The Polygamist's Club
At night in his cabin, Bebe folded paper. Smaller and smaller. Because he himself had been folded. Sometimes he heard his dogs barking at opossum or a fox, warning them not to come into the yard. Bebe kept folding papers. The way the woods was being folded for more cabins, lake houses, gas stations, grocery stores, bait shops, bars, restaurants, cafes, grills.
Sometimes he wrote on small pieces of paper he tore from posters and billets and flyers before he folded them. He left the little messages. Once a man had many wives. The messages were carried away by the wind. They were blurred by the rain. They were erased by the snow.
Bebe haunted the lake road with his dogs. He watched the lighted cabins and lake houses from a distance. The people who came for the weekends came in crowds. Then he stayed back in the woods where he lived. But when they were gone, he tried the doors to the cabins to see if any were left unlocked. Or to see if he could see in a window. He wanted to look into their lives. Not to steal or harm, but just to see in from the outside.
Sometimes he closed one eye and turned his head to look between the part in the curtains. When the sun shone in an east window, he found it lighted the interior of the cabin, the way a candle lit a hollow pumpkin. If he looked in the south, or north window, and the curtains were sheer, he could see the far wall, the table and chairs. He was a ghost for those who know he was there. Bebe Ollie was where stories began.
Long ago, Olliesville had been a church, a general store and a few cabins in the woods, then a post office and filling station where they sold bait and tackle. Everything had been handled by the Ollies. Now, none of them were left, and Olliesville had been wiped off the map until it was only a memory in a few of the oldest people, and in the darkness in Bebe’s head.
Bebe knew about the kingdom of darkness As a child, his father preached hell more than heaven. Bebe learned hell also from his dogs. They were stray dogs turned loose on the road. Their rib bones showing. Full of mange, disease. What were people thinking? He fed them scraps. He bought food for them when he could. One of the dogs always shook when Bebe approached him. Others were leery of anyone who passed. They had been neglected. They had been abused. They had been abandoned. He spoke to them, put his hand on them they way he remembered his father’s hands on members of the church, and they were healed, or at least able to hobble after him when he walked on the road. Bebe’s dogs were his solace.
Sometimes the sheriff drove by the road and slowed at his cabin.
At night, Bebe saw the stars. From my darkness, I look into your window. I lie flat as a piece of paper on the floor. I pass under the crevice of your door. All day long I talk to no one but the dogs. All day long I do not say a word. When I speak my words are rusty. It takes a while for them to run. They are an old car starting on a cold morning. They do not easily turn over. Take these rusted parts. Oil them. Fuel them. Cause them to soar. When you are gone, I rattle your door.
Bebe could say, Someone is watching. Someone knows when you leave. He felt the atmosphere of the air when he walked — It gave him a sense of belonging. He did not have audible words, the way he remembered words hanging in the air in his father’s church. It was a sense. A presence. A haunting. He was a leftover. Out of place. But he was there.
There was a woman at the grocery who knew who Bebe was. She was the granddaughter of one of the wives who had been in his father’s church. When he saw her, he felt alone in a place growing smaller all the time. Once, families had taken vows to live together, happy as groundsquirrels, warm as groundhogs, with as many wives as fish. All a man had to do was stand in church and he’d collect further wives. There were reasons. The men had thought about it, tired of caring for unmarried daughters, sisters, aunts, cousins, widows. They married them off to men who already had several wives. It was for the women’s benefit. How could a woman clear trees, build a cabin, plant a field, milk cows, hunt and fill the larder for winter? A man was a man before he had wives. But a woman was a burden until she was a wife.
Once, Bebe found an armadillo dead beside the road. How far had it traveled? For what reason? How far out of shape had the world become? A squirrel-trap — all of it.
One autumn, Bebe stole a pumpkin. He carved it, and lighted it in his cabin.
Bebe’s people had lived in the Ozark hills for generations. They didn’t mix with the others who came, except to sell bait. They lived their own way, like animals seen at night, in the ever-narrowing woods. Then the developers came. Trucks carrying their big machines passed on the main road. Bebe could feel the engines of their bulldozers. Sometimes the dogs listened. Bebe knew they heard machines he as yet could not hear, digging, blasting their way into the land so more people would come.
Bebe could hear the voices of those who drowned in boating accidents. In stupidity. Or the fault of others. He also heard the smaller voices, those killed by cruelty before they were strong enough to withstand. He heard the voices of the dogs, the moans, the dreams, the torments they carried.
At night, Bebe also heard the voice of the lake— When everyone had gone back to their houses in the city. Back to their work. Back to their lives. It was a low hum that sounded like the buzz of insects. Bebe had to listen for a while before he could hear. It was the lake calling to the land— Comforting it— Soothing the animals that had been disrupted. It was an old voice remembering the older voice of God who gave men several wives. It was from a time before the water was mixed with pollution and the gasoline from motor boats. The voice of the lake called to an old alignment when everything was as it should be.
Bebe Ollie saw into the darkness.How had he ended up with dogs instead of wives? He was like the sky without its many stars. Bebe had seen into his father’s prophecies. Sometimes he felt he saw into the dreams of his dogs as they slept. Bebe saw earthquakes and fires. Floods and droughts. He decided he saw just what his father saw, but he didn’t say anything about it. He wrote his prophecies on pieces of paper, and folded them up, and left them where he felt they should be left. There will be armadillos driven from their homes. Sometimes he burned the prophecies in the fire inside the pumpkin. It was then, looking into ghastly face of the pumpkin, that he saw the faces of those caught in the fires of hell. Only the hell he saw was the hell of being trapped in the flame in one’s own head.
Was the Lord looking through the part in Bebe’s curtains?
The Ollies had been prophets. Long ago, they had prophesied the change in the Ozarks. The Osage River would be dammed. A lake would form. The people did not believe such things would take place. Bebe still had visions, but no one paid attention to Bebe. He talked to his dogs. He talked to the woods. He talked to the sky, that little opening that happened sometimes in the clouds when he could see into the interior of heaven because of an east light. He could see the footstool and a big chair. God was out on errands and would return. Probably checking his traps. How many wives did God have?
The lake had risen into the trees because of the dam on the Osage River. Bebe heard the voices of the trees from underwater. The bobcats that had lived in those trees. The animals that had their dens and burrows under the trees. Crying, where shall we live? What will we do? Where do we raise our young? Now there is a place of water with motorboats zipping through the lake all day and night. A place of water. A place of land. A place of air. A place of fire when lightning stabbed its forks into the woods and the slow thunder followed.
The painting of the roadrunner had been on the wall of the cabin since Bebe was a child. The wallpaper once had had a pattern. Now it was gone, as his father was gone. He lived in the cabin at the end of a long, dead-end road. How had he grown so alone? In his aloneness, his dogs were his companions.
One day Bebe heard a dogfight. He rushed to the door of his cabin. His dogs were attacking a dog from down the road that had strayed into their territory. It was his fault. His dogs followed him when he walked. They had passed the yard where the small dog lived. It was a house-dog, a woman's pet. He called his dogs away. Now it had come up the road. Bebe’s dogs ganged up on it. They chewed at its neck and legs and ripped its ears. It yelped in terror. Bebe grabbed at his dogs, but they slipped from his hands. Finally he grasped the small dog and took it into his cabin. Soon the woman drove up the road screaming for her lost dog. It’s here, Ollie said, waving at her. It was the first time he had spoken to anyone. She got out of her car, reluctantly, looking at his dogs, some with blood on their snouts. Her dog was in shock, but it would survive. Ollie handed it to her. The woman was wild with fury as she rushed to the car and drove off toward town.
The sheriff came. Others were with him. Ollie’s dogs should all be put down, but the vet was understaffed. Could Bebe shoot them? Bebe could not.
The sheriff and the men with their hunting rifles returned the next day. Run, Bebe told the dogs, but they had nowhere to go. They stood Christ-like and dumb before the authorities.
The men lifted their rifles. Their faces were distorted as pumpkins when they shot. Bebe heard a window break. Were they shooting his cabin too? Maybe one or two of the dogs ran into the woods, probably injured, where they would die of their wounds.
The men left the dogs in Bebe’s yard for him to bury.
It was the dogs that haunted Bebe. Their teeth were the engine of the world. It was dog teeth he had carved into the pumpkin.
There were distortions in the world. Scrutinies. Bebe had been born into a family that had religion as their main course. He chose to follow their road that was not there to the eye of this world. That fiercely denied it. That could look past it. But when the evening sun entered his cabin at a certain angle, he saw a spider web glistening in the light he could not see unless the sun hit it in a certain way. Then he saw the tiny spider with its legs like rays through the clouds in an evening sky. It waited for an insect to strike the web. Bebe cut a piece of cardboard and placed it over the broken window, and the spider was invisible again.
It was a time of change. It had started long ago, but had accelerated until Bebe could see the changes before him. There was more shutting down ahead— a narrowing of all he had known. The Ollies had a loud religion. Bebe’s father had preached until his voice glowed. In the bait shop, Bebe remembered a man who said the great lake in Minnesota glowed brown-red under the full moon from the iron ore spilled in it.
The Ozarks had become distorted until Bebe hardly could remember what the original looked like. He walked on the road as if he belonged there when the sheriff’s car drove by. He was not going to look into windows. He was not leaving small bits of paper scattered as if they were stars. He was walking. He was going with purpose on an errand of necessity — six miles and back to the grocery for bread, sugar, coffee. Then he would stop at the hardware for a piece of glass for the broken window pane. He walked by himself until someone would dump another dog in the lake woods and a pack would form again. The way a man used to stand in church and the wives would be gathered unto him.