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Authors: Sandra Scofield

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BOOK: Walking Dunes
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“Yeah, well, I'll be home next weekend for the year, Glee. I can't help it if I have to work out of town.” Glee's problem was she had nothing to do all summer but lie around the municipal pool working on her tan, or practicing cheerleading splits.

“What about now?”

“What about it?”

“Oh, why are you acting like this!”

He sighed. “Because I need to eat and go. I'm sorry, I don't mean to hurt your feelings.”

“I know,” she said, forgiving him at his slightest conciliatory effort.

“I'll see you in a week or so, Glee. I can't talk now.”

“Don't blow away,” she said, as if she were telling him to take his pants off. She had a real gift for tone.

She made him laugh, relax a little. “Save up,” he said.

His father had fixed them all gin and tonics. Marge set hers on top of the refrigerator and went about her cooking. Saul held his up to David for a toast.

“To my Big Shot Son, the Tennis Star,” he said. “To my Devil Son, the Girl-Eater.”

The rib of insult in each toast made David bite his cheek, but he said nothing. He even smiled. He acted as if his father meant well. They stood under the ugly arch while Marge set the table. “Look at that!” she exclaimed. There was a fine layer of dust settled on the table. She ran a finger through it, then put the plates down without wiping it up.

From his chair David could see a band of sky through the kitchen window. The thick look of it was oppressive. They sat down. “Looks good, Mom,” David told his mother. For some reason, this made Saul smirk, first at him, then at Marge. Marge looked down at her fork as the tines sank into a pyramid of potato slices. David felt caught in a crawlspace with his mother and father. Could he belong to both? Or only be crushed between them?

David scraped the last of the fried mess onto his plate, to please his mother. She looked fretful. “I don't know if it's a good idea for you to go out in this,” she said.

Saul pushed his plate a few inches toward the center of the table. “It's not that bad. It's not one of your famous west Texas storms that scour cooking pots and make barbed wire blister-hot.” His teasing had a mean sound; he often reminded his wife that she was the one who lived where she had grown up. He never mentioned New York.

“I'll be okay,” David said. He hated his mother's worrying, but as soon as he left town he would forget it.

Saul gave him a six-pack of Lone Star out of the refrigerator. “This isn't for the road,” he said.

At the edge of Basin, heading west, David pulled off on the shoulder of the road, dug out a church-key from the glove compartment, and opened a beer. He drank it slowly, steadily, letting the comfort of it gush through him. When he had drunk half of it, he tucked it between his legs and drove on. Not far down the highway he spotted a black Highway Patrol car along the line of a slight rise, and he glanced at the speedometer, careful not to get stopped with an open can of beer in his crotch.

The beer went straight through him. In a few minutes he felt the urgent need to urinate, and turned off onto a lease road. He got out of the car and stood for a moment beside it, staring west. There was a lot of sand in the air, but the wind had died down. It was not yet twilight. The sky and land all seemed one reddish color. It was as if he were suspended in an ocean of settling sand. It was quiet, almost eerily so; he couldn't even hear a pump jack anywhere. He chewed on a thumbnail and tasted the residue of greasy onions, and the grit of sand. He had his hand on the car door when he saw someone coming from a ways off, someone small, maybe a child. The person—he couldn't see if it was a male or female—was swerving and lurching, then walking for a moment or two at a time perfectly straight, then swerving again. He stood watching as the person came toward him. In a few minutes he could see it was a kid, carrying something. The kid stopped, seemed to see him, then sat down.

David walked quickly toward the kid. He did not see that it was a girl until he was right on top of her. On the ground beside her she had dropped the thing she was carrying, a skinny jack rabbit with long blood-streaked ears, huge dangling feet.

“Here, now, what's the matter? Are you all right?” He dropped to the ground in front of her, kneeling on one knee. He tried to take her arm, but she jerked away. Her shirt was caked with blood. For a moment he was scared, really scared; he had never seen anybody seriously injured. He had heard stories, people beaten up in fights, oilfield accidents, passengers mangled in cars, but he had never seen anything like that himself. He had never been in the emergency ward, for all the times he had been to the hospital. He felt vaguely nauseous, the peppery aftertaste of his supper now a sour hot phlegm in his throat, the beer a churning in his stomach. “Look,” he said sharply, “you're hurt, I've got to do something.” He thought, she's just a kid, I've got to be in charge. She looked up at him, frightened, and not, he thought, quite all there. He had seen that look before, on faces in his mother's ward.

“Where are you hurt?” He reached for her again and she let him take her hand. He didn't want to pull at her; he didn't know what to do. If she had been a boy, he might have patted her all over, like someone looking for a weapon. How else did you check for wounds? But a girl, a young teen-ager, he thought: he didn't want to paw at her. His chest was hurting crazily. He had to stop for a few seconds and attend to himself. He had to talk to himself in his head: Calm down, it's okay, breathe, breathe. He put his hands on his chest. The girl was on her feet, her hands at her side, staring at him. The blood on her clothing was dry. She did not seem to be hurt.

She reached down and picked up the rabbit. The blood was from the rabbit, he realized. He was confused, wary. He took a step back, and as he did, she stepped around him and walked in the direction of his car. God, he thought, there'll be blood on the car seat. His father would kill him.

The girl went right past the car and off into the bunch grass. “Hey!” he shouted. “You better wait up! You crazy, or what?” but she didn't even seem to hear him. He took a moment to think this over. Was he going to run after her, tackle her, drag her to his car? He remembered the patrolman, maybe five or six minutes away.

He could see that the girl was headed for the highway. She trudged along like someone on her way to do a despised chore. He took the beer and carried it around to the back of the station wagon and put it under a pile of jeans jackets, then gunned the motor and spun out of the sand.

The cop was sitting in the same place, hiding behind his mirrored sunglasses. He hardly looked up as David pulled fast across the road and up beside him. “Man, you aren't going to believe this,” David told him. He leaned out of his window a little, his arm dangling along the hot chrome.

The cop grinned. “Who died, son?”

David grinned back. He knew he had the punchline. “Would you believe a rabbit?” he said.

3.

David Puckett had lived much of that summer of 1958 in an old beauty parlor in Fort Stockton. His father had rented the building as a store for the third year in a row, but this time he hired his son to spend half of each summer month there alone, doing business with the local people, both Anglo and Mexican. David sold yard goods (mill ends and damaged fabrics), clothing (discontinued or imperfect), and some Army surplus goods. Four or five days a month he traveled to outlying towns like Iraan and Rankin, sleeping at night in the station wagon and setting up sale tables wherever he could. He liked being out from under his father's eye. He liked feeling he was on his own. And he told himself, as his father had told him, that he was doing a service to these communities, selling cheap goods nobody else wanted to people who needed them, for bargain prices they could barely afford.

The beauty parlor still had its name painted on the stucco above the outside door: Pearl's Curls. Pearl had moved her business into her own house's parlor, as his Aunt Cheryl had done in her Monahans home. Inside and out, the old building was a faded salmon color. All the chairs had been removed, but there were mirrors and counters along two walls, and two deep, black ceramic sinks at the rear of the store. He rented tables from a church. He slept on a cot beneath the mirror. He ate from cans, or went to the Brite Spot Cafe two blocks up the street. Sometimes he walked at dusk out on the edge of town where it was so hot and dry and barren, it might have been some farflung planet. At night he listened to country music on his little radio, and read. He had begun keeping a notebook, too.

He had been listing the events of his life. It was merely a way to combat boredom. He had thought of the list as an inventory, and he had been amazed at the ways he could vary it. It gave him an odd sense of power to realize that what he left off and what he put on the list changed the quality of his history. Did he say, for 1947, “Dad left us.”? Or did he say, “Dad went back to New York to work.”? Did he record his grandmother's death, in the house she had been helping pay for? And what did he make of his many childhood illnesses—the mumps and measles, croup and chicken pox? What of his asthma attacks, which his father dismissed as phantom, his father being an expert after a lifetime of “real” asthma that had kept him out of the war. David saw that the details of his life were petty, but he sensed that if he amassed those details, they would add up to something, that their density would amount to a life. He was fascinated with the way stories and novels were built of particulars, how small details lingered in his mind for a long time after a book was put away. He would never forget, for example, the moment when Hardy's Tess, having changed into shoes to go into Clare's house, hears Clare and his buddy laughing at her poor, ugly, hateful boots. And when he read
The Great Gatsby
months before his first visit to the Basin Country Club, he found himself dreaming of girls in dresses cut low on their breasts, of chandeliers, deep carpets, food arranged on platters like the petals of flowers. When he read “Winter Dreams,” he heard himself saying, “
yes, yes
,” even though the story was set in a part of the country far away, with white winters and summers of lakes. He understood Fitzgerald's special talent at conveying longing, because it evoked his own yearnings, so that his own pain—what did he want so much, except, like Dexter Green, the possession of beauty in all its forms?—was as real and acute as if someone had been sticking pins in his chest. The more he played with memory, and with recording his own life, however sketchily, the more he burned to go on with it. He wanted to get to the good part, which he associated with independence, and which encompassed all those things for which he longed. He felt impatient, because he was sick of being a boy, and he did not know how to set his life in motion. Then he reminded himself that this year, his last in high school, was for that very thing, for commencement.

His father's name was Saul Stolboff, and David regarded him as a good subject for character study, for he was an odd man in Basin, Texas. Any good explanation of the man would be complex. But as David pondered what he knew of his father, he realized how little it was. He did not know enough to build stories; he did not understand enough to explain anything, but things he had always taken for granted began to take on new resonance. There was, for example, the matter of their names. David's name was Stolboff, too, of course; David had seen it on his birth certificate. He had gone through a phase when he was convinced he was illegitimate, and his mother had produced proof that he was not. There was a sister, too, fifteen months younger. Saul had abandoned them when the children were five and seven. He returned to New York, where he had grown up. He had met David's mother when she was a nurse in a hospital on Long Island. Marge had intended to nurse for the Army when the country entered the war. (Such audacity! David thought, wondering how she had found the courage to leave her family.) Of course by the time the Army wanted her, there was her unlikely marriage, then there was David. After the war they had gone to Texas. The thought of that fascinated David. Maybe, when they stepped off the train, the sight of that vast featureless landscape had triggered in Saul ancestral memories of Russian wheat fields, but such ideas had been erased by drought and hardship, by the Protestant culture and his wife's family. Saul had truly gone abroad. He had not lasted two years before he fled, going back to work for his brother, who owned a pants factory in Queens. In a while David's mother changed their names to Puckett, her family's name. When Saul returned in time for David's thirteenth birthday, mumbling about Bar Mitzvahs but doing nothing, the names stayed changed, a constant reminder of who the parent-on-the-front had turned out to be, a constant reproof of the man who had run away. Only recently had David wondered how it made his father feel, to have a son who did not use his name.

David tried to imagine his father's life, but he had little to go on. If David asked questions, Saul said, “You don't need to know,” or “What's it to you?” Once, drunk, he said, “So much to know, all the way back to Russia, and it dribbles out with you like an old man's piss.” There was a vast chasm between father and son, and David did not know how to bridge it. He was a child of the plains, his father a city boy. He tried to learn about city life. He read
Studs Lonigan
twice, but it was another city, after all, another kind of family. His immigrant grandparents were dead, his mother's parents were dead. The family floated on a sea of estrangement. At least Marge had her sister, and her daughter, though Joyce Ellen was out of the house now. His father belonged to another world entirely, and he had left it for his family of Pucketts.

It was not difficult to imagine his parents falling in love. David had a strong romantic streak; he understood that attraction can feel like fate. There was a photograph of his parents on his mother's bureau. His mother had been a handsome young woman, with her long rolled hair, her marble green eyes. His father would have been so different from the boys she had known in Texas. Now David's parents' first feelings had drowned in disappointment and anger. David would realize that days had gone by and his parents had not spoken in his presence. He would wonder, what did it this time? Sometimes they shouted, and David would not know why. Often it was money. Marge didn't see much of whatever Saul earned as an alterations tailor; there were hints that he gambled, though David imagined only penny-ante stuff with his barber and the junkman. For Marge, there were debts from her mother's illness, and the house always needed something. Then too, Saul's messy habits drove her wild, though she was sloppy at home, herself. David's sister, Joyce Ellen, was always good for a row, too. Saul struck her a couple of times after he came back: she was lazy, provocative. Marge told him flat out that if he ever did it again she would throw him out;
it was her house
. After that Saul used his better weapon, sarcasm, but Joyce Ellen could rouse him to a shout. The night she ran off with her boyfriend, there had been slammed doors, some broken dishes. Marge said she would never forgive him. It seemed she
had
never forgiven him. Once David heard her scream, “I could have gone to the war!” Yet, surely, there had once been something larger between Marge and Saul, and the disintegration of that something would account for a great bitterness. But David saw his parents sliding toward the stagnancy of indifference. He thought: One day my father will go away a second time, and I will never see him again.

BOOK: Walking Dunes
11.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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