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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Chatterbox

A short story, written in tribute to Peter DeVries.

                                                                         

Mrs. Ivey had the maddening habit of enhancing her sentences with verbal embroidery that disguised itself from casual ears, revealing its oddness only after she’d chattered her way into an offshoot subject. Thus, she would describe an annoying situation as something that got her dandruff up, leading to a sudden sermon about buying shampoo. The savings on an economy-sized bottle were worthwhile, she said, even though the container itself would “like, burden the hand. But it’s good for you,” she added, “like lifting weights. My husband lifts weights at the gym downtown, but I don’t go with him much on account of all the dumbbells there, staring at me all the time.”

No doubt. She was an extremely attractive woman. Tank-topped and sandalled, in shorts that snickered at the idea of modesty, she was the cynosure of laundry room, pool, and dumpster at the apartment complex we shared. We shared it with at least a hundred other tenants, and in fact lived at opposite ends of the place, but she and I also shared a schedule of early afternoon errands that caused us to meet fairly soon after I moved in.

“You’re the new guy,” she said, dropping a succession of small, frilly garments into the adjacent washer. I was about to acknowledge that status when she laughed — a wonderfully infectious act — and touched my forearm. “I mean, it’s not like this is some kind of a club or anything, but I’ve lived here nearly a year now and I saw you moving in and everything, so I figured it was just a matter of time before I got to know you — ” and on and on in that vein, her bounty of words a provocative counterpoint to her skimpy laundry. I learned that her name was Rosalie but that everyone called her Peaches, that her husband, Jack, was foreman of a county road crew, that she was 22 but married Jack when she was 18, that he was her first boyfriend and when he came on to her she was “a total innocent. Total. I mean, he shows up with this real smooth line and I swallowed it, foot-long and sinker.”

She was just as innocent as her conversation suggested, as I learned when I made one of those stupid double entendres that are annoyingly easy for men to cook up. “You wear so little clothing,” I said, “that I can’t imagine you get any of it dirty. Unless those clothes encourage, uh, dirty things.”

“Oh, you wouldn’t believe it! If it’s not the house, which is so dusty it’s, like, run your finger anywhere and yecch, then it’s the garden and next thing you know I’m a total mess! Jack says I have a green thumb but it’s usually so covered in mud you can hardly see it!” We spent a pleasant hour killing laundry-doing time, although I see in retrospect that the seeds of the problem were taking root even then. The woman had a thousand things to say and tried to say them all at once. Because she was so bountifully pretty, I let myself be lulled into listening for the sake of looking, patronizing her monologue with well-placed “ah”s and “uh-huh”s and head-nods.

When at length she rounded on me with a question, I was taken by surprise and had to mentally replay her words to understand what she was asking. She’d been talking about the couple of jobs she’d held — movie house sweets vendor, restaurant cashier — and how unfitted for each of them she’d proven. “I don’t know. That last job, that steakhouse, they told me how great it would be, meeting the public and all, and I was thinking I’d be some sort of a hostess but all I ever did was run the credit cards. I didn’t get much of a charge out of it. What do you do?”

I worked the night shift at a radio station in the city, playing classical music for the few who braved those hours. “I’m not sure sometimes if I’m an announcer or a bartender,” I said. “People call to tell me the stories of their lives — ”

“Isn’t it awful how some people are? Nothing better to do than bother someone trying to do his work. My dad was a bartender, too, and he said he should get paid the same as a shrink ’cause he was always giving advice . . . ” She segued into her own experience in therapy (“I told him I’m not paying him to wear my dirty laundry!”) and managed to work that into shopping, wardrobe, and shoe-buying traumas (“They showed me such beautiful I stuff I felt like a heel walking out on them.”) By the time we parted, each carrying a basket of fluffy clothing, I felt numb. I couldn’t decide at that point whether lust or ennui were the dominant sensation. Two days later I knew it was the latter.

That’s when we met again, this time at poolside. I was sunning in a deck chair, idly reading a Glenn Gould biography, when my new friend appeared. Wearing (God help me) even less than in the laundry room. Tenting my lap with the book, I said hello.

“I heard you the other night!” she said merrily. “Yup! I stayed up to listen and there you were! I didn’t realize what a great voice you have — I only saw you talk the other day but never actually heard you!” She didn’t know anything about the music, but it sounded nice. Trouble was, that record I played around 1 AM went on so long she fell asleep to it, but that’s okay, isn’t it?

“Sure,” I said. “That’s why they turn down the lights in concert halls.”

“I always wondered about that! It was so nice hearing it in bed, though, like having you right there to put me to sleep. I usually have a lot of trouble getting to sleep at night, but Jack just rolls over and starts snoring. He’s not too bad, though. If you wanted to hear snoring, you should’ve heard my dad. My mom used to make him go sleep on the couch when he’d get really bad. Jack says I should try counting sheep, but I think that’s a lot of bull . . . ”

My mind, set loose by her loquacity, probed her conversational style. Behind her waterfall of words was a clever but completely artless free association. An image in one thought — sheep, say — set her to thinking about barnyard beasts. And so “bull” was a natural judgment. But it also served as a hinge word, sending her into a description of her household pets. And the pets she wished she had as a child. A petting zoo she visited as a tot with her then best friend, who got pregnant when she was in high school and had to marry the guy . . . . What was intended to be a relaxing afternoon instead found me captive to her prattle until she interrupted herself to wave at someone on an upstairs deck. “Jack’s home,” she explained. “Gotta go. Nice talking to you!”

This set a pattern that Mrs. Ivey followed during the ensuing weeks (I couldn’t bring myself to use her nickname. “Then call me Rosie,” she said when I so confessed. “But Peaches has always been fine. It’s all apples and oranges to me.”) Whether I was taking advantage of the summer sun or simply walking to or from my car, she’d hail me and halt me and start . . . talking. And I could find nothing to do or say to politely shake myself loose.

Rudeness wasn’t an option. Even though I grew tense with anticipation when I heard the inevitable “yoo-hoo,” I melted as soon as I caught sight of her. Away went my day, and I left these sessions mentally exhausted.

Why did the woman chatter so much? I tried a psychological probe, asking about her family and childhood friends, but discovered no obvious repression her words might be masking. She confessed to no troubling unhappiness. The worst problem about her day was being lonely.

“What do you and Jack talk about?” I asked when I was able to slip the question into a words-flood that threatened at any moment to overflow the banks of the subject at hand.

“Oh . . . not much. He doesn’t like to talk. He says he hears too much of it when he’s at work, and could we just be quiet please.” She let out a heartfelt sigh. “It’s really frustrating.”

So that was it. Stymied by a silent husband. The man obviously took her too much for granted. Here I was, living alone, tormented by lust, suppressing that longing while suffering her volubility, while lucky Jack could bed her and keep her quiet. If I couldn’t enjoy her body, I decided with a shamefully mean spirit, then I would see to it that he damn well got to listen to her manic mouth. Jealousy oozed through my scheme, of course, but I convinced myself at the time that I would be doing both husband and wife some good.

“I’d like to meet your husband,” I said. “Why don’t we have dinner together some evening?”

“Really? That’d be great! We’ll have a cookout on the deck!” she decided, and I was invited to visit the following day.

*

Jack Ivey was a small, tense man with a spiderlike spread of thick legs and muscular arms. Like his wife, he abbreviated his costume to accommodate the day’s heat; unlike her, he was hairy and dark. “Good to meet you,” he said as I climbed the stairs to his porch. “Peach has talked a lot about you.”

It occurred to me that she had talked very little about him. I knew his occupation and bedtime and not much more. How had she prepared him for this visit?

We settled into adjacent chairs, rickety aluminum tubes with frayed webbing. Mine wobbled dangerously under my weight. The deck itself was solid although not very large. A propane-fueled grill shared space with a picnic table and planter boxes. “Gonna fire up some steaks,” Jack said. “Want a beer or something?” As I nodded he leaned back in his chair and roared, “Hey, PEACH! Coupla BEERS!” Back to me: “She tells me you’re on the radio. Never can stay up late enough to hear you. Good job?”

I shrugged. “It’s okay.”

“Yeah. Know what you mean. Thing about jobs like we got, you can leave ‘em behind you at the end of the day.”

His wife emerged from the apartment balancing Bud bottles on a tray. She wore shorts and a flowered bikini top. “Jack’s usually pretty bushed when he gets home,” she said, deftly picking up where he left off. “Beer or two, though, and he wakes right up.” She perched on the side of his chair — how it held them both was a mystery — and flung an arm around his neck. “Steaks are all set to go. Still have to throw the fries in the oven. You want a vegetable?”

“What do we got?”

“Frozen lima beans is all.”

He rolled his eyes. “Okay. But cook ‘em first.” The two of them laughed and looked at each other. I managed a grin to suggest I was in on a joke that, in truth, I couldn’t fathom.

“There’s just one small problem,” she went on, stroking his arm. “That was it on the beer. I’m going to pop across the way to the soda store and get another six-pack or so.” She slid off the chair and ambled down the deck stairs, no doubt inviting the secret study of all the stay-at-homes as she crossed the pool area in the complex center and headed for the street on the other side.

“Piece of work, that one,” Jack said, grinning.

I hesitated to agree too readily. Although I didn’t know his degree of possessiveness, I generally assume that it rises in inverse proportion to the badness of the favored brand of beer. “We’ve had some nice talks these past few days,” I ventured.

“Oh, yeah? She let you get a word in?”

“Well . . . she does like to talk.”

“She never shuts up! Drives me nuts.”

Here was my opening. How to persuade him to listen? Obviously, he needed to better understand his wife’s good points — other than the carnal, of course. “I’m surprised at how intelligent she is,” I said, trying and failing to make eye contact with him. My gaze zoomed wildly around the porch, resting on the grill.

He must have followed my eyes. He looked at the grill and said, “Got to light that thing,” and knelt beside it.

“I was very impressed,” I went on, “by some of the things she had to say about her family. They showed real insight. Like the way she figured out about her mother’s inability to show affection, tying it in with her objection to having pets. That’s good horse sense!”

Jack gave me an odd corner-of-the-eye look. I realized that I was babbling. Sweating, too. I couldn’t stop myself.

“And the way she’s picking up on the music I play on my radio show. Here’s someone who knew nothing about classical music, and already she knows the difference between a symphony and a sonata! That’s noteworthy stuff — score another for her.” Good Lord, now I was doing her free-association trick, and I was certain I saw little eye-daggers of resentment pointing my way.

“’Scuse me,” he said, bending to fuss with the gas tank under the grill.

“She’s shrewd, too,” I said, horrified at myself, a prisoner of my own prolixity. “She knows what she wants and seems to get it. I mean, life’s always ready to throw you a little surprise, but she doesn’t just lie back and take it.” No, no — now I was venturing into double entendre, which Jack surely would have no trouble understanding. “I mean, trouble comes along and she just beats it off. She’s, she’s . . . ” I sputtered to a non-finish.

“Hang on,” said Jack. He released the end of the small rubber hose he’d been examining and hurried into the house. He returned with a shish-kebab skewer, which he pointed toward me. “Now, what were you saying?”

“Nothing! Nothing at all! It’s been, what, it’s been not even a couple of weeks I’ve known your wife, I mean I really don’t know her at all, we just see each other in the laundry room or whatever, and she’s got such a big, a big heart, I’m sure she loves you very much, of course she does!”

“Yeah, right,” he said, stabbing the hose with the skewer. He smacked the hose against his palm, putting me in mind of an old-movie interrogation scene, then clamped it back onto the propane tank. He spun the valve wheel and stood back. “You gotta be careful,” he warned, striking a match, and I saw my hands rise and flutter uncontrollably, little-girl like.

“The point is, there’s nothing between us — ”

As we later reconstructed it, Jack’s lunge toward me was intended for my safety. He saw the hose pop back off its stem just as he touched the flame to the burner. By the time he reached me, though, I already had toppled down the stairs.

There was no fire, no explosion. The match went out before igniting anything. Propane sprayed the air for a few minutes as Jack hurried to rescue me. It wasn’t a bad fall as such falls go: I broke a leg and scraped my hands when I landed, but avoided hitting my head. The fracture was bad enough to land me in a hospital bed for what promises to be at least a week, giving me plenty of time to meditate about my unsuccessful style of good-deed doing. As Peaches herself put it on one occasion, “If it ain’t broke, don’t take it to the repair shop.”

Jack feels guilty about my fall, thinking he somehow pushed me too hard. Although he can’t really get here during visiting hours, he has instructed his wife to keep company at my bedside. And there she sits, every afternoon, talking. And knitting, too, the clack of her needles a train-like accompaniment to her run-on sentences. Why knitting? “I heard it’s good for the bones,” she told me. “But don’t laugh at me like Jack did. He says it’s the bones that have to knit, not me, and I told him that was silly and he shouldn’t try to pull the wool over my eyes!”

When she’s here, she drives me crazy. And when she’s not here, I miss her. I tell myself that she eventually has to run out of words. I’ll see her again tomorrow, and this time I’m ready. She’ll arrive wearing some outrageously immodest dress, plunk herself on the chair beside and ask how I’m doing. “Oh, okay,” I’ll say with a happy sigh. “I can’t kick.”


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