George Singleton (M.F.A, U of North Carolina-Greensboro) is an instructor at the Greenville Fine Arts Center. His recent stories have appeared in New Stories from the South—The Year's Best, The Georgia Review, The Chariton Review, Cimarron, Fiction International, American Literary Review, Australian Playboy, Oxford Magazine and others.
Dwayne Marthy said he'd seen me before, that he'd tried to flag me down. I apologized when he said it was because his dog had run off and he wanted to know if I'd seen it. I said, "Oh, man, sorry. I know what it's like for a dog to run off, all that worry about whether it was run over or stolen by those people who steal pets." I had this new joke about dog-nappers who check Want Ads for Lost/Reward notices, and how they duct tape silent dog whistles to the grills of their vehicles, and then drive around nice neighborhoods so all the poodles and cocker spaniels and whatever other lap dogs there are come running from behind, easy steals. My old routine hadn't been working and I needed to sit home and think new jokes and stories for the next Holiday Inn lounge comedy circuit tour.
Dwayne said, "He came back. But at the time I thought you was an unfriendly neighbor."
"We haven't had a barbecue yet," I said. "We'll invite you, though." I said, "We'll invite you and yours."
The sky was dark, but it wouldn't rain, both of us knew. I'm not sure if Dwayne did it on purpose, but the nights I went out to water I noticed he didn't—at least until I was done—and on the nights he got out there first to his garden I admit I waited and found a reason to watch something on cable. Gina told me more than once, "Go on out there now and meet him. That's what neighbors do."
And I said more than once, "They're your tomatoes and okra, too. You do it."
Then she'd call me chicken shit, and I'd circle the dining room table a few times thinking how sometimes I wish I still lived down in Florida with my brother working a boat.
Finally I went on out there, though, wearing work pants and a t-shirt, seeing as that's what Dwayne Marthy wore. I peeked out the sliding glass door, looked back at Gina, and went out. Dwayne had his back to my house, so from about twenty yards away I yelled out, "You'd think one of those clouds would let loose one of these afternoons."
He didn't turn around. He turned his nozzle down to mist, but stood as still as an old rock. I turned around and saw Gina pulling the curtain back. Dwayne looked up at the sky where a black, black thunderhead seemed to hover right above our yards. Dwayne said, "I've been praying," and turned around.
I walked ahead and introduced myself, and apologized for having lived beside him a half-year without coming over—not mentioning that it was his duty, in my opinion, to make the first move like they did in movies, hauling over a cake or something and knew not to go into those old excuses about how we've been busy with our jobs, the baby, the PTA, and a concerned citizens group adamant about saving the river. I didn't because it wasn't true, only Gina really worked steadily at the time, we were childless, and although I cared about the river I don't think there was any local group meeting regularly. I said, "It might take more than prayer," like I knew something about religion and miracles.
Dwayne just stared at me the way an old-fashioned wife-beater stares at a judge. I looked down at his plot and counted cabbage heads. Dwayne had those long wiry kind of arm muscles usually seen on longshoremen and monkeys. He wore something in his hair to keep it swooped back and in place—Brylcreem or Vitalis—and I knew if I ever wanted to die by another man's fists I needed only to ask Dwayne what brand mousse or styling gel he preferred.
"Looks like cole slaw in the fall," I said. I pretended to look out towards the road, but really I looked at Gina peeking. I said, "I didn't even know you had a dog, Dwayne," which was a lie. Although I'd never seen the dog, I'd seen his mark on my tires every morning.
"Stays inside," Dwayne said. "My wife don't want another one run over, so he stays inside." He adjusted his nozzle.
This is no lie: we didn't even know Dwayne was married. What I'm saying is, Gina and I'd never seen a woman over there. I looked at Dwayne's left hand and sure enough he wore a wedding band. Of course the first thing I wanted to ask was, "I take it she's your second wife and you don't let her out of the house seeing as your first one got loose and hit out in the road." Instead I went "Huh," and said I had to go back in. I didn't want to forget anything Dwayne said or I thought just in case a joke came out of it.
When I got about to the same place where I first called out to Dwayne, he yelled out, "Hey. Stop by the carwash some time," and pointed. He said, "Corner of 135 and Old Dacusville highway."
I said, "I will," and assumed that's what he did for a living.
Right when I got to our back porch I swear he yelled out, "You could use it," but when I turned around Dwayne Marthy's back was to me.
Inside, Gina said, "Well?"
I said, "Mostly cabbage. Some squash, I think." I turned on the TV. There was an old western on starring no one I'd ever seen. The Indians were white men with bad make-up. One of them had freckles.
Gina said, "Willie," all whiney and hit me with a pillow. "I saw you talking to him but he didn't look like he responded any."
I said, "He didn't much. Says he owns a carwash up the road, that's about it. And get this: he says he has a dog and a wife."
"You know, these days you couldn't stage a western with white men playing Indians. I think some union made a law about it in Hollywood. Hell, you can't even call them Indians anymore. I'm not even sure the term 'cowboy' is politically correct. We are watching a bovine-person and Native American movie, Gina."
She said, "Shit, that guy's got a wife all cooped up in there like it was the 1890s or something."
The Indians crouched side-by-side on a bluff. Down on the plains, old Rusty told Cookie he smelled trouble.
"And a dog," I said. "Don't forget the dog. The other dog got killed. Maybe his other wife did, too," I said, testing it out.
"That's not funny," Gina said, which was her response to most of my jokes. It was the response many audiences gave me, too, which was a reason I stayed out of work as a comedian, mostly.
The menacing freckled Apaches roared down, unafraid. One of the cowboys yelled out to kill the heathens. I turned off the movie, turned off the lights, and looked over at Dwayne Marthy's house for movement.
I'm not sure if it was the movie, Dwayne Marthy's weird bearing, or Gina's promise to go over there and rescue the wife from what she now understood to be indentured servantry at best with a little mental abuse off to the side. I know that for a week I didn't go to my desk and pull out my notebook, or test any stories in the tape recorder. I didn't read the newspaper or leave the house for a week. Luckily it rained twice hard so my plants wouldn't die, for I'd lost the will to garden and didn't care about watering, whether Dwayne was out there or not.
I watched Dwayne's house.
I pulled out the binoculars Gina bought back when she thought bird-watching was a safe, inexpensive, viable hobby, and I trained my sight on what I could see from our back porch: namely Dwayne's back porch and bedroom window. If I heard noise coming from his kitchen, garage, or driveway I had to run over to our front steps outside.
For five days I saw nothing either way. Even the mailman drove right past Dwayne's box, except for Tuesday when the 3-rooms-sham pooed-for-the-price-of-1/Have-you-seen-this-child? postcard got delivered mandatory.
Gina would come home from wherever she had to go trying to hawk freshman composition textbooks to department heads at colleges in the Carolinas, and she'd say things like, "Well, I won't get any commission from Clemson. They've decided it unnecessary to teach English altogether." Then, "Did you see her today?"
And I'd have to say that I didn't, and feel guilty that not only could I not get a long weekend's work at a comedy club, but I wasn't much of a detective either. Plus I kept forgetting to vacuum the den and defrost the freezer. "If it were winter maybe we'd see smoke coming out of the chimney. I don't remember noticing before, but I don't remember looking, for that matter."
On Friday Gina came home and said, "Willie, you have to go down to the carwash. You need to find out the scoop here, or I'm moving. I don't know about you, but I can't live next door to a necrophiliac." Gina kept telling me stories about people who kept dead loved ones intact, true stories outside of literature. She went so far as to go into that man-or-mouse cliched question to me.
I said, "I plan on it. I'm way ahead of you. And I'm a tree, remember."
One time before every third person in America decided he or she was a comedian—not ten years earlier—I pretty much had control of the fledgling comedy clubs from Florida to Virginia. On one stop in Jacksonville I had a local noon news interview by this puffy-haired woman name Kish Lawrence—no lie—who saw herself in line for Barbara Walters' job, evidently. She went through the obligatory time-date-place info for my shows, then talked about how I found humor in everyday situations involving everyday people. Finally she said, "Willie, if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" She tilted her head to one side to look sincere, too.
It wasn't a set-up. My buddies all asked what it took for me to get her to ask the tree question, but I swear it just came to me. Gina saw it live from our hotel room television set—this was when I made money, and Gina liked to travel, thinking later on she might go to graduate school and get a degree in economics or accounting to go along with her bachelor's in waste management.
I said, "Well, Kish, I'd have to say I'd be a sweetgum tree seeing as how they have a lot of balls." It just came out, instinct.
Evidently a bunch of fundamentalists watched the noon news, too. Kish didn't really respond, the station went into an immediate commercial, and outside Jacksonville's own Comedy Terrain that night all these people with placards demonstrated my appearance there. Through their network they rallied in Savannah and Charleston, Raleigh and Richmond, too. Even poor Kish Lawrence tried to file suit against me, charging I'd endangered her career and somehow slandered her, but it all got dropped. Needless to say, so did my take-home pay. My agent guy dropped me, all TV commercials I'd ever done went off the air, and the next thing I knew I was writing jokes freelance for late-night talk shows and my old buddies who suddenly made transitions from nightclubs to situation comedies and movies. Two guys walk into a bar?—I wrote it. A priest, a rabbi, a Boy Scout, and Reagan?—mine. Two Texas cowboys walking into a lesbian bar?—easy. What I'm saying is, a lot of people laughed at work I only got ten bucks a spot.
What I'm saying is, I feel that right-wingers with nothing better to do than cause a cake to fall ended up ruining my life as a stand-up performer. And even if I've never mentioned it to anyone, one of the goals I'd made for myself was to do anything I could to mess with some tongue-speaker who wanted to control my way of living. In the Bible it says, "Judge not," et cetera, and these people didn't seem to remember. Deep-down I know two wrongs don't make a correction, but at least it wasn't in the Bible.
What I'm getting at is this: the next day I went to the carwash to find Dwayne Marthy hawking wax jobs, sure. But he also claimed to be a right reverend, and for five bucks he'd run a child through the carwash—water on cold—and baptize him or her in the back of a pick-up truck.
I pulled in, and put on my sunglasses, and pulled down my visor. Dwayne Marthy—a man who couldn't even grow a home-grown tomato, a man with a wife in the closet—stood next to his one-dollar drive-through carwash behind a defunct Gulf station, and spread the word. Above him was a sign advertising "Slickers and golashes for rent$1.00 per baptism."
I took a photo with the One-Step I keep in the car. And when Dwayne noticed me and walked my way I couldn't get the car in Reverse fast enough. I flipped up the visor and took off the glasses, and tried to shove the camera under the seat. Dwayne was all smiles—different from watering his garden. He said, "Come to get your car washed, neighbor?" real friendly.
I said, "Well. Yeah, I did. And I wanted to invite you and your wife over for dinner tonight." Dwayne said, "Just pull right on up behind that Cadillac."
I said, "Gina—that's my wife—wanted me to find out if y'all are vegetarians or anything so she'd know what to cook." I tried to remember if I even had a dollar on me to pay for the wash. Dwayne wore a cloth jumpsuit with his name over the pocket.
He said, "I'll have to get back to you on supper. I don't know what the wife's got planned," and walked away. The Cadillac went in the entrance, and Dwayne walked over to an older couple who held a severely retarded boy by his arms. Right before I got my car in Reverse and got out of there I saw Dwayne pull two slickers off a nail.
Of course Gina wasn't all that pleased about me inviting people over for dinner without her knowing, but she only gave me that look. Then I followed a few steps behind her across our yard, past Dwayne's garden, around his house to the front door. Gina did not march unlike a boy wanting to join one of the military academies. She rang the doorbell twice and waited. I said, "I don't think anyone's home." It'd been about a second-and-a-half.
Gina wore these plaid pants that I always thought made her butt look big. She wore those pants and an off-green blouse. She looked like a woman ready to ask city council to ban parking meters and spend money on petunias scattered around the square. Gina said, "She might be in the bathroom. We have time."
She rang it again, over and over. I wore the janitor's pants I'd worn a week or so earlier when I met Dwayne Marthy at his garden. I looked over there, too, and noticed how his cabbage looked really healthy.
Then this voice came out of nowhere, a woman's voice. I'd not been paying enough attention, but there was a little speaker thing just to the right of the doorbell on the outside wall, between the switch and the front window. The woman's voice came out, "Hello," all dragged out and drawly, not unlike a spook show movie voice. The night before I couldn't sleep and slept on the couch with some B-movie playing where all these kids went to a summer camp and kept going out into the woods to make out, only to never return. When other kids would venture up to the edge of the woods this voice would come out, "Come into the woods, come into the woods," all creepy, but only all of us at home watching bad movies at two in the morning heard it.
Gina said, "Can you hear me?" like that, almost irritated.
As it ended up it was Dwayne Marthy's wife and she said, "I can hear you."
"Mrs. Marthy?" Gina said.
"Uh-huh," came the voice. Gina said, "This is Gina from next-door. My husband Willie invited you and Dwayne over for supper tonight and I wondered what you might want. Is spaghetti okay?" This came off the top of her head as much as me asking Dwayne and his wife over for dinner was. I don't think Gina and I'd ever eaten spaghetti before, really.
"What did Dwayne say?" she asked.
Gina looked at me. Gina wanted to know how this woman looked, what her condition was, how she was making it in the 1990's. I said, "Well. He didn't say one way or the other. There were a lot of people at the carwash." I shrugged more to myself than to my wife. I stood there like an idiot. People went down the street to the suburbs behind us, and slowed, I think. I always thought that people watched us, call me paranoid. I knew they knew I didn't have a real job. I knew they knew I knew I didn't have a real job, even though Gina's parents bought us a fax machine, and that helped me send in my jokes that much faster.
"Y'all could come over here," she said. "Y'all could come over here as long as you're—I don't know if you'll understand what I'm saying, and I don't mean it wrong, understand—y'all could come over here as long as you're clean." She said, "I can make spaghetti."
This was over the intercom. I stood there holding my nose trying not to laugh. Me, I just wanted to go back into a far room and write some jokes. Gina my wife said, "Uh-huh?" because she had no other idea what to say. Sure she knew what to say to old fat men who ran English departments, things like, "Well, of course you wouldn't want to buy this textbook seeing as it has new ideas and you ain't had one since the 1950's or thereabouts, Bubba."
Dwayne Marthy's wife said, "Lord knows I've been wanting to come over and tell you two welcome to the neighborhood, but you have to understand."
Gina said, "Has he been hitting you?" because she wanted her to say that yes, he had, I know.
She said over the intercom, "Oh, no. If anything, I've been hitting Dwayne. Are y'all clean?" The dog barked. That let us know some stuff.
Gina said, "Well, we didn't even know you were here. Can you show a sign that you're okay?" I swear. She said it as if to some poor youngster stuck in a well who could wave a white hanky.
Already, by the way, I had ideas that the woman suffered from mysophobiathe dreaded fear of dirt.
She said, "My name's Martha." That was too much for me—Martha Marthy. How long did it take Dwayne to find a woman named Martha to marry him? I didn't care what was wrong with her, it still didn't matter. I walked way out into the yard and started laughing. And I wasn't laughing so much at her circumstance, or her husband trying to save souls at the carwash as much as I was trying to figure out what my life would be like had I not said I'd be a sweetgum should I be a tree. I laughed and laughed.
Gina kept talking to her, but never went inside. I found out later that she promised we'd go home and scrub ourselves before coming over to the Marthy household to eat spaghetti. Me, I held my nose until my soft palette lifted and gave me a nice resonant voice, and then I said into the speaker, "What time?"
Martha Marthy said, "Seven's okay. But make sure you're clean."
It was about three in the afternoon. We had our own dogs to feed. I had a freezer to defrost and a carpet to vacuum. It didn't look like it'd rain on the gardens. The Chicago station featured gangster movies.
It's not so much that Dwayne Marthy was Christian as he was understanding, oddly. And I'm not sure if he was as stand-offish as I'd first thought in the garden as he was protective and embarrassed. I was right in my prognosis that Martha Marthy suffered from a fear of dirt, bacteria, and disease. We went to their house wearing plastic workout suits—Gina had this dream once that we'd start jogging, which never happened—and Martha again welcomed us through the intercom after we promised that we were clean.
There in the foyer or whatever it's called Dwayne said, "You don't know how much I'm surprised by all this." He said, "Don't judge me by the carwash, please. It's just a way to make a living."
Gina said, "Wow, this house is so spotless." This old hairless German shepherd came out from the hallway. I knew right away that Martha washed him daily, and that's not really good for a dog.
Dwayne said, "That's Max."
Martha Marthy was pretty in that I've-never-seen-the-sun kind of way. She had thin platinum blonde hair and green eyes, a slight frame, and wore a white mid-calf dress. She was porcelain, is what I'm saying. Her forearms were about as big around as tent stakes. And she wore gloves.
Gina and I said, "Hey Max," but didn't pet him. Hairless dogs are too sweaty, for my money.
Martha said, "Come into the den and have a seat," but instead of leading us in there she just pointed. We went, including Dwayne. From the kitchen we heard Martha turn on the sink. I knew she took off her gloves and washed her hands. Dwayne sat us down and said, "Would you like something to drink? We have vodka and Sprite and 7-Up. And water. We have lots of water."
Gina said, "I haven't had a 7-Up since the sixth grade!" all excited. I said I'd have a vodka, straight, room temperature. I had no idea what it would taste like.
The walls were white as polished baby teeth, with not one painting or picture hung. We sat on a couch covered in plastic. The end tables had been polished so many times that the Olympic ice skating team could've used them for mini practice rinks. Max the dog came up and stuck out his paw. I shook it and thought, "Sorry, pal." I didn't say it out loud.
Dwayne came back with our drinks and said, "So this is a little embarrassing, living next to each other for so long and not even knowing one another."
My wife Gina said, "Oh, it's nothing," like it was nothing. Me, I said, "Yeah."
"What do you do for a living, Willie? You work at home, don't you?" The water kept running in the kitchen. I couldn't make out any scrubbing noises, but I knew.
Gina said, "Willie's a comedian."
"A comedian. Really? Tell a joke." Dwayne yelled into the kitchen, "Martha, could you come in here for a minute? Willie's going to tell a joke. He's a real comedian!" Dwayne said.
I said, "Well, most of my jokes are a little dirty." I was glad Martha wasn't in the room at the time, what with me using the term "dirty" and all.
"Tell a joke, Willie," Gina said. Martha came in from the kitchen, pulling her left glove on. She said something about supper being ready in a few minutes.
Martha said, "Wow, a comedian."
Dwayne said, "Get this straight right now, Willie—I just run that baptismal carwash. I do have a degree from seminary, but actually I'm a Unitarian more than anything else."
Martha said, "Y'all have probably noticed that I have this slight phobia about germs. I can't help it. The reason why Dwayne even has the carwash is because sometimes at night when no one's around I sit in the back of his pick-up truck and ride through the carwash totally naked. There's a way to lift all those brushes, you know."
Gina and I nodded.
I could think of one joke and one joke only at the time. I tried to dig deep into my old repertoire, but found nothing of the old stories. I thought of a joke that just came up, too—one about the situation. I said, "Well, okay." I said, "This friend of mine married a woman who had a fear of disease, dirt, and germs. He took her to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta for their honeymoon." I just spouted it out, too.
Gina said, "Willie," in that reprimanding voice she can get. She said, "That's not funny."
Dwayne said, "That's hilarious."
Martha said, "We went to the white cliffs of Dover, no lie," and laughed. Martha said, "Back then I didn't even know what was wrong with me. It's where I wanted to go."
Max barked and wagged his tail.
Martha said, "Everything should be ready," and we went into the kitchen to eat spaghetti with white clam sauce—good stuff—like we were meant to be neighbors all along. Gina and I stayed past eleven o'clock, too. We talked about peppers, tomatoes, and okra, then their cabbage, squash, and watermelons. Martha acted like some kind of New York hostess, flitting around every five minutes to wash her hands and check her face. It got to where it wasn't even noticeable.
I was actually touched.
Oddly, Dwayne said he had a degree in anthropology before he went to seminary. I couldn't think of a joke about that, but knew I would in time.
Anyway, that night we went home and Gina and I made love for the first time in a month. She kept giggling and when I'd stop she'd say something like, "I have to quit thinking about that old bald dog," which didn't make me feel much better. I didn't laugh, for I couldn't think of a new joke, as usual.
Later that night I couldn't sleep. I got out of bed and watched this old movie about a man who had this blind wife who could make predictions. I fell asleep on the couch and had a dream that Gina directed us to Costa Rica, for she thought she knew where a cache of gold lay hidden. Maybe there was gold, but we never found it. The dream turned back to that movie, but this time starring Dwayne and Martha Marthy, I think. And while the husband led his blind wife through the streets of some village he looked up and saw a picture of the Virgin Mary crying. He, too, didn't just walk away from his wife.