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Authors: Lou Beach

420 Characters (6 page)

BOOK: 420 Characters
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I WAKE UP naked except for the socks on my feet, and shoes. The shoes do not belong to me, the socks a type I would never wear. There is a crowbar in the bed with something pooled on the sheet beneath it, dark and sticky to the touch. I try to remove the shoes but I cannot undo the laces, they have been triple-knotted, tight as stretched skin. I am afraid to stand up.

 

OH, he was proud, all right, people slapped his back, wanted his picture. He'd worked very hard on the saddle, designed it himself, the tooling, the conchos. It was being shipped in from Tulsa by train, would arrive any day. Yet he could already feel himself withdrawing from it, sensed its luster fading, his joy dwindling. He'd had the same feeling on the day he married Emilene, confetti all around, her hair shiny.

 

AFTER the unfortunate, some might say unnatural, occurrence between Claude and Clothilde—our cook of many years—in the pantry, I suspended only Claude for a fortnight. We have to eat, after all. Après bidet this morning, I stood on the terrace, gazed upon the sheep flocking the expanse of lawn, keeping it trim, and decided to let Claude go permanently, then went down to the pantry.

 

THE LIGHTS are hotter than I thought they'd be. I sit in the guest chair and they adjust my microphone, pat the sweat off my forehead, ask if I'd like a glass of water. "Two minutes," says the floor manager. My heart is pounding. I run from the stage to the bathroom and vomit until I'm empty. I find the nearest exit, push it open, set off the alarm. I lean against a statue, press my head against the cool bronze leg.

 

 

IRIS BEDLICK sang backup. Country, soul, rock, whatever, had a voice could shatter a glass or put a baby to sleep. One night, on the road with Jack Howlette, she was handed a drink that blistered her throat. She never sang again, turned her back on music, was last heard to be a hotel maid. Her replacement married Jack, divorced him, went solo, platinum albums, a Grammy. Started out a chemistry major, became a star.

 

A PORCH at the back of my head. A bird on the railing. In the sun at the bottom of the stairs lies a dog named Perfect. His muzzle flutters as he breathes, soft, sleepy. I don't go there often, too busy up front. When I do sit, eyes closed, feet up on the rail, I smell grass, dirt, the river. I hear the mountain as it inches forward, pulling the rest behind until it meets itself, breaks into a grin, shakes the ocean into a fountain.

 

SHE LOVED HIM and Valentine's Day, but she adored chocolate. He knew all this yet stood before her in his white terry robe empty-handed, no heart-shaped box, no Godiva bag, nothing from Richart or Maison du Chocolat, nothing from Belgium, not a hint of bonbons stuffed with truffles or hazelnut pyramids filled with nougatine. "OK, where is it?" she said. He smiled and pushed her down on the bed. "You'll see," he said.

 

Surprise, Ian McShane (0:31)

 

RONNIE smacks the bar, tries to topple the splendid tower of quarters I've erected in front of me, but it just leans a bit toward my warm beer. He says I'm gilding my misery, playing all those weepers on the jukebox by Ray Price and George Jones. He tries mitigating with Def Leppard and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but ain't no rock 'n' roll can ease the pain of losing my sweet Junie Bird.

 

I LAY THE BOOK on the floor, open to the middle. It's a lovely volume, green leather covers, engraved endpapers. I remove my shoes and step into it up to my ankles, knees, hips, chest, until only my head is showing and the pages spread around me and the words bob up and down and bump into my neck, and the punctuation sticks to my chin and cheeks so I look like I need a shave.

 

EDDIE FORMED his hand, fingers, into the shape of a duck's head. "Whaddya wanna do today, Bill?" he said. "Let's trim my nose hairs," said the hand. Eddie stood on a stool at the sink, turned on the water, the garbage disposal, began inching Bill into the dark maw of the drain. From the other room, Mother's voice: "Edward! What are you doing in there?" Eddie pulled back his hand, looked at Bill. "Nothin', Ma, nothin'."

 

THE POND froze over last night, black pane frosted, framed by a stubble of cattail and brush. A blackbird sways on a stalk of swamp weed, the red and yellow patch on his shoulder his rank, little corporal. Geese fly overhead, big V honking south. Jesse and I bring the old skiff back to the barn. She wants to buy some red paint, give the boat a facelift. I say why spend the money, we've got gray paint right here.

 

VERA "WOOLY" LAMB dressed like a man, and could outcuss, outshoot, and outdrink anyone in pants, Little Rock, 1922. Her saloon, the Gilded Rose, offered games of chance and some local talent, girls from farms and factories tired of dirty work. Wooly kept a single-shot derringer tucked away on her person in a strategic spot hidden and moist, the humidity finally rendering the gun inoperative at a crucial moment.

 

THE BODY IN THE BACK SEAT looks familiar but I've been cautioned not to turn around. I only catch a glimpse when I look in the vanity mirror to see if any of the spinach manicotti that we had a while ago at Mangia has stuck to my teeth—I hate when I look like a mook. Gina turns up the radio when Slayer comes on, lights a cigarette, and sings along at the top of her voice, elbow out the window like a trucker, happy.

 

IN THE GRAY morning I arrive at the palace for questioning. Everything I've ever said or done, everywhere I've lived, everyone I've met or spoken to, is examined. My life is scrutinized; reduced, finally, to sunspots and murmurs. In a smoky room with yellow chairs I am found guilty as charged. I am sentenced to spend the rest of my days sifting through what they've allowed me to remember.

 

AFTER SHE FLED he became his own wife, ironing in his underwear, dusting the shelves, moving the figurines to the dining room table then replacing them carefully when he'd finished waxing the cabinet. Wearing her apron, he often made casseroles. Sometimes he'd sit on her closet floor and move his face through her dresses, like a dog searching in a field of high grass.

 

Dusting, Dave Alvin (0:29)

 

JOE PRINGLE, father of Sunday and six other children named after days of the week, rushed in and struck Mumford's skull with a sheep's head, still hot from the stockpot in the kitchen. One of the sheep's eyes popped out upon impact, as did one of Mumford's. They rolled under the table together, as if looking for the dogs that lay there waiting.

 

I FLAY my skin for you. It hangs from my chest and arms and back like a fringed jacket, like I'm going to a Neil Young concert, like I smell of patchouli and boo, like I stick to the seat of your VW. Except that the shreds have hardened and clink against one another. I'm a human wind chime. Hey man, can you hear me now?

 

IT WAS A LARGE SHIP. Growing from the main deck was a tall oak, its limbs reaching beyond the gunwales and casting a shadow on the water. At the very top sat a crow, keeping watch, while below him lesser whistlers and chirpers and screechers went about their duties, making sure the leaves were fit to cup the wind that pushed the great vessel through the sea.

 

HE WAITED all his life for a splashy catharsis, irrefutable evidence that a profound change had transformed him. It took him many years to realize that he had been altered each day by the sun's rising and the moon's movement, by the unfurling of his daughter's tiny hand to grasp his thumb, by the cat on his chest, by the glass of water his wife brought him before bedtime, by the questions his son asked.

 

"LET ME IN!" The failed artist from around the corner, 6 ft. 4 in. of canned ham, and his wee wife, 5 ft. 1, a regular pill bug, was banging on my door. A bird had just shit on his head, an avian comment on his life. Drug-riddled and depressed, he was making lots of money in the video game industry. "What should I do?" he asked. I thought he should shoot himself, but didn't say so. I handed him a towel.

 

 

GEORGE Man-Walking held a sweet feeling for Mary Trout and her dog, Reno. Three weeks on the road, he'd come by, bring her trinkets, keepsakes from his route, a red thermometer, odd buttons, a pin made of acorns, soap. He'd have a bag for Reno, too, some chop bones, bits of biscuit. Mary died one summer and George took Reno home, kept bringing trinkets to the dog, filled its little house with stuff until it ran away.

 

HER SUMMER DRESS is crisp, white with dark blue polka dots, open at the throat, sleeveless, set off by a wide red patent leather belt and espadrilles that raise her heels three inches from the sticky tarpaper. Backlit by the sun, her hair a splendor, she walks to the edge of the roof garden, looks down for a moment at the street sixty stories below, then returns to water the tomato plants. There are no insects up here.

 

THE CITY BELOW is brown and gray, some black smoke. The landing is smooth. I find a cab and take it to a street where old elms lean over small shops. I limp through the slush. The bell tinkles when I open the door and the barber turns from stropping the razor, nods toward a chair. I go to the photo on the wall. It's of three pilots, and I peer through my reflection at the man in the middle.

 

THEY BOUGHT apples, asked for directions. I didn't like their looks, the way the one in charge talked to the blonde in the back seat, ordered the driver around. I tried to recall where I left the pump gun. Annie put her hand on my arm, always able to read my mind. They drove off after eating some apples, threw the cores out the window. Annie thought maybe it was time to close up the stand, keep Fall just for ourselves.

 

I DROP IT INTO an athletic sock, the heavy kind with the double row of red bands around the top. I knot the sock and heave it as hard as I can into the lagoon and watch as an egret drops down to inspect the ripples. He stands on one leg and I realize the water is shallow, only comes halfway up his leg. "Shit!" I roll up my pants, remove my shoes, and wade into the muck.

 

ARDELLE PHELPS JR. drove to Lowburn, parked across from Buddy's just before closing time and waited. He recalled the good times he'd had with Faye, couldn't come up with any fresher than ten years old. Faye stumbled out of Buddy's, leaned on Erskine and laughed, took off her shoes. Ardelle checked himself in the rearview, made sure there wasn't anything stuck to his teeth, and slid out of the pickup.

 

HE SITS IN THE SUN rearranging the past, and tries to keep warm. He knows words, says them, but has forgotten their meaning. They hang all about, sparkling, just out of reach, the crystals on a chandelier he can't light. His memory rings like a wind chime, sounding clear and bright, then dwindles to random jingles and clinks.

 

I REMOVE MY HEADGEAR and glance out the porthole at Earth, slowly receding. I am elated, relieved to be leaving the riots and wars, fires, famines, and floods. Deep Colony 7 has new doctrines; things work, it is clean, there is Hope. I scratch inside the flight suit. I sniff my fingertips, light up a Marlboro and cough.

 

THEY'VE TAGGED my fence again with their gang squiggles, street-dumb calligraphy. They walk by on the way to school, I know who they are. I will sit in my pickup across the street every day, and wait with my own spray paint, shake the cans until my wrists hurt, catch them in the act. I'll jump out, the aerosol avenger, and cover their faces and backs with perfect penmanship, my name. You don't fuck with Jerry Vogel.

BOOK: 420 Characters
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