HomeArchivesSubmissionsCorpse MallOur GangHot SitesSearch
Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Foreign Desk
Santa Fe Cab
by Michael Backus ||
Author's Links

I'm parked on the edge of the city, right where it turns to scrub brush and red sand hills stretching 25 miles to the Jemez Mountains, a landscape crossed with dozens of dry river beds and a series of Anasazi canyons, my eyes closed, seat back, Patsy Cline on tape lulling me to a sweet sleep and a voice I don't recognize blares over the radio, a new guy no doubt, yelling into his mic asking for a location for, can it be, he wants to know where the ski basin is?
     "See that big mountain at the edge of town? The one with snow on top?" says Davy, the dispatcher, playing it as cool as he can. The owners had a talk with him recently, told him he had to rein it in a little.
     "Head for the top."
     "But how do I get there?"
     "See that round thing in front of you?"
     "Um, sure, I guess so."
     "That's the steering wheel. You turn that and the car turns," Davy says.
     "But....." the new voice says hopelessly.
     At least I'm awake now. Last night, after my shift was over, I stopped by Irene's apartment, she's a woman I met driving the cab, someone I've been seeing for a few months. Her electric wheelchair was chained in front so I knew she was home but she wouldn't open the door.
     "Renie, for Christ's sake," I said through her door.
     "Who is it?" her little voice said, filtering through the wood.
     "Shit Irene, who is it? That's all you got to say?"
     "Go fuck yourself, Jimmy," she said, then she started flicking the outside light on and off until some of her neighbors appeared like ghosts out of the dark, the rubber tires of their wheelchairs silent on the concrete.
     "All right buddy," said a man with long hair and muscular arms covered in tattoos. "Move along."
     "I don't get it Renie," I said through the door. "Just tell me what's wrong. Just open the door and talk to me."
     The light went out, throwing us into darkness. When I turned, four people had surrounded me, all in wheelchairs.
     "Hey you asshole," said an intense-looking woman with no legs. "Yeah you." As if I might be one of a crowd of assholes.
     "Just move along," said a fat man wearing a cowboy hat. "Nothing to see here."
     "You people don't understand," I said.
     "What's to understand?" the tattoo man said.
     "She says fuck off, you fuck off," said the intense woman.
     "But I can explain," I said.
     Later I hear the same lost voice over the radio, asking where to pick up Roma at the hospital and I think damn, if Roma's in the hospital, she must be drinking again.
     "Where?" the voice says.
     "West entrance," Davy says.
     "OK," the voice says. "Is that geographical west?"
     "No, no, emotional west," Davy says without missing a beat. "Completely different thing."

One eyed Sammy

"This doctor new guy says to me about the tumor...."
     "Tumor?" Sammy leans forward into my rear view mirror line of sight and points to a nickel-sized bump just above his eye patch
     "They can't say for sure that this thing -- see how it is -- that it's because of the accident..."
     "Oh yeah, your accident. How long ago was that again?"
     "Five years. We should never have got in the car in the first place. You know my girlfriend died."
     "You told me."
     "Nearly cut in half."
     "Right through the windshield."
     "Almost in half."
     "I told her not to drink the gin. I'll tell you this, I'll never get in a car with a crazy person again. I told her, you better not sit up with that guy, you better not drink his gin, I'll tell your mother if you do but she did anyway. And this guy, this asshole driving, he was so fucked up, the steering wheel snapped on impact and the column went right through his chest and out the back."
     "Right through huh?"
     "Gutted. Dead on contact."
     "You know my girlfriend went through the windshield?"
     "So I hear."
     "Cut in half."
     "You live long enough."
     "That's the truth I guess."
     It's a little before midnight and things are slow. Davy's on the radio patiently giving out a green chili stew recipe to a driver whose voice I don't recognize. I pull up and run into Evangelos and call Irene. Of course I get her machine.
     "This is Jim," I say right away but then I draw a blank. I need more time to talk to her. I need to talk to her in person. "Just....just call me. Anytime. Don't you at least owe me that? Call me." I hang up. When I get back to the cab, Orlando is up on my computer screen, which means I have to go across town to base first and pick up the wheelchair van, then come all the way back.
     "I'll make it up to you," Davy says. No one wants to get Orlando because he's always passed out blind drunk and because it means a lot of time and effort, switching a car to a van and then back when it's all over. And because Orlando's electric chair is fiendishly difficult to steer walking along side and impossible to push by hand.
     "Yeah, yeah, yeah," I say, but when I reach base, Davy's outside smoking a joint so I know it's true this time, he will make it up to me. He hands me the roach and heads back inside.
     "Catch up," he says. "I'll be back." I draw the smoke as deep as I can and hold it. A week ago, just one week, I drove Irene up to the Rio Grande River Gorge bridge outside Taos and carried her to the middle, spinning and kissing her. We dropped pistachio nuts off, counting the seconds until it they hit water 1000 feet below, she pulled her shirt off when we couldn't see cars in either direction and let the sun and wind play over her stomach and breasts and I got on my knees and kissed her all over while she grabbed handfuls of my hair and let her head hang back over the side. One week.
     Davy comes back.
     "How fucked up is Orlando tonight?"
     "Someone called for him, that's never a good sign," Davy says.
     "What's with the new guy?"
     "I think it's safe to say," Davy says, drawing smoke up his nose. "that he isn't the brightest bulb on the string."
     Orlando has one good hand and it isn't all that good but he manages to manipulate a single joystick controlling his wheelchair. He sits in his chair with his head back tilted so he's looking straight up. Orlando has a sharp mind, a shell of a body, and a good job with the federal government, plus a serious interest in getting blind drunk. If you work the night shift, you've picked up Orlando passed out in some twisty corner of downtown. The first time I had him in the wheelchair van, I stopped too hard and his head flopped forward, his chin like a doorstop against his chest.
     "Excuse me," Orlando said in a choked voice that made me turn to look. "Could you push my head back. No, not ...just push my forehead back, don't worry, just do it, that's the ticket. Ahh, you're beautiful baby."
     Tonight is typical, he's passed out in the Mercado, a small shopping mall downtown, he's come to a stop with his knees against a glass case full of fake turquoise jewelry, cheap Indian drums, Kachina dolls with blank faces and small real leather loin skins that flip up.
     "Yeah, yeah," Orlando stirs himself without opening his eyes. "That you Jim?"
     "Yeah, big O. You going to get your sorry ass sober or do I have to drive your damn chair again?"
     "You drive."
     So I do.
     Irene is tiny and getting tinier with huge round eyes set in a face that's also getting smaller, like everything but her eyes are shrinking. The effect is still striking but I can see in a few years it's going to progress to strange and even disturbing until she looks like a starving child wearing oversized joke sunglasses. She has MS and in the beginning, she talked a lot about it, how she first started noticing a tingling in her legs after working out at the gym, how it sometimes attacks people's brains, sometimes their bodies, sometimes both. She has friends she's made since it started -- lawyers, doctors, painters -- who have become vacant and still, like pieces of carved wood.
     I tell her she's at least lucky about that, she's kept her mind and she laughs and says, "You didn't know my mind back when I was a regular person," and it's true, she's not the kind of person I would have ever connected with if she hadn't come down with MS.
     She had been a stylist for fashion shoots in Los Angeles and no matter how much she talks about it in detail, I can't see that in her. I knew some stylists in New York and they all seemed like flitty, insecure people, forced to constantly obsess on surface details but unwilling to explore depth in any serious way, shallow, ridiculous people, I thought, model wannabes. But I've seen the pictures of her standing tall and confident alongside famous cover girls and beautiful perfect men with their arms around her, kissing her, their faces buried suggestively in her hair and it makes me feel small and strange, a sad little troll of a man who grabbed the princess and forced her body into shapes he could live with.
     "The difference between you and me," she said to me once on a cold night full of sharp wind and bitter ghosts, "is you romanticize the end of the world as a place where you'll finally find love, a place where truth will always prevail and I don't see it as anything but my life, as hard and blunt as a brick wall."
     Irene sometimes has a way with words that makes me desperately want to love her.

Judy with a bad heart

"The city's saying they might take my card away. I can't afford $25 every day paying full fare for a taxi ride," she says right off.
     "I think this city transpo chief is trying to find out who really needs the card and who can walk to the bus station, trying to save money of course," I say carefully, not wanting to sound judgmental but she looks healthy to me; large boned, maybe 25, she moves well, has both legs, she's not retarded, not crippled, she doesn't give off that boozer/junkie feel, her head is upright, not lolling around, her face is in proportion, no distortions, no large growths, no misshapen limbs. She could be epileptic. I've learned not to judge but I still do.
     "They can't do that, I can't walk the five blocks to the bus and stand out there for an hour, my heart can't take it," she says.
     "Heart huh?"
     "I was born with a backwards heart, I had open heart surgery when I was 18 months old," she says.
     "Yeah, they fixed it for awhile, but also kind of fucked it up and the doctors say I'll need a transplant within 10 years. I'm on a list."
     "Must be some list."
     "Not one I want to be on. But...."
     "Pretty high rent, I bet?"
     "Half a million dollars," she snorts and smiles at me in the mirror. "Can you believe it?"
     "Not really."
     "Me either. I'm going to try and hold on to this one as long as I can."
     "I'm with you there."
     "You want to hear a fun Judy fact?" she says.
     "I have two ribs removed, they've cut me open so many times to repair things, they decided it was easier to just make a permanent path to my heart because they know they'll have to go in again sooner than later."
     "That is something."
     "Isn't it?"

The police counselor

with hair cut down to the scalp, chain-smoking through a cracked window, moving gingerly, like he might spill something. He asks about motels, looking for "cheap but not too cheap."
     "Maybe one of the downtown hotels?" he says.
     "A lot more money, closer to the plaza though."
     "Ah fuck it. I'm not going anywhere. By tonight I'll be lucky if I can move."
     "That right? What happened?"
     "Fell asleep on 25 last night. Next thing I know, I'm forcing a car off the road, then I lose it, spin around, flip a few times..."
     "Jesus, you're OK though?"
     "More or less. My body feels like I went through a dozen dryer cycles. But in a couple days...."
     "How about the other car?"
     "Some woman, last I heard not good. She's in a coma, it's a head thing."
     "Oh shit."
     "Yeah well."
     "Where you from?"
     "You're a ...?"
     "Psychologist. I work with cops who've got problems, you know, they're kicking the shit out of their wives or they just blew a big hole in someone or they pulled a gun on some frightened fucking citizen, that kind of thing. State says they got to come to me."
     He lights a new cigarette off the old one.
     "That sounds...I don't know. Intense?"
     "Fucked up is more like it but it's a living, you know. Not a place I expected to be at this point but who knows. Who knows what to expect?"
     "Life's like a bumper sticker, right? Shit does happen."
     "Cliches are truth I guess but you know, if that's the truth, I don't know. I'm not sure anything's worth anything, you know?"
     "You mean the exceptions to the rules are what's important?"
     Irene likes sex and drugs and she enjoys keeping me in the dark about how much of this is a holdover from her former life, her "real life" she calls it and how much, by implication, is a reaction. She mostly smokes dope which I usually get for her but since we've been together, we've dropped acid, eaten mushrooms, MDA, peyote; we've snorted and free-based cocaine and she often brews a strong tea from opium poppies which makes us both dreamy and horny.
     I've never much been into drugs, they've always had an introspective quality that makes me nervous and I can't quite understand why Irene is so insistent and over the top with her use, it would seem to me that the last thing she needs is to think about her life all the time. But I've stayed with her every step of the way, even when I wanted to say,
"Let's just slow down a little." She has a way of being that makes me feel stodgy and conservative, someone always on the edge of becoming a drag.
     And the more time I spend with her, the more enthusiastic I become about it. I had a wife once. In New York. We went to parties, held small dinners for friends, we danced in clubs and took day trips out to the end of Long Island. We had jobs and pets and friends and relatives. Each year, we added more and more layers until we could no longer access the original one, that thing that brought us together in the first place.
     With Irene, I feel cut off from the rest of the world, content, like we're creating a happy life together, a family of two on a deserted island, without roots, without history, living exactly in the here and now, free from all the machinations of the regular world. When I'm with her, I don't read the paper, I don't watch television, I feel completely cut off, cocooned. And the more time I spend with Irene, the more I like my job, floating alone through the city all day, going where fate pushes me, always moving, like a religion, always moving, my workplace being everywhere and nowhere. My life as a road movie.

Jerry the blind guy

with shallow aggressive eyes, small like the holes left over after the plastic eyes on a stuffed animal work themselves free, on his way downtown to swim at one of the hotel pools.
     "This town's done for me. "
     "That right?"
     "Too much shit, too many goddamned enemies, I got to get out."
     "Enemies huh?"
     "Yeah, you think I can't have enemies? Like that fucking cunt who dropped me off, no offense, you both being cab drivers and all."
     "No offense."
     "The fucking bitch wouldn't wait five goddamned minutes for me, told me I had to call another cab, standing out here in the motherfucking cold with my dick in my hand."
     "I hope she catches cancer the whore."
     "Stuff like that happens I guess" I say. His head keeps going one way, his eyes another, like a car's lights bent off-line by an accident.
     "I'm going over to my cousin's to work on my club."
     "Club, huh? Golf? Car?"
     "Baseball bat. I'm drilling holes and screwing six inch galvanized sheet metal screws in the end. This guy Bob I used to work with, fat greasy stinking fuck of a human being, says he's going to get me, knocks on my door in the middle of the night, thinks I don't know it's him. Well, I got a surprise for that toad licker, an ass kisser like Bob's always got that faint smell of shit on his breath, I can tell it's him a block away. I'm going shove my club up his ass, twist and pull his guts out his butt hole. Fuck with me will he."
     "Enemies huh? Imagine that. The world is a confusing place."
     "I'm not confused."
     "I can see that about you. You take care now," I say when I drop him. "Thanks."

Paul, Jackie, Susan

Recently, the city has ordered the owners of the cab company to start doubling and tripling the ride card holders as a way of cutting costs. At a certain time each morning, a group of mentally challenged adults all go to the same warehouse where they spend the day licking envelopes. About once a week I get the call.
     Jackie and Paul are first because they share an apartment with other people like them along with a caretaker. Paul is obviously retarded but has all the airs of the classic American worker, he's sarcastic, he gets irritated easily, he's contemptuous of the others, he doesn't like getting up, he's offended at being jammed in a car with so many people, he hates his job. He usually takes the front seat without asking, but today I make him crowd in the back.
     Jackie has a peculiar, potato-like face and head with a mouth that on first glance, seems to be bent into a permanent smile but when you really look, it's more of a grimace. Jackie moves carefully with shuffling steps, he comes down stairs the way a very small child might, someone who hasn't yet learned to trust in the most basic physical world, the same foot forward every time, gripping the rail, sometimes setting down his lunch box so he can use both hands. I can see the fear in his eyes, fear of simply walking. It's as if his mind no longer has the power to keep his body intact. Is that all the body is, a construct of a (reasonably) healthy mind? Like an invisible bridge in some mythological land, it exists intact only as long as all the villagers believe in it?
     Next I pick up Susan in a clean neighborhood of small houses built close together, suburbs 40 years ago, now smack in the center of the city. Paul gets out and makes Susan sit in the middle.
     "What's wrong Susan?" I say into the mirror, then I turn and Susan, a middle-aged woman with scarecrow hair and eyes open wide in a look of perpetual surprise, is rocking and moaning in rhythm, her arms wrapped around her stomach.
     "What's wrong with Susan, Jackie?"
     Jackie stops in the middle of a huge mouthful of his lunch like he's just been caught, his startled eyes catch mine in the mirror. He's started to eat even though it's only 9 a.m. and he surely just ate breakfast. There are still toast crumbs spotting his shirt.
     "Why you asking Jackie?" Paul says. "Jackie don't know nothing." I notice Paul's nose is running and liquid has gathered on the upturn of his lip, threatening to spill over.
     Susan keeps moaning.
     "Jackie, you're not getting food all over my cab, are you?"      Jackie opens the door even though we're moving and spits out a big chunk of chewed food. Paul has to pull him back in or he would have fallen out. I steer the car to the curb.
     "OK Paul, what do we do. Tell us Susan, what do we do to get you to stop." Susan has her arms in the air, her hands are like an insect fluttering around her face, she seems even more upset that the car isn't moving.
     "Who cares?" Paul says. "Who cares, who cares, that's what I say, who cares?"
     "Boy," Jackie says and grins at me like he's just done something special. Paul rolls his eyes at me.
     "Here we go," he says. A foul smell begins to fill the car.
     "What'd you do Jackie?" I say. Susan crinkles her nose and stops moaning.
     "Smelly belly," Susan says.
     "I farted," Jackie says, smiling even bigger. Paul shakes his head and rolls his eyes, as if the whole thing, me included, is so far beneath him. The only thing to do is power all the windows down, put the car back in gear and keep going.
     Irene can no longer lift her legs but I do it for her, resting her ankles on my shoulders and she grips the bed frame above her and shakes and contorts and yells and sometimes her needle legs, shriveling to bone before my eyes, begin an involuntary quiver like a vibration and it moves through her body the way I imagine an earthquake moves through the ground and I want to stop, thinking I'm hurting her but she only yells louder and then I can feel myself inside of her like a hand has a hold of me, gripping and letting go and I've never felt anything like it. Never.
     A couple weeks ago, when I took her to her doctor, the receptionist just started talking to me. Apparently her and Irene have become friendly through the years of the disease.
     "All this isn't good for her, you know, it's not helping her."
     "All this, you mean me?"
     "Not specifically you, but all the stuff she does, the drinking and drugs and the other stuff."
     "She knows this?"
     "Of course."
     I wasn't sure what else to say. The truth is, I wanted to ask questions like what "not specifically you" meant exactly. Had there been others like me? Of course I know there had been, many others, before the disease. But since?
     "She tells me all this stuff in detail, I think she enjoys shocking me," the woman said and I really looked at her for the first time. She was younger than Irene with well-maintained black hair cut into a strange shape and a doughy face that looked indistinct and non-descript from every angle. She used heavy make-up to try and counter that. I could tell she took great pride in her hair.
     "She tells you stuff?"
     "She told me what you two have been doing lately. I think it's disgusting," she said and I had to turn away. God Irene, I thought, sometimes I can't figure out any part of you. I often wonder if she was like this before or if the disease has somehow accentuated her idiosyncrasies and allowed her to drop all the guards people put up. What the woman was talking about was anal sex, in the last month it's all Irene wants. She says I'm a perfect fit and that when I'm inside her like that, she can move her body and feel it in a way she no longer can having regular sex.
     "I'm not sure I'm comfortable with this Renie," I said after a solid week of it.
     "You seemed pretty damn comfortable a few minutes ago," she said, naked on her side rolling a joint on the table. She looked like a tiny delicate doll and I couldn't resist the thought that I could crush her to dust so easily.
     "I didn't say I didn't like it," I said, wanting to say more but unable to think exactly what.
     "Well then," she said as if I'd answered my own question. And maybe I had.
     "It's just..." I said.

AA Claude

Not a regular but he has a ride card and an upbeat aura in a life that looks like it's been lived hard. Claude is rail thin, reedy; all stilt legs and an oversized head, he walks carefully, like each step is an adventure. I can imagine he's spent a good part of his life impacting the ground so he's like a fighter who's been hit too many times, he doesn't exactly fear the impact and he knows the only thing to do is pop back up and keep going. One of his hands has at least an inch of white gauze covering it.
     "Good news."
     "Doctors say I'll probably get 60 percent use of my hand back."
     "That's good news?"
     "Before, they said I'd be lucky to get 10. And today's my birthday. I'd say that's enough for a celebration."
     "Sounds right to me." Ride card holders are allowed a single brief stop and Claude asks for one. Turns out he's a New Yorker, we have that in common, and he warms up to me. He's been around.
     "Fucking bullshit AA meetings out here. Nothing but platitudes, these people just spew this shit, none of it means nothing. Nobody out here's interested in getting at what it means to be an alcoholic. They're just going through the motions cause someone's told them they have to."
     "Please explain."
     "St. Marks Church, lower east side, now those were rocking meetings. Shit, we really went into the heart of things, nobody had to tell us nothing. These people were like, I fucking killed my wife, I kicked the shit out of little Billy every day for a fucking lifetime. I sucked some asshole's dick for a beer. Those were some lives right out there on the line, everything we were, everything we had, we were willing to lay it all out, trying to find out what was going on inside, trying to fix it. We trusted each other."
     "Sounds like home to me all right. People out here could use a little New York," I say, just going with the flow as usual.
     "Fucking A that's the truth, straighten their asses right out. Teach them what it means to live a real life. I was stuck out on Long Island for a couple of years, going to these meetings in Riverhead, these rich Hamptons assholes, half of them there like it was some kind of experience to be gained, like going to war or something. Like being a boozer is something you can put on a gold card, something you can buy and throw away when you don't need it. The motherfuckers."
     "I remember a little smoked fish place in Riverhead," I say.
     "Fucking California, man don't get me started, L.A. meetings, I could talk a month about that bullshit. Now San Francisco, nothing like New York but not full of shit either, some people who really wanted to get at it, they just weren't sure how. Oakland was even better. Those people flat wanted to know what it was like to be a booze hound. They wanted to understand."
     I go inside with him and help him carry it out, two twelve packs of Budweiser, a fifth of Vodka, a fifth of gin, then I hump it to his room. He tips me four dollars. New Yorkers are always the best tippers.

Truth or Consequences Eddie

Ed always insists on sitting in the front seat, says he can't get in the back because of his legs which were damaged in Vietnam and finished off by years of heroin then methadone addiction and diabetes. Ed pops on the overhead light and pulls down his lower lip, showing me where he'd had all his bottom teeth pulled yesterday, a raw meaty gum with black sutures.
     "Christ Eddie, aim that shit somewhere else," I say, turning off the light.
     "They gave me these drugs so I'm fucked up, wandering into K-Mart and these assholes want to take my bag from me, they want to look through it, like I'm stealing or something and I tell them they can suck my dick, you know, fuck if I'm letting them do that."
     "I hear you so far."
     "So I says call the cops, who cares, bring them on, bring all you motherfuckers on, what the fuck, you know? And I wait and the cops come and look in my bag and there's nothing of course. Then they found my Beretta."
     "The 9 millimeter?"
     "The very one. They all got excited and they took it but they said I probably can get it back because I had the clip in one pocket, the gun in the other."
     "You didn't think if the cops came they might search you?"
     "Not the point, not at all the point. Nobody's going through my stuff. I don't steal, I don't put my hands on other people and I expect to be treated the same."
     "So what now?"
     "I had to dig out my old .38, peashooting piece of shit but I guess it's better than nothing. Friday I'm going to court to get my Beretta back. Maybe I'll carry both for awhile."
     "Sounds like a plan all right."
     "I'm King Hell with plans, no doubt there."
     "It's the doing right Eddie?"
     "It's the doing brother."
     I park my taxi a couple blocks from Irene's complex, log out and make the quiet walk. The sky is pristine and crystalline clear, like a camera lens perfectly focused. I can see the sharp beads of pink along the horizon blending to light blue and above, bats dart and dive in and out of the mix. Stars are popping over head. At one place, I walk through a scrubby abandoned lot and I have a vista of the mountain, outlined dark against the richness of the dusk sky like some impossible fortress, and all around me, purple and yellow wildflowers, their startling color being slowly sucked down into a bubbling shadow.
     I approach quietly with no clear plan other than surprise. I can hear hard rock music in the air, The Jesus Lizard, a tape she borrowed from me. I take this as a hopeful sign.
     Her door is cracked open and light pours out in a slant. I want to just burst in, not give her the opportunity to keep the door between us but now, standing on the sidewalk in front, I know I won't. The music ends suddenly. I look at the toe of my tennis shoe in the light, too much like the sinister foot sticking out from under the curtains in a scary movie. I pull it out. It's quiet inside the apartment but there are voices murmuring somewhere behind me, doors clicking shut, dogs barking, a car radio playing muffled Mexican music, children running and laughing--so many versions of life being played out around me. I knock.
     The tattooed man in the wheelchair opens the door, he's not wearing a shirt and has a towel across his lap. His arms and shoulders are amazing, tight ripples of muscle with thin perfect skin stretched over them but as you move down, his body starts to give out on him, his stomach is fat and bulging in odd places, his skin blemished and marked with a pasty white quality like it rarely has access to the air.
     "You again," the man says.
     "Is Irene here?"
     "Who's that?" I hear Irene say inside.
     "That guy, that asshole who's been stalking you," the man says.
     "Stalking?" I talk loud through to the room. "You're telling people I've been stalking you?" I step forward and the man grabs my wrist, his grip is like a vice and it feels like he could easily crush the bones in my arm so I stop. Irene puts her head around the door, I can tell from the way she's standing that she's naked.
     "Jimmy, you're embarrassing yourself." I stand with the man still gripping my arm and it feels a little like we're holding hands, talking to parents at the door before going out on a date.
     "You're full of shit Irene, I'm not and you know that. Why are you standing like that? Is there some part of you I haven't seen?"
     So Irene steps out in the open in that lurching way of hers when she's using her canes, like a table with one leg too short, shifting back and forth. Seen like this, her body is so small and bent, but still in perfect proportion with the clearest skin, a child's body, an old lady's body, a woman's body all at once.
     "What's the point of talking Jimmy," she says.
     I start to step forward, the man grips me tighter and pulls me back.
     "But we haven't talked at all, you haven't even told me what's going on."
     "The woman says fuck off, you fuck off, what could be more simple?" the man says. I twist suddenly but he's too strong so I lean down and grab one wheel of his chair and lift. He's surprisingly light and he lets go of me to cushion his fall as the chair goes over, spilling him out into the dirt.
     "Hey, hey, hey, hey!" the man says, panicking.
     "Oh fuck," says Irene. There's a moment of silence where I just stand in my spot, unsure what to do next. The man is beating around the dirt, grabbing for small trees, trying to pull his body along behind him. I look at Irene.
     "Get me a T-shirt Jimmy," she says calmly. So I do and help her on with it, she has to lean against me to do it and I want to touch her softly and sweetly.
     "Help Scotty off the ground for God's sake."
     "No, no, fuck him," Scotty says, but there's nothing for him to do but let me help. I right his chair then let him use my arms to lift himself up and back in, then I bend down to pick up his walkman, his little pads of paper and pens, his watch. When I hand them to him, he suddenly snakes out a punch, landing it squarely just below my nose and I teeter a little, then sit down softly on the concrete, my back against the wall. I can feel a thin stream of blood running out of my nose and I can hear voices, hers and his, but my vision is pulsating, like an aperture trying to shut down, and I lean my head back and close my eyes.
     When I wake up, I'm in the same spot. The light is on, the door shut, the night silent around me. I stand and knock on the door.
     "Come in, Jimmy," Irene says. She's sitting on the couch alone, fully clothed, watching television.
     "Get a wet cloth out of my bathroom," she says. "I'll clean you up."
     I lay my head on her lap, she runs her fingers through my hair and carefully, gently wets the dried blood then wipes it away. Her shirt gaps a little and I turn and touch her belly button lightly with my lips, she leans down and kisses me, holding it, pushing her tongue inside, running it around my teeth, tickling the roof of my mouth and I know what's going to happen next.
     We make love slowly, like we have all the time in the world, she keeps pulling away from me, not letting me come, extending it until I feel trapped in a dream moment, like being stoned and stuck in the chorus of a beautiful sad song. It begins to feel like some grand final gesture, important and seminal, if I can just hold off, nothing of what's going on between us will be real, but of course I can't. After, I lay in the dark, my legs wrapped around hers, feeling the quiver deep inside her, like a small frightened animal dying alone and without knowledge of what is happening to it. I know now she'll never talk to me about what's going on between us, maybe she doesn't know exactly herself, but I no longer care. I think this is the one time in my life I'm going to try and live in the moment and remember it.

The widow Barbara

She lives on a small-dead end street, one of the last places with real space so close to downtown and she often asks for me by name. I get out of the car and sit on a chair on her porch. Her fat dog Henry is rolling in the dirt, he sees me but is too lazy to come so I go to him, drop to my knees, rub his stomach. He smiles while his right rear leg works itself back and forth.
     "Jimmy, that you? I asked for you," Barbara says.
     "It's me. I'm playing with Henry."
     "Henry asked me about you the other day."
     I lay down next to Henry, who's switched to his back, his rear legs spread open.
     "That right?"
     "Well not in words of course but I could tell he was thinking about you. He was slobbering all over a tennis ball."
     Barbara comes out, she's a large Germanic woman with thick rough hands and feet that have become overlarge, splayed out wide and long by the years. Her face is as much male as female anymore in that way that some old people get, as if nature at some point loses interest in maintaining a difference in genders. Even though she's almost 85, there's nothing frail about her.
     She'd lived in Germany throughout the entire war, part of an Aryan family that ran a small printing press publishing theatre handbills in Berlin in the 20s and 30s, then switched over to crude underground anti-war tracts, distributed by word of mouth or left in small piles on the streets until the Nazi authorities figured some things out.
     She was a beautiful woman then with flowing blond hair--I've seen the pictures--who lost her entire family in a period of five years. Her father died in prison, her mother of consumption, her sister was found in the street shot in the head, the Berlin police said her husband hung himself while in custody, she found out 18 months later. Her child, a young girl named Kristin, was killed in an Allied bombing raid.
     She told me all this matter of factly over a period of months, it was so far in the past and she'd had another husband and two more children since. She seemed eager to talk to someone who showed interest in all of it.
     "You look sad, Jimmy."
     "Love trouble."
     "I'd tell you about it, you know I would, but I'm not really sure, just that it's done and there's no way for it to be undone."
     I shut my eyes and lay my hand on Henry's fat, barrel chest.
     "Should we go, aren't you going to get in trouble?"
     "Are you in a hurry Barbara?"
     "No, no, not at all."
     "Could we just sit here for a minute?"
     "Sure Jimmy."
     Barbara sits down on her porch, I put my arm under Henry's head, he lets his snout rest against my cheek, his breath is snorty and wet. She begins humming a song.
     "What is that Barbara?"
     "Waltzing Matilda. My first husband loved the old Australian song. I used to play the piano and he'd sing every night after supper. Towards the end, he found this other song, it's like a protest song that uses Waltzing Matilda. I said to him, "This version's so so sad and bitter, do we want that in our house every night?" And Hank said anything that has a passion to it isn't sad and after we sang it for awhile, I realized he was right."
     "My second husband. I never told you his name?"
     "No. So you named this Henry after him." I rubbed the dog under his chin.
     "That's right."
     "Do you know the words Barbara? To that song?"
     "Some of them. I remember all the words to the original, to Waltzing Matilda."
     "Could you sing a little of it?"
     "I can, Jimmy, sure I can." She starts low, then gains strength, her voice isn't beautiful exactly but straightforward and sure of itself, like everything she does has a plan and a purpose and it's exactly what I want and need, a sense that someone else is in charge.
     Henry allows the weight of his body to shift into mine, the sky above me is perfect New Mexico, a purity of grain and color that only exists in the natural world. Barbara's words begin to lose focus and I have the sensation that she's a bird singing for the joy of it and I can hear other birds nearby answering and Henry's fat, labored breathing and a squirrel chattering and my own heart, steady and even like the ocean heard in a shell.

HomeArchivesSubmissionsCorpse MallOur GangHot SitesSearch
Exquisite Corpse Mailing List: Subscribe | Unsubscribe
©1999-2002 Exquisite Corpse - If you experience difficulties with this site, please contact the webmistress.