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Social Blunders
By Tim Sandlin

Chapter One

Tramautic events always happen exactly two years before I reach the maturity level to deal with them," I said, just to hear how the theory sounded out loud.

"Two years from now I could handle my wife running off with an illiterate pool man. Two years from now I will have the emotional capacity to survive another divorce."

Hints that I might not survive the crisis cut no slack with my daughter. In fact, I wasn't even certain she had heard my little speech. Shannon seemed totally absorbed in aiming a garden hose at the front grill of her Mustang. As she rinsed soap off the gleaming chrome, her eyes held a distracted softness that reminded me more than somewhat of the softness her mother's eyes used to take on following an orgasm. Now, there's an awful thought. According to the two-year theory, a day would come when I could accept my daughter having orgasms, but for now I'd rather drink Drano.

"They say divorce cripples men more than women," I said. "Women cry and purge the pain while men internalize and fester."

Shannon raised her head to peer at me through her thick bangs. "You've never internalized pain in your life. Heartbreak to you is like garlic to a cook."

"Who told you such nonsense?"

"Mom. She says ever since you saw Hunchback of Notre Dame you've been looking for a Gypsy girl to swoop down and save. Then later you can die for her and feel your life wasn't wasted."

Secretly, I was pleased Maurey had seen the parallel, although I'd always related to the hunchback more from the tragic outsider aspect than as a savior of Gypsy girls.

"Do you and your mother often discuss my psychic makeup?"

"Everyone discusses your psychic makeup-mom, Grandma Lydia, Gus. Hank Elkrunner says you're an egomaniac with delusions of inferiority."

"I suppose Hank figured that out by throwing chicken bones."

Shannon shrugged the way she did when I was being too unreasonable to argue with and went back to her chrome. It was evening in October, the silver light hour when thousands of male Southerners all across the Carolinas stand back and toss lit kitchen matches at lighter fluid-soaked mounds of charcoal.

Shannon said, You'd be mooning over a new woman within a week. Why not save me some teenage anxiety and find a nice one this time? Hand me that T-shirt."

"Isn't this my T-shirt?" It was lime colored with GREENSBORO HORNETS in white over a yellow cartoon hornet swinging crossed baseball bats. "Wanda was nice."

Shannon stopped rubbing the headlights long enough to stare me down - one of those how-dare-you-lie-to-me stares women inherently pass on to one another. Shannon looks so much like Maurey, it's almost enough to make you believe in virgin birth. Where were my genes in this person who called me Daddy? Both my women had thick, dark brown hair, except Shannon cut hers short, collar length, while Maurey's hair hung down her back. Long neck, small hands, cheekbones of a Victoria's Secret nightie model, teeth that had never cost me a dime over checkups and cleaning - the only difference was Shannon had brown eyes while Maurey's were sky blue. And Maurey had a scar on her chin from a beating she once took at the hands of a man.

I said, "Okay, she wasn't so nice, but she had potential. Remember her crab salad."

"You don't marry a woman over crab salad. Wanda was a dysfunctional stepmother, a stereotype of the Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel ilk."

Ilk? "My God, who have you been talking to? Are you dating a psych major?"

Shannon reddened along the neck behind her ears. Fatherly intuition strikes again. The only question was whether the blush came from sex fantasized or sex completed. Shannon rubbed my T-shirt across the windshield with all her might. When she spoke, her voice sounded like she was hitting someone.

"You can't save every fucked-up woman you stumble over."

"I'd rather you not talk that way when I'm close by."

She turned the hose dangerously close to my tennis shoes. "You made fun of me when I said dysfunctional."

"Let's try neurotic."

"Okay. You find these neurotic women, God knows where, and you think that if you accept them as they are, out of sheer gratitude, they'll change."

Not a bad analysis for a nineteen-year-old. Of course, I couldn't admit that; never let a daughter know she might be right. "Why is it children always oversimplify their parents"'

Shannon smiled at me. "I doubt if it's possible to oversimplify you, Daddy. That's why I love you."

Tears leapt to my eyes. Wanda's leaving had turned me into an emotional sap, to the point where I'd cried the day before when I heard the neighbor kids singing "Happy Birthday to You." Because the picture on the front of the jar reminded me of a young Shannon, I'd stuffed a hundred-dollar check into the muscular dystrophy display at Tex and Shirley's Pancake House.

Shannon either ignored or didn't notice my poignant moment. She stood back to admire her shiny, clean Mustang. It was ten years old, creamy white with a black interior and a LICK JESSE HELMS in 84 bumper sticker. I'd given it to her for high school graduation.

"One thing for certain," Shannon said, still looking at her car.

2

Maurey Pierce telephoned.

"You sound out of breath."

"I've been riding the bike."

"Gus tells me the slut ran out. Congratulations, sugar booger."

"Maurey, my marriage just blew up. That should call for a little sympathy."

Pause. "Your marriage was the family joke, Sam. Both your marriages. Nobody's going to fake sympathy when they blow up."

"That's what Gus said."

"How much did she take with her?"

"The 24OZ and my baseball card collection. Me Maw's jewelry, but I guess I gave her that anyway."

"You gave her your dead grandmother's jewelry?"

"We were playing How much do you love me?' one night in bed.

She said Do you love me enough to give me everything you own?' and I said Yes.'"

"Sam."

"It was foreplay. I didn't mean her to take me literally."

Maurey was quiet a few moments, obviously disgusted. "How's my baby?"

There was news, but I wasn't certain how to break it. "I think Shannon lost her virginity. She didn't come home Friday night."

"Sam, Shannon lost her virginity after a Carolina-duke game two years ago."

I almost dropped the phone. "How do you know"'

"She told me. She bet her virginity on Duke and lost. She was planning to sleep with the geek anyway and figured if she did it on a bet there'd be no strings attached. Doesn't that just sound like a daughter of ours?"

I looked from the Exercycle to a painting on the wall of some Indians killing a buffalo, then back to my hand on the phone - all those years of protecting my daughter from the rancid gender down the tubes. I muttered, "She's so young."

"She waited four years longer than we did."

"And look how we turned out - maladjusted ambiverts unable to sustain the simplest relationships."

"Ambiverts, my ass, my relationship is fine." I shut up on that one. Maurey's relationship with Pud Talbot was a sore point with us, so sore that when she first took him in, Maurey and I stopped speaking to each other for eight months.

In the silence, Maurey said, "Before you go off the deep end could you spare a couple thousand? The drought burned half our grass and we'll have to buy feed this winter."

"You must think I'm made of money."

Another sore point - my money. "You're made of horseshit, Sam. God knows everyone here at the TM Ranch appreciates our allowance; we're just tired of doing backflips to yank it out of you."

I didn't say anything. The first days after your marriage dies, people should cut a little slack. The women in my life don't know the meaning of slack.

"I'm sorry," Maurey said.

"I'm sorry too." I listened to Maurey breathe, but she didn't say anything more. "How many lost souls am I supporting this week?" I asked.

"Three, counting your mother. I've got a recovering junkie out haying with Hank, and an unwed mother who's supposed to be teaching Auburn French, but so far all she's done is cry. And Petey called, he's coming in Wednesday. God knows why."

"I thought Petey hated all things rural." Petey is Maurey's brother. He's never much liked me and vice versa, although we keep it civil. I never called him a derogatory name, either to his face or back, but he once said I was a screaming heterosexual.

"All I know's what the letter said - meet him at the airport Wednesday. I suppose you'll be the next to drag your ass home. Pud wants to change our name to Lick Your Wounds Ranch."

"I better stay put for now. Wanda might come back and she'd worry if I was gone."

Maurey made a snort sound. "She's a bitch, Sam. The woman doesn't deserve to suck the mud off your sneakers."

Back to the bike. Now I have two traumas to flee - my botched marriage and my daughter's lost virginity.

To say that my life began with Shannon's birth is not the overblown remark you might think. I was thirteen when Shannon was born, three weeks short of fourteen. How much that matters can happen to a person before his fourteenth birthday? Mostly I took care of my mother, Lydia, which is another thing I discovered when I reached what passes for adulthood. Parents are supposed to take care of children, not the other way around. Lydia told me it was normal for a child to cook meals and wash the clothes. How was I supposed to know different? She had me balancing her checkbook when I was ten years old - the ditz never wrote down dates and check numbers - and these days she complains continuously because I won't let her handle money. I mean, good grief, already.

Lydia now runs the only feminist press in Wyoming. She's stopped drinking and stopped smoking, and she jogs the county roads wearing a sweatshirt, tights, ninety-dollar sneakers, and a headband that, if you circle it from ear to ear, reads MEN CAN BE REPLACED BY A BANANA.

Oothoon Press publishes books such as Mother Lied and The Castration Solution. Lydia's authors call me, the one who pays their bills, a pig and a villain simply because I have a penis and most of the pigs and villains down through history have had penises. Hell, I don't like the male sex any more than Lydia's authors, only I make an exception of myself.

When Maurey gave me the Russell print of the Indians killing the buffalo, she said it reminded her of me. I'd recently ridden several days and several hundred miles directly into the scene, and I still didn't get the connection. One Indian is shooting the buffalo with a rifle, and one Indian is shooting him with a bow and arrow, while a third waves a spear in the air and shouts Indian stuff. Meanwhile, the buffalo is goring the hell out of a fourth Indian, who is either dead or dying, and stomping the hell out of the fourth Indian's white horse. The painting is dramatic, what with two animals and a human dying and three humans and an animal killing, and everyone caught up in your basic here and now.

After Maurey said Wanda was unworthy to suck the mud off my sneakers, I rode eighty miles, staring at her painting. I've never been one to get caught up in the here and now, myself. I can't remember a single scene I've been in where one part of me wasn't standing off to the side figuring how to word it when I told the story to a woman, and conceptualizing her reaction, then my reaction to her reaction and so on until we wound up in bed or married or whatever. Call it the curse of the romantic writer - even the romantic writer of Young Adult sports novels. So far I have the temperament of Scott Fitzgerald and the following of Dizzy Dean. Reach out for an understanding of that one.

Did Maurey think of me as the Indians killing the buffalo? Or the buffalo itself? Maybe she was saying I'm the last of a dying breed, valiantly raging in a futile battle before ultimate death. That didn't really sound like my Maurey. Or maybe I'm the dead or dying Indian who got himself reamed by his prey.

She'd more likely think of me as an Indian than a buffalo. I'm not bulky or hairy enough to compare to the buffalo. She probably thought of me as an Indian - wild and free and prone to running around without a shirt. Lydia's boyfriend is an Indian. Hank Elkrunner does most of the actual labor at Maurey's ranch. I don't know how Hank puts up with my mother's never-ending narcissism. Lydia passionately cares about the condition of her nails and the worldwide fight for feminist awareness, only she doesn't put much stock on details in between, like family and friends.

Mostly Hank looks inscrutable and stays out at the ranch until he's summoned to take care of her banana needs. Hank Elkrunner is the only male person I've ever been able to stomach for the long run. Shannon says my anti-male bias is the character flaw that dooms every aspect of my life, such as women. I don't agree with her, but many hours of cranking an Exercycle while fleeing demons is a good time to question basic assumptions.

The neat thing about physically pushing yourself above and beyond endurance is that after exhaustion comes second wind, then after second wind you slide into bizarre, disconnected thought processes. Bizarre, disconnected thought processes are followed by third and fourth winds during which the brain goes to lands even drugs can't take it, and finally you start to hallucinate your ass off.

I heard hoofbeats; the buffalo snorted and blew steam and red foam from his nostrils; the horse screamed as its back was broken. The wall framing the painting thrummed with the low breathing of a sleeping beast. Hallucinations can be cool, or they can scare the living bejesus out of person.

Women's faces swooped at me - Lydia, Maurey, Shannon, Gus. Then bodies - beautiful bodies with elbows, shoulder blades, the backs of knees, necks, feet, and fingers - all the parts that I love. Like bats, crotches began swooping out of the buffalo's head, straight at my own. Here came the wispy blond tufts of Leigh, the stiff-as-a-hairbrush bush of Janey, Wanda's crotch shaved smooth like a volleyball. Darlene, Karlene, and Charlene. Sweet Maria. Linda the raw oyster.

Before Wanda, I was rarely able to hold a woman longer than two menstrual periods. Rejection came soon after copulation, but there a while copulation came with rapid-fire regularity. Call it the quest-and-loss syndrome. It was nothing I did or deserved. Any non-jerk who is young, fairly well off, and single - and has a beautiful daughter - can find short-term romance. Plus Maurey taught me how to get the girls off every time. That helps

I leaned forward with my eyes closed, sweat dribbling off my chin onto the handlebars, concentrating on the parade of crotches. I could taste each woman's juice on my tongue and the back of my mouth. A sound came like water on concrete, and I opened my eyes. The Indians had been replaced by five men who stood in a circle with their penises out, aimed at the buffalo, who had turned into a woman I couldn't recognize. She lay on the floor with her dress torn and her back bare and bleeding while the men urinated on her.

© 1995 Tim Sandlin

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