Under the Rainbow, page 7
“I fucked the Big Blonde, Donny. I fucked her good. She came too, same time I did.
“Man oh man, it was something, pardner. It was something else, Don. Something else entirely.…”
Wright is sobbing now, breathing thickly, throat sticky with phlegm. He is muttering but in a voice too dim, muffled, as if he has turned his head away, is speaking into his pillow. Donald strains to hear, he lays an ear to the speaker grate. His own tears slide into the mechanism, they flavor his lips, tickle his nose. Wright continues for thirty seconds more, muttering to somebody else, to himself, and then returns to the phone, holds it to his mouth, a warm deep breath, a shiver, a pause, he speaks.
“I heard you pounding on my door not long ago. I almost came down and let you in too, I almost did. I’m glad I didn’t, though. Because after you left I took a nap. And that’s when it happened with me and the Big Blonde. Happened like … nothing I ever would have imagined.…
“Anyway, bud, listen. The real reason I called is, you’re going to be getting a package one of these days.” A soft chuckle. “A big package.
“You’ll know what to do with it. I’m not worried at all.”
Another pause, as sharp as a wound.
And the final pause has no end. Donald waits, holding his breath, straining to catch a muttered word, a question, explanation, any small utterance of illumination, a spark, explosion, any news of life will do.
So he waits. He waits. Wright’s telephone receiver dully clicks, the connection severed, end of transmission. Yet still Donald remains bent double and all but naked over his answering machine. Yet still he waits. Yet still he listens. He has lost all capacity but fear, he has forgotten how to stand and move, how to find his way upstairs.
“Jerry, please. I need to talk to somebody.”
“It ain’t me, babe.”
“But you heard that message on my machine, didn’t you? Wright’s lost it, he’s gone over the edge.”
“End of vacation, old pal. Time to go home.”
“Wait! Wait! There’s something I need to ask.”
“Jerry? Are you still here? Where’d you go, Jer?”
The strip of negatives hanging from the wire seems to have moved somehow, shifted, turned away from the light. The negatives are stiff, curled up from the bottom, curled inward from the sides; aged, it seems to Donald, as they were not aged before. In any case their position has changed so that the red bulb shining above the worktable no longer shines through the parasailing Jerry, casts no image now, no garrulous shadow on the wall. Donald maneuvers and turns and pulls the strip, he twists and stretches, but he can not convince it to catch the light.
Donald frees the entire strip from the thin wire. The negatives are surprisingly brittle, a snakeskin of younger days. With his left hand he holds the transparent image of Jerry close to the red bulb, and, facing the opposite wall, he searches it for an adumbration, a teasing friendly figure. There, ha! a flicker of smile.
“Jer? Come on, buddy, I know you’re here. Quit playing games.”
And there, yes, for just an instant, Jerry’s grinning face, a wink. But then on the wall there is a sudden smear of brightness—Donald has touched the negatives to the bulb, they flare and burn, they sizzle like a fuse.
Donald tosses the flaming strip to the floor, he stomps the fire out, he sears his naked heel. A portion of the strip remains stuck to the bulb, celluloid bacon, soon only bacon fat, a smoking splotch of grease.
And as Donald watches, amazed, aghast, the bulb pops. The tiny red sun explodes, a brief blinding fulmination. Donald ducks, covers his face. Splinters of glass, a sharp tinkling rain. He stands huddled in darkness, cowering, knock-kneed, shivering in a primitive naked stance, this superstitious man, this witness to the Little Bang, the unsupernova, this man who wonders, too afraid to look, if the world he walked his path upon is gone.
Donald is sitting on his basement sofa and thinking that this is the sad truth, a man’s habits avail nothing, routine does not insure nor custom protect. Order exists only in the single captured moment, the photograph, a snapshot of order past. Yet even here there is no permanence. Even in the captured moment transcience reigns. Photographs change from instant to instant, from eye to eye. The circle of confusion, just a tiny white spot on the film when the photo is taken, caused by flaw of light or aberrance of lens, is imperceptible on the virgin print, a freckle unnoticed, a single impure dot; but look at the photo a day later, a week, and the circle of confusion has grown, a gauzy halo now, now a moon and now the sky itself and now the foreground too is engulfed and the subject blurred, who took this shot? what day was this? where has all life’s clarity gone?
Donald gazes a moment longer at the awkward manuscript of his and Wright’s unpublished book. He flips through the final thick pages, his photos on the right, Wright’s sentimental verses on the left. He does not remember taking these photos so much as he remembers Wright’s excitement, Wright fairly skipping through the woods, a clumsy baggy-trousered man exuberant with hope, not losing his pagan ecstasy even when he trips on a root, slams into the soft dirt, recovers his glasses and squinting through the smudge of humus cries, “Donny! Donny! Look at this skunk cabbage, my god it’s exquisite! Take a picture, take a picture, I can write a sonnet about this!”
Donald, from the very beginning, is never optimistic about the project. He knows it will not sell. Who wants to look at tree moss, or to read the accompanying ode? More to the point, who will pay thirty, forty, fifty dollars for the privilege? No, Donald goes along with the plan only for the joy of those days, for Wright’s undiluted joy and Donald’s own, a less intoxicating joy, a lighter brandy instilled with melancholy, spritzed with wist.
And now Donald lays the book away. A peculiar virus of fatigue has infected him. His muscles are as mud, his bones dead twigs, and yet his mind is racing, turbid with a thousand shrieking germs of thought. He can not risk lying down now, doing nothing, closing his eyes, he will surely go mad. And this house he loves feels shrunken and as heavy as serge tonight; it chokes and makes him itch.
From the hamper in the laundry room he recovers some clothes, a pair of jeans, pungent sweatshirt, dirty socks. His sneakers he finds in the living room, under the coffee table. He needs air and movement now, he needs space and anonymity. He feels the urge to scream.
Donald tiptoes into the kitchen, toward the back door. A glance at the clock: 12:49 AM. He is into a new day now, stealing into it, smelling of days before.
On the rear patio he pulls the door softly closed, hears the lock click shut. Halfway through the yard he trips over the lawn sprinkler, slams onto the soft ground, loses his glasses, fumbles in the grass. He finds his glasses finally and puts them on. Grass clippings stuck to the lenses. The blur of condensation. Donny! Donny! he hears. Get a picture of that, it’s exquisite!
And he lies there motionless for ten long minutes, weeping tiny moons of melting light, inhaling the cutgrass sweetness of all his unraked yesterdays.
Donald has been walking, walking, up one street and down another, avoiding when he can the light, pausing from time to time to gaze upon a house darkened but for the spectral blue flicker of a TV set playing behind the curtain. What is life like in there, he wonders, inside that house? What fears keep that individual awake so late?
And Donald tries to picture it: an overweight man, beer gut straining at his tee-shirt, watching without interest Hope and Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. This man, who has never had the luck he deserves, still just a foreman on the loading dock, has long ago stopped flagellating himself with regret and no longer bothers to voice his remorse, those mistakes carved indelibly in the homely granite of his life. He smiles at Bob Hope’s ball-eyed naivete, a tired smile, wanting to be amused. Bing faces the camera, skinny basset-hound face, who could argue with a face like that? “You should have stayed in college, boy,” Bing tells him. “You should have done
Donald wants to go to the front door and ring the bell. “Hiya pal,” he would say, and clap the stranger warmly on the shoulder. “Slip on some shoes and let’s take a stroll.”
At the next house they invite the aging widow to come along, to walk between them, wherever they are going. Forget for just a moment that blue-eyed jarhead whose dogtags still dangle between your withered breasts. Give grief some air.
And at the next house, and the next. You’re welcome to join us, we are all friends here.
They are zombies of a kind, but harmless, not a cannibal among them. Any living dead in this house? Any misery here?
Up one night street and down another they march, the street swollen with solemn bodies, there is no need to chat, to inquire or confess. They know the value of commiseration.
Donald takes the point, he is the drum major of despair. He feels the ranks behind him ever-growing. People filing from each building passed, each life a novel of misfortune, of accidents and errors, opportunities missed, dreams lost, faith as diffuse as the smog.
Their faith is in Donald now. He seems to know where he is going. He doesn’t know but that is all right too, they have all been nowhere up till now, at least they are moving, their bodies if not their lives are in motion.
And at long last the procession crests a low asphalt rise. The street joins the highway here, and below them runs the river, a two-lane bridge. The river is black but spreckled with starlight, a streak of yellow moonglow shimmers like an eel. The river, Donald thinks. A liquid demarcation, gurgling vein, coursing jugular of the sleeping land.
“To the river!” he cries, and waves his forces onward, commander of the night.
There is not a soul behind him but Donald does not look back. To him the summer darkness is all but billowing with woe.
Black water curling around concrete pilings. Unresisting water, lazy splashes, sluggardly flow. It is old water above which Donald stands, water wise with mud and pithy with submerged debris. How far down? he wonders, and tries to gauge the distance in the dark. Twenty feet? Twenty-five?
The teeth of the bridge’s gridwork nibble at his soles, bite into his feet, so long has he been standing here. The brindled rail hard across his hips, gripped with both hands as as if to hold the bridge in place. He is leaning out, out, a near right angle of flagging flesh.
Dim yellow lights mark each end of the bridge but there is no light here in the middle where Donald stands. He feels invisible, impervious to the fleeting sweep of an occasional headlight. A car passes and the bridge rattles beneath him, it shudders, creaks, and then quiets quickly, embarrassed to have made a noise, ashamed of its weakness, the stress of metal fatigue.
There is a feeling like a hook in Donald’s mouth, a sharptipped tugging on his cheek. He works up a bomb of spit and lets it fall. It disappears almost instantly. He listens for the splash but hears not even that.
Where does this river go? he wanders. Where would it carry a man who does not resist? It flows south, he knows that at least. Into the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean. Past Epcot Center and the Magic Kingdom. A slow meander through the cays of Florida, past Sloppy Joe’s Bar, shrimp and egrets. Then out into the Gulf Stream, bye bye Bahamas, strains of the Spoleto Festival, picking up speed now, streamlined by the current into a deadhead torpedo, hello Cape Hatteras, so long Philadelphia, through the garbage sludge of wretched and teeming shores, past L. L. Bean’s, the Grand Banks, as slim as an arrow now, a last shaft of bone, tugged left by the gravity of Newfoundland, slingshotting home, making barely a buzz as he is wave-tossed ashore and comes to rest in Greenland, a splinter in the spume of Cape Farewell, ice-crusted, buried, becoming tundra.
Donald hears the footsteps approaching, just three soft scrapes before they stop. Still bent far out over the railing but with his head even lower now, the blood having filled his face so that his eyes seem to bulge and his mouth to gape and he thinks I am a flounder, he freezes now, waits, not even daring to turn his head to discover Is it a policeman? A pervert? A ghostly soldier from his AWOL troop?
“Dad?” the someone says.
A familiar word but the voice is strange, the pitch elevated, the inflection sounds like taffy stretched too far.
Donald’s head lifts slightly and slowly turns. Travis stands a mere four feet away, skinny arms hugging a skinny chest.
“Are you sick?” he asks.
Maybe it is because of the whoosh of blood in Donald’s ears, but everything sounds peculiar now, muffled, under several feet of water.
He pushes himself erect, it is harder to do than he would have thought. He wipes a dribble of saliva from the corner of his mouth.
“What?” he says.
“You looked like you were … throwing up again.”
He has never seen Travis quite like this before. The boy appears terrified, as timid as a rabbit.
“I’m okay,” Donald says.
“Well then … what were you doing like that? What are you doing out here?”
Donald has a sensation of water draining from his ears, of sound becoming less fluid. Yet still he is disoriented by this sudden appearance of one so unexpected. He glances at the water below, a silver leaf of starlight. What am I doing here? he wonders. He doesn’t know if he knows or not. He doesn’t know if he wants to know.
He turns to Travis again, who is now more tangible than ever, less silhouette and more boy, flesh of Donald’s flesh, he sees himself in those eyes. “What are you doing here?” he asks, but gently, and with a smile. “Does your mother know you’re out wandering around so late at night?”
Travis shakes his head no. “I was sitting up at my window when you left the house,” he says. “I saw you fall in the yard, and I thought maybe you got hurt, you took so long to get up.…”
“Why were you still awake at midnight?”
Travis considers his feet. “You just lay there in the yard for so long, I finally pulled on my pants and came downstairs. But just as I got to the door, you stood up.”
“And you’ve been following me ever since,” says Donald. “Why didn’t you call out to me? We could have walked together.”
“It seemed to me,” Travis says, and his words have the weight of confession, “that you probably didn’t want any company. That you probably weren’t just, you know, taking a walk.”
“So why did you decide to stop following me just a minute ago?”
Travis says nothing. He is staring so softly at his father, it breaks Donald’s heart. Donald can see a yellow shine of moonlight in his eyes.
“Can we just go home now?” Travis asks. He sniffs, and is shivering, but to Donald there has never been a night so warm.
“Let’s go,” Donald says, and they walk across the gridwork side by side, Donald’s shoulder rubbing Travis’s arm. Donald notices however that despite the difference in their height they walk stride for stride, paces perfectly matched. And he wonders who has fit his stride to whose.
They are nearly halfway home before either one speaks.
“Dad?” Travis says, and Donald says “Hmmm?”
“Please don’t ever do that again.”
“I wasn’t doing anything,” Donald tells him, and walks, and a few moments later he promises, “I won’t.”
The postman, whose name is Phil, a young man not yet thirty in his blue walking shorts and knee socks, his summer uniform, steps onto Wright’s porch at approximately 9:20 AM, intending to push Wright’s mail through the mail slot, a department store circular, a postcard offering Wright two weeks’ first class accomodations in Bermuda if he calls the toll-free number within twenty-four hours, and a bill from his urologist. But the door is standing open a crack and there is a note taped to the mail slot: Please come upstairs, Phil. Thank you.
Phil goes upstairs, but cautiously. Wright i
Phil’s erection by the time he reaches the second floor landing is flicking as Benny Goodman’s clarinet must have slowly flicked when playing “Exactly Like You,” the bluesy strains of which now spiral out softly from the bedroom on the right. Phil wonders if he should enter with his pants down, show from the start that he is a man of the world. But he decides finally to play it nonchalant. He hangs his mailbag on the bannister post and saunters toward the bedroom with what he hopes is an unsuspecting smile on his lips.
Wright is lying peacefully on his bed, lying on his back with his left hand atop his chest, right hand at his side, his eyes are closed, his skin pale blue, he is wearing a tuxedo. Memories from the Days of Swing plays nonstop on an obsolete 8-track tape player on the nightstand. Wright wears what appears to be an unsuspecting smile on his lips.
Phil attempts mouth-to-mouth resuscitation but Wright’s jaw is as stiff as an unoiled hinge. Phil rips Wright’s shirt open, spraying mother-of-pearl buttons, and then hammers on Wright’s chest.
When it dawns on Phil suddenly that this setup smacks of suicide, that Wright is long past resurrection, that he, Phil, has done considerable disarray to a perfectly presentable corpse, Phil hies his ass downstairs but quick. He stands gasping on the top porch step until he gets his breath under control, until the bombing run stops booming in his ears.
In the kitchen then, the sunniest room, he dials 9–1–1. He returns to the porch, where he waits for the authorities to arrive.