By Tim Sandlin
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 2010 Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The air made everything flat. Buildings, cottonwoods, and the mountains behind all had a two-dimensional glare, with shiny surfaces and a paint-by-number look to the colors. I sat in our window seat in my blue fuzzy bathrobe with my bare feet on a cushion, waiting for Paul Harvey News and watching the alcoholics wander in from different directions onto the lawn of the Mormon church across the street. Alcoholics Anonymous met at noon every day but Sunday, and whenever Auburn was at his grandma's I sat in the window studying the drunks and reformed drunks for signs of me.
The men carried a stretched look in their eyes, like old dogs—the look of punishment accepted. They wore caps instead of hats and mostly had long-sleeved shirts rolled up over their wrists. An Indian wore torn pants and moccasins, a long-hair had on a red-white-and-blue vest, one guy was in a wheelchair. A non-alcoholic pushing a manual lawn mower stopped to look as four AA members lifted the wheelchair like pallbearers on a coffin. The crippled guy perched above their heads, grinning and bobbing, playing a harmonica while they carried him down the steps into the basement, where they held the meetings.
Two women drove up in a blue-and-white Chevrolet that said BABE on the license plate. They sat for a moment, finishing their cigarettes. As they got out, neither woman checked herself in the rearview mirror, which I took as relevant. I still checked myself.
Paul Harvey's voice boomed: "Hello, America. Stand by for news."
Time. I poured myself a coffee cup full of Yukon Jack. Cradling the cup with both hands, I stared into the light molasses-colored liquid. Was there a connection between this and Dad? Closing my eyes, I brought the cup to my lips and smelled the fumes. The sweet fire swept around my tongue and under it onto the saliva glands, then to the back of my mouth, where, like advancing lava, it flowed into my body.
The shoulder muscles, the jaw tight from clenching in my sleep, the fist-size rock in my stomach—everything let go at once. It was better than a masturbated orgasm.
The empty cup dropped back to the windowsill as I opened my eyes on a softer reality. The church roof wasn't shiny anymore. The non-alcoholic had disappeared, leaving his lawn mower in the middle of a pass. One last AA member, an older man in a white ambulance, pulled up against the curb. I pretended I could see him but he couldn't see me, as if the window were a TV set. He had on overalls but no shirt, which is weird for ranch country, and sandals. I hadn't seen guys in sandals since the university.
While I poured another cup of Jack, I said a little prayer. I thanked God for Paul Harvey. As he plain-talked about the seal on Kerr canning jars, he was so sincere. Paul Harvey must be the sincerest man in the world. With all my heart I wanted to buy the jars. I could plant some lima beans and nurture them and watch them grow, and just at the perfect moment, I would pick my lima beans. I would boil them or whatever women do and can them in Kerr jars and stack them on shelves in the basement we didn't own yet, then my family and I would have security. Come avalanche or nuclear war, we would eat wholesome food.
Do beans grow above the ground like apples or below it like carrots? I knew horses, some about cows. I sure wasn't no damn farmer.
The old, skinny guy in the overalls had that farmer look. Before going down the steps he rubbed both hands on his legs, as if they were dirty. Farmers have dirt under their fingernails, ranchers have blood.
My cup was empty so I filled it.
The postcard was a photo of two girls in sunsuits on a chairlift with Jackson way down behind them. The picture must have been old because they had ratted and sprayed hair and cat's-eye sunglasses with little oyster-shell fans at the corners. A California nightmare.
I didn't gulp the whole cup this time. Had to pick up Auburn at Grandma Talbot's later, wouldn't do to show up crawling.
* * *
Hank called yesterday to say Jenny Lind foaled a chestnut colt with a blaze. He opened the Miner Creek gate and flooded the south pasture, which I told him you didn't want flooded. Mrs. Hinchman hit a pole and wrecked her Rambler and broke her hip. Knocked the phones out up Buffalo Valley.
* * *
Hank Elkrunner was the only one at the ranch when Dad saddled Frostbite and went up Miner Ridge to find a cow and calf they missed when they moved the cattle off the forest lease. He took an old dog named Arnold with him. Arnold was a mean little dingo mix anyone other than a sentimentalist would have shot.
Frostbite came home that afternoon dragging the saddle, so Hank walked up the ridge and found Dad. Near as Hank could tell after backtracking, Frostbite stepped in a badger hole and rolled over on Dad, who caught a rib through the lungs. Dad knew he was dead soon, so instead of trying to make the ranch, he coughed blood and crawled clear up to a spine with a view of the Tetons he'd always admired. Hank found him leaning on a rock with a bunch of blue penstemon clutched in his left hand and his black beard turned to the sunset.
Son of a bitch cowboy died like a fucking poet. I could have killed him.
Arnold did the loyal-cowdog-of-the-West thing and bit Hank when he first picked up Dad's body.
* * *
I named Frostbite. Dad said animals deserve the same respect as people, and he hated names like Spot and Fury. Our herd was big on thirties movie stars.
On my tenth birthday I sat on the top rail of the corral while Dad led this skewbald colt in from the barn and handed me the reins. The yearling stuck the left side of his face up against mine with his nostril flare right in my ear. He wasn't all that tall, but his back was broad and he had perfect hips for vaulting. I looked in his eyes and I knew. Sometimes you just know these things, like in college when I would meet a boy and know within five minutes I was going to nail him. That's how I knew about Frostbite. We would fall in love and have one of those Disney Old Yeller, Lassie-and-Timmy relationships.
We did, too. Frostbite and I trusted each other like no one trusts a lover. For three summers we spent almost every waking moment together, until the year I got pregnant. We were Intermountain Vaulting Champions for my age group in 1962. Champions. Me and Frostbite. He ran full blast across the arena at the Denver Coliseum and I did handstands, sidekicks, somi swings. We had a backflip dismount that knocked the collective socks off the crowd.
It's weird when your true love and loyalty horse rolls over on your father and kills him.
Paul Harvey was talking sincerely about Watergate. The Senate did this, Nixon did that, Sam somebody was outraged. I couldn't tell what side Paul Harvey was on, but whichever it was, he really meant it. I poured another cup of Claude. I named this bottle of Yukon Jack Claude after a boy at college who followed me around like a pet beagle my whole freshman year. He was sweet, with horn-rimmed glasses, two-tone sweaters, and a calculator case holster on his belt, and I could have brought him untold joy if I'd let him sleep with me. I should have. He deserved untold joy if only for his persistence, and I'd have hardly been compromised at all. Lord knows I got nailed by enough boys who didn't like me in college; it wouldn't have hurt to get nailed by one who did.
Paul Harvey had discovered a man in Missouri with a twenty-two-pound cantaloupe. If you only heard the sound of the words but not what they meant, you'd think cantaloupes and Watergate and Kerr canning jars were all equally fascinating.
As Paul Harvey came to the daily bumper snicker, my phone rang.
"You broke her heart again."
"Hi, Petey, how's Mom?"
"She's an obsessive compulsive with a thankless daughter."
Here is that day's bumper snicker: "Love your kids at home and belt them in the car."
Since I wasn't talking, Petey went on. "Yesterday was Mother's Day."
"I'm a mother."
"We spent all day in the parlor next to the phone. I'd planned to take her to luncheon at Signal Mountain Lodge, but she was afraid you'd call while we were out. We had her hair done nice, too."
"Petey, are you saying you wasted a whole Sunday sitting with Mom?"
"I knew you wouldn't call. Too busy mooning over Dad who's eight months dead to call your live mom on Mother's Day."
Got me with that one. "Nobody wished me a happy Mother's Day. You don't see me whining in the parlor." Which was sort of a lie. Shannon sent a Mother's Day card made out of construction paper with models cut from a catalog glued to represent a family—me, Sam Callahan, Lydia, and her. Lydia, Sam's mom, who more or less raised Shannon the first five years, held a cigarette, and I was in a bra and slip. Playtex Cross Your Heart. I bet anything Sam made her do it. Probably even picked out the models to cut, because the one was me had dark hair and big boobs. Last time Sam Callahan saw me was at Dad's funeral when I was nursing Auburn. He laughed at my breasts—not the comfort called for from a best friend.
"Nobody wished you happy Mother's Day because you're such a bad mother," Petey said. "You lost the first one and you'll lose this one too. Or he'll grow up like Dothan. I'd drown a baby before I risked that."
"Petey, do you like boys?"
He hung up.
Before Paul Harvey got through the list of those turning one hundred years young today, Petey called back. I poured more of Claude's soul and answered the fifth ring. He said, "Take that back."
"I didn't accuse you of anything, I just asked. Dot says she's never seen you with a girl, so I wondered if you like boys."
"No, I don't like boys."
"But you don't like girls either."
"Girls smell bad; they make me sick."
"That leaves Mom."
He hung up on me again, although I deserved it. No one likes being accused of having the hots for a parent. Especially my mom.
I went back to the window and looked at myself in it and tried to picture Petey and Mom kissing. It wouldn't come. I'm usually good at picturing really disgusting sex acts. I can just see Dothan with all those Kiwanis wives, especially Sugar Cannelioski. He'd be on top; Dothan can't deal with any other position. He'd stick his pointy Talbot chin in her right shoulder and grind. That's the only way he knows how to do it. I'm in the grocery store and I see a Kiwanis wife rubbing her right shoulder, I figure Dothan's been grinding again.
He has a little brother, Pud, that everyone says does it with animals. I like to picture that. Pud's kind of cute in a retarded sort of way. I picture him behind a calf with the back hooves tied to his boots and his arms around her belly. He has this look on his face like Tony Randall eating a bad lemon.
The calf looks as if she's had better.
Sometimes at sporting events I like to picture men in bed with each other. The one I have the hardest time picturing in bed lately is me. After a semi-loose three years of college, then a real short rabbit period when I first married Dothan, I lost enthusiasm for sex as a personal experience. Since Auburn was born I'd only woken up with pain in my right shoulder twice, and at least one of those I think Dothan sleep-fucked.
Yukon Jack was my kind of companion. Jack never lets you down, never comes and goes to sleep just as I'm getting started. He's monogamous and predictable. A certain amount of Jack causes a certain amount of warmth. He's always there and he never calls me cunt.
The AA guys carried the harmonica player back up the steps. He grinned and nodded just like he didn't care he was a crippled old alcoholic who had to go to meetings in the Mormon church. The men stood around with their hands in their back pockets and talked, but the women adjusted foundation garments and drove away. AA over meant I'd lost some time and was late picking up Auburn.
Consistent as Tupperware, the phone went off again.
"I am gravely ill."
"I'm sorry I'm late, Mrs. Talbot. The Bronco wouldn't start, but I gave it a rest and it might now. How's Auburn?"
"Whenever I am late to the Great Books Club I get nervous, and when I get nervous I become ill. You know I become ill, Maurey. Why would you purposefully try to make me become ill?"
Always lie to in-laws. "The Bronco flooded, Mrs. Talbot. I'll be there in ten minutes."
"It's my day to deliver Lord Byron's eulogy, which I wrote myself."
"I'd love to read the eulogy if you have a copy."
"A rash is breaking out on my back."
"Spray some benzocaine. I'll be there."
I addressed the postcard to Buddy Pierce, General Delivery, San Francisco, and licked on a six-cent stamp.
In the bedroom, I shrugged out of the blue fuzzy bathrobe and into crack-climber cutoffs and a T-shirt. No bra, it was only Grandmother Talbot. No shoes for the same reason. I put on my King Ropes red windbreaker, checked myself in the mirror a second, then slipped Charley into my pocket and checked myself again. A before and after comparison. Definitely better after. Charley's blue barrel complemented the red nylon of the windbreaker.
I counted from twenty to zero backward to prove I wasn't drunk—I never drive Auburn when I'm drunk—took one more hit of Jack-Claude, stuffed a Hershey bar in the other pocket, and I'm on the way to Grandmother's house.
Delilah Talbot's feet hung over both sides of her sandals like oozing Silly Putty. She stood next to the television in her polyester slacks and matching jacket outfit, looking with distaste at Auburn on the floor.
She said, "Greens."
Once you rose above the feet, the rest of Delilah wasn't fat at all. In fact, from the knees up she looked kind of depleted. "Green what?"
Auburn's face took me in, and he crawled under the kitchen table where he turned around and stared through the legs of a chair. My nose said he needed changing.
Delilah expanded her first statement. "In Alabama we had green vegetables with every meal, but out west it's meat and potatoes, meat and potatoes. Manners are a by-product of green vegetables. That's why westerners don't have any."
She stood with one finger on her chin, watching me load up his diaper bag, blanket, the stuffed Cowardly Lion, and a sponge cake she'd baked for Dothan. She made no move to help me chase down my child.
Instead, the woman gazed into the air near my ear and said, "Manners." Often Mrs. Talbot stripped the front half and back half out of sentences, leaving one word to fend for itself.
I shrugged the load onto my shoulders. "You mind handing me Auburn?"
"Are you feeding my son green vegetables? I don't mean iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is not a green vegetable."
I bent on one knee to look under the table, hit my forehead on the metal strip that held the linoleum in place, and dropped the diaper bag.
Mrs. Talbot didn't notice. "Dothan was rude when he dropped Aubie off this morning; I suspect you of not serving green vegetables."
Auburn smiled and put some floor gunk in his mouth. I reached a finger in and dug out a dried piece of elbow macaroni.
"I still don't understand why you cut your hair, Maurey. You were so pretty as a little girl."
One thing about Delilah, she didn't see anything she didn't want to see. I could show up at her house toilet-hugging smashed and she'd say, "What a nice shirt. Did someone give it to you?" Right now she had no idea I was getting the whirlies under her kitchen table.
She said, "Lord Byron."
I reached one hand around Auburn's waist, and he frowned. If I moved too fast there'd be a scream scene, which had to be avoided at all costs. Scream scenes drove me to drink.
I truly enjoy being a mother, only I'm not naturally suited to motherhood. I love Auburn and couldn't live without him; it's the motherhood itself—the smells, the lack of sleep, the humiliation. I'm not one of those women born to nurture.
Mrs. Talbot droned on about Byron—Byron's foot, Byron's legacy, Byron's death.
I said, "I heard Byron slept around."
"I can't gab all the livelong day. Toodles." The door slammed, and after a moment, I heard Mrs. Talbot's El Camino pulling out of the drive.
"Thank God," I said to Auburn.
He put three fingers in his mouth. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sorrow Floats by Tim Sandlin. Copyright © 2010 Sourcebooks, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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