When Johnson Meechum came up the three steps of his purple double-wide trailer and opened the front door, his wife, Mabel, was waiting for him, her thin hands clenched on her hips, her tinted hair standing from her scalp in a tiny blue cloud. He could look right through the hair to her freckled skull.
He made a small adjustment of the .22-caliber target pistol stuck in the small of his back, behind his belt. He didn't even know why he wore it there. It was not as though she wasn't aware he took it with him when he went out in the morning. She knew everything about him. He knew everything about her. Everything. It was very nearly unbearable at times. He often wondered where all the surprises and lovely secrets had gone. He sometimes felt like he'd be willing to open a vein for one tiny surprise, for one inconsequential secret.
It was terrible to know the most excruciatingly intimate details about her person. He even knew the stink she left in the bathroom was inexplicably tinged with the fragrance of almonds. He had no idea why, but it was. And it had taken him the first two years of marriage to discover that she was capable of leaving a foul odor of any kind anywhere. Nothing stank during those first two years of marriage. Now, after sixty years together, everything stank. Even her age, which she wore like a moldy overcoat, stank of mortality. And he supposed he wore the same stinking overcoat, but if he did, he did everything to resist it, by keeping himself washed down in cologne. Mabel wore nothing, not even face powder. She either had no pride left or had just totally given up on everything.
Johnson didn't know, and he was ashamed to ask. But he could smell her fifteen feet away even if he had a bad head cold. That's why he had taken to sleeping on a blanket on the floor. He told her it was for his bad back, but it was really because of the ripe, almond-tainted effluvium that hovered everywhere about her and the sweat that she never seemed quite able to dig out of the creases and folds of her body. Consequently, she seemed to be covered with the coppery odor of impending death.
The thing that frightened Johnson the most was that he knew he must have his own odor of putrefaction, which no amount of cologne would ever cover. For years now, he had feared the stink of death worse than he had feared death itself. It kept him in a state of grinding humiliation and caused him to do inexplicable things like shoot the swamp every morning with his .22-caliber target pistol.
He went around her into the kitchen. She didn't seem to be blinking, or breathing either, for that matter. But she followed him into the kitchen and watched him silently draw a glass of water from the tap. She was close enough now -- right behind his left shoulder -- that he could hear and smell her ragged Camel breathing (only another odor she carried as though she had been born with it, and since she had been born with it, it was another stink she would be buried with). Johnson had quit smoking five years before, but he still thought he could smell a fine mist of tobacco on his skin.
He knew without turning to look that she still had her marble-size, arthritic knuckles planted firmly on her hips. She was about to tell him she had heard him outside. And he was going to respond by saying...well, he knew how he was going to respond.
"I heard you outside," she said.
"It doesn't matter," he said.
"Did anybody see you?"
"Nobody sees much of anything in Forever and Forever."
"That's not what I asked you."
"That's what I told you, though."
There was a silence now while they listened to the fake grandfather clock ticking above the stove. It was made in Taiwan. It sometimes seemed to Johnson that everything these days was made in Taiwan.
Mabel took her deformed fists off her hips and held her open hands in front of her, turning them first this way and then that, inspecting them as though they were something she thought she might buy.
"Do you remember when the sky was blue?" she said.
"Yes, I remember when the sky was blue," he said.
This was code talk they had between them. He couldn't remember how long they had talked of so many things in code. Code made conversation somehow less painful.
When she asked him if he remembered when the sky was blue, she was only asking if he remembered when they still loved each other. And, yes, he did. He did remember.
From far away, a siren started. It was coming this way.
"Another one," he said.
"Maybe not," she said. She was far more optimistic than he in these matters.
"It's another one," he said. "It's been a while. We're due for a turnover." That's what they called it when one of the residents of Forever and Forever passed. Nobody seemed to know how the phrase had started, but it sounded appropriate, at least to everybody but Mabel.
She frowned and said, "I'll not comment on that."
"Good," he said.
"Sometimes you say the meanest things," she said.
"All I said was 'Good,'" he said, but he knew what she meant.
They stood very still as the approaching siren came nearer. At the broad street under the arch reading FOREVER AND FOREVER, the siren shut down, and both Johnson and Mabel knew.
"I guess you were right," she said.
"I guess," he said, drawing another glass of water from the tap.
They saw the ambulance cruise past, the siren dead, the blinking lights off. No lights or sirens were allowed inside Forever and Forever. When the wagon came to pick up one of the residents, it had to come in quietly. It was an arrangement that Stump, the owner of Forever and Forever, had worked out with the company that had the hauling contract. Stump had many arrangements, and no lights or sirens on the ambulance once it was inside the trailer park was one of them. He never explained why.
He never explained much of anything. Why he called his place of business Forever and Forever was a puzzlement. But he never explained that either. He was not a man who seemed to care much about anything, particularly what people thought. Actually, what people thought of him and the way he did things seemed to be tight at the head of the list of things he cared least about.
When a problem was brought to him, he would look off toward the far horizon -- and all the horizons were far here in south Florida -- and say, "Me and my stump don't give much of a good goddam about that."
The stump he was talking about was what was left of his right arm, which stopped below the elbow, near the wrist, in a bright mangle of purple scar. There was much speculation about how he'd come to have the stump in the first place, but nobody had ever found out. And Stump had never been known to say a word about it. The few people who had been dumb enough to ask about it -- usually old parties who had recently moved into Forever and Forever -- had only got a blank stare that looked right through them. The look was such that they never asked again.
Nor did anybody ask about Stump's wife -- or at least everybody chose to think she was his wife, because that felt more seemly to the residents, and for the same reason they never privately or publicly commented on the fact that her name was Too Much. She said she was eighteen and might very well have been -- they were willing to give her that but she would have looked fourteen if she had not had...well, too much. Her titties were cantilevered at an impossible angle, and the unbelievable cheeks of her ass chewed constantly and voraciously at her cut-off Levi's, which were much too tight and much, much too short.
And she scratched. That's one of the things she did. Scratched. She never seemed to tire of it. And she not only never seemed to tire of it, she could stay longer and get deeper into the most intimate places than any of the old people could imagine. It shamed, angered, and outraged them. Consequently, they never stopped staring at her when she was outside by the pool or the shuffleboard courts or bending to water the flowers planted about the trailer park. She could bend and scratch at the same time and often did.
Mabel and Johnson, standing at the sink, turned to watch the ambulance slide silently past in the street.
"Who do you think?" asked Mabel.
"I don't know that it matters."
"It's a wonder to me," said Mabel, "that ambulances don't get lost in this place. I've been in towns smaller than Forever and Forever. How they find whoever they're looking for or don't get lost and can't find their way out has always been a mystery to me. Especially way on the back side, where the streets are as crooked as a dog's hind leg."
"Oh, it's happened," said Johnson. "Was a time when it happened a lot, but I understand the company that's got the hauling rights came in here and made their own map, numbering the trailers, so that they could find who they were looking for. I'd bet the shoes I'm standing in that nobody living in this place has ever been on every street in it."
"Oh, I think Stump probably has."
"Stump is the last one that would have walked all the streets of the park he owns. He only wants a quiet, uncomplicated place for himself to live and a quiet, uncomplicated place for the rest of us to die."
"That was an unfortunate thing to say, Johnson, very unfortunate. You've gone off your game. If you'd quit shooting that swamp every morning, things might improve for you and for me. You know people are starting to talk, don't you?"
"I'm just like Stump -- I don't give a lot of thought to what people say."
"Stump's got one up on you, old man. At least he owns Forever and Forever, which has got to be bigger than some farms I've seen."
"I've got both arms, though. It all evens out."
"He may not have but one arm, but he's got Too Much."
"Too Much is exactly what he's got, truth be known."
"What would you know about the truth? Shooting a swamp like you do every morning. Shooting swamps is not normal. They lock people away for doing stuff like that."
"No. People get locked away for walking out the front door naked because they forgot to put their clothes on. That's the kind of thing that will get you locked up. As long as you can get to the grocery, cook, wash your clothes, and make sure to wear them when you go out, nobody's going to mess with you. And shooting the swamp? That's nothing, absolutely nothing. And someday I'll give that son of a bitch the coup de grâce. See if I don't."
"See, that right there is crazy."
"Wrong again. That's just eccentric."
Mabel put her hands back on her hips and said, "It's sometimes I get so tired of the way you talk, I could put a hatchet in your head."
"Ditto," said Johnson.
She came to stand closer at his shoulder. The sky was blazingly hot and blindingly brilliant, but they stared at it through the window anyway, their eyes squinted.
"Do you remember when the sky was always blue?"
"Yes," he said, "I do." He drew another glass of water and drank it off. "But things change; even the fucking sky changes. That's the long and the short of it."
"Do you remember when we started cussing so much? Seems like it was a time we hardly cussed at all."
He regarded the empty glass in his hand for a long moment. "No," he said. "I don't remember when we started getting so bad about cussing, but I think it had something to do with moving into Forever and Forever."
"Probably. But you've got to admit Forever and Forever's centrally located."
"I don't have to admit anything."
"There wasn't anyplace else for us to go."
"All right. I know that if I don't know anything else. Does that make you happy?"
He didn't wait for an answer but drank another glass of tepid water, which he was convinced was good for his bowels. His favorite joke, which he was sure he had heard somewhere and had not made up himself, though he could not be positive about it (there was so little left in his world he could be positive about), was this: I've reached that stage in life where a good defecation is better than a good fornication. It was a bitter joke, though, because it had come to be the truth.
He filled a glass and offered it to Mabel. "Why don't you drink a glass of this?"
She regarded the glass, and when she spoke, she kept her eyes on it. "My stool is as soft as a baby's. I'll let you see it the next time I go."
"I'll take your word for it," he said, and he poured the water back into the sink.
As he watched the water swirl down the drain, he wondered when they had first started talking about the consistency of each other's stools before breakfast. It so angered and baffled him that he thought about going out and shooting the swamp again. But it was too late in the morning, and Stump had already warned him twice about shooting his swamp, though Johnson didn't think Stump meant it. After all, what harm could it do? It didn't, for that matter, even make any sense, and unfortunately Johnson knew that too.
Copyright © 1998 by Harry Crews