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Down By the River

ISSUE:  Winter 1984

Got him right there,” Mrs. Bates said, pointing to the side of her own neck where the skin always looked to me like dough, loosely hung, between chin and collarbone. She was explaining how Jud Powell knifed Tony Tate a couple of years ago, right before I moved down here. “Right in the jug’lar. I don’t know why Tony wasn’t watching for Jud. Jud’d just told him at the skate rink that he’d cut his throat if he caught him sniffing around his wife again.” She slurped from the harvest gold Melamine cup I’d served her coffee in and shook her head. “Died in two minutes. Sheila Powell had blood all over her, trying to stop it.”

Tony Tate had been the son of Mrs. Bates’ best friend, and, to people who haven’t lived here long, her tone in telling that story might have seemed strange. But by then I understood what her satisfaction in the story was. In the suburbs it’s called “swinging.” At the college it’s called “fulfilling your needs.” Here it’s called cheating, and punishment is swift and personally meted out.

I know Mrs. Bates was trying to warn me when she told me that story yesterday. She’d told it to me a year ago, too, but then it was just indoctrination into the neighborhood. Then, it had made me hold onto Warren all night in my sleep. What it did this time was to stop the drifting a little. I’ve been drifting all through this year: drifting into marriage, into motherhood, and now drifting toward cheating.

But I’m not sure the same rules on cheating apply to me and Warren. I can’t picture Warren going after Geoffrey in the skating rink parking lot. For one thing, Geoffrey would never go to Skate City. For another, Warren is a little different from the people he grew up with down here. He graduated from high school and sometimes takes classes in nontechnical subjects at the community college. And he married a college student, the interloper, me.

And I married him. The man out there tilling up the section of the garden where the fall crops will go is Warren, is my husband. It’s Saturday. It’s August. I’m sitting at the kitchen table waiting for the blanching water to boil. Joey is sitting on my hip blowing spit bubbles at me. He has the same expression on his face that his father out in the garden has. Neither of them is thinking anything deep. Warren is thinking about the way the dirt is coming up with the tiller tines and whether it is dark enough and whether it is loose enough and maybe the smell of it and the feeling of the sun on the back of his neck above the T-shirt line. He has a red neck.

He is a redneck. I wonder how I got here.

I moved here—to the upstairs apartment in Mrs. Bates’ house near the river—my third year in college. The kids in my class lived in clutches in the expensive apartments near school, but I was on a tight budget and, besides, I had no recollection of being anything but alone. My first couple of years in college, I’d gone out with some of the boys in my classes, but by third year I was taking advanced art history classes and didn’t have much time.

Though the people here weren’t hostile, moving near the river meant I was left even more alone. I thought that was okay by me.

Warren Baker didn’t appear to pay any more attention to me than anyone else did. I had noticed him, though, because he was always working. That winter he’d scraped down the white paint on his house, which is across the road from Mrs. Bates’ and to the left, down from the church on the knoll, and painted it yellow with brown trim. It looked real pretty.

I mean, it was a tasteful choice of paint.

Either way, he lived alone, and Mrs. Bates told me he was a contractor and that his mother had left him the house. He didn’t roam the road like most people did or sit on his porch watching other people roam. And he wasn’t the same color either.

The word “redneck” is an inaccurate one to describe most of these people. Most of them make me think of carbohydrates. Some are the color and the shape of a peeled white potato. Mrs. Bates reminds me of an uncooked soda biscuit— white, with a circular periphery and lumps.

Warren’s visible skin, though, was ruddy. His body was hard; no flab. It reminded me of Michelangelo’s David, the model for which must have been a working-class man.

That spring he came by Mrs. Bates’s house one day when I was trying to dig a garden. I’d never gardened before, but almost everyone in the neighborhood had a block of dark dirt and early green vegetables in the yard, and I thought this was one aspect of the life worth imitating. Mrs. Bates had been too old to do one since before she moved to this house, but when asked permission she told me to go right ahead.

I’d read a book on how to garden, but “turn the soil to a depth of at least six inches” was more arduous than I’d thought. I was beginning to develop a respect for the women who had, apparently via miracle, metal-topped, glass jars of beans, tomatoes, spiced peaches, and relish on the shelves in front of their kitchen windows. I was sweating hard and my cutoffs and halter top were covered in mud when Warren provided a break by stopping in the road and calling, “Hey.”

“Hey,” I said, stopping and leaning on the spading fork. I was too busy noticing that his black hair, though shorter than the college boys’, was long enough to show its curl and that he had blue eyes to let it dawn on me that he was, uncharacteristically, walking the road with no apparent purpose.

“Good spot for a garden,” he said.

“Is it? I wasn’t sure,” I said.

“You should ask,” he said. That hadn’t occurred to me.

He was slouching there in the road, thumbs in his pockets. We were trying to ignore Mrs. Bates who was watching us from behind her ruffled kitchen curtain. I can imagine the conversation that went on between her and her friend, a muffin, Mrs. Tate.

“Warren Baker was over to the house this morning talking to that college student Amanda. I ain’t never seen him going out of his way over any girls before.”

“Yes, Lord. I was a-thinking just the other day what a shame it is—him with that nice house all paid for and his own business and all the girls pantin’ after him for years. But he ack like they ain’t even there. You don’t reckon he’s one of them men—one that likes men?”

“Lor’ no. He brought his ol’ tiller right over and tilled that girl’s garden—runnin’ right on down those furrows with all his strenth, plowin’ deeper and deeper.” She’d have gestured, hands on imaginary tiller handles, plunging the machine rhythmically into the kitchen linoleum. The old ladies may not be up to much themselves, but they haven’t forgotten either.

“And her just leanin’ there against the house, soakin’ up the sun and watchin’ hard. Looks to me like she’s a-wakin’ up to the notion that there’s more than an ol’ book to rest your eyes on.”

I did like watching Warren plow my garden. He didn’t have any stomach then (Michelangelo’s model must not have had a wife to put potato chips in his lunch bag), and he was, unusually, shirtless. His muscles were hard and shifting, gathering across his shoulders as he pushed the machine down then relaxing as he let it ride up out of the dirt.

I don’t think anything would have happened between us, though, if Roger hadn’t got so drunk that day, a couple of weeks after Warren plowed my garden.

Roger is Warren’s age and would be good-looking if the color of his skin wasn’t so clearly the mottled red of an alcoholic. Anywhere else he would be an object of scorn or pity. But here he walks the railroad track and the road with his twist-necked brown bag and everyone speaks to him as they pass. There’s an amazement here at success, not at the failure to achieve.

That day Roger was making a stab at working. Sober, he’s a painter. A house painter, that is. I was sitting on Mrs. Bates’ porch swing reading, and Roger was working up to painting the roof of the church across the road. He’d gotten the big cans of silver paint lined up on the ground and was tackling the hard part—getting the extension ladder under control— when I gave up reading and started watching Roger. Max Ernst was looking a little pale by contrast.

Roger apparently thought it would be better to try to extend the ladder on the ground and had it part way out but kept running into obstacles—a hedge at one end, the end of the block at the other. Cars honked at him the two times he tried extending it into the street. So he got the notion to try to the more conventional method of standing it up to extend it. He picked it up midway along its length and headed toward the side of the building. Unfortunately, the ladder was still horizontal when he got there, so it hit the wall head-on and bounced Roger into the street, outjousted by a church.

The next few attempts were closer approximations, but he couldn’t quite get the angle right and, on the last one, hit the foot of the ladder on the building first with enough force to land him on his back on the grass, ladder on top.

Warren came up about then. He picked the ladder up off Roger, set it against the building, then gave Roger a hand. Warren dusted him off, asked him if he could handle it, and slapped him on the back, meaning encouragement. But . Roger’s sense of balance couldn’t handle that much encouragement, and he stumbled against the ladder, grabbed it for stability and, sliding laterally, fell over again.

I’ve always found it embarrassingly funny to see people fall down, and I’d stifled it the first time he fell but couldn’t the second. I hooted out of control on Mrs. Bates’ porch. Roger didn’t seem to notice—he was down for the count—but Warren looked over. He looked, for a second, resentful, but then he looked down at Roger in an embrace with his nemesis, the ladder, and Warren laughed too. Even Mrs. Bates, behind the living room curtain, got going.

But that wasn’t what did it for me and Warren. He left Roger sleeping on the grass and went home. Mrs. Bates and I went back to what we were doing.

At dusk I was kneeling in the garden, trying to put tiny carrot seeds in the row one by one (turns out you should put in a pinch at a time and thin later). I didn’t see Roger come around the side of the house, but all of a sudden I smelled something that smelled like the bottom of a garbage can. When I looked up, Roger was standing in front of me, feet in the carrot row.

“You smart, ain’t you, college girl? Smart enough to come down here and wrap Warren Baker around your little finger.” He was working at his belt buckle, and my first thought was the hope that Mrs. Bates was flapping the curtains at that hour. My second was the realization that I was at an angle out of the line of sight of any of the windows.

“You smart enough to laugh at us,” Roger said. “What I want to know is if you smart enough to know that you’re gonna to like what you’re gonna get.”

My mind was revving without being in gear. Roger was having trouble with his belt buckle, and I thought about showing him how to do it. I thought of having had to teach myself how to ride a bicycle and of a sticky point in the paper on Ernst due next week. I didn’t move at all, though, paralyzed at first by useless thought and then by Roger’s other hand gripping the hair on the back of my head. Somehow you think drunks haven’t any strength because they look so slack, but Roger, however bad at fine motor coordination, had it in him to hold tight to my hair.

Then he was gone. At first I thought I’d gotten a surge of strength in my arms, which had started pushing his knees when he grabbed my hair. But it turned out I’d had help. Warren had gotten him by the collar and the belt, surprising Roger enough to loose his hold on my hair, and then pitched him under the lilac bush where now he was just a bag of flesh.

“I didn’t mean nothing’, Warren. I wadn’t gonna do nothin’—just scare her,” he said.

Warren asked me if I was okay. I couldn’t get any words out. My arms were still stretched out in front of me like a sleepwalker’s, and when Warren stepped nearer, I found a place for them around his knees. I rested my forehead against his thighs and had no more thoughts.

I’m not trying to make a social comment. I was just plain grateful and wanted Warren to stick around.

And he did. We spent the summer promenading on the street with everyone else. Warren had brought Roger over the next day to apologize, and after a while, Roger began tipping an imaginary hat to us in the street. Warren and I ate ice cream cones on Mrs. Bates’ porch swing, took drives in the country in his truck, and made love on my bed under the Mondrian poster.

We didn’t talk much. We didn’t talk, for instance, about what we would do if I got pregnant. It was part of the inevitability that I did, that we got married in the church across the road (its roof paint still peeling), that I brought my books to the yellow house with brown trim that fall, that Mrs. Bates gave me a set of harvest gold Melamine just like her own. It was a measure of my desire to belong that I even took a liking to the Melamine.

Joey cooperated in the smooth flow of things by waiting to be born until after graduation, though I didn’t go to the ceremony. I was too big and, too, I would have imagined, however inaccurately, that Warren’s suit was too short in the sleeves and pants.

I wanted to name the baby Sean, but we would have had to spell it “Shawn” to avoid confusion when he went to school. Warren suggested Joe.

It may be clichéd, but I do think these people are closer to the rhythms of the earth.

No, that’s too high-flown. The truth of the matter is that Warren and I live by the laws of necessity. We get up at dawn; I feed Joey and fix a big breakfast while Warren gets his tools and materials for the day loaded on the truck. We eat, and Warren takes a lunch pail that I’ve packed with something like meat loaf sandwiches, potato chips, and a candy bar (if I pack a piece of fruit it’s still there at night) to work. I take care of Joey, do chores, and cook dinner during Joey’s afternoon nap. Mrs. Bates comes down sometimes for coffee. When Warren comes home, he takes a shower, drinks a beer, does chores, and plays with Joey. We eat dinner and watch TV. Warren often falls asleep on the couch with his head in my lap, especially if he’s had another beer.

Geoffrey doesn’t live that way. When I go by his place, walking Joey in the afternoon, Geoffrey is always home. Warren has never even stayed home sick since I’ve known him.

Geoffrey moved in down here about the time Joey was born. Turns out I was in the vanguard of the movement of college people coming down here. Geoffrey is the first, though, to move into the pocket here, where the railroad tracks and the river converge. The first except for me, and I don’t count anymore since I’ve been absorbed into it.

Almost absorbed. Lately I’ve been listening, when Warren has brought a hungry Joey to me in the night and gone back to sleep, to the tire-screechers and the dirt-bikes and the beer-drinkers around the campfire at the river that I can hear through the open window over our bed. I can’t go back to sleep even when I’ve put Joey back in his crib. Warren screeches his tires sometimes on his way up the hill on Friday night. He’s really going to the store for Pampers or something, but he has to screech his tires and look like he’s going cruising for Roger and the other men. There’s always some kind of noise, and there’s always someone watching. Sometimes I feel like I’m ringed in by fat, loud spies who speak bad English.

Geoffrey’s house is back from the road and has a graveyard on one side and the Tate family, who now that Tony’s dead are among the quieter families, on the other. Geoffrey is an incoming instructor of art history. I met him when I was taking Joey for one of his first walks. Geoffrey was moving in, carrying a framed painting from the back of his Volvo into the house. I wouldn’t have known how to spell his name except it was already on the mailbox.

“Hey,” I said. He stopped and leaned the painting—a Monet derivative—against his legs. He’s a little guy, pale, with longish brown hair. He has delicate hands and was wearing a madras sportcoat. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said. He put out a hand. “Geoffrey Hampton.”

“Amanda Baker,” I said. The name sounded funny to me. I hadn’t had to introduce myself since before I was a Baker.

“I’m glad to see a friendly face,” he said. He glanced toward the Tate house where the family had gathered to watch him haul boxes, neither leaving him alone nor offering assistance. He couldn’t know that the house he’d bought had once been Tony Tate’s, who’d made it from the skate rink home and almost into Sheila Powell’s arms before Jud Powell came out of the bushes and got him in the jug’lar right about where Geoffrey was standing.

“You get used to it,” I said. “People warm up.”

“I take it you aren’t local,” he said. “Did you and your husband just move down?”

For a second I was confused. For a second I’d forgotten I wasn’t still a college student. I had to look down at the stroller, see Joey slumped over to one side, to be sure it wasn’t the year before.

“Not exactly,” I said. It occurred to me that Warren was going to hear about this as soon as Tony’s mother, the muffin, got to a phone to call Mrs. Bates and Mrs. Bates had a chance to roll over to Warren when he was outside. I figured I’d better push off.

“I’ll be seeing you,” I said. Geoffrey looked disappointed. I could see that he was having doubts about the friendliness of the natives and, though he couldn’t quite place me, thought I might be an ally. “Dinner’s on the stove,” I said. “Fatback and hog jowls.” I don’t know why I said that. We were having hamburgers. Some protective impulse of my own, I suppose.

But I kept going by nearly every day, and Geoffrey was outside often at walk-time, and we’ve been talking a lot. I don’t know what Warren has heard. He’s never said anything. Maybe the Tates are leaving the outsiders alone.

Up till yesterday I’d never gone into his house, though he’d invited me. We’d just chat on the sidewalk. We’d have that kind of conversation that doesn’t get down to concrete detail about who you are and where you came from.

I had let him know, though, that I knew something about art, and he showed me pictures if he happened to be reading that day. Monet’s haystacks are his specialty. I love the one painted at dusk, the haystack dusty violet, nearly ethereal enough to disperse into that unpeopled landscape.

One of those days we were talking about art Geoffrey began to look at me differently. He looked at me as if I were an attractive coed.

On the days when he’s working on the house, he asks for my suggestions about how to build a deck or what to put in a flower bed.

Yesterday he asked me about remodeling his kitchen, and though he drew a diagram inside the back cover of a book, I couldn’t get the concept without seeing it. So, despite the flapping curtains at the Tate’s, I pushed Joey’s stroller up the drive to the kitchen door, and the three of us went in.

Geoffrey fixed coffee in a drip pot and served it to me in a ceramic mug. We went to the living room to drink a second cup after we’d discussed the kitchen. Joey failed to protect his father’s interests by falling asleep on the Oriental rug.

Not that we did anything. We looked at the big hardcover art books on the coffee table.

Geoffrey, whether consciously or not, was pumping me for information via the pictures. First we looked through a Botticelli book. Geoffrey pointed out his favorite madonna and I mine without adding any personal question or comment on my own state of motherhood. People who haven’t lived here long tend to romanticize the way of life. For the moment I was enjoying the mystique. I must seem an interesting specimen—not only had I gone ahead and become a mother, I was a downwardly mobile one as well.

Next we breezed through some realism. Geoffrey turned to Courbet’s peasants, then Van Gogh’s “Potato-Eaters,” then he considered the appositeness of “American Gothic.” He put that book down and picked up one on art nouveau.

He was on my left on the off-white linen-covered sofa, and his hand had touched mine once while looking at the Botticelli’s. I thought it was an accident but didn’t move my hand. When he opened the next book to Klimt’s Danaë in her shower of gold, he brushed my wrist with his fingertips and left them there. As I looked at the pictures, his fingers moved up my hand and came to rest on my thick gold wedding band. I’d forgotten how abstract touch could be. We looked at each other. Still looking, he gathered my fingers together, turned my palm up and kissed it at the base of my fingers, where the gardening callouses are beginning to harden. He asked some questions. I said I had to go fix supper.

Warren may not have heard anything, but Mrs. Bates had. She came by right after I got home and retold the Tony Tate story as parable. I think, though, that one of the things that’s different about Warren is that the confrontation will be between me and him, not him and Geoffrey.

Warren is finished tilling now. He sets the tiller on the side of the garden and covers it with the tarp. He comes through the kitchen door and, without looking at me, goes to the sink to wash his hands, scrubbing his nails with the brush. He turns off the blanching water and comes over to me. He takes Joey, who’s fallen asleep on my shoulder, over to his playpen where he puts him down so gently Joey doesn’t open his eyes. Warren comes back to me and takes my face in his hands.

He does know, then, adding whatever he has heard to the fact that we haven’t started up our love life again after Joey’s birth. Warren hasn’t objected. I am, to him, something of a hothouse flower.

But I understand now why he’s been working with his shirt off. Though he knows I like looking at him, he isn’t trying to be provocative exactly. He’s letting his body ask me the same questions Geoffrey asked with his voice: what am I doing here? Will I stay? Will I go?

I turn my head and rest my cheek against his stomach, warm and damp from working.

Upstairs on our bed he lies on his stomach, me on my back. The organdy curtain at the window over our heads blows in with a hot August wind, obscuring, then clearing our view of each other, letting in the sun. We don’t talk. Warren touches my leg where this summer’s color begins below the knee, where my dresses end. I can still see some of last year’s brown on my thighs, ending at the bikini line, but there’s no question that my calves are ruddy.

His hand, open, moves over my hip, slightly more fleshy now from childbearing and beer, slides across my loosened belly and up over my milk-stuffed breasts. There is a sensation in his touch, a solidity, that doesn’t come from pressure but from the density of his hand.

With one finger, he traces the upper tan line around my collarbone, then he shifts up on his elbow to put both hands around my neck, clasping them under my hair.

I turn to face him and put my hands, upward, around his neck the same way. With only a difference of shade, the color is the same: my hands, his neck.

Warren’s body on mine is solid, as dense as his touch promises. I cannot begin to close my hands around his upper arms. For a second I imagine that this is Geoffrey. He would leave a space. His touch is thin and insubstantial: paper.

As Warren pushes inside and slowly deeper, I rise to meet him, earth crumbling, heaving, abandoning its compactness to the sun and the air and the power of the tiller.


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