As He Was
By Kit St. Germain
20 April 2009
Malcolm Maines came home on a hot Sunday.
Mrs. Pike had just taken to her organ and was laying down a thunder of trial chords. The funeral service was about to begin, when a brand-new black and green truck skidded to a stop in the dust behind the other cars lining the ditch.
Malcolm got out in a hurry and took the church stairs two at a time. I was greeting, at the door. He ran right past me, like a ghost in a dream. I had on a hat and gloves. I could only think he didn't recognize me.
Everyone turned and stared. He stopped ahead of me, his jaw dropping at the sight of the coffin and flag.
We'd had five funerals in the last year with no bodies to bury, just the coffin for reference—same one used over and over. They put a flag over it. Like a picnic cloth. And then there was a photograph. He must not have noticed. This time it was his.
Sorry, Sir, didn't know it was a funeral. I'm awful sorry for my manners. I didn't mean to intrude on your grief. Just thought I'd catch the service— Is this the town of One Arrow? That's what he said to the pastor, who was also greeting. Pastor Thisted, whom he saw every Sunday of his growing-up life. I thought he was kidding.
Imagine interrupting your own funeral.
Come to find out, he had lost his memory. He was given directions to come here, find his family, but he didn't recognize the town, or anything else. When his mother, Twyla Maines, waddled up to hug him, he just stared at her like she was a crazy old bag. Which she is.
Still. He should have known me.
He had a note in his fist from the fella at the VA hospital saying that family could ring him and clear up any trouble.
Mal had been a POW in the Philippines. He'd been MIA and declared dead, which is why Twyla had had her bereavement letter. The VA guy on the phone told us all but a handful of Mal's fellow prisoners had been wiped out in some terrible circumstance. Malcolm was found alive but he had lost every bit of what went before (only just got identified by a survivor). Said it would all come back eventually and not to bother him. Let him recover in his own good time. Then he said if it didn't come back, that wouldn't be all bad. Some things are better not remembered, he said. Count your blessings if his memory never returns.
Malcolm's mother certainly agreed with that. She practically clapped her righteous hands and danced, that Malcolm couldn't remember me. I gave her back the phone, and that was that.
I bet there were about ten clicks on the party line after we hung up. That's how things get around.
From then on, Malcolm's mother turned me away every time I showed up, and told me not to bother him. You heard the medical man, Olivia. Guess she didn't think much of me. Not after the sheriff confiscated my dollies last year. Not after he stuck me in the drunk tank and told me to rest my sights upon the Lord. I never trust a quiet girl, Sheriff, they can be thinkin' just anything! That's what I heard Twyla tell the sheriff when she came to pick me up.
Truthfully I don't think Twyla Maines ever liked me. I'm the only one like me here in One Arrow. That's a strikeout: the only black-eyed, black-haired, and to hear some tell it, black-souled, creature in this little town. My ancestors didn't all get off the same stagecoach fulla blue-eyed, pie-eating settlers. No, I was picked up out of the Wayward Children's Orphan Asylum in Willis by the charitable graces of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Hume. You take in a stranger's child, never know what you're gonna get—I've heard that whispered often enough.
They took my dollies. But they don't know something: I don't need 'em. I never have. They just make it easier for me to see what I'm doing. I only ever did one bad thing with one of them. The Lorna Phelps dollie. I was so mad, I twisted its foot around in the morning and in the afternoon she tripped on some baling wire and her ankle bone stuck out the side of her leg. You can ask her why. She knows. Anyway, even I know that although the case of Lorna was simple justice, that's really God's job. I made a promise to myself never to use a dollie in that way again. My Malcolm dollie, I kept in the best condition. I told it over and over, "This body stays in one piece, pal." I would kiss it and hug it. Sometimes I would put it in a bean can and I would tell it, "You are in invisible armor, my only love. Nothing gonna touch you." And I used to march it past the sign that says:
You are entering One Arrow.
I brought his dollie over that line into our town so many times. I know how crazy that sounds—but where are 'Phonse and Woody Pike and Jerry Rasmussen that signed up with Malcolm? Where's Teddy Loews? Dead, is where. Malcolm came home because of me.
For two years I had been burning up inside. Nothing was ever going to put that fire out but having him again. And then he was home, and instead of running his hand up my skirt, instead of pressing me into the hay, instead of breathing hard into my mouth as we made love from one end of the county to the other, he was sitting around his mother's house, that dry old biddy-bag. He was sitting there in a chair with a dumb smile on his face, helping her roll out her dry old bag cookie dough.
By the time he married April Trask in the fall, not one flicker of his memory had come back. April is a pretty girl, although she always makes her hair white with peroxide. Not something that suits all comers. Especially them that ain't movie stars. I would see the pair of them holding hands outside Woolworth's—but it wasn't the kind of crazy "can't-wait-to-get-you-alone" holding hands. It was limp, nothing-doin' holding hands. It was "my-dry-old-biddy-bag-momma-likes-you" holding hands. There was no sweet secret they warmed together. There was no fire.
And then April was pregnant.
Oh god. I had such venom running through me. I wanted to beat April to fillets. Malcolm was mine. His arms, his all-the-way smile, his green eyes, his big shoulders, his jokes, his shadow long in the dusk, all of it was mine, and it was stolen from me.
But I grit my teeth and made his child golden. What I did now, I drew things on the paper place mats at the truck stop. I drew a golden happy baby. Then I drew it in its momma's arms. Then, I drew them separate from my Malcolm.
Mother Hume died that winter. I wasn't expecting it at all, but I inherited the Hume farm in the spring, right as April was going into labor. I had been meaning to leave town to get away from my agony, but with the change in my fortunes, which would have made most people so happy, I realized I was never going to stop being obsessed. So I put all my madness into work. The Humes' house is the biggest in several counties and I lit into it like the avenging angel tearing into Babylon. I scraped off old cloth wallpaper, gave away the dark velvet curtains and much of what was musty and heavy with memory. I painted the outside white and green, which I had always admired as colors that happy people painted. I did up new fences. I planted potatoes, tobacco, beans, squash, corn. I sold off all the cows and still continued to waitress at the truck stop, though there was no need anymore.
Mother Hume kept a cold cellar for potatoes, apples, and onions—or so she said. When I was a kid I was never allowed down the cold cellar. After enough switches across my backside or my knuckles, I quit trying. Alls I ever saw of it was the platform at the top where there were shelves for a cake to cool and all the jars of preserves were kept. There was a light on a chain up there at the top, but the light didn't spill far. I lit a kerosene lantern I found on a hook and went down. The floor at the bottom of the stairs was just earth—had that historical smell. Old man Hume made his wild fortune off bootlegging. His still—pretty contraption—and a mess of homemade hooch were all right there, untouched since the old man died, way back.
The room under the parlor had a whole load of old junk in trunks and cardboard suitcases. I near drowned in that same feeling I had all through my days at the Humes'—that I was a sneak thief in someone else's life, rattling through their drawers, sullying their intimate treasures. None of it was ever gonna be holy to me like it was to them. There was an old baby carriage with the baby clothes of the Humes' daughter, Iris Adele, lost to polio before they went and fostered me. Mother Hume had her good china down here, her hope chest with her maiden name, Clara Boorstron, painted on it. I recognized a pile of the dresses I had made for her before she stopped being able to wear anything too close or tight. On top of those were a few "Property of the Sheriff's office" manila envelopes.
They contained all my dollies.
The police must have brought them to Mother Hume. I wonder if she was surprised. I wonder if she brushed it aside, in that way of hers, when she didn't want to contemplate something—like her husband the bootlegger. She was select in what she contemplated. Well, she did tell me it was time to leave home and make my own way after the fuss. I never took it personal. We weren't personal.
Now, I don't need the dollies, like I said. They just help me to see—like keeping a finger on your last stitch, so you know where to put the needle through. I didn't want to get wrapped up in what was past, but I had already tumbled all of the dollies out onto a box without thinking. The first one I picked up was Mother Hume. I had daubed camphor on that doll to ease her. It still smelled. I had made the dollie upright to counter the hunch and the pain she often felt in her back, and it wore a miniature of the Xmas dress I had sewn for her. I had written PEACE acrost her back. I wonder if she made anything of that.
In the next envelope was the Malcolm dollie, in his little uniform. All in one piece. What would it take to break into his memory, put myself in his thoughts again, get past the fool smile he wore nowadays?
I felt that strange wave I get, almost nausea, when I'm breaking into someone. It was only corn husks woven in the shape of a man, the uniform sewn straight on, but as I touched it and remembered, I could feel him washing through me. I could smell him. I put my finger to the dollie's forehead, and saw—in that way I do—something like fog, or milk, when it has frozen in the pail, and through it, under it, frozen solid, there was fire, red, huge. Black smoke caught mid-billow, and then I saw my own face down deep behind the white, the fire, the smoke, everything.
There it is. There is his fire. That's Malcolm's love, that's his wildness, there under white under ice.
In the way that I know these things, I knew what would melt it. I ripped open the box of Mother Hume's good china, and dashed a dessert bowl against Iris Adele Hume's baby carriage. And then, with a nice sharp shard in hand, I stuck myself hard in the palm.
I let the fat drops of my blood spill onto the dollie's face, saw the red seep in. Saw it melt through the milky ice.
The county fair was upon us. I worked all day, and when I wandered out to the porch as night was falling, I could hear the faint tinny music carrying all the way out to the Humes'. I couldn't resist it. I rode my bike the three or four miles to the Polsens' field, where they were set up, leaned it up against the makeshift fencing, paid my five cents, and followed the crowd.
Maybe because I had worked flat out since early morning, I had this no-brain feeling of enjoyment, just filling up with the business of other people. I got a candy apple with another nickel, and watched a farmer, Ed Loews, try his luck against a professional wrestler for the ever-growing pot of silver dollars left by farmers who hadn't defeated him yet. The men were pretty fired up to get him, a good few telling their tales of how they almost had the slippery son of a gun. The professional wrestler's back muscles were thick and they truly were slippery with sweat. He was a nicely made man. I could have watched a long time. But then I saw Lorna Phelps with Edgar from the Paladin Picture house and I had to leave. One or the other was bad enough, but Edgar was the one who told the Sheriff I practiced some perverted hoodoo. Alls I had told him was that I could help him. He seemed like me, alone and outside. I made him a doll with a silver dollar attached to it, because I felt sorry for him, when he told me his troubles. Then I went and I showed it to him, because I was proud of it. After I spent that night in jail, I put him in my mind's eye with holes in his pockets and his shoes. He might have won that money I promised, but he'd lose it again, fast.
Hurrying along, I came to the night baseball game. I dunno how long I sat there watching the game, marveling at the power of the lights. Once again I was happily lost, and out of my own troubles. There's something so enjoyable about baseball at night. Every man out there thinks he's Babe Ruth. Every one of them wearing a cloak of legend, spitting and cussing and making their signals like the world would end without them. I love them. And when they shut up you can hear the frogs singing. That's good truth. I feel the world is safe on accounta all their manly business. I felt this admiration, like I was an eagle sitting in the top of a tall pine and they were way down there strutting, slow as grouse, just as pretty. I don't know how I got away from myself like that but I was not questioning it. God, I was free. I was not stuck in myself. And then, with no warning, Malcolm touched my elbow and he said:
Come into the dark with me.
I froze. It was his voice. His real voice. The real him. There was no idiot smile. The sheet of ice was gone. I felt it, I felt him, bloody and real and alive right there next to me.
"I'm fine where I am." I didn't look at him. "You remember me, now?" I said.
He held out his hand before my face as the crack of a ball on a bat echoed in the night. In the hand was a gold ring.
"I was gonna give you this," Malcolm, the real Malcolm, said. "I found it this morning. I was making room for the baby. I was clearing my old dresser, and I found this and then—I just remembered. I was gonna give it to you. When I got back. I been here, what, a year and a month? Saw you lookin' at me funny. I didn't understand. I thought you was—well, like my momma said, some kinda foreign deviant. And now I remember. I loved you so hard. So hard. And you loved me. You did, didn't you?"
I couldn't speak. I just managed a dry gulp against a sudden awful pain in my throat that threatened to become tears.
"Olivia, why didn't you say anything?" he said.
I didn't answer, just stood up, walked down the bleachers and let him follow me out of the light. The first wall I came across in the dark, I leaned side-on, and he leaned behind me. His full warm body, just as I had been craving. Just as I remembered.
"You musta hurt so bad, Livvy. God, I'm sorry." His mouth hovering by my ear was just too much, I turned and gave him mine and then we were all over each other, just like before.
I screamed into his hand as I climaxed and we slumped down. I don't know where we were—Carter's barn, maybe. He stroked my hair. "My beautiful girl. God. I don't know what I'll do. I'll do something, though. I will." He chuckled. "Seems like I became my momma for a while. Momma loves April. When I was in Palawan, all I thought about was you. No matter—" and then he just stopped speaking.
I couldn't say what happened. It was dark. I had burrs on my stockings. I thought Mal had gone to relieve himself. I waited a few minutes and then straightened myself up and went to look for him. I wandered the fair for two whole hours and then I got on my bike and went home. He musta gone to sort out April, I thought. I musta missed something. I was full of bliss. My body hummed with happiness.
I was awoken in the middle of the night by someone in the yard leaning on their horn and hollering. I pulled up the window from the master bedroom to see April screaming up at me. In the light of the truck I saw her new baby in a white cloth squirmin' in the passenger seat. Oh, brother, I thought. I didn't even think about April calling me to account. Well, heck. I could answer. I love him. How's that for an answer? And I set my mind and went down into the yard.
"He's gone crazy!" she started as soon as I opened the screen door. "He attacked me and the baby and he's talkin' in another language. He broke a wall! Right through the wall into his mom's room and charged at her with a lamp and a hammer. We didn't know what to do—" April talked nonstop except to blow out at her white fuzzy hair hangin' in her teary eyes. "We locked him upstairs and phoned the VA. They ain't answered. I can't be there, Livvy. I got a newborn, I ain't riskin' it! You should hear him banging around. Oh my Lord. Oh Lordy. I feel bad for Twyla but I have to go to my momma's. I got a baby. We called over Ernie Pike and he's gone round to Carter's for horse tranquilizer—"
At the first sign she might take a breath, I jumped in: "Well what are you doin' here?" I was immediately sorry for my tone. She took it like a slap, and it stopped her cold. See, everyone knew Malcolm was mine before he come back. April knew it perfectly well.
"Olivia, okay. First lemme just say, he keeps sayin' your name. Calling it out in the middle of all the other things he's yellin'—'bout the only thing you kin understand—just a sec."
She ran back to the truck and picked up the baby, who had begun to squall, and a packet of cigarettes off the dash. She lighted one over the kid's head. "My nerves. Need somethin' for my nerves. They don't tell you what it's like havin' a baby. I'm ripped up six ways to Sundee. You want one?" She held out the pack to me. I knew she was tryin' for my sympathies, and I don't smoke normally, but it was a peace gesture, and now that we'd both stolen from each other, I took one. When she lit it, I wanted to cough so bad, I thought my eyeballs would pop.
"He wasn't your same man anymore. It was like the war tore the edges oft him. And I liked him sanded down. I like him how he is now. Well, not right now. I always had a thing for him, but he never looked at me." She shrugged, looking innocent.
"I wanted to kill you," I told her. I took an inhale, then coughed like I had tuberculosis, and stepped out the cigarette. "What's the baby's name?"
"May. Huh. Well, April, May, you go on to your momma's, I'll go over to the Maines'."
By the time I got to the Maines', there were a group of men there, including Ernie Pike and his giant horse hypodermic. I heard the terrible crashing upstairs, and Mal screaming. Twyla was sitting at her kitchen table in her curlers and a hairnet and a padded housecoat.
"I don't see that you can do anything. Not anymore. Listen to that," she growled at me.
I listened, and she was right. So I went outside and sat on the water tank and talked the dollie to sleep, right about the same time as Ernie and the men stormed the upstairs and jabbed Malcolm with horse tranquilizer.
They got him to the VA hospital.
Days passed. I found myself listening in to the party line for news. I learned that Twyla was calling April at her mom's every day at three. I would carefully lift up the receiver at ten to, and listen in with the windows shut and a hanky over my face.
. . . they said it's a choice between raving and trying to kill every orderly in sight or taking so many drugs he'll just be a vegetable, they said.
—I dunno, Twyla, I have to think of May. Will he get a pension?
—Will he . . . My Lord, you selfish . . . no wonder it's Olivia he keeps calling for. Least she cared for him.
That conversation settled it. When I put down the phone I drove straight to Willis.
The VA liaison said he would only talk to family. I told him that before Malcolm lost his memory we were engaged. I had the ring. I got it the night of the county fair. I slapped it on his desk and stared him down.
"What'd you say your name was?"
Livvy. Olivia Hume.
His expression changed instantly. "Come with me."
As we walked down a long mint green hallway, he looked straight ahead, and he gave me the story:
"The boys in his unit were captured by the Japanese. They were made to build them airstrips, airports. I don't think in this whole mess of a war, there was a place more like hell for our boys than Palawan, where he was. The Japs worked them to death, starved them, beat them, even buried them alive. In the last days when it looked like we had licked the enemy, our side flew coup overhead to let our boys have some hope. Let 'em know we were comin' to set them free. Well, the Japs were sore losers. They poured gasoline on those men, days away from freedom. They set them on fire. When we rolled in to camp there were piles of burnt bodies, clouds of flies. The men were huddled in their final positions in the backs of their shelters—far from the entrances as they could get. Anyone tried to run, Japs bayoneted them. Their fingers were nubs from trying to dig out. Some tried to swim and they were picked off in the water. Malcolm was in a pile of bodies in the sh. . . the midden heap. Burial duty was surprised as hell when he moved. Not a scratch on him. He was our big triumph. . . ." We had stopped at a door with a window in it. "This is him."
It was a padded room and he was straightjacketed. Still, he was hurting himself. He raged and ran at the walls, his face red, twisted, crazy. He would hang in the center of the room for seconds and drool, and cry, and then start charging the walls over again. And then he saw me.
Olivia, his mouth formed. He came to the door and stared out of the glass and I could hear him:
I am in invisible armor, my only love. Nothing gonna touch me.
I gasped and stepped away from the glass.
Olivia! You are entering the town of One Arrow! Get back! They're coming. No! Just shoot me. Try, ya Jap bastard! Shit heap! NOW, RIGHT NOW— take Dowd and take . . . This body stays in one piece, pal. Livvy? It's The Buzzard! Down! They got Dowd! Dig!
His voice grew fainter as we went back down the hall.
"I'm sorry you had to see that, Ma'am. Obviously you meant a lot to him."
I looked at the officer in the eye. I could feel my mouth shakin'. I said, "He came back."
I took Mother Hume's Model T home.
I ran the Malcolm dollie under water to wash out my blood and in the morning I took it to the truck stop, soaked it in milk, and put it in the deep freeze. I gave him back his shield.
April and him didn't get back together. Twyla took a dislike to April. But Malcolm still lives with his momma and he still smiles at her while she rolls out her old-bag cookies.
Everything I want. I got it. I had my prayers answered at the county fair, and I can live off that love. I can live off that. I lived off less for longer.
Good, that's done.
I'm so grateful for it.