Patti White is the author of four collections of poems, Tackle Box (2002), Yellow Jackets (2007), Chain Link Fence (2013), and Pink Motel (2017), all from Anhinga Press. Recent chapbooks include A is for Aphasia (2013), Kontakion (2014), and District Flood (2014). Her poetry has appeared in journals including Iowa Review, North American Review, River Styx, Nimrod, DIAGRAM, Forklift Ohio, Parcel, McNeese Review, Slippery Elm, Vine Leaves, Waccamaw, and New Madrid; her nonfiction in Gulf Coast and Mulberry Fork Review. She lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
By Patti White
This was before his family burned up in a famous supper club fire. I don’t know where he was that night, when people trampled each other to get to exits already blocked by bodies. When the fire moved from the Zebra Room to the Cabaret Room and then the ceiling collapsed. I always remember it as Andy Williams singing but it wasn’t. Still, I hear The Girl from Ipanema or Moon River wider than a mile. I see cocktail dresses and linen tablecloths and cigarette smoke. His mother with clip-on earrings that sparkled.
Maybe he was in Japan then. I heard he stayed on after his tour of duty, that he bought a bar or a brothel, that he couldn’t find a way to come home from the Army. I don’t know if he flew to Kentucky to identify the bodies. Or what he might have inherited. Maybe it wasn’t his family at all. Someone else died and had the same name or we just imagined it to be his kind of tragedy. Something bleak and crusted. Unrecognizable faces in a temporary morgue.
Anyway, this was before the supper club fire, but after the seance and the horse races and the night so many people hid in the closet.
The bride’s house was halfway in the river. The front door right at the street, water tugging at the kitchen in back, and across the river the mountain black against the sky. A clawfoot tub in the bathroom and a big fan to move the air through the house. We all went out that first evening and the father made sure we had a loaded gun in the glove compartment. Just in case. Harlan County was dry then, maybe it still is. We had to drive to Heaven to get liquor and when we got back one bridesmaid slept with scissors under the pillow. There were dogs barking all up and down the road.
We played spades in the student center and ate burgers and fries and skipped classes. Or hearts and he tried to shoot the moon every time. This was before Watergate but after Kent State and the husband-to-be was away for pilot training. It was still a time of activism and that guy with the beret and bad skin wanted us to protest Peabody Coal and Bethlehem Steel. But we played cards and some people went to Vietnam and others ran moonshine to pay for tuition.
At night he worked at the Cape Codder, a local fast fish restaurant. He brought hush puppies to the apartment where we future bridesmaids had Jesus Christ Superstar on repeat. A tiny one bedroom with a rattan couch, a rag rug, a walk-in closet, and an upstairs neighbor who roller-skated on hardwood floors. We ate hush puppies or dodo spaghetti and played pinochle or made plans to see Ike & Tina up in Cincinnati. We sang along to the buzz in Jerusalem and never watched the news.
He knew his lottery number of course. The Paris peace talks were or were not proceeding, and that year everyone under 195 got called. But in the meantime he took etymology just to sit in back and watch me unpack words. Drove me around in his Camaro everywhere except that party at Tate’s Mill. You have to make your own way down there, he said.
So maybe we met at the card table, because he wasn’t from Harlan like my roommate’s friends. I do know he favored Maker’s Mark bourbon and hated songs with clowns or falsettos. That he would take a hit on every hand of blackjack. And that when he went away to boot camp he addressed letters to an alias meant to remind me I was cruel.
The road to the wedding ran crooked through Corbin, Bimble, and Flat Lick, through Pineville and Blackmont and the Daniel Boone forest. Limestone cuts dripped water into ditches and if we had stopped we could have chipped fossils out of the rock. Honeysuckle hummed with bees. It was early summer, the roadside full of pokeweed and wild carrots and burdock. We passed coal tipples like collapsed tobacco barns. Chokecherry and wild plum and sumac. Train tracks with cars empty or full of coal. The radio played Carole King and Lobo until the signal failed and then we talked about that time we drove to Daytona Beach and the pines were on fire in Georgia.
When the fall meet at Keeneland opened, we were at the track making two dollar bets and eating hot dogs or burgoo. I have a picture of us there before we were bridesmaids, big sunglasses and smiles, holding our winning tickets. And one of him with apologetic shoulders, in a striped knit shirt, holding a plastic cup of beer. A warm day with crisp undertones. The trees about to turn. It was October; the tobacco already in the barns.
He knew I wanted to go to the party on Tate’s Mill Road. I would never be able to find that place again, the winding road, the narrow valley. But I remember the fireplace smoking. I remember gin and tonic and maples flashing in reflected light. How cool that guy from spring break was, to have a place on the creek. The party so loud and hot I couldn’t think and I don’t remember how I got there or got home. I do know it wasn’t in a Camaro smelling of fried fish.
But he drove us to the track and we picked horses based on their names or bought a tip sheet from a tout. Admired the silks on the jockeys. Stood at the rail with the small mid-week crowd and watched the horses stretch out and fly. We combined our winnings to place more bets and if we broke even for the day we were lucky. Some of us went back in spring for the Bluegrass Stakes but by then he was in basic training at Fort Campbell, four hours away.
Wedding day started with the bride vomiting. She came out of the bedroom wiping her mouth, her face as pale as a folktale, witch hazel skin, raven hair down to the small of her back. I bathed in the clawfoot tub and dried my own hair in front of the big fan in the kitchen. Just below the windows the river swirled past willows and bulrushes. I set hot curlers on the sideboard, plugged them in, and watched the water run clear over the rocks.
Later we drove into the hills past meadows and ravines, cabins with chenille spreads on clotheslines, signs battered with buckshot. A nervous aunt in a flowered dress waited on the porch of her tin-roofed farmhouse. Inside, the dining room was bright with southern light, the heartpine floor scrubbed clean. The aunt served us fruit salad and chicken casserole. Jordan almonds in frilly paper cups. Lemonade in pressed-glass tumblers.
My chair faced the sacred heart Jesus, and in the back of my head I see a calendar, maybe scenes of Florida or something from the coal company, a crocheted afghan on the couch. I remember the sound of silverware clattering on the table. What did we talk about at the bridesmaids luncheon if not the seamstress in town who had made the dresses? How on the way back from Daytona last year one of us had performed a perfect impression of a jellyfish. Or that man in Lexington who kept a cage of monkeys in his backyard. Nothing about the mines or the war. Just pineapple and cherries in lime Jello, maybe some bananas or pears.
This was before I ever owned a Ouija board or a bag of runes. My classmate wanted to hold a seance so she cleared a table and lit candles and called for the spirits to attend. It was dark and windy outside and the lace curtains wanted to move but didn’t. We sat with our hands linked and waited. Then a horrible slithering sound, a sliding and a rasping. I broke the circle to find him low-crawling along the carpet with a bottle of beer in one hand. He said he was hoping to escape the room before we noticed.
Another night we headed out of town for a party no one else showed up to. All the cheese straws and ham salad and deviled eggs we could eat but our friend was heartbroken. I told her about the seance. The flickering candles, the soft voices and sweaty palms. How the dead refused to return to us. She told us how her home economics class practiced parenting on infants borrowed from the orphanage. How she diapered and cuddled. And learned to make a custard. We left soon after, overwhelmed by the olive spread. It was too much to bear.
In psych class that semester we drew Tarot cards and I picked The Moon out of the pack. Water in the foreground, a crayfish, howling dogs, two cold pillars in the distance. A serious moonface illuminated by imagination, the natural world bathed by creative spirit. A yellow path leading to mountains. I didn’t know yet that I would be in Colorado a week after graduation. That I would not think of him again for years.
The best man lived under the screen of a drive-in movie. A low and narrow apartment with no windows. Maybe The Andromeda Strain or Play Misty for Me on the marquee that summer, or maybe the place was closed down and had been for years. The place smelled of fried chicken and sewer gas but shouldn’t it have been buttered popcorn and corn dogs?
Back in the Army he had developed a powerful desire for salt. He salted Twinkies. He salted sausage pizza. He wore a short beard that he wanted to rub against womens tummies. At school he shared an apartment with a lanky boy who looked like a gas station attendant. We all partied there, drank coffee on the metal steps, took pictures of the bat dance we invented. When we went to Daytona he drove one of the cars.
Unless the best man was the groom’s friend from the Air Force, a small man like the groom, because small men fit more easily into cockpits. Unless the best man was someone we’d never seen before, who didn’t know about the jellyfish or the bats, who didn’t eat biscuits and scrambled eggs with us in a kitchenette in Daytona, sardined into a cheap beachside motel, who never met the guy who moved to Tate’s Mill Road. Because I wouldn’t remember that best man at all.
One night I left him behind in the walk-in closet. It was a door-slamming farce, Noel Coward or Pink Panther, the end of Mad Mad World. The bell rang and the wrong man was at the door. So when the bell rang again, I pushed him into the closet. And the second bell was still the wrong man. So when the bell rang a third time, our pudgy friend went into the closet too. I don’t know why: we were all friends and none of us were lovers. There was no reason we couldn’t have chatted in the living room before I left to go where? Maybe the dinner theater or out for a milkshake?
But I left them in the closet and I don’t know how long it took them to find the list my roommate taped to the wall there. Column A, the men she thought had broken my heart, the chess player, the guy from spring break. Column B, the ones she thought I had abused: that frat boy from freshman year, the pudgy friend, the moonshiner. And him, with his red Camaro. At the top of the list.
He must have had a weekend pass from advanced infantry training. His mother was still alive then so he could have spent the night in town. But I think he drove back to Fort Campbell. Thinking about that list in the closet. The sound of the tires on the road as if a heavy rain.
The wedding took place in a woodland church. I don’t remember the service but I know our dresses were lilac or daffodil, graceful falls of cotton lawn or batiste. I imagine creamy peonies in our bouquets, the petals just touched with pink. The pews of the church undecorated, the windows clear glass. Shafts of light from the setting sun.
After the service we stepped outside and there he was. At the end of the lane, among the pines, uninvited and afraid he was unwelcome. Trying to be seen and unseen at the same time. As if he were dusk rising from the earth. I want to remember that we opened our arms to him and brought him in for cake and ice cream punch. That the next day I rode back to Lexington with him and we made plans to move my apartment furniture back to the family farm.
But maybe that didn’t happen. Instead we were startled or shocked. We quietly mocked him with all the distance to the road between us. We shimmered in our pastel dresses like ghosts in a flower garden and then turned our backs and went inside. And he waited under the pines until the light faded and the stars appeared over the mountain.
The last time I saw him we went to the Stringtown Cafe. He came up to northern Kentucky and took me out for a steak. In my mind I see a diner that was also a bus stop on the Dixie Line. I probably had a rib-eye and a salad. Blue cheese dressing. Some iced tea. I had Aigner sandals on my feet and carried a straw purse, and he wore a plaid short-sleeved shirt. I am almost sure of that.
I would have told him something about the farm. The wagon road to the river. The original rooms built of thick logs. Something about the tobacco crop or the tomato plants or the beagle that was stolen and then returned after hunting season. He would have told me about his clerical work in the Army, the tedium and safety of it, about the date he would leave for Japan.
Later, he left the Camaro ticking in the heat outside the farmhouse and we played blackjack with my parents. He took a hit on a pair of queens. He took a hit on nineteen. He told stories from boot camp until my mother offered a room to stay over. Around midnight we sat alone in the kitchen, saying nothing. A bitterness rose from his body, a sharp scent that wasn’t aftershave. He knew he would leave in the morning after ham and eggs and coffee, that I would not write to him and we would never see each other again.
He should have been granted compassionate leave, after the fire, to come stateside to bury his family. If so, there is no record he made it home. I did find, deep in the endless seance of the internet, a photo of his brother. From a local newspaper, black and white, the brother’s mouth stretched wide in agony. The caption describes him as collapsing after identifying bodies at the temporary morgue.
I never met his mother when she was alive. I never knew he had a brother. I was cruel to him in the way young women are cruel, indifferent to his life and concerns but happy to share a day at the races. And I am cruel now to imagine him drinking himself to death in a bar in Tokyo. More likely he eventually came home and worked in auto sales and worried about his mortgage. But I can find no evidence of that. Just as there is no evidence that any of us were ever at a wedding in Harlan.
Only that image of him standing among the trees. A memory of fruit salad and scissors and a river tugging at a house. A feeling like a coal tipple falling down a hillside.