Excerpted from the novel Shrapnel (River City Publishing, Aug. 2012)
Bing Butler hunkers over in the breakfast nook scraping butter across burnt toast, black crumbs speckling his plate, his eggs. He jabs his knife into jelly and starts slathering, but his hands are so trembly a glob drops on his lap.
“Son of a bitch.” He stands to blot at the mess with a napkin, only smearing it deeper into his tan jumpsuit, his standard uniform for the last fifty years. “Well, shoot,” he says, heading to the bedroom to change, maneuvering around packed boxes scattered like landmines. Before he gets to the hall, a fan belt squeals out front. “Already?” He squints at the oversized wall clock: 6:42.
“Newspaper said eight!” He opens the front door, running fingers through hair not yet sculpted into the pompadour he’s been sporting for half a century, his only vainglory. Three cars are parked on the skirt of his lawn. The occupants head up the driveway toward Ping-Pong, picnic, and card tables set out the night before and covered with sheets to hide the jigsaw puzzles and state park ashtrays Bing and his dead wife collected during their fifty-two-year marriage.
“Paper said eight!” he hollers, sliding thick glasses higher up the bridge of his nose. The scavengers ignore him, lifting sheets to scour vases and checkerboards and meat thermometers. Bing lopes toward a lug of a man who turns and asks, “Got any tools?”
Bing looks at the man’s meaty hands, grimy fingernails, healed-over nicks. “This way,” Bing says, resigned. He bends to open the garage door, but his back is stiff and the door won’t budge.
“Let me,” the man says, hoisting it up with one hand.
“Thanks,” Bing mutters. He pulls the frayed light string, illuminating his workshop. How many tabletops has he planed and varnished in here? How many chair legs has he turned on the lathe? Impossible to calculate. He looks over at his neglected torch and visor lying at the end of his workbench, folded leather cape pockmarked with burns. Dust-coated chisel, hammer, and brush lined up waiting for him to chip slag and make a seam so smooth a blind man could never feel it. Bing feels like the blind man now.
A lady in foam curlers points toward the front door. “Anything inside?”
“Yep,” Bing says. “Everything goes except what’s boxed up or in the master bedroom.” He watches her enter, suspicious, but her purse is too small to steal anything of consequence, and besides, last night he hauled his valuables next door to Dillard’s for safekeeping: Barbara’s jewelry box; stack of photo albums; Safeway sack full of important documents.
For three hours a stream of yard salers parades across his front lawn, knocking over the sold sign twice. Bing takes low offers, too embarrassed to haggle over fifty cents for one of Barbara’s purses or a pair of her house slippers. One lady buys a whole box of aprons and dish towels, worn thin from years of use. Bing reckons he should have washed them since they are likely crusted with spaghetti sauce or pie filling from the thousands of meals his wife prepared over the years.
“Need a break?” Dillard makes his way over with a coffee mug in each hand, trying not to spill.
“Thanks.” Bing grips a cup, his knuckles aching. He forgot to take his arthritis medication again. And his heart pills.
“How’s it going?” Dillard asks.
A man skinny as a golf club bangs out the storm door with Bing’s living room curtains looped over his shoulder. A woman follows with the rods. Bing tries not to think about the day twenty-odd years ago that he and Barbara hung those flowery drapes he never really liked. Home furnishing was Barbara’s department, so he never said a word.
“Vultures,” Bing says. “They’re like a bunch of vultures picking at a carcass.”
“It’ll thin out soon,” Dillard says, “when the sun gets too hot.”
Bing tugs a kerchief from his hip pocket and wipes the back of his neck. “Pretty hot already. That’s one thing I won’t miss. The heat.”
“I hear West Virginia can get pretty hot, too.”
“Can’t be like Texas heat,” Bing says. “Hard on the ticker.”
“Yep.” Dillard scratches his shirt over the scar from his own open-heart surgery.
Two burly women haul out Bing’s sofa. He forgot to check under the cushions.
Dillard grunts. “Neighborhood won’t be the same without you.”
“Hasn’t been the same neighborhood for years.” Bing nods across the street at José Córdova just stepping out to scoop his newspaper from the front porch. He waves the paper in greeting, and the men hold up their mugs in reply.
“Know what you mean,” Dillard says. He looks at the sold sign, the trumpet of grass around the pole that the mower couldn’t get. “The couple that bought the house. They’re not—”
“No,” Bing says. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”
When he and Barbara first looked at this house, the subdivision was brand-new with scrawny saplings planted in every yard, spotless concrete driveways. Bing just a year out of the Navy. Barbara two months pregnant and tired of living in her parents’ garage apartment. “It’s a great starter home,” the realtor had said, and they had planned on outgrowing it, having more children than this house had bedrooms.
A boy darts over with a shoe box full of baseball cards; he looks back over his shoulder at his mother who urges, “Go on.”
“How much?” he asks.
Bing scratches his chin.
“Could be some real gems in there,” Dillard says. “Cal Ripken. Wade Boggs.”
“Could be,” Bing says, but he knows better. Roger stopped collecting in the sixties, when he was a teen. Before Vietnam.
“They’re not for sale,” Bing says, wrestling the box from the boy’s grip.
The boy’s lower lip juts out and his eyes water up. He walks back to his mother, who sneers at Bing before strapping her arm around her son’s shoulder and steering him toward the street.
Dillard looks at the shoe box in Bing’s hands. “Those Roger’s?”
“Yeah.” The mother and son get in their car, fasten their seat belts, start the engine. Bing looks at the cards. “Oh, hell,” he mumbles. “Wait!”
The boy rolls down the window, and Bing hands him the box, waving off any payment. The boy smiles, both front teeth missing.
“That was nice,” Dillard says after the mother and son drive off.
“No time to get sentimental. Whatever I don’t get rid of I have to move.”
Two women fight over a wooden salad bowl set. The mustachioed one wins and presses three quarters into Bing’s palm.
“I can’t believe Susie finally got you to move up there,” Dillard says.
Bing nudges a lump of crabgrass with his boot. “She’s been after me for two solid years.”
A teenage boy hands Bing a twenty for the lawn mower. He wants the gas can and weed whacker thrown in free. Bing agrees, watches him push the mower toward his truck, lift it in one smooth arc onto the truck bed.
“I just can’t keep the place up anymore.” Bing looks back at his one-story rancher, the sagging porch roof, leaf-filled gutters, overgrown azaleas. This is a mighty confession, and he can’t look at Dillard, who is friend enough to look away.
“I imagine your house looks a sight better than what you’ll see up in West Virginia. They even got plumbing up there?”
Bing laughs. He has been trading these hillbilly barbs with Dillard ever since Susie announced she would be marrying that West Virginia boy she met at U.T.–Austin. The boy she started bringing home for Thanksgiving, though all they did was bicker over everything from Dick Cavett to George Wallace. Their voices rumbled so loud one night Bing wanted to send Glen packing, but Barbara said, “You leave them be. She’s finally met a man who can hold his own.” Bing agreed, but that didn’t change Glen’s ancestry, and in the twenty-five years since his daughter became a hyphenated Butler-Babcock gal, Bing and Dillard have used up all the good ones about pig-toting, barefoot, gap-toothed, inbred holler-dwellers.
“He a coal miner?” Dillard asks.
Bing chuckles until he realizes it is an earnest question—often the first thing people ask when they hear where Susie’s husband is from. Dillard’s memory is failing.
“No,” Bing says. “He and Susie teach at the university up there. Marshall, you know, where Randy Moss came from.”
“Randy Moss. Hell of a football player.”
Bing says, “That’s a fact.”
Dillard pours the last of his tepid coffee into the grass. “They got blacks up there too?”
“Huh.” Dillard juts his chin toward José Córdova’s house. “Least you won’t have to contend with them.”
“Amen to that.”
Bing considers the number of houses on his street where white people still live. Used to be all of them until 1967 when the Bradfords moved in, a colored family just stubborn enough to ignore the cold shoulders and veiled threats. No one would really harm them, Bing felt sure, but a few late-night phone calls to shake them up was all right. And they had a passel of children, of course, with big Afros and slouchy walks, which was bad enough, but even worse when his Susie started hanging out over there. Going right inside that colored house like it was a regular thing to do, and didn’t that make Bing want to lock her in a hole somewhere, and himself while he was at it, out of shame.
In the seventies the Mexicans started moving in. By then there were four colored families, and they were none too happy about the wetbacks taking over. Made their own obscene phone calls, or so rumor had it, but it didn’t work any better for them than it had for Dillard and Bing a decade earlier. The place had gone to hell. Property values so low Bing couldn’t get nearly enough out of the old place to move into a new one. And really, Barbara had said, she wouldn’t feel right living any place else. This was her home, she said, after all.
“You think West Virginia’s ready for the likes of you?” Dillard asks.
“They better be. I’ll have to teach them a thing or two about big-city living.”
“Hell,” Dillard says, “you could probably run for office. Mayor Butler. I’d vote for you—twice.”
Dillard’s wife, Tootie, traipses over with a plate of sandwiches.
“Mighty kind,” Bing says. “I’ve got something for you, too.” He shuffles to the front door and leans in to scoop up the egg basket just inside the hall closet. “Barbara would want you to have all this.” He hands over an assortment of Texas memorabilia that collected dust on a shelf in the china cabinet: plates with scenes from South Padre Island, the Hill Country, Big Thicket; a six-inch replica of the San Jacinto monument; sand dollars from Galveston.
“Don’t you want to take all this up to Susie’s?” Tootie says. “Something to remember us by?”
“Naw.” Bing takes a bite of sandwich and shoves it to one side of his mouth. “I’m sure she’s got her china cabinet filled with all kinds of West Virginia doodads.”
Dillard snorts. “Imagine what kind of junk that is. Outhouse penny banks. Flip the handle and the penny shoots into the crapper.”
“Rolls of toilet paper made out of the Sears catalogue,” Bing says, “so they can read while they’re at it.”
“Except none of them can read.”
“Now you all quit,” Tootie says. “I’m sure they’re fine people up there same as here. Susie wouldn’t have married in if they weren’t.”
“That’s a fact,” Bing says, feeling scolded.
“Little turd paperweights made out of coal,” Dillard says.
Bing laughs so hard he nearly chokes.
Tootie shakes her head. “I swear,” she says. “You two.”
That night, after Goodwill drives off with all the junk nobody would buy, Bing walks through his naked house. Every carpet stain, every plaster crack exposed, every nick in the kitchen linoleum from Roger’s football cleats and Susie’s aerial darts, though he told her a million times not to play with them in the house. There’s the splotch on Susie’s bedroom ceiling from where she burnt incense night after night, smoke wafting up, the sweet strawberry smell that finally made Bing so nauseous he barged in and threw a glass of water on it, drenching all the incense cones lined up. He imagines the new couple will paint all these walls, every room, and rip up the shag carpet while they’re at it.
Isn’t that what he’s doing? Starting fresh? A new life with his daughter, the last place he ever figured he’d end up. But what else can he do? He can’t see anymore, for God’s sake, not without his Coke-bottle glasses that he regularly misplaces. He hasn’t told Susie that. She’d never let him make this trip all by himself, and his gut tells him he has to do this one last thing before surrendering to old age.
For supper, Bing settles in bed with a glass of milk and a pack of Oreos. He’ll eat the entire package if he wants, never mind the crumbs—sorry, Barbara—and he does make it through a whole row before falling asleep, chocolate spittle covering his teeth, his chin, and by morning his pillowcase too.
The day before he leaves, Bing slides into a booth at Rosie’s, where he’s eaten five nights a week since Barbara died—cholesterol be damned. He orders red beans and rice, Frito pie, and chicken-fried steak.
Janey, his favorite waitress, says, “Now where in the world are you gonna put all that?”
“I’ll make room.” Bing pats his belly. “No telling what all they’ll feed me up there.”
“I hear the food’s real good,” Janey says. “Pinto beans and cornbread. Buttermilk biscuits and redeye gravy.”
“Maybe,” Bing says, doubtful. Janey sashays to the kitchen, backside swaying from side to side. That’s another thing he’ll miss.
He pulls out his road map and starts tracing his route, using salt shakers and sugar packets to highlight attractions. The restaurant gradually fills with regulars. He counts four tables of Mexicans, rowdy men and their cackling wives and crabby babies. The men order for their families in chopped-up English, and Bing doubts there’s a green card among them. Janey is just as polite as always. She has to be, Bing figures, if she wants a decent tip. He has noticed that Mexicans are generally good tippers.
Bing’s food arrives, and he savors every forkful, working a blend of beans and corn chips around his tongue, all to the accompaniment of those Mexican families laughing and whooping it up. Bing would never admit this out loud, but he’s grown so used to the din—toddlers babbling, wives scolding, the melodic chatter of Spanish and English—that it has become difficult for him to enjoy a meal in his own kitchen by himself. Too quiet. But he doesn’t expect that to be a problem at Susie’s. That was third on his list when he tallied all the reasons to pack seventy-seven years’ worth of Texas living and move up there: No more quiet dinners.
In the morning Bing clears the odometer before starting the two-thousand-mile trip to Huntington. He wants to see how close AAA is to actual mileage. He lays the TripTik on the seat beside him, packs his lip with his morning Skoal, and settles an empty Coke can between his legs for his spit. “So long,” he says, throat achy.
It’s difficult backing out of the driveway with the U-Haul trailer hitched to his Olds. He wishes Dillard could see how expertly he handles the turn. Doesn’t even scrape the fire hydrant, a regular mishap these last few years that’s kept his glove box full of rubbing compound and spray paint.
Dillard’s windows are dark, so Bing clicks his tongue and drives four blocks out of his way to pass Shorty’s, his favorite bar. No more tossing back a Lone Star on Saturday afternoons with Dillard and the boys, no more dart games. Bing’s eyes blur and he blinks to clear them, something he’s had to do more and more since Barbara died.
I-10 East is already crowded. The U-Haul drags Bing down and cars whiz by, but he’s in no hurry. He admires Houston’s skyline, concrete and glass and brick reaching into the sky. All that oil-boom money. Then the bust. Now Enron. And the general fear of attack since 9/11, though thirteen months have passed since then. All those oil refineries so close makes people fidgety, it seems. Bing included, and he imagines West Virginia might be a safe bet, nothing much to target up there. He feels like a coward, abandoning his home state when the going gets tough.
When the urban sprawl thins, Bing drives over a bayou and spots a gang of boys crossing the bridge. Skipping school, probably, to look for turtles and fishing bait. One of them has a crabbing net slung over his shoulder, reminding Bing of the weekend Barbara coaxed him into going crabbing in Galveston with Roger’s Cub Scout troop. “You need to spend time with your son,” she had said, so Bing loaded the Dodge with four carsick boys—chubby Roger the greenest of all—and caravanned down with all those gung ho fathers who knew nothing about crabbing.
Bing knew, and the scouts gathered around him on the back-bay dunes, sea wind whipping their hair, crusting their eyes and ears with sand. “Grab you a chicken neck,” Bing instructed, “and tie a long piece of string around it.”
The boys grimaced as they reached in the ice chest for chilled pieces of poultry, hands slippery with fat, making the knot tying difficult. The scoutmaster and fathers did most of the tying, but not for Roger, Bing insisted. He wanted his son to tie his own knot, but by the time Roger secured it, all the good crabbing spots were taken. Bing steered him to a quiet place where he could plop his bait in the brackish water and wait for the first tug. And when it happened, Roger got so excited he tried to whip the crab out and flop it into the sand, but as soon as the crab hit air, it unclenched its claws and fell back into the water.
“You have to scoop him out,” Bing said, handing over the net.
It was rough going at first, Roger trying to coordinate the bait and the net that was as tall as he was. He dropped it and dropped it, crabs scattering, until he found the delicate balance, the net’s sweet spot, so that he could tug his string with one hand, hold the net at the ready with the other. Finally, after an hour of hard work, he got a firm nibble.
“Take your time,” Bing said.
Bing’s scrutiny made the boy’s hands shake, the net wobbling in his grip. “I can’t.”
Bing crouched down and put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “You’re doing fine,” he whispered. “You can do it.”
Roger pulled in a big lungful of air that stilled his hands. He tugged the crab closer and closer, dipped the lip of the net in the water, slipped it under the crab and scooped him up.
“That’s a doozy,” Bing said, squeezing his son’s neck, a big grin spreading across Roger’s face.
When they joined the other boys showing off their piddly five- and six-inch trophies, neither Bing nor Roger felt inclined to brag about their eight-inch whopper. They didn’t want to suffer the attention. Besides, Bing was teaching Roger another lesson: the potent value of secrets.
Hours later a white sign looms in Bing’s windshield, growing larger and larger as he rumbles toward it and can finally read the letters: welcome to louisiana. Bing’s chest thunks so hard he jams on the brakes and veers off on the berm, the contents of the U-Haul dangerously shifting. Bing gets out and leans over, gripping his knees as he takes deep breaths, remembering his cardiologist’s warning to pull over every few hours to move around, keep his blood circulating. When he straightens, he looks up at the billboard, the Mardi Gras masks smiling down at him.
Bing turns around and looks at the black ribbon of asphalt he just traveled. To the soil he loved so long and so well. Only other time he left was during the war, and he wrote letters home daily while he floated around the Pacific, anxious for the return envelopes from his mother, from Barbara, all sporting that treasured Texas postmark. “Shit.” Bing wipes his eyes, gets back in the car, doesn’t bother to look as he squeals onto the road, gravel spraying off his back tires, the horn from a passing big rig wailing its displeasure.
Bing pretends to enjoy the new sights. Crossing the Port Arthur bridge gets his vertigo going, so high above the water, cars so close he expects their side mirrors to touch. He drives by Lake Pontchartrain, wishing Barbara could see it. She always ordered trout Pontchartrain from that Cajun restaurant with the name that sounded like a sneeze. Remembering Barbara calms him. He pretends she’s sitting beside him, pouring coffee from the silver thermos, stirring half a Sweet’N Low into hers. Settling a quartered ham salad sandwich between them, reading aloud from Reader’s Digest to pass the time.
The memory works, and soon Bing pulls into the parking lot of the Motel 6 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, his destination for the day. Dairy Queen is next door, and Bing looks forward to eating a chili dog while perusing the Battle of Vicksburg pamphlet he picked up in the motel lobby. He pushes through the heavy door, happily inhaling the aroma of frying meat, until he sees that every counter person, cook, customer is black. Nappy heads swivel in his direction as he drops his keys. Holy shit, he thinks, eyes sweeping the room. Eating in a room full of Mexicans is one thing, but this, well, holy shit. He bends to scoop up his keys, trying to word an excuse to back out the door: Left my lights on; forgot my billfold, except that it’s conspicuously bulging from his breast pocket.
When he stands, the counter girl urges him forward with a smile, teeth whiter than his daily Bayer. “May I take your order?” she asks. Bing squints at her nametag but doesn’t say a word. Lavonda juts her face forward. “Help you?” she says louder as Bing’s eyes bounce around the neon menu above her head.
“I, uh, want,” Bing says. The cook in the back looks at him, spatula teetering in his hand as he waits to hear what kind of meat to slap onto the grill. Working up a gob of spit to hawk into my food, Bing thinks. Eat this, Whitey.
“Are you here for ice cream?” Lavonda nods. He echoes the motion even though that’s not what he wanted at all. “Cone or a sundae?” Lavonda says, head still wagging.
“Sundae,” he says, because he has to say something.
Lavonda opens her mouth, probably to offer choices of butterscotch or chocolate, wet nuts or dry. She must think better of it because she closes her mouth and rings up a hot fudge sundae, fingers clicking the register keys, drawing Bing’s attention to her inch-long nails, a perfect ocean sunset painted on each one.
Bing pays and leaves, chest heaving as he crosses the parking lot, unlocks his motel room door, and lunges into the darkness. He sits on his bed looking at the ice cream in his hands. He picks off the cherry, sets it on the Gideon Bible, and digs into the unwanted whipped cream and soft serve. “Damn,” he says, remembering the chili dog he’d meant to order. “Damn.” He scrapes chocolate sauce and nuts from the Styrofoam cup.
In the morning, Bing drives even slower than the day before. Cars pass him, honking, drivers shaking their heads. Bing doesn’t care. This may be his last bit of peace. Soon he’ll be squeezed into Susie’s guest bedroom, or maybe on a foldout couch. Her wild kids, Reenie and Brian, playing loud music at all hours. Back-talking him the way teenagers do. But he has no choice, he reminds himself. He hasn’t told anyone about setting a fire on the stove twice. About leaving his car running in the garage. He prefers to let Susie think he is doing this for her, that he finally gave in to her pleading: “Do it for me, Dad. I promised Mom I’d look after you.”
Bing wonders how his wife finagled that deal. Bing and Susie weren’t close. A distance that only increased when she turned fifteen and started reading all that women’s libber crap. Stopped wearing a bra—which embarrassed Bing to no end whenever she bounced into a room blathering on about Gloria Steinem, and suddenly everything about Bing was wrong-wrong-wrong.
This dismal thinking slows him even more. That night he stops in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He calls Susie to tell her he’ll be a day late.
A staticky pause. “That’s okay, Dad. Just drive safely. Please.”
The next day he’s back on the road, up to full speed to make up for lost time. Not twenty minutes later he sees the sign for Mammoth Cave. “I’ll be jiggered.” He marvels that he overlooked this portentous highlight during his trip preparations. It’s an omen he cannot refuse. Two weeks before Barbara died, when she was back in the hospital for good, he had pulled the visitor’s chair up beside her and held her hand as they watched a documentary on Mammoth Cave. Enthralled, Barbara said, “Next summer, I want to go there.”
“Sure thing,” Bing said.
“And while we’re at it we’ll visit our Susie,” Barbara said, tears streaming, knowing full well there would be no next summer.
“Whatever you want,” Bing had said, nodding. He’s nodding now, in the car by himself, feeling Barbara’s presence so thickly he can smell her Pond’s. Bing settles into the line of cars and campers heading in. “I told you I’d bring you here.”
He swings into a no parking zone at the end of a row and worries about leaving the U-Haul unattended. He checks the padlock and follows the blond couple who parked beside him with their four wheat-haired children. They’re going to buy tickets, Bing hopes, since the park signs are so small he can barely make out their instructions. The family gets in line, and Bing falls in behind as the children complain about having to pee. “You just went,” Mom says, her words tinged with some foreign accent, maybe Scandinavian. Bing feels a twinge in his groin at the mention of piss, but the people are already twenty deep behind him, and he doesn’t dare detach himself from the Swedes. They are his North Star to find his way back to the Olds.
Inching forward, Bing remembers all the lines he and Barbara had waited in, in car and on foot, as they traveled around Texas: Big Bend, Enchanted Rock. She even coaxed him to tube down the Comal River in water so blue he felt certain they must have added dye. He can feel her beside him now, her forearm against his to steady whatever reading material she picked up to enlighten their visit. Her presence so palpable he forgets to listen to what cave the Swedes are touring. When it’s Bing’s turn he says to the ticket lady, “Same as them.”
“How many tickets would you like?”
“What’s that?” Bing asks, trying to unscramble the Kentucky phonetics that sounded something like Hayow minny tikits wud ya lak?
“Two,” Bing says, the number engrained, and he doesn’t even blink as he swaps his money for two stubs.
“Tour starts in five minutes right over there,” the ticket lady says, pointing.
Bing makes his way toward a cluster of bodies, looking for yellow hair, wondering if he has time to go to the bathroom. But a ranger waves his arms to gather the group in, randomly passing out flashlights, directing their steps. Bing can’t find the Swedes and decides he is on the wrong tour, but he’s carried along by the mob as they march to the cave entrance. He tries to relax, breathe deeply, enjoy this experience, if not for himself, for Barbara.
He trots down a dozen or more steps toward the mouth of the cave. It does look like a mouth, ominous, gaping. Someone shouts, “Maybe we’ll find Bin Laden!” a joke that sinks like an anchor, the wound still too fresh.
As they near the entrance a chill wind rushes over them. Bing’s forearms pimple, and he pictures his jacket on the backseat of the Olds with his ball cap and umbrella. He wants to rub his arms to warm them, but the teenage boy behind him does that and his girlfriend calls him a pussy, making Bing’s face redden.
The ranger delivers a history of Mammoth Cave—at least that’s what Bing guesses since he can’t hear much from his stance at the back of the group. The teenage couple makes fun, tossing around words such as saltpeter and stalac-tits. Finally they enter the cave and sunlight disappears, rock walls narrowing as it becomes darker and they become flashlight reliant. Bing’s nose grows cold, and he feels the damp chill in his bones, hears the drip-drip of water, feels the sympathetic twinge in his kidneys. The ranger flashes his light on features formed by thousands of years of water, one drop at a time. Columns and straws. Underground channels splitting off, walls smooth and glistening. The slender septum of earth separating two paths, looking so much like the laparoscopy Bing watched on the Discovery Channel, trachea branching off into the bronchial tree.
“And now let’s see what real dark looks like,” Ranger says, instructing all flashlight holders to turn off their lights.
Sudden, complete, absolute blackness. A dark so penetrating Bing opens his eyelids wider and wider, waiting for his pupils to adjust, but there’s nothing to adjust to, nothing to see. No hint of edges or shoulders or heads. And the pure quiet except for the ever-present drip-drip. Bing imagines water pooling in a concave depression in the rock, or his bladder, one drop after another, stretching the thin skin taut.
The teenage boy lets out a ghostly “Oooooooo,” and the group chuckles, needing that relief from the immobilizing blackness.
When the lights are back on, Bing inhales and feels his belly tighten against the waistband of his jumpsuit. He has to pee—now. He tries to squeeze down the urge even as a few warm drops seep. Damn incontinence. His body’s lingering protest against prostate surgery, an utterly shameful betrayal. The group moves forward around a craggy bend, and Bing pretends he’s fascinated by a guano splat so the teenagers will pass him, which they do.
As soon as he’s alone, light and chatter fading, he wedges behind a stalagmite and unzips. Keep watch, he thinks, his standing orders to Barbara whenever he had to perform this private act in public places. How she tricked him—once. Yelled “Look out!” so loud he sprayed an arc of urine on a statue of L.B.J. in some rose garden. Bing was furious, but Barbara couldn’t stop cackling at the former president’s sopping shoulder. “If Susie were here she’d kiss you on both cheeks,” Barbara said, recalling the fiery debates during those Vietnam years.
Bing strains to empty his bladder, pushing harder and harder, eyes latched onto the hint of light in the distance, fainter and fainter as the group recedes. Then he is once again thrust into blackness.
“Shit.” Bing tucks himself back into his jumpsuit though he isn’t quite through, zipping his fly with dribbled-on fingers, banging his knee against the stalagmite as he bumbles forward, hopefully forward, both hands against the damp curving walls as he inches along. The cry Help! forms in his brain, on his tongue, but he can’t spit it out. He imagines those teenagers’ rude remarks. Besides, if he keeps moving, he’ll catch up. How far could they have gotten?
Bing follows a whoosh of cold air, deciding it must lead to an exit, even as his feet slant downward, toes gripping the soles of his boots, one hand on each side of the tunnel for balance, until suddenly the walls disappear and Bing pitches forward, banging his knees, palms in the sand. He stands with a grunt that echoes off distant walls, claps his hands free of sand and hears running water, an underground stream. Bing is drawn toward it, arms out for balance as he slides one foot forward, then another, until he feels frigid water seeping into his right boot. He withdraws it, shaking it against the wetness saturating his sock.
He tries to back up, find the tunnel he just came from and worm his way to the entrance. Arms straight out in front, feeling blindly, he hits wall and works his way along until he feels an opening, a glorious opening, and he ducks in. The ceiling seems lower, walls narrower, but this has to be it. Has to be. Bing propels himself forward, outracing the scary thought, the probability that he is in the wrong shaft. “Help!” he calls, heart quavering, the word blunted by the close ceiling that drops lower and lower until Bing bangs his head against something that breaks loose and crunches beneath his feet. Bing puts his hands on his knees, trying to decide what to do. “Go back,” he says, awkwardly turning around in the cramped space to head back to the stream. He drags his knuckles along the cold walls, trying to remember how many steps he took, how many minutes. He keeps walking, and walking, banging his knees, his head, his shoulders. It’s taking much longer to get out than it did to get in. He must have veered down another opening, is in yet another shaft leading to who-knows-where. The uncertainty makes him run, as much as he is able to run with his bad knees and the geologic booby traps he continually scrapes against. His lungs labor, and he pictures his own trachea, his own glistening pink septum quivering against chilled oxygen. People probably get lost in these caves all the time, he figures. Dozens of them. Hundreds. They must have emergency plans. Do headcounts of tours. Surely his ranger will notice they have one less body. He’ll send a search party with flashlights and flares and blankets. Or at the end of the day someone will notice the lone U-Haul in the parking lot. They probably have to deal with this all the time.
He bursts into an expanse of room, listens for gurgling water but does not hear it. Still, he is no longer in that cramped space, and he inhales thin air until his heart steadies. He takes a step forward, his foot landing in a depression. His legs crumple as he folds to the damp earth, going face-first into the dirt. Stunned, he lies there, listening, hearing only his own wheezing breath, the rustling of jumpsuit as he rolls off a sharp something and lies flat on his back, arms beside him, legs stretched out. His body settles into the moist earth, and he feels the chill from his heel to his scalp.
“Barbara,” he moans. “Barbara.”
He pictures her in that bronze coffin. Her placid face, skin waxy, the wrong lipstick, hair too pouffy. He imagines her in that box in the cold earth right now. How dark it must be. Just like here. He sees her eyes fluttering, pulling against whatever glue they use to keep them closed. The embalmer’s fingertips squirting or dabbing it onto her hazel eyes, eyes that he loved to peer into when she wasn’t looking, only when she wasn’t looking. Barbara. He pictures a road map with two red Xs, one on the spot in Texas, one in Kentucky, marking the earth where they both lie, peaceful. And it does feel peaceful. He could fall asleep right now, right here, and maybe never wake up. Never, ever have to move into a house where he suspects he is not really wanted. Forfeit the humiliating end that surely awaits him, in a hospital room with tubes and beeping machines, and an empty visitor’s chair beside him because there is no Barbara to wait patiently and hold his hand and watch a PBS special about caves where old people go to die.
Minutes, hours, days later Bing feels warmth on his face. He opens his eyes and the light insults him, so he seals them fast and feels his shoulder being jostled. “Old man. You all right? Hey, old man!” He opens his eyes to the sun, but it isn’t the sun; it’s a flashlight, and behind it a silhouette, no, two of them, tilted over him, jabbing their mean fingers into his shoulders, his side, until Bing says, “Stop it!”
“Shit!” one of them says. “We thought you were dead.”
Aren’t I? Bing thinks, chest sinking. Aren’t I?