Padgett Powell’s literary stage is a blurred vision of the American South. His characters are bored, sad, assured, confused, deluded, and often just one step away from madness. The stories they populate are madder still, delivered by a voice enthralling and distinctive. Whether he’s chronicling a housewife’s encouragement of adolescent lust, following two good ol’ boys on their search for a Chinese healer, or delving into the mind of an unstable moped accident survivor as he awaits a hefty settlement check, Powell revels in the irregularities of the mundane. His people occupy bar stools and strip clubs, pickup truck cabs and mental health clinics, looking for love, drugs, answers. According to the New York Times Book Review, “Mr. Powell is like a fabulous guest at a dinner party, the guy who gets people drinking far too much and licking their dessert plates and laughing at jokes—for which not a few of them will hate themselves in the morning.”
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About the Author
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Aliens of Affection
By Padgett Powell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Padgett Powell
All rights reserved.
Trick or Treat
On her way to the grocery store, to which she could walk, in celebration of which she often wore lizard-skin cowboy boots and other dress excessive for a daily trip to buy food for a family, Mrs. Hollingsworth recited, "It loves me, it loves me not. I love it, I love it not—" until she was interrupted by a child behind a picket fence next to the sidewalk.
"What are you talking about, lady?" This came equably from a round freckled face just above the sharpened pickets, all of which suggested briefly an uncarved, unlit pumpkin speaking to her.
"The South," Mrs. Hollingsworth said to the pumpkin face, which she presumed, not altogether comfortably, a portrait of innocence. The child was in fact a portrait of insolence and had wanted to say not "What are you talking about, lady?" but "Hey, lady, how about some pussy?" He had watched her for weeks walk in costumes to and from the store and he had prodigious twelve-year-old need.
"The South?" he asked. "What's that?"
"This," Mrs. Hollingsworth said, indicating with her arm the trees and air and houses and suspiring history and ennui and corruption and meanness and game violators and bottomland and chivalric humanism and people who are smart about money and people who don't have a clue and heroism and stray pets around them.
"Have you lost your mind?" the boy asked.
Mrs. Hollingsworth, to whom the proposition was tenable, said, "Grow up," and walked on.
The child was left there in a rage of early tumescence, kicking himself for insulting the object of his waking and sleeping lusts. The back of his T-shirt, which Mrs. Hollingsworth had not seen, said JUST BLOW ME, ostensibly in promotion of a brand of bubble gum. He had had the wit not to let his parents see the shirt and knew, almost, what it meant. He had the mouth and the where right but was taking the BLOW literally. He had intended asking Mrs. Hollingsworth how about some pussy and then turning his back to her. It would have worked, he was sure.
The child had no way of knowing that it would probably have worked. Mrs. Hollingsworth had three children, one older than her suitor, and had been happily married for fifteen years, and was a good mother and wife, and was enraged about it. She had said recently to a business associate of her husband, who had been out of town and had appointed her the associate's entertainment in his stead, which associate had begun kissing the back of her neck in the car outside the restaurant she'd taken them to, "Hey, for all you know, I might be the town tramp." What the business associate thought of her and her proclivities, if anything, is not known; he kept kissing her neck, which she proffered more of, and angled her head to make taut and handsome.
What Mrs. Hollingsworth thought was: I could be the town tramp. The business associate was, in fact, not the first relief she had had from the happy marriage, but she had not entertained the notion of going wholesale. She would have entertained the notion of this little smart-ass pumpkin head, un Lolito. It was hysterical, she was hysterical, it was perfect. But the pumpkin head had not shown his cards.
The next time Mrs. Hollingsworth saw the child he was standing on her front stoop with a new-looking Lawn-Boy mower behind him the color of a katydid. Through the peephole's fish-eye lens the boy looked obscenely older, his freckles the size of rain splats on concrete, and the mower was giving off shafts of a soft green light that was spectral.
She opened the door and said, neutrally, "Yes?" and looked from the boy to the mower and back to the boy and then up and down the boy.
"What?" he said. "My shorts?" He looked down at his shorts, which were cutoffs with ridiculously lacerated hems. In fact, she saw then, they had been sliced up from the cut edge about two inches on about one-inch centers, giving them a kind of surrey-roof frill. His skinny legs hung out of this frilliness like strings themselves. Mrs. Hollingsworth laughed and said, "No, not your shorts."
"What are you laughing at?"
"I'm not laughing."
"You were too."
Mrs. Hollingsworth laughed again.
She laughed some more.
"What what," he said, obviously mocking her.
"Just goddamn, lady."
"Okay. That's better."
The boy drew himself up, as if in summary of certain points he had been making. "Do you want your lawn cut?" When he said this, a hail of profane words and images fell in his brain. Do you want a cherry on it? Do you want nuts on it? Do you want your nuts crushed? Do you want your tits blown off? "Do you want your lawn cut?" he said again, strangely almost out of breath.
"No," Mrs. Hollingsworth said. "But you can cut it anyway."
She closed the door then and decided that would be the test for this little rogue: if he cut the lawn with no more ado, no price, no terms, no promise, he was to be regarded as a significant little foul ball landing in the happy proper play of her enraging days.
Through the fish-eyed peephole Mrs. Hollingsworth watched him address his Lawn-Boy. He took a deep breath and glanced at the sky before securing the machine with his foot and pulling the cord. It started right up. He took the handle and pushed against it with his thighs, stood there not moving, and momentarily seemed to wilt over the handle before taking a giant stride. He marched the machine over the lawn faster than she had ever seen a lawn mower go. He was flying over the lawn, blasting sticks and ant beds and, he thought, a pet toy of some sort into flakbursts of airborne detritus that was collecting around his nostrils. He was a cute little thing.
When she let him into the back yard and he did not talk or even look at her, Mrs. Hollingsworth confirmed her suspicions that the child was on a sexual mission. He was bold and terrified.
"I'll make the lemonade," she said.
He said, "Yes'm."
Not "make us some lemonade," not "Would you like some lemonade, or something?" The lemonade. She was thrilled by this little stage irony. The boy was not himself unaware of something off. "Yes'm" was as close as he had ever come in his life to saying "ma'am."
When he finished the blitzkrieg of the yard, he sat on the little two-seater rowing swing on the children's gym set and Mrs. Hollingsworth emerged with a tray. On it was a hand-painted pitcher and tumblers and loose lemons as garnish—impractical but irresistible to Mrs. Hollingsworth's sense of kitsch in still life. She noted how unadult the boy looked sitting where her own children sat, even though he was obviously consumed with adult concerns. She wondered for the first time why he was not, as her children were, in school.
She put the tray on one seat of the glider, also attached to the gym set, though it was clearly intended for adults. It was a swinging double-benched arbor, actually, and her plan was to sit them both on one of the benches opposite the lemonade and serve the child properly until the accidental touch, or his blurting whatever he might blurt, set the lunacy of his early need and her late fatigue in motion.
Before any of this was effected, they heard the crackle of a police radio and Mrs. Hollingsworth saw, over the gate of the wooden fence through which she had let the boy, the cap and face of a police officer. He said, in a preposterously deep-voiced tone of authority, "What's going on here?"
"We're having lemonade in the shade, Officer," Mrs. Hollingsworth managed, attempting with her emphases—unsuccessfully, she knew—to insult the policeman.
"Who?" he said.
"Whose business—" Mrs. Hollingsworth noticed that the boy was gone. In a decimated patch of earth beside the glider there was a deep, lugged sneaker print pointed in the direction of the back fence. She could imagine a blur of surrey frill and skinny leg going over her good six-foot redwood fence. The image made her inexplicably, inordinately fond of her little charge, though suspicious of this rather simple affection for insouciance, or whatever it was that made a boy escape authority and made authority—in this case, herself—like it. She could also not help thinking, as the officer rather brazenly let himself through the gate, sex with cops. He came up, a shiny-shoed flashing noisy navy-blue binding of regulations and procedure.
"Have a look at that lawn mower, ma'am?"
Mrs. Hollingsworth gave him permission, which he did not wait for, with a wave of her hand. She was observing things she had no real time to observe without giving the officer the impression that she was spacey. She did not care; it was, after all, the police. The kid was right. She thought of "things." How, of late, she had begun to like the idea of losing her mind. That was the conventional expression for it, not hers. She was toying with the idea of losing herself. She did not want her mind to depart, like the whole house of one's Kansas spinning to Oz; she wanted the little craft of things that were considered her, that she considered her, to work loose and drift and turn just a little off-line, a keelless row-boat about 45 degrees to the current in a gentle, non- threatening high water. The officer was telling her, standing before her and mincing as if he had to go somewhere or pee, that the lawn mower had been stolen from the hardware store eight blocks away by a boy on foot.
"Get your plaster, Officer."
"Here's his track."
"The alleged individual who perpetrated was in the apparel of a shirt of the variety of a T-shirt which it had printed on it an obscene ... ah, saying. Or remark." This speech endeared the officer to Mrs. Hollingsworth in a way that surprised her, but she caught herself. If she was going to have immoral affections for a Lolito, she was not going to accommodate Sergeant Garcia. She had no idea what the obscene-shirt business was about. The boy had had on a clean white shirt. That was the only true thing she told the officer about the boy.
"The alleged perpetrator, Officer, had dark skin, though he wasn't black or Hispanic, and he did not seem too bright, but I wouldn't go so far as to say he was mentally challenged." The officer wrote things in a fold-over pocket-sized spiral notebook.
"He had on mordantly long pants."
"Mordantly long pants."
"Can you describe those pants?"
The Bee Gees were playing, filling the yard. She had put them on, and put a speaker in a window giving on the back yard, for the lemonade break. Even she knew they were terribly dated, that the boy would either find them hokey in modern terms or not even know what disco was, and that had been part of the scheme: to look agreeable but hopelessly out of it to the boy. It would give him a certain courage, perhaps the courage of pity or charity. Now, sitting there, she thought she could see the officer just perceptibly dancing as he pulled the evidence of her suitor's crime out of the yard. And she sat there herself not unhappily in a flood of harmonized sappiness that not even a teenager should tolerate. The rowboat of her self was coming unmoored, perhaps, inch by inch.
She wondered how disruptive to the courtship this unfortunate incident would prove until, an hour later, she picked up the phone and heard a voice coming through what sounded like a pillow say, "Bonnie? This is Clyde. Rain check on that lemonade," and the caller hang up giggling. She had a card on her hands and she was going to have to decide if she really was one herself. To do that, you had to look boredom in the eye and forget all other considerations: your own failures contributing to your boredom, for example. Does God, you had to ask, want us to be bored? You answer that to find out if you are a card or not. You do not entertain highfalutin notions of decadence. Just boredom. That is to some extent what the kid was operating on, that and hormones, even though he didn't know it (he knew the hormones, but not boredom as such, yet, she figured). In his early apprehension of boredom boring down on him, he was arguably a little visionary, if you took the long, charitable view of him. If you took the short, niggardly view, he was a young dog with a blue steel. Her husband came home shortly after these thoughts and Mrs. Hollingsworth took the long, charitable view of the boy.
Her husband lugged his business-day you-wouldn't-believe-it opera of sigh and grunt into the house and she gave him the kiss to make it all better. This kiss, on the cheek, had a special feature: she touched the back of his neck with the back of her left hand while holding his arm, at the biceps, with her right hand. For the implantation of this ministration her husband held perfectly still so that the target, his cheek, would be steady. The kiss had originated, she supposed, from her having wet her hands doing dishes and not wanting to wet her husband. But she had noticed that it was now the only way she would kiss him; she would touch him only with the back of her hand. It had become a symbol of her dissatisfaction. She thought of kissing the boy: taking his little fine-haired neck with her hand and fingers up into his hair, cradling the little pumpkin properly, and kissing him as tenderly or roughly as he seemed to suggest movies and television had taught him he wanted to be kissed. She might take his face in both hands, if he inclined to tenderness and innocence. She might turn his head, even, like a listening puppy's. She might move her lips seductively and ridiculously, as Marilyn Monroe did, before actually kissing him. She realized at dinner—meat loaf with Lipton Onion Soup Mix in it, they'd have it no other way—that her affair with this rogue lawn boy was as unknowable a thing as anything available to her in her life as it stood, and as it was ever likely to stand. As silly or sad as it was, it was possible to regard entertaining the boy and his desire as an act of survival.
Her husband and her children occupied spaces at the dinner table in dark, undefined silhouettes, as if they were witnesses whose identities were being masked. She was not shocked by this. It was not that these stolid, regular people she held together with daft toughness and maternal Saran Wrap were anonymous; it was that she was really anonymous to them, and had been for a long time. She held no one to account. It was life. She was, again by the perverse charts of life, not anonymous to the frilly-legged, petty-larcenous, pumpkin-headed, overheated lawn boy. Nor would he be anonymous to her.
Suddenly, it seemed, as if her thinking the child's head resembled a pumpkin two weeks before had precipitated it, Halloween was upon her, and with it distractions she found unnerving. Somehow Halloween had come to epitomize the problems in her life. At the least of it there was what she called the "dick costume frenzy," which meant divining the particular misconceptions three children might have about what fairies and pirates and cats were supposed to look like and then purchasing—at a costume store, mind you—the exotic effects that would satisfy these bizarre whims, and then sewing ... and it did not end, it seemed, for weeks. Her husband, who might have been counted on to scrooge a minor holiday, instead fanned the flames by entering the children in town costume contests and by volunteering as escort to their candy-gathering caravans. The ban on treats not factory-wrapped was of course de rigueur, but last year someone had rented a metal detector. When Mrs. Hollingsworth saw a set of parents who did not know how to drive their Volvos very well place a bag of candy on a lawn and run a metal detector over it as if it were a bomb, she herself wanted to explode. She wanted to include Halloween in her catalogue of what constituted the South: "... stray pets collected and neutered by alcoholics, unless it rains; automotive mechanical intelligence in inverse proportion to dental health; and Halloween." She knew that it wasn't the South exclusively that had Tupperwared it: inside the container the middle-class abiders, outside the Candy Man. Inside, afraid to live normal lives, were magazine subscribers running scared; outside, people not reading the news, unless it concerned themselves, not abiding but getting away with things. Her logic loosened at this point to include, rashly, the entire modern world: people fretting in tight well-mannered circles of timid custodial correctness and those circling them with bright eyes. Halloween was as far as you needed to go to see how far along the world was on the road to hell and how big the handcart was.
In this distraction, Mrs. Hollingsworth forgot about the lawn boy until he appeared again on her stoop wearing a suit and a fedora.
"Not another one" she said, referring to costumes.
"No, ma'am," the boy said, removing his hat. "It's me."
"I know it's you," Mrs. Hollingsworth said. "You think I'd have two boys stealing lawn mowers for me?"
"I don't know what you'd have, lady." He looked her in the eye. This was a fully matured something with a mouth on it, she thought, like a baby snake.
Excerpted from Aliens of Affection by Padgett Powell. Copyright © 1998 Padgett Powell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsTrick or Treat,
Scarliotti and the Sinkhole,
All Along the Watchtower,
A Piece of Candy,
About the Author,