Lumpy Gravy (article)

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It has been raining all night. A black car is driving through the damp woods. The wind is blowing and it is chilly outside. We can hear the rain. We cannot hear the car.

There are two people in the car. One of them is dead. He is 19 years old. We can see what is left of his eyes. It is as if some strange, soft instrument had struck them, causing the eyelids to become translucent and gray and swollen. We can barely see the pupils beneath.

His name is Bernie and he used to work on a farm.

It is very late. The silent black car finds its way through a maze of hastily planned streets in a tract of new homes. The Cinderella Gingerbread Wonderland Estates are all empty. The little plywood curlicues on the eaves of each dream castle are splitting and peeling. The stingily spaced nails that hold them on are bleeding rust. The windows are mostly broken. The tract is held together by chicken wire and cheesy strands of cotton string and screaming neon pennants… in every direction from one to another and up and down and sideways; little plastic triangles on those marvelous never-rot cables, from house to house, providing God knows how much necessary structural support.

The silent black car stops at a turquoise house on the corner of Wanda Parkway and Thornhaven Court. The driver gets out and walks slowly to the door of the turquoise house. It is still raining. He opens the buckled plywood door and turns on the living room light. We can see from outside that the turquoise house is furnished. The driver beckons from the doorway. Bernie gets out of the silent black car and walks up the path to the door, carefully avoiding the muddy spots between each uniquely wonderful, hand-cast, circular concrete stepping-stone. We hear some frogs and the rain.

By the light of a lamp shaped like a covered wagon with a bucking bronco painted on the shade, we see the grim face of the driver clearly for the first time. He looks like everyone’s personal image of their father when he gets mad. He speaks: "Bernie… why’d you run away, son?"

Bernie doesn’t look at him. He shuffles his feet a bit and looks around the room at the furniture… through his translucent bulges. He seems to find things just as they were before… the Naugahyde vibrator chair, the three color reproduction of the Grand Canyon in the embossed maple frame over the brown sectional with metallic threads that used to get caught on the buckles of his jacket, the Walnut step-end tables with the old magazines and doilies and the Kleenex box, with the matching mahogany low-boy coffee table with contrasting doilies and book matches from all over in a little brass silent butler. He gets up and goes into the kitchen, silently thinking to himself (and hating to admit it) that it felt good to sit in the old green platform rocker again, but he knew he needed a Coke.

"You want me to really louse you up, kid? What I did to your eyes wasn’t enough for you? You got any idea what that thing could do to your mouth if I used it on you? Why’d you run away, son?"

Bernie nervously gulps his Coca-Cola. It foams within him as he turns to answer: "I dunno, dad… I just dunno. Why'd you have to go and use that thing on my eyes? They hurt sort of… and I feel weird all over." Another hearty snort of his beverage and Bernie continues: "How’d you find me?"

"Don’t ask me questions! I'm askin' the questions! Tell me why you’d run off like that! Wasn’t this a good enough home for you? Everything in here: brand new… we never had brand new stuff before we moved in here! I work my butt off at that place for the government and get enough money to buy all new stuff… new house, new furniture, portable record player… everything like we never had before… and you go work on a farm!"

"I had to, Pop. I missed things the way they used to be when we lived in the country. I missed the animals and everything. I wish you'd never have taken that job in the Alabama plant… then they never would have transferred you here… and I never would of had to run off and get caught… and never have got my eyes hurt. Did Mom buy any baloney this week?"

"It's in there somewhere. You know what I did to your Mom?"

Bernie bites through the tough plastic baloney wrapper with an expertise known only to people who love baloney and hate to get a knife out to cut it open. Years have taught him just where to bite it. We hear the plastic rip and the teeny-weeny “poof” of the vacuum breaking. Bernie takes three slices and rolls them up. While chewing, he says: "Whatdja do to her? Her eyes like me?"

"She wanted me to quit and move back, I got her in the eyes and in the mouth… two weeks ago. She won't do shopping any more so Sharva’s got to do it."

"Sharva buy this? How come she got this brand?"

"She might’ve been worried about you and Mama. It’s hard on a kid seein' her Mama's eyes and mouth like that. I give her a little more for her allowance now. She bought a basket for her bike so she won’t have to carry everything from the supermarket. She makes it in three trips now."

Bernie takes three more slices of baloney and rolls them up, only this time he gets the mustard out and dips them in while he eats them. "Boy, I sure feel funny. I don’t know whether I'm getting sick or I been sick or what. What's her mouth look like?"

"That’s a hell of a thing to ask about! What you think it looks like? It's all puffed up… and grayish-like… and you can sort of see her teeth all the way up to the roots… and both of her eyes are like yours… and she's already made the transition. We get along a lot better now, so don’t you go smartin' off about her! Your transition's due shortly too. I'll teach you your discipline and manners and respect for your elders."


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