Spooky Understands - literary version
Bodies are burning in his driveway. I can see it from here, across the yard through a scrim of leafless branches. Snow is falling. Flakes stick momentarily, then disintegrate into porous bricks laid zig zag under a charcoal mass. Ash floats skyward and pushes against incoming snow.
He is Clarence. Adonis of the cul-de-sac whose creased skin and streaks of silver hair betray his boyish gaze - unrepentant - delicate. Clare, for short.
He takes an involuntary step off his shallow porch - a shift in perspective confirming image at hand. He speaks but the sound is mute, so I invent his words.
“I would have saved them if I could.” A half-hearted preamble to a confession. His shoulders drop. My stomach turns sour.
He will stand for what seems like hours, hoping that a veil of snow will purify the gory site - suppressing the aftermath, until he feels icy water leach into a crack in the ball of his shoe, which he inspected early this morning, before shoe was on foot, bending the sole so that rubber lips mouthed generic words. Laughing. Him. Me.
I squish my nose into the storm window and feel the cold where he is standing.
“Its okay Clare” My words fan across the glass as thin vapor. “You’ve got an angel on the ground.”
He tilts his head toward my window, and it seems for an embarrassing moment like he hears me from across the yard. I back away and fade into the corner of my room.
He is building an addition that extends deep into his immaculate property. He will agonize over its footprint - the imminent loss of a huge swath of grass - perfect even in winter. Nine hundred thousand less blades of Kentucky Bluegrass that would otherwise press gently against his toes and float him around and around the spigot like the second coming.
As far back as he can remember, boundless inexplicable forces have seen to it that he does fairly well in money, pussy, and leisure - that he flies under the radar, unnoticed, inconsequential. A huckster. The last known purveyor of cheap crap and mindless jokes. A novelty salesman who contemplates behind the safety of pine studs and yawning windowless frames, the shame and amazement of his every unpunished sin.
As penance, now and then he’ll take a bullet from a bearded man wearing a ridiculous coon skin cap who taunts him at a distance, smiling, aiming an outstretched arm. Thumb acts as hammer, knuckle as firing pin, finger as barrel. Lips blossom then shrink in the form of a shot. Distant chuckle. Ricochet.
✽ ✽ ✽
He is sleeping. His breath is vivid against the ceiling. It pours out of one nostril like a plume of red silt, expanding underwater, passing from a disquieting dream into the air above his pillow. I study the walls, feebly illuminated by a porch light that is two unkempt properties away. The yards are sprawling plots of mud and brown grass, peppered with clumps of half excavated brick, a mildewed tent and my Green Machine Big Wheel.
The next morning, he will hack his way through Ed Remus’s egregious jungle of weeds and threaten him with a ball-peen hammer, implying that Ed, who he calls Jack, is not honoring the social contract and that he’d better get his yard in order.
“Most Rikki-Tik, Jack. Spring is on her way and the lilies will need your affection. They say that dowsing the stalks with urine is primo deer repellant. If volume of fluids is the issue, Jack, I’m happy to contribute.”
During the short cut back to his own property, he will cry from adrenaline and toss the hammer at the decayed hearth of our outdoor fireplace, where it remains. I refuse to let anyone move it and its patina grows more beautiful with every rain.
✽ ✽ ✽
Morning wood is a divining rod and health is a powerful stream. The deep sound of his stream alerts wife Greta’s waking ears. Gentle smile. Gentle Greta. The cascade dissolves into the rumble of an A-10 Warthog flying low to the ground. Its Gatling gun winds up as it passes over forty V-8 engines that whip by in overwhelming procession. A blur of neon sheet metal spits warm rubber into her teeth and hair and she swells with some kind of love.
Toilet lid snaps shut.
“Mamma, can I fix you a cup of perilously black coffee and spike it with a snort?”
There will be a time, long from now, when Clare’s stream has faded and Greta’s left ear is shot. With her good ear to the pillow, she will barely hear his words but the ritual is so engrained that she will answer, regardless.
“Yes Daddy. Sharpen your sword and load both barrels. Time to crank it up a notch because the day is delicious.”
Next, he will grab her face and breathe in, greedy for the smell of saliva, followed by a pungent waft of oven rolls folded over into muppet smiles.
“I can’t believe I’m getting laid!” he whispers into her bad ear, a thought which has consistently occurred to him since his first gawkish encounter - Mitsy Wellington at 5 am, naked and clammy on a hammock suspended over a fresh expanse of perfect sod.
He reads to her, still smelling the dense bedroom air. The vibrations spread from his larynx to the back of his ears and over his chest. His eyes grow heavy and, still reading, he stops hearing the words.
I continue to stand as I have all night, pressed comfortably into a curtain of velour robes, listening carefully to the story, breathing shallow and slow so that I won’t be heard from behind the slats of the closet door.
✽ ✽ ✽
(in a salty, blowhard voice)
We had settled at the bend of that forsaken sunken road with orders to load at will. Just then a strand of canister went over our heads sounding like a blanket of angry locusts. But alas, we were prone and somewhat safe under the lip of the road and it was a gentle kind of hell.
From time to time I slip into a spell where I am a complete blank. The moment arrives now, in the closet. In an overpowering wave, I recall only first hand accounts of Civil War battles matched with the names of famous Hollywood cinematographers. First Manassas - Karl Struss - Battle of the Wilderness - Lee Garmes - Antietam - Conrad Hall. Struss barks at me in a constricted German accent about the siege mentality of movie production, while Connie Hall winks at me, sick with confidence, cradling his Panaflex Platinum movie camera as if it were his granddaddy’s rifle. The episodes last roughly the length of a movie and when my life comes bubbling back, I hear the sound of clicking in perfect 4/4 meter. It stays with me for days and gives urgency to every moment, as if an event was always one measure away. A new scene - about to begin. Now Connie. Zoom in. Shoot.
✽ ✽ ✽
I want to tell Clare that I am sorry. For dreaming of him without his knowing. For seeing him hit his own face, late at night when he thinks no-one is watching. For gently imposing my will when he is most vulnerable, alone with Greta. (“Kiss those lips before they disintegrate, silly.”)
For watching him from afar while a radio blaring House of the Rising Sun cloaks unfamiliar sounds before they escape through the seams of these unfinished walls.
✽ ✽ ✽
Squirting popsicles - rubber snakes - pills that make your cigarette explode - a clay Mr. T that grows a mohawk of bean sprouts. These are but a few items in his sample trunk full of cool stuff. The one I want is a trick where you turn a real match into a beautiful flower.
We are on the road now, passing through Vicksburg, Mississippi where Grant laid siege to Pemberton’s forces in 1863. The ramparts are still visible from the river - rolling mounds of grass, docile and worn like a miniature range of ancient mountains. I want to stop and play but a sense of manic impatience fills the interior of his Chevy Nova. His ears are hot with nervous anticipation. We drive on.
As we distance ourselves from home, he relaxes and swells with confidence. Then arrogance. Then aggression. At first, he is a little less polite. He stops saying thank you or looking people in the eye. Then he lets the gas station door slam in a cripple’s face. A day or two later, he throws a hamburger at a bar tender and runs away, punching through a sliding glass door. I blow gently into his ear to remind him that I’m close by. Eyes narrow. Head tilts away. From what? Nothing. An automatic response. He senses me but he feels silly. A flutter. The smell of burning toast. The sensation is intolerable and he longs for a stiff drink and a taste of Strange. I long for Cheetos.
✽ ✽ ✽
It’s been two weeks and we’re heading home on a stretch of road that looks the same in both directions. I smell my fingers to pass the time. He is quiet and looks like a stranger.
I follow him across a field toward a group of teenagers drinking Löwenbräu and smashing the bottles at the foot of a two hundred year old oak. They welcome the old man because he comes bearing gifts - more beer and a grab bag of novelties. Whoopee Cushions and snapping gum mostly. Rejects and extras. Their hollowness is disarming and their cheap make is intrinsically comforting to the teens.
After an hour of becoming imperceptibly drunk and listening to occasional fits of fake flatulence and shrill pubescent laughter, he sidles up to a girl - fifteen - who leans against the side panel of an old VW, shamelessly displaying a mouth full of braces and and rubber bands that bring sex and torture to mind. I wonder for a moment if I’ll ever have feathered hair as luxuriant as hers, if my chest will ever grow to the point that my t-shirt stretches across my bosom. Will I affect an immediate grin at the approach of a beautiful stranger or will I fein dissatisfaction and suppress the smile?
They are quiet, sipping from bottles. Their eyes never meet but their bodies edge closer. Small talk is uttered. Words trail off. I’m eight. This is not my scene and I’m ready to go, so I climb the hood of the VW and blow hard into his ear. Then as if a switch had flipped, he looks straight at her and pulls the bottle from his lips, ignorant of a tiny jet of beer that squirts clear of his face and the accompanying hollow pop. He speaks in a penetrating tone that I’ve never heard him use, as if the girl that he was actually trying to reach was deep inside her guts. His face changes. Now greasy with mysterious pockmarks. His eyebrows thicken and connect at the center. His cheeks swell toward the sky. Skin flushes. A rope of saliva spans his lips when he says,
“I can make a cherry pop, but can you make a banana cream?”
I hear a confused giggle, but I can’t say for sure that it’s hers. My eyes are closed and I’m running fast. Away. The forced laughter of teenagers, years older than me - decades younger than him, follows me across the field, over a roadside ditch and onto the two lane highway. I run home - a flat out run. Streetlights sputter and hum as the dark moves in.
✽ ✽ ✽
I cry into a void above my bed, where the ceiling used to be, until a fathomless sleep sets in. By morning, the sky is cold grey and the trees cast no shadows. My aching legs lift me out of bed and with swollen exhausted eyes, I peer out the window.
Bodies are burning in his driveway.