The Story Tree
We were being tested, and it just wasn’t going to go so good.
As with so many times in the past, I had successfully worked my way into a situation, this time onto a land surveying crew, that I didn’t really want in the first place. I had proven my loyalty to the firm, shown my employers and those around me that we were all working for the same goal, just at the point when management decided that they were going to close up shop.
Harkin Sherwin had just celebrated his eighty-seventh birthday, after having been diagnosed with some kind of leukemia that old folks get, and was selling Sherwin Civil Engineering over to a company in Killeen. Harkin’s daughter, Doris, a pure, Christian woman, had been the daughter that any son ought to have been, following in her father’s footsteps. She, in managing her father’s business, had done everything, except to become a civil engineer on paper, like her dad was. The close family had watched, with the patriarch’s forgiving eye, the 1980s Texas land-grabs all around them, their business changing from an Old West-style of communal trust, to a more current, money-oriented attitude of what the word “civil” meant in “civil engineering,” namely, civil suits. Their field had gone the way of neighborly, local lawyers leaning over hurricane lamps, in the homes of clients unable to pay, into legalities bespoken by real estate conglomerates and insurance bookies.
The buy-out company in Killeen wanted to see what we had, as far as our road crew. That looked unfortunate for them.
At the point of the sale, it was only Coby Beckett and I.
When I began working for Mr. Sherwin, I hadn’t really intended to make my mark there. I was living in a rented house in Austin, and I had money coming in from a former job, which owed me thousands of dollars in arrears. I had few monetary worries.
One Saturday, Tommy Beckett, who was the boyfriend of one of the strippers who lived at my house, asked me if I’d help him at his job, that he hadn’t finished on Friday, but had to come in complete by Monday. Of course I would, I told him, and he said they’d pay me some thirty bucks in cash on Monday morning. We went to a newly constructed house in the suburbs, and I had to hold up a prism on a rod for him to, what he referred to as, “shoot pictures.” I had to keep the bubble in the center of a same-sized circle on the rod, holding the prism straight up. He said I did a good job, and we had some beers back at home.
On Monday, I went with Tommy Beckett to the Sherwin office to collect my three-hour wage. We stopped on the way to pick up Carlos, the third man on Coby and Tommy’s crew. Coby Beckett, Tommy’s father, was already there. We were, apparently, forty-five minutes late. Mr. Harkin Sherwin came out of his office, past his daughter’s desk, and put his chin to his chest. He then looked up and drew back his elderly, proud shoulders.
Mr. Sherwin went into a diatribe that was stern, yet benevolent. He said in such a way that his crew ought to be thankful for having a job. They ought to know and be respectful of the element of responsibility; he had, he said, been their age, once. He knew how it was, he said, so he would not hold them to his own highly developed standards. He had fallen into his profession in the Army Corps of Engineers and had found something he could enjoy after the war. He could understand that maybe Tommy and Carlos would not necessarily choose his work as a vocation – but did they want it now or not?
The boys looked at their feet, and Mr. Sherwin continued that, practically, to begin at 6am and finish at 2pm would take the boys out of the Texas summer heat and give them plenty of time in the evening to drink beer and chase girls.
During Mr. Sherwin’s lecture, Coby Beckett had been playing the off-screen guy, detached, but smirking. This was a lecture he’d have liked to be giving his son. Mr. Sherwin drew down at his crew, “So do you-all think you can do this?”
They-all obediently nodded their heads.
Mr. Harkin Sherwin looked at me.
“Well, how about you?” he demanded.
“I don’t really work for you sir. I did a little something over the weekend, and I’m just here to pick up my money.”
He looked me up and down, and then at his crew. As if to make a challenge at them, that anyone off the street could do what they did, he pronounced, “Do you want to work here? What’s your name?”
“Chester, sir, and yes, I’m sure I do.”
“So get on out of here, and you make sure you get these kids here on time.” I was about ten years older than Tommy and Carlos.
He tried to scowl and half winked at me. He was remembering his liberated youth. We left, and I became the primary gofer and a rod man on their surveying crew.
There was a problem. I did everything I was told, but I did not understand what it was, exactly, I was doing. I asked a thousand questions, but all the answers seemed to come from the sides of the job’s principles, not straightforward. I never got the foundational information which would propel me from ignorance. I got somewhat of a handle on things, but my primary function was to do what I was told without learning why I was doing it. There was some fun stuff: slashing a line of vision through the forest branches and underbrush with a machete, having the rightful run of otherwise private property, learning about the botany, bugs, reptiles and wild mammals of Central Texas, shooting boundaries of ranches in the rural areas, and lots of other things that you just usually don’t get to do on a day-to-day basis.
There was one morning, out at a ranch, and I had a jittery hangover with no stores around to get a few loose beers. They sent me off with the metal detector, a plat, and a shovel to locate some property pins that we’d need to tie into later in the day. I rounded the corner of an outbuilding and came smack into the neck of a seven-foot emu. Its eyes were weird, red, and glaring. It made no sound. I almost screamed. I stumbled backwards and hit my head on a Douglas fir behind me.
Carlos soon left the crew for a job that didn’t require him to get up so early. That meant that Tommy Beckett had to smoke his pot by himself, and that led to occasional erroneous field book entries and missed points, which sent us back to jobsites that should have been completed. He too, eventually tired of the job and moved somewhere out of state, with a family member on his mother’s side.
That left only Coby Beckett and me to do all the incoming work. Coby was irascibly impatient. When we were working together with Tommy, it almost seemed that Coby was competing with me for his son’s attention. He had divorced Tommy’s mother several years before and had wanted to establish a new relationship with his son. He had, in his absent years, done a turn at Leavenworth for bank robbery; although, he called it “bank burglary,” as if not having carried a gun or threatened others in the commission of the crime made him not so bad. He had also, a few years back, undergone quadruple bypass surgery, so he had to rest often, and I had to do all the menial labor, such as carrying the equipment from the truck to the setup, then again between our points, cut line through the underbrush, set points in concrete with the star drill and a six-pound hand sledge, dig around for long-buried rebar property pins, etc.
He posed a selfish attitude that I was the cause of his lost son, that he regarded me as a symbol of his own lost youth and fitness, and he lorded over me his decades of experience as a land surveyor by continuing to withhold information from me, all the while belittling my performance, inexactness, and ignorance. It frustrated him even more, that I would not give in to the temptation to lash back at him, that I was patient, willing, and helpful. That led, actually, to brief periods of kindness and openness from him, followed always by much longer spells of outward, yet internalized distaste for me, my work, and how I presented myself.
This did not go unnoticed, when it came time to sell off the company to the boys in Killeen. The two offices knew that I was doing the schlepping and dirty work of two men. There was the instrument and the tripod, weighing about thirty-five pounds, and then there was the rod with the prism, the shoulder bag of tools, lath and spikes, and the digging of the points upon which to set the lath, spikes and flagging.
I had had some hours with the instrument which shot the points, and so, carefully, slowly, and exactly, I had used those opportunities to where my over-conscientious work was as close to being as precise an angle as anyone’s. Seeing this, the Killeen outfit sent Coby and me out on a three-quarter mile test course for me to close a prearranged property angle on the instrument. If I had to carry it and set it up, they reasoned, why were the old man and I always switching positions? That activity must have eaten up about two hours of any normal day.
Set point, shoot, flip the instrument upside down on its pivot, turn 180 degrees, shoot, set next point, shoot, flip, turn 180, shoot, move, set, flip, turn 180, etc., some twenty times in the property boundary to return to the original point and see how close I was to closing the angle. Coby looked at the calculator that stored all the shots I had taken and then calculated the information he had entered into his field book along the way.
“Well,” he said with the same pedantic disappointment to which I’d become accustomed, “You busted by four thousandths.”
I knew that “busting” an angle was no good, so asked him, “What does that mean?”
His facial overcast lifted, and he beamed a toothless smile.
“It means, if you had got it any better, I woulda’ thought you were cheatin’.”
So I was now an instrument man, an “I-man,” or an “eye-man.” Oh yeah, with no pay raise.
The next good idea that the Killeen office had, was to put Coby and me in the field in their jurisdiction. They had an office in Waco, and they had a big job for Coby and me to prove ourselves rugged, loyal, capable, accurate, under difficult conditions. If we could meet these standards, then maybe we were deserving of their future employ. It’s a sharp thing developed by people who do the hiring; if they can make you quit, they don’t have to pay you unemployment benefits. I had not that in mind. In spite of Coby’s spite, I enjoyed my work. It was unusual, it was active for the body and the mind; you moved on to another location and set of circumstances when each job was done. I liked being itinerant.
Here, they sent us to a tiny town on the plain outside of Waco, a town called, Moody. The municipality was going to install a new sewer system, its first since 1953, and Coby Beckett and I were going to figure out exactly where the old one existed, therefore, how to dig it up, and also to pinpoint what had been installed in the interim, which might give the excavators problems - things like new underground power lines, new homes (“new,” meaning since 1953), cable TV, new pavement, even new roads, easements and right-of-ways that had been restructured through the municipal courts, boundary markers, trees that were now forty-odd years older or hadn’t existed at the last complete run-through... Then we had to tie these in with the plats that had been registered through the county, the municipality, private surveying outfits, warring neighbors, over the past several decades.
We would have to close our angle through the town, encompassing the existing sewer system, giving ourselves modern points to tie into, and then we would run what is known as a “level loop,” marking the exact depth of the sewers and the height of earth above, so that the excavators would know what and where they were digging and how deep. The town and the system were built on a long, wavy slope, so it would be tricky and arduous. The job spanned the month of March on the Texas plain, so it would be windy – hard to keep our rods and instruments perfectly straight – and there would be roving rain, and we couldn’t work in that. It was supposed that it would take us three weeks. We would commute the eighty-odd miles from Austin on Mondays and Fridays and have a motel room in between.
The first Monday, at 5am, we headed out of Austin in the laden company truck, a beefy Dodge Ram, four-wheel drive affair, where, when you’d pull up to a stop light, your ass was at the level of the head of the person in the passenger car next to you. It would take the thing about a quarter-mile on the highway to hit sixty, and further than that to bring it from sixty to a full stop. Coby insisted on driving, and he scared the hell out of me. His reflexes were slow, his head would droop for his cardiological need of many naps, and he had no regard for the vehicle’s necessity for long-distance braking. His helmsmanship was another way of putting his station above mine, pride above peril.
We got to the outskirts of Waco and stopped for breakfast at a place I wouldn’t have chosen. We were an hour ahead of schedule. We looked at the road map and reconfirmed our turnoff to Moody. We located our motel. We ate, got back into the Ram, and descended into the plain. On our way, there were pig farms and destitute households, clapboard churches, trailer homes, and a couple of the most delectable automobile boneyards I had seen in years. One was full only of Fords, from the Model Ts, Model As, through the ‘40s and ‘50s highway cruisers, pick-ups, and no fewer than six 1957 Rancheros, lined up at the front corner, just waiting for the next crazy individual to launch into a five-year restoration project. Some miles down, we came to Moody.
It was, clearly, from its face, a socially stagnant place. People did what they had always done to live there. They got by. I thought immediately, if you had a boy who excelled in football or baseball, two Texas staples, he might have to give up the call of sports for his father’s life on the land. If you had a boy or a girl who was clever enough to go to university, he or she might be stilted into knowing the flawed attempts to do something larger with their lives. God pity the young girl who is only pretty, with high aspirations for bright lights and multitudinous society... Bury your dreams here. Anyhow, we had to tie in to a point, which we had yet to find, off an untrustworthy plat. There was an old dirt road, across a knee-deep river, its, rusted steel trestle now folded underwater, where we would find a brass cap and a benchmark, installed back in the late 1940s by the Army Corps of Engineers. That was the closest accurate point for us to begin our job. The only other one was three miles back up the two-lane road, from which we’d come. A three-mile start to merely tie in to the town was no good. We’d (I would) take our (my) chances tromping through the reeds and finding a place to cross the river, and shoot across it, in about one-tenth the time it would take us to run three miles of mathematical points down the two-lane. Such were, often, our choices.
We found a known point the town side to set up the instrument and tied into a semi-accurate property pin to give us two points of a triangle. I shambled along the riverbank and found a place to cross, with the prism rod, a walkie-talkie, and a shovel. I held the prism and listened for instructions about where our brass cap might be. They are usually on bridges, and there was a concrete abutment about three hundred yards behind me, past the town line. I found it and the cap, but it did not correspond with our points on the other side of the river – I mean we ought to have been in Oklahoma. The clouds had gathered. The wind had whipped up. Rain began to shear down at a forty-five degree angle, and it was not going to abate. We had been three hours or so at the site and had only found a starting point somewhere out in space. At least we knew where to start tomorrow morning. I hustled back, and Coby had put the instrument into the Ram, something he could do, as he was standing next to the tailgate. I got there, soaking wet from my knees down, deposited the prism and the shovel, and we called it a sad work day, even though, with the driving, we had spent seven hours.
After we checked into the motel, nearer the highway than Moody, he showed me again, after so many other times, where he kept his three stashes of nitro-glycerin pills, just in case he should go into cardiac arrest on the job or at a meal, in the truck, or in the motel room. I felt bad for him, because I knew that his physical weakness and this potential yet actual reliance on me was the cause of so much of his bitterness. If he only knew that I wished for us to be equals, to augment each other’s strengths, to share and to overcome each other’s deficiencies. Ah, I thought, fuck him if he doesn’t get it.
When he had passed out on his bed, I wrapped two of his life-saving heart pills in the plastic wrap of one of the sanitized cups left by motel housekeeping and stuck them into the watch pocket of my jeans, to keep them dry and have them on my immediate person. Just in case. That old bastard; I’d show him the first face he needed to see through an oxygen tent. I turned on the TV, loud enough to blot out his inhuman snoring.
I let him sleep until he might leisurely awaken before dinner. He’d want to clear his eyes and his head, take a shower, hopefully change his socks, as I had. There was a Dairy Queen nearby, and that was where Coby chose for us to dine. I watched television back at our room, while he incessantly snored and loudly farted until day was just about to break, and we were off to make up for yesterday’s lost time.
I sloshed through the river with the instrument and the tripod and set it up over the brass cap. We located a property pin that belonged to a farm, the pin, probably not having been reset since the late 1800s. It and another by the old, collapsed bridge tied in perfectly. I found the benchmark for our future level loop, set near the concrete bridge, by the Army Corps of Engineers, and we had successfully identified ourselves. We shot a few safety points, and Coby radioed me to move back across the river, through a meadow of the farm, to where we could pick our location up back in the town. I balanced our $35,000 of equipment through the rocks and flowing water, scooched through a barbed wire fence, and began to cross the lush, dewy meadow.
About halfway across that beautiful piece of pasture, I saw, plop in the middle, a Brahma bull, dozing on his belly in the morning mist. At that moment, he stood, smelling, sensing me. The Minolta instrument was kept in a bright orange case; the tripod over my shoulder was bright yellow, with red stripes. I looked like a picador who had lost his horse. I stopped in my tracks and slowly pulled out the radio.
“Coby,” I whispered, “You see this? What do I do?”
I was halfway across the pasture. I could not drop the instrument case or the tripod. They were more expensive than was I. Forward or backward made no difference at a dead run. Nor could I run with any speed, carrying them toward the rusty barbed wire. The bull’s horns spanned about five feet, and my eyes and his were at about the same level. It was like staring into a dinosaur. The bull snorted and clomped a front hoof into the muddy turf. I’d seen many bull fights in Spain, and this guy was ready.
“Listen, don’t worry,” came Coby’s unassuring, chuckling words. “They’re color blind. Just walk from side to side. Don’t back away from him.”
That made sense, and I knew Coby had southwestern cattle experience, which I lacked. Like facing a threatening dog, I took a deep breath, cleared my mind of all fearful thoughts, and continued perpendicularly past the behemoth, through the barbed wire on the other side, and on to the next point. Coby laughed and swatted me on the back as if this had been some rite of passage. I did not share in his humor. We set ourselves on our way to the day’s work, caught up to yesterday’s failings, and called it quits early enough for him to get in his nap.
Nap, Dairy Queen, TV, persitent snoring and farting, fitful sleep, up just before the sun.
But there was no sun. There was a steady rain, mist, and haze across the plain. We got in the truck and headed toward the highway and a real diner and a newspaper. We listened to the AM radio for the weather forecast. Would it be a wasted day? Apparently so. We ate and went back to the motel and waited again until noon, through the rain, to know that we couldn’t make a workday of it. Coby wanted to relax. I told him I was restless, and could I please have the keys to the truck. If nothing else, I wanted to hit a liquor store and bring a bottle of bourbon back to the motel. It was unspoken, but he knew my intentions. He also knew I’d walk fifteen miles to go get it if he didn’t give me the keys.
“Don’t you go drinkin’ an’ drivin’,” he had to cluck, knowing that I wouldn’t.
I felt like saying, “Don’t you go robbing any banks,” but who needs tactless, witless comebacks?
“Maybe I’ll pick us up a pizza?” I asked.
“No onions and no garlic,” he squinted, handing me the keys.
“Urrr,” and he rolled onto his stomach on his bed. “Put on the Weather Channel.”
I love a new town, and I can usually, successfully smell out the places I’m going to want to frequent. Waco, I thought, was going to be a challenge. At that time, about the only thing that put Waco on the map was the David Koresh/FBI massacre. I didn’t know much else about it, except that it was part of the Texas grab bag of cities. Moody is about 25 miles to the south, and as I was about halfway to the Waco city limits, the rain and the mist abated. Driving, I stuck to the outskirts of town, and I found an area that was somewhat suburban, had a median down the middle of the dissipating highway, lined with non-chain eateries, mom-and-pop retail stores, a couple roadhouse bars, and a busy-looking liquor store. There were, stuck in between these, three baseball diamonds. They, if I had to guess, looked like Little League, then a public park, and one clearly marked as belonging to Baylor University. That one wasn’t as big a stadium as I figured they’d have, but maybe a practice field?
I hit the liquor store and dutifully put the unopened bottle in the back of the Ram, among the equipment. I walked past the roadhouses for future reference, in case there was one that looked friendly. There was a diner that had what looked like homemade pies on pedestals. I went in, and it was clean and homey. I sat at the counter and ordered a cheeseburger deluxe and a chocolate malted from the sassy waitress, who asked, “What’cher name, honey?” I told her, calling her by the name I read off her tag, and grabbed a free, local “shopper” to look through, while I waited. I was the only customer for the next three minutes.
That was when the door swung open and a girl in her early twenties, it appeared, walked in and plunked loudly onto the anchored stool next to me. She carried her small frame with authority and was dressed in what is best described as a collage. Everything she wore was brightly colored, although there was no color or pattern coordination. I couldn’t tell if her choices had been made by poor taste or by a purposeful disregard for coordinating hues, patterns, and fabrics. If she had had in mind to be noticed for the striking, jumbled assemblage, she had certainly achieved that. If it was for sheer whimsy or for the intention of confusing the prejudice of the observer, she had achieved both of those ends as well. Since she had made the stool clank when she hopped onto it, directly next to me, in an amalgam of color which could not be disregarded, I turned to her. The top of her head met my shoulder, and she looked up at me and squintingly smirked in a plastic way that belied no discernable attitude and did not show her teeth. She did not turn away, as she plucked, unseeing, a menu from the stainless steel rack in front of her. She opened the menu, called the waitress, Tammy, by her name, and ordered a side of fries and a Coke, still staring at me. Her menu was upside down.
She got her Coke and played with the paper from the straw. She gave no physical signal that she wanted any sort of verbal acknowledgement, in spite of the fact that she could have sat anywhere in the joint, other than next to me. Like the mixed signals sent by her wardrobe, this was her aura. Or was it her non-aura? Was it designed to pique interest, or was it designed to repel interest? Was it a design at all, or a natural oddity? However it was, I’m not so overwhelmed in unusual situations.
She bent her neck over the counter and sipped her Coke through the straw, without picking up the glass. I tapped her twice on the shoulder with my index finger as though I were pushing a stubborn doorbell. Her lips did not leave the straw, and she pivoted her heavily-mascaraed brown eyes to me like a flapper in a silent movie.
“If you had gotten here about five minutes earlier, you could have had my French fries.”
“I might have a couple anyways,” she returned, as though she were having lunch for the thousandth time with her twin brother.
We said no more, and I got served first. She pulled a couple fries off my plate, put them in her mouth and said through them, “Pass me the ketchup.”
I did, and she helped herself to a few more. We continued not talking, and Tammy delivered the girl’s own plate of fries. When she was about half done with them and her Coke, I asked her her name.
“Lyric,” she answered.
“Oh. Lyric what?”
“Lyric, from Batavia, Ohio.”
That was as good as a last name, because, in all likelihood, there would be no other Lyric from Batavia, Ohio. I waited until she had intently eaten up all her fries and slurped loudly at the last of her Coke through the straw.
“Well, Lyric, I’m not from around here, and I like to walk places, especially new places. Would you like to join me?”
“I sure would,” she chimed, “But not today.”
“Okay, is there any way I can reach you?”
“No,” she answered with confidence “ But I’ll be around.”
Somehow, I knew that her response, like her evasive last name, was good enough for me.
“Alright then. See ya.”
“Yup,” she said and smiled at me again, a plastic smile, like a little child, without showing her teeth. She put a couple bucks on the counter, and bounced out of the diner, waving to Tammy as she left.
I paid up, got in the truck, and stopped by a pizza joint on the way back to the motel. Texas pizza.
Coby and I worked hard over the next few days. Between the early morning mist, the brisk wind and persistent dust in the afternoons, the outdated plats, runs to the county courthouse for more current information, and the scores of new landmarks that had to be shot and cataloged, we were making slow progress and running behind. I had found any excuse to make it back to the diner two or three times, but there had been no Lyric from Batavia, Ohio. That was a pity and a half tank of gas. Come Friday, at the end of the workday, we packed up and headed back to Austin, hitting commuter traffic just outside the city, and I didn’t make it back home until eight-thirty, time I wasn’t getting paid for.
On Monday morning, at 5am, we were back on our way to Moody, to pick up where we had left off. Monday was a meteorological repeat of the previous one. We had to lay off in the afternoon, due to showers and wind gusts. It wasn’t that bad out, but we couldn’t keep the Minolta out in the rain. Coby napped, and I headed towards Waco. I went to the liquor store and then to the diner, and I was about to open the door, when Lyric appeared from around a far corner of the building.
“I’m not hungry,” she said casually. “Let’s go for that walk.”
I asked for a moment and grabbed a beat-up old golf cap out of the truck and jammed it down on her black, bobbed hair. As we set off walking in the drizzle, she pulled my hand impetuously out of my jacket pocket to hold, as though it had been my responsibility to do it, and how could I be so forgetful?
We walked away from the road, past the diner and the other businesses, through a grove of trees into a large field, lined at the far side by more trees, dogwoods and aged live oaks. We headed toward them.
“Which tree do you think I like the best?” she asked.
She had something extra. There are so many people whom I have met, who believe that they are connected to a spiritual realm – girls who think of themselves as wiccans, pretentious folk who use the supernatural to explain their borderline sociopathic behavior, geeky, pale young men who desperately want to escape their bourgeois background by emulating Aleister Crowley, conceited tarot card readers, wannabe mind readers, numerologists, phantom hunters and seers, and on and on. To my taste, those who have a view into an unseen, inexplicable dimension are either humble enough not to wag it in your face, take it for granted that that is their vision or sensibility, or are altogether ignorant of their extrasensory propensity. Lyric was falling, in my eyes, into some of all three categories.
“I’ll bring you to it, “ I said.
I released her hand, closed my eyes and began spinning around until I was dizzy enough to be very wobbly. I kept my eyes closed and started walking. I counted a hundred and-twenty steps, raised my right hand and pointed. I opened my eyes and found my outstretched finger but six inches from the trunk of a huge, multi-crotched live oak.
She smiled, for the first time showing her teeth.
“I’m impressed,” she said. “Let’s sit down here.”
I pulled off my jacket and threw it down on the ground, where her butt was about to hit. She was wearing orange corduroys, and they were bound to pick up the damp soil. She smiled again and spun my jacket into a bowl shape, sat in it, nestled her shoulders into the tree trunk, and comfortably closed her eyes. She looked like she was examining the constellations under her eyelids. I wanted some form of physical contact, and I laid my palm on her kneecap. After about a minute of stillness, her eyes snapped wide open, as though she had just remembered an important thought. She looked, unblinking, into an undefined distance. She spoke enthusiastically, familiarly:
“I went to my sister’s house, outside of St. Louis. I hadn’t seen her for about eight years, and I missed our mom’s funeral, because I was wasted on speed, and I couldn’t even leave my apartment. I kind of got off the speed, and I kind of didn’t, but I got myself up and out, and I borrowed a couple bucks to get on a bus to St. Louis to see my sis. I couldn’t believe it, how happy she was to see me, and I was feeling so guilty. I guess we were the only ones we had left, and I felt really small, because I was so irresponsible and that it didn’t mean anything to her. It was the love that you have in a family, even if you don’t know it.
“I met her husband, and he was just like her. It was like I never did anything wrong, and we had a big dinner and a bunch of wine. Her dog, this little old furry border collie, kept following her around and laying down at her feet. Her husband made the dinner, and we did the dishes afterward, and it was like... I mean the whole thing just felt like... family. Then we had some whiskey, and we all told stories in front of the fireplace. They put me up in my room – I mean it really felt like my room – and they... well they might as well have tucked me in.
“When I got up in the morning, kind of late, they were both at work, and I just laid there in bed, thinking. I got up and went downstairs, and at the bottom of the stairs, there was the border collie, all curled up, like she was waiting for me. She got up, and I could smell the coffee that my sister had left for me, and I went to go get some. I didn’t take but two steps, and that little old dog took my hand in her teeth – but real gentle-like – and she looked up at me and brought me through that room and into the kitchen. But then she stopped and turned me around, and she brought me over to the bathroom, and she stopped there, and she turned me the other way, and she took me through every room downstairs, holding my hand, and every so often, I swear, she looked up at me to make sure I was paying attention.
“She brought me by my hand, back over to the stairs, let go, and ran up ahead of me, looking back down to make sure I was gonna follow her. So I followed her up, and she got me by the hand again and brought me through every room upstairs, until we got back to mine. She looked up at me and wagged her tail, and then she went over and gave my blanket a little tug. She hopped on her two front paws a couple times and came back and took my hand in her teeth, and she brought me back downstairs and let me go and sat down right in front of the coffee maker. You never seen such a smile on a dog’s face, and her tail was just whappin’ on the kitchen floor.
“You know, I had brought some stuff with me to mix up some speed in their bathtub, some ephedrine and some lithium batteries. I figured I could deal it out easy in St. Louis, but I got this feeling down inside. I couldn’t do it in their house, and then I thought about selling the batteries and the ephedrine, and I didn’t want to do that either. When I thought about it, it made me feel, like dizzy, or off-balance. It was a struggle-like. It was a feeling like it was love against... I don’t know... trust? Jail? Lies?
“I got that dog, and I took her out in the woods, and I dug a deep hole, and I buried all that stuff that I was gonna make drugs with, and I spent my whole rest of the time with them, my sister and her husband and that dog. And they wanted me to stay longer, but I couldn’t. I wanted to be able to come back sometime. Well, they tried to give me money, but I wouldn’t take any, and my sister made me a sandwich, and I took it on the bus, and... well... I ate my own tears.
“But I got something over that visit to my sister, I couldn’t ever replace. I guess you know what I mean.”
I had been staring into Lyric’s bottomless pupils. I removed my hand from her knee, in the damp atmosphere, probably the warmest part of her body. Without her even blinking, a new awareness crossed her countenance, like a new scene in an old piece of cinema. She stretched her arms above her shoulders in a big “Y.”
“Mmmm,” she exhaled. “Walkies?”
I pulled her up by an arm and picked up, whacked at, my jacket, knocking the soil and leaves off. I put it over her shoulders, and she wavered a bit on her first few steps. We headed back toward the diner.
“You know what I like to do?” I asked.
“You mean other than taking walks?”
“Yeah. I like to share a milkshake.”
“Even though I’ll get girl germs off the straw.”
“That’s okay,” she deadpannned, “They’re all over your coat.”
I suggested a chocolate malted.
“To go,” she answered.
As we were walking back across the field, I asked her about her sister.
“What sister?” she wanted to know.
“You don’t have a sister in St. Louis, outside of St. Louis?”
That had not been her own story. I was confused, but I set the pot of thought on the burner, and let the possible explanations bubble up on their own.
We got our shake, giggled over some stupid stuff, mainly her multi-colored outfit versus my plain, beatnik one, and she refused a ride home. I asked her for a number to reach her, and she said she’d see me around. This time, there was less doubt on my part.
Lyric, from Batavia, Ohio, would find me.
Coby and I got a whole bunch done over the next few days, but it looked like the regular corporate thing: they set you an unreasonable deadline, so you hustle. They extend that deadline, which they knew they’d have to do in the first place, but they complain about it, so you don’t really get to relax on the job. The clock continues to weigh heavily. “Oh! The money we’re losing!”
They decided that we’d have an extra week, or less, so that we could make ourselves and the company look good.
On Thursday, after a rainy morning, the sun came out at 2pm, so work was scotched. I took the truck into Waco, promising to be back in time to go to a Mexican restaurant by six. We had to eat where Coby wanted, and he was finicky. He’d still complain about the place he himself had chosen.
In Waco, I parked, did the liquor store thing, and walked out into the field behind the diner. I scanned the horizon. There were two sharp finger taps on my shoulder, and I turned around.
“If you had been here five minutes ago, you could have had some of my French fries,” Lyric mocked, grinning.
“If I had gotten here five minutes ago, you wouldn’t have gotten to say that line,” I said. “How long were you holding on to that one?”
“Your favorite tree?” I suggested.
“Not yet. Do you like baseball?” she asked.
I knew she knew I did.
“I sure do.”
“Well, come on. Let’s go watch some.”
She took me by the hand some few hundred yards back up the road I’d come in on, to the baseball field farthest away from where I was parked. It was the Little Leaguers.
“You know,” I told her, “Right in the middle of the baseball strike, they showed the whole Little League World Series on TV. It was the only baseball on, and seeing all those innocent kids, playing their hearts out, it was the only thing that made me think that baseball could go on living.”
“Living,” Lyric repeated.
“Let’s go get some hot dogs,” I suggested. “The money goes back into their uniforms and stuff.”
“I want popcorn,” she said, and it was done.
We cheered the kids from both teams and yelled at the umpires. We left the stands after awhile, and she brought me past the middle ball field, which was empty, and explained that it was usually occupied by older guys after they got off from work at night. We ended up at the Baylor practice field, the college kids in their as yet unscuffed uniforms, exuding ability and confidence far above their years. Pitched and thrown during their warm-ups, the ball audibly hummed through the air and snapped the leather like a snare drum. As athletes will, a few of them made fun of Lyric and me, as we gaped through the chain-link fence, tight to the field. She slapped my shoulder and pulled me by the hand past the outfield fence, through an expanse of trees onto the far side of the field, where stood the live oak of her fancy.
We sat down, and she pushed her back against the tree, closing her eyes, to end up who-knew-where? She gently, willingly took the fingers that I pressed into her warm palm, and she closed her eyes.
Like before, she opened her eyes in some form of ecstasy. She began, lazily, comfortably. Her voice took on an easy, throaty monotone:
“I had studied so hard to be a teacher. It was what I had wanted to do since I was a little boy. I had had some really bad teachers, but I had had some whose methods and lessons I will carry with me forever. I wanted those things. I knew that if I could teach, some of what I gave to my students would live for as long as they did, and maybe generations after that. And that was exciting.
“Oh, I had it all planned out. I even got to practice, while I was in college, on some kids’ classes, some accelerated, some special needs, and I felt like I had the teaching world all embraced, all held together through my education and in my heart.
“I met my wife when we were juniors, and we both put our studies in front of our romance. She was a chemist, working on pharmacological studies. And when I say we put our education before our romance, I mean that we figured we had it made. We were going to be together in a marriage, a marriage of our lives and our careers, and we would have it all together, altogether, and we... well, we didn’t spend our nights in bed. I don’t mean we were virgins when we got married, but we waited for each other. And I waited and studied my thoughts and aspirations of how I would satisfy her when we finally consummated everything, our love, our dreams of our careers, of the rest of our lives together. We were going to graduate into the same world at the same time. We got married immediately after that, and we set off together... into a household and into a life.
“To wait for a spouse for say, a year and a-half isn’t really so long, but on our wedding night, for all the bottled-up feelings that we may have ignored in our separate worlds of study - physical, emotional, sexual expression, I tried to make all that up for her in one act, or actually a few, on our first night in bed.
“It felt to me that that act had not lived up, not only to our expectations, but to the fulfillment that I thought our union deserved. I worried about our physicality, our sexuality, more and more, building more complexities and more confusion in my mind. I was baffled and ashamed to speak to her about them. I was creating a nervous divide between us, that I knew she could sense. The harder I tried, the further away we became. At least, come that autumn, I would redeem myself with my first group of students, adolescents, kids, in the midst of growing. Again, I had waited so long for that dream to become real.
“I had all the instincts, that first day, which I was sure would not fail me. I had thought hundreds of times of how to introduce myself, of how to introduce the language of learning, of our methods of study, together. But then I thought it wise to throw away all of my preconceived notions, and to let these youthful, malleable minds propel me forward in the expansion of knowledge and confidence, to flow with them, unscripted, without pretense.
“My instincts failed me, and I failed my students, and it was immediate. It was concurrent. It couldn’t be reversed. This class of teenagers twisted me like a dead leaf in a harsh winter wind, locked onto a frozen tree. They found my weaknesses and mocked my inabilities. We had no mutual respect or openness of heart and mind. Lessons became lectures, and my confidence just withered away.
“I withdrew; no new strength that I could summon, no wellspring of creativity could pull me out of the hole that I continued to dig for myself, in my vocation and in my marriage. All of my aspirations became empty fantasies of my past.
“I could taste my bile as I wrote my letter of resignation at the end of my only year at that school. I passed all of my students, bitterly, as I had felt they had passed over my failure. I could feel, physically, the lump in my throat, as I told my wife of the many, many ways that I had failed her. It felt like I had swallowed a baseball, but I could not cry. I left her so that she might find... a better man.
“After I left that life behind, I did whatever I could to become a better man, myself. Most importantly, I learned, over time, to not fantasize my ambitions, and to not impose my ambitions on other people. I look at my past... wistfully, but I now have a loving wife and three daughters. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with them, but that’s part of my education.
“I must go now. I’m studying the thesis of a student whose insight into Turkish theology is...
“There is so much to learn.”
I thought about leaving Lyric, in her rapture, beneath the great tree. Those were certainly not her words. Did she even know this stuff that spouted from her? Was it inherent? Instinctive? Unknown, disremembered from her past? Why was I her audience? I didn’t want to recount to her her own stories; it seemed as though they would just be an unnecessary repetition for her if I did, even if she believed me when I told her of them. It came to me that listening to her stories was as though I had watched her have an orgasm in her sleep. I would see everything that she would have wanted to keep private, and she would awaken with only a warm, sleepy feeling, but no memory of her own high pleasure.
That is exactly how she came to consciousness.
She squeezed my hand and asked, “We got any more popcorn?”
“I don’t know what to say about that. I look at you, and I want to say that I will make sure you have all popcorn you could ever want, for as long as... for as long as we could be together.”
“That’s right. You look at me, and you want to give me popcorn,” she yawned. “You don’t even know my last name.”
“I think I know all I’d like to know for now, and let’s not forget, you never asked me my name.”
She tilted her head, “Do I really need to?”
“That’s my point!” and I helped her onto her feet.
I understood nothing.
Friday afternoon, Coby and I wrapped up and went home. I couldn’t wait to get back to work in Moody, even with Coby’s demeaning attitude, his farting and snoring, the crappy food and crappy weather. There were another couple things going on, one an earthly, potential millstone, the other, a very exciting astrological phenomenon.
The lousy aspect was that Coby saw me going into town and knew that I was looking forward to those trips and was somehow enjoying myself. It wasn’t that he wanted to come along, felt left out, or had anything he’d rather be doing than napping and watching TV in the motel room. In fact, under any other circumstances, he probably would have rather not had me around. I wasn’t out getting loaded, and I was replacing the company’s gasoline with my own money. It was that I was doing something that made me happy. What, he did not know, and I didn’t tell him. Coby and work and happiness simply did not add up, but I was going to continue doing what I knew was not wrong to do. Under a storm cloud of unnecessary defiance, I would take my lumps, and seek Lyric.
The literally bright astrological phenomenon was that, over the coming week, the Hale-Bopp comet was going to be at its visual apex in our hemisphere, and we were in a place where there was almost no light pollution or other earthly obstructions. I could not help comparing the oddity of young Lyric, from Batavia, Ohio, to the visitation of the remarkable streak of light appearing in the heavens.
We finished turning our angle of the whole of Moody, Texas on Tuesday, and we came well within the acceptable margin of error. Coby was pleased, and Wednesday at 3am, hours before we were to begin our level loop, I went out into the clear, dry night and saw that magnificent sword of colored light in the sky. I stood very still for about a half an hour, and try as I might, I didn’t know what to think, how to wrap my mind around this temporary celestial presence. I wanted Lyric to be there to share the moment. I shivered.
The level loop, the first I had ever worked on while knowing why I was doing it, proved to be a Pandora’s box of rural Texas strangeness. After tying in to the initial, official benchmark, we began our trek at a large Purina granary, which distributed truckloads of smelly feed to the local farms. Moving down the dirt and blacktop roads, we had to break up the road surface on each, to pull open the long-buried manhole covers. Invariably, the sewer had entrances built of brick, like Texan catacombs. All the way down to the pipeline was covered by thousands of jumbo-sized, blind cockroaches. Combined with the stench of human excrement and all other variety of wastewater, each manhole was like a gate to Hell. We had to drop the 35-foot telescoping measuring stick into the very bottom of each abysmal hole and mark it, as to its relation to the surface. Several times we had to call the one public works guy to bring his backhoe to dig up a manhole, which had been long forgotten, sanded or paved over again and again for decades. We shot around old clapboard shacks with their laundry on lines, whipped by the high, dusty winds. Many of the clotheslines abutted mounds of earth, which had small wooden doors, leading down into tornado shelters. They looked like sad, shabby, homemade mausoleums in each backyard. Children would tag along with us for blocks, asking us childlike questions until they got bored. Housewives would duck into their kitchens and phone their neighbors to say that we were only a few houses down, so that they could, in turn, gawk at us. Not a man in a pick-up truck didn’t stop and ask how we were coming along. Further down one of the main roads that followed a primary sewer line, we diverted past our town boundary to a noisy, unkempt wastewater purification facility. It stank of chlorine and human waste. Along the dirt road that led to it, on the other site of a wire fence, was the town dump, occupied by a community of wild hogs of every color and size, from piglets to 300- and 400-pounders, and they would stampede around the dump’s perimeter in a long, rumbling chaotic line, past us again and again, squealing and kicking up dust and muck.
The guts of the level instrument were held in place by springs, and scores of times, we had to wait several minutes to get an accurate reading, as the whipping, prairie wind would set the instrument’s insides vibrating uncontrollably, or would blow the gradated rod at an unusable angle, no matter how hard it was gripped. Coby was nothing but impatient and irritable with me at every turn, for his own ineffectiveness in the adverse conditions, as well as mine. At Wednesday’s close, I told Coby, “Look, I’ll get you anything you want to eat from town, on me, but I’ve got to get out of here.”
It had been a harrowing and underproductive day, and Coby needed to get some sleep. His guard was down, and it didn’t matter what I did. That I would return with some food that he wouldn’t have to go out for, sealed the deal. Naturally, I hoped to find Lyric.
She strolled out from a wide-open space next to the liquor store, as I was pulling in. I looked about, and found that there was no way she could have seen me coming. We said our hellos, and she accompanied me into the liquor store, where they now knew me by sight. I got my bottle of bourbon and an embarrassing little pre-mixed piña colada nip for her, the kind that has a white plastic cup for a lid, so you don’t have to be so déclassé as to drink out of the bottle. I stashed my hooch in the Ram, and she drank her cocktail on the way to her favorite tree.
Lyric settled in, curled her legs under her multicolored gingham skirt. She closed her eyes for a bit and then opened them, trancelike, and began this way:
“I was sitting in the cafeteria, having my lunch, and I was about five feet away from a pay phone. This guy comes up and starts making a call, and he was talking real loud, so I could hear everything he was saying.
“He goes, ‘Hi, is Judy there?’ and he waits a minute and says, ‘Hi, Judy. I ordered the flowers and the cake, and I’ll get the wine on my way back, after I get the brakes fixed on the truck, but I’m not going to be able to bring Sheba to the vet tomorrow. I called them up, and they said they only do spay and neuter on Tuesday’s. I got a full day that day, so I guess you’re gonna have to bring her yourself.’
“He listens for a few seconds and says, ‘Well, just ask Donna if she can watch the kids. Tell her I’ll give her twenty bucks at the party tonight.’
“So about three hours later, I’m walking down Third Street, which is in another part of town, about five miles away, and there’s this woman walking ahead of me, past the little houses over there. All of a sudden, another woman, in her bathrobe, comes running out of the house and calls to the woman in front of me.
“She says, ‘Hey Donna, can you watch the kids for us on Tuesday? I have to bring Sheba to the vet. Bill says he’ll get you twenty dollars tonight.’
“As I walked past them, she says to Donna, ‘You’re coming to Evelyn’s surprise party at our house tonight, right? Bill ordered the flowers and the cake, and he’s bringing the wine as soon as the truck’s fixed, so get here early. I’m fixing the food right now.’
“Can you imagine that? I got both parts of the conversation, hours later and miles apart - in Tallahassee, mind you. Do you know how many people live there? What are the odds?”
Lyric closed her eyes and dozed for fifteen minutes or so.
When she woke up, she said, “Whoosh, booze always does that to me. Oof, help me up, my leg’s asleep.”
I got an arm around her waist and walked her partway across the field. She was a wisp of a girl, even limping.
“I went out last night and looked at the comet for a long time. I couldn’t help thinking of you,” I told her.
“That’s funny,” she said, “I did the same thing, and I was thinking of you.”
“Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.”
She looked up at me impetuously.
“Well you’ve got some ego,” she grinned.
“That’s not what I meant. It’s just that we seem to have some kind of extra connection, you know?”
She shrugged her shoulders as she commented, “If you say so,” and we spoke no more until I got back to the truck, ruminating along the way that she had no recollection of telling her stories. I had wondered how to check, without dropping her any hints. I wondered how much more she had in her mind and spirit, and whether it was just the tree that brought it forth.
“So I guess I’ll be seeing you around, “ I suggested.
She stiffened her body, clicked her heels, and gave me a brisk, military salute, which made her hair bounce.
“Aye, aye,” she barked.
“I was wondering,” I heard myself propose, “I’m going to be getting all I can out of this Hale-Bopp comet. Would you like to join me, one of these... mornings?”
“I’ll be there, cap’.”
She made a perfect about-face and marched off. Every instinct told me that she would join me for the celestial event, but I did not know how she would, in any earthly practicality. She had no idea where I was staying. As far as I knew, she didn’t drive an automobile. She had consistently refused to be driven home in mine. I didn’t even bother to ask anymore.
“That’s right,” I said aloud, “With Lyric, from Batavia, Ohio, I do not even bother to ask anymore.”
I had thought it was Coby’s elephantine snoring or his consistent farting, but for the mornings spent with the Hale-Bopp comet, it was more of the internal alarm clock that would awaken me in the very early hours. The air was quite chilly on the early spring, Texas plain, but I went barefoot onto the motel’s gravel parking lot in jeans and a t-shirt. The penetrating breeze through my shirt and the sharp pebbles under my soles felt livening. The comet was low enough in the sky not to pinch the neck muscles or strain the shoulders, in spite of my long gazing. It was a quasar. Over time and reflection, it took on more and more colors, which may have been imagined, or which may have been my own accustomed, conventional eyesight opening unused nerve endings to the brain, allowing a new spectrum.
I felt a warm palm and cool fingers reaching tenderly up onto the back of my left shoulder and neck and a full hand on the side of my right ribcage. I did not turn. It was either Lyric herself, or a woozy prostitute that I hadn’t heard, leaving one of the motel rooms. Either way, if we were both regarding the same image, that was alright with me. It seemed like I dozed for a few seconds, and then I was again alone, still absorbing the prismatic swath in the night sky, surrounded by an eternity of stars and galaxies. I checked my pockets, and my wallet was still there, so the tactile being of the night hadn’t been greedy. I shrugged it off, went inside, drank a shot and smoked a cigarette, and went back to bed.
Coby and I headed out just as the sun slid over the horizon, in an effort to make up for at least a few hours of lost time, and we made significant progress in the early morning, before any trucks were pushing us off our middle-of-the-road manhole covers and dank sewage depths. We patted ourselves on the back before lunch, came back, and pushed our shoulders into the early-afternoon high winds and dust devils, the frequent and insolent intruders to our progress. We hurried to make our shots between gusts.
As I was picking up the level on its tripod to hurry to my next point, I noticed a woman trotting up her dirt side street, out to check her mailbox. She had to bunch up her skirt from blowing up in the wind. A few yards before she got to where she was going, near the dirt avenue where I was passing, a neighbor in a bathrobe ran out of a nearby house to greet her.
“Donna!” the woman in the robe called.
Judy trotted over to the corral fence near Donna’s mailbox, retying her robe.
“Donna, I gotta bring Sheba to the vet’s on Tuesday. Can you watch the kids for me? Billy says he’ll get you a twenny, soon as he gets home from havin’ the truck fixed.”
Donna said, “Sure, hon.”
“Thank you, darlin’, and don’t you forget about Evelyn’s party tonight...”
I started into a jog, with the equipment, facing into a headwind, which, so happily, dulled the rest of what the woman in the robe was saying. It was confusing to me, and I found it very difficult to keep my mind on my job and its own mathematics. I was trying to clear my mind of all of Judy and Donna and Bill, and of Evelyn’s birthday and its wine and pre-ordered cake and flowers and Sheba’s Tuesday spaying. I was trying to clear my mind of the hands on my body as I had drunk in the Hale Bopp comet, of imaginary Texas prostitutes, of French fries and Cocktails-for-Two piña coladas, of the multi-colored, multi-faceted Lyric, from Batavia, Ohio, of the aged, live oak “story tree.”
Coby and I finished our ambitious workday and went back to the motel. I bought a USA Today out of their lobby, wanting to hide my head behind its pages, bury my thoughts in headline drivel, box scores, the crossword puzzle. The headline story was that of a California cult, who had taken the comet as a dooming-yet-cleansing omen, donned their brand new Nike sneakers, and together with their spiritual counsel, and having put some coins in their pockets for the cosmic tollbooths, had committed mass suicide. If only, I thought, had they met Lyric. They might be yet wandering the streets of San Diego, spouting a new, more confusing brand of celestial doctrine.
I did not go to meet her that evening. Coby and I supped at the Dairy Queen. I turned off the television early and had as a lullaby, Coby’s roaring farts and snores, overall, sounds which reminded me that I was actually an inhabitant of the planet Earth.
I awoke in the middle of the night for my final viewing of the now-tainted Hale-Bopp comet, and then I slept until daybreak. Coby and I satisfactorily finished our workweek, and we commuted back to Austin. For the whole ride, and all that weekend, I felt like I had just woken up from a fitful nap, in a haziness which would not allow me to identify with what was around me, that which ought to have been, used to be, before my brief sleep, what I had called, reality.
It wasn’t Lyric or anything she did anymore, which challenged my perception. It was the change in the foundation of my perception, which occupied all of my tangled thoughts. I fantasized of her sighing into my ear, and that sigh being a language which told unimagined truths. I raked last year’s leaves in my backyard and set them ablaze, only to see the smoke rise and wrap itself around a blank, heart-shaped, crystal clear vortex, far above my head. I let the leaves burn, and I went into the house and had a few drinks, chatting with others. I went back outside, and the smoke and the heart-shaped vortex remained.
Sleeping and dreaming were easy and relaxing. Waking and touring the day were not.
As Coby and I drove to Waco, for what we expected would be our final five days, I made myself complacent in the face of his terrifying driving. I wandered through that Monday, wishing to deny Lyric’s and my supposed random meetings, but like the person who would swear off nightclubs or casinos, I felt a nervousness, a jittery feeling for what I knew was inevitable in the evening ahead. At the end of our workday, I snatched the Ram’s keys from Coby’s bedside table and told him, “I’ll be back in a while.”
He sat up and laughed, “Git some rubbers.”
“You okay on your own for dinner?” I asked, ignoring his Leavenworth humor.
“If you wanna go fuck yourself, that’s okay too. I don’t know what you got goin’ on with this chick, but she better be worth it.”
I raised up, just like the guy who was going to hit the casino, guiltily wagging it in the accuser’s face.
“I let you down yet?” I rasped.
I dug into my watch pocket and pulled out my stash of his nitro-glycerin pills. I clipped their plastic shield between my thumb and forefinger and wagged them in his face.
“If you ever need these, I’m the first guy – Fuck you! – the only guy who’s ever gonna be ready. You got that, pardner?”
“Ooooh,” he cooed, “You do like her!”
I turned on my heel and took the three strides to the door, yanking it open. Before it slammed behind me, he laughed heartily and shouted, “Git us a pizza, Romeo!”
I hate to admit it, but as I drove to Waco, as I pulled up into the Baylor practice field parking lot, as I hopped, uncertainly to the gravel surface, I was doing everything I could not to hyperventilate. In spite of Coby’s and my clearing of the air (maybe because of it?), I felt a little dizzy. I was just in time to watch a ballgame between two high school teams who were allowed to use the University practice field. The kids, it was easy to see, all felt serious on their upgraded ball field, intent, and above their station. I got a hot dog, no condiments, and I sat on the damp aluminum bleachers, ready to blank my mind.
I watched a full inning, before I felt a warm palm and cool fingers on the left side of my neck, and a full, warm hand on the right side of my ribcage.
“You want the rest of this?” I offered, handing the rest of my forgotten frank over my shoulder.
“No, you have it,” she smiled, as if she had gotten it for me. She wrapped her arms around my neck, grabbed the hot dog, and jammed it into my lips. I was a willing participant.
“Who do you like?” she challenged me.
“Ylhou,” but she knew that I knew what she meant. She amiably scowled, as I gulped down way too much frankfurter and bun. “Okay, their catcher, who’s waiting on deck, and their second baseman. They both look like little Rangers clones already. The right fielder, who’s playing out there now, has a good hitting stance for a lefty, and he’ll probably grow into his body. I saw him with some of the other kids in the dugout, and he looks like a good teammate.”
She plunked her angular elbows into the cups of my shoulders and roughly mussed my hair, both of which actions I didn’t like.
“Knock it off, kid,” I said, shrugging her forearms back down to their wrap around my upper chest.
“Aye, aye, cap’. I like the pitcher.”
“He’s too gangly. His coach has to get him off the curve, or he’s not gonna be able to throw a paper airplane by the time he’s sixteen. Look at that elbow. I can hear the joint snap from here.”
She blew in my ear, and I heard a thousand voices, all at once, yet each one distinct, murmuring all the information that was reserved for the oracles. Milliseconds later, I had forgotten all the details, but I knew that everything I had heard was privileged and right.
“Tree?” I asked.
“Mmm,” she said.
Lyric was a person of tactile contact in our short time together, but her manner was indefinable, to my experience, not approachable enough to ask for, to even imply, a more physical relationship. All physical and spiritual boundaries were hers to decide. I was frustrated, because I felt that I could offer more, be more, in her unusual world, than those to whom she had been subjected, to those whom she had become accustomed. Wasn’t I far more? Special? Insightful? Wasn’t I closer to her than all the others, if only because I didn’t have to say it out loud? Hers was the mystery; mine was the material, the known. That notion befit her initial, plastic smile, her indescribable wardrobe, her aloofness, her ignorance or inward denial of her own confusing, yet undeniable outward gifts.
“I’ve been lonely,” she said, as we meandered to the tree. “Please put your arm around me.”
I did, and she bent into me. Every self-doubt escaped, except for the outright knowledge that that feeling was temporary.
We arrived at the tree, and I sat down into its trunk. She curled up next to me and pushed her cheek into my chest. She laid her hands on me and commented, “That’s nice.”
With a soft smile, her weight increased from that of a hummingbird to that of a housecat, and she slept.
Through that ethereal smile, her eyes fluttered open. She looked at me and began chatting, as though we were having a cup of coffee together:
“We were out running, and we were just kids. We were getting ready for what they’d think about us as high school runners the next year. I didn’t really care, because I didn’t like running that much anymore. I did when I was younger, because it used to make me feel free. I never ran on a track before. It used to look like the place that the professionals ran, and I wanted to do that, but when I started doing it every day, it felt like a chore. When someone was telling me I had to do it, when to start, when to stop, how far to go... I didn’t get the point anymore.
“I did all my stretches, but my legs and my chest still got tight, like my younger body wanted to come out of the new body that I was growing. I tried to tell my coaches, but they just said that it was my new body developing, and they made me run more.
“One day, we kids were running with the freshmen cross country team, who we would replace next year, so we could learn from them. We were jogging on the 3-mile course that ran along Baxter Boulevard, and up to Ocean Avenue.”
Lyric gripped me tighter and nestled her head further into my chest.
“As we were coming up the hill to Ocean Ave., we saw an ambulance pull away in a hurry and a couple of cop cars along with it. Across the street, a few hundred yards up, there was an orange VW Bug, all smashed into a telephone pole. We got up to it, on the other side of the street, and we all just stopped, even our coach, Father Cleary. Everybody was sweaty and out of breath, and we all crossed the street, real slowly, and reverently, to look at the wreck. We all knew it was something worse than just a car accident. It was all misty from the bay, and real quiet.
“The hood of the Bug, and all around in front of it was covered with little cubes of shattered glass, and the frame of the windshield was all bent up, and there was blood all over it and a bunch on the hood, and there were hunks of skin and hair on the metal.
“Right there on the little grate under the windshield, that they had on the Bugs, was red rose. It didn’t even look out of place. It looked like it was supposed to be there. The blossom and even the stem and the leaves matched the orange paint, and the chrome and the bloodstains.
“Father Cleary said we all ought to say a prayer, and we did, and boy, we meant it. Whenever I think of the word, ‘solemn,’ I think about us standing around that Volkswagen.
“The next day, I found out the whole story from an uncle of mine who was a police officer, that in that car were a boy and a girl. While they were on a date at a pizza place down the street, the boy had given the girl the rose and a ring and had asked her to marry him. She had told him he’d have to wait, but then decided, while he was driving her back to her parents’ house, that she would say yes.
“When she told him, the boy kissed her across his seat, and they smashed into the telephone pole. He died, and she tore most of her scalp off the top of her head. She had screamed out that story to my uncle, in the ambulance, while she was still in shock and hysterical, and on drugs.
“I had a strange idea when I heard that story. I was only thirteen years old, but I figured that I’d rather die a bloody, violent death doing something I knew way better than doing, that my heart told me to do, than to run around in circles because somebody told me to.”
She looked up, far, far away, closed her eyes and kissed me, her lips, her body, her expression, seeming to collapse back into a nucleus. I couldn’t tell if she was awake or still in her reverie. She snuggled back into my chest.
I had no idea what to say or do or think. She had just told a story from my personal experience. It was exactly what had happened in my youth, exactly my words, as I had recounted it to others over the years.
“Who can this be,” I wondered, as I let her sleep, and when she awoke, I asked her, how about another kiss?
“We didn’t even have a first one. What kind of girl do you think I am?”
“I thought you were a lonesome one.”
“‘Lonely,’ I said, for today,” she corrected me. “There’s a difference.”
For the next three days, I thought about my teen-aged decision to be a fool about lifetime decisions. Since that day, I surmised, I was ever nearer that youthful goal, but as far as running around in circles at someone else’s behest, my heart was beginning to ache for Lyric’s full attentions. I wanted to declare that to her. I had nothing concrete upon which to base my feelings, but there was nothing in my heart stopping me from embracing foolishness.
I didn’t see her for the rest of the week, and Coby and I would have only two days, at the most, after the interminable, empty weekend.
We were almost done with the level loop on Monday. We should be able to close on Tuesday, with the head honchos from Killeen looking over our shoulders, under the guise of patting us on them. We’d then head back to Austin for good and all. That meant, if I were to see Lyric at all, it would have to be on Monday evening.
After work on Monday, I hurried into Waco. I darted into a convenience store, and I bought a box of Crackerjack and a scratch-off lottery ticket. I drove to the Little League field, the only one in use that day, and I warmed up a spot on the bleachers. It wasn’t long before Lyric materialized next to me.
“Hi,” I began, having decided not to waste any time. “I bought you a box of Crackerjack, and a lottery ticket, and I present you with myself. I would like to ask you to take your chances with the riches and disappointment that you might get from all three.”
She looked at me blankly, but I knew she was digesting what I had put forth. I didn’t know what her response was going to be, but I could tell, in advance, what was her decision. She locked our eyes.
“When I was a little girl, I loved to watch television. I loved the stories in the shows and the movies. I would put myself right into those stories, and I really thought that I was a character in them. I had three big brothers, and they would never let me finish a whole program. Whatever story I was watching, they always said, ‘Turn the channel! Turn the channel!’ and the TV would go, ‘Bchhhhhhhk! Bchhhhhhhk! Bchhhhhhk!’ and there was all that fuzz on the screen between the channels, and I could feel it in my head.
“It was that way for most of my childhood, and then I started to listen to stories that people would tell me, and I fell in love with that, but sometimes when I was by myself, I could still hear that ‘Bchhhhhhk! Bchhhhhhk! Bchhhhhhhk!’ in my head, like I was changing channels, and all I could see in front of my eyes was staticcy fuzz. It was very scary, and it hurt my eyes and my ears and my head. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep all night, because it was so loud, and I would concentrate, ‘Change the channel! Change the channel!’
“As I got a little older, it didn’t happen so much, but when I got around certain people, it as almost like they were an antenna, and I would feel their stories, and some of them, I knew, were other people’s stories, and after a while with that person, I’d get that awful static and that bright fuzziness in front of my eyes, and I’d have to change that channel again. And Chester, it hurts. Way deep down and all the way up, it hurts.”
I had never told Lyric my name; I was certain of it.
“It’s a physical and mental pain. You know how when your foot falls asleep, and the blood starts to come back, and you get that really painful tingly feeling? Like every little nerve ending is a needle, sticking into you? That’s how it feels in my brain and my whole body. Everything in me just screams. It can go on for days, until I find a new channel. I don’t mean to do it, and I don’t really want to do it. It just happens, and Chester, you’ve been that channel for me. It wasn’t the tree, like you thought. And now you can’t be around me for a while, nobody can be. But I also don’t want you to have to be that channel for me anymore. I don’t want to use you. Even though I have. I know I’ll just ruin you.”
There was, I knew, no use arguing that I would have dedicated myself to being her lifelong medium.
“I know, Chester, I know, but I can’t have you or anyone else near me when I’m changing the channel. It’s excruciating.”
She gripped my hand.
“Please Chester, don’t feel so bad for you or for me. This is just the way it is.”
“Lyric, you know you can always find me on UHF.”
She smacked my shoulder and said, “I figured you’d get it. You were a great station.”
“No reruns, I suppose.”
“No Chester, just the closing credits. Let’s go have a milkshake, before you make me cry.”
“I would love to make you cry... into a milkshake. I would drink your tears.”
“You already have.”
The following day, Coby and I finished up our level loop of Moody, Texas, under the eyes of the bosses from the Killeen office. The math came out great, and I thought that the Killeen team might even stretch a ribbon across the dirt avenue where we had started and ended and hand us a giant pair of scissors.
At home in Austin, the following night, or morning, long before the sun broke, I was watching a French movie from the 1950s on PBS, and the black-and-white, teenaged heroine started crying into her milkshake. There was a close-up of a solitary tear, running down the straw. On Monday morning, I packed all my things and bought a USA road atlas, got into my old Maxima and drove to Batavia, Ohio. There is a school there, and I got a degree in literature.
When I am not teaching stories to read or how to be told, I will sit for hours, recounting or inventing my own stories to tell, watching the river flow past. To my dismay, I spend a lot of time idly changing the channels on TV.