Love in a Crooked State
A railroad bed rose like a levee before him, so he stood on the pedals and dug until his legs burned and he reached the top and reached the dusk, feeling a part of it, and then stopped to rest in it, as if, and peer down at the town of Webb he could only now see, beginning at the foot of the tracks. No post office or city hall or courthouse or police department was in sight. The whole town consisted of two short rows of buildings facing each other in disrepair. All but two stores were either boarded up or closed for the night — Big Sista’s Laundry and Juke’s Joint were barely brighter, as if lit within by candles. Francis pushed off and the hair over his ears lifted as if wings and not wheels carried him.
The front door to Juke’s Joint flung open as Francis approached, and a large dark-skinned man, slicked with sweat and round as one could get, stepped outside holding a dust pan. “You lost, bike rider?”
Francis braked. “Sort of. Hey, how long have you lived in Webb?”
The man looked down at himself, then up at Francis. “All forty-two years. Why?”
“Are you Juke?”
He emptied his dust pan on the sidewalk. “All forty-two years.” He mopped his bald head with a blue or black bandanna. “Why?”
“My dad was born here on the very day of the train wreck in 1944. Was wondering if people still talk about all those crackers and bananas?”
“Crackers and bananas?” Juke rolled his head back to give his face to the dusk before looking again at Francis and chuckling. “Shit, your daddy got it all upside backwards. What kind a thing is that for people to jump up and down about on Thanksgiving Day? It was hams and sweet taters. Crackers and ’naners! Goddamn!”
“Well, whatever, I’m just passing through.” Francis let go of the handlebar grips and stretched his fingers. “What I’m really interested in,” he said, “is a short-cut to Glendora.”
“Only if you aiming to swim your bicycle down the Tallahatchie.” Juke mopped his mouth, then pointed the opposite direction. “Otherwise, you best get home by churning yourself back to the highway.”
“Oh, no, I’m home.” Francis patted his bedroll slung over his shoulder — a quilt his grandmother had given him and his ex-wife as a wedding gift. He’d tied it up with shoe strings. “And this isn’t my bicycle,” Francis said. “I stole it.”
Juke laughed and shook his head. “Like father, like son. Crackers and ’naners!” He stepped back inside and swung his door shut.
Francis pushed off and pedaled toward the Tallahatchie River. He didn’t know how, with night coming on, he’d make it down the river into Wanda’s arms, but he’d figure it out when he got there.
But when he reached the black water at the end of the road, he collapsed in the grass with his head on his bedroll. Between gulps of air, he watched the eastern sky stretch its shroud west.
When Francis woke at dawn, he woke in a haze and reached for the water before realizing that if he jumped in, whether cold or not, his bedroll would get wet, and his medicine, too — but then he caught himself. He’d given his medicine away to someone needier in Clarksdale, which now seemed so long ago but was only yesterday. He still had his map, though, and his wallet and his leather-bound encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology. Maybe somebody would come along in a boat who wouldn’t mind taking a bike rider downriver.
He walked the bicycle along the bank through the brush and found what was likely a fisherman’s trail and followed it. Frogs rumbled invisibly in the mud. He passed a few bent beer cans, then the brush thinned into grass and he exploded dandelions with every sickle-sweep of boot and watched the mosquitoes scatter. Then he heard rustling in the grass and looked up and saw a red hound bounding toward him. The dog’s long tongue hung from the side of her muzzle like a dead fish.
Francis stood still to show no fear as the coonhound charged at him and dropped her tongue — so it was a fish! — and leaped up, landing her wet paws on his chest, and licked his face. Francis petted her, speaking softly: “You’re a good girl, aren’t you? Hi, there. You love, but are you loved? I hope so.” Then she jumped down on all fours, picked up her fish, and galloped away.
He tried to keep up with her, but she soon vanished into a stand of pine. He followed, then from within it, he saw that just beyond the skinny trunk rows were a house, a yard, and a dog house.
Along the bank, next to a rowboat, sat a pile of inner tubes. He looked back at the house and studied the dark windows. He laid the bike down. They could have it, whoever they were. Maybe they’d appreciate a mountain bike in exchange for an inner tube. He took his map and wallet and book out of his pockets and slipped them inside his shirt while he scanned the yard. Then he watched again for movement at the windows. Still seeing no one, he decided to bolt for the inner tubes, and the dog followed.
Francis grabbed the largest, about three and a half feet in diameter, while the dog ran in circles around him, wagging her tail. As soon as he slapped the tube on the water, the hound dove in and began forging the river. Francis sat down, laid his bedroll across his lap, and pushed off.
The hound met him on her return lap. He patted her on the head, and she followed him in the slow pleated current.
“Go on,” he told her. “Go back home and love some more.” He pulled his hand in and the hound turned and paddled home.
Dragonflies darted over the scrolling water in the same vibrant colors as the wildflowers blooming along the banks. Blue birds and red birds crisscrossed overhead and sang in nearby trees. Francis closed his eyes, enjoying the immense pleasures of buoyancy and nostalgia. On every Independence Day in Lucedale, many miles south of here, his mother’s side of the family would load up in the back of pick-ups and drive north. And while the cooks drove back, everyone else spent the morning floating downcreek to the clearing in the sand that the Johnsons had claimed as their own, where they’d eaten food in celebration from their own fields for more than a century.
The warmth of the bright sun pressed down upon him, and the cold black water raised him up, and somewhere in the compromise, Francis drifted back to sleep.
He cruised in slow circles dreaming of Wanda. “Shhhhh,” she soothed, rocking, caressing his hand. “You’ll feel it. You’ll know it now. You’ll hear it coming. That’s it, Francis, relax. But gotta keep your eyes open. Open up now, Francis. Francis.”
He woke to a white sky in a net of kudzu hanging above his face yet seeing Wanda, with her mammaries spilling over him exactly how they had, after only hours of knowing her. But casino time always seemed timeless. That was in Tunica, a week ago, back when he still owned his truck and took medication and could park in parking lots and receive oral pleasure beneath the camper if the occasion arose. That was before Clarksdale, where he stole a mountain bike off a millionaire’s lawn, with no mountains in sight.
The sky, leaving the net of kudzu, entered a new net, and he was pulled away from memory. He raised his head, and with his arms resting on the sides of the inner tube, he watched the river drive him forward even as he floated backwards. Kudzu shrouded everything in his past — the banks, the trees, all except the dark artery of water that seemed, because the surface rolled away from him, of him.
He dropped his hands into the water to turn himself around but decided to let them trail and make ribbons of green, mirrored kudzu, and silver sky, to let the river take him where it wished. The inner tube gradually spun 180 degrees, and now instead of watching the ribbons he waked, he watched the plowing current spin its own, seeing them widen to the banks, and mix and twist into the distance. They were still silver and emerald, but then they seemed to adopt, far into his future, a thinner ribbon of new color, new texture, a new pattern of breaking and rippling.
This ribbon did not widen like the others, did not vanish and reappear elsewhere. It seemed almost substantive. Then his lazy eyes focused and he realized that the black lightning flecked with gold was a water moccasin slashing upriver.
Francis raised himself out of the well and stiffened his legs so that none of him touched river. He squirmed his hand into his pocket for his knife. He was frantic, trying but failing to thumb the blade open. He watched the snake, now more dark olive than black, coming directly toward him, skimming the current, just a few feet away. Then the cottonmouth reared back its head off the water like a cocked fist.
Francis and the snake remained frozen, each staring at the other’s pair of dark eyes. Then the moccasin, as if mocking him, stuck out its tongue before it lowered its pitted face, its whole body, and darted down, vanishing into a wrinkle of water.
Francis flicked open his knife at last and watched for the snake to reappear, looking to his right and to his left and behind him and in front of him, underneath him, and behind him once more, but the snake by then must have been far upriver.
He tucked his knife away and dropped his hands into the water whenever it was necessary to keep himself facing forward, so that if any obstacle were to approach he could navigate accordingly.
Kudzu here on this part of the river seemed in motion, appearing to fall from the trees — more of them now liberated than cloaked. Was it luck that had prevented the viper from striking, or was it, he wondered, bestowed grace? And if a bestowal, dare he wonder, from whom?
Although he anticipated obstacles around every bend, even feared that his anticipation might somehow summon them, he encountered not another snake, not one log or bar or bottleneck or shallow. It was as if the Tallahatchie had specially been cleared for his private passage.
No, he decided, there was no whom and no who. No Thou of any case. There was in this life only chance. Good luck and bad luck widening and mixing. Just forward and aft. What comes and what goes. That was it. It alone.
Like that something floating orange ahead, like a small sun bobbing on the river face. As he neared he saw starboard a boy standing along the bank with a pole and he was reeling in the sun. He wore jeans rolled up to the calves, his hair in a crew. He was about to cast again, and Francis was about to tell him not to when the boy noticed him and lowered his pole, and then Francis noticed the boy’s ears. They looked like they had fingers sticking out of them.
“Hey, mister,” he called, “is you by chance headed to Glendora?”
“I am actually.”
“Hold up then, would you, mister?” The boy dropped his fishing pole and ran along a path beaten through waist-high grass toward the shack now coming into view with tires lying scattered like paper weights upon the roof of rusted barn tin.
Francis drew circles with his hands and drifted toward the bank.
A woman with streaming platinum-blonde hair hurried through the grass in a sky-blue dress and white apron, carrying a white box in her hands. The boy was close behind.
“Would you do me a favor and deliver this to the grocer for me, please? I’d appreciate it,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am. I don’t mind.”
She leaned over the water with nice cleavage, and Francis took the package and set it on the bedroll on his lap.
“I sure do thank you,” she said. “That nigger mailman we have won’t take nothing unless we put stamps on it.”
Francis felt his face fall like a heavy theater curtain. “You’re kidding, right?” he said.
“No!” she said, appalled. “Like it’d kill her to drop off one little box at the corner store, when she’s going right past it anyway.”
He looked to the boy standing beside her, agreeing with the woman. The base of the boy’s ears crumpled into tiny cauliflower, making the tops of his ears fold up. The boy’s crew cut didn’t help him any.
Francis looked again at the woman, flipping the ends of her hair over her shoulders with the backs of her hands. “Just who is this heartless mail carrier of yours?”
“The same one everybody else in Swan Lake has.”
“Wanda?” he asked.
“I don’t know her blame name,” she said.
“How much farther would you say Glendora is?”
The woman laughed. “What, are you serious?”
“Well, this is my first time floating down the Tallahatchie.”
She studied him with squinted eyes. “You ain’t from around here, are you?”
“From Memphis,” he said.
“Memphis!” She stood straighter. “Just how long have you been floating?”
Francis shrugged. “Days. Maybe weeks.” He started paddling toward the current.
“Days, maybe weeks, for real?” the boy asked.
Francis smiled, and the woman gripped the boy’s arm and tugged him closer.
“It’s maybe thirty minutes to Glendora,” she said. “You’ll see it.”
The boy waved, and Francis waved back to him, riding in the current now.
Beyond the first crook in the river, Francis tore the tape off the box, folded back the flaps and was overwhelmed, impaled, by distilled vapors of something strong and wild. Whatever it was inside was round like a crown and wrapped in foil. He lifted it out and began peeling away the foil, revealing a fruit cake studded with green and red cherries. He would’ve tossed it into the river if he weren’t so hungry. But, damn, he hated fruit cake.
He broke off a piece and studied the moist cake filled with dates and pecans, which he loved but not marinated in rum. He took a bite, and his mouth watered. This cake, he realized, taking another bite and then another, his teeth snapping wolfishly, hadn’t been saturated in rum after all, rather in moonshine that tasted too sour really to be pure, but not too sour. Balanced with the sweetness of brown sugar and the bitterness of nuts, the flavor amounted to perfection that was felonious. This was bar none the best cake he’d ever eaten or drunk. He wiped his wet mouth on his arm and looked at the name printed on the box. He hoped the luckless Mrs. Henry Dan was a bigger bigot than his correspondent, the Wanda-hater. Otherwise, Francis was going to feel awfully guilty.
He’d eaten a quarter of it when he came upon a man in overalls unloading brown jugs from the back of a forest-green pick-up and dropping them into the river. Francis sailed to the bank out of view of the man and clutched onto a sheaf of weeping willow branches. He waited in hiding until he heard the bootlegger slam his tailgate shut and drive away.
Francis took broad strokes to catch up with the school of jugs bobbing downriver when he realized that the man probably wasn’t a bootlegger responsible for the fruit cake’s impeccable dressing because these antique ceramic jugs couldn’t have been filled, each of them, with a half-gallon of corn mash. Afloat, they could only contain air. But why?
Francis lifted one out of the water to find two fishing lines tied to the finger ring. He set the jug on the inner tube and looped the lines around and around his hand until he revealed lead weights on each, then hooks baited with crickets. This had to be the laziest way anybody could go about catching catfish He unreeled the lines and dropped the jug back into the water. Disgusted, he pinched off a piece of cake, rolled it into a ball that would fit a musket, and plunked it into the water.
He made sure, as the nucleus to those jugs, never to let them stray too far ahead of him or behind, and routinely plunked in a new pellet so that the fish would always have a choice: between that which had strings attached and that which did not.
When he ran out of cake, he clapped the water and sang nonsensical words to scare the fish away. He stopped when he saw the first shack he’d seen since the one with the tires strewn across its roof. A group of white boys running in circles in a dirt yard came into view, and they stopped running to laugh at Francis and throw rocks at him. When they missed, Francis laughed back.
Another shack came into view and then another, all evenly spaced apart, with roofs papered with tar, these with small black children playing in each small dirt yard.
At the bank behind the last house in the row, a girl in a dingy white cotton dress sat alone on a stump reading a paperback.
“Excuse me,” Francis said. “Is this Glendora?”
“I’m reading right now,” she said without looking up.
“That’s a good thing to do,” he said. He stroked against the current. “It’s important, no doubt, but it’s only half of it, if that much.” He slung water from his hands and picked up the empty fruit cake box. “This might just be the other half.” He tossed it at her feet. “You can have it. Something to bury your book in when you’re ready.”
She laid her paperback on her lap and glared at him.
Francis smiled. “Nice meeting you,” he said, then turned and saw up ahead, to the west, the dusty backside of Glendora’s downtown. He guessed it was Glendora.
On the bank sat a rowboat and a forest-green pick-up with its gate down. The man in overalls leaned against the front fender sipping a can of Coke, looking content with life like on the ads, until he noticed Francis floating among his jug children. The man stiffened and croaked an involuntary sound, then tossed his Coke can to the ground and rushed to the bank to rant in what sounded like Mandarin. Then he shoved the boat into the water and hopped in.
Francis guided the inner tube toward the bank, while the Chinaman, clearly a Chinaman, rowed past him seething red.
When Francis reached the bank, he watched the Chinaman haul in his jugs.
“You can have my inner tube if you want it,” Francis called out.
The man shook his fist. “You fucka my fish!”
Francis shrugged and crawled up the bank, where he was met by three young black men. One was shirtless. One wore a holster on his belt. One wore purple shades.
“This is Glendora, right?” Francis asked.
“Naw, man,” the shirtless one said, “you just landed yourself in hell.”
“I got something for you,” said the one with the holster, and he whipped out an ice pick.
They circled Francis.
“Whatcha fucking with our fish supper for?” asked the one without a shirt. Pink scars lined up on each side of his chest like sergeant stripes.
“Yeah, Henry fish be our fish,” said the one wearing shades.
“You got two seconds left, mudfucker,” said the one wielding the ice pick.
“Hey, I’m just trying to find a friend. Her name’s Wanda.” Francis rotated to look at each one. “Works for the post office. Wanda. A good friend of mine. She invited me here. Y’all know her, don’t you?”
One by one he watched the curtains fall.
“Mudfuck, man!” The one with the ice pick holstered his ice pick, then stepped down the bank, and the one in the shades followed him, kicking up dirt.
Francis looked at the one that remained. “She told me any old boy could point the way.”
The man shook his head in disgust. “Come on,” he said. He led Francis to the front of the wooden buildings and pointed up the muddy road that ran between the stores to their left and the railroad tracks on their right. “See them trees,” he said. “Hook it there. Be third house.” He turned to leave, then stopped. “But she ain’t home.”
Francis looked off toward the trees, just a cloud of something to eye while thinking. “That’s all right,” he said. “I’ll wait for her.” He looked back at the man stroking the scars on his chest. “Appreciate your help.”
The man leaned in. “Tell me something. How you know her when she don’t know nobody?”
Francis shrugged. “We just ran into each other, like how you and I did. Though, she didn’t want to kill me.” He snickered.
“Uh-huh,” he said, still stroking his chest, “well,” and he grinned, “sooner later luck runs out, don’t it?” He cocked his eyebrows, then walked away.
Glendora didn’t quite match Francis’s father’s picturesque description. Instead, it looked like an unpaved and unpainted ghost town from the Old West.
The boardwalk creaked as he passed vacant store after vacant store. Only the last one had windows with unbroken glass. The door stood open so he stepped inside. In the middle of the grocery store were card tables, each topped with a bottle of hot sauce and a salt shaker. The floor needed sweeping. A Chinese woman sat behind a counter cluttered with racks of chips and candy, with three-gallon jars of pickled eggs and pickled pig’s feet and pickles. She smoked a cigarette.
“You must be Mrs. Henry Dan.”
She nodded. Ash from her cigarette fell onto the counter. “Hungry?”
“No, thanks,” he said. “Are you?”
Her head twitched as if to stir away a fly. “My husband,” she said, patting her breast, “fry good catfish. Mmmmm.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, shaking his head and backing out the door. “Real sorry.” If ever he’d seen anybody truly in need of a fruit cake, she was it.
The mud converted to dust as the grade of the road, parallel to the river, gradually rose away from downtown. Francis followed it southward, then hooked it westward over the tracks. He could see the houses now, beyond the cedars lining the gravel lane. These houses were built of brick, from the thirties and forties. Nice homes still, with grass yards and gravel drives.
When he saw the honey-colored Lincoln LS aglow in the sun in the third drive, his heart raced. So the shirtless sergeant had been wrong, Wanda was home. He stepped behind a cedar and untied his bedroll. He looked around. Ghost town. He pulled off his t-shirt and put on his spare, a Hawaiian print with orchids. He kicked off his boots, looked around again, then exchanged his jeans for his dry pair. Then he opened his shaving kit and squirted tooth paste in his mouth, splashed on cologne, and combed his hair.
He rolled everything back within the quilt, tied the shoe strings, then slipped his belt through the ties and hung the bedroll over his shoulder as he stomped back into his boots and walked through the yard to the front door. The knocker was a brass crucified Jesus, heavy and smooth in his hand. Francis lifted it high and hammered away.
“I’m coming,” a voice said — not Wanda’s, a male’s — then the door opened.
Francis faced a lean teen with Asian-shaped eyes and skin, the color of cork, but with an afro of tarnished copper.
“She’s not here,” he said and reached out his hand. “I’m Tobias.”
“Hi, nice to meet you, I’m Francis.” He took Tobias’s hand, and Tobias held on a long time, pulsing his grip as though his hand were breathing. His small eyes roved to the left and right.
The moment was awkward. Francis braced for a sucker punch.
“You smell terribly disappointed,” Tobias said. “Did she tell you she’d be home now?”
“No, but I saw her car. Are you her son?”
Tobias withdrew his hand. “You mean, she mentioned me?”
“Just that she had a son. I haven’t known her long.”
“Huh, wow.” Tobias stepped back. “Come in, Francis. She’ll be home in a few hours. Please, let’s talk.”
Francis lost sight when he left the sun’s glare and stepped over the threshold into the unlit hall. He shut the door and strained his eyes and the brass Jesus knocked. He found the outline of Tobias, fading, and moved quickly to keep up, but Tobias disappeared. When Francis reached the end of the hall, he caught Tobias’s shadow straight ahead but curving away, to the right, softly, around a table, shining as if wet from mist. Francis followed and soon was directly behind Tobias and could see the definition of his shoulder blades flickering in and out of his back. Tobias turned again, left this time, but this time he did not disappear. Francis saw the sofa and walked past it and turned, and air from a ceiling fan brushed his face. A sliding glass door with its curtains drawn half-way ushered a rectangle of light into the room. Against the wall was a second sofa forming an L with the other. Tobias sat down on the far end, in the corner, so Francis unslung his bedroll from his shoulder and sat on the near end, with his feet boxed in between the sofa and the coffee table in the rectangle of light in front of him.
“How long have you and my mother known each other exactly?”
Francis opened his mouth to speak, then realized he’d forgotten what day it was. He looked at his watch, but in the dark den it was unreadable, so he started counting on his fingers. “Let’s see,” he said. There was May Day, the day he left Memphis, his last home, and met Wanda. There was the day he was on the levee, when he met T-Bone and Babycakes. And then the day he swam in De Soto Lake and met Emma. Then he spent a day in Clarksdale with Elvon and poor sweet Mrs. Hill suffering from gout. And then he spent yesterday on the bike. This was the next day, river day, day six, wasn’t it? “Almost a week,” he said. “Since May first.”
Tobias leaned forward and Francis could see his small eyes. “Only since Monday?”
“Yeah,” Francis nodded, “last Monday.”
“So you two met at Bally’s?”
“Harrah’s, actually. Then we went to Bally’s. Is today Saturday?”
“And she’s expecting you?”
“Not today necessarily,” Francis said. “In general she is.”
Tobias leaned back into his dark corner. “Today’s Thursday, the fourth. Just since Monday, huh?”
Francis nodded. It was hard for him to believe, too. He’d known Wanda not yet four full days but knew that was a lie. The days he lived now were not the length and depth of others.
Tobias propped his white socked feet upon the coffee table. “I didn’t even hear you drive up.”
“I didn’t,” Francis said. “I walked here.”
“I was reading. Do you like to read?”
Francis rested his arm on his bedroll. He scanned the room of objects — all vaguely defined except the television near the door. “I used to.”
“Used to? I take it you didn’t grow up in a place like Glendora.”
“No. My father did, though.”
“He reads still, I bet.”
“Oh, he does, but only academic materials. Nothing fun really.”
Tobias nodded. “So why are you on foot?”
“Well,” Francis shrugged, “I met a couple who needed my truck more than I did.”
“So you’re on vacation now or something?”
“That’s right,” Francis said. “I’m vacating.”
“You might as well make yourself at home then. Take your boots off, Francis. You don’t mind if I call you Francis, do you?”
“No, I want you to.”
“Francis,” Tobias said, “do you like fried salmon patties?”
Francis smiled. “What college do you attend?”
“Ole Miss, but not until the fall.”
Francis leaned toward him. “You’re still in high school?”
“For another week, I am.”
“Then who taught you to drop the ‘l’ from salmon? Nobody from around here.”
Tobias laughed. “What?”
“Come on,” said Francis.
“My Honors English teacher perhaps. I don’t know. Maybe public radio.”
“Well, they’re wrong. The French leave the ‘l’ out of the word so of course they don’t pronounce it, but the Greeks and Romans did pronounce it because they included it. If it’s in, I say we in English better acknowledge it. Denial will get us nowhere.”
Tobias laughed. “Are you a lexicographer or a comedian?”
“I wish and don’t wish.” Francis pulled off one of his boots.
Francis laughed. He pulled off his other boot. “My middle name is Salmoneus. It’s a family name that traces back to the king of Elis. I’m sure you’re familiar with the crime and punishment of his more famous brother, Sisyphus.”
“Sisyphus, yeah, the great pusher,” Tobias said. It was the same reaction of delight Sisyphus always inspired. People loved Sisyphus.
“I too pretended to be Zeus.” He raised his fists, bearing firebrands, his lightning, as his chariot dragged brazen pots for thunder. “I was a writer.”
“Yeah, and I was also a professor. And before that I was a clerk and a handler and a sandwich maker. At the sandwich shop we made popcorn and caramel apples and cotton candy. That was fun.”
Tobias removed his feet from the coffee table and moved closer. “So what did you write?”
Francis sighed. “Gothic Southern family realism. Nothing new.” He rested his head back and stared at the yard through the glass door. A Chihuahua wandered by nosing the grass.
Francis and Tobias sat in silence. For a while only the fan seemed to breathe.
Then Tobias stood. “I need to get dinner started.” He motioned for Francis to follow him, and once again he led Francis through the house without turning on lights, though the sun shone brightly into the kitchen through a picture window.
Tobias rummaged in the refrigerator, then carried an onion, a carton of eggs, and several cloves of garlic to the counter.
“What can I do to help?” Francis asked.
Tobias walked away and stooped before a buffet and opened a drawer. He rose with an armful of white linen. “You can dress the table, if you like.”
“Sure, I think I remember how.”
Tobias gave him his armful and pointed in the direction of the room they’d just walked through. “Mother loves pretending we’re eating out.”
“Nice.” He carried the linen through the semi-dark of the dining room and set it onto the table, then about-faced to search for a light switch. There had to be at least one in this house.
Light glinted as from a distance, water from a well. Pictures, he discovered, covered the walls. A patch quilt of them, one after another. He moved his hands gingerly over their slick glass. He was beginning to believe he wouldn’t find a switch, but then he did, finally, on the last wall and flipped it on, and a Tiffany lamp hovering over the table came alive with dragonflies, in every yellow and blue hue. When he moved, they swarmed in and out of every picture face.
Once he’d laid down the padding and the cloth and folded the napkins at each setting, he moved around the room again to look at the photographs themselves. He thought he’d learn more about who Wanda was, but he discovered there was a shrine here only for one. There was no order to the photographs that Francis could determine. Certainly no chronology, yet no chaos either. It was, everywhere, simply Tobias, whose motions in the next room were unhurried and steady and not loud. Francis continued to circle the table, through dragonflies, admiring more and more the beauty of Tobias’s small, slanted, always camera-shy, eyes, this memorial to the living.
He went into the den and turned on a lamp to look at the walls there. But the only photograph in the room sat on top of the upright piano, showing Tobias at six or seven playing the piano with crossed hands, really hamming it up for an elderly woman, with her mouth agape, sitting on the bench beside him.
Francis lifted the lid on the bench to see what music Tobias played but instead found countless loose photographs. Francis looked from one to the other, of Tobias again and again, and then he shifted a head shot of Bessie Smith into view, of Bessie Smith wearing her black dress with white trim, the same one he’d seen in Clarksdale and countless other times in his life, but this one was in color? He stood up with it, examining the same youthful skin, the same sure eyes and slight toothless smile. He hadn’t noticed the resemblance before.
He turned the picture over. “Sweet Sixteen” was written in cursive above the year 1985.
So Wanda wasn’t his age as he’d thought, after all. He counted on his fingers to be sure. She was sixteen years older. She was forty-eight. He turned the photo over. “Jesus Bessie,” he muttered. This wasn’t a case of resemblance but of duplication.
He dropped the photograph back inside the bench and shut the lid. He turned out the light, then the dining room light, and returned to the kitchen. Tobias was flattening a ball of chopped salmon in his hands, flouring it, then laying it on a platter next to a large bowl.
“That’s a dazzling lamp in there,” Francis said.
“It certainly puts off a lot of heat.”
Francis leaned forward against the counter and watched Tobias scoop a handful of seasoned fish from the bowl. “What else can I do?”
“You can have a seat and keep me company.”
“Easy enough.” But Francis stayed where he was. “So tell me, do kids ever listen to the blues around here anymore?”
Tobias shook his head. “Not much. I do, but nobody else.”
Tobias nodded and flattened. “Empress of the Blues? Especially her. ‘I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.’ Mother plays that one all the time.”
Francis smiled, remembering the song’s simplicity, Bessie’s forlorn voice accompanied only by a piano and the recording’s scratchy percussion.
“So tell me, if you don’t mind,” Tobias said, flouring, “why did you stop writing? Why would you do it and then not do it?”
Francis remembered in a flash his office at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas — the view of a Shell gas station actually more than the office itself. He’d always written at home, surrounded by his maps and music and lucky fertility icons, but his ex-wife’s bouts of depression and panic attacks had driven him into hiding. She’d insisted on moving back home, with or without him, so he feigned grotesque faith and applied for a position at MNU, where the Bible was foundational in every classroom. It was more jest and gesture than any serious desire to receive an offer and make his ex happy. Leaving his post in the MFA program at the University of Memphis cleaved his heart. The early May day he walked away from Patterson Hall pushing a dolly of boxes to his car parked across the railroad tracks in the shade of green, shaking ash was the most he’d ever grieved.
“Like how can a Christian refuse to pray?” Francis said.
Tobias snickered and laid the patty on the platter. “Maybe.”
“Or how can a musician grow to detest music?”
Tobias turned to Francis with still, unjudging eyes.
Francis gripped the counter and shook his head. “I have no good answer for you, Tobias. Sometimes we stop doing what we love to prepare for what we don’t, and sometimes we do it, I think, to remember who we were, that whole world, before we ever found it.”
Tobias took up the platter of salmon patties with both hands, without looking at it, and crossed the room. He set the platter on the range between the burners, then wiped his hands on the hand towel hanging from his back pocket.
“There’s always a chance I’ll write again.” Francis shrugged and followed him to the range. “Feel a need to do what I love to forget what I don’t. But I’m on sabbatical now to remember, not to forget. I’m thinking of other things.”
Tobias nodded, reaching for a bottle of vegetable oil in a cabinet above the range. A frying pan sat already on one of the burners. Tobias removed the lid and touched the bottom of the pan with his index finger — holding it up straight like a depth finder while he poured in the oil. Francis stepped closer. When the oil reached the first joint, Tobias raised the bottle, capped it, then wiped his finger on his towel. Francis stepped even closer, was standing beside Tobias when Tobias searched the heating panel for the appropriate knob. The red light came on. There was heat.
“Tobias,” Francis said, craning in, “I hope you don’t mind I ask this. I’m curious.”
“I don’t mind,” Tobias said, turning to him. “Yes, I’m blind.” He held his eyes open and still and straight, and they shone at Francis like pennies that had been rubbed faceless. They were clean even of pupils.
Francis stepped back. “I had no idea for the longest.”
Tobias shrugged. “Some never guess.”
Francis backed away farther than he ever had from anyone, and sat at the table for two. He watched Tobias cook or looked at nothing, sometimes in the window at his whiskery reflection, or out the picture window at the sky over the backyard trees, which Tobias had never seen.
“She’s home,” Tobias announced.
Francis listened. A moment later he heard a car door shut. But her car had been here all along. Then he heard the front door open.
“Boy,” called Wanda, “you got it smelling something good in here!” Then the door closed and the brass Jesus knocked.
Francis sat up in his seat and smiled in anticipation at the empty doorway.
Then she appeared, in uniform, which somehow, like water, magnified her size and age and strength. But she didn’t see him. She walked directly to Tobias standing at the range and kissed him on the back of his head.
“Toby boy,” she said, “how’d you know I been in a salmon mood all day?” She pronounced the word like the root of Francis’s middle name.
“Wanda,” Francis said, standing up, and she spun.
“My Lord,” she said. “Francis!” She ran to him, throwing open her postal blue arms, then just before they embraced, Francis thought he’d seen her smile evaporate and her body brake. Her arms, once strong and soft, were now merely soft around him.
She stepped back without looking at him and faced Tobias. “This is Francis,” she said.
“Yes, Mother, we’ve almost spent the whole day together.”
She glanced at Francis, then at her hands, which she held out in front of her. “Back in a minute.”
Francis sat down and looked at his own hands.
“The day before Cinco de Mayo is always hard on her,” Tobias said, stirring two pots at once. “She won’t be herself until she eats.”
After Francis washed his hands at the kitchen sink, he set the table with silverware and dishes. Then Tobias insisted that he go into the dining room and sit and do no more. So he sat where Tobias had said, but what he wanted to do was find Wanda and tell her not to worry. That there would be no evil-doing in this house, and no Platonic love-making either.
Tobias trekked back and forth bringing the food to the table. Francis was beginning to see pairs of chromosomes in the wings of dragonflies when Wanda sat down beside him and patted his hand.
“It’s good to see you again, Francis, it really is,” she said; the old eyes, the old smile. “A man of your word, that’s you.”
Tobias placed the platter of salmon patties in the center of the table, then sat and stretched his arms toward Wanda and Francis, and they linked hands. Wanda bowed her head with her eyes closed, and Francis watched Tobias lift his face to brimming illumination. Eight light bulbs.
“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is,” prayed Tobias, “than a stalled ox and hatred therewith. Amen.”
“Amen,” chimed Wanda. She looked at Francis. She was still holding his hand, and Tobias was beginning to serve himself potato salad. “He’s got a slew of them blessings memorized and picks the right one every time. Never misses.”
She let go of Francis’s hand to take the bowl of potato salad. And once Francis had taken his portion, Tobias informed him that because he had appropriated the location for each dish, he, Tobias, as their maître d’hôtel, expected Francis, as the last one in the serving line, to return each dish to him. If Francis wanted seconds or thirds, all he needed to do was ask and Tobias would provide.
Francis asked for a dish once in a while, and so did Wanda, but little else was spoken while they ate. Then Tobias served coffee and ice-cream.
“So where you been since I seen you last?” Wanda finally asked.
“Yeah?” She folded her arms over her breasts.
“That’s Mother’s hometown.”
“Well, I wouldn’t call it that, Toby.”
“You’re kidding,” Francis said. He set his cup on his saucer. “You were born in Clarksdale?”
“Uh-huh,” she said, “but that’s all. Just born there.”
“Really? Clarksdale? Like Bessie Smith.”
“The one and only,” Wanda said, rising to her feet. She picked up her plate, and Tobias leaned forward across the table and grabbed her wrist.
“Not tonight, Mother. You have a visitor. I’ll clean up. Go on, I mean it,” he said.
“Well, all right.” She set the plate down and looked at Francis. “I guess we best leave him to his privacy.”
Francis stopped in the den to put on his boots, then followed Wanda out the sliding glass door to sit with her in the chairs on the lawn fenced by woods. The Chihuahua he’d seen earlier now crept toward him and sniffed his pants leg.
Francis lowered his hand, and the dog crept forward and sniffed that, too. Teddy was completely dark chocolate except for its stark white face and the tip of its tail. Francis patted Teddy on the head, then the dog pranced away and hopped onto Wanda’s lap.
“Look at that sun, will you,” she said, stroking Teddy. An orange sun had descended behind the steeple of a pine tree. “My, my,” she said. “Looks skewered, don’t it?”
She turned to Francis, and he nodded and smiled.
“What’s your plans, Francis? Where’re you headed to next?”
“Sky’s the limit, huh? Well, I’d say stay the night, but my boy’s here. You understand, don’t you?”
“Of course,” he said, looking down at her dog, panting, its eyes half-closed.
Wanda gasped, startling Francis and Teddy both. “Francis, just where’s your truck at? Just realized.”
“Oh, I gave it to charity,” Francis said.
She laughed. “You must’ve won big at Bally’s after I left, huh?”
“No,” he said, crossing his legs.
She cocked her head to the side. “How exactly you getting around then?”
He pointed to his boots.
“You’s on a peculiar vacation.” She leaned toward him and clutched his arm. “Something wrong?”
He wanted to lie, but said nothing.
“What is it?” she asked. She tugged his arm.
“Wanda,” he said, “I’m not well.”
She set Teddy on the ground and moved her chair in front of his so that she could hold his hands in hers.
“That’s why I’m here. Why I’m on the road.” He turned his head down and admitted that the membranes throughout his body, lining organs and joints, had become inflamed and infected and the bad blood had poisoned his kidneys and liver and now they were calcifying to stone. He needed transplants but wasn’t guaranteed either and wasn’t even sure if he’d take them if offered. He looked up and saw himself in her eyes. “How can anybody casually say, Yes, I deserve these organs; I more than any other? And if I do say that, can it be true?” He wagged his head. “First come first serve is bully logic.”
She lowered her face and massaged the backs of his hands with her thumbs.
“All I know right now,” he said, leaning forward, resting his forehead against her crown, “is that I have a month or two, twelve months tops, to become what I’ve always wanted and never wanted simultaneously. I feel fine right now, but that won’t last, but right now I feel fine, and I feel very close to you, Wanda. You and Tobias both.”
“You’s a mighty good, sweet man, Francis. You can stay here long as you like. I was lying.” She looked up and wrapped her arms around him, and they were strong. She heaved a deep breath, then sighed long. “Francis, I ain’t clean. I been dirtier, a whole lot dirtier, but I ain’t clean by a long ways.”
Wanda leaned back in her chair and patted her leg, and Teddy hopped up and lay down facing Francis.
She rested her hand on Teddy’s back. “I didn’t know no signs, and Mama weren’t no smarter. She helped me birth Toby at home the way she done me. And he was so perty, so happy, I tell you. I ain’t lying about that, Francis. We was in a groove that first day, Toby and me. I mean, it was right, it was smooth.” She smiled, then her smile faded. “But the second day.” She looked at Teddy and stroked him to the end of his tail.
“I took him in,” she said, “‘cause there was white film across his eyes like bird droppings. I thought he caught some infection, but a long wait later doctor say he need to have a look at me.” She shook her head. “I’ll never forget how he come in the room. How he played with his ballpoint pen. Clicking it in and out, in and out. Then he up and tells me I had the syphilis.” She looked up, and her eyes looked alive with sadness. “When Toby come outta me, he say it got on his eyes. That he was blind for good.”
Francis reached out and held her knee.
“The syphilis on me’s cured, but I didn’t get just it. Got the herpe, too, from too much playing, and still got it! So I ain’t opened up to no man since and ain’t never.” She rested her hand on his. “I’m telling you all this, Francis, so’s you don’t misbelieve I don’t care for you. I’m dangerous. That’s why I keeps my distance. And if you still wants to stay, knowing all this, the couch is yours.” She squeezed his hand and eyed him without blinking. “Toby be pleased for you to, I can tell.”
The sun had descended behind the pine well behind Wanda, and now snakes of fuchsia appeared to radiate outward from her head.
The door behind him slid open. He looked over his shoulder to see Tobias stepping outside wearing reflective running shorts and a tank top.
“I’m leaving,” he said.
“Just jog close by,” Wanda told him.
“I’ll be careful.” Tobias raised a hand. “It was nice meeting you, Francis.”
“Don’t run him off just yet. He’s staying the night.” She arched her eyebrows and smiled at Francis.
“Sure, one night, if you don’t mind.”
“Excellent,” Tobias said and shut the door behind him.
Wanda stood up and turned her chair around and planted it next to his. Together they watched the day die and the stars come alive.
“Well,” Wanda said, pushing herself to her feet, “I hear a Bloody Mary a calling. How about you? Is you thirsty as me?”
Francis stood and grabbed her arms. “You tell me,” he said and pulled her to him for a kiss. Her lips were dry and stayed closed, so he kept his closed. They kept their eyes open, as if they were waiting for something else and merely watched each other blink to pass the time.
He pulled away and stepped back. “Well?” He feared the verdict.
“Yeah, you could use a drink.” She took his hand. “Come on,” she said, and he followed her into the house to the kitchen where he sat at the small table for two and watched her mix Cîroc and V8 in a lead crystal pitcher. She stirred it with a glass wand, then poured it into two lead crystal goblets filled with crushed ice.
She set the pitcher on the table between them and sat down. They held hands while they drank. Occasionally, he’d glance at their reflection in the picture window, at her breasts and the long line of cleavage, long as a ruler.
“Wanda,” he said, “I want you to lead me out of here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m yours,” he said. “Have me. Take me to your bed.”
“No, Francis!” She wrung her hand free of him. “I won’t have you on my head, too. I’m bearing enough.”
“I’m probably going to die soon anyway.”
“Don’t talk such talk,” she said.
“And if I don’t die, what’s it matter? If I can endure familial Mediterranean fever, I can endure a little old virus. And there’s no guarantee I even contract it, right?”
She finished her drink and poured herself another.
“I love you, Wanda.” He moved to the edge of his chair. “That may sound crazy, maybe I am crazy, but it’s how I feel, and right now that’s all that matters.” He took her hand back into his. “Wanda, I’m giving you an opportunity of a lifetime. You can love again.”
“Nah, now,” she said, looking toward the window, “I never loved them people.”
“Well, here’s your chance. I’m it, Wanda. Admit it. You know you love me.”
She cut her eyes his way, and a smile formed, as gradual as the movement of a moon.
“Wanda, you know you have to show me you love me. You know the danger is if you don’t.”
She opened her mouth to speak but breathed first. “Will you shower directly?”
He carried her hand to his heart and crossed it.
“It’s been a long time.” Her face neared his. “You’d have to step easy. I, I become a virgin again. And that ain’t like we were taught, I’m afraid, being a nice princess thing. It’s a wild, ugly thing now, I’m guessing. Maybe something fierce and who knows what else. I mean, I’m a whole lot stronger and a whole lot bigger than I used to be.”
He nodded and touched her hair, her neck, with a brush of his hand.
Her eyes shut and she smiled and pressed her bowed head against his cheek. She took a deep breath and let it out against his neck with a hum.
He agreed and shut his eyes. He liked his life here. He liked it best of any.
As if something pricked her, she bent low with a suddenness that opened his eyes and she swept him into her arms.
He laughed at the stunt, but Wanda didn’t. She took a step and then another without speaking or blinking or plodding — her expression as resolute as her arms were steady around his back and beneath his knees, which now felt unusually tender and burned.
“Watch your head,” Wanda said, leaving the kitchen and entering the darker dining room, past the silent black nest of dragonflies, and into the even darker hall.
Afloat in her arms, he recalled his mother and father and that long-ago hall to his bedroom. Without looking he could see his mother’s red bouffant hair, like cotton candy, and his father’s horned-rim glasses and striped ties, of course, though the hall, this hall, was also like so many other halls. At the end, Wanda kicked open a door and carried him through it.
The room, with no sign of windows, seemed expansive as a theater, and smelled of Olay and baby powder. “Don’t forget to breathe,” she told him, laying him down on a velvet spread. She moved back to the door soundlessly as a ghost and shut and locked it. A ceiling fan purred, brushing his skin and stirring his hair, but for only a moment.
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