Lawrence Bassett

When the drip's not working and the pain comes back, Marge knows that she can find the button pinned by its cord to the side of the bed and push it and someone will come and fiddle with the drip, turn it up a little, and then the pain will subside — not go away, not anymore, but at least subside.

It's like that now, and she can feel the pain creeping up, but instead of reaching for the button, Marge tries closing her eyes and breathing through her nose, deep and slow. She does this because she's discovered — by trial and error, she thinks, with the emphasis on the error — that sometimes, not always, but often enough, she can let herself go with the pain as it comes, rise with it, ride it like a wave.

And she knows, trial and error again, that it's easier to ride the wave if she thinks about something, remembers it exactly as it happened, letting the details of what happened accumulate on the rising wave. Some things that she remembers work better than others, and the things that work best are cooking braised beef for Doug; the arrows flying right through the walls of Buck's trailer; Bob's van on its side in Wyoming; buying Teddy a bowling ball.

She doesn't choose what she's going to think about, exactly, but she has all of the things that she wants to remember in her head, all ready to go, the way she used to lay out everything to make the braised beef that Doug liked so much: the thick, pink slab of meat, the potatoes and the carrots, the onions, the turnips — lots of turnips because they were Doug's favorites. It was all organic, of course, except for the beef, maybe, and she left the skins on everything but the onions. And the beef, naturally.

Marge was glad that Doug liked her braised beef so much, because it was so easy. She'd stoke up the fire in the stove, and she'd put the cast iron dutch oven on to heat. Then she'd arrange everything on the counter: her big knife with the stained wood handle, the vegetables, the beef. While the dutch oven was heating, she'd peel the onions and, if they were the right size, somewhere between a golf ball and a tennis ball, she'd leave them whole. Otherwise, she'd cut them in half, and she'd quarter the potatoes and the turnips. The carrots she'd cut crossways, just a little longer than a finger. When the dutch oven was hot, she'd pour in some oil and then throw in the beef to brown. Splash in some worcestershire sauce. As soon as the beef was browned, she'd toss in the vegetables, pour in a cup of water or two, some more worcestershire sauce, maybe a bay leaf if she had one, and then set the lid on the pot, put it in the oven.

And that was that. In a couple of hours she'd haul the dutch oven out, take it straight to the table, and she and Doug would eat there, out of big hand-thrown bowls, dipping bread in the stock, Doug beaming whenever he found a piece of turnip.

What Marge had liked best about the braised beef, though, wasn't the making or the eating, but what came between. She only made it in the winter, because the heat she needed in the oven made the kitchen unbearable in warmer weather. So while their meal was in the oven she and Doug could go cross country skiing, if there was snow, and if there wasn't any snow, they could go to the bedroom, as far from the hot kitchen as they could get, and crawl under the big down comforter on the bed and fuck for hours while the house filled with the smell of cooking.

Thinking about Doug and the braised beef used to make Marge hungry, in more ways than one, but now it just makes her queasy, or queasier, actually, since she's kind of queasy all the time now, so she's glad when she feels Doug and the braised beef slipping away, and she's anticipating what's going to come next. What she'll think about next, that is, because what fool would want to be anticipating what's going to happen next? What's going to happen is a given, so she's anticipating what she'll think about — unless she chickens out, that is, and buzzes for somebody to come and fix the drip.

And the winner is: Buck and the arrows and his trailer. And let's not forget Jack, too. He's part of it.

Buck's real name was Walter, he told Marge one night when he was the one, for a change, too drunk to be careful, but he liked the name Buck because it sounded Western, like high plains and cattle drives, gunfights and cowboys. He wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, skinny boot-cut jeans with a big silver buckle on his belt, and those Western shirts with pointed flaps on the pockets and mother-of-pearl snaps instead of buttons, although he'd never been farther west than Altoona, or Pittsburgh, maybe.

At least he didn't call the place where they lived a ranch, or call his pickup truck Old Paint. He called the truck a truck, and they called the trailer where they lived a trailer. It probably qualified as a mobile home, but it was parked up on blocks in what everybody who lived there called a trailer park, and there were overnight spaces down at one end, near the road, for motor homes and RVs and people pulling honest-to-God trailers.

There were always some spaces taken, too, by guys who were working on gas line construction crews and rented lots for a couple of months and then moved on, not as transient as the RV people, but more footloose than the people who actually lived in the trailer park. One of them, Marge remembers, had an old school bus that he'd fixed up so that inside it reminded her of her parents' house in New Jersey. All the comforts of home, he boasted, so much domesticity that he couldn't hit fifty on a bet, unless he was going downhill with a tailwind. Another one lived in one of those green canvas Army surplus wall tents, with a dirt floor, and took his motorcycle inside with him when it rained.

Buck was working in town then, in a place that made appliance cords. What they did there was take electrical cord off those big wooden spools — the ones that Buck brought home for people in the trailer park to use for picnic tables, the ones that looked like mushrooms sprouting in the trailer park — and they cut the cord into lengths and on one end they'd fasten a plug. For some jobs, they just left the other end bare, but for others they skinned back the insulation so that the three wires inside were exposed — the positive, the negative, the ground — and left them like that. Still other jobs, they'd crimp little rabbit ear connectors on the ends of the wires, too, so it would be easier to install them in the appliances they were making them for. They didn't install them in the appliances where Buck worked, though, they just made the cords, and he could talk for hours about the intricacies of it all, the lengths they cut the cords, the kinds of plugs they installed, the way they finished the other ends. Sometimes, when they were in a store, he'd touch the cord on an appliance, an electric skillet, say, that was on display, a steam iron, a corn popper, and tell her that they'd made that very cord at his plant.

He'd be wearing one of his cowboy hats when he said that, the black felt one in cool weather or the high-crowned straw number when it was warmer, because Buck always wore his cowboy hat, indoors and out. He would have even worn one of his cowboys hats when they were fucking, if Marge hadn't drawn the line. "Hat or pussy," is what she told him, and he was agreeable enough to take it off for that, at least. Without his hat, you could see his long black Elvis hair, sideburns and all, the kind that came down past his ears and spread out on his cheeks like fat caterpillars, or hairy parentheses, maybe. When he took his hat off, though, it left an unfortunate dent all around that Elvis hair that Marge had to look at whenever she opened her eyes when they were fucking.

Jack, though, who was one of the gas line guys who was living down at the far end of the trailer park, didn't have a dent in his hair from a cowboy hat, which under the circumstances Marge found attractive. Jack's hair was long and blond, hanging down almost on his shoulders, and it made Marge think of surfers and wonder what it would be like to live in California. It was his hair, maybe, Marge thinks, that made it easy enough to make Jack welcome there in Buck's bed, in Buck's trailer, when Buck was at the plant, cutting appliance cords to length, with his cowboy hat set firmly on his head, denting his hair.

Except that Buck, no matter how much pride he took in making appliance cords, had a temper as short as winter sunshine, which gave him the impression that someone was always messing with him there at the plant, and he'd get an attitude and stomp out in the middle of a shift sometimes, the heels of his cowboy boots ringing with wounded pride on the plant's concrete floor.

Which is how Buck came to find Marge and Jack one bright fall afternoon, in archery season, really, lying naked and sharing a joint after they'd fucked under the open window right there on Buck's bed. He'd walked in and seen them, and then tore on back out, slamming the bedroom door and the front door both as he went, leaving so fast that Marge and Jack hardly knew that he'd even been there, except for the banging doors and the sound of his truck tires spinning in the dirt outside the trailer.

They hardly noticed, anyway, until the first arrow came plonking through the wall of the trailer and Jack got up on his knees on the bed and looked out the open window to see what was going on. What he saw was Buck back there in the trees, the ones that ran around the edge of the trailer park, the ones that were just starting to get all their fall color, and what Buck was doing was setting another arrow on the string of his fancy compound bow, a bow about which he was more prideful than anything, except his cowboy hat — that, of course, and maybe the craft of fashioning appliance cords.

The first arrow had come through the wall and stuck in the door of the built-in closet across the bedroom from the window, but the second one went clear through both vinyl walls of the trailer, in the near side and out the far one.

"Get down," Jack told Marge, and then he said, "You got a gun in here?"

They did — a handgun that Buck kept right there in the nightstand next to the bed, where he kept it because he was worried about intruders, he had told her, and besides, it was a replica of an old Peacemaker Colt, in its own quickdraw holster, much as any self-respecting cowboy or gunfighter with a cowboy hat might have.

And not long after the third arrow arrived through one side of the trailer and departed through the other, Jack was up on his knees at the window again, still naked as a jaybird, shooting in the general direction of the woods.

Jack, Marge remembers, ran out of bullets before Buck ran out of arrows, and when he realized that, he pulled on his pants and and took off through the kitchen door, the side away from the woods and the arrows, naturally, leaving his shirt, his shoes, and Buck's Colt behind. He wasn't going to fuck with any more of this cowboys and Indians shit is what Marge remembers him saying by way of goodbye, which she still thinks is a little funny, considering who was wearing the cowboy hat and all.

When she remembers this, she tries to count, sometimes, just how many arrows came winging through the trailer while she was lying there naked on the bed. A dozen, maybe. A whole quiver full, and all with the sharp broadheads that Buck used to hunt deer. She's lucky she wasn't killed she thinks, adding arrows to the list of things that haven't come right out and killed her. The cigarettes, for one. The booze, for another.

This, what's going on with her now, isn't on the list, though, because this really is going to kill her. This is the one she won't walk away from like she did from Bob's van. Bob, with his dreamy smile and the drum set he set such store by. And his van, of course.

The deal with Bob was, she remembers, that he was going to California, where he was sure that he could hook up with a band, and even if that didn't work out he could do paintwork on customized vans, and Marge could go along with him, no strings attached. Unless fucking Bob on the mattress crammed into the back of the van with his drum set was an attached string. But it was a free ride, anyway, and Bob did have long, pretty hair, longer and prettier, even, than Jack's, and he had those ropey, strong, drummer's arms. And she'd never known him not to have lots of dope. Which was always a plus.

Which was how she'd come to have her picture painted on the side of his van in the first place, lying on her side, head propped up on one hand, breasts sagging a little south toward the bottom of the van, pubic hair airbrushed in, a dark vee between her languid, outstretched legs. The pubic hair had embarrassed her sometimes, like when the cops would pull them over and tell Bob he had to cover up that part of the picture with duct tape or something, because it was obscene, and then they'd see her and recognize her and come to some conclusions, give her looks.

She'd spent hours late at night, after the place had closed for business for the day, in the garage where Bob worked, lying in just that pose on an old tarp, stiff with dried paint, on top of whatever car or truck was parked in the space next to where Bob's boss let him work on his van. Sometimes they'd be in there alone all night, Marge lying there and Bob painting, taking breaks once in a while to smoke some dope or, a couple of times, crawl into the back of the van and fuck. Other times, Bob's buddies and their girlfriends would drop by, and there'd be more dope, but less painting and no fucking. Some of Bob's buddies were from his band, the one he was leaving without a drummer to follow his muse to California, and they could act like they weren't all that pleased about it. It seemed to Marge that they encouraged their girlfriends to make little catty remarks about how she looked, too, and hey, wouldn't this one or that one make a better model for the picture on the van, for what they called, sarcastically, she thought, Bob's masterpiece. Talking like that sometimes got one girlfriend or another to take off her shirt, for comparison's sake, and one even dropped her pants, but it wasn't clear whether that was art for art's sake or just to turn somebody on.

But that was all right, because the van was getting painted, and when it was finished there would be California, and that, Marge had thought, would make everything, well, all right.

And that could have been the way that it turned out, except for Bob wrecking the van in Wyoming and Marge leaving him there and coming home.

What Marge has never been able to figure out, really, is how on the Interstate, the middle of Wyoming, where the highway is as long and straight as a line you'd draw with a yardstick and just goes on and on, Bob was able to roll the van. All the dope he'd been smoking could have had something to do with it, of course. Or the warm beer they were drinking. Or the bourbon they'd mixed with the coffee in their thermos, half and half.

It could have been, too, that Bob driving across Wyoming wasn't Bob painting in the garage, or Bob playing in the band, or even Bob driving back in Pennsylvania. The farther west they got, Marge thinks, the less confident Bob got, putting little worries and considerations on his dreams, weighing them down with exceptions and qualifications. Maybe if he'd run off the road back in Pennsylvania, or Ohio, even, Bob would have still had the balls to just stay with it, ride it out until all four wheels dropped off the pavement onto the shoulder, and then slow down, catch a good angle, and get back on the road. He was too far west, though, with too many dreams fading behind him, and when the front tire dropped off the pavement, he yanked the wheel hard to pull it back, and when he did the van skidded, skidded more, and then went over on its side, scraping off Marge's picture along with all the paint on that side, she guessed, and blocking both westbound lanes. The road going east was almost closed, too, with gawkers slowing down to see what was going on.

Two of the gawkers picked her up, a couple in a Winnebago, going back east, when she crawled out of what was left of the van and crossed over the grassy median and stuck out her thumb for a ride. "I can't do this," she'd called back to Bob when he yelled where was she going. "I'm sorry, I just can't."

The Winnebago couple took her almost home, sitting between them in the cab while they drove, taking turns at the wheel. When they pulled off at rest stops, she kept thinking that they'd leave her, but they made her sandwiches instead, and once, when they stopped for a real meal, they bought her the New England pot roast platter, which reminded her of Doug and the braised beef he liked so much.

Thinking about that road in Wyoming now, she knows it wasn't so level, that what they had been doing all the way from the Mississippi was gaining altitude, a little at a time, and that eventually they would have come to the mountains, and then they would have gone up and over. She likes thinking now about how that is, that slow rising that you don't even notice until you're there, but what she's thinking about mostly now is that this is working, that she's really going to ride the wave, and that all she has to do is to stay with it, like Bob couldn't with the van, and she can ride it all the way up and over the pain.

So she'll stay with it, and behind the next door is: Teddy. Teddy and his bowling ball.

For a long time, when she was still smoking, she wouldn't buy cigarettes by the carton, and she wouldn't buy a lighter, either, not even one of the cheap, disposable ones. What if I decide to quit smoking right in the middle of a carton? she'd wondered. Or if there's still fuel in the lighter? It took her a long time to get over the fact that she wasn't going to quit, years and years of buying single packs and lighting up with the free matches they gave you when you bought a pack. And it was years after she'd started buying cartons and lighters before she told anybody why she hadn't done it that way before. It wasn't worrying about quitting, the person she'd told told her, it was a fear of commitments.

After the person told her that — his name was Steve, and he was a nice man that she'd met in AA — she had broken it off with him because she didn't want anyone telling her right then, right after she had quit drinking, that she was afraid of commitments.

But that was why, after four or five dates with Teddy, that she'd noticed that he didn't own his own bowling ball. That was funny, she had thought, because all of their dates had been to go bowling or, at first, to just watch Teddy bowl. He bowled once a week in a league that was all AAs, or "grateful recovering alcoholics," which is what they called themselves sometimes.

They called their league "Ten Pins, Twelve Steps," and all of the teams had catchy AA names like "Admitting We Are Powerless" (for a team with an average of about a hundred), "The Spiritual Awakenings," and "The Pink Clouds" (who were mostly gay.) Marge had always associated bowling with beery, overweight middle-aged men with thinning hair and dowdy women in polyester pants doing their thing in dingy, smoke-filled bowling alleys on the wrong side of town, and except for the beery part, that's just what you got with Teddy's league — that and you couldn't smoke in the place where they bowled. Even the Pink Clouds were thicker and dowdier than most queers Marge had known.

Teddy was all right, though, more or less. His hair wasn't too thin, he wasn't too overweight or out of shape, and going bowling with him on Wednesday nights was better, Marge had thought, than going to the women's step meeting she would have gone to instead of bowling. Not that she minded reading one of the Twelve Steps at the meeting and then talking about it, or that she didn't care much for the women. It was just that the church basement where they had their meeting reminded her of the one where she'd gone to youth fellowship meetings when she was in high school, a memory she would just as soon have forgotten, because there, too, she'd been all confounded by how different what was going on between her ears was from what she was feeling inside her ribs or between her legs.

So bowling it was, and it surprised her a little, later, that it had taken her so long, a month of Wednesday nights, to notice that Teddy, who'd been bowling in the league for years, didn't own his own bowling ball. He could have afforded one, she thought. He had a good job, better than crafting appliance cords or painting vans, for sure, and he had his own team bowling shirt, his own shoes. He'd even brought her flowers once when he came to pick her up to go bowling, and he always picked up the check when they went out to eat after they'd bowled.

It had to be a commitment thing, she decided, and when the league season was over (she and Teddy hadn't won any trophies for anything, but they were fucking almost every Wednesday night by then), she cooked him a nice dinner — not braised beef, but Chicken Marsala, without the wine, of course — and she gave him a bowling ball. The holes hadn't been drilled yet — they would do that when Teddy took it in to the pro shop, to get a custom fit — but she'd had "Teddy, 10 & 12" engraved right above where the holes would be, so everyone would know it was his ball.

"Uh, thanks," he'd said. "It's, uh, nice."

He had moved not long after that, and they didn't talk about Marge going along. She hopes, though, that he did go and get the holes drilled in the ball, that he took it along with him wherever he went, that he still bowls, still uses it. That would be nice, Marge thinks. A nice commitment.

Commitments, Marge thinks, are funny things, and sometimes, down the road, you kind of wish you hadn't made them. What's happening to her now, what's going to happen before long, didn't take any commitment from her. That just happened. But what she's doing about it is a commitment: no surgery, no chemo, no radiation, thank you. Just the drip, please.

But right now, though, she wishes she had a bowling ball of her own, that solid heaviness to give her commitments some weight, to help her stay focused on what she's doing — something to hold on to when, like now, the drip's too slow and she's having some trouble getting up on the wave and riding her past in front of the pain.

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