Clifford wakes and smells it, sickly sweet and wettish, and wonders how come he can’t go to the bathroom and can’t go to the bathroom and then he’s shit his britches. He shifts between the sheets, feels around and takes a peek, discovers he’s okay. But the house reeks. He rolls to the edge of the bed, lets his toes scuffle over the cool hardwood floor to find his slippers. His back stiffens, needs a moment to straighten out. He gets a good whiff and nearly chokes. He undrapes his thick wooden cane from the bedpost, finds the dog lying on the bluish hallway carpet. Solid black, jaw between his paws and staring up with flat brown eyes. Blackie blinks once. Clifford thinks it’s his way of shrugging. The dog stands, huge and clumsy, and shuffles into the living room. Clifford follows and lets out a long breath. Greenish anthills of poop spot the floor. A handful of mounds sprinkle the space between the sofa and chair and television; he spots another pile or two behind the recliner, in front of the seldom-used cherry desk.
Clifford circumvents the mess, and the dog follows. He opens the back door and leads Blackie slow and unwilling onto the patio. Clifford stretches, checks the sun. Across the drive an arm shoots up. The neighbor’s already out with his big shirtless belly hanging in front of the grill, something smoking under the lid. He grins with immaculate white teeth that shine clear from house to house in the early morning. Clifford eases back inside. Must be an unbelievable get-together coming if it’s firing up before breakfast. The dog blinks pleadingly a couple times before Clifford pushes the door to and locks up. He gets another whiff of the house and realizes he has to decide what to do about it all.
“Boyd? It’s your father. That dog of your mom’s messed all over the house.”
“Dad?” His son’s voice comes groggy and slow, but Clifford figures it’s all right to have waked him. He’s a psychiatric over in Knoxville, teaches at the college, and it’s an hour later there, anyway. “Are you okay?”
“Little patties all over the living room. Found one in the kitchen, too. Stinks to kingdom come.”
“It’s Saturday,” Boyd says.
“Opened the windows.” Clifford clears his throat. He’s opened every window in the house and tiptoed through to sit in the recliner, trying to adjust. “Can’t turn the air on on account of it, but I figure it’ll dry out and I can clean it that way. I reckon he did the best he could. Tried to hold it.”
“Did you give him milk again?” Boyd wants to know.
“May’ve done it. I don’t know.” Clifford thinks, realizes he had dumped the last of the jug into his dish last night. Half a bowl, maybe, a little sour. Couldn’t have hurt. “Guess I shouldn’t take up for him. Smells awful in here.”
“Milk’s bad for him. You have to stop giving it to him.”
He gives his boy a moment to get woke up, hears a woman’s voice. Margery, the girlfriend—or fiancée, Clifford’s not sure. They aren’t married. He starts to ask about that when Boyd’s voice comes through again.
“Is everything all right?”
“Aside from this dog of your mom’s, I guess. Tell Margery hello for me.”
“She says hi back. Have you read any of the new book, yet?”
Clifford grunts, stares at the bookcase beside the TV. In the left corner of the topmost shelf sit Boyd’s four books, the ones on relationships and psychiatrics and all that he keeps writing. He’d flipped through the first one, Romantic Assertiveness and You, when his son mailed it to the house fifteen or so years ago, and what he read stuck:
Do not be afraid to verbalize your desires. Say to your partner what you intend to do, and then do it.
Ex.: Tell your partner, “I am going to kiss your nipple.”
Then kiss his/her nipple.
And so on.
It had been enough for Clifford to get the idea. Say and do. He hadn’t tried reading a word of the boy’s books until the fifth had floated in a week ago. Boyd badgered him, actually called up for once to hassle his father into turning past the title page to the dedication. There, instead of the usual thanks to Doctors So-and-So, he’d written, simple and small and slanted, For Bess. And it sat right with Clifford—he’d given up after the first go, but Boyd’s mother had sat and read each and every book the moment it arrived. She’d gone through slowly, making notes in the margins with a red pen. Bess had slid her romance novels off the top shelf to make room for her son’s books, first and foremost. She deserved the nod. Clifford had settled the new book flat on the shelf in front of the others, left the spine hanging over the edge. He glances up at it—had at least read that dedication, though.
“A little,” he tells his son. “Not much. Sure do miss your mother.”
“So do I,” Boyd says. He lets out a breath and they sit in silence a moment.
“Yeah. Just tired.”
“Well. I’ll leave you to it.”
“You should come visit,” Boyd tells him.
“Well. I’ll be seeing you.”
He’s not two years old, still a puppy. He’d been Bess’s dog, a birthday present just as pitiful as could be. Half German shepherd and half husky, he’d been the runt of the litter and about the ugliest. Wolfish and without the shepherd coloring. But he took to Clifford when he called about their ad. Only one left, and he stuck to him, his good side, always away from the cane. Like he knew. Clifford glances out the restaurant window, spots the black nose poking out the car. He hopes no one wanders by, decides to pet him. Might get licked to death.
They’d had other dogs, English and Australian shepherds or a collie here and there, all good animals that slept outside and ate outside and lived outside. Dogs that waited at the fence when he came home at night, then waited a little longer for him to come out to pet and talk, throw a stick or two. Blackie waited by the door to be let back in. And Bess had wanted him close. It was after she stopped leaving the house, quit leaving her recliner, couldn’t make herself sit out on the porch at all. She watched the little runt get bigger and bigger, laughed and patted his head during those first awkward months when he’d trip over his own feet, had a hard time learning just to stand up and lay back down.
“Blackie, Blackie, Blackie,” she said.
Clifford would watch him amble to the recliner, rest his head in the space between Bess’s leg and the arm of the chair. He looked up and blinked his flat eyes and stared until she lifted a hand, went to brush the knobby top of his head. Her fingers trembled, his nose tilted up, and out shot his tongue. Bess giggled and wheezed, wrestled with the big black face a moment, and got free of him enough to pet. Lickingest dog she ever saw, she said. Then Bess was gone and it was just him and the dog, the evening news cranked higher than either one of them needed, loud enough for Bess.
“Don’t you dare,” Clifford always tells him, levering a hand above his head.
Clifford looks around the empty diner. He got to breakfast late. His usual buddies, old coworkers and not-quite retired men, have already gone, and he’s alone at the big corner table. He sips his coffee, swishes it in his mouth, decides it’s definitely gone cold. He hollers for Darlene. She’s gone off, probably smoking at the back door like she likes. Good girl but not on the ball. She swings through the door behind the counter. Big smile on her face and a yellow dress with white piping and an apron. She doesn’t have to wear it, it isn’t a uniform, but she insists it makes her feel like a real waitress. Clifford hangs his cup out in the air, and Darlene spins around, grabs the coffee pot off the warmer and a clean mug from a stack by the cash register. She crosses the room, fills up the new cup for him, and takes a seat.
“Sorry,” she says. “What’s new with you, Cliff?”
“Dog messed all over the house, last night.”
She peeks out the window. “Want me to get him a biscuit?”
“Saved one.” Clifford holds up a napkin-wrapped square. “So let’s know. Say, what. September 10, 2000.”
“That’s the day Cats ended its run on Broadway.” Darlene sighs. “I saw it in the paper and cried myself to sleep that night on account I wanted to be a dancer. I loved Cats.”
“Dancer.” Clifford eyes her chubby arms and the thick waist her apron’s tied around. Good girl, pretty, got some kind of memory won’t let her forget anything. But dancer his big toe. “So what about March 11, 1985.”
“I wasn’t born then.” She giggles. “2005, though, that’s the day I kissed a boy for the first time. Quint Stevens, he was one of the football players. After a game, outside his mom’s house. His breath was real bad.”
“Nope. Just dirty, dirty boy.”
“You don’t got any business kissing boys, anyway. March 11, ’85, that’s the day Gorbachev took over Russia,” Clifford says to her. “Don’t know how come I know that.”
“I’ll remember it, Cliff.”
She tops his coffee off and stands to check her other table. Clifford thinks it must be bad to be a girl like her. Remembering everything, says she can’t turn it off. And no one can figure out what exactly she aims to do with herself—mind like that, and Darlene says she ain’t aiming to go to college. Just keeps picking up shifts and taking orders from twenty people at a time without writing it down. Clifford thinks if he’d had that it would’ve been something. No fooling around or messing up. It’d all be right there.
The shindig next door is into full swing when Clifford pulls into his drive. A dozen cars have appeared and kids are running everywhere. A steady pillar of smoke raises from the barbecue, and he spies a handful of cigarette butts on the concrete in front of his garage. He sits, barely off the street and car idling. His leg aches. Some of the kids look up from where they play at the edge of his driveway. They’re dark and happy-looking, and he gives them a little wave. They make no show of paying attention. “Fiesta,” Clifford says, taking a look at his own house. Closed up and, no doubt, still reeking. He glances in the rearview, sees Blackie lying flat across the seat, and turns the radio on. He flips to a talk show and backs into the street again.
“Fiesta,” he repeats. Languages weren’t ever his thing.
Clifford drives around the neighborhood, watches the houses and realizes he doesn’t know who lives in them anymore. He drifts into the traffic on Old Hickory, the four-lane looping Nashville, and rides in and out of the little communities it cuts through. Doesn’t recognize the businesses. He crosses Gallatin Pike and thinks about driving to the Peterbilt plant, visiting the docks he worked on for so many years, but goes on aimlessly toward the Interstate. He pictures downtown lying over the hills. The capitol, skyscrapers and that radio station with one of its call letters burned out, the football stadium hunkered over the river. He turns the other way, out of town. Along the highway he recognizes more—the same patchwork of cedar and scrubby pine they’d started letting grow up thirty years ago. Nothing but trees and the cars in front of you, someone’s idea of beautifying the scenery. Clifford climbs out of the Nashville Basin, like an airplane lifting into clear sky. He slips a hand back between the seats, feels around for an ear to rub and gets licked real good. He rubs Blackie’s nose and speeds up to keep from getting run over. Traffic barrels down, relentless.
He dips through valleys, over ridges, drives until the Ashland City exit looms, drifts onto the ramp and cuts back over the expressway. The familiarity disappears again. Gas stations, a couple fast food joints, new houses, and a church sit where clear fields used to be. Clifford remembers when the Interstate wasn’t there, either. Probably shouldn’t anything look familiar. He drives a winding two-lane until he finally drops in on his hometown. The houses stand like they always have, small and boxy, whitewashed, tightly lined along the slope of the ridgeline. He slows to the light at the foot of the hill, waits his turn and pulls onto the main drag. Some of the buildings are recognizable, some of the stores. A flower shop Bess liked. He cuts through a neighborhood and past the elementary school and stops at a small gas station. He goes through the drive-thru and asks for a pack of Virginia Slims, the 100s. Lights. The clerk stands at the window and stares at Clifford a moment. He strokes his droopy handlebar mustaches.
“Those’re women’s cigarettes.”
“If you’re sure,” the man says.
Clifford tries to figure out what’s wrong with people. Can’t mind their own business or don’t know up from down or just plain stupid, he can’t tell. He pays and as he pulls away thinks about giving him the finger but doesn’t. He crosses the Cumberland, the water wide and somehow cleaner looking here, than where it winds through Nashville upstream. Clifford eases across the high-arching new bridge. The old one had been bad, with its rusted frame and supports curving overhead trusses. One day, not long after they married, he and Bess had gotten stuck in traffic right in the middle. She swore she could feel it shaking, got out of the truck and walked to the other side to wait on him. He’d always wondered what people thought, watching from their own patient cars. Bess hadn’t cared. That old bridge had been a monster for her.
Clifford turns down one road after another, stops to backtrack a couple times after junctions he doesn’t recognize quite right. He drives until he spots a church butted nearly flush against the tar-chip atop a hill. The building’s old and beaten, paint worn from the siding and windows boarded. They used to be stained glass, gorgeous and breaking the afternoon light. The sign out front still stands, but all that is readable is METHODIST CHURCH in the curve of its peak. On the other side of the road the cemetery spreads, slopes toward trees and train tracks at the foot of the hill. He pulls into the grass and cuts the motor. Clifford slips the new pack of cigarettes into his shirt pocket and climbs out, his bad leg stiff and sore and threatening to buckle. He leans on his cane and lets Blackie out, then circles the car’s big blue body a couple times to get the blood flowing. The dog trots to the closest tree, sidles up to mark it, and heads for another. Clifford figures he can’t hurt anything, even if he gets a headstone or two.
“Be good,” he hollers, just to be safe.
Enough trees sprinkle the lot to keep him mostly in the shade, but sweat breaks out on Clifford’s forehead. He hobbles among the stones. They spread without a sense of direction—a few straight rows down the middle but staggered and thinning toward the edges. A country graveyard, families together and room to wander by or fit another body when it’s needed. He heads for the far corner, where the Bledsoes are buried. They were Bess’s folks, and she wanted with them. Seemed like an all right idea. He spots the first of his wife’s relatives and circles to the newest. The only grave with Cotts for a name, her dates on the right. Waiting on his to the left. All’s quiet, and Clifford gets his head together. He watches the granite block, and then checks the still slightly mounded dirt for signs of buck grass. Bess hated buck grass. Made him take the garden tractor and plow up a patch that started in their backyard once. He doesn’t find any here.
“Looking good, Bess.” He fishes in his pocket for the cigarettes. “Brought some smokes. Don’t guess you need them. Didn’t need them then, either. Stupid, I guess.”
A breeze pushes over the hill, and Clifford hears a train in the distance. He shivers, puts the cigarettes back in his pocket. Resettles his feet and wipes the sweat from his cheeks.
“I kind of hate you for this.” He gets a better grip on his cane. He wants to know what he’s still doing here, why she’s dead and he isn’t, why he’s talking to nothing out in the middle of nowhere. There’s not going to be an answer. He’s killing the afternoon. Out puttering with the dog. That’s about it. “The dog, he’s okay. I don’t know.
“Just nothing,” he says.
Clifford steps away and heads for the car. He hollers for the dog, keeps going until he realizes the big beast isn’t coming. He stops, turns to look as the train roars by below. The grind of steel wheels on the track rattles his teeth. He spots Blackie and for a moment thinks he’s sitting by a ghost. A tall body stands at the back opposite corner of Bess’s grave, a colorless dress draped from her shoulders. Her skin is a deep white that stands out against her outfit, the blank tombstones and green of the trees and grass, and the thought flashes that it’s Bess. Same black hair cut at the neck she’d had as a girl. His boy Boyd had wanted to stick a picture of her on the grave, one from when she was young, but Clifford could only see her in his head without her hair. This, though, could be the real thing. It could be her. Blackie rests on his haunches, head tilted to watch her. He doesn’t move, waits until he sees his master headed for him to stand up and start panting. The woman floats a hand out from her side and lets him lick her fingers, then rests her palm between his ears.
“Howdy,” Clifford hollers. She doesn’t turn, and he thinks a moment longer on her being a ghost. Except the dog’s right there with her. Everyone always talks about animals being tuned in for that kind of thing, seeing spirits and smelling what a person doesn’t even know is there. Blackie just stands under her hand, tongue hanging out, and there’s no doubt in his mind. It must be Bess. He says her name.
It isn’t his wife come back from the dead. She’s a skinny girl, pretty, tears tracking her cheeks. Her face is too sharp, thinner. The stone she faces is etched with a man’s name. Once he reaches the corner of her eye, standing with Blackie in between them, she pulls her hand back to herself and gives him half a smile, a nod.
“Hope he ain’t bothering you,” he says. She stares down at the grave, the dirt still bare, and doesn’t answer. She stretches a finger to rub her red, sniffling nose. “Visiting your daddy?”
Clifford looks back toward the road, sees no car but his own. Like she came out of nowhere. The girl glances at him and wipes her face. Then she taps a finger against her lips, swings up to touch her ear. She shakes her head. He stares. She makes the motion again. Finger to lips, then her pointy little ear.
“I’m deaf,” she says. “I can’t hear.”
He looks at her a moment longer before the words make sense—they’re only halfway pronounced, rattly. He works it out and then feels bad for not catching on quicker.
“Deaf,” he repeats, and then adds, loudly and leaning in a bit, “you read lips?”
She holds her hand out, waggles it in a so-so motion.
“This your daddy here?”
She shakes her head. Clifford squints to read the dates on her stone. Twenty-three years. He shakes his head back at her.
“Husband?” he asks, and she nods. “It’s rough, I know.”
She lets out a breath and her hands shoot out. She waves back and forth, touches different parts of her face and body, making all manner of signs and meanings, Clifford knows, but he can’t understand a one. He watches her go. Flickering of her fingernails, lowering and raising of her eyebrows. She stares right at him, must expect him to comprehend. He wishes he did. She finally stops, shrugs, and drags her spread-out fingers down in front of her face, knuckles out, and frowns.
“Sad,” she says.
Clifford wonders exactly what he’s supposed to say to a girl who’s had a husband die on her that young. He tries to imagine her life, can’t. He at least had Bess a lot longer than that. She’s a pretty girl with awful luck, and he feels sorry, wants to do something. Something else good will head her way sooner or later, it should, there’s time. Something new and different. He grips her shoulders with both hands, cane draped from his wrist, and locks eyes with her.
“You’re a beautiful young woman,” he says. “It’s all right, you hear me?”
She just stares back at him for a moment. Then nods. Clifford presses his lips to her cheek, feels the shadow of his beard scrape her damp, smooth face. She wipes her eyes, looks from her grave to him, and tries a smile. He gets his weight settled with the cane and walks away. It’s an awful long way back to car, further than it was coming, but he forces himself into slow, easy steps. He spies Blackie’s ahead, sniffing around mossy graves so old they’ve worn down at the edges. He feels the girl’s eyes on him but doesn’t stop, doesn’t speed up. He can’t imagine what could happen if he looks back.
Clifford’s ready to go. There’s the house to figure out, get cleaned up, and the party next door. Books on the shelf. Everything to do and a lot to lock away and keep a handle on for later. Always later. He nears the car and whistles, gets Blackie trotting his way. He rubs the panting dog between the ears, holds his hand out long enough to get licked. They stand still a moment, each catching his breath, before Clifford swings the back door open.
“We’re doing something, now,” he says.