Foundered

“Someday you’ll be dead and everyone else can eat,” Iris said, after Floyd took the last of the mashed potatoes without asking if anyone wanted more. “Don’t nod your head at me like that. I know what you’re thinking.”

“Shut up or I’ll kick you into the living room,” he replied.

We sat across from her grandparents at the kitchen table. Celeste and I had flown into Tulsa just two hours before.

“You. Just. Try it,” Iris spit back.

And I smiled and wiped the sweat from my palms onto my jeans. I had already complimented the food a half dozen times, so I decided to not say that again. I came from a family who kept silent about their unhappiness until they couldn’t take it anymore and then got really silent, like leave-the-state-and-don’t-call-again silent.

It was early during dinner I realized Celeste had misled me about her grandparents. The only advice she gave me before entering was, “What they say means nothing. It’s just their way.” This was putting mildly what seemed destined for police tape. I couldn’t understand how people allowed themselves to accept this “way.” What way would Celeste and I become?

Celeste’s grandparents raised her since she was four, her actual parents having disappeared, wasting their lives with drugs and selfishness. Twice during dinner her grandparents said Celeste was the best thing that ever happened to them. And God knows they were the closest and dearest people to Celeste’s heart. When she moved to California to go to USC instead of the University of Oklahoma, both Celeste and Iris cried to each other on the phone for two weeks straight, one of them certain only the worst of things would come of it. Part of the purpose of this trip was to prove I wasn’t one of those things.

When we drove up to their remote, single story house—long gravel driveway and white vinyl wrapped all around—I worried they wouldn’t like me. When we entered, I realized my California childhood was far removed from this world. There was a roast on the table, surrounded by side dishes—baked beans, mashed potatoes, homemade gravy, fried okra, green beans cooked with bacon, raw onions, quartered tomatoes from the garden, and a plate of yeast rolls. So much I thought we’d never make a dent in it, but it turned out her grandfather knew something about eating my Californian upbringing couldn’t comprehend.

As the food steadily disappeared, her grandmother kept apologizing for how the place looked, how her hair looked, how her husband looked, but to me it all looked like a real home. Every wall was wood paneled and nearly covered in photos of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and the long dead. The carpet was worn but clean. The kitchen table was cluttered and disorganized with catalogs and bills; a small TV flickered on mute. The living room table was brimming with carefully placed and dusted porcelain figurines—baby goats to Victorian ladies to winking gnomes with pipes.

After the mashed potato incident, Celeste decided to announce the reason behind our visit: we were getting married. Iris’s approval of our marriage mattered most to Celeste because it was her grandmother’s love and doting that had saved her when she was a child.

“So you kids are going to make a go of it,” Iris said, “That’s fine. I know Celeste loves you.”

“Well, you don’t say,” Floyd said, gripping my hand in hearty handshake.

The whole thing seemed too easy. I would have sworn these two people would have immediate misgivings about marriage in general. But it was almost as if this wasn’t a big decision, as if their granddaughter might not be on the precipice of ruin.

“If there’s one thing I can count on,” Floyd said, “Small fry knows what she’s doing.”

But Celeste didn’t. I didn’t. I proposed spontaneously and she accepted immediately. The next day we talked about it as if two other people were the ones who made this commitment. She wanted a career, to be free to see where it took her; I wanted to be safe, to be free to stay where I was. In general, we both just thought life was too uncertain, the future uncertain. What we might feel tomorrow, uncertain. Family was uncertain. The economy was uncertain. The president. Our own minds. Cars. Weather. Our hearts. All of it uncertain. So many people ended up with lives they didn’t want. Neither of us understood how anyone could be sure. My father was a serial adulterer, my mother a lonely, hyperactive real-estate agent, my only sister a pill-popping elementary school teacher. Nobody was who they wanted to be. So many people drive their lives into ditches. And I worried about what kind of even worse man I might turn into. On the night I spontaneously proposed, Celeste and I got caught up in the moment, but afterwards we both knew the truth—we had probably made a mistake. A mistake we couldn’t see how to exactly undo as we did love each other. A mistake somehow binding and more comforting as we made it with the same skeptical frame of mind. Who better to share your life with than someone else that anticipated the worse?

So Celeste’s grandparents took to me and our news with grace and kindness. In fact, both went out of their way to make me comfortable, to feel welcome. Iris knew I liked sweets and had two kinds of pies for me to choose from: blueberry and chocolate. After dinner, Floyd, a retired ironworker, gave me an elaborate tour of his shop, where he had made extra money welding anything metal to anything else metal since he retired twenty-five years ago. So I liked them both, if they were in different rooms.

As Celeste cleared the plates, her grandmother brewed some coffee. Her grandfather was beaming at his granddaughter, the family’s only college graduate and his “small fry.” While Celeste poured us all coffee and Iris cut pie, there seemed little left to say. Floyd started in with some old stories: about how his father chased some FBI men off his farm with a double-barreled shotgun when they came to slaughter some of his pigs for FDR’s New Deal, about how he once cut his thumb off with an axe and his mother reattached it with turpentine and tape, how his father practically strangled Floyd’s third grade principal when he found out the man was punishing his son by racking his hands with a yard stick.

“You hit his hands again and I’ll kill you,” Floyd’s father apparently said. “A man makes a living with his hands. You beat his butt all you want.”

I enjoyed the stories, but I could tell Iris was getting upset. She kept huffing and pulling her paper napkin into bits. I didn’t know what was wrong, but it made me tense.

“If it’s all right with you, I’d like to talk. You know other people like to say things, Floyd Wick,” she said. “My mother also used turpentine on cuts,” she told Celeste and me, “but there is no way you can put a finger back on with it. He’s an old liar.”

“It was my thumb! Right there,” he said, holding it up for us to see, “There ain’t much of a line there now. But that thumb came off and she put it back on. With turpentine. And tape. And you weren’t there!”

“My ass,” she replied. And all went quiet again.

“I’ve got to feed that dog,” he grunted. He went to the closet for a jacket and slammed the sliding door on the way out.

“Mathew, do you need more pop?” Iris asked, smiling amiably, like this was all normal, like we could all get back to acting civilized now that the poo-throwing chimpanzee had left the room. “Maybe more pie. You hardly ate a bite at dinner.”

I was bursting and begged off anything more.

“Celeste, go get him some more pop and pie.”

“But he doesn’t want anymore,” Celeste pleaded.

On a dime, her grandmother’s sweetness turned, “Nobody listens to me. Why can’t I just ever be right?” Celeste reached over and rubbed her back.

When Floyd came back in, I admired his tan leather jacket. He had me touch it, very soft. He showed me how it was lined with sheep’s wool and had a coyote fur collar.

“Manny Stark gave me this jacket,” he said, “Gave it to me at least thirty-five years ago. You remember Manny, dummy?”

“Of course I do, I’m not addled, you fool,” she said then turning to me. “Manny was a gentleman and a very kind man, unlike others.”

“Came over one night and had a back seat full of jackets like this. Told me to pick any one I liked. A jacket like this cost a couple hundred dollars even then. Had to be around 1968.”

“He was a gentleman,” Iris said. “Very polite. And so good with cards. He could—”

“The man could hold any deck and—”

“I was telling it!” Iris yelled. She pursed her lips and squinted her eyes at him. I just sat there waiting, wondering if this was something or nothing. Was this serious or not? Then she turned to us. “You could ask for a Queen of hearts out of a deck of cards he’d never seen. He’d reach right in and pull it out. Did I say it all right, dummy?”

“Crooked as the day is long,” Floyd said, ignoring her.

“Oh yes, his livelihood was crime. Not a villain, not bad, like some people. But an Oklahoma thief through and through.”

“Until they kicked him out,” Floyd added and she snorted, tired of being interrupted. “He had this truck with this flat bed trailer on it, a big ol’ jack welded to the end. He’d pull up to any business he wanted on a Sunday and jack up their loading dock door. Drag anything he could on the trailer. Every time I saw the man he had something.”

“His wife was Estelle,” Iris broke in, “a hard woman to know. Kind of curt. But we used to all get together and play cards for pennies until one or—”

“He’d throw whatever it was on the trailer—refrigerators, boxes of soap, beer, whatever, and have it sold by nightfall and go home to the family. He was—”

“We were good friends! All of us, good friends!” Iris yelled, cutting him off. She turned to Celeste and me, a sudden, sweet gentleness shining through. “So Estelle and I would lay out some chips, maybe some nice dip. A pickle platter. Cold cuts for sandwiches with some nice—”

“One time,” Floyd said, and Iris slammed her hand on the table. They stared at each other, and I looked at Celeste for help. I was sure someone was going to get up and find a knife. But Celeste just sat there, looking down into her lap. If she could put up with these people, I would be a piece of cake.

“One time he gave me a .357 magnum,” Floyd started up again. “Brand new. A beaut. Nickel with rosewood grips. That Estelle came and got it one day. Demanded it back.”

“She needed the money, you runt. She needed that gun to buy food for those kids.” Iris turned to us to explain, “Manny was told to leave Oklahoma and never come back. Estelle stayed because her family was here. Can’t follow a wild man like that. Some just aren’t made for family life. Both Estelle and I drew duds.”

“Manny gave me that gun,” Floyd explained to me, “but I gave it to her. He was a friend, after all.”

“You made it hard enough for her to get it, didn’t you? She had to sit at this very kitchen table while you hemmed and hawed for an hour. Poor thing was embarrassed enough already.”

She stared at him, daring him to deny it, rubbing it in that he was crummy to someone thirty years ago. I looked at Celeste who attempted to smile at me. Her eyes said, “They’re crazy but they raised me and I’m sorry you have to sit through this.” My eyes said, “No wonder you were worried about getting married.”

“One time Manny came over,” her grandfather said, directing this right to me and Celeste, making it clear this story was for us only, despite whoever else might be in the room. “And he asked me a favor. He had seventeen stolen TV sets and he was going to trade them for seven horses. He needed a trailer and wanted to see if I could help. This was before I built that shop and had all those ol’ junkers back there.”

Suddenly, Celeste’s grandmother stood up and stomped out of the room, toward the restroom. Celeste watched her go. Then she reached for my hand, I’m not sure why. She smiled when I looked over. I tried to imagine calling her “dummy” or saying “I’ll kick you in the head,” but I just couldn’t. But Floyd and Iris probably never imagined saying such things either. When they were first married they probably held hands and talked in the dark.

“So, I borrowed a large open trailer and we headed down to the blackjacks,” Floyd continued. “Most pathetic place to live you ever seen. We carried those TVs into this clapboard shack and the man led us out back. ‘Manny,’ I say, ‘these horses are wild.’ See he didn’t know about horses. Wild horses are more trouble than they are worth. I explained to him how they were never ridden, never saddled, and probably mean as sin after being corralled like this. Well, he went and talked to the man, and they must have come to some sort of agreement because he said, ‘Let’s load ’em up, Floyd.’”

We heard Iris talking to herself in the bathroom. We stopped and listened, and all I could make out was “big fat stupid liar.” She was telling him off. He shook his head and kept on.

“By hook or by crook, we load these horses on the trailer. They didn’t want to go and it took some whipping. The moon was in the wrong place so it was dark like a gypsy. These ol’ horses hustling about, and me with a flashlight and a whip. See, if I knew they were wild I wouldn’t have borrowed this trailer. It had no roof and the sides came to just below their shoulders. By the time we were on the highway, they were in panic. Whinnying and kicking each other. Then a chestnut mare with a black mane jumped and its front legs went over the side. That was big trouble.”

Iris came back in and cut me another slice of pie. Her face was washed and her eyes were puffy. She poured herself a pop, ignoring Floyd’s empty glass.

“I knew if that horse leapt out we’d have trouble. If we stopped the truck, all the panicked horses would have jumped out of the trailer and been all over the highway. And to truck on and leave that dead horse on the road would probably kill someone if they weren’t paying attention, and most people don’t. So I hit the brakes and that ol’ horse flopped back in. We got to the house and unloaded the horses back there with the horses I got for the kids.”

“Liar,” Iris said. “Those horses were yours. Kids were lucky to pet ’em.”

His face steamed into red. His work-worn hands curled into giant lumps. How do people turn out like this? I wondered. What do they neglect or let happen that leads to this? I had this urgent desire to see them at breakfast on some regular morning, just the two of them, to see them in their natural habitat—to see if they made nice.

Floyd gritted his teeth and kept on, “Manny asks if I can break ’em. I tell him I can. I explain it will take over a month. I was working, you see. Anyway, he says that’s all right. No talk of money.”

“If you can believe that,” Iris looked at me, nodding, trying to communicate that if her husband has convinced me of one single, noble thought on his behalf I should get rid of it. “This man would kick a dying dog for a dollar.” I laughed like she made a joke and Celeste did too, and so did he, but bitterly. Celeste patted her grandmother’s hand, and Iris looked at the two of us, then smiled, cordially enough. Then she turned to me.

“I’m going to get you some milk for that pie, Mathew.” She had stopped asking me if I wanted more food or more to drink and was simply daring me not to consume what she put in front of me.

“Anyway,” Floyd said, “the next day I go out back and see some of the horses have foundered. The pen was flecked with blood and a few of them horses were walking on their knees. Sweating, all their muscles trembling. A pathetic sight. That man probably gave those wild horses all the grain and water they wanted and ruined their intestines. Nothing Manny could do with foundered horses. I called him and said he needed to get these horses out of here. He didn’t know what to do so I called a man I knew and he said they would buy the horses for dog food.”

“You should have seen it,” Iris said, “A horrible sight. All those horses, wild as God made them, destroyed by greedy, cruel, selfish men.” Then she pointed right at Floyd.

“What could I do, honey? You know how much it would have cost to treat them?”

“If you had it, you still wouldn’t have done it! Hell, if you thought horse was fit to eat, you would have tried to make me cook one that same night. You’ve always treated me like a dog anyway. But I wouldn’t have! I would not have cooked that horse!”

We all stared at her. I suppose we wanted to understand what exact statement she was trying to make—against him, against mankind. For herself. What was she so desperate to claim about herself? Then Celeste burst out laughing. Iris looked at her and started to chuckle.

“Well, you know,” she said, “I wouldn’t have.”

“So the man came out,” Floyd drove on, directly to me now, undeterred by any of it. “By that time most were a mess to look at. A few had their front legs pushed out in front of them, their back legs buckling with the new pressure. They’d fall over and struggle to get back up. The man said we’d have to move fast. That once they fell we’d be in for some ugly work. God, we had to whip those horses raw to get ’em onto the trailer. My horses were spooked. One kicked and broke a foundered horse’s rib. Cracked like a bullet going off. The foundered horses’ knees were bloodied from crawling up the metal ramp. Every darn one screaming and crying. But one horse, that chestnut mare, wouldn’t go. We whipped and whipped her and she wouldn’t budge. She snarled and snapped her teeth at us. Poor wild thing. But I knew if she didn’t go then I’d be stuck with a dead horse. I asked the man, ‘Does it matter what condition this horse is in when it gets in the trailer?’ ‘It don’t,’ he said.”

I flinched at what might come next, my imagination conjuring a cruelty I would not be able to smile through. Floyd didn’t quite realize how awful his story was. He thought he was telling us about how Manny’s deal went sour. No worse than explaining how to change a tire. He didn’t realize he was talking about how some wild horses were trapped and killed for nothing. I tried to crawl into his mind. Tried to see how he saw the horses. How he saw life. But I couldn’t.

“So I called Ol’ Buck. Buck was our Australian Shepherd. Best family dog ever. And tough as nails,” he said.

“No man could touch that gate without Buck making it clear he’d kill him if he came through,” Iris said, proudly. “A fine family dog.”

I heard a sniffle and saw Floyd was tearing up, “One day he was out front and a neighbor saw a man purposely swerve off the road to hit Buck. What for? Why do such a thing? Killed him on the spot. The only reason he was out there was the school bus was due to show up and he liked to meet the kids.”

“How would you know? You were at work. It was around noon, you old fool. And it was summer! The kids were playing out back in the kiddie pool. Who knows why Buck was out there, but a school bus had nothing to do with it.”

“By shit, you better leave me be,” Floyd said, rubbing his cheeks dry.

“If only things happened like you make them up.”

Then she turned towards Celeste and me. She must have seen the expression on my face. I can’t remember what I was thinking, but it stopped her for a second.

“You don’t know what I’ve put up with,” she said. “Day in and day out. This is just today. Married him at fourteen. What did I know? I only knew what I hoped for. I needed get away from my father, but I had dreams. Maybe a little store to sell nice things. Some china, Wedgewood. Things ladies like. Take some trips—Europe, Hawaii, places. I had a future in mind for myself. So many things in mind, gone now. Instead yelling, drinking, and, yes, violence, don’t let him fool you. Such cruelty he had in mind for me. How was I to know what marriage could be? Gone forever. You never know what life can be when you’re young.”

Celeste was crying, but I knew it was also because of the horses and Buck. About us. Her grandparents. Just the whole lot of it together. All to hear about a man no one had seen in thirty years. And I knew she was worried about me, about the impression I was getting and it was probably dawning on her, like it was me, that this was the first night of a five-day visit.

“What’s wrong dear?” Iris asked, suddenly concerned. Her face turned into tender mercy, and I could see all the love she had for Celeste. Floyd reached across and held Celeste’s hand. “Did grandpa make you upset? I’m sorry. I really am. Don’t you pay us no mind.”

“We’re just two old, stupid people,” Iris said.

“It’s just been a long day, that’s all,” Celeste said.

“Nothing could be done for those horses, small fry,” Floyd continued. “That dumb man in the blackjacks did it. It’s a horses’ life that happened to them. I was sorry they had to suffer like that. It wasn’t right.”

“It’s okay, Grandpa.”

He coughed. His hand still resting on hers.

“Well, I better finish this story,” Floyd continued, watching Celeste carefully, “Like I was saying, I had to get that horse in the trailer. So I called Ol’ Buck over. And I said, ‘git that horse!’ And by god, he knew exactly what I meant. He tore after that horse and didn’t even have to take a chunk out. The horse saw Ol’ Buck coming and wobbled and crawled into the trailer lickety split. Man gave Manny $125 for all that meat. Worse deal he ever made. And I didn’t see a nickel for all my trouble.”

“But you got your precious jacket and your precious gun.”

“I gave the gun back!”

“What a generous heart you have,” Iris said.

“What happened to Manny?” I asked, trying to cut them off.

“Well, like we said,” Floyd answered, “Oklahoma police told him to git and never come back and he didn’t. See he stole a shotgun out of a police car. God knows what became of him after that. He was wild and couldn’t work an honest job.”

“He was adopted,” Iris added. “To a good family too. And he turned out like that. Who would have guessed? Makes you wonder who his real people were.”

I took out my phone. I asked them to spell his name. Celeste told them what I was doing and they said he had to be dead and buried by now, and I certainly wouldn’t find him on any phone.

“What happened to Estelle?” Celeste asked. Her face sparkled with drying tears.

“Poor baby,” Iris said, patting Celeste’s hand. “Well, let’s see. Estelle took up with a man named Tom. Tom was a drunk and a creep and she got rid of him. And now she lives alone, just a few blocks from here.”

“Place is a shame to look at,” Floyd said, “Least her son could do is mow the lawn.”

“But I’ve never heard you talk about her. Are you still friends?” Celeste asked.

“I suppose we just lost touch. She was a hard woman,” Iris said.

Apparently Manny did come back to the state. Oklahoma Department of Corrections had three photos. Manny was arrested for meth manufacturing in 1993 and then in 1996, when he was sixty-two. The third photo was just a few months before he died of cancer while incarcerated. I showed them the photos, and they just couldn’t stop looking.

“He looks so old,” Iris said, “He used to be a nice looking man.”

“I’d never have guessed drugs,” Floyd said. “What a good for nothing.”

But there was more. Things they didn’t know to recognize. The small scabs on his face. The space between his teeth from where his gums receded. The loss of weight. The mean hunger in his eyes. How his face wasn’t just old, but blanched and haggard, used, heavy with fatigue. All the classic signs of serious meth use. I imagined the hopes and dreams his adoptive parents had when he was a baby, how they thought they were giving him a better life. How as he grew into a child, he began to believe in those dreams too. Until what.

After her grandparents went to bed, I moved into Celeste’s old bedroom while she washed her face. I looked up what foundered meant on my phone and read about how stress creates acid which eats at the complex carbohydrates in the grain creating a serious inflammation, particularly in the lower joints, which is why the horses fell. Floyd’s story was a worst case scenario, but even if that didn’t happen, even if Manny made money, that wouldn’t have made any of it a bit better. What Floyd couldn’t understand was that his story was about lovely, pure, wild things destroyed by poor intentions turning to crap.

Celeste came in, her face bright and clean, but her eyes were tired. We didn’t say anything as we unpacked and arranged our stuff. Then she sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing lotion into her face and hands; I lay on my back staring at the popcorn ceiling. The night, I suppose, was noisy enough. After we turned off the lights and moved into her old bed, Celeste started to cry.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I’m sorry about tonight.”

“It’s okay. It wasn’t that bad.”

She chuckled. She shifted her body and I felt her head tuck up under my chin, her lips breathing against my neck. I pulled her close.

“You were very sweet,” she said, and her lips kissed behind my ear. “Sometimes I wonder what’s the use.”

“I know,” I said.

She lifted her head. Her tongue was warm and salty. I dragged my foot down her calve.

“What are we going to do?” she asked.

I kissed her nose. Her forehead. She slid down her pajamas. Everything was so quiet as her fingers hooked around my shoulder blades. I rolled on top of her.

“We’ll get married,” I breathed into her neck.

“Will we have kids?”

“Yes,” I said. “We’ll make babies. Tons of them.” She giggled, but I could almost see it. Not minding it. The promises. The hopes. The plans. What it could all end up like.

“Okay,” she said.

***

The next day, I helped Floyd load some old metal onto his flatbed to sell for scrap. He gave me gloves, but didn’t put any on himself when he started grabbing into the sharp and rusty metal. He was seventy-eight, and he still looked like he could tear me up. Though he groaned and exclaimed, he threw things I had trouble lifting. I don’t think I was much help but he seemed to really appreciate the attempt. He told me more stories: injuries on the job, kids and Christmases, the Korean War—“All those good, young men killed across the world.”

But what I wanted to know about was him and Iris. I wanted to understand what made them settle down together. And what made them stay. How did things end up like that? Did they ever get along? At night, when no one was there, did they hold each other? Did they talk in the dark? But I didn’t have the guts, so I asked about Manny. I asked if he seemed to like being a criminal.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think it was maybe not wanting a regular job. And he lost his family cause of it. And look how he ended up. No, I just think he was lazy and because of that his life ended up lousy.”

Later, while we drove the bed full of metal to the scrap yard, I thought about the horses on that trailer, saw myself among them, how we bucked against each other, whinnied in terror. Our only home growing small behind. Wondering where the open plains and quiet disappeared to. The chestnut horse’s legs thrown over the rail. Eyes bulging. Asphalt screaming underneath. Metal to hoof shocking up our legs, the grain and water heavy in our bellies—all the new, treacherous things. Our legs twisting to the ground the next morning. The red lights backing up. The explosion as the tailgate dropped. The loud whooping and hollering from the men. Lastly, the tight metal pen, the gun up to my head.

“Don’t tell that one inside the house this,” Floyd said as we pulled out of the junkyard, “but Manny was no gentleman either. He ran around on Estelle anytime he could. It was a different kind of stealing to him. He acted like a good husband, played the role—charmed Iris every time he was over—but he chased tail all day long. Just goes to show, only one thing is sure, you just never can tell nothing about nothing.”

A.W. Marshall lives in Oklahoma but grew up on the beaches of Southern California. His work is published or forthcoming in Red Wheelbarrow, TheNewerYork, Fiction Attic, Austin Review, and Vestal Review. He received his MFA in Playwriting from University of Southern California and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is co-editor of Piece Meal, an online magazine that exclusively reviews poems and short stories from literary magazines.

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