I am sitting at my father's table, going through his personal effects, when his address book falls open onto the floor. Glad of this distraction, I pick it up and begin scanning the list of names.
Lydia Barstow is on the second page, the third entry under B.
Christ, the past is always there, waiting. In a heartbeat I am a boy again, thirteen years old, doing what boys do. The light on, the curtains split just wide enough to see. And me, tucked away behind my window, watching with pennies for eyes. Looking back, she must have known I was there, but if she did then she never let on. Maybe she even got something out of it. We all have wants as well as needs.
Actually calling her up is a throwaway notion, but the problem is that nothing looks quite itself at dusk. Twilight has a peculiar way of condensing everything, real and unreal alike.
She picks up on the second ring, as if she has been right there all this time, waiting for the call, expecting it. Impossible, of course, because we're talking forty some-odd years after the fact here, but that's how it feels. There is that lovely claxon sound as I pluck out the numbers on the old-fashioned dial, followed by a bar and a half of robotic chirping as a code builds and breaks itself open. And then, into a cough of emptiness, a sultry, questioning "Hello?"
For a moment, my mind flushes with all sorts of things and all sorts of nothing.
"Uh, hi. Could I speak with Lydia, please? Oh, it is? Lydia Barstow?"
Well, Lydia Barstow that was. Lydia Hunsecker now, and for about as long as the road to hell and back, but yeah, Barstow, too, she guesses, once upon a time anyway. But why, and who's asking?
"This is Steve Glick, I don't suppose you remember me. From next door, back when... Yes, in Laurens. That's right, little Stevie Glick. Except not so little anymore but… Changed? Well, I… It's been a long time. No, no, not anymore, not for years now. That's all cleared up. What? Oh right, yes. Thank God. Kenny? My brother, Kenny? Oh yeah, he's fine. Well, I say fine. He lives up in Oregon now. In a log cabin way the hell out in the ass-end of beyond. You believe that? Well yeah, I guess he was always a bit wild. He's retired, of course, that's right, a teacher, yes, and these days he's into this whole hippy trip that he missed out on first time round. Got himself a beard down to here and a wife who's not even half his age and who goes around braless and barefoot seven months of the year. But he's happy, I guess. What's that? You did? Really? Wait 'til I tell him, he'll be tickled purple. Well, yeah. I guess he did have his moments. Let me guess. It was the curls, right? Those curls did it for a lot of girls, back in the day. No, no. Long gone, I'm afraid. Sorry. What? Oh that. No, he is fine. I just meant about him losing an arm. You knew about that, didn't you? Oh, he's right as spring rain now. It was all a long time ago. I guess I just assumed you knew. He always says how lucky he was to have made it back at all. Christ, we all were. A pisser, indeed. That's a word for it, all right. A hell of a word for it. Yeah, I will. Sure I will."
Lydia Barstow, after decades of existing only as wrought-iron dreams, suddenly alive and real again, and hard and hungry as the tip of a pick and hacking at the wood of my inner ear.
A lot has changed, of course. Passing years have tagged the once-pure soprano lilt of her voice with a textured addendum that evokes little cool finger snaps or pages on the verge of crumbling, and her background breath has the bobbing consistency of a chimney breeze. But still, my mind insists on picturing her as she once was. Forever seventeen, timeless in the manner of standing stones. The senses work of their own accord, I suppose, but I cannot shake the notion that somehow, through a series of spun numbers, I have found a way of quantum leaping. I'm talking witchery of a high degree here, magic that would have made the ancients come apart in hosannas of madness. In our airy small-talk way we find ourselves traversing not merely miles in their thousands but time in its decades' worth. Telephones play such wicked tricks. In a single sleight-of-hand, I have exhumed and reawakened the dead-and-buried past of 1961. My past, full of sweetness and glory and even back then probably nine-tenths imagined.
"Listen," I say, urgency hook-punching holes in the walls of my throat. "Reason I'm calling is because I feel like a thank-you is in order. In fact, it's long overdue. Christ, I thought I could just choke this out and then that'd be it and you'd either take umbrage and hang up with a bang or else you'd find a funny side to it and we'd maybe even end up raising a few giggles. But suddenly all my best intentions seem to have gotten stuck somewhere in the back of my head. Well, all right. Deep breath and here goes. It will probably seem a bit silly to you, and actually I'm kind of hoping it will, but I just want to say thanks, you know, thanks a lot, for leaving your curtains open just enough…"
For some interminable length of time I am left to sit here, empty as a pot and feeling a little bit like the Coyote in those Road Runner cartoons, that wily old ever-optimistic fool hunched over behind some rock with his eyes squeezed shut and his fingers jammed in his ears to at least the second knuckle, waiting for the special ACME mail-order rocket-bomb to work the way it is designed to instead of the way it will. Then, finally, a little breathy laughter breaks the emptiness, rattling like a penny in a tin box from a two-pack a day habit, two packs at least, and the need for words becomes redundant.
In 1961 I was thirteen years old, and knew all there was to know about the things that seem important only until your hormones take flame and fire the world into an entirely different color. My formal education was a shoplifted, thumbed-in-sweat copy of Playboy that I'd procured from Timmy Swanson for the princely sum of two rather peachy forty-fives, Chuck Berry's "Too Pooped To Pop" and Sam Cooke's "Twistin' The Night Away," records that had become mine by virtue of some hand-me-down inheritance law after my brother, Kenny, fell into his dyed-in-red-fur folkie phase.
Timmy was a neighborhood kid and not really a friend of mine. He had a year on me in school and even back then you could feel the inevitability of some serious jail-time glooming up his horizon. But that extra year counted. Playboy was already just a shrug of the shoulders to him, no biggie, but blues and soul had become a kind of holy grail, especially since his father, Deke, kept a special spastic-level of rage set aside for so-called "colored" music. Deke Swanson was a fair-to-middling ex-bruiser who spent big hours working his way up the rankings as a heavyweight drunk, and nothing in this world or any other could light his fuse like the holler of a black man on the radio. Timmy seemed to pleasure in cranking his old man's gears and often came to school wearing the results of those rages like Purple Hearts, but in those days people, even teachers, could still look and look away from that sort of business. Way they viewed it, kids were forever stepping out of line and the occasional upside tap or three was simply the world's way of packing them back in their box.
Trading with Timmy did push me forward on the page, but I was still wrestling strictly within two dimensions and had yet to find a way of successfully turning paper into flesh. No, for that I needed a teacher, one who knew the ropes. Step forward the lovely Lydia.
She'd been what, back then? Middle teens at a hard push, I'd say, but already she had a Sandra Dee thing going on. She was a bonfire in a storm, blonde-bobbed and bubbly as shaken soda, with big cerulean eyes that shifted shade as the day juggled its light and the kind of permanent top-to-bottom smile that could have breathed life back into a blackened blood cell. She was firecrackers and dark ponds, burning you up and then numbing you to a standstill; she was space candy on the tongue, that alive. Okay, so cut from that well-visited and by then already-starting-to-bedraggle Marilyn cloth but still not a wannabe, you know, or at least not in any kind of pathetic way. And all she had going and all she'd ever have was put on nightly display just a house's distance away from mine, the whole beautiful array within easy reach of a well-trained eye.
Nights summer and winter would find me huddled at my window in the darkness, armed with the set of binoculars that my father had hauled through the wringers of Guadalcanal, Peleliu and Okinawa. Eventually, often after a wait that would have strung my resolve to an inch past snapping, she'd appear, oh-so-delicately tiptoe-prancing back and forth between a wardrobe and her bed, her room backlit like a Vegas stage, her body slim as a sapling fir and loose-limbed as any dancer. On a good night perhaps I'd happen across her in her skinnies, and you could actually feel the screams of the world's brakes then as they struggled against gravity's turn, desperate to make a mountain out of a moment. But on the best nights, the very best, when the stars fell into rare alignment and the elements were all in balance, I'd catch her wearing nothing at all. By some holy and magical conjunction, every dream that had ever bucked a kick inside my head came breathlessly true, and that was me, done for, boned and rolled, my limbs turned cobweb, my mind reduced to a useless, quivering mess. She was a mortal lock for stunning; cute as one of those red-assed bumblebees and sweet as a ballpark pickle.
Try to understand just what kind of animal the average thirteen-year-old 1961-era boy was, with a world finally opening up like a flower for him. You had Elvis doing his thing and Marilyn doing hers. Kennedy was in the White House and drainpipe was the new hip. I was a kid fringing on adolescence, and driven by curiosity, not perversion. And Lydia was my teacher, not really all that different from, say, Mrs. Hennessy, my science teacher, or Miss Barker who taught me History. Well, not all that different. In moving back and forth past the window, clad in underwear or even less, her attention fixed on folding some flimsy blouse or with a poetry book heart-unfurled in one raised hand, Lydia was actually lecturing me on the way of things, just as Smell-the-Cheese Hennessy or Bitch Barker did on the chemical elements or the Battle of Ticonderoga. She was educating me, and education is a gift. How can I be anything but grateful for that?
"I always knew you were watching," she says, and isn't it funny how a smile can make its way into words, how it can physically or chemically change their balance? A little bending seems to lighten them, to turn them easy somehow.
I let the wind escape me, in a silent way, and smile back.
"I sort of guessed you did," I answer. "I mean, nobody gets that lucky that often, do they?"
A curtain has gone up somewhere, revealing the Great and Powerful for who and what she really is. This is a different kind of nakedness, like a wide open embrace. We have at it, talking about little things, shooting the breeze, comfortable as a minimalist's vision of hell. I lead, less by choice than by mutual consent, dance-floor rules, the proper thing to do, us being of an age where chivalry does not have to count as sexist, and I spill the guts of my life only to find the contents merely so-so, with the colors strangely lacking. Not bad, handclaps rather than dynamite blasts, but dull. Marriage: tick; children: tick; nice home, half-decent job, car that looks decent in the driveway and does its duty out on the road. Et cetera, et cetera. Honest answers, but suddenly, distilled to this, devastating in their emptiness. It is some wake-up call. For years, decades, we live these lives that seem okay, but the fulcrum in that statement is the lagging verb, and one fully deserving of its emphasizing italics. And we cling to the only survival mechanism available to us: myth. The myth that we are doing enough, that getting by is all that matters. I say my piece, without once stumbling onto a single worthwhile subject, then gust out a lungful of sigh and unfurl an ellipsis that cedes to her the ground and everything on it.
She enters the limelight as a star in the making. The contrast between us is like Kansas and Oz. What she has to say is hardly the stuff of Arabian nights, but she navigates the various twists and turns with an ease worth envying. She'd married out of college, after less than six weeks of courtship. A big fucking mistake. Fucking, delivered in the loose-handed way of poets grown soul-weary from seeing their hopes so continuously torched. Officially of old-woman age, yes, but really getting her gusto blowing, putting her shoulder into it.
Hubby was Felix Hunsecker, a traveling salesman from Bowling Green, Ohio, thirteen years her senior and the type who believed everything he uttered was a commandment dictated from on high. He was her cross to bear, all right, and if she had not bought so recklessly into all that sanctity-of-marriage bullshit she'd have probably hitched up her tail end and hop-skipped it clear down to Mexico decades ago. Felix has been dead a tad over two years now, and she is still unearthing little snarls of him around the house. A handkerchief here, a balled-up sock there, the diamond tongue of a necktie jammed in mid-pant by some carelessly shut bureau drawer. Plus, he'd had this fixation on writing notes, got through roughly a post-it pad a month. Two years on, those little yellow-tag bastards continue to pop up, and almost always stating the fucking obvious. If the clock stops, it probably needs winding. At the beginning, when she was still young and gullible enough to be blinded by the lightning notion that some man might actually want to put up with her for more than five minutes, such compulsive scribbling seemed cute, even the pearls of incessantly moronic wisdom. But that cuteness grew warts in a hurry.
"You know, Stevie, at first I thought it was your father watching me. But that didn't fit the profile. He was too grown up for that nonsense, and too far away. If you know what I mean. And with me, he was always the perfect gent. I think he did like me, though. Not in that way, but maybe I reminded him of somebody he'd once known, some girl who'd danced off with a little piece of him, a piece he'd never been able to properly replace. That happens, you know. That's where the hollowness comes from. I remember him on the porch of an evening, sitting there sucking on that old Popeye number of a pipe. It seems funny putting this out there now, but he was my first crush. With the likes of your father around, Tyrone Power's job was safe as the lock on Fort Knox's front door, but handsome is not everything, is it? He was always too thin, and he had that nervous, bowlegged walk you only get if the Lord's really itching for you, but his smile was just the ticket. Well, I guess I don't have to tell you."
She is right about the smile. It ran clean through, like wood grain. Despite all that he'd seen and known, my father was a man made of gentle things.
I feel embarrassed but not surprised at finding myself close to tears. The funeral has been done to dust but, even a month on, certain details still feel close enough to touch. I clear my throat and explain to Lydia that I am actually calling on a whim, having just discovered her number in an old address book. It has fallen on me to clear out the old man's belongings, his personal effects. Kenny would have come, but Oregon is so far removed. Besides, my wife and I live just over there in East Peru, have done so ever since giving up on Des Moines, Christ, must be going on for seventeen years ago now, and my Chevy can haul me from my front door to the Laurens town limits inside of three hours. Faster, if I feel like gunning a death rattle out of the old girl.
We hold a few breaths of stillness, Lydia slightly throaty at her end, set to tingling by some shadowy thing that has taken hold and is not for letting go, and I numb to the marrow at mine, raked out in a way that needs no explanation. You step back far enough, grief softens to fog, and the world remains real but not all the way real. But the crux of what I have just said hangs between us, and we both catch a draft of it. The fact that my father had stowed her contact details through all these years, even if he had never actually bothered to try getting in touch, barks with implied significance.
"He was my first crush," she says again, and her voice flutters with a kind of giggle and turns tender, wistful. "I pined away nights beyond counting, the way all girls do when they set their hearts on something unreachable. But looking back, I am glad beyond belief that it was so strictly one-way. Because think of how tainted my memories would have been. Think of the damage it would have caused me."
And after a while, she says, once it became clear to her that she was simply wasting buckshot, she looked around and fixed her eye on my brother. Ken was boyish in a way that could have passed for handsome on a good day, which seemed like most days back then. But he had something of my father's quietness about him. In the big bad world that didn't count for a whole lot but up on a movie screen it would have been the real deal, shoot-'em-up stuff. Looks go, but character is like the marks a chisel leaves in granite, and that's what keeps the good ones in work long after the pretty boys have passed their sell-by dates.
"That's what I liked most about Kenny. That quietness. It gave him an air of knowing himself, of understanding exactly who he was and who he would become. So few people have that. He was skinny as a corn shoot and his hair was always too long and too tossed and if he wasn't swinging a baseball bat at thin air then he probably wasn't at least three-quarters the way awake. But a searching eye comes up with its own definition of what is golden. Of course, all I succeeded in doing was to move the goalposts, because his interests lay elsewhere and nothing came of my efforts, not so much as a handshake, but for a while it was pretty nice to dream."
She laughs, and her breath rustles across thousands of miles of telephone line. I lean in and believe that I can almost feel that breath against my cheek.
"I know, I know. I picked the wrong Glick. Story of my life. But, of course, you were a lot younger than me. Three, four years? Seems like nothing now, but when we were kids that made us practically different species. Still, I guess there was something about the men in your family that always seemed to rub me right, and who knows what might have happened if I'd stuck around a little longer than I had. But I always knew you watched me, and I guess if I'm totally square about it I must admit to being more than a little flattered."
My throat aches in that way it does when we need to cry. And yet, the phone has become a kind of tether to the world and I understand that the moment I drop the receiver back into its cradle the stillness will sweep in from all sides. Being alone in this house suddenly feels too much for me and even though it hurts to talk I know it will hurt worse not to, so I keep going, on and on. I recall things, unexpected flashbacks. My father loved baseball and thought nothing of two or three hundred mile roundtrips, sometimes with Kenny sprawled out in the back but always with me up front, just to catch one of the big boys, guys like Mantle and Mays and Clemente and Hank Aaron as well as the tail-end of old timers like Ted Williams. Guys with the stuff, as he used to say. Even from a young age, I got that it was more than just the game itself he'd been chasing. To him, baseball was about things. The scores and the strikes mattered, but they were never what mattered most.
I had friends when I was a kid, though not many and none that were truly close. My nature, I think, tended toward introversion. I'd been turned wrong from reading and as a result thought too deeply about things and the consequences of things. Where secrets were concerned, my head was an Alcatraz, and in this way, and in some other ways too, I was far more like my father than Kenny was. Lydia missed that, I guess because of the age difference between us, but maybe it was because even if she had taken the time to look she still would not have seen. Things can be real and yet intangible, and you either know and recognize them for what they are or else you miss them entirely as they pass you by.
My father was a quiet man, and as deep in his way as any ocean. But there were moments when the wind changed and then he would talk to beat the band. And it's all here, in my head and, I suppose, my heart, every wise and foolish thing he ever said to me. Because, right or not, it was stuff that worked. I loved him, of course, and I loved to listen while he talked. He knew the names of all the trees and birds in our neck of the proverbial, and could hit precisely on just what it was that had made DiMaggio so much a man in such a game of boys. And sometimes, when his mood turned just so, he'd even start in about the war. A little of the way in, at least, up to his shins, just talking but from out of his own depths and with an oddly stoic kind of violence.
I was always the prompt. I'd be up and looking for a tree to climb or a dragonfly to snag, and I'd fill the gaps with a turn at the punch-line scene of some John Wayne shoot-'em-up. I had the swagger down pat, a way of rolling my shoulders and a certain affected pelvic drag, and even if my Now just a darn minute, Pilgrim, catchphrase happened to fall an inflection or two shy of the ideal then it was still close enough for comfort.
My father would sit there, raking the prong of some stick idly through the embers of our campfire, and he'd chuckle without needing to look up. And most of the time he'd let it go, but occasionally something about it all would catch him like a briar snarling wool and he'd clear his throat and say no, sorry Stevie but no, John Wayne and all of those Hollywood big shots were selling it all wrong, because war was really nothing like the movies. Not at all. What it mostly was, he said, was being afraid, even during the long stretches of boredom when you'd almost find yourself wishing for a little action, and what terrified you most was not even the idea of dying as much as the thought that maybe you wouldn't be able to measure up. That when the moment arrived you'd be too numb to move. Every soldier sets out with thoughts of heroism in his head, he said, but he'd been through the thick end of it and had seen and done enough to know that Sherman, for all his bullshit and bravado, really had nailed the whole sordid business to a tree. War truly is hell, black as night and smoking hot. "Think about that," he said, and I waited the requisite moment, then nodded and said I would. The way we all do when a thing is easy to say.
This call feels like my old man's parting gift. Lydia listens, laughs, and now and again skirts against a place of tears. We talk, the way people do when they are trying to grope their way through a downpour of sudden, unexpected grief, and it feels genuine, I think on both ends. With night coming in, my childhood feels like a blush of winter sledding and summer days spent hiking out in the woods or fishing for steelies up at Pickerel Lake. It feels real, a thing that actually did happen and was not simply imagined, a thing that will leave a small but indelible mark on the roll of time. And there is reassurance to be had from that.
When I finally run out of juice, the better part of an hour has been lost. Evening is about to give out, and the last of a soft October sunlight hangs in blood-orange spatters across one pink-wallpapered wall. I have reminisced myself hoarse and laugh a little at how unlike me it is to be so open. Lydia catches my laughter but reads it wrong, mistakenly deciphers an unwritten word for panic in amongst the mix, and asks, with genuine concern, whether or not I have anyone here with me tonight. I say no, I have the lane all to myself and am rolling this one alone.
"Rest assured, though," I tell her, "if for any reason I should be overcome with a serious need to bail, at least I know that home is within easy reach. I mean, the three hours cooped up behind the wheel might pinch a little but it hardly qualifies as open-heart stuff."
The fact that tonight will likely be the last I ever spend in this house is one I leave unsaid. In many ways, the miscellaneous details that need tending to around here are a pretence, or an excuse.
"I am fine on my own," I say, which is mostly true. But more than that, more than anything, it is how I want it.
Elspeth, my wife, had of course offered to travel up with me, but her arthritis has been flaring up something rotten recently and I latched onto that as an excuse to lay down a little law and to tell her no, thanks but no, that what she needed to do was sit back and get her feet up, take it easy. Lengthy jaunts in the car are the stuff of ax-murders on her in that state. And, thankfully, Elspeth is one of those people who get the hook of a cryptic crossword. If a story has nothing going on between its lines then it holds no appeal whatsoever for her. Out of duty, she'd pulled an inevitably disagreeable face, but finally nodded to my demands and let me kiss her. Still able to pucker with the best of them, and still as always nailing me down to my boot heels.
"But don't you find it strange?" Lydia says against my ear. "To find the place so empty, I mean?"
I purse my mouth and admit that I do, at least a little. This was a house built with life in mind, and emptiness is not at all its natural state. I laugh again, wanting to set things at ease, but the sound echoes all around me and feels uncertain in the room. Lydia tries to laugh too, but the phone line does not translate the gesture too well and after a second or two she kills it with the suggestion that if I should find myself struggling to sleep then I absolutely must call her up again, time be damned. Hardly cracking a dream anymore is, in her considered opinion, one of the truly earned ass-aches of old age, that and all the bran you need to chow if you have any interest at all in keeping even halfway regular. But she has enjoyed the call, and the chance to dig up a few old bones.
"Don't hesitate," she says. "Now that you know the number, use it. I'll be bunking down for the foreseeable with the brothers Karamazov, a little Russian rumble in the jungle, so you can count on me being wide awake. The toothpicks are already in place. Three, four in the AM: it's all the same to me. Clocks hold no authority around here, anymore. So just dial, okay?"
A goodbye silence presses in. Static bleeds into the line in tiny, shapeless whispers, imprints of things long since said and done, breaths spent like easy money. Unable to think of anything further to add, I thank her once more, a composite thank you blanket-embracing all I'd already said and all I'd been hoping to say but hadn't quite found the way. She reiterates her invitation to call, insisting that I no longer have any reason to be shy. Meaning the window, of course, the glimpsed nakedness, but actually meaning everything.
"And if you really can't sleep," she adds, her voice all the way seventeen again and birdsong soft, "why not try looking out your window?" Tossed into the pot as a parting joke, but perhaps meant as some small thing more, a kind of permission as well as an offer of forgiveness. I hang up on a thin so-long but linger at the table, until the hour grows late and a plummy darkness has thickened the entire immediate world to mud. Then I surrender.
By four or so, I am done with even trying to sleep. At my age, you understand that there are nights when sleep comes and nights when sleep is somewhere else, a long way off from you. My old bed feels damp in that way beds do when they have not been slept in for a long time. The sheets are clean but clammy, and the pillow still and unyielding, no longer accustomed to a steady flow of dreams.
I lie here, playing dead, moved only by shallow breath, feeling my age but also feeling absurdly young. My life as I once upon a time lived it hangs within touching distance. Even the air tastes of it. With a cough of sadness I realize just how many hopeful thoughts I have left behind in this room, good solid longings simply abandoned. The places I intended visiting, the millions I'd make, and the girls I was going to kiss, damn the consequences, starting of course with Lydia Barstow. And when I can bear these thoughts no longer, I rise and dress quickly, then go downstairs, put on a pot of strong coffee and set to work.
Photographs of my father and mother young and laughing, looking too mighty, too immense for the trap of black and white, pass through my hands along with the all the tacky little ornamental souvenirs of carnival nights and the age-browned paperbacks that lift awake long-forgotten and most unexpected joys. But I refuse to dwell on any one detail. Drawers and wardrobes need stripping, boxes wait to be filled.
And on towards dawn, when I hear a movement over near the foot of the stairs, an echo that has all the reedy vibrations of a father calling for a son to get up, the fish are waiting but will not wait forever, I sigh the sound away as nothing more than the rattle of heating pipes in the wall. All words echo. Every footstep leaves a mark, however vague. I seal up one box and, without even checking my pace, start straight in on the next.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Billy O'Callaghan. All rights reserved.