UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
I thrash in a murk of days
Away three days, a homecoming that’s more like a stroll to the gallows. The wraparound porch, the decaying swing-set. The two cats she salvaged from the pound, out swashbuckling with the grasshoppers. Our goldfish, unfed for a week.
This is the damage educated people can do to a town.
Aline’s Volvo is parked out front, gunmetal grey, a color most unbecoming on her. I tap my horn as I enter the driveway, hoping she’ll emerge onto the patio in her nightgown, or at least part the blinds for a look. Nothing.
She’s something of a minor writer, not trying to change the world, just the manner in which it is seen. As if wiping the blur from the lens. Her stories, in truth, are atrocities. She’s collapsed my life into fiction. My protests are no good. I feel as if I’ve been skinned and turned to boots.
“Honey,” I say in a most delightful cadence, dropping my suitcase. “I’m home.”
I lean in to kiss her. “No,” she protests. “Not until the hour’s decent.” It’s eight-fifteen on the analog clock. Her face is pale, her breath sour. “Have a cigarette, a coffee,” she says into the pillow. “Calm yourself.”
I go in the kitchen and take the pot by the handle. Everything we own, it seems, is made of plastic. “Coffee’s cold,” I yell.
“Put some Old Crow in it,” she yells.
It’s the postseason, the last of the year. I untie the paper and pour over the box scores of games I heard over the radio, outcomes I already know. Shortly she wakes and curls on the sofa, drawing her knees underneath, the bracelets jingling slightly as she flips the Sentinel’s pages.
For breakfast she’s playing Adderley, Tatum. Digestion aids, she says. I start to unpack. It’s chaos in our bedchamber. “Are you incapable of ever making the bed?” I ask.
She takes up a photo I keep on the mantle of my father, in uniform, his first days as a security guard.
“See how you’re going to lose your looks. It starts here,” she says, running her finger along my jaw.
I peer around, surveying. The house is musty and unkempt. Under the rugs are the scrapings of bowls she’s thrown, enraged. There, the marks on the walls. She’s taken all the equity out of our marriage. And divorce – it’s still an epithet in these parts.
“Oh! I have to get this down,” she says, stricken, and hurries into the other room. “Before the inkwell dries.”
Before it bellies up.
I find the trumpets she’s so fond of spastic, and quite unintelligible. She’s nursing a schooner of tea, writing about her university days in Rhode Island, that collegiate feel of invincible and everything in front of her, the boys and nights and occasional run-ins with faculty, frittering away her youth on barstools, in lecture halls … Her first year she took a position at the college paper, and when the editors left for the day she’d kick her feet up and dial home, long-distance.
Guiltless. Guileless. There is no indignity in living in the past. I put stories together like mosaics, she says – first I fracture the pots, then I liberally apply the glue. It’s just arranging the words as you would furniture.
Work’s in an hour. My clothes smell of car upholstery. We floss together, and shower. Her torso, once firm from cheer and gymnastics, is softening a little. Eczema on her shoulders. I feel her tracing the fresh scratches she’s left on my back – deep ones, for she likes to claw. And beneath them, older scratches.
Marriage isn’t compromise; it’s tolerance for unlikenesses. What Aline loves is that I’m indefatigable: frayed jeans, flannel, socks that are mismatched. An errands-goer. What I love in her is her irreverence: every other November in the ballot box she asks who I’m voting for, and reverses it.
“Scott,” she says, “did you stop and get groceries? The coupons count for double today.”
I unload the bags onto the counter, my keys. She’s wallpapering the kitchen, giving it one last going-over, smoothing over the blemishes of our ascendance.
“How can you do that without any light,” I say.
“Our lives are already too electric,” she says. “Tell me about your day.”
“This is a small refrigerator,” I tell her, peering in. “You know we have to share the space.”
“Yeah,” I say, crouched down, rearranging the perishables. “And your High Lifes are taking up all this room.”
“I asked how your day was.”
“Well, I had to go down to the county and get this paper signed. Then I had to go to the city and get this other paper signed.
And then I had to cash my check. What about yours?”
“You’re looking at it,” she says, plastering fruit-bowl still lifes (with blue bunting) onto our once wonderfully plain Navajo-white dining room wall.
“You’re ruining it,” I say. “This room. It’s ruined now.”
“I think it’s appetizing,” she says, fixated on the last strips, a ruler between her teeth.
Since April she’s been out of work, idling on the porch, smoking large sums of marijuana, her mind atrophying. Lately she’s made friends with the landlady, shutting off the lawnmower to talk, going in for tea sometimes. Long Islands. Gloria. Gloria and Jim. Gloria believes we’re model tenants, Aline says. It’s Gloria who invited us over for dinner tonight, drinks hopefully, and approaching from the driveway we step gingerly over the azaleas, the insides of their home blazing.
“Remember, they’re Christian people,” I say, as Aline pulls down my sleeves. There’s a balcony on the second-floor, an add-on, the porch warping under its weight.
“What does that mean?” she says.
“No profanity,” I say. “And no going for seconds.”
We play a board game, Scrabble, on a folding table next to the coffee table where Jim’s simulated the lesser known of the Civil War battles – Murfreesboro, Wilson Creek. The seltzer empties; the gin. Mostly it’s Gloria who’s pouring. Consecutive champagne cocktails. The chairs are rigid white wicker. Jim says we ought to look into buying, permanent, while the neighborhood’s still cheap. His forearms must be double the circumference of mine. “You know this used to be an orange grove,” Jim says, “back in the day.”
“Was that when the Joads came through here?” Aline asks.
He and Gloria look at one another. “I don’t think they get it, sweet,” I say, rubbing her knee. “Try not to be so esoteric, will you?”
Between the subsurface verbal fusillades, we’re smoking, laughing at jokes that Gloria’s read in Reader’s Digest. Quite high, Aline stands to stretch, and seeing Jim’s service portrait, turns to ask what all the bars and ribbons mean.
“Sergeant,” he says.
“And these epaulets.”
“These epaulets.” She pats her shoulders. “It’s a modern army, yes? Why epaulets? You’re not Napoleon.”
“Pace yourself, sweet,” I tell her.
“No, I think it’s noble,” she says to Gloria. “Scott’s flatfooted. Plus he wears contacts.” And for an apology she gives me the widest smile and a dry peck on the cheek.
I suggest a stretch of the legs, and Jim insists I see his garage, where he demonstrates the fundamentals of welding. Before he was drafted he worked construction in Los Angeles, cleaning windows, remodeling. There’s a photo of him in mottled painter’s jeans, on the pegboard next to his sharpshooting medals.
“Here’s a story for you,” he says, “just to prove I wasn’t always a square. One of our clients owned the Whisky in Los Angeles. You’ve heard of it, yeah? In a month’s time we practically gutted his residence, totally re-did it. Anyway, he was so pleased with the end result that he put us on the guest list for a week, au gratis. So I took Gloria there one night, and told the hostess my name, and she went off to the phone somewhere and came back and said, ‘Mr. Lucas, Mr. Valentine said you’re welcome to any champagne in the house, except the Dom Perignon.’ And do you know what Gloria said! ‘That cheap son-of-a-bitch Valentine.’”
“Incredible,” I tell him. “How could you not marry a girl like that?”
Jim looks at my hair, where it curls over my collar.
“You know your lease is up at the end of the month,” he says.
“We had an idea of renewing it,” I say.
“Gloria tells me everything Aline says. Everything about what you do, what she does. What you two do together. And – no, let me finish. I know what you’re thinking. Typical Marine. But I’m no dunce. I know that smell. And I don’t care what kind of elevation you get from it. The grass goes or you go.”
Aline, I asked you a hundred times to quit, told you that it jeopardized everything – our savings, our good footing here.
“Then I guess we’re going,” I tell Jim.
“I just won’t stand for it,” he says.
“Sometimes,” I say, “we even smoke it inside.”
“You better not have.”
“You’ve heard of Reefer Madness,” I say, emboldened. “It’s all we ever watch.”
Jim follows me back into the foyer, where I pick my coat off the rack and take Aline by the arm.
“Darling,” I say, “did you know that Jim painted the outside of the Whisky-a-Go-Go?”
“Truly?” Aline says. “What color?”
“You’ve been there, remember,” I say, ushering her outside.
“I must not have been paying any attention,” Aline says.
“Wait,” Gloria says. “Aren’t you staying for dinner?”
“Unfortunately, no. We have to bolt,” I say, turning down my collar.
“It’s too bad,” Gloria says. “We were having some time.”
Leaving. All our things. Our comfort. How am I going to break this to her. She loves this god-forsaken place. We settled here, Visalia, for the weather, the easy cost and latitude. Do they know what it’s like on one income, riches to rags, upturning the sofa cushions for laundry money, driving used cars without all the accouterments?
She stays up with me, the late show on mute, mending the cigarette burn in my vintage Brooks Brothers’ shirt. Quietly she puts down the stitching and takes up a pad and pen. It was a gift of mine, from last Christmas. One of those sleek, heavy pens that’s spring-loaded. Her cursive is near perfect.
If she is feeling anything, any pain or remorse, it is not legible on her face. Brown University. Days I wouldn’t exchange for anything. We met for the first time in Gatsby’s, in mixed company, the girls jockeying for the maraschino cherries submerged in my bourbon. But that seems like forever ago.
Zachary Amendt is 23 & new to Brooklyn, a native of Southern California. After college (University of California, Davis), he worked as a bureau chief for City News Service, Inc., the nation's largest regional news wire service. Last year he authored a short novel, Onset of Trembling, which is awaiting publication in the bottom shelf of his writing desk.
© 2008 Underground Voices