The stink of a diaper, saturated with…well, saturated, was what woke Beam up a little before noon that Monday. There were no bacon and eggs frying, the aromas rousing him from a sweet dream sleep; no June Cleaver pancakes, or Walton family breakfast; only those diapers. His was not a life lived in the sepia-toned world of beloved television shows; his was a life mired in reality; actually, just below in reality’s root cellar, to be more precise. It was a life of bills and overdue notices arriving daily; a three-room house clinging to the corner of a rutted gravel road; with two cars, though only one was running these days. Marriage to a woman who, when bothering to speak to him at all, badgered him to get a job, to feed the baby, to change those diapers, to do…something. His life was that of a son whose mother called only when she had a chore for him; a father who ran out on him when he was a child; a brother and sister he hardly knew; and saturated diapers…
“Emma!” he shouted in a frayed sleep voice. “For cryin’ out loud, open a friggin’ window! It smells like a sewer in here.”
Beam rolled onto his stomach and buried his face deep in the pillows. No more crap, please? No more crap. However, there were other odors with which to contend. Pillowcases and sheets that hadn’t been inside a washer in over a month; and the smell of his own body, unwashed for several days. Kicking aside the covers, Beam had enough. He sat up and dropped his elbows to his knees and, cradling his head in his hands, he wished away the hangover, trying to erase everything: the smells, his wife, and his life.
With his fingers trapped in his knotted hair, Beam was forced to stare at his body. His belly used to be flat, back in the when. In the days of pickup baseball games on the beach; all those years ago when he ran track for Little Lakes Junior High. Yet, these days, in the now, his stomach slopped out of a pair of worn underwear like a tub of whipped cream tipped on its side; the elastic waistband of his shorts etched a deep groove in his gut, pasty white and covered in sweaty, matted hair.
Too many years of beers had done this to him; too many nights of sharing a fat bag of weed with friends, and then stuffing himself full of junk food at the Del Taco in Ukiah. Too many years of looking for work and not finding it; of finding it, and then losing it because he couldn’t get there on time, because he wanted to go fishing with Charlie Bloom; because he called in sick whenever he had a hangover. Because he shot his mouth off before thinking.
Sitting on the bed, a dim light shining through smoke stained curtains, Beam rubbed his stomach as though he was a Buddha and in need of luck. He chuckled, remembering the huge carved wooden Buddha his father had brought home from somewhere in Asia; Billy Seaton was in the Air Force when Jimmy was born, and he spent the first months of his youngest son’s life away from home. Then he was gone for good.
Back in the when, on those nights when the house winced beneath the burdensome slumber of Barbara’s drunkenness, little Jimmy Seaton would lie awake and cry for his daddy to come home. Hours after he had begun to wail, his mother would stumble into the room and rattle the side of his bed, ordering him to be quiet. Shush! He could smell the bourbon on her breath as she leaned over him. Shut up, James. And he would cry even more. Don’t you dare wake Renny and Harry. Renny and Harry; back in the when the three of them would stroke the belly of that mahogany Buddha that Billy carried home from somewhere in Asia. Rub it for the luck that never came.
Good luck shied away from the Seaton family, while bad luck rented a room in the house. Billy Seaton had run out when Beam was only a boy, back in the when, in the days when his name was Jimmy. Too young to know anything except Daddy wasn’t home to do ‘Daddy’ things, like stand in the street and clap when the training wheels came off his bike. Renny did that. Daddy wasn’t there to toss a ball around the yard, take him to Scout meetings or root him on at a beach ballgame. Daddy wasn’t there so Jimmy could talk to someone.
His brother and sister left him alone also; though theirs gave the impression of being more of an escape. Diploma in hand, Renny ran away the night she graduated from high school, and she never looked back. She called Mother on occasion, birthdays and holidays, but she hadn’t spoken to her baby brother in twenty-odd years. Harry waited for a while before he left The Landing; he was nineteen, maybe twenty, and had spent two years after high school riding his bike around town, delivering groceries for Dawson’s Market, to finance his run. He would send cards, too, but then, without warning, Mother stopped speaking of Harry. In the middle of the night some five or six years, she called James, so incoherent he thought, for a moment, that he could hang up and pretend she’d never phoned, and begged him to come home and take what was left of Harry’s things to the county disposal site. Harry had been gone six or seven years already, but she had to have his things thrown out that night. She couldn’t wait; she wouldn’t.
Beam would wonder, why, if Harry and Renny could leave The Landing, and their mother, why couldn’t he? What kept him within her grasp, in Fort Bragg—a mere 7.27 miles from the house at the end of Skeleton Road? That was as far as he had been able to run: seven-point-two-seven miles down the coast, inland a bit, away from the sea and that house. Was it Emma and Lyle who kept him from leaving? Why not take them and run? Leave them and…his own father had vanished without a word; he ditched his family. Why couldn’t Beam do the same? Because, you fool the voice in his head snorted, you’re a Mama’s boy, a little chickenshit, tied to her apron strings and her pocketbook.
That was the truth; and it hurt. Beam had long since lost count of how many times he borrowed money from his mother. Before he met Emma, every time he lost a job, she sent a check. A couple of hundred dollars the summer the engine blew up on the Dodge and then another seven-fifty that fall when he bought the Chevy. Here, a few bucks here for Lyle’s clothes, there, a couple of dollars for his toys. Even the money that arrived, in a plain brown envelope, no card, no note, the day he and Emma left for Reno. Gas money, motel money; a bouquet for Emma and a new tie for him. Cash for the preacher.
Beam could never forget the money, because she would never let him. He heard the reminders of past loans, and the promise of future ones, in her voice every time she called. Why, just last week she telephoned, something about a load of garbage she wanted hauled away, even that day he heard….
“Shit!” He hissed. “Shit shit shit shit shit!”
“Beam?” Emma asked as he hobbled into the kitchen, half-dressed. A cigarette dangled from the usual spot between her teeth, and she held a mug of instant coffee in her hand—“World’s Best Mom,” it said on the ceramic cup. Her other hand pinched a piece of white toast, slathered in grape jelly and margarine, the crusts nibbled away from the edges. She stood in front of a sink full of dirty pots and pans from days gone by; it was a perpetual battle between the two of them as to who would break first and clean the house; who would put away the laundry, vacuum, take out the trash, dust. Change the baby. “You’ll wake Lyle.” She hushed him. “What’s wrong?”
“My mother. Godammit!” He said, hopping on one leg and trying to aim the other down the pants leg of his Levis.
“Did she call?”
“No, Emma! She didn’t call!” Beam dragged out the last syllable. Christ, she could be dense. As if she wasn’t able to hear a phone ringing in the ‘other’ room in a shack of parchment and paste. You could hear the leaves rustling up to the front door on windy days. You could hear the Bryants, who live three houses down the hill, gossip after church on Sundays. You could hear Lyle turn over in his crib, the sheets rustling, the teddy bear tipping over. Couch springs sagging. The foundation settling. The creaks, the groans. Beam could definitely hear the groaning. “I was s’posed to go up there on Friday—.”
“You told me you did go up.” Emma scowled; her lips curled into an incredible snarl and then, for good measure, she repeated herself. “You said you went up there.”
“I lied.” Beam said indifferently. “I met Charlie Bloom in town and we took the boat out instead. I would have gone up on Saturday but you had to have the car.”
The tip of her cigarette glowed hotter than the sun as Emma drew in a lung full of nicotine and tar. Turning her back on her husband, she rapped her fingers on the counter; fingernails polished the exact same color Donna Mills had worn on Knot’s Landing and bitten to the quick. Closing her eyes, Emma clenched her teeth and unleashed a stream of smoky tentacles that came slithering back toward Beam.
This is it, Emma vowed. If his screw-up pisses off that woman I’m… Lyle’s second birthday was weeks away and he had outgrown every pair of shoes and most of his clothes. Missus Seaton—it never occurred to Emma to call Barbara anything else, and she had never been asked to do so—always sent a good-sized check for Lyle’s birthday, for Christmas, too. She never came by, mind you, but always sent a check, but she wouldn’t, this time, if Beam didn’t follow through on his promise. Emma thought back to the Christmas, right after she and Beam were married, when he had forgotten to string the white lights along the picket fence at Skeleton Road. They didn’t get so much as a fruitcake that year. It wasn’t until the spring that Missus Seaton called again.
Names began crawling up the dark side of her eyelids as Emma thought of whom she might call to beg for an extra shift or two at the store. She would need to work extra days, and double shifts, if that check from Missus Seaton didn’t come through. Overtime hours just to keep that boy in shoes.
“Well,” Emma growled, smashing the butt of a Salem 100 into a bowl of soggy Frosted Flakes; yesterday’s breakfast. “I suggest you get up there this minute. And try a different story on your mother.” A high-pitched whine, her voice mimicked that of a child throwing a tantrum. “Uh…sorry Mother…I…uh…I went fishing with…Charlie Bloom….”
The crashing of the door against the jam cut Emma off. It was enough to shut her up, that slamming door, enough to send her own tiny brown bottle tumbling off the shelf into the sink where it landed in the bowl of cereal, right beside a cigarette butt.