Where It's All Coming From
Teague von Bohlen
David knows this is wrong, knows he shouldn’t be back here, knows that his former neighbors will recognize the flat-blue of his Chevy half-ton, and that it shouldn’t be parked here anymore. David just wants to see the house, make sure it’s okay, like peeking into the black bedroom of a sick child. He tells himself this, that the draw is paternal, nothing more. Certainly nothing dangerous. Yes, just being within 50 yards of the house is technically illegal, as of the 27th of last month. But sometimes, David just finds himself here.
David loved this place the first time he laid eyes on it when he and Jenny thought they were moving up in the world. He’d just been promoted to head the math department at Chiddix Junior High then, and even though there was only one other math teacher, it still offered a decent bump in pay. So they spent it on four bedrooms and an interest rate that almost twenty years later seems comical. She wanted the bedrooms because she wanted a baby. He wanted an office, assumed the babies would come. In this, David was wrong. He got his office, and over the years spent more and more time there alone. Jenny insisted on a futon—for guests, even though they had a guest room already. He ended up sleeping there for nearly a full year before Jenny told him to leave. She bought him out of what was left of their meager equity after several re-fi’s. He’d had no arguments left to make.
That was almost a year ago. David found an apartment near school close enough so he could walk, slowly, so as not to raise a sweat. He usually likes this solitude, but there are times when the quiet becomes too much for him, and the world looms and shuts everything down. This is when he climbs into his truck, almost sleepwalking, and drives to what used to be home.
A light comes on in the house, and he can see a silhouette in the living room. Definitely Jenny, David thinks. She looks good. Thinner maybe, though she was never what he’d call heavy. She’d always worried about her weight, always worried about something.
This seems to him to be a good time to leave. He wonders as he pulls away if there’s still water in the basement, but shakes his head. Of course there’s still water in the basement. There’s always been water in the basement. He couldn’t stop it. He’d tried, spent serious money, too. Bought a sump pump, had someone install new drywall with the best vapor barrier he could buy. Nothing worked. And this was important, since the basement was where David’s office was, and the carpet was constantly damp. On bad days, water pooled around his feet as he walked. He learned not to wear socks, kept the power strip up on the desk, ran a dehumidifier constantly and emptied gallons of grey water every evening. Still, the water came. “It’s the damnedest thing,” he’d tell Jenny. “I don’t know where it’s all coming from.”
In the end, it didn’t matter. It came, and it wouldn’t stop, and he had no control over it whatsoever. David never did beat the water; he just waited it out until he had to leave it behind.
“Are you okay, David?” asks Frannie Gently, half-smiling and all-sincere, the way she seems to approach everything in the nearly eight years that David has taught with her in the Math department. She’s small, still wears shoulder pads in her jackets. They’re at a curriculum meeting in the teacher’s lounge, sitting across from each other at a laminated beechwood table. “You don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine,” David says, but wants to say more. He offers the first excuse that jumps to mind. “I have water in my basement.”
“Oh, that’s terrible,” Frannie says, pursing her lips. “My brother’s basement is damp too. They don’t need the space, thank goodness. He says that he’s thinking about just giving in and filling the thing up to about five feet so they can have an indoor pool.”
“That’s funny,” David says, though he feels it clearly isn’t.
“But you need to take care of yourself,” Frannie says. “Maybe get out of town for a bit. I went down to Florida with my sister last winter, and it did wonders. You know how it is—you have to get out of the Midwest sometimes, or it’ll get inside you and fester.”
From anyone else, this advice might seem self-serving; a power-grab in the Chiddix Math department. But from Frannie, it means that something may actually be wrong, something he’s wearing on his sleeve but can’t see. From what David knows of her, Frannie doesn’t have a disingenuous bone in her body, and Frannie, skinny as she is, seems all bone.
“Really, I’m okay,” David says, though now he doesn’t believe it himself. He picks at the burn marks in the middle of the conference table, where cigarettes burned themselves into the waxy finish back when there used to be a big communal ashtray there. “Just tired. Haven’t been sleeping well.” This is true, so David changes the subject. “How’re classes?”
“The same,” Frannie says. “Sometimes I wonder how I don’t go crazy doing stuff over and over again.”
“How do any of us?”
“True,” Frannie says.
David tries to recall anything about Frannie that he can ask her about, and flashes on her showing up to school one day with a bird dropping perched on her shoulder. She’d laughed, picked it off with a napkin, talked about her parakeets. “So how are your birds?” he asks, realizing that there is no good segue from math to parakeets.
Frannie arches her back and cocks her head. Her eyes are open wide, and David notices that they’re the blue of his truck. “How’d you know I have birds?”
“You talk about them.”
Frannie’s shoulders rise as she giggles. “I guess that’s true. I do love the dumb things. I just never thought you were listening.”
“Well, sure,” David says.
“I shouldn’t call them dumb, actually,” Frannie says. “They’re actually remarkably bright. Not all mimicry is just repetition, you know? There’s context too, and that’s the amazing thing. There was this bird named Alex—he was a parrot, but they’re close to parakeets—anyway, this parrot, Alex, he’d been in studies at Harvard about animal intelligence. He just recently died after years with these scientists. And his last words to his keepers were You be good, I love you. Isn’t that just amazing? Doesn’t that just give you shivers?”
David nods; she’s animated with her story, excited to be able to share it. Frannie’s only five years younger than him, never married. She smiles often, and wears her dark hair up in a swirl of origami locks. These are good things. David feels he should have enjoyed this conversation, and so he decides that he has.
David considers himself a Socratic man: recognition that you don’t know is the first step in knowing. Like truck engines; he knew nothing about them, so he bought a book that taught him to change his own oil. He doesn’t bother to do it anymore—it took him the whole weekend the two times he’d bothered—but he likes that he knows how. He has that in his hip pocket. And it’s this yearning that puts him back in his Chevy again, parked outside 1910 Oakwood Avenue.
It’s evening, and the air is thick and wet. The radio is off so as not to call attention from anyone, and his seat is levered back so he’s less apparent in the cab. David had been listening to the sounds of the neighborhood just after dusk, straining to hear someone being called home to eat, but his mind has wandered to the subject of Frannie Gently, and whether or not he looked good earlier in the day. He has no one to ask. He’s always preferred self-reliance, but now he’s starting to wonder how many Frannie Gentlys he’s seen come and go, who might have looked at him with the blue eyes of real concern. David’s wondering if he’s missed more than his marriage in staying down in that basement. He’s wondering if everyone with whom he came into contact smelled the mildew that he carried on his feet. He’s wondering what that may have cost him.
David gets a whiff of stale air that reminds him of his basement, and he wonders what Jenny is doing with the space now. Considering the water, he imagines that she doesn’t use it at all. She’d never liked it, never went down there if she could help it. Said it smelled sour, and it did. David always had to wash his feet before he came to bed; not having to do that anymore had been one of the small graces of being demoted to the futon in the basement. The futon, which he still uses as his bed, was the only thing he took from the office when he moved out. David likes the idea of his office still being there. That it’s still space devoted to him, uselessly awaiting his return, like the bedroom of a dead child.
David doesn’t notice the neighbors from across the street walking over to his truck until they’re almost to him. He doesn’t know what else to do but roll down the window and say hello.
“Evening, Mike. Susan.”
Everything about Mike and Susan is large: house, number of children, stomachs. Susan pushes out another baby every year like wailing clockwork; Mike adds a new room to the back of the house when necessity demands. David once went bowling with Mike, on Susan and Jenny’s request, but it only amounted to two badly-bowled games, three pitchers of beer, and one sausage pizza that Mike consumed by himself. Still, David has always liked Mike, if only in a down-the-street sort of way.
“Whatcha doing out this way, David?” Mike asks. He’s leaning into the cab a little, his hands gripping the door by the open window. Susan’s body language is less subtle; her arms are crossed over her ample chest, and her scowl is accusatory.
“Just checking on the painting that Jenny had done,” David says. Jenny had paid two neighborhood boys to paint the house over the summer, from chocolate brown to what David considers a jaundiced tan.
Mike shakes his head. “You can’t be here, buddy. You know that.”
“I know,” David says, trying to seem easy-going. “I’m not here to see Jenny, just curious about the paint.”
“That makes no difference,” Susan says, and her breasts sort of pflumph when she does it.
“I know.” David attempts a chuckle. He’s trying to make them see the ridiculousness of the situation. He’s not a stalker, even if Jenny’s called him one.
“She could have you arrested, man,” Mike says. “Nobody wants that.”
“Hey, least of all me,” David says, raising his hands in mock surrender, and starts the engine. “I was just leaving anyway.”
Susan mutters something David can’t hear as she starts to walk back to her house. Mike looks after her, and then back to David. “I’m gonna wait here while you go, all right?” Mike says, pushing back from the truck door. “Next time you want to see the paint, you call Jenny to make sure it’s okay, yeah? And maybe during daylight.”
“Sorry, Mike,” David says. “You’re right. Have a good night.”
David pulls away, guilty, and angry for it. His heart is racing. The streetlights shine across the hood of his truck as he heads west on College Avenue, the light moving up his windshield, into his eyes, and into the dark behind him.
The next day is a Friday, and David seeks out Frannie after school. She’s outside the west entrance serving bus duty wearing the orange reflective vest the school provides and squinting into the sun. “The Number Five bus is late again. I don’t know why the School System puts up with that driver.”
“Not much of a system sometimes,” he says.
Frannie laughs. “Isn’t that the truth. Oh, there he is,” Frannie says as the bus appears at the corner, and she turns to the students in a chaotic line behind her. The Number Five pulls up through the turnaround, and Frannie counts heads. “Does anyone know if Deena Williams was in school today? If she misses the bus again, her mother will have her head.”
None of the students respond, so David says, “Deena was absent in my class this morning, if that helps.”
“It does,” Frannie says, looking back over her shoulder as she gets the last of the students on the Number Five. “Thank you.” Frannie grunts tiredly as she pulls the orange vest over her head.
“I swear,” she says, looking after the bus as if it was a runaway child, “some kids just don’t have any kind of sense.”
“I agree with you,” David says. “Like Deena Williams?”
“Her,” Frannie says, “and a few others like her. They don’t pay attention. I mean, take Deena—she’s missed the bus four times in the last three weeks, and her mother is livid. At her and at us for letting it happen.”
“Maybe that says more about her home life than it does about Deena,” David says.
“I know,” Frannie sighs. “Which is the other thing that worries me. That girl falls down a lot, you know? Like at home? I mean a lot. And so part of me today is hoping that she is absent, that she hasn’t missed the bus again—and the other part is worrying that she is absent, and wondering why.”
“I understand,” David says, though he’s somewhat ashamed to admit that he hasn’t really thought this much about his students in years.
“Teaching is a lot like having dozens of your own kids, isn’t it?” Frannie says in a small voice.
David chooses not to answer that. “You’re a good person to think like that.”
“Me?” Frannie laughs. “No, I’m just a teacher. Believe me, if I could stop thinking about Deena Williams, I would. What sort of person does that make me?”
Frannie laughs again. “Definitely that,” she says, and starts walking back into the school. “So, TGIF, right? Any big plans tonight?”
“No,” David says, following. “Nothing planned. I might go for a drive.”
“That sounds nice,” Frannie says. “I used to go on drives, you know, clear my head, see the world. Good for the soul. There was this one time when I was in college, and I was all sorts of messed up with my classes and my boyfriend at the time, and well, I just got in my Chevy Citation and I started driving. And I just kept going, David, I just kept going. I drove until it was morning, and I was in Nebraska someplace, and I ended up stopping at a truck stop for breakfast and paying six dollars to shower.”
“The truckers have to pay to clean themselves up before they sleep in their trucks, I guess,” snorts Frannie. “Not something I’d want to do again. I was soaping up next to a couple of women that you just wouldn’t want to see naked.”
David laughs as a way of masking the fact that he’s now imagining Frannie soaping up.
“All right. Well,” Frannie smiles and pauses. “I’ll see you on Monday.” She gives a little wave as she walks away.
It’s only while walking home that it occurs to David that Frannie had given him an opening to ask her out, and he’d been ignorant of it. David has never been good at reading signals. David picks up the phone twice, but puts down the receiver without dialing. He feels like he’s cheating on Jenny, which he knows is no longer possible, but she aches like a phantom limb.
David steels himself, and picks up the phone for a third time. He forces himself to stay on the line while it rings, and just when he’s thinking he should hang up, hang up now, Frannie answers. Her voice somehow quells everything.
Frannie is cordial on the phone; the excitement in her voice reminds him of the passion with which she’d only earlier in the week talked about her parakeets. They decide to go to grab some dinner, and then afterwards see where the night and his truck might take them. David offers to pick Frannie up. Frannie promises not to talk about birds.
David fumbles through the first part of dinner at Avanti’s. Everything seems to remind him of Jenny. Frannie even orders the same dish that Jenny always did, tortellini with marinara. He eats his Gondola sandwich and his fried mushrooms with ranch, and feels like he’s almost in a different time, like faulty déjà-vu. It’s dizzying, and this double-vision makes David remind himself constantly that he’s here, in this moment, and not watching it unfold from across the room.
Frannie seems to notice none of this. She chirps merrily about Illinois State, how she hasn’t been to Avanti’s in years, how good the bread still is, how her college boyfriend used to be the Redbird mascot. “Tells you something, I guess,” she says with a wink.
“Does it?” David asks, glad to be pulled back into the moment.
“It might,” she says, sitting back and looking at him sideways. “I mean, maybe I keep my little birds in a cage now so they can’t break my heart.”
David laughs, but it’s a breathy thing that can’t decide what it wants to be.
“Look at me. I broke my promise. Talking about birds again.”
“No, it’s okay,” David says. “So Reggie Redbird broke your heart? I guess that’s always been how jocks are with their girls.”
“I know!” Frannie exclaims. “It’s true whether they’re slam-dunking the ball or flapping around the court in a dirty old red felt suit.” She picks at her plate with her fork, rutting little ditches in the leftover sauce. “But you never get over the first heartbreak, do you? I mean, I’m past it, I guess, but there’s a part of me that’s not, that’s still right back there in that moment and won’t ever let go of it. You don’t think about it every day, you don’t miss some things. I don’t miss that smelly old bird suit, I’ll tell you that!” Her voice rises, and she lurches forward and her eyes fly open wide—but then she laughs at her own small joke, and leans back again. Her eyes are tired and thin. “But maybe life is just losing little parts of yourself along the way until finally there’s not enough left of you to go on anymore. You know what I mean, David?”
David only nods, but knows exactly what Frannie is talking about, wants to say so, wants to say Yes, of course, that’s perfect. But he doesn’t. He’s watching her, almost too in the moment now, dazzled by her and how she seems to understand so much.
Frannie shakes her head. “You know what?” she says. “We need wine.”
“Avanti’s doesn’t serve alcohol.”
“Which is why we’re leaving Avanti’s,” Frannie says, cocking her head to one side and grinning at him. “That okay with you, boss?”
“Absolutely,” David says, picking up the check.
They walk to the truck together, stop at the store for two bottles of Australian wine and some paper cups, and park in the junior-high lot overlooking Anderson Park. After two cups of wine, David notices how good Frannie looks. She’s dressed casual, jeans and a silk blouse, but her hair is down, and crowns her shoulders in a way that David likes. “I don’t think I mentioned it before, but you look great,” David says. “Thanks for coming out with me tonight.”
“How sweet,” Frannie says. “Thank you.” Frannie is finishing her third cup of wine, and pouring more. “I’m so glad we got two,” she says, “one bottle isn’t enough, two is too much. But c’est la vie. Or whatever the Australian equivalent might be.”
“No worries?” David says.
“Right,” Frannie giggles, holding up her index finger like David imagines she does to her students in class. “Crocodile Dundee. ‘No worries.’ God, I remember when it seemed like every kid was using that phrase.”
“Some still do,” David says. “But you’d go crazy trying to keep up with the slang.”
“Tell me about it,” Frannie says. “I got into some trouble last year when I heard some boys calling each other ‘wenis’ in the hallway. I thought it was some crude joke, but it turns out that it’s just the skin on your elbow. It only sounds dirty.”
“Which is why they were using it,” David reminds her.
“Sure,” Frannie says, “but I felt dumb anyway. Like an old teacher, completely out of it. I hate that feeling. But I guess it comes with working around thirteen year olds.”
“Yeah,” David says.
Frannie looks at David, drains the wine from her cup and pours the both of them more. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t mean to talk about school. We get enough of that, and here we are, drinking in the parking lot like teenagers. We spend enough time here. We need to go somewhere.”
“It’s okay,” David says.
“No it’s not,” Frannie says. “Weren’t you going to take me for a drive?”
David looks at Frannie. The wine is making his cheeks warm. “I drive a lot,” David says. “You want to know where I go?”
“Usually out east, past Sugar Creek, into the farmland over there,” David says.
“Didn’t you used to live out that way?”
David nods, surprised that she knows that, surprising himself by admitting it to her. “I think that’s why I go. It’s familiar, even though I still see something new every time I go.” He starts the truck.
“But it’s not the new that draws you,” Frannie says, and reaches out across the bench seat of the truck to put her hand on his arm. “Is it?”
For a moment, David lets himself relish the feeling of Frannie’s hand on his arm, and she seems to understand this, because she keeps it there, lets her warmth seep into his. It’s been a long time since a woman has touched him without impatience, without anger. “No,” David admits. “It’s not.”
“You miss her that much?”
“Not her,” David says, and he’s unsure himself whether or not he’s lying about that. “The house. Time. That the siding isn’t painted brown anymore. That the vines are gone. That I used to have an office down there, in the basement, and it was my place. I miss having that. Being able to go downstairs and grade papers and open the window and turn on the black-and-white on my filing cabinet and listen to Letterman. I miss having a place to live that has some permanence to it.”
“I know,” Frannie says.
“I live in an apartment now,” David says, and he can feel the blood rising into his face, careful not to move his right arm because Frannie’s hand is still there. “And it’s fine, but god knows how many people lived there before me, and god knows how many will come after. When I lived at the house, it was my house. We bought it when it was new. We were the only ones who had it. And now…” David pauses here to let out a sigh and shake his head.
“And now you can’t go back.”
“But you still do.”
“Just driving by. Never had the guts to do anything else.”
“Anything else like what?”
“Nothing. Nothing,” David says, practiced. But Frannie’s hand is still on his arm, and this somehow clears his head, like when the solution to a math problem suddenly becomes apparent. “Like seeing my office again,” he says finally. “I mean, just something that small.”
“That doesn’t sound small to me,” Frannie says softly. “It’s not small at all.”
“You don’t think?” David asks.
“No,” she says. “Sometimes, there are things you have to do for reasons that you can’t know. Like they’re some sort of key that will open a lock that you didn’t even know was there, and once you click it open, you’re on the other side in this place that you didn’t even know existed.”
Frannie’s eyes shine in the moonlight. “Exactly” she whispers. It’s so quiet, it’s almost a hiss. “So show me.”
“Show me your house.”
“I can’t. Jenny’s there. There’s a restraining order, which is crap, but there is, and anyway, I don’t have keys…”
“Not the whole house,” Frannie says. “Your office. We won’t do a thing; we’ll park far away and walk up so no one will notice, and sneak into the yard and peek in that window you used to open. Show it to me, David. Please?”
David pauses. It occurs to him that this is all he’s ever wanted.
“Oh, come on!” Frannie almost squeals. And then, nodding, but conspiratorially: “Come on.”
David grins, drains the last of his wine, throws the cup onto the floor, and starts the truck. As they pull out, David says, “You know, Frannie? You touched my wenis.”
She laughs, and doesn’t take her eyes off his as she drinks more wine.
David drives, with only the lit tunnels of his headlights to guide him into the darkness.
David will later reflect that the conversation in the truck, that joke they shared as they drove away—that was the best it would ever get between them. The moment it crested, and began to fall. And it’s not so much the fall itself that will bother David in the years to come, but how deep it went. How fast.
He and Frannie were in the backyard of his house, and it was his house in the purest sense of the word, and had been all along. He’d thought that Frannie understood this. They’d parked down the hill, near the tennis courts, and walked up. Lights were on, but no one was in the street. The night had grown colder, and David told Frannie more about the office window, how he’d planted some rock roses over the corrugated metal well, that maybe they were still there. David will realize later that Frannie wasn’t interested in the house at all. She was interested in him, in being a friend or maybe more—David won’t know what to think about that, and will have no way of finding out.
But when they’d gotten to the house, scouted around to the back window, everything was wrong. The roses were gone, just bare dirt marking the place where they’d once sprouted and grown. And through the window, down deep in the well, David could clearly see that there was nothing left of what had been his office. Just bare walls painted eggshell white, a stationary bike and a new color TV on a stand.
David had started crying and Frannie looked at him with what David thought was pity, but he wasn’t sure. So he’d tried to kiss her, even though he was still crying and his chest was hurting him, burning, maybe the Gondola from Avanti’s, and she’d protested, said “stop, stop” like Jenny had toward the end. She’d pulled away, run. David had followed her deeper into the shadows of the backyard, near the hedge that gave the neighborhood its name, pled with her to help him, which David will realize made no sense. She’d started back for the truck then, and that’s when David had tackled her to the ground.
It was also then that David left his body, stepped out of it like it was the Number Five bus. He watched himself like he was a ghost, seeing his body there on top of Frannie’s as she struggled beneath him. He saw himself holding Frannie by one wrist, wildly gesturing to her with the other, begging for her to just listen. He was trying to say something to her, something about Alex the Parrot, about be good and love you, but David will not remember what specifically he meant, or if he knew even then. She was slapping at him, trying to get him off of her, but it was of no use. He cried harder, but was also roaring now, not even making words, just a howling sound coming up from the pit of him, mixing with Frannie’s screeching. David will remember a black elation in witnessing this, dark as the cornfield behind them, wondering what was going to happen to Frannie, wondering what it was that he was trying to say. He saw lights start to come on from several directions, heard new screams from inside houses, voices belonging to people with whom he once barbequed. He heard Mike bellowing from across the street, running toward him and Frannie, and getting closer: David, stop, goddamnit, stop it man, what are you doing?
But David couldn’t stop it. He didn’t know how, and wasn’t sure he wanted to. He wanted to know what he was going to say, wanted to see what he was going to do. Wanted to know where it was all coming from.
|No. 12 - Fall 2013
Copyright 2017 Waccamaw. All reprint rights reserved by authors.