MARCO ETHERIDGE - CLARA'S TOON
Life would be so much easier if I were a cartoon character. It wouldn’t matter if I were a duck, a rabbit, or even a little mouse; I would be indestructible and perpetually cheerful. The mouse is probably the best idea, since I already have the name: Michael White. Most folks call me Mickey.
The world bounces off of the Toon, or the Toon bounces off of the world. Either way, I want in. Drop a ten-ton Acme safe on me, and I just peel myself up off the sidewalk. Go ahead, blast me with an over-sized stick of dynamite. I disappear in a huge explosion, but when the smoke clears, I’m still standing. Aside from the grimy face and mussed-up hair, I’m ready for the next gag.
There are other benefits to Toon-ness beyond surviving heavy objects dropped from high places. When a Toon gets angry, there is no doubt what’s going on with her. Steam shoots out of her ears, or she turns beet red. Break a Toon’s heart, and he weeps great fountains of tears, enough tears to cause a flood. Cartoon characters don’t have to hold anything back. They never have to hide anything, never have to protect anyone from anger, or loss, or pain. What I wouldn’t give to be able to throw myself on the ground, screaming and kicking, without everyone else going to pieces. But just try that if you’re the one everyone is looking to for the next hard decision. Go ahead, just try it.
I first met my Clara when she was in nursing school. We met by accident, literally bumping into each other at a coffee shop. I liked her name as soon as I heard it. I liked the old fashioned ring of it, and I liked the pretty young woman that was attached to that name. Clara liked me right off too, I could tell. Early on, maybe ten dates into our courtship, she came by the welding shop where I worked. It was a surprise visit, so I had no chance to clean myself up. There I was in my old welding leathers, grimy as a blacksmith, welding hood down. My boss’s gravelly voice cut through the crackle of the electric arc.
“Hey Mickey, hood up. Cute girl in the shop, says she’s looking for you. Can’t imagine why, but that’s what the pretty lady says.”
Henry, the old man that was my boss back then, he was a tough old cob. That first time she met him, Clara charmed the old boy like a snake. He never knew what hit him.
So there I was, just standing there looking stupid. I had a slag hammer dangling from my hand, and my welding hood tilted up on my head. Clara looked me up and down, smiling that crooked smile of hers. When I think back on it, I believe that was the moment I fell for her; just utterly and completely fell for her. She saw me for who I was, without the benefit of a shower and a clean shirt. She saw that, and stayed around to see more.
We dated all that spring, while our folks sat on the sidelines and tried to keep quiet. In the due course of things, I proposed to Clara and she accepted me. Both families heaved a huge collective sigh of relief. It seemed as if we were meant to be; a straight, clear path for the two of us. Her family liked me, my family adored her. Everyone was happy. More important, we were happy, Clara and I. We had our whole lives ahead of us. It’s funny, but people really believe that. They believe that there will be time for everything: Time for kids, for raising a family, time for growing old together. I guess it’s a hopeful promise, so it attracts belief. We choose to believe in the promise of enough time, but promises are fragile things, and easily broken.
Clara and I were never what you would call two peas in a pod. I suppose it’s the differences that made us so good together. She was the joker, the prankster; I’m the quiet one. Her hippie parents raised her up sort of wild, but she ended up a good Buddhist with a huge heart. My folks are Unitarians, thoughtful people looking to do good in the world. It might seem like a lot of scattered parts, but join all of those pieces together and they formed something solid and whole.
It’s easy to say things were good with us, but that’s the truth. We weren’t rich, that’s for sure, but we were careful enough with our money to get by. Her folks and my folks kicked in enough to get us a down payment on an old house out on the edge of town. The place had a half-ruined barn out back. I turned that old timber hulk into a proper welding shop and started up my own business. My old boss didn’t have any hard feelings about it. In fact, Henry took to sending his overflow work my way.
Clara finished nursing school and got her first job as a licensed nurse. After that, we could afford to go out to eat now and then, not having to count every penny. I was bringing in enough welding work to pull my half of things. When Clara was working the evening or night shift, I’d stay late out in the shop. That was when I did my extra work as I called it, stuff I was just doing for myself. Clara would appear in the door of the shop, dead tired from a long shift. She would yell so I could hear her from under my welding hood.
“Mickey, I’m home. Hood up, time to call it a night.”
Clara always had something positive to say. She called my weird creations sculptures. She did it often enough that even I started seeing them that way. Those tangles of welded steel scraps weren’t sculpture in even the broadest sense of the word, but her calling them that had the power to make me believe.
It was Clara that sold my first piece, as she called it. The thing was a sort of combined wind chime and sundial, ugly as sin to my eye. It looked a bit like the Eiffel Tower would if Godzilla had taken a trip to Paris. That’s what I told Clara, too, but she just laughed. The folks that bought it gave her two hundred dollars. It was poverty wages for the hours I had into the thing, but it made me so proud.
Things went on like that. Our life together was busy, as married life can be. Clara managed to squeeze in more classes to become a Registered Nurse. I did regular welding work to pay the bills, and sold a few of my weird yard art pieces on the side. Weekends, if Clara wasn’t working, we had family dinners. Our folks took it in turns to host, giving us a break from cooking meals at odd hours.
Living our life in rotating shifts kept things in sharp focus. Our routine was constantly changing, so we learned to change with it. We grabbed our moments like we were snatching them from a spinning wheel of fortune; capturing a piece of time before that wheel stopped spinning.
There was breakfast for dinner and dinner for breakfast. Our love-making came when it could, whether the sun was rising, setting, or high in the sky. After a few embarrassments, folks paying a call learned to give a lot of warning if they saw both our rigs in the driveway.
My Clara had a sharp tongue on her, that’s true. She loved to tease, like I said, but she generally stopped short of hurt. A couple of times it went too far for me, but she saw it right off and made it right. I would gladly give up everything in this world to hear her voice chastising me, and see that crooked smile giving her away.
I remember her words, something she said as we lay tangled on the bed. Cicadas were buzzing out in the morning heat. She shook that mane of auburn hair out of her face, turned her bright eyes on me.
“You know Mickey, the longer I am with you, the more the past shrinks. I really have to think hard to remember a time when you weren’t here, when we weren’t us.”
I think I muttered something about us not being an old married couple just yet. She gave me a poke in the ribs for my trouble.
“No, Mickey, that’s not what I mean. I know there’s a past, and I know there’s a future. It’s just that this thing, right here, right now, it’s crazy powerful. Us, naked in our own bed, it pushes the past and future so far out to the horizon, I can barely see them.”
As it turns out, my beautiful Clara was only half right. The future wasn’t anywhere near the horizon. It was a lot closer than that.
There were times when Clara would not rein in her sharp tongue. If she saw someone doing an injustice, whether to human or animal, she would call them out on it in short order. I swear, that woman could put the force of an avenging angel into her words. I’ve seen her do it, and more than once.
That’s how we ended up with Taft and Tom, two of the ugliest dogs on the planet. Not that they aren’t good dogs, because they are. It’s just that whatever combination of mongrel genes formed them, they turned out real ugly. You couldn’t get two uglier dogs if you tried.
Clara found them as new-born puppies, abandoned on the side of the road. She was coming home from a late shift at the new hospital out on the edge of town. She caught a glimpse of them in the headlights, two drenched little balls mewing and whining in the rain. There were sharp words on her tongue that night, I can tell you. She dumped her good coat on the kitchen table, opening it up to show me those two wet, muddy puppies. The whole time she was steadily intoning curses on whoever was heartless enough to abandon the poor things. Those two mutts have been with us ever since.
Our world wasn’t like those store-bought greeting card poems, with their syrup and empty words. For Clara and me, love was a tornado tearing the hell out of corn fields, or a summer hail storm, powerful things beyond human reason. Certainly beyond my human reason, and that was just fine with me.
I fell for her real early on, like I said, and I fell for her hard. But as our life together went on, I came to love my wife for exactly who she was, even on the hardest of days. That was a revelation to me; something completely different from what I saw in the movies and such. I realized that my ideal of Clara, and the real Clara, they were one and the same. That shook me, let me tell you. I carry that love with me even now, a molten alloy of all our moments together.
I told you that my folks are Unitarians, which they still are. I don’t know how that is possible, after what’s happened, but it seems to be true. They taught me that everyone is someone, that every human being is worthwhile in some way. How that translates to the hate-filled bastard that shot my wife, I do not know.
Clara wasn’t even supposed to be there in that parking lot, that’s the thing. She was on her way home from the hospital, still wearing her scrubs, the ones with the cartoon coyote and roadrunner that the kids like so much. Clara stopped at the welding supply store, thinking she would surprise me with a gift. There was a set of metal files I had my eye on, but I was dithering over the cost. The paramedics found those files laying beside her.
No, my Clara wasn’t supposed to be there, and the hateful killer wielding that pistol wasn’t even shooting at her. He was shooting at an old married couple, two innocent folks out doing their shopping. He killed them for the sole reason that they were black. He was White, they were Black, and for that he murdered them in cold blood. The monster never set eyes on those poor people before he killed them. Grandparents they were, shot dead by a complete stranger.
How is such a thing possible? Answer me that, because I need an answer. The police are calling it a hate crime, but that doesn’t come close to explaining the thing, not even close. How do you explain pure evil come to life?
One of those bullets hit my Clara in the head. It didn’t kill her outright, but it killed her all the same. The ambulance took her to the same hospital she worked at. She is there now, hooked up to machines that breathe for her, and tubes that feed her. The doctor told me that she was gone. Her body was still here, but my Clara was gone. There was nothing they could do. The doc was fighting tears hard and losing, knowing Clara like he did. The nurses Clara worked with, they didn’t even try to fight the tears. I wept with them, cold and numb and stumbling.
A week has passed since that terrible phone call. I’ve heard folks talk about having premonitions, but I had no such thing. It was just the phone ringing on a normal afternoon on a normal day. I raised the receiver to my ear and heard that official voice, a voice from the icy depths of nightmares. The words that voice spoke shattered my entire world into broken shards, splintered fragments that scattered around my feet.
The evening has gone to night. I can hear the crickets out behind the shop. I am sitting at our kitchen table, a cone of light falling over me from the old-fashioned fixture Clara loved so much; loves so much I mean. Taft and Tom on the floor beside my chair. They don’t understand what is happening, and I cannot explain it to them anymore than I can explain it to myself. The dogs get up, nuzzle my hand, then prowl the house looking for Clara. When they cannot find her, they settle back beside my chair, whimpering softly.
The family has gone home now, after hours of talking it all out one last time. They didn’t want to leave me alone, but I insisted. I needed the air to be real again, to be breathable. When that living room filled up with family, hers and mine, I swear the air turned to brittle glass. It cut my lungs every time I tried to suck it in. I thought it would be better with them gone, but now that grief-laden air is suffocating me.
Grief has a keen edge to it, whetted sharp and honed fine. Folks tell me that it dulls as the time passes, but I don’t believe them. Those are just the empty words people use because there is nothing else to say.
This night, my grief for Clara cuts like a razor. It cut right through the whole of the families too, cut them while we talked about Clara, and Clara’s wishes, trying to decide what was best. We spoke our thoughtful words, listened, nodded, and were sliced to ribbons.
We talked about the terrible decision we had to make, and all the while grief swirled around that room, dancing and chanting. I saw it, a painted savage thing that howled and prowled the circle of our families. I think they all saw it as well, but pretended not to. They tried to drown those horrible howls with their quiet voices.
I don’t know how I made it through those two long hours, bearing the unbearable weight of holding everyone together. Right there, at the end, I felt my body start to rise from my chair, rising to join that howling monster’s horrible dance. Then everyone was on their feet, embracing, murmuring, shuffling to the door.
That naked dancer threw a look over its shoulder. I will be back, that’s what the look said. When I have done with these others, I will be back. I will always be with you; all the rest of the days you have. My bond to you is a promise that only death can break.
When the house was empty, I walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table. I’ve done all that I can.
The night is well on now. It is just me and the dogs. They shift their eyes up to look at me, lay a paw over my foot, but I ignore them. The house is so still I think I can hear it breathing, exhaling the last of our life together. Tomorrow, the families will meet at the hospital. We will say what words we have to say, even though Clara won’t hear them. We will gather around her, hold her hands, touch her shoulders, our flesh on the last of her flesh. Then the doctors will shut down the machines. We will let Clara go forever, and my life will go with her.
It is after midnight when the dogs follow me out to the shop. The yard light shines through the shop windows; just enough light to see by. Taft and Tom settle on their blanket by the door. They don’t mind the dark. The naked dancer doesn’t mind the dark either. I know he is coming back for me, and soon. I believe his promise. I have to do something, anything, whatever I can to hold him off. Once I join his mad dance, I know I will never be able to stop.
I step up to my heavy assembly table. The inch-thick plate steel top is blue-black in the darkness. I pick up a three-pound engineers hammer. The short handle torques against the muscles of my right hand, the weight of the hammer real and tangible. I set my left hand flat on the steel of the table, feel the cold hard metal under my palm. All I have to do is raise the hammer and swing it down, smashing all of those fine, bird-like bones. After all, it’s only a cartoon hand. Everything will just pop right back the way it was.