“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the
spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley
which was full of bones.”
— Ezekiel, 37:25
From his wheelchair he watched her snap open the short beige drapes of the picture window with one quick separation of her plump hands. My god, the woman’s getting as big as a parachute, he thought. Mrs. McArdle supervised the afternoon shift and, as far as Sheedy was concerned, she considered the title on her name pin license to behave like a royal bitch. Because he had been there so long, she felt he deserved her personal attention, or so she said. He was the only real celebrity at The Meadows and she was determined to make the most of it. Sheedy had to wonder, as he did in the case of most women he encountered, when she last happily opened her legs for a man.
“It’s too nice a day to be a shut-in like this, Mr. Sheedy,” she said in a voice so sweet and controlled it made him gag. “It’s so sunny and green and so…full of robusto.”
Easy enough for you to say, he thought, looking down at legs that had outraced his spirit many years before.
“Well, what are we having for treats today, Mr. Sheedy?”
“Who’s ‘we’?” he grumbled. “Who’s ‘we’ is what I want to know.”
Mrs. McArdle cut him short.
“We’ve got grape juice, apple juice, cranberry juice and lemonade.”
“Oh, a little Scotch will do me just fine.”
“Now, Mr. Sheedy, we’re not going to go into all that again. It’s what got you here in the first place. Three strokes are enough for anybody.”
“A coupla’ big Scotches and over and out is all I’m asking for,” he snapped. “And it’s nothing short of indecent of you and a crime to keep it from me.”
Mrs. McArdle faced him front and center, folded her large forearms and pouted. “We’re just not going to let that happen, Mr. Sheedy.”
“Okay then, let’s try a twenty-five year old and plop her right down on my face,” he said, laughing, wheezing, coughing, coughing uncontrollably.
“Serves you right, Mr. Smarty Pants,” she said, making her mouth even smaller. She waited then, wagging her jowls self-righteously, until his coughing subsided and he folded a glob from his lips into a tissue with his only good hand, the hand he held his camera with, his left.
“Are we going to miss treats today then, or are we going to be polite and civil?” she threatened.
“Polite and civil,” he conceded, head bowed.
“All right. Now. What will it be?”
“Grape juice and chocolate chip peanut butter cookies.”
“Coming right up, and Mr. Hot Shot, I just happen to have an extra half cookie. I’ll be right back.”
Damn her, he thought. Dammit, dammit. If I could get up, I’d choke the bitch to death.
He might have continued this fantasy but the newspaper he had tossed onto his bed just minutes before again caught his attention. An adolescent ache made him sit upright from his slump. He grabbed the newspaper, shook it, spread it out as best he could with his good hand and read the one paragraph article at the end of the “Notables” section on the obituary page:
NOTED INTERIOR DECORATOR
Clara Simpson, one-time actress and interior decorator to many of the stars of the Forties and Fifties, died yesterday in a Santa Monica nursing home. She was 79. The cause was cancer. She left no survivors.
“So,” he said to the walls. “So, she has been alive all these years.” There were periods of time — weeks, months — when he did not think of her at all, and then other moments when the memory of her sun struck face brought him back to tears of spite and fury. “So,” she had been alive, and never once tried to contact him.
Seventy-nine, they say. Well, I’ll be damned. And here I took her for an older woman. By god, that would have made her twenty-three back then. Orphan, my ass. Runaway’d be my take on her. She’d been around the track all right.
At first, he followed her in the papers. Minor roles mainly. She was screwing all the producers — he knew she was, just knew it –and the leading men too, no doubt. He’d hear about her through old newspaper friends who, like her, had gone west during the Depression. As she got older, it was the younger actors – and actresses too, he bet – she took for a turn between the blankets. He couldn’t really blame them. His black heart burned with lust and envy at every bit of news. And she always did know her color schemes and how to arrange things.
Why, she had even won awards for her work in the decorating business. He’d see her mentioned in the trades. He wondered how she looked when she died. A terrible wish shot through him sharply. He cursed after it, and with the curse, the small testy smirk that invariably cut the corner of his mouth. Maybe she looked as bad as I do now, the smirk said.
As he always did when he didn’t know what to do next, he pushed the button on the control panel of his wheel chair and shot forwards towards the picture window, stopped abruptly, motored backwards. He drove forward and backwards several times using the window as his lens, focusing and refocusing the world outside. He went through this maneuver several times a day, especially when the weather was nice. Now that he could no longer work the camera properly, it helped him diminish the urge to scream out, something the staff and other patients found deeply disturbing. He could handle the dark, dreary days. He liked a good book. The ball games on television. And trading stories with some of the other old men. But the women were too run down and cranky to be of any interest. Sheedy prided himself in knowing that his spirit still fizzed with the passions of his youth. Desire — still there, even at his age.
Yet a day like today was too painful. Nice outside, crisp, breezy, the limbs of the trees flowing easily side to side, their leaves changing hues of green and shady as they faced the sun. Eyeing the window’s lens, he muttered to the part of him that no longer moved, “Make it another photograph. Make it a still life and it will be just another picture in a magazine. Just a daydream, that’s all.”
The flesh will never be alive again, he thought. But the flowers have kept their scent. Catch them. Lock them in. Savor the sensuality as long as you can.
Damn that camera anyway, he thought. That little box had sucked away his life. I should have sawed lumber like my dad did for a living, Sheedy often thought.
After his last stroke, Sheedy tried some of the newer cameras. They were simple enough but he couldn’t stop his arm from shaking. That’s when he decided to use the window as a lens, his left eye as the shutter. As he had done as a boy before he owned a camera. A camera of the mind. When he caught a shot he wanted, he narrowed his eyes to frame it, then blinked, hoping to remember it forever. Mrs. McArdle thought he was winking at her.
“You can be so cute sometimes, Mr. Sheedy,” she’d say.
“Don’t flatter yourself, you old bag. It’s just a nervous twitch. I’m not used to having relics from the Smithsonian in my bedroom.”
* * *
In his later years as a photographer for the local newspaper Sheedy was invited to teach photography classes to art students at the regional college. He held his classes on the two nights during the week when his wife, Marge, played bridge with her golf buddies. The Tuesday class was for theory; Thursday for labs. He liked to tell his students that his left hand grew a camera when he was ten years old, a birthday gift from father, and that he had generally carried a camera of one kind or another in his left hand ever since.
“My dad was a good guy who worked plenty hard six days a week in a lumber yard in the West Bottoms down there in Kansas City. Sundays, he was off. He’d take me and my mother downtown to the Missouri side just to hang out, watch the rich folks show off their new motorcars and what not. Now, for a number of years there was a funny little man who dressed up in a black suit with a vest and watch fob, a derby and a cane who stood on the street corner by his camera stand. It was a little booth with portraits of various people, couples and the like, on one side and what he called art pictures on the other. One such day he was photographing a new building that had just been dedicated by the mayor and all and my dad and I stood there watching him through the whole process. My dad kept leaning over to me, whispering, ‘Did you see this? Did you see that?’ and he’d throw back his head and laugh, and say, ‘That’s quite a machine that man has there,’ and ‘Why, it’s just like magic.’ And then he’d look down at me and say, ‘How would you like to have one of those things some day?’ and I says back, “Well, I wouldn’t mind if I would,’ which set him laughing no end and by golly if he didn’t show up with one on my very next birthday. That was Nineteen Hundred and Fifteen and Kodak had just come out with a Brownie camera. It was a brand spanking new one, all nicely wrapped, and I almost peed my pants when I saw what it was I was so excited. And then if he didn’t go on and take me up to that man and ask him to show me how it worked. The fellah was just as nice as he could be and every Sunday thereafter when we stopped at his camera stand he asked me to show him the pictures I had taken. Now the point of me telling you all this is that back in those days a camera was pretty much nothing more than a curiosity or for family picture albums and such. But not long after that, after the war, that’s when some of us started taking photography seriously. I’m thinking that’s what you’re in this class for. And if you are not, why, you can probably go down to a camera store or some other such place to learn how to load up your film.”
What Sheedy did not tell his students was that two years after his father gave him the gift that changed his life he stood next to his mother and watched her whole spirit empty from her face. Two men in military uniforms had just delivered her a telegram telling her that her husband, Arvid Sheedy, had been killed in action in southern France. He was thirty years old.
For lack of rent money Cabot’s mother, Adele, moved them on the train to the small community in Northwest Missouri where her older brother had a law office and a dairy farm. That’s where she and Arvid met and married. He was a young laborer passing through and the day of their brief wedding at the justice of the peace they rode the train to Kansas City where there were jobs for the likes of him.
Cabot was their only child. His uncle, Langford Mosley, remodeled the back of his downtown law office as a small apartment where Cabot and his mother could live and he could walk to the high school. Two years later Cabot lost his mother in the flu pandemic whirling through the big cities, brought to the small town by whom and in which way was a matter of gossip and speculation. Probably the darkies, the townsfolk decided. Langford made a small sleeping room for him in the attic of his farm house. Uncle Langford and his wife, Bessie, had married later in life and did not have or want children. Bessie was a school teacher and brought him books from the town library. He liked picture books best, drawings and paintings, National Geographic, Life Magazine, Dress And Vanity Fair, Ladies Home Journal, any magazine or book that had a photograph. Later, she would return from trips to Kansas City with books borrowed from the library there that included the works of Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz and Man Ray.
Langford recognized early that Cabot would never be a farmer nor did he show any interest in commerce or horses or hunting and he did not seem inclined to follow him into the law. He was disappointed when Cabot didn’t ask about spending time in his law office going over cases. No curiosity there. Deeds, trusts, estates, real estate deals left Cabot with blank expressions and sad smiles. Langford was an easy man and it occurred to him that the boy never seemed inclined to put his camera down. He carried it with him as though it was a sacred stone. Though Cabot had no money to develop most of the pictures he took, he seemed content to explore the woods on his own or scour the small river and streams nearby to sight his shots and pretend to snap them with a click of his left eye. Langford left him be, the poor kid. Better that than have him scoot off a lost and lonely runaway.
Over the years Cabot’s parents became shadows to him, turn of the century images in the two oval wooden cameo frames Bessie hung on the wall of his attic hideaway. The camera became his closest and most honest friend.
Though Langford might have offered Cabot a semester or two in the local college, he talked little of wanting to go. He seemed content to work odd jobs on nearby farms with his high school friends and deliver for the farm supply outfit and general store, hanging around the newspaper office in between. It had one of the few dark rooms in town and he relished the scent rising out of the solutions in the pans the photographer used to conjure the pictures from their plates.
Marjory Walker, the cute dark haired young woman Cabot married, had gone to a women’s college in Chicago for two years. Marge, as her family called her, was one of his few close childhood friends, then his high school sweetheart. She seemed to have singled Cabot out from the crowd and seemed to enjoy following him on his treks into the woods with his camera and stop to smooch as often as they could. Her father, Ford Walker, by that time a sudden and forlorn widower, could see where they were headed, and it didn’t suit him at all to have a daughter married to a man who spent most of his time fiddling around with a camera. Walker had a hand in most of the business of the town. He was not the richest man around but he owned three farms, several of the town’s buildings including the mortuary, was the mayor for a short time and then continued to serve on the town council. He insisted that his daughter be an educated woman and familiar with what he called “refinements.” When he saw she had no interest in art or music or returning as a teacher he finally gave his blessing for Cabot and Marge to marry but only after persuading his closet friend, Morton Bentley, the newspaper’s owner and publisher, to take Cabot on as an apprentice photographer. Like it or not, Cabot felt obligated to him and tied from then on to Marge, though the feeling of being bound to her by duty didn’t catch up to him until after his brief encounter with Clara had turned him into being resentful and thankful of Ford Walker’s largesse at the same time. In fact, from then on he felt trapped.
Walker had already set aside funds from his wheat and corn crops for his three daughters and it was Marge’s money that guaranteed the mortgage payments for the small gabled house just off Main Street three blocks from the newspaper office. It was her money that paid for the canned goods and other staples they couldn’t grow in the garden out back when times were lean. Until his chance meeting with Clara, Cabot never bothered to think much of other women. Even so, he reckoned Marge was the love of his life.
Marge often told her friends how lucky she was to have snagged him. Though his bachelorhood was short lived, he was on the local ladies’ short list and he knew it. They would say he was different, a romantic, an interesting young man to be around. As the junior photographer for the leading newspaper in Northwest Missouri, he’d seen a lot by the time he met Clara Simpson: murders, speakeasy prostitutes, fights in highway taverns, barns and farm homes struck by lightning and burned to ashes, the wrath of tornadoes, blizzards and hail storms, horrific accidents, the suicides of the desperate people of hard times. He thought of himself as quite a young man.
* * *
He first saw Clara on the arm of her husband, Lewis Lockhart. The stock market had just crashed and much of the country was in turmoil. The farmers of the Midwest didn’t feel the devastation of the calamity until a few years later when the dust bowl reduced their fields to brownish nightmares.
He spotted the well dressed couple strolling arm and arm out of a town meeting just before noon where Sheedy was assigned to take their picture for the newspaper. Lewis was an important man in their small town and the other farmers in the county thought he would make a good governor. He had a broad open face crowned with a thick bush of salt and pepper hair that kept falling over his forehead, wide shoulders and hirsute muscular forearms that bulged forward from rolled cuffs after he peeled off his suit jacket in the muggy early spring afternoon and threw it over a shoulder. Sheedy estimated that Lewis was a good ten years older than his wife.
The event in the town square was the dedication of a small World War I memorial park next to the county courthouse. Lewis quickly edged away from Clara and instantly began visiting with the other dignitaries, shaking hands and laughing loudly at whatever was said, leaving Clara to stand alone in the middle of the crowd. Several women had set up tables and put out a potluck of casseroles, sandwich platters, pitchers of lemonade, cakes and pies. Clara stood apart and it was clear to Sheedy that she hadn’t brought anything for the get together and appeared to have little interest in mixing with the other women. Looking around for admirers, he thought. She stood tall and comfortable in a glowing yellow dress, perfect for the warm spring weather, that made her look glamorous and conspicuously out of place. Sheedy had to wonder if she was posing. The dress was a long slim fit dress with short sleeves that hung easily from her solid, almost muscular frame, a dress one might have seen at Weibolts or Marshall Fields in Chicago or even the fashionable New York stores, unlike the flowered patterns and prints of homemade clothes that hung off the other women, sewn no doubt from Simplicity catalogues. She stood there boldly, bareheaded, no hat –and how could she? It would be hard to wear a hat over her massive mane of hair that reminded him of the mop let go by Greta Garbo, except that her hair seemed sun struck, bold and honey blond, as thick stemmed as golden straw. A lion’s mane on a woman’s head, he thought. A woman with the eyes and demeanor of an animal on the lookout. Sheedy moved in and out of the trees of the park as she wandered through them, holding up the camera as inconspicuously as he could, trying to imagine what a photograph might catch of her in the brightness of the day.
He followed her into the small groups making conversation, eyeing her sideways, pretending not to notice, looking for other ways to frame her. He didn’t want to appear to be on her trail. Yet, he wanted more of her in his camera. It was uncommon to take more than a few photographs at one time at these events. Just needed one for the front page. He knew that. Old Man Bentley was keen on having the latest equipment. He was among the first in the state to buy the new Graphlex Speed Graphic camera that soon became the industry standard for news photographer’s, the camera seen most often flashing in the faces of politicians and gangsters. It thrilled Sheedy just to hold it in his hands, assemble and take it apart, adjust the two shutters, be in control of the big round conical flash. Bentley went on to buy the special holder that held six film sheets. The film was expensive, Bentley often complained, and made his two photographers account for every film slide. “Don’t go round snapping pictures of every goddamn little thing. Use some judgment. It’s not a toy. Just like a hunting rifle. Make every shot count. Ammunition doesn’t grow on trees.”
Within a few minutes Sheedy had snapped two more pictures of Clara Lockhart before suddenly realizing he may have snapped one too many.
He looked up from his camera and there she was, face to face.
“Are you flirting with me?” she asked, tilting her head to one side and looking him over, looking taller than him, though she wasn’t. She carried herself with an openness most of the town’s women rarely showed. In a time when women did not often wear makeup or go to beauty shops, she had done both. She smelled richly of lilacs.
“Yes,” he blurted out with a thickness in his throat that he didn’t want to own. “I suppose I have been and I…”
“Good,” she said, stopping him with an upward flip of her opened hand, and walked away into the crowd smiling over her shoulder at him, moving up behind her husband who was sweet talking three older ladies in decorated bonnets and slipping her arm into his.
Sheedy continued to lurk in the shade of trees until the luncheon on the lawn of the square ended, snapping pictures of the picnic crowd with his remaining plates and watching her with more side glances. She seemed to him to be older than he was, but not by much. At twenty-seven, Sheedy was of average height, trim with a boyish face and wavy brown hair, a man who easily caught a woman’s eye. Marge often told him how handsome he was and how friendly his face.
He was also shy. He lost the shyness as time went on, but in those days, he was very shy. He worked hard at looking and acting forceful. As he left the park, he was afraid his candid “Yes” might have cost him his job. What if she told Lewis about the brash young photographer and Lewis turned him into his boss. Marge thought he was slightly prone to exaggeration. If she knew the word “paranoid,” she didn’t use it, but maybe he was, just a little. Sheedy thought of himself as being skeptical. He was a newspaper guy and that was a given.
He worried about Clara until the next morning when he returned to work. Nothing was said and he went about developing the pictures, anxious only to see if he had one in the batch that might bring a compliment from the paper’s editor, Charley Meeks.
* * *
“Lewis isn’t a mean man,” Clara laughed when he told her about his fears later that week during their first private meeting. “He really is a very sweet, a charming man. Very busy, that’s all. Too busy sometimes for a gal like me.”
“May I ask,” Sheedy began, still shy but feeling gutsy sitting across from her in the cafe where they met, and taking in a slight scent of her perfume, “why then did you marry him?”
“I’m an orphan,” she answered in a candid tone, not seeming flustered at all by his question. “You’re not, so you wouldn’t know what it’s like.” (Sheedy never told her that he was). “I was working in the department store in Kansas City and he came up to me to ask my advice about some fabric for a chair in his living room. Lewis lost his wife several years ago, you see. He inherited this beautiful old house, her family’s, and he’s very fond of nice things. So I told him I needed to see his house and the room where he wanted to place the chair and he drove me up there on the next Sunday afternoon. We went back to Kansas City that night and had dinner at a hotel downtown. The next day he asked me out to lunch and told me he’d been thinking about me all night and decided I was just the right woman for that house. So one thing led to another and I married him. There is something warm and friendly and protective about him. He won’t let anything happen to me. I know that he won’t.”
The little cafe was in an old building on the corner of a back street west of town . None of the men from the newspaper went there that Sheedy knew of and Marge didn’t go out to eat with her friends as women do now. They visited each other in their homes. He wasn’t afraid of gossip. He was more afraid of Clara, her mere presence. At first, his sole means of making conversation was to ask questions and to answer hers.
She had called him and asked to see her pictures.
He was working in the darkroom when Joe Henderson poked his head through the curtains and told him he had a telephone call.
“Are my pictures ready yet,” Clara asked. It wasn’t Marge’s matter-of-fact voice. It was a fullsome voice that sounded sure and demanding.
“Who is this?”
“Just a small town girl who could use a cup of coffee.”
Though he spent most of the next morning thinking of her and had been glancing at her pictures as he worked, he hadn’t expected the call. Some people did like a copy for a scrapbook or to mail to a relative but not usually someone like Clara. So, why then? He took a deep breath and told her he knew of a place and suggested they could meet there without being gawked at.
“Perfect,” she said and hung up.
The cafe he picked was used as a lunch spot by transient salesmen, single pensioners and war veterans from the old soldier’s home. It was in an old building on the corner of a street on the outskirts of town. Nice enough, but simple and private. The waitress served whiskey for special customers in soda bottles. Most people in the county still favored Prohibition but the townspeople generally ignored it. She was a middle aged woman he rescued two years before at a highway joint a few seconds before a drunk threatened to change her looks with a broken beer bottle. He pulled her aside after he seated Clara at a table away from the window and slipped her some small change. He said nothing but she nodded in agreement. She knew how to keep her mouth shut.
He left the paper through the back door and halfway stumbled down the side streets to meet her at the cafe. A bit discombobulating, he thought. Then there they were, face to face. Again.
“These really are good pictures,” she said, shuffling quickly through them. “You want some more?”
By then their hands had brushed passing the sugar and cream. It happened that fast. Her dark clever eyes and the smile that parted her lips erased any reluctance he felt about being with her in the cafe and attracting attention or gossip.
“I do,” he answered, “want…would like, more pictures of you. In fact, you’ve given me an idea.”
He couldn’t believe he brought it, his obsession. But he did. Something about her told him he could. She sat back in such a relaxed way that if she hadn’t been married to such an important man like Lewis he might have thought she had something up her sleeve as well.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Shoot. I’m listening.”
“I’ve had this thought, this idea,” he went on, “for some time but never thought I’d find the woman for it. I really don’t know how to go about telling it to you. I’m afraid I might offend you. You might want to slap my face and walk out. More than an idea, really. An image that’s come to mind many times driving through Kansas looking for objects or places or landscapes to photograph.”
When he told her outright and in detail, she did sit up surprised, leaning forward to listen more closely, hesitated, tilted her head and gave him a puzzled frown, maybe even a shocked expression, and he wondered if he had gone too far. He might have misread her. Gone too fast. He wanted to stand up, excuse himself, apologize, turn and run.
“Really? Look,” she said, relaxing after a thoughtful pause. “I can’t say much right now,” her voice dropping to a whisper. “I want to see you again but like this for a while. It’s complicated. Some day we may just do what you want but I need to know you a lot better. You must understand. You’re pretty fresh, you know. To bring up something like that after just meeting a woman. I might very well have slapped you or screamed or run into the street to look for the sheriff.”
“I’ve taken a big chance. I know that,” he said. “I don’t like to take chances. I don’t know what came over me. I just had a hunch. You must do that to a lot of men. You must already know that. I knew it the minute I saw you. I don’t mean anything disrespectful. I mean what I say as a compliment. I’ve been waiting for a woman like you to show up. A one of a kind. I may still be young but I’m not as green as you may think. I’ve been working on the paper for a while. I’ve seen a lot.”
“I’ll bet you have. There’s a lot more to this county than meets the eye. That’s for sure. I will say this about you. You don’t scare me. I can usually tell about people. I’ve had my eyes opened over time. There’s a lot of bad people running around. That’s why I’ve thrown in with Lewis. He doesn’t scare me. If anything, I can trust him.”
There were more lunches after that and a drink now and then in his Model T pick up or in her new Model A roadster with the convertible top buckled down. Some afternoons they would skip the cafe entirely. She hid her car in a grove of thick maple trees further down the road. From there Sheedy drove his pickup to a spot by the little river where he had gone as a boy when he wanted to be alone. A car parked there couldn’t be seen from the highway or the road that led to it. Sometimes she nipped out of a flask of vodka from her purse. He just looked on as she did. Marge would notice. After several sips from the flask she would look over at him, smile and kiss him softly on the mouth, then turn away. On other days, she slid across the seat and snuggled into his shoulder wanting to be held silently as they listened to the sound of the trees. Had he thought ahead about these moments he would have been frightened, or brushed them aside as unattainable fantasies. But she felt comfortable to be with and he liked laying his face onto her hair. He worried the scent of her perfume would linger on his shirt. He wanted to ask her to leave it off. Didn’t. Didn’t want anything to spoil or end his time with her. On occasion when she kissed him — he had never tried to kiss her — he could feel the very tip of her warm tongue slip between his lips.
The winter wheat crop spread gloriously through Missouri and Kansas that spring, one of the last before the great dust storms. The final weekend in June Marge decided to take the children on the train to visit her elderly aunt and uncle in Marysville for the Fourth Of July. That’s when Cabot called Clara and asked her if she might be up for the shoot he had in mind and she quickly and enthusiastically said, “Perfect.” It was the first time they had discussed his idea since he described it to her. Art for art’s sake. He wanted her in the portfolio he was hoping to send off anonymously to an art gallery in Chicago, her face turned slightly from the camera, obscured by shadows, so she could not be identified, so she could be anonymous and mythical.
Often, sitting alone at night after Marge and the two children were asleep, he sipped a glass of homemade wine and debated an even more terrifying idea — leaving Marge and the two children for a life of photography in Chicago or New York. Just disappear, out of his current life, out of mind. Or maybe he could have it both ways. Be a family man during the week with a secure income and practice his art on his days off. Sell the plan to Marge and her father as a hobby. One style of photography for the common folk, and then pursue photography as art on the sly. The daily humdrum was getting to him. Seeing Clara had given him a face, a body, and a chance to his make his daydream real. Also the possibility of a self-inflicted disaster for himself and for everyone involved.
As it happened, Lewis was on his way to Washington, D.C. and might even have to spend the Fourth of July there at President Hoover’s invitation. It was unusual but the committee he chaired at the Department of Agriculture had more than the usual amount of business and it made no sense for him to leave Washington over the holiday just to return home, turn around and go back.
* * *
They arranged to meet again outside the cafe just after daybreak on Saturday morning. She drove up in a brand new DeSoto convertible that had been custom painted a dark shiny green. Cabot had seen Packards and Lincolns and fancy LaSalles but her DeSoto was the classiest automobile he had ever seen. His Model T pickup, a loaner from the newspaper for chasing stories, looked drab beside it, and trashy.
“You drive,” she said, scooting over.
Cabot stepped back.
“Clara, I’m not so sure that driving your car is such a good idea. Every farmer in Kansas will look up at this car speeding down the roadway. It’s a wowser. Might be safer, do you think, just to hide it here in the trees. I know this pickup might seem pretty rough but…”
“No, no, I guess you’re right,” she shrugged. “I thought it might be worth a rip. But you’re right. I can see that.”
By agreement the day before, he brought some beer and a bottle of wine packed in a wooden box with chunks of ice, and a quilt to spread on the ground. She had a basket of chicken fried by her negro maid, Henrietta, hard boiled eggs, fresh tomatoes, and homemade coleslaw dressed in vinegar and bacon grease and a full fifth of whiskey. Henrietta kept the big house in order, cooked and answered the phone. Clara trained her to say nothing about her comings and goings and paid her on the side to keep quiet. That gave Sheedy some assurance that Lewis would not learn about their adventure. Terrified as he was, he was determined to live out his fantasy, come what may. He had carried the burden of it for so long that the sudden reality of seeing Clara Simpson standing beside him in the shade of the tree, looking up at him, smiling and willing, also made him want to back away. No, he might never have another chance. As surreal as this moment was, not unlike photographs he had seen in art books he was into it now and might never have another chance. It might be now or never.
They drove the country roads through the corn fields on the west side of town where they were likely not to be seen in the dust cloud that followed them. Once beyond Leavenworth they drove the highway past fields of wheat with heads on the stalks so full and heavy they had begun to droop.
The sun came and went through the clouds, turning the wheat fields from gold to silver and back to gold. He turned off the highway and followed the dirt roads until there was nothing but wheat fields. No barns, no silos, no people they could see.
“For some reason I am drawn to old animal bones, especially the skulls of longhorn,” he told her as they drove along. “Don’t ask me why except to say I find a hidden wisdom, a reverence, in their, gosh, how to say it, their lack of expression, their silence. My uncle used to bring me out here on long drives and we’d go for hikes in the woods and he’d point out animal tracks and burrows and different kinds of nests. We’d come across buffalo bones and deer bones and cattle bones. Somehow they still seemed to be alive but in a different kind of way. There’s lots of bones out here. Makes you wonder what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard. The hollows of their eyes haunt me.”
Sheedy found a hiding place for the pickup close to a brown narrow river off a weed covered tractor road and parked it a short distance from the narrow wooden bridge that creaked under its weight. He walked up and down the short bridge to view it from both sides. He doubted that it could be seen. The bridge sat on a dirt country road next to a large rolling wheat field with no farmhouses in sight and little chance of more traffic on a Saturday afternoon. He unloaded the Speed Graphic and his old wooden tripod while she flung the quilt over her shoulder and carried it behind him. He led her by the hand up a wooded slope through cottonwood trees towards the field, lifted the quilt over a barbed wire fence and propped open the wire to the field so she could climb through. As they walked through the rows, he would turn occasionally to catch her profile against the waving of the wheat. The wind had picked up, a high wind that dipped now and then to lift and shimmy the wheat. He found a small open space where two slight undulations in the field converged and set his equipment down there. With the two film sheet holders he bought used from a dealer in Kansas City he had twelve chances of making Clara immortal, immortal to whom he didn’t yet know.
While he cleared the opening further by tramping down a section of wheat and unfolded up the tripod, she spread the quilt over the fallen wheat stalks and began undressing without a word as if they had been married fifty years. Sheedy was surprised at how closely she had listened to his instructions in the cafe when he described the scene and remembered how it was he wanted her to pose in the waving golden stalks. The aroma of the ripening wheat rose in the wind, smelling strong of straw and earth.
She tossed off pieces of clothing, scattering them like leaves. And she was laughing to herself, tossing back her head in a merry, wild laughter that made him like her even more. She undid the two combs holding back her hair and let it fly off onto her shoulders. The wind caught the tresses and scattered them across her back.
He leaned her on his shoulder and helped her pull on a pair of tan colored western style boots. She laughed again and said,
“Well, if I’m struck dead, at least I’ll die with my boots on.”
He positioned her so the sun would light her figure sideways. At times, the sun was almost completely behind the clouds but bright enough to cause her to squint. Then it shown through to light her from above. She laughed and whirled in small circles between shots, a young girl playing in the wind. He commanded her to stand naturally, arms at the side, turning at slight angles, one knee slightly bent. As she did, she invented her own poses, modeling the air and the sun. He hadn’t realized how well formed she was, how dark her nipples, how tawny her complexion. Made him wonder if she had some Mediterranean blood in her lineage, Spanish or French. Her strong thick hair shook long and wavy over her shoulders. Half lion, half lioness, he thought, with her royal mane, an athletic build muscular for a woman, arms and thighs sinewy, buttocks tight, pointed, raised and firm.
He took ten shots. He remembered the exact moment when he took the shot he kept. She had just said, “Here is where I belong. Out here, nothing to hold me back, no fences, no nothing,” lifting her arms slightly outward from her side, her face upward and insistent. Her skin drew tight and smooth over her ribs as she stretched slightly on the toes of the boots and took the sprays of light shooting from the clouds.
When they finished, he helped her slide off the boots and while she dressed, their silence was a mix of awe and reverence. They had done it, hadn’t they, the unspoken grandeur of woman in nature, the triumph, however brief, of flesh over bone, of light over darkness? Sheedy had in his camera, he hoped, a work of art.
He folded the tripod, wrapped the camera in the quilt and packed them into the back of the pickup. They drove further west and found a grove by the river. As he carried down the basket of food and box of ice, Clara moved the camera into the front seat and unfolded the quilt again in the opening of trees, kicked off her shoes and wandered through them.
She was standing behind a tree when she shouted back, “Cabot, come here. You won’t believe what I’ve found.” She turned and pointed away from the river. “The skull of a longhorn. I want it. I want to take it back. I’ll tell Lewis I bought it off a farmer’s wagon in town. I’ve always wanted one. ”
The skull was a good specimen, clean and unbroken, the horns in tact, an animal that might have strayed from the herd, gotten lost, fell ill, broken a limb, starved alone there. It was unusual to find a longhorn that far east. Their remains were more likely to be further west along the trails of the cattle drives from Texas across Kansas up into Montana. But there it was. “Naked and alone…” Sheedy thought, echoing words that stuck with him from the Sunday sermons he heard in his uncle’s Methodist church.
“In many ways, it’s more beautiful dead, don’t you think?” she said. “I mean they’re such dumb looking things with those sorrowful eyes. Clumsy, the ones I’ve seen, wandering around as if they didn’t know where they’re supposed to go. I really wouldn’t mind keeping it. I’ve always wanted one. Maybe I could hang it over the barn door.”
Cabot nodded and said nothing, not wanting to contradict her. He saw the skull himself from another angle, as an emblem, a holy thing, exuding the need for reverence. He walked around it, knelt on one knee, framing it this way and that, wanting to make it memorable. He had two plates left in the truck. He retrieved the camera. The skull sat in a shadow and needed polishing. But he snapped it as it lay, one shot from the front to include both horns, the other from the side. He hoped that in the dark room he might find another work of art, the ordinary intensified, as he liked to say.
Clara had already opened the wine and poured them a drink into the plain water glasses from the picnic basket. They sipped and smiled and watched the leaves of the cottonwoods flutter in the breezes. Clara poured more wine while Sheedy set out the plates and silverware. When they finished eating, they held each other and traded small kisses, relaxed, still enjoying the sound of the leaves and the coolness of the grove, Clara laying her head on his chest.
Sheedy thought he might have dozed. He opened his eyes to see Clara stand, stretch and smile down at him. She lifted the dress over her head and tossed it beside the quilt with her other clothes. Sheedy pushed himself up, stood behind her, slid his arms around her waist and down onto the front of her thighs, kissed her in the curvature of her neck, behind her ear. She turned and helped Sheedy undress and pulled him down by his hands to the quilt. Sheedy could feel the breezes brush over his skin and the bottoms of his feet. He would forever remember that sensation at night when the breezes stirring the trees outside the windows of his house ruffled the curtains and filled the bedroom he shared with Marge.
Her lovemaking was careful and slow. Sheedy had expected her to be aggressive and fierce but she followed his movements and rhythms softly, compliantly. Any fears he had of not pleasing her drifted into the air around them. They moved together softly until their passion intensified and he fell onto her breasts, heaving, his face buried in the sweet smelling nave of her neck and shoulder.
With Marge it was different, he thought then. She rarely refused him and, when she did, she merely turned aside and yawned. That was her signal. Even when she seemed agreeable, Sheedy sensed she was in a hurry for him to finish. Clara took her time and her tenderness calmed him. He had experienced an unexpected moment of panic when she undressed so readily in the wheat field with no hint of needing to hide herself. Now the bones of her body felt small and fragile in his arms and she gave herself willingly, her quiet pleasurable moaning adding to the sensation. Their bodies were a natural fit. What they did with each other felt spontaneous, their nakedness raw. They lay quietly a moment with the breeze stirring lightly over their skin.
When they finished, they held each other for only a moment, then sat side by side staring ahead as if trying to decide what they might do next. Thinking back on that moment over the years Sheedy, the old man, often said aloud, “Art and sex, the perfect pair, and when they are not, booze and baseball.”
Feeling Clara beside him, Sheedy puzzled over what they had just done. There was no reason for him to be unhappy or troublesome with Marge. She was a capable, a smart woman, easy to look at and be with, a good wife and friend. She had made the two of them and the children a comfortable home, was pleasant in their every day encounters, ran the household as one should be. He felt fortunate to have missed the war. Unlike some of his friends who slunk around quietly in the company of the veterans, feeling guilty, he was thankful for his youth and good luck. His job at the newspaper and the fact that he could use the camera as his hunter’s spear might have made another man happy. But Sheedy wanted something more. He wanted to use the camera as the instrument of his art, to have the means and the time to show and explain what he saw. He wanted a partner to do with him what he had daydreamed for years, a woman of the world, a woman like Clara, a perfect woman standing nude and defiant in a field of luminous wheat.
Painters had their oils and brushes. Sculptors their hands, their tools and an infinite universe of materials. Musicians had their voices and instruments. Sheedy had his camera, his eye, the lens his weapon, the whole world his canvas. Most of all it was the restlessness that gnawed at him, the hunt, the hunger to search and find the perfecdt shot.
They drove back to the outskirts of town in the fading light of early evening. Standing by her DeSoto Cabot was suddenly tired and dazed, his body disjointed. As he moved to help Clara into the car she slid down against him, grabbed him around the middle, nestled tightly into him and whispered, “Cabot…” her voice trailing away.
“I’ll call you,” Sheedy whispered. “Maybe we can have lunch on Thursday. All right?”
“Not sure. I’ll have to see what I can do.” She was more formal now. “But I will be thinking about you,” she said, kissing him quickly on the cheek, pulling herself up by the steering wheel onto the seat. She started the DeSoto with the efficiency of a mechanic satisfied with his work, revved the engine and turned onto the road in the direction of Lewis Lockhart’s farm.
* * *
On Wednesday morning when he woke Sheedy thought immediately about calling her, looked through the twilight towards the door that led to the kitchen and the telephone, raised up on an elbow, fell back onto the sheets. By Thursday, the image of Clara in the wheat field seemed ephemeral, impressionistic; he at once elated, then struck by shock and remorse. What had he done overall? To himself, to his family? Was he losing his mind? Or, like the longhorn who had fallen into death by the tree, had he wandered into a dark valley of his own?
On Saturday Sheedy stood in the garden with Marge and his two children, hoeing and trimming tomato plants. The tomatoes were a week away from picking. His boy, Ford Walker Jr. and Annie, his beautiful blond headed little girl, had their small baskets at the ready on the back porch and were giggling secretively, stopping whenever Sheedy looked over at them. Marge looked pretty in her straw bonnet and apron, pretty enough that Sheedy wanted to hug her as she turned to smile at him. She was having her father, Ford Walker himself, over for dinner. He wanted to be excited about the evening, the prospect of one of Marge’s famous country meals and some tall whiskeys with the old man, a fatherly dignified soul with stories and business and political talk that Sheedy enjoyed. Then he shivered again remembering what he and Clara had done, his long hoped for project looming distant and preposterous.
When the telephone rang, he flinched and dropped the hoe. Marge looked over briefly at him, then continued clipping the vines. He hurried into the house and dropped the receiver as he lifted it with one hand, catching it with other, shaking, cursing it. They were one of few families in town that still owned one, courtesy of Marge’s well-to-do family. Strangers knocked on the door asking to use it. It was their agreement to turn them away. Let one, let all, would be the deal. Knowing Clara might be on the other end of the line caused him to shiver, thinking again of her powerful position as Lewis’s wife and of the simple fear of getting caught. He couldn’t immediately bring sound to his voice. He tried to rewrite their conversation that day a thousand times. He sounded cowardly, inept, a green horn at adultery.
“Cabot, is that you?”
Even as he knew it would be her, he froze a moment in denial. Surely not.
“Who is this?” he lied.
“It’s me, Clara.” The line crackled with interference. “Can you hear me?”
“Not very well,” he lied again. “Can I call you back later? Meet you in the park. In that little spot by the bench?” Sheedy whispered, hoping Marge wouldn’t hear.
“Cabot, you must speak up. I’ve got to talk to you.”
“Look,” Sheedy said in a raspy, choking voice, “I may have to hang up on you.”
“That’s all right. But try not to. Is she there? Is that the problem? I’m sorry to do this to you. But this is urgent. Is she there with you?”
The crackling on the telephone line came and went.
“Cabot, it’s only because of the other day. I haven’t been able to settle down. My skin is crawling. I think I’m falling apart.”
“Is it something I’ve done?” He choked as he said it. His could feel his heart beating wildly. Had she told Lewis? Had she talked to Lewis on the phone?
“Where’s Lewis?” Sheedy threw in.
“I don’t know. I think he’s staying in Washington another day or two and then stopping in Chicago about some kind of livestock deal. It’s a perfect time.”
That word again, “Perfect.”
“Perfect for what?” Sheedy asked, hollow inside. He kept looking through the kitchen at the screen door.
“I can’t stay here, Cabot, you know that. I’ve got to get out of here. Come with me. Come with me, Cabot. Let’s get out of here. The time in right. I’m suffocating. I know that now. I’m dying a slow death. I’m too young to die young.”
Sheedy leaned against the wall, the receiver perpendicular to his ear, the line still shaking along his arm. He thought about his daughter, not two years old, and how she smiled shyly ear to ear when he walked in the door. He thought about Marge in her maternity gowns, how sweet she looked sitting there next to a vase of flowers from the front lawn. He wondered what his son would think of him when he was old enough to understand.
“Clara, look here,” he pleaded. “I can’t just up and leave my family.”
He despised the dry emptiness in his voice.
“Cabot, listen closely to me. I’m desperate now. You’ve let me out of the gate. I liked it. I liked all of it, the wind on my skin, in my hair. Being naked with you. Fucking you on the quilt, there in the grass.”
Hearing her say it like that embarrassed him.
“I can’t stay here. If I go, I want you to be with me. Just pack up my car with a few things and enough money to get to California. That’s where everyone is going now. California, Cabot. It’s different there. The ocean’s there, and the sun, and olive groves and vineyards.”
“Clara, I need time to think about it.”
“But Cabot, we talked about this. There, under the trees. Both of us did. You and me. How we wished we could get away. How we feel tied down and caged up. The whole world out there, Cabot. We could go anywhere. Europe. Africa. No limit to it. We don’t have time, Cabot. This chance may never come again. It’s perfect. Lewis is gone. He’s not coming back for a week. At least. The world just keeps turning and turning and there’s no need to be stuck in a rut of a place like this. Listen to me. Lewis may even be gone for as long as two weeks. If we leave now, he’ll never catch up. The longer we wait the easier it will be for him to find us. He’s got friends, Cabot. Important friends.”
Sheedy’s mind drifted involuntarily. By the little river on a blanket. Cottonwood trees swirling overhead.
“I can’t think right now. I need time to figure things out,” was all he could say.
She paused. He thought he could hear her breathing heavily through the static and crackle.
“Cabot, I don’t have any time,” she yelled, angry now. She began crying. “Cabot, Cabot, I must leave. I need to go now. I’m falling apart. I’m being suffocated. It’s the boredom and the same day-to-day, do nothing, know nothing. I want every day to be like Sunday. I can’t waste any more time. We only get to live one time, Cabot. The time is now.”
Sheedy knew well what she saying, what she was feeling, the humdrum, the need for excitement. And he agreed, deep down he agreed. He ached to leave, drop everything, run with her into the wind.
“But what about Lewis?” he asked with nothing else to say.
“I’m sorry about Lewis, but I’ve already given him too much. I can’t stand to be around him. I know that now. Not after yesterday. I don’t like being coddled and I can’t stand being owned. I’m not a cow. You’ve got your eye and your camera and I’ve got my body and my spirit. It’s not right to be held back. It’s just not right.”
Sheedy looked again at the screen door. He would be able to hear Marge coming in with the children and would have time to hang up the telephone if he had to. Along with his fear, Sheedy’s body tingled with anticipation. He could take his camera. He would have the entire West to photograph, the mountains, and the ocean and all the places along the way. They could go anywhere. Mexico. Europe. Sunday was the first time in his life he had taken such a monstrously foolish chance. It was a desperate move, a frightening one. Being with her had been like a blurred all day drunk and he had awakened the next morning terrified, shaken and desperate. He looked out the small front door window into the fading light of the afternoon. The fading light. That’s what ate at him.
He settled into his old self again, Cabot Sheedy, the orphan. He hadn’t let her know that. Didn’t think he should. It was her prize possession, her ticket to run off without remorse. But she hadn’t had a Langford and Bessie, a Ford Walker to be good to her. Here he was coming over for dinner, to be with his grandchildren, looking to see his daughter happy and safe. Packing up, getting in Clara’s car and driving away forever, felt sacrilegious. His legs began to give way.
“Clara, Clara, I can’t,” he said, choking on his words. “I just can’t. Not yet. Not now. I can’t show cause.”
“Why not? What cause do you need? What cause does anybody need. It’s who you are, Cabot. The way you were on Saturday. The real Cabot. The way we were together. That’s who we really are.”
“I don’t know. I just can’t.”
“I can’t believe you. Cold feet? I never took you for a coward. Not on Saturday, not then. Do you believe in yourself or don’t you? Is that camera of yours just a toy? Am I a toy?”
She stopped a minute to listen for his answer.
Then she said, “I know this. I am going with you or without you, Cabot. I’m not just a small time whore. I’m an enterprise. I’m the whole shebang. Maybe you’re just not in my league.”
Cabot’s mouth was desert dry. He felt the receiver hitting against his ear.
“Let’s, let’s…talk about it some more. Can I see you Friday?”
“I won’t be here no goddamn Friday,” she said and hung up.
* * *
Two days later there was another call, at five in the morning. Even two rooms away from the kitchen the telephone seemed to ring so loudly Cabot feared it would wake the children.
He slid over the edge of the bed, half crawled to the kitchen, reached up and grabbed the telephone on the fifth ring. He could hear Marge groan. A deep sleeper, she turned to her other side. He prayed it would not be Clara. By the sound of the voice babbling on the line he wasn’t sure who it was. The voice paused a minute. Then a coughing spell.
“Cabot!…” he heard Clara shout.
Her voice sounded slurred, drugged.
“Clara,” he whispered harshly. “I asked you not to call me here.”
“Cabot, listen. Shhh. Don’t be angry. Just listen. I know it’s insane but listen. Please. I’m really in bad shape, Cabot. Listen. Stay on the line. I need your help badly.”
“Where are you?”
“In Kansas City. In a hotel. It’s a place run by some nuns I know. A woman’s hotel. But they won’t let me stay.”
“Why call me at home? It’s safer at the paper. Don’t you care what happens to me?”
“Of course, I care. But Cabot, listen. You don’t understand. I’m all beat up. I got beat up, Cabot, and I can’t let Lewis know. I need someone to get me to a doctor. You’re the only person who can help me. Henrietta can’t know. Even so. She can’t drive.”
“Wait a minute,” Cabot whispered. “Somebody beat you up?”
He could hear her sobbing. He looked over his shoulder to see if Marge might be coming into the kitchen. Clara’s crying slowed to whimpering and then she answered.
“I’ve been on a drunk. A two day drunk. After you turned me down, I drove to Kansas City and went to some clubs. I don’t remember where I left my car. I met two men in a club and we got drunk together. They took me to a flophouse and I fell asleep. When I woke up, they were tearing my clothes off and I fought with them. I told them I was too drunk and wait until tomorrow. I thought that would put them off. But they got mad at me and started yanking me around and shoving me against the wall. I grabbed at their arms to slow them down and scratched one of them in the face and he started bleeding. So he pushed me down and kicked me and then he and the other one jumped on me and beat me up. Cabot, I think my nose is broken. Maybe some ribs too. It hurts to breathe.”
Sheedy felt sick. About her face. About what was going to happen next. This had to be a nightmare. It wasn’t happening.
“What do you expect met to do?” he hissed. “I’ve got to be at work in two hours.”
“It’s the least you can do. Tell them an old friend of yours needs help. Tell them it’s an emergency.”
Sheedy didn’t like the way she assumed he would help her, automatically, just like that. But he did worry about Lewis Lockhart. He didn’t know what to say to Marge. Suddenly, he didn’t trust Clara. She must be crazy. She could tell anybody anything.
He had an idea. An old friend was in trouble and needed his help. That’s what he could say. It happened once before. In real life. And Marge knew it to be true. He might be able to sell the idea to Marge but then old Chandler, the editor on the news desk, wouldn’t give a damn about an old friend in Kansas City. Sheedy was lucky to have his job. Ford Walker’s friendship with Bentley would only go so far. Times were worse now than anyone might have imagined.
“Please, Cabot. I want to catch a train. Get out of here for good. I won’t bother you again. It’s the least you can do.”
“Okay, okay. Let me think. I’ll do what I can. But don’t call me here again. If you have to, call me at the newspaper.”
Sheedy waited an hour, then called Bill Simmons, the paper’s only other photographer, at home and he promised to talk to Meeks if Sheedy would take the following Tuesday and work in the lab. Sheedy left a note for Marge about having to help out a friend in Kansas City and hoped he would be back by dark.
“Keep this between us, Marge,” he wrote. “I’ll explain it all later. Don’t you worry now.”
The early morning sunlight on the road to Kansas City shot through the windshield in a bolt. Sheedy, still half asleep and frantic, struggled around the curves and fought to concentrate on controlling the truck. He knew the section of the city Clara described to him, the “down part,” people often joked, of lower downtown. He found her waiting just inside the double doors of the small convent she called a hotel, a hideout for unwed mothers, leaning with a dark towel pressed against her face. He could see her head resting against one of the door’s glass windows. She opened the door as soon as he rattled to a stop. She wore a gray scarf tightly knotted under her chin. She hurried to the pick up, slid a cheap looking travel bag onto the front seat and slammed the door. She’s dressed like a bum, Sheedy thought.
“I’ve got someone’s name,” she said without looking at him. She read him directions from a piece of a torn paper sack. They drove east of downtown by the river to a section called Harlem and over several gravel roads to a small tarpaper shack. A thin black woman somewhere into old age stood at the doorway with her hands folded. She nodded at them, shuffled over to the pick up and looked through the window.
“Oh, honey,” the old woman said. “Oh me, oh my.”
She helped Clara out of the truck and led her inside. Sheedy followed with the carry all. After the woman seated Clara on a armless wooden chair and took a step back to look at her she clasped her hands in front of her face.
“Oh honey, what has they done to you? Them damn mems, anyway. We don’t need thems nasty old things around, now do we? No ma’am, we don’t need no goddamn mems.”
She looked up at Sheedy and nodded at the door. He sat on the wooden steps outside the shack watching two thin dogs growl at him. Even then in that circumstance, he wished he had brought his camera. The dirt yard was strewn with the remains of what was once a household: overturned washtub, an icebox, bottle caps, rusted bed springs, a shovel. More skeletons, Sheedy thought.
Two hours later Clara emerged from the shack on the old woman’s arm. Some of the puffiness had gone from her eyes and lips. Her nose was bandaged and the part of it he could see was purple and orange. Chunks of bloody scalp showed along her hairline from under the brim of an old hat the woman must have drudged up from another day.
“Now honey, you will get better. You will heal, chile. So don’t you go gettin’ blue. You jest get on wiff it now,” the old woman said as Clara climbed back into the car. “You stay clear of mems for a while. Honey, they ain’t nuthin’ but trash. Oh, lordie be.”
“Thank you, Grandma Smith,” Clara said, as though she had known her from the past. She slipped her a wad of bills. “Remember, you’ve never seen me,” she pleaded.
“Hell, honey, they’s a lot I ain’t seen. Too many things. You got no worries from me. You jest get on wiff it, chile. And don’t forget your suitcase.”
Sheedy took the carry all from the old woman and set it into the truck bed.
They spent the next two hours looking for Clara’s car. Clara would name a spot and lay her head back on the seat while he drove. “Oh, I’m so hung over, Cabot. I hurt so much,” she moaned. Twice he had to stop so she could be sick. Sheedy had never felt so frightened or depressed. He could feel his life with Marge and his children spinning away into the universe. He was ruined.
Clara thought she had started at a club out in the country and then vaguely recalled several smoke filled rooms at a honky-tonk. Men sat at tables playing cards and laughing and drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. Sheedy didn’t know where to begin. She could have been any place. By chance – the luckiest moment of his life, he thought — he spotted her car out of the corner of his eye out as soon as he drove up Main Street and passed by Union Station. The custom paint job of her roadster stood out like an apparition among the rows of dusty cars parked haphazardly in the lot.
“Oh, that’s right, that’s right,” Clara said when he pointed it out. “It was part of my plan. Leave it there and then hitch a ride to the station. Then I could just get on the train.”
When Sheedy stopped his truck in front of it, she tugged frantically at the door handle in a hurry to get out, tugged without succcess until Sheedy turned off the engine, circled the hood, opened it and lifted her to the gravel.
“I’m leaving the car here,” she said. “I don’t want Lewis to have me arrested a car thief. I’ve already sold the jewelry he gave me and bought a ticket. He can’t get me for that. That stuff is mine.”
“It’s a wonder they didn’t rob you,” Sheedy said. He wanted to say more, wanted her out of there and gone, to send her on her way with as few words as possible.
She began to disguise herself with the old hat over her forehead, a pair of spectacles and the neck scarf.
Their time at the station was short and uncomfortable. What bothered Sheedy was that it no longer seemed to matter to Clara whether or not he was there. In fact, he was happy that she looked so bad. It made her departure easier for him. He held her arm through the station onto the platform as if he might be a friend or relative. As she slowly climbed the steps onto the train, she turned and finally mumbled through her broken lips, “You’ll be sorry, Cabot. I hear California’s a really swell place.”
Sheedy, a dullard at heart, he decided later, could think of nothing to say and stood soberly smiling like a corpse. He remained stiff and quiet until the train curled out of the station and out of sight.
* * *
He arrived home just before supper. Marge was standing outside the front door with a mug of coffee to hand him. He shook his head as walked up the steps to meet her.
“An old friend,” he said. “One of those things to keep to ourselves. I can’t believe he called me, of all people. I haven’t seen him in years.”
Marge shrugged and made a weak smile. She was good about it. He’d give her that. She could keep a secret if she had to. A trait she must inherited from her father. Good business sense. Keep it close to the vest. A tight lip. One less secret to carry in the bag of life’s worries. He remembered her for that. She had nothing on him. Nothing at all about Clara. He was sure of it.
Then the real worry. Weeks of worry. The police found the DeSoto at the station and told Lewis Lockhart that his wife might have just taken an unexpected trip. Did she have any relatives out west? Lockhart insisted right away she must have been a victim of foul play but there was no evidence, no sign other than she was gone. Sheedy followed the story in the Kansas City paper. He would wake a few hours after going to sleep and sit in the parlor sliding his hands up and down the tops of his thighs. Some speculated she had been kidnapped; others said she must be dead. A lot of hobos and spongers these days. The police from Kansas City were in and out of town asking questions. He managed to avoid them. He stayed away from the cafe where he and Clara met and kept his fingers crossed.
Clara shortened Sheedy’s misery. They said Lewis Lockhart almost collapsed when he received the letter, postmarked from Colorado, a month later. Sheedy wondered who and how much she had paid to mail it for her. Lewis kept the letter out of the papers and sent detectives looking for her. But she was a clever woman, Sheedy told himself. When he did find her, it would be too late. And it was.
Her photograph didn’t show up at the newspaper until two years later. It was taken at a swimming pool at what looked like the back of a mansion decorated with potted plants and surrounded by poplar trees. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Joan Crawford were seated in director chairs wearing bathing suits toasting and laughing at an unseen photographer. Behind them in whimsical poses stood three women in bathing suits and caps making faces at the camera. One of them was Clara Lockhart. Sheedy was sure of it. He would know her anywhere, even with the hair covered by the cap and her body partially blocked by the two sitting movie stars holding up highball glasses. Her face had changed. It was her but it was not her. Not the Clara he had made love to in a grove of trees by a river.
He saw it by accident one morning in the darkroom sitting in an opened file folder. Old Man Bentley himself interrupted him as Sheedy turned it in the light, glanced harshly at him, yanked it out of his hand without a word, slapped it back into the folder and huffed out of the room. Nothing was ever said and he never saw the photograph again nor dared to talk to Bentley, Bill Simmons or anybody else about it.
Gossip eventually turned in Lewis’s favor. Clara’s disappearance was soon replaced by more pressing concerns, money, politics, goings on in Washington. The general consensus was that Lewis needed a woman in that big house of his. His new wife was a society lady, a hometown girl well known in the community. She eventually gave Lewis four children. No mention was ever made of a divorce or annulment. In the aftermath of the Depression people moved away, other people rolled through town, some stayed. Those who knew Lewis and knew of his second wife, Clara, seldom spoke her name in public. Sheedy cringed whenever he heard her name mentioned.
In those years after Clara left, Sheedy would have the same conversation with himself at every bit of news, most of which was hush-hush. What if he had dug up the courage in the graveyard of his ambitions to have gone with Clara to California? Would she have abandoned him anyway? No doubt, Sheedy decided. She had a quality people noticed. He didn’t. In his imagination, hers was of a powerful animal wandering out of the jungle, primal, fearless, probing. His was of the bystander, an observer cowering in the bushes. But they had something in common, didn’t they? A recklessness, the thing in him that said, “Yes,” without thinking of consequences. Nah, Sheedy relented the next minute, she’d have left me in the dust. She’d have left me broke and broken with the other rubes she used to get what she wanted. Better to be here with those who love me, with Marge, with the children. I don’t need to have that kind of aggravation in my life to be a great photographer, Sheedy decided, if only for that instant.
He’d hear about her from people in the business. Ah yes, you mean Clara Lockhart. Married briefly to a millionaire, Thaddeus Simpson. Don’t know what happened but he divorced her six weeks into the marriage. Heard it was infidelity. But she’s in the movies now, auditioning, dating the big boys.
Ah yes, Clara Simpson. You’ve seen her in the movies, bit parts mostly. Looks great in person, they say, but not photogenic enough for the big screen.
Why not? Sheedy would ask amazed. Her nose, so they say. Her nose? What about her nose? Must have been broken or changed as she got older. Just doesn’t photograph right. That’s the talk around the set.
Sheedy would pull out her picture, Clara Lockhart Simpson, as fulsome and classic as the wheat that swayed around her. Too bad it’s in black and white, Sheedy thought. Color. The photograph would have been unforgettable in color.
A day came when his children went to school and one afternoon when Marge left for the grocery Sheedy took all of Clara’s pictures, film sheets ad negatives and fed them into the flames of the trash barrel. Except the one. He kept his only print in an oversized book of Shakespeare’s plays. Neither Marge nor the kids had any great interest in reading. He kept most of his books in boxes in his shed in the back yard. There were spiders there and that kept the children away. Marge was happy, and the world went to war, so any more talk of Clara Simpson was lost in the stream of events, one after the other in an endless flow. They moved into a larger brick home in the middle of the town after his job at the newspaper became permanent.
But Clara, the phantom of the wheat and fire of the sun, nagged at him, the idea of her, and a life for himself as a photographer on the road, his photographs in newspapers and national magazines, in art galleries, Cabot Sheedy in the same sentence as Steiglitz and the others.
At the end of the workday after the newspaper was put to bed he would stare out towards evening and see nothing there, nothing carnal or erotic or merry in the sorry glint of the late afternoon sun. A meal with the family. Radio programs. A walk. Reading in bed while Marge did needlepoint and gossiped, used him as her one outlet for the town’s secrets. He would look out the window of their bedroom and watch the trees swirl. He wanted something more. He could feel his body giving way to its slow dying.
His thoughts inevitably returned to the specter of Clara in the gold and silver light of the wheat field in the summer of 1931. He spent Sundays after church alone with his camera, roaming; weekday nights coming home later and later. A quick stop at Shorty’s and then who could remember where else. Marge discovered golf and the two children didn’t need him anymore. Sheedy volunteered to teach his photography class at the college on the side two nights a week. Told Marge it helped him keep his hand in it.
Bah. Photojournalism, they called it now. Sheedy, the old dean, taught them how to do it. His students won awards. He had a plaque at the university. It was easy, that kind of photography. But stalking and finding a Clara Simpson, now that was art. You had to have guts though. You had to have a lot of guts.
In time Sheedy met up with Simmons and Charlie Fitzmorris and Joe Henderson at Shorty’s every afternoon after four. The others had long gone off to other papers, retired, moved back to grow old. Marge called them the boys. They started right off at the bar mulling over news and politics (Joe Kennedy’s boy was a smart aleck little shit) and baseball, lots of baseball. Then they’d loosen up on a few jokes and end up arguing about God, life and family. “Shit, I’d stayed single if I had to do it over again,” Simmons admitted. Sheedy’d say one day he was ready to take off and the next day he just didn’t know. Then he’d stumble home and fix himself a sandwich and a beer and fall asleep watching television, the machine that changed everything. The world as a photograph. Talking pictures in every household that could afford one.
Then Marge sick with cancer.
And more news of Clara Simpson. Married to a Mexican businessman and living in a villa in Puerto Vallarta.
Sheedy didn’t remember much between his first stroke and his third. Only waking up and not being able to move or speak for months and unable to pick up his camera. He managed the boredom with his human camera, squinting his eyes, freezing faces, birds, clouds.
* * *
How many times had he regretted saying, “Clara, I can’t?” His lack of courage. And Marge dead now twenty years of cancer; Annie, his little sweetheart, a woman in her fifties, living in France, childless, traipsing after a failed writer, and Ford Walker Jr., a retired real estate broker with a big stomach and a big mouth who lectured him foolishly on his twice-a-year visits. Not even a gift of Scotch.
“Dad,” Ford Walker Jr. seemed to enjoy saying, “you’re a fucking mess. Look at you. Look at what you’ve done to yourself. And yet you want to drink even more. I can’t for the life of me…”
“Why don’t you just shut up,” Sheedy growled. “You drink too, buster. And eat plenty. What have you got to gripe about.”
“I know when to quit.”
“Congratulations. Your mother would have been proud of you. If she could still recognize you.”
For a while after Clara left and the newspapers listed her as kidnapped or murdered, he felt relieved. Lewis would never have tolerated the town knowing she had simply run away and disappeared. People whispered behind Lewis’s back and he knew it, but as the town aged, talk of her faded just as the dust of the Depression had settled and been covered over by time. Only Cabot knew the truth. The people at the train station in Kansas City didn’t know either of them. At least no one came forward during the investigation. Pure luck, Sheedy often smiled. For once in his life.
For the first few weeks after putting her on the train, he felt out of sorts and distracted. Marge forced him to see Dr. Baker and he played along. His blood pressure was out of whack for such a young man, Dr. Baker told him. The old doctor was a cool operator and good at keeping secrets.
“Oh, it’ll get up there with all that’s going on in the world these days. You’re fortunate to have what you’ve got. Nice wife, young family, a job. Just take that in and be happy with it. I can see no other reason for your pressure to be shooting up like this. You look pretty good. Lungs and heart are fine. Whiskey will do it. I know you boys down at the paper get together at the tavern more than I’d recommend. I’ve heard some talk. But then, that’s your business. Useless chatter is all. I’d pay them no mind.”
Cabot stayed on edge for months. As he scurried from one photograph to another he settled back into his job at the newspaper and down the line won some awards for his photography. He was asked to be a stringer for The Kansas City Star, The St. Louis and St. Joseph papers, the Rocky Mountain News, the Emporia Gazette and had a few photos now and then in the Chicago Tribune, mostly weather related. Sometimes on weekends he would go off by himself with his camera looking for bones, natural monoliths of stones and hills, shadowed valleys, wheat fields before and after harvest.
“Back in those days not many folks around here ever thought much about photography as an art form,” Sheedy told his students. A few made it big, Stieglitz and those people. Not like today with the retrospectives and framed photographs hung in galleries like they belonged in the Louve.”
He might have joined up with the government and taken pictures for the Feds, for the archives. No money in it in the ‘30s. Nobody wanted his pictures of bones on the prairie, cattle bones, buffalo bones, blanched tree limbs. His one great idea, his photograph of Clara Simpson, would have shocked and disgraced his family, blackballed them in the community. Maybe in Europe or New York, but not in this town. He could have found other women as subjects. The prospects were endless. “Women In Nature,” he would have called his retrospective. He could see his name on the window of a New York gallery: “Photography by Cabot Sheedy,” or “The Sheedy Portfolio,” something like that.
Keeping busy helped him set Clara aside. But when photography emerged as a respectable art form, the old ache returned. He would think of Clara and canyons and the crests of waves smashing into black, porous rocks and his sacred shrine of the longhorn’s skull. He could see women against the white bark of the sycamore, standing in Colorado streams, perched on boulders against the skyline, all wearing their natural beauty and nothing more. The ache sent him out in the fields and woods with his camera, but he came back in the evenings dissatisfied and confused. Marge had deserted him for the golf course and a bunch of old bags who shopped endlessly for antiques. Before he knew it, he was sixty years of age. Then Marge’s cancer and the rare color and smooth solace of Scotch. He’d leave the newspaper and go straight to Shorty’s with the other men, old editors and reporters, talk sports and politics and, wistfully, about women. Then the emptiness after Marge was buried and the children gone. And more Scotch.
The first stroke happened right there at Shorty’s. Bill Simmons told one of his rib-busting jokes and Sheedy was about four Scotches into it and everything seemed funny as hell anyway. He remembered the punch line, a very vulgar punch line, and then nothing else until a week later when he looked up and saw Ford Walker Jr. staring down at him. He couldn’t move his left arm or leg and his mouth felt funny. Like being numbed at the dentist. The boys from the newspaper came by and joked about it. “One minute you were up and the next you were down. Like somebody cold-cocked you right there on the spot,” they laughed. His recovery was slow and he never made it back to the newspaper. But he made it back to Shorty’s. That was the trouble.
The first thing he did when Ford Walker Jr. “stuck” him in The Meadows was to scream. He didn’t want to see his camera or the crates of photographs he had neatly filed and labeled and stored in the old building he rented behind the funeral home to replace the shed in his back yard. They would just sit there until he learned about eternity and Ford Walker Jr., the fat little bastard, would pitch them out. Gradually, day by day, week by week, year by year, he was forced to resign himself to his lot and hoped to die as soon as possible. “Sooner rather than later,” he like to tell the boys, “immediately and without any delay whatsoever.” He found he could avoid the screaming by moving his chair forward to the window and back again. The urge to scream began to subside too, except on those days when the sun and the flowers outside his window opened his senses and his desire. And when he remembered Clara. That’s when he would have traded his soul for a drink.
But McCardle wouldn’t let him be. Her self-righteousness grated against everything he had fought for at the newspaper. At one time he and the boys did what newspapermen were supposed to do. Tell the truth in word and pictures. Those days were gone. For him, McCardle was one of the crowd in town who couldn’t stand to see other people have any joy. Always up there at the church singing and wagging their fingers, judging, trying to control what other people thought and did. She searched his room every chance she got. He knew she did. He could see a skinny mean bitch of a little girl inside that big body just itching to tattle on him. But at last he might have found a way to fool her, have his way just a little.
There was a young girl, a student from the college named Becka. He quickly renamed her, “Justice,” and that pleased her so much she smiled big and wide when he said it. Sheedy figured he never had been the recipient of a gift from God, but if he had been, it would have been in the body and soul of his Becka. She wasn’t attractive to him in the usual way. They all looked like little girls now, the young women in their early twenties. Fun to have around. A playmate, like a tomboyish little sister.
She, in fact, found him.
She came across his name in the college library in old newspaper write ups about his photojournalism awards and his one published book, “Specters of the Central Plains,” that had been noticed and talked about in the big time world for a number of years and then generally forgotten. She was a strange little creature: dark, skinny, with big eyes and a very loud hoarse voice. She rolled her own, he figured. She dressed in those funny hippie clothes from thrift stores in Kansas City and colorful knitted hats some of her star gazing friends stitched together. Always had jangling bracelets on her wrists and a silver peace sign hung from a long chain between her breasts. McCardle showed hated towards her right off. The director of The Meadows was a friend of the dean’s and he approved Becka’s application for an independent study class. And the class was him, the one, the only, Cabot Sheedy.
He never knew exactly when she coming. When she did she drug along her portfolio. Mixed media, they called it these days. She used her hands, a paint brush, junk she found along the highway and, most importantly to him, her camera. She cared as little for McArdle as McArdle did for her. McCardle wouldn’t even say as much as hello. Becka just laughed at her and shook her head.
“She plain nuts, Sheedy,” Becka loved to say. “Crazier than Tricky Dick and Jackleg Ronnie combined.”
“Justice,” Sheedy laughed, clacking his dentures.
One day when Sheedy complained about suffering in the hell of that place without the grace of God or booze, Becka answered his call by smuggling in two half pints of vodka. Sheedy then had to devise a plan to hide them from McCardle. He placed one under the pillow that cushioned his wheelchair seat and the other between his legs. He knew McCardle wasn’t going to dig around in there. He did have the matter of disposal and refill of the smooth curved little bottles. Okay, then, he thought, two can play at this game. He kept the empty bottles in place until Becka returned with refills. He could feel the coolness of the one empty bottle on the skin between his legs and that gave him a small reason to have hope of further surcease.
Sheedy also became an unexpected beneficiary of another big dose of grace from his lawyer, Buford Billman. He brought two half pints of grace in his briefcase on his biweekly visits to keep Sheedy informed about Ford Walker Jr.’s latest gambits to prevent him from spending the remainder of Marge’s estate which she had graciously left solely in Sheedy’s hands as gratitude for his faithfulness, especially during the course of her last days. His kindness, you see, for attending so closely to her in her time of need. Buford didn’t like Ford Walker Jr. one bit either and was “glad to oblige. Anything for a friend in the midst of such overwhelming aggravation.” And, like Becka, he was happy to smuggle off Sheedy’s empties after he traded off the shiny clear new ones.
“Younger fellah,” Sheedy told the walls of his empty room each time Buford Billman waved goodbye and headed back down the hallway to the parking lot. “Kept the kid’s name out of the papers. Got himself into a scrape with a coupla’ drifters. This younger gal got him in bed at the motel so’s her boyfriend could pop open the door and snap the two of them in bed together. Blackmail. The law ran them out of town right off but the editor at the time wanted to hit the front page with it. I talked the turkey out it. Reminded him of the time he too had a similar problem. Buford never forgot my good deed. I sorta knew, you see, what he might be going through. Loyal, that boy. Been loyal ever since.”
At that, Sheedy would stare out the window and think of Clara Simpson.
“I need a nipper,” he’d say to the empty room. “And now, by god, thanks to you, Buford Billman, I’ve got me one.”
* * * Sheedy glanced again at the newspaper he had thrown to the floor. Mrs. McArdle was still in the room, digging around in his chest of drawers. He squinted his eyes and framed her posterior. Snap. A bum shot, he chuckled. Shot her in the bum. Then his face fell to slate. He wheeled to the small bookshelf they brought over from the house when he had no alternative but to sell it. He pulled out his book, “Specters of the Central Plains,” and opened it on his lap. He flipped to the epigram he had chosen from the Bible as a fitting frame for the photographs he had taken over the years of the bones and skulls of animals and fragments left at Indian burial sites and fire rings, most notably bones of the longhorn, coyote, elk, deer, fox, a stray mountain lion, and of rabbits, their tiny skulls like pearl carvings in the undergrowth and now and then of human skulls that he let lay undisturbed and untouched.
He remembered the verse from the Bible studies after church with Marge and the children, agonizing sessions in the church library which in themselves alone would have driven any man with a balanced mind to turn to drink. Only a few years later when Prohibition ended and he discovered that vodka didn’t smell as strongly as beer or whiskey, would he fortify himself before services with a long draw on his flask to keep himself from going completely mad. The flask and his memories of Clara were the only things that helped him stay afloat in the monotony of those moments. “Afloat, in a literal sense,” he reckoned.
Since he had to suffer through Bible class with the family, he tried as best he could to fake some semblance of interest. He favored the readings of the Old Testament for the poetry and storytelling he found there, the rhythm and cadence of the distant faceless storytellers and often speculated which of the homeless preachers he had encountered hollering on street corners would become the next Isaiahs down the line.
As he sorted through his favorite photographs before signing off on the final proofs of his book, a passage from Ezekiel came to mind. He decided to insert it as an epigram that read:
“Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones: Behold I will cause breath to
enter into you and ye shall live: And will lay sinews upon you, and will bring
up flesh upon you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live…”
The faithful in the Bible class had many interpretations of those words but Sheedy stuck to his own private view and thought of the touch and feel and sight of Clara Simpson and lusted after her still.
In the house alone at night after Marge died, he would sit before the skull of the longhorn steer above his living room mantel and behold — yes, he liked the word, “behold,” he decided — the empty, longing sockets where the eyes had looked out onto the world, wonder what they had seen and ask himself, “If they could talk, what do you they think they would tell me now about that they saw.” He wondered what another man or woman would think of the images that had passed through his eyes and created his thoughts, and the thoughts and opinions and desires he added to them. When he read those words from Ezekiel, the only image, the single thought, the striking picture he held in place was the unclothed body of Clara Simpson standing proud and defiant in the golden wheat of the early afternoon, her pubic hair full and stiff and the bold slit that ran underneath it a testament in itself to eager passion and desire.
Now she was going to decay into bones in a box in the ground. A skeleton, a skull, with sockets for eyes as empty for him as this world was now.
He and Clara had talked about God on the drive back from the shoot. He brought it up. The question of guilt. What about Lewis? What about Marge? In retrospect, how stupid of him. But she simply shrugged her shoulders and grinned.
“Cabot, you tickle me. I swear. Here you are this wild crazy lunatic one minute and before I know it — of a sudden — an ordinary law abiding fellah talking like someone who might want to go to church and make his last confession. You afraid of going to hell? Is that it? I wonder sometimes if there really is one. I know damn sure there must not be a god. How could there be?”
He had no answer for her. But then he asked himself if Clara really needed a god. She was a goddess, wasn’t she? A goddess, or a woman who thought and felt like she was one, wouldn’t need a god, would she? And when he asked himself that question, he asked it in anger. He didn’t know about being angry with God. But he could be angry with a goddess. Why or what she had done wrong, he couldn’t say. But she had left him in the dust, hadn’t she? She had left him behind to rot.
Godammit, the thing was, he wanted to see her again. He wanted to be with her and only her. Always. And maybe he could have been. Instead, he spent his whole life missing her, missing out.
He did have one consolation and smirked when he thought it. The longhorn skull he had hung above the fireplace, now safely wrapped and stored in a large cardboard shipping box, was that very same skull that Clara found on their day of infamy. In the excitement of the great event, he supposed, she had forgotten all about it. One day in memory he rambled through the steps of that day and remembered the photographs of the skull he had taken for her. Not long after she “disappeared,” he tried to develop the plates. They were too dark. Not enough light for a shot so he was forced to destroy them. A year or more later he drove back to the scene of his crime and found the damn thing, brought it home and mounted it. Now that was irony if he ever heard of such a thing.
* * *
As he sat there turning the pages of his one and only book, looking at each photograph, at the elegance of the skulls, the artistry of his camera, he felt a flicker of joy. It was after all a marvelous book. Which was when, as he closed and slid it back onto the shelf, his good arm began to shake. He had chances left, didn’t he? Why, with Becka around, he still had a shot or two in him, didn’t he?
“Nietzesche,” he grinned, “face it. There’s still a little hope.”
Why didn’t I think of it before? he thought, his head bobbing. How can I be so goddamn dumb? She can hold the camera for me. I’ll frame the shot; she’ll pull the trigger. We’ll draw blood. Goddammit anyway, Clara, I can still take a crack at it. There’s more to it than bones. There’s a whole world out there.
“Is she coming today?” he growled at Mrs. McArdle.
“Now who’s saying, “she,” not “we,” Mrs. McArdle smiled grimly, shaking her jowls as she turned to look back at him. “How am I supposed to guess who the “she” might be?”
“You know damn well who the she is. Just wait until your memory starts to go.”
“Oh, my memory is going just fine.”
Bitch, he mumbled.
“Now no name calling, Mr. Sheedy. That’s the new agreement. We’ve got it in writing right there in the file drawer in the director’s office.”
“Well you know who I mean. The girl from the college. The photography student.”
“Oh, that cute little thing you say you are mentoring. Teaching how to take obscene photographs. Corrupting our young.”
“You wouldn’t know what corrupt is.”
“I know very well what is obscene and what is not. It very clear to most of us. Regular church going people. Sober at that, and free from unnatural desires and impulses.”
“That the problem. The most of you. No unnatural desires and impulses. But never mind that. That’s part of the agreement too. You mind your business and I’ll mind mine. Just answer my question. Is she coming today or not?”
“You’ll know it when you hear all those beads and baubles and gimcracks she wears a’ jangling down the hall. As far as I’m concerned, she can leave her vulgar tattoos back at the dorm as well. The least she could do is cover her arms.”
“Mercy. Your brain really is bent.”
“Speak for yourself. I’m the one who’s still up and about.”
“Now that’s a lowdown remark coming from a child of God.”
“Blasphemy is not welcomed here either.”
Doesn’t matter, he thought. She will be coming one day this week. Has to, to get credit for the independent study class. And to bring me some more vodka. Plus, she likes me. I know she does. She can wheel me outside. Maybe next outing they’ll let her ride with me in the van. I’ll pick the shot and spot it. She can pull the trigger.
As he thought of her and how they might work it, his enthusiasm quickly sank — sank back to the photograph he asked Becka to take of him. He had torn it to pieces and cast it immediately into the trash can of his destiny. He assured Becka she had done very well with it. That’s was the problem. Too well. It pulled him down. Why couldn’t he have just let well enough alone? Why didn’t he just hold on to the image he had of himself? Why did he step over the line? Why had he insisted that she take it? When she showed it to him, black and white as he asked, he was horrified at what his face had become. The truth be seen. A decrepit, fierce, angry looking old man. The living, breathing skull of a longhorn steer, with his oversized ears to boot.
He wondered what Clara looked like at the end. Old, but dazzling? Never mind the aging. It would have shown through. The camera would have caught it in her eyes. The luminescence of her skin, her lush raging blond hair, the set of her face challenging the elements, gone maybe. Not so her eyes. Not before they closed them.
As he sat in the sunlight through the window, lips pursed, jaw clenched, he saw two women across the common area where they grilled outdoors and served picnics. He accelerated his wheelchair towards the glass. Was that her out there? Was that Clara Simpson here at The Meadows come back to haunt him? Surely not. And yet, for an instant he thought he saw Clara Simpson standing in the middle of the grove of oak trees on the other side of the picnic tables. She was holding the arm of an older lady in a black overcoat as they walked along. No, couldn’t be her. She’s dead. Couldn’t be. Paper says she’s gone. Must be a volunteer. Even so. A puzzlement.
“My camera,” he shouted.
“Did you say something, Mr. Sheedy?” Mrs. McArdle asked, looking up again from the drawer she seemed to be endlessly searching.
“Bring me my camera, dammit,” he snapped, breathing deep and fast. The skin he had scratched open on his face in the excitement of the sudden vision burned with the salt of his lost days and a streamlet of blood snaked down the sinews of his bony neck.
“I want my camera.”