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LUCILLE HEARNDON WAS a successful writer of popular novels. She was old enough to die, but it was hard.
"There's nothing harder," she said, like someone trying to avoid making an insinuation.
"What's that?" said the voice at the other end.
"I said there's nothing harder."
"There's nothing harder I beg your pardon than what?"
"Than dying. Except perhaps moving," and they went on talking about that subject the old buzzard spoke like a piece of fine furniture until it was permissible for them to say good-bye to each other, leave a hint for the long lines, and hang up.
She read a chapter from the Book of Esther and turned out the light. The sea was faint, more faint than the Moondog record that her daughter's stepson kept playing up in his room. Lucille's suave body, strong and cautious, still pleased her. She still liked herself, which made it harder yet, liked her looks and the sound of her own, measured voice. She exhaled and began her centering exercises.
Poor Eugene, her step-grandson. He wanted her, and wanted even more his stepmother Amy, who wouldn't let him to bed with her. Eugene would, like any homosexual, have to wait for his breeding mate, some girl dead and buried like as not two hundred years ago. The exchange between them the other day; he had propositioned her again, and her response was to suggest that he go to a prostitute.
"Eugene, why did Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear and give it to a prostitute?"
"Why Grandmother, for the same reason a lot of women cut off their nose to spite their face."
"What do you mean?"
"You see these old women with syphilis. They don't have any nose."
There had been a girl in Tom's River.
"Why don't you busy yourself with something? Go sailing. You mentioned a girl in Tom's River."
"Are you thinking of the Tom's River channel bouy?"
And Amy's happenstance intervention, depositing the Times and her cake cartons on the porch table.
"What's with you two? I could hear you all the way down in Spring Lake."
Lucille evenly, "Amy, sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't be best for Eugene if he joined the service."
"And the dogface will lie down with the jarhead," Eugene snorted, diving for the Times Magazine and turning to the Jonathan Logan ad. And how he had followed her across the floor, shouting at her in the summer-bare house. "What about the onus of having intercourse with the Messiah?"
"You're not him," she flung at him like a teenager returning an innuendo.
She sneezed the rest of the way to the kitchen. An onus? Her step-grandson ranting at her in the hall, on his way up the stairs.
"The Devil traffics in the dung of the newborn!"
She idly opened a cupboard. Calumet baking powder and Knox gelatine. The picture of the calf with the mournful eye. Some ethnic fondness for veal. She closed the cupboard again and stood there weeping and laughing.
"Or should I fall in love with one of the handy local schizophrenics?"
She did the unusual and made herself a scotch on the rocks.
"The masked man, he left a silver bullet," Eugene knocking over the furniture up in his room.
"He used your electric razor, too," she retorted at the top of her voice.
Ah, the sheer nigger strength of it. The icecubes were melting in the sink and the drain made noises like a puppy barking in its mother's womb. A bassinet hound. Uh, pup, and away. Most dogs have an honest face, and their affinity with horses makes them capable of sniffing out sales opportunities. She heard Eugene calling down the stairs to his mother.
"...and Rudolf didn't get that nose from telling lies!"
Eugene whizzed down the beach on his motorbike. There was an on-shore breeze and through the zip of the motor the combers crunched, sending sheets of foam sliding up the beach and through his wheels so that he and loops of sea slurry intersected like the two threads of a sewing machine. Now and then the sand softened and he had to wrench the handlebars in order to keep from being thrown. He was wearing an old haversack and it contained sandwiches, swimming trunks and a towel, warm clothing, a softball, and the fungo bat. It also contained a first aid kit in a jar.
Eugene was tired of staying awake nights, of lying in bed at attention. He is suspicious, thinks love is a con, and will not venture into romance for fear of having been blinded by sexual deprivation. He has no friends and no enemies. All he has is the sixpence in his seminal vesicle.
To induce in him nostalgia.
The gulls squealed like a wooden contraption. He passed a surf fisherman who was setting up with two rods. In a while he dismounted and hauled his motorbike in over the first line of dunes, wrapped his poncho around the motor and concealed it in a pothole. The sedge whistled in the breeze. He was wearing unhemmed cordury shorts, an old T-shirt, a beachcomber's bandana, and faded blue tennis shoes so worn out his little toes showed through. He walked south, under the sun. After a couple of hundred yards he hit a line drive that sent the sand spraying up ahead and loped after it. The softball was painted with orange Day-Glo to make it visible in the beach chapparel.
The sky had darkened a little, it was becoming foggy out at sea.
He came across the carcass of a large sea bird and wondered if it might be an albatross. It was mostly bones but there were a few feathers, the carcass awkwardly intact in the dunes with grass grown up through it and full of sand. He shook the sand out of the skull and put it in his pocket.
Lucille had an old rocking chair from some comparatively recent Salem interior, and carved on its back was the figure of an imp with a caul on its head. It was carrying two staves, with flames in the background. Now, Eugene sometimes thought of himself as the incarnation of that imp and looked for resemblances between himself and it, as he did now striding through the dunes admiring his tanned blondness with the fungo bat in his hand. He thought of squiggly spirit handwriting, the 911 on the backs of New York City police cars, and remarked that his state of mind was appropriate for someone approaching a haunted house, which he indeed was. He would find twine in the tool shed, and he would use a little to tie the gull skull to the front right belt loop of his shorts. This would incriminate him.
The imp on Lucille's rocking chair had a coqettish shoulder thrust forward and it looked like a cat got up in doll's clothing, although the nose turned downwards like a koala's or the comb of a turkey gobbler. It had a shawl around its shoulders which would have been sky blue and have wrinkled stiffly like raw silk or taffeta, or organdy.
Eugene is hunkered down in a corner of a room making a dog denominator. He massages his scrotum and idly regrets not having done it in the middle of the floor. The house is situated about four hundred yards from the beach, completely isolated in the dunes. It is a frame house with clapboard siding, one and a half stories and a hexagonal tower, and it isn't at all ramshackle although it has been there such a long time, and it's wonder the hurricanes have spared it on this stretch of New Jersey shore. Or has it burned down by this time? Eugene is inside pulling up his pants. The coast here abounds in old wrecks.
There's Eugene out of the house again before the State Parks Patrol find him there. He's piling timbers and drift jam for a fire he will light that night. He finds a hundred-watt light bulb from some foreign ship with its bayonet-type base. He comes upon a coconut husk which he mistakes for a hairy variety of horseshoe crab. He was talking to himself. Or was he? Careful to avoid cutting himself on rusty bolts and broken bottles, he extricated from an old Christmas tree a serpentine of magnetic tape that was doing a damn good job of resembling seaweed. He intends to put it on a reel and play it on his tape machine. Maybe it would even land him a girl, for a girl, in spite of all the fun he was having, is what he really wanted. He hoped with every breath that he would find a bottle with a message in it from a girl.
The State Parks Patrol came and went at intervals. Eugene sat in the breakfast nook with a mug of tea and a lighted candle and heard the panel truck's approach on the shingle driveway. Annoyed and excited in the sweltering gloaming he quick blew out the candle. There was water in the kitchen tap all right, and he had brewed his tea with a Lipton teabag he found a package of in the cupboard over the sink. For his water, however, he had discovered a whole heap of it in back of the garage, beer can-sized cans of water colored olive drab and with WATER, DRINKING stencilled on them, he immediately opened one of them with his Swiss army pocket knife and guzzled. He hoped the guards wouldn't catch him, that they wouldn't enter the house and that they had completed the last patrol of the day. He heard their footsteps and voices pass outside the kitchen window.
"Well, Bill, think it's about time we called it a day?"
"Reckon so, Hank. Ain't no use in pushin' it."
Survival stores drinking water. The house had been confiscated and used as a Coast Guard lookout station during the War.
He heard a private car backed out of the garage and driven away. Eugene dashed upstairs to the tower and saw its headlights bob and dip their way northwards along the dune road. A strip of daylight was still visible in the west across Barnegat Bay, and he saw the lights of what he thought must be Forked River, New Jersey. At any rate to the south was Barnegat Light warning shipping, and to the east, in darkness, was the Atlantic. He was alone.
Tea dust. My love she speaks like silence. Quick to the liquor store. No, better yet, the salt and pepper shaker set. Why was it so woebegone?
There would be a young girl standing before the bonfire with a wreath on her head and an old man with a beard would read aloud from his beard. This would prevent the sea from swallowing everything, foundlings in fathoms. A wild cat yowled somewhere from the dunes, possibly in the vicinity of Eugene's motorbike, possibly thinking of the surf fisherman's catch of flounders. The man and his family dined on pieces of the sea bottom.They were happy together, and had a cat to which the little girl gave the flounder heads, each of which was as large as a hockey puck.
Q.: Why is the ocean so woebegone?
A.: The ocean is woebegone because it is dying of curiosity.
The ocean is also always househunting, the old cement mixer. The crooner from Woonsocket. Eugene has worked a whole 'nother strake out of the sand and drags it to the fire. It leaps high, and would lure unwary vessels to their destruction. Eugene is burning the ballpark, the flames leap and crackle from the old timbers. He sings as he wades into the surf with the fire warm and orange-feeling on his back. He sings of the cuckolds' baseball game.
"The tugboat Snodgrass hoots
Pulling the Morgenstern Phoenix.
What makes you muss his hair, Dad,
At the cuckolds' baseball game?
The Kiplinger Letter arrives, Dad,
And the cuckold postman smiles.
The day you've taken off is already gone..."
Eugene sang, standing in the foam that sizzled around his ankles. A huge comber loomed up over his head and hung there dripping like a lace curtain before it fell on him, tumbling him head over heels in the slushy aggregate, he thought his back was broken. But it wasn't, and the surf righted him again so he could take a fix on the bonfire. Then he swam out to sea. He drifted northwards but didn't care for there was the rapture of it hearing bubbles pop on wavetops in the dark. Things were going fine when he felt a jolt of some kind of funnybone electricity. Were there electric eels in the open ocean? He felt like a horse that's been struck by lightning in an open field. Time out for incredulity, thinking about traffic on the Van Wyck and Major Deegan expressways and about the American Open Golf Classics. He was on his way to the New Jersey Elastic Fire Hose Co. wondering if things were warming up over on the John Lodge. But there were sharks in the open ocean. He thought he'd had it and immediately thrashed about for something to die against. But he was intact and treading water, and the bonfire flickered like an alarmed pumpkin far down the beach. He wearily swam back in.
He was tired and sloshed ashore. Malcom's father committed suicide again in his mind. The guy drank so much he found out he could breathe under water. Malcom had been Eugene's comic book friend. One time Malcom's mother accused Eugene of stealing her change purse, when of course it was Malcom who did it. When her husband died it was the golf clubs that really broke her up. The guy's woods. Now that she was really a golf widow. Malcom bought a rear view mirror for his bike with the money in the change purse.
The sea was quiet, and then a line of swell peeled off about a half a mile down the beach and Eugene counted to eighteen until it reached him. The wind had stilled, and suddenly his head was filled with the fragrance of jasmine. He stopped in his tracks and looked down at himself standing in the watershed of the beach. Was the moon out? He was standing in the bo'sun's button box, and as the jasmine scent faded and the sea smell replaced it he could see all the smooth bits of shells and stones, odd stumps of sticks and strings of seaweed that stretched behind and in front of him as though he were walking on the path of the moon. This was where he received the insight that might have been the reason for his coming out here, that light is simply the invisible made visible.
Here was an oblong piece of stone about the size of the trout that you don't throw back, and on it lay a green strip of seaweed and a tiny jellyfish. It was the Ishkabibl of the Littlest Portion. He stooped and picked it up and raised it to his lips as the phosphorescence of the surf tumbled white as drumheads. It was just another piece of schizophrenic art. Nevertheless it filled him with a primeval yearning. It was like one of Moondog's glass blowings, what Eugene was standing looking at while the breakers did card stunts. It was his mother telling him to get back to the house. It was precious and irreplaceable, a tiny organism whose brief life is dependant on millimeters of tide. Eugene was walking on eggs without breaking them. He was holding this thing in his hand and had walked halfway down the beach with it, halfway back to the bonfire, when he realized that it was insanity and threw it away. The sea breeze soughed.
Was you there when they crucified my Lord? Was you there when they layed him in the Tombs?
Lucille was doing her centering, the death calisthentics she had been practicing for some time, and that resembled somewhat the exercises used in Dr. Lamaze's method of natural childbirth. The breathing exercises involved a mental calibration, just as it was possible to navigate by fixing on a point within the earth. Her centering quickly brought her to the state in which the interior light pulsed whitely and she didn't breathe at all, would never have to again. Something about the past imposed itself on her mind, however, and she found herself breathing again with the regularity of sleep.
It was about the time Eugene's weimaraner was hit by a car. To Lucille the dog had always seemed comical. Weems, Eugene called it. Parson Weems.
"Now Mary, get off the parson's knee."
Of the many upstairs rooms not one of them contained a stick of furniture. Eugene bedded down on a couple of G.I. mattresses that he discovered a whole stack of them in a storeroom whose door looked like part of the wall and had to be pried open with his pocket knife. And there were other artifacts from Coast Guard station days besides a stack of mildewed mattresses. What he lay there going over in his mind in order to keep from masturbating was a list of United States Coast Guard passwords from a week in 1943.
He reaches for the first aid kit in a jar.
He is turned on by Susan Moonfire's menstrual acne, the small red pimples she gets around the mouth and the wings of her nose. It turns him on. Susan Moonfire's shiny shins. Her little toenail scratches and her sex smells strong, but these things don't matter for her loins are full of desire and her breasts can see. She is kissing and her tongue is hearing things. Eugene is making love to Susan Moonfire in his mind when the spades try to get between them. He gets to a really sweet and tender part when a spade wants in. Eugene is at his extremity, wanting with all his heart to have an orgasm with Susan Moonfire, when it changes to the spade doing it with her. Eugene's soul cries out. This is war. He runs from his bed and, careful not to besmirch anything with his greasy hand, he goes up into the tower and scans the sea for untoward phenomena and enemy periscopes. The girl calls to him with the voices of mewling sea moxies and there he finishes masturbating, quite suddenly and standing up.
Lucille was dreaming about sedan chairs, and she couldn't move her legs. The footmen were all of them squint-eyed with superstition and the street outside the Marigold Ballroom was thronged with sedan chairs. Lucille squeezed into one of them with her Salzburg skirts. Or was it in Lima? Of course, it was her first novel The Sedan Chair Murders and she was a taxi fetch named Charmayne. The footmen went padding off with her. There was Charmayne, Balboa in a barrel, being borne through the dark and empty streets. They met another sedan chair at an intersection and their respective footmen had an altercation. Not only that, but there was something awful inside the seat of Charmayne's sedan chair, something that didn't smell good. She rapped on the glass and the figure inside the other sedan chair became distinguishable. It was a peasant girl wearing a veil. It was Lucille's girlfriend and rival from high school, Vickie Tannenbaum, with a name like a cough drop and a voice that could break a pit prop. The sedan chairs were very close, almost touching, and as they opened the doors Charmayne was certain that Vickie could smell the thing inside the seat. She wanted to cry out Vickie's name, but Vickie was dead, killed in an automobile accident in college. Then the figure in the other sedan chair smiled and removed the veil so her red hair shimmered and the footmen ceased disputing, and Lucille heard Vickie say what she had so often said.
"Lucille, don't do anything I wouldn't do."
She wanted to get out of the sedan chair and hug Vickie but her legs wouldn't move. Then the bewigged and bedraggled footmen were carrying her back through the town, back to the Marigold Ballroom where she didn't want to go and all of a sudden it was a nightmare. It had always been a nightmare. Lucille shouted in her sleep, "Where's Charmayne?" and woke up. And no, no she hadn't. Yes. There it was, she had messed the bed.
He awoke at dawn, roused by some dream's terrible logic. Frantically, he began a methodical search for the skeleton in the percussion section. He found it in a storage space under the slope of the roof in the hidden room containing the Coast Guard gear. There was a cardboard box. He knelt there regarding it in the morning light coming in through the tiny skylight. When he realized that what it held was personal effects of the earlier owner of the house he felt an uncanny chill.
Besides a cigar box full of old costume jewelry there were other trinkets, cultural artifacts of the period, like a hand mirror he guessed was used to lure ostriches, a pearl-handled button hook and a souvenir spoon from a St. Louis exposition, and something he identified as what must have been a Ch'ing Dynasty bronze mousehole. And there must have been a little boy, for there were some very old toy racing cars with most of the paint gone, collector's items. He rummaged in the box and his hand found something soft. He cautiously pulled it out. It was a little old ballroom handbag of silver chain, with a chased silver clasp shaped like a dragonfly with mother-of-pearl wings. He held it into the light and opened it. There was nothing in the white satin. Dingle-dangling on a chain was a bid book with a slot for a bitty pencil, which he of course put in his pocket. He leafed through the tiny vellum pages; every dance, Peter Prompt and Romantic Ronald, she was booked solid. At the bottom there were some books. He exhaled slowly as he turned them in the light. She was a popular woman writer. Her three names were familiar to Eugene, although he wouldn't remember it. He would call her simply Olive Higgins Prouty. Besides a few editions of her most popular novel, there were some children's books she had published under an Italian pseudonym. Then he weighed the pros and cons of whether to call her Aimee Semple MacPherson. Of course underneath it all, under the jumble he had created in the cardboard box, was the anomaly in the form of a rolled pair of dirty chartreuse Glo-Sox. Eugene gingerly unrolled them. In the toe of one of them he found a zinc penny from 1943 and a folded piece of paper containing a message in Braille.Without really knowing why, he deliberately dropped the penny through the mousehole. A miasmal pith-helmet torpor overcame him.
He ran down the stairs and out to the beach. Look Grandmother, the sun!
Right in front of him and silhouetted in the rays of the sun was a large object which had been washed ashore with the tide. It was . . . yes. Eugene waded out to it. It was an old wooden escalator. The gulls were using it to drop clams on.
He splashed ashore again and ran back to the house.
Eugene had packed his haversack and was on his way out of the house when the guards caught him.
"Looks like we got a live one."
"Are you comin' or goin', boy?"
He showed them his pass and thought of the dog denominators in the corners.
"Is there an emergency that you have to use the phone?"
"Catch you trespassing, boy, and it'll be Joisey justice."
They let him go and he walked up in the dunes munching the last of the sandwiches. He found the motorbike without difficulty.
Along about midday Eugene was put-putting into Spring Lake when a Mercury full of Asbury Park blacks passed him. They were drinking, and one of them raised a pint bottle in greeting. Eugene was overwhelmed with rage. Right away he spotted Lucille walking on the beach.
She was thinking of her daughter Amy, who was something of a hamburger clown, and of her own career, and of Amy's father dead these many years. And of Amy's husband Junius, whom she had once flirted with. The couple did not overconsume, and they gave their old Christmas cards to homes for the mentally retarded. Amy still made her own brown soap, setting it in a rectangular cobbler pan and slicing it into cakes softer and more translucent than Pear's. Junius, who was several years younger than Amy, appreciated her archaic, or rather timeless, way of keeping house and functioned in it with his own unaffected personal practices. He used a straight razor and a badger shaving brush, and his shaving soap was in a refillable wooden dish. The ocean sent a sof' lip of foam to her shoe. She thought of her first novel and how proud she had been when the publisher accepted it. Proud as a pimp. Amy's astigmatism, how she put her thumb in the meringue. Amy buys so much gas that the petroleum company gives her a box with a man who looks likeTony Bennett in it. He's wearing a tuxedo and sitting cross-legged on a platform inside. She opens the box and the man scrambles down holding a champagne glass: "Wheee!" he says, "You get meee!" And there was Eugene coming at her with the fungo bat.
Lucille gave the impression of being a little taller than Eugene. Pork-n'-pumpkin snoot swat sound. They looked like the Howard Johnson silhouette of Simple Simon and the Pie Man. Didie-doll snoot swat sound.
"You old gristle O. Bet you thought you were going to die in your bed, didn't you."
The stratoliner and the national poster child. Eugene really lights into her. She's still standing up with an eyeball hanging out. But then she is dead and falls down. She lies still, and the ocean comes and smooths the wretchedness. He flings the fungo bat into the surf.
Lucille the long drink of water is a bigmouth corpsey worpsey. The ocean is perpendicular anyway and it was going up and down, up and down like a fontanelle. Eugene arrived at the municipal bathing beach, parked his motorbike and locked it and went inside the bath house. There he was surrounded by familiar faces, all of them members of the community, taxpaying residents of Spring Lake. A few said hello to him and none paid him any special attention even though he had just murdered old Lucille Hearndon. He went through the turnstile. Then he saw a girl he knew. She was on her way to the dressing room. Marjorie, her name was. Marjoram. She smiled.
"Hello, Gene. Long time no see."
She was wearing a bathing suit, and her hair was wet in sticky curls that had something in them, perhaps one of those sting ray egg cases that resembles a tea bag.
"Hi, Marjorie," he said. "How've you been?"
"You still have my phone number, don't you?" she asked.
"I'll call you. Really," Eugene said softly. He wondered if they were going to let him get away with it.
back to the Short Story Page.The Bo'sun's Button Box, 6 August 1998