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Fall 2000, Volume 18.1

Fiction

 

Jacob M. Appel

Counting


Jacob M. Appel is a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University. His fiction has appeared in
The South Dakota Review, The Nebraska Review, The Cimarron Review, and elsewhere.

 

I.

The government paid me good money one summer to interview all of the single women in Lawless County, Arizona. Before that I'd had a part-time job canvassing for American Express, asking Chicano day laborers and long-haired college kids whether they preferred Karl Malden or Jack Nicklaus as the poster boy of ironclad credit, so it wasn't much of a stretch to trade my future in plastics for a present with the American Community Survey. My wife raised no objections. She'd just announced her pregnancy, the inevitable end to our celibate winter and thawless spring, casting me into that pit of quicksand between suspicion and proof. Each time Charlotte winced I imagined the child carving a scarlet A into the flesh of her womb, doing from within what I dared not from without, until even a summer in the Sonora sounded preferable to passing my golden years counting to nine on my fingers. If she'd protested, I might have stayed. As it was, I transferred my allegiance to the Bureau of the Census.

We did everything in teams that summer. Suspecting that an earlier generation of census takers had fabricated their results, Uncle Sam adopted the buddy-system as a concession to Big Brother and we reported our data in pairs like children counting-off on a school outing. My partner, Revolution Schwartz, lived up to the expectations of his adoptive name. He was a twenty year veteran, a zealot, a Sixties dropout who reinvented himself as a latter-day Moses to enumerate the tribes of the desert. "The census is the revolution," he'd say. "The census documents the inequalities of post-industrial society." Although I couldn't help using the old fellow for occasional target practice, inquiring whether Siamese twins counted as one person or two, even asking the single women if they wished to alter their marital status at my partner's expense, we negotiated the saguaro-lined back roads without too much friction. Schwartz chided me that we were also surveying families and single men; I politely reminded him to change his clothing. All in good fun.

We grew into each other like an old married couple and I began to think that our adventure might continue indefinitely. Then we met the woman who refused to exist.

II.

"County Lot 4512," said Schwartz.

"County Lot 4512," I repeated.

He eased our rental compact off the macadam onto a narrow, gravel driveway and we lurched into the belly of the desert. The mercury had dipped to double digits the previous afternoon, a veritable cold-snap, and the strange shadows of teddybear cholla and creosote bushes danced in the morning breeze. It was hard to imagine that anyone lived in this wilderness, among the jackrabbits and organ pipe cacti, yet a stone structure embedded in a jagged ridge confirmed the entry in the county surveyor's log. An ancient Chevy truck rusted at the end of the drive. White undergarments fluttered too brightly from an outdoor line. Some poor fool did indeed inhabit County Lot 4512.

We cut our way across the sand.

"No power lines," my partner observed. "They're off the grid."

My eyes roved in vain for a name plaque or mailbox. "Fear not, comrade," I said. "Man can survive on revolutionary zeal alone."

Schwartz grinned while recording the address on his clipboard. His shirtsleeves flapped against his thick arms. "Have your fun, Boyle," he said. "If they're militia types, I'll wait in the car."

"Viva Zapata." I raised my fist.

"Screw you," said Schwartz. "Your knock or mine?"

As though his question had been heard from within the confines of the stone shelter, the door creaked open suddenly and we stood face-to-face with—for lack of a better description—her. She filled the small door frame and offered no place to look. There were her breasts, pushing against a tight cotton blouse, then her clear jade eyes and full lips, finally her legs most distinctive in their absence. She supported her entire bodyweight on two iron crutches and this vulnerability only added to her beauty. Dank, climatized air seeped across the threshold. In the darkness over her shoulder a heavyset man sat at a pool table, constructing a palace out of playing cards. The hum of the power-generator augmented our silence.

"Either we already have one," she finally said, "or we couldn't pothibly afford one."

"We're from the Census Bureau," replied Schwartz. "The American Community Survey Project. We only need half an hour of your time, ma'am."

Her jaw tightened and one couldn't tell whether she was straining under her own weight or displeased with our company. Asinine thoughts raced through my mind: "Don't mind us, we're just doing a leg count" and "I was always more of a breast man myself." The figure at the pool table added a card to his castle.

"The Thenthuth Bureau," lisped the legless woman. "Not pothible."

Then she added, sweetly, "We'd prefer you didn't count uth," and pushed the door shut with a rapid swing of her crutch.

III.

This was not the first door we'd had slammed in our faces. According to Schwartz, a self- proclaimed authority on the history of enumeration, the original census takers doubled as tax agents—a primitive effort by the rising bourgeoisie to undermine our inherently egalitarian purpose. Some people loved us, of course, that core group of malcontents guaranteed to welcome any official visitor. Homebound veterans saw us as sounding boards for their gripes with the government; elderly widows offered us photographs of their nieces and nephews. For a while, Schwartz claimed, the Bureau even refused to hire good-looking men because they unwittingly raised the percentage of single females in the population. Only the working world saw us for what we must have been: A colossal waste of their time.

"How do you like that?" my partner demanded. He thrust his hands into his pockets and withdrew them irritably. "`We'd prefer you didn't count uth', she says. I told you they were right- wingers."

"She's a looker, isn't she?"

"This is going to be a case for the federal marshal," he answered. "I can feel it in my bones."

"So you've never made it with an amputee, have you?"

"Screw you, Boyle. This is going to be a marshal case."

I slapped my partner on the shoulder. He'd acquired the habit of invoking the law when he found our target attractive, a somewhat endearing compromise between his principles and his pecker. We never did call out the marshal, never even discovered if he'd be willing to enforce the census, because persistence and the threat of a fine always proved enough to break down the toughest customers. In her case, even these extremes proved unnecessary. When Schwartz raised his clenched fist to rap on the door, it swung open again of its own accord. The legless woman braced her back against the frame and beckoned us inside with a tilt of her head. We had just enough space to squeeze past.

Our eyes adjusted slowly to the interior light until we found ourselves in a spacious, sparsely-furnished room which walked that fine line between residence and roadside saloon. Mounted animal heads and black-and-white photographs lined the panelled walls, an axe hung over the mantlepiece, stained glass lamps dangled from the rafters. One corner yielded a dartboard and a potbellied stove resting on lions' feet. Another revealed a free standing wet bar. At the center of this bizarre oasis, the heavyset man stood transfixed before his card palace. His elbows rested on the cushioned rail of the pool table. He did not look up. Schwartz stepped into the room ahead of me and then retreated back into the entryway.

"My huthband likes cool air," said our hostess. "It calms his nerves."

She lowered herself into a mechanized chair.

"He also likes games," she added. "Isn't that right, thweetie?"

The man's head moved slightly in agreement.

"He'd like to play a game with you."

Schwartz coughed into his sleeve. "I'm Mr. Schwartz," he said calmly. "This is Mr. Boyle. We're here from the Census Bureau. We're required by law to ask you a handful of questions."

I was unprepared for the woman's laugh—a sharp, high-pitched chirp which stopped as quickly as it started, as though she'd just heard a particularly off-color joke. It struck me that she was younger than she'd first appeared, maybe twenty-five at the oldest. "By law? What are they going to do? Draw and quarter me?"

Schwartz shifted his weight from one leg to the other without mentioning the federal marshal.

"Let's talk thtraight. We don't vote. We don't pay taxes. We haven't left this place once in two years. For all practical purposes, we don't exist. You can't make us answer your questions."

The woman lit a cigarette. She crossed the remnants of her legs and one of her stumps appeared beneath the cuffs of her shorts.

"So here's the deal," she said. "If my husband can build a card house to the ceiling, you go home empty handed. If he can't, we answer your questions. It's not often he has an audience. Now what do you say to that, Mister Schwartz?"

Schwartz said nothing at first. He rolled his eyes in my direction and then traced the air from the pool table to the beams of the ceiling. "What do you think, Boyle?" he asked. "Shall we humor them and kill a few minutes out of the sun or shall we call in the federal marshals?" His tone—all amusement—suggested that the decision had already been made and he solidified our plans by settling into a nearby bar stool.

Our hostess wheeled herself into the entryway and retrieved a wooden crate from behind the door. She displayed the contents for me. Playing cards. Decks and decks of playing cards. "Only two rules, Mister Boyle. If one of you knocks over the cards, you lose. If you talk to my husband, you lose. You don't like being talked to, do you, thweetie?"

The husband added a roof to the third story of his castle and then shook his head decisively, exposing a thick jagged scar that ran across his cheek into the folds of his neck. His gaze remained focused on the cards.

"He can't answer you, you thee," said the woman. "He had his throat slashed in prison."

IV.

I seated myself opposite our hostess at a battered folding table whose surface was coated with the overlapping rings left by previous days' drinks and watched the husband ply his skills. He worked slowly, methodically, placing each card with the determined finality of a stone mason and then stepping back to survey his creation. Perspiration frowned across his brow. Sometimes he circled the pool table while he paused; other times he dried his hands on a dish towel and redried them on his well-worn trousers. As the castle rose from five stories to six, I began to suspect there was a method to his gestures, some obscure mathematical rule which governed when he circled and when he dried, but the specific logic of his maneuvers eluded me. If I anticipated a circle, he wiped. If I was certain he would wipe, he circled. I briefly wondered whether this wasn't part of his game, some calculated ploy to trick me into asking him to explain, but that had to be paranoia. He was just some crazy ex-con.

That first hour proved the roughest. I desperately wanted to speak to our hostess, but I couldn't. I couldn't even look at her. Although I'm rarely intimidated by women and was once something of a ladies' man, her vulnerable condition and the sheer brutality of her circumstances combined to keep me silent. What could I possibly say? That I suddenly felt like a fourteen year old kid in her presence? That her life could be so much better if she ditched her ex-con husband and ran off with me? That I'd be willing to rescue her? Absolute nonsense. I reminded myself that I didn't mean any of these things, that this was a married women, someone I hardly knew, yet her crippled voice and tapered stumps attracted me against my will. She had nothing. I had everything to offer. All of my thoughts seemed either fanciful or shameful.

I'd just resolved to say something, anything, as soon as the husband completed floor number nine, when she shifted her gaze from the pool table and asked, "Can I offer you a drink, Mister Schwartz?"

"Why not?" answered Schwartz, stretching his arms over his head for a peek at his watch. "You'll be making us lunch too, at this rate."

"Yeth," agreed our hostess. "And dinner."

Schwartz pushed himself off the barstool and paced clockwise around the pool table. It struck me suddenly that the husband always paced counterclockwise.

I followed our hostess to the wet bar.

"We only have bourbon," she said. "My huthband only drinkth bourbon."

She filled two glasses and handed one to my partner. Then she rolled out to the center of the room and balanced the other on the arm of her husband's chair. When she returned to the folding table, the card palace had surpassed ten stories and I was still without a drink. Schwartz chuckled. I seated myself opposite her and pretended to ignore the slight.

"Can you tell me something?" I asked.

"We're out of bourbon," she answered, matter-of-fact.

"Okay," I said. "That's not what I wanted to know."

"And what did you want to know?"

I drew a deep breath. "I wanted to know why you live like this," I said too forcefully. "I wanted to know why you don't want to exist."

The legless woman smiled dreamily as though deep in thought and yet even at that moment I suspected she was delaying her answer for effect. "If you exist," she finally said, "you have to explain things, and there are thome things you can't explain to anyone."

"Like being married to an ex-con?" I asked aggressively.

"Like not having any legs," she fired back.

Her eyes darkened and I turned away quickly.

"I'm sorry," I said.

She laughed. "Don't be," she said in a softer tone. "I prefer it thith way."

"You like not having any legs?" I asked incredulously.

"I like not existing," she answered. "It makes life much easier. Being somebody is highly overrated. You know, Mister Boyle, thometimes I feel like Greta Garbo. I think she would have understood me."

The husband grunted and we both turned to face him. His palace now rose twelve stories, almost a quarter of the way to the ceiling. His bourbon glass stood empty on his arm rest. A thin column of light peeked through the doorway of an adjoining room, animating the face cards, announcing that the sun had shifted to the southwest. Schwartz poked open the door, exposing a fold-out sofa bed and a bureau whose drawers were piled high with unsorted clothing. He thrust his hands into his pockets and retreated to his bar stool.

"This is ridiculous," said my partner. "Let's see how he works in the light of day."

"You do that," she answered. "Mister Boyle and I are going to go for a walk."

Her husband grunted again. It was difficult to tell whether this was a new addition to his routine or a particular response to his wife.

The legless woman titled her head toward the front door and then herded me across the room. Schwartz looked after us wistfully—maybe jealousy, maybe fear of being trapped alone with the deranged ex-con. I didn't care. The legless woman wheeled to the threshold and turned for one final look at the rising palace.

"Mister Schwartz," she called out, "There's another case of bourbon under the sink. Help yourself. You may be here a while."

V.

We passed the afternoon in the shade of the saguaros. Our hostess—she pointedly refused to reveal her name—led me to a small alcove in the side of the ridge where she displayed her expertise on the fauna of the desert. Although I'd never taken an interest in the steady patter of the gilded woodpecker or the feeding habits of the cactus wren, she lisped the desert into a garden of tropical surprises. Did I know that javelinas suck the juice from prickly pair pads? That kangaroo rats can survive weeks without water? I let her guide the conversation, hanging on her every word, wondering whether she shared my romantic interest. She expressed little interest in hearing my secrets, even less in revealing her own. "That's not what this is about," she'd say. "Why does everything have to have an explanation?" When the sun retreated behind the ridge, I knew an awful lot about the reproductive rituals of the yellow-shafted flicker and still nothing about my companion.

"What's all this about?" I finally asked. "Why the natural history? Why the card palace?"

"I like talking," she answered. "Thometimes you forget what it's like to have company."

I dug my hand into the cool sand and let it sift through my fingers. "I know, I know," I said, exasperated. "You like talking about the desert because it's there and your husband likes having us here because he wants an audience for his construction project."

"I like talking about the desert because it doesn't require an explanation," she retorted, "and for what it's worth, my husband couldn't care leth about having an audience. He's happy enough to be alone with me. I'm the one who wanted you to stay."

She shivered as she spoke and rubbed her bare forearms. I dusted off the shirt I'd been using as a blanket and tentatively draped it over her shoulders. The silent desert night encroached around us.

"I need to say something," I ventured.

I'd been planning the speech all afternoon, rehearsing my pledges of loyalty and devotion, bracing myself for the inevitable rejection. Now I longed to take her in my arms, to press her tortured body close to mine. So what if I didn't know the name to write on the marriage license? I'd lived with Charlotte for six years and left her as a stranger. If the legless woman didn't want explanations, so much the better. All I wanted was the comforting warmth of flesh against flesh, the reassurance that I could save her, that I could heal her, that I could free her from the mysterious ghosts which made such a beautiful woman fear existence.

"I love you," I said.

Our eyes met. My heart stood on tip-toes.

"I'm tired of talking," she said. "Let's go to the bedroom."

VI.

Our absence hadn't impeded the growth of the card palace. It now rose to within inches of the rafters, its base covering the entire surface of the pool table, part-Egyptian pyramid and part magic bean stalk. The husband had mounted a ladder. Schwartz circled the table nervously, crackling the wrappers of card decks under his feet, his entire body leaning each time the craftsman added a wall as though he could will the structure into rubble with his own body. The palace cast a long shadow in the waning sunlight.

Schwartz held a finger to his lips. "Don't speak," he whispered.

"Having fun?" I asked.

"Please don't speak," he pleaded. "If you knock it over, we lose."

His eyes were glassy, distant. He spoke as though the entire revolution hung in the balance. The husband added a dividing wall to his palace and the structure swayed ever so slightly, but didn't tumble. Both men grunted and then the husband paced while Schwartz wiped his hands on the dish towel.

I followed the legless woman into the adjoining room where she rolled her chair beside the bed and swung onto the mattress in one deft motion. Her body sank into the cushions. With the bedspread pulled up over her shorts, her injuries disappeared. She unbuttoned the top two buttons of her blouse.

"Thiamo o no Thiamo?" she asked.

"What?"

"That's Italian," she said. "`Are we or aren't we?' My rehab instructor used to ask me that. I always thought it thounded thexy."

"But your husband?"

She laughed. "He won't care."

"You're kidding."

"You can close the door though, if you'd like. In fact, if you really love me so much, Mister Boyle, why don't you slam the door?"

"Do you mean—?" I asked.

She nodded and ran a playful hand though her long dark bangs.

"I am going to slam the door," I announced, making sure my words carried to the men at the pool table. "I am going to slam the door."

One quick swing was all it took. The entire house rattled under the force of the blow and then my name sounded from the next room, sandwiched between a salvo of expletives. Poor Schwartz, I thought. Long live the counterrevolution.

"I knew you'd do that," said the legless woman.

"A fool in love, right?"

"It doesn't matter though," she added. "You do understand that, don't you. He wouldn't have come in. When you've caught a woman once—at least the way he has—you're careful not to do it again. Years last longer in prison."

She must have seen my shock, my initial terror, her meaning cutting through me like a saw, for her own gaze combed the length of her body. My mind jumped to the axe above the mantle. "Do you understand now, Mister Boyle?" she asked, all the humor gone from her voice. "Do you understand why we prefer not to exist? Why we prefer not to explain?"

Schwartz pounded on the door, calling my name in anger.

"But why?" I asked. "How?"

The legless woman shook her head as though she pitied me.

"How, Mister Boyle?" she said. "Because we love each other."

 

VII.

The skies broke loose on our ride back to town. Distant claps of thunder gave way to the rolling staccato of ice on steel as bullet-sized hail pellets bounced off the hood of the compact. Lightning sawed across the desert sky, exposing our solitude, transforming the Lawless water tower into the hull of an abandoned ship. I'm certain this was the most remarkable phenomenon either of us will ever see in our lives and yet we said nothing.

Schwartz cleared his throat several times while he drove and I caught him craning his thick neck through the corner of my eye. He wanted to speak. I refused to meet his gaze. We'd already reached the outskirts of Lawless City when he shattered our truce.

"You can't do that," he shouted over the hail. "You can't screw with the census."

I denied him an answer.

"Girl or no girl, bet or no bet, we're going to have to go back out there tomorrow with a federal marshal." Schwartz raised a broad, hairy hand as though he might reach for my shoulder, but he didn't. It fell lifeless on the steering wheel. "Don't think I haven't been there before, Boyle," he said sympathetically. "It's not anybody's fault. Rules are rules."

"We're not going back out there," I answered, conscious of the chill in my voice.

"You know we have to," he said. "In the morning, you'll see, it will make the best sense."

Schwartz smiled hopefully, but I already saw him for what he was: A character I once knew, a piece of a story. What did I need with his rules? His sympathies? He'd fade into anecdote, soon enough, take his place beside Jack Nicklaus and Karl Malden and Charlotte and a host of people who didn't care about me one way or the other. All these people who weren't her. All these people who thought they really existed. At that moment, anything I shouted at Revolution Schwartz over a desert hailstorm was entirely irrelevant, so I chose my words carefully.

"You don't get it, Schwartz, do you? Some people matter more than

 

 

Fishing for Tourists

Wildlife isn't the only thing to suffer from rapid, haphazard rural development. Rural communities themselves, towns like Jackson Hole near Grand Teton, or Moab near Arches National Park, are suffering from a lack of affordable housing, a surplus of traffic and a loss of community character that often leaves old-timers feeling like Rip Van Winkle. As one community official in Moab lamented, "We went fishing for a little tourism and ended up catching a great white shark." — Greater Yellowstone Coalition Conference announcement, by "Development at the Doorsteps of America's Public Lands," http://greateryellowstone.org

 

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