George had been touched by The Hand of God—the same hand that would guide him from a lean-to in Shreveport to a trench in southern Italy in 1917—and back.
Trouble hit his soul when time came to tell Lucille. He was twenty and loved her more than he’d ever loved anyone. When he said, “I’m leaving for war,” she dropped her face in her large left hand. He put his hand on her knee, covered by the hem of her peach-colored dress. She let her right hand fall atop his. They sat for moments until she said with clearness that surprised him, “You want to go out back? To the shed? It’s cool back there.” They walked from porch to shed without touch or look. Both felt electric and loved the stillness of their quiet love. He opened the door for her. She surveyed the room and searched for a place to sit. No, she thought, a place to lay. George thought how right she was. This shed was the coolest shed he’d ever entered, and Lucille was the tallest, most beautiful woman in the world.
Lucille could not find a place long enough to stretch her legs, so she stood against the wall next to the door, and squatted to match height with George, who walked so slowly toward her she almost ran away. She wondered what had come over her to invite him to the shed, tempting him with how cool it was. But it was too late. She’d felt the devil in her thigh, and he was climbing up to her mouth. The only way to get him out of her was to let George in, so soon as he finally walked to her standing-tall body she grabbed him so quick it frightened and excited them both. Before either could say I love you, the clank of George’s metal belt buckle hit the floor and resounded in the otherwise silent shed, and her cotton bloomers fell. George was the perfect gentleman as he gathered her dress above her hips in one hand and steadied himself against the door with the other. She grasped skin at the small of his back and found her rhythm as George found his. His tongue tickled the sweat on her neck. This is worth every moment he’ll be gone, Lucille thought. And she would marry him. Who else could give her this wide pleasure and leave her to feel so unashamed, half naked and panting in the damp, cool shed?
They were there no more than twenty minutes, but it felt like days when finally, with his hand still clutching her dress, George said thank you and she said thank you, and they said you welcome at the same time, almost with the same breath. He kissed her open mouth slowly, as if being paid to kiss her at that searching, aching pace. They would have found each other again if Lucille had not quickly remembered her parents would be home soon. They gathered themselves and left. The musk of their love merged with the mustiness of the shed and its rusty tools. Lucille looked in his face and said, “I can’t see you away, but I’ll see you when you get home, and George, I aim to be your wife.” He kissed her cheek and walked toward the road. Lucille’s ripe, feminine scent was on his fingers and in his nostrils, all around him, mingling with the high grass he touched as he passed through the field.
Three days after the shed, George was dressed in army green. When it was time to leave, his mother wept and said bless you ten times. His father shook his hand and gripped him tightly on the shoulder then put a worn Bible in his hands, bookmarked with the scripture, No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. George memorized it and believed in his heart. There could be no other life than survival, no other peace than Lucille’s arms open to love him.
During the war, George dodged what bewildered or scared him with his imagination. His mission was to put the dead in the ground. Bullet holes and bloody limbs. Eyes open, eyes closed. Mouths wide, mouths zipped. A no-mouth where a mouth was supposed to be. Because the government had determined his brown skin meant he was born inadequate, they had put a shovel in his hand instead of a rifle. His life could be snatched by enemy fire while he dug graves. He needed the lie of things to drape hope around his life, so he split his mind into parts.
He stood over graves and fought the voices of the dead that sounded as serpents and cicadas in his ears. Young, dead white men hissed that if their lives were worth nothing, how much less was his? Stay here, in the bottom of the grave, they’d say, until the dark of night turns into the dark of death, until you suffocate on quenchless aloneness and the deep despair of being forgotten, until hunger wears your belly down and thirst drives you mad. Then die, nigger. Die.
He longed to kill them all over again. Strangle their necks. Bear-hug their middles and squeeze until their guts burst. Shove their own fists down their dry throats. That was one part of his mind. He called it BlackWish. He had been set ablaze in Shreveport more times than he could remember with desire to deaden a white face that had called him a hurtful name or made him feel like the lowest of low. Although he would dare not lose his temper and strike a white man or woman who humiliated him—for that would have cost his life—he often dreamed of it.
But compassion won out. He invented stories about the dead to remind himself that he was human. This part of his mind was called StoryLand. He blessed the dead with loving parents and decided which ones were an only child and which had siblings. Some liked ice cream while others loved bread slathered with butter. An especially tall boy with big hands was a good runner. Another could hunt.
Mindless was the part of his brain that dug, dug, and dug as if Lucille was at the bottom of that pit, and the sooner he got to her, he could grab tightly to her hand, close his eyes, and they’d be home again, back in the shed. He’d shake himself from fantasy. While burying the dead, he could take a fatal bullet and never see his twenty-first birthday.
ByeGeorge was the part of him that faced the possibility that he would not survive. Every few days, he would stand tall in the mouth of a grave and hold a memorial for himself. He removed his hat and held it tightly in his hands. He remembered all the people he’d loved and all who loved him. George was a good man, a faithful son, and he sought to do right by everybody. He loved a tall, pretty girl named Lucille. He did not want to leave this life, but God called him on. He served his country by laying boys in the ground. He is gone but not forgotten. He hummed a bit of a hymn, wiped tears before they fell, and dug.
After eighteen months of death and its taste in his mouth, George returned home. The constant fear of death and splitting his mind into pieces to keep sane had changed him. He could no longer sleep at night and memories of dead bodies and flung parts wanted the last of his sanity. He thought he’d tell Lucille he wasn’t right. What if she left him for being weak? His suffering prevented him to peer inside her and see that she knew how tortured he was, for it showed even in his smile. But she did not bring it up so as not to shame him. She bore it in her heart as she bore all things nailed there. He told his parents who listened but did not know what to say. They took him to church and asked the preacher to lay hands on him. George felt better than he had in months. But he knew he’d need a whole mind to stay delivered and part of him was still across the water, in several trenches, talking to the dead, all at once and with many tongues. So the effects of the preacher’s prayer only lasted a little while, for George felt so much affliction that he could not pray for himself. But there was another part of him that was wide open: Lucille, a sparkle amidst the gray haze. He’d lean on her, and she’d see him through.
They married in 1920, in a wide field in Plain Dealing, thirty miles from Shreveport. There were wooden tables covered with white cloths, filled with smothered chicken, ham steaks, white rice, black-eyed peas, corn on the cob, collard greens, biscuits, and corn muffins. On a smaller table off to the side was a large vanilla sheet cake with white icing made from whipped butter and sugar, decorated with daises to match Lucille’s bouquet. George was stately and looked almost tall in his uniform. Lucille wore a plain beige dress with lace on the sleeves that she had made with her mother. Her limbs were broad, and her body was trim. George liked the way it felt to wrap his arm around her firm waist as family and friends greeted them after the ceremony. He grinned wide and felt happy. Lucille smiled a little bit and slightly pushed her right hip into George. They sweat through their clothes from the heat of the day and from the heat below their bellies. They wanted to be away from all these folks who said to their faces how much taller Lucille was than George, but that they looked right for each other. George and Lucille smiled politely and thought dreamily of their bed. They danced when it was time to dance, laughed at jokes about what would happen when they got home, and nibbled cake from each other’s fingertips.
While the men in the family worked to build a place for them up the road, the best place to lay their heads for the time being was the shed, where they had first loved. George and Lucille’s father had fixed the shed up, even put it in a vanity for Lucille. There was a bed, made up beautifully by Lucille’s mother, who covered it with heavy quilts and pillows. Another corner housed a stove and a shelf with white towels. Nearby was a tin tub for baths. The sky was pitch black when they arrived at the door after midnight.
“You gone carry me, George, or make me walk?”
“You bigger than me, girl! How you imagine I’m gone carry you?”
“You gone carry me or not? Don’t you want to do things proper now that we married?”
The sound of her voice and the memory of their first time sent a pleasing shiver over his body. He had an erection and would not disappoint his new wife, so he let out a yelp and hoisted her over his back. He made it to the bed and dumped her there. The melody of their laughter filled the shed-turned-shack. Their clothes were heavy with sweat, and their bodies had not been fresh since the morning. George eased her clothes down and kissed Lucille from high on the hip to the curve of her big toe—a holy creation to be worshipped. Each kiss was a vow that as long as he had her to pour his soul in, he would be well. Lucille, in turn, used her wide hands to touch George beneath and above each pebble of his body, like a treasure she had lost. At first entry, George saw the dead eyes of the boys he’d buried flung open. He killed their menacing tongues again and again each time he moved deeper inside Lucille. She could barely keep up with his furious movement, but she found a way as she rotated her lower body in tight, swift circles and wrapped George in a spun web.
During the first few months, Lucille loved the attention George gave, like the sly way he’d tickle her legs with a dishcloth while she fried eggs or use a finger to stroke the exposed skin of her foot as he relaxed his head on her lap. Lucille might be hanging clothes to dry, enjoying the rise of the day, and George would appear with a flirtatious smile and chase after her until she fell in the grass. With her plain ways and what she thought were plain looks, Lucille was more grateful for George’s devotion than she let on.
In the afternoon, when they took a break from building the house where he and Lucille would live, he’d tell her father he was going home for lunch. He’d arrive, hungry and damp, unclothe Lucille and look down at her, his mouth open, like she was a star. Then he’d touch her all over until she begged, as if he had not interrupted her housekeeping, as if she and not he bore the urgent need to be filled. At night, George moved Lucille every which way, turning her on and turning her out. When they finished, Lucille lay in the center of the quilts, steamy and stunned, like someone who’d been flown high into the air, dropped, then recovered moments before she hit the ground.
They sipped coffee early in the morning. Soft, white light passed through the open door where George stood. Lucille felt the words shape inside her like jewels she was holding tightly. Her cup trembled in her hand as she thought of what she would say to her husband. The jam on her toast looked sturdy and radiant as a sunset. George felt good as he looked out at all the green, his body full of quiet.
“When we together at night, what you think about?”
“You all I ever think about.”
“I believe you think about more than me. We never talked about it before, but now we got to.”
George looked down at his feet then deeper into the field, beyond what was there to see. He put his hands in his pockets and moved his fingers inside as if to make room.
“Last night, you was inside me, and it felt good.”
George smiled shyly, with one corner of his mouth.
“But it had darkness to it, too.”
He waited, afraid.
“And that ain’t the first time I felt it. I haven’t said nothing about it, but it’s like you trying to dig a new way for a river to go through when you inside me.”
His chest rose and labored like a dying mouse or wolf. The weightlessness that had lived in his heart since they married was being pulled from his center.
“What you saying, Lucy?”
“I’m saying I’m tired. George, sometime I just want a little bit of time to myself to think or finish something around here. I can’t feel at peace with myself. Time I do, you come to me, and I lay down. I give to you and give to you and after that, I don’t have nothing.” She paused. “What happened to you overseas? You got to tell me.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to talk to you about that, Lucy. And I ain’t.”
“What you mean, I ain’t? I’m your wife.”
“Yeah, you my wife, Lucy. You supposed to be here for what I need, whatever I need. You.”
“We can’t keep on like this, George. I can’t keep on like this.” And then, “You can’t find what you lost over there in me, and you can’t bury what’s left of you in me, neither.”
He couldn’t ask her if she was really saying she didn’t want him anymore, but that’s how he took it. The gray haze came back and with it, skeletons and hollow places where eyes were supposed to be, arms and legs gone from boys sent to fight in a war they knew nothing about. George looked down at Lucille and for a moment, he did not recognize her. This woman was tall and stout, with wide hips and a slim waist. Her bosom was firm, and her skin smooth and perfect as a deeply red pear. She looked like Lucy, but who was she?
“Say, woman, where’d you put my wife?” he asked, struck dumb.
“What, George? What?”
He shook his head and ran out the door, past Lucille’s parents’ house, up the road, past their half-finished home. The bar he came to every now and then stood high on stilts and leaned to the right. Blues plucked from a guitar poured outside. He recognized a couple and a few people who looked as lonely as he did. George sat at the bar, which was a long block of wood propped up on legs, lined with a few wooden stools.
He asked for whiskey. He shot it back and beckoned for another. His soul aged. Lucille was all he had and all he’d ever wanted; yet she had told him to his face she was sick of him. She wanted him to take the lid off the coffin and look inside, but what she didn’t seem to understand because he could not say it to her, was that he was in there. Inside were his limbs, shattered eyeballs, tendons, and muscle. He staggered home at dusk. A few stars quivered in the sky.
Lucille had sat on the stoop outside for two hours. She had not meant to hurt George, and she was scared to death that he had run off and would never come back. She got on her knees and prayed. She got off her knees and cooked a pot of something. She boiled water for a bath. Before the talk that might have ended their marriage, George had come for her. She was sticky with her liquid and his. Add to that the sweat of the day since he’d been gone—washing and hanging clothes, sweeping the hardwood floor, scrubbing dishes and cleaning the one window they had—she was, by her account, nasty. She undressed. Her large foot met the slippery bottom of the tin tub. She sat down as if in a pool. The soapy water stopped just beneath her breasts. She looked down at her body, the body George loved, the body she had not loved until George made her love it. The warmth of the water was inside her now, and she wept it out. She touched her breasts then held them tightly, as if someone meant to invade her shack of a home and steal her breasts right off her body.
She heard the door. George. He’d come back. She would tell him it was all right. She could take his love, sex, sorrow, and sad smile. He was hers, and her pride had almost run him off. In the bath, she shined like a copper statue tucked away in a courtyard with too few admirers. When George stumbled over the table that held the big pot of stewed something-or-other and knocked it to the floor, she groaned. She would not accept his drunkenness, not when she had given him her back and thighs and hands and mouth and teeth and tongue, over and over again, like he needed her to breathe.
“Lucy!” he screamed. “Lucy, where you?”
He did not see her, though she was right there, the tin tub in the middle of the floor.
“Lucy! I’m hurt, honey!”
Be hurt, then, fool. Part of her wanted to cradle him like the infant he became each time he crawled to her, hard and overwhelming. But she stayed in the tin tub, its waters growing more and more icy, and did not move, as if her legs were made of wood. Overcome by drunkenness and loneliness, George laid down on the floor and went to sleep. A line of drool dripped from his mouth onto the floor. Lucille watched as if he was a fascinating visitor she barely knew. When the water was too cold to bear, and George was asleep, she stood, wrapped herself in a towel, and clothed herself in a long, cotton nightgown that reached her toes. To get to the bed, she’d have to step over George, which she did, in one stride.
For ten years, George worked in the fields when the sun rose and drank at the bar in the woods at sunset. He could no longer remember fine details, but there remained snapshots of eyes, limbs, and holes where flesh once was and necks without a head. The promise of whiskey prevented him from digging a grave and climbing into it. After the woods and drink, he’d head home and call for Lucille to smile. She refused. But since love is a wonder, Lucille reached for George sometimes. Their clutch, when they joined, rounded their loneliness. Lucille did not speak his name but she allowed a moan, which was the closest George came, during those years, to her smile or anything to let him know she wanted him.
On the night of their twelfth anniversary, George stumbled out of the bar. He heard his name but saw no one. The voice sounded like Lucy in trouble, so he ran and tripped and ran and tripped until he was home and found her on the side of the bed. Look down on my husband, George. Bless him and keep him from harm. Tall as she was, she looked like a small child. He was ashamed to see his regal wife reduced low and to know he was the cause. He had heard her prayers before, but he had not looked at her while she prayed in such a long time that he’d forgotten. He touched her shoulder. She looked into his face and saw tears streaked with light from the moon. God had heard. She held out her hands; so did George. For moments, they were fixed in their reaching. Would she, should she get up, they wondered, or should he get on his knees and plead forgiveness alongside her? She rose, almost a head above him. He leaned his head into a spot just above her breast, and she arched over his shoulder. His wife was a woman, not a god, though she was some kind of angel, and he held her, from then on, in the spirit of that regard.