A SHORT STORY BY BOBBIE ANN MASON
WHEN JANE LIVED WITH COY WILSON, HE COULDN’T listen to rock music before noon or after supper. In the morning, it was too jarring; at night, the vibrations lingered in his head and interfered with his sleep. But now that they are apart, Jane listens to Rock-95 all the time. Rock-95 is a college station in western Kentucky—“your station for kick-ass rock-and-roll.”She sets the radio alarm every night for eight A.M., and when it goes off she dozes and dreams while the music blasts in her ears for an hour or more. Women rock singers snarl and scream their independence. The sounds are numbing. Jane figures if she can listen to hard rock in her sleep, she won’t care that Coy has gone.
Jane stands in the window in pink shortie pajamas, watching her landlady, Mrs. Bush, hang out her wash. Today is white things: sheets, socks, underwear, towels. Jane’s mother used to say, “Always separate your colored things from your white things!” as though there were something morally significant about the way you do laundry. Jane never follows the rules. All her sheets have flowers on them, and her underwear is bright colors. Anything white is outnumbered. The men’s shorts on Mrs. Bush’s wash line flap in the breeze like flags of surrender.
The coffee is bitter. She bought the store brand, because Mrs. Bush gave her a fifty-cent coupon, and the store paid double coupons. Mrs. Bush, who is a waitress at the Villa Romano, keeps asking Jane when she is going to get a job. When Coy lived there, Mrs. Bush was always asking him when he was going to marry Jane. Six weeks ago, not longafter she split up with Coy, Jane was laid off from the Holiday Clothing Company. First she was a folder, then a presser. Folding was more satisfying than pressing—the heat from the presser took the curl out of her hair—but when she was switched to the pressing room, she got a fifty-cents-an-hour raise. She was hoping to go to the Villa Romano that night with Coy and have a spaghetti supper to celebrate, but he chose that day to move back home with his mother. His unemployment had run out two weeks before, and he had been at loose ends. He thought he was getting an ulcer. When Jane got home, he had lined up their joint possessions on the floor—the toaster, the blender, the records, the TV tables, a whatnot, even the kitchen utensils.
“The TV’s mine,” he said apologetically. “I had it when we started out.”
“I told you I’d pay the rent,” she said, as he punched his jeans into a duffel bag. When he wouldn’t answer, she set the coffee pot in the cabinet and shut the door. “I got the coffee pot with Green Stamps,” she said.
“I’m going to cut out coffee anyway”
“Good. It makes you irritable.”
Coy set the toaster in a grocery box with some shaving cream and socks—all his mateless socks from what Jane called his Lonely Sock Drawer. Jane tried to keep from crying as she pleaded with him to stay.
“I can’t let you go on supporting me,” he said. “I wasn’t raised that way”
“What’s the difference? Your mother will support you. You could even watch her TV.”
He divided the record albums as though he were dealingout cards. “One for you and one for me.” He left his favorite Willie Nelson record in her pile.
When he left, she said, “You just let me know when you get yourself straightened out, and we’ll take it from there.”
“That’s my whole point,” said Coy. “I have to work things out.”
Jane knew she should have been more understanding. He was appreciative of delicate, fine things most men wouldn’t notice, such as flowers and pretty dishes. Coy was tender in his love-making, with more sensitivity than men were usually given credit for. On Phil Donahue’s show, when the topic was sex, the women in the audience always said they wanted men who were gentle and considerate and involved in a lot of touching during the day instead of “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” at the end of the day. Coy was the answer to those women’s prayers, but he went too far. He was so fragile, with his nervous stomach. He couldn’t watch meat being cut up. Jane still finds broken rolls of Tums stashed around the apartment.
Unemployed, Jane is adrift. She watches a lot of TV. She managed to buy a TV on sale before she lost her job. She has had to stop smoking (not a serious problem) and eatingout so that she can keep up her car and TV payments. She canceled her subscription to a cosmetics club. She has accumulated a lot of bizarre eye shadows and creams that she doesn’t use. When she goes out to a job interview, she paints her face and feels silly. Job-hunting is like going to church—a pointless ritual of dressing up. At the factory, she had to wear a blue smock over a dark skirt. Pants weren’t allowed. “I wish I could get on at the Villa Romano,” she tells Mrs. Bush. “The uniform is nice, and I could wear pants.”
Coy used to go to Kentucky Lake alone sometimes, for the whole weekend, to meditate and restore himself. She once thought his desire to be alone was peculiar, but now she appreciates it. Being alone is incredibly easy. Her mind sails off into unexpected trances. Sometimes she pretends she is an invalid recovering from a coma, and she rediscovers everything around her—simple things, like the noise the rotary antenna makes, a sound she never heard when the TV volume was loud. Or she pretends she is in a wheelchair, viewing the world from one certain level. She likes to see things suddenly, from new angles. Once when Coy lived there, she stepped up on a crate to dust the top of a shelf, and Coy suddenly appeared and caught her in an embrace. On the crate, she was exactly his height. The dusty shelf was at eye level. For a day or two, she went around noticing the spaces that would be in his line of vision—the top of the refrigerator, the top of an old cardboard wardrobe her father had given her, curtain rods, moldings.
Today, when Jane leaves the apartment to pick up her unemployment check, Mrs. Bush is outside, watering her petunias. She pulls a letter from her pocket and waves it at Jane.
“My boy’s in California,” she says. “They’re going to let > him have a furlough, but he likes it so much out there he won’t come home.”
“I don’t blame him,” says Jane. “It’s too far, and California must be a lot more fun than here.”
“They started him out on heavy-duty equipment, but that didn’t suit him and they’ve switched him to electronics. They take a hundred dollars out of his pay every month, and then when he gets out they’ll double it and give him a bonus so he can go to school.”
Mrs. Bush fires water at a border of hollyhocks. Jane steps over the coiled hose and casually thinks of evil serpents. She says, “My brother couldn’t get in the Army because he had high arches, so he became a Holy Roller preacher instead. He used to cuss like the devil, but now he’s preaching up a storm.” Jane looks Mrs. Bush straight in the eyes. She’s not old, but looks old. If she died, maybe Jane could get her job.
“My cousin was a Holy Roller,” says Mrs. Bush. “He got sanctified and then got hit by a truck the next day.”
Nervously, Mrs. Bush tears off the edging of paper where she has ripped open the letter from her son. She balls the bit of paper and drops it into a pot of hen and chickens.
JANE’S MOTHER DIED WHEN SHE WAS FIFTEEN, AND her father, Vernon Motherall, has never learned to cook for himself. “What’s in this?” he asks suspiciously that weekend, when she takes him a tuna casserole. “Macaroni. Tuna fish. Mushroom soup.”
“I don’t like mushrooms. Mushrooms is poison.”
“This isn’t poison. It’s Campbell’s.” Jane has brought him this same kind of casserole dozens of times, and he always argues against mushrooms. He’s convinced that someday a mushroom is going to get him.
Vernon rents the bottom half of a dilapidated clapboard house. He has two dump trucks in the back yard. He hauls rock and sand and asphalt—“whatever needs hauling,” his ad in the Yellow Pages says. His dingy office is filled with greasy papers on spikes and piles of Field and Stream magazines. In a ray of sunlight, the dust whirls and sparkles. Jane sweeps her hand through it.
“I wish I had some money,” she says. “I’d buy you one of those things that takes the negative ions out of the air.”
“What good’s that do?” Vernon is swigging a Pabst, though it’s still morning.
“It knocks the dust out of the air.”
“What for?” The way Jane’s father speaks is more like an extended grunt than conversation. He sits in a large stuffed chair that seems to be part of his own big lumpy body.
“I don’t know. I think the dust just falls down instead of circulating. If you had one of those, your sinuses wouldn’t be so bad.”
“They ain’t been bothering me none lately.”
“Those ionizers make you feel good, too. They do something to your mood.”
“I’ve got all I need for my mood,” he says, lifting his bottle of beer.
“You drink too much.”
“Don’t look at my beer belly.”
“I will if I want to,” Jane says, playfully thumping his belt buckle. “You get loaded and go out and have wrecks. You’re going to get yourself killed.”
Vernon grins at her mockingly. They always have this conversation, and he never takes her seriously.
“Here, eat this,” Jane says, plopping a scoop of casserole on a melamine plate that has discolorations on it.
Vernon plucks another beer from the refrigerator and sits down at the card table in his dirty kitchen. He eats without comment, then mops his plate with a bread heel. When he finishes, he says, “I went to hear Joe preach at his new church the other Sunday. How did I turn out a boy like that? He’s bound and determined to make a fool out of himself. His wife runs out on him and he turns around and starts preaching Holy Roller. Did you know he talks in tongues now? What will he think of next?”
“Well, Joe goes at anything like killing snakes,” says Jane. “It’s all or nothing.”
Vernon laughs. “His text for the day was the Twentythird Psalm, and he comes to the part where the Lord maketh me lie down in green pastures and restoreth my soul? And he reads it ‘he storeth my soul,’and starts preaching on the Lord’s storehouses.” Vernon doubles over laughing. “He thinks the Lord stores souls—like corn in a grain elevator!”
“I wonder what ever happened to all those grain-elevator explosions we used to hear about,” Jane says, giggling.
“If the Lord stores some of those pitiful souls Joe’s dragged in, his storehouse is liable to explode!” Vernon laughs, and beer sprays out of his mouth.
“Have some more tuna casserole,” Jane says affectionately. When it comes to her brother, who was always in trouble, she and her father are in cahoots.
“You should have a good man to cook for. Not Coy Wilson. He’s too prissy, and he took advantage of you, living with you with no intention of marrying.”
“You’re still feeling guilty ‘cause you ran out on me and Joe and Mother that time,” says Jane, shifting the subject.
“The trouble is, too many women are working and the men can’t get jobs,” her father says. “Women should stay home.”
“Don’t start in,” Jane says in a warning voice. “I’ve got enough trouble.”
“You could move back home with me,” Vernon says plaintively. “Parents always used to take care of their kids till they married.”
“I guess that’s why Coy ran home to his mama.”
“You can come home to your old daddy any time,” Vernon says, moving back to his easy chair. The vinyl upholstery makes obscene noises when he lands.
“It would never work,”Jane says. “We don’t like the same TV shows anymore.”
WAITING IN THE UNEMPLOYMENT LINE THE NEXT afternoon is tedious, and all the faces have deadpan expressions, but Jane is feeling elated, almost euphoric, though for no substantial reason. In the car, driving past a local radio transmitter, she suddenly realized that she had no idea how sound got from the transmitter to the radio. She felt so ignorant. The idea of sound waves seemed farfetched. She went to the library and asked for a book about radio. The librarian showed her a pamphlet about Nathan Stubblefield.
“He invented radio,” the woman said. “They say it was Marconi, but Stubblefield was really the first, and he was from right around here. He lived five miles from my house.”
“I always heard radio was invented in Kentucky,” Jane said.
“He just never got credit for it.” The woman reminded Jane of a bouncy game-show contestant. “Kentucky never gets enough credit, if you ask me. We’ve got so much here to be proud of. Kentucky even has a Golden Pond, like in the movie.”
Reading the pamphlet in the unemployment line, Jane feels strangely connected to something historically important. It is a miracle that sound can travel long distances through the air and then appear instantaneously, like a genie from a bottle, and that a man from Kentucky was the first to make it happen. Who can she tell? Who would care? This is the sort of thing that wouldn’t register on her father, and Coy would think she was crazy. Her brother, though, would recognize the feeling. It occurs to Jane that he probably hears voices from heaven every day, just as though he were tuned in to heaven’s airways. She wonders if he can really talk in tongues. Her brother is a radio! Jane feels like dancing. In her mind, the unemployment line suddenly turns into a chorus line, a movie scene. For a moment, she’s afraid she’s going nuts. The line inches forward.
After collecting her check, she cashes it at the bank’s drive-in window, talking to the teller through a speaker, then goes to Jerry’s Drive-In and orders a Coke through another speaker. A voice confirms her order, and in the background behind the voice, Jane hears a radio playing— Rock-95, the same station she is hearing on her car radio.
COY CALLS UP DURING AMARY TYLER MOORE RErun that week, one Jane hasn’t seen before. Jane is eating canned ravioli. The clarity of his voice startles her. He could be in the same room.
“I got a job! Floorwalking at Wal-Mart.”
“Oh, I’m glad.” Jane spears a pillow of ravioli and listens while Coy describes his hours and his duties and the amount of take-home pay he gets—less than he made at the plant before his layoff, but with more security. The job sounds incredibly boring.
“When I get on my feet, maybe we can reconsider some things,” he says.
“If you’re floorwalking, you’re already on your feet,” she says. “That’s a joke,” she says, when he doesn’t respond. “I don’t want to get back together if money’s the issue.”
“I thought we went through all that.”
“I’ve been thinking, and I can’t let you support me.” “Well, I’ve got a job now, and you don’t.”
“You wouldn’t let me support you,”Jane says. “Why should I let you support me?”
“If we got back together, you could go to school parttime.”
“I have to find a job first. I’d go to school now if I could go and still draw unemployment, but they won’t let you draw and go to school too. Let’s change the subject. How’s your stomach?”
Coy tells Jane that on the news he saw pictures of starving children in Africa, and managed to watch without getting queasy. Jane always told him he was too sensitive to misfortunes that had nothing to do with him.
An awkward silence follows. Finally, Jane says, “My brother’s got a Holy Roller church. He’s preaching.”
“That sounds about like him,” Coy says, without surprise.
“I think I’ll go Sunday. I need some religion. Do you want to go?”
“Hell, no, I don’t want to invite a migraine.”
“I thought your nerves were getting better.”
“They are, but they’re not that good yet.”
After Coy hangs up, Jane feels lonely, wishing Coy were there, touching her lightly with promising caresses, like the women on Donahue always wanted. Once, Rita Jenrette, whose husband was involved in a political scandal, was on Donahue’s show, and during the program her husband called up. Coy’s job sounds so depressing. Jane wishes he were the host of a radio call-in show. She could call him up and talk to him, pretending there was nothing personal between them. She would ask him about love. She’d ask whether he thought the magic of love worked anything at all like radio waves. Her ravioli grows cold.
JOE’S CHURCH IS CALLED THE FOREMOST EVANGELIcal Assembly. The church is a converted house trailer, with a perpendicular extension. There is a Coke machine in the corridor. People sit around drinking Cokes and 7-Ups. No one is dressed up.
“Can you believe it!” cries Joe, clasping both of Jane’s hands and jerking her forward as though about to swing her around in a game children play.
“Can you pray for me to find a job?” Jane says, grinning. “Daddy said you could talk in tongues, and I thought that might help.”
“Was Daddy drinking when you saw him last?” Joe asks anxiously.
“Of course. Is the Pope Catholic?”
“I told him I could stop him from that if he’d just get his tail down here every Sunday.” Joe has on a pinstripe double-knit suit with an artificial daisy in the lapel. He looks the part.
“Are you going to talk in tongues today?” Jane asks. “I want to see how you do it.”
“Watch close,” he says with a wink. “But I’m not allowed to give away the secret.”
“Is it like being a magician?”
Her brother only grins mysteriously.
Jane sits cross-legged on the floor behind the folding chairs. People turn around and stare at her, probably wondering if she is Joe’s girlfriend. The congregation loves Joe. He is a large man, and his size makes him seem powerful and authoritative, like an Army general. He has always been a goof-off, calling attention to himself, staging some kind of show. If Alexander Haig became a stand-up comedian, he would be just like Joe. He stands behind a card table with two overturned plastic milk crates stacked on it. On his right, a TV set stares at the congregation.
The service is long and peculiar and filled with individual testimonials that seem to come randomly, interrupting Joe’s talk. It’s not really a sermon. It’s just Joe telling stories about how bad he used to be before he found Christ. He always had the gift of the gab, Vernon used to say. Joe tells a long anecdote about how his wife’s infidelity made him turn to the Lord. He exaggerates parts of the story that Jane recognizes. (He never gave his wife a beautiful house with a custom-built kitchen and a two-car garage. It was a dumpy old house that they rented.) She almost giggles aloud when he opens the Bible and reads from “the Philippines,” and she makes a mental note to tell her father. A woman takes a crying baby into the corridor and tries to make it drink some Coke. Jane wishes she had a cigarette. In this crazy setting, if Joe talked in tongues, nobody would notice it as anything odd.
When a young couple brings forth a walleyed child to be healed, Joe cries out in astonishment, “Who, me? I can’t heal nobody!” He paces around in front of the TV set. “But I can guarantee that if you just let the spirit in, miracles have been known to happen.” He rambles along on this point, and the little girl’s head droops indifferently. “Just open up your heart and let him in!” Joe shouts. “Let the spirit in, and the Lord will shake up the alignment of them eyes.” A song from Hair, “Let the Sunshine In,” starts going through Jane’s head. The child’s eye shoots out across the room. While Joe is ranting, Jane gets a Coke and stands in the doorway.
“Icky-bick-eye-bo!” Joe cries suddenly. He looks embarrassed and bows his head. “Freema-di-kibbi-fidra,” he says softly.
Jane has been thinking of talking in tongues as an involuntary expression—a kind of gibberish that pours forth when people are possessed by the spirit of God. But now, in amazement, she watches her brother, his hands folded and eyes closed, as though bowing his head for a moment of prayer, chanting strange words slowly and carefully, as methodically as Mrs. Bush hangs out her wash. He is speaking a singsong language made of hard, disturbing sounds. “Shecky-beck-be-floyt-I-shecky-tibby-libby. Dabcree-la-croo-la-crow.” He seems to be trying hard not to say “abracadabra” or any other familiar words. Jane, disappointed, doubts that these words are messages from heaven. Joe seems afraid that some repressed obscenity might rush out. He used to cuss freely. Now he probably really believes he is tuned into heaven.
“Where’s Coy?” he asks her after the service. He has failed to correct the child’s eyes, but won’t admit it.
“We don’t get along so good. After he lost his job, he couldn’t handle it.”
“Well, get him on down here! We’ll help him.”
He tries to talk Jane into bringing Coy for Wednesdaynight prayer meeting. “There’s two kinds of men,” Joe says. “Them that goes to church and them that don’t. You should never get mixed up with some boy who won’t take you to church.”
Joe says good-bye, with his arms around her like a lover’s. Jane can smell the Tic Tacs on his breath.
“DO YOU WANT ONE HAMBURGER PATTY OR two?” Jane asks her father.
“One. No, two.” Vernon looks confused. “No, make it one.”
They are at Kentucky Lake, in a trailer belonging to Jane’s former boss, who had promised to let her use it some weekend. Jane, wanting a change of scene for her father, brought a cooler of supplies, and Vernon brought his dog, Buford. He grumbled because Jane wouldn’t let him bring any beer, but he sneaked along a quart of Heaven Hill, and he is already drunk. Jane is furious.
“How can you watch Hogan’s Heroes on that cruddy TV?” she asks. “The reception’s awful.”
“I’ve seen this one so many times I know what’s going on. See that machine gun? Watch that guy in the tower. He’s going to shoot.”
“That’s a tower? I thought it was a giraffe.”
When they sit down to eat at the picnic table outside, Buford tries to get in Jane’s lap. He has the broad shoulders of a bulldog and the fine facial features of a chihuahua. He goes around in a little cloud of gnats.
“I can’t eat with a dog in my lap,” Jane says, pushing the dog away. “Coy wants to come back to me,” she tells her father. “He’s got his pride again.”
“Don’t let him.”
“He’s more of a man than you think.” Jane laughs. “Joe says he can help us work things out. He wants us to come to Wednesday-night prayer meetings.”
“How did I go wrong?” Vernon asks helplessly, addressing a tree. “One kid starts preaching just to stay out of jail, and the other one wants to live in sin and ruin her reputation.” Vernon turns to the dog and says, “It’s all my fault. Children always hurt you.”
“And what about you?” Jane shouts at him. “You worry us half to death with your drinking and then expect us to be little angels.”
She takes her plate indoors and turns on M*A*S*H*. The reception is so poor without a cable that the figures undulate on the screen. Hawkeye and B. J. turn into wavy lines, staggering drunks.
That night, Vernon’s drunken sleep on the couch is loud and unrestrained. Jane thinks of his sleep as slumber. She always thought of Coy’s sleep as catnapping. She misses Coy, but wonders if she can ever get along with any man. In all her relationships with people, she has to deal with one or another intolerable habit. Jane is not sure the hardrock music has hardened her to pain and distraction. Her father is hopeless. He used to get drunk and throw her mother’s good dishes against the wall. He lined them up on the table and broke them one by one until her mother relented and gave him the keys to the car. He had accidents. He was always apologetic afterward, and he made it up to them in lavish ways, bringing home absurd presents, such as a bushel of peaches or a pint of oysters in a little white fold-together cardboard container like the ones goldfish come in. Once, he brought goldfish, but she had expected oysters. Her disappointment hurt him, and he went back and bought oysters. One year, he ran away to Detroit. When he came back, months later, Jane’s mother forgave him. By then, she was dying of cancer, and Jane suspects that he never really forgave himself for being there too late to make it up to her.
Buford paces around the trailer fretfully. Jane can’t sleep. The bed is musty and lumpy. She recalls a story her mother once told her about a woman who was trapped in a lion cage by a lion who tried to mate with her. From outside the cage, the lion’s trainer yelled instructions to her— how she had to stroke the lion until he was satisfied. Pinned under the lion, the woman saved her life by obeying the man’s instructions. That was more or less how her mother always told her she had to be with a husband, or a rapist. She thinks of her mother as the woman in the cage, listening to the lion tamer shouting instructions—do anything to keep from being murdered. As Jane recalls her mother telling it, the lion’s eyes went all dreamy, and he rolled over on his back and went to sleep.
Jane suspects that what she really wants is a man something like the lion. She loves Coy’s gentleness, but she wants him to be aggressive at times. The women on Donahue said they wanted that too. Someone in the audience said women can’t have it both ways.
During the weekend, Jane tries to get Vernon to go fishing, but he hasn’t renewed his fishing license since the price went up. He complains about the snack cakes she brought, and he sits around drinking. Jane listens to the radio and reads a book called Working, about people’s jobs. “It takes all kinds,”she tells her father when he asks about the book. She has given up trying to entertain him, but by Sunday evening he seems mellow and talkative.
At the picnic table, Jane watches the sun setting behind the oak trees. “Look how pretty it is. The light on the water looks like a melted orange Popsicle.”
Vernon grunts, acknowledging the sunset.
“I want you to enjoy yourself,” Jane says calmly.
“I’m an old fool,” he says, sloshing his drink. “I never amounted to anything. This country is taking away every chance the little man ever had. If it weren’t for the Republicans and the Democrats, we’d be better off.”
“Don’t we have to have one or the other?”
“Throw ‘em all out. They cancel each other out anyway.” Vernon snatches at a mosquito. “The minorities rule this country. They’ve meddled with the Constitution till it’s all out of shape.”
The sun disappears, and the mosquitoes come out. Jane slaps her arms. Her toes are under the dog, warming like buns in a toaster oven. She nudges him away, and he pads across the porch, taking his gnat cloud with him.
“Tell me something,” Jane asks later, as they are eating. “What did you do in Detroit that time when you ran off and left Mom with Joe and me?”
Vernon shrugs and drinks from a fresh drink. “Worked at Chrysler.”
“Why did you leave us?”
“Your mother couldn’t put up with me.”
Jane can’t see her father’s face in the growing dark, so she feels bolder. Taking a deep breath, she says, “I guess for a long time I felt guilty after you left—not because you left, but because I wanted you to leave. Mom and Joe and me got along just fine without you. I liked moving into that restaurant, living upstairs with Mom, and her going downstairs to cook hamburgers for people. I think I liked it so much not just because I could have all the hamburgers and milk shakes I wanted but because she loved it. She loved waiting on people and cooking for the public. But we were glad when you came back and we moved back home.”
Vernon nods and nods, about to say something. Jane gets up and turns on the bug light on the porch. She says, “That’s how I’ve been feeling, living by myself. If I found something I liked as much as Mom liked cooking for the public, I’d be happy.”
Vernon pours some more bourbon into his Yosemite Sam jelly glass, and nods thoughtfully. He sips his drink and looks out onto the darkening lake for so long that Jane thinks he must be working up to a spectacular confession or apology. Finally, he says, “The Constitution is damaged all to hell.” He sets his plate on the ground for the dog to lick.
THE NEXT MORNING IS WORK-PANTS DAY. ON MRS. Bush’s line is a row of dark-green work pants and matching shirts. The pants are heavy and wrinkled. The sun comes out, and by afternoon, when Jane returns from shopping, the wrinkles are gone and the pants look fluffy. Jane reaches into the back seat of her car for her sack of groceries—soup, milk, cereal, and a Sara Lee cheesecake, marked down.
“Faired up nice, didn’t it?” cries Mrs. Bush, appearing with her laundry basket. “They say another front’s coming through and we’ll have a storm.”
“I hope so,” says Jane, wishing it would be a tornado. “I’ve got some news for you,” Mrs. Bush says, as she drops clothespins into a plastic bucket. “A girl I work with is pregnant, and she’s quitting next week.”
“I thought I wanted to work at the Villa Romano more than anything, but now I’m not sure,” Jane says. What would it be like, waiting tables with Mrs. Bush?
“It’s a good job, and they feed you all you can eat. They’ve got the best ambrosia!”
She drops a clothespin and Jane picks it up. Jane says, “I think I’ll join the Army.”
Mrs. Bush laughs. “Jimmy’s still in California. They would have flown him here and back, but he wouldn’t come home. Is that any way for a boy to do his mama?” She tests a pant leg for dampness, and frowns. “I’ve got to go. Could you bring in these britches for me later?” she asks. “If I’m late to work, my boss will shoot me.”
When Jane puts her groceries away, the cereal tumbles to the floor. The milk carton is leaking. She turns on Rock95 full blast, then rips the cover off the cheesecake and starts eating from the middle. Jane feels strange, quivery. One simple idea could suddenly change everything, the same way a tornado could. Everything in her life is converging, narrowing, like a multitude of tiny lines trying to get through one pinhole. She imagines straightening out a rainbow and rolling it up in a tube. The sound waves travel on rainbows. She can’t explain these notions to Coy. They don’t even make sense to her. Today, he looked worried about her when she stopped in at the Wal-Mart. It has been a crazy day, a stupid weekend. After picking up her unemployment check, she applied for a job at McDonald’s, but the opening had been filled five minutes earlier. At the Wal-Mart, Coy was patrolling the pet department. In his brown-plaid pants, blue shirt, and yellow tie, he looked stylish and comfortable, as though he had finally found a place where he belonged. He seemed like a man whose ambition was to get a service award so he could have his picture in the paper, shaking hands with his boss.
“I hope you’re warming a place in the bed for me,” he whispered to her, within earshot of customers. He touched her elbow, and his thumb poked surreptitiously at her waist. “I have to work tonight,” he went on. “We’re doing inventory. But we’ve got to talk.”
“Okay,” she said, her eyes fixing on a fish tank in which some remarkably blue fish were darting around like darning-needle flies.
On her way out of the store, without thinking, she stopped and bought a travel kit for her cosmetics, with plastic cases inside for her toothbrush, lotion, and soap. She wasn’t sure where she was going. Driving out of the parking lot, she thought how proudly Coy had said, “We’re taking inventory,” as though he were in thick with WalMart executives. It didn’t seem like him. She had deluded herself, expecting more of him just because he was such a sweet lover. She had thought he was an ideal man, like the new contemporary man described in the women’s magazines, but he was just a floorwalker. There was no future in that. Women had been walking the floors for years. She remembered her mother walking the floor with worry, when her father was out late, drinking.
At the Army recruiting station, Jane stuffed the literature into her purse. She took one of everything. On a bulletin board, she read down a list of career-management fields, strange-sounding phrases like Air Defense Artillery, Missile Maintenance, Ballistic Missile Maintenance, Combat Engineering, Intercept Systems Maintenance, Cryptologic Operations, Topographic Engineering. The words stirred her, filled her with awe.
“Here’s what I want,” she said to the recruiter. “Communications and Electronics Operations.”
“That’s our top field,” said the man, who was wearing a beautiful uniform trimmed with bright ribbons. “You join that and you’ll get somewhere.”
Later, in her kitchen, her mouth full of cheesecake, Jane reads the electronics brochure, pausing over the phrases “field radio,” “teletype,” and “radio relay equipment.” Special security clearance is required for some electronics operations. She pictures herself someplace remote, in a control booth, sending signals for war, like an engineer in charge of a sports special on TV. She doesn’t want to go to war, but if there is one, women should go. She imagines herself in a war, crouching in the jungle, sweating, on the lookout for something to happen. The sounds of warfare would be like the sounds of rock-and-roll, hard-driving and satisfying.
SHE SLEEPS SO SOUNDLY THAT WHEN COY CALLS THE next morning, the telephone rings several times. Rock-95 is already blasting away, and she wonders groggily if it is loud enough over the telephone to upset his equilibrium.
“I’m trying to remember what you used to say about waking up,” she says sleepily.
“You know I could never talk till I had my coffee.”
“I thought you were giving up coffee. Does your mama make you coffee?”
“I knew she would.” Jane sits up and turns down the radio. “Oh, now I remember what you said. You said it was like being born.”
Coy had said that the relaxation of sleep left him defenseless and shattered, so that the daytime was spent restructuring himself, rebuilding defenses. Sleep was a forgetting, and in the daylight he had to gather his strength, remember who he was. For him, the music was an intrusion on a fragile life, and now it makes Jane sad that she hasn’t been fair to him.
“Can I come for breakfast?” he asks.
“You took the toaster, and I can’t make toast the way you like it.”
“Let’s go to the Dairy Barn and have some country ham and biscuits.”
Jane’s sheets are dirty. She was going to wash them at the laundromat and bring them home to dry—to save money and to score a point with her landlady. She says, “I’ll meet you as soon as I drop off my laundry at the Washeteria. I’ve got something to tell you.”
“I hope it’s good.”
“It’s not what you think.” On the radio, Rod Stewart is bouncing blithely away on “Young Hearts.” Jane feels older, too old for her and Coy to be young hearts together, free tonight, as the song directs. Jane says, “Red-eye gravy. That’s what I want. Do you think they’ll have red-eye gravy?”
“Of course they’ll have red-eye gravy. Who ever heard of country ham without red-eye gravy?”
After hanging up, Jane lays the sheets on the livingroom rug, and in the center she tosses her underwear and blouses and slacks. The colors clash. A tornado in a flower garden. After throwing in her jeans, she ties the corners of the sheets and sets the bundle by the door. As she puts on her makeup, she rehearses what she has to tell Coy. She has imagined his stunned silence. She imagines gathering everyone she knows in the same room, so she can make her announcement as if she were holding a press conference. It would be so much more official.
With her bundle of laundry, she goes bumping down the stairs. A stalk of light from a window on the landing shoots down the stairway. Jane floats through the light, with the dust motes shining all around her, penetrating silently, and then she remembers a dirty T-shirt in the bathroom. Letting the bundle slide to the bottom of the stairs, she turns back to her apartment. She has left the radio on, and for a moment on the landing she thinks that someone must be home. □