Looking for a Miracle
"Nothing?" Cassie said.|
"Not a thing," he said, and heard Cassie sigh.
Cassie stood on the porch in a thin summer dress, Eddy's favorite, the same blue-purple shade as the wisteria that hung all around her, a little past peak but still heavy with blossoms in bunches like grapes. He stepped up into the gingerbread-blueberry pancake scent of Cassie's favorite flower and set the bucket of clippings down next to her blue-purple painted toenails.
"Come here," he said.
"Edward, you're sweaty!"
"We could use a bath."
"You have a job to do," Cassie said. She fended him off as he reached for her, and shoved him off the porch. "You promised you'd make peace."
Eddy dragged himself around to the front of the house, walked past the pickup from which he ran his landscaping operation--a pine-colored old Ford with dents in all the right places and his GREEN LANDSCAPING AND LAWN logo painted hot pink on both doors--and approached Cassie's convertible gingerly. It was one of those red import jobs, the kind with too many gears that rode too low to the ground so it felt like you were forever looking up out of a hole. He stepped over the monkey grass he'd planted along Cassie's driveway and climbed in with a sinking feeling that had less to do with the car than the job at hand. As he backed out of the drive, Eddy tried to keep his mind on the monkey grass. A tough bastard plant, that. Not spectacular to look at, but it could take getting stepped on or run over, and if you pruned it right, it would explode in tiny blue flowers that were so delicate coming from something so hard-assed that they were hard to believe.
He drove out of Kilbourne Heights, an uneasy mix of old and new money where the houses were big and the yards even bigger. Custom landscaped, most of them. But none of them by Eddy. Where Eddy favored flowering shrubs and sculptured flowerbeds, the Heights ran more toward broad sweeps of lawn, magnolias, and towering elms. You couldn't see the windows for the trees. Cassie's place was the sole exception, and Eddy had done it all for free--the wisteria arbor, the monkey grass, the crepe myrtle hedge, the patch of fancy tulips, even the multi-level bed of hybrid tiger lilies that dropped in burnt-orange-and-black swaths from the front walk to the curb. It had been a labor of love, a living wedding band of blooms woven to capture Cassie's heart. Five successive springs he'd led her out into the full flower of his creation, knelt, and proposed. Only to be refused because of the single seed Cassie had sown. If he couldn't strike some kind of truce with Cassie's son, Charles, all those seasons of slow growth would come to an end today.
He crossed Devine Street into Shandon. As opposed to the Heights, Shandon had a kind of laissez-faire feel, a broad stretch of flowering shrubs, white picket fences and pine tree shade. Eddy was particularly fond of the picket fences. Like spokes in the wheels of a bicycle passing, the white fence-slats became transparent when you rode by at just the right speed. A lot of the yards behind them were Eddy's. He looked into a few on his way through, checking for hedges that needed clipping, crepe myrtles that needed feeding, open curtains or blinds. He had to be careful, though, in Cassie's bright red contraption. Cruising Shandon in his pine-colored pickup was like gliding through Heaven engulfed in a cloud. The only thing folks ever saw was his hot pink logo--the badge of a dedicated yardman out on patrol.
In Columbia, Eddy Green had at last discovered what was for him a perfect world. Anyway, what would be a perfect world in the absence of Cassie's boy, Charles. For the Greeks Fate took the form of three weavers, sisters who shaped lives with the threads of their loom. For Eddy it was three teachers, and a bathtub full of fragrant suds. Eddy first felt the frothy hand of Fate when he was seven years old, growing up on a stockfarm deep in the Southwest Texas brush. He'd gone along doing the same things all the other boys did--hoeing peanuts, plucking fat brown eggs out of chicken nests, feeding cows--until one night when he was sleeping over with his grandmother, Mrs. Augusta Green, who also taught him first grade. He walked into the bathroom and saw his grandmother and teacher sitting in the bathtub naked, covered in foam. The sight of soap bubbles gliding down across her bare old woman's breasts sent an electric surge pulsing through places he'd hardly known were there. The lock on the bathroom door was broken, and from that moment on Eddy spent as much time as possible peeping through it at his grandmother in her hot pink tub, coated in bubblebath.
Eddy crossed out of Shandon into Rosewood, the yards shrinking down now to uncut carpet grass squares surrounded by tacky cyclone fences and BEWARE OF DOG signs. Then he wound his way to the baseball park. The coach was still hitting flies and skinners to what looked like the first string. Sure enough, there was Charles with his major league-sized glove and his authentic Braves jersey and his butt planted on the bench. Eddy cut the engine and took in the slow ebb of the afternoon. The air felt warm and steamy, and the light had the golden haze that so characterized South Carolina in summer. The mornings were heavy with moisture, the low places shrouded in fog. The mist burned off as the day went on, but the wet never left completely. It hung in the air all through the long afternoons, blending in with the shade and the setting sun until the whole world took on an ethereal quality, like the ghost of a glass of wine. It was this quality of light that made people in their homes think nobody could see in, when the houses themselves were like fishbowls.
On the far side of the fence the coach stepped onto home plate and raised the bat over his head. The kids on the field, the first-stringers, let out a cheer and charged. The kids on the bench dragged themselves up and shuffled around the plate. At the very back of the huddle Eddy caught sight of Charles, half a head taller than any of the other kids and kind of gangling the way boys are when they're almost thirteen and really starting to grow. He wasn't paying attention to a word the coach said. Instead Eddy watched him stare at the ground, then watched his gaze wander along the outfield fence where there was a line of oleanders planted that looked as dry as the grass on the field. The pep talk broke up with another cheer and the boys gathered up their caps and gloves, and ran for the cars. All except Charles. Eddy made a point of smiling real wide at the boy, once he'd dragged his ass up close enough to see it. But the kid gave him back the kind of look Eddy might've given a rootworm in one of Cassie's flowerbeds, and climbed in without a word.
"Howdy, Chuck!" Eddy said. "How was practice?"
"If you hurry, you can still kiss the bench-dent in my ass."
"If you want to be a first-stringer, you have to practice some on your own."
"Sure. I could throw the ball real high up in the air and run under it. I could pitch to myself, too."
"Maybe you and me could throw some."
"Maybe we could come out early sometime and plant a patch of pansies around home plate."
Eddy took a last look at the line of oleanders as he pulled away, and held on tight to his smile. Eddy's grandmother had kept a hedge of oleanders. He remembered spending a lot of time in her yard, learning to care for the things she planted there--a banana tree, elephant ears, a bed of red geraniums, a giant mimosa, a trellis thick with yellow roses.
"You know, Chuck?" Eddy said. "There's no shame at all in planting flowers."
"That's what you think."
"You really want to know what I think?"
Charles licked a middle finger and raised it in Eddy's direction as though he was testing the wind.
Eddy headed west into the lowering sun, fighting hard not to rip that finger off and ram it where it would never test wind again. "I watched a little bit of the Braves game earlier," he said at last.
"You did not. You don't ever watch TV."
"The last thing I saw was Braves runners rounding the bases."
"Turn it on the radio."
"What's the magic word?"
"Turn it on the radio, or I'll scream."
Eddy thought about it. The only thing the kid loved more than television was baseball on television. The kid's dad had been a baseball player, a minor-leaguer in the Braves organization, until he got killed in a brawl in some bar. The kid lived and breathed broadcast baseball and wanted to be a pro baseball announcer, and of course the team he wanted to call for was the Braves. Eddy thought some more, trying to weigh the potential side effects of having to listen to idiot announcers and meaningless statistics--and listen to the kid quote both--versus the immediate mind-numbing fallout from having to listen to the bastard scream.
"You know if Mom was here you'd turn the game on."
Eddy took a long look at the kid. "I don't see any reason to bring your mother into this."
"My mother is the reason you're here."
"Well Chuck, that's true. But there's no reason we can't at least try to get along."
"As long as we don't get along, my mother will never marry you."
About the only TV Eddy ever saw was in windows he looked through. But he remembered all of a sudden a special he'd watched with Cassie one night about lions in the wild. The program said that when a new lion took over a pride, the first thing he did was kill all the cubs of the previous head lion. It seemed to Eddy, as he reached down and tuned the radio in on the Braves, that lions knew more than people did about the way the family game ought to be played.
Eddy turned into Quirk's Dixie Quick Wash with the radio blaring Braves baseball and the kid blaring back every word. He pulled into the first of five cinderblock stalls and killed the engine, but left the game on and the kid repeating the play-by-play as he walked off to look for Buddy Quirk. Eddy found him emptying quarter boxes. Buddy looked pretty much the way he always did--short, bald, so fat the belt on the change machine about cut him in half.
"Buddy!" Eddy said.
"Hey! Eddy Green! How ya'll?"
Buddy pulled a marker out of his pocket and they walked around to Cassie's car. While Eddy put the top up, Buddy measured Charles's height against the marks they'd made on previous trips. Black slashes of indelible ink stretched away down the cinderblocks like the cyclone fences that ran through Rosewood, dividing all the sweetness in Eddy's life from all that galled. Eighteen black notches, eighteen car washes since he'd first looked in Cassie's bathroom window, and his war with her son had begun.
Eighteen . . . Eddy remembered eighteen. That was the year the hand of Fate had clenched into a foamy fist and sucker-punched him almost dead. It was mid-September, deep into the dog days when all you could smell was hot creosote fenceposts slow-baked in the Southwest Texas sun, and he was peeping in the bathroom window at his senior English teacher as she splashed around in the tub. She was eight months pregnant. Piled white suds slid across her belly like clouds across the harvest moon and he was standing there watching--just watching--when the town constable crept up and pistol-whipped him, and everything went black. Mrs. Fisher was scandalized, the Constable drunk. He was never sure which one of them said he was climbing in that window. By the time he regained consciousness, the sun was starting to rise over the parking lot outside the county jail. Eddy's grandmother was there. The Constable and Mrs. Green talked a long while in the coming sun. Then his grandmother walked up and dug her eyes into Eddy, deep as the roots of old oaks into places no light had ever seen. The next thing he knew there were banknotes fluttering down onto the asphalt and she spat on the ground at his feet.
Once Charles's height had been marked, Buddy opened up the soda machine and gave him a Coke. Eddy passed the kid a roll of quarters and helped him get started, then the men headed for the ice chest in the back of Buddy's truck and popped the tops on a couple of beers.
"So," Buddy said, "what's new in the Heights?"
"I still haven't made it into the neighborhood," Eddy said. "But I keep on hoping."
"Anything up with the Booths?"
"Not a thing. But Beulah keeps hoping, too. Today she did the Dance of the Veils between Bronnie's head and the TV."
"You call that nothing?"
"You asked if anything was up. Bronnie's bat hasn't left the dugout since the Braves started winning baseball games."
"What about Shandon?" Buddy said.
"You know old man Pinckney?"
"Lives in that yellow stucco job over on Ravenel?"
"That's him. He's taken to standing in the living room window at night, and loping his mule."
"Whew! Not for the fainthearted. Anything else?"
"Mrs. Dawkins bought a new nightie," Eddy said. "A black lacy peek-a-boo."
"You mean Widow Dawkins? The fat one?"
"A three-hundred pound bag of pancake batter with body hair. Wears the nightie to water begonias, out on that new glass porch she put in."
"To glassed-in porches!" Buddy said, gulping down the last of his beer.
"And widows without kids," Eddy said.
"Eddy, what's the matter with you?"
"What do you mean?"
"We been friends a long time, Eddy. Come on. Tell old Buddy what's got you so low."
"It's Charles," Eddy said. "The boy hates my guts. I figured it would pass with time, but it ain't passing, and I don't know what to do. Shit Buddy, you got kids. How do you manage to get along?"
Buddy rustled around in the ice chest and popped the top on another beer. "Stuff in common, I guess. That's the key to it. You need some kind of thing you can share."
"The kid hates everything about me. Hates the business I'm in. Hates me being with his mom."
"Can't blame him for that last one."
"No, and I don't, I guess. But it's causing big problems between Cassie and me. If I can't manage to make peace with her boy, Cassie says we're through."
"What about baseball?"
"I tried that this afternoon. The kid shit all over me. Said I ought to plant a patch of pansies around home plate."
"So much for common ground," Buddy said. He eyed Eddy over the rim of his beer. "Old Buddy don't have all the answers, Eddy. But he does know a little something that might lift your spirits some. A pair of newlyweds just bought that little brick bungalow over at the corner of Maple and Hope. You were talking earlier about the Dance of the Veils. From the way those two have been carrying on, it looks like they're trying to rewrite the Kama Sutra."
"She gets home every evening at nine-fifteen. Starts shucking clothes the minute those high heels hit the drive."
"How's she look?"
"Loaded. And him waiting there in that sunroom like some kind of poster-boy for Oscar Mayer. Listen to Dr. Buddy, now. When you get done here, dump the kid off and drop by. It'll do you good."
Buddy climbed into his truck and roared off into the gathering gloom, empty beer cans pinging around in back like hailstones in a thunderstorm. Charles was done washing anyhow, and had taken to spraying cars passing by in the street.
They pulled out of Quirk's Dixie Quick Wash with the Braves on the radio. For the first time he could remember, Eddy was actually glad to be listening to a baseball game. That is, listening to Charles listen to one. Eddy's head was full of Cassie, and the third time he'd felt the warm, wet hand of Fate.
It was autumn, way into the crisp end of the season, and the leaves off every elm in Kilbourne Heights lay like a golden welcome mat across Cassie's lawn. Eddy stood, rake in fist, his sole focus the naked teacher through the bathroom window grading papers in the tub. Red ink gushed onto the pages on the tray in her lap like the blood roaring in his veins. He couldn't move, couldn't look away--not even when he saw Cassie lock her eyes onto his. But she didn't close the blinds or call the cops, or even cover herself with a towel. Instead Cassie stood up, all slow-sliding suds and frothy curves, opened the window, then held out her hand and helped him climb in. The whole fabric of Eddy's existence focused on the moment Cassie reached through that window and took Fate in her own hands. He'd spent his whole life on his knees, looking for a miracle. Maybe the time had come to make one for himself. He turned off onto Maple Street, and headed in the direction of Hope.
"You did a good job back there, Chuck," he said slowly. "The car looks great."
"This isn't the way home," Charles said.
"That's true. There's something important we need to take care of together, before I drop you at your mom's."
"Got some pansies to plant?"
"Planting flowers, Chuck, is the second most necessary thing in life."
"What's the first?"
Eddy's skin felt like a soaker hose and his heart was pumping sweat as he pulled into a dark spot at the corner of Maple and Hope. The dashboard clock read nine-thirteen. In the rearview mirror, the outline of Buddy Quirk's pickup filled the streetlight shadow of an elm. He cut the headlights and killed the engine, but left the radio on the game.
"Chuck, I've got to check for rootworms in these people's oleander hedge. I think it would make your mother happy if you'd come help me out."
"I'm transparent. You're talking through me."
"Fair enough. Just wait right here."
Eddy eased his way across the yard and settled in behind the hedge. He saw a car pull up, saw the sunroom door swing open, saw a pair of red high heels step out into a swath of yellow glare. He watched a red skirt crumple around the shoes. He watched a sheer red blouse go sailing, then a delicate red chemise. He took a careful look at Cassie's car--measuring the angle, making sure everything he'd been watching was visible to the boy.
It was. That is, it would have been. But for the life of him, he couldn't make out Charles. In a moment of real panic, he scanned the street for a white Braves jersey. He searched the yard, the driveway, the porch. He saw a man standing in the sunroom, two naked bodies folding into one. But there was still no sign of Charles. He wondered if his last chance at a life together with Cassie had disappeared in the dark with her boy.
"Find any rootworms?"
Eddy jumped almost out of his skin. Then he caught a skipped-heartbeat glimpse of a baseball cap beside him, a gangling shadow sinking down on one knee and peeping through the oleander leaves.
"I don't know what to say."
"How about asking me to help you plant some flowers?"
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