Last edited in 2015, I still consider this story unfinished. I sent it out once and it was rejected as being “too hard to follow” and I agree. However, it is too much to take on again. Maybe someday…
The red and white sedan is still sitting in the glaring sun outside of Richard’s restaurant. Toby is in there, sucking on a can of Rheingold and maybe pushing the fat pink buttons of that new jukebox.
He sits at the back now, out of the sunlight, surrounded by the musty coolness of dank floorboards ‑‑ those damp, curling beer posters, and, nearby the watery toilet; he can hear it running from where he sits, the door tipped and rotten, never shutting all the way. It’s kind of dark back there, almost as if it were evening, with the cigarette machine’s dim light and the jukebox, bright, in pink and silver – like a T-bird in a movie poster.
He leans across the table, elbows scratchy against salt and sugar; the yellow checked tablecloth is glued with age to the soft edges of the wooden table.
Above him the ceiling fan turns so reluctantly, you’d think it had to make up its mind each time it went ‘round again. Toby is noticing the fan’s pull chain, how it swings around in the slight breeze the fan makes, how a lazy fly follows it languidly in circles.
He’s waiting for Bernadette, to come ‘round.
Otherwise he’d take his lunch elsewhere, wouldn’t he? There already yesterday for hours. Why, with Scandia’s right across the street, with its bright booths and air conditioning, and a million gaudy cakes? It’s practically, beckoning and it would have been the first place to chose, naturally, if he’d cared for a nice clean place.
Must have spotted her from the road, looking about for a place to eat. Stopped right away. If it were not for Bernadette, he’d try another place today, wouldn’t he? He’d sit with a beer at the Redwood Motel, or drive on down the road until he hit the town where he’d have a beer at Rayburn’s or Kelly’s Pub. The Redwood Motel is close to Mayrose, a nice little place with good beer and wine, not to mention those gourmet burgers, with blue cheese… Instead he’s eating Dotty’s wounded hot dogs: split down the middle, and burnt like an offering.
He’s waiting for that Bernadette or else he’d go someplace cleaner, at least. Like Mayrose. Must have come back for her the very next day: sitting at the same table, likely, waiting. For her.
Car, out there, for hours now, glinting in the sun, flashing towards this porch like a signal.
Further down the road, the Dairy Queen sign is new and yellow: those Hirschman kids are there, likely, using the picnic table as a jungle gym. That girl, the redhead, jumping off, legs in the air.
Mary’s old porch is cracking in this heat. My patching it up won’t help; next year this thing will be split like an old cake. You can’t keep cement once it’s decided to break up. She’ll have me here building her a new one.
Down the street, Toby’s car sits stubbornly. Get out of there, you son of a bitch. Get out of there while you can because that little girl is nothing but heartache… but that’s my story. My story.
I try to help people. Mary, here, is on her own. A woman, alone, she likes to say, with four kids. “He put us in this pumpkin shell but he’s not keeping us very well,” she says. Plopped her dab on the edge of I88, actually, with an overgrown acre of hay behind her. That field back there is full of huge garden spiders and wasp’s nests — and forget the snakes, she says. She’ll have me cutting it down, routing out the hornets for her.
I sold her husband this property. She says she doesn’t blame me — I was just doing my job. (You just can’t leave it alone, can you, Mina, the wife, my dear wife, says. Mina hates my guilt. She hates Mary and she hates Dottie and Bernadette, too. Stray dogs, she calls them. Beggars.) But I don’t blame Mary for being worried about the yard full of monsters and the house sagging, and I’d told her so. “Kids, I said; you can’t be too careful.” You always compliment a woman on her worrying. Always tell Mary she’s a good mother. Gotta wonder though… letting her girl run around all day with those Hirschman boys. And that wild little readhead. Up and down the highway like it’s a playground. I can’t fix that. Just trying to help out, but can’t fix that sort of thing.
Toby’s rusted out sedan is still there.
He’s had several beers by now, and another of Dotty’s flayed wieners. Each half lies flat and burnt against the sides of a rumpled bun, a half‑hearted line of watery yellow mustard streaking it like an illness. He plays with an old book of matches pushing the cover up and down, the sulfurous smell, a toy of it’s own ‑‑ inside he reads: “Draw Binky” over and over again, looks blandly at the over-cute drawing of a deer. Draw Binky.
Outside, beyond the window’s paint‑flecked sill, astride the gravel drive, his monstrous old red and white sedan winks in the sunlight, a beacon to anyone who might wish to come and say hello.
He expects that someone will. He’s left several messages.
He thinks I’d be just too glad to fetch him and show him my proud home and take him out on Thursday to our mother’s goddam funeral, Torture him with another dinner and some new photographs of the wife and kid.
Bernadette is always there for lunch. Ostensibly to “help out” but actually to talk to the men. Flirt with the men. Dottie has to beg her to bus a few plates, pass out beers, ring up the lottery tickets. It’s always this way.
But right now. It’s empty again. Toby is the only customer.
If he keeps looking past the chipped window frame, past the wooden‑slatted front porch, past his Sedan, out onto I88, he will see old Hirschman’s truck bundle past, honking for those kids of his to hurry up an’git in an’ stop wasting time (time that they’ve been wasting all day, if you ask Dotty [poor things!] — stop wasting time an’ scooch over — cones soft and runny from the Dairy Queen, spotting the torn vinyl seats, the sticky knees lined up like little duckies. They will have been at the Dairy Queen, and in and out of Richards‑‑ back and forth ‑‑for hours, bored and full of sugar and asking Toby questions.
That little red head, drawing Binky for him.
Now Toby sits in the furthest corner near the gaudy jukebox, where the room is shadiest. He likes to sit away from the main door and the candy counter where Jim Hirschman’s kids have been pointing with sticky fingers at the Sugar Daddy’s and the wax lips, the Almond Joys and the Good N’ Plentys, those godawful Flying Saucers, the addictive Red Hots. They like to trade Sugar Daddy cards right there by the counter, wait for a soda, and then run out. The wooden screen door slams to and shudders every time ‑‑ and they’ll be around back of the Dairy Queen sitting at the picnic tables or playing with the frogs in the pond just beyond. Those Hirschman kids will kick at each other and shoot froggies from slingshots up past the telephone wires: anything to stave off boredom until they hear that horn.
When they heard the horn, the redhead put her pencil down and got up off my lap ran out of the restaurant. My heart was beating in my neck— my hair, I swear it, on end for all to see…
That’s Bernadette, pulling in. Her old hunchbacked bug shuffs into the gravel drive and stops dead in the white heat, little pins of light shooting off the chrome window frames as she pops open the door. It’ll take a while for her to get out and heft up onto her crutches, slamming the door to with one flip-flopped foot. The way she hobbles into the screen door and pushes in sideways with her crutches, always the same. You learn to look forward to it; here she comes, the girl, eyes always inviting…
From here, about 100 yards away on Mary’s porch, Bernadette seems tiny, a child again. Brown eyes. Brown hair. Smile like chocolate, easy and sweet. Now she’ll be hanging all over Toby. There is no one stopping her even though she’s only just 18. They leave her to her own devices.
Country people. They have kids and then just set them loose. Just put them out of the house in the morning with the dog. Never pay any mind. That Hirschman girl, the red head, running around with the boys, in the barn, in the fields, out back of the Dairy Queen, up and down the highway.I can’t fix that. You can’t just fix everything.
Now she looks toward Toby with that smile ‑— right away ‑‑ used to him already, swings into the kitchen wafting perfume and bubble gum.
Toby sips and watches.
Her flip flops snap as she comes back in with a Genesee and hands him her crutches, sitting down in the same motion.
She crosses her legs. They are bent into smooth round arcs from the knees down to her tiny ankles. Toenails: red and her feet are soft and childish. She’s watching Toby look at them while she lights a Marlboro, blows the smoke off to the side, shakes the match.
Bet that’s it alright. In there now and talking her up. The way he did that other one he got so stuck on. Picks ‘em up in the bars because it’s easy: they are there already and have only to sit and listen. Otherwise he’s too shy.
She’s used to it anyway. The sticky appraisal: from head to knee ‑‑ skip the Donald Duck shins ‑‑ cute feet, skip upward now, hover across the breasts… She likes to keep them moving, jouncing her crossed leg, leaning over the table…men like that. Even though they usually move on anyway: on to less confusing girls who are less charming but who have straight legs.
Not me, though. I stuck around.
Toby smiles, knocks glasses with her and winks. A knockout: from eyeballs to ass. Cute little feet.
It’s cool in the restaurant, a son of a bitch outside. Dotty huffs and puffs up to the table, asks her daughter if she’d like something to eat and gets a dirty look. That girl don’t eat, Dotty tells Toby the way she tells everyone all the time: the way she can’t imagine what the girl lives on. The girl is giving Toby a sly look while Dotty puffs and stares out the window.
My brother is an ugly man. He is not good with girls. The last time he was with one… probably still has that postcard I found once in his jacket pocket. It’s probably still hanging on the wall in his apartment in Brooklyn. Seems so far away now…another person’s story. Another man, living in that old brownstone, spying on people for a living, trying to pick up women in gay bars because there’s no competition there. In the pocket, that old postcard, bent, thick at the corners; she’d kept it in her bag a long time, he’d said.
A long time ‑‑‑ he’d had that one on his mind a very long time. Like a sickness. Over it now. Perhaps he had felt it on the road… the obsession had passed like a fever, leaving behind a sort of shame. That’s the way it always is. Until the next obsession.
Right now he is with Bernadette. Back in Brooklyn that old jacket hangs there against the dirty white wall, the postcard still in it, the season, over.
It must be Bernadette. If it’s not that, then it’s because I didn’t call him back. That’s it. I didn’t call, so he’s just killing time, waiting around the neighborhood. If I’d called. If I stopped by the Hotel. Stopped by the restaurant: he wouldn’t be in there right now – haunting me.
I’ll be at that dive is how he put it. On the highway. Richard’ s. It’s near the Hotel. Don’t I know it? But I didn’t go over. Didn’t call back. And he stayed there for hours. What is there to do, at that place for hours? It’s got to be Bernadette.
But, maybe Richard’s appeals to Toby ‑‑ like a dive bar, from anywhere, perfect and homely like him. Just for him. And when he came in and sat down and grasped the sweating beer can in his giant mitt, there was that girl ‑‑ all brown and round, putting her tits on the table and feeding him cashews with her slender hands. That’s got to be it. Why he’s been parked out there for hours every day for three days now. It can’t be he’s still waiting for me. And it’s not Dottie’s cooking. Her burger patties in their well of grease.
A funeral, he would have told her when she’d asked what he was in town for.
My mother’s, he tells her and waves to cut off her sympathetic response. To save time. No need to go through all that It’s just the visiting that’s rough, he say to her tits. My brother with his stupid family, his flooded basement, fat kid…
She’s not going anywhere, this one. Not like his postcard girl.
This one, she won’t run away to Italy and send back mysterious little postcards. She’s not going anywhere. Broken little birdie. Plump and cute and just sitting there with her mouth working that bubble gum.
She’s sitting there with her mouth wide open. Give me some. She means the flayed weenie that Toby has bitten in half. He feeds her. Baby bird.
She must have been, what? Fourteen then? Now she’s getting old. Too old for me. Baby bird.
Toby’s giant old sedan is still winking in the sunlight outside of Richard’s Restaurant. Bernadette puts her tits on the table, takes his drink in both hands.
“Rodger,” Mary’s got the screen door open. “You might like some dinner.” She’s made chicken and some salads. I’m all right with that I tell her so and she laughs. The least she can do, so grateful, etc.
“Who IS that?” she wonders, beside me now on the porch, arms folded, “at the restaurant these past couple of days? Does Barbara have a new boyfriend?” She remembers Barbara with some boy she babysat for. The shame and the shock. Mary is appalled by her neighbors. The way those girls carry on!
Yes. The way they carry on; it should be easy. It should be dead easy.
Leaning over her small hand and guiding the pencil. “You may be an artist. Draw Binky.” Bernadette sticks her little pink tongue out into the corner of her bowed mouth as she draws. It should have been easy.
I should go over there. I should go and see. I should have called him. But he’s no better. He should have called me after I talked to him on New Year. He should have called me to ask about mother while she was slowly dying. Her suspecting eyes… how she always looked at me with pity. He could have called then. But our family is not close.
No. He did wise to stay away.
Mary feeds me. She’s on about the funeral. She can’t wait for her own. When she’ll finally hear what they’ve all been saying about her. How they love her. How they hate her. I look at Mary. It’s easy to do both. If you keep Mary happy, she’ll laugh a lot and she’ll feed you and she’ll let you be on her side. It feels good. It’s the reason I keep coming back.
You pull right into her driveway from I88. The shoulder is wide, but it’s still a dramatic transition. The hyperawareness of the highway still rings around your ears as you cut the ignition.
Maryland, NY is a just plain odd, farmland and countryside sliced through with a busy highway. All along I88, these houses stand on their slanted lawns collecting rainwater spill-off from the farms behind, the basements flooding and cracking… Mary keeps some waders handy. Calls the plumber every spring. The whole house, really, is just sagging. Mary is overwhelmed by it: the wind and the bugs, the water, the broken floors and walls.
It’s my fault of course. I sold her husband this house. Shook his thick square paw, looked into his boozer’s pale eyes. Knew it was a disaster.
Three houses away, the Hirschman’s are having some sort of BBQ on their own slanted lawn. The boys stand three in a toe‑headed row, arms cocked, blue red yellow water balloons ready for launch as I wave. They hold fire because it’s me. The little redhead shades her eyes, smiling shyly. Mrs. Hirschman sticks her square hand into the air and smiles with closed lips: a dim‑witted smile I’ve grown accustomed to over the years. Jim tips his trucker’s cap, barely visible behind the cloud of black carbon monoxide climbing up from the bright red grill, up, up over the sagging roof shingles.
Now Katelyn ignores me as I ring her mother’s free gift- from-Avon doorbell. She is confused about this; she’s given up on me because I stare at my feet when she greets me. Little girls don’t know how to deal with that. They think I don’t like them.
Down the street, about 100 yards, Richard’s Restaurant is offset from the highway by a large gravel parking lot; Toby’s red and white car sits rusted and beaten, absorbing the searing sunlight, there for the fourth afternoon now.
Mary’s been making soup for Dotty’s husband who is dying right now; dying in that back bedroom. A relentless, headachy death.
Out back of the restaurant, Bernadette’s sister, fat‑nosed Barbara is bringing him toast and eggs. She sits down on that grueling bed; it’s another hour of sick day for Barbara and Bernhardt. Exhausting hours of yellow sunlight streak the dusty panes…
Maybe it’s about time I get out there; get it over with. Get up out of here and get him ‑‑tell Mary: I think I should get going. I should go say hi to Dottie and the girls; see how they are getting along. Told them I’d put in a new water heater. Now that Bernie’s— Putting the beer can down on her coffee table where I know I shouldn’t. Thanks so much for another wonderful meal, Mary. She smiles. Dumb as a cat.
Her girl, Katelyn, outside in the tall weeds somewhere, discovering the ache in her muff when the Hirshman boy kisses her.
Glad to feed me. Anytime. Can’t thank me enough… so hard for a woman alone… but I’m watching her daughter climb out of the tall grass, turn three smooth cartwheels out on the lawn.
“Maybe you can take me with you,” Mary is saying while Katelyn adjusts her panty. “Maybe you can take me by there so I can give this soup to Dotty. For Bernhardtgodblesshim.” Katelyn’s silky blond hair is in her brown eyes. I look away.
I’d rather go in there alone. Find them at it. Why else? Parked there for hours.
I tell Mary I should go by alone. Find a moment to talk to Dottie. I haven’t been by enough. Mary nods, half‑sullenly. She’ll come by later.
She’ll go by later. I won’t be there. Take Toby home. Let him hate my life for me.
I know he does. Probably DID tell her how sad and stupid my life is. Well, what about his? That old postcard in his pocket? That sad apartment in Williamsburg. That awful car. No better.
Parked out there for hours. No better. No different.
I tell Mary to keep it under her hat that I’ve been helping out. No need to make Dottie jealous, I say. That’ll make her feel special.
When I pull up, Dottie comes out the front door. Where have I been? She thought maybe I’d taken off for a vacation.
No: I’ve been busy with the funeral. My mother. She blinks at me. She’s so sorry. She didn’t know. Her always-red cheeks burn now and she puffs and blows and wipes her big red hands on her apron. I ask if she’s been taking good care of my brother.
— Your brother?
Toby looks up, stands.
—Hey, there! Thought maybe you’d disappeared myself!
He smiles and looks down at his feet in that Toby way. Self-conscious because he’s such a big scary man.
I explain that I’ve been busy with arrangements. Kept meaning to call…
Been here for four days, he tells me. Come in here to get away from the Motel…
Dottie brings me a Rheingold and pops the top for me. She didn’t know that Toby was my brother!
He laughs, I think, nervously.
“Sit down, Dottie,” I tell her, “take a load off.”
Toby looks smirks, plays with a book of matches. They say, “Increase Your Vocabulary.”
“You talk like a farmer now,” he says to me.
—Yeah? And you talk like you always did.
— Like a fuckin’ loser.
— NOW you sound like my brother.
— Great. All I need.
Dottie comes in with her beer and sits down with a whoosh, rolling her button-round eyes. She’s always exhausted. Just beat. Just huffing and puffing with laborious exhaustion. Always.
Barbara is out at the house. She might come by if she can get Bernhardt to sleep a little. Toby certainly has the idea by now: I’m at home here.
This is good. This is turning out all right. So by the time Bernadette comes slapping and swinging in; my days of agony have all but disappeared, leaving behind a vague shame. That’s the way it always is.
Obsessed. Again. My therapist tells me: turn off the tape. Loops and loops: Toby was here and he was looking at that girl, bouncing her tits, blowing her smoke. All he had to do was not say no. Isn’t that how he did it with that postcard girl? Nadja. How young was she? I don’t know: young. How young? Jesus, Rodger, I dunno: young.
Bernadette raises an eyebrow and asks where the hell ya been, buddy? We almost missed you, etc. Embarrassing. I should just say it: I’ve been lurking about Mary Calvacca’s place, peeking at Toby’s car, obsessing about his huge woody aching for your sweet young pussy. She asks if I know Toby here.
Her jaw drops.
—Your? Hah! Well, he’s a LOT more polite than YOU!
Toby slaps the table, laughs: damned right he is!
- Oh, then…your mom? Rodger?
O her God she’s so sorry. Etc. I hang my sad sad head and she asks how I’m bearing up.
Toby gets up to use the john.
I’m doing okay. There’s a lot to do, so it keeps my mind off things, I tell her. She can’t know, though, how impossible it is for me to keep my mind off things. Baby bird.
I look at her now. Smoking like a farmer. Gonna get old you keep that up, I tell her. She blows the smoke at me: Too late for YOU, laughs.
When Toby comes back, she’s leaning over whispering to me, her hand on mine. I sense no discomfort from Toby. I sense nothing between them. Elation? Shame? The mixture is not new to me.
Goodbyes now finally, all around, and then are walking out together. We are brothers. They are surprised, watching the backs of our heads, mine covered in boyish curls, his thick and shaved and square. The screen door slams to and shudders.
My car is new. It was Mina’s idea. Toby says he’d have thought so. Meanwhile he’s driving that same old heap.
— I like my old heap.
— I hate this SUV. It makes people hate me.
— Oh, you don’t need an SUV to make people hate YOU!
I stare at him. He looks down at his feet and back up again. He’ll take his car to the Redwood. Then ride with me. To‑‑ where is it?
— Yeah: new car, new digs. There’s none of the old me left.
He looks at me. Turns to his car.
Mina hates Toby. Our yard is covered with Buster’s toys and it needs a shave. Mina blames me for helping Mary. Mina hates Mary. Mina hates everybody; it’s one of the things I like about her; keeps company away.
Next to the sprinkler, Buster’s Terminator Doll sits hard on its tiny plastic ass. For some reason, Barbie’ town car is parked in the rain beside him. Off, near the hedges, Barbie lies on her triangular back, kicking a pretty leg. Play date. God help me.
There’s a coke spilled on the porch and the garden hose hangs over the railing, dribbling like a grandpa’s penis. An empty birdcage blocks the screen door. It sounds flimsy and bounces when I kick it. But that’s not the final episode: there’s twisting my ankle on the magnificently orange Super Soaker, being supported briskly by Toby…
He knows, he knows; he’ll clean up it up, Dad. Shouting from his room, and the girl giggles. That Volpe girl. Nedra. Help me.
Mina’s in the kitchen. She likes to do that head‑swiping thing that women do when they’ve been cooking and you haven’t. She does that as Toby walks in with me behind him. Smells good.
— What is it?
But she’s not happy with head swiping; no, it’s “Can you go fetch Buster and Nedra? I have to put this back in for a few minutes… “ and “Toby would you like a drink‑‑ go on, Rodger; they’ re in his room.,”. And then she sighs.
I go off to my own little hell, he and the girl, on the bed. Don’t look.
—Dinner in a few minutes, Buster. Hello, Ned.
I smile and do a goofy wave. Her eyes are so far apart…
Rodger, she’s saying, can I stay if mommy doesn’t get here? She’s following me into the kitchen. Nedra. Nedra at my heels. Her breathing tells me the size of her neck, her steps, the size of her feet, the heft of her body. Girls: they like me until I start dodging. Then they blame me and shut me out. Like that new summer intern at the office. I tried not to care, tried not to stare at her and made sure I didn’t show any inappropriate interest in her tiny outfits and her billowing waterfalls of fresh young hair. I showed, in fact, no interest at all and so now she hates me. It can’t be anything gentle and normal with me. It can’t be that she’s young and I’m old and I respect her. They have to hate me first, then I’m released.
Ya like chicken? Yes she does. Buster, fat and hungry runs suddenly from behind and pushes past me into the hall. Excuse me, Ned! Pulling my huge hand off the top of her shining head…
Toby seems to know that Mina hates him. He sits on the chair edge and tries hard to look fully grateful for her efforts ‑‑ holds his rock glass like an apology. In my shoes — just for these few moments and he’s already about to jump out of his skin.
Toby takes potatoes and passes them to Buster; Buster takes half of them and passes them to Nedra, then she, to Mina and Mina to me. Rodger laughs at something Nedra whispers. Mina asks Toby if he’d like a beer. Yes: he hangs his big square head, stares at his bitten fingernails.
Buster looks at me: Toby’s my brother. It’s my fault. Nedra looks at Buster; it’s his crazy family. It’s his fault. Mina looks at Nedra; her mother was supposed to pick her up a full hour ago; it’s her fault. I’ll make a point of getting my own beer; it’s Mina’s fault.
And now Buster eats. Maddeningly, he eats one portion at a time, turning the plate clockwise and clearing each section until the whole plate is empty and white. My fat boy will not miss a single pea. But when he is through, when the plate is finally empty and you think you can breath again, he starts eating bread.
— Jesus, Mina. Make him cut that out, will ya?
I take my beer outside. In the darkness I can finally see Nedra in our kitchen. Her head glows. Her tiny bones are Byzantine sharp. Few faces are more human. Toby chats more freely now; he moves his hands. Suddenly the children seem engaged. Had he been talking the whole time I was in there? Wasn’t he telling one of those stories; he’s staking out his own client because the guy is just mind‑blowingly weird… or he’s at the morgue getting a coroner’s report and he’s got the runs… Nedra laughs, chewing appreciatively. She likes him. Even Mina hangs her head and laughs a bit. It’s not so bad in there. Without me it’s not so bad in there. It’s my fault.
The cigarette smoke hangs white in the night blackness. Out of the backdoor lamp, out by the bushes, the fireflies float vertically from the grass and seem to be dancing to the cricket sounds. They have one night to mate and then it’s over. I should curl up and lie still on the cold green grass near the hedges. I should stick my face in the black soil and squeeze the knuckled roots and pebbles like I’m holding a hand: I should burrow into the soil until the darkness surrounds me and the cameras stop.
Inside the kitchen, Mina is picking up the plates. Toby is entertaining Buster and Nedra. Her hair is cornsilk. Her ears stick out of it in tiny peach half-moons. Thank christ I can hear her mother’s car pulling in.
How many times have I thanked christ for her mother’s car?
How many more times can I do it? I’m tired. I’m tired of everything.
Every morning you get up and pee and you put the toothbrush in your mouth and you smell the soap in the shower steam. Every goddam day, maybe three, four times, your bladder fills and you pee again. Every day sit on the pot and crap out. Every day. Maybe that doesn’t ever strike you. Maybe you never get tired: the bus fare and the bills, the money all the same. Maybe it never strikes you. And you don’t get tired. But I do.
I do. Because on top of it, there’s the sex. Every day. How many times: aroused, trying not to be aroused, escaping arousal. Every day. Every single day for how long? How many more? Toothpaste and toilets, bills and bus fares, and temptation.
I’m walking in a desert and I fall to my knees; I fall on my face and burrow in; I wash my face with the sand, I dig and burrow until the camera stops.
The screen door wheezes open and wheezes shut. Here he is; he wants to apologize but he just stands there breathing.
I don’t blame you, I tell him. I don’t blame you at all. His face, as he receives this, is pained and relieved.
And I, he tells me, don’t blame you. No one would, you know. No one can.
Hah, I laugh, Not yet.
Toby shakes his head. You’re strong, he’s saying.. Don’t think I don’t respect that.
I laugh some more. Respect.
— I should have known better, Tobe. You can’t tell anybody. If you tell someone. they have to live with it too. It wasn’t fair. You did well to keep away.
— Rodger; I’m no better. I told you. About that girl? I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I was sick. I couldn’t eat. Couldn’t think. All I could think of was her. One girl sends me a postcard and I just LOSE it. Just…
He doesn’t know the half of it. What can I say to all that? Toby, your eyes are yours. You can look where you want and take what pleasure you need from what you see. My eyes are a booby trap.
Toby starts telling me about his woman trouble. He’s just showing how much he doesn’t get it.
Listen, is what I tell him: It’s like we’re both in prison. But I’m in a cell with no door at all. And you’re up for parole any day now.
A few years back, when Bernadette hit sixteen, she cornered me at a New Year’s Eve party and she puked on my shoes. Her round, chocolate-colored head, bifurcated by a clean white part, hung at zipper level as she heaved forward. I caught her shoulders and held her up while she glogged onto my feet. Right before that, she’d said this horrible horrible thing; Bernhardt had stopped fucking her, she’d said; Daddy didn’t love her anymore.
My therapist writes this down. You never told me this before, he says.
I repeat things. I tell the same stories over and over again. That’s because my life is like that. What else would I tell him?
Shower and drive to work. Sell the same houses over and over again; flooded, rotten, too close to the highway, too close to the school, too close to the farmer with his wet cows and dung pile. Even the houses in town are full of ants and weather. Go home and eat and fail to have sex with Mina. Nothing else to tell: except the searing shame, the repeated and endless days of temptation and avoidance.
He makes me complete the sentence: “Life is…” and I say “a pain in the ass.”
But this time it’s about Toby; it’s about how his identification with me is making me more and more bitter.
He points out that I’ve only mentioned this about Toby once before and that, then, it was I who made the comparison: no different, I recall myself saying; no better.
Yes but that was just me being bitter.
Listen: After Bernadette told me her little secret… when she puked on my shoes and told me about Bernhardt… how could I help it? I started asking questions. I was sick with it: Bernhardt, like a monster of my own making, loomed in my dreams, my nightmares, and my fantasies all at once. I couldn’t think straight. Sure I asked questions. You bet I did. Secretly and like a lover, I hovered around Barbara and asked her if her father’d put it to her too.
My therapist is again jolted out of silence: You said that?
Not like that. With concern. So Barbara ate it up like cake. What was she, eighteen?: it would have been legal. But I backed off. That’s always the beginning. Back off and they come forward and hate you. So she forced the ugly truth down my throat. She’d known about Bernadette and was jealous; she never felt loved and it was because she was ugly. She was crying, red in the face, shouting and I was desperate trying to calm her down. She told me he beat her. He didn’t touch her unless he was beating her. I couldn’t make her stop; I had nothing to say. I couldn’t have been more sorry. Then she said the worst thing: she told me that I was just like him. Just like him. She knew, she said. She knew.
Here I am in my crisp white bed. A good man. A proper, married man. A real estate agent, known to everyone in town. I’ve walked through their living rooms and measured their yards. Nothing in this tiny town is hidden. I could live in a glass house: lying here. Next to my wife who is snoring like a proper adult.
Up and down her stomach moves with that cesarean scar. When I married her she looked like Alice in Wonderland. I thought I’d escaped. But she got fat and had Buster and they cut her stomach, leaving a tight string of white scoring the puffy upholstery of it. Snoring beside me now, some fat and scarred cow ‑‑ not what I was in for. Not fair.
In the dark now, in back of Richard’s restaurant, Barbara scratches her rubbery nose with the back of her long bony hand and stares at her father. Daddy loaf. He used to beat her. He beat her because she was ugly. He used other excuses: she was stubborn and she was lazy and she was perverse and she was undisciplined. But these were just cover stories.
She remembers the cover stories though, how she’d tried to believe them. They worked some kind of magic, assigning some control to her. In his mind, it was implied –in HIS mind, if she’d only take the reins, she could be thin and glossy and proud. Like a page in Vogue magazine.
Dottie, no doubt is asleep on her back. Her fuzzy head snores loudly beside his cold empty pillow..
Now Barbara gets up from the chair beside Bernhardt’s sick bed, and looks around her at the books and the chessboard, the glass of water on the bedside table, still opaque where his sticky lips had touched it. You’ll die here and she won’t even stick her head in the room, you mean old bastard.
Upstairs Bernadette sleeps with her arms wrapped around a man. He is me. And she is fourteen. That’ll be my erection there, untouched by any but me. No. Now Bernadette rolls over and her thighs are a woman’s. She is screwing Mary Calvacca’s husband. His breath smells like an attic. No: Upstairs Bernadette is lonely. She has never given her sister a second thought.
The funeral is at 10. Mina has been in the car for five minutes but Toby is still in the bathroom. When he comes out, finally, he looks unwell. Since they were not close, were, in fact, estranged, I cannot make sense of this development. I’m fine, he says.
It’s me and Toby in front and Mina with Buster, in back. We take I88 past the Hirschman’s where the redhead swings from the giant tree on the front lawn, her noodle white legs flung wide open toward my whistling ear, past Mary’s where Katelyn crouches in tiny shorts before her upside down bicycle, replacing the chain. We ride past the Dairy Queen and past Richard’s and the house with the dying man in it, past The Redwood Motel where Toby’s red and white sedan glints in the tar-paved parking lot. He is helpless, strapped into the seat beside me, hurtling toward our mother. Mina, Buster, they fade into the background.
The funeral home is a thoroughly upholstered affair, smelling of carpet cleaner and air fresheners. Toby can’t believe I dealt with all this. He, again looks guilty as he marvels at “my strength.” I shake my head in denial, ask the question, finally, that formed itself last night:
— Can you put me up for a while, when this is all over?
He whistles: This? Or This, motioning toward Mina and Buster leaning over the coffin.
Our mother wears a dress, which makes her look like a cake. Nothing is real. Not anymore and not yet.
I’m sounding the walls, is what I tell him; I’m looking for the spots I can break through.
Our mother is holding a rosary, which she never did, in real life. Mina coughs. Toby says sure. and Mina says sure what? and I say nothing.
This is the score. Let’s tally it up: Toby, like Barbara, keeps my secret. So does my analyst. Maybe Bernadette knows; perhaps she did always. How many others will? And when I tell Mina, will she keep my secret? When I go away from Buster, will she tell him why?
Bernhardt’s fist has broken through the plastered walls of the old house. Where we sit now, huddled in this grimy kitchen, his monstrous fist looms hairy and metaphorical over our heads. Bernadette’s sobs are broken and jagged. They catch at the stringy sinews of my neck.
Barbara has taken her car from the drive and is out in the world somewhere, brown cat‑eye glasses glinting in the rearview mirror. Her broken heart is laid out on the table before us on a tiny slip of paper. Bernadette’s is in my two hands. Dottie’s is in storage somewhere. Somewhere in an attic in a cold farmhouse in Bavaria.
Picture it with me now while Bernadette provides the ambient sound: at 7:30. In the back house Barbara finishes squeezing her lavender nose with a matching hanky. She hugs herself and blows all the air out of her lungs. In one hand a leaf‑like piece of paper shivers. When had he written this note? On the back of a prescription, with a whispering grey pencil (fallen now, yellow and broken, eraserless, under the bed) his words have crept like a stranger in the night. Leaving the room, Barbara holds the paper before her and shakes her head at this final insult; strange how paper can hold a heart. Paper is nearly nothing. But here, his handwriting looks like it was produced by a heart monitor. It says to tell Bernadette he’s sorry.
In the restaurant, Dottie wipes the scratchy salt from the checkered tablecovers. They are glued with filth and moldy age to the softened edges of the painted tables. The washcloth she uses smells sour and leaves the table smelling like pickles. Though her mouth is pinched into a small heart-shaped dot, and her cheeks, always red, now blend into the livid fire of her entire pie‑round face; you’d never know the ambulance was coming at any moment to pick up her husband. You’d never know she had a daughter choking with hysterical sobs one room away.
Bernadette is in my arms. Her sobs are like plates and glasses breaking. Outside in the drive I hear the police car arriving and the wide black window is suddenly flooded with light like a glass full to overflowing.