A fiction by Kyle Jarrard (reproduced from the Mississippi Review)
You remember like yesterday going down to Acapulco to the mansion overlooking the bay. Still feel yourself in sunburned skin diving into the green ocean by the red rocks until it felt like needles would punch your eardrums. The swells of the sea carrying you this way and that. A woman with a big heavy white towel at hand when you got out and came to her shivering in the late afternoon. A man at her side in a bright yellow suit. “Say hello to the Chinese ambassador.” Stepping forward, shaking hands, leaving black footprints on the rose cement. Everyone was talking about man on the moon. You sat at a distance on a thatch chair, the maids’ daughters giggling nearby, eyes flickering like fireflies among the blue fronds.
Now that’s all zoned down there and we couldn’t afford to go out to New Mexico, much less Old Mexico, even for a weekend. When the money problem didn’t get my wife off the subject, I came right out and said there wasn’t anything out there worth visiting anyway. Well, you can imagine. Nora stayed mad at me a good month, just under the skin. Then they went and zoned that area, too. Now nobody’s going to be going to New Mexico.
Just as well. Best now to stay home, stay in.
O.K., it wasn’t really a mansion we had down in Mexico when I was a kid. Just a little house. All ours, though. And, well, it was next to a mansion, which belonged to the richest guy on the bay. My father had got to know him — some business deal that worked out well — and then we all got invited over every afternoon for swimming and cocktails. We never said no. It was there I met the Chinaman, watched the dream girls, floated in an easy suspension of time.
That was then. I grew up, married Nora, flew the big ones for 25 years, kicked the kids out. Now we have the house to ourselves out here. Named it Tres Arcos. Just like the little Acapulco house my parents ended up selling long ago for a song. Had it built the same, three stone arches in front, pool, bougainvillea, everything. North Laredo. Which turned out to be South Texas real-estate hell.
We watch TV, eat in, don’t talk much.
The kids are scattered, messed up. Wore us out.
The boy, Dan, went south about five years ago and got caught down there when it was zoned. Nora prays with the Methodists about him. But zoned is zoned. He won’t be back. Bet you a hundred bucks he doesn’t give a hoot, though. Probably shacked up with some gal making babies. Dan never had much ambition. Lazy.
The girl, Vicky, is a drunk. Plain and simple. Don’t know where she is exactly, what she’s doing for a living or anything, but you can bet your life she’s drunk.
* * *
When they zone it, you just mark it off the map. They tell you and if you have a map you get a marker and mark off that part with a black border. No pasarán, like in that book. Doesn’t matter why they zone it. Doesn’t matter, hasn’t mattered since they started doing it. All you know is that they’re throwing up some pretty mean fences out there.
Fine with me. Keep the riffraff out.
We’ve got a Mexican maid, though. Come to think of it, I’ve had a Mexican maid since about age 2. This one is more American than Mex, though. Talks and acts just like you and me. If I can just keep her from walking between me and the TV, everything’s O.K. If not, it can get crazy.
Like the time I reached out and touched her while Nora was at church. Sometimes that’s all it’ll take and they’ll come right to you. And, boy, I’d been wishing she would.
Then there is the other kind of woman. She just ignored it, kept going, did something in the back, then came back in the den. I gave her a big smile. She gave me one of those you-poor-dirty-old-bastard stares, cut between me and my news talk show, turned and landed a slap on me that almost knocked me and the chair over. Before I could get myself straightened up, she was out the front door.
I sat there rubbing my face. I’d deserved it. I always deserve it.
They were talking about the damn zones. It was looking like West Texas, East Texas and North Texas were going next. A box was closing in. The sweating governor was having lots of trouble answering questions. Poor bastard. It really was beyond his control now.
I was working on a big-time bruise on the cheek bone. More a hook than a slap.
“Why is the vacuum cleaner out? Did Angelita forget?”
“Why don’t you ask Angelita? Do you know what’s going on?”
“Why are you cross with me?”
“I’m not cross with you. Look at the TV.”
They were explaining where zone lines would cut, which towns and cities would be on which side. Warning folks against trying to go against the flow. To take the change in stride, but stock up. Stay in, but stay tuned.
“Oh, your zone stuff. I am so tired of it. Why can’t you just watch golf?”
“Watch golf? When they’re redrawing the whole world map right before our eyes?”
“Slow down. You’re taking it too serious, William.”
“What’re you going to do when we get zoned, too? Ever think about that?”
“Can’t say I have, dear. Maybe you ought to play golf. Or go to church. On second thought, there’s no way I’d take you to church. Not with that black eye, cowboy. Can’t leave you alone five minutes before you start a fight. I’m glad she popped you one.”
“She didn’t pop me one.”
“You just fell down on your face?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Did when you were a drunkard, yes.”
“Who picked you up? Want to tell me?”
“I never fell down drunk.”
“I’m telling you one thing, William. She doesn’t come back, it’s you who’s going over to her house to apologize and ask her forgiveness. I’m not losing Maria!”
Dream on, I thought. It was just a maid.
I got up, tore off my pajama top, pulled down the bottom, kicked it away. Stood there.
Nora looked me slowly down and up.
“God,” she said, “not this.” Walked away.
It used to have a nicer effect. But that was all over now. Not that I didn’t press it anyway.
I stood there a long time before going into the bedroom and getting dressed for the day.
My eye swelled shut by the time we got to the 4 o’clock coconut cake. By dark, I’d somehow found Maria’s beat-up house in the barrio and done my duty.
Lot of good it did me, though. Nora’d taken her little Jap car and the TV and headed out.
There’d be no 7 o’clock zone report.
The house was deathlike, meaningless.
I stood staring out the living room window most of the evening. Finally, though, you just go to bed.
* * *
We’ll have fights like that about once a year now. Average, they say, for older couples. I talked to Nora on the phone at her sister’s in Houston and in three days she was back all pleased with herself because she’d done a bunch of shopping. Next morning, Monday, Angelita hit the door, too. All back together.
Except for the TV.
“What did you do with it?”
“Don’t start, William. Don’t even think about starting.”
“Where is it?”
“Gave it away. You don’t need it. It was eating your mind, William.”
“Who did you give the TV to? Did you just stop at the side of the road and say, ‘Hey you, come here and take this free TV?’”
“It doesn’t matter what I did.”
“It damn sure does matter! Who’d you give my TV set to?”
I picked up something and threw it, an ashtray, I don’t recall. It just flew. Missed her and busted a back window.
The crash of glass silenced us and we glared at each other. Birds sang in the yard.
“See what a TV makes you do, William? It’s taken your mind away, honey.”
She came near, tried to put her arm around my waist. I pulled away.
She smiled anyway. It meant, “Come on, now, let’s get past this or I’ll be right back out the door and at Dorinne’s this time for a week.”
Didn’t like it one bit.
“Just tell me where the TV is, woman.”
“Stop calling me woman! I have a name.”
Bam, she was gone. She hadn’t even gotten her suitcase and stuff out of the car. Ten seconds later the bumper scraped the hell out of the bottom of the driveway, the motor went vroom and she was out of there.
I went and looked at the busted window. No big deal. It could be fixed easily.
There were hundreds of starlings on the lawn. Why did everything seem like some weird movie? I went “Shoo!” and a black cloud rose with a low whoosh over the stockade fence.
I phoned the discount store. By dark there was a big new Japanese color set sitting in the den, volume up loud as I wanted.
When the zone news came on, a chill rippled through me. Just like a kid. I got out the jar of whole dills. The world could go to hell. This was it. Me, pickles and the glow of the tube, warm as a campfire.
* * *
Don’t get me wrong. I love Nora. I even took her way up in the Rockies that time. We were a lot younger, but it was like a minute ago. I’d got it in me one day that we just had to go up there and camp out. And it had to be in a spot where you could see the mountains plunging away straight into the plain, into the heartland. I wanted to be perched up there at night, looking down at the pools of light made by the towns. I wanted to watch the moon come up out there, just like I did down in Mexico as a kid. I wanted to be snuggled up with Nora by the fire, listening to the coyotes and owls.
She enjoyed herself more than any other time. Everything we said to each other was clear, no confusion, no double meanings, no pain. Call it corny, but it was harmonic, a time of total agreement.
On the last day, we climbed a pretty tall peak, found the Geological Survey marker cemented on the highest rock, ate tuna fish sandwiches and swung our legs over the side. Like being on the roof. The air was thin and still.
It was Nora’s idea to find a soft spot and do it. Which was wonderful. The last time it was wonderful. After, to touch the sky all you had to do was raise your hand, plunge it into the blue-black. We didn’t ever want to come down from up there.
You realize how a deep ocean pool and a mountaintop are much the same, extremes that seem to mark the edges of your life. Old passions that get forgotten for years only to show up again. Now changed into walls collapsing in on you. Like the zones. The lines moving ever nearer, like shadows. From all sides now. Pressing in on you and your eyes fixed on the last shaft of light. On the last flickering colors.
Meet the Chinese ambassador, shake his bony little white hand and look into his clear gold eyes. “Have you seen the man on the moon, my friend?” They had landed up there the night before. He pointed at the moon cresting the mountain. His long finger seeming to reach all the way there. A woman drawing her blouse over her brown shoulders and saying to you, “Don’t get cold now.” The Chinaman saying, “They did not know if they would disappear into the dust when they landed.” “Oh, how horrible,” she says, finally giving the moon a look.
The cocktails bell rings and everyone begins filing inside the big house. Laughter swells and a little string orchestra plays. “Ah, Puccini!” the ambassador sings and takes the woman’s arm. The rich man is greeting them in a white suit at the door, shaking hands and dispensing kisses, the congregation pressing in.
The boy slips away, takes the path among the boulders to the abandoned hotel. To chuck rocks into the sea. As the strings of lights come on out on the decks of the liners. As the sharks glide up from the deep for sinking trash. As the moon blinds.
Nora showed up in the middle of the night. I was at the TV. She moved around behind me in the kitchen, had a snack, went off to bed without a word. A younger man would have trailed her in there. But I just sat in the pale rays. My carcass pinned to the easy chair. Like a dried moth.
* * *
Of course it was no time at all before we were zoned, too. It didn’t seem to matter much when it came. A magic wand got waved and it was over.
Nora stood by me, though I sure didn’t make it easy for her. But zoned was zoned. You had your stuff delivered. You shut the curtains. Stayed in the back. Ate at the TV to get the latest directives, shoveling the soft food in off the plate Nora held under your chin. You wore a plastic bib and she used a spoon. You heard her voice calling you from some impossible place. As if you’d just walked away and left her alone up there on the mountain that time. Clear, but desperately far.
“I’ve asked Angelita to come clean some this afternoon. She really needs the money. You won’t mind, will you?”
Once upon a time you would have knocked the plate away, bitten the hand feeding you. Now you find it hard to imagine much beyond the cone of light. Was there really something in the dark that had to be cleaned?
“She’ll only stay an hour. And she won’t bother you, I promise. I have to have to some help around here. Do you understand?”
She didn’t wait anymore for my response to anything, just went ahead. Which was best, I suppose. No telling what sort of shape we’d be in if she hadn’t.
“Aren’t you going to finish your bananas? Have another bite, honey. Make your chest hairs grow.”
What? She hadn’t said that in years. The kind of thing a young woman might say to flatter a young man. Or a mother her growing son. And while my mouth hung open, in she popped some more bananas. Lots of sugar. I let it stay and melt.
“Swallow, big boy.”
It went down salty.
“Where are we now? What’s left?” I asked.
It meant look at the TV and tell me what was what on the world map. I couldn’t see well anymore. It was just a blob. She’d sigh, look at it a moment, then get up and go. She never told me what she saw.
I kept the sound up high, little higher each day. Higher as the light faded.
The announcer kept saying it was only a matter of hours before everything everywhere was zoned. The whole shooting match.
To cheer us up, though, they got some people on there saying how anti-zone might start kicking in soon. In patches to start with, then spreading. Like a new religion. Pendulum going back the other way. But you knew it was bullshit. As the minutes ticked by. As the circle closed.
You remember lying in bed as a child watching specks of dust floating in the sunlight. Blowing at them from across the room, waiting for them to scatter. You remember but you don’t know why you do. Except that it is light, the memory of one light, one moment.
An analyst was saying, “Think of it as a total eclipse of the sun. It comes, but then it goes. Why is it, then, we are so afraid?”
For the first time in months, the phone rang.
* * *
It was Vicky, drunk at one in the afternoon. Nora talked to her a long time. About men stuff, kid stuff, me. Then she brought the phone over.
“Talk to Vicky.”
I put it to my ear. She hadn’t waited for me to say hello.
” — that chair? You can’t go on sitting there like that. Mama says you and your damn zone thing is just like insanity or something. You going to let her bring a doctor in there, Daddy? Why don’t you let her do it?”
Same as the last time. I let her talk.
“I have something else to say now, Daddy, and I want you to listen to me. I don’t have long to live.”
I looked at Nora. She gave me that look that said don’t say anything, just go along.
“Daddy, I have cancer.”
That made three times.
I said, “Your mother will write you a check.”
Then I handed off the phone.
Nora said, “How much do you need, honey? Well, O.K. Yes, I’ll mail it tonight. No, he’s not mad. At least he doesn’t look it.”
It didn’t matter anymore.
She said a few more things, hung up. Went off looking for her purse.
You remembered how bad a child you’d been, too. Calling your mother fouler and fouler names, abusing her as no person ever deserved. Not seeing the errors until it was too late.
It occurred to you that you never once asked her if she had liked Puccini.
The countdown to zone-out had begun. Vicky was drunk, Dan was lost.
“I won’t be long. If Angelita comes, tell her to do the obvious. I’ll be right back.”
You lift a hand to say O.K. She was going to mail the hundred dollars to Vicky. To buy a hundred dollars worth of liquor. What if a father bought a hundred dollars worth of Puccini recordings instead and sent them? Had any father ever done that?
I tried to remember listening to Puccini, to hear it again. But it had been far too long.
Something said to pick up the phone.
“Daddy, it’s me again.”
The usual pattern. This time, the tears. The long stories and the anger. The thanks and the lecture. To get up and out of the chair. To stand up and live.
I put it down on the arm rest, leaned back. Deep in the soft, silver dust. Up to my neck now.
The black cotton of the zone let in no sound other than the countdown.
I knew she was there when a shadow moved across the TV as when a bird flies over. You crane to see it, but the sunlight blinds you and it is gone before you can see again.
“She’s gone to the post office. Hey, Angelita, do you like Puccini?”
“No,” I said for her. “Who that, señor?”
Again the vulture passed. Slower this time, bigger.
“And you thought I didn’t know anything,” I said. “Well, I do know some things, Angelita. I know the Chinese ambassador. We talk about Puccini. And you thought I was just some stupid white Americano sitting out here in this house rotting. Not having ever done anything but fly airplanes. Well, you were wrong, Angelita.”
No answer. My ears went back to the countdown.
Only a few moments to totality. This time the sky was going to lie down on the ground.
You face your life, like an ugly insect caught at the edge of winter. You’d never known anything but a machine with wings. Not your wife, nor your children. Not yourself.
And then it was as if someone had snapped his fingers and the zone business had begun. With no angle of escape. Everything being pressed to a single point in your head.
On her third pass, Angelita stopped. Turned off the TV.
“Clean now. You move.”
The needles punch the eardrums. The swell carries you out and out.
“Yes? What is it?”
She’s right there on her easy chair, reading.
The children are making an awful racket in the pool.
There’s a golf tournament on in Hawaii. Two guys are teeing off.
“You’re lucky,” she said. “They’re just starting the sudden death.”