Monday, December 16, 2013

#110: "In Black and White" by Terese Svoboda

~This story previously appeared in The Yale Review (2003).

            Henry does not want to sink heel nor toe into it. He unlaces and removes his shoes and then parts the cane and thorn and rubbish that the land here offers over itself but the laces snag even in Henry's uplifted hand while the thorns scrape deep into its white side. What I hear is what you might, words he learned from his mammy or so he says his father calls her when she curses, words I can hear even over the pump and the child, even over the gush of one and the howl of the other. As Henry fights his way through the briars barefoot, curses his way past the Cad and the boat and the Something Else vehicle you can't see from the street the thorns are so thick, the rat pink baby limbs get soap-rinsed and so slippery some tight gripping is involved, then some quick wrapping and baby soothing, some milk up front.
            He kisses us both, all lips buss air, and he pinches my cheek bottom to make the baby suck harder.
            He is putting in the horse stove, I say. Inside.          
         Henry says he has such a movie he is going to make, he is almost sure to make. Where is this stove?
            Before I can think how he will steer past the fallen wood and shingles to the stove place, the baby, nakedly post-pumpbath nursing, pees straight up at me, pees right into my ear as my head is turned toward Henry who now finds a smile you could shake up and find frothy.

            He spots the stove place through the uprights, he waves as I work the towel, he heads in.
            The horse stove sits upright but is not yet chimneyed. So covered in soot--secondhand soot because the stove had a life in another house where its horse-embossed front glowed so orange in its heating that we made an offer on the spot--the father of the baby throws off a black cloud when he and Henry tender their handshakes, while the boards he has taken out or down shift under their effort and some even threaten to fall. Henry waves at them too, without touching them. They teeter, they fall back the way they should.
            He says he's brought beer and hors d'oeuvres and news about his movie and what about dinner?
            The father of the baby backpats Henry out through the doorless kitchen and into the backyard where tree limbs hang and the thorns all around have been almost all held back with thick silver tape so you can sit in amongst them. I expect to find another seat soon, he says as he bends down to adjust three buckets seats all entwined in vine. The thorns gave up half a gas pump last time we weed-whacked.  
            Together they dig a pit beside the three seats and somehow Henry’s pressed-sharp pants don’t get dirty even though he puts coals down the pit's sides in a basket fashion, layer on layer without a smear of black while the father of the baby gathers sticks out of the thorns and then they light it, with the wood of the matches they ruin.
            Henry's girl shows, out of the blue. She's the salt to his pepper, she's trouble and fun, invited of course, but unexpected. Her taxi comes from the train while I'm wrestling the not quite sleeping baby into his suitcase. It holds his blankets and diapers and, with it left open, just barely him. I put it close to the hotdogs, the spare ones for breakfast, so the dog will watch him. Then I go join Henry's girl where she is fitting herself into the last seat, I go to squat by the fire and laugh.
            The bugs sure like the fire, Henry says into the dusk that settles in as fast as the smoke. This is what we all say after the wieners are roasted and the last of the chips--Henry's hors d'oeuvres--are taken care of by the dog who knows a chip in a bush is better than spare breakfast dogs beside a baby, this is what we say while we swat and laugh. Then we bless that fire with beer sprinklings, and surprise, the bugs change over its steam into stars, snapping other stars at a distance.
            Stars of another kind are what the men talk of, who's got what tune and via what talent or video. Henry's girl and I ask how much of this talk will have to be talked up to beard the long night. We have heard about talent before, about their agents and backups and deals and schedules. I swing the baby, trying to wake, on a branch, I swing him to a little tune about stars the others barely remember.
            You like this place? asks Henry.
            We haven't found any bodies yet, the father of the baby says and chalks one up. Though it does smell a little.
            It's sewage, I say like that's a comfort. At least we have the pump.
            I could never buy here, he says, I can't wear Ferragamos or the cops think they're hot. With Guccis like this they figure you can pay them off, you've got real money, not credit. He shines his left shoe with a leaf. It's a beach like the Hamptons or nothing.
            What water we have is not so far away and water--the chugging of a washer, the sink spigot--is all that will calm the baby who now needs it. Without a washer or a sink, we must walk down the dark chunked-up asphalt road, between reeds, cattails and the bedsprings that lie strewn along it, walk to the back porch of a neighbor, or, rather, an ex-neighbor who lives now in some less sheriff x-ed out place, then walk up to our knees into the water that drifts over his back porch. The baby's little legs thrash and then dangle from the railing under which armored crabs swim, chained one to the other in an ecstasy of summer and crab sex, a five or ten crab chain that weaves around our ankles under a flashlight Henry holds.
            It's perfect, he says. How much for the location?
            We laugh.  Stars wouldn't come here, I say. They would have to be borne here on sedan chairs.
            They would have to be born here, says Henry's girl. But who comes from here who would want to come back?
            She only pretends no interest in stars, she has their numbers. You can almost hear her packaging them, the ribbons coming together, the six or seven figures. She's Henry's one-way to the Hamptons. 
            They wouldn't have to stay the night, I say. You don't either.
            But I've brought the sleeping bags you suggested, she says. And paper so they could work.
            The baby, carried all this way by his father, signals his opinion of work. The baby really loves the movies, says his father over his crying, he will keep his eyes open for as long as it takes.
            We're in his movie, I say. It's a classic.
            Henry takes the little guy bare chest to bare chest and offers his heart to him until he's quiet. There's so much silence we can hear the two pumps, and the crabs underwater, the bugs in the reeds scraping their bellies, and the tide at the sand.
            The moon rises.
            Camera, action, says the father's baby.


            Thirty years after the event, I sent the story to my friend with the loafers and he remembered what brand of hot dogs he brought. By then he'd produced a whole series of house party movies, as he was destined to do. Race was just another factor in a kaleidoscope of this unbelievably bad weekend yet the thorns, the crabby baby, the limited supper were dismissed on the spot by him and his girlfriend--they thought of it as an adventure. Key to the mystery of the place were those thorny vines, a thicket that couldn't be fought through, that hid all the history, past and future: especially the Cad, the moon, and the ocean coming-to-get-you.

            Terese Svoboda's most recent novel is Bohemian Girl, named one of Booklist's ten best Westerns for 2012. 

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