by Aaron Edwards
I. When You Are A River, Sometimes
“Daddy, who wrote this?”
I cry the mountain rain so oft
And all the world’s a windowpane
Protecting me from all the soft
Joy contained within, so when
The poem at this point becomes so damaged by mildew she cannot read it. The poem becomes legible again beginning midway through the sixteenth line:
Drink my fill
At the water’s edge
Spilling over into its depths
When I’m a river
Carrying myself beyond deliverance
And again it becomes impossible to read. Only by turning the page over and reading the back can the girl just make out the last two lines:
Sometimes the river ends
So an ocean can begin.
Alabama state flower: camellia
Alabama state insect: monarch butterfly
“That’s it? Just up and leave? That’s . . . I can’t believe this,” he said. “You’re never coming back.”
“That’s how it looks at the moment,” she said. “Not ‘til I find what I’m looking for. Or until I’m safely dead—whichever comes first.”
- Robert Dean, Manferd High School, class of ’87, voted “most likely to succeed.”
- Claire Beth, Manferd High School, class of ’87, voted “most likely to secede from the union.”
“What about your father? What’s he say?” Robert asked.
“Don’t know. Something unintelligible, most likely. Daddy’s always been just a little more than kin, and less than kind-ergarten,” she said, blowing a few strands of hair out of her eyes.
“Then stay for me. I could take care of you. I could. You know I’m good for it.”
“But it’s not about being taken care of,” she said. “You’re the most darling boy I’ve ever known—best friend forever—but it ain’t gonna work out between us.”
“Right, but you say that only because it never has.”
“Dean,” she said, “I don’t want to leave —”
“I don’t want you to leave either.”
“But listen. I—Have—No—Other —Choice. Things fall apart, that’s all. Don’t make this so hard. Think of it as my destiny.”
“I will miss you so much,” he said.
“You can’t deny a woman her destiny, can you?”
“Why’d she leave? Far’s I can tell, it was on account of female troubles,” said Joebee Theurer, auto mechanic, age 24.
“Oh, I can tell you,” said Turk Willis, math teacher, age 68. “Just the day before Claire up and outed to Birmingham, I asked her just what she planned on doing there. And she said to me, she said — we were talking, of course — and she said she would become a radio star in Birmingham and that she’d save the world and so on, and then she said, ‘hell if I really know what I’m gonna do,’ so then I said to her, ‘they got radio stars in Birmingham?’ and then . . . after that I rightly can’t recall what she said.”
Said Martha May, beautician, age withheld, “Oh, Honey, that poor child left here on account of her momma dyin’. Didn’t ya’ll know? Alicia — that’s Claire’s momma — she died giving birth to little Claire. Ya’ see, she was rill sick the whole while, and they said that either she or the baby would die if she went through with the pregnancy, but the baby didn’t die, so that was a miracle, but Alicia died, so that was a shame, and Claire, she never got over feeling responsible for her momma’s death. That’s why she left. It was to get away from the hurt, ya’ see. That, or little Claire’s got herself a boyfriend up there in Birmingham. One never knows, and of course I couldn’t rilly say,” said Martha, taking a final drag off her cigarette, looking out the window into the distance, and exhaling out the side of her mouth.
Said Rita Belle, age 8 ¾, “Maybe she left because she was sad.”
Claire left the town of Manferd the day after high school graduation, just as she had promised to do. Robert Dean saw her off at the bus station, and remained behind. “We can’t all just, you know, run off on a hero’s journey,” said Dean. “Some of us have to remain and keep the world in order.” And that’s what he did.
Robert Dean went to Huntsburough Community College, down the pike a piece from Manferd. He did very well for himself, graduating with an accounting degree, first in his class, then setting up a little office back on Center Street in Manferd right above the Red Hot Values Market. He had an apartment in the back that he used for his own personal space. It had a bed, desk, kitchen, bathroom. “It’s sufficient for my needs,” he would say. He spent his days helping people put their lives in financial order. Then at night he’d fall asleep with his reading glasses on, his white shirt unbuttoned, scrutinizing the works of Wordsworth, or Yeats or Whitman—poet types such as that—sweating over the meanings between the lines, as well as the meanings on the lines. It’s true he never fully understood what was trying to be said, nor did he have much hope in it, but still he read a bit of a poem every night, waiting for Claire’s return.
“You could git to Birmingham,” said Odessa Tate, age 72.
“No, no. I couldn’t do that,” said Dean. “It’s not proper. It’s too forward for a woman like Claire.”
“Sit round here ain’t proper neither, child.”
“I’m doing what I can. I’ve been praying.”
“Praying,” he said.
“Ooh, well, Dean Bob, I like to pray. Praying is nice as praying goes. But it ain’t gonna bring a pretty thing like Claire back to this place.”
“You never know.”
“She’s city, now.”
“I appreciate that. I’ve been, you know, I’ve been fasting as well.”
Odessa leaned back in her rocking chair, smoking a corncob and fanning herself with an old TV Guide. “How’s that?” she said.
“See, I’ve been reading about this Indian fellow named Gandhi. He was under the British— the imperial system the British got. He didn’t like it a bit, so he decides to fight ’em, but not, see, not in the manner General Washington took to. No, ma’am. He simply refused to eat ’til they’d up and pull out of his land.”
“And it worked.”
“Oh, like a charm. And, now, if it worked with a whole empire . . . you follow me? This is just one woman.”
“Ooh, I see. Yes, gracious. Well, the heart is sweet as candy, but your mind don’t know nothing about women.”
“No,” he said, “I suppose I really don’t. I’m just hoping, with the situation as it is, maybe to sway the Powers-That-Be to get Claire feeling to come back. It’s, um . . . basically what I’m doing is I’m wearying the Lord ’til he blesses me,” Dean said, scratching his nose. “Make sense?”
“How long you think before he goes for it?”
“Well, I was shooting for forty days, as a goal, but . . . two and a half days is my record, so far.”
“Child, you know what your problem is?” Odessa said, shooing away a fly.
“Fear, maybe, and—”
“You’re a Yankee. Ya’ll always complicate the uncomplicatable.”
“I’m from Tennessee.”
“And when’ll ya’ll learn the virtue of simplicity?”
There was mystery and speculation as to what Claire was doing in Birmingham, and not all of the talk was positive in its presumption. Most people didn’t take much stock in the rumor about Claire going radio star. Claire’s father somehow managed not to know, though she occasionally sent him letters. The older folk feared she would either die a violent death in Birmingham or return home pregnant. The youth for their part mostly figured she’d either die a violent death in Birmingham or return home famous — even more beautiful than she left. Claire proved them all wrong, of course, and came back ten years later an expert in martial arts.
She came home for her daddy’s funeral. “You can’t spell ‘deliverance’ without ‘liver,’ ” she once told him, but he never stopped drinking even to his final day. Still, even with all the libation, there was plenty of inheritance left for Claire, who, being the only child, received the entire family estate just as her daddy did when his parents died—family fortunes being what they are.
She moved back into the big white and gray house on the hill a mile out of town. After settling back into her home, she promptly opened the Southern Academy of Martial Arts at the corner of Center Street and Mobile, where the Home Service Laundry used to be, about a block north from Red Hot Values.
From the go the Southern Academy of Martial Arts was more than just a southern academy of martial arts. There she taught not only your standard karate and kung fu but also the more refined arts of liquidation, such as how to cripple a man by pinching certain points on his person, when and where to administer the whisper of death, the slashing fist, etc. More than this, Claire taught her students how to live. She put her whole soul into liberating them from the vices of the world as well as from the destructive effects of karma. She would line them all up in front of the wall-length mirror and share with them her vision, pacing up and down that long room, her eyes closed, chin raised, her hands dancing through the air like dragonflies through mineral oil, all the while speaking in choppy, enigmatic phrases that sounded like they came out of the Tao Te Ching. “A game through space and time,” she might say. “A movement whereby air becomes water and water turns to air, whereby your opponent is the light and you are the shadow. Such is one level, but understand that the ways and habits of the world are based on the thoughts and soul convictions of every woman and man in it. If you are to change the world, you must change the hearts of those within it. The world endeavors to take men out of the slums; the Samurai works to take the slums out of men. Martial arts is the art of marshaling the discipline needed to enact such a change. If there is no discipline, there is no peace. If you know discipline, you will know peace.”
Said Billy Pickal, white belt, age 34, “I like that she teaches ya’ howda kick ass.”
III. And a Thousand Times Since
In a dusty box in the attic of the house on the hill along with several poems by her mother, there is a journal preserved, chockful of words but for the final page, which is almost blank. In the middle of that page in small penciled letters, Claire wrote the following a little before leaving for Birmingham:
After all is done, I still do not know her. How do you love someone you do not know?
In the one-room office on Center Street above the Red Hot, there is a little note written into the lip of a desk. In this spot, out of sight to all but himself, and in small ink letters, Dean wrote the following a little before Claire came back from Birmingham:
When it is hardest to love people, sometimes they need love the most.
He knocked on her door—thump, thump, thump, his heart beating—but Claire did not answer. Dean had waited a few days after Claire’s arrival from Birmingham so as to let her settle in, but he drove up to her house as soon as it seemed proper. He knocked again, a little louder, but still no answer (probably couldn’t hear, the house being so big), so he rang the doorbell and heard her footsteps directly. She opened the door and smiled. They hugged without a word, and she invited him in.
They sat in the kitchen and blah, blah, blahed for awhile, talking about the funeral and karate, catching up on such and such, but mostly just tiptoeing around the conversation until Dean finally asked,
“Why did you really come back?”
“It seemed the best thing to do, considering,” she smiled and blew to cool her cup of lemon tea.
“Did you come back — maybe you came back for somebody in particular?”
“Somebody in particular? Like somebody with the name of Robert?”
“Ha, ha, very funny,” he said and looked at his feet, then up again to Claire. “But seriously, yes.”
“Oh, Robert, bless your heart,” she took a sip from her tea and then placed it on the table and slid it over to him. “I’ll say it like this: If I was not so loose in the head—if I weren’t so sick in my soul—then you would be the first and the only man I would ever marry. But really it isn’t ever going to happen.”
“Fate,” she said, looking out the window. The yellow curtains were drawn, but she could see through them to a yellow-green yard beyond with yellow trees and a yellow-blue sky.
“Fate,” he said. “That’s it? Fate?”
Claire looked back. A fly was looping around the pepper shaker.
“That pretty much sums it up, yeah,” she said, catching the fly in her hand midair. She got up and dropped it into the garbage and washed her hands in the sink, squinting out through the yellow drapes. “Shoot, look at that. The squirrels ate all the birdseed.”
“I don’t understand. Fate?” he said.
“Who does? Let’s talk about something else.”
“. . . and they worship warships,” Claire said, standing up. “Knowledge is the only way to overcome something so innate.” It was a week later, the end of April. It had rained that morning, the sky was still overcast, and the afternoon was cool. They were sitting on a bench on her back porch. She walked over to the soapy tub of water and went back to work.
“I can see that,” Dean said, watching her wash her shirts in a wooden tub. He offered again to help, and she again declined. Claire had a washing machine but never used it. “I can definitely see that,” he continued, “but where’s the room to relax, be with family, go swimming in the river or to a ballgame with friends and hotdogs, bad umpire calls, all that good stuff?”
“There is no time,” she said, blowing more hair out of her face. “While there is injustice anywhere, justice is threatened everywhere.”
“Right,” he said. “And I’ve tried explaining that to the umps, but once they—”
“We’re just different, really,” she said, wringing out a shirt. Her left eye itched, and she rubbed it with her shoulder as she hung the shirt on the line. “You know, your vision has always been Norman Rockwell. You’ve got that happy honeymoon, picket fence with cookies never burnt, and 2.4 kids.”
“You always said you wanted children.”
“And it was all well to talk about when we hadn’t hit puberty yet; we were still kids ourselves. It just turned out I got called to something a little more complex. Fate’s kind of fickle in that way, saddling me with the responsibility to heal up this world. Who am I to deny that?”
“. . . that you have to be true to yourself above all else,” he said, sitting tiredly, his elbows on the table, his head resting on his folded arms. It was the end of May; Claire had been back almost two months.
“Maybe, but I think to love,” she said with great energy of soul, “to really love, to learn to give your all to a world in need (a world too sick to even want your love, by the way)—that’s, hot damn, you know, that is no less than to pick your way through an iron mountain with a needle you must find in a haystack.”
“Yeah? And how far through the mountain are you?”
“Mmm, maybe I haven’t even found the haystack. I’m not sure. What about you?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Why would God take something so fundamental as love and complicate it to such a degree that only monks and philosophers can figure it out? Love is kind. It’s not that hard, really.”
“Sure, sure, but we’re talking levels. The higher love is sacrifice; it’s service. That’s the purified product there, no lovey-dovey, no wedding ring to weigh me down. I’m sorry, but you take a ring—gold, platinum, whatever, maybe a diamond on it—that’s not too heavy. But then you add the responsibility of always having to be there for that one person, to put him before all else, to devote yourself, your time, your everything to him, while there are so many people who may have so much more need for your love, but you don’t have enough to give them because you’ve got it all wrapped up in the intimacy of romance. Either that or you’re too busy making your home a kingdom, an empire without recognition. No way. No, no. That’s too much weight to carry on one little ring finger. Shoot, I’m not even left handed.”
“Okay,” he said, “but — ”
“I’d rather be a martyr than a mother,” she said.
“Right, but listen. You don’t have to buy into one or the other so excessively. It’s what you make of it. I want you to give and do everything you want, but you need, um . . . I’m just worried that with all your saving the world that you’re gonna . . . what I’m saying is—what am I trying to say? Moses, okay, when Moses wasn’t leading his people to the promised land, I’m sure he, uhh, he — ”
“Yeah. Good example. You know, he spent time with his family —with Jethro and, and . . . ”
“No, no, no. Zepora. Zipporah.”
“I hear you. He had family. See, I don’t. I never did. Robert, I love people, but I don’t really like them very much. The closer I get, the more kind of repulsed I get, actually. I start seeing all their faults. They see mine. Everything goes sour so close. I couldn’t even have roommates in Birmingham. I had one the first year and I hated her. It got to the point where just being in the same room with her made my throat close up. Her wheezing, her complaining, and food always stuck in her teeth.”
“Okay. So you struggle a little with— ”
“She tried committing suicide one day,” Claire said, rubbing her eyes with both palms. Dean looked up at her.
“And you’re trying to save the whole world,” he said, “to make up for that.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said, “if you want to grossly oversimplify it and reduce my life to a sentence, sure. I’m trying to love the world, Robert. Everybody needs a little love.”
“Exactly,” he said. They looked at each other across the table.
“Do you love yourself?” Robert asked.
“Do you like yourself?”
“Good Lord, of course I do . . .” she said.
They sat at the kitchen table. There was no light on in the room, just the morning sunshine coming in lazy and silent through the yel-low curtains of the windows by the sink. It settled on the table between them.
Little bits of dust floated around in the sunlight between them.
“. . . kind of,” she said.
In the middle of the table, there was a bowl of sugar next to the salt and pepper shakers. Dean took the silver teaspoon out of the sugar bowl. He held it up before his face. If he looked at it one way, he could see his face upside down—everything was upside down. On the other side he was right-side up, but his nose would look real big. ”
No,” she said. “I guess you figured me out. You balanced the equation: I don’t like myself. That’s pretty good, Mr. Accountant. ”
“Hey, that’s not fair,” he said.
“It’s just been a hell of a long life that ain’t letting up,” she said. “Every morning waking to the relentless sea that she gave to me. I hate her for that, for throwing me into debt without ever asking if I wanted it. And I hate myself for hating her, whom I should love above all else, who gave me a heartbeat and breath and then left me alone to do the rest. It’s just — what have I got from her? Some old photos, some sad and mildewed poems, a billion stories from a million grown-ups about her grace and beauty, her virtue. That gives me enough to fear her and awe her, but not enough to. . .” She stood up. “I’ve got a lot to do at the academy. You can stay if you want, but I gotta run.”
“Claire, I’m sorry. You were just gone so long. Hey, don’t shut me out. Please.”
And she didn’t shut him out. Not entirely. Not like she locked the door of her soul and threw away the key. Over the following months Claire rather shut the door on Robert Dean like one of those dutch doors that you can close the bottom half of but keep the top half open. With those kinds of doors, you can still look at and talk with a body on the other side while the bottom half separates you comfortable. So the year after Claire Beth returned home to Manferd, she and Dean saw each other and talked a good deal through the top half, but they were separated by the bottom half in such a way that Dean could not overcome.
He got down in his heart about it, the kind of down that feels like you got an itch way in the back of your soul but you’re too sad and weak to scratch it. And it turned out it was through poetry that he found solace and a means to express the sum of all the feelings ruminating in his soul. He had started reading poetry when Claire left for Birmingham only to better appreciate her love for it, but as it turned out, Dean had poetry somewhere inside his ordered soul all along. And in these troubled times he began to write:
There once was a boy from Tennessee
who moved to Alabama to meet destiny,
but she rejected him once
and a thousand times since.
Now time and the rain get the best of me.
The last line was in reference to the fact that it was a slate gray, rainy day in April when Dean penned the limerick. It had come up a bad cloud the night before and rained so hard it near drowned all the frogs. Robert wrote the limerick at his desk with his little brass lamp glowing warm but dim while he looked out through the rain-streaked windowpane. Outside, across the street, decaying leaves floated in the fountain under the black oaks that towered over Sherman Park. Many, many storms before, when they were still children, little Claire would drag Dean out in the rain, both of them wearing plastic garbage bags that Claire had cut holes in for their heads and arms. Dean would sit by the fountain in the rain, his glasses fogged up, his lips blue, teeth chattering while Claire went about burying as best she could all the earthworms strewn along the sidewalks, giving them a proper interrment so they’d be ready to rise from their graves on the Great and Resurrection Day. The two children would be the only ones outside—when it was a real bad cloud.
Robert sat at his desk amidst darkness inside that matched the darkness of the outside rain. The storm continued. He took to sleeping under his bed. He ate little more than sour cream and corn bread. It was the belly of the whale for thirteen days. And yet, a sometimes benefit of being in the valley of the shadow is that it can obscure the rational mind and blur the box of logic and regularness of everyday life that sometimes keep you from seeing the way out of your problems and pain. So it was for Robert Dean. Sitting among the silence that so neatly surrounded him, he finally saw and understood what he had to do to get heaven’s hosts to help him in reaching Claire.
And it basically goes back to the whole dutch-door concept. See, if you take that door metaphor and spread it some, you come to the conclusion that if the door is closed on the bottom and open on the top, then you could get in quite easily by simply leaping over the bottom half, if you wanted. Most people would never do such a thing, on account of unspoken but generally agreed upon social norms and etiquette, but (and this is the line of thought that Dean was following) if for some reason the person inside those dutch doors was having problems—like if their house was burning down, metaphorically speaking—then of course jumping over the bottom door would be acceptable in order to save the person you love. And so that’s what Robert Dean did. He jumped the bottom door.
One year, to the day, after Claire Beth’s return to Manferd, Dean walked up to the middle of Claire’s front lawn and set up his bright orange six-man camping tent. After getting it good and staked down and his belongings moved in, Robert Dean signaled down to the street where Brooks Derrick, owner of Red Hot Values and avid guitar enthusiast, age 31, was tuning his twelve-string guitar. Derrick walked up to the tent with his guitar and seeing the windows of the house open, proceeded to play Claire a ballad that Dean had commissioned him to write earlier that week. The song spoke eloquently of Claire Beth’s virtue, determination, and beauty. The melody had a twangy sort of theme, a catchy little chorus with three sharps, and managed not entirely successfully to rhyme “orange” with “porridge.”
And then Claire turned on the sprinklers.
IV. Terrible as an Army with Banners
Dean sat on the grass in the shade of the bright orange six-man tent. He looked up from his Bible, turned to Song of Solomon 6:10, and repeated the verse to himself again:
Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?
He looked up at Claire’s house and sighed. A police car pulled up and parked by the curb at the bottom of Claire’s lawn. Ray Wickman, officer, age 62, took one last sip from his lukewarm, half-and-halved coffee, got out of the vehicle, and walked heavy and slow up the lawn to where Robert sat beside his tent. Dean put a ribbon in his Bible to mark the scripture.
“She doesn’t really want me here, does she?” he said, looking up at Ray, who stood over him, holding his hat in his right hand then his left.
“I’m sorry, Dean. I think that’s why she turned on the sprinklers.”
“Officer Wickman,” Dean said, looking down at the grass and picking a few blades, “I regret to say I cannot leave here with you.”
He said it a little shaken and frail, but his words had a piercing quality of conviction that touched the officer to the heart, causing him to nod his head in slow, abstract agreement.
“If you want to move me,” Dean continued, “then you will have to do it by force. Sir, I cannot leave.”
“Well now, Dean, I don’t think it should have to come to that,” Ray said, squinting a smile.
“I know this isn’t the best idea I’ve had. And it may not be entirely, um, legal, or what have you, but I’m plumb out of options, so I’m not moving unless she tells me to. I know all about civil disobedience. Mr. Gandhi beat the Brits with it, the black folks won out in Birmingham using it, and I’ll go limp if you try to incarcerate me.”
“What? Who said? Now look here, son . . .” He put on his cap, but then he took it off again. He looked up and across the street. Several neighbors sitting on their porches looked lazily back at him. Three boys had stopped their bikes on the sidewalk and were squinting at the scene, silent, chewing gum. Officer Wickman gave a little nod and smiled at the boys, then across the street to where old Mrs. Spoons sat swinging on her porch bench, staring back with a glass of ice tea in her hand, the slow creak of her rocking the only noise. It carried through the still summer air, across the street, and up the lawn to the officer. “Great. Fine,” he said. “(Always has to be on my shift.) That’s fine.” He swung around, pulled his hat down onto his head, and pitched himself forward at a forty-five-degree angle, striding heavily up to Claire’s house.
“It don’t make no nev’mind to me if he wants to leave or not. He is trespassing on my lawn!” said Claire Beth, darting around the house with a feather duster. Officer Ray was following behind at a good distance, trying to keep up. “I’ve got a mind to release the hounds on him,” she continued, “weren’t for — ”
“You got no hounds,” Ray said.
“That, yes. Hell, I know that, but also — ”
“Look, Ms. Beth. Please understand I fully sympathize, I do,” Officer Ray said, struggling to huff it up the long flight of stairs behind her. At the top, he rested on the handrail and watched her go into one of the bedrooms. The officer walked over and waited by the door, putting his hat back on, looking outside the window at Dean’s tent down on the lawn. “Personally, I myself would take a shotgun to any fellow with the gall to set up camp on my land. But then that’s Dean Bob out there, so the situation might be a little more complicated.”
“I couldn’t imagine how,” she called out from the room. “You are a policeman, aren’t you?”
“Most definitely, ma’am.”
“So you’re the law . . . and he’s breaking the law. Follow?”
“Indeed, but you see,” he took off his hat as she came out of the room and started down the stairs again. “Ms. Beth? Could you stop cleaning for a second?” Claire Beth stopped midway down the stairs and looked up at him with a scowl so sour. “As I was saying, I sympathize with your annoyance as to Dean’s particular approach to courtship. I myself have been through very similar circumstances—on the other side, of course. In any case, I know how humiliating it can be. Now, with that said,” he squinted a smile and flicked his hat with his finger a few times, “I feel very strongly that I shouldn’t get involved. You both are looked at as kinda special ’round here, and folks want to see how you two play this one out alone.”
“Ray, listen to this.” She walked back up the stairs and leaned over the railing at him. “Have you ever thought to think that this is a form of sexual harassment?”
“Now, ma’am, you know that—”
“I’m not talking about you, Ray.”
“Of course, okay, so . . . a tent on your lawn is sexual harassment. Never did I think of it that way.” They stood facing each other. The officer took out a big blue handkerchief and wiped his brow with it. The cicadas sang a fever outside the window. Claire picked a piece of lint off the carpet just as a fly buzzed up against the window.
“I’m for you,” said Officer Ray, breaking the silence, wiping his brow again with the handkerchief. “I know you’ve got dealt a lot of bitter and burnt in your life, and I’ll yank Dean off your lawn and even ruff him up if you want. I’d do that for you ’cause that’s the kind of fellow I am. But just think good if that is really what you want. You take a look out that window there. See, I know he’s the only man who could ever come close to matching you. And I know you hold for that boy something dear. Heck, you yourself could have had him off your lawn in ten seconds flat, if you wanted. I’ve seen you doing your karate like a hurricane.”
Claire Beth looked at the officer, her lip trembling. Then she put her head back with her eyes closed, her arms straight down and fin-gers spread. They stood in the afternoon sunlight coming in warm through the window, and Ray watched her, not sure what to do.
“Aaaa.” She let out a groan, put her head against the officer, and started to cry. “I want to know peace.”
“Oh, missy, I know.” He quickly put his hat back on and held her lightly, patting her head a couple times. “We all do. Sometimes it’s just a mighty tuff and uncomfortable road that takes us there. Wait’ll you have kids,” he said. “Then the — anyway, ya’ know, if it makes you feel better, I could go tell Dean he’s got to get a tent that’s not so . . . orange.”
Claire Beth, when she’d get angry, her anger was a black cauldron with a spattering boil of fury. It was righteous indignation with clenched fists, fire lashing, gnashing teeth. Yet Claire Beth, when she would get angry, would not take it to the punching bag or to the shoulder of a friend. Mostly when Claire got angry, she cleaned. Violent, frenzied cleaning. Scrubbing the floors on hands and knees. Dusting until the duster splintered. She would wash each dish by hand, hurried and intense, splashing water high and wide, soap suds on her face and in her tearing eyes. Then she would wipe each plate dry, shining them with the towel until she could see her reflection when she was done. And when she was done, she would hurl the dishes against the wall until all of them were shattered.
Such was the scene: surrounded by clean shards of dishware every-where, Claire Beth sitting on her mopped and waxed floor in the corner of the kitchen at two in the morning, the lamp light swinging. It was there, in that ringing silence after the storm, that Claire Beth saw how to rid herself of Dean.
This is what she did. It was very simple. She moved in with Robert, into his bright orange six-man tent. She walked in, greeted him with a smile and two bags of food and poetry and other necessities, put them down in the corner, and stripped down naked before him — all the way. Such exposure was intended to have the effect of flushing Dean out in acute discomfiture. Dean responded by looking down at the ground, holding out his hands evangelist-style, and voicing meek protest. Then he closed his eyes, as one does out of respect for a lady placed in such an awkward situation; he felt his way over to his backpack and retrieved a handkerchief, which he wrapped tightly around his head to cover his eyes. Then he stood up and smiled. They lived together like that for eight days.
V. Ever Slightly Loosening
On the first day they talked a little, but nothing really got said. The day was mostly just for awkward silences between the two of them. Claire twirled two pencils between her fingers incessantly. The only reason she had allowed Dean the audacity of such a stunt was because she remembered that he had saved her life when they were younger and she still owed him. The fact is Dean never actually did save her life, but neither of them knew that. See, through a complicated set of circumstances when Claire was about thirteen, she went unconscious, and her heart completely stopped beating for awhile. It happened at the Manferd Playhouse during the annual talent show, and everybody was there. She was given CPR right on the stage while waiting for the ambulance to arrive from Huntsburough. With her heart silenced Claire walked within herself, as if in a dream, down to the river’s edge to spill over into its depths, when she heard the sound of Dean’s voice calling her name in love. Through the thick blackness she heard “Claire!” and she felt a little strength to come back. “Claire!” and still more strength from her best friend’s voice. “Claire!” one more time and she completely came to. Now, in truth it was just Atticus Wheeler, EMT, age 27, calling out “clear!” before each burst from the defibrillator, but when Claire fully recovered the next day and told Robert about how his voice had saved her, he for his part assumed it was the voice of his prayers that made it through the veil to call his best friend back. That made sense to him.
On the second day in the tent, Robert asked:
“How’d shopping go?”
“Next time you’re doing the shopping. Got it?” she said and started to take off her clothing.
“What happened?” Dean asked, quickly putting the handkerchief back on.
“I don’t wanna talk about it,” she said. “Whole town’s scandalized. I guess someone saw my naked tush through the screen here, and they assume we’ve skipped all the formalities of legal matrimony. Hope you don’t ever plan on running for office. This could come back and haunt you. Here’s some oranges and those crackers you like.” She tossed them over into his lap. “And the entire Red Hot staff sends their love. They gave me a twenty percent discount.”
On the third day: “Please pass the strawberry preserves.”
“Here. You got it?”
“Yes, thank you.” He felt around for his knife and then spread some jelly on several crackers. “Ya’ know, it sure is nice being here with you on your lawn. Even under the circumstances. Just you and me out here — roughing it. Like camping out in Briar Canyon when I was a Boy Scout. Only there’s no campfire, no s’mores or camp songs,” he said, eating a cracker. “Just you. Naked. That’s another difference.”
“Sure, sure. So, when do you plan on leaving, if you don’t mind me asking? You know, my students need me.”
“And you know what?”
“Now they know how I feel.”
She looked up at him. Claire pushed some hair from out of her face, and she looked at him. Then she flipped out her left arm, slicing through the air in a karate chop. “Know what I just did?” she said. “I deflected your compliment. It didn’t hit me, so you know. It didn’t even come close.”
On the fourth day she asked:
“What are you hoping to accomplish by all this?” They were playing checkers. Claire had blindfolded herself to even the odds, and neither of them knew who was winning.
“That is a very valid question, and . . .” Dean moved a checker piece into a corner position. “To really understand, you gotta know I’m completely out of ideas. I’m trusting that providence will, you know, somehow take note of my persistence in the matter, and may God’s grace shine down accordingly”
“And that entails . . .”
“That his will be done.”
“And that entails . .”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, but I think you do. You seem to believe that his will is you and me together, multiplying and replenishing the earth.”
“No. And that’s a terrible way of putting it! I’m just, maybe I’m just trying to figure out what I’m doing or supposed to be doing. And if it turns out this was never meant to be, then I guess I’ve been a real idiot and . . . I don’t know.”
“Well, cheer up. You just tell the Lord that if he goes ahead and heals the world, I’ll marry you in a heartbeat and then—wild sex for everyone. I’d go for that,” she said. “No greater foreplay than complete and lasting world peace, that’s what I always say. But what was I going to say? Oh, what if it’s not God’s will? What if there’s no room in the inn for that one? What then?”
“I suppose I haven’t given it much thought,” Robert said. “Maybe fulfill a mission. Go down to South America. That might be nice. I could help people learn about finances. And the good news of the Gospel. The two are not wholly separate, the way I see it.”
“That’s right. Teach them about prophets and profits. That’s way more noble than living out of wedlock in a tent with a naked—”
“Yeah, but if we got married . . . marriage is . . . marriage really is very noble, don’t you think?”
“I guess it’s noble if you’re noble. But it’s just not as simple as all that.” She moved a checker piece, maybe it was hers, into the center.
“Anyhoo, I got conflicting thoughts on the subject.”
Claire took off her handkerchief, looked down at the checkerboard . . . and smiled.
On the fifth day in the morning, Dean asked:
“Is the tent broken?”
“Huh?” Claire looked up from her book. She had been lying in her sleeping bag, frowning over a novel by Faulkner. “I can’t understand what the hell this fella’s saying. What’s broken? Where?”
“Somewhere over here above me. It was dripping water on me all night. It’s supposed to be waterproof.”
“Let me see,” she said and crawled across the tent to his side. In doing so she rubbed up against his bare arm with her thigh.
“Whoa. What was that?” he asked.
“Don’t worry about it. Yup, the tent is ripping a little here. The stitching is coming undone — a little unraveled — and you’ve got a frayed little gap of maybe a few inches or so. I can sew it up.”
She sat down next to Dean and folded her legs up under her. They sat quietly together for several minutes. Dean didn’t move.
“Hey, Robert?” said Claire. “What if I told you that you staying here on my lawn really offended me and it would mean a lot if you’d leave now.”
Robert turned towards her. “I’d . . . I would leave, Claire. You know that. I’ve been kind of expecting you to say it, but you haven’t, yet. Have you?”
“Are you saying it now?”
“Then are you going to say it?”
“I don’t know. No. I’m not going to say it.”
“Look,” he said, “why don’t you get dressed and we could go for a walk, get it out in the open, let the healing —”
“Oh, but I kind of like it like this,” she said. “It’s kind of liberating, you know? No constricting clothing or societal norms to bind me down. And you, blinded by love—at my mercy.”
Between the fifth and the sixth day was the fifth night, and Claire could not sleep. She awoke from being awake in the dark hours of the morning. The air was moist and very still outside the tent. There is an electricity of the early morning hours—the silent, ethereal hours before dawn. There is an honesty in the air, beautiful and dark as death, and all truth seekers have risen in those early hours and gone to theirdesert mountains to pray.
Claire put on her workout pants and a wool sweater and walked barefoot out of the tent and up behind her big empty house to Potter’s Mount, which overlooked Manferd to the Aberdeen River. She sat down on a little rock outcrop there and looked out into the black sky, which was just beginning to brighten in the east. She wrapped her legs up under her and pulled her arms in, out of her sweater sleeves. She pulled the sweater up over her head and sat like a turtle in its shell—she was all inside her sweater where she could pull her knees up and hold herself close and,
“Momma, we gotta talk.
“I love you. I do. I’m trying to make you proud, but hot damn if I’m not doing it all wrong. I am not you. And I’ve been living so wrong so long, I’m not sure if I’m even me. All I know is what I want, and all I know is what I feel inside to be working, and this ain’t working. If it were working, it’d be working, but it’s not working. It’s . . . it’s time to start something new. And I was thinking about children. I was thinking of starting a family and raising them up better than me, raising them in love. And then there’d be two, three, four strong young women or men out there helping me to teach, and bless and enrich the world. I’ve got a real good man down there. I know you’d take to him. Good gene pool. He’s, urn . . . actually it’s kind of funny, but I’m living in a tent with him right now. Naked. Which is . . . kind of a long story, really, but—”
The sky was getting brighter in the east. It wasn’t just gray anymore; it was bluer with yellow and white spreading against the sky. Claire popped her head out of her sweater and breathed a deep, cool breath. She shivered.
“I brought granddaddy’s Bible with me,” she said. “I know you had good faith in this book, so if you want to say anything or if you got thoughts one way or another . . .”
She took out a small tattered Bible. It was an old military issue that her granddaddy got while serving in the army air force in World War II. It was his most valuable possession in that difficult time, and long after the war and marriage and kids and then grandkids, Claire’s granddaddy gave that Bible to her when she turned eight years old. He couldn’t read anything anymore anyway on account of cataracts, and he died a few months after that from hepatitis or hemophilia, or one of those diseases.
Claire pulled the Bible out of her pocket and held it in her left hand, feeling its weight. She then did what one does when searching for an answer from the word of God—she closed her eyes, opened the Bible to a random page, and stuck her finger down. Her finger landed at first on a blank page between the Old Testament and the New Testament and rather than take that as a sign, Claire tried again. Her finger landed on Isaiah 54:2. She read it aloud, following the words with her finger.
Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes.
Now, it’s fair common knowledge that when you open the Good Book for guidance, sometimes you get a scripture that speaks directly to your problem, lifting the clouds from off your thoughts and leaving everything light as day. Then there are times when the scripture doesn’t make any sense at all (Leviticus), and the only thing you can do is try again later. But most often it works out that the scriptures are simply kind of vague and sideways as to their meaning, and you have to ponder and reflect a little and even dig a little in order to pull out something worthwhile. Claire Beth did just that with Isaiah 54:2.
It took a good hour or so, and along the way she had a few good cries and learned to use maple leaves as Kleenex. The morning for its part was as beautiful and fair as any an April sunrise in Alabama. By the time the sun was up and over the horizon and the birds were well into their morning revelry, Claire was already walking down from Potter’s Mount without the big shabang she’d hoped for, though feeling that her cry was somewhat cathartic.
The sixth day began with Claire and Dean rolling back their sleeping bags as usual, followed by their daily workout. Dean did push-ups, situps, squats, etc. Claire stretched and did tai chi, moving in beautiful resistance through space, slicing through the orange light in the tent. After morning exercises Claire would usually fix them a light breakfast, and they would talk about what they were going to do that day. And their days were really quite full. Way back on the second day, town members started coming to visit them and to check in from afar. A Port-a-John was installed the same day by order of the mayor. Trips to it were the only time that Claire Beth donned clothing, then and when she went to town to get food. But she had to do that only once as the wives of the Manferd Elk’s Club chapter had begun cooking Claire and Dean two hot meals a day that were delivered with love and smiles and eyes respectfully closed, except by Martha May: “Child, you got nothing I ain’t seen before.” Dean’s clothing was collected every other morning, washed, and returned the same evening. On the sixth evening the two of them were privileged to listen through the tent to the Manferd Brass Band serenading them from the street with a half-hour performance. Most of the town turned out to listen. Everyone agreed it was a lovely performance, and the encore of “Oh, Susanna” sounded sweet as only a brass band can make it sound. It was a pageant of sorts. There was an air of celebration all about the town with old friends coming together and joining in the festivities surrounding the bright orange six-man tent.
Late that night, the sixth night, Claire and Dean sat together in the door of the tent, feeling the night breeze on their faces and eating chocolate.
“I think I’ve figured it out,” said Claire, “why you’re always having to tighten your bandana.”
“It keeps coming loose.”
“Exactly,” she said. “You’re trying to hold tight to something that everybody but you, and even part of you, knows is futile. Circling and circling in the widening gyre, spiraling outward from the center, the whole universe conspiring against you, and all you can do is keep tightening that little bandana. How fascinating. Why can’t you just give in and see what every atom of your soul is pointing to?”
“I’ve been thinking the same about you.”
“I know, I know. It’s true. You see how akin we are? What makes us cling so? Why do we always fight the inevitable?”
“Principles. Regardless of how I feel or what’s going on, I’ve got to stick to my guns.”
“Sure, sure, sure, but . . . no, not really. You tighten that bandana for good show, but I wonder if your grip isn’t ever slightly loosening. I think you like standing close to the edge, breathing in what might be. Ahh, it’s so true—no one is as dim and light, as right and wrong, as scary and harmless as you. You are the contradiction I most love.”
“I love you, too. But I don’t contradict myself. Not a bit. All truth can and ultimately will be circumcised into, excuse me, circumscribed into one great whole.”
“What?” Claire asked, looking over at him. “I didn’t get that last part.”
“I know. I messed it up. My tongue got all tied—”
“What hole are you talking about?”
“No, that’s not . . . I said ‘whole.’ Whole. Like one great holistic kind of . . . all truth can be circumscribed in—forget it. It’s too late; my mind is loopy from the chocolate . . . and I think we both just Freudian slipped.” They finished the box of Junior Mints they were sharing and got ready to go to sleep.
While they were lying in their respective sleeping bags, the lanterns turned off, Claire said, “Hey, Robert? You know, we’ve had four, maybe five or sex different conversations so far, and I just want you to know that this has been the breast one yet.”
“Okay, very good. Go to sleep.”
On the seventh day, at the end of the seventh day, lying in his sleeping bag, Robert said: “I’m sorry for putting the tent up on your lawn. I got scared, that’s all. I just thought that—”
“Robert?” Claire looked up.
“I don’t know. Never mind. Sleep tight.”
“Good night, Claire.”
On the eighth day the tent went up in flames.
The Manferd Daily Universe reported that the cause of the fire was unknown, though it was most likely bottle-rocket firecrackers that the neighborhood kids were setting off.
Claire and Robert smelled and heard the fire on the east side of the tent just as someone down on the street called out “fire!”
“What’d they say?” Dean asked.
“The tent is on fire,” she said, pulling on her clothing. “Take that blindfold off and help me get our stuff out of here!”
They pulled out all they could from the tent, then stumbled back and watched the black smoke rise. There was movement all around. People were tossing dirt or cups of water or beer on the tent; one of Claire’s neighbors was running to turn on the sprinklers; they could hear the siren of the fire engine speeding up Mulberry Street.*
* Question: Why send the fire engine for just a tent?
Answer: Because of zealous volunteers with lots of new equipment.
VI. The Best Kind
They stood at the top of her front lawn; the neighbors had all gone home. They looked down silently at the small area of black, curled tent remains and burnt puddles of ash.
“You know,” said Claire, “sitting in there for so long, everything colored by orange, all the light coming in filtered through orange—when I’d go outside and look around, everything I saw would be a shade of blue. Does that make sense? I guess it’s the, you know, the eye pixels and the way your cornea is, whatever it does, and the complementary colors — ”
“It burned up quicker than an insurance fire,” he said, shaking his head, his eyes fixed on the remains. “I don’t understand. It’s supposed to be flame-retardant.”
“I’m sorry, Robert,” she said.
“You could stand up and do jumping jacks in it.”
“I know,” she said.
“It fit six people, comfortable.”
“It was a good tent.”
“A damn good tent.” Claire cleared her throat. “The best kind.”
The following poem, taken from the Lifestyles section of the Manferd Daily Universe, was written by Claire Beth and read at her wedding reception, April 6, 1997, in Sherman Park by the fountain under the oaks. Claire has allowed the reprinting of the poem in its entirety and asks that it be dedicated to her husband and to their first child, Laura. Claire also asks that the poem be read aloud as it tends to flow better that way.
From Fair Moon to Clear Sun
But when it’s all said and done,
is love anything at all?
Or is it simply the gong
of nature’s call, and
that which we’ve termed romance, just a
dance of fallen creatures? Just synapses snapping
up our spines and through our minds in genetic designs of
DNA that intertwine in such a way to make us say,
“Hey, let’s get together sometime to
perpetuate the species”?
Who knows, and
so what if it is?
You still end up more than you were when you were who you were
when you were whoever you were, before, alone.
And hot damn, it’s so exciting!
It’s biting your nails so wonderfully tense;
it’s sensing the weight of the ring upon your finger
and no more lingering in the security of the past
you surpass your previous selves
(they gather dust upon the shelves)
as we meet together, reaching higher
holding hands across the altar
in sacrifice of prior lives (being altered
by that sacrifice),
and sometimes it all falls apart,
but then it all comes ’round in the end
and everything is new again