John S. Walker grew up in western Pennsylvania and is in the M.F.A. program at The University of Memphis where, in addition to studying fiction writing under Cary Holladay and Tom Russell, his thesis is being directed by Richard Bausch. He resides in Cordova, TN, and teaches at Crichton College.
1st place - 2009 Raymond Carver Contest
"Explain it to me,” she says. “Explain it to me so it makes sense.”
It’s Rita, my brother’s wife, and we’re sitting at a booth at The Flamingo, a club east of Millington, away from Navy row as they call it, where strip clubs and night houses line both sides of Highway 51. Rita is across from me with a box of Kleenex, and this is the third time she’s called me and we’ve met, the third time since my brother Del spilled his guts to her about a woman in Singapore named Sashi or Shasha. He was in the Navy then, two years ago, lonely, apparently. “It had been a passing thing,” Rita had told me the first time we met. “But still,” she had said. Del has never said a word to me about the matter, and from what I figure, he has no idea Rita has ever talked to me about it. My wife Cas doesn’t know about my meetings with Rita either. Rita and I decided that might be best. Rita just needed someone to talk to, someone who understood, who knew Del.
Rita tells me that Del has swung into his pattern again. A cycle, as she calls it, where everything at first is nearly serene, and Del seems so even-keeled that you actually begin believing it’s always been this way, been as good as this. And when it’s like that, she tells me, “I begin believing what people mean when they say, this is happiness. This is the way it’s supposed to be.” Then something, anything, a call from work, or from the phone company, any inconvenience—“I don’t know,” she says—triggers Del, and one thing leads to another. “Suddenly we’re leaping from one leaking boat to another,” is how she describes it.
Rita then tells me the most recent episode involved Del skipping work. He drives a refrigerator truck delivering frozen meats to restaurants, and evidently one restaurant reported they had never received their weekly shipment of seafood. “Forty pounds of princess prawns never showed up,” says Rita. “That was Del’s route. Del’s truck.” When the restaurant called Del’s supervisor, Del’s supervisor, irate, called Rita and cursed her over the phone. Then Rita, in tears, called me. Soon after the shrimp ordeal, the drinking started. Which is vintage Del. The latest incident occurred last week. Del ran his pick-up off the road and hit a tractor in a field. He also took out twenty feet or so of fencing in the process. The farmer who heard the crash came out with a spotlight and armed with a twelve gauge. Luckily, he didn’t see Del, and so he called 911. When the police arrived they found Del dazed, wandering in one of the farmer’s tall cornfields. Of course he was drunk, and banged up some too. But one of the officers had known Del in high school, so he let it go and just brought Del home to Rita
But the heart of the whole thing, what’s got Rita tore up, almost in pieces, as she puts it, is this thing with Sasha.
“He’s trying to act like nothing happened,” she says lighting a cigarette. She exhales quickly. “Like I’m the one that has the problem. That I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Well, it is a big deal,” she says.
“I believe you,” I say, and I take a drink. “You’re exactly right,” I tell her. A pitcher of beer sits between us. We’re sitting near the back of the club, and it’s mid-afternoon and dark in the bar with only a small light from the door filtering in. The room is empty, except for a younger couple, two booths down, who now and then whisper or laugh. Small green plants with large, flowering leaves sit beside each of the booths, and quiet, emerald ocean scenes cover the wall paper, reminding you of something on a postcard from Florida or one of those little islands in the West Indies. The tropical ocean scenes are filled with flamingos standing—frozen as it were—in tall reeds. Plastic replicas of parakeets, varied in bright, obnoxious colors, dangle from the ceiling around the bar area. They’ve got an electric simulated parakeet and an old juke-box in the corner. For fifty cents, the parakeet will mimic anything you say. On the back wall, a giant neon Flamingo hums above our heads.
“He expects me just to forget the whole thing. Just as if it never happened,” she says. “You can’t just forget something like that. He can’t understand why I can’t just forget about it.”
Rita sips on her beer. The pink neon is hitting her face, just on the side of her cheek and temple. It adds a tenderness to her, a softness. Rita has a certain prettiness to her, I guess. It’s not something I noticed right off when Del married her five years ago. She’s small, petite, with dark brown hair, and she has small hands, even small fingers. She has dark eyes, too, nearly almond-shaped. The color of a bird’s, I think to myself now as I’m across from her. Today she has on an oversized sweater. It looks pink in the light.
I fill my glass again. “What about the calls,” I say. I know about these. Rita had told me the woman would sometimes call for Del from Singapore. The calls would come at all different hours.
“That’s the worst of it,” she says. “I can’t even get to this woman. I don’t even know what she’s like. Who she is. Del says he’s told her to stop. But I don’t know. The calls stop for a while, then a few months and they start again.”
“Del really did it this time.” I shake my head at the whole ordeal.
“What am I supposed to do? I’ve talked to the woman. I’ve told her that under no circumstances is she to call this number again. What else can I do, Clay?” she says and looks at me. “I’m at the end of my rope with this thing.” She takes something from her purse and wipes her eyes. I lift up my glass and take a good swallow. “He wants me to forgive him,” she says, and there’s a cracking to her voice. “Forgive him?”
I look around the club. The young couple has left. A few others have drifted in and taken seats at the booths. I can see the tops of their heads. I notice a man who comes and sits at the bar. The man looks middle-aged, from what I can tell in the dim lights around the bar. He’s short, and he’s wearing an overcoat, or a trench coat perhaps. When he takes his place, he looks over at us, and nods. I think Rita gives a nod back. The man turns and orders something. Rita lights another cigarette.
“You know what really hurts, and this really hurts,” she says, her voice getting stronger. “I know why he’s staying with me. It’s Bobby. He’s staying with me only because of Bobby. He thinks I’ll leave and move away, out to California or somewhere, and never let him see Bobby again, like his last wife did. But I told him I would never do that. I’m not that kind of person,” she says. “He should know that. I would never do that.” Del’s first wife did do this. He’d only been in the Navy a year. They had had to get married, and Del later admitted he knew he didn’t love her. Anyway, the woman had twin girls. She took the girls and went all the way up into Canada. Montreal or Toronto, somewhere with her mother. She sent Del a note. She said he’d never again see the girls, that she’d die before that. Del was out to sea. There was nothing he could do.
“Do you know what that’s like,” Rita says to me, “knowing the only reason someone stays with you is to see their son. He might as well just say it,” she says. “He might as well just come out and say it.” I don’t know what to say to this. I empty the pitcher in my glass and hold it up briefly to signal the bartender for a refill. The man in the trench coat has moved down from the bar. He’s studying over the juke-box. Every now and then I see him look toward Rita and me. At times, Rita’s eyes glance over.
A waitress brings us a new pitcher and sets it on the table. I immediately fill my glass. I think I can feel the beer getting to my head.
Rita waits, then begins again.
“Listen Clay,” she says.
“I’m listening,” I say, drinking.
“I want you to know something,” and she leans forward, as if about to tell me some secret.
“Yes?” I say, feeling more relaxed, feeling her closer to me, her face and hair marked by the neon flamingo behind us.
“Your brother’s got some problems, Clay. Some real problems.”
“I know about my brother,” I say, and I take a good drink.
“I’m not sure you know everything.” She leans back from the table. The pink sweater droops on her.
“Look, Rita,” I say and I suppress a burp. “I’ve got problems. The bartender’s got problems. The couple behind you has problems. See that guy over by the juke box,” and I say this just to see how she looks over, but she doesn’t even look, “that guy’s got problems too. Everybody’s got problems.”
She takes out another cigarette.
“Haven’t you had enough of those? Next month they’ll be outlawed in restaurants.”
She ignores my question and my comment.
“You were in the Navy,” she says lighting up. “You know the shit that goes on.”
“Don’t I.” I had spent eight years in the Navy. Del had spent twelve.
“You know what it’s been for Del. The past three years, and since his discharge,” she says. “It’s been one long, downward spiral. For him. For both of us. Be honest, Clay. You’ve seen it.”
“Del’s not perfect,” I say to her, “by no means.”
“That’s no excuse.”
“I’m not excusing him,” I say. “I’m only saying there’s worse. You could do better Rita—there’s no question as far as that,” I say, taking a drink. I see the man again. He’s now back at the bar, drinking. I think he looks at us, over our way. But I’m not sure. “Hell, you can find a lot better than Del,” I continue. “But there’s worse, too. That’s all I’m saying.”
Rita’s quiet for a moment. I notice the noises of the club now, now that a few more people have entered. I notice, too, how a neon glow has spread throughout the room. The whole room looks tinted from the radiating neon, feverishly outlining the tops of heads, the plants, the parakeets, the large mirrors along the bar.
Rita excuses herself and goes to the restroom. I sip my beer and watch the man casually. Then I can’t help but think of Cas, my wife, and Del and Rita. Cas and I are separated, have been for six months. I have even considered re-enlisting, which she’s against. “You need to decide whether you want a family or to sail around the world trying to save it,” is how she put it to me. But I don’t know. I can’t get it out of me, nor can I explain it. I’m living in an apartment building that used to be part of the Naval Air Station here before Congress moved it to Pensacola. The apartment still has the convex windows and ceilings, so that when I wake some nights I believe I’m in the great womb of the sea, so much so I have to rise and walk outside, let my feet feel the firm ground, its cold between my bare feet, and look at the veiny moon above.
I even spent time in Bethesda, the medical facility in Maryland, for a slight injury to my hand and hip from a fall from a ship deck. (I was on subs, so never was close to the war, only experienced it vicariously.) But when I fell, we were in port at the Philippines and I was visiting with a crew of Navy divers aboard this cruiser with rockets, a magnificent vessel. (On sub, I was in sonar, which the Navy said fit my aptitude perfectly. But I liked coming outside at night in port, seeing the stars, and the sea. You miss the smell of it after being under so long. And, plus, in my first two years in the Navy, I’d actually been on the USS Enterprise, a floating city. Del, too, had served on it, four years I think, as a cook.) Anyway, I was looking at those stars and downing a pint of JB when I tripped and went over. The divers saw it happening. All I saw was black sea coming at me. Then its hard surface. Then darkness and its swarming warmth. I thought I was dead. Then suddenly, I was being hoisted by heli, a C31, a tin-can as they call it. A track cable was lifting me in a sling like a cradle. All the dark sea was below me then, pimpled with the stars. I thought of Cas and my life beginning all over again.
The fall tore my hand up so that it quivers in moments, and a spar railing scarred my face. A pale indention marks the right side so that against certain lights, my scalp resembles a ring of imprinted barbed wire. But the details I’m telling here are slim, coming to my mind in a kind of vague yet momentary lucidity of a short-hand version of what I remember, what with the beer and all in me right now as I think and tell you this. Forgive me for anything maudlin that may inhabit it in moments.
It was two years ago when I was first coming to terms with what had occurred to my face and hand and just after the initial surgeries. I was still in Bethesda, and Cas was helping me but I was growing tired of it. Our marriage was in that uneasy state of restless anticipation for something more but neither of us knew what that something more meant. I’d told her to go home and not come back. For a while, I said. She listened, took me seriously, and hence here we are.
When Rita returns, she looks refreshed and even asks me about Cas. I tell her it’s all up in the air. Then she asks how is my hand.
“Fine,” I say. “The blood’s back in it,” I say, jokingly. “And my face is a miracle.” I tell her laughingly. She laughs, too, which makes me feel better.
“I’m even getting my sea-legs back,” I tell her. “I can walk a straight line. Better if I’m drunk.” We both laugh. Then I roll up my sleeves, showing her my pale arms. “You should see the rest of me. I’m like an albino. Living in a sub so long your skin turns pale as a moon. I still look white as an ocean perch. I glow at night,” I tell her laughing.
She laughs, too, at first, then becomes quiet. I take a long swallow of beer. I know she wants to tell me all of it but doesn’t know how.
She starts to say something. She speaks, hesitantly at first. “The hardest thing is. I love him. And I wonder sometimes, I wonder if he even realizes that or knows it. He doesn’t seem to care if I love him,” she says. “It’s like I want to ask him what’s wrong with me. ‘What have I done wrong that you don’t or can’t see that I love you?’ What do I have to do to make him see that?”
“He’s living in a blur, Rita,” I say. “With all that’s happened, all that Navy shit. It’s this whole thing, all these years. We’re talking here about something far beyond us. It goes deeper,” I say, and I have a vague sense that I may be saying a significant thing then, “way beyond you or me. God only knows just what it entails. I mean it’s crazy.”
Rita smokes and listens to me. “The Navy’s a crazy life,” I add. And she looks at me, and I see something of that tenderness in her again, from the neon. Then, and I don’t know if it’s just the beer or what, I start telling her all about it. I drink my beer and I tell her what it’s like being out on a ship for four months, or six. “Sometimes it’s eight,” I tell her. I tell her how when you’re out there you feel so far from everything, from anything. “It’s not like you see a building or anything,” I say to her, “you don’t see anything. Nothing.” I try to describe for her the flatness you see all around you and the feeling of that. She listens. And I go on. She pours me more beer. I gesture with my hands. On the table I try to draw things with my finger, and she watches me. “Like a big circle, and flat,” I say to her and I mark off a wide perimeter on the tabletop, “and you’re in the middle, only you never can see the sides. There’s no end to it,” I tell her. I say things and drink my beer. I say things about loneliness. I talk about what it’s like to feel separated from everything. “Pacific,” I say throwing up my hands. “Pacific. The very word tells you something,” I say. And I tell her about coming in to port. “Maybe it’s Hong Kong, or Taiwan, or Singapore,” I say. “God knows.” Then I tell her that once you’re in port all you want to do is drink, and then tour. And after you’ve toured, after you’ve seen the Buddhist priests, or whoever the hell they are, walk across burning coals and eat fire, and you’ve seen the temples and all that shit, you drink again. And then there’s nothing else to do but drink and get drunk, I say to her. And before you know it you’re back on ship and you pull out into the nothingness again. And everything seems like it’s moving. “You can look out and see for hundreds of miles, and yet you can’t see anything,” I say. “It just melts. The sky and water.”
It’s strange, I tell her. “If it wouldn’t have been for Cas,” I say, and I can feel myself, the beer making me warm, and Rita sitting there, still listening. “I don’t know what else to say,” I say then.
“But what about the horizons,” Rita says still interested. “Aren’t the horizons beautiful? I would think they’d be beautiful,” she says.
“They can be,” I say. “You’d think so,” I say to her, blinking my eyes. Rita’s in front of me, leaning forward again. I scan the club’s room for the man in the trench coat, but I can’t seem to make much out. There are more people now. I explain to her, “The horizons become part of it. Sometimes the sun sets, like it’s right there before you,” I say, “like a big orange ball. Gigantic. But then it wavers, too. Like I told you, everything is like it’s moving and yet it’s not. Not way out there. It’s like the desert,” I say to her. “Like the mirages. That’s the only way I know how to describe it.”
Rita pushes back her dark hair. “That must be something,” she says, and she pauses to fill up my glass again. “How long has it been,” she asks, referring to my discharge.
“Tomorrow—three years to the day, as a matter of fact,” I say. I raise my beer for a toast. “I’m celebrating early,” I say, and we both laugh.
After a few more drinks Rita says she has to go. Del will be home any minute, she tells me. She puts on her coat. Runs a comb through her hair. She dabs her eyes with a Kleenex. “How’s my make-up?” she asks.
“Fine. Beautiful,” I say. She laughs.
I stand up, and when I do, I can tell the beer has hit me. For a moment everything seems shaky, as if all the gravity has been pulled out of the room. Rita reaches over to steady me. “You okay?” she asks, and I laugh. “I’m okay,” I say, “I’m fine. I just need a moment,” I say. “To get my bearings. I guess I lost count,” I say and I chuckle.
“I guess you did,” says Rita, and we both laugh again.
Before Rita leaves she leans up and kisses my cheek, and then for a moment I feel her hug me, and I manage in my awkwardness to put an arm around her. Her face presses against mine. I feel the warmth of her cheek. She whispers, thank you. She says to me, “You don’t know what you’ve done for me,” and she hugs me again, closer. Then she pulls away.
After Rita’s gone, I make my way over to the bar, going slowly. The club is filling up now.
“Can I help you sir?” the bartender says as I approach the counter. “No, no,” I say and gesture him away with a wave of my hand. “Nothing here,” I say out of breath.
At the bar, I think I spot the man in the trench coat. He’s several stools down from me. It must be him, I think. But even so he appears hazy. I think I see that he’s got a drink and that he’s looking straight ahead, as if staring at himself in the large mirror at the bar. I come to the conclusion he is doing this on purpose, that he knows I’ve been watching him.
I begin going toward him. Again, I move slowly, watching my steps. The atmosphere of the room feels thick, laden with effort, weight. I feel dizzy. I sense the crowded room around me.
I come right up to him, but he still looks straight ahead. “I’ve got something to ask you,” I say as I am right up on the man, and suddenly I am aware of the loudness in my voice. “You,” I say again, louder, tapping him on the shoulder. I notice a tattoo rippled on the side of his neck, and a swirl of it fanning his cheek nearly like the tail of a fish. “Listen,” I exclaim louder. “Quit looking at your face. It looks like a carnival got to it. Hear me, my man.”
The bartender starts over to me. “Hey buddy,” he says to me. I wave him away, my hand knocking one of the dangling parakeets. “No, I want to know something here,” I say, dismissing him with several waves of my hand. “I’m inquiring of this man.” I lean heavily on the counter and look straight at the man.
“Do you know my brother’s wife,” I ask him, hearing my voice carry across the bar. “I said, have you been banging my brother’s wife?” Startled, the man now looks at me. He moves back. His face clears and blurs in front of me. I blink my eyes trying to focus. I move my head aside from one of the suspended parakeets in an attempt to get a clear view of the man. The room possesses that gravity-less air to it again. “I’m talking to you,” I say, my voice bellowing.
The club is silent. Some whispers rustle through the room. A voice from the back calls out, “Someone call the police!” I turn. The scene of crowded booths and people sways before me. I can feel my body listing. I reach back to catch myself. “Whoooa,” somebody says, and a chuckle rises up behind me. Some people start to clap, cheering me.
I think about Del. The Singapore woman. I think of little Bobby, and about Rita too, about hugging her, the tenderness I felt in her, and I wonder if it’s enough. I wonder if anything can ever be enough.
And then I know I want to make it to my car. I want to make it back to Cas. I know I want to get outside.
But I know I won’t. I know that in a year, or two, or maybe three, Rita will leave Del, and Del will go off somewhere, maybe to the Merchant Marines as he’s done before. To Iceland or some other far north place. And Cas and I will drift, until finally, there will be as much as a continent between us. I know somehow I will never re-enlist and that I will have saved little, if anything, from this world.