August 5, 2013 9:40:55 AM
In Part I Sunday, Rachel awakes in the night to find her home being vandalized, hiding under the bed until the intruders have departed. Her brother, Stephen, urges her to leave for Ohio to live with their mother, leaving behind her meager life as a truck-stop waitress and every-scheming boyfriend, Dale, who is in Hattiesburg talking to some strangers about the dubious prospects of opening a buffalo ranching operation...
The windows are down and the music up and a beer sits between Dale's legs as he drives along Highway 98. Hattiesburg had been what he expected and both the cooler and gas tank are full. A buffalo farm is on its way to southeast Mississippi. He met the man with the money, who had friends down from Birmingham with more money. They piled into a pickup and drove into the Forrest County countryside and saw the acreage, met the men who would tend the herd, walked around with their hands on their hips. Dale couldn't afford what they were asking but he talked like he could. So the men with the money bought his dinner and drinks and later he danced with a redhead and then a brunette and shook hands firmly and almost believed he was the big shot he pretended to be. When they left the last bar at two in the morning, he lifted the twenty dollar bill that was left for the tip and that gave him money for gas and beer for the ride home. He slept in the backseat of the small Nissan at the city park and awakened with a terrible catch in his neck, but cigarettes and tacos and a clear highway later, the day seems to open its arms and going home empty-handed is an afterthought.
He finishes a beer and tosses the can out of the window. The Styrofoam cooler sits on the passenger's seat and he takes another from it. He looks around at the inside of the car and thinks he might stop and give it a vacuum, maybe even wash it. Give Rachel something to smile about.
Along the side of the highway, old men sell watermelons, peanuts, sweet potatoes out of the back of their trucks. He waves to them as he passes, wonders what kind of money they make. Wonders if any of them need a partner.
He hasn't held a job since the textile plant laid him off. But Dale, unlike the others who set small fires and tossed rocks through windows on their last day of work, wasn't upset by it. He figured the severance pay was good enough and it would give him time to think. To figure out how to work less, make more. All he needed was a catchy phrase on a t-shirt or a gadget that no housewife could live without.
He'd been thinking now for almost three years and the best he'd done was a booth each year at the county fair selling giant pandas. Which he didn't like because he didn't make enough to hire someone to do the actual work.
He was smart enough to know Rachel never complained as much as she wanted. They live in her mother's house, square and small and free. The Nissan is Rachel's, passed down from Steven. Dale keeps the grass mowed, the dishes washed. Her uncle bush hogs the 20 acres twice a year. Every once in a while he cooks dinner. If she wants more out of him, she hasn't said it. Or at least she hasn't said it loud enough. He anticipates the day when he can tell her to quit her waitress job at the truck stop, that we're moving up in the world. How about a weekend in Gulf Shores to celebrate?
He tosses another empty can out of the window.
The men from Birmingham said he needed $20,000 to get a piece of the herd. Said he could turn around and make twice that once the buffalo matured and went on the market. And then you were set. Turn it over and turn it over and watch the money grow. You have to spend money to make money, they told him. Heck, everybody knows that, Dale said and laughed big. But they might as well have asked for a million as the twenty bucks Dale swiped at the bar was it. Anywhere.
A few miles down the road he passes another old man with another pickup truck and in the back of it sit giant Winnie the Poohs. Dale slows to get a closer look at the huge yellow heads, as big or bigger than his white-faced pandas. The old man waves and Dale shakes his finger at him, then yells out of the window, "Don't even think about bringing your tail to the fair!"
Rachel rests on the shredded sofa, still in the robe, her forehead moist with sweat. She salvaged little from the kitchen floor and emptied what was left in the refrigerator into a garbage bag. The cabinet doors were ruined and they lay in a pile by the side of the road. The tile floor is mopped, the living room vacuumed. She tried to scrub a three-foot middle finger off the kitchen wall but the black paint only smeared and formed a circle of gray clouds, hollow in the center. She will need paint for the kitchen, she doesn't know what for the wood panels of the living room. There won't be money to replace an entire wall.
She's happy the television is gone and she wonders what Dale will do now.
The place still stinks so she gets up and opens windows. It smells like urine but she checked the carpet for damp spots and found nothing. She hopes Dale will show up before she has to go to work and help move the furniture out to the road.
She found her cigarettes and she lights one as she gazes out of the kitchen window, the grass high and healthy across the fields though the summer has been dry. She leans on the counter, wonders where that smell is coming from.
She envies the people who did this, the young, careless voices that scared her underneath the bed while they raged with careless intentions. She tried to remember what it was like to not give a damn. She wanted to not give a damn right now. Like Dale. She knew that he would walk in the door, shrug his shoulders, say it ain't so bad. Say why don't we cook out tonight. Say we need to go to the pawn shop and get another TV. And she'd go along with it. She figures it will be weeks before the four-letter words are painted over. Weeks before the smell disappears. Weeks before she gives up on him doing anything to help. Those little pricks. She imagines them sleeping late, comfortable in black and white dreams of apathy.
Dale hasn't always been this way and she can't think of anything from before they were married that warned he was a rabbit chaser. The year's worth of severance pay they spent in a few months, taking weekends in Memphis and Jackson, drinking without asking prices, dancing until the lights came on. Then seeing the end of the road, she began picking up double shifts at the truck stop again. But instead of looking for work, Dale started talking schemes, quick fixes, early retirement--talk that she listened to, smiled at, figured it would wear off.
It began with Dale sitting up all hours of the night, watching infomercials, making notes, writing descriptions of typical people with typical needs that weren't being met to the fullest with their typical household products. He would draw sketches of new inventions--rough, childlike sketches that were often as simple as triangles on top of squares or circles inside of triangles. Sketches only Dale could understand. Then he began naming the sketches--red light radar detector, solar-powered can opener, shandals (shoes that transform into sandals in two easy steps), movie in a box. He'd stand in the kitchen for hours, staring at the appliances, going through the motions of cooking dinner for six, imagining cleaning corners that had never been cleaned. He bought stamps and envelopes and wrote elaborate letters to invention companies. They didn't answer. He called the 800-numbers from the infomercials hoping to speak to the man in charge but the operator only processed orders. He asked Rachel about her domestic needs, about how her feet felt after ten hours of filling coffee cups and busing tables. But she was too tired to help.
So he turned his attention outside the house. They had 20 acres, plenty of space to turn plenty of profit. He fenced off three acres and bought llamas, though he never understood what he was supposed to do with them. The llamas bayed all hours of the night, ate without ceasing, several of them hopped the fence and were found as far as ten miles away. He finally gave away the few that hadn't escaped to a petting zoo in Hammond, Louisiana.
To cheer him up after the llama fiasco, Rachel took him to the county fair. They rode the Ferris wheel, ate cotton candy, threw darts at balloons. But all Dale could say during the evening was, "Why couldn't I have been the guy who thought up fairs?" The next year he set up the giant panda booth. And he discovered people love giant pandas. But the fair is only a month out of the year. Which returned him quickly to nowhere.
"Buffalo. Buffalo," Rachel says and laughs. She doesn't understand why Dale needs the big score. He never says what he might do if he hits. She figures they will live right where they live, know the people they already know. Maybe eat better, build a pool, drive faster. Steven has been after her for the last year to leave him, sell the house, go to Ohio and stay with mom. Do your own thinking. Get away from this sorry piece of you-know-what.
But she doesn't want to think or leave and something inside her can't help but smile when a new idea pops into Dale's head, like a child entertained by a burning match.
She drops her cigarette into the sink and walks into the bedroom, kicks off her sneakers and drops her robe. She looks into the closet and doesn't like anything. She looks around the room and doesn't like anything. Her naked body looks back at her in the mirror. It doesn't like anything either.
She puts her robe back on, and from the nightstand drawer she takes out the house insurance policy, two credit cards she keeps hidden from Dale, and a small photo album. She picks her purse up from the floor, then she walks back into the kitchen and lights another cigarette. She stands in the house she has known as a child, as a teenager, as an adult, but she is like a ghost in a ghost town.
And it surprises her how easy it is to walk over to the shredded sofa and drop the lit cigarette.
2. Possumhaw: Here today, gone tomorrow LOCAL COLUMNS
4. Editorial cartoon for 3-19-18 NATIONAL COLUMNS