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Underground


ISSUE:  Spring 1982

Everyone comments on how wonderful I’m looking, how my tan makes me look younger, how I seem to be a new person. I’m not so mousy anymore, and driving on busy highways no longer makes me fearful. My children were here earlier this summer, with their California tans, and they were suspicious. Why wasn’t I cringing on the curves and being the usual back-seat driver when Charlie drove us to the lake?

On the patio, facing the Nelsons’ patio, I contemplate my serenity. Charlie, my lover for the past two years, was due at seven. It is now 7:16. The chicken is precooking in the oven, and the charcoal is already lighted on the barbecue grill. (I marinated the briquets in starter fluid overnight, the way some woman on TV said to. She’s an expert on odd things to do at picnics, like use a little red wagon for a portable grill.) I have a bottle of wine chilling in the refrigerator, and I’ve made a beautiful salad with artichoke hearts, which were too expensive, but the chicken was only 99 cents a pound.

The straw-edged tray on the table has dried flowers imprisoned inside the glass bottom: pansies, asters, daisies. My drink sits on a daisy. I love the bitter taste of the gin-andtonic I’m having. Gin is made from juniper berries, which eat up your stomach, and the quinine in the tonic water has something that makes you throw up. They had to stop serving tonic to airline pilots, because it made them dizzy. But the drink agrees with me. As soon as Charlie arrives, I’ll have another. I’m sure he is late because he can’t bear to leave Bud and Sue. Bud is his 21-year-old son, and Sue is Bud’s wife. They have a new baby and a miserable marriage, but Sue won’t divorce him as long as she can get Bud to buy her new things, and he will keep on doing it as long as Charlie keeps giving him money. Bud totaled his Gremlin the other day, and Charlie bought him a new Ford. Charlie and I lecture each other on how ridiculous we are over our children. When Bud overdraws his bank account, Charlie deposits more money for him. When I tell Charlie how wrong that is, he reminds me of how paranoid I am to think that because they chose to live with their father in California Tammy and Darrell don’t love me anymore. “It’s just because he has a swimming pool,” Charlie tries to tell me.

The radio says 7:26, and the weatherman says it is 88 degrees right now—”a pair of eights.” He says it may turn cool tonight. If I sit very still, I don’t feel the heat. Now it is 7:27 where I am sitting—on a flagstone patio in a little development near Lone Oak, Kentucky, in what used to be a cornfield.

When I first knew Charlie, I didn’t know he was diabetic, and I kept giving him the wrong foods. He was so polite he ate what I gave him. The first time he came over, I gave him pina coladas, ham, and strawberry shortcake. Later, I was amazed that he hadn’t gone into a coma. I used to be afraid of the possibilities he faced—impotence, blindness, heart attacks. But he is nonchalant about his condition, and he seems healthy. His muscles are hard. When he wears his bathing suit at the lake, I see the needle marks on his thighs, dark in the sun, like little snake bites. When he sleeps here, I find his syringes in the waste basket in my bathroom the next morning. With him sometimes, I feel we are a couple of drug addicts. We used to laugh about this. The pills I’m taking, called mood elevators, are supposed to make me feel normal, not depressed. The doctor, who prescribed them to get me through the children’s visit, promises they aren’t addictive. He’ll start to wean me from them in a few weeks. Without them then, I’m supposed to continue to feel normal. The pills are like a bandage for the emotions, he says, and when he takes them away I’ll be healed. I don’t believe any of this.

At 7:36 I pick up Cosmopolitan. I take their quiz. “How Well Does Your Man Like Women?” Some of the questions don’t apply, such as “Who handles money matters in your household?” I stumble over some of the questions. I wonder who he would be most likely to go to for advice on a serious problem—a male friend, a female friend, me? Without hesitation, I decide that he’s “somewhat passive—encouraging your advances” rather than “an ardent, aggressive lover.” This is a plus for him, I discover when I add up his score. He does well, a 66. Cosmopolitan tells me he appreciates smart women. If he had made a 90, it would mean he adores women and is a wonderful lover. He would be a New Style Man.

When Charlie arrives, looking exhausted from the heat, I already have the chicken on the grill. He gives me a hurried kiss and an apology. He stands in front of the air conditioner, cooling himself.

“You need a drink,” I say.

“Bud’s fit to be tied,” he says, stooping to let the cool air run through his long hair. “Sue’s gone again.”

“To her mother’s?”

“She took the baby over there and said it would be up to him to drag them back. She’s holding that baby over him.”

“Let’s go outside. I’ve got the chicken started.”

“He told me if it wasn’t for the baby, he’d let her go.”

“How’s his new car? Has he wrecked it yet? Or did she take it?”

Charlie grabs me by the shoulders. “You’re being sarcastic, Donna.”

“Excuse me!” I start to mention that I’m no longer mousy, but I realize how light-headed I am. The drink intensifies the effect of the pill, but it’s not one of those dangerous mixes, the doctor assured me.

Charlie goes to wash his hands, and when he returns I give him a Scotch and we go outside. We smell the chicken and watch the Nelsons, who are eating pizzas on a red-checkered oilcloth. There are six of them, but I am never sure who they are. The faces seem to be constantly changing, like the faces of my children, who come for vacations with new wardrobes, new bodies, new hair and skin. Tammy and Darrell are losing their accents, a fact which makes them act superior. They are in on things together, which is odd for a brother and sister their ages. Tammy is 14, Darrell 12. I could imagine the conspiracy between them on their flight here, as they planned how they were going to humor me, as though I were some sickly relative they were required to call upon. One hot Sunday evening Tammy borrowed my blow dryer, and I watched her use it, pulling the ends of her hair taut, holding the brush under. She used it like a professional beautician. The dryer sounds like a vacuum cleaner, and she was pulling her hair so tight I kept waiting for it to disappear. It was then that Tammy asked me if I planned to marry Charlie.

“What if I did?” I asked.

Tammy shrugged. She was concentrating on her bangs, trying to make them fluff out just right. I could see tiny sprouts of fine, white baby hair under her bangs.

“Would you still want to live with your dad?” I asked.

“He’s a creep.

“I know,” I said. “I told you so,”

Charlie shifts his weight, stretches out his legs, and leans back in the canvas chair. His shoes are the same gray color as the flagstone. He says, “They say tomorrow will be a scorcher.”

“The radio said it would turn cool tonight.” I notice that Charlie has set his drink on an aster. “We could go to the lake tomorrow,” I say.

“Saturday’s horrible. Too crowded.”

“Let’s think of something else then.” I am wishing we had our own pool. I fish out the lemon peel from my drink and suck on it. Then I say, “My doctor said people start to lose their joy in living along about their mid-thirties. Was he talking about us? But it’s too hot to enjoy anything in August.”

Charlie holds my hand while he thinks about this. He seems to be turning it over in his mind while he bounces my hand on the chair arm. He’s in his forties and lost his wife years ago in a boating accident. It was a relief when we met each other, just after my divorce, when the children went away with their father, Charlie, still turning my hand, says now, “I don’t think you do. I just think your focus changes. Like, I don’t give a hoot about hotrods the way I used to.”

I get up and turn the chicken. Then I go to the kitchen and put dressing on the salad and bring it to the patio. Instead of the wine, I bring the gin and Scotch and a tray of ice. When we finally begin to eat, it is growing dark and the Nelsons have gone inside to watch TV. They are watching “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Through their window, I can see the sheriff making faces.

My friend Janice Kay Crider brought me back a souvenir from England, a tea towel with a map of the London Underground on it. Charlie appropriated my tea towel and converted it into a board game, like Monopoly, with a stack of Chance cards. The point was for each player to start at the end of a line and make his way to Piccadilly Circus and back again. Being sent to the London Tower was like going to jail. I always liked the game, the way we would play it on Saturday nights and listen to some new tape cassette Charlie would bring over. He works at a radio station as an engineer and gets free tapes. The rules of the game kept changing because Charlie had to keep refining confusing points. If you were on the Piccadilly line, for instance, you had an advantage because the line was so short, so if you drew Piccadilly, you had to take a detour through St. John’s Wood.

Charlie called the game Tube. I thought he was so clever. We would be drinking Scotch and lolling on the shag rug barefooted, acting silly.

This evening, after we finish eating, I suggest playing the Tube game.

“Aren’t you burnt out on that?” he asks. “Let’s just watch TV.”

“You’d rather watch the tube than play Tube,” A halfhearted joke. He doesn’t notice. He plays with the dial. I recognize next week’s Rockford episode, a re-run, from the prevues. “The Dukes of Hazzard” is ending. A car chase. People grinning.

“I still think you could patent that game,” I say. “Parker Brothers would eat it up.”

“I will when I get around to it.” He wouldn’t. He is meticulous and thorough, to a point; then he seems to give up. Charlie doesn’t go all the way with anything, with me. We’ve reached a certain point together, and I cannot see what is next.

“I always liked Tube because I always liked the idea of going to town,” I try to explain to him a little later. We’re still drinking, and Charlie has been fiddling with my cabinet door latch that needs fixing. He looks up to assure me he’s listening. “When I was little, on the farm, people always went to town on Saturday. “I went to town Saturday,” they’d say. It was a phrase like—what? Like “I’ve been to London to see the Queen.” It was a big thing.”

“In town, we always said we were going uptown,” Charlie says.

He grew up in Paducah. He is practically cosmopolitan. But not quite a New Style Man. I’m so zonked, I almost keel over, but Charlie catches me and holds me tight for an instant.

“There was a big difference,” I say, pretending to be sober. “When I was in grade school and the teacher said, “Make a sentence,” the sentence was always “I went to town.” It was the only sentence anyone could ever think of. I mean, if someone said make a sentence.”

“Really? That’s funny.”

“Nobody could imagine anything else.”

Charlie takes my drink from my hand and sets it on the counter. “Don’t finish that,” he says. He massages my neck and shoulders. I am sitting in a kitchen chair. Chrome and polished cane. Charlie says, “You’re going to be fine. Just fine.”

On Saturday in town you could do these things: buy a white sack of candy from Woolworth’s, X-ray your feet at the shoe store, get a silver dish of peppermint ice cream in the cold, vanilla-smelling drugstore, see a Tom Mix serial and a double feature like Cimarron and a Blondie and Dagwood show. The woman who played Blondie was from Kentucky. In southern California, my children see movie stars, and they forget to mention them. They eat tacos when they feel like it.

Charlie turns off the TV and looks for a tape to play. He chooses a Loretta Lynn album I’ve heard a thousand times. I sit down on the couch, under the air conditioner, which whirs in my ears.

“You’re not supposed to be depressed,” says Charlie, standing over me.

“I’m not depressed.”

“Prove it.”

“I’m just worried, thinking I might be.”

Charlie laughs. “Depressed about not being depressed, huh?”

“Maybe I ought to be.” The music is background noise, familiar and meaningless. Underneath my “mood elevators”—my Muzak?—I have my regular feelings, but I don’t know how to find them. They are going to jump out at me one day and scare me. I’ve heard of some sleeping pills that shut off your dream centers so that you can’t dream. These pills block my depression signals. You need to dream; do you need to be depressed?

Charlie is seized by an idea. But he has to stop laughing before he can tell me what it is.

“Let’s go to that topless place on the beltline,” he manages to say.

“What on earth for?”

“You want to do something different. You’ve been saying I’m boring.”

“I have not!”

“You haven’t said it out loud. Come on.”

Outside, the heat smothers us like a carpet, but the alcohol has worn off somewhat and I feel steadier. With Charlie driving, I am not afraid. Cars rush at us around curves. The neon-lit beltline is like southern California must be all over. A topless bar is a big deal here, but it wouldn’t be there.

The bar is cool but dark and smoky, and a band plays an odd blend of country disco. It is almost too dark to see the topless dancers. Some guys—farm boys—are ogling them and making grabbing gestures, and others are pretending not to notice. I take a deep breath. The smoke scorches my lungs.

Charlie buys me a Tom Collins because I like the cherries and because I’ve been drinking gin. His eyes avoid the waitress.

“Did you really want to play Tube?” Charlie asks, speaking loudly because of the music.

“No, that’s okay. The court could claim I’m an unfit mother—coming to a place like this.” He looks alarmed and I say, “I’m being sarcastic again.”

As if we may need to escape, we are sitting by the door, near the pinball machines and the computer games. A game called Asteroids is sending outer space signals toward the noise of the band. When Charlie and I try to talk, we have to speak directly into each other’s ears.

Charlie says, “I told Bud he could find a better woman than Sue. And better looking too. He said to me it was none of my business what he did. Do you think that’s any way for a boy to talk to his daddy?”

“No, I don’t.”

“I know he doesn’t love her.” Charlie stares at one of the dancers on her perch. Her breasts are incredibly floppy. I don’t think it is registering on Charlie what he is seeing. He turns to me and says, “He’ll learn.” He smiles and reaches for my hand. “I know what you’re thinking,” he says helplessly. “It’s none of my business.”

“You’ll learn,” I say, smiling back.

At the next table a guy is telling a joke, practically shouting it. “This guy George asks this real sexy redhead to pose for him in the nude, and she says to him, “I’m not a model!” So George says, “That don’t matter ‘cause I’m no artist!”” The man cracks up, glancing at me.

“What a stupid joke,” Charlie says.

We were both listening, as though looking for clues, somebody to tell us what to do. I suddenly see how tired Charlie and I are. The sound of the computer game is speeding up. The dancer looks sweaty and bored. The game ends, and a guy bangs furiously on the machine. His companion says, “You know computers don’t lie.”

Charlie smiles at me again.

“Why are we here?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Do you want to get married?”

We both burst out laughing, as if this is a good joke. Charlie’s question takes me by surprise.

“You picked a romantic place to ask,” I say. Sarcastic.

Charlie pays for the drinks, and we leave then. The air outside is hot but clear. I breathe deeply, as if to reach my buried feelings. Some strange woman has been superimposed on me, like a beauty mask that has to be peeled off. But it occurs to me that underneath there may be something beautiful. Someone said there’s beauty in terror, if you can stand to watch. Charlie and I are standing, facing the bright lights of the beltline. One of the dancers is outside, necking with a man. They are huddled in a shadow, and I can’t see her face. She has covered herself with a windbreaker, probably belonging to the man. Charlie and I stand there in the strong light, as though waiting for courage to get in the car, to go on.

“Listen,” he says. “Do you hear it?”

“What?”

“The heartbeats.”

In a moment I hear what he means. Outside, the noise of the band is only an exaggerated thump, like the bass on someone’s stereo heard from another apartment. I remember the beat of the outer-space game and feel it crashing into the beat of the band, asteroids colliding, hearts splitting in the night.

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