Cary Holladay is the author of five volumes of fiction, most recently A Fight in the Doctor's Office, which won the Miami UP Novella Contest. Her work appears in recent issues of The Southern Review, Glimmer Train, The Georgia Review, and New Stories From the South: The Year's Best. Her awards include an NEA fellowship and an O. Henry Prize. A native of Virginia, Cary is married to the writer John Bensko. They teach in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis.
Burton Laughinghouse. Does that name ring your chimes? Ever find a pair of little eelskin shoes beneath your lady's bed and smell witch-hazel in the sheets? He was all the time walking off without those shoes, having spent his boyhood years at a nudist camp and “never minding much about clothes a-tall,” he'd tell you. It is a wonder we men in this town did not kill him. We were distracted back then, what with showers of stars in the nighttime sky and everybody predicting world's end. Burton Laughinghouse was a naturalist. “I have come to study the birds,” he said, and took a room with the Dancy family. “The tower room,” we all said, excited, for the Dancys had never rented out a room before, and now here was this great stout man living there like he was family. He came from a long line of naturalists: “My grandpappy owned the horn of a narwhal, and he took me riding in a carriage drawn by four zebras—even though books will tell you that all attempts to domesticate the zebra have failed,” he snapped, as if we'd asked.
To this day when I hear “naturalist,” I think “nudist”; hear “figment” and think “fig leaf”; just can't stop thinking about desire. It'll spoil your heartease and maybe bring you a few good leg-shaking nights if you're lucky, leg-shakers that will afterward seem like dreams. The body has a longer memory for hunger and pain than it does for that other, glorious thing. Burton Laughinghouse had come to watch the songbirds, he said, but all he did was drink himself to hiccups and fall to snoozing in the orange canvas butterfly chair on the Dancys' porch. Little Hoover Dancy used to take a pencil and torment the big man's fanny with it, through the bottom of the chair, just run that pencil tip along the seam of his butt until Laughinghouse flailed awake bellowing, and then Hoover'd dart away. Hoover liked to do a nasty thing, liked to drink the water left in vases where flowers had been, said it tasted just like wine. How would a child know what wine tasted like? He was eight years old then, and all these years later, I hope the wine he's drinking tastes a lot better than the old death-smelling water in vases. The Dancys' daughter, though, was the one to worry about. Glenna Dancy had shot a boy with a bow and arrow, by accident of course, shot him in archery class right through the eye, and now that boy, Ned Page, went around in an eyepatch; the whisper was that his eye resembled a ruined meringue. Glenna prayed all the time after that. The devil took up a lot of space in Glenna's world. She had a white fish named Beauty. One day there was a fishkill at Fluvanna Lake, “and the spell got as far as Beauty's bowl,” she told everybody. The white fish floated, his see-through tail a pennant of panache.
Busy as the devil was, Glenna was busier, taking over the housework from her mother, cooking for their new boarder and doing his laundry, even his underwear. “I'm washing your codpieces,” she'd yell to Laughinghouse from the laundry room. “Anything but cymblings,” Burton Laughinghouse said to Glenna, when she asked him what he liked to eat, and that threw Mrs. Dancy into a panic because the family garden was full to bursting with those round pale scallop-edged greenies that looked like little flying saucers, and the whole family loved them boiled with bacon and butter. “Then cymblings are banned,” Glenna said, in a no-nonsense voice, to Laughinghouse and to her mother, too. Here I am talking about cymblings, and you want to know what Laughinghouse did with all those women. Or are you wondering did he see any birds? Oh, now and then he'd chase after some songster, crawling through a hedge and writing notes on a tablet. He'd show you his bird books and whistle with his lips pursed sideways so he sounded like a cuckoo or a thrush. “Those books show the birds so bright-colored, when really most birds are just brown,” I told him, and he said, “Tinsley, your eyes are closed.” Now I'm an old man alone. I've got my memories and my Clapper lamp. How do they make those, so that you can clap your hands and have light, and clap again and it cuts off? Let there be light, let there be dark, let there be dreams.
Summer, 1957, Fluvanna County, Virginia: Burton Laughinghouse, holding court on the Dancys' porch, eased his feet out of his eelskin shoes. From the way the Dancys stuck out their noses at each other, husband and wife, you could tell they'd just had a fight. This was the time of life when all the wives in town were near to screaming at their husbands, "Do something! Do anything!" and we men didn't know what they wanted and neither did they. Gathered together were the Dancys—mother and father, daughter and son; Ned Page, of the eyepatch, who was big for his age and real polite; and me and my wife Jett. And here was Laughinghouse, in our midst as suddenly as if he'd been fired there from a cannon. I smelled witch hazel on Mrs. Dancy and on Burton Laughinghouse, and I knew right away they were more to each other than landlady and boarder. I was proud of my own loyal wife, my Jett who'd been Watermelon Queen and could still fit into the green striped gown and tufted pink hat she'd worn for her coronation, and could still spit seeds into the next county. That witch hazel smell was sweet and scary, a cross between a kiss and a hypodermic needle.
Long after Laughinghouse was gone and my Jett had joined the angels, I took to wearing witch hazel, slapping it on my cheeks after I shaved, in hopes it would attract the ladies. Thinking maybe that was all it was, some scent they loved, some chemical Laughinghouse knew about. Men, sniffing it, stiffened like pointers and swiveled toward me with eyes brimful of hate and fear, and gals melted away giggling. I could clear a room that way, empty a street, so all that was left was me and my witch-hazel and the sound of air-conditioners cooling the stores on the town square, and a dry breeze spinning the linden leaves. But on that night I'm remembering, Burton Laughinghouse sat in the butterfly chair in the sweet evening air, steepling his index fingers in a gesture so wise and deep-thinking that people found their own hands making the same shape: a porchful of copycat steeplers. “Look! A shooting star,” said Glenna Dancy, leaning against the porch railing. “And another one!” her brother Hoover said. “Great God in Heaven,” said Ned Page, his white eyepatch a bright triangle in the darkness, and nobody called him down for saying a grown man's oath. The sky sizzled with meteors, flickering and flashing in loopy trails of light, sparks and bursts of fire, and we could only gasp and stare and point. The stars leaped toward us, low and close enough, almost, to heat us up. When it was over, we all just stood there, our brains near popping. Nobody said anything. Then Mrs. Dancy spoke up. Her face in the dimness was all pale cheeks and angry eyebrows. “Burton Laughinghouse, give me the address of that nudist colony,” she said, like she'd been thinking hard and had reached a decision. “The one you grew up in. I want to go there.” She turned to her husband and said, “All summer I planted yuccas in the yard and made pudding from scratch. Don't you think I feel about crazy?” Hoover snickered, and his mother beaned him on the head with her knuckles. Burton Laughinghouse said, real smooth, “That colony might've closed down, ma'am.
They used to send me a newsletter but it's been years since I got one.” “Newsletter. Nude's letter,” murmured Ned Page. Then he sniffed the air. “Smell that?” he said. “Gunpowder.” Burton Laughinghouse heaved himself up from the butterfly chair, very excited. “Ladies and gentlemen, that smell means a star has died. Far away, out there in a part of the universe that opened up to us for just a second, a star burned right up. Excuse me.” He hurried into the house, barefoot, leaving his shoes askew beneath his chair. “I don't smell anything,” I said. All I smelled was the wilted starch in my own shirt, the zinnias and yarrow in the Dancys' yard, and the fresh cider I'd brought and shared. My wife Jett took my arm and hustled me off the Dancys' porch. “Tinsley, you have got to learn discretion,” she said. “There wasn't any gunpowder smell. Ned Page was just giving Burton Laughinghouse a chance to get away.” We went home and climbed into our bed. “Been married nine years, and still no child, Tinsley,” Jett said, punching her pillow. “I pray about it. I pray so hard, I may as well cuss.” “I'll paint the nursery again,” I said. Now and then, I did that, to keep our spirits up—put another coat of yellow paint on the walls of the little room where the crib was. In the darkness, I stroked her soft hair and her warm hands. “I love you, Jett,” I said. “Good,” she said, her usual response. Sometimes she would say, “Thank you.” “I'm scared,” I told her. “Because of all those shooting stars? The world's not gunna end, Tinsley.” “I'm just afraid,” I said. That night I had a dream. I saw a pair of eelskin shoes beneath my bed, a baby in Jett's belly, and the world rocking loose on its sprockets. Whether or not I really found those eelskin shoes under the bed is hard to say, but this much was true: Jett soon told me she was pregnant. Shoes or no shoes, I had to believe the baby was my own.
I had started a bakery, and my hours were funny. I was away from my bed too often, I guess, making rolls and doughnuts; I saw those eelskin shoes in my mind's eye every time I went into my bedroom, so it didn't matter if they were there or not, whether the torment of my suspicions was real or not. I had to leave my house so early and walk to my bakery while the stars were winking out, and even in those dark morning hours, the stars scooted across the sky, swinging and blazing. I made star-shaped cookies with gold beads of sugar on them. “So you have discovered white pepper,” said Burton Laughinghouse to Glenna Dancy at supper one night, when we ate pork chops and onion rings with the Dancy family. Mrs. Dancy hadn't run off to the nudist colony, but she had the air of a woman thinking it over. Not one wink or sly look passed between Laughinghouse and my wife Jett, and I told myself I'd never had any dream about eelskin shoes. “White pepper. Is that a compliment?” Glenna Dancy snapped at Laughinghouse. It was a hot September evening. The very thought of pork chops, tasty as they were, was enough to make you sweat, and we all sat fanning ourselves at the Dancys' table while Glenna slapped second helpings on everybody's plate and Burton Laughinghouse said, “You know you're my favorite cook in the world.” “Oh, liar, liar, pants on fire,” Glenna said. By then, she was a tall girl with a high spot of rouge on each cheek and a choker of blue beads around her neck. Her thin hair was chopped off below her ears. I caught that faint scent of witch hazel, so delicate she might have just lingered in front of an open medicine cabinet, but I knew better. What did Burton Laughinghouse look like, besides big? Funny, I can't remember.
Can't recall if he had a beard or not, or what color his hair was, or how his face was put together, except for those sideways pursed lips, chirping and buzzing like a bird. And here he'd charmed a mother and daughter both. It scared me, that they could be so much under his spell. There was peach pie for dessert. I had brought it from my bakery. I had a nice homey feeling, eating a meal with friends and having everybody know Jett was expecting a baby. Mrs. Dancy's advice to her was, “Don't you get upset, and don't look at anything ugly.” I must have had a funny look on my face—happiness mixed with the shock of smelling a crosswind of witch hazel, and a quick flash of a bad dream—another man's shoes beneath my bed. Burton Laughinghouse said, “Tinsley, what is it? Do you feel sick?”
“I know all about it,” I said. “I know what you've been doing.” Didn't they hear me? Or had I only thought I spoke? They went on eating their pie. Burton Laughinghouse said, “Hey kids, what does a chestnut-sided warbler say?” Hoover and Glenna Dancy laid down their forks and answered together; he had trained them. “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I'll switch you,” they said. Twenty-four years later, my daughter Cherie—she who grew from a seed in Jett's belly into a serious lieutenant, a Navy officer who could fly a helicopter and fire a gun—wrote me about things she remembered. She was in the desert, fighting in that strange war of 1991. “I seem to recall a big man who could sing like a bird,” one of her letters said. “He's connected in my mind with falling stars. The shellfire looks like meteors. I watch it all night long.”
Yet she was not even born when Burton Laughinghouse was among us. I know what she saw, of course. I saw it on TV, those brilliant fireworks of tracer bullets and missiles, rippling arcs of light and flame—always with a newsman out front, chattering into a microphone. Now nobody remembers what those newsmen said, but the pictures remain forever; those tarantulas of weapon-light are on everlasting newsreels in so many different brains. Speed of light, speed of sound: the desert sky was a shattering chandelier with a million crazy candles.
The question wasn't whose oil wells they were, or what one Arab had done to another. The question was why there was a woman, any woman, in combat over there. Seems to me that even as I sat at the Dancys' table eating pie with friends, I heard Cherie's helicopter crash on the Iraqi border, and her not more than a heartbeat in Jett's womb, Jett who laughed when Hoover Dancy said, “I want a new fanny. This one's cracked!”
Late sunshine streamed through the windows and played on Jett's hair. The light shone on Jett's creamy neck, long as a goose's. She took some blue grapes from a bowl and put them in her mouth. My daughter Cherie was just as pretty as her mother. She got into college on an ROTC scholarship and wore her uniform all the time. She married a little church mouse of a man. Last I saw him was at Cherie's funeral, when a general handed him the folded flag that had covered her casket. Soldiers fired a salute, raising their guns and shooting toward the sky. The church mouse sat there dreamy and mild, with that triangle of stars and stripes on his lap.
At night, after supper, I still like to read Cherie's letters one by one, following the curves of the words she set down at night in her tent. She was thirty-three years old. She wrote to Jett and me, “The desert is beautiful. I would do this again.” The thin envelope has sand in it. A picture of her in her uniform stares at me from the mantelpiece. She had a way of gazing so far-off, she with her long eyelashes and warrior's heart. In my mind, her helicopter crashes over and over, exploding into flames, taking her out of the world. Wouldn't it have been something if the Dancy women, mother and daughter both, got pregnant by Burton Laughinghouse, if he had made every woman and girl in town big with child, if the year of his living with the Dancys was capped off by a whole spate of babies born with their lips pursed sideways, bird-calling. But our lives went on like the surface of a lake, rippled by rocks thrown in it, then smoother than ever.
When Burton Laughinghouse finally went away, Glenna Dancy declared, “Oh, he was smug,” and she came to work at my bakery, punching dough down with her hard little fists and letting it rise again. She'd flirt with the boys who came in, all except Ned Page. When he stopped by for a loaf of bread or a napoleon, she'd run through the swinging doors to the kitchen and cry, her face rubbed dusty white by her floury hands.
One day, Ned jumped over the cookie counter, chased her into the kitchen, cornered her against the oven, and said, “Why'd you have such lousy aim?” Glenna tried to duck away from him. She said, “The devil turned that arrow in the air, that's what. Let me away from this oven.” “My dad says I have a long fuse,” Ned said. “It took me ten years to get mad at you.”
“I'm sorry,” Glenna told him. “I feel bad whenever I think about you.” Slowly Ned let her go. “Give me a...” “Kiss,” Glenna said, reaching for him.“—cupcake,” he said, stepping back from her.
She picked up a fresh cupcake from a tray and handed it to him. “I didn't ice those yet,” I called out to them. Ned Page gulped the cupcake and headed for the door. Glenna followed him and said, “You want me to give you one of my eyes? I wish I could.” Ned said, “I wish you could, too.” He went on out the door. It was a bad day to the end. The electricity went off, and the pies turned out runny and raw. In the fridge, milk turned to clabber. “The devil,” Glenna said, putting her apron over her face. “Devil, let me be.” I have in my possession a little booklet of bird songs, actual records made of thin clear plastic. I found the booklet at a used book store, on top of a stack of baseball magazines. You can put the whole thing on your record player and hear bird songs, hear a man narrating them, and that man is Burton Laughinghouse, giving a commentary on the bobolink and the dickcissel, the belted kingfisher and the redwing blackbird. The record was made at the ornithology laboratory of a great university, in a voice that sounds as if Burton Laughinghouse had lost his mind. I picture him flapping his arms and stamping his feet in a soundproof booth. Too late now for him to be my friend. It was too late even then, when Jett and I found ourselves in the long busy dream of a young couple with a child, caught up with waking and working and drawing the shades at night. Once Cherie was asleep, Jett and I would fall asleep too, as fast as falling down, fast as the arrow that Glenna Dancy shot into Ned Page's eye. An accident it was, but the arrow spun toward the innocent eye just as hard as if Glenna had aimed it, a keen sure flight. In an instant, the bowstring stung Glenna's thin arm, whispered a bruise against her skin, and the thing was done‚ rapid as shellfire, quick as my daughter fell from the sky.