Willem's Field: A Novelby Melinda Haynes
What are the limitations of what we do and don't know about our hearts? Oprah Book Club author Melinda Haynes, hailed as "the real thing, a true artist, a genuine writer" (the Cleveland Plain Dealer) for her bestselling debut, Mother of Pearl, returns with a tender, heartbreaking, and occasionally hilarious novel set in the 1970s.
Willem Fremont has/i>/i>… See more details below
What are the limitations of what we do and don't know about our hearts? Oprah Book Club author Melinda Haynes, hailed as "the real thing, a true artist, a genuine writer" (the Cleveland Plain Dealer) for her bestselling debut, Mother of Pearl, returns with a tender, heartbreaking, and occasionally hilarious novel set in the 1970s.
Willem Fremont has spent his adult life held tight inside the clenched fist of panic disorder. Determined to break the pattern -- even as he reaches his twilight years -- Willem returns to his childhood home in Purvis, Mississippi, where he believes the solution lies. There he discovers his father's acreage in the hands of the idiosyncratic Till family. Eilene, mother of Sonny and Bruno and "no bigger than a dress form," pretends to be deaf as a way of dealing with her grown boys -- each of whom suffers from inertia. Sonny, hugely fat, perennially unemployed, and looking for love, is building a shrimp boat in his mother's landlocked backyard. Bruno, who has returned from Vietnam with a spinal injury and wearing a brace, escapes into the glossy pages of old National Geographics while his wife, Leah, tries to find a small measure of comfort in the day-to-day tending of their farm.
From these unsettled lives comes a story of reconciliation against all odds and a vision of rekindled love as well as a compassionate portrait of small-town life that celebrates the unusual, embraces the unwanted, and opens its arms to all lost souls in search of a home. Steeped in the traditions of great southern storytellers like Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner, Willem's Field is nonetheless a wholly original and vividly imaginative novel by a brilliant and assured writer.
- Free Press
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- SIMON & SCHUSTER
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: 1974
Ten o'clock in the morning and already the wind was busy. A king-size wind as big as the state itself rolling across the bottom shelf of Oklahoma and into Grayson County, Texas, crossing the border with a low, chaotic cloud of highway trash carried in its wake. Empty cigarette packs and crinkled cellophane. Rattling drink cans and tattered bits of rain-stained paper. The stuff of chaos. Willem Fremont sat watching the two young girls with waist-length hair as they stood on the lip of the old highway. The wind gathering along the backside of their blue jeans and sending their shirts away from their bodies like sails. At their feet the manic plunder of wind-driven waste. The highway was an old one, with cracked blacktop that buckled and sheared and pitched upward near the western horizon before sinking low in the vicinity of the truck stop, a perpetually downward ribbon of lane that made thoughts of going any direction other than east seem tiring. But west was where the girls wanted to go. A cardboard sign near their feet spelled out SAN FRANCISCO. Willem watched them from the red Naugahyde booth of RUBY'S REGAL TRUCK STOP where he sat, one hand flattened over his hometown paper, folded neatly in half; his other hand closing around the ribbed sugar dispenser with a grip that whitened his knuckles and forced old blue veins to bulge across the top of his hand like worms. He glanced around.
There was nothing regal about Ruby's, in his opinion. Unless one counted the regaleze references to food, or the construction-paper crowns that randomly decorated the place. (Crowns? he thought, momentarily sliding into the blinding red-light district ofalarm.) One topped the menu blackboard, heralding the "Fit for a King Meal" of chopped steak and mashed potatoes and bacon-laced pole beans, ALL FOR ONLY $3.98! Another crown sat atop the cash register, next to a plastic toothpick dispenser filled with toothpicks the color of Easter eggs. Each time the drawer was slammed, the kingdom chanced being overthrown, for the crown jostled another half inch toward the metal edge of disaster, where the possibility of being trampled and ruined by collective serfdom seemed likely. The last paper crown hung from a wire over the single glass door, within direct line of Willem's sight. It hung like a flogged victim, forced to swing and spin upon the advent of customers escaping the dust-flat Texan winds. Once the doors were shut, it would begin to correct itself inside this airborne vortex until it moved with catastrophic slowness to a position static and dead.
It was this crown that worried Willem more than the other crowns, and as with most things that worried him, he felt responsible for the reason behind the worry. He just couldn't remember what that reason might be. Perhaps it had to do with the absoluteness of gravity or the snobbishness of British royalty, but he couldn't really be sure. His fingers twitched across the top of the newspaper and he shut his eyes. On a scale of one to ten, with ten the red-level mark of extreme fear and one the uncomfortable blush of moderate anxiety, Willem felt sevenish. It was like knowing there was something inside a bedroom closet that was bad. All he hoped at this point was that he could sit quietly and finish his meal before the door flew open and whatever was in there escaped.
There were squeals out by the highway where the girls were, and though the window was grease-fogged and plastered with various church revival and stock sale notices along its perimeter, he could see them clearly enough to ignore for a moment his nagging anxiety. They were bent at the waist, adjusting their San Francisco sign, which wouldn't stay put because of the occasional cattle truck that thundered by.
Willem took a deep, steadying breath and read the revival notice that was closest to his face, a beige pamphlet announcing "Sister Moxilianna Sánchez up from Waco Texas to Share Her Amazing Soul-Saving Deliverance from the Satanic Life of Palm Reading." Her picture had been printed on the notice, and in Willem's opinion, she seemed fiercely unhappy with her rescue. Next to that notice was an announcement concerning Black Angus cattle for sale by a man named Robert Gerhardt who lived 4.7 miles exactly from the Old Cutter Bridge in Pottsboro. There were no pictures on that flyer, and Willem was quickly bored. Through the narrow margin left between the two notices, he could see the two girls as they leaned into the wind.
Looking away from them, he turned to the menu fastened on the wall above a bank of heat lamps, those words written in chalk boasting a three-dollar panfried steak complete with the promise of hash-browned potatoes. He felt sure the words held a temporary cure, if only he studied them long enough: The Royal Steak and Potatos cooked the way you like it. The unskilled cursive writing. The uneven loops of the L's. The improper spelling of "potatoes." Anything to stem the worry, since Willem Fremont's worry of late escalated to panic and manifested itself in ways the general population found unseemly.
He tightened his grip on the sugar dispenser and peered across the roomful of strangers, looking for the one familiar person with whom he might converse. The nondescript face that he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt would settle him and point toward the menu and talk to him about it, maybe bring him back where he needed to be, which was sitting in a booth with good manners and midwestern patience, waiting to order something to eat. The Womanwhobroughtmecoffee was the woman he was looking for, and while he couldn't remember the necessary details of her physical appearance the color of her eyes, her height, an approximation of her weight he could remember her smell.
Minutes earlier Willem had smelled her before he had seen her, and the smell was a puzzle in itself, since it was both pleasant and unpleasant. The odor of her unwashed armpits had migrated into the fragrance of fresh hot coffee and confused him, the coffee canceling out the harshest elements of armpit acidity and, in so doing, reducing its own appeal by at least fifty percent. The limbic portion of his brain had overfired then he was already overtired and overstimulated and somewhat addled from twenty-four hours of driving as he tried to register and place those mutated smells, and his eyes were shut because he had found through the years that if he shut his eyes and concentrated it helped break open riddles, so when he felt her arm brush the back of his shoulder, he had jerked to the side and things spilled. Coffee. A small glass pitcher of cream (real cream, not a powdered substitute, which would have been self-contained and much easier to clean up), the menu entombed in yellowed plastic she was holding in her hand. The time spent mopping up and fetching what was scattered came to his rescue and gave him the necessary seconds required to register patience and remorse.
He remembered how she had dabbed at his arm with genuine concern, taking care to get a clean cloth from behind the counter and work it against his sleeve, dipping the end of the cloth in a glass of ice water that had somehow appeared on his table. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to scare you." Willem, feeling the brunt of responsibility for the entire debacle, had hurried to excuse her and say, "Don't worry about it, I'm fine," while sliding nearer to the window to escape her ministrations, relieved she wasn't aware that her lack of hygiene and his love of coffee were coconspirators bent on his discomfort.
But now he needed her, because the crown was swinging and the vagueness of his worry was dissipating, and studying the letters on the menu wasn't working (the L's were amazingly well done for a group of people writing from the disadvantaged side of education, which, judging by the limited vocabulary of the short-order cooks and waitresses, had to be a fact). To add insult to injury, the girls outside were standing perilously close to an uneven highway, and the wind was picking up, beating their cardboard sign against their blue-jeaned legs.
He studied the faces inside Ruby's Regal Truck Stop. Most of the customers were involved with cattle. Willem could smell the shit on their shoes. A family that included a young boy ripping paper napkins to shreds and a baby sitting in a wooden high chair was in the corner. The baby's father fanned at its face with a folded courtesy map while he sipped his coffee. The mother, a brunette with slumped shoulders and out-of-date cat's-eye glasses held together on one side by Scotch tape, was fishing in her purse for some other child-distraction device. Keys, maybe.
A man sitting at the counter (which was too close to Willem for his comfort; he needed at least five feet of separation to feel fully operational and competent, and he had been afforded only three) leaned across and laid a meaty hand on the waitress's arm and said, "Sweet pea. Listen to me. If we just sit back and wait and see, he'll settle down. Boys are gone be boys. I knew his daddy and his daddy was the same way. Took years to get used to the idea of settling down."
"There's no 'we' to this. It's 'me.' I have to put up with it, not you."
"All I'm sayin is it takes some boys years "
"I've not got years to wait," the waitress said.
"I knew his mama, too. She waited years and "
"Well, I'm not his mama."
Willem didn't have years to wait, either. As inevitable as a sunset, the yellow caution light inside his mind was slowly beginning to turn to red. Glancing around the room, his blue eyes looking desperately for a diversion, he leaned toward the floor and noticed the irregular patterns of the black-and-white linoleum. It had been patched in places with blue replacement squares the color of Play-Doh, and to make matters worse, pollutants collected in the spaces where the squares didn't meet: bits of nondescript dirt, a clump of waxed-over organic material, and what seemed to be a small bristly wad of nonhuman hair. The bar stool nearest him was worse. Where its stainless-steel tube met the floor was a casement of black rubber that was torn and floppy, and when the customer put his shit-covered boot to it, the rubber slipped down the pole like skin off a bone. Willem looked to the warming tray for help, the fixed metal cones of radiant orange heat actively mummifying french fries and apple pies alike. It made him think of roadkill roasting in the sun. Wild-eyed and frantic, he jerked to the side, rattling the silverware on the table, pinging his spoon against his glass of water, frantic for the attention of someone, anyone.
His smelly less-than-regal waitress was nowhere to be found.
At this realization, his heart rate increased to such an alarming tempo that he was sure its galloping could be seen clearly by the person behind him eating her Fit for a Queen sausage and pancakes. He was sure his heart was pounding so ferociously that his booth inside Ruby's Regal Truck Stop was beginning to vibrate and shimmy and any minute now this seismic activity would shatter the glass and those handwritten notices concerning salvation and stock auctions would commingle out on a stricken landscape until plastered to the earth by eighteen-wheelers hell-bent on California. Willem knew that if he allowed his gaze to travel to the paper crown hanging over the glass-front door, it would be spinning with tornadic intensity.
The affliction had been happening for so many years that Willem no longer thought of it as a condition separate from waking and breathing and eating and shitting. It could not be fooled or cajoled or intimidated. But it could be delayed. Turning to the window, he said to his slack-jawed reflection, "Look." It was a command he always gave himself, as though the sanity to which he clung could be reinforced a little by self-examination. Seeing his face peering back at him only moderately distorted, he noticed that his thick white hair, no longer brown, was not receding as severely as he had imagined. His teeth were still good. Evenly spaced with a sufficient bite that had been tearing at meat for seven decades. He grinned at himself. The muscles along his face had relaxed, and there were ridges alongside his mouth, but his eyes were still bright and clear, not rheumy or wizened or weak or failing. He took in a deep breath through his nose. He had already figured out that his sense of smell was working at its optimum. These observations were good. They slowed down his heart, and he felt strong enough to chance looking at the front door.
The crown was not spinning like a tornado. It was aloft in a quiet, easy, rocking turn. Willem nodded. Relaxed his shoulders a little. Began to think of other things that hung: piñatas, wet flags, a noose. "Wait," he said to his reflection in the window, trying to backpedal to the least harmful item on the list (the piñata) and feeling that inevitable engaging of gears as his mind skipped over the innocuous vision of a parrot-colored swinging container of candy and headed straight to the hangman's noose. At this point he mentally slammed shut the door by physically slamming his hand on the table and lurching to his feet. Suddenly upright in the aisle of the restaurant, he felt the instantaneous jolt that comes from knowing you've done something stupid. To his surprise, he seemed the only one aware of it; whatever acknowledgment registered on the faces of the diners, surprise was not a part of it. They were bored with him. They saw him for what he was: one more crazy old man in saggy pants and wrinkled shirt given to jumping to his feet at the least provocation. Insulted, he stood as tall he was able and stumbled to the counter and said in a voice that was a little too loud: "Sir, I need a menu, please."
"Looks like you got one right there on your table," the short-order cook said with a point of his spatula. And there it was, grease-spattered but adequate, the words printed on paper trapped within a plastic binder bordered in red. His Majesty's Ham and Eggs. A complete family of Royal Waffles. The Duchess Omelette.
Beaten, Willem shuffled back to his booth and sat, his fingers running up the edge of his water glass. Early on he had decided he was crazy, and he had read every book he could find on mental illnesses. Studied the various aspects of psychosis. His bewilderment had grown. As far as he could tell, people who were crazy were not aware that they were crazy, and Willem Fremont was very aware that he was crazy.
The beelike drone of conversation ebbed and flowed around him. Sentences ran like water and lapped at his feet and the cuffs of his shirt and moved steadily across his shoulders as he sat in his booth listening to references concerning the weather, and the proper way to fence forty acres, and the stupidity of President Nixon. Drifting along on the current was the understanding that everything around him was normal, and if he would act normal, it might be normal. All he had to do was ignore what he was feeling and respond to his immediate surroundings. The salt and pepper shakers needed wiping off, and there was still a drop of coffee pooled on the table. Once these activities were completed, he noticed the stained menu and where it was placed in relation to his person, and he measured out the distance in inches and then converted the sum over to the metric system. He momentarily gave up on the metric system and forced an unworkable algebraic equation to the surface: Coffee Puddle is to Menu what "A" is to "X." There was also a backup should math lose its power to charm: he would get up and go into the small, nasty hovel of a rest room and study the circumference of the princely turd floating in a serfishly neglected toilet. And if that didn't do it, he would leave the rest room and go outside and feed some coins into the mouth of a metal box and reach inside and grope for a newspaper, remembering the whole while to slow down his breathing to steady his hands. And if, once he returned to his red Naugahyde booth in Ruby's Regal Truck Stop, his heartbeat was still threatening expulsion of his eyeballs, he could look out the grease-smeared window until he found those two young girls with waist-length hair, dreaming of San Francisco.
Realizing there was a plan helped him. Willem squeezed his eyes shut, and when he opened them again, his heart rate had slowed to an almost reasonable rhythm. There were no more trucks on the highway that he could see and the sun had broken through the clouds and the sky was that incredible blue that heralds the advent of autumn and the short-order cook, an untidy boy with thick sausage lips, had managed to scramble an egg to a customer's satisfaction and was whooping it up next to the glass-front refrigerator. For the moment all seemed right with the world. Willem looked outside toward the girls, so relieved the spell had passed and all his clothes were intact and on his body that he felt limp and grateful and strangely close to tears. The sad truth was that he couldn't even remember what it was he was worried about.
The taller of the two girls had dark brown hair with a portion pulled back into a long braid that was tied at its end with colored beads; the other girl's hair was blond and wavy, and when she'd lift her arms, she seemed mostly hair and very little else. Thin as waifs they were, so thin in fact that their ribs caught the light and became ivory crescents that disappeared underneath their sheer tops when they lowered their arms to bend to their cardboard sign. They both wore low-cut bell-bottomed jeans that hugged their hips, and wide leather belts that were tasseled. Braless, their breasts were evident because of the pressing wind, and on their feet were leather sandals.
He was sifting for some other aspect of their bodies to study because the wind pressing against their shirts had set it loose again. That large thing that had tried to escape earlier. He sat, rigid as a metal beam, and looked at their feet where dust and debris whirled. He watched the low clouds curl along scuffed leather and smooth ankles and fresh skin and pink toes. He noticed as the dust kicked higher and higher, brushing their thighs now, until, in a final fit of ejaculation, it spat a mouthful of loose gravel across the buckling asphalt. His heart pounding, Willem looked at the crown over the door and saw that it was swinging.
"Honey, you need more coffee?" the waitress said.
He realized he was panting when he turned to the voice and he hoped that she would attribute his irregular breathing to age. He hoped the panic had not traveled to his eyes. The voice belonged to the same one as before, the Womanwhobroughtmecoffee, but either she had washed and applied deodorant or she was standing too far away for him to smell.
"Yes." He paused and put his hand to his chest. "Please."
"You have time to think about what you might want to eat?"
Willem wondered why she was minus her odor now. He wondered why he was worried about her smell at all. Fixating on one thing was dangerous. It made him say things he didn't want to say.
"If you need more time to think, it's okay. I got nowhere to go."
Her voice rode on a musical note of shyness, and he figured she might be new here. Maybe her first job, even. Maybe she was so nervous about starting this new job that she couldn't sleep much the night before and woke up late and didn't have time to wash properly. His throat was tight because he didn't want to blurt out anything about her bathing habits. He wanted to eliminate the possibility of making a statement olfactory in nature, so he thought about the menu; he had decided on the Royal Knight Ham and Eggs for $3.98.
"I smell a pig," he said and instantly wondered if the fork might be clean enough to stab in his neck.
"Honey, don't we all." She pointed with a pencil toward the counter where two men sat. "They raise pigs. Got forty acres of nothin but pigs." She paused and then lowered her voice in a conspiratorial whisper and pointed with her head to a loner eating toast at the far side of the room. "And that one there left his wife and four kids for a piano teacher over in Bonham. I say he's a pig, too." Her laugh was a little bit mean, and Willem decided she must know the rejected wife and abandoned kids personally.
Willem looked toward his coffee cup, at its lukewarm liquid, and tried to remember all the great cups of coffee he'd had in his lifetime. He wondered, if it was somehow possible to collect all those great cups of coffee, whether they would fill a ditch, or a pond, or a lake. "No. I mean I want..."
He wanted to tell her about the Ham and Eggs for $3.98, he did not want to insult her, he absolutely would not be able to bear it if he insulted her. "I want...something," he said.
"You want something from the menu?"
He nodded a little too forcefully.
"You want something to eat?"
He nodded again.
With a kindness reserved for the old and infirmed, for vintage priests as well as withering librarians, the waitress did what good waitresses do: she waited.
"I want." He paused and swallowed.
"I want...to smell a pig!"
Willem made himself grin like an idiot. If she thought he was making a joke, she wouldn't be insulted. Sheer inspiration made him point to the menu. He prayed his finger landed on the Royal Knight helping of Ham and Eggs.
"Oh. I get it." The tiny truck-stop pad was being written on. "You old guys. I swear. Always cracking a joke."
And then she turned and ripped the sheet off the pad and tossed it to the thick-lipped boy searing meat on the grill. "Oink and eggs. Over easy. Two racks." She was finally gone, moving with a mean set to her shoulders toward the man who left his wife and four kids for a piano teacher over in Bonham. Willem bowed his head and wanted to cry.
It is a misconception that the elderly grow beyond the grasp of shame's fingers. That they become so ensconced inside maturity's arms, they remain untouched. Willem sat, recalling his words, his gaze trained on the girls out by the road. For a long while he watched them. They were playing with each other's hair. It was an innocent moment.
"Here you go."
Crockery slid in front of him. Steam rose off his eggs. Turning his head to tell her thank you, he saw it wasn't necessary. She had already moved away and was busy handing menus to two new customers who had just entered. Willem picked up his fork and cut into the ham.
It is probably a good thing that the elderly, for the most part, go ignored. This is what he was thinking while he ate. Glancing down at his news-paper, he noticed The Colorado Mountain Gazette had spelled his name wrong. William, not Willem. Shrugging, he reasoned it was an easy enough mistake to make. They got most of it right. He had established Fremont Renovation Millworks and run it successfully for close to thirty years. It had been bought out by the suits in Chicago. The part that was a mistake in The Colorado Mountain Gazette was the business about Willem's being a missing person. He wasn't a missing person. He knew exactly where he was going. Shoving his plate away, he wiped at a droplet of grease on the table. He thought he saw a hair floating in his ice water, so he looked away.
"You from there?"
The Womanwhobroughtmecoffee was back and pointing with her shoulder and head toward the newspaper he had folded on top of the table. A glass coffeepot was in her hand, steam was escaping its metal-banded mouth. She seemed to be avoiding his eyes. "I wasn't trying to pry. Just noticed the word 'Colorado.'"
Willem didn't want to have a conversation with her, because conversing was too hard. He was too likely to ask her point-blank when she had bathed last. Keeping his lips sealed, he looked up at her with his old man's smile and tapped a finger along his coffee cup and waited quietly while she poured. She did such a good job of filling his cup that he nudged judgment aside and decided to answer her.
"I used to live there," he said.
"I've lived here forever." She blew at her bangs.
He took it she was unhappy about this.
"Born here, in fact."
He wondered if she meant she had been born inside Ruby's Regal Truck Stop. Maybe in that back cubicle where they cooked. If so, she was in direct lineage for the crown.
And there it was again, the swinging crown. Right in front of him. Merging with his fear of saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing. (Swinging Crown is to Comments About Hygiene what "Y" is to "Z.") Scrambling and desperate, he averted his eyes toward the destruction in the seat across from him. A rip began at its upper corner and traveled down until it disappeared from view. Yellowed foam rubber bled out like fat around a wound.
"You're still young. You might leave one day," he said, finally looking at her, fully aware that his hands were shaking.
"You better believe it. There's no way I'm gonna stay here and serve pig farmers all day long. No way."
Move away from me, he thought. Move away from me now. Willem rubbed at the buttons of his shirt, his fingers catching on the third one and slipping it free of its hole. He lowered the offending hand to the sugar dispenser again.
"There are worse places, I would guess."
"If there are, I'd hate to see them." She shifted on her feet until her stomach was resting on the table edge. It was a poochy stomach, an I've-had-a-baby stomach. The hand was minus a wedding band, and Willem prayed she was Pentecostal, the sect that refused jewelry of any type.
"How long'd you live in Colorado?" Her smile was honest and bright, and he could smell her now.
"A long time."
"A really long time?"
She slid a plate of apple pie across to him. He couldn't remember ordering it and wondered if, earlier, when he said he wanted to smell a pig, she had relied on her insider knowledge of pig farming, remembered how some of the better farmers fed their pigs apples, and made the leap. Shaking his head, he looked up at her.
"No, sweetheart, you didn't ask for this. This is on the house." She tapped on the table with her finger. Her fingernails were painted red and uneven. She looked across the room toward the man in the white apron and nodded in his direction.
"I spilt coffee on you. He just thought "
"That wasn't your fault."
"It felt like my fault. That one over there thought it looked like it was my fault. But hey, if you don't want it "
"No. This is fine."
There was a moment when he thought she might be seeing him as he wished she was seeing him, a man who had looked at one time an awful lot like Gary Cooper. (The older, Technicolor Friendly Persuasion one.) A tall man who filled his clothes in such a way that there was no pair of pants cheap enough to cheapen his appearance. Willem hoped she might be seeing the shadow of that person sitting there trembling in yellow light, and he entertained the foolish notion that if he could foster an image of his younger self in this woman's eyes, he might become his younger self and be more able to cope with what he was feeling. Foolishness was foolishness at any age. There was nothing left of that young man and he knew it. This being the case, he prayed that she was at least seeing the image he so carefully perpetuated: an old, elfinesque man with a head of white hair, a blue-eyed man blessed with the sensibility and manners required to sit at a shitty truck stop and eat a meal.
He began to feel a little better about the situation. He was not noticing the paper crown spinning over the door. He did not feel inclined to overanalyze odors of any type. Best of all, the girls out by the highway seemed a little older now, a little more able to take care of themselves; having shed, through some form of magic, that tender skin of helplessness. Willem relaxed a little, and his hand slid off the newspaper.
"My God. Is that you?"
Willem saw where she was looking. The folded newspaper. In a glance he saw the words EL PASO COUNTY peeping out from underneath his thumb. Today officials at the Colorado Springs Police Department issued a missing-person report for William Frem was covered by his palm. Too bad his hand wasn't big enough to cover his picture.
"Is that you in that paper?"
He looked up at her and saw open curiosity that lacked the intellect to go much deeper. He wished he were younger and still remembered how to flirt a little, but the best he could do was "You think it looks like me?" He was genuinely curious about this. The picture was over twenty years old, and in his opinion, he still looked a lot like Gary Cooper in it.
"Yeah. Well, sorta."
"Then I guess it's me."
"My God, you're in the paper." She was beaming. Her teeth were uneven and needed brushing. Her free hand was resting on her hip.
Willem shrugged. Watched the black coffee slosh around in its pot. Guessed it was hot enough to peel off at least two layers of tough skin.
"Holy cow. I've not ever been in the newspaper."
Well, good for you, he thought, watching her move away from him. He noticed she refilled all the coffee cups at all the occupied tables in less than two minutes, all except one. He thought it was a testament to her capacity to hold a grudge that she was still ignoring the loner at the counter who had abandoned his wife.
Kitchen crockery was steaming in the back cubicle, sending rising drifts that muted faces and stainless steel and ceramic tile in a sweeping coverage of cloud, creating a surrealistic indoor-weather system birthed by seared meat and boiling water, a not so bad thing to witness. Willem settled a little bit in his booth, felt overwhelmed by the sadness that was always with him, realized the sadness had its origin in the basic alchemy of fear: extortion. In order to alleviate fear, one has to give up certain things, so with the infinite care of a man who has messed up time and time again while doing routine, uncomplicated chores, he removed his wallet and lifted a five-dollar bill from its hiding place. His fingers closed around a single and he removed it as well. (The waitress deserved a little extra for being shackled by prevailing body odor.) He folded both bills in half and set his water glass on George Washington's face and leaned back in his booth with a sigh. It would have been nice to relax and wait for the woman to bring him a ticket.
Looking back on it, he realized even then that he had known something was about to happen. Known that his composure, wobbling and inexcusable, would suffer a small chip or ping along its surface, like a windshield greeting a rock, and begin to crack. How to stop the sun? Or the climatic heat of an afternoon that sends a tiny abrasion nicked into hardened silicates into a yawning vein of distress? It can't be done. And so, with a sense of accustomed dread, Willem studied the bills under the glass and waited. Something was about to happen. Something always did.
He was right.
A station wagon pulled up outside and parked on the far side of the lot, partially blocking Willem's view of the two girls. As the family disembarked (four large people, complete with lumbering father, waddling mother, hulking son, and rotund daughter whose general appearance was as far from the two girls as China was from Tyler, Texas), their steps on the gravel made as much noise as the car's tires had, and Willem felt pity for them as he watched. His pity evaporated once they reached the door and decided to try and enter all at once.
The father took the mother's arm. The teenage son attached himself to his sibling. The mother swatted at her children the way a person would swat at worrisome flies. All told, they stood there, a wall of genetic obesity, the door open to every gust of wind.
Move now, Willem thought.
The paper crown was whirling over their midwestern heads like a dervish, and still they stood there, the sullen daughter glancing over her shoulder toward the highway where those girls stood, the father making a game of it and laughing, elbowing his son with faux parental aggression. The crown was not only spinning, it was being sucked toward the opening. Its wire tether stretched to its limit.
"Ah, Christ," Willem said, pushing away from the booth and lunging to his feet. His plan was a reasonable one that involved bodily escorting the family in and shutting the door behind them, and then, if the crown was still swinging, he would get a broom from one of the waitresses and manually stop it. His plan was so simple, so cloaked in the seeming sensibilities of an elderly man, it was fail-proof. The plan might have worked if a rogue cattle truck ferrying cows to the slaughterhouse had not roared by, sucking the girls' cardboard San Francisco sign up into its grillework, sending great hurricane gusts across the parking lot and straight into Ruby's Regal Truck Stop (Fat Family is to Crown what Truck is to Girls). The girls were knocked to their rears and sandblasted, their ankles bleeding. Willem stood like the old man he was, in the center of the aisle, one shaking hand on the table, the other pointing to the crown that had been ripped from its wire and was sailing through the internal cloud system of Ruby's. He watched in horror as it caught a blast of oatmeal steam and rode its current before settling on the grill, where it caught fire and blazed.
It was at this point that Willem Fremont began to scream.
He was all the way to the Arkansas border before he could think about what came next, and even then he was so steeped in embarrassment he could think about only certain parts of what he'd done. Certain moments when his behavior could have been worse but hadn't been.
He remembered how he had climbed up into the booth and beaten at the glass, and torn at his hair, and fumbled at his belt. He remembered people staring and jumping to their feet, and the two waitresses and how they rushed from behind the counter to his side and stood gazing up at him. Willem remembered standing with his shoulder pressed to the window, his arm knocking free a revival flyer that floated to the floor.
"Come on, now, honey. Come on down," the Womanwhobroughtmecoffee said, her voice cooing like a dove.
"Get away from me!" he had yelled, watching the thick-lipped cook pick up a large knife from the sink and slide it like a mug of beer down the counter to the white-aproned king of Ruby's Royal Truck Stop. As a response to what he saw, Willem kicked the sugar dispenser across the room, where it shattered against a red padded bar stool.
"I'd get away from him," the thick-lipped cook said, his thick lips curled in a thick-lipped grin.
Willem had yelled, but the words were benign in that they made no sense. No sense at all. One mark against him was that the decibel level of all the yelling had been piercing enough to cause the white-aproned owner to drop his utensil, as well as the knife, but the words themselves were innocent and would make sense only to an equally crazy old man occupying the exact level of Willem's mind.
Episodes from the not so distant past rose up in his face: the time he had become so worried about shouting in church that he had screamed during the benediction; the evening of his secretary's funeral, when he had gotten so anxious about his appearance that he stood inside a rest-room stall and undressed and redressed over and over again, missing the eulogy as well as the cemetery burial; that time in the shipping room when he couldn't quit taking off his shoes and rinsing them under the faucet, sure he had stepped in dog shit on his way in. Willem had done all these things and more.
As far as this particular day was concerned, losing Gary Cooper was the worst: the process through which that final dusty shadow of his former self had slipped away while his back was pressed to the greasy window of Ruby's Regal Truck Stop. It was enough to break his heart. He had heard a faint tapping, and the sound was so different from the internal bedlam that he had turned to find its source and seen those innocent girls (those sweet, innocent girls!) who wanted to go to San Francisco, standing with their hands cupping their faces. Their feet were bleeding. They didn't seem to care. The blond one was doubled over laughing at him, and the other one was falling to the ground, overcome by hilarity. That Willem had harbored tenderness in his heart for such heartless females was cataloged in a part of his brain that was still registering insults.
It could have been worse, he thought. It could have been much worse.
The fact that he had to be thrown bodily out of the truck stop while screaming at the top of his lungs knocked him out of the gold-star category. There had been a measure of redemption, though. Not for Willem Fremont but for a stranger he'd not had the pleasure of meeting face-to-face: the man who'd left his wife and kids for that piano teacher over in Bonham. That man came to the rescue by lifting Willem off the table and carrying him outside and depositing him on his ass in the parking lot. Willem had been stiff as a board and busy pounding on this stranger's shoulder the whole while, an act made all the more degrading because of its level of childishness. Rising to his feet and brushing the grit and dust off his legs, Willem opened the door to his truck and climbed inside, his hands shaking so badly he could barely manage the keys. The last thing he saw of Ruby's Regal Truck Stop was his smelly waitress pouring that adulterous man a congratulatory cup of hot coffee.
Willem took Highway 82 and drove steadily east, taking special care to maintain the proper speed limit, goading his mind to remember not to veer across the center line into oncoming traffic, and summoning up a heightened awareness of those treacherous long stretches of nothingness where half-asleep drivers were abruptly and often fatally bushwhacked by creeping tractors that appeared from the tall corn to cross the highway. Direction. Speed. Turn signals. The pressure of his foot against the brake pedal. He was careful of everything. If there was one lesson he had learned through seven decades of living, it was this: if an accident was going to happen, it was going to happen somewhere in the vicinity of Willem Fremont. The mileage signs changed numerically as he navigated away from the Lone Star State toward Purvis, Mississippi, the place where he had done most of his growing up. Close to a stupor, he kept trying to disengage from the wreckage of the day, disassembling piece by piece the moves and countermoves of all the participants, stepping back until he no longer felt like the star fool in a long-running farce but an unobtrusive production hand. The prop master, perhaps. After all, the only thing he had wanted back in Sherman, Texas, was a really good cup of coffee
" wood's trying to drum up their own brand of support. You got a whole nation of pinhead moviegoers who think Vietnam's terrain is similar to what Patton faced. And it's Hollywood's fault."
"George C. Scott. Hollywood. The Academy Awards."
"I say let them make a movie about our own war. About what's going in these United States. The Angela Davis story. She was a professor, you know."
"The University of California."
"Yes. Or the William Calley story. The Kent State story. There's a crew set to take those cameras to Attica in New York. It says right here that they've received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. And the strange thing is that they aren't interested in the causative force behind the riots, or the changing face of the American landscape. All they want is a documentary showing the damage. And do you know why they need it?"
"No." (the rustle of papers being shuffled)
"Because they need the evidence that we're no longer sitting around our perennial holiday turkey "
"That reminds me of a Norman Rockwell painting."
"Exactly! Now imagine a Norman Rockwell painting on drugs. A Thanksgiving turkey smashed against a wall. A bong on the table instead of a glass of tea."
"Would you want to see that?"
"Not necessarily. But other people will. It's the car-wreck syndrome "
Willem was reaching to turn the knob of his radio in search of Patsy Cline when the tires of his truck drifted to the shoulder and hit a smudge pot left by a field crew. It went flying like a cannon ball through a billboard advertising Coppertone suntan lotion. The missile was unlit, which was good, he supposed, but the impact of the unexpected ordnance reacting to his truck's bumper tore a hole clean through the small grinning child's bathing suit. It was enough to make him pull off the road and sit, his hands gripping the steering wheel, his face drenched in sweat, his knees, as well as some other deeper, previously unknown bone in his ass, quaking. A leather-clad hoodlum on a motorcycle slowed as he passed and yelled, "Dude! I bet that really burned that baby's ass!" before roaring off down the highway, his right hand up in a peace sign, a tattered American flag unfurling off his motorcycle's rear framework.
Willem leaned his head on the steering wheel and waited, the truck idling, the noise soothing, the wind off the passing eighteen-wheelers rocking his truck with a motion that came close to putting him to sleep. Fourteen songs played on the local bluegrass radio station while he sat there, his head frozen against the steering wheel, and he couldn't recall a single chorus, or word, or metered line. Should someone put a gun to his head and demand that he forfeit a phrase for his life, he still could not do it. When he looked into his rearview mirror, he saw that the sun was a huge circle low in the sky, and all around him dark was being summoned.
Copyright © 2003 by Melinda Haynes
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