Aliens of Affectionby Padgett Powell
Aliens of Affection marks new territory for Padgett Powell, picking up where his first collection of stories, Typical, left off. Although his characters continue to revolt against the received instructions of modern American livingrefusing to be dunked in what Saul Bellow has called the "marinade of correctness"their concerns are less for indepence than
Aliens of Affection marks new territory for Padgett Powell, picking up where his first collection of stories, Typical, left off. Although his characters continue to revolt against the received instructions of modern American livingrefusing to be dunked in what Saul Bellow has called the "marinade of correctness"their concerns are less for indepence than for the maintenance of sanity itself. In this sometimes surrealistic terrain, "affection was that which, and the only thing on earth which, you should be eternally thankful for." Emotional estrangement seems both inevitable and worth fighting against to the middle-aged heroine of O. Henry Award-winner "Trick or Treat;" to the unmistakably American roofer of "Wayne" (who was introduced in Typical); to the deserted husband, father, and non-vet of "Dump;" and to the fantastic heroes in three stories grouped as "All Along the Watchtower." The nine stories collected here are hilarious, wrenching, pessimistic, buoyant, low-down, high-strung, and impeccably written.
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On her way to the grocery store, to which she could walk, in celebration of which she often wore lizard-skin cowboy boots and other dress excessive for a daily trip to buy food for a family, Mrs. Hollingsworth recited, "It loves me, it loves me not. I love it, I love it not--" until she was interrupted by a child behind a picket fence next to the sidewalk.
"What are you talking about, lady?" This came equably from a round freckled face just above the sharpened pickets, all of which suggested briefly an uncarved, unlit pumpkin speaking to her.
"The South," Mrs. Hollingsworth said to the pumpkin face, which she presumed, not altogether comfortably, a portrait of innocence. The child was in fact a portrait of insolence and had wanted to say not "What are you talking about, lady?" but "Hey, lady, how about some pussy?" He had watched her for weeks walk in costumes to and from the store and he had prodigious twelve-year-old need.
"The South?" he asked. "What's that?"
"This," Mrs. Hollingsworth said, indicating with her arm the trees and air and houses and suspiring history and ennui and corruption and meanness and game violators and bottomland and chivalric humanism and people who are smart about money and people who don't have a clue and heroism and stray pets around them.
"Have you lost your mind?" the boy asked.
Mrs. Hollingsworth, to whom the proposition was tenable, said, "Grow up," and walked on.
The child was left there in a rage of early tumescence, kicking himself for insulting the object of his waking and sleeping lusts. The back of his T-shirt, which Mrs. Hollingsworth had not seen, said JUST BLOW ME, ostensibly in promotion of a brand of bubble gum. He had had the wit not to let his parents see the shirt and knew, almost, what it meant. He had the mouth and the where right but was taking the BLOW literally. He had intended asking Mrs. Hollingsworth how about some pussy and then turning his back to her. It would have worked, he was sure.
The child had no way of knowing that it would probably have worked. Mrs. Hollingsworth had three children, one older than her suitor, and had been happily married for fifteen years, and was a good mother and wife, and was enraged about it. She had said recently to a business associate of her husband, who had been out of town and had appointed her the associate's entertainment in his stead, which associate had begun kissing the back of her neck in the car outside the restaurant she'd taken them to, "Hey, for all you know, I might be the town tramp." What the business associate thought of her and her proclivities, if anything, is not known; he kept kissing her neck, which she proffered more of, and angled her head to make taut and handsome.
What Mrs. Hollingsworth thought was: I could be the town tramp. The business associate was, in fact, not the first relief she had had from the happy marriage, but she had not entertained the notion of going wholesale. She would have entertained the notion of this little smart-ass pumpkin head, un Lolito. It was hysterical, she was hysterical, it was perfect. But the pumpkin head had not shown his cards.
The next time Mrs. Hollingsworth saw the child he was standing on her front stoop with a new-looking Lawn-Boy mower behind him the color of a katydid. Through the peephole's fish-eye lens the boy looked obscenely older, his freckles the size of rain splats on concrete, and the mower was giving off shafts of a soft green light that was spectral.
She opened the door and said, neutrally, "Yes?" and looked from the boy to the mower and back to the boy and then up and down the boy.
"What?" he said. "My shorts?" He looked down at his shorts, which were cutoffs with ridiculously lacerated hems. In fact, she saw then, they had been sliced up from the cut edge about two inches on about one-inch centers, giving them a kind of surrey-roof frill. His skinny legs hung out of this frilliness like strings themselves. Mrs. Hollingsworth laughed and said, "No, not your shorts."
"What are you laughing at?"
"I'm not laughing."
"You were too."
Mrs. Hollingsworth laughed again.
She laughed some more.
"What what," he said, obviously mocking her.
"Just goddamn, lady."
"Okay. That's better."
The boy drew himself up, as if in summary of certain points he had been making. "Do you want your lawn cut?" When he said this, a hail of profane words and images fell in his brain. Do you want a cherry on it? Do you want nuts on it? Do you want your nuts crushed? Do you want your tits blown off? "Do you want your lawn cut?" he said again, strangely almost out of breath.
"No," Mrs. Hollingsworth said. "But you can cut it anyway."
She closed the door then and decided that would be the test for this little rogue: if he cut the lawn with no more ado, no price, no terms, no promise, he was to be regarded as a significant little foul ball landing in the happy proper play of her enraging days.
Through the fish-eyed peephole Mrs. Hollingsworth watched him address his Lawn-Boy. He took a deep breath and glanced at the sky before securing the machine with his foot and pulling the cord. It started right up. He took the handle and pushed against it with his thighs, stood there not moving, and momentarily seemed to wilt over the handle before taking a giant stride. He marched the machine over the lawn faster than she had ever seen a lawn mower go. He was flying over the lawn, blasting sticks and ant beds and, he thought, a pet toy of some sort into flakbursts of airborne detritus that was collecting around his nostrils. He was a cute little thing.
When she let him into the back yard and he did not talk or even look at her, Mrs. Hollingsworth confirmed her suspicions that the child was on a sexual mission. He was bold and terrified.
"I'll make the lemonade," she said.
He said, "Yes'm."
Not "make us some lemonade," not "Would you like some lemonade, or something?" The lemonade. She was thrilled by this little stage irony. The boy was not himself unaware of something off. "Yes'm" was as close as he had ever come in his life to saying "ma'am."
When he finished the blitzkrieg of the yard, he sat on the little two-seater rowing swing on the children's gym set and Mrs. Hollingsworth emerged with a tray. On it was a hand-painted pitcher and tumblers and loose lemons as garnish--impractical but irresistible to Mrs. Hollingsworth's sense of kitsch in still life. She noted how unadult the boy looked sitting where her own children sat, even though he was obviously consumed with adult concerns. She wondered for the first time why he was not, as her children were, in school.
She put the tray on one seat of the glider, also attached to the gym set, though it was clearly intended for adults. It was a swinging double-benched arbor, actually, and her plan was to sit them both on one of the benches opposite the lemonade and serve the child properly until the accidental touch, or his blurting whatever he might blurt, set the lunacy of his early need and her late fatigue in motion.
Before any of this was effected, they heard the crackle of a police radio and Mrs. Hollingsworth saw, over the gate of the wooden fence through which she had let the boy, the cap and face of a police officer. He said, in a preposterously deep-voiced tone of authority, "What's going on here?"
"We're having lemonade in the shade, Officer," Mrs. Hollingsworth managed, attempting with her emphases--unsuccessfully, she knew--to insult the policeman.
"Who?" he said.
"Whose business--" Mrs. Hollingsworth noticed that the boy was gone. In a decimated patch of earth beside the glider there was a deep, lugged sneaker print pointed in the direction of the back fence. She could imagine a blur of surrey frill and skinny leg going over her good six-foot redwood fence. The image made her inexplicably, inordinately fond of her little charge, though suspicious of this rather simple affection for insouciance, or whatever it was that made a boy escape authority and made authority--in this case, herself--like it. She could also not help thinking, as the officer rather brazenly let himself through the gate, sex with cops. He came up, a shiny-shoed flashing noisy navy-blue binding of regulations and procedure.
"Have a look at that lawn mower, ma'am?"
Mrs. Hollingsworth gave him permission, which he did not wait for, with a wave of her hand. She was observing things she had no real time to observe without giving the officer the impression that she was spacey. She did not care; it was, after all, the police. The kid was right. She thought of "things." How, of late, she had begun to like the idea of losing her mind. That was the conventional expression for it, not hers. She was toying with the idea of losing herself. She did not want her mind to depart, like the whole house of one's Kansas spinning to Oz; she wanted the little craft of things that were considered her, that she considered her, to work loose and drift and turn just a little off-line, a keelless rowboat about 45 degrees to the current in a gentle, nonthreatening high water. The officer was telling her, standing before her and mincing as if he had to go somewhere or pee, that the lawn mower had been stolen from the hardware store eight blocks away by a boy on foot.
"Get your plaster, Officer.
"Here's his track."
"The alleged individual who perpetrated was in the apparel of a shirt of the variety of a T-shirt which it had printed on it an obscene ... ah, saying. Or remark." This speech endeared the officer to Mrs. Hollingsworth in a way that surprised her, but she caught herself. If she was going to have immoral affections for a Lolito, she was not going to accommodate Sergeant Garcia. She had no idea what the obscene-shirt business was about. The boy had had on a clean white shirt. That was the only true thing she told the officer about the boy.
"The alleged perpetrator, Officer, had dark skin, though he wasn't black or Hispanic, and he did not seem too bright, but I wouldn't go so far as to say he was mentally challenged." The officer wrote things in a fold-over pocket-sized spiral notebook.
"He had on mordantly long pants."
"Mordantly long pants."
"Can you describe those pants?"
The Bee Gees were playing, filling the yard. She had put them on, and put a speaker in a window giving on the back yard, for the lemonade break. Even she knew they were terribly dated, that the boy would either find them hokey in modern terms or not even know what disco was, and that had been part of the scheme: to look agreeable but hopelessly out of it to the boy. It would give him a certain courage, perhaps the courage of pity or charity. Now, sitting there, she thought she could see the officer just perceptibly dancing as he pulled the evidence of her suitor's crime out of the yard. And she sat there herself not unhappily in a flood of harmonized sappiness that not even a teenager should tolerate. The rowboat of her self was coming unmoored, perhaps, inch by inch.
She wondered how disruptive to the courtship this unfortunate incident would prove until, an hour later, she picked up the phone and heard a voice coming through what sounded like a pillow say, "Bonnie? This is Clyde. Rain check on that lemonade," and the caller hang up giggling. She had a card on her hands and she was going to have to decide if she really was one herself. To do that, you had to look boredom in the eye and forget all other considerations: your own failures contributing to your boredom, for example. Does God, you had to ask, want us to be bored? You answer that to find out if you are a card or not. You do not entertain highfalutin notions of decadence. Just boredom. That is to some extent what the kid was operating on, that and hormones, even though he didn't know it (he knew the hormones, but not boredom as such, yet, she figured). In his early apprehension of boredom boring down on him, he was arguably a little visionary, if you took the long, charitable view of him. If you took the short, niggardly view, he was a young dog with a blue steel. Her husband came home shortly after these thoughts and Mrs. Hollingsworth took the long, charitable view of the boy.
Her husband lugged his business-day you-wouldn't-believe-it opera of sigh and grunt into the house and she gave him the kiss to make it all better. This kiss, on the cheek, had a special feature: she touched the back of his neck with the back of her left hand while holding his arm, at the biceps, with her right hand. For the implantation of this ministration her husband held perfectly still so that the target, his cheek, would be steady. The kiss had originated, she supposed, from her having wet her hands doing dishes and not wanting to wet her husband. But she had noticed that it was the only way she would kiss him; she would touch him only with the back of her hand. It had become a symbol of her dissatisfaction. She thought of kissing the boy: taking his little fine-haired neck with her hand and fingers up into his hair, cradling the little pumpkin properly, and kissing him as tenderly or roughly as he seemed to suggest movies and television had taught him he wanted to be kissed. She might take his face in both hands, if he inclined to tenderness and innocence. She might turn his head, even, like a listening puppy's. She might move her lips seductively and ridiculously, as Marilyn Monroe did, before actually kissing him. She realized at dinner--meat loaf with Lipton Onion Soup Mix in it, they'd have it no other way--that her affair with this rogue lawn boy was as unknowable a thing as anything available to her in her life as it stood, and as it was ever likely to stand. As silly or sad as it was, it was possible to regard entertaining the boy and his desire as an act of survival.
Her husband and her children occupied spaces at the dinner table in dark, undefined silhouettes, as if they were witnesses whose identities were being masked. She was not shocked by this. It was not that these stolid, regular people she held together with daft toughness and maternal Saran Wrap were anonymous; it was that she was really anonymous to them, and had been for a long time. She held no one to account. It was life. She was, again by the perverse charts of life, not anonymous to the frilly-legged, petty-larcenous, pumpkin-headed, overheated lawn boy. Nor would he be anonymous to her.
Suddenly, it seemed, as if her thinking the child's head resembled a pumpkin two weeks before had precipitated it, Halloween was upon her, and with it distractions she found unnerving. Somehow Halloween had come to epitomize the problems in her life. At the least of it there was what she called the "dick costume frenzy," which meant divining the particular misconceptions three children might have about what fairies and pirates and cats were supposed to look like and then purchasing--at a costume store, mind you--the exotic effects that would satisfy these bizarre whims, and then sewing... and it did not end, it seemed, for weeks. Her husband, who might have been counted on to scrooge a minor holiday, instead fanned the flames by entering the children in town costume contests and by volunteering as escort to their candy-gathering caravans. The ban on treats not factory-wrapped was of course de rigueur, but last year someone had rented a metal detector. When Mrs. Hollingsworth saw a set of parents who did not know how to drive their Volvos very well place a bag of candy on a lawn and run a metal detector over it as if it were a bomb, she herself wanted to explode. She wanted to include Halloween in her catalogue of what constituted the South: "... stray pets collected and neutered by alcoholics, unless it rains; automotive mechanical intelligence in inverse proportion to dental health; and Halloween." She knew that it wasn't the South exclusively that had Tupperwared it: inside the container the middle-class abiders, outside the Candy Man. Inside, afraid to live normal lives, were magazine subscribers running scared; outside, people not reading the news, unless it concerned themselves, not abiding but getting away with things. Her logic loosened at this point to include, rashly, the entire modern world: people fretting in tight well-mannered circles of timid custodial correctness and those circling them with bright eyes. Halloween was as far as you needed to go to see how far along the world was on the road to hell and how big the handcart was.
In this distraction, Mrs. Hollingsworth forgot about the lawn boy until he appeared again on her stoop wearing a suit and a fedora.
"Not another one," she said, referring to costumes.
"No, ma'am," the boy said, removing his hat. "It's me."
"I know it's you," Mrs. Hollingsworth said. "You think I'd have two boys stealing lawn mowers for me?"
"I don't know what you'd have, lady." He looked her in the eye
This was a fully matured something with a mouth on it, she thought, like a baby snake.
"You ought to have me in before they spot me." She swung open the door and swept her arm into the foyer, into which the lawn boy strode, hitching the pants of his too large suit and looking, she thought, for a place to throw the hat. She had a momentary loss of composure as Andy Hardy crossed her mind, and she might have lost her nerve altogether had the child hung the hat on anything. But he did, instead, something rather redeeming: he went directly to the kitchen, opened the sink cabinet, and put the hat, and then the suit, which he removed, revealing the same white shirt and surrey-frilled pants as before, into the trash compactor.
"That's the old man's and that's the old brother's," he said, hitting the compactor switch. "They're dumb. All I knew, they'd have the joint staked out."
Mrs. Hollingsworth started laughing, aware that it might suggest again to the boy that she was laughing at him. But the boy sat at the kitchen table, apparently not bothered by her laughing, and drummed his fingernails. With a short glass of whiskey and some smoke in the room and a little hair on his face he'd have looked a seasoned drinker in a bar.
She got to the table and sat, trying to behave herself, wiping tears from her eyes. "God, I'm sorry."
For what indeed. "Do you steal much?"
"Whenever," he said. He looked around, finally at the calendar on which she recorded family doings: lessons, parties, drudge.
"Have you ever been arrested?"
"You talk a lot, lady," he said, and laughed himself. "I'm kidding."
She looked at him: he was playing a part. He was a card.
"It's a strange thing," he said. "You'd never get caught taking a whole lawn mower, for some reason. I got caught once. You know what for?
"Do you know what a WD-40 straw is?"
"It's a straw ... a red plastic straw too skinny to even stir coffee or something. It, it sprays WD-40. It costs about nothing. It comes with the WD-40, for free. I got caught stealing one. It's six inches long. It's red."
"What's your name, son?"
He looked at her, rather sharply she thought, and she also thought, Not acting now. She said, before she knew why, but immediately knew why, "I mean, what's your name?"
"Jimmy." His attitude said, That's better.
"Well ... I thought this would be a, ah, first names only, like a hot line."
"No, it won't."
"Your name what?"
"Yes'm." He said this squarely, defiantly.
"Jimmy Teeth," she said, "I'm Janice Halsey," and extended her hand to him. He shook it, firmly.
"You ain't no Mrs. Halsey."
"No, I'm not no Mrs. Halsey."
She couldn't tell if he got this, nor could she expect him to know it was not a lie but her maiden name. It seemed time to use her maiden name again with a twelve-year-old suitor, or whatever he was.
"Okay," he said, "Janice Halsey."
"Okay, Jimmy Teeth." She wondered if he was lying but didn't think he was. He'd have said Jimmy Diamond if he was lying.
A silence followed which could have been, as Mrs. Hollingsworth's laughing earlier could have been, misinterpreted, caused in this case by the awkwardness of Jimmy Teeth's name or Mrs. Hollingsworth's apparent lying about hers, or both, but it seemed finally just a silence, an odd, agreeable calm between two people in a situation that would presumably not make for agreeable calm. A boy who had stolen lawn mowers and clothes to present, apparently, a boundless need, who had to be no matter how savvy on some levels completely innocent on others, who had in disguise matriculated in the kitchen of a woman whose reactions to his proposition he could not possibly predict, who had to be therefore in part terrified, sat before that random, unknown woman twenty-five years his senior as placid as a gangster; the woman who entertained him, entertained his lunatic hope, who had borne children before another woman had borne this one, who had certain fears of the sexual abuse of children, who had once allowed death-do-us-part vows be read before her as she smiled and cried in an expensive white dress and believed, who had packed lunches and packed the issue of that marriage off to school and that husband off to work, who had had soap-opera days and ironing and long adult afternoons, who had had Sunday brunch and vacations on tropical islands and new station wagons and could read Bovary in the French and whose parents were dead, looked calmly at the boy who had stolen a lawn mower and clothes and calmly looked back at her.
She let the moment continue--suspire, as she was wont to put it.
"Well," Jimmy Teeth said, "do you like it?"
He has no idea what he's talking about, she thought. He's making talk. Her job, as superior here, was to rescue him from babbling. He'd shown that under ordinary circumstances he was not prone to babble or to other loose business. But still, the non-awkwardness of the definitively awkward minuet they were in continued to please her.
"The thing about the South," she said, getting up with the sudden perfect idea that she have a drink--a very sweet Manhattan struck her in the cortex, and she got Jimmy Teeth the lemonade the law had earlier cost him--"the thing about the South is that it's a vale of tears that were shed a long time ago. It's a vale of dry tears." She looked at Jimmy Teeth.
"Yes'm," he said. "Good ade." He thought that this woman was likely too square for him. She had probably not gotten any further in the video age than, say, PacMan and Donkey Kong, if that. She had on some kind of sweater without buttons.
"Do you understand?" she was saying. "A vale of dry tears stands in relation to true weeping as dry cleaning stands to true washing and cleaning."
"Yes'm, I got that."
They sipped their drinks, and Jimmy Teeth feared that the thing had gone this far and yet might not work--how could it do that? Where would he begin anew, with whom? Talk about a vale of dry tears--when Mrs. Hollingsworth again extended her hand to him, only this time it was flat on the table, palm up. The only thing he could figure to do was cover it with his, noting his dirty fingernails and thinking his mother was right in her constant failing fingernail vigilance. Mrs. Hollingsworth covered his hand with her other one anti pressed their hands together and Jimmy Teeth felt something he had not yet felt in all the considerable feeling of himself he had done to date. He felt a surge of something like liquid that came up warmly into his shoulders anti head and almost made him cry.
Mrs. Hollingsworth looked down at the table between her arms, and Jimmy Teeth thought she was going to cry. But she did not. He sat there for what seemed a very long time, knowing he could not move his hand but not knowing what else he could or couldn't do. He thought for the first time, What if someone comes in? He didn't have a lawn mower and his suit was in the garbage. Explain that. Jimmy Teeth could explain a few things, but he couldn't explain that. Mrs. Hollingsworth was, like, praying still, and he had time to think how he might try to explain his presence. My lawn mower's impounded and my suit's compacted. It was funny if you said it like that, and he laughed. The laugh was like the other inappropriate moments they had already shared: it wasn't inappropriate. They had a little territory here that was, apparently, unique: nothing was inappropriate. Jimmy Teeth saw that. Mrs. Hollingsworth saw that, too, though in an ironic light.
She was not praying. She was thinking. She was thinking that in this bog of impropriety she was preparing to take Jimmy Teeth and herself into there was only one truly immoral mire, and that was to act older than he was. She could be older, she could be more experienced, she could take him in ten minutes where he'd take ten years to get on the streets of sex, and that would be that, but if she pulled rank, if she mothered him or protected him or even counseled him, she would be as wrong as the book on this sort of thing said she was. Jimmy Teeth's presumed maturity, the young manliness that dared him into her life with his speaking pumpkin head on a fence and his trembling string-sized legs pushing stolen internal combustion all over her expensively landscaped, highly mortgaged family estate, would be the terra firma for their slouching into a swamp as potentially messy as this one.
"Jimmy," she said, looking him in the eye and despite herself feeling a tenderness for another human being she had not felt in a long time, "Jimmy, I'm going to show you something."
"Yes!" Jimmy Teeth said, making them both laugh.
"Jimmy, first, if I raise you from five dollars to, say, eight, for the lawn, you won't tell Mr. Hollingsworth, will you?"
"That would be a private matter between you and me," Jimmy Teeth said.
"Do you go trick or treating?"
"No'm, I quit that."
That was the right answer. Mrs. Hollingsworth made herself another drink. Jimmy was free to pour himself another lemonade if he wanted one. From there on, Jimmy Teeth was on his own. Mrs. Hollingsworth was not on her own, but to the extent she became Janice Halsey again, which was a journey that partook of Orpheus' ascent from the underworld with instructions to not look back, with some comical but not ungratifying sex mixed in, she was on her own, too.
Meet the Author
Padgett Powell has received the Prix de Rome of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Whiting Writer's Award, and a nomination for the National Book Award. He teaches in Gainesville, Florida.
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