BABY AND JOE
By Vince Barry
Sherwood Anderson—I’m always reading something or other by ’m. I don’t know why. Maybe ’cause he raised his bed, an’ I do, too. Only he did it to look at the Loop in Chicago. I do it for dyspepsia— in a dreary apartment in Vegas. . . . An’ he spent many a painful hour at the dentist’s, ole Woody did. Me, too. . . .
Eleven. ’S how many implants I got. An’ I need two more— two and twenty-one, if yuh know yer teeth numbers. I learned ’em years ago when my troubles first, ahem, took root. I figure Anderson did also. He was a numbers guy, y’ know. Worked in sales b’fore his nerves went bad an’ he forgot who he was on a street in Cleveland—kinda like one of his characters in Winesburg. Which, by the way, I’ve worn out more copies of than I have implants. . . . Maybe I just like the grotesques—maybe that’s it—what accounts for Anderson’s hold on me. I dunno.
At any rate, I’m reading one of Anderson’s tales—“Brothers” is what I’m reading— when I come across a “cracked” old man who comes outta the fog like a visitation in a graveyard, claiming he’s “a cousin to the man named Cox who at the time when I write is a candidate for the presidency.” Well, that got my attention, lemme tell yuh. Y’see, I have sitting on our rickety sideboard with the broken leg the autobiography of that “cracked” old man’s cousin,— that being, one James V. Cox.
The dust jacket of the aforementioned memoir bears a burnished image of the subject imperiously holding a well-aged Belicoso, or maybe a Corona.Whichever, anyone can see it’s handmade, with a fine rich bouquet, even though the havana’s holder does seem to come between the subject an’ the cigar’s head, but still…. At any rate, here’s this James V. Cox looking every inch a bank president.
In fact, Cox was governor of Ohio during the Great War an’, according to the cover’s blurb: “a presidential candidate and observer at close range of most of the events and personalities which shaped the destiny of the United States for nearly fifty years.” The flip side shows the right honorable governor, presidential candidate, an’ keen observer of the passing parade standing, iconically, on the back of a train, hat over heart, head upraised, bespectacled eyes gazing off into the distance, looking every bit a visionary—or for an answer. Embossed over the picture is a letter dated “29 October 1920.” It’s from the White House, an’ it closes:
Allow me to sign myself
Your gratified and loyal supporter,
I came by this reminiscence a lifetime ago when my wife’s old man, whose surname was Cox, mentioned something ’bout a distant cousin of his. He was always doin’ that—y’know, droppin’ a name here, a relation there. “Shirttail relatives” he called ’em, these real or imagined retrievals from the wraith of his memory. And every time he did, which, as I say, was often, my wife would give ’m one of those looks and tap her temple, as if to say: “Old man, you’re crazy.” Not that he was that old, when I look back. It’s just that . . . well, back then, anyone over forty seemed ancient, if y’ know what I mean. . .
We were courtin’ at the time, an’ I s’ppose I was trying to ingratiate myself with her parents. Her mother was easy ’cause of her obsession with Virginia Woolf. Y’see, I was an English minor used to swimming in Woolf’s sea of verbs, adverbs and adjectives. Her old man, on the other hand, . . . well, her old man was more difficult to read.
Why I bothered I couldn’t say. Maybe it was the times or ’cause I never knew my own father or, well, just the way men are made. Baby says men are all alike— I dunno. Part of it, I think—yes, part of it likely is Peggy Lee’s favorite song, “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.” Yuh know,
Someday we’ll build a home
On a hilltop high, you and I,
Shiny and new, a cottage that two can fill.
And we’ll be pleased to be called
The folks who live on the hill….
We used to call ourselves Baby an’ Joe—just like in the song. That was my idea. Going back to Mabel an’ John was hers.
Yuh could say, I s’ppose, I wanted us to be Baby an’ Joe . . . y’ know, the folks who live on the hill. . . I guess I thought—Well, it was more than a thought, really. More like a dream, . . . then a conviction, an’ with time it became a truth that I took to myself an’ have tried to live my life by. I mean—well, what I mean is that somehow Baby an’ I would grow old together an’ end up—what? a real Darby and Joan, yuh could say.
At any rate, when her old man said that, ’bout being related to a big political muckety-muck in Ohio, I went straight out an’ hunted down a copy of the autobiography of James V. Cox. Which, lemme tell yuh, wasn’t easy ’cause, keep in mind, this was well b’fore ’lectronic commerce. But it impressed the old man bigtime—though I had to remind ’m what it was an’ why I got it. . .
Funny, but sometime later he comes to me on the q.t. and, with watery blue eyes full of sleep an’ a palsied smile, he says to me, “I want you to have this,” an’ holds out the book with a shaking hand.
Well, the way he said it, with-with—a kind of prophetic urgency, I didn’t demur or even ask why he wanted me to have the book. I just accepted it. An’ yuh know what? Ever since, I have cherished Journey Through My Years like— well—an’ I know this’ll sound weird— I cherish Journey Through My Years like someone else might safeguard—what? a love letter, yuh could say, or a ticket stub, . . .
perhaps, a romantic pressed flower. Truly.
The odd thing is Baby never expressed any particular affection for her old man. Her mother, on the other hand, she worshiped. But her old man—pish. The note sealed that.
Understand, my wife’s mother was a frustrated poet with, as I say, an obsession with Virginia
Woolf. . . If yuh know Virginia Woolf, yuh’ll get what I’m about to tell yuh.
Here’s the thing—the long an’ short of it, as they say.
One day she walked—my wife’s mother did—she walked out into a lake— not a river, mind you, as Woolf did, but a lake, Lake Mead it was—but with the same effect. . . And, like Woolf, she left a note addressed to her husband, —an’, by the way, I think that’s very decent, don’t you? I mean to leave a note explaining why—y’know, to make sense of it an’ all . . . although, I grantcha, a note itself can raise—
“I have a feeling I shall go mad,” her note read. “I cannot go on any longer in these terrible times. I hear voices and cannot concentrate on my work. I have fought against it but cannot fight any longer. I blame all my unhappiness on you and cannot go on.” Moving, huh?
What if I told you that the note was Virginia Woolf’s? That my wife’s mother, ahem, borrowed her suicide note from Virginia Woolf? ’S a fact.
The last line of the Woolf note,—which, did I mention?, Woolf addressed to her husband,— the last line read, an’ I quote: “I owe all my happiness to you but cannot go on and spoil your life.”. . . A pithy, poetic marriage of affliction and relief. It almost makes one understand why Woolf took her life, doesn’t it? . . . an’ why my wife’s mother was so taken with her. . .
Except—I speak now of my wife’s mother’s note—except for that alteration, hers was identical to Woolf’s.
I never said a word to my wife—well, not until I ran across that “cracked” old man, when, as I say, I say to her, “Get this, Baby. This character in this Sherwood Anderson story—,” an’ she blurts out, with-with I must say a distinct—yes, a distinct shiver of repugnance, “Oh, Sherwood Anderson this, Sherwood Anderson that—and stop calling me Ba—”
“—He says,” I continue on the same note, “he’s a distant cousin of James V. Cox,” then after a pause, “which would make you—”
“What?,” she cuts me short again, “make me what, John?”
“—a distant cousin,” I say, ignoring her tone, which, mind you, is cruel as a winter wind, “a shirttail relative, so to speak, not only of James V. Cox but of the old guy in the story!” O’ course, I don’t let on that the guy’s “cracked,” any more than I have ’bout the note ’cause I’m feeling—what?
protective, you could say—yes, protective, of Baby’s delicate condition.
Well, the lines of her pasty face harden an’ a look of life-hunger washes over it, an’ she goes, with-with lip-biting contempt, yuh could say, she goes, yes with that, she goes, “So, who the hell is James V. Cox?” Imagine!
Well, naturally, I’m a bit miffed, and go, “‘Who the hell is James V. Cox?’” an’ then, “Why,”—an’-an’ I admit here I feel, I do, a kind of senseless anger swelling in my breast—“why, according to your father,—”
“My father, my father,” she stops me, with that, y’know, that exaggerated, high thin cackle of a self-amused alcoholic. “My father,” she goes on, pointing a nervous finger at her temple, “hmff, my father was as mad as a March hare!” Imagine! Then, with a jerking movement that splashes her pale yellow drink all over her plaid flannel nightgown, she crosses her arms and unsteadily holds her elbows, as if to keep herself together.—
Let me say here that for some reason I felt—what? Obliged? Compelled? Let’s just say I felt bound —yes, bound, honor bound even, to defend the old man. ’S why I said what I then said. Not to hurt Baby, understand, but to defend the old man. Why? I don’t know why—any more than I can tell yuh why I felt a need to ingratiate myself with ’m in the first place. But out it tripped, what I said—what, I guess yuh could say, had lain coiled in me like a watch spring for a long time.
“Maybe your old man was barking mad,” ’s what I said, moving to the edge of the rump-sprung recliner, “but your mother was a plagiarist!”
Then, quick to my feet like a boxer at the start of a round, I told the tale of her mother’s valedictory theft, and on the instant I knew that bang!—I’d broken something.
My words cut her like a whip, . . . struck cleanly home with a savage precision that left her on the verge of being shattered. Color left her cheeks an’ waved down her neck. Her jaw closed, . . . her lips quivered, . . . her eyes narrowed. My revelation, in a word, had cracked Baby like an egg shell.
I couldn’t look.
I turned away from her. ’S when I glimpsed a reflected face I hardly recognized amid the sideboard mirror’s black spots. Sun-veined eyes; red blotches of anger; lips parted above yellow an’ white, uneven teeth, an’ sunk in like an old man’s…. An’ there, for a good long throbbing silence we held our places,—me, trying to name the face in the decrepit mirror an’ assign ownership to the bony hand worrying flint-grey pollarded hair; Baby, behind the seamed face, biting meditatively at the cuticle of a thumb, when not sucking her glass dry. Our version, Baby an’ Joe’s, of American Gothic.
—For a space we’re both quiet and waiting.
Then Baby says in a slackened brittle staccato, “I-need-a-bath,” and shambles off in her ratty house slippers, with a limp you just know she carried before she learned to walk.
For a long time after—an’ I’m talking here a very long time—, the bath water whooshes loudly through the walls ’cause, y’see, Baby likes her water hot, really, really hot, an’ it takes a while for it to heat up ’cause we don’t have one of those tankless water heaters an’ the landlord won’t repair the shut-off valves. So, o’course, since I know the water’ll run an’ drum for a long, long time, I’m not thinking much ’bout it, though, frankly, the damp and steamy room is beginning to curl the pages of what I’m reading, which is—get this— Anderson’s “There She Is—She Is Taking Her Bath.”
I say “get this” not only ’cause of the context but—an’ here’s the thing—, ’cause the main character, whose name by the way is John, is asking ’mself exactly what I’m feeling, an’ I mean exactly! “Am I a fool, or am I a man among men?” ’s what John’s asking ’mself, while his wife, whose name, by the way, is Mabel, is taking a bath. . . . An’ John says further: “If I could only decide whether or not I am a fool, a man turned suddenly a little mad, or a man whose honor has been really tampered with, I should be quite all right.” Which is exactly how I’m feeling!
. . . Imagine—a thing like that!
Anyway, sometime later, when the walls are sweating and I’m deep into rereading “Her Bath” ’cause, frankly, it’s blowin’ me away, I see streaming out from under the bathroom door—
Well, naturally, I figure—an’ who wouldn’t?—Baby’s fallen asleep again, which, y’know, hot baths do to her, specially when she’s half gone. But this time is different. This time running out from under the door is a roaring river of red, an’ I mutter through my aching teeth into the sodden air ’cause I know, I just know it!—“Baby’s gone, damn it, she’s gone an’ used my single edge Personna with the extra sharp blade.”
About the Author:
Vincent Barry’s affection for creative writing is rooted in the theatre. More years ago than he prefers to remember, his one-act plays caught the attention of the late Arthur Ballet at the University of Minnesota’s Office for Advanced Drama Research and Wynn Handman at New York’s The American Place Theatre. Some productions followed, as well as a residency at The Edward Albee Foundation on Long Island. Meanwhile, Barry was teaching philosophy at Bakersfield College in California and authoring philosophy textbooks. Now retired from teaching, Barry has returned to his first love, fiction.