Sex and Sunsetsby Tim Sandlin
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When twenty-nine-year-old professional dishwasher Kelly Palamino who hears voices in running water; whose toilet tell him to eat fish; whose Water Pik quotes Ezra Pound sees the dark-haired bride in full wedding regalia punt a football over the rectory before turning resolutely to walk down the aisle, it's love at first sight. And Kelly won't let a little thing like a wedding come between him and the girl of his dreams . . .
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Sex and Sunsets
By Tim Sandlin
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The need has come to explain myself to someone. First: I hear voices in running water. This communion-with-nature deal started out as mystic and romantic charm, like being on the edge of a great secret. I'd be hiking along the willow flats or aspen groves next to your typical Wyoming bubbling stream—moss-covered stones, Lonicera waving in the sun, air that tastes of lemon on the back of the throat—and a murmur would float over the water's surface. It sounded as if several young people were singing something, a message perhaps, or an underwater anthem. As I stood motionless, the voices grew louder and sounded like a psalm or a chant—Gregorian, if the creek was wide enough.
Enraptured as hell by the whole experience, I would sit at the water's edge for hours, knowing that if I was calm enough, and pure enough, the words would come together and some message of great importance would be revealed.
That was four years ago, when I was still married.
Then came the winter Julie boxed up her vitamins, the cookbook collection, and two drawers full of Danskins, and moved across town. Less than two weeks passed before my shower distinctly said, "What dire offense from amorous causes springs." I didn't know at the time, but that's the first line of a poem called "The Rape of the Lock" by a man named Alexander Pope. Rape is the recurring theme in much of my plumbing's poetry.
The morning after my shower first spoke, the flushing toilet said, "Eat fish today."
Of course I didn't eat fish that day. People who let auditory hallucinations boss them around wind up driving wooden stakes through the hearts of random strangers. Or tying up their mother and splitting her in half lengthwise with a chain saw. A lawn sprinkler in Cheyenne once gave me that order.
At times I shout rude comebacks at the voices—"Fuck you too, buddy"—or I stick fingers in the water while they're speaking. Nothing fazes the jerks. They laugh and trill and go merrily about the business of driving me further from reality.
I say them because I've counted at least eleven different water voices, and each voice has its own personality. Mostly they sound like movie stars: James Garner, Debra Winger, Kurt Gowdy, Crusader Rabbit. There's one I'm fairly certain is Thelma Ritter from around 1959.
There were other peculiar changes after Julie left. I became left-handed. I suffer days of color-blindness and lose orientation. I can't remember things like my cat's name or who was the drummer for the Beatles.
Julie only moved four blocks. She and my ex-best friend, Rick Fatt, live over by the courthouse in a yellow house with white gables. Rick must think I did Julie and him a horrible injustice, because he won't speak to me and he tells anyone who will listen that I'm crazy. He told the bartender at the Cowboy Bar that my elevator doesn't reach the top floor. What a snide thing to say.
Julie denies that she and I were ever married. I ran into her at the post office once and mentioned that we ought to think about getting a divorce. She looked me straight in the eye and said, "I was never married to you. I've never been married to anyone."
Let's establish a point right off the starting line here. I'm not crazy. Remember that. I had some doubts at one time, as did others in the community, but the insanity plea no longer washes. Everything I accomplished was done with forethought and a healthy regard for consequences.
* * *
The difficult detail in explaining yourself is where to start. This is a value judgment we all must make. I started with a voice in the shower. I could just as easily have begun with a name, which is Kelly Palamino. Does that tell any more about my life than What dire offense from amorous causes springs?
I was raised in Lancaster, Idaho, by fairly normal people. My father runs the only Purina feed store in Teewinot County. Mom plays viola. High school, puberty, and a busted marriage came at me in that order. Now I live in Jackson, Wyoming, gateway city to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.
I wake up before noon every day, make myself a six-cup pot of coffee, water the plants, shave myself, and feed the cat. I work—I wash dishes at the Cattleman's Club and Restaurant—go to the bars, usually the Cowboy Bar, drink, dance, look for love and settle for sex—when it's offered. Usually it's not offered.
Because of a confused period soon after Julie left, I visit a therapist once a week, on Wednesdays. My therapist is a nice lady. Lizbeth gives me Thorazine and asks me what it means when the sprinkling system tells me to chain-saw my mother. It doesn't mean any more than the toilet telling me to eat fish or my Ezra Pound-quoting Water Pik, but I don't tell her that. I look very serious and stare at my shoes and say, "Hell, I don't know. I suppose it means I have some sort of repressed feelings toward my mother."
Then Lizbeth says, "What do you think those repressed feelings might be?"
So I say, "If I knew, they wouldn't be repressed."
The Wednesday before I found Colette, we had a pretty typical session.
Lizbeth sat about six feet from my chair, dressed like a young professional woman, long-sleeved blouse, and below-the-knee skirt so us crazies wouldn't get distracted trying to look up between her legs. We had our usual five minutes of her watching me while I fixated on a blinking light in the telephone at her desk.
It's real important during those silent periods not to move your hands. I try especially not to touch my face, because they take that as a sure sign of schizophrenia.
Finally she broke. "What do you think of yourself, Kelly?"
I stalled. "What do you mean?"
"What do you think of yourself as a person?"
"I never thought about it."
Another silence. "Do you think you are a good person?"
"I never do anything I think is wrong. At the time."
"Does that make you good?"
"I don't cheat at games. If a cashier gives me too much change, I give it back."
"Do you like yourself?"
"I never thought about it."
"Think about it now."
I formed my fingers into little O's like I'd read you're supposed to when you're thinking. One of her shoes had red mud on the toe. The nearest red mud in Jackson is up a canyon two miles outside of town. I wondered what Lizbeth had been doing up a canyon in high heels.
"Sure, I like myself. Somebody's got to."
That wasn't the right answer and I knew it, but I didn't feel much like cooperating. She stared some more. I fought an itch on my right cheek.
"Why did Julie leave you?" Lizbeth asked.
She was going at it from a different angle. "She said I drove her crazy."
"Why do you think she left?"
"We made love one afternoon and I didn't get her off," I said, brushing the hair out of my face.
"You couldn't have gotten her off every time for six years, could you?"
I didn't have any answer, so I shut up.
"Why do you think she left you, Kelly?"
My whole face itched. I rubbed my nose with the palm of my right hand. "She didn't love me."
"What? I couldn't hear you."
She heard me, the bitch. "She didn't love me."
Lizbeth's problem was that she didn't understand that some people with inferiority complexes actually are inferior. "How should I know? She didn't love me the last year or two."
"How can you be sure?"
"She told me often enough."
Lizbeth crossed her legs at the ankles, right over left, sure body language that she thought this was the heart of the discussion. "Why did she stop loving you?"
"Because I drove her crazy."
She almost smiled. "How did you drive her crazy?"
The blinking light quit blinking. Somebody, somewhere was off hold. "I got on her nerves."
"What did you do to get on Julie's nerves?" Lizbeth was patient, I have to give her that much.
"I chewed in my sleep."
"Julie left because you chewed in your sleep?"
"I drank straight from the milk carton and I ate maraschino cherries. I picked my teeth with matchbooks. I made major decisions based on newspaper astrology advice. Jesus, Lizbeth, what more do you want?"
"I want to know why you think Julie left you."
It seemed like bare-your-soul-to-your-shrink time. I mean, that's what they're for, isn't it? I stared at the carpet, "Every time Julie walked into the bathroom at night, she'd get her foot wet. When she left me, Julie swore she'd die an old maid before she'd live with another man who couldn't piss in the pot."
* * *
I met Colette the day of her wedding.
It was the first Thursday afternoon in April, the first nice day of spring, and I was soaking up sunlight on my porch steps. My cat, Alice, rolled on her back in the first dust since the snowmelt. Three little boys played football in front of the Episcopal church across the street. Most of the game involved waving arms and shouting names, followed by blame-fixing.
"Why didn't you catch the ball, poot-breath?"
"You threw it over my head, dildo."
I sipped on a Mello-Yello and bent down to draw a series of wavy arrows in the dirt between my feet with a toothpick. Blood rushed to my head, causing fuzz around the edges of my vision. I'd woken up that morning in a chair with my shoes on, which is a horrible way to start a day. The wheat bread I wanted to toast for breakfast had green things on each slice, and my aloneness was beginning to wear thin.
A dark car full of people wearing suits and dresses pulled up in front of the Episcopal church. Then another and another, and soon the lawn looked like Sunday morning had come ahead of schedule. The men shook hands and slapped each other's shoulders. The women hugged, offering congratulations. A few kids shuffled in and out of the crowd, embarrassed by their parents' show of emotion.
I went inside to find Alice a piece of baloney, and when I came back the people were filing into the church.
Three girls came out of the rectory and walked toward the sanctuary door. The two in front were laughing. They had on these dark blue layer-on-layer outfits and floppy felt hats that they held on their heads with their left hands.
The third girl was dressed all in white, which is how I knew this was a wedding and she was the bride. She was kind of short, shorter than me anyway, but she had exceptional posture. I noticed her posture from clear across the street. Baby's breath flowers showed white against her thick, long hair.
One of the girls in blue opened the front door and stood in the entrance a moment, looking into the church. The other girl straightened something on the bride's collar and kissed her on the right cheek. Some organ music started, the first girl looked at the other two, then stepped into the church. The second girl hugged the bride and went in after her.
The bride, the girl all in white, opened the door and leaned to go inside, but she stopped. She turned, bent over, and picked up the football that the little boys had been throwing. As I watched, the bride slipped off her right shoe. She stood still a moment, then she punted the football over the rectory and out of sight.
The bride watched the flight path of the ball several seconds after it had disappeared. She looked up at the sky, the big cottonwood next to my apartment, then me. We stared at each other for a couple of heartbeats, then she breathed out so deeply I could see her breasts drop. She turned and walked into the church.
The girl had very nice eyes. They went well with her hair.
* * *
I stood up and walked across the street and into the church. Organ music, coming from an alcove to the left of the altar, ended as I slipped through the inner set of doors. A heavyset woman wearing way too much rouge made room for me in the back pew. She leaned into my face and whispered, "You're late."
The priest stood a head higher than the wedding party. From the back, they made a pretty flashy array of dresses and tuxedoes. Moving from left to right, I spotted candle-lighters, flower girls, attending maidens of some sort, bride, father of the bride in black, groom in a slightly lighter blue than the maidens, best man, practically the best man, very young ring bearer in a tiny tuxedo, and back to more candle-lighters. I wondered where they found a blue tuxedo small enough for a four-year-old.
The priest made a vague right-handed cross sign and stepped down to crowd level, out of my sight. By leaning over the rouge woman, I could see a little of the bride's face. She didn't smile or blink or anything—just stared at a spot on the right arm of the cross. Once she raised her hand to brush hair behind her ear.
Episcopal weddings take all of three minutes if the priest drags it out. I started listening on the If any man knows just cause line, sat through a couple of Wilt thous, two With this rings, the Lord's Prayer, and a Go forth and multiply, which I think was extemporaneous because it's not in the Prayer Book. The newlyweds kissed as if they'd done it every morning for twelve years, the organist broke into an anthem I had never heard, and the whole thing was over. The couple swept up the aisle and out the door.
Of course, the rouge woman had tears in her eyes. All rouge women cry at weddings. She turned heavily on me. "Doris Hart and I were great rivals in high school." She sniffed into a scented tissue. "At one time, I could have had John."
"Who's Doris Hart?" I asked.
She looked at me over the tissue. "Danny's mother."
"Oh." I sat still a moment, then asked, "Do you know where the reception is?"
The sniffing ended in a shallow snort. "Doesn't it say on your invitation?"
"I left the invitation at home. In Denver."
"You must be a friend of Danny's then."
"Yes, ma'am, we were in the same fraternity." Anyone who gets married in a light blue tuxedo must have been in a fraternity at some time in his life.
"Funny that Danny never mentioned his mother," the woman said. "They're very close."
"We were in different classes."
"He probably never mentioned me either—Jenny Hayes?'
"I don't think so."
"Doris and I were once great rivals. I think she married John for his money."
"Do you know where the reception is?"
"I would never marry for money." Her mind wavered, drifted into the past.
"I never married at all."
Awareness snapped into the rouge lady's face. Wadding the tissue into a ball, she stuffed it into the sleeve of her dress. "It's at the Americana Inn, in the Gold Room. Do you know where the Americana is?"
"No, ma'am. I had car trouble and just got into town a half hour ago."
"I wondered why you came dressed like that. The Inn is a mile down Cache Street, turn left at the baseball diamond. You can't miss it."
"Thank you very much, Miss Hayes. I'll see you there."
I walked across the street, picked up my unfinished Mello-Yello, and sat back down on the porch, watching the friends and family load into their Buicks and Oldsmobiles, even saw a couple Mercedes. When the Mello-Yello was gone, I went inside, used my roll-on deodorant, put on a clean shirt, and wiped off my glasses. I stared at myself in the mirror for twenty seconds, then walked to the Americana.
The group from in front of the altar had gained a few mothers, an extra father, and a couple more people I don't know who they belonged to. The wedding party stood side by side against the east wall while the rest of us shuffled past and congratulated each one for whatever he or she did. I stood in line behind a group of happy girls who were kissing their way north. One of the girls whooped whenever she hugged a man. The groom's father pretended he knew me.
"Haven't seen you around the house in a while, sport. You've got to come back soon." He was partially bald, reminded me of Robert Duvall in one of the Godfather movies.
"My name's not Sport and I've never been to your house in my life."
"You must be with the bride then."
Shaking hands with the bride's father was like squeezing old salmon eggs between my fingers.
The groom, Danny himself, shook my hand and winked at me. "Why did you wink at me?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said, turning to the woman behind me.
When it was my turn to kiss the bride on the cheek, I didn't touch her. I tried to stare into her eyes, but she was looking down the line to see how many more people she'd have to be nice to. "Where can we talk?" I asked.
She didn't hear me at first. "What?"
"We must talk. Is there a place where we won't be disturbed?"
She looked at me then. "Are you a friend of Danny's?"
"No. Listen, I'll go sit in that corner, by the piano there. See the piano?"
Excerpted from Sex and Sunsets by Tim Sandlin. Copyright © 2011 Sourcebooks, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Tim Sandlin is the author of the GroVont trilogySkipped Parts, Sorrow Floats, and Social Blunders—as well as Western Swing, Sex and Sunsets, and Honey Don't. He is also the author of a collection of columns from the Jackson Hole News called The Pyms: Unauthorized Tales of Jackson Hole.
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I never considered a professional dishwasher as a viable career option. Although for a brief period of time in my misguided youth, I did practice the art of a sanitation worker, aka garbage man, even going so far as to toss random cans and paper boxes into my mom’s shopping cart when her back was turned at the grocery store. But now I may have to rethink my present career path and the financial stability of my family by turning in my shirt and tie for a white smock and a pair of rubber gloves. In order to complete the picture, though, I will need to become mentally unstable, although given the instability of artists this shouldn’t be particularly difficult. And I will need to relocate my wife to Wyoming, but I’m sure with the right amount of persuasion—and the fact that it’s only a few states away—this shouldn’t be a difficult task to accomplish either. I mean, let’s face it, there are worse places to live, like Mississippi or Montana. And I may need to seek out the affections of rowdy rodeo girls and prescription popping blondes, but again, that could easily be explained away as well. Kelly Palamino is my new literary hero, even if he’s mentally unstable, hears voices in water, including streams and toilets and showers, and visits a psychiatrist once a week, because he shot tequila directly into his veins and nearly caused his own cardiac arrest. He may be more than half-crazy, but he’s just so damn loveable. His voice nearly caused me to laughably combust on multiple occasions. He falls in love with a football punting bride, and focuses his varied talents on the singular act of winning her over, taking male focus and drive to a whole new level. Colette Hart may be nearly as crazy as he is, but that just makes him love her all the more. She’s eccentric and beautiful and just so gosh darn wonderful that I rooted for Kelly every step of the way, even when he had more than a few setbacks and nearly exceeded his expiration date. While he might have had more than a bit of trouble with love in the past, he certainly doesn’t have any trouble with devotion. And he has no trouble categorizing his women: Platonics and Romantic Interests. Every red-blooded male needs a thrill-seeking best friend like Cora Ann. She’s young and vibrant and perky, and has her own hang-glider. What more could a man ask for? Even the structure of SEX AND SUNSETS appealed to me, delving into the past and present with nearly equal abandon, and tapping into the tangential thoughts of our expert narrator. I don’t know if I’d give it a ten, but it certainly comes pretty darn close. Robert Downs Author of Falling Immortality: Casey Holden, Private Investigator
I picked this book because Sandlin was discribed as Tom Robbins with a heart. He has his Robbinsesque moments but stands on his own as a wonderful writer. I fell in love with Kelly(the main character) dispite his loser factor, and rooted for him even though I couldn't figure out why. I was totaly won over, charmed, and read the whole thing in one day.