Once we tried to guess how many times we’d make love together in the years we had left to us. Six thousand—that number sticks in my head, though it strikes me as awfully high. We may have exaggerated the number of years we had left in order to console ourselves for those we’d already missed. Like children whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs, we may have overestimated the number of times per year. Or maybe we simply weren’t much good at multiplication.
Six thousand. It appeared to be a perfectly plausible number in those days before we lost our way in the mazes of our two hearts, each with its own confusing pattern of crooked lanes, blind alleys and roads under construction.
I have little idea how many times we actually did make love. I can’t remember most of the times. They blur together. Only those with something unusual about them come to mind. The night after our first argument, for example, when desire changed the snarling into purring. Or the morning we dragged a couch onto the porch to make love in the sun and were caught in a sudden shower. We were simple as poppies then, every bit as delicate, yet hard and black as the seeds which burst into clusters of bright petals. And one unseasonably warm afternoon. There was nothing remarkable about the lovemaking itself. It is what followed that brings the afternoon back, fleshes it out, lends it more presence than the present moment.
I want to hear music. Not once during the months we’ve spent together has either of us expressed any wish to hear music after making love, so she’s surprised when I ask if she has any Aretha Franklin records.
I’m surprised. I’ve never listened much to Aretha Franklin, and I can’t fathom why a phrase from one of her songs should suddenly begin playing in my brain while we’re lazing in the dreamy shadows of the ornate Taj Mahals lovers build from kisses on each other’s belly. At least I think the song is hers, though all I can recall is one phrase, one ladder of melting quarter-notes.
It turns out she has several of her records, which suggests to me that Aretha Franklin must be one of her favorite singers.
“Not one of my favorites,” she says as she climbs out of bed to put on a record. “My favorite favorite.”
Funny I didn’t know that. It reminds me of how little we really do know about each other. We’ve been talking about this, exploring each other’s unmapped territories, since our first cup of coffee. For hours we’ve been attempting to knock some sense into each other’s notions about passion and sex and life, groping for connections, discovering anew how beautiful and treacherous the bonds of love are.
By mid afternoon we’re exhausted. We fall into bed. Collapse there, as boxers collapse on their stools at the end of a round, their weary arms hanging on the ropes, increased respect for their opponent in their puffy eyes. After all the talk we fall into bed and make love, wordlessly, the silence broken only by the wet slap of our bodies, a small lapping noise like a doe tonguing a drink from a still pool.
We try to bring each other fresh-picked stars from a smiling heaven, but they crumble apart during the long journey to earth. And then it’s over. We’re lying in the shadows of a dilapidated Taj Mahal, clutching each other tightly, as though our bodies were lottery tickets that still might be declared winners.
It’s those tricky stars. It’s the trying. You can’t try to bring them. Either you bring them or you don’t.
Now she’s back in bed and there’s a record spinning on the turntable. It’s a bump and grind song, too obvious. What I’m longing to hear is magic too subtle for lead-footed, sock-it-to-me baby rhythms, a kind of magic connection I hoped to find in our lovemaking. Because we didn’t, because the wires short-circuited before our souls were granted a chance to touch, the sex was just sex. We didn’t manage to light the fuse of the soft dynamite hidden in the carnal act.
I’ve pretty well lost interest in Aretha and her music by the end of the song. I guess I made another mistake. Then the second cut begins, a bluesy ballad with plenty of room between the lines for caresses scrawled in invisible ink. You need a liquid tart as lemon juice, salty and bitter as tears, to decipher them. I listen, wondering where I’m ever going to find the tears, if they’ll be the right ones if I do find them. And then—it’s because of this I remember our lovemaking that afternoon—comes the scent of magnolias.
No, not magnolias. Gardenias. It’s the smell of a gardenia, the white gardenia my grandfather handed to me the morning he swerved off the highway onto a rutted dirt road alongside a cotton field. It was wilted from the heat and the long ride, but there was still enough scent left in the flower to set my senses whirling. It makes them whirl this very minute, decades later.
I don’t know how, with my back to her, she senses something amiss, but she does. She wants to know what’s wrong.
Ain’t nor right nor wrong about it, as my grandfather might’ve said. Just is. I’m just a boy in a pickup rubbing his eyes as his grandfather pulls off the highway and kills the engine. The truth is, I’ve never given anybody a whiff of that gardenia before, and I’m not too sure about the way to do it.
I must’ve been fast asleep on the seat. We’d been on the road a couple days already, bootlegging moonshine to roadhouses, gin mills and juke joints in every dry backwoods county and parish from Bossier City over in Louisiana clear down to Galveston, and I was weary. About eight or nine I was, glad to finally be on the way home, curious about why he’d driven off onto the dirt road.
That was his answer. My grandfather was a taciturn man. His sentences came with long pauses between them, and they never contained more than half a dozen words. He spoke as though words were freshly-laundered clothes you pinned up on a line to dry. If you hung up too many the line would sag down to the ground, the clothes would get soiled and you’d have to wash them all over again. “The creek,” he might say first thing in the morning. Then he’d go out onto the shady porch of the blistered old shotgun house tumbling board by board into the dirt and weeds of his dying farm. He’d rock back and forth on the broken rocker, taking a sip now and again from a jug of home-made whisky, till the sun sank below the crown of the big chinaberry tree, when he might say “sure is running low.”
It was hot already, the kind of summer morning the cotton lets out a groan at daybreak. Nothing moves but the boll weevils cooling themselves with little fans they’ve gnawed off your finest plants. Dreams stay right in your head on those kinds of days. It’s much too hot to go outside, into a world locked into place by a pitiless sun. The whole day can pass by like a dream. I knew that, and I knew my grandfather, and I wondered how long we’d be sitting there in the steamy cab of the pickup beside the rows of breathless cotton plants drooping like guilty children trying to make themselves smaller, less of a target for the switch of sun whistling through the air.
I must’ve still been half asleep, for it wasn’t till my grandfather asked me if I heard, that I became aware of music drifting through the rolled-down windows of the pickup. Down the highway a piece a bunch of men were working, swinging sledgehammers. Metal bands around their ankles glinted in the sun. I could hear the crack of iron banging into rock, the clank of the chains linking them together as the men moved from rock to rock. They were sweating. Rivers of sweat streamed down faces and bare torsos, glistening like molten silver on their black skin. And their voices were lifted in the spiritual. Rough voices they were, but natural as the tethered curve of the sledgehammers they muscled through the air in perfect harmony with the laws of gravity. I had little notion what a soul might really be, what “bosom” meant, but the way the voices manhandled each note made the words beautiful.
Life is a puzzle. You think you know where one piece—passion, say, or sex—fits. But when you pick it up to put it into place, the piece itself breaks into fragments and you’ve got a whole new puzzle on your hands. I’m a boy scrunched on the seat of a pickup one summer morning listening to a black chain gang singing out on the highway, and then one afternoon when my hair’s gone gray I’m lying in bed next to a woman who senses a tear on my cheek and wants to know what it’s doing there.
People toss off words like “beauty” and “dignity” easy as confetti. “Defiance” and “spirit” nestle snugly in their vocabularies. But the words so rarely really say what they mean, sing it out. “Justice.” “What’s right.” They’re merely words that generate more words if the speaker doesn’t have the mercy and strength to make them bloom.
According to many, “what’s right” is written down in the Bible. Could be. Could be my grandfather would’ve bothered to read the Bible sometime if it was twenty words or less, like one of those messages you send in with a cereal box-top to win a prize. As it was, he never even read a newspaper. For him, the news was nothing more than paper. You could use it to wrap up hot bricks from the fireplace to put in the bed of child to warm up the sheets on cold nights.
The voices were rough and deep, the music punctuated by the clunk of chains and the thunk of hammers pounding for no real reason on rock. How different they were from the buttery-tongued preachers who filled the airwaves on Sundays, the ones my grandfather rushed back into the house to turn off before they had a chance to really get going.
It’s so hard to explain to her with these clumsy things called words what’s hidden deep inside a song, what’s so full of life it hurts. Somehow I must retrieve the flower my grandfather handed me when I eventually nodded and said yes, when I let him know that I did have some glimmering of what was locked away inside the spiritual, trapped in there the way Michelangelo claimed a nymph could be trapped inside a block of marble, struggling to be free, to emerge like a butterfly out of chrysalis.
The first time I noticed the gardenia, it was tucked in the hair of a woman in a Galveston honky-tonk, dressed in a very short, very red skirt. Some wee hour of the morning it was, the end of our bootleg run, and all the women in the honky-tonk seemed to be wearing those short skirts. I asked my grandfather how come.
His answer didn’t make a lick of sense. Yet somehow I knew if I thought about it for a long time, it eventually would.
It was still in the woman’s glossy black hair when my grandfather nodded to the bartender to keep an eye on me and she led him by the hand to the rear of the honky-tonk and up the stairs.
I hunkered on an upturned beer crate at the end of the bar and watched the people dancing, the band playing. The musicians wore Stetsons and pearl-button cowboy shirts with shiny silver fringe. The music was whiny and lonesome, the guitars bending the notes so they sounded like the whistles of freight trains fading into the distance while the lead singer yodeled about homesick blues and cold cold hearts and how he hadn’t had any hugging and a kissing in a long long whinysome while. The music squeezed my heart as if it were a ripe peach in the grip of a circus strong man. I felt sad and lucky to be hearing the songs shouldering their way through a haze of cigarette smoke, past the men and women dancing so close together it seemed they were tied up with invisible ropes.
The band was on a break when I spotted the woman coming back downstairs arm in arm with my grandfather. She was laughing as though she couldn’t get over some joke he’d just told her, except my grandfather wasn’t much of a man for jokes.
She downed a whisky at the bar. She straightened out some rumples in her red skirt, then started running a hand through my hair, ruffling it, all the time babbling in a husky voice how I had to be sure to grow up just as sweet and fine and handsome and generous as my grandfather. She smelled of whisky and perfume, and the musty odor of wrinkled potatoes sprouting eyes came from her armpit as she reached up to rub a crick out of her neck. In my grandfather’s shirt pocket was the white gardenia that used to be in her hair, the fat white blossom drooping cock-eyed across his chest.
He handed me that same flower, wilted from a long ride on the cracked dashboard of the pickup. Its dizzying, sweet scent is still here, the rags of it. I’ve been wearing them for decades, getting them all mussed with sweat and sex and tears and talk. Six thousand. Suddenly I want this moment to be the first of the six thousand times, want the woman by my side to roll over and take me. I try to find the words, ticklish and fleeting as the stardust trickling from a lover’s palm. The fact that I have to try is probably a sign they’re already half-dead. She runs a finger along my thigh. Maybe all that jawing we’d been doing about passion and sex and life hasn’t mortally wounded them, after all.
“It’s the rocks,” said my grandfather, “that make the river sing.”
And then he started the engine, gunned it, and we backed out of the cotton fields and headed back home.