Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Tracy Lusk, 40, is speaking to her son, Bradley Aaron, 17, in a dark musky living room. She is wearing a turquoise, long sleeved oriental style dress. Her shoulder length brown hair, she has managed to put into a bun. She is wearing opaque, tan stockings and old black penny loafers. Her skin is very white. Her deep-set eyes have dark circles under them. She wears no make-up except “certainly red” lipstick on her thin lips and a bit of face powder
There are two sets of French doors, covered by old, damaged venetian blinds. These lead to a bramble filled side yard. On a long sofa are piles of clean records, books, magazines, dishes and other strange items. There are piles of newspapers everywhere, (Tracy’s files), lampshades, a child’s red wagon, five malfunctioning standing lamps. Kimberly Ann’s (Tracy’s other child, 15) magic marker drawings are taped to the walls, predominantly pink and yellow abstract ones. On the floor is an old wall to wall turquoise carpet.
I fell in love again. I am really in love. Your father suggested it to me in a dream. He came rowing over in a red scruffy boat. I was on some shore weeding a vegetable garden. I had never seen the boat, nor the lake and he was dressed in a suit which was odd. I immediately ran down to the dock and dipped my dirty hands into the water to rinse them off. Three jets roared over head so we couldn’t talk right away. The boat glided closer but it was obvious he wasn’t going to be getting out. He rowed forward a little and backward a little, quietly, keeping the boat in one place, careful not to distract.
“Tracy,” he said, “I’ve missed you. But that doesn’t help you. It’s been fifteen years since I died. I want something good for you. I want … I have somewhere to go now and you mustn’t think of me anymore. So fantastic … I’m going way out in the sky. I’ve got some knowledge, some special increasing knowledge. Well. I have been chosen.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Remember one memory. Something you and I did together. Quickly, now think.”
“Well Henry, I don’t know.”
“Close your eyes.”
“Okay.” I closed my eyes and lay back in the sun.
“Now Tracy,” he said. “When you identify one object from the memory, a shoe, a hand bag, a tie I might have worn, you will open your eyes and I will be gone. Then buy one just like it or if you have it in your closet at home take it and throw it in the Potomac River and then start a new life Tracy.”
“But Henry, I haven’t seen a real man since you died.”
“I heard the dipping and the raising of the oars as I lay on that hot dock in the sun. The splashing of the oars faded slowly. Then I woke up to that terrible glaring sunny day. Remember that one that came right after Valentine’s day? I got up and spent the day normally. Kim brought me breakfast. I watched you off to school and then went to the kitchen to water the plants and sat in the lawn chair under that ultraviolet lamp and thought hard for the memory. I flipped through all the memories. It’s not too hard because we do live in the past. I remembered when he took me away to Elkton, Maryland to get married, me the sap. We were on the grass in front of the Union Station. We had an hour to kill. Taxi cabs circled the park where we sat.
“Tracy we’re getting on the train in an hour.”
“I know Henry.”
“How you got me this far I’ll never know.” he said.
“How you got me this far I’ll never know.”
“Take off your sweater, Tracy.”
“I think I’d rather not.” I’d never shown anyone anything but my face. I am strange about all of that.
“It’s 80 degrees sweetheart. Aren’t you roasting?”
Then he smiled a smile that took me right in. My hands began unbuttoning the sweater and I took it off. Underneath it I had on a beautiful white silk blouse with short sleeves. My arms were white and hairless and in the crook of each arm were veins, delicate turquoise veins. He lifted one of my arms and kissed that place of the veins. So I chose from that memory the pretty white sweater. It was right in hack of my closet in one of those plastic bags stuffed with moth balls. It took me an hour to leave the lawn chair and go up and get it.
I unzipped the bag for the first time in ten years. Couldn’t have done it before, it would have disturbed me. All those paisley, sequined bohemian skirts and my evening dresses, screamed of Henry. I looked through them, resisted bringing them out. I wanted to complete my dream assignment as soon as possible. I lifted the sweater on its wooden hanger out of the plastic bag with its ivy patterns, lay it on my arm like a prayer shawl, and zipped the bag up. I had made the bed and lay the sweater right in the middle where the mattress dips. I leaned against the wall and stared at it as if it were some radioactive substance. It glowed. Now it was done. I tried it on and felt a pain in my chest and a button fell off of it. Sat at the vanity thinking of Henry. That sweater wouldn’t warm anyone up and the white was more white-gray. Must have worn it at least three hundred times. Then I thumb-tacked it to the bulletin board. I paced around the room, my hips leading my hips, wanting to go right our the window and fly to that damn river. You see war everywhere along the Potomac River or at least down stream. Fathers of our country, guns, rifles, flags, flames, white marble monuments and tourists. I chose to go to the monument with the waves and the seagulls because they have no memories and I may travel to the other side of the ocean some day. I felt strange. Kept feeling as though I had long, crazy black hair like a witch. I kept grabbing at my neck but felt nothing but air.
My father watched too. I thought the doorbell was going to ring and some man would come to the door and stop the ritual so I untacked the sweater and looked out the window and caught a glare of noon day sun. No one was on the street. The coast was clear. But I had no desire to walk so I made up my face and called a yellow cab. I paced the front hall waiting and feeling for that long hair. I put on some sweater in a brown sack. I kept thinking of my father, his white and black skunk hair combed smartly out of his face. He always looked at me like I was guilty and like he was expecting some explanation.
The man was a boy until the day I buried him. Tilting his head and screwing up his mouth, he would. Is that what a father is? He taught me to imagine what it would have been like if he had met me instead of the mother I never knew. I’d smile at him and flutter inside. Flutter on by. Bye daddy. Come back girl. Maybe I’d drown him with this sweater. Want to get them all off my mind. I guess I was always surprised that you can stop thinking of them and they just come back. When I reached into that wardrobe I felt criminal and I actually kept my foot propped against the door so it wouldn’t slam shut. You know about my claustrophobia.
My father raised me on evening talks. When he’d get home from the ropes we’d sit in the living room which was lit by the sinking sun and talk till it was black. He might have even made up a lot of it, but that didn’t matter. In fact some of the stories were fantastic. “There was a man, Tracy, there was one amazing man who traveled in a wagon train. This was after wagon trains, Tracy. They’d ride the very, very back roads in the Midwest cause it was mostly flat and easy for the horses. This man, Tracy, was a real man for he let his hair grow wild and he rose with the sun. He’d set his mirror against a wagon wheel and sit on a wooden stool every morning and shave his black, black stubble and then he would call out to the rest of the people. ‘RISE,’ he would say for he was the leader. He was a man with a peculiar heart. It didn’t open very often but when it did, it couldn’t close and it would drive him across rivers and through towns. He took routes that made no sense, for you see, his heart opened on things he couldn’t see, why Tracy, my father would say. He’d possess an idea of a woman. He’d conjure up a face and draw it and draw it until he’d get it right and burn all the first tries. The people who traveled with him were pale and ghostly faces.” He always laughed out loud when he said platefaces. He’d say, “Tracy, it must be time for dinner.” Then we’d go into our tiny dining room and eat what I’d fixed. I’d light the candles and he’d say, “Oh, the pain of evening. The pain of pink evenings. What would we do without food?” He’d rub his ribs and arch his back. After we’d eaten he’d light his cigarette and lean hack in his chair and stare out the window and tell the wagon train story. He’d lean so far back in the chair that I always thought it would slip out from under him, but it never did. He’d look out the window which was behind my head. I was a timid girl. I just sat there folding and refolding my dinner napkin. Even though he wasn’t looking at me I made gasps and giggles and oohs and aaahs. He needed an audience. “You can’t imagine, Tracy, how this man traveled once he’d drawn his perfect drawing. He’d park the train outside of each town and make the people stay while he went into the restaurants, the shops, the movie theaters and every neighborhood and he’d walk and walk. This man wouldn’t stop. This ideal woman tore at him. She put holes in his hands, she bit at his feet, my girl, you’ve never seen such pain. He felt heart pain as physical pain and if he hadn’t found her by sunset he’d go back to the train. He’d go back to the train and scream at the white and ghostly platefaces. The platefaces by this time had dinner prepared for Walter. They all sat in a circle and ate. No one would mention the search. “People! She’s out there. I can feel her,” Walter screamed. “I can feel her hot breath on my neck. I can even smell her. I’m going back.” This man would walk into town his long, strong legs. He had reached the age of 44. Hadn’t found her. One dark night in the middle of summer, he was making his night’s return to the outskirts of the town of Palomeno. The moon was full. You can’t imagine the pain, my little Tracy, a supreme being launched in his chest just bursting. He walked along the corn field. Two miles … three miles. Not one car had come by. Then he heard the ribbony, scarlet laugh of a woman and the cry of a baby and then the low honk of a car. Up ahead he saw the unmistakable red tail lights of a car. He started to run and run and run and as he approached the car he heard the laugh again. He could feel the pain melting like a dagger of ice. A 1952 light green chevy. He walked the asphalt, the black, black asphalt. She was wearing white shorts and a white sleeveless shirt. She carried a baby on her hip. “Excuse me,” said Walter.
The woman turned around. He had found her. She smiled and said, “How do you do?” They leaned against the warm car. Our man lifted the baby up to heaven and then put it in the car on a pile of blankets. After 44 years of life and 25 years of search and danger, he’d found her. For he was an expert robber, Tracy, my Tracy, for how else could a man support a wagon train. So now he took her in his arms and said, “Darling, I’ve found you and do you have a name?” The mild summer night filled them. The corn was tiny but filled with spring lushness. The moon shone down and made the brown soil silver. “Do you have a name?” The heat of the day seeped up from the black road. He could now continue his life, let the platefaces go—move into a house and a farm and be with this “who?” She was a lovely woman.
Black hair, long, long, blue-black hair and long shy eyelashes. She laughed again and pressed her body against his strong chest and “who are you?” she said. “Can I be with you? Can I stay? I could never leave you.”
“Yes my darling,” he said, this huge, pained man relaxed for the first time in 44 years. He reached into his shin pocket and found the folded up drawing. “Look,” he said. Here you are. I have had to throw others away because they wouldn’t present themselves. Many women exist still, as stalks out there somewhere, and other men too, wander with their trains.” She gasped and laughed. “Who are you?” she said.
“I am Walter J. Pim,” he said, wanting her, needing her, and in a whisper said, “Who are you?”
By this time my father’s eyes would be filled with tears. His hand would be stretched out like a Biblical man. “Who are you my lovely woman?” She gazed out to the cornfield—she looked in on her child. She stared shyly down at the asphalt. He lifted her chin up and kissed her. “Your name is—” She put her white soft hand into his and finished his sentence. “Is Tracy.”
That story always hooked me. By the time he finished the story I would have torn the napkin to shreds and couldn’t look into my own father’s eyes. But I’d hug my daddy and clear the dishes away.
I jumped and realized the cab had honked. I put on my trenchcoat, grabbed my purse and the little brown sack and got into that yellow cab. I told the cabdriver to go to Lady Bird Johnson Park. I felt like I was going away on a long trip. That day nothing looked bad to me. Even the floor of the cab looked wonderful. A pretty pink lipstick stained TRUE cigarette butt lay on the foot. The sweater sat in my lap in the sack like a little cat. I stuck my hand inside it and felt the sequins and beads and buttons and button holes. The only place a cab could stop was a little pull off resting area on the wrong side of the parkway. Oh well. Shit. I felt good enough to run across. I looked like a bum running across the median strip carrying a paper bag. I love median strips. It reminded me of the pitcher’s mound. And so there I was at three in the afternoon in the middle of February about ready to throw a white sweater into the Potomac River. First though I lay on the grass to see if I could contact your father. The sunlight went right through my lids and my clothes.
He was nowhere to be found. I concentrated so hard you can’t believe it. Then I saw the shadow. My sun had been blocked and I heard voices and footsteps. Foreign languages. An oriental man stared down at me as though I were the grave of a famous person whose epitaph he had to read. “Excuse me?” he said in a thick Japanese accent. His face was a skinny triangle with dark eyes and a thin kind smile. I sat up and clutched the bag. I looked over to see several Japanese women clustered under a tree. He motioned to me to sit up and come with him. Oh, I thought, He wants me to take his picture. I didn’t really like the disturbance from the ritual but you never know how you are going to be visited. Yes. They must be his wife and daughters. Pretty soon we were all in the shade. I felt white as a fish belly and hairy next to them. Before I could smile or talk or react, one daughter had pulled me into the sun. They all scurried our from under the tree and started taking my picture. I took off my sunglasses, told them to wait a second and edged my way over to the monument to sit on the curved peak of one of the lower waves. I might as well get a good picture. By the time I had gotten comfortable they had all disappeared. I stood up and my sunglasses fell to the cement and cracked. What did this mean? Oh well, I thought and picked up the naked frames and walked to the edge of the river bank, ripped the paper sack apart and tossed the sweater out as far I could.
I watched it float away. It didn’t sink, just then. It lay on top of the water like foam. It got caught on some river debris. I thought I’d have to leave it there, hanging on the dead branch. I hopped along the shore until I was even with it and began throwing rocks. It looked sort of sad flailing around and it hurt me to watch it. That poor little girl. The torso finally sank. The two arms finally sank. The two arms begged the sky. Then they went one by one. I watched it till it could have just been another glint of sun on the surface of the water.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.