My wife is a half-dressed woman. She drinks white wine occasionally. I tell her I love her but it never counts for toast. I say, hey-ma, I love you, and she says I’d be a mom if you weren't sterile. I’d take them, the kids, over her, if I could.
My children said no and my heart said go. I spent a lot of time in the middle, where plains expand with fecund abandon. And the body sinks at a certain point. Land creases like stretch marks. The stretch marks are, maybe, rolling sprinklers, I don’t know. The sinking point is about where you are when you realize you're never really in the middle. I mean centered. And the plains never seem to settle down, a roiling mass, dead or alive. Feel her kick. So in spite of all that time I found myself running downstream, to the sea. The unified body. I was twenty-four. I stayed the course and wound up West, in San Diego. Pampas grass and the Navy. Stepping out of the plane, I was greeted by this pinup doll. “Chantry, we’ve missed you.” “What. I’m no chantry.” “Chantry, you toy.” We then spent two months together in a bungalow on a secluded stretch of coast, boxed in by beach and sea and to our back the cliffs, always threatening to avalanche our hovel. I began to think and feel naturally. We ate spam and tuna and cried laughing. Then one night she was gone. I was bare limbed and sprier than usual. I shed no tears. There had always been something impending. The game had been rigged from the start. Someone was after me and I had to face the music.
I went to the office I knew I could visit. Milton Berkshaw was waiting there. I’d admired the palms on the boulevards. The office was wiry and damp. I could not shake the feeling I was in a tomb. But on the second floor of this unassuming strip mall Milton staged his act.
“Chantry, I want you on my team.” “I'm no chantry.” “No?” “No.” “Whatever you are I want you back on my team.” “Be wise.” “Unfailingly."
"Note that I’m being unusually permissive of this phony act you play.”
The office was weird; I definitely felt entombed. They had laid me down on the bedsheets and turned down the thermostat to keep me cool. Out there on the limits of the continent. It unnerved me, the whole thing. Where I was. Who was Chantry.
“You’ve got the wrong guy,” I said. “That’s not me.”
“Come back here tomorrow for a set- up. I’ll get you on the payroll yadda yadda. Then we start tomorrow. Go out now and buy yourself a nice suit, a summer suit, light color, loosish. People here are relaxed but scornful so you can’t be too done up. Still, it always pays to keep up the well-dressed facade. Save the receipt for your taxes, a write- up. Then get some rest, hit the jar, ex-extra. Come in tomorrow morning for this set-up.”
“Okay. Sounds all right.” Skeptically I told him it sounded alright. I remembered a line from a movie, and also from a book: “Let’s don’t.” So feminine a way to say “let’s not.” It made no less sense but it sounded romantic, a romantic plea. To not. I remembered that pinup doll and the beach and the spam. Milton was looking at me querulously. “Up and atom,” he said. “Sounds alright. Bye bye.” “Wait,” Berkshaw said, and stood up with his arm outstretched to me. “Listen. Past is past. Tomorrow is the question. The answer is today.” He let down his arm and sighed. Deflated. His rank breath. “I know you, Chantry. That’s why you’re here today. Remember that.” “Right.”
I left the office, down the stairs, admiring the succulents in the dirt of the curb. I used to always like to pick the leaves off those plants and squeeze them, like fruits but without the sustenance. With the appearance of without. Fertility. Man above, in those days I was young and unafraid. Out on the sidewalk I made my way to the Men’s Warehouse I knew I’d find.
“Chantry.” “That’s my name.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Put it down.”
I was in my tailored suit at the place I’d been sent by Milton. This is tomorrow. The place I’d been sent was a laundromat on Sunset and Vine or wherever. I was talking to the man at the desk, a stout guy, as his wife behind him took up the rolling rack, full of suits.
“Okay, but I’m skeptical about that name.” “It doesn’t concern you.” My hair was slicked back and I hadn’t shaved for a while. I felt rough like sandpaper, grizzled and salty. I felt I must look tough to this man who wears thimbles out of fear of the prick. “Just probably you want pound laundry done?”
“Yes. Definitely.” “Beau,” the man’s wife said. “Suit rack’s stuck.” “I’ll get to it, Ma,” he yelled back, then smiled at me.
I’d been given a bag of clothes and told to take it to this launder and get it done and then to tell the launder, “You’re in hot water,” in sort of a suggestive way as I backed out. Milton said the laundry contained the real message. Every shirt and pant had been carefully chosen for this assignment. I believed it.
“Just that. Just pound laundry.” He took the bag into the back and I watched him go. Then he came back and said, “It weighs only eight pounds.” “I pay now?” “No.” “Sure,” I said, backing toward the door. He turned away, as if I weren’t captivating enough. “Hey,” I called, “you’re in hot water.” He turned and I scurried away.
In thought-pain, she says, “We’re beating a dead horse,” in our damp bed. “I got the hoss and she got the saddle.” “Is that another shit song you heard.” “I quote when nervous.” “Spare me.” “If I had my druthers you’d be in the delivery room already.” “You know how lucky you are I haven’t found a more ~fulsome~ man?” “Fulsome. I can walk off at any moment, literally.” Standing, I came to the TV and watched apt commercials for fertilizer with smiling lawn protagonists.
Art by Se Choi
“Chantry,” says Milton. “What’d he say?” “I didn’t stick around to find out.” “You did what?” “Didn’t stick around.” I was huddled in a sticky pay phone. “Chantry,” Milton sighed. “Do you want this work or not?"
"What work is it?” “Good, decent work.” “Everyone’s looking for that.” “And so here you are, tossing away what everyone else wants. Where’s the sense?”
“Take it easy.” “I’m your boss, cut that provincial slang out.”
“Quietude.” “I’m on my last nerve. We’re not communicating, Chantry.” “It’s frustrating, this dialogue.” “You gave him the laundry at least? Sure I heard you. Okay, you gave it. He’ll probably start poring over it now. Hidden messages are difficult to write, did you know that? He’s got the easiest part of this charade, deciphering, even though he's the guy on the hook.” “How do you figure?” He began to talk but my mind wandered. What use.
“Milton?” “Yeah, are you following?” “Let me call you back.” “You’re kidding.” I hung up and left the booth and started walking. I stopped in a McDonald’s and got a hamburger, and flirted with the cashier about childhood and paddies. Then I went to a liquor store.
“So, sweetness. Do you ever travel?”
“I’m familiar with travel.”
At the bar in the back of a lighting store. On the front of the lighting store was written “bulbs” with lit bulbs. The bar was sort of a speakeasy where the failing light man sold local drunks drinks for moderate prices. He was polishing a bulb and listening to us talk, me and this woman. “Where you been.” I was having trouble speaking.
“The middle west, the east.” “You sound like a generic.”
“You sound like a southern.”
“Tell me something, kid.”
“OK, babe.” “What’s your favorite movie?”
I thought back to the beach, sprawled in the love agony. I found myself there very often. I considered this bar woman’s face: marked, rough, eyes half-open. I don’t like to be cruel, but it’s easiest to be honest that way. Not that I’d describe her to her face.
Instead I described the beach to myself: spent, the love touch, awash with sin and a desire only to flow, move closer on the sand and be somewhere where the hard sand wouldn’t hinder the fluid melting touch. Was it myself I felt on that coast?
We hadn’t watched any movies. Before my exit, I had. A truth: I was a paralegal for a lawyer in Abilene, Kansas; that’s Eisenhower’s birthplace. I never took work home with me. At night I’d watch gangster movies, organized crime. In this bungalow in the heart of the planes, always ready to be swept away, I watched the bulldozed and ancient urban underworld. Jimmy Cagney and Peter Lorre. Among others whose names escape me. After dark I rarely exited the darkness of black and white, feeling something like the word apoplectic sounds. It could be pictured, a wife at the den door, looking mournfully at her spellbound husband.
“I like From Here to Eternity.” “Never saw that one.” “I forget who is in it.” “That’s OK, sweetheart.” She put a hand on my leg and swung her head toward me. The bartender, Joe Bulb, gazed at us. “My favorite is 50 First Dates. I saw it first with my son.” She fell back. It was time to shove off. “Hit me one more time, Joe,” I said, and slid from beneath her, avoiding her breath. “No, bud, wait,” she said, and leaned back on her stool into the wall behind her. I looked at Lou. “How’d you find it here, Chantry?” he asked.
“How’d you know my name?”
My wife is the type to keep me well-dressed and at the same time forsake her appearance. I might as well have worn top hat and tails. Love is a two- way street. But sometimes there’s traffic on one side. Lovers should be like repairmen or the trucks that fill in potholes.
We lay on the lawn near the playground where families strode on the spring weekend, drearily picking at popcorn. She says, “I know what we can do.”
“What,” I say. “Resort to adoption.” “I don’t think that’s really resorting. If anything, it’s a pure, unadulterated good.” I sneeze, for the pollen. “Well. You know my feelings.” “Sometimes. If I knew them all, what could I do but right.” “It’s not ignorance of feelings that’s holding us back. We’re quite on the same page,” she tells me. I sing. “Willy he tells me that doers and thinkers say moving’s the da da da da da da dee.”
“What’s that?” “Song.” Allergies watering eyes.
“Which?” “I saw him live when he was still alive.”
"You’re not going to tell me?” “I forget the name,” I say dumbly.
My wife, she sighs, and I take her hand and kiss it and roll over and she says, “Let’s go home, the pollen’s really fucking me.” She grins then and rolls into my side. “We aren’t going to be able to pull this off forever.”
And it was time to move things along. It was near sunrise and I had woken up in a grass patch not a hundred yards from that wet house. My face was burnt with sunshine. There was a bald, fat man lying next to me, eyes open, wheezing, hands clasped on his refrigerator stomach, legs crossed.
“Who are you?” “Good morning, Chantry.” “We met last night?” “Don’t you know me?” “I thought I had left the bar alone.”
“What bar?” “The bulb spot.”
“Nonexistent.” “No?” “Return to Milton.” “What’s the use.” “Milton Berkshaw, I mean.”
“I don’t feel good, man.”
“Nobody does.” “No, but.” “It’s been days since you accounted for yourself. How’s the wife.” “Nonexistent.” “Chantry,” he implored. “Back home.” “I know a lot about you.” “Do you?” “You’re obstinate. That's, that’s pigheaded.” He turned girlishly on his side, arm propping up head.
“You’re a drinking man. You’re sly and a cheater. You ought to be getting a message soon, but I don’t for the life of me know why.” “In my laundry, I bet.” “Have a nip,” he said and offered me a nip of banana schnapps. I took the thing but only put it in my pocket.
He laughed. “You’d be proner to dryness if you were a fish. You almost are, and almost rotten, but blessed be you’re already caught, salted, sold, and bought. Not to say almost consumed. I should go, though, Chantry. My message is about said.” He shifted, barely. “Do you feel at ease?” “Sometimes.” “Good, good. You know, we all care about you. You may return, sins forgiven.” “Am I so far off?” “You’re derelict, Chantry, if you pricked your navel with a pin it’d implode and smut would spill out. This is not only evident to me, but to your darling in Abilene too. Too long, too long in the wasteland. I only want to know how you seduced that beach woman, on the seaside.” I hugged my knees like a castigated boy-child. “I didn’t. I’m very confused.” “We all are, with you. What the hell your schtick is.” He stood up, groaning. “Milton, though, he says he knows what to do with you. You know you’re lucky, uhh. That for whatever reason you’ve got something, to watch over you? Like, we’re not even overbearing. We could be. But instead I just wake up here next to you, to give you a brief message. But we’re drawing you back in.” “The message is that you’re drawing me back in.” I leaned back on the grass and felt ants picking at my nerve endings. “No. Chantry, that’s not at all the message. The message is, right now, that you’ll be given another message, probably today.” “Thank you.” “OK, bye.” He waddled off and I rubbed my chin, the pointed hairs, slowly. I couldn’t get past the beach, where we’d floundered in a stream falling from the cliff, the cool, clear water that came from a spring in a green pasture. She drank that stream water one morning, and by the evening started retching. Incidentally, that’s the same night she left the beach and I left too. That wasn’t my wife, although it might as well have been, spiritually.
“Chantry,” an employee at the gas station said to me. “What.” “Call this number.” “Where.” He gave me a slip of paper with an almost illegible phone number written on it, and 75 cents.
“I can’t read this number.” “I’ve done my job. Payphone around back by the garbage.” Aesthetically I needed a glass bottle of Coke and a cigarette to make this phone call. My suit jacket was long gone. So was the tie. I wondered if this was the message. Then I asked for a pack of Chesterfields and took a Coke from the fridge. It was only cans they had, and no Chesterfields, which nearly set me off. So outside with a Winston hanging off the lip, Coke shoved in the ratty shirt pocket, I dialed what I thought the number was, and it rang. “Hello?” a woman’s voice said. Shit, I thought. But stayed on the line. “Hello?” “Hi.” “Chantry?” “Yes.” “So you’ve been found.” “Seems so.” I thought about how cool it was to have been so busy for the last few weeks. So much time in the sun. “I’m not angry.” “Why should you be. Seems I’m me and you’re stuck.” “Well,” she said. “What.” “We’re we.” “You been reading poetry or something,” I said. I violently sipped the Coke even with the cigarette in my mouth, and spilt almost the whole thing down my sweaty shirt. The butt got brown too. “I’ve just been thinking.” “I’ve been thinking too. And I think I’ve come to certain conclusions.” “Such as?” “I don’t want to talk over the phone.” “Then come back.” “I don’t know if I can do that. Mocking region.”
“I’ll come there. You can’t be released from this auspice.” “What, you been reading poetry?” “Chantry,” she said. “You know what I mean.”
“But do you know what I mean? I can’t go back to you, dear, without a fight. Let me duke it out. I’ve got an appointment with Milton this afternoon where I’m thinking things will really start making sense again. You know I slept on a beach for two months? What was it then, why was I left alone. Where were you? Seems I can find a way out somehow, babe, and it’s not you I’m leaving, it’s this. Meet me at El Contrario beach. I’ll be there if you are. That make sense?”
“Dramatic. Do you feel relaxed?” “Can’t you see I’m tranquil? The way you put me on, the way you use your words,” I growled. She sighed. “I love it,” I said. “I guess I’ll see you there, kind of soon.” “Make it so, babe.” I felt hardboiled. “Bye.” I hung up the phone and I put out the cigarette on the booth pole, flicked the butt, and walked off. Promise. It felt like walking around a corner into hellfire.
Then a voice called to me in the supermarket. “Chantry.” I was buying kitchen staple items. Milton Berkshaw had set me up in a single room apartment. He said, this is where you should live. This place you’ll be comfortable at least until the inevitable happens. I thought: Till the inevitable transpires, he meant.
“Chantry.” A week since the phone call, longer since the beach, longer since everything else. The interim had been spent numbly following, my constitution having given out. “What.”
"I'm sorry I ran off."
“I deserve it.” We were doing the movie thing where we didn’t look at each other, in the refrigerator aisle. Now it doesn’t pay to be mysterious. She was the lady from the beach. “I have something important to say.” “Spit it out.” “I’m pregnant.” “No kidding.” I took a cup of yogurt from the shelf. “I thought I was barren.” “That’s an archaic term.” “But you know what I meant by it.” “Yes.” “I had a wife who was vaguely threatening to leave because I couldn’t procreate effectively.”
“I guess the chemistry was off.” “So I left her. Evidently,” we met eyes briefly, “the chemistry was off.” “Chantry,” a new, male voice said, “if that’s even your name.” The laundromat man was coming toward us from the other direction. “I finally get your laundry.” “Where?” I said. “It said that your girl Mary is with child! Congratulations, Chantry.” “It said that? Who is Mary?” “I’m Mary,” Mary said. “Do you not know my name?”
“Of course I do, Mary.” I put back the yogurt. “Wait.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t wait. I have to go,” said the laundry man. “I have a lot of pressing things to catch up on. Congratulations, you two.” The refrigerator whirr drove him off. We kept on shopping. The products did not catch my attention at all, and she kept sighing. “What are we going to do?” “I came here for staples. I need flour, eggs, and milk. Honey, salt, and pepper.” I started off. “I don’t know what to say.” We kept shopping and left the store together. Then went home to the same apartment, my apartment.
We lay on the blanket under stars that span. “The end all,” I thought, and stroked her palm. It felt that a seabird might shit on us at any second. We were martyrs at trial before the hate-courts. “Chantry,” she said. “Take us home.” They led her to the firing squad in spite of her being tight with baby. A divinely begotten clump. She had a slight smile and red eyes. “How do I know you, really?” Round cheeks, round lips. We had clouds in our eyes. She wet my shoulders. “Chantry?” “I’m not sure. No more briefings?”
“Not really.” “Messages?” “No.” She shifted onto my arm. “Let’s take a train back home.”