Sunday, January 6, 2008

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Chapter Seven

I wrote earlier of how Rae arrived in Covington, Kentucky, at the age of fifteen with a stake of twelve hundred fifty dollars, given her by a man who promised her five hundred more. The man was Lyle Burris, the third in a series of stepfathers. From everything Rae has told me about Burris, it is clear that he was the most influential. He also, according to Rae, was the only one of the stepfathers whom Rae's mother left. All the others bailed out on her, leaving her variously pregnant, in debt, and in one notably tense situation Rae's mother had been left as forfeit to a loanshark.

From the stories Rae told me and the two photographs she had of her mother, Estella Perkens was a remarkably attractive woman, her hair radiant with the dark rufous gloss of a raven's wing, her profile--especially her chin--and her deep-set eyes and prominent brow line seemingly etched in minute detail. Not a notably tall woman, Estella had the ability to appear proud and alert even after a day of work that would have put most women to rout.

"Mother had a clear, alabaster skin," Rae once told me, "which was miraculous considering some of the things we had to eat when things were bad and some of the things she liked to eat when things were good."

Although not as overtly striking as her mother, Rae inherited some of Estella's looks and physical presence. In one notable way, both were quite alike: Men as a matter of course would want to touch them. An old Chinese curse wishes you to live in interesting times. Because of their very presence, Rae and Estella live in volatile times.

Some of the most volatile of these times began for Estella when Sonny Perkens lit out on her after running up bills of over four thousand dollars in The Chicken Shack, a failed venture where residents of Harlan County, Kentucky, could get fried chicken (dark meat or white), which if unhealthy because of being cooked in transfats was legal, get quart-sized Mason jars filled with a pellucid liquid testing out at one hundred eighty proof, place bets on horse races and basketball games, get their sexual preferences (dark meat or white) attended to, all of which activities were not legal.

Estella sold as many of her household furnishings as she could, loaded Rae and four-year-old Jason into a Chevrolet Imperial that had been bought for sixty dollars--thirty of it down, thirty to come, with the implicit promise of a date with Jimmie Macomb of Harlan Chevrolet, new and used cars, as a consideration to cover tax, license fees, and carrying charges--and left town just ahead of the creditors.

In Lexington, Estella met Lyle Burris by accident in a supermarket. After spending nearly all her available cash a a down payment on a small apartment for herself, Rae, and Jason, Estella had obligated herself to dates with the landlord until the balance of the first and last month's rent could be secured. With only enough cash for a large box of powdered milk, a sack of corn meal mix, and a few vegetables for a soup, Estella had just shoplifted a rump roast when she met Lyle.

The chemistry between them was immediate as the chemistry between Rae and me when I sat next to her on that flight from Tri-Cities to Atlanta. In addition to having immediate qualities Estella found lacking in the landlord, Lyle had a house big enough that there were rooms in it he hadn't used, and he had money from working two jobs.

Lyle wa a tall man with stoop shoulders, dark hair that parted in the middle of a large, bony head, and long, spatulate hands. He was the sort of man who put catsup on his eggs--which at first disgusted Rae--and was always offering you what he considered choice portions from his own plate.

Unlike some of the men Rae had seen in her mother's life, Lyle Burris grew nicer and funnier the more he drank, sometimes coming into Rae and Jason's room to rearrange the bedside lamps for maximum advantage as he performed shadow plays, using his dexterous hands to cast a variety of whimsical forms on the wall, animating them further with his high-pitchd nasal twang.

Sometimes after Burris was moderately drunk, Rae would hear him in the nxt room, laughing or using his special voices, and at first she thought he was putting on a shadow play for Estella, but when Rae asked her mother if Lyle was indeed putting on shadow plays for her, Estella released an exasperated sigh. "You're old enough to know better than that." Giving this some additional thought, Estella told her, "You're old enough to be wanting some of your own pretty soon, but don't you go complicating things for me, you hear?"

When Rae nodded, Estella pressed the point. "You know what I mean already, don't you?"

"You don't want me teasing Lyle until he gets acting silly."

Rae remembers how Estella drew her in for a hug, kissed the top of her head, and gave her a quarter. "That's exactly right honey. I don't want you to tease Lyle. I surely, surely don't."

After a year of living with Burris, Estella had his number pretty well. He liked his Wild Turkey or George Dickel, but could hold it tolerably well, was more likely to become maudlin and sentimental rather than violet or destructive when drunk, and rarely lost more than fifty dollars at a poker game.

If there were any quirks to Burris's behavior that were likely to irritate Estella, they were his tendency to take household appliances apart with the intention of fixing them (and seldom doing so) and an irrepressible appetite for flea markets and garage sales, from which he was always bringing home bizarre-looking lamps--for one birthday present, Rae was given a reading lamp with a stuffed owl as a base--and plaster-of-paris lawn decorations in the form of birds and animals. It was true that Lyle had an eye for women, but Estella kept him well worn.

Neither Rae nor Jason were surprised on the day Lyle brought home a large corrugated cardboard box, redolent of the smell of barbecued chicken parts, roasted corn, and rib slabs from Jake's in the black section of town and, as they picnicked on the trestle table in the back yard, amid statues of penguins, flamingoes, water fowl, and geese, Lyle rapped the side of a Hires root beer bottle with his fork. "Attention, everyone. I have an announcement to make." Although Rae was barely thirteen at the time, she was not surprised to note that Estella had managed to cast her eyes downward, then blush.

"Your mother and I," Lyle said with a sweep of his arm that seemed to include all of them, "have decided to make this a real family."

"Does that mean momma is going to have another baby?" Jason asked.

"Eat your ribs, son," Estella suggested.

As things turned out, Jason's guess was accurate, not only about Willis, who was born seven months after Estella and Lyle married, but in his future surmises about Andrew and Katie, the half-brother and -sister Estella would subsequently bear in two future marriages.

Estella and Lyle were married in that menagerie of a back yard, to which Lyle had added a pair of rose trellises, a large concrete bird bath, and a fountain with the figure of a Botticelli Venus that occasionally squirted water several feet beyond its base. The ceremony was performed by a preacher who moonlighted for the same multi-level cosmetics and personal toiletries vendor as Lyle, and Rae remembers there being close to fifty persons present to drink a spiked Kool-Ade punch, eat barbecue from Jake's, and careen about the yard, bumping into one another, pretending to dance with plaster and terra-cotta birds, and bursting into spontaneous a cappella renditions of "Stand by Your Man."

After a year and a half of marriage to Estella, Lyle knocked respectfully at Rae's door. (She had her own room by then.) When she bade him enter, he stumbled drunkenly, and made for the edge of her bed. "I can't take it no more," he told her.

Rae, who had with great calculation lost her virginity to a man of about Lyle's age some six months earlier, remained silent, estimating the amount of time she could remain at home.

"I'm like the Wizard of Oz, Rae. Not a bad man, just weak is all." He watched her for a response, "I've had impure thoughts all my life, but they never once got me in trouble." Tears began streaming down his face as he regarded her. "You probably know all there is to know about men by now, anyway."

Rae knew enough not to say anything.

"Do you have any money saved?"

For the first time since he'd entered, Rae nodded. "I've been saving."

"That's good, Honey. That's real good." Burris fumbled in his pocket for a wad of bills, They were mostly fifties and hundreds. "There's fifteen, maybe sixteen hundred here. You got to take this and go now. I'll send you another five hundred, more if I can, to General Delivery in Cincinnati. But you got to be the one to go. I thought it all out. If I went, it would effect four people. If you go--"

Rae reached to pat his hand. "It's okay. I was going to go pretty soon, anyway."

"The thing that makes it hard--" Shaking his head in frustration, Burris began to redden. "I didn't mean to have it sound like that. The thing that makes this difficult is you're like my own flesh and blood."

It had been close to three on a blustery gray afternoon when Burris had lumbered into her room. Rae sat with him, holding his hand until the shadows lengthened and evening darkness came on.

"I got two bits of advice for you," Burris said when they both heard Estella return home from grocery shopping. "Whatever happens, you keep up with your reading. They say Emma Bovary, she got into all that trouble because she believed what she read." He shook his shaggy head. "She got into trouble because she didn't read enough."

Rae stood, drawing him to his feet. "There's momma back," she said.

"Leave her a nice note, you understand? Whenever you leave someplace for good, you leave a nice note behind you."

Rae nodded.

"Your Daddy Lyle isn't a bad man, Audrey Rae. Don't you be remembering him like this."

1 comment:

R.L. Bourges said...

I'm going to have to read that one many, many times before leaving any comment other than a nod to the ancient Chinese curse. And to the writer's superior skills as a weaver. Hunter/gatherer I had already noticed. I hadn't paid as close attention to the weaving technique.
Estella, hm? the part that's got my hairs up this time is Daddy Lyle.( I've got to do something about the wiring around my place - I keep triggering the alarm system everywhere I go. Got to get a dog.