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
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
my socket wrench.”
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.
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.
get home at night I soak my feet in Epson salt.”
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.
Lett coughed to
clear his throat. “I think I might puke.”
only a rental,” I said.
Lett sounded a little fainter like he might be falling in deeper.
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.
Ok?” I said.
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.
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.
the emergency, Jim?”
the name of the actress in “The Third Man?”
Dr. Cane chuckled.
“It’s good music for waiting, isn’t it.”
what was her name?”
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.
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?”
the point, nothing. It’s the same nothing as the day before,
the same nothing as tomorrow…”
I knew where this
was going. “No.”
You made it through yesterday. You can make it through today and
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?’”
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.
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…”
thinking about your ex wife today?”
see…” But I didn’t see it. Why did I bring up
the song? I didn’t want to talk anymore. “I got to
hang up just because I don’t know the song.”
not it. The song in a way is about not connecting with anybody.
And that’s me, right now.”
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
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,
and pointed at me.
I smiled. “Yeah,
you in Lexington, like 7 or 8 years ago. Wow. I loved that song
‘My Crying Girl.’”
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.
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
meet you. Sorry to run…”
did grow up around here?”
did. Up through high school.”
wouldn’t let me go. “And now you’re back.”
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.
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.
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?”
bring me a Coke.”
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
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.
you have a seat?”
She was unfazed.
a minute. I’m…I’m thinking of a song.”
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.
know time has a beginning?”
Her smile faded.
I sat back, feeling
expansive. “Scientists believe time began with the big bang.
When the universe was created.”
of song is this? You going all arty?”
creating something new.” The words were just coming without
forethought. I liked the feel of them. “Cosmic country,”
full of shit. How longs it been since you wrote a real song? Like
the old ones.”
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.”
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
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?”
She got up and went back behind the lattice partition.
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.
be, it is,” Ruby said. Then she turned her head slightly
and yelled over her shoulder, “Momma, you will not believe
who it is.”
Ruby ignored the
question and then turned back to me. “Come on in here.”
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.”
sure you would remember me.”
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
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.
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.
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.
you were back,” Miss Ruby said.
told you that?”
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.”
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
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