Number Five Terrytown Place
And, of course, there's Richard.
I called him Big Richard -- son of a bitch, Richard. Richard with a two faces and each with a forked tongue, a crawling on his belly dead drunk Richard, who always asked me to forgive him until the next time he hurt me.
My Little Richard cooed in the crib behind me like something out of a dream, always glowing as if out of a haze, like some special jewel dropped into my dismal life as a token of cheer.
But I didn’t feel cheerful now, with one storm raging inside of me and another outside.
A stiff wind blew through the picture window at me from where Big Richard had failed to caulk – one small promise of many he never kept.
I kept looking out because I expected to see Big Richard crawling out of the mud.
But what I saw was my own face reflected in the glass, so full of rage I could hardly believe it was me.
I was always considered the calm one in our family, the daughter who would never lose her patience despite all provocation I had in my life.
I saw the raging storm reflected in my reflected eyes, wind and rain pounding down the front lawn like a hammer pounding in nails.
Weather forecasters conspired for weeks with the news stations to report the assault day after day, reporters standing out in the middle of streets marking the inch by inch rise of the river as it crept slowly up into the city, houses crumbling, shattered families standing on the river banks wrapped in blankets and misery.
Margaret, my neighbor, a graying gossip whose reports did as much to increase my misery as the news did, knocked on my door regularly to check on me and give me local updates on how close the water was coming to our houses – telling me city officials might even make us evacuate.
This was not the news I wanted most.
I wanted to know where Big Richard was and if he would bother coming home again, and whether or not Little Richard would recover from his perpetual illness.
No neighbor or new station seemed willing to give me those reports, only updates on how the storm grew worse, water inching closer, and spreading fear I might have to live the only place in which I felt safe.
At times like this, I missed the city most.
I hadn’t wanted to move here. Big Richard had insisted.
A little town boy, Big Richard had felt lost in the city and hoped to find himself by coming home, little realizing how much of a prisoner he made of me by dragging me to this remote place. He claimed he needed trees and open sky to revive his spirits and restore talents he seemed to have lost in the hustle and bustle of city competition.
If he revived, I was not aware of it – unless, of course, I was his Picture of Dorian Gray, growing miserable as he grew cheerful.
I did not trust in nature’s benevolence the way he did, and did not feel safe trading trees for working sewers. Muggers outside my door I understood better than I did the bears rooting through my trash cans at night.
Now, the rain tapped against the window as if Richard’s nature wasn’t content to remain outside the house, but insisted – like so many other unwelcome guests – on coming inside the house, inside of her
Each drop drew knots of pain in me.
And I had become a tangle of gnarled water, up to my ears in its cold caustic touch.
Even the glass steamed with the conflict, registering my breath as if my breath might cease at any moment.
I wanted Big Richard here so I could ask him what he expected me to do next. Did he want me to run outside naked to dance in the gutter?
Such an antic might cheer Little Richard who had not smiled since his illness had started – each degree of fever stealing away his glow.
But I hadn’t smiled since moving to this “neck of the woods,” feeling generations older than my chronological age of 35, as if each mile north from New York City had stolen years from me.
At moments, I felt my old self pounding inside my chest to get let out. Sometimes, I felt an even younger self pleading for release, like a splinter poking at me if I moved a certain way or thought too much about going home.
The voice pleading for home was always in my head.
"Big Richard had no business bringing you here," that voice whispered.
"He didn't bring me, I came," I always argued back.
"Because he gave you no choice, he came, dragging you along,” the voice said, then urged me to run out into the rain. “Go out, get wet, take off your clothing. Dance in the rain."
I imagined the neighbors talking if they ever saw that, if I ever had courage enough to face wildlife with a life so wild.
I barely knew how to talk to my neighbors, they seemed so alien to me.
Most of them already thought me crazy for staying in the house alone, letting my husband wander around the way he did. They expected me to fight for him. But I knew no fight would ever make him stop.
I had no friends here and Big Richard objected to those I had in the city – as if any would bother to travel so far even to see me.
Margaret was the exception. She came and went unopposed by Big Richard -- who did not see her as competition, or a bad influence the way he had my friends in New York.
“I don’t trust any of those bums,” he’d told me more than once. “They’re all part of your old life, trying to drag you back to the clubs as if you were still single.”
Maybe he believed I might meet a better man that he was and run off, leaving him to deal with apartment and baby. Perhaps that was the real reason for his dragging me here, to complete the isolation his indignation had begun. Perhaps he even suspected the truth of those few male friends I kept seeing in the city after the marriage ceremony, making me break away from them before they laid claim to more than my attention.
Now I had no one’s attention, except for Little Richard’s, whose sick wail proved as persistent as Big Richard’s demands, both resounding with the same unreasonable note.
It’s my own fault. I should have listened to my mother when she said she didn’t like Richard, when she said Richard was too selfish to make good a husband -- though at the time, I was so infatuated with him, with his love-making, with the aura of writer that hovered around him. God, how fast both of those things evaporated once we tied the knot. Maybe the only reason I really went with him because he was the first man to call me pretty -- and mean it.
I wasn’t pretty. I had too much face, too much forehead, and my mouth dipped down at the edges in imitation of a bent sewing needle. To me, being called plain was a compliment. Even to my parents, I was always the second child neither had expected or wanted, but raised out of obligation. My sister, a writer, too, dominated their lives and their interest. More than once, I wondered what might have happened if Richard had married my sister instead.
Perhaps she wouldn’t have drained him the way I apparently have, ruining his inspiration, making him doubt himself and his talents, both with his word processor and in his bed.
Little Richard whimpered and I turned from the window, my shaking fingers curling around the edge of the bassinette, rocking it slightly until the baby stilled.
Poor child. He’s been ill since the rain started. This country life is as hard on him as it is on me, with everything so damp without even a clothes dryer to dry his diapers, only that God forsaken clothes line nobody can use in rain like this. How can anybody live like this?
The news reports talked day and night about the rising river and how it would soon flow over its banks here the way it had down stream. Big Richard insisted the house was safe, well above the water line. But I no longer believed it. I could feel the water oozing around me, waiting to get at me and the baby, and I wondered where we could run when the water finally started coming in under the door.
Maybe I should call Momma, and talk to her about this. As if I don't already know what she will say.
"Okay, fine, so you married a bum," she'd tell me. "That was your choice. Your father told you in was a radical, a regular hippie, and you didn't listen. Now you have to live with the consequences, make the best of a bad situation."
Bum? Radical? That's not how most people saw Richard; he had a way of soothing people doubts with his easy talk, especially when he'd been drinking, of making everything seem all right, even when it wasn't, even when it couldn't be, even when a world of physical evidence contradicted him. He had soothed me about the rising river long enough to make his escape-- though his sagging, alcoholic eyes lingered behind him in the rain, making me miss the part of him that had first seduced me, missed him even as his lie grew more obvious with each inch of rising river. I could hear the swish of the tires through it on the road.
I didn't even know where Big Richard was, only that he had run fast, leaving me to sit with the sick child alone, the smell of illness replacing the smell of booze, a poor trade against the backdrop of the storm, and the memory of the perfumed nights and champagne mornings in New York City -- where no river rising threatened drown me, only the luxury of humanity pressed shoulder to shoulder in the streets.
Margaret reported seeing him lurking around the back door at Mrs. Carter's place in town -- a place with such a well-established reputation that even I had heard of it, hearing the other women chatter on about its exploits through the buss of the hairdryer at the beauty saloon. And Margaret's eyes always wore the same accusing look when she made her reports, as if saying Richard would not have sought such refuge if he found satisfaction in my bed.
It's as if she could read my mind, or see through the walls of the house each and every time Richard hung his head in shame, his naked body limp beside mine, with him staring so hard at Little Richard's cradle, blaming the baby for his own lack of strength, so jealous of my cooing -- as if I am raising two children, not one.
Then, Richard would stare at me, his eyes so full of hate I wondered if I was to blame for his failure, always avoiding those lobster claws he called hands, his manhandling of my breasts and vagina more than I could any longer stand. He only wanted sex; I wanted tenderness.
But I want that, too, just not in his way, not him pressing down on me with his drunken breath and his unreasonable assumption that I should like what he likes when he wants me to like it. Yet without him, I feel so empty inside, as if he's plagiarized something valuable in my life, leaving me too poisoned and bitter to enjoy life with or without him.
Something fluttered in the room behind me and I whirled away from the window to glare, finding that only one small tattered photograph had loosened from the mirror and sailed down to the run, its Scotch tape ruined in the moist air. And from the floor, Richard's face stared up at me, grinning from before we were married, yet diabolical in the implications of that grin. And around him, the elements of my current life framed him in their grey hue.
Maybe if I change everything, move the bed over there and the crib over here or the dresser in the middle, then things will go back to the way they were. Or maybe I need to throw something out? But what? Am I supposed to give up Big Richard? Or Little? Or should I march all the way to town in this storm, baby under one arm, Richard's shotgun under the other, and confront him in a stupid whore house? What talk that would make down at the beauty parlor or in the supermarket.
As it was, people looked at me wherever I went, shaking their heads over me as if they knew all about Richard's behavior and felt pity for us both, yet shrugging the whole thing off as the product of "city people" who didn't know better and didn't belong in this part of the country anyway. Even Margaret found me silly and shrill.
"If you don't like what he's doing, tell him to stop," Margaret once told me.
"But he won't."
"Then get rid of him."
Was it so simple as that? Just tell Richard to leave? Change the locks or better, move back to the city where Richard could not get at me, where I had my own little society of friends to protect me?
I threatened Richard often enough for him to laugh at me, saying I couldn't leave.
"You don't know how," he said. "That's why I married you."
"I thought you married me because you loved me?"
"I do love you, and your helplessness is one of the reasons why."
For that alone I should have left, if I could have left, if I could have found the keys to the car or the bags in the closet, or gotten up the energy to pack.
But every time I think to leave, I think of him when we first met, so kind and considerate, opening doors for me, sending me flowers, telling me again and again just how beautifully he thinks I am. And God knows, it's me this town sees as the shrew, not Richard. For all his city ways, he's found a niche here. To drink with these hillbillies is to be accepted by them, just one more cousin drinking at the troth, while they think I'm the one who drove him there, bitching at him, about living in the sticks.
Yet even the city had taken to Richard's books -- those endless projects tapped out on the keyboard night after night when he couldn't sleep -- books the critics proclaimed testimony of the castrated modern man, struggling to escape his oppression. Those books communicated better with the city than any of my letters did, and sometimes, I feared I would find no friends if I returned, my former social set having fallen in love with my oppressed man the way the locals here had. After all, our letters had grown less over the last year, and I felt as forgotten by the city as much as I did by the town, thinking both city and town thought of me as nothing more than the Mistress of Number Five Terrytown Place.
With a shudder I turned away from the picture on the floor and the room full of her baby's possessions and stared out the window again at the storm, watching the wind bend back one of the great trees, watching the leaves flutter from its branches like birds seeking mass escape, and the whole time, the rain beating harder and harder against the glass, leaving their scummy touch wiggling down before me. I felt dirty and took up a green swipe from between the baby powder and Richard's aftershave on the dresser, wiping at the inside of the window, when the marks ran down the outside.
The baby cooed and I stared at the grey day and the soiled rain, and the trees bending to the storm’s blustery rages, the tensions and excitements of which she had no part, the ultimate victim waiting for the water to rise, or my man to return, or for the baby’s fever to break, helpless to make any of them happen or stop them.
I want to go to New York. I want to find a bar and pick up and man and make him take me to a hotel, and make him fuck me until I’m too sore to fuck any more, until I stop worrying about rain or either of my two Richards. I want a man who can love me and leave me and not lean on me, a man who...
But why did she have to find a man? The laugh escaped me before I remembered the baby, the sound ringing in the room like tinkling glass in a cathedral, oddly out of place among all the solemnities. Margaret had dropped enough hints for me to know I could take comfort in that bed, one more lonely housewife for Margaret’s harem, the touches under the table, the brush of her breasts against my back when walking in the mall.
I leaned my forehead against the class, the cool wet touch kissing my skin, drawing goose bumps, my nipples hardening against my blouse, stinging from the baby’s sucking and abandonment. Could I even picture Margaret’s mouth sucking there? No. Such an idea was all wrong, not wrong in any moral sense -- I’d fucked men other than Richard in New York, but wrong for me. What I needed to prove needed a man.
Otherwise, how do I know whose fault it is?
Richard’s or mine! Margaret wasn’t Richard. Margaret wasn’t a man. And there it was, that disgusting noun: man, everything in my life revolving around it, defined by it, limited by it, made whole by its roots, and finally, and bitterly, abandoned by it, leaving me without definition or sense of self, leaving my to find her own way in the cold water of the perpetually rising river.
And he’s the one who cries on my shoulder, telling me he doesn’t know who he is any more, finding his inspiration in the transition here from New York while losing himself, whimpering in his sleep in the middle of the night so often, I sometimes didn’t know which Richard was crying at any given moment, or which one I should go to when they both whimpered at once.
I wondered if he whimpered now while lying in the arms of his whore or was this just another form of masturbation, something to keep him from going crazy while waiting for me to satisfy him. Or maybe this was his mocking proof, telling me that he didn’t need me. Or all those things at once.
“Why do you go off everyday when your work is here?” I asked him once, and he looked at me as if I had accused him of something.
“Because this house drives me crazy,” he said, looking around. “I feel like a caged animal here.”
“And you think I don’t?”
“Why should you?”
“Because I’m stuck here with the baby, that’s why.”
“You have the mini-van,” he said. “You can drive anywhere you like.”
“Anywhere as long as I drag along my ball and chain.”
“The baby, Richard,” I said. “Little Richard chains me more firmly to this house like a convicted criminal. Sometimes I think you want it that way, that you planned the whole thing, locking me away here like I was some precious jewel.”
“What are you saying, that I should take care of the baby?”
“That would be nice.”
“Then how would we pay the mortgage? It’s my writing that sells, you know, and without my ability to work, we would starve.”
“In some ways, I’m already starved.”
“Don’t start that again, Linda,” Richard yelled. “We’ve been though all that already and it goes nowhere.”
Sometimes, I thought about finding herself a drink, taking her mini-van to one of the hundred’s of taverns within a tank full of gas, and finding a man there, a hillbilly whose shoes still hurt and whose concept of love-making was a roll in the hay.
But right now, I thought of the warmth a drink would bring, oozing down into me, stirring up those parts that made me feel alive again.
I wanted to forget the rain, and the pain, and the isolation. I wanted to dress in silky things and feel someone stare following me across a room.
I want a man, damn it!
I want to feel a man up inside of me, stirring me up, making my heart beat fast and my brows sweat, making me grow moist around him. I want the ice around my heart to melt back into the sense of romance I'd craved since I was a little girl, when I dressed and acted as an adult, without the credentials.
Instead I sit here day after day waiting for Richard to return, as the seasons change and the leaves fall, and the river to rise. Soon, it won't be a flood pressing at my door, but a blizzard, and I'll be frozen inside and out. I need a man to make me feel human again, in the way those women in town have done for Richard.
But the town had no such convenient places for a woman to go, no fancy meat market where I could select between this hunk of beef and that, and for me, only this house existed with its ill content: Number Five Terrytown Place.
I beat at the window with my small fist, the cold jolting through my arm like pain, like sharks of glass or ice rushing into my blood, the cold river running through me, bubbling into my throat, and through the mist that rose to my eyes, I caught a glimpse of movement outside, and slowly made out the shape of Richard, Big Richard, making his steady way up the walk from town.