All That Whitman Stuff
Kathy J. Karlson
…I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
From Whitman’s Song of Myself
I used to sit by the picture window and look out on the road, but only after Bobby went to work. The mornings were so pretty sometimes out there, but then if I watched too long by the road, I’d get mad at people who drove by and threw trash. So once, I wrote down some litterbug’s license plate number and called the sheriff’s office. When I told Bobby, he laughed at me and called me a busybody and said what was I doing looking out anyway.
Bobby jokes and calls me names. Yesterday when I told him Ennis had a new cancer when she died, I said it was like taking coals to the castle and he said, “Darlie, you moron.”
“Bobby,” I said, “don’t call me a moron,” and, I said, “Well, they don’t need coals at the castle, do they? They’re rich there.”
Bobby said that wasn’t right, it was coals to Newcastle because at Newcastle was where they made coal. And then I said, “Well, you don’t make coal, do you?”
And then he said, “Darlie, you should read more,” and I said, “You just make fun of me when I do, like you say ‘all that Whitman stuff.’” And then he said, “Well, for C’s sake, read the newspaper. At least.” And then he went on, “Oh, fuck this.”
I thought, “No, fuck you.” That was a bad indication.
April was hard; we had two storms so big that Shillings lost their big tulip trees, first the one in the front, then the one in the back. And then shortly after was when Ennis Baker died of her liver cancer. Bobby said that You had a plan for her. In fact, all I heard from Bobby was about this plan.
“But Bobby,” I said. “She suffered so much. What possible good could that be?”
“God has some plan,” said Bobby.
“Some plan all right. The dessitation of her body,” I said.
“Dessitation isn’t a word, Darlie,” said Bobby.
“Well, you know what I mean.”
“No,” said Bobby. “I think you know what I mean.”
“Oh, right. A plan. Listen, Bobby, the whole idea of a plan is that it sends you somewhere. You know? A plan has a goal or something, a meaning. The last time I visited Ennis she just was flat out on the sofa with tears just flooding everywhere. Some plan.”
“Listen, Sugar, you shouldn’t talk like that,” said Bobby as if he were the one with the plan and not God.
“Besides,” I said. “Mr. Parker says the kingdom of God is within.”
And then I said, “Of course, that doesn’t keep some people from being assholes when they drive.”
“God, I hate it when women talk like that,” said Bobby.
The reason I married Bobby in the first place was that I wasn’t really paying attention. I thought that Bobby’s soul was kind and that it matched his beautiful full lips and beautiful collarbones. We went out for a while and he was very nice to me and I loved kissing him. He could kiss for a long, long time. Then I moved in with him, into that trailer right on the edge of town. The trailer was smelly and ugly but its place was nice; it was nice on out there. We were just by the prairie, what was once the prairie. If you were out there and walked down the road all you could see would be lines of horizon, or dips in the fields where the tops of houses and barns showed, their whitewashed second floors massively sticking out of the top of a field of yellow. I got to love the weather out there, always some movement in the sky, clouds moving, birds flying about, or rain coming on, and big holes in the backdrop when the sun was about to break through, you know that light moving on and off. Over the soy and corn you could get a wandering wind; the air moved, was still, moved.
So we got married, but then I found out that for Bobby that world seemed to be just a hunk of dirt. He grew up in the country too, near the country anyway, by Blue Prairie Township. But his pleasure led him to town, to his buddies, his beer, his job. When I said once about the bending light in the cornstalks, he just laughed. He said he thought it was cute; I wondered how he could be out there in the country and never love it. Bobby was annoying me more and more, but still, the farms and the land and the trees kept me staying, at the same time as I was turning away from him.
I have been reading about the dignity of every one person on this planet and the importance of getting everybody their rights and blessing everybody in your heart. Meanwhile, through the field of weeds, overnight the air heated, and the clouds lowered, and ping! The trees bloomed, the yellow bushes popped out, the sky had green pollen drifting around. May.0
A couple of days ago, I was thinking to go out, and then Bobby came in where I was sitting and said he wanted to go out driving in the country to see an old house that had things for sale. We sat there a minute while I thought about whether I wanted to go and then Bobby told me not to slouch. I told Bobby I wouldn’t go with him if he criticized, and then he said okay he wouldn’t, so I got out some Pepsi’s and the peanut butter cookies I made the night before.
We drove along to a gravel road and then to this run-down old house.
Bobby stopped the car and looked at the house from the road. He said, “Some railroad man built this house. You can tell by the dark top, the limestone walls. You couldn’t build a house like that now, walnut floors and everything.”
It looked pretty shabby to me, not painted for a long time. But it was beautiful, too, like it was becoming part of the ground and trees. The doorway came out from the front of stones and was like a porch almost. The porch’s foundations were sinking into the weedy lawn while the little roof above the door sagged and leaned over to the pine tree. Bobby pointed out some stones, stones from the fields and from the quarries near White Water. And then I veered toward him, I was drawn to him because of what he knows. I had longing. I told Bobby I hoped they’d be selling something he’d want. He said, “We’ll see.”
We knocked and waited for a while and then when nobody came to the door Bobby knocked again, then opened the door. He practically shoved down the old lady who was coming to answer. The old lady had pulled her hair back into a tight bun, a little knob right on top of her head. She had on a hand-knit sweater that looked like it was twenty years old; the wool was a light purple, faded to dead lilac. Her eyes were dark blue, almost a color that looked like a mistake.
“Sorry,” I said. And then I followed Bobby down the hall as he followed the old lady into the living room. The hall itself was amazing—it had wood walls with designs in the wood and shelves. Those shelves were bare now, so dusty I knew they had been bare a long time. The living room, the biggest living room I ever saw, looked like the old library downtown with leaded windows (but these windows were very dirty and the ones in the library downtown were very clean.)
The old lady had set up card tables of her stuff. She asked us not to touch anything. I looked at all the vases and mismatched spoons and cracked plates. Then I noticed this girl—well, a thin, muscle-less person dressed liked a girl—lying on the sofa. She had a long blond wig and pale powder on her face. An invalid. I didn’t want to look at her too hard but she was so odd, dressed like a girl but on a closer look was a woman older than me, or maybe even a man dressed like a girl. She was sucking on a sugar stick. She looked like someone out of a movie. Bobby raised his eyebrows at me when he saw her and I wished he wouldn’t stare and wink at her, but really, it was hard not to keep looking.
The old lady ignored the young one on the sofa and started to pick up the vases and plates and silver holder things and to say their prices: “This is a Rookwood vase that Mr. Whiteman bought in Cincinnati. It costs six hundred dollars in all the magazines. I am selling it for three hundred.”
I suppose she thought it was a great price, but really three hundred dollars for a vase no bigger than your hand! I liked it, though. The pansies on the side were really beautiful.
“This is another Rookwood, a rarer one because of the clear glaze and yellow underglaze. It’s six hundred. And this is a bunch of Wellers—they are not so expensive.”
I guess she saw our faces saying we don’t have that kind of money. “This thumbnail goblet came from England a long time ago. I could sell it for a hundred.”
Bobby said, “Have you sold any of this stuff? It seems kind of pricey.”
I had to agree with Bobby but I wished he was more polite, just quiet for once. The old lady didn’t answer; she held up a white glass thing—I never saw anything like it before. It was like a Christmas tree ornament but twice as big and was a carving or something else, a kind of statue of a mermaid. It had no base to it or place for it to rest so it seemed not like a statue but could be set up or hung on a wall maybe. The lady wasn’t going to listen to Bobby. She just went on picking up things and saying their prices.
“This is a Tiffany whatnot. It is priceless but I could sell it for a thousand.”
The girl, or whatever, on the sofa stood and said, “Not that one, grandmother. You can’t sell that.”
The old woman seemed not even to see the younger one and I felt sorry for both of them; they didn’t almost notice one another, they were just almost like machines. I was getting weirded out and I wanted to leave then, but Bobby seemed to want to see every little thing on those tables. The old lady held up a heavy glass pitcher and called it a Bohunk piece of glass that she could sell for a hundred.
“Grandmother!” said the other one. The old lady held up some good-looking trays. Now everything was a hundred dollars as she hurried along the tables. The younger woman or man or whatever began to suck her thumb and the old lady said, “Tiny, none of that. Don’t suck your thumb.”
So the younger one switched to her index finger as if she had sucked on a bone and now was eating something else off her plate. The old lady went over and whapped her hand down. I said Oh and then Bobby laughed. The one on the sofa was making me feel strange but she was also calling out something in me. I wanted to say, Come out; come out so I can see you.
We were getting to the end of the table. Bobby winked at me. He said, looking out the window, “Ma’am, is that bench out there for sale?”
And when she looked, Bobby pocketed the nearest thing to his hand, a glass doodad that he hadn’t even looked at. Stupid. Him so intent on God’s plan, just stealing something so he could be mean. He didn’t allow for the little finger chewer. She jumped up, took three steps across the room, and knocked Bobby down.
“What! What!” he cried.
Then the younger one who had Bobby on the floor said, “Grandma, better get the rabbit. You just don’t know with people like these.”
Bobby tried to get up but somehow he could not move. The old lady went into the kitchen and gave me this white rabbit, right into my arms. Since I was feeling a little hysterical, I said, “Okay. You keep Bobby. I’ll take the rabbit. Fair trade.”
“No, no, Grandma, don’t give her the rabbit!” said the one sitting on Bobby.
I just turned around and left the house. I turned my back on Bobby who was calling out, “You bitch. You bitch.” He was calling the old lady bitch, or maybe the wiry one who sat on him, but I noticed that it sounded just like when he called me bitch.
I had the car keys. Then I remembered that time when he said to me, I am the doorframe and you are the door. Well, at the time, I thought it meant that we really did fit together. Now, I think that Bobby was just a stay in the hospital, not any doorframe. So I left but when I got outside I didn’t want to get in Bobby’s truck so I hitched a ride with a farmer. He could see I was crying a little and that I had the white rabbit and he said “Don’t you worry about me,” which of course made me worried, so I got out at 16th and walked the four blocks up to our house. I set the rabbit on the lawn and hoped it would maybe run away.
I knew Bobby would be a real shit when it got to breaking up so I called my mother and told her to quick bring over the van.
“Well, Darlie,” she said, “what on earth…”
“Ma,” I said, “just this little once, please do what I ask without me having to spend a week explaining. Just please bring the van over. And call dad to come over, too. I need help.” I was regretting that I hadn’t just thrown Bobby’s keys into the bushes. But afterwards I found out that the sofa girl just stayed sitting on Bobby while the old lady called the police, and they came.
My mother said when she arrived, “I don’t even want to know what this is about.”
“Okay,” I said, pretending to believe her that she doesn’t want to know, since she is the nosiest person in town, “just help me load up. Fast.”
Then we started to put some clothes in and mother saw the white rabbit on the lawn.
“Darlie,” she said, “there’s a rabbit!”
“Later,” I said.
She said, “Well, whatever with Bobby—my own mother told me never to discuss marriages. You tell somebody you should of left the bastard long ago, and then she ups and moves back in and tells him what you said.”
“I’d never tell, mom,” I said. “Could we move a little here?”
“Hm,” she said. “Well, what goes?”
“And, furthermore, I’m never getting back with Bobby. Now I know what Blackie felt like when we took off that tumor.”
Mom started to laugh. She wasn’t really helping. She just stood there, while I ran around picking up stuff and throwing it into the back seat of her car.
“Leave that ashtray for Bobby. I’m calling your dad. He’ll get Paul and the guys to help us with the rest of this. We need a truck.”
“I just want my clothes and a few other things,” I said.
“Oh, at least get the suite.”
So dad and the guys came over in one of Paul’s renter trucks and we practically had a party taking out all the clean towels and bedding, the sofa, the kitchen furniture (the only furniture I really cared about because I had repainted it), and many dishes and spoons and forks (that kind of thing.) I left the eighteen months of cute knick-knacks that Bobby liked to buy me. One made me a little teary-eyed—the black poodle statue he bought me after we had Blackie put to sleep. I also left the three end tables.
Paul said to me, “Is he really that bad, honey?”
I said to him, “Oh, I wish he wasn’t.” I wanted Bobby to be the kind of man who would become Paul who was standing there with my best lamp in his hand. Paul never gave me one of those I wish I was younger conversations…I used to hate that. My mother said don’t pay any attention to it, but I didn’t wear shorts when the guys were around, either.
Paul said, “He didn’t hit you, did he?”
“No,” I said. “We went to this strange house, an old lady and this sickish girl, selling all their stuff.”
“Over to Mazeppa?”
“I guess. Over that way,” I said.
“I bet that’s Mrs. Whiteman and her peculiar granddaughter,” said Paul. “They are so rich.” He shook his head and put the lamp on the ground.
“They are? Why they were selling all their stuff, so I thought they were poor. What’s wrong with her? The granddaughter.”
Paul sat on the stoop. “You could write a book out of those Whitemans.”
“What about? What about,” I said.
“Now, don’t rush me,” he said. “If Bobby comes along, your dad and me’ll sort him out.”
"Okay, okay,” I said, sitting with him. “But I meant about the Whitemans.”
My mother came over too. Paul said, “Tanny Whiteman. That’s the grandmother. She lost her husband in ‘44 or ‘45. Not in the war, though. He got back from the Pacific and damn near took down the whole town.”
“Well, Paulie,” said my mother, “he had a reason, now.”
Dad was at the back of the truck sorting stuff, trying to make neat piles. Mother called him over, “Dad,” she said, “we’re taking a break”
“Look at you slugs,” he said, “for Cripe’s sake.” Paul had moved to a lawn chair and mother and I were sitting on the stoop.
“Talking about the Whitemans,” my mother said. So dad pulled out another lawn chair and sat down.
“Oh, jeez,” said dad. “Talk about waiting to be sad.”
“You could make a book from them Whitemans,” Paul said again.
“Well, what about?” I said, again, but never mind rushing Paul when he wants to tell something.
Mother said, “It’s a good one all right.”
Paul asked dad for a beer and then he said, “Tanny Whiteman was a farm girl. She married Bradford Whiteman who was related to Paul Whiteman, the band fellow.”
“Wasn’t Bradford a brother or something to Paul Whiteman? Maybe that’s why they drank so much.”
“Well, I don’t think they let people drink in Paul Whiteman’s band.”
“Hah,” said my dad. “What about Bix? From over in Davenport. My granddad used to know him; all he ever did was drink and play that trumpet.”
“Cornet,” said Paul.
Mother said, “Okay, okay, well, anyway.”
Paul continued. “Bradford had to go off to war, practically as soon as they got married.”
“Then he got caught by the Japs in ’43 and never got over it,” said dad.
“Don’t say Japs, dad,” I said.
“Anyway,” said Paul, “before he went, he ran the post office and had his father’s big rich wheat farm, the biggest in this part of the state. People said he was good, too, and had the cleanest barns and silos anywhere to be found and then his beautiful wife, Tanny, just the icing on the cake. She was a Norwegian.”
“So she’s the one I saw? The old lady?”
“I bet she was a pretty old dame.”
“Well, I guess,” I said. “She had these very dark blue eyes.”
“Anyway,” said Paul, “Bradford came home without one of his arms and with a terrible cut down the side of his face. It kind of bent his face. Tanny must have done something—cried or screamed or something. Someone saw them go into the house, she was trying to help him, him pushing her off, him yelling at her.”
“He left then, right?” said mother.
“The next day. When Tanny got up, why, he was gone. And Tanny was pregnant. It’s kind of hard to believe. Mary always thought it was somebody else’s baby but…”
Dad said, “Hell, it was Bradford’s.”
“How do you know about all this, dad?” said mother.
“My mother told me all about it. Why, Bradford’s family was king in this town. Especially down at the church.”
“You were saying…Tanny had a girl? So that girl out there was Bradford’s daughter? Why she couldn’t be. She’d be sixty!” I said.
“No, no, Darlie. Tanny had a baby girl,” said Mother. “Beverly I believe was her name. She went away over to Madison when she grew up and then she came back.”
“Who’s telling this?” said Paul.
“What do you mean he almost took the town down?” I asked and then I said, “Wait, wait,” and went in to get another Pepsi.
While I was inside Bobby showed up. He ran past Paul and my dad and mom and ripped the screen off the door. Thankfully, he stood there for a minute with the piece of screen in his hand so I had time to go in the downstairs bathroom and lock the door. He came to the door and pounded. Meanwhile Paul and dad came in. I could hear them on the other side of the door.
“Dad,” said Bobby. “Don’t even come over here. I’m not going to do anything…”
Paul said, “Damn right you’re not.”
Bobby yelled, “Just get the fuck outta here.” Apparently he went to grab somebody because then I heard his voice lower down.
“Get off me, you son of a bitch.”
I kind of giggled then inside the bathroom. Everybody was sitting on Bobby today. My mother called the police.
Bobby wrestled for a while I guess. I just sat on the toilet seat and regretted there was no window in the bathroom. Then I heard Bobby say, “Okay, okay, I calmed down.”
He must have stood up. He said to my dad, “I suppose if you drop dead of a heart attack, you’ll blame me.”
Sirens coming. Some slams and bangs. I didn’t come out until mom told me that Bobby tried to run down the drive and away from the police. But the Sheriff sent his biggest guy and that was that.
“He’s gone,” said mother. “Honey. He’s gone. You can come out.”
“Come on,” said dad later that night to Paul, after we moved my stuff over there and I was a little weepy, “finish your story.”
“Gimme a beer and I’ll talk all night.”
“I hope not,” daddy said but I went over and sat right down by Paul.
“Well, where were we?”
“Bradford left and you said he took down the whole town,” I said.
“Right. Okay, so there was Tanny pregnant and stories started flying around that Bradford could have no way made her pregnant what with the war, so people started looking around.”
“That’s terrible! Women were treated so bad, then, weren’t they. Did they find Bradford?”
“I meant that they started looking for who could be the father.”
“No, no,” I said. “I got that.”
“Anyway, they thought it could probably be the doctor over there. I forgot his name. But the baby, that was Beverly, was born and it was like a female Bradford, even to the longish fingers. When Beverly was oh, maybe a year and a half old, and Tanny was trying to figure out a little better how to run the farm by herself, Bradford came back and tried moving back in. But that doctor told Tanny that Bradford might hurt the baby. So she wouldn’t let him come back.”
“So. Was the doctor after her like everybody thought?” asked my mother.
Paul looked over at me and we took a little time-out to eat--grilled hot dogs and just-shucked boiled corn. Not much moving was getting done but since Bobby was at the jail, we didn’t have to hurry.
“How did he take down the town?”
“Well, that was just a way of saying,” said Paul. “He just come up to their old house one night and when he couldn’t get in, he lit fire to the barn, and then went into town and burned down the Congregational Church.”
“Geez!” I said. “Mom told me about that church being burnt but I didn’t know about the Whitemans. I thought it was lightning or something.”
Paul said, “You got mustard on your collar. When the church was burning, Bradford was standing in front of it yelling at the Japs.”
“Don’t say Japs,” I said. “They arrest him?”
“No. He just dropped down dead right in front of the church and then Tanny had to bury him and raise that Beverly and run the farm and I don’t know what.”
“So did she get married again?”
“No. She just stayed there. Beverly went to Madison, got pregnant herself, and left that strange girl with Tanny.”
“She called her Tiny.”
“Who called who Tiny?”
“The grandmother, Tanny, called the girl Tiny.”
“What a mess,” said my mother.
Later I saw Tiny, Mrs.Whiteman’s granddaughter that sat on Bobby. She was downtown one day, shopping at Rexall’s and she looked just as normal as you and me, but I didn’t go over to say hello. I thought I knew too much about her. Of course I didn’t really know anything. That’s the truth.I just heard some things about her but now I have to get on with my own life. So I am going over to Oswego and I am taking a class on Whitman and Freud. And I am so happy! Even though I am in town for now, I am sure that I’ll get back out there on the prairie.
I am so glad Bobby and I aren’t together anymore. I see him now and he quit drinking which is good. He said okay to a separation. I am also reading Wordsworth as well as Whitman and Freud. I took the rabbit over to mom and dad’s. The rabbit lives out in their big back yard and seems happy and has a great little house that dad built, so it can hide from the neighborhood cats.