Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Price Of Love

Just in time for Valentine's Day. /

I was sleeping off a drunk in the backseat of Clay Watson's old Ford when he asked Laura to marry him. Senior Prom had been the night before.

I might have danced with a few girls, but by the time the dancing begin in earnest I was already drunk. Staggering with my weight out to his car Clay laid me out in the backseat with my head turned to the floor in case I threw up.

My head felt like it was undergoing some strictly off-the-books maintenance - when I finally got my head up to see what the hell was going on - Laura was crying and Clay was staring. It was daylight.

"Where we are?" I managed.

Clay's face had something naked - a look like I hadn't seen him wear since we were young and played league ball and were both on the Phillies and lost the championship game - and even though the trophies were tacky plastic statues splattered with gold paint - he wore that look after the game, staying in the park and rec after all the other players had gone.

Laura sobbed when Clay looked at her.

"We're going home Brad," he said.

He started the car. We drove from a copse of oak. I knew the place because I'd been third wheel in the back one night when Randy and Laura had driven out here and had told me it was their spot. They said it in tones of friendly ownership, the kind you use when you describe your new baby.

He'd finally asked her I guessed, like he'd been threatening. But how could she have said no? Laura and Clay loved each other. It was a truth as structurally sound as concrete. They had dated for nearly six years beginning in middle school homeroom.

Clay dropped Laura. I got into the front, and Clay wildly took off. My head wasn't helped by the bouncing and rocking of the car.

"She said no," Clay said. "She says she doesn't feel the same about me, Brad. She says we been together too long and she loves me but not like that, not that kind of love, the marrying kind. Not anymore."

He pulled up at my house. I momentarily wondered if my folks would be mad that I had stayed out all night - before I got another look at Clay's broken face.

"What else did she say?"

"She just wants to be friends."

I got uncomfortable when he started crying. Clay was a tough guy, the kind no one dare pick on in school. I liked him for other reasons but it never hurt knowing as long as we were friends no one would pick on me. I had a thought. What if part of Laura's reasoning had been the same? Date the toughest guy, so no dirt bag messed with you. I didn't like coming face to face with my own thinking: that Clay's protective influence in school was why I was his friend.

When I left Clay in his car staring into the sun, I felt a little like a butcher leaving a fresh cut of meat out to rot


I do not remember quite how it happened. It was toward the end of college when I realized that I hadn't spoken to Clay in more than a year.

The longer you live, the more life becomes about generalities.

I could barely remember what Clay looked like.


The previous year I had stopped going home after a fall-out with my parents. I spoke to them rarely. My spring, winter, and summer holidays were spent at school.

Clay was a memory as indistinct as a forgettable buddy movie by the time I took my first full-time paying job as an adult at a marketing firm.

A few years into my new sped-up life as a professional, I went home for Christmas.

The years had not been kind to the old town of Liberty, Iowa. The economy suffered a draught and it seemed all buildings except for the local church, were victims of peeling paint and predatory time. The old neighborhoods all come to ruin, I thought, but God provides.

The day before Christmas, my mother sent me to the local grocer to purchase things she needed for a Christmas ham.

Standing in a line of unfamiliar faces, I saw Clay for the first time in nearly eight years. He pulled into the grocery lot in a more advanced specimen of the same car he had driven in our pre-voting days. Clay was a few pounds heavier and had grown out his hair.

My first thought, I am ashamed to say, was: God, don't see me.

I watched him through the front glass windows of the grocer. The checkout girl impatiently glared at me. She named the price three times before I managed to hand over the amount.

My next thought was not so unkind as I recalled the times Clay and I had shared as boys.

I took the plastic bag of groceries, hurried to the parking lot.

"Clay!" I yelled out.

At first he didn't recognize me. Then he shook his head like a dog shaking off a dream.

"Brad," he said.

"It's good to see you Clay." I extended my hand.

He heartily shook it in his bigger one.

"Been a long time." His weary face split in a grin. "Damn - how long's it been?"

"Been a while."

He nodded. "Been a long while."

"So, how's it been? You still living here?"

"Uhn, yeah, still here."

We spoke for a few more increasingly uncomfortable minutes until I held up the grocery bag. "I better get remember my mom's stress level 'round the holidays."

"Uhn, yeah," he said.

We shook hands again.

He was still out there when I started my rental. He had lit a cigarette.

I slowly wheeled past him.

I rolled down my window.

"By any chance, you ever hear from Laura?" I asked.

"You didn't hear? We got married last year."

"I didn't hear," I answered. "Congratulations."

"You should come by sometime. Laura, she'd love to see you."

"I'll do that," I said.

There was nothing left to say. With a wave I took off. Later that evening, around the table, listening to my family trade the inevitable barbs and concessions, I asked if they knew Clay had married Laura.

"No," my mom said. The others concurred.

I called up Clay's parent's house when I couldn't find a listing for him in the phone book. The woman who answered claimed she had no idea who I meant; but that she and her husband bought the house five years ago.

A day after Christmas, the doorbell rang. I answered it. It was Clay. His car was running in the driveway.

"Have some time today, Brad?" He asked.

He was the old Clay, the one I scarcely remembered. I was reminded of everything he had once meant.

Clay told me his mother had sold the house after his father had passed.

He interrupted my dutiful "I'm sorry" with a look.

"Why are you sorry? don't you remember him?"

My memories of Clay's father were vague.

He drove to the copse of woods. The same oaks I had woken to after a prom almost a decade ago. Built at the edge of the copse was a small house. Apparently, the builder had a few beers before erecting the frame, because the entire thing leaned to the left, like a poorly drawn perspective.

"Built it myself," Clay said.

"Good work," I replied.

"Laura's sick," Clay said. "She told me she was happy you were home but she isn't feeling up to seeing any old friends."

Memories come often unbidden. Strands of moment collect in your head when you least expect it. I recalled how heartbroken Clay had been when Laura had refused him. I guessed Clay had won his heart's desire. His obsession had proven fruitful. I wondered, sensing his nerves were at their barest threshhold; even though I was not about to ask - if the result had been worth love's suffering.

"How is she doing?" I asked him.

He shrugged.

"I'd like to see her."

He was pale. "Not today."

Clay called the next day, the day before I went back to Chicago. He told me Laura was ready to see me.

A half-inch of light snow had fallen in the night. The roads were slicker than they should have been.

He waited on the porch of his unsteady house.

"She's inside," he said.

The house was only a couple rooms. The lighting was sparse. A couch that had see happier days was busting its side seams. Someone had put an old blue blanket on it in a restorative attempt. It was obviously decorated with a man's touch. The house plunged into darkness in certain areas.

"Laura," Clay whispered.

She was flopped in a chair. She looked much the worse for wear. Where she had once been fresh-faced - and not that many years ago - her skin had since discovered the wealth of impurities hard-life has to offer. It was an unhealthy stain like her maker had given her another go, but this time applied the wrong finish. It was grey, mottled in sections. There were dark grapes under her eyes and her lips held reptillian fissures.

Her lips split further when she smiled at me. Blood circulated in them. She coughed. Her wracking chest cough moved the entire chair an inch.

"Laura I haven't seen you for years," I ignored a fat blister strain that called her forehead home.
I took her hand. It burned with fever.

The fingers were fat. Many women, no matter their appearance or background, often possess abundant grace in their hands. Laura's hand was unlike those. The thick, clumsy thing beat with fever. Yellow and black bruises corroded the nails.

Clay bustled at her side, like a loving servant. She drank a lot of water. Clay filled a cheap plastic pitcher continously from the kitchen faucet. He'd bring it in and pour water and she'd lift her cup - a child's mug decorated with bears leaping from rainbows - to her lips and down she gulped it. She never once let the mug go. She had an arid thirst.

She appeared to have lost the human gift for making noise, seemed only conversant in smiles.

Perhaps a half an hour had passed. Clay gestured. "She gets tired," he apologized.

I gripped her hand encouragingly when I made my farewells. I studiously ignored the bubble on her forehead that had pressurized and burst. She did not notice the pus that streaked to the top of one eyelid. The yellow and sweet-smelling ichor reminded me of hot butterscotch.

Clay sat on the porch. After a minute, I sat next to him.

"She's been like that for years," he said. He rubbed his eye. "You were off doing your own thing, my man. I got it. I understand."

"I was busy in college," I said in my defense.

"When Laura went off to college and I stayed here, she said we would stay friends." He grimaced. "Friendship wasn't what I wanted but I was willing to be her friend, hoping she'd snap out of it. First she stopped calling. Then she stopped emailing. After a while I started taking a few classes, myself, at community. I met another girl."

There was a snow shower drawing across the sky. It was beginning. "Supposed to be a good one," he said. Then: "Brad, I realized all the time that I was going to stay here in this town. Probably could've loved that girl I dated." His faraway eyes took me in. "But she needed me." I knew without prompting that 'she' was Laura.

"Her father called me. He said 'Clay, Laura needs you. She's missing'."

"Remember how her father never liked me? Him calling me, maybe I took it as the constellations falling in line. But I drove up to Winsoma college in Eldridge, Indiana. They told me she hadn't been a student there for over a year when I got up there. I set out to find her. I drove that town upwards and downwards, looking for Laura. If I hadn't eaten in a diner up there called Lamar's Place, I don't think I would have ever found her ."

"I had just ordered my food when a couple walked in. A man and a woman. It was January and there might've been five inches of snow on the ground, blowing hard. But they walked in completely naked. The guy was real hairy, 'n had just finished...he had just finished with her, because his works were gummed up. was dripping."

"There were white things that looked like giant maggots all over his body. They were on his scalp. He had a big black beard. They were in there."

"She...didn't have them, except for down there. There were just a few down there. Probably from him. But they were dying. She walked in behind him and she was dropping them from between her legs. When they fell they stopped moving and curled up."

Somewhere above us a branch caught the wind and dropped a load of snow.

"This wasn't a situation where you tried not to look," he said. "You had to look. There were five other people there, probably regulars, all of them old. All of them but one," - he laughed but not a laugh that contained any mirth - "turned around and seen these two come in. The one didn't turn didn't have his hearing aid."

"The old guy behind the counter, the owner, Lamar, was just gapin' at them. I think I might've just got up and tried to leave right then if I hadn't recognized the naked woman. The woman spilling worms from her privates was none other than the girl I had fallen in love with and had wanted to marry. The girl who had said no. The girl I was up here to find. The girl who wanted us to be just friends."

"I thought it was just accident, but over the years since, I think he knew I was up there looking for her."

"Sometimes I wonder if I hadn't been in that diner on that day I would have come back and eventually forgotten about her. Just like you forgot about me." He put up a hand to forestall a protest but I had no protest to give. There was no debate left in me.

"Lamar, he told them they better pack it up and get out of there. He was breathing hard like he was about to have a heart attack. The naked man with the black beard just laughed. He picked a white worm from his beard. Black beard had the deaf old man in a headlock and forced that worm into his mouth before anyone could react. The old guy had probably lost his hearing a long time ago and was gumming a plate of hashbrowns. He didn't even see his death come in, nude and covered with squirming."

" Still, nobody moved. Lamar hadn't seen the movies where a gas or deli shop owner stores a shotgun under the register. He probably hadn't had to throw out anyone in his life. For God's sake, this was Indiana. A dumpy grease trap in Indiana. These two had walked in and brought it all to a screaming halt. The old man who lacked a hearing aid now owned a worm. He plopped his head into his hash with a little wet thud."

As I listened to his bizarre tale, I felt sweat under my collar. I started to grow uncomfortable.

"I was the youngest guy there, the most able guy there, by far, and this was Laura, my Laura, and if it had been any other situation I wouldna' had no problem. But, Brad, this guy, with the black beard scared me. I wanted to flee, even if I had to jump through a window."

"Black beard went over to the jukebox. It wasn't a real jukebox. It was just designed to look like one. I ran out of there, right by Laura who was just watching events blankly. I ran right past her. I took my chance." He ran his hands through his hair. In doing so, Clay revealed a swath of hair the hue of machine silver.

"I cracked the glass on the door. Hell I almost went through the door. My car was a piece of junk and half the time it didn't start. So I ran through half a foot of snow up the street. I musta' went up six maybe seven blocks. I got behind a stack of firewood and hid. I stayed there until it was dark. The snow had stopped when I finally felt brave enough to get up. The lights were on in the houses around me, safe, comfortable, familiar lights. That might have brought me out of my shock. The street had long ago filled in my prints. Since I was unfamiliar with the town except for having driven it numerous times like a fool thinking I'd catch a glimpse of Laura out walking; and since I had taken some wild turns, it took me a while to find Lamar's Place."

When I finally found it I ducked down around the lot to get to my car. Problem was I had parked it right in front of the diner. So I had to go close enough to look in."

He shook like an invalid when he lit up a smoke. The tobacco must have tasted purifying to him for he went on: "I looked in there. The only light came from that fake jukebox."

Clay's face was somber as the ice and snow. And it was really coming down, a good December snow. The kind that unluckily comes just a few days shy of Christmas, in either direction.

'Those old people were in there, face down in their plates at the counter. It was probably because I figured there was no one there but I decided to go in. I went back to my car and got out the 'Shriner - you remember the Shriner?"

I remembered. I was not too sure why he called it the Shriner but it was a wooden stick bat like they used to use in the old days of Baseball before steroids. Nowadays players could break stick bats just by looking at them.

"I had the shriner ready 'en I went in. There was a dead, frozen worm on the window. Except for the hum of the fake jukebox it was quiet in there. I had my stick out ready to knock someone's head off. I was pretty sure no one was there, or I woulda' probably been on the interstate. The jukebox gave off a faint blue light. Everything, from the countertop to the old people sitting at the counter, was blue."

"There were those white worms everywhere. They was dead. I could tell they were. The worms had curled into little balls that kinda looked like a forest mushroom. I squished on a couple on my way to the counter. They smelled like, well - like my - Gene - my dad's - cherry cigars when you squashed them; the ones he smoked after work. Sickly sweet cherries too ripe to make into a pie."

"Got to the counter before I realized I'd been stupid. One of those that I'd taken to be one of the old guys sitting with his head in his breakfast was Black beard. He was wearing Lamar's clothes, including a white apron. He turned toward me with a big smile. But he didn't have teeth. He had worms that were set in his mouth like teeth but they squirmed."

"He looked at me like he was playing it all for a joke and graciously had let me in on the fun. The clothes - everything - him waiting there for me. He was playing me for a joke. His expression said he knew what was in my mind, that he'd seen it."

"Well, I took the Shriner and I swung it at his head as hard as I could."

"Brad - he opened his mouth wide and he bit it."

"He shook it in his mouth like a dog."

"It was a toughened piece of wood - but he broke it, the worms in his gums wrapped it and just busted it up."

"He looked at me excitedly. I waited to die like the others. But he just got up from the counter and marched around to the inside, and I swear to God I thought he was going to take my order. Only he pulled Laura's head up by her hair and set her chin on the counter, her eyes wild. He had hid her behind the counter."

"She didn't look much different than she looks now, but there was more of her there. I don't know how she had met him but I'll bet you it wasn't difficult. She never knew what she wanted. Who knows how something like that finds someone, and gets permission to do what it does."

"Laura screamed out of her eyes though her mouth was smiling."

"Anyways, he says, and I'll never forget that voice - it sounded exactly it was supposed to - if that makes any sense - he says in that horrible voice THAT SOUNDED EXACTLY LIKE IT WAS SUPPOSED TO - that since I love her I can take her back."

"The way he was playful - it must have just seemed like a great joke to give her back. Back then, before I knew how she was, I thought maybe I could take her away from there; thought that I could save her. Of course - you saw her. It's been that way since."

"I told him yes. I even added a sir. Because I loved her. I always had. I'd save her if I could. I said yes. But his best joke; he saved for last. He tugged down Lamar's borrowed pants with her facing me across the counter. Laura's eyes were pits of suffering. He fucked her. Toward the end she let out a horrible, deafening scream."

"I stood paralyzed watching his face over her shoulder, oily with hair and white worms."

"When he finished he told me to take her and go. He didn't buckle his pants when he came around the corner to leave the diner. He just walked out the door into the winter night, privates hanging out. His pants dropped right down to his ankles between the diner's threshhold and the cold wind outside, but he didn't even try to fix them. He just walked into the snow.

"I used to wake up thinking he might go to one of those lit houses, where there was happiness and children, where a family was eating dinner. He might come knock at their door to be let in."

"You understand. Might come up to be let in and I knew there was nothing anybody could do about it."

"I took her back home. She don't say a word. She don't clean herself. For a while her parents took care of her but they were old when they had her - and they're up there, past the point where they should have to wash up their little girl. So I married her. No ceremony. Nobody should have to see her that way. Her dad knew the justice of the peace. Just sent in some paperwork. I built this house, by where she used to like it so much - to try to make her more comfortable."

Clay looked at the sky. "I've left her alone too long."

"What will you do?" Not even I knew what I meant - exactly.

"Just going to keep taking care of her," he said. "I'm just going to keep taking care of her."

I asked him questions but there were no real words that passed between us after his story.

I think I was already trying to forget his story.

Later I thought about all the memories I'd lost - and how I'd feel if I had to take care of Clay - or for that matter Laura. I barely remembered them or cared to. I knew I'd never be able to pay that kind of a price for love.

I was laid off from my job at the marketing firm a couple years later when the industry took a hit. I moved to a smaller place and took work as a temporary. When I'd first come back to Chicago I kept in contact with Clay - calling him every few weeks, or emailing him, but old habits - such as my habit of losing contact came back to me. He must have realized it because he didn't try to force the issue. He stopped calling when I didn't warm to him.

One day when I'd nearly forgotten it all there was a message on my cell. "He came back and he took her," was the only message Clay left. I looked at my phone. He had called from a gas station not that far from Chicago.

To recall that story Clay told me a couple years ago when I was home for Christmas, I had to hunt down the slippery slope of my memory.

My memory's not the best. I did not remember the whole story - just bits and pieces; probably because I play with numbers all day. As I rode up an escalator to an Italian place where I would scan the job classifieds and eat alone, I kept thinking about the price of love. Call me loveless or heartbroken, but I preferred it my way.

Already I can barely remember telling this story. I will never have to endure the cost of love.

In my journey I saw a familiar face, one I couldn't place, on his way to a similiar destination.


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