Thursday, September 28, 2006

Cut Your Hair: Part I, chapter 6 from The Edge of the World (a novel in progress)

Leonard had gotten a new job shortly before I was born—he was now the manager of a sporting goods store at the local shopping center. Although it was a harder job with longer hours than he’d had at the liquor store, the pay was much better, allowing Lily to stay home and take care of me.

But with Lemuel now living with us they had a baby sitter in the evening. Lemuel didn’t mind staying home, he said, having grown rather fond of me, his nephew. So nearly everyday after dinner, Lily and Leonard would go down to the river, something they hadn’t done since I was born. Making love there on the river bank again, they felt as if they’d stepped back in time. And though they never for a moment forgot that back in the apartment was their son—who, despite his seemingly oblivious nature still required a certain amount of attention—they sensed that they had somehow regained the freedom they’d had before I was born.

They had set up Lemuel in the living room—it was now his room. After being with us for two months—and having found a job at the dog track—he announced that he wanted to stay in Fort Myers for at least another year. He offered to get his own apartment, but Lily and Leonard told him that if he didn’t feel the need to be on his own he should just stay with us.

So he stayed. To Lily and Leonard it seemed the ideal situation because Lemuel, in addition to taking care of me, also acquired things for the apartment. He bought a color TV that was about three times the size of the old black and white one, a new stereo system with huge speakers, a dresser drawer for Lily and Leonard, and a sofa bed for the living room so he’d have a more comfortable place to sleep.

Things went well for the first five months, but as Lily grew more and more comfortable with our increasingly cramped apartment, Leonard grew less so. Lemuel often fell asleep in front of the television, snoring loudly or mumbling in his dreams while Leonard tried to watch a show. Lily began spending hour upon hour reading novels in bed, and when she wasn’t doing that she was at the kitchen table, going through the newspaper from front to back. The act of reading seemed to take her into that distant world—she paid no attention to Leonard when she was reading. And he imagined that even if, on some occasion, he were to go so far as to push his entire fist and forearm up her ass, she probably would have just continued licking her index finger and turning the pages.

I, on the other hand, did nothing but pay attention to him, and took to following him around the apartment whether he was going to the kitchen to get a drink of water or to the bathroom to take a piss. All the while I’d stare at him, fixing my eyes on his as in his mind he cursed me, his retarded little devil child—which was how he’d begun to think of me. And though I was his son, whom he loved, what he felt towards me—more than anything else—was a resentment that turned his blood into bile as his arms and legs stiffened.

And now, whenever Lily and he went to the river—which at this point they did only about every two weeks—he’d lose his sense of the moment. He’d think about their honeymoon, those five weeks when they fucked under the sky in different places all over the country. He’d think about The Brady Bunch and the stories they made up as he licked her hairy cunt in bed with the TV on.

He missed those nights when The Brady Bunch was on. But what he missed most were those places around the country. Like a senile old man doting upon his youth, he found himself saying their names aloud as he went to work in the morning: “Denver,” “Niagara Falls,” “Galveston.” He’d imagine that he was sitting on the moonwalk in New Orleans, riding through the barren landscape of the Bonneville Salt Flats, playing slot machines in Las Vegas. He could see each place clearly, and what accompanied every image that came to mind was the peaceful feeling that he was alone.

And one Saturday, when he’d slept late, he awoke to find that Lily had already gone out. He sat in the living room talking to Lemuel—who was telling him about an incident that had happened at the dog track the previous day—when Lily walked in. To his dismay, Leonard saw that she’d cut her hair, leaving just short blonde locks which barely covered her ears.

“That looks terrible,” he barked suddenly.

“Well I like it,” she snapped back. “And it was too much work taking care of it when it was long.”

“Oh, it looks all right,” Lemuel said, acting as if he were trying to stop what might be the onset of an argument.

But there was no argument. Leonard didn’t say another word, and neither did Lily, who simply went into the bedroom, picked up a book, and started reading.

A week after Lily cut her hair Leonard quit his job. He told Lily that he had to get away—it didn’t surprise her at all—and that Lemuel would be taking care of her and me while he was gone.

Although Lily understood what was troubling Leonard, Leonard did not. All Leonard knew was that he had a feeling, a pain. A suspicion that the world was against him and had defeated the universe he’d created. A suspicion that told him he had to run.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Another Time, Another Place: Part I, chapter 5 from The Edge of the World (a novel in progress)

On June 16, 1979, Lily and Leonard celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary, and it was on this very day that Lemuel showed up at their door. By this time I’d been born and baptized. Given the name Leonard Bodine II, but nicknamed Kiddo, I was a quiet little boy who never cried, never ate much, and mostly just stared out into space. It was a beautiful way for me to be, Leonard thought, to just sit there and piss and shit in my pants. Which isn’t to say that Leonard thought there was nothing going on in my head. It’s just that he thought I’d never choose to express my thoughts or feelings—or whatever it was I had inside of me—and that I probably never would.

Leonard remembered very well the day Lily came home from the doctor with the news that she was pregnant with me. He’d just gotten home from work when she walked in with a worried look in her eyes. Having a baby wasn’t something they’d planned on.

Lily had been on the pill the whole time. But, as the doctor explained, sometimes even the pill will fail, making my birth either a great miracle or a bizarre accident. Neither Lily nor Leonard were certain at first that she should go through with the pregnancy. But, after discussing it for an hour, they decided the time was right to start a family. And so given the choice between accident and miracle, they chose what they believed was the lesser of two evils.

Leonard went down to the liquor store and got there just as his boss was closing up. On hearing the news his boss gave him a bottle of one of their best wines as a present. Leonard brought it home to Lily so she could have one last glass of wine before settling into a healthy regimen for her pregnancy. Since this was a special occasion he had some as well, and so got drunk for the very first time.

Leonard discovered that it was a good feeling. He found himself laughing wildly as Lily and he conjured up images of their future as parents. They saw themselves changing diapers, enrolling their child in grade school, taking him—or her—out to a baseball game or a Disney movie where he’d probably watch what was going on for a few moments then start touching himself. They saw themselves having other kids, both boys and girls—their own little Brady Bunch. And after Leonard had finished the wine and fried some eggs, they walked down to the river.

As her pregnancy wore on, Lily’s already large breasts grew even larger, and her nipples turned from a delicate pink to a dark brown. Leonard loved the first taste of her milk, loved it even more than his first taste of wine. He loved it so much he didn’t want to share it with his son, and soon after I was born he started buying baby formula. He’d feed it to me from the bottle while Lily cradled his head in her arms. Turning to her breast, he’d suck and swallow until he felt full. Then he’d hold some in his mouth and spit it into Lily’s hand. She’d reach over and jerk him off while I, my eyes closed, sucked harder and harder at the nipple of my plastic baby bottle.

I was two years old when Lemuel found us. Walking into the apartment, he spotted me sitting in a chair by the window as I stared at the trees behind our building. Putting his hand on my shoulder, he turned to Lily and Leonard.

“And who’s this?” he asked.

Lily and Leonard said nothing. Lemuel put his hand to my cheek and slowly turned my face toward his.

“I don’t believe this,” he muttered.

“But he’s a beautiful boy,” Lily said after a moment of silence.

“Maybe,” Lemuel answered. “Still, I don’t think mom and dad would approve of this as a way of making them grandparents.”

“But Lily and I are married,” Leonard said. “And we’re happy this way.”

Lemuel turned towards Lily and Leonard. He’d grown tall in the seven years since they’d seen him, his hair as blonde as Lily’s and his nose sharp and thin, showing that he took after Grandma’s side of the family. His presence, which they had barely acknowledged while they were growing up, was no longer easy to ignore.

“Mom and dad will be... how shall I put this?,” Lemuel said, shaking his head. “Perturbed.” Like an actor who had run out of words and purposeful gestures, Lemuel remained still and silent for a moment. Then brushed the hair away from his eyes.

“You can’t tell them,” Lily exclaimed.

“But I have to,” Lemuel protested. “They have to know what’s happened to you, and what you’ve done.”

Lily walked hesitantly towards Lemuel, then put her hand on his shoulder.

“Leonard and I are in love,” she said to him. “And we have a beautiful son. Don’t go back and tell everyone. Not just yet. Stay with us a few days and you’ll see. We have a good life here, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Lemuel picked me up, then eased into the chair and sat me on his knee. The two of us sat there before the window, with no one saying anything as we stared straight ahead.

Two hours later Lemuel phoned Grandma and Grandpa. He told them he hadn’t found anything new about Lily and Leonard, but that he was going to keep looking, following up on some other leads he had. “I’ll stay in touch,” he told them.

Lemuel had decided, at Lily and Leonard’s urging, to stay with us for a while. And that night, after they’d put me to bed, Lily and Leonard told him everything about themselves, how they’d decided to run away, how they’d travelled all over the country, how they’d come to adopt Florida as their home. Lemuel, in turn, brought them up to date on events back in Athens.

He told them how their sudden disappearance had become a big mystery there. How people had devised a variety of theories concerning their fate—some mundane, some outlandish—including, as Lily and Leonard had joked about, the possibility of their having been abducted by aliens from outer space. But fortunately, which pleased both Lily and Leonard, there wasn’t a single theory that took on the possibility that they’d left of their own accord.

Lemuel explained that he was taking a break from college. That he’d already been taking courses for two years at the University Of Georgia, having finished high school a year early. That in that time, during which he majored in chemistry, he’d grown restless and had found in himself a desire to travel. That he then informed my Grandma and Grandpa that he was taking a year off to do so. And that in the course of his travels he would also investigate the disappearance of Lily and Leonard.

It had been two months earlier when he left Athens, he insisted. And since then he’d been, among other places, to Rock Springs and Galveston. How he’d figured out to search for them in these cities was beyond Lily and Leonard. And in the end he declined to explain exactly how he managed to find them.

“Let’s just say,” he concluded, “that you and Lily never realized how clever your younger brother was.”

Lemuel slept on the living room sofa, and in the morning went out with Leonard on his way to work.

“I’m going to find a job,” he said. “I should help you out with the money while I’m here.”

He was planning on going back on the road in a couple of months, he said. Then, when he was done travelling, he’d finish school.

“You should go back to school yourself,” Lemuel added.

Leonard thought about it for a moment. “No, I don’t think so,” he answered.

And Lemuel, looking out towards the distance, pondered the measures he’d have to take—the plans he’d have to make to get where he wanted to be.