Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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Earnest Ray found her in a restaurant stuffing oyster crackers into her purse. An hour after she met him, she was sitting on his lap, running her fingers through his hair; taking in the breadth and width of the big front porch that runs around his four-story house; playing up to his mama; and feeding tuna salad to his calico cat.
It’s best not to judge. Becky and her brother Eddie were abandoned, packed in a sour-smelling grapefruit crate, shoved under the hacked-up, thick-waxed, kid-initialed table by the big front doors of the Arrow Creek post office; twins, the two of them not a month old. Becky used to wonder why not a hospital or a church; was their mother too stupid to think of that? But it doesn’t matter now, because Becky’s got brains to spare. She’s here, and it beats the hell out of the last twenty-three years.
She’s singing along with the Beatles. They’re singing “Don’t let me down,” and it’s tearing her apart. If only she could marry George Harrison, she’d show him what dedication was, what coming through really meant.
She looks out the patio doors and up at the great big yellow moon above the trees. There are two rings around it, the inner one blue-gray and pale, the outer a haze of shimmering rust. The record stops and she flips it over. It starts with a song about revolution. She feeds it to every cell in her body, spinning it out like she’s making a web, threading all the parts of her together — some for you, body, some for you, brain, a little for you, soul baby. She stores it for the lean times.
Earnest aches to stomp those records and flush the pieces. He hears Beatles in his head at work, and today his head was so damn filled with revolution he mailed statements to three wrong addresses. But he can’t stomp the records; they belonged to Eddie.
When they were three years old, Becky and Eddie were shipped to separate foster families. Eddie grew into a serious young man. He did research on their adoption, and found Becky when they were fifteen. After that, they saw each other a lot.
Four Easters ago, Eddie wrote Becky a letter from the top of a hill he was guarding at Dakto. He said in the letter that he was eating the chocolate eggs she sent him, that he was reading the book by Will Durant she sent him, Our Oriental Heritage, and wondering if books would ever hold the same importance for him again; but then he said, “No sweat today, Charlie is taking the day off.” He said he kept getting a “weird” feeling, like he was looking down on the hill from a cloud, or like he was the cloud. He had to tell somebody that and she was the only one he was sure would just say, “Yeah, no kidding?” and mean it. He said he read that Albert Einstein kept a copy of The Secret Doctrine by Madame Blavatsky on his desk at all times. He said Madame Blavatsky was a nineteenth-century spiritualist. He said he bought new Beatles records on R&R in Thailand, and then he said he loved Becky very much. A few days after he wrote the letter, there wasn’t enough of him to pack up and ship home. They sent his Beatles records instead.
Earnest’s mama, Eula Jane, is another one who hates Becky’s music. She’d ten times rather be hearing Hank Williams or shiny Wayne Newton. She said this to Earnest. “It ain’t like she’s a teenager. Party’s over. When I was twenty-three I had me a dead husband, three babies, and a farm to run. I’ll tell you about tribulation. . . .”
Eula Jane, and Earnest, and Dobbs (they call him Grandaddy), and Becky all live together. Eula put (she says pushed) Earnest through Oklahoma State so he could become an accountant and be somebody. Whenever he is feeling down she reminds him, “You are somebody, Earnest Ray Dobbs, baby. You are educated, and you are somebody.”
She wants to strangle Becky when the records are playing thunder-loud and it’s Saturday and she needs to stretch out on the sofa and nap. But then she gets to thinking how it was before Becky came, when she had to take care of Dobbs herself.
Before Becky there were no-count ninnies who came and went at two-week intervals. Becky has lasted a year, and Eula hopes Earnest will get smart and get serious, the main reason being that there are so many diseases going around and Earnest was never a cautious child.
“Time to settle down, Babe,” Eula tells him.
Eula sells makeup and jewelry. The makeup is called Naturally You. This year she won the silver Buick LeSabre, and with Becky caring for Dobbs, she can see new Buicks lined clear up to the end of the world, when she will drive her latest one straight into heaven and park next to God, right-hand side.
Becky gives the old man his shots and sweet-talks him at the same time. He never knows what hit him. She loves that old Grandaddy and she loves this house, and it doesn’t hurt a thing that Eula is loaning her money for business school at only six-and-a-half percent.
“You never know when the good things you do will come back to you,” Eula says to Becky. “Maybe you have smoked dope and dropped that citric stuff” — she calls it that — “and God knows what-all, and of course it wasn’t any of it really your fault, Sweet, we all sin, but here you are now, serving many fine purposes. Everybody benefits.”
The dean at the business school says Becky has got a natural aptitude for the new thinking machines. Earnest tells Eula and she says, “Well, attitude is sure important, Baby, I know that better than anybody, I guess, but I can tell you what really gets you through this old life, Honey.” She looks straight at Becky. “It’s how you look, Babe. Now, if you would wear a tad of my blue indigo shadow on them pretty blue eyes, and. . . .”
“Aptitude, Mama!” Earnest snaps.
“Aptitude, with a ‘P.’ ”
“Right, Sugar.” She nods at him and keeps on at Becky, “. . . and a little rosy blush-on, know what I mean?”
Earnest tells Becky computers are the future; someday there will be nothing but computers, and there is huge, HUGE money in them. He wants that for her: huge money, and huge success. “Stick with computers, Babe, you could go far,” he says. He’s all the time telling her that.
In 1962 Earnest paid a pretty penny for this big old house. It sits up on a hill that is mostly bedrock. A quarter of a mile away, the Arkansas River chomps its way southeast. Arrow Creek runs through Earnest’s six acres and empties into the Arkansas.
The title says “Earnest Ray Dobbs.” He owns the wood, the brick, the mortar, and the land. He owns the trees that circle the land, mostly blackjacks. The soul of the place, that belongs to Dobbs, Earnest’s Grandaddy. He bought it for a few songs.
Most nights from April to October, Dobbs has sat spraddle-legged on his windowsill plunking on the fiddle that a gypsy gave him in 1935, singing crazy little ditties that he made up as he went along. Lately, the windowsill is unsteady under Dobbs. He plays only once or twice a week from out of his rocking chair. Afternoons he squats in the red dust and observes life in the corroded foundation of the house. There are scorpions here, termites with serious lives, roly-polies, June bugs, spiders, and ants. He might slip in and out of a little dream or two. “Maybe they ain’t dreams,” he’s told Becky, “sposen they ain’t?” If he comes up with chigger bites on his legs, Becky will cool them off with cold witch hazel and never tell Eula and Earnest.
Becky’s classes at the school are on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Saturdays she drives back to Tulsa to study at the library. That’s what she says, but what she really goes back for is to see the creature at the museum.
She stands in front of the display and after a while falls back into another world. A field mouse, gray, string-tailed, looks up from synthetic grass into the eyes of the predator. The pterodactyl, bone-bleached, deathless, hangs suspended from thin steel cables. He is tilted at an angle, his skull pointed down. Pure need is leading him. His torso is small, human-looking. His spindly legs stick straight out in back, like a afterthought. It’s the skull that’s important: the sockets where eyes once were, the teeth, the killing brain. Everything he is knows he will get the mouse.
By noon the sidewalks in Tulsa are scorching. Becky walks across the street with a double-dip cone, the sticky blacktop grabbing at her sandals. She crosses one more street to the First National Bank of Tulsa. He’s there, singing blues, mean and low-down. He wanders over to her when he’s on break and makes easy talk with her. He’s done that before, like he recognized her from sixth grade or something. She’s wearing the denim jacket that Eula calls “tacky, tacky,” and blue jeans. The jacket belonged to Eddie, so Becky doesn’t mind that it’s hot. Her right hand is jammed into a pocket and she feels ice cream running over her left wrist. Lord, Lord, he’s sweet as new butter. Earnest always says, “It’s OK to look.”
He’s thirty-two and his name is Sam. Evenings he plays at The Brick and The Gourd. He played for Judy Collins years ago. She wouldn’t go out with him. He’s done time, and used to like to march: S.D.S., demonstrations. The statute of limitations in Louisiana for defacing a government building is still not up. There are others, one in Virginia, one in Alabama, two in Tennessee. In Alabama he defaced a government agent, so they said. Sam said it was a blow to the right ear in self-defense. He was charged with and later convicted of assault, harassment, and attempt to assault with a tractor. Also grand theft auto, because the tractor was stolen. His past sneaks into his dreams the way night falls, the way dawn comes. He falls through holes filled with tiny black spiders, and when he wakes he hears whimpers.
She taps on the door but Dobbs doesn’t answer. She opens it and feels the cool breeze coming from the window that’s open clear to the top. His hair flashes white under the thin blue curtains that flutter over it. He frowns at her. The hair is brushed and clean and makes a cry float up in her throat, but she slaps it down.
“Sorry I’m late.” Then she kisses his cheek, and is prickled by new whiskers. He rolls one pant leg almost to the top of his thigh; she turns it back once more, rubs the purpled skin with alcohol, then slaps it hard and quick and injects the needle.
They are in front of his heavy, cherry wood dresser. An oval mirror is attached to the back and leans forward a little. In it she sees the sad hunch of his back, the stripes in his clean shirt curving into his trousers. He smells like wintergreen. She sits on a stool in front of him, eye-level with him. The lonely cave of his chest faces her.
“Well, they come up from Sapulpa, thereabouts. They was livin’ in tents and tar paper shacks and little tinny things. Stayed there till cold set in and then they’d scatter, huh, and they’d go in little groups all over, stealin’ fresh-kilt hogs and what-all, and then they’d go south.” Then he stops there for a minute, like always, at the same place in the story.
She lifts his pillows, tosses them, flops them back down, and smoothes the cases. “Went to the museum today. That’s why I’m late. I’m going to take you there, wouldn’t you like that?”
He hasn’t been even a mile from this house in a year. His hand trembles on the arm of the rocker. “They come up into the yard. Walked right in through the screen door.” He spits amber syrup into a can on the floor. It has old newspapers under it, in case he misses. He scoots closer to the window and stares out. “Come in like they was goin’ to a party, which they damn surely was. She says . . .” — he wipes at his eyes — “she says, ‘We got company, Sugar!’ She give ’em all cake! Always called me Sugar, sometimes just Shug.” He pats his fiddle, which has sunk into the space between his legs, and cries a little.
“I saw that thing like a bird again,” Becky says. “That pterodactyl, what you call it. You have got to see that!”
“Coloreds had to be out of town before sundown and that meant gypsies, too. Sun was slidin’ down behind the blackjacks. They was afraid to go on back. ‘Coloreds’ll steal you blind,’ folks would say. ‘Throw charms over you, weave songs and words around you, steal the thoughts right out your head,’ they said. But she says, ‘Stay the night, you’re safe with us!’ I throwed me a goddamn fit, ’course, but one of them gypsy fellers give me this.” He runs his vein-knotted fingers over the strings. Becky hears the thin wires cry a little. “ ‘Thems ain’t even got a home,’ Alma says, ‘but lookie how they dance!’ We made peach ice cream. All of us danced our fool heads off. When we woke, they was gone. We was sixty then. Life is short, Darlin’ girl.”
Earnest is gone so much. He just snaps up his three sample cases of industrial chemicals and he’s down the road. He quit the accounting job three months ago because it wasn’t him. Eula was heartsick. “Don’t wait up for me, Babe,” he says to Becky. Lately, she feels strangely happy when he goes, and then feels bad about it. But in a week he will come back and tell her about the UFO he saw, a cigar-shaped disc floating above acres and acres of Kansas wheat. Or maybe a shard of green light that shot across the noon sky, paused, then shot back the other way. He will be in a frenzy about that, but after he has quieted down he will think to kiss her. Then she might say, laughing, grabbing the front of his shirt, “Let’s fuck in the yard tonight.” He will grin and say, “We got a Posturepedic mattress, girl!”
One Sunday morning it is one of those days when the sun is gleaming and the air so fresh you drink it like water. It puts her in mind of every good thing that ever happened to her. Eula is at church, Earnest Ray is taking a shower, and Dobbs is under the peach tree watching ants crawl over a locust shell.
She gets it in her head to drive over to the produce stand and buy fresh strawberries for breakfast. She is clean out of money, so she pulls open Earnest’s underwear drawer where he keeps his wallet and his bikini underwear. She takes out a five-dollar bill and then she sees the card. It is gold with black lettering. It says “Vasectomy Unlimited.” Behind the card is a slim plastic envelope and inside that is a small gold pin shaped like a pair of angel wings. It has “V.U.” engraved on it. She remembers reading about this in some trashy newspaper. It’s a kind of club. Women at conventions can tell who belongs to the club by those little gold wings. She recalls how when she first read the article she thought it was too silly to be true.
She hears the water turn off, and Earnest whistling.
She has taken to watching the news every night. Twice. Once at 6, again at 10. She watches the world get worse. Tonight is special: another Nazi war criminal has been captured in Brazil. He’s eighty-six. There is a never-before-shown film of Nazi atrocities. Earnest Ray says he has seen it.
“Tell me why do they want to show that again?” Eula says. “Why? It’s so horrible, horrible.”
“A lot of people like to watch this trash,” Earnest says. He snaps the television off. “Let sleeping dogs alone, I say.”
“Amen,” from Eula. She has joined the Church of Christ of the Holy Blood and wishes she could get Earnest and Becky to go. Becky has gone a time or two but only for the potluck. Religion, Becky says, begins and ends in her stomach. Eula says the main thing about that church is how it gets you to think positive. Focus on the good things. It has changed her life, and is probably responsible for the Buick. Earnest says he is going out for a drink. Becky knows that he knows she knows.
Eula says the old woman who lived in the house before Earnest bought it was a Nazi spy, and her spirit still haunts the attic. Becky likes to think so. Later on that night, Becky sits on the ledge under the attic windows, listening to the wind and the rain whumping down; they whump down a lot now because it’s May, and because some things you can count on. Then she feels the old woman’s spirit and feels it again a week later when a twister is humming overhead and the world is quiet as death, and she feels Eddie, too, and all the dead of all the wars ever. She wonders what Sam is doing.
One Saturday he asks if she wants coffee. They talk about him mostly, about his past. He says that what he did to make the world better was not worth the price, which ended up being a girlfriend, his folks, and his best friend. He say he’ll be leaving in a week. He’s nice. She’s nice. Everybody’s so goddamn nice. She talks to Dobbs about Sam. “He’s nice, you’d like him. He’s a musician, like you. He’s had bad times. . . .”
She’s polishing the mirror, watching Dobbs in it. Suddenly it’s like a switch is flipped, and he tells the story again, word for word. “They come up from Sapulpa . . . ,” he says. During his pauses she goes on talking, the two of them competing for air space.
Suddenly he stops. His lips twitch. His crackled, chicken-skin hands flutter in his lap. When the words finally come out he’s shouting at her. “What’s back of you, girl? Nothin’. You got any idee what’s ahead? Earnest Ray Dobbs ain’t right for you, you ain’t right for him, and truth is, you’re too damn skinny for me.”
A long time ago she lived with a couple of guys, one at a time. One broke things. The other had to sleep with the radio on. She’ll leave Earnest a note. Maybe it could say, “Don’t wait up for me, Babe,” or maybe, “I have gone far.”
Sam is leaving on a bus to Nevada at 5:30 sharp. Becky will drive him to the big terminal in Tulsa, where she’ll look at the yellow departure board and pick out someplace to go. Sam is smart, she thinks. All those times they had coffee together he just wanted human companionship, no bone-jumping, no love me, love me, love me. That was the last thing he needed. He knew then what she knows now, that sex is for rodents, love for fools.
They pass the business school on the way to the station. She’s not sad to leave it. They pass the museum. She checks out his face now and then because it gives her a calm feeling, like she has enough calcium in her body. Enough B-vitamins.
The echoes in the terminal sound like Nazis. Sam is quiet while Becky looks at the board, mumbling off the names of cities in Texas, Missouri, New Mexico.
“I hate Vegas,” he says.
“Yeah, I think I’d hate it,” she says, then thinks it was the wrong thing to say.
“You’ll make the bucks there,” she adds.
“Name of the game,” he says.
“You could go far,” she says, and they laugh because she told him about her note to Earnest.
It’s raining and thundering loudly and she’s beginning to miss Dobbs. Life seems short.
She watches Sam buy his ticket, then she buys one to Santa Fe. She hugs Sam and kisses his cheek, and his blush surprises her. “Take it a day at a time,” he tells her. Then, when his bus is leaving he shouts at her the names of three hotels where he’ll be playing, “Through August!” he says, his mouth wedged in the window opening, suffering the taste of cold metal just for her.
Her bus driver’s face is a square with the corners rounded, his hair a crowd of silver coils, and his eyes pop out. She is the last one on. He takes her ticket and she finds a seat in the back.
The bus moves doggedly along the highway. The rain has stopped. Milky streaks of cloud float out across the worn-out sky; the sun hangs heavy and red. Becky pulls a blanket down from the overhead rack and wraps it around her. She leans back and watches cars go by — old clunkers, polished proud ones, family cars with children’s feet sticking out the windows.
Then she sees the gypsies slipping through the trees. They are dressed in brilliant shades of purple, green, and orange. Some of them are singing “All You Need Is Love” — rat tat tat tat tat through megaphones. Above them the pterodactyl is zooming toward the bus, his skull pointed down, aimed straight at her.