Huddle

David Huddle grew up in Ivanhoe, Virginia.  Author of sixteen books of poetry, fiction, and essays, including Only the Little Bone, The Story of a Million Years, La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl, and The Writing Habit, Huddle has lived in Vermont for the past thirty-eight years. 

 

Huddle says: "'A Thousand Wives' is a story that grew out of a story.  Its narrator, William Collins, had a minor role in a previous story; he had a way of speaking that suggested he'd have a lot to say if I'd just give him the microphone."

 

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A Thousand Wives

by David Huddle

 

I’m a morning man—exceptionally alert in the first hours of my day. Lesser men would ignore such pleasures as yours truly carefully notes each after the other. E.g., the glories of water sluicing my noggin & shoulders hot as I can take it. E.g., the quiet house, the fresh day. E.g., the future in general. But a proper order is key: Pee, shower, shave, deodorant, brush teeth with the chattering little machine, aftershave, shirt & skivvies, lights out, & out the door. Make the bed, smooth the covers, & transport the body down the steps to the coffee opportunity. All this well before daylight. From every direction assaulted by blessings.

     & I’m not ignorant of what’s way beyond me. Creation doesn’t stop at the inside edges of my brain. Don’t have to point at the sky whenever I surpass myself, but I do keep track of what comes to me that I had nothing to do with. What makes me happy when I’m not looking. My mental notebook can’t hold it all. So I pay attention. I try to measure up to my undeserved benefits.

     Like this morning. I’m sashaying around the kitchen. I’m orange juice, I’m vitamins & banana & Mister Caffeine Genius, the man who’ll put Starbucks out of business when the moment’s right. My relationship with my black & chrome machine is so intimate it makes me high every day.

     Hannah says I never met a plan I couldn’t sabotage. All right, a smart woman is my wife. Hasn’t said anything yet that didn’t make plenty of sense. But what I reply is one person’s aimless & random is another’s hidden mosaic. The pattern’s just of a larger scope. Got to take two steps back to see it. It’s true that I improvise my day, proceed in spontaneous & inspired decision-making: this to that & back to this. One thing shows the way to another, but the one who observes just a link or two may not be able to explain the overall design.

     After Eve was born I realized that from some point early on, I’d been working on putting the daily details into place. Baby girl comes into your life, you’ve got to throw it all up in the air, let the pieces fall where they fall, & start reassembling the whole apparatus. I did it with gratitude. Blood will educate you when nothing else will. Other people’s kids are invisible to me, but Eve is my bright & shining. Was from the first I saw of her, swaddled up like they were going to ship her out to Tibet & wanted to be sure she wouldn’t come undone. Through the nursery window she was in a line of seven or eight, but she was the baby who glowed in the dark. Floated in a nimbus of light while the other poor little things dreamed about sucking their thumbs. Eve’s dreams flew right over the ordinary dreams of newborns. She was generating visions of the spirit mothers.

     It was Eve made me see that what I’d been up to was unpremeditated & higgledy-piggledy but design nevertheless. I was Einstein’s cousin who hadn’t yet realized what his mission was. Make a life out of Tinker Toys. That’s it! A city on the head of a pin. Get a baby in your house, you slap yourself twice on each cheek & start self-motivating. Pay attention to the nit & grit of your days.

     Which is to say that I may look like I’m playing on ignorance alone, but that is just because most people’s eyes are not adequately peeled. I can’t tell you how the great galaxy works, because it’s beyond me. When confronted with the big picture, I, too, shut up. But I’ve got a passion for the thumbnails, each & every. I get up in the morning, & instantly my hierarchy pops into focus—Eve, Hannah, Midnight Junior, & next comes either my coffee or my truck.

     Tell you about that truck—it’s a Honda, & forgive me if I’m a fool for a commercially motivated maker of vehicles. Money-grabbers, I know, but I’ve been the victim of Dodges, Chevrolets, & Fords. Through the divine inspiration of a TV ad, the Honda came to me. What did it for me was the sound the door made when I shut it, the feel of that resounding tom-tom Thwunk! in my hand, my body, my butt on the seat. That little truck—which is 10 years old now, going on 186,000 miles—was the external manifestation of my internal desires. Every little piece in its proper socket, all of it interlocked like the power grid of America. Dependable as moonlight & stars. Open that truck door & shut it, it sounds the same solid ball-in-the-pocket Thwunk! now as it did 10 years ago. If I could turn the whole US government over to the Honda Corporation, I’d have done it yesterday.

     Few years ago I had this addiction for Burger King Texas Whoppers. Also the large chocolate shakes at Al’s French Fries. Jacked the old physical plant up to 225, the waist size to 38 straining toward 40. Looked like I was gonna go down with a heart plugged up by beef grease & sugar fat. One morning my feet hit the floor & I knew that was the end of my life as a pig. Okay, not exactly that instant but the one after, when I didn’t quite gain my vertical balance. Butt bounced back down to the bed & I thought for a second I was going to have to call in a tow truck to ratchet Bill up to standing. Whatever else I am, a fat boy I am not. In my brain I never was. Purged the bad stuff right out of my diet, got myself down to 175, & started feeling like a high school running back again. Even today I’m quick on my feet. Not that I’m about to put the pads back on & ask if I can work out with the JVs. & some cheerful news reached into me: I can combat the negative when it sneaks into my life. Like it likes to do.

     I used to have trouble getting back to sleep after Hannah left the bed. Don’t blame her, I’m a tosser & a turner, nobody ought to have to try to survive a night under the covers with me. Better to sleep with a cement mixer. Not to mention one night I turned in Hannah’s direction & my elbow whammed her in the eye. Three days she was ashamed to go out of the house because of the bruise. “That’s it, for you, my man,” she said, but she didn’t mean she wouldn’t start out the night with me. It’s just that before one of us nods off she has to slip off to the guest room. For her own safety, she very quietly leaves the bed. I more or less register her departure—but then rise to complete consciousness. Unjust punishment to lie in the dark & the quiet, tired & needing the sandman but mind ricocheting from duties to omissions to unpaid bills to likely trouble to possible disasters. Wide awake & trapped in my brain.

     So I work it out with a not unnatural method—I invite in the imaginative component. As a teenage boy I learned how the night brain can be turned toward rest & release. Grain of sand to an oyster, all it needs is an object. & fact is, in my daily rounds, I’ve got hello-and-how-are-you status with many a viable lady here in Burlington. This one & that one. Okay, I’m a flirt, I admit that, but as any of my flirt victims will testify, I don’t go too far. I just like to chat with the other sex, especially when the other is somebody who pleases my eye. A little hey I like your blouse, it’s just the right color for you & oh thank you, my husband advises me not wear it out of the house, but what does he know & oh well maybe he knows at least a couple things—with a look about chest high. Like that. It comes to nothing. So let’s say that at Woodruff Lumber, there’s one Linda Ellingsworth of the very stylish raspberry sorbet blouse, one button undone for the sake of customer relations & a schoolboy’s dreams. Under the fluorescent lights of the commercial enterprise—& under any real-life circumstance—Linda & I come to no more than some moderately charged chit & chat. But if I can’t sleep, Linda Ellingsworth is on call to visit me in the dark & offer no objection to my undoing the next button down. Spare you the complete narrative. What can I say, I got my rest for a month or two with the help of Ms. Ellingsworth, Ms. Appel, & even Sarah Hopper from long ago seventh grade. Also, because the TV encourages me to note the twitching of her derriere when she’s about to receive a serve, Maria Sharapova was my night visitor once after Wimbledon & another time after the U.S. Open.

     Came a time when I understood there was a profound incorrectness in my methodology. A moral crisis arose in the corridors of my consciousness. I confide it now only because I moved through & beyond it. I begged the ladies’ pardon, apologized for all the unbuttoning & unhooking & sly sliding of the fingers of which I was guilty. I have to go back to my wife, I told them & they sang that’s when those louses go back to their spouses. It was not without some sadness that I turned myself toward greater mental hygiene. What I found was that I could replace these netherworld narratives with beach thoughts, family trips & outings, great restaurant contemplations, visions of Hannah & Eve & me walking down the Champs Elysee in April, the three of us holding hands in the Paris sunlight. I was proud as a monk for making the interior correction. Maybe I’m above average vulnerable to the negative, but I also have the mental biceps to pry it loose, to liberate myself from what wants to drag me down. I know plenty who can’t get loose. See one of those men with three asses waddling down the street, you know it’s quarter pounders got their teeth in the fellow’s can’t-stop brain spot. Lady in her mid-40s in a mini-skirt & fishnet tights, you know she never got over when she was 15 & felt the lightning bolt between her thighs.

     Which brings me to the topic of Horace’s videos. Hannah’s dad’s dead now—graduated this planet—& as fine a man as I’m ever likely to clink a beer mug with or take out in my truck for a little drive to talk about the family & what we need to do to keep the women from despairing over us. Turns out Horace had a stash of the old-time dirty movies. Most unlikely possession I could imagine that man having. But had it he did, & Horace’s women all knew it—Clara, Hannah, & even Eve—they’d known it a long time. But they didn’t want to touch it either. I mean like put their hands on it. So while Horace is still just cooling down to the temperature of his coffin in Green Mountains Cemetery, they send me into his study to fetch out the nasty stuff they know lives in there. Cooperative soul that I am, I do it. A big part of why I get to walk around on the planet on my own two feet is to execute the wishes of my family. Could have been a salamander, a chicken hawk, or a black fly. Instead, I am the willing, if not especially humble, servant of those ladies.

     I haul Horace’s videos out of his Rise & Shine shoeshine box in his study, audience of three silent women watching me take it out. A black plastic bag that I’m ready to transport straight outside to the trash barrel. But I don’t because all of a sudden I don’t want the rubbish guys to see this particular variety of dirt coming out of Clara Houseman’s household. I want to deny the rubbish guys their gloating opportunity.

     A zig when a zag was called for.

     Forgive me, Honda automotives, I take the black bag of items into the truck with me. Transport it home & downstairs & into my office & insert one into the old TV & VCR set-up I’ve got down there for purely educational purposes & have myself a look. More education, mind you. See what Horace saw, obtain a new understanding of the man I thought I knew perfectly well.

     Doesn’t take long to forget all about Horace. Start to finish I watch the first one—2 ½ hours dissolve out of my life.

     Watch the others, too. Hannah & Eve are over at Clara’s house. So I toss the afternoon into oblivion. I observe breasts & butts & vaginas, labia & clitorae, penises & scrotums & buttocks & rectums & tongues, all belonging to an admirable array of ethnically diverse actresses & actors. I become acquainted with dildos in a variety of sizes, colors & mechanical ingeniousness. I witness enough ejaculation to produce a third world nation. I scrutinize much pelvic gyration & more than a few gymnastic positions. I hear all manner of moans, yelps, curses, prayers, shouts, & lascivious requests—all these elements stream through my eyes & ears & filter into my brain.

     When I have reached the end of it, the thought of Horace comes back to me. I blaze with embarrassment to imagine all those things passing before his eyes. But then I start laughing. If Horace Houseman saw what I saw, then no man alive is in fact the actual data you receive by observing him on an ordinary day.

     We are all somebody else. Which is not a funny thought.

     I’ve only just now noticed how quiet it is in here. It’s a room I use for storage of what I can’t quite make myself throw away. Big box of clutter & none too well lighted. Horace once stepped into this room & got one of his involuntary smiles. “This is the difference between you & me, Bill,” he said. “Right here.” But I knew what he meant was “Right there.” Over at his place. His study over the garage where it’s like a home office showroom. Okay, so I’m thinking about Horace & myself & how we’re so opposite. Horace always seemed to me like some mutated variety of a holy man, though he never made any claims to being churchy. The holy man had himself some unholy movies. The procreative act repeated again & again—except not for procreation.

     I can’t really say why it happened, but it was like I got shot right down to the bottom of my own personal Dead Sea. Weighted down with sadness like an iron plate. One of those old iron slave plates I saw in a museum in Williamsburg. I felt like I had one of those heavy black plates just sitting in my chest.

     I didn’t want to know what I couldn’t help knowing.

     It wasn’t curiosity about what Horace had seen, it wasn’t because I didn’t want the rubbish guys to see the dirty goods coming out of the Houseman house.

     It was me—I’d wanted to see what I’d just seen. Which had been several hundred pictures of hell. Some stinking little piece of myself had wanted to float down that river of pornography bad enough that I lied to myself about what I was doing with Horace’s stash.

     Now I had it installed in my brain.

     & it hooked up with something else in there.

     Hannah’s coolness toward me. All of a sudden, I saw it. What did I know, I just grew up like anybody, a baby, a boy, a man, & shazam, there I was—knew nothing about love and/or sex, but figured everybody made it up as they went along, & what was so hard about it anyway? The body finds out what it needs to know. Sure, in our first years of marriage, Hannah & I had sex & plenty of it. The thought occurred to me that maybe she wasn’t so happy with what I brought to the occasion. She never said anything. We had a little conversation. “We’ll get the hang of it,” she said, very cheerful, & I thought she was right about that. But over the years, there was less & less. Okay, as the poet says—little, less, nothing. There wasn’t anything lately. The last couple of years. Disappeared from our lives. & the old brain wasn’t doing a great job of facing up to the absence & processing it out.

     Live inside the elephant, you don’t see the elephant.

     Hannah sometimes would catch me by the arm & turn me in her direction & tell me she loved me & look me straight in the eye. & keep, like, searching my face with her eyes. Made me uncomfortable. I’d say love you, too, babe, & go on about my business. But—I see it now—it was more like she was asking both of us the question. Do I love you? Do I really do that?

     The question of whether I love her, really love her, is not part of this non-discussion, don’t ask me why. I guess both of us figure I do so definitely & obviously that it makes no difference. Something out of whack, but here I am, man of the house, husband of the wife, father of the daughter. We’re making a go of it.

     But at this particular moment in my cluttered & badly lit office—with about enough room to sit as a one-hole outhouse—I give over to several minutes of deep sorrow for our man Bill. What a lousy life, his wife doesn’t go for his bedtime manners & methods, & now he’s contaminated himself with dirty pictures. Boo hoo hoo.

     I bottom out. This is something Horace told me he got from his high school tennis coach. If you’re beating somebody bad in tennis, don’t let up, don’t give him a single point. If anything, play harder. Either he will play worse & lose & maybe throw his racquet & curse & even swear never to play again, or else he will bottom out. He’ll figure out what’s wrong with the way he’s playing & try to fix it. He’ll come back & play better & maybe even beat you. But win or lose, he’ll be better off for your having given him nothing. If he’s got any character at all, he doesn’t want your charity. To show you respect him, you’ve got to try to hammer him down.

     Okay, so I see I’ve been beaten. Don’t know who my opponent is, didn’t even know I was playing, but now I see I have to put the loss behind me. 10,000 pieces of this life I’ve assembled for myself, at least 9,750 are still in place. A few replacement parts, re-think the design, move a few items around, & I’ll be good to go.

     First of all, because I know I can’t go back & unsee the videos, I take the eat-so-much-it-makes-you-sick approach. I put away poor old Horace’s black sack, I head out Williston Road to Airport Video, & I rent my own swatch of the nasty things. Five at a time, that’s the ticket. In three weeks I watch 55 of the things. I’m hiding in the closet of a brothel & watching lady after lady bring in customer after customer. Sandblasters keep working over my pelvic area. I’m in a nightmare of sex education. I meet 1,000 naked men & women, most of them people I wouldn’t even want to ride on a bus with. I’ve got my nose right up in these stranger’s crotches. The region of hell to which I’ve been consigned is the one reserved for people who don’t know what they did wrong but know they did something & so they’ve volunteered to be punished. There’s this special treatment whereby you’re aroused more or less constantly & you hate what you’re seeing & what it makes you feel like, but you’re helpless to look away.

     I don’t want to, but I acquire an expertise. I get to know the actors & actresses—many of them appear repeatedly. I know how they carry out their performances. A few of the women I like a lot & wish to advise as to how they could live more rewarding lives. Just about all of the men I despise, some so deeply that I have to grit my teeth to watch their brutal carnal methods. For one or two of the men I can’t help developing a grudging admiration. This guy knows what he’s doing, I’ll tell myself, then take a momentary satisfaction in seeing if his partner is one of my favorites among the women. I find myself paying inordinate attention to settings. There’s a swimming pool that I’m pretty certain is somewhere in southern California. There’s a house with a winding staircase some director must think is a cool place for people to have sex. There’s even a tennis court. Sometimes random people walk by a fornicating couple. Often there is fake sexual moaning in the background. I find that I’m especially alert to the noises & facial expressions of the actresses. Evidently it’s the gospel of pornography that actresses should keep their mouths open during every phase of intercourse. Also the ladies rolling their eyes & licking their lips is thought to be appealing to viewers. Choreography varies only slightly from one filmmaker to another: Begin with cunnilingus, move to fellatio, escalate to female-superior backward-facing genital sex, & so on until the duet ends with the male ejaculating onto the face and/or breasts of the female who dons a mask of joyful gratitude.

     Deeper & deeper into illness—fever & scabs, bone ache & dry heaves—I keep at it.

     Logistically it’s shockingly easy. For work I make my own schedule. Eve’s been away at school & out of the house long enough that I’m getting used to it. Hannah does property appraisals for the city, & so she’s not here most of the day. Midnight Junior may have wondered why I’ve suddenly started spending so much time in my basement office, but of course the thing about a dog is that whatever he knows gets translated into barking if he tries to talk about it.

     Unfortunately the viewing isn’t completely hateful. When I’m not watching the pictures, I have this nagging desire to get back to the task. I’m witnessing the citizens of hell receiving their eternal punishment—unceasing sexual intercourse. My own genitalia is chaffed from incessant arousal provoked by the videos. Again & again I self-flagellate. It feels dutiful, an act of despair. I’m another wretched fornicator. My own face contorts & grimaces in the throes of what is supposed to be pleasure.

     Desperate for an end to it, I can hardly step into the sunlight outdoors without feeling pale & sickly. Allergic to life—that’s what I feel like when I’m out in the world. My skin feels like a body-sized sack of worms. All along I’ve thought that the end would arrive on its own, without my having to do anything. There’ll come a moment—maybe in the middle of a particularly intense episode of copulation—when I stand up, snap off the machines, & know I’ve reached my destination.

     Not so. Just a slow, spinning tumble deeper & deeper into the contamination.

     Or maybe it does reach its own conclusion, because just at the point when I think I might be the world’s first pornography death, the dimmest light begins to glimmer in a far corner of my brain.

     I have to do it myself.

     I can do it myself.

     I do it.

     Myself.

     I haul the last batch of the things back to Airport Video & don’t rent a new batch. Don’t even walk inside the place, just drop them one by one into the slot for off-hours drop-offs. It occurs to me that they are merely plastic, light to the hand. For a while there, they have felt like enormous stones that I’ve carried with me wherever I’ve gone.

     I drive home, feeling righteous & powerful. A feather floating. A balloon rising. My truck doesn’t despise me any more.

     All this time I’ve kept Horace’s original five down in my office, way back in a filing cabinet full of old receipts.

     Turns out not to be so easy. I’ve accidentally trained my body & my brain. What else is there? Whatever the else is—the me of me—has to say no. My advantage is that I know my life depends on the refusal. The body & the brain want to go downstairs, turn on the machines, slip in the plastic gizmos. Body & brain want it bad. But this little sliver of a thing that wants to rescue me squeaks out its feeble no. Hard Place City—right there’s where I have to live for a few days. Major Difficulty Ave. Discomfort Blvd. Not watching hurts at least as bad as watching. I think I’m doing okay, but somewhere inside I’ve got the shakes. Even so, the feeble no’s gotten louder & gained conviction.

     It’s a weekend, & Hannah’s home. She & I are coming up on nearly 30 years of knowing each other. I’m 58; she’s 56. When I come down to the kitchen after my shower, it occurs to me that from little kids on, she & I have both been loners. We don’t much hang out with anybody. Which is probably what we saw in each other. Even now that Eve’s out of the house, we’re still not close, not by any stretch. Nevertheless, I know how she likes her coffee on a Saturday morning, know she likes to drink it while she’s reading the newspaper. Likes to take her time getting out of bed, make a slow commitment to the day. So when I hear noises upstairs that tell me she’s awake, I bring the paper & the coffee to her. I haven’t done this in quite a while.

     “Billie,” she says with a drowsy smile, rising to her elbows. She takes a chance calling me that old grade school name. I don’t like it in anybody else’s voice & even in hers only once in a while. From Hannah, it’s a sweet tease, a friendly I-know-you. “Bill to you,” I’ll snap if I’m busy the way I usually am, a joke with an edge. But I don’t this morning.

      “Say it again,” I say, setting the newspaper on her knees & the coffee mug on the bedside table.

     She shakes her head. I appreciate the restraint. A thousand wives would probably have said it again, but Hannah’s the one who knows I like it better unspoken. She’s got the bed-head this morning, & her face is puffy. Such eye make-up as she wore yesterday for her property-appraising has smeared down from her eyes just a bit. Not taking her eyes away from the paper, she flaps her hand over on the table, trying to locate her glasses. When I hand them to her, she accepts & puts them on, still without looking away from the front page.

     This is another species altogether from the women in the videos. Can’t help shaking my head about the difference even though if Hannah noticed I’d have a hard time explaining.

     I keep standing where I am. Which I guess is not what she or I expect. I’m definitely a go-about-your-business kind of man, but evidently not today. The room has this scent of Hannah sleeping. Profoundly domestic. Not available as perfume or room freshener except in my exact location. A foot way. She’s got on her red & white striped Land’s End ripped-shoulder-seam nightgown that she should have thrown away last year, & there’s even a little pink line across her cheek from where a pillow wrinkle dug into her skin while she slept. I shake my head again because I know that she really has only two sleeping positions that work for her, & one of them almost always gives her this pink line on her cheek.

     She glances up, peers at me over her glasses. Makes a strange little grin. “Where you been, Billie?” she asks in this voice that sort of hides down in her chest & only comes out every once in a while. A Julie London half whisper.

     “Hell’s front yard,” I say. “Getting chewed on by dogs.”

     “Manly activities?” she asks. Same voice. Same grin.

     I meet her eyes. “Setting off fireworks,” I say. “Swimming with the mermaids.”

     “So you’re the young sailor who came home?” She raises her eyebrows. Grin goes up half a notch. How did I ever find such a wife?

     “Old Farmer who never went away,” I correct her.

 

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