Ricky

Cliff jumping at Tenkiller Lake, August 2011. Photo: Rachel Folmar
Cliff jumping at Tenkiller Lake, August 2011. Photo: Rachel Folmar

A teenager finds himself living in the shadow of his lover’s deceased boyfriend.

Cordell stopped by the gallery to drop off more of their clothes and gather his baseball gear. He parked in back after seeing a shiny black Jaguar in the front driveway and went in the kitchen door. Dina’s mom, Peggy, had tossed him the keys to her car, saying, “Take the Mercedes.” It was December, high-school winter break, but he still had practice every day. He hung up the clothes and hunted through piled-up boxes in the bedroom for his long-sleeved Bulldogs shirt and spikes, while down the hallway he heard Dina explaining the details of one of her dad’s lithographs, that it was a numbered, limited edition which would instantly double in value when the last print sold. That it came wrapped in parchment in a gold-embossed, 100 percent yellow rag folder, with all the papers, also collectible. Matting and framing could be arranged. Her tone was cheerful and businesslike. Being nosy, Cordell crept into the front room and sat behind the desk in the squeaky high-backed swivel chair. Dina sat at the couch with a tall blond lady viewing the Seminole Fisherman litho laid out on the glass coffee table. He could see the colorful squatting figure and the long spear. They both looked up at him, so he smiled apologetically and gave a quick just-me wave so they’d go on with their business. He saw The Fountainhead open facedown next to the phone. Peggy had been pushing him lately to read it, so he picked it up and was astonished to see a drawing of a man and woman in a twisted sexual position that looked like the letter “X.” Different views on facing pages. Over the cover of the book he saw Dina watching him out of the corner of her eye while looking down at the print with the customer. She giggled suddenly, a contained burst as if she were about to laugh hysterically, and the customer laughed, too, apparently thinking they were both amused at something in their conversation. Cordell quickly riffled through the book. Someone had gutted The Fountainhead and inserted The Joy of Sex.

When Cordell looked again, the woman, holding a black leather clutch, was writing a check with a slim gold pen. Dina winked at him over her head. Before leaving, the woman, slipping on her leather gloves, asked if he was an artist, too.

“Not really,” Cordell said. “I try.”

“He’s a friend of the family,” Dina said, smiling, in her mint-green skirt, next to the lady. “He writes for the Chronicle. Goes to school with my little brother. Kind of looks like him, too.”

“A writer?” the woman said, then saw The Fountainhead. She nodded toward it and said, “That’s classic, but kind of difficult—at least it was for me. Don’t mind me saying you look so young. Read it again in ten years.”

Cordell was terrified she would ask to look at it, to read him a passage or something.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “It’s been kind of tough so far.”

“Where’s my baseball shirt?” Cordell asked when the customer left.

“You should have seen your face when you saw that book,” Dina said, laughing, then mocked the open-mouth look. “Wish I had a camera.”

She was behind the desk scribbling in the red-covered ledger.

“Where’s my shirt?”

“How did you get here, anyway?” she said.

“Where did you get that book?”

In a theatrical display Dina covered her eyes with one hand and with the other flipped through the pages, pointed, and said, “There.”

“The Mercedes. Uncle took the truck so I couldn’t bring much stuff,” he said and went to study the framed Seminole Fisherman print hanging on the wall under track lighting. In her father’s graceful and elegant style, the Seminole is squatting in profile, poised in intense concentration, gripping a long, slender, sharply barbed spear. Delicate, wispy palmetto is low on the foreground. The figure is dressed in a purplish-blue turban with flamingo feathers, which match his psychedelic-looking shirt. In the background, three palms sway in a gulf breeze. A pair of slanted, curved fish swim away from the viewer but into the path of the fisherman’s patient gaze. One of the fish is surely doomed. There’s the unmistakable signature in the lower-right corner in angular, fluid script that incorporates a small feather: “Quicksand, 1967,” it read. Jerome died from an accidental gunshot injury later that same year when Dina was five. Seminole Fisherman was his last completed painting. In the seventeen years since, he had become one of the most famous Indian artists in the world, certainly in Oklahoma, where museum curators, collectors, and art historians referred to the “Quicksand style.” She still called him “Daddy.” It struck Cordell that this was the reproduction of the original he and Dina had taken to Tulsa earlier that summer to show buyers who owned an ancient, million-dollar Brookside home. The couple surveyed the painting, which Cordell had propped on their kitchen island under an overhanging lamp, with their hands cupping their chins, mumbling to each other, until ultimately deciding against the $35,000 price tag. Cordell helped wrap it up and stow it in the trunk of her uncle’s Corvette. The original was now hidden somewhere back at their house. All around the walls of the gallery were other limited-edition framed prints and smaller originals by Jerome, and woodcarvings and bronzes of stickball players, owls, and horseheads perched on pedestals.

Dina went to see if he was serious about the Mercedes, and he followed her down the hall. She had been an athletic high-school cheerleader and was still toned with taught thighs and muscled calves. She parted the curtain they had hung on nails the previous day. The Mercedes crouched in back like a jungle cat next to a beige Dempsey Dumpster, shadows swirling on the glassy maroon hood. The three-pointed gold emblem glowed in its silver ring.

“Mom let you take it? That’s good,” Dina said, running her fingers through his hair, then pinching his butt. He playfully swatted her hand but had been hoping she would do that.

He helped her draw drapes and shut and lock doors and flip the “Open” signs to “Closed.” She had her sale for the day.

She stripped her sweater. “Here’s your shirt,” she said.

They had been banished to the gallery after Peggy walked in on them in Dina’s bedroom at her house. Cordell had looked around just in time to see her startled expression and watch her turn and leave the room with a hand hiding her face. Dina pulled the quilt over her head. Only Cordell had been left exposed. Later mother and daughter had a “discussion,” and a day later they began moving their stuff into the gallery, a squat brick house that had been remodeled and rezoned commercial/residential. The sign in front said “Quicksand Gallery.” In the back bedroom, they had placed a mattress on unopened boxes of gilded leather art books about her father, on which they now lay. Now that women’s studies at Northeastern had been a failed experiment, she could run the gallery and give Peggy time to work on another book. 

While they did it he concentrated on the big framed photograph of Ricky in the center of the wall above the bed. Dina, just out of high school, had plans to marry him until he was killed in a wreck with an eighteen-wheeler on an icy interstate highway. Dina told Cordell that there had been no viewing at the funeral. In the photo Ricky’s straight sandy-blond hair feathered in the middle and fell to the shoulders of a powder-blue tux that matched his eyes. A pink boutonniere dotted the left lapel. His lips were parted in a confident half-smile that left a dimpled streak from cheekbone to jutting jaw, and he appeared as if he might have just begun to acknowledge someone with a cool upward nod of his chin. Cordell thought he looked much older than high school; the aquiline nose lent a regal bearing as if he were a famous British rock guitarist or film star. His Adam’s apple wasn’t overly prominent but pronounced in a way that highlighted a muscular, lean neck like a pro wrestler in the lanky, long-haired Eric Von Erich Vein. The picture was one of the first things she had brought from the house, where it had stood atop her bookcase in the bedroom. Cordell felt like he had seen it every day for the past few months.

Her voice always got quiet and serious when she talked about him, there in the dark, unless the topic was something crazy Ricky had done, like a double backflip off Big Daddy.

At night as they lay in bed, Dina sometimes talked about him in a reverential near-whisper and even called him Ricky once. She said she was sorry for that right off, but Cordell didn’t mind. Her voice always got quiet and serious when she talked about him, there in the dark, unless the topic was something crazy Ricky had done, like a double backflip off Big Daddy. They would lay so close he could feel puffs of air on his face when she whispered like that, absentmindedly picking at his sparse chest hair. She never talked about him in the daytime, only at night in bed. 

“Was he ever mean?” Cordell asked once.

“Never. Not even when he got drunk,” she said.

Over a series of nights he learned that Ricky liked to work on hot rods and raced a car Friday nights at Thunderbird Speedway. He was from the small town of Keefton. They had met at a Stevie Ray concert in Tulsa. He hunted deer and fished for catfish. He liked pinball and playing the drums. He would sing “Waiting for a Girl Like You” to her.

Cordell took his eyes off the portrait and watched the pulse on her neck thrum as they tried something from the book called the “Apache Twist,” which he recognized as the contorted maneuver he had seen earlier. Untwisted, he went into the bathroom to shower and turned his back to the long mirror, craning his neck to check her “cat scratches.” Angry red marks angled from his backbone across both shoulders. He faced the mirror and struck a few poses, practicing his Ricky look. He tilted up his chin slightly and said, “What’s up?” a couple times in a deep bass. It didn’t work. His dark hair was short and curly, he had a pug nose, oversized ears from a habit of twisting them when he was a kid, and was skinny. He had no rear to speak of—a girl at school told him that rather than an ass he had a hole in his back.

When he came out of the bathroom Dina said, “Are you talking to yourself?”

“No. I was talking to the mirror. Are you giving us the same amount?”

She was watering two potted ferns along the window sill. She had named them Cordell and Randy. Randy was her gay friend that Cordell was jealous of to the extent that Cordell snuffed cigarettes and poured beer in the Randy plant to kill it or at least stunt its growth because it was outgrowing the Cordell plant and he couldn’t stand it. When Dina discovered this she laughed so hard she pooted, and as usual went around telling everyone the story.

Cordell sat back down on the bed and changed into his workout clothes.

“Come right back after practice,” she said. “We need to go out and bring back some more stuff.”

“Do you just want to take me, then?”

“No, no. I need to open back up.”

She kissed him quickly before he left, saying he looked cute in his baseball outfit. Ricky was always “handsome.”

• 

The clouds had turned oily gray and the wind rattled the antennae that rose automatically when he turned the key. He drove toward the high school carefully, holding the wheel ten-and-two like in driver’s ed, signaled way in advance, and stopped before the imaginary crosswalk at the intersections that didn’t have them, which was one of the reasons he flunked his first driver’s test. He took it in the Corvette and knew he was going to fail when he goosed it taking off, snapping the trooper’s head back and jamming his Smokey Bear hat down over his face. He wondered how teammates would react when they saw him driving the Mercedes—or anything, for that matter. He was always riding the bus, or getting rides home after practice until he’d moved in with Dina. He’d known her cousin, Chris, since they were kids in Knothole baseball. That summer they went to Lake Tenkiller checking out the cliffs, three or four carloads of them. They were at Pure Hell. The other two popular cliffs farther up the inlet were Big Momma and Big Daddy. But Pure Hell was the highest and most hellacious, and Cordell had never worked himself up to jump off of it, as he had the other two. You climbed over a locked gate to get to it and ignored the warning sign about how many people had been killed there in jumping-diving incidents. Their friend Fat Jack had just jumped. Fighting vertigo, Cordell peered over the edge as Jackie fell knife-straight with his hair flying above him, hands covering his crotch. Just before he reached the surface he drew his knees to his chest and struck with an explosion like a muffled cannon shot, a heavy thump! that sprayed up a white fountain of water which hung still at its apex, then splashed back down. No way, Cordell thought again, turning to go back to the car. Chris, who had been watching with him, grabbed a fistful of Cordell’s shirt, yanked, and leapt. Flying through the air, they both yelled, windmilling their arms and scissoring their legs. It seemed that he would never hit, and when he did an icy pain shot up his leg at the ankle. After emerging from the cold bottom into the sunlight gasping for air and dog-paddling to the rocks, he found that he couldn’t put weight on his foot.

The other two popular cliffs farther up the inlet were Big Momma and Big Daddy. But Pure Hell was the highest and most hellacious, and Cordell had never worked himself up to jump off of it, as he had the other two.

Chris helped him back up the arduous route—made doubly precarious by his injury—and Dina, who watched it all, slung his arm around her shoulder and led him, hopping, to her Ramcharger, released the tailgate, and helped him into the back. She scooped ice from the cooler into a plastic bag and rested it on his swollen ankle. She told him she’d had dozens of sprains from cheerleading and that it would be okay. Her breasts strained out while she bent over and applied the ice while everyone yelled and splashed at the cliff. He saw Chris and Jackie jump over again. He had always seen Dina around, sometimes at their games in years past, but she had never paid much attention to him. Back then, he was probably in junior high and she was already in college. She told him he should ride back to town with her instead of climbing back into Chris’s car. At home, she helped him out of the truck, her hair silky under his arm around her shoulder, and him leaning on her harder than needed. Sitting on a stool with his foot between her legs, she carefully took off his sock and shoe and wrapped his ankle in flesh-colored gauze, whipping it over and up and around his foot several times. Looking down, her dark hair had fallen around her face. She squeezed and asked him if it was too tight then propped his leg on a pillow on the stool and set a fresh bag of ice on the wrap. He watched her breasts again. She kissed him on the cheek. He felt like a king. No one had ever shown him so much attention before—maybe a nurse when he’d twisted his knee when he was a kid.

After that, they were joined at the hip. All his time was free after baseball season until school, and there were no games to cover for the paper. He went with her every day to the gallery, to Tulsa to sell art, camping, grocery shopping, fishing at Hopewell Park, where she caught a bass she didn’t know how to clean. At Safeway, she went up and down the aisles indiscriminately throwing things into the cart, barely looking at items twice. He snuck into bars with her, and if he got ID’d he sit out in the truck and wait on her. One day they went to his grandparents’ house in the country, and he grabbed a bunch of clothes and stuffed them in a garbage bag. His grandma thought it was a great idea.

“There’s nothing out here for him anyway,” she’d said, and helped him pack as if he were moving overseas instead of fifteen miles on the other side of the county.

At first, they’d crash anywhere in the big house: in the library on the thick carpet if they were reading to each other, in her sister’s room upstairs if they were watching movies, by the fireplace in the den, in the game room where they shot pool all night. Peggy never questioned anything until walking in on them that night. They had fallen asleep on the big lounge chairs by the pool while looking for shooting stars and went into her bedroom for the first time. He wasn’t a virgin but may as well have been. The only other time he’d been drunk and the girl kept crying afterward for no apparent reason. Not sobbing uncontrollably, but steady sniffling and wiping tears with her jacket cuff. They had parked on a dirt road in Uncle’s pickup and managed the act there on the seat. He remembered handing the girl tissue as he drove her home, but it was probably square napkins from a McDonald’s sack. It was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Some players were milling around in the parking lot bundled up in jackets, hopping to keep warm, when they saw him pull into the lot outside the gym. He heard their centerfielder, Clyde, say, “Is that Candyfire?”

“No way!”

“Candyfire!” Clyde yelled, and gave him the Hendrix Salute, pumping his fist with the index and pinky fingers extended.

“Hendrix!” the others yelled, then yapped like hounds. Their team’s mascot was the Bulldog. Their field was the Dawg Pound. Their chant was “Bow-wow-wow yippy-yo yippy-yay.”

With the sharp, biting wind it was too cold outside so they practiced in the gym where batting nets and the pitching machine had been set up on the concourse. It would be a fairly easy practice, lounging around waiting to hit while the wrestlers, wearing layers of hooded sweats, continually ran laps. Each time they went by their backs were even more stained with perspiration. On the shiny honey-yellow parquet below, boys’ basketballers scrimmaged, punctuated by coaches’ whistles, shouts, and squeaking of shoes. A sneering, cockeyed bulldog wearing a spiked collar was painted at midcourt. Nearby, the pitching machine’s tires whirred and thumped when the ball shot out, and there was either the loud whanging of aluminum if a batter connected, or a soft shuffling if the green nets caught it. Nearing his turn, Cordell took off his shirt to change into a tank top.

“Goddam, what happened to your back?” Clyde shouted, then instantly there was a gaggle of players hustling over to look.

Cordell stopped midway through pulling down his tank so they could all get a look. He said he scraped it helping his grandpa cut wood.

“Bullshit. Look like some bitch tore your ass up!” Clyde said and went stomping off laughing, telling everyone. “Whoo hoo! Pussy be tearing him up!”

Clyde stuck his black bat between his legs, caressing it, hopping along acting like he was whipping a galloping horse. Everyone laughed and pointed at him.

After Cordell took his swings, practice was cut short when the athletic director showed up saying there was a storm moving in and everyone needed to get home, they were closing the gym. Clyde was the first one to ask him for a ride home, issuing the Hendrix Salute as they pulled out, happy as hell to be riding in the Benz. It began to drizzle rain and turned dark after he dropped him off on 17th Street. He had to stop at a convenience store and fiddle with dashboard knobs and wheels to find controls to the lights, heater, and wipers. On the way to the gallery the wind blew so hard it buffeted the car. Unlike his grandpa’s Buick, which had a steering wheel that swung wildly back and forth, just a slight nudge would turn the Mercedes.

Dina was at the window wearing sweats and another one of his baseball shirts, smoking a Virginia Slim when he came into the bedroom. She must be drinking beer or worried about something, Cordell thought.

“I thought you went back and left me here,” she said, tapping ash in a turtle-shell ashtray. 

“They let us go early. I took someone home.”

He looked at her carefully but she hadn’t been drinking.

“It’s supposed to sleet or some shit,” she said. “Maybe we shouldn’t go. I called Mom.”

They stretched out on the bed and Dina picked up her Gloria Steinem book from the lamp table. The TV was on, but the sound off. A redheaded weatherman was pointing with a wand of some sort to a radar image that had a dotted sweeping line like the second hand on a watch. Every time the line made a revolution the image changed slightly. Concentric lines formed a bull’s-eye on Muskogee County. Dina rubbed his back and he flinched. He took off his shirt to show her.

“Did I do that? I’m sorry,” she said in her baby voice and kissed up and down the abrasions. They started doing it again and he was glad it was regular this time as the Apache Twist felt kind of stupid. Maybe they hadn’t done it right. She fell asleep as if drugged as soon as they finished, regular as medicine, and he got up and ate a cold pizza slice, washing it down with Mountain Dew. He lay down beside her listening to the wind gust and the rain patter and soon fell asleep too. He dreamt of white wolves howling under pink sunlight in the Arctic, and then they were scratching at the window glass.

As he awoke the scratching became sleet pecking at the window. He raised up on an elbow, feeling like he was still dreaming, but Dina snoring lightly beside him snapped him out of it. A strand of her hair had hooked over her mouth and drew in and out. Wind blew hard suddenly, delivering a spray that slashed across the windows and showered the roof. The lamp in the corner and the kitchen light both flickered out and the fridge motor clattered and went silent. The radio quit, and only when it stopped did he realize that it had been on. Thunder shook the house and Dina woke up. She hugged him tight, they lay quiet, listening to sounds that came plainly now: gusts soaring through trees; branches scraping the house; ice crunching as a car sped by on the street outside the window—too fast, it seemed. Cordell heard her swallow. His eyes adjusted and began to make out the form of the curtains, the TV, the picture frame above the bed. The walls seemed to contract and crack every so often, and over all this came a distant deep rattling like a slow drumroll. He felt her sigh as his arm rose and fell on her back. He was about to ask her how long she thought it would last when she sniffled heavily as if she was catching a cold and was congested. It took a moment to realize she had been crying. It alarmed him; he had never seen her cry. She was always in charge, the center of attention, calling all the shots. He told her everything would be okay, but his voice sounded loud and like a lie in the silence. She shook her head. He wondered what he had done to her to make her cry. He rubbed inside her thigh and tickled the spot behind her ear, beginning the things that usually got her going, but she just lay there with her face in the covers.

“What’s wrong?” he said in a conspiratorial, hushed tone.

She shook her head.

“Come on,” he said.

“You wouldn’t understand,” she said, patting him on the back.

This angered him, but he held it in, propped himself on an elbow, and tried to meet her eyes. She was talking out of the side of her mouth, face still buried in blankets. He leaned and kissed her on the cheek, tasted the salt in her tears, smelled the cigarette smoke in her hair.

“It’s the ice and all, the winter, I never can handle it.”

“What about it?”

“Ricky,” she said.

“Yeah?”

Sleet raked the glass again. He waited for her to continue. She turned to face him and again her mouth was near his ear.

“It’s Ricky,” she said quietly, as if Ricky was close enough to overhear. “It was me he was on his way to see when he wrecked. Sideswiped by the semi. It was a night like this.”

He was glad it wasn’t something he had done. Impulsively he looked up at the photo, but all he could make out was the frame and a dull shine around the middle of the glass.

“I told him not to come that day. Even if he made it out of town he wouldn’t have made it up all the hills and curves to the house.”

Her voice had evened out and she had quit crying, which relieved him. She seemed to feel better the more she talked about it. She’d never cried about Ricky before in front of him, and he sensed it came from some part of her she’d never delved into.

“You know Ricky, he wouldn’t listen. Bullheaded. I kept waiting and waiting and measured out the time that it would take him, even with him going way slow, till it was long past and I called his house. Their phone was out. The storm. I’m glad you don’t mind me telling you this.”

She pecked him on the cheek again. It took a second to realize the last sentence was directed at him. He was picturing Ricky in sunglasses in a throaty fire-engine-red T-Bird, blond hair flapping out the window even though it was winter, racing through snow and ice, professionally veering in and out of eighteen-wheelers.

“Me and Mom went to the wrecker yard to see the car. Something I had to do that I wish I hadn’t of now.”

In the resigned sigh that followed Cordell thought he heard the tone of submission. She got up and sparked another cigarette at the window and they shared it. He felt sorry for her, wished he could make her forget it all or something. Like he felt the time she caught a bad cold, and he wished he could have been sick for her, waiting on her around the clock, boiling soup, spooning her cough syrup, massaging her feet, reading her Stephen King. She lit a candle and set it on the windowsill; the orange flame wavered then straightened into a thin line. They got back under the covers. He tried to make her forget.

They awoke when the sun, shattering off all the ice and snow, gushed in, lacquered the room with light. Their breath steamed in front of them because the furnace had shut off with the electricity. They dressed and went outside, Dina wearing his sunglasses and Cordell squinting. He looked all around, shielding his eyes, trying to take it all in at once. The sun glared in the bright blue sky, and fat icicles descended from the eaves on the east side of the house, a dozen or so, all in a line, sharp as picks at their bottoms. Smaller ones hung like rows of fangs from street signs. Ice was thick on the roads, in parts seemingly frozen mid-splash, like sculpture, and coated everything: branches, power lines, wires. Its transparency magnified these objects slightly, dazzling the eye. A pickup rumbled by slowly, tire chains slapping a rhythm. The wind gusted and flakes flew off the trees and drifted around them, like someone had shaken a desk paperweight. Dina pointed, said look. A cardinal, siren-red against all the snow and ice, chittered a quick series of calls inside an evergreen, loud and piercing in the frozen air. It looked like it had a Mohawk hairdo with its swooped-back crest. It fluttered and hopped to a lower branch, knocking a little pile of snow onto its crown. The bird let it sit there until rattling its head fiercely, shaking it off. They both laughed. “Cute little thing,” she said and threw a snowball at Cordell, which he ducked.

Ricky’s photograph eventually came down; he couldn’t remember exactly when, but one day that spring he realized it wasn’t there.

Ricky’s photograph eventually came down; he couldn’t remember exactly when, but one day that spring he realized it wasn’t there. Dina and Randy were sitting cross-legged in front of the TV watching a rerun of Soap, their favorite show. Randy needed glasses and had to sit close, and Dina liked watching it with him so she could reach over and punch him on the arm playfully when something was funny. Cordell had softened on Randy after a time. He did a lot of things for them, ran errands, and watched the gallery if Dina needed him. At least he was someone she could talk books with. Cordell was on the bed finishing the real Fountainhead, finally, under lamplight. It had taken months. The heroine’s sporty roadster is smashed in an explosion and described, and instantly Cordell thought of Ricky, of his demolished car at the salvage yard. He looked up for the photo. It wasn’t on the wall behind the bed or on the bookcase. He looked in both bathrooms and all around the room, even in the closet. He was a breath away from asking her about it when on the show a woman appears at a dance in obvious disguise, wearing a fedora and a handlebar moustache, and Dina and Randy laughed, and she looked back at him, pointing at the TV, eyes sparkling from the screen reflection. She seemed in such a happy mood. He decided not to bother her with the question then, or ever. He was sure she had put it away somewhere safe.

San Diego

Eddie Chuculate (Creek/Cherokee) is the author of the story collection Cheyenne Madonna (Black Sparrow Press, 2010) and a winner of the O. Henry Prize. He held a Wallace Stegner creative writing fellowship at Stanford University and graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts. He later earned a master’s of fine arts degree at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.