by K.C. Wilson
From Fall 2018
1. Sixteen to One and Out
One Sunday morning a white haired lady named Marge was drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette in her apartment on the sixteenth floor of the retirement home known as the Towers. She was waiting for her favorite news programs to begin. Lesley Stahl, William Buckley, and especially Elizabeth Drew were her personal favorites. Their incisive command of language always whetted her appetite for political discussion.
From her “Eagle’s Nest,” as she liked to refer to her apartment, she looked out on the town of Shadville Beach. The spectacular view, such as it was, included the gray Atlantic lapping like a quiet pond a few blocks away. In the western distance, the tallest buildings of a rising city outlined a vague silhouette through a haze of river mist. From her balcony, she heard the air brakes of a bus exhale at the intersection below.
She had plenty of stimulating reading material. Currently, the theologian, Hans Kung, and the article about him in the New York Review of Books, were trying to challenge her intellect. The day she couldn’t find something interesting to read, well, as she often joked, it was a good thing they had screened in the balconies.
On the topmost floor, Marge’s balcony faced north. Forty years of memories spread below her in the town. In the distance, nearly thirty more took her back to New York City. She sipped coffee, snug in her old blue housecoat, a long, long way from New York City.
She reached for the phone out of habit, held it in her hand for a moment, and replaced the receiver. It was too early yet to call Rita or Rose, her two best pals. On Sundays they were often busy; Rita with grandchildren visiting and Rose, with whatever new impulses set her heart to wandering. Rosie loved to drag Marge along with her on her jaunts.
“Margie,” Rose would call up and say, “let’s go to Cedar Key. I’ll drive. Let’s get the hell out of Dodge.”
In the old days, Marge would throw a bag in the car and off they’d go.
Rosie was a big blonde singer. In a nightclub or a dancehall, she’d take the stage. Men were drawn to her brassy style, but they’d find themselves after an hour or so deep in conversation with Marge. “I don’t know how you do it, Margie,” Rose marveled. “They come to me but they wind up talking to you. We’re a pair, aren’t we?”
Marge didn’t have the money anymore to go running off on quite so many jaunts. Since her husband’s death more than a decade ago, she’d learned the hard way to manage her reserves. Her children offered to take her in, but that was not for her. The privacy of her eyrie, her “Eagle’s Nest,” was supremely bearable. She had no desire to give it up.
On Sundays, Marge liked company. Her writer friend, Floyd, used to drop by on Sundays. They’d drink cheap wine and talk for hours, argue politics and books. He kept her in touch with the younger generation. But now she had a new job and worked on Sundays from one to four at the Historical Society Museum, where she held the position of head docent. Maybe after work, she thought, she’d stop by Floyd’s for a glass of wine and a cup of coffee. She wondered how he was getting along with his new girlfriend.
Marge had met Viola only once and had come away with an uncertain first impression. She recalled Floyd’s introduction, “Viola, this is Marge, my old buddy, of whom you’ve heard me speak.” Viola’s pleasant smile had bloomed across her features. She seemed affable, with a bubbly way of filling in the little cracks and silences of a conversation. They talked a little, exchanging pleasantries, but in the instant of mutual appraisal, Marge could not help but sense her insecurity.
She hoped Viola did not feel threatened by her familiarity with Floyd. That would have been silly. Marge enjoyed a position of respect among Floyd’s friends and was invariably welcome in his home, which was occasionally the scene of some interesting gatherings.
She made another cup of instant coffee and stepped onto her balcony again. She looked down through the screen at the roof of the McDonald’s across the street, a bright sun reflecting off the new white roof tiles. She blew smoke through the screen, her eyes taking in the panoramic view of Shadville Beach from sixteen stories. Not much to it, she had to admit, but it was a nice view.
At twelvethirty, she began getting dressed for work. She put on a burgundy pantsuit with a matching sweater. She ran a comb through her wispy white hair, straightened her necklace and gathered her cigarettes and her keys, packing them all in a heap into her carpetbag purse. At the door, she paused and returned to the phone. She dialed Floyd’s number.
Viola answered, said hello and handed Floyd the phone. “Hi, Marge,” he greeted her, “how are you?”
“Fine, darling, listen,” she said, “I thought I might stop by after work if you’re not too busy to drink a glass of wine with an old lady. After four.”
She was not alarmed in the least by the boisterous sounds in the background.
“Sure, come on over,” he said.
Marge hung up, anticipating a bright spot toward the latter part of her day. She reached up and gave a tug on the string that hung from a painted cardboard eagle, a gift from her soninlaw. Suspended by a nylon thread from a hook in the ceiling, its wings flapped majestically, simulating flight when she pulled the string. She smiled, heading for the door. Now all she had to do was get out of the building without being waylaid by a resident and maneuvered into a conversation about gallstones or some other healthrelated topic.
In the hallway, she noted with relief that no one else stood waiting for the elevator. The long slow ride to the ground floor only got longer and slower when someone wanted to talk about their latest operation, or ask a personal question that she had no intention of answering. Not talking in elevators was a custom with no adherents in the Towers.
The elevator doors slid open. Empty. She stepped in quickly, pushing the close button, though she would have held it open for anyone who called out. She pushed one and closed her eyes as she leaned against the back wall.
At the ninth floor, the stately downward pace slowed. Here goes nothing, Marge thought. Who would it be this time?
The elevator stopped, admitting an elderly gentleman in plaid slacks. She had seen him before in the lobby, walking slowly on tottering legs. He leered at her through trifocals, with inexplicable good humor. “Hello, kid.”
“Hello, Pops,” she said, “what’s cooking?”
“Donut time,” he said, nodding and grinning, “in the lobby.”
She pushed one again. They started moving. She looked at the old man. He was studying her.
“You know they call you the kid,” he said.
“The kid.” He grinned. “Always on the move. Busy as a bee.”
“The kid, huh?” Marge chuckled. “I’m only sixtyseven.”
“How old do you think I am?” he asked.
“Over twentyone,” said Marge.
The elevator stopped. For a couple of seconds the doors stayed closed.
“Eightyfour,” the old man said, showing all his teeth, as if his age were proof of his revenge against time. “You’re just a kid.”
The doors opened. “That’s me, Pops. See ya.”
“Hey, you got a cigarette?”
She fished the pack out of her purse. “You shouldn’t smoke, you know. At your age.” She handed him the cigarette.
“Yeah, yeah. Got a light?”
She produced her lighter and quickly scorched the tip as he puffed it alight. “Gotta run, Pops, I’m late.”
“See ya round, kid,” he winked as she sailed out through the lobby, past the circles of chairs where the residents spent hours chatting and gossiping about each other and about her.
“Sixteen to one and out,” she murmured.
As the automatic doors slid open, she stepped into a cool breeze blowing off the ocean.
She felt like a kid when the breeze ruffled her hair.
2. Waiting for Walter
At tenthirty that same Sunday morning, Floyd was sitting on his front porch sanding a conical piece of wood, the leg of a cedar chest he was refinishing. A white pickup truck pulled in to park in his yard and he stopped sanding. He stood by the porch door as his friend, Lyle, swung out from behind the wheel and ambled toward the house across the sunlit yard.
“Don’t see you much on Sundays any more,” said Floyd. “You must be getting lonely since your girlfriend dumped you.”
“Hey, fat boy,” said Lyle.
Floyd held the screen door open. “I thought maybe you forgot where I live.”
Lyle, a larger man than Floyd, at whom he swung an affectionate fist, missing as he stepped onto the porch, greeted Viola, the blonde woman in the doorway to the house, with a smile and a “Hey, girl.” He turned to ask Floyd, all kidding aside, “You got my five bucks?”
“What five bucks?”
Lyle shook his head. “You’ll never change.”
“Keep your shirt on,” said Floyd.
“Working till twothirty.”
“I want to do a song with you guys. You think Walter can put some chords to it?”
“I wish he was here right now.”
“Hey, he’s lucky he’s still got a job.”
“Is he stumbling again?”
Floyd shrugged a shoulder. “When he got out of detox, he was fine for two weeks. Like a different person. Now, he’s getting more like he was.”
Lyle chuckled, “Return of the Stumbler.”
Floyd’s neighbor, Walter, had earned the nickname, “the Stumbler,” in recognition of his unparalleled stumbling. When he first moved in next door, it was a common sight to see him stumbling around in his front yard, occasionally falling face down in the grass and inevitably spilling his “power drink,” bourbon and coke in an enormous glass. For three years, determined not to deal with a drunk of Walter’s caliber, Floyd had kept his door closed to Walter and refused to be drawn in by neighborly overtures, but as time went on, little inroads were made against his resistance until now, the beaten path between their two houses linked them and Floyd had discovered in Walter a musical talent that not even his massive intake of alcohol could eclipse.
“He’d stumble into my yard and knock on my door and want to come in and I’d say, ‘No way, man.’ I was cold to him. Mr. Ice. No time for drunks. But he kept coming back. Then one day, he brought over a little bag of pot. Some shitty, shitty shit. And I let him in.”
The problem with letting Walter in was that he never wanted to leave. “Katie’s at bingo,” he would say, to which it naturally followed that Floyd’s house, if Floyd was home, was the logical place for him to spend his lonely hours.
Walter was the drummer in a touring rock band from Connecticut until the band broke up and left him stranded with his wife, Kate, in Shadville Beach, doomed to end his days in oblivion with a stupid job at a service station and nothing to look forward to but a couple of fifths of whiskey every weekend and maybe one or two during the week, unless, of course, he found another band that would let him play drums. But Katie had sold his drum set to get bail money to get him out of jail for being drunk in public.
As long stories go, Walter’s was endless and mostly about drinking.
In their earliest days as tentative friends, before affection ever caused him to hesitate, Floyd would, as a rule, shove Walter out the door as soon as a second towel was needed to mop up his second spilled drink. Walt would wedge his sturdy frame against the doorjamb, leaving Floyd no option but force. Floyd had since learned more persuasive ways of handling him, but they required great reserves of patience and did not always work. Sometimes the only way to get Walt to leave his house was to oust him bodily. Even then, Walter almost always came back with a fresh drink in his hand and no apparent memory of what had gone before.
“He kept bringing you pot?” said Lyle.
“Till I started charging him towel tax. He’d bring his huge drink over, that big giant Plexiglas cup with a two pound weight glued to the bottom, and he’d spill it, immediately. I’d get a towel and wipe it up. He’d go home and come back with another one. On his second spilled drink, I charged towel tax. I’d run him out. Any pot he left behind was the tax.”
“You hard ass,” said Lyle.
“Next morning, he’d come over and say, ‘Hey, uh, did I leave anything here yesterday, you know, uh, in a little baggie?’ I’d say, ‘That was towel tax, Walter.’ And he’d say, ‘Towel tax?’ I explained it to him a bunch of times, but he never did think it was funny. After awhile, he quit bringing me pot. I still let him in. By then, we were playing music.”
One day, Floyd had placed an old guitar in Walter’s hands and told him to play something, anything. To his surprise, Walter played, his fingers not so nimble, but not inexperienced. He strummed a little and said, “What do you want me to play?”
“Want to play a song I wrote?”
“How do you want it to go?”
So it began. Floyd wrote lyrics. Walter turned them into songs. One by one, the songs
Floyd had filed away in a drawer were reappraised. The ones he could get Walt to play were hastily recorded in Floyd’s living room.
Their first recordings were primitive, but vastly superior to the ones Floyd had made alone or with Lyle. Walter insisted they could do much better. They started practicing with a second microphone and the recordings began to improve. New songs were given wings, courtesy of “the Stumbler.”
For Floyd, making music was the pearl of great price, worth putting up with Walter’s drunkenness. To access his musical talent required more patience than he had ever known himself to have. Walt’s attention span was perilously short. He required prodding, direction, flattery, friendship and a little respect in order to stay focused, sometimes needing all these factors at the same time. Sometimes he just needed to get in the mood before he could play. By then it was often too late.
There was always that point when Walter crossed over into a place he called “The Next Dimension.” Once he crossed over he was gone.
“Walter’s some kind of musical genius,” said Floyd, though he did concede that ‘genius,’ was a generous endorsement. Still, he wanted Lyle to discover Walter’s talent for himself. Lyle also wrote songs. And his singing voice was better than Floyd’s. It was a natural progression for the three of them to get together to play, though it had yet to happen.
Floyd looked at Lyle’s new song and read the rhymes without hearing a rhythm or melody. No music rose up to greet him from the flatness of the page.
“Walter will do something with it,” he said. “He’s been after me to get you over here since he heard you sing ‘Dang Me,’ on that tape we made.”
“If I’m going to hang around till then,” said Lyle, “I’ll need something to drink. You’ll have a drink with me, won’t you? I got a gallon jug of rum and limeade in the truck.”
At 11:15 that morning, Floyd sampled the tart mixture. Viola demurred, not caring for rum. The three of them sat and passed the time, playing tapes and talking. Lyle brought in a tape from his truck by Wall of Voodoo with a song on it he kept raving about called “Elvis Bought Dora a Cadillac.”
One line in the chorus was maddeningly unclear. Floyd and Lyle discussed and deconstructed the line without agreement until the actual meaning of the song became an unsolved mystery.
“It means Elvis was two people,” said Floyd, “one was making money playing, the other was tipping waitresses Cadillacs.”
“Two gods,” said Lyle. “I don’t know. Play it again.”
Viola watched as they rewound the tape again and again to the point where the chorus began and Lyle sang out with it, “And the gods I love….they were poor white trash…One was something, something, something….The other tipping waitresses Cadillacs.”
“This song’s so great!” Lyle laughed.
“It does grow on you,” Floyd agreed.
Viola liked the song well enough without being especially moved by it. She was equally pleased to hear a different tape, and felt somewhat removed from the intimacies of their conversation as it related to music and songs. She was acutely aware of Floyd’s love of music, which Lyle evidently shared. When they started playing tapes of themselves, it was easy to see that love in perspective. They were hopeless amateurs, their talents not noticeably musical in nature, which was not to say that they were not creative. They did the best they could, she supposed, with what they had available. Still, they were both light years away from tipping waitresses Cadillacs.
Lyle refilled Floyd’s glass several times while they talked. The subject was drunks, drunkenness, drinking, and the many kinds of drunks, of which there were too many to count. Lyle did not mind admitting to alcoholism, though, by category, he belonged to that stalwart type that never remembers falling down, or passing out, or otherwise outwardly revealing evidence of not being able to handle excess. A beer drinker by choice, deviance from his habitual regime generally indicated some special occasion, festive, or, as in this instance, befitting his recent breakup with Jane, grievous.
His great love for Jane at long length was spurned, due mainly to his refusal to embrace the sober life she had chosen to pursue for her own sake. The result was the song he had written for her. A blatant subterfuge, Floyd opined, in the marathon wooing campaign they had alternately waged against each other. Two more mismatched lovers than Lyle and Jane would be hard to find. The world, it seemed, was full of mismatched lovers, ever ready to pursue a torturous romance, however rocky and doomed the road, instead of a safe and unexciting union. From such twisted lives and loves came the songs of pain and loss, songs from the hurt locker, the songs lovers hold so dear.
Lyle refilled their cups again. “You really think Walter’s a musical genius?”
Floyd shrugged. “He’s something, man. I don’t know what. He’s got the knack.”
Around twelvethirty, the phone rang. “It’s Marge,” said Viola, as she handed Floyd the phone.
“You’ve got company,” said Marge, stating a fact.
“It’s all right,” said Floyd, “you coming over?”
Floyd hung up; remembering the last time Marge encountered Walter. He had entered the living room like a walking zombie, comatose, completely oblivious to the conversation Floyd was having with Marge. They ignored him for a space of ten minutes as he sat there on the couch across the room, clutching his power drink in one hand, rattling his ice cubes like a maraca.
A threatened look had come into his eyes and turned slowly to resentment and anger.
“You’re playing with my head,” he accused Floyd, “you think I’m stupid!”
Walt’s drink was empty. Floyd knew he’d soon make his exit to get another.
“I’m not stupid,” Walter announced. “You’re stupid.”
“Think you’re smart?” Floyd grinned, rising as Walter did and patting him amiably on the back as he guided him toward the door.
Walter glared at Floyd’s patronizing tone . Floyd often condescended to him when other people were around. Walter had stormed out of the house on his own. Out in the yard, he was muttering, “I’m not stupid!”
“A tragedy,” Marge had stated. “That young man is a tragedy. How old is he?”
“So young,” Marge said. “He won’t make old bones.”
By one o’clock, Lyle was pacing. “The beer store is open. We need to go get some.”
In the car, Lyle regaled them with another chorus of “Elvis Bought Dora a Cadillac,” hoarsely howled out the back window to the distraction of passing motorists. At the store they bought beer and snacks. Lyle had some hushed words with the convenience store clerk, a rotund brunette, with whom he made plans to rendezvous later.
Also buying beer in the checkout line, Viola encountered an old friend named Buford, a wellknown bluegrass mandolin player. She hoped he might not mind indulging a bunch of amateurs. Floyd might have let the opportunity pass, but Buford was Viola’s friend, and without emphasizing the musical aspect of the afternoon, she invited him to stop by Floyd’s sometime after three.
She had a photograph of Buford at her house, taken at a party several years earlier, that showed him arm in arm with the famous mandolin player, David Grisman. She couldn’t remember how she had ended up with that photograph, but she wanted Buford to have it. Buford was so pleased to be reminded of that photo. He had often wondered what had become of it.
She had meant to pick up the photograph when they stopped by her house, their next destination, but first, they lolled around in the air conditioning while Viola puttered through the house and yard, watering plants and answering phone messages. They devoured some snacks and played a tape or two, intending to time their return to Floyd’s so that when they stopped by the service station where Walter worked, he would be ready to get off. They killed a little more time then headed out, Floyd never once considering that Viola might need to be reminded not to forget Buford’s photograph.
At the service station, Lyle went up to Walter and palled around with him while Floyd pumped gas into Viola’s car. Walter’s eyes, bright against his ruddy pallor, took on a glistening sheen when he realized that Lyle wanted to jam with him on a new song. He said he would be home about a quarter to three. About three o’clock, he’d be ready.
3. The Next Dimension
Walter arrived with his guitar at three. He’d had one little drink at his house while he changed his clothes and now his second drink was on the coffee table and the guitar was in his hands. Floyd had the microphones set up, the cords wrapped around pool cues wedged at angles through the legs of barstools so that each mike was poised for separate input. He set the dials, pushed the pause/record button. All he had to do was shut the front door to block out the ambient street sounds and push the play button. He kept the door open when they were not recording because of the smoke. Walter and Lyle both smoked like trains. During recording, Floyd insisted, the doors had to be shut, all cigarettes put out.
Walter had Lyle’s song in front of him on the coffee table. He strummed several ponderous chords, adjusted a string and tried a progression that sounded like he might be onto something. Then Buford knocked on the door and Viola realized that she had forgotten the photograph, so she set out again with Buford to retrieve it.
In the car, Viola explained to Buford about Walter having to work that day and how there was only so much functional time to count on in Walter’s time window.
“Well, there’s only so much time in mine, too,” said Buford.
“I’ve seen you drunk, Buford. Walter’s different. He goes into ‘the next dimension.’” Viola did quotes with her fingers without taking her hands off the steering wheel.
“I haven’t been there for awhile,” said Buford.
“They’ve been waiting all day to record Lyle’s song with him. That’s what they’re doing right now.” She sighed. “Of course, they’re not real musicians, except Walter. He was a drummer in a band, or something, but they try, Buford, they try so hard.” She hesitated, smiling winningly, before saying, “If you’d sit in with them for a little while, it would really mean a lot.”
“I didn’t bring my mandolin,” said Buford. “I would have. Sure, I’ll play with them.”
Viola beamed, rays of sunshine passing through her.
Walter had a studious look on his face as he bent over his black guitar. A moment later, he said he had it. He strummed a chord that struck a familiar, ominous note, reminiscent of the morose intro to “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” but different. It had the recollection of the lost and the lonely, the sorrow of a heart in pain. Lyle’s gravel voice fell into place with the chords and the words he sang somehow gained more strength than they appeared to have alone on the page. The somber tone in the rhythm Walt played ran deep. Floyd picked up an F harp and wailed a faintly agonized harmony into the background. The song was of every love that ever died for lack of faith, every love that ever might have lived another day. The sadness in it was as mournful as a lost love fading in the fog of time. When Lyle stopped singing, the three of them looked at each other, speechless for a second or two, then laughed.
“Let’s get it on tape this time,” said Floyd.
“That was heavy, man,” said Walter.
“This one’ll be better. OK, let’s go.” Floyd pushed the button to record and they did it again. Same feeling, more control. When they were finished, they played it back. Walt’s eyes shone. The raw energy of the first take was intoxicating. They played it again and again, aglow in the warmth of their creation.
When Viola and Buford returned, they played the song for them.
“You just cut that?” Buford asked.
“While you were gone,” Lyle laughed as he passed a cold beer to Buford.
“Man, that’s not bad,” said Buford. He took the beer, took a sip. Then Floyd handed him a spare guitar, which he quickly tuned and began to pick. Walter tuned his own guitar and joined him, his excitement evident to be playing with a real musician again. He had been so long away from that world. He fell in with Buford, finding his rhythm and stretching his ability to keep it.
“I’m not a guitar player,” he apologized. “I’m a drummer.”
They picked four songs. The last one was “Hit the Road, Jack.” Then Buford had to leave. He said he wished he’d brought his mandolin, and that he wasn’t a guitar player, either. On tape, they both sounded like guitar players. Viola told him he was welcome to stop back by with his mandolin. He said he would another time.
In Buford’s wake, Walter flushed with pride. He was the man of the hour. He took a big swallow, his hour quickly passing.
Marge arrived about ten after four. In the course of the day, Floyd had nearly forgotten that she was coming, though he spotted her car pulling into the yard and greeted her at the front door. She took stock at a glance of the situation, entering the living room crowded with microphones draped around pool cues and wires crisscrossing the legs of barstools placed awkwardly in the center of the room.
“You’re recording today,” she said. “Good.”
Floyd led her to a chair and brought her an ashtray.
“Got any wine?” she asked.
“We need to go get some,” said Floyd.
“No, forget it. I’ll have coffee.”
“We’re out of coffee, too. Sorry, Marge. Things started moving too fast. We’ll get some.”
Viola volunteered to make the run. Money started flowing out of pockets while she took their orders. Floyd would have cautioned her not to buy whiskey for Walter, something he refused to do for Walt on principle, but she was gone before he realized that her mission included a pint of Jim Beam.
The session degenerated rapidly into chaos. Although he was aware of Marge only peripherally, Floyd was willing to forego further musical efforts since it was more than obvious that the session was past its peak. But they played on.
As a host, he saw to it that Marge was comfortable. Between distractions, they spoke a little. She was perfectly at ease. She knew she was welcome.
Viola returned with the goods and a dozen fresh yeast rolls she’d picked up on the way home. The rum and limeade was long gone. Floyd poured glasses of wine for her and Marge and himself. Walter kept strumming, absorbed in the sound that enclosed him like a blanket.
“Somebody ought to hide that bottle,” Marge suggested quietly to Viola, “that’s the last thing he needs.”
Floyd palmed the pint, a futile gesture, and put it under a towel on the porch. Walter was still intent on his guitar, which he played with increasingly less finesse as his unintelligible spontaneity segued into gibberish. Lyle got him back on track for a short version of “Dang Me.”
Then Walt set the guitar aside and asked Floyd calmly, “Hey, Bud, where’s my drink?”
Floyd retrieved the bottle and gave it to him. In the kitchen Walt unscrewed the lid, upended the pint into his tall mug, emptying its contents, then turned to Floyd and asked, “Got any ice?”
Viola watched the pouring, rolling her eyes up to heaven. It was close now, the “next dimension.” She sat down by Marge.
“He poured that whole pint in his glass,” she said.
Marge shook her head. “So sad. That young man’s killing himself.” She took a drag of her cigarette, blowing smoke toward the ceiling. “Throwing his life away.”
“I hate when he gets like this,” said Viola. “He scares me.”
Marge shrugged. “Marvelous touch, those yeast rolls, darling. They were delicious.”
“Thanks. I love them. I had to get something. You could starve to death around here.”
Walter had the guitar again. The trio was attempting one of Floyd’s songs. For the first time with Lyle, they were trying a three-part harmony. It made for a ragged cut, with isolated moments of botched potential. They tried the song again, but the energy that had brought them together earlier was diffused in too many directions. They were all drunk. But Walter had crossed over.
When the song finally ended, Walter kept playing, improvising his own extended finale. “You’ll see, my friends,” he announced like a circus ringmaster loudly into the mike his parting words. “You’ll see it all. You’ll see it all in the next dimension!”
Floyd appealed to Lyle with a slicing hand gesture, a request for aid in ending the session.
“There he goes,” said Viola, as though she were watching the space shuttle launch.
A knock at the door surprised them all. Lyle’s lady friend from the convenience store had stopped by after work, as requested. Lyle stepped outside to talk to her.
Floyd began packing up the equipment, wrapping microphones and wires back into their cases, methodically putting away the pool cues and barstools while Walt sat stupefied on the couch, watching him with a smoldering glare.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Walt asked, finally. “We’re not done.”
“Yeah, we are. We’re done, Walt. The party’s over. We did good.”
“I thought you wanted to record. Let’s record.”
“We already did, man. You were great. We’ll do it again sometime. Today is over. The party’s over.”
“That’s right, Walter,” said Viola, “the party’s over.”
Walter stared at Viola without acknowledging her. He took a big swallow.
“The party’s not over,” he said.
Floyd shook his head, dreading the near future.
“Walt, you’re not getting the picture,” he said.
“I didn’t do nothing wrong,” said Walter, settling deep into the cushions of the couch.
Viola’s impatience required no knowledge of body language to interpret. “Get him out of here,” was the message Floyd read in her pleading eyes and in the huff and puff of her pacing.
Floyd nodded to telegraph his intention. He had no doubt that, given an unspecified amount of time, he would be able to manage Walter’s exit without incident. He had been dealing with his neighbor for quite some time and was familiar with his pattern of behavior. His preference was to maneuver Walter deftly out the door, if possible, but that process could not be rushed.
For a full twenty minutes, he attempted to lay a foundation of reason with Walter, complimenting the fine work he had done on Lyle’s song. He patted him on the back like a boon companion.
“Frankly,” Floyd admitted, “I’m proud of you, Walter.”
But Walt refused to be manipulated. Was he not the guest of honor? Why was the party ending so soon? Why was he being hustled away?
Marge watched the two men from her chair across the room, imperturbably smoking, her wine glass empty. Viola sat on a stool close to her, whispering.
“Floyd doesn’t believe me when I tell him Walter scares me. He says things to me. He touched my butt.”
“He’s a drunk,” said Marge, as if that explained everything.
“You don’t like me, do you?” said Walter to Floyd.
“Walt, I like you. But I’ve got things to do. We’re going to go get something to eat. It’s dinner time. Party over. I have to ask you nicely because you are my friend, but I do have to ask you, as a favor to me, how about we call it a day, eh? How about that? Come on, bud. Don’t hold up the program. We’re heading out so you better mosey on home any minute now. So come on, Walt, let’s hit the road, Jack. OK? OK?”
Walter’s blank gaze never wavered, never blinked. Floyd could hear Viola slamming cabinet doors in the kitchen. Walt kept playing his little game of no comprende, basking in Floyd’s cajolery.
Floyd’s nice guy routine was too hard to maintain. Soon he was seeing no choice but to get rough with Walter. He’d hoped it would not come to that, but Walter still had not left the couch.
Suddenly, Walter stood up, and Floyd stood too, knowing he should not allow him to sit down again. Walter took a step toward the front door, then turned and plodded to the bathroom. Floyd stood by the front door, waiting. He didn’t see Walter’s lecherous grab at Viola as she passed him in the hall.
She came huffing out past Floyd onto the porch and stood in front of the screen door looking out at the cars parked in the front yard. Lyle was still out front talking to the convenience store lady. Viola’s little car was at the foot of the steps. She looked down through the screen at the grime on the roof, hood, and the windshield and made a mental note to drive through a car wash soon.
Marge still sat in her chair by the stereo, a comfortable chair with a footstool. She had a cigarette going and another glass of wine. She watched the situation, part and apart from it, like a judge. She saw Walter returning from the bathroom, lumbering slowly toward Floyd at the door, a blank yet wary look in his eye. He came over and stood beside Floyd in the doorway. Floyd put his hand on his shoulder.
“Walter, buddy, pal, we’ve been through this before. You got to go home, man. We’re going to go eat. Don’t give me a hard time, OK?” In his gentlest voice, Floyd practically begged him to leave.
“Are you going to beat me up?”
“No, man, just go along with me. We’re heading out ourselves.”
Walter made a step toward the couch to sit back down. Floyd blocked him. His hand, a
moment earlier gentle on Walt’s shoulder, gripped a firm handle of flesh. “No, Walt,” said Floyd, “you’re going home now.” The nice guy game was over.
Walter braced himself against the doorway with both hands, turning his stocky frame to stone. Behind Walter, Viola, oblivious to the sounds of conflict a scant three feet away, still stood in front of the screen door, looking out, her back to the contest of wills she somehow failed to notice.
Abruptly, Floyd’s patience ceased. With a downward smash on Walt’s left wrist, he broke his hold on the doorframe and simultaneously threw his weight and strength against him, tumbling Walter off balance backward toward the screen door of the porch, which was still partially blocked by Viola, who only at the last possible second managed to move slightly to one side. Walter’s bulk bounced Viola into the jamb of the screen door as Floyd pressed him onward and outward, caroming Walter’s body off Viola’s shoulder into the screen door proper. Flung open, the screen door splintered as Walter went flying headlong down the three concrete steps and slammed onto the hood of Viola’s car.
Floyd followed down the steps as Walter, his face a mask of rage, turned and reached to the ground for the nearest weapon, a water hose with a round plastic sprinkler head attached. Floyd approached and Walter swung it.
“Look out!” Viola yelled a warning in time for Floyd to duck his head to one side, protecting his eyes as the sprinkler head shattered in pieces against his skull. He barely felt the blow. Locked in a wrestling roll in the grass, he and Walter came to a stop with Floyd on top with his head being squeezed in a headlock, every muscle in his middle-aged body strained.
Lyle, at length, stood over them, having bid farewell to his latest love interest, saying, “Break it up, boys.” Walter released Floyd’s head and Floyd stood up, his head pounding, and turned away, while Lyle stayed with Walter and led him across the yard to his own house.
Viola held the screen door open, shrinking aside as Floyd climbed the steps. He turned his anger on her and growled, “You could have moved out of the doorway.” He saw the tears in her eyes. “You could have moved out of the way,” he repeated. “You didn’t think I was going to take him out the window, did you?”
“It’s not my fault,” Viola cried.
“I thought it’d be best to use the door. I mean, all you had to do was move out of the way.”
Viola dissolved into sobs and ran into the bathroom. Floyd, his adrenalin pumping, addressed Marge, still calmly poised in her chair. She might have been an audience of one in a front row seat as the curtain rose.
“How can anyone not notice a fight going on one foot away?” he asked. “I mean, it baffles me. It’s like she’s sending me these messages, right? ‘Get him out of here, Get him out of here.’ Well that’s fine, I get it. Meanwhile, she camps out in the doorway.”
Marge blew smoke at the ceiling. “Calm down,” she said. “What are you mauling her for?”
Floyd spoke in a tired voice. “She could have been hurt.”
“Don’t let that young man spoil your evening. Life’s too short.”
“Yeah, I know, but did she have to keep on standing right there in the doorway? The only logical way to get him out of the house? What was she looking at? What was out there?”
Viola burst out of the bathroom, fresh tears already streaming down her newly dried cheeks. She cried, “I didn’t know you were right there, all right? If I knew, don’t you think I would have moved? Do you think I kept standing there on purpose just to be in the way? Do you really think I’m that stupid?”
Floyd took a deep breath. His ribs ached. “Of course not,” he said. “How could you have possibly heard us? We were almost two whole feet away.”
“Floyd,” said Marge, “enough, already. It’s over. You two need to calm down and put this whole thing back in perspective. You let this man intrude on your lives. It’s not worth it. Don’t let him ruin what for you, up to now, has been a perfectly good day.”
“It has been a good day,” said Floyd. He turned to Viola. “I’m sorry, all right? Maybe I expect too much. Although it does seem to me that you could have easily moved out of the way before I slammed him into you. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there was no warning.”
“That’s it. There was no warning.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. Are you?”
“I ache all over.”
Viola stepped closer to him, her sobs fading.
Lyle came back inside. “Man,” he said, “What did he do?”
“He just won’t leave until I throw him out. I hate that. It makes me feel sick.”
“You’re heartless,” said Lyle.
“No, he’s my friend,” said Floyd, “but this is my house.”
“He was your friend,” said Viola.
Lyle stood. “I got to go. I’m meeting Cindy at the bar.”
“That’s her name, Cindy?” said Floyd.
“Yeah,” Lyle arched his shoulders in mockery of a strut. “She’s got two kids. That’s not good. I don’t know if I want to bother with her or not.”
“I don’t know. I don’t expect her to be as smart as Jane. But I promised myself that in the future any woman I choose to align myself with has got to have, like, you know, a brain.”
“And she doesn’t?”
“She’s all right,” said Lyle, “I just miss my honey.”
“Well,” said Floyd, “it was fun.”
“Yeah, it was,” said Lyle. He waved from the doorway. “Marge, nice to see you again.”
“Goodnight, Lyle, say hi to Jane for me,” Marge called.
“I don’t know when I’ll see her again.”
“Ah, you’ll see her,” said Marge.
Lyle waved last to Viola. “Bye, girl.”
Quiet descended like darkness on the living room, where so much commotion that day had occurred. Floyd became more conscious of the sharp pain high in his chest when he breathed. He thought it was a pulled muscle, maybe his heart going bad, or a cracked rib.
“Sorry the day turned out like this, Marge,” he said. “Not like one of our usual Sundays. Not much political talk going on.”
“Floyd,” said Marge, “this place is a microcosm of society to me. I touch down here and see your world first hand, then I fly back to my eagle’s nest, where I’m going right now. Good night, children. I’ve had a lovely time.”
“Marge, please, have dinner with us,” Viola offered.
“No, you two have your dinner. Don’t let that young man’s tragedy affect your evening. Go, have a good time. I’ll see you soon, maybe next Sunday.”
She kissed Floyd goodbye, a light peck, and hugged Viola. They waved from the porch as she started her car and watched her back up and turn into the street leading home.
At the Chinese restaurant where they often ate, the events of the day began to settle as they sat in the quiet booth. In each stressed muscle, Floyd felt a pain.
“I’m a hurt puppy,” he said.
The service was swift. They ate in thoughtful silence. Floyd watched Viola. She was not smiling, yet the worst seemed to be over.
“You’re no kid,” said Viola, with the same inflection she might give to the reading of a fortune cookie message.
“What are you trying to say?”
“You can’t expect to go rolling around in the grass like a juvenile and not get hurt.”
She didn’t understand his commitment to Walter. Obviously, but did he? What was the extent of that commitment? Was he to be drawn further into Walter’s world, join him on occasion in the next dimension, simply because he had decided to become his friend and musical compadre? At some point, the line had to be drawn. Floyd had drawn his line. Still, he knew others who had drawn lines with firm intent only to find themselves retreating and drawing new lines for encroaching invaders to disregard.
Even so, as he had told Viola, in a day or two, the fight would be history. They’d play music again as if nothing ever happened. There was too much at stake to consider the incident an end or even an impediment to their friendship.
4. Eagle’s Nest
Her apartment in The Towers was only a few blocks away. Marge parked her little car across from McDonald’s in her allotted space, locked it and walked across the grass to the front door of the building. The electric glass doors slid open the moment her foot touched the pad and closed behind her silently. A gray haired man behind the desk glanced up as she entered, nodded a greeting, and turned his attention back to the show he was watching on a miniature black and white TV.
She crossed the deserted lobby. At seventhirty p.m. on a Sunday, the residents were all probably watching Sixty Minutes. Marge pushed the elevator button, the doors responding providentially. She stepped inside, pushed sixteen. The ride was uneventful.
Her little apartment was warm. She put on water for coffee, opened her sliding glass balcony doors and looked out at the pattern of lights that lit the little town of Shadville Beach. The sun was just down. From her view, the colors of the last rays on the horizon were shades of the smoky blue that was the edge of night.
She tugged on the eagle’s string and the wings flapped slowly, gradually easing to stillness. She made a cup of instant coffee, lit another cigarette, and sat out on her balcony chair, home at last in her eyrie.
All that hubbub at Floyd’s was exhausting. Still, her mind was excited. She often came away from Floyd’s feeling enriched by her contact with the younger crowd. The mind played its
tricks on the body.
An idea kept returning to her, regarding Floyd’s generation. She had a sense of having
glimpsed the remains of the counterculture.
Twenty years ago, they were all young rebels. Now they were workers, wheels in the big cog, rendering to Caesar, surrendering their pounds of flesh to society. Here was the legacy of the generation of individuals who had set out to find themselves in the sixties and the seventies. Here were the remnants, after the eighties, gathered together with largely unchanged values. They still loved the music best. Bohemians, they’d have been called in her day. It was still a better word than any other for what they were.
In her day, she’d run with a crowd of bohemians. Scientists, politicians, society rebels, ex-bootleggers, communists, philosophers; every one of them were drunks, as she was, in those days. In the forties and fifties in Manhattan, she had encountered every stratum of society as a social services administrator. At that time in history, a woman with her background and education could wield a lot of power. She could have stayed in New York where she was involved, committed, getting things done, where she had a family and a great life. She could have ended up anywhere, and did end up in a think tank once, such a brain they thought she had. Instead, she married Frank Ballinger and raised a couple of kids in Florida.
“Oyvey,” she sighed, blowing smoke through the screen. She had no regrets.
She wouldn’t worry about Floyd. He could do worse than Viola, Viola who brought back bread. Marge knew her now, of an ancient lineage. Always a woman was bringing back bread. Tending to the human needs. A jug of wine and thou.
They could both do worse. It might be one of those matches made in Purgatory that thrive on argument. They were seldom dull, but they always seemed to take their toll on one more than the other. Viola might not fare so well in the long term. She’d have to get wise or learn to love a bohemian lifestyle.
Below her, the lights of the town glittered. A chill had invaded the evening air, prickling the skin on her arms and the back of her neck. She stepped inside, sliding the glass doors shut.
I’ll call Rita, she thought.
She dialed the number of her dearest friend. Rita Brown picked up on the third ring. “Hi, Rita,” said Marge, “how are you, old girl? Fine.” She drew on her cigarette, listening. Rita was telling her about the article in the New York Review of Books about Hans Kung.
“Oh, yes,” Marge agreed with animation. “Wasn’t that a fascinating piece!”