Short Story by Terence Cannon
Short Story by Terence Cannon
By Terence Cannon
Betta laid the phone in its cradle by her bed, fell back, stared at the skylight’s milk eye. Lavender, carris root, cinnamon, orange — implacable oils of memory borne by a eucalyptus breeze — flowed past her from the Stickley vanity. She wished they were ether, nitrous oxide, chloroform.
(Rolling piano intro)
Call me when you’re comin to town
Just as soon as your plane puts down.
Call me on the telephone
But only if you’re travellin alone.
(Break: tenor sax)
Wanna make love to you
Till the day comes breaking through
And when the sun is high in the sky
We’ll kiss and say goodbye.*
(Descending piano scale. Quick end)
Not the 20-year scenario I planned. The one I got. Accepted. But Jimmy’s not travellin alone. His wife and son are with him, I can’t ask why, I can’t say no.
She swung upright, peered over the bed’s edge, stared into the tapestry of sandstorm, rock, and claw at her feet as if its Moroccan symmetries were words from which an explanation could be wrenched. A bolt of urgent perfect unconditional need drummed through her body, jolted across the synapse of toes and wool, burrowed down the fibres of the rug, churning prayerlike patterns of yellow-brown, tawn, red wheaten into muscle, being, consciousness, intent.
The rug was negated. In its place, a dog.
Betta lifted one foot from the now-bare floor, caressed with her toes the backward ridge of wheaten hair along the dog’s spine.
— Otto, protect me.
The dog yawned an immaculate row of gourmet cutlery.
She called the hotel. “I’m sorry,” she said to Jimmy, “I forgot to tell you I have a dog. The kind that hunt lions in Africa. Not to worry, darling. I would never let him hurt Eamon.”
He wants to change the scenario, we change the scenario.
Otto scouted before her down the stairs, alert to caches of unexpected meaning, found one in the second floor hall closet, a lone plaid shirt on a wire hanger. Do they know Joe’s gone? Entrance of first husband and family on departing heels of second husband.
— What does this mean, Otto?
The dog purred low behind her, made no reply. She kneeled, stroked his back.
— Why is Jimmy doing this?
— You’re the noted San Francisco psychologist, said the dog. You let them in. You called on me.
“Goodbye, Joe,” she said to the shirt. Car doors slammed in the street. A small voice.
What can they want with me en masse?
Queen Betta on the battlement landing watched the three figures rise to her front door past climbing roses, lavender, thyme: Jimmy in trademark leather jacket, Maeve’s black hair sharply cut, Eamon struggling with the stone steps. Intent on his climb, the five-year-old arrived first, was swept up, hoist to her shoulder.
“I’m Betta, Eamon. Your father’s friend.”
The boy nodded, wriggled, eyes fixed on the cut glass door and behind it, the dog. Betta set him down, kissed his parents like envoys from a less-favored nation, backed to the door, cracked it, reached behind her, seized the chain.
“Otto, this is Eamon. And Jimmy and Maeve. Don’t be angry. They’re old friends.” She led them into the living room layered and thrown in Navajo blankets, Bengali fabric, Berber rugs.
“Did your parents tell you Rhodesian Ridgebacks hunt lions?” she asked.
Eamon nodded. It’s his eyes, grey-green, more like mine than theirs, but brown too, and the yellow flecks, like shifting sunlight, his alone.
“He purrs,” said Eamon, “like a cat.”
She fed out the chain a foot, till dog and boy were face to face. “He likes me,” said Eamon, laying his hand flat on the dog’s high forehead, between its eyes. Otto knelt forward — a gesture horribly like homage — rolled on his back, gazed Eamonward. The boy squatted, rubbed the dog’s belly. “See,” he told her with delight.
“Eamon strikes again,” said Jimmy, “Charms dogs out of their veldts.”
You should know, you son of a bitch.
Otto growled like a truck downshifting.
“Would you like to see the house?” she asked. Jimmy flicked away the suggestion with the back of his hand. “But you know your way around, don’t you, darling? We’ll start in the kitchen. Maeve’s never been.” She yanked Otto upright.
— Whose side are you on, Otto?
– Patience, said the dog, I like children.
In the kitchen they chatted recipes and herbs. Jimmy praised steamed and marinated asparagus, served warm in balsamic vinegar. Maeve announced they were househunting, with a glance that implied Betta’s might be the house.
— This is nuts, Betta said to Otto, who breathed around the curl of his tongue at Eamon scrunched behind the butcherblock.
— So make a move.
— Then leave me be.
“I can see myself in his eyes,” said Eamon, “my whole face.”
“There’s a story about Ridgebacks.” Betta leaned across the knife rack. “Feel his back.”
Eamon ran his hand down the tapered gray ridge of hair. It stood against his fingers. When he petted backward the stripe lay flat.
“It goes the wrong way,” he said.
“That’s where they say the first lion slashed the first dog. An African folk tale. Isn’t that interesting?”
“Is that a Black African tale or one by white settlers?” asked Maeve, looking straight at Betta for the first time with her made-for-TV gray eyes. Jimmy’s Cossack whore.
“What difference would that make?”
“A lot, I’d think. Depending on whose side you were on.”
— More than you reckoned for, said Otto.
Betta opened the last door in the second floor hall. Otto squeezed by, sniffed at the accidental Pollack of spilled paints on the oak floor and the rectangle like bare tanned skin where the mattress had lain.
“This was Joe’s studio.”
Eamon stood in awe of Joe’s stained-glass window, a light-stained cherub from an Adoration. Over Maeve’s shoulder, Jimmy held his eyes on Betta too long. Trying to signal me.
“Yes, we’re sorry,” said Maeve.
“Sorry for what?”
“That Joe moved out.”
“Besides the fact of an an empty room, you knew?”
— Do not ask questions for which you do not know the answer, said Otto.
“He called us.”
“To say he’d moved out.”
“He called you?”
“He knew you and Jimmy were close.”
Otto thrust his nose against Maeve’s buttocks, sniffed. Betta cracked his chain like a whip.
— I didn’t mean ‘whore’ literally.
— Taking the scent of the enemy.
The dog huffed at a carton by the door. Betta glanced in as they left, saw a sketch of herself, nude, voluptuous, at the bottom, which Joe must have tossed there, forgot there, posted there.
— Meaning is accruing too fast.
— You invited them to tour.
She saw Eamon cock his head, peer into the box, Otto by his side.
— Would he love me, Otto, if I were his mother?
Maeve led the way to the next flight of stairs. Betta stepped aside to let them by, but as Jimmy bent to pass, he brushed her. She smelled his neck, panicked with quick lust. “Forgive me,” he said, in the Irishoid cadence that once swayed crowds, moved women to ill-considered troth. Forgive him for leaving me, marrying Maeve, having Eamon, coming to visit, bringing them along, continuing to live, WHAT?
Lined up at the base of the third floor stairs, they seemed a procession of fools, comprising (1) her longtime lover and Sixties radical leader; (2) his present wife and TV star, (3) their son, the dog-enchanting boy; (4) an enchanted dog, (5) herself, noted San Francisco psychologist, bringing up the rear, in pretense of leading a parade she did not understand, all hunting what. And around them in a cloak of eucalyptus fog, the appearance of normalcy, just another vacation safari at the end of which wife shoots husband in the back of the head with her 6.5 Mannlicher.
Eamon found a photo of his father on the bulletin board in Betta’s third floor office: long sideburns, swooshing curls of hair, brown leather jacket, black chinos, gazing over a balcony down the tilted streets of San Francisco. Betta’s face appeared in the lower right corner, tilted upward, smiling.
“I wish I’d known him then,” said Maeve.
What a straight line!
The ARGUMENT raging up and down these stairs, uncarpeted then, concerning her refusal to allow Jimmy’s lover to stay with them when his darling’s restauranteur husband, later maharishi guru, threw her off the Sausalito houseboat for stashing guns for the Black Panthers. The MEETINGS in the corridors of alternative power with Diggers, GI Coffee House organizers, Grateful Dead. The SAFE HOUSES, letter drops, underground railroad to Canada for draft resisters, scared teenage soldiers. The RED SQUAD tossing the house while they were in Mendocino on an erotic, angry vacation. The LICKING of stamps, appeals to state legislator Willie Brown, money borrowed from her parents, while Jimmy sang Marvin Gaye songs with black second-story men in San Francisco County Jail.
If you had known him then, Maeve, you would have earned him. I did. Pain-equity.
The danse macabre must have wandered downstairs. Betta stood alone in her bedroom where the day of her mother’s death fifteen years ago, Jimmy sat, talked, drank, loved, held, stroked, consoled, whispered, fed, mopped, listened, became her mother, ten hours nonstop until the fever of her grief was broken.
He earned me too.
She found Eamon in the bay window seat of the living room, watching fog roll down Twin Peaks. She came to him, slipped Otto’s chain from his hand. Eamon was her son and she had come downstairs into the room to find him and they were alone in the house, framed by the Victorian windows, Madras curtains, fog. Solitary, shrouded, taken out of what had been. It was possible, reasonable he was her son, lived with her, and she was about to ask him what he wanted for dinner, hamburger or grilled cheese, as if time could be compressed like air into a membrane thin enough to reach through, nullify the 20 years, pull them into the past, or the past forward, there on the window seat, where 20 years ago Jimmy had said no, no baby.
— Would he love his mother no matter who she was?
— Could be, said Otto.
“Eamon,” she said and the present crashed in like glass breaking. She saw Jimmy and Maeve seated waiting, walked to her chair. She had expected them to be spread out, herself central in her favorite chair, Otto by her feet, between them and the door. But when she sat, they bunched in on her. Jimmy drew up the leather stool, Maeve leaned on the near couch arm, Eamon braced against his mother’s legs, too close in to distinguish, separate.
“Why are you here?” she asked, breathless from the wrench in time. “Were you planning not to tell me why you’re here?” They looked surprised. Their turn.
“Not at all,” said Jimmy. “Just the opposite.”
“To show off Eamon? You have.”
“We wanted you to be his godmother,” said Maeve. “Eamon’s.”
Godmother. From the Anglo-Saxon godmodor, related to godsibb, also Anglo-Saxon, god + sibling, from whence we derive gossip, meaning in Chaucer’s time friend or companion, usually a woman, with whom one could freely speak; a familiar and customary acquaintance trusted to assume responsibility during plague and war.
— In event of his mother’s untimely death, said Otto.
The dog twirled, bit himself on the ass, lay down. Eamon giggled. Maeve and Jimmy looked on like two Jehova’s Witnesses, spurned pamphlets in hand. Betta pursed her fingertips against her upper lip, a gesture crucial at this moment to her continued self.
— In Rhodesia, said Otto, we hunted blacks in the bush. They too wanted to change the rules.
“Which of you,” she asked, “came up with this scheme?”
“I did,” said Maeve.
“You decided I was lonesome, open to suggestion, redefinition.”
A wary No.
“You decided it was time to change the rules. But why so suddenly? En masse?”
— The blacks were smarter than lions, said Otto, and carried AK-47s.
— That is not what I’m doing.
— Not suppressing rebellion?
“Rules?” asked Maeve.
“And Eamon?” Betta asked. “To what? Use him as leverage? Outnumber me?”
“Jimmy and you have been close. I understand that.”
— The blacks could make choices lions couldn’t, said Otto.
“Have been close,” Betta said. “There’s a phrase that calls for close analysis.”
“I wasn’t aware of any rules,” said Maeve. “Specifically.”
— But they lacked the lions’ sense of smell.
— Shut up. I can’t think.
“What rules are you talking about,” said Maeve.
“The idea was to make you part of the family,” Jimmy announced, as if he had just entered the room.
“Which part would that be? Royal Babysitter?”
— The dog, said Otto, approaches the lion from downwind.
— African wisdom, colonial, whatever.
— Smell it out. Give it shape.
This is Maeve’s scheme. I am to be tamed, demeaned by elevation. Other Woman strangled with veil of legitimacy. Jimmy’s visits retroactively raised above suspicion (“Who is that Betta woman?” they ask. “Eamon’s Godmom,” Maeve answers). All is made governable. By Maeve. Brilliant. They arrive together. Can’t talk to Jimmy alone. Eamon is bait.
“To include you,” said Maeve. She effused sincerity. TV acting, of course.
— To exclude you, said Otto, by inclusion.
“Otto’s got bigger,” said Eamon, his face no longer even with the dog’s. The dog leaned a shoulder into him, herded him from the adults.
“Not satisfactory,” said Betta into the ground of silence. “Not for what I’ve done.”
Jimmy patted the air with his hand — out of sight of Maeve’s celtic face gone to shock — a gesture of restraint, of shut up, to Betta. Then a smoothing motion, it’ll be all right.
— He means, said Otto, if you beat the lion into the open you have to kill it.
Eamon twirled toward Betta like a wind-up toy — a terracotta statuette of her in his hands. Her nude, kneeling body, molded and fired by Joe, hit the floor, body and head cracking apart, ragged shards like blood bouncing across the rug, the head resting midway between child and living woman. He picked it up, offered it to her.
“Eamon hands me my head.” Betta contemplated the bust of herself. Eamon watched her with eyes that could have been hers.
“Eamon, say you’re sorry,” Maeve instructed. He didn’t.
Betta let go the head, which rolled against a Yoruban ficus pot, face up, relic in the tall grass. “You thought to annul me,” she said. “Make me Godmother, Betta defanged. Betta desexed. Bribe me with the boy that could have been mine. He could have been mine.”
Maeve shuddered NO.
“We had a son.” Betta defied a gesture by Jimmy she did not bother to interpret. “A perfect, healthy son. A perfect, healthy, would have been son. Did you know that, Maeve?”
“I waited four-and-a-half months for Jimmy to say yes. He said no. In this room. By that window. Why not me, Jimmy?”
“Twenty years ago,” Jimmy whispered. “I was having a nervous fucking breakdown.”
“Some questions don’t have an answer,” said Maeve.
“Heaven provides for your father.” Betta turned to Eamon, but boy and dog had moved toward the dining room. “When he wants you, you’re born,” she called after him, “when he doesn’t you’re not. He has but to wait, things come to him.”
“Eamon changed me,” said Jimmy, watching Maeve. “You have to understand. He changed everything. Even before he was born. As if he were preparing me. I made decisions against my nature, Betta, inexplicable except that Eamon was planning to be born.”
“So anyone could have been his mother,” she said.
“Maeve wasn’t anyone.”
“I wasn’t anyone,” said Maeve.
Jimmy picked up a shard of Betta that had ricocheted near him, rolled it between his fingers. “What Betta means by the rules,” he said, turning to his wife, “is I used to give women with whom I was involved what she and I called the Betta Test.”
In the vacuum created by that statement a conversation took place composed wholly of undecipherable gestures: the motion of Jimmy’s eyes, an adjustment in Maeve’s position, the moving backward of Betta into her chair.
“Used to,” said Betta. “When did you stop?”
Maeve attempted to keep them both in view, failed.
“It was simple and cruel.” Jimmy shrugged in irony or resignation or chill or anything else a shrug might mean. “I let them know one way or another but always clearly that though Betta and I might not see each other for months or years and though we each might be involved with others, we always could be, might be, were in principle, lovers.”
He never gave the test to Maeve.
“And some passed and some failed?” asked Maeve.
“Yes,” Betta said. “And some, like Joe, tried for a long time and eventually found the whole thing too tyrannical and frightening. But we did it anyway.”
“This test was always administered at the beginning of the relationship?”
I believed he gave her the test. Seven years ago. I believed he was faithful to us both in his fashion, faithful to our fashion, which is not the world’s fashion. Instead, he cancelled the one rule that guided him about all women since we fell in love 25 years ago, that I would never be a secret.
Eamon gave a thin cry, held out his forefinger, a line of blood sliced down it.
“Otto,” he said in explanation to the rush of his parents.
Maeve kneeled before him.
— Not him, Otto!
— He overheard.
“It’s my fault,” said Eamon. “I broke the statue.”
“Will you tie that damn dog up!” Jimmy yelled. Betta had already seized the chain. They stared at each other across the chain.
Eamon sucked his finger. There was not much blood.
“Does he really hunt lions?” he asked Betta.
“No. There are no lions here.”
— There is one in this room, said Otto.
Betta tied the chain to the Mission recliner leg. The dog crouched, kept everyone in view. Betta found a bandage, squeezed antibiotic cream on its pad, wrapped it on Eamon’s finger.
He is no longer a rake but a liar. Faithless husband to her, unfaithful lover to me. Betrayed her too. In the name of his son.
“I’m sorry, Eamon.” She caressed his cheek.
Jimmy wants me to hold my tongue, accept the deal, keep him as secret lover, Eamon as secret son, eat my half a loaf and have it too, compromise, lose my soul, let him set the terms, give Maeve the gift of ignorant bliss, Godmother bless the child that has his own, go smiling, smiling to my own betrayal.
She smiled at Eamon.
And that’s exactly what I’ll do. For you, Eamon.
She stood. The boy gripped his father’s pants leg. Maeve backed toward the couch. Unsure whom to address, Betta leaned toward her, looked at Jimmy, intended to say, “I’ve thought about it.” Said instead, “Jimmy,” in a tone pulled from somewhere unintentional. And was going to say, “Maeve,” formally, befitting the situation. But Jimmy flinched. Hands snapped back to stop a blow, ward off a revelation.
“I accept,” Betta said. “To be godmother.”
“Offer withdrawn,” said Maeve.
— You forgot about me, said Otto.
The dog uncoiled, moved through his collar, through the chain, the size of a lion rising, jaws open, teeth like knives, his great chest passing Eamon’s face, rising above him toward Maeve. Betta cried NO, stepped toward Otto, looked past the dog’s churning shoulder to Jimmy. Jimmy fell away from the dog’s passage, twisted toward Eamon, hand out to his son. Maeve lurched against the couch arm, her eyes not on the dog but on Jimmy and Betta moving toward her son, who could not understand why everyone was too slow. The boy reached into Otto’s fur as the dog passed, through his angry muscles, between the furious flexing bones into his chest, tried to seize the dog’s heart to stop him, like Dad grabbed him when he got crazy, but Eamon was too slow too. His hand slipped from the pounding heart, the tower of muscled fur passed him, struck at his mom’s throat with an army of spears, emptied it of scream. Dog and woman blurred like figures in a thunderstorm, an optical illusion, a trick of the mind, sleight of hand and fang, fused into a creature seen and obliterated by a single burst of lightning, a pure mutual cancellation the fury of which held Jimmy, Betta, Eamon silent – gripped and released by the tremor of an earthquake, demolition, clap of a gigantic bronze temple bell.
We in our sixties, who feel that visceral, almost physical conjunction to San Francisco of 40 years ago — a city stung by hope, music, revolution — hold Jimmy and Betta, Heavy Couple of the Sixties, in envious, semi-mythical awe. By what miracle have they endured so seamlessly three decades of tumult, plague, and war? We are wrenched and carved by divorce, children, failure, success, money, disease. They are not. They seem to have negated negation (that famous phrase of Frederick Engels we debated then), undone time, sustained themselves on contradiction.
Yet they are haggard, the old revolutionary and his psychologist wife. Their beautiful son Eamon, of an uncertain age, oscillates from confusion to brilliance, often appears ambivalent, wary, suspicious toward his parents, complains obsessively that they have never let him own a dog. We encounter them at the Safeway on Fillmore, the coffeeshop on Haight. We speculate. Could their lives be less continuous than they appear? Does Eamon know something we do not? Could they have made a pact with time? Possess some concealing agency, a negating passion that gives them a power we cannot conceive?
*Lyrics from “Kiss And Say Goodbye” by Kate McGarrigle