A Lesser Thing
Parting is all we need to know of hell.
~ Emily Dickinson
He called her from a phone booth. From where he stood, he could make out the silhouette of a plastic snowman waving to him from across the dusty road. He missed the way the snow muffled the sounds from the inside. The booth had no door, and the desert wind was blowing bits of sand in his eyes. Ring, ring, ring. He wished for the snow in his face and for the bed they used to share, the blanket Patsy had made one Minnesota winter -- patch worked from all his faded jeans and his flannel shirts and her flowery shirts, too. He felt a lesser thing without her. He stood there on the side of the dark highway, thinking of all the things he would say if only she'd pick up. He'd tell her he felt like the cattle that suffocated on their own icy breath during the worst storm he'd seen -- remembering how, after he shoveled out the back door, he and Patsy had traipsed out to the field to find at least fifty dead Holsteins, all piled together in a black and white heap, icicles hanging from their nostrils and chins, and Patsy had stood there in the middle of that pure white field just crying -- crying like the ground had just been pulled from under her feet -- like everything meant nothing at all.
The night that he was torn quietly from his mother's womb, the city lay quivering restless as asphalt. He was born with his eyes shut. Not even his mother, cooing softly as morning's earliest dove, could entice him to open his eyes to look at her pale face. She held him there, waiting for him to recognize her eyes as those of his mother -- but he remained a stubborn bundle of still, warm silence.
Outside the apartment window, she could hear a siren coming closer. A lady yelled something obscene. The neighbor's two year old began crying. Suddenly, a large powdery moth flew from the lamp, and the cat on the dresser thudded to the floor. The man who was helping her stood at the end of the bed, head lowered, a web of twilight across his chest. There was no breeze coming through the window, just the unceasing far away hum from the overpass. She remembered swimming in the lake at night, the fear she felt in the dark water when a carp or maybe it was a bullhead, would coldly brush her calf -- how she would recoil, float her legs up to her chest, as if she could run on water to the lake shore. She was walking now on gravel and tiny shells, the sound shifting back and forth with every barefooted step.
In a hoarse whisper, she told the man standing at the end of the bed to take him back. The man looked at her, his face emptied of any sadness or surprise, but he did not move towards her. Her arms weak, she offered the baby up to him as in sacrifice. Take him back, she said. But the man did not move.
In her hands, shaking, she felt the gasp of his lungs before she heard the small sound, which startled her. She remembered once holding a baby rabbit that way, thinking that it couldn't make a peep, only to hear it suck in air and moan for its mother. The sound gutted her.
The man moved towards them, breathless, and said at once, Jack. . . Jack Knox.
This is the night that Jack Knox came into the world -- eyes closed tight through the haze of the heat, and fooling them all.
Back in a Room with a Stereo
We have tucked ourselves in the farthest corner of the barracks, away from the florescent lights and high pitched chatter of soldiers wanting to be girlish. The room smells of freshly waxed floor. My t-shirt has risen up just a bit, and the metal locker touching my back is like leaning against the high school bleachers during a game late in October, and it's about to snow. The girls in the front are singing and dancing. They pass the player and laugh loudly -- one of them stands on a top bunk and sings. All of the bunks are perfectly made army green tight. We are all afraid to climb under the covers -- no time to make them in the morning. We sleep in our uniforms, top button on our pants undone, ready for wake-up -- but we're always awake. The pale girl next to me is also Midwestern. We both miss our boyfriends. We sit with shoulders touching -- heads together, a pair of headphones stretched under our chins. She likes the ballads too, because they remind her of her boyfriend, who wears a black leather jacket. We are back in a room with a stereo. There is no one else, the music is loud, we are under the covers and our eyes are finally closed. We press play and rewind, there are fields of corn to be husked in the steady whir of the tape -- there is a water tower to watch someone else climb -- piles of grain that will not fit in the silos. I look at the girl. Her eyes are shut.
Called to attention -- a bullet -- we scramble unknowingly.
Frieda met Louie at the cafe where she worked part-time nights. He had nice arms, small but sculpted like the statues she had seen in New York City. Standing against the wall on her fifteen-minute break she had noticed him as he drove up with car windows down, an old yellow dog by his side. Louie was older than her, a mechanic; his hands were calloused and defined by black creases. Louie's eyes were so brown they had no middle and Frieda wanted to climb into them and feel their depth. As Louie spoke he talked with his hands, so that the muscles in his arms contracted and relaxed. That night alone in her bed, Frieda thought of his arms wrapped strong around her. She thought of his eyes and falling down the spiral.
On their first date, they sat at the cafe and shared a Coke. Then they went for a drive around the lake, following the dusty gravel road to park at The Point. It was late and close to her curfew. They drove to a clearing and parked under a canopy of branches. His smell was a mixture of crisp soap and motor oil. She locked in his scent. That night alone in her bed, Frieda thought of Louie and his arms and calloused hands, touching. She thought of oil and cars and driveways.
They had their picture taken together in a little booth at the fair. Louie had her on his lap and grabbed her tightly so that she smiled broad and perfect. In front of the mirror behind the blue curtain, he whispered things to make her blush. He carried their picture in his wallet. Frieda kept her copy in a little heart-shaped frame on her dressing table, next to her face powder and bottles of perfume. She would brush her hair in the mirror and pretend that he was there sitting on the bed.
They never spoke of the war. Frieda would talk of the movies and of gossip and Louie would smile at her with specks of light in his dark eyes. As their friends marched off waving to boot camp, Frieda would feel the turn of her stomach. They would drive to The Point early evenings to drink bottles of beer and walk the shore. With his jack knife, Louie would carve long sticks into spears. Frieda would use the sharp end to trace the wave lines in the sand that seemed to her a road map with no end point, only intersections. And they would talk of what if the lines in the sand could lead them away… Louie wanted to see the ocean and Frieda wanted to feel the sidewalk where movie stars left their handprints.
The night that Louie enlisted, they snuck out from the house and skinny-dipped in the murky night water, holding each other close for fear of what lay on the bottom in the dark. Lake water dripping from her hair and lips, she placed her mouth on Louie's shoulder and let her body drift there in that place, her legs wrapped firmly around his waist. Quiet, Frieda fumbled with images of Louie -- planes in a navy sky flying over his head, trailing white light. In the water -- their bodies moving and constant -- Frieda whispered close, "We were born waiting."
Three days before he left, they sat on the front porch step, his hand tracing her calf; he spoke of B-24's and with that white light deep in his eyes, how he "wanted to fly into it." Frieda's stomach turned again and knotted itself tight. In the blue of dark she lay awake, thinking of Louie in goggles and a leather pilot's cap, his arms sculpted and moving throttles.
Louie's yellow dog Skip moved himself in with Frieda. Skip sat on the front porch most days, even in the cold of winter, heavy head in front paws. Frieda wrote letters to Louie telling of storms that left her stranded, the warmth of her bed, with nothing to do but sleep. At night, she moved the heart-shaped frame to her bedside table and with lights out -- she would press her pillow close to her body all night long. In the morning she would place the frame on her dressing table, brush her hair and put on red lipstick.
The first envelope arrived, airmail marked across the front; inside was a picture of Louie wearing a brown leather cap. Frieda studied the picture hard, searching in his eyes for the emptiness that she saw in her own, but found none. She pictured him disappearing into clouds and wondered if she could fly away from missing him. She placed the picture next to the heart-shaped frame, propped against the mirror. In his heavy handwriting was a note saying "how beautiful my wings are . . . almost as pretty as your face." Frieda stuck the note in her mirror and wrote back to Louie that she wanted to kiss him and smell his leather cap, and that Skip was sad without him.
Louie had left his car with Frieda. Twice a week she would run errands for her mother, picking up rations of coffee and sugar at Desmet's Star Market. A cute boy worked stocking shelves there. He was fair and blue eyed, walked confident with a limp. She liked the way he gazed at her as she pushed her cart by, but gave him little notice. One morning in May, he helped her carry out the groceries and she liked the way his arms looked holding the brown paper sacks. She liked the way his right hip hiked and swayed just a little as he walked with rhythm, like a song. His name was Daniel. Daniel sang Bing Crosby under his breath as they walked to the car "kiss me once and kiss me twice and kiss me once again . . . it's been a long, long time."
Louie sent the first sculpture to Frieda on her 18th birthday. It was carved from clean ivory soap and shaped like a unicorn. He wrote of flying and night missions and landing in the dark on the mountaintops. He wrote of sitting in a hole in the ground. She showed the unicorn to Skip, and then placed it on her bedside table next to the clock. She decided to wash her hair and put it up in curlers.
At the market while stacking cans of green beans, Daniel spoke of wanting to drive to California. Frieda stood behind her cart and rubbed her calf with her opposite foot. "I'm going to be an actress" -- she announced -- "in Hollywood. Fanny, my sister, thinks I'm just as good as Vivian Leigh." Daniel shifted his weight and seemed impressed. "Maybe we can go to the matinee sometime then" -- he said, shrugging his shoulders a bit and cocking his head to the left as he reached to the top shelf.
Louie sent another sculpture for Frieda. Carved out of the same pure white soap, it was a pirate's head with a pipe hanging from his curved mouth. Frieda held it cupped in her hands and felt it cool against her lips. She placed it on her dressing table next to her powder and perfume. He wrote of Italy and fountains and bombs at night. She remembered him sitting by the water and wrote back that she missed him, and that she always wanted her very own pirate.
Daniel smelled of frozen food and brown paper sacks. Frieda let him hold her hand. His hand was the same size as hers, clean and un-calloused. He whispered in her ear and made her laugh. After the show, before it was night, they sat at the park on a bench and Daniel took close-ups of Frieda using his father's new camera. Frieda acted shy, smiling with one hand stretched towards the camera as she begged him to stop. In Louie's car parked at The Point, they shared bottles of beer that Daniel snuck from the store. Daniel sang softly in her ear, "Kiss me once and kiss me twice and kiss me once again," and with the heavy taste of yeast on her lips, she kissed Daniel hard. In the backseat, his arms strong over her, she forgot about a few things.
Louie sent a third sculpture -- a miniature Skip dog. Frieda smiled and kissed it, placed it on her pillow. Louie wrote of friends lost and never sleeping. Frieda ached. In the evening of her room, she undressed in front of his picture and brushed her hair. She wrote back that she couldn't sleep. How could she ever sleep. . . "and even if you were here how I would never sleep for want of you," she wrote. Lying in bed she unlocked his scent -- crisp soap and motor oil. A heaviness deep and burning in her chest, she slept a hollow sleep.
On a Tuesday night, Daniel was in the clearing, sitting on a rock by the water. Low branches brushing her shoulder, Frieda walked barefoot to where he sat and nuzzled her face into the back of his neck, holding onto him with arms wrapped tight. They didn't speak of things like want or loss. He undressed her by the shore, eyes focused on her mouth -- her lips. In the water, legs and arms tangled and slippery, rhythmic, they floated in that place silent and seamless.
"We were born waiting," she said quietly, as the water moved in circles.