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㰡n style="font-variant: small-caps">m a morning manﳰan>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.

     & Iயt ignorant of what෡y beyond me. Creation doesn೴op at the inside edges of my brain. Donਡve 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 Iயt looking. My mental notebook canਯld it all. So I pay attention. I try to measure up to my undeserved benefits.

     Like this morning. Iೡshaying around the kitchen. I௲ange juice, Iඩtamins & banana & Mister Caffeine Genius, the man who젍 put Starbucks out of business when the moment಩ght. My relationship with my black & chrome machine is so intimate it makes me high every day.

     Hannah says I never met a plan I couldn͊ sabotage. All right, a smart woman is my wife. Hasnೡid anything yet that didnୡke plenty of sense. But what I reply is one person͊ aimless & random is another਩dden mosaic. The patternવst of a larger scope. Got to take two steps back to see it. Itലue 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, I͊ been working on putting the daily details into place. Baby girl comes into your life, you堍 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 people૩ds 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 wouldn࣯me 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. Eve͊ 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 Iࢥen up to was unpremeditated & higgledy-piggledy but design nevertheless. I was Einstein࣯usin who hadn๥t realized what his mission was. Make a life out of Tinker Toys. Thatੴ! 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 I͊ playing on ignorance alone, but that is just because most people͊ eyes are not adequately peeled. I canഥll you how the great galaxy works, because it͊ beyond me. When confronted with the big picture, I, too, shut up. But I堧ot a passion for the thumbnails, each & every. I get up in the morning, & instantly my hierarchy pops into focus楬 Hannah, Midnight Junior, & next comes either my coffee or my truck.

     Tell you about that truck䒳 a Honda, & forgive me if Iࡠfool for a commercially motivated maker of vehicles. Money-grabbers, I know, but I堢een 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詣h is 10 years old now, going on 186,000 miles᳠the 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, I͊ have done it yesterday.

     Few years ago I had this addiction for Burger King Texas Whoppers. Also the large chocolate shakes at Al͊ 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 didn͊ 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౵ick on my feet. Not that Iࡢout 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. Donࢬame her, Iࡠtosser & 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 Hannah͊ direction & my elbow whammed her in the eye. Three days she was ashamed to go out of the house because of the bruise. 衴ੴ, for you, my man,㨥 said, but she didn୥an she wouldn೴art out the night with me. Itવst 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崠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 method੮vite 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堍 got hello-and-how-are-you status with many a viable lady here in Burlington. This one & that one. Okay, Iࡠ flirt, I admit that, but as any of my flirt victims will testify, I don৯ 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, itવst 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鴨 a look about chest high. Like that. It comes to nothing. So letೡy that at Woodruff Lumber, there͊ one Linda Ellingsworth of the very stylish raspberry sorbet blouse, one button undone for the sake of customer relations & a schoolboyलeams. Under the fluorescent lights of the commercial enterprise᭰; under any real-life circumstance鮤a & I come to no more than some moderately charged chit & chat. But if I can೬eep, 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 she͊ 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 ladies튉 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 that෨en 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 Iࡢove 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 loose. See one of those men with three asses waddling down the street, you know it͊ quarter pounders got their teeth in the fellow࣡n�op 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 Horace͊ videos. Hannahडd͊ dead now⡤uated this planet᭰; as fine a man as Iॶer 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, & Horace෯men all knew it졲a, Hannah, & even Eve襹૮own it a long time. But they didn෡nt 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 Horace͊ 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 Iಥady to transport straight outside to the trash barrel. But I donࢥcause all of a sudden I don෡nt the rubbish guys to see this particular variety of dirt coming out of Clara Housemanਯusehold. 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堧ot 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.

     Doesnഡke long to forget all about Horace. Start to finish I watch the first one͊ 诵rs dissolve out of my life.

     Watch the others, too. Hannah & Eve are over at Claraਯuse. 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 requests쬠 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堯nly just now noticed how quiet it is in here. Itࡠroom I use for storage of what I can౵ite make myself throw away. Big box of clutter & none too well lighted. Horace once stepped into this room & got one of his involuntary smiles. 詳 is the difference between you & me, Bill,튉 he said. 駨t here.튉 But I knew what he meant was 駨t there.ﶥr at his place. His study over the garage where it଩ke a home office showroom. Okay, so I͊ thinking about Horace & myself & how we堳o 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裥pt not for procreation.

     I canಥally 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෡nt to know what I couldn͊ help knowing.

     It wasnࣵriosity about what Horace had seen, it wasnࢥcause I didn෡nt the rubbish guys to see the dirty goods coming out of the Houseman house.

     It was me⤠ wanted to see what I͊ 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೴ash.

     Now I had it installed in my brain.

     & it hooked up with something else in there.

     Hannah࣯olness 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 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 wasn೯ happy with what I brought to the occasion. She never said anything. We had a little conversation. 咬l get the hang of it,㨥 said, very cheerful, & I thought she was right about that. But over the years, there was less & less. Okay, as the poet says鴴le, less, nothing. There wasn͊ anything lately. The last couple of years. Disappeared from our lives. & the old brain wasnयing a great job of facing up to the absence & processing it out.

     Live inside the elephant, you don೥e 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. I͊ say love you, too, babe, & go on about my business. But೥e it now䠷as 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, don͊ 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堭aking a go of it.

     But at this particular moment in my cluttered & badly lit office鴨 about enough room to sit as a one-hole outhouse৩ve over to several minutes of deep sorrow for our man Bill. What a lousy life, his wife doesn͊ go for his bedtime manners & methods, & now he࣯ntaminated 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堢eating somebody bad in tennis, donଥt up, don৩ve 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. He젦igure out what͊ wrong with the way he͊ playing & try to fix it. He젣ome back & play better & maybe even beat you. But win or lose, he젢e better off for your having given him nothing. If he৯t any character at all, he doesn෡nt your charity. To show you respect him, you堧ot to try to hammer him down.

     Okay, so I see I堍 been beaten. Don૮ow who my opponent is, didnॶen know I was playing, but now I see I have to put the loss behind me. 10,000 pieces of this life I堍 assembled for myself, at least 9,750 are still in place. A few replacement parts, re-think the design, move a few items around, & I젢e good to go.

     First of all, because I know I can͊ go back & unsee the videos, I take the eat-so-much-it-makes-you-sick approach. I put away poor old Horaceࢬack sack, I head out Williston Road to Airport Video, & I rent my own swatch of the nasty things. Five at a time, thatനe ticket. In three weeks I watch 55 of the things. I͊ hiding in the closet of a brothel & watching lady after lady bring in customer after customer. Sandblasters keep working over my pelvic area. I੮ a nightmare of sex education. I meet 1,000 naked men & women, most of them people I wouldnॶen want to ride on a bus with. I堍 got my nose right up in these stranger͊ crotches. The region of hell to which I堢een consigned is the one reserved for people who don૮ow what they did wrong but know they did something & so they堍 volunteered to be punished. Thereനis special treatment whereby you堡roused more or less constantly & you hate what you堍 seeing & what it makes you feel like, but you堨elpless to look away.

     I don෡nt to, but I acquire an expertise. I get to know the actors & actresses᮹ 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 canਥlp developing a grudging admiration. This guy knows what heयing, I젴ell 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. Thereࡠswimming pool that Iలetty certain is somewhere in southern California. Thereࡠ house with a winding staircase some director must think is a cool place for people to have sex. Thereॶen a tennis court. Sometimes random people walk by a fornicating couple. Often there is fake sexual moaning in the background. I find that Iॳpecially alert to the noises & facial expressions of the actresses. Evidently itനe 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嶥r & scabs, bone ache & dry heaves૥ep at it.

     Logistically it͊ shockingly easy. For work I make my own schedule. Eveࢥen away at school & out of the house long enough that I৥tting used to it. Hannah does property appraisals for the city, & so sheயt here most of the day. Midnight Junior may have wondered why I堳uddenly 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 isn࣯mpletely hateful. When Iயt watching the pictures, I have this nagging desire to get back to the task. I෩tnessing the citizens of hell receiving their eternal punishmentasing 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࡮other 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衴෨at I feel like when I௵t in the world. My skin feels like a body-sized sack of worms. All along I場hought that the end would arrive on its own, without my having to do anything. There젍 come a momentṢe in the middle of a particularly intense episode of copulation襮 I stand up, snap off the machines, & know I堍 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঩rst 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 & don͊ rent a new batch. Don͊ 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堣arried with me wherever I堍 gone.

     I drive home, feeling righteous & powerful. A feather floating. A balloon rising. My truck doesn͊ despise me any more.

     All this time I堍 kept Horace௲iginal five down in my office, way back in a filing cabinet full of old receipts.

     Turns out not to be so easy. I堍 accidentally trained my body & my brain. What else is there? Whatever the else is襠me of me᳠to 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駨t there͊ 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 Iयing okay, but somewhere inside I堧ot the shakes. Even so, the feeble no͊ gotten louder & gained conviction.

     Itࡠweekend, & Hannahਯme. She & I are coming up on nearly 30 years of knowing each other. I൸; she൶. 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 don୵ch hang out with anybody. Which is probably what we saw in each other. Even now that Eve௵t of the house, we堍 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 sheಥading 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 sheࡷake, I bring the paper & the coffee to her. I havenयne this in quite a while.

     鬬ie,㨥 says with a drowsy smile, rising to her elbows. She takes a chance calling me that old grade school name. I don଩ke it in anybody elseදice & even in hers only once in a while. From Hannah, it͊ a sweet tease, a friendly I-know-you. 鬬 to you,钬l snap if Iࢵsy the way I usually am, a joke with an edge. But I don͊ this morning.

      Ṡit again,頍 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 Hannahനe one who knows I like it better unspoken. She৯t 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. Canਥlp shaking my head about the difference even though if Hannah noticed I͊ have a hard time explaining.

     I keep standing where I am. Which I guess is not what she or I expect. Iथfinitely 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. She৯t on her red & white striped LandŮd ripped-shoulder-seam nightgown that she should have thrown away last year, & there͊ 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. 襲e you been, Billie?㨥 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.

     嬬লont yard,頳ay. 崴ing chewed on by dogs.ﳰan>

     ᮬy activities?튉 she asks. Same voice. Same grin.

     I meet her eyes. 崴ing off fireworks,튉 I say. 穭ming with the mermaids.ﳰan>

     ou場he young sailor who came home?㨥 raises her eyebrows. Grin goes up half a notch. How did I ever find such a wife?

     줠Farmer who never went away,頍 correct her.

 

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