Straight from the Horse's Mouth
“I’m Eva.” she says. A variation of Eve. The bringer of wisdom and the woes of time.
I suppose it’s true: we’re all packages of conflict and demolition. Some more than others. Like the way some of us dream more than our fellow travelers. Or hold better jobs. Or stay with the same spouse year after year.
It might be killing us on the inside, but there’s a persistence about it, or us, or some internal glue that binds circumstances despite the ebb of it. One day at a time. The life force wandering out of its channel; the one thing money can’t fool. A deep irony to the whole thing, a seed planted billions of years ago that’s finally taken root and chases itself into the perfection of time.
This is how it started. Five of us carrying brownbags and a bottle to a secluded place on the river. Nobody back there in those days. Disabused coal mines, a handful of shacks. Beau volunteering to make sandwiches but so stoned he forgot to put anything between the bread. Wraps them up with precision. Tucking in a bag of chips. The wine unpalatable, but coming in at 13%.
Parking at the end of a dirt track, into the woods on foot. A blanket, jabbering, laughter, diffuse green glow reflecting from spring leaves, not yet full on. Setting up shop and one of us seeing a spider sac open and hundreds of molecules taking to the wind on gossamer filaments. Legions of arachnids waving on air. A horizontal view, voyeurs, making it up as we go along.
Unwrapping Beau’s comestibles and somebody laughing: “air sandwich!” That kind of thing travels. Spiders releasing their lifelines and going to ground. And one of us not coming back. Not that day but years later, taken away by her own hand, blunting what couldn’t be contained another day. Her blood washing itself out in the river. The water refreshing itself, but not the stain upon time. No erasing that. Nobody that capable.
The four of us drifted off like those spiders, among the living with our memories and the small things that matter. Most of them carbon copies, ensuring another generation comes to seed.
The years mean learning to bend. Age is a trick of the light, cellular and failing mechanics. Opening a box one day and finding a faded letter from Morocco, before things had turned cold. I read it out loud every so often, the words ringing in my ears. Bringing her back to life for however many words it takes.
I didn’t set out to be a writer. I didn’t set out to be anything. Ploughing the same ground year after year. A career that clung like smoke. Ambition was a ghost that dogged my friends but somehow flew over me like the angel of Passover. Spared a death by ennui, the plague of repetition. It was too early for jobs or Jesus or matrimony. The flotsam of capitulation. A mortgage, minivan, the ubiquitous manicured lawn. The soul crying in its sleep. Three drinks and a television to talk to.
A change was upon us, all roads leading to a promised land in a bargain of unequal shares. The road in never coming back out. Trees bowing their heads as our procession passed towards infinity. Our road, our time. Seeing stars in our eyes and having to choose. Only some making the choice
It’s too early for summer. A ruby-throated hummingbird looks for the feeder that still lives in the basement. The little bird comes to the window to watch his own reflection. They say we’ve shifted the planetary weather patterns. Computers spitting algorithms of doom, the worst case scenario already upon us but cloaked in jargon only a lab technician can pronounce. Data love. The bane of feeble hearts and criminal justice. Poles melting. The law of inertia.
The photograph of her still sits in its place on the mantel looking too young for who she was. Her frozen smile now a haunting echo, knowing the falsity of it. The longitude of her finality, yet the picture survives; a survival she couldn’t endure no matter how deeply she was loved or whether the Hanged Man turned up in the cards she fawned over. Or that she was gilded by circumstance, her future destined for pregnancy and cascading sunsets.
The phone rings and there’s nobody there. Like little signals from the other side, her reminding me of the weight she carried that’s now buried so deep no shard of light can penetrate. A land of worms and nematodes. Bacteria ruling the earth.
If it rings three times I pick it up. The Caller ID went out on a battery and now every call is a mystery to either accept or defeat. Even defeated, they always call back. Or at least I think they call back. Maybe there are more people seeking my ear than I thought. Or robots own my number. I never liked robots. Machines have no soul.
Everybody says dude these days. And like. Somebody needs to stuff like where the sun can’t shine.
“You still good for Friday?”
“I don’t know if this is such a great idea, Beau. I have a feeling about it.”
“Fuck your feeling, Sam. A few folks around a table, breaking bread. It’s not complicated.”
“Come on, man. I’m slapping hens on the grill. Big bowl of leaves. All the tea you can drink.”
“The girl, Beau. Your track record spooks me.”
“Jesus, she’s totally harmless, Sam. My kid brother speaks highly of her. She’s smart, works with horses out west somewhere. I’m not pimping, dude. I got your back here.”
“No woman is totally harmless, Beau. A bit of wisdom I picked up along the razor’s edge.”
“Just show up, Sam. You’re growing moss over there. It’s spring; let’s do this.”
There’s a twisted logic to old friends. They think they know you but only see a projection of what’s allowed out of the base. A hologram where every part seems to reflect all the others, but obscures core features. Always coming home to itself. A mysterious zoological realm where the innermost parts are more plant than flesh and blood.
Age drags against our trigonometry. You can fly to Paris in the time it takes to watch a couple of movies, but you can’t outrun yourself. The war against gravity is a war in name only; she always wins, the chips falling in set patterns, leaving holes filled with memories and the detritus of a past that vanishes like faces painted with water on a hot sidewalk. When the synapses fold, then what?
Beau is the kind of guy you want to be with when the nukes star falling. He knows I remember things. Things I don’t verbalize but that rest on the tip of my tongue. Nothing threatening, unless identity is threatening. But that’s up for debate. Especially now, at our age.
Beau slipped a notch after wife number one, a woman who talks gibberish with an accent acquired in the suburbs of Atlanta. Nobody with any sense lives in the suburbs of Atlanta. Except robots. They’re a snug fit for those kinds of places. Ten lane drive-thru banking, tanning salons, nails while you wait. The sort of habitat where phoning it in goes with the terroir. A world of insomniacs.
He knew better, tried to stay close to the roots, but found himself drifting when wife number one discovered the pleasures of the bourgeoise: country club, chardonnay, Vail for Christmas. Must-haves, she called them. A joke that sat hard with Beau’s calibrated ethos. Two children in quick succession sealing his fate.
“Do you know what it costs to send two kids to college?”
“A hundred grand a pop, dude. And that’s without the car, sorority, spring break, out of state games. A nightmare; I’ll be working until I’m 75.”
A solid man in spite of the anchor around his neck. A man I trust in the worst of circumstances. Except when it comes to meddling in my affairs with the opposite sex. A sport he’s particularly fond of.
I pull up to the front of the house. See a trio of cars parked in a side pocket of asphalt. Conrad’s car, Jovanna’s old Civic. A red pickup truck hanging its ass out, New Mexico plates. Put the hatchback to sleep under a little awning across the drive and take a few deep breaths. The air feels good soaking into the alveoli, oxygen pouring through the cells. Two years without a drink and suddenly aware of missing it.
Get out, another inhalation. Then amble around the side of the house where I know they’ll be. Smell fat hitting coals. Shrill sound piercing the air then subsiding. Jovanna laughing at her own jokes.
Come to the patio. Grill off to one side. Beau hovering beside it, spray bottle in one hand, tongs in the other.
“Hey, dude. You fucking made it!”
Wife number two not comfortable with the word fuck. An amazing non sequitur of character. Jovanna gesticulating for my attention. Conrad giving a faint salute, always the cool touch, never one to come out of the shell. Football at Clemson, the knee buckling under and sidelining him long enough that the world passed him by. The town’s go-to insurance agent. A Volvo and a string of failed relationships.
“Sam!” Jovvana going through the perfunctory hug. Kissing both cheeks. Too much television. I remember us being high to the gills in a supermarket, standing in front of the cucumbers. Laughing too hard and retreating to Beau’s bug before having to explain ourselves to a disgruntled manager, or worse. What — twenty five years ago?
Cheryl, wife number two, waving, her nose in the air, as if she’s testing for aberrant pheromones. What’s he bringing in with him this time?
A woman sits on the upper patio. Jeans, snap button shirt, tan. Hair tied back. Almost plain but for some inexplicable feature I can’t pinpoint. Sandals, cherry red toenails. Each one resembling a tiny stop sign.
“I hear you two haven’t met, so let me do the honors.” Jovanna taking my hand and bouncing up three steps to the woman’s chair.
Her standing, hand coming up, not waiting for Jovanna’s song and dance. “I’m Eva.” she says. Variation of Eve. Bringer of wisdom and the woes of time.
“Sam,” taking her hand.
“Nice to meet you, Sam.”
“New Mexico plates. Yours?”
Nods her head. “My first trip South. An old friend’s wedding. The first two didn’t stick.”
“The Teflon part.”
Laughing, her mouth in perfect symmetry with the rest of her face. The secret to her appearance.
Watching other people drink is a lonely profession. By the third round, evolution kicks in and more is revealed than the sober can appreciate. From the outside it’s an exercise in banality. Each inebriant wagging their tongues, facial contortions blurring the lines. The brain mistaking itself for something else, neurons free of their cages. Wild horses in a field of dreams.
From what I can tell, Cheryl is descended from a long line of shitheads. A faded debutante married up, husband Beau a member of the South Carolina bar. Her doing the household routine, the white shirts neatly pressed, manicure Wednesdays, lunch with the girls.
Beau saw something there that I couldn’t separate from the background. I had been close to wife number one, maybe too close, but Cheryl was an arm’s length transaction. A couple of Absolutes never helped.
“Sam’s famous,” Cheryl chirped. “Pulitzer! Isn’t that right, Sam?”
Jovanna chuckling, raising her glass, the wine leaving little streaks down the side: sugar legs.
“Southern Journal Award,” I correct her. “A few clicks below the jackpot.”
“A piece in The Atlanta Constitution about the slow decay of journalism.”
“Big fish in a little pond, right, Sam?” Cheryl cocking her head, the cultivated grin, eyebrows at attention.
Beau scowling, misting the chickens with his water bottle. A column of smoke coming off the coals.
“Wait a minute, I thought we were living in the Information Age. What’s dead about journalism?” Jovanna laughing at herself
Cheryl circling Beau, standing beside him in a demonstration of faux stability.
“Is journalism dying?” Eva says.
“What used to be art has gone over to insipidity.”
“Money follows what readers want. These days they want paint by number stories. Social media did in the rest of it.”
“I love Twitter!” Cheryl blurts, an arm around Beau’s thick torso.
Jovanna laughing again, pulling out her iPhone and waving it like a battle flag. “Let’s post a groupie,” she says. “My three hundred followers need in on this.”
Eva locking eyes. I can’t help but note the clarity in the irises, almost translucent, a fierce celadon. Feeling her sizing me up. A subterranean strength in her posture.
The three stooges squeeze in for the group shot. Conrad coming out of his own shadow to flank Cheryl’s left. Beau dead center, his tongs held over his head like a cell tower. Jovanna shouts for us to join them. The sun late and touching a stand of cypress trees on the far side of the river. The birds on the grill smell thick and done.
“I’m not big on my image being captured,” Eva says.
“You get used to it around here.”
“I don’t want to get used to it.” The muscles in her cheeks flexing then releasing. The slightest sign.
“Sam!” Jovanna shrieks, the iPhone shimmering in the fading sunlight.
“Come on, dude!”
And the insidious chimes going off, Jovanna’s body jerking in surprise. “My damn phone’s ringing!” she giggles. “Hello?
Beau doubling over, the tongs goosing Cheryl in the ass and her slapping at him.
“Jenny? Shit, girl, I’m sorta drunk.” Jovanna wandering off the stage.
Eva loosens, her eyes giving nothing away. “Saved by the bell,” she says.
“Those birds are ready. I’ll see if we can move this towards dinner.”
“Protein would help,” she smiles.
I wanted to race sailboats. Play the ponies, haunt the stands and watch the hats float through Derby Downs. I wanted to sit in cold movie theaters and forget the heat of summer, Zika virus, children born with their brains unscrewed. Evolution fucked up when it invented the mosquito; thick in the trees, back under the Spanish moss that hangs like tresses from gnarled hosts. Parasitic plants waving in the breeze wafting down the slough, a taste of salt in the air.
I wanted to slouch in some cafe, read the New York Times, Billie Holiday in my ears, visions of train rides through France with Rimbaud’s ghost. I wanted to fly my own plane. Or see the glaciers before they return to the sea. Whatever it was, I wanted to do it.
But instead I wrote about it. Journalism before the world went south like a foul wind.
It’s so hot the back of my shirt is stuck to the seat. The AC on the blink and my mechanic laughing when I asked how much to fix it: “Sometimes you have to know when to punt, amigo.” Everything is now an extension of football. Including brain damage.
Windows down, a thick blanket of heat pushing into the front seat. Too hot for anything but iced tea under a fan. I might be scorched, but the money saved on the AC keeps me in lunch through the worst of the summer.
Round the corner at Shipley and see a red pickup occupying two parking spaces. Bird shit on the windshield. New Mexico plates. Ease across the street into a sliver of shade, shut the hatchback, feed the meter. The town’s main attraction squats in its own little park, a grim casualty of The Great War. The war to end all wars. The young soldier now frozen in bronze, staring at a neon sign proclaiming pit cooked ribs “with all the fixins,” and wondering if pit cooked ribs are worth killing over.
Walk past the bayonet and into the doors of the library. Cold air slapping my face, the wet shirt feeling cool. A woman behind the desk waves, her glasses riding her nose as she peers over the rims. No names, just faces. Take the stairs two at a time, testing the arteries, heart waking up, lungs stretching out. Pretty good shape, considering.
At the top of the flight, the section on maritime history, her sandals reaching into the aisle from behind a bust of Admiral Semmes. I move ahead until the rest of her comes into view. Same jeans, a book blocking her face. Slumped in her chair, hair in braids, fingers wrapped around the hardback. Recognizing the cover at a glance. The title a searing memory, my name below the photo.
“They say people use that book instead of sleeping pills.”
I sit opposite and watch her straighten up, the recognition. Smile. Try to guess her age. A few lines, sun exposure. Nothing in excess. Somewhere in her 30s.
“It’s fascinating. You must’ve spent years working on it.”
“Three. Ran out of grant money or I’d still be knee deep in it.”
“Quite a colorful cast of characters. I’m surprised they allow you to live anywhere near here.”
“The sons and daughters wear a fresh veneer of civility, doing their best to ignore what kind of genes they carry around. But they’re pretty harmless, for the most part.”
It was true. The past buries itself in layers of forgetfulness. The sins of the father are indiscretions that lose identity as time molds into new shapes, new faces. Carving new identities out of familial raw material, proud of the leverage inherent in owning one set of bones and not another. If my generation was measured by the mechanics of truth, the reckoning could not be contained.
“What fuels the kind of hatred that emerged here?”
“The sort of cowardice that wakes a man up at night and laughs in his face.”
She smiles again, reminding me of what I saw the night before, the way her face betrays itself. “I saw that line in here,” she says, tapping the book.
“Page eight,” I nod.
Her eyebrows arching. “I’m impressed.”
“The line isn’t that good.”
“That you remember what page it’s on.”
“It stuck after the fifth rewrite.”
She shifts in her seat, puts the book in her lap, the long legs folding under her. “You have a dogged persistence. I’d never survive rehashing my work.” She seems built for the chair. The library should hire her to show off the furniture.
“I’m just your basic house dog,” I quip.
“I have a pair back home. This is the first time I’ve been away in ages, I didn’t know I’d miss them so much.”
“One’s a shelter mutt. Sleeps at my feet, scared of her shadow. The other is strong on shepherd with an ounce of collie. Barks at the moon. A little crazy.”
“The odd couple.”
“Not much odder than some people I know.”
Feeling the heat through the soles of my shoes. Thinking her sandals are evidence of higher intelligence. Our shadows tracking alongside us at an odd slant, the sun lagging behind the water oaks stretching down Beauford Street. And snatches of her scent, a combination of citrus and deep undertones. Her body heat mixing with her sweat and going airborne.
Stepping into the shade, losing the shadows. A Coke truck grumbling past, its stack sending signals into the air for no one to read.
An apron greets us from behind a soda fountain. “Help yourself, Sam.” Her hair netted and gray like the lichen embedded in the oaks across the street.
“Thanks, Charlene.” I slide a chair out for Eva, wait until she sits. Old habits die hard. Especially here. Charlene watches from behind the soda pumps. Nobody misses much in close quarters.
“You always such a gentleman?”
“Goes with the turf.”
“Sam, y’all want some tea?”
Eva nodding and giving Charlene the sign for two.
“I need to warn you, unless your pancreas is made of titanium, stick to the unsweetened.”
“From one who knows; just ask my dentist,” I add.
“Sage advice to remember.”
The tea arrives, beads of condensation running along the plastic glasses. Inside, a murky tannin color swirling through cubes of ice. Slice of lemon on the rim.
“Who’s your friend, Sam? Don’t get a lot of visitors since the freeway got born.”
Making introductions, time-honored marking of territory. Boundaries. Always that. Charlene assuaging her curiosity, nosing into some small momentary novelty, something to take to the beauty parlor. Crows on a wire. I do the intro and she shuffles off to assemble sandwiches, a matching pair of turkey on wheat. Tea sweating onto the Formica, the glass sitting in its own ring.
“I thought you had a wedding to attend.”
“I leave this afternoon. Nobody will notice that I skipped the rehearsals.”
“Your enthusiasm is catching.”
Laughs. Her eyes catching the overheads. “You tried it?”
“Marriage. For better or for worse.”
“A long time ago. Another life, but just couldn’t make it.” The past intruding into my thoughts. Touching a sore spot and me with a decade of imponderables under my belt. How to rewind the mistakes of the past?
“Sorry. It’s none of my business.”
“Let’s talk about you. Tell me about New Mexico.”
Lives north of Taos. Wrangles for a guy with more money than sense. Horses her whole life, growing up in Socorro. Comes to her by nature, always that way. The animals give her respect, some innate understanding. Three years of college until the tedium began crushing her spirit, watching her friends buckling under to a life of repetition. College romance ended the day she walked off campus and didn’t look back. The horse needing water and going to drink.
“My father wanted me to be a vet. I didn’t want to see horses as a collection of biological functions.”
“I never was much on lab coats,” I tell her.
Eva smiles and the symmetry reappears. A self-contained composure, nothing betraying her. At least not at the surface.
“No string of husbands? Kids dangling from mailboxes all over the desert?”
“Horses are pretty demanding; the last thing I need is a barn full of jealous stallions.”
Me laughing now as Charlene comes back with the sandwiches, sets them on the table and heads off for the pitcher of tea.
“Down here we practice factory marriage. You pretend for ten years, then trade your spouse for a newer model. Kids are pretty much collateral damage.”
“Doesn’t that get incestuous?”
“In the abstract.”
“And you managed to escape.”
“Let’s say I’m in orbit around the mating game.”
“But you have friends, have stayed together your whole lives. I have no idea what that’s like.”
“Maybe you’re just in a bigger orbit. And the further out you get, the less gravity there is to keep you tethered.”
“No wonder you’re a writer.”
“I just pay attention. The rest is algebra.”
She cuts her sandwich in half, wields the knife with slow precision. Eats slowly. Wipes her lips with a paper napkin. Sips tea, a drop sliding down her chin.
“I meant what I said. About the bigger orbit. Everybody thinks they’re privy to each other’s doings. Trading partners like cars with 30,000 miles on the lease. But there’s an invisible line unique to all of us; you cross over and run the risk of losing touch with the ground. It gets crazy out where the buses don’t run, places where maps are nothing but blank spaces and broken signs.”
Eva sits back, smiles. “I suppose you sideline as a poet, in between the exposés.”
Charlene removes our plates, wiping the table with a rag. The smell of Clorox.
“Sam, you save room for banana pudding?”
“Have I ever said no to your pudding?”
“Not that I remember, come to think of it. How about you, honey? Best banana pudding this side of Memphis.”
“I can vouch for that,” I agree.
“I’d love some.”
Charlene moves back to her roost, clinking plates, then off to the kitchen.
“Her accent is fabulous.” Eva nodding at Charlene.
“Old school. Charlene grew up here and never left. I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t behind that counter.”
“This place feels like a Hollywood set.”
“There won’t be places like this much longer. Homogenization will kill them off like the way an herbicide shrinks a weed until it disappears.”
“So what do you do? Isn’t the pen mightier than the bulldozer?”
I rest my arms on the table, study her. A strand of hair slipped from its mooring, offsetting her face. “I’ve spilled enough ink on the subject to drown an alligator. Best as I can tell, the windmills are all still standing.”
Charlene returns, sets small bowls down, fresh napkins and spoons. “Made this morning; y’all enjoy.” Goes back to her perch.
Watching Eva taste the creamy confection, her eyes lighting up as the spoon comes back to the table.
“Oh, my God. That’s delicious.”
“Probably the only thing keeping me here.”
“I don’t believe that.”
A ticket under her wipers. I tell her I’ll handle it. I don’t accept parking meters on general principle, not even as a necessary evil. Feed the meter out of self defense. A fleeting thought to write an editorial. The editor a friend from school. Then let the idea float away.
“That’s a big rig you’re pushing across the country,” I say, pointing at her truck.
“I’m picking up a trailer in Athens. Hauling a broodmare back with me. Would’ve flown the friendly skies but for that.”
“A long haul. Hope you like coffee.”
“Wouldn’t leave home without it,” she smiles.
The two of us standing there, waves of heat undulating off the asphalt, soaking my shirt.
“I enjoyed lunch,” she says, brushing the hair from her face.
“Me, too.” Wanting to say more. Not sure if it’s invited or I’m just being too careful.
“If you’re ever in New Mexico,” she says, her voice trailing off. A siren in the distance.
“Maybe you could teach me how to ride.”
“I’d like that.”
“I’d do the cell phone thing, swap numbers; but I don’t carry one.”
“Tres Compañeros,” she says. “The name of the ranch I live on.”
“Taos. They’ll find me.”
“I’ll send you a book.”
She breaks the barrier. Leans into me, brushes my cheek with her lips. Goes back to center. “Thanks again, Sam. And send me Charlene’s recipe for the pudding. Okay?”
I feel oxygen teasing my lungs. “Trade secret,” I say. “Let me see what I can do.”
Her getting in the truck, rolling down the window. The big engine turning over, a low growl of cylinders.
“Don’t forget the ticket, Sam.”
“Nearest garbage can.”
Her laughing as the truck eases back into the street. Waving, wind blowing her hair. New Mexico tag receding into a small rectangle as she goes through a tunnel of trees, turns onto the road towards Savannah.
I walk back to the library. I have a deadline and need a quote to round things off. Stop inside by the desk. Toss the ticket in the trash.
“You need anything?” the woman behind the counter asks.
“Tres Compañeros,” I tell her.
“Is that in fiction?”
“Let’s hope not,” I laugh and head toward the stacks.
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Ned Mudd resides in Alabama where he engages in interspecies communication, rock collecting, and frequent cloud watching. He is the author of The Adventures of Dink and DVD (a space age comedy). Some of Ned’s best friends are raccoons.