I know you: solitary griefs,
Desolate passions, aching hours.
—Lionel Pigot Johnson, The Precept of Silence
Sandra Dee is looking at her father.
“If everyone would just stop, stop pulling the rug from me,” the old man sputters, or snarls, vibrating in a moment of clarity. In a voice already growing quiet, he adds, “I’m okay…okay.”
Her father turns his pale face away from his daughter. She sees, in the light from the front door’s lace curtained glass in the old tenement house they are standing in, that the yellowed white hair that plasters her father’s skull is dirt streaked, and a clump of it roosters up off the back. She notices a new tear in his skin which runs along the top of his right ear, ending in the middle of a bloody bruise near the top of his head. Sandra realizes that he must have fallen again since she saw him last.
Her father’s body finishes its slow quarter turn away from Sandra. He is holding his head stiffly above his shoulders, not looking at her. “I just want to do my work,” he says, but barely audible, speaking as if there is not much air in the room, in a voice that is child-like and whiny. The sound of it embarrasses Sandra.
He steps, and steps again, moving with an insane conservation of energy, until he has moved in front of one of the several dining tables and card tables that crowd the front room of the house. All the tables are piled with clocks— carriage clocks, wall clocks, anniversary clocks, radio alarm clocks, novelty clocks—and the tangles of the cords snake through the jumbled table surfaces and over their edges to the floor. There are clocks in heaps on the floor, and in boxes and ripped brown paper bags, in boxes full of clocks. He lifts a mantle clock from the table, jiggling and pulling its cord clear with care.
Sandra sees only his back as he painstakingly wraps the cord around the clock. The once white shirt he wears half hangs out of his pants. “Jesus,” she says, “you look like a wino, honest to god,” and then she snorts, and then she is leaning toward one of many clocks that cover the wall that runs from the entry to the corner where the stairs to the second floor start. It is an oval wall clock set in the middle of a veined oval mirror. She peers closely at her eyes, pulling lightly on her cheek, tracing with one finger the line of skin where tan becomes pale, a clear line that runs from her nose bridge to her temples, the mask made by sunglasses.
Her father, without sound, shuffles past her with the clock in his arms, moving patiently to the stairs.
Sandra puts on her mirrored aviator sunglasses, the lens of the glasses dark in the weak light, accentuating the creases of her skin. She watches her father climbing each step with the clock in his arms, the sunglasses have deepened the shadow of the stairway, darkening the tone of the late afternoon sun that lights the yellowed shades pulled down against the windows at the front of the house.
“I’m going,” she says toward the upstairs, toward her retreating father’s back, and she busies herself with fastening the layers of sweaters and jacket she wears. She shouts up after her father, who, she can hear, is now in one of the rooms in front. “It’s getting too cold too. You know there’s no heat in this house.” She gets no reply.
It is around quarter to four in the afternoon. It will be dark soon. She leaves, pulling the door shut.
She steps down to the sidewalk.
The trees look okay for the season, except that late fall has come early, branches already bare of the summer leaves that never looked right, as if in drought, the leaves burned like house plants put out in the sun, the leaves skipping color and dropping off even before they had fully grown in. There is a cold smell in the air.
The houses on her right look empty, abandoned. They make her think of all the people crowding into the houses and offices and storefronts farther into town, so that no one lives alone anymore.
On the left side of the street from where she stands there are no houses, only foundations with earth and trash piled, like drifts, up against them, the foundations made into greenhouses, covered by frames of windows and sheets of plastic, with rags and pulped paper stuffed into places where the sections have gaps.
Sandra knows this area, part of the crew that had gone down this street, the two, too, to the east, the crew a machine, wrecking, dismantling the houses, saving what they were told to: windows, wood, the wire and metal, brought in for sorting, then brought back to storage, like the house filled with clocks.
The burned houses to the east had been her favorite to work on because less was expected, those days had had a breath of freedom. Some days the crew could clear an entire house down if the place had been hit hard by fire.
She is looking over the tops of the foundations to her left, watching a group of five people pushing and pulling a big cart or flat trailer, moving up a perpendicular street, moving through the large open spaces of foundations. The people move the cart as one big mass, all bundled in clothes, many with blankets wrapped around them, covering their heads, so that they look at this distance like lumps, not people.
Sandra walks over to one of the nearby foundations and peers in through the glazing and plastic that tops it. She moves from this one to others, looking down into them. They are filling with shadows.
Inside one foundation that still has a bathtub virgin in front, in what used to be a front yard, Sandra sees a man bending down between some rows of leggy tomato plants. She taps on a pane in an old glass door that forms part of the top covering structure. She has to knock on the glass again to get the man to look up, and Sandra bends out further over the top, shouting, “Where’s Bernie?” and again, when the man, through the distorting glass, holds a hand up to his ear, “Bernie!”
The man holds up four fingers, then five, and straightens up as much as he can against the low framework to point further down the street and then he shrugs like a mime, with great exaggeration. She says, “Thanks,” the word bursting into steam in the chill air. She waves and begins moving in the direction she’s been walking, toward yet other foundations topped as greenhouses.
Sandra spots Bernie’s wheelbarrow and some of his tools next to what used to be a cellar door, near the back of a foundation that is red brick covered with beaten and peeling gray paint, and she pulls back the layers of canvas and blankets and bleaching fiberglass batting that cover the old basement bulkhead opening. She climbs down into it, setting the covers back, stooping. She is glad that it is a warmer inside this place.
Bernie is looking toward her over the top of some plants, twisting his neck over his shoulder, still hunched over a metal and wood trough that runs the length of the north side of the cellar, his arms deep in the trough. “Hey,” he says, with a grin, and he half stands and crouches over to her.
“Glad you’re here,” he says, he is shirtless and his arms and shoulders are running with water, and he flips drops of water off his fingers onto her. “I baptize thee, I baptize thee,” he says, still grinning. She sits on the bottom step of the bulkhead and pulls her hood and glasses off, and she scoots over more and he sits down next to her.
“The water tank is leaking again,” he says, “and I need an extra hand to fix it.” He stands, stooping, and takes her arm and lifts her from the cement step. Her hair brushes against the frames above her. There is a layer of even warmer air, almost hot, right under the foggy glass. She follows him back to the big trough, looking where he points to a dripping seam.
“We’ve been using wax to seal this, but the water gets warm enough to soften it,” Bernie says, looking at the water leaking out, and then at her. “You okay?”
She just shrugs.
“Hurry up and strip,” he says. “You’re going to get wetter than me.”
Sandra just stands there, until she realizes that she has been hearing the tick of clocks in the dripping water that falls into the soaked dirt from the leak and from places where water condenses against the coverings in various spots.
“You’re going to get Alouette,” Bernie is saying, and then Sandra is snorting at the awful joke.
“God,” she says, with a tsk and the beginning of a smile.
“You hold the tap on the strip of rope caulk I’m going to try, make sure the edge rides the caulk, okay?”
“Yes sir,” she says. Sandra starts taking off the layers of clothes she’s wearing, putting the jacket and sweaters neatly away from the puddle the leak has caused.
“Snap it up there, gal,” Bernie says, smiling, his dark tanned face going black in the lines of his weathered, creased skin. His face seems to disappear in the shadow of a plank above him, becoming a dark, half invisible presence floating above his bone white chest and shoulders. She sees that he watching her undress, and then she sees that Bernie has grown embarrassed by his gazing. He stutters something about the light failing them, and he makes himself bend down, away, to get some rope caulk from a cardboard box that is lost in another shadow. When he turns back she is naked above the waist.
“Jeeze,” he says, rather boyishly.
“Snap it up,” she says, breaking into the smallest of smiles, surprised at how good it feels to be standing there, letting Bernie look at her, liking Bernie for his goofiness, his moment of pleasure, his shyness. “The light is fading fast,” she says.
“Oh boy, oh boy,” Bernie is saying with a grin, and he hands her the rope of caulk.
“They’ll take away a meal,” Sandra says to Bernie, or to the flower wallpaper she is staring at. The two are alone in the small bedroom she shares with two other women, in one of the apartments of the squat 1950s public housing that lies two blocks from the Historic Mill District, in from the canal. She has changed into a skirt and sweater after coming in from supper, after helping Bernie fix the leak. Bernie has come by, still dressed in his work clothes.
A sheet is stapled up over the one window in the room, blocking the view of the close neighboring building. It is dark outside. The light from the weak CLF bulb is swallowed up by the faded walls and the yellowed paint of the ceiling, and she looks at the dim bright of its reflection in the mirror of the room’s one dresser.
They are sitting on the side of her bed, which runs parallel to a second bed. The third bed crowding the room is perpendicular to the two other beds, and it has the dresser squeezed in at its end, and the head of this bed is against the wall, just behind the door. There is barely enough room for passage between the foot of Sandra’s bed or the side of this other one. The back of the door, which is halfway closed, is covered with clothes on hooks, and more clothes hang from nails along the walls of the room. Piles of clothes and shoes flow from under the beds.
Sandra looks at Bernie with a sigh. “He’ll just go without that meal, expect me to bring him something to eat.” Bernie is looking back at her.
“It’s not like he gets enough as it is,” she continues. Sandra hears a laugh that sounds like it could be Ginny, one of her roommates, from the noise of the crowd downstairs. She is listening now and hears a guitar start up in the noise from down the stairs. “Alouette,” she says, expressionless, recognizing the song.
“Corn gee plume array,” Bernie says, trying to sing in a fake accent, seeing if he can make her laugh.
She wants to feel glad that Bernie has come to see her, but she realizes she is feeling nothing.
She is grateful that Bernie is trying to make her feel better, grateful to sink into this moment with him, but then her worry about her father flares back into anger. “He’s just being …” Sandra blurts out, “…he’s just being so crazy about those stupid clocks.”
Bernie brushes her hair back from her face.
Sandra wants to be nice to Bernie, but she can’t shake out of her mood.
Bernie starts probing aimlessly with his foot underneath the parallel bed in front of them, mostly as an excuse to lean back and stretch his legs in the cramped space. He ends up nudging out a cardboard box, a box of Kotex. He makes a little laughing noise. “Rich girl,” he says.
“Our secret stash, put it back.”
“Make me,” he says, falling back on her bed, curling up on to his side so that his head doesn’t hit the wall, his arm crooked under his head. Sandra realizes that Bernie is trying to look coy, but she sees the exhaustion roaring up through his body.
“You’ll have to do it all,” he says. He rubs his free hand over his face and closes his eyes. “This was your day of rest.”
Sandra then realizes that Bernie has just made a pass.
“Hey,” mumbles Bernie, his voice sounding almost asleep. “I’m a fun date.” For a moment he actually falls asleep, his body sinking into the mattress, and then he is fighting it, heaving himself back up, sitting up with a grunt or a bark. He stands up and stretches and almost topples himself, stumbling in the close space between the beds. He sits back down. “I’m sorry about your dad, you know,” he says.
“The word on the place in New Hampshire is pretty good, for what that’s worth,” Bernie says softly, taking her hand. “How come he didn’t go up with the others in September?”
“He wouldn’t even talk about it, he got so mad I thought he’d have a stroke.”
“I’m surprised they didn’t make him,” he says. Sandra looks at him.
“Thanks,” she says.
Bernie frowns. “That’s not what I meant.”
Sandra looks away. “He seemed okay, even a month ago, but he’s been sleeping at the house for a while now, Hennerman’s actually been pretty good about it, but….” Bernie sees that Sandra is staring at the light in the mirror again.
She lets Bernie hold her hand, his hand is dark like his face, and horned and grimed with dirt even after washing. He lifts his other hand to her face, brushing her limp hair out of her face again, but it keeps falling back forward. Sandra is wondering if she is going to cry, hoping almost, listening to the shouts and laughter that force their way from the gathering below.
Suddenly the door swings open with a thud against the bed behind it, and Conrad is there in the doorway.
“What are you doing alone in this room?” Conrad asks.
Sandra looks at Conrad and then to Bernie. Bernie is rising, his legs pressing against hers and she can feel tension trembling up his legs. His fists are closed and tight. Her own hand moves slowly to touch his lower arm as if to restrain him.
“We’re talking,” he says, surprising Sandra by the control in his voice, and then he is stepping up to Conrad, away from her grasp. “Do we get demerits?” Bernie says, with something like a grin, now face to face with Conrad, whose face is reddening.
“You know the rules,” is all Conrad says. Conrad is fifty years old, his hair is a mongrel gray color, his glasses shine the light from the ceiling fixture back to Sandra. He steps back away from Bernie.
“Number one, the door was not shut,” says Bernie, his voice now starting to leak anger. “Number two, you’re an asshole, and number three, if you hadn’t taken it up the ass from the priests—”
“—Bernie!” Sandra says.
“How dare you speak of the Church that way,” Conrad says, stepping back into the hall.
“It’s not the Church I’m talking—”
“—he’s been working straight through,” says Sandra to Conrad, through the doorway. “He was talking with me about my father, he—”
“—you don’t explain to him,” says Bernie, looking back at Sandra, and Sandra gets up to stand behind him. Bernie looks back to Conrad. Conrad clears his throat.
“You know the rules of this house,” Conrad says. “No men in any of the girls’ rooms behind closed doors.” He is speaking quietly enough so that the sounds from the people downstairs and a laugh from the bedroom next door are heard over his voice. “I am responsible for this house,” he continues, his voice swelling, “and if you can not abide by the rules…”
“We were just going downstairs,” Sandra says.
Conrad stares at her. “Fine,” he says, after a long moment. “But I suggest that he goes to his house and sleep so he has the strength to control himself,” and then he turns around and heads for the stairway. Bernie watches him go. Another laugh comes from the room next door.
“Thanks a lot,” says Sandra, fighting back tears, and then they are holding each other, half in the doorway and half in the hall.
“I’m sorry,” Bernie says quietly, after a few moments pass. He steps back from her to look at her and he shrugs. “Boy, what a guy.”
The party noise dies down downstairs and the sonorous rumble of Conrad floats up, not carrying distinct words as much as a lecturing tone. The two of them just stand in the hall. After a while the dull bass of Conrad’s voice stops. Still standing in the hall, they can hear a rosary started.
“You’re missing the decade,” Bernie finally says.
Sandra leans against the jamb, her eyes shut. “I live here you know,” she says quietly.
“You ever think about what happened?” Bernie says, into the dim air beyond Sandra’s closed eyes.
“Let’s get married,” Bernie says. He is looking at Sandra’s pale eyes, still closed. He leans against the wall by her side.
“A proposal,” Sandra says, with a laugh or a burst of breath.
“At least we wouldn’t have to put up with this crap.”
“I think you have lovely breasts,” Bernie says, looking at her face, her opening eyes. Sandra is blushing.
“That’s romantic,” she says again, but she says it very quietly, a half smile, half frown on her lips.
“See what a good job Conrad does?” Sandra suddenly says, after a short silence. She turns her head against the jamb to look at Bernie, trying to see into him, to gauge the connection she wants to feel.
“We can have Conrad as best man,” he says, pushing off the wall with a laugh.
LaRue says something to Bernie the next morning, as soon as Bernie walks in the office where the greenhouse project is run. LaRue is Bernie’s boss, and a nice enough guy to him, a down-to-business guy that can still manage to be a regular sort.
Bernie is not worried that LaRue has said something, something maybe with the word hot in it. La Rue is always talking, pretty much, and Bernie is too busy pouring himself a cup of what passes for coffee, which is the real stuff, from the stores, but the grounds tend to get re-roasted a lot.
“We can’t get this shit hot enough,” Bernie says, taking up the now-filled mug. “We got any sugar, by any chance?” he says, looking past the pot and cups and stacks of papers, to LaRue’s back.
“Every day is Christmas for you, huh?” LaRue says, his back still to him.
“Should I try to find some cream for you?” LaRue says, still not turning.
Bernie sees that something is upsetting LaRue. “Jesus,” he says, “What’s the problem today? They decide we’re working too slow, or are you just bitchy for the hell of it today?”
“Guess,” says LaRue, turning around in the swivel of his office chair.
Bernie looks at LaRue, surprised as he mostly always is by LaRue’s flabby look. LaRue’s pale skin, without any sign of sunburn or tan even on his face or hands, makes him look even softer, but Bernie decides not to start kidding him again about the care he always takes to wrap himself up when he goes on-site, LaRue looking like a arab because he winds himself into a burnoose-like thing, with winter gloves and a broad brimmed hat, even when its warmer.
But Bernie is in a good mood, even though his body still feels too tired.
But LaRue isn’t done. “Guess,” LaRue says again, leaning the chair back, his soft hands clasped behind his head. “Guess why I’m so happy this morning.”
“You’re over the runs,” says Bernie, getting annoyed with the twenty question routine.
“Funny,” says LaRue.
“Fuck off,” says Bernie, pleasantly enough, but he is getting curious, with the way LaRue is acting, but his sense of exhaustion rolls back into him and his curiosity falls to annoyance. “I got places to go and things to do today,” Bernie says to LaRue. “I told you before about Joey’s work, every one of his tanks so far is leaky, and if you want to be pissy try slapping him on the back of the head.”
“It’s not on the project,” LaRue says, as he watches Bernie chew down the coffee. “It’s you.”
Bernie puts down the half empty mug and silently belches a sour taste back into his throat. He’s getting an idea of what this is about.
“We had another very nice lecture about discipline again in the group meeting this morning,” says LaRue.
“Oh, fuck-off,” says Bernie, but not so much to LaRue.
“What are you supposed to do, spank me?” says Bernie, but he is mentally kicking himself for not remembering that Thursdays mean those early breakfast meetings with the different project heads that always seem to annoy LaRue.
“Not that I’m not happy that you’re getting some,” says LaRue, “but I am unhappy—”
“—What are we, in high school?” asks Bernie. He shakes his head. “Getting some” he says. “And no, I’m not getting some. Shit. I wish.”
LaRue has his hand up, waiting.
“I am unhappy,” LaRue continues, “that I’m getting shit for it, I’m unhappy that I have to sit through a longer meeting listening to self-important assholes who are very interested in making sure I can’t even do the decent thing like sleep through their blathering.”
“The price of power,” says Bernie, but he is feeling bad about making trouble for LaRue. LaRue is okay, especially since he tends to stay off Bernie’s back and lets him get his work down.
“Yeah,” grumbles LaRue. “Everything got a price.”
Bernie takes a moment just looking at LaRue. “I don’t know what got said, but if this is about last night there was no trouble, except by a guy that thinks he’s a big shit. I should get a medal for not tearing off that asshole’s head.”
LaRue actually grunts out something like a laugh. Bernie takes another swig of so-called coffee.
“Ah what the hell, it just came at a bad time,” LaRue is saying, getting back up. “I’m hearing more and more shit, worry about control, people are complaining more, it sets up trouble, things this winter are going to be tight.” LaRue has turned away from Bernie as he speaks, back to the papers on the table.
Bernie remains silent.
“I’m not going to blame them for that,” LaRue says, back still to him, sounding defensive, or at least Bernie thinks that.
LaRue turns back toward Bernie. “Things only seem to be settling out, you’re smart enough to figure that, you know that these things we’ve been building aren’t going to be enough, shit, the yields are already shitty, the early cold…”
LaRue breaks his gaze and turns back to the table, dropping silent.
“Too many guys guarding food, instead of producing it,” Bernie says. It is something he has talked about with LaRue before, once ending in a loud argument, but LaRue responds calmly, still talking away from Bernie.
“Actually,” LaRue says, “they’re trying to reorganize to make them more useful, but with the cold coming on we’re starting to see a lot more outside trouble again.”
“You hear anything about the old factory up off of Walker?”
“No,” says Bernie, to LaRue’s back. “What is going on?”
LaRue turns back to Bernie. “They’re setting up a separate camp there, people coming in as work crews, god knows what we’re supposed to be feeding them.”
“You’re kidding,” says Bernie.
“Yeah, well, keep it under your hat,” says LaRue.
“We’re short enough for us,” Bernie says. LaRue shrugs and turns back around to the table once more.
“What the fuck,” LaRue says, his back to Bernie. “I don’t know. We got to try something, we can’t afford the fiascos like Duren Ave., or that cluster-fuck at the General, the second one that ended up consolidating at St. Joséph’s.”
Bernie feels a different sort of tired, thinking of the big fights he took part in months back. “This is what you guys were talking about?” Bernie asks.
“No,” says LaRue, looking back at Bernie, “not in so many, but the Board’s worried, and when they get worried,” but he doesn’t add anything, until he shrugs, and then he laughs. “You should have heard that guy,” says LaRue. “No one said anything, but I’d guess he was embarrassing his big friends even.”
“People in high places,” Bernie says, trying it with a laugh.
“Fuck you,” says LaRue, with a smile.
Bernie finds himself thinking about the very first time he had seen LaRue, just after he had first gone out of his cellar, at the small single family he had been living in off of Central, emerging weak from almost three weeks of eating almost nothing and sick from drinking the sharp metal tasting water in the water heater. LaRue had come upon him sitting on his front steps, a group of men with him, some carrying rifles. LaRue had been dressed in a painter’s Tyvek coverall—an early version of his current habit—and had called out to him in French.
It had made Bernie laugh, despite his sense of disorientation and weakness, and LaRue had laughed with him.
“I took Spanish,” Bernie had said, and LaRue had laughed again, now an old joke between them.
“I knew you were trouble from the start,” LaRue says, shaking his head, smiling, and then he begins reciting the comments of the man who had spoken at the earlier meeting. LaRue’s counting them out on his fingers, holding his hand out in front of him. “`Disrespect to authority; lack of control; insulting the Church.” He pauses, now holding up both hands in front of his chest, as if to ward off something, and saying, with an expression of mock horror, “this guy—”
“—He says you called him an asshole.” LaRue starts to laugh. “That one caused some giggles.”
“There’s hope yet,” says Bernie.
“Well, hold on to that,” says LaRue, “because I think he’s one of Maggilone’s.”
“Jesus. What a mouth on this guy,” says LaRue to no one in particular. Then he holds Bernie’s gaze. “Look,” says LaRue, “I’m not going to go into how things are, but nobody needs this extra shit, not me. Not you.”
Bernie nods. After a moment of silence, he asks with a small smile, “Lecture over? Or am I to be cast from the gates?”
LaRue rolls his eyes and turns back to the table full of papers.
“Yeah, well, not as long as people prefer to eat than pray,” LaRue replies, not glancing up. “You going to tell me what is up or not?”
“First I took her to the Cotton Club and tried to get her drunk, but they wouldn’t take my American Express,” says Bernie, but LaRue swivels his chair back around, just looks at Bernie like he’s being a pain in the ass.
“Do I know her?” asks LaRue.
“Jeeze,” cracks Bernie, “I hope not.”
“You’re a joy in my life,” says LaRue, leaning back in his desk chair with his hands behind his head again, looking at Bernie. “Look,” he says, “I like you, you know that, you really bust your balls on this stuff.”
Bernie pulls up one of the wooden chairs and sits by the table with the coffee pot. “Jesus, nothing happened,” says Bernie. “I was just talking with this girl about her father,” he says. “Believe me,” Bernie continues, “I would love to, she’s pretty nice, one of a salvage crew.”
“Resource Reallocation Team,” corrects LaRue.
Bernie knows LaRue is just busting his balls.
Well?” says LaRue.
“Well, what?” says Bernie. “Am I going to be a good boy?”
“No,” says LaRue with an annoyed look. “Well, as in what’s her name?”
“Sandra,” he answers.
“Well?” LaRue says, his white flabby face holding the expression of curiosity. “What she like?”
“I don’t know,” says Bernie, after a moment. “Well, really,” he shrugs. “She’s nice, but a little low most of the time, what the hell.” Bernie stands, stretches slowly, arms pulled over his head. “I can’t tell how much is this thing with her father.”
“The crazy guy holed up in one of the appliance houses,” says LaRue.
“Yeah, I guess. How do you know?”
“It was all part of the same fucking thing this morning, a number of cases.”
Bernie doesn’t say anything.
“What do you expect?” says LaRue, and he shrugs.
“I don’t even know the guy,” says Bernie. “I mean, it’s not like….” It is his turn to shrug, and then he stoops to pick a sheet of paper off the floor and puts it on the table. “He had a chance at the Canadian camps,” he says finally.
“If he’s that smart, maybe we should keep him,” replies LaRue.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asks Bernie.
“Forget it,” say LaRue, with a look that makes Bernie drop it, but Bernie finds himself thinking of the rumors.
Tick Tock Tock
“He’s sick,” Sandra says to Bernie in another greenhouse hole a few days later. Working by the light of an electric work lamp, Bernie is fitting up some air duct sections for a stove flue. A thin layer of snow covers the glass and plastic above his head, making the top seem more uniform, whole.
“Don’t ignore me!” Sandra suddenly shouts, making Bernie look up from his work. “We have to get him help.”
He looks at Sandra and says, “You should be with your crew.”
Sandra doesn’t answer.
“You should be with your crew,” he says again. “There’s nothing you can do.”
“How can you say that?” says Sandra, feeling panic bursting in her chest. “He’s just going to die,” she says after a while, quietly.
Bernie crab walks around the old clothes dryer he is attempting to make into a stove. He sits beside her, on the dirt. “Look,” he says, gently. “You should be thinking about yourself. I’m sorry.”
“They’re covering for me, I left after we got our last load to the sorting center, they’ll finish up.”
“No. I mean about your father.”
“You should think about us,” Bernie says.
“Oh,” says Sandra.
“We can move in here,” he says, suddenly grinning and picking up some of the dirt in his hand and throwing it against the white enamel of the dryer. “I hope you like house plants,” he says, trying to make her smile.
She sits silently, holding her knees with her arms.
“Of course, it will be pretty tough with the sweeping,” wanting her to smile.
Sandra looks up at him. “Why don’t you be quiet,” she says.
In a sudden anger, he is jumping upright, cracking his head against a window frame. “Shit!” he cries, sitting back down. Some melted snow starts dripping from above.
Sandra smiles, snorts.
“Jesus,” he says, but after rubbing his crown for a moment, he smiles. “I won’t have long to live if that’s how I make you happy,” but his own smile fades as he notices the worry passing over Sandra’s face again, and Bernie starts feeling stupid, wanting to apologize for the poor joke. He sits down beside her.
Sandra takes his hand.
“Everybody’s giving Conrad a hard time,” she says after a while. ” Someone, I think it was Moonie, she put up a list of the seven deadly sins,” she says, letting go of Bernie’s hand to brush his hair from his forehead. She pauses to look at the red welt across the top of his forehead. “Number two was `Thou shalt not close thy bedroom door.'”
“Which one’s Moonie?” Bernie asks, taking her hand back in his.
“Forget it,” Sandra says, with a laugh, pulling her hand back as if she is going to slap him. “I thought we were engaged.”
“I’ll build you a bungalow big enough for two,” Bernie replies, half singing, looking as coy as he can despite the dirt smudging his face, his hair even more messed from his rubbing his head. He starts wagging his eyebrows, and launches into the song:
“I’ll build a bungalow big enough for two,
Big enough for two my darling, big enough for two.
And when we’re married, happy we’ll be,
Under the bamboo, under the bamboo tree.”
“That’s beautiful,” says Sandra, biting on her fingers, to keep from laughing out loud.
“I’m hurt,” says Bernie, lying back, his head coming to rest against the roots of a stunted corn stalk. “See,” he says, reaching up to shake the stalk, “the bamboo.” The stalk is brittle and unexpectedly snaps in his hand. “Oops,” he says, and they both stare in surprise for a moment at the part of the stalk wand in his hand, before Bernie sits up and throws the stalk away and pulls Sandra to him, kissing her, falling back with her half atop him. The cord for the lamp, caught by their legs, pulls the bulb and reflector down into the plants, casting striped shadows on them. Sandra rolls off him and lies by him in the dirt, and then moving with him away from the row of plant roots.
“You sure know where to take a girl,” she says, as she snuggles back into him.
Bernie takes her hand in his.
“I’m sorry about how I’m being with my father,” she says, looking into his face, breathing into his face. Her hand comes up to his cheek and rests on it. “My mother got killed the first night, hit by a firetruck, can you believe that?” she says, looking into his eyes. “She was going to our friends the MacKennas, with my dad, they were going to help…” but she stops.
“Were you home with them?” Bernie asks, gently.
“You were living in Lowell,” he says.
“I was living in my own apartment, one of the new condos.” Sandra stops for a moment, absently picks a bit of dead leaf from her hair as she smooths it back.
“Huh,” says Bernie.
“You know, it was bad, but having my father here,” she starts to say, with long pauses, “I don’t know, I…,” and Sandra’s voice starts to crack, and she is moving against him so that Bernie holds her tighter, and between catching breaths, she is saying, “I don’t know,” and then again, and then she is quiet, saying, “Oh Bernie,” and then there are no words, just the sound of her breath that carries the tightness in her throat.
After a while Sandra grows so quiet with his stroking her hair that Bernie thinks she has fallen asleep. He carefully lifts her face up and looks at her. She is looking back at him, their faces side by side.
“Oh Bernie,” she says. There’s a big smear of earth on her cheek that her tears have run partly clear, and bits of broken dead leaves or tiny twigs are pressed into her hair where it has fanned over the dirt.
“Your mascara’s run,” he says gently, trying to wipe off some of the smeared dirt.
“Thanks,” she says, trying to make it sound like she’s kidding too, but it comes out so gently, she speaks with such gratitude, and she begins to cry again, silently, and Bernie kisses the crown of her head, and then she is turning her face up, she is kissing him back. His hands move to her waist. Bernie is unfastening her jeans, crouching up to pull them off her hips. He grabs the cord and pulls the light through the plants and shuts it off.
“I want all of our clothes off,” she says in a whisper in the dark, and Bernie can hear her next to him, can hear her sitting up to untie her boots, and he half crouches to grab a tarp, spreading it out, clumsily, sitting back down on it, patting it for her, and she’s shifting over, and he begins to undress.
Tick Tock Tick
Sandra’s father is humming or wheezing tunelessly, his breath thin little marks of steam in the cold air in the house. He jerks back, pulling his hand off the table in front of him, surprised to see it hanging by his side, like a claw.
“Yes, yes,” he says. He starts shaking both his arms, picking at his inert fingers with his other hand, kneading the cold fingers absently as he slowly looks among the tables and boxes strewn with clocks. The piles of clocks are smaller, more neatly arranged.
Sandra stands just inside the front door.
“Have you heard anything I’ve said?” she asks him, loudly.
His blinking eyes turn toward her. “Don’t yell at me,” he tells her, looking right at her. “I am not deaf.”
Her father moves toward a chair that holds a hammer and a small box of finish nails, he tries to pick nails from the carton with his bad hand, but then ends up placing the nails in that hand using his right hand. The hammer he tries to put headfirst in a back pocket. When he finally gets it in, the weight of the hammer stretches the seat of the pants down, pulling against the belt buckled tightly around his waist.
“Are you going to bother me too?” he says to Sandra, over the noise he is making with the clocks as he picks through them. “That boy Joséph was in here before ordering me around,” he says, wheezing and gulping air, “and I won’t have that, I really won’t,” the sound of his voice taking on a sobbing with his gasps. “I remember him from when he was our paperboy, I do, I don’t see why people have to be so crazy,” he is saying, but he starts to cough again and leans into the pile of clocks and they shift, some clattering to the floor, but he catches himself on the table with his good arm and stays upright.
Sandra twice starts forward toward him, but stops herself each time, remaining near the door.
“Maybe there is something else they want you to do,” says Sandra, quietly, after he gets his breath.
“I know what I should do,” he says, going back to looking through the clocks. He stops and looks at the wall covered with clocks behind the tables, slowly shuffles around to look at the other walls in the room. They are completely covered with different clocks, some are wound and running, many have power cords that hang very neatly down toward the floor, plugs pointing randomly. The sounds of chimes start in the room and from other parts of the house. Distinct ticking or clicking from one clock or another floats in and out of Sandra’s hearing.
“Your mother loved clocks,” she hears her father say. He has turned back to the table, and picks up a clock. His left hand hangs down by his side. Sandra can see some of the nails in it slipping through the lax fingers. “This is my job,” he says, after straightening up his back, the clock clutched in his right arm, against his chest.
“Dad,” Sandra says.
He murmurs something, he is trying to speak to her over his shoulder as he steps unevenly toward the stairs, his neck, his whole body looks so stiff, the hammer’s handle, sticking out of the back pocket, makes Sandra think of an erection, embarrassing her because she is feeling that she just wants to hold her father, get him to stop his frantic work, get him healthy and fed and warm, but she feels sick, standing by the doorway, her heart feels like it is somewhere else, far away, but ready to explode too, the sounds of the clocks that are running and striking burst in on her like she has broken the surface of the water and can hear the noise of children and the dogs, the surf, the shouts of the people on the beach. She leans against the door, eyes shutting for a moment, trying to get back the silence, but she bursts, shouts, “Dad!”
He is still standing at the foot of the stairs when she opens her eyes. She is crying, the room seems so quiet again after her shout. Her father is looking at her and a smile starts moving on his face, his smile.
“It is beautiful,” he says, after a minute. His face, from across the room, through her tearing eyes, seems white and clean, and when she blinks and wipes her eyes, she sees that he is grinning.
She can’t say anything, for the sudden peace in her, precious and swelling like a bubble.
“Go,” he says. “You’re always late.”
Sandra, silently, quietly, slips past the door, closing it firmly, with great care.