phone is ringing, someone's at the door. I'm not getting up. Don't bother writing. Sure—call whomever you want. Gather your friends and stir some stink, I have lace hankies. You drive to work and buy cans of beans, mark an X where told, your pages are numbered. I don't have to listen. I own the ocean.

 

CRAWFOOT stood outside of Sloans, hand up for a cab. His face was punctuated by a cigar, and a redhead hung on his arm like a comma. He'd approached her after his third Dewars and water. "You make a barstool look like a throne." She looked him over, suppressed a smile. "Yeah? You make wearing a raincoat look like a felony." He lit her cigarette, loosened his tie and sat down next to her, bumped her knee.

BOOK: 420 Characters
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