In this week’s story, “Heddon Lucky 13,” Shelagh Power-Chopra does some Woolfian memory gymnastics to give the reader the sense of her narrator’s young, man-bruised life. This voice will carry you, as it carries the tension of an entire life so far: of not-quites, of runs-in and charged, fleeting encounters. The men in this story are users, mostly, but are also being used, are experiences, as the narrator tries to find her way to what she really wants. She has, and the yard sale has, a lot of junk. A lot of old records and fishing lures and porcelain roosters to sift through before something special appears. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
It was the midst of summer, the air heavy and sweet but soaked with pity, the gravel hot, the grass dead. I walked past a card table full of rusty nails and old playing cards. A metal anchor the size of a poodle was tossed in the driveway. A woman argued with her daughter—bickered about sleeping late and bikini tops. They sat side by side on lawn chairs, their long legs crossed carelessly over one another; Flamingo legs, pink and thin.
A tall glass of cloudy liquid rested next to the mother’s elbow, an overturned paperback at her feet. Could she be—was she reading Milton? Milton in the hot summer sun made my stomach sour. A metal box of cash and coins sat before her. I rummaged through a stack of records, haggled with her over an old Stravinsky 78. That must be worth something, she said, but let it go for a buck. I started to walk away, my record and a porcelain rooster under my arm but a voice stopped me.
Might be a scratch on that Stravinsky: Rite of Spring?
It wasn’t her voice; it was deeper, warmer. I looked beyond her and saw him. He was camped out on another lawn chair, a ragged straw hat tilted over his eyes. The woman sighed. Really, James.
Hey, a buck’s a buck, he said and beckoned me over. He sprang up from his low flung chair—tall and lanky, dark like a plum, red in the face and hands.
Give it here, he said and reached his hand towards mine. He shook it out from its paper sleeve, held it by its edges and twirled it around, spun it above my head against the sun. His chest was bare and hairless and when he stood in front of me, his tomato red nipples were aligned with my nose.
Stravinsky, huh? he said and peered down at me, squinting. Really only good for night listening, wouldn’t you say? He gestured towards the bright sky. I supposed he was right but I couldn’t say, I was tongue-tied, my hair damp, my skin bruised from the heat.
Looks okay, I’d say–and he handed it back to me. His daughter was crouched down on the grass, giggling up at people as they walked by.
I wandered away, mumbling thanks, and walked over to a brown cardboard box that read, “FREE,” in bright red letters. A Barbie doll with a bad haircut lay face down over two plastic margarita glasses. There was a muddle of ants in the bottom of one.
I’m afraid we’re guilty, I heard behind me. It was the same man talking.
Oh? I asked and glanced back over at him; his hat was tilted up now, resting on the back of his head. The faint outline of a beard; a light dusting of hair settled on his chin and cheeks, as if he hadn’t decided which hair fraction to side with. Maybe it was just his lips he was trying to hide—they were plump and rosy, the lips of a young Mick Jagger.
Guilty? I asked and squinted, held my hand over my eyes, shielding the sun. I decided his lips were loamy; full and dirty.
Those people who have yard sales but don’t really have much to sell. Yard hounds, really, don’t you think? An excuse to sit on the lawn and drink beer on a Saturday. Shoot the shit with the neighbors. I got more records out back, more contemporary. Interested? And he looked over at his daughter, who was gulping sips of her mother’s drink.
Before I could answer, he gestured towards the back of the house and just assumed I would follow. He walked slowly, deliberately, his legs long and dark. Think I got some Iggy Pop, you like him? he shouted out in front of me. He was wearing shorts, white painter’s paints cut off at the knee. A rough cut, one leg shorter than the other. I could see the white backside of his left calf as he walked—where the sun don’t shine, I thought and laughed.
I know, I know, it’s wild back here, forgive me, he shouted in response. And then he stopped midwalk and turned back. We stood still for a minute, the both of us, up to our necks in grass it seemed. It was wet back there, damp and marshy, my feet sunk a little, mud splashing my ankles.
Watch out for sinkholes, he said and laughed, the loamy lips spreading out evenly and just between were crooked teeth, like a beautiful woman cradling her homely child. This way, he said tossed his head back and I followed him further round the back, pushing aside the grass as I walked. I heard his wife sigh again.
We don’t go out here much, he said and skimmed his hand across the top of the grass.
God, you really need a machete! I said. He didn’t respond. Was it advisable to follow a man you didn’t know into a basement? But we weren’t alone and his back looked kind; hairless and smooth with just the start of love handles at the waist.
The basement was lighter than I expected but not cleaner. Boxes and tools were everywhere, piles of newspapers, and a large skin of what looked like a bear was nailed up on the concrete wall. He picked up a few boxes, plopped them on top of a tall workbench table then reached up and put the light on. A single bulb hung down and the light shone through the holes in his hat; speckled light splashed up on the ceiling.
Oh, Jesus. His hat bumped the bulb and fell off onto the table. His hair fell forward, a long lock of black with brushes of white, floppy and boyish. I couldn’t see his shorts, they were hidden behind the workbench—all I saw were legs and chest. He could have been naked. Here we are, he said and proceeded to sort through the stack of records.
Got some old stuff here—you a ’60s sort of girl? He squinted at me again but didn’t wait for an answer. He held up an old Joni Mitchell but put it back quickly. Nah, I bet you’re a Pixies fiend. He tossed Doolittle across the table.
Think I sold that one right after college, I mumbled. Ha—figures, he said, and then belted out “must be a devil between us or whores in my head!” Jesus, still love that one. Think there’s a record player round here somewhere. He shuffled towards the back of the basement. It was much darker there and he disappeared into the back room. I heard something shatter and thought his wife must be thinking: Really, James.
There was something white and flaky on his shoulders when he returned; it looked like plaster and he had a portable player tucked under his arm. He dusted it off with a rag. Broke something valuable back there, I’m sure. Let’s see that Stravinsky. And he reached under my arm, it was tucked there securely, didn’t think of putting it down. His hand brushed my bare shoulder as he tugged the album out. I shuddered, it seemed hotter down there as if the heat had followed us, sought us out, and it was dusty and damp, a big hot boiler room. He put the Stravinsky on. The record hissed and scratchy clicks came out, then the swirl of an oboe and the roaring waves of hard bass, the stabs of violins.
That oboe always kills me, you know? Wiggles it way out there, sneaks out proudly but claims just the right amount of space, you know? See with albums you can skip to the good parts, cut straight to the chase—the heart, right? And he picked the needle up and plopped it down in the middle. The drone of cellos came in, pushed between solemn bass drums. I reached over and brushed the plaster off his dark shoulders. My fingers became white, powdered and I brushed my finger against my nose.
Looks like you been doing some blow. My hair was in a bun, dark loose hairs hanging round my face like cobwebs. And then the light outside shifted, the sun went dim and the basement went dark except for the single bulb. The music strained and teemed behind us. It’s like it’s ganging up on us, and he laughed, his fingers grabbing at the air around us. Then his arms fell slack against his side and he leaned towards me. You’re a keeper, he whispered, pushing his elbows out to rest on the table.
I leaned back, my spine brushing against the cement wall. Dirt and dust fell in little showers all around me. The bear’s paw was just above my left shoulder. I only saw two claws. A keeper? I asked—
Never let ‘em go, he said and walked around the table towards me but just brushed past me, a few inches away, and then wandered over to the bulkhead, stuck his head out and looked up. Shit, it might rain, good day gone bad, he said. You smoke? He asked, turning his head back towards me. I got a little pot, back here in the grotto, stay put. And he went in the back again. I heard rustling, plastic bags, metal clinking metal. He came back with hardly anything. A simple glass pipe in his hand, a single bud. Care for some? he asked, depositing the bud, lighting it steadily. Those thick lips groping like a guppy fish. Ah, nothing like a good smoke in the face of darkness—in this weather, I suppose.
Don’t usually seek out yard sales to get stoned, I said and took the pipe.
I know, right? There are certain advantages, he said and let out a short tight giggle and his hair fell forward again, hiding his left eye. And then I was 15 again. In the basement of my sister’s boyfriend Lou’s house and he didn’t have a bowl, was scrounging around the dirty metal shelves for something to smoke from and I was laughing hysterically. His father was upstairs in the den, blaring the TV. My sister was passed out on a beanbag and I was smoking stubbed out cigarette butts I found in the ashtrays.
Go upstairs and get me an apple from the fridge, Lou said, that’ll work. Your father, was all I said but he insisted I go. Shut the fuck up, he said and giggled loudly—he was older, had authority, fucked my sister. He won’t even notice you. So, I slunk up the stairs and walked by the den where his fat father sat watching 60 Minutes. That you, Louie? That you? he slurred his words a little, a tumbler of brown liquid on his TV tray. No it’s Audrey—Callie’s sister.
Ah, Audrey with the skin so fair and the pitch black hair. Black Irish is what we used to call you, got some Moors’ blood in ya. And he smiled, turned his eyes down and gave me a clean sweep from head to toe. A terrible beauty is born, he sang out as I ran past him to the fridge, opened it up and searched high and low for some fruit, any damn fruit, and I found a bruised apple tucked behind a six pack.
Here, Lou, I said when I got back and shoved the apple in his hand and he took out his pocket knife and carved two holes in the flesh; a little tunnel, one hole connected to the other, and he found some tin foil on one of the shelves, a bit wrapped around a wire or something and pricked some holes in it and put it over one hole and then he bent down, a tall fellow, a beautiful fellow, all dark lashes, giraffe eyes my sister called them and he brushed my cheek, stroked it with his hand and glanced over at Callie who was still sleeping, brushed his lips over mine, then stayed there for a moment. Whoa, was all he said and then backed away and lit up like there was no tomorrow, inhaled dark smoke and gasped and choked and sputtered and his father yelled down at him—stop ya smoking down there, it’s criminal! And I felt so sad really because I really adored him–I loved him. So lanky and dopey, older but dumber.
And then I was back in this basement with this man James and all was weird, all was damp and sticky but I felt lucky somehow. I blew the smoke out, it sat between us a moment, hovering above the albums, the damp air holding it prisoner. I coughed a little, patted my chest and James sort of swam before me.
Fuck the albums, he said, feel like I’m going to explode. Rain makes me restless. And he reached over and flicked the needle off the vinyl; it shot up and landed back down hard on the arm. What else do I have around here? His head bobbed around the room. I got lures too–you like lures?
Fishing lures? I asked. They reminded me of night crawlers and old tackle boxes. Dopey boys with plastic buckets and minnow nets. They’re interesting, I guess, I said out loud.
He walked to an old shelf and picked up a few wooden cigar boxes. I watched his kind back again; his good back, a mole center left. I used to collect them, started from my father’s old stuff and then one day I thought, what am I really collecting? Got some good ones, he said, not your typical yard sale fare.
He spread them out on the table. There must have been thirty, some in tiny cardboard boxes, some without, rusty hooks and nicked wood, all sizes and colors, muted oranges, deep blues and hunter greens, layers of dust covering most. He poked through them, his fingers getting dusty and dirty. This one here is a Shakespeare, real beauty, early teens this one. A White Musky. Don’t know too much about the others—got some weights and night-crawlers too, rubber red suckers, but the rubber’s shot— and a whole tackle box full of shitty flyers I like to look at them. That one there, that’s a Fred Fischer, he said and picked up a olive green lure, a long wooden plug with three hooks hanging from its belly and bright yellow eyes shining from its head. Glass eyes—that’s a keeper, too. Looks good with your coloring, and he held the lure against my forearm.
I thought you were a vinyl man.
Better than records right? Leave your emotions in the water, not on top.
I didn’t know what to say. This one’s pretty cool too, I said and picked one up by its snout. It was thick and small like a fat man’s thumb.
You got good taste—that’s a Heddon—cream of the crop, the Tiffany of lures so to say. It’s a Lucky 13. And his voice changed, got higher, like a boy of 10, maybe 12, reeling towards puberty.
So, it’s lucky because of the name?
Nah, it’s just good, steady, catches fish, you know? Goes in the water with a deep-throated glug, glug, glug. That one’s a baby–squat. He traced his finger inside its red open mouth. Haven’t been fishing in years. There’s flats behind this house, then a clean still pond, perfect for bass. Used to drink out there with the gang, wade in the shallows, drink whiskey and beer, pass out, our noses just sticking above the water, almost drowned a few times. My dad had to drag my ass home many a night.
I pictured him wading in dark water, shirtless, drunk as a skunk.
I used to sit in the marsh, round back and look up at the sky, bring a boom box and sit it on a stool and play some sort of dark crap, Ozzy or something like that, shit I think I even wore eyeliner back then. My dad could never relate, just liked fishing, had all sorts of crazy paraphernalia, lures, sinkers, floaters, whatever, always trying to explain what this one did, how that one worked. Used to have a wall of them, all displayed up on wooden board, was about the only thing he cared about. Had a ton of lure catalogs and brought them to every meal. Flipped through them while buttering his peas. Throw an old shunt of wood in the water and you change the world, he’d say. Think I got his philosophy: sort of a Walden guy, just didn’t know it. Difference was he cared for the hunt, so to say. I don’t.
I looked up at the bearskin on the wall. Oh, yeah, that, he said, wife’s sort of a taxidermist freak.
Bears run as fast as horses, I said and laughed, well some of them, anyway. Hmm, he said and pointed at the lure in my hand, at its big rusty hooks. You carry that one with you and those bears won’t hurt you.
I twirled the lure around in my palm. Lucky 13 was written on the underside of its belly in pale gray letters. The top was patterned with green diamonds to mimic scales and the mouth gaped open, ready for its line. It slipped from my hand, the hook scratching my thumb as it fell onto the floor. A trickle of blood dripped down on my palm. He reached over the table and grabbed my thumb, pulled it towards his mouth and put those lips round it, sucked up the blood.
I stood still, my thumb in this man’s mouth. I let it happen, let him suck my thumb, those rosy lips wrapped tight around my finger. Consuming all. Skin, tooth, and nail. A part of me, a part of you. I thought of eating him, diving in, abandoning the rest of the world, lying with a stranger, feeling around for warmth or comfort, for place. I felt saliva on my thumb, my blood being sucked out, his mouth, a hot tiny vacuum. He looked down at me, held my eyes and didn’t move, and I was sick. Felt immobile, a fountain of sweat and desire, I was grounded.
I remember feeling this once. Early on, the first half of my life, when the body has little to no warning signs, heartache is there but empty, solo.
It was in the beginning of my last marriage—my only marriage. We were young then, late 20s, early 30s, drifting around, drinking too much, reading Chekhov on the couch, drafts and drafts of shitty poetry and lying on the freshly mowed lawns of summer, drinking and smoking, screwing the world.
We were listening to nothing, no music except the sea, sitting on a lawn again. It was summer and the neighbors came over from next door. They were always half-naked, wading through the heat, swatting away the winter with their slender brown hands. Pete was there, a preppy stoner with a lazy eye and he brought a few friends; girls in bathing suits and another boy, a tall, quiet one. He was the cousin of someone, a city person and he clung awkwardly to the house, as if anchoring himself to solid land. We chatted politely at first, drinks in hand, dusk was approaching and everyone was getting drunk, lazily hitting croquet balls, and my husband went off to smoke something with Pete, the two of them lying on the stone wall that faced the sea, smoke circling above them and swirling out towards the shore.
My husband’s parents had money—had a lawn for each view of the sea, a house built on a stony hill overlooking the Sound. I felt so young then, the lawns like expanses of time, pockets of years before me. God, this is surreal, the boy said, looking out at the sea–pitch perfect, he scowled, soaked perfection, soaked in gin, and I laughed and we laughed together and I mixed up some martinis and we sat in lawn chairs chatting most of the evening, my husband still on the stone wall with Patsy and Agatha now, shooting whatever shit they had to shoot and this man Liam was dark and gangly with a sharp, sharp mind. We talked about nothing really at first, simple talk, nothing talk, but it was so easy, I remember, no strain, no causes–supine talk really, words spread out clean.
Towards the end of the night he told me about Manned Wolves, their spindly long legs, wolves on stilts they call them, he said, reach up to your waist like those reeds on the beach and he recited a verse he had learned from childhood: the anger wolves, the anger wolves and their wilted coats, swim and swim the thousand shore, reaching nothing but a winter shore, often told to go home, press their solemn snouts to sea –but he forgot the rest and I felt stunned really, recalling how all conversation had left the wall and sea and we were the only ones there now.
And then he took my finger in his and swung it slowly, between our lawn chairs. It was dark then and I watched my husband wander into the house with Pete, and Liam leaned over and kissed me, and the sea spoke before us, a tired mewl coming in with the tide. That’s the edge of the world, he whispered, his mouth just next to my mouth, and he pointed out to the horizon and I tasted salt and felt so drunk I wanted to eat him up, lick his skin and bone and consume him. He was around for a day or so, and I took him to the old boat house that held a wreck of an old skiff and we lay down on a damp sail and did a few things but mostly kissed and wrapped our arms round one another but I never felt satisfied. There was so much weight; the weight of the afternoon and the people surrounding us and the dog days of summer and faulty romance and I couldn’t wrap my head around him, was only left dazed by his physicality, my body near his, and all the rest was done for. Later I saw him, just before he left, standing in the kitchen of Pete’s cottage, looking out the window at me and my husband asked, who’s that? That’s Liam, I said. Hmm, was all he said and later when we divorced, I asked Pete where Liam went to but Pete didn’t remember him at all.
Then I was here and my thumb was in this man’s mouth. Chances are we’re both turned septic, he said, my thumb between his teeth now. He pulled it out and grabbed my hand, holding it and looking at me. He walked over and put his arms around me and we fell against the wall, against the bear, and its fur was beneath our necks and it was softer than I expected but smelled tangy, ripe, maybe it was the heat or him but I smelled fear or anticipation and I pushed my face up near his shoulder, held it there against his skin, afraid of moving.
I could stay here all day, he said and pulled back, looked down at me and kissed me. His lips were soft and warm, those ripe lips kissing mine, and we held put and hardly moved, my tongue hitting teeth and gum and catching flavor. And the air around us was damp and wet and so hot and sweat poured off both of us and mixed in with the sweat smell of the bear and I lost touch of where we were.
Phew, I said and released myself, I’m dying here. And I felt a deep sadness, as if I had lost something valuable, and I ran out, clambered up the stairs, out of the bulkhead and into the back yard. The grass surrounded me and James followed.
Hey, hey, I’m sorry, come back, and we were both out there now, the tall grass at our waists and spurts of overgrown tufts at our shoulders, and he reached out and touched my arm but I slipped, fell in the grass and then turned around and lay on my back looking up, a rush of green blades surrounding me and the water seeped in slowly, through my shirt, to my skin and it felt nice and cold and I could barely see the sky, only James above me, standing, elbows akimbo, a hunter squinting at his prey, but he crouched down beside me, hey, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, he said. I pulled him down and we lay side by side, the grass springing up near our legs and arms, seeping through our fingers and a patch of dandelions and weeds sat between us and I thought—the grass divides as with a comb—and I sat up and brushed my lips over his chest, his dark smooth chest.
I got the afternoon, he said, you get the rest. And he cupped his hand behind my hair and brought me to his face. The sky above us grew dark again, clouds rushed in, then passed. The sun stood raw and waited. And his daughter teetered on the front lawn in cork wedges.
–photo Shelagh Power-Chopra