by W. A. Smith
Davy Calhoun slipped the driver’s seat back a notch, folded his hands in his lap and stared at the Brigham’s bright white house across the street. The hedge had grown a foot since he saw it last. How come Molly’s dad hadn’t kept it trimmed? The old man must be getting lazy, or he’s growing the hedge to keep Davy out. He lifted the pint of brandy from between his legs and took a slow pull, remembering the time he fell into the hedge—a little tight from drinking beer in the backyard with Molly and her parents and grandparents—one of the infamous Brigham Barbecues beginning around noon and continuing until everyone dropped into a lawn chair and refused to rise again. Davy had attempted the Hedge Jump on a dare from Molly’s grandfather: caught his foot on the way up and came down splayed across the prickling shrubbery like a rag doll. Molly had laughed so hard she’d had to sprint for the bathroom, beer lapping like a little ocean in her plastic cup.
He checked his watch. It was a minute past eight, Saturday morning. He and his buddy Earl had returned to Earl’s high-rise around 2:00, poured another drink, and passed out. But by six-thirty Davy was up again; unable to remember the dreams, yet certain they had not been any good: vividly unpromising enough to wake him, which would have taken some doing. He left Earl snoring in his chrome-and-glass living room atop Chicago and descended to Michigan Avenue to drive to a greasy spoon near the Loop. An unnatural hunger. He ordered a cheeseburger, a three-egg omelet, toast, fries and coffee. A warped feeding frenzy reminiscent of some of the celebrated pre-dawn college days. By the time he discovered himself on the road to Molly’s parents’ house, his breakfast had settled down momentarily.
Davy cracked the window of the Bronco. Jack and Doris’ car was not in evidence, but there was Molly’s Volvo. He took another sip, grateful. Just want to talk, work something out. She hadn’t returned any of his calls, this seemed the best way to make contact. Two weeks ago, she took Mitchell and left without a word—she even took the baby’s winter coat, in the middle of July. Davy wanted to see Baby-Man—Mitchell was his son for God’s sake. He was willing to be reasonable, but a bit of the old give-and-take was called for here.
Their marriage was dissolving, the glue was giving way. These days she was more force field than flesh and blood. Yesterday Earl had said, It’s a slight generalization, but hell—women can’t be trusted. And Davy had said, I’m not talking plural, I’m referring to this one particular woman. The Unwife. She hasn’t got the right to kidnap Mitch, it’s simple as that.
If he walked up and knocked on the door right now, would she let him in? He wasn’t sure, he had doubts. She had him off-balance. He tilted his head for another warm dose and the thing in his stomach made a minor adjustment.
The morning air was still cool enough to be reassuring, the clean white house looked solid and dependable. Molly and Baby-Man were up by now—she might be giving him a bath, patting his perfect butt with a soft towel, loading the powder on his diaper rash. Singing him a little song. Davy closed his eyes to hear the words to Molly’s song, but the metallic vibration in his skullbone fuzzed the transmission—and just as he turned to look at the house, the front door opened soundlessly like a door in a dream and Molly stepped out into the sunlight wearing her bathrobe and slippers, a wastebasket in each hand. Davy slumped down in the seat. Molly lingered for a second before continuing around the side of the house to empty the trash. Apparently she hadn’t noticed the Bronco.
He knew in an instant, she would never open the door to him if he knocked. When her bathrobe vanished he lurched out of the car and raced up the walk through the front door, huffing short panicked breaths as if someone were pounding on his back with a mallet. A pulsing paperweight hung from a vein in his chest. He closed his eyes to get his breathing under control, wondering what’s going to happen next. He made up something to hum as he looked around. Considered the merits of hiding. He thought it would be extremely fortunate if he were able to locate a secret alcove in Jack and Doris’ living room. His hands shook a little. He rubbed them together and wandered aimlessly toward the fireplace.
When Molly dropped the empty wastebaskets and screamed, he whirled around to face her, raising his hands above his head, an unarmed man deflecting bullets. His mouth dropped open, his vacant humming stopped.
Mitchell began to cry in the back bedroom.
“Davy—Christ! What are you doing?”
His tongue was swollen, his mind clicked off when she screamed. He blinked at her as if she had thrown sand at him.
“You have to leave,” Molly said. Her face was blurry. “You have to go right now.”
“The hedge needs trimmin’. Way too tall to jump over, even for an athlete like me.”
She pulled her bathrobe around her and picked up the wastebaskets, but she wouldn’t go any further into the living room. Mitchell stopped crying, they could hear him gurgling to himself back there in his crib. Her eyes moved over Davy. “You have to leave,” she said, jittery.
“Where’re Jack and Doris?” he said.
“Gram’s.” The word trembled in her throat. “Dad wanted to let Mom go by herself, he thought you might try something. But I said Mitchell and I’d be fine. Don’t make me regret it, Davy.”
It was clear she regretted it already. “What do you mean, might try something?” he said. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”
“I swear I didn’t know who you were at first.”
“Why, I’m your husband Davy,” he said, hooking his thumbs under his arms, smiling sideways, like he represented The Lollipop Guild.
The baby began to sing softly to himself in the back bedroom. Molly put the wastebaskets down again. “Stay here. I’m going to check on him.”
He started to follow her to the bedroom but she turned when she felt him behind her. “I’m serious—I don’t want him to see you like this!”
Davy stopped and backed into the living room as she continued down the hall. Funny how she didn’t want Mitch to see him but would probably tell the boy about it every day of his life. “Like what?” he said.
Molly kept glancing back over her shoulder. He understood now she was afraid of him. The revelation was so startling, it stopped him cold. They had been married seven years, done everything together. He had leaped tall hedges for her. Who did she think she was talking to?
Breakfast uncoiled and came to life, unwinding like a puzzle divulging its own ambivalent solution. He hunched over one of the wastebaskets as everything came up in churning reverse.
Molly closed the bedroom door behind her and started down the hall, but he couldn’t move, couldn’t straighten up—still bent over when she walked back into the living room. His chest began to ache.
“Okay, that’s it!” covering her nose and mouth. “I want you out of here, Davy!”
“Please…gimme something to wipe my mouth.” He struggled for a breath. “I’m sorry.”
She left for a moment and was back quickly, a paper towel extended at the end of her fingers. She dropped it near the wastebasket. He reached for it and stood slowly. His eyes were shimmering.
“I can’t do any more for you,” she said. “I have Mitchell to do for now. You’re sick.”
“A momentary sickness, I assure you.” He was still wiping his mouth. “I can change everything. I’ll start tomorrow, we’ll all go home. I’ll take care of it.”
“Promise?” The contempt hardened in her throat. She closed her eyes and sighed for effect.
He dropped the soiled paper towel into the wastebasket and took an uncertain step in her direction.
She backed away from him. “Don’t touch me.” She shook her head again and tried to stare a hole through him, but Davy activated his deflector shield just in time. “Now you’re drunk again,” she said, “and lonesome, and willing to talk, so you figure that’s enough. It’s not.”
“Let’s all go to Vrginia, okay? I can help Ma run the dairy—I swear things’ll be better there.”
“Mitchell and I live here.”
“Hey, he’s our son. You can’t change that.”
She thought about it. “I can do amazing things. It’s already started. You haven’t got a prayer.”
He knew what she meant. It was like a light shining. She was talking about the Baby-Man. He had no idea everything had advanced this far. No idea. Apparently not even a prayer.
She said, “Have you looked in the mirror lately?”
He scanned the room for a reflection. Sure, he’d be happy to take a look if it would help. “I wanna see him,” he said.
He reached for her. “Please, Moll! I’ve got to.”
She backed away again. “Look at you.”
The expression on her face made him see himself. He squinted at her as if the way she looked at him hurt his eyes. “Why didn’t you leave a note?”
“I’ve been explaining for months,” she said. “You missed it. All that’s over now.”
“Why’d you take his winter coat?” Davy smiled to draw her in, make her see the tender humor in it. If he could make her laugh a little he could have them back. “It’s July,” he said. “In Chicago.”
“He’ll need the coat for winter.” She drew out her sigh, seeming to smile at the end of it. But it was not the smile he had been counting on. The Unwife was holding all the cards, and he was the disease of the world. “Now get the hell out of here,” she said. “And stay out.”
He stepped forward as though she had pulled him—somehow he thought she had—and his fingers curled around the emptiness in his hand, swallowing against the same emptiness in his throat, and his startled fist flew to her jaw. She never saw it. The sound was distant and terrible. She went down on her back, her head rolled to one side.
He had never hit her before. He’d never hit a woman for any reason. Hadn’t hit a man in twenty years. He squinted down at her, then at his smarting fist, which hurt like hell and was still clenched and did not look much like his anymore. He unknotted the fingers and shook his throbbing hand, standing above her, swaying. “Jeeeeesus,” he sort of sang. His knees wobbled, sweat broke on his brow and between his shoulder blades. He stared at her for a long time. She’ll open her eyes, he thought, and everything will work again. He knelt to lift her. God, so heavy. Her weight drained his resolve. Then he heard the echo of her voice, taunting, as if the body whispered: It’s already started. You haven’t got a prayer.
“This’s not what I meant to do,” he told her. “Jesus. This wasn’t it.”
He stood up slowly and backed away from her, finally turning to look down the hall toward Mitchell’s room.
* * *
Earl said, “What do you mean you’ve got him?”
“We’re going somewhere. Not exactly sure where yet.” Davy looked through the glass phone booth at Baby-Man in his car seat in the back seat of the Bronco.
Earl said, “You don’t think you’re headed for Charlottesville to milk the cows together, do you? They’ll come for you, man.” Earl had a hangover that had been surgically implanted, and this phone call was a hot nail driving into the top of his skull. “Why’d you go over there, Dave? Huh? Thought you were going to have a new life now, going to be bachelors together.”
“My son and I’re hitting the road. Call you when we get settled.”
“Wait a minute! You punched her out and left her on the floor?”
“In the living room. I never knew she was so cold. Said she’s going to fix it so I’d never see him again.”
“This is a side I haven’t seen,” said Earl.
“Yeah. Something’s happened.”
“Are you messin’ with me, man?”
“I don’t think so,” said Davy.
“Man, you’ve got to straighten up. Listen…you have to take him back. This is no good, Davy.” Earl waited for him to offer something in a realistic vein, but the telephone line was filled with air.
Mitchell was looking at him now, moving his lips. Come on, Dad, get your ass in gear. Seemed like he smiled.
Davy Calhoun smiled back and waved with the hand that held the phone. Then he remembered to hang up.
* * *
As he drove he hummed something original, without beginning, end or repetition. The sunlight streaming through the Bronco’s windshield did something to his face—burnishing his features so he appeared both dazed and clarified—and until he shifted in the seat and unscrewed his stare from the road to admire the baby, anyone studying him would have found it difficult to tell whether he was young or old, dead or alive. Although his humming was low and indolent and careless-sounding, it was not without melody. He was as calm and anonymous as a dull knife.
He drove carefully, headed south from Chicago on I-57—more instinct than decision—stopping only at gas stations and once at a 7-11 to buy a bottle and some formula for Mitchell, having remembered to take a few diapers from Molly’s parents’ house before he left. The further he got from Chicago, the closer it came. He was sobering up, and suddenly aware of how exhausted he was. His right hand still throbbed, red and swollen around the knuckles. He knew where he was headed, the highway led him on, but he was lost. He talked to his baby boy and tried not to think about Molly, and twice he began to cry but stopped himself by squinting and swallowing, gripping the steering wheel of the Bronco as if it were the rail of a pitching ship.
Somewhere near a place called Arcola he pulled over, locked the doors and slept. He dreamed of the baby, carrying him piggy-back, galloping across a star-lit field—but at some point Mitchell became Molly, smooth legs swinging wildly as he galloped—and then Molly became his father: very much alive and too heavy to carry. Davy knew him by the scent of shaving cologne and the dimming of the stars. Never saw his face.
He awoke when Mitchell demanded to be changed.
They made good time. Davy could still taste the morning’s brandy and was bleary in spite of his nap. How many dreams would it take to sleep this off? He thought of Molly less: an act of will assisted by the sparkling scenery. He wanted to forget, undo, reviewing the family-figured dream again, concentrating on the stars and the field, the mindless running under the close sky—seeing without interpreting, a snip of film flickering in an endless loop. He never thought of his father anymore. When was the last time? What would have to come into his head to remind him of his daddy? A deep-quiet voice, scuffed boots, cow manure. The old gold pocket watch. Beady eyes.
He talked to Mitchell and offered formula when the baby fussed. Mitchell gurgled and screeched, delighted by the swift movement of the car and the warm sun, practicing engine and animal imitations, offering soliloquies in his stretchy, shimmering language.
Davy thought some of Mitchell’s vocal renditions sounded like whales: a pod of mature leviathans with something on their minds. The child watched the world flying past, now and then reaching out to touch the colorfast blur tricking across the window.
“You’ve got to see the Appalachian Trail, Baby-Man—Skyline Drive, the Shenandoah Valley. Deep rich woods. You wouldn’t believe green could be so blue ‘til you see it for yourself.”
Mitchell responded with something like, “Kentucky.”
“Well, Kentucky might be the Bluegrass State but, remember, Virginia’s the State of Grace.”
Mitchell smiled as if he got it, and Davy could see that what the baby was actually smiling at, and transfixed by, were his own small hands there in front of him: miniature visitors from a nearby galaxy.
Just outside a place called Benton, Davy left the interstate and headed southeast on a curved-comfortable road bordered by the kind of grass and sky he had in mind. Sobriety was coming on like approaching lights. Mitchell’s head tilted, he drifted off.
Davy looked at his son’s tiny chest, rising, falling and back again: a promise repeated.
In a town called Pulleys Mill he found a grocery store with a few shelves of liquor. He held Mitchell close as he reviewed the labels. The drowsy baby laid his head on his father’s shoulder and hummed an original tune.
Davy first selected a half-pint of scotch but decided on a pint instead. A fifth was out of the question. He noticed a local newspaper and for a moment forgot it was still Saturday, scanning the headlines, expecting to find an article about what he had done. He didn’t imagine it would be fair. He opened his distended hand, wiggled the fingers, and the check-out girl looked at him as if she knew everything.
Back in the Bronco he adjusted Mitchell’s seat so the baby could sleep more comfortably. He read the sky. It was a little cloudy, subtly surreal: everything changing up there, in motion. He checked to be sure the straps around Mitchell were snug, testing the buckle with his good hand, and from nowhere he heard Molly telling her folks and the inevitable cops what had happened, leaving out selected portions of the truth, crying hysterically for the baby. He saw the expressions on the detectives’ faces, shaking their heads, patting her shoulder. Gentle, sympathetic cops. We’ll find them, no matter how long it takes…. He remembered what Earl had said: They’ll come for you, man.
He unscrewed the cap on the new bottle and had some. The fire spread through him. Mitchell closed his eyes and sighed, a long thin exhaling which reminded Davy of the satisfied sound his mother would make after they had scrubbed the barn together and were standing at one end looking down the center aisle, and everything was gleaming.
He put the car into gear and left the grocery parking lot, making sure to go the speed limit. Saw a marker for the interstate but didn’t take the turn. Instinct again, like a voice. Again he heard Earl. Earl the lawyer, who had wisdom when he was sober. They’ll come for you, man. He hit the turn signal, pulled onto the shoulder and cut the engine. He looked at his son, reached over and ran his fingers across Mitchell’s forehead. “You’re a good boy,” he said. “Actually, you’re perfect.” The baby’s soft ambiguous hairline made him think of the horizon: the edge of it all. “Hey, you know, it’s a fair assumption I was like you once.”
The baby closed his hands into fists and released them, having snatched some small thing from the air, and decided to let it go.
Something was happening, no doubt about it. Davy was vaguely aware of his own strangeness now, outside himself, inside some new thing, creating as he went along. He saw his son whole. Everything about the baby was perfectly accomplished. He was a good boy who would become a good man. If allowed. Davy turned the key and pulled back onto the blacktop.
Halfway through the bottle he started talking to his son again, but he didn’t look at Mitchell. He watched the road, hunting something. He said, “People are starting to die young again, Mitch. In the beginning they always died young—you’d get your wake-up call, a little breakfast, you’d be in the ground ‘fore noon. Lucky if you lived to be twenty-five or thirty. Fifty, you’re ancient.” He pulled the bottle from between his legs and had some. Mitchell was asleep again. “Everything kills you,” he went on. “Very few choices. Dairy products for God’s sake. A gruesome process. Just breathe, it’ll nail yer ass every time. The internal rumbling may continue, but after a while nothing’s left in there. Scaffolding…. Faithful emptiness.”
He was driving down a quiet street, a neighborhood. Plenty of trees. He slowed the car and noticed the houses, giving himself to the unfamiliar surroundings. This street could have been anywhere. These houses could have been in Virginia; maybe not Charlottesville, but definitely parts of Richmond. They were unpretentious and well built, luminous in the remaining sunlight. The people who lived here cared about things. They took the time.
He stopped across the street from a white house with three, four low scrub bushes and a front porch with mini-Georgian columns. He imagined a well-kept hedge, not too high. He watched the house, expecting it to speak.
A car was parked in the driveway: late-model, good condition. He scanned the street in both directions—a few kids at the far end playing their death-defying sundown games. Davy put Mitchell’s bottle and formula in the car seat underneath the blanket, tilted his own bottle for a long pull, then got out quietly. He walked around to the passenger’s side. He lifted the seat with Mitchell sleeping in it and carried them across the street to the porch.
He put the car seat down and cupped his hands around his eyes and leaned against the diamond-shaped window to peek inside: a hall led to the back door, open now, into a green yard: fresh-cut grass, a tree and a swing set. All-American. If somebody surprised him he would tell them he was lost. How far to the highway? he’d say. He looked down at his son, squinting to focus. Mitchell’s eyes were still closed.
Davy thought of his own father again, looking down at him like this—the same angle, same distance without relief. Centuries ago. Those were different circumstances, but still it was a leave-taking. He had thought his daddy was playing possum, until his ma knelt down beside him and squeezed his shoulder as the cemetery men threw dirt on the Daddy-length box going down under the ground. You’re the man of the house now, she said. He puzzled over the concept of an eight-year-old man: puny and confused, no truck or money of his own; no razor and nothing to shave if he had one. Couldn’t even tell time.
“We’re never getting there, Baby-Man. Not together. They wouldn’t let us, they couldn’t stand it.” He knelt to kiss the baby and felt a deep, familiar longing. His heart was a knot. “See you, pardner,” brushing the child’s face with his fingers. “You’ll be back home in no time, I swear…. I love you, Mitch. I’m sorry…. I swear I’ll see you again.”
The baby opened his eyes and looked right at him, and Davy looked back for as long as he could. He couldn’t bear it. He rang the doorbell and sprinted to the car.
A man opened the front door and shuffled onto the porch in his bare feet, a newspaper in one hand. He seemed pudgy under his white shirt, twenty-nine, thirty. It was likely an intelligent, responsible face, though from the Bronco’s vantage the man was blurry. The baby was noiseless among the bulrushes. Finally the man noticed and stared, as if Mitchell had spoken to him. Then he lifted his head and sighted along the narrow reaches of his neighborhood, peering into the shadows. The newspaper dropped to the porch, his hands rose to his hips, his gaze moved to the baby.
Watching from the car, Davy whispered, “Please.”
The man in the white shirt on the porch knelt down as if to pray, reaching out to touch the child. His mouth moved. Don’t worry, he was probably saying, you’ve come to the right place. Your troubles are over. He shook his head and investigated the darkening street once more. Then he lifted the car seat carefully and stepped back inside. The white door closed behind them.
Davy started the car and realized he could not recall the name of the town. This amazed him. Things were separating, slipping. He swiveled the rearview mirror and looked at it, to be sure he was who he thought he was. Wouldn’t put any money on it. He closed his eyes to think about the name of the town, absently uncapping the pint. He couldn’t explain all this, didn’t understand any of it, couldn’t say where it had begun or exactly who was responsible. He gripped the steering wheel and something took hold of him, his hands began to tremble, the knot in his chest took wing and flew against its cage. His head fell forward and he began to cry.
After a minute his hands let go and dropped from the wheel, and gradually he was able to regulate his breathing. He sensed something outside the car, watching him, and was terrified. He expected the man in the white shirt, trying to think of what he might say, lifting his head, opening his eyes. The moon was so full and close and unexpected, it took his breath. It was huge, pausing in its ascent, balanced on the roof of the house.
Davy blinked as the steady mumbling of the car brought him all the way back. He wiped his sleeve across his eyes and sniffed the whiskey briefly before he finished it.
The moon rose clear of the housetop and hovered like a miracle waiting for instructions. He took this for a good sign. Still the name of the town would not reveal itself.
“It’s all right,” he whispered. “It’ll come to me.”
? W. A. Smith