The Good Life _     _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _  Mark and Rebecca Spencer

 

 

FIVE

     

  Before Lon and I get to town, he pulls off the road at a farm house, the Hooley place, with a hand-painted sign in front saying, "Fresh Eggs.  60 cents doz."

     He says, "Chachi needs some brown eggs."  He shoves his door open against the wind and climbs down from the moving van's cab.  I watch him through the streaked windshield.  Snow flakes hit the glass and melt.  Lon goes up onto the porch of the small frame house painted white with yellow shutters, opens the screen door, and knocks.  He steps back, shoves his hands into his coat pockets, bounces a little, trying to keep warm.  In a minute, June Hooley sticks her gray head out, makes a face at the cold.  June was a friend of Meg's.  I press myself back against the seat, try not to be seen.  As always, when I see June, I wish I could disappear. 

     I remember walking past my kitchen window forty years ago on a muddy day in late spring.  The air was raw and wet.  Some baby chicks had drowned in a puddle near the barn.  The window was open a few inches at the bottom to cool the hot kitchen.  "You oughta leave the bastard," June said.

     I stopped, felt as though I were sinking into the mud, waited to hear Meg say something.  June waited, too, I supposed.  Finally, without getting a response, except maybe a shrug from Meg or a look of woe--maybe a nod, as far as I know--June said, "Well, I got to get home and fry chicken."

     I scurried away, slipping once, caught myself, ducked behind the barn.  I couldn't let June see me, didn't want to subject her to the sight of a bastard.

     Smiling now, June is asking Lon something as she hands him an egg carton.  She gestures toward the moving van.  Lon turns, looks my way, turns back to June, says something, and she squints hard at the moving van.  Her smile drops away.

     Forty years isn't long enough to change some people's judgements, I know.  I tell myself I should open the door, climb down, walk right up to her, tip my Ford cap, and say, You getting on all right, June?  You know, June, you've misunderstood something about me for years now

     But I know it wouldn't matter.  A person carries a notion in her head for forty years, she's not going to let it go easy. 

     I wonder what June will think--will say to the whole county --if Rose and I now . . . . 

     I catch myself.  I whisper to myself, "Don't be a fool, Fowood."

     Lon is waiting again.  He cradles the carton of eggs in the crook of his arm.  He waves to me to let me know it will be another minute before we can get going.  I nod, wave back.

     June steps outside in a man's brown top coat--her husband Frank's.  Frank has been dead ten years, died young, not more than fifty-five.  A lot of men in Adams County die young.  Rose's first husband, Reverend Rodney, died twenty-nine years ago, while having Sunday dinner with one of the richer Methodist families.  His belly pressed up against the table, his big round face red and grinning, I have no doubt.  Rodney's arm jerked.  Mashed potatoes flew from his fork and smacked his hostess in the face, and Rodney crashed sideways to the hardwood floor.  I cleaned my .22 pistol the next day and stopped carrying it in my truck's glove compartment. 

     Rose's second husband, the county judge, died long ago, too.  I don't know about her third one.  He's back in Kansas , I guess.  Buried, too, maybe.

     June is about as broad as she is tall, her hair in a tight gray bun.  Her thick glasses with black frames look like goggles.  Lon follows her around the side of the house and disappears.  In a minute he reappears alone, holding a burlap sack that seems to contain something heavy and round, the egg carton still cradled in his other arm.

     I shove the driver's door open for him, and Lon puts the eggs and the sack behind the seat.

     "Lady's a talker," Lon says.

     "What she sell you in the sack?  A cannonball?"

     "Dead pig.  It's for Chachi.  You know, she can paint the skeleton."  He laughs a little.

     "Yeah."   

     "Got the brown eggs," Lon says, cranking the engine.

     "Chachi won't eat white ones?"

     The loud diesel comes to life.  Lon yells, "She says brown ones are the only ones people should eat.  White ones are poison."

     "I never heard--"

     Lon pulls the van onto the road.  "You remember Sue Perkins?  Graduated the same year I did?  She was in our civics class?"

     "Yeah."

     "I hear a doctor told her she got cancer from eating dill pickles."

     I look at him, shake my head. 

     I was with Lon the day he met Chachi last fall, not much more than a year ago.  We had finished a local move--some woman moving out on her husband.  "Twenty-three years," the woman kept saying every time we lifted a piece of furniture into the moving van.  She had a big Victorian house full of nice things, but she was moving to a small apartment.  I figured things must have gotten pretty bad.  I looked around for broken windows, cracked plaster, splintered doors.  But the house looked perfect, like something out of a magazine.

     After Lon and I had finished the move, driving through town, we saw that there was an outdoor flea market on the square and stopped to take a look.  I left Lon at a cotton candy stand.  He was eyeing a couple of young girls, and I went looking for Mason jars. 

     Later, after buying a box of jars for a dollar, I found him at a booth where a skinny girl with copper hair was selling Santo Gold jewelry, some old soft-drink bottles, and brightly painted animal bones.  I walked up and looked back and forth between the girl and Lon, saw how they locked eyes on each other. 

     On display in front of her were a couple of yellow cow skulls, a fluorescent pink raccoon skeleton, a blue cat skeleton, a green armadillo.  She was holding a bird skeleton painted gold, turning it as she explained that years ago she came up with the idea when she was taking an art class at Portsmouth Junior College .  She used pins and glue and enamel paint to create her "Immortal Pets." 

     "More like Dead Pets," I said, but nobody was paying attention to me.

     Lon wasn't looking at the bird skeleton.  He was looking at the girl's green eyes, her long slim neck.  Her hands and wrists looked as fragile as the bird skeleton she was holding. 

     "Isn't it cool?" she said. 

     Lon reached into his pocket in slow motion and handed over a twenty-dollar bill like a man in a trance.

     I said, "I'll be waiting in the truck."

     Lon nodded.  Then after I was a few feet away, he said, "Fo."

     "Yeah?"

     "Might be a while."

     "There's no rush."

     I sat in the moving van with the windows down.  There were the smells of popcorn and cotton candy, which made me think of the carnival Daddy took me to when I was eight.  "A sin," Mama said.  But Daddy and I wanted to see for ourselves the wonders advertised in the county paper: two-headed baby chicks, a three-legged goat, a man who could lift a thousand pounds with his teeth.  The chicks and the goat were in jars of formaldehyde. 

     The strongman wasn't working the day we were there.  Instead, a double-jointed girl in a swim suit twisted herself around in ways that looked painful, but she kept smiling.  Her teeth were yellow, and I didn't think she'd be able to lift much with them.  Some men standing nearby made snickering remarks that I wouldn't understand for years.  Daddy smiled at something the men said, then frowned and said, "We better get out of here." 

     I liked the rides and the food.  Daddy wouldn't play the games, said that he wasn't going to throw his money away, that

the games were like gambling.  "Person's bound to lose.  Everything's rigged."  When I asked what a fortune teller was, Daddy cleared his throat and said, "The most dangerous attraction of the whole carnival.  It's bad to know too much."

     Around dusk, after I'd been waiting for Lon there at the town square for about an hour, the flea market started to shut down.  Dealers started loading their merchandise into their cars or pick-ups.  Lon and the girl approached the moving van, Lon saying, "This thing's mine."

     The girl looked the moving van over and said, "Cool."

     "I used to have a Corvette, but I sold it to buy this thing and start my moving business."

     "I'm not impressed by cars at all.  Guys think if they've got chrome mags or leather seats or something you're supposed to want to blow them."

     I got out of the moving van and nodded to her.

     Lon touched her arm.  "Fowood, this is Chachi.  Chachi, this is Fowood."

     I nodded again.  Chachi stuck out her hand, small as a child's, and I took it in my thick, rough one and shook it briefly and very gently because she seemed so fragile. 

     "God, I love your name," she said.

     "Thank you."

     "Fo's a farmer, but he helps me with a lot of moves.  He can move a refrigerator or a piano better than any young guys I've ever hired.  Fo was one of my teachers in high school, too."

     Chachi looked startled.  "Oh.  I didn't do too good in school."

     "I didn't either," Lon said.  "Just ask Fo."

     "There were some that did worse," I said.

     Chachi took a step toward me.  "You have a really deep voice, Fowood."

     "I do?"

     "Yeah.  You sound like Berry White."  She looked at Lon.  "You like Berry White?"

     "Isn't he like some four-hundred-pound black guy?"

     "Yeah, but he's got this really deep, really sexy voice.

I mean, I wouldn't want to have sex with him or anything, but I wouldn't mind taking him home and tying him up and making him talk to me."

     "I guess this means I should buy you Berry White tapes for special occasions," Lon said.

     "Oh, Lon, you don't ever have to buy me gifts.   And, Fowood, I love your voice.  And you look like an old movie star."

     "Pardon?"

     "You do.  I'm not sure who, though.  You ever do any acting?"

     "Felt like one often enough when I stood in front of a class room."

     "You look like Gary Cooper.  That's who."

     "He didn't lose his hair, did he?"

     Lon grinned.  "Yeah, I think she might be right, Fo.  You do look kind of like Gary Cooper."

     "Whatever you say."

     Chachi said, "You're cool."  She looked at Lon.  "Fowood is cool."

     Lon opened the passenger door for her and she climbed in.

     "What about all your merchandise?" I asked, getting in next to her.  My Mason jars were on the floorboard, and I picked them up and held them on my lap so that she would have more leg room.

     "My son's taking all the stuff home for me."

     "How old's your boy?"

     "Nineteen."

     "Good lord, you must have been a child when you had him."  Then I cleared my throat and said, "I'm sorry.  I don't mean to be rude.  It's just you look awfully young."

     "I was fifteen when I had him."

     I looked at her closer, saw the delicate crow's feet around her eyes, but she still looked like a kid.

     As we drove out of town, Lon turned his head every other second to look at her.  She gave him a big grin with her perfect teeth.  Then she grinned at me.

     "Lon," she said.  "Is your dad cool?"

     "He passed away a few years ago.  But, yeah, I liked him."

     Chachi said, "My dad has been in prison most the time since I was six."

     Lon and I both looked at her.

     "He just stole some cars.  Nothing mean.  Cars and motor homes.  He was cool.  And a few speed boats.  And a beer truck one time.  It was full of beer."  She laughed.

     "My dad was a farmer," Lon said.  "Like Fowood."

     "God, I love that name.  Fowood."

     Lon said, "I like your name.  Sounds like you're from Morocco or Spain .  Like you ought to be dancing around with a flower in your teeth."

     "My mom thought it was exotic."

     "Sure beats `Mary Jane' and `Betty Sue' and all the other names women got round here."

     "Mom thought with a name like Chachi I wouldn't end up spending my life in a trailer in Adams County with a dozen kids."

     Lon looked at her too long and almost ran into the bar ditch.  The narrow gravel shoulder warned him, gravel flying up and pinging against the undercarriage, the tires slipping, and just as the van started to tip, he jerked the steering wheel to the left.  We did a shimmy, and I almost lost my grip on my Mason jars.  Then the tires caught firm pavement again.      

     My heart was pounding.  Everybody was quiet for a minute, but Chachi had a big grin on her face. 

     Squinting at the road, a little sweat glistening on his brow, Lon said, "I haven't known many green-eyed women."

     Chachi's green eyes got big, and she started shouting and slapping the dash board.  "Oh, God!  Stop!  Stop!"

     "What?  What's wrong?"  Lon braked hard.

     I clung to my Mason jars.

     "A dead opossum!  Can I see it?  Can I, can I?"

     Lon laughed. 

     We all got out and walked back to see the opossum. 

     The sun was setting between two hills.  The leaves were starting to curl and turn brown and red and orange.  As Chachi

stood on the road, the sun caught her hair and it shimmered gold and red.  I could see what Lon was seeing in her, was wishing I were twenty or thirty years younger myself. 

     She had her head cocked at Lon and was grinning, one hand on her hip and the other holding the dead opossum by its tail.  "What are you thinking?" she said in a flirty voice.  "You think I'm weird?"

     "I think you're crazy," Lon said.  "I can already tell you're crazy."

     "Don't be mean."  She pouted like a young girl, like the high-school girls I taught for thirty years.  She kept staring at Lon but said to me, "Don't let him be mean to me.  Tell him to be nice."

     "He's not my son.  He's my boss.  I can't control him."  I noticed the way her tie-dyed tee-shirt hung, how she had good breasts for a skinny woman, and I had to make myself look away.

     Lon was looking down the road ahead, the asphalt shimmering.  "So . . . a keeper?" he said.

     "What?"  Chachi made a face.

     "A keeper.  That opossum.  You gonna skin it, glue it, and paint it turquoise?"

     She looked down at the dead animal, held it up higher, its wet entrails hanging out.  "You don't get sick," she said.

     "Huh?"

     "You don't get sick."

     "No." 

     "A lot of guys get sick.  But you seem to be able to take it.  I like a man that can take a lot."

     Lon snorted.  "Like listening to Berry White?"

     Lon let Chachi wrap the opossum in a furniture pad, and he put it in the back of the moving van.  (The first time I went over to Lon's house after Chachi moved in, a turquoise opossum skeleton sat on top of the dresser in their bedroom.)

     They dropped me and my Mason jars off at my farm.  I watched the moving van disappear down the road, and I felt old.  I thought a lot about Meg that night, remembering things from way back, and I thought about Rose.  I spent more time than I usually did scratching and petting my old hound dog, Noble's, head.  That was a couple of months before Noble passed away.

     The next afternoon, Lon showed up at my front door.  His eyes were bloodshot and had dark crescents under them.  I had apples and pears boiling on the stove in big shiny kettles, and the air in my kitchen was heavy with steam and sweet smells.  I had sterilized the Mason jars by boiling them, and they were lined up on the counter top.

     "Smells good," Lon said.

     "Well, I have to admit I've been doing the preserves only since Meg passed away.  Mine aren't as good.  She had a secret, I think."

     Lon didn't seem to have heard.  He was looking out the window.  Lon's reflection in the side of one of the kettles was like the distorted image in a carnival mirror.  He was jittery and reminded me of Nick because Nick is jittery all the time.

     I said, "Well, did she look good naked?  Some women look good in clothes, but they're completely different out of them.  A bad disappointment." 

     Lon grinned, looked at me for a second, then back out the window again at the barn yard.  The weeds were cut, the fences white.  The big barn doors were open, and neatly stacked bales of hay sat inside.  I added more sugar to the apples and pears, and Lon was still looking out the window when he said, "Fo, was your wife a disappointment?"

     "No."  I turned to my kettles and stirred more sugar into the apples.  "No," I said again, recalled the thrill I felt on our wedding night when I saw for the first time Meg's small breasts, her nipples like purple dimes.  She's the only woman I've ever seen naked, except for a few pictures I confiscated from my students.  And except for Rose--but that was only in dreams.

     I could feel Lon looking at my back.  "You remember," Lon said, "I was married for a few months that summer I played minor-league ball."

     I nodded.

     "Well, I haven't thought much about marriage since then."

     I turned to face him.  Lon looked out the window again.

     He said, "Doesn't it kind of give an order to your life?"

     I didn't say anything.  I was staring at my clean linoleum floor.

     "Well, doesn't it?"  Lon's voice was pitched higher than usual.

     I shook my head and turned back to my apples.  "It can, son.  But watch out."

 

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