FICTION- Traveling

I swear the way a person acts comes from their blood just like blue eyes or red hair. My family is living proof. I've been faithful to Marie ever since I saw her on the laundromat steps. Marie's a born run-around. And this kid, who I might as well say now isn't mine, can't be kept in a yard with a fence.

He's only two, and I watch him every second, but all I have to do is go inside for a beer and when I come out, he's headed down the road on the other side of a chain-link fence and the gate's still closed.

I don't know how he does it. Houdini, maybe. J.B. knows all about Houdini– says the magician swore he was going to come back from the dead. I ain't particularly superstitious, but I've had to light out after that kid before he gets to the highway too many times not to start to wonder.

If anybody could have reproduced Houdini, though, it's Marie. Heck, maybe he's just following her, going where she went down the road in her black fake sealskin jacket, short so it hikes up around her waist, red mini-skirt, and her high-heeled boots, with that red hair of hers bobbing up from her head with every single high step and the big gold hoop earrings catching the sun and glittering it back at us in the yard.

When she left yesterday morning– around 10 or so– I was just getting my first beer. The kid'd gone through two diapers. Marie did one and I did the other 'cause she was putting on her makeup.

"Goin' shoppin'," she called to me.

I picked up the kid off the bed and ran in the living room where she already had one boot out the front door. I had to take the diaper pin out of my mouth after I very nearly stuck my tongue on it trying to get the question out.

"Where you goin'?" I said.

"Sally's," she said, "then I don't know." She came over and took the kid from me. "You be good to the old man," she said to him, "'cause I want everybody to be in a real good mood when I come home." She nuzzled his fat little neck and bit his ear with her lips. He laughed and batted her earring, his diaper half off. She propped him on the floor, pulling his diaper up under him, and took my shirt front in both her hands.

"A real good mood," she said, kissing me on the mouth and rubbing just enough of her body against me to make me think after that I should have laid her down on the rug right then. She's the only woman I know that can make faithlessness feel so god-awful good. You know, when she got out the gate, she never did once look back.

Lucky for me she'd looked back once in her life. More than two years ago, I guess it was now, J.B. and me had been at the hardware store getting the fittings for the sauna hut we were putting up in my backyard. Me and J. B. are both of us long haul truckers and while we're on the road, we think up the craziest projects to do around our mobile homes when we get back. We try to surprise each other with a wilder notion every time. Or, anyway, we used to.

I haven't done that many long hauls ever since that day I was talking about when me and J.B. were coming out of the hardware and Marie was coming down the laundromat steps across the street. She had this huge pregnant belly on her, and a wicker basket full of clothes in front of it. She turned around to look back inside for some reason or other, and she lost her balance and started to come tumbling down the steps. I was across that street before she had a chance to realize she was facing impending disaster, and I caught her, one arm on either side of that belly, and she flailed into my arms instead of taking a belly-flop onto the sidewalk.

I'd seen Marie before, when she wasn't knocked up. I've seen plenty of women with big pregnant bellies, but I had never before that day seen one sticking out of a black leather mini-skirt. I know she didn't get that skirt at J.C. Penney's. She must have made it herself, sewing one of those pieces of stretch cloth where the front zipper used to be.

Like I said, ever since that day at the laundromat, I haven't done too many long hauls. First, I was sticking around to take her to the hospital. Then, when motherhood had slowed her down some and she was sitting around a lot, dreamy and smiling, with a tit out, waiting for that little sucker to wake up and take hold again, I started going on the road again. Once, though, when I got back from Kansas, I found the baby squalling in its crib and Marie nowhere to be found. She was just over to Sally's for a second, she said, after she had come barreling in the door and straight into my back where I was leaning over to pick up the kid.

I had my other arm up to pop her one, but she had black running down her face from crying and she took the boy out from my arms so fast I would have ended up knocking him to the floor if I had hit her. Beside, I haven't never hit a woman, never mind hit the only one I've ever loved– I mean really loved.

"Maybe you should pop her more," J.B. says. He's over to the house this morning, 24 hours after Marie took off. He's given me this very same advice repeatedly in the two years since the laundromat.

"Lost a whole god-damn day of work and looks like I'll have to call in again today," I say.

"Reckon Flordon's will have to get them another big, tough, long-hauler to deliver them pansies."

"Fuck off, J.B. This boy'd probably have died of neglect if I hadn't taken up local delivery."

"Jack, I ain't mindin' your business–"

"When hell freezes, you ain't mindin' my business–"

"Pop her, I say."

"So she'll sit still all of five seconds? I can't raise my hand to the kid, even. Speakin' of that devil, where is he?"

Me and J. B. tear out of the screen door and down the concrete block steps. J.B.'s seen him vanish too, more than once, and I don't need to tell him what the problem is.

Well, there's the kid at the gate, his fat little fingers through the links. He's got on this t-shirt of mine I put him to bed in and that big duck's ass of diaper stickin' out under it and this red hair like his ma only light, sort of golden– not darkened by nights in bars and strange beds– and these gray eyes big as silver dollars lookin' after where she went down the road the day before. I'm standin' around like a fool, so glad he hasn't got out, and J.B.'s the one to pick him up and tote him back inside.

The kid's asleep on the Barcalounger I pulled out for him, his bottle nipple getting mashed a little under his cheek.

"I seen worse kids," J.B. says.

"Try you one sometime," I say. I get up and dial Sally's phone again. Her trailer is four lots down and I know she's home, but probably she's what you might call occupied. I'm hanging up when she finally answers.

"I don't know where Marie's at," she says. "Yeah, she come over in the mornin' yesterday, but mornin' is one of my busy times so she left."

"Sally, I'm only going to ask this once: Did Marie do the same sorts of things you do in the daytime?"

Sally gave a laugh that sounded like glass was breaking in it somewhere. I'd wondered lots of times if I shouldn't have never introduced Marie to Sally, but Marie would have found her anyway, and Sally was all right way down inside. Well, I don't mean that exactly the way it sounds, but you know what I'm getting at.

"Marie never did take no money for it," she says. "Who you kiddin?" Don't you know how high falutin' your own wife is?" She stopped talking a second. "Marie's gone, huh? Well, bring the kid on over. I don't have any more business to transact today. You go on off to work."

"One thing I never understood, Jack," J.B. says while I'm loading the diaper bag, "was why you didn't ever look another woman over after you met Marie. You used to give it to plenty, even Sally before she went into business."

"I don't know, man. Maybe I knew Marie in some other life. Maybe it was what you call spiritual cargo."

"Karma. But if you belong to each other, that don't explain why she's always leaving."

"Maybe she don't belong to me. Maybe I just belong to her."

"So who does the kid belong to?"

I give J. B. the sort of look that would have immediately preceded me going to get the shotgun, but I never had shot anyone when I knew I was dead wrong and I'm not going to start now.

********

So I'm driving the truck, leaving flowers here and there. Flordon– the old man– is a pretty easy-going son-of-a-bitch. Not many florists would let someone like me deliver their posies. I got a bad knee, but it ain't generally the gimp that gives polite folks cause to pull back.

I'm big, for one thing, six foot three or so, and built like the medium-sized black bears you see at the zoo, with that color hair and almost as much of it. Then I got these spooky blue eyes from my Granma who came out of the southwest Virginia hills where they say women can still make men act unnatural when the moon is right.

I don't know what Granma did with her blue eyes. I laid a lot of women with mine. Polite folks might be spooked, but women who got or ain't got anything at home mostly took a look at these spook's eyes beaming out from under the brim of this black leather hat and I'd near have to pick them up off the floor. J.B. can witness that's no exaggeration.

But Marie didn't swoon. I ain't sayin' we didn't have our hot times in the sack. She saw the wisdom in our getting hitched, but that didn't stand in the way of our instincts. Even at the beginning, big-bellied as she was, we had a hard time keeping our hands off and nothin', not the wedding, not her size, kept us from it. We were at it dog-style the night she started having pains.

It's just that there's this look she's got sometimes like there's me on top of her, pushing in, and then there's all of a sudden some shade just beside me so that her eyes skew off a little to the side and this appetite she has for me turns– just like that– sad.

Sometimes she grabs my butt and pushes up against me harder and sometimes she grabs her hands into my black hair and I get my fingers in her red hair and we just hold our faces like that till we've got each other right there again.

Thing is, lately, it happens a lot. We're going at it and then she's looking at my temple. And when I hold her down waiting, I have enough time to get to thinking about her eyes and how they're more of a turquoise and how the kid's got more my spook's eyes– light as the sky snow falls out of. Only they aren't my eyes, unless I shoved the genes up there after the fact, you might say.

So that day I'm driving uptown to the University to deliver a single red rose to some dame in the English department. At first I'm thinking about the guy who calls in these orders, a young professor I happen to know on account of once, a long time ago, I sat in on a couple of his night classes when there were no hauls and no women to be had. It was a real bad time, but I'd told J.B. the last time we came back from a haul that I was going to get me a college diploma to hang on the wall– that was my next household project. That was where I first saw Marie.

The professor is a jerk all right, and talked about irony and black humor in the book we're reading, Naked Lunch, as if the educated classes had come up with these notions. He hadn't spent much time listening to truck-stop conversations, I could tell, like ones that have to do with how much you hate the jigs that moved into your neighborhood and then somebody who knows you points out that you been feedin' the one that married your daughter for the last year while he was out of work, and the coffee-colored baby was sitting at your dinner table, too. While the drivers are having a good laugh on you and you're claiming that your son-in-law's different, you don't need to know the word to know that that is irony.

I hand the rose to Mrs. Ragland, the secretary. And it's the very next minute I get the shock of my life cause here comes Marie jingling down the hall. Her earrings tinkle like wind chimes and her bracelets rattle and her boot heels ring on the floor. She not only makes more noise than that hall has heard in years, she's got more body parts moving. Her hair is flashing like a campfire and she swings one arm out ahead while the other one slings a purple pocketbook out behind. Her boobs and butt jiggle, mostly from those high steps she takes in her black boots. She's still got on the sealskin jacket, and under it I can see she's wearing her red mini-skirt, just like the day before. She ain't seen me yet and for one piece of a second I believe I've made her up.

It ain't all that weird to see her here. I saw her at the University the very first time, even before the laundromat. She was in the Naked Lunch class and kept everyone laughing by setting the record straight whenever the teacher got way off base. She pointed out once that that book Last Year at Marienbad had a story no matter how much the writer tried to mess it up: two dudes wanted the same broad. She always went out of the room in a gang of undergraduates and sometimes the jerk-off professor who, though they could be dense, knew quality when they saw it.

So here she comes again, as full tilt as any jingling, burning flame can travel, bang in through the door.

"Miz Ragland," she says, "where's Jerry at? I've looked everywhere– his office, his house last night."

Mrs. Ragland's got her mouth open to answer, but Marie sees me where I'm at a little behind the door. Mrs. Ragland's mouth shuts all of a sudden and I think later I might have had a fist up about chin level because I knew all of a sudden that the kid I'd been slapping diapers on the butt of and bottles in the mouth of is the son of a jerk-off.

"No," is what Marie says. Maybe she means no, I ain't believing you're here, or maybe she means it like what you'd say to stop a mad dog from charging, but what I hear isn't either of those. I hear one earring give a tiny, dying jingle. I don't pop her.

I got her by the wrist, but she ain't going to be pulled any further than into the hall. Even with her back against the wall like I get her, Marie's still not gonna give.

"I ain't your tote bag, Jack," she says.

"Maybe you ain't, Marie. Though I'd have died for you. I guess I wasn't high enough quality. Not smart enough, was that it? Well, I get this at least: the kid doesn't get out by magic, he just thinks himself out, the little professor."

"It isn't what you think? It was a student in that class. He's gone a long time ago. He was a kid hisself. Jerry– the big professor– he just tells me what books to read more."

Marie looks like she's fading against that gray wall, like that place is putting the flame out.

"Well," I say, "that's as may be. But that's my kid now." I don't know where that notion come from, but I don't mean to take it back. I leave Marie up against the wall.

*******

I've had me a bad night where I tried to give it to Sally when I went to get the kid, and me and her had a few beers because he was still napping, but I lost all interest before anything much happened.

I didn't sleep good and I got the kid in the delivery truck with me the next day when a call comes from May, Flordon's dispatcher, that someone asked for me special to bring a tiger lily to the amphitheater at the University. I got my suspicions so I stop by home first and then go to Flordon's to pick up the flower and get my own truck, then go up to the outdoor arena where Marie and I once ate a picnic to a reggae band and she did the kid's little scanty hair in cornrows.

There's this concrete stage with tall carved doors behind it and a semi-circle of grass and rows of steps to sit on going up from the field, all in a kind of Greek style and set in the middle of these red brick buildings with white columns like an architect's hallucination. It was cold the night before and there's still frost on the grass where the shade of the back of the stage still lays on the ground. I've got the kid in one hand and the suitcase and the lily in plastic together in the other and we stop a minute at the top of the steps, looking down on the stroke of red and black on the front of the stage.

The white slashes of her legs are crossed over each other. We go down and walk the field to her.

"Well, hon, I guess I get the message," she says, looking at the suitcase. "I was thinking me and the kid might stick around a while more, but I see you got other ideas." She takes the suitcase and the flower at the same time but in different hands. "I'll just be sure the right stuff is there."

I almost didn't let her take the suitcase, but my mouth didn't feel ready to make any explanations, so I just let her open it.

"What's this shit?" she says. She's looking at my clothes in the suitcase and a little pile of the kid's shirts on one side, with his Keds on top, soles up. "Whoa, buddy," she says.

"I won't wait at home for you anymore, Marie," I say.

"Well," she says and I can see she's considering this. I close the suitcase and turn around with it and the kid to start back to the truck. Marie's as fast at thinking as she is at everything else, but I'm really not waiting this time, not seconds.

"Hey," she says, "wait."

I stand in the middle of the grass, hanging onto the kid. Marie bounces up to us at a jog. "I got my best clothes already on," she says. I don't say anything. She does her hand through her hair. "Who the hell is the traveler in this family anyway?"

She gets the kid by his other hand. She's stepping high and fine, with her hair flashing and her earrings sounding clear in the cold air and this tiny smile at the corner of her eyes.

The kid he's picking up his baby cowboy boots too, so that his behind is doing the same side-to-side swish Marie's is, only packed in diaper and rubber pants under his overalls. Marie flashes one blaze of a look back. I got to take some big fast steps to catch the kid's hand again.

I can't say nothing as we step out across the frosted field, so I just tip my hat to them sideways as we go together.

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