Seth Shafer


HOW IT IS

 

One eye is swollen shut, throbbing. When I look in the mirror the whole left side of my face is bruised, dark, like some pale fruit dropped from the sky. I sit on the commode, close my eyes, pray.

My Baby-Doll's tits are killing me, man.

In the last month alone: three cracked ribs, hairline fracture of the left radius, forty-three stitches, four loosened teeth, bruised kidneys, two concussions, and other small hurts too numerous to mention.

Through the bathroom door I hear her stir in bed, rustle the sheets. I pray she does not notice I'm gone. I need time to recuperate. I bow my head.

The first time I saw Baby-Doll my mouth went dry, my hands started shaking. I was in The Lonely Coondog, playing pool with Bucket. I heard the door bang open, and looked up. I drank off the rest of my beer, and managed to finish the game of pool I was playing, but it was a near thing. I missed so many shots Bucket asked me what pharmaceutical bliss I was in possession of, because he knew I wasn't drunk enough to be fucking up like that.

He'd had his back to the door, hadn't seen her walk in. He hadn't felt the full force, the shock wave, that burn. Baby-Doll.

Five-ten, blond hair, a waist I can almost circle with my hands. Perfect teeth, white, blue eyes (cerulean blue) and fine smooth skin. Tanned in the summer and winter. But that's not what you notice first about Baby-Doll.

Tits. My God. Baby-Doll has the most spectacular tits you'll ever lay eyes on.

Everyone thinks their girl's tits are the best. I don't blame them. I applaud them for taking a stand, for rising up to be held accountable. It is a hard thing to do, to stand up. All I'm doing is telling you how it is.

It's not just the size. You can see any number of big-tittied women in any given bar on a Friday night. Baby-Doll's as big as any of them, true, but there is more. It's as if there is some internal mechanism, some device that holds them true, upright, aligned. Proud like smokestacks. They defy gravity, forces of nature, the hand of God. They thumb their noses at us all, their fine, nippled snouts.

Baby-Doll in a forest green halter-top will rearrange your thinking, make you question the basic tenets of the universe. If you think I am exaggerating I will stomp a mud hole in your ass and walk it dry.

I am not a man prone to exaggeration.

Plus she has a doctorate in molecular biology. I shit you not.

Baby-Doll works in a big building, all silvered mirrors and steel. It looks like it will leap up at any moment, take flight, leave screaming through the atmosphere. Thinking of Baby-Doll escaping this earth fills me with an ache deep in my chest. Her riding through cold space in that building. Reflecting.

I paint houses, stores, anything. I have a beard filled with paint. It is work I am good at.

I used to wake up at all hours. The second woman I had left me because of this. I would kick my feet out, my fists, raging, raging. I am full of something, and it escapes me when I sleep. I make a noise that I am told sounds like death incarnate.

Once I dreamed the world was smooth, ribbed with a long, wide scar.

The crux of it is I'm not that tough a son of a bitch. Or that mean. Hell, when they show abandoned animals on television I have to look away. But there are some things in this world you have to fight for, if you're alive, and not one of those robot people that drive a fancy car, taking you to and fro, warming your ass, merrily, merrily.

Truth is I'm a skinny little fucker, and it's taking a heavy toll. Wiry, is what Baby-Doll calls me, but it amounts to the same thing. I can beat down these amorous bastards, but just barely.

I've had to get intellectual about my ass stomping. We walk into a place, and immediately I start looking around, calculating. Distance from bar to door, between tables, whether the tables are bolted down, etc. Also anything laying loose, like pool cues, or those metal boxes napkins are put in. Chairs, too.

I broke three chairs over the same son of a bitch's head one night. He just kept coming on, and I kept cracking him with chairs. After the third one I leaned down, whispered in his ear: Stay down.

He did.

Last week she said this: Three men in a boat and the boat is sinking and the fattest convinces the skinniest to throw the third into the sea, since the alternative leaves them all wet.

I can paint anything in this goddamn world, as long as I can reach it from the ground. In the air, the sky, my hands start shaking, head swelling like some balloon, and I feel myself tipping backwards. As soon as my feet touch earth I am fine again. I've always been this way.

It is not that hard, to overcome. I have long poles, attachments, implements; I overcome.

She calls me darling. When we are alone.

Baby-Doll had a husband once. He got burned up in a fire when he tried to rescue some woman's dog. I am not motherfucking kidding. He wasn't a fireman, just happened to be driving by the burning house, happened to try to help. His name was Robert.

Sometimes I find Baby-Doll sitting on the roof when I come home. The first time it happened I sat in the yard, in a chair. I gripped the edge of the seat hard when I looked up at her.

"He's up there," she'd said, lifting her chin towards the sky. "Like so much drifting ash. With the dinosaurs."

"Who?"

"You know who."

I did. I'd sat there, gripping my chair. When I thought of Robert I saw a large, winged bird falling from the sky, burning. The wings making the flight possible, but the fire, too.

What I'm trying to say is simple: Without Bob burning up, no Baby-Doll for me. Good ol' Bob. Trustworthy, and kind. Here's to Bob. Hallelujah. Amen.

"Baby-Doll," I'd said, "please come down."

I'd heard her shifting, looked up to see her toes pointing down at me. Her nails were painted fuchsia sunrise.

"Catch me," she'd said, and jumped.

One night four old boys from Cheatam County rushed me in the parking lot, as Baby-Doll and I were leaving. I ended up with a broken nose, two cracked ribs, minus one tooth, but I by God left with Baby-Doll.

The mathematics of loss is easy to calculate. You can keep your shoes on to do that math, pissant.

When I asked her if I was the skinny man she told me I was the boat, and she the sea.

I carry a roll of quarters in my pants pocket at all times. I have a big belt buckle, heavy. I've taken to wearing rings. It's all about mass, momentum. You have to come from a position of strength, and come hard. Like a fucking freight train loaded with fucking rocks.

The first thing she ever said to me was: "You look like a prophet. Wild and disarranged, crazy-like. Old Testament, baby."

I didn't sleep for almost a month after Baby-Doll moved in. I just laid there, trying to soak up what it felt to have her in bed with me. What it felt like to have her turn, and put her hand on my hip. How warm she was.

There's something insidious about a woman's breasts. They get to you, somehow, even when you know they are mammary glands, pure and simple. They are a delivery system for milk. But just thinking of Baby-Doll growing old, nursing babies, fuck. And gravity, gravity I piss on you, I piss on you most wholeheartedly from a considerable height.

The worst was when that sneaky bitch hit me with a tire-iron. I felt my knees start to go, could feel myself slipping, sliding towards darkness, loss. We'd just come out of some bar and she was hiding in the bed of a pick-up.

The redneck bitches are the worst, bar none, because they will stop at nothing, and they're mean. One bit the lower third of my earlobe off one night, doing her best to pry my eye out with her thumbnail. Do not think Baby Doll attracts only men. Nay.

When that redneck bitch hit me with the tire-iron I remember the sound, of feeling something solid, then that sound, of my own skull bouncing against itself. I stood there, feeling myself leave myself, into darkness, and I held, I motherfucking held, and willed myself back. I did.

It took me almost three weeks before I got up the courage to speak to Baby-Doll. That is the honest gospel truth. I would be ashamed to admit it, if I worried about what you pissants think.

I followed her after that first night I saw her, to work, home. I kept a journal, made copious notes. What brand of milk she bought, what flavor of shampoo. I let myself into her house one morning, after she left for work. I lay in her bed, closed my eyes, inhaled deep. When I opened my eyes I imagined I was waking up, and she was next to me, almost sleep, smiling.

When I was eight years old I saw a man walk down the street with a hunting knife stuck in his left ear, all the way to the hilt. I was standing with my father in the hardware store, as he bought two pounds of ten penny nails. The man's shirt was flannel, and blue. He passed the window and was gone.

These sons of bitches will tell you nine times over what true love is but I will tell you now: it is a matter of will, and holding.

I keep a medical kit in my truck, under the bench seat. I spend Sunday at the library, going over the anatomy books, memorizing. I am certified to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation. I can name all of the bones in the human hand. Some day I'm going to go have to save some son of a bitch's ass, and I better be ready. The last thing I need is to kill some motherfucker, and spend a few years in a jail cell with some good time boy named Bubba.

Don't think she doesn't know. She knows. It's like a test, when we go out. We could go to the movies, or to some nice restaurant. But we don't. We go to the most ratty-assed honkytonks we can find, square cinder block buildings filled with rednecks and beer and thirty-seven flavors of rage. The more pickups outside the better. If they have gun racks, oh Christ, heavenly mother. When Baby-Doll sees gun racks she reaches over, gives me a long squeeze in my nether parts.

She knows.

The first night I saw Baby-Doll was six hundred and twelve nights ago. Fourteen thousand six hundred and eighty-eight hours. Eight hundred eighty-one thousand two hundred and eighty minutes.

That's the easy part. Some day I'll tell you about the hard part.

Once I painted a house for a man whose wife was Mexican. She only spoke Spanish, and I would hear her singing, when she was in the kitchen. I was painting the outside window trim of a window when it slid open. She spoke to me in Spanish. Her lips were very red. She reached out and touched my forehead with the tip of her finger, so that I could feel the nail. The one word she said was: Angel.

I've seen this guy around, here and there. He sits in the corner, writes in a red notebook. Once he looked at me and smiled and his teeth were the color of bone, sharpened.

I don't care for the looks of this little fucker. I don't care for the looks of him at all.

When I got stabbed this doctor stitched me up, watching Baby-Doll more than me. He kept talking about his Porsche, his hunting lodge in Wyoming, talking to her. The tanned fucker played squash, for Christ's sake. When he was done I took a bedpan to him, bong bong bong, smiting him about the head and shoulders, chasing him down the hallway. I rang that motherfucker like a church bell. High, gospel-like.

Do not test me, pissant. It would not be wise.

Baby-Doll is calling. I touch the side of my head, trace the knot there. I tap it gently, like an egg.

When I walk out she's sitting up in bed. She has her right leg propped up on the night stand by the bed. The only thing covering her is the tattoo of a Confederate flag on her left thigh.

"Come on, big boy," she says, "forward march."

I go to her. I think of ramparts, breastworks, implements of war and doom, and go to cover her, breathing through my nose, breathing deep.

* * *

According to Seth Shafer, "I grew up in rural Tennessee, moved to Texas to get one one of them MFA things, got a MFA thing, got a real job, published some things (most recently a story at Fictionline.com), blah blah blah. I started an online journal (Pig Iron Malt) about six months ago, and am about to make the great leap and found a small publishing house, and lose my money publishing books in lieu of blowing it all on fast women, slow horses, and Tom Waits albums. That's about it. Thank you for your time."

"How It Is" copyright © 2002 by Seth Shafer