I Am Joe’s Thorax

by David Bottoms

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Sonny Webb sat and watched.

He watched the Elkhart Travelers sing, strolling as they sang, two neat lines which interweaved and then briskly segregated into lines of men and women who were then joined again: a serene sea of candy pinstripes, twirling parasols and straw boaters. It was late, or at least late for him. A pressure near his lower abdomen rippled, shifted, and seemed to settle near his waistline. Gas, but no damned way to trust it. Not worth rinsing anything out–perched over the tub like a child, the water a deafening roar as it poured from the faucet and pounded, splattering, into the tub’s dull white bottom.

Lawrence Welk appeared, but before he could even announce the commercial there it was. Sonny stabbed the remote’s mute button once, twice toward the screen. He glanced toward the kitchen. Nothing merited getting up, so he listened to his own slow, warm breath trade rhythm with an oscillating humidifier by the trailer’s front door. Sonny breathed, and the humidifier pushed back his breath.

The gas again.

After restoring the sound he returned his attention to a bruise on his left forearm, a dark and ugly blotch gotten from a momentary swipe against a kitchen counter. He had old skin, fragile as cheesecloth it seemed, and it hung on him without purpose.

It was time to consider the journey to bed. The recliner would pitch forward slightly and his feet would meet carpet, a terrain mostly clean except for a few newspapers, black corduroy slippers and a huge, rudely placed heat register. No debates, no Bush or Kerry, no baskets of words and gestures, only bed. A soft exhalation, the slight disturbance of a single hair issuing from his right nostril in daring escape. Arms, bruises and slippers, barking outside or a car horn up the street. His abdominal distress abated a bit, and the humidifier gave a brief hiccup in goodnight.

Sonny first noticed (in the light of an overhead fixture which washed the world into a sheet of sandy paleness) his heavy khaki trousers, wristwatch and black boots. He sat, weary, in a maize-yellow recliner. A patch of sweat still dampened the small of his back.

“Webb?”

Sonny’s head jerked to the right, to a companion recliner—empty–then straight ahead toward the Sylvania console television and beside it…the woman he’d bought it for.

Ella was the only person who called him by his surname. She now stood, aproned, by the television and asked whether he wanted peas or lima beans with dinner.

“Webb, honey?” she asked again, quizzically.

“Limas,” he was surprised to hear himself say. Not for his choice, as Sonny turned away no food, but because she’d asked him and he’d answered.

“All right.” She turned and walked back around the corner into the kitchen. “Your name’s on the coffee pot,” she called, but he didn’t feel like coffee. Over his shoulder, from the twin back bedrooms came shrieks and squeals, then a small thud and more shrieks.

“Jamie!” he called toward the noise. “Y’all keep it down!” Jamie, a grandson, was with the Webbs for the summer while his parents sorted out their relationship. He’d begun to hit, and it was decided that a little time away was needed.

“Papaw, can we play records?” the boy asked as he trotted into the room.

“Later,” said Sonny. “Wash your hands.” On the screen, Marlon Perkins crept slowly forward on the side of a mountain range to observe a herd of wildebeest. Sonny rose, tired and hungry, and walked in grainy step into the kitchen for dinner.

After meatloaf, mashed potatoes and a near spill of Jamie’s milk glass, the boy and a cousin retreated to the back of the house and pulled out Sonny’s scuffed Sears turntable. Sonny and Ella took their places in their recliners and Ella clicked the television to life.

On the screen a grimacing GI lowered his head into his hands and wept. The air around him thickened and swirled and was dotted with flashing, malignant shapes. The young soldier (bedeviled with LSD, per the news special’s host), shook his head against the onslaught. Sonny frowned and turned toward Ella.

“You about finished?” he asked. She had his new copy of Reader’s Digest, and was thumbing through it distractedly.

“Oh, you can have it. I was only looking.” Ella handed him the magazine.

There was more barking now, and Ella got up for dessert and didn’t return.

Sonny felt for the recliner’s switch, pressed it forward, and the chair leaned him forward toward the carpet. He stood, touched his fingers to his lips, then made his way to the bedroom. No Jamie, no Ella, only dogs. His sheets were still and cool underneath a wedding-gift quilt.

He measured his time largely by meals, by pimiento cheese spread methodically on bread, maybe with a little soup that was heated until its wispy aroma broke free of the broth’s surface and rose in welcome. The TV was there, empty and jarring but a companion nonetheless. No more Reader’s Digest. The fat, sprawling omnibus of yesteryear was lately about the size of a church bulletin. Circulars and catalogs arrived in the mail instead, and Sonny studied their shoes, cigars, throwback perfumes, and hard candies closely.

The next day’s afternoon sky threatened rain. The dogs would be huddled in their shed, cowering against thunder. After a glance out the window toward their chain-link compound, he walked over to his chair and lowered himself into it. They’d only ever assembled two photo

albums, he and Ella. The earlier book, in which a black-and-white Sonny grew up, delivered groceries, sailed for the Pacific, and then happened upon a toothy Oklahoma rancher’s daughter was joined by a second volume with two children, a handful of grandchildren, and a fairly comfortable home.

He reached for this second album and laid it gingerly on his lap.

Ella called through the window.

“Webb?” Come here a minute.” Sonny sat for a moment, not feeling like leaving the recliner so early in the morning, but then drained the last of his coffee and got up.

It was Sunday, already bright and with the promise of a peevishly hot day. He knew what she’d say, and rounded the garage’s corner in preparation.

“Fire ants,” Ella said simply, and gestured downward along the pasture’s fenceline, then toward two giant beds in the rambling front yard.

“All right,” said Sonny. “I’ll get some poison.”

“Can you?” said his wife. “The girls will be here on Tuesday.” She accompanied him as he walked through the house’s breezeway toward a shed in the backyard.

“Will everyone be with them?” he asked.

“Marla and Jimmy and the boys, but it’s still only Carolyn and Jamie.”

“Okay, then. Maybe we can eat.”

“Can we make ice cream, too?” Ella asked.

“Are there any more peaches?”

“Enough for a batch.” She squeezed his arm as he opened the shed’s padlock.

He climbed into his pickup early next morning and fanned out mosquitoes. The sun prepared to rise, casting a dim glow over his back, and as he drove up the highway it began to smudge the rough indigo skyline.

The plant’s third-shift workers were damp and grimy, and one of the men pulled Sonny aside and spat a curse at the shift boss. Four of the main building’s six fans were out. The place was an oven.

Sonny nodded and walked inside to the time clock.

At the end of the day, he pulled back up the driveway, spent. Ella was in the backyard, sitting and watching the pasture. Sonny gripped her shoulder in welcome.

“It was hot again, Webb?”

“Those fans work off and on,” he replied. “But we can’t go into August on half our fans working.” He shook his head. “I’ll be just a minute. Do you want some more tea?”

“No, thank you.”

He went inside, slowly peeled away his work clothes, and dropped them into a hamper. He traded the plant for a pair of jeans and t-shirt, and clipped his toenails for good measure. After dispatching one glass of tea and pouring another, he rejoined Ella. She grinned a little and prodded.

“Where’d you get that shirt?”

“Out of the drawer.”

“I thought I threw those ratty things away.”

Sonny took a drink and swallowed.

“Nope.”

He drank away half his glass and leaned his head back, settling into the chair. “Are those fig trees ever going to do anything?” he wondered aloud.

“We need to find something better to keep the birds away.” Sonny informed his wife that he’d smelled cornbread in the oven, and she smiled in confirmation.

Sometimes the catalogs simply piled up on the end table, especially if the neighbor girl let them accumulate for a few days before bringing his mail. Feeling guilty about receiving so many offers without response on his part justified for Sonny a few small purchases here and there. He now sucked a lemon drop and looked around the trailer.

She was so close.

If everything about his life seemed stale, that’s because it was. There were things he could do–things he did–and people he saw. Sometimes it was enough. There were moments such as this, however, where it all seemed static, drained and tiring.

One of his neighbors, the mother of the girl who brought his mail and owner of the dogs came over from time to time. She made a show of helping him straighten the rooms at either end of the trailer, but was usually more interested in pawing through the rooms’ cultural strata: Sonny’s American Past, things valuable or valuable-at-the-time, a municipal landfill’s worth of priceless clutter.

He didn’t mind when his neighbor came over. She made coffee, they talked, and he enjoyed anew a newspaper or magazine printed before his visitor was born.

Sonny splintered the diminished lemon drop in two with his front teeth. A few bits remained, and working them over reminded him of Ella’s peanut brittle.

He was shaken awake by a fit of shivering. Looking back toward the house from the driveway, he realized the mistake of venturing outside without his coat. He stepped quickly inside and pulled his coat from a rack adjacent the front door. Wintertime, Sonny realized. Hard, crunching ice in a sheet, slickened by sleet, prodded by murky, unforgiving skies.

Ella was out shopping. He looked around the living room then walked into the kitchen, itself across a narrow breakfast bar separating the two rooms. Christmas cards hung over the bar, and these he flipped open in turn, carefully reading inscriptions and names. Each name brought a slight thrill, as Sonny had simply forgotten most of them. Yet had they been forgotten, or just misplaced? These friends, these daughters, all of them…they appeared with regularity in Ella’s purse, on envelopes, photographs, smiling, alive

She was home, and behind her came Jimmy and Marla’s Buick and Carolyn’s station wagon. Sonny buttoned his coat and walked outside as children poured from the vehicles and bounded out over the icy snow.

“Jimmy!” he reached forward a hand in greeting and welcomed his son-in-law. Marla hugged him, then Carolyn.

“Let’s get your luggage inside,” said Sonny. He and Jimmy pulled suitcases, overnight bags, toys, pillows, groceries and gifts from the cars, then got everything inside in two quick trips.

“Kids— “ said Jimmy, “–let’s come on in.”

The children’s voices, an excited thatch of Jamie, Andy, and Pete, rose and fell as they began the construction of a fort for army figures and dinosaurs. Ella and her daughters chatted as they prepared lunch. Sonny plucked up a couple of pieces of cut lettuce, gave Ella a glancing kiss, and said that he and Jimmy were headed into town for a tree.

Sonny’s house was two state roads off the main highway, but he and Jimmy were in no hurry. He shared his son-in-law’s relaxation–in the easy pleasure of a couple of days off with nothing to do but visit.

“I wish Michael…” began Jimmy, not knowing what to say of Carolyn’s husband, only that his absence left a gap they all noticed. Sonny nodded, with momentarily arched eyebrows

that suggested he was also unsure of how to assess his youngest daughter’s well-meaning, if impractical, mate.

They’d reached the highway, and Sonny pulled the pickup cautiously out and headed toward town.

“They’re having fireworks tomorrow,” said Jimmy. The truck rolled along in silence, then the younger man remembered some news.

“I heard the plant was opening up a couple of new sites next year. You think you’ll try for one of ‘em?”

Sonny’s seat bounced and jostled a bit, but he knew he’d never drive a better vehicle. The wheel, lined with fine cracks in its plastic, plied a steady and true course under the heel of his palm. He and Jimmy would select a tree from a frosty side-street lot, load it into the truck bed, then head back home to Sonny’s driveway.

“Dad, you think you’ll go?” asked Jimmy again. He allowed for a little woolgathering.

“Nope,” said Sonny. “Nope, I’m staying.”

 

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Paul is a writer, editor, and musician who lives, works, and plays in West Michigan.