blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1




You were not safe anywhere: Della Moxley Medlock knew it to be so. The weather channel said it was ninety degrees up in New York City that minute, a quarter past midnight. Old folks were in danger of heat stroke, infants fevered in their cribs. Japan had floods and typhoons, while in Colorado, record-breaking wildfires raged. Locally, the corn silk was all a nasty brown and the cobs were ugly nubbins. The yard flowers leaned over, thirsty, even with the gleety dishwater splashed across them daily, and neither the leftover drips and dribbles of Coke nor the beer dregs thrown out on the brittle lawn perked it up. Above the air conditioner’s straining breath, the cicadas jittered like sleigh bells, and the half moon beyond the double-glazed pane was red as a tomato.

Trying to ignore the throbbing ache in her face and the wooziness from the pain pill, Della let her eyes scan the luxurious mess of the bedroom, until they fell upon the snake tattooed across Cleve’s arm, neck and shoulder. Flinching away, she noticed the Bride Starter Kit strewn across the dresser top around the clay face jug Dill Silver had presented to Cleve.

That afternoon Della had been to Tiffany’s wedding to Ed Sleen—if a ten-minute civil ceremony qualified as a wedding—at the Justice of the Peace, and when the receptionist had presented the Courtesy Gift Package to the new bride, Della had blurted out before she even thought the words, “Hey, I didn’t get one of those.” Then she was blushing and explaining how she had said her vows in that same shabby office the year before and received nothing feminine on the spot but the bouquet of pitiful Dutch irises Cleve had bought at the Kroger. Her memories of the faux oriental carpet with peacocks, a perpetual motion desk toy and the autographed photo of a grinning Jimmy Carter on the wall had lingered more vividly than the gap-toothed magistrate or the ceremony’s bland words. They’d had to recruit witnesses from traffic court, but the bailiff and reckless driver had applauded the symbolic kiss and beamed “Congratulations!” just like real guests, and that quiet approach had saved her from any misbehavior on her family’s part.

Now she surveyed the meager contents of her belated gift pack: a sample box of Cheer, some off-brand toothpaste, powdered salad dressing, green Prell, Tampax and a whole sheaf of coupons. Why it should matter was a mystery, considering that Cleve, who had become a famous outsider artist, had already given her a closet full of expensive clothes and a violet six-cylinder Stanza with a wide white ribbon and bow on the hood.

Still, the sight of such piddling gifts wouldn’t let her alone. Not even the recurring pain prevented her mind from wandering. Since her own wedding, every change in the world had been for the worse, and she felt she might have wasted her only chance for happiness when she turned down that Harrelson boy before he went off to seminary. Now she was seeing her future shrivel and topple as bleak as the parched garden.

Cleve was wasted again, sprawled on his back across the bed, the TV providing the only light in the room. It was just bright enough to gleam off the glaze of the face jug and the Budweiser bottles on the floor. All summer he’d said he was doing his conservation part by pissing off the porch instead of flushing, just running the beer through him. “The two-legged irrigation wonder” he styled himself. Only sixteen months since she married him, and already he was a disaster. Her daddy Autrey had said she was a ruination to everything she’d ever touched—party dresses, a five-speed bicycle, the pearl button Soprani accordion he’d given her, the used Toyota she had briefly driven to the college. Now the famous Cleve. But she knew for a fact he was just changing into himself, a bullying creature she could never even have imagined, much less created. Tonight, he had proved it.

When they first actually met, he was something else, just starting to taste celebrity. He had always been one to draw, his people said, and he’d kept it going even while selling footwear at Sears. He’d quick-sketched customers and spent his lunch hour inking in piney landscapes or sagging abandoned houses. It was when he got the squamus cancer and had to take chemo that he stopped rendering his portraits and deep country landscapes clean, started making big gauzy wings across every picture. Pretty soon he was lacing the wings like a wasp’s or dragonfly’s, or maybe adding intricate bird feathers as his own weight dropped and he began to resemble a shadow.

Della was relieved when he rolled over and she could no longer see the inked serpent, and she remembered how the paper had done a feature story where he claimed he saw everything with angels just whooshing by. “He’s got courage,” they said. “The strong will to live,” “touched by the spirit above.” And as the artist had shrunk, the canvases expanded and took on the eerie amberish light that became his signature. Then came the letters, before there were even words, just little bursts of the alphabet worked into a princess tree’s limbs or the woodgrain of a barn door. His mouth and radiated throat tissues were too sensitive for anything but dull food like cream soups, and while his appetite dropped and dropped, he kept working. That’s what the story had said.

Then the local station’s gal-everything interviewed him on “Down-Home Folks” and did a tour of his humongous studio that had once been a Woolworths. He was smiling and walked with a cane, “a man with a mission,” the cheery reporter said, and the famous face jug potter Dill Silver from up in Rabun was quoted: “Cleve Medlock is the most original, God-shocked artist in Georgia today.” But if Mr. Silver was so set on God, Della wondered, why had he given Cleve that red demon-faced jug with the Satan stare? It sat there before the mirror, snaggled white teeth jutting from its snarl, goggle eyes, big yokel ears and two little spike buck horns. Its red glaze was the exact color of evil, of monstrous sin, and every time Cleve saw her shudder at it, he’d say, “It’s a magic jug, Della. You just blow across the mouth hole real gentle and whisper your wish. You know the devil has the power to grant favors. Try it, even if you don’t trust him. Make a wish. What can it hurt? Go on.” Then he’d laughed that broken laugh. Maybe Mr. Silver had seen something terrible behind the glowing talent.

Della had known of Cleve long before the media barrage, of course, had seen him playing baseball when they were at the high school. “Go Rattlers!” she’d holler from the stands. He was a star shortstop back then, reckless on the bases, sassy to runners, a golden glove. And the time she passed close by him at a church ice cream supper, he winked and said, “Hey, Sweet Cheeks.” She’d blushed, while he kept walking, but she couldn’t resist sneaking a look as the back of his tousled head merged with the crowd. He had a magnetism, an aura that made her heart rush in an unfamiliar fashion.

The next year she was in college over at Milledgeville, dropping things, as usual, losing her keys, forgetting her clothes in the dryer, a loner but doing well enough in classes, reading up on Charlemagne and economics, that crazy Edgar Allan Poe. When she made the Dean’s List, her father set down his Mexican beer long enough to say to her mother, “Olive, it’s about time a Moxley showed them how smart we can be. Boy Howdy, our girl has found her niche.” An instant later he spun around and snapped at Della about the outlet cover she’d cracked that morning. “I didn’t see it,” she said, meaning the strung-out vacuum cord, and ran back to her room crying, aware that not even the Dean’s List could save her from being Bumbling Della, the big girl with sparkling red hair, good intentions and precious little grace. The object of everybody’s scorn. The next winter she left school with just the associate degree and became a teacher’s aide.

She winced when a wave of pain crossed her brow, and she squinted again at the TV.

As the light-colored Negro with the stormy hairdo swept her hand in a swirl around central Georgia, Della recalled how elementary education had seemed to scoop her up. “It looks as if this low pressure center to the south is going to bring us little relief,” the woman announced with no traceable accent. “We’re still at zero for rain this month, and the governor is calling for disaster aid to help the beleaguered farmers.”

The climate cam revealed a fogged-up satellite shot, then zoomed in on a parched field of soybeans—measly, wrinkled things. “I wouldn’t say we need a miracle”—she was pinching up her face in a grin—“but these folks down here in Dixie could use some wet intervention in the worst way. We’re keeping an eye on developing tropical storm Gustav, keeping our fingers crossed hard.” She held up a hand with two long fingers twined.

“Goosed off?” Della wondered. Cleve adored this cable forecaster, whose name was Lanelle and who was a certified meteorologist. She looked tall, but you could never tell in front of that shiny map, because they never showed her standing around other people. Della chuckled, because an earlier report had said it was a good night to go out and watch the Persiads in the northeast sky. That, she believed, was what a meteorologist ought to be doing, studying up on meteors. Then Della snickered, recalling what she’d heard about there being no real geographical picture behind the weather people. They had to memorize where the maps would show up on the screen, because all the signs and symbols of the climate were virtual, projected for the home audience. That Lanelle woman in the foolishly short skirt and brassy earrings the size of fruit jar lids was actually standing in front of a screen as blank as a movie theater at high noon. If that didn’t beat all.

The weather situation was not quite distracting Della from the pulsing current of pain. Rolling over to retrieve her ginger ale and bourbon, she felt a sharp pang where she knew the old bruise glowed under her T-shirt, right over the ribs. It was pretty typical: he’d pushed her into the side of the chiffarobe on Wednesday. Now the spot was a big island of colors darkening toward the center like an oil spill, painfully beautiful, but nobody else would see that one. It was as if the man had a sixth sense, even when he lost his temper, about what way to shove her, how to create those little accidents that fit in with her clumsy history and didn’t signal abuse. Tonight, however, he’d gone whole hog. She uncapped the plastic bottle and downed another caplet. Two.

Hearing the sawmill of his snore rise a pitch, she looked over at his face, which was not in focus tonight and seemed to have changed into somebody else over the months as he drank the weight back on. The changes had been good at first, adding up to a gallows cheeriness. He’d gotten soft-spoken, too, and a little funny. When she’d seen him at the gallery opening just a year and a half ago, he’d made jokes about how his hair was coming back with the feel of crab grass and how his feet were so numb he couldn’t remember whether or not he’d put on his fairy slippers. His toes, he joked, felt the green way they’d looked years ago in the Sears shoe department’s x-ray machine. She’d seen spunk in his light-hearted approach and had taken a shine to him. After all, why not? The papers said that collectors from all over the country were hungry to buy his paintings. “Survivor Art,” they called it—and the pictures had titles like “Pecan Tree No Seraph Now” and “Filly with Angelosis Mane,” “Major Bovine Hosanna,” “Halo Bullock.”

He no longer looked like the Gitmo camp inmate from the TV news, but he smiled and said no thanks to the wine she offered at the gala reception: “My throat can’t take it still. Those chemicals leave their mark. Good wine and cheap salad dressing feel like uncut home squeezings going down. I mean BURRRN!” He laughed and said he remembered her from that time at Adoration Baptist. “Home-made tutti-frutti,” he’d said, “peaches and cream.” Cameras flashed, and she smiled.

When Della was honest with herself, she knew she’d started hoping right then he might somehow be her ticket out of a sorry existence, a chance to see Atlanta and maybe New York. Hello to elegance and respectability, goodbye to raggy collards and her daddy’s sour rebuke wearing away her heart like a tireless sandpaper. But that wasn’t why she’d said “yes” in the end. In the midst of a whole county mired in cracker blandness, Cleve had personality and natural zip. He could make you believe the world wasn’t standing still, but spinning in fascinating ways. She had never guessed what direction the spin might take, that it might become a tornado swirling her to destruction.

Now here he was, a famous loafer with satiny sweat suits, wrap-around sunglasses and a cell phone, assuring his Atlanta dealer every day that he had a new series of canvases stretched and blocked out with a dozen sketch pads ready to contribute the details. He’d spend hours diddling the internet, working up his home page with tidbits of inspiring language and scanning in photographs of his early art. Then he’d drive his Montero down to the Hollow Log Lounge and buy beer for the other shiftless loungers. When he’d had almost enough, he’d come home and snatch the remote from her, click on the Weather Channel and say something like, “What’s the forecast, babycakes? Anything. I can handle it. I’m a fucking survivor.”

The snake was the worst part. Fond memories of the baseball uniforms had recommended the idea to him, she was sure. Because the tumor had been in his neck, all that tissue along the jaw and under the chin around the surgery scar was nerve-dead to him. He’d had to switch to an electric razor because he couldn’t feel sensations enough to know how much blade pressure he was applying. He’d drawn blood a couple of times, just a trickle seeping through the lather, when he figured he needed to give up the plastic Bics before he murdered himself. The buzzing Remington with its twisted cord must have let the inspiration break through, because he came up with the diamondback idea on his way out of the twin-sink master bath.

All that morning he’d danced around the house imitating Grandpa Jones’ song “Here, Rattler, Here.” Now the tattoo was coiled around his left arm, then over his shoulder with the arrowpoint-looking head across the area of the incision. He’d been sure the needles wouldn’t hurt him in the tender parts because he’d scarcely felt anything there since the surgery. He’d been wrong on that one, but OxyContin, he’d said, could work wonders. The way he was sprawled at the moment, Della couldn’t really see it, but she knew it was over there, fangs bared, tongue forking out like a scarlet Y, gold eyes with a sparkle that looked alive. He’d drawn it up himself and persuaded another layabout—“Visionary Artists” they called themselves now— to work from his stencil. Snakes had filled his sketchbooks for weeks. Coiling snakes, s-shapes on rocks, tangles of them in deep viper nests. She had seen enough threatening reptiles to last a lifetime.

But that wasn’t what got him famous. As he worked late into the night at his jumbo easel, the letters that appeared in fencerails and magnolia blossoms had begun to arrange themselves in snaky cursive words, bits of scripture at first, then improvisations on the holy verses. The pinions and breast feathers of those crossing angels were made of word-scribble which could be read with a magnifying glass. They were like some radio preacher’s raving, full of warnings and Hebrew names—Tophet and Shem and so on—but interrupted with stranger American words like “honeymilkswill,” “petalshine,” “serpent-frail bruise” and “Cherokeet commandments” repeated three or four times sideways, topsy-turvy, cattycorner, trilled out with extra letters and cryptic emblems. And the colors he swirled were just brilliant. He had stolen the sheeny look a crow’s colors take on in slanting autumn sunlight. He had a theory that every swatch of black in the world was made of all colors. He believed that evil was made up of every sort of goodness, just overdosed till it couldn’t sustain the good anymore. Museums in New York had started buying his work, and some oncologist organization he’d given a slide show for now planned to purchase enough of his paintings to hang in every waiting room their outfit had a hand in. If they only knew.

“Requiem of the moral spectrum.” “The composition of sinful light.” “Glory of Sheol’s impasto.” “Resurrection of the pastel.” That was how he had talked when they began spending time together, and he’d get excited and show her huge art books, pointing out how the famous masters of history all agreed with him. She had found it all so hypnotic that she was willing to ignore the times he’d lost his temper over small things—tacky texture in a new tube of acrylics, the lawnmower cord that snapped, a waitress who was not peppy enough to suit him, brushes that shed their expensive hair into his eerie moonsets. She believed he might be a genius, so little things, minor maladjustments, were understandable. He had gazed Death in the face, and he was still just starting to mend. She saw the same high-strung touchiness in the third graders she worked with, and she knew that artists had to cling to some of the child in themselves to keep away from the spoiling effect of society and business and the like, but it wasn’t a pretty process. “Shut your pie hole,” he’d say when a temper fit came over him. “Woman should only be seen.” Sometimes he’d take a butcher knife to a finished picture, and Della had to leave the room.

Lanelle Weather was talking about a forest fire in the Appalachians. It was ravaging some national park, and the wilderness animals were scurrying like crazy, though many of the poor things could not outrace the blaze. Firefighters, she said with a sorrowful look on her face, kept running across whole patches of assorted bones where the many species had gathered, cornered by the common peril of encroaching flames. Smoke jumpers and men on the backfire line were in constant danger from poisonous snakes.

Della knew that look on the woman’s face, though, and it was fake. She was sure it was taught at broadcast school, and most of the weather women had a version of it. Not so much the men, who tended to look puzzled when their scripts called for either a smile or a turn toward the serious. Della was worried the whole planet might combust.

She also knew that Cleve would be onto this bone thing quick as a terrier. He’d start planning to paint animal remains with apocalypse warnings in the shadowy streaks. He was all elaborate plans now, beer and schemes and a mean streak smoldering but always ready to blaze. She hated him. When she said it out loud, the syllables slurred and hovered: “I hate him.” The pain in her cheek surged to confirm the three words hanging in the stale air.

This had not started as one of the worst nights, but his bringing home the life-size cardboard effigy of Dale Earnhardt Junior from the bar was a new low in childish mischief. The cut-out was outfitted in that red Budweiser jumpsuit and grinning like a possum out on bail.

“Here’s the man, E-Two,” Cleve had said, waltzing the cut-out around the livingroom. “I’m going to get them to commission me to paint his car. That will make my paintings the fastest things on mortal wheels.”

Then he leaned his hero against the china cabinet and threw himself into the recliner. “Sweet Cheeks, it doesn’t get much better. I should start putting the Winston Cup in my farmscapes, race fans in the tree bark, hubcap for the sun. Crack me another beer.”

She knew he’d had this thing, this itch for the Earnhardt family’s fame, when he started growing the little goat beard he called his “NASCAR extension.” As far as she could tell, the car races were as monotonous as the weather channel or the O. J. chase from a few years back, but he’d get excited talking about all the art opportunities at racetracks—Daytona, Talladega, Atlanta—and when he got in a heat, his blood would pump and his neck swell up, lending the snake emerging from under his collar an even more menacing profile. She’d seen a TV movie a spell back called “Slither.” It was all about snakes that were not one whit afraid of people, and Cleve’s pulsing neck reminded her of the special effects. She’d had nightmares.

“Get me a goddamned beer.”

That was when she’d made her mistake. “That snake on you is a waste,” she’d said, turning away, only half wanting him to hear, “because you’re a snake your own self, a Satan snake.” She’d been whispering, but then she whirled to face him and nearly spat it: “You’ve betrayed your whole art inspiration and become a greed machine fuelled on bottle beer. You’re just faking it now, Cleve Medlock, you and your Junior Dale. You’re pitiful.”

What she remembered—lying still now with her ginger ale and vibrating pangs, while Lanelle explained how ancient people had seen drought as a punishment from the gods—was coming to on the floor of the dark, blurred living room. The phrase “talk back to me!” still echoed in her head, and now above the courting insects she could hear a mockingbird outside like a self-starting juke box, and the “Local Weather on the Eights” theme was coming from the other room. All those mixed musics made her lie back down and think, “I’ll get up directly, and everything will be fine.”

It was only when she had tried to move that she realized how much her cheek bone just to the side of the left eye ached. Raising her fingers to test it for blood, she found there was a tender knot there the size of a Muskogee pecan. Making it to the kitchen, she’d put ice in a glass first, along with a dash of ginger ale and a glug of bourbon. His pain pills were sitting on the table, and she twisted the cap off and tossed one down, swallowing hard, feeling the tablet push through her throat. She could taste the mediciny dust, so she took another long swig, then pocketed the bottle and, wrapping a double handful of ice cubes in a dishcloth, held it to her swollen face as she sipped from the glass. Her lips and tongue could feel the dried lipstick on the rim, and she knew there were tears sliding down her cheeks, but she wasn’t exactly angry yet, just bewildered at what made her blurt out such a face-on, asking-for-it thing when she knew full-well how dangerous he had become. Standing up, she felt the room begin to shift and shimmer in a way she didn’t altogether dislike. “No,” she thought, “no. I am angry.”

When she reached the bedroom and found him asleep, Della had to work hard not to see herself in the mirror. She didn’t think she could stand the sight of her damaged image, and then a wave of alarm shot through her, because there would be no way to hide this mark the next day. She couldn’t let the children see it, nor Edna Boone, the teacher she worked with. Edna loose in the world was a pitiful thing, a bone-lean spinster with a face pitted as driftwood, but in the schoolroom, Miss Edna was the empress, and she bullied Della as much as she did the children. More than once she’d already remarked about Cleve’s downslide, how he’d begun to lose respect from everybody but the loonies who thought art was just a sarcastic riddle. Cleve had snorted about old Edna and said, “Quit the place, Della. Suffer the little children. Walk away from the bitch. We surely don’t need the money,” but she needed something regular and useful to hold still in her mind. The children were her lifeline to the world.

Right now her greatest fear was that he’d stir from his stupor and get randy again. She had not minded the sex part at the beginning, as he had been tender and a little pitiful in the weakness brought on by all the medicinal shocks to his system, but as he had gained strength, his lovemaking had become more robust and, eventually, rough. Mostly, he’d been too soused to rouse lately, but the three or four times—no: it was four; she could remember—since the rattler had been hued in were horrible to her. She had to close her eyes not to see the snake throbbing above her, its eyes and fangs eager to penetrate something. This was not very different from the life of fear she had tried so hard to avoid, always hearing her father’s voice in the background saying, “She ought to marry some dumb cropper whose life can’t be spoilt by clumsiness. If she ain’t going to pay closer attention to this world, she might’s well sweep a yard and milk a crippled cow.”

She had to brush that voice away from her mind like a spider web. Tiffany Beale would have said to dial the police. She could almost hear it: “Get that blue-light special working for you, woman. Run that cracker paint man out of your life.” But looking at the cheap samples and their purple plastic bag on the dresser, Della began to sob. A dizziness rose up through her, starting in the stomach and climbing to her head, as she lay back on the edge of the bed. Lanelle was chirping about fronts and pressure patterns behind her, and the TV light made the room want to swim.

That was when he rolled over, came back to earth, but she could hardly believe what she saw. Cleve still looked asleep, dead to the world, but what had rolled him over was his arm, or really, the thing on his arm. She was sure the snake was actually writhing and hissing on his bicep, its rattles down by his elbow making a shiver noise. “Hush,” they said, “hush.” When its tongue flicked across Cleve’s neck and the eye gleam from its sockets intensified to pure fire, Della dropped her drink and brought her hand to her mouth to stop the scream. It couldn’t be, but it was.

The room was foggy, but she was sure the pattern on the snake began to move and glow, to pulse like a winter star, and she could see in the gold and rust crisscross, letters were forming in a tiny cursive. And it made sense: Finally, the monster had taken him over. Cleve might already be filled with the poison, already dead and swelling, but the snake itself was live, winding, its head shaped like the design on the ace of spades, its split tongue darting in and out. She knew it was trying to trance her, as its one word over and over was “whisper, whisper, whisper,” merging with the dim choiring of cicadas outside, and she was afraid of swooning, of falling over in a spell till the snake crawled across the green sheets, slithered upon her and went for her jugular vein. She backed away, her hands behind her fumbling for something to wield.

It was the red face jug her fingers found close by, its rounded handle accepting her grasp, its weight in her hand something perfectly calculated, its surface gleaming in the flickery TV light. High above her head she raised it, while she finally looked the shimmering worm directly in the eye. Then she brought the demon face down with all the force she could render, and as the vessel struck the snake with a clonk, the sound that came out of her mouth was, “Whisper this!” Her arm rose and fell four times before the jug shattered, each stroke accompanied by her battle cry—“whisper! whisper!”—and when she regained her breath and her balance amid the shards of scarlet clay, the snake was limp and ripped open. Cleve himself was covered in blood, mangled and without life. It was if he too had been glazed, and the words on the snake scales had returned to the body artist’s needled inks, now meaningless and without menace.

Turning to the mirror, seeing herself bruised and bedraggled and out of focus, Della slowly lifted the complimentary comb from the skelter of items on the dresser. Her hand shook, and her whole body felt a chill like electricity.

“I have to fix myself so nobody will know,” she said to her reflection, as the room went dark and tilted, but her voice was cracked like a broken windshield. The weather woman, meanwhile, was promising people in southeast Texas an overnight gully washer.

“I have been a bride, after all” thought Della. “I have to make myself presentable. Isn’t that right, Cleve? Isn’t it so?” Opening her make-up case, she looked back and forth from the mirror to Lanelle on the TV screen. If she could only get that stormy look into her own hair and hide the bruises with pancake, maybe no one would notice, and perhaps, while she was at work with the children, all the snakes of the past year would slink back to their caves and crannies, and everything would be better, clean and changed. What she would do with the body, she wasn’t sure, but a capped well on her daddy’s back acres had always seemed like her to be the entrance to Hell.

Her hands were too unsteady to apply the eye liner evenly, and she gave that up. “Tomorrow,” she said. “I wish tomorrow was already long gone.”

Leaning closer into the mirror, she smiled and mimicked Lanelle’s hand motion for a rapidly developing low pressure system. It was like old Vanna White’s gesture toward a vowel on “Wheel.” Maybe this was the perfect moment for another lovely pill.

“Later in the week,” the weather woman said, “you ladies and gents better hunt down your umbrellas and galoshes. Once the Big Easy gets its drenching, the whole Greater South can expect our prayers to be answered by what the Gulf is sending—buckets of precious, blessed rain.”  

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