A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story
“Lord-a-mercy!” I said in my thickest southern drawl. “Somebody tell god to take the rest of the week off. He has made perfection, and there ain’t no topping that!”
The beautiful blonde woman scowled and blushed at the same time. It made her look seventeen again.
“Where is your charming husband? I can’t believe he’d ever dare to leave your side.”
She shook her head gravely, and maybe that was my cue to lay off. Or maybe not…
“Well, tell me what your boyfriend looks like, then. So I’ll know who to run from.”
She chuckled. “No boyfriend.”
“Well, then, the next man that asks, you tell him I’m sprouting gray hairs in patches and I carry a little paunch. I’m half-a-step slower than I never was. I’m ugly as sin, and I stink something awful toward the end of the day. You tell him that’s my description.”
She drew a finger across her eyebrow, the hair so fine it was almost white. Her eyes were blue and deeper than a quarry lake, alive with the light of mischief. “Am I to take that as an offer?”
I nodded gravely. “What fool could pass on perfection?”
She smiled a wistful little half-smile. A woman with a secret, a woman with a story to tell. “I think it was you…”
I wanted to stay and talk but somebody pulled me away. It was a New Year’s Eve party at my sister’s house. I was the guest of honor, the prodigal son returned, and I hadn’t seen some of the revelers for twenty years. I kept getting bounced around the room, passed like the torch of sobriety from one drunk to the next. But my eyes always sought her out, sought her supple perfection amidst all that was chaotic and deformed. She moved like liquid glass, like a cat, like a leopard. Her hands preceded her always, and she caressed everything with long, slender fingers. It was as though she had the power of vision in her fingertips, and she saw more than you or I will ever see with mere eyes.
She moved, and she graced the universe with her touch, with her glance. She made me hungry, hungry in a way I haven’t known in more years that I care to think about, hungry for things I walked away from a lifetime ago…
And then she was gone.
I jerked my head around stupidly, peering into every corner, but I knew she was gone. I was surprised at the loss I felt, and I thought about just letting it drop. But then I grabbed my coat off a bed and busted out into the freezing night.
I hollered up the icy hill, “I’m following you, pretty lady! I ain’t gonna let you get away!” I couldn’t see her, but I knew where she was. I always knew where to find her…
I never chased her up that hill, and I never chased her down it. But for three nights in a row, a lifetime ago, she stood with me all the way down at the bottom of that hill. All the way down at the river. Tossing pebbles into the water. Weeping with me for my dead.
It was the Summer I discovered sadness. It was the Summer when everything changed. It was the moment of glowing perfection just before the dawning, when all of life is a stark silhouette, a black mystery against a golden aura in the instant before the sun ruins everything by making it obvious and banal. It was the Summer I left home.
Of course, no one ever really leaves home. We just walk away, coming back less and less often. And every time we come back, there’s less and less of the indiminishable everything we thought must always be there. Relatives die off one by one. Old friends move away. Schools and houses and buildings are abandoned, cackling through broken-toothed windows as we mourn them. Until one day, one very sad day, there’s nothing left at all, nothing but the memories we carry with us indiminishably, inextinguishably. Life begins but it never ends, and at the speed of life events have sequence but no duration, no expiration.
It was the Summer I discovered sadness. It was the Summer my grandfather died.
I had already left home once. Not for keeps, but I didn’t know that. I thought I was gone for good. I thought I was the top rider in a one-man rodeo, couldn’t nobody stop me ’cause nobody’d dare to try. I was nine parts foolish vanity and the tenth part groundless pride, but it was a fine and perfect pride. I taught haughty to flamenco dancers on the side, and they paid me in silver dinares. I pretty much figured I wouldn’t bother to go back home until I could return suitably laureled, hailed by herald trumpets.
In fact, I was living in a building too far gone to qualify as a tenement, but I was too stupid – and too proud – to be miserable. And then I got the word that my grandfather had died and I had to abandon all my worldly possessions – about twenty-nine dollar’s worth, net – and scurry back home to see him waked and buried.
I hadn’t known. I was the working prototype of a young idiot, and I hadn’t really known – in my guts, in my bones – that people could die. You read about it, you hear about it, you see it a dozen times a day on TV. But until death comes to someone you know, someone you love, someone you never doubted would always be there… I was numb and useless that first day of the wake. Couldn’t do anything, couldn’t even cry.
She was there at our house that night, there for my sister. Courtney Lancaster, the little girl on the hill. She was my sister’s age, a year-and-a-half older than me, and she’d always been around the house. Silky blonde hair in french braids, wrapped up around her head like the girl on the Swiss Miss box. In khaki shorts with cargo pockets and starched white blouses. And later in painter’s pants and denim work shirts with tiny mother-of-pearl snaps instead of buttons. In parkas and pea coats and watch caps and miner’s boots. In sandals and Summer suits and big floppy white hats. Her skin would tan to a golden brown in the Summer and the fine white hairs on her legs were never touched by a razor and I never thought a thing about it. Of all my sister’s friends, she was the one who seemed least like a girl. And therefore, by my standards at the time, most like a human being.
But now she was all woman. Her dad was a consulting engineer and she had spent a year in Europe with him. Knowing what I know now, I would have understood immediately that there was a man behind the metamorphosis. But at the time, I was stunned, even outraged. She was wearing camel’s hair slacks and a creamy white silk blouse, very fluid. Her hair was brushed and brushed and brushed until it seemed to glow with a light of its own. She wore no make-up, no jewelry, nothing to hide or cheat or disguise, nothing to detract or diminish or disfigure. I could hardly bear to look at her; I kept having to look away. It wasn’t lust, it was simply radiance. She was too blindingly beautiful to be looked at for long.
After dinner, she started flipping through my records and asking me questions about them. It surprised me, sort of, because I hadn’t known until then that it could be possible for a woman to be both beautiful and serious. The old Courtney-in-khakis could be serious, but Courtney-in-camel’s-hair? My sister was a little put out, too, even though I wasn’t doing anything – not then, anyway – to swipe her friend.
She spun up Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” easily the best album since “Blonde on Blonde.” She stopped at “Simple Twist of Fate” and played it over and over again, and I thought my sister was going to tear out her hair. For my own part, I was charmed by her attentions, but I had other things I wanted to do.
I had my mom’s car keys and I spun ’em on my finger. I said, “I’m going out for a while. You wanna come?” I didn’t know why I invited her, and I didn’t know why I was so delighted when she nodded and said she’d come along.
I knew of a liquor store where the clerk was drunk every night after eight o’clock or so. Never carded anyone, and couldn’t read the numbers even if he had. I scored us a quart of beer and drove her all the way down into the heart of the bottom. At the bottom of the hill there’s a little park platted out in the flood plain of the river. It’s good flat land and it makes a fine softball field come April, when it finally dries up. In the late Summer it’s dry as dust and the river’s hardly deep enough to soak your shoes. It’s dark and quiet and there was never anybody down there at night, nobody but me.
That first night we didn’t talk all that much, just nursed the beer and kicked some rocks around. I wanted to talk about my grandpa, but I kept choking up and I didn’t want to cry in front of her. I knew she had something she wanted to tell me about, too, but she was having troubles of her own. But we managed to find serenity in the comfort of an easy silence in the quiet of the night – crickets chirping, the river burbling, and, far off, the high white whine of the highway.
I dropped her off at her folks’ house, the fieldstone ranch house at the top of the hill. Without looking up from the steering wheel, I said, “Thank you, Courtney.”
I blew a puff of air at my nose. “I don’t know. Thanks for coming to the wake, thanks for being there for the family, all that stuff. But that’s not what I mean.” I took my time thinking and she let me. “What I want to thank you for is not posing. Does that make sense?”
She laughed. “Not a bit.”
“You’re not a pose, you’re not an act, you’re not a show. You’re just who you are all the time, so I don’t have to try to figure out who you want me to be. I can just be myself. All the time. I always liked you, but until tonight I didn’t know why. You’re whole enough to be quiet…”
“Maybe,” she said with the light of mischief in her eyes. “Or maybe I’m just empty. Nothing to say, and the good sense to say nothing.” She laughed, and she was beautiful in her laughter and she knew it.
She ate with us again the next night and she went out with me again. This time I didn’t even bother about the beer, I just drove straight to the river. We sat cross-legged on top of a picnic table, facing each other, bouncing a tennis ball back and forth between us. I was able to look at her, partly because I was more comfortable with her, and partly because it was so dark she could hardly blind me with her beauty. We sat there for most of the night, telling lies, telling jokes, telling the brutal truth in raucously funny ways. I can’t remember a single thing we said that night, but I’ll always remember it as the happiest night of my life. I can find my peace in solitude, in a cave or a canyon or just on a lonesome old road. But that was the one night of my life when I found a perfect peace in the company of another human being. My gift, my treasure, from Courtney Lancaster.
On the third day we buried my grandfather. Seventy-four years in the same one parish, and the monsignor himself said the words. Afterward there was a big blow-out at the house, a 16-gallon keg and a fat guy in a red satin vest with an accordion. Everybody who’d cried for my grandpa for three days wanted a chance to cheer, to lift a cup from sadness and raise it up to joy. To praise my grandfather for his virtues, and to praise those virtues of his that live on in those who loved him. And if you need to clear a knot of grief from your throat, a good way to do it is to make some noise.
We stayed for a while, but not too long. She left with me and I knew she would. I expect you can guess where we went.
It was a somber night at the river. The sky was shrouded in clouds and the air was sticky and close. I stood by the water and listened for the whine of the highway and I could hear her rustling behind me. I couldn’t bear to look at her, and I didn’t know why. That was when she told me about her man, the man behind the metamorphosis, the man she’d met in Europe. The way she described him he sounded much older, but we were so young that everyone seemed much older to me. She was flying back to join him the next day, a sort of trans-Atlantic elopement. Her parents were fit to be tied, but what could they do?
I had plans of my own, and I laid them out for her, still not daring to turn to look at her. After a while I tried to talk about my grandpa, about all the things we’d done together over the years. But my voice was rent by sobbing and I knew she couldn’t understand me. After a while I couldn’t understand myself, and I just stood there weeping, grieving for a man I’d never learned to love until it was too late.
I could feel her right behind me, could feel her breath behind my ear. I knew if I turned she’d hold me, and I could bury my grief within her. And I knew if she reached for me, I’d turn. But she didn’t reach and I didn’t turn. And after a minute or an hour or an eternity, I crouched down and grabbed a handful of pebbles. I started tossing them, one-by-one, into the water. In a moment I felt her move away.
A long time later she said, “I need to get going.”
I tossed her the car keys. “Take the car to my mom. Someone’ll give you a lift up the hill.”
“I can walk up.”
I nodded. “Or you can walk up.”
“What about you? What are you going to do?”
I smiled at her and the clouds parted and a glimmer of moonlight lit her radiance and blinded me everlastingly. “I’m going to miss you every day, Courtney Lancaster. I’m going to miss you every day from now until forever.”
She started to say something but I shook my head. I pressed a finger to my lips. “Walk away,” I said. “Walk away and don’t look back.”
She leaned over and brushed my cheek with her lips and as she pulled away I felt the downy fine hairs on her cheek and I caught the scent of her. No fragrance, just the essence of heaven itself.
And then she was gone.
I stood there tossing pebbles into the water until the dawn broke over the treetops. Then I walked along the bank of the river until I came to the highway bridge. I scrambled up the embankment and I started walking down that lonesome old road. And I never looked back…
She was waiting for me when I got to the top of the hill on that icy New Year’s Eve. The house was bigger than I remembered it, bigger and more imposing. It sat on four or five acres, surrounded by a split-rail fence. There were no stables or corrals, but everything about it said equestrian. There was a covered walk-through between the house and the garage and behind it was a huge fieldstone patio. Her dad had built a big brick barbecue and faced that in fieldstone as well. That was where I found her, sitting by that barbecue. She had built a fire and the heat of it kept the cold at bay. The flickering light chased the years away from her face and she looked to me like the little girl, the full-grown woman, who had blinded me in the moonlight twenty years before.
She smiled at me as I stood before her and I was blinded yet again. She said, “I’m glad you followed me.”
“You knew I would.”
She bit her lower lip. “I hoped you would.”
It was my turn to smile. I said, “I hate to be lied to, and you always tell the truth. Even when it’s the hardest. That’s what I’ve always loved about you.”
Maybe the word shocked her, I don’t know. I went on before she could stop me. “I have always loved you, Courtney. Every day, just like I promised.” I smiled a tight little smile, but the truth is there was a wetness in my eyes and a burning spot in my throat. “I loved you every day, and I never once let you know. You and my grandpa, I thought about you both every day. I wanted the two of you to be proud of me, and I wanted for you never to be ashamed of me. Everything I’ve ever done, I wanted to live up to you, to you and my grandfather. Doesn’t that seem stupid?”
Her own eyes were wet and she did nothing to hide it. “I don’t think so.”
“Courtney, my grandfather has been dead for twenty years. I haven’t sent you a card or a letter for twenty years. Not even a phone call. My grandpa can’t count my worth and I never gave you the chance. I walk around making this catalog of the absurd, but the true fact of my life is that I measure myself against two ghosts, a dead man and a lady who vanished. I have to laugh at myself, too, when I’m stupid. It’s only fair.”
She nodded and that was good enough.
I heard a noise behind me and I spun around to see two small creatures in bed clothes creeping up on us. The back door to the house was half open and I strode over to pull it closed. When I returned the two creatures were snuggled under Courtney’s arms. She said, “Permit me to introduce Samantha and Abigail.”
Samantha was about nine, and she had inherited every ounce of her mother’s beauty and a drop or two more. She was dainty and ladylike and she wore a flowered flannel nightgown with tatted lace at the collar and cuffs. On her feet were fuzzy pink slippers.
Abigail was seven or seven-and-a-half and she held title to every last acre of Courtney’s tomboy arrogance. She was beautiful in her own way, but she was more brash than anything. Her nightgown was an adult’s fleece sweatshirt, and she hadn’t bothered to pull her hands through the enormous sleeves. She had walked out on the freezing flagstones bare-footed, which I wouldn’t do on a bet.
I bowed to the waist and Samantha giggled. Abigail snorted, and who could blame her?
Courtney said, “Why aren’t you guys in bed? Where’s the sitter?”
Abigail scoffed. “Asleep on the sofa. Where else?”
“Oh. Great… Well, get it moving.”
Samantha wheedled, “Sing us a song first. Please.”
“No,” said Abigail, a glint of evil in her eyes. “Make him sing.”
Courtney was about to intervene but I said, “I’ll be happy to. This is a song your mother used to like. I’m only gonna sing the first and last verses, ’cause I don’t care for the rest of it.” I cleared my throat and started to sing “Simple Twist of Fate.”
They sat together in the park
As the evening sky grew dark.
She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones.
It was then he felt alone and wished that he’d gone straight
And watched out for a simple twist of fate.
Courtney smiled at me and I thought my knees might buckle. Abigail said, “You sing like a duck!”
I gave a solemn nod. “Proudly, like a duck.”
People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within.
I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring.
She was born in Spring, but I was born too late.
Blame it on a simple twist of fate.
Courtney coughed softly. “I was born in the Spring.”
“I know it.”
“What about you, mister?” Abigail asked. “Were you born too late?”
“Why, no. I was born just in time. If I had been born even one minute later, who knows what might have happened?”
I shrugged with my palms open at my shoulders. “Who knows?”
“He’s teasing you,” said Samantha.
I nodded. “You’d better go to bed, kids. You’ve met your match.”
Samantha giggled and Abigail laughed derisively and I wanted to hug them both. Courtney dumped them off her lap and pushed them toward the house. I was sitting by the fire when she returned.
“They’re great kids, aren’t they?”
She smiled a tight, bitter little smile. “Their father didn’t seem to notice.”
I looked into the fire. “Where are your folks?”
“Your dad building a bridge?”
“A string of bridges. A brand new highway from Nowhere to Nowhere Heights. Your tax dollars at work.” She laughed. “Mother wants him to retire, but I don’t think he’s ready.”
I said nothing, just let the crackling of the fire fill up the silence. The night sky was clear and bursting with stars. The air was crisp and clean and very cold. After a long time, I said, “I’m at war with death.”
She smiled wryly and said, “Are there many casualties?”
“Go ahead. Make fun of me. I deserve it.”
“No,” she said. “Talk to me. Tell me what you never tell anyone.”
I nodded gravely. “I always have. I always will.” I took my time thinking and she let me. “I didn’t know what I was doing, when I started this. I wanted people to stop dying, but I didn’t know what I meant. It sounds stupid, right? People die, it’s a part of life.” I grinned despite myself. “The last part.”
She laughed like glass chimes tinkling in the Winter wind.
“But that wasn’t it,” I went on. “I’d see homeless people pushing shopping carts and sad, tired people shuffling along and little kids who wouldn’t look up from the ground, and I’d think – what I want is for people to stop dying before their time. But that’s what doctors do, isn’t it?
“And I got older. I hope I got wiser. And I got better and better at seeing what I’m talking about. And better and better at talking about it. And I got to a place where I could mesmerize people, just like a revival preacher, just like a snake charmer. And I’d talk and I’d talk and I’d talk and people would watch me and they’d say, ‘This man is crazy. This man is possessed. This man is god. This man is the devil.’ They’d look at me and say, ‘This man is right.’
“And I’d look back at them and I’d know I’d said just the opposite of what I wanted to. Because I didn’t want to tell them what I know, I want them to tell themselves what they had always known, without having to be told. And one day I realized that I had known all along what I wanted…”
She waited and waited, and finally she said, “Well?”
I shrugged. “I wanted them to stop dying while they were still alive.”
She nodded in recognition and I knew she would. And I knew the idea was new to her and I knew she’d known it forever, just like you have.
I pointed one by one at all the houses on the top of the hill. “There’s a story in every one of those houses. A story you’ve never heard before, except you know it by heart. And every one of those stories is tragic, and every one of them is comical, and every one of them is universal. Every one of those stories is different, and every one of them is the same. And every one of them is about nobody but you. You’re presented with the choice to live or die, and the story is which you chose and why.”
She didn’t feel pressed to say anything at all, and that’s the most amazing trait I’ve ever observed in any human being.
I said, “At the speed of light, events have sequence but no duration. Every point on the line of time is the same one point, and events occur in order, but they all happen at the same time. No before. No later. Just now. Forever.” I smiled brightly, because the idea is boundlessly funny to me. “I think about that, because all these stories seem so universal to me, and I wonder what universal might mean. When I write a story, I can freeze the people, I can freeze the events, I can leave it there like a trail marker, something that lasts forever. And when people respond to that, it’s not something I’m telling them. It’s something they’ve always known. We’re all made of star-stuff, millions and millions of years of accumulated nuclear waste. What if universal means something we all own from the birth of the universe? We seem so temporary. We’re born, we live, we die. But what if there’s a piece of forever inside each of us? Maybe that’s the thing that admits the truth. Maybe that’s the thing that discovers, again and again, the things we’ve always known…”
There were tears in her eyes and I was glad of that. There were tears in my own and my voice was broken; the best I could do was a sort of a croak. “I want to live forever, Courtney. I don’t ever want to die.”
She smiled at me and I saw her lovely hand on the arm of her chair and I wanted to pick up that hand and press it to my lips, just hold it there, forever. But I didn’t, and I knew why I didn’t. I said, “But I die with every choice I make. When I choose something, a vast array of futures open up before me. But a vast horde of other futures collapse and vanish, everything that might have happened, but won’t. All these lives in front of me. All these deaths behind me.” I laughed. “The stories are about nobody but me. I’m presented with the choice to live or die, and the story is which I chose and why.”
She traced a circle with her finger on the arm of her chair. She said, “You could stay here.”
I tried not to move. I tried not to react in any way at all.
She gave a nervous laugh. “I didn’t mean that the way it came out. I meant you could stay here in town, couldn’t you?”
I shook my head. “You’ll always be the lady on the hill. And I’ll always be the man with one foot in the next town.”
She said nothing, just stared into the fire. After a long time, I heard the report of a firecracker down the hill. I said, “I hadn’t intended that.”
More firecrackers, a whole string of them. “Happy New Year, Courtney.”
She smiled. “Happy New Year.”
“In a story, I could make this so much more… elegant.”
“Tuxedos and gowns, I would hope. And champagne.”
“No,” I said. “At the stroke of midnight, we’d each down a tiny little snifter of Grand Marnier, then smash the glasses in the fireplace.”
“And then what?”
“And then we’d kiss, the orange nectar still thick on our tongues.”
She said nothing for a long moment. “Do you want to kiss me…?”
“Here’s another story. Imagine a drunken hummingbird who’s gotten himself hooked on Grand Marnier. Wouldn’t that be funny?”
She said, “Why don’t you come over here and kiss me?”
I shrugged. “You can’t reach and I can’t turn.”
“I don’t understand that.”
I smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile. “Of all the people we went to school with, you and I are the only two who haven’t changed… They’re like trees bending in the wind or boats buffeted by the seas. But we are monoliths, and after twenty years we’re barely even weathered. That’s an accomplishment, isn’t it?”
“I see.” She smiled a tight, bitter little smile. “I’ll always be the lady on the hill, and you’ll always be the man with one foot in the next town.”
“That’s right.” The tears were rolling down my cheeks, and I didn’t try to hide them. “We made the right choices, both of us, and we have to live with them. Death is what happens when you make war on your life. Death is what happens when you betray who you are… A life defiled by a thousand small deaths, or death defied by an uncompromised life. That’s the story, isn’t it?”
I smiled at her and she looked up at me and she was the only woman in the universe, forever. I stood up, and she stood before me, just inches away. The fire lit her radiance and the depths of her beauty blinded me everlastingly. I said, “I’m going to love you forever, Courtney. I’m going to live forever, and I’m going to love you every day.”
She started to say something but I shook my head. I pressed a finger to my lips. “Walk away,” I said. “Walk away and don’t look back.”She leaned over and brushed my cheek with her lips and as she pulled away I felt the downy fine hairs on her cheek and I caught the scent of her. No fragrance, just the essence of heaven itself.
And then she was gone.
I turned and walked down the hill, walked all the way to the highway. I walked my way down that lonesome old road, all those lives in front of me, all those deaths behind me. I walked away and I didn’t look back…
But you always know where to find me, don’t you? If I ain’t making cheese-burgers from all your sacred cows, then I’m running your fingers through the matted hair of yet another wretched untouchable. But at the speed of life events have sequence but no duration, no expiration, so I expect you can always find me unguarded in that moment of glowing perfection just before the dawning. Down at the river. Tossing pebbles into the water. Weeping for all my dead.