Last night I had a dream about a man.
He told me about his life. How he was born in his momma’s bed, and raised in the cornfields. His daddy was a farmer. From way back.
“One day daddy’s gonna die in that corn.” He looked at me and winked. “But not until I die first.”
He talked about his brothers. How he watched them being pulled under by the river. How he wondered what it would be like. To be gone. Just like that. In a flash and in a flood. Boys. Buried in a watermelon patch.
He carried a camera. Wanted to teach. To write. He took my hand. In long, slim lines we drew his name in the dirt. I asked if he knew my name. He said one day, part of him would. But not yet.
He liked fancy suits. Vests and jackets and bowler hats. Red ties.
“They’ll show up better. After I’m dead.”
He hands me the camera. I take his picture. He looks like my brother.
He said he had a wife. She liked to laugh. She worried. He knew why.
He sang about how hard things were. Constant sorrow. Hell on Earth. Whiskey in a bottle.
“Sometimes people need to believe. That it cant get any worse. Even if it means somewhere, somehow, it gets better.” He just wanted to run. “I didn’t know.” He looked at me and cried. “No one ever told me.”
I said it didn’t matter. Because someone knew. Even if he didn’t. Everything would be okay.
He said he liked blue. The color of his baby’s eyes.
“It’ll show up good in pictures. Even after he’s gone.”
Celie lived with her six children in a tumbled down company house beside the railroad. Coal dust covered everything within a mile of the track but no dust ever covered Celie. She dressed her family like she dressed herself – in white – and was known for starching and ironing every piece of linen she owned until a line couldn’t stand up straight in it. Women called her wanton, though none were ever willing or able to provide details in support of the accusation. Men called her stout as a bear – she was the only woman in the county to work the mines. Everyone called her Big and said she laughed too much to have any real fear of God or the Devil, though opinion was divided as to whether this was virtue or vice.
Celie was the only person in three states who dared to call Effie Payne by her given name. All because Effie once hinted she had heard that Celie, in her younger years, before she was known as Big, had been one for the bottle. Two days later Celie showed up on Effie’s doorstep.
“I’ll tell you but once, Sister. I don’t take with no liquor. Never have. Never will. And I sure don’t take with people who says I do.”
Effie could still remember the way Celie’s forehead throbbed when she spoke, the way her fists clenched at her side.
“You make sure you understand me real good, EF-FIE,” Celie said the name like it was a swear. “I’d hate to have to come back here and repeat myself.”
Afterwards, Effie tried to have Celie thrown out of the church. The pastor said people had tried before. But when it came to getting done, no one ever showed up to do it.
It happened on a Sunday. Will would remember this when other details had been lost to other days. When he could no longer remember the color of her eyes, or the way her mother squalled into the air and gnawed her knuckles until they bled. He would remember the missionaries.
For most of the year the town divided itself amongst the various free will establishments cluttering the coal fields. To hem and haw. To point fingers and pass judgment. But in August, because that month was more miserable than the rest, they’d flock together down by the river under a temporary shelter of skinny trees for a holy ghost revival.
If Will had known then, what he would know not much later, he would have taken his shame some other way.
Laura Jean Puckett was fourteen years old when Angus Mullins walked up to her and asked “Where’s your shoes?” She was playing a child’s game on a child’s bench outside her parent’s boarding house. And it was the first time she had ever met the short man in the newsboy cap who smelled like he’d just been delivered from the side of a still.
“I ain’t got none,” is what she said.
“Well,” said Angus, “I’m gonna buy you some. Then I’m gonna marry you.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
He said he had already asked her father, which was all a man needed to do in a holler in West Virginia in 1922. So right then and there, when twenty-four year old Angus met fourteen year old Laura, he took her by her arm and he took her away and she never thought a thing about it for sixty years.
I had this dream. I was being proposed to. In my high school gymnasium. It was all a bit unsettling. Like dreams sometimes are. Before you realize they’re dreams. And my suitor, my suitor says “Buffy, will you marry me?”
Before I can say ‘what’, before I can say ‘huh?’, this really hard-knocks, city centre priest shows up on the court. He speaks to my suitor. And I am shook.
“Good Grief,” he says. “Are you crazy, boy? Why does everyone insist on playing house these days? Why does everyone insist on getting married? Don’t do that.”
That’s what he says. This crazy priest. I’ve seen him before. I trust him implicitly. Father knows best.
“You’re right,” is all he says. Is all my suitor says. And then he leaves, just like that, and I am lost. Curled up in some big ball of separateness and floating in space. I feel like a star. Burnt out and collapsing in on itself.
Someone leads me away. I’m not part of the world I’m in. The world is a cafeteria now. Now, someone is feeding me chips.
My phone. It’s my life line. And when it rings, I think it’s him. And even though I have nothing to say, I listen anyway.
It’s Criss. My darling Criss. She is love. And she is comfort.
“Did he tell you what he did to me?” I think it. And don’t know if I say it.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s so sad. He sounded so different.”
And that was it. I woke up. It probably wasn’t immediately. It probably was six hours later. But it felt like immediately. Immediately. And I still felt lost.
When Effie saw Cosby Puckett out of the corner of her sight she saw a woman with a want. Not some innocent school girl who sat studying a bunch of books on her momma’s porch. Letting on, like she always did, that she was too shy to smile at a man and too innocent to notice one smiling at her. And Lord didn’t they! All of them. Even Effie’s husband. Especially, Effie’s husband. But Calvin was only flesh and that was the way of the world. Effie nor nobody else could help that none. Ever since Eve came along with all her nakedness some woman had been trying to temp some other woman’s man into doing something he would never have done without her. Effie’s mother had taught her this when she was no more than a girl herself, and she had been able to see such things with half an eye ever since.
Someone died and I was sitting on a set of concrete steps that belonged to a neighbour thinking “I’ve been ostracized and I don’t even care.” My head hurt from the weight of itself and when I tried to turn it, to unstick the glue that made it stuck, I saw the neighbour whose steps I sat upon and it was Nick Clooney.
I thought ‘this is childhood’ because he was always in mine. Smiling. Sitting on a stool and talking up silver screens and things. Making me feel a little better about the varnished walls and green shag carpet that made me feel so bad.
He sat down beside me and said “just breathe” and I said “they call it putting on airs if you don’t have a criminal record.” It was true and we both knew it and I tried to breathe like he told me to do. Because breathing is a true thing, too.
Henry sits down and looks out the window and tries to think, for just a moment, about what he doesn’t want to think about. About the thing he knows is there, but can’t quite work out.
“Down the drain. Down the stairs. Out the door. Hit the floor!”
It’s like counting sheep for the…
“Wide awake and ruminate!”
Sometimes he wishes his brain would stop. Would freeze. Right there. Right now. Right where it is. But this invariably leads him to thinking about how horrible something like not thinking would be.
“I’d be a vegetable! And vegetables are dull. Dull as beetroot. Boring as cabbage soup. Potato head! Not really a term of endearment, is it? No one likes vegetables. No one wants to be like a vegetable.”
He thinks all this in one long solid thought. And it makes him tired.
Seen and unseen. Thought and not-thought.
But still, he thinks. And he keeps on thinking and wishing he couldn’t and knowing, all the same, he wouldn’t have it any other way. Because Henry keeps company with misery just like his neighbours keep company with each other and the hands of a clock keep company with the time.
Because misery – and this is the thing that’s seen and unseen and something he no longer tries to dissuade himself of – misery is the only thing he has in common with every other human being on the planet; and “…aint that just a bitch.”
“Sheep is the gentlest things. And they can walk a fence better than any goat.”
(photo via sharon montrose prints)
“It is much better to write small things than big ones: they are unpretentious and successful.” – Chekhov
Anton tells me to keep it simple. And I feel stupid every time I read his letter to Moscow literary critique Madame M.V. Kiselyov. In it he says he has written a play (Swan Song) in one hour and five minutes – it will take fifteen to twenty minutes to act.
The only thing people noticed that summer was the beauty of the creature. The way she held her head when she spoke. Or parted her lips when she smiled. The way her eyes seemed to shine with see-through innocence, and the soft purr her voice made when she laughed. She was everything a woman ought to have been, thought the town’s pastor, once, twice, more times than he would ever let his mouth or soul admit.
A shining example. That’s what they said. More than one person called her an angel. And it made sense, because that’s what she was.
It was two in the morning when the devil came to Cunning County. Wearing a white dress and blond hair and an unholy glory that made everyone who met her want to share in that sense of something that made her who she was.
(photo via annamoller.net)
“You should take something ordinary, something from ordinary life, without a plot or an ending.” – Chekhov
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