ANOTHER COUNTRY SMELL (a short story from the collection EVEN MORE DIFFICULT TEXTS)

ANOTHER COUNTRY SMELL

1.

Every day of a school week, a yellow girl ran up the street toward the Chalfonts. She ran with a paper sack tucked under one arm, her black hair laid flat on the long March wind. It was a fine spring day, not long after Easter. Smells were blowing back up into Chicago from the South. Some good, some bad. The yellow girl lifted one corner of her white dress to run in it. The soles of her feet were as black as burnt pancakes as they slapped the sidewalk and black boys of the neighborhood, on the street or watching from porches and windows, with no work and nothing better to do, whistled and called out to her as she flew by.

2.

A yellow girl ran up the street toward the Chalfonts. She ran with her black hair laid flat on the long March wind. It was a fine spring day and the boys of the neighborhood called out to her as she ran. One of them whistled from the branches of an oak tree which dangled a banner made out of a bed sheet. It said I.H.T.J.W. He whistled and Terry looked up and waved but she did not deviate from her course. She ran up the street to the ramshackle house of the Chalfonts.

It was as crowded as a brothel during Lent. Fat Ethel Chalfont had been in the hospital and now she was home again, needing help with her seven children, or so she claimed, the youngest of whom was still awaiting a proper name, or so she claimed, because the truth was like ice in Fat Ethel’s mouth, ice she could shape to a fleeting perfection. She would present the false trinket on her tongue. A week before Terry started ‘helping’ at the Chalfonts, Fat Ethel had stopped Terry’s mother on the street, both of them on their way to a bake sale. It was on a weekday morning that this happened, Ruth with two cream cakes and Ethel with her burlap sack of salt biscuits and Fat Ethel imposed on poor Ruth right there on the street. Ethel asked to borrow Terry to help out a little being as Ethel was ill and Ruth said yes.

Her common-law husband Buck did no work. Ethel brought money into the house by doing what she called matchmaking which meant setting up men who could pay for the service with local girls. Terry had started with the Chalfonts on a Sunday. Friday afternoon came and she couldn’t stop herself from gloating over her new wristwatch, a gift that she’d claimed to have gotten from Ethel herself. Terry didn’t even mention the bracelet, the music box, or the five-pound sack of Fifth Avenue bars, all of which she hid in her closet. She thought back on the Sunday evening the man had given her these things.

The man’s voice was such a low thing. She hadn’t noticed that he’d spoken until after each time, when she suddenly recalled it, hearing it as a voice in her head. He’d killed the headlights before stopping the car, a habit he’d picked up in Kentucky and the car rolled on another hundred yards until he brought it to rest on the wrong side of the road on the sloping shoulder along a carious length of picket fence with a sign that said Cider Apples. There was a v-shaped formation of trees far off to the left, two old oaks and a long, low building on the other side of the road, brown as tobacco, with truck tires leaning against it. She could hear the man’s fateful breathing. Fireflies drifted toward them from across the field, luminous drops of absinthe and he lifted the car door handle and the door swung open over the asphalt and the damp odor of night rose from it. He’d stuck a leg out, braced against the slight tilt of the car on the high shoulder and unbuttoned his fly.

Terry sat on the bed she’d known since before she knew what beds were, that Friday, staring at herself in a mirror as the room flushed with last-chance sunlight and she waited for Ruth to make dinner. A strangely detached breeze touched Terry’s cheek and she looked out the window it had come from and she could see the distant figures of children straggling in across the vacant lot on Throop Street. Terry pulled the window shade down: was tonight really the night?

Slow down there! shouted a chorus of black boys as she ran. Terry ran under the banner in that oak tree, waving at the boy perched in it.

The Chalfont place was five blocks away, but it might as well have been in Kentucky. As Terry loped the long blocks, the houses got patchier, the yards got scrubbier and chickens appeared. The houses on the block with the Chalfont house were shacks but the Chalfont house was a splintery unpainted three-story palace, far back from the sidewalk, on a weedy, balding lot.

The house gave off the smell of burnt basil and other herbs that could be sickening depending on the time of day you might smell them. The screen door that opened into the front room was ajar and Terry picked her way across a floor with tussling curly-haired boys all over it and Terry ascended a flight of rickety stairsteps and found Madame Chalfont reading Pearl Buck in bed.

Madame Chalfont asked the girl to switch on the lamp on the night table. Her hair flowed out for what seemed like yards around her, yards of wavy black hair like Terry’s, flowing out over her lacy pillows and her satin sheets. As fat as the woman was she was beautiful to Terry. The book she was reading was minuscule on her bosom.

Terry said I.H.T.J.W. to Madame Chalfont.

Dear heart, said Madame Chalfont, You most surely do not hope the Japs win!

3.

A week before Terry started ‘helping’ at the Chalfonts, Fat Ethel had stopped Terry’s mother on the street, both of them en route to a bake sale. It was on a weekday morning that this happened, Ruth with two cream cakes and Ethel with her burlap sack of salt biscuits. Fat Ethel, who had once been as thin as anything, imposed on Ruth right there on the street, sly in knowing that Ruth would say ‘yes’ if only to get away from her. Ruth said yes.

Her common-law husband Buck rarely worked, so Ethel brought money into the house by doing what she called “matchmaking”. Being a good Christian and cut off from gossip, Ruth Dixon knew nothing about all of that. Terry had started with the Chalfonts on a Sunday.

She was sitting on her bed, staring at herself in the vanity mirror as the room blushed orange with last-chance sunlight, and she was chewing a Fifth Avenue bar, waiting for Ruth to make dinner. She was looking back at herself from a time in the future of the mirror’s past. A sweet breeze touched her cheek, causing her to face the window and she could see the distant figures of children straggling in across the vacant lot on Throop Street, coming in from Golders Park, summoned by mothers calling out about supper like muezzin bellowing from their towers and Terry pulled the window shade down. Was tonight really the night?

“It’s just like biting your tongue, but in your kootchie,” she’d heard. “And don’t wear nothin’ white.”

“If you don’t enjoy it, it ain’t even a sin.”

There had been a circle of girls at school, at lunch time, standing at the Throop Street fire exit. Smoking cigarettes. A blustery day, wind gusting south. The Principal’s office was safely upwind and even Terry took a drag or two, which made her lips numb, but she loved it when Doreen Parker passed her a lit one, blowing a blue flower of smoke at Terry’s mouth and adding, “I.H.T.J.W.” And Terry answered in kind as she accepted the cigarette and sucked it, winking, trying for a smoke ring but destroying it with laughter instead.

Doreen, the fastest girl at Morgan Park High School, had drawn a diagram on the sooty bricks beside the fire exit door with a flinty stone from the garden. She accompanied the diagram with a lecture to the tune of “Do it standin’ up and you can’t get pregnant,” and scratched in an arrow pointing down from between the stick-girl’s legs. Marva Fortneaux had taken the stone from Doreen and given the stick-girl some big balloon breasts. She said “If you don’t cry right after, I promise he’ll think you’re a slut.” But Marva Fortneaux was so poor that Terry had seen her eating out of a little box of Argo corn starch, instead of popcorn, at the movies, so what did she know?

“How do they live in that Chalfont house, Terry?” asked Ruth at dinner, passing Terry a dish of caramelized sweet potatoes. Because she kept herself apart, Ruth relied on her daughters for the sweet juice of gossip. “I mean, honestly, can you imagine?” She took the dish back. “It’s 1943, and people are living like that! Like Hottentots!”

Terry told them all about it, between forkfuls. One cheek and then the other bulged while she talked. She told them about the filth and sloth and bad language and the way Buck Chalfont just sat on the porch all morning noon and night, eyes shut, rocking in that chair, a dusty-necked bottle in hand, singing off-key hymns with fearless sarcasm. Either that, or he was always busy typing out strange prophesies and tacking them up around the house for Terry and Ethel to read. Then Terry slid back from the table. She ran to her room and reappeared in the kitchen with a grease-spotted grocery bag and ran out of the house heading west to catch the Sun as it fell a few feet from the sky.

“Slow down there!” shouted a chorus of black boys as she ran.

The Chalfont place was five blocks away, but it might as well have been in Mississippi. As Terry loped the long blocks approaching it, the houses got patchier, the yards got scrubbier and chickens appeared with the increasing frequency of omens on a holy day. She stepped on the front porch without knocking. She stepped on the front porch without knocking. Buck Chalfont was sitting right in the middle of the porch, on an old stool, frowning over a brand new Remington Portable #9 on a side-turned apple crate and he was hunting and pecking, ignoring her as she padded by him, into the house full of the smells of burnt basil and other incantatory herbs that could be sickening depending on the time of day you might take them on. The screen door that opened into the front room was ajar and she walked across a floor with tussling curly-haired boys and inverted pot-lids as spinning tops. She ascended a flight of rickety stairsteps that soon enough would never again bear the weight of Madame Chalfont’s descent.

Madame Chalfont was reading Pearl Buck in bed. Her hair flowed out for what seemed like yards around her, yards of wavy black hair like Terry’s, flowing out over her lacy pillows. Terry put a liberty dollar on the table by the base of the lamp and slipped into the adjoining room, where taffy-haired Jacques Chalfont, the ten-year-old, was wincing over his homework. Terry was as golden and smooth as a new bar of soap and Jacques put down his pencil and watched with lip-biting reverence as she stripped down to her threadbare bloomers and she shook a fist at Jacques with mock violence and he closed his eyes and then even the bloomers came off and she crossed the room like Eve. She wiggled into a white satin dress that had hung on a hook on Jacques’ wall all week.

The dress had belonged to Madame Chalfont twenty years ago, when she was as softly edible as Terry herself was now. Terry was renting it from her, along with Chalfont complicity, for one silver dollar per escapade. The dress, by degrees each night of that week, had lost its smell of mothballs and had taken on the smell of the humanized leather of a car’s interior, plus the tang of Bay Rum and the balls-and-sweat odor of a potent Negro male who paid considerably more than a silver dollar each time to Mrs. Chalfont for the service.

Terry pulled her hair straight out into a shiny rope and twisted it, stooping forward and folded it back into a licorice-black chignon and pinned and patted it into place, pulling bobby pins from her pursed lips to slip them into her hair with folk precision. She fished her dancing shoes out of the grease-stained grocery bag and held them up to the light then set them on the floor. Out the screen door she finally marched and down the dirt walkway, just as his car rounded the corner at Aberdeen and 110th, a coupe with running-boards she was proud to be seen in.

You didn’t have to drive far south on Aberdeen, then west on 105th Street, before the neighborhood seemed to regress, thin out, into a pre-city condition. It wasn’t quite country but the plots of land got broader and more desolate, the buildings more shed-like or ramshackle. Little corn fields and even a sway-backed horse or two appeared on the roadside, wire fences whisked by the Buick’s headlights. The lonely traffic lights they came to after long intervals seemed to be anticipating the far distant future, or another place entirely, for all the purpose they fulfilled. Sitting at a long red light, with no traffic or even signs of life for miles in any direction, built a comical tension in the car that once or twice caused the two of them to bust out laughing.

He hadn’t spoken a dozen words to her since she climbed in the car, but she didn’t mind: his silences were a blessing. She loved night-driving, with a breeze grazing her arm and even liked the dark green odor of mulch and ditch puddle which overran her perfume. All she wanted to do was be driven further.

“You ever talk to them stars up there, gal?”

His voice was such a low, gravelly thing. She shook her head.

“Never told them stars nothin’ sweet?”

He killed the headlights before stopping the car, a habit he’d picked up in Mississippi. It was always good to be one place when people thought you were another. The car rolled on another hundred yards until he brought it to rest on the wrong side of the road, on the shoulder sloping down, along a carious length of picket fence with a sign that said Cider Apples. There was a v-shaped formation of trees to the left, two old oaks, far enough away to run to for a whole minute, and a long, low building on the other side of the road, brown as tobacco, with truck tires leaning against it. If there were crickets singing when they arrived, they now stopped and the field was so quiet that she could hear his labored breathing.

Her death was a grateful easing after the briefest bad struggle, a struggle that seemed to him to pack the condensed vitality of her whole beautiful life into the inadequate space of his car and no hatred or anything personal she just wanted to live. Her dress was bright as the moon as he pulled it hissing heavy across the field to its new home in the copse.

4.

He killed the headlights before stopping the car, a habit he’d picked up in Mississippi. The car rolled on another hundred yards until he brought it to rest on the wrong side of the road along a carious length of picket fence with a sign that said Cider Apples. There was a v-shaped formation of trees to the left, two old oaks, far enough away to run to for a whole minute, and a long, low building on the other side of the road, brown as tobacco, with truck tires leaning against it. If there were crickets singing when they arrived, they now stopped and the field was so quiet that she could hear him breathing. Fireflies drifted over the field like moonstruck drops of absinthe.

“Got big hands,” said the man, “from playing guitar.” He held them up for her to see.

He lifted the car door handle and the door swung open over the asphalt and the damp odor of night rose from it. He stuck a leg out, braced against the slight tilt of the car on the high shoulder and unbuttoned his fly. He dug a fleur-de-lis handkerchief from his breast pocket and spread it over the lap of his pants and he shifted his hips telling Terry to undo her hair. She laid her bobby pins in a row on the dashboard.

She couldn’t see it as he brought it out for her, because it was so black and the dashboard cast a moon-shadow over his lower half, but she could smell it. It was pungent and real. And then she detected, as she spread her own legs and the night pressed its cool lips on her there with evangelical grandeur, something equal from herself, a force, almost, but she wasn’t ashamed. It was a strong but not unpleasant odor. Another country smell.

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