In the Shadow of Our
House Scott Blackwood I. If you had lived long on our street, and drunk late at our parties,
you would know that before retiring and moving to Texas, Odie Dodd had been
a government physician in Georgetown, Guyana. Squawking through the hole in
his throat where his larynx had been before the cancer, Odie would have told
how Jim Jones had asked him to the Peoples Temple to vaccinate the children.
How malaria, cholera, bacterial meningitis slept in the jungle underbrush. How
his truck had overheated along the rutted jungle road and hed arrived
a half-day late. How he was the first to find the bodies, though. Families.
Limbs intertwined. Mothers sprawled over children as if sheltering them from
some imminent hardship. Scattered on the dirt around them, Dixie cups that had
held the grape punch and cyanide. And already, of course, the smell. The uninterrupted
whine of insects. At the party, Odies hand would flatten his silver comb-over,
and hed say he hadnt known where he was for a time. That hed
wandered outside the compound and crouched in the shade of the jungle, the insect
whine growing louder. In his daze, he glanced up into the canopy and for a moment
it seemed it would descend on him. His scalp prickled. He called out. The feeling,
he would say, was as in a dream when you know a terrible thing is about to happen
but you are helpless to prevent it. But, of course, the thing had already happened.
And then, if Odie had sipped enough scotch, and his wife Ruth had not yet touched
his elbow to leave, he would have pulled you aside and asked the question he
always asked of us: why was he spared? Later it would occur to you, as it did
to Dennis Lipsy, that Odie had not been spared. And sometimes, when you were
at the edge of sleep, witnessing calamities befall your children or your own
cant-find-the-brake veering into oncoming traffic, Odies fleshy
hole would appear.
If you had lived long on our street, and drunk late at our parties, you would know that before retiring and moving to Texas, Odie Dodd had been a government physician in Georgetown, Guyana. Squawking through the hole in his throat where his larynx had been before the cancer, Odie would have told how Jim Jones had asked him to the Peoples Temple to vaccinate the children. How malaria, cholera, bacterial meningitis slept in the jungle underbrush. How his truck had overheated along the rutted jungle road and hed arrived a half-day late. How he was the first to find the bodies, though. Families. Limbs intertwined. Mothers sprawled over children as if sheltering them from some imminent hardship. Scattered on the dirt around them, Dixie cups that had held the grape punch and cyanide. And already, of course, the smell. The uninterrupted whine of insects. At the party, Odies hand would flatten his silver comb-over, and hed say he hadnt known where he was for a time. That hed wandered outside the compound and crouched in the shade of the jungle, the insect whine growing louder. In his daze, he glanced up into the canopy and for a moment it seemed it would descend on him. His scalp prickled. He called out. The feeling, he would say, was as in a dream when you know a terrible thing is about to happen but you are helpless to prevent it. But, of course, the thing had already happened. And then, if Odie had sipped enough scotch, and his wife Ruth had not yet touched his elbow to leave, he would have pulled you aside and asked the question he always asked of us: why was he spared? Later it would occur to you, as it did to Dennis Lipsy, that Odie had not been spared. And sometimes, when you were at the edge of sleep, witnessing calamities befall your children or your own cant-find-the-brake veering into oncoming traffic, Odies fleshy hole would appear.
This past summer, when Odies backyard mangoes ripened and fell, we watched the grackles tear at them and said, He is dying. Dennis Lipseys son Isaac remembered Odie plucking the fruits in the evening, the chilled, fleshy wedges Ruth would slice for our Fourth of July parties.
We watched Ruths rigid steps to the mailbox, the weekly arrival of the yard man to rake and bag leaves, to shovel away rotting mangoes. When Ruths sisters came down from Ft. Worth, we supposed the doctors wanted to remove more of Odies organs but hoped he would put a stop to it, afraid we would see in his clinging our own graceless last hours. Those of us who had seen Odie and Ruth on the front stoop or climbing into Odies van for doctor visits felt the exhausted tension between them. Averted eyes. Slumped shoulders. The living grappling with the dying.
So we argued with our sons and daughters over unfinished yard work and waited for Ruth to tell us the news. To our surprise, no calls came. No family caravan of cars appeared. A few of us called. Did they need anything? No, a nice hospice nurse came to see them twice a week. Would they let us cook them a meal or two? Nothing agreed with Odie was the trouble. The medication was hard on him. His body is shutting down, we said, almost approvingly. Then, in late November, we heard his records playing though our open windows at night, just as we had when we first moved here. Now as before, above the ether-whisper of our TVs, we heard scraps of Gershwin, Ella Fitzgeralds "Love is Here To Stay."
When Ruth called to say Odie was gone, Dennis Lipsyin the same barely audible voice that he used in our living rooms to explain probated wills and community propertytold her how sorry he was. Did she want him to make the funeral arrangements? A pause and a gathering of breath. "Lord, I dont mean dead," she said, laughing, then, catching herself. "Hes wandering about."
That evening, Dennis gathered us in Ruths living room, most still in work clothes, a few women corralling children in the dusky front yard. Ruth, unable to hold her hands still, told us the medication must have taken Odie out of his head. Before, she had always coaxed him back inside. The police, she said, had taken a report, but nothing could be done until morning. What ditch will he be in by then? shed snapped at Dennis, who stood as he usually did, slouch-shouldered, hands in pockets, impassive. For what seemed like minutes, Dennis was silent and we blamed him, thinking, now you have no answers, like us. But then something animated Dennis body and he took her hands in his and quieted them. Some of us remembered years before when a car had clipped Isaacs bike at the street corner, how Dennis ignored us when wed said maybe a head injury, dont move him. How Dennis plucked his son from beside the bike, parting us like reeds as he moved toward the speck of his wife Winnie at the end of the street.
In the living room, Ruth looked at her shoes. Would we like something to nibble on? she asked, looking up. She hadnt baked in such a long time, since before the cancer came back. No, we said, sweating in the warmth of the house, some of us noticing behind our thoughts the close, medicinal smell of the room. Then, in the backyard, the macaws began to shriek. Ruth said, "Well, someone has an appetite," and laughed.
If you were one of our sons, you might have scaled Odies fence at night to blow marijuana smoke at his macaws, and then, opening the birds cages, watch them careen into the dark. The next morning, their red yellow blue plumes burned in the bare branches of your own cottonwood, their squawks laying blame. Odie and your father clanging pots and pans beneath the tree to chase the birds home. Odie squawking, saying he knew the responsible parties, bugger them. He might then have smiled at you, his sun-mottled face crimping, and youd imagine him marking your brow for one of the dimpled balls he drove beyond his back yard fence, into the woods where you and your friends sometimes took girls.
"Odie dotes on these birds," Ruth said to us on the back porch, as if apologizing. Inside the cage, the macaws stabbed listlessly at the fruit she had sliced. Odie had told us macaws were often drugged and smuggled from South America in spare gas tanks. Intelligent, rare creatures, hed said, some living to be octogenarians, outlasting numerous owners, knowing cruelty and kindness in all forms. They live in the shadow of our house. What might they tell us?
This is what we imagined: Odie and Ruth had a fight over the chemo-therapy, Odie saying he didnt see the point and Ruth doing what she always did when distressed, going to the fish market for prawns to sauté with a green mango curry, Odies favorite. On the way home, Ruth would have sat hunched over the wheel of her Plymouth, thinking of her father, who, his brain seized by an aneurysm, had lived with them the last three years of his life. Like Odie, he had given away bits of himself. Slivers of his frontal lobe to surgery, fluid to relieve pressure. Hed been a pilot in the early stages of the war, flying cargo planes carrying supplies to Great Britain, but had been too old to fight. In the mid 1940s he had put on a weekly comedy show on a low-powered local radio station in Ft. Worth. A running skit about two rubes from the panhandle lost in the city, she had told us. Is that you, Leonard? was his signature line. She remembered also late in his life, after the aneurysm, odd fragments of jokes resurfacing: I had at one time a large, very fine ape. Did you now, Doctor? Oh yes, a lovely animal. But he grew suddenly ill and, not wanting to lose sight of him altogether, I made his skin into a mat for the table.
We have seen a series of photos in their den that Odie took of Ruths father. Every Monday at noon for three years, he posed the old man in the same chair in the same corner of the room. The life-long cock of the old mans head growing ever more pronounced. A sly parting of his lips. Is that you, Leonard? His right eyelid gradually drooping over a six-week period up to where the photos ended. Good night, we have thought, seeing the last three-by-five near the bookcase. What was Odie after? Ruth isnt sure, though she knows it has to do with Jonestown, the axis around which his life winds. So she helped Odie position and sometimes cajole her father. In one photo, her disembodied hand clasps her fathers shoulder as if he would topple sideways from the frame. And driving toward home, beneath this photo on the wall Ruth sees Odie, in the recliner, awake but dreaming. He and Ruth are standing in an open field at the Ft. Worth airplane stunt show where they met in 1952. Ruth is gazing at the planes overhead, one hand shielding her eyes. Shes lovely. He studies the smooth bend of her neck, the slender clavicle bone at its base. Hes seized by the desire to percuss her sternum, though he is early in his residency and does not yet know the proper technique. She pulls in her lower lip slightly. He puts his hands in his pockets to hide his erection. She sees him, walks over and takes his arm, speaks close to his ear because of the drone of the planes, so close he can feel her breath and smell rose talcum on her skin. She says shes pregnant, though he knows her brief pregnancy and this eventtheir first meetingare years apart. Ruth lets go of Odies arm, bends at the waist near a water fountain, and vomits. Then she is ponderously heavy and back-bowed, her breasts full. By the time she waddles to the bleachers, her water breaks, gushing over Odies feet like a great tide, sweeping his shoes from him. He is down on all fours looking for the goddamn things when she shouts at him. Odie looks up to see her mouth form a perfect circle, just as a stunt plane falters in its loop and noses into the field.
Odie crawled from the recliner and left the house in his bare feet. Nothing, other than Odie, is missing or out of place.
If you lived a street over, and happened to take your trash to the curb that evening, you might have seen flashlights flaring off trees along the creek bed, where we poked through the brush, looking for Odie. Instead we found refuse swept here by flooding: a childs mangled bike, mateless shoes, a large painted sign that welcomed baseball fans. Then, further in, beneath a limestone overhang, a dark bundle of sleeping bag we at first took for a man. A few of us lifted its saggy weight with sticks. Flattened on the smooth limestone ledge, a collection of bras and panties. We laughed nervously, some imagining awkward encounters in woods like these, the frantic peeling away of clothes, anothers pale, taut skin against our own.
We slept fitfully. The macaws startled Dennis Lipsy awake with cries like small childrens. His wife, Winnie, dreamed her long-dead parents were approaching the coast inside a giant sea snail. Neogasropoda. A name she told her husband later she couldnt get out of her head.
An article appeared in the next mornings paper with a photo of Odie. Sunfreckled. Gap-toothed. Missing.
Dogs give them away. Our sons feet scuffle beneath Winnie Lipsys lit window, where, through the curtains, theyd seen a scrap of breast. Some nights, we call out from our porches, threaten them with beatings. But before we can catch and wring them like wet towels, they are off across lawns and between the pine bones of the new duplexes. We hear them scrape over the fence beyond the lots where they once built tree forts with stolen lumber. They are headed for the river, its fractured rise of train trestle, where they drink beer and climb the creosote rafters above the dark water, mocking us with the miraculous rise of their bodies.
Tonkawa Indians once raised their children along our river, not far from Red Bud Island where Dennis Lipsy takes his son fishing. Periodic floods washed over the banks then, even as they do now, carrying sediment, uprooting trees, unearthing the remains of their dead. But the Tonkawa always moved back, even occupying the same limestone shelters where their flood-lost sons and daughters once played, as if they could not help themselves. This is why, when they ate their captured enemies, the Comanches, as they often did, pregnant women were given the largest portions. Courage and strength. That is what they hoped to swallow.
In the cool of the evening, Odie and Jim Jones walk along our
street. Odie is barefooted.
In the early morning, if you jogged along the green belt at the base of our hill, you would glimpse patches of river through the cypress and cottonwood, and when you neared its bend where the trees gave way, scullers would glide past, their ebb and flow cutting a thin ripple in the glassy water behind. Eventually they would circle Red Bud Island where, along the shore, Isaac tires of rebaiting his hook with minnows and skips rocks instead, saying the river smells like a wet dog. Beside him, Dennis remembers another time before, where hed pointed down river to where a rock outcropping had once formed an eddy, telling Isaac how they dynamited it long ago, that dozens of people drowned there in the 1920s. I wouldnt have, Isaac would tell him. I wouldve held my breath. Isaacs eyes narrowing, sucking air, staring at the distant space in the river.
Once, while they were fishing, a black man called them over to see what was on his trot line. He pulled from the water a three-foot alligator gar, its head narrowed into a long snout. Otherworldly. Early Pleistocene, the black man said, a damn antique. The gar slapped its slender body against the tree and the black man gripped its snout and tail, firm. Held it out for Isaac. Go ahead, the black man had said. Touch him. Some history there. When Isaac touched the clamped-shut teeth, he smiled sheepishly up at the man, and something sunk in Dennis stomach. The black man let Isaac pick out a lure from his tackle box to keep.
A few times, Dennis had seen Odie along Shoal Creek, poking at rocky crevices with a hand spade, looking for awls, arrowheads, and the like. But there were other artifacts that he was partial to as well: rusted Sucret boxes, television tubes, chrome knobs, watches, license plates. Wrapped in foil at home, he kept an ancient yellowed pair of dentures. Odie once had held the dentures up, making for them a mouth with his hand. Had a tongue in it and could sing once, hed said to Dennis and laughed until tears rose in his eyes.
We know some things: when she was nineteen, Winnie had lived with her instructor, a marine biologist at UTGalveston. She said she loved his sense of humor, and, of course, the sex, both of which had faded when, in the late 1970s, they had spent nearly a year on the Mexican Baja, where he researched large sea mollusks. Winnie, tanned, in a wide-brimmed hat and red bikini top, stares out from the pages of a scrapbook weve seen. Shes smiling but turned sideways, a hand holding the crown of her hat, as though reluctant to pose. Doubtful. This will not last, the gesture seems to say, as if shed just conjured an image of the biologists collection of unshelled mollusks floating in jars of formaldehyde in their extra bedroom. Only a few days after this photo was taken, she would find out she was pregnant. And her thinking the nausea was a reaction to shellfish. When she had decided to have the baby, the marine biologist tried to hide his disappointment by throwing himself into books on prenatal care and natural childbirth. But his mood swung wildly. Once she found him naked on the kitchen floor wrapped in ice-water-soaked bath towels. Its an Icelandic cure, hed told her. For what? Pregnancy? shed asked. And when she told him about the adoption, hed fingered a embryology bookrelieved, she knewand asked, Are you sure? in a voice that believed itself. At the hospital, he held her hand while she asked for the epidural. She did not look at him. She thought of a conch shell, hard, impervious. Afterwards, she did not want to hold her daughter, but her body demanded it. Her bones ached is what she would tell Ruth later.
And now, nineteen years later, she confessed to Ruth she sometimes caught herself absurdly scanning crowds at college football games on TV, or looking up suddenly while cooking dinner, drawn to a female voice on the evening news. She had even subscribed to a college fashion magazine and began cutting out lanky models she imagined having subtle intelligence and a sense of style.
The marine biologist tried to kill himself. Dennis had told us this at a party once. Not long after Winnie left him and moved in with Dennis, he began calling at all hours. We all need to talk, the biologist said. There were threats, mostly about what he would do to himself, Dennis said. Winnie had spoken gently to him, asked about his medication. Dennis had imagined him pickled in one of his jars. Then, one day, he came by Dennis law office, and by chance Dennis wasnt at his desk. Instead, he and the biologist had stood one urinal apart in the office mens room, Dennis recognizing him from pictures hed seen. But the biologist, knowing nothing more than Dennis name, had stared at the shiny tiles, oblivious, a frayed look to his bearded face. He seemed someplace else. For awhile afterward, Dennis felt weirdly exhilarated. But the biologists expression had stayed with him. Dennis wondered if the biologist might be coming to an important decision about himself, something irrevocable. And when Dennis and Winnie were in Chicago a month later, Dennis kept thinking the biologist would pop out of a doorway or alley, although he knew he was thousands of miles away. And when they got lost coming back from Greek Town late one night, and crossed a metal draw bridge that spanned one of the channels feeding Lake Michigan, it occurred to him that he had not seen anyone else walking. That hed gotten them lost. A few cars slipped by quickly, their tires ringing on the metal of the bridge. Below, he heard water lapping at the concrete sides of the canal. Winnie was tugging his shoulder, saying You lost bastard, in the giggly half-serious way she does right before she actually gets quiet and pissed. Then behind them, someone said they were some lucky motherfuckers because Saturday night was lotto night, otherwise he wouldnt be out. Dennis had glanced back quickly, seized by the image of the biologists stricken face. A bearded black man stared back. What yall doing here? Should be home letting this man get into your sweetbreads. Dennis told Winnie not to turn around, only to keep walking. Winnie beside him, stiff, her eyes glancing down a cross street, thinking a cab, maybe a cab. And then a few seconds later, a cab did pass swiftly by, and inside, Dennis could see moon-like faces lit up for a moment by oncoming traffic, then nothing. His stomach tumbled. Now two sets of footsteps behind. They walked on, faster. Someone kicked his heels and he stumbled slightly. Whoo, I smell something, a second voice said behind and laughed. Then a hand slapped Dennis ear. Ringing. He felt the ear with his fingers, looked at Winnie, wild-eyed, her face drawn. He wanted to tell her not to worry. Stay the fuck back, Nathan, the first voice said, These people with me. Feet scuffled. Dennis said he turned to see the two black men pressed against one another. And it struck Dennis suddenly that he and Winnie would be shot. They would bleed to death here simply because he had taken a wrong turn. He turned back, kept walking. Beside him, he heard Winnie say his name.
At the party, this is where Dennis paused, and then said it was a close call, that the second man had slunk off and the bearded man had taken them a quarter-mile to the elevated train, and then in front of the turnstiles, asked them for a twenty for the lotto. If I win, well split it, hed said.
We imagined something else: Dennis and Winnie at the curb. The men behind. A few blocks away, a blue sign that said Dixie Cream Donuts. A light on inside where the baker was working. Three-hundred yards. Run. The thought out before Dennis can stifle it. But we know this is our own weakness we are seeing and it settles like a stone in the belly.
Anyway, Dennis said at the party, when he and Winnie got back to the hotel, there was a message from a mutual friend that the biologist had shot himself.
Then the eggs, hundreds of them, arched through the dimming sky, and Odie stood transfixed. Outstretched hands cradled some eggs, fumbled others. Shrieks of laughter. Broken shells scattered on the grass. A few of us moved through the festival crowd toward Odie, children in face paint bumping our thighs. But when we got there, Odie was gone.
On the stage, a salsa band played, conga drums racing feverishly, then slowing. Trumpets blaring. Dennis thinking hed seen Odie near the May pole, barefoot, pants legs rolled, calmly eating a turkey leg. But when the song finished, he found himself staring at a Hispanic man in running shorts.
When darkness fell, the fire jugglers lit their batons and the crowd clapped wildly. The congas started up again. We milled about in the flickering shadows. The park police barking through a bull horn that the park was closing, to grab your things. The crowd shouted back drunkenly, but gradually moved in ragged unison toward the park entrance. The congas kept on, gained momentum, indifferent to what was at hand. And just before the power was shut off and the world leaped into murmuring darkness, we saw Odie once more, being swept toward the entrance, his silver-haired head bobbing in the crowd, eyes fixed on the jungle canopy overhead.