BY LARRY BROWN
Copyright is held by the author.
“ARE YOU ALONE?”
“Let me turn down the radio.”
Jack sticks the phone to his chest. The curtains are drawn but sunlight cuts the wall. On the television a man holds up a frying pan and people applaud. Jack motions to the girl. She glides to the far end of the couch, taking the remote with her. He grabs for it, straining the phone cord, but with her bare foot she fends him off, blocking, swatting his hand, smiling to the television. She is the most flexible person he has ever met.
“There,” he tells his mother, “volume off.”
“You’re like me, Jack, we like our radio. I don’t understand the hoopla over these computers.”
“How’s the hip? Your hip, is it–”
“My hip was a month ago.”
“Hips,” says Jack, “are like that.”
“But so,” and then she does it, patters out one of her dry coughs. “I thought I should be the one to tell you this.”
“This time of day, you almost didn’t catch me in. It’s daytime, right?”
“Soon, I’m afraid you won’t answer when I call.”
“I’m fine,” says Jack.
His mother tells her version of the situation. Jack flicks the phone cord with his finger. He tastes peanut butter.
He interrupts. “How do you know for sure he has?”
“Because I didn’t get up this morning intending to make something like this up. That’s a horrible attitude, Jack, fixing it in your head that no one other than you speaks before thinking.”
Jack gathers the crumbs on the coffee table into a line. He brushes the line to the floor.
“Neither of us, your father included, wants it coming to this. Your father will admit that himself. Blame is not our style, we’re beyond that.”
Jack says, “I wish they’d make a cordless phone that doesn’t need a battery. They make everything else.”
“Somebody should figure it out, they’d get rich. Battery-free? Hey, count me in.”
“Jack, will you go over there?”
Jack’s reply comes quicker, and easier, than he believes it should. He is not surprised. He looks at the floor.
“But be firm with him,” says his mother.
After Jack hangs up, the girl changes the channel. The remote is pinched between her feet. She eats a pretzel.
“Never mind,” says Jack, getting up.
The driveway to the house is empty. Jack parks across the street, goes up onto the side veranda and knocks at the aluminum door anyway. It is locked.
He opens one of the lawn chairs folded against the wall, for no reason he positions the chair so he can see the front end of his car. He sits, reaches out his foot, tags the spindle railing. The driveway has an oil stain. He can say he waited. He can be generous with the part about how long.
Jack starts in the chair. The haze lingers. He has been dozing.
In the driveway his father stands at a car door.
“Set another spot for supper,” he says, loudly.
Jack curses himself.
“Dar,” says his father, “it’s Jack. Jack’s here and made himself right at home.”
At the driver’s side Darlene shields her face from the sun, she wears a wide-brimmed hat. Her gold slacks and blouse shimmer. She flattens a dandelion with her cane, grinds it into the ground.
“That’s you across the street,” his father behind the car now, with a shovel, “that’s you advertising your arrival on the scene.”
“Got those chairs on sale,” another skimming step brings Darlene to the railing up to the veranda, “end of the season last year. But go in the early part of any season and there are the crowds, buying precisely when the stores would have them buy, taking on the full sticker price and making a smorgasbord of excuses about why they have to have what they think they have to have right that very second. That,” says Darlene, “is how inflation works, it’s mostly voluntary.”
“A shovel isn’t a rake, Dar.”
“Wait till the sale tags of November.”
“Not shovels,” says Jack’s father.
“My, it’s a lovely day,” says Darlene. “We have too few of these.”
“This shovel is a first-rate purchase, it’s smart and fair. Fair is not always cheap, Dar, keep that in mind.”
Jack folds up the lawn chair, his head clearing.
“I went prepared to be like everyone else and spend more than I should,” says Darlene. “That is what’s different in this case.”
“It’s settled then.” Jack’s father bites one end of his moustache. His face is stubbly gray and the sleeveless sweatshirt he has on barely reaches his waist.
“What did Susie tell you?” says Darlene.
“I don’t know,” says Jack.
Darlene speaks to a place beside him, “She’s not about to invite a stranger into the house and offer the deluxe tour. She’s practical, and I don’t mean she’s nervous.” Darlene hooks her cane over the railing at the back of the veranda.
“Aloha, stranger.” His father grips him by the arm and Jack does what he can to not react. He has inches on his father.
Then Jack says, “I can’t stay till supper.”
Jack clamps a hand down onto his father’s shoulder. “Though maybe I can.”
“Maybe you will.”
They hold onto one another. His father’s moustache is fuller than the last time Jack saw him, it bushes over his lip.
“Roger, I’ve changed my mind and decided. We’ll put it there, where the fence can help frame it. If I have to trek into the yard anytime I want to enjoy the garden, I’m going to enjoy it that much less. As for you, Jack,” says Darlene, “I’m curious.”
To Jack, neither of them feels to be the first to let go. They haven’t, and then, his father’s stubbly face retreating, they have. Jack resists the urge to look at his arm for marks. He should leave, he really should, and might yet, though it’s unlikely. Not without following instructions, collecting his father.
“Are you a gardener, Jack? Can that be listed as a hobby of yours?” The wrinkles in the back of Darlene’s shiny blouse seem to move on their own. “I’m going on a hunch, and if it’s a whim, why, no one’s keeping score. Roger hasn’t spilled any beans. I’m not asking you to repeat what I already know so we can claim we chitchatted when it was nothing of the sort. And, Roger, do let him speak.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Me?” says Jack.
Then Darlene calls, “Hello, Bruce,” and waves.
In the next yard a man with an armful of brush turns in the wrong direction.
Jack says to his father, “The thing you did with old tinfoil, you made a ball. It got pretty big.”
“That’s not a hobby.”
“It was a lot of tinfoil. Where’d so much come from?”
“She needs an answer from you.”
“How about this. I garden all I want to.”
“That wasn’t too difficult, was it,” says Darlene. “We can label it my hunch then.”
“That’s our Dar.” Jack’s father leans on the shovel, the waistband of his boxer shorts appearing where the sweatshirt rides up. He looks tired.
“Do you have a question for me, Jack, since I already went and did it to you? Rather boldly, I might add.”
“Hello all right,” calls the man in the next yard.
Yet when no one mentions it Jack figures he must be in on it alone: the large woman stands at the aluminum door, inside a faint reflection of the veranda that includes Jack and his leaning father. She mouths something to him, her eyes narrowing.
“Who’s Susie?” says Jack.
Then Darlene says, “There’s Susie.”
“Nothing,” she says.
Jack is thirsty.
“Exactly what we need to do right now,” she says, “is noth-ing.”
Jack is hungry.
“I don’t have to explain why to you,” she says. “Or do I?”
Jack looks out his window. He is more thirsty than hungry. But he wouldn’t turn down food.
“You going to leave the engine running?” she says.
Susie reclines her seat. The seat reclines only one notch but she continues jerking the handle, continues pushing and rocking back, sighing. Jack’s seat trembles.
“I’m going to leave the engine running,” he says.
Soon he wonders if she has fallen asleep. He is supposed to be taking her to the train station so she can exchange her ticket for one back to Kingston tomorrow, days earlier than she planned to go back. But here they are, pulled over to the curb, also just as she asked. Jack has time. How much of his time does this woman think she can monopolize.?
She wears a cape. Silk scarves. A long billowy dress. He smells felt. He didn’t realize he knew how felt smells or even that felt has a smell yet there it is. A smooth, quiet smell.
“I’ve forgotten your name,” says Susie, eyes closed.
After a moment Jack tells her.
“When I don’t hear my name in return, Jack, I don’t forget what I didn’t hear.”
Pink, Jack has heard, or read, begins returning to lungs the day smoking is quit, and he doesn’t smoke but the idea of a returning pink is stubborn and appealing and nearly promising enough to start smoking though he would rather the actual sick stinky smoking part not be involved but he does like the idea of pink. That pink is something. He has his doubts about it.
“Americans,” he says.
He swipes at dust on the dashboard.
“Ask anybody,” he says. “Ask them, Americans, yes or no? Not the TV shows, not the sports teams. The people. Like them, yes or no?”
Calling her by name now will label him as eager.
“I mean, is Heaven run by a bunch of flipping monkeys?”
His arms are conducting.
“Let me screw this into my head. Detroit. Detroit, as in midwest. That’s what Americans call it, the midwest, there’ll be big highway signs and Baptist marching bands, which means they’re telling me Windsor is the midwest, because according to my map and everyone else’s, it’s right there, Windsor is, right across the bridge. Windsor? Midwest my heinie, at Detroit and Windsor both countries have barely gotten going but look, the Americans are broadcasting that they’re already way out in front.”
Jack glances over. Her eyes are still closed.
“Americans,” he says, “deserve whatever they get.”
Susie opens her eyes and her door. “I need a treat. You’ll wait?”
“There won’t be a single honest cowboy hat anywhere in Detroit. That’s all I’m saying.”
The smell of felt fades from the car.
Susie fans herself, hair wisping. For her treat from the convenience store Jack expected something chocolate, or two. Not a paper fan.
“Sure, I’ve been married,” he says, without being asked.
The girl, who may still be folded up on his apartment couch, TV channels blinking, doesn’t know this about him.
From the last lane, the only other one in use, comes a crash and inside the crash a wonderful thoink. Then a bulky silence settles in.
Jack picks up another ball. He wants a thoink too. Thunder Bowl is built for noise.
“Woo woo,” Susie cheers from the bench.
“Hey hey, look out for me.”
“Get tough on that arm, Jack, you’re still hooking. And that’s free advice, leave your wallet in your pocket.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not.”
“But listen, I used to be a pin girl.”
“That,” says Jack, “must’ve been some calendar.”
Susie drinks from her cup of vodka and orange pop, her gaze wandering from Jack. A leg stretched out along the bench, an ample calf of black stocking above the green and yellow shoe. He thought she would doff the cape to bowl.
Jack takes his vodka and lemonade from the cup holder, keeping the ball in his other hand. He roams, nodding, his heels slide in the rented shoes but better that than feet cramped in a smaller, poorly sized pair. Sliding heels cannot be good for his game.
“You’re ending your visit awful quickly,” he says.
“Did you just ask me to stay? Is that where this is headed? Jeepers.”
At the front counter the owner tickles his arm with a straw, talks on the phone. When Jack asked him for shoes he was twiddling the straw in his ear.
“This isn’t my usual day,” says Jack.
“You’re saying it’s quite the day for you,” says Susie.
“Sure,” says Jack, “we can say that.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment. Though it sounds like we can hold off on the fireworks celebration.”
“How’s your drink?”
“Somewhere you need to be?” says Susie.
“Yeah,” says Jack.
Susie jiggles her cup.
“Nowhere,” and Jack jiggles his cup.
“We’re close then,” says Susie. “To another drink, for starters.”
“That hook, that’s not me. I can bowl.”
“But, Jack, I ever tell you I used to be a pin girl?”
“Which month, December?”
The bark of Jack’s laugh knocks him sideways. The ball slips from his hand. He feels it slipping and realizes that down there in the thin, loose shoe is his foot. He makes no wild grab. The ball misses, thumps floor. He laughs.
“Girl, capital P capital I capital N! Pin girl!”
This halts Jack as he is reaching for the ball.
“Where are we, the city of the deaf?” Susie throws her leg from the bench. “I got my hearing away from here just in time, while it was still attached to my brain.”
“Jesus,” she says.
“Je-sus, she repeats, snapping the word out.
Jack straightens. He sets the ball on the track of balls. He can walk out of here and eliminate the day. Gone, done. People tire of chasing down answers. He believes they tire too easily, tire by choice. He knows how he tires.
“Show me,” he says.
Susie doesn’t speak.
“Come on,” he says, “I’m all peeled eyes.”
“You want me to ask what, show what, and give you all the options. But you’ll be the kind who only says things he can take back.”
Jack drinks. A video game whistles and squeals.
“I used to think I kept making the same mistake,” he says. “But after a while it’s not the same thing, not at all. It’s,” and he looks in his drink cup, and a lot of time seems to slant past before he says, “Susie,” and saying the name he wonders if it’s the right name, then thinks he might have said it too softly to be heard anyways, and then, louder, says, “It feels like there aren’t any new mistakes left to be made. Got one you can loan me?”
He wishes she would quit looking at the ceiling. He squirms his heel down into the shoe.
“Show you what?” says Susie, finally.
“Show me how a pin girl works.”
A corner of her orangey mouth curls up.
“Here’s a memory,” she says. “Usually, there was one comedian a night who wouldn’t let me get quite out of the way after resetting the pins before he fired a ball.”
“I can imagine.”
“No,” says Susie, “don’t.”
Then dress scarves cape she swishes by, again introducing Jack to the smell of felt. If she does say something, (and she would), he can choose what it is later.
Susie walks down the shiny lane, one green and yellow shoe creaking. At the three standing pins she bends to look into where the lane drops off, then steps over to the next lane. With a swoop of her arm she snatches a couple pins and sets them up in their lane. She tweaks the positioning. She starts back.
“That’s it?” says Jack. “That’s everything?”
Susie stops. She slides her feet apart. Then, collecting folds, she draws up her long dress. Her black stockings have red knees.
“Can I trust your aim?” She is not smiling.
Jack selects a ball.
“Don’t hook, Jack.”
The owner is yelling. “You, what the hell!”
Jack readies. He can’t see any of the pins.
The sky is dusking.
“It’s impossible for anyone alive to drive that slowly.”
His father’s voice comes from the yard. Jack looks to the house door the veranda leads to.
“You know how worried Dar was, what was she supposed to think? Plenty, that’s how much, and worry clings to her. How can she know what to expect from you? It’s her daughter.”
“We’re safe,” says Jack, walking into the yard.
Using the new shovel his father digs up a chunk of grassy ground. “It’s not as if she doesn’t care.” He flips the chunk towards one of the many piles of chunks, wipes a hand on the short sweatshirt. “Not Dar,” he says.
“This can’t all be garden. You’re not serious.”
“Tonight seemed like my chance, I don’t need a lot of light.”
One of Jack’s takes on his own situation has her returning with her suitcase from inside the house. In the morning after they check out of the Relax Inn he drives her to Kingston, calling her by name as much as she likes. He believes she was overdoing the limp, and all the stuff on the ride back from Thunder Bowl, but even if they don’t begin talking to one another again they might as well go ahead and rout the night together.
“Get the pitchfork there. Start by the fence and don’t be afraid to invest a little elbow juice. You’re the one who crows about being a gardener, you should be explaining this to me.” His father pokes the shovel at the ground. “Lend your old man a hand, he’s the only one you’ve got.”
Jack walks to the pitchfork. He doesn’t touch it.
“You do the pitchfork thing after you spread the new dirt.” He can’t be that wrong, it’s only dirt.
“The pitchfork, c’mon, it’s getting dark.”
“There’s an order to this,” says Jack.
“That’s right, and if you’re interested in doing half a job then what you do is dillydally like this and when nothing grows you blame the store that sold you the soil and God for being chintzy with His blasted rain. Hallelujah.”
“So with this 15 acres you’re clearing you must plan on coming back here when it’s time to harvest the wheat. I guess that’s what you’re saying, you’re definitely steering in that direction.”
Both of them stop.
The neighbour, and Jack doesn’t try in the least for a name, has turned up at the fence. He is holding a small propane tank.
He says, “Yes, you’ve gone all the way up to the fence with your digging. Darlene, of course, should be fully aware of how water drains from her yard to mine, but just as long as all of us are up to speed on that.”
Jack has a flutter in his chest. He recognizes it. His father ignores the man. On this, Jack agrees with him. They wait out the intrusion, which trails off.
Jack aims for the veranda.
His father flicks dirt at him.
“Here I go.”
“You do the pitchfork when you’re supposed to do the pitchfork and not before and not now,” Jack tightens the headlock, the thick gray mess of hair, his father grunts, yanks Jack’s shirt punches his leg, Jack kicks through dug-up ground and his father stumbles but the headlock keeps him up, a punch then hits the button on Jack’s pants and immediately Jack is convinced his father meant to drill it in lower, cold and blunt, and won’t miss a second time and Jack saying, “I shouldn’t be doing this, what’re you doing,” tucking punches under and up, through moustache.
They aren’t struggling anymore.
“Okay, Jack,” his father says, muffled, “okay.”
But the entire waiting room is not the same. Down near the woman wearing the housecoat and sweatpants, the cougher, the wall colour changes. More blueish.
“What time is it?” says his father.
“It’s never fast at this place,” says Jack.
Or it’s a trick of the angle and lighting, the change in wall colour is.
“I don’t have a handle on how they decide here,” says his father.
“A bullet wound, a stroke, there’s no question.” His father continues to talk in a low voice. “But where do they draw the line and say that anything less severe than that line waits its turn? You can die from a concussion and not have a mark showing.”
“You don’t have a concussion,” says Jack.
His father crosses, uncrosses his arms. A stale smell comes off him. The waiting room itself smells like mouthwash.
Earlier on the muted television here rubber ducks floated by beneath the newscaster, each flying a banner with the name and age of a celebrity having a birthday. At his apartment they help one another, filling in details about the celebrities the other person is vague on, and not always because of the age. Hurry it’s the ducks, the girl calls if Jack is out of the room. She plays at being concerned. He used to count on being able to do the same himself. For now, she lets herself be distracted by him.
“I didn’t expect to have a son taller than me. Not even when it was happening.”
“That sweatshirt doesn’t fit you,” says Jack.
“I didn’t buy it.”
“Leave anything over there you have to pick up?”
“Nothing that’s an emergency.”
Jack pats his shirt where the button is off. The woman coughs.
“You still pray?” says his father.
“No,” says Jack. “You?”
“Only when I can do it without lying.”
Jack looks over. The bleeding has stopped and, from the side, the nose doesn’t appear crooked.
“Me too,” he tells his father.