Friday, December 25, 2009

More Attic Tapes, iii: Rooting

Last installment from my story “Bitterroot.” Part of this was excerpted last December, but I couldn’t leave Teresa thinking that I was scrooging out.

The lot was duly stripped, with Ray’s little camper left as its one lone squatter. Leaning against the Optimist press box motel was a handful of unsold trees for the inevitable midnight converts, those last minute repentant curmudgeons or perhaps, more sadly, those who finally broke down and decided that, what the hell, a tree in the front room was worth a few extra days of eggs for suppers. Often enough, a sock full of loose change was raided to make the purchase. Clay’s insistence that even these stragglers pay full retail was the one blight on an otherwise jolly old soul. It was Ben’s fervent Christmas Eve prayer that no straggler ever show, at least not while he and Clay sat around the oil drum fire and reminisced. On his own, he had no problem scooting the stragglers out for pocket change and, as with Dan Hildebrand, making up the difference, but when present, Clay insisted on handling the straggler sales.

Ben never hesitated to upbraid Clay for his churlishness and suffer the consequences of the Yuletide litany of “that’s why I carry the wad of money and you work for me.” It was a point of honor for Clay that he outwait the bargain hunters right down to the tenth centimeter of Mary’s labor and delivery. And, in truth, it was more entrepreneurial hoodoo than even honor. Assembling his empire of arbors had required an exacting business attitude that he did not come by easily; he feared that too much generosity with his customers would be his undoing. It was Ben’s own compassion for this particular Clay-quirk that led him always to make up for any acts of charity out of his own CDM coffee can—this year the one right next to William’s.

No stragglers interrupted the brandy flask passed back and forth around the fire. The already cold temperature dropped another fifteen degrees while the two old boys sat on. Ben insisted that Clay have the last swig. He did, and then he leaned forward and looked intently into the glass, as if he were scrying some message for the two of them.

“What’s it been, Ben,” said Clay, “nine, ten years since you been doing this gig?’

“Eleven,” said Ben.

“Damn, man. I am not one to be nosy, and I sure as hell am not complaining, but how in hell have you done it? I get two years, two consecutive years, out of a tree lot manager, and I’m feeling blessed. What’s that make us—married?”

Ben laughed and smiled. He was feeling content enough, and warm enough, to sit back and say nothing.

Clay continued. He looked as if he were trying really hard to drag something up from the heart—and doing it on someone else’s orders. Ben guessed Rose’s.

“When things were bad between you and Traci, I could see it. Little Christmas adventure in old San Antone, better than sitting around Jackson drinking bad beer and watching the umpteenth rerun of Bing and Danny Kaye on the telly. But, what about the good years with Melanie—”

“Easy, Clay. You’re waxing a little too poetic there.”

“Fine. Fair enough. But, you’ve got those three babies, and I know there’s no Patty Loveless alive could drag you away from them. I know you and Mel are split up, but from what I can tell, you’ve got plenty of access to the kids. As much to your stepkids as your own flesh and blood. Good God, man, what I’m trying to say is this—a man like you’s got to be with his kids this time of year. I don’t care how good you are to me.”

Ben smiled again. “Brooke get your phone number this year, Clay?”

Too much bluster in the denial. Ben put his bets back on Rose.

Funny thing, as inevitable as Ben had always known this conversation to be, he had never let himself think beyond the question to any semblance of an answer. Not for Melanie or Brooke or Clay or any of the others who might have put the question to him. So, it was a blank slate he stared into. He had no clue where the words would come from once he started talking.

“You’re right, I suppose,” he said, “about the beginning. Why not come here? What the hell else did I have going for me? The first year with Melanie, I think on some level I’d convinced myself that I still owed it to you to be here—you’d been so good to help me out of a big jam. A bit too much ego, too, I guess—that I’d be too hard to replace.”

“Well, you’re damn right about that. But, I’ve got no right to hold onto you, not to the detriment of your family.”

“Take it easy on yourself, Clay—you’ve had a willing accomplice. God knows I love my kids—Van and the girls—but from very early on, things were miserable between Melanie and me. Pull us apart, each of us is fine with the kids alone. Together, we’re a firestorm. Those babies deserved better for Christmas than two adults tearing the house down around their heads. Melanie certainly wasn’t going to go anywhere, and I already had this as a built-in excuse.”

“Still, that’s cold, Ben. Didn’t those babies miss you?”

Ben found himself choking back tears. He couldn’t even get the simple word “yes” out.

Clay tossed the empty brandy pint into the fire.

“Goddamn, Ben. I’m sorry for this mess I helped you make.”

“Clay. Listen. You’re not on the hook here, unless you’re going to take responsibility for the troubles of all your crews.”

“Eleven years, Ben.”

“Clay. The truth is, the scary truth is, that I just like being here. I like the simplicity of the day, and the nights—I love the nights. Smell of the wood fire on the cold nights. Walking down to San Pedro at midnight, shooting the shit with Alex at the corner store, raising a two o’clock in the morning ruckus with the graveyarders at Mr. Burger. Watching the neighborhood drift off to sleep at night and watching it wake up in the morning. Reading on the slack times, reading late into the night, or listening to your infernal Ms. Loveless tapes and all the ones Brooke sends my way. Goddamn, it’s all so purely selfish. And even under all those excuses, there’s this feeling I’ve always had that there’s something waiting for me right here at this corner. I know—it’s insane. What the hell is going to find me at this corner—and what would I want with it, if it did?”

Clay unscrewed another brandy pint, took a drink. “That’s the trouble with these damn trees, Ben. Too much damn religion. It’s contagious.” He growled John Lee Hooker’s, “Serve me right to suffer.”

Ben leaned over and took the pint out of Clay’s hand, screwed the cap back on and set it down beside his chair.

“Clay, you’re a fool,” he said. “You love these trees—and all this crazy religion. You eat it up every year. Except for your crazy vendetta against bargain hunters, there’s never been a bigger Santa.”

A champagne Lexus pulled up to the trailer. Rose got out of the driver’s door and said, “Merry Christmas, Ben.” She walked over and hugged him, and handed him a big platter of food covered with tin foil. “You be safe on the way back.” To Clay, she said, “Big boy, you’re not paying this good man to freeze his ass off and watch you get all George Bailey on him. You coming over to my hot tub or not?”

Clay stood and pulled Ben to his feet, hugged him off the ground as he did all those who warmed his heart, which was just about everybody. He stuffed another five hundred dollars into the pocket of Ben’s down vest. Slurred a bit and said, “Rude not to invite you in out of the cold. Hot tub, my ass—damn swimming pool, more like. You wanna soak, too?”

“No thanks,” said Ben. “I’m fine. You go.” He helped them into the car and waved them off.

Ten minutes later, a band of stragglers arrived—three kids in shirtsleeves, mother and infant, and grandmother. The two women were hard-bitten, and the same look was shaping the two older children, who looked to be about eleven and thirteen. They all sagged, as did the old Pontiac they pulled up in. All except the little boy, who looked like he was a couple of years older than Van, seven maybe. Ben felt skewered as he watched them walk up to the few trees leaning against the Optimist wall. The baby started wailing in the cold night wind, while the mother just walked absently around—no bottle, no breast, seemingly tuned out to the tiny rage at her shoulder. The grandmother turned a folding chair around backwards and sat down on it, her head slumped over its back. The two older kids were bickering about something, while the younger boy carefully examined each of the trees, stroking the limbs. He’d picked out a fine-looking Noble fir by the time Ben walked over to him.

The boy was a beauty—blonde hair shaved close to his head, skin brown as a peanut, big gorgeous eyes full of light. He was dressed in a pair of baggy white running shorts, a green short sleeved t-shirt, and a pair of blue shower shoes. When Ben walked up, the boy was crouched down in front of the tree, looking up through its branches. Clearly in love.

The boy opened his mouth to speak and out came a twisted garble—the boy’s palate was cleft. Ben stifled a sob and felt himself skewered again.

“He wants to know how much is it,” said the sister. After the translation, she walked over and clobbered the other brother again.

Ben knelt down beside the boy. “She’s a beauty,” he said.

The boy nodded and kept looking at the tree. Out came the same garble.

“You know,” said Ben, “Old Santa stopped by here just minutes before you all drove up. He described a boy who’d be coming up to the lot soon, and did he ever describe you to a T. He told me he wanted you to have whatever tree you picked out.”

The boy looked at him, looked him right in the eye. The boy’s face was on the verge of heartbreak. “Eah, buh ow muh?”

Ben gently ruffled the boy’s head. “It’s free, little man. Free. It’s yours and it’s free.”

The mother walked up and said, “Boy, I told you we weren’t havin’ no fancy tree. Goddamn if you don’t have your father’s hearing, and his impracticality. This is the fanciest damn tree left standing. Go pick yourself out—”

“Ma’am,” said Ben. “I’d like you all to have this tree.”

“And I’d like a brand new Cadillac and my body from twenty years ago. We can’t afford this damn tree. We can’t afford any of your damn trees, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to listen to this one howling tonight with his godawful racket.”

“Ma’am, please. This tree is free. Let me tie it up for you and—”

“Just what the hell do you want from me?” said the woman.

“Not a thing. Just your permission to load the tree up for you.”

“Because I sure as hell haven’t got a thing for you.”

“Ma’am, it’s very simple. It’s Christmas Eve, almost Christmas. This tree needs—”

“Not a damn person in this world gives something away for free. What the hell’s wrong with that tree, anyway?”

Ben hefted the tree and walked to the car. “Not a thing. The tree’s—”

“Because I sure as hell don’t want no diseased tree in my house.”

Ben hoisted the tree atop the car and said, “Ma’am, I’ll need for all of you to get in the car, so I can tie the tree through the windows.”

The two older kids piled into the back seat with the young boy and continued their bickering. Grandmother huffed into the first seat and took the still screaming baby as the mother climbed in behind the wheel. Ben roped them in good and tight, and then handed the woman an old pocketknife. “Just cut the rope when you get home, and slip on out,” he said.

“I ain’t payin’ you for no goddamn knife.”

“Forget about it. The knife is free. It’s yours.”

The windows of the car were all rolled down. Ben reached in the back seat and lifted the young boy out. “I almost forgot,” he said, “there’s a few more things I need to send with you all.”

“Goddamn, put that baby down!” screamed the woman. There was too much of her to come through the window. She reached for Ben but missed. He held the boy and said calmly, “Relax. We’ll be right back.”

“You’re goddamned right. You hurt my boy and I will have your hide, you son of a bitch.” To the boy, she said, “Sam, if that man so much as lays a finger on you, so help me God—”

Ben walked with the boy over to the camper. He picked up one of the remaining tree stands and then took down the lights Traci had strung and wrapped them around his hand. Before he put the lights in the hole of the stand, he took the five hundred dollar bonus and stuffed the cash in the bottom of the hole. He knelt down next to the boy.

“Santa wanted you to have a few more things, Sam,” he said. “Give the money to your mom when you get home. Not any sooner, okay?”

Sam grabbed Ben around the neck, held on for all he was worth, and then stepped back. The garble that followed sounded like, “What’s your name?”

“Ben, Sam. My name is Ben.”

“Bleah oo, Beah.”

Ben looked back at that beautiful face. It was the first time he could swear to have seen a face more beautiful than his own baby’s. He hugged the boy to him and said, “Bless you, too, little man. Bless you, too.”

The mother honked the horn, long and loud. Ben carried Sam back to the car, slipped him into the back seat and then handed the stand and lights in to him.

“Charlotte, let’s get the hell out of here,” said the grandmother.

Charlotte backed furiously away from Ben and then screeched off into the night.

Forty-five minutes later, Ben was nursing a mug full of brandy and listening to another Brooke tape when someone pounded mightily on the door of the camper. Charlotte stood beside Sam under the awning, holding out the fistful of money in her hand.

“My boy steal this from you? I told him I would tear his hide if he did,” she said.

“No, ma’am, he did not. That money is for all of you. I just asked Sam to pass it on.”

“Because I’ll be damned if I’m gonna raise a thief under my roof, I can tell you that right now.”

“No, there’s no thieving here. Please. Take the money and enjoy it. As a matter of fact—” He turned back to William’s coffee can and took out the tip money—“take this, too.” He handed all the bills over to Charlotte, who counted the bills and then stuffed them along with the first wad into her jeans pocket. It was a hard, hard, hard face that looked back at him.

“Alright,” she said, and walked off.

It wasn’t the last time. Three o’clock in the morning, a softer knock on the door of the camper. Ben dragged himself out of sleep. Charlotte alone, a brown paper bag in her hand.

“Don’t pity me, mister,” she said.

“Not mister. Ben.”

“I don’t care who you are. Don’t pity me.”

Ben scratched his head, shivered in his sock feet and shirt sleeves. “I do not pity you. Believe me. I might feel a lot of things about you, Charlotte, before I’d ever get around to pity.”

“I seen you with my boy. I seen all that in your eyes.”

Ben stepped back from the door, motioned for her to come in. “It’s too damn cold for existentialism in the doorway, Charlotte. You want to debate my motives, get your ass in here.”

She stepped in as Ben switched on a small lamp. Yellow light buttered the small room. He offered her his reading chair and sat back on his cot. Charlotte eyed his stacks of books, sniffed back at his tiny galley kitchen.

“Coffee suit you?” said Ben.

She held out the paper bag. “Or this.”

He slid the wine bottle out of the bag. Screw top.

“Merry Christmas. I spent five bucks of your money on that.”

“Your money.” He grabbed a couple of mugs and poured the wine.

“Good God, that’s nasty,” said Charlotte.

“Imagine what the three dollar bottle tastes like,” said Ben. He raised his mug. “Cheers.”

She tapped his mug.

“Ben what’s your name, you just dropped more money on me than I’ve seen in the last six months. You sure you weren’t angling for a good fuck?”

“No, I was not. But thank you.”

“You think I was offering?”

“I do not know. But, thank you if you were?”

“Ain’t that supposed to be, ‘thank you if you was?’”

“Probably,” said Ben. He winced through another sip of wine.

“Well, I wasn’t. But thank you anyway.”

“For what?”

The hard-bitten fell away, and a smile struggled through years of exile to spread across her face.

She said, “Ain’t nobody ever thanked me before, if I was or if I wasn’t.”

“Well, you’re welcome.”

The smile grew bolder. It was lighting out for the territory. She had gorgeous teeth.

“Good God, those are gorgeous teeth,” said Ben.

“They are, ain’t they?” She shined them on him some more. “About all I got left from the glory days. You wouldn’t know it to see me, but I was one hot Edison Bear.”

“And that would be—”

“That would be your high school a couple of miles west of here. Under this two hundred and twenty pounds lies the remains of a head cheerleader.”

“Go Bears.”

“Head quarterback bear fucked me up good my senior year. Asshole might as well have stoned me. Party boy gets a four year scholarship to Baylor and I end up with a six month scholarship to Annunciation Home for Unwed Mothers over in New Orleans.”

“Pardon my math, but your babies don’t look old enough for that adventure.”

“Oh, that one’s long gone. And not the only one either. There’s three mini-me’s running around with crater-sized holes in their hearts. Never known a momma home not to put the screws to you to give ‘em up.”

“I’m sorry,” said Ben.

“Hell, I’d have been a lousy mother. Still am.”

There was no suggestion in her tone that she was fishing for words to the contrary—Ben gave her that. Which is why he followed with, “Have to agree on that, Charlotte.”

“You’d be a fool not to. I’d have to think less of you if you didn’t.”

“I thought I was already as low as I can get.”

“You keep drinking your nasty wine—there might be hope for you yet.”

Ben poured again and they clunked.

“You takin’ my little boy home with you? You certainly won his heart. Course after the way you doted on him, my two olders hate your guts. Delilah’s offended you didn’t take to her, and Billy’s pissed you didn’t slip him the money. Says he’d have kept it to himself. Which he would have.”

“That Sam’s a sweetheart.”

“That baby’s the only one I carried sober. Lotta good that did—God fucked him up royally. Smashed his mouth up good and then moved in with a buzz saw. It’s not for lack of money that I steer clear of these damn tree lots. If I was the whore of Big Bill Gates, I wouldn’t want to spend a dime on all this hooey. Give a fuckin’ hoot for the baby of the one that fucked my baby over? Like I give a shit.”

“So, why come—even after hours?”

“The one of my babies who ought to be on my side screaming to high heaven is a fuckin’ sap. I have to listen to that damn land mine of a mouth of his ooh and ah from Halloween on. Mary this, Jesus that. Jesus loves the little children, my ass.”

“He was smitten. I’ve never seem my own babies that lit up.”

“Fuckin’ sap, he is. How many you got?”

“Three. One of my own, and two that might as well be.”

“I seen you living out here for the last few weeks—you got ‘em stashed in the closet?”

“Back in Mississippi. With their mother.”

“Hell Ben, I know Mississippi is sucking hind tit, but this the best you can do for work—play Santa for the almost dead of Olmos Park?” She slung her arm left and spilled wine on the floor. “Goddamnit, I—”

“Let it go,” said Ben. “Let it go.”

She slipped to the floor, started wiping the wine with the sleeve of her jacket.

“Charlotte, please. Let it go.”

When she looked back up at him, the hard had bitten again. Clamped down tight.

“Fuck you, Ben. I can clean up my own goddamn…No…wait. Wait.” She turned around and set the mug on the counter behind her, then picked up a dishcloth and very carefully wiped up the spill. With equal care, she found the cap to the wine and screwed it back down.

“Told myself I wouldn’t do this.”

“Do what,” said Ben, gently.

“Go off on you.” She started to cry. “Told momma I didn’t want to go off on you.”

“Hell, Charlotte, plenty have and plenty deserved the privilege.”

“You lit my baby up—over and above his confounded rambunctious mother. Nobody gives my babies nuthin’—least of all that son of a bitch we’re celebrating today.”

Softly, Ben said, “Charlotte, I just can’t do this right now. My head hurts. You’re absolutely right—there’s no way but that you and your baby weren’t absolutely royally fucked over. But, I just cannot go there right now. I can’t. I’ve spent the last six weeks of my life sucking on the big mother tit of good cheer, and I’m sorry, it’s got under my skin. I don’t even really want it to, but it does—turns me into an unimaginable sap. I tear up at damn Karen Carpenter, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Ella singing “Sleigh Ride,” and don’t even get me started on George Bailey and Scrooge and Danny Kaye and all that mess. It’s ridiculous—it flies in the face of everything that runs around in my black heart the whole rest of the year. Every year in mid-November, I come flying down the Palestine Highway, and way deep inside of me I can feel this little boy just burning to cut loose, a boy every bit as beautiful as your beautiful Sam, positively lit up inside with candy lights. Call me in two weeks and we can go completely off on that little son of a bitch in his manger, but right now, I’m sorry, I just can’t. I just can’t.”

Tears streaked from the corners of her eyes. She said, “I just want to lie down.”

“By all means,” said Ben. He started to clear off the other cot. “By all means.”

“No,” she said, putting a hand on his. Roughhewn, but beautiful, too, in its own way. He liked the feel of it on his skin.

“With you,” she said. “Just to lie down. Just to hold you.”

He felt a huge weight lifting off his chest, a weight he had not known was there. Who’s weight—hers or his?

He pulled back the covers of his cot and lay up against the wall. Charlotte slipped off her shoes and jacket and lay down beside him, as close as she could press into his body. Her hair smelled sour, her clothes smelled of fried food, but beneath it, around it, within it, the smell of roses. The more he smelled it, the more the rancidity faded.

“Nice perfume,” he whispered.


“Your perfume.”

“I don’t wear any,” she said, and started to cry. He pulled her closer, gently stroked her hair.

“I smell roses. I swear I smell roses,” said Ben. “And it’s on you.”

“She always does this to me, no matter how angry and crazy I get. Always.”

“She who?”

“Mary. She’s the roses. Mary. Good night, Ben.”

Light was just peeking in the windows when Charlotte woke, smell of coffee in the camper. Ben leaned up against the galley counter, looking pretty spruced up. He’d been out to the mudroom in the Optimist motel and taken a sponge bath, complete with shampooing his head in the sink. He handed a mug of coffee to Charlotte as she sat up. “Merry Christmas,” he said.

“Mmm, coffee,” she replied. “Thanks.” She held the mug under her nose and breathed deeply.

Ben said, “You didn’t get much sleep, but I figure those babies are already chomping at the bit for Christmas day.”

“They are now. Thanks to you. At least I don’t have to be a complete asshole and on the defensive all day.”

“You ever see an old black man pushing a stuffed shopping cart or gardening on some godforsaken stretch of sidewalk, that’s your Santa. Those were his tips in the coffee can. He refused to take them.”

“This CDM coffee we’re drinking now?”

“Oh, yeah.”

Charlotte took a sip of the drink and then looked off through the window for a good minute. When she looked back at Ben, a lone tear rolled from the corner of her left eye.

She said, “When you pulled the money out of the can last night, I noticed that there was another.”

“This time of year, you can never have enough coffee.”

Charlotte wiped the tear with the back of her hand. Had a hard time getting it out, but said, “I figured it might just be another little bank.”

Ben smiled. “You did, did you?”

He watched her face and felt the struggle within her. He took another drink of coffee to stifle the impulse to help her out of her own mess.

Tears fell from the corners of both eyes now.

She said, “Thank God for Mary, otherwise I’d have had my hand in that other one. That was my plan, anyway.”

Ben set his coffee on the counter. He said, “Charlotte, I don’t think Mary had anything to do with keeping your hand out of anything. I suspect she came to you once you made the right choice.”

“I’m a long way from giving myself that kind of credit.”

“Well, I’d say today’s a good time to start.”

She let a few years’ pain roll out of her as she wept on the cot. Ben handed her a clean dish towel to wipe her tears. She drained her mug and stood to go. Before he could open the door for her, she pulled him close—she still smelled like a bower of roses. Into his ear, she said, “You’re a good man, Ben.”

“On some days,” he said, “yes, I am.”

She squeezed him once more, kissed his neck, and then headed for her car. A chill in the air, but a bright blue sky.

“Hey,” Ben said. “Your coat.”

He walked it out to her, watched her climb in the car and drive off.

The Packers beat the Bears and the Lakers beat the Heat, and Charlotte was headed out the door for more beer Christmas evening before she found the money from the other can in her coat pocket. She flew down San Pedro and Basse for the lot, but by the time she got there, the camper was gone and Ben and Ray were crossing back into Louisiana.

“You netted how much?” said Ray, when they first pulled onto I-35 out of San Antonio. He handed Ben a fist-sized box.

“Couple of hundred, give or take,” said Ben.

“Sounds like somebody took plenty. You just sell the trees, boy. It’s not like you’re expected to be Santa, too.”

Ben unwrapped the box and pulled out a Scooby Doo mug. Then pulled out the two thousand dollars rolled up inside the mug.

“Nor you, my brother. Nor you.”

“Christ Jesus, Ben, that ain’t nuthin’. I sneeze that much money on a slow day. Hell, in Atlanta, I believe even you could sell real estate. Just think of it as selling trees with houses thrown in.”

They made Jackson just before midnight. Ray drove down St. Ann and dropped Ben off in front of the blue duplex. Brooke was sitting on the front steps reading, a miner’s light strapped to her head.

“Too damn cold to be out here,” said Ben. “What you got?”

She showed him the book. “Padgett Powell. Aliens of Affection. It said from Santa, but I figured it was from you. You slip Mom the money for it or what?”

“Not me.”

Brooke switched off the headlight. “I think I’d like to date Padgett Powell.”

“Yeah, well, he’d probably like to date you, too. You know what this means, don’t you?”

“No, what?”

“I’m not the only parent corrupting you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Looks to me like Ms. Melanie’s been holding out on us.”

“No. Hurricane Mel?”

“The very one,” said Ben. He looked back over his shoulder. “Anyone else up?”

“Not a one. You wore Mom and Van out with the remote-controlled dinosaur. Nessa and I took a contract out on your life for that racket.”

Ben stood to go. It was a long walk back to Brandon. He handed the rewrapped mug box to Brooke and said, “Give this to your mom, when she wakes up.”

Brooke shook it. “What’s in it?” she said.

“Retirement funds.”

Melanie knocked on his door the next afternoon. He opened the screen door and she held out the mug with the money rolled up inside.

“I can’t take this,” she said.

“Find a good charity, then,” said Ben. “It ain’t mine.”

“Brooke said something about retirement funds.”

“Yeah, well, something like that.”

“You going somewhere?”

“As a matter of fact, I’ve got my eye on a place.”

“Do tell.”

“Yours. Ours.”

“That’s insane. We’d kill each other.”

“That’s if we’re trying to be something that we’re not—like lovers. I say, let’s live as what we are to those babies—their devoted parents. I’m not saying that I’m not open to seeing if there’s still room for something else, but not now, definitely not now. I’m not asking for the other side of your bed either—you can put me out in the back yard, for all I care. If another man comes along for you, just say I’m the nanny.”

Another man did come along eventually—two more, in fact, and both of them got on famously with the nanny. Only, in due time, and after a Christmas with the nanny present and not on his annual Texas bail-out, the woman of the house finally had to fess up to something other than animosity every time she got home and saw the nanny playing with the Dino-boy, or cooking with Vanessa in the kitchen, or tending—with Brooke—the roses they had planted back in spring.

Ray milked the Atlanta market for all it was worth, cashed in, and then bought a farm up in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Built himself a state of the art recording studio and set about recording Duff Durrough and the Revelators. Old Jacksonian Cassandra Fowkes Wilson found out what was up and she just had to have some of the mix herself. She wasn’t keen on Ray’s catering, but she loved what he could do on the console box.

When two pre-Thanksgivings passed with no Schlitz, no Ray, Traci got to thinking that just maybe “Twine Time” had finally turned to “Unwind the Twine” time. She’d always loved those old Alvin Cash tunes, obscure skittering little soundtracks to her tangled life. She shed her white hose and moved to Pensacola, where she made a point of walking barefoot into the homes of her home health patients, and hightailing it out to the emerald gulf every chance she got.

Five years past nanny time, Ben and Melanie piled themselves and the kids into the new Honda and drove to San Antonio on a Christmas whim. They rolled up to the Basse corner on Christmas Eve, just in time for the finishing touches before Rose’s party. Ben walked up to Clay and handed him a check for $200.

“The hell is this?” said Clay, lifting his old buddy into a big hug.

Said Ben: “My last night here. One Noble fir—$175, with a little interest.”

“Oh, that. What, you think you’re the only one around can get religion? Maybe you didn’t notice the signs when you drove up? Hell, have a t-shirt. He reached over a counter and pulled out an assortment of t-shirts in different colors and sizes, handed them to Melanie and the kids. Picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe in front of a looming fir tree. Captioned with Mary’s Trees.

A tall boy about Van’s age walked over to Clay and said, “I think we’re about done, Clay. Anything else you want me to do before I go?”

“Hand me a pen, if you would,” said Clay. He took the pen and wrote something on the back of the check Ben had given him. He then handed the check to the boy and said, “Bonus for you from Santa.”

The boy’s eyes lit up, dark blazing eyes. Big beautiful smile spread across his face.

“Gee, thanks, Clay. Wow.”

“Oh, I ain’t your secret Santa, son. That would be this fool,” Clay said, nodding toward Ben.

The boy beamed his smile at Ben and said, “What did I ever do to deserve—”

“Sam,” said Clay. “You might want to bike on home now. Tell Charlotte we’ve got company coming.”



Blogger Teresa said...

Great story, Murat!! But you'd better be careful posting it on the web. If the urchins at the instituto read this, they will know that they can pretty much walk all over you. (But they have probably figured that out already after your hobbit run around the playing field.)

Merry Christmas to you and your family. Hope that Mr. Baby's big narration gig at the Christmas pageant went well. If he gets tapped by any big Hollywood headhunters because of it, be sure to look me up when you're out here :)

11:04 AM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Merry Christmas, Teresa. Glad it came through for you. Lots of emotion and history embedded in this story. It sparked back in my early morning bus-riding days, teaching adult ed, before the Instituto. The bus route went right past my childhood neighborhood, right past the baseball diamond, where there is indeed a seasonal Christmas tree lot. I'd ride by in the pitch black of morning, see the trailer, the place was dripping with story...

Walden did a great job, quite a joy.

And yes, the kids already know, though they don't have this address...I think it's more like we all just revel in each other...

11:23 AM  
Blogger Dee Martin said...

God bless us! Every one!

1:16 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...


1:31 PM  
Anonymous missalister said...

Oh, wow, what a good, great bunch of words you put down here, Paschal!

I've been infected with a communicably-glowing heart disease. You’ve made me surprisingly not ill, but grinning like a fool workin’ hard to keep the tears down south where they b’long.

And I've not even mentioned the deeeeeeelicious word combinations all through this illin story because there are too damned many to mention.

You doled out all the Christmas gifts so well. You give us tight-ass Clay and pitbull Charlotte and beautifully fucked up Sam and god-in-human’s-clothing Ben, and you unwrap all of it just right so that good god graced the entire mess. The pitbull backs down, Ben works Melanie just right, Clay’s been Mary’d and got Charlotte under his wing along with her beautiful boy Sam.

All that and I’m not ill. You’ve Ben’d me, man! You even got me to put Padgett Powell’s “A Woman Called Drown” on my Christmas list last year and this year someone actually gave it to me and now I want to date him! So I’m sitting here Ben’d and feeling like a circus or magic act with a woman named drown on my lap, and I’m starting to suspect that you are


5:28 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Duchess: I loved the morning rides that sparked this story, I loved the writing of it, and, I must say, I have always loved it in its final manifestation. Even more happily, something tells me that, your new Padgett-infatuation notwithstanding, you'd probably date this here story itself for at least a season, surely at least a few weeks. I'm happy you took the gift and ran with it.

Woman of your intellect gots to have some time with the Padgett gods; you'll be happy to know that, based on my up close observations of Mr P on two occasions, it's very likely he would date you in return. Put that in your brandy and snift it.

Happy season, sister girl.

6:05 PM  
Anonymous missalister said...

Are you fucking kidding? I would date the dickens out of this story. Yeah, there’re some things I’d take from it like a thief. Too much alcohol and kissing Mr. Employer’s ass for money is hard on a person, and I could use this story’s fine example of glowing on pure goodness and the very backbone of Truth. But there are some things in my arsenal maybe worthy to give in return, like brain sparks, deadly fires, and cool water. But story’s already hitched. So gimme Padgett’s e-mail addr—

Happy season back, brother Scorpio

7:30 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Duchess: Yes, ours is indeed a fictive match made in heaven, no doubt about it, and I am glad (and happy) of it.

Mr P is the head of the creative writing program at the University of Florida: got himself a departmental web page and an email address.

Just as long as you're dating the man's fiction, now. (Though his raconteuring is just as good and worthy.) On that count, I believe the man's bisexual, cuz I've been dating the fiction for 25 years (has it been that long since Edisto?).

I believe Ms Sidney Wade of the Florida English department (P-spouse) might have something to say about further dalliance, but I'm sure she is aware of P's charismatic road self. He's definitely a tribal brother. You'd love him in person. Keep an eye out for him: I know he makes a southern circuit: I don't know much he strays out of the territory.

Love you.

9:58 PM  

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