There was scent of love in the air, and a whole lot of hatred too, but I was feeling kind of zombie like myself. Don't get me wrong; I wasn't anywhere near as dead on the inside as I was in those last few months in Oklahoma. I was dead clear down to the bone back then.
The way I thought about it, back then I had died almost the same as Guinnie. She died in a little bit more of a convincing fashion though while I was doing a better job of pretending to be alive. There's something about burying your only child and your loving wife that dissolves your insides into nothing. It's a very strange feeling because in order to keep on breathing you have to act like it didn't mean a whole damn lot. You almost got to pretend that you were almost okay with it.
But that's a lie, and it's such a lie that it makes you realize just how much of human life is built on pretending that life makes perfect sense. Thurman had brought a magazine home once that had a story about this place called Haiti where zombies would walk around scaring people half to death. The story said that they was alive in name only and were really dead people who hadn't been fully convinced that they were dead.
I talked about it to Mr. Jenks one day at breakfast. He told me he didn't put much faith in such stories, but he also talked about the beliefs of those people in the East (he called it the Far East; I don't why) who had a notion that life was just some kind of a dream that we were all living in it for the heck of it.
"So when I wake up in the morning, I'd actually be waking up inside of another dream?" He shook his head yes and lost me forever. There was no fucking way I would ever be able wrap my head around such an idea.
I couldn't help though but place some value in the notion of people moving around who were dead as hell on the inside, yet could walk around like they were alive. And if you added in all the people in the world who were just plain dumb as hell and couldn't string a few simple words together to make up a simple thought, it kind of made some sense in that there were a whole lot of people in this here world who looked and acted just like those zombies.
Thurman was gone that morning, and it was just Mr. Jenks and me for breakfast. I took the opportunity to pose Mr. Jenks a question, "Mr. Jenks, don't you ever get tired of being a zombie?"
The question took him very much by surprise, and, at first, I thought that he was going to protest, but he saw how serious my eyes were and stopped and thought about it for a moment. Then I guess he caught on to what I was really getting after, and he put his knife and fork down on the table beside his plate of bacon and eggs.
He wiped his mouth off with his napkin before answering, "Yes, Billy John. I get awful tired of pretending I got something to live for; my kids don't come around much, most of my friends are dead and buried, and my life has become like the song of a one armed violinist ever since my wife passed on. I think I know what you are asking, and the answer is yes, I am pretending that I am still here in the flesh and bone, but I'm more in the clouds most of the time."
"Is there any kind of cure for this? Do zombies ever wake up from a dream and suddenly feel like it's a brand new Saturday morning and say I'm as happy as a pig in mud to be alive?"
He laughed at the picture, "I don't rightly know, Billy John. I know that a lot of smart people have had thoughts on the subject?"
I was curious, "Tell me what one of them thought."
"Well, the great Russian writer Tolstoy felt a lot like us. He wrote a novel over a thousand pages long trying to reason it all out, and at the end of the book, he basically said that all we can do is to live our lives to the fullest, to constantly be amazed at the world and everything in it, and to love everything and everybody with all our hearts."
"Ain't that was Jesus said?"
He smiled a slight grin, "Pretty much."
I thought about it for a minute, "Well, it is kind of fucking amazing if you look at like that."
I guess the way I put it struck him funny as he blew some milk out his nose, "Young master, Billy John, you certainly have a colorful way of phrasing things.
As we cleaned the dishes up after breakfast, I talked him into going and playing cards with me that night. At first, he protested about how he was saving up money to go back to live with his daughter. I told him that I would loan him the money, but that only made him mad, and he said that a man who had to borrow money shouldn't be playing poker.
I didn't apologise for it though, and I turned around and did something that could have went very bad on me. I told him, "Mr. Jenks you know as well as I do that this going on about heading back east to live with your daughter is just because you don't what else to do. You going back there and sit on the porch all day wishing you'd took me up on this. We gotta both learn to quit pretending to be alive. If I have to stand amazed at ever little thing in this world to get shed of the smell of death that clings to me like mud, then God damn it, I'll stand amazed at the sight of two worms fucking or of my daddy wiping his ass with a picture of Clark Gable. And if I gotta love every dumb sumbitch in it including those trying to do me wrong, then I'll try that too. I'm fairly certain that it beats the hell out walking around here with my head up stuck up my ass."
I was feeling something; I must admit, I was feeling it strong. Mr. Jenks was moved too; I saw the light of understanding flow into his eyes and his cheeks grow red up on the top where the bones stuck out. His shoulders started shaking back and forth. Then he busted out laughing harder than I ever heard a human creature laugh before.
"Damn it Billy John, you should a been in the moving pictures! Two worms fucking!" He tried to talk some more, but kept on laughing. When he finally calmed down enough to talk, he said, "You're right. My daughter don't want me there anymore than I really want to be there. I just lost all hope and was going through the motions. We spoiled them kids rotten, and they ended up to be rotten too. By God, let's go play some cards tonight! I'm tired of living half in the grave and half out."
Turns out that Mr. Jenks was quite the poker player. He told a story at the table about how he made his way through college playing poker. His folks were poor and in order to get by, he took to playing in every pick up game that there was on campus. He said he only stopped playing because he felt bad taking all his friends money.
Martha Canary was a plump middle-aged lady who dealt the cards. She was red-faced and had long gray hair braided into a ponytail that fell to her waist. She wore a pair of gold wire-rimmed glasses that sat on the end of her nose as she played. She was seated on the east side of the table up against the wall. Jenks was seated to her right, and I sat to her left.
She asked Mr. Jenks, "Were your friends enjoying themselves?"
He nodded, "Yes. I think they were. We had some real fun times."
"Then you shouldn't felt bad. Anybody picks up a handful of cards and bets on them, ain't got nobody but themself to blame for anything that happens. Unless you were cheating. Were you cheating them, Jenksie?"
"No. I wasn't even that good a card player; it was just that they were so bad. I just paid more attention to what was going on than they did."
Mr. Jenks drank a couple of Scotches, and he loosened up quite a bit. He even told us a few jokes, and it was plain to see that he was trying his best to impress Martha.
We were all having a great time laughing and playing cards when Colton and Bush brothers walked into the bar. The bar was dimly lit and the card room was brightly lit. I could make out their outlines but really couldn't see their facial expressions as they sat at the far end of the bar and drank beer. The bathroom was at the southern end of the cardroom and Colton eventually felt the call of nature. He walked by heading toward the bathroom and acted like he didn't see me sitting at the table, but, on his way back, he made a big issue about spotting me.
"Damn it, there's by cousin Billy John. Hi there, cousin. Don't you be cheating these here men. They good people. You guys don't let him cheat you now. He's a sneaky little cuss." Then he spotted Mr. Jenks and lit into him too, "There's old man Jenks. Damn, Jenks, I thought you didn't have any money, and you up in here playing cards!"
I didn't respond, but I was seething on the inside. Mr. Jenks was embarrassed too and turned red for a minute. Colton slowly walked back into the barroom. I could hear them laughing, but after about twenty minutes they got up and left, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Carlton Brownlee, a tractor mechanic sitting to my left, whispered, "Damn it all, Billy, your cousin is sorry little ass, ain't he?"
"You ain't getting any argument out of me on that point."
"I don't know anyone who likes that guy. He's done pissed off this whole town." He threw his hand in and continued, "I'd pay good money to whip Oogie Bush's ass. I really hate that sorry sumbitch."
"You and me both." I felt kind of bad saying so, my mama would have scolded me for saying out loud that I hated anybody. She always said it was an unchristian thing to do, and besides I'd just told Mr. Jenks and myself that I was going to try and love ever body like that Russian guy said.
At about ten o'clock, I cashed out my chips and got ready to go. Mr. Jenks told me that he'd get a ride home from someone. He was on a winning streak and wanted to ride it out. When I left, he was up a hundred dollars.
I cracked the back door of the barroom opened, and looked around before I stepped out into the alley in case Colton and his buddies were waiting for me. They weren't, so I quickly scooted across the alley where the truck was parked under a street lamp. That was when I saw that the right front tire had been slashed. It took me about fifteen minutes to get the spare on.
Thurman was already asleep when I got to the house, and I was still a little bit antsy, so I went outside and sat down on the bench we had on the front porch. I looked up at the night sky, and it looked like a blanket of dazzling stars so beautiful it completely took my breath away. It was so amazing, and I had promised to be amazed. The fact that I was keeping that promise to myself made me smile. I fell asleep.
When I woke up, I saw a car parked at the side of Mr. Jenk's house and a soft golden light on in the back room where he slept. I didn't know whose car it was, so I decided to check things out.
I slipped across the alley in the dark and silently explored the dark areas around the house. I didn't see nothing out of the ordinary. When I got to the back where the light was shining, I saw that the window was half opened; that made me even more suspicious. I quietly crept closer and I heard a man's voice.
"I'd completely forgotten just pleasurable this could be."
Then I heard a woman's laughter, "It was pleasurable wasn't it? I ain't even resorted to none of my tricks yet. So, you better get ready, Jenksie, we're going for a little ride."
I had heard too much. The woman's voice belonged to Martha Canary from the poker room, and from the sounds coming out of that room, Mr. Jenks, or Jenksie as I resolved to call him thereafter, was busy being amazed his own damn self. I smiled as I slipped silently back across the alley. As I went through the front door to go sleep, I heard a loud sound of female laughter coming out of Jenksie's rear window.
The smell of coffee and bacon woke me up bright and early. I could hear voices in the kitchen and surmised that Thurman was already and up and about. When I stepped into the hallway, I saw Martha Canary sitting at the table talking to my brother. Mr. Jenks was standing at the stove gesturing with a spatula and adding his two cents to the conversation.
Thurman was in a very good mood, "Hey there, sleepy head. This here's Martha. She's a friend of Mr. Jenks."
Mr. Jenks turned my way and asked, "You don't mind me inviting Martha to share our breakfast, do you Billy John?"
I rolled my eyes and waved the question off, went and got some coffee and sat down at the table, "Morning, Martha. How did you come out last night?"
"Well, I broke even, but Jenksie here won about a hunnert and fifty dollars, didn't ya, Robert?"
"Sure did. Had a great time too. I'm sure glad you talked me into going with you, Billy. It was great fun."
"Well, glad you enjoyed it. Did us both good, I reckon." I told them about the flat tire and Thurman cursed a bit, but he was in too good a mood to let it take over things.
He was all excited and told me, "I was telling Martha here, that Wild Bill Hickok had a girlfriend named Martha Canary, and it turns out that she's a relative, ain't that right, Martha."
"It sure is. I got a picture somewheres where she was sitting with my great-great grandmother. She signed it too."
It was too early in the morning to for a history lecture by Thurman, so I changed the subject. We ate breakfast together, drank some coffee, laughed a lot, and a good time was had by all.
The only bad thing that marred the morning was my realization that it wouldn't be too awful long before I would have to rustle up another cook, and maybe even start cooking for myself. That thought was pretty damn amazing all by itself.
When I was locking the door and leaving to got to work, I saw Jenksie sitting outside on his porch. Martha's car was gone. I got up and walked across the alley.
"I wanted to thank you again, Billy John."
"Thank me for what, Jenksie?"
The intimacy made him smile, "It makes me feel kind of crazy that happiness was that close, and I would have missed it completely wasn't for that kick in the ass you gave me."
"Yeah. That is kind of crazy come to think on it. I done some thinking about it and come to realize that we all living in this crazy world and you got have a good take on it to get any kind of good out of it. Nobody else can tell you that it's got goodness in it, you gotta know that for yourself."
We stood like that for about a minute. two lost souls standing at the worn-out and frayed edges of paradise.
Jenksie finally broke the silence, "Maybe it's time for you to put some flowers down beside the graves of your wife and child and leave the cemetery. A whole new world for you could be waiting on tables less than mile away from where we are standing."
I raised my chin up and scratched my neck then placed my thumb and my forefinger on the side of my nose. I finally exhaled some air out of my mouth, " I laid the flowers down at the side of their their graves. Picked them fresh myself that very morning, and I left the cemetery and sat in the passenger side of a truck all the way out to California. That's not the part that bothers me. It's the filling in the grave that's stopping me from living. Throwing on the dirt, that's the hard part."
Jenksie reached out and shook my hand and started to head back across the alley. He stopped midway and turned, "Got to be done though. A man can't live his life staring down at a grave even if does got fresh flowers."