Crush: Four Stories
Dooley the stepdad beeped three times at the sign that welcomed his car and family to Florence. Dan ducked low in his seat, mortified, and stayed in that position until Dooley pulled into Grandma Bunnys circular driveway. Hugs ensued. Bunnys boyfriend, Red Boston, slapped Dans back and it stung. He was an ex-Marine and still in decent shape despite all the beers and Winston cigarettes.
After breakfastcornbread, eggs, and translucent baconDan and Dooley followed Grandma Bunny outside to her garden. The air back there was soggy; sweat beads pinged Dans back and shoulders, but Bunny refused to sweat. Dan watched his grandmother toss manure pellets on her rose beds while she yakked about the metallic taste in her mouth from the eggs that Red had scrambled for her.
I know he put cheese in them, she said. Im allergic. I get hives all over. If he loves me, why does he want to kill me?
Bunny, Dooley said. He looked tired and overdressed in a white dress shirt over perfectly creased gray slacks. How about another nice cold beer?
Bunny mostly drank in the morning, and only baby bottles of Miller. She ignored Dooley, but then Red Boston appeared on the back porch.
Sounds good, Dooley, my friend!
Red Boston wore a floppy fishing cap. When he yanked it off to swat at a horsefly, his hair poured down, tall hair kept in place with assorted gels and Bunnys hairspray. Bunny wore a wig, Marilyn Monroe blonde. Her real hair had turned brittle before falling off in chunks like bleached icicles. Every year for Christmas, she sent pictures of herself from years ago. In these pictures she modeled one-piece bathing suits, evening gowns, and cowgirl regalia from the time shed almost married Martin Boggs, country music legend and all-around rascal. That was the year, according to Bunnys revisionist legend of her own life story, when she worked at the Playboy Club in Atlanta, and changed her name from Eunice Stallard to Bunny Knight.
I used to have a little colored man work for me, said Bunny. He had a magic touch with my roses.
I dont think they call them colored anymore, said Red.
Fine, ne-groes. Bunny walked back to the house, and returned with a full bag of garbagecoffee grounds, newspaper, beer bottles, and lots of cans. She walked over to the eight-foot-high slatted fence that separated her house from her neighbors. They were at war. Bunny had tried to explain the war to Dan, over breakfast, but it still befuddled his brain. Every morning, for the past three years, Bunny and her neighbors took turns throwing their respective bags of garbage into each others yard. Bunny couldnt remember what set off the fight, precisely, beyond the unrequited crush her neighbor, Charles Wertz, carried around for Bunnybut it didnt matter anymore. The garbage war was, by now, part of the day, like coffee or beer. Every morning, precisely at eleven, the bags flew and then exploded on impact, and then Bunny and her unseen neighbor had to pick the scattered trash off the ground and place it into their own garbage cans and start again tomorrow. It never endedit was like Vietnam.
Last week they threw away a dead crow, Red told Dooley. It whapped the ground like a wet Sunday paper.
Theyre ugly people, said Bunny, but it takes all kinds, I suppose. She heaved the bag over the fence.
Red clapped his hands and stomped his good foot.
Youre crazy, baby, he said, beaming. Crazy!
Red drank a little, too. Hed fought in Korea and now he was the head foreman at the third-largest construction company in South Carolina. His fingers were fat and gnarled and whenever he shook Dans hand, and he shook it a lot, Dan felt tiny and fluttery, like a sparrow in a Cadillac.
Rose sat on the riverbank with her legs crossed beneath her while Pete sang his newest, terrible, songs. It was getting cold, and they were calling for snow. Pete played guitar, just like over half the boys she knew. It was, of course, an acoustic guitar with a tinny sound. Pete plucked and strummed and sang with his eyes shut.
In 1976, every teenager in Wilton had three records: Tapestry, Sweet Baby James, and The Captain and Me by the Doobie Brothers. Rose loved music, but she hated soft rock, all that twang and sincerity. She had an electric guitar, a Danelectro Sears Silvertone, and it was a piece of shit, but she spent most of her life in her room, writing songs about birds, clocks, and isolation. Her songs were too weird to share, two chords, bad rhymes or no rhymes at all.
Pete wrote love songs, all for Rose. He was unskilled, but prolific. Hed write a song and then right away play it for Rose over the phone. It made her want to dive into a snow bank, or live underwater. Sometimes Pete accused her of not taking his music seriously, and he was right, she didnt, but she wanted to.
I wrote this for you last night, Pete said now, stubbing out his cigarette, rubbing his crewcut head, tuning the D string, and nodding when it sounded right. Rose smiled, the way she smiled in school when teachers tried to be funny.
Love is a mountain
Love is a dream
A restless reckless feeling
Love is a dream
A dream of us together
Making sweet love
Sweet love with my sweet Rose
On a riverbank
Song over, Pete placed his guitar back into the case. It did not escape Roses attention that he had brought her here, to an actual riverbank overlooking Frye River, to sing this particular wretched song.
That was really good, Pete, Rose said, standing up. But Im still not going all the way with you. A few snowflakes, the eager ones, flitted about. Rose kissed Pete on the forehead. She was taller than him. She was taller than almost everyone in school. Six feet exactly, with long, skinny feet to match, and a soft belly that she tried not to obsess over.
Pete was moping again.
Hey, Pete, Rose said. I like the way you rhymed dream with dream.
Im more about the music, Pete said, brightening. When I write, Im not thinking words. Im thinking syllables.
Oh, Rose said. I can see that, absolutely, now that youve told me.
Alice took it personally: Roses refusal to hate her original father, Stuart. They were standing in the kitchen, Rose still in her prom dress.
Remember his ukulele? Rose asked.
Yes, Alice said, shuddering. God, yes.
Thats the stuff I remember, Rose said. Dad, drunk Dad, outside, standing on the picnic table, playing his ukulele for all of us.
That memory, Alice said, is unworthy of your cherishing.
But I do, Rose said, spooning the last of her mothers peach pie into her mouth. I cherish. Her mother stood up to rinse the dishes, and Rose closed her eyes and remembered the moon, the neighbors fat dog howling, and the bungled chords careening from her fathers ukulele. She had tried to write a song about that night. She could never get the music to match the mood of the moment, but she kept trying.
Winter meandered into spring, flowers poked up, and all over Wilton people started sneezing and shedding their clothes. Justin drove Alices car to the A&P. He was a free man now, and in lieu of an actual profession, he was trying to be useful, picking up groceries, driving Rose and Dan to school, and taking two drama classesImprov 101 and Acting 111at the community college. Dooley thought he was crazy for taking acting classes; Alice thought it made perfect sense.
Justin drove into town partly to get groceries but mainly to see a woman: Melinda Harrison. She managed the bakery. She sliced bread and stuffed chocolate tarts and decorated cakes with squiggles, footballs, and ballerinas. Melinda was four years older than Justin, with a baby boy at home, an apartment, and an unemployed boyfriend named Walter on her couch. For the past two weeks, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Justin had picked Melinda up and theyd drive to an overlook on the Blue Ridge Mountains, where they parked under a low starry skyalthough tonight it was overcast and slate-colored, but it didnt really matter. It was a good time, a perfect time, for Justin at least, drinking a tall boy Budweiser, and fooling around. It beat the hell out of jail and bologna sandwiches on mushy white bread.
You should work construction, Melinda said, in his arms. Youd get a nice tan, and some muscles.
She smelled like yeast, and she talked too much.
I think about you a lot, she said. Walter snores, bad, so I have one of those tapes of the ocean, just waves rolling and rolling, and every night I listen to that tape. She rummaged around in her purse and found her cigarettes. Sleeps important.
Justin lit Melindas cigarette, and rolled down his window.
I could never sleep in jail, he said. They let us watch TV before lights out, and Id pretend that Sandy Ryan, the channel eight weather girl, was in my cot with me. I wanted to smell a woman so bad.
Melinda tapped her cigarette ash into her cupped hand.
I heard Sandy Ryan has a foot fetish, she said.
That wouldnt bother me one bit, Justin said.
She probably has dainty feet, Melinda said, thoughtfully.
There you go.
Melinda kissed the nape of his neck.
I feel sort of bad about Walter, she said.
We dont have to do this, Justin said. We dont have to do anything.
You sure know how to make a girl feel wanted, Melinda said. You could at least pretend to love me. Everyone pretends. Everyone.