Here’s a long autobiographical story by Patrick about his time in Missouri. I found two versions, one from 2011 and another from 2013. I spent a couple of hours editing the latter (mostly typos and formatting) and am posting the result here.
The airlines wouldn’t let us fly, so Mari and I returned to the States from Holland on the S.S. Rotterdam. Mari was in a stupor induced by Thorazine, little red capsules that she had to pop two or three times a day. It seemed pretty crazy to me that she could travel by ocean liner, but not airliner. Seven days, if I remember correctly, with nothing but sea in all directions. She could fall or jump. On a plane, I’m pretty sure I could have kept her in her seat for a few hours, and anyway what harm could she have done?
A friend met us at the dock in New York and took us to his apartment in Freeport until we figured out how to get to Missouri. I had sold my car before expatriating, or so I thought, two years before.
No sooner had we lugged our bags into his living room than Fred ducked into the bathroom to shower. He came out with a towel wrapped around his waist. Mari crossed the room, a glaze in her eye, reached under the towel and grabbed him with such force he cried out. It took some maneuvering on my part to get him freed. I told her to take a bath and she would feel better.
“She came at me like a zombie,” Fred said, still shaken. He advised me to get her checked before heading home to her folks.
“I got her safely across the Atlantic. The Interstate should be no problem.” Fred shrugged, locked himself in his bedroom, and came out wearing penny loafers, lightweight slacks, and a blue sweatshirt. We were off to the Blue Venice for a meal.
Before arriving there to get my ricotti, however, Mari leapt from Fred’s Pontiac at a traffic light and darted between the idling cars. I was out of breath by the time I had put her with me in the back seat. No struggle this time. As soon as I touched her she relaxed and allowed me to lead her back. Meanwhile the light had gone green and back to red again. Fred persuaded me to take her to a local mental hospital. She signed herself in so she could sign herself out, was taken to the showers and there attacked an attendant, knocking her to the tile floor.
A couple of days later she had been sufficiently sedated that the doctors thought it safe for the next part of the journey. I had signed up through AAA Driveaway for a car going to Kansas City.
The trip was straight through, and without incident. Mari slept most of the way as I floated down the Interstate in somebody else’s Cadillac. Very swiftly we left civilization behind, if you count New York and Washington as examples of civilization, and entered into the heartland of the country.
Green Pennsylvanian mountains and farms, red-soiled Indiana, the rolling hills of Cole Younger’s Missouri. The men in the small towns were more and more hard-bitten types who would rather spit tobacco juice at your feet than tell you which direction it was to Pleasant Hill.
Perhaps I exaggerate, dreading that moment when we would meet Mari’s family. I would not be surprised to see them with rifles and shotguns standing by the mailbox at the end of the driveway.
They were all there on the slanting wood porch. Pop and Norman were both grinning in the porch swing; neither of them had put in their dentures. Alice and Ramona had hoisted themselves up onto the railing and watched Mari descend from the Caddy. Their eyes were gleaming with curiosity and maybe there was gloating as well. Mom was there looking distracted as usual, broad in the gingham apron, fingers worrying alternately on the border lace and at her unkempt hair. Brother-in-law, a runt whose name I could not remember, glared at the car even as we were shaking hands.
“Not yours, I guess,” he said. He did not let go of my hand. Then he was squeezing, and I realized it was a test of strength. Nobody won, because Norman hit me on the shoulder and guffawed when I staggered free and nearly fell.
“Do we call you Meadows or Kelly this time?” the brother-in-law asked.
“You planning on staying here, or do you go to visit your family in Kansas?” added Norman. I saw his epiglottis hopping as he laughed.
They were both referring to our first meeting, when Mari had asked me to lie about who I was. We had been living together for over a year, and I was supposedly somebody else. Never mind. I can tell it another time.
After they had roughed me up enough, lots of back-slapping, not friendly, and Mari had hugged her sisters in a bunch and her father by himself, Mom opened the screen door.
“Well, I guess we ought to eat,” she said.
Mari had stopped her dosage of pills. She thought seeing her family would be the best medicine.
We were all of us sitting around the Sunday dinner table—her three sisters, her brother and brother-in-law, a couple of nephews, her mother and father, and me. The old man had just a couple of teeth in front, but he mowed his way across an ear of corn with no trouble. Norman, her brother in bib overalls, was a little slow and his voice reminded me of the ventriloquist’s dummy, Elmer Snurd. Robin, the little sharp-nosed, narrow-eyed nephew was always up to some mischief, though less so when he was eating. At the moment, he was surreptitiously putting salt into his grandfather’s coffee, till his mother Robin slapped his wrist.
Mari sat opposite me, next to her father. We were talking about our growing vegetables in what used to be the kitchen garden, back when the family actually lived in this house. Now it would be just Mari and me, in the home place where they all used to live together. When their kids left home to get married, Mr. and Mrs. had moved back out to the 40 acres where her mother had grown up outside of Pleasant Hill.
Her mother was a vague woman who never looked you in the eye, her gaze somewhere off one side or another of your head. If you spoke to her, she would freeze listening with her head cocked to one side. When she reanimated, she responded with a rambling story that bore no apparent relation to the subject at hand. It seemed obvious to me that Mari’s tendency to mental aberration was inherited. One sister was a nympho, a poor, wonderful creature; another sister was delving not so deeply into occult matters, and prepared for the arrival of intelligent aliens who were descendants of the vanished Atlanteans; the third sister was more or less normal, but critical and sharp-tongued; her brother a jovial hick who read the Encyclopedia Britannica, his lifetime project.
Talking about plowing and planting, her father grinned and except me everybody groaned. They saw it coming, a joke he had obviously repeated many times.
“That’s what they always said about my daughters…best little hoers in town.”
Mari had been demurely picking at the peas on her plate, occasionally taking a bite of cornbread, but now she turned her head and gave her father the zombie look. He was still laughing when she put down her fork, clasped her hands around his scrawny neck and squeezed.
At first everybody thought it was supposed to be funny, but then the old man had his hands up trying to get hers loose. She wouldn’t let go and pretty soon his face was turning red; he was going to fall off the chair, his feet kicking under the table. Suddenly we were all out of our seats trying to separate them. His face had turned purple by the time we got him free, and he stood there gasping and rubbing at his throat while Mari just stood up calmly as though nothing had happened. Then she reached around behind her to yank the telephone from the wall. She dropped the phone onto the floor and pissed on it.
That same afternoon, the family doctor came to the house, took one look at Mari, and reckoned that she should go into the asylum at Nevada, about fifty miles south on Highway 71.
“Mari, if you sign these papers, then when you think you’re ready to come home, they’ll let you. You understand?” She gave him a blank look. “You know you need help, don’t you Mari?”
Cautiously, she nodded agreement. She seemed to think this might be a trick question.
“You have to get some professional help. You can sign yourself in, or I will have to sign you in. If I sign you in, then other doctors have the right to keep you there as long as they think fit. Won’t it be better to know it’s up to you to decide when you’re well enough to come home?”
Her father had already let it be known that he thought psychiatry was a crock of shit, in his words, but even he was sitting patiently at the table with the rest of us, watching her pick up the pen, look around at our faces, then put it down, over and over again. Finally something seemed to click and she snatched the ballpoint up once more, and hurriedly, as though trying to get it done before a contradicting voice inside her put a stop to it, scribbled her signature at the bottom of the document and slapped the pen down. We all breathed a sigh of relief. We all signed as witnesses, and the doctor stood up. “I’ll call Nevada. Better if they pick her up here at home. It’s a pretty piece to drive with her in a nervous condition.”
I forget who told me they were hiring up at Cook Chemical in Lee’s Summit. It was probably Nancy, sister to my poor wife Mari, at the time living in the nuthouse down near Columbia.
There were two or three of us who took the exam for the job, the hardest part of which, apart from having the patience to sit there and be tested for a job you weren’t even sure you wanted, was putting little wooden puzzles together and fitting different pegs into their respective holes. They took us on a little tour afterwards where they showed us the various stages of production, in reverse order. We had all seen Real Kill bottles before, but I doubt any one of us had thought there was so much to the spray part of it.
John, a bull of a man with the neck like a tree trunk, was foreman on the swing shift where the opening was. He led us down the assembly line, kidding the ladies who received the various parts and tucked them together, some with a volatile chemical, others by snapping them together. There was the plunger, the seal, the tube, the white part where you put your finger and push. Each part was made from a different kind of plastic. There was polypropylene, nylon, lexan, among others. The plastic came in cardboard barrels of tiny beads, each plastic with its own color, so you couldn’t very well mix them up.
We moved along the various injection machines where the parts were made. Again, the workers were mostly ladies, most of them dumpy, with hair put up in permanent curls. They stood on thick rubber mats in their tennis shoes and Reebocks, stirrup slacks housing ample thighs and hips; some were downright fat, making me wonder how those little feet could hold them up for an eight-hour shift. Most wore sweaters in the shop, and a couple of younger girls held their hair back with ribbons tied around a ponytail.
They worked at ten ejection mold machines set in two rows, one on each side of the rectangular bay. The machines were uniformly dark green, bolted to the floor at intervals leaving space between them for maintenance. An aisle ran down each wall behind the machines, where the barrels of plastic beads stood on rollers, transparent scoops resting on the top of each barrel.
“The night shift girls are generally more interesting,” John remarked. We walked down the middle of the room, women on both sides of us opening their doors, reaching in between the dies for the extruded plastic, closing the doors to bring the dies back together, then shaking the parts from the runners into a barrel, before finally tossing the runners into another barrel of material to be recycled through the machines.
“Notice the dies come together up to about two inches, where they make a pause. Then they slowly close down. You could crack a die, if you don’t set that just right. The injection pump pushes plastic into the mold, where it cools down till it hardens – 3 seconds, 7, 10, depending on the material.”
He led me over to a machine at the end. “Cora here is making lids for battery cases. Once in a while we get a government contract for battery cases. Something to do with jet fighters. How you doin’, Cora?”
“Hey, John. What you doing here in the daytime?”
“Just came to say hello to my favorite girl, Cora.” He turned back to me. “Quality control is at its toughest right here,” John said, picking up a handful of the translucent amber objects. He handed me one. It was still quite hot to the touch. I saw why the workers wore gloves. The black tubes pushing cold water through the dies didn’t bring the temperature down more than was necessary to solidify the plastic.
John stuck his thick finger against the hole in the battery top. “Right here’s the worst part. If you get a ragged release from the runner, you might get a sharp edge here that could puncture the tube taking the charge out of the battery. At the height these planes fly, a battery might squirt all its juice right out into the surrounding equipment. Might eat through a wire (John said “waar”), and that’s all she wrote. We got to meet a theoretical 100% perfection on these. You’ll learn what can get by the inspectors.” He turned the object over. “A little tit here often pops up, but it won’t do any harm, so I usually pass ‘em, and set the temperature a hair hotter so it might let go on the rest of the run. Anyhow, I talked it over with the big cheese in Andrews, and he said it don’t have much importance.”
While he talked, I was checking out Cora. She had dark, almost black straight hair cut at shoulder length. Her neck was a smooth curve of white down to her shoulders, which she held level and back. She did not stoop like some of the other ladies up and down the room. Her eyebrows were thick and almost as level as her shoulders. Startling green eyes were outlined in black, but not too thickly put on. She wore a rusty orange sweater which held modestly a pair of breasts in perfect proportion, to my mind, for her height and weight, which I estimated at maybe 125 pounds, and five feet seven inches. She wore flat leather loafers, and her slacks were black wool. When she glanced up at me, I felt her examine my face, and during a brief contact with my eyes she seemed to have a word with my self-image.
John gave her a friendly pat on her lower back, as close to her butt as it was possible to get without being accused of something. I registered a surprise shot of the kind of adrenalin jealousy shoots through your blood. Her eyes stopped just short of looking into mine again, and just hovered there for the split second it took for me to realize she was denying any sort of connection to John. I could almost hear her whisper, he is my boss, but that’s all.
The job was trainee for assistant foreman on the four-to-eight shift. The assistant foreman filled the hoppers as necessary, kept the boilers and cooling system at the optimum according to the dials and the manufacturer’s instructions for each of the materials. You could not let the machines run too hot, or the product came out like taffy. When that happened, you had to clean the dies because the plastic hardened on the face of the dies and they could not come together. It was a mean, nasty job to clean the dies, which made it necessary to monitor the machines like a hawk, especially when you have just changed jobs – dies, material and all.
Generally, the girls had free time when you changed a setup, so the quicker she could get back to her position, the better the management liked it. The night foreman was John, and he hated to have a die change on his shift. That meant reduced production, which meant less chance of a bonus for top production each month. Every shift tried to foist a die-change off onto the next shift.
We were having coffee in the canteen. I had just finished my lunch at eight, and had a few minutes to go before I was supposed to relieve Cora for her lunch break. John had taken notice of my interest in her, and tried to work it out so that I couldn’t talk to her except at the machine, when we were both too busy to talk much.
“Everybody’s lazy and in cahoots on the day shift. If the management would let me run it for a month, I’d get ’em set straight. I’m pretty damn sick of changing their dies for them. They’ll let it idle for an hour or more, and still keep ahead of me on production if it’s a change from polypropylene to nylon. They know I’ll lose more on the setup, got it down to the minute.
Cora came into the room then. She walked across the vinyl tile in red shoes. There was no doubt about it. She was not only the best-looking girl in the shop, but she moved herself best. My appreciation for her jumped up a notch.
“Billy says number three’s overheating, and he asked me to come get you,” she said to John. “He’s took over my machine for me. Said to eat early, while you look at it.”
“Shit, why don’t he fix it hisself,” John said as he stubbed out his Lucky Strike.
“He just told me to get you,” she said, setting her pretty mouth primly. She sat down at the next table over from ours and took a sandwich out of a paper bag. John loped out of the room. He moved like a fullback about to crash into the line, from standstill to full tilt in a second. I was happy to have ten minutes alone with Cora.
“You glad to be back on the night shift?” I asked her. Her sandwich was on white bread with the crust cut off.
“I don’t mind. The pay’s better.” She opened the pint thermos, and the smell of instant coffee was released into the room.
“That doesn’t look like it could hold you till quitting time,” I told her.
“I always eat a big breakfast with my daughter before I send her off to school. She don’t like it when I miss breakfast.” She bit into the corner of the sandwich with perfect white teeth, holding it in her hand while chewing and pouring some coffee into the lid of the thermos. The coffee was black. “If I ate a lot now I couldn’t hardly enjoy breakfast.
“Who takes care of her?”
She looked at me like “What business is that of yours” and drank some coffee before setting the cup down on a paper towel spread out on the table.
“I live with my mother,” she answered in a minute, tapping at her mouth with an embossed paper napkin pulled from the brown paper bag. “Since my separation, that is.”
I took this to mean something and found myself fantasizing about gently biting her ear lobe. It looked like it would have the consistency of a little pink clam, but probably sweeter.
“How long you been separated?” I said. My coffee was cold now, but I drank some anyway.
“Just about three months. I don’t know if I’ll apply for a divorce. I might change my mind after a while.”
She chewed another small bite of her sandwich. I could see now that it was creamed cheese and cucumber.
“You don’t like the crust?” I asked her. I was feeling a little stupid, but I want to hear her say something again. She had a softness to her voice that I found pleasing.
She looked at me again, green eyes full of life. “You married?”
“My wife’s been in the bin at Columbia for over four months. They say she might get out in a couple more.”
“That’s sad,” she said, crumpling her napkin now that she had swallowed the last of her sandwich.
“And lonely,” I put in.
That night I tried to get to the parking lot before she left, but I was held up with John, who was still trying to clean out the machine that had overheated. When I got outside I saw her head out onto the highway in her red convertible. On impulse I tried to follow her up the road, but she lost me somewhere outside of Lee’s Summit, and I headed on back to Pleasant Hill.
I was having my hair cut in Lee’s Summit before going to work. I had decided that tonight I would make a move on either Cora or the new girl who was coming on pretty strong. The new girl’s name was Shirley, and while she could not compare to Cora for pretty and smart, she wasn’t all that bad. It was Friday night, and it had been a long, hungry time since Mari went into the hospital. I still loved her, and I’m sure she would have understood. In fact, she was pushing me to have a fling with her sister, no doubt thinking it would keep me pretty close to home, but Nancy had recently taken up with a twerp psychology teacher from the university named Dan something-or-another, from New York. Besides, Nancy was as thin as a rail, and had breasts the size of Sun Kist raisins.
“Cole Younger used to sit right where you’re sitting and let me shave him,” the barber said. “I would hold the straight razor right up under his chin and ask him if he wasn’t afraid that someone would kill him one day.” He wiped lather off onto his finger. “He had long since started leaving his Colt at home.”
Behind me a man cleared his throat. In the mirror I could see him, dressed in a cowboy hat and a Levi jacket with metal buttons. “Hell, he’d already shot everybody he might have a disagreement with. How old was he, seventy-five?”
“Closer to eighty, if I remember right. Maybe fifteen, eighteen years ago? How long’s he been dead now?”
“Damned if I know,” replied the man. “Could go up to the cemetery and look, if you really want to know.”
“Don’t bother. It’ll come to me sooner or later. You want some tonic on your hair?” he asked me.
I declined, and asked him just to comb it with water. He got the part right the first time, an admirable feat. Nine times out of ten they would get it wrong, I could never figure out why.
“People still carry guns around here?” I asked the man in the mirror, ducking my head down to get the back of my neck shaved.
“Many do, and most don’t,” the barber answered for him, cranking the chair for me to get up. He already had the paper collar crushed in his fingers and the apron hanging over his arm.
The other man took off his hat and got set to climb into the chair. “And them that don’t, they have one at home, for when they need it.”
“When you have free time, you can play around with this,” John told me at the end of the first two week period. I had gotten through the training period without getting fired. The job was not too difficult to figure. I had spent a couple of hours looking through the manuals that cover the basics of trouble-shooting the machines. On paper it looked simple. In reality, it was almost as simple, except for skinned knuckles and burnt skin on the arms. Some of the more drastic problems were very unlikely to come up. Rarely could one of them get hot enough to blow up, though in theory it could happen. You get that much nylon boiling, pressure could become a scary thing. Cooling the stuff down was tough. It had to be kept fluid for molding, but it had to cool in the dies fast enough to let the next shot in and add some cold plastic to the brew. A small miscalculation would put strain on the cover plate of the boiler. If it blew, you didn’t want to be anywhere near that plate.
But John claimed that in the four years he had been chief foreman of the shift, he had only had it happen twice—and both times, he avoided catastrophe with plenty of time to spare.
We stood in the wire cage in the middle of the bay. It was here that minor repairs could be made. Arc welding appeared to be a skill that might be required, and John Abbot was showing me how to learn.
I had finally been able to remember that his name was Abbot, but only after having dinner with him, his wife, his brother, sister-in-law, and all their kids. We had corn on the cob, pork chops with green beans and squash, washed down with buttermilk, cider, or ‘sweet milk.’
His brother was a professional office type, but missed working with his hands. Recently he had taken to spending his Sundays rummaging through junkyards to find rusty metal pieces to use in making rather modernistic sculpture.
Once John had shown me how to draw a bead where the two pieces of metal met to be welded, I spent all of my free time holding a mask in front of my face and attaching the most diverse objects to each other. I learned how to weld a soft metal to a harder one, how to avoid bubbles in the join, how to spot weld with the fewest and strongest points.
Mostly it was in the girls’ interest to keep the men on the floor informed of how things were going with their job. There was a spec sheet on a clipboard beside each machine where they could check if they were approaching the end of a run, gauges they could read without leaving their positions, and they could see if the material was in need of renewing, or full barrels to be pulled away and replaced with empties. Consequently, when I wasn’t turning scrap iron into sentries or birds whose bodies were made of old windshield wipers, I could chat up the girls or explore the manufacturers’ manuals or catalogs. I even invented a lock to aid in the lifting of the molds, made of a quarter of a ton of steel, and which had a tendency to separate when hauled up on a tackle to be moved back into the tool and die shop.
Every time a die was changed, there was maintenance to be done while the die was out of use. It was when John was in tool and die that I had the most responsibility, and the most leeway. This particular night, when I sported my new haircut and a touch of what I hoped was masculine shaving lotion, a die that had been dropped was being overhauled, and I had the shift pretty much to myself. Once in a while John would stick his nose in, just to keep in touch, a quick glance at all the gauges, an adjustment here and one there, just to show he was aware of more than I was. I learned most in these quick inspections, because he was doing fine-tuning stuff that he never got to when doing my training.
Cora was wearing a fire-engine red sweater this night with a white rounded collar showing outside. For a change she was wearing a skirt, an ankle length plaid that showed her country roots. She wore wine-colored cowgirl boots with a stitched filigree design in white.
“Going out juking tonight?” I asked her on my first pass to replenish the beads in her hopper.
“Listen to him talk. Can’t you see I’m at work?” She was on the propylene machine tonight, and her machine would run itself pretty much, not much excuse for chatting her up. On the other hand, Shirley was around behind Cora now, and I didn’t have to feel Cora watching me two-time her with another woman even before we had gotten together.
“Yeah, but Fridays the parties begin down at Maggie’s at midnight.” I was telling the truth. Every night Maggie’s Pool Hall in Lee’s Summit was jumping with guys from the four-to-eight or from over at the fairground, if something was going on there, which was a pretty good part of the time as long as the weather held out. But on Friday night, it was really hopping, since it was payday for somebody every Friday. Lots of women loose from their men were there too, looking to soak up some of those paychecks. Hell, their own husbands were probably off somewhere spending his hard-earned cash on some other woman just like her; why shouldn’t they get some of their own wherever they could find it?
I was working on Shirley a little all during the shift, as sort of a back-up in case Cora didn’t work out. But when Cora was relieved for her ten o’clock break, I followed her out into the hall to proposition her to a drink again. She was so exasperated she said okay, for one drink only. “But not at Maggie’s, too many people know me there.” She named a roadhouse out toward Independence.
By the end of the shift, Shirley was available for sure, but I ducked out on her and headed out toward Independence. I was tickled to keep her in my mind’s eye as I drove down the highway past all the joints popping at the seams with folks from roundabout the area. All the dudes went to Kansas City, but the honest-to-god country types found their meccas along the four-lane concrete highway, their temples the shacks covered with asbestos shingles, pink and green neon signs blinking names like Tiptoe Inn and Muzzleloader Tavern.
The Top Hat sign was a woman strutting like a majorette in mesh stockings, a black mini outfit, and a perky smile under her top hat. The parking lot was an unpaved lot packed with pickup trucks and Cadillacs. I went in and sat at the bar, ordering a draft beer. A band in the far corner of the room played country music. The fiddler was a tough looking cowboy who played a lot of double stops and also sang. He stepped up to the microphone just after I came in and whined a while about flowers on the mother’s grave, and then he moaned about how guilty he felt, chasing after a girl from the drive-in while his good woman stayed at home taking care of the sick kids. The chorus of the song explained that he just couldn’t help himself.
I waited better than an hour, but Cora never showed.
“I just don’t know why you’re so blessed set on chasing me,” Cora told me when I said what I had to on Monday. “Can’t you see I’m not interested? Why me, anyway, whether I’m interested or not?”
I couldn’t tell her what I had just figured out Sunday night after my weekend visit to the hospital. Mari and Cora resembled each other a whole lot when you looked close. Something about the eyebrows and cheekbones. Their eyes were a different color altogether, and there was no similarity in the way they were built. But there was something there, and come to think of it, Shirley had aspects of her face similar to Mari’s and Cora’s. You couldn’t say they looked alike, but in the overlays a police artist might use in a composite portrait, one of those overlays would fit all three of them.
One night I followed her up toward Independence to where she turned off onto a dirt road that led off into the country.
About a quarter of a mile up the hollow, she stopped her convertible, yanked the handbrake on, and got out. She left her door open and walked toward me. I opened the door to get out and take her in my arms. I figured that’s what was about to happen.
I was wrong. She kept the car door between us, putting her hand on my shoulder to keep me from rising from the seat.
“Listen, the next fork is the only place to turn around before the house, and I don’t want Ma to see this car or you. You understand? I don’t want anything to happen between me and you, and that’s that. Can’t you get it through your head?”
I was beginning to believe her.
The moon was up over her head, blue in the mist that hung above the pines. The setting couldn’t have been more romantic. I smelled like Brut and my hair had a wave in front that would have made Elvis envious.
“Come on, Cora. Give it a try. One kiss and then we’ll see. What say?”
Her face in the glow of the dash lights was the color of a ripening peach, but her mouth was set in a determined fine line. I felt her fingers release their downward pressure on my shoulder, and I slowly stood up. Reaching over the open door, I put my hand on her nape and gently but firmly pulled her toward me. I had to lean over the cold metal, but our lips met.
I expected hers to be moist and softening under my mouth, slowly parting to let my tongue appreciate hers in its warm lair. This is not what happened. My lips descended onto skin as taut as a forehead, one horizontal wrinkle where her mouth should be. I opened my eyes and saw her staring coldly into mine from two inches away. That lovely nose did not nuzzle and breathe on my cheek, but gave a snort of disgust that sent a blast of air across my ear opening.
We remained thus for half a minute, her mouth tight as a clam, her stare deflating all possibility of tumescence. I pulled away, slid the back of my fingers up the back of her neck, and tried again. Same deal.
“Well.” My hand dropped to her shoulder. “Well.”
Without a word, she returned to her car, got in and went up the dirt track. She stopped where I would have to turn, waited until I was heading the other direction, and then in the rear view mirror I watched her tail lights disappear into the pines.
The next Friday, I met Shirley a mile or so down toward Harrisonville. I parked my VW and climbed into the Pontiac with her. She drove off into the farm country, parked off the asphalt and threw herself across my lap on her back. Her arms wrapped around my neck and she pulled us together, already breathing heavily as if approaching orgasm. I opened the door on my side and without breaking the kiss scooped her up and slid us out off the seat. I set her up on the front fender and she wrapped her legs around my back. I pulled off her slacks and pants and she was reaching for my fly. It was going to be awkward.
“Let’s go over the fence,” I told her, tossing her clothes into the front seat. I held a strand of barbed wire up so she could pass under. She found a mossy patch under a tree and lay down. “Come on!” she said, pulling me down to her. Curious cattle gathered around us under the tree, chuffing at grass and clearing their nostrils. Five minutes later we were back in the car headed the other way. I felt as though I had been cheated.
“What if there had been a bull?” Shirley asked, squeezing my thigh. “Besides, my husband’ll be up wondering.”
A few nights later, Shirley’s husband sat beside me in the bar. He was wearing a leisure suit and looking very down.
“Look, she’s the one who started it,” I told him. “Not me. I can’t help it if she sets her sights on me, can I?”
He swung around on the bar stool and looked at me earnestly. “How about you just ignore her from here on out?”
I looked at him. I could see desperation in his eyes, but not the threat of bodily harm. Just to check, I asked him: “Are you carrying a pistol?” He shook his head. “A knife?” He shook his head again, spreading his hands.
“I’m just asking you to leave her alone, that’s all. No cowboy stuff.”
Relieved, I asked Bud the bartender for another round of beer and a QuickBurger from the microwave. “You want a sandwich?” He shook his head. You want to talk about your wife, your life?”
“Hey,” I told him, “you should romance her a little once in a while. Take her out to dinner. Surprise her by making love to her out in a field.”
“You mean like you did, when the cows scared you off?” He said, hurt in his eyes. What a wimp.
“She told you that, that I was scared off? Is that how she got grass stains on her blouse? Come on, give me a break. She needs something exciting to happen once in a while, she’s bored sick between you two, or between her and somebody else. You can’t tell me she’s working at Cook’s because you need an extra forty-five bucks a week.”
He looked at me like he wanted to throw a punch, and I was ready to duck, but just then Bud shoved the sandwich in front of me, wrapped in hot tinfoil, and drew our two beers. I picked mine up and tapped it against his glass.
“She’s all yours, friend. My advice is to take better care of her. Next time it might be someone who takes her seriously.”
He lifted the mug and drank half the beer off. The other half he poured over my shoes while I watched. Then he got up from the stool and walked out the door. Maybe it was to show me how tough he really was.
Betty, also known as Betty Bang, leaned over the pool table running the balls in numerical order, alone. We played a couple of games for drinks, with her winning them both.
“How about we play for something a little more interesting,” she asked. She slipped her hand up and down on the cue stick and wet her lips. This time she lost, and twenty minutes later we were parked out on a dirt road. I removed the back seat of my VW and put it on the roof of the car.
A little later a patrol car flooded us with a spotlight. Betty was at that moment sitting on me, her face lighted up at the window.
“Hell, it’s only Betty “the cop said to his partner. “Sorry, Betty.” Then they were gone.
“Next time let’s go to the Holiday Inn,” I suggested.
“I’d rather have the money to feed my kid,” Betty answered. I took the hint and gave her a ten dollar bill.
When we met at the Holiday Inn next payday, she brought me a brochure. I looked at it while she was in the bathroom, leafing through pages of dirty photographs.
“What’s this, a catalog?” I asked Betty when she came out stripped to the skin and tumbled onto the bed.
“Kind of. What would you like me to do?”
“My grandaddy was a missionary and I’ve always favored that position,” I said, tossing the brochure into the corner. “But I’m willing to let you have a free hand.”
“Why don’t we just start there and see where we get to,” Betty told me, and grabbed me with both hands to pull me down into her.
As a consolation prize, Betty was pretty good. She offered uncomplicated and passionate sex. So what if she was a little too plump for me. She loved what she did, and we didn’t sleep until daybreak.
It was a strenuous evening, and I left the ladies in the shop alone for a few days. John noticed this, and made a comment or two, like he was trying to fish out if I had scored with Cora.
“Own up,” he said. “She puts out, don’t she? She acts like Miss Purity, but I’ll bet she really lets go when you get down to it.”
“Ask somebody else. I haven’t got a clue, though I wish to hell I did.”
He still didn’t believe me, and made up to her all the time, seeing that I was staying away. Her face still struck a chord in my belly, but the fact is that one kiss had served to cool me off where she was concerned.
One Thursday night, I was shifting the barrels of Lexan out front for a job we would have to set up soon. Behind me a woman name Glenda was opening and closing the door to her machine. She wore headphones and had a rhythm going, even knocking off the parts in time with a beat audible only to her.
Of a sudden the dies behind came together with a different sound from the usual, sort of a thunk instead of a clank, and I turned to see Glenda holding up her arm. There was no hand attached.
“Look what this thing’s done…” she started to say, and keeled over.
The next girl up the line screamed and put her hands to her face. Other girls up the line turned from their work to see what the matter was, and then John was running from the cage of the machine shop.
“Call an ambulance!” he yelled at me, and took off his belt to tie it around the stump now starting to pump blood. “Then get on back here and clean out the hopper of this machine.”
Ten minutes later, Glenda was gone with ambulance. I had emptied the hopper of the nylon where Glenda was working, and John was running out what was already melted. The temperature gauge was way over the limit, but the plastic was thinning out and would soon be clear.
I started emptying other machines up the line, starting with the woman who passed out and was stretching out in the canteen. I was hoping the others would hold on until we could shut everything down. I opened and closed the dies as fast as they would take it, wondering why they didn’t have a system to simply drain the plastic straight out for emergencies like this. I glanced down the line where John stood up on a step ladder trying to loosen the bolts from the pressure plate. At that moment the plate let go, a green square of steel that struck John in the neck and toppled him from the ladder.
The man was strong as an ox. He stood up, one hand clutching his throat, and pulled all the wires on the machine. When I reached him, in a hoarse voice he ordered me to get on back and shut all the machines down, nylon first. For the next thirty minutes or so every soul in the shop worked like the devil to bring the machines to a stop.
By the time the general manager and other officials of the company had arrived, only a couple were still on, and the OSHA people – somebody from tool and die had called them – were inspecting the machine before anybody could tamper with it.
They tried everything to get the dies to come together before the door was shut, but there was no way.
“Glenda had to’ve been double-jointed,” John whispered. He had ice in a towel wrapped around his neck. The skin was barely broken, but he could hardly speak now, and the swelling under his ear was impressive. “Ain’t no way she could’ve closed that door on her hand otherwise.” He watched as the engineers tried to trick the electric switch, met when the door was a fraction of an inch from shut.
As John finally agreed to get himself on down to the hospital to be checked out, and asked me to drive him. “Shit,” he said when we were in the car. “We’ll be cleaning her fingers out of that die with toothpicks for a week.”
Ten days later I quit the job, partly because of the accident, and partly because I had come to feel I was losing stature as a person.
Mari had been in the mental hospital almost six months, and I had been at Cook’s for four of those. Before she got sick and tried to strangle her father at the dinner table, we had always counted ourselves as special people, a cut above the average. After all, hadn’t we been to college? Spent a couple of years in Europe? Wasn’t she a painter? Hadn’t I worked as a musician, and a teacher?
What was I doing in Lee’s Summit, playing pool with guys from the carnival, drinking in roadhouses with the rednecks? While it is true that all things are more or less equal, when you get down to it, nevertheless there is a certain aesthetic approach to life which favors other activities. I applied for a teaching job in Peculiar and got it.
The weekend that Mari was released from the hospital, it was November and looked like rain. We took a drive into the mountains toward Arkansas before heading back north to Pleasant Hill and her family. I thought it might be good for her to see some neutral landscape before stepping back into the atmosphere I felt had brought her down in the first place.
Certainly her father had been little help. When the doctor and I had managed to persuade Mari to sign herself into the hospital, her father later dragged me out by the barn where Elmo, his other son-in-law, was waiting.
“Psychiatrists is a crock of shit,” the old man repeated, waving the cross piece from an old wagon tree in my direction. “You just leave both my daughters alone and they’ll do just fine. We been thinking you ought to just move right on back wherever you come from.”
Nonetheless, I had stayed on, living in the old family house in town, with an occasional visit from Mari’s sister when things weren’t working out with Dan. I had gotten on with Cook Chemical, and now with the school board.
Now Mari and I stood on the edge of a deep ravine and looked down the forested hillsides toward the white mist flowing in and out of the valleys, following the riverbed. You couldn’t see the water, except where there was a break in the mist. The trees had passed their fall glory and covered the ranges off to the south in dull brown and darker colors, occasional evergreens standing out under the cliffs.
She was in my arms, leaning her head back against my shoulder. She wore her own clothes now, and did not look so pitiful as she had in the hospital gown. She seemed rather tentative somehow, as though she might just spin off into another universe at any moment, like she had before. I turned her around and looked into her brown eyes. They were no longer glazed and distant, and I could see a little of her in there, wounded but healing. Like the mist covering the river, her self was a bit ragged, but once you got a glimpse of it, you could see she would be able to resume the winding course of her life. The rough rapids were behind her, and though there might be more rapids in the future, she had practice now with white water, and maybe she could skitter between the rocks next time.
I hesitated to break the silence, hoping she would establish a new direction for us with her own words. We watched a hawk or eagle soar out over the chasm and spiral down and out of sight.
“It’s only beauty, isn’t it?” she said, squeezing my hands tight to her belly.
“That’s all there is that’s worth it, isn’t it so?” she said.
I didn’t have anything to say to that, though I thought she was right, if there was a way to put it to use.
Down below, the mist broke and you could see the girder bridge crossing over the silver river.
“Wish I had some watercolors,” she said.
It was time to go home.
On the car radio Scruggs was playing bluegrass banjo. You have to take beauty where you can find it, which, when you come right down to, it is just about everywhere.