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Honky-tonk Rhythms and the Gears of Fate
Later, as an adult, Harold Wilkes would remember the childhood events that started it all, and he would think: If only I had slept through the night.
It wasn't much to hang on to. In fact, it was nothing. It was the old "had I but known" cliche from cheap paperback novels. But he thought about it from time to time, and wondered.
Because the way things turned out, hearing what he heard, seeing what he saw, knowing what he knew, it was no way to live.
Inside the living room, the way the windows were arranged, it was as if Harry were looking out of the compound eye of a bee. At six years old he didn't know about the compound eye of a bee, but he loved the way the world looked through those windows.
High up there on an East Texas hill, with the blue curtains pulled back, the windows tall and plenty, running all across one side of the room, he could see the road, and down from that a honky-tonk, then the highway and a drive-in theater surrounded by a shiny tin fence.
If the windows were the eyes of a bee, they were filmy eyes, because they were coated in dust as fine as talcum powder on a baby's ass. At first his parents made an effort to clean them, but with the sandy road out front, the way the cars threw it up when they traveled by, it was an impossible task. They took a whack at it from time to time, and that was it.
Wonderland through dust.
There were the same sort of windows on the west side of the room as well, but they only went halfway across and were less dusty. The remaining room was dirty white, and the windows on the west wall faced a wrecking yard and the woods beyond, and at night Harry thought the cars looked like the bugs that ran across the floor when he turned on the bathroom light. Only they were bigger. Much bigger. Big, rusted, humped-back bugs moving in extreme slow motion toward the concealment of the woods. Or at least he liked to play that way, even though he knew they were cars, frozen in automotive death.
But they didn't look like his daddy's car, and they didn't look like the cars he saw on the road. In the daytime they were red with rust and they sat heavy on their wheels, their tires long worn out or stolen. In the daytime they just looked tired.
Harry had no idea the cars were from the years 1948 through the early fifties. The youngest machine out there was from 1959, and it was banged up worse than the rest and the windshield was starred and cracked from some accident.
He didn't know about those things, the models of cars. They were just part of his wonderland.
The house itself was also a source of awe to Harry.
It was huge and had at one time been fine, but now it was not so fine, and if it had been, he and his family would not have been living there.
As his father said, "If it cost a nickel to shit, we'd have to throw up."
The place still had some class. It was large and there was a broad porch that ran out from the front door and took an L turn and ran alongside the house, then fell off into a set of stairs that matched the set near the front door. Both stairs were askew and you had to walk slightly to starboard to navigate them.
When the wind blew hard the roof shook, sagged a bit, hung low over the porch like an old man's hat. The back end of the house had lost some of its boost, as the stones that held it up had settled into a gopher run. The kitchen didn't have running water, except for a hose that was poked through the window and into the sink. There was an old woodstove that had been converted to gas about the time Eisenhower was learning to wear civvies again.
None of this meant anything to Harry. Not really. He didn't know about being poor. He was six years old and everything was magical and the house to him was home and it was swell.
Especially those windows.
He had been sick that day, the day it began, a Saturday, and that was bad. You got sick, you didn't want it to be a Saturday. He had slept all day in a deep fever, a kind of slow bake in blankets, and suddenly he had awakened, feeling cooled, energized, and bored, and angry that he had missed morning cartoons. Worse yet it was already night.
Tomorrow, he thought, he would play in the apple tree out back of the house, pretend it was a spaceship. He knew about spaceships. His mother had read him a book about a spaceship, and his older cousin had read a book about a spaceship under an apple tree, like the apple tree in his backyard.
The house was quiet. His parents were asleep. He looked out the windows, saw the honky-tonk with its lights and voices, could hear country music floating up from down there, songs about drinking and leaving. Across the highway he could see over the tin fence and watch what was showing on the big white screen of the drive-in.
He didn't know they were having an old-time cartoon festival; he only knew there were cartoons and he had missed them on TV this morning, so he pulled a chair to the window, sat there, and watched the Warner Bros. characters--Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the like--go through their antics. He couldn't hear them. No speakers. His sound track was from the honky-tonk, an old Loretta Lynn tune at the moment, about blue Kentucky girls, soon to be followed by similar ditties.
Normally, weeknights, when his father had to work on the big trucks, he and his mother sat here in chairs and watched movies. Mostly old movies. Spaghetti Western festivals. Old crime dramas. Sometimes something new. But mostly old. That's what the drive-in was about. It was built new and lit up with the old; the owners were trying to bring back some of that past magic.
He and his mother would watch, and she would tell him what the characters were saying. Which meant she made it up. He thought she had some kind of super mojo going, could read minds, or just knew everything. She was his mother, after all. She would know everything there was to know, including what the tall people on the screen were saying, what the cartoon characters yelled as they fell off cliffs.
Thing was, though, you really didn't need to know what was said. Not when it was cartoons instead of a movie. The story was all in the characters' actions. He didn't need his translator, his mom. As he watched, he thought he could interpret, and he whispered what he thought the characters were saying. Nothing fancy. A yikes and a wow, this and that.
He watched and laughed, and as the night wore on his burst of energy blew out and he started to feel tired again. He felt hot. His throat hurt, and so did the sides of his neck, but his right ear was the worst. It felt as if a bee were in it. There was a kind of buzz in the depths of it. The bee swelled, filled his ear, and filled his head. The hot beating of its wings was unbearable.
Harry had a hard time sitting in the chair. The cartoons began to swim, and so did the windows. All around him they swam, as if he were being circled by glass demons that spit out honky-tonk light and honky-tonk music, bleeding cartoon colors that danced crazy shadows along the wall. The house whirled. The ceiling dropped and the floor rose up. The bee in his ear went wild.
Wonderland had taken a ride on a Tilt-A-Whirl.
Next morning, his father found him lying unconscious on the floor next to the chair in a pool of urine.
The world was all white and very bright when Harry opened his eyes. He saw a figure move past in white, and something was in his arm; it felt like a toothpick jammed under the skin. It was bright in the room and the whiteness seemed to crawl. He was weak and tired and hot and his arm hurt. He closed his eyes and floated away, down a languid river, into a cartoon-world dream bursting with brightly painted talking rabbits and chattering ducks and big red sticks of dynamite exploding with the words kaboom and blam outlined in yellow, feathers flying, duck bills floating, coyotes falling off cliffs.
And when the coyote fell, Harry fell with him, and he never knew when he hit bottom.
"It was just the mumps," Harry's mother said. She was a slim, black-haired woman that looked a bit like a Depression-era photo. Pretty, but eternally in need of a dose of vitamin B with iron.
"It's okay, Billie," her husband said. "It's okay."
Jake Wilkes wanted to say more, but there wasn't much he could say. He knew only that his son was sick and his wife was in pain. He was in pain as well. If he could have gotten hold of the pain, the cause of it all, he could have whipped that. He was used to handling things with his hands. His work. His problems, provided that problem needed a strong back and a strong arm, or wanted to tussle.
He had no idea what to do.
"I can't believe he's this sick," she said. "It was just mumps. Every kid has the mumps. You and me, we were kids, we had mumps."
"You couldn't have known," Jake said.
"I'm his mother," Billie said. "I should have known he'd wake up after sleeping all day. Wake up and overdo. What if--"
"Don't say it," Jake said. "He'll be all right."
They were sitting in the hospital lobby, waiting. Jake had hold of Billie's hand, and they were pressed up close together in the lobby chairs. Billie had on a dark blue nightgown and slippers shaped like bears' heads. Jake had on blue jeans he had pulled over his pajama bottoms. He was wearing a pajama shirt and house slippers. The pajama top had little white clouds floating on a blue background. He thought--or imagined--he could smell sex in the air, a lingering perfume of lust. He and Billie had been making love, perhaps while Harry was roaming about the living room or sitting in a chair watching cartoons through the window. The fact that they had been making love and Harry had been up and they didn't know, or that he might have been lying on the floor while they were doing the joyful deed, somehow made it all seem worse. Billie hadn't said as much, but he knew she was thinking it, because he was thinking it, and after ten years of marriage you knew things like that. At least when the thinking was bad. Any other time it was a long shot, just a guess. But the bad stuff, you kind of developed a radar.
And he knew this from his radar, was certain of it, she blamed herself. And maybe on some level he feared she blamed him.
It would pass if everything turned out all right.
If not, Jesus help him. Jesus help them both.
"I should have brought him to the doctor today," Billie said, not realizing Saturday was long gone and Sunday had sneaked in over the transom. "I should have brought him in for another look. I didn't want to pay for the emergency room. Can you believe that? I thought maybe he was a little too sick, but thought I'd wait until Monday. We could have paid it out if I'd brought him in. We'd have worked it out fine."
"Didn't seem like an emergency," Jake said, patting her hand. "Didn't seem so bad then."
"I'd brought him in, things might have been all right."
"Doctor said it was mumps. We couldn't have known."
Jake said all of this as if saying it would make it true.
Morning light came down the hall at a slow bleed, and shortly, from the other end of the hall, the darker end, came the doctor. They saw him coming, white coated, moving with an even stride. As he walked his dark hair bounced and fell down into his eyes. He was a young man. Jake thought maybe too young. He wasn't their doctor. Their doctor was out of town. Their doctor had diagnosed Harry with the mumps. Then he was gone. Said something about going up north for a while. Some kind of doctor shindig. A meeting of white coats. Probably a golf game.
This doctor was named Smatermine, and he was too young. Jake was sure of it now. Too young.
The doctor came down the hall and looked at them and smiled. "He's going to be all right," he said. "But the ear . . . He has quite an infection. It's a little uncertain how his hearing in that ear will turn out. He could lose a bit of it, or he could retain it all. I know that's not much to hang onto one way or another, except we'll do what we can. For the hearing, I suggest a specialist."
"He's gonna be all right, though?" Jake said.
"Yeah," the doctor said. "He'll be all right."
Billie began to cry.
Harry thought it wasn't so bad, except for that pesky not-being-able-to-hear-out-of-his-right-ear part. He got to miss first grade for a couple of weeks, lie up in bed and watch TV. He found a channel that played old movies, and for some reason they appealed to him.
His mother one day, sitting by his bed, talking into his good left ear, said, "There are new shows, you know? These were old when your daddy and I married, baby. These are the dinosaurs of television."
"I like them," Harry said. "I like Tarzan."
"There were a lot of Tarzans. Not just this one. Some of them were even in color."
"I like this one."
"All right," his mother said, standing, moving toward the door. "I'll make you something to eat."
When she was gone, Harry turned his attention back to Johnny Weissmuller swinging through the trees on a vine. He thought he saw a kind of bar that Tarzan was hanging onto, and he wondered about that. Did they have that in the jungle? Vines with bars to hang onto?
From the Trade Paperback edition.