James Twiggs

Pictures of the Artist (Chapter 1)

The main character is a photographer named Tom Watts.
This chapter recounts, in snapshot form, key parts of his upbringing
in a small
Arkansas town in the 1940s.



Tom Watts was born on January 3, 1938, in Mud Creek, Arkansas, a town of 967 located in the northwest corner of the state. His father, Virgil, was thirty-two at the time and editor-publisher of the Mud Creek Weekly Herald; his mother, Molly, was a thin dark-haired girl of fifteen who, with her pale skin, delicate features, and sad brown eyes, was generally considered to be the town beauty. Some people thought it queer that a girl as pretty as Molly Cooper would get mixed up with a man who was not only twice her age but was also a club-footed, four-eyed smart aleck who was nearly bald. On the other hand, people who remembered Virgil’s father—a driving force in the community for many years—or who liked Virgil in spite of his defects, wondered how a respectable businessman, even one who was crippled, could attach himself to a teenager—never mind how pretty—from a family as poor, as seedy, as extensive, and as crazy as the Coopers had always been. They were white trash, pure and simple, living in shacks and rundown trailerhouses scattered over five acres of worthless land near the Oklahoma line. However you tried to look at it, the marriage made little enough sense.

No one knew Virgil was even seeing Molly until, three months before the baby was born, she dropped out of school and moved into his little two-story house on the west side of town. This happened at the beginning of her sophomore year. According to Virgil, they had been married eight months earlier. He said he had the certificate to prove it. But most people figured that even if the certificate existed, he had altered the date to make it seem as if they were married before Molly became pregnant. Other people thought they weren’t married at all and that Virgil had forged the entire document in his print shop. A few people even wondered whether Virgil was Tom’s natural father (as if the clubfoot might be a sign of sterility), and one crazy, toothless old woman, a former midwife who was nearly blind, muttered about the striking resemblance between Baby Tom and Lewis Cooper, Molly’s good-for-nothing older brother, who had left town about the time she started to show. This last rumor didn’t really catch on—not even after Lewis, who never returned home alive, died in the South Pacific in 1942. Perhaps it was too rich, too vile, even for the gossip mongers at the First Baptist Church. More likely, though, the resemblance in question was simply not worth speculating about. Molly’s family blood was so powerful that any baby born to a Cooper woman, or fathered by a Cooper man, looked like every other Cooper that had ever existed. Where Coopers were concerned, resemblance proved nothing.


Until Lewis was killed, even cynics had to admit that married life suited Molly Watts. Although she was never outgoing, she became a bit less bashful and ashamed; she made herself presentable in a modest, womanly way; and she was sometimes friendly enough if you saw her in the grocery or hardware store, or just out on the street pushing Baby Tom’s carriage or, later, his stroller. If you wanted to stop and fuss over the baby for a while, she would stand there blushing with pleasure while you did it.

Marriage was good for Virgil as well. As long as his dad was alive, Virgil’s smart mouth, his advanced social ideas, his liking for fast cars, stylish clothes, and flashy women had been goodnaturedly tolerated. After the old man died in 1936, Virgil’s excesses and somewhat deviant views became more and more offensive, especially in the midst of continuing hard times for so many in Mud Creek. The marriage did what the death of his father had failed to do. It toned him down. It gave him some stability. With the coming of the war, it made bearable his being left behind while other men, perhaps no braver and certainly no more passionate in their hatred of the enemy, were fighting and dying in foreign lands. As if to prove his patriotism, he worked long and hard on the homefront—selling bonds, collecting metal and tinfoil, giving speeches at the church and the school, leading civil defense drills in the city park, and filling his little paper with war news, maps, inspirational pieces, and useful articles on such matters as rationing and how to behave in case of a bombing.

Then Lewis, who was not merely killed in action but was captured and tortured to a slow horrible death, was brought home, minus his genitals somebody said, and his eyeballs, and most of his skin, and all of his fingers, and was buried with impressive military honors. Molly removed the Blue Star from her window. But instead of putting up a Gold Star, she pulled the blinds, quit taking the piano lessons that had meant so much to her, and stayed inside for a year, refusing all visitors. After that, she made an occasional appearance outdoors, but went no farther than her own backyard till the war ended. And then, in the fall of 1946, Virgil bought a new red Mercury convertible. A few days later, he and Molly drove out of town on the first of their famous and mysterious weekend trips.


All through the fighting, though he had never previously been religious, Virgil attended the First Baptist Church every Sunday morning—perhaps for the sake of the war effort. And now, at war’s end, Molly started coming to church too. She would usually join in the singing—her lips moved, anyway—and she listened politely enough to the sermon; though, some said, without the slightest trace of true religious interest. Because she never took part in church activities, or stayed to visit after the service, it was natural to wonder if she was only there to show off the beautiful and expensive dresses—cotton in the summer, silk the rest of the year—that Virgil was buying for her. Or maybe it was Virgil who was showing off—showing off his high-toned taste in women and women’s finery. He had done some of that, people remembered, when, fresh out of college, he took over the paper in 1930. He had girlfriends those first years back in town, pretty girls from Kansas City, who also wore clothes that made a person stop and stare.


Tom was eight when his parents started going on their trips. They would drive away on a Thursday afternoon, as soon as the Herald had been printed and mailed, and return on Sunday night. During their absence, Tom stayed with his Aunt Bev and Uncle Lester, both in their fifties, who lived ten miles away in Siloam Springs. Although Virgil jokingly referred to Bev and Lester as the Watts Family Commies, they were in fact—as Tom understood years later—anarchists who had lost their jobs as teachers in California because of their convictions. Lester’s field was English. Bev had taught art, and she still worked on three or four paintings, simultaneously, during her spare time. She did this in the utility room next to the kitchen. She would have preferred to do it on the glassed-in sunporch, where she kept most of her green plants, or, weather permitting, out in the yard, but she knew the neighbors would be alarmed at the sight of a woman artist, especially if she was painting anything but flowers and landscapes. It might even give the local boys another excuse for egging or t.p.-ing the house.

The attic, Bev said, was full of paintings she had done in California, including her complete Series #3, entitled Cubed Snake & Mincemeat Pi. She didn’t dare let the neighbors see these paintings either, because in them she had done for Lester’s genitals what Picasso had done for the female face. She had sliced them up and rearranged them on the canvas with results that were as easily recognizable as they were grotesque. These paintings had caused quite a stir in San Diego a few years ago; in Siloam Springs, which advertised itself as Jesus City U.S.A., they might well (or so Bev liked to think) cause a lynching. That’s why she kept them hidden away in her attic. She was always planning to show them to Tom, but never got around to it. This was fine with him. Bev’s descriptions of the paintings made him remember what had happened to his Uncle Lewis during the war.

The rest of the house was crammed with books—some in shelves, others in boxes, still others stacked in corners and along the walls and on every table in every room. It was only natural that, beginning with his first visit to Bev and Lester’s, Tom would entertain himself by reading novels and leafing through their numerous picture books, which covered all periods and styles of art. When he first saw Bev’s paintings-in-progress, they made no sense to him. As far as he could tell, they were meaningless blobs of color. Although he didn’t say so, he thought it was stupid even to refer to them as paintings. It didn’t help that Virgil got so much mileage out of sneering at them. But after he had been looking through the picture books for a while, and had discovered works by Kandinsky, O’Keefe, and Miro, Tom could at least see what Bev was trying to do. He still didn’t understand what any of it meant, but he was beginning to perceive and appreciate patterns. Even so, the pictures he liked best contained recognizable people, places, and objects. Years later he could recall the thrill he felt the first time he saw a certain work at Bev’s house—a drawing by Daumier or Schiele, for example, or a painting by Giovanni Bellini or Edward Hopper. And once in an interview in London, when a critic marveled at the quality of the light in some of his photographs, Watts said that he owed his appreciation of light to his Aunt Bev, back in Arkansas, who had first showed him Vermeer when he was eight years old.


While Tom was at their house, reading on their sofa, Bev and Lester would sit at the dining-room table, knitting, playing gin rummy, or shelling peas as they affably dismantled capitalism and religion and made plans to destroy the state without hurting anybody. Although they were reluctant to let the art books out of the house, they encouraged Tom to borrow as he pleased from the rest of their collection. It wasn’t unusual, at the end of a weekend, for him to take ten or twelve books home with him. Starting with Robin Hood, King Arthur, and the Arabian Nights, he moved, rather haphazardly, through Heidi, the Hardy Boys, Robinson Crusoe, Wells, the Brontë sisters, Stevenson, Alcott, London, Tarkington, and Poe, and on up to Dickens and Twain and Melville and beyond.


Virgil had books too, but his were mostly of a factual kind—encyclopedias, atlases, biographies, histories of religion and philosophy, books of quotations. At the office he received magazines and papers from all over the world and brought them home at night. With the fighting over and democracy safe, he was again reading his prewar heroes, Mencken and Darrow and, of course, Lord Byron, with whom he identified in more ways than one. In short, he had gone back to the skeptical, cosmopolitan outlook he was cultivating before the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. Now when he pored over his books, magazines, and papers far into the night, he was not looking for propaganda to further the cause of the Allies but for tidbits of thought and information, snacks for the mind he called them, that would enlighten his readers without upsetting them too much. Under a story about a missing dog, for example, you might find:

          Opinions are made to be changed—or how is truth to be
              got at?
                    —Lord Byron (1788-1824), famous clubfooted poet
                        known as God’s gift to women.

Or, under a column of canning tips, something like this:

          None are so fond of secrets as those who do not mean to keep them.
                    —C. C. Colton (1780-1832), English author.

“Your typical Mud Creeker,” Virgil was fond of telling his son, “has to be
fed the truth in tiny morsels if he’s to keep it down long enough to be digested.” Tom enjoyed hearing his father say such things. He especially liked it that Virgil could say them without taking himself too seriously. It was as if he was trying out for a part in a school play rather than expressing his innermost beliefs. Virgil well understood that, for all his pretensions, he was as much a Mud Creeker as the next person. That’s what Tom liked best about his dad.


Molly had little interest in reading matter of any kind, but she loved music so much that Virgil had bought her a piano as a wedding present. For the next four years, right up until the time Lewis was buried and she first became severely depressed, she took lessons from Old Lady Sharp, who had recently retired from high-school teaching. Because she lived right across the street, and because she gave the lessons in the Watts house, she was the town’s leading authority on Molly and Virgil. According to her, the lessons were a complete waste of money. Molly, she said, had no feel for the instrument even before her brother died. She was even worse at playing the piano than she was at washing windows, sweeping floors, cleaning bathrooms, cooking meals, and doing the laundry. A Cooper, the teacher went on, if he was going to attempt music at all, ought to stick to harmonicas and tambourines. Anything else would be too taxing. A few years later, when Tom took lessons from her, Old Lady Sharp pronounced him talentless as well. He was a Watts in name only, she added. Musically and in all other important respects, he was a Cooper to the bone.

After the war, when Molly’s depression had lifted somewhat, she would go through spells of playing, or trying to play, the few pieces she’d learned from Old Lady Sharp—hymns and children’s songs and little bits of Chopin and Mozart. Mainly, however, she slaked her thirst for music by purchasing records. She never went on one of her trips without bringing home more records and albums than the average music-lover would buy in a year. Although she enjoyed all kinds of music, including gospel and classical, her favorites were jazz, country, and boogie-woogie. She knew the words to fifty Billie Holiday songs and once announced at the dinner table that she would give both of her legs if she could play the piano like Mary Lou Williams, whose latest three-record album she was wearing out in a hurry. This remark didn’t set well with Virgil, for obvious reasons. Molly, who was usually so sensitive about his affliction, apologized for a week or more.


Aunt Bev keeled over dead just before Tom’s thirteenth birthday. Lester, after giving the boy his entire library of two thousand books, and after burning all of Bev’s paintings at the city dump, headed back to California, perhaps to resume his political work. From then on, when Tom’s parents went out of town, they let him stay by himself in the house in Mud Creek. He was a quiet boy, without friends who might lead him astray, and he was responsible, as his father liked to put it, to a fault. They had no qualms about leaving him alone. Virgil gave him two extra-wide, dark blue matchbooks, each embossed—in letters and figures of glittering silver—with a name, an address, and a phone number. One matchbook was from the Paradise Hotel in Kansas City, the other from the Western Swing Bar, Grill and Motor Hotel in San Antonio. In case of emergency, Virgil said, he and Molly could always be reached at one or the other of these establishments. Tom recalled that identical matchbooks had been fastened to the wall next to the phone at Bev and Lester’s house.

When he found out they only visited two cities, Tom realized he could tell where his parents had been by the records Molly played when they returned. Jazz or boogie-woogie meant Kansas City; country meant San Antonio—or, as Virgil sometimes called it, imitating the high-pitched voice of Bob Wills, San-NAN-tone. One time when he said this, he attempted a little dance step, a kind of turn, but caught his clubfoot in the rug and fell to the floor. Virgil laughed and pretended to have done it on purpose; Tom and Molly pretended to believe him.


On his first couple of weekends by himself, Tom, as his parents had expected he would, spent his time reading. On the third weekend, without planning to do so, he made a systematic search of their closets and drawers. Within two hours he had discovered hidden caches of liquor, French and Turkish cigarettes, condoms, sex manuals, and pornography, consisting mainly of tiny eight-page books of cartoon characters fucking and big glossy photographs of real people doing the same thing. Tom had never, at this time, seen his parents drink or smoke, but he was not exactly surprised to learn that they had such habits. Kids at school had talked of making similar discoveries in their own houses. It went with being a Baptist. And he knew that Virgil and Molly engaged in sex. He knew it in the abstract, and also from noises he heard at night. What did surprise and thrill him was their apparent depth of interest in a subject that he too—driven by puberty’s relentless demands—had become desperately curious about.

From that day on, he could hardly wait for Virgil and Molly to leave town so he could puff on foreign cigarettes, sip small amounts of liquor—enough to make him high, not enough to be missed—and jack off to his heart’s content and without fear of being caught. In the beginning, he found the eight-pagers and the sex manuals more exciting than the photos, which were too raw, too rich in detail, for his young eyes and mind to appreciate. Typically, he would lie naked on his bed, drinking and smoking while he read a few pages of a sex manual. Then, with his cock throbbing ever more urgently, he would leaf frantically through the eight-pagers until his excitement became unbearable. At that point he would shoot off while gazing at a cartoon and saying aloud what one of the characters was saying: “Kiss me, Tess honey—I’m coming!” or “Oh Sluggo!—oh oh oh!” or “You can yodel in my valley anytime, Harold Teen!” Then he might sleep, or eat a sandwich, or go outside and, naked except for his underpants and a pair of old tennis shoes, run through the woods behind the house for a while. Or he might simply read another chapter from one of the sex manuals, which, once he’d cracked the code they were written in, could revive a guy pretty quickly.

On Sunday afternoon, a couple of hours before his parents returned home, Tom would take a last quick tour through the photographs, which disturbed him no end. He noticed early on that the same people, in different combinations and different poses, appeared in all of the pictures. In fact, if he had counted rightly, only nine subjects—five men and four women—were represented in the entire batch of twenty-three photographs. What kinds of people would pose for such pictures, he wondered, and what kind of photographer would take them? Although he didn’t, at this stage, linger over the photographs, they stayed with him in surprising ways. Except on his weekends alone, when he still favored the eight-pagers, it was the photographs he thought about when he masturbated, which was every day, at least once and usually two or three times. The people in the photographs also enlivened his wet dreams. They became so vividly real to him that he gave them names from the books he was reading.


Within a year he had become sophisticated enough to put the eight-pagers aside and confront the photographs directly. He jacked off leisurely now, enjoying not only the final explosion but the whole array of sensations leading up to it. Afterward, careful not to bend them or smear them with come, he would go through the pictures again and again, looking for something he had missed—some clue to the meaning of an expression, a gesture, a position, or an angle of penetration. Sometimes he thought he understood things that later he decided were either beneath or beyond all comprehension. And always he wondered how much of what he was looking at was real and how much was put on for the camera. For example, did people who were fucking really grin in that peculiar way—or were they all just fooling around, like kids being photographed at a picnic? More than once he jacked off in front of a mirror, hoping to glimpse on his own face the true look of passion, only to find that, where love was concerned, he knew as little about himself as he knew about the people in the pictures.


As the months passed and he became more familiar with the photos, he noticed that they changed from time to time. Although the total number remained about the same—it varied between nineteen and twenty-three—as many as five new pictures might appear and a few old ones might vanish. This happened with a picture of Jay Gatsby doing Madeline Usher doggy-style. They were two of his favorite characters—Jay with his charm and his broad generous smile, Lady Madeline with her ethereal beauty. Although each of them showed up in other pictures as well, this was the only one in which they were together. Tom hated to see it go.

Sometimes new people popped up in the pictures, and old ones departed. The month he gained Emma and Big Blonde, for example, he lost Cora, Lady MacBeth, and Hester. The departure of Mellors was offset by the arrival of Nick Adams. Becky Thatcher, looking no older than Tom, appeared one month and was gone the next. She was a big favorite indeed, while she lasted. Under the circumstances, he decided, a man would be a fool to become too attached to any one particular woman.


On a Thursday in February, just after his parents left town, Tom got out the pictures and carried them to his room. Three of his favorites were on top of the stack, so he had already masturbated once when he came to a picture of Big Blonde and a newcomer, a scrawny bald man with his face made up like a clown’s—white paint, fake nose, heavy dark circles around his eyes, and a wide, down-turned mouth. Big Blonde, completely naked, was on her knees in front of the clown, holding his long limp cock in the fingers of her left hand. The clown was naked, too, except for a heavy stocking on his oversized left foot. Big Blonde, irreverent as always, was looking directly into the camera, her right thumb to her nose, her fingers raised and slightly bent, her tongue sticking out. The clown, his real mouth grinning obscenely inside the painted-on mouth, was also thumbing his nose.

Tom looked at the picture for a long time, feeling nothing and thinking nothing. Then he got up and went to the bathroom and took a shower. After that he put his clothes on and returned the photographs to his parents’ room without looking past the one of Big Blonde and the clown. He would not, he felt sure, look at the photos ever again. He thought he could live with seeing his father in a dirty picture, but what about Molly? She was so private and modest around the house that he had never even caught a peep of her in her underwear. He had never seen her in shorts or a bathing suit. The fancy dresses she wore to church and out of town revealed her good figure but not much flesh. What if he came to a picture of her? Could he live with that? His sex life, he decided, was over.


All of the old rumors about Molly resurfaced, and some new ones got started, when, two months later, she ran off with Haskell Conway, a handsome ex-soldier who had been brought in to play shortstop for the local semi-pro baseball team—to fill the longstanding hole, as Virgil himself had written in the Herald, on the Cottonmouth infield. Besides being a gifted ballplayer—oldtimers considered him the best they’d seen since the glory days of Lewis Cooper in the late thirties—Conway had supposedly won every jitterbug contest in the entire midwest before moving to Mud Creek, where dancing was frowned upon and in some places, including school, church, and city facilities, was expressly forbidden.

When he wasn’t playing ball, Conway worked at Anderson’s Feed and Produce. It wasn’t uncommon, if you were driving along Main Street on a weekday morning, to see him standing in the bed of the company truck, naked to the waist, muscles gleaming with sweat as he lifted and tossed hundred-pound bags of mash as easily as you or I might handle a small sack of sugar. So it seemed, anyhow. As news of this performance reached the public, more and more of the women of Mud Creek found reason to park in the vicinity of the feed store and walk the two blocks to the post office. The ballplayer, you might say, had made a hit with the ladies. No one, however, knew how Molly Watts and Haskell Conway got together. Molly had not been to a ball game since the time when her brother was the star attraction. She never drove or walked past the feed store.

But they did make connections somehow, and they did run off together. Old Lady Sharp saw it first hand. She was looking out her window one morning—Virgil was at work, Tom at school—when Haskell Conway pulled up in front of the Watts house and blew his horn and Molly came running out with a large suitcase and got in the car beside him. They kissed once—for an extravagantly long time, in the old woman’s opinion—and then sped away in a cloud of dust.


For years the consensus on the weekend trips had been that Virgil was taking Molly to a nerve specialist in Kansas City. Supposedly Virgil himself had told that to somebody a few years ago. People believed it because they knew that Molly, being a Cooper, had a crazy streak in her a mile wide. After she ran away with the shortstop, the same people decided that Molly and her arrogant, lying, pathetic, clubfooted husband must have known Haskell Conway long before he ever came to Mud Creek. Perhaps he was the one they’d been driving to see all this time.

One thing was sure. If Haskell Conway was Molly’s doctor, it wasn’t hard to figure out what nerve he was treating. To judge from the amount of laughter it generated, this must have been the funniest joke ever to hit Mud Creek.


Virgil pretended to Tom that Molly was visiting her sister Darlene, who lived in a trailerhouse outside of Guymon, Oklahoma. “Darlene’s over there in the panhandle,” he said. “It’s like a desert, with nothing to see but lizards and rattlers and big hairy spiders. We couldn’t find her if we tried. Nobody that lives there has a phone. If she had one, we’d give your mother a call. They’ve never even seen a telephone in Guymon, Oklahoma.”

Tom, who had heard the gossip about Molly and Haskell Conway, despised his father for lying to him and also for being the kind of man whose wife runs off with a feed-store worker. Then he would remember the photograph of Virgil and Big Blonde and despise him for that too. I’ve seen you in action, he would think. I’ve seen you naked, you gimp bastard. Don’t try telling me anything. When he came home after work, Virgil would fry up a few hamburgers or pork chops, leaving the kitchen so full of smoke that they coughed all through the meal. Afterward he and Tom would clear the table and do the dishes. “This is what it’s like when you’re batchin’ it,” Virgil told him. “Till I married your mother, I lived like this all the time. It’s no life for a man, Tom, being alone and doing dishes. Thank God for your mother.” The quotation on the front page of the Herald told a different story:

         But what is Hope? Nothing but the paint on the face of
         Existence; the least touch of truth rubs it off, and then
         we see what a hollow-cheeked harlot we have got hold of.
                  —Lord Byron, crippled poet.


After they cleaned up in the kitchen, Tom would go to the living room and read till bedtime. Virgil would retire to his study. One night Tom heard a loud thump and went to investigate. When he opened the door he saw his father lying unconscious on the floor next to the desk. A half-empty bottle of Jim Beam was on the floor beside him. He had stripped down to his underwear and removed the sock from his clubfoot. The sight and smell of it were so awful that Tom stepped back into the hall and took a couple of deep breaths.

The foot sweated excessively; with its long toes bent completely underneath it, and with a deep crease in the middle of its thick, pulpy sole, it went bad, as Virgil sometimes said, after only a day or two. It was Molly’s job to care for the foot. No matter how withdrawn she had been during the day, she would somehow find the energy for this one task. Sitting on the floor in front of Virgil, a dishpan of soapy water by her side, she would carefully wash and dry the foot and then kiss it a few times before covering it with a clean sock. After Virgil bought a TV set in 1951, she would do this late at night, while they were watching Broadway Open House with Jerry Lester and Dagmar. When she finished with the foot, she would sit in Virgil’s lap with her head on his chest and her hand inside his shirt. After he stopped looking at the dirty pictures, Tom was glad the show had gone off the air. Dagmar bore a striking resemblance to Big Blonde.

Judging from the stench on this particular night, Tom figured that Virgil had not bathed since Molly left town. Holding a handkerchief to his nose, and careful to avoid looking at the foot, he opened the door again and entered the room. Virgil groaned and turned slightly, but his eyes stayed shut. The family photo album lay open on the desk. Tom knew it consisted almost entirely of pictures of Molly, with only an occasional shot of either himself or his father. He leaned over the album and saw his mother looking up at him from twenty different photos. With all of them the same size, and all of them featuring the same face and the same vague sweet lovely smile, they were as much alike as bricks in a wall.

Tom slammed the album shut. He held onto the desk for a minute, trembling, and then reached down and picked up the whiskey bottle. Virgil was snoring. Tom took a drink of the whiskey—the biggest he’d ever had—and felt the heat settle in his stomach, felt a scary tingling in his head. He took another, even bigger drink. The tingle dissolved and became a whirl. He put the bottle on the desk and, weaving, giggling, bouncing off the walls and doors, went to his parents’ bedroom and came back with a blanket and a pillow. He threw the blanket over Virgil, slipped the pillow under his head, and kissed him on the cheek. “Shit, Dad,” he said as tears filled his eyes. “Shit fire, Lord Byron.”


The second week of Molly’s absence, Virgil sat on the front porch in the evenings, drinking openly, looking out at the road as if he expected his wife to return home any moment. About midnight he would pass out. Tom would help him inside. Depending on how cooperative Virgil was able to be, Tom would either let him sleep on the floor in the living room or put him on the sofa for the night. Then Tom would have a couple of stiff drinks before going upstairs to bed. When he came down the next morning, Virgil would already be gone to work.

The third week, Virgil quit coming home. He ate his meals at the Center Café and slept on a cot in the back room of the newspaper office. One day, instead of going to school, Tom stayed in bed and drank whiskey from a quart bottle Virgil had left on the front porch. He passed out in the afternoon and came to in the middle of the night, feeling alone in some terrible absolute way that he’d never before experienced. He wrapped himself in a sheet and lay curled in a ball. “She’s not coming back, you asshole,” he muttered. “She’s never coming back.” He was so cold his teeth chattered. At dawn he went to the bathroom and sat on the floor and puked into the toilet for a long time.

When he woke again the sun was streaming into his bedroom. The air was stuffy; the sheets were damp with sweat. His head was throbbing and so was his cock. He was on fire. He knew what he had to do. He went downstairs to his parents’ bedroom and opened the middle drawer of Virgil’s dresser and reached for the envelope with the dirty photos in it. The envelope was missing. The eight-pagers were in the bottom drawer, where they’d always been, but he was no longer interested in them. The condoms and the cigarettes were still in a hat box on the top shelf of Molly’s closet. The liquor was still in a cardboard box under the bed. The sex manuals were also in their usual place, in one of Molly’s underwear drawers, but like the eight-pagers, they meant nothing to him now. After he’d looked in every conceivable place for the photos, he went down the hall to his father’s study. If he couldn’t have the pictures he wanted, he thought he could at least look at the snapshots in the album Virgil kept on his desk. But the album was gone, and so was the framed picture of Molly that usually hung on the wall of the study. Later he learned that Virgil had taken the album and the framed photograph to the newspaper office. He never did find out what happened to the dirty pictures.
Frustrated in his search for photographs, he recalled the nice feel of Molly’s underwear. He returned to her dresser and put on one of her brassieres, a black lace one, and draped two pairs of her panties, a black pair and a pink pair, over his hard cock. Then, remembering how she had always let dirty clothes pile up for a long time before she did the laundry, he went to the hamper in the downstairs bathroom and rooted around till he came up with three more pairs of her panties—white silk panties with stains in the crotch. He pressed them to his face. By the time he got upstairs to his bedroom, he was drunk on the smell—real or imagined—of his mother’s pussy. Holding the dirty panties to his nose, he came three times in the clean ones, moaning “Molly Molly I love you you whore, you whore whore whore, you bitch. Take this, you whore. Take this.” Then he put a pair of the wet panties on, along with the brassiere, and pretended to be Molly resting, and lightly touching herself, after the best fuck she’d ever had.

“I love you too,” she murmured. “Oh darling, I love you too.”


He intended to go to school the next day, but instead, sick with desire and shame, he finished off the whiskey and lay all afternoon and night in a drunken stupor. The day after that, right at sunrise, he was wakened by noises coming from downstairs. When he went to investigate, he was astonished to see Molly, wearing a wide-brimmed white hat and one of her fancy spring dresses, sitting at the kitchen table. Her suitcase was on the floor beside her. Virgil, hopping back and forth between the table and the stove, was laying out his usual breakfast of hard green eggs, rubbery waffles, and burnt bacon. Smoke from the bacon grease rose from the skillet in thick dark clouds.

“Tom,” Virgil said. “Tom. Say hi to your mother. She’s filling me in on the doings in Guymon. It’s quite a town they’ve got over there. Guymon, Oklahoma. Tell Tom about Guymon, Molly.”

Tom and Molly looked at each other in embarrassment.

“Come over here,” Virgil said to Tom. “Give your mother a hug. Give your mother a kiss.”

Tom turned and fled back upstairs. He was afraid if he got close to Molly he might hit her. He was afraid if he touched her he might get a hard-on. He was afraid she would smell the liquor that was oozing out of his every pore.

When he came down again, an hour later, cleaned up and ready for school, the remains of the breakfast were on the table. Virgil and Molly had retired to their bedroom. The door was shut. Tom could hear them moaning and whispering. He listened till the bed started shaking and then went outside. At school he learned why, and how, Molly had returned. Haskell Conway had signed a minor-league contract and danced right out of her life, leaving her alone in St. Louis. People knew it was St. Louis because Conway had sent Virgil a card from there. A clerk in the post office read it—by mistake, he claimed—and word got around. The card said: “Come get her, she’s too much for me. Sorry for the inconvenience.”—Something like that. Under his name, the shortstop had printed an address in what was thought to be a bad part of St. Louis, where niggers lived. In Mud Creek, niggers weren’t even allowed inside the city limits after dark. Ten minutes after he received the card in the morning mail, Virgil was in the Mercury, headed for St. Louis.


After Virgil brought her home, Tom would sometimes hear his mother sobbing in the night as his father whispered urgently to her. At first he thought Virgil was accusing and berating her; he feared for her safety. But when he tiptoed to their door and listened, what he heard was Virgil saying things like, “Oh my sweet Molly, my poor darling, you’re breaking my heart, please just try to be happy, please please please, I love you so much, my darling, so very very much, Molly dolly, dolly Molly”—and on like that for an hour at a time. Other nights, at three or four a.m., Tom would wake with the sudden knowledge that his parents were not in their room. He would sneak downstairs and find them sitting in the dark, either in the living room or, if it was warm enough, on the front porch, drinking whiskey, getting quietly and sadly drunk while—they thought—their son slept.


Tom, in constant turmoil, hated one of them one day, the other the next. On the third day, full of self-loathing, he wondered if he’d brought this hell to the family himself, by prowling in closets, by looking at his father naked, by sniffing his mother’s underwear—by wanting to yodel in her valley, dick her senseless, come in her face.


At the newspaper office one afternoon, Virgil, with tears rolling down his cheeks, told Tom to keep an eye on Molly. “She’s not doing so well,” Virgil said. Tom, who had been in the habit of helping his father after school, now went straight home every day. Often Molly was in the bedroom with the shades pulled. Other days she wandered slowly from room to room. Sometimes she sat on the back porch, staring across the yard and into the woods. Tom, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible and trying to keep his own wild thoughts at bay, always sat quietly in the living room, reading. By the time Virgil got home, Molly would be in the living room, too. She would be sitting on the floor in front of her hi-fi set, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes and listening to Hank Williams or Bob Wills. The only two songs she played—she played them over and over again—were called “It Just Don’t Matter Now” and “Time Changes Everything.” After a few days, Tom was hearing these songs in his head from the minute he got up in the morning till he went to sleep at night.


Occasionally when he came home after school, Molly would be sewing or reading or puttering in the kitchen—doing something ordinary like that—and she would come out of herself for a moment and give him a look so loving, or a smile so radiant, that he could almost believe he had merely dreamed the pain of the last few weeks. He could almost believe that Molly was something more than the polite stranger she had most of his life seemed to be. His heart would swell with pride at the goodness and beauty of his mysterious young mother.


Sometimes he tried to think whether he and Molly had ever been close. Maybe when he was three or four or five—but he couldn’t remember. His impression was that the house had usually been dark and quiet in those days, too. He did remember, well enough, that Molly had talked him into learning to play the piano when he was seven. He had taken lessons for three years before losing interest. Molly had often sat near the piano, smiling, while Old Lady Sharp was instructing him. Maybe that was as close as they had ever got.


One day after school when she was especially sad, he wondered if he could make her smile by playing the piano again. The only song he could think of was “Amazing Grace.” After he played it for a while, his mother came and stood behind him with her hand on his shoulder and, in a small pure voice, sang a couple of verses.

He marveled that one delicate hand could send heat through his whole body, bring the blood roaring to his head, turn his mouth to cotton. He wanted to look at Molly but was afraid if he did she would lean down and give him one of the red-hot soul kisses he’d read about in sex manuals and heard about at school. He was afraid she would; he was afraid she wouldn’t. His hands turned to stone and then to rubber. Wrong notes bounced off the walls, hung in the air, faded to silence.

“That one’s nice,” Molly said, “but ‘Farther Along’ is my favorite.”

“I’ll play it,” Tom managed to say. He was sweating all over; his mind was on the verge of blanking out completely. “I’m sorry I’m so bad,” he stammered— referring, perhaps, to his clumsiness at the piano.

“You’re as good as anybody else,” Molly said. Her hand moved to the back of his neck, rubbed it briefly, and then squeezed it with surprising strength. Her voice was low but filled with passion. “And so am I,” she said. “Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”

By the time Tom realized that whatever he had meant, she meant something else entirely, Molly had removed her hand from his neck, picked up her glass of wine from the piano, and put on the Hank Williams record. She went to the window and sipped wine and stared out at the road.


That was on a Monday. The rest of the week, at school, Tom spent his lunch hours and free periods practicing “Farther Along” on the piano in the assembly hall. By Friday—May 15, 1953—he was ready to play the hymn for his mother. He wanted her to sing again. He wanted her to touch him. He wanted her to tell him that they were as good as anybody else. When he got home he was surprised to see the shades up and the curtains open. The living room had never been so neat and clean. Molly had obviously dusted and run the vacuum. The bathroom sparkled and smelled of disinfectant. The kitchen was spotless. “Mother,” Tom called. “Mother.”

Getting no answer, and struck now by the stillness around him, he decided she must be in the yard. Maybe she’s well, he thought. Maybe she’s okay. It was quite a shock, all right, when he opened the door to the back porch and saw her hanging from a clothesline rope tied to a rafter. Her body—he knew she was dead—turned slowly. Later he couldn’t remember whether he actually saw the blue swollen face, bulging eyes, and gaping mouth or only imagined them. He knew he stood there hoping it was all a trick or a dream. When he realized it wasn’t, he returned to the kitchen and phoned his father. Then he went to the front room and played “Farther Along” till Virgil arrived with the constable and Doc Benson. An ambulance was right behind them. They cut Molly down, covered her face, carried her away. The envelope pinned to her dress contained a blank sheet of paper. Tom went back to the piano and played. His father’s sobs shook the house.



(photo by Amanda Waits)