I never paid much attention to current events, all the trouble in the world you hear about. I was too busy raising a family. But my children have all gone now and I’ve started to think about things that go on. Why would my daughter live with a man and get ready to raise a baby and refuse to marry the guy? Why would my son live in a cabin by the river and not see a soul for months on end? But that’s just personal. I’m thinking of the bigger picture, too. It seems a person barely lives long enough to begin to see where his little piece fits in the universal puzzle. I’m not old but I imagine that old people start to figure out how to live just when it’s too late. These thoughts come up at my weekly neighborhood group. It started out as a weight-reducing club, but we kept meeting even after we all got skinny. Now on Fridays after work a bunch of us get together at somebody’s house and talk about life, in a sort of talk-show format. Although we laugh a lot, for us it’s survival. And it helps me think. It’s so hard to be nice to people. It’s something you have to learn. I try to be nice, but it’s complicated. You start feeling guilty for your own failures of generosity at just about the same point in life when you start feeling angry, even less willing to give. The two feelings collide—feeling gracious and feeling mean. When you get really old, they say, you go right back to being a child, spiteful and selfish, and you don’t give a damn what people think. In between childhood and old age, you have this bubble of consciousness—and conscience. It’s enough to drive you crazy.
After our group session last Friday, I went up to Paducah, across the county line, hoping to see this guy I know. He calls himself Jazz, but his real name is Peter. He always hated that name. Kids in school would tease him. “Where’s your peter?,” “Oh, you don’t look like a peter,” etc. Some kids from my distant past used the word “goober,” the first name I ever heard for the secret male anatomy. I thought they were saying “cooper.” That didn’t make any sense to me. Then I learned that the correct word was “goober.” I learned that in the fourth grade from Donna Lee Washam, the day she led me on an expedition to a black-walnut tree on the far edge of the playground. She came back to the classroom with two black walnuts in her panties and giggled all afternoon as she squirmed in her seat. Across the aisle and a couple of seats up, Jerry Ray Baxter sometimes took his goober out and played with it. He couldn’t talk plain, and after that year he stopped coming to school.
Jazz was at the Top Line, where I thought he’d be. He was lounging at the bar, with a draught beer, shooting the breeze. When he saw me he grinned slowly and pulled a new brassiere out of his pocket, dangling it right there between the jug of beet-pickled eggs and the jug of pickled pigs’ feet. Ed, the bartender, swung his head like he’d seen it all. “There you go again, Jazz, pulling off women’s clothes.”
Jazz said, “No, this is my magic trick.”
I stuffed the bra in my purse. “Thanks, Jazz. I guess you knew my boobs were falling down.”
He came from down in Obion, Tennessee, and grew up duck hunting around Reelfoot Lake. Now he goes to France and brings back suitcases full of French underwear. He sells it to a boutique and occasionally to friends. It’s designer stuff and the sizes are different from here. His ex-wife gets it at cost from a supplier in Paris where she works. He goes over there once a year or so to see his kids. Jazz works construction and saves his money, and then he quits and lights out for France. I’ve got a drawerful of expensive bras he’s given me—snap-fronts, plunges, crisscrosses, strapless—all in lace and satin.
“That’s a special number,” he said, moving close to me. “Scalloped lace and satin stretch. Molded cup, underwire. I’ll want to check the fitting later.”
I grinned. “We’ll see about that, Jazz. Tonight I feel like getting drunk.”
“You’re gonna be a granny again in a few months, Chrissy. Is that how an old granny’s supposed to act?” he teased.
“But I’m happy, damn it! I feel like I’m in love.”
“One of these days I’ll make you fall in love with me, Chrissy.”
I ordered a bourbon. What Jazz needed, I thought, was a woman who felt romantic about him. But he’d never make a claim on a woman he cared about. He’d always step aside and let the woman go fall in love with some clod who jerked her around.
Glancing up at a TV newsbreak—a local update on water pollution—I said, “All the mussels in the lake are dying. It’s all those pesticides.”
“I heard it was last year’s drought,” said Jazz. “That’s natural.”
“Here I am celebrating a new baby coming into the world—for what? To see a dead lake? And air not fit to breathe?”
Jazz touched my shoulder, to steady me. “World’s al- ways had trouble. No baby ever set foot in the Garden of Eden.”
I laughed. “That’s just like you to say that, Jazz.”
“You think you know me, don’t you?” he said.
“I know you well enough to feel sorry I always treat you so bad.”
Ed set my drink before me and I took it eagerly. I said to Jazz, “Why don’t you ever get mad at me, tell me off?”
He punched my arm, buddy style. “You should never go away mad at a person, because one of you might get killed on the way home.”
The regular crowd was there at the Top Line—good old boys who worked at the plants, guys wandering around loose on a Friday night while their wives took the kids to the mall. A tall man entering the bar caught my eye. He walked like he had money. He had on an iridescent-green shirt, with a subtle paisley design that made my eyes tingle. His pants had cowboy-style piping on the pocket plackets. Over the shirt he wore a suède vest with fuchsia embroidery and zippered pockets.
“That’s Buck Joiner, the radio guy,” Jazz said, reading my mind.
Buck Joiner was the D.J. I listened to while I was getting ready for work. His “Morning Mania” show was a roaring streak of pranks and risqué jokes and call-in giveaways. Once, he actually telephoned Colonel Qaddafi in Libya. He got through to the palace and talked to some official who spoke precise English with a Middle Eastern accent.
As soon as I felt I’d had enough bourbon, I marched over to Buck Joiner’s table, wielding my glass.
“I listen to you,” I said. “I’ve got your number on my dial.”
He seemed bored. It was like meeting Bob Dylan or some big shot you know won’t be friendly.
“I called you up once,” I went on recklessly. “You were giving away tickets to the Ray Stevens show. I was trying to be the twenty-fifth caller. But my timing wasn’t right.”
“Too bad,” he said, deadpan. He was with a couple of guys in suits. Blanks.
“I’ve got to work on my timing.” I paused, scrambling for contact. “You should interview my Friday-afternoon talk group.”
“We’re a group of ladies. We get together every Friday and talk about life.”
“What about life?” Out of the side of his face, he smirked for the benefit of the suits.
“The way things are going. Stuff.” My mind went blank. I knew there was more to it than that. Right then, I really wanted him to interview our group. I knew we sparkled with life and intelligence. Rita had her opinions on day care, and Dorothy could rip into the abortion issue, and Phyllis believed that psychiatrists were witch doctors. Me, I could do my Bette Davis imitations.
“Here’s my card,” I said, whipping one out of my purse. I’d ordered these about a month ago, just for the privilege of saying that.
“It’s nice to meet a fan,” he said with stretched lips—not a true smile.
“Don’t give me that, buddy. If it weren’t for your listeners, you wouldn’t be sitting here with all that fancy piping scrawled all over you.”
I rejoined Jazz, who had been watching out for me. “I’d like to see Oprah nail him to the wall,” I said to Jazz.
Of course, I was embarrassed. That was the trouble. I was lost somewhere between being nice and being mean. I shouldn’t drink. I don’t know why I was so hard on the D.J., but he was a man I had depended on to start my day, and he turned out to be a shit. From now on I’d listen to his show and think, Stuck-up turdface. Yet there I was in a French bra and with an unusual amount of cleavage for this area. I didn’t know what I was getting at. Jazz was smiling, touching my hand, ordering me another drink. Jazz wore patience like adhesive tape.
In bits and pieces, I’ve told this at the Friday talk group: My first husband, Jim Ed, was my high-school boyfriend. We married when we were seniors, and they didn’t let me graduate, because I was pregnant. I used to say that I barely understood how those things worked, but that was a lie. Too often I exaggerate my innocence, as if trying to excuse myself for some of the messes I’ve gotten myself into. Looking back now, I see that I latched on to Jim Ed because I was afraid there’d never be another opportunity in my life, and he was the best of the pickings around there. That’s the way I do everything. I grab anything that looks like a good chance, right then and there. I even tend to overeat, as if I’m afraid I won’t ever get another good meal. “That’s the farm girl in you,” my second husband, George, always said. He was an analytical person and had a theory about everything. When he talked about the Depression mentality of our parents’ generation he made it sound physically disgusting. He had been to college. I never did go back and get my high-school diploma, but that’s something I’m thinking about doing now. George couldn’t just enjoy something for what it was. We’d grill steaks and he’d come up with some reason why we were grilling steaks. He said it went back to caveman be- havior. He said we were acting out an ancient scene. He made me feel trapped in history, as though we hadn’t advanced since cavemen. I don’t guess people have changed that much, though, really. I bet back in caveman times there was some know-it-all who made his woman feel dumb.
After a while, I didn’t pay any attention to George, but then my little daughter died. She had meningitis, and it was fairly sudden and horrible. I was still in shock a month later, when George started nagging at me about proper grief displays and the stages of grief. I blew up. I told him to walk. What we really should have done was share the grief. I’m sure the most basic textbook would say that. But instead he’s lecturing me on my grief. You can’t live with somebody who lectures you on your grief. I’ll have my grief in peace, I told him. Kathy wasn’t his daughter. He couldn’t possibly know how I felt. That was so long ago he doesn’t seem real to me. He still lives around here. I’ve heard that he married again and that he raises rabbits and lives out in the country, out near Bardwell—none of which I would have ever imagined. But, you know, as small as this place is, I’ve never laid eyes on him again. Maybe he’s changed so much I just don’t recognize him when I see him.
“How did you just happen to have that bra in your pocket, Jazz?” I wanted to know, but he only grinned. It was like carrying around condoms in case of emergency, I thought. The bra was just my size. I’d put it on in the restroom. The one I had worn was stretching out, and I left it in the trash can. Let people wonder.
At first, I thought Kathy just had the flu. She had a fever and she said her head was splitting—a remark so calm that she might have said her hands were dirty in the same tone. It was summer, a strange time for flu, so I hurried all the kids on out to their grandmother’s that Sunday, like always, thinking the country air would make Kathy feel better. Don and Phil kept aggravating her because she didn’t want to play in Mama’s attic or go out to the barn. She lay around un- der one of Mama’s quilts, and I thought later, with a hid- eous realization, that she somehow knew she was going to die. You never know what a child is thinking, or how scared they might be, or how they’ve blown something up in their imagination. She was twelve, and she’d just started her period a couple of months before. I thought her sickness might be related to that. The doctor just laughed at me when I brought that up. Can you imagine the nerve? It’s only now that I’ve gotten mad about that. But I hear that that doctor has had a stroke and is in a nursing home. What good do bad feelings do when so much time has passed? That’s what Jazz says.
George blamed me for taking her out to Mama’s that day. He was gone to an engineering convention in Nashville; he was a chemical engineer at Carbide then. He said there was no reason a child shouldn’t recover from meningitis. He wagged a book in my face, but I refused to read what he had found on the disease. I thought it would kill me to know her death was my fault. I guess George wasn’t such a bad guy. He just had his ways. I think we all do and none of us knows how to be sensitive enough, it seems. He probably just didn’t know how to deal with the situation. It occurred to me recently that maybe he felt guilty for being away at the time, just as I felt guilty for not noticing how quiet and withdrawn she was, as though she was figuring it all out for herself. Kathy was in 4-H, and that year she was working on a Holly Hobbie display for the fair—the little girl hiding her face in the calico bonnet. Kathy sewed the clothes herself, and she was making a little stuffed dog and decorating a flower basket for the scene. I still have that unfinished Holly Hobbie scene—in the closet in a stereo box. I should probably get rid of it, because if Kathy had lived she would have grown out of that phase, but all I have is those little scraps of the way Kathy was, the only reality she ever had.
Don and Phil grew up and left as soon as they got cars. Can you believe anybody would name their sons after the Everly Brothers? I reckon I’d still do something that silly. But I never told them we named them for the Everly Brothers. Jim Ed, the father of all my children, loved the Everly Brothers, and he used to play them in his truck, back when eight-track tape decks were a new thing. Jim Ed was loose about a lot of things, and he never criticized me the way George did. I don’t know if he blamed me about Kathy. I have a feeling that if we’d stuck it out we could have learned to love each other better. But he was restless, and he couldn’t hang around when we needed him most. He moved over to Cairo and worked on the riverboats—still does. I guess he has some kind of life. The boys see him. Don’s wife ran off with one of the riverboat guys and Don lives in a cabin over there. I don’t see him very much. He brought me a giant catfish, a mud cat, on Mother’s Day. Catfish that big aren’t really good to eat, though. He sets trotlines and just lives in the wilderness. I doubt if he’ll ever marry again. Phil is the only one of my children who turned out normal. Now, what is there to say about that? A wife with a tortilla face and bad taste in clothes, spoiled kids, living room decorated with brass geese and fish. I go there and my skin breaks out. There’s no pleasing me, I guess.
Last week, Laura—my other daughter, the baby—wrote me that she was pregnant. She’s barely divorced from this museum director she met at school—he restored old pieces of pottery, glued them together. He made a good living but she wasn’t satisfied. Now she’s going to be tied down with a baby and a man, this Nick, who does seasonal work of some sort. They’re living in his home town, a little place in Arizona, in the desert. I can’t imagine what would grow there.
Laura, on the telephone this past Sunday, said, “I don’t want to get married again. I don’t trust it anymore. And I want to be free of all that bureaucratic crap. I trust Nick more than I trust the government.”
“You need the legal protection,” I said. “What if something happened to him? What if he ran off and left you? I can tell you exactly how that works.”
“I’d have to murder Nick to get him out of my life! Honestly, he’s being so devoted it’s unbelievable.”
“I guess that’s why I don’t believe it.”
“Come on, Mom. Just think, you’re going to be a grandma again! Aren’t you going to come out when the baby’s born? Isn’t that what mothers do?”
Laura was five when Kathy died. We didn’t take her to the funeral. We told her Kathy had gone off to live with Holly Hobbie in New York. If I could undo that lie, I would. It was worse when she found out the truth, because she was old enough then to understand and the shock hurt her more. I thought my heart would break when I saw Jim Ed at the funeral. I saw him alone only once, for a few minutes in the corridor before the service started, but we couldn’t speak what we felt. Jim Ed was crying, and I wanted to cling to him, but we could see George in the other room, standing beside a floral display—a stranger.
Jazz said, “Ever notice how at night it’s scary because you feel like your secrets are all exposed, but you trick your- self into thinking they’re safe in the dark? Smoky bars, candlelight—that’s what all that atmosphere shit is about.”
“That’s what I always say,” I said, a little sarcastically. Sometimes Jazz seemed to be fishing around for something to say and then just making something up to sound deep.
We were driving to see my son Don out at his cabin by the river. It was Jazz’s idea, a crazy notion that seized him. He said he felt like driving. He said I needed some air. He didn’t let me finish my last drink.
I met Jazz a year ago, in traffic court. We’d both been in minor fender benders on the same road on the same day, at different times. We’d both failed to yield. I remember Jazz saying to me, “I hope that’s not a reflection on my character. Normally, I’m a very yielding guy.” That day Jazz had on a plaid flannel shirt and boot-flared jeans and a cowboy hat—the usual garb for a man around here. But it was his boots I loved. Pointy-toed, deep-maroon, with insets of Elvis’s photograph just above the ankles. He’d found the boots in France. That night we went out for barbecue and he gave me some peach-blush panties with a black lace overlay. We had been friends since then, but we never seemed to get serious. I thought he had a big block of fear inside him.
The cab of his truck was stuffy, that peculiar oil-and-dust smell of every man’s truck I’ve ever been in. I lowered the window and felt the mellow river breeze. Jazz chattered non-stop until we got deep into the country. Then he seemed to hush, as though we were entering a grand old church.
We were traveling on a state road, its winding curves settled comfortably through the bottomland, with its swampy and piney smells. There were no houses, no lights. Now and then we passed an area where kudzu made the telephone poles and bushes look as though they were a giant’s furniture covered up with protective sheets. At a stop sign I told Jazz to go straight instead of following the main road. Soon there was a turnoff, unmarked except for an old sign for a church that I knew had burned down in the fifties. We saw an abandoned pickup straddling the ditch. When the road turned to gravel, I counted the turnoffs, looking for the fourth one. Jazz shifted gears and we chugged up a little hill.
“Reckon why he lives way off out here?” Jazz said as he braked and shut off the engine. There were no lights at the cabin, and Don’s motorbike was gone. Jazz went over into the bushes for a minute. It was a half-moon night, the kind of night that made you see things in the silhouettes. I thought I saw Don standing by the side of the cabin, peering around the corner, watching us.
Jazz reached through the truck’s open window and honked the horn.
I heard an owl answer the horn. When I was little I thought owls were messengers from the preachers in charge of Judgment Day. “Who will be the ones?” I remember our preacher saying. “Who?” Even then I pictured Judgment Day as an orchestrated extravaganza, like a telethon or a musical salute. I never took religion seriously. I’m glad I didn’t force my children into its frightful clutches. But maybe that was the trouble, after all.
We stood on the sagging porch, loaded with fishnets and crates of empties—Coke and beer bottles. The lights from the pickup reflected Jazz and me against the cabin windows. I tried the door, and it opened into the kitchen.
“Don?” I called.
I found the kitchen light, just a bulb and string. The cord was new. It still had that starched feel, and the little metal bell on the end knot was shiny and sharp. It made me think of our old bathroom light when Jim Ed and I first married. It was the first thing I’d touch in the morning when I’d get up and rush to the bathroom to throw up.
The table was set for one, with the plate turned face over and the glass upside down. Another glass contained an assortment of silverware. A little tray held grape jelly and sugar and instant coffee and an upside-down mug.
The cabin was just one room, and the daybed was neatly made, spread with one of my old quilts. I sat down on the bed. I felt strange, as though all my life I had been zigzagging down a wild trail to this particular place. I stared at the familiar pattern of the quilt, the scraps of the girls dresses and the boys’ shirts. Kathy had pieced some of the squares. If I looked hard, I could probably pick out some of her childish stitches.
“This is weird,” said Jazz. He was studying some animal bones spread out on a long table fashioned from a door. “What do you reckon he’s aiming to do with these?”
“He always liked biology,” I said, rising from the bed. I smoothed and straightened the quilt, thinking about Goldilocks trespassing at the three bears’ house.
The table was littered: bones, small tools, artist’s brushes and pens, a coffee cup with a drowned cigarette stub, more butts nesting in an upturned turtle shell, some bright foil paper, an oily rag. Jazz flipped through a tablet of drawings of fangs and fishbones.
“He must be taking a summer course at the community college,” I said, surprised. “He talked about that back in the spring, but I didn’t believe it.”
“Look at these,” Jazz said. “They’re good. How can anybody do that?” he said in amazement.
We studied the drawings. In the careful, exact lines I saw faint glimpses of my young child, and his splashy crayon pictures of monsters taped to the kitchen wall. Seeing his efforts suddenly mature was like running into a person I recognized but couldn’t place. Most of the pictures were close-ups of bones, but some were sketches of fish and birds. I liked those better. They had life to them. Eagerly, I raced through two dozen versions of a catfish. The fish was long and slim, like a torpedo. Its whiskers curved menacingly, and its body was accurately mottled. It even looked slippery. I stared at the catfish, almost as if I expected it to speak.
I jerked a blank sheet of paper from the tablet of drawings and worked on a note:
It’s 10:30 p.m. Friday and I came out here with a friend to see if you were home. We just dropped by to say hello. Please let me know how you are. Nothing’s wrong. I’ve got some good news. And I’d love to see you.
“It doesn’t sound demanding, does it?” I asked as Jazz read it.
“No, not at all.”
“It almost sounds like one of those messages on an answering machine—stilted and phony.”
Jazz held me as if he thought I might cry. I wasn’t crying. He held my shoulders till he was sure I’d got the tears back in and then we left. I couldn’t say why I wasn’t crying. But nothing bad had happened. There wasn’t anything tragic going on. My daughter was having a baby—that was the good news. My son had drawn some fishbones—drawings that were as fine as lace.
“Me and my bright ideas,” Jazz said apologetically.
“It’s O.K., Jazz. I’ll track Don down some other time.”
As we pulled out, Jazz said, “The wilderness makes me want to go out in it. I’ve got an idea. Tomorrow let’s go for a long hike on one of those trails up in Shawnee National Forest. We can take backpacks and everything. Let’s explore caves! Let’s look for bears and stuff!”
I laughed. “You could be Daniel Boone and I could be Rebecca.”
“I don’t think Rebecca went for hikes. You’ll have to be some Indian maiden Daniel picked up.”
“Did Daniel Boone really do that sort of thing?” I said, pretending to be scandalized.
“He was a true explorer, wasn’t he?” Jazz said, hitting the brights just as a deer seemed to drift across the road.
Jazz thought he was trying to cheer me up, but I was already so full of joy I couldn’t even manage to tell him. I let him go on. He was sexiest when he worked on cheering me up.
It was late, and I wound up at Jazz’s place, a sprawling apartment with a speaker system wired into every room. His dog, Butch, met us at the door. While Jazz took Butch out for a midnight stroll, I snooped around. I found a beer in the refrigerator. I had trouble with the top and beer spewed all over Jazz’s dinette. When he returned, I started teasing him about all the women’s underwear he owned.
“Put some of it on,” I urged.
“Are you nuts?”
“Just put it on, for me. I won’t tell. Just for fun.”
I kept teasing him, and he gave in. We couldn’t find any garments that would fit. We hooked two bras together and rigged up a halter. With his lime-green bikini briefs—his own—he looked great, like a guy in a sex magazine. It’s surprising what men really wear underneath. I searched for some music to play on Jazz’s fancy sound system. I looked for the Everly Brothers but couldn’t find them, so I put on a George Winston CD. To be nice, I never said a word about Jazz’s taste in music. Exhilarated, I sailed from room to room, following the sound, imagining it was “Let It Be Me” instead. I suddenly felt an overwhelming longing to see Jim Ed again. I wanted to tell him about Don going to school, drawing pictures, making contact with the world again. I wanted to see the traces of Don’s face in his. I wanted the two of us to go out to Arizona and see Laura and the baby when it came. We could make a family photo—Jim Ed and me and Laura, with the baby. The baby’s father didn’t enter into the vision.
It occurred to me that it takes so long to know another person. No wonder you can run through several, like trying on clothes that don’t fit. There are so many to choose from, after all, but when I married Jim Ed it was like an impulse buy, buying the first thing you see. And yet I’ve learned to trust my intuition on that. Jim Ed was the right one all along, I thought recklessly. And I wasn’t ever nice to Jim Ed. I was too young then to put myself in another person’s place. Call it ignorance of the imagination. Back then I had looked down on him for being country, for eating with his arms anchored on the table and for wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. I’d get mad at him for just being himself at times when I thought he should act civilized. Now I’ve learned you can’t change men, and sometimes those airs I’d looked for turn out to be so phony. Guys like Jim Ed always seemed to just be themselves, regardless of the situation. That’s why I still loved him, I decided, as I realized I was staring at Jazz’s reflection in the mirror—the lime green against the shimmering gold of his skin and the blips of the track lighting above.
Jazz followed me into the bedroom, where we worked at getting rid of our French togs. I was aware that Jazz was talking, aware that he was aware that I might not be listening closely. It was like hearing a story at my little neighborhood talk show. He was saying, “In France, there’s this street, rue du Bac. They call streets rues. The last time I left Monique and the two kids, it was on that street, a crowded shopping street. The people over there are all pretty small compared to us, and they have this blue-black hair and deep dark eyes and real light skin, like a hen’s egg. I waved good-bye and the three of them just blended right into that crowd and disappeared. That’s where they belong, and so I’m here. I guess you might say I just couldn’t parlez-vous.”
“Take me to France, Jazz. We could have a great time.”
“Sure, babe. In the morning.” Jazz turned toward me and smoothed the cover over my shoulders.
“I love you,” Jazz said.
When I woke up at daylight, Jazz was still holding me, curled around me like a mother protecting her baby. The music was still playing, on infinite repeat.
Excerpted from Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail by Bobbie Ann Mason. Copyright © 2001 by Bobbie Ann Mason. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.