I’ve loved Carolyn since the day we met. I was twelve and she was nine. We skated up and down the street. She held my hand. I was her guardian angel, her seeing-eye dog, except she wasn’t blind. I buckled her roller blades for her. Kneeling, I noticed the blonde, downy hair on her thighs, and wished I could lay my hand there to see how soft she was.
The world is beautiful if you know where to look.
My mother used to say that. She named me Priscilla Blake. She gave me her hippy dreams. She said I would grow up to be a brilliant artist like William Blake, and I would marry someone as beautiful as Elvis.
I’m going to marry this girl, I said to myself, that day I skated with Carolyn. I believed it because even then I sometimes sensed things would happen, and then they would. I knew money would disappear from the teacher’s purse, and which kid would take it. I knew Sonny and Cher would break up, but Cher would always love him. I knew Elvis would get fat and die alone. And when my mother left us, I knew she wasn’t coming back.
Now Carolyn is 19, and a mother herself. Her long blonde hair hides half of her face as she tilts her head to watch Max nurse. I watch both of them. Wouldn’t it be worse if I looked away in shame? Max burps, pauses long enough to grin, part of her nipple still in his mouth. See what I mean? Beautiful.
Carolyn’s mother walks in and says, “I told you to go in the bedroom to do that. Don’t nobody want to see your titty. Prissy, cain’t you teach Carolyn a little consideration for other people’s feelings? She don’t listen to me no more than the man in the moon.”
Blah blah blah. I’ve heard it all before. I take a drink of my Budweiser.
“Carolyn needs to make that child quit,” her grandmother says, “before he’s spoilt rotten. That boy’s too big to be nursin. She should do what I did with her daddy when he was a baby. He was about one year old, younger than Max. He was a layin in the bed with me, suckin on one tit, playin with the other. I rapped the headboard with my knuckles and said, ‘If you don’t stop that, the rats are gonna gitcha.’ That did the trick.”
Yep, that did the trick, I think. It sure did. Carolyn nods her head. I can see her jaw muscles working like they do when she’s upset.
“Carolyn reads them books sayin babies cain’t be spoilt,” her mother says, “and to let them stop nursin when they’re naturally ready. Dr. Spock ain’t good enough for her like he was for me.” She looks out the window next to the door, then adjusts the curtain, which does not need adjusting. You have to feel sorry for her. She’s got something chewing on her brain stem that won’t let her go. Her mind is a mess.
“Hmpf. I didn’t have no Dr. Spock nor nobody,” Carolyn’s grandmother says. “Just common sense, which says give a baby what it wants and it gits to expectin it all the time. It best git used to the fact that the world ain’t gonna bow down at its feet and say what you want and it’s yours.”
Max sneezes. “Bless you,” Carolyn says, keeping the demons at bay.
“Maybe your milk ain’t good enough for him,” Carolyn’s mother says. “My milk dried up when you was three weeks old. You was cryin and losin weight and I didn’t know why.”
“She looks healthy now,” I say. “So does Max.”
Carolyn’s mother moves the little blue crystal cats and birds on her knickknack shelf a half an inch to one side, then back again. She sighs as if her world is about to shatter like a bone. “Oh, me.”
Carolyn’s dad hasn’t heard any of this. He’s staring at an old rerun of the Andy Griffith Show. Andy is sitting on the front porch after dinner with his guitar and Opie’s sitting next to him. Have a beer, Ange. Rumor has it, in real life, you hit your wife. Here, I’ll drink one for you. I finish my beer.
Andy points at something in the sky. It must be the Big Dipper. I remember when I was little my mother showed me where to look for constellations. I wonder if my mother is watching Andy Griffith now and remembering the same thing. I wonder, if I died tomorrow, would she come to my funeral, and if she did, would she tell my corpse she’s sorry?
Carolyn coos in Max’s ear. Max touches her nose and says, “No.”
“Nose,” I say. “Mama’s pretty nose.” “Let’s go,” I say to Carolyn. “I’m hungry.”
I stand and so does Carolyn’s grandmother. She’s short. Her eyes are level with my chin. Carolyn has a black and white photograph of her grandmother with Carolyn’s granddaddy when they were still young. He’s wearing an army uniform, and carrying her on his back, her knees squeezing his waist, her arms around his neck. They’re both laughing, Shorty and Leland 1944, written on the bank.
“You’ve gotten to be a tall one,” Shorty says to me. I see her eyes get a new shine, like she’s got a crush on me. “Except for bein a girl,” she says, you remind me of Carolyn’s granddaddy when he was young and handsome and tall and all the girls wanted him, but I got him, back before he got sick and shrank like an old zucchini.” She slips some money in my front shirt pocket before she sits back down.
Carolyn Velcros Max’s shoes onto his feet, then sets him on the floor. He toddles over to Carolyn’s grandmother, examines her hand resting on the arm of the chair, gently tugs at the wrinkles on the top of her hand. Carolyn’s grandmother laughs, and asks, “Who does he look like, you or the daddy?”
Carolyn says, “Me. He looks just like me.”
“He’s sure got some dark eyes,” her grandmother says. “I always wanted me a brown-eyed baby.” She looks at me. “You got dark eyes,” she says, “but I know you ain’t the daddy.” She winks at me, and for one moment I almost like her.
In the car, after Carolyn buckles Max into the back seat, I say, “I wanted to slap your mother and your grandmother both. Jesus, Carolyn. How do you stand it?”
“The same way you stand your dad,” she says, her feathers a bit ruffled.
You know how you can call someone in your own family a bitch or a sonofabitch, but anyone else does it, even if they’re agreeing with what you just said, you want to tell them fuck you, who asked you.
I say, “Your grandmother gave me a fifty-dollar bill. Should I take it back?”
“No,” Carolyn says, “Don’t take it back. She’ll feel insulted. She likes you. She doesn’t like many people.”
After awhile, I tell her, “I like your dad. He’s a different person away from the house, with a few beers down him. He turns into something of a philosopher.”
“So you’ve said before,” she says.
She’s right. I once drank some beer in a bar with him. He two-stepped with me, said he didn’t understand how I could like women so much, said they aren’t much fun to be around, not many women that don’t complain, and who like to go fishing and camping, drink beer, and look at the stars. He said he had waited since Carolyn was a baby for her to grow up and drink beer with him. But it didn’t happen. “She don’t drink,” he said. “I hardly know her.”
“It’s not too late. Talk to her,” I said.
He got choked up and went to the men’s room so I wouldn’t see him cry. I told Carolyn. It made her sad to imagine her father crying in the bathroom, but she never said anything to him about it, and he didn’t talk to her either.
At Pizza Hut, we run into Dave, Carolyn’s boyfriend. He says, “Hey, Priscilla. How’s it goin’?” without looking me in the eyes and I know why. He wants to be Carolyn’s knight in shining armor, but he’s not very good at it. His best friend told him Carolyn should stop nursing Max, that it’s sexual abuse because he’s almost two. He didn’t even defend her when the guy said, “Everyone knows her mother’s not quite right in the head, and her best friend is a dyke. Prissy may be gittin some that you don’t know about. Her and Carolyn are always together. I’d have to do something about that situation,” he told Dave. “Or tell Carolyn she’s gotta let you watch.”
Dave told Carolyn all this, which makes no sense to me. Did he think she would thank him for staying with her, for being a better man than his friend? Did he think she would volunteer to boot me out of her life? And why did Carolyn repeat it to me? What was I supposed to do, grin and bear it like an idiot, kick some ass, or slink away, leaving a trail of slime?
Dave pats Max on the top of his head, and kisses Carolyn. Then the two lovebirds choose songs from the jukebox while I help Max color his paper children’s menu. From the jukebox I hear, Hey there little red riding hood, you sure are looking good, you’re everything that a big bad wolf could want, which I know is Carolyn’s song. She likes the older quirky ones. When they return to the table, I hear the Stones, Wild horses couldn’t drag me away, and Dave looks at Carolyn with that sweet puppy dog look that lets her know that song describes how he feels about her.
Wild horses will drag him away. I know it when he plays that song and looks at Carolyn with the sad puppy dog eyes. He’ll be decapitated in a freak accident with a diesel truck. Max may be in the back seat. I don’t want to look at this vision so I focus on Max’s fingers, the dimples in his knuckles, and tell myself the part about Dave was only wishful thinking, and not something I’d really want to happen at all.
After we eat, Carolyn takes Max to the bathroom to change his dirty diaper. Max has started to resist diaper changing. He thinks it’s funny to scoot backwards just as Carolyn is about to stick the tape. But he doesn’t squirm this time. When Carolyn snaps the front of his little blue jeans, he kisses her mouth and hugs her tight so she’ll pick him up, which she does. She comes back to the table and tells us what a good boy he was.
“You’re a good mother,” I tell her, because she is. I’m not surprised.
When Carolyn was a kid she took care of stray animals, and she buried dead ones. She made wooden crosses from sticks, and sometimes little coffins, usually for sparrows or doves, but once she found a dead crow, its head chewed up. She wrapped the crow in a paper towel, and got an old shoebox to make into a coffin. Her mother saw her. Her mother said, “Give me that bird. It belongs in the trash. It’s got germs that can kill you.” Her mother was right, but damn, give the little girl some gloves and help her with the funeral. Kneel when you’re in the presence of someone with the heart of Saint Francis.
I lied when I said I fell in love with Carolyn that day we skated. It was before that, but I didn’t want to begin with a sentimental, poor dead animal story. She was eight the first time I saw her carry a dead animal into the backyard. It was a kitten. I was almost eleven and my mom had been gone about a year. She couldn’t handle being a wife and mother any more, is what she said. "I don’t know exactly what happened," she said.
My dad did his best to take care of me, but he started to drink after she left. I learned to take care of myself. Carolyn’s dad taught me to play baseball. I was sort of like the son he never had, but he never liked Carolyn’s abandoned strays. He would take those strays to the other side of town and dump them. She had been sneaking food to that kitten for a couple of weeks before a car ran over it. I helped her bury it. We put honeysuckle on its grave. A part of me wanted to laugh when she said a prayer and sang, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” but I didn’t. The deepest part of me felt close to something fragile, and beautiful and wild, and I didn’t want to kill it. I wanted to stay near it, to be a part of it, to protect it. I almost failed. Maybe I did.
When Carolyn was twelve and I was fifteen, my dad, who had been drinking, caught me kissing her. We had been kissing for a couple of months. She wanted to be sure she knew how to do it when she went on her first date, so she practiced with me. She liked it and wanted to practice a lot. My dad caught us in my bedroom. I knew what was about to happen. I was prepared. But he put the fear of God into Carolyn by slapping my face and throwing me against the wall. Then he cried. I’ve never forgotten the way Carolyn’s tongue felt in my mouth, or how after my father left the room she used her t-shirt to wipe away the blood trickling from my nose.
After that, Carolyn ignored me for a long time. She started going to church with some other girls. She trashed her music collection and her posters because the preacher said rock music stirs up lust in the loins of our youth, which I couldn’t completely deny.
Finally, one day Carolyn called me. I was finishishing the Scarlet Letter for school, and not liking it very much. An electric chain? Right. God “hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions”? What a sick puppy. And worst of all, “Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.”
Carolyn said, “I want to make up. But kissing could lead to other things. We have to be friends. We have to help each other,” she said. “It all goes back to Eve. We can’t trust our evil nature.”
I laughed, “Evil nature my ass. Don’t tell me you’ve been reading Hawthorne, too. Or Milton and the Old Testament.” But then she made me swear that I would keep my mouth off hers, and my hands to myself. “All right,” I said, “I have an older girlfriend now anyway. She’s teaching me a thing or two beyond French kissing,” which was true, but I shouldn’t have told Carolyn about it. It was mean, but I got worse.
I tried to be everything she was trying hard not to be. Maybe I just wanted to make her jealous. I started a rock band called Elvis Loves Priscilla. I wasn’t much of a singer, but I read William Blake, I could rhyme, and I could dance. I got that from my mother. When I let myself, I remember her dancing with me when I was little, holding me while she danced to Elvis records. Walk like an angel. Talk like an angel. When I walk by, you’re the devil in disguise.
I told Carolyn the details of what Gloria and I did together. Then what Donna and I did, then Jenna and Suzanna, and even Daniel, who was my drummer. I exaggerated some. I made it all sound passionate and exotic but tender and spiritual. She pretended to be disgusted, but she listened to my stories. I think my descriptions prepared her for Louis. Once upon a time she couldn’t hold back any longer.
Louis let Carolyn ride the Tilt-O-Whirl for free so many times she lost count, flirting with her each time she waited in line. Finally he asked her for a date. “I get an hour break now,” he said, as a bald man took his place. “Wanna have a Pepsi with me? We can ride the Ferris Wheel.”
Louis held Carolyn’s hand up there, at the top of the world. She said she could see the lights of the carnival, the people below who were a blur of colors, all connected like they belonged together in one big painting. She could look up and see some stars in the black sky, she told me. Up there she felt like the most beautiful person she knew. On the ground, she said to Louis, “You’re a sweetheart, aren’t you?” Then she said in his ear, “You smell good, like honeysuckle.”
“No, that’s you,” he said.
The next three days Carolyn and Louis spent a lot of time together. Then, because Carolyn likes to read, he invited her to his trailer where he had a suitcase of books under his bed. Catcher in the Rye, Tarzan the Ape Man, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and some old Batman comic books. Carolyn picked up The House at Pooh Corner.
“My dad used to read to me when I was kid,” Louis said. “Then he died.”
“Yeah. My father used to read to me,” she said. “But he’s dead now, too. My mother killed him.”
“Metaphorically speaking,” she said. “I guess they killed each other.”
“Oh. Wanna see my tattoo?” Louis asked. He pulled up the front of his t-shirt. It was Tigger bouncing on his tail, and the word Wahoo! coming out of his mouth.
Carolyn couldn’t resist touching the colors, running a finger along the bright orange and black stripes. “The most wonderful thing about Tiggers,” she said. “Where can I get a tattoo like that?”
Louis took her to see the Tattooed Man whose wife was a tattoo artist. Instead of duplicating Tigger, Carolyn decided on a simple red heart with a black arrow through it, on her left breast. When she showed me her tattoo, I knew they didn’t charge her any money. She said because of Louis. I knew it was because they liked looking at her with her shirt off. Maybe that was just me—and Louis. I asked Carolyn to let me take pictures of her tattoo.
“As long as they are for your eyes only,” she said, which sounded so fucking sexy I had the urge to drag her into my bedroom and jump her magnificent bones right then and there. But I didn’t.
I knew what had happened to her. After the tattooing, Louis took Carolyn back to his trailer. I was at the studio where I worked. I had three appointments, all of which were mothers wanting baby’s first portrait. I had trouble making any of them smile. I held up cookie monster with his eyes that rattled. I squealed and whistled, all the while seeing Carolyn’s breasts, and Louis touching them. I gave each mother a rain-check coupon, 15% off, to come back another day when the babies were feeling more cheerful. The third baby I knew I would never photograph. She would die from choking on her own vomit while her father, ignorant of what was happening in the baby crib in the next room, watched Funniest Home Videos. Her mother was buying groceries at Piggly Wiggly. The mother would try not to blame the father, but she couldn’t help herself. Finally, he would strip to his boxers and put a bullet through his head.
After that vision, I went home and threw up in the toilet. I threw up again when I read about it in the newspaper, and I cursed the giver of my visions. That baby’s ghost still bothers me sometimes just before I fall asleep at night, but I tell it to go away. I have my own sorrows. I don’t know where the father’s ghost is, probably bothering the mother.
Louis and Carolyn had their pictures taken in one of those booths that spits a strip of photos really fast. “I’m glad,” Carolyn says now, “because one day Max will want to know what his father looks like, what his mother looked like when she was with his father.” He’ll see six different versions of Louis. Louis making a silly face sticking out his pierced tongue. Louis with his hand on his chin, looking thoughtful. Louis kissing Carolyn on the cheek. Louis growling and flipping off the camera. Louis with a sad little boy face. Louis kissing Carolyn on the mouth, and kissing her on the mouth again because he didn’t want to quit. Carolyn, she looks almost the same in all the pictures. Really, really happy.
Tonight, Carolyn’s out with Dave. It’s not the night at Pizza Hut, but a different night a few months later. I’m babysitting Max, who’s asleep in my lap holding a bag of puffy Chee-tos. I put the bag aside, pick up Max, carry him to my bed where I cover his legs with the sheet. His mouth makes gentle kissing sounds. He’s dreaming that he’s nursing. One day, the whole world will know how much his mother loved him, how much I loved him, too. Louis won’t be important. Dave will be gone. Max will paint great paintings because of his mother’s love. I can see a series of impressionistic sky paintings, bird paintings. I can see female saints, some of them naked, in a style like I’ve never seen before because it is his own, and sometimes I see a man and a woman together, a pair of doves swirling in a black sky, a boy on the ground holding a bag of puffy Chee-tos.
It’s hot and the air conditioner in my apartment is out, so I turn the fan on Max, and get a beer. Saturday Night Live is on the T.V. It’s the Tiny Elvis episode, where Elvis, played by Nicolas Cage, is six inches tall. He’s on a table in a restaurant. Everything looks big to Elvis, “so huge”—a saltshaker, for example. Then he’s sleeping on the dashboard of a limo. He wakes, gets upset when someone calls him “cute like a buttercup.”
“Hey, man,” Elvis says, “I’m not cute. I’m a blackbelt in karate. I could split your lip in 79 kicks.”
I turn off the T.V. and turn on the radio. It’s Guns N Roses. Carolyn knocks on my front door then lets herself in. She’s wearing a short white skirt, soft white leather boots with fringes, a black t-shirt, I swear, with Guns N Roses on the front. Axl’s singing one of my favorite songs. I used to love her but I had to kill her. She’s six feet under, but I can still hear her complain.
“Dave asked me to marry him,” she says.
She looks at me. I don’t know what she wants from me. She’s too close to me. I’m confused. I know when I’m confused. Should I kiss her, or split her lip? I hear Dave listening to Guns N Roses in his car. He turns it up and sings. He’s waiting for Carolyn to get Max. This is the night he’ll get behind the diesel truck. A mud flap from a semi will tear off and fly through Dave’s window, decapitating him. I decide Carolyn won’t be with him, and Max won’t be in the back seat. I’m happy about that, but it scares me too. Can I not trust my own visions?
“What do you think?” Carolyn asks me. “What do you think about Dave?”
“I doubt he’ll live,” I tell her.
“What?” she says.
Then I don’t know what I said or why I said it. In my brain I hear Tiny Elvis sing, “It’s now or never.” He whispers, “Sweet delight or endless night.” I grin, and imagine Elvis, huge in his white jumpsuit, bellbottoms flaming, holding hands with William Blake beneath a tree of female angels. The angels croon, “I don’t wanna be your tiger, ‘cause tigers play too rough.” I grin, close the door, and put my hand on the inside of Carolyn’s thigh. She’s trembling with love and fear, and I’m right there with her because neither of us knows what will happen next.
(photo by Robert O'Nale)