My nubile niece, Cassandra, is going clubbing with her puppyish pal Miranda. They are spending the weekend at my house because they live over in the Valley and they will be out late. I am so conveniently located. They brought me a spray of freesias, a string of plastic tiki lights, and a pound of ham to say thanks.
Before they go out, I warn them, “Don’t you two come home shit-faced. I won’t be surprised if the vice squad raids that place.”
“Aren’t you afraid the vice squad will come after you?” Cassandra says, laughing. “Look at your vices, Aunt Joyce!”
Cassandra, going through my kitchen cabinets, is teasing me. “All these Mexican lard products–the tortilla chips, the tacos, the refried beans.”
“I don’t cook with lard. I use canola.”
Miranda finds this hilarious and laughs uncontrollably. I wonder if she will pee on the rug.
“And your cigarettes!” Cassandra throws her hands in the air, then catches them with an afterthought. “I am shocked.”
“It’s just a habit,” I quip.
“The tobacco police, the obesity police, the trans-fat police–they’re all going to gang up on you one day.” Cassandra places her hands on her slim hips like a traffic cop.
The pal, Miranda, just stands around in her Spandex and glitter, mooning at me, maybe mocking me because my droopy boobs aren’t about to lunge out of my top. She and Cassandra are awkward with me because they think I am still in some kind of grief quarantine.
“I don’t overeat,” I say. “Chocolate curbs my appetite.”
“There were once chocolate police,” Cassandra says with authority. “But they lost their contract, shifted to the good list.”
“It has to be dark chocolate,” says Miranda, giggling. “Or it doesn’t count.”
“Yeah, you can still get arrested,” Cassandra says.
These two girls parade around my living room, bubbling over in their skimpy clubbing outfits.
I get to the point. “Why don’t you girls go to these club places with a boy– a date?”
“We meet guys there,” Miranda says, shrugging, her breasts lurching. “All kinds.”
She and Cassandra exchange looks and die laughing.
“It’s casual,” Cassandra says. “A bunch of us go, and one of us is the designated driver. So we can get wasted without worry.”
“No Magnolia Blitzes for him–or her!” screams Miranda.
“It’s just wholesome fun,” Cassandra says. “Like you and Uncle Bob used to have.”
She assumes things so recklessly. She never knew my departed husband.
But she knows she struck a nerve, I can tell.
Before I climb into bed at ten forty-eight, I pick up a loose checker–red–that has fallen onto the rug. I was playing checkers this afternoon with Wilbur Knotts and it must have been in my pocket since then.
This Wilbur Knotts bears some thinking about. He is scrappy and shrunken and opinionated, always spouting off about the budget deficit, losing me in about five seconds. He has opinions on Medicare, abortion, guns, the debt ceiling, all the bank bailouts. He is obsessed with bailouts, treating them as if they weren’t ancient history. I never inject an opinion on these topics. It just sets him off. I’d rather talk about movies, or cooking, or hollyhocks, something close at hand, something real and not depressing. But I keep thinking we are getting somewhere, that there is somewhere to get to. I caught a glimpse of his deeper self the other day when he let out a little cry of distress, a whimper of homesickness for his distant Kentucky past. It was fleeting, as though he had button-holed himself again as quickly as a dog snapping a gnat. But it told me worlds.
So I cooked for him yesterday–buffalo steak, slaw, green beans (leather-britches style, or as near as I could get to that), potatoes au gratin, cranberry mold, and deep-dish cherry cobbler. I didn’t tell him the steak was from a buffalo, because then he would have gotten started on hunting and all the God-given rights there were to proclaim. That exhausts me. Nothing can make me feel I am in prison more than people blathering uncontrollably about their freedoms.
But I have an open mind.
I’m listening for the return of the girls and can’t get to sleep. Who could sleep with the thought of those pretty girls dancing in some decrepit, dark firetrap warehouse, where the music sounds like jet engines revving in an airplane hangar? So they meet guys. It’s casual. The girls say the music makes them feel free. I wonder if I should go clubbing–if they would let me. I’m not very old, really. Not even forty! I can hear them hooting.
Bob and I never went dancing. Except once, on our honeymoon, in Mexico. In the little hotel on a plaza, there was a wedding going on. It went on night and day for the whole week we were there. A mariachi band serenaded the honeymoon couple. When the hotel found out we were also on our honeymoon, the band serenaded us too–at three a.m. Everyone in the village showed up to celebrate us. People were drunk, dancing on the plaza at all hours. The señora at the desk gave us a cake and some fruit. Every day, something. We couldn’t escape the music, the dancing, the feasts, the tequila. Both of us hated the music and didn’t know how to dance to it. The noise hurt Bob’s ears. Tequila made me sick. What had been so romantic about a Mexican honeymoon anyway? And then there was the incident of the large spider nesting in a corner of the ceiling. The señora dispatched it nonchalantly. It was a jumper. Bob got Montezuma’s revenge. I got a vaginal infection.
Our honeymoon of clichés, we called it ever after, and it became a fond, funny memory–even the music, even the spider.
We were O.K. together–nothing electric, nothing disastrous. Easy. And fast.…how fast the days went by. All the days were so much the same, and there was little to distinguish them. I would think when he kissed me goodbye at the door each morning, didn’t we just do this five minutes ago? But we were still feeling our way into marriage. We were still tentative, too young to know what to think when the Grim Reaper knocks at the door and doesn’t even say hello, just mumbles obscure verbiage about the pancreas.
Bob. At first I didn’t miss him. It seemed so much less trouble without him. It was a relief. They came and got the hospital bed, and I took the walker back to the drug store and picked up his ashes in the same trip. So weird to be hauling Bob around like that. I put him in the back seat, so I was a chauffeur. Really, it was business as usual, delivering him to the doctor all those times, taking him for treatments. And he was so stoic, so quiet, as if speaking would be impolite.
I put him on a shelf in the closet, next to the little box that contained Britches, our Bichon. Funny how I cried so much more over Britches. It was so much easier to cry over a dog. After that, there was just a long, dark vacancy. I don’t even know how long it went on. Sometimes I don’t know how I got back here. I still can’t believe this happened to Bob. To me. It was as though we didn’t look both ways before crossing the street.
Cassandra told me that at a club the young people are packed so closely together they are almost swimming. There is no talking, just squealing and shouting. I visualize them like desperate fish in a tank, swimming in circles. I’m imagining the young bodies, dripping with sex, barely clothed, moving all against each other in a rapid rhythm, like a large group making a toast, raising the glass and then everybody touching everybody’s glass. Maybe that is how they are dancing, all swimming, slippery together in the water. It is a thought too delicious to bear.
Back to Wilbur Knotts. If he would only stop talking…if I could catch him between the cost of education and the evil of taxation…somewhere in there might be a forbidden crevice, a moist niche I could swim into–fleet of foot, dancing, doing the Highland Fling.
Bobbie Ann Mason’s first book of fiction, Shiloh & Other Stories, (1982) won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was nominated for the American Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her novel, In Country, (1985) is taught widely in classes and was made into a Norman Jewison film. Mason’s newest novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret, ventures into World War II and the ways it is remembered. Her memoir, Clear Springs, is about an American farm family throughout the twentieth century, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.