Right now, I’m writing a sex scene for my novel. And it’s an awful thing. I’ve written about sex before, but it was always uncomfortable sex. This one is comfortable (albeit, tacky) sex. Ugh. Writing an uncomfortable sex scene is easy; there’s a certain lack of commitment, a sense of distance. But a truly pleasant hoedown?
Way too personal.
That summer Grace works at Minot’s drug store. Everything in there is white and clean. She works beneath a giant wall clock hanging above her head just like a full moon. When people look in the window to find out the time, they can see her standing at the register in this air-cooled place that feels so fresh and sparkling. All around her are little sealed packages promising so much.
She discovers the town secrets here. Mrs. Morningstar is having “female trouble.” Mr. Johnston buys prepackaged enemas. Honey Hinnant’s father, the pastor of Venice Springs Methodist, just bought a hernia truss. Does Mr. Hinnant preach while he’s wearing the truss? She enjoys the delicate horror.
Then Grace can feel his approach. He was in the back by the toothpaste, but now he’s coming close. She knows when Mr. Wagner is near. Is that a sign? Knowing when someone is near? Mr. Wagner smiles—toothpaste, deodorant, toothpicks, plus tax, $2.13. Mr. John Wagner. Beautiful black hair that curls like a movie star. Rock Hudson? He owns the feed store down the block. He’d lived in Charleston and only came back to take over after his father had died. His eyes glitter more than other eyes do
How old is he anyway? 35? Maybe 40? Old—but in a good and sophisticated way. Everyone says he’s good-natured and generous, Mr. John-just-like-a-movie-star-Wagner.
“Remember when I used to give you a bag of boiled peanuts every time your dad was over to the store? Seems like yesterday anymore, don’t it?”
Grace has already mastered the customer-service smile. “Of course, Mr. Wagner.” She gives him his change, three quarters, one dime, one nickel, two pennies, and a receipt. While she’s giving him his change, her nails just scrape his palm. He’s watching her while she gives him his change and his fingers touch hers as he closes his palm, just so. He then looks at his palm and fishes out the pennies. He bounces them on the counter and with his index finger, pushes them towards her. “You need to still come by. Could use a pretty girl in there. Usually just me and a bunch of homely types not prone to good conversation. Appalling, the level of talk going on in a feed store.”
“All right, Mr. Wagner.” They smile. She looks at the floor. He squints at the full-moon clock and makes a pretense of setting his watch. The few seconds feel like minutes. The little bells attached to the front door clang and while he holds the door, he says, “Just call me John from now on, all right Grace?”
“Okay.” Then: “John.”
“John it is.” He smiles and points his index finger at her just like Uncle Sam and he wants her for the U.S. Army: “See you around, cupcake.”
That summer Grace finds many reasons to pass John’s store. She walks in for a visit, but only for minutes at a time, because of the awkwardness rising up in her. It’s as if the feeling itself—her desire for him and all of her fantasies have become knotted in her throat. She can’t breathe. She worries about what would happen, if she were to sputter or shout, or to run away. Sometimes she wonders, what would it be like if she—right then and there—were to take off all of her clothes. What would happen? Everything would crash on down.
John is lounging against the back wall of his store. He’s holding court. He’s with the farmers he calls “boll weevils.” There’s also a few “lounge lizards”—men in shiny department-store suits. It’s damply dark and the place smells sweet, like beer. There are many dark corners in there, mysterious places she doesn’t feel able to explore with all of these men around her.
Confused and tight in the throat, Grace turns to leave after a half-hello. Those weedy boll weevils and the smirky lizards are witnesses to her behavior and it occurs to her: why is she doing this? What would she do with John Wagner? Once he patted her on the butt by way of good-bye and she blurted an “oh!” The weevils chuckled. One of the lizards said, “see you now, Grace.” She remembers his wicked and sweaty smile.
One Friday after school she comes by and he’s by himself. The bottles of whiskey and beer are out, but the place is empty—there’s only movie star John.
“Well… Grace.” He has been drinking; there’s a certain sadness about the eyes.
His eyes—what color are his eyes? Are they black?
“Everything all right?”
“Just fine, sugar.”
“Well… Okay.” Already she’s running out of subjects. The silence, the gaps, and the dizziness—it’s here again. Again, too, she’s lost in a flurry of observations: she notices he’s left-handed which somehow makes him vulnerable. She notices his hand has a sort-of shake, a tremor, and his forearm: is that a tattoo?
“What’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
“Drinking. You know, beer.”
“Why, okay I guess. Not very ladylike.”
“Can I try?” He has it. That certain Brand X. A movie-star smile. It is a tattoo— yes—an anchor. Was he in the Navy?
“Can’t say as I think it’d hurt anybody, but your daddy….”
Or is he more like Errol Flynn? Mysterious how he looks a little different every time. Did he have a girl in every port?
“Maybe I should go.”
“Pretty quick visit, don’t you think?” His eyes—now they’re blue “Brightens up my day, you coming by.”
She smiles and stumbles a little bit toward the door and laughs just so slightly.
“No strangers in Venice Springs.”
“Town’s too small. So don’t be a stranger. Okay? After all, can’t keep coming in for toothpaste every ten minutes just to talk at you.”
What would it be like, to be in those arms? Still, she heads for the door. She reaches for the knob, then remembers Honey’s advice: When you don’t know what to say, just pretend you’re Bette Davis.
“Just half a glass. A girl’s got to experiment.”
After a few whiskies, her head feels like a sponge and everything is floating nicely. Somehow he kisses her and his rough skin is like sandpaper across her face. She can smell his cigarettes and she laughs: Grace, a tee-totaling Methodist, drinking alcohol in the back of a feed store with someone twice her age.
John locks up for privacy. He pulls out another bottle.
“Were you in the Navy?”
“Merchant Marine. Saw the world from the side of a ship. During the war I worked the convoys. Dangerous stuff. U-boats.” He rubs at the anchor tattoo.
“Did it hurt?”
She points at the tattoo. “That.”
Grace keeps on drinking. Then she pees in the dirty little manly bathroom with manly smells. It’s a man’s room with pictures of Vargas girls on the walls. Dizzy, her head is spinning it then runs together: She’s on a cot. It’s in the backroom and John says, “Let me take these off.” Time passes, until sick and groaning and naked and under a single sheet, she wakes up.
The cot, the room—none of this is what she’d expected. A little window, dirty, looks onto the back. Weeds the size of bushes is growing out there. Lost in weeds is a rusted-out tractor. John Wagner is sitting at the foot of the bed. He’s naked, holding his head in his arms.
“You need to be anywhere?”
“What time is it?”
“About five. You been here from about one or thereabouts. Didn’t you have school?”
She can’t hear him. This is a lot to take—a naked man at the foot of some strange and squeaky bed. Muscular with black chest hair. What about the rest of him?
The bed: did it squeak like this?
“You all right?”
“We had a half-day.” Her head is spinning. Her stomach is in a tumble. He’s beautiful though. He’s naked but he’s naked in a way not at all like the boys she’d seen before.
He lies down next to her. She’s under the sheet and he looks at her with what must be a smirk. “Your daddy—is he expecting you for dinner?”
Then a flash of memory: him on top of her.
And then another: His head is down there and he’s doing something she’d never heard about; and she’s saying things, screaming things, and he puts it by her mouth and she turns away, but then it’s in her mouth, until there’s only the smell and the taste.
Grace pulls the sheet over herself. The bed—did it make noises? Was there really only just this one sheet, and this filthy mattress? “I guess maybe I should go.” She gets up quickly and scrambles around the floor for her clothes: her panties are balled up and inside out. And she’s naked. In front of John Wagner, she’s naked. She makes herself as small as she can while she struggles to put on her underwear.
The walls: they’re yellow, and the paint is peeling. The place is dirty with grain and bottles of beer and whiskey. A cool breeze is coming through the little window.
Who left a tractor to the weeds?
His pants—she’s standing on them. Hers are in the corner. As she lifts her leg to put on her pants, she can feel a roll of fat forming at her waist. He must see it. She can see him at the side of her eye, looking at her with that smirk. She thinks: He’s laughing at me. Her eyes dart everywhere—the window and the tractor, the peeling paint, the brand of shirt he wears, and then she looks right at him. He’s not wearing a smirk at all.
Was this where they all took their girls? Was this where those farmers and those shiny-suited men would take their girls and get them drunk? She sees the way her breasts fall when she leans down to pick up her bra; they must look ridiculous.
Peripherally, she notices his burned-dark face against his pale chest. She can see the line where he’d worn an undershirt while working in the sun. And there’s a deep line on his forehead, a cavernous line straight across, just like a hideous scar. Maybe he’s not some movie star at all. Maybe he’s just scared. And maybe he’s just watching her because he’s scared and worried. He’s probably thinking of her father, Hezekiah Shortly. Hezekiah won’t be happy with either one of them if he ever finds out.
Soon she’s dressed, but he’s still on the bed and he’s naked, barely covered by the only sheet on the mattress. She has a thought—she wishes he’d stand before her, and show him who and what she was with, these last few hours.
“You’re not sore or anything, right?”
“You’ll still come by?”
Bette Davis, Bette Davis, Bette Davis.
“Just to talk, mind. I like talking at you.” He shrugs.
It’s blistering-bright. People are following-through on whatever their agendas are, and it occurs to her that it’s strange; these people—all of them—are going on with their lives and it’s got nothing to do with what’s just happened. Nothing: nothing is going on; nothing at all is going on that has anything at all to do with her. Nothing. And even here there are so many layers and lives and it’s just so dammed strange.
Grace looks around. It’s crowded and hot, even though according to the drug store wall clock it’s 5:15. All around, there’s the too-bright sun and the bright colors that make up any downtown: the greens of the grocery store signs and the reds-and-whites of the five-and-ten. There’s also the searing blare of reflected light on the shop windows. All of this is mixed in with the blues and pinks of the floral dresses of the ladies shopping before they rush home, late, to fix their meals.
Her brother loafs across the street, friendless as always. He’s eating a Popsicle, dawdling and aimless, just outside of Poodle’s. Strange, seeing her brother out of context, and not at the dinner table or at the house. Is this how others see him too, tall and tic-filled?
“Merrill!” She crosses the street. Suddenly he’s nervous, like he’s just been caught.
“Where you been? They been looking for you,” he says. Merrill’s Popsicle is melting onto the street. His arms, Grace notices, seem independent of him; they jerk and flutter in little spurts. The Popsicle melts down his hand.
“Better watch that.”
He sucks at it and licks his hand. “What happened?”
Grace realizes that Merrill is here a shadow of their father’s anger. In Merrill’s distraction, she sees the coming fireworks.
“Nothing. Just lost track, it being half-day and all. They mad, Mom and Dad?”
“Dad yelled. We got meatloaf. I left because I wanted to get me a Popsicle before the store done closed.”
Done closed. She hates her brother’s redneck pretensions.
“You know. Dad. Et. Cetera. Blah blah.”
They walk home together. For Grace the mental image of her father grows. She looks at Merrill as he struggles with the Popsicle. He’s trying to get it all before it falls in icy cherry chunks onto the street. Merrill is a favorite of Dad’s. A tinge of jealousy courses through her—what’s so special about this boy with a melting Popsicle? Merrill sucks at it and makes slurping sounds as a chunk falls to the street.
They’re at the corner and before they turn she sneaks a glance at John Wagner’s store. From this distance it looks so small and shambly. The town itself seems smaller, too. This town, she thinks: pathetic. From this distance she can see his store windows clearly, but they appear dark from here. She just knows he’s at those windows, watching. His eyes are on her.
Just then she notices her blouse is a awry. She adjusts it and pats down her hair. She’s going to be okay, she tells herself; she’s going to be fine; everything will be okay. Again she looks back at the shop. She tells herself it’s so small and far away—even just two blocks away, it’s so small. Its windows are dark but she can see him; he must be there.
Grace says, “my Lord, it’s warm” and soon they’re at their house. Their lawn is green, so green, greener than any others in town. Little stones painted white are at the edging. The bushes are neatly trimmed. They come in under the carport and her house is reflecting heat, but it looks so inviting nonetheless. She knows tonight there’ll be the humidity and sticky night heat. She’ll stick to the sheets. Tonight she’ll read her book and she will look out at the stars as she lies in bed. She’ll situate herself as close to the fan as possible and she’ll pretend as she always does, that the fan is bringing her cool breezes from somewhere exotic, where such winds originate