Rouges was dead.
Rougsie, his widow, rented their house
to my mother. It sat across from Hollyhock Avenue Grade
School with an oak swing hanging by link chain from the
porch ceiling, a garage whose walls were covered with
license plates from every state in the Union, and a tiled
bathroom...all white. "That's where Jimmy passed
away, Mrs. Daugherty." Rougsie pointed to the toilet.
"His moaning got me out of bed.
I opened the bathroom door and there he sat, goose-fleshy,
lookin' up to me. 'What is it, Jimmy? What's ailin' you?'
I yelled. 'Jennie,' he cried. 'Jennie, who in Jesus name
is that floatin' in the tub?'"
Rougsie's hair was the color of Little
Orphan Annie's...a henna orange. She stepped to the bathtub
that had ball-and-claw feet, her voice muffled as she
dipped her flaming bush inside its basin.
"'You're seein' things, Jimmy.
Tub's dry as a bone.' But when I looked up, Jimmy was
sittin' there starin' at me like I was bein' untruthful.
'Goddamnit, Jimmy,' I said, Go see for yourself.' But
he was stiff and clammy as the hopper he was sitting on."
Mother shook her head in commiseration.
Rougsie sat down on the tub's lip and began crying. I'd
never seen Jimmy Rouges, but I could see him that afternoon
of the house inspection—perched there, glaring at
"Most humiliating thing of it all,
Mrs. Daugherty, was calling Noga. [He was the undertaker.]
'Noga, Jimmy's dead,' I said. 'Where, Rougsie? We'll pick
him right up.' What was I gonna say?"
the way home, Mother said Rougsie was a little touched
in the head, but it was a nice house. "You'll fall
out of bed and cross the street to school. Your Aunt Evelyn
will love the swing, too." Aunt Evelyn vibrated.
Her hands fluttered and her head shook like she was always
saying No. I loved her with all my heart. I could picture
the two sisters watching school let out, gliding in the
Mother said the garage was mine. I'd
make it my hideaway, only letting in friends. I'd show
them the metal plates—every one with different numbers
and color combinations—and tell them Jimmy Rouges
had lived in every state. That the licenses came off an
onyx-black Packard with a silver grill whose interior
had a walnut dashboard with ivory radio knobs and a cigarette
lighter that glowed like a hot plate in the dark. That
Jimmy Rouges was in show business. That he traveled the
country discovering gorgeous women who'd sit in the back
of his seven-passenger, wrapped in furs, smoking with
their legs crossed. Music came out of special speakers
in the upholstered roof of the car, and Jimmy'd open a
secret bar with crystal decanters in the rear of the driver's
Anything to get him off that toilet.
was nine years old. It was our fifth address. I thought
that's what people did. Friends of mine moved as often,
too. Mother did all the looking and negotiating. I suspect
my old man was too embarrassed to say we were behind on
our rent in the place we were vacating. She'd spend days
at each address with a bandanna wrapped about her head
and wearing rubber gloves that stopped at her elbows,
scrubbing its walls, woodwork, and floor with Spic &
Span and a toxic Lysol brew out of a pharmacist's brown
bottle. "This is the best house yet!" she always
swore. The bathroom in the Hollyhock house got a special
Two weeks after we moved in, one Saturday
afternoon, Billy Manse visited. Everybody was always tsk-tsking
the boy. He lived on a farm outside Hebron, our town.
When he was three years old, Billy mounted his father's
John Deere, fired up the tractor, and drove it and the
thresher through the milk house. Huge dairy pails clanged
riotously down the gully. That afternoon the pigs took
a milk bath, and Billy Manse got his ass whipped—again.
Mother had gone to the grocery store.
I took Billy out to the garage, but
he was more interested in exploring our new house. Mother's
chiffonier drawer where she kept her unmentionables especially
fetched him. He pulled a dress out of her closet, held
it up to himself, and paraded in front of the door's mirror.
A cobalt-blue perfume bottle with a rubber ball sat glistening
on her dressing table. He spritzed it into my face, then
locked himself in the bathroom.
He was in there at least ten minutes.
"My mother will be coming home
any minute, Billy. Come on out now. I'll make us a sandwich."
"Are you coming out?"
"In the bathtub."
"In the bathtub?"
"We'll, kind of."
"Jesus, Billy. Stop playing games.
I'll make us triple-decker jelly sandwiches."
"I'm hungry," he cried.
Mother met me on the porch. "Where's
I pointed up the stairs.
"What's he doing alone up there?"
She didn't even wait for me to answer,
and let out a scream. "Billy! Billy Manse! Where
From behind the bathroom door meekly,
"I'm in here, Mrs. Daugherty."
"Then you get out of there right
We knew what was going through the other's
mind: ours, Rougsie's and Noga's secret.
"I'm stuck," Billy sobbed.
Father came home from the pottery and
banged the pins out of the door's hinges. Somehow Billy
had climbed between the clawfoot tub and the wall, up
where the spigots were, and wrapped his legs about its
pipes. All we could see was his head—it rested on
the bathtub's lip, right under the hot and cold faucets.
Tears were streaming onto the porcelain.
"Oh my God!" When Mother bent
down to comfort him, she whiffed her White Shoulders.
That's when she cast a baleful glance at me. "What
have you two been up to?"
I didn't want to tell her he'd actually
tried on her gingham going-to-church dress, and her pill-box
hat with the veil. That he'd scrunched his farmer's bare
feet into her pumps, and swanked through the dark hallway,
making suggestive gestures to me as I stood in the bedroom
Father had to call the plumber, who
cut the tub's pipes in half.
"That urchin's not to cross this
threshold again," she warned Father and me that night
at the supper table. "He's a bad influence on you,
I knew that.
years later, Billy's mother invited me to spend a weekend
on their farm. Mother acquiesced at my urging. I thought
I'd get to drive the tractor. He was more grown up now,
muscular and not so curious. I slept in the same bed with
him, listening in the dark about the Crisdale girl on
the adjoining farm. "Sarah has tits big as cow udders,"
he said, "and she lets me milk her. Our parents hide
from us the secrets we learn by observin' the farm animals."
The day before he'd watched the bull, Chester, give it
to Alice, his prize 4-H Holstein.
I lay there in the country stillness,
no street lights like outside my Hollyhock bedroom—each
of us with the covers off, and our dicks gazing at the
ceiling—when I said I had to use the bathroom.
"Westley, in the night we use the
In the corner of the room sat a white
tin pot with a lid that looked like a kettle my mother
used for canning tomatoes. "You sit on that,"
he said. "Too far to go to the outhouse. Mom and
Dad have one in their room. Is that what you got to do?"
"I got to pee," I said.
We crawled out of the bed. His only
window looked out over a farm pond that was covered in
chartreuse scum—I couldn't see the water at all,
but heard the frogs croaking and splashing into it.
Billy pissed through the window screen,
urging me to do the same. It sprayed back onto our thighs.
"Tomorrow morning I'll take you
over and meet Sarah, Westley."
the next morning Billy didn't get out of bed. "I've
never seen such a shade on a boy!" his mother said
when she called the doctor. Shortly he came down from
their upstairs looking grim.
"I'm afraid it may be polio, Mrs.
Billy didn't even look up when his father
laid him in the backseat of the doctor's black Packard.
Same one as Jimmy Rogues rode.
next week, I couldn't get out of bed, gasping for air
like my lungs were sacks of meadow dust. Billy and I'd
played farmer's Tarzan up in the barn's attic. We'd take
hold of a thick hawser in the rafters, and swing a two-story
drop into the hay. Christ, it was the most real fun I'd
had in a long time, having indulged myself in too much
make-believe at the Hollyhock house.
I'd even encouraged Mother to rent me
a drum set so that when twilight came—that's when
I began fixating on Jimmy's ghost—I'd shut the bedroom
door and beat the drums like Gene Krupa. Make all the
noise I could to keep Jimmy from crawling out of his bed.
On a Saturday night, when Mother and Father went out,
I had to give an especially solid performance. Sweat rolled
off my face on the bandstand of some lakeside ballroom
just so I wouldn't hear Jimmy calling me into the bathroom.
But then I was having complications
like Billy Manse.
"I can't get my breath," I
cried. Father came into my bedroom. He placed a cold washcloth
on my head. "It'll be all right, Son. Take little
breaths. Don't panic. Everything will be allright."
"I'm dying, Daddy. I can't get
"Close your eyes and listen to
me," he said.
I could feel my lungs deflating. I was
trying to suck air out of them, but the inner tubes had
been punctured. Like the black ones of Jimmy's old Packard
hanging from the rafters above the license plates.
"Listen to me, Westley. I'm pressing
down hard on your chest, pumping the pond water out of
your lungs. Do you feel it? Take deep breaths. Come on,
Son, do it!"
I began spitting up frogspawn from Billy
Manse's pond, spitting it out of my throat like piss,
green piss spraying through the fly screens in his window,
and it was running down the clapboards of the farmhouse.
Billy and I were spitting our guts out, all the phlegm
of boy dreams, Sarah Crisdale's sour milk we'd ingested
that night when we'd made love to ourselves. The toxic
mix of flying into alfalfa mounds, and young girls who
breathed apple blossoms through the windows of their white
porcelain thighs.... Oh, how we could get sick on it.
"Breathe, Westley, Goddamnit, breathe!"
I saw Billy Manse come to me in Mother's
black dress, the hat's veil down over his green eyes...green
as the algae in Manse's pond...his lipstick on crooked,
and earrings of faux pearls. He's clopping like a pony
out in the dark hallway with its hardwood floor. His feet
squeezed into her pumps, piglets entombed. Her nylon stockings
hanging off his legs like loose skin, rubber canning garters
just above his knees...and Billy reeks of cowshit and
White Shoulders perfume as he spreads his arms, calling
Behind him—the white commode where
I see Jimmy Rouges beckoning, too. Billy Manse wanting
to embrace me in drag, and Jimmy Rouges wanting to take
me for a ride in his black Packard across every state
of our wonderful Union with the buxom State Fair queens
sitting in the back seat, furs draped over their alabaster
skin, legs crossed keeping their perfumed interiors closed—and
The radio's playing New Orleans.
Billy Manse wanting to do the Dosado.
Allemende Left. To Swing his Partner Round.
My old man on top of me, begging I catch
"I want to spit up!" I cried.
Pap lifted me up in his arms, rushed
me into the bathroom, and knelt with me in front of the
He wrapped a wet towel about my head
as I coughed and wheezed. All of the Firestone's and Goodyear's
on Hollyhock Street had suddenly collapsed. Pap bent my
head over the porcelain rim. It was cool. No frogspawn.
"Spit it up, Son! Spit it all up!"
There floating in the basin was the
face of Jimmy Rouges. Calm and peaceful like, smiling
I took a deep breath. "Oh, I'm
beginning to feel a little bit better, Dad. I can get
some more air."
Father lifted me off the tile floor,
and closed the commode's lid. Billy Manse grinned at me,
too, from behind the cleft-foot tub.
"You're going to be fine, Son."
"I'm not going to die, am I, Dad?"
"Not in this house,"