Ted was an alcoholic. He was also sixty-four. The driveway to his home began with promise and ended with irony. Ted's home was a nightmare for even younger men with good knees and sober minds, but the driveway to Ted's home was its own test of functionality, if not the very reason for Ted's ability to stay sharp after numerous cocktails.
Ted and his wife, Glad, had lived in the home—which was not so much built as perched above the river—for half a century. Children had been raised. Dogs had been taken in and taken out. Gardens had drifted across the front lawn like continents. Inside, a library had been converted into a nursery, and then into a bedroom, and then into a guest room, and then into a computer room. Bottles of top shelf whisky had been demoted to bottom shelf. Ted believed in the rotation of stock.
The home was compact. Three floors stacked neatly one above the other. There were always stairs to climb or to tumble down. The second floor was lined with glass—if the house were visible to the neighbors, they would routinely have gotten a glance of Ted stumbling from third to first floor as if the stairs were made of ice, more often than not balancing his drink more attentively than balancing his body.
Ted was not a mean drunk. He was a drunk of utility. Rather than fly into rages, he flew into music, playing stream-of-consciousness piano where Music Man and Mozart bled into one another in a ceaseless tickling of ivories and taunting of ebonies. Glad long ago grew deaf to the music. Each evening when Ted moved to the sunroom piano, she moved to the downstairs den to read, and when Ted began singing along with his music, she knew it was time for bed.
On a late spring day, the home hosted a retirement party for Glad. It wasn't really a retirement, Glad insisted; it was more like a release. She was releasing her business into the wild. For the past thirty-odd years, Glad had accidentally run a small PR firm in town, though there was nothing very firm about Glad-Branding, Inc. Her employees were loosely assembled, with desks seldom disturbed. “The place runs itself,” she insisted rather than joked. “They don't have their job cut out for them. They're simply cut out for the job.”
Glad-Branding, Inc., began around the same time Ted directed a community production of Gypsy. Glad was thirty-two then, and two kids deep into her identity. Her husband was known for his piano and his teaching at Bibb High School, but she was known for her association with him and her ability for giving birth. Maybe also her ability as a hostess, since with great lakehouses come great hosting responsibilities. During opening night at the Clutter Players Theatre, Glad listened to three of her friends sing “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” realized she, too, could be a star, and started promoting herself. Instead of rushing home after the final curtain, from the theatre's phone Glad called the babysitter to ask her to stay with the children a bit later than expected—promising her twice the usual payment—then went with Ted to the cast party where she made a point to mention, whenever possible, that her family once owned the Gunter Plantation and was the very family written about in Hut Shoemaker's novel, Trunks.
Thirty-odd years later, she was known as the woman who had reclaimed the town's antebellum legacy, making it a must-see destination for Civil War history buffs and genealogists. Town businesses used her suggestions to make themselves more tourist-friendly. “There are many small towns in Alabama,” Glad often said, “but a small town doesn't need to be small minded.” Think of the money to made, she told the businesses of the town, when you learn to cater to outsiders.
Glad's retirement party drooped toward the river. It was just how things were at Ted and Glad's house. Nothing was level. Everything slipped inexorably downward to the cliff and to the creamy water churning along, grey like dishwater, to Wilson Dam and then to oblivion.
(Beneath the river were houses. Ted and Glad were children when a neighborhood was flooded, and entire houses drowned.)
Tables listed to one side, making the potluck more luck than pot. Folding chairs balanced and then toppled. And Ted required occasional corralling like a befuddled cow, as the more drink he got into himself, the more his self began drifting down the hill mid-tale.
Every party, for decades, was the same balancing act. As the decades progressed, though, so did the act.
“It wasn't easy,” Glad was saying to a small group of people gathered around her like a ribbon. “I just knew I wanted to do something. So I did.”
“It wasn't difficult,” her husband was saying a few feet away to a small group of people gathered down-land of him like a fence. “I just decided to stop shaving for a while.” Ted was discussing his beard, which currently grew from his face like a Walt Whitman poem written by Walt Whitman's own beard.
After the party, Glad and Ted sat together on the second floor deck. The river meandered noisily along its course, and crickets begged for mates. The current dog, Gov, sniffed at Glad's toes. Behind them, the dishwasher ground down another load of dishes.
“Now that you're retired,” Ted began.
“Now that you're retired, you should try acting.”
Glad laughed. She sipped from a glass of wine. She stared into the blackness where trees were presumed to exist. “What is it you're directing now? Something modern, I'm sure.”
“Once Upon a Mattress. You'd make a great pea.”
Glad considered her husband's offer. “I wouldn't need to sing?”
“No, it's a non-singing role.”
“In the original production, yes, but the pea-dance number is usually cut from community productions for being too risque.”
“Still, I think I'll pass on the pea.”
Ted's hands were shaking. There was a congregation of people staring at him, hymn books held up like beggar's cups, faces turned slightly towards Ted so that the eastern light fell across every cheek. Ted could see the glow from the sun falling on the flesh of each face even as he stared at the music before him. A sheet of music. Simple. Feet down. Feet up. Goofy shoes. One leg. Three legs. Two legs. The single sheet leaned against the organ and Ted leaned against nothing at all.
And his hands were like claws before him. Frozen over the keys and shaking so hard he wasn't sure where they would land once put into motion. The hymn was simple, and the notes on the sheet before him were merely suggestions—he knew this song, he knew where to put the fingers onto the keys to make the sound that made the congregation sing. And he knew how to make the congregation sing with him because he'd done it for decades.
But the claws vibrated. He could see the light from the cheeks of the congregation and he could see the tips of his fingers shaking, and he was unsure of where his fingers would land.
Ted raised one hand away from the keys. He concentrated hard and pulled his right hand up to his beard, where his shaking talon slipped along the fronds sprouting from his chin. Allowed him a few seconds to pretend nothing was wrong.
“Hm?” He made the 'hm' more loud than necessary, and the glowing congregation strobed as muscles ripped and formed a kind laugh. “Sorry. I was just thinking this is a boring hymn.”
Gary, behind a wooden eagle, smiled. Gary smiled often, and smiled in a way that comforted those who needed comfort. Ted knew the smile. Ted threw the smile back at Gary, hoping his teeth showed through his white beard.
“It is,” Gary said, “a dull hymn. It is true,” and Gary turned his face to the congregation, “I picked a boring song this week.” There were laughs, again. Chuckles, restrained, as if each person in the house of God and Stodgy Duty doubted laughter was a twice-allowed indulgence. “Ted. Play what your heart wants.”
Ted removed his right hand from his beard. He stared at his left hand, which had remained crooked and vibrating over the keys. He dropped his right index finger onto
“I know a dark secluded place
A place where no one knows you face
A sacrament a fast embrace
Oy Christo's Hideaway
a key. His finger landed, and slipped, and the organ soured. Gary stepped down from his eagle-carved perch. The congregation winced so that the eastern light faded. Ted regained consciousness twenty minutes later.
Glad spent her Sunday in peace. It was the day after her retirement party—not a retirement, but a release—and she couldn't resist her habit. Ted lead the chorus at a church, and she went into the office.
Sundays were her days without a husband. Ted could be teaching, or directing, or puttering, but on Sundays she knew his schedule better than any other day of the week. She was free from anticipation. On Sundays, Ted played for the town's Presbyterian church at 9 in the morning, and then 6 in the evening, and he remained in town the entire time, preparing, practicing, Presbyterianing.
When the kids were younger, they'd go with him. Six days out of the week, she monitored them, but on Sundays, they went to church in the morning, and then with one family or another for the afternoon, and then back to church in the evening, listening to their father play organ while Gary—or Alfred or Goop or Stan (there had been many pastors)--talked about God, Jesus, Satan. The kids were of course off at colleges or work now. The kids had lived through Stan and Goop and Alfred, and each man's weekly statement from God.
“Work is what saves us,” Hut Shoemaker, her distant cousin, wrote. “And work is what haves us.”
Glad-Branding was in a squat building on the town's main street, between a restaurant and a Dollar Tree. The restaurant was like a coiled beast on the Sunday after Glad's retirement, waiting for the churches to release their hungry congregants. The Dollar Tree was barren, its doors shut tight and its windows like sunken eyes.