Poetry and Prose from the Center for Writers
Home | About Us | Staff | Center for Writers | English Department | Southern Miss
* WINNER, FICTION *
by BOB BARTHOLOMEW
She was trailer trash, wore high tops, had a mullet, snapped her gum. Her glasses were the kind poor people wear, with large retro frames and smeared lenses—the type you'd find in a drugstore. I never wanted to be seen in public with her, but was willing to date her clandestinely. I wanted to date her because I knew I could.
I was on my way to work and saw her walking along the road with one foot on the pavement and the other in the grass. Her sneakers crunched the gravel, her glasses swung between thumb and forefinger.
I saw a cheap, tattered scarf dancing between her legs, snow dancing past her face—downward, sideways in the wind, upward in a squall. The fickle snow made the air visible: I could see the air rushing round her face, the soft lift in the air as it moved its hands skyward through her hair. She was heavy-clad, surrounded by fat, bright colors, and her clotted, half-frozen hair wound around her neck and rode aloft. Her hair was delicate in the rush of air, and framed a girlish face.
Actually, this last part isn’t true at all—I just like the word girlish. It feels so full and lush in the mouth, and I feel like a dandy when I say it. And as to the matter of her face—it was merely average, but available.
I slowed as I passed her but realized she could probably see my brake lights, so I accelerated abruptly and the Jeep lurched forward.
It was January and I had yet to take down the Christmas tree attached to my spare tire. One of the longer limbs caught on a mailbox and ripped the lid open. I wondered if it was her mailbox. I drove away quickly, afraid to glance into my rearview mirror.
I lived in a nice one cul-de-sac subdivision, where all the neighbors were young professionals. But just beyond the brick wall was a trailer park; in fact, all the roads leading to the main boulevards were littered with trailers. On my way to work, I always passed low-class people, usually on foot, shifting down the road—presumably on their way to a retail or gas attendant job. I occasionally saw a very large man in a bright blue Wal-Mart uniform ambling in the direction of the main roads; it seemed almost too far to walk—Wal-Mart was at least 6 miles away.
I was feeling goofy when I entered the office, so I wiggled my fingers at my receptionist and let out a loud squeal. My head rolled in a semicircle and I stuck my tongue out of the corner of my mouth. Once beyond her desk, I turned around and crouched low near her cheek—“Oh girl!" I shouted. She spun around on her swivel chair and watched me lurch into the supply room. I felt like a celebrity.
I put my briefcase on the top shelf, making sure the combination was scrambled. I pulled a box of latex gloves from the bottom shelf and closed the door behind me. The supply room was dark; a small flashlight in the guise of a pen provided enough light for me to don a pair of gloves. Suddenly the overhead light came on and the receptionist opened the door.
"What the hell are you doing?" she said.
"Happy. It's been a good morning. The weather's nice, slept well last night, love the new house."
"Bullshit. You're chasing that girl again."
The receptionist was an old friend—she'd been with me since I’d opened my dental practice six years earlier. She was cute, and her physical charms had allowed me to expedite her job application.
"And when are you going to get rid of that fucking Christmas tree?"
"Awesome tree. I'll take it down next week—promise."
Admittedly, it was a dumb idea. Shortly before Christmas, while driving to the grocery store, some of the lights had gone out on the tree. When I arrived at the store, I got out to inspect. It was raining and it looked like water had ruined some of the bulbs. Luckily, I had a box of spares in the glove compartment. I got electrocuted several times—brief harmless shocks to the fingers—while replacing the damaged bulbs. Several teenagers stood at a distance under an umbrella laughing as I jerked my hands back with every jolt. But I suppose it was worth the trouble, since having a tree is a great way to celebrate Christmas, and having it attached to the Jeep makes it easy to dispose of after the holidays: simply back up to a wooded lot and cut it loose.
Millie shut the door without turning off the overhead light. I popped the door open.
"I like it dark for inventory—makes it seem more mysterious. Like to pretend I'm peddling illegal goods."
I like being weird. But even more than that, I like the idea of myself being weird.
The day passed in myriad saliva strings hanging down from patients' chins. By five, I felt like a nanny—having wiped drool from so many faces, and chalky toothpaste goo from so many dry lips. One patient in particular—a large man with neck fat—looked like a blow fish as I pushed his mouth into weird contortions. I even had a few patients slobber on their shirts as they tried to spit into poorly positioned trays. I secretly liked my nanny's duties—I liked the maternal feeling of cleaning up after someone else's inadequacies. I wondered what it would be like to put my thumb in patients' mouths, watching them simultaneously press their eyes and lips closed in a contented smile.
On Saturday, I had some early morning duties with the Refugee Resettlement Program. I was a volunteer there—I was responsible for tutoring refugees in the "language and customs of America." I had signed up three weeks before as a way of meeting women—I figured they'd be vulnerable and needy and that the chance of rejection was low. When I applied for a position, there were several single women from Libya that needed significant tutoring; I lobbied hard to become their tutor but was presented various obstacles: first, I had to sign a contract saying I wouldn't have sexual contact with any of the refugees (it was like they could read my mind—I felt so naked); second, the director tried hard to convince me I'd be better suited to tutor a single father who'd recently arrived from Morocco (he had three boys). I could tell they were wary of hooking up a male volunteer with a female refugee. I was pissed, but figured I had to do something for the Program before I could bow out—otherwise, I'd look like a predator. So I committed to 3 weeks, 4 hours every Saturday.
On my last Saturday of "male bonding," Gregoire was late, but it didn't matter since I couldn't scold him in any meaningful way. So I glared at him instead. I guess glaring is a sign of respect in Morocco—he returned my glare with a smile; his white teeth shone bright against dusky lips.
Halfway through the session (conducted in a small, poorly ventilated room) I excused myself, saying I needed to use the bathroom. Instead, I lurked in the hallways looking for cute female employees—poorly paid workers looking to "trade up," looking for a sugar-daddy. I was disappointed—the offices were filled with typical government employees: fattish middle-aged women in oversized sweaters, waddling to and from fax machines in white Velcro tennis shoes. It seems like everyone who works for the government wears outdated clothes consisting of browns, beiges, and crazy flower patterns.
On my way home—a few blocks from my house—I saw the large man in the bright blue Wal-Mart shirt. He walked hunched over—the rolls of neck fat made it difficult for him to look away from his feet. I'd seen him before, at least a dozen times since Thanksgiving, always charting the same course through the streets leading from the trailer park outside my subdivision to the business district along Main Street. Whenever I saw him I felt pity, genuine pity. I'd pledged to myself that I'd offer him a ride sometime—this made me feel better about being complacent.
As I passed him I pressed the brake; the Jeep stopped more quickly than I’d anticipated and the Christmas tree first lurched away from the back window, then snapped forward, crushing its stiff limbs against the glass.
"Need a ride?" I asked, rolling down the window.
"Me? Just on to work, that's all. I can walk—do it all the time." He stopped, turning to face the Jeep; he looked like he was hoping I'd insist.
"Get in. I have to head back to the main strip anyway—forgot something at the store."
The man shifted through the open door: he put one foot on the floor mat, then grabbed the car frame with both hands and swung in, stuffing his butt into the seat. He shut the door so hard my ears popped.
The man was so large I felt like I was sitting on his lap. He was one of those really fat people who you think wouldn't feel you touching their arm.
"Man, I sure appreciate."
"I've seen you walking the roads. A little cold to be on foot, huh?"
"No car. Haven't had one in years. It's rough these days. Trailer's all I got." The man was poor; that much should have been obvious from his size—the poor are always fat.
"Daughter's gotta walk too. Shame—she's better than that. Works at Wal-Mart, too; doesn't wear her uniform until she gets there—embarrassed." The man was surprisingly jolly, talked with a sort of cheery resignation.
"What kind of job you do?" He continued.
I was afraid to say "dentist", so I said, "I work in an office, deal with clients all day—that sort of thing." Wanting to change the topic before he could cross-examine me, I charged ahead: "Yeah, I've seen others along these roads. There's a cute girl who I see on my way to work in the mornings...sneakers, mullet."
"Daughter." The man sounded like he had a mouth full of gum. "Mine—one and only. A bonnie lass." I tried not to laugh. Funny thing was, I had heard this expression before, but didn't know what it meant—it sounded English. He was probably trying to seem sophisticated; he didn't want me to think badly of him. I know my presence can be overwhelming, intimidating. I've been told my nose is aquiline, and that I look 'financial' from the side. I try to make this work to my advantage from time to time—once, when interviewing a potential hygienist, I sat facing the wall so that she could see only my profile. I wanted to get off on the right foot and show that I meant business.
The man was so large and so near. I suddenly had a horrible vision of him in sandals, his feet smothering the rubber foot bed.
I wondered whether my upper-class standing would help me secure his daughter. First, I needed to uncover the extent of their destitution.
"Been doing the Wal-Mart gig long?"
"Forever. Before that it was Save-A-Lot; before Save-A-Lot, Kmart. Love the work, though. Short walk from the trailer."
I couldn't believe he "loved" the work; I'd shoot myself if I had to corral carts and wave to customers. This was good; they were probably looking for a savior, for a knight on a white horse. I wanted to reach down and pull them both up, and set them on their feet again. If a quality relationship was to be the end result, so be it.
I didn't have a clear objective, but I knew I'd gain something by lurking outside their trailer. So in addition to taking the fat man to work, I also agreed to transport him home—all so I could figure out which trailer was theirs. Later that night, when we pulled up in front of a beige and yellow single-wide, he announced that his daughter was out with friends and peeled his formless mass from my leather seat. I was a little surprised that he didn’t invite me in for all my effort—we could have traded life stories and drank fortified wine from a shared sack.
So the next night, I walked the two miles to the Blackburn's trailer with my objective more clearly plotted: I wanted to get a good look at their furniture, wanted to figure out just how needy they were.
Skulking through the dark, I noticed something that had escaped me when I was there the first time: the trailer park was divided into two sections, old and new. Luckily, they lived in the old section.
Standing in the cool January air, I pressed my face against the glass. Father and daughter were sitting on a ratty hand-me-down sofa watching The Simpsons. This was good news—there were only two types of people that watched The Simpsons, and both were known to be destitute: college students and laborers. And both types would be likely to marry for money.
I circled the trailer, looking in each window. The bathroom had a yellow, unpadded toilet seat, a cheap plug-in air freshener, and a tube of generic toothpaste wedged behind the sink. The bedrooms had cheap looking furniture—pine, probably—and the carpet was apartment-brown—always a tell-tale sign of poverty.
Several days later, I saw my mark walking along the road; much to my chagrin, she was carrying a thick book in her right hand. It looked to be Dostoevsky, but I couldn't be sure. I figured she was on her way to work and needed a ride.
"Need a ride," I said, rolling down the window. My tie got caught between the frame and the glass and I had to pull it out with both hands; my face reddened.
"Sure." This was going to be easy, like shooting fish in a barrel.
Her entry was more graceful than her dad's. She sat ridiculously erect, like she was perched on the edge of her chair during the question and answer session of a beauty pageant. Fyodor sat on her lap, covered by her rough hands.
"Dad told me about you. Said you thought I was cute. Said you gave him a ride the other day."
Trying not to use any big words, I said, "Yeah. Great guy. I did mention you." I was suddenly embarrassed to let her know I liked her—she might wonder why someone like me would be attracted to someone like her. This might cause her to think less of me.
We both fell silent and I struggled for something to say. I had to ask her out; I had to think of something glitzy I could invite her to.
I delayed my decision-making by asking about the book. "What's that for?" I asked, gesturing toward her lap.
She shifted her feet every time we came to a stop sign or red light.
"There's a wine tasting down at the Grand Colonial Hotel—Saturday night. Does this sound like something you'd be interested in?" I asked abruptly. I was used to business communication, and had a hard time with small talk. I could only really ask direct questions and give direct answers—superficial and flighty chit-chat was beneath my dignity. However, I knew that I hadn't properly warmed her up.
"Wine tasting?" Her lips sounded like they'd never before considered such an important libation—but I didn't dare say "libation" aloud. Or "victual."
It was time to impart knowledge. "It's an opportunity to test different wines—they'll have some from France, Italy, and other European locales. I highly recommend it."
"You just stand around and drink wine?"
"Indeed." Not a big word, but impressive nonetheless. "You get to spit," I said, thinking this might appeal to her.
"I work so many hours. I just don't know. I work Saturday nights a lot."
She ought to have jumped at the chance.
I tried getting to the heart of the problem. "You prefer beer, don't you?"
"Yeah. But it's not just that."
I appreciated her frankness—this is one of the poor's more charming traits.
"That's true. But we could have some fun, being so different and all."
"Sorry, guy. Can't do it."
"I'll tell you what, I'll give you my number and you can think about it."
"This is my stop. Right here." Wal-Mart loomed big and blue. I wondered if she knew she was being exploited.
I eased the Jeep curbside and she got out before it came to a complete stop. I hopped out after her and stood by the car while she ran for the door. Her mullet bounced up and down, left and right. It sort of wagged, like a dog's tail.
"You silly little creature," I yelled, knowing she couldn’t hear me. "Fine! Go find some redneck—stay mired in poverty! You're afraid of success—that's it! Afraid of being anything other than what you are!"
My rosacea was acting up—I could feel it blooming on my neck.
The next day, I spent nearly an hour doing inventory. The receptionist knocked on the door several times to see if I was all right.
Standing in the supply closet, flexing my fingers inside a latex glove, I contemplated turning to Jesus, wondered if Christian girls were different—more appreciative, perhaps.
There was a church around the corner from my house—a large one. The church had so many members that I could meet dozens of women and still remain anonymous.
A couple weeks later, after work, I set off for Malaga Street Church, where they were having a singles dance. When I pushed through the heavy wood doors, I saw among those who'd already taken seats my lowly Wal-Mart friend—the one who'd committed herself to the dregs of poverty, forever and ever, amen. She was talking to a thick bodied southerner in a canvas button-down. His hair was mashed flat on one side; his lower lip protruded with meaning—like it had a mind of its own (a mind to escape the bloated face that claimed it). I walked over, shuffling sideways, making sure they saw my profile first, then my face full-on, in its aquiline glory—unmitigated, unadulterated, victorious.
I flared my nostrils and looked down at them.
"You guys new here? I haven't seen you on Sundays past." I liked the tone of "Sundays past"—it sounded vaguely like something from Dickens' A Christmas Carol. And Dickens also had a financial aspect.
Her mullet receded from view as she turned to face me full-on.
"Funny thing is, we come every week. Seems you're the stranger."
"Well you're not looking hard enough." I turned and walked off, feeling like I'd acted a fool.
Today was the singles dance—so why was she here with someone? How stupid to bring a date to a singles dance. Uncouth.
But I had to redeem myself; the evening had to end with my vindication.
The dance was cheesy and featured a disco ball, a bare wood floor where the altar usually stood, and old folks (with dates). I felt like I'd stepped into a Dunkin Donuts in Ocala, Florida.
I'd expected something like the ball scene from Romeo and Juliet, where dancers mill about, hold masks in front of their faces, ask for dances by extending white-gloved hands. Instead, it was Andy Griffith types, pounding the floor with heavy boots.
After a few cups of punch, I cut between my mark and her date. My penny loafers disguised my approach.
"We must," I said.
"Only if we must." Her acceptance surprised me—I'd expected the couple to glare at me, then glide away.
We danced for awhile, both of us quietly searching for something to say.
"Look at me," she said after a couple minutes.
"Look me straight on. You're always looking to the side, like your watching me out of the corner of your eye."
"How's this?" I faced her, but turned my chin up and away.
"Straight on. God you're so annoying."
"So what's with the date? I thought this was a singles dance?"
"He's my brother. He's an engineer—works for the State."
"That's a four year degree, isn't it?"
"Yeah, and dentistry's eight years of school. Get over yourself."
I reflexively turned my head to the side; I felt her hand against my face as she realigned it with her own.
"Get over yourself, hear that?" She stepped on my foot with her thick soled boots; I looked away and winced. Her cold, retail-calloused hands promptly returned my face to its prescribed position.
"Nine years," I said.
"Ever try meeting people? Actually meeting people?"
"I'm always around people. This may surprise you, but I have friends—people I talk to regularly."
The disco ball sent stars along the floor, between our faces, between our hands. A sparkle appeared in my palm; she cupped her hand against mine and the light bobbed for a moment before settling on her shoulder.
"Yeah, but you can't connect with anyone. When you look at women, you see only yourself."
She was well-spoken, all things considered.
"And you ought to come to church for the right reasons."
"Nobody really believes in God. If you hold any Christian at gunpoint and offer to send them to Heaven forthwith, their eyes will water, and their noses run." Should I have said "post-haste," instead?
"I think organized religion is pretty convoluted—but you can come here to find God."
Did she say "convoluted"?
I didn't know how to react.
She realigned my face again. "And stop being such an ass."
The clients at the Independent Living Center were so vulnerable and so cold. The women were all the same—thin, buried under thick winter clothes even in summer, with a spaced-out look in their eyes. The men, too, shared certain traits with one another—thick, jolly, shifty. I had come looking for vulnerable women—women who’d accept me for who I was and not ask any questions.
So there I was one Tuesday afternoon, waiting for my new client George—paralyzed George, all arms and stomach and black Velcro straps. He was cute—I don’t usually enjoy that large group of weak-willed people known as “the fat,” but George had an excuse. Anyway, his arms were large and he swung them in an awkward way, in a way that made me want to talk baby-talk and lay my head down next to his arms. He was a gentle sweet-talking southerner with a fetish for clichés—but when he used a cliché he’d always say it as though nobody had ever heard it before, like he was its author. This is a trait of the low-class: recycling clichés. But it was an endearing trait in George, because he was fat in a cute way.
Before he arrived, Beth the secretary told me I’d be helping him prepare for the GED. She gave me a big book and escorted me to one of the empty classrooms.
When George first barreled through the doors he was trailed by a skinny black woman in scrubs who was in turn trailed by a short, fat, middle-aged, dikey-looking broad with legs by Steinway. Sow.
Shaking hands with George would have been awkward since he didn’t have full control of his extremities, so I tapped him on the arm.
When we worked math problems, he wrote by manipulating a pencil with his lips—I had to keep tissues on me in case he needed assistance (there’s nothing worse than handling a slick pencil). His handicap was complete; I still cannot get over how incompetent he was: to be unable to deal with the world, to be so defenseless and useless. Such a maladjusted, broken individual.
He thought I "hung the moon"; he thought me "the cat's meow."
One day, several weeks after that first meeting, he mentioned his niece Carla, who'd occasionally brought him in, with whom I'd exchanged one or two pleasantries, nothing more. She was short, thin, 29, and sort of a redneck (smoked cigarettes, I mean). Her slightly rounded jowls suggested she'd be fat by 40, but she wasn't quite there yet, and was therefore worthy of my conversation. But we'd only had brief words, and so I was surprised when "Uncle George" mentioned that she was developing a crush on me, that she thought I was "cute."
"Carla would like to go out with you," he said.
I was sitting in what I thought would be an intimidating position—legs crossed close to the groin. So this is how rednecks match-make? I uncrossed my legs and crossed my arms and said, "Sounds great."
He gave me her number—they lived together, she was his caretaker—and I called her a few days later.
Our conversation was desultory—she was clearly ADD and couldn't settle on a topic. We managed to touch upon religion (she was Wiccan), marriage (she'd been married once), and work (she "did computers" for a local vending company, which means "data entry"). Before we hung up, we'd arranged to meet for lunch that Saturday.
I thought long and hard about mixing business and pleasure; I concluded that volunteer work didn't really count as "business" since I wasn't drawing a salary. Besides, I deserved to get something out of this since I'd put in so much time with George.
It was a long lunch. When we'd finally paid our tab, Carla asked if I wanted to go back to her place. I thought the request strange since we hadn't really flirted or touched at any time during lunch. And so we went to her place and had matter-of-fact sex, just like on TV where the kissing leads to touching, the touching to undressing, the foreplay to intercourse. She was unusually casual about the whole affair, never once self-conscious, never once objecting to my advances.
And this is how it was: we didn't have anything in common so every time we saw each other we talked about the one link, George. When she'd mention Wicca, I'd get pissed. When I mentioned my own beliefs, she'd space out and seem not to hear me. Nonetheless, there was a mutual attraction and we were each secretly using the other for sex, though neither of us would say it aloud. The dinners and movies were just precursors to skin on skin, saliva on skin. It was perfect. The only drawback was having to find new ways of talking about George.
Carla drove a huge rednecky van—one of those General Motors affairs without windows. The interior had been gutted to make room for George's wheelchair.
Carla drove fast, took turns on two wheels, had a crazy gleam in her eye when she drove the interstate, would hit the steering wheel when she got behind an old couple. She really loved George, talked about him all the time—but she was always so careless when transporting him. I resented her for this.
Once, we decided to get dinner from Taco Bell and take it to the park. After hitting the drive-thru we made our way down Carriage Street toward the city park. Halfway to our destination, Carla screamed "this'll do" and jerked the van into an empty lot. We took the turn on two wheels and I screamed back, "Jesus Christ!" The lot was a ridiculous place to eat, a parking lot with no businesses attached to it—grass grew up from the concrete.
"What happened to the park idea," I asked.
"This'll be fine. Relax, don't be anal. Let's just pop-a-squat by that lilac bush."
"You mean that plant with the old tire around it?"
"Yes sir! The Wiccan's believe in getting close to nature!" Her voice was suddenly shrill.
The lot was really close to the road, in plain view of travelers. We sat on the curb and arranged our food on our laps, with our fries combined and scattered on a napkin between us. We were silent as we ate; somewhere, a motorcycle accelerated in successively obnoxious bursts.
Across from us was a white church with a startlingly black roof. The evening sunlight looked so sad in the clear, cold air. And the way it fell on the white of the church made me feel so lonely.
"You okay?" Carla said.
"Yeah. I was just thinking about how lonely the world looks in winter, when it's sunny. How moments like these remind me of Christmas, and of all the Christmases I showed up at my parents' house alone."
I felt like someone else, somewhere else.
"You know this is just about sex, right?" she said. She bent forward and fingered some loose gravel at her feet. She looked worried.
"Is there any wiggle room on that?"
"Maybe." She tossed a large chunk of gravel at a manhole cover in the middle of the road.
We sat opposite the church for almost two hours. We talked about her parents, my parents, past relationships, death. The conversation was diverse and easy in a way it hadn't been before. After the sun went down, we lay on our backs and looked at the stars.
"I don't know how long I'll know you," I said. "But if I die when you still know me, I want you to promise me something. That if I die a boring death, you'll tell people I got killed saving a drowning dog in a frozen lake. Make that two adolescent girls."
"Maybe." She laughed. Her laugh was thin and quick in the cold, dry air.