DROVE MY CHEVY TO THE LEVEE BUT THE LEVEE WAS DRY
by Beth Goldner
I stole the Jackson Marlowe sculpture, Cattails for Wendy, from the front yard of Jackson’s very own house. The stems were made of rebar that arched up from a steel mount, and the flower heads were vintage apothecary bottles of cobalt blue. I had refused to buy one of Jackson’s sculptures, much to the chagrin of my neighbors. Every other home on our block of Missouri Street had one of his pieces displayed on their front lawn. Buzz about the sculptures began popping up on Internet travel sites years before, and locals and out-of-towners alike came to see the splendor known as Marlowe’s Block. When I stole Cattails for Wendy, I had one goal in mind, which was to successfully hoist it into my Chevy Suburban, drive it to the levee on Second Street, and push it, unnoticed by anyone, into the Kansas River. I wanted to make it clear to Jackson that he was, indeed, correct in his observation: I was brave.
Jackson paints bicycle handlebars and hubcaps and soda cans in shades of red and green and yellow. He glues and saws and drills and torches, crafting kitschy pieces, like a poodle made of a motorcycle seat covered in bike gears, its paw holding a leash tied to children fashioned out of toothbrushes. My next-door neighbor has a peacock whose feathers are overlapping soup can lids painted blue and purple and silver. Clint, the man I love but refuse to marry, owns a Marlowe piece: two roosters made of corrugated steel, standing under a chuppah made of chain-link fence. I care for Clint, please him in bed, tell him he is handsome. I make him go to the doctor even though he said going to the doctor does nothing but make a person sick. What I needed from him was to be needed, but that alone does not make for sustaining love.
Missouri Street borders the University of Kansas. Our houses are a hodge-podge of cottages and bungalows in various states of ruin or shine. Most were built from mail-order kits sold by Sears Roebuck during the 1930s. Neighbors would work together to construct the houses, which had up to thirty thousand pieces in a kit. It was this approach that made Jackson a hit in the town of Lawrence: being communal was in its very DNA. Clint was always insulted when I called our town provincial. Just because you’ve traveled the world doesn’t give you the right to judge those who haven’t, he’d say. The thing is, I haven’t just traveled the world. I have lived in the world. I am a nurse and have worked for HealthSave Christian Ministries for twenty-five years. Although I’m agnostic, HealthSave requires only that I care about God’s people, which I do. In my mid-twenties, I married the wrong man, a HealthSave doctor, but did the right thing by having two sons. I raised them well, if a bit haphazardly. When my husband and I split, we bought two homes in Lawrence. He settled into an orthopedic practice, caring for the boys when I took assignments in Belarus and Honduras and Laos. Although I find pleasures in the smallness of Lawrence, I stand by what I do not like, and I do not like Jackson’s kitschy art, so I would not be bullied, silently or otherwise, to put a piece of nailed and stapled trash on my front yard.
Jackson’s girlfriend, Wendy, was the only person with the guts to confront me. It was easy to ignore my neighbors who, with just their eyes, said, I know this sculpture thing is ridiculous, but give it up already and buy one so we can make it into Frommer’s. Wendy is all of twenty-six years old. She is prematurely graying but wears it, along with her short chunky thighs and broad nose and small breasts, with such confidence that she draws the stares—the good kind—from every man in a room.
“I just don’t get why you’re holding out, Anne,” she said.
Clint and I were at Jackson and Wendy’s having a late dinner. Despite my refusal to buy a sculpture, I was still invited to dinner parties and cookouts. Wendy had swept into Jackson’s life and stayed. Before her, a revolving door of women flowed in and out of his home. Jackson is tall, and skinny as if diseased. He has a long beard, which looks odd next to his crew cut. He was in Vietnam, and he said the crew cut was his way of carrying that time with him. Tattoos announce pain and courage, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I only need to announce it to myself, he had said to me. I asked him why he even told me that, and he said he knew I’d understand the imprint of time spent in other countries, that people on our block only know how to vacation when they traveled.
“What do you mean I’m ‘holding out?’” I asked Wendy, knowing exactly what she meant, but wanting to see what was going to come out of her flighty mouth.
“Oh, Anne. We’re one lawn, your lawn, from getting our block in Better Homes and Gardens. Didn’t Jackson tell you they called?”
Wendy nudged at Jackson’s ribs. Clint looked down at his plate. Jackson glared at Wendy.
“Nobody told me nothing,” I said.
“You really should buy one. Jackson will even give you a discount at this point. Right, Jackson?”
“Please, Wendy. Stop,” Jackson said, looking directly at me.
Things rarely made me uncomfortable. I had held infants in Calcutta with burn wounds across their body from falling into an open fire while their mothers cooked. There would be lines of people behind that baby. Cholera and vaginal fistulas caused by giving birth too young, and AIDS and boils and carbuncles, such a long line of humanity that my team could never relieve from suffering during the few months we spent at any given ram-shack clinic. It seemed the countries all blended together. Holding out on my neighborhood was almost amusing.
“Sorry about that,” Jackson said to me, as if Wendy wasn’t even there.
“No need to apologize,” I said with a shrug.
Wendy was drunk, yet she carried it well because she was a happy drunk—but, mostly, because she was young. She moved her chair closer to Jackson’s and put her elbows on the table, staring at me and ready to speak.
“Different subject, honey,” Jackson said.
“Okay. I get it. No, I don’t get it. But, you’re right, new subject. Okay, how about this. Anne, I think we should go shopping together. For clothes.”
“You have a lovely figure, and good taste. Everything about you is lovely, actually. But you don’t show enough. You shouldn’t be wearing stuff you’re too old for or anything. It’s important to be classy, but you don’t want to be too classy. You know what I mean?”
“No, I don’t know what you mean.”
I looked at Jackson. His eyes lingered on my shoulders. The previous summer, at a block party, when both of us were drunk but not very drunk, Jackson told me if he were a painter, he’d paint the curve of my shoulders, how they sloped so perfectly that one’s palm could rest comfortably on them regardless of the angle or approach. I’d paint them on canvas, and then directly on your shoulders. All of those colors, he said. I had just turned fifty, and it was the greatest compliment a man had ever given me about my body. Jackson was the only person in the entire town who didn’t care whether or not I bought a sculpture of his. It made me hate him, for if he were an arrogant artist, I would question his comment about my perfect shoulders and thus not take the compliment so deep to heart. It would be easier to think he was full of shit.
“You need to update yourself,” Wendy said. “You don’t look a day past forty-five. I hope I look as good as you when I’m your age.”
“How old you think I am?” I asked, and I didn’t know if I should laugh or throw my knife at her.
“Fifty-six? Maybe, fifty-seven?”
And everybody but Wendy became a statue, a recycled old thing that does not blink or question. Wendy went to the kitchen for more wine.
Kayla, my rep from HealthSave had called me that day about my application for a two-month mission in Tajikistan. They needed a team of nurses for a hygiene campaign in the city of Dushanbe. She said the underwriters still hadn’t approved it. Since my time in Yemen two years before, my blood pressure had shot up. This was an unresolvable disconnect for me: I climbed Half Dome the previous spring with my younger son, Gavin. I had an excellent diet, kept stress at a minimum. I did cardio. Yoga. Pilates. Yogilates. But bad genetics are bad genetics and high blood pressure is high blood pressure, regardless of effective pharmaceuticals. I joked that I never thought I’d be too old to help. It’s not an age thing, Kayla said. It’s a liability thing.
Wendy came back, poured wine into her glass, and passed the bottle to Jackson to serve us.
“Anne, I’ve decided that we’re going to the mall tomorrow to shop. Just you and me. At high noon.”
“Honey, you may be young and recover quickly, but you won’t be in any shape to go anywhere tomorrow at high noon,” Jackson said to Wendy, and he and Clint laughed.
Clint and I had been together for a year, and he had been getting antsy. At our age, you don’t need to date for three years to decide whether to tie the knot, he said. He had presented me with a ring. Twice. And both times I told him I just don’t know what I know some days. I’d wake up next to him and think about how he didn’t snore, how he never asked if I needed a sweater but he’d sense I was cold and bring me one, how he stayed out of my way if he saw a certain look on my face but would ask me if I’m alright if he knew he should. Other days, I would only love him like a brother who would protect me. When I thought of Tajikistan, I worried that I wouldn’t miss him. It felt as if I took turns loving him in different ways, and I told him this. Marriage or no marriage, Clint said if I went to Tajikistan, I’d be making it clear which way I loved him the most.
I walked out of Jackson’s dining room, out of the house, and in the distance I heard Clint and Jackson calling for me to come back. I locked my front door, got in bed. I ignored Clint banging on my door, hollering, Anne, she’s just a drunk kid. Just let me in. Please. Just let me in.
The next day I went to Jackson’s house and rang the doorbell. I wore a black turtleneck with pearls, gabardine pants, a London Fog raincoat cinched tightly. The skies looked ominous.
Jackson opened the door.
“Is Wendy ready?” I asked.
“I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear that she’s still sleeping.”
“Can you wake her up? She said high noon. It’s high noon.”
He motioned me in.
“Anne, really, she was drunk. She didn’t know what she was saying.”
“She knew exactly what she was saying.”
“She can be a bit much, I know, but please don’t be offended.”
I didn’t want to be offended. I didn’t want to go shopping. I just didn’t want Wendy to be right. I felt wobbly and wondered if it was Jackson’s hardwood floors, which were a mess with swells and dips. Scratches lined the white walls from Jackson moving sculptures from the basement to the outside. Jackson had blue paint on his hands and across his eyebrow. He was deaf in his left ear from artillery fire, and he spoke so softly that everything he said took on an air of intensity.
“Anne, you are beautiful in a way that Wendy will never be. She will never see the world. She has a perfect heart, but she’s limited. She’s not like you. She’s not brave.”
He took my arm and brought me to the door of their basement.
“When are you going to buy one of my pieces?”
He smiled, but I couldn’t tell if he was joking.
“Why is that?” he said, laughing.
“Because I don’t like your art.”
“See,” he said, grinning. “This is what I’m talking about. You are brave.”
“I don’t know how not buying your artwork makes me brave.”
Jackson’s ego was made of solid ground, but the slight drop of his face made me suspect there were a few sinkholes.
“I love how you say whatever you want.”
“I’m brave because I go to third-world countries, Jackson. Not because I’m honest. You shouldn’t deem being mouthy as a virtue.”
“Come downstairs,” he said, his voice even but cold. “I want to show you what I’m working on.”
I cinched my belt tighter.
“You shouldn’t be so stubborn, Anne.”
He took my hand, looked up at the ceiling, and closed his eyes. Then he walked us into the kitchen. He pounded on the table so fast and hard that the walls vibrated. I waited for Wendy to come running downstairs, but she didn’t. Jackson counted aloud to twenty, then led me downstairs into the basement, and he kept the light dim, and I couldn’t see how beautiful he believed I was, but I believed him.
For the next three months, I went to Jackson’s basement, which felt like the terrain of a third-world country. Tin sheets from old roofs stacked in a corner, water leaks through the cinderblock walls, rusty soot, empty CD cases piled on a table made of plywood, an array of corroded tools. We found places there, sacred spots, or we’d create them. At certain angles, his jawline showed the vulnerability of a boy, probably the frightened one he was in Vietnam. Imagine hundreds of bodies, he said. What I saw at Cu Nghi was what no kid should see, or do. And even though I’d seen hundreds of bodies in states of inhuman disrepair, I said nothing, only listened. At other angles, his face looked worn and tired. He was more than a decade older than me and I was more than two decades older than Wendy, and this equation made for a perfectly calibrated scale. When I was with Jackson, everything was in balance. I went to his house only on weekdays, when Wendy was at work. And after that first day in the basement, I called Kayla and told her I couldn’t go to Tajikistan anyway, even if my blood pressure no longer mattered.
And then one day at high noon, when I always went to Jackson’s, when I cared about nothing more than this one small area of this whole town, I knocked on the door and Wendy answered. She and I had not crossed paths since everything began. I was avoiding her, and even declined a dinner invitation. She stood there smiling, a diamond on her ring finger, her belly slightly round. She must be almost four months along, I thought. She didn’t look surprised or curious to see me but instead centered, as if her world was in the best place it could be—and it was. I babbled words that I could not recognize but at the end of this babbling I had asked to buy one of Jackson’s sculptures.
“Oh, Anne. God, Jackson will be thrilled.”
She took my arm and pulled me inside, telling me I needed to see her wedding dress, explaining she had no morning sickness, that the wedding would be in the front yard, and she didn’t care if people judged her for being pregnant while taking vows.
“It’s a magical time,” she said. “A magical time.”
It had been two weeks since I’d seen Wendy and her dress, and I hadn’t taken any of Jackson’s calls. I showed up at his house one morning when I knew Wendy would be at work.
“I want to buy the cattails piece,” I said.
To have a sculpture would be to have a large puzzle put together and I’d no longer be a missing piece, just part of the background. I could stay glued until I became unglued and when I became unglued I’d have to leave. It was that simple.
“Why haven’t you returned my calls?” he asked.
“There’s nothing to talk about. I want to buy the cattails piece.”
He had shown me the piece while it was in progress. I had told him it was the only thing he ever made that looked like art, the simplicity of just blue glass and steel.
“I can’t sell that piece. I can show you some other stuff,” he said, inviting me into the house.
“I want the cattails.”
His face was a sheet of calm.
“It’s not for sale,” he said.
“But that’s the one I love. It’s the only thing I’ll buy from you.”
“It’s a wedding present for Wendy.”
I went home and sat at the kitchen table until the sky darkened. The University had built a new gym across the alley and I could see inside its big glass windows, the boys in karate class kicking their legs, yelling yells I could not hear. Students jogged on the upstairs track that overlooked the basketball court and, as they ran around and around, I was lulled by the young girls in neon pink sneakers and matching shorts, big ponytails waving back and forth, so certain and fluid.
Jackson and Wendy married in their front yard under the sycamore tree. Jackson looked petrified and Wendy kept squeezing his hand in reassurance. I own the world, her eyes seemed to say. Clint helped Jackson place the sculpture on the lawn after the reception, when the caterers were stacking folding chairs and clearing tables. It had rained for days before the wedding, and both men muddied their shoes and cuffs. Jackson and Wendy were leaving for their honeymoon the next morning. They were driving an hour away to Kansas City. Wendy wasn’t too far along to fly, but she was frightened about the possibility of something going wrong with the baby while they were away, of having to suddenly see a doctor she didn’t know. Especially if we went overseas, she said. If the doctor didn’t speak English, I wouldn’t really know what was going on, you know?
“At least we’re going somewhere,” she said. “The Intercontinental Kansas City at the Plaza. It’s five stars! I know, we’re not even leaving the state or anything, but we’re still getting away.”
“Kansas City is in Missouri,” I said to her.
Clint pinched my arm, and Wendy’s eyes widened.
“What?” she said.
“Kansas City is also in Kansas,” Clint said, pinching my arm a second time. “There are two Kansas City’s. But, they’re next to each other. A state line divides them. The one you’re going to is in Missouri. It’s confusing.”
I waited to see her bloom with embarrassment, but instead she shrugged her shoulders.
“Oh, well,” she smiled. “At least somebody knows where I’m going on my honeymoon.”
She and Clint laughed.
The next morning, I stood on my porch and watched a large family—grandparents with children and small grandchildren—walk down the street, taking pictures of each lawn. As the family reached Jackson’s house, the door opened and Clint walked out. He was staying at their home while they honeymooned, taking care of their two pugs. I reached my hand out, as if Clint were close enough for me to touch. He walked into the street and talked to the adults. They swiveled, pointing at other houses. Twenty minutes passed and they still talked. I had been standing there the whole time, my arms covered in goose bumps. They can’t see me, I thought. How is that possible? Then Clint looked up. A big grin spread across his face and he waved his arm, beckoning me to him. I didn’t move, and I waited for Clint to excuse himself from the group, to cross the street, ask me if I was okay. Instead he put his arm down. He turned back to the group and after a few more minutes of talking, he walked into Jackson and Wendy’s house without looking back.
With the sculpture in my backseat, I headed north on Route 59 toward the Lawrence Visitors Center, which was across the street from the levee. When I turned west onto Second Street, the sun hit me like a slap. I focused on the yellow dividing lines to avoid driving into another car. Kansas is much like the desert, with nothing to block the sun or diffuse its rays. I parked in the lot of the Visitors Center and waited, making my way through a pack of stale gum I found in my glove compartment. I stuck a chewed piece on a cattail bottle each time the flavor wore out. At eleven o’clock, the Dipper had made its way past the North Star, and there were nine missed calls on my cell phone, all from Clint. I drove my car right up against the Lawrence Levee Trail, a footpath that runs on top of the levee, and a place where, during the day, people walked their dogs or jogged. The actual levee is just a steep hill of rocks that leads into the river. I pulled the sculpture out of my backseat, dragging it to the edge of the footpath by the stems. I gave it a big push and it tumbled down the hill, bottles breaking against the rocks, and then came to a halt a few feet shy of the river. I scooted down the levee on my bottom to stay balanced, kicking the sculpture inch by inch until it finally went into the cold waters.
Please let it sink, I thought. And it did.
In the moonlight, I searched for big pieces of the glass, cutting my hand as I found them. The glass pieces had my gum on it and my gum had my DNA on it and what if there was an investigation? What if this was a crime that was really a crime? Jackson would get to determine what happens next and how much weight this would all have. Everything is in his hands now, I thought.
On the south side of campus, a massive steam whistle is situated on the power plant that generates electricity for the university. Since 1912, the whistle blows at ten to the hour, every hour, to signal a class change. It sounds like both a train and a barbaric howl. It was early morning, and I was in the kitchen using tissues and duct tape to jerry-rig a bandage for my hand, which was still bleeding. The steam whistle blew as a perfect announcement to Clint walking into the kitchen. I never locked my door, and Clint never knocked.
“What the fuck did you do with the sculpture, Anne?” he asked, standing in the kitchen entrance.
I had never heard him use that word before, and he delivered it with such calm, his voice deep. For the first moment since I stole the sculpture—for the first time in years—I felt frightened.
“He saves trash. That’s all, Clint,” I said, my voice trembling. “Do you know that I once saved a baby from the trash? It was in Bangladesh and there was a baby in the gutter, right there in shit and dirty water. Do you understand what his trash versus my trash is all about, how you have to be careful about how you use that word?”
“So your solution is to steal the trash?”
“No. I just put it where it belonged.”
Clint shook his head and took the duct tape from my hand. The tissues were soaked, stuck in the wound. He sat me at the table and worked silently.
“Did you call the cops?” I asked.
“Do you think somebody saw you?”
“You didn’t answer my question. Did you call the cops?”
“Obviously you broke it, but the question is, how bad? And where is it?”
“It’s irretrievable,” I said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I can’t get it back.”
“You are making this so impossible. Am I supposed to lie for you, Anne? Is that what you are asking me to do?”
“I can’t tell you what to do about anything,” I said.
“I think I might have to stop loving you. I might just have to try, at least.”
The bleeding wouldn’t stop. Before taking me to the emergency room, Clint sat us on the couch, and he held my face, and then put his hands on my knees and smelled my hair and just kept saying, Christ, Anne, Christ. I lost track of time and then the whistle blew, and he asked me again where the sculpture was, and we just waited until we heard the whistle again.
When we returned from the emergency room, I took a nap on the couch. I dreamt the police arrived and they questioned me while I was on the couch, flat on my back not moving. My body was frozen but I could speak: Maybe some students stole it. Why would I do something like that? You can’t prove anything. I’m so tired, you understand? Have you been to Tajikistan? Do you even know where Tajikistan is, officer? I awoke and looked for Clint. I found him in my bedroom, asleep, his shoes neatly placed next to my end table. He’s a heavy sleeper, and he didn’t stir when I walked into the room. I wondered if this was what he would look like when he was dead, slack jawed, limp wristed. I tried to picture Jackson dead. I couldn’t imagine him dying with his body fully intact. I imagined Jackson, simply by the nature of his bending material to make something new, as a man who would be physically marred when all was said and done. Over the years, so many of the dead I saw were young, and it was wrong and unfair. So even though I could, I would never allow myself to picture Wendy dead.
The whistle blew. Clint didn’t wake up. If I walked away, the last picture in my mind in Lawrence would be peaceful. Clint’s car was in the driveway behind mine. The path of least resistance, which felt so important, was to take my purse, Clint’s keys, and head to Kansas City, to find Jackson on his honeymoon, to show him my stitches and to pull blue shards of glass from my jacket pocket and give them to Wendy with an apology that was sincere, to explain to both of them that my bravery had only begun, that I was going to Tajikistan, high blood pressure or not, with a mission or not, and that I was headed to the airport next, the one in Kansas City, Missouri, not to be confused with Kansas City, Kansas, and that I would be in those dank slums but wear pearls underneath my scrubs.
About the Author:
Beth Goldner is the author of Wake: Stories and The Number We End Up With: a Novel, both published by Counterpoint Press. Her work has been well received by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review, New York Times, and Boston Globe. She has published many short stories, her most recent in Westview, Baltimore Review and Northern Virginia Review (in press). She lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia.