Doug Crandell



ATLANTA

Everyone in the World is Christ
and they are all crucified.
-Sherwood Anderson

 


There was real symmetry in the move from Indiana to Georgia, a kind of eerie deja` vu` settled around my every thought. It was as though I’d known all along that fire was to dominate the TV that spring and summer, as if I could almost feel the new and exotic red marl under my feet shudder from explosions I could not see. It was true, even the dirt in the south seemed to be igniting, burning too quietly, without the aide of flames. I was on fire as well.

When we left Indianapolis it was amid the endless voyeuristic media coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing. Likewise, the first week in the house in Atlanta was filled with similar talk of terrorists. I had felt I’d been there all before, only the presence of a baby told me I wasn’t back home. She was outside the womb now, subject, I thought, to the same earthly confusion as all of us. There were other feelings too. I had a nagging sense that I should step forward and clear my throat. I rehearsed this over and over in my thoughts. Was it meaningful? What was it that I needed to fess up to? Nothing and everything boy! I thought to tear at my clothes, beat my chest, but I was a daddy, one with time to give.

* * *

I’d opted to stay home with Marie rather than brave the crowds at the Centennial Olympic Park for the ninth day of the ‘96 Summer Games. My wife, Sherry, had bought several t-shirts, each with the inane little mascot on it named Iggy, in preparation for the event. She held a pink one up in front of her and said, "This is my fav." She’d also managed to find a stuffed plush toy of the silly thing for Marie to play with. When she took it from her mother in her tiny, chubby hands, pulled it up close to her face with wide-eyed scrutiny and then began uproariously bawling, I took it as a good sign of early aesthetic sophistication. At that moment, I thought as an old man I’d have Marie to talk to about books; and even earlier, if I could find a way, a perfect friend to share the beauty of flight.

* * *

When I sold my single seat crop duster I had the same feeling of both loss and gain as when Marie was born. It was this mixture, standing in the delivery room with my soon to be ex-wife’s intestines pristinely lying upon her iodined stomach, which caused in me the desire to be held.

From whom the embrace was to come I hadn’t a clue, and the fact that I didn’t, for even the briefest of moments, consider hugging the woman who’d been nearly gutted in the process of having my baby, caused in me a sense of utter penalty.

I am ashamed to say that when the doctor told the nurse to tell me to get my ass in some scrubs, we’re going in Caesarian, I rehearsed in my head how I’d phone friends and family with the heroic tale of the baby’s mother giving up the ghost in the midst of delivery. I figure that’s something I will be punished for years to come for even thinking of, and maybe that was why I wanted a hug. Now, not a whole lot of men will tell anyone they want, rather need, to be embraced; it’s just not something they can find a way to get out. However, I like to think I am not the typical guy. Later, as I stood with an old man named only Mr. R. on the tarmac outside the West Indy hangar, I gave serious consideration to asking him for a hug—this a man I’d only met after he answered my FOR SALE: CROP DUSTER/ A BEAUTY ad in the Indianapolis Star. That’s not to say I actually asked him for some lovin’, but I almost did.

I sold the plane before we moved from Indianapolis to Atlanta so Sherry could attend a masters degree program in Exercise Science, which I was suprised existed. She’d heard the degree would help her place well in the wide variety of Mrs. Fitness pageants she’d been entering since we were married, even though she never got beyond the first round. But I thought the idea sounded as good as any other, so we made the arrangements.

However, relocations require money. After selling our small house and auctioning off one of the used cars and most of the home furnishings, the bottom line still looked meager. I’d already decided there’d be little use for my services in and around Atlanta; there just wasn’t going to be a need for the skyscrapers or the World of Coca-Cola to be doused from the air with natrolite to keep corn smut weevils from eating away at their bases, so the decision to sell the plane was not a significant quandary. This meant that when the move seemed doomed because of a lack of cash flow, I did what a man is supposed to: I got up to bat and nailed it out of the park, sold the plane to Mr. R. for pennies on the dollar, all without so much as a smooch from him to boot.

* * * 

The night of the ninth day of The Games®™, with Marie freshly shampooed and dressed for bed in her little one-sie outfit, the scent of Ivory soap lifting from her supple skin, we watched the Olympic hubris together on TV. We were more or less told to.

Even though it was only a week after we'd moved to Atlanta, Sherry wanted to drive downtown with some new friends from college. Before she left she said, right up in Marie’s burbling face, in what was suppose to be baby talk, "You look for ma ma on the TV. That’s right cootie, you make da da find ma ma on the TV." And then with a hopeful lilt, "I might get on the TV boo-boo."

Marie stood clutching my knees. My back was stiff from earlier having slumped over the tub so she could sputter water at me and now as she held onto my legs I let myself sink into the Futon's softness to rest. Marie bounced and did a little jig, swaying back and forth, trying to catch my eye so she could flirt with me. I smiled at her, puckered my lips in her direction, and blew a kiss. She tucked her little, hairless head into the terry cloth of her one-sie, quickly popped her face back up, giggled and slapped at my legs. I picked her up as she flapped her arms, and made blubbery sounds with her mouth—sounds which, if coming from an adult would be taken as an indication all was not right in the lower GI area. I pulled her to me and kissed her wondrous, downy and bath-perfumed noggin. I wanted to eat her.

On the television, masses of people in the Olympic Park flittered past all methods of TV coverage: strange and shaky camera angles, unclear and milky close-ups, shots of liminal figures at the edge of seeing. It was a confusing sight. With the sound muted, the shots of people screaming and crying seemed almost a mock-up of the real thing. Bodies scrambled in front of several performance stages lit with rows of colored spotlights; a burst of something rocking the footage of a hand-held video camera was played over and over again. I tried to pull my hand away from Marie to turn the sound up; it took a while, but after a few moments of wiping off the slobber from Marie’s teething kisser, I was able to get the volume loud enough to understand.

The bomb had gone off before we’d started watching the coverage, and now, after playing the sight over and over, the TV anchors rushed to commentary. They said there had not yet been a full report of deaths or casualties. That for all they knew more explosions were to come. Marie switched from gnawing on my knuckles to bouncing too enthusiastically on the balls of her feet, right smack dab into my crotch. I moved her to the floor again so she could bounce without making my voice two octaves higher. Outside, it was so humid that the moths flew weak, languid circles around the porchlight, unable to clamor toward the fiery source as usual. I felt guilty looking away from the television and went back to trying to decipher the details. I searched the screen for clues of what had happened, but all I could see was the same home footage as before, playing in a continuous loop. What I did next might be considered by some as cold, unfeeling, in a matrimonial sense, even criminal.

I turned off the TV and sat in the dark living room. I made no attempt to call anyone. I didn’t pray either like I had the night of Marie’s birth when it seemed she was having difficulty establishing a normal heartbeat. On that night, I actually got on my knees outside the big plate glass window they keep the babies behind, like they’re on display at a zoo, little chimps in smooth plastic diapers for the whole world to gawk at for the price of an insurance co-payment. I knelt on the cold linoleum and prayed as hard as I knew I could. I asked God to fix Marie’s heart, confessed I’d let him have mine if only she could sleep through the night unaided by an oxygen mask and nose tube. Out of nowhere, the hospital chaplin appeared behind me and put his hand on my shoulder.

"Whatever it is son, give it to the Lord," he said. Then he walked on down the hallway and left through a stairwell door. At the time I took it to be a sign that God had heard me, but in the morning, after the nurses said Marie was fine, that she’d gotten her little heart to beat to the right drummer, I heard one of them say some guy from the psych. ward had jimmied the lock on Pastor Richley’s office again. They found the patient sick to his stomach in the cafeteria from gorging himself on single pudding snacks—tapioca vomit all over the real pastor’s black frock. But even then I wondered if the pastoral hoax had been the divine plan all along. It’s comforting to hold on to the giddy notion that all things happen for a reason, even if, deep down, something tells you the opposite is more likely to be true.

Some light from the street provided a bit of chromatic silver as it spilled in through the two windows near the old, floor-style TV; the dying buzz of electricity still leaving the screen sounded like the moths outside. Marie cooed at the loss of the TV’s illumination; she snorted and tried to crawl up on the couch with me. Once there, she snuggled into my chest and whimpered, the vanished light now providing her with serious misgivings about the darkness around us. I picked her up onto my jutted out hip and went to the door, walked outside into the heat. I carried her to the side of the house where a neighbor’s cat sat in the shadow of the vertical eave licking its paws. I felt an odd thrill of hope thinking about Sherry possibly wounded or worse by the explosion; it wasn’t something I could stop as my mind dreamt up all the ways my life would be freer in her absence. I immediately began to feel conscience-stricken, and was in need of some sort of punishment. I was relieved when a rock hard pang of shame filled my stomach, as if I’d swallowed the buzzing TV we’d just heard the news from.

"Clatty," said Marie, a word she just couldn’t get right, one I’d hoped she never would. She said it again, pulling my head in the direction she thought I needed to get a good look at the clatty. "Da da?" as she pointed to the ground where the animal was no longer in sight, "ware clatty?" I felt the irresistible warmth of a proud parent well up in my chest, just a tad above where the hot guilt still ached. I was her daddy and she wanted to know just where the thing she’d learned to name had gone. I could give her that because, as she saw it, I provided her much of the world she moved about in. I made the deep, white tub fill with the clearness she was prone to drinking even through suds; I magically produced breakfast and dinner from out of nowhere; I could surprise her with a boo from behind my hands that would send her into belly laughing hysterics, and I was able to make the heavy panting of a colicky bawl at midnight ease and then recede by simply holding and patting and kissing her. If I could do that, then surely da da could make the clatty reappear by clearly calling out its Marie-given name. I yelled, "Clatty, clatty," over and over again until Marie seemed to regard it as all too absurd. She held her hands palm-up, shrugged her petite shoulders. "Ware? Ware?" she asked.

I said to her, "I don’t know sweetie. Where is the clatty?" After hearing myself using the word so much I immediately became disgusted. I’d hated when Sherry talked baby gibberish and yet I was clatty this and clatty that; I decided to walk with Marie down the hilly street to where a tiny subdivision creek ran weakly through a drainage ditch. It smelled good outside; the aroma of barbecues and grass clippings cheered me up, made me forget that I’d left the house without as much as an iota of concern if Sherry had been hurt or maimed. Marie pulled at my ear as we walked. She knocked her melon into mine to get me to talk to her. I knew the head bashing would escalate if I didn’t make some noise; I sang her a song about willow trees and fancy leaves, a song from an old children’s book I’d bought her at a thrift store near Little Five Points when I took her on a day trip to downtown Atlanta so her mother could sunbathe in peace. My singing made her coo again; she tried to imitate the cadence of my voice and I am sure she was dead-on when her attempts sounded a bit on the cacophonous side. She even giggled when I’d try to make my tenor voice go deeper.

On the concrete bridge, I put some smooth pebbles in Marie’s hand so she could toss them into the shallow water below. There was no overhead light; tree limbs arced over the stream from either side and formed a dark canopy. We couldn’t see much of anything, but the plop-plunk of her stones into the water made Marie kick her legs with excitement. She was hard to hold, pumping those chubby legs madly, turning her head to try to look up at me for approval. I kissed her on the soft spot that took me months to not be jittery of; she squealed for more rocks. I bent down to get them, the water below us barely making a mewling purr over discarded two-by-fours and bald steel belted radials. There was never much traffic in the subdivision; barring the occasional teenager burning rubber at a four way stop, the roads of Beacon Hill Plantation were quiet. They were little more than connected driveways winding around in a blocky, vexing pattern I’d gotten lost in twice in just the one week since we moved here.

Marie popped her lips, jerked her head to and fro as I sorted through another handful of gravel to make sure it was safe, free of nails or glass or anything that might hurt my baby’s hungry hands. I put the mound of nickel-sized stones in her hand. All at once she squawked and tossed the rocks in the wrong direction; they banged off my forehead, rained down over Marie onto the ground from which I’d panned them. In an instant, she began to cry. I rolled her onto her back and cradled her in my arms, but she’d have none of that. Marie bounced back upright, clawing at my chest, too fussy to rest, too tired to find the energy to be really cranky. I put her over my shoulder and patted her bottom; she quieted down, the sniffles of her earlier tantrum beginning to ease their way into a rhythm that would make her heavy headed, eyelids like lead. Just as she was letting it all go, which included a faint string of lightly popping gaseous toots inside her diaper, a man I’d met when we moved in came out onto his porch. He was crying. I tried to pretend to be involved with Marie, act as if I’d not seen him at all as I walked back up the hill to my own house, but my feet scuffed in the gravel and he immediately called out to me.

"Lance? Is that you?" His voice was thick with the mucous of emotion. He said, sucking up snot to talk more clearly, "It’s George Kramer. I helped you move in the sleeper sofa."

I said, trying to seem as if nothing were awry, "Hey, George. How are you?"

"Not good buddy. Have you seen the awful thing on TV? They say there is one person dead and several injured. It’s just terrible." George held a framed photo in his hand. I felt something turn in my stomach, then realized it was Marie’s foot kicking around as she tried to situate herself in a more comfortable position for sleep. She was out through and through; I put her on her back and rocked her in my arms as I reluctantly walked toward George’s front porch. I looked down at Marie’s sweet face, used my eyes to trace the perfect red bow of her lips; they were slightly parted and her breath was candied with formula. I took a deep breath through my nose.

It was a shock to walk up onto the porch with George. The moment before I was watching an angel sleep, now I was face to face with a six foot, pot-bellied man in his fifties whose eyes were bloodshot from crying, his cherubic face pocked with rosacea, and who seemed, for the moment anyway, to be preparing himself to find a way to hug me even while I held my baby. He stammered and shuffled his feet, rearranged his torso twice from side to side, trying to get the right angle to ensure his gut did not smother Marie as she lay on her back in a peaceful sleep. Finally, after looking me up down a few times to make sure there truly was no way of us embracing without me putting down Marie, George gave up and simply slapped me on the back as he opened his door and invited me in.

On the day George helped me pull the sofa from the U-Haul he was eager to let me in on the despair in his life. He told me how his wife had died of ovarian cancer, how his only daughter of twenty-five never called, and how his boss at the Ford Plant was trying to psyche him out, play head games with him, he said. I knew right off George was the subdivision’s meandering soul. He was the guy people didn’t answer the door for; he was the reason they built privacy fences and installed hedges. George was the man you hated to see coming, but couldn’t help but feel sorry for, and now in his living room with a big screen TV, I believed he sensed I was not the kind of person who’d deny him his emotions. He was right. In Indianapolis, in a similar housing division, there was always a flock of retired old guys coming to preach to me about how to change spark plugs, rotate tires, use the weed whacker or edge the lawn with a needle nose spade.

George went and sat in a recliner that had one of those built in coolers on the side; he flipped open the door of it and asked, "Lance? You want a soda or something? I’m sorry I don’t keep beer in the house. Alice always hated the smell of beer you know. She’d pinch her nose around me if she ever got a whiff of beer on my breath."

He looked at me as if he’d just stumbled upon a great revelation. "And you know, come to think of it, if she was trying to get me to not drink, she plumb well got it right, huh?"

He smiled at his deceased wife’s brilliance, got up from his chair and looked around for the remote until he dug it out from between the cushion of his enormous chair. He said, now with a more serious look on his face, "Anyways, that bomb went off in a backpack. They think the call was made from a nearby pay phone." George shook his head, made a pitiful sighing sound that reminded me of a dog about to be put to sleep. I looked over at him as he watched the muted, huge screen.

He said, without looking in my direction, "Bought this TV after Alice died." He slapped the armrest playfully. "This chair here too. Alice never liked modern things, but she’s gone and..." He got choked up, began fiddling with the tablet sized remote while he swallowed down the hurt, blinked back thick tears. It occurred to me that George bought everything big after his wife had died for a reason, that maybe it was a way for him to make sure he could see that the world was still there. He had made his surroundings big and bold, everything from the TV and chair right down to a wall clock in the shape of a STOP sign.

After he’d gotten his emotions under control, which included excusing himself while he pulled a matted handkerchief from out of the same cooler he kept bagged sandwiches in and blew his nose in a loud quavering blast that’d make a trumpeter envious, he looked at me as if he was aware of what I’d been feeling guilty about. He’d yet to put down the photo he was carrying, but he now placed it respectfully on a side table, face up. I could see that is was black and white. A picture of two couples.

"Where’s your wife? It’s Sherry ain’t it?"

I looked down at Marie and smoothed the silky fine hairs that would someday become bangs; they stuck to the warm, damp skin of her forehead. I answered, "She’s out. She went to the mall with some friends."

The words come out of my mouth as if they were indeed true. In my head I asked, ‘Why did you lie? What purpose does it serve?’ And then, also to myself: ‘You are a bad husband and man, Lance Bancroft. Shame on you.’ Here was a man crying for people he didn’t know, while still mourning his dead spouse, and I couldn’t even tell him the truth about my own wife’s whereabouts. I told myself it had to do with not wanting to make a big production over the fact that Sherry was indeed at the Centennial Park; after all, the probabilities were slim that she’d been harmed, but still it was my lack of concern that I thought George could see in me.

When I looked up from Marie, George said, as he flipped through all of his RCA cable channels, "Well Lance, thank the Good Lord she’s not down there." He motioned toward the TV with the jumbo remote. "Thank him too that she’s still alive." He began to cry again; he looked at me with watery eyes, and sucked in sloppy gasps of air as he tried to hold on. I put Marie down on the couch and walked over to him, put my hand on his cushy, rounded shoulder. I didn’t know what he needed, or for that matter, why my hand was on him.

"Look George, you want me to call your daughter or something? How about we go back outside for a walk?" He bit his lip and shook his head.

"No, no Lance, I’ll be alright. It’s just this bombing thing that’s got me all worked up. I’ll be fine." He stood up and clicked the TV off.

"Would you like me to drive you and Marie back up the hill out there? Wouldn’t be no trouble at ‘tall." I tried to say no, tried to get George to just go to bed but he wouldn’t hear of it. We went outside, but not before he forced me to take two cans of Coca-Cola from his lounger’s cooler, and got into his boat-like SUV.

Inside the vehicle, on our fifty-yard trip up to the house, he showed me how the thing could go into 4x4 action with the flick of a small switch, and the correct way to engage the towing-mode gear. As we approached the house, I was disgusted with myself for being happy at not seeing Sherry’s car parked in front. My stomach filled again with queasy shame.

In the driveway, George said declaratively, "There you be Mr. Lance. Want me to help you to the door?" I knew telling him no would be useless, but I protested anyway. He nearly put his arm around me as we walked to the door.

On the porch, the space was cramped; I fumbled with the door handle, finally getting it right, but not before George had reached into his pocket for a pen light he seemed eager to shine for me.

I said, "Thanks. You have a good night George," and after a pause, even though I knew I’d be inviting more of a connection, "if you need anything just give me a call." George didn’t miss a beat. He shrugged his shoulders and chuckled in dismay. "I would Lancey, but you ain’t given me yours," referring to how he’d penciled his number down for me on a sticky note before I’d left his house. He stood smiling, his face telling me I was a silly kid who needed all the love he couldn’t use on a dead wife or disinterested daughter. Before I could get my mind to use the excuse of not having paper or pen, George had both yanked from his back pocket, holding them out before him as if he were taking dictation from me on some highly sensitive subject. I told him the number; he used an elaborate swoop of his arm under the scrawled down figures, jabbed the pen violently on the pad of paper to indicate he’d gotten it all. We said goodnight. George’s face was brightened from earlier; he walked proudly to his vehicle, stopping a few times to wave at me.

Inside the house, I put Marie in her crib. I went to the hall desk and pressed the blinking light on the answering machine. It was a hang-up. I showered and went to the kitchen to clean up the baby bottles from the day. The phone rang. It was Sherry. She said, "I’m okay. We’re at the Marriott Marquis with some other people we met from Indiana. I’ll be home later." I didn’t say anything. She got angry.

"Lance? Lance! Aren’t you glad I’m alright?" I spoke. "Yes, of course. I just, I was outside with Marie." An idea hit me then. "I mean, Sherry, why wouldn’t you be okay?" She got excited, sounded like she was about to get to reveal a well-kept secret if I promised not to tell anyone.

"Lance, haven’t you been watching the TV. You know I wanted Marie to watch it."

I saw the chance to sound even more in the dark. "Okay Sherry, but what is it? What’s going on?"

She said, "Uh, only one of the biggest stories on TV. A bomb went off at Centennial. One person is dead. I can’t believe you didn’t watch it with Marie."

I told her we’d been outside because Marie had gotten cranky. I knew telling her that would back her off the third degree she was giving me about not watching. She didn’t respond, only told me she might stay the night at the hotel with her friends to party with the people they’d met. As I told her good-bye, I felt shitty about lying twice in less than an hour: first to George, then to my wife. I didn’t ask any questions, something that always seemed to annoy her. She was snippy. "I swear Lance, I don’t think you’d care if I told you I was going to fuck someone here." Click. The buzzing dial tone tickled the inside of my ear.

I finished cleaning the kitchen and went back upstairs to Marie’s room. I lifted her from the crib; she snuggled into the cleft of my neck, making little hot-breathed grunts that reminded me of a puppy whose eyes haven’t opened yet.

I carried Marie to my bedroom, stretched out beside her on the bed, and pulled a light blanket over her pudgy legs. I switched on the TV set. A woman reporter with straight yellow hair was talking into an extra long mic to some people in a lobby. As the picture cleared I physically jerked. Sherry and two of her friends along with some other people I assumed were the ones they’d met from Indiana were talking. I turned up the volume in time to hear Sherry saying how awful and scary the bombing had been. She started to cry and it reminded me of George. I wondered if she was only pretending to be crying, like I had feigned earlier about not seeing the news. After the reporter moved on to another group of people, I turned off the set. I laid back and pulled Marie to me, hugged her tight. I began to drift off to sleep, certain I would tell Sherry I’d not seen her on TV and how it all must’ve been awful and scary for her, just like she’d said in the interview.

* * *

copyright 2001 by Doug Crandell



Doug Crandell has had short stories appear in the Indiana Review, the Nebraska Review, The Evansville Literary Review, Rhino and elsewhere. He has fiction forthcoming in the Sulphur River Literary Review, The Oklahoma Review, Hawaii Review and River City. He has been a finalist for the Heekin Group Short Fiction Fellowship, Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers, the Sam Adams Fiction Contest and Zoetrope: All Story's Short Story Contest. He recently won a fellowship from the Sherwood Anderson foundation.