By Tim Sandlin
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 2010 Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved.
"Traumatic events always happen exactly two years before I reach the maturity level to deal with them," I said, just to hear how the theory sounded out loud.
"Two years from now I could handle my wife running off with an illiterate pool man. Two years from now I will have the emotional capacity to survive another divorce."
Hints that I might not survive the crisis cut no slack with my daughter. In fact, I wasn't even certain she had heard my little speech. Shannon seemed totally absorbed in aiming a garden hose at the front grill of her Mustang. As she rinsed soap off the gleaming chrome, her eyes held a distracted softness that reminded me more than somewhat of the softness her mother's eyes used to take on following an orgasm. Now, there's an awful thought. According to the two-year theory, a day would come when I could accept my daughter having orgasms, but for now I'd rather drink Drano.
"They say divorce cripples men more than women," I said. "Women cry and purge the pain while men internalize and fester."
Shannon raised her head to peer at me through her thick bangs. "You've never internalized pain in your life. Heartbreak to you is like garlic to a cook."
"Who told you such nonsense?"
"Mom. She says ever since you saw Hunchback of Notre Dame you've been looking for a Gypsy girl to swoop down and save. Then later you can die for her and feel your life wasn't wasted."
Secretly, I was pleased Maurey had seen the parallel, although I'd always related to the hunchback more from the tragic outsider aspect than as a savior of Gypsy girls.
"Do you and your mother often discuss my psychic makeup?"
"Everyone discusses your psychic makeup—Mom, Grandma Lydia, Gus. Hank Elkrunner says you're an egomaniac with delusions of inferiority."
"I suppose Hank figured that out by throwing chicken bones."
Shannon shrugged the way she did when I was being too unreasonable to argue with and went back to her chrome. It was evening in October, the silver light hour when thousands of male Southerners all across the Carolinas stand back and toss lit kitchen matches at lighter fluid-soaked mounds of charcoal.
Shannon said, "You'll be mooning over a new woman within a week. Why not save me some teenage anxiety and find a nice one this time? Hand me that T-shirt."
"Isn't this my T-shirt?" It was lime colored with GREENSBORO Hornets in white over a yellow cartoon hornet swinging crossed baseball bats. "Wanda was nice."
Shannon stopped rubbing the headlights long enough to stare me down—one of those how-dare-you-lie-to-me stares women inherently pass on to one another. Shannon looks so much like Maurey, it's almost enough to make you believe in virgin birth. Where were my genes in this person who called me Daddy? Both my women had thick, dark brown hair, except Shannon cut hers short, collar length, while Maurey's hair hung down her back. Long neck, small hands, cheekbones of a Victoria's Secret nightie model, teeth that had never cost me a dime over checkups and cleaning—the only difference was Shannon had brown eyes while Maurey's were sky blue. And Maurey had a scar on her chin from a beating she once took at the hands of a man.
I said, "Okay, she wasn't so nice, but she had potential. Remember her crab salad."
"You don't marry a woman over crab salad. Wanda was a dysfunctional stepmother, a stereotype of the Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel ilk."
Ilk? "My God, who have you been talking to? Are you dating a psych major?"
Shannon reddened along the neck behind her ears. Fatherly intuition strikes again. The only question was whether the blush came from sex fantasized or sex completed. Shannon rubbed my T-shirt across the windshield with all her might. When she spoke, her voice sounded like she was hitting someone.
"You can't save every fucked-up woman you stumble over."
"I'd rather you not talk that way when I'm close by."
She turned the hose dangerously close to my tennis shoes. "You made fun of me when I said dysfunctional."
"Let's try neurotic."
"Okay. You find these neurotic women, God knows where, and you think that if you accept them as they are, out of sheer gratitude, they'll change."
Not a bad analysis for a nineteen-year-old. Of course, I couldn't admit that; never let a daughter know she might be right. "Why is it children always oversimplify their parents?"
Shannon smiled at me. "I doubt if it's possible to oversimplify you, Daddy. That's why I love you."
Tears leapt to my eyes. Wanda's leaving had turned me into an emotional sap, to the point where I'd cried the day before when I heard the neighbor kids singing "Happy Birthday to You." Because the picture on the front of the jar reminded me of a young Shannon, I'd stuffed a hundred-dollar check into the muscular dystrophy display at Tex and Shirley's Pancake House.
Shannon either ignored or didn't notice my poignant moment. She stood back to admire her shiny, clean Mustang.
It was ten years old, creamy white with a black interior and a Lick Jesse Helms in '84 bumper sticker. I'd given it to her for high school graduation.
"One thing for certain," Shannon said, still looking at her car instead of me. "That woman wasn't worth a heart attack. Why not get drunk and chase women the way you did before?"
"Because I married this one. The grief process is different when a marriage breaks up."
Her eyes finally came to mine. "Heck, Daddy, you're only grieving because you think that's what Kurt Vonnegut would do in the situation."
"Don't lecture your father on grief. I was miserable before you were even born."
Shannon stuck the hose in my pocket.
* * *
I flee to my Exercycle 6000 and ride fifty-five miles at high tension. Depression must be avoided, no matter what the cost. Depression is lying on the Edwardian couch for six months, too tired to unlace your shoes. Depression is awakening each morning feeling as if someone near and dear and closely related died the night before. Bad news. Don't tempt depression. Far better to pump a stationary bicycle for six hours, full speed, dripping sweat into your eyes and hurling curses at women not present.
Starting with Wanda. Wanda of the black braids, tiny tits, and ferocious tongue; Wanda who said my intelligence and ability to articulate caused her crotch to tingle with slurpy anticipation; Wanda who said "I do"; the very same Wanda who stole my Datsun 240Z and ran off with the pool boy—the pool boy for Chrissake. No matter how long or how hard I pump the Exercycle 6000, I can't get around it. She left me, the author of The Shortstop Kid and Jump Shot to Glory, for a boy with BORN TO LOOSE tattooed across his left shoulder blade.
My housekeeper, Gus, has no pity. "Wanda was a tramp. You just falling apart 'cause you think that's what a man does when his wife leave."
"But she left with a boy who can't read."
"So what he can't read." Gus is six feet two inches tall and black as a Milk Dud. When I piss her off, which is often, she leans back with her hands planted on both hips and glares down her nose at me. "She don't want his brain any more than she want yours. What she wants is his Peter."
I stop pedaling. "Is that what she wanted from me?"
"You, she want money, fool."
* * *
I ride with a fury—ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day. Sadistically, I screw the knob that increases the tension in my pedals until my quadriceps and calves scream in pain. When Shannon said it's not worth a heart attack, she wasn't speaking metaphorically. My chest pounds like a train. I can hear each gush of blood spurting through my temples. Sweat trickles from the ear where Wanda's tongue once licked. The saddle digs into my butt, raising blisters on the cheeks where Wanda's fingernails used to rake.
After five or six hours of riding toward a wall, the brain forgets there was ever a before the bike or may ever be an after the bike. I enter a zone without time, pain, or exhaustion. Some call it coma. If the deal works right, I forget the tongue and fingernails for a moment and reach a point of being so thoroughly wrung out that I sleep.
Before I discovered frenetic exercise, I only knew two other methods of avoiding depression. The first—getting drunk and staying drunk. That's not my style, and besides, when alcohol fails it fails big time. The second—sleeping with someone else as soon as is humanly possible. That is my style.
Here's my past pattern: I'd say to myself, next time out, tonight, I'll choose an impossible woman, an obvious trollop with whom I could never connect in any way outside the crotch. An airhead or a drunk or a married woman, anyone just so she's impossible. And I'll be safe.
Only the sex turns out not so empty and I wind up trying to save a lost woman who'd rather not be saved. Starting with the beautiful and wonderful Maurey Pierce at the age of thirteen, I had systematically, purposefully, made certain each woman was worse than the one before, in hopes of protecting myself in the clinches, and finally, upon reaching what I took as the rock bottom of women who could cause me pain, I married Wanda.
Maurey Pierce telephoned.
"You sound out of breath."
"I've been riding the bike."
"Gus tells me the slut ran out. Congratulations, sugar booger."
"Maurey, my marriage just blew up. That should call for a little sympathy."
Pause. "Your marriage was the family joke, Sam. Both your marriages. Nobody's going to fake sympathy when they blow up."
"That's what Gus said."
"How much did she take with her?"
"The 240Z and my baseball card collection. Me Maw's jewelry, but I guess I gave her that anyway."
"You gave her your dead grandmother's jewelry?"
"We were playing 'How much do you love me?' one night in bed. She said 'Do you love me enough to give me everything you own?' and I said 'Yes.'"
"It was foreplay. I didn't mean her to take me literally."
Maurey was quiet a few moments, obviously disgusted. "How's my baby?"
There was news, but I wasn't certain how to break it. "I think Shannon lost her virginity. She didn't come home Friday night."
"Sam, Shannon lost her virginity after a Carolina-Duke game two years ago."
I almost dropped the phone. "How do you know?"
"She told me. She bet her virginity on Duke and lost. She was planning to sleep with the geek anyway and figured if she did it on a bet there'd be no strings attached. Doesn't that just sound like a daughter of ours?"
I looked from the Exercycle to a painting on the wall of some Indians killing a buffalo, then back to my hand on the phone—all those years of protecting my daughter from the rancid gender down the tubes. I muttered, "She's so young."
"She waited four years longer than we did."
"And look how we turned out—maladjusted ambiverts unable to sustain the simplest relationships."
"Ambiverts, my ass, my relationship is fine." I shut up on that one. Maurey's relationship with Pud Talbot was a sore point with us, so sore that when she first took him in, Maurey and I stopped speaking to each other for eight months.
In the silence, Maurey said, "Before you go off the deep end, could you spare a couple thousand? The drought burned half our grass and we'll have to buy feed this winter."
"You must think I'm made of money."
Another sore point—my money. "You're made of horseshit, Sam. God knows everyone here at the TM Ranch appreciates our allowance; we're just tired of doing backflips to yank it out of you."
I didn't say anything. The first days after your marriage dies, people should cut a little slack. The women in my life don't know the meaning of slack.
"I'm sorry," Maurey said.
"I'm sorry too." I listened to Maurey breathe, but she didn't say anything more. "How many lost souls am I supporting this week?" I asked.
"Three, counting your mother. I've got a recovering junkie out haying with Hank, and an unwed mother who's supposed to be teaching Auburn French, but so far all she's done is cry. And Petey called, he's coming in Wednesday. God knows why."
"I thought Petey hated all things rural." Petey is Maurey's brother. He's never much liked me and vice versa, although we keep it civil. I never called him a derogatory name, either to his face or back, but he once said I was a screaming heterosexual.
"All I know's what the letter said—meet him at the airport Wednesday. I suppose you'll be the next to drag your ass home.
Pud wants to change our name to Lick Your Wounds Ranch."
"I better stay put for now. Wanda might come back and she'd worry if I was gone."
Maurey made a snort sound. "She's a bitch, Sam. The woman doesn't deserve to suck the mud off your sneakers."
* * *
Back to the bike. Now I have two traumas to flee—my botched marriage and my daughter's lost virginity.
To say that my life began with Shannon's birth is not the overblown remark you might think. I was thirteen when Shannon was born, three weeks short of fourteen. How much that matters can happen to a person before his fourteenth birthday? Mostly I took care of my mother, Lydia, which is another thing I discovered when I reached what passes for adulthood. Parents are supposed to take care of children, not the other way around. Lydia told me it was normal for a child to cook meals and wash the clothes. How was I supposed to know different? She had me balancing her checkbook when I was ten years old—the ditz never wrote down dates and check numbers—and these days she complains continuously because I won't let her handle money. I mean, good grief, already.
Lydia now runs the only feminist press in Wyoming. She's stopped drinking and stopped smoking, and she jogs the county roads wearing a sweatshirt, tights, ninety-dollar sneakers, and a headband that, if you circle it from ear to ear, reads Men can be replaced with a banana.
Oothoon Press publishes books such as Mother Lied and The Castration Solution. Lydia's authors call me, the one who pays their bills, a pig and a villain simply because I have a penis and most of the pigs and villains down through history have had penises. Hell, I don't like the male sex any more than Lydia's authors, only I make an exception of myself.
When Maurey gave me the Russell print of the Indians killing the buffalo, she said it reminded her of me. I'd recently ridden several days and several hundred miles directly into the scene, and I still didn't get the connection. One Indian is shooting the buffalo with a rifle, and one Indian is shooting him with a bow and arrow, while a third waves a spear in the air and shouts Indian stuff. Meanwhile, the buffalo is goring the hell out of a fourth Indian, who is either dead or dying, and stomping the hell out of the fourth Indian's white horse. The painting is dramatic, what with two animals and a human dying and three humans and an animal killing, and everyone caught up in your basic here and now.
After Maurey said Wanda was unworthy to suck the mud off my sneakers, I rode eighty miles, staring at her painting. I've never been one to get caught up in the here and now, myself. I can't remember a single scene I've been in where one part of me wasn't standing off to the side, figuring how to word it when I told the story to a woman, and conceptualizing her reaction, then my reaction to her reaction and so on until we wound up in bed or married or whatever. Call it the curse of the romantic writer—even the romantic writer of Young Adult sports novels. So far I have the temperament of Scott Fitzgerald and the following of Dizzy Dean. Reach out for an understanding of that one.
Did Maurey think of me as the Indians killing the buffalo? Or the buffalo itself? Maybe she was saying I'm the last of a dying breed, valiantly raging in a futile battle before ultimate death. That didn't really sound like my Maurey. Or maybe I'm the dead or dying Indian who got himself reamed by his prey.
She'd more likely think of me as an Indian than a buffalo. I'm not bulky or hairy enough to compare to the buffalo. She probably thought of me as an Indian—wild and free and prone to running around without a shirt. Lydia's boyfriend is an Indian. Hank Elkrunner does most of the actual labor at Maurey's ranch. I don't know how Hank puts up with my mother's never-ending narcissism. Lydia passionately cares about the condition of her nails and the worldwide fight for feminist awareness, only she doesn't put much stock on details in between, like family and friends. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Social Blunders by Tim Sandlin. Copyright © 2010 Sourcebooks, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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