As he stood in the shower, lukewarm water running down his face
and blocking his ears, he realized he didn’t know a goddamn thing.
Seriously. Not a goddamn thing, he thought.
What he knew - or thought he knew - felt feeble and and untested.
Information accrued from a wash of random stimuli - like pond scum that gathers
along the banks of a rushing river. He knew fragments of parts of things people
thought they had once heard from some guy in a bar somewhere a few years back.
He couldn’t even remember if he’d already washed his armpits or
not. He lifted his arm and sniffed.
Nowadays you want something more darkly hot-blooded than a butterfly pavilion
but again you're disappointed - bats flap fingers, not arms, and won't
cause a distant storm. Simple rain confuses their echoes. You fear the
chalk screech of their blackboard world, their surprise fur and parched
membranes, the gust as they pass your cheek, the way bats feel moths pass.
Moths screech back to confuse. All you can do is leave through the
air-locked door, rejoin your parents who look so happy now, picnicking in
the sun where you left them arguing. They kiss. You could sneak up and
Ignacio Santo kicked his snake-skins up on the desk and tore open
a raucous, juicy, terrible fart. The stray cat he picked up the day before at
the 7-11, whom he named Muhammad Ali, looked at him and hissed. Ignacio's eyes
swam in the back of his head and his brown cheeks inflated as he laughed and
laughed and laughed at his flagellant and Muhammad Ali's hisses. Once his
laughing fit ended, he unscrewed a bottle of Texas hooch and took a sloppy
swig, spilling some on his tie. He normally wore a bolo tie, but not today, his
wife made him wear a regular maroon neck tie she found at the department store
where she was always buying towels and curtains and secular looking crosses to
hang on the wall. She told him bolo ties were for rich white men in Houston
sitting in high-rise offices built on the profits of black gold, not
construction foreman like Ignacio who's office is a trailer that is in a
different place every couple of months. She said his workers probably didn't
respect him when he wore a bolo tie. She said they probably called him a clown.
He didn't think his workers cared what tie he wore considering the majority of
them were felons who would gladly walk around with a syringe tucked behind
their ear like a cigarette if Ignacio tolerated that kind of thing. Oh well, he
thought, let his wife dress him, feed him, and shave his back, just gives him
more time to day dream and ignore responsibilities, he figured.
Ruth told the cook that
when she was growing up in Tennessee, her mama fixed turnips once a week.
Said this to the cook like she was Queen of the South, and the next thing you
know, we’re stuck with turnips on the menu.
Ruth, with the red, red
nails of a hussy, three diamond rings, and then to have to listen to her golden
bracelets clinking over the roll basket.
She’s the queen all right,
just ask deaf Will. Nearly always after ice cream he shuffles over to our
table, shouting to Ruth, “I love your beautiful face, why oh why don’t you come
to Bingo, darling?”
Then last night after three
nights in a row interrupted, when I merely say, “I’d like to get through just
one dinner without the paramedics,” Ruth starts in with how fortunate we are if
our blood’s thin enough, if our hearts can hold us up.
When they set the bed on fire the first time,
it skittered back--motored by their shimmying motion--toward the
closet, over some strewn-about candles she asked him to light to
set the mood.
“Saints alive!” he blurted out as flames
flashed, not knowing from whence that exclamation came.
He slipped out, grabbed the burning blanket and
beat it on the floor until the embers died. He dashed to the kitchen,
snatched an orange juice carton and doused the charred fabric.
“Honey, it’s okay.”
“Dear, you can’t be too careful. One little
lingering cinder can reignite a fire. A huge blaze could snuff us
out while we sleep. The smoke, that’s what gets you.”
After that, the candles went into hibernation
in the hall closet.
The second time they set the bed on fire, the
reintroduced candles were again the culprits. They drifted off into
the arms of Morpheus in their joint embrace with the wicks still lit.
One somehow toppled off the dresser.
Nostrils thick with a smoky stench, he soon had
every last candle in the apartment cinched in a trash bag.
“Hell,” he thought as he stood before the
dumpster. “I hope to hell this doesn’t symbolize a thing.”
He throws his arm around me, says, “You know what else
Bob and me got in common? We’re both still crazy about our wives. No kidding.
At the conference in Vegas where we met, other guys were checking out the
scenery, needling us to join them at some parties. We weren’t interested. No
one could believe after being married 30 years, we’re both still madly in love
with you ladies.”
I exchange a half smile with the woman beside me. He
removes his arm, turns away to continue discussion with Bob on the finer points
of some topic that never held my interest. There are things his partner and I
may have in common, but nothing we can freely share, waiving down the waiter,
empty goblets raised.
He was always above my
longing looks, never once thought that it might be a kindness to engage me,
instead of expending all his energy making sure any conversation I tried to
start promptly met its death.
It took me awhile, but now
I realize that his shoulder wasn’t the only cold thing.