That was the day I was run over. Actually it wasn’t just me, but it was mostly me. I was standing closer to the car when it hit us — I was the one it actually ran over. She just bounced off the bumper. And then there was all the fried chicken — but I’ll get to that. I promise I’ll get back to that.
I’d been over next door is pretty much how it all started. There’re four apartments here in the building, we’re all pretty friendly. I live down on the one end, with Lois — well, sometimes with Lois. Next door to us is Paul C., he’s the guy with the hair, he lives with another girl who’s almost never home; she’s Swedish, I think. Paul C.’s a graduate student — it’s mostly students here, except for me and sometimes Lois. She used to be a student, and I teach, so we’re affiliated — but we’re not students. Anyhow down past Paul C. are Fat Buddy and Derrick, then after them is Earl, who lives alone. He’s the only one of us here that does that, usually.
Anyhow I’d been over having a beer out on the porch with Paul C.. Lois wasn’t around. She’s a fair bit younger than me, and while I’ve been feeling settled, pretty settled since I met her, you could say she’s recently been feeling less so. It’s been a little rough, and basically we now have this sort of agreement. In which I sort of agree not to ask where she disappears to. Which she does, for a few days at a time, except this time it had been more than a few and she’d called once and said she’d been doing a lot of thinking and wasn’t sure she’d be coming back at all. I kept hoping to come home and find her, and pretending I didn’t care as much as I did when I didn’t.
So Paul C. and I were sitting out front, drinking beer and talking around the subject. He’d just gone inside for more, and that’s when everything really got started.
I sat in that cool fall air for a moment, and then Earl’s door popped open: out stepped a girl — a pretty young girl, which is the kind Earl usually has around. And she was something else: long dark hair, big brown eyes and these full round lips, and wearing — well, it was a cat costume is what it was, but it took me a minute to notice because there were some spaghetti straps and a short skirt and let me just say not a whole lot else. Black leggings, some cat ears. And she smiled at me, so of course I smiled back, and then I pulled a hand up to my head and took a breath as I realized I’d forgotten, again.
But I need to explain that better — let me backtrack a little.
I’d been down at school around midday — after my first class finished — and I had some things I needed to get in the mail over at the post office. Grant forms, actually; I’m hoping to land one of those and maybe get out of here for a few months next year. This time of year it finally cools off, the sweet olive blossoms hit the air, and under all these big oak trees you can almost convince yourself the place is beautiful. Well, it is beautiful. The air starts to move again, the sun pulls back and seems to be angling across the sky to you, no matter what time of day, and always to be filtered by something: leaves, pine needles, fronds. But when the air thickens up again — in retrospect it always seems like it happens in February, but I guess it’s more like the end of March or April — when that molten air mixes with the petroleum smell (the one that inexplicably smells like far, far too much steamed broccoli), and then just hangs on you — droops over you — well, let’s just say the scenery pales a little. It’s hard to stay outside long enough to remember there is scenery, much less get a good look at it. And did I mention the bugs? The cockroaches as big as panthers, which seek you out like they want to make friends? You know it’s true: they would nuzzle if they got close enough.
I don’t mean to knock the place. It is my home, these days. Although, don’t get me started on that one: home. I was at a wedding ceremony recently where the ministers (yes there were two, it was some kind of outdoor hippie California thing — don’t get me started on California either), the ministers in their blessing said “let your home be the place you most want to be.” The sun was streaming through these redwood trees, across a carpet of orange needles, catching the pale green leaves of a fern, and angling right on over to the couple at the altar: it was quite a scene. Nothing like Lois and my wedding, of course — we did it in a church, for her since it was her first time, and I was willing to do whatever she wanted. Her mother decorated the whole thing with her older sister, all the bridesmaids etc. etc.; the whole place looked like some sort of lemon meringue disaster. Except in a pretty way. Anyhow I was struck by those ministers’ words. Lois wasn’t there, and the place we live (or I live) has those plumbing troubles and the situation with the bathroom wall, and of course neither of us are even from Baton Rouge in the first place — and the whole home issue really got to me.
But what’s important to this story is this: I walked into the post office, where there was no line (I know: this is where the story begins to seem a bit far-fetched). I marched directly to the counter, and stepped right up to the clerk. She was already weighing my envelope by the time I noticed that she was a witch.
“How may I harm you, my dear?” she asked without a grin. Bright green face, tall pointy hat, long black fingernails. Even two warts on her cheeks. And the way she peered out from behind it all as her fingers worked to pluck up the stamps and then slide them suspiciously across the counter to me — you’d have thought I was the one in the costume. Finally after a few moments she winked, but then went right on with her witchy ways.
But her spell had already been cast — just looking at the witch made me sag. Not because she was a witch — no, I mean where I come from up north there’s all kinds of real witching going on — you know, Wicca and little dolls and hanks of hair and what have you. My first wife was a witch, which didn’t bother me at the time but now and again I wonder if maybe it doesn’t have something to do with how things turned out then — or ever since, for that matter.
But that’s a very different story, those witching days. This witching day was this one — and by the time the postal hag flicked two candy corns across the counter to me and told me to “have a crafty day,” she’d already done her work: Halloween is Lois’ favorite holiday. She loves to do the whole thing: dress up and give out candy to the kids, then go out to costume parties which she almost always wins. The year I met her she was SpaceLab; then she got into couple costumes: we went as Kong and Fay Wray (Lois is a fair bit shorter than me), Neil Armstrong and the Moon (her joke — I was Neil Armstrong, and I was hardly the first; I said I should be Alan Sheppard, you know, the last guy on the moon — though now I guess that was just wishful thinking). Last year we went as “Fire and Ice” (a couple of people thought we were ‘a cold day in hell,’ which I kind of liked), and this year her plan had been for us to go as that pair with the pitchfork from the American Gothic painting. But of course with things the way they were, we wouldn’t be going anywhere together.
I held the candy corns in my hands, looked at their uneven stripes. I had completely forgotten about Halloween. I had no costume, no candy, no decorations at the house. Which would never have happened if Lois was around.
As I strolled out of the p.o. I noticed some of the things I hadn’t seen on the way in — a big black cauldron gurgling mist into the air, cottony cobwebs along the walls, plastic bats and spiders. I couldn’t believe I had entirely forgotten. I made mental notes to myself that after my class I’d go out and get candy, even some decorations, and that I’d think of something to wear. And tried not to think about whether Lois had found someone to play my part with the pitchfork.
So that’s why my heart sank when the beautiful cat woman walked out onto the porch: I realized that after leaving the post office, I’d gone and taught my class, then completely forgotten about Halloween again . I sighed. Some days you miss people more than others.
And then Earl was following the smiling cat woman out onto the porch, another pair of girls behind him.
“Hey Superman,” they all call me this because of Lois of course. Also because I’m older, I think. “We were just coming to find you. Girls, this is Clay — but we call him Superman, because he’s so — super, I guess,” he shrugged, winked at me. Earl affects a goofy, sing-song tone when girls are over. “You got to come see what we just did in the backyard.”
And he pivoted and headed back on through the door. Two of the girls followed; Catwoman stayed behind, looking at me.
“Aren’t you coming?” she lowered those wide eyes at me, cocked her head to one side.
I got up.
“So your costume,” I said as I headed for Earl’s door, “you’re a cat?”
“Very good,” she said. “You understand whiskers and ears.”
“Well,” I said as we wandered through Earl’s living room.
“Actually,” she paused in the doorway as we reached the kitchen, looked back at me over her bare shoulder, “I’m a sex kitten.” She smiled.
“Oh,” I said, “I see. Yes.”
Anyhow that’s how I got into the backyard.
Which before we go further probably needs a little set up. You see I’d been out there that morning, just doing a little tending to the garden. It’s just a little garden, but the weeds out there sprout up like fireworks. One second, nothing; the next you’ve got green arms everywhere, reaching out over the whole damn place. And I like to get out there, get down in the dirt from time to time — makes me feel like I’m connected to a piece of earth somehow, like I’m not just passing over.
“Well good mornin’,” the long words came over the fence from Ms. Mary’s side. “What you doing over there?” Ms. Mary was standing in her housecoat, as always, blinking out through her huge glasses, wide as her head and almost as thick.
“Good morning Ms. Mary,” I said. “Just looking at the garden.”
“You all planting a garden?” She always asks about it, even though I dug the bed two summers ago. “What you going to grow?”
I told her about the lettuces, tomatoes, squash, etc.
“You know what you really ought to do,” she had one hand on the chain link fence now. She paused. “You live there — in that house?”
“Yes ma’am,” I confirmed.
“What’s your name?”
“Clay, ma’am,” I told her for maybe the fortieth time.
“Well Clay I was talking to one of the girls that lives there — nice girl by the name of Lois.” Every time, every time Ms. Mary remembers Lois — and Lois moved in here a full year after I did. “And I was tellin’ her about the cars on this street. Now what I think you should do, Clay,” she fixed me with her gigantic lenses, “is talk to the landlord about paving this here backyard, so you can all park back here. Get those cars off the street.”
“What about, you know, all these vegetables, and the grass?” I pointed out.
“Do you all have a garden over there?” she leaned over the fence to look.
“Well those cars are quite an eyesore, don’t you think, Clay?” she fixed on me again. “I should say so — and we can’t have everything. I’ll just give that landlord of yours a call. What did you say your name was again — Clay?”
“What ever happened to that nice girl Lois?”
“Well ma’am, I hope she’ll be back around one of these days,” I sighed. Lois never even talked to Ms. Mary — I was always the one out in the yard, hearing about everything going to hell.
“All right, Clay, you have a good mornin’ now,” she was trundling back towards her house, “I’ll go see if I can’t get something done about some asphalt.”
I watched her trundle off. Then turned to the lettuce again — they were a fair ways out of the ground, leaves deep green and firm. I made a quick scan for snails, then pulled a few weeds from around the squash.
I figure somewhere in there is probably when it I dropped it. Only now that I think about it, I might not have been out there that same morning. That might have been the day before, when I talked to Ms. Mary.
One way or another, I got out in the backyard that afternoon and saw the girls and Earl standing next to a whole stack of cinderblocks and empty flowerpots. Tall — five or six blocks high (which is about five feet of course) and maybe ten feet wide, kind of u-shaped, with the arc opening towards the building — towards me as I stood on Earl’s back steps. On one end there were two stakes angling up into the air — looked like a thin cinderblock bug with antennas is what I thought.
“What do you think? We just finished it,” Earl stood to the side, presenting the thing with his arm outstretched. “Right up your alley, huh? See girls,” he turned to the three of them, “Superman here is a sculptor — he teaches sculpture.”
“Oh really?” Catwoman turned my way and reappraised me over that shoulder.
“Wow,” said one of the others, who was wearing your basic red devil costume with the tail and all, engine red horns poking up out of her blonde hair.
“But this isn’t really a sculpture,” the third one said. She had the blue gingham dress, the red shoes, and the little wicker basket — Dorothy, of course. “It’s so they see us when they come,” she nodded to me.
“I see,” I said. “You mean the trick-or-treaters?” It didn’t seem right, but what else was there?
“No — “ Dorothy frowned.
“The aliens,” the devil giggled.
Earl just stood there grinning.
“It’s kind of a long story,” Catwoman came towards me across the grass.
“Probably so,” I said. She idly fingered one of those small straps.
“They’re part of some strange alien religion,” Earl trumpeted, “their Bible came from aliens — so this way,” he nodded at the sculpture, “when the aliens come back for us, they’ll be able to find us.”
“They may be coming soon,” Catwoman told me, “to take us home.”
“It’s a very beautiful religion, really,” Dorothy added, idly clicking her heels together.
“All about love,” the devil dangled her tail into my broccoli. “And divine grace.”
“Sounds promising,” I said. I looked at the cinderblocks again, at the flower pots. I wondered what the aliens would think of it, how they felt about cinderblocks.
“We have a study group,” the devil continued, “on Sundays. We read the book aloud and then discuss it. It’s very illuminating.”
“Yes,” I said, “I’ll bet.”
“I went last Sunday,” Earl was peering down into my garden, “The thing I noticed most was all the cute girls,” Earl winked at me.
“Earl –” Dorothy swung at him teasingly with her basket.
“Hey,” Catwoman stepped towards me. “You don’t have a costume.”
“Do you have a costume for tonight?” Behind her Dorothy and the devil continued harassing Earl. “They always do this,” she waved a hand dismissively at them.
“Oh yeah,” I nodded, “I know Earl pretty well.”
“But do you?”
“What — know Earl?”
“No,” she smiled patiently, “have a costume.”
“Well, no I,” I was just about to explain how Lois was always in charge of that when I realized I didn’t feel like getting into it. “I guess I just haven’t gotten to that yet.”
“Well it’s about time,” she shook a finger at me. “You must have something in your house,” she said as she took my arm, “Everyone does. I’m sure we can find something.”
So I realize now that that wasn’t when I lost the key — it probably did happen while I was out there with Ms. Mary that morning, or whatever morning it was. What this was, was how Catwoman ended up in my house. Up in the bedroom.
We looked through the closet for a couple of minutes — it couldn’t have been more than three or four. Lois has a whole closet full of costume things, stuff she’s collected over time, from thrift shops and the lost and founds of various places. Catwoman went through a bunch of ideas pretty quick — a drag queen, a vampire, Lucianno Pavarotti — but finally she thought I should be the Cat in the Hat, to go with her. I was working through the idea of spending the evening with her, idly trying to reconcile the alien worshipping business. And trying to convince myself it would be good for me, since Lois probably wasn’t coming back. Really I was trying not to think too much, because I knew if I did it’d be about Lois.
Catwoman was standing right in front of me, her brown eyes wide, holding up an old striped shirt in front of my chest, when I heard the front door go. The hinges shriek — one of these days I’ll oil them, I’m sure of it — and it’s audible all through the place.
Unmistakably Lois’ voice. Every muscle in my body snapped tight.
“Sweetie you home?”
“Up here,” I called. “Just looking,” I glanced at Catwoman, “looking for a costume.” Then more quietly to Catwoman, “We better go downstairs.”
Which we did of course. And of course Lois was a little surprised to see two of us coming down the stairs.
“We decided on the Cat in the Hat,” Catwoman said as we got most of the way down.
“This is Lois, my,” I paused and looked at her. “Do I still call you my wife?”
“I don’t know — do you?” her voice wasn’t the sharp, angry one I expected. The question sounded honest.
“Lois is my wife,” I told Catwoman.
“I’m Chanterelle,” she extended a hand to Lois.
“Like the mushroom?” Lois said as she took it. I noticed that I hadn’t known her name either.
“I grew up in California,” Catwoman shrugged. “Well — I better go back over and see what they’re doing — come show me your costume when you get it done,” she smiled awkwardly at me, then took her shoulders and everything on out the door.
“Hi honey,” I said after the door had shrieked shut and we were alone. I certainly hadn’t seen this coming.
“What am I supposed to make of this?” Lois stared at me from beneath her wrinkled brow. “Just what was going on up there with you and — Catwoman?”
“She’s a sex kitten, actually,” I shrugged. “I mean that’s her costume. She uh — well, honestly, she was just trying to help me get dressed.”
“No — I mean dressed up — get a costume together,” I kept hoping the right words would just show up. Lois just kept staring, but her eyes were wide, soft. “She’s a friend of Earl’s — really honey –”
“I thought this would be a nice surprise,” she said, and only as she set it down did I notice the large bag that had been dangling from her hand.
“Lois — honey — I mean it — you can go ask Earl — we were just poking around in my closet to try to find me a costume. Since I didn’t have one.”
It was a strange talk — me trying to convince her I was telling the truth, her just giving me these sad eyes — like I was the one who’d been gone two weeks — so finally I did go and get Earl.
“Hey Lois! Nice to see you back. Did you meet the crazy alien girl who was in here with Superman?” Earl always knows how to fix things. “Don’t get him in trouble now — Chanterelle was just in here for a minute helping him put together some kind of costume for tonight. We’re going to a little party — we were going to bring him along. You both ought to come — it’s going to be fun.”
“Maybe we’ll do that,” she said. “I think we have some things to talk over first though.”
“Lois don’t beat him too hard,” Earl winked at me, then changed his tone. “Really they were just in here for a minute — it wasn’t ten minutes ago we found Clay on the porch and took him into the backyard to show him our new sculpture.”
“New sculpture?” she looked to me.
“For the aliens,” Earl went on.
“I’ll explain it,” I said, “thanks Earl.”
“Y’all can come over and take a look,” he continued.
“We might,” I said, “later on. Thanks.”
Finally he headed back across the porch.
“So,” I said.
“Ok,” Lois tugged a piece of hair back behind her ear. “I guess I can’t really complain, can I?”
“Well not really,” I agreed.
She looked at me like she wanted to say something, but couldn’t figure out the right words. Her big surprise entrance had been spoiled, I guess.
“So — what’s in the bag?”
“Well,” she raised her hand to her mouth, bit her nail as she looked up at me. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. See if you can figure it out.”
“Been to the Salvation Army?”
“School’s lost and found — gold mine,” she said as she picked up the bag, put it on the sofa and pulled it open.
It took a moment or two, but slowly she started to get that old excitement back. The little sag in her shoulders disappeared as she reached into the bag and started pulling out things: a colorful printed shirt, a vest, some bell bottom pants, a long bright dress, a pair of tall boots. By the time she pulled out the two wigs (both dark haired, one a kind of Three Stooges mop, the other long and straight), she was grinning at her compositions. Both ensmbles lay on the sofa next to each other, and she turned to me expectantly.
“Well,” I bit my lip as I looked at it. We’d been John and Yoko before. “Sonny and Cher?” I tried.
“Wow,” she raised her eyebrows, turned to look at the costumes. “You know, that could work too — that might be better.”
“Better than — what did you have planned?”
“Bob Dylan,” she pointed, “Joan Baez. You know, ‘Bringing it All Back Home.’ You remember that?”
“Of course — I was alive then,” we always joked about this stuff, what she was too young for. “I mean I was only a couple years old, but I was alive.”
“You get the idea?” she looked towards me.
I guess I was being thick that night all around. I shrugged.
“Bringing it All Back Home.”
Suddenly the latch of the door popped, the thing shrieked, and there was Catwoman again. She had a sheepish grin on her face, and something in her hand.
“Hey Clay — is this yours?” she was holding up a housekey.
I stepped across to her. No doubt about it — it had the green plastic thing I put on all of our housekeys (orange is for the car).
“Well it is,” I said.
“We just found it in the garden,” she said. Which is where the garden ties in from before, you see. “Earl said he thought it looked like yours.”
I noticed Lois was grinning.
“Well thanks for bringing it back,” I said. “That’s very nice of you. Maybe we’ll see you later?”
“You know where to find us,” she grinned, then wheezed the door shut again.
I turned to look at Lois again. She shook her head, laughing quietly.
“What?” I said.
“I sort of wish you had been having an affair with her,” she said.
I paused. Straightened. “How do you know I haven’t?”
She just shook her head again.
“Really — how do you know I haven’t?” I peered across at her.
After a second — when she saw I wanted a response — she shrugged. “Come on — that bit with the key? Right then? That was too much. You couldn’t write that.” She shook her head, grinned, turned back to the cosutmes. Later, when I thought about it, I had to admit it was a little bit funny. “So — Sonny Bono, huh?” she went on, “‘I Got You, Babe’ — that’s almost as good as ‘Bringing it All Back Home.’ Almost.” And she turned to me again with that cockeyed smile of hers.
“Home, huh?” I walked over to her and laced my arms through hers. I hadn’t felt that for awhile. “This is sure a surprise.”
“Here,” she mocked Catwoman’s airy entrance, “um, like, do you want your key back?”
I kissed her, grinning. Which I also hadn’t felt for awhile.
Now that I think about it, I guess the getting run over part isn’t that important. I mean, it did happen — and it really was that night. The car went right over me, in my Sonny Bono/Bob Dylan get-up. We were on our way home from the party, cutting through the parking lot of the chicken joint, and I really just didn’t see it coming. It was two witches — a mother and daughter. The tire went over me, and Lois kind of caromed off the bumper I think. When the mother witch stepped out, there was chicken everywhere. All she could say was “my chicken, my chicken.” The young witch didn’t say a thing, just sat in the passenger seat, clutching her broom, staring wide-eyed at her mother like she’d never seen her before. The car had plates from out of state — New Mexico, I think, or somewhere out west.
I didn’t really know what had happened. As we picked ourselves up, this old guy said “it went over you — right over you,” pointing to the tire, then to my leg, kind of hopping from one foot to the other.
“Thank you,” I said, “I feel fine.” Lois said she did too, and gazed down at me with a concern I’m not sure I’d seen before. Or it could have been the car working on my perceptions. She reached down and lifted me up and I really didn’t feel so bad. Both of my legs appeared to function. “I think we’re going to go on home,” I said, looking out at these strange faces who had appeared in my evening. Lois took my arm and steered me on away, down the street. We just left the others there, to hop around and pick up chicken.
I had a little limp the next day, and my costume pants had a tire track and a rip. Lois found some twigs from one of the witch-brooms in her purse. We put them on the sill of our kitchen window — the one right above the sink that looks out into the backyard. And that alien sculpture’s still there, too — right next to the garden. Earl mows around it.