#36 The Confessor of Littlefield: Gestures

A few months passed before Bill saw Clara pull into the salvage yard again. She had a friend from Chicago to introduce to Bill. Vida was lean and defined, about 5 ft 7 and 140 pounds. His father was Chinese, his mother Mexican. He was in his early 30s, assertive when he spoke, and moved with swift and decisive movements. He had soft, effeminate skin and dark eyes that would redden when he was excited. He’d grown up working on cars for families of migrant workers and had knowledge of basic repair work. Clara suggested he hang out with Bill while she went to talk to Virgie.

Vida helped out, handing him tools while he put a transmission in Cal Sr.’s pickup. The old pickup was similar to one Vida worked on many times, and he proved useful, knowing what tools Bill needed. Vida was small, but wiry and strong, with movements that engaged his whole body. When he picked up a wrench his body picked it up, not just his hand. Afterward, Bill mimicked Vida’s movements and put his whole body into picking up tools and lifting parts. Bill remarked that he moved like a dancer and Vida laughed and said that he was a dancer. Or used to be. He learned kung fu from his uncle as a kid and still practiced it enough to stay in shape.

Bill asked Vida if he had come to stay at Virgie’s for a few days. Who was Virgie? Vida said he didn’t know her. All he knew was that Clara brought him with her to stay a few days away from Chicago. She said he looked like he needed to get away from his mother. His mother was Clara’s maid. One of them anyway. Vida lived with his mother and grandmother. And Clara was right, he did need to get away from them for a while. The two women were always so needy that he never had time to think of his own needs. Bill didn’t ask what those needs were. Clara pulled up and Vida smiled and said that it was nice meeting Bill and hoped he didn’t get in the way too much. “Not much,” was all Bill said, and Clara gave him a mocking turn of the lip as she smiled and got in the car.

Next day, Saturday morning, Vida pulled up in Clara’s Cadillac and asked Bill if he wanted to drive out to Lake Michigan. Bill couldn’t; he had to finish putting in a new rear end for a Chevy pickup. Vida helped him and then left, but first extracted a promise from Bill that he would go to the beach the next day.

Bill had never been to Lake Michigan, and the high blue sky, the hot sand, the lapping water lulled him to sleep. Bill drank from Vida’s bottle of rum and listened to him talk. Life with his mother and grandmother were all he had known. He never knew his father. He liked to work with his hands and had taken to auto mechanics as a teenager, helping an uncle who owned a garage. When he wasn’t working, when he wasn’t serving his mother and grandmother, he liked to party with “family.”

Bill glanced at Vida’s wiry toned shoulder and the triple head of his tricep. Vida shifted his weight and told Bill that he used to dance once in a while at a nightclub until his mother found out and and made such a fuss about it he had to quit. She was a strict Catholic who insisted he go to confession regularly when he was a boy. After he was confirmed he continued to go to confession every six months until he was twenty. Then he told his mother and grandmother he would not go to church, and that he didn’t believe in God – at least not in the same way that they believed. He felt like like Stephen Daedelus refusing to pray with his mother on her deathbed. But Vida was no Stephen Hero. He couldn’t tell anyone the first thing about Aristotle or Aquinas. One time he tossed away a necklace with a cross pendant his mother had given him at confirmation to punish her for controlling his life. He was always defending his morality to her and his grandmother. He was always arguing with them that relationship with God was for him alone to know; that no priest had authority between a person and God, and no religion had claim over him. He was sorry, he told them later, that he had thrown away the necklace. He just wanted to be accepted even though he didn’t necessarily believe the same things, but his mother called him a fallen away Catholic. After that he never discussed his beliefs with anyone who assumed an air of authority on the subject.

“A person’s beliefs are shown in the way he votes,” said Bill. “Politics is religion; religion is politics, no matter what bullshit they say on Sunday.”

“You think Reagan goes to church for real?”

“Yep. Maybe not every Sunday, but probably feels bad when he can’t go.”

“Yeah, man. For the good of us all; God’s president.”

“Whether you want him there or not. Just kinda funny; whoever is president seems to do well for those who already have.”

“They got the most to lose.”

“I’m not saying I want anything taken away from them, but it’s hypocritical to to vote for politicians who demand an accounting of a person who applies for welfare when they owe their own comfortable existence to an inheritance. As though the inheritor deserves to have, through no fit of his own, a way of life free of the same worries he demands from the poor. But you know, it’s always best to keep the worker a little hungry.”

Vida took a chug from the bottle and looked toward the sunset. “I guess,” he said absently.

Bill didn’t like being dismissed; and it seemed like everyone eventually did it. He didn’t say much, but when he did he talked too much. After a while Vida realized that Bill wasn’t going to talk so he told him that his grandmother had recently passed away, and his mother was moving but wouldn’t tell him where she was going. Bill was silent but gave him looks and nods to show he was paying attention, which only made Vida wonder why he was brooding.

Bill noticed that Vida never asked about him, what he did or what he thought; and on the way back he watched cars and stars out the window and thought of the lawyer in his story. Why did he have to have a family to be happy? Why didn’t his happiness count for anything but selfishness? Why did his lawyer have to see himself through the eyes around him; judge himself a failure? Was it because his author had judged himself a failure?

When they got back Bill told Vida that if he needed a fresh start he could do more business if he had the help. Vida studied Bill’s face when he said that, as though his eyes were reaching into Bill’s to determine a future. “Careful, I might take you up on that,” he said with a heavier Latino accent than he had been using. Two months later he took Bill up on the offer.

*

Clara pulled up to the garage in her Cadillac with Vida, reminding Bill that he had asked Vida to come work with him. Bill was nonplussed. He’d hated himself for making the invitation. He didn’t like Vida much. He was unnaturally genuine; the self made hero of himself. His suffering was selfishly heroic; his psychic space so crammed with himself that there was no room for anyone else in such close quarters. Bill didn’t much like the thought of sharing his house. He didn’t even like the mailman coming to the porch to deliver a package.

The look on Vida’s face when he saw the inside of Bill’s house was even more horrifying than Bill imagined it would be. He felt small before Vida’s look. There was no way Vida would live in this pigpen. Didn’t Bill have any dignity? The words were harsh and unexpected, seeing as Vida had just walked in. “You didn’t tell me about this, Clara.” he said. “I thought I was getting away from being a maid.”

Bill stammered something about not having the time to clean. Vida told him he had the time if he wanted to make it. It was no use arguing, and Bill wanted to hit him, which only made him turn his anger on himself, telling himself he was stupid for allowing this foreign element into his house to assert an amount of authority over him. Under the eyes of the foreigner, he was now a subordinate in his own home.

Instead of spending the afternoon dozing on the couch like he’d planned, he found a bumper from an old Plymouth to remove. He was hungry but he didn’t want to be setting ground rules when he was pissed off. What was he thinking inviting someone to come live with him anyway?

Vida came out of the house around 7PM wearing a black tank top and straight legged jeans and leaned against Bill’s tool chest while Bill took inventory of parts in the spare room. Vida had a conciliatory look on his face as Bill emerged through the doorway. He told Bill he was sorry. It was just bitching. Everyone did that once in a while. He got his temper from his mother. It didn’t mean that he didn’t want to be there and he hoped that Bill wasn’t angry. Bill knew he was to put up with Vida’s temperament just as he would have to with anyone else but the only people he’d ever lived with were Rupert, Virgie, and Clara, and the subordinate relationship he’d always had as a cohabitant was weighing on his mind.

What Clara now meant to him seemed more than even his own mother. Virgie once told him that she was mother to no one; that a mother was an idea put forth by the world of men. Mother was a role that made women subservient and convinced them they didn’t have the right their own lives. Whatever Bill was to her he wasn’t a son; he was more like an appendage who had to take responsibility for himself. Everyone had to make their own way, and having a mother was just a way for a person to never have to grow up.

Vida was talkative, usually mimicking various TV comedy personalities like Freddie Prinze and Gregory Sierra but Bill didn’t engage in light talk, and found Vida’s chatter about his cousins annoying and boring. Bill didn’t know how to pass the time with casual talk. He’d never talked much with others except with some of Virgie’s friends; artists and professors who often welcomed Bill’s eagerness to learn. He lacked the intuition necessary to draw out the things a person wants to confess if given the right opportunity. Virgie taught him to not try so hard to converse with people; people will say what is natural to them. Bill would rather skry the bodies of animals from wallpaper print, or conjure the image of a face in woodgrain than pay attention to the things people said. He heard words but they seemed more to indicate a person’s prejudices than their judicial thinking.

Virgie told him she would stop by and see him, but hadn’t since she showed up six months before. She’d always told him she was going to do this or that but would later ignore her promises. What Bill could remember of Rupert was that his father seemed to always be telling him how wrong he was about everything, and that this or that was bad thinking, even for a six year old; or that he was lying about his foot hurting him so he could get out of working. Words meant the wrong things; unfair things. Clara had at least shown him some attention. It was her encouragement that he remembered. Bill read Sons and Lovers and wondered at the relationship between Paul and his mother. Bill identified with Paul Morel, asking himself if he wasn’t capable of a relationship because the only woman he could be loyal to was his mother? He didn’t despise Virgie, just some of the things she did and said, and didn’t do or say.

He hated himself for inviting fate. Clara hadn’t determined that Vida would come live with him; Bill told him he could come. A person couldn’t make a promise and not keep it. But why not? Virgie did it all the time. Wasn’t everyone getting along on their own terms while seeming to go along with fate? Everyone manipulated the others around them to get what they wanted, didn’t they? Girls and boys manipulated each other; men and women; parents and children; employers and employees; citizens and government; the government and the world.

Virgie’s friends always told him what to do when Virgie was absent; when she was present everyone did as she said. Bill couldn’t imagine her ever doing what anyone else said, even in her old age. Admiration for her, though, was something he did not share with her friends. Many times Bill witnessed guests of Virgie’s contradict themselves on a matter of philosophy or art in order to patronize her, and he wondered at the power she held over them. Whether Virgie was home or not, if she had guests Bill had to get them something to eat, clean up after them, take them to the store; women and men, women who acted like men, men who acted like women, a truck driver, a stockbroker, actors and actresses, painters, sculptors, and models. Some would tell Bill things about Virgie. “People talk all the time about things they don’t know a damn thing about,” said Virgie. “Don’t listen to any of it. Words don’t mean much.”

People were always asking her to come to a party, asking her to talk to someone for them, asking for her help getting a show at a gallery. When Virgie got up all eyes in the room were on her as she pranced to the kitchen talking about this new artist or that new show. And there was always someone whom Bill hadn’t met telling him what to do. At least he used to keep the rest of the cabin clean, even if he did leave his room cluttered. How did he let himself go so badly over the years? Didn’t he have anyone to learn from anymore; someone to look up to?

At 7:30AM next morning Bill was out of the house and wandering in the yard, smoking a joint while he waited for the coffee pot in the garage. Clara said that every car had a story. But as he meandered through the yard he looked over the stacks of cars and all he could remember was when he had stacked them, or what parts he had taken out of them. The stories of the cars were like cuneiform markings in his memory and on pieces of paper back in the garage. Images of himself driving a hilo and stacking cars or using a cutting torch to remove parts flooded Bill’s recollection as he took a last hit from the joint, pinched the cherry from the roach and put it into a small leather pouch he kept in the pocket of his jeans.

He lit a cigarette and looked across the yard at the fifteen foot tall hoist on wheels with its long heavy chain dangling from the pulley, then he looked down to the puddle at his feet where John’s limp body had lain under the Mercury station wagon. His hands twinged when he recalled the feeling of the chains slipping through them. His body flashed an impulse to aid, just as it had nearly twenty years ago when he rushed around the car to see that John’s eye had popped out of its socket from the weight of the axle crushing his forehead.

No matter how some of the women had talked about John, all of the men in the neighborhood respected him for being a soldier, and everyone respected Hiram. When they were kids, John often told Bill that someone had to be in charge and it might as well be him, but after the service he said, “I don’t want to be in charge. I don’t want to be bothered.” Hiram knew John wasn’t quite right after he came back from Vietnam and he tried to keep him busy, but privately he confided to Bill that he didn’t think that John was ever going to be the same.

Rita was also well aware that John wasn’t ever going to be quite right but she tried to will things back to normal. She told John about the new neighbors, the family reunion, the pretty widow at church, as though John by some miracle would respond but he never did. John would rather work in the yard and drink beer. He ignored the phone when it rang. When customers complained to Hiram he asked Bill to answer the phone and handle the customers.

Now Bill looked down at where John had lain, where he had taken a step toward the house to tell Rita but stopped. He imagined John being drawn in a funeral service and laid to rest under the care of a minister who would assure the congregation that Bill would be punished for his wickedness. He could hear the Cals saying they couldn’t understand why a person would do something like that. Pure evil. He could say what he wanted but there had to be some motive. Bill was an ingrate whose mother had threatened to kill farmer Trenton. Of course, it stands to reason her son was a hot head too. The community only had compassion for those it found appealing. Who had anything to gain by giving Bill fukkin Dinklpfuss the benefit of the doubt? In a quick moment decisions must be made.

He kicked the sand with his boots and wondered if he was strong enough to hoist the front end of a Mercury high enough so John could quick slip underneath the car to get at a stubborn axle. Probably not anymore.

“I don’t think you should do that, man,” said Bill.

“Jes hold it up a second,” said John, and then he darted under the car before Bill had a good grasp on the chain.

“A little higher!,” John yelled.

“I can’t, man,“Bill puffed through gritted teeth. Then John gave the axle a tremendous yank.

Bill stood, arrested in the moment, the woods buzzed and exhaled, and then, as if the wind held its breath, there was silence. Vida yelled from the garage, “hey man, ya gotta customer!” Bill put out his cigarette and walked past the rows of Pontiacs, Jeeps, Lincolns, Chevy’s. The Corsairs at the end of the row with bad engines and broken bodies nestled in the ground like apocalyptic waste. Vida was talking with Cal Dyme Jr.

*

Cal jr. had a ball joint that needed to be replaced, something Bill didn’t think Vida could do but Vida assured him it was no problem. Bill kept an eye on him, sticking to the garage to do a brake job and thinking he should weigh the bad with the good. He’d wanted the time alone now that Vida was there, so he began spending more time in the yard, where there was the sound of dogs barking, crows calling, killdeer and doves cooing. There would be a rush of wind and the chink chink of the chain, then the sound of another door or fender being thrown onto a pile. Through the Fall and into the Winter he followed the same routine, working in the yard from 7:30AM until dark.

Vida proved more easy going after a few weeks, and even Bill got into the cleaning spirit. He cleaned out the the extra room at the top of the stairs and bought a new television and video tape player. From the Salvation Army he bought an orange chaise lounge chair with a stain on one of the cushions, a large black beanbag, an end table, and two large bookshelves for all of the paperbacks he had been accumulating from the library’s book sales. He also replaced the old console TV and couch in the living room where Vida spent most of his time and added a rug for the scuffed, bare wood floors.

The kitchen linoleum was worn through to the floor board in front of the refrigerator, and the sink that had been replaced just before Hiram died, due to Bill’s inattention, now bore a permanent dingy yellow. The Frigidaire had a dent in it from the time Bill punched it when he realized he had gone to the store and had forgotten cheese. And in that regard it resembled the dent in the back door of the garage from the time Bill locked himself out; and the dents in several cars in the yard from the time Virgie was mad because he wouldn’t play with that Italian guy; that time she made him dress like a girl for that Jew from New York; when she drew pictures of him and sold them; when she said it was all just consumption and leisure and that there was a price for leisure, or something like that. “The more she has gotten for herself, the more she has forgotten me,” thought Bill. But then, he didn’t really want anything from her. Not anymore at least.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s