“Joaquin was the one I loved,” Dolly said brokenly from the upstairs window. “Ramon. With all my heart. Domingo.”
“In the summer of ’55 I was getting my hair done. I was looking through a Time magazine, through the ‘Milestones’ section. I saw that he’d died. Of a heart attack, in L.A.
“I got up from under the dryer. With the cape on I ran out to the car. I tried to drive but I had to pull over. I couldn’t stop crying.”
“I’m sorry you never saw him again,” I said.
“But I did!” Dolly said, suddenly half-standing at the window. “I saw him today, when he pulled into the yard—”
I watched her, confused.
“He drove a white car, with a silver horse on the hood.”
I’d been trying to console her, telling her that Dante had named it the Divine Comedy for a reason, that all of life must have a happy ending—when you looked back from the sweetness of heaven, life wasn’t some awful tragedy but funny, like slapstick, like Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy. Like a frightened skater slipping and falling down again and again on thin ice that wouldn’t break, over water where he wouldn’t drown.
All along everything was all right.
“I’m sure it was him. It looked like him.” Dolly wiped at her eye.
“Looks can be deceiving,” I said. “Just tonight I thought I saw somebody in the barnyard from a long time ago, before I realized it was Kate.”
I thought it was Naomi looking up at the stars, Brawley’s wife 40 years ago with long, black Indian hair.
“That’s the way I feel when I look at her. Sometimes I have to reach out and touch her arm, to make sure she’s real—”
I set down the bottle of Wild Turkey Dolly had lowered on the string. It started to lean and I grabbed it by the neck.
I brought it up and rested it in my lap, looking over at the wet pool where I’d tripped and dropped the Early Times and knelt staring at the risen moon reflected in the shards and spilled bourbon.
“Damn it, damn it to hell,” I said and then heard the window’s sash creak, saw the bottle swinging on the cord.
“I know how it is to lose somebody,” I said.
“I felt like you were starting a story, before I told you about Ramon.”
“It wasn’t important,” I said.
“No, I’d like to hear. You were talking about the war.”
Dolly sat forward, waiting.
“Tell me, Delmus.”
I stretched out my arm and undid my shirt cuff, rolling back the sleeve. It was okay, Dolly had shared her story about Ramon and the bandit Joaquin Murrietta, how they were the same person in different lives and both in love with her. Ramon had become the movie actor Domingo Esquivel. I’d seen her cry.
“Can you see it?”
I held my wrist toward the light.
“What is it?”
She had her forehead against the screen, her hand up as a visor to block the porch light.
“In a way,” I said. “They’re numbers.”
“Your first sweetheart’s birthday? Lucky sevens?”
“097086959,” I said, without looking. “It’s off an airplane engine.”
“You had them put on, because you loved an airplane?”
“Not because I loved it,” I said, dropping my arm. I laughed, picking up the bottle. I tilted it back, drinking.
“Although I did in a way. It was called the Beau Geste.”
“Like the movie with Cooper— The one where he joins the Foreign Legion, Coop pretends he stole the diamond— Beau Geste—Gallant Gesture— He was a beautiful man. He used to come to visit, in Acacia. He and Clark. ‘Dolly,’ Clark would say, ‘I don’t give a damn—’ Same pencil mustache.”
I took a drink.
“That’s the one,” I said. “I was on Tinian. It’s an island, in the Marianas, not far from Guam. I was stationed there with a bomber squadron. The 504th. We were bombing Japan.”
“I used to know some of the boys from Hammer Field,” Dolly said. “They’d come on weekends. Weekdays they’d fly over the house, tip their wings.”
“Those were P-61’s, night fighters. They had twin tail-booms.”
“Right. On Tinian we were flying B-29s, the Superfortress. Four-engine, long-range, crew of 10, 10 fifty-caliber machine guns. Pressurized cabin, plus oxygen. Forty thousand ceiling. We’d fly 3,000 miles in one night, to Japan and back.”
“It must have been awful.”
“It was,” I said. “It was terrible. I’ve never forgotten it, not a second.”
Under that oak two hearts are buried, my father had said about the two horses, poor Pie and Cherokee, when my mother told me not to swing there any more.
“No,” she said, “how could you?”
I cleared my throat. I shouldn’t have started this, but now it was too late.
“I had a buddy, a boy named Bob Brawley. He was from the mountains, up by Bridgeport, above Bodie and Mono Lake.”
“I know the area— I knew a judge in Reno.”
“His dad ran stock, and Bob grew up on the ranch. My dad bought and sold horses, so we had something in common. I guess you could say we were pretty close.
“You see,” I said, tipping back my head against the trunk, studying the elm’s thick arching limbs, “two thirds of the crews went down. In our quonset there were eight crews and one by one they went down, the crew from Yale who sang their fight song, until in the quonset there was just us, down at one end.”
“And this Brawley, this boy named Bob, was on your plane, the Beau Geste?”
“That’s the odd thing,” I said, looking again at Dolly. “Bob was on another bomber, the Evangeline.”
“That’s the Longfellow poem, about the two lovers. I read it in school. The French settlers got forced out of Nova Scotia, because of their religion. The boy and girl got separated—”
“Bob named the plane,” I went on—it was my turn, I’d heard all about San Francisco and the Rolls Royce to Monterey and the flocks of butterflies, Ramon’s song and movie career as Domingo Esquivel, how he and the bad Aaron found Murrietta’s treasure under the flat stone.
“Butterfly, butterfly, where is my pretty wife, pretty as you, butterfly?”
“Most of the planes had bathing beauties painted on the noses,” I said. “Sitting Pretty, Up and Coming, they had names like that. The girls looked like Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth. You know, skimpy clothes. They looked real. Once we had to paint them over when the brass came through.”
“But not Brawley’s plane—”
“No, Bob’s plane had two hearts with a gold arrow going through them and the name Evangeline painted in gold. Bob could draw and the pilot let him do it. Bob was engaged to a Paiute girl. Her name was Naomi, Naomi White Feather was her maiden name, she lived by Walker Lake. Their folks didn’t like that they were going together.”
“It’s an old story.”
I picked at the label on the bottle, the black turkey walking through gold straw.
“We’d flown 34 missions, daylight and night bombing. We were going to bomb Nagoya, a fire raid. The afternoon before we took off, I was sitting on my cot, writing a letter to my folks, when Bob came in. He sat down on the cot beside me, looking at me, not saying a word.
“‘What’s up, Bob?’ I said. I was still writing, I wanted to finish before we got ready to go. You never knew if you’d get back, each letter might be your last.
“Bob touched my knee and I looked up. His face was real pale.
“‘Delmus, I’m not going to make it,’ Bob told me.
“‘Sure you are,’ I said, ‘we’re all going to make it.’
“‘Naw,’ he said. He was matter-of-fact. ‘After you get home I want you to visit Naomi, give her these—’
“Bob set a necklace of little blue stone beads across my palm. Dark blue, like your lapis lazuli butterfly you were talking about. Then he closed my fingers into a fist.”
I folded my hand.
“‘Bob, you’re all right,’ I told him. ‘Don’t worry. You’ll get back.’
“People would get hunches, we were all jittery, superstitious. Everyone believed in luck.
“‘You’ll make it, Delmus,’ Bob said, just like that. ‘You’ll make it and I won’t.’
“‘I’ll tell you what,’ I said. ‘I’ll keep these for you. I’ll give ’em back in the morning and we’ll have a beer. Okay?’
“‘Sure,’ Bob said. ‘Just keep ’em for me.’”
“What happened?” Dolly asked.
I waited, watching the 29s assemble across my eyes.
“We were flying wing to wing over Nagoya, at 20,000 feet into a 125-mile headwind, like we were standing still, dropping incendiaries on the docks as the fire came up toward us. Lots of flak. Searchlights. And fighters, riding up on the hot wind.
“Two hundred yards to starboard Brawley’s 29 got hit, cannon fire pointblank from a Zero. I’d skimmed its yellow tail as it went by for Brawley’s plane. The Zero was painted with numbers, 43. I saw red flames coming from the Evangeline’s wings. There was fire in the cockpit. I could see Brawley at his blister.
“Brawley was firing his gun at the other fighters trying to break up the formation. No use bailing out. The heat from the burning city would lift you up 100,000 feet and you’d freeze to death, before you fell back into the flames. Or if somehow you landed, the people on the ground would catch you and behead you with a sword.
“Brawley waved once. His glove was orange. I could’ve reached out and touched it. The Evangeline exploded. Like a shooting star, a burning piece of steel shattered my turret. Observation bubble, electric gun controls. A hot shard hit my arm and broke it.”
“That’s how you got the numbers,” Dolly said.
“They were serial numbers—”
Again I held out my bare arm.
“The infirmary doctor had them checked before they shipped me out. Boeing, made in Renton, Washington. From the outside port engine of Brawley’s plane.”
“All the whole way home on the hospital ship, I stared at those numbers when they changed the bandages. I thought they meant something. I memorized them and tried to work it out on paper, like a navigator, with my left hand.”
I lifted my chin. My throat constricted, drawing tight with the old anger.
“I saw in them the secret name of evil, where it lived, like points on a map—I added and subtracted, multiplied and divided, substituted letters for the numbers, read it backwards and forward, added in 43. I skipped a number, read every other one, then every third one, every fourth, like some old Jewish rabbi trying to work the Kabala.
“But there was no triangulation—that’s what they call it—no other coordinates to figure from. No headwind, air speed, altitude. No nadir or zenith, north or south, east or west. No sun or stars. Nothing.”
Dolly sat framed by her window, waiting.
“And then I solved it. I knew the answer—”
“What answer, Delmus?”
“I knew the whole world was flying blind, like the time we all fell asleep from the Benzedrine. We woke up on autopilot, tanks low, 300 miles off the China coast. We dropped our flak jackets and all the guns into the sea.”
“Terrible,” Dolly said. There was sadness in her voice. “I’m so sorry.”
“That fall,” I went on—I wouldn’t tell her my father had died the same hour Brawley did—“just after the war ended, Kyla brought a letter to my room. That’s where we met, at the VA hospital in Fresno.
“It was from a boy named Macafferty. Six days before the first A Bomb was dropped, my crew went down over Osaka. Gresham, Peters, Lancaster, Boyle, Rodriguez—they were all dead.
“Macafferty had flown waist gunner on Brawley’s crew. But the night the Evangeline got hit, Macafferty was in the infirmary, incipient malaria. Later he joined a crew from Arkansas. Over Osaka he saw the Beau Geste go down. My crew had been out front, flying pathfinder, dropping flares to light the target.
“‘No chutes, Delmus, not a one,’ Macafferty wrote me. ‘It blew up, like Brawley and them. I guess you and me are evil twins or something. Like two Jonahs. I don’t want to think about it no more.’
“I never heard from Macafferty again. He was from the mountains, from West Virginia. He said that way back in the hills there were people you couldn’t understand. They talked some old kind of English, like the Pilgrims. That’s where Macafferty was going when the war was over.”
I stared closely at Dolly.
Her face was shadowed behind the tear in the screen, but the way she sat reminded me of Florence, when I was 14 and told her I needed silks for the Raisin Day race, I wanted to enter Ride Away.
She stayed up two nights sewing a red and white diamond blouse and cap and pants. And a scarlet head stocking for the sorrel.
“There wasn’t any whiskey on Tinian,” I said, gripping the Wild Turkey by the neck, “not for enlisted men. Only beer and Coke.
“No refrigeration. We’d load up the bomb bay and circle the island for four hours until the beer nearly froze. No hard liquor, except cane liquor from the natives, and coconut rum. We had hooch, from cans of peaches packed in syrup, right here in Lemas. Before they planted raisins grapes here it was orchards. They called it ‘The Home of the Peach.’”
“I remember,” Dolly said.
“Macafferty knew what to do with those,” I declared. “He made high-proof moonshine. He’d learned how to do it from his Uncle George. Uncle George was a hillbilly, he knew all about woodcraft and the ways of the forest. He was less one ear a revenuer had shot off.
“‘Now lissen up, gatha close now you all, you too, sonny boy,’ Macafferty would say, he’d make his Southern accent even thicker. He’d stir the ten-gallon can with a stick, bending over it like an old man.
“‘Uncle George is goin ta show yu now, so yu watch, Uncle George might not alwuys be around.’
“Nobody wanted Scotch from the Officers’ Club. Macafferty’s peach booze was better.
“‘Let’s all thank Delmus now,’ Macafferty would say, ‘let’s not all rush off and get drunk. Let’s stand here a minute and thank Delmus for picking the peaches, for putting up with all that heat and fuzz.’”
I drank from the bottle.
“Anyway, Tinian was the island where the A Bomb was,” I said. “We knew Tibbets and the crew from the Enola Gay, that was his mother’s name—it was the name of a character in her father’s favorite book. They’d split off in Nebraska, getting ready.
“Bob and I saw the bunker they built to hold it. They called it Little Boy, it looked like a big egg. They had to roll the plane over it to lift it up.
“‘Drop the eggs,’ they say in the movies, ‘let ’em go. Bombs away.’ Everybody drank—”
And when there weren’t any peaches, there was always water in the bottle hanging from the bulkhead, icy cold from the altitude. You drank it from the tin cup, to wash down the Benzedrine. Two white pills—first one going, one coming off the target, then two going, two coming back—so you lived in another world.
Dr. Black’s Little White Pills. Night, no sleep, objectives completed in a trance. Life went on, but at a distance.
In summer, in fleece-lined gloves and flight suit, boots, muffs on your ears, armor at your testicles, you could breathe pure oxygen, flammable, when the smoke got thick or the air too thin. The sun was the round white bloodless moon lighting 10,000 waves beyond the silver wing.
“You know,” I said, opening my eyes, “they say animals can tell if there’s an earthquake coming. They act up, somehow they know. A scientist in San Jose counts lost dogs in the paper.”
“Animals have special powers,” Dolly agreed, nodding. “Take the upland sandpiper.”
“I read about it in the Geographic. Each year it migrates 15,000 miles, from northern Canada down to South America, then back.”
“That’s a long way,” I said. I weighed the bottle in my hand. Half gone.
“They guide themselves by listening. Low-frequency sound waves. They hear the surf of the Atlantic Ocean in one ear, the Pacific in the other. They fly above the Mississippi River, right down the middle, 10,000 feet up. They stay in the center, between the two oceans.”
In one ear was birth, in the other was death, as you flew in the middle, down the river, I thought. If there was a river.
“Butterflies are interesting too. They migrate. Have you ever read about butterflies?”
“Not much,” I said.
“You should. They’re fascinating.”
“I have a friend who probably knows about them. He knows all kinds of things. He was a friend of Larry’s, the diviner who found the water by the oaks full of butterflies. His name is Aaron too.”
“He’s coming tomorrow.”
“I’m having a party, we’re butchering the hog,” I said. “Before the harvest starts. What harvest there is, what with Reagan—”
I took another drink.
“You’ve known him a long time?”
“Sure.” I lowered the bottle. “All my life.”
“What’s his last name?”
“Winters. Aaron Winters.”
“Oh. I knew an Aaron Winters. A long time ago—”
“He used to hunt for water. He’s sort of like your Aaron was.”
“No,” Dolly said. “If it’s the man I’m thinking of. He was very kind. Very gentle.”
“‘What’s wrong, Aaron?’ my father would say, my father’s name was Walt.
“‘Nervous,’ Aaron would say. He’d just sort of shake his head, looking at the ground.
“‘Have a drink?’ my dad would ask—he made wine and raisin whiskey during Prohibition. And beer.
“‘No,’ Aaron’d say, ‘I’ve got to go home.’
“So he’d go home and go to bed and stay there until the bad thing happened. Once he lay down, it was December, foggy and cold. I was a senior in high school. Aaron wouldn’t get up. Said he smelled smoke.
“My dad went over and sat beside his bed. Pretty soon, sure enough, there was a bang. The trash can exploded, some gasoline left in a jar.
“‘There it is—you’re all right now, aren’t you, Aaron?’ said my dad.
“Aaron looked miserable. He said, ‘No, that’s not it, it’s worse than that.’
“Then Aaron’s wife, Emma, came in from the other room. She’d been listening to the radio.
“‘The Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor,’ she said. ‘Hawaii’s on fire.’
“Aaron closed his eyes. Then he sat up.
“‘Where’s my boots!’ he said to Emma. ‘I’m going to town to enlist.’
“But then he lay back down.
“‘No,’ he said. ‘I can’t. I don’t feel good.’
“My dad was up, in by the radio with Emma. They could hear Aaron calling, ‘Can’t you smell it? The room’s full of smoke. Something’s burning!’
“The next day, Haller—you were right, it was Haller, Plaki bought the ruined dairy from Haller!—his barns burned down with all the cows.”
“I can read palms,” Dolly said.
“Aaron could always find water—”
I lifted my hands.
“He had two metal L’s. In each hand he’d hold the short leg, the long legs out in front of him, parallel to the ground.
“‘It’s here,’ he’d say, ‘where do we drill? Twenty, 30—’
“He’d say the numbers real fast, like an auctioneer, the L’s starting to move.
“‘Forty, 45, 46 feet ahead,’ he’d say as the L’s crossed.
“‘Now, how deep?’ he’d say, the L’s going out, then coming back. “Fifteen, 18, 22, 25 feet to water,’ he’d say. ‘Now, how many gallons a minute, with a five-horse pump? Fifty-five, no, 60 gallons a minute,’ he’d say when the L’s made another cross.
“He always found pure water. Always water. Never oil. Except once, they thought they had it. Oil-bearing bentonite. They went to town to raise money for the casing. The oil company set fire to the derrick. Aaron never drilled there again. Off and on he’d look for Murrietta’s treasure.”
But Dolly said her bad Aaron had hypnotized Ramon and he’d found the gold, he’d turned it into diamonds.
The big owl hooted close in the elm.
For a second I thought it was the oak, that the poisoned horses were under my feet.
“Where do you think Kate is right now?” Dolly asked suddenly.
I realized I was tired.
When I got drunk I dwelt on the past too much.
“She isn’t in the house?” I asked, before I could take it back.
Then I said, “She’s probably out with her boyfriend.”
“Eddie Dodge. He’s the one who drove me up here. When he carried me up those steps and I looked at Kate for the first time, I thought I was young again, that she was—the way I used to be.”
I tried to imagine Kate and Eddie’s first meeting.
“Kate said how everything looked different after he left that day, how the leaves of the vineyard seemed greener, and between the vine rows the hot sand glistened like quartz and the barn’s roof looked sharp against the sky.
“How she felt different, how everything was part of her, she thought the yellow roses at her window were blooming inside her own breast. After he left, she said, ‘It’s like I swallowed the thorns.’”
“She said that?” I said up to Dolly.
“Of course she reminded me of myself, of the way I felt about Ramon. I was just her age when I met him. So I called my friend Hack, at the station where Eddie works. Down in Acacia—”
“And the first night when they went out, when they met beyond the vineyard? The sky was a pale gold and then I saw something shoot past the window with smoke trailing from it. A silver tracer gleamed and disappeared. It was a meteorite, a piece of hot stone.
“Later, when it got dark, I went to the window and saw Kate running through the field in a pink dress. I remembered myself, the way I was, before I met Aaron Markham at the fair and he gave me the black ring—”
“Well,” I said.
An hour ago on the porch, after she’d taken out the scraps for the pig, Kate had tried to tell me how she felt.
And Kyla was right, Dolly had arranged it.
“For a moment, I thought it was me, starting out again.”
“Eddie drove you from Acacia?” I asked her.
“Yes, from my home down there. I gave him my car.”
“And he’s a good boy?”
“Oh yes,” she said. She nodded, smiling. “I love Eddie.”
“That’s good to know.”
I brought the bottle to my lips, hesitated, then lifted it high, clenching my eyes.
“Kate told me she held her sandals and walked barefoot across the wet lawn. The sun was coming up. Each grass blade was sharp and cool, like little swords against her feet. For her, she said, it was all one seamless garment of love.
“She climbed the trellis and saw that the blooming roses were full of love, that everything was alive and she’d never really known. She wanted to know why no one ever said anything about it.”
I didn’t even know my own daughter. It was strange to hear about Kate from someone else.
“I guess it was meant that I come up here. Tonight Kyla said as much but I didn’t understand, I was frightened. In Acacia, my heart acted up one whole night, I was sure I was going to die. Then at daybreak I saw a light. I thought it was the sun coming through the blinds. But it wasn’t. It was a woman.
“She was standing at the end of the bed, a figure all in light. She was smiling, so peaceful, so reassuring, no judgment or blame.
“She was endlessly tender, I remember thinking, Nothing can hurt her. Love came from her like light. I saw her hands. Then she was gone.
“Later, when I saw her on the news, I recognized her.”
“Did you?” I said when Dolly didn’t go on. She’d closed her eyes.
“Oh.” Dolly’s obsession. “Yes. Kyla mentioned something about it.”
“It’s a wonderful thing, a woman running for vice-president. She was born the same day as Susan B. Anthony—the last words she said were ‘Failure is impossible—’ What’s today?”
“Today is Saturday,” I said.
“No,” she said. “The date.”
“The 25th. We’re picking Wednesday.”
“It’s Ferraro’s birthday tomorrow. Think of it. And this year Eleanor Roosevelt would have been 100. I was going to celebrate with Kate, but I haven’t seen her for a while. I wish we could take a trip to San Francisco. I used to tell her about living up there.”
“You lived in San Francisco with Aaron, the other Aaron, the one who found Murrietta’s gold?”
It made me uncomfortable to talk about Kate. Kyla had been right, I was the one who was asleep.
“Yes. Before that, I lived in Acacia.”
“You went back and forth, didn’t you?” I said.
“Like a butterfly—”
“What happens happens, I guess.” What the hell did that mean?
“You remind me of an actor I once knew.”
She waved her hand. “He was in ‘Days of Wine and Roses.’”
Mr. Roberts. Save the Tiger.
“Well, I can’t remember now. Would you like to hear some music?”
“I thought I heard a radio,” I said.
“No, not the radio.”
“You play an instrument?”
“The guitar, a little. It’s a good one, from Barcelona. It used to belong to Ramon. But I have a record player. And a record.”
The house was quiet now. The ball game was over, the living room window dark. As I’d passed with the bottle I’d seen Kyla in her chair, holding her embroidery hoop with an oven mitt, and hurried on.
“Kyla’s probably asleep,” I said.
If she was asleep, what was she dreaming about, I wondered. That moth over by the porch light?
It was flitting back and forth against the screen, trying to find a way in.
“I’ll put it on low.”
“You know,” I said, “Mozart was a Mason. He wrote The Magic Flute, about Cagliostro. And Edgar Allan Poe. He wrote a story that solved a murder in real life.”
“Really?” She turned away.
I raised my voice.
“Have you ever read ‘Cask of the Red Death’?—I mean ‘Mask—Cask, Cask of the Amontillado,’ about the liquor?”
“I don’t think so, Delmus,” Dolly called from the lit room.
“Montresor is dressed as a clown, a fool, in cap and bells—they call it ‘motley’—it’s carnival time. ‘Montresor’ means ‘my treasure,’ in Old French.”
“He takes Fortunato down into the wine cellar, where the family bones are buried, to test the amontillado. Fortunato is a snob, he thinks he knows all about wine. He’s slandered Montresor’s family. The clown holds the trowel, he gives the Masonic sign, maybe Fortunato’s a Mason, so he won’t have to kill him. But Fortunato isn’t, he doesn’t recognize the sign, maybe Montresor doesn’t want him to—
“Anyway by now Fortunato is drunk from the bottles of wine they’ve had along the way to keep warm. The cellar is cold and wet, it goes under the river. Everything’s covered white with ‘nitre,’ potassium nitrate—they use it to make fertilizer, fireworks and explosives.
“‘It’s in there,’ says Montresor, ‘the amontillado.’
“Fortunato steps into the crypt, and Montresor chains him to the wall. The clown bricks him in as Fortunato laughs, he cries that it’s a wonderful joke, before he understands it’s no joke and starts to scream. For 50 years he’s rested in peace, undiscovered.
“But the thing of it is,” I said, “why’s the murderer telling the story, after all that time, unless he’s thought of it every day of his life, unless he still feels the blood on his hands like acid?”
But Dolly had been moving behind the screen.
“Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you.”
Nat King Cole.
“You’re so like the lady with the mystic smile.”
He had a voice like velvet.
“Is it only ’cause you’re lonely they have blamed you/ For that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile?”
The moth flew blindly at the porch screen below the light, a gypsy or a luna, a big one.
“Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa?/ Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?”
“This is the dress Aaron gave me.”
In the window Dolly held up a purple dress. It sparkled where it caught the light. Rhinestones.
“Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep./ They just lie there, and they die there—”
The song played, King Cole’s sweet voice wafting out among the elm leaves and roses into the night.
“They say everybody in the world has a double somewhere,” Dolly said.
Macafferty. Evil twin.
“If you ever see that person, by accident, they say you die.”
“Like anti-matter?” I said. Jack Lemmon.
“I forget where I read it.”
“So right now, somewhere, there’s a woman just like you standing at a window, looking down, talking to a guy that looks like me?”
“Maybe. Or maybe you’re in the window and I’m beside the tree. Or the tree isn’t here but by the river, both of us sitting on the riverbank. Whatever we said or did, they’d have to do too.”
“Or whatever they did, we’d have to do,” I said. “Like their mirror reflections.”
“Can’t you see it? My twin getting sleepy, telling me, ‘Come on, Dolly, can’t we go to bed?’”
“‘It’s all right,’ you could say, ‘you go on, I’ll stay up for a while.’”
“That’s right!” she laughed. “Just like a shadow getting tired and drifting off. Like Mona Lisa.”
“Even if she dies, she’s still there, sitting in her chair, smiling, hands folded.”
I didn’t understand.
“Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?”
“Have you ever looked at that little poster they have, about Lincoln and Kennedy?” I asked.
“No.” She had something shiny in her hand.
“Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy who didn’t want him to go to the play, it was Our American Cousin. Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln, who didn’t want him to go to Dallas. Lincoln was killed at Ford’s Theater, by the actor James Wilkes Booth, who ran to a warehouse. Kennedy was shot from a warehouse by Oswald, who hid in the Texas Theater. ‘War Is Hell’ was playing, the movie with Audie Murphy, the war hero turned actor, he played the scared solider in “Red Badge of Courage”— Sherman said ‘War is hell.’
“Both vice-presidents were named Johnson. Booth’s brother grabbed Robert Lincoln’s coat to save him, he nearly fell in front of his father’s funeral train. Jackie Kennedy’s cousin knew Oswald and killed himself.
“It goes on and on, how the letters in the different names add up to the same number—how the killers were born 100 years apart.”
“That’s a long time—”
“It’s like mirrors. Look at Ishi, the last wild Indian, the last one in California, in the United States. He ended up chipping arrowheads in the museum in Golden Gate Park. ‘Ishi’ means ‘man,’ but in Hebrew ‘Ishi’ means ‘God’.”
Dolly was looking into a silver mirror as the record started playing over.
“‘Mason’ means ‘mystery,’ in Greek,” I said. “You know, Thomas Edison was working on a machine to talk to the other world when he died.”
“Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?” Dolly said.
“Down the road,” I went on, “there was a Mexican man named Pancho Diaz, a neighbor’s hired hand.
“‘Good ol’ Pancho,’ they said, ‘if all of them were only like Pancho.’
“He worked every day, he never complained, brought his own tools, his own jug of water. When he died, his obituary said his real name was Esquivel Perez, one of Zapata’s most trusted generals.”
“Ramon Zapata?” Dolly put down the mirror. “Domingo Esquivel?”
“Emilio. You know, in the Mexican Revolution, he led the Indians. He wore the big white hat—rode the white horse.”
“‘Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa . . .’”
Dolly was singing along, with her eyes closed, swaying, holding the velvet dress sewn with rhinestones or Murrietta’s diamonds to her breast.
“‘Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?’”
Dolly opened her eyes.
“I did only one thing wrong in my life,” she said, looking right at me. “One thing.”
“Don’t worry,” I said.
I leaned my head back against the elm’s raised trunk.
“It was bad,” she said.
“Forget about it.”
“I slept with my sister’s husband.”
“Well,” I said, looking at the upturned tips of my father’s boots. “It happens. Brother’s wife, same thing.”
“Let me see your palm. Your hand.”
“I just want to look.”
But it made me feel naked. She’d see Brawley, and Naomi White Feather.
“You should come up, I can’t see it clearly,” she said, bending forward, one hand raised against the porch light.
“I would but I don’t want to wake Kyla.”
“You’re right,” Dolly said, but she sounded disappointed.
I looked at my open hand in the moonlight.
With this hand I had killed men in airplanes, shot them down, helped burn whole cities of civilians.
“Captain,” I had called through the intercom, “we’re on fire. Electrical. I can smell it, like burnt sugar.”
“No, Delmus,” Gresham answered. “There’s no fire. Rodriguez called from the tail. He smelled it too.”
“What is it?” I said, it was awful.
“Flesh,” Gresham said, “people burning, smoke rising up.”
“Evidently,” Gresham said. “Man your guns.”
After the mission the different crews talked about it, Brawley and me. Over the target the pilots had been talking back and forth. It was the first time any of them had run into it. The fire raids killed more than the Bomb.
“They said Haller could never get rid of the smell of his burning cows,” Dolly had said.
In his sleep, Edgar Cayce said that the world would end in 1998.
I looked at the lines and creases in my palm, no eye at its center.
“You know,” I said, “the Washington Monument has Masonic signs on it. Remember Martin Luther King, when he gave the speech beside the reflecting pool? ‘I Have a Dream’? Peter, Paul and Mary? ‘Blowing in the Wind’—”
“It’s the tallest, but it’s made of single bricks. Like the stones in Robinson Jeffers’ Hawk Tower. That’s where he was, when he saw the mermaid in the surf.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“The biggest one-piece rock column is in New York or New Hampshire, I forget, wherever Joseph Smith is buried. What did Jesus say to Peter? ‘On this rock I will build my church.’ Aaron studied rocks.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said, hoisting my bottle to Dolly so whiskey ran down the lip again. “To Mona Lisa.”
“They stole it once, in 1911.” Dolly’s voice came over the sound of the record.
“The rock?” I said.
“The ‘Mona Lisa.’ Two years it was lost, before it turned up in Italy. They took it back to Paris. In 1935 they thought it was a fake, five different people bought ‘Mona Lisas’. All Americans. But the one at the Louvre?”
“It’s the only one with his fingerprints.”
“He invented the airplane, the first man to fly. He knew a lot about nature. About the body, anatomy.”
She touched her neck.
“I read a story about him,” I remembered. “He was working on the statue of Cosimo sitting on a horse. Suddenly da Vinci climbs down the ladder, jumps on his own horse. He gallops 18 miles away to the monastery, where he paints Christ’s little finger on ‘The Last Supper.’”
“I had a ‘Mona Lisa.’ And Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers.’ Do you know why Van Gogh cut off his ear?”
“He identified with Christ. Christmas was his favorite day, for a while he’d been a priest to the miners. And ‘Starry Night,’ the stars look like they did Christmas Eve. In the Bible, in the garden when the Roman soldiers take Christ after Judas gives him the Kiss of Death? Peter cuts off the soldier’s ear with a sword, Peter’s going to kill him, until Jesus tells him to stop. Van Gogh was all three of them, Christ and Peter and the soldier.”
Did that make sense?
I had thought of maybe going to a psychiatrist.
But they were worse than the preachers, I’d seen them both on TV. The only difference was the doctors didn’t need Jesus to make money.
All I really needed was to drink, to rest, to go out looking for oil with Aaron, the good Aaron, after the harvest. I didn’t want to end up in a hospital somewhere, all doped up, playing ping pong with someone who thought he was Napoleon.
“Did you ever picnic at Mooney Grove?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “As a kid. A few times with Kyla, when we were going together.”
“It was named for James Mooney, the one that studied the Indians up by Walker Lake. The Ghost Dancers.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said. “Are you sure?
“You know the oaks beside the waterways, how they shade the lagoons of lily pads, and the rowboats you can rent for 50 cents?”
“Yes,” I said, staring past my boots at the pool of broken glass.
One wet year when I was a boy, before the dam went in at Pine Flat above Piedra and the Kings River flooded every year, before Friant Dam at Millerton, like ocean-going salmon Norvell Peterson and Langdon Lapatt made it north from New Lund in a rowboat, across sloughs and ponds and up streams past Lemas to Fresno and the San Joaquin River, then the Delta and Dad’s Point at Stockton and out into San Francisco Bay, past the Golden Gate to the sea.
Life is a just a dream . . . .
“The old plaster statue?”
“‘End of the Trail,’” I said.
“The horse drops its head, its four hooves almost touching. The spear dips in a long slant to the ground. The Indian brave slumps on his saddle blanket. His head falls toward the horse’s mane. He wears two feathers in his hair—one for his wife, one for their love—”
“It’s bronze now,” I said. “One’s in Oklahoma. Cowboy Hall of Fame. They cast two.”
We drank, together and apart, without speaking.
“You know, there’s a plane, a bomber, a B-17, parked along the 99 between Acacia and Goshen,” I said finally. “Whenever I pass it, I think I see faces at the windows and turrets, like ghosts.”
“Delmus?” Dolly asked.
“Would you like to dance?”
“By myself? Like Zorba the Greek? How ’bout a rain dance? Something for the raisins?”
“No, long distance—”
In the window, she was holding out her arms.
“Like the telephone.”
Again she sounded like Patricia Neal, but younger—with Cooper, in “The Fountainhead.”
“They just lie there, and they die there—”
Her arms spread, she began to move back and forth.
With the lamplight behind her, I could see her shapely silhouette through the thin robe.
“Come on, Delmus—”
“What the hell,” I said, “if I haven’t danced in 20 years?”
Using my free hand, pushing off against the big root, I got to my feet, then steadied myself against the elm.
“Watch your toes,” I said.
I held out my arms, taking a dance step on the grass, slowly, in my father’s boots.
One two, one two . . .
“Do you smile to tempt a lover?”
Again the record had reset itself.
I stopped and took a swallow from the bottle. I held it tight.
“My double is getting drunk,” I said up to her.
“Hold me close—”
Dolly murmured down to me. Her eyes were closed again.
She leaned her cheek against an imaginary shoulder. Her forehead touched the window screen.
“Dear?” she whispered, smiling.
I could almost feel her hair against my face. I felt strange. I could smell perfume, like lemon blossoms.
Her soft hair felt black.
“You should put on your dress,” I said.
I had to say something. If I didn’t, if I closed my eyes I’d be holding Naomi, Brawley’s window—
“Brawley said to give you these, the blue stones—”
“Make love to me, Delmus, for Bob—”
“The one with the rhinestones,” I said.
“Mona Lisa . . .”
“Ramon,” she said. “Oh, Ramon.”
I’m drunk, I thought. Bad drunk. Bail out.
Dolly had disappeared. Had she collapsed? It was my fault. I thought of explaining it to Kyla.
But then she was back at the window. Nat King Cole was gone.
When I threw back my head, now I felt dizzy.
“I want to share something with you.”
“No,” I said, “thanks. I’ve got plenty of booze. No more cigarettes. No Camels.”
That’s what killed Nat. Ramblin’ Rose.
A camel had two humps, a dromedary one.
“I want to show you something.”
“What?” I asked, leaning back now against the elm. I nearly tripped on the roots.
But there was nothing to fear. I’d already seen everything. I’d dropped the Early Times and she’d heard me swear and lowered the Wild Turkey on the string.
“Something,” she said softly, down through the dark leaves, “if you want to.”
“Okay,” I said. “If you want to.”
She was climbing up on something.
“Don’t fall,” I said. “You better get down.”
But she was standing in the window with her head up by the top, the clean dark outline of herself showing through.
Before I could call out or turn my head, she had opened her robe, her sash dangling like a snake as the porch light fell across her glowing skin.
I saw her perfect rounded breasts, her flat stomach and curved hips. They were beautiful, like some beautiful young woman’s.
Then she moved and I saw the luna moth.
It was too big, its wings too wide, spread against the window screen, clinging to her body, enfolding her—
Black curling antennae circled each breast, the tips of the arching wings reached up her flanks, then down to her knees, all different colors, blue and dark green and gold, a sudden red shining band, all of it angling down—
“Behold,” she said, “The Butterfly—”
I shut my eyes.
“I’ve got to go,” I said.
I turned, stumbling across the lawn.
“Delmus,” she said, “wait!”
“Good night,” I called, over my shoulder. “Thank you!”
I crossed the grass now, into the dark vine row of plowed ground.
Now I was where I belonged.
Something, it must have been the big owl from the elm, beat hushed wings just over my head as I ducked into the maze—
Photo Source: Learner.org
© 2012 Nels Hanson. All rights reserved.