The wife and I now have a place in Sugar Tree she feels no need to apologize for twenty-six acres of gentle hills, deer herds, and a low tin-roof veranda gives us quiet raindrop views two miles from the Tennessee River.
We fish for dinner in the late-afternoon shallows, when the crappie, bass, and catfish hunger for what we're selling. We do it out of habit. Used to be flounder, redfish, and speckled trout, maybe the occasional stingray, but that was Pascagoula, before the hurricane.
Nowadays there's rarely a peaceable word between us. Used to be Robin tended the grapevines or lilacs while I grilled, an old transistor radio in the window feeding us the Cardinals game, and maybe they lost, and I took too much home brew enduring it to tune my guitar – "Play it sloppy like I like," she'd tell me, my saving grace. So I strung together haphazard blues chords, the ones I learned years ago, the same ones I never bothered to improve or expand. Perhaps I found a delicate melody, something far off in a minor key — "Sounds like a Willie Nelson," she'd say. But that was Pascagoula. Now she idles away in the dimness, a few candles flickering the books at her feet, her legs thicker than the old days but still long.
Robin teaches freshman comp and lit at the community college, where her mother's the chair of the English department, and sometimes has her colleagues out here – what she's comfortable enough now to call home. She cooks fried okra and stewed succotash, maybe some baked cornbread if she doesn't have a headache or too many papers. The women are perfumed in flower-print skirts and summer blouses, paragons of cosmetic ingenuity, these swollen and sweating elephants gathered under the pretense of discussing something literary. It's not long before their true nature is revealed — gossipmongers each and every — and I make way for the throne-room where I founder in the depths of The St. Louis Professional Baseball Encyclopedia and History. It's my recourse, the last remnant of my childhood. Lately Robin and I argue more than ever, and I'll disappear for a while when we do, spilling those hostile winds by letting somebody like Ripper Collins or Dick Groat do the talking.
Fact is, ever since we came up here things have deteriorated. We recovered precious little to begin with; nearly everything that makes a life was left broken and scattered on a flooded Mississippi Gulf Coast. We left a few hours before the mandatory evacuation, Robin's mother, Charlotte, calling every half hour with weather updates and demands we come north. I waited until Katrina was a Category 5 and the National Guard had been mobilized before I battened down the hatches, but by then Robin was frantic, holding the phone to her ear and waving the Red Cross evac-checklist —"We have to find the extra batteries!"
It was then I surrendered, realizing it was hopeless. So I loaded the Durango with the necessities – jumper cables, clothes, sleeping bags, walkie-talkies, the waterproof containers with our insurance policies, tax records, passports, etc. I laughed at how easily they overreacted, stacking Robin's library in the backseat, all her Shakespeare and Dante, still believing I'd be replacing them on their shelves in a couple days. I silently admonished myself for my lack of courage, stowing my guitar as an afterthought.
Now we live seven miles from her parents, the Doctors Evans, and her older sister, Sutton, and they stop by unannounced at inappropriate times, usually with Sutton's three little girls, who consider me, Uncle Charley, a living toy. Though it's nearly insufferable, I adopt the gentleman son-in-law's air while Junior, her daddy, the M.D., sits there like some sugar-cured crustacean while the women sip cocktails in the garden, the girls teasing me through the window. Junior's a baseball fan, casual about it in a way reserved for the ears of the judges, politicians, and attorneys he consorts with at the Country Club, and I'm speechless most of the time, grinding my teeth through the inconsequence and absurdity of it.
But that's not really the half of it: Sometimes I walk into a room and forget where I am or why I'm here. Lately I only eat foods I unwrap myself. A ripe onion smell trails me from room to room as I drift about these new moorings like a refugee in a pair of elastic-waist Bermuda shorts and bathrobe. I wear a cotton-twill yacht cap perched atop a wiry tangle of grizzled curls jumping out of my skull. In Pascagoula it was nothing to meander about like this, but here it's a symptom of disease.
For example: Not long ago, Charlotte, the most domineering mother-in-law in Decatur County, cornered me in the back of the house, in the sanctity of the throne-room, my shorts around my ankles and preferred reading across my lap. She didn't bother knocking, just came in while I'm in the middle of it and started stacking towels in the closet.
"Are you taking a shower today?" she asked.
"Excuse me," I said, obviously embarrassed. It was the first time I'd ever been queried while atop the pot.
Then the old crab set forth: "Consider this preemptive," she said. "Precautionary. Think of it as an intervention of sorts, but you, Charley, have an odor of neglect and a look of despair. Granted, some fallout is expected when tragedies occur, some time to grieve and recover, but Charley, you still look like it was yesterday."
I was speechless. What could I say?
"We're having dinner guests tonight, Charley — Junior's grilling so you won't have to exert, don't worry. This may be a foolish question: Do you own a collared shirt that still fits?"
A feeble "May I have some privacy, please" was all I could muster.
Later, she said, "Depression is a symptom of survivor guilt."
We were on the veranda. I showered and shaved for the fancypants guests they wanted to impress, two of Robin's colleagues and some local aristocracy, another husband-wife doctor tandem who complained about the noise the cement truck made when they had their pool installed. They spoke of things so remote — a new faculty addition, a philandering preacher in Hollow Rock, somebody's fibromyalgia — that I kept drifting in and out, bemused by slivers of conversation slipping in occasionally, reminding me I was still conscious. I stabbed the catfish with my fork, wishing I were listening to the game, when I realized it had grown very still. All of their faces were round, expectant, waiting on a punchline. Charlotte's eyes mocked me. The crone's way of letting me know I was it.
"Pardon?" I managed.
"I said, 'Depression is a symptom of survivor guilt.'"
"Are you depressed, Charley?" Sutton asked.
"Charley's not depressed. You're not depressed, are you, Charley?" Robin wore a look of disgust, as if she recognized me as the fat nuisance I had become. It provoked something fundamental, so I didn't bother with propriety.
"Well, you're the damn English professor," I snapped. "You tell me."
They stared like I was flashing them from the altar in church. But what I said next shocked even myself.
"This fish smells like you pulled it out of a dead whore's uterus, June Bug. What'd you grill with? Petrified feces?"
There was a gasp. Eating utensils cracked ceramic.
"Mama, what's pet — "
"Hush," Sutton interrupted.
"That's right," I said. "Hush. That's the best advice I've heard in a long time."
The wife was seething. "You ruin everything, Charley," she hissed.
I sucked my teeth and considered the remark. Finding it apropos, I stood up, donned my yacht cap and saluted. Then I about-faced and shoved off for the throne-room to see what Creepy Crespi and the rest of the '42 Cardinals had to say about it.
Charlotte started bringing Powell, the faculty addition, around not long after. They came in one day through the garden, Charlotte and this hotshot Vanderbilt Ph.D. I spied them from the throne-room window, this tall jackleg with a philosopher's mustache and a soldierly posture escorting Charlotte through the irises and mimosas. He had a tweed jacket slung over his shoulder and kept dabbing his neck with a handkerchief. He looked faded around the edges, almost smudged, but there was an athlete's confidence in the way he moved, a natural swagger, not unlike the ballplayers I grew up admiring. I dog-eared the page I was reading, a passage about a deadball-era pitcher named Silver King, and walked out on the veranda where the three of them were hunched over a book like battlefield officers studying a map. Charlotte's face lit up with a rush of raw enthusiasm.
"And here's our resident euphemism!" she said, smiling like it was Easter. "Come over here, Charley, there's someone I'd like to introduce." She put her hand on the small of the professor's back, ushering him forward. "May I present Dr. Frank Powell, our newest associate professor."
"Pleasure to meet you," he said, extending his hand, then adding, "Formally."
"I'm Robin's husband," I said.
"I know," he smiled. Then I noticed something curious about him up close, something off-putting and vulgar I couldn't immediately identify.
"May I?" he said, indicating my book with a tilt of his chin.
"I'm afraid it's a little light," I said.
"What is this book you keep your nose buried in anyway, Charley?" Charlotte said, as if she didn't know.
"Baseball, Mama," Robin said. "You know that."
"Baseball? Do you care for sports, Dr. Powell?"
He swept his fingers across the faded title. "I can appreciate some subtleties of the game," he said. Then he opened it at the dog-ear and began reading: "King was one of the hardest throwers in baseball in the 1880s and early 1890s. 'My pitching stock consisted mainly in speed,' King said. 'I threw some curves, but I never knew about such things as a spitball, a fadeaway, shine ball and all those tricks. You simply had to be a Colossus or you couldn't stand the gaff.'"
He allowed the final word to linger, looking at me in a weird way. "Gaff,"he snorted, smiling like an anarchist with a gas can. "Gaff!" Then he hooked the inside of his cheek with his finger and gave a slight yank, rolling his eyes like a fish out of water.
Inside the phone was ringing.
"Silver King," Powell said, surveying the page. "Isn't that a tarpon?"
"Charley played ball in school," Robin said.
"The coach needed a snitch," I said. "Listen, have we met before?"
"I don't think so."
"Where do you think you remember him from, Charley?" Charlotte asked.
"He has one of those faces. Maybe I dreamt it."
"Are you still having interrupted nights?"
"Charley, would you mind answering the phone?" Robin asked.
"No problem," I said. "May I?"
"No problem," Powell said, returning my book.
It was Sutton. She wanted to speak to Charlotte. I could hear the girls arguing in the background. Outside the three of them shared a laugh like co-conspirators in a faculty coup. I caught a whiff of something dead, then realized it was my armpit. I put the phone on the table, unwrapped a Hot Pocket, and turned on the TV. A celebrity I recognized but couldn't name filled the screen like a forlorn angel clinging desperately to hope. "All you have to be is willing to sacrifice," she pleaded. Cut to images of homes flooded to their rooftops, a shirtless boy in a canoe using a shovel for a paddle, a sign that read We Shoot Looters, the rescue helicopter with a thumbs-up from the crew chief cradling a kitten.
Junior fell at the Country Club, not directly related to the 90-degree heat or the half-dozen whiskey sours, but to the hitch in his backswing he could never correct. Or so I'm told. Either way, leaving Robin's sister on the phone for twenty minutes while she was en route to the hospital was, I'll admit, the worst possible encore to my dinner-party performance. Robin fumed for a few days, then replaced her anger with a calm I hadn't seen since our newlywed days. She started avoiding me after that, spending more time than I thought necessary away from home – on campus, at the hospital, etc. She started working out again, sometimes coming home just to shower and change before spending the night in her old bed at her parents'. It got sweaty out. The mosquitoes were bad. I fished alone, spending my evenings locked in the throne-room with the radio on the sink. I sipped whiskey straight from the bottle, enduring the longest losing streak of the season for the Cardinals. Then, one rare night she was home, I stumbled my way out to play the donkey and apologize. She was outside, preparing for class.
"How can you stand it out here with all
the mosquitoes?" I asked.
"They don't bother me like they do you," she said.
"Big night tomorrow?"
"Class is here tomorrow. Don't tell me you forgot."
"Did you tell me that?"
"Oh, God. You did forget. Yes, I told you. Last Wednesday I came home and said, 'Charley, I'm having lit class out here next week because Tina Hollis was killed and the kids feel uncomfortable having class in that room,' but never mind what I say when it comes to you, that book, and the bathroom. You haven't even heard a word I've said, have you?"
"Like hell," she said.
"Tina Hollis. The girl that was hit by the eighteen-wheeler in Camden. Driving without her lights on. I remember. I don't block out everything, you know."
"You try. Sometimes I wonder if you even know where you are."
"See that. That's where you're wrong. You're wrong and don't even know it."
"Charley, you haven't taken your nose out of that book in months. You hide in the bathroom whenever we have guests. We have satellite but you listen to your games on the radio. You don't shower. You don't eat."
"You eat out of the microwave."
"I trust Hot Pockets."
"You trust them to make you fat?"
"Oh, I see."
"No, you don't. You're here, but you're not. You spend all your time reading a book you've had since you were twelve. Are you drunk?"
"You are drunk. Why are you drunk, Charley?"
"Look, if class needs to meet here that's fine. I just didn't remember you telling me. That's all. Don't be like that."
"I wouldn't have to be if you listened, and now you're drinking again. You're not going to be drunk tomorrow night, are you?"
"No. Look. Listen. I'll put some of that grouper your daddy left out to thaw. How many kids are left?"
"How about some chips? Salsa?"
"It's Hamlet , Charley. They don't care about grouper or chips and salsa. It's BYOB if they're twenty-one with a driver, and we're watching the Ethan Hawke version in the living room. I suggest you go to a movie, or a baseball game, maybe an AA meeting. Anywhere but here."
"Why are you reading Hamlet ? You start the semester with that."
"It's summer, Charley. I end with Shakespeare in the summer. Besides, Frank –"
"Dr. Powell? Mama brought him over the day Daddy fell?"
"Really? What's that douchetard know about it?"
"Why must you do that? What's he ever done to you?"
"Nothing I know about."
"That you know about?"
"He's a barnacle with some agenda, some angle."
"What's the matter with you? Are you hearing yourself? This paranoia you've cultivated is really, really wearing thin."
"I've been trying to tell you!"
"Oh, God. That's it. I've got too many papers to get through, and you're giving me a headache. Why don't you go back to the bathroom and play out whatever conspiracy you're creating."
"Charlotte the Harlot's trying to depose me, goddamn it! She's giving me the hook! I'm being relieved!"
"You're paranoid! Dr. Powell is a colleague!"
"She's trying to get rid of me, Robin!"
"Charley, listen to me. I know it's been difficult. I know. But you have to try, Charley. You have to try to be happy."
"There hasn't been anything to be happy about since we came up here!"
"Then leave, Charley! Get out of here! Go back to whatever you think is left! I can't have you here like this! Go! I won't stand any more of this! Leave!"
So I did. I headed south. I wanted to find a Habitat for Humanity or the Peace Corps, maybe some volunteer agency still active in the relief effort. I admit it was ridiculous. I figured we'd doled out enough abuse both ways to last each other the rest of our lives, so I left a note on the kitchen table, lies I made real because I couldn't admit, even then, how right Charlotte was about the depression, how right Robin was about the paranoia. I thought I might find answers there, something I could bring back like a hero to mend my marriage. I made it no farther than this side of Saltillo, where the accident happened.
I could see this bright orange spot like a meteor closing in a half-mile away. Brake lights like eyes winked in the darkness ahead. Later, a trucker would tell me the Expedition had clipped a tractor-trailer, spinning the SUV violently out of control. It cut a quarter-mile swath of grass from the median as the driver fought the inevitable, then became an eighty-mile-an-hour missile that exploded in the passing lane. I was the fourth to arrive, just minutes after. There were rigs slumbering on the shoulder already, their drivers mingling in silhouette. I approached one of them because I didn't know what else to do.
"It's in God's hands now," he said.
It was thirty minutes before the first state trooper arrived, and we sat in that formation, front-row seats to who knew how many bodies burning inside. The couple in the MPV beside me — a redhead behind the wheel and her boyfriend who kept sipping a half-pint — played "Highway to Hell" over and over. Another thirty minutes until the emergency crew arrived. Then their battery died.
"Give us a jump, Mister?" he said.
And though I wanted no part of these folks I felt obligated. So I got the Katrina supplies I never bothered unpacking — the flashlight, the unopened Energizers, the jumper cables. They said they were Wade and Lara. They said they were eloping. Then at one point, as we stood over the engine, waiting for the charge, he said, "The vicissitudes of human fortune," and shook his head like a graveside priest. "The devil don't care one bit the color of skin."
I still don't know how to respond to something like that, so I didn't.
"Yeah, well. Thanks for the jump, Mister," he said.
"Charley," I said. "My name's Charley Tufaro."
"Well alright, Charley Tufaro."
"No problem," I said.
"If you like pecan pie there's a place down near Biggersville has the best in Mississippi. You look like you could use a slice."
"Thanks," I waved. "Be careful."
I eased back onto the road. Wade was right; I could use some pie, maybe some fresh coffee. So, outside Biggersville, I pulled into a small cinderblock place with a row of windows and a porch, some picnic tables near the sweet gum trees.
"Is it too late for some pecan pie?" I asked the waitress, this round woman with a face like Christmas.
"We're closing in a few minutes, but I still got some coffee left. You say pecan?"
It was delightful, just as he said. Feeling revived, I took my ticket to the register where there was a pickle jar that said Your Donations Help Katrina Victims. Maybe fifteen dollars in change and singles were inside, but it was the images of the devastation wrapped around it like a label that captured my attention — aerial shots of flooded neighborhoods, a woman wiping her tears with a towel, her baby in a diaper on her hip. There was an elderly woman overwhelmed by an orange life-preserver, the weary rescue worker greasy in a hardhat over her shoulder, her savior. There was a house with green trim yanked and twisted off its foundation, the words of its owner spray-painted between the blown-out windows:
Hurricane Katrina turned me be homeless
Stir my life mix up as bean soy sauce
Nights and nights freezing hungry lonely
Who I can ask a little love for warm my broken heart
— Tim Bui
"How much for the poem?" I asked.
"In the picture." I showed her what I meant, trying her patience.
"Sir, we got five families come up here after Katrina, some of the most pitiful folks you ever saw, too. They have nothing left, most of them. The church can only do so much and this donation jar helps."
She was right. I was humbled, embarrassed, humiliated. I realized I had gone about things the wrong way. Things suddenly came into sharp focus, and I was seized with a panic, a familiar paranoia tapping my shoulder, and of all things I thought of Silver King.
Back in Sugar Tree before dawn, I lit a candle so as not to disturb her sleep. Her face was unpolluted, her breathing a slow natural rhythm that I wanted to sink into. Outside, the crickets and cicadas chirred. Two deer stood in the sassafras, the bright moon lending them something uncanny. I took my time approaching her because she was as perfect as ever, a smile faint on her lips. It's hard not to cry when facing a miracle, so I did. "We are but God's own victims," I whispered, trying to exorcise the coward inside, the one who ignored his neighbors and hightailed to his wife's country. You think it would bind us in some way beyond marriage, narrowly escaping something as dreadful and tremendous as Katrina.
I thought of how she asked me once to tell her one thing about her childhood. She had a list of questions she felt I should know the answers to. The only thing I could think to say was, "You played tennis in school." She stirred beneath the sheet, perhaps remembering it in a dream. When I woke her, I gave her Tim Bui's poem.
"Oh, Charley," she said. "I don't know what to say."
"It's what I've been trying to say for so long but can't."
"You're a ministering angel, Charley."
"Most days I feel like I'm running with nails in my feet. Hey. Do you want to go fishing with me tomorrow?"
"No," she said. "I'm tired of fishing."
Later, she asked me to play for her, even though she knew I hadn't touched my guitar in months.
"Play it sloppy – play it like I like."
Then a sound came from this room unlike any this house has heard since we took possession – the sort of joyous relief that comes from enduring. I changed with impulse, following a narrow melody I learned long ago, something conjured up from the dust of the Delta, older than the Delta. I slipped in discordant things, notes having no business being there. It was all a little off-balance, unstable, those combinations I never thought to put together in such a way. Somewhere in-between she said, "You just gave me chills," and my fingers felt like they'd been dipped in pools of mercury. Somehow that dark wandering melody captured something haunting and deliberate, some part of me that knew sorrow too well to allow it any quarter. It neither followed nor led, but gained momentum, every propulsive layer of it, driving to some apotheosis, some ultimate crescendo too big to handle, something like a laugh swelling from this strange room, a sweet counterpoint releasing all the tension of withstanding the gaff.