Wet places at noon /
Lee K. Abbott.
Iowa City : University of Iowa Press, c1997.
192 p. ; 24 cm.
0877456054 (alk. paper)
More Details
Iowa City : University of Iowa Press, c1997.
0877456054 (alk. paper)
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A Look Inside
This item was nominated for the following awards:
First Chapter


The Way Sin Is Said in Wonderland


The first time they met, Eddie pulled out the pistol. A Soviet Makarov 9-millimeter automatic with rust spots on the barrel and a faded red star on the black plastic handgrip. This was '72, the summer before the bailout from Saigon, the occasion a welcome-home barbeque for Bobby, her husband, and his buddy from MR II up near Con Tien.

"This is I-Beam," Bobby said. "Short for IBM, he's smart."

Turned out he almost had a degree in physics from the University of Houston, but Carol Ann didn't know that yet; she only knew that he was a wiry so-and-so, slope-shouldered and skinny as a file but surprisingly soft-spoken, as if all Uncle Sam had asked him to do during his hitch was to sit atop a jungle roost drinking skim milk and nodding hunky-dory to the dignitaries making merry on the promenade below.

"A pleasure," he said, and then nothing: just the two of them, the afternoon August sun a huge orange behind his head, while Bobby hurried away to say howdy to the new people coming through the gate into the backyard. "Eddie," he said, "L-for-Lonnie Heber."

She got her name out then, Carol Ann Spears, surprised by the mealy mouthful it was, and what she did, a teacher at Zia Elementary near Pecan Acres south of town, and then she realized that her hand was still locked in his--a cold thing big as a paddle--and it crossed her mind when she again engaged his dark eyes that here was a fellow with secrets you might need a whole lot more than open sesame to find out.

Throughout the afternoon, she watched him. He took a chair near Bobby, and didn't say much. Let Bobby do the bull-shitting. "Should I tell 'em about the S-2?" Bobby said once, and Carol Ann discovered Eddie Heber staring at her, grinning this time as if the two of them--he and she--had made a connection the grits and white-bread folk between them wouldn't comprehend if you wrote it down and drew pictures of the sort her second graders whooped over.

"Sure, help yourself," Eddie said, and Bobby was off, his an escapade that seemed to take as long to tell about as it did to live through.

She picked up a little--the LT, the boonie rats, the LURPs, Sam the Sham--before she went back to her conversation with Rhonda Whitaker and Ellen Dowling. Rhonda's boy, Jerry, was deficient in history, plus being a cut-up in class. Still, a minute later, she could feel him again, Eddie Heber. A smile with too much tooth in it. A face so alive it required concentration to watch. Spooky. He looked like a fugitive that had raced all night through prickers and brambles to get here.

That's the way it went until dusk. A volleyball game started, girls against guys, and every time she jumped or chased the ball when it rolled over to the Hoovers' fence, he was watching, this funny little fucker from Albuquerque. She felt naked, like a specimen, like the hamsters in the cage in the science corner of her classroom--just a piece of business for his amusement--so after the third time she had to bend over in front of him, her shorts squeezing up her thighs, she thought she'd just march right up to him, get in his face, tell him she didn't appreciate his--what?--his leering, and he could just smack his lips somewhere else, she didn't care what had happened in Vietnam. But when she spun around, he was gone. His chair had a half-dozen empties beside it.

"C'mon," Bobby was saying, wanting the ball. "Let's go, Carol Ann. Everybody's waiting."

Then she saw him talking to Ellen Dowling by the keg, and he seemed bigger, more muscular, less bowed and clutched-up, a whole other order of human being--like something born in midair and half an idea that wouldn't make sense until you were eighty or eight thousand.

The Millers, Hank and that airhead of his, Carla, went home first. About nine. After that, folks started drifting out in twos and threes--the Krafts, Mr. Preston who owned the hardware store where Bobby, having flunked out of State, had worked after his reclassification to 1-A. "Welcome home, short stuff," they said. "Glad you're back." Then the Fosters took Rhonda home--she'd squabbled with George, her creepy husband, and he'd left with a couple of Bobby's old Bulldog teammates from Las Cruces High. About eleven, Margie and Louis Delgado said adios. Carol Ann was tired. Bobby had been home two days, and all he wanted to do was screw. Wanted her to take it from behind, wanted to do it with the lights on, like they were on a stage. And all he'd talked about was this Eddie Heber. This primo buddy of his. Coming down from the Duke City for the cookout. "Me and Eddie," Bobby had said, "we were tight." Tight--a word Bobby had wound up his whole face to say.

She'd taken three personal days, gotten the sub herself--Mrs. Feldman--done the lesson plans, made the slaw and the potato salad, called all the guests, and now, watching Bobby: scuttle back and forth like a dog between bones, she was beat, hollow as an echo. It wouldn't make any difference to Bobby he'd want her any way. He was feeling good--loosey-goosey, he called it. Wouldn't be spit to him that his buddy, Eddie L-for-Lonnie Heber, would be snoring on the couch in the living room. You could hear through the walls in this place--that's what the builder was famous for, ticky-tack and walls you could poke your pinkie through--but Bobby wouldn't care. He'd want to party. To shake his tail feathers. His phrase. Then, like the blackest of black magic, her thoughts flying whichaway, Eddie was beside her, light-footed enough to be a ghost, his lips almost against her ear, his whisper a knot she couldn't find the beginning to.

"What?" she asked. Outside, Bobby was bear-hugging Sammy Vaughn and then playing grab-ass with Sammy's ex-wife Alice. Somewhere a car door slammed and somebody--Harry Hartger, another of Bobby's old bosses--was singing a Joe Cocker tune he didn't have the recklessness for, and here came Eddie Heber again--at the other ear this time--smelling of beer and charcoal and English Leather, his the voice the devil might have if it popped up in your living room near midnight to watch you tidy up. "What?" she said.

"I said you're probably a heartbreaker, right?"

The pistol came out then. He reached under his shirt, a Hawaiian eyesore he later said he'd bought as a joke.

"I know you," he said, half his face closed, the other half open like a closet door. "I know your hair, the size of your shoe."

For a moment, Carol Ann thought it was a squirt gun or maybe a cap pistol--a toy remarkable and cunning as theories about lived life on Mars--and then, clearly, it wasn't, and when he pulled back the slide and it seemed entirely possible that a round had been clambered, she could see that whatever was in him had turned around at least three whole times.

"You were a Zeta girl," he said. "Pledge chairman."

His jaw was slowly working, a sheen of sweat at his temples, his eyes beer-glazed and starting to go red at the corners, his breathing quick and labored as if he were thinking about sex or had done the impossible--like carry the ocean to her in his arms all the way from California without spilling a drop.

"Over there," he was saying, "I saw your picture a million times. Made Bobby get me a copy."

Later--after she and Bobby had divorced, after Eddie had reentered her life--she remembered this moment for what didn't happen. She did not panic. She remembered turning toward him, not increasing by much the arm's length between them, just swiveling as if on a pivot. A man, marvelous as a maniac from a movie, was standing in front of her: He seemed shiny and slick, more a figure sprung from a dream than from any crossroads on earth. He had something in his hand--a gift, possibly--but her own hand was coming up to decline it. She remembered being clear-minded, her thoughts as shaped and ordered as pearls on a string, and after she gently pushed the gun aside she advanced on him, feeling his heat as she got closer, stopping at the point where, if her breasts were to brush his shirtfront, he might vanish like a soap bubble.

"I made up stories," he was saying. "You were wearing a dress, a white one. The boys at LZ Thelma loved that story."

Outside Bobby was still messing around. Tonight, he would want her, sloppy and rough and over in a wink. After that, she would sleep, scrunched over to the edge of the bed, the ex-PFC sprawled beside her about as easy to rouse as a log. It would be morning after that, and him starved for her anew.

"Where'd you get the gun?" she asked.

Firebase Maggie, he said. Belonged to a dink.

She was almost his height and close enough now to see he had excellent teeth, white and straight, not yellow and fanglike as she'd feared. A tunnel, it seemed, had opened onto a distant and severe light.

"You kill him?" she wondered.

"Found it," he said. "A dozer dug it up when some concertina wire was being strung at the perimeter."

She was nowhere now, she thought. She had stepped through a gap--a seam, a tear--and had tumbled into a world as deformed as dreamland itself. She had slipped through in an instant, quick as a wish, but she was not alone.

"You trying to scare me?" she said. "Or just piss me off?"

He seemed to ruminate then, something in his face gone to tilt, and it occurred to her that he might be suffering a fever. What was it they could get over there? Dengue or beri-beri or malaria.

"I'm drunk," he said, but unslurred in a manner that gave her to understand he was sober as a surgeon.

"You sneaked up on me," she said. "That's not very sporting, Mr. Heber."

The other half of his face had come open now, as if a strong wind were blowing from his insides out.

"You get in the habit," he said. "It's like smoking."

Here it was then--for reasons she understood she would need no less than a lifetime to comprehend--that she kissed him, tenderly at first and with her eyes open, him staring at her too, but little in his expression to say that he hadn't expected their love affair to begin this way, not even when, before she let go, she bit his lip. Hard.

"I bet you're a son-of-a-bitch too," she said.

In 1986 they met again. It would turn out that he had been married as well, had three kids, all boys, who now lived in Redondo Beach with their mother. He had been sliding, he would say. Drifting, coming undone--pick a word. Worked in aerospace for a while. LTV in Dallas. A computer company in San Antonio. Then--boom--a layoff. Squabbles. Fights. Tears like a river. Two days in jail in Houston. Worked the offshore rigs for a time. Next a breakdown. Total. Bugs on the walls, the night sweats. Visions. Voices from the TV. It was the booze. It was want and venery.

She hadn't heard him come in. At her desk, school over for an hour, she was marking a spelling test. A-l-l-i-g-a-t-o-r. R-e-p-t-i-l-e. The cold-blooded family you were wise to step over or avoid altogether. She was thinking about her boyfriend after Bobby Spears, a slim-hipped rancher up the valley who raised polled Herefords. He liked to race motocross in the hills near Picacho Peak. Did impressions--Nixon, Porky Pig, Johnny Carson. Then, as if he'd materialized with a poof from a flashpot and a blast of horns from the biggest of the big bands, Eddie Heber was in the back of her room, sitting at Tiffany Garcia's desk, a cigarette going, his eyes flat again and dispassionate as math, and part of her seemed to have gone from wet to dry without any heat in between.

"If you're looking--" she began, but he was already shaking his head. He'd found what he was looking for.

When he said her name, something caught in her chest--a bone, a clot of tissue--and the air sucked out of the room. She would have known him anywhere: a light, weird and cold as a glacier, seemed to come off his skin. He was too pale, too much of everything lonely and still and sad. His hair was long now, past his shoulders, as sleek and beautiful as a matinee Apache, longer than her own; and except for that, he seemed not to have been gone long at all, only minutes, as if he'd just stepped out to use the toilet. But when he rose, she could see that maybe his face had come off and had been put back in pieces, the features loose on his skull, parts from different puzzles of the same scene.

"You can't smoke in here," she said. "Mr. Probert has a cow if anyone smokes in the building."

She was apologizing, she realized, and suddenly felt too big for her clothes, her life too small for anything unrelated to Eddie Heber.

"You want to go for a ride?" he said.

But when he sat near her, another desk scooted up close, she understood they wouldn't be leaving for a few minutes yet. He seemed to be composing himself, pulling himself into a shape she wouldn't be frightened by. She was stunned by his size. He was bigger now--weights, she would learn; he'd done sixteen months in Parchman, in Arkansas, a 4th degree assault--and she thought about him without his shirt, without any clothes whatsoever, between them only light and air and time.

He'd gone off the deep end, he said. It wasn't a Vietnam issue. It was human. The wires too tight. The wheels spinning too hard. The twentieth century--all loop-de-loop and greed and the low road of scoundrels. Now he had a lawn and yard service. Greensweep. Been in town for over a year. Rented a house on Espina, up near the Armory.

He had shoved the words in her head. That's what she thought later, that he had not spoken at all--not using the old-fashioned organs of speech, at least--and that somehow it had become time for her own short story.

"Bobby Spears," she began.

He nodded, gravely. "A girlfriend. You got fucked over."

Carol Ann caught herself looking at his cigarette, its smoke like a cloud with curls and a beard. Eddie Heber knew. Everything.

"Me and Bobby had drinks about ten months ago," he was saying. "At the El Patio bar in old Mesilla. Bobby Spears is a rock. He never changes."

"That was a long time ago," she said. "I'm better now."

In the silence, she could hear him breathing again, like that night over a decade before. His breath was language itself, she thought. It told you who and why, gave you information about the way you could behave, what you could expect. It wasn't complicated, just queer as reflections in a funhouse. Talk to be talked in the afterlife.

"Where's the gun?" she asked. She had to get that settled.

He stubbed out his smoke on the bottom of his boot. His hands were coarse, the fingers long and thick as hot dogs, the nails oddly well-manicured. Plus, he had a tattoo now, a dragon on his forearm--"Jailhouse art," he would say eventually.

"Threw it away," he told her. He'd stepped out on the chopper platform--this was at Texaco 31--and pitched the weapon into the Gulf of Mexico.

She had stood, the flutter of her heart the only thing about this encounter that didn't surprise her.

"I want that ride now," she said.

Before they went to his place, he drove south on I-10, almost down to Anthony, then turned back north on old 85, the two-lane nearer the mostly muddy Rio Grande. Time seemed to have stopped, the air thick with heat, sunlight scattered everywhere in splinters and spikes.

He'd been crazed, he said. An affliction. Once he hadn't been able to use his hands. They'd been hooves. Mallets. Whole days had passed when he couldn't talk. He'd seen a doctor. Another. He was angry, he told them. Genuinely and profoundly teed off. The world had failed him. He tried vitamins, yelling in the woods--the works. The world got fuzzy at the edges. Cynthia split. She hadn't needed a lawyer because he'd given her everything--the Ford, the house, even the Oreos in his lunchbucket.

It was late now, the sky west of her, toward Deming, rich with blood and wispy clouds with yellow undersides, everything too high and too filmy, and she thought she'd just awakened from a hard, terrible sleep--a sleep with too many people in it, too much jibber-jabber and too much peril to be alone in--and the first person who'd appeared to her upon waking was this man next to her, the one saying that he hadn't made love to a woman in three years, maybe a little more. The pinching under her heart had started again, but Carol Ann found she had a place in her head where she could arrange herself against him.

In his driveway he hurried around to her door and held out his hand--a gentleman. Touching him was like touching a circuit only God could flick the switch for--God, or another entity said to be lavish with lightning and brimstone. And while he guided her up the sidewalk, she wondered how she would explain this peculiar turn of events to her colleagues, particularly Ruthie Evans, her best friend, or to her students when Eddie began picking her up in the parking lot, or even to Bobby Spears himself should she bump into him in the Food Mart.

She was once Carol Ann Mobley, she told herself. Her mother was Rilla, to honor an ancient relative in Texas; her daddy was Bill but called Cuddy by the cowboys who worked the ranch. She had other thoughts, all impossible to collect: a wind, vicious as an argument, had come up to spread them willy-nilly. She believed she had asked him a question--"That night, what were you talking to Ellen Dowling about?"--and she believed he had answered--"You," he was thought to have said, "you and me"--but he was fumbling with his keys and all she could do was wait for the ground to quit shaking.

She seemed to recognize his house, the marvelous clutter inside. Afterward, she felt she'd suffered a vision, the present undone year by year by year until she was a child, a girl who was yet to grow up and go to college and meet a boy named Bobby who would bring into her life a man named Eddie who would unlock a door to a future she could barely walk through.

She was counting now--the world's snowflakes, the Sahara's grains of sand--putting between herself and whatever was coming next numbers she hoped one day to get to the end of. Eddie Heber had sat her down, swept several magazines off the sofa, People, The Statesman, a much-thumbed paperback Webster's, and he put a club soda in her hand; he was talking to her, one word--love--coming at her again and again, his voice the last ton of a twenty-ton day. It was a replay, she believed. She had already done it: she'd already peeled off her clothes and urged him down on top of her. She'd already felt him, fretful and needy and clumsy but cool as wax, move her this way and that, her hips rising, her fingers on the knobs of his spine and on his shoulders and on his knees, the strangled noise he made trying to hold himself back, her hands not strong enough for his head, her legs hooked behind his heels, the carpet scratching her back, boxes and crates and motor parts the only items to look at except for a face empty as a hoop.

Then it was over, the replay, and she was still dressed, out of numbers to count and soda to drink, and she had asked him if he was going to be bad for her.

He hoped not, he said. But one never knew.


"A turn of phrase," he said. "Nothing personal."

She was studying his living room, a corner of the kitchen, the hall. Back there was the bedroom, she guessed. One would have to rise, one would have to walk. A path led through the books, the unbalanced-looking piles of them, the titles as much about rocks and trees as they were about stuff you had to know to survive what daylight revealed. Somehow, one would have to put oneself on that path, past the laundry in a heap, past the speaker cabinets and the snapshots that had spilled out of a grocery sack.

Robert Spears, she thought. That was a man she had known, as were Karen Needham's brother and Tim Whitmire. J. T. Something-Something, a mechanic with a scar across his nose. Another who'd imagined himself Conway Twitty, a date as dull as water was wet. A decision had been reached, she realized. Later, these were the rooms she remembered when she wondered where she had abandoned herself. There: by the cushions. There: by the wobbly-looking table in a corner. There: near the end of a path to another door to pass through.

Now she was moving, her joints loose and oily, and Eddie had fallen in behind her, saying please excuse the mess. He was sorry. He'd intended to do more.

"That's all right," Carol Ann told him.

She had given pieces of herself away--a piece to every man she'd ever loved--and now, like coins and like words and like threads, they were all coming back.


He took her dreams first, little by little, the weight of them and their meaning. She dreamed of her daddy's ranch outside Clovis, the land wind-whitened and parched, and he took that. Eddie Heber. In junior high she had been a cheerleader, the Falcons, green-and-white pleated skirts with an applique megaphone stitched on the sweater. He took that, asking her to cheer for him, and applauded vigorously when she returned to bed. She'd broken her arm--her left--in a fall from a borrowed bike in front of her church. He grabbed that, and St. Andrew's itself, as well as the summer camp she went to in the mountains near Ruidoso. Her first snowman, her crush on Davy Crockett, the Ed Sullivan Show when she listened to the Beatles ask to hold her hand--he took those, and many times that first week she awakened with a start, her ears ringing, the sweat cold on her forehead, the sheets a tangle around her legs, and feared to see everything he'd taken suspended near the ceiling like stars to be wished upon.

Other times she found him staring at her. Or a part of her. Her ankle. The mole on her shoulder. A shaving nick on her knee. It was like being watched by a plant. Once she found him with a penlight, bent to her chest in wicked concentration. "Don't move," he said. Nothing else in the room was visible, as if beyond the light was only blackness void as space. The sheet around his shoulders, he smelled like well-water and Marlboros, rusty and stale. "Ssshhh," he said. He held her lipstick, a red so blue in this light that it looked like ink. "You're beautiful," he said, the word as much made from iron and silver as from air and tongue and teeth.

He drew on her then, around her nipple, his mouth set hard as a knob, as if this were work that required precision and monk-like patience, a version of top-secret science practiced underground. A moment later, he kissed her there, his lips soft as hair. A jolt surged through her, static sizzling up her spine. She wanted to say no as much as she wanted to say yes. She was in her skin. And out. Close and far. He would ruin her, she thought. He would take her apart hook by hasp by hinge and put her back together haphazardly and jury-rigged, the outside in, the private public as her face. Morning was coming, hazy and already squawky with birds in the tree outside their window, and she knew she'd soon find him on his back, his lips smeared and swollen and red.

For days--when she wasn't at school and when he wasn't mowing lawns or hauling yard trash--they talked. It developed that he could cook. "Baked fruit curry," he said once, showing her with a flourish the cherries and the pineapples and the peach halves. "Dilly bread," he said another time. "Eggplant casserole." They were announcements, these dishes. Declarations as formal as those that bigwigs got when they entered a ballroom to a fanfare. In return, she told him about her wedding to Bobby Spears, the Justice of the Peace who'd performed the ceremony in the living room of her daddy's house, Bobby's haircut a whitewall like the one he would get a year later from Uncle Sam. Her sorority sister, Sandi Harrison, had played the piano, "Cherish" by the Association. Her dress had come from Juarez, her own design of lace and satin and pearl buttons up the back. She had a lot to say, she felt, and exactly the right person to hear the whole of it. He drank--Bacardi, George Dickel, Buckhorn beer--and she talked. He cooked--Chocolate Cream Roll, Tamale Ring--and she told about her cousins, Julie and Becky Sims, and how her mother danced the Hully Gully and the first time seeing her father without his dentures, until the string of her had unwound and gone slack and she understood, less with her mind than with the worn muscle of her heart, that Eddie Heber was crazy.

"My boys," he said one evening. Petey and Willie and Eddie Junior. They were like him--agile as waterbugs and pesky, in and out of everything. They could cook, too. He'd learned it in the service--that's what he'd been, a chef, his MOS. An E-4 with a soup spoon. Cooked for the brass in Hotel Company with the 1/26. Petit Fours, Salmon Mousse, Lemon Meringue Pie--as at home in a pantry as was Picasso in a garret in gay Paree. Working for Uncle Sugar was like working at the Hilton Inn. The ruling class billeted in Airstream trailers, played golf on a three-hole course the Seabees had hacked out of the bush.

"Could've been Mexico," he said. "Puerta goddamn Vallarta."

Still in his workshirt, the sleeves rolled to the elbow, he was making almond macaroons. After school, she'd spent the afternoon searching for rosewater, three teaspoons of it, and now he was putting the recipe together--the egg whites, the superfine sugar, the flour, the blanched nuts--moving between the baking sheet and his bottle of Black Jack on the counter. He'd become handsome, she thought. His hair was still long, tied back in a ponytail, his face now brown as a Mexican's, and she remembered that night, years and years before, when he was skinnier, drawn and wasted like a castaway, a man with a pistol and the hooded, melancholy eyes of a vagrant. He had not been trying to scare her, she thought. Not really. Even then, he had been in love. Love could make you do anything, maybe howl or drive in a circle. Love might even involve guns.

Vietnam, he was saying. Best time of his life. Fucking aces high. Like Bandstand without the dress code. All the brutal business in the highlands or the delta never got anywhere near him. Steppenwolf on the 8-track, Budweiser in the fridge. Direct phone link with the World. Tried to ring up Bob Dylan one night, tell the guy he was full of it. No answers were blowing in the freaking wind. Hell, nothing blew over there. By comparison, R & R was a major disappointment. Couldn't wait to get back in the bush and rustle up some Knickerbocker fritters for X-mas.

"That's not what Bobby said," she told him.

"Bobby," he said. He could've been referring to a tree he'd trimmed. "Bobby was a clerk. During the day, he typed COM/SIT reports, hustled the commissary files."

For a minute, she refused to believe it, a Polaroid of Bobby in camouflage coming to mind.

"He bought the outfit in Hong Kong," Eddie told her. "On Nathan Street. I got a suit, looked like the lost member of the Temptations."

In the next hour--Humbug Pie, with raisins and molasses--he showed her more of himself. He'd been a liar, he confessed. In high school. At Houston. Sophomore year, for example, he'd told a girlfriend that his parents were dead. Marge and Gene. In a car wreck near Portales. They were alive, he said. Retired. They liked to ski--Sandia, Angel Fire over near Taos, up in Utah. His dad had worked for the Air Force, an engineer. His mom--

A question was coming, she realized. When he was finished, however long the current monologue took, however roundabout the getting there, he would ask her something--about them, certainly, but also about the vegetation and the land and the humans that they were upon it--and she would have to get an answer out without stuttering like an idiot who'd only learned English the week before.

"Fix me a drink?" she asked.

He made her a Cuba Libre--too sweet, she would recall--and he told her about Cynthia.

"Maiden name Lanier," he said. "From Galveston, a bona fide heiress. Oil. A million cousins and uncles, mostly in Louisiana. A gruesome people. All named Tippy or Foot or Beebum."

"You hit her," she said.

The next second, she would remember, was the longest she ever lived through.

"Once," he said. "During a spell."

Another second came, it too filled with pins and points.

Afterward, he said, Cynthia had sicked a mob of closed relations on him. Spent a week in Baylor Medical.

The sun had gone down a while ago and the kitchen, except for the light glaring over the stove, had become gloomy and choked with cigarette smoke. He was almost to the end of himself, she decided. All the bounce had left his voice, the ends of his sentences coming in whispers. Only dribs and drabs were reaching her: Fort Smith, Arkansas. A Starvin' Marvin. Light that turned the skin yellow as mustard. The walls wobbling. Behind the register, a female redneck, sullen as a snake. A quarrel about change. About the magazine rack. About the swirl the universe made going down the drain at his feet. Glass shattering, Pepsi bottles rolling like bowling pins. An arm, his own, sweeping along the service counter. The Globe. Castro playing voodoo with Kennedy's brain. Finally, a fist, his own. No more redneck Betty Boop standing up. Just, when the cops arrived, Edward L-for-Lonnie Heber sitting splay-legged in an aisle gobbling brown sugar from the bag.

"Eddie," she said.

She had his attention now, like being looked at by every peasant in China.

"Don't be crazy anymore, okay?"

"It's my temperament," he said. "I take offense."

He had put food in front of her--a wedge of pie and a macaroon, both cool--and she tried to eat a little. The light was in her eyes, still harsh as a screech, so she made him turn it off. She was thinking about her job--the numbers and shapes and science she was employed to pass on to the children that the neighborhood sent her. They liked geography, these kids. Tanika had chosen Zanzibar; Ellen Foley, Egypt. Cotton came from one place, copper from another. Everyone had a country to be responsible for--the tribes that rampaged the hinterlands, the chiefs who rose up to lead them, what they ate in their own huts and hovels, and what they loved first in a fight. That was the world, she thought. Ice at one corner, hot sand at another. That was the world, a patchwork you memorized for a test. That was the world--a spin of fire and smoke and wind and sweets to eat in the dark.

"Carol Ann," Eddie was saying.

He'd found her hand, and she, her heart a racket in her ears, could tell that his question was coming now--would she move in with him?--but she had her answer ready, the words of it as simple as those the lucky say in war.

After Valentine's Day, two weeks of living with him, she thought of the gun--Eddie's Makarov, scraped up from a field the LT had ordered cleared for horseshoes. She'd had a cold--the sniffles, chills occasionally--so she stayed home, faked a seal-like cough for Mr. Probert, then lay in bed all morning being serious with Donahue and Sally. At eleven, Jerry Springer came on--"Centerfold Sisters," the girls blonde and top-heavy and humorless as nuns--so at the commercial she shuffled into the kitchen for a cup of red zinger. She was at the cupboard when she realized it was still here: the pistol.

Eddie hoarded, nothing decrepit enough or useless enough or sufficiently broken to throw away. Everything, she realized, had come with him: clothes, notes he'd scribbled to himself, a stack of Times Heralds from Dallas, shoes he'd scuffed the heels from, books he'd quit, letters and bills and cards from the kids. He'd made his way to her, she thought, gathering scraps and scraps of paper along the way--another trail--and, if she wanted, she could track backwards through his life, the piles and mounds of it, until she came upon him at, say, fifteen--or five, or twenty--and could see him there, crumpled in his hand the first thing that marked the path he was to travel through time.

In what had become his reading room--the third bedroom, already tiny and now cramped as an attic with cassettes and periodicals and accordion files--she sat in his chair, the footstool in front of it laden with catalogues and maps of places he'd, so far as she knew, never been to, places like France and mountainous Tibet, as remote and strange as lands you found in pop-up books about fairies and gypsies and high-hatted wizards.

For a time, she toyed with the switch to the floor lamp. On and off. A cone of light over her shoulder, then a wash of morning as gray as the paint on warehouses. He'd stuck foil on all the windows. A bulletin board dominated one wall, his customers scheduled in a grid that went till the new century. She was pleased to see that he'd planned to be busy through 1999--the year, according to Mr. Probert, that Jesus, willful and heedless as a spendthrift, was returning to boil the mess man was. She imagined Eddie then, over fifty, still lean as pricey meat, that figure beside him maybe her own aged self in a dress too fussy with snaps and buckles to be anything but science fiction.

Eddie was an optimist, she decided. Every morning, he made lists--prune Mrs. Grissom's firebush, take down the shed at the Samples' house, get insecticide from the Mesilla Valley Garden Center--and he drove away in his pickup knowing what led to what and it to another until, at sundown, he could come back to this room to draw another X in his calendar. An X for then, an X for now. X's enough for the future--maybe for jealous Jesus Himself--and whatever sob-filled hours came after that.

She sighed when she looked at the metal file cabinet underneath the grid. That's where it was, she thought. The gun. For a moment, laughter from the TV reaching her even here, she wondered what he would say if he knew that she had opened a drawer, the top one, all squeaky and warped, and found it there, the barrel rust-flecked as she remembered, a web of cracks running up the grip on one side. She was curious about how his face would work, the chewing movements at his temples, if he knew that she'd held the pistol, absently rubbing the faded red star, studying the peculiar markings near the trigger guard, before she put it back--that squeak again--and went to see, as she was doing now, what opinions the bosomy Miss Septembers had regarding certain monkeyshines between girls and boys.

Once upon a time, she thought, Eddie had had a secret. Now she had one.

The end of February. March out like a lamb. Easter. He was fine for those months. May flowers. Then June and he arrived for the class party on the last day straight from work--a new home he was landscaping in Telshor Hills, another big shot with a wallet like a loaf of bread. He ate a square of the spice sheetcake he'd baked the night before, drank Kool-Aid, even wore a party hat when Alicia Lynn Pinney--the Miss Priss in the third row--pointed out the rules. Parties and hats went together like salt and pepper. Afterward, when she was cleaning up, he told her she could relax.

"It doesn't happen the way you think," he announced. "It's gradual."

He was sitting at her desk, smoking with deliberation, flicking ashes onto a paper plate.

Other rules, she guessed. Out the window, she could see some older kids--sixth graders, maybe Ruthie Evans's kids--gathered around the tether-ball pole. It seemed probable that a fight would start out there. Or a powwow.

"It builds," he told her. "Something goes haywire. The waters rise."

In the hall, a bell was dinging: three-fifteen. School had ended, officially.

"You're warning me," she said, a question. The first of many. Like rules.

His shirt stained with sweat, a line of grit on his brow from his headband, he looked like a warrior who'd scrambled out of the hills for food.

"I fill up," he was saying. "It spills."

Outside the sixth-graders were wandering off in pairs or alone. Mr. Probert was out there, she assumed, persnickety and loud as a drum. He looked like a man who'd removed his own sense of humor with a chain saw.

"You'll tell me when?" she asked.

Reaching for a fallen column of Dixie cups, he had stood, not hurriedly.

"I'll clean up," he said. "I'll tell you when."

For the Fourth of July, he took three days for them to visit her folks in Clovis. Since she'd left for college, her father had put in a pool, so he and Eddie sat under the awning on the cool deck drinking Pearl Light while she floated on a rubber raft near the diving board. Every now and then, she could hear them chuckling softly, then her daddy teasing her mother who wouldn't leave the porch for the sun. "That water's cold as scissors," she said once. The light here was different--thinner somehow, less wrathful than in the desert--the landscape grassier, not so hardpan but without tooth-like mountains at the horizon to show you how far you had to go.

On the Fourth itself, they watched the fireworks from the city twelve miles south, miniature bursts of gold and green, like showers of foil, the sounds of the explosions arriving well after she'd seen the glitter against a sky black as the cape a witch wears.

"Incoming," Eddie remarked once, before taking her hand to let her know he was fooling. It had been like this in Vietnam, he told her father. A swimming pool, a Porterhouse steak for each trooper, and an Air Force light show far, far away.

That night, after her parents had gone to bed, Carol Ann wished Eddie sweet dreams at the door to the guest bedroom where he was to sleep.

"They don't know," he said. "About us, I mean."

She couldn't see much of his face, just eerie glints from his cheek and nose. She hoped he was smiling.

"They're old-fashioned," she said. "Mother would be upset."

His hand came up then, out of the darkness, and reached into the cup of her swimsuit to hold her breast. He was dry, nothing in his touch to suggest that she was more to him that wood and nails and strings to pull.

"You didn't tell me you had a nickname," he said. "Squeaky."

Laryngitis, she said. In grade school. It was, well, embarrassing. Sounded more like a frog than a mouse.

"You had a horse, too," he said. "Skeeter. It threw you out by the corral."

His hand was still there, unmoving. He could have been wearing a leather glove, and for a second she thought to go in the room with him, that she would shrug off her top and lie beside him until whatever was kicking at his heart ran out of anger.

"I like your parents," he told her. "They're stand-up people. You don't get much of that nowadays."

He had stopped smiling, she supposed. You could hear the earnestness in his voice, the sour note it was. She guessed he was thinking about the heroes he rooted for in the books he bought--books whose covers were all about doom and distress and deeds wrought by righteousness. In those books, standing up was a virtue. So far as she understood, the vices included hypocrisy and back-stabbing. In Eddie's books, the characters suffered no fools. They rose up, indignant as children, and let fly with arrows and poleaxes and lances.

"Eddie?" she said.

His hand had moved, like a claw. Down the hall, her father was coughing, a wheeze without any charm to it. She had been Squeaky once, she thought. She had been a Mobley, then a Spears. Now what? What were you in the dark? One. That had been Eddie's word months and months ago. What were you when the gears slipped or ground or disengaged completely?

"It's happening," he said.

She nodded.

"Forewarned is forearmed."


In early August, he stopped cooking. For several days he ate only peanut butter from the jar, then macaroni and cheese. He stared at the TV, yelled abuse at the gussied-up newsfolk NBC had hired to educate him.

"You could see a doctor," she told him one evening.

Only as a last resort, he said. It was like breathing through a soaked washcloth. They wrenched open your skull, dropped a torch in there, wriggled their fingers in the slop.

His hand was shaking in a fashion she suspected he was unaware of. It got better as you got older, he'd told her on the drive back from Clovis. He was getting older all the time.

"You're proud, aren't you?"

He smiled at her then, the whole of his face engaged in the effort.

"I am the King of Pride," he said. "The absolute fucking monarch."

On Thursday, the day his letter to the editor appeared in the Sun-News, he was working for fudge Sanders, putting in a rock and cactus garden, so she drove over to park at the corner, far enough away to be inconspicuous. She'd seen the list--ocotillo, monkey flower, brittlebush, gravel from an arroyo behind A Mountain--his handwriting square and tight, as if written with a chisel.

They'd made love the night before--he only to her, she believed, but she to eight or nine of him. One of him had been feverish, another chilled enough to get goosebumps. One laughed, another whistled from the foot of the bed and lunged at her like a tiger, his head wagging heavily, his eyes wide as nickels. The one in the refuge of the corner, knees to his chest, was not the one who rose from it, slow and shaggy-seeming. She hadn't been horrified, she thought now, recalling the steady thump of her heart. The love-making itself had been tedious: a matter of tabs and slots and deliberate movement. Eddie had been dry weight, all bone and ash--flesh that rocked back and forth regularly as clockwork. Once he sang along with his boombox--Patsy Cline, she remembered--but his voice had run out long before the music did, and when she lifted his face to look at him, she discovered that he was gone, the shell of him slick and unfeeling as glass.

"It's like a landslide," he said. "Imagine a mountain crashing down on your head."

He was a shade, she'd thought. Insubstantial as a ghost. And for a time, astride him, trying to make him hard, she believed he was trying, in a way twisted with love, to protect her from the knowledge that life was not glorious and purposeful and prodigious with reward. They were a kind, he and she, dragged upright by time but too stupid to follow the generally forward direction thought best to go.

"Help me, Eddie," she said "Please, help me."

He was trying, he said

Again, she asked, but this time he said nothing, so she leaned into him, his smell at once tangy and greasy, salt and lemon and soap, her face against his neck, her lips to his ear, saying the word love with as much bite as she imagined a dictator might say the word kill.

Much later--after she'd gone away, after he'd come back to himself--she realized that this was the first time she'd told him she loved him, but it was a sentence she remembered cleaving to, like a monotonous beat, for one minute, then two, as pure and aggrieved the last time said as it was the first. The covers in a heap at the foot of the bed, she grew cold as she spoke, the I of her pressed into the you of him, not knowing what she hoped to prove, then knowing--from his witless moans, from his hand stroking the small of her back--that she had everything to prove: he would be worse before he was better--yes, she understood that--but he had to know, even in the worst of it, that she loved him.

So she kept saying it, a speech delivered into his neck and shoulder, to his cheeks and his forehead as she kissed him, into his chin after he smoothed back her hair, to his lips until he'd stopped trembling and she was quiet and it seemed that nothing--least of all sentiments having to do with the soul of her--had been said at all, until they reached a point in the night when he drew her to his chest to tell her to listen closely to the clatter and bang in him that were his various demons.

"I'm scared, Eddie," she said.

So was he, he told her. He was helpless.

On one wall several shadows were at play from the flickering candlelight, none of them meaningful or part of love.

"Tell me about the picture," she said. "The one Bobby made for you."

It was her spring formal, he said. She looked like ice cream to him. The only cool thing in the world. The LT, a West Point grad, had said Eddie's affection for it bordered on the inordinate.

"That was wrong," Eddie said. "My affection was as ordinate as the day is long."

Scarcely an inch apart, they lay side by side. Like an old couple, she thought. A modern schoolmarm and the King of Pride. She thought of her parents--Rilla and Cuddy--lying, probably like this, as distant from her as she seemed to be from Eddie. Once, when she was seven, she'd watched them nap, and she had tried, standing at the door to their bedroom, to imagine their dreams, wondering at last if, where in them it was dark and breezy and broad as heaven, they dreamed themselves lying each by each, inert and almost breathless, no one but Carol Ann to beckon them back to the wakeful world.

"Let's go to sleep, Eddie," she'd said.

Yes, he said, an answer with too much hiss in it.

"I love you," she'd said.

And he'd said it too, the terrible simplicity of it all she could remember between then and now, between Eddie looking as if his arms would fly off in agony and Eddie now bustling back and forth in the sun at Judge Sanders's house.

In her lap, she had the Sun-News open to the letters page. It was mid-August, school to start in three weeks, and already some lamebrains were writing to complain about a teachers' strike Carol Ann didn't think would actually happen. At home, reading his letter had frightened her, but here, only a half-block from him, she tried again, saying aloud the first paragraph--it seemed as long as her forearm--until her eyes came free of the page and she could see that Eddie was stock-still at the door to his pickup, his head tipped back, the sky blank and almost white behind him. Edward L Heber, the letter-writer, was not lunatic. Edward L. Heber was angry. Things are out of whack, he'd written. Collapsed and ruined. There is hunger. And ignorance. And false piety. And--but she'd stopped again, Eddie with a broom now, leaning on it and again gazing upward.

He was a moralist, she decided. Maybe that was good. A hopey thing with wings.

For another twenty minutes she watched him work, the yardage between them filled only with heat shimmering up from the asphalt. Load after load, he was shoveling out gravel, carrying it to a pile near the walk leading to the Judge's front door. Clearly, this was how he managed--one simple undertaking at a time, scoop, walk, dump--his manner calculated and efficient, as if he could do this, happily and well, until he found himself at the bottom of a pit, alone at last with the one stone that had made him furious. She tried to conceive of the inside of his head--the fountain of sparks in there, the rattle--but a second later she realized he had stopped, in mid-stride almost, as fixed as a scarecrow.

"What're you doing here?" he said.

Still carrying the shovel, he had taken only a half minute to reach her--she'd timed it. Amazingly, he had not dropped even one pebble.

"I don't know," she said. "I should be over at school, but--" She shrugged. What with the union yakking about the strike, she didn't see any profit in fixing up her classroom if in a week she was going to be walking a picket line and generally making a spectacle of herself. "I thought we could go out to dinner tonight," she said. "Maybe a movie after."

It was blabber. What she really wanted to do was grab his sleeve, make him leave the shovel here, the truck there, and get in the car with her. They would sit for a while, another lovelorn couple in paradise. She would hold his hand--or he hers--the afternoon would wear on, dusk would arrive, then twilight, then night itself full of random twinkles or a moon on the wane.

"I made a call," he said. "This morning."

Before she understood completely what he'd done, she sought to rewind time, yank the cord of it back so that he was not here, beside her window. She yearned to be young again, the ideas of love and loyalty as alien to her as were orchids to Eskimos.

"Bobby Spears," she said, a statement of fact, like the number of bushels in a peck.

The shovel jerked now, a handful of gravel spilling.

"He's got an extra room," Eddie said. "You'll be safe there."

Her lungs filled then--a gasp, nearly--and she feared Eddie would be turning now, going away, back to his work, back to the truck, back to the thirty-two steps between it and the mountain he had contrived to erect in the front yard of a retired Federal Court judge. He was trying to protect her again. Maybe that was good too.

"Don't be mad, Carol Ann," he said. "I don't know anybody else."

"What about the girlfriend?" she asked.

They were married, Eddie told her. The girl--Sally or Sarah, he wasn't sure--was pregnant. Bobby was different now.

"This seemed like a smart idea, Eddie?"

He looked beleaguered, a beast run to ground by hounds and horses.

"I only had one card left," he said. "I played it."

On the seat next to her, the paper was still open, the rage and sorrow of this man not anything any citizen would remember tomorrow, or the days to follow. Elsewhere were articles about mayhem and conniving and the snapped-off-ends of hope. We are craven, Eddie had declared to his neighbors, and to his neighbors' neighbors, and to anyone else who could read left to right. We must mend. Now.

"How long?" Carol Ann wondered.

He didn't know, he said. Six weeks maybe, more or less. It'd been quite a while since the last episode.

She thought about the night before, watching him sleep, the peace it had seemed to bring him, then her own sleep, nothing but wire in her dreams--fists of it, huge coils sprung and flyaway and mangled--then awake and seeing him frozen in the hall, the light a streak in front of him, his face shriven and collapsed, a scary amount of time going by before he shivered to life again and stumbled toward her.

"I'll give you a month," she said. "I couldn't last any longer."

Okay, he said, little in the word to indicate it had any meaning for him.

"I gotta go back to work, Carol Ann."

"Okay," she said, her turn not to mean too much.

He moved then, the shovel a counterweight to keep him from falling over in a heap. His tattoo had come into view, crude and obviously unfinished, the handiwork of a B & E offender named Pease. Sometimes, Eddie wore a bandage to cover it. He was ashamed, he'd told her long ago. A dragon, he'd sneered. How fucking pathetic.

"Eddie," she called.

More gravel fell.

"What'd you see last night?" she asked. "In the hall."

He told her then, but she believed she hadn't heard correctly, so she asked him to repeat himself--"Fire," he said, the way "sin" is said in wonderland. And while he walked away, she thought she could see it too, the yellow and red of it roaring up and up, and the terrifying wind of it overtaking everything in front of her--the trees, these houses, the telephone poles, shrubs, Eddie's truck, at last Eddie himself--until all that remained was rubble scorched black as a nightmare.


Copyright © 1997 Lee Abbott. All rights reserved.

This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, September 1997
Booklist, November 1997
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Table of Contents
The Way Sin Is Said in Wonderlandp. 1
On Tuesday Nothing, on Wednesday Wallsp. 36
A Man Bearing Snowp. 62
The Human Use of Inhuman Beingsp. 95
How One Becomes the Otherp. 114
As Fate Would Have Itp. 122
A Creature out of Palestinep. 139
The Talk Talked between Wormsp. 155
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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