THURSDAY: The Right Pieces

BY LARRY BROWN

This story first appeared in The Fiddlehead. Copyright is held by the author.

GUY KNOWS someone here. Wayne can’t say for sure which one. The fire spits as wood is tossed on.

Guy gives a c’mon with his head. Beneath the floppy bucket hat deep lines crease his cheeks. Wayne takes a drink from his cup.

“Winnipeg?” says a woman behind him, laughing. “Why?”

Wayne follows the dirt path away from the trailer and the lights strung between trees and the crowd of thirty or forty that includes a male mannequin dressed in a bikini and cowboy boots. Ahead of him Guy is a dull orange shirt, as if a faint reflection of the fire. The path drops off.

Guy springs the trunk lid free of the dent. He puts on a flashlight.

“Eh? How about it?”

Tape. Rolls and rolls, electrical, masking, packing, the car trunk filled. Wayne picks up a roll of masking, turns it in his hand. He doesn’t know what to say.

“Tape,” he says.

Off through the trees another camp fire flickers. Wayne can’t recall the car riding with anything more than its normal slouch on the way here. In the time he has known Guy he has yet to see him without the bucket hat. Guy must want the hat to be an obvious habit.

“Not that I’m giving up dealing in stereos or like that, the high end merchandise,” says Guy. “This is my busman’s holiday, boy, a little of the sweet and simple. I can’t name nobody who doesn’t use tape, or nobody who ever stops using tape. It’ll fly out of here.”

He pours himself more gin-loaded cranberry juice — Red Eye, Guy calls the concoction — after giving the bottle a hard shake. It is half Wayne’s money inside that bottle. Guy bounces on the trunk to get the lock to catch. Wayne retrieves the bottle from its private spot under the driver’s seat and gives it a shake of his own.

Then he says, “When Frank Sinatra died they saved his eyes. Those little cards for your wallet? He’d made his out in secret, giving his eyes away. So one day some guy don’t see very well and the next he’s looking at everything with Frank Sinatra’s eyes. Jesus Christ, what goes through your brain if you’re him?”

A lightness comes over Wayne, and not from drinking, he refuses to sell it that cheaply. He wants to believe it has been earned.

***

She treats Nicorette gum like Chiclets.

“Five o’clock,” says Carol, chewing. “All right?”

Sitting on the edge of the bed she plays with the clock. Glowing numbers tumble.

Wayne scratches his stomach. In the room he rents are long, clean curtains, but the curtain rods in her bedroom are bare. Her air conditioner gurgles.

“You’ll be fine dressing without the light and take it easy with the door, don’t force or bang, I can hear every door on this whole floor. Last year an idiot used to ride his bike down the hall like it was the fucking sidewalk.”

Carol shows him the alarm set for five a.m.

“I’ll make breakfast,” says Wayne. “Got eggs?”

“Thanks but Joe gets up early to have his bowls of cereal in front of the TV. Minimum, he’s a year better than his friends sizewise, but I’d better not ever catch him taking advantage of the situation. Protecting himself is different, there’s no rules then. The way Joe eats, if he was any smaller he’d be a lot bigger.”

She puts on a shirt, a man’s, leaves it unbuttoned. Wayne noticed it first at the factory where the temp agency sent a group of them to pack straws, how she talks to a changing spot. It can be as if she is talking to everyone, or no one. At the factory Wayne and Guy snuck boxes of straws out to the car trunk, a trunk emptying of tape much slower than Guy predicted. Wayne may ask Carol if she needs a roll of any kind. Free sample, he’ll say.

“He’s a fisherman then.”

“When?” Carol says to the ceiling.

“Him,” says Wayne, “your son.”

Carol doesn’t answer.

“Because that’s —”

“What about him?”

“–that’s when they’re biting. Early.”

“I don’t get you.”

“He’d catch some, after his cereal. Fishing.”

“Fishing?”

“He’s up early you said. You said he likes to do that.”

“When did I say fishing? I didn’t say anything about fishing. Fishing?”

“Boys do that, they fish. I did. I do. I’m up early, if there’s a reason.”

“Thanks but Joe has plenty of friends. They’re always calling.”

Wayne can get a shower here in the morning before she twigs to what he is up to. What he smells comes from the armpit away from her. A short while ago, he thinks, neither of them had any questions.

Carol drapes her leg over his.

“I’ll try not to wake you,” says Wayne.

“I know you will,” says Carol.

Wayne feels chewing against his shoulder.

***

Standing by the door he finally comes up with the name. Clam diggers. Rope at the waist, calf-length legs. Guy’s pants, including the rope, are a pinkish-red white, as if bled on by other clothes in the wash.

A brick sits on a stack of newspapers. A can of WD-40 oil and a magnifying glass sit on the floor. Nordy sits slumped in the bean bag chair. Wayne won’t sit.

Regularly Wayne clips gray from his temples. He has quit his chest where it is spreading quicker.

Nordy licks and seals the joint, gropes for the lighter. He spills over a pair of yellow satin shorts, most of his weight appearing to have drained into his belly. The rest of him is stringy. Limp. He speaks in a rumble.

Wayne looks through the doorway again. The cat sleeps amongst a clutter of dishes on the counter, its paw in a frying pan. He has not seen a litter box.

By coming here he has made himself part of Guy’s show, an add-on. But by Wayne keeping to himself that he realizes Guy is all show means that Guy goes ignorantly on proving Wayne correct. Day after day, superiority is Wayne’s.

Guy laughs but wearing those clam diggers he isn’t one to be laughing. Yet it is Wayne as the punk statue, posed holding the bag with the two rolls of electrical tape and box of bendable straws for Nordy. If told to leave, then he will sit.

Guy takes the joint from Nordy and folds into himself on the metal chair. A fan rushes the smoke over his bucket hat.

The newspapers stack up to Wayne’s elbow. Who collects newspapers?

In the room he rents the mattress is firm, the dead bolt solid, and no one from any of the rooms cooks cabbage or curry, no one keeps a door open to trap company from the hall. There are the good curtains.

But a car such as the one a week ago is not left unlocked for long, or by mistake, so being finicky and first taking the money out of the appointment book it was tucked inside of would have been the mark of a fool. The flag in the parking meter was up.

Reading the appointment book of a person he will never meet is not violence. He plans to return the book, to take it from the room he rents and put it in a mailbox.

In the appointment book she crosses her sevens to avoid confusing them with her ones. He has come to picture her as tall, fair, with a talent for listening. Tomorrow, according to the book, she meets an Ellen for lunch.

Wayne has not budged from the door. He hears Guy tout the box of bendable straws as if it is the last box in the world and the beanbag chair squeals as Nordy, rumbling, heaves himself around towards Wayne who thinks he smells cat, damp and gamey. He itches.

***

“Further out, Joe.”

Carol motions with the bat. New, narrow sunglasses make her face pointier than Wayne believes it to be, but he likes her in the flip-flops. He peels a slice of ham from the package and dips it in the jar of mustard. They have a strip of green with a picnic table and a barbecue stand, he has decided that next time they will barbecue, and the river is near and, next time, fishable. Traffic noise from the curve of highway overhead butts in less than he expects. All this within walking distance of Carol’s. He takes off his shirt, won’t worry about the gray on his chest. Soon, he will buy shorts.

Out on the strip the boy waits. His loose, sloppy clothes are streaked with names and logos. Wayne recognizes the style.

“Remember,” says Carol, “squeeze the ball.”

“Whack it, honey,” says Wayne, and finishes the slice of ham.

There is lunge in Carol’s swing, and a lateness. The ball peters out in the grass. The boy doesn’t move.

“Hurry, the batter’s going to first base,” says Carol.

The boy’s reply doesn’t reach the picnic table.

“He’s not fast, get him!”

“I told you, I want to practice flies.” The boy swats the air with his glove.

“You’re not concentrating on the what’s what, Joe. Don’t trick yourself like this.”

When the boy does start for the ball, he wears his glove on top of his cap.

“Looks like the other team’s winning,” says Wayne. A swim in the river suits the day, the sun drying what clothes they choose to keep on. Rather than become a concern in the water the boy can stay here. There’s food, cold drinks. He can practice being big for his age.

The boy throws the ball. It lands away from Carol.

“Hey,” Wayne calls, “there used to be a one-armed player. A professional.” He stops, surprised and a little uneasy with how loud he is, even with the traffic overhead. “It’s true,” he says to Carol. “He had this routine with his glove after making a catch. He’d get the glove off . . . first he’d get the ball out.” The details are close. He rubs the corner of the picnic table. “It was almost as slick as if he had both arms. Of course it’d have to be.”

Carol gets rid of the flip-flops and tosses the ball higher. She cuffs a grounder, then two more. Wayne encourages her by not mentioning her mistakes.

“This is a disaster,” says the boy, after the next grounder.

“You think every hit in the game is going to be a juicy fly just to make Joe Kirby a happy boy? I can hit flies, I’ll hit flies, I don’t know where you get off thinking the way you do because it’s not going to be all flies. The ball. Get it. Go, lazy guts.”

“He wants everything his way,” says Wayne. “Don’t give it to him.”

He tries reading what is spray-painted on a standard supporting the highway. It may not be lettering, it may be another logo. He understands, roughly, how a standard does what it does, which makes him the same as most people since most people keep up and keep going by knowing a few of the right pieces. Radio. He can’t explain radio, yet a radio is not strange to him.

“What’s that supposed to mean, everything his way?”

Carol is staring at him, sunglasses pressing into her cheeks as she chews Nicorette.

“What’re you even doing here with us?”

Recently Wayne has discovered her bedroom clock is ten minutes fast and gouging his five a.m.

“Huh? Let’s hear it.”

“Where?” Wayne says, because it is no answer and exactly what he wants to give this voice of hers.

“Do you have one real reason for being here? Because I don’t have one for this anymore, whatever this is.”

Things dart, prick. Wayne does not resist these things.

“Hit to the kid. Do you know what a fly is, for fuck’s sake?”

“You think I won’t do anything in front of him, you think you can get away with threatening me because he’s here.” Carol jabs the bat at Wayne. “Every chance I give you, you shit on.”

Wayne dips another slice of ham, scrapes off some of the mustard.

“Huh yourself,” he says, and takes a bite.

Carol, though, has turned.

“Joe?”

Wayne makes his way over. The boy lies flat on the ground, eyes closed and arms out wide. He is breathing.

“Nudge him,” says Wayne.

“I’m not playing this stupid game, Joe.”

Kneeling, Carol lugs him up into a sitting position. But the boy sinks back to the ground, though not too hard Wayne notices, the moment she releases him. Wayne wants Carol to follow through on her threat. Leave the boy here if he doesn’t quit the act, then he will find out how serious she is.

The next morning on the cool, groggy walk back to his room, Wayne isn’t sure which took up more of the night, sex or arguing. Maybe that isn’t it at all. Maybe it’s the idea that, for them, the one is not possible without the other, not any longer.

***

The show worsens as Guy pretends to be wrestling the newspaper clipping from his wallet, so with his knife Wayne slices open another bundle of telephone books. He loads the books from the back seat of the car into the duffel bag, not into the wheeled cart.

“Been sitting on this, incubating it.” Guy wags the clipping.

Wayne ignores him.

Then he lets himself skim the clipping. A married couple won some money in a lottery. He returns the clipping and grabs telephone books.

“Appreciate what it’s telling you, boy?”

“Friends of yours? Ha, I doubt it.”

“Maybe they are. What do you say then? I bet you say everything a lot different is what.”

“I say look at what you got out of it. A great pile of nothing.”

“And I say three hundred tousand,” says Guy, dropping the h. “Nobody no more pays attention to a tiny three hundred tousand, it has to be a full million to be a splash that’s heard. Give their three hundred tousand six months, like yours truly has, and it’s like it never was news. I bet no noisy alarms for these people, no laser beam eyes. Because look here —”

He snatches a telephone book from Wayne and flips through it. Then he shoves the book back at him, his finger stuck to an open page.

“Since last year’s book they haven’t gone nowhere.”

Wayne sees a hangnail on the finger stuck to the page.

“Perfect strangers to me,” says Guy.

Wayne lifts his duffel bag and wonders again where Guy got the wheeled cart, and if another cart was available but he wasn’t told about it. So far with delivering telephone books, he can only fall behind.

Yet there he is the following night in the passenger seat of the car, in the shadow of a tree down the block from the address. The house is a bungalow, a light at the front door, the third bungalow from the corner, if it isn’t the bungalow next to it, fourth from the corner, no light but a driveway on the opposite side.

“April,” says Guy, hand shielding his mouth, “new roof.”

Wayne draws his arm in from the window. He can feel where the weight of the telephone books pulled on his shoulders.

“May,” says Guy, “a Toyota. Now she has a hers like he has a his.”

Wayne hears crickets. Crickets are his sound of quiet. But it is just bugs in the grass and if something about the sound of quiet seems important then he is likely exaggerating, or misunderstanding himself, and also he cannot believe he is the only one who has tried to make crickets be the sound of quiet. There can’t be anything personal about it, not if it is a copy, even one by accident.

“I took Drummond to get here,” says Guy.

Wayne watches the house.

“Nothing happened on Drummond. But what, eh, if I took Belmont instead?”

“We can’t stay here,” says Wayne, “it looks bad.”

“Maybe a no-brain runs the red on Belmont and crashes me. But me on Drummond, I get no trouble, while over on Belmont the no-brain runs an empty red but for him no trouble neither. You want to know about that kind of luck. You want to count it up and you can’t, but there’s lots of it out there, boy, has to be. The luck you don’t know you have is probably your best luck of all.”

The crickets carry on.

“I don’t know Belmont,” says Wayne.

“Why them?” Guy says into his hand.

“I don’t like what if,” says Wayne. “It’s usually late, so nothing about anything changes, not for real it don’t.”

On the drive back Guy takes Belmont. If he pulls his bucket hat any lower the road will disappear for him, be a blind hiss of tires, so Wayne turns and to himself counts off house numbers, including the ones he can’t see.

***

The curtains, snuck out in his duffel bag, become a credit at a secondhand store. It is not as if he spends much time in the room. At night there he undresses by the thin light from outside and hides his wallet inside his shoe. The sun is not rising as early in the morning.

***

The intercom in her building sizzles at him.

“Who?”

Her voice, however, has never been very clear on the intercom.

“Wayne.” Then he says, “Me.”

“I don’t know any Wayne.” This after a pause.

“I’m glad you’re home,” he says, just the same. “Surprise.”

The woman tells him twice, first through the intercom and then through the space between frame and apartment door, from behind the chain, her lipstick black.

Next he hears it from the recording over the pay phone. Then a live operator can’t, or won’t, locate Carol for him.

“What do you mean?” he repeats, until the operator disconnects him.

***

Foot twisting and hip jutting Nordy flubs the step down yet lands upright on the sidewalk outside The Royal.

Across the street, Wayne stops.

Nordy steadies himself. He undoes his pants and pushes in his shirt, fastening the pants again below his belly, a flap of shirt missed. Then, with almost delicate strokes, he checks if he needs a shave.

Wayne wears shorts. His legs are too stumpy for shorts, his knees crowd his feet. He knew this before but during the actual buying of the shorts he knew it less. He failed to get in his own way. Shorts, he wanted them.

Further along he crosses the road and keeps tailing. The humid air coats his skin. They are not alone on the street. Nordy weaves, coughs.

“Where’s the cat sleeping?” says Wayne.

Now on the stairs up to his apartment, Nordy plants himself back against the wall. He squints down at Wayne on the bottom step.

Wayne has figured it out. The wallet card let Frank Sinatra believe he was getting away with a cheat, because how easily he could die facing the wrong direction, distracted by an uproar, a promise, by something that had nothing to do with him. The wallet card doubled his chances for a proper last look. Frank Sinatra lived better because of the card.

Then the day Guy says, “One suitcase for each of them in her Toyota, boy,” Wayne and his knife meet back up with him at night and at the bungalow, the third from the corner, a basement window gives. The floor inside is further down than either of them expects. Guy picks up his flashlight, clicks it on and off. Wayne tests his ankle, chews his gum.

In the bedroom the curtains are shut and Wayne takes a sports jacket from the closet. It fits large but large is wearable. He searches more. Ties hang in a row on the closet door. On the floor both pairs of shoes have shoe trees.

“At their age, they can’t be an every night in here,” says Guy. “So who of them is it, who begs who with a pretty please? Who dogs who?”

And he sniffs and howls.

Wayne roots through dresser drawers. Clothes scatter. He finds a harmonica and slides it into the pocket of the sports jacket where his knife is. He will learn, he will practice, maybe he is meant to play an instrument.

Then, to Wayne, the scent from the perfume bottle Guy sprays is violet. He imagines a mauve cloud. He dangles a sock drawer by the handle. It seems ridiculous, a drawer named for socks.

Guy lies on the bed, the flashlight aimed straight up from his stomach. He makes a shadow animal on the ceiling. He goes on boasting. He is almost singing.

Wayne’s arm tremors. The boasting chases at him.

He hopes the sports jacket is tweed. Tweed is nice.

“But you see? I’m a winner here too, boy, not just them. I’ll choose what they would like to donate as my share.”

Bright and raw the words leap from Wayne. “I wouldn’t care even if this was your mother’s house.”

“Nobody does this to his mother, nobody who’s not garbage. That’s not me.”

The shadow animal yaps its mouth. Or are those wings?

“Not me,” says Wayne.

Only the flashlight jumps from the bed. Guy is slow for his age. The sock drawer has broken on his face.

First, Wayne’s knife hits rib. Without light the bedroom still glistens.

When it is over it is as if he is already there, hovering, waiting, cleanly ahead of himself for the most part. He can’t smell violet.

He showers in the dark with a new bar of soap and decides that Guy’s sister is large like her husband. One of the reasons they stay married, and stay in this bungalow, is because they share a largeness. That, he decides, is their luck. It is a luck they know about.

If they meet Wayne, they will not blame him for what he could not know.

He swallows the gum and gargles with Listerine. He matches clean clothes to the sports jacket, a belt fixing the pants at his waist as he dresses in the hall. His old clothes and the bucket hat go into a grocery bag.

He parks the car. In the rented room his suitcase and duffel bag are packed. That much he planned. His timing, then, at last, is improving. He places a five dollar bill under the room key, for the curtains.

Letting Nordy bumble up into his apartment, untouched, unmarked, eyes still seeing, now that must be worth something too.

10 comments

  1. Charles Pinch

    I like this story but I find it more interesting for how it is told than what is being told. Although I’m not sure what’s happening in it — there are densities and opacities that may very well be, and probably are, intentional — this story is a closer approximation of reality than many a conventionally told tale. In place of a ‘narrative arc’ I like the way the story progresses through a series of scenes that we seem to enter into mid-point — we are not told what happened before or what happens directly after. Each scene is self-contained and jived together they have something of the scatter-shot effect of Don Delillo’s writing, say, in the astonishing ‘Underworld’ (1997). Overlapping sequences shift information back and forth like a marble moving through a slot machine and the disjointed style plays on our minds impressionisticly: we get fleeting glimpses, blurred contours and meaning without elaboration. Why is Wayne wearing pink clam diggers? What is the nature of his relationship with Carol? And what really is going on here with those straws and duct tape? As in reality (as we move through our day) sense data is retrieved by our brain in dots and dashes, we hear part of a conversation, we see the red stoplight clearly but barely notice the passerby on the sidewalk. Events in the story effect a kind of moment to moment consciousness that is directed outward rather than internalized (as in stream of conscious). So I think ‘The Right Pieces’ is a good approximation. There are lots of nice things happening here. The character of Carol is vital and inflected; the dialogue is tremendously convincing, there are some wonderful images — my favourite is the sleeping cat with one paw in the frying pan and the bone-spare prose is written with a pretty handsome confidence. So do I think it’s perfect? No. There are annoying lacunae with respect to ‘plot’ (I mean, what the f*** is going on here?) and if this is intentional, it reflects negatively against the work. But I can live with it for the reasons stated above. This is literary fiction and its satisfactions fall outside the parameters of the traditionally narrated story. Those too can be satisfying when written at the top of their form, but regrettably, many are not. “The Right Pieces”, as I see it, is an interesting and welcome change here.

  2. JAZZ

    Charles,
    Seriously, If you ever decide to teach a course on Literature Appreciation, please let me know…! But to my point: Given, in your excellent critique on this rather unusual story, YOU find connective pieces missing and a wobbly plot at best, can other readers be blamed for scratching their heads?
    There’s clever, difficult, different outside the box writing that stretches the reader and rewards them for their efforts — that’s if they hang in.
    I had some trouble hanging in here, not because I was plodding through the piece, but simply because I grew bored.
    I did wonder, at the end, if it was a vanity piece as in …look at me I’m so clever.

  3. Frank Sikora

    Interesting take, Charles. Yet, if a writer is going to take me down a literary stream-dream of poetic consciousness, he or she better be one mother of a guide. Unfortunately, halfway through this poetic morass, I abandoned said guide and fled home. Keep your insights coming sir. I do love and learn from them.

  4. Charles Pinch

    JAZZ,
    Thanks for the compliment, if I do, I will. And I want YOU to sit at the front of the class. Levity aside, I don’t think the story was entirely successful for the reasons, you, Frank and myself have indicated. At the same time, and in fairness to the author — because I really don’t know what was intended in this story and what wasn’t (hopefully he may join the discussion), I was drawn into it for reasons of style and craft. But I can understand how this would not interest everyone and yeah, you were right to scratch your head, I did too a couple of times. I don’t however see this as a ‘vanity piece’ at all. Clever? Most assuredly. Insightful? I think so. But to me it had the ring of authenticity that strikes a real chord and there was a psychological soundness to the way the characters interacted that you probably wouldn’t encounter if it was all just artifice. Also, on a personal level, as a writer myself, I just found it to be beautiful prose….’In the room he rents the mattress is firm, the dead bolt solid, and no one from any of the rooms cooks cabbage or curry, no one keeps a door open to trap company from the hall. There are the good curtains.’…I love this. Anyway, keep the faith, my friend, it’s wonderful having this exchange with you.

    FRANK
    Well, at least you got half way, that’s probably more than most here. This story, as published, had its faults, but even perfect it wouldn’t work for everyone. The nice thing about this forum is that we can share these thoughts. And thanks for the compliment.

  5. Connie Cook

    I guess the good thing about your story is that it has created a lot of chatter. As for me I was “dazed and confused” trying to read it.

  6. Larry Brown

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Few things. Character is plot and the story is told through Wayne’s p.o.v., so the structure, language, rhythm, etc., all of it reflects Wayne’s take on what happens. The story is not an attempt to be clever. My aim is to always be true to the story, to what it does and doesn’t need. Challenging the reader is not a bad thing, if that is one of the end results of being true to the material. The notes you don’t play are as important as those you do, to steal a quote from Miles Davis.

  7. Charles Pinch

    I have championed the merits of this story and I still do and character is plot but I feel nevertheless there are instances where it is too vague: there are lots of notes you can’t play (and I favour stories where they aren’t played) but you have to play some and they have to count. I’ve just finished reading Stephanie Freele’s story ‘In the Kitchen She Wakes’ (Smokelong Quarterly) and while there is more, way more unsaid, what remains fulfills and clarifies without explanation or rationale. She maintains an exquisite and satisfying and frustrating balance between the two without ever comprising the integrity of the story. I was impressed and then some by your flash fiction on this site, especially ‘Stadium’. Hope to read more of your fine work in future,

  8. Michael Joll

    “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” (Elmore Leonard). “I just write the damn story.” (Tom Clancy). Advice I live by when I write. But then, I write stories, not literature. I believe there is a difference. Thanks to Charles, Frank and Larry for their interesting takes on the story and their explanations. And to JAZZ, as always for her acerbic pith.

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