The Habit of Toothpicks

Bill knows that his wife Pamela really wants more than anything not to care what anybody thinks.

“She’s a bitch,” says Pamela, “no way am I leaving her a tip.”

And he knows that just when you begin to think she believes these words, before you can enjoy her eccentric character, she lets her eyes drift around the room to see if anyone is looking or listening. When she does that, you know she’s just an actress. She cares what you think, so you don’t think much.  It’s like she becomes part of the background noise, a piece of clutter. She’s not even a face in the crowd. She’s just the crowd.

Her name is not Pam, it’s Pamela. Never call her Pammy.

He’s not quite old enough to be her father, but he knows she sometimes tells people he is. “He’s kind, in a quiet sort of way,” he hears her tell everyone eventually.

“She humps like a bunny,” says Bill to the boys at the shop, which is more than he usually says to her in an evening. Now, he tries not to look at her too long. She’s in one of her moods. Shit, she’s always in one of her moods. He begins to feel the pressing walls of the restaurant, the windows growing thicker. The table moves closer, pinning him in.

The waitress brings his biscuits and gravy. She’ll be right back with Pamela’s waffles.

“We can use our Stealth Bomber if we want to,” says Pamela’s son who is ten and not eating breakfast. He rarely eats anything. “The President can always send in the Stealth Bomber.”

“The President’s an asshole,” says Pamela, and then searches the room.  Her words begin no deeper than her throat. She contradicts herself a dozen times every day; if she thinks of them at all, she must think of her lies as pretending.

She frowns. “Where are the strawberries?”

“You wanted strawberries with that?” asks the waitress.

Pamela pretends. “No, no, never mind. It’s okay.”

The waitress doesn’t roll her eyes, but her arms are crossed. According to Reader’s Digest, she is either giving herself a comforting hug or fending off an enemy.

“I’ll get you some strawberries,” she says.

“Oh, great,” says Pamela, and this is the first thing she’s said in some time without looking to see if anyone is listening.

     In her daydreams, Pamela is a Country Western singer and speaks candidly with a talk show host. She feels her thoughts swimming in profound waters.

     “What I really believe in is individuality,” she says. “I believe you should just be yourself.” Her eyes do not drift to the side.

     “What a powerful and moving statement,” says the talk show host.

Pamela leans toward him, as if to whisper, but her voice is as invasive as ever. “Doesn’t our waitress remind you of that barmaid, Alice, over at the Silverado, the way she wears her hair in a ponytail, trying to look so young?”

He doesn’t answer. Alice is the owner of the Silverado and hosts an annual talent show. Pamela has entered four years running and never even placed. He remembers not to look at her. She’d be scowling, drumming her fingers, trying to think of something to say, something to get a reaction out of him. He continues to ignore the pain he’s been ignoring since before sunrise when it woke him. He glances at the ceiling. It is descending slowly.

Pamela’s son is drawing a battle scene on the back of a paper place mat and making war noises. He had gone by himself to ask the cashier for a pencil. His name is Thomas, but you can call him Tommy when his mother’s not around.

“Thanks, hon,” Pamela says when the waitress delivers her strawberries.

     In her daydreams, she wears all black except for her cowboy boots which are dyed white snake-skin.

I’m really a fairly shy person,” she says. “Singing and being on stage is like therapy for me. It beats paying a shrink.”

     The host chuckles, the co-host lets out a hearty laugh, and the comedian who was on before her nods approvingly.

When he finishes eating, Bill gets up and walks over to the cash register to get a toothpick. The dispenser is empty. He asks for one and waits patiently while the hostess goes to find more. Patience is something he has in reserve. He knows this to be virtue, but he isn’t quite sure what a virtue is or how he can cash in on it. The toothpick pacifies him some, but as he walks past the doors of the restaurant he hears them lock and the air being sucked from the room. He feels like he’s breathing through a pinched straw. To avoid looking at Pamela, he looks at the floor. The carpet is a dark shade of orange or a reddish brown. He can’t remember what the color is called.

“Is that gravy any good?” asks Pamela as he sits down. She’s finished her waffles and wants the one biscuit he didn’t eat.

He wants to say go to hell. “Fine, help yourself,” is what comes out. He looks over at her plate and wishes he hadn’t. She didn’t touch her strawberries.

Thomas has finished drawing and instead of making a paper airplane he’s making a paper helicopter, something he learned from a library book.

     Because they never got along, Pamela always tries to say something positive about her mother during the talk show.

     “My mother,” she says to the host, “was a character, but a very good cook. Even though we didn’t have much money, we always had a good meal on the table. She was very creative with food.

Pamela forces out a loud, husky sigh. “You’re not going to leave that woman a tip, are you?” He has his wallet out.

One of the many things she’s never noticed about him is that he always leaves a generous tip. Of course, she doesn’t know about his first love, a waitress in his hometown. She worked at the diner where he picked up the habit of toothpicks. Her hair was long and deep red, almost brown. She wore a ponytail.

Their love had been what a nineteen-year-old might deserve from love: naive, frightening, and overwhelmed with laughter. They made love quietly, in the dark, with the windows open to summer. Her small gasps and desperate grip on his arms spoke more than Pamela’s wild moaning ever could.

“I don’t even know where Vietnam is,” she said, when he told her he’d been drafted.

Bill went off to war, and Carolyn died in a car crash on a winter road.

When he got the news, his insides collapsed and then vanished. He doesn’t believe they ever returned.

“I wouldn’t leave her a tip,” says Pamela, loud enough for the waitress and surrounding tables to hear.

Thomas has already made his way over to the bubble gum machine where he is spending money from his paper route on jawbreakers and a miniature yo-yo.

“Shut up, Pamela,” he says. But he’s not sure she can hear him. His voice sounds far away. The table has started to rise and is pushing against his chest. It’s very difficult to breathe. He tries to stand, bending over because the ceiling is so low, and the pain is so loud. Someone is speaking to him, touching him. He swats at the hand, afraid to look for a face. Don’t look, he remembers. He can hear his breath against the windows. They’re too damn close. The sun is too bright. There is a scream and there is falling. He doesn’t know which comes first.

He watches a kaleidoscope of movement, his cheek pressing hard against the floor. Was it the scream or the fall that came first? This is the only thought to occupy his mind until the last one, when he remembers the color of the carpet.

diner_toothpick

The Monkeys and Who 1997

There’s a dog sitting on the sidewalk near the door of the Fahrenheit coffeehouse. A big dog. Doggie dog. Tom is not a dog person. Not even a little. As he slides quarters into the parking meter, he looks at the German Shepherd. A big German Shepherd with ears. Ruff! Dogs know, damn it, that he’s not a dog person and they resent it. They bully him.

Dogs know that Tom is a coward deep down in his weepy little heart. Oh, Dog. He doesn’t notice anyone else having trouble with the pooch, all tongue and slobber. He worries: slobber on my suit. The dog is laughing at him. He leads with his wrist. Here dog. Pheromone check, yes? See. Not a bad man. Not a danger to myself or others. Smell my hand and do your doggie calculations. Fear, minus intent, equals: pass on by. Coffeehouse sentry. Grrrr! He’s clean. Let him through.

 

The air conditioning inside the coffeehouse is like a prize. And the winner…boy oh boy that cool air feels good. He was starting to sweat and that wouldn’t really work because he’s meeting someone and she…kiss, kiss. Right! In his dreams.

Tom spots Ruth. He spies her and takes a gander. She is sitting in the corner writing. Writing what? Her hand scoots across the page in a Morse code rhythm: The party of the first part…The party of the second. No. It’s all computer templates now, yes? Of course. Tom always wanted to be lawyer, but he never went to law school and this, then, is what happens. You don’t become a lawyer. Oops! Tom went, instead, to the ICC Technical Institute. The hallowed halls of a converted grocery store where he learned to turn tiny tiny screws with itty bitty screw drivers. Oh, and more importantly, he learned to write computer code. The secrets of the universe, yes? This was, everyone remembers, at a time when people who graduated from technical schools like ICC went on to become customer service technicians for IBM. He could look forward to repairing computerized cash registers or servicing sections of giant main frames that read time cards and spit out payroll checks.

But then came (hold on) the computer boom. Boom! And Tom’s know-how was needed elsewhere…needed everywhere. Fast and in a hurry. He was on the inside. Turns out—who would have guessed—Tom had more than a knack for this sort of thing. Ground-floor shares. Ground-floor millionaire. One wealthy hombre.

Of course, Ruth isn’t one to be impressed by money…is she? She’s pretty, that’s all. When she looks up from her work and smiles, Tom pulls out a dagger and slits his own throat. Not really. Joke! She doesn’t give him a hug. They’re not that sort-of couple. Actually, they’re no couple at all. Strictly business. A business affair. Anything beyond a handshake would be, well, unprofessional, inappropriate, and other multi-syllable words. Wouldn’t it? Ruth is his…or, one of his lawyers. She is not house counsel, but a hired gun. Bang! Take that. It’s the truth. She is here to help him sell his huge little company: RamDex. Everybody has heard of his company and nobody really knows what it does. It’s technical.

Tom left his second ground-floor millionaire job to start RamDex. Those were the days, everyone remembers, when you had to make an effort to screw up in the computer industry. And every day that RamDex made money, he felt like an impostor. This is my manufacturing plant? This is my loading dock? This is my office with a view of the bay? How did I get here? Come on. What’s the joke? Am I on candid camera?

“Sorry I’m late,” says Tom.

“Oh, no problem, just going over my notes.” Ruth smiles again. “They serve soup here. Soup with a roll, I think. I know you probably didn’t get a chance to eat.”

“Soup? Soup sounds good.” He hangs his jacket over the chair.  “I’ll be right back, then.”

Will you marry me? Right! Not a chance. He walks up to the counter to order. The girl at the cash register has a nose ring, a pierced eyebrow, and about—

“Nine,” she says, when she sees him looking at her ears. “Nine ear rings, one nose, one eyebrow, tongue, bellybutton, and one unmentionable.”

“Oh.”

“Do you want to order?”

“Please, yes…uh, what’s the soup?”

She points without looking to a sign behind her. “Split pea, no ham.” She sort of turns and bends a little as she says this, like she’s dancing.

“Hmmm. Split pea. You know, I can’t remember ever having split pea soup, exactly.”

The girl shifts her weight, brushes her hair back, and ponders the ceiling. She chews her gum furiously, but without malice. “Tastes like chalk,” she says.

“What?”

“Tastes like chalk to me. I mean, don’t get me wrong or anything. It’s good.”

“Well, then…give me the chalk soup.”

She walks down to the end of the counter and starts to ladle out his soup. “Anything to drink?” she asks.

“Iced tea, thanks.”

As she hands him his change, her face suddenly lights up. She takes a postcard sized announcement from a stack near the tip jar and hands it to him.

“This is my band,” she says, “Monkey Tongue.”

Tom turns the postcard around in his hand.

“We’re playing Friday night at the place next door, the bar upstairs.”

He looks at the postcard, which reads: The Bar Upstairs Presents Monkey Tongue.

“Monkey Tongue,” he says. “Wow.”

“Yeah, we cover the Monkees.”

Tom pictures a giant cotton sheet bubbling like water on the stage as the monkeys underneath try and escape. Eeek! Eeek!

“You know,” she adds. “That’s your generation, right? The Monkees? ‘Hey hey, we’re the Monkees…’”

Tom remembers. “Right, right. The Monkees, sure. Junior high school. Mickey, Peter and whatever. Yeah, I watched that show.”

“Yeah. Their music is really cool, but we play our own stuff too.”

“Do you sing?”

“Back up. I’m the bass player.” She breaks into an air guitar riff.

“Well, maybe I’ll drop in. I haven’t heard live music in a long time.”

“Cool, yeah. Bring your friends. It’ll be nostalgic and everything.”

“Right.”

He puts the postcard in his shirt pocket and he carries his soup back to the table. Ruth doesn’t look up this time, but keeps writing. “You know, Tom, I honestly don’t think you could have picked a better time to sell RamDex.”

He has the impostor feeling. Poser! “Really? Well, it just feels like time, I guess. I don’t think it’s been much of a strategic thing.”

“Well, whatever your motivation, now is the time. We’re beating them back with a stick. You’re the belle of the ball.”

But his success doesn’t interest him. Luck. The right place at the right time. Pow!

“You know,” he says, “I think I’ve already sold the company emotionally. It feels like a done deal. I don’t feel invested.”

Ruth laughs. “Oh, you’ll be invested, all right. It’s part of the package we’ve put together.”

“God, more money. It’s all gotten sort of silly.”

Ruth looks up from her papers. She frowns. “So start a foundation or something. We can strategize for the guilt factor if that’s an issue.”

The guilt factor. If only guilt was a factor. He isn’t sure he knows how to feel guilty when it comes to business. A faker? Yes. But, guilt? Guilt is reserved for those who act out of intention. Tom is a walking reaction, a living pinball. Bing! Bong! Whir! He just keeps racking up the points.

“Maybe,” he says. “A foundation might be interesting.”

“Have you given any more thought to what you might do once we’ve put this thing to bed?” she asks.

He’s getting some rare eye contact from her. Is this a personal question? No. She’s fishing for more business, exploring future opportunities. Good for her. Go get ‘em Ruth.

“Well, honestly, I haven’t given it a lot of thought. But I’m sure I’ll end up needing a lawyer or two somewhere down the line.”

“I’ve got to admit, Tom, having you and RamDex as a client has given our firm some prestige here in the valley. The truth is, your name has brought us additional business we might not have picked up otherwise.”

Impostor. Whenever he reads his name in the newspaper or a trade publication, he feels detached, out of body. That is some other Tommy Eisner he is reading about. He prefers they talk about RamDex. RamDex, he likes to think, is the company he works for.

“I think you do great work,” he says. “It’s been my pleasure to recommend you when I can.”

All business. Next on the agenda. Move along. The soup does taste like chalk. Good chalk, though. Green, green. He keeps adding salt. He waits for Ruth to get down to it, and she does. While he dips his roll into the split pea, squeezes lemon into his tea, chews his ice, Ruth fills him in on the offers. Crunch! She details the subtle differences between them. Some are just fat cash offers. Others come with less cash, but are adorned with interesting perks and opportunities which should be considered over the long run.

Ruth’s voice rises and falls with the steam of the espresso machine. Her words fade into the background as he focuses on her teeth. Great teeth.

He realizes she’s paused and it’s his turn to say something, give her his feedback. Now would be the time to say: I’m Batman. If he was Batman. She’s worked hard on this whole thing and her face is all confidence and anticipation.

“Remember the Monkees?” he says.

“What?”

“You know. ‘Here we come, walking down the street…’ The Monkees.”

“Well, I know who they are, or were. I mean, I guess that’s a little before my time, but I’ve seen reruns. So…you want to finance their next reunion tour or something?”

Ha. Funny. Good. He laughs. Of course not. But the idea of doing something a little nutty with all his play money does appeal to him. He’d like to do something where success wasn’t really the point. Or, at least, success measured by numbers wasn’t the point.

“No,” he says, “it’s just that…well, the girl at the counter, she’s in a band, a rock band or…and they play Monkees music, Monkees songs. It’s a revival or tribute thing, I guess. I don’t know.”

He pulls the postcard from his pocket and hands it to her. She takes a deep breath and looks at it. She’s summoning up her patience. He’s seen her do it before and he imagines she assumes he likes to test her on occasion. She might tell herself that this is how it is with powerful people. They test you, gauge your reactions to things so they know how best to use you. People in business think these things, he knows. They are always looking for ulterior motives, hidden agendas, who controls the most variables, who is in the loop, and what do people mean by what they say. Poof!

“Huh,” she says, and hands the card back.

He looks down at the band’s logo. It’s a spoof on the Rolling Stone’s logo, using a monkey’s mouth. Apart from the name, the logo wouldn’t make much sense. He’d done the original RamDex logo himself, a profile of a human head opened like a box lid on hinges with a floating spool of tape snaking down into it. Eventually, they hired a high-end design boutique in San Francisco to design a new one. They came up with a cube spinning on one corner. They said it represented both speed and order. Well, speed and order. What more could you ask for in this business. Hooray!

“Tom?” Ruth looks expectant.

“Sorry. Tell me, what do you recommend?”

“At this point, almost any one of these deals looks good to me. Your people will be taken care of, which I know is your priority. The offers we didn’t like were eliminated weeks ago.”

“Still, tell me which one you favor?”

“Me?” She flips through a few pages, but he knows she is stalling somewhere between her mind and her gut. Tick! Tock! She closes the file and looks up. “Take the money and run.”

 

Ruth stopped reading the proposal summary in front of her to watch Tom. He was standing in front of the coffeehouse, offering the back of his hand to a German Shepherd. The dog sniffed his hand briefly and then looked away, uninterested. But Tom remained stooped over, his arm outstretched. He didn’t try to pet the dog. What was he waiting for? Finally, straightening up, he walked into the coffeehouse.

He was, she thought, nice looking in the way that money can only improve. That’s not to say it was his money that made him attractive. It’s just that he was always wearing a nice suit. He always had a nice hair cut and expensive glasses. She imagined he could look sort of awful. Like me, she thought, he isn’t a natural beauty. Good grooming can never be overrated.

As he looked around for her, she went back to her work. Best to look busy. It had occurred to her that these sorts of moves were not needed with Tom, but these habits were as old as her first homework assignment. She was a little worried that her suggesting they meet in such a casual atmosphere might have been a bad idea. But when she looked up and read the smile on his face, she decided her instincts had been right. She guessed that conference tables and battalions of lawyers were exactly what he was trying to leave behind.

Keeping with the casual theme, she suggested he try the soup. As he stood at the counter she allowed herself to check him out. Though she knew it to be an unreasonable notion, she couldn’t help but imagine that men with nice butts would be good in bed. Tom, she decided, would be good in bed, assuming, of course, he wasn’t still a virgin at 44.

She laughed at her joke. He wasn’t married and never mentioned a girlfriend. The gossip at her firm was that he rarely dated. He’d been known to show up at industry events alone. No time? He didn’t strike her as the asexual type. Gay? She watched his body language with the girl behind the counter. Like most women she knew in San Francisco, she liked to consider herself something of an expert in this realm of speculation. In Tom’s case, she would bet against it. But the categories had begun to blur in her mind over the last few years. Maybe he was one of the growing numbers of undefinables who felt free to slide up and down Dr. Kinsey’s scale of sexuality. Ah, the rich.

Her mind always worked this way, always looking for the angles, options, opportunities. It made her a great business attorney, but sometimes it was exhausting.

Tom sat down at the table with what looked like split pea soup and she wondered how his mind worked. He was occasionally elliptical, but knew how to get to the point when necessary. She thought he was probably always thinking of new product ideas, new marketing plans. The computer industry viewed him as some sort of hybrid, difficult to figure. He seemed equally at home (or was it equally uneasy?) with tech-nerds and marketing mavens. How does a mind like that work?

 

Hamburger. Munch! Eating soup always made him wish for a hamburger, something to chew. Take the money and run? Ruth is being honest, it seems, projecting her real opinion into this situation. Good.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll take the cash, Monty Hall.” (I’m Batman!)

He expects her to smile, but she raises an eyebrow instead. “Tom, that’s just what I might do, but I can’t say it’s the best option. Actually, I think, as a firm, we were going to recommend the B.R.H. offer. The consulting deal keeps you in the game. It’s not as much cash up front, but it’s quite a bit more over the long run.

“You know, I’ve been pretty sure from the start that I wanted to make a clean break, get completely free of the whole thing. Besides, I like their attitude over at Delcom. That whole Gen-X thing feels right for RamDex.”

“Well, I admit I was thinking the same thing.”

“Then it’s a done deal.”

Ruth leans back and crosses her arms. “Hardly. Now it’s time for Eric Dobson, our negotiator, to take over. Have you met him?”

“No. Maybe. Let’s go see the monkeys.” Zoom!

“Monkeys?”

“Yeah, the band…the monkey’s tongue or whoever they are.”

“When…I mean, where is that?”

“Tomorrow, next door to this place.”

He watches her. Dope! She was completely unprepared. He stops himself from saying never mind. He puts his spoon into the soup bowl and leaves it there. He wants to tell her something secret, something private, something he’s never told anyone. Nothing comes to mind. Hello! She is telling him it sounds fun. Sure, she’d like to go. She is leaning forward in an effort to look earnest, eager, excited, or some other ‘e’ word. He understands that she is a little uncomfortable and that until a few years ago he would always forget to clean his glasses. His comic book collection is worth more than his car. He keeps them in a special room. She probably reads The New Yorker and runs three miles every morning. He could spend thousands of dollars every day and still not spend all of his money in his life time. There should be a law.

“We can meet here for coffee before,” he says, trying to make it all seem a little more casual.

 

For a moment, all she could think about was how he got the name of the band wrong. It’s Monkey Tongue, not The Monkey’s Tongue. But then she noticed her pulse. She hadn’t seen it coming. She tried to remember what she’d done to make him ask her out, but then stopped herself. That was silly, to always think that she somehow invited the invitation. Not that she wishes he hadn’t. It was Tom Eisner, for one thing. And she was interested in him…generally. Maybe specifically. She wasn’t sure. Of course, she’d assessed him in that way, but she did that to most men she knew. God, was she really using the word “assess” in reference to a man?

She hadn’t really thought about Tom as a possibility. There were nagging thoughts about business and pleasure, but then she had to laugh at herself. The reason she had hesitated when he first asked was because she was supposed to go out with Eric. Negotiator Eric from her office. She would have to cancel.

Tom pulled the band’s postcard from his shirt pocket and fiddled with it while suggesting they meet for coffee before. She glanced at the card and saw that the band didn’t start playing until ten o’clock.

“The band goes on late,” she said. “Let’s make it dinner.”

Then the doubts lined up in a neat little row. Maybe this was just a business celebration get together. She should have kept her mouth shut and followed his lead. He even winced when she mentioned dinner. She’d blown it. She couldn’t believe how, in a matter of seconds, she’d gone from not even considering the possibility of dating this man to being disappointed that he wasn’t interested in her as more than a business associate. Wait. She had to slow down, take a breath. Breathe, Ruthy. Now she was angry. Her mind was racing, and for what?

Turns out his wince was due to the fact that he had plans for early in the evening. She must have still been a little angry as he explained about needing to look at a few homes with his real estate broker because her first thought was that she might still be able to sneak in dinner with Eric. She and Eric had been sort of dating for a few months. But they were seeing other people. Weren’t they?

 

Oh, dog. Still here? The German shepherd lifts its head when he and Ruth step out of Fahrenheit. Let me out? Whew!

“Okay, so,” he says. “Okay, then.”

“Coffee at nine and then monkey music,” she says.

“Right, The Monkees. We’ll see you then at nine.”

He watches her walk down the street as he unlocks his car. Hot! The car is hot. He’s wishing he didn’t have to see Cindy tomorrow night. If she was just his real estate broker, he could cancel, though he is anxious to finish up the house hunting. But he and Cindy have been seeing each other socially. It isn’t anything very serious, not real serious. They hadn’t slept together. Yikes! He found her attractive. Sure, sure. But, what?

This is the thing. The thing about it is, Cindy is good company. She understands his schedule, yes? She doesn’t call…very often. But what if she did? Would he mind? Probably. Would he mind if Ruth called all the time? Every day at eleven, two and four? All the time. No way Jose. He’s got eyes for her. Eyes, eyes. Likes her attitude.

Yes, Delcom and their big pants. That would do. Ruth and her white teeth. He doesn’t remember ever trying to imagine any other woman with her hair down. Would she wear her hair down tomorrow? He’s not usually one to ask himself these questions, is he? Cindy always wears her hair up…or…no. Cindy has short hair. Yes, yes.

Anyway, there’s no understanding between him and Cindy. Right?

He rolls down his window as he pulls away from the curb and sings words to a song he didn’t know he knew: Then I saw her face…

Waiting for the Thunder

I fall from the sky with the lightning into New Orleans, two hours from the funeral.  A bad flight, a flight that causes sudden infatuation with trains. I consider the idea that tragedy vibrations can linger, echoing like shock-waves, creating random unsafe zones in all directions for hundreds of miles, even up in the air, but the thought is cured, forgotten with the feel of solid ground.

No one meets me because no one knows I have come. Of course, my grandma knows, because she is dead and the dead know. This I was told, perhaps by my grandma Dette herself, when I was young. Beliefs like these, beliefs gathered in childhood, have left imprints my adulthood cannot completely erase: God knows, the dead know and Santa Claus knows. No one else knows I have come. I remain unexpected, and so not missed.

The Louisiana summer air. I feel the weight of humidity before I feel the rain. It is claustrophobic like fevered dreams, like waking from nightmares to blankets and sweat. Now, I am sweating in the rain.

Outside the airport, everyone is moving slow. Careless and slow. One year after the hurricane they try to ignore the rain as being anything other than simple rain. It takes five minutes for the rented air conditioner in my rented car to kill the heat and begin chilling the damp patches around the knees of my suit pants. My trousers, she would say. Normally, I’d wear tan cap-toed shoes against a charcoal suit. But not today. Black wing tips.

On the highway I lose the city, its wounds lingering on my peripheral as I watch only the road at first, heading inland. I savor this distance from suffering, give safe harbor to my practiced indifference. I’m not really here. This thought has been negotiated.

Eventually I will look through the trees as I drive for the brown bayou water and wonder about alligators. This thought, this thought about alligators, embarrasses me. I think about this and don’t think about the funeral, beyond wondering if that is where I am going.

          Candy Corn filled the crystal dish on the coffee table in the den where Dette took TV and medication, maintaining a constant high with coffee, cigarettes, sugar, and quack-prescriptions.

          “Take one,” she always always said. “Hell, Peetie, take two, they’re cheap.”

          The old kitchen chair at the end of her couch, a chair we would now call “vintage,” was mine and I sat there waiting for stories.

          “Grandma, tell me about Grandpa and Pearl Harbor. Tell me about the first time you drove a car, driving your mother the Indian witch into a barnyard. Show me a picture of you when you were twenty-three, looking exactly almost like Lucille Ball. Can we listen to that record you made, swearing and drunk? Let me make cinnamon toast.”

          “Wash those hands, kiddo. I don’t know where they’ve been.”

 

The land is ever-wet and green in Louisiana. The trees droop from memory even when it doesn’t rain. Pockets of water are everywhere. It seems as if the land is sinking. It seemed like this, even before. Dette once told me south Louisiana was so haunted because the bodies had to be buried above ground. How haunted now?

The rain stops at Baton Rouge and the window comes down. The funeral approaches. There are places to see here, history lurking, the house that Huey built, distractions enough to wait out a funeral, and none of the hurricane scars to temp my lost self and the anger. The gift shop attached to the gas station is full of alligator souvenirs and Cajun cookbooks. After buying two dollars in candy corn I am back on the highway with the trucks.

          “Grandma,” I’d say, “watch your cigarette.” The ash would grow long. I once counted and found she averaged only three drags per cigarette. I always thought her favorite part of smoking was putting them out. She ended the life of each Chesterfield with a flourish, a fancy twist of the wrist.

          She used a large, green, pipe-smoker’s ashtray that had a crumbling cork knob in the middle.

          “Shit, kiddo. What do I do when you’re not around? If I put on my glasses, I find ashes all over the house, days little Pete wasn’t here to watch his grandma. Little Pete, named after a moonshiner. Hell.”

          “Best in St. Landry’s Parish, right?”

          “That’s what they said Peetie. Goddamn if I know.”

 

I don’t speak French, but let the radio rest on a French station because the voice is a laughing voice. The funeral begins in an hour and I’m half that time away so I stop for a sign reading, LIVE BAIT. COLD SODA. I grab a Pepsi from the cooler, from the ice box, she would say, and drink while sitting on a rock, watching a crop duster bomb and save the corn and the beans. The pilot is risking his life.

The tourism billboard for New Orleans appeared, like a dark Mardi Gras jester, a block from my apartment in North Beach. It read, “Dry? We were never dry.”

I try to imagine being a movie star, rescuing people from the flood waters. I try to imagine floating in the middle of Pearl Harbor, watching the Japanese planes fly low overhead and drop torpedoes, like my grandpa did after his ship, the Oklahoma, sank. I try to imagine him standing at Dette’s graveside. Everything I know about his life I learned from other people.

There is accordion music coming from the radio in my car.

I remind myself it is not too late to return New Orleans, my college stomping grounds, to the French Quarter, an island untouched. A few evenings without funerals and people I don’t really know but must hug. In a few days I can return to California and the places I knew Dette before my grandpa and his early retirement carried her away to his boyhood hunting grounds. The Louisiana air.

The humidity is feeling heavy again and I’m beginning to take deeper breaths. For a moment I wonder if more people hyperventilate in the South than in other places, like California, where Dette drove the biggest red car I’ve ever seen.

Back on the road into Opelousas and the funeral, the voice on the radio has changed. It is now deep and graveled and speaking excited English. Then Cajun festival music begins.

“Whooboy!” I yell. “Whooboy!” until my throat hurts. I tap the steering wheel off rhythm and pretend to know the words. When cars pass, I don’t stop singing. I sing louder, open my mouth wide and tilt my head back.

I stop more than once to look at the map, wasting time.

          “Your grandpa hardly knew his papa,” Dette told me. “He died young when lightning struck a tree and it fell across the road. His truck was on the road, so the tree ended up in his lap.”

          After saying this she would close her eyes for one of her long shrugs. “They were all goddamn moonshiners.”

 

I circle the graveyard twice and watch them arrive. Their great great grandfathers were slave owners, land owners, and politicians. They are politicians and alcoholics.

After the funeral begins, I get out of my car. I’m thinking of watching from a distance like a killer or the disinherited. I find the above-ground tombs of my dead relatives, known to me only in stories, freshly scrubbed and flowered. Papa Josh. Little Pete. Ms. Bea. Old Taylor. That bastard Jordan Hayes. Pretty Ms. Jen.

I look around and imagine Dette here too, watching.

“What’s that bitch Alice crying about?” she says. “She hated my guts.”

“I always liked Aunt Alice,” I say.

“Shit, Peetie, you like everybody.” She raises a limp wrist to take a drag. Her other hand is on her hip and her shirt tails are out. It’s a classic Grandma Dette pose.”

I smile. “Did I ever tell you how much you look like Lucille Ball?”

She laughs. Actually, she cackles, but it is familiar and comforting. “You just feel guilty because your grief over goddamn Sodom and Gomorra is just as strong as your grief for memère…I know.”

I walk up quietly to take a folding chair behind cousin Bobby, a district attorney with an always-new Cadillac. I think about this rather than listen to the preacher tell lies about Dette and God. His suit is brown and bulky, stuffed with pamphlets, hankies and church keys. His shoes are the exact same color as his suit.

Finally, it is over, and a mingling begins. For a moment longer, no one knows I have come. Most of them haven’t seen me since I was tripping over fourteen on summer vacation, or hung over and bearded on a weekend visit from college. Aunt Alice spots me though, and I feel trapped between the humidity and expectations. I actually think of running.

“Eugene,” says Aunt Alice, “look who’s come.”

It’s been a long time since I remembered my grandpa’s name is Eugene. He turns to look at me. Only a slight lifting of his brow betrays surprise. My grandpa is the word gruff. He is navy. He is Hughes Aircraft Company. He is war movies, westerns, and professional wrestling. He is a killer of wild animals. Today, he looks small in his coat and tie.

He calls me “boy.” He’s always called me that. But today it sounds like a question. It comes out of his mouth as part of a sigh. Then he says something which causes me to look at my shoes. He says this while shaking my hand.

“This is going to make your grandma’s day.

Yes, I want to say, you are right.

But he moves on, leaving me with the capable small talk of Uncle Jack and his smooth Cajun drawl. Uncle Jack keeps trained dogs. “We didn’t expect you, son. Now, you fly into New O’lens, that mess?”

“This morning,” I say.

Uncle Jack gives me directions to his house where there will be food and poodles that roll over. I try thinking of the crawdad and the catfish which I love and haven’t had, done right, in years. Instead, I think of the taste of candy corn as I drop it on Dette’s grave, as the people leave in their long shiny cars.

          “You know they got goddamned B.B. King playing guitar down there at the woopty doo World’s Fair in Sodom and Gomorra?” said Grandma. 

          “I know Grandma. I saw him play. I shook his hand. It was the only reason to go.”

          “Hell kiddo…Petie, B.B. King might even make me visit that shit hole. Might go to visit you though, when you graduate from that college of yours. Woopty doo.”

 

Uncle Jack used to operate drilling equipment. Oil. Now he’s the Mayor of Palmetto.

“All the way from California?” he asks, after I arrive at his home.

“Yeah, real bumpy over Texas. We hit some weather.”

He never lets his can of beer fall below chest level. “I used to get out to the West Coast time and again. Hell of a place. I was—”

“Jack,” Aunt Alice calls from across the room while carrying a platter full of folded meat slices and cubes of cheese, “get Peter a beer and don’t leave him standing in the doorway.”

I follow Uncle Jack to the ice chest. He hands me a beer and I almost start to look for a glass. Almost.

“I was in Long Beach, California, oh, year before I retired,” he says. “Manufacturer flew me out. Sittin’ in this park, or what, green belt, my my. I see this old gal walkin’ her poodle-dog. You know, Peetie, I like the poodle-dog. Well, this old gal gots my attention ‘coz she’s wearin’ pink sneakers. Oh, they were pink, good and pink. And the poodle-dog, he does his business there on the grass like a good pup. Then I see somethin’ I ain’t never seen. This old gal reaches into her pocket, pulls out some, oh, blue toilet tissue paper. Then what do you think? What do think this old gal does Peetie? She bends over the poodle-dog, pulls up its tail, and wipes its ass, God bless her. Now, I don’t know for sure, but maybe the pup had been leavin’ scoot marks on the white rug at home; but it was a sight, I tell you. God almighty, it was a sight.”

Uncle Jack chuckles. As he drinks from his beer, I know he will wipe his mouth on his sleeve. When he does, I remember that I love him.

“Got to be somthin’,” he says,  “about that little moment that just pisses God the hell off, you think? California, my my. Nobody’s wipin’ the dog’s ass in Louisiana, no sir.”

Aunt Alice interrupts one argument about hurricanes and the federal government after another, introducing me to people I haven’t seen in fifteen years, cousins mostly.  They are given all the necessary information: my mother’s name, the year of her divorce from my father, the year Aunt Alice and Uncle Jack visited us and Disneyland, my occupation and bachelor status. Since most of my cousins are distant, those who are also single women are given a special presentation: where I went to graduate school, my age, conjecture on how interesting my job must be, the distance from my apartment to the Bay.

I nod and smile, shake hands, take hugs, ask several people if they’ve heard Uncle Jack’s California poodle story.

Eventually, I escape out the back door and into the giant back yard, the air. On the patio there is a table piled high with corn on the cob and crawdad. The yard is full of children and dogs running in every direction. These are not poodles. These are the hunting dogs, beagles mostly, and they don’t roll over or beg for food.

It was in the forest not far from here that I first heard the sound a rabbit makes when shot. My face couldn’t keep secrets then, and the men all became quiet. My grandpa didn’t say anything. He carried my shotgun back to the truck.

“See that brown one over there?” My grandpa is behind me now in the middle of the yard. I look over toward the garage. A large brown dog is sitting down, watching the flurry of children. “That brown is a smart one. He checks the logs.”

I look back over my shoulder. His eyebrows are gray and bushy. It occurs to me for the first time that he is a good three inches shorter than me. He sees that I don’t know what he means when he says the brown dog checks logs.

“Some of those swamp rabbits get in the water,” he says, “and they hide behind a log with just their nose sticking out.” He smiles and sticks his nose into the air. Then he looks back over to the brown dog. “Most dogs will run across the creek looking for the scent on the other side. That brown, he’ll look behind the logs, check the weeds.”

Suddenly, Grandpa whistles sharply and every dog in the yard comes running. They surround us. Their paws are muddy, but they don’t jump on us. I reach down to pet the brown dog.

“That’s pretty smart,” I say. “What’s his name?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Brownie, I guess.”

He kneels to pet the dogs and raises his coat sleeve to his face, wiping at his eyes.

“I suppose I’m entitled,” he says, more to the dogs than to me.

I have to stand to escape the smell of wet fur. The sky is gray and growling. I spot lighting on the horizon. Dette told me she once saw lightning break through a window and blow up a television set. How long do I give him before starting a conversation about the weather?

“You know,” he continues, “I cried when I realized that boy I’d been holding onto while we floated in the harbor…well, I was watching the Japs drop those torpedoes and talking away about how we were going to be just fine, they couldn’t fly around forever. I just looked into his face and I knew he was dead. I don’t even know what killed him, just the water I suppose.” The water.

I’m counting, waiting for the thunder.

He stands and squeezes my shoulder briefly. He is grinning. “Never cried for a rabbit, though.” Then he laughs, and I join him. Rain drops appear on my glasses.

“You know,” he says, “your grandma used to go hunting with us, just to watch the dogs run. Goddamn, Bernadette used to yell at those dogs: Go get’ em you bastards, get that bunny! She said, if the rabbit was so stupid as to run in a big circle, it deserved to be shot. As far as I’m concerned, smart rabbit, dumb rabbit, they all taste the same to me.”

“All right, Peter and Eugene, you two come in out of the rain with the rest of the children.” Aunt Alice is standing at the screen door. “You two should have something to eat.”

My grandpa walks toward the house and the dogs are wandering back into the yard, unconcerned. The sky blinks and flashes. Beyond the clouds somewhere the sun is starting to set. A voice rises above the murmur floating from the house; I hear my grandma’s name and then laughter.