Joyland

New York |

The Sky and the Night

by Matthew Lansburgh

edited by Emily Schultz

The dog’s name was Marydog, named after the woman Ray loved, a dancer from Lubbock, Texas, who he swore was the most graceful creature he’d ever set eyes on. The Airedale was meant to lure the woman, his love, the angelic being he could not live without, back home: to coax her, if not to stay permanently, then at least to visit him for a time. The truth was that over the expanse of months and eventually years during which their romance had developed, he and his love had spent just a few weeks together—her arrivals always sudden, taking Ray by surprise, lifting the heavy fog from his soul until she disappeared again, equally unexpectedly, leaving him heartbroken. Between visits, the woman, Mary Frances Lucero, a descendant, she claimed, of Spanish royalty, called from various payphones—motels by the side of the road, gas stations, truck stops—places that made Ray fear for her well-being.

“I love you,” she said. “I miss you. I want to come home.” This from a train station outside of Sacramento, California. “I’m having a baby, a baby girl.”

It was his child, she said, conceived miraculously during a handful of rapturous nights, nights that still nourished him, the expression miraculously used by her and eventually him, because it was a kind of miracle that a woman who in four weeks would reach her 59th birthday and a man 12 years older could come together at this time in their lives and make love to the sound of 10,000 crickets lost in the high deserts of New Mexico and thereby create a new life.

Which is why, she insisted, she’d been compelled, months earlier, to get in her beat-up sedan, the car that broke down on the interstate 243 miles into her trip, and leave Ray in bed before the sun rose on a Tuesday morning in August—because she knew all she needed to know, that something was transpiring inside her body that required the attention of a medical professional, something that no one, not even Ray, could understand.

Ray willed himself to believe.

It was all that he had. His prior wives and his children and kinships had abandoned him decades ago, or he they, the result was the same: a house at the end of a gravel road 20 miles from town, a single dweller inside, a man with one set of clothes and three pairs of shoes, the soles of which he’d all worn down.

The woman, Mary Frances Lucero, had smiled at him and filled him with hope. They’d met at a movie downtown, at the popcorn counter, where she spilled a bottle of Coke and he offered napkins to her. She was just passing through, visiting a show of some kind, a performance onstage whose details were blurred by her touch, for she had put her hand on his arm, in thanks and in gratitude for his napkins and succor.

Her touch filled his mind and his thoughts, and he wove a story from them. Perhaps they were both weavers of tales. Was she just a grifter bilking men out of money and hope?

She wore flowing clothes—loose dresses made of chenille and chambray scented with elusive perfume. She drove out to his place, stayed with him, went away and returned, always skittish and hard to pin down.

Ray pleaded with her to remain, cajoled and coerced, offered her bracelets and necklaces and Tourmaline rings, but she had a mind of her own: she was a strong-willed creature, a woman who, once she set her sights on a course of action, could not be dissuaded. She would have the child, she insisted, their little girl, and she would raise it and care for it, whether or not her body provided the milk that it needed, no matter what Ray or anyone believed or said or countenanced.

What choice did Ray have but to wait? He sat at his table, looking at the crucifix on his living room wall—a figure of Jesus carved from cedar and painted by hand, the savior’s arms stretched wide, a wreath of thorns on his head. Ray bought it in Mexico decades ago, along with a small wooden cross, from a priest who needed fast cash. He sold both items for a song, and Ray, who knew their true value, boxed them up carefully. The smaller cross was older by at least a century and was made of unpainted pine; it fit nicely in the palm of one’s hand.

Outside, there was nothing but dust; the summers were dry, the arroyo parched with a paucity of rain.

The man, christened Raymond at birth, pictured her in her car, driving north and then west to a facility—in the heart of the Golden State’s Central Valley, amidst farmland ripe with tomato and asparagus—that specialized in these kinds of things: unexpected pregnancies, complications from birth. A place with wide empty halls and fluorescent lights, with white curtains and machines designed to handle complexities of the female body. The doctors, the nurses, the orderlies, even the janitors that came in to clean, had never seen anything like it, she said: a woman her age giving birth to a nine-pound baby girl, healthy as could be, right on schedule, graced with lungs as powerful as those of any child ever born in the state.

Against his better instincts, Ray willed himself to believe.

“You’re a father,” she told him from the hospital phone. “We have ourselves a baby girl.” Name: Alma Lucero, after Mary’s own mother and grandmother, a girl from a family of matriarchs, a girl destined, she declared, for a life full of promise. “She’ll be a dancer, I’m sure,” Ray’s true love proclaimed. “She’ll dance with the Bolshoi. She’ll go to Moscow and Paris and Andalucía.” All the places she, the woman, had always dreamed of visiting but had never been able to see.

There were of course details, issues to resolve, obstacles to be dealt with. How couldn’t there be?

Ray waited patiently by the phone, willing it to ring, distraught when it didn’t. He tidied the house, readying it for the woman’s return, bought things for the girl, his daughter—things that rattled and made other sounds, colorful things, wrapped boxes and yellow wallpaper. He made up a room especially for her.

On the one hand, he did these things; on the other, he worried. How was he, during the crepuscular years of his life, going to raise a little girl, should the woman, the ballerina, his one and only, come back and settle with him? There would be diapers and croup and other childhood ailments. Recitals and birthday parties. He readied the cupboards, swept the leaves from his porch. Two months later, he called a breeder he’d met in Los Alamos and bought the dog, an Airedale pup, the breed Mary Frances had said was her favorite.

From Sacramento, the woman traveled north, up Highway 99 through Yuba City and Live Oak, Chico and Los Molinos; she took the I-5 up to Redding, past the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, eventually heading to Medford and Eugene and Salem. She had a friend in Salem, someone she’d performed with three decades earlier. She stopped at this woman’s house—a nice place with a garden full of hydrangeas and rhododendron—then headed to St. Helens and Kalama, where again the car died, this time for good, on a road she referred to on the phone as Desecration Highway.

“What kind of horseshit name is that?” the man shouted back, standing in the kitchen in socks and a white undershirt. The phone had rung as he was getting dressed, and through the window above the sink he saw a crow looking at him. “Nobody in their right mind would name something Desecration Highway.”

“Desolation,” she said like a whisper. “It’s just a two-lane thing,” her words murky and garbled.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to raise my voice with you.” But the line was already dead. He considered getting a map or maybe an atlas to determine whether there actually was a road with that name in the northwest portion of Oregon or near Tacoma. He thought about getting into his car and leaving the house, going in search of the places she claimed to have been, but what good would it do to separate fact from fiction, fancy from truth? Would it bring her home any faster?

That afternoon, he wired her money: money for the baby’s food and a new stroller, for shots and medical visits. Then, six days later, money for bus fare from Portland, or Boise, or wherever she was, to Albuquerque, where he told her he’d be waiting at the Greyhound station with a bouquet of lilies and hyacinths.

“The baby has your eyes,” she said, “red hair and eyes like a cornflower bouquet,” and his heart did the thing it did when she used the voice reserved just for him.

“Her room is all ready,” he said.

“Soon, Love. Just a little while longer.”

“The dog misses you.”

“Don’t give up on me,” she said. “I’m working at a motel down the road, the evening shift, to save up for the trip.”

Money. Money. How much more do you need?”

Then one day the phone didn’t ring. Not that morning or the next.

Each day Ray got up and checked to make sure the dial tone was still there, brushed his teeth, turned on the TV, sliced bread from the loaf when it grew dark. “Don’t worry,” she’d said. “Soon enough I’ll be home.” He’d saved the message on the answering machine next to his bed. He listened to that, to her voice, to keep his spirits alive.

That autumn, as the sun began its slow descent in the west, Ray sat on the porch with the dog. “Soon your mistress will be home,” he told his companion. And the dog, a good dog, a knowledgeable dog, a dog who’d grown up well, seemed to understand. He waited, but it was no use. A man can’t survive on water and bread. A man can’t eat a bit of salt and get through 6,000 days. Each afternoon, he let Marydog out of the house so she could lie in the sun. He laid down a cushion filled with hay that she used as her bed, and sometimes he sat in the rocker and watched her rhythmic breathing.

One afternoon, the man went out to the portal to call her inside and saw she was no longer there. “Marydog,” he hollered. “Time for your supper.” He found her in the ravine, nosing around a pile of horse droppings and a rotten magpie. Two days later, he tracked her down in the apple orchard, mesmerized by a gopher’s fresh hole. “You can’t run off like that, girl,” he scolded. “You scared me.” But something had taken hold of her, something mysterious. Now when they went on their walks together, the dog ran off into the fields, deaf to the man’s expletives and invective. At times, she didn’t come back until the moon was high overhead.

The man himself took to wandering too. He walked for miles, in wind and rain, dry heat and hail, until his shoes were caked with mud, his socks and pants covered in foxtails, until the mountains in the distance grew dark and imposing. Until there was nothing but the sky and the night. He walked to the highway and watched cars passing by. He began to carry the wooden cross in his pocket, and sometimes he fingered it roughly, worrying the cracks of its surface. People came and they went, friends from the past, women he’d loved, especially the women, he thought. The women had always been hard to pin down.

Two summers and three winters later, when the man had let his beard and his nails grow long, when Marydog’s coat had taken on the texture of something coarse and untamed, the phone rang.

It was her.

“I’m coming home,” she said. He barely recognized the voice in his ear. He wondered whether it was an illusion, this thing—a phantom or ghost from the past.

“Meet me at the bus station. I’ve missed you.”

Ray wept. He took the rugs outside to the porch and shook them until he was covered in dust. He rubbed mink oil on the dining room chairs. He got out a calendar and marked off the days.

It was a Tuesday, the day she said she’d return. He attached great significance to this fact. She’d left on a Tuesday and planned to return the same day. Something symmetrical cannot be undone, he reasoned aloud. He shaved off his beard and took a brush to Marydog’s coat. He waited, willing the sun to rise and set, rise and set.

He washed his truck and drove into town, wearing clothes he hadn’t worn in nearly a decade: a starched shirt and pressed slacks from the back of his closet. He bought flowers for the house. Gladiolus and marigolds and a dozen white lilies that had just started to bloom. He talked to storekeepers, telling them he was celebrating the return of someone he hadn’t seen in how long? He bought bags of fruit for the kitchen: oranges and persimmons, red and green grapes, tender fruit shaped like stars, things he imagined eating with her on the front porch. He arranged them artfully in earthenware bowls.

He bought chocolates from Europe, filled with marzipan and Swedish liqueurs.

The news didn’t reach the man until three weeks later, 17 days after the appointed morning came and went, 400 plus hours after the bus pulled into the Greyhound station, bereft of her presence. “Sir,” a female voice on the phone said, “are you a relation of Mary Lucero?”

At first the man thought it might be a joke of some kind, a prank by the woman herself, using an assumed intonation, an accent, because sometimes she played jokes on him, flirted using half-truths and narrative fabrications. “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, sir. Ms. Lucero passed away a few weeks ago. She died peacefully, in her bed in the middle of the night. We had a funeral, a small gathering, just some folks here in the mobile home park.”

Ray listened to her words, feeling the ground give way, pulling him into a sinkhole or an abyss.

“Sir, I’m terribly sorry. You okay, hon? Don’t hang up on me now.”

The man held the phone tight to his ear. Air caught in his lungs and parched throat; his body convulsed. He wailed, unable to contain himself any longer. He looked at the figure of Jesus, the crucifix mute against the cool stucco wall. He imagined dismembering the carving, splintering it into pieces, burning it in the arroyo with kindling from dead aspen and piñon.

“I’m so sorry,” said the voice. “It’s okay. You just go ahead and have yourself a good cry.” Her name was Arlene. Arlene Reynolds, from Nashville, Tennessee.

*

The woman’s name was Arlene.

Her skin was clear and unblemished, her hair long and thick, darker than Mary’s, but attractive nonetheless. He found himself looking at her, this subsequent siren of his, fingering the snapshot he’d received in the mail: Arlene, who played in a bluegrass band once, long ago when she hoped she might become famous; Arlene, whose first husband drank half a bottle of whiskey a night and whose second husband, she told Ray on another long distance call, died in an accident on the interstate just five miles from the trailer they’d bought near a 7-Eleven in Petaluma, California.

She had two dogs, two Pekingese—Maxy and Maxine, Maxy being the boy, Maxine the girl. “No, Mary hadn’t ever spoken of any man out of state,” Arlene said, “though she kept your number up on her fridge. That itself must have meant something. Mostly she kept to herself. I knew she was dating a guy who worked down at the lumberyard for a time, but I think she broke that off at least a year ago. Maybe more.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t see any children over there, no little girl.”

Ray stood in the kitchen, looking out the window to his driveway, where a squirrel on a fallen branch was flicking its tail. The animal seemed alert to the world, almost flirtatious.

“She struck me as a nice person from what I knew of her. She sometimes brought Maxy and Maxine little snacks, Milk-Bones and such. When I had hip surgery two years ago, she brought over a few casseroles. Mostly, though, I think she stayed home with the shades drawn, watching TV.”

*

Nine days after Easter, Marydog disappeared again. Increasingly, the man had taken to keeping her locked up inside the house, but, one day at dusk, when he was watering the aspen, she managed to sneak out. Ray set out a bowl of food and fresh water in case she returned. Each evening, he stood on the portal, calling to her. He looked up at the moon and listened to the coyotes. He wondered whether she’d fallen prey, seduced by their yelps and their cries. Three days later, in the morning, after a heavy rain, she appeared on the front porch, tail between her legs. “You scared me,” he chided. “You shouldn’t have run off like that.” The dog cringed at the touch of his hand.

“No, I haven’t ever been to New Mexico,” Arlene said to him. Her pronunciation of the word Mexico intrigued him—in her mouth, the word sounded exotic, as if she had something wedged at the base of her tongue. He described the beauty of the desert for her: the color of the sky when the clouds broke after an afternoon rain, and at sunset, and at night, when the stars looked alive.

“I think you might like it here,” he said.

“I’d need to bring Maxy and Maxine.”

Arrangements were made; a new outfit purchased, this time by Arlene in anticipation of her upcoming trip. She had the car looked at to make sure it was ready. She hadn’t expected something like this at this point in her life, she confessed.

A week later the man was down by the apple trees when he saw Marydog out in the distance. She turned and stared back at him. He called to her, but she didn’t respond. He had a rope in the house that he’d bought at a hardware store, a rope the proprietor said could tame the most ornery soul.

“Here, girl,” he called, holding out a delicacy between his thumb and forefinger. Sure enough, the dog came, head low, approaching him cautiously.

He fastened the rope to the trunk of a tree and then to the animal’s neck, checking the knots to make sure she wouldn’t break free. Afterwards, he walked back to the house, full of remorse. There’s no other choice, he thought to himself. She’s got a mind of her own. That night, as he lay in bed, the man heard the dog calling out.

The next morning, overcome with guilt and sadness, he washed out her bowls and gave her fresh water that was cool to the touch, and kibbles with chunks of cooked sausage. He saw she was up, standing on all fours. “I’ve brought you some breakfast, m’lady,” he said, trying to smile, and as he approached, she growled, straining at the tether.

The man got a shovel and began digging the ground, the dog watching his every move. It wasn’t a task he enjoyed. The sky was clear, and above the man, high in the sky, a single condor circled languidly.

Ray thought of Arlene. She’s on the road now, he told himself. He wondered whether little Maxy and Maxine would like their new home. He wanted them to feel comfortable. He wondered what Arlene would be wearing—a yellow sundress, perhaps? He imagined her in high heels. Maybe she’d bring her guitar so they could sit outside on the porch, and she could sing to him. He’d always wanted to be with a woman who played guitar.

Arlene was a singer; he liked that. He looked forward to that.

He thought of the women he’d loved. The dancers and quilters and nurses who’d left him to fend for himself. He wondered where they were now.

The man’s hands blistered, but he didn’t stop. The hole grew deeper and, as he worked, he felt the sun on his back. He worked until he felt dizzy—from dehydration and exhaustion and the accumulated grief of his life. Finally, when the skin on his hands had begun to break open, he put the shovel down and wiped his brow. I’ll sit for a moment and rest, he thought. He took off his shirt and looked into the brightness above. The sun was strong. Its warmth felt good on his face. He wondered whether he might see an angel, a spirit bringing comfort and grace. Earth to earth, dust to dust, he thought. It was a natural part of life’s cycle.

He forced himself to keep his eyes open and not turn away. He wiped his brow, trying to make sense of it all.

Out with the old and in with new. Wasn’t that the expression? It reminded him of a ditty he’d learned as a boy, and he smiled, not sure, now, how the tune went or even the words.

Hey, Diddle, Diddle —something, something—three pigs with a fiddle. It reminded him of being a sniffling runt of a youth, of going to the lake with his father and hunting for crayfish together. He remembered the metal pail he carried. He wondered what time it was and whether he’d have company soon, and he thought of all of the things that he needed to do between now and then. He put his hand of the nape of Marydog’s neck and took hold of her tight, thinking of her and of Mary Frances, and of Arlene in the front seat of her car. He tried to picture her with her hands on the wheel, but his mind came up blank.

Life was uncertain, he’d learned, but at least his girl would stay. He took the wooden cross from his pocket and admired the single nail, the dark metal clasp, that held it together. The carving had been made quickly, it seemed, its edges unfinished. Ray pictured a man working alone by a fire, carving the cross’s arms with a long weathered blade. He wondered what use the cross had served for the hunched figure. Had it brought the ancient soul luck? Had it served as a gift for the church? Perhaps the carver had given it to his wife as a talisman to ward off evil spirits or phantoms from other worlds.

Whatever the case, Ray had no use for the trinket, not at this point in time. It seemed fitting to him that he bequeath the curio to the dog, his erstwhile companion. Perhaps it would bring the creature luck as she made her way to Heaven or wherever it was she was headed.