My crime was performed in the usual human register—hot blood and implements. There’s no reason to relive everything. I don’t want to play the religious nut, swapping suffering for attention. There is more indulgence than virtue in the saints. It was Hippolitus who declared, right at the end, We are free of nobility in perishing. This while being pulled apart by dray horses. Me, I got hours and concrete. I’m in a lockup situation.
The one I did it to was my beloved. At the arraignment, they read off the charges, four counts of aggravated battery.
“That sounds about right,” I said.
My lawyer sighed. He was thin and blue-skinned, a vicious competent.
The judge stared down from his bench. He wore his hair in a high pompadour. You could see the Butch Wax right down to his scalp, beading up with sweat. My trial was in the summer. The jurors were in misery. They didn’t want to hear about any of it, all these fat ladies dreaming of pie.
The victim, my beloved, sat in her bandages. She did not take the stand. There was no sane way to explain our love. You could sooner explain clouds to the fish. The morning after we met I went out back and held a gun to my head. She was betrothed to another man, a friend from work. We had gotten together at the Green Lantern, in the pickled gloom, and drunk too much.
My beloved had black hair then. Her eyes were the color of grasshoppers. Her arms looked French, very thin through the wrists and freckled further up. She had a mind filled with hierarchies. She adored the ugly, but detested the crude. My friend suited her. He possessed a great lumpy head, with knots like those on an acorn tree. I say this not in malice. He was my friend. My regrets could make a quilt.
She came over that morning and found me in the backyard, blubbering.
“You’re being histrionic,” she said.
I didn’t disagree.
“Please,” she said. “It’s not 10:00 yet, William.”
She had come to return my scarf. The sun beat down on the gravel scattered around us. Nobody had prepared me for the feelings she induced. I couldn’t control my saliva. My thighs burned. There was no use begging her. She could see the whole report right there. We went inside to have eggs.
I myself was born a bastard. There are no extant photos of my parents, no family albums. He was involved with oil rigs. My mother worked on carnivals. We traveled each spring from Tallahassee to Stillwater, like Seminoles.
I was encouraged in dancing and singing, but not well fed. My mother had many suitors, men who prepared the rides and booths. She was available in that way, and quite maternal to them.
It took more than a year for my beloved to choose me. I was in agony. I banged my head against the trunk of the willow out back. I wanted to be deformed. I wanted to reward her preference for the grotesque. But that wasn’t the thing she was after. She wanted an excess of devotion. Her family was from the Saint Louis area. We went visiting that first spring. I wore a rented suit.
“He’s a handsome little monkey,” says the mother. The father was dead. It was a nice house, but ill-kept. Very little sun came in, and the candy bowls were filled with dust.
“I wish you’d settle down,” says her aunt. “Quit whoring around like you’re from New Orleans.”
“I take offense to that.” My beloved stood up. “You have no right.”
The two of them had a row. They grew red in the face. Old grudges came leaping out of them. All the while, her mother is stroking my sleeve. I felt concerned. The visit was becoming a failure. The aunt had a terrible voice and kinky hair. There was some servant blood mixed into her, as a result of a grandfather with esoteric needs. All of us with our mongrel histories, acting so pure. I don’t know why we pretend.
The night before we left, the mother called my beloved into her room. The aunt was gone by then, flown back to Council Bluffs to check on her Schnauzers. They had me stashed down in the basement, but their voices carried through a heating vent. Just small talk at first, the weather this, the weather that, infamous cousins. Then their voices dropped to an intimate timbre. My beloved began to speak imploringly: I do, mother. You know I do. Please don’t say things like that. Let me touch you. I can’t touch you now? And the old woman hissing like a serpent.
A few moments later, my beloved appeared in the doorway. She was flushed about the neck.
“Are you all right?” I said.
She marched into the room and pressed me back on the bed and her hands jerked at my belt. She sat upon me and was loud, unusually so. The old woman was upstairs still, but her wailing came through that vent loud and clear, the two of them speaking some private language, scorn and lamentation. When I tried to ask my beloved what it was all about, she punched my throat.
We spent the good years in Stillwater, rented a place along the railroad tracks and drank wine from pottery. My beloved developed an interest in healing vessels. She read about the Greeks and the Japanese. In the afternoons, she visited wards of the poor. I worried that she’d find someone there to replace me, a more authentically mangled specimen. But she remained true. I worked six days a week, all of it under the table. I wanted to buy her a house. She said it would only cause us grief. Our love was an affliction. I could barely touch her without weeping. I prayed to the stains in her armpits.
She kept a few homosexuals on the premises, for company. I didn’t mind. I wanted her to feel attended to. Later, her mother moved down and took the room upstairs. She said she needed dry air to breathe. It was her contention that my love was disproportionate. “She’s just a woman, like any other,” the old woman said. She counseled me to conduct myself more savagely.
My beloved began taking evening courses at the university, things like psychology and the History of Death. She brought home heavy books and squinted at them on the bed. It was having an effect on our amorous efforts. The sound of the rail cars coupling and uncoupling floated through the windows. The old woman lay upstairs, broiling.
Around this time, the oil industry went into the crapper. My kind of work dried up. I wanted to buy her that new house, with room enough for the family we would build. I made inquiries into alternative income sources. For a time, I stored fenced goods in the root cellar, pantyhose from the Czech Republic, hair dryers from Korea, all the junk the world sends hurling at us. I had to arrange transport at times that would not arouse suspicion in my beloved. The old woman watched me from the window upstairs, wearing lipstick, stroking the sill. Then came a June storm, biblical in nature, and an entire shipment of electronic scales ruined.
So now I was in debt.
I began to assist in robberies. These were inside jobs. A driver was needed. Pharmacies were a particular favorite. Everyone wanted these new confidence drugs. My beloved asked no questions, but the old woman knew what I was up to. She called me into her room one evening and said, “Where should we draw the line, William? Should we draw the line at felony?”
“It’s not like that,” I said.
“Who do you think I am?” she said. “I can make your life very unpleasant. Now come here and do as I say.”
“You don’t mean it, mother.”
“I most certainly do,” she said.
She was a hard woman. There were things that went on in that room that shouldn’t be spoken about. All this while my beloved was in her classroom, studying Freud. I couldn’t see a way out of it. Perhaps I lack imagination.
Then mother’s health took a turn. She had to go into the hospital. She cited exertion as the cause.
“What exertion?” my beloved said.
“Ask him,” she said.
The old woman went off to the hospital, but the deceit came between us. At night, I lay on the bed and sweated like a convict. She didn’t want me to cling to her. Her body discouraged me. All the dye grew out of her hair. She went gray as November. I was afraid to ask her what was wrong. Her mother had cast a spell of unhappiness on us. I closed my eyes and tasted the talc of her bosom. It grew awful.
I went to visit her at the ICU. She had a defect of the lungs. They had a black mask over her mouth and nose. She looked like a fighter pilot.
“I’m going to lose your daughter,” I said.
“Nonsense,” she said. She had these old manners, very calm.
“Release us from your poison,” I said.
“You poisoned yourself,” she said. “Your love is excessive.”
I had to remove the mask and lean close to hear her. It smelled like something had perished in her mouth.
I wanted to move us away from the railroad place, start fresh, but I didn’t have the resources. I needed to make a better arrangement. The old woman sniffed it out immediately.
“You’re dressing nicer, aren’t you?” she said.
“What’s that mean?”
“Moving up in the world, I see.”
“I want my cut,” the old woman said. She pledged to tell the nurse if I refused. “It’s all connected, William, the hospitals and the police. They got a phone line from one to the other, to keep track of the undesirables.”
“Now mother,” I said, “what would you do with my money?”
She said, “Buy a respectable seat in church.”
“That’s not the way it operates anymore.”
She laughed and laughed through her mask. It was like she was spitting pebbles into a sink. “Where have you been?” she said.
Things at home worsened. The air between us was going stale. I was in a desperate condition. I made money hand over foot, but my beloved was unmoved. These were just the things of the earth to her, additional forms of crudeness. She desired a quality of attention that was more mature and skeptical. I’d become religious on her.
She began to pose in the nude for her homosexuals. They wanted to paint her privates suddenly. This was in the backyard, in the sunlight. Sweat dripped down her chest. The homos talked amongst themselves and drank gin fizzes. They made her stand there for hours, until she was near to collapsing. All this occurred on my property.
Back at the hospital, the old woman began to discuss a power of attorney. She wanted me to contend with her estate.
I told her her daughter should serve in such a capacity.
“I don’t trust her,” the old woman said.
“She’s your own blood.”
“Precisely,” she said.
I felt dragged between two powerful beasts, the neglect of one and extortion of the other. I want this noted, though I make no excuses for my behavior.
My beloved announced that she was leaving. She was cutting cucumbers for a salad. I threw myself at her feet. I licked her toes. I could see in her posture it was something decided. She had banished me from her heart. I rose to my feet and took up the peeler and the cutting board, one in each hand, and advanced on her like a locust.
It was not clear to me that I had ever known her. In my crime, I attempted to know her. But she wouldn’t even look at me. I only got bits of her skin.
I went to the hospital with a cold stone in my chest.
Her mother saw my shirtfront and began to yell.
Guards were summoned before I could reach her.
“I knew the day you showed up you were no good,” she said. “I could see it in your posture.”
I was reaching for her neck, but they jabbed me with downers and I hit the floor like a horse.
“Cheap shoes,” the old lady said. “Cheap heart.”
At the sentencing, the judge asked me to speak on my own behalf. It was like I was back in my carnival days, waiting around for my mother to buy something worthless from me. What was I going to tell that man on his high bench? Desire did me in. Devotion got me all stirred up, like a violent saint. My virtue exploded into something red. Who wants to hear all that?
I still don’t know where love comes from.