David Lee Parker
"What are you tryin to pull on me, woman? You know I don't like garlic in my damn pinto beans."
Luke sat darkly alone at the kitchen table. Like a little boy with his tousled hair, hurt expression, his pudginess in the ironed white shirt. The jowliness and the unseeing eyes of him.
Lucy looked away, didn't look back at him again. "We dug that growin wild this mornin on our walk. It grows wild out there where that old barn is . . ."
"Well shit." He tossed his tablespoon down on the table, not hard, picked it up again and recommenced to eat. The little girl came and sat silent and looking down at her empty plate, waiting for her own beans. In her thin dress Lucy leaned over the table, took the pot's big spoon and gave the little girl a portion of pintos which spread soupily and brown across her plate. She sliced her a hotly steaming wedge of cornbread and set it in the midst of the beansoup. Luke would shake his head every once in a while and blow loudly through his nose. Then he opened a jar set on the table and with a grudging satisfaction forked himself out two or three little green tomatoes and a long red pepper. Seeds spurted as he cut them with the fork. Seeds in a sort of vegetable snot. He sloshed out a little of the vinegar from the jar and now proceeded to eat with a proud and boyish and inwardlooking relish.
"Come on and get you somethin to eat, Lucy," he said.
"I've already eat," she lied.
"These beans is mighty good, with some of this hot stuff on em." He tried to lure her. The little girl ate demurely and workmanlike, spoon huge in her hand.
"I thought you didn't like em," she sharply said.
"Well . . . I'm sorry . . ." he said. Then expansively, "Please come eat a bite with me. Won't you though?"
She didn't answer right off.
She watched out through the kitchen window the evening land all red-litten, towering storms luminous coral, mauve and bruise blue . . . flints glowing in the evening sun on the red dirt yard . . . dry beauty of stone . . . inhuman beauty . . . The flat expanse before her, the woods, the distant mountains . . . paintfree oldtime architecture gothic with vines, ruinous and ogling specimens guarding themselves in secret places . . . A vulnerable mouth to her, yet one apt for a sneer. She is in her mid twenties, blond hair in a thick fall cut off straight below her shoulders. Some flat region of dirt roads where nothing impedes your going, the trees sway like giant ferns beneath a sky come down from dinosaur days . . . Her pale face . . . the lips stand out . . . the dark eyes too . . . dry beauty of stone, of emptiness, this inhuman southern land . . . a redlit woman's face in a window . . . and yet this emptiness is within us all the while . . . Her dark eyes darkly narrowed when he spoke.
"I've already eat," she lied.
She poured a cup of coffee. She stood with her back to them looking out through the screen, drinking it black from the white cup.
"That'll keep you up all night."
"I don't care." She turned it up, poured another cupful, scalding hot from the percolator, steam rising serpentine, phantasmal pitcherplants. Her upper lip covered with sweat. Outside the wind had begun to blow, buffeting the screen where it sagged loosely out. The air that came in bore rich odors of the rank flora, was hot and swampy on her face.
He said, "So this garlic grows wild out somewhere . . ."
"That's what I said."
"You uh, you found it on your walk?"
She had to stop to breathe. "Yes!" she said, she spat the word.
"I see," he said. Eventually.
Trying again he said: "You know it was probably cultivated once, back when there was people lived there . . ." She didn't say anything. The wind blew the gauze curtains, it darkened, he looked down at his food . . .
They had gone out in the heat of the morning, she and the little girl, and the sun had shone out of the steel sky and jarflies had buzzed and howled. Their feet were bare over the warm dust. She had to tell the little girl the jarflies with their metal cries were not rattlesnakes. They wore lightcolored thin dresses and the sun where the fabric moved about their legs shone cloudily through. The barking of some far off dogs seemed to hang for a long time in the dreamy air. Even with the sounds of the living things, the warmsounding drone of a chainsaw, a sleepy dull stillness lay upon the land, a sunshiny torpor. They stepped along in the dust, the gravel very sparse there, and the dust lay upon the waxlike roadside weeds and heavily and rainsplotched upon the leaves of the giantly featherous trees.
After a while they came to a side way, grassed and overshadowed, standing water and weeds in the wheelruts. They took this way. Aimlessly and slow. As if there were no needs behind them and none before. The little girl gathered the tiny wildflowers longstemmed and fiery orange and red into a nosegay she carried solemnly in the dapplings of sun that glided over her.
Then after a while the way ended, opened up into a grassy glade, the grass shiny like hairs in the sun, with exposed patches of red dust. The brownish ruins of an old house, the blackened shell of a barn, lazing and decaying under the sun. The house was partially wallless and the barn was roofless and weeds looked washed up against them like kelp. A huge sheet of tin—crumpled, plum-colored with rust—lay in the weeds not far off, as though some force from the sky had torn it away from the barn and set it there. The little girl wandered off in search of her wildflowers leaving Lucy to gaze and drift about. Straying by the front of the house—some minute creature shot through the weeds and under the iniquitous and dangerouslooking porch—she spied some small onionlike growths, all soft green stems, and guessed kneeling on the earth that it was garlic. She dug up with her fingers two little bunches, tried to press off the clinging earth, put them in the pocket of her dress for later.
She rose and began moving toward the barn where it stood rotted black, like a giant husk, in the midst of a now smouldering bare place. Studying the ground, hair falling and swaying past her downturned face, she let each foot fall so indolently to earth. She walked so to the barn, went in the gray gaping portal, found a bit of shade as she leaned back against a cool dark wall and studied the cloudless haze above. No human thing was visible, save only the ruinated shell itself of the old barn . . . eroded wood reaching jagged skyward . . . in here a cricket chirped, herald of the night . . . a flight of nameless black birds appeared over one wall, crossed the empty space high above, passing out of sight . . . barn templelike under an open featureless sky . . . uncloudy and faultless . . . enormous and grayish expanse . . . She closed her eyes, let the hot radiance of the steel sky bathe her upturned face, adopted an attitude of surrender . . . worship . . . The sun's wheeling altered the shadows slowly . . .
"Miss Lucy." A small voice.
"Oh God!" She wheeled, clutched to the wall behind her. It was the little girl. Melancholy return to the world. Dropping off of the veil. An owl flapped soundlessly from its hidden niche above, shocking and eldritch, going light as an ash in the wind, over the head of the unseeing girlchild all unawares and out an upper opening in the wall of the barn and into the day beyond. Mystic reminder of what she had lost in that instant.
"Come on," she said. They left out the door in the yon wall of the barn. Pool there, still pool with islands of tiny living leaves, black water mirrorlike. Sawtooth grass hummocks girded it in a forbidding ring. A dragonfly hurtled whirring by in the intolerableness of heat and humidity and light . . . A fish feeding stirred the sluggish dark surface . . .
And now standing in front of the kitchen window she heard the click of the little girl's spoon on the tabletop and almost a whisper, her words: "More, please." Luke looked carefully at his plate, chewed methodically, as she served the little girl. After a while the child was finished, the spoon clicked gently on the tabletop again, and she swallowed down audibly the last of the fresh cow's milk Lucy had given her. She had a milk mustache. Lucy wiped it off with the dishrag. Thunder kept rolling long and redundantly somewhere.
Lucy said, "Well, I think it's time to go."
The little girl climbed down out of her chair and stood looking at her, somehow sad-looking in that dark kitchen.
"I'll be back," Lucy said quietly.
Luke nodded, chewing, looking at his plate. He called out as they left him sitting there: "Tell Miz Symons hello for me."
Lucy and the little girl went to the hall and she waited while the child put on her tennis shoes and tied them laboriously. They stepped out into the huge fall of night and walked down the road. They watched hanging clouds go in an oppression of darkness, the land steeped in sickish, greenish light. The little girl insisted on holding her hand, she would cry otherwise.
"Lucy," she said.
"I love you." Tears in her voice.
They came soon to Mrs. Symons's house. She was the neighborlady. They stepped up the wood steps and Lucy knocked on the wood part of the screen door. Mrs. Symons came, a stern old woman though only in her forties probably. Lucy got shed of the little girl to her. This Mrs. Symons being the child's mother.
"Bye," Lucy said halfheartedly. Her hand half raised, twitch of a smile.
The neighborlady gathered the little girl into the blackness of the house—obscure the girlchild's downcast face, the lady's mouth a grim pressed line—and the door swung hugely shut upon her standing lonely out on that porch.
"Thank ye," she said, the neighborlady. "We'll see ye tomorrow." This from the ashen blankness of a windowscreen onto the porch.
As she walked back the rain began, large drops making dusty and gentle plopping sounds on the road. Then a gust of wind, tossing of treelimbs, and wandering veils of rain that drenched her in moments. Soon the sound deafened and the darkness was almost complete. She did not hurry. Ghostlike figure of loneliness along that road. Then hail descending unseen and hard on her wet pale flesh, stinging where it hit. Even, in a couple of places, slight damage to the skin. Leaves were falling torn . . . unnatural and violent autumn.
She came up the steps to their porch and he saw her, he'd been waiting. The lightbulb in the porch ceiling was on and it rendered all the rainy world beyond as utter darkness, pierced through with hectic lightning. She materialized out of that, out of the loud riverine sound and the thunder. The white dress clung to her form transparent, making her more naked than naked.
. . . and she saw him, a small rounded figure, sitting in the redpainted tin glider. He came to where she'd stopped at the edge of the porch, gutter water falling in strings of beads behind her. Lust sitting bashful in his face, his goat's eyes flicked up and down her. Then he saw the watered blood thinly trailing down her arms. He looked up. He moved to take her carefully in his own thick arms and his belly touched her, hard and warm. Too quick for him, she ran around past him and fled inside the house with slapping wet feet. As though she were exhilarated but no more sexual perhaps than a wild animal entered into their home . . . a virgin goddess . . .
"Lucy!" he called out trudging to the door. "Lucy? Are you all right?" He stuck his head in, looked down the dark hall . . .
Later that night . . . the storm had ceased . . . they sat on their sunken old couch and watched TV together, she absently raising the salty popcorn to her soft lips, with her halfdried hair and fresh clothes. He watched the TV and her. Ate giant escaping handfuls of the popcorn.
"Oh yeah," he said suddenly, around the popcorn. He swallowed quickly. "I got somethin I want to show you. Hold on a second. Just sit right there."
He disappeared toward the back of the house. She had not moved when he came back with something small and softlooking and mewing scarcely audibly in his hand. He leaned, set the kitten down on the couch where he had been and kneeled before her.
"What do you think of that?"
It crouched, raising a paw, tiny perfectly round eyes sapphire blue.
"Do you like it?"
"Uh . . . Yeah," she said.
"I saw em in the garage the other day but couldn't get to em. Somethin must have got to the otherns. This is the only one left." He paused, kneeling. He looked at her. "You always said you wanted a housecat."
She had taken it on her lap, was scratching it with one finger so that it had begun to purr and to bat at her finger with its needle claws.
"It's really pretty, Luke. What're you goin to call it?"
"Well I thought I'd let you name it."
"Mmm . . . Is it goin to pee on me?"
"No. We'll let it out for a few minutes after a while."
"Golly," she said. She seemed to have exhausted her repertoire with regard to cats.
The kitten left her lap to explore happily the surfaces of the couch.
Then Luke was touching her lap himself and holding her hand with his other hand, looking at her piercingly, trying to arrest her eyes.
"Lucy . . . I love you so. I need you . . . I need you . . ."
She knew what he meant. She sadly smoothed his hair where it stood up. He closed his eyes.
In the dark of the bedroom they stripped without talking and got into bed, between sheets cooled with the night and the rain. Out the curtained window they could hear the water still dripping from the trees. Clamor of insects and frogs.
She lay on her back and he began kissing her face. As he started getting into it he would whisper to her, talking all sorts of things. This distracted her, she had to really concentrate for anything to happen. He laid down on top of her, his hairiness pressing her breasts, causing them to pool under him with a sort of soft hydraulic pressure. He was going on and on in her ear hoarse and rhythmical about something, like an oldtime Baptist preacher hemming and hawing almost. She kept turning her head to make him stop. This did stop him, or maybe he just did it till he was out of breath. Now he was getting going. His breathing was powerful and wheezy, horselike. It was pretty good actually . . . He kept going for a long time . . . as if this was his bounden Christian duty . . . till she came.
"Are ye threw?" A constrained shout.
"Yes . . . yes . . ."
He let it go in her, it lasted for a few seconds, he pulled out, rolled over, trying to catch his breath. In a few minutes he was asleep. She tried to think him sweet.
The tiny mewing came to her there. The cat, they'd forgotten the cat. She rose and pulled from the closet something to wear—it was a thick old flannel nightgown—and pulled it over her. She padded down the hall to where it stood minute in the middle of the carpet, lost in that living room so huge. She gathered it up and petted and stroked it till it seemed happy again and she went into the kitchen with it. She took a gallon jar of milk from the refrigerator and spooned some of the heavy yellowish cream off the top into a small bowl and set it on the floor. She had to set the kitten in front of the bowl, stick its nose in the cream, before it knew what to do. After a while, licking cream from its face, it looked up at her and mewed. She picked it up again and went out the front door with it. On the way out, Luke's snoring burst wide open the solitude of the night.
But outside moonlight was coming down clean and white, and the sounds were the sounds of the night's creatures, strident in her ear and pure. She put the kitten on the ground and sat down on the edge of the porch, feet dangling, and watched it. You could read a newspaper out there. Only a few clouds remained, small and milky with mother of pearl luminescence. The kitten had found a suitably sandy spot on the muddy ground, and shat. She looked up, around, at the trees, down the straight road . . . in the stillness over the land, something was going on, in that moonlight, that she wanted to be part of . . . She rose, red clay clammy on her naked feet . . . staining them . . .
She picked up the kitten and walked with it into the road. Her shadow an inky blackness gliding along under her for a long time. She came to the side way, moon on standing water, watery sounds of her going, moonlight splashing on her feet as she went. After a while she came to the glade. The ruins standing sentinel-wise and gaping. She glided across to the barn. The kitten nestled quiet in her arms, only purring, like a weak and tiny engine. She slid inside the wide portal. She set the kitten down on silvered earth. It commenced its small mewing. It was frightened and very small in that vast space. It probably couldn't get out of here . . . She stopped, took her station where she'd stood that morning, looked up . . .
Hypethral quietude, a temple silence open to the sky . . . deep sky slowly whirling, awash in moonlight . . . wood of the barn going blue with the moon . . . Vespertine forms, bats, shoot past . . . the call and response, so inhumanly it goes, of owls one to another in the distance . . . and the moon sitting in the zenith so round and white and virgin. Luke's seed was sliding out of her, down her leg. She wiped at it with the gown. She moved on, under that unchristian openness of sky.
She came to the pool, the grass all about it like a zone of gray fangs. A tree stood by there, she hung her nightgown on a stob, old unwashed flannel hanging like cerement. Nude she threaded her way through the sawtooth grass, scratching her legs with papercuts. Her legs began to itch immediately. Her feet miring in gelatinous mud. She heard the thin whine of a mosquito, ignored it. She raised and dipped a toe into the water. It was soothing and inviting. She entered the black pool, her white feet standing on the lightless black mud below, her body filling with the cool and alien and algous-smelling water. A dead fish lay pale on the bank, the tang of its rotting upon the air . . . she sank to her neck in the water, wafted her arms through the cool of it . . .
In the barn the kitten had hardly moved. It was so tiny, its eyes had just opened. It blinked at the world about it, there in that exposed space in the middle of the barn . . .
The owl dropped . . . feathers curled in clutching fingers . . . a deathly flower falling upon the kitten. The claws took it. Bore it upwards with its scarcely audible protestations and away . . . off toward the moon and the pale drowned stars. For an instant the sky limned them in flapping black silhouette and then they were gone.
Lucy bathed on, unhearing in the midst of such a jungle clamor. What was there to hear anyway? She swam and let her hair spread and fan in the water. After a while she felt entirely pure and proud in her loneliness there, in that pool in the ring of sawtooth grass beneath the moon and the open summer sky.