…in which Elmore revisits the scene of Kelly’s crime.
Elmore looked in on Will and Mary. He could make out two distinct lumps under a thin white bedsheet. The children looked like sleeping figures covered by snow in storybooks.
They shared a bed, and Elmore didn’t make it a big deal, didn’t buy bunk beds to separate them. He’d let the twins be twins for now. They could curl up together in the same little bed another year or two. After all, they slept together nine months inside Kelly.
Elmore heard the news from Neeley. The leap from the bridge. Officer Turnipseed’s heroic rescue. The hospital. Sheriff Neeley called Elmore privately with the report, dialing from some spot away from the station. Elmore had no clue why Neeley wanted to call from a pay phone with traffic blaring, interrupting their talk.
Elmore didn’t ask why. He just listened.
He hung up the phone in the kitchen.
On the counter, three plates covered in cookie crumbs sat by an empty picnic basket.
No gingerbread men had survived.
All Saturday, the kids had made Fort Rogers. Elmore tried to relax at the house, keeping his mind busy, taking care of little chores.
Two light bulbs needed replacing – he handled that. He swept and mopped, and he washed a week’s worth of laundry. He stuffed the twins’ school clothes, along with his stinky, dusty things from the work week, into the Rogers family’s one luxury, a washing machine.
Elmore caulked a big crack that had spontaneously appeared in the pink tile of the bathroom floor. Finally, he siphoned a few ounces of gas out of the panel truck with his “Alabama credit card” – a length of hose pipe – and filled a Coke bottle, thinking how the yellow fuel looked like urine.
On the path to Fort Rogers, Elmore doused the gasoline down a hole where yellow jackets had a nest. The fumes alone would kill the insects, but for good measure, Elmore threw in a match. Whoosh! Flaming stragglers flew from the hole and kamikazied in fiery circles, dropping in the woods with soft crisp noises.
Elmore had made a preemptive strike. The yellow jackets chose a nesting spot a little too close to Will and Mary (and sometimes that Timmy). Elmore couldn’t stand the thought of his little young’uns stung and covered with welts and crying.
As the sun fell, Elmore walked down the same path to fetch the pioneers home from Fort Rogers.
The fort impressed him. The talk he overheard from inside about Kelly … depressed him.
Now, night had come. Forts were built and chores done. The children lay safe and dreaming, and Elmore could chalk up another day of life.
So, why did the old blue feeling come down on him?
Sheriff Neeley’s news ran through Elmore’s head. Constant loop: Hospital. Attempted suicide. Intensive care. Constant monitoring. Dan Neeley’s words sounded so official, clinical, legal.
Elmore kept hearing the words from inside the fort, too, Timmy telling about Kelly in the hospital, Will and Mary asking about their mother.
Elmore imagined Kelly.
God, how much he hated… that he still loved her so.
The bitter blues bit hard this time. Extra hard.
Elmore sat alone at the kitchen table. He found himself in the grip of the worst spell in years. The worst of many.
He tried to remember if he’d felt this low after he got blown up and didn’t believe he’d ever be well again.
Elmore sorted through feelings, the way the doctors told him to do.
It came down to Kelly, of course.
At The Milky Way, Will and Mary stared at their mom with ice cream dripping down her hands. Kelly looked… terrible. Beautiful, and terrible. Haunted.
Elmore should have spoken kindly. He should have given Will and Mary time with their mom. Instead, his cruel words made Kelly race recklessly away into the night in that green piece of junk.
And later on… Mrs. Kelly Bellisle Rogers, Lafayette High School class beauty, the All-American girl, jumped from the old Black Warrior trestle.
Kelly wanted to… die.
Elmore could barely make himself think the word.
He squeezed his eyes tight all at once. Kelly wanted to die.
But thank God, Elmore thought, Kelly didn’t. Thank God she didn’t die.
Elmore entertained a brief, wild thought of rousing the kids and racing the old panel truck, fast as he could, to the intensive care ward at Lafayette General.
But then Elmore remembered Neeley’s admonition on the call. No one – not legal authorities … not Elmore, still legally Kelly’s husband ... not mother or father or children or friend or preacher… no one but doctors… would be allowed to see Kelly “until the danger passed.”
Until the danger passed.
Kelly wanted to die.
Elmore couldn’t make himself believe it.
Kelly jumped off a bridge.
All that time with Elmore, all those struggling months and years, sick as Kelly was with terrible depression, a mad woman with two gut-tortured babies and a bitter, half-dead husband, all of them but her in diapers, Kelly never jumped off a bridge. Kelly never put a gun in her mouth. Kelly never whetted a kitchen knife then pulled up her sleeve.
Elmore felt a nausea wave. Involuntarily, he imagined, vividly, complete with vertigo, a heart-stopping single step off a railroad tie into thin air and a long, long fall through blackness.
To more blackness.
Elmore remembered an explosion. Oh sweet Jesus! Did Kelly come back to consciousness with a white knife of bone jabbed through her thigh? With a liver torn in half? Her brain gone blank? With sticky death bubbling out her nose?
Oh, God, help me!
Elmore wanted whiskey. Right now. He wanted – no, needed – a bottle to turn up fast and recklessly, sucking its spout so hard and deep that big bubbles rose in the brown poison and his eyes streamed tears for a reason.
For a goddamned reason…
Elmore broke. He sobbed, gulped air, sobbed. He hung his head and cried bitterly, patting the table with a helpless hand.
In a while, he lifted his head and wiped his nose on his T-shirt.
In Elmore’s first seconds back from the Middle East, he saw Kelly in tears this same way.
He made his way, one careful, teetering step at a time, crab-walking, first one good leg ahead, then the other in a plaster cast trailing, down the ramp of a military plane.
Elmore wore his dress uniform. It was the hardest thing he’d ever done to put it on … and not just because he was a wounded warrior with bandages all over his body and a stinking bag of his own piss taped to his side. Not just because of a painful plaster cast with guard-unit autographs graffitied on it from ankle to groin.
Kelly stood down at the end of the ramp. She was there to welcome him home. She was there to see him this way. Broken. Ruined.
The hot, bright sunlight of Alabama dazzled the world and made it brilliantly strange, though Elmore knew Alabama would never, ever, be as hot as the place he’d left behind.
Kelly waited in the sun, her black hair blowing. She hefted a bundle in each arm, those little babies, Will and Mary, she told Elmore about so weirdly on the phone and in the letters.
As Elmore hobbled down the ramp from the hatch of the transport, Kelly pulled the babies closer, desperately close, maybe. She seemed to smother them against her breast.
Elmore heard the twins crying. Tears glistened like diamonds on Kelly’s cheeks, too.
He couldn’t remember if he’d ever seen her cry before.
Kelly. His Kelly. His Will and his Mary.
Elmore made an effort to hurry, but he stumbled and fell forward, this despite the surprised efforts of two male nurses, one on each side, specially assigned to lend him support. Their attention had been distracted by Kelly. Who could blame them? They saw a woman’s face from a fairy tale.
Elmore fell and helplessly watched the corrugated steel ramp rise, sickeningly fast, at his face. He tried to raise his arms to catch himself. Only one hand moved, and it let go of three small gifts in white paper and red bows Elmore had been carrying.
Elmore heard a shout, the attendants scrambling. Kelly cried out.
Elmore’s face banged hard, and he went to sleep.
He never delivered his gifts from Mosul.
They disappeared, like so much else.
Tonight, Elmore rose from his sad seat in the kitchen and limped back to his bedroom closet for the first time in years.
He climbed onto on a squeaky wooden chair. He grimaced – his ribs still hurt him, all these months after the Christmas accident.
From an unpainted plank shelf in the top of the closet, Elmore reached down a small blue shoebox… and a sloshing half bottle of Ezra Brooks. Standing in his sock feet atop the rickety chair, Elmore studied the whiskey carefully to see if it had mold growing on top, or some sort of cloudy algae in the bottle after so many years.
A man grown old before his time, Elmore stepped carefully back to the floor. His ankle popped. His knee popped. His other knee popped, too. Elmore left the chair in place, worrying he might accidentally wake the twins if he moved it a second time.
He put the shoebox on the kitchen table. Then, he sat for a very long time with the lights off and the cap unscrewed from the whiskey bottle. The sweet and sour smell of alcohol in the kitchen made his head swim a little.
Kelly jumped off a bridge.
Elmore thought for a long time. He finally took a deep breath.
He reached to ease open a kitchen drawer. The handle came off in his hand.
Something else I need to fix, Elmore thought. I should have done that today.
He drew out two things.
One was a fat white candle the Rogers family kept in reserve for nights when some trouble or other knocked out electric power.
The second was a small checkered pocket pack of safety matches from a Shoney’s in Mississippi. Those had been in the cabinet drawer since Elmore’s January trip.
Three red-tipped paper matches were left in the pack.
It took two to light the candle. Elmore carefully folded the cover over the last match standing. A match might always come in handy. Waste not, want not.
Elmore next lifted the cardboard lid from the blue shoebox.
Atop a jumble of faded photographs and high-school souvenirs, a class picture of school beauty Kelly Bellisle smiled at Elmore.
Jesus. That face. Those eyes.
Without looking away from her, Elmore reached for the neck of the bottle. He raised it in one motion to his mouth.
A draught, deep and long.
The liquor burned his lips. It burned his tongue and burned his throat. It burned his insides, and it burned more as the alcohol spread through his gut.
The white candle burned.
Elmore burned, too.
The whiskey changed Elmore’s head. Changed the room. Changed time.
Wounded Elmore lay helpless on a bed in the apartment behind Kelly’s parents’ home. He couldn’t remember what happened to his wedding band, lost since the roadside explosion. He couldn’t remember where he left three gifts for Kelly and the babies.
He looked at his left hand and opened it again and again, trying to remember, trying to forget.
Kelly changed him when he wet and dirtied himself. The times when he could, she helped him get to the bathroom, helped him in and out of the shower. She sat on the side of Elmore’s bed and fed him with a spoon, opening her pretty mouth ahh when Elmore opened his mouth to get the soft bites. For months, Kelly fed him just the way she fed the babies.
Each time Kelly fed Elmore, Will and Mary cried loudly in their basinet. Cried and cried.
After Kelly fed Elmore or changed him or helped him with his pain pills or with his bandages, she would disappear to let Elmore rest. But he couldn’t rest. The babies cried and cried.
Elmore woke with a jolt sometimes from fitful… what?… waking dreams or hallucinations, but not sleep, never healing sleep… and he felt terrible pain.
He anxiously wondered where Kelly was, where she had gone. Elmore called her name. When she hurried in, her eyes often seemed far away. Her bloated body was with Elmore, but not her eyes...
Elmore tried and tried, shaking his head to clear it, but he still couldn’t understand… at all… the words Kelly kept saying to him, over and over.
What did they mean? Post-partum depression? Baby blues? What was lithium?
Kelly cried, laying her head on him, on Elmore’s hurt chest, and she sobbed medical words like “psychosis” and “side effects of birth trauma” and “electro-cerebral shock therapy.” She continually whispered words to Elmore like “sad” and “overwhelmed.”
She never said the babies’ names.
Elmore simply couldn’t understand. He would go to sleep at weird hours, day or night, with a wheel of fire in his head and a dripping bag hung out of his gut and a cast to his waist. My God, he sometimes wondered, bewildered, doesn’t this woman know what “shock” and “overwhelmed” really, truly mean?
Will and Mary cried and cried. They never stopped.
Elmore needed drugs, too. Too many to count, and he couldn’t even remember their names. White pills. Blue pills. Red and orange and green and black pills. They made him numb. They made him go to sleep for a few hours, at least. Thank God he could sometimes sleep.
Elmore wanted to sleep even when he lay wide awake, staring at the ceiling, scared to death of the next explosion.
He couldn’t stand to have the phonograph playing, even the records he and Kelly used to love. The noise of the radio simply grated on his nerves.
The twins cried and cried.
Kelly tried to make love with him. It hurt so bad. Elmore didn’t feel any excitement. He only felt pain that made him want to yell.
Kelly flipped her long black hair back from behind her ears and wiped her mouth. Elmore could see deep disappointment in her eyes.
He felt like yelling.
Maybe he did yell.
You don’t know what it’s been like! he might have shouted. He couldn’t remember. He felt deeply disappointed too. Humiliated and ashamed, as a man. Ashamed. You don’t know how it was over there! It was hell, Kelly. Hell on earth! You don’t know how it is to see your own insides hanging out! You don’t know how it is to see your bones through your skin! It hurt me, Kelly! I HURT!
The twins cried from the next room.
Kelly chewed the ends of her hair like a scolded little girl. Tears glided from her tired eyes and down her wonderful face. The tip of a soft pink tongue licked the corner of her mouth where one tear stopped.
She moved her lips. She was saying something to Elmore. Something important. But the roaring military machinery and the pain and drugs in his aching, always aching, head wouldn’t let him hear.
Did she say, I hurt, too, Elmore? Did Kelly say, You don’t know what it was like over here either?
How could Elmore remember? How could he ever have another chance to say the right thing that critical moment?
To save them? To save everything?
Kelly brought the twins to injured Elmore, again and again.
They cried and cried.
Elmore reached for them, took them clumsily in his bandaged arms, tried to dandle them. He tried to feel what fathers feel. He only felt pain and a wheel of fire in his head when they howled.
They howled constantly, indifferent to his baby talk or to any fond emotion Elmore did his best to summon. Kelly watched him cluck and try. He couldn’t quite bend his neck far enough to kiss the tops of their soft heads.
Kelly burst into hysterical tears, like the babies, again and again.
What was the matter with her? Elmore couldn’t understand it, through his constant pain. Why couldn’t Kelly get her shit together?
He needed her now. Couldn’t she see?
Elmore’s soul had been briefly blown out of his body, and he sometimes grew frantic with fear it would happen again, just lying here in bed. Boom! Anything could happen, now that he knew how thin the veil was between Here and There.
Couldn’t Kelly see the fear he faced? The pain? The terrible trouble he was in?
Elmore stared at the white candle on the kitchen table.
He lifted the whiskey bottle to his burning lips again. He chugged for five full seconds, set the glass bottle down hard – too hard. Too loud. He gasped to catch his breath. Tears ran from his eyes again.
Elmore forced himself to stare without blinking at the next item his hand lifted from the shoebox until his vision cleared again.
A key. Brass. Small. Not for a padlock, but for something else. But what? Elmore wracked his mind. A foot locker? A safe?
Useless. He couldn’t remember.
His head hurt all at once, the way it did so often even without whiskey. The army doctors had warned Elmore that concussion headache might be his little sidekick for the rest of his days. Concussion headache and memory loss.
Elmore carelessly tossed the key back in the shoebox. He would remember its use some other day.
He now felt stinging in his right side and in his lower back. A million vengeful yellow jackets. The liver side. The kidneys. The whiskey had reached his bad spots. It would only get worse, Elmore knew.
To hell with it.
Elmore took another hard swallow. He set down the bottle and gasped for air. The candle flame flared very bright now.
From the shoebox, Elmore lifted a new thing. Private.
A black lace Victoria Secret thong.
Kelly. She sent it in a care package through the army mail only a week after Elmore reached the war. He cherished it. He kept it secret from the other soldiers.
Two weeks later, the war ended for Elmore. The long hospital stay began, with evacuation to Germany and the modern military hospitals there and the endless lines of doctors and operating rooms and white bandages, miles of bandages, enough bandages to stretch slap to Alabama if you unrolled them all.
The panties smelled like perfume. A fancy French kind. And like Kelly.
Kelly jumped off a bridge.
Elmore felt a stab in his heart. A desperate sudden catch.
He turned the whiskey bottle up again.
The candle danced like a tongue, a sassy tongue.
Kelly jumped off a bridge.
Elmore drew in breath in a sudden sob. He knotted the dainty lace underthing in his fist and held it to his nose and began to weep. He cried so hard now that he had trouble keeping quiet. Unsteadily, Elmore got up, swaying, and lurched to the door of the twins’ bedroom.
All well. Peace on earth there, at least.
He pulled the door shut.
Elmore now hurt inside in every way you could define pain. His ribs. His liver. His kidneys. His head. His soul.
Elmore didn’t sit back down.
Instead, he blundered to the back door of their little rental house. He fumbled with the doorknob – he had a little trouble seeing straight.
Elmore cracked the door, pushed it wide, stepped clumsily out into the sultry night.
A buck stood in the back yard, staring straight at him. Alarmed.
The creature had been caught in the act, nuzzling the handle of a shovel Elmore had forgotten to store away. The deer was licking Elmore’s sweat.
The slender animal stood stock still, head raised, antlers up like antennae. Its tongue hung partly from its mouth. It stared for a long time at Elmore, then bolted, twinkling away into the night as if it never existed at all.
Elmore took a quick step to chase it.
But something happened. The world lurched, whirling on its maypole.
Elmore tripped and went down.
Kelly jumped off a bridge. Kelly fell and fell.
When he came to his senses, Elmore lay on his back. The June morning sun had climbed high enough in the Sunday sky to burn his skin.
A pair of blue jays nagged at him from a pine tree overhead. Elmore felt… or imagined… fire ants crawling in his clothes.
He summoned enough willpower to turn over – God, how he hurt – and raise himself as far as his hands and knees, his head hanging down like a sick dog’s.
It took extra willpower channeled from someplace else, some other Elmore, to raise unsteadily to his feet, find his balance, then stumble toward the back door.
It had stood wide open all night.
Will and Mary waited there, side by side. They watched their daddy, eyes huge.
Elmore felt many things at once, but something like panic was strongest. He remembered the shoebox on the table. The panties. The burning candle. The open bottle of whiskey.
He wanted to say something to the children, but no words came past his thick tongue.
He veered to one side of the open door, grabbed the frame to steady himself.
He bent his head and puked out his guts. Loudly. Violently.
Elmore puked until everything inside him lay splattered in the pine straw and sand for the world to see.
And he raised his head back up in shame to see… not Will and Mary.
Not his children, but a car.
A green Volkswagen. A terrible waking dream.
Dan Neeley, a new police officer, stood very close to Elmore. Dan spoke.
Elmore still couldn’t believe the words.
“She left them in the car, Elmore. Three years old, and locked up in the back seat. A car can get hotter than a stove inside. They’re lucky. They’re getting fluids at Lafayette General. We’ll go down there in a few minutes, and you can see that they’re OK. Mostly OK.”
Elmore stood bewildered. He and Kelly had separated three years almost to the day after he came marching home.
They made an agreement. Elmore had visitation. He took the twins some weekends, though he quickly learned he wasn’t very good at it. Little babies need a mommy. He knew it in his bones.
Kelly lived with her mama and daddy. She still preferred the little apartment in back. People hardly saw her at all.
She drove away, out of town on long trips, who knows where, on weekends Elmore took the twins.
Officer Neeley spoke again.
“She’s in custody, Elmore. Kelly needs help pretty bad. We found her wandering in back of the dime store, in there with the stuffed toys. Cows and rabbits and monkeys. Bears, all kinds of things. She had three of four dozen of them down off the shelves, sitting around her like in a classroom or something. Talking to ’em. Tellin’ ’em not to cry and not to worry. Crazy stuff. When we took her away, she cried about the toys. Resisted. We had to put her in handcuffs when we got to the door.”
Elmore asked Neeley to repeat what he’d just said. It sounded impossible. Impossible to believe.
“You don’t need to hear it again, Elmore. Just go home and get the house ready. You’re the father. You’ll be the one taking care of the twins now. That’s the way the law works.”
Elmore and Officer Neeley stood on the sidewalk in front of Woolworth’s in downtown Lafayette. Blazing hot.
The little green Volkswagen rested at the curb, both doors wide open, police tape fencing it off from the odd passerby. Elmore had come straight from his delivery route, his first job since the convalescence. He wore a stiff, Confederate-gray uniform, the official garb of the bread delivery guys for Colonial Bakery. He felt like an alien from another world.
Neeley spoke again.
“You’ll be able to file criminal charges. Leaving kids in a hot car is attempted murder, according to the law. That’s your call, but the district attorney’s got some say in this, too. You’ll be meeting him.”
Elmore didn’t have any words.
“Kelly’s in big trouble, Elmore. She walked away from this car and went in the dime store and left two little babies in the back seat. Her life has just changed. Not for the better, I’m sad to say. And yours just changed, too.”
“How can I take care of two babies?” Elmore stammered. “Danny, I can barely take care of myself right now.”
Officer Neeley didn’t answer. He didn’t even try.
“We’ll be taking the car away here directly,” he told Elmore. “It’s gotta go into city impoundment. The car is evidence. It’ll be exhibit A, I’m afraid.”
Elmore felt the blazing sun. He had trouble thinking.
Neeley looked alarmed all at once, as if he remembered something important.
“Elmore, do us both a favor? All three of us a favor?”
He nodded. His head hurt.
“Whatever you do,” Neeley said, “do not look in the back seat of that car.”
Elmore nodded. But now he couldn’t resist a glance.
He saw in the back window glass a child’s perfect handprint. In puke. A big chunk of red hair was stuck in the puke on the glass.
“The little things pulled their hair out, Elmore. Got sick all in there, and they jerked out their hair, from suffering so. Don’t be shocked when you see them. Come on now. Let’s go to the hospital.”
What? What did Neeley say?
The policeman had to take Elmore by one arm to guide him away from the green Volkswagen and toward the police cruiser.
Now, with Sunday morning coming down, Elmore leaned over his own vomit and placed his cheek against the aging asbestos siding of the rental house.
He felt someone take his arm. Then, his other arm.
He raised his head, the world bleary, the pain inside killing him.
Stout little Will stood on one side of him. Sweet little Mary stood on the other.
Each child had an arm.
“Daddy, you need some medicine,” Will said bravely.
“Don’t be sick, Daddy,” Mary said. “We don’t know what to do if you get sick.”
Elmore straightened. He took a breath. He managed to speak at last.
“Everything’s gonna be all right, y’all,” he said. “I just got a little bug is all.”