E
Oct/Nov 2004 fiction

Greta Garbo's Hair Was Made in Egypt

by Tim Keane


Robert watches Mr. Clancy, who's like an animal, walking on his knees in the kitchen.

Robert likes to watch. Life is a zoo with animals free. Mr. Clancy's arms are hairy and pink-red, and blue veins show in the bald patches of his skin. Veins like blue rivers.

Veins are rivers. And blood's red water.

Rolling up his sleeves, Mr. Clancy kneels, searching the bottom cabinets, his white hair messed like a hurricane made it that way. With his body half inside the cabinet, he shouts words Robert can barely hear.

"Where's your Dad hide the Jamesons?"

"Only Ma knows," Robert says.

Mr. Clancy slides backward out from under the cabinet like a turtle going back under a second shell. "Well, 'Only Ma knows' doesn't help me much, little demon."

Robert asks Mr. Clancy if there could ever be a drink-potion that would give supernatural powers, like grace gives supernatural powers. "And what powers would you try to get, if you could, Mr. Clancy?"

"Patience," Mr. Clancy says. "I'm out on that." Lifting a green bottle out of the top cabinet, he sings in a hillbilly voice, "Praise the Lord, I say, praise the good Lord Jesus."

Pouring a drink, Mr. Clancy tells how driving down there through Tennessee when he was working for the mines, that the Dixies had white crosses stuck in their hills. "Crosses, big as estates. Enormous, ominous-like crosses, just planted down there in a field in the middle of nowhere." He pours another half a glass, sniffing it before gulping it down, then pats his hair, as if patting your hair is proper manners after you drink a glass that quickly.

Robert shows Mr. Clancy the drawing of the green boat with Pepi sleeping off the side. "That's me. That's my bed. And that's my cat."

"How's this vessel a bed?" Mr. Clancy asks, pouring another drink. "A bed in the water is it? How's a man manage such a trick?"

"My bed is a bed and a boat," Robert says. "That's how I have a dream. Beds turn into boats after you fall asleep. You don't know that?"

"No, I don't know. A bed is one thing, a boat is another."

"I make my own rules about that," Robert says. "Things are both."

Mr. Clancy nods and smiles. "I take you on your word 'cause I like your Ma a lot, and plus I think you've some clever quirks, really. Odd, but you're an honest kid. Am I wrong? Honest?"

Robert hardly knows what all that asking about honest means, so he asks Mr. Clancy, "You know my father's gone, for good, right?"

Mr. Clancy frowns, licking red-orange drops off the edge of his glass. "Don't talk. Draw. Draw some men where this bed-boat vessel of yours goes." Mr. Clancy turns the radio knob on, and voices and songs crack and fizzle until a serious voice comes in, clear, as if the man in the radio might be talking from the wall over Mr Clancy's head, a slow voice in the radio talking about a rocket test. Not a spelling test or a math test. A rocket test, in the desert. A rocket launched with white mice. Who gets to take that kind of wild test? Experiments in gravity, the radio says. "Effects of gravity."

"My father's gone for good," Robert says over the voice from the radio. "You know that, Mr. Clancy?"

"Gone. Is that the case? And gone where to?"

"My mother told him to go to his hussies."

"She said that, did she?"

"She told him Brooklyn hussies."

"Oh Jesus, Robert, don't be literal. She didn't mean for him to truly go there."

"That's not where he is, anyway."

"Well, why don't you enlighten an old man and tell me where your dear father is gone to, then?"

"I'll draw the place for you."

Robert uses the yellow pencil, sketching a line fast, tracing out a thick triangle with a shaded line at the side. He draws a black door in the corner of the pyramid and rounds out a depiction of the Bast God with the cat head. Bast, guarding the pyramid door, with black human arms with big, flowing muscles—black, wavy—and then the long, strong legs and feet so flat on the ground you could never knock Bast down, never, no matter how hard you shoved. Using the yellow pencil, he colors in the pyramid till it's brighter than a flower.

"He's in this, a pyramid jail," Robert says. "I put him there. He's punished for life."

"Your father's in this triangle here, is he?"

"Yes. But my mother doesn't know. Keep it our secret. She thinks he's with Brooklyn hussies. What's hussies?"

"A hussy's a woman. A woman who knows what she wants," Mr. Clancy says, shaking his glass, the water in his glass swirling gold and red. "A woman who knows what she wants and takes it, as opposed to a tight woman, like my old lady. Sealed tight as Fort Knox. So what did they, or was it you, or whoever, the powers that be, your cat-man there, what did this whoever put your Dad in the slammer for?"

"I put him there."

"What did you put him there for?"

"For being who he is," Robert says. "Because I wish he wasn't alive, really. You don't need fathers. Just like you don't need schools and rules. So, he's trapped in this pyramid jail for life."

Mr. Clancy leans back in his chair, his hands behind his head, his elbows sticking out, pointy, like wings for his head. "You don't mean that. But I know the sentiment. My old man was… Well, let's leave it at that. I'm happy my old man was and now isn't. It was no bee-glad glade, I tell you that. I took blows from an old school navy-man, my old man. But you'll take them, too. This is the lot we've as sons. So you dream up and draw a few fancies like this pyramid jail thing of yours to get yourself through the rough road, but you know, you grow up, you grow out of that sort of madness about no fathers and all that. You take the good and the bad; this is the hard truth of life." He runs his finger along the edge of the glass and then plays with the bottle cap, moving it around his glass like he's thinking about something that happened so long ago, he has to make circles here on the table to get the memories back.

"I don't take the bad," Robert says. "That's my own private rule. If you could draw as good as I can, you could make rules, too."

"Well the rule is, it's time you be gone to bed. Your mother gave me the strict marching order, nine o'clock sharp now. Look at the hour." Mr. Clancy shifts to get up, pushing the bottle cap away, and Robert takes the drawing back and tells him don't worry, he can tuck himself into bed alone.

"Sure?"

"Sure, yes, Mr. Clancy."

"Well, it's no engineering marvel, tucking in. Knock yourself out then. Not literally, though."

 

Robert closes the door, slipping into bed without saying prayers, taking his shirt off to feel the cold of the sheets. He can see Dad chained to a wall inside that pyramid jail.

But he'd rather think of something that glows, or tickles, soft, like a girl. Something white.

Like the spinning girl's white legs in the store. Her white tights. He can see himself help the girl sneak to the emergency door in the back of the store, an escape—every single building except pyramids has an escape door, even a clothing store. It's a rule, for fires, for quick escape, which is where he and the spinning girl can sneak out, through that door and go two doors down into Woolworth's, go in by the back door, sneaking up to the bird cages and that fat salesman in the pet section with the toothpick, the man who looks like a boar. The man can lift the girl up so she can see the parrot, and the girl will laugh because the man's so ugly, but he's tall enough for her to reach the cage, where she lets the gray African parrot named King Kong out. And King Kong, with those long white-gray wings, flies out, flying toward the front of the store, and perches on top of a display case as if it's a tree, and the bird waits till the morning when the men with those guns bring the money into the store, opening the glass door too fast so that like a crazy surprise, King Kong escapes, flying right out of Woolworth over the heads of the men with the money bags, gliding into that park, the park with the huge overweight bees, where he can bring the girl, where he sat with Ma eating ice cream cones today. And not making a mess except for the river of chocolate ice cream that ran down Ma's fingers, and she licked the ice cream off her own hand and giggled as if they were in school together. Playing hooky, is what Ma said. Above their heads was the mimosa tree. And when that tree gets too boring for the King Kong parrot, he'll fly over to the school that looks like a church, where older kids go, the genius college, and he can even fly further than that. There's just no rules for birds. They're ready every second to fly from here to anywhere, and you couldn't follow if you tried.

 

When he wakes up, he hears whistling and quick laughing. Peeking out in the hard light, he sees Mr. Clancy dancing with an invisible lady. Mr. Clancy kisses the air as his arms sway to the music from the radio, horns and drums turned loose in the air, a slow lady singing through the horns, deep, and Mr. Clancy mumbles to the lady he's dancing with and lets her fall far in his arms, bending forward and holding her, almost touching the kitchen floor as he kisses her face and brings her up again, laughs at himself, or her, again, whistling. "Whatever you desire, my dear. I can turn water into champagne for you." The green bottle on the table is half empty, and it reminds Robert of the story about the bottle neck that got dropped from a balloon and ended up as only a piece of itself, a water jar in the bird cage. On the kitchen table there are torn bits of gold paper and an ashtray and a loaf of bread with a big knife sticking out one end like a tail. The horns and drums from the radio are loud.

He asks Mr. Clancy, could he lower the radio?

Mr. Clancy stares back at him like he forgot he wasn't alone. "Sure, go on back," he says. "My mistake. Got caught up in the party here."

Robert thanks him and hurries back into bed as the music in the kitchen goes quiet. He wonders will Mr. Clancy still dance with the lady even with the music low?

Mr. Clancy knocks on the door and creeps in, a shadow almost, tiptoeing, his boots squeaking. "I am awful sorry about the radio waking you, Robert." As he talks, he smells like medicine, like Dad, but he's shorter and his voice is calm. "Sorry I woke you, really. But keep it between you and I, hey? Or your mother will tell my old lady, and you can predict how that will go. Our secret, then?"

Robert says yes, secret, and they shake hands. The hand feels slippery and thick, like Ma's hands after cooking eggs.

Standing in the doorway with Pepi rubbing against his legs, Mr. Clancy looks like he might cry. His shoulders are low, like hunching, as if being in the dark makes him stoop. Bad posture.

He tells Mr. Clancy that lady in the kitchen, the one he was dancing with, was pretty.

"You liked her, too?" Mr Clancy asks. "What did you like most?"

"She fit in your arms, perfect."

"She did at that, didn't she? Greta Garbo that was. Great dancer. Legs made in heaven, eyes made in hell. And that blonde hair of hers. God only knows where that was made."

"In Egypt," Robert says. "Where that yellow pyramid is that I drew. Yellow is their favorite color, for Egyptians. I saw it in the E Book." Robert climbs out of bed and pulls the E Book out from under the bed and, passing Mr. Clancy, he reaches up and turns the light switch on. Mr. Clancy squints hard and pretends to care as Robert flips the pages to show the Bast God, the other Egyptian gods, too, in green and yellow and the black and white pictures of the pyramids.

Mr. Clancy nods. "Egypt it is. I'll make a note. Greta Garbo's hair was made in Egypt. Gold, I'd say it is they fancied, not yellow."

"So is Greta Garbo still out in the kitchen?" Robert asks. "Is she going to dance with you even though the radio music is on low?"

"She is, Robert. But you know she's flirting with every man in the room. What's a man to do?" Mr. Clancy laughs at himself and says he should go attend to her. "She's waiting for me to buy her another drink. So I must go. Can't leave a leading lady waiting. Sweet dreaming, Robert. And thanks."

Robert pulls the sheet up, setting the E Book on its side like a doll. He asks Mr. Clancy, thanks for what?

"For seeing what I see," Mr. Clancy says, switching off the light. "Greta Garbo. Our little talk here made my night." Without closing the door, he leaves, swaying slightly, snapping his fingers, and Robert can hear him asking, does she want the next round on the rocks?

Greta Garbo. She must be sitting with her legs crossed, like Ma does when there's company, so comfortable that her shoe hangs off her foot. She must have a glass half-full just like Mr. Clancy's. His voice is strong over the light music from the radio. "Toast? Can you take it without ice? Great, let's have a kiss, then," Mr. Clancy says.

From the kitchen Robert hears a sloppy kissing noise. Peeking, he sees Mr. Clancy making fish lips to the air as he raises his glass. "Nice, that. Now raise your glass, love. That's it. Here's to one last glass, to the good life, to the straight-up way it is."

 

Previous Piece Next Piece