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Authors: Brad Watson

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BOOK: The Heaven of Mercury
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Self-Reliance

H
E'D CONFRONTED
Birdie in a manner of speaking, about her imminent marriage, at the Potato Ball, spring of 1918. It was held at the old country club, now defunct and returned to pastures but for the lodge-style clubhouse. Men were a little scarce, most boys off to war. The stars and moon were out, the skylights open beneath the eaves of the hall, and the soft light spilled in upon them. They'd turned down the gas lamps. Finus had cut in on Earl, who let him so he could go smoke with some boys out back nipping raisin jack.

-You're speaking to me again now? Birdie said, teasing him.

He said nothing, gave a grim smile. They danced, and Finus said, -So you are going to marry Earl for certain. And she said, looking at him with that gap-toothed lighthearted frankness she had, -Well I reckon—it's all set. I wish they could do it all without me, though.

Finus said, -Are you sure you don't just want to run off with me?

She stood still and stared at him, astonished. It wasn't all astonishment, though. He thought he could see in her eyes that she might really consider doing such a thing if he was serious. He'd caught hold, for the moment, of some loose line in her that would attach itself to stray wildness. And then, he couldn't explain this at all, something in him had panicked at the whole idea, of how much his life would change if he did that. Some current of reticence went down through his hands and into her bare shoulders. And Birdie sensed it, he could tell in an instant that she did, and before he could quell it as the momentary rationality of a sensible man that would always, of course, buck away from the acquiescence of love, it was over, she was knocking him on the arm and turning away.

-Here's your sweetheart, she said, and Finus saw Avis Crossweatherly headed his way across the floor, her eyes pinning him to the spot. She came up and stood before him in a pale blue skirt and navy cashmere sweater.

-Dance with a girl? she said.

He smiled weakly, and took her hand.

 

A
MONTH LATER
, the night before Earl was set to marry Birdie, Finus got drunk at a card game in Earl's honor at Marie Suskin's whorehouse on 9th Street. The drunker he got, the less he felt like honoring Earl, so when he got Earl down a hundred dollars at stud he demanded that Earl go double or nothing and put up his fiancée as collateral. Earl, who never drank but had a temper, didn't really like to gamble, knew Finus had long been sweet on Birdie, accepted and lost—three kings to Finus's full house. Earl threw his cards down and they fought. Finus was bigger, knocked Earl down with a roundhouse and went outside, climbed into his old Model T. He meant to go out to Earl's house, where Birdie was staying with her mother until the wedding there the next day. He would get her out onto the porch, and tell her that he loved her and there wasn't anything he could do about it, and ask her to marry him, instead. They could move to some other town, if she wished, even to the Gulf coast, live in his father's beach house, he'd work out of Mobile. He would tell her he was serious even though he was drunk. He would tell her he'd call on her later in the week, and then he would leave.

He carried a pearl-handled .32 revolver in his pocket, his father's pistol, with which he meant to shoot Earl's father, old Junius Urquhart, if he stood in the way. The Urquharts lived out past southside, beyond the highway, out the Junction Road. Finus roared across the highway hardly checking for traffic, fishtailed in the gravel on the other side, and then while trying to light a cigarette on down the road he slipped a wheel into the ditch, ramped into a thicket of sapling pines, and flew from the car through the old fabric roof like a circus performer on a vault. His head banged hard on the ground and he lay insensible for a while with a broad knot swelling up through the gash in his forehead.

A couple of his friends had followed him some five minutes behind. When they saw the lights of Finus's car in the stand of pine saplings they went in and found Finus lying a few feet away on the ground, bleeding from the ear and the bump on his head, a burning cigarette stuck to his bottom lip, and so they at first thought him conscious, smoking beside his crashed car, which would have been just like Finus. They sat down in a ragged circle around him for a minute before they realized he was out, and about that time Finus opened his eyes anyway and asked where they all were.

-In a little set of pines just off the ditch, Curly Ammons said.

Finus noted the cigarette still in his mouth, spat it and asked for another. He lit up, pushed himself off the ground, touched the bloody knot on his head, and walked over to look at the car.

-I don't imagine it'll start again, not now, he said.

-Not likely, Bill said. -We can tow it in. I got a piece of cable.

-All right, Finus said. -Take it to Papa's house. And he started walking.

-Better not go on out there, now, Curly called. -Old man Urquhart is waiting on you. One of Earl's buddies called him on the telephone at Marie's.

Finus gave a wave and kept on. Shoot him and his goddamn telephone too, he said to himself, righteous in the drunken certainty that Earl and Birdie's was a marriage illegitimate in the highest moral sense. Contrary to natural law. There was a moon and he could follow the road easy. He smoked the rest of the fresh cigarette, and when he'd finished it he picked up his pace. He kept to one of the well-packed ruts. In the bright moonlight he could see the Urquhart house where it sat low in a grove of old oaks that seemed to guard the sprawling house like hulking gnomes. He walked into their shadows as the dogs started up. Old Junius's rabbit dogs, beagles. They shot out toward Finus as if unleashed.

Junius stepped onto the porch, a stout man with an egg-shaped head gleaming in the porch light, toting a shotgun at the ready. When he saw Finus approaching at the edge of the grove by the highway, he hollered at the dogs to stop, raised the gun to a level above Finus's head, and fired. He was a tough old man but he did not shoot to kill, he'd long ago had enough of killing. The gun was shooting dove load. One pellet dipped away from the rest like a dove itself and flew into Finus's right eye. It felt like a grain of sand flung in a gale.

After Finus stopped screaming and the dogs had been put up, Junius helped him into the house and laid him on the sofa in the parlor.

Junius said, -Son, you're lucky about that eye. He leaned forward to peer at it, then straightened up. -It don't look so bad. I could've killed you if I'd wanted to. No riffraff is going to presume to win my son's fiancée in a goddamn poker game.

Finus, though in pain, managed to get out, -Well, sir, what about the fool who would put her up in the kitty?

-Earl loses his temper, don't think straight, Junius said. He sat in a chair next to the sofa, a stout man with a little tuft of graying hair on the top of his bald head, looking at Finus with small, glassy eyes.

-It's a bad marriage, Finus said. -She doesn't know what she's doing. He knows every one of those whores by name.

-Hear tell it wasn't just him by himself out there at Marie Suskin's, speak of your attitudes toward females, Junius said. -My own opinion is every good woman could use a weekend in a whorehouse. And what was he to get if he won?

-Just to keep her. I had him down.

-Boy's no gambler, Junius said.

Junius left the room and came back in a minute with a cold wet rag for Finus's eye. He sat down, produced a worn deck of playing cards, and began to shuffle them on the coffee table between them. Finus held the cold rag to his eye, which was throbbing now and still hurt like hell. There was a sound been digging at him, tic tic tic, and when Old Junius pulled his pocket watch from the fob pocket in his vest it got much louder, TIC TIC TIC TIC, and when he put it up it was back to tic tic tic. Finus stared at where the chain disappeared into the folded generosity of the vest around old Junius's girth.

-What kind of cards was y'all playing? Junius said.

-Stud, Finus said. -I was winning.

-Let's see how you do with one eye then. He dealt onto the coffee table. -You win, I tell Earl a deal's a deal and maybe he ought to think about calling it off, marry a woman better suited to him. I win, you buy me a drink next time we meet up in town and forget this foolishness.

The vast absurdity of the whole situation just then swooped down on Finus, and he was aware of the old man patronizing him. He sighed, said, -You want to go that route, I've already won her.

Junius ignored him, a placid look on his hamlike face. He dealt each of them two down and one up. Finus showed a two, Junius a queen.

Finus looked at him. Junius was without expression. He dealt two more each, up. Finus had his two and an eight and a jack. Junius had his queen plus an ace and a seven. They checked their cards. Finus squinted his good eye, saw a queen and a three. A pain shot through to the back of his head and something throbbed on the top of it. He tapped the table. Heard a tic tic tic tic. Junius dealt them each two more facedown. Finus checked his last cards. A queen and a two. Pairs of queens and twos, then.

-Just this hand? he said.

Junius nodded.

-Nothing to do but show them, then. Hearing in the silence that tic tic tic. He showed his two pair.

Junius turned over his cards. Full house, three aces and a pair of queens.

-All them queens, sitting pretty high in the deck.

-Make it bourbon, old Junius said. He stood up to leave the room. -I'm hungry now.

A car roared up into the yard outside and in a second Earl banged in the door, stood there lean and wild-haired, and pointed at Finus.

-You son of a bitch, I'm going to kill you.

-Let it go, now, son, Junius said. -Man knows he's beaten.

Earl looked at his father, then at Finus.

-What happened to his eye?

-I winged him, Junius said. -Now go outside and cool off. I'm handling this.

Earl stood there staring at him, then at Finus, for a minute. Then turned around and went back outside.

-Where is Birdie? Finus said to Junius then.

-With her family, by the grace of God I suppose, Junius said. -Her mother took her back home this morning, didn't want to spend her last night away from them. They'll bring her over for the wedding tomorrow at noon. He took a half-smoked dead cigar from his jacket's handkerchief pocket and lit it with a kitchen match. -With family is where she belongs, you ask me. Earl'll never be happy with that girl.

-Why don't you just tell him that? Finus said.

Junius puffed the cigar and waved the match out, tossed it into the fireplace.

-Nobody could ever tell Earl anything, he said.

In a little while Finus's father came out in his car and took him to the hospital. He would keep the eye, they said, but it would be slightly defective, a spot or a blurry patch in its vision.

-I won't ever see properly again, Finus said.

-You'll see well enough, old Dr. Heath said. -You're lucky. Man chases a woman into the path of a shotgun and comes out alive has got something to ponder. You ponder it, son.

The afternoon after the incident, he awakened in the hospital to see his father standing at the foot of his bed, wearing his business suit with the watch chain hanging from the vest pocket, which caused him to sense a peculiar gloom. His father's hair was slicked down as if he'd just arrived at the office and Finus could smell the hair oil. With his long bony nose he looked like an oiled blackbird. He pulled the chain and extracted his gold watch, looked at it. He put the watch back into his vest pocket, straightened the vest. Finus cocked his head to listen, but this watch was silent to his gauze-covered ears. In addition to the patch over his eye, the entire top of his head was wrapped in a bandage—he'd suffered a concussion when he was pitched from the car.

-I'm going in to work, his father said. -You rest around the house, if you like, after you leave here. But don't speak to me again until you can resolve not to act a damn fool in public. I'll not tolerate that kind of behavior in my family.

Finus started to protest, then just said, -Yessir.

His father squeezed the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb for a moment, then released it. He looked out the hospital window, and seemed to Finus to have a sadness pass over his features. Outside the window it was a Saturday, and a few motor cars and some supply wagons in from the country passed by on the street, the shod hooves of the dray horses and mules clopping in the still, heated air. It was hay-cutting time, and where they had come from, where his father had grown up, tractors droned and mower blades clicked in the air domed high, blue-hazed, and empty.

-Do you really love that girl? his father said.

Just the question itself caused a wave of heat to rise from Finus's spine into his aching head. He was haunted by the night at the Potato Ball, when he actually had her for a moment in thrall to the idea that he loved her, and that she should throw off Earl, and how he'd backed down. Jesus Christ! What had that been? What had caused him to hitch his emotions and blow his chance at happiness?

-Yes, he said to his father, I think. He felt overwhelmed. -I don't know what I think anymore.

His father looked at him a long moment, made a face and looked away out the window.

-I tell you, son, he said. -It doesn't pay to bank too much on the rightness of one woman or another. It's all a difficulty, in the long run. He looked at Finus, picked up his hat.

-It's not for me to tell you not to follow your heart, but I can point out this girl is simply not available to you. And you are still just a boy, whether you like the idea or not. I want you to go off to the university, make something of yourself.

Finus said nothing for a minute. Then said,

-You know I'd rather just stay here and help you run the paper.

-There'll be plenty of time for that, you still want to after college.

His father shook his head.

BOOK: The Heaven of Mercury
10.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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