not since the TV
Dwight directed them to 309 Canal Street.
“Riht, leht at de cahrner.”
They cruised by twice.
“You’re sure this is safe?” asked Jimmy.
“Willhee sed so.”
They pulled over on South Street by the real, semi-scenic canal.
“You talked to him?”
“We’re like the saing, sa-uhn. Identity.”
“You’re the same as Willy?”
“He means chemical properties,” said Lake, who was more concerned that they were interracially parked in Reddingneckville, about to be the object of parajudicial rage.
“Identity eens eing de sane in all traherties. Chenicly-suheeking.”
“You for it, Lake?”
“Can’t sit here.” Dinner-time traffic whooshed by. Lake imagined passengers swiveling in their seats: Ooo, look at the runaway nigger. “We leave Dwight in the car,” he said.
“On the street?”
“He turns himself off.”
The house was American Innocuous. What else would it be — gingerbread? As the chimes faded, a woman who had to be Mona’s Mom opened the door.
“Hi,” said Jimmy.
Mona’s Mom looked at him long and fainted. Lake caught her, held her up.
Released, the front door swung inward.
A young woman in an alpaca sweater entered from the hall.
Jimmy saw what she — who must be Mona — saw. Two male intruders in her living room: a crazed hippie in red headband and cowboy boots, and a militant negro with her mother in his arms.
Her scream would no doubt trigger Redding’s first lynching since, say, 1921.
Mona opened her mouth wide. She reminded Jimmy of his highschool steady.
“Willllee!” she screamed. “Babydoll,” and ran to him. It would be impolite of course, thought Jimmy, and was smothered.
Lake eased himself and Mona’s Mom around the embracing couple, lowered her to the sofa.
“Mmm nt Willy,” Jimmy murmured through Mona’s lips.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Mona, trying to wedge her tongue between his teeth, “You’re home.”
Jimmy detached himself with what he hoped was gentle ease. Mona’s Mom came to on the couch, Lake headed to the kitchen for a glass of water. She stared at Mona and Jimmy, eyes bolt upright.
“You see, Mom.”
“Are we all dead?” Mom asked.
“It was kind of a mistake.”
Lake handed Mom a green plastic cup, yellow daisies appliquéd.
“Who’s the Negro?” she asked.
“I’m Willy’s best friend, was his, am,” said Lake. “In the Nam.”
“And he brought you home for a nice meal,” she said.
“It’s more complicated than that, ma’m,” said Jimmy, “but a nice meal would be nice.”
Mona bussed him on the cheek and the ear and the side of the neck.
“He even talks like Willy, Mom, he said ma’m.”
“You look older, Willy.”
“I am older. Ma’m.”
“I’m Lake.” Lake took the glass from her; she was dribbling.
“Thank you. I’m Gladys. And this is my daughter Mona. Summers.” Her right hand acted on its own. It started to shake Lake’s extended hand, withdrew itself, advanced, patted his hand, wiped itself on her dress as it slid to her side. “We’ve never actually had a Negro in our house, except”
“To fix the roof,” said Lake.
“How did you know?”
“He was, and/or is, Willy’s best friend,” Jimmy said. “As well as being black.” And because Jimmy was Willy-as-well and certain that Willy didn’t call her Gladys, he added, “ma’m.”
Gladys fussed with her blouse, extracted four TV dinners from a freezer in the kitchen. The freezer was loaded with TV dinners arranged by content: turkey, chicken, fish sticks, salisbury steak.
“Mom doesn’t cook anymore,” Mona breathed into Jimmy’s ear. “Not since the TV.”
Was repaired, broken, repossessed, invented?
Lake asked for the bathroom; Gladys stared him down the hall, to the third door on the right.
“He really was Willy’s best friend,” said Jimmy.
“You trust him?”
Jimmy, who knew nothing about Lake’s ultimate trustworthiness, nodded.
Mona convinced her mom to serve them beer. “After all, Mom, they’re vets, you know. They’re old enough to drink beer.”
“I ought to check to see if the car’s locked,” said Jimmy, Gladys’ paranoid counter-voice running in his brain: he’s going for the duct tape and the guns.
“Dwight,” he told the back seat, “Dwight. Answer me.” The absence of Dwight felt tangible. Does he occupy space when you can’t see him? Then he knew where Dwight was: the place Dwight had come to Redding to be, Mona’s house. He was inside somewhere, watching them.
Jimmy leaned against the Ford, lit a cigarette, tried to sort events but drifted. He was home in Webster Groves, leaning against his black ‘54 Chevy, he was Willy’s permanent age, 18. What am I doing here? Meaning: what improbability brought me here and is that improbability passing itself off as some form of Higher Power? What is my purpose here, what plan am I part of? What will I do when I walk back inside? Why me? How do I get Lake out of here to Canada? This is a situation in which I do not belong.
Gladys, Mona, Lake (and Dwight for all anyone knew) had set the table. Lake was telling them about Uncle Ho’s Hooch Hutch where he had never been. Gladys didn’t understand the significance of the ice.
“They lack refrigeration as we know it,” Lake said.
“Not the worst thing.”
“What is?” asked Gladys.
“She wasn’t always like this,” Mona whispered to Jimmy. “She used to be very smart and full of life and stuff like that.”
After the tinfoil was cleared, Gladys brought out little bottles of apertifs. “I suppose you’ll be going to visit Doris,” she said. Jimmy looked at Mona.
“Your mom,” said Mona.
“As a mom yourself,” said Jimmy, “you can understand how that might be—”
“—difficult on all parties involved, I know,” said Gladys.
“I knew you’d understand.” He beamed the words to her through the medium of his most ingratiating, heartfelt, sympathetic, and personal face.
“So where will you be staying?”
“Here,” said Mona. “They can stay here just for the night in the guest room which is all clean, Mom, that would be the right thing to do. I think that would be the right thing to do.”
“Both of them?”
“Mom. Jeez. Willy’s best friend, Mom.”
“You have to tell me honestly,” said Gladys. She looked at the two men, at her hands in her lap, at the three empty apertif bottles in front of her, at Jimmy. “You didn’t come back here to punish me?”
“He could be. I mean why else?”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“A lot you know.”
“Willy being killed,” ventured Jimmy.
“I really thought it would be good for, for, for”
“Him,” said Jimmy, in case she was about to say ‘you.’
“Mrs. Summers,” said Lake, “You had nothing to do with Willy’s death. I was there.”
She nodded at Jimmy. “He knows.”
“Willy didn’t know,” said Mona.
“He was there.”
“Willy didn’t know anything about what you did, Mom. He would of said in his letters but he didn’t say a thing about that.”
“No, Willy didn’t know,” said Jimmy. “And I don’t either. You’re just going to have to come out and say it.”
“Back at the Draft Board.”
“You’re not at the Draft Board anymore, Mom.”
“She was on the Draft Board?” said Lake.
Jimmy experienced a vision in which he and Lake turned out to be exactly what he imagined Gladys Summers imagined them to be, criminal intruders who tied them up and ran for the border.
“Not after the TV.”
“She wasn’t on the Draft Board; she was the secretary.”
I don’t think that makes a difference, thought Lake, slave owner, secretary to the slave owner.
“And I’m really really sorry and I never intended for you to get killed.”
Dwight, wherever you are, do not show your melted face.
“You being killed never occurred to me,” said Gladys. “It wasn’t the point. The point was what was best for those boys and society as a whole and water power. That’s what H.B. Lewis said. And I was mad at you for having a negro name, don’t hurt me.”
“Mom, Willy’s not mad at you. Is he?”
Jimmy wished he hadn’t used up his best most sincere face earlier.
“Ma’m,” he said. Should he put his hand on hers? No. “Willy doesn’t blame you for his death. I know he doesn’t. He loved your daughter and he respected you as a mother.”
“Do you know that for sure?”
“He knows that,” said Lake. “I should know. I was his best friend. In the camaraderie that develops in battle one comes to know these things and I know he respected Mona’s Mom.”
“I’m Mona’s Mom.”
“Yes, that’s who I was talking about.” Lake had a throw-me-the-car-keys look to him.
“So we thought,” said Jimmy, “as we were passing through, why not stop and see the people who meant the most to Willy.”
“Passing through?” Mona edged forward in her chair.
“Not returning,” said her mother, “for revenge or any other motive?”
“No, ma’m,” said Lake, ma’m rotting in his teeth. “Tomorrow, in fact, I would very much like to visit Willy’s grave, to pay my respects.”
Right on, Lake.
“You’ll love it,” said Gladys, “you really will. The Picketts put a great deal of effort into the gravesite; it’s a sight to see. Would you kids like dessert?”
After dessert, she waved them out, took to the couch. She read fix-it books: radio and TV, small appliances, decks and back porches, roofs and foundations, automobiles, gutters, plumbing. The kids sat on the back steps, Lake and Jimmy smoking. Mona asked if they had any weed. Lake wished they did. Are you really 18? Jimmy asked. Nineteen this month, why? Just asking. Wherever he sat or stood she sat or stood next, exuding carnal bliss. Sometimes she squeezed his arm, poked him, he assumed to certify he was material. An uneven lawn ran to a shadow of trees and the edge of the canal.
“What is this you and your mom keep saying about Since the TV?” asked Jimmy.
“That’s when everything went to hell, really. Changed.”
“Which was when?”
“When the thing happened in Vietnam.”
“Oh, The Thing,” said Lake, who figured acting stoned might get him high. “I was there when The Thing Happened. The Thing and I were like that.”
“Your mom’s not in there calling the cops or anything, is she?” asked Jimmy.
“Cause she thinks we’re out to wreak revenge.”
“She would never do anything like that. I’ll check.”
The door slammed. Jimmy said, “Dwight’s not in the car.”
“Dwight,” Lake called out. “Are you around here somewhere? Dwight!”
“I’m over here.” Dwight blinked on as he spoke, then darkened, like a firefly at the edge of the trees.
“That’s spooky,” said Jimmy. “Whyn’t you stay in the car?”
On. “I got lonely.” Off.
“Ok. Stay off.”
Mona returned, snuggled. “She’s sorta scared of you. She doesn’t know if you hate her cause she got you drafted or cause you’re patriotic and she’s anti-war.”
“Your Mom’s anti-war?” Bonk.
“Since the TV.”
“Could you clear up the TV thing?”
“I told you, it was during the Thing.”
“Tet?” said Lake.
“That’s the one. Where they attacked our Embassy.”
“I came home. I was working part-time at Dicker’s, and she was down on her hands and knees in front of the TV,
Jimmy pictured praying.
“scrubbing the carpet. She wouldn’t tell me what it was. I don’t know what leaks in a TV, there isn’t any liquid in there, is there? Then the next night we were watching CBS News and it started again, I mean she started. ‘There’s blood coming out of the TV.’”
“Did you see it?” asked Jimmy.
“Sort of. Not pouring. Just little drips. Out the bottom of the screen. When the news was on. About Vietnam. So we scrubbed up the carpet again.”
“And you saw this.”
“Kinda. The next day Mom cut a hunk of the carpet, I mean it was real white, out from under the front of the set. It looked kinda stupid, like shaving off a piece of your beard.” She pointed to Lake’s scruffy one. “How do you explain that to anybody? So she pulled up half the rug to try to make it look like it was a interior design decision. She put a pan under the set.”
“How’d you explain that?”
“Well, right, the minister came over and we had to tell him there was a leak in the ceiling, except it hadn’t rained for a month, which he knew. So we stopped watching the news. She started reading those do-it-yourself books in case there was something in the TV that leaked. I don’t know what’s in those tubes. Then when Willy got killed, she decided it was his blood and God was making him bleed on her carpet. That’s when she transferred to chief clerk of the Farm Credit Administration, Western Division, and stopped cooking.”
“And she’s anti-war.”
“She thinks H.B. Lewis and Buck Rogers, Jr. and all those guys are war criminals who brainwashed her. Really though, it always seemed the other way round, I mean they pretty much did what she told them.”
“Or she wouldn’t feel guilty about me. Willy.”
“Yeah. You’re smart.” She put her head on his shoulder.
Lake looked at the two of them and tore off laughing. He put his head down, gulped, stood up, laughed, bent over, stomped his feet, sat down, lay back, face to the early stars, guffawed. The rising darkness emphasized the burning ends of their cigarettes, obscured the smoke.
“Well, it’s funny,” he said, had breath left only to giggle.
“So we can spend the night,” said Jimmy.
“I made her say yes. In the guest room. You can’t sleep with me.”
“I can handle it.”
“And tommorrow you won’t leave.”
“No no. We have to visit, you know, Willy’s.”