In the Shadow of Our House
If you had lived long on our street, and drunk late at our parties, you would know that before retiring and moving to Texas, Odie Dodd had been a government physician in Georgetown, Guyana. Squawking through the hole in his throat where his larynx had been before the cancer, Odie would have told how Jim Jones had asked him to the People's Temple to vaccinate the children. How malaria, cholera, bacterial meningitis slept in the jungle underbrush. How his truck had overheated along the rutted jungle road and he'd arrived a half-day late. How he was the first to find the bodies, though. Families. Limbs intertwined. Mothers sprawled over children as if sheltering them from some imminent hardship. Scattered on the dirt around them, dixie cups that had held the grape punch and cyanide. And already, of course, the smell. The uninterrupted whine of insects. At a party, Odie's hand would flatten his silver comb-over, and he'd say he hadn't known where he was for a time. That he'd wandered outside the compound and crouched in the shade of the jungle, the insect whine growing louder. In his daze, he glanced up into the canopy and for a moment it seemed it would descend on him. His scalp prickled. He called out. The feeling, he would say, was as in a dream when you know a terrible thing is about to happen but you are helpless to prevent it. But of course the thing had already happened. And then, if Odie had sipped enough scotch, and his wife Ruth had not yet touched his elbow to leave, he would have pulled you aside and asked the question healways asked of us: why was he spared? Later it would occur to you, as it did to Dennis Lipsy, that Odie had not been spared. And sometimes, when you are at the edge of sleep, witnessing calamities befall your children or your own can't-find-the-brake veering into oncoming traffic, Odie's fleshy hole appears.
This past summer, when Odie's backyard mangoes ripened and fell, we watched the grackles tear at them and said he is dying. Dennis Lipsy's son Isaac remembered Odie plucking the fruits in the evening, the fleshy wedges Ruth would slice and chill for our Fourth of July parties.
We watched Ruth's rigid steps to the mailbox, the weekly arrival of the yard man, to rake and bag leaves, shovel away rotting mangoes. When Ruth's sisters came down from Ft. Worth, we supposed the doctors wanted to remove more of Odie's organs but hoped he would put a stop to it, afraid we would see in his clinging our own graceless last hours. Those of us who had seen Odie and Ruth on the front stoop or climbing into Odie's van for doctor visits felt the exhausted tension between them. Averted eyes. Slumped shoulders. The living grappling with the dying.
So we argued with our sons and daughters over unfinished yard work and waited for Ruth to tell us the news. To our surprise, no calls came. No family caravan of cars appeared. A few of us called. Did they need anything? No, a nice hospice nurse came to see them twice a week. Would they let us cook them a meal or two? Nothing agreed with Odie was the trouble. The medication was hard on him. His body is shutting down, we said, almost approvingly. Then, in late November, we heard his records playing through our open windows at night, just as we had when we first moved here, before our street joined the highway access road. Now as before, above the ether-whisper of our TVs, we heard scraps of Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald's "Love Is Here to Stay."
When Ruth called to say Odie was gone, Dennis Lipsyin the same barely audible voice that he used in our living rooms to explain probated wills and community propertytold her how sorry he was. Did she want him to make the funeral arrangements? A pause and a gathering of breath. "Lord, I don't mean dead," she said, laughing, then catching herself. "He's wandering about."
That evening, Dennis gathered us in Ruth's living room, most still in work clothes, a few women corralling children in the dusky front yard. Ruth, unable to hold her hands still, told us the medication must have taken Odie out of his head. Before, she had always coaxed him back inside. The police, she said, had taken a report but nothing could be done until morning. What ditch will he be in by then? she'd snapped at Dennis, who stood as he usually did, slouch-shouldered, hands in pockets, impassive. For what seemed like minutes, Dennis was silent and we blamed him, thinking, now you have no answers, like us. But then something animated Dennis's body and he took her hands in his and quieted them. Some of us remembered years before when a car had clipped Isaac's bike at the street corner, how Dennis ignored us when we'd said maybe a head injury, don't move him. How Dennis plucked his son from beside the bike, parting us like reeds as he moved toward the speck of his wife Winnie at the end of the street.
In the living room, Ruth looked at her shoes. Would we like something to nibble on? she asked, looking up. She hadn't baked in such a long time, since before the cancer came back. No, we said, sweating in the warmth of the house, some of us noticing behind our thoughts the close, medicinal smell of the room. Then, in the backyard, the macaws began to shriek. Ruth laughed. "Well, someone has an appetite," she said.
If you were one of our sons, you might have scaled Odie's fence at night to blow marijuana smoke at his macaws, told later about opening the birds' cages, watching them careen into the dark, and how the next morning their red yellow blue plumes burned in the bare branches of your own cottonwood, their squawks laying blame. Odie and your father clanging pots and pans beneath the tree to chase the birds home, Odie himself squawking, saying he knew the responsible parties, bugger them. He might then have smiled at you, his sun-mottled face crimping, and you'd imagine him marking your brow for one of the dimpled balls he drove beyond his backyard fence, into the woods where you and your friends sometimes took girls.
"Odie dotes on these birds," Ruth said to us on the back porch, as if apologizing. Inside the cage, the macaws stabbed listlessly at the fruit she had sliced. Odie had told us macaws were often drugged and smuggled from South America in spare gas tanks. Intelligent, rare creatures, he'd said, some living to be octogenarians, outlasting numerous owners, knowing cruelty and kindness in all forms. They live in the shadow of our house. What might they tell us?
This is what we imagined: Odie and Ruth had a fight over the chemotherapy, Odie saying he didn't see the point and Ruth doing what she always did when distressed, going to the fish market for prawns to sauté with a green mango curry, Odie's favorite. On the way home, Ruth would have sat hunched over the wheel of her Plymouth, thinking of her father, who, his brain seized by an aneurysm, had lived with them the last three years of his life. Like Odie, he had given away bits of himself. Slivers of his frontal lobe to surgery, fluid to relieve pressure. He'd been a pilot in the early stages of World War II flying cargo planes of supplies to Great Britain but had been too old to fight. In the mid-1940s he had put on a weekly comedy show on a low-powered local radio station in Ft. Worth. A running skit about two rubes from the Panhandle lost in the city, she had told us. Is that you, Leonard? was his signature line. She remembered also late in his life, after the aneurysm, odd fragments of jokes resurfacing: I had at one time a large, very fine ape. Did you now, Doctor? Oh yes, a lovely animal. But he grew suddenly ill and, not wanting to lose sight of him altogether, I made his skin into a mat for the table.
We have seen a series of photos in their den that Odie took of Ruth's father. Every Monday at noon for three years, he posed the old man in the same chair in the same corner of the room. The lifelong cock of the old man's head growing ever more pronounced. A sly parting of his lips. Is that you, Leonard? His right eyelid gradually drooping over a six-week period up to where the photos ended. Good night, we have thought, seeing the last 3 x 5 near the bookcase. What was Odie after? Ruth isn't sure, though she knows it has to do with Jonestown, the axis around which his life winds. So she helped Odie position and sometimes cajole her father. In one photo, her disembodied hand clasps her father's shoulder as if he would topple sideways from the frame. And driving home from the fish market, it is beneath this photo on the wall that Ruth sees Odie, in the recliner, awake, but dreaming. He and Ruth are standing in an open field at a Ft. Worth airplane stunt show where they met in 1952. Ruth is gazing at the planes overhead, one hand shielding her eyes. She's lovely. He studies the smooth bend of her neck, the slender clavicle bone at its base. He's seized by the desire to percuss her sternum, though he is early in his residency and does not yet know the proper technique. She pulls in her lower lip slightly. He puts his hands in his pockets to hide his erection. She sees him, walks over and takes his arm, speaks close to his ear because of the drone of the planes, so close he can feel her breath and smell rose talcum on her skin. She says she's pregnant, though he knows her brief pregnancy and this eventtheir first meetingare years apart. Ruth lets go of Odie's arm, bends at the waist near a water fountain, and vomits. Then she is ponderously heavy and back-bowed, her breasts full. By the time she waddles to the bleachers, her water breaks, gushing over Odie's feet like a great tide, sweeping his slippers from him. He is down on all fours looking for the goddamn things when she shouts at him. Odie looks up to see her mouth form a perfect circle, just as a smut plane falters in its loop and noses into the field.
Odie crawled from the recliner and left the house in his bare feet. Nothing, other than Odie, is missing or out of place.
If you lived a street over, and happened to take your trash to the curb that evening, you might have seen flashlights flaring off trees along the creek bed, where we poked through the brush, looking for Odie. Instead we found refuse swept here by the flooding six months before: A child's mangled bike, mateless shoes, a large painted sign that welcomed baseball fans. Then, further in, beneath a limestone overhang, a dark bundle of sleeping bag we at first took for a man. A few of us lifted its saggy weight with sticks. Flattened on the smooth limestone ledge, a collection of bras and panties. We laughed nervously, some imagining awkward encounters in woods like these, the frantic peeling away of clothes, another's pale, taut skin against our own.
We slept fitfully. The macaws startled Dennis Lipsy awake with cries like small children's. His wife Winnie dreamed her long-dead parents were approaching the coast inside a giant sea snarl. Neogastropoda. A name she told her husband later she couldn't get out of her head.
An article appeared in the next morning's paper with a photo of Odie. Sunfreckled. Gaptoothed. Missing.
Dogs give them away. Our sons' feet scuffle beneath Winnie Lipsy's lit window, where, through the curtains, they'd seen a scrap of breast. Some nights, we call out from our porches, threaten them with beatings. But before we can catch and wring them like wet towels, they are off across lawns and between the pine bones of the new duplexes we have for ten years fought off. We hear them scrape over the fence beyond the lots where they once built tree forts with stolen lumber. They are headed for the river, its fractured rise of train trestle, where they drink beer and climb the creosote rafters above the dark water, mocking us with the miraculous rise of their bodies.
Tonkawa Indians once raised their children along our river, not far from Red Bud Island where Dennis Lipsy takes his son fishing. Periodic floods washed over the banks then, even as they do now, carrying sediment, uprooting trees, unearthing the remains of their dead. But the Tonkawa always moved back, even occupying the same limestone shelters where their flood-lost sons and daughters once played, as if they could not help themselves. This is why, when they ate their captured enemies, the Comanches, as they often did, pregnant women were given the largest portions. Courage and strength. That is what they hoped to swallow.
In the cool of the evening, Odie and Jim Jones walk along our street. Odie is barefooted.
Words fail, Jones says.
That's it? Words fail?
I'd place my hands on their shoulders, look at them with great sympathythat was the hard part, you understandthen I'd say it. It was sincere. I couldn't think of anything else. I was shooting blanks.
They left you.
Not many, Odie. You'd be surprised.
They were afraid.
They sought rapture.
I think about k, the jungle.
"It has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him." That's Conrad.
You asked me to come. On that day.
Coincidence. I forgot you were coming. Where the hell are your shoes, anyway?
Christalmighty. Details. It was a busy time.
The cicadas were singing.
An axis around which your life winds. That's what they say, Odie.
Who says that?
You were in the kitchen when I found you, eating a melon.
The moment of the soul's attentiveness. Like Christ in the garden. Waiting.
For what God had to say. For the gun barrel at the back of my skull.
You were spitting melon seeds onto the floor.
The end, when it comes, is a small thing, a stick in the riverbut it parts the water, alters its course, all the same. Otherwise the goddamn thing flows on. Tick without tock is nothing.
It was said you were dying. That you mistook your dying for theirs.
Words fail, Odie.
Yes, they do.
In the early morning, if you jogged along the greenbelt at the base of our hill, you would glimpse patches of river through the cypress and cottonwood, and when you neared its bend where the trees gave way, scullers would glide past, their ebb and flow cutting a thin ripple in the glassy water behind. Eventually they would circle Red Bud Island, where, along the shore, Isaac tires of rebaiting his hook with minnows and skips rocks instead, saying the river smells like a wet dog. Beside him, Dennis remembering another time before, when he'd pointed downriver to where a rock outcropping had once formed an eddy, telling Isaac how they dynamited it long ago, that dozens of people drowned there in the 1920s. I wouldn't have, Isaac told him. I would've held my breath. Isaac's eyes narrowed and he sucked air, staring at the distant space in the river.
Once, while they were fishing, a black man had called them over to see what was on his trotline. He pulled from the water a three-foot alligator gar, its head narrowed into a long snout. Otherworldly. Early Pleistocene, the black man said, a damn antique. The gar slapped its slender body against the tree and the black man gripped its snout and tail, firm. Held it out for Isaac. Go ahead, the black man had said. Touch him. Some history there. When Isaac touched the clamped-shut teeth, he smiled sheepishly up at the man, and something sunk in Dennis's stomach. The black man let Isaac pick out a lure from his tackle box to keep.
A few times, Dennis had seen Odie along Shoal Creek, poking at rocky crevices with a hand spade, looking for awls, arrowheads, and the like. But there were other artifacts that he was partial to as well: rusted Sucrets boxes, television tubes, chrome knobs, watches, license plates. He kept an ancient yellowed pair of dentures wrapped in foil at home. Odie once had held the dentures up, making for them a mouth with his hand. Had a tongue in it and could sing once, he'd said to Dennis and laughed until tears rose in his eyes.
We know some things: when she was nineteen, Winnie had lived with her instructor, a marine biologist at Texas A&M Galveston. She said she loved his sense of humor, and, of course, the sex, both of which had faded when in the late seventies they had spent nearly a year on the Mexican Baja, where he researched large sea mollusks. Winnie, tanned, in a wide-brimmed hat and red bikini top, stares out from the pages of a scrapbook we've seen. She's smiling but turned sideways, a hand holding the crown of her hat, as though reluctant to pose. Doubtful. This will not last, the gesture seems to say, as if she'd just conjured an image of the biologist's collection of unshelled mollusks floating in jars of formaldehyde in their extra bedroom. Only a few days after this photo was taken, she would find out she was pregnant. And Winnie thinking the nausea was a reaction to shellfish. When she had decided to have the baby, the marine biologist tried to hide his disappointment by throwing himself into books on prenatal care and natural childbirth. But his mood swung wildly. Once she found him naked on the kitchen floor wrapped in ice water-soaked bath towels. It's an Icelandic cure, he'd told her. For what? Pregnancy? she'd asked. And when she told him about the adoption, he'd fingered an embryology book relieved, she knewand asked, are you sure? in a voice that believed itself. At the hospital, he held her hand while she asked for the epidural. She did not look at him. She thought of a conch shell, hard, impervious. Afterwards, she did not want to hold her daughter, but her body demanded it. Her bones ached is what she would tell Ruth later.
And now, nineteen years later, she confessed to Ruth she sometimes caught herself absurdly scanning crowds at college football games on TV, or looking up suddenly while cooking dinner, drawn to a female voice on the evening news. She had even subscribed to a college fashion magazine and begun cutting out planky models she imagined having subtle intelligence and a sense of style.
The marine biologist tried to kill himself. Dennis had told us this at a party once. Not long after Winnie had left him and moved in with Dennis, he began calling at all hours. We all need to talk, the biologist said. There were threats, mostly about what he would do to himself, Dennis had said. Winnie had spoken gently to him, asked about his medication. Dennis had imagined him pickled in one of his jars. Then one day he came by Dennis's law office, and by chance Dennis wasn't at his desk. Instead, he and the biologist had stood one urinal apart in the office men's room, Dennis recognizing him from pictures he'd seen. But the biologist, knowing nothing more than Dennis's name, had stared at the shiny tiles, oblivious, a frayed look to his bearded face. He seemed someplace else. For a while afterward, Dennis felt weirdly exhilarated. But the biologist's expression had stayed with him. Dennis wondered if the biologist might be coming to an important decision about himself, something irrevocable. And when Dennis and Winnie were in Chicago a month later, Dennis kept thinking the biologist would pop out of a doorway or alley, although he knew he was thousands of miles away And when they got lost coming back from Greek Town late one night, and crossed a metal drawbridge that spanned one of the channels feeding Lake Michigan, it occurred to him that he had not seen anyone else walking. That he'd gotten them lost. A few cars slipped by quickly, their tires ringing on the metal of the bridge. Below, he heard water lapping at the concrete sides of the canal. Winnie was tugging his shoulder, saying you lost bastard, in the giggly half-serious way she does right before she gets quiet and pissed. Then behind them, a voice said they were some lucky motherfuckers because Saturday night was lotto night, otherwise he wouldn't be out. Dennis had glanced back quickly, seized by the image of the biologist's stricken face. A bearded black man stared back. What y'all doing here? Should be home letting this man get into your sweetbreads. Dennis told Winnie not to turn around, only to keep walking. Winnie beside him, stiff, her eyes glancing down a cross street, thinking a cab, maybe a cab. And then a few seconds later, a cab did pass swiftly by, and inside Dennis could see moonlike faces lit up for a moment by oncoming traffic, then nothing. His stomach tumbled. Now two sets of footsteps behind. They walked on, faster. Someone kicked his heels and he stumbled slightly. Whoo, I smell something, a second voice said behind and laughed. Then a hand slapped Dennis's ear. Ringing. He felt the ear with his fingers, looked at Winnie, wild-eyed, her face drawn. He wanted to tell her not to worry. Stay the fuck back, Nathan, the first voice said, these people with me. Feet scuffled. Dennis said he turned to see the two black men pressed against one another. And it struck Dennis suddenly that he and Winnie would be shot. They would bleed to death here simply because he had taken a wrong turn. He turned back, kept walking. Beside him, he heard Winnie say his name.
At the party, this is where Dennis paused, and then said it was a close call, that the second man had slunk off and the bearded man had taken them a quarter-mile to the elevated train and then, in front of the turnstiles, asked them for a twenty for the lotto. If I win, we'll split it, he'd said.
We imagined something else: Dennis and Winnie at the curb. The men behind. A few blocks away, a blue sign that said Dixie Cream Donuts. A light on inside where the baker was working. Three hundred yards. Run. The thought out before Dennis can stifle it. But we know this is our own weakness we are seeing and it settles like a stone in the belly.
Anyway, Dennis said at the party, when he and Winnie got back to the hotel, there was a message from a mutual friend that the biologist had shot himself.
Then the eggs, hundreds of them, arced through the dimming sky, and Odie stood transfixed. Outstretched hands cradled some eggs, fumbled others. Shrieks of laughter. Broken shells scattered on the grass. A few of us moved through the festival crowd toward Odie, children in face paint bumping our thighs. But when we got there, Odie was gone.
On the stage, a salsa band played, conga drums racing feverishly, then slowing. Trumpets blaring. Dennis thinking he'd seen Odie near the Maypole, barefoot, pants legs rolled, calmly eating a turkey leg. But when the song finished, he found himself staring at a Hispanic man in running shorts.
When darkness fell, the fire jugglers lit their batons and the crowd clapped wildly. The congas started up again. We milled about in the flickering shadows. The park police barking through a bullhorn that the park was closing, to grab your things. The crowd shouted back drunkenly, but gradually moved in ragged unison toward the park entrance. The congas kept on, gained momentum, indifferent to what was at hand. And just before the power was shut off and the world leaped into murmuring darkness, we saw Odie once more, being swept toward the entrance, his silver-haired head bobbing in the crowd, eyes fixed on the jungle canopy overhead.
Excerpted from In the Shadow of Our House
by Scott Blackwood. Copyright © 2001 by Scott Blackwood. Excerpted by permission.