Coach Borman’s Christmas Eve bash was a bust, and the ghost of Vince Knowles wasn’t the only reason. On the twenty-first, Bobbi Jill Allnut got tired of looking at that red slash running all the way down the left side of her face to the jawline and took a bunch of her mother’s sleeping pills. She didn’t die, but she spent two nights in Parkland Memorial, the hospital where both the president and the president’s assassin would expire, unless I changed things. There are probably closer hospitals in 2011—almost certainly in Kileen, maybe even in Round Hill — but not during my one year of full-time teaching at DCHS.
Dinner at The Saddle wasn’t so hot, either. The place was packed and convivial with pre-Christmas cheer, but Sadie refused dessert and asked to go home early. She said she had a headache. I didn’t believe her.
The New Year’s Eve dance at Bountiful Grange No. 7 was a little better. There was a band from Austin called The Jokers, and they were really laying it down. Sadie and I danced beneath sagging nets filled with balloons until our feet were sore. At midnight The Jokers swung into a Ventures-style version of “Auld Lang Syne,” and the band’s lead man shouted “May all your dreams come true in nineteen hundred and sixty-two !”
The balloons drifted down around us. I kissed Sadie and wished her a happy New Year as we waltzed, but although she had been gay and laughing all evening, I felt no smile on her lips. “And a happy New Year to you too, George. Could I have a glass of punch? I’m very thirsty.”
There was a long line at the spiked punch bowl, a shorter one at the unspiked version. I ladled the mixture of pink lemonade and ginger ale into a Dixie cup, but when I brought it back to where she had been standing, Sadie was gone.
“Think she went out for some air, champ,” Carl Jacoby said. He was one of the high school’s four shop teachers, and probably the best, but I wouldn’t have let him within two hundred yards of a power tool that night.
I checked the smokers clustered under the fire escape. Sadie wasn’t among them. I walked to the Sunliner. She was sitting in the passenger seat with her voluminous skirts billowing all the way up to the dashboard. God knows how many petticoats she was wearing. She was smoking and crying.
I got in and tried to take her in my arms. “Sadie, what is it? What is it, hon?” As if I didn’t know. As if I hadn’t known for some time.
“Nothing.” Crying harder. “I’ve got my period, that’s all. Take me home.”
It was only three miles, but that seemed like a very long drive. We didn’t talk. I turned into her driveway and cut the motor. She had stopped crying, but she still didn’t say anything. Neither did I. Some silences can be comfortable. This one felt deadly.
She took her Winstons out of her handbag, looked at them, and put them back. The snick of the catch was very loud. She looked at me. Her hair was a dark cloud surrounding the white oval of her face. “Is there anything you want to tell me, George?”
What I wanted to tell her more than anything was that my name wasn’t George. I had come to dislike that name. Almost to hate it.
“Two things. The first is that I love you. The second is that I’m not doing anything I’m ashamed of. Oh, and two-A: nothing you’d be ashamed of.”
“Good. That’s good. And I love you, George. But I’m going to tell you something, if you’ll listen.”
“I’ll always listen.” But she was scaring me.
“Everything can stay the same. . for now. While I’m still married to John Clayton, even if it’s just on paper and was never properly consummated in the first place, there are things I don’t feel I have the right to ask you. . or of you.”
She put her fingers to my lips. “For now. But I won’t ever allow another man to put a broom in the bed. Do you understand me?”
She put a quick kiss where her fingers had been, then dashed up the walk to her door, fumbling for her key.
That was how 1962 started for the man who called himself George Amberson.
New Year’s Day dawned cold and clear, with the forecaster on the Morning Farm Report threatening freezing mist in the lowlands. I had stowed the two bugged lamps in my garage. I put one of them in my car and drove to Fort Worth. I thought if there was ever a day when the raggedy-ass carnival on Mercedes Street would be shut down, it was this one. I was right. It was as silent as. . well, as silent as the Tracker mausoleum, when I’d dragged Frank Dunning’s body into it. Overturned trikes and a few toys lay in balding front yards. Some party-boy had left a larger toy — a monstrous old Mercury — parked beside his porch. The car doors were still open. There were a few sad, leftover crepe streamers on the unpaved hardpan of the street, and a lot of beer cans — mostly Lone Star — in the gutters.
I glanced across at 2706 and saw no one looking out the large front window, but Ivy had been right: anyone standing there would have a perfect line of sight into the living room of 2703.
I parked on the concrete strips that passed for a driveway as if I had every right to be at the former home of the unlucky Templeton family. I got my lamp and a brand-new toolbox and went to the front door. I had a bad moment when the key refused to work, but it was just new. When I wetted it with some saliva and jiggled it a little, it turned and I went in.
There were four rooms if you counted the bathroom, visible through a door that hung open on one working hinge. The biggest was a combined living room and kitchen. The other two were bedrooms. In the larger one, there was no mattress on the bed. I remembered Ivy saying Be like takin your dog on vacation, won’t it? In the smaller one, Rosette had drawn Crayola girls on walls where the plaster was decaying and the lathing showed through. They were all wearing green jumpers and big black shoes. They had out-of-proportion pigtails as long as their legs, and many were kicking soccer balls. One had a Miss America tiara perched on her hair and a big old red-lipstick smile. The house still smelled faintly of whatever fried meat Ivy had cooked for their final meal before going back to Mozelle to live with her mama, her little hellion, and her brokeback husband.
This was where Lee and Marina would begin the American phase of their marriage. They’d make love in the bigger of the two bedrooms, and he would beat her there. It was where Lee would lie awake after long days putting together storm doors and wondering why the hell he wasn’t famous. Hadn’t he tried? Hadn’t he tried hard ?
And in the living room, with its hilly up-and-down floor and its threadbare bile-green carpet, Lee would first meet the man I wasn’t supposed to trust, the one that accounted for most if not all of the doubts Al had held onto about Oswald’s role as the lone gunman. That man’s name was George de Mohrenschildt, and I wanted very much to hear what he and Oswald had to say to each other.
There was an old bureau on the side of the main room that was closest to the kitchen. The drawers were a jumble of mismatched silverware and crappy cooking utensils. I pulled the bureau away from the wall and saw an electrical socket. Excellent. I put the lamp on top of the bureau and plugged it in. I knew someone might live here awhile before the Oswalds moved in, but I didn’t think anyone would be apt to take the Leaning Lamp of Pisa when they decamped. If they did, I had a backup unit in my garage.
I drilled a hole through the wall to the outside with my smallest bit, pushed the bureau back into place, and tried the lamp. It worked fine. I packed up and left the house, being careful to lock the door behind me. Then I drove back to Jodie.
Sadie called and asked me if I would like to come over and have some supper. Just coldcuts, she said, but there was poundcake for dessert, if I cared for some. I went over. The dessert was as wonderful as ever, but things weren’t the same. Because she was right. There was a broom in the bed. Like the jimla Rosette had seen in the back of my car, it was invisible. . but it was there. Invisible or not, it cast a shadow.
Sometimes a man and a woman reach a crossroads and linger there, reluctant to take either way, knowing the wrong choice will mean the end. . and knowing there’s so much worth saving. That’s the way it was with Sadie and me during that unrelenting gray winter of 1962. We still went out to dinner once or twice a week, and we still went to the Candlewood Bungalows on the occasional Saturday night. Sadie enjoyed sex, and that was one of the things that kept us together.
On three occasions we shapped hops together. Donald Bellingham was always the DJ, and sooner or later we’d be asked to reprise our first Lindy Hop. The kids always clapped and whistled when we did. Not out of politeness, either. They were authentically wowed, and some of them started to learn the moves themselves.
Were we pleased? Sure, because imitation really is the most sincere form of flattery. But we were never as good as that first time, never so intuitively smooth. Sadie’s grace wavered. Once she missed her grip on a flyaway and would have gone sprawling if there hadn’t been a couple of husky football players with quick reflexes standing nearby. She laughed it off, but I could see the embarrassment on her face. And the reproach. As if it had been my fault. Which in a way, it was.
There was bound to be a blow-up. It would have come sooner than it did, if not for the Jodie Jamboree. That was our greening, a chance to linger a little and think things over before we were forced into a decision neither of us wanted to make.
Ellen Dockerty came to me in February and asked me two things: first, would I please reconsider and sign a contract for the ’62–’63 school year, and second, would I please direct the junior-senior play again, since last year’s had been such a smash hit. I refused both requests, not without a tug of pain.
“If it’s your book, you’d have all summer to work on it,” she coaxed.
“It wouldn’t be long enough,” I said, although at that point I didn’t give Shit One about The Murder Place.
“Sadie Dunhill says she doesn’t believe you care a fig for that novel.”
It was an insight she hadn’t shared with me. It shook me, but I tried not to show it. “El, Sadie doesn’t know everything.”
“The play, then. At least do the play. As long as it doesn’t involve nudity, I’ll back anything you choose. Given the current composition of the schoolboard, and the fact that I myself only have a two-year contract as principal, that’s a mighty big promise. You can dedicate it to Vince Knowles, if you like.”
“Vince has already had a football season dedicated to his memory, Ellie. I think that’s enough.”
She went away, beaten.
The second request came from Mike Coslaw, who would be graduating in June and told me he intended to declare a theater major at college. “But I’d really like to do one more play here. With you, Mr. Amberson. Because you showed me the way.”
Unlike Ellie Dockerty, he accepted the excuse about my bogus novel without question, which made me feel bad. Terrible, really. For a man who didn’t like to lie — who had seen his marriage collapse because of all the ones he’d heard from his I-can-stop-whenever-I-want wife — I was certainly telling a passel of them, as we said in my Jodie days.
I walked Mike out to the student parking lot where his prize possession was parked (an old Buick sedan with fenderskirts), and asked him how his arm felt now that the cast was off. He said it was fine, and he was sure he’d be set for football practice this coming summer. “Although,” he said, “if I got cut, it wouldn’t break my heart. Then maybe I could do some community theater as well as school stuff. I want to learn everything — set design, lighting, even costumes.” He laughed. “People’ll start callin me queer.”
“Concentrate on football, making grades, and not getting too homesick the first semester,” I said. “Please. Don’t screw around.”
He did a zombie Frankenstein voice. “Yes. . master. .”
“How’s Bobbi Jill?”
“Better,” he said. “There she is.”
Bobbi Jill was waiting by Mike’s Buick. She waved at him, then saw me and immediately turned away, as if interested in the empty football field and the rangeland beyond. It was a gesture everyone in school had gotten used to. The scar from the accident had healed to a fat red string. She tried to cover it with cosmetics, which only made it more noticeable.
Mike said, “I tell her to quit with the powder already, it makes her look like an advertisement for Soames’s Mortuary, but she won’t listen. I also tell her I’m not going with her out of pity, or so she won’t swallow any more pills. She says she believes me, and maybe she does. On sunny days.”
I watched him hurry to Bobbi Jill, grab her by the waist, and swing her around. I sighed, feeling a little stupid and a lot stubborn. Part of me wanted to do the damn play. Even if it was good for nothing else, it would fill the time while I was waiting for my own show to start. But I didn’t want to get hooked into the life of Jodie in more ways than I already was. Like any possible long-term future with Sadie, my relationship with the town needed to be on hold.
If everything went just right, it was possible I could wind up with the girl, the gold watch, and everything. But I couldn’t count on that no matter how carefully I planned. Even if I succeeded I might have to run, and if I didn’t get away, there was a good chance that my good deed on behalf of the world would be rewarded by life in prison. Or the electric chair in Huntsville.
It was Deke Simmons who finally trapped me into saying yes. He did it by telling me I’d be nuts to even consider it. I should have recognized that Oh, Br’er Fox, please don’t th’ow me in that briar patch shtick, but he was very sly about it. Very subtle. A regular Br’er Rabbit, you might say.
We were in my living room drinking coffee on a Saturday afternoon while some old movie played on my snow-fuzzy TV — cowboys in Fort Hollywood standing off two thousand or so attacking Indians. Outside, more rain was falling. There must have been at least a few sunny days during the winter of ’62, but I can’t recall any. All I can remember are cold fingers of drizzle always finding their way to the barbered nape of my neck in spite of the turned-up collar of the sheepskin jacket I’d bought to replace the ranch coat.
“You don’t want to worry about that damn play just because Ellen Dockerty’s got her underwear all in a bunch about it,” Deke said. “Finish your book, get a bestseller, and never look back. Live the good life in New York. Have a drink with Norman Mailer and Irwin Shaw at the White Horse Tavern.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. John Wayne was blowing a bugle. “I don’t think Norman Mailer has to worry too much about me. Irwin Shaw, either.”
“Also, you had such a success with Of Mice and Men, ” he said. “Anything you did as a follow-up would probably be a disappointment by compar— oh, jeez, look at that! John Wayne just got an arrow through his hat! Lucky it was the twenty-gallon deluxe!”
I was more miffed by the idea that my second effort might fall short than I should have been. It made me think about how Sadie and I couldn’t quite equal our first performance on the dance floor, despite our best efforts.
Deke seemed completely absorbed in the TV as he said, “Besides, Ratty Sylvester has expressed an interest in the junior-senior. He’s talking about Arsenic and Old Lace. Says he and the wife saw it in Dallas two years ago and it was a regular ole knee-slapper.”
Good God, that chestnut. And Fred Sylvester of the Science Department as director? I wasn’t sure I’d trust Ratty to direct a grammar school fire drill. If a talented but still very damp-around-the-edges actor like Mike Coslaw ended up with Ratty at the helm, it could set his maturing process back five years. Ratty and Arsenic and Old Lace. Jesus wept.
“There wouldn’t be time to put on anything really good, anyway,” Deke went on. “So I say let Ratty take the fall. I never liked the scurrying little sumbitch, anyway.”
Nobody really liked him, so far as I could tell, except maybe for Mrs. Ratty, who scurried by his side to every school and faculty function, wrapped in acres of organdy. But he wouldn’t be the one to take the fall. That would be the kids.
“They could put on a variety show,” I said. “There’d be time enough for that.”
“Oh, Christ, George! Wallace Beery just took an arrow in the shoulder! I think he’s a goner!”
“No, John Wayne’s dragging him to safety. This old shoot-em-up doesn’t make a lick of sense, but I love it, don’t you?”
“Did you hear what I said?”
A commercial came on. Keenan Wynn climbed down off a bulldozer, doffed his hardhat, and told the world he’d walk a mile for a Camel. Deke turned to me. “No, I must have missed it.”
Sly old fox. As if.
“I said there’d be time to put on a variety show. A revue. Songs, dances, jokes, and a bunch of sketches.”
“Everything but girls doing the hootchie-koo? Or were you thinking of that, too?”
“Don’t be a dope.”
“So that makes it vaudeville. I always liked vaudeville. ‘Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,’ and all that.”
He dragged his pipe out of the pocket of his cardigan, stuffed it with Prince Albert, and fired it up.
“You know, we actually used to do something like that down to the Grange. The show was called Jodie Jamboree. Not since the late forties, though. Folks got a little embarrassed by it, although no one ever came right out and said so. And vaudeville wasn’t what we called it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It was a minstrel show, George. All the cowboys and farmhands joined in. They wore blackface, sang and danced, told jokes in what they imagined was a Negro dialect. More or less based on Amos ’n Andy. ”
I began to laugh. “Did anyone play the banjo?”
“As a matter of fact, on a couple of occasions our current principal did.”
“Ellen played the banjo in a minstrel show?”
“Careful, you’re starting to speak in iambic pentameter. That can lead to delusions of grandeur, pard.”
I leaned forward. “Tell me one of the jokes.”
Deke cleared his throat, and began speaking in two deep voices.
“Say dere, Brother Tambo, what did you buy dat jar of Vaseline fo’?
“Well I b’leeves it was fo’ty-nine cent!”
He looked at me expectantly, and I realized that had been the punchline.
“Did they laugh?” I almost feared the answer.
“Split their guts and hollered for more. You heard those jokes around the square for weeks after.” He looked at me solemnly, but his eyes were twinkling like Christmas lights. “We’re a small town. Our needs when it comes to humor are quite humble. Our idea of Rabelaisian wit is a blind feller slipping on a banana peel.”
I sat thinking. The western came back on, but Deke seemed to have lost interest in it. He was watching me.
“That stuff could still work,” I said.
“George, that stuff always does.”
“It wouldn’t need to be funny black fellers, either.”
“Couldn’t do it that way anymore, anyway,” he said. “Maybe in Louisiana or Alabama, but not on the way to Austin, which the folks at the Slimes Herald call Comsymp City. And you wouldn’t want to, would you?”
“No. Call me a bleeding-heart, but I find the idea repulsive. And why bother? Corny jokes. . boys in big old suits with padded shoulders instead of cornpone overalls. . girls in knee-high flapper dresses with lots of fringes. . I’d love to see what Mike Coslaw could do with a comedy skit. . ”
“Oh, he’d kill it,” Deke said, as if that were a foregone conclusion. “Pretty good idea. Too bad you don’t have time to try it out.”
I started to say something, but then another of those lightning flashes hit me. It was just as bright as the one that had lit up my brain when Ivy Templeton had said that her neighbors across the street could see into her living room.
“George? Your mouth is open. The view is good but not appetizing.”
“I could make time,” I said. “If you could talk Ellie Dockerty into one condition.”
He got up and snapped off the TV without a single glance, although the fighting between Duke Wayne and the Pawnee Nation had now reached the critical point, with Fort Hollywood burning merry hell in the background. “Name it.”
I named it, then said, “I’ve got to talk to Sadie. Right now.”
She was solemn at first. Then she began to smile. The smile became a grin. And when I told her the idea that had come to me at the end of my conversation with Deke, she threw her arms around me. But that wasn’t good enough for her, so she climbed until she could wrap her legs around me, as well. There was no broom between us that day.
“It’s brilliant! You’re a genius! Will you write the script?”
“You bet. It won’t take long, either.” Corny old jokes were already flying around in my head: Coach Borman looked at the orange juice for twenty minutes because the can said CONCENTRATE. Our dog had an ingrown tail, we had to X-ray him to find out if he was happy. I rode on a plane so old that one restroom was marked Orville and the other was marked Wilbur. “But I need plenty of help with other stuff. What it comes down to is I need a producer. I’m hoping you’ll take the job.”
“Sure.” She slipped back to the floor with her body still pressed against mine. This produced a regrettably brief flash of bare leg as her skirt pulled up. She began to pace her living room, smoking furiously. She tripped over the easy chair (for probably the sixth or eighth time since we’d been on intimate terms) and caught her balance without even seeming to notice, although she was going to have a pretty fine bruise on her shin by nightfall.
“If you’re thinking twenties-style flapper stuff, I can get Jo Peet to run up the costumes.” Jo was the new head of the Home Ec Department, having succeeded to the position when Ellen Dockerty was confirmed as principal.
“Most of the Home Ec girls love to sew. . and to cook. George, we’ll need to serve evening meals, won’t we? If the rehearsals run extra long? And they will, because we’re starting awfully late.”
“Yes, but just sandwiches—”
“We can do better than that. Lots. And music! We’ll need music! It’ll have to be recorded, because the band could never pull a thing like this together in time.” And then, together, we said “Donald Bellingham!” in perfect harmony.
“What about advertising?” I asked. We were starting to sound like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, getting ready to put on a show in Aunt Milly’s barn.
“Carl Jacoby and his Graphic Design kids. Posters not just here but all over town. Because we want the whole town to come, not just the relatives of the kids in the show. Standing room only.”
“Bingo,” I said, and kissed her nose. I loved her excitement. I was getting pretty excited myself.
“What do we say about the benefit aspect?” Sadie asked.
“Nothing until we’re sure we can make enough money. We don’t want to raise any false hopes. What do you think about taking a run to Dallas with me tomorrow and asking some questions?”
“Tomorrow’s Sunday, hon. After school on Monday. Maybe even before it’s out, if you can get period seven free.”
“I’ll get Deke to come out of retirement and cover Remedial English,” I said. “He owes me.”
Sadie and I went to Dallas on Monday, driving fast to get there before the close of business hours. The office we were looking for turned out to be on Harry Hines Boulevard, not far from Parkland Memorial. There we asked a bushel of questions, and Sadie gave a brief demonstration of what we were after. The answers were more than satisfactory, and two days later I began my second-to-last show-biz venture, as director of Jodie Jamboree, An All-New, All-Hilarious Vaudeville Song & Dance Show. And all to benefit A Good Cause. We didn’t say what that cause was, and nobody asked.
Two things about the Land of Ago: there’s a lot less paperwork and a hell of a lot more trust.
Everybody in town did turn out, and Deke Simmons was right about one thing: those lame jokes never seemed to get old. Not fifteen hundred miles from Broadway, at least.
In the persons of Jim LaDue (who wasn’t bad, and could actually sing a little) and Mike Coslaw (who was flat-out hilarious), our show was more Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis than Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo. The skits were of the knockabout type, and with a couple of athletes to perform them, they worked better than they probably had a right to. In the audience, knees were slapped and buttons were busted. Probably a few girdles were popped, as well.
Ellen Dockerty dragged her banjo out of retirement; for a lady with blue hair, she played a mean breakdown. And there was hootchie-koo after all. Mike and Jim persuaded the rest of the football team to perform a spirited can-can wearing petticoats and bloomers down south and nothing but skin up north. Jo Peet found wigs for them, and they stopped the show. The town ladies seemed especially crazy about those bare-chested young men, wigs and all.
For the finale, the entire cast paired off and filled the gymnasium stage with frenetic swing-dancing as “In the Mood” blared from the speakers. Skirts flew; feet flashed; football players (now dressed in zoot suits and stingy-brim hats) spun limber girls. Most of the latter were cheerleaders who already knew a few things about how to cut a rug.
The music ended; the laughing, winded cast stepped forward to take their bows; and as the audience rose to its feet for the third (or maybe it was the fourth) time since the curtain went up, Donald started up “In the Mood” again. This time the boys and girls scampered to opposite sides of the stage, grabbed the dozens of cream pies waiting for them on tables in the wings, and began to pelt each other. The audience roared its approval.
This part of the show our cast had known about and looked forward to, although since no actual pies had been flung during rehearsals, I wasn’t sure how it would play out. Of course it went splendidly, as cream-pie fights always do. So far as the kids knew this was the climax, but I had one more trick up my sleeve.
As they came forward to take their second bows, faces dripping cream and costumes splattered, “In the Mood” started up for the third time. Most of the kids looked around, puzzled, and so did not see Faculty Row rise to its feet holding the cream pies Sadie and I had stashed beneath their seats. The pies flew, and the cast was doused for the second time. Coach Borman had two pies, and his aim was deadly: he got both his quarterback and his star defenseman.
Mike Coslaw, face dripping cream, began to bellow: “Mr. A! Miz D! Mr. A! Miz D!”
The rest of the cast took it up, then the audience, clapping in rhythm. We went up onstage, hand-in-hand, and Bellingham started that goddam record yet again. The kids formed lines on either side of us, shouting “Dance! Dance! Dance!”
We had no choice, and although I was convinced my girlfriend would go sliding in all that cream and break her neck, we were perfect for the first time since the Sadie Hawkins. At the end of it, I squeezed both of Sadie’s hands, saw her little nod—Go on, go for it, I trust you —and shot her between my legs. Both of her shoes flew into the first row, her skirt skidded deliriously up her thighs. . and she came magically to her feet in one piece, with her hands first held out to the audience — which was going insane — and then to the sides of her cream-smeared skirt, in a ladylike curtsey.
The kids turned out to have a trick up their sleeves, as well, one almost certainly instigated by Mike Coslaw, although he would never own up to it. They had saved some pies back, and as we stood there, soaking up the applause, we were hit by at least a dozen, flying from all directions. And the crowd, as they say, goes wild.
Sadie pulled my ear close to her mouth, wiped whipped cream from it with her pinky, and whispered: “How can you leave all this?”
And it still wasn’t over.
Deke and Ellen walked to center stage, finding their way almost magically around the streaks, splatters, and clots of cream. No one would have dreamed of tossing a cream pie at either of them.
Deke raised his hands for silence, and when Ellen Dockerty stepped forward, she spoke in a clear classroom voice that carried easily over the murmurs and residual laughter.
“Ladies and gentleman, tonight’s performance of Jodie Jamboree will be followed by three more.” This brought another wave of applause.
“These are benefit performances,” Ellie went on when the applause died down, “and it pleases me — yes, it pleases me very much — to tell you to whom the benefit will accrue. Last fall, we lost one of our valued students, and we all mourned the passing of Vincent Knowles, which came far, far, far too soon.”
Now there was dead silence from the audience.
“A girl you all know, one of the leading lights of our student body, was badly scarred in that accident. Mr. Amberson and Miss Dunhill have arranged for Roberta Jillian Allnut to have facial reconstructive surgery this June, in Dallas. There will be no cost to the Allnut family; I’m told by Mr. Sylvester, who has served as the Jodie Jamboree accountant, that Bobbi Jill’s classmates — and this town — have assured that all the costs of the surgery will be paid in full.”
There was a moment of quiet as they processed this, then they leaped to their feet. The applause was like summer thunder. I saw Bobbi Jill herself on the bleachers. She was weeping with her hands over her face. Her parents had their arms around her.
This was one night in a small town, one of those burgs off the main road that nobody cares about much except for the people who live there. And that’s okay, because they care. I looked at Bobbi Jill, sobbing into her hands. I looked at Sadie. There was cream in her hair. She smiled. So did I. She mouthed I love you, George. I mouthed back I love you, too. That night I loved all of them, and myself for being with them. I never felt so alive or happy to be alive. How could I leave all this, indeed?
The blow-up came two weeks later.
It was a Saturday, grocery day. Sadie and I had gotten into the habit of doing it together at Weingarten’s, on Highway 77. We’d push our carts companionably side by side while Mantovani played overhead, examining the fruit and looking for the best buys on meat. You could get almost any kind of cut you wanted, as long as it was beef or chicken. It was okay with me; even after nearly three years, I was still wowed by the rock-bottom prices.
That day I had something other than groceries on my mind: the Hazzard family living at 2706 Mercedes, a shotgun shack across the street and a little to the left of the rotting duplex that Lee Oswald would soon call home. Jodie Jamboree had kept me very busy, but I’d managed three trips back to Mercedes Street that spring. I parked my Ford in a lot in downtown Fort Worth and took the Winscott Road bus, which stopped less than half a mile away. On these trips I dressed in jeans, scuffed boots, and a faded denim jacket I’d picked up at a yard sale. My story, if anyone asked for it: I was looking for a cheap rent because I’d just gotten a night watchman job at Texas Sheet Metal in West Fort Worth. That made me a trustworthy individual (as long as no one checked up), and supplied a reason why the house would be quiet, with the shades drawn, during the daylight hours.
On my strolls up Mercedes Street to the Monkey Ward warehouse and back (always with a newspaper folded open to the rental section of the classifieds), I spotted Mr. Hazzard, a hulk in his mid-thirties, the two kids Rosette wouldn’t play with, and an old woman with a frozen face who dragged one foot as she walked. Hazzard’s mama eyed me suspiciously from the mailbox on one occasion, as I idled slowly past along the rut that served as a sidewalk, but she didn’t speak.
On my third recon, I saw a rusty old trailer hooked to the back of Hazzard’s pickup truck. He and the kids were loading it with boxes while the old lady stood nearby on the just-greening crabgrass, leaning on her cane and wearing a stroke-sneer that could have masked any emotion. I was betting on utter indifference. What I felt was happiness. The Hazzards were moving on. As soon as they did, a working stiff named George Amberson was going to rent 2706. The important thing was to make sure I was first in line.
I was trying to figure out if there was any foolproof way to do that as we went about our Saturday shopping chores. On one level I was responding to Sadie, making the right comments, kidding her when she spent too much time at the dairy case, pushing the cart loaded with groceries out to the parking lot, putting the bags in the Ford’s trunk. But I was doing it all on autopilot, most of my mind worrying over the Fort Worth logistics, and that turned out to be my undoing. I wasn’t paying attention to what was coming out of my mouth, and when you’re living a double life, that’s dangerous.
As I drove back to Sadie’s place with her sitting quietly (too quietly) beside me, I was singing because the Ford’s radio was on the fritz. The valves had gotten wheezy, too. The Sunliner still looked snappy, and I was attached to it for all sorts of reasons, but it was seven years downstream from the assembly line and there were over ninety thousand miles on the clock.
I carried Sadie’s groceries into the kitchen in a single load, making heroic grunting noises and staggering for effect. I didn’t notice that she wasn’t smiling, and had no idea that our little period of greening was over. I was still thinking about Mercedes Street, and wondering what kind of a show I’d have to put on there — or rather, how much of a show. It would be delicate. I wanted to be a familiar face, because familiarity breeds disinterest as well as contempt, but I didn’t want to stand out. Then there were the Oswalds. She didn’t speak English and he was a cold fish by nature, all to the good, but 2706 was still awfully close. The past might be obdurate but the future was delicate, a house of cards, and I had to be very careful not to change it until I was ready. So I’d have to—
That was when Sadie spoke to me, and shortly after that, life as I had come to know it (and love it) in Jodie came crashing down.
“George? Can you come in the living room? I want to talk to you.”
“Hadn’t you better put your hamburger and pork chops in the fridge? And I think I saw ice cr—”
“Let it melt!” she shouted, and that brought me out of my head in a hurry.
I turned to her, but she was already in the living room. She picked up her cigarettes from the table beside the couch and lit one. At my gentle urgings she had been trying to cut down (at least around me), and this seemed somehow more ominous than her raised voice.
I went into the living room. “What is it, honey? What’s wrong?”
“Everything. What was that song?”
Her face was pale and set. She held the cigarette in front of her mouth like a shield. I began to realize that I had slipped up, but I didn’t know how or when, and that was scary. “I don’t know what you m—”
“The song you were singing in the car when we were coming home. The one you were bellowing at the top of your lungs.”
I tried to remember and couldn’t. All I could remember was thinking I’d always have to dress like a slightly down-on-his-luck workman on Mercedes Street, so I’d fit in. Sure I’d been singing, but I often did when I was thinking about other things — doesn’t everybody?
“Just some pop thing I heard on KLIF, I guess. Something that got into my head. You know how songs do that. I don’t understand what’s got you so upset.”
“Something you heard on K-Life. With lyrics like ‘I met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis, she tried to take me upstairs for a ride’?”
It wasn’t just my heart that sank; everything below my neck seemed to drop five inches. “Honky Tonk Women.” That’s what I’d been singing. A song that wouldn’t be recorded for another seven or eight years, by a group that wouldn’t even have an American hit for another three. My mind had been on other things, but still — how could I have been so dumb?
“‘She blew my nose and then she blew my mind’? On the radio ? The FCC would shut down a station that played something like that!”
I started to get angry then. Mostly at myself. . but not entirely at myself. I was walking a goddam tightrope, and she was shouting at me over a Rolling Stones tune.
“Chill, Sadie. It’s just a song. I don’t know where I heard it.”
“That’s a lie, and we both know it.”
“You’re freaking out. I think maybe I better take my groceries and head home.” I tried to keep my voice calm. The sound of it was very familiar. It was the way I’d always tried to speak to Christy when she came home with a snootful. Skirt on crooked, blouse half-untucked, hair all crazy. Not to mention the smeared lipstick. From the rim of a glass, or from some fellow barfly’s lips?
Just thinking about it made me angrier. Wrong again, I thought. I didn’t know if I meant Sadie or Christy or me, and at that moment I didn’t care. We never get so mad as when we get caught, do we?
“I think maybe you better tell me where you heard that song, if you ever want to come back here. And where you heard what you said to the kid at the checkout when he said he’d double-bag your chicken so it wouldn’t leak.”
“I don’t have any idea what—”
“‘Excellent, dude,’ that’s what you said. I think maybe you better tell me where you heard that. And kick out the jams. And boogie shoes. And shake your bootie. Chill and freaking out, I want to know where you heard those, too. Why you say them and no one else does. I want to know why you were so scared of that stupid Jimla chant that you talked about it in your sleep. I want to know where Derry is and why it’s like Dallas. I want to know when you were married, and to who, and for how long. I want to know where you were before you were in Florida, because Ellie Dockerty says she doesn’t know, that some of your references are fake. ‘Appear to be fanciful’ is how she put it.”
I was sure Ellen hadn’t found out from Deke. . but she had found out. I actually wasn’t too surprised, but I was infuriated that she had blabbed to Sadie. “She had no right to tell you that!”
She smashed out her cigarette, then shook her hand as bits of live coal jumped up and stung it. “Sometimes it’s like you’re from. . I don’t know. . some other universe! One where they sing about screwing drunk women from M-Memphis! I tried to-to tell myself all that doesn’t matter, that l-l-love conquers all, except it doesn’t. It doesn’t conquer lies.” Her voice wavered, but she didn’t cry. And her eyes stayed fixed on mine. If there had only been anger in them, it would have been a little easier. But there was pleading, too.
“Sadie, if you’d only—”
“I won’t. Not anymore. So don’t start up with the stuff about how you’re not doing anything you’re ashamed of and I wouldn’t be, either. Those are things I need to decide for myself. It comes down to this: either the broom goes, or you’ll have to.”
“If you knew, you wouldn’t—”
“Then tell me!”
“I can’t. ” The anger popped like a pricked balloon, leaving an emotional dullness behind. I dropped my eyes from her set face, and they happened to fall on her desk. What I saw there stopped my breath.
It was a little pile of job applications for her time in Reno this coming summer. The top one was from Harrah’s Hotel and Casino. On the first line she had printed her name in neat block letters. Her full name, including the middle one I’d never thought to ask her about.
I reached down, very slowly, and put my thumbs over her first name and the second syllable of her last name. What that left was DORIS DUN .
I remembered the day I had spoken to Frank Dunning’s wife, pretending to be a real estate speculator with an interest in the West Side Rec. She’d been twenty years older than Sadie Doris Clayton, née Dunhill, but both women had blue eyes, exquisite skin, and fine, full-breasted figures. Both women were smokers. All of it could have been coincidental, but it wasn’t. And I knew it.
“What are you doing?” The accusatory tone meant the real question was Why do you keep dodging and evading, but I was no longer angry. Not even close.
“Are you sure he doesn’t know where you are?” I asked.
“Who? Johnny? Do you mean Johnny? Why. .” That was when she decided it was useless. I saw it in her face. “George, you need to leave.”
“But he could find out,” I said. “Because your parents know, and your parents thought he was just the bees’ knees, you said so yourself.”
I took a step toward her. She took a step back. The way you’d step back from a person who’s revealed himself to be of unsound mind. I saw the fear in her eyes, and the lack of comprehension, and still I couldn’t stop. Remember that I was scared myself.
“Even if you told them not to say, he’d get it out of them. Because he’s charming. Isn’t he, Sadie? When he’s not compulsively washing his hands, or alphabetizing his books, or talking about how disgusting it is to get an erection, he’s very, very charming. He certainly charmed you. ”
“Please go away, George.” Her voice was trembling.
I took another step toward her instead. She took a compensatory step back, struck the wall. . and cringed. Seeing her do that was like a slap across the face to a hysteric or a glass of cold water flung into the face of a sleepwalker. I retreated to the arch between the living room and the kitchen, my hands held up to the sides of my face, like a man surrendering. Which was what I was doing.
“I’m going. But Sadie—”
“I just don’t understand how you could do it,” she said. The tears had come; they were rolling slowly down her cheeks. “Or why you refuse to un do it. We had such a good thing.”
“We still do.”
She shook her head. She did it slowly but firmly.
I crossed the kitchen in what felt like a float rather than a walk, plucked the tub of vanilla ice cream from one of the bags standing on the counter, and put it in the freezer of her Coldspot. Part of me was thinking this was all just a bad dream, and I’d wake up soon. Most of me knew better.
Sadie stood in the arch, watching me. She had a fresh cigarette in one hand and the job applications in the other. Now that I saw it, the resemblance to Doris Dunning was eerie. Which raised the question of why I hadn’t seen it before. Because I’d been preoccupied with other stuff? Or was it because I still hadn’t fully grasped the immensity of the things I was fooling with?
I went out through the screen door and stood on the stoop, looking at her through the mesh. “Watch out for him, Sadie.”
“Johnny’s mixed up about a lot of things, but he’s not dangerous,” she said. “And my parents would never tell him where I am. They promised.”
“People can break promises, and people can snap. Especially people who’ve been under a lot of pressure and are mentally unstable to begin with.”
“You need to go, George.”
“Promise me that you’ll watch out for him and I will.”
She shouted, “I promise, I promise, I promise!” The way her cigarette trembled between her fingers was bad; the combination of shock, loss, grief, and anger in her red eyes was much worse. I could feel them following me all the way back to my car.
Goddamned Rolling Stones.