Betsey Harper, Little Luke, Jeremiah, and All the Rest
The strangest thing happened to me last night. There I was, sleeping like the infant Christ in my trough, when all of a sudden, I was woken up by something that was not a noise, nor a hand shaking me, nor the light of the morning sun. It appeared, as I look back on the moment, to have been woken up by a thought. No, I can’t explain it. I looked at the clock, which was quite conveniently lit up by a single silver beam of moonlight. It was only a hair past three a.m. and not a sound to be heard. But this thought, see, was like a tiny seed that was quickly blossoming into an enormous and terrible flower.
I’d started thinking about things I hadn’t thought about in years, completely sprung out of nowhere. The most humiliating memories began seeping back into the spaces behind my eyes, and I could really see them, even when I closed my eyes real hard. One after another, following each other like a group of little children. I was being torn apart on the inside. I started cussing under my breath (Damn! Damn! Damn!), as if that would help me pluck out my thought-flower, which had by then turned into a veritable garden of all the things I’d try not to think about for so long. I kicked my legs back and forth along the mattress, which caused my blanket to fall onto the floor, but it didn’t matter since by that time I was burning up. I was close to having a fit. I curled up into a ball and let the waves keep rolling until I saw the sun begin to rise… it must have been hours of agony.
As I got out of bed, I was covered with that funny feeling you get after you don’t sleep all night, like one side of you is heavier than the other. I put my shirt on backwards and didn’t even notice. The waves had died down to little ripples of thought, and I received them each as they came, numbly. But the strangest thing is that when I went outside, the people looked different. I can’t explain it. Their eyes and other parts didn’t seem to fit on their faces, and people who I knew personally seemed to blend in with everybody else. I swear, Miss Betsy Harper came up to me to say good morning and it took me a full fourteen seconds to recognize her. She seemed to look and act like every other young lady I saw. All of a sudden I was frightened. Where I’d used to see every color of the rainbow I saw a single streak of grey. And everybody looked so… queer. As if they’d been plopped down on earth by a giant hand and left there… nothing seemed to fit together. Or maybe it was me that had been plopped down, because I started feeling paranoid, like everyone had some secret plan to bring me down, whadaya call it, a conspiracy. I heard that one on the radio station one time. But the worst part was that to me there seemed to be no individual folks, say, like Miss Betsey Harper, or little Luke or Jeremiah, who by the way I couldn’t see at all throughout the day until they also came right up to my face like Miss Betsey had that morning. Everyone’s words and movements looked identical, a Busby Berkeley synchronized swim-dance picture show that I forgot the moves to…and I got a terrible feeling each time they all made one of these mass movements, a peculiar sour feeling in my guts, as if I ate a bad oyster, but much deeper down inside.
Like I say, I can’t explain it. I probably just need some more sleep.
A Hundred Arms, A Hundred Eyes
Everywhere I turn is another goon standing over my shoulder following my every move… like to see what they should be doing, too. Well, if One-Eyed Pete’s doing it, I suppose it’s all right! One minute I’m shaking Tabasco on my beans, and when I look up I see a hundred hands shaking a hundred drops of Tabasco onto a hundred little piles of beans. And a hundred pairs of eyes turned towards me, towards Ol’ Pete, saying, what’s he gonna do next? And I’m not saying this out of a large ego, no way mister, I hardly know the meaning of the word. But I just can’t shake the feeling that everybody’s looking at me. At Ol’ Pete. And I can’t stand it.
What if I get so tired of it one day that I go out an shoot the next guy who happens to cast his eyes in my direction? Who you lookin’ at, Jack? Is everyone gonna say, look, look what Ol’ Pete did, he went and shot a man, let’s all go ahead and shoot a man ourselves? Can’t anybody quit looking over my shoulder and look right down at his own plate and realize he don’t even like Tabasco on his beans?
Why me, all of a sudden? I didn’t do anything special, as far as I know. But then again people are so bored in this old joint that if your horse breaks a leg, it gets right on the front page. So I can’t say for sure what it is I did or did not do; after all these folk seem to know me better than I know myself, to use an old saying.
For instance, here’s one feller, looking over my shoulder as I’m writing a letter to Mathilda, my wife, who lives over in Missouri since because she says I haven’t been shelling out her weekly allowance and so forth about a bunch of other things I best not dispel at this time. Imagine that, a thirty-eight year old woman asking for a monthly allowance. And who in this godalmighty world spells Mathilda with an h?
Anyway, we’re in the gentleman’s lounge, over in the hotel, a place many men such as myself frequent for the recreational purposes and such. Now I suppose this adjacent gent was writing under similar circumstances, as he kept peering over my arm like a greased weasel for such long stretches of time that I could tell he wasn’t just admiring my cufflinks (Tiffany’s! All the way from New York City). Once and a while he’d think it was necessary to tell me about his wife, about how she’s in Missouri, too, how ‘bout that, but he’s on business here in Dallas, and I suppose he thinks I’m here on business too, as he’s telling me all about his oil company, as if I had any interest in that greasy stuff, which he is probably coated in. Now that that’s settled he seems to believe that we’re friends, or at least acquaintances, which of course gives him reason to be staring over my shoulder at what I’m writing, because of course we’d naturally be writing similar material (this is how he talks, see, all uppity like he’d probably come straight from Connecticut or some place like that), under such coincidentally similar circumstances, so in the event that I just so happened to catch him moseying over my fine writing with his oily ferret-eyes there would quite conveniently be an excuse for his lack of indiscretion.
Of course I bought none of this and tried as best I could to tilt my pen and stationery as far from his eyes as possible, discreetly but not too much so that he didn’t catch my drift… but by this time he’d already gathered enough of the sugary prose he needed to send his wife’s heart a-flutterin’. But just to be absolutely sure – and this is what really made my guts turn sour – just to be absolutely sure “his” letter would produce the desired effect of passion, he happens to call over an accomplice, a “friend” of his, to lend a critical ear to his embellished work of plagiarism. Of course his acquaintance is tickled pink by the letter and assures the good man to my right of his wife’s inevitable pleasure at receiving such a delightful collection of phrases. Each word that copycat uttered echoed with the puffed-up air of a kid who knows he’s gotten something fine with no work whatsoever on his part.
For once, not a single eye was turned towards me. Only now, however, was the time that action would’ve been the most appropriate.
I was fuming, of course, yet I sent the letter to that old bag Mathilda nevertheless, laying on my John Hancock with such a force that I almost tore the letter paper clean through onto the table. I could henceforth only imagine humiliating images of both our wives opening their respective husbands’ letters over coffee together and reading practically identical words and wondering who indeed penned the original, and who was the copycat. Copy-weasel, I should say. And what really got me in a funk about the whole ordeal was that this had probably been happening right under my nose without my realizing it, all the time, with every letter I’d ever writ. Maybe it was just childish paranoia but it certainly worked me up into a fine tizzy.
What an impersonal manner of correspondence with one’s spouse, I thought on my way home. He must be keeping a girl on the side.
A kid who works on the ranch near mine, I believe his name is, or was, in this case, Silas — but then again, I can’t be sure — just got into a whole mess of trouble with his boss for being caught with a young lady behind the chicken coop. But since the boy is a pretty fine ranch hand, and because I just can’t bear to see a young man in the prime of his life running around all destitute like, I decided to employ him at my farm tending to the cattle and such. Now this boy’s a good one and all, but he is still a boy, and you know how boys are, they’re all the same, I’m saying besides the fact that they’re just crazy about the young ladies (and I’ll get to that later, don’t you worry), well, boys are just sniffing for any opportunity to prove an elder gentleman wrong in any way, and this habit, with its female-impressing effects, is downright intoxicating for a young man such as Simon, or Silas, or whatever his name. This was displayed to me most humiliatingly last night when I decided that I’d invite a man who is supposed to be my friend, Mr. Pickett, and his family over for a nice pot roast.
Now Mr. Pickett has a wife, Mrs. Pickett (of course this would be her name), who’s no looker, so of course the boy paid next to no mind to her save for a few good evenin’s and a couple yes, Mrs. Pickett’s for good measure. However the Picketts have two young daughters, twins, mind you, not yet sixteen, with mouths like little roses and what seemed like six pounds each of yellow curls hanging from their heads. If it wasn’t for these two sparrows I’m afraid the boy would’ve probably fell straight to sleep at the dinner table before the night was half-over. I shoulda known there’d be trouble.
As I have grown to realize, a woman’s good looks do not by any means guarantee that she will have any degree of personality, and since this proved to be the case with the twins, before long what little small talk that had begun earlier over the dinner table had died down until the only conversation to be found was the random interjections of the forks and knives scraping gracelessly over the plates. Everyone shifted their gazes from their plates, to the ceiling, to Ol’ Pete, and back to his plate again, a single circular motion, all at once. I happened to look up at the very moment when one of the Pickett girls, Mona, I think her name was, was gazing forward in what certainly seemed like forced curiosity into my parlor. Her seat at the table gave her a clear view straight to my mantelpiece. Two stuffed elk heads were mounted above it, their expressionless faces oddly distorted in the whipping light of the fireplace.
She turned to me, stretching her neck like a heron, and with that voice that all young girls seem to speak with, the kind that rises at the end of each phrase, said to me, “I can’t help but notice, Mr. Baxter, your scarcity of hunting trophies. You did say you were a hunter of some accomplishment, didn’t you?” Ah, so she was pulling out an old phrase I’d said at least an hour before, dusting it off. Funny, isn’t it, the uncanny ability of young women to just whip out an old sentence at the moment you need it least. Fine memories they all have. And she happened to talk just liked that weasely copycat back in the gentleman’s lounge. I wondered if they’d ever met.
Not breaking her gaze, I replied flatly, “Yes, Miss Mona, I did say that. I am quite fond of the hunt.” Not missing a beat, the boy mumbled (in that special kind of mumbling used by those who actually want others to hear their mumbling), “I shot that one on the left, you just brought it to the taxidermist.” And at that very instant I knew exactly in which direction this dinner would lead. I sighed and prepared for the floodgates to open.
Sure enough, Mrs. Pickett reared her cattle-like head from the opposite end of the table and peered at me, greatly relieved to have something to talk about, whatever it was, and in that stuffy little voice of hers, inquired, “Do you often hunt game, Mr. Baxter?” I couldn’t think of any other explanation for everybody’s sudden interest in my hunting habits except for pure boredom. I fumbled with my pants leg. “No, ma’am”, I answered, my face becoming red-hot, “I take immense pleasure in watching birds in flight.” At that, Mr. Pickett, the man who is supposed to be my friend, guffawed. “Doesn’t shoot birds?” he spat, “Well, that doesn’t sound like any hunter I’ve ever heard of,” thus concluding his final and only contribution to the night’s conversation.
I tell you I could’ve punched that man’s hound dog face (and his wife’s too, if she looked a little more like a man, so that I might have been convinced she was one) right then and there. Instead I looked right into that man’s beady eyes and said, perhaps a mite too roughly for a dinner party, “Well then, I guess I’m no hunter.” At that, a little chorus of stifled chuckles erupted and then fizzled out, and Mr. Pickett looked much too satisfied for someone so dog-faced. I looked down at my plate, and the roast seemed to have shifted into the shape of a meaty face, grinning maliciously, swimming in its own juices. It seemed to say, “You didn’t kill me, Old Man Petey. You’re not a real hunter.” My guts went sour again and I pushed the plate away.
Everybody, even the sauce-covered carrion, seemed dead-set on making Ol’ Pete feel the size of a termite. They’d jumped on my failures as soon as they got a chance, like a shark that’s smelled blood and wants more.
Animals, every one of them, I tell ‘ya.
Over in the gentleman’s lounge, on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, there’s just one type of man there, but lots of ‘em: The Newspaper-Reader-Whiskey-Drinking sort of feller, who likes to sit in his own chair that’s been sunken in around the seat area from all the times he’s cemented his rear in it for hours on end without moving a single muscle, not even to turn the page (for which reason I am convinced these men are as close as one can get to illiterate without forgetting how to read the cigarette advertisements). Now even before I woke up that morning feeling like I never knew anyone before, all these men looked the same to me, which never really bothered me much until I started noticing a certain feller who comes in every Friday, only on Fridays.
Let me explain the circumstances surrounding the peculiar attendance habits of this “Friday man”. On this day of the week, at seven o’clock pm sharp, the radio broadcasts a comedy hour filled with the kind of jokes that only small children and old geezers, older than me, even, think are funny. The exception to this rule is the man, who shows up, laughs, and leaves each Friday, and in doing so moves a single hair out of place in the usually perfectly-groomed wig that is the gentleman’s club. He’s neither a little child nor an old geezer; he’s somewhere in the middle. The Friday man doesn’t have his own plush chair with his own rear’s shadow imprinted on its cushions. I’ve never seen him take a drink before in all my days of showing up in the joint and as far as I can tell he’s three-quarters illiterate like the rest of the boys, as he’s never been seen picking up a paper, neither. He just pulls up a hard little wooden chair right up close to the radio, tunes the dial with them little dainty fingers of his, until he hears the voice of Big Johnnie Whipple, the show’s host, and before you know it someone’s turned up the laughing dial on our Friday man himself, and off he goes.
The laughing. Good Lord, the laughing. Now, it’s not a loud sort of chortling type of laughter; it’s more a succession of little sharp intakes of breath punctuated by high –pitched back-of-the-throat squeals, but nonetheless it remains the only noise in the whole joint. I used to get so mad at that Friday man, laughing at the ridiculous jokes, me fuming in the corner thinking, “What in the hell is so goddamn funny? Who’s paying him to laugh like that, is he trying to advertise or something?”
But after a while all I could do was watch him turn red as a McIntosh and shake, rocking back and forth and making that little chair creak with all that movement, hiccoughing like a drunkard. I often wondered if he wasn’t right in the head, or really stone-drunk after all. Occasionally I’d make eyes with another feller in the lounge, with a look that said, Oh, there he goes again, gigglin’ away, but after a while I just kept my eyes on my paper. I got used to the sound of his cockamamie guffawing eventually, and I’ll admit I sometimes looked forward to it on Friday evenings. And like I said, I didn’t make eyes with any other man anymore, or scowl at the kid, because, well, even though he couldn’t see I was doing it, I got sour guts whenever my eyes met with another man’s, for some reason. The boy didn’t mean no harm, after all. And I could tell he wasn’t no advertiser.
It took me a real long time to figure out why I paid so much attention to that Friday man at all, for bad or good. Eventually I came to realize that he was maybe the only real man, and by real I mean separate, that I’d encountered ever since waking up in a cold sweat that terrible morn. I’d become so accustomed to talking with each person I met as part of a giant soup of people, a people-soup, that when I first saw the Friday man he shocked me, and got me fuming, because I’d become afraid of people that I didn’t know how to speak to. But that boy did not once ever give me sour guts. No matter how frustrated I got at that boy, I guess I knew deep down that you just couldn’t get your guts sour over such a genuinely happy person. Hey, at least he’s laughing his way through it all, while the rest of these ladies and gents are just deepening their cushion-dents and making malicious eyes at one another.
I left the lounge last Friday with my guts bubbling in anticipation, of what exactly I knew not. It was still the same as it had been since that night I woke up shaking, with the faces all looking at me in the same way, looking at my actions and my hunting trophies. I didn’t know if would get any sleep that night. But what I did know was that if that boy didn’t come in on his rickety chair the way he did at seven o’clock pm every Friday, I might have ended up being folded into a pocket with the rest of those goons, and wouldn’t have been able to recognize my own face in the mirror when I woke up in the morning.
India Futterman, Age 15, Grade 10, Edward R Murrow High School, Silver Key