Character Study: Marion Morrow

[Likely an excerpt from an idea for a novel, I found this in my drafts – incomplete – and liked the tone of the main character.  A good dragoon is hard to find.]

Marion Morrow was displeased that the train only ran to Bantry because she didn’t like riding in buses.  It wasn’t entirely the people, although she was happiest when she was the only person about; her stomach didn’t agree with rough engines.  It had been proven to her late in life, as she was already well past forty before even the smallest motors began to litter the streets. As she followed the porter up the platform, she fished around in her purse for coins to give him, all the while turning over options in her mind.

“It does seem a shame,” she said aloud, although not to the porter necessarily, “as I’m only another twenty odd miles to my destination.”

If he heard her, he didn’t indicate it by slowing step or a turn of the head.

The comment had not been for his benefit, she thought again, yet she repeated it once more, slightly louder.

As they were coming to the door into the modest Bantry station, he paused and turned to face her.  He had heavy eyelids that gave him a look of boredom or superiority.  She had often worn that expression in life.  Straightening her spine, she donned it now.

“Is there someone I could hire to drive me to Pendlebrook?”

He shook his head.  “No hacks in this town, ma’am.  If you took the train back down to Burlington, you could find drivers there. They got everything there in Burlington.”

Behind the charcoal glass of her round spectacles, she rolled her eyes heavenward.  “I have a hard time believing there isn’t a soul in this town clever enough to put an old woman beside himself on his wagon and drive her up to Pendlebrook.  The day is fair.  It’s early yet, so the drive back would only half be in the dark.”

He shrugged and turned to open the door into the station.

At the ticket window, she asked the same question a moment later.

It was a thin woman staring back at her there, with copper hair scoured into a bun at the back of her head.  Her own spectacles caught the light, making it impossible to read her eyes as she confirmed what the porter had said.  Marion Morrow was leaning in to argue, possibly to deliver a treatise on the national social illness of do-nothingness, when there was a discreet cough at her rear.  Assuming it was a person impatient with the queue,  she turned with a frown.

The very elder man who smiled back at her, immaculately dressed in light colors and fine fabrics, startled her out of her ire for a moment.  He took advantage of the moment to fill the silence.

“I am driving toward Pendlebrook, madam.  I’d be happy to bring you along with me, if you’d care for the kindness.”

Marion quickly agreed, although with an awkward lack of the proper words.  As the porter and the old man lead her from the station office, she glanced back to see if the copper-haired woman in the ticket window was watching them.  The woman was staring back intently, holding a sandwich up in front of her mouth.  The early afternoon light was still frosting her lenses, whiting her eyes.

In the lot outside the station, she was mildly irked to see that the good samaritan would be conveying her to Pendlebrook in a motor car, although she took some comfort in noticing it was as fine as the clothes he wore.  Who was the old man, she wondered, and she decided he was a monied eccentric.  She didn’t care much for the peculiar, especially when fancy was given opportunity for wild expression by means of wealth.  It was her opinion that outlandishness was par for the course among the poor, possibly a byproduct of degradation, but that among people with means, it was unseemly.

Go Out, Go Out

“Go out,” she said.  His protector, his champion. Old Granny: mother of none; keeper of all. He glanced up at her over the faded cloth of the table, watching her peel a potato, the sharp edge of the blade coming up soft against her thumb, over and over again, never going farther than the peel.  The brown petals of skin fell into an enamel pan on her lap.

“Go out and find me something to fix with these taters.”

His heart skipped once in his chest, a pang that drew his hand up to touch the spot.  He glanced away from her, thinking two thoughts at once.  Where had he put his boots? And: if Baizie came to supper, she’d tell about what happened at the creek.

“You left them by the door,” she said.

He rose, moving heavily to take up the boots.  His feet took their place in the familiar leather, pushing air up his pant legs, an earthy breath that smelled like him and animal and uncounted weeks of working in the sun and the rain, sliding on muddy hillsides, crackling the floor of the forest.

When he was little, Daddy took him hunting.  It was a foggy morning, warm and cool colliding.  When the first shot met its mark, he was sent into the trees to find the squirrel.  The soft fur was warm in his hands, the animal holdings it heat, though its breath was stolen for good.  It hurt him to think of the little thing dying. He put it in the crook of his arm and walked back slowly, gentle like he was holding a baby.

“Put it there,” his father said.

When he didn’t want to let it go, the man who was almost a stranger, if as much to himself as his son, turned away with darkening eyes.  He fished a cigarette out of his pocket and smoked it slowly, squinting into the depth of the forest. Then he shifted the weight of his gun, peered through the sights, and lifted it again to kill another squirrel.

“That ought to keep your hands full,” he said, his voice a coarse rasp, like the shovel scraping the stove when they took out the ashes. And he chuckled with the cigarette in his lips, though maybe he hadn’t meant to sound cruel.

It had been a long time since that morning in the forest, though the memory came back at queer moments. He could see his feet, small as they were then, landing carefully in the leaves underneath as he walked to get the second squirrel. When he cozied it next to the first one, he saw the cradle of his arm was filled with blood.  When they got home, Granny eyed the stain, cocked her head at an angle.

“Did you like hunting with your Daddy?”

He shook his head, then thought better of it. Maybe Daddy would mind.

“It was okay.”

But when he looked over at his father, the man was pulling off his socks with eyes seeing another room.  As was the case most often, his father was there and not there.  Like the dead squirrel giving off warmth, yet no longer in the world of living things.

“Well, take Casper’s coat, the long grey one on my door, and get me some eggs,” Granny said. “And when you get back, go out and run around a while, till you’re good and tired.”

She knew he was tangled up inside better than he knew it himself.

________________________

He shook off the memory of that day and stepped out into the spring evening.  A breeze was stirring the forsythia, yellow arms waving with joy that he did not feel in his own heart.  He dug a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and smoked it slowly as the light shifted, the sky over the meadow turning violet and lemonade.

When he came back into the house later, carrying a hen with a broken neck, Granny was pouring water and broth over beans for soaking.  She had the ham hock sizzling in a skillet with some onions and grease from the morning bacon.  She glanced up at him.

“Put her on the table,” she said. “So I can clean her.”

As she took the bird in hand, she told him about a peddler who used to come around with catfish and trout for sale.  He’d heard the story before, but it calmed him when she talked about the past.  “The best catfish you ever saw.  He was a born fisher, that one. Tall.  He always walked a little bent in the middle, like to bring himself down closer to the rest of us.  Kind of a gentleman type, like Ray Burke at the grocery store.  The pinkest cheeks, pinker than a bride’s bouquet.”

She shrugged, “He smelled like hair tonic and, if you got real close, like booze. I guess he liked to take a nip now and again. Maybe that’s what made him so mild and gentle.  Never cut in when you were talking, always asked what you thought you wanted to pay.”

“He fell on hard times, came one day to sell me watermelon.  Said he’d lost his luck for fishing.  His hands shook so bad, I guess I knew what I had to do. So I gave him a little whisky, put him to bed in the barn, and sat out under the biggest moon you ever saw and ate a whole watermelon instead of dinner.  Figured that squared us up.”

Her laughter came up out of her like the sound of a hundred eggs cracking. It was like that when she was happy: breakfast for everyone and some more left over just in case.  They were quiet for a while, she pulling feathers slow, ignoring the little fluffs that clung to her hands.  Then, as he though to take off his boots again and bent forward to do it, she looked across at him with soft eyes.

“Baizie stopped me in the yard this morning. She’d come up through the woods so quick, she could hardly catch her breath.”

He felt himself freeze slowly, like the pond come winter, the cold starting at his head, taking his heart and slowly covering every inch of him.  He was probably grey like ice, he thought.  If you threw a stone at him now, he’d crack into shards. The stone would sink out of sight.

“When I was your age, there was a boy I loved. He was prettier than most girls. Curls all over his head, light brown that turned to gold the first day of haying.  I watched him like a hawk, every minute, wished he’d look up and find me looking. Wished he’d know what was in my heart. And terrified lest he figured it out, too.”

Granny was done with stripping the hen.  She grabbed up her knife and took off the head, drawing it away from the neck with the side of the blade.  She dropped the bird into a bowl to let it bleed out.  Then she went to the tap and washed her hands.

He felt a cramp in his side, realized he was still bent forward with one boot half off his foot.  He shook it off abruptly, as if it offended him, as if it were a bee or a horse fly.  “What’d Baizie tell you?”

Granny smiled as she moved a cloth over her hands.  “Baizie said a lot of things, most of them ugly.  But when she was done, I reckon all I heard was that you were in love.  Not that she ever used that word.”

“She’ll tell everyone.”

“Not after what I said back to her.”

He frowned, unable to read her.

“Aren’t you upset with me?”

“No.”

“Aren’t you disgusted? Ashamed?”

“I think maybe you are.”

He lowered his eyes to the floor.

“But you shouldn’t be,” she said. “I’ve known men and women just like you.  Plenty of them. Don’t despise your nature, boy. Just know it as best you can. Measure it for itself, not against the world.  Keep yourself safe, travel wise, but never hate yourself.”

He licked his lips. “He wants us to leave together. But I told him I couldn’t leave you alone. You took me and Daddy in when we didn’t have no place to go. You’re my only friend in the world. We need each other.”

“You told this boy that?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And what’d he say?”

“He cried. If his folks hear what Baizie’s got to say, they’ll kill him themselves. You know how Sunder is, Granny. I think he would.”

She nodded.

“I took you and your father in because you needed me, not because I needed you.  I love you, boy, of course I do.  But that was then. This is now.”

“Granny-“

“Find your young man and you two go find someplace else.”

He stared at her for a long while, hoping he’d never forget her face, the creases around her eyes, the silver cloud of hair her braids could never wrangle.  “Is it time?”

“Go out, boy. Go out.”

Tammi

The snow was packed a cold enamel on the leering grin of the exit ramp as he eased off the highway. It was late at night and the roads were empty.  The travelers who hadn’t taken refuge in wayside hotels had coasted off onto the ice-crusted shoulders of the highway hours ago. The people huddled inside their cars glanced out as he passed, their faces pale moons with surprised mouths and anxious brows. He kept his gaze slavishly on the road and dared not glance back.

At the gas station off the exit, he filled his car up with shaking fingers.  Driving on wintry roads all but undid him, remembering a long ago night when he landed his car in the river.  Icy water rose up from the floor of the car as sharp smoke trailed from the vents.  If not for a man who lived near the accident and heard the car ripping through the saplings on the bank, that drive through icy mist would have been his last.

The pump asked if he wanted a receipt, but then had no paper and prompted him to see the cashier.  This was one of his pet peeves and he rolled his eyes, glancing toward the store.  A woman with a frazzled ponytail and a dispiriting blue work apron stood behind the sales counter, looking out through the plate glass at him with bored eyes.  He decided her name tag would read ‘Tammi’ and he headed inside to get a coffee and prove himself right.  When he stepped into the warmth, she gave him a weak little smile before turning away to pull a box of coffee lids from under the counter.

The place smelled of pine and bleach in equal measure.  His feet squeaked on the floor as he crossed to the coffee station. Loosening his jacket, he decided he’d make the rest of the drive festive with a little pumpkin spice creamer.

“I’m surprised you guys are open,” he said. “Have you had much business?”

She shrugged, “Not for a couple hours.”

He busied himself pouring coffee.

“You’re not heading south, are you?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

She shook her head, “There’s a big accident about two miles up.  They’ve closed the highway. I just heard it on the thingamajiggy.” Dropping her gaze and taking a breath, she said, “The scanner.”

He felt his stomach tighten.  “Crud.”

“Sorry,” she said. “Thought you’d want to know.”

She seemed the type to like sharing bad news, he thought.  Something about her reminded him of a girl he went to school with back in Virginia, a girl who turned to him on the bleachers at morning assembly one day and asked carefully, “Are you a faggot?”  That girl had heavy eyelids, silvered with makeup, and her calm gaze had made his heart race more than the question itself.  The memory curiously amused him. Turning away now so the cashier wouldn’t see his smile, he fished out a stirrer and gave the coffee a spin.

“Well,” he said.  “I guess I’ll stick around for a little while and see if they clear it up.”

“We’ve got seating over there,” she said, flinging a hand toward a row of orange and birch Formica booths.

“Okay,” he said. “Thanks.”

They didn’t talk while he paid for his coffee.  He left it at one of the booths and headed out to move his car, steps careful in the freezing slush.  Pulling his bag from the back seat, he turned and glanced through the store window just in time to see the cashier spit in his coffee. She glanced up and their eyes locked. A moist string was still trailing from her mouth to the cup.  Slowly and unblinkingly, she lowered the coffee back onto the table. Time stretched out, thinner than soup at a homeless shelter.

He wasn’t sure what to do next.  He knew he should at least go in and demand his money back.  The dread of the confrontation made his guts clinch.  The mix of flakes and pellets continued to fall, sugaring his shoulders, pinging off his sneakers.  He looked away, squinting across the parking lot.

“Fucking hell,” he muttered.

When he glanced back through the window, she’d moved to the sales counter and was leaning against the register, face blank as she stared stonily across the store.  In profile, she had the awkward nose and chin of a cartoon character.  Maybe there was a reason for what she did. Did he say something rude?  Whatever the cause, looking at the round hump of her nose and the sly dip of her chin, he decided he hated her through and though.

He started toward the door and she popped up straight, rocking her elbows back to make her chest barrel out.  She squeezed her lips into a straight line, matching his gaze.  He faltered, stepping back.

“Well, Jesus,” he murmured, his foggy breath a vanishing bloom.

They held the awkward gaze for another long moment. Finally, he dropped his eyes and decided to get back in his car.  Maybe there was another route he could take for now. He might hook back to the highway farther up the way.  She watched him as he folded himself into his car.

He looked up again before steering out of the slot and saw her pick up the befouled coffee and sip it.  She turned to face him fully, rubbing circles on her belly.  Shaping her lips with clownish precision, she mouthed the words, “So good.”

He sat there, hand bones popping on the steering wheel, knowing if he left without squaring things, he’d never forgive himself.  Taking a bolstering breath, he drove over to the pumps and put the car in park.  He opened the door and sprang out.  With deliberate steps, he crossed to the trash barrel, lifted the lid and pulled out the bag of trash.  He turned it upside down and, obligingly, a cold gale carried the trash across the parking lot.  A confetti parade of wrappers, bottles and napkins swept toward the store, as if each piece of debris delighted in his revenge. Perhaps they were just glad to be free.

As she bolted out the door, face red and ready, he ducked back in the car and spun out of the parking lot and onto the road, fishtailing madly, laughter filling the car, surprising and wonderful.  In the rear view mirror, she pointed at him, shrieking curses he could only imagine. Some miles away, he realized he’d never checked her name tag.  He was still pretty sure she was a Tammi.  He’d never liked the name.

Breakfast with Sharp

Sharp shows up at the diner looking anxious, as always, and a little sleepier than usual.  It’s miserably wet outside and as he peels himself free of his jacket, droplets of rain scatter over the Formica table.  I glance down at the bowl of sugar packets the waitress left and remind myself as I have for ten years that I no longer sweeten my coffee.

“You have the girls this weekend?” I ask.  “You look exhausted.”

“All week.”

He bumps the table as he gets into the booth and my coffee splashes out of the mug.  He automatically reaches for too many napkins but I already have it covered.

“Relax,” I say. “You seem wound up.”

“Oh, well.”  He scratches his head. “Maybe I am.”

I consider waiting until after we eat to get to the thing on my mind, but I’m anxious to know, so I ask, “Did you read my story?”

He looks at me a moment, his expression a study of blankness, then silently picks up the menu and mulls it over with all the concentration of a man taking a test.  I know what he’ll order in the end, and when the waitress comes and he says pancakes and an egg and some grits with sausage gravy, too, I say nothing.

Sharp is a little meaty and red-headed and freckled.  And he’s balding some on top, but he isn’t hipster enough or self-conscious enough to shave his whole head the way a lot of guys do nowadays.  He keeps it old-fashioned barber short.  When it’s combed flat it’s not so bad, but he’s that guy who scratches his head when he’s tired or nervous or excited or thinking.  He scratches his head almost all the time and he does it until the hair sticks up like koala ears.  And then he looks like the goofiest bastard you ever saw.

He notices my silence. “You think I should’ve got the omelet instead, don’t you?”

“I don’t care what you get, Sharp.”

He shrugs.  I notice that his t-shirt is all bunched around his shoulders from pulling off the jacket.  If he were one of my girl friends, I would reach out and fix it, but ever since junior high I’ve been paranoid that anything that physical and intimate will seem like a pass. I know my guy friends now are smart enough to know I’m just gay, not a sex-starved maniac, but it’s just a weird holdover from earlier times.  Instead I say drily, “Your shirts all fucked up.”

“Oh.” He makes my coffee splash out twice more as he tries to fix it.  This time I let him mop up the mess.  He looks peeved. “Who do they make these little fucking booths for anyway?”

I glance out the window.  Even in the crappy weather, the sidewalk has lots of people on it.  The rain can’t empty a street in New York.  The east villagers are moving faster than normal, but they still got things to do.  The weather has greyed all the bright tops and scarves and the assortment of hats, but the taxis only look more vibrant.  They are cartoon cheery; blocks of cheddar coasting through the rain.

“Can’t we talk about your story after we eat?” Sharp says.

I give him a look.  His eyes are scotch brown, easily his best feature, and they usually register a cocktail of worry, concern and impatience.  They are intelligent eyes that carry a weighty sadness even when they’re laughing.  His eyes could make a mother out of anyone.  When we first were friends, I fell in love with him because of those eyes.  Or I thought I loved him. Maybe I just fell in love with wanting to make them happier eyes, which I now know is entirely impossible.  I even suspect he’d be a little less brilliant if he weren’t quite so troubled.  Anyway, Sharp’s not suicidal or anything, just a keeper of gloom.  But he’s really a funny guy, too.

“What’s that?” he says, his brows gathering like thunderclouds.

“What?”

“I asked if we could go over your story later and you give me this long look like you want to fuck me or kill me or spit in my face.”

I laugh at him, but I can feel my face burn with a blush.  “You’re an idiot,” I say. “But if I had to pick one, I think I’d happily spit in your ugly face.”

He scowls and starts opening too many sugar packets, dumping the contents into his coffee.  He grimaces when he takes the first sip.  “Too sweet.”

“I saw that coming.”

We have this thing between us, me and Sharp.  It’s like we could almost be lovers – in different skins, of course – or we could so easily be enemies.  We’d be the kind of former friends who hide in grocery store aisles from each other and when someone brought up the other one to us, we’d go home and get drunk and maybe draw pictures on napkins of people being decapitated.  We’d wake up and not remember drawing it, but we’d remember that someone had said, “You see Sharp anymore?”  And our hangover would be colossal.  It’s good that me and Sharp are friends, because us being enemies would be like cancer.

“So?”

“Yeah, Sharp, we can go over it later. I mean, I’ve waited this long.  I can wait ten more minutes.”

He looks like he wants to argue, to defend himself for dodging the topic for three weeks, but then the waitress is back and putting the plates down.  I see that this time he finally spots the mole on her arm and as his mouth turns down, I look away and hide a smile behind my coffee mug.  She stands back a little ways and puts her hands on her hips.

“Anything else, whiles I’m here?”

“We’re good,” I say for both of us.

She looks at me like she disagrees and her eyes roam the table dubiously.  Pointing to Sharp’s mug, she says, “I’ll come back and top you off.”

“No,” he says. “Thanks.”

I watch her back as she moves off, noticing she forgot to iron one of her sleeves.  One of them is perfect with a crease and everything and the other one looks like she dragged the uniform right out of the laundry hamper.

“You grossed out?” I ask with a smidge of pleasure.

“No.”  He flashes those scotch brown eyes at me.

Sharp doesn’t cut his pancakes, he saws at them like he’s clearing land westward.  He doesn’t spoon up his grits, he shovels them like Fred Flintstone working the quarry.  I eat my omelet in silence.

“You hear anything from that actress?” he asks with his mouth full.  “She still want you to edit that script of hers?”

“That’s what I’ve been doing the last two weeks.”

He shrugs.  “She seems like an idiot.”

“She is,” I agree. “But my fridge is full for once.”

He looks a little interested, then grimaces into his plate.

“In any event, I like editing almost as much as writing so it’s good.  Or good enough.”

The infuriating thing about Sharp is that he’s so opaque at times.  I like to be able to read people.  It makes me feel certain about my world.  When Sharp just gives you a glance, it could be anything.  Some people look at you and you know they’re hurt or irritated or just looking at you to be sure it was you who said their name.  With Sharp, he might be noticing for the first time that your eyes are a little close set or even finally figuring out that you’re not as clever as he thought you were. Or he might be seeing you have a booger.  That bastard would not tell you’ve had a booger until you were leaving a party and then he’d say, “Yeah, I noticed it an hour ago but you were flirting with that guy you’re into and I didn’t want to embarrass you.” I mean, a lot of people would not be friends with someone like Sharp.  Friends tell you about boogers, open flies, toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

He pushes his plate aside with a sour expression on his face.  He finished everything he ordered and now his stomach hurts.  This is how it goes.  Folding his arms and tucking his fingers into the pits, he says, “The story isn’t so bad, but you got that thing about the gift horse wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“You say something like, ‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth unless you want to get bitten. Or unless you want to see a tangle of soldiers…'”

I finish up for him. “‘..Huddled in its stomach, which could be either erotic or disgusting, but I’m betting on the latter.’  What’s wrong with that? I thought it was kind of clever.”

He shakes his head. “But the gift horse thing and the Trojan horse thing aren’t the same thing.  You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth because that’s like checking out its teeth, like taking a gift but then judging its worth.  It’s rude.”

I bite my lip and push away my plate.  Feeling queasy, I reach for my coffee, but then take a drink of my water instead.  The water at this place is always cloudy, but I pretend not to notice anymore.

Sharp says, “The Trojan horse thing is where the ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ thing comes from.  So, you can’t use that part.”

“But that’s the setup and all the back and forth between Ant and Nan comes from that thing.”

He shrugs in a way I think is kind of hateful.  Later, I’m sure I’ll decide it wasn’t.

He says, “Look, you asked me to read it.”

“But I wanted your opinion on the dialogue and things like the characters, not to pick apart some geeky detail like that.”

“Your whole story is built on you not knowing your shit, dipshit,” he says.  Irritated with me, his voice drops down into his chest.  When I used to be sort of in love with him, I found that deep tone arousing.  Even now it makes me feel a little funny.

“Well, maybe if I change that part and make it about something else…”

He is shaking his head, looking bored now and glancing over my shoulder.  In the long silence I land back into the moment, hearing again the murmur of other people talking, the clatter of knives and forks at work, the vague discharge of a pop song from the old jukebox in the front.  He leans forward, dropping his elbows on the table.  Instinctively, I lean in, too.

“The part about how they feel about each other is good,” he says.  “Except you don’t really let anyone know how Ant feels.  Seems a little slanted.”

“But that would make it like Nan knows how he feels.”

He rakes his hands through his hair and there it is, that stupid koala bear head.  This time I reach out and knock the ears down.  He stares at me in astonishment.

I try to pick up the thread again. “Ant is just one of those mysteries that Nan can’t figure out. I mean, that’s how some people are.  They never get together, they never have a happy ending.  You’re supposed to walk away from the story feeling really frustrated about all of that shit in life.”

He sits back, still looking a little shocked.  Folding his arms again, the scotch eyes are almost angry.  Anyway, they’re very dark now.  Coca-Cola dark.  “Well, if leaving them frustrated is what you wanted, then you nailed it.”