Old Dogs & Children
When you top the rise over the River Bridge, the first thing you see is the Birdsong house down at the end of Claxton Avenue, three blocks away, where the street makes a right angle with Birdsong Boulevard. The house is wide and white with a banistered porch running across the front, nestled behind a grove of pecan trees that shades the front lawn. The house sits up rather high off the ground, and it has brickwork all around the bottom with gaps left in the bricks for ventilation, a patchwork skirt. There is a second story, but not much of one — a few dormered windows peeking out from the roofline — as if it had been added as an afterthought.
Which is exactly what happened after the Great Flood of 1939. This early June morning, gray and purple in the half-light just before dawn, Bright Birdsong stands on her front porch looking up Claxton Avenue toward the River Bridge and waiting for the sun. Claxton is quiet and deserted, not a single sign of life in the pools of amber light from the street lamps, not even a dog sniffing about the side loading dock of the Dixie Vittles Supermarket across the street, looking for a stray morsel. There is a car parked in front of the store, but there is no one in it, at least not anyone she can see. Is there someone stretched out in the back seat asleep? Some eager shopper waiting for the store to open to take advantage of the special on rutabagas or drumsticks? She considers a number of possibilities, turning them over idly in her mind. As she does, a car approaches from her left on Birdsong Boulevard and turns left on Claxton, moving away from her toward the River Bridge. Its red taillights wink off as the treetops on the low bluff across the river glow orange with the anticipation of the sun.
New sun. The first shards of light splinter the treetops now, and Bright raises her arms slowly, reaching for the new sun. She feels its warmth flooding her body, stirring something in her that stretches in a single unbroken strand to her childhood some sixty years before, one of the few constants in her life. The new sun blinks at her and then pops, full of itself, into the morning. She embraces it, arms wide, the thin fabric of her flowered print housedress spread like a fan.
The new sun brings memory. Hosanna, the old black woman who helped raise her, has a deep-seated belief in the mysterious, curative effect of new sun. And the small white child knows wisdom when she hears it. So she wakes very early and goes to stand in her long white nightgown on the front porch, watching the sun wink and smile just over the top of the house across the street. She pulls the gown over her head and lets it fall to the floor of the porch, feels the new sun fill her naked body with a strange, light warmth.
The memory of it echoes through the spreading sunlight of this present June morning. What if I should do that now? she thinks, and she giggles, pictures the imagined man sleeping in the back seat of the car in front of the Dixie Vittles waking suddenly, peering out the back window and seeing a naked old woman on the banistered front porch of the house across the street. What to do? Wave or ignore him? It is a delicious thought, one that may well entertain her all morning. Until Roseann gets here.
Roseann. The spell is broken. Bright lowers her arms with a sigh and gives herself up to the morning.
Birds chatter in the pecan trees on the lawn, fussing at her because the birdbath in the backyard is nearly empty. It is Monday and the birds are anxious to get about their business. Monday, and that means Roseann will be here within hours — she and her new husband, Rupert, and Bright's grandson, Jimbo, in their Winnebago, stopping by on their way to the beach. Roseann. Perhaps the visit will be quick, like a summer storm.
But that is not all. Monday means it is only three days until Fitz Birdsong Day, in honor of her son the governor, who is running for reelection and wishes to end the campaign triumphantly here among the home folks. A parade, a rousing speech, a barbecue luncheon. Another summer storm, but gentler. Fitz tries to please; Roseann does not. By sundown Thursday it will all be behind her and she can be quiet again, blend in again with the deepening summer.
She stands a moment longer, then gives up the porch reluctantly. She stops briefly in the parlor, surveys the comfortable clutter: a pile of magazines on the table next to the wing-back chair where she likes to read — Time, Esquire, National Geographic, Southern Lumberman; a stack of books on the floor next to the chair — an Agatha Christie, a Louis L'Amour paperback, a new book about the assassination of John F. Kennedy; piles of sheet music on top of the Story and Clark upright piano and more of it spread open above the keyboard — Liszt, Chopin, a Scott Joplin rag. There is no rhyme or reason to the room or its contents, she thinks, taking brief inventory. Her tastes run amok, but she maintains a lively interest in things in general if not things in particular. She will have to tidy things a bit before Roseann gets here. Mama, don't you ever pick anything up? Roseann is painfully tidy. Roseann is a pickle.
She pads on, her slippered feet slap-slapping on the hardwood floor of the small breakfast room and the linoleum of the kitchen, stopping to put the coffeepot on to boil and a pan of milk to warm. The kitchen is narrow and cozy. Cabinets, counter, and sink on one side, stove and refrigerator on the other. And comfortably old-fashioned, like the refrigerator that is its centerpiece — an ancient Kelvinator with the motor in a round housing on top. It has been with her since the Great Flood of 1939, when it replaced the icebox that a deliveryman filled once a day with a five-pound block of ice. The refrigerator had looked enormous in 1939, with space enough inside for all manner of foodstuffs on its stainless steel shelves and a small freezer compartment that made its own trays of ice. Bright had felt very elegant, very modern, with her own electric refrigerator. But it is tiny by modern standards. She opened the door to a brand-new refrigerator in Thompsons Furniture last week — gleaming white without even a latch on the front — and it seemed as if she were peering into the entrance to Mammoth Cave.
"About time for a new one, Miz Bright?" Lester Thompson asked. "This model's got a built-in icemaker."
"Why no, I've got a perfectly good Kelvinator at home," she replied, "and it makes perfectly good ice." But there is more to it than that. This refrigerator was the one that Fitzhugh gave her in 1939. Fitzhugh didn't leave very much.
This morning, the Kelvinator is purring at her, the only sound in the kitchen. She opens the door and takes out the sugar bowl, which she keeps in the refrigerator because it attracts ants if left on the counter. Bright has given up trying to rid the world of ants. She simply accommodates, in this as in most things. The last time the Orkin Man came was twenty years ago, in 1959.
Bright steps onto the screened-in back porch and stands there for a moment, waiting for the coffee to boil, listening to the bumping noises that her dog, Gladys, makes under the house. Gladys is an Irish setter, feeble with age, one eye glazed over and sightless from some dog disease. Gladys has been living under the house since Little Fitz brought her home from school.
It had been about this time, early June, the end of Fitz's second year in law school. Bright had expected Fitz to come home from the University on the bus, so she was surprised to see him climb down from the cab of a truck that pulled up to the curb in front of the house. He went around to the back of the truck, opened the tailgate, lifted out his suitcase and trunk. And then the dog. He picked up the suitcase with one hand and dragged the trunk with the other, across the lawn to where Bright waited on the front porch. The dog just sat by the curb on her haunches and watched him.
"Hi, Mama," he called.
"Hi yourself. Why didn't you come on the bus?"
"They wouldn't let the dog on the bus. So I hitched."
Fitz deposited the suitcase and trunk beside the front steps and went back for the dog. He tried to coax her to follow him, but she simply sat there and stared at him. Then he grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and tried to hoist her to all fours, but she collapsed in a heap by the curb. So Fitz reached down and gathered her up in his arms and marched across the lawn with her. He set the dog down by the steps and she sprawled there on the grass, head resting across her front paws.
"What's wrong with that dog?" Bright asked.
"She has a drinking problem."
"You mean alcohol?"
"Where did she acquire a drinking problem, Fitz?"
"In the fraternity house. Her name is Gladys, Mama. She's our mascot. She started out on light bread soaked in beer and then gradually moved on to the hard stuff."
"Who did this?"
"Well, I guess we're all a little responsible."
"You ought to be ashamed," Bright said.
"I am. That's why I brought her home to you."
"I figured you could rehabilitate her. Get her all fixed up."
"Oh, no," Bright said, crossing her arms across her chest.
"Just for the summer, Mama," he pleaded. "I'll take her back to school with me in the fall."
"And get her drunk again."
So Gladys stayed. She never had another drink of liquor, as far as Bright knew, but her bladder and stomach were already pretty much gone. Long ago, a veterinarian examined her and pronounced her terminal. But she lives on now, defying nature, incontinent and dyspeptic. She pees constantly, in little dribbles. She eats nothing but canned dog food softened with warm milk and spends most of her time in a warm, dry place under the house, just underneath Bright's bedroom. She comes and goes through an open space in the brickwork by the back steps. Lately, she has taken to bumping around in the middle of the night, getting herself tangled in the web of pipes and wires, moaning and clanging until she extricates herself.
Now, in the early morning, she is making her way out... rattle... clang... bump... moan... and Bright follows her halting, half-blind progress. By the time Gladys clears the maze, Bright has fetched and opened the can of food from the kitchen, mixed it with warm milk from the pan on the stove, and placed the bowl by the back steps. She sits on the steps, wrapping her housedress around her knees, and waits for Gladys to poke her head through the opening in the brickwork. The dog pauses, giving the morning a one-eyed once-over, and stares for a moment at Bright, tilting her head this way and that. She gives forth a soft moan. Bright has never heard Gladys bark, not in the many years she has been here. Perhaps her bark fell victim to alcoholism, back there in her profligate days at Little Fitz's fraternity house. Or perhaps she never found anything worth barking at. Gladys steps gingerly into the morning as if expecting to collide with another pipe. She shakes herself, the most vigorous thing she does these days, and dust flies. She looks up at Bright again, expecting a greeting.
The redeeming thing about a dog, Bright thinks, is that it will took you in the eye. A lot of people won't do that. "Good morning," Bright says. "You look in the pink of health this morning. You slept well, I take it?"
Gladys turns to her food dish. Another thing about dogs. They have no truck with nonsense.
Gladys takes her sweet time with breakfast and Bright sits quietly, letting her mind wander, as it does a great deal these days. She drifts, especially here in the warm beginning of summer where thoughts puddle like melting butter in the languid heat. She has often wondered if that is why it is so hard for new ideas to blossom in the South. When it is cold, you have to think fast. But heat is deadening, and you can take refuge in it. You can lose hours, days, even perhaps a lifetime in the heat.
This will be a hot day, the promise of it in the cloudless blue of the sky, tightening now above her as the day begins to take hold. But it is still very early and the backyard remains coot and soft under the tall oaks and maples, shaded in grays as if ghosts are about.
Ghosts. If there are any here, oozing about on the gray-green carpet of grass this early morning, there are none she knows. Certainly not the ghost of her husband, Congressman Fitzhugh Birdsong. If Fitzhugh's ghost haunts any place, it is the sidewalk in front of the Commercial Bank and Trust where he collapsed on a February morning eight years before. Harley Gibbons, the president of the bank, had taken her hand at the hospital and said, "Bright, he didn't suffer. He was dead before he hit the pavement." Sweet, gentle Fitzhugh. Finally home from Congress after all those years — through Roosevelt and Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon. And dead on the sidewalk two weeks later.
There are echoes of Fitzhugh Birdsong, to be sure. The hum of the ancient Kelvinator refrigerator. The stacks of National Geographics he loved to read because he was so much a man of the world, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Papers, books, memorabilia packed away in the attic. And two children, of course. Roseann and Little Fitz, leading their own lives now, no longer Bright's responsibility. But no ghosts. Bright has no time or patience for hauntings.
Gladys lifts her head from her dish, cocks it to one side, stares balefully out of her one good eye. Then she turns toward the opening in the bricks, stops for a moment and sniffs the patch of mint next to the back steps. She looks up at Bright again and Bright gives her a pat on the head, scratching for a while behind her ears. Gladys emits a low, grateful moan and heads back under the house. In a moment, Bright can hear her banging against the pipes, moving in fits and starts toward her cool place under Bright's bedroom. She leaves Bright alone in the soft quiet, thinking that Gladys is just the kind of dog for a woman who has retired from responsibilities and hauntings. They both simply accommodate and have no truck with nonsense.
Things remain tranquil for only a moment, until Bright hears the whine of machinery from the shed behind Montgomery V. Putnam's house next door. A low, singing whine — some kind of saw, or perhaps his lathe. Buster Putnam (she can't help but think of him as Buster) has been using his lathe a lot lately, turning spindles for a banister. The whole house is failing down around his ears, and Buster is turning spindles.
Buster Putnam is recently retired from the United States Marine Corps, where he was a lieutenant general and very nearly commandant of the entire business. Except for an incident in Korea, they said, he would have had his fourth star. But he has finished his military career with only three and come home to reclaim a family relic, the house next door to Bright that people have been calling the Putnam mansion since Buster's grandfather, the founder of Putnam's Mercantile, built it in the 1880s, when the town began to prosper. It has never truly been much of a mansion, but for a long time it was the closest thing to the genuine article in town. Now it is just a flaking, fading, two-story white-columned beast of a house. It was cut up into apartments back in the fifties and for the past two years it has stood empty, considered unfit even for apartment dwellers. Buster bought it from a real estate broker for next to nothing, and folks generally said that he got exactly what he paid for.
Decay has descended upon the house like a shroud. The upper story is entirely uninhabitable. Buster lives in two rooms downstairs. A man came to inspect the roof shortly after Buster took up residence, and the minute he stepped of his ladder, he fell through. Bright was standing at the kitchen sink and she heard him bellow as the rotten boards gave way and he crashed into an upstairs bedroom. When she got to her own back steps, drying her hands on a dish towel, she could see the big hole in the roof where he had gone in. The fall did him considerable damage. The Rescue Squad came wailing up in their orange and white truck, and when they carried the roofer down the stairs on a stretcher, they knocked over the banister and sent it crashing into the hallway. Since then, Buster has spent a lot of time in the workshop he has set up in the shed out back, turning new spindles for the banister on his lathe, while the hole in the roof remains covered with a sheet of black plastic, tacked down by boards. No roofer in his right mind will go near it.
Yes, it is the lathe Bright hears now. She has learned its low, singing hum and then the sharper sound as the lathe chisel bites into the wood. In a moment, if he is drunk, Buster will start singing.
"Down in the valllleeeeyyyyyy he begins. Then, 'Aaarrrgghhh. Aw, SHIT!"
Buster is sitting on the floor of the shed by the time she gets there, clothes and hair speckled with wood shavings, blood dripping from a gash in his left thumb, blood-stained chisel lying on the sawdust-littered floor next to him. The lathe is still humming, the spinning slab of wood a yellow blur. Bright stands in the doorway for a moment, hands on hips, surveying the mess while Buster squints bleary-eyed up at her. Then she finds the switch on the lathe and turns it off. The smell of liquor is powerful.
"Buster, don't you know better than to mess around with machinery when you've been drinking whiskey?" She laces her voice with disgust, but not too much.
"Gin," he says.
"It's all the same. It's all whiskey. Don't quibble over nomenclature."
Buster holds out his hand. "I'm bleeding to death."
She bends, takes his left hand by the wrist, looks at the gash. "No, you're not bleeding to death, but you're going to need some stitches."
She looks around for something to wrap around the thumb, but there is only a filthy rag on the workbench along one wall of the shed. "Don't you have a first aid kit?"
Buster shakes his head. "Do you think a man who would fool with machinery while he's drunk would have sense enough to keep a first aid kit in his workshop?"
"I suppose not." Bright picks up a knife from the workbench, cuts a slit along the hem of her thin housedress, tears off a strip of the cloth. She wraps it around Buster's thumb several times, then splits one end of the cloth into two strips and ties it off neatly with a little bow.
She works quietly, and as she does she is suddenly aware of the smell of wood, the rich pungent aroma of nature's secret laid open, fresh and raw and sweet. It is powerful, a rush of remembrance. Her father's sawmill, the smell of fresh-cut wood, the whine of machinery, her father towering far above her in his tall leather boots and khaki clothes. She remembers, as if it were yesterday, seeing a man's arm cut off at the elbow by a huge circular saw, the agonized shriek as spinning metal tore flesh and bone, blood everywhere, her father scooping her up in his strong arms and turning her away from the sight. But not before she had seen everything. It is something long buried, along with so much else, but now suddenly sharp and alive, horrible in a strange, delicious way. She draws in a quick breath, drops her hands to her sides, stands there staring at the bandage she has made around Buster Putnam's wound.
Buster looks up at her. "Bright, will you marry me?"
She shakes herself. "Of course not," she says after a moment.
"You're too young for me. And you're a mess."
Buster nods. "I suppose you're right. I've always felt like a little kid around you."
Buster is only two years younger than Bright, but she remembers him as a little boy in overalls in the long ago when they were growing up in next-door houses on the other side of town, always standing back at the edge of whatever crowd they were in, too young to be accepted by the older kids but earnestly hoping someone would notice him. Shy, too. Strange, she always thought, that he had become a Marine. And a general at that.
Buster had been quite the celebrity when he came home from his distinguished military career — tall, trim, hair just beginning to fleck gray. He was sought after. He was grand marshal of the Veterans Day parade, became a director of the Commercial Bank and Trust, even addressed a joint session of the legislature at Governor Fitz Birdsong's urging. Widowed ladies and even some with husbands had fawned over him. But then they had seen Buster begin to unravel. The first sign was the day he spoke before the United Methodist Women on World Missions Day. He had shown up smelting strongly of bay rum oil and bourbon and proceeded to say that he had "never seen a foreign country worth pissing on, much less fighting over or saving for Jesus." After that, people began to draw back, and Buster became an object of morbid curiosity.
This morning, he is clad in a faded plaid flannel shirt and an old pair of brown trousers, shiny with wear. He has a stubble of beard on his jowls and his eyes are glazed and bloodshot. Decay has descended on Buster Putnam the way it has descended upon his homestead. Perhaps it is the house, eating at his vitals.
"Have you been up all night?" Bright asks.
"Not only up all night, but out all night. I have drunk me some terrible gin and paid court to some homely women, and it took all night to do it."
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself," she says.
"Probably." He doesn't seem very ashamed, but he does look perplexed, as if he has lost something.
"What's the matter with you?" she asks.
He holds up his bandaged thumb. "I'm wounded."
"No," she says with a wave of her hand. "I mean in general."
He ponders that for a long moment, and then he says quietly, "I'm not sure who I am any more. They used to call me General, but I'm not a general any more. You call me Buster, but I haven't been Buster for years. I got over being Buster, by God. And the boys at the Spot don't know what the hell to call me, so they just call me sir. Except for one asshole who calls me General Patton, even though I keep telling him that Patton was an Army sonofabitch."
"You don't have to curse, Buster," Bright says.
"Sorry. Old habits, you know. . ."
"You don't need anybody to tell you who you are, Buster."
Buster nods. "Maybe you're right. Maybe I need somebody to tell me what to do."
"What you need to do is get hold of yourself
"Ah, yes. Come to grips. That's the way my father used to say it. Come to grips with yourself. I think he always assumed that I had come to grips with myself because I made a career as a military man. And I suppose I thought so too. But now..."
Buster shrugs. "I am as you see me. I don't have anybody to tell me what to do any more."
"Nobody tells generals what to do. They tell everybody else what to do."
"Oh, no." Buster shakes his head. Flecks of sawdust fall from his hair and cling to the flannel shirt. "Everybody has somebody telling them what to do, all the way up the line. Even the president. He has people telling him what he ought to do, which is the same thing, maybe even worse."
Bright looks him over, wondering what his wife was like, if she told him what to do. They divorced several years ago, childless. Buster should be enjoying his retirement now, at ease with a wife in a nice house, perhaps a condominium at Hilton Head within walking distance of a marina or a golf course. Instead.... Yes, what he needs to do is get a grip on himself.
"Well, what you need to do now," she says, "is get some stitches in your thumb. Can you drive?" He looks up, gives her a crooked grin. "No, of course you can't drive. You're drunk and wounded."
So Bright quickly changes into a cotton dress, fetches her purse and her old Plymouth, and takes Buster Putnam to the hospital. There is only a nurse on duty in the emergency room, but she finds a doctor making his early morning rounds. Buster is perched on an examining table, holding his injured hand in the other, when the doctor comes in. He is an earnest-looking young man carrying a clipboard and a Styrofoam cup of coffee, wearing a loose white jacket over an open-necked madras shirt, khaki pants, no socks. A stethoscope hangs out of a jacket pocket. He looks vaguely familiar, but Bright can't place him. "Morning," he says. "Got a little problem here?"
"Wounded in action." Buster holds up the bandaged thumb.
The young doctor lays the clipboard and coffee cup aside and pulls up a stool, wrinkling his nose a bit at the gamy smell of dissipation that rises from Buster's body and clothing. He unwraps Bright's homemade bandage from around Buster's thumb and the wound opens and blood flows again, dripping on the green tile floor of the emergency room until the doctor dabs at it with a piece of gauze. Everything is shades of green and stainless steel here. Things hiss and burble, little green machines on stainless steel tables, everything on rollers. Nothing is permanent in an emergency room. You could clear the place and have a volleyball game in two minutes. Standing here, smelling the antiseptic smell and seeing the impermanence of it, she is glad that Fitzhugh Birdsong died on the sidewalk in front of the Commercial Bank and Trust, not in a hissing green emergency room.
"Well, it's not life-threatening," the doctor says. "A few stitches ought to take care of it. How did you do it?"
"Operating a wood lathe while intoxicated," Buster says matter-of-factly.
"Well, that was pretty dumb," the doctor says mildly.
"Just fix the goddamn thing!" Buster booms, drawing himself up, eyes steely, back and shoulders straight. "Excuse me, Bright."
The doctor gives him a close look. "You're General Putnam, aren't you?"
"Yes. And I don't need any advice, Bubba."
The doctor shrugs. "This is an emergency room, not a counseling center." He peers at the wound for a moment. "I'll put a little shot of novocaine in it, then sew you up."
"Don't bother with the novocaine," Buster orders.
Another shrug. "Suit yourself." He puts a metal tray under Buster's hand and sloshes a good deal of alcohol into the open wound and the blood turns the alcohol pink. Bright starts to turn away, finds that she cannot, that she is gripped by the pinkness, the thin trickle of blood oozing from the wound, and — for the second time in less than an hour — by a powerful remembrance of her father. A look of utter surprise on Dorsey Bascombe's face, a summer morning exploding, blood everywhere, a scream from somewhere so deep inside her it has no sound. She feels a wave of weakness wash over her and she puts her hand quickly to her temple.
The doctor glances up, concerned. "Miz Birdsong, are you all right? Maybe you better go outside and sit down." And that is when she recognizes him or, more accurately, recognizes the family resemblance. He is a Tillman, she thinks, a grandson or perhaps a grand-nephew of Finus Tillman, the doctor of her childhood. She feels and smells the house of Dorsey Bascombe's wounded agony as if it were here now, here instead of this green hissing antiseptic room.
She shakes her head, startled and unnerved by the memory. "No!" The doctor starts to rise, but she waves him back, fighting to calm herself. "No. I'll be all right." She looks around, spies another stool. "I'll just sit right over here. I'm fine. Really. You go right ahead."
"Okay. But don't pass out on me, now."
He is a nice young man, she thinks. Tillmans make good doctors. They comfort well. Bright sits on the stool, folds her hands in her lap, gives him a faint smile.
He nods, goes to work silently. He uses a tiny silver needle shaped like a fishhook and very thin black thread, working his way from one end of the gash to the other — a quick stab through the skin on one side of the rupture, then a twist of his fingers to bring the needle up through the other side, tying off each suture with a delicate knot and snipping the thread with a small pair of scissors before starting the next one.
Bright stares, horrified by what she sees, forgetting her own discomfort. Sweat pops out on Buster's upper lip and his jaw muscles twitch. He looks over at her for a quick moment and she sees the pain and panic, raw in his eyes. Clearly, Buster now wishes he had opted for the novocaine. But it is too late. He has committed himself and he is unable to draw back because he is a man and a Marine and a fool, unyielding in his cussedness the way a man will be when trapped between the folly of a bad decision and the rock wall of his own pride. Stupid! Bullheaded, stupid, selfcentered man! she thinks, the anger rising in her. She wants to scream at him, but she holds it in. Let him suffer! He asked for it!
There are eight stitches in all, each one an exquisite violation of flesh. The doctor looks up at Buster once in midoperation, grunts and continues. And finally he is finished, dropping the needle and scissors with a clatter into the metal pan. "Okay?" he asks Buster simply.
Buster nods weakly, relief flooding his face. The stubble of his beard stands out starkly against his pale skin and now there is sweat all along his forehead, a tiny trickle of it just next to his right ear.
The doctor swabs the wound with an orange substance that smells a little like creosote, then wraps it with gauze, around and around the thumb, securing it with strips of adhesive tape until it looks like a small mummy. "It's going to throb for a while, so I'll write you out a prescription for some pain pills." No argument on that from Buster. "You'll need to keep it clean. Change the bandage every day."
"I don't know how," Buster says obstinately.
For the first time, the doctor looks exasperated. "Can you change his bandage, Miz Birdsong?"
She is so mad now, she can hardly speak. "Yes. I'll change his bandage." She gets up from the stool, trembling. "Pay the bill, Buster," she snaps. "I'll be in the car." And she turns on her heel, feeling both their eyes on her as she stalks out.
It takes ten minutes for Buster to reach the car, but she is still seething, the anger gnawing at her empty stomach like a small razor-toothed animal. He has barely closed the door before she lurches away from the curb in front of the hospital and roars onto Birdsong Boulevard. Buster seems not to notice. He slumps against the door, staring vacantly out the window; he is somewhere far off, perhaps on a landing craft chugging toward some white-hot beach. He was wounded and decorated at Iwo Jima, she knows that. And there had been Korea. Is that what got him in hot water in Korea, his bultheadedness? She doesn't want to know. She has had a bellyful of Buster Putnam this morning.
But they have gone scarcely a block before her anger gets the better of her. She turns suddenly and barks at him, "Why did you do that?"
"Do what?" Buster says absently.
"What are you trying to do to yourself?"
He rouses himself from wherever he has been, turns to her with an odd took, holding his injured hand gingerly, as if it belonged to somebody else. "I don't know what you mean."
"That...." Her voice shakes. Her hands grip the steering wheel like a vise. "That performance in there."
He turns away again, looks out the window.
"Do you think if you hurt yourself enough you'll find out who you are? Good Lord, Buster. That house, failing down around your ears, the hole in the roof, the way you live" — she is fairly sputtering now, the words pouring out in a torrent — "that... that thumb!"
He stares at her for a moment, then says mildly, "Don't you think you'd better slow down?"
She realizes suddenly that she is driving much too fast. The old Plymouth is groaning and shaking as it hurtles down the long gentle hill that Birdsong Boulevard takes from the hospital to town, houses on either side whizzing by.
"How I drive is my business!" she bellows, infuriated now.
"And how I act is my business," Buster says. "So if you'll just pull over to the curb here and let me out, I'll walk home and let you proceed on like Fireball Roberts."
She twists the steering wheel and jams on the brake and the car slews to a stop against the curb, the right front tire bumping up on the grass of somebody's lawn, just missing a nandina bush and jostling both of them thoroughly. Buster reaches out with his good hand and braces himself against the dashboard until the car bounces to a stop. But he doesn't say a word until he has opened the door and climbed out, taking his own sweet time about it, then stuck his head back in the open window.
"And what about you, Bright?" It startles her. "What...?"
"Sitting over there so quiet in that big house of yours. What are you hiding from? Are you trying to figure out who you are too?"
It stuns her. "You go to hell, Buster Putnam!" she cries. And he withdraws his head quickly before she takes it off, stomping the gas again and bumping back onto Birdsong Boulevard with a nasty roar of the Plymouth's engine and a belch of gray smoke from the tail pipe, leaving Buster standing by the nandina bush. She doesn't took back. Damn him! Who does he think he is!
A block from home the car begins to sputter, the engine cutting in and out. Bright bangs her hand on the dashboard in anger and, with that, the car quits entirely. She shoves the gearshift into neutral and rolls to a stop against the curb, then sets the hand brake and sits there for a moment, boiling, muttering under her breath at Buster Putnam and the aging Plymouth. Both of them are old and ornery. She doesn't know what is wrong with Buster, but she has no doubt about the Plymouth. Vapor lock. That's what Big Deal O'Neill calls it, vapor lock. When the car gets overheated, the gasoline in the fuel line vaporizes. And the engine quits. Arzell, Big Deal's chief mechanic at the Ford dealership, has clamped wooden clothespins along the length of the fuel line to absorb the heat, and things are fine as long as Bright doesn't drive too far on a hot day or push the car too hard. Which she has just done.
There is no use sitting here. Nothing to do but abandon the car. Later, she will send Big Deal to pick it up and have Arzell tinker with it some more. Big Deal is patient with Bright and her Plymouth, even though he is a Ford man. There is no longer a Plymouth dealer in town, and besides, Big Deal and Little Fitz Birdsong have been lifelong friends.
So Bright gets out of the car, leaves the key in the ignition, walks the rest of the way home, calming herself as she goes. Enough of Buster Putnam, she decides. He can fall through the roof, cut off his head with a table saw for all she cares. She won't be responsible.
As she passes the Methodist parsonage, several doors down from her own home, she thinks, That's what's got your bowels in an uproar, Bright Birdsong. Responsibility. For a few minutes there, she felt just a tiny bit responsible for Buster Putnam. It is a bad old habit she has meant to be rid of. Responsibility. For most of her life it has been her great burden — the aches, sufferings, worries about the people she has felt responsible for, those who had claim on her life and her heart. She realizes that she has largely defined herself by her responsibilities. She has a great sense of having poured her own life into the people she felt responsible for, then giving them up — parents, children, husband. Children, she has been giving up since the beginning, with the sadness that came from releasing them from the womb. And Fitzhugh, dead on the sidewalk in front of the Commercial Bank before either of them had a chance to set things right.
No, the devil with responsibilities. She wants no burden. No Buster Putnam with his life flaking away like weathered paint, no Roseann, no Little Fitz. They will come and go this week, and she will bear up as gracefully as possible. But she will welcome their leaving. No, Buster Putnam, I know exactly who I am. A woman who just wants to be quiet. It is precious little to ask after a long life filled with noise. Enough is enough.
Once home, Bright shakes herself free of it and busies herself with routine. First to the backyard to retrieve Gladys's empty dish, wash it out with the garden hose, and place it on the steps to dry in the morning sun. Then she drags the hose across the yard to splash the birdbath full of water while the birds scold her tardiness from the trees above. She coils the hose neatly beneath the kitchen window and goes back in the house, pours a cup of coffee in the kitchen and takes it to the front porch, sits in a wicker rocking chair, sipping the coffee and watching Claxton Avenue wake to the morning. It is seven-thirty. A refrigerated delivery truck throbs at the front of the Dixie Vittles across the way. The car that had been parked in front is gone, perhaps already home now with a batch of rutabagas. Big Deal O'Neill unlocks the door at his Ford dealership halfway down on Claxton. A steady stream of cars tops the rise on the River Bridge from the new subdivision beyond and traffic has picked up along Birdsong. It is already warm, even out here in the shade of the porch, the new sun climbing white and hot above the trees beyond the river. The quiet, best part of the morning is gone. But Bright means to collect her wits between now and midmorning, when Roseann arrives. She will need her wits for Roseann.
And then, for some reason she can't fathom, she thinks of Rhapsody in Blue.
It happens to her often — has, in fact, for all her life. Snatches of music pop into her head and then grow, passages repeating themselves and giving birth to others, sometimes staying with her all day until she drifts into sleep with melodies and words finally fading. It has become something of a game, trying to figure out where they come from and why. Why Rhapsody in Blue this particular morning?
Whatever the reason, the music dances in her mind, piano and orchestra, bits and pieces from the score, until finally she gives in to it, sets her coffee cup down on the table beside the wicker chair and goes into the parlor, opens the phonograph cabinet, gets out the album she brought home from Washington in 1942, a gift from Fitzhugh. It is a two-record set of oversized 78's in a cardboard sleeve. There is a picture of a champagne glass on the cover, musical notes rising like bubbles from the glass. It takes one side of each of the thick vinyl discs to get through Rhapsody in Blue. On the other record is An American in Paris. George Gershwin himself at the piano with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, the original version from the masters. She has heard the piece played without interruption by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops on television, but it seems strange without the pause for the records to change. She prefers the old 78's, the tiny clicks and scratches like static from an ancient radio, recalling sounds long lost in the ether. Bright stacks the records on the changer, and by the time she gets back to her rocker it has begun — the low trill of the solo clarinet climbing to a siren wail, high and lonesome, beckoning magic.
Sitting now on her front porch with the music drifting through the screen door from the living room, it all rushes back, speaking of time forever lost. It was supposed to be so different. He was supposed to come home from Washington satisfied that he had made an indelible mark on history, satisfied to grow old with Bright in the company of this small Southern town that had revered him and sent him to Congress as many times as he cared to go. And then they would make amends and nobody would have to choose anymore, nobody would have to win or lose. But it took Fitzhugh just two weeks after he'd come home to drop dead of a heart attack, to leave her with the terrible, numbing sense of being abandoned again.
Bright Birdsong does not want to think about all this here on her front porch on this warm June morning. Or does she? Why has she put Rhapsody in Blue on the phonograph, if not to stir up old haints and poisons? She just wants to be quiet, to be left alone. Doesn't she? And she wants very much not to be mad as hell at Fitzhugh Birdsong. But she is.