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TWO WEEKS before Christmas, a middle-aged man woke up in a bathtub when his heart shivered. The water had gone ice on him; the last cigarette in the house from before his arm went limp was floating around on top, shedding little brown slivers of tobacco that slid down their individual chutes to the porcelain tub bottom.
He bent himself up, trying to get out of the undertow, but the blood from his arms and legs was huddled in refugee camps far from home. He couldn't get a purchase on the sleek tub edges, and he only slid further down. The tide came in--the wave he'd set in motion sloshed up around his ears and into his nostrils, and he started choking for breath. Snorting and gasping and shaking the water out of his lungs, he struggled up to his knees in the glacier drippings. The he remembered the hurt.
His newfound hands, porcupining from the inside as they regained feeling, reached up to touch a nose that had been smashed against his cheek-bone. Memory flashed: the carnage that had stared back at him from the mirror the night before, the purple polka-dot bruises that dappled his face and shoulders and back. Like the flanks of an Appaloosa horse, he thought to himself; then, because he had lost his gallop and barbed wire fenced-in his prairie, he thought again--a spotted fawn, tucktail and fear-frozen at the sound of a pine cone dropping. Except it was more like a pine tree that had fallen on him.
He stepped out of the bathtub and smithereened a plastic cup lying on the linoleum where, limparmed, he had dropped it. He hopped on one leg to hold the twinge of pain, new pain he couldn't numb because that cup had served him the last of the gin the night before. He careened against the wall and his shoulder erupted again in fire. It seared, like it had last night when the lizard-skin boots kept swinging into him, fireballs exploding when they landed. He had already made himself forget whoever it was attached to the boots--but he had run out of bars to be kicked out of.
He pulled an old shirt from the brimming laundry hamper to sop up the water on his skin. Then he teetered out to the dining room table and eased himself into the heaped-up clothes he had left there. It took him five minutes to tie the shoelaces. Keys, watch, wallet. The first picture in there was his driver's license, grinning, sun-tanned from water-skiing, so long ago. He flipped the plastic. Oldest son as high school graduate, long gone, ski-bumming in Colorado, a five-minute phone call six months ago was about all. The two girls and the youngest baby boy--all living with their mother across town, way across town.
No picture of their mother. No picture of the bright September day: he just back from the war, starched Air Force uniform, two rows of colored ribbons on his chest, bound for glory; she just back from her high-class wartime job in Washington, home to marry the hero. But after the fourth mewling baby, she went to work for groceries; the house was her parents' wedding present; the family money was her money. He took to staying up nights, peering into bottles. He was out on the street long before she ever asked him to move, across town.
He stuffed the wallet into his shirt pocket and went out to where the sun was knocking-down and dragging-out the chill. He pulled a garden hose out of a tool trunk on the carport and stretched out one end of it. Squatting, hurting, at the back of the car--the car she had let him have when he left home--he fit the hose over the exhaust pipe and draped the other end up through a cracked window into the back seat. Then he edged into the front seat, locked the doors, and turned the car on. It had run out of gas by the time a neighbor found him that afternoon. The wallet was open on his lap.
* * *
IT COULD have been New York, except for the garden hose. They don't have gardens in New York, and carbon monoxide is everywhere. It could have been any big city, any middle city, this drying up of hope and wetting down of sorrow. It happens all the time, anonymously, in cities.
But the middle-aged man lived in a small town, in my small town, a place that would never, could never, change. Or I thought. So I left. But my small town was not exempt from the jagged teeth of progress. It just took a while. The interstates bypassed it, sure; and the FHA-VA home loans went to buy up the old mill houses rather than add many suburbs to what had been a company town. There was hardly any urban renewal because there wasn't much to renew. The people who could have used the money--the 40 per cent of the town's population who were black and restricted mostly to the worst housing--didn't have the political power to make a money grab. Whites kept them out of power with country-club nominations and at-large elections. But whites and blacks maintained strong neighborhoods, decent schools (at least after 1969's integration), and a widespread community pride based pretty much on the fortunes of the high school football team. A good place to bring up kids.
When those kids outgrew high school football, though, they left for the cities: New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Houston, Atlanta, Boston. They were seeking success--even in Bogalusa, Louisiana, a kid learned to hustle. Even in Bogalusa, that small, relatively tight community, people failed and people made it. Bogalusa had a lot of safety nets out: family, neighbors, community, no matter how far you fall. The problem was that Bogalusa had no buildings tall enough to jump from; for one middle-aged man, the nets were useless, so he just sat in his car and rolled up the windows.
The kids all come back for Christmas--they don't come home, just back. About a hundred of them came back for the middle-aged man's funeral--he had taught them water-skiing, or they had been in love with his daughters, or both. They gathered at the funeral home, at the cemetary, at his children's house. They ate all the food the neighbors brought and they talked about how neighbors didn't bring food much anymore, about how there weren't many neighbors anymore.
ALL THE CHANGES. Federal judges had thrown out the old racist political arrangements and blacks were getting a piece of the pie. The pie was shrinking, because the paper mill had closed half its operations and moved them to a new, non-union mill. The safety nets were fraying, because parents were finding their leftover male/female roles didn't fit with two-breadwinner families, and other relatives were growing old and passing away. Families had moved, friends had scattered, gotten married, divorced. It was an old story, but one the kids had never heard.
They went skinny-dipping in the old Blue Hole on Bogalusa Creek--with a little peer pressure you can do that at Christmas in Louisiana. They mounted bottle rocket wars in shopping center parking lots after midnight. Old times. Then the new year was on them and they left. New safety nets kept sliding underneath them: friends typed their theses, roommates fronted them money, parents kept in touch, old comrades offered them jobs. New ties that bind, in place of a home. When you're young, you're always making it, there's always time.
But every community is temporary--ours ends on Thursday. Amost every old friendship comes down to bottle rockets in the parking lot. And every time we make a passage, deep down our hearts are shivering.
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