UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Purgatory is a Rocking Chair
Gabriella Glass stood up from gathering her morning harvest of strawberries, smiled as she looked at the lake, and died. She lay there crumpled on the ground, her khaki slacks and brown t-shirt making her body
Fortunately, Miss Gabby, as people called her, had put her strawberry beds right up at the front of her yard. She said it was because the light was better for berries there, but in reality she liked to have the neighborhood children reaching their little hands through the pickets of her fence to feast on the fruit. “Better them than the darn crows,” I’d overheard her say more than once. It was those same children who discovered her body; they screamed as loud as they could that Miss Gabby was hurt and ran back to their mommas.
Miss Gabby grew up here, married Baxter Fain Glass IV, the first person in our town to leave the state for college, Annapolis at that, and moved away just as soon as the wedding was over. But Miss Gabby moved back in 1966 after living for a time in Norfolk, Virginia, home port of the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, the ship her husband was stationed on. Miss Gabby’s first and only child, Gregory, had been born with all kinds of problems. Back then, we called him a mongoloid. These days’ people would more correctly say he was diagnosed with Down's Syndrome. Whatever you want to call it, Lt. and Mrs. Glass decided that, since the Forrestal was about to deploy to Vietnam, it would be better for the mother and child to move back home where there would be friends and family to support the two of them. Lt. Glass’ father found a small cottage two blocks up from the lake with a nice sized lot. Miss Gabby and Gregory moved in as soon as the papers were signed and the lawyers were paid.
Gregory was seven when they moved back. He lacked the mobility of most children; he wasn’t crippled exactly, he just seemed content to sit himself in one place and watch the world go by. His weight might have been part of the problem; he was a bit beyond being called “big boned,” moving more towards being called, though not to Miss Gabby’s face of course, “fat as a pig.” He’d sit in the yard, his pink legs looking themselves like a couple of piglets, watch the grass and, with almost methodical effort, pluck a piece of the nearest plant, and eat. And as if those plants were pure lard, Gregory continued to expand.
Now, likely because of his size, Gregory was not one to make any excess movements. In fact he was about as mobile as an alligator on a cold winter morning. But the sight of the mailman walking down the road in his grey shorts and pale blue shirt would, like nothing else, put Gregory in motion, running and heaving, wobbling and grinning, his normally doughy skin flushing with excitement, until he arrived at the mail box. The mailman, one of only three people to ever see Gregory smile, would grin back at the boy and hand Gregory his favorite thing in the whole wide world – a letter from his father. Most of the time, Lt. Baxter’s letters would actually come in the form of reel-to-reel tapes. Gregory would run back into the house, tear open the envelope and thrust the roll of glossy brown tape at his mother. If she wasn’t immediately compliant, he’d pull out the tape player and bang it on the breakfast table until he got what he wanted. After Miss Gabby had placed the reel onto the machine, he’d rush in to his room and bring out a photograph of Lt. Glass in a gold frame. Then he’d listen to his father’s voice. Gregory’s face would become at once effervescent yet still, as if the boy had entered a state of rapture. When the tape ended, he’d press the rewind button and listen to it all over again. Miss Gabby was a woman of infinite patience, as far as I’m concerned, though after the 9th or 10th replay, she’d insist on putting the machine and the tape away, telling the boy that he’d wear them out if he didn’t stop.
It was about this same time that Miss Gabby drove to Baton Rouge and bought a television set. It was delivered with a little bit of fanfare since it was the first color television on the block. From the first episode of “The Lone Ranger” that Miss Gabby turned on to check that it was working, Gregory would never voluntarily be much more than a foot from that television. It got so bad that Miss Gabby took to unplugging it and locking the front door to the house to keep Gregory from lumbering back in and plopping himself down to watch another show.
Gabby planted the side yard, the yard closest to the lake, with vegetables and had a crew plant the back yard with Satsuma and pecan trees. She’d spent quite a bit on two of the trees as they were larger and more mature and towered above the others. Between these two, she strung a hammock and let Gregory loll on it in the afternoon, splayed on his back, watching the clouds meander across the turquoise sky, All the while, she worked her plots of vegetables and fruit, weeding and watering, pruning and staking, looking more like a sweaty field hand than the wife of a naval officer. Mother and son seemed quite content with their lives and each other.
Their self contained, easy going (at least for Gregory) routine endured even into the heavy heat of July, a heat made all the heavier by the cloying smell coming from the paper mill some fifteen miles away; a smell that made the entire town feel like it was trapped inside a child’s paste jar. Gregory had his eighth birthday party on July 10 and Miss Gabby invited all of the children of the neighborhood. Gregory didn’t seem to notice them much, though he did have a good time drawing on the front walkway with frosting from the cake.
Things might have continued in this happy way indefinitely except for a small electrical surge in an airplane on the USS Forrestal, half a world away off the coast of Vietnam. That surge caused a rocket to light off and hit the fuel pod of a nearby jet, a jet loaded with aviation gas and bombs. The result was the start of one of the worst naval disasters since World War II and killed 134 men, including one Lt. Baxter Fain Glass IV.
Lt. Glass was running from his burning A-4 fighter jet when a bomb nearby, bathed in burning jet fuel, cooked off. The explosion was so intense that he and most everything on that section of flight deck simply disappeared into the Gulf of Tonkin. No body was ever recovered. At about 2:30 on an August 1st so hot that the sky seemed to be melting, two naval officers in sweat-stained uniforms marched past the strawberries and knocked on the door to give Miss Gabby and Gregory the news.
It was still that night, an eerie stillness that set my teeth on edge, so hot that the tree frogs were too fatigued to sing and the mosquitoes’ hum seemed muted as if they were encased in molten candle-wax. The only sound was the drone of air conditioners for those lucky enough to have them. I sat down in a rocking chair on the porch across the street and stared at Miss Gabby’s house. It didn’t take long before I heard a strange keening sound, sort of like a cat that’s been hit by a car. Sort of like the sound that Miss Maple’s cat made upon seeing me in that rocking chair just before it arched its back and bounded into the night. The sound grew louder and deeper until it threatened to overwhelm even the hum of the air conditioners.
In a moment, there was the breaking of glass and a series of thuds from Miss Gabby’s house. I heard the strangling pop of light bulbs, the clattering bang of shattered crockery, the hammering thuds of heavy furniture, thuds that shook the ground as they pounded at the darkness. Doc Tremblay arrived and ran inside.
An ambulance followed soon after, its red lights wheeling around, bathing Miss Gabby’s cottage in an evil, flickering redness, looking like what I had once thought purgatory would look like, those times I thought about purgatory, which hadn’t been often until quite recently. Doc Tremblay appeared at the front door to Miss Gabby’s house and he directed the ambulance driver and his assistant into the house. I chewed on my pipe and waited. I heard the words “sedated” and “use restraining straps” and then all three of them reappeared with someone strapped to the gurney. It was poor Gregory, looking more like a rotten, lichen covered log than a little boy, a boy moaning, despite the drugs, with unrestrained grief. It seemed to take forever to get Gregory into that ambulance, but at last they did and away they went with Doc Tremblay and Miss Gabby following in Doc’s car.
A week later, Officer Bosco arrived with the mayor, who just happened to be Bosco’s uncle, and a crew of prisoners, hard to miss in their identical black and white striped jump suits. It was this last group who began working on Miss Gabby’s house. They poured pilings and then erected a frame around the existing structure. Despite the heat and despite the frequent thunder storms almost every afternoon, it seemed like those prisoners worked ten hours a day for three straight weeks. The prisoners were strangers, and when their jail time was up, they scattered, like dandelion seeds in a summer breeze, or, depending on your feelings towards the incarcerated, like cockroaches under a kitchen light, to parts unknown so no one ever got the opportunity to ask them about that construction.
In less than a month there was a new house where the little cottage had been. It was a huge thing that dwarfed the houses on either side, white clapboard more than two stories high and gabled at the top, with dark green shutters all around. Miss Gabby seemed satisfied even though it had eaten up a fair bit of her garden, and cast a couple of hours of shade on her tomatoes. Doc Tremblay and Officer Bosco were frequent visitors to the new house and they brought boxes and packages every time they arrived. Frankly, if I hadn’t known Emily Tremblay, Doc’s wife, so well, I might have suspected something going on between Doc and Miss Gabby, he was there so often with presents, but I knew better.
Well, the entire town came out for Lt. Glass' memorial service, all looking properly grim in their black suits and dresses, handkerchiefs dabbing foreheads as often as eyes in the sweltering church. It was a short service and Miss Gabby offended almost everyone by failing to have a wake. Not to be put off, the women of the town mixed and baked, simmered and stewed, and appeared that afternoon in twos and threes with casseroles and hams, pitchers of sweet tea and punch. Miss Gabby offended near the entire town a second time by refusing to let anyone inside her house. Everyone was curious as to the new addition, it had gone up as quickly as anyone had ever seen, and had been built with prison labor no less. But she refused, keeping everyone on the porch, dashing in and out to put food in the refrigerator or to bring dips and crackers out onto the porch, her black dress clinging to her slight frame like a wet shroud. People complained about her rudeness for nearly a week, but the town’s a forgiving lot, especially to a young widow who had so recently also given up her child, and town’s thoughts turned to other things or, more truthfully, to other people.
And, that would seem to be that. Oh, there were a few odd things from time to time; the gals at the pharmacy pointing out how many groceries Miss Gabby purchased, gossiping that she was feeding some back door lover, guessing that it was poor Hank, who dropped by from time to time to trim the trees. Then there was that period where she seemed to sleep all day and be up all night, couple of years actually. She tended her garden in the evening and then stayed up with her lights on far into the night. She returned to sewing and, from her open front windows; the sewing machine could be heard moaning that odd tortured sound, kind of like a frog that’s been put to work, with the shuttle clacking an accompanying rhythm. Oddest of all was the electronics she bought. She was the first person to buy a VCR and, later a DVD player. Yep, Miss Gabby was addicted to the boob tube. Or so it seemed.
As to poor Gregory, no one talked much about him after conversation about that violent evening died down. He didn’t attend his father’s memorial service, of course; no one expected him to. Afterwards, Miss Gabby never volunteered any information about him. If asked, she’d sigh and say that he was in a good place and, no, it didn’t look like he would ever leave. After awhile the town stopped inquiring about him at all.
Time passed and folks all got older and maybe a little more set in their ways. Well, some did, others not so much. The Chief retired in 2006 and made a failed bid for the congressional seat. After that, he played golf, his golf cart was probably the only one in the state with a built in police scanner, and talked LSU football. Doc never actually retired, he just stopped taking new patients and slowed down as the old ones moved away or passed on. I just continued sitting on the porch, rocking and waiting. And then one day Miss Gabby died.
* * * *
The first official person to arrive was Officer Pete Singer. He parked his car in the middle of the street and listened to Missy Alexander, who had flagged him down. Officer Pete also listened to assorted children explain the situation with much pointing at Miss Gabby’s body and a general waiving of hands, shuffling of feet, picking of noses.
Having heard enough from Missy and the children to get some idea of what had happened, Pete called the station for an ambulance. Miss Gabby was there among the strawberries, wicker basket by her side, and the morning’s pick of fruit, set free of their confinement, strewn through the picket fence and across the sidewalk. Officer Pete jotted a few things in a little notebook and walked over to where Miss Gabby lay. He checked her neck for a pulse and then took a long look at the body without moving it, stood up, and shook his head at Missy, confirming the obvious. He instructed her to move the kids off the sidewalk since they’d started eating Miss Gabby’s dropped strawberries, the fruit being potential evidence and all, and stepped towards his patrol car. A noise, muffled as if buried under Miss Gabby, caused Officer Pete to jump and pivot back towards the body. He rolled the corpse over and retrieved from her waist a baby monitor.
The monitor was playing the sound, I could hear it plain as day, of a television show and then a voice cried out, “Momma, hungry.” It was a deep voice, sonorous almost, but the formation of the words was lisping, fumblingly pronounced like those of a child or even a baby just learning to talk.
Pete asked if anyone else lived in the house. The children answered “no” in a dysfunctional chorus. Missy started to shake her head, frowned and stared down at Miss Gabby. After a long pause she stated that, as far as she was aware, Miss Gabby lived alone.
Pete looked up at Miss Gabby’s house, resting his hands on his hip, the fingers of his right hand picking at the leather safety strap of his holster. After a moment’s pause he walked up the stairs to the porch and peered into the house. Slowly, as if expecting trouble, he opened up the aluminum screen door, weathered and white spotted with age, and walked inside. Unseen, I got up from my rocking chair, stretched and yawned, more out of habit rather than need, and tagged along, since I had been curious about the house myself for years.
Officer Pete stepped inside, the steps from his heavy work shoes echoing as he did so. His eyes adjusted to the gloom and he made out a work table festooned with sewing patterns, thin brown sheets of paper fluttering like startled birds in the slight breeze. Next to the window was an old Singer sewing machine with two immense pieces of off-white canvas fabric hanging limply on both sides of the needle, one half neatly stitched and the other awaiting its fate. He walked over and picked up a copy, one of several, of Esphyr Slobodkin’s book “Caps for Sale,” on an adjacent table. Also on that table, looking like ticker tape before it is thrown out a window at a passing parade, were strips of paper. Officer Pete picked up one. It was taped together from sliced notebook paper and numbered, in what appeared to be a woman’s script, from 1 to 108 with 108 at the bottom.
It was at that moment that Pete’s focus shifted from the small, odd items set on tables, organized like work stations, as if in an office or a factory, and focused on the large. He looked up and saw that the entire edifice was a single large, cavernous actually, room. In the center of that room, a room devoid of any signs of domesticity, a room containing only those items strictly necessary to further the purpose of the former owner, though only hinting at what that purpose might be, sat the original cottage that Miss Gabby and Gregory had moved into in 1966. He opened a cabinet situated next to the white clapboards of one side of the house and found that it contained a multi disc dvd player, turned on and playing. Wires exited the cabinet, travelled a couple of feet and then disappeared into a PVC pipe that stuck out from the side of the cottage.
Outside, a car came careening down the street and slammed to a halt behind Officer Pete’s patrol car. From it Chief Bosco and Doc Tremblay emerged. They were dressed in shorts and polo shirts, and it was pretty clear that they had come from the golf course, given that Doc Tremblay still had a club in his hands. They bounded out of the car, ran to Miss Gabby’s house and up the stairs, their combined weight causing the treads to moan in protest. Chief Bosco threw open the door with such force that Officer Pete whirled and drew his weapon.
“Chief, you know better than to charge an officer like that,” Officer Pete chided. He took a step backwards and stared at the men, at their skinny, veiny legs, in Bosco’s case, legs that seemed too skinny to support his enormous belly, at their skinny arms, at their faces, grim with determination and sagging with age. “Doctor Tremblay, put down the club, please. Chief, hand me your weapon.”
Each of the men stared back at Officer Pete, at the grey uniform with the black stripe on the side of the pants, at the black leather utility belt, slung low over his narrow hips and exercise-tightened stomach, at the swell of his chest, a chest used to constant weight lifting and magnified by his bullet proof vest.
Doc Tremblay looked at the 5 wood in his hand as if seeing it for the first time. Then he leaned it against a table. Chief Bosco pulled his revolver out of its holster at the small of his back with two fingers and handed it to Officer Pete who took it, emptied it of cartridges and handed it back to the Chief. He pointed at the windowed side door of Miss Gabby’s original cottage, the view through the glass occluded by heavy shades. “Would one of you open it, please?”
“Pete, hear us out first,” suggested Doc Tremblay, “what you’re going to see inside may seem a little strange.”
Officer Pete looked around the huge room, at the various work stations, at the cabinet containing the DVD and then at the cottage before turning his gaze back to Doc Tremblay, “This all looks a little strange to me, Doctor. Now, Chief, open the door.”
The two men glanced at one another and hesitated; each seemed unwilling or unable to perform the act demanded. Officer Pete glanced down at the floor and then, returned his gaze at the two men, “Gentlemen, open this door or wait for the locksmith on the porch and in handcuffs.”
With a final glance at Bosco, Doc Tremblay fished keys from his pocket and twisted one into the lock of the side door to the cottage. He gently pushed the door open and we stepped into a small kitchen. The counter’s Formica top gleamed turquoise blue in the fluorescent lights and a white refrigerator, its rounded corners and chrome latch and hinges bearing testament to its age, hummed softly. Above the sink was a window, its blind drawn and its curtains, displaying pieces of fruit drawn in reds and blues and greens, closed, yet through which light peeked through in places, flickering like distant stars or dust motes at sunset. In the sink were dirty breakfast dishes and a cast iron frying pan, waiting to be cleaned.
Officer Pete glanced at each of the men, his face a mask of confusion, then started down the hall, towards the sound of a television. I followed him into the first room and found a queen sized bed, made, covered with a white knit spread. A low wooden dresser stood next to it, intricately carved with figures from an Asian pastoral scene. On top of the dresser a silver tray, on which lay a bone-handled brush and sundry bottles and tubes, was reflected by the large mirror that sat on top of the dresser. A framed picture sat on the matching carved-wood night stand, a picture of a man and a woman, she in a flowing wedding dress, her arm holding his, he in a white uniform, smiling and holding a pipe in his free hand.
Before Pete could stop him, Doc Tremblay walked down the hallway, stepped around an aqua colored canister vacuum, and opened a door. “Hello, Greggy!”
It was like looking at pictures from an oldLife Magazine article about decorating for your son, like being transported back in time, as if time itself had stopped in the 1960s. The bed was neatly made with a beige ripcord cover, over which half a dozen G.I. Joes were seated in various stages of undress next to a stuffed Winnie the Pooh, equally nude, lacking one eye, white stuffing emerging from one arm, looking like the underarm hair of an old man. Over the bed headboard was a carved wooden crucifix that had been shattered at one point and repaired; there were lines of dried glue glittering in the light in several places, and the feet of the Christ figure were missing. On the wall beside his bed was a strip of paper identical to those in the living room, vertically numbered, but this one’s numbers only went from 1 to 107.
At first glance, this room could have been any young boy’s bedroom. But closer inspection revealed that the old television, too large for the room, with a solid walnut cabinet, and with fabric covered speakers on either side that framed, not the curving face of a television tube, but rather a new flat screen monitor that almost, but didn’t quite, cover the hole where the television’s original picture tube had been removed. The bed in the room, at second glance, was held off the ground by heavy wooden posts and the rails, painted white like the headboard and holding the mattress in place, were made from 2 x 4s. Similarly, the rocking chair, with its back pointed at the door, white like the rest of the furniture and crowned with a carved cowboy hat on the upper back rail, was larger than child sized. It was larger than adult sized and the thick braces across the back made the chair seem more fitting for the repose of something large and simian than small and human.
In that chair, with his back to the door, sat the room’s inhabitant, who, appearing at first glance to be in fact large and simian, was dressed in white canvas dungarees, dungarees that seemed hard pressed to hold in the flesh that had been stuffed into them and which oozed over the sides of the chair. A light blue yoke shirt with white pearl buttons, buttons that threatened to pop open at any moment from the strain, between which slabs of grey flesh protruded, attempted to cover his torso. Bisecting shirt and pants was a leather gun belt and holster, mostly hidden under rolls of flesh, the latter holding a small revolver with a white plastic handle. On his head was a white cowboy hat that shielded his face until he looked away from the television set and towards the four men. The face was that of a bloated corpse, drowned days earlier but missed by the scavenging crabs, or buried and forgotten for weeks before being dug up, with eyes that were so covered by rolls of fat that even the epicanthic folds, that hallmark of Downs syndrome, were lost. His hair, of which only small portions peeked out from under the hat, was the salt and pepper colors of middle age. He scratched one of the folds of his belly, twisted his head and frowned as he looked at the men. Then he slurred at Doc Tremblay, “more pills?”
Doc Tremblay smiled at the figure, “Did you get your pills this morning, Greggy?”
The figure smiled and nodded, his jowls and the folds of his neck jiggling in time. Then he pointed at the television. “Roy Rogers.”
“You go ahead and watch it, young man.” Tremblay reached over and patted the doughy figure on the shoulder.
Gregory Glass stared up at Officer Pete who was taking in the room. Pete’s mouth was set in a thin line and his eyes glittered with anger, gun out of its holster and still in his hand. He stared hard at the strip of paper taped to the wall. He stared for so long that Gregory looked back at what he was staring at and saw the strip of paper. Then he looked back at Officer Pete, collected his thoughts for a second and said, “Hundred seven days.” A pause. “Daddy’s home.” Then, as if he had fully explained things, he turned around and waited for the commercial, a commercial in which a balding and mustachioed store clerk was trying in vain to stop three women from molesting toilet paper, to end.
Officer Pete grabbed Chief Bosco’s arm with his free hand and, his voice emerging with a croak, “Who the hell is that?”
Frank gave the obvious answer, “This is Gregory Glass, Miss Gabby’s son.”
Doc Tremblay then told Officer Pete about Gregory, much of which you know, and what happened after Gregory heard about his daddy’s death. You see, Doc had Gregory transported as far as Baton Rogue to a psychiatric hospital there. He and Miss Gabby hoped someone could find a way to talk to the child, to explain what had happened, to get him to come terms with the grief that a son feels at learning of the death of his father. But no one could. Each time he came out of sedation he would thrash at his restraints, bellowing “107 days” over and over again. After a week like this, Doc Tremblay and the other physicians involved were convinced that Gregory was going to have to remain sedated for the foreseeable future, if not forever. They mentioned long term psychiatric care for the boy, and discussed a place in Jackson, since it wasn’t so far away that she could not visit on a regular basis.
But Miss Gabby had other ideas. She called Officer Bosco and explained her plan. Bosco, if truth be known, was in love with Gabby, had been since high school where she treated him like a favorite little brother, and despite his own thought that Miss Gabby was as crazy as a bed bug, he spoke to his uncle the Mayor and they had built for her the house within a house in which Gregory would spend the rest of his life. Reliving his last happy day. And for the next forty years, Gregory Glass woke up to July 31, 1967. Every morning, his mother would, right after Gregory dressed himself in his favorite cowboy clothes, right after a breakfast of eggs, bacon and Tang, right after Gregory took his pills, hand him a pair of scissors and he would clip off the number 108, showing that his father would be home in less than four months.
And as time passed for the rest of the world, Miss Gabby would wake up every morning long before dawn and replace the paper time line that she had prepared for him to track the days until his father came home. Then she would, as close as humanly possible, let him live the day before they learned of Lt. Glass’ death. And every night after she had given him his pills, read him Esphyr Slobodkin’s book, “Caps for Sale” (one of Captain Kangaroo’s favorite books), tucked him in and put him to sleep, Miss Gabby would take stock of what needed to be mended, what needed to be replaced, what DVDs needed to be reset for the following morning. Then, she would lock up the little house from the inside and go to sleep in her bedroom, a bedroom which, like Gregory’s, looked, as close as humanly possible, just the same as it did in on July 31, 1967.
As Doc Tremblay told his story, Gregory had shifted his chair to watch the men and, more importantly, to listen, his face turning from doughy and white to splotchy and crimson as he did so. Apparently realizing that his world was about to have an unfortunate collision with reality, Gregory Glass screamed, “Bad man!” and pulled his gun from his holster. He pointed it at Doc Tremblay. He pulled the trigger. Pete’s instinct took hold: he put three rounds into the center of Gregory’s chest, killing him instantly. Gregory’s pistol was a cap pistol, an original from the 1960s. In the 1960s, toy cap guns didn’t have orange tips to indicate that they weren’t the real thing.
Gregory's body slid to the floor, resembling now a dolphin’s corpse washed up on a beach; there seemed to be very little human about it. I stuck my pipe in my mouth and ruminated a bit. I had long wondered what I would feel when my son died. As far as Gabby, since our vows had only been “until death do us part,” I had felt nothing watching her die, other than a slight twinge of relief and the faintest whiff of guilt. Despite his being my only son, my blood, I felt nothing more than happiness at finally being released, being able to move on after more than forty years, rocking in a chair, chewing on the memory of a pipe, waiting. You see, a spirit can’t leave the earth so long as his loved ones refuse to admit that he’s gone. And Gabby, in her desire to keep Gregory from feeling pain, had trapped me here to the end of their days. Purgatory is a rocking chair. I glanced at the strip of paper on Gregory’s wall, followed it down to the number 107. It had been a long tour of duty. And as yet another ambulance arrived, as Gregory was strapped on yet another gurney amidst the general hubbub of a police investigation, I departed.
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