The song ends and her head stops. “How’s your beer?” she asks.
“Still cold,” I say. Like you, I don’t say. If she were sitting beside me, we could hover over our beers together and touch and be warm. But no. We held hands once, and hers were cold, and we’ve never kissed and … oh, hell, just forget about it.
She fingers the gold chain around her long, white neck. “Did you know that Pete’s adding fried chicken to his menu?”
“Of course, good chicken depends on how it’s prepared and cooked, don’t you think?”
I just nod. With Marlene it’s just miniscule talk, Lilliputian talk, or quantum-sized talk—ideas so small they slip between the wrinkles of your brain. I know she cares for me a little bit, and I don’t need all her love, but its total exclusion makes me crave it all the more. It gnaws at me.
She finishes her beer, and I know better than to ask if she wants a second one. She never does. Absolutely, positively never. Pretty soon, though—five minutes, max—she’ll ask me to walk her home, and I will, and that’s the way it always goes.
She reaches across the table and touches my hand, a calculated brush of her skin on my skin, so lightly felt it could be a passing breeze. With her it’s all a charade, a pretense without substance, but I play along because she’s such a sad case, somewhat laughable and pathetic. What I’m supposed to do next is seize her hand in mine and squeeze gently, and then she’s supposed to squeeze mine back—a purely reflexive action—and then I’ll squeeze hers again, and then she’ll squeeze mine again. It’s supposed to be a regular squeeze-fest. So I do. I grab her hand and squeeze it, and she squeezes, and I squeeze, and she squeezes, and then our hands beat a hasty retreat back across the Formica to the safety of our laps.
She says, “It’s been fun, Larry, I mean the park and picnic and all ….” She has picked up the salt shaker, and now she’s rocking it back and forth, so the salt slides this way and then that way and, I guess, she wasn’t talking to me, but to one of the grains named Larry.
I say, “Sure, we’ll do it again, sometime soon, okay? Together, I mean. Maybe we could go to the circus, or something. A movie? Yeah, well. You know?” To be brutally honest, the picnic and park were an utter drag-fest. Her feeding the ducks, me skipping a few stones across the pond, her brushing the pussy willow catkins across her lips and ooohing and ahhhing, both of us dipping a super-sized order of chicken nuggets in barbeque sauce—I’m sure she’s had a lot more fun than that with lots of other guys.
“How’s your beer?” she asks again.
I begin to fold my napkin into small and smaller squares. “It’s still cold.”
She looks right at me, a faint sparkle in her brown eyes, one I can’t recall being there before. Once in a great while she’ll pull something like that—stare right at you, unblinking, eyes aglitter. But soon enough she looks up at the clock above the counter, then over at the menu beside the cash register, and then down at the far end of the joint where the pool hustlers hustle. She turns her beer glass upside down on her napkin and says, “If you’d care to, you can walk me home now.”
She says through the tiny mesh of screen, “Thanks again, Larry. I had a wonderful time. I hope you find a job really, really soon.”
“Yeah, me, too.” It’s the beginning of summer and I haven’t worked since last year. I’m pretty broke, and the infrequent beers and picnics add up to more than pocket change. It’s been like this since last October, when we started seeing each other. I’m in no financial position to make demands, and I’m growing sick and tired of our so-called relationship. It hasn’t evolved. But Marlene’s happy with it, apparently, and could go on like this forever. She thinks I’m “comfortable.”
We say goodbye, and she closes the front door and disappears inside, and I turn and hurry down the step to the sidewalk. It’s hotter than hell for early June, and the sky’s a stark, blue bitch, and it hasn’t rained for two months. I head down the baking sidewalk toward home, a mile away on the other side of town. The thought of her cold hands cools the back of my neck and almost makes the sun bearable. Why, I ask myself, do I keep fooling myself? Marlene must think I’m a no-job jerk and—hell, I am, but she’s a bitch, too, just like the sky.
Farther down the block there’s a telephone pole with a circus poster, yellow and red and black, with elephants and lions and a half-dressed woman. The Greatest Show This Side of the Mississippi! Down at the bottom there’s a note tacked on: Help Wanted. See Tony.
Tony’s Italian, or maybe Romanian or Greek. Dark hair and eyes, a mustache, but he talks like a regular guy. “Use white leghorns,” he tells me. “They show the blood real good.” He eyes me. “This work ain’t easy like some folks think. A guy’s gotta get to know his audience so he can play ‘em, squeeze ‘em with the right timin’ and flair.” He holds up a costume mask and waves it at me. “You gotta have flair!”
“How much it pay?”
“Fifty cents a customer.”
“How many shows?”
“Three a day, five on Saturdays and Sundays.”
“How long’s the circus in town?”
“What happened to the last guy?”
“He ran off with a girl.”
“And the mask?”
Tony tosses it to me. It’s a black swath of fabric, with eye holes and an elastic band, like a Zorro mask. I try it on. It’s a perfect fit around my eyes and nose, but a little tight by my ears. I say, “I’ll take the job.”
Tony puts his hand on my shoulder. He smells like Brut aftershave. “You can do this, yes?”
“Is it a woman you do this for?”
I shake my head. “Hell no!”
He shrugs. “Your gloves. Put them on.”
I’d forgotten that. They’re tucked into my belt. I slip them on. “Okay, I’m ready now.” Tony pulls the curtain back, and I step out onto the stage, and every guy’s head turns and looks.
One of them yells, “Come on, geek, do that chicken!”
Another shouts, “Pluck it, baby!”
“Do it, chicken lips!”
I stand there dumbly, thankful for the mask, but scared shitless someone will recognize me. Then I remember Tony’s instructions. I step to the cage, open it, reach in and grab the leghorn by its foot. It’s a real scrapper, scratching and pecking at my gloved hand and squawking. It’s a fluttering white hurricane, but I grab its neck and manage to get both its feet in my other hand. Arms raised, I stretch it out above my head, and then behind the curtain Tony plays the recorded drum roll, and its rapid tap-tapping is like my heart.
The leghorn’s still squawking, and I yank it tight between my hands and it quiets, and the crowd quiets, and my heart almost quiets, and I wonder when I’ll see Marlene again.
When the drum roll stops, I lower the leghorn till it’s right in front of my face. It smells like alfalfa and fear. I open my mouth and close my eyes and draw the leghorn to my lips and feel its feathers. It goes bonkers, twisting and flapping and spraying crap all over the stage and me. A leg slips free and spurs my ear and the mask, and I imagine an audience full of Marlene’s. I piss my pants. No matter what, Tony had said, never let it go. I pull the neck deeper between my teeth and bite through flesh and bone; I twist my head and shake the bird till blood dribbles down my chin and the chicken spasms.
I spit the head onto the stage, and spit feathers out, and I hold the spurting carcass up. The crowd goes ape.
“How’d you get the scratches?” Marlene asks.
“My dog.” I walk down the steps of the front porch. She follows, but not closely enough.
“And your finger, too?”
“He’s got distemper or something.” I don’t like lying about the dog, and guilt walks along beside us for awhile as we head down the sidewalk. We’re going downtown. I’ve got some money, and I’m going to buy Marlene a nice gift.
“It can get infected,” she says matter-of-factly, “especially from animals.”
“I put some hydrogen peroxide on.”
“Mercurochrome is better.”
Her concern is part of her act, like she feels obligated to feel sorry for me, a sort of pathetic identification. She’s probably glad she doesn’t own a dog.
Downtown, I steer her into a JCPenney, and she’s impressed when I lead her into the lady’s wear department. “Pick out anything you like,” I tell her. “I’ve got money.” What I don’t say is, it’s blood money: In the last few days I’ve done twenty leghorns. The technique’s been pretty well mastered, and now I’m working on my flair. Flair’s the most important thing, Tony says, for building an audience.
Marlene chooses a plain white blouse and goes into the changing room to try it on. She comes out smiling and says, “It’s lovely.”
I wish she would’ve picked out a colorful one, but bright colors probably don’t exist in her life. When I pay for it, Marlene smiles at the clerk, and for a crazy moment I wish she’d be afraid of me the way a leghorn is when, just before I deliver the coup de grace, it flutters and ruffles. But no. She’s all cool and calm.
We walk over to Pete’s and I’m hoping that, this time, she’ll drink more than just one damned beer. Two would be a miracle; three, I’d drop dead. The blouse ought to be worth at least two.
I sit and invite her into the booth beside me, but she sits across from me and sets the blouse on the table between us. I wave at Pete for two Oly’s, and when he brings them over Marlene sips the foam off of hers, draws a face in the sweaty glass, and then asks where I’ve been lately.
“Still looking for a job,” I say.
“Daddy says times are tough.”
“Yeah. Maybe I’ll go back to school and take up agriculture.”
“You need school for that?”
It’s been thirty-two minutes since we sat down when Marlene finishes her beer and turns her glass upside down. The signal. She asks if I’ll walk her home, and I say yes, and I do walk her home, and when we say goodbye through her screen door she doesn’t kiss me, again.
I raise the leghorn over my head and wait for the drum roll to stop. The tent is jammed with people. During the past three weeks, I’ve worked hard to improve my flair. I wear a costume now, all in red and blue, with a sequined lightening bolt across my chest. And I’ve begun tying silver ribbons to the wings of the chickens, and now when they do their death flaps it’s a tornado in a hurricane. Tony says I’ve got great flair and timing. Marlene, I’ve decided, doesn’t and never will.
The drum roll stops, and I lower the chicken.
Only it’s not a chicken. It’s Marlene. She’s stretched out between my hands, pulled tight by her head and feet, naked. Her hair is silver. She wiggles, but when I pull tighter she quiets. I’m in command. The audience rises and crowds forward to the front of the stage. They’re spellbound fools for blood. I lower Marlene and suspend her before me for a tantalizing moment. The crowd leans closer, reminding me that Marlene’s never close. We’re through, damn it. I’ve got money in my pocket, the circus is leaving for Seattle in the morning, and I’m going with it. Marlene is a bitch.
A second drum roll, louder than the first. The lights are cut to pitch black, then a spotlight stabs me and my lightening bolt sparkles. Marlene’s arms flap wildly, a protest against intimacy and love. The drum roll stops.
I draw her neck to my lips. Her skin tightens, and then the tearing of her muscle … her bone … a burst of hot blood and her head falls to the stage. I hold her body up, her arms flapping, her legs jerking.
The crowd goes ape shit.
I pick up the phone and call. “Marlene?”
“Look, I’ve gotta say something to you. I’m at Pete’s.”
“I can’t come down right now, Larry. I’ve got cookies in the oven: peanut butter.”
“Screw the cookies. Pete’s, fifteen minutes, be here.” I hear her gasp and it thrills me, and I want desperately to slam the phone down as an exclamation point, but I can’t. And then she breathes again. She meekly says, “I’ll take this batch out, and then I’ll come right down.”
I’m on my fifth angry beer when she arrives. She’s late. She walks between the pool tables and stops beside my booth. She’s wearing a pleated dress and a beaded necklace that highlights her slender neck.
“Sit down,” I tell her, and point across the booth.
She does. “This better be important. The way you talked over the phone ….”
“It’s over between us. Consider this our last performance.”
Marlene picks up the salt shaker. “I don’t understand. Your mood on the phone, the way you’re talking now. Things between us—”
“That’s the problem. I don’t like the things between us.”
She looks confused. “What things?”
“You tell me.”
“You’ve been in a foul mood lately, like you’re—I don’t know—always thinking of something big.”
She’s forgotten all about the salt shaker, and her gaze lands everywhere except on me. “And what might I be thinking of?”
“I don’t know. You’ve always been so nice. Is it something I did … or said?” She plucks at one of the beads on her necklace.
“No. It’s what you don’t do.” I finish my beer and, determined to get plastered, wave for another one.
“I’ll have one, too,” she tells Pete. He nods, gets two fresh glasses and heads to the taps.
“Do you realize,” I say, “that’s the first time you’ve ordered a beer for yourself? Amazing!”
“But you’ve always ordered for me.”
“No more. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
She looks concerned. “To where?”
“Seattle. I’ve got a job.”
“What kind of a job?”
Pete brings our beers, and Marlene raises hers and powers half of it down. Always, always, always before she just sipped. She stares into her beer. I’m feeling strong and sure and in total control of my audience. I exude flair, and I imagine the lights dimming, a lightning bolt across my chest, and the corner jukebox playing a drum roll. “Poultry,” I tell her.
“Oh, so you are going to school?”
“No, it’s a job, and I like it.”
She lifts her gaze and looks at me oddly—but she’s looking right at me, nowhere else. “How long will you be gone?”
“The rest of the summer, maybe longer. Who knows? The money’s good.”
Marlene guzzles the rest of her beer, and then waves for another.
God damn. She’s having two.
“Look,” she says, staring into me with her brown eyes, “things have been comfortable between us. Do you want that to change?”
“I want comfortable to disappear like feathers in a hurricane.”
She puckers her mouth in a way I’ve never seen before, as if she’s kissing the air. “Do you want more … involvement?”
“Maybe I did once, but not now. We’re over with. This is our final act, the curtain closer.”
Pete brings her beer, and I order another round—for both of us. Marlene gulps her Oly as if she’s thirsting for all the answers I won’t give. But her eyes are certain and steady, like the grip she has on her beer. Someone plays “Losin’ My Head Over You” on the jukebox. Marlene says, “Sex, is that what you want?”
“What do you want, then, Larry?”
“Things could have been different. But it’s too late. I’m leaving.”
“Warmth … that’s it. You’re never warm with me.”
“Sex isn’t warmth?”
My flair has slipped a bit, and now I’m holding onto my beer with both hands. I want to be one of the pool hustlers, a man who’d know what to say.
“Do you want it?” she asks. She takes another long pull, drains the glass, and then turns it upside down on the table. “You’re afraid of it, aren’t you?”
For a crazy second things spin around and I don’t know if I’m breathing. She takes my hands in hers and squeezes, and our hands are hot together.
She breathes my name: “Laarrryy.” And then: “Please walk me home now.”
We’re on her front porch, and for once we’re standing close together, very close, and her face isn’t obscured by the wire mask of the screen door. The only thing between us now is a warm inch of wet space. We’re both soaked, from a summer shower during our walk back from Pete’s. She’s holding my hand, and hers is hot, and the door leading into the living room is wide open, allowing in the breeze, and she turns and opens the screen door and pulls me inside by my hand.
The walls are painted red, and the carpet and the over-stuffed couch are blue, and the peanut-butter smell of baked cookies still lingers. The door closes behind us, perhaps shut by a sudden gust that draws the air from the house.
She looks right into me, and then pulls me against her wet dress, her stomach and legs and breasts, and we kiss, and her mouth sucks the deepest air out of me, and I’m lost within her lips, a complete surrendering.
There’s a long crescendo, but not of drums or from jukeboxes. It’s a beat full of urge from my own pulsing heart. And then, as if I’m nothing in her strong hands, she lifts me off the carpet and high up toward the ceiling, where I’m held steady, steady, steady by my head and feet. Her breath is a tickle to my feathered neck, and then her teeth pierce, and then the flutter and ruffle of coup de grace, and then my head drops off to applause.