YOU BELONG TO ME
Preamble: This is my most successful story. Best to skip down a page to the story per se, and return to here later, or, welcome now to . . .
Department of literary gossip: It was taken by Stanley Lindberg at The Georgia Review at exactly the same time that it won a huge ‘Love Story Contest’ at Story magazine (over 2000 entries). The story of the editor at Story trying to pry it away from Stanley for her next issue, is worth a page or two of its own, but sufficient to say, the drama was roller-coaster wild, somewhat shitty on her part, and ultimately quite funny, plus I won out in the end: $1000 from Story, and a Pushcart nomination from Stanley.
Lois had this to say in the announcement issue:
For STORY’S Love Story Competition, we were pleased to see just about every type of amorous situation—from romantic love, both homosexual and heterosexual, requited and anguished, to the love of children, parents, animals, and places, as well as a good number of obsessions and fetishes.The variety and quality was [sic, 🙂 ] impressive. Unfortunately, we are unable to present the winning entry this time. Of all things, when we notified the author of his prize, he told us his story had been accepted for publication elsewhere before he knew it had won our competition. STORY’S policy is to always be the first venue for new work. We are, nonetheless, most happy to announce the slate of winners:
1st Prize: Kent H. Dixon
“You Belong to Me”
Renewed chuckling, rereading that: in fact, she did everything but sue me, and GR too I think, but Story’s legal team finally advised them that since they had arranged the contest as open submission (you could have the work circulating, even as you submitted to the contest), then they were obligated to give me the prize. Someone there told me a few years later that there was now a Kent Dixon Rule in the editorial office: either it’s verboten or you have to declare whether you’re multiple submitting (presumably so my sort of overlap could be headed off at their end?).
As for the story, oh my. Two novels, two short stories, a couple of short shorts, all to do with this young love. My beloved Grandfather, even, fell totally in love with her, took pictures (including this one), as much for her as for the fact she reminded him of one of his own obsessions, Leslie Caron. (He saw Lili 37 times; they’d see him coming and run off free tickets.)
My second favorite story about my Leslie is a short short in which I attempt to introduce her to the other love of my life. It’s over in FLASH: “Mia, This is Phoebe; Phoebe, Mia.”
The song “Button Up Your Overcoat,” that comes into this story at the end is from 1928—Helen Kane, whose child-like voice sounds cloyingly like that of Betty Boop. In fact, I think Kane may have become Betty Boop. But others came along: Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and then Sinatra in the 1940s; Nancy Sinatra in the 60s. Some snippets: ‘Button up your overcoat, when the wind blows free; take good care of yourself, you belong to me.’
Eat an apple every day, and so on. I regret not squeezing in: Wear your flannel underwear, when you climb a tree; take good care of yourself . . .
. . .
YOU BELONG TO ME
You have to feel for this guy walking down the street on a clear, dry, almost blinding day somewhere in downtown Phoenix, a day twice beautiful because he's recuperating from major surgery and is both pleased to be alive and painfully aware of it because his ribs are still quite wrecked where the shears snipped through the inter-costal tissue and the rib spreaders pried open his chest, for hours, while the doctors removed his old and installed his new, heart.
The woman of this story is perhaps harder to identify with, since she is dead, or as good as. We’re a long way from Miami but it’s her heart the Phoenix man is trading on, when up comes this total stranger, who is me, the third leg of our triangle. "Excuse me," says me the stranger, to our man from Phoenix, "but that's my old girl friend's heart you've got in there."
Phoenix starts to move on—who wouldn't? But I can insist: "That's Judy's heart. I found you through the TV news story, how they had a donor ready but couldn't locate you? So they ran it across the bottom of that football game." On television, mind you, like a tornado watch. She'd have loved it. I scroll right with my thumb and forefinger: "Perry Cleveland...call your doctor. Remember? No, how could you? The point was you missed it. Too bad. Good game. Detroit won, but some friends were watching and they called you—”
“I remember," says Perry Cleveland, and looks off down the street, which, not without some calculation on my part is just about deserted. It's too hot. Everyone's in back somewhere soaking up the AC.
So I say to him, "Hey, don't be alarmed. I'm not a kook," and I smile. "I don't want it back or anything." I have this fairly genuine and reassuring smile, but Perry just stands there, waiting: I'm to explain myself, further. Okay, good buddy...
"Beating within your chest," I say, "is the heart of the woman, who... you know, had mine wrapped around her little finger. Who once—not now I suppose, hell, I haven't seen her for twenty years, but once I'd have gladly given her my own. Okay? Though it wasn't a heart she needed."
"No, obviously. It was her brain that died, my man. I'd have given her that too, once, come to think of it, though that would have changed things, wouldn't it. I mean she wouldn't have been quite herself then, would she."
"No," says Perry. "With your brain, I suppose she would have been mostly you."
"Well, there you are. That's all I ever really wanted, was to be her."
I know what he's thinking: Holy shit, this guy is a kook, be wanting to peek under my bandages in another minute, so I'd damn well better accommodate, at least until someone comes within shouting distance...
So he nods as if he's been in love. Well, of course he's been in love. Of course he understands—better than I, perhaps—what I'm doing here. Nothing sinister. Taking a
triangulation is all, even if one leg's a phantom.
"All," I say. "All three marriages, all my loves, my fantasies"—even my genuine and reassuring smile—"they all have to do with, were learned from, chosen because of, in concert with almost, like dancers..." I give up and point at his sternum: "Judy."
She used to dance for me, improvising, leaping couches and end tables. The china figurines wouldn't even tremble. The record would end and she'd keep on dancing, now like a mechanical doll, amused, to the needle going around and around its center—kkxx-kkxxt, kkxx-kkxxt...
"She danced," I say. He looks across the street again so I follow suit; we could both be looking for someone. Then he guesses he'd better be going, has an obligation.
"Damn straight. I'll walk with you," and I take his arm. "I like it that you have her heart in there, you understand? I mean if she had to die, I'm glad for you both. You seem like a nice guy."
"Someone thought we were a good match," he says and then feels he has to explain: "It's called a match when there's compatibility. The organ and the recipient. It's a joke."
"I got it. It's good." I smile, and stop him by his shoulder. "I didn't know—I never thought about it, you know?—that they'd give a woman's heart to a man. You're a lot bigger than she was. You tired? Want to sit down?"
Actually, he's not much bigger. I could have ferried him home from piano lessons in my tiny flat-bottom motorboat as well as her. I'd time it so I just happened to be putt-putting down the canal and out from under the bridge to Sunset Island as she walked over it, and we'd halloo and I'd swing the boat around and pick her up at the Shipley's dock. I'd steer for the waves to lightly bounce her on the bow thwart and watch her blouse flutter against her back. She'd be scanning Biscayne Bay for ospreys diving. They'd plummet sploosh then struggle to rise with a bent fish sometimes too big to lift—which, when it was too big, the fish hawk sometimes couldn't, or wouldn't, let go.
"Perry, I had this little red motorboat as a kid. Named it after her. Made her Queen at my fifth-grade luau birthday party. I was King. I stole money from my parents to buy her things for her charm bracelet, 14-karet things. I knew the freckles on her body..."
"As a Bedouin knows his oases," says Perry, who knows nothing about Bedouins, even I can see that. I point to his thigh: "She had a vaccination scar...was it right or left? It fit my thumb perfectly." Trying to locate it on one of my own thighs, I catch myself, squint up into that desert sun at him. "This is pretty indulgent, isn't it. I just wanted you to meet me…us. We three. Look, there must be something I can tell you. You want to know how she died?"
"I know how she died," he says patting his chest without quite touching it, with an aplomb I'm not really keen on, though it's hers. It's silly, but I fancy I can see her in him as surely as in myself.
"Well, quite right," I say. "But the first stage was an accident. Some stairs. Concussion, subdural bleeding. Actually—just between us—my native dancer could never have fallen down any stairs. She must have been pushed." But he's right, the man's right, pushed or jumped, she wasn't entirely dead until they harvested her heart. For him.
"It's not working out," he's saying.
"Hmm? What's not?"
"Some signs I'm rejecting it. It's back to Houston day after tomorrow. More tests, more drugs... One good thing about the drug though," looking down and patting his head now.
"Cures baldness, for what it's worth."
For what it's what? "Whoa, man, no shrugging allowed. This is all we got, you know. The frog of life hunkers at the lily pad and then hops on. You know? You have family, don't you?"
"Sure, but I used to ski."
"And so you will again! She did, too. In Vermont once, hell, she'd tuck in her poles and go straight down, crazy, pow! hot dog it right through the cocoa kiosk."
"Cross country," he says. "All day."
This “all day” of his shakes me like a paperweight, shocks them flakes a’swirl—all day shuffling along through a snow-tamped quiet, twinkling like mica beneath the clittering canopies of ice-coated branches, just the two of them.
"You want endurance," I tell him, "you should have seen the bloody cotton wads in the tips of her toe shoes. I never saw her tired. I don't think I ever saw her sleep," being myself always the first to fall and last to rise. I missed that, looking down at my love asleep. Missed her funeral, too.
"It's not her," he says. "It's me. I'm allergic to the cyclo . . . whatever. Sporine. So they have to temper it with other drugs, so then she starts rejecting."
"Damn," I squeeze his other shoulder. "I been there too, buddy."
Rejection city. That mild surf in the quarter moon, me frantic up and down the beach, calling—wham, she and Rick walking nonchalantly out of the Atlantic as if it had been a so-so movie. "But it was contrived, maybe not even conscious. I was going away for a year so she, you know . . ."
"Not her. Me, my body she goes haywire. My immune system, sometimes it attacks my own liver. It's a mess. I won't get clear of it. These things only last four or five years anyway." Pat, pat.
I don't know what to say.
"Eight or ten at best," he says and then he fixes me with a hard stare, like this is all ye need to know: "Diet, cigarettes, and parents. You've got some control."
Just so—don't eat meat, cut out sweets. "You know what she would say right now?"
But do I know? And then, pop, she doesn't have to say it, though it's nothing she'd have ever said, not to me at least, but it's nothing I didn't know either, though I never asked of course—it would have hurt her to tell me no—so I simply never asked if she loved me. Not once. But she didn't.
At least not in this way, to put herself away from home for a week in a strange city looking for a man with a secondhand pump, the last of her, twenty years since we kissed. She never loved anyone that way, that I know of, at least I hope not. She wasn't that selfish. Too lazy really. But I can be selfish—which come to think, makes me the goddamn donor here in part.
"What would she say right now?" he asks me.
"She'd say... I think she'd say something like all three of us have made some pretty poor choices in our time, but only mine is in poor taste."
"I like her," he says. "But it's not poor taste."
"It's not? How would it be if I gave you my address, you know, just in case..."
"Close," he says, "but love entitles."
"Well, you're nice to say so. Listen, I want to thank you for the chat. Sorry to have bothered you . . ." Let’s leave these two to their own devices, I say to myself. Your spurned lover, your extraneous third man, is out of here.
"What color was her hair?"
I look back at him, at his eyes—which ain't hers. Black, you son of a bitch, hair so black you could see your reflection in it. "Look, I'll let you go now," and I take his hand between both of mine. "Really sorry, very foolish, bad form. So, take good care of yourself, okay? Ha, you old enough to remember that song? Baa-da-da your overcoat, When the wind blows free, Take good care of yourself..." Shake, shake, then pump, pump as Perry joins in: "Eat an apple every day, get to bed by three..."
All together now, nodding in time, "Take good care of yourself—Wait," I stop him. "Hush up a sec," I say, and I turn his hand over and choke up his wrist an inch to feel along the soft inside, to his pulse, and Perry, he's OK. He lets me.
The Georgia Review,
In Memoriam, J.A.B., and Stanley Lindberg
I’ll get in trouble for this next, but have to give Mia (above) her moment in my midnight sun. A frisky ekphrastic poem. The title comes from the Song of Solomon, 7:1 (The king renews his appeal)
How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter. The joints of thy thighs like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman. . . How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!
HOW BEAUTIFUL WITH SHOES, AND FUNNY
Sitting there, holding her own beside the eruption of white phlox and daisies,the lawn umbrella framing her as if her own fan of giant petals,she the calyx, she in the light blue and star-splashed Laura Ashley print,her red hair redder than the bricks behind, one bare foot toeing the grass,the other suspended because she’s crossed one leg at the knee, this white footpointing in line with the umbrella’s white pole, which her right hand curls about,though she isn’t holding it. All she holds is me and camera in her gaze.
The resting pole hand, is as loose as the left one, which drapes off the armof the white lawn chair. Everything in the picture is as loose—the reticulate bricks, the flowers afloat, her insouciant slouch in the chair,her left wrist on the arm rest—I’ll bet the watch on that wrist has taken a breakfrom telling time, is letting her heart beat the cadence, her foot bouncing ever so.
”Mia,” I say. “What do you call the top of the foot—not the arch, but the top boney part?”
“I call mine Arnold,” she says
Published in Genie, and also in
. . . and love . . . A Different Kind of Poetry Anthology
(2012, Jacar Press) Richard Krawiec, Edt.