“Do you really in your heart want to go back to Iraq?”
Defense counsel objected.
The judge let the question be asked.
“Let me answer this way, sir. A lot of friends of mine died when I was deployed there the fifteen months before. Some died right in front of me. One died in my arms. He was torn all to pieces. A good many were blown up by IEDs while we were in the same convoys. Now, I wouldn’t be honoring their memories if I decided I wasn’t going to fulfill my duty and I wasn’t going to redeploy as part of my oath to my country. Then I have other friends who are in my unit who are going to fulfill their obligation and going to redeploy when they have wives and small children. They’d probably prefer to stay home and not be put in harm’s way. I want to honor them. I want to be able to look them in the eye, to say, “I got your back.” That’s my honor to the fallen, to my comrades who will redeploy with me, to my country, and more importantly to myself. I will redeploy so I can look at myself in the mirror and can be proud. If I make it through, living can be a long time.”
The prosecutor stood in front of Settles and looked him in the eye soberly. After a few seconds, he said, “I respect and appreciate what you’ve said here today, sir. Whatever happens, whether you are selected as a juror or not, I just want you to know that I’m glad that there are men like you serving our nation in Iraq. Thank you for your service.”
Spontaneous applause broke out in the courtroom and lasted uninterrupted by the judge.
Settles looked at his hands in his lap and did not look up.
Defense counsel stood. “I just want to follow-up on some of the questions the prosecutor asked you. So your opinion about the fairness of whether this trial can be fair to my client, the defendant, is from your experience, is that what you said?”
“Yes. But can I explain?”
“I’m usually not so talkative like this. Especially in public.”
“Well, you’ve been saying a lot of good, wise things this morning.” She swept her arm round the courtroom with a flourish.
“Things people need to hear, I think. You come with a unique perspective. So, please, go ahead. You have the floor, sir.”
“Well, one thing that I think Abraham Lincoln said was that it is our duty as citizens to keep a vigilant eye on our government officials, and if our officials are unscrupulous and use their positions of power to usurp our democracy, then it is our duty to dismember or overthrow the government.”
“Do you think that is contrary to your oath that you gave when you joined the Army?”
“How so? I don’t understand?”
“Overthrowing the government. Treason.”
Settles adjusted in his chair. “I swore to support the legitimate government of the United States, not the illegitimate or unlawful government of the United States, not unscrupulous or corrupt officials who are undermining the U.S. Constitution. I don’t see the discrepancy.”
“I see,” she said, not looking up, making notes on her legal pad.
“I would point out, if I may” Settles said, raising his voice, “that there has been an incident where citizens in the U.S. have risen up to overthrow their illegitimate local government in this country before.”
Defense counsel straightened. “Excuse me?”
“It was called the Battle of Athens.”
“Are you talking about ancient Greece?” She leaned back and cocked her head. “A Homeric battle, sir?”
“No, ma’am. I’m talking about twentieth century America. A battle in Athens, Tennessee. August, 1946.”
“You’re saying that it has something to do with the lawful overthrow of government?”
“That’s what I’m saying. The lawful overthrow of the illegitimate government of Athens, Tennessee, McMinn County. Since you’re claiming that I’m suborning treason. Athens, Tennessee was run by a corrupt sheriff named Cantrell, who, during the election for Sheriff, tampered with the ballot box, so he would win and the people’s candidate would lose. The veterans who had just come home fighting the Nazis and Japanese weren’t going to put up with it, so they armed themselves with rifles and other weaponry by breaking into the Armory in town. Cantrell and his deputies and other cronies with the ballot box retreated into the jail. There was a small gun battle. The National Guard responded, but didn’t get involved. They just bivouacked outside of town. Somehow Cantrell escaped. The veterans ran the corrupt officials out and took back their town.”
“That was a very interesting history lesson. You’ve been teaching us a lot this morning. So you contend you’re not suborning treason by the overthrow of the federal government?”
“No, ma’am. If it becomes unlawful or illegitimate.”
“What do you think we attorneys are looking for in a juror?”
“A juror that’s going to think your way, vote your way. Isn’t that what you want me to be? Brain washed for you?”
The prosecutor objected to the answer as nonresponsive, as responding with a question.
“Let me stop things for a moment,” the judge interrupted. “What we’re trying to determine is whether or not you can listen to the evidence in this case and make a decision based upon the evidence you hear in the courtroom, whether you’re going to be fair to both sides. Those are the questions. And so--”
“Yes, sir, I’ll be fair to both--”
“Let me finish, all right? But it is very important for you to answer the questions, the actual questions that are asked by all the lawyers in this case. We actually have to hear the explanations. It’s not going to be enough for you to say that we don’t need to worry about it, because we do need to worry about it and we do need to know your answers. Okay?”
“Oh, I wasn’t saying -- when I said you don’t need to worry about it, I wasn’t saying it like that, Your Honor.”
“Okay. Well, we need to hear your answers, and so they’re not asking you questions just to hear themselves talk. It’s real important, these questions.”
Defense counsel continued. “So, sir, you don’t think the State can be fair to my client, the Defendant?”
“I don’t think the State wants to be fair to any defendant, all stop. The State want to convict. They are an advocate and have their perspective and want to win, not lose. The objective arbiter in this courtroom is the judge.”
“So you’re not saying the system is unfair. You’re just saying it’s an adversary system. Is that what I’m hearing you say?”
“Well. I guess that’s right. As long as you, the defense counsel represent the defendant properly, then I hope the system will work.”
“I guess that’s all we can do is hope because the system is imperfect, would you accept that.”
“Yes, I guess I will have to accept that. Nothing is perfect.”
“And if you are chosen to sit on this jury, you will be fair and impartial to both sides in this case, won’t you?”
On my escape out of the courthouse, I ran into Locke dressed in a suit. He grabbed me round the shoulders and hugged me like we were old chums. “Tommy,” he boomed. “Where are you getting away to?”
“I got struck and excused for the week.”
“Whatever it takes, man. Well, I’ve got to testify upstairs.” He unhanked me and pealed off laughing, taking the stairs two at a time.
On the sidewalk, an old man reminded me of my granddaddy. It was his strong knobby hands holding his cigarette. I asked him for the time. He looked hard at my Bulova diver’s watch.
“It’s gone out on me,” I lied.
He stretched and twisted the gold band on his. “Ford gave me this un in ’88 when I retired. Thirty years.”
“Atlanta.” He tapped the crystal with his fingernail and put it up to my face. “It’s a Timex. Never give me no trouble. You ought to get you one.” He brought out his reading glasses. “Says it’s quarter past eleven. I’d a swore it was earlier than that.”
“Can I bum a cigarette off you?”
“All I got is filterless.”
“I can handle ‘em.”
He offered me his pack of Pall Malls. I tapped one out and lit it with his silver Zippo with the Ford emblem on it.
“What do you drive, young man?”
“It’s not a Ford.”
“One of them Jap jobs?”
“I’ve always owned a Ford, myself.”
“Truck. Trade ‘em every two years.”
Our discussion drifted to the generic issue of the weather and then a discussion of his children. He had put two children through medical school. But there was the youngest.
“I always wanted him to find a steady job like I had. Find a job in the government or go in the service and make a career of it, do his thirty years, have a good retirement, be set for his old age. There ain’t nothing I can do for the boy. They’re just going to have to lock him up to keep him away from that crack. He done about killed his momma with worry. All he does is steal from us. Come at me with a gun the other day, say he was going to shoot me and his momma. He got caught last year yanking out copper from a power box behind a strip mall.”
We took pulls on our cigarettes and blew. He wanted to know about my children. I told him about my daughters, the oldest who was the ballet dancer and pianist, and the four-year-old, the youngest who loved to draw and paint, daddy’s pride and joy. And the boys, athletic and smart who people always complimented on their manners: “Ma’am and Sir.”
He smiled, said he wished all parents brought up their children in the old fashion ways like that. Said it gave him a lot of joy to hear that.
I felt guilty for lying, thanked him for the cigarette. We shook hands and said our goodbyes.
At the street side door to the parking deck, a man wore a homemade hat made of palmetto prawns, khaki shorts, a colorful shirt with palm trees, and sandals. He leaned in a worn folding chair, legs crossed at the ankles, peering through a pair of half moon drug store reading glasses, darning the pocket of another brightly printed shirt. Rolled next to him was a grocery store cart heaped with what seemed to be all his belongings. Stuck in the cart was a hand painted placard advertising, Tourist Information.
“Good morning, sir. Can I help direct you around?” He had one of those Chamber of Commerce tourist maps folded in his shirt pocket, creased and stained, probably grubbed out of a dumpster.
“Well, can I bother you with the time?”
I looked down at my watch and told him.
He looked up at the sky. “She’s right on.”
I took a baring at the sun and the horizon. “You follow the sun or something?”
“No, sir.” He pointed.
I turned and squinted.
“I follow the bank clock across the street there.” A Marine Corps. bicep tattoo slipped out from under his shirt sleeve.
“Yes, sir. 1975 to 2003.”
“Navy,” I said. Low key. “Helicopter pilot.”
“I saw your academy ring, sir. Retired?”
“They’d like me to be. They’ll have their way pretty soon.”
“What do you fly, sir?”
“Sea Dragon, mostly. I did some Harrier flying earlier, but mostly Sea Dragon.”
“Goddamndest ride was one time off the deck of a carrier in a hellacious storm. Half the guys were puking, thinking we’d be dead before we got where we were going. Goddamnedest ride.”
“You said you served until 2003, Gunny?”
“Yes, sir. Afghanistan was my last bit. Did a year about . . . Some pretty bad shit trying to find old Ben Laden.” He darned his shirt and I watched the traffic go by for a while. Then watched him darn.
“Got a boy that’s in the Army. He’s done one tour over in Iraq. His Reserve unit is going to re-deploy here in a few weeks for another nine months. They got them stretched thin over there.”
“Well, I’ll be out soon enough. Shattered a bunch of bones in my legs and discs in my back. Just titanium plates and screws.”
“I can predict when rain is coming with my titanium hardware,” Gunny said.
“You live out here?” I asked. “I know it’s not any of my business.”
“Me and my old lady split. She couldn’t take me staying home all day and not working.” The needle went in and out, in and out. “Thinks that if I just work I’ll get to feeling better. ‘Buck up, Stew,’ she’d say. ‘Get out and get you a job. Go out to Wal-Mart and be a greeter.’ Hell, I wasn’t going to be no damn greeter.”
“You’re preaching to the choir.”
“Hell, I can’t even go near a goddamn Wal-Mart. I hate the fucking places. They’re proof that the national average of college graduates is twenty-eight percent.”
“I would have thought it was more.”
“I get shot up and my ex-wife gets most of my monthly retirement check. I’ve been clean and sober for 38 months, and two days. AA’s been the best thing for me. Go just about every day. I go to the V.A. hospital, but you know how that is, sir.”
I wanted to say something wise, but just kept bouncing between him and the bank clock.
“Liquor and drugs are the yeast of annihilation,” Gunny said.
His eyes locked onto mine. He had me, he knew he did, challenging me to divulge some deep hurt or secret he intuited. He waited. I almost did unburden myself, sweating like some fresh Plebe at the Academy.
“I’ve got to be going,” I said.
“I buy all my clothes at the thrift stores. Got these shirts at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop for a dollar a piece.” He pinch his khaki shorts. “These shorts are brand new. I got them for three dollars. That’s the only places I go now. I don’t pay full price anymore. You can find new clothes or almost new clothes that folks just give away at the thrift stores. All you got to do is take your time and have a good eye. I gave up that materialistic lifestyle when I gave up drinking. Sex and women, too. They’ll mess you up quicker than you can blink your eyes. I’m through with that. I go to mass at noon. Go to AA. It’s nice to be clean and sober. Leading a simple life with no credit cards, no damn TV, just being outside, enjoying what life I got left. Brother, sir, after all the hell . . . Well . . .” He smiled and pushed himself to his feet. We shook hands and he held mine firmly.
“Hey, sir, if you don’t have anything to do in the evenings, we meet at the Legion at around seven. We drink coffee and visit for a while, play cards or dominos a little. Our AA and NA meetings are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:00 in the basement of the Presbyterian Church down the road from the Legion.”
“Thanks. I usually spend a couple of hours over at Cash’s bar after work. It’s on the way home.”
“He a friend of yours, sir?”
“I guess you could say I’m one of his regular customers.”
“Oh, I see, sir.” He eased himself into his chair and went to darning his shirt.
“I like the place because it’s quiet, and not one of those loud sports bars. I have one or two drinks and just sit and visit. I’m divorced. Don’t like going home.”
“I understand, sir. I just wanted to say that you hear things among addicts.”
“What kind of things?”
“You need to be careful about Cash’s place.”
“How so? I don’t understand?”
“What I’m hearing is that there’s an undercover investigation.”
“Oh? . . . At Cash’s bar?”
“About cops using steroids.”
“What about Cash?”
He tied the thread and bit it. “He’s apparently their dealer.”
“They going to shut the place down?”
“Pretty soon,” he said. “That’s what I hear, anyways. Pretty good sources.”
I stood there for a while watching the traffic and him darn another shirt. “Well . . . Gunny, it was nice meeting you. I hope to see you again. I appreciate the information.”
“Sure thing, sir.”
I stepped toward the garage deck door.
“We’d love to have your company at the Legion. You’re welcome any time.”
I could barely fold myself into the driver’s seat of my car. When I got home, I took a couple of pain pills, two Xanax, and two extra anti-depressants. The pizza I ordered was delivered about a half hour later. The last thing I remember was sitting down with it on the living room couch. It was dark when I awoke, confused, with my face in the middle of cheese and tomato sauce.
I fished the rest of the week with some buddies. We hired a guide and caught our limit each day. Contrails streaked the blue skies. I followed them the first day. After that, I made myself ignore them. Ignoring the sky for a while was great therapy.
On Thursday evening, out eating and drinking with the guys, I met an energetic woman fifteen years younger than me. She had long straight blonde hair. That was what first attracted me, and her smooth white skin. Sydney was her name. From Boston and a huge hockey fan, terribly allergic to mosquitoes and gnats and chiggers, loved deep sea fishing. Now a professor at one of the colleges in town teaching French and French literature.
We ate steamed shrimp and raw oysters, and drank shots of tequila.
“Do you know what a freebie five is?” she asked, leaning over the table, shoveling a heaping amount of cocktail sauce with a large shrimp, bending her head back on her long stem of a neck, and letting the shrimp slip into her mouth, tonguing her lips.
I grinned and stared, followed the shrimp in my mind slowly down her throat, past her breast, to her stomach, then back to her eyes. She gazed back at me and slipped more shrimp in her mouth the same way. I just grinned. Eventually I asked, “A what?”
“Freebie five. It’s something I heard my students talking about over beers a few nights ago. The rule is if you could have sex with five women in the world, past or present, who would it be? Girls have four guys and one girl. They have to have one girl. Guys – straight guys have their pick of five women, past or present.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Who would be on your list?”
I swallowed an oyster on a cracker. “Christ. I’ve no idea. What about you?”
“I have a few, but I haven’t had enough to drink yet. What do you think of tattoos? Women with tramp stamps on their backs?”
“Do you have one?”
“No. Do you?”
“A Chinese dragon on the back of my left shoulder. Can’t say I’m real proud of it. I got it in Hong Kong one night I got really drunk with some buddies while on shore leave. Tattoos are not something I’d go out and embellish my body with.”
“Maybe you’ll show me later?” She rested her chin on her laced fingers. “So has anyone popped into your head that’d be on your freebie five?”
“I-I don’t know.”
Sydney watched the dancers. She cut her eyes at me and looked around the place. She threw back her head and grabbed my hand. “Let’s dance, Tommy. I need to move.”
She was a great dancer and laughed easily.
“You’re a one woman man, aren’t you Tommy?”
I shrugged. “I guess I am.”
“What about you?”
She didn’t answer me, but led me back to our table where we ordered fresh drinks.
“I bet Gatsby is your favorite character in literature.”
I was a poor boxer and couldn’t anticipate her jabs. I looked at the bottom of my glass. “Actually The Count of Monte Cristo.”
She blew a stream of smoke over her shoulder. “Of course. Dumas. I thought perhaps Hemingway or Conrad. Lord Jim. The chivalrous romantic.” She tapped the ash into the ashtray. “A hopeless sentimentalist.”
Our fresh drinks arrived.
“Tommy, the world needs more people like us. More lovers of Jude the Obscure, Anna Karenina, The Sound and the Fury, Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment and a handful of others like Invisible Man.”
After a time, I reached over and held her hands. She raised her chin, leaned back and shook her hair when I complimented her in French.
“A Parisian accent,” she said in French.
“I was born south of there. My mother was from Lyons. She and I lived in Paris there until I was a teenager.”
We took a walk along the river talking in French, and as the bars and restaurants closed in the quarter, she drove us to her home.
I woke naked, perfectly fitted against Sydney’s naked back, my arm draped over her shoulder, her hand weaved in mine. I dozed back to sleep. Later, I awoke alone to the aroma of rich coffee, frying bacon, and eggs. I lay under the cotton sheets realizing how much I missed the feel and scent of a woman. The French doors opened to the morning breeze. From the living room stereo, Keren Ann and Coralie Clément sang breathy French ye-ye style. Sydney padded over the boards, wearing a long peasant gown, carrying a tray of coffee.
“Bon jour. Ça va ?” She set the tray down on the nightstand and kissed me gently.
“Très bien. Merci, merci. J'ai faim.”
She whirled in a slow dance to the singing. The moment was too good to seem real.
“Do you dream in French or English?” Sydney asked in French, taking in the sun and the outside air.
“I haven’t thought of that. I guess English.” We continued to converse in French.
“That’s a shame.”
“English. I used to dream in French for a little while I was in school there. It made my dreams . . . different. Less . . . I don’t know, I can’t describe it. I keep wishing that they will come back.”
“My mother is a painter. We were always going to museums.”
“I miss them, too. Also, getting on the train, going to Florence, Rome, Venice. I speak Italian, too.”
With my mouth full, I said, “Il tuo corpo è bellissimo. Voglio fare l'amore con te.”
She bent with laughter.
“ Sei incredibile. Sei stupenda. Ti adora.” I held out my arms. It was an operatic performance despite the French accompaniment. “ Mi fai eccitare. Sono pazzo di te--”
“Stop it, stop it, you crazy--”
“Voglio farlo sulla lavatrice, nell' ascensore, in macchina--”
“Enough, enough. You have me about to pee all over the floor. I have to go to the bathroom.”
I set the breakfast on the dresser table beside the bed. When she returned, we continued the conversation in French. She said, “I haven’t been to Paris in ten years.”
“I loved the holidays there. Christmas and New Years. All the lights.”
“We should go. Become expatriates.”
She laughed and fell to me on the bed. “I can’t go back. Too many bad memories left there.”
After a time, I told her of my daughter and my career, or the downfall of it. In embarrassing drips I let fall the account of my divorce, about Nigel, my son’s Australian soccer coach and now his stepfather, after he and my wife’s affair while I was on sea duty.
“They are a better match,” I said.”
“What do you mean?”
“They make a better appearance together than we did.”
“Do you have any pictures?”
I showed her my wallet photos. Even had a photo of my wife with my son during one of our vacations snow skiing.
“The biracial marriage bothered her?”
“She never said anything. She said I was away so much, with Phoebe, our daughter, caring for her. Then Nigel and she started talking after my son’s practices and games. The divorce papers. It was unexpected. That was four years ago and some months – something like that.”
Sydney started cleaning out my wallet while we conversed. “Your wallet looks like a rats nest. How do you get it to close with all these receipts? Do you throw anything away? What does your apartment look like?”
“I’m really an ascetic.”
In unloading my wallet, she came by the sealed locket of baby’s hair. “Who does this belong to?” she said in a whisper.
“It’s my daughter’s baby hair. You’re the only person in the world besides me who knows about it being there.”
We lay listening to the rain for a long while before Sydney began talking. She shared the suicide of a lover, an abortion, two miscarried babies, and the guilt and pain she wrestled with every day that not even psychotherapy or a box full of pills could suppress.
“Do you believe in immortality, Tommy?”
“Do you mean life after death?”
“A Christian life after death?”
“Whatever. Yes, I guess. You’re Catholic.”
“I don’t know about a Christian immortality. I hope for it. I’ve spoken to others about different types of after lifes. Where there are different levels and we can return to Earth if we want to and work on things we didn’t get right in a prior life. I like that better that a crystal palace.”
“I believe in immortality, but I’ve come to accept that if we just fall asleep for eternity that I’m okay with that, too. Mortality makes living right now more precious, doesn’t it, Tommy?”
“Yes, I hear what you’re saying.”
“When I get to thinking about it too much it wraps me up in darkness and I get so depressed. All I can see is darkness.”
After a time, she led me to explore those long sinewy dancer’s lines, long past when a warm Sarah Vaughan CD was finished and the coffee and food on the tray had turned cold.
We lay entangled among her pillows as an afternoon thunderstorm blew in from the ocean and darkened the afternoon sky, wrapping the rest of the day in a thick drizzle and fog. Before finally rising from the bed, she kissed me lightly on the mouth and told me, in English, “You know like I do, this is all we will have, darling.” And I did, and was surprised I didn’t feel terrible about it.
Sydney’s two ginger cats sat on the windowsill, and a light rain fell as we shared Thai takeout and the Sunday newspaper and cigarettes. The Mission Accomplished photograph was on the front page, in color, accompanying articles about the war: pro-war ones spouting the administration’s line that the troop surge was a benefit; and, others, unafraid to show the grim realities of the war, such as the record troop casualties, sectarian violence, ineptitude of the Iraqi security forces and government, dismal approval ratings for the President and Congress as they ignored the electorate’s will, the presidential primaries, and on and on and on. Sydney leaned on her elbows reading the article over the glass kitchen tabletop. She took a long drag on her cigarette and then mashed it out in the ashtray.
“That made for television carrier landing and speech was ridiculous,” she said in French. “Did anybody get that it’s a rainbow, when that moron walked through the lines.” She took a sip of milky sweetened coffee and pointed to the photograph. “Look. Yellow, blue, red, green, purple. Get it? Don’t ask, don’t tell. It looks like he’s walking through a homecoming court, carrying that helmet under his arm, wearing the flight suit with those straps under his groin. Oh, my God. Makes me want to puke.”
I read the sports page and spoke through the page. “I was there--”
“I didn’t have anything to do with that. I just stood where they told me. The president’s P.R. people were all over the ship.”
“You’re full of shit,” she said in Italian. “You were on the deck of this ship when this prick went gallivanting in his flight suit like Tom Cruise?”
I sat up and pointed to the photo. I’d been cropped out. “I was standing right here next to this guy. I’m out of the picture,” I said in English.
“I don’t believe you,” she said in Italian.
I shrugged and put my head behind the sports page again. I told her all she had to do was go to Cash’s bar and look on the wall behind the bar.
“Aren’t you interested in world affairs and the war at all?” she returned to English.
“Nothing I can do about it.”
“Not even for the sake of your son and daughter?”
“What do you want me to do? I’m a gimpy ex-helicopter pilot.”
“Now look where we are, Tommy. All the kids dead for nothing, so megalomaniac Georgie can avenge Daddy, and Cheney and Rummy and Georgie’s Daddy can make more all mighty money from that all mighty oil--”
“Still, what can I do about it? We vote and they ignore us. They’re bankrupting us and the Chinese are racking up the interest waiting for the day to call the debt.”
“You know they didn’t just write that Patriot Act overnight.”
“I’m well aware of who’s the bully in the world right now. I was in the middle of it. Shanghaied 2000. Lied to us to get us into Iraq. Not all of us in the military stood behind them like the press wanted the folks back home to think. How do we expect them to implement democracy elsewhere? Foreign entanglements weaken, never strengthen. Especially unnecessary ones. Unchecked capitalism, greed, greed. The failure’s coming. And we’re going to be bent over with our pants down at our ankles.”
She pulled out another cigarette, lit it, inhaled, blew over her shoulder. “When did you acquire these radical ideas? I hope the NSA’s not listening in on this conversation.”
I pretended to read and shrugged.
She stabbed the newspaper photo with her index fingernail. “This photo makes you Navy guys look like a bunch of pussies,” she shouted in German.
I glared at her around the paper and gave it back at her in the same language. “I dare you to tell my carrier crew that to their faces. They didn’t have any choice. Yes, there were some that were intoxicated with the president coming on board ship. There were a few of us, though, that saw through all the bullshit. Most of those people on board ship are a great bunch of folks. They’re just doing their jobs, like anybody else doing their jobs, like cops, firemen, plumbers, garbage men, teachers, you name it. Anyway, I thought you didn’t believe I was there.”
She huffed, folded out of the chair and walked over to the bookshelf and retrieved a photo album. “You wouldn’t believe I was here, either,” she said in English. She opened the album and flipped the pages slowly. Photos of musicians and singers, a rock band, from what I could tell. She pointed. “That’s me.”
I strained to make out her features. The woman’s hair was a long flowing blonde. “That’s your hair?”
“That was back in the early nineties. On tour with Pink Floyd. We all wore a lot of stage makeup.”
I stared at her.
“That’s Nick and David and Richard. And that’s me and Nick, and that’s me and Richard, and that’s us messing around before concert.” She scrambled on her knees to her CD shelf, put a CD in the player, and brought back a CD case of Pink Floyd and opened it. She flipped through a few pages. “See. That’s me there.”
I studied the photo. The woman looked similar to Sydney.
“How did you make the band?”
“Round about story. I went to the Berklee Music School. Finished and stayed in Boston, got a gig singing with these guys at night. One night, some guy, a manager came through and heard us play and heard me singing and asked if I’d be interested in coming to London and singing a little with the band during rehearsals. Of course I said yes. I did that for the summer. David liked me and invited me to join them on tour.”
I flipped through the pages of her photo album, studying each photo.
“You still don’t believe me, do you?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Why won’t you look at me?”
“I haven’t heard much of Pink Floyd’s music.”
“What do you listen to?”
“Blues, jazz, classical . . .”
“I can’t believe you’ve never heard of Pink Floyd. It’s been, God, what? Almost fifteen years? I was around twenty-one, twenty-two, three? No ties to anything, anyone.”
We listened, she singing along. “This one’s my favorite.” After the song ended, she changed discs. “This is my solo song.”
She sang along softly. Her voice could reach down soulfully and bend and mourn, sustain a note without a quiver, change into different emotions, and sparkle in the high range.
I sat in the floor before her speakers. When the song was over, I repeated it.
“You’re skeptical,” she said. “You don’t believe me.”
“I believe you, I believe you.”
She sprang over to the bookshelf and brought down a jewelry box and rolled a joint. Her hands shook. “No you don’t.”
“Yes I do. You’re very remarkable, Sydney. People don’t come into contact with remarkable people just every day.”
She lit the joint and we smoked it together, laying in the floor, propped on large throw pillows, listening as she sang, as I had never heard anyone sing, with the music.
After a while, she asked, “Do you miss your daughter?”
“Yes. Very much. ”
“Nobody knows where I’m at.”
“What do you mean?” I said in French. “You on the witness protection list or something?”
“My folks are gone. Just a couple of older sisters. Like sour aunts. They could care less, anyway. They’ve always hated my lifestyle. Haven’t spoken to them in years. Think I’m nuts.”
She stood and put some papers in the trashcan and dishes in the sink. “You really believe you are inessential, a cog, have no affect on things, your kids especially?”
“No. I’m a paycheck. That’s my role right now.”
Her fingers were long and statuesque, and her hands attached to narrow, brittle wrists. “You don’t know how lucky you are,” she said, and then kissed and gently rubbed the silver crucifix that she wore on the graceful silver necklace clasped round her neck.
“That’s what I’ve been ordered to do. Got a divorce decree in a box in the trunk of my car to remind me. That’s what I’m supposed to do. I’ve always done what I’m supposed to do. You know, follow fucking orders.”
“You exist and then you die?” she said, almost in a whisper, still cradling the crucifix. “Is that it, Tommy?”
I held the joint nub with the forceps and inhaled.
“It’s like you’ve gotten caught in one of those currents that pull you out to sea,” she said, “and have forgotten how to swim out of it or have just given up and have let the current pull you out to sea to drown.” Sydney pressed her fingers against her temples and massaged them. “It is just words, isn’t it? What we say to each other? Just words, hey Tommy? Words. Like words written on the beach. The tide comes in and it doesn’t care about the words. It comes and it goes and the words are gone. What did the words matter? Right? What did I matter? Words? I? The words? In the linear time. The future becomes the present. The present becomes the past. Everything moves by so quickly. And we don’t pay attention, do we? We’re not paying attention? The film rolls, you blink and if you haven’t paid attention, you’re old and wondering where did the time go? Was it worth it? Regrets? Longings?”
Her knees buckled. She caught herself with her elbows on the counter before crashing head first onto it. Sallow faced and drawn, she dry heaved over the sink.
“You all right?” I yelled.
She ran. I heard retching and coughing from behind the bathroom door. I stood nearby. More retching and coughing, the toilet flushing, flushing, retching, flushing, water running in the sink, more coughing, retching, flushing, water, gargling, water. Pale and cold sweating, she stumbled from the bathroom, a hand towel to her mouth. She walked by me, and pulled herself by the banister upstairs to her bedroom.
After a time, she descended the steps, padded barefoot over the carpeted floor, and nestled herself into an overstuffed denim chair with a worn afghan. She turned off the lamp next to her chair. “Would you mind turning off the kitchen light and the music?” she said. “It’s killing my head.”
I turned off the light and the stereo, and sat in another chair just like hers. The chairs could fit two slim people. We sat there in the dim light without talking. She curled round a pillow and shut her eyes.
“It’s the people that let us love them that we love,” she said. “I don’t mean to be profound or philosophical. I’m not.” After some silence, she said, “It could just as easily be said that ‘It’s the people that we let love us that we love.”
I settled into the deep stuffing of the chair across from her and listened to the drip, drip of the rain. I almost was asleep when I heard her humming a soothing lullaby. I strained to view her without her noticing. She rocked with her knees pulled up, her arms wrapped tightly around them, and her head and nose resting on her knees in the afghan.
After a time, she said, “I’m ridiculous. An over sensitive ridiculous mess. Crying. I can’t believe I’m crying in front of a man I barely know.” She raised her face. Beautiful even without the makeup. Glamorous in pajamas. “What have you to say? I took some medicine, so forgive me if I seem loopy. Loo-oooopy. Loopy.” She laughed over her shoulder and waved her hands over her head. “Aren’t I ridiculous, darling? You should walk out, now. Run while you have a chance. Run, run, run, run . . .” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “Lock the door and throw away the key.”
“You would be a beautiful hermit. But what an awful waste. We won’t give in, will we?”
She did not answer.
“It will blow over.” One of those trite phrases I hated. I couldn’t believe I said it. I wish I could have taken it back.
She stared at me for a few seconds. “Yes. It will blow over. Would you mind getting me a Coke out of the fridge, Tommy? To settle my stomach. And a few Saltine crackers? It’s one of those homely Southern remedies that one of my students taught me. It seems to work.”
I fixed her a Coke in a glass of ice and walked it to her. She ate a few crackers quietly and took a few gentile sips and then sat the glass on tile cup holder on the table beside her.
“Will you stay with me a little while longer, Tommy?”
She smiled and took a long relaxing breath, took a couple more sips of Coke, and then closed her eyes. I watched her until I let my eyelids close, too. Some time later, she came out of it singing softly. It grew sweeter, clearer. “Daisy chains and boutonnieres, glass slippers and four leaf clovers, white gloved teas, curtsies, daffodils, and lavender . . . daisy chains and boutonnieres . . . daffodils and lavender.” And she sang. Mournfully. Staring out the window.
Time passed in silence before she pushed herself out of the chair and crossed the room, retrieved a box of tissues, padded across the floor, sniffling and shivering, blowing her nose, and wound back in her chair and closed her eyes.
I waited until I felt she was well asleep. Then I gathered my clothes upstairs. Medicine bottles lay strewn on her bed. Pills for pain, sleep, anxiety, bi-polar, depression, and whatever else. But the thing was that Sydney was not her name.
She slept curled on the living room couch wrapped in a quilt. A cat at her feet, the other stretched on the windowsill.
It was avoidance sleep. Used to avoid the agonizing conscious moments of deep depression and severe anxiety, where problems, real and unreal, are obsessed over and fester into toxic unsolvable disasters, where temples hammer, muscles wrench, lungs constrict, and where an overriding thought jabbers savagely like a rotating blade, mauling the mind, leaving hope in embers.
Water dripped into flowerpots. Spanish moss droop from centuries old live oaks. Leaves matted the ground. A squirrel unburied his stash. Crows squawked. Dogs barked. A white cat with black and brown spots scurried across the street into the ditch pipe. Fog settled in trees. Shadowless and raw, no color distinguished itself outside. Lonely, longing, heart squeezing, flashback weather.
The cab horn blew outside. I jerked awake.
I locked the door. Closed it silently. Bent my head to the misty rain. Shivered. Scuffed down the oyster shell pathway. Ducked into the back seat of the taxi. I did not look back.
The bird slept. Cash delivered beers to a table of eight Marines who’d ridden in on motorcycles. The weather even dampened the mood in the bar. The Braves were losing to the Dodgers out west.
Cash set a bottle of Scotch before me. I shook it off and waved for him to follow me. In the dim corridor leading to the bathrooms, I tipped him off, warned him about Locke’s undercover operation. Then I walked out of the bar never to return.
Driving home, I worked to suppress the crash memories by concentrating on my little girl’s hands, the softness of her skin, the shape of her face, the texture of her hair, the way she breathes when she sleeps.