Shirley Sullivan

 

 

  IF THAT MOCKINGBIRD WON’T SING

 

As Carrie headed away from the mountains, speeding through a snow-brushed country flat as playing fields, she began to imagine she had called off her wedding. And that as soon as she got home she would stuff a small bag with only a few essentials and travel to an unsafe country on the other side of the world. She would wear sandals and loose clothing. Record the children with running sores. She felt like shouting at the thought.

Since leaving the ski resort, she and Joanna had been on the road for two hours and next to her, Joanna was sound asleep. Joanna could nap anywhere, on a rural bus traveling through Paraguay or waiting for a road to clear in Nigeria. And apparently, she wasn’t choosy about whose bed she shared. Carrie had seen the photos.

Lost in thought, Carrie hadn’t noticed the warning light on the dashboard, not until the Lincoln stalled and rolled to a stop a few miles west of the entrance to White Sands National Park. Beating her fists against the steering wheel woke Joanna up. Together they listened to the heater shut off, then watched the interior lights fade, knowing they were stranded in the middle of a highway miles from anywhere. It would be dark soon and the surrounding wilderness would disappear. “Goddamn it!” Carrie muttered.     

“Where are we?” Joanna asked.         

Carrie looked out past rows of gnarled mesquite, imagining what might lay hidden in the canyons. “Nowhere.” The wind surfaced, buffeting the big sedan. Big clouds spooled on the horizon. “I guess I should call Martin,” Carrie said. “We know how he is about this car.”

“Let’s just call a tow truck,” Joanna suggested. “Save the part about telling him his car broke down until later.”     

Carrie met Martin after she left rehab, during the eleventh week of her sobriety. He was kind and great looking and how lucky was she. A radiologist, her mother kept saying. He told her she was too thin, then gave her a job answering the phone at his office. After three months, it became clear that she had become his addiction. His project. The way he watched her. Going with her to open meetings of AA and calling out “Right on!” at the end of someone’s testimony. He drank the terrible coffee and ate three-day-old doughnuts. She began to miss rehab.

“Let’s get the car off the road,” Joanna said. “Someone could slam into the back of us.”

“You’re right. You steer, I’ll push.”

Carrie hauled her fur coat from the backseat and opened the car door, the frigid air like glass in her throat. Slipping on the icy pavement, she pressed her body into the back of the car as she struggled to establish a foothold, then pushed.  She felt the seam of her blouse rip. “Goddammit.” Gradually the Lincoln moved forward, tires sinking into the field.  

The tow truck sped past them, braked, and moved in reverse with a mashing of gears, its blinking roof lights and giant tires dwarfing their car. It was quite a show as Carrie and Joanna watched the driver position his truck, then swing down and stroll toward them. He was grinning.

Carrie rolled down the window. He had Goofy tattooed on his hand and his hair was cut close to his head.

“I wouldn’t have taken you girls for a Lincoln sedan,” he said.

Joanna leaned forward. “Oh, yeah?”

“A Porsche maybe.”

“Well, halleluiah!”

“Sorry, but it’s cold,” Carrie said and rolled up the window. 

They rode in the front seat of the truck on the way back to Alamogordo, the driver humming. A rosary of blue glass beads swung from the rearview and glistened in the green lights of the dashboard — a crucified Jesus attached to one end. Carrie started to reach out, put her hands on it. Her roommate at rehab slept with a rosary, Carrie saw it in the tangle of sheets and wanted it. She found comfort inside cathedrals, the crucifixes, the polished pews, the votive flames flickering with the current of air from the transoms. The priest in his black cassock strolled past the baptismal font to the confessional. She’d often thought of taking a seat in the adjoining half, asking for absolution. In her mother’s house, the Catholic faith was a subject to avoid.

It was fifteen miles before anyone spoke.

“Been skiing, right? Sierra Blanca?” the driver finally asked, steering with one hand on the wheel, his right arm lay along the seat behind Carrie’s back. “I saw the rack on your car.”   

Carrie felt the heat from his arm. “We were, actually,” she said, “it was a last time holiday get-together thing before my . . . .” She hesitated, one hand at her throat.

The thought of Martin, the way he hugged her, lifting her feet off the floor, made her all the more aware of this man next to her.

“Before your what? Divorce? Surgery?”

“Wedding.”  

“Oh yeah?” Another silence followed. “I won’t be skiing any time soon,” the driver continued. “Not much snow in Kabul.”

“I was in Kabul,” Joanna said.

“What the hell for?”

“I went for the USIP.”

“I’m just driving this truck for my uncle for a couple of weeks, then I’m being deployed back to Kuwait for the third time. Believe that?” 

Carrie finally recognized the song the driver had been humming. If that mockingbird won’t sing. Hot in her coat, she redirected the heater vents toward Joanna. And then the lights of Alamogordo came into view.

It was as if the town expected them. Motel bars beckoned with blinking neon and street lamps flashed on as they passed. Big rigs revved down on their way into town. A mile on, they reached the repair garage, located on the main drag between the bus station and a twenty-four-hour diner. The driver set the brake and began the process of unhooking the car while the two women walked inside. They found the mechanic leaning into the Coke machine, one hand in his back pocket, absorbed with reading the labels on the cans.

When he looked up, Carrie explained they had a car that had stopped running, and could he maybe take a look. He extracted his soda, popped it open, and took a swig. All three walked to the car, peering in as he lifted the hood and busied around.

“You got yourself a busted alternator.” He checked his watch. “I can’t have this fixed ‘til tomorrow.” He took another swig of Coke. “You ladies come back, say around noon.”

Carrie guided Joanna to a nearby bench inside the garage. “Why are you smiling?”

“I’m not smiling.”

“I suppose it’s fine with you that we’re stuck here for the night.” Carrie looked down at her furry boots.

The tow truck driver finished with his paperwork, strolled over, and handed Kate a bill.  She gave him her credit card. Martin’s, really, with her name on it.

“So, hey,” he said. “I know a place where we can get a drink.”  

“Thanks all the same,” Carrie said.

“I’m up for it.” Joanna allowed her coat to fall away from her shoulders, revealing a sweater snug over low-slung breasts.

“I’m Eric, by the way. And this here’s Spence.” He pointed to a man standing a few feet away. Spence had a Mohawk and a beard and was holding what appeared to be a lunchbox. He stepped forward and gave Eric a high five. Carrie stood up and walked off. Joanna ran to catch up and the two stopped beside a car resting on blocks with its tires removed. “I understand this is what you do, but I can’t,” Carrie said when they were out of earshot of the two men.

“It’ll be okay.” The floor was littered with oil cans and greasy rags. “You’ll be with me.”       

“Is that supposed to be reassuring?” Carrie looked quickly around. “Did you get a look at the friend? He looks like someone who trains bears.”

Joanna bent over laughing.

“And Eric? A guy who could have brought anything home from the war. A scrambled brain. A transmittable disease. Or a pet monkey with a transmittable disease.”

“Admit he’s good-looking. Uh-huh. I know you’re attracted to him, all the chatter in the truck.”

“I need to call Martin. He’ll be expecting me.”

“You do that and the rest of us will go for a drink. Or, you can come along, order ginger ale, and if you don’t want it to go any further, then call Martin.”

 Carrie noticed that Joanna’s skin had roughened. She looked older. A life worth living had taken its toll, now that she thought about it. But Joanna hadn’t settled. Like Carrie felt she was about to do. Live in a big drafty house with Martin and all his dogs before she had a chance to do something newsworthy. Bear children within those walls. What did she know about raising kids, she’d never even liked them. Her cousin Patrick had two horrid little boys who dropped their pants in front of company. Martin’s house was a house for grownups, everyone well educated and conservative, where triviality didn’t exist. How could she possibly live among those heavy drapes at every window? His mother’s curling smile, the ticking of the grandfather clock.  

It occurred to Carrie they were surrounded by walls plastered with pictures of naked women. And from somewhere toward the rear of the building came the sound of impolite laughter. As Joanna walked over to the two waiting men, Carrie dialed Martin’s number.

 “The alternator?” Martin asked. “Never mind, just be careful. Don’t let anyone pick you up. Haha.”   

After hanging up, Carrie wondered what the real reason had been for her call. Joanna was right, she’d be fine. So she walked out behind her friend.

The bar was just down the road. Inside, a handful of pilots who flew Stealth bombers out of Holloman, the local girls all over them. A few rancher types, hats shoved to the back of their heads, talking quietly among themselves. Carrie sat in a booth sipping Dr. Pepper, watching as Joanna and the two men threw down tequila shooters and exchanged stories about Kabul. Joanna kept her hand on Carrie’s shoulder, the way she did when they were in school and she was the center of attention with her stories. Carrie guessed she was keeping her safe, or else didn’t want her to feel left out. Which was exactly how she felt at the moment.

“So, you’re getting married?” Eric turned his attention to Carrie. “Hell, baby, I’d throw rose petals if I had some.”

“Actually I may be too young to get married.”

“Oh yeah. How young is that?”

“Twenty-six.”

 Eric laughed out loud. “And you don’t drink?”

Carrie was beginning to feel ridiculous. And challenged. She wanted to say, get lost, jerk. “Rehab.”

“Where was that?”

“It’s part of a facility on the west coast called Pond House.”

He wanted to know what it had been like. She started to say none of your business but told him instead it was the only place she’d ever felt left alone. Where it was okay to leave her clothes on the bed or not take a shower. It was safe to talk about God there. She was free to be a fuck up.

He told her she didn’t look like any fuck up he’d ever known and he’d known plenty. She musta been some cleaned-up fuck-up.

Is this a contest? She wanted to know. That’s when his tone changed and he started watching her closely. She didn’t look away, but asked, what about you. He came from a military family, a family of boxing champs. Father, brother, uncles. Tough guys. Cross ‘em, they’ll drop you where you stand. One right to the side of the head. Bam, baby, you’re on your butt. Enlist or be called sissy boy.

He finished talking and neither of them said a word. Joanna and Spence were laughing and on the other side of the room three guys settled in to play “If You Love Me.” One had a saxophone. They weren’t half bad. Sound on all sides, it felt good. Better than it had in a while. One couple got up to dance.

“That song you were humming before. About the mockingbird.”

“You know that song?”            

“I do.” She sang, “and if that mockingbird won’t sing, papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.”

Eric put his head in his hands. “Guy in our unit, believe it or not, used to sing that to us at night. Helped us sleep.” His voice was far off. “Motherfucker got blown up.”            

When Joanna and Eric’s buddy got up to dance, Carrie kissed Eric on the mouth.

Eric opened the door to a cheerless apartment and pushed in ahead of Carrie, switching on a lamp that sat on a table by the wall. Next to the lamp was a stack of unopened mail. They stood side-by-side in a room with a ceiling fan, a sofa bed, pulled out and unmade, and a small television. Even in her coat, Carrie felt cold. She followed him into the kitchen area, and while he slipped out of his jacket, she opened the refrigerator door, staring hard at a jar of mayonnaise.

“I guess buses don’t run this time of night.”

While she was thinking of the next thing to say, he took hold of her and put his tongue in her mouth. “You like music?” Eric fiddled with a small stereo on the kitchen counter until they heard someone singing. He led her to the bed and they both sat down. “You gonna take off that coat?”

“I probably won’t stay long, so I’ll just keep it on. We’ll be out of here as soon as the car is fixed.” For several moments, no one spoke.

“Listen,” he said, “we can sit here and bullshit one another or we can get high and make out. That’s why you came and I’ve got good stuff.” When she didn’t say anything, he got up and went to the kitchen area and she followed. He opened a drawer and removed two plastic bags. “Yes ma’am.”

 Carrie had spent a weekend once with a cousin in the Yucatan and they both tried peyote. She’d smoked hash in Paris, behind her mother’s back, expecting portals on guidance to open, but she’d never done blow. Vodka was her drug of choice. While Eric removed a small white rock from one of the sacks, Carrie glanced toward a smallish window, hoping for a glimpse of snowy mist or clusters of light, a tiny beacon of reassurance. She imagined she saw Martin, arms crossed over his chest, head inclined to one side, looking at her with that special silence that indicated disbelief.      

Eric had placed the rock in a cylinder pipe and was heating it with a cigarette lighter. “Don’t you worry,” he winked at her, “you’re in good hands.”

She listened to the concoction sputter and pop, exhilarated and frightened. When he told her she could go first, she hesitated, pulling her coat together. “Do you have a monkey?” she asked.

“I used to have a dog.”

“My mother didn’t allow pets in the house.” She stepped forward and inhaled the vapors through the pipe. As soon as she exhaled, the rush hit and she sat down on the floor. Was this supposed to happen? Splayed out, her hands loosely curved, she felt the soft silk of her blouse against her skin. She thought she heard a phone ring in another room, but there was no other room.

Eric went next. Then he was beside her, opening her coat. 

The pulse of drugs in her veins, Carrie dangled from a tree outside the window, alongside the icicles, contentedly unborn. Eric’s voice traveled to her from another universe.

“I’m a time voyager,” she offered. Their bodies would be discovered in a week or so, under the bed alongside the monkey, who would have nested in her hair. A gypsy, a woman of palms and rivers, of sailboats in the harbor, carrying unfamiliar cargo to the edge of the world.

He buried his face in the fur of her coat, then slipped his hand between her legs, forcing them apart. He kept on talking from light-years away. He was twenty-eight, not much older than she was. She thought he was older. He looked older, the depthless light in his eyes, like the pull of a dark star, the disappearing beauty. He didn’t want to go back. Couldn’t go back. His luck had run out, he felt it. He’d tried to convince them he was unfit for duty, that bad dreams were calling his name.

He got up and went to the kitchen for another hit. When he returned to the floor, she felt her pants being pulled down.

“I saw the rosary in the truck. Is that for real?”

“I carried it with me the whole time I was in Kuwait, and the thing of it is, I was spared. A lot of my unit never came home.”

She kissed the edge of his smile. She kissed his cheek. Come and stay with me while there’s time she told him. We can cross into Mexico, visit the markets, drink tequila with those little worms. We can be carried through the streets with the Posadas, wrapped in shawls. Perhaps we’ll be taken in. Otherwise, you can meet the family, be the honored guest. Someone will tell us what to do. Martin, he’ll know.

His breath was sweet with the drugs and in the dark, his face was blue. “It’s all one big magic trick.” He fumbled his pants off, and with her holding on to him with both hands, they began to move in rhythm to the music on the radio.

Eric took something to fall asleep. Carrie, still in her coat and unable to sleep in spite of her fatigue, went into the bathroom and ran hot water over her hands. Standing at the window in the frigid dark, so close to the glass she felt the iciness on her cheeks, the diamond on her finger like a beacon for help, she looked out at an alley and beyond that, streets that were vacant. The white drug set things loose inside her body. If that mockingbird won’t sing, she hummed.

Back on the floor next to Eric, his breathing was thin and uneven, like the last sound made before you drown. “Eric?” she said, then nodded off to incoherent dreams.

Next she knew it was dawn and all she could think of was coffee. In the kitchen, she clicked off the music, found the grounds, and filled the carafe. The place was cold and her head throbbed. She stood at the sink, wishing the drone of the refrigerator would stop, and drank a glass of water. With the coffee pot burbling, she wiped the Formica counter with a damp paper towel even though it didn’t need it. She wiped the stove. The front of the cabinets.

She poured coffee and carried it over to him.

In the faint light, she hardly recognized him. He looked smaller and pale, strangely relaxed as if the skin had fallen away from the bones. His jaw had fallen open. She couldn’t tell if his chest was moving. Afraid now, she knelt and pressed a finger against an artery in his neck. She couldn’t feel a pulse. Ice pelleted the roof with a hissing sound.

The minutes ticked by. The silence in the house deepened. Elongated. Coiled around her. Dizzily, she tried to get up. Afraid she might pass out, she stayed where she was, stroking the fox coat. When she decided that Eric looked cold, she slipped out of her coat and laid it across him, the gray fur soft around his face. She climbed to her feet and somehow managed to pull on her pants. She found his keys, her purse, and left without looking back.

The world outside, bundled in stillness, breathed in its sleep.

As she made her way to Eric’s truck, parked at the end of the gravel drive, she threw up.

 She steadied herself against the metal door until she felt strong enough to climb in. It had begun to snow, big fat flakes floated down as if she’d been displaced and landed in someone else’s fairy dream. Behind the wheel, she felt old and muddied and orphaned. She reached for the rosary hanging from the rearview. It felt icy in her hands and she put it back. She pulled the cell out of her bag and dialed. “Martin?”