Right after the final bell rings for the day and all my students have filed out, the intercom clicks on, and I look up at the wall where I used to see the mounted speaker, though it’s hidden now, and has been for over a year, by a navy-blue blazer that one of my students outgrew and tossed in the trash, and I pulled it out of the trash and hung it over the speaker to muffle the ever-booming screeching voice of the woman in the front office, who had given me a headache everyday for months. I always expect Dr. Munford, the headmaster, to comment on my improper use of a school uniform whenever he sits in on my class to evaluate me, and I’m always ready to explain, but he never brings it up. Which makes me think Dr. Munford might be cooler than he appears.
“Mr. Cadden?” comes the muffled but still loud, though tolerable, voice.
“Yes?” I say.
“Dr. Munford would like to speak to you for a moment, please.”
“Okay,” I say, and I begin to run through my mind what I have possibly done wrong lately. This nervousness is not entirely my fault. It’s because of the time, during my very first week of teaching three years ago, I wasn’t expecting trouble and was blindsided.
In my interviews, Dr. Munford had filled my head with the notion that because the students at Bouchard Academy, and especially my ninth-grade honors students, were mature and among the brightest in the city of Mobile, and likely the state, I would need to be diligent in my work to challenge them academically so that they’d be prepared for the best colleges in the country. So over the summer, I started early with my preparation, reading A Separate Peace and studying all the research. I was going to make scholars of those restless fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds. I wasn’t going to hold back anything. I wasn’t supposed to. They were mature and among the city’s brightest. So I asked my classes after a few days how they were enjoying their love story, and they looked confused, like we were reading different books. So I told them what they were reading was a story about a teenager becoming homicidal because of repressed homosexuality in a homophobic society. The kids laughed and laughed, some did, and some fought me on that, said, No way! Where? And so I built up a case, beginning with the symbolism in the early chapters. I explained how the wooden tower and the leather-covered medicine ball were phallic symbols, and then I defined the word phallic on the board. Right there, PENIS, in big bold black letters that literally made the mouth of every girl in the class drop. And then I proceeded to repeat the same information to my other ninth-grade class.
Complaints from parents poured in and three of those girls transferred to another teacher’s class, and suddenly I was walking into Dr. Munford’s office to meet not only him but also the Academic Dean and the Chair of the English Department. At first they all defended the book, saying they’d read it and never heard anything close to my interpretation, so I began yet again to make my case, while Dr. Munford sat with closed eyes, and when I explained to him, to all of them, that there was no hidden agenda on my part to discuss homosexuality, he reopened his eyes and smiled, interrupting me to let me know I was sort of forgiven, since it was my first week of teaching. “Just don’t let anything like this happen again,” he said.
And I haven’t. Even when my sophomore boys have tried to trap me in discussions of prostitution, which they try every year when we’re reading Crime and Punishment, I’ve slipped out of that every time and focused their attention on the sad moral dilemma that Dostoevsky had created. So I’m disappointed with myself for fearing what Dr. Munford could possibly say or do today. Today of all days.
His secretary, Martha Ann, a tall, slender woman in her sixties, is on the phone, but she offers me a smile and motions for me to go on past and knock, so I do, and then I hear Dr. Munford telling me with great force, in his nasally but altogether intimidating Texan accent, to come in.
When I step inside and close the door behind me, Dr. Munford whips off his reading glasses. “Mr. Cadden, come in, come in,” he says, pushing off his desk to lift himself out of his tall-back leather chair. He limps around his desk with a hearty look of concern, and I think at first it’s directed at himself, for his painful gout—he’s got the blue orthopedic boot on today—but when he reaches me, he shakes my hand inside both of his and looks at me with softer eyes.
“I’ve heard what happened to your sister, and I’m terribly, terribly sorry,” he says, no longer shaking my hand but still clasping it in both hands. “Mrs. Baxter in the middle school lives in Lucedale, you know, and she told me about it. What a tragedy, Jarrett. What a tragedy.” He squints his eyes and nods and pumps my hand, then lets my hand go and pats me on the back. “Please, sit down.”
I sit in my chair against the wall, and he takes a seat in the chair beside me.
“Now, Jarrett, I appreciate your coming to work today. Teaching is God’s work. It’s a salvation. But your family needs you right now, and I want you with them, okay? Take off until the funeral. I hear it’s on Wednesday, is that right?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know,” I say.
“Well, whenever it is, stay at home until then at least, okay?” he says. “It’s for your own good. I’m here to help you and look out for you. That’s a key part of my job. So don’t hesitate to ask me for something, anything, okay?”
“Yes, sir,” I say. “I appreciate that.”
“I’ve been giving your situation some thought, I really have,” he says. “And unfortunately, Jarrett, things like this happen every couple of years around here, and it seems that nothing like this is sadder on this earth. But there’s something I would like for you to reflect on, okay? It’s from an old Pentecostal hymn and, I think, can give you hope in your darkest hours. Maybe you know it.” He clears his throat. “The line goes like this: ‘When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be!’”
I nod, and he repeats the line, but with more joy and more exclamation.
“You see?” says Dr. Munford.
“I see,” I say, nodding, not knowing what to say because what I want to say is what I can’t say, what I’m thinking, what I’m realizing is a bizarre result of my sister’s death—that it has improved, perhaps miraculously, my standing around here. The headmaster not hoping but assuming that I will actually get to heaven.
After I leave Dr. Munford but before I leave Mobile and return to my dry county, I pick up a twelve-pack of Budweiser to sip on for the rest of the day and through the night if I need it. And right now when I know I need it, driving home and thinking about passing the place again where Eliza died. I keep the can low, except when the traffic clears, and then I take a quick slug, and when I finish it, I toss the empty in the back, and at high speeds I watch it lift. Sometimes it knocks against the sides of the truck and begins to whirl and lift higher and higher and I’m afraid it will fly out, so I slow down a little to keep it in. But sometimes it just lifts, hovering silently in place for long moments. It’s quite a redneck magic act.
When I get home, I put the beer in the refrigerator, then dash to get out of my clothes, to hang up my tie on my hanger of ties and to hang up my khakis and button-down, which I never used to wear, so I can wear them once more, maybe twice more, before I have to wash and iron them again. Then I walk into the other room, just in my undershirt and boxers, and heat up a can of chili.
I keep thinking that tonight will be different, that because of the beer, I will be able to sleep long hours and wake a stronger, more reasonable self, but I’m up later than I should be. I’m watching Jay Leno for the first time in years, and he is unfunny as ever, and I throw empty #7 at him. It’s an exercise in will power to see the credits.
Conan O’Brien, though, is better than I remember. He’s a happy Buster Keaton who has grown comfortable with himself, and he has me laughing out loud a few times. He says the musical guest is a band that will be on the show all week, a first for the show, some band I’ve never heard of called The White Stripes, and I can’t help but be curious about them as they walk out. They’re so red, just the two of them, so red and black and white—this girl at the peppermint-striped drums wearing a red dress with white lace cuffs, with black hair, and this guy with a red guitar wearing a black bowler and suit and red tie and shoes and white socks, also with black hair, with long sweeping black bangs. This girl, who looks like Loretta Lynn, and this guy, who looks like Harold from Harold and Maude.
Then they begin with the guy picking his guitar to sound like a bass, then with the girl stepping in on the downbeat only, very primal and uncluttered and innocent, and she is so cute, so free of pain, with her chin up, so oblivious to her own beat for war. Then the guy starts to sing, and there’s angst, there’s heartache, in his voice I haven’t heard in decades, and his riffs rip and slide with dazzling intensity. It is punk. It is blues. It is fifties cool.
I snap open another beer as soon as the song ends and run to turn on my computer, and I’m stunned to learn on the band’s official website that they’re not new but have just come out with their fourth CD in two years. And then I learn that the guy, Jack White, and the girl, Meg White, are brother and sister. I’m jealous, but I’m more proud of them than jealous, like it’s cathartic for me to know Meg and Jack are out there, with music in their blood, or with blood in their music, for somebody like me.
But then I read an article that challenges that relationship, claiming that they’re really husband and wife, or at least used to be, now divorced. I stay up for hours, obsessed with this curious pair, especially this Jack White, for all his strict rules about equipment, dress, song selection, and even off-stage behavior, intended to keep the band focused and creative and, above all else, ethical. Somehow, with all his attitude and talent and vision, Jack is becoming for me a musical messiah encapsulating every songwriter and performer and punk I’ve ever worshipped for the same reasons. It’s like I’m transported back to my teenage days, and there’s a passion for music in me now that I haven’t known since. As if I’m seeing for the first time an unwashed Sid Vicious sneer, or skinny Iggy Pop stretch his torso to display his ribs, or Joey Ramone hide his ugly face behind a mat of hair.
I finally go to bed around three. A good number. Jack White’s favorite number. The beginning of many, as he puts it.
I wake up three hours later and look over at my clock, and though I’m still feeling drunk, I decide to ignore Dr. Munford’s suggestion. I’m going to school today. And I’m going to follow Jack White’s dress code. I put on the bright red Hilfiger shirt Mom gave me last year for Christmas, which I haven’t worn since, because it’s so bright, but it’s the only red dress shirt I have. Then I put on the only pair of black slacks that I have, and my black belt and black socks and black shoes and black tie. I look at myself in the mirror, and though I don’t look ridiculous, since black and red are colors that have always gone well with my dark hair and port-wine stain splashed and dripping like India on my face, I still feel a bit ridiculous, since no one at school would dress this way, but I want to follow through with it, so I follow through, and it makes me feel good following through with something else now, like I must be on a roll now.
A few minutes before homeroom the substitute that was lined up for me pops through my door sucking on a super-sized soft drink and carrying a magazine and a sack of McDonald’s food, and I apologize to him for the inconvenience but that I’m fine now, that he’ll be paid, I’m sure, but he can go back home.
He looks a little dazed—this plump guy with a mustache who’s about my age and never wears a tie. I’ve seen him around and heard he gives students the answers to their work from the teacher’s key so that they can get their assignments turned in early and bullshit with him. I feel for the guy. He looks lonely. Then without saying a word, he nods and walks back out.
Between homeroom and first period, Dr. Munford steps through my door and motions for me to join him in the hall.
When I walk up to him, he only glances at me, but he moves closer. We’re almost standing chest to chest, though his foot with the gout is kicked out to the side. “Mr. Cadden,” he says, keeping his voice down so students passing us can’t hear, “why aren’t you at home?”
“I appreciate your concern, Dr. Munford, I really do, but this is where I need to be right now. I just realized that this morning.”
He steps back and peers into my eyes, like he’s studying me, evaluating me, or just waiting for me to blink, but I keep my eyes steady on his, trying to make them as intense as his. But it occurs to me that my eyes might not be intense at all but are probably still dilated, so I blink and blink and look away and try not to breathe on him.
“I’m afraid, Mr. Cadden, you may not be grasping the larger picture,” he says, and he explains how students are normally informed of a tragedy such as mine in a teacher’s absence and then instructed on how to respond to the teacher when he returns.
“You can do that tomorrow,” I tell him. “I’ll take off for the funeral, but that’s all the time off I want or really need. This is for me, not just my students. I promise, I assure you, I can handle this.”
The bells rings, and through the bell he arches his eyebrows, and when the ringing stops, he pats me on the shoulders. “I hope so,” he says. “But if you can’t, do let me know.”
I nod and head back into my room, and when my students go oooh all together, like I must be in trouble with Dr. Munford, I give them a wave of my hand.
“We were just talking about seeing The White Stripes on Conan last night,” I say, and they laugh, knowing I’m joking about Dr. Munford, but they want to know how I’ve heard of The White Stripes and if I really like them, though some just seem shocked I’d be watching Conan in the first place.
So all day, before I split my students into groups to answer questions on their assigned reading, I ask each class if anyone saw The White Stripes on Conan, and some say they did, and some say they didn’t but wanted to, especially my freshmen, because they aren’t allowed to stay up that late, past their bedtime.
Billy Christopher, though, says he’s a big fan of The White Stripes and comes up to me at the end of class to show me a website where I can download a couple of their songs for free.
He double-clicks on “Seven Nation Army,” then tells me that’s the song they played last night.
“Hey, thanks, Billy,” I say.
He thumbs the Power button on my speakers, then cranks up the volume. “Knock yourself out,” he says.
After school, I drive fast along Dauphin Street and then Airport Boulevard, but I have no idea how fast. A couple of summers ago, the speedometer needle drooped down in the heat and now drags against the console face, never reading lower than 25 mph and never higher than 40.
I practically run from the truck to the entrance of Bel Air Mall and then through the mall to Sound Shop Records. I don’t know what I will do if they don’t have the two songs I listened to all day, thanks to Billy Christopher. But I’m lucky that all of The White Stripes’ CDs are in stock. Of course, the two songs I want are on two different CDs, their two latest, so I choose those and carry them to the cashier, some young guy with a shaved head and a tattoo of a housefly, or a horsefly, on the back of his hand.
“Hey,” he says, not giving my face a second look but he does my clothes and holds up the CDs, “you match.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m a fan.”
“Right,” he says, then nods and begins to ring me up. “I dig it.”
So I’m feeling pretty fucking cool strolling out of Sound Shop Records. What the hell, so I stroll right into Dillard’s and buy another pair of black pants. Corduroys, since winter’s coming. Then I pick out a black shirt, since I don’t have one, then a solid-red tie, since I don’t have one of those either. How far should I go with this? Should I get enough outfits for next week, or is that carrying the joke too far? Is this even a joke?
I haven’t bought clothes for myself since I started teaching, so, what the hell, I grab a pair of red corduroys, too, and then a white tie and a black-and-white tie and a black-and-red-and-white tie. All I need now are some red shoes. But Dillard’s doesn’t sell red shoes to men, so I haul myself and all my bags next door to a place that apparently sells red shoes to men. Apparently, by the looks of things, to black men. But fuck it, these red shoes for black men are comfortable. Like tennis shoes. And they’re cool. They match my corduroys perfectly.
All I need now is some more beer to work off this hangover I’m beginning to get, so before I leave Mobile, I stop off for a cold twelve-pack and begin to sip on one, and I guess I’ll do this till I get home and while I play my new CDs and while I wait for Conan and the funeral tomorrow. Already I’m realizing I didn’t buy enough beer, so when I come to Snuffy Smith’s right outside of Wilmer, the last stop for beer in Mobile County before I reach George County, I pull over and buy another twelve-pack.
Hours into this I realize I’ve got a lot of beer to drink alone, and too much great music not to share. Genevieve said I could call her anytime. And as soon as I think about calling her, I can’t get it out of my mind, so eventually I have to.
She answers in a raspy slurring voice that halts me for a second because she sounds sexier even than she does awake and in person.
“Oh, Genevieve, I’m sorry to wake you,” I say. Really, I stutter. “It’s just me, Jarrett.”
“Hi, Jarrett, no, that’s okay,” she says, already waking up a little. “I’m glad you called,” she says. “How are you?”
“Fine,” I say, and it’s barely a word it’s so low in my throat. “I should let you go.”
“No, I shouldn’t be asleep at ten o’clock anyway.”
There’s a pause, and I realize I should be saying something, that she’s waiting for me to speak, not waiting to think of something to say, but before I can think of what to say, she says, “Nothing like what’s happened to you and your family has happened to me, so I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how you’re making it. It’s got to be devastating. I can’t imagine you could do anything.”
“I actually went to work today,” I tell her.
I’m pacing, but I decide to sit. “Yeah, it was good for me, and I went shopping and bought some music. Have you ever heard of The White Stripes?”
“No, I don’t think so,” she says.
“I heard them last night on Conan, and they’re gonna be on there again tonight. In fact, all week. It’s the best band I’ve heard in a long time. One of the best ever maybe. I just thought you might want to know. I think you’d like them. The show’s on in an hour and a half in case you’re interested.”
“Thanks for thinking of me,” she says, “but that might be a little late for me tonight. I’m just so tired. But maybe tomorrow night or some other night. They’ll be on all week, you say?”
“That’s right,” I say, wondering if she knows me by now, enough of who I am anyway, and just doesn’t like me, not the way I want her to like me, and is putting me off.
“Good,” she says. “Well, you take care.”
“Yeah,” I say. At least she’s nice, how she’s putting me off. “Goodnight, Genevieve.”
“Goodnight,” she says, and once I hear the line disconnect, I hang up and crack open another beer.
Nothing much matters until Jack and Meg take the stage in red top/white pants and white top/red pants, their dyed black hair accentuating their ghostly pale skin. And right off I recognize the song from one of the CDs I have—a bluesy punk garage-band number. I don’t know what you would call it—a song timed, it seems, to Meg’s racing heart, which Jack punctuates with howls before ending the song with a dazzling slide-guitar solo on Conan’s desk that would seem purely ridiculous if he weren’t Jimi-Hendrix good or Jimmy-Page good, and if you weren’t so afraid he’d break apart his fragile-looking plastic red guitar and not be able to finish the song on his own terms.
On the way to the funeral in the limousine, I’ve got my head pressed to the glass of my window and I’m watching pumpkins go by in people’s yards, sometimes displayed by the road on bales of hay, sometimes scattered hay, sometimes on porches with scarecrows or corn stalks, and sometimes there are no pumpkins but there are spider webs strung on mailboxes or in trees, or ghosts taped to front doors or to the aluminum siding of someone’s trailer, or vampires, or sometimes just messages, Trick or Treat, or Happy Halloween, or Boo!
The funeral director ushers Mom and Dad and me through a door in his office, and we enter the chapel from a rear passage so that we can view Eliza privately before the chapel is opened to the public for the service. Flowers ring the casket and the room itself, but there is an antiseptic smell they still cannot cover.
We walk in close together, with Mom in the middle, but I quickly separate from them because I’m not ready yet to see Eliza. And I may not see her. So I tour the room instead, checking out the cards on the flower arrangements to see who sent what.
I start with the large arrangements that have stands, and the first three I look at are the ones we ordered ourselves. Then there are those from all my aunts and uncles, and then I come to this big heart-shaped wreath of red roses and pink carnations, with stems of heather, like arrows, piercing the center. It’s from George County High, and I’m sure Eliza’s classmates and teachers all had to pitch in to pay for it. I try not to linger on this thought for long and begin to wonder what Dr. Munford may have sent on behalf of Bouchard.
When I find it on a table with other flower baskets, what I suspect is a standard condolence to all employees in my position, I start to regret not having told my students myself about what happened. This is pitiful, I know, to stand here and want something from them, with their names on it, something nonstandard, whatever that would be, something not so businesslike, I guess, so corpselike, as this flower basket. But I’m being an ass, and I’m feeling guilty being an ass. The flower basket’s nice, or nice enough, as all of them are, and I move away from the baskets to this crystal vase of white carnations and white lilies. The card seems to be made somehow of linen and is attached to the vase by a thin strip of silk or satin tied in a bow, which all looks too creative for a Lucedale florist, and then I see it’s from Genevieve, this cool girl I met at church a few weeks ago, one of the rare times I’ve been, humoring my parents, and out of the blue, after hello, this girl Genevieve asked if I wanted to go eat Chinese with her, right then. So I did, and that was that. I imagine she plucked the vase off one of her shelves at home and arranged the flowers herself, flowers from the nursery where she works, then delivered them herself. How nice. Now, this is what I’m talking about.
Beyond the empty pews, across the chapel, my parents are crying at the casket and muttering to one another and to Eliza herself. I’m waiting for Mom or Dad to call me over to join them, to see Eliza, to stand united as a family one last time, but I have decided I will not.
Whenever I think of Grandma Cadden, I always block out the image of her in this chapel, over there where Eliza lies. I always prefer to remember my grandmother standing on her porch wrapped in a sweater and waving good-bye through the screen door, or her standing at her stove cooking up breakfast, or her knitting an afghan in her naugahyde recliner wearing her bifocals and watching The Price Is Right. I’m not going to make the same mistake. There will not be anything that I will want to block out. Nothing, not even time, will come between me and my memory of Friday night when I saw her last, after we put away the checkers and I mussed up her hair and she smiled and climbed under her covers and said, Hit the light, and I hit the light, and that’s it, my last image of her, the silhouette of Eliza alive in her bed, her own bed, before I shut the door. I will not, I tell myself, I will not walk over.
But neither Dad nor Mom turns to motion me over. They continue to stare, arm in arm, until there is no more time left for us.
Reverend Simms, a short square box of a man in his late thirties, with light-brown hairsprayed hair and a big knot in his tie, stumbles through the short service just as badly as he stumbled through my grandmother’s, which was probably his first funeral service. He arrived at Brushy Creek Baptist Church not long after she got sick. They have a quick turnaround. Every few years, there’s some scandal, and the congregation votes out their preacher. And in a year-and-a-half’s time, you would think Reverend Simms would’ve gotten better, so I imagine he won’t last any longer than the others.
I’m sitting on the front row, of course, right in front of him, and watching him look up from his notes so often that he loses his place and sometimes skips a line and says something that doesn’t make sense even in irony. Then to make matters worse, whenever he discovers he’s made a mistake, he pauses, every time, to clear his throat, to draw out the torture, like that will distract us and we won’t recognize that he’s fucked up yet again.
I turn to Mom and Dad, and I’m struck by how much they’ve aged since Friday. For the first time, they don’t look to me like they’re getting old. They are old.
As we exit the chapel to the same black limo, it seems grander than before, surrounded by ordinary cars and trucks that are starting up and beginning to file behind it with their lights on.
I didn’t really notice how many people were at the funeral, but when we pull into the cemetery, a flat four or five acres of bright treeless ground, I see how long the procession is, curling around the U-shaped drive and parking out on the shoulder of the road.
What I keep thinking about, can’t help thinking about, is the crash, how Eliza saw it, how she died, moment by moment, and this day itself, how she dressed up for Halloween through the years, usually as something nice and pretty, like a princess, a cat, a butterfly, unlike what I went as growing up: Dracula, Ace Frehley, Alice Cooper, anybody that required heavy make-up, which would hide my port-wine stain and make me look, without wearing a mask, somewhat normal. But last year, feeling a bit too old to be too serious about how she dressed up, Eliza went as Elvis Costello, which was a personal victory. After playing his music for her for years, I finally got her hooked and she thought he was cool.
So I’m thinking of tonight and how she won’t be able to impersonate anyone new I’ve gotten her to like since last year: Lou Reed, Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux. Or perhaps Meg or Jack White. There would’ve been time to introduce her to The White Stripes before today. Maybe she would’ve become suddenly obsessed about them like I have and would watch Conan every night this week, too.
“We should thank everyone for coming,” my mother says, once Reverend Simms finishes his closing prayer, but I seek out only Lexie Dumont, speaking briefly to others as I rifle toward her through the crowd, and when I find her, she looks okay, not scraped up that I can see or with a neck brace or anything, but she is scared, scared of me, I guess. But when I move in to hug her, she begins to sob and clings onto me, the size of Eliza. I think of asking her what they were listening to in the car, if anything, and if anything, if she can remember what song was the last song Eliza ever heard, but all I can muster to say is what I should say. That it’s not her fault, it’s not her fault.
Eventually we let go, and then I see Bobby Orlander waiting to speak to me. He’s dressed in his tan-and-green patrolman’s uniform because he was our escort for the procession.
We shake hands, then he tells me to wait here, and he goes to his patrol car, pops the trunk, shuts it, and comes back with a paper sack, but before I let him give me whatever it is that is in the sack, I tell him I have to ask—if he knows if Eliza and Lexie were listening to music at the time of the accident. I know he understands why this is important to me. He called me Button Boy in high school along with everybody else.
“I wasn’t first on the scene,” he says, “but those who were said the radio was just blaring. Just blaring.”
“Are you sure it was the radio?” I ask.
He shrugs. “That’s what they say.” Then he taps the sack. “From the coroner. Her clothes,” he says. “I meant to send them over sooner. I’m very sorry.”
I take the sack, but only because I feel I have to, and as soon as I do, we both appear relieved the moment’s over and turn away. It seemed so important in the beginning for me to know what Eliza was wearing when she died, as if her spirit would still be wearing it and I could imagine her as she is and will always be. I start to think maybe I should duck into the limo and take a look inside the sack there, wait for Mom and Dad there, who are swarmed now with relatives we haven’t seen in years, and at the end of the line of those wishing to give them their condolences I see Genevieve, and she sees me and waves, a meek sympathetic wave, so I wave likewise, and she walks over.
We hug and I thank her for the flowers, but I don’t cry, even though she’s so beautiful in her dark brown dress and white belt and is standing so close to me. Her eyes are practically identical to mine—set far apart and the same color as her dress. I wonder if she can see what I am thinking.
“Eliza was a beautiful girl, very striking,” she says. “I could tell, it was easy to tell—just beautiful. I’m sorry I didn’t get to know her.”
I nod and heft the sack close to my chest. “Are you planning to watch The White Stripes tonight?”
She doesn’t answer right away. But then she says she is and asks if I’d like to come over and watch them with her.
I shrug. “If that’s okay. If that’s not too late or anything.”
“No, come over, okay?” She touches my arm. “Maybe that’s exactly what you need.”
I try to smile, then she tells me where she lives again, as though I could have forgotten what she told me. How would she know that I have already found her place and at night driven past twice?
After she walks away and I’m alone again, I go to the limo while I have my chance and shut myself in. I’m already crying and I haven’t unrolled the top of the sack, an ordinary paper grocery sack. I’m seeing the big curve in Country Road 612 near Agricola Latonia Road, a curve I’ve enjoyed, that’s sharp and fun to take fast. It’s where a pine slipped out of the chains on a logging truck and rolled across the road, which Lexie swerved to miss, when she hit the embankment head-on. When Eliza died right at the scene, head-on.
One by one I remove the articles of clothing, expecting to cringe from the blood or the smell of oil, but they look only worn, with no stains, and I lay them on the seat beside me: a pair of black ankle boots, a red sock, a pair of jeans, the blousy red-and-yellow Mexican shirt that was her favorite shirt, another red sock, and my old leather jacket, with two of my old buttons, London Callingand Mondo Bizarro, still pinned to the lapels.
After the funeral, there’s a reception at my parents’ house, with a lot of food my aunts have brought over, but the gathering isn’t as big as the one we had the day Eliza died. People don’t linger. They drop by, grab a snack, or largely don’t, then leave, and it’s all over quickly. They all must have Halloween plans, or just need a break from grieving.
We appear to be taking a break, sitting in the den now, my mom and dad and I, and though we’ve got the TV on, a rerun of The Bob Newhart Show, we’re not really watching it. We’re staring at it, not laughing when it’s indicated we should laugh, though this might be therapy enough.
You should not grieve for what is unavoidable. I keep telling myself this. A good Hindu is what I want to be, if that’s possible for a non-Hindu.
“When are y’all going back to school?” I ask, to breathe some life in us.
“Not before Monday,” Dad says.
“I’m going back tomorrow,” I say.
“I don’t think that’s good,” Mom says.
We’re talking but we’re not looking at each other.
“‘You should not grieve for what is unavoidable,’” I say.
“Do what?” Dad says, and I can imagine his stern but befuddled eyes.
“I just think time on my hands might be a bad thing for me right now,” I say.
“It’s good for us to be together right now,” Dad says.
After time passes and no one speaks again, I’m guessing the conversation is over.
Genevieve and I didn’t establish a time for when we should meet, but when ten o’clock approaches, which sounds about right, I stand up and gather my coat and tie lying across the back of my chair and tell Mom and Dad I ought to be going.
All I let myself think, as I hug them, is that I am lucky to be young and to live in the time of The White Stripes. Jack and Meg have the right perspective. Sure, there are times to do without, to take the ascetic approach, for the challenge, the lesson. After two CDs with a heavy blues influence, what did Jack decide? That they wouldn’t play blues on their next CD, which is one of the CDs I bought yesterday, called White Blood Cells, and which landed them on MTV with a lot of airplay and made them famous outside their hometown of Detroit. He said, and I can remember it because last night after I watched their second performance on Conan, I went to the Internet for more information about the band and I copied it down in my ledger because I’m going to have my students write a one-page answer to it in class tomorrow before sharing it aloud, and what he said was, “What can we do if we completely ignore what we love most?” So one rule, no blues, grew to no guitar solos and no slide and no covers. And then to make their job even more difficult, Jack declared that the CD would have to be recorded in three days.
But then there’s the other approach, the reward, the excess. Hence, Elephant, their fourth CD, which is the other one I bought. But is one approach better than the other? Right now I think so.
Unlike most of the people I know and grew up with, Genevieve lives in town, in an apartment that faces all of Lucedale’s conveniences: Food World, Video World, Fabric World, The Bank of Lucedale, and Wal-Mart. I think if I lived there, I’d buy binoculars, and before I ever ventured outside, I’d investigate who was shopping where I didn’t want to see.
Genevieve’s apartment is upstairs at the end, which gives her space on the balcony for a bookcase that she has filled with potted flowers and what look like herbs, like basil and rosemary and what smells like oregano. I’m hanging out here a moment to gather courage to knock, and then I knock, and the apartment answers with a wild cacophony of high-pitched howls. Then I hear Genevieve inside saying in a soothing sweet way, “It’s okay, fellas, shush, calm down,” and the howling cools to whimpers, and she opens the door.
“Hi, Jarrett,” she says, and I smile and look down at a pack of beagles squirming their heads between her legs and around her feet. They’re no more than a year old, if that.
I laugh. “How many do you have?”
“Four,” she says. “They’ll calm down after a minute.” She eases back, trying to block them from running out, so I try to slip inside as quickly as I can, and then I’m swarmed. It’s a spotted sniffing tangle about my ankles, and I reach down to pet each one, and they hop up and whine for more and beat their tales against each other’s eyes.
“Back in St. Louis,” she says, “I took in a stray that ended up being pregnant, and though I found a home for her, because my dad knew this hunter who wanted her, I just couldn’t bring myself to give away the puppies. Not after I saw them being born.”
“Yeah, they’re cute,” I say, and I pull up from petting the dogs and notice for the first time what she has on—a dress over jeans, what no one else around here would dare to wear or even conceive of, but she has a way of mixing and matching stuff and pulling it off.
“Would you like something to drink?” she says.
I don’t fall for this. “What do you have?” I say.
“Do you like tea?”
I nod, and she says she’s got blackberry sage and lemon wintergreen, but I was thinking she meant iced, so I’m slow to answer.
She leans in, looking a little embarrassed. “Sorry I don’t have any wine or beer or anything like that to offer you.”
“Oh, no, that’s all right,” I say.
“I just don’t drink unless I’m out somewhere. I never got in the habit at home.” But then she looks a little embarrassed again, like maybe she picks up on the fact that I find this odd, since around here it’s easier and safer to drink at home than getting drunk in some bar in Hattiesburg or Mobile or Biloxi, then having to face a long drive home. “Do you not drink?” she asks.
“Sure, sometimes,” I say.
“Oh, good,” she says, grabbing my arm. “I was afraid I offended you.”
“Oh, no, not me.”
“Well, not many people around here drink even a little.”
“No, not many,” I say. “And not many who do would admit to it.”
She smiles. “But we’re friends,” she says, and she turns, and the dogs turn with her. “Have a seat if you like,” she says, then disappears into the kitchen.
I’m too nervous to sit. I just look around, and you’d never know, with nothing on the walls, she was an artist. In fact, she’s quite minimalistic with her furnishings—a couch, a chair, a couple of dog beds, and a table with some kind of cool purplish shawl with tassels thrown over it and topped with a lamp and a couple of framed photographs, and that’s it for this room. I walk over to see if a guy is in one of the photos. No guys.
I hear her running water against the thin bottom of a kettle, and a bolt of guilt surges through me. My sister is dead, and I am in love, or wanting love, desperately needing love, and I feel ashamed this is what I am thinking. I should leave. I should leave, but I wander instead toward the kitchen.
She’s setting cups and saucers out on the counter. Her hair is tucked behind her ears except for a strand on one side that clips the end of her eyebrow and curls at her temple. She smiles when she sees me, and I turn away to look at the blank walls behind me in either direction.
“Where’s your artwork?” I ask. “I’d love to see some of it.”
“Oh, I keep all that back here,” she says, and the beagles and I follow her down the hall. She has on sandals, nice beige sandals, with pretty feet. When she reaches the end of the hall, she opens the door on the left and flicks on a light. “I guess you could call this my studio,” she says and steps back to let me enter.
The St. Louis Arch. That’s what I see first sitting on an easel in the center of the room above a drip cloth and next to a stool and a cart of supplies. Then that’s what I see leaning against the wall and spread across a table. Sheets and sheets in different sizes of the Gateway to the West Arch, with the Mississippi River behind it, or with a bridge behind it, or both, or with the city behind it, or only a courthouse behind it, or sometimes of the park below—either at night, with the city lit up, or with the river shining, or in the day when the Arch is shining, or softer at dawn, at dusk. All painted in soft watercolor tones, all delicate and elegant and animated as moving water, but all of the St. Louis Gateway to the West Arch.
“Impressive,” I say, nodding. “I don’t imagine anyone could do a better job painting that Arch.”
She smiles. “I have a deal with the gift shop there, and they only want paintings of the Arch, as you can imagine. It gets old, but not as old as you might think, and it pays most of the bills. But it’s not all I do.” She goes to a large accordion file sitting on the floor in the corner.
I walk over and she pulls out a watercolor of egrets nesting in a dilapidated barn crawling with kudzu. “That’s my latest,” she says, then shows me a garden of gardenias, then a cluttered kitchen sink, then her parents in a dark room, who only look a little like her, then a close-up bird’s-eye view of a pond of koi, which is my favorite, and I linger over it longer than the others because it reminds me of Monet’s Water Lilies, how the lines blur, the colors bleed, how what is sunken rises.
“Wow,” I say, and I know I sound like one of my students, but I don’t care. “Wow,” I say again, I can’t help myself, “you’re a real artist, Genevieve, a real artist living here in Lucedale.”
She laughs, and she is so beautiful, so talented, so kind to allow me over this late on the day of my sister’s funeral, I want to kiss her.
“Thanks,” she says, then draws back to file her paintings away, and I hope she didn’t sense I wanted to kiss her and pulled back.
I tell her I didn’t realize how much I loved watercolors until I saw hers.
“It’s the oldest form of painting actually,” she says, then turns again to face me. “Did you know that?”
I shake my head.
“Cave paintings,” she says. “Just pigments mixed with water and applied with fingers or sticks or bones. Nothing really has changed much since.”
I nod and wander over to her cart of supplies. I don’t ask her what they do, or what she does with them, but she steps up beside me, showing me three types of paper—hot-pressed, cold-pressed, and rough—and explains how the texture of the paper contributes to the composition. Then she explains how she mixes her paint in a mixing tray from dry color cakes or tubes of paint, then why she selects certain brushes, some with flat heads, some with round heads, some with angular heads, some with bristles made of nylon, some of sable, some of goat hair, and how sometimes before she starts to paint, she sketches outlines of figures using charcoal pencils or crayons.
“It’s all primitive and childish, and that’s why I love it,” she says. “Why I prefer watercolors to oils and everything else. It just seems so much more natural—and hip, don’t you think?”
“I do,” I say. I’m nodding more than speaking. I’m wondering if she sees me as a cave painting. If she views my face as something primitive and natural—and hip. Like I view The White Stripes.
But she doesn’t say so, so maybe she doesn’t think so, so I look away and see that all four dogs are lying in the hall, like they’ve been trained to stay out of here. Then I feel Genevieve’s hand rest on my shoulder.
“We better go make our tea before the water boils away,” she says.
In the kitchen, I decide to try what she’s having, the lemon wintergreen, and after we bob our tea bags and spoon in sugar, she turns to me with this look of pause in her eyes, like she’s about to hurt my feelings. “I hope you don’t mind watching television on my bed,” she says. “It’s the only one I have.”
“That’s good, that’s fine,” I say.
She smiles. “I’m glad you came over tonight.”
“Yeah, me, too,” I say, and I think she’s going to take a step closer and kiss me, but she just walks past, leading the way to her bedroom, which proves as simple and clean as the den, with nothing on the walls. Only a dresser with a TV on top, a couple more dog beds, a nightstand, and her own bed—a beautiful bed, with a black cast-iron headboard of twisting grape vines and a lavender-and-gray comforter.
She kicks off her sandals, so I untie my shoes and slip them off. I’m slow to climb onto her bed, which is soft and cool from the down comforter. I shouldn’t be in here, but I can’t believe I’m in here. I haven’t been in a girl’s bedroom, other than my sister’s, in a long, long time, since Paula Caldwell, six years ago. My face is pounding and hot, so I don’t look her way, though I don’t have to avoid her for long because she turns off the overhead light and we’re sitting up in her bed in only the light of the TV now, with our saucers in our laps.
Maybe it’s the intimacy of sipping this herbal tea in the darkness of her bedroom with The White Stripes coming up, I don’t know. But my head feels clearer, like I’ve just had a few beers, only I don’t feel as full. Or maybe it’s that we’re really becoming friends, so I decide to tell her something about myself. I tell her about my nickname in high school, then about how I wanted to play guitar but that my parents wanted to be practical and buy me an instrument that wouldn’t require private lessons, something I could learn at school, so they chose the trumpet, because my mom liked Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong a lot. I’m staring at Genevieve’s feet as I tell her this.
“Were you any good?” she asks.
I shrug and look at her. “Good enough my senior year to get several very impressive solos. For ‘The Way We Were,’ for instance.”
She laughs. “God, that’s awful.”
“Of course, that was for concert band. For marching band, I got to play the halftime solo to ‘Blinding Me with Science.’”
She laughs again, and I’m realizing now how she laughs, how she laughs from her stomach, making her whole body shake and the bed shake, and that makes me laugh.
“Didn’t you ever play any current songs?” she asks.
“No, our director was old. He had his favorites.”
“God, that’s pathetic!” she says.
“So when you ask me if I was any good, you know, how could I be?”
“Oh, Jarrett,” she says, touching my arm, “your parents should’ve bought you a guitar. I’m sorry you didn’t have a guitar.”
“Yeah,” I say. “But at least mankind has The White Stripes.”
She laughs, thinking I’m joking, but she hasn’t seen The White Stripes yet, so it’s understandable. She sets her cup and saucer on her nightstand, then she reaches for mine, and the intimacy between us seems to intensify. It’s a commercial break and we aren’t talking. She’s rubbing her feet together as if she’s nervous or waiting. Maybe afraid she won’t like The White Stripes and that would ruin what we have or could have. So I tell myself to ask. It’s a question I’m always hesitant to ask because I’ve never in my life heard the right answer.
“What kind of music do you listen to?”
“Oh, everything, you name it,” she says. “Some of those punk rockers you mentioned have songs I like a lot—‘Should I Stay or Should I Go.’ That’s a great one. And ‘Rock the Casbah’ and ‘Rock ’N Roll High School’ and ‘White Wedding’ and ‘Rebel Yell.’ I’m really open.”
“What else?” I say, getting hopeful now.
“Well, I like Phil Collins a lot, and the Bee Gees, of course. And Clint Black, Aerosmith. Really, I like it all.”
I know I need to say something, because we’re staring at each other, but I don’t know what. She couldn’t have given me a more surprising answer. A worse answer. And now she expects me to respond to her complete lack of discrimination—but The White Stripes save me. Conan is back from the break and introducing them, so Genevieve and I stop staring and turn to the screen. Maybe exposing her to Jack and Meg will shock her into hearing music more acutely and she’ll begin to expect more from it, the way it happened with Eliza, and Genevieve will start to like only the good stuff, instead of all of it. This is what I’m hoping, and it doesn’t seem vain of me when I see Jack is wearing a red western outfit with white fringe, and Meg is wearing a solid-white dress, long-sleeved, conservative. How about that for open! So I’m expecting a country-blues blend of punk, since I know they’re fans of Loretta Lynn, but then comes the surprise—a folksy love song this time, heavy with hi-hat crashes and acoustical strumming, which is so vastly different from last night’s song or Monday night’s, or from anything else on the two CDs that I have. Jack White’s voice is tinny in this one, with authentic Southern yearning, yet the song’s catchy and rollicking, which is perfect for Genevieve and me. It’s as if they are singing about us, about the opposites of us, like we’re this old couple lying in bed quietly making each other whole.
When the song fades in an uproar of applause, I turn back to Genevieve to see if I’m right, that it worked. That she can hear what I hear. And she smiles as she turns, though it’s not a full smile, but then she nods, like she’s thinking of Meg and how Meg nods as she plays as if in agreement with what Jack is singing, as if Genevieve is still humming the tune.
“That was good,” she says, but with not much enthusiasm, and this breaks my heart because they were excellent tonight, maybe the best performance I’ve seen so far.
Although we are opposites, she is not making me whole.
“I love their look,” she says, with more enthusiasm, as if that’s some consolation to me while I sit here alone in my obsession.
I smile because I don’t know what else to do, because I don’t want to speak, because I have nothing I want to say, though it’s not a full smile. I’m wondering how much longer I should stay like this before I speak the words that are now coming to me. That I have school tomorrow. That I should go. That for needy people like us there is always a future.