excerpt from A Scarecrow's Bible
Her packing brings a load of unpleasant noises. You listen, trying not to, as she alternately talks to you and herself in opposing tones that make no sense. Any person who walked in on this scene would think that she would be angry, but you know that she is not. Instead she's just keeping herself going. She's saying things like, "Yes, I'll need this," or "I'll give this to the Salvation Army." Maybe she's trying to convince herself, more than you, that she is actually going. You know that she actually is. In the past, this would have all ended with her waiting for you to beg her to stay. And that's what you always did back then. Today, she races around the house, all rushed like she wouldn't even listen to you even if you were on your hands and knees, yelling prayers.
You let her move through this marathon. If you weren't so annoyed by your cut hand and so comfortable in the recliner, you would have timed her to see if her finishing time would be as fast as Lula's. You wonder what things she will take that you'll miss. You can't feel your right hand the way you should be able to, but you feel it a lot more than the rest of your body. Sobriety has set in. Coming down.
"This is a dream. This is a fucking long dream that won't quit," you say to her as she comes into the living room with some hangered clothes and tosses them on the couch. "What all are you going to take?"
"Just some pictures. But that's it. Eddie has everything else. He's got that big house on Williams Road."
Now that she's said this, you wish that she would take everything. How nice it could be to roam through an empty trailer after a night out, making as much noise as you want. It could be lovely to come home without any furniture to fall into. As you'd stagger against the air, the floor would welcome you. It has never pushed you away, no matter how many times you've lain on it. But this thought of an empty palace of poverty is cut short when she says, "I don't need any of the furniture."
"It doesn't matter."
"Don't pout, Gary."
"I thought that maybe I had a little bit of a right to look somber."
"You always look somber." She says this as she moves around the house. "But I do want the encyclopedias, that's the only other thing. And the cuckoo clock. I want the fish tank, but it's too much of a hassle."
You want to remind her that only moments ago she said that she didn't want anything. But you let her go on, seeing how she keeps slowing to check out the living room. She's looking less beautiful now, all sweaty and pale from the fatigue of moving even the smallest things. She goes to the encyclopedia shelf where she scans it. "One of these is missing. An 'A' volume."
"It's under the couch. Remember, we put it under there to balance it off?"
"Would you mind raising up the couch?"
You walk over there, knowing you'll have to find another sturdy book or a block of wood from the tool shed to level it off. Maybe you can use some of the TV Guides. After she's pulled the book out, she begins to put the encyclopedias in a cardboard box. She's gotten the box from the Tastee-Freez, and it looks sturdy enough, but when someone is leaving you, the packing boxes always look like strong coffins.
You sit on the arm of the couch and make it become a balanced piece of uncomfortableness again. It is like sitting in most places during the war. Even when the ground or cot in Vietnam was level, it never seemed balanced. You always found yourself feeling like you were sliding over there, toward enemy fire, or slipping closer to a mine. She drops about four of the encyclopedias into the box. Loudly. You jump and the couch tips to the left. You almost fall. You stand and then sit.
"Sorry," she says, taking the final encyclopedias. She looks at you when she says this and you know she means it, but you can't let it get to you.
You are sitting there, the slight shaking subsiding. And you realize that your position has left you feeling all spread out in an all-over-the-place state. You are taking up the whole couch. She seems to be taken aback when you start laughing. "Fucking ridiculous," you laugh on.
She finally slows her movement and begins to laugh too. Only louder than you. This doesn't surprise you, as you know it's funny how you jumped and nearly fell. And some of the tension seems to get sucked into the laughter and rise until it slips through one of the newly forming holes in the ceiling. She is by you now. And she looks beautiful again. Chameleon housewives. When she sits down, she naturally slides close, right next to you. She needs to be kissed. You hold her with your bandaged hand, wondering what a mess you must seem, knowing that it's all a pretty ridiculous sight. But not to her. You know this because of the way that she is looking at you. And you see her change, like someone dying. You see her life pass before your eyes. And she begins to look younger again. To age gracefully.
Her lips are drier than yours. You think again how she needs to be kissed. You make it a good one, deep, like it is the first time. Re-virginized lips. "Would you," she asks, reaching the top button of your shirt, "love me one time all the way, so I don't have to leave?"
The kiss was what you had craved, but now she wants more as her hand strokes your chest. Down below, you are numb. Like you were once shot there by a woman and therefore can't make it work with them. Friendly fire.
"Come on, after eleven years of never doing it, can't you just give me this one thing to make me stay?"
"Just a few minutes ago, you were in a big rush to leave."
"Because looking at you makes me want one last amazing touch."
"But you're leaving me."
"I still love you, Gary."
"We'll never hate each other like we're probably supposed to. I know that I get angry, but I still love you. And you still love me, even when I'm in a bad mood."
She sounds like a man to you. It doesn't embarrass you, but you know that her lines are those that men usually utter. You wish you'd said them first.
"Even when you're leaving me?"
She nods. "Even then."
The kiss that ensues is good and you try and keep up with her, but her tongue is so forceful. How can the tongue of someone you love grow so old so fast? You've had enough now.
You push her away as she reaches for your belt. "You look a million years younger when your T-shirt is bleached white and your eyes are blue at the end of the day. I stayed with you for so long because I knew that I'd never find a man who became more beautiful as time passed." She unzips your pants and reaches inside.
Her hand on your cock feels like a poisonous rub down. Snakes, you once heard as a child, could either melt away in the sun or be choked to death with a single human hand. Disappears.
"I can't." You push her off of you. "I can't."
"I figured," she lets go of you as you stand up and walk toward the bedroom.
She doesn't say anything else as you walk to the bedroom, where you find that she has taken the sheet off. Maybe she will clean the place out after all, taking everything. This doesn't stop you from lying down on the rough mattress, wondering what patterns will be imprinted on your flesh when you awake.
Stillness is what tears you from the mattress, which you are practically stuck to. The house has never been this quiet, except for maybe yesterday when you sat in the tub after your swim in the mud. But that was different, because before you always knew that eventually Gina would return. Now you know that this stillness isn't going to be broken unless you are the one to do it. That's why when the phone rings, you are not only surprised, but almost afraid to answer it. It makes you jump up from the bed. The room is pretty spare now. Gina took a lot of things. Most of them unimportant, yet things that had been in their places for years. Lonely shelves, lonely walls.
"Hello," you say, surprised that Gina didn't take the phone with her, too.
"Daddy." Lula sounds like she's calling from another country.
"Daddy," she says again, then again, "Daddy."
Something about the way she says this, the way she repeats it, brings a newness to the word, like nobody has ever been called daddy before. "Lula, how's life in the big city?"
"Good, Daddy. Got a good job bartending. I've never been so happy." Her voice still sounds like hers, but it's got a richness to it that you always wanted to hear from her.
"Where are you staying? Money's okay? Are you eating?"
"Yeah," her voice falls a little. "But I'm trying to diet. I've got everything I need right here in the French Quarter. I'm going to be staying with my friend Chris for a while until I find my own place."
"You sound good, Lula."
"How's Mama?" She asks this, her voice stronger than strong.
"Fine," you lie without guilt. "Just fine."
"Is she here?"
"How are you, Daddy?"
"Good. Working, you know. A little drinking here and there, but mostly behaving."
"Liar," she laughs.
You laugh back. "Oh, all right, you got me. I haven't been perfect. But I'm good."
"Well, I guess I'll be coming home to visit for a weekend someday soon, Daddy. But you know that's when we make most our money."
"Or you come here. You and Mama can sleep on the sofa bed."
This strikes you as funny, and you laugh nervously. "Yeah, I guess we could."
"Why are you laughing?"
"Because it's good to hear you, Lula."
"I feel like a new person here, Daddy. Brand new."
"You sound like it. It's good to hear you, Lula."
"Daddy, I gotta go. Tell Mama I love her and to come visit. And you, too. I want to pick up the phone and call you all the time. Just to say nothing."
"So you haven't changed that much."
"No, no, I have. Like right now I've gotta let you go, because I can't run up the phone bill too much."
"Do you remember when you ran the phone bill here up to five hundred dollars with those 900 numbers?"
You don't want to let her go. You don't care if the phone bill turns out to be five hundred dollars and you have to pay it. Keeping her on the line is like you've never talked on the phone before. Letting go has never been a great skill of yours.
"Daddy, are you all right?"
"Hell, I'm good."
"Great, I'll call you soon."
"I love you, Daddy."
"I love you, too." The words you mean just come out.
"Tell Mama to call me."
"Lula, Lula, goodbye."
Hanging up the phone is like losing some sort of connection to the world. Your only connection. You are happy for her, working at the pub on the corner of Bourbon and St. Anne. You lie back, imprints of the sheetless mattress on your right side. And you are envious and happy for Lula, not just for getting out, but for putting herself in the world in a way that you never had the guts to.
You daydream that you are younger, and then even more young, mixing drinks, dancing wickedly well, seductively, behind a bar where you belong. And in this dream, love comes your way in the forms of beautiful ones. When they wink at you or tip you an extra dollar, it's as though everything you've ever done is all right. You are validated.
When you stop this daydreaming, you find yourself with a bottle of vodka. And reality hits, because you know that you can't go back. You are too old to mix martinis for young boys and dance elegantly. So you drink alone at the kitchen table, knowing that all bottles run out.
That night, after you talked to Lula, you drink yourself into the sunset, the curtains blowing through the open windows. It's just past seven and you're completely ready for bed. And you find yourself back in there, feeling like calling in sick tomorrow will be the best thing that you can do. You know you're getting behind in the bills, but things with money always work out. There's always a way to pay next week for tonight. Credit cards, loans from banks that charge 30 percent interest. There's always a way.
You search the bedroom closet for some sheets. You find a tacky pink set and try to put them on the bed, but they don't quite fit, so you sort of spread the fitted one across it. You are tired of the lines the mattress has been making on your body. Even though they disappear after a while, they still leave you feeling beyond old, almost unhuman. So you just lie there against the pink sheets, in the dark, alone like you haven't been in years. In fact, you are alone like you've never been before.
The window is blowing cool air. You know that you can't go on like this for much longer. Open windows, opportunities. Your rut has become deeper. Escape.
You toss and turn, holding nothing but pillows bought five years ago. His and hers. You think about calling Lula, but you remember that she's working. You sit, sobering up. The traffic on the road outside is mixing with the sounds of the new night wind. And you walk over to the window and look out into the nothingness, at the earth that was your bed just a night ago.
In Vietnam, when the sun went down, it was the witching hour. It was the time when you wished for daytimes that lasted forever, but lately you've been preferring the nights. Darkness has become more vivid to you. You love to be in the dark, watching the objects become completely clear. Clearings are all over, but as you stand, you still fight your way a little through the bedroom. Insomnia has set in. Thoughts of tomorrow's refills on prescriptions make it more difficult to sleep.
So you find yourself on the front steps of the trailer. You wonder why you and Gina had gone so far into debt just to pay for this place, the old trailer you'd had was fine, but she just had to have one like her sister's. Things like this really bother you when you think about them. Her sister felt that everybody should own a double-wide trailer situated in a big enough yard for barbecues. Gina always talked about entertaining, but she never did. Then again, how could she? With someone like you wandering around the house, how could anybody plan a party? You know that it was you that prevented them. Now you know that something has ended. Party-givers like you always end up seeming like party-crashers. This is never admired, you know, only pitied.
Had you not seen what death looked like so frequently, so many years ago, you would have sworn that you were gone. Had you not smelled it in Vietnam, you would have been sure that it was all over you now. You pull a light-blue button-down shirt around you. Your boxer shorts aren't very warm, and your bare feet are growing a little cold. You look around outside the trailer, your memory working overtime, and you remember the spot. One of those hiding places you only notice when you're sober.
Across the wet dew you walk and begin to dig mercilessly in the dirt with your hands. You are not far from the steps and just beneath the trailer. At first you think you've found it, then you stand quickly, reaching for the gun that is not there. And you throw the stick that looks so much like a human bone across the highway, closing your eyes, hoping that since it isn't curved, it will not come back. Then you dig a little beside that spot and find them. Half a bottle of Somas you'd hidden from Gina a month ago, the bottle wrapped in a plastic bag. Suddenly you feel alive again.
You swallow two of them straight, one of them melting so much that you feel the need to puke immediately. So you go inside and take a glass of water, and when you go back outside to listen to the mosquitoes, the bitter taste still overwhelms you, but you don't really care. At least you know it will pay off when the white light from the pills hits you. You know this is a problem. The things that are supposed to make you aware, like plenty of sleep, make you disoriented. But downers, like these white pain pills, make you keenly in touch with everything surrounding you.
You lean against the door of the still-unpaid-for trailer. It and the singing mosquitoes are your only companions. You learned long ago that if you don't swat them too much, they sing more beautifully. So their voices rise and soon turn into something spectacular. That same music you've heard before; this time when you see the skinny figure in the distance, you don't get overly excited. Instead, you lie back and listen. You don't even look too much at the beautiful figure in the field, you just take in the music. You want to hear the music again, like the last time when you saw him in the field. And for the first time you think you actually understand some of the words. Not completely, but it makes you get up and go inside. You lie on the empty bed with the wrinkled sheets which you know you'll be wrapped in too tightly by morning. And you let the music flow through the window and put you away, your paws so dirty from digging in the dirt, your eyes heavy with sleep.