Not A Simple Love
by Robert Earle
She found what she was looking for just off the North Nettles Connector—a one-story cinderblock building with plywood over the windows enclosing a storm of black people boogieing, drinking, flirting, and getting their hands slapped. Two arm wrestlers struggled at a butcher-block pedestal in the center of the room, their conjoined limbs quivering like a divining rod.
She almost backed right out. The only thing black about her was her hair. But standing third in the challengers’ line, younger and taller than everyone else, his shaved skull beautiful, Lonny waved her toward him. He told her to order whatever she wanted at the bar, everything covered. She said she could pay. He said no need.
“Because you’re arm-wrestling?”
“Tell you later. Go on.”
She asked the bosomy bartender with extravagant golden hair and long pink nails for a beer. “My friend Lonny said it’s covered?”
“Lonny said someone might show up.”
“I guess that’s me. I’m Sheila. What’s your name?”
As soon as she asked, she feared her question might be presumptuous. She was young and out of place and wearing a tank top that was a mistake. She’d dressed down when all the other girls and women had dressed up. She was wrong, though. The bartender gave a theatrical shiver of pleasure at being invited to announce her name, which was how she did it, announced it, making Sheila realize that the bartender was not a woman.
“Gloria, darling, or some call me Queen Gloria, or QG, your call. Welcome to The Shack. What kind of beer, baby?”
“Just… a beer.”
“Coming right up.”
The man who had been winning since she came in instructed Lonny to grip up. Immediately Lonny’s hand doubled backward. Whoever controlled the music—James Brown, “…let me, let me, let me…”— lowered the volume to highlight what was happening. Hoots and calls: “Lay it down, Lonny!” “Give it up, boy!” “No mercy! No mercy!“
Lonny didn’t give it up, making Sheila realize that the arm-wrestling clock was different from other clocks. It jerked forward, compressing seconds into nanoseconds, or it slowed, stretching seconds into minutes, or it simply stopped, freezing the world in place. Gradually Lonny forced his way back to the top, dead center. The two arm wrestlers held this midnight position, time moving nowhere, while the older man kept his eyes on Lonny’s face. Lonny kept his eyes fixed on a spot on the ceiling. He looked like a patient being operated on without anesthesia, casting the pain elsewhere.
The struggle of force stymied by force created the illusion that both contestants were swelling with effort, and maybe they were, all the blood in their bodies being recruited into their arms, shoulders and necks. Only nothing seemed to be happening. They were fused, each trying to push the other a minute past midnight, just a tick off center, then another minute, another tick. At last Lonny got it going, and that’s how it went. At a quarter past, the older man—not so old; Lonny was just so young, nineteen—let go. He left the block ignoring the jibes and melded into the crowd, disgusted with himself.
Lonny tapped the spot where challengers placed their twenties. The first had a hand almost as large as Lonny’s, but once more Lonny seemed to have a way of detaching himself from crisis and prevailing. This happened again and again. He looked as if he regarded the succession of opponents as the same person futilely reappearing as he gripped their hands and assaulted them via that same spot on the ceiling, a place where all his force collected. He wasn’t the gentle guy who had helped her with a flat when she clattered into his parking lot on her first day at Burke.
The mood in The Shack changed. The circle around the block tightened. It was as though the drama distilled sixty people into a drop of pond water boiling with secret life on a microscope slide.
She didn’t like beer or alcohol in general. Her father smelled of whiskey every night, which he sipped in his rocking chair. Her brother smelled of beer all weekend. It was in his breath and skin, just as it was in the upholstery of the old Plymouth Duster he’d sold her. But drinking one beer made drinking the next less distasteful, which she did even while telling herself she had fifteen miles to drive home, half on unlit county roads.
A slight guy whose large glasses gave him a studious look slipped up to the bar, grazing her arm. He said his name was Alcee, Lonny’s best friend since bathtub days.
She could imagine Alcee doubled-up in a bathtub easily enough—he had a polliwog quality, —but not Lonny. He belonged in a shower, as long and sleek as a spear. “When were your bathtub days?”
“Whenever a kid won’t drown. What’s that, two? Been trying to get back in there with him ever since.”
Gloria’s eyes widened as she gave Alcee a crème de menthe on the rocks he hadn’t had to ask for. “Don’t worry, girl, Lonny’s straight. Any man can resist me has to be.”
Alcee drew closer to Sheila, breath sweetly minty, and said when his family had trouble, Lonny helped him through, and when Lonny’s family had trouble, Alcee helped him through.
“Not a simple love between us, but the human passions never are, right?”
She sipped her beer because, if that was a question, she had no idea how to answer it.
“See, we’re all wrapped up in one another,” he said. “But at the same time he’s got his mother in him, a lot of his mother. Sits in her sundry store like she’s the Queen of Egypt so I warn you Lonny Salix is a march, one long march. You think that’s him on the hill, no, he’s on the next hill, then the one after that. Don’t get him in the bathtub with you. You’ll never catch him.”
She loved Lonny’s last name, Salix, as compelling as her own name, Burke, wasn’t. When she explained she was a gas station Burke, not a tobacco Burke or a Burke University Burke, people lost interest. Her Burke was a non-Burke. A Salix was a black willow, elegant and mournful.
“I barely know him. He changed a flat for me my first day at Burke, and when his shift was over, he helped me get to a place in East Village where I could buy a used tire as a replacement.”
“He told me.”
“So I park in his lot, and he asked me if I wanted to drop by this evening, that’s all.”
“Told me that, too.”
Alcee clearly would be happy to go on revealing things Lonny had told him about her, but Sheila wanted to hear about them, not herself.
“What kind of troubles did you and Lonny help each other through?”
“What kind of troubles are there in life?” Alcee asked in that surprisingly deep, raspy voice of his. “Trouble when my mother died. Trouble when his father took off with another woman. I’m not saying it’s all troubles. Just black folks being black, you could say. Know a lot of black folks?”
“He told me you’re from the county, scholarship girl, live at home, why you commute. No blacks your way?”
“I didn’t say none. Sometimes I don’t think I know a lot of white people, either.”
“Spent high school studying all the time to get into Burke?”
“You could say that.”
“I could have gotten in if I wanted.”
Burke was selective, but maybe he was right. Being black was an advantage. Being so verbal was an advantage, too. “Why didn’t you?”
“It’d kill my political future. Going to be mayor of Nettles someday, but you go to a rich place like that, you belong to it; it don’t belong to you.”
She didn’t feel she belonged anywhere, certainly not at Burke. She got up, drove to the university, said hello to Lonny—they talked a little about the weather, how they were feeling, keeping their manner curious but cautious—and spent the rest of the day in the academic citadel saying hello to no one else, eating the lunch she brought with her by herself, trying not to eavesdrop on conversations that would make her feel even more excluded, and not looking at bulletin boards covered with posters announcing things she wouldn’t pursue. She had to study like mad. No one from the county except her had gone to Burke in years.
She sipped more beer. “Why am I drinking this stuff? I don’t even like it. How long does this last?” She meant the arm wrestling.
“If he stands through six, he has to step away.”
“Will he make it that far?”
They both turned, their heads almost touching. Again, Lonny was locked at midnight, his opponent a barrel-chested man who kept tipping his head back in a ferocious, angry “come on” gesture to get Lonny to take his eyes off the distant spot on the ceiling and look at him, to give him some respect.
“He could lose right now by the looks of it. You wear out. That’s when they get you.”
“Have you ever tried?”
Alcee cackled at the idea. “Not exactly what I grab on a boy.” But he touched his fingertips to his lips, embarrassed.
Despite his anger the barrel-chested man lost his grip and fluttered ignominiously to the block—“butterflied” is what Alcee called being pinned that way. Lonny came their way. Alcee palmed his cheek in greeting. Gloria pushed a glass of water toward him. Just for something to say— so as not to stand there so intimidated that she wanted to leave—Sheila asked how hard it was to arm wrestle. Lonny said it wasn’t hard. His big hands and long arms gave him leverage. To demonstrate he spread his fingers and extended his arms and reached past her on one side of him and Alcee on the other. Quickly Alcee reached up to pull Lonny’s hand down onto his neck, where Lonny let it rest, making Sheila wonder. So far all his touching involved men, men grimacing at him, men demanding he look at them, men locked into his body while he was locked into theirs. She asked what he’d won. He said five matches, $20 apiece.
“So you didn’t go to six?”
“Didn’t go to six.”
Didn’t explain why, either, didn’t say he was tired, didn’t say he didn’t want to face the next guy, didn’t say he wanted to come over to talk with her. In fact, it would be hard to say that he did want to talk to her, deferring to Alcee to keep the conversation, or monologue, going, saying his father owned The Shack—explaining why the drinks were free for her and Lonny—and some other things in East Village, but Queen G ran The Shack for his father and his father had other people run the other things. Nonetheless it was obvious that Alcee talking about his father pleased Lonny, that the two of them really were bathtub buddies even though they were such an odd couple. Lonny was a third larger than Alcee. His shaved skull and beautiful high forehead gleamed while Alcee’s dusky head was furry and black, his forehead low, those overlarge black glasses of his emphasizing his intense, alert eyes. By contrast, Lonny’s eyes remained fugitive, distracted by women who, now that he was off the block, began to flutter close to him like butterflies, saying hello and doing things like squeezing his biceps and kissing his cheeks (two sisters kissing both cheeks at once) while sending Sheila the message that she was an intruder, a poacher. Sheila assumed that some of the women, maybe all of them (including both sisters), had had sex with Lonny and would gladly do it again.
But she still liked how raucous The Shack was, that Lonny was standing close to her, silvered with perspiration. She liked Alcee’s nattering, Gloria, the arm wrestling, the dancing, the what-the-fuck-feeling all around her. She knew she’d had too much beer already and was about to say so when Alcee told Gloria he wanted his next crème de menthe to be modified with a shot of Bailey’s Irish Creme and to bring Sheila another draft.
Nothing for Lonny? Trying to sidestep Alcee as his spokesman, she asked him directly, “Why don’t you drink?”
But holding onto his place, Alcee quickly interjected, “He don’t drink because his father drinks. Does more than that, too. Which I’m saying,” Alcee continued, despite seeing as clearly as she did that Lonny didn’t like it, “is he does white stuff more. Horse more, coke more, crystal more,” he itemized. “But no none of that white stuff works no matter wherever you stick it. The curse of black people is white stuff making us feel good by treating us bad.”
Sheila understood Alcee meant that she was white stuff, too, and he was jealous and had found a choice moment to show it. Meanwhile Gloria stood across the bar from them, holding Alcee’s next crème de menthe and Sheila’s next beer, waiting to see where this would go, possibly a scene, an eruption.
But no, none of that. Lonny simply removed his hand from Alcee’s neck and placed it on the bar beside his other hand, two large hands surrounding a glass of water, half empty, a centering device to help him gather together the issues Alcee had strewn everywhere—intimate fraternal loves, wastrel fathers, white women and white poisons, black people and black curses.
That was a heavy list. Sheila decided she’d ended up in another place where she didn’t belong and shifted in her seat to push away from the bar. She was rocky, though. Lonny took her arm to steady her. He asked her where she was going. Home, she said. But Sheila, he said, looking directly into her eyes for almost the first time since she arrived and signaling that she was too wobbly to drive. To her surprise, he said he would get her home. Alcee could follow and bring him back.
“Alcee? He’s been drinking as much as—”
Lonny cut her off. “He’s fine. Trust me.”
“I’ll be all right,” she protested, expecting Alcee to second her, wanting to get rid of her, but surprisingly, she saw resignation in his expression…and some sadness, for which she felt bad. It wasn’t his fault. He couldn’t help adoring Lonny. “You’re sure it’s not going to be too much trouble?”
“No trouble at all.” Exactly what he had said that day they met, her rattling into the parking lot, him walking over to lend a hand, both of them new at Burke, not knowing what to do except what made sense.
The parking lot boomed with silence when they closed the door to The Shack behind them; then it picked up the hum and whine of the Connector above the embankment. Alcee slipped into a new Lexus. She and Lonny got into her old Duster. Her ignition chattered and complained until the engine turned over and they were off.
They followed the Connector across North Nettles, more dark than light, toward the abandoned warehouses and factories of Old Tobacco Town. She didn’t know what to say. Apparently Lonny didn’t either so she kept repeating directions as they drove along, the same directions two or three times: head for Exit 7…then climb University Hills on Camber Road… and come to Burke’s south gate…and turn left on Pine Notch Road – a county road she envisioned being gripped by the dark gloved hand of the woods along the way toward Greentail Falls, so named because of the striking quiver of algae along its crest that never loosened its grip, not in her lifetime. She had spent so many hours—days, maybe weeks, if you added them all up—on the south cliff staring at that wavering, flickering, twisting green tail. She’d looked down at the turtles sunning themselves on the rocks below, at the occasional snake and, of course, the kids skinny dipping in the pool below the falls…her brother Ted included.
Alcee’s headlights behind them filled the Duster and offered her Lonny’s stark skull and the shadowy silhouette of his smooth forehead, his strong nose, his full lips, his smaller-than-you-would-expect jaw.
“When you’re wrestling,” she said, “you always stare over your opponent’s head. Do you realize that?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Are you looking at anything up there?”
Lonny released a shallow sigh, almost moaned. “My father’s face.”
“Does that help you fight?”
“Alcee said you’ve had trouble with him.”
“Alcee’s father has been better to me.”
“Because Alcee’s so weird he hopes I’ll help keep him out of trouble. It’s like my second house.”
She wished she had a second house, another father. He had his little gas station and fished and hunted and went to church and sat drinking in his rocking chair every night, sometimes messing with her homework on the table in the nook when he passed her going into the kitchen for more whiskey. He’d flick a pencil from where she’d placed it or pretend to look at an open book and then shut it, making her find her page again. Like it was cute. She got it. He didn’t want her living in the house another four years. He would be fine with her taking out a loan to live on campus. The debt would be hers, not his.
As if reading her mind, Lonny said, “I know you don’t like your father or you’d have gone to his gas station about another tire instead of letting me help you out.”
“Maybe I did when I was a little, but it was hard even then.”
They began pushing up Camber Road into University Hills where faculty and administrators, lawyers, doctors, and dentists lived.
“He be all right with me driving you home?”
What else could she say? “No.”
“Because I’m black?”
“Yes, but that’s got nothing to do with me.”
“Should I pull over? Let you go on by yourself the last bit?”
She never really cried, she’d only think of it, like now. “He’ll be asleep. Don’t worry about him.”
“Don’t worry about my brother, either. Wherever he is, he’s drunker than I am.” In fact, the beer fuzziness in her dispersed right then the way a dandelion seed head broke up and drifted away on a breeze. She saw the bright embers of deer eyes in the woods just ahead. “Go slow. They’ll jump in front of you.”
He slowed until they passed the deer; Alcee closed on them, brightening the Duster into a stage with his headlights.
“You like The Shack?”
“Absolutely, but I’m not sure if The Shack liked me. You have a lot of admirers.”
“I didn’t ask them there tonight.”
“You probably wouldn’t have to. I imagine they come on their own every Friday night.” She laughed but thought she’d never be there another Friday night herself. If he wanted a girlfriend, he could take his pick. “Or maybe yes, you should pull over. See the quarry entrance, those two lights?”
He wasn’t going to say anything. He was going to pretend it was okay. It wasn’t, though. No one would see them, no one was awake. Why had she said that? Because she had never had a white boy bring her to the house, either. The house was not a house for that, the family was not a family for that. It would all come out wrong no matter what a boy’s color.
They reached the quarry’s entryway, and he drove right past.
“Your house will be along soon, won’t it?” he asked.
She said yes.
“All right, then.”
All right? He could not drive and at the same time be looking up toward where he pictured his father’s face, but she felt that whatever went on in him when he did that was going on in him now. It made her wonder if it was her turn to be pushed past midnight, wonder if he was struggling against it, wonder if she should be afraid, or if what she felt coming from him was something else and his father had nothing to do with it.
“In another two miles,” she said. A yellow house, but he wouldn’t see it as yellow at night, of course, with a pickup truck, a Buick sedan, and a police cruiser parked in front, the cruiser because her brother was in training to be a Nettles policeman. Plus this Duster when all of them were at home together, she said. The whole family: one, two, three, four.
And then she realized she should shut up. She realized she should take stock of what she was feeling. She realized she should slide over closer to him, which she did, and let him put his fingers in her hair at the nape of her neck, which he did, and listen to him tell her he had been wanting to do that, touch her there, all night.
[Check out Robert’s back porch wisdom here]