When Kurt Cobain died, Susan didn’t leave her bedroom for four days straight. She closed her door on that Saturday morning and stayed put until I went over and saw her on the Tuesday afternoon. She never joined the groups that gathered at our college when the following week broke; the circles of teenagers who grimly shuffled in the canteen and classrooms, who shrugged and sighed and slowly shook their heads. It was, I suppose, our defining moment. Naturally, none of us realised it at the time. As a generation we had no Great War or Woodstock, social media was science fiction and everyone’s parents had jobs. We were fortunate enough to be insulated from existence. It took a dead rock star to communalise our experience, to sharpen our senses, to force us to cower as the world fired its first warning shot. A snatched photograph of an outstretched leg with a limp Converse training shoe was the image that blew our adolescent minds. This was when the penny dropped that shit had finally got real.
Maye Tuong was part Chinese, had three brothers and one sister, all married and moved out, and she lived with her mother and father across the Saugus River, at the upper end where a small wooden bridge spanned the water. Her mother was the Chinese parent, not the father, Henry Tuong, who was, as far as I knew, an old Lynn boy from way back who brought his wife home from one of his wars as a Marine. Shanghai rang a bell but I was never sure of where. I did know some other things about Maye, fact or fiction as you’ll have it, which had settled into my mind because she was extremely shapely for one thing; and she never had a date, at least I never saw her with a fellow. One time in the past, I heard, she’d been embarrassed at the beach when someone spotted a patch of thick, black hair on her backside, just below her waistline. A small patch it was, but a patch out of place. A few tough and pointed wisecracks were tossed off at that time and Maye was never seen at the beach again, never seen in a bathing suit again. I was one of those who never saw Maye at the beach or in a bathing suit. I never saw that thick, black out-of-place patch either, but had thought about it, I’m willing to bet, on a daily occurrence, perhaps hourly if you’re aware of the routine. Maye, on this night when the story really began, was 28 years old, or thereabouts, having unsettled some of my recent and late night thoughts, the older woman kind that haunt and capture and beset the young mind; let me teach you a thing or two, young man, you naughty boy, you.
When I was about seventeen years old I met myself in a downtown park sitting alone on a concrete bench in a small amphitheater. I was not skipping school—I did not do that kind of thing. And anyway, it was summertime. It was an ordinary summer day with oxygen blue sky vibrant behind the office towers with revivifying sunlight. The few trees were green, the leaves glossy and stiff with chlorophyll-rich fibers respiring life. Either side the park, steady sparse traffic rolled by in opposite directions on one-way streets. When I came upon him there, I did not recognize the man life had made of me. I was about thirty years old in that malingering guise. My seventeen-year-old self was with a friend and nor did he recognize me. But I may be forgetting, I am grown older … Even I, who saw so clearly, have become confused about what is what and contradict myself at every turn; at every remove, remove myself further from myself. Soon I will be unable to return to who or what I always was, and my dissolution will be complete, as is the way of all flesh; as is the way of all that may be said to exist. Do not believe me, see for yourself. It’s more miraculous than ever you might imagine. What is more miraculous than anybody could ever imagine? What is? Exactly!
Spiel: Growing up, meeting folks at all levels of life, leaves an imaginative boy with a grasp on life and how it could be lived or should be lived when one compares or contrasts those met in the daily grind, as to what might be the best way to continue, get hip and get going.
One Oh for Tillie
It didn’t announce itself, the difference in the room, but it was there, of that he was positive. It wasn’t the soft caress of the new blanket, or the deep-sensed mattress he’d never slept on before, or the grass-laden field-laden air entirely new to him pushing through the open window and tumbling like puppies on his face. If he opened his eyes he’d know, but he had kept them shut—-enjoying the self-created anxiety, the deliciousness of minute fright that he’d conjured up. There was apprehension and a plethora of mental groping going on that had taken hold of him. Being alone was also new to him, but being aware of a presence did make a difference, if he could only believe what he was telling himself. At thirteen he knew you sometimes had difficulty believing yourself.
But the fact of presence suddenly hit him its full force, though it had an argument attached to it. He didn’t want to leap wildly out of bed (there was a chance he could be embarrassed), so he pretended again, this time emergence, slow and oh so deliberate emergence — from his woolen cocoon, from a dark and mysterious Caribbean cave close upon the jungle, from under the lashed canvas aboard the ship of an evil one-eyed captain of pirates, from behind the dark curtains of a magician or castle wall. What he could not do was look out of the back of his head, though he tried, trying to move the slits of his eyes, now finding morning by its faintness, so that he could see behind him.
Cautiously he moved, as if by his innate stealth he could fool anyone into thinking he was motionless or asleep or unconscious. His right ear found the pillow, telling him he had moved far enough. He opened his eyes and the girl Tillie was sitting there at the small desk, or the woman Tillie, or whatever you’d call her Tillie. She had not said a word the night before when he met her rocking away on the porch, staring straight ahead, not acknowledging him, not once looking up at him, just rocking her slow rock. Twenty or thirty she could have been, but he wasn’t sure of how to make that measurement, what elements to compute with. Where she had been in a blue dress and yellow sweater on the porch, she was now in the simplest of night dresses or nightgowns through which in a widening swath morning’s faint light moved and made soft mounds, pleasant roundness of her flesh. Her breasts lifted themselves right there under the slight cover and his eyes had found them immediately, the nipples dark the way they had been the night before. Still she did not look at him, still she said no word, made no sound, and kept one hand secreted on herself. At once he knew she was not a danger, not a fearsome threat to him, though he could not tell how he knew. High on her forehead was a scar showing its whiteness, a very human and vulnerable scar that said that she herself had been hurt, had suffered pain at some time. On her left shoulder, faint but red, rose a birthmark. It looked to be wings open to the wind, it said she was susceptible and not ghostly. The speechless mouth was formed with pretty lips puckered on themselves, full. Hair was a soft blond, though it tumbled about her head but in a not ugly fashion.
Even in the pale kiss of dawn her cheeks had much color in them, at least heightened from that of her face. Her eyes as yet showed no color, but were not malevolent or fearful though they carried the same sense of distance in them others had shown, a long reach into something he could not begin to understand. A coarse ache crossed through his chest and he wanted to swallow. His mouth was dry.
For the very first time she turned slowly to look at him and dawn caught itself in the eyes looking at him. Something unknown had softened her mouth, made it elegant and wet and shiny; a word had not done it, or a smile or any movement on his part, but it was rolled like a smooth petal and had a lovely pout to it. He fought to remember everything that had brought him here, to the Cape, to this room, in front of this girl who had not yet uttered a sound.
As she stood dreamily, slowly in the light of the false dawn throwing itself upon her, particles of morning faintness falling with some kind of fever all over her ample body, and as she looked naked in that soft reach with the darkness at her midsection and at her breasts, yesterday all came back in its crowding way. He was surprised at what he remembered so quickly even as she began to move from her place. A phenomenal silence hung about them in this house that had promised so much of sound.
It had been a slow, easy, green morning at that, yesterday, and had been since the very earliest part of daylight when his father had gentled him up with a push at the shoulder. “Don’t run.” he had said, “but walk to the nearest exit.” The constant smile came with the voice, and over that broad shoulder, it seemed, he could hear the birds of Saxon in their small riot of gaiety, a sure sign of the day, its goodness, its promise, the sun having already laid bare most of the secrets his room had but a few hours earlier when he pitched awake in the darkness. His newsprint ball players on the walls, as if they had sprinted into position, long-legged and gangly and floppy-panted, were now the icons they were meant to be, Williams and DiMaggio and Slats Marion full-figured in a splash of sunlight, suddenly each one three-dimensional across the chest, shadows behind them, life-emerging; for a moment he thought Billy Cox would loose the ball in his hand all the way across the room to first base. He heard the birds again, as if scattered in flight from their roosts, raucous and noisy as fans at a game, the way he pictured the Sooners breaking away from the line to become propertied. Sleepily he locked on to the second sun of his father’s smile, tried to remember what they had been saying in the other room as he had dozed off a on the night before.
It had been Mel’s voice, deep and rugged, carrying the whole diaphragm with it, the words coming square and piecemeal as if each one was an entity, which had first penetrated his move into sleep. “Mike’ll love it down there, Bill.” He paused, let the weight of each word have its way. “He’ll have the whole farm to run around on. Charlie and Mav will keep him busy with the cows and the chickens and the gardens. Nothing heavy, for sure, no barn building or rock walls to set up, but enough for him to break out. Hell, he’s starting to grow like a weed and Mav’s cooking will put admirable meat on his bones. And there’s always new life coming around the corner.” From the last he got the implication that Mel thought he was much younger than he really was. Most older folks had that way about them, he agreed to himself.
Quietly and sort of pleased, he knew they were talking about his summer and him, him thirteen, lanky, a stick of bones just finding a hair or two in his crotch, the wonder of a host of things either pressing down on him with almighty force or trying to come through his very skin, other messages scratching for light. Mel he could see as clear as ever; blond, muscled, the blue Corps uniform rippling across his chest and upper arms like a sail under attack of the wind. Once, according to his father, Mel had been a desperate youngster, fully at rebellion, always rambunctious, in the darkness of home beaten by his father for much of his young life, until the man had had a heart attack with a strap still in his hand. “Mel was looking for a payback for the longest time,” he’d said, as if to cover a lot of ground with a few words, as if Mel was due as much room for whatever transgressions had been yet accounted for.
“He can stay the whole month of August if he wants…and if he likes it,” Mel had continued. “All summer for that matter. It’d be one less mouth to feed and he’ll come back bigger and stronger, maybe so you wouldn’t recognize him come the end of August.” That square and stubborn chin of his usually moved slowly when he talked, and he would have bet few cries ever leaped from his mouth, even when his old and mean father was beating on him. No, sir, not one to cry, that Mel, all blond and good looking and packed full of muscle, who walked like a bomb might go off if he got triggered wrong. It sounded great to be going down to his farm with him, even if Liv was going along, and her a teacher at that. “There’s something about the earth or the elements or whatever you want to call it that gets deep into you down there in Middleboro. It’s high green all summer, wild growing making up for winter coming down the road, vegetables leaping up out of the ground like they’ve been shot, cream as thick as molasses and Mav’s ice cream every night of your life makes it all so perfect you can’t believe it even when it’s happening. It’s a dream much as anything that I know of, an aura, a feeling. I don’t know if it’s the food or the air or if it’s in the damn water, but it’s something that’ll pop his backside as good as a ramrod. Hell, I bet he sprouts an inch or two just this summer. You got a ball player coming on your hands, Bill, and you’ve got to give him room.”
He’d known that Mel had been left a large piece of property down the Cape way from his butcher of a father because Mel was all that was left of the Grasbys (a brother drowned in a small pond when he was only six, a sister killed in a car crash at only sixteen when she had been drinking and another sister not seen around these parts for more than fifteen years), that an old couple, Charlie and Mavis Trellbottom, worked it for him while he was still working on his enlistment, that Mel was on his long leave of the year, that Liv Pillard, his girlfriend, was going down to the farm with him for just about all of his leave. The aura and taste of a farm suddenly flooded him, his head being jammed with smells of hay and new cut grass and barns wet with whatever steamed up barns and made them dank and memorable other than horse or mule sweat or a cow’s splatting wildly across a dense plank floor. All the sounds came back, the clacking and strapping sounds and the noisy wetness you get conditioned to, and the aging by which wood speaks so eloquently and so disparately as if the popping stretch of boards and the checking of beams is each one unique unto itself, each one a message of age and sorrow, a cry.
“Barns bend but never break,” he’d heard his father say once after such a visit, and such came fully at him. He’d been but once, to Billerica that time with a cousin for a long and adventurous weekend, and parts of the quick visit had stayed with him; rafts of bees or hornets at their endless commotion and business, spiders dancing on silver rails so high in the peaks it made him think of circus trapeze swingers, hay dust so thick in his nose at times he thought he might not be able to breathe, another near secret odor that had to be leather almost making its way back to life, the moan of a solitary cow, a stool being kicked over and milk sloshing its whiteness on heavy planks, in one corner of the barn the close-to-silent scurry of a mouse with a cat arched in mid-flight as if its bones were broken.
Suddenly, not knowing why, the way things had been happening lately, Liv Pillard eased herself into his mind; tall, bosomy, hipped, standing in the door of a classroom watching her students return from recess, skirt full against her thigh, pushed by her rear, her mouth the reddest mouth he’d ever imagined, the long auburn curls in a slow dance about her neck whenever she moved a fraction of an inch. The graceful lines of her calves, at her hips, had more meaning in them than he could fathom.
A hundred times she had smiled at him, he figured, because his father and Mel were long-time friends, because their roads high and low and often had drifted through Parris Island and Quantico and Nicaragua and Philadelphia and the Boston Navy Yard, because they played cards from cribbage through every realm of poker with the same dead-earnest intensity no hand or prize could shake and could drink beer for whole weekends at a time without seeming to move; had the same set of the chin, they did, jutting and chippy, asking for it one might have said, proud, bearing absolute silence at times, whole unadulterated reams of it that could threaten a body as much as could a fist. Their competition was in place of a war, it being a time between wars.
Shopping, picking up supplies in special stores, getting the oil checked a couple of times because of gauge trouble; the ride to the farm was a long and convoluted trip. Liv and Mel sat up front in the long roomy roadster, him in the back, the sun and the wind pouring down over them, Liv’s hair caught up in them like a pennant, every which way flying and catching gold and throwing it away as if she were philanthropic. Now and then he closed his eyes with his head on the seat, her perfume not less than gentle in his nose but new and mysterious, new grass smell edging it out, the perfume coming back, more new grass and occasionally lilacs loose about the road, once in a while her head out of sight, and he wondered if she slept fitfully as he did.
A trucker honked at them as they passed, then honked again and pointed at the car to his striker craning his neck to see the car as it pulled away, Mel throwing his hand in the air as a nonchalant goodbye. He himself had no idea of what was so special about the long-hooded Packard, except that it was long and black and speeding to a grand farm in Middleboro with animals and strange crops and all the ice cream he’d ever want, and him leggy and sprawled across the back seat, and Liv’s perfume coming relentlessly at him.
Mel slowed the car at the crest of a small hill, and then stopped. “There it is, kid,” he said, his jaw pointing, his sharply hewn nose pointing, a readable smile on his face.
Land spread itself everywhere, whole patches of it cut up and divided by more greens and yellows and rock walls and punctuating tree lines than he could imagine. It spread from horizon to horizon and coming from his own private library of National Geographics were unrolling pictures of the pampas and the savanna and a sense of space at once so vast and so intimate it walloped him, like a hand aside the head. He heard his grandfather’s voice, some letters of words, some syllables, bent in half by the tongue and others stretched for all they were worth, lifting themselves out of a forgotten cave, a grotto or cairn he had put aside for too long, a place where stone took on new dimensions and new spirits, the slight figure of the small man in a forgotten doorway, the booming voice so often attributed to the upstart young poet Yeats now knocking heads asunder. Cluttering on top of Liv’s resurgent perfume came the sweet odor of more new cut grass, somewhere a whole crop of it, and then a vaguely refined field smell came rolling in, dutifully at recall, coming from the green sea of a field on a crest of combers; clover from that other visit he realized, where the barn had been memorialized, ripe as the Atlantic itself, rich as brine. In the middle of all laid out before his view was a long sparkling white house, the main part of two floors and sundry additions plunked like excess punctuation, also white, easy and casual afterthoughts at a glance, which had been appended at random, he surmised, or had been required by different men and different needs.
From the chimney of one of these, squat and like a hen coop, the one farthest from the main house, smoke rose slowly, its column meandering ever so slightly, uninterrupted for all intents, lazy as the beginning of this very day had been. A wide porch spread out on the two sides of the house he could see, and promised more at each of its further ends. A horse and wagon, piled high with perhaps hay, a shade of yellow not yet seen in the fields, crawled across the front yard; its facing side was gray and neutral and had no contour top or bottom, but belonged, picture-perfect.
A shed off to the side had the same color, weathered, beaten and angled, wearing a thousand storms for sure. It leaned into its own existence. Time was trying to mark this place and this event for him, time and what else was working along with it; the indelibles indeed were afoot but he could not bring them all the way home, could not decipher them the way they should be: a painting inching itself into reality, another clutch in his gut as if something were being pulled out of him, a tendon, a muscle, a useless organ through the eye of a pore. Emptiness carved its hollow way through his stomach. He felt cheated somehow, but could not lay identity on it.
A woman on the porch shook a mat or a small rug over the railing. Her motion was quick and lively, and seemed to be the only thing moving. Liv’s perfume came again, more than lilac, more than any petals known, more than recall could demand. And with it the realization that taste had been introduced. In such a short time, taste had been introduced; it caught itself at the tip of his tongue, lingered, left. It was not a sweetness, he knew. He tried to recall it. It came to him that a variety of borders had been built around him in his short life and were being broken down, but he could not determine the extent of them or the extent of the breakdowns. At the edges of his senses, likewise at the point of division, identity of a number of things for a new moment was unknown.
Then, the way ideas are crystallized, from a small world controlled by an inner energy, the great merger came, the meshing of sights and scents and somehow reachable mysteries. It pushed together the picture-perfect wagon and the woman at dusting and the sudden ebullient clover and the inviting spread of the house and the wide issue of fields going off to where stars waiting night were hanging out and the mix of planets. Liv’s perfume crawled down the back of his neck and Liv looked up at him from the front seat and he looked down at her and saw one absolutely splendid nipple of her twisting standing alone in the cup of her gaping bra like the knob on the gate lock in the back yard at home. The rush was upon him.
Her teeth were as white as the house. His stomach hurt. Wind whirled in his ears.
Holding her hand visored over her eyes, the two o’clock sun slashing down on the side of the house and across her stance, the woman on the porch had seen them coming down the slight ramp of road. Brown hair was piled on top of her head and pulled into a bun. Near sixty at least, she had a wide forehead, comfortable eyes which traveled easily over the three occupants of the car, a mouth that was as soft as prayer, and arms bare right to the shoulders. An elaborate pinkness flowed on her skin, a rosy pinkness, gifted more than earned it appeared, and it softened everything else about her—eyes, mouth, and the angles of her joints. Almost as a salute, one shoulder dipped subtilely as if a sign of recognition, or acceptance. Pale blue, front-buttoned, her dress wore remnant perspiration in dark patches, at both arm pits, at the belt line, at one breast, perhaps something wet had been held close to her body, perhaps something wet and dear.
The boy could see that she moved very deliberately, bringing her arm casually and gracefully down from her face. That same hand waved at them but he could tell mostly at Mel, for a smile came with it. He thought of the ice cream promised, for this must be Mavis Trellbottom. Into a dark recess the wagon had most likely gone, for it was out of sight and there were doors of all sizes in the barns, and the yard was quiet and serenely peaceful.
She yelled, “Mel!” full of surprise and endearment, and then in a cry two octaves higher, “Charlie! Charlie!” and not they’re here but “Mel’s here.” The voice was as sincere as her face. The boy felt she would have yelled “Mel” even if the president were with them.
Even before Charlie came into view, Mel was out of the car and had picked the rug-shaking woman named Mav right off the deck of the porch. Slippered feet showed, much of her legs, a flash of underclothing, and her hair sort of brown in another minute might have come loose from the top of her head. A featherweight, the boy thought, as Mel swirled her about, more than warmth written all over the pair of them. A small stick of jealousy stabbed at him, a jab a lightweight might have tossed, but jealousy none the less. She enjoyed the roughhouse greeting, it was evident.
“Hi ya, Duchess!” Mel had yelled, and then hugged her tightly to his frame. On his face, as innocent and as real as morning sunlight on a green leaf, was expressed the most honest emotion the boy had ever witnessed. Even at thirteen, short of experience in the world, he realized that look would not be seen by him very often in this or any lifetime. Another message in the air, another barrier broken, another lesson to be learned plain as dealt cards.
Suddenly he was aware that much of the classroom was at hand. This very summer, this very farm, these people now caught up in his very breathing, would grant him a whole new range of knowledge. He would in no way be able to hold off what was surely coming at him. He looked at the people around him. Liv was still locked to her seat in the car, her face catching the sun at such a generous angle it played games with his eyes. Mav was still caught up in the arms of the young Marine dressed in chinos and a blue polo shirt that seemed to measure his biceps. An older man, unhurried, deliberate in walk, gray haired but moving with an obvious strength, denim straps wide over his shoulders, wearing army boots with the issue buckles still in place, probably rock-solid and not arguable and, more than likely at one time or another, the undisputed King of the Hill among his acquaintances, was striding across the yard. Charlie Trellbottom was a strider, all the way a strider.
Energy lifted off him as easy as steam off the swamp back home, and would have been solid-looking to the most casual observer; white hair as thick as goodly pelt, face weathered, wood-burned marked like one of the barns standing behind him in the sunlight, shoulders almost as wide as Mel’s. No way was this strider like his own grandfather who was probably about the same age but he did evince the same kind of energy. A band saw smile cut itself across his face as he said, his voice a flawless timbre that made the young visitor think of old tools they didn’t make any longer, “The Marines have landed, Tripoli is saved.”
The two hugged and slapped each other like old teammates after a long separation, and the boy could measure the immediate sense of warmth rushing through him. They shook hands all around. He was welcome! The air could have hailed him: Welcome, Michael, and said, this is another home for you. He pretended he heard that from some corner of the yard, the guinea hens roosting in the trees and now squawking like ladies in a knitting circle, a rooster strutting his 5th Avenue stuff, a lift of steam almost audible off a hundred surfaces.
The slight creak he heard in a pause of the welcomes and a moment of other truce brought his eyes to a pair of toes moving up and down, back and forth, at the far left corner of the porch. Patent leather shiny as gills, yellow socks dandelions could have painted. That’s all he could see of a third person, one which incidentally had not been mentioned either at home by Mel or in the car on the drive down.
The creaking sound said rocker to him, and Mavis, noting the tilt of his head, the eyed interest, said, “That’ll be our daughter Tillie, but she doesn’t say a whole lot.” He thought it most apologetic and that it didn’t sound like her; already his mind made up that she didn’t make excuses, didn’t beat around the bush, and said what was on her mind no matter the audience or how the cut of it went.
Mel introduced him to Mavis and Charlie and without the slightest hesitation she hustled him off to his room, pushing the tote bag into his arms. On the way off Charlie said he’d take him for an initiation ride on the wagon after supper. There was an actual chuckle in his voice. Liv had slipped her arm around Mel’s waist and the sun glanced a halo off them. As he turned to go with Mavis ahead of him, as Charlie turned away for some obvious chore, he saw Liv slip a hand into Mel’s pocket. The feeling he had had in the back seat of the car came back to him. It’s none of my business, he tried to say to himself, but he couldn’t manage it. He also wanted to say that there were so many things he didn’t know about, but wouldn’t shoot himself down so quickly, not that he even wanted to. He wasn’t all the way stupid! Time would see to that.
Mavis Trellbottom, in her blue dress splotched darker in spots by perspiration, took the stairs easily. The oak steps and risers talked incorrigibly under her feet, not a whimpering under weight but a composite of a little anger and a lot of tiredness, the tiredness of holding on, nails and pegs clutching at centuries, a statement against over-use or abuse, a statement of time.
The noises were distinct, individual, as if they were on slow-played piano keys or singular strum of a string, and he cold easily pick out the separate notes. On a bet he could identify the source of each one of them, even with his eyes closed. A hazy picture leaped up in his mind of black-haired, wild-eyed, tart and acidic Jamie Stevenson in the back of the Cliftondale School classroom at home shooting his mouth off, crying abuse too, although only when it suited his purposes. Sometimes Jamie, when tromped on, would not utter a sound, and this house might sometime also do the same. But proof had been initially offered that this rambling house would be one of sounds, that it would never be truly quiet, even at sleep. If it were suddenly, without wind or cause, to shift sideways, he thought, there’d be beams creaking, lintels stretching their whole selves with accompaniment, joists threatening his ears, all with their unique notes.
A delicious odor of richness, like piccalilli let loose of jars, followed them up the stairs. With it, or because of it, he knew beans and brown bread from Abie’s red brick oven and hot dogs and the same piccalilli. His senses kept stretching themselves all over the place just waiting to be tested. The walls were papered with a small flower pattern with a pink background. Two pictures of revolutionary soldiers hung on the stair walls. A mirror in a gold frame filled the wall at the head of the stairs, and five doors gave promise to the next life, choices set out for his undertaking.
“I’ve put you down the end so you can hear the farm as it wakes up in the morning. It’s new for you, as Mel tells me, being up there just outside Boston. Must be tough for a boy to grow up there when there’s so much of this. You’ll like it here because it was Mel’s room when he was a boy and he always loved it. Now don’t be bashful…anything you want just give me a yell…food, more blankets, anything. The bathroom is over there. Charlie and I are at the other end on the first floor and Tillie has the room above us. You’ll be all by yourself. If you like sounds, night sounds or morning sounds, cows, roosters, chickens, guinea hens, this is the place for them. Mel used to make up stories all the time when he visited. Made his own joys he did when he was down here.”
She was right on the money, he thought, as if she had read his mind. There’d be other special things from her. Her last statement brought him all the way around to Mel’s father and what he had heard of him. To be away from Saxon and his father must have been a real treat for the young Mel, and this kind woman showing him the ropes must have known all of what went on back there. She’d never spill that knowledge though, of that he was sure as dawn. If his father had beaten him what would his life be like right now, what would he have become? That vision left him hurriedly, but the awful taste lingered as he measured up the room.
His room had a nice enough bed with a pile of blankets, a chest of drawers beside one window, a small desk and chair, a small table with a big white bowl on it and a white pitcher, which he swore he had seen pictures of. A rack at the side held two towels and a face cloth. A big stuffed chair loomed out of another wall as if it had just appeared out of nowhere, it was so big and so out of place in the room. The walls had a green-tinted paper that was very comfortable on his eyes, though he could discern no apparent design. There were three doors to the room. Mavis drifted out of one of them saying, “Find your way back when you’re ready and we’ll have something to eat. Mel’s always hungry.”
He had settled himself into the room, put his things away, explored doors, gone down a hallway quietly, came back, and went another way. He saw the room where the girl must sleep, pale green walls, white curtains, no pictures. He heard Mel and Liv behind the door of another room at their honest noise, which must have carried on from the car as quick as you could think, crept back quietly so as not to disturb them (or be heard being more like it), went down the stairs, saw the girl Tillie close up for the first time really.
In a short while he heard all about her, as if all of them were apologizing to him for springing the surprise of her on him. They took turns in telling him about her at the table where Mavis had presented her broiled chicken dinner. Tillie, in a yellow dress, her hair tied up atop her head, her skin as white as Mavis’ was pink, but in that same gentle fashion, moved, ate, reached, but said nothing. Her eyes did indeed have much of distance in them, or depth, like a bottomless well came one image through his mind, and never once came across his eyes paired up, or acknowledging him. That’s when he first noticed her breasts, center-darkened against the dress’s pale yellow material, the way a nipple would announce itself, broad and darker as a picture might show, at times at play behind that so thin retreat. Her hands were delicately shaped, the nails neat as a made bed.
Mel had said, “Tillie had a very bad accident a few years ago, when she was just twenty-one. She was engaged to a great kid, whom I’d known a long while. He was in the Corps and he called and said he was on his way home on a quick leave and was driving up to see her. She rushed off in her car to meet him and hit him head on at Bailey’s Crossing just south of town. He never came out of the car alive. They had to cut him out and she didn’t know until almost two months later when she came out of a coma.”
“Hasn’t spoken a word since,” said Mavis. “She hears us, knows us, loves us, but just can’t talk—won’t talk. It may be that what we’re saying right now doesn’t even register with her, at least not fully. We don’t know. Even the doctors don’t know, haven’t helped a whole lot except hold out for the promise of something good to happen.” The slackness in Mavis’s jaw at that moment was an infrequent lapse, he thought.
Charlie nodded at him. “We don’t know what will bring her out of this, but we’re positive something will happen before we pass on. She’s a wonderful girl. She’s filled our lives for us, even now when we have to do so much for her.”
He liked Mavis and Charlie immensely. Charlie’s eyes were like some exorbitantly costly gem, and with the light of the sun still playing in the room took his eyes on more warmth and life.
They absolutely shone when he looked at his daughter, when he spoke of her. Tillie still made no move that acknowledged any presence in the room. She continued to eat, robotic, he thought, just the way she rocked for hours on the porch—rocking, nodding, touching her toes, pressing on them, lifting back her head bare fractions of an inch, as if practice was the art of perfection. Her listlessness seemed overpowering to him.
He wondered how he’d ever become as accustomed to it as were the others, even Liv, more beautiful than ever, her face shining with a hidden light of some kind, whose perfume crawled down the back of his mind in a slowly tantalizing swallow. “Hope is as beautiful as she is, Mike. It’s one of the loveliest of contemplations in life, I’m sure you’ll find that out, if you don’t know it at this moment. I think Mav and Charlie would say right now that it’s the best thing in their lives, that it’s just as beautiful as Tillie is.”
Nothing it seemed could be more beautiful than Liv, and he had heard her behind the door in that long secretive hallway, the music of her wordless voice, the mystery of what posture she had been in, what stance, what exposure. Pictures spilled all over his insides and he wondered if he had given anything away. Every sound he had heard he could remember. Did his face show it? He looked at Tillie, his mouth open, hoping for refuge, for escape. She did not move, though the darkness at her breasts was deeper than it had been minutes ago.
Mavis put more chicken on his plate. He looked into her eyes and saw the faraway there too, the long, long tunnel out into space or down into earth. A smile flickered across her mouth, as if she had shared a secret with him right in front of the others. He could not find it. If it was there in front of him, he could not find it, but the slightest curve of that hidden smile was given him again. God, she was as warm as his mother was! And like his mother, could leave messages right out in front of other people’s noses.
It wasn’t always that he could read them, at least not right off the bat, but something would come of every communication. His father was direct in his messages. There’d be nothing here at this table from his father. It would be unsaid. A girl had been hurt. A boy had died. Things had changed. It was like war. After a while the sounds of battle pass.
Now this girl, this speechless girl, this silent Tillie of the accident, came slowly toward him. In the narrowness of dawn, in the narrowness of the small bedroom, she came towards him. Liv, that other girl, that other magical figure, had drifted in and out of his mind, with her whatever stance or position trying to break free from behind that door of yesterday, with her music of sounds shifting its notes in his mind in absolute total recall, every living breath of it. Liv, that other girl, had come at him and gone away.
This girl Tillie moved so effortlessly, as if she needed no energy, oiled, lubricated at every joint, almost a spirit of movement, everything that the barest of dreams had dared came sliding towards him. Again, in the false dawn, she looked at him, as she had not looked at him on the night before. He saw distance closing itself down in her eyes, saw the telescope of time working its long way in, collapsing hours, years, the screech of tires, the impact of metals and rubber and blood, how sound must have suddenly stopped for her that night. He saw space there moving irretrievably away; none of it would ever come back, none of it could ever come back.
He understood, for the first time in his life, silence of the unborn, the unknown, the calamity of graceless death. He knew at length what wailing and keening were that he had heard so much about, heard the longing one should never hear, heard it all coming from silence as she slid in beside him. With the whitest of arms, the very fairest of arms, oh so deliberately lovely, she lifted the thin blanket of his cover and lay down beside him. Warmth, as good as coals, flooded him, all the length of his body. Patches of flesh were suddenly hot, burning their way onto him. He didn’t know where they were, but someplace against him. An entirely brand new odor he’d never known and would never forget for as long as he lived came rolling over him.
With the same ease of her advancing motions, hardly movement at all, grace be it for a name, she placed one of her darkly auburn blazing-reddened nipples against his mouth, adjusted it oh so casually, caress of longing someplace behind it. She spoke. Tillie spoke. She said the sound “Gently” as if it had come out of some mysterious and solemn rite, old as all the centuries themselves, as if it had been said the same way before, and at the same time as if it might be a most serious order or command. His mouth opened. His lips were dry. Her hand reached to hold him softly by the head, cupped him to nursing at that wetting place.
He did not know how long he remained still, the horrific heat against him, or if he slept, if she moved, if he moved. There was newness now and hands everywhere and a mouth not his and a gentleness and a fire he’d never known and sounds beyond them. Sounds were in the air and the wash of the morning whispering at them, and hands again, instructive hands, hands at his hands, movement of hands, knowledge, moisture, life exploding a whole arsenal of secrets. The back of his head filled with aromas bent on attacking him but were so startling and so smooth they might not have even been there in the first place, only dared to be. And finally a small and barely audible “oh,” a lovely “oh,” a remarkably beautiful “oh,” an “oh” worthy of all speech and all language, leveled across the room as though it might barely reach over the thin shroud on the bed or might go on into all of time itself, the first “oh” that Tillie Trellbottom had given up in seven long years.
He didn’t remember her leaving or his falling asleep again or waking up more than two hours later and the house silent again down into its dampest roots, down into its deepest part of being a house. Then a rooster called out bright as a bugle, a surly cow answered, a horse, in the high trees the guinea hens began a noisy clamor. Other sounds came that he could not identify. His father’s face loomed in a shadow and he suddenly knew what his father had meant about waking up in the morning under a tepee. A languid tiredness rolled through his body, but he was sharply awake and extraordinarily hungry. It made him move quickly to the wash basin.
Only Mavis was in the kitchen and, as if she had timed his schedule, placed a plate of ham and eggs and home fries at the table for him. “You’ll not be this late again because Charlie won’t let you. He’s been gone for over an hour with the wagon, Mel and Liv have gone for a walk. Tillie will probably stay in her room for much of the morning.”
Mavis continued to move even as he explained that he had been tired and had fallen back to sleep. She wore flat shoes, white ankle socks and had on a neat gray dress not yet adorned with dark stains. But that promise was there even if the fluid motion she did things with was no surprise to him, as if that grace of hers was part of her own private language. There was so much to language that was not said, that was left unsaid but known. Ideas came cramming into his head, it seemed volumes of them; where they came from, what they sprang out of, he had no idea, at least not a direct idea. It might be too that he’d explode, so much moved on him and in him. He breathed on his plate to ease the canister of his chest and the threat that was building itself there.
He wanted Tillie to come into the room, wanted that desperately and could feel the want riding on his face. He wanted to see her eyes again, wanted to see how she was dressed, wanted to see what he could remember. He kept his face to the meal, low over the table whenever Mavis might turn towards him. Redness must surely sit on it for there was heat still resident on his skin.
The morning sun, still angled, still in a wake-up attitude, spilled all over the table and the countertop and lit up much of the room. A vase of purple flowers had taken over what the sun hadn’t grabbed, lilacs he said to himself, knowing he would not have noticed them on another day, but the perfume of them carried its vital message. All this whatever he deep-voiced to himself had opened all his pores, all his nerves. Things so shortly occurred, so shortly known, came slowly out of some private place he had put them. Perhaps they could no longer be managed. Tillie had said only, “Gently” and “Oh,” and nothing else, of that he was positive. It said a mountain had been moved, a roadblock torn down and done away with. It said miracle in a very small and private way as far back in his mind as he could put it. Another aroma, he realized, was in the room; it did not say purple flowers but said her.
To leave the room at that moment was important to him, but he could not manage it. It would be escaping from Mavis. It wasn’t right. If only Tillie would walk into the room or call down and say she was going to stay in her room forever, then he could move. How would her voice sound in the morning air? How would Mavis turn around and look at him if Tillie spoke? What would Mavis say? Would she scream at him? Would he run? Would Charlie or Mel come after him? Would Liv wag her finger at him, even after he had seen her nipple stand like the gate knob? He remembered sweet skin against his mouth; that was talking in another way. He remembered air being in short supply. Suffocation had been a possibility.
He began to shake and finally realized he was frightened. Down here there would be no way to turn, nobody to turn to. There was no assumption of help. A violation had taken place and punishment was in order. His father would be furious. His mother would cry.
Mavis gave him seconds. She must have eyes in the back of her head, he thought.
“Charlie will be back in a short while. He’ll take you to the high field on the wagon. You’ll have your license by noon.” A deep chuckle came with the promise, and then she moved about the room, sunlight falling on her, sunlight following her. She was warm, she was a magnet, and she was another aura in his young life. He couldn’t begin to mark all that had come at him in such a short time. Was there no end to it? Was this a confidante in motion, this woman in front of him? Her gray dress had the neatest edges, her skin was still of a blessed pinkness, and they cut across each other the way designs cut, the way advertisements move within themselves.
“A horse is a horse is a horse, as they say.” She spoke with her hands full and didn’t use them to make added expression, to accentuate. “Be good to Blackie and he’ll be good to you. He wears the wagon. The wagon doesn’t wear him. Don’t tell Charlie I told you, but he still has trouble cutting left, so mind your fence posts and the corner of the barn if you head off to the low fields. Keep the reins honest in your hands. The answer is in your hands. That’s all I’m telling you. Now here he comes.”
She wasn’t even mad at him. That was amazing. She must know every breath taken on the farm, the source of every sound. His mother would. She’d know everything there was to know; who sneezed or coughed in the night, who cursed in the back yard or took the Name in vain, who suddenly got too big for his hat or his britches. Nor was Charlie angry, still wearing a smile bright as a new saw.
Charlie made off with him as if he were abducting him. Before he knew it, he was away from the house, away from Mavis and the kitchen, and Tillie had not called out to him, had not said another word. Perhaps he could breathe now, now that nobody was angry at him. Swinging around he saw the high field spread out before them, not really high but it was on a risen slope of land and kept a firm contour, a place to itself, and Tillie barely hung on at the back of his head.
The clover was rich, the sun was warm, and his high and commanding seat gave him a great survey. In his hands the reins had meaning, he soon found out. Blackie was a gallant giant of a horse, black as despair, black as hopelessness, he thought, with ears that flicked like broad knives at the flies, like a pair of hands waving. Electricity from him came in surges down the leather of the straps, a great amount of electricity, and a great amount of power. The wagon seat made him think he was on top of the world. Life was somehow ennobling, for all he had come through, spreading it and himself in great patches of experience.
Blackie now and then pranced and danced as if to speak unsaid words. He seemed to say, “You have the reins but I have the power.” It was not like that with Tillie. She had coaxed and coached and guided him, but also had the power of every move. Pieces came back at him, then chunks of her and chunks of heat and great masses of moisture and an ache and emptiness in his chest as if he had cut all ties with the human race. It was all so unfair to feel this way. After all, she had spoken, the miracle of miracles; she had used language, she had told him how it was supposed to be, how she wanted it to be.
Suddenly he wanted to lash out at Blackie, to drive very hard, to leap past all of the fields, to be home, to be away from all of this. Is she thinking of me back there in her room, came a live and ringing thought in his head, like he was talking to himself. It was so confusing, so much of all of it so unnecessary. But a restless edge kept cutting into him, making unknown demands. Finally, relenting, he took himself back to his room even as Charlie loomed beside him bigger than much of life. He brought back what he had seen of her, and how he had closed his eyes at first, and then filled them endlessly even in the faintest light. He remembered how it fell across her whiteness, how shadows get rounded and curved, how light falls into darkness and answers fall away with the light. There’d been mounds of whiteness and expanses and crevices and openings, and her hands had argued at first, and then pleased. His had argued and argued, until, light making more of her whiteness, they had begun a new life of their own, had traveled and touched and been instructed. How empty now his head felt, how dry his mouth, and Charlie was pointing to a pile of logs across the field.
They loaded the logs on the wagon as Blackie kicked at dust and knocked at flies and swung his tail in the air. Sweat ran down his chest; he could feel the little balls of it flowing on his skin. He smelled different. Charlie would know it in a second, how it leaped from under his arms and made itself known, telling tales, telling everything sweet and unsweetened, everything calm and hysterical, ratting on him. His perspiration felt like little balls of steel cruising on his chest. Oh, Christ, would this ever end? he said.
As they unloaded the logs in the yard, Mavis and Tillie sitting on the porch, bees working the air, buzzing, the sun working, sizzling on hard surfaces, heat beginning to touch everything, the guinea hens raucous in the trees, his muscles found other meanings. He dared to throw some of the logs a bit farther than he ought. Mavis watched, Tillie didn’t, rocking her chair back and forth as part metronome, sporting yellow socks he thought were disgusting to look at; she had such lovely lines to her legs. He threw another log beyond the pile as he recalled how the lines of her legs met, how they rolled into and out of darkness. Mavis smiled at him, waved them on to lunch, turned on the porch like a judge who had made a quick decision. He thought of his mother preparing a small speech on transgressions.
Lunch, though, was quick and quiet, and Tillie said nothing and he said nothing and Charlie said they’d get another load of wood. They worked at the next load for over three hours, took a swim in a small pool in a stream on the way back, and unloaded the wood just before the supper call was made. After supper he sat on the porch steps near Tillie with a huge bowl of ice cream. Once in a while he looked up at her as she rocked and slowly ate her ice cream. The whole yard seemed to fall into a temporary silence, as if it had somehow been earned.
It was announcement when he said, “That was a lot of work today, Charlie. I know I’ll be in bed early tonight.” Charlie laughed a small laugh and nodded at him. Mavis said, “You’ll be surprised how much you grow in one summer down here.” Tillie rocked her chair. He was going across that void again, he knew, across the darkness to that other light. There was no other way.
For hours he lay way over on one side of the bed, waiting, making camp, the tepee up and the tepee down. The center pole seemed bigger. He’d never have a laugh with his father about this, but he’d try to share it with him somehow. Maybe years down the road. Maybe masked like a story. He’d not brag, though. You don’t brag about miracles. You have nothing to do with miracles except letting them happen and knowing what they are when they do happen. He thought of dress blues and manly chevrons and quick and immediate leaves, and Mel and Liv in their room and how they had all but disappeared from the earth in such a short time.
This was like a hotel for them and Liv’s hands were live hands, which he had seen. Was everybody like that? If Mavis and Charlie went to bed together at the same time, who would start things off, who would reach if they were to reach? Charlie was tired too. The gray of Mavis’ dress had gathered dark blue of perspiration into it. Did it run on her like little steel balls? It made sense to have odors because they were so distinctive, said so much, gave so much away. Liv’s nipple was not like Tillie’s, he was sure. Tillie’s stuck out like a bullet. It had been so real and now it wasn’t. Was it possible that she had never been there in the first place? The air told him different. She was in the bedclothes, the smell of her. That was real. Who made up his bed? Was it Mavis? The tent came down.
Moments later, just after midnight, he pitched camp again. He caught her on the smallest bit of breeze coming down the corridor. Silence was still her marker. There was not the slightest creak of the floorboards, and the door he’d left wide open. She moved as she had before, and soon said, “Gently” again, and later “Oh” again, and he obeyed every gesture and made some of his own with the breath caught up in his chest like a ball of fire. He did not think of Mavis or Charlie or Mel or Liv or his mother or his father, but he did think of the young marine rushing home to this lovely whiteness. It made tears, too, like little balls of steel on his skin, and in the faint streak of dawn, as she took her mouth away with her, she said, “Today we’ll have a picnic.”
She was not in the kitchen for breakfast, and he ate hungrily along with Charlie. He was ravenous. Food odors leaped at him in quick announcements and there was nothing he did not like or could not identify in an instant, so sharp were his senses, so deep his sudden concern for aromas and the things that walked on the air, which pulled at him. Other revelations had mounted their stands (only two days old and it promised to be one hell of a summer); his shoulders felt wider, his upper arms thicker, his wrists stronger. Time no longer had any urgency to it. You could say handling the logs had done it, but he wouldn’t hold just for that. He had paid his way, it was true, had made his contribution. It was like the artifice of mental reservation, you could talk about two things at the same time, and both of them would fall into place. His father would be pleased at the general nature of things, though the crux of it unknown; nothing would be said directly for the first time, but eventually notice would be in the air. It’d be like shaving or jock itch or sudden stains on his shorts that would demand no explanation. Of this he was certain; it would be unsaid, as so many important things were, unsaid but accepted.
Charlie said they would spend one more morning on firewood, and would be back for lunch. At lunch, the sun living amongst them, splashing on every surface, she sat stiffly at the table and he was certain only he was aware that the great distance in her eyes had closed down on itself. It was that different. Suddenly he knew how difficult it was to speak sometimes. Profoundly he knew he was moving into one of the great events of his life. As long as he lived some parts of these moments now building about him, now filled with stark and rich aromas, now filled with color, now waiting on sound like a dream trying to be recalled, would have a special place with him.
He knew that the two nights here on this farm, and their implausible emergence, would somehow fade away, and that others, if they were to come, would fade away also, but these moments would stand.
And it was gray-blue Mavis who began the moment when she looked at him and asked, “What are you men up to this afternoon?”
The word men was firm as an oath as she said it. It was not a negligible word. It was not an easy word. It was not thrown out to be cute or to question. It carried more than mere conviction; it carried absolute knowledge, it carried every sound of the night, every shadow, every bit of memorable whiteness, it carried all the resurrection she had waited on for such a long time. It was almost a salute, yet her mouth gaped in awed wonder and her eyes shone with an ancient thanksgiving and her heart leaped in her chest, as Tillie said, “Mike and I are having a picnic.”
Charlie nodded, the long wait done.
The groaning and gibbering column of mourners stood over the small, still warm cat. All wept and shook save three. The old man, leaning slightly harder on his left side, looked only at the boy, his daughter’s son. The boy was silent also, though wore the look of the savaged. The third to keep from buckling to the emotion of the scene was the vet who had administered the barbiturates.
Steam played across the water’s surface in lazy swirls, nudged by the breeze and stretching away like cigarette smoke. Behind the hedge, lips pressed to her kneecap’s polished, taut surface, she could taste salt on her skin and, somehow, it mingled with the vision of dragon’s breath steam above luminous water to punch a sudden ache in her throat. Smelling chlorine, she longed for the sea, for sand that grew cool as she dug her feet deeper, and her father’s hand on her bony, eight-year-old spine, walking her towards a quiet tideline.
A thousand little Benjies constantly talk in my head. A thousand little creatures speaking, some in subdued almost suppressed and some in apprehensive yet hollow tones, somewhere in my head. They all talk, all of them, together, simultaneously. Shut up, shut up, shut up. They keep repeating those words. Like parrots on cocaine, they keep repeating those words. Blah, Blah, Blah. Tickets please, sir. I was sitting, and the clock went one, then two, then three, then she came picked me up and then we were here and I was sitting again but we were moving. And we are moving, and they are moving, and those are moving, and maybe it was a bicycle and not a bike. Maybe we’re not moving at all, and it’s just my head horsing around. I have liquid memories and container moods, the latter follows shape and the former follows suit. I press my eyes against my palms, and I melt right through. They won’t let me forget. These bastards won’t let me forget.
When I was twelve years old my grade six class went on a camping trip to the Coromandel, a rugged peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island. Three teachers came to supervise the boys-only class. After a two-hour bus trip we pitched our tents at a campsite off a dirt road, thirty minutes from the small mining town of Thames. The site was surrounded by bush and mountain ranges, one mountain caught everyone’s eye, it had a long flat top, a teacher, Mr Larson, informed us it was aptly named Tabletop Mountain.
This story was inspired by Rosa Amelia Zilkie
My friend Leonard Gerbrandt was wiry and tall for his age and he had big dimples and a giant Adam’s apple. His mom worked for my parents at our little bakery and she was an elegant beauty reminiscent of the movie star, Hedy Lamarr. She was dark haired and slender with high, rouged cheekbones and large brown eyes. I was just a little kid, but I felt weak when she was near; the scent of her perfume confusing me through a kind of permeating intoxication, although I would never reveal it. Especially to Lenny, who was as tough and unyielding as a Manitoba March storm.
The Gerbrandts were made of stern stuff. Lenny’s older brother was gaunt and menacing – his unblinking stare was like a violent shove. Their dad was an ex-cop. Mr Gerbrandt had been a good baseball player and was a big rugged guy, like a young Robert Mitchum. Mitchum married Lamarr and they begat sons and daughters, including Lenny, who, in later years, taught me how to roll a corn silk cigarette and do a catwalk on my bike. Lenny’s dad was the town cop but then joined the army and when he came back, he was not the same anymore. He had run out of whatever it was that made him Robert Mitchum, the big raw-boned cop who got Hedy Lamarr. Instead, he sat alone in the Hartplatz men-only beer parlour and got quietly loaded every day.
“You’re a big gasbag, Jersey,” the tallest one of the lot said with loud emphasis and staring at the smallest of his pals with that old in-charge look, “nothing but a big gasbag, I swear. You’re always bragging about your brothers and what they did in the service and you weren’t even in the Boy Scouts, for cryin’ out loud. How’s it make you such a storyteller all the time? And you never let go! Like you’re itching to tell us a story we already heard a half dozen times and then some.”