Nadine Darling

I met Leigh Puckett’s father the year after her mother left him for a Brazilian hockey instructor, the year after he put all the foil over the windows and started wearing that crash helmet and switched completely to CB lingo.

The house smelled like onion soup, can I say? The powdered mix kind. Just everywhere. I pictured him standing on coffee tables, standing on the overstuffed arms of chairs, just blowing the shit into every corner like confectioner’s sugar.

“How the hell are you?” I said, and shook his hand. It was nothing.

It was nothing to me; he is that one type of guy who had to wash his hands all the time. I followed him into the bathroom and watched him lather up—all the way to the elbows like a surgeon.

“Look here, Little Bear,” he said, “you treat my YL with much respect. She ain’t no two-stool beaver and if she says back off the hammer, you better back off the hammer, or this big bear’s gonna send you to Oldsmobile Heaven faster than you can say Tijuana Taxi—you copy?”

“OK,” I said, and then, softly, “good buddy.”

Later, Leigh told me that you’re not supposed to say “good buddy” anymore, on account of it means homosexual.

“I got people on the inside,” said Mr. Puckett. He turned the water off and laid one soapy hand to the side of my face. “Don’t tense. Don’t feed the bears, copy? Gotta cut the coax come darktime. No Christmas cards or it’s Divorce City.”

“Sure," I said, “sure,” and smiled.

Because, fine. Because, why not? No Christmas cards or it’s Divorce City. Instead of shaking his hand again I gave him the big thumbs up, just like this.

This is what happens when a Puckett Woman leaves you—if you want to know, I’ll let you know.

Leigh’s grandfather, in the wake of her grandmother, spends hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel expenses each year just so he can get a shot at being the loudest, smelliest degenerate on every bus, subway, and train in the world. After Leigh’s Aunt Barbara left Uncle Hector he became best known in these parts as “MF Xmas.” He stands on his front porch every December twenty-fifth in an untied bathrobe and slippers with a bottle of White Lighting, screaming, “Merry fucking Christmas!” over and over until someone finally calls the cops, although by now he’s become such an institution that to do so seems cruel and unusual, like hosing down carolers with urine or setting fire to the giant inflatable Frosty outside of Seaton and Flannagan’s Fine Motors.

You can’t help but admire this town—Puckett refugees lined up like soup kitchen hopefuls, standing on corners, waiting on pick-up trucks or Greyhound salvation, wondering where they can go—what they can get—for two bucks, for three bucks, for a Canadian coin or a Chuck E. Cheese token. All this desperate moon-mewling, shallow beta chest-beating like snapped fingers, all these minds lost but with such élan, such Fosse-esque syncopation, like a Broadway show run by chimps and children.

When Leigh leaves me, I’ve decided, it will be huge, a spectacular pastry-filled double-birthday Superbowl extravaganza of wretchedness. The arrangements have already begun. It will be an event the likes of which bad poets and bad folk singers can barely conceive, so filled with similes and renaissance costumes and candle wax and songs on the radio by Babyface, by The Commodores, by Roberta Flack, by Billy Preston, and I’ll be by myself in a ditch—in a foxhole!—covered in crushed velvet, weeping and comparing my heart in verse to exploding things.

“Maybe I won’t leave you at all,” says Leigh.

Maybe, I think, I will get a condo with Mr. Puckett, maybe something near the ocean, with soundproof walls and some exotic pet that makes you wonder—a squirrel or a mongoose, a parrot that talks dirty, a parrot that talks Spanish. Maybe, I think, I am writing the Night Gallery of my life, a macabre and pointless tale so deeply chiseled in my brain I can almost hear the embittered whiskey and cigarette scrape of a Rod Serling narration.

“Maybe I won’t leave you at all,” says Leigh.

At night I dream of light seeping in through cracks in tin-foil windows, and rubbed-raw hands in faucet water, and the highway—the highway, man, this unraveling gray inlet before me, flat and possible as a palm. I am alone and riding, constellations bright above me like cobweb hieroglyphics, and the language is my own.

I need a radio, right? What I need is a radio.

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