The Picker: Eleven Confused Excuses and One Omission
I don’t like the fact that none of the houses on these lanes are marked with numbers. I reread the directions I scribbled in the margins of my HEB circular. Blue house with green trim, swan planters in front, red Buick on cinderblocks. This describes many of structures surrounded by tacky lawn ornaments and rusted through chain-link fences. I imagine that each house contains an incarnation of “ex-wife”. I can see them all lined up together, sitting on plastic furniture and taking inhales from their cigarettes while waiting for me to arrive.
Jim would have never called himself a picker. He would have said collector. I turn this over in my mind as I drive through backwoods Texas searching for the new house of my ex’s first wife. To say new house is a bit of an overstatement. I don’t think she ever owned anything new. Even her clothes were hastily purchased from second hand or charity stores. She wasn’t frugal, exactly. She was just cheap. Cheap can sometimes be the worst kind of poor.
When we brought Jr. home he didn’t speak. He shivered like a carsick dog in the back seat and cried when we bought him hot cinnamon donuts from a vender in Blanco. He picked the scabs on his knees and rolled them up into little balls between his fingers. He moved his cheeks in and out while he scratched, sucking the sides so that they touched in his mouth and the top and bottom part of his lip spread open. I asked him if he was hungry and he shook his head no. I could hear his stomach turning in on itself from the front seat.
Jim and I had lived together for six years. I liked his table manners and the way he cut his meat and never spoke with his mouth full. He said he liked the way I wrote little notes in the margin of my books. He would only make love after midnight. Only right before he fell asleep. Afterwards he would press the pads of his feet against my shins until I rolled over and surrounded myself in the blankets.
After seven months of living together I found out about Jr. The letter from the Attorney General’s office sat on the living room table for at least a week. Finally, he opened it running his index finger along the underside of the envelope and muttering Jesus under his breath. He said he hadn’t known about Jr. He said he hadn’t talked to her in five years. Jesus he said again as he walked over to the green phone on the counter and dialed a series of numbers.
Jr. would stay with us a month while his mother “figured things out.” We bought a twin sized bed with rails. I found my brother’s old sheets covered with dancing bears. Jim bought a set of paperback books with bright colors and tiny bite marks along the spine. We cleaned the house. I imagined what trouble a five-year-old boy could cause. I put the knives up higher in the kitchen, removed the Drano under the sink, and bought boxes of band-aids for safe keeping until I figured out the sharp edges of our home.
On the way to pick Jr. up for his first visit, we drove the length of highway 281. Jim wanted to stop at every junkyard along the way. He shifted through old barns and was invited into houses and porches for tea and conversation. The first few times I stayed in the car. Eventually he would pull me out by the arm insisting that I see the various oddities in people’s yards.
We learned to make a game of it. I snapped pictures of rusty oilcans, warped tin signs, coffeepots turned into flowerpots, teacups stacked in the corners of barns. Jim loaded the trunk with all types of odds and ends. A threadbare monkey that spun in circles when wound, half of a depression era butter dish, three tiny mice carved from peach pits shaped into a jazz band. He told me not to worry about space, he knew a guy who would buy them.
The images in the books were so bright that I can sometimes see the colors reflected in the tiles above the tub. My voice echoes in the bathroom and sounds hallow. Jr. smells like Johnson & Johnson and the house is that kind of quiet that is both peaceful and uneasy. He looks at me and presses his little finger against my lips. Even though I read to him like this I have already decided to leave.
Today he spoke. My heart is a crushed bird.
We stopped for lunch at a building shaped like a cartoon version of the Alamo. There was a glass and chrome display case by the door that spun pies topped with hardened whipped cream. Jim winked at me and pointed to a sign at the bottom that read “Hot and Ready!” Jr. ran to the nearest waitress and locked his arms around her legs, panting as I disentangled him. We left the waitress a huge tip. $20.00 for three cheeseburgers and two cokes.
When Jim worked late Jr. and I would sit in the empty bathtub and read to each other from his picture books. The first time I read to Jr. he put the palm of his hand to my lips to stop me speaking, running his other hand over the lines of the picture. He took his hand away and I continued, pointing to the illustrations and naming the shapes and colors. We would sit like this touching the pages of the book until my legs cramped or until Jr. would slowly lower his head into the crook of my elbow. His pajamaed feet sliding against the bottom of the enameled tub to rest against my shins.
NICOLE PROVENCHER-NATALE is a poet and high school English teacher. She lives in Ohio where she raises chickens, ducks, and goats with her husband. Nicole’s recent publications appear in the Concho River Review, Nimrod, Karamu, Nexus, and The Lullwater Review.