Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.
This First Proof contains the story “Mrs. Dellums Speaks.”
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
“So when he does you, is it the same as when I do you?” 1952. My ex-husband, my now-dead ex-husband, Pule, bless him, asked me that and I would have to hold him off for a split-second to see if he asked me, at that particular time, in anger, or in pain, in fear, or jealousy, curiosity, lust, the thrill of my lust, the thrill of his shame. Of course it’s all rape, it’s always rape, the final thing in the end, with all the wriggling in the milt, the ooze, the peppering to penetrate. Just that it’s so—so, so … defenseless. Just that it’s so simple: a sphere. So vulnerable. During my tenure at the Florida State Hospital, Chattahoochee, he never once came to see me, Pule. Never. No more memories of me. Memories for me? Time measured by Time, by magazine covers. Look, February 15, 1970: life. How Life Begins—then with a defenseless O, the egg, with the myriad of myriads poppling through the glistening. When the small’s made large, you see it all as a mass, an assault, a ganging up on—a cluster-fuck the ward attendant called it, looking over my shoulder. With my first child, my oldest, my daughter, Pule was coy then, almost gentle because he felt he knew. That was how I met The Doctor, with Pule trying to be gentle. The rooms were separate, The Doctor’s. He had two waiting rooms, one for whites and one for coloreds. Even on Sundays, the only day he would see coloreds, after Mass, the Doctor kept his peace in assurances that black folk wouldn’t contaminate the room. And there were no magazines in the Negro room. Yes, it was 1952. That I know. The Doctor had examined me after the delivery of my daughter in a room that was airless and windowless and had a mop and bucket in the corner—I will say that he didn’t behave untowardly that first meeting. Complimented me even, informing me that I healed well. Confessed to me as well that he was an insomniac. And happy that I went to Mass, too. But understand, and let me make this clear: that as Regina Dellums, née Hardwood, my son, Merwin Dellums, knew only Pule to be his father. Though when The Doctor spoke intimately, playing connubial, head tilted in appraisal, he would peck about the boy before confiding in the delight of his being a quarter Alsatian as he was half Alsatian, though now I know better—he said his family was Alsatian French because of the war, the motherfucker didn’t want to be German. Yes, I’d let him preen with his first by me; but I aborted the second and told him such before I shot him holding a paper cup to his lips, making him a twice-sad man before he died. That said, I met The Doctor after the birth of my firstborn, my daughter with Pule, even though a colored midwife had delivered my child because Pule wanted me checked by a doctor. And though there were, by then, two colored doctors in our town of Gittes, my then-husband wanted me examined by the white doctor because he could afford it. Because he was making money handover-fist. Because he was a nigger-rich coming into his own buying piss-weed lots and taking barter for debt while grinning and head-scratching, winking. Smart. But I can still remember him, trying to catch up, dragging about his Encyclopedia Britannica like a larvae sac. My dead ex, my autodidact. But my then husband did not calculate The Doctor saying to me, “You are a woman of unbridled beauty,” that The Doctor would say to me, “I am but a worm, Reggie, not worthy to lick the sweat from your feet.” Even when he found out, my Pule still pushed me onto The Doctor. Why? Because it made his sins a little more digestible when he saw someone eating from the same trough. Of that I’m sure. My Sin Eater. My little sinner. My dead ex. My autodidact. He consumed more than enough for the two of us. Then the anxiety and novelty and exhilaration that caught the three of us curdled away and we got bored with lust. But then—love entered the house of lust. Wilde? Yes, I think. Wilde. I was hours pregnant with my second-born, months in love with The Doctor when Pule asked me what I felt. “What is it like when he does you? What do you feel?” “Nothing,” was my usual response. We had lavender-and-white lampshades on each side of the bed and I would bat the tassels on my side. “I should kill you,” he said. And the first time, and the second time, and the third time when he said that I would be ashamed and I wouldn’t know where to rest my eyes. I remember, “I should cut your heart out”—Pule saying that. But nothing toward The Doctor, because Pule was afraid of him, even with me glowing with the man’s salt, nothing toward The Doctor because, frankly, we both appreciated our lies. My ex, my dead ex and I fed them to each other. Let me speak to the power and endless joy in lying, lying to the end, giving birth to an endless number of lies! By the fourth or fifth, “I should kill you,” we were both petrified and polished with lies, like that long dark body of the Grauballe man—Life, September 12, 1954, because I remember the photograph of the murdered man: black and bog-preserved, some naked eel with a hacked chest and a tar-heart escaping putrefaction by turning to stone. But let me see, let me think—the first time, the first afternoon I had with The Doctor? The Doctor, too, like my Pule, bought piss-weed lots and shotgun shacks, his just outside of Live Oak. It was one of his colored rentals off the state roads as you’d head toward Tallahassee. I remember that it was that time of summer, that time in the afternoon when you couldn’t see the children but heard shrieks, when shadows leaked from things in stumps and pegs. At least that was what I heard and saw as I drove from my house to The Doctor’s rental. I remember the world was coming to an end at 2:45 PM. The Doctor had given me a key. When tenants left pieces of lives he’d put them in this house. He said as much. There were several love seats in the living room, along with five, six chests of drawers. He had fishbowls stacked in the kitchen. Dead potted plants. And there were two or three mattresses atop the box spring in the bedroom alongside a mattress with a Texas-shaped stain, propped against the wall. The world was still ending at 3:45 PM when I heard his key in the front door and I was sitting on top of a blanket that I’d spread across the bed, my arms holding my knees. “We will be good friends,” The Doctor said to me, “But don’t ever talk about me.” “I won’t,” I said, which was a lie, as I told my friend Emaline about him the next day. And then I thought: have a look at his mementos. There was a blackvelvet painting leaning against the wall under a pier glass. It was of a nude colored woman. “This is an original Edgar Leeteg. A Tahitian whore.” He said this from a squat, stroking a corner of the painting as if he were petting a cat. He then went on yakking about the man painting each individual strand of velvet, layering the colors one at a time so the paint wouldn’t cake. Then he had me undress. What mementos? I remember that there were no curtains on the windows. What mementos? Some stiff-standing patch of cowhide in a corner looking like some cartoon run off the funny pages. I remember that when The Doctor fucked me I was staring through the window into a sky that was angry. Blue as an acetylene torch—with a lizard pouncing onto the screen. “Gina?” Pule asked me when I first returned. My name, his question. The world was still ending at 6:15 PM. He asked again but then left our bedroom. I proceeded to bathe. Then I went out onto our back stoop. Sundays. Only on Sundays could the Negro patients be seen. You could fall ill with pox, dysentery, yaws, pellagra, tuberculosis, hookworm, dropsy, meningitis, pleurisy on Monday, but you’d have to wait around for that Sunday to be seen by The Doctor. But that Sunday he saw no one but me. I sat on the stoop and ruminated. Thought a lot about this. This and Napoleon’s victory at Saarbrucken. I sat and watched the ducks from our stoop. We were considered country, having ducks in our backyard. It was still a street full of teachers, undertakers, and dentists. I was a teacher. But Pule was the country boy. Having grown up on a farm, he liked to have mementos of his childhood. So we kept ducks. One Sunday, certainly not that Sunday, the Sunday upon which the world had commenced to end, but an I-am-in-love Sunday, where every breath I took fed me and cheated heaven—my Pule drove me to a bump on the outskirts of Gainesville to visit a blue-black man in coveralls feeding corn mash to geese and ducks. “Don’t you feed that stuff to pigs?” I asked Pule, but he ignored me and watched as the old man fed fowl. “Hey Pops,” Pule finally said. The old man grunted something but I couldn’t make it out. “Pops, this is my wife, Gina,” he said. Then he suddenly ups and lurches to the house, leaving me there with his old man. His father was ugly. Ashy as a tick. And he had a cleft in his chin so deep that it looked like a butt. He didn’t speak to me but just kept feeding his creatures. I reached into the pan and did the same. When Pule finally returned he had a bulging flour sack in one hand and a stack of books strapped in a belt in the other. His Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition. That was his talk when he came upon me and began wooing me—that he had read and nearly memorized all the volumes he owned of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition. As a kid he had stolen them from some church rummage sale. He had only 12 of the 29 volumes—but that was how he wooed me. He was brilliant like that. Pule, my ex-husband, my dead ex-husband. Brilliant. That was how we were able to have neighbors who were dentists and undertakers. Volumes, Aardvark through Bréquigny to Calgary—Calvary?—with a few gaps in between before ending with Sanskrit. By the time we had returned from his father’s, I wanted him inside me, wanted him to make a baby for me, and I immediately went into our bedroom. But when he followed he had the flour sack with him. “Pick one, any one,” he said. Like he was a card sharp performing tricks. “Pick it up and ask me anything,” Pule said. I said that wasn’t what I wanted him to do, that I wanted him to fuck me, and he—“Oh, I will, baby. But right now—go ahead and pick something. Here,” and he reached into the bag and handed me a volume. Euphonium to Grimthrope. I remember that. I opened to the Franco–Prussian War, Napoleon the Third’s victory at Saarbrucken. “Gina?” he asked, my name, his question. “Saarbrucken,” I teased, “Tell me what happened at Saarbrucken.” And Pule proceeded to enlighten me to it being a minor victory for Napoleon that demonstrated the efficacy of the railroad system in war. But I only paid half attention. I was looking at the delicate crosshatch illustration of Napoleon riding off on horseback while four little conscripts lagged behind—three taking a nap while the fourth was up and stretching—and some scatter of farm fowl. And I thought of that picture months and months later while sitting on the stoop after my bath. I thought of the four (no, three!) little soldiers asleep. The one or two or all of them debasing some mädchen from the village of Saarbrucken, because it was war. And that O, that little O. I did not think I was nor did I become pregnant from The Doctor with our first act, but those little soldiers probably went on to father the next generation of conscripts. Pule came into the kitchen behind me but didn’t say anything. Without turning around I could tell he wouldn’t look at me. Through the hell of thoughts and memories, I would step through as I am now if I could, step through my hellish memory and sit beside myself on the stoop. I don’t think Pule, my ex, knew then fully, the first time. There were ganders chasing geese in the drawing, and a drake squeezing its beak against the skull of a duck. And if my ex-husband, my now dead ex-husband had asked, “Is it the same as when I do you?”—the person I am now, the person following 28 years at the Florida State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Chattahoochee, I would have answered that it was the same for me as it is for them. The ducks. For that is the hierarchy of biology, the hierarchy of history—with the exception of a 17 year-old scratching conscript, who else is going to pay attention to a pair of fucking ducks? But today is the last day of the year in 2016 and the world is still ending. Waning times, loose ends, lost things—
My son, Merwin, was a child of grace. A Tuesday’s child. That is his baby picture, little Merwin Pulette Percy Dellums, there on the bureau. I hated the names but dead Pule chose the names to restore the silence. He hated them, too. When we figured out that the child was not ours, meaning not of our union, Pule decided upon something ugly. When I first told him, he was quiet for a long time. “You’re not worth going to jail over,” he finally said. And I was succumbing to some pessimistic tenderness. Pule saw that. “You’re happy to be having his child,” Pule said. But for the name he inflicted, he was kind to my son. The Doctor, though, The Doctor—after whining some ambiguities he decided upon being hesitant in his approach. “Your husband thinks the child is his?” And me, watching again through the window the light and the street and some dead, sun-stripped tree—“So we’ll be having a baby then,” he said. It was then The Doctor asked about me. Me. My schooling. That was his word, “schooling.” And I informed him. The town tramp sat in the back row. Our prison guard clapped erasers. A murdered man was my best friend and was always the last one to remain standing in a spelling bee while the Las Vegas headliner scratched her name into her desk. And I told him about the school custodian I had eating out of my hand—the man would carve, from a small piece of wood, a ball within a cage. He had given me several over the course of time because I would be careless and I’d lose or break them. Eventually the custodian was run out of town, though why, I couldn’t say. “What about your best friend?” The Doctor asked. And I thought gaudium, dwelling with complacency on sins already committed. “Your best friend?” The Doctor asked again. “Wake me again,” I said to The Doctor. So he fucked me. I then told The Doctor about my best friend’s mother, who apparently was very protective of her teeth that she kept cleaned and soaked and secreted in a glass on top of the dining-room cabinet behind a vase while at home. Of course she would never be caught dead leaving the house without her dentures. She was a light-skinned woman with a large bosom who was more a ghost in her own house, a woman I scarcely saw when I would visit her son, but if I did come upon her she’d shield her mouth with her hand and excuse herself. Her husband died in the First War and she worked as a private-duty attendant for the bank president’s mother. The bank president would like her to remove her teeth when they had sex. One day the bank president’s wife caught them in flagrante delicto and she took the woman’s dentures and broke them by stepping on them. She then made her walk back home, toothless, wearing nothing but the banker’s flannel bathrobe. We knew because we saw—the children—we saw her first. And when my best friend first saw his mother it was while the slowly chauffeured Roadster was pursuing her, the banker’s wife shouting obscenities from the window. My best friend was frozen between fear and shame. Let me attribute it to a child’s suspended memory but he did not move, as I recall. We were eight then. Ten years later he would enlist in the next war but, unlike his father, he did not die in battle. And the banker’s wife disappeared for a long time. And The Doctor: “Yes, I know. She wanted a divorce so he sent her away for a cure.” And again I would have liked to have stepped through memory and have scrunched between The Doctor and myself-then, to inform him that the banker’s wife would be there, too, at Florida State Hospital, Chattahoochee, and that we would exchange pleasantries over tepid, oily tea. But instead I went on to tell The Doctor that my best friend did not die in the Second Great War but served as a grave registrar in Italy, in the Apennine Mountains. “Where?” The Doctor asked. The mountains, I said, where the soldiers had to use the same transportation as Hannibal, excluding the elephants, where my friend was a member of the 92nd Mule Division, which included an Italian veterinarian, two blacksmiths, 600 Italian volunteers, 15 black enlisted men, and one white officer, where the mules were spooked by the stench of the dead and balked at carrying corpses. But The Doctor: “So, did you love him? Did you lose your virginity to him?” And I, I remember (what memento?) looking into that pier glass, that mirror across from the bed, and I swear I remember seeing only my reflection. Then I told The Doctor that before the war I was a shallow individual attracted to superficial attributes such as the boy’s eyes. They were a silvery hazel in a brown boy. But when he came back from the war the whites were red and permanently sore looking. “Catarrh,” The Doctor said. And I said that’s when my best friend started acting peculiar. When he returned from the war his mother died. By her wish she was buried in her wedding dress. Now my best friend was truly alone. The coloreds only signs that humiliated and defeated most returning men almost seemed to make him happy. The Doctor: “Now, Reggie.” And me: “Don’t do that.” And The Doctor: “Don’t do what?” And me: “Don’t. Don’t make me small because you don’t understand this shame and anger. Anyway, my best friend became strange. He took to carrying a mannequin about as his lover.” And The Doctor: “I heard about him. That was him?” And I explained how my best friend had fallen in love with an Italian woman but because he could not bring her back to the States he created a facsimile of her, a lifelike white doll. And The Doctor: “That was him? That was your best friend?” Spoken as if it were a question. My friend, my best friend, would carry her about in his duffel bag and when seated at a bus stop, or at the movies, or on the wooden picnic bench at Snooky’s Rib Shack he would put her out. At Snooky’s it would be on the bench in back of the restaurant, next to the oil drum with the vicious flies. And the palms of folk around him would sweat because they knew something ugly was about to happen. He would dress the doll in a wig and a blue polka-dot shift. At Snooky’s he would prop her across from him. He’d be scolded to put it away and get the hell out. And the Doctor: “He was crazy.” And me: “You think so?” But The Doctor didn’t catch my sarcasm, though from here, from the vantage of my present, I would say that he, my best friend, was brilliant in his way. Because he was like those comedians you see now that make you stop and say, “Oh!”—like a pause in a dream where a door suddenly appears and a head pops through to ask, “Are you sleeping?” Because my best friend had tried to make his humiliation art, though he was murdered in another public place surrounded by empty benches, irony not having a purchase among wolves. And I think now, to myself, gaudium, gaudium, the creation of my son’s father in sin, now in reverie.
Jealousy and grief, my Pule, my ex-husband, my dead ex-husband, surrendered to one and then the other, a swinging pendulum, and I would watch … I think the very definition of jealousy should include grief—for there is no way someone is “joyfully jealous” or “wonderfully jealous,” because jealousy is such a black mirror that reflects the motion of desire without release, that internal sin being desiderium—the desire for what is sinful—I suspect, not gaudium. From this summit I began my adult life teaching at the same Catholic school I attended. Pule met me picking up his ten-year-old cousin from my class. He had stood there grinning. And there was the sound of wind pressing against the glass; when I think about it, what I took for the sound of wind was probably the blood coursing through my ears, I was so nervous. But with the third pregnancy Pule played my jealousy. “He’s got another colored woman set up. Just like you. Pretty little house. Pretty little babies. I know you think I’m lying but I can show you.” And it was almost the same clapboard house except that it was two stories. The same pebbly black tar roof and white paint, though. Pule arranged the visit; we entered without a key. The Doctor stored things there, too. Those old-fashioned console radios packed up in the living room and hallway. And magazines twined and piled up on the sofa. They were stacked upon the dresser in the bedroom, too, but there was also, atop a stack of Saturday Evening Post weeklies, a tinted photograph of a Negro child in a sailor suit.
And where there’d been a piece of dried hide in the bedroom corner of the other house stood a terracotta Chinese warrior that came to my waist. I gave it a shove and watched it break. It was then I decided to have the newest of the colored doctors unburden me. Supposedly the best and safest abortionist. Gossip had this one padding about claiming that he was the only true surgeon, black or white, in town. I’d first seen him parked in his car, just outside the moth-eaten park on the southwest side. I was sitting on a bench, pregnant with Merwin, nibbling some horrible mess of a pickled pig’s foot with a candy cane jammed in the trotter. I sat there watching our new doctor bake in his car. And I thought then—what kind of ambitious colored man would turn to these small-ass towns? He then got out and stood on the fender, craning his neck before suddenly getting back in and taking off. A minute or two later there was his car again, this time leading a slow procession down the road to the Lower Third, a parade consisting of some worn-out red pickup truck pulling a blue, narrow clapboard house, the blue color of ice in children’s books. A team of five or six men took turns trotting alongside, pressing their hands against it, as if their pressure held the house together. The house dipped but held up when it hit a pothole or rut, like some drunk tripping over her feet but dancing herself steady. I crossed the park to watch. It was one of those waspy days where there was enough breeze to nod branches and rattle blinds. That’s what I saw inside the house—rattling Venetian blinds. And there was a girl standing right beside the window. I have to say now, because this is memory, and it was a bright day, and I was not just a little nauseated by my pregnancy and that nasty, sticky concoction where I couldn’t even wipe my hands—but through the flicker and buck of the blinds, I was sure I saw a girl. It was when Pule brought me to the blue house out in the woods that I learned that the girl was, in fact, not a girl but some old crone with the biceps of a fireman. She had no place previously, and when this became hers she had gone on for the ride in her new house. She’d do the preparations for the doctor, packing poison gauze; he’d do the D & C at the Negro hospital. And afterward would be the first time in my life that I held a lit cigarette between my fingers.
That was actually the second time that jealousy—my jealousy—caught me. Pule had the first child outside our union. Understand, he claimed he still loved me at the time. And Pule wanted so much from me then, nuzzling my ear, holding his breath. At the time I felt more pain for him than anger. “O Gina, O Gina, O Gina!” he rocked as he sat with his back to me on our bed. At first I didn’t know why. “I want to take you out tonight. Let’s go to Tonk’s,” he said. He then told me mid-meal. Some barely-of-age tramp in heat that used to rub up on him. And she had begun to tell people that she was carrying his baby. “I wanted you to hear it from me first. No, I don’t love her. I want nothing to do with the bitch but yes, the child is mine.” He wept. And by the sixth month he was so in love with her I couldn’t reach him. He would retreat to his little room beside the garage and be melancholic, listlessly brushing the whisks across the drum skins because he fancied himself something of a drummer. Then this, too, passed. Soon after the birth of our first child, though, I found he had other spawn scattered about Putman and Alachua counties. Four or five bastards who should be highstepping atop his grave. Back then I tried to burn his encyclopedias. A to somewhere in B—Berkeley? Bréquigny?—popped up in an orange plume after I steeped it in kerosene. But I lost heart with the others.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.
Solon Timothy Woodward’s short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. A practicing physician, he lives with his family in Jacksonville, Florida. His first novel, Cadillac Orpheus, was published in 2008. He is at work on his second novel, Viaticum, from which this excerpt was taken.
Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.