Tommy Jenkins
Cosmic Country
New Prose From the USA
 
 

        The plumber was at my house. What started as a few drops of water beneath the kitchen sink had become a small pond rapidly warping the tile of my kitchen floor. I sat at the card table and watched a familiar cardinal perch on my sill briefly and then flutter off. The plumber gingerly inspected the tools in his belt before kneeling to look under the sink. He was a rotund man with flushed cheeks and a scarred, adenoidal voice. His hands trembled slightly and he continually rubbed them down the front of his pants as if he could wring the shakes from them. The morning was cool and cloudless and I could not see the hint of rain that the weatherman promised. Not that I cared much. I was living in a rental house not far from the center of town. It was what my father called a shotgun house, built by one of the factories after the war. There were rows of them in this part of town all cut from the same architect’s cookie cutter blueprint. I had been there two months, feeling a little better and anxious for the summer with its promise of children playing in the park nearby, baseball and women in bathing suits.
        “Oh boy,” plumber Lett said. His name was stenciled on the right breast of his shirt and I wanted badly to call him by this first name. Lett was a forceful word that couldn’t help but sound like an accusation.
        “What is it, Lett?”
        “I forgot my socket wrench.”
        “Well,” I said, “I might have one you could borrow.”
        He paused and breathed heavy so I got up and walked to the utility room just off the kitchen. As I opened the door I heard him say: “Ok. But I don’t want to be a bother.”
        In a half an hour I was sitting on the floor with Lett. We were on our second cup of coffee and Lett’s hands were slightly calmer. He had taken his tool belt off and laid it across the floor so I could hand him whatever he asked for. Much of the work he did with grip locks and I thought about warning him of stripping various bolts but decided against it. He would work for a time and then have to massage his hand to keep it from cramping and during this time he kept me amused with the tale of his struggle with gout.
        “It’s worse on the right foot, you know,” Lett said. “That’s where I put most of the weight when I walk. The doctor said I walk all crooked and that’s why it hurts like that.” I had never known anyone with gout before and to hear Lett’s lamentations made me believe it was a most annoying affliction.
        “When I get home at night I soak my feet in Epson salt.”
        “Does it help?”
        “It puts me to sleep. But it still hurts when I wake up.” He paused and grunted, working on some particularly stubborn part beneath my sink. “Could you hand me the Phillips head?”
I took it from the belt and placed it in Lett’s outstretched hand. His face was hidden in darkness and his words were hollow as if being yelled from within cavernous regions of the earth. “Oh boy,” Lett said.
        “What now?”
        Lett coughed to clear his throat. “I think I might puke.”
        “Well, it’s only a rental,” I said.
        “What?” Lett sounded a little fainter like he might be falling in deeper.
        “The house.”
        Lett wretched, paused, then wretched again, his stomach constricting tightly until the motion carried up his chest. Nothing came out; nothing was going to come out. We waited in silence and then I heard him again using the grip locks on the sink.
        “Are you Ok?” I said.
        “It passed.”
        I sat and watched Lett as he regained command of himself. He was probably late fifties, but the years had been long ones. He had the look of a common relative, rarely seen but always remembered for what tragic story their life contained. As Lett neared the end of his work, the twitch started in my hand, more of a quick flinch as if I had brushed up against a burner on the stove. It was sporadic and not often and I knew it would not be worse but somehow the fear still set in, obtrusive thoughts that wouldn’t simply disappear.
        Lett finished by replacing about a ten-inch section of pipe. The whole affair took about three hours and I was glad to have the morning over without the anxiety of how it should be spent. He put the tools back in his belt and slung it over his shoulder. He said he would send the bill and strode out to his truck with me watching from the doorway. Before he pulled away he gave a last wave, almost a half salute really, and then was gone.

        I had been watching a lot of TV, mostly cartoons and documentaries on the Discovery Channel. There were more productive ways to fill up the afternoon, but judging the time by what show was on kept me occupied till nightfall. The nights were considerably cooler but not unpleasant and generally I could make the silence less tangible by not realizing where it came from.
        I tried not to think of the twitch, but it was impossible. Eventually the thinking of not thinking about it was too much, so I picked up the phone and called my counselor. I had to tell the secretary twice that it was an emergency and then she put me on hold. The on hold song was the zither music from the movie “The Third Man.” It wasn’t really an odd choice. Not an obvious choice for a counselor, but it made sense. At least for me. I recalled the movie each time I heard that music: The heartbreaking unrequited love, Joseph Cotton standing alone at the end. I was trying to think of the woman’s name when Dr. Cane’s halting baritone came on.
        “What’s the emergency, Jim?”
        “What’s the name of the actress in “The Third Man?”
        Dr. Cane chuckled. “It’s good music for waiting, isn’t it.”
        “Yep. But what was her name?”
        “I don’t remember. What does this have to do with your emergency?” He emphasized the word “emergency” which gave it a hint of sarcasm.
        “I was thinking about drinking again,” which was true, but not so much the thinking about it as much as the desiring of it. Boredom’s a terrible time to occupy, much less to feel it’s all you have to pass a day.
        “Why are you thinking about drinking?”
        Why was I? Because I was bored? It was an irritating question. I didn’t care about the reason; I just cared about the fact. “I got nothing better to do,” I said.
        Dr. Cane sighed. My patience with him, with my own weakness, was frayed. “Jim, what happened today that was different than yesterday?”
        “That’s the point, nothing. It’s the same nothing as the day before, the same nothing as tomorrow…”
        “Did you drink yesterday?”
        I knew where this was going. “No.”
        “OK, then. You made it through yesterday. You can make it through today and tomorrow.”
        I was standing in the living room staring at the far wall. It was egg shell white and unadorned. A rental wall, layered thick with paint and different realities from different past lives with many future lives surely to come. “Do you know the song ‘Hello Walls?’” I asked.
        “What?”
        “’Hello Walls’ by Faron Young.”
        I could hear the doctor’s slow breathing, faint, but still audible. He was thinking about “Hello Walls” and why I would bring it up. I guessed that he didn’t know the song.
        “No, I don’t know it. You know I don’t listen to country music really…” He was getting frustrated. I had a talent for being able to tell when I was annoying people.
        “I used to play it sometimes at my shows. See, its about this man whose wife has left him and he comes home and talks to the walls, and other stuff, to see how their day has been…”
        “Were you thinking about your ex wife today?”
        “No. You see…” But I didn’t see it. Why did I bring up the song? I didn’t want to talk anymore. “I got to go.”
        “Don’t hang up just because I don’t know the song.”
        “That’s not it. The song in a way is about not connecting with anybody. And that’s me, right now.”
        “You don’t feel connected to me, right now.”
        I really wanted to hang up the phone. This was a mistake. There were cartoons I was missing. Lunch I needed to eat. “I don’t want to feel connected to you. Well, I do, but I mean…in general, I don’t feel…I need to think about it some more and get back to you.” And I hung up the phone.
        In thirty seconds the phone rang but I just let it go. I grabbed my denim jacket from the hall closet and walked outside with the phone still ringing behind me.
        A cool wind met me in the face as I walked down Main Street. I walked past the Baptist church, the new Baptist church that looked more like a Pizza Hut than what a church should look like. A woman walked out of the bank next to the church wearing a waitress uniform and counting twenty dollars bills discreetly in one of those white envelopes. She looked up at me, her brow furrowed, and she said,         “Hey,” and pointed at me.
        I smiled. “Yeah, that’s me.”
        “We saw you in Lexington, like 7 or 8 years ago. Wow. I loved that song ‘My Crying Girl.’”
        ‘My Crying Girl’ was the best thing I ever did. In my life. I wrote it in another lifetime one night after watching a baseball game on TV. It cracked the top 20 country charts. It was something, the song itself, I was proud of. “Thanks,” was all I could say.
        “Are you still…playing?”
        Yes. And no. “Not in public, really.”
        She was enjoying the conversation. She had the look like she was in it for the long haul. “I remember reading you grew up around here. I’m Julie, by the way.” She held out her hand and I shook it. Her fingers were slightly callused, but the palm was soft.
        “Nice to meet you. Sorry to run…”
        “But you did grow up around here?”
        “Yeah, I did. Up through high school.”
        Smiling Julie wouldn’t let me go. “And now you’re back.”
        “Yep.”
        “So you think you might play around here…”
        I looked just past her to the glass doors of the bank. “Look. I’m a washed up drunk now. My career’s over. It was nice meeting you though, Julie.” I briefly saw her open mouth as I turned away and walked on.
        Two blocks from the bank was the Dixie Diner. A red brick storefront with the name of the restaurant stenciled across the front glass. It was never that crowded, it just seemed to rotate the same group of customers over and over. A row of booths lined the left wall and a few scattered tables took up the rest of the floor space.
        Kristy, the owner, saw me come in and smiled. She waved toward the booths, her hand making a slight sweeping motion, offering me my choice. I sat down in the booth closest to the back. Kristy came over and put down a menu in front of me. I had known her, known this place, the two really went together in my mind, for about as long as I could remember. And yet my connection to it seemed like from some other reality, like some other me that I had forgotten. I hadn’t been in the place for years until I moved back, and I had slowly become a regular.
        Kristy was a big-busted woman whose hair was dyed frosted blonde and piled in a high sweep that was lacquered into place with ungodly amounts of hairspray. She had dark brown eyes that had watered over the years, and she carried with her the aroma of some mixture of perfume and hairspray that was uniquely her own. It trailed her like some cartoon rain cloud over Charlie Brown’s head.
        “Good to see you again, Jimmy,” she said after setting down the menu. Her voice was deep and with an edge. An edge that just runs through a man and stirs desire. It was the sexiest voice I ever heard and for years I tried to capture it in words that would make sense in a three-minute song. She was a good looking woman for her age. Held up well, as they say. But twenty years ago she was the first woman I fantasized about when masturbating. Then she was so alluring and seemed like she could teach me all the things that I could not even imagine existed.
        “Thanks, Kristy. You’re looking good today.”
        She laughed, a sound that came from within my memory. She put her hand on my shoulder, the bright red, fake nails oddly at home on my denim clad shoulder. “Don’t’ flirt with me. I’m too old for you,” she said. “You want some coffee?”
        “Nah, just bring me a Coke.”
        “Coming up.” And she walked off behind the lattice partition that separated the kitchen from the customers. I stared blankly at the menu, not reading it. I had already decided on a cheeseburger. I knew it before I came in, knew it before I woke up this morning and found the leak under the kitchen sink. It was predetermined. It was part of the fabric of time, wound tightly into the fabric of my own space. I had watched a special on Einstein and Stephen Hawking a few days back. I didn’t know what I was thinking about half the time, but it was comforting to know some people had figured that shit out.
        Kristy set the glass of Coke down in front of me. The perfect blend of Coke and ice.
        “Well?” Kristy said. “You want a cheeseburger?” She smiled and it made me feel better, melting some coldness that was in me. Threatening to destroy the delicate balance of Coke and ice.
        “Why don’t you have a seat?”
        She was unfazed. “I’m working.”
        “Just for a minute. I’m…I’m thinking of a song.”
        “Really? A new song?” She sat down right away. Her big tits rested on the table, and she looked at me eager for more about this song.
        “Do you know time has a beginning?”
        Her smile faded. “What?”
        I sat back, feeling expansive. “Scientists believe time began with the big bang. When the universe was created.”
        “What kind of song is this? You going all arty?”
        “I’m creating something new.” The words were just coming without forethought. I liked the feel of them. “Cosmic country,” I said.
        “You’re full of shit. How longs it been since you wrote a real song? Like the old ones.”
        The “old ones.” I couldn’t think up the old ones. I tried sometimes. Usually late at night, when the silence was so deep it was claustrophobic. But it was hard. The words seemed individual, untied to any concept. They stood for something, but it was lost to me. “The old ones have no meaning, Kristy.”
        She raised an eyebrow. “The old ones are forever. Like ‘My Crying Girl.’ It still gets me. You just got to find that.”
        ‘My Crying Girl.’ How the hell did I ever write that? I had no idea. You watch a baseball game, get a thought about an ex girlfriend and then the words are there. “That was a long time ago.”
        She shook her head. “No it wasn’t. Honey, that was just a few years ago. That was you. You wrote that.” She gave a short nod for emphasis. She then put her elbow on the table and rested her head on her fist. It shifted her tits so the right one was lower.
        I shook my head. “I can’t. Now there is this. Time. The concept of time not being eternal, but having a beginning and inevitably an end. I’m still fleshing this out. The space time continuum is interwoven space and time…”
        She looked at me, through me really. My words had stopped reaching her brain. Then her eyes regained focus. “Why did you come back?”
        The question was simple and direct and hard and it caught me unprepared. “I don’t know. It seemed like coming back here was the right thing.”
        “That’s not a real answer.”
        Real? How do you put in to words to a woman you used to jack off thinking about when you were a kid why you wanted, needed, to change your life by going backwards? I felt tears welling up behind my eyes. I swallowed and forced them back. “Because it’s home,” I said softly. I cleared my throat and the tears were held at bay. “I needed the familiar. I needed…home.”
        She smiled. “You want that bacon cheeseburger?”
        “Yeah.”
        “All right.” She got up and went back behind the lattice partition.
        The cheeseburger was cooked too much as always. I thought of cosmic country while I ate. I liked the idea of it. It was one of those spontaneous notions that sticks. I thought about time and space and in between them was the seedling of an idea that could become a song. Not then. But at some point, when it was ready, it would be there.

        There was a woman. Two women in fact. One was the daughter of the other. They lived together in an apartment over a storefront across from the bank, their living room window overlooking Main Street. Both of them were still alive. I had asked somebody about them a few months back. But I hadn’t seen them. Cloris was the mother and Ruby was the daughter. When I was a kid they were Miss Cloris and Miss Ruby.
        I decided I wanted to see them. They probably wouldn’t remember me, but they had been on my mind since I saw the Einstein show. Miss Ruby, probably retired, had been a professor of physics at the local college. That was a story in and of itself, one that I never knew. She didn’t seem like a professor. She didn’t seem to come from anything that could make up a professor. She talked with a bit of a nasally twang, shelled pecans while she watched TV, never married and lived with her mother across from the bank.
        I walked around behind the building where the black metal steps (were they always metal?) led up to their apartment. I pushed the illuminated button and heard the bell echoing inside; then came the shuffling of feet down the linoleum hallway and finally Miss Ruby’s face looking out the glass panes of the door at my own. She was older and grayer, but still her thank God.
        I smiled. I could not tell if she recognized me or not, but I heard the click of the deadbolt sliding and then the door slowly opened. We stood across the threshold, nothing separating us, and I had no idea what to say.
        “Well I’ll be, it is,” Ruby said. Then she turned her head slightly and yelled over her shoulder, “Momma, you will not believe who it is.”
        From somewhere unseen: “What?”
        Ruby ignored the question and then turned back to me. “Come on in here.”
        “Thank you. It’s good to see you, Miss Ruby,” I said.
        She shut the door behind me and locked it. “Child it has been an age since we saw you.”
        “I wasn’t sure you would remember me.”
        “Please. Not remember? We kept track. Got both of your records.”
        I was ten again and Miss Ruby was fawning over me for making an A on my report card.
        “Come on. Have a seat.”
        We started down the hallway. At the end, Miss Cloris stood behind her walker. “Who’d you say it was?” she asked too loudly.
        “It’s an old friend.”

        I sat on one end of the couch, Miss Ruby on the other end, and Miss Cloris in the recliner. It was a different recliner, a newer one, although it still had the impression of being of another era, but the couch was the same. Miss Cloris smiled continuously as she stared at the two of us.
        The wallpaper was unchanged, a dark maroon floral print with small flowers that I did not recognize. Perhaps merely from the fertile imagination of some ambitious wallpaper designer. The wallpaper, the couch, the new old style recliner, it was a portrait from some timeless time. It was an image of this town to be printed on postcards and sold at gas stations just off Interstate 75 so a passerby might acquire some record and say “these were those people.” And could we object? Not me. This was us, pure, undiluted us. My heart filled with safety.
        “I heard you were back,” Miss Ruby said.
        “Oh, who told you that?”
        “We get news.”
        I smiled.
        “You want a treat?” Miss Cloris practically yelled.
        Miss Cloris ate sugary children’s cereals for at least two meals a day. Different kinds, all kinds. Some with those hard multi colored marshmallows that softened in milk, some with that fake chocolate that left a not quite chocolate milk drink behind. And they all had those cheap plastic toys in the bottom of the box. Miss Cloris saved the toys. Kept a couple of tins full and gave them to children if they ever stopped by. The “treat.”
        “Next time,” I grinned.
        It was too much. Memories and home and safety all crested in an unbreakable wave with me the projectile center. I couldn’t hold on for long or it would carry me to states the two ladies shouldn’t witness.
        So I made small talk. I asked about their health, heard tales of townsfolk I remembered and didn’t remember. I kept it on the surface and Miss Ruby sensed it, but left it alone. I hadn’t forgotten about physics, but knew there would be another time for that conversation.
        When I left, I felt lightheaded but good. I felt…like that song was closer, lurking just outside the periphery, and if I was patient enough it would come. It was part of the chain of time after all. It existed in that future that was already part of my fabric. I turned right instead of left on Main Street and moved leisurely in the direction of the library. Maybe they had a few books on Einstein and Hawking I could check out, I thought. Maybe the song was waiting there.