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Apr/May 2000 Fiction

Jungle Quilt

by A.M. Kiernan


I'm driving drunk past the post office. There's no way home for me except I got to pass the damn post office. I know it's a mistake. The sheriff's there, holding down the curb bench in front so it doesn't fly off into space. I'm going slow. Jeeter's got no reason to stop me. He gets up, flicks his cigarette into the gutter and walks to the middle of the road. I put on my brakes. The sheriff smacks my hood and comes around to the window.

"You bumped my knees, Tommy."

"Hey, Jeeter."

"You creased my pants, Tommy. Your reflexes are slow 'cause you're a drunken ass hole and I'm sick of it." His neck's turning red. "One of these days you're going to smush some little kid. I got a granddaughter at First Baptist. Now that she's on the road, you're getting off it."

I wish the damn window crank hadn't busted off so I could wind it shut and lock myself in. It's been an all nighter.

"Stick your finger down your throat, Tommy."

"What?"

"Stick it, Tommy," he screams at the side of my head. "You're taking the Alabama Breathalyzer."

"No."

But Jeeter is getting pissed-rigid and purple. His voice sounds like steam escaping through a crack.

"Now."

So I do it. I throw up all over my steering wheel. It comes out of my socks, it keeps coming. I try to look at him between heaves but I'm afraid I'll splatter the guy.

"Quit it now. Will you quit it?" he says.

"Auugh..." I look over the steering wheel trying to steady myself but everything is doing a bump and grind, the street, the courthouse, the buildings bending inwards.

"Jesus, Tommy." Jeeter thumps the roof of my car. "I'm going to have to impound your car."

"You can have it." I moan, then vomit again. The brew is finished, we're scraping the bottom: sediment of last nights dinner, potato chips and a Goo Goo Cluster. The mixture looks tubercular on the rebound.

"Follow me down to the station. Because of you, I'm going to have to get in my police car, and you know the humidity is thick enough to swallow this time of year. It's thirty days for that. But I got a job for a drunken fart like you."

I know what's coming. "I, uhh, want to go to jail."

"You're going to have to work off your time."

"Gutters again? Paint your house?"

"You follow me."

"Jesus, Jeeter. Put me in jail. I'm sick."

"You're spending your thirty days doing what I tell you to do, when I tell you and where I tell you."

The gas pedal is now too hard to push. I'm driving straight, trying to force myself to concentrate, but the blood is coming into my head, making my throat feel tight and my ears thump. There are spots all over the road. It's all right, it's okay.

From the station I walk home with Jeeter following behind me in his car down the street. He says the air will do me good and he doesn't want me sitting on the upholstery. The puke is cold and beginning to dry on my pants. I look like I'm bleeding to death down the front of my tee shirt. The sun is already making the road glow like a furnace. The tar has turned sticky and grabs at my feet, and I'm wondering what made me bring Jeeter's wrath down on me like that.

Up the apartment stairs he's yelling at me, "Where's your keys? You got 'em in your pocket? Did you leave them in your car, God damn it?"

"Oh, shit."

"Never mind. I'll climb in a window." It takes all of thirty seconds before he opens the door. "Get in here." This man owns me.

Inside I strip naked, tossing my clothes onto the bed. He stares at me and wrinkles up his nose.

"God, damn, you're an ugly piece of crap. If I looked like you in the raw I'd stitch my clothes to my skin."

I scratch my pubic hair but what I'd really like to do is show him my ass and run. "You're standing on my books, Jeeter." I lean over the bed and push on his knees. "Get off them, please."

He steps back and a stack tumbles over his shoes. "This place is nothing but books. Looks like a garage sale for old ladies. You live like trash." He bends over, picks one up and tosses it over his shoulder.

I fish around for clothes, under the blankets, on the floor. "I'm going to take a shower now, Sheriff, and review my rights."

"Well, I'll tell you what, Tommy. I'm going over to A-Jay's and tell him you can't buy no more booze there. Then I'll have a little talk with the Tiger's Den. You're going to live in your own private dry county if I don't get some satisfaction."

I slam myself into the bathroom and yell at him through the door, "I wanna go to jail."

"Are you saying you want me to write this up and go to the court and everything?"

"Why in the hell not?" I pee, drowning out my own mumble. "...better than being a personal slave."

"What?" He's on the other side of the damn door. I flip on the shower and Jeeter starts thumping on the door like it's my chest. "You trying to kill me with paper work? I gotta type with two fingers and my typewriter is missing its "t." You know how many "t's" are in a report? I gotta write 'em in, little funny looking "t's." How'm I gonna write Tommy without a "t" on my typewriter?"

"I'll write them in for you."

"Well, aren't you nice. Hurry the fuck up!"

He puts me in the back seat of his car and tells me I smell bad even after a wash. Jeeter drives through town, circling the courthouse. Joe and Phil Bass are sitting on the edge of the Veteran's fountain like twin vultures, squinting at the patrol car. He waves at them and then at Judge Daniel's wife who has come out of her husband's office to get the newspaper. Jeeter rolls by slowly and she looks at me in the back seat. "How's the judge's shingles?" Jeeter yells out of the window at her. She nods her head. They must be better. "You know Tommy Bohem, don't you, Miz Daniels?" I hear this vague, "Why, yes, yes..." as we cruise by.

"Pull up, Jeeter. I got a legal question for the judge." I can see his nasty grin reflected in the glass above the steering wheel. The morning sunlight is hitting at a slant, illuminating the car. It's already sweltering hot. September. The last blast from hell below, the doors are open while the devil packs his bags for winter.

He doesn't say another word until we're out on the highway. He pulls over on the side, popping gravel like rifle shots. It makes my hair stand on end. Suddenly he is in the back seat with me. I've known him all my life but this is the first time I've looked at him closely. His face is pitted and he's smaller than I am, neat and wiry looking for fifty.

"Tommy, my boy..."

"Mmmm-hmmm."

"There's something I want you to do for me."

"Yeah, I got that. What is it?"

His eyes are blue. I can even admit at this alarming moment they're a nice sort of china blue. I've sat beside him in bars, and once at the school gym to vote, but never have I looked into this man's eyes. If I could cover the rest of his face and body and see just those eyes, I wouldn't be panicking at this moment. My stomach hurts. I need Cheerios. A big O in the muscle of my arm.

"Quit that," he yells.

"What?"

"Quit jumping around."

"I'm not."

"Yes you are. You're doing this," and he starts jerking his arms and legs. "What is it? You got to have a drink? You that bad?"

"No, I never drink this early."

"Oh, I'm sorry," he snorts. "I haven't memorized your schedule yet."

"Jesus, Jeeter. Leave me alone." I move as far into the corner of the back seat as I can. "I'm hungry and I don't feel good."

"Shut up, Tommy. This is what I want you to do. You know my daughter. She needs help around her house. You're gonna help her. You got thirty days to work off, then I call it even and forget the whole thing."

"I need my car."

"No."

"What do I have to do, walk there? I need my car."

Jeeter leans over and grabs me by the hair. "Tommy, you little fuck." He pulls me down trying to hit my head on my knees. When he can't get me to bend that far over he starts smashing his palm in my face. "We'll get this straight now. There'll be no more confusion." He shoves my head away and wipes his hand on his pant leg.

I feel so dirty I want to scream. I haven't shaved. My nose is burning and hurts like hell. I'm cowed like a dog in a pen, with my hand up to my face. If I cry, he'll hurt me. If I hit him, he'll hurt me. If I say anything, he'll kill me.

"You can sleep in my daughter's spring house. She's got an extra sleeping bag. She doesn't drink. There's no booze for you. None for miles. And if she so much as calls me, even with a bitty problem, I'll make your life not worth living. You got me, Tommy?"

"What do I have to do?"

"Work. Whatever she needs doing, you do it."

His daughter, Frieda, is an Amazon. Jeeter MacIntyre must have paired with a gorilla. His wife is dead now. She drowned in her own basement. A spring filled it up after a storm and she fell down the stairs. We used to talk about it in school. Frieda got to stay home for a week after her mom died. She was in the same class I was.

"All right. Fine, Jeeter. But when my thirty days are up, I get my car back?"

"Done. But you stay off the booze. You're a dangerous man. Next time I run your car into the river, and you don't see it no more! You hurt somebody... you hurt some kid hauling through town sauced, and you end up in the river." He sits back and looks at me with a smile. "I'm not saying I would do it. But drunks are always doing stuff like that. Look at the Delroy twins and their friends. Wrapped themselves around a tree. It was disgusting. I mean disgusting!" Jeeter shakes his head. "They were peeled and mixed together."

My stomach is hurting. Acid is boring a hole through to my shirt. Jeeter happily mulls over the gore then glances at me sideways. He looks startled, "What's wrong with you?"

I stare at him. "Nothing."

"What?" He pulls on his chin. "I'm just saying, look what drunks can do. You don't want to go to heaven through a fence post, now do you, Tommy?

I shake his hand off my shoulder and mumble, "No, Sir."

He takes out some gum and starts to chewing it on one side of his mouth like a cud. He folds the wrapper slowly, perfectly. "I'll tell you something, Tommy. My daughter's a good girl. She got mixed up with somebody." He looks out the window. "I want to know who that somebody was. Do you know?"

Mrs. Martin, the dispatcher at the station, interrupts on the radio. Her voice crackles in the stuffy air of the car. She wants to know where Jeeter is. Jeeter gets into the front seat and grumbles into the mike, "I'm on the old highway. Lay off. I'm busy."

Mrs. Martin tells him the principal has called from the elementary school. Two dogs are hanging around the front and can't be shooed away.

"Okay, I got it." He clicks her off. "Old Peterson is worried they're going to screw in the play yard. I gotta go." He turns around and looks at me over the back of the seat.

"Who messed up my daughter? Do you know? I won't tell anyone you told me. I want to know who's the father of my granddaughter."

"I don't know."

"She won't tell me," he says.

"I have no idea, Jeeter. Nobody does."

He drives off. I massage my neck. We're quiet a long while. Finally, he pulls off the highway into his daughter's yard. Ahead of us is a little white nothing house, squatting on acres of empty space. To one side is a jagged line of trees following a creek bed. Laundry hangs on a rope stretched between the back door and a steel post near the springhouse. As we pull up, Frieda steps from behind a row of sagging sheets with a wet towel in her hands. I haven't seen her up close in years. She looms against the side of the house like a huge muscled, warrior goddess, one who could pick up men and measly cars and toss them into oblivion.

Jeeter stops and turns around suddenly, panicked, whispering. "Find out!"

 

It's been three days. I'm stranded at this woman's house. We've hardly spoken to each other. I know nothing about house repair. I have no interest in manly skills. I wanted to be a veterinarian, an ornithologist. I like birds. Once I wanted to have a bird practice. But it took too much college. I got to drinking in my freshman year. Each day got longer and longer before the night's drunk. I made it through two years at the junior college in Birmingham, then gave in to shorter and shorter days.

My grandfather left me enough money to do nothing and be no one on a tight budget. He used to own the glass works in town. When I came back from school, my family moved to Veema, Alabama, to be close to my grandmother. I couldn't see moving. Too much effort. I decided to stay in Coatesville. It's all I've known. All I care to know.

Frieda wants me to put in a rock wall and level out part of her yard where it slopes towards the creek. She's going to put in a vegetable garden. For a big woman she's a shitty cook. Home grown isn't going to improve anything.

Frieda works half days at a tree farm. She told me what to do on the day I arrived, other than that I get only a glimpse of her and her daughter as they come and go. She leaves breakfast and dinner on the stoop for me. Lunch I fend for myself. Jeeter cruises the place.

I'm feeling a little wound up. I miss alcohol with this burning in my stomach. I figure if I can get up close to this woman, maybe she'll buy me a six-pack. I'll do anything. The aching is going up my chest and down my arms. I don't know if it's the strain of working or if I need the liquor. I got headaches and can't sleep real well. I don't think I'm that bad over booze. I can survive. I spent the first eighteen years of my life absolutely pure. But if I befriend her, it'll make the days go faster.

 

It's late in the afternoon. I venture up the steps of the stoop. I can see Frieda bending over her sewing at the kitchen table. Wads of cloth hang down from her lap onto the floor. She looks harmless, downright domesticated. I let myself in and smile at her. "Hey, you're back."

She looks up from the kitchen table. Her hair is black, in long shapeless curls. She grins and says, "How's it going?"

"Doing all right. I gathered the rocks."

"Yeah. I saw that. Look, they're kind of round." She starts scratching her head. "You know, Tom..."

"What, Frieda?"

She grins again. There's something very patient in her grinning. Her soft voice doesn't match her body.

"Uh, look, you need flat rocks. Big flat ones. River rock is more for paving things. I don't think it would build a very good wall." Her needle is now going like mad through the cloth. "Why don't we measure it out, figure a foot square for each stone, double thickness. Figure out the length, and the rest, and maybe we could order what you need. I think some of the masonry places around here deliver. Could you maybe put those rocks back in the creek?"

"Sure." That's why she's being patient. She thinks I'm the village idiot. I know this girl. I went through school, year after year, with her. Fryda. Fat Freida. Froggy-Eater-Freeder-Jeeder. I'll order Sackcrete, okay?" she says.

"Sounds good. I've never built a wall before."

"That's all right. Don't worry about it. We'll work it out."

I pull out a chair and sit down across from her. "Say, how's it been going since school?" I'm taller than she is, sitting down.

Frieda seems surprised in her own dogged way. She barely moves her lips, "Okay."

Her eyes are brown. Her skin is almost transparent and soft looking. She isn't fat, just big. Maybe a little heavy, but it's spread evenly and her lips are nicely formed, dimpled at the edges. She's almost attractive. If you could minus out parts of her body and pour the rest into a smaller mold, she'd be fine.

Frieda looks back to her sewing, then says quietly, "Why are you here?" She glances up with her needle poised through the cloth. "Is my father making you work for me?"

I slip my hands in my pockets and slouch down in the chair. Maybe she could see my side of things. "You Dad gave this as a sort of jail term. We had a disagreement over private habits. He impounded my car and hopes I can help you out for the next thirty days."

She laughs. Not out loud, more like a breath of a snicker. She's cute when she smiles. I smile back, but I can see this is leading nowhere. She looks too calm to come to my rescue.

"What're you making?"

"I'm doing some finish work on a quilt for a client," she says.

"Oh, nice." There's a clunk in another room. "I think I hear your daughter."

"She's waking up from her nap."

"What's her name?"

"Carol. I'll get her," she starts to get up, moving mounds of cloth.

"I'll do it."

"Oh," she squats back down, wondering if she's doing the right thing. "Would you mind?"

"Sure," I hesitate at the edge of my seat. "Who's her dad?"

Frieda stares at me with a slow half smile creeping over her face. "Get out of here."

"Just curious."

Carol begins to thump something on the wall. We can hear her talking to herself, a child's crazy up and down voice. I get out of my chair and go down the hallway after her. There is only one bedroom. They sleep in the same room. I had imagined the house bigger. A double bed is pushed to one side near the closet and Carol sleeps in a playpen near the door. There's a sweet, baby sweat smell in the room. She looks up at me and just stares. Her hair is pasted to one side of her head where her juice bottle leaked on it while she slept. I take the bottle from her hand. "Aren't you a little old for this?" She doesn't' cry but her eyes are huge at the sight of this strange man in her bedroom. I've seen grown women with the same look in the morning. I pick her up and try lifting her hair where it is glued to her scalp. This doesn't go over well. She puts her arms out and begins to gasp for air. She's going to cut a scream. I get her down the hallway and into the kitchen to her mother.

From the safety of Frieda's lap, Carol works out her own hair problems and eyes me suspiciously. It's a Jeeter look.

"Do you want to eat your meals with us?" Frieda says. "I didn't ask before because I didn't know how comfortable you'd be about it. Maybe you prefer your privacy. That's fine. But you're welcome."

I look carefully at Frieda's face, it's honest and friendly. Carol is skeptical.

Over the next few days I get friendly enough to ask for a beer before dinner.

Frieda has her back to me as she bends over the sink. "No!"

"Don't you have any?" I lean on the refrigerator and cross my arms.

She flips on the water. "No. I don't have any."

"Yes, you do. It's downstairs in the storm cellar."

She looks at me over her shoulder. "I do?" She thinks for a moment. "Maybe it was left by the guy who used to own the house. What were you doing down there?"

"I stacked the bags of Sackcrete next to them, in case it rains. Just a couple of bottles."

Quietly she turns off the water and faces me. "Did you take them?" She's being patient again. Why is she so God damned patient? "No. I didn't. They're not mine. Can I have one?" I snarl at her.

"Bring up two." She says it tight-lipped, smart-ass. I don't understand this woman. I get the bottles and bring them up the steps. Her eyes have the same hard stare they had when I left the room, as if practicing X-ray vision. I suck up enough courage to cross the room and put her bottle down beside her. She stands there, leaving it on the counter.

"I opened it for you." I use the bottle in my hand to motion to her beer.

She turns back to peeling tomatoes. "Let's see if you can have one? Okay, Tom? We'll save this for you in case you can't have just one. Don't forget there's a couple more downstairs. God knows how many years old, and warm, but you can handle it."

She is do-gooding me. The fat bitch who got knocked up, is tight-assing me. "I got it for you. One's plenty, thanks."

"I thought you were a drunk."

"Who's talking, I mean... what the hell."

"I don't drink," she scowls.

"You want to start? Come on. We'll sit on the porch." I grab her beer, then poke her with my elbow. "Come on."

"Aren't you worried my Dad will drive by?"

I turn in mid stride. "So, we'll go out on the back steps."

She comes to sit with me but she is useless with a bottle. She tips it like a Co'cola. In my mind she slides back fifteen years to high school. I can see her pulling on a Coke over a Formica table in a restaurant. She used to hang around with Sheila Talberg and Ernie Cooper, the arty crowd. I hung with Dobson, and the others. We had brains. We were the smart ones. We had already figured out the world and it was simple.

"Why don't you drink?" I ask her.

"I don't like it. I never have." She is chewing gum. She chews like her father on one side of her mouth. Carol is making mud in the dog's bowl, turned lose with the hose. "My mother was an alcoholic."

"What?" This is news.

Frieda is hunched up on the stoop and she turns her head to me. "Yeah. Didn't you know? Everybody else does."

"No." I try to think. "I checked out a while ago.

She quietly laughs. "I guess so, because you haven't changed since high school."

"Do you remember me? I was just remembering you."

"Of course I remember you."

"How did it work out for you?"

"What work out?"

"Graduation."

She laughs again and like her speaking voice, the sound of it doesn't suit her. It's light and airy. I don't think there's a bellowing war cry in this woman, not even a good whoop.

"My life's worked out fine. Had its moments, but okay," she says.

Frieda has gotten serious. Her face seems tight. Maybe I will change my mind about her ability to make the enemy cringe.

"So, your Mom was a drinker?"

Her eyes give me a flick. Then she concentrates on her soda, a.k.a. beer. "She was sick. It killed her."

"I thought she fell."

With a sarcastic smile she says, "She did."

"You mean she was..."

"Drunk." Frieda stretches in the late afternoon sun. "My, aren't we dainty."

"No wonder Jeeter hates me."

"He doesn't hate you. What have you got to do with it? I mean, that was twenty years ago, Tom."

"How come you don't call me, Tommy, like everyone else."

Frieda starts waving at her three-year-old. "Carol. Carol, don't put your mouth on the hose. It's dirty. Good girl." Carol's cheeks are flooded with water. She pulls the end of the house out and waves it in the air.

"She's gonna get soaked," I say.

"It's okay. She loves water. It's the best entertainment in the world." Frieda reclines against the upper step on her elbow. She's at home. I'm sitting above her, throttling my bottle by the neck and tapping it against my shins.

"I don't call you Tommy," she says, "because I figure you were a Tom by now. Though we haven't talked in a while. Do you want me to call you Tommy?"

"Tom's fine. Should we get your daughter a towel?"

"She's having fun. The weather's warm. Relax, I'm experienced." She gives me a sly smile. "Did you remain innocent and carefree during your time of the great check out?"

"I'm not a virgin if that's what you mean."

Frieda roars with laughter. She can roar. Not deafening, but definitely threatening. "Christ, Tom. You're thirty-five. I didn't suppose you were. That's not what I meant. Not exactly, anyway. I'm just giving you a hard time. I swear. You tickle me. You're so young, or defenseless, or something."

"I'm not."

She quits snickering to herself and says, "I meant life's experiences. You know, good, bad, whatever."

"What about them?"

"Have you had any?" She is not going to let this go.

"Of course. Life sucks. Am I on the right track in this conversation?"

Hold on a sec." Her daughter is now running the hose into her underpants. Her shorts blow up like a wet pigskin. Frieda takes Carol in with her. I follow behind with Frieda's bottle of beer. She is changing Carol in front of the open oven door. Naked, Carol is fat, her bottom, amazingly round. The poor little thing is goose-bumped and kind of blue.

"Hand me that, would you?" Frieda says. I give her the towel off the table. "Hold her and I'll get her P.J.'s."

"She's cold." I speak in the child's defense. Time is of the essence.

"Hang on to her, Tom. I don't want her to touch the element in the oven."

"I got her. I got her." I hold the top of her head. How can the kid stand it? She is shaking like crazy with her red hands on her tummy. She looks up at me through wet splices of hair. She is the epitome of patience, just like her mother. I'd be screaming if wet and restrained. She shivers, "Eww..."

"Yeah, yuk. Come here and I'll hold you near the heat, okay. You can be superman... superwoman, whatever." I suspend her over the oven door. She puts her arms out. She is flying.

The warmth comes up to us and I look out the window at the sun going down. I had forgotten what it was like to live with other people. I don't know why it seems strange to me that home life continued for someone else when it stopped for me. The small daily details, even the feelings at certain hours of the day. What was dusk? Sort of scratchy, tired, red, warm, and sad because a whole day was over and the chance for anything special happening was gone.

 

I finish Frieda's beer, but only after we've eaten and hours have passed getting Carol to bed and then asleep. I wait for Frieda in her living room. I have made bold tonight and lay in the lounge chair pointing towards the fireplace. Between it and me is a huge wooden frame for her quilts, now empty. About the height of a table, it obscures my view. So I look up. There's a quilt on the wall above the mantle. It's the wildest thing I've ever seen. There are beasts on it. They are squiggled, made up, beautiful and dangerous clawed things, with wild, curling plumage. In the center rears a lumped and maned animal. It is fantastically colored over a background of red and black.

"This is a real work of art," I tell her when she comes into the room. She stands beside my chair and looks up at it.

"Thanks. It's my jungle quilt."

"I mean it. It's a primitive art form. They'd pay a fortune for it in New York."

"Hell yeah, it's primitive. Like me. You too, I bet, under the right circumstances."

She's making me uncomfortable. Like maybe this is sexual. I scoot to the end of my chair and look up at her but there is no suggestion of it in her face. Frieda's studying the quilt. She's wearing a ratty bathrobe over her clothes. I sit back and drain the last of the bottle. Oh, hot foam hits the tummy and spreads everywhere.

"I had a nervous breakdown once," she says.

"You did?" The picture of her going nuts invades my mind and I lose track of warmth's progress. She moves across the room, around the frame. When people crack they sort of stay that way, don't they? "How? I mean if you don't mind my asking?"

"No, why should I mind? I brought it up." She shrugs and flops down on the couch. "It was awful." Then she begins to laugh at herself. "God, I don't know. All I remember is mental pain is a whole hell of a lot worse than physical."

I wish that wooden thing was between us, rather than me and the hearth. One should be able to choose what one obscures. But I've listened to my own mind for so long, I'm struck with curiosity at someone else's ramblings. A secretive, selfish form of intimacy. "What'd you mean?"

"You ever had real bad anxiety?"

"Uh-uh. I don't think so." I'm shaking my head, like slinging her off.

She settles in, not looking at me. "I worried over everything until my insides caved in." She gives a sort of mock laugh. "Feels terrible. You get the shakes and sweat all the time. Can't sleep. It's like being wired to the max. It hurts just to live through a second. I don't know how I ever made it through a day. Sometimes I'd curl up and lay there, rock myself, try not to kill myself."

"Jesus."

"I didn't know what was happening to me. I kept it a secret, which was really stupid." She scratches the side of her head. Her hair bobs and looks silky in the lamplight.

She's giving me a stomachache, turning good hops to vinegar. "That's bad."

"It happened when I got pregnant." She draws her legs up on the couch and shoves her hands down between her thighs. She looks young. I've seen her like that before, sometime during the seventies, at a party maybe. The memory returns through a fog.

"Did being pregnant throw you pretty bad?"

"No. Well, yeah. It was that. A lot of stress. Couldn't talk to my Dad about it. But it was mainly me. I had this idea stuck in my head that I was such an awful person. Made me afraid of everything, like if I tried anything it would just prove the point. I'd been torturing myself all my life." Frieda makes a sour face. "Nag, nag, nag. This voice on my shoulder. I finally got too mentally tired to take it."

"You always seemed okay to me." I'm a liar.

"On the outside everyone else is always doing fine." She gives that little snicker again, Frieda's breath of irony. "I'm peaceful now. I've earned it. Learned how to shut up that mean mouth inside. It's taken me a long time. I tell you what, I've learned how delicate a soul can be. I got some compassion now and some God damned respect for my own insides." She still hasn't looked at me. "I'm glad I went through it."

I smile over at her. "That's good, Frieda."

I feel pressure building. I should talk to her. Can I count on myself to open my mouth? "Do you want to light a fire. The nights are getting cooler."

She seems a little surprised, a tad let down. "Okay."

I escape to the back yard, to the stack of wood I chopped to last her the winter. I load my arms and linger. The black country sky is riddled with stars. It occurs to me that they are frozen mid-explosion, a time lapse picture of the soundless big bang. I can't escape this image of chaos, inside the house or out.

When I come back in she watches me go through the motions of lighting the fire, but her mind is elsewhere. "Whenever I have expectations now," she says, "I take them out like so many sticks of dynamite, look them over, then decide whether to light the fuse or not." She's looking at me, her face open and innocent. "Have you ever felt..."

"What about the jungle quilt?" I sound too excited to change the subject as I inch back towards my chair.

After a moment she stands and looks at it, swaying gently before the fire with her hands fanned out in front of her. "I made it up. When I was falling apart. I started sewing. Nothing dramatic, but I think it saved me from going completely over." All of a sudden she gets a burst of energy. "You know what it's like? It's like the soul is boiling, burning rubber, or something. I know other people have gone through it, but I wondered how come I'd never heard them screaming." She turns around and the hands go behind her back. "I started sewing, just trying to make each stitch match the next. It kept my mind busy, like playing solitaire, until it could calm down and heal up. I did a lot of thinking." She shrugs one shoulder as if now innocent of all this terror. "It plain old kept me busy. There's something in just enduring." She looks up at it, her robe drags on the ground as she arches her back. A fierce motif floats above her head in firelight, animals bridled to a cloth puzzle of red and black. "I kept adding to the quilt and adding to it. Joined each piece by hand. Someday, I'll give it to Carol. I wish I could spare her, wrap her up in it. She's all new and blank."

"Carol might not suffer. Some people don't."

"I hope she does, at least a little."

"Why for God's sake? She's your kid."

"Christ, Tommy. Don't you think it's part of life?"

"You're practically dooming her to it. She doesn't have to be like you. Raise her with that kind of crap and she'll be looking for it."

"If she doesn't learn how to fight, she'll never build muscle. You've got to have it. Maybe then she can turn to making a thing of beauty. Her own. Whatever it is. Maybe her own life, make it a rich, good thing."

"How poetic. With a little psycho-voodoo mixed in." I lean forward. She's pissing me off. "I hate to go against modern techno-spirituality but not everyone falls apart or sees the world the way you do."

She's not backing down. Her eyes are slits. "Have you?"

"What?"

"Has your life ever dropped off a cliff, or did it just roll down hill."

"Are you saying I'm rolling down hill?" I will not ask this woman for any more liquor. I'll be damned if I'll show the least natural weakness in front of her. "Jesus, you're just like your father."

"I don't think we're talking about the same thing, Tom."

"To hell with you."

"Don't yell in my house."

"Fuck you."

"Outside, Tom. Now."

I flop back in the lounge and hang onto the arm rests. "Your dad wants to know who the father is. He sent me to find out."

She crosses her arms. "I figured that much. Seems I exposed the wrong information."

"What does that mean?"

"Good night. I'm going to stay up and enjoy my fire." She tosses her hair and wrinkles up her mouth into a scowl.

She most likely has rituals in here at night. I can see her face painted, spear twisting in the air to the mad rhythm of female mythology. "You can't make me leave. I'm going to stay up, too."

"Will you get out of here?"

"No." I'm whining.

"If you're going to pout I'll put my shoulder to your back and send you clawing out the door."

Why am I smiling? Why am I smiling at this idiot woman? Because she is laughing at me.

"In Mrs. Stoddard's third grade you ate all the deserts out of the lunch bags when she put you in the coat closet for losing the volleyball." I point my finger at her. "Pig. I had a Moon Pie."

"Was that yours?" She laughs again.

"Remember when your pad dropped out on the floor in seventh grade?" That was a good one, but I never thought I'd be telling it to her. She picked it up like no big deal and stuck it back in again.

"I didn't know you were supposed to attach it to anything," she giggles. "It's a shame your brain's not totally rotten."

"Who's the father? I might cut my detention down if I can hand your old man some dirt."

"What do you do for a living, Tom."

"You think you're the only one with an indoors? I got one too."

"I have no doubt, Tommy. But if you don't tell me, I won't know."

"Why should I?"

She groans and sits down on the couch with her arms around her ribs. "I suppose because we're friends. You remind me so much of... I don't know. It's like I'm disappearing back in time. Not that we were ever great friends."

"I wanted to be an ornithologist. I like birds." She looks like she doesn't believe me. "I can name any bird. I know every call. I do! You have three pairs of Juncoes around lately. It's a sign it's getting cold up north. Also, some pine siskins, titmice, chickadees, one red bellied woodpecker, several downeys, a ruby crowned kinglet, morning doves..." I jump out of my seat, weave past the wooden frame. I am listing them on my fingers. She turns her head up towards me from the couch. My turn in front of the fireplace. I can pace. I am active. I am not stoic. "...rufus-sided tohees, goldfinches. They like the sound of water from your creek and the drip from the springhouse. Do you know birds can hear dripping water from two miles away? They are more likely to come to it than a feeder."

"I am amazed, Tommy. I really am." She perks up. I have this woman's attention. Better than being alone in that God-awful soggy springhouse. The birds may like the noise of falling water, but it's driving me crazy. The Chinese use that for torture. So do the MacIntyres. She would like me to be looney, so then she'd have somebody to talk to.

I hear a little sound in the distance. "Was that Carol?"

"Wait." She inclines her head to listen. Her mother didn't hear her but I did. "I wonder what she's doing up. It must have been our yelling."

Frieda goes in to pat her back. I can hear the soft thump, then the cooing of her voice. I sit down on the stone ledge in front of the fireplace. I have made an ass out of myself. If my face is red, I'll blame it on the flames.

When Frieda comes out again I wonder how she is feeling. She seems tired and wanders into the kitchen without looking at me.

"Frieda?"

She is rummaging in the refrigerator. "It's late, Tom. You can tell me about birds later. It's time for you to go."

"Listen, I'm sorry..." I want to list my offenses. I don't know what in the hell for. Yes I do. I want to stop the tension between us.

She pulls out a jug of milk. "It's all right. You didn't do anything. I'm tired. Just go to bed."

I get two glasses and sit on the table, one on each knee. She thunks the milk down and looks at me. I fill them myself.

"I didn't like you in school much." I whisper.

That gets her. "Okay, Tommy. For your information I didn't like you either. I thought you were a snotty little ass hole. You and that nit, Dobson. The two of you were suck-ups to all the teachers, especially Gimble in Science."

"I wasn't."

"Don't you think this is an immature conversation?" She sips her milk, giving me a bored look over the rim of her glass.

"What I was going to say--before being rudely interrupted--was that I didn't know you," I say.

"So?"

"I wish I had. It might have been different."

"Tom, you were a jerk. So was I. Let it go. People change. You were cute, though. Let me add that. You were definitely cute. I had a crush on your body. Your mind was strictly P. U."

"Gosh, thanks, Frieda."

"Don't mention it. Now, good night."

Frieda walks out of the kitchen and turns off the light behind her. My only connection is broken. I haven't finished about school. I can't ever seem to get anything said to her. This is so damned complicated. It takes so damn long.

It is butt-ice cold in the springhouse. I blow out the candle and scrunch down into the sleeping bag, trying to imagine the plaid flannel on the inside, to recall it for warmth. I am a monk in my cell. I am in the Middle Ages. Water drips. The trees near the creek shiver their leaves in the night breeze. I have a hard on. It's been a while. Worse, I hadn't realized it'd been a while. It is the only part of me that is warm. If my hand wasn't a block of ice I might reach down. The flannel feels good, rubbing. But the erection's going away, sliding down some hill of it's own. I'm older, not eighteen anymore. I try to conjure up a lover but the drip is making too much noise, tip, flap, tip, flap... go to sleep, go to sleep. Like God, I don't mind making oblivion, I'm just not sure I want to disappear into it. God did. For me he did.

 

It's the middle of the day. I've been here for almost two God-damned weeks. I am baby-sitting Carol again, who is putting dirt on the toes of my shoes. The wall is half built. I have twelve and a quarter feet of the first three layers down. I don't know if I am doing this right but it seems to be hardening and nothing has fallen over. I should be done with it in another week and then I can backhoe the dirt against it. Just in time for winter, for Christ's sake. Who's going to get any use out of it? What if it topples before Spring? All for nothing. Maybe I should add another thickness at the bottom. Shit. Now the wall is less than half built.

"Look, Carol, look over there. That's a pileated woodpecker. See him?" Frieda's car pulls in the drive. "No, not there. That's you mother. Over there." I point to the side of the scrub pine on the edge of the yard but she wants her mother. I wonder if Carol will remember me? There may be no pileated woodpeckers by the time she's grown. They're getting rare.

"How's it going, Tom?" Frieda yells at me while she's unloading the groceries from the trunk. What she really wants is for me to come and help. God damn it. I'm doing man's work, bug off woman.

"Doing fine." I holler back. "I've got the concept worked out. It's pretty tough, but I'm managing. Breaking bones, pouring myself into slave labor. All for you, Harridan woman." Grunt. One more stone.

She hauls out the next bag. "Come on, Tommy. Be cheerful while you work."

Fuck off, bitch. Your father's a dead man. Next time he steps out in the road, I'm not going to crease his pants, I'm going to fold up his whole body and press it into the asphalt. I should not be owned by anyone. I haven't had a drink in over a week and a half and they don't know what fools they are. I am getting pissed. I have excess brain energy for plotting against them. One must dope the masses for security. This toady vassal is building muscle erecting their temples. They are soft. There will be a revolt.

 

Carol sits on my lap over a miserable dinner. This woman does not listen. Three-year-olds do not like vegetables. I am tired of her economizing money so that I can lavish effort persuading Carol to eat it.

"She doesn't like it." I say.

"I know. But you're supposed to make them try."

"Who says?"

"I read it. That way she's exposed."

"To hating it. Come on, Frieda. Where is that truly original mind of yours? Think for yourself."

"Well, all right. Don't make her eat it."

"Thank God. You're saved, Carol." We are relieved. Carol looks up at me and brings up the fact that her tummy hurts.

"Mine, too," I say.

"Are you feeling sick, Honey?" Frieda says. She reaches over and rubs her daughter's brow. "Maybe she's got the flu. Come here, Baby." Carol deserts me. She is a sucker for this woman. The rest of the night is spent administering to what I think may be a low-grade tantrum. I understand kids, I realize that now. I often don't feel well myself.

I'm standing in the kitchen and lights flash up the driveway. It's got to be Jeeter. My first contact with my parole officer.

Jeeter comes to the back door and lets himself in. He motions with his head. "Is Frieda here?" "Yeah, she's in the back. Carol's sick."

Now he nods his head the other way, towards the screen door. "Come out here. I want to talk to you."

I follow. We stand in the night air and stare at each other. He's not in his uniform. He looks disguised in regular clothes. He whispers to me, "Did you find out anything?"

"No!" I holler. "I didn't find out a thing." He snarls and mutters for me to shut up. I cross my arms and yell louder. "Virgin birth is a possibility! But we'll need documentation." Jeeter is pissed.

"Daddy?" Frieda comes to the screen door. She towers over this truly pissed man. He hauls himself up, puffing out his chest and running his hands inside the top of his belt. He keeps his eyes on me.

"I'll get you," he hisses under his breath.

"Daddy, what is it? What's the trouble?" Frieda says.

"Nothing." He snaps the screen door open, trying to knock me off the stoop with it. I try to get inside and he grabs me by the shirt and throws me out into the yard. "Git, ass hole. What were you doing in the house, anyway?" He yells at Frieda, "What was he doing in the house?"

"Daddy, go home. I don't want to argue with you in front of Tom."

"Who in the hell cares about him?"

I am no longer a reasonable man moving in the direction I am propelled. A crazy agitation seizes my brain and throws me back. I get into his face half way up the stoop.

Jeeter tucks his chin. "Get out of here." He's disgusted.

"No. You get out of here. I am going inside and get my desert."

"Get in the spring house," he says.

"I'm not going anywhere." I push past him. Jeeter falls off the stoop into the garden bed. It's purely accidental. He catches himself on the side of the house and looks up at me. My mind is accelerating at a reckless speed. God, please give me life without reason, I need some liquid peace, Amen.

"I think I'll see how far this will go," Frieda says. She has the screen door closed on both of us. The metal hook clicks down. She puts her arms akimbo on her Amazon hips.

Jeeter is bullying his way out of the garden. But he's moving slow, saying "I told you to get the hell out of here and I meant it. Now I'm going to be patient, Tommy..."

"Look, this is her house. I was invited in."

He's trying to get up the stoop, but he's a little stiff. If I back down now I'm dead. He moves up on me with all the intensity of a boar. I imagine him pushing me through the screen and tusking me to death on the living room floor. I am no physical match.

Frieda slams the back door against the screen and turns the light out on us. His eyes are still coming at me. I purse my lips and smack at the air. "It's dark. You can kiss me now."

He's breathing into my face. "Aren't we getting cocky."

"Well, if you really want that, but it's only our first date. I'll get out my cocky, if you'll get out yours."

"Eat shit you little mother fucker." His breath is burning my face. But my mind is cooling. I feel happy, even giddy. I've known Jeeter all my life. I don't dislike him at all. I am, according to him, every dirty thing under the sun and moon. But his anger is backing down. "Stay out of my daughter's house."

He leaves, slamming his car door for show. I am standing in the dark on a warmer night. A few faint katydid whir in the distance. Nothing surrounds us for miles. I shiver, not from the outside, but from inside: a release. Frieda opens the door.

"You still here?"

I look out over the immensity of black. "Why else did you open the door?"

"Don't mind my Dad."

"I didn't."

I can feel her presence without looking at her. I am aware of an intensity of ordinary things. She has smell, body heat, accompanied by subliminal sounds like hair moving across the top of her shoulders, clothes rustling. "Well. See you in the morning."

"Come out here, Frieda. I want to talk to you."

She hesitates. Comes out and hesitates again. She is unsure. I take her hand, she pulls it away, embarrassed. When I take it again she lets me hold it, drooping it consciously, letting me have my way without being party to it. I lead her down towards the creek.

"I can't leave the house. Carol..." she says as she stumbles after me.

"She'll be all right."

"Just tell me what it is."

"We're going to have sex down by the creek."

"No, we're not." She yanks her hand away and starts back to the house.

"Oh, yes we are." Even mentioning it absolutely thrills me. I grab her around the waist. She kicks back and laughs.

"Get off me, you jerk. I wouldn't touch you."

It's not her, I want to make love to myself. That's usually the way it is, isn't it? I want to feel like silk inside. The smell of skin, the gritty sound of hair.

"You don't have to do anything."

She turns around and I let go to look her in the eye.

"Oh, I don't get to touch your almighty body?" she snarls. "What do you want, me to watch or something? You turd."

I lean to kiss her and she puts her hand on my face and pushes it back. I drop my zipper and fish for it. "Yeah. I need a witness." It's hard and sticks out into the night air. The feel of it straining outward, exposed, sends waves of pleasure up from my belly. And there is fear, a breathless, God-wonderful fear. My chest can't rise or fall without effort, because she is standing there and she is not afraid. A mild look of disgust perhaps, but curiosity, too, and a benign acceptance of foolhardiness.

"Ho-hum. Can I go now?" Frieda simpers.

"You're beautiful." I cup one hand around the back of her head.

"No, I'm not. But neither are you." She wrestles her head free. "If you don't mind. I prefer someone who gives a shit about me," and looks down. "It's very nice. It is, Tommy. Now, put it back or don't. I could care less. I'm going inside."

"Make it. Just for the fun of it." I try to get a hand back on her again but she knocks it to the side. "Come on. It feels so good." I massage away.

"Jesus," she scowls. "Get out of here. My, God, I don't believe it. I screw who I like." Frieda starts to karate chop the air in front of my penis. I start jumping. "No, no. You're right, Tommy. Let me give you a hand job. That's what I'm here for."

I run in the dark, trying not to laugh and lose it. She chases me, thunking me on the back. I have to let go of my body if I'm going to get anywhere. I whip around and embrace her.

"What is it? Think fat girls will do anything?" She socks me in both ribs. This entire family is a bunch of physical brutes. I back up and butt her against the chest, but she's not going over.

"I thought you were wholly unto thy self. Never mind what anybody else thinks. Miss Wonderful. Beautiful." I finally wrestle a kiss onto her neck. She smells clean, like soap.

"Oh, now you're playing it back to me. I never should have told you. Trusted you." Huff, huff. She's trying to reach down and grab me. I hop backwards, with my butt out, my arms under hers, fending her off with my elbows. It's like we're dancing something from the twenties. I can't stop laughing and it empties my stomach, all of me, wears me out. She relaxes suddenly and stands up straight and still. We watch each other for a minute.

"Sex between friends?" I ask.

She kneels down in front of me and puts her hands on my pants. She wants to, making all the air around her taut. Hold your breath, short of exploding. She hasn't touched my skin yet and I wait, frozen. Her mouth slips over me warm, then hot and deep. I collapse, pull out and bend over her, practically covering her up. She slides her head from beneath my arm and lays it on my shoulder.

"Wait. Just wait." That's all my mind can think to say. I don't love her. I've never loved anybody and it fills me full of sorrow at his moment. I've lost what I had.

"This is stupid. Forget it," she says, pulling away. I watch her going towards the house, hear her moving across the grass.

I want to put this image on her brain of who I am. She is only getting bits and missing pieces, the fear of oblivion rears up as my background. What she can create on a quilt, I need to create for a mind. When I go down the road to nowhere, Frieda will say, "That's not true. I knew Tommy and he was..."

 

It's been four days and we've hardly spoken. She doesn't look at me. At first I tried to make a big show of it and wave wildly at her when I saw her in the kitchen window or wiggle my eyebrows over dinner. This morning she served me on the stoop. I thought taking off my shirt would help. Hot work, sweat glistening, but my body has gone to rot. She doesn't let me see Carol as much. Maybe she thinks I'm a pervert. I'm left alone out here and I don't like it. I think I've hurt her and I don't know how to stop it. Her not talking to me is giving me the jitters. But it can be solved, it can be solved.

 

It's late afternoon. She comes out and sits on the stoop, dragging her quilt behind her like a baby blanket. She is sewing. In and out, in and out. Her lips are pinched and eyes resolute, looking downwards.

I'm testing for dryness. The Sackcrete is solid, wall straight. I can walk back and forth punching it with a stick all day.

"Hey."

No answer.

"Hey, Frieda."

She ignores me. Only her eyes come up, cool.

"We're ready to back hoe."

She mulls this over with a certain amount of contempt in the tilt of her head, the set of her shoulders. One stitch, two stitch. Without looking at me. "I can't afford to rent a backhoe. You'll have to do it by hand."

"What's this quilt for, my burly beauty?"

"Fuck you."

Ahh, interest. "Will it be Midnight Encounters?"

This gets her. She looks up, furious. "Yeah, I can see that one. But I don't think I have cloth limp enough. If I run out of needles can I use your dick?" she smirks.

I've got her now. Come on, my goddess of the jungle, tamer of wild and dangerous beasts. "Well, my darlin' girl. Whether something is a needle or not just depends on the size of the haystack."

"You make one more damn crack..." She's getting up, the quilt is sliding onto the ground.

"Hey, Frieda, Frieda. I love you. And when your daddy comes by, I'm going to tell him I'm Carol's father." I hunch my hips.

She pretends to spit.

"He'll believe me."

"Like hell, he will."

"You'll say it's none of your business, Dad. Because it gets him and you love it." I'm coming at her. She is stiff with fury. "Then I'll say, leave her alone. I'm the father, she didn't want to tell you. I make love to her every night. We wrap ourselves up in this quilt and do it in front of the fireplace. And when she howls, I howl back."

I'm moving up on her slowly. She's ready for me. I may have to wrestle her to the ground. I think she sees it in my face. She is watching me closely. I imagine her going over, trying to slug me in a last ditch effort. She doesn't understand that I am under immense pressure. And I will sit on her for a very long time. I have things I would like to tell her.

But dammit, she has started smiling at me. I am defenseless against this woman. I may have to surrender. I have heard that one can build endurance in captivity even when one has given one's self up as lost.

 

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