Riddle Me This
It was comforting to sit in the car in front of Mike and Sally’s house at sunrise and watch the dark shapes around me name themselves houses and pines. Their unpaved street looked familiar, and I tried to remember where I’d seen it before as I checked the rear-view mirror and waited for a light to come on inside the house so I could go in and tell my friends what had happened and ask them to let me stay with them for a few days while I figured out where to go next.
The husband I’d fled that morning was some fraction Cherokee, tall and graceful and strong. We were just out of college when we met. Though met is too humble a word for how we began. For that occasion, something tectonic is needed, something momentous. Collided might work. Drowned.
He lived on the grounds of a big, brick, house that had once been a rich man’s home. By the time we entered each other’s orbits, crab-grass had sprouted in the cracks of the long, curved driveway; the empty swimming pool had filled with leaves; the lawn had surrendered to dandelions. The house itself had been cut up into a labyrinth of incense-soaked rooms where Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Rolling Stones looked down from the walls and dared us to follow them. In the kitchen, a pot of brown rice always bubbled on the stove. He’d built himself a loft in the greenhouse, and when I walked in–looking for a place, I said–he was perched on the edge of the platform, eating a slice of cantaloupe. He looked down, I looked up, and when I picture his face now, forty years past the fear and confusion, the rage and sorrow and regret, why do I remember the startling joy of that moment and how we went tumbling, sliding, flying into a bright maze of love?
When his grandmother heard that we were living together, her blood pressure started to climb. She might have a stroke, his mother said, she might die, if we didn’t stop living in sin and get married. Living in sin? we said. Married? The words tasted rancid and stale. Jimi, Janis and Mick had never spoken them. But the man I loved was her favorite grandchild, and so we went to see his grandmother. She lived in the country outside of Columbia, South Carolina, in a small white house under a big water oak, on the farm she’d worked with her husband since they’d married at fifteen.
“I feel like I already know you,” I said to her through the screen door that she unlatched to let us into her kitchen. And that was true. Every night we lay in his greenhouse loft, under the clear night sky and under the rain, taking in each other’s lives and making them our own. I’d heard how his grandfather shinnied up a pecan tree one day to shake down the nuts, and on the nex, he fell down dead. I knew that on hog-killing day every fall, his grandmother led her daughters and nieces behind the barn to boil and scrape the intestines, to spare the men that awful stench. That detail had stuck to me: The women scraping hog guts behind the barn so as not to offend. But that world, like the world of living in sin, was already so far behind us the distance made it harmless. We could look back at it tenderly, generously, excusing its faults and cruelties as though they had happened in a dream.
“Well, come on in the house,” she said, and unlatched the door. She shook my hand, refused to hug. In his grandmother’s kitchen that day, my love and I held hands under the table while she peeled apples in continuous spirals and sliced the fruit into a dishpan for the pies she was going to make later.
“We’re promised to one another,” he told her. “We’re married in our hearts.” I loved his earnestness then, and remembering it now, I still love it, and that feeling surprises me, the way that remembering the moment we met surprises me. I thought the memory of love had disappeared. And of course he didn’t convince her that we were special or exempt from any rules. When we left, she latched the screen-door behind us, went back to her apples. That was a bad sign, he said later. At the end of the visit she usually loaded him down with food, stood on the back stoop and waved and waved while he drove away. Sure enough, she went on fretting and grieving, grieving and fretting until we gave up and got married. We were already married in our hearts, we said, what difference did a few words and a piece of paper make?
We got married and moved down to Atlanta, where he went to work on a construction crew, building houses in the ever-expanding suburbs. Once I watched him carry a whole sheet of plywood across the roof beam of a three-story house, and I was not afraid; he was that sure-footed. But before long, he was cheating on me and I was cheating on him, to get even. Cheating was what had sent me to the street in front of Mike and Sally’s house. The night before that dawning day, he’d gone out the way he did almost every night, and when he wasn’t home by midnight, I walked back across the street to the party I’d left earlier and the host and I finished what we’d started. At five, when I went home, my husband was waiting in the yard. If an upstairs neighbor hadn’t heard the shouting and come out to help, who knows what might have happened? But he did, and I got away and drove to Mike and Sally’s place, and later that week, while I was hiding out, not giving off much heat or light, not sending up any smoke, my husband found the body of a woman who had been stabbed to death and dumped in the kudzu on some vacant land near our house,where he’d gone to walk and think.
I read an article once about how the need for revenge is a drive that lights up the brain as brightly as hunger or thirst. Amen I say to that. I have not seen or talked to my first husband in close to forty years, and yet, remembering the story of the old woman’s body and how the police had questioned him, I still hope they noticed the gold ring that I’d slipped on his finger in front of his grandmother and her God and asked him where his wife was. I hope that when he understood why they were asking, his mind went as clear and still and his vision sharpened, as mine had gone on the morning when he could have killed me, and he saw himself as a small frightened creature scheming to survive. I wish that for him as sincerely as I still sometimes wish him well. Even now it’s satisfying to imagine the woman’s body at his feet, dead of a dozen wounds, the cops waiting for an answer, and him with no place in his mind where I could be found.
I must have slept for a few minutes in front of Mike and Sally’s house, because when I opened my eyes again, the night was finished and a fresh day had begun. I saw the road with fresh eyes, too; I knew why it looked familiar. It was like the hard-packed dirt road in front of the house where I grew up, the road I used to walk out onto and imagine how far it could take me. In front of Mike and Sally’s house I told myself that story again. I could drive away from him and us and this, cross a country’s worth of rivers and mountains and deserts full of bleached bones and scouring wind until I came to a place where the past was lost, even to memory, and we had never met.
All Hallows Eve
He opened the door to let her in, dressed for the costume party in a pair of wide brown trousers held up with beige suspenders, a white shirt with a pillow stuffed inside. “Who are you?” she said.
“Myself a few years ago,” he said. “This is my largest shirt, a size 20, my biggest pants, size 50.” He’d lost ninety pounds since he’d worn those clothes, and she was glad she hadn’t met him when they fit. Wearing them again made him thoughtful. “When you’re fat,” he said, holding out the waistband of the pants, “people treat you like you’re not human. So who are you?”
She unbuttoned her cloth coat to show him. She was wearing a pink shirtwaist dress with a wide skirt, high-heeled shoes, rhinestone ear clips and a big smile. June Cleaver was the general impression she was going for. They had known each other for six months. “Let’s forget the party,” he said. He took her hand and led her to the bedroom. She was an ambitious woman, but sometimes she liked to forget that and let him boss her. Sometimes he worried that he was too gentle, so bossing her suited him, too. Playing this game, they both felt free, as though they’d crawled out of old skins, left them to crumble away to nothing.
In the bedroom, he took off his fat man’s clothes. “Come sit next to me,” he said. “Don’t take your clothes off yet. I’ll tell you when.” They went on like that until she was naked except for her bra, one strap pulled off of her shoulder and a necklace he liked to touch, a small gold locket that rested in the warm hollow of her throat. “Get up and put on some lipstick,” he said. She did, and when she sat down on the bed again he touched the necklace and pulled her down for a kiss, hard enough to insist but not to hurt–that was their understanding–but suddenly, she was afraid, and when he saw that he stopped playing. “Tell me,” he said.
She was tumbling back forty years, she said. She’d been a young woman then, a marriage in ruins back in the States, sleeping on the floor of a friend’s room over a pub in London and washing dishes in exchange for rent. Every day, she drank too much, and almost every night, she found someone to sleep with, believing that being reckless made her free. Even now, from this distance, that time smelled like mutton fat, she told him, like the scraps of shepherd’s pie that she pushed off the greasy plates and into the slop hole in the kitchen every day.
There was one man in particular, she said. Irish. He came into the pub every afternoon with his morose long-haired friend who jumped up from his chair every time he saw her, stalked over to the jukebox and punched in “American Woman.” One drunken night, the three of them went back to the Irish man’s flat in Camden Town, and he got rough with her while his friend sat in a chair beside the bed and watched. She remembered the gritty sheets against her back, the smell of beer and unwashed clothes, the way his friend watched and laughed. She remembered feeling that she was lying on the bottom of the ocean where no one would think to look for her, staring up at the bright surface and feeling she might never get there again.
She thought she’d lost the locket that night, she said. It came off but she wasn’t going to leave without it, and she’d searched until she found it in the tangled sheets after the Irish man passed out and his friend went home. And then she was outside on the sidewalk in Camden Town, flagging down a taxi, holding the locket tightly in one hand. On the ride back to the West End she’d looked at it from time to time, as though it were her ticket home, proof that she had survived.
“And here you are,” he said, and he touched the necklace lightly.
“Here I am,” she said. She moved her hands over his belly, which was all that was left of the fat man he’d been, and thought of how they’d both come to this bed accompanied, hoping for welcome.
Now it is a cold bright January day, and she sits at her dining room table, eating a bowl of minestrone soup and watching the birds come and go at the feeder that the man she is in love with has hung outside the window there. She is a long way past the dirt street, past London and the slow collapse of another marriage, then more years devoted to the conservation of resources and expectations. Years in which she sometimes covered three different casseroles with the same sheet of tin-foil, rinsed and dried the same plastic bag to take her ham and cheese sandwich to work all week. Now this, she says to herself. Now this. Meaning the soup, the birds, the sun coming through the dining room window that warms her face the way the man warms her body with his hands and his mouth, as though happiness were a single sheet of some beautiful substance that you broke smaller pieces of happiness from. She is enjoying herself like that when she bites down on something hard.
Who put a stick in the soup? she thinks, but what she pulls out of her mouth is a small, thick, gray femur, the kind of bone a witch might pull from her mouth when she was done with the little man she’d been feasting on. The sight of the bone is shocking at first, an insult in a pleasant conversation, a sudden famine in a rich land. And then, after the shock at the fact of the thing has passed, comes the thought that she could have choked on this bone. She could have choked to death. Choking to death while eating alone is one of her most stubborn fears. Before she met the man who hung the bird-feeder, the idea of choking to death had come to stand for the danger of living alone, without love.
Next morning, she finds the bone on the cutting board beside the sink where she left it. Dry now, it has turned an ancient white, like a relic, so light it feels almost harmless. Though of course it is not harmless, and she knows that, too. She can as easily choke to death on a dry bone as a wet one; she can choke now when she feels rich as easily as when she felt poor, and how is that fair is what she’d like to know. With love or without it, everyone sleeps alone sometimes or drives or eats or walks or breathes alone. Your heart, of course, always beats alone. The dangers and the possibilities for harm multiply as endlessly as the chances for happiness. Multiply and sprawl and mix until they look like the same big chance, the only chance you’re given, your life.
Later, as they sit outside her house together, watching the night come down, she tells him about the bone in the soup and about her fear of choking to death. For this fear, as for others she has confided in him, he has a cure; he can teach her to do the Heimlich maneuver on herself against the back of a chair. “What if you’re choking in an empty room?” she says. “What if you’re choking outside without a chair in sight?”
She sees by the dismay that crosses his face that she’s let him down again; in spite of his tenderness, his efforts to heal her of pessimism and wariness, she’s imagined the worst again. “Why do you say things like that?” he says, and she says she’s sorry, she’s not being flippant, but she doesn’t know. Maybe they have come to the place in their story where they are soup and bone to one another. “I can live with that,” he says, and she says she can, too.