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Kiki DeLancey

Carley's Knees

Pauley Gray smoked until he was thirty-three years old. He smoked plenty, and he drank. You might say those were habits he picked up from his father, who was never seen without a cigarette in his mouth, except that everybody in our town did the same. Everybody smoked then. That was about 1960. People knew it was supposed to be bad for you. Everybody knew somebody, some uncle or aunt who'd gone to an early grave. Still, it was what people did. Pauley Gray was just like everybody else, only more so.

Then he gave it up, and to him, it was a very big deal. And drinking, too. He wasn't going to drink anymore, he said. People didn't drink that much in Verdure City, but everybody drank some. Not that it was a town of drunks, but most folks liked to have a drink. It was just what people did. It was not a sin, in those days, to sit in at the Grill and drink a can of beer on Saturday night. If you drove home a little bit toppy, nobody was going to take your car away.

Pauley Gray gave that up, too, and to him, it was a very, very big deal. You didn't just do that, to him, and not go around saying stuff about it. Not go around telling everybody what you did, and that they should, too. "I got it figured out," he said, "where it cost me over five hundred dollars a year to smoke cigarettes. Five hundred dollars, each and every year. And that's just what I smoked. Others smoke more'n me, too. A guy could buy himself a brand-new car every couple years with that money. Forget about a car, it could pay your house payments for you, if you wanted to. You could buy you a brand-new house, and just pay for it with the money you'da spent on cigarettes. I figured it out." He'd get worked up and start shaking. We knew he meant it. He was a sincere guy who grew up right there with us, and he wasn't trying to pull anything. I know that I didn't spend enough on cigarettes to buy my house, but we knew him, and that's just how he was. He'd get so excited, and the sweat would get up in the creases on his face. That was him, that was Pauley Gray.

That was the same year they made him the town marshal. They thought of that. We didn't have our own police, since there was only about three hundred or four hundred people in Verdure City. The sheriff took care of it, the county sheriff, when something happened. When some lady missed her purse out of her car, which was maybe twice a year, or when somebody got carried away and might shove his wife, which was maybe once every couple of years. Nothing like that happened much. But they decided, the city council, that we ought to have somebody of our own. Everybody knew they were getting us into it. We weren't even a city. We weren't incorporated as a city. Everybody knew that. We were nothing but a little town, a village. A village. But they started calling themselves city council. It wasn't official. They just called themselves that. Verdure City is two long streets, and eight or nine horizontal avenues, each about two hundred feet long. The big main street is S.R. 309, which we just among ourselves called "309." There was an antique store on it and the grocery, and three gas stations down by the ramps, or back in those days two gas stations, one on each end; and the Verdure Grill, and the Liquid Diet, which was just the bar, with no food served. So that was a pretty good name for it, I guess, if you think back on it.

I didn't go in there. We all hung out in the Verdure Grill, if we went anywhere. There was one round table in there, on the left side when you came in, kind of back from the door somehow so that nobody could see you sitting there when they first came in, until all of you sitting at that round table had time to have taken a good look at them. Then across the floor with a pretty good space in between them and the round table were three or four long, rectangular tables, with those painted black metal chairs. Those round-legged, black metal chairs you used to see everywhere. And then in front of you, if you were sitting there with us at the round table, was the bar, not that long, but long enough to run down the whole opposite wall. Not one of those nice old bars at all. It was probably old enough, probably eighty or a hundred years old, but just plain wood, plain oak or something, and painted black all along the rounded edge of it, with that kind of tarrish black paint, that black paint you don't see anymore; I don't know if it even is paint. It goes on like paint, but it's real waxy, and almost like tar once it goes on, and waterproof, which is probably why they used it there in the grill, because it wiped clean with a rag. And then in front of the bar, ten or so bar stools, just the plain round-topped ones, that I don't think spun around or anything. They just sat there, and if you sat up on one of them you could put your feet up on this rail that was a piece of electric conduit, also painted black with the tar paint, and bolted to the floor. Nobody ever sat there much to speak of, except Pauley Gray's father, Bussy Gray, who used to come in once a week on Saturday about six o'clock and drink two beers, and then Carley, who'd be in there every Saturday night too, but for more than two beers. He'd drink maybe two kegs of beer. But he was a big guy, and he handled it. He never got disorderly or anything. He just worked hard all week, and that's what he did it for, so he could come in there on Saturday night and get drunk and make himself feel better. Nobody held it against him, that was for sure, including Pauley Gray. Everybody knew Carley. He was not really stupid, or anything. But nobody ever remembered him saying anything out of the ordinary. Just, "Hello," you know, and ask people if they were going to the fireworks, because there was going to be a band playing this year like they used to when he was a boy, and that he was building the platform for the band, in front of the Lutheran church on the little green lawn, and the president of the city council was going to give a speech about it: about the band and how they came from Canton, not about the Fourth.

This was the summer after they started calling themselves the city council. We had no mayor, nothing like that. We didn't need anything like that. Just a bunch of people living in the same place. There were the county trustees that ran the road crews, and the school board ran the school, and that was about all. But a new bunch kind of elected themselves the fall before, some fellows that always sat with us at the round table. They were three guys I knew; they were okay fellows. Two of them had just retired. The third was a farmer who always said he'd never retire, but he didn't farm a whole lot. He sold about three bushels of cukes every year at the farmers' market, and that was about the extent of his farming. He got sixty-five and started getting Social Security, I guess. Nobody would have done any different. These three made a clean sweep of it, is all. The old guys went on home as the town board, and these three came in as city council. Then they decided we had to have a town marshal. They just wanted to give Pauley something to do, better than wash windows. He'd started himself a little business where he went around the storefronts and washed the windows for a dollar a week, but there weren't, anybody could tell, enough windows in town to keep a guy alive, even if everybody decided he wanted to pay somebody to do what he already paid his own help to do. Pauley Gray said he was going to go up to Bridgeville and sign all them up too, where they had sixty or eighty different stores in town. He'd counted them. There was that many and maybe more. His problem was that his car had quit running. He had a car that he'd used to drive up there when he first got out of high school and worked at the glass plant, a real good job. When the plant shut down, the car, an old roadster, just sat while he was in the service. When he came back, he started out painting a house or two, but there wasn't much demand for that. He started washing windows and was going to wash all the windows in Bridgeville, except his roadster wouldn't run, and they'd quit running the streetcar between Bridgeville and the villages. So they came up with this plan to keep Pauley Gray in town, because he was a well-liked guy. His dad was the nicest man in the township, and you could see, everybody could just see, Pauley had the energy and the ideas, he was going to be somebody good someday, and everybody else had already left that amounted to anything. He could have been a good marshal, if we'd have needed one. He spent the first month on the job looking at uniforms in a catalog he dug up somewhere, picking one out finally that everybody agreed would look the part, like a marshal. Then it took another month for it to arrive, and for him to get himself fitted for it, because he was not much of a guy size-wise; and then getting people to agree to buy him a holster, and picking that out, and finding the right belt to fit it on, and going around town for a couple days doing nothing but showing it to everybody and sliding the gun into and out of it.

That was his own gun, was the only reason they got him the holster. I don't think they'd have paid for a gun for him, but he already had one, so that was all right. People kind of liked it, seeing him walking around with that, because he was a pretty good guy. Everybody recognized his face, and he recognized everybody's face that lived there. He knew all the old ladies with their purses. They liked that, because the ramps were already in, and they knew the highway itself was going to open in maybe another year at the most. The one gas station was already there, and if you wanted to build another one there, it was said, or put a little food-only restaurant there, with no liquor or beer, but just sandwiches, chicken, and fish, the state of Ohio would put up a sign out on the highway itself telling people you were there, and that they could stop here. And they would, everybody figured. They would stop, because we were so right there—and who knew who these stopping people would be. Where they'd come from. They could be anybody, everybody figured. And they were right, too. Anybody could pull up here, get out and come in, come into the gas station for example, and pull out a gun and want all the money you had. Anybody could drive down 309 and see that we had our windows open, and our doors open, and there go all the old ladies' purses. But everybody would see that sharp-looking, hale-looking young guy standing there with a black holster on his belt, noticeable, and a gun in the holster. A big blue revolver. Everybody knew it. Everybody could see it. We all admired it many times. Hell, we all had one of our own at home. What was the big deal. I had one of my own, in the dresser drawer at home, but I'd stand there like everybody else and take it from him when he took it out, and hold onto it, and admire it. And say, "Sure is a nice gun, Pauley. Looks like a good one." He'd smile, and the big creases in his face would flex, and he'd say, "My dad got me that when I was fourteen. Not for my birthday, nothing like that. He just got it for me. I had it ever since."

That's when he quit smoking. The third month came of him being marshal, and he had to find something else to do all during the daylight hours, and he'd somehow quit smoking. So he took to giving people lectures on the street. First just about himself. "I quit, it was the hardest damn thing I ever did, I tell you. It was hard. Cold turkey. Cold, cold turkey." That's what everybody repeated; not that Pauley had quit smoking, but that funny expression, about a cold turkey. That was funny. That was weird.

Then came the signs. He made these little cardboard signs, printed by hand in black ink on the white side of the cardboard that came in your shirts when you sent them up to the cleaners in Bridgeville. That nice piece of smooth cardboard about the size of a piece of paper they'd wrap your white shirt around. Pauley must have collected some, and he made these signs that said, "NO SMOKING By Public Ordinance." He hung them in a few natural places, like in the lobby of the churches, and in the hall of the grade school.

I saw him one day about that time, and I said, "By public ordinance? You got to be kidding. What public ordinance? You got to have just made that up."

Everybody laughed. We were sitting in at the Verdure Grill, was the thing. I had my beer in me already, and so did everybody else, it seemed. We laughed, we didn't mean anything. Pauley got mad. He started to sweat. He went and looked it up on Monday morning. And you know, there was an ordinance from the twenties that said, There shall be no smoking of tobacco by pipe, cigar, cigarette, nor chewing of snuff or chewing tobacco, by anyone male or female, in any place owned by the public or maintained privately for the public good. He looked it up, and he copied it down. Then came the signs; the real signs. (The cardboard ones had all been torn down by then.) He ordered them from Bridgeville, then borrowed Bussy's car and picked them up two weeks later, with the last of his window-washing money. They were bright orange, with square black letters. He hung one first in the elementary school gym, where the city council met once a month, so everybody got a look at it: "NO SMOKING By Public Ordinance No. 808. Violators subject to $50 fine and up to five days imprisonment plus reparations." Then he seemed to have second thoughts and took it down again after the meeting, so everybody relaxed and lit up. They all were minding, you see, mostly just to be polite. You have to remember, in those days everybody smoked. That's what people did. Even if they didn't, everybody accepted it. So they thought it was strange, we all did, but when he took the sign down it was kind of an instant joke, and everybody lit up again. That was the end of it, big deal.

The next day was Friday. It was real quiet on the street. No nothing. No hammering, that was it. No sawing. You walked around the corner, up to the edge of the street, and looked up around the corner to the Lutheran church, and there was the half-built, raw-looking platform, the light untouched yellow wood rising up, but no Carley. You went on back, went on into the Verdure Grill to have some lunch, sat down with your fish sandwich, and everybody was saying, "Where's Carley at today? Wouldn't it be something if he was sick, or something. Carley took sick. I wouldn't believe it. Wouldn't nobody believe that could happen." They didn't have much to talk about, you see. That's the kind of thing they talked about then. Who was where. Who was doing what inconsequential thing. That's all there was. Nothing else to it.

Then Carley came in, to eat his own lunch, and everybody sent up a cheer. He turned around and stood, smiled at them. Like, finally, they noticed me. That's enough of that. Then he turned his back again and sat down on the bar stool.

"How's the platform coming, Carley?" somebody called to him.

"She's okay," he said. "Six feet high." He turned around again, happy now, you could see that. "She's six feet high. I got her six feet high, all four corners. She's braced up pretty good. Gonna put the platform on next." His face was real warm. He looked real warm, real soft and pink.

"You doing that this afternoon?"

"No, probably be a couple days. Marshal got me on something else right now."

"The marshal? What? You don't work for him, Carley."

"I work for the village."

"That's right. You work for us all, don't you?"

"Yeah. You could say."

"And we say, we say you don't have to take no orders from him."

"Well, I guess not." He turned around. He put his arms up on the counter. From the back he was broad-looking, sitting up there by himself. Broad-looking, with real short, curly brown hair, soft brown with the color of iron filings all in it.

"Change tactics," Burgess said. Burgess was my next-door neighbor.

There was five or six guys sitting there, just like always. I was among them.

"Hey, Carley, what's he got you doing?" I finally asked him.

He was eating by then. He was chewing. Fish sandwich. "Making frames."

"Frames? What frames?"

"Picture frames." He put his sandwich down and held up his hands about a foot apart without turning around. "About this big. Wood frames."

"What frames? Outta what?"

"Out of wood. Trim. He brung me this trim. From when we tore down the Mawbreys' house that burned. I recognized it, you know. All of that oak trim."

"He's got you cutting up frames out of it?"

"Yeah. Cutting 'em, gluing 'em, and nailing them. He brung it all to me. What the hell do I care. Take a couple of days, I guess."

"Couple of days? How many is there?"

"Fifty or a hundred. He ain't decided yet."

We got to see them pretty soon. There had to be at least a hundred, each hanging from identical brass cup hooks. Carley carefully screwed them into the places Pauley Gray went around and marked with a piece of yellow chalk, and after that got erased by everyone, with a black grease pencil. They were hung in all the churches, all the businesses, and even one wrapped up in plastic, oak frame and all, and stuck up outside on the front of the unfinished platform. When Carley came into the Verdure Grill with a cup hook and started screwing it into the wall opposite the door, right through the middle of the greasy black X, somebody said, "You can't bring that in here." That was Henry, who everybody said owned the place. "This is a private place of business."

Carley shrugged at him, carefully hung up the sign he held under his elbow, then sat down at the bar and lit his cigarette.

When the signs were up, Carley went back to building the platform. As it took shape, it began to look very big. "What the hell kind of a band did they hire?" people began asking. "That platform is fifty feet square. It takes up the whole lawn. You can't even get around it. " That's what everyone talked about for a while. Carley kept working at it. It kept getting bigger. By the middle of June, he finally began nailing down the platform, a board at a time. "You ought to use plywood," I remember saying to him one Friday, at lunchtime. "It'd go a lot quicker."

"Water pools on plywood," he said.

"You leave that Carley alone, to look after it," Mutt said. Mutt was one of the retirees, one of the city council men. "Carley knows what's what," he said.

On Saturday night we were sitting there again. My wife was with me. She was sitting across the room with her sister, at one of the rectangular tables. They were playing cards with some of their girlfriends, then they'd put the cards away and were having a drink. I was sitting there with Mutt and the cucumber farmer and a couple of guys. Bussy Gray had come in and said hello to everybody, drunk his two, and gone home for the night. Carley was sitting at the bar. He was well drunk. He was still going after it, boy. That's what he did, though. That's all he ever did. He wasn't married. He'd never had a girlfriend, I don't think. Nobody ever saw him talk to any girl, or woman. He sweated all day long, ate him a sandwich, and looked forward to Saturday night, and getting drunk. "That's a hell of a platform out there," Henry said to him.

"You know, why don't they use plywood?" somebody else said. Some young kid, Burgess's kid, I remember. He left town after a while. "Hey, Carley," the young guy called out. "Why don't you use plywood on that thing? It'd go on a hell of a lot faster than board by board, like that."

Carley didn't answer him. He didn't look around. He took a big drink.

"When are you going to cut that tree down?" the kid called to him. "That dead tree in front of our house is going to fall down on somebody any day now. When are you going to finish that thing and come cut it down?"

Then Pauley Gray came in. It was after a while, I guess. It must have been kind of late by then. We all looked at each other, grunted, or sighed, and dropped our cigarettes under the table. We stepped them out, all in a row. Pauley had to step past us to come all the way in. His back was half-turned to us. Then he turned sideways and looked at us, and smiled, and said, "Hello, fellows."

"Hi you, Pauley, Marshal," Burgess said. "You having a drink?"

"You couldn't force alcohol down my throat," Pauley Gray said. "Go ahead and make fun of me. I'll still be running up and down this street while you all are dead in your graves."

"Well, come and have a Coke," said Mutt. "Let the marshal sit down with us. We'll feel safe if you and that shiny toy of yours are sitting here with us."

Pauley turned toward us without coming over. "I smell smoke," he said. Nobody said anything.

"I smell smoke," Pauley Gray said. "Cigarette smoke. You all know that's illegal, to smoke in a place intended for public use. It's not fair making us all have to breathe that acid smoke."

"Nobody's smoking here."

Pauley turned the other way. There at the bar was Carley. "He's smoking," Pauley said.

"He's not smoking," Mutt said. "You leave old Carley alone." Carley's hands were in sight on the curved black edge of the bar, empty. Cigarette butts were mounded under the rail at his feet. Smoke filled the air over his head, but it filled the bar in general.

"Hey, Carley," Pauley said. He walked over to Carley and patted him on the shoulder. "Hey, old Carley," he said. "What're you doing, smoking in here?"

Carley reached up to his face with one of the hands, and you could see him take the cigarette out of his mouth. From the back, more smoke was visible blowing up above his head. He returned the cigarette to his lips.

From the back, he was broad-shouldered.

"You know, you look kind of foolish there, sitting there smoking like that," Pauley said to him. "When everybody in here knows very well you personally hung all those signs."

"Hung 'em for you," Carley said.

"But you must have read at least one of them, when you were hanging them all," said Pauley.

Carley emptied his beer. "'Nother," he said down the bar, sliding money across the top. You could tell that to him the conversation was over.

"What is the attraction of sucking tar and nicotine down into your blessed body?" Pauley Gray was saying. "It collects in the sacs in your lungs, congests them, coats them, fills them until no oxygen can penetrate. And then you hack yourself to death. You cough your own polluted useless lungs up out of your body."

Carley downed his beer.

Somebody said, "He makes it sound so good, don't he."

"And it's the law," Pauley Gray said. "You got to obey the law, whether you read it or not. You know what it says. I know that you know what it says."

Carley wasn't paying any attention to him. Pretty soon we lost interest, too. I was looking over at my wife, to see what they were up to over there. She was drinking some pink gunk out of a beer glass, a pilsner glass. All of them were. Some pink gunk with white foam on top, and a piece of an orange in it. I didn't think they had such things as oranges in the Grill.

I felt the guys around me all moving, all moving back, in a way that made you look. When we all looked, there was Pauley Gray, standing close next to Carley with his revolver out of the holster. He was just sort of holding it, just sort of thinking about it. Then he lifted it up and put it in between them. "Well," he was saying. "What do you think now?"

"Well, Marshal, what I think is, if you're going to go pointing that gun at people, you ought to have filed the sight down off it first."

"What? What?"

"I say, you ought to have filed the sight down off it first." Carley still didn't look at him, but for the first time he was speaking up loudly.

"Oh, shit," Mutt said.

"Why would I do that?" Pauley Gray asked him.

"Because after I shove it up your ass, it's going to tear you all up when you go to pull it out."

We all laughed. Pauley Gray didn't look at us, but you could tell by the side of his red face how much he felt us. He pointed the gun down and shot Carley in the knee. Then he shot him in the other knee.

"He was coming at me," he said. "He was coming at me." It was true that the first shot, in the first knee, didn't knock Carley down. He just sat there. He looked hard at Pauley Gray. I don't think he said anything. We all were jumping up. We were all jumping up. Then Pauley shot him in the second knee. "He was coming at me," he was saying then, probably just amazed, and then scared, then goddamn scared that the man was still sitting there, with a bullet in him and unmoved, unmoving. So he shot him again, and then Carley went down. He sort of laid himself down, without catching himself, but in a controlled way coming down onto his back, onto the wooden floor, the bare open part of the wooden floor, and we were all standing there by then, all on one side, not around him. The women, the girls, my wife and her sister and her friends were still sitting where they were. Then they were all standing up. Then they were all sitting back down. Then they were all talking, very loud, screaming, kind of, but talking: "My God, my God," stuff like that. The gun was back in the holster. "He tried to come at me," Pauley Gray was still saying.

"Yeah yeah," somebody finally said to him. "We saw, we saw." What else could you say?

Carley was laying there on his back, just bleeding a little bit, and waiting for help. Henry had called Bridgeville for an ambulance by then. Carley was laying there, straight, with his arms straight down by his sides and his curly hair back neatly above his forehead. His mouth was mumbling around, like he was still feeling for the cigarette. Then he said, "God damn you," and then he started crying.

We kept just kind of standing there. Nobody said anything to him. He was drunk, too, you remember. So nobody said anything to him. When the ambulance guys came in, we all left. My wife was over there with me by then, so we went out. We went over to the Liquid Diet and had a drink. She'd never been in there before, she said to me. I thought that was funny, how in a town that little you could grow up and live all your life, and there was still a place where somebody had never been in their life. Then we got up and left, like everybody else already had. They all had. They all had. The women had folded their cards together. The men had sort of clicked their glasses down once or twice and left. When they could have got up and carried him out. They could have borne him out. They had the muscle. They had the strength. They could have. They could have put him up on their shoulders and borne him out. Lifted him up on a blanket, or just on their own shoulders, and out. There were enough of them. They had the might. They could have raised him up. They could have put the cigarette back in his fingers. They could have carried him to safety. They could have carried him out to the street, and around the corner, and up a hundred feet to the Lutheran church and the green lawn, and the platform there, and put him up on there. Put him up there and stood around.

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