He’d been stretched thin all morning, a thin gray wire pulled to fineness, though by what anchored, and where, was past his seeing. In the oily light seeping through the window, he first folded a burlap-brown filter along its slant edge, and then along the base at a right angle to the vertical. Opened by an index finger, it unfolded, for a moment an origami flower, and became a truncated cone. He poured into it a harvest of dark grains, coffee he had ground for twenty screeching seconds in a white Krups machine. He would top this off with a small measure of cocoa, a mud-brown fluff whose sweet tang eddied in the air as he lifted it from its cardboard box.
“Two kinds of bitter,” he had once explained, buying both from the general store which still held down the dust of Elton, Texas, its sixteen hundred square feet stocked with shelves sagging with years. The basement had been boarded up, unused since drought had come in the mid-40s and Old Man Hamilton stepped with caution into the back room, the floorboards riddled by termites and given to emitting clouds of wood dust at too quick a step.
Hung in place, on a plastic stanchion jutting from the molded housing of the coffee machine, the squat glass carafe is seated below the filter holder on a pad housing the coils that would keep the infused liquid hot after it had sweated through the grounds. The carafe had been washed the night before and allowed to air dry in place, and the reservoir was brimful of spring water, so that there was only the toggle needing to be moved to ON, which he did. And waited in the pale gold honey of light that washed across the kitchen, varying its timing with the season. He watched a few hesitant spurts twirl from the plastic spigot and spiral into a trickle. It was nearing a quarter to eight, the clock set into the metal control sheet testified. Time to be. Time for the day to begin to shape itself, to create order out of the helter-skelter left by the night.
Crossing to the dining room table, he let his cup exhale, working its way down to cool, watching vaguely as tendrils of oily smoke felt their way toward the ceiling. A ribbon of mahogany shot through by satinwood during the pouring, the liquid now stared obliquely up, a polished, obsidian lens held in by the circular wall of his cup. He liked to think of the caffeine dropping out of the liquid sloshing in his gut, flowing almost directly into his blood and up the branching pathways to the limbic system, spreading through the cerebellum and into the furthermost reaches of the cortex while the inessential fluids escaped to the kidneys for eventual discharge from the overfull bladder.
He was slow to wake, but the tinsel of light threatened his composure, dissipating the fumes of evening and night, sending the shadows away to be lodged in the angles of chairs and corners vaguely populating the anxious room. The clock was his friend, winking out the seconds. He listened for the minutes bundled into its storehouse to add up to the hour the hours. He counted the days lurking in the calendar that used to hang on the kitchen wall but always found they added up to no more than a year.
When the clock bingged eight, their visitor came up the stairs from the guestroom, pushing a greeting ahead in a voice puffy with sleep. He had arrived the night before, mysterious in leather, motorcycle-stiff after a day and a half of country roads, avoiding the interstate when he could, breaking the trip from southern Wisconsin to the Mississippi Delta two-thirds of the way along. Supper had been ribs warmed under the cherry-red filament of a tabletop oven and potatoes roasted in a pan with hard shell squash, the ribs proofed by ground habaneros spiking a homemade sauce rich in tomato and molasses, a rivulets of butter purling among the vegetables. They had beer, a glass apiece, and, afterwards, sour mash Tennessee whisky, which they drank from glasses etched Maccallan, won some years earlier at a haggis dinner hosted by the Scotch Whiskey Board in Chicago. After the haggis, he recalled, he and about fifty others had blended any or all of a half-dozen single malts set before them, the results sniffed and judged by a Master Blender brought over for the event. The blender had commented, “I see you’re a White Horse man,” in a lovely burr of a voice, before going on to the next table. So he had come away with a chunky flask into which to decant whiskeys, highland and lowland, and a quartet of barrel-squat crystal glasses that he pressed into service for anything over 60-proof and reasonably dry, though not without a twinge of guilt at so flouting tradition.
Now his wife had come into the room. The day was in bloom just beyond the window, redbuds hanging in arcs inviting flights of birds, the hummers making slaloms in the air between the clusters, bickering jays slapping at the leaves, a coruscation of cardinals making peace with the day. They sat side-by-side on the screened porch in basket chairs molded in one piece of plastic, the legs, as they settled in, wobbling to accommodate their weight. The scuffed plastic splayed, squeegeeing the battleship gray of the painted wood floor, which emitted a squawk like a rooster disturbed. The guest spooned up Birchermüesli from a bowl, an opalescent milky-blue, the incoming light flickering off his spoon. The foam splintered, whirled at the crest of a wave. In mid-mouthful, he pointed toward a rambling bush struggling in a damp patch just beyond the mown grass south-by-southeast of the house. “That's a sumac,” he said, sliding words past the clump of cereal cluttering his tongue. “A dwarf, I’d guess. It’d do better up north, Mackinac, maybe, Ottawa. I think I’ve seen them up near Windsor.”
Sharing an apple with his wife, an Empire from an Indiana orchard, one of a dozen heirloom varieties he ordered from time to time, he asked the guest, “What’s it good for, if anything?” and the guest replied that people used to soak the bark for tanning leather. He pointed over to the wide-branched oak on the west and remarked that settlers would make ink from oak galls. He wasn’t sure whether the information enlarged his sense of the place, but neither did it detract from it.
“I remember a story about George Bernard Shaw,” he said to his wife and to the guest, “It revolves around the way the English pronounce sumac, which is always with a sh sound at the beginning. A casual acquaintance challenged the man who created Henry Higgins, saying, ‘Are you aware, Mr. Shaw, that only two words in English starting with su are pronounced as starting with sh: sugar and sumac?’ ‘Sure!’ the great man is said to have replied.” When the air turned muggy with late-morning heat, they made their way back to the cool sanctuary of the house.
On the way up to noon—morning, as though gathered in sheaves, a sultry yellow smoldering light—they were vaguely conscious of the crickets’ awayness, the loss of the stridulation that brought a comforting presence to dusk and dark, and on which they had remarked the previous night. Water, however, gossiped in the walls, and the house was never quite without a clitter of relays, the chough of motors pressing chilled air through a maze of ducts into sweaty rooms. Now and then, the house itself unbent its arthritic beams with an audible creak, as the earth shifted and resettled warily along more comfortable lines. There was never that absolute silence poets ascribed to the tomb, and which realists found in sensory deprivation tanks, though at times he thought he could hear the bleary squish of blood course through veins and arteries and the click of joints readjusting from the stilted posture a sofa or the canted seat of a lounge chair dictated to the malleable body.
The sky had darkened, rubble of charcoal cloud rumbled, obscuring the fields’ edge in the distance, blending into the horizon as though scraped by a palette knife across a half-done canvas. The leaves fled to the end of their tethers, a frisson of wind at their backs, and dangled in frantic motion, dragging their stems away. The rain began civilly enough, a patter of polite applause thrown down from the upper boxes, but steadily built. It was almost eleven o’clock at night, and when the rain had completed its assault, the clock read 11:20. In the meantime, the pellets of water had flattened on the roof, rolled in waves across the grass, hammered at the trunk of the oak tree to the west, and merged, at last, into a solid wall of sound that shook the porch no less than the ear.
And it was done. The light returned, flooding the flooded fields, wiping the daubs of wet that pooled on the concrete walk, raising a cloud of mist from the asphalt leading out to the road. A few final clouds grudgingly moved aside, skittering east as the sun moved west.
Across the field and the road that rode between his house and the one opposed, a door opened on another world disgorging a part of that world into his, or his perception of the world outside, a world that was neither his, nor hers, nor one’s, and that was not a world, either, but only a part, the part he could perceive for the moment during which he was perceiving it, as it was for her and any other. The door which opened let out their neighbor Joannie O’Halloran, Hollerin’ O’Halloran to her neighbors, for living, as most did, deep within an enclave of lawn that sloped up to a slant-roofed house set on a slab beside an open carport or manufactured garage, or sloped down to these, she had adopted a habit of calling across to anyone outside in a booming contralto thick as slurry. “Can I borrow your lawn mower?” she cried. “Mine’s gone kaput-put!” Her penchant for wordplay was a source of annoyance to those who noticed how what was said was said. But he didn’t have a lawnmower to lend—not electric, trailing its umbilicus behind like the innards of a gut-shot buck; not gas, trailing its ribbony stench around the roots of oak and elm; not even a decrepit manual machine, its wooden handle, cracked by weather, pinching the user’s hand when the flabby cushion of the palm got caught, as it did, pushing the blades against the earth’s unremitting repulsion.
He hadn’t retired, he thought, to mow the lawn. But, of course, the lawn had to be mowed, if only for the sake of the neighbors, who expected a degree of concern for appearance, which he might share but preferred not to realize by his own physical effort. He had, therefore, let a few hints fall on the rare occasions when he met Dwayne Seeton or his wife, Helen, one or both walking an adoptive stray during the early afternoon; or Mr. Jennar, who had taken a part-time job at the Wal-Mart Supercenter to keep busy; or during one of the casual conversations that drifted into a faux-familiarity at the Amoco station or during a Friday night Gallery Walk opposite Bathhouse Row. In time, he had been turned onto Mr. Hawirth, who, having reached an agreement on the area needing care and the money to be paid, would arrive every third week or so during the early spring and fall and every two weeks or ten days during the hot and wet days of summer when the grass seemed to lengthen overnight, and, no doubt, he thought, did.
Mr. Hawirth drove a cobalt-blue Dodge truck to which a knobby hitch was bolted almost as though an afterthought. He hauled a ramshackle slat-wood trailer mounted on a steel frame behind the truck, a small lawn tractor chained to the trailer bed until he was ready to go to work, at which time he’d slide a portable ramp from under the bed and hang it onto the rear crossbeam of the frame, undo the chain, and roll the tractor onto the offending grass. Those mornings when he was up early, he took a cup of coffee out to Mr. Hawirth along with a check and they would talk for a few minutes, avoiding, as though by mutual unstated consent, politics and religion, though he felt it likely that their views, had they shared them, would have been close. They stuck to the weather, new construction in the neighborhood, whether of houses or roads, heating costs, gasoline prices. Mr. Hawirth worked in a circle around the house, leaving a wilderness of overgrown weeds and shrubs and a handful of trees foresting a wider swath that extended from the cut center out to the periphery of the property. That done, he went at the tufts around the carport and along the roadway and at the base of trees within the cleared space with a weed whacker. The entire operation took about three and a half hours. Sometimes, he took a glass of cold sun tea or pink lemonade out to Mr. Hawirth who was stowing the weed whacker and remarked on how much better the place looked, as though the words made a part of the payment, one neither contracted for, nor recorded, but vital all the same. This day, however, was not one on which Mr. Hawirth made an appearance.
It was a day on which Tripod came down the road looking for a handout, disdained the cheese offered, the rinds and, then, even chunks, which he sniffed curiously but turned away from, but wolfed down tatters torn from salami, ragged edges of meat clinging to thickened skin, and, then, lay down on the carport’s concrete slab and pretended to sleep, his cinnamon nose twitching at vagrant odors or the cellophane-winged flies with verdigris bodies that would buzz the pool from time to time, scooping up a droplet, and then hover in the space between the pool and house.
The dog had been named by a telephone lineman who worked along the road beyond the house repairing, installing, whatever. Telephone outages were almost common outside the urban precincts, so he had his route, if not regular, at least occasional, up and down the local roads. Having only three of the normal quartet of legs didn’t seem to bother Tripod, who acted as though unaware of his deficiency when he chased cars angling right onto Battle Heights Road from Chestnut Lane, or ran barking alongside and in front as the car headed for town; he had the car’s speed and direction gauged and would veer off once the offending machine had gotten fifty or sixty feet beyond his territory. Not quite ocher or lemony-tan, his short coat resembled pig liver about as much as anything. His owners thought his patrimony included an infusion of Weimaraner, but most on Chestnut Lane and Battle Heights Road dismissed the notion as mere fantasy.
The fields didn’t sleep in the afternoon. Hawks scouting overhead scanned uncut grass for the tunneling glide of a king or blacksnake pushing the rattail blades counter to the breeze, the bobbing scurry of a rabbit caught away from its burrow, or, if they were in luck, a fawn unmissed by its doe and venturing toward tussocks beaten down by the sun. It was less a matter of flying than of carving a path through the where of its intent, paring away petals of negative space that plastered the bundled body, nori wrapping a pellet of sticky rice, grape leaves compacted into dolmades: an infinite process of being-into-flight.
The yellow wasp trap dangling from a buttressing strut under the carport showed a reservoir of molasses sludge around the bottom edge. He poured an inch of sugar-water into the plastic hive a few days prior and would empty it Monday, as he did each week. He found spike-mailed caterpillars on occasion, often bees and flies of various denominations, midges in great numbers, almost a gravy of putrescence, but only now and then a wasp, rarely two. The open circular ramp through which insects enter might be too narrow for wasps, he thought, or they might be able to find their way out once they’ve sipped the bait, or, possibly, they’re too smart to enter or so programmed that the geometry of the entry can provoke no more than a half-hearted response in them.
Dragonflies dipped and weaved, mating, cloisonné spindles threading the woolly afternoon, pairs of mica-fine wings on either side pushing in synch against the inconstant air. A jumping spider made a meal of a flower fly in the shade of the pool. From time to time, a swallowtail lurched past, or a fuss in the grass disclosed a pale leaf-green frog making for a patch of cool under the rugged corrugations of an overhanging branch. Down among the roots, he knew, the battle went on without truce. Worms working the topsoil continually processing myriad-on-myriad microbeings. Canker galls budding on fibrous rootstock. The digger wasp laying its egg on the thorax of a stung tarantula, a meal-and-a-half on the hoof, so to speak, for the eventual larva feeding its facelessness into the dark and living flesh. Mites infiltrating the chitin of beetles. A congregation of ants bowing down to serve, honor, and protect their queen, whose business is production, pulling rubbery eggs from her partly extruded ovipositor with a plap, inaudible to us incurious spectators to a world’s business. Soon, Tripod would wake and pee against a bush and wander down the blacktop to where cars turned west, chasing the sun.
The afternoon drifted, a leaf on a log in a stream, or, perhaps, he thought, we were the leaf and the log and, it seemed possible, the stream itself. Around us, everything was what was happening around us, the sky beginning to faintly, faintly, shimmer, a silken mesh of light passing through glints of matter too fine to see except as they struck at the light sending a tiny, scintillant anger repeating to the horizon. He had promised to lend Marie Lepanto Fanny Hill, which was inconspicuously absent from the shelves of the local library and which someone had mentioned during the literary discussion she hosted on alternate Thursday evenings. Marie lived in a small faux-Tudor cottage, half-timbering simulated by custom vinyl siding her husband had installed over a Labor Day weekend three years before. It rose out of a rolling declivity in the landscape that Marie liked to refer to as “our valley” and which neighbors called “the marsh.”
Inside was all spit-and-polish lifted from House Beautiful and Vogue: Moen faucets; low-pressure shower diverters ordered from Sunshine House; toilets set fashionably, if uncomfortably, low, like white fungus, slick with exudate, breeching Portuguese tile floors. He always thought that for anyone over five-foot-ten, sitting on one of them must produce a feeling similar to that of Alice when she grew so tall inside the White Rabbit’s house that she became compacted like a concertina in last wheeze with her knees wedged under her chin and her arms dangling like useless wings from either side. He chatted with Marie at the door for a few moments.
Her husband, Tony, had a new project—a gazebo, behind the house, complemented by a pergola drooping under a raft of muscadine and scuppernong from which they would, a few years down the line, make their own wine—and was down to Lowe’s pricing lumber and hardware. He put the book into her hand, which disappeared inside the door and returned empty, having deposited its cargo on a telephone stand he remembered from previous visits. She wanted to ask about the guest, whose Norton she had heard grumbling down the road and had caught a glimpse of as it turned onto his blacktop, but decided to wait until they could get together, the four of them, for a backyard barbecue, when the weather had decided whether to stay wrapped in summer or opt for a precipitate and, hopefully, temperate fall. She felt a bit silly feeling awkward about the book, given the daily dose of skin on television and in films, even the bra and panty ads that had taken over the formerly staid Sunday paper. So she didn’t invite him in or satisfy her gossipy nature with an innocent inquiry, but invented a something on the stove and offered a roundelay of chirruped greetings transitively directed at his “better half,” all of which he understood and abetted by stepping back and murmuring something about “having to get back,” which he did, a brief divagation notwithstanding.
He returned indirectly in order to stop near the firehouse where an enterprising farmer sold watermelons from the tailgate of his truck nearly every day from mid-summer to early fall. The one he bought would replace the one now in the refrigerator and which was destined to slake a late-afternoon thirst. Dark-green and round as a cannonball, the melon weighed seven pounds and boomed wetly when he thumped it as everyone did though the results were capricious. “The proof of the pudding’s in the eating,” he thought, happy to find the cliché apposite.
The old melon, its greenish-white inner rind breeched and a triangular plug lifted out, offered a gash of scarlet to the eye. He scooped half-spheres into celadon-green bowls, leaving the plug intact to close the gap, and added a scant jigger of lemon-flavored vodka to each. Then they had double espressos with biscotti and tossed the crumbs onto the grass for the birds or squinch bugs or whatever might come across them on their way from somewhere to somewhere else.
At the end of the road, a truck dithered, its driver looking for an address, and then began its heaving, cautious way down the driveway, coughing with effort as it wrenched itself through the bend where the road turned southeast approaching the house. When it stopped, a truck-length before the arc that would start it back up toward the overhanging trees on the way to the dirt road that would take it wherever it intended to go, he walked over to set the driver straight. He couldn’t tell him where the Graysons lived, but he could tell him he had the wrong house. “Keep going along the road you came off, Battle Heights Road, and check the numbers on the mailboxes. The Graysons might be the people who moved into the Kazlof place, sort of an overblown hacienda with blue shingles maybe two-thirds of a mile further on where the road dead-ends.” So the truck lumbered around the tight turn, running off into the grass, leaving a trail of matted tufts before the driver could pull it back onto the blacktop and steer it to the dirt road waiting at the top of a rise.
So the afternoon wore down time until the guest announced that he would be leaving. He liked to ride through the early evening, the air, having shed the day’s heat, coming alive with crickets’ chaffering, firefly flickers seen from the corner of the eye, houses and cars looming up ahead and passing behind, as if, paradoxically, the world had gone still, the drumming repetition an endless loop playing in a theater of the mind—though, put that way, he would have dismissed the idea as an idea, cerebral, not the sheer immersion in movement that made sleep, long hours away, at a truck stop or in an off-road motel, its faded neon soliciting a final $28 trucker, whore, or lost soul from the trackless wastes of concrete.
In the house, he turned on the news and, after, channel-surfed, enjoying the pastiche of sitcom and mystery, the incongruities and juxtaposition the machine made possible, the pundits switched off in mid-pronouncement. For supper, he made a soufflé into which he folded sautéed onion and green pepper and filbert-size chunks of smoked chicken seasoned with ground ancho and pequin chilis. His wife steamed carrots and broccoli and tossed them with pesto. They warmed up leftover roasted potatoes and drank Washington State Covey Run Chardonnay, which spared them the headachy lethargy that sulfite-heavy California and Australia wines tended to induce.
Night was wrapping itself around the yellow house. It dismissed a few lingering remnants of consciousness from the dreamy air. An absence of sound, almost a presence, took over. For a long moment between moments, it went about scattering fragments of light that had been left by light’s withdrawal.
Then, a yellow moon-flower, edging its way up through a darkening thicket of air, called a halt to the day.