White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Matthew James Babcock
Matthew James Babcock teaches at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg and holds a PhD in Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His book, Private Fire: The Ecopoetry and Prose of Robert Francis, will be published by the University of Delaware Press in 2010. He received the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Award in 2008. His novella, Impressions, was a semi-finalist in Quarterly West’s novella competition and is available as an e-book from Wild Child Publishing. His writing has appeared or will appear in Alehouse; Bateau; The Cape Rock; Other Voices; Pinyon; Poetry Motel; Quiddity; Rattle; The Rejected Quarterly; The South Dakota Review; The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review; Spillway; Starry Night Review; Spoon River Poetry Review; Stringtown; Terrain; and Wild Violet.

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Welcome, Welcome

Matthew James Babcock

 

ONE

The Shop ‘n’ Save “welcome guy” changed my life. He was the stumpy senior citizen who used to stand at the automatic doors and say “welcome” when you entered the store. The thing that set me off when I first met him, though, was his insincere way of greeting customers. Wagging a warped index finger at his target, he would mumble the same word—“welcome”—over and over, without variation. A construction worker dodging in for a fruit pie and chocolate milk received a single “welcome.” Packs of teenage girls in town for All-Regional Cheer Camp, though they never noticed it, always got a muted machine-gun volley: “welcome-welcome-welcome-welcome-welcome.” Couples with babysitters at home, like Tam and myself, took two shots. “Welcome, welcome,” he would say, pumping limp Billy-the-Kid forefingers at our bellies, avoiding our eyes.

It’s shameful to admit it—and maybe this

reveals more about my anti-social behavior than his—but after a while his mere presence began to ignite in me feelings of real hostility. Maybe it was the idiocy of his position, his brainless greeting and gesture. After all, I asked myself, why was he there? Could Shop ‘n’ Save customers not have lived without him? Could the soul-splitting misery of shopping in an unwelcomed state have chased us and our consumer dollars to the open-door Shangri-La offered by Shop ‘n’ Save competitors?

His appearance didn’t help matters either. His dress and grooming habits, or lack of both, gave him the appearance of a half-eaten chicken burger scrounged from underneath a sofa cushion. Without knowing why, I began to see him as a blight on society, a scabby parasite the world would be better without. Most unwelcome of all people I met during the day, he became the Gatekeeper of Redundancy, the village vegetable in need of dandruff shampoo and speech therapy, slouching there in his unbuttoned red vest, gold “Sale! Sale! Sale!” pins, and purple rickshaw ribbons advertising discounts of a lifetime in the beauty and fashion department. Although he looked harmless, I


couldn’t get it out of my head that someone vile, even dangerous, hid behind that pedophilic half-smile, the lazy mutt’s eye and sheep’s butt hair. So much so, that I was prepared to do something about it.

And I did.

But I wasn’t prepared for what he did to me.

 

TWO

It started the day I bought a file cabinet from the Shop ‘n’ Save office supplies department. I took it home and discovered it was dented. I showed my wife, Tamlynne.

She sat on the couch, thighs wrapped around a tub of day-old movie popcorn. Our baby girl, Clysta, lay on the floor on a Mr. Peanuts blanket Tam had picked up at Valley Christian. Little Clystie floundered on her side like a handicapped seal pup. She babbled and slapped her hands at a broken halo of popcorn on the carpet.

“Take it back,” Tam laughed.

“Back?” I said.

“The world hasn’t ended.”

“You haven’t lugged it home!” I snapped. “You don’t have to face welcome guy.”

“What’s your problem with him?” she challenged. She tossed down a few more popcorn kernels, and Clystie flailed at the yellow puffs. “It’s neat they give a retired guy something to do.”

“She’s gonna choke,” I said.

“I’m watching her. You coming to church Sunday?”

“You gonna lose weight?”

Not waiting for an answer, I stormed outside. I kicked the trash cans into the lilac hedges and plucked a neighbor kid’s weathered Nerf football from the lawn. Its scruffy purple surface was pocked with natural finger holes. Instead of hurling it into the car wash’s dumpster over the fence, I rammed my fingers in the holes and tore it in half.

In our Grand Marquis, I jammed the key in the ignition. I ground the gears to nut-and-bolt stew


and backed out. On the drive to Shop ‘n’ Save, I passed Valley Food World, Tanfastic, and the County Implement. I sped through the blazing neon corridor of fast food chains, past Lockwood Sales and Supplies, and into the Shop ‘n’ Save plaza. I suppose I was angry because it was a file cabinet I’d liked: deep forest green, stained oak handles and trim. The brand was SteelMagic, based in Des Moines, Iowa. I was also miffed because my trips out and back had wasted the best part of my day. Fuming, I parked, heaved the cabinet out of the trunk, and limped like a beast of burden toward the entrance.

A swarm of lead-eyed shoppers saturated the parking lot. I saw a man wearing slippers and two people in bathrobes. Have an ounce of decency, I thought. For a moment, I caught a glimpse of myself in a medieval bazaar. My head churned with the aroma of boiled mutton, the clank of battle axe and mace, the crunch of limbs wrenched from sockets. In place of trained owls and archers, I saw armored hot dog trucks, Slush Puppie stands, and unshowered high school students burrowing through labyrinths of psychedelic shorts that

ballooned in the breeze like small parachutes. Neon orange price tags whirled. The summer air smoked with the charred odor of burning tar, manure, and French fries. Kids with blue and red helium balloons anchored to their wrists slalomed between moving cars and trucks. There were arbor vitae displays, RV’s and campers, near fender benders, parents calling for their children, children ignoring their parents’ calls. Late summer beat down. My forehead grew dewy with sweat as I lugged my freakshow SteelMagic cabinet through the shopping hour melee, and up to the customer service counter.

But not before passing him.

He met me like a sleepwalking gunslinger at the doors of a saloon. His midget mental patient’s head bristled with steel-wool hair. His lazy eye gave him the air of a stunned half-man, half-gecko aiming a crooked Derringer at unlucky patrons. His jeans were rolled up in thick cuffs, exposing American flag socks. His vest sagged under the weight of a war chest of buttons—the standard “Have a Nice Day!” smiley face, “Shop More For Less!,” and “Life’s a


Beach.” And where, I asked the gods of justice as I hefted my cabinet through the doors, is his ‘Welcome’ button?

But he didn’t need one.

“Welcome,” he said, firing a ghost bullet through my chest.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said through clenched teeth, lumbering toward customer service.

“Do you have a receipt?” the girl at the counter asked. She wore her cinnamon hair in a booming ponytail, secured in an apple band, and jeans, white shirt, cherry vest. A perky constellation of nutmeg freckles on each cheek celebrated life’s amity.

“Want to welcome me to the store?” I asked, jerking my head to the welcome guy.

“We have someone for that,” she laughed.

“Come back, and I’ll work out the difference on a new cabinet.”

“Sure,” I said.

I zigzagged through the herds of shoppers, past

the checkout counters, through the tangerine and lavender frou-frou in the bathroom section, circumvented home and garden, and halted in the office area. I selected another SteelMagic cabinet (this time, beige) and exchanged it at customer service. Soon, like an Egyptian slave, I was trundling my load across the sunny bedlam of the parking lot. Driving home, I thought about the welcome guy. I wondered what he did at night. Heading south down Station Avenue, I thought about where he lived, what he liked to read, if he could read, what he did at home. Was he married with kids? What was his story? His artificial, zombie-like “welcome” had soured my life, so I was naturally curious.

I turned right on Main Street. Past Maverik, I began to daydream. I passed New York Burrito, Westwood Cinema. I couldn’t exist like this forever, I told myself. Something had to give. He wasn’t going anywhere soon. That was for sure. But I couldn’t endure being told I was welcome when I wasn’t made to feel welcome.

I thought about messing him up. What would it take to freak him out? As I drove down Main Street,


fantasizing of how best to punk the Shop ‘n’ Save welcome guy, I smiled. The possibilities seemed limitless. Suddenly, I was giddy with anticipation. As I passed Payless Drug and Ray’s Chevron, the revelation struck and fanned out like a county fair—the saccharine reek of cotton candy and fried mega-scones, midway lights, August skies, and all the electric Tilt-A-Whirl voices of chance and victory.

“Go in and out of the store,” I said out loud.

Without buying or returning anything, I would continue to enter and exit, making him say “welcome” over and over until his cerebellum popped a gasket. Surely, his job description had not prepared him for that. I could see us locked in a head-to-head battle of wills. Neither would want to be the first to cave: me walking in and out; him standing his ground; me pretending I’d entered the store for the first time; him saying, “welcome” again and again, afraid to relinquish his post and admit defeat. I laughed with baritone pleasure. I’d do it, I told myself. My town would hail me a social pioneer. My fellow citizens who had suffered for years in silence would praise me for defusing the

Shop ‘n’ Save welcome guy’s Kung Fu mind-meld. His reign of terror would cease.

Near the west end of town, I passed El Sombrero and Sno Shak. Outside Sno Shak, two cheerleaders in bronze and scarlet Trojan uniforms shimmied a practice routine. One of them held a panting Brittany spaniel on a leash. I blinked and stared at the roving picture of the future. It was a bizarre but liberating sensation—to drive and watch myself drop the welcome guy to the canvas with a mental body slam. It would tank him, I considered. Put him out of commission. End his career.

Over the trees, the sun drifted into a bath of firelight. Smoldering strips of peach ignited a shoal of violet taffy clouds. The moment of emancipation I was experiencing was as beautiful and transcendent as the dying day. Turning left down our street, I thought of how the welcome guy would look after a dose of my heavyweight fury. I tried to imagine what he’d say at the next convention for welcome guys after getting deep-sixed in my custom-made world of hurt. Shop ‘n’ Save would pay for his trip to this convention, I reasoned, letting the vision expand. I drove down my street,


slowly. Shop ‘n’ Save probably sent him to a convention every year, I snickered, or perhaps biannually. Such professional gatherings would surely be necessary so he could commiserate with other welcome guys and gals.

This was the daydream I saw while driving: They’d congregate in the Lerenbaum Room of the Ramada Inn in Winnemucca, Nevada. There’d be banquet tables, canary tablecloths, chefs, steaming buffet crocks, Hibachi chicken, Polynesian kebabs, croissants, vegetable medley, crab-and-asparagus pinwheels, ambrosia, Bananas Foster, a karaoke stage featuring the Welcome Back, Kotter soundtrack, and crepe-paper party hats. Hideous Dixieland banners would adorn cinderblock walls. “Welcome!” the banners would carol in brilliant scarlet, mustard, and periwinkle. “To the 31st Annual Banquet for the Association of National Greeters (B.A.N.G).”

The association’s president, Randall Kohler, a turkey-necked man in prospector spectacles and dyed vandyke beard, would deliver a welcome address from the center podium. He would make sure everyone felt welcome, then he would

highlight the key points of welcoming a patron to a store. A congenial simper on his face, President Kohler would cough and check off the steps: 1) the verbal “welcome,” with diction, volume, and eye contact; 2) the hand gesture, “bang-bang,” “five-fingered wave,” and “thumbs-up” included, complete with overhead projections; (at this point, Vice-President Evelyn Hacker from the Terre Haute Price Slashers Consortium of Welcomers would clear her throat and shuffle a sheaf of papers into Kohler’s lowered hand. She would whisper that soon a “welcome woman” would begin working at Price Slashers in every major U. S. city. Hacker would also indicate that a fourth gesture—“the nod”—was on its way through the committee approval process and would be available for the next season’s welcoming responsibilities). Kohler would thank Vice-President Hacker, clear his throat, and say, “Now, where was I?” And he would finish with; 3) how to deal with hostile customers who don’t see the “welcome person” for what it is: a welcome wonder in a weary world. Then, the whole room would erupt in a war-whoop welcome to President Kohler and Vice-President Hacker. Both the president and vice-president would, with a


hearty laugh, invite everyone to feel welcome. At this point, everyone would grin and welcome those people sitting next to them.

The Shop ‘n’ Save welcome guy would sit at a table of four. A fine repast would adorn the table. They’d start with green Jell-O, raisin-and-walnut salad, croissants with pale pats of butter, and ice water in glasses carved to look like dolphins and mermaids. A blue cloth napkin bearing the association’s “Welcome!” insignia would accompany each plate. The welcome woman from the Tuscaloosa, North District, Price Slashers would sit on his right. The welcome girl from the Shreveport, Louisiana, Just-A-Buck would sit on his left, adjusting her QVC girdle. Directly opposite him would sit the welcome guy from the Bangor, Maine, Coastal District, Uncle Monty’s Emporium. The idle chit-chat would begin once President Kohler’s address ended.

“Strange you have an Uncle Monty’s in Bangor,” the Shop ‘n’ Save welcome guy would say to the Uncle Monty’s welcome guy, scrutinizing his name tag, which would say Karl. “We have one in our town, too. Thought it was mostly a western chain.”

“No, in fact,” Karl would reply, tipping his ice water in a convivial toast. “I’m the new northeastern district chairman. We’re currently trying to expand.”

“Oh?”

“You’ve probably noticed there’s no welcome guy in your local store.”

“I’ve felt quite unwelcome when I’ve shopped there.”

“It’s a hard slot to fill.”

“Could you pass the butter?” the Tuscaloosa Price Slashers welcome woman would say.

“Of course,” the Shreveport welcome girl would reply, speaking across the men. “I’m Shirley.”

“Hi, Shirley, I’m Grace. Welcome.”

Then their simultaneous laughter would erupt like a mall fountain. But before the Shop ‘n’ Save welcome guy could launch into a story about how an unruly customer—a man who regularly returned faulty file cabinets—tried to drive him crazy by


going in and out of the store, a flutter of coughs and grating chair legs would signal a commotion.

At the far doors, a timid couple would stand on the verge of entering, a look of crimson indignation icing their faces. They’d be holding hands. They’d be dressed in tuxedo and white cocktail dress. They’d be Mr. and Mrs. Clive Wilkinson, of Ames, Iowa—the welcome couple at the Ames Supermart. An ice-bolt of horror would shish-kebab the convention. The conventioneers would realize that nobody had welcomed the Wilkinsons into the banquet, and that no one had stationed welcomers at the doors. A colossal murmur would surge through the room. Feet shuffling, tense grumbles. An overdressed woman in a silver sequined gown would stare slack-jawed at the Wilkinsons, forget she was pouring water into her glass, shriek, and daub at the overflow with a sopping wad of magenta napkins.

At the administrative table, President Kohler’s napkin would shield his mouth as he conferred with Vice President Hacker. The Vice President, flushed and sweating, would rush from her table toward the Wilkinsons, trip over a chair leg, and roll her ankle.

Undeterred, she would hobble like a lame cow toward the stunned Wilkinsons. Others would rise. Tables would clear. The Shop ‘n’ Save welcome guy would suggest that they offer the Wilkinsons a group welcome. Accordingly, the Lerenbaum Room would explode in a wild, whopping welcome as mobs of jovial colleagues would escort the Wilkinsons to their table, gratified smiles now adorning their once shocked and disappointed faces. Then the entire room would sing the association’s welcome song, making sure everyone felt welcome (most importantly, the Wilkinsons, who would receive a double welcome), and then they’d go back to eating.

As I pulled into the driveway, the vision faded but my smile didn’t.

I entered through the back door and called for Tam. She had vacuumed the popcorn from the carpet.

“I’m home!” I called, swinging the new file cabinet through the door. “Lookee what I got.”

“Shh!” Tam said, entering from Clystie’s room. “She’s sleeping.”


“Sorry,” I whispered.

“Get a new one?”

“Beige.”

“Let me see.”

I ripped open the box.

“That’s not beige,” she said.

“Aw—”

Anger clogged my throat like mucus. I held in my hands a peacock-colored file cabinet, nothing like the illustration.

“This ends now!” I shouted.

“Shush!” Tam said, fingers to her lips. “Don’t wake her!”

“I’m sick of that place! I have to pass the welcome guy. He says ‘welcome,’ but he doesn’t mean it. I swear I’ll shoot the bastard.”

“What’s your hangup?” Tam demanded. She sagged into an armchair and looked at me. I avoided her eyes. Instead, I began to cram the

mutant filing cabinet into its box. My words fluttered out like a clattering cash register drawer of lost receipts.

“If you say something you should mean it! They should either can him or hire somebody who can honestly make people feel welcome.”

Then I realized Clystie was crying in her room. Tam’s eyes narrowed to midnight slits. Her head slumped to her hands.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’ve got to exchange this.”

“Do you mean it?” she asked, looking through the tunnel of her hands. Clystie’s cries shredded the air.

“Yes, I’ve got to exchange—”

“No, that you’re sorry.”

“A sermon. Just what I need.”

“You don’t sound like it.”

“I’m in no mood for object lessons.”

“What are you going to do?”


“Get the one I wanted.”

“And?”

“Ask the welcome guy not to welcome me unless he really means it.”

She glided past me and pushed the door closed.

“You are not,” she said. Her brown eyes blazed like the fierce sunset, her hair as dangerous as the evening breeze.

“I am,” I said.

“Not.”

“I have to.”

You are not.”

“I can’t live like this. I’m going to ask him to stop saying ‘welcome’ without meaning it.”

“That would crush him.”

Crush him? Isn’t that a leetle melodramatic?”

“I’d advise you to say nothing,” she said, turning toward Clystie’s room.

“Thanks for the advice—”

“Do you mean it?”

But I was out the door. I dumped the peacock-eyed file cabinet in the trunk and jumped in. All the way out, I was thinking, If I have to drive out one more time, I’m going to get a gun—at the Shop ‘n’ Save outdoor department—and . . .

I looked out and saw that Main Street wore a matrix of stretched shadows. Hamburger trash tumbled down the sidewalks. Mothers pushed children in strollers. A policeman chased a yellow dog from the curb with a feigned kick. The pre-World War II shop fronts sagged under the weight of early dusk. The W.O.W. building’s pinkish gray hulk, quarried from one-hundred-year old basalt, stood as the centerpiece in a Wild West shooting gallery. The Westwood Cinema was releasing a stream of people headed for home where they’d be welcomed and where game show dreams of love, life, and happiness would be filed away with all panoramic sunsets and virginities—lost and not to be welcomed back, except in the throb of passion or spasm of memory, except on lonely nights when


work would be tiring and the customers would be nasty, when they’d want to pack it up and drive to the dump at the county line, gun the engine, get out, scream at the sky, pour gasoline on the car, and light it up with maniac laughter and a rodeo lighter stolen from the boss’s office. That’s when the beautiful memory would return—when they weren’t expecting it, when it wasn’t welcome. With relish, I anticipated delivering a sledgehammer blow of reality to the welcome guy after he gunned me down with his hokum hospitality.

At the entrance, I walked up to him, file cabinet hoisted under an arm. He dipped his hand into his invisible holster.

“Welcome,” he said, shooting me.

“You know,” I said, looking him in the eye, “I don’t appreciate it when you say I’m welcome, when you don’t make it sound like I’m welcome.”

His lips knitted a tangled smile. His expression faded to a blank screen.

“Hear what I said?” I asked.

I examined his face. His one shiftless eye drifted

like a wandering cloud. Shattered nets of red vessels flecked his wino’s cheeks. I raised my voice a notch.

“I said I don’t appreciate it when you say I’m welcome and I’m really not!”

His grin vaporized. His eyebrows gathered in a storm.

“Welcome,” he said, more cautious, omitting the hand gesture.

“What’s the use?” I said, stalking off.

At the customer service counter, I exchanged the peacock cabinet for a beige model.

“You know,” I said to the girl at the counter. “You oughta get someone else to do the welcoming, someone sincere—or axe the post altogether.”

She recognized me from previous trips. Her red hair had surrendered its citrus glow. She frowned.

“Why?” she asked.

“Don’t know,” I said. “It’s not nice to say someone’s welcome when you don’t mean it. Know what I mean?”


“Yes,” she said, mentally rehearsing the procedure for calling security. “Thanks for shopping at Shop ‘n’ Save.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.

In the car, I sat and stewed. Over the Jolly Green Giant plant smokestacks and power lines, the cardinal slashes of evening descended on the world. I had the file cabinet I’d wanted, but it had taken me all day. Curse SteelMagic from Des Moines, Iowa! I thought. Curse those who welcome us when they don’t mean it! Let ’em burn in hell! I pounded the steering wheel. All around, the parking lot was emptying. The asphalt was littered with tragic folderol: Icee cups, smashed popcorn boxes, crippled shopping carts. Employees straggled out, red vests unbuttoned, heads hung like drunk gamblers leaving a monster riverboat. Toward town, the acid glow of electric lights ascended above the houses and stores to answer the sky’s decrescendo. Cars filled with disillusioned souls streamed toward Highway 33.

Then I saw him.

With a sidewinder hitch, he walked to his car—a

battered fudge-colored Datsun—stuffed himself in, and fired it up. A grin split my face. Welcome, I thought. To my world. I thought about Tam and Clystie. They would wonder where I’d gone. When I didn’t come home right away, Tam would worry or become suspicious. She’d wonder why I’d stayed at Shop ‘n’ Save so long. But I had to know, I told myself. I had to find out where he lived, what he did at night. Probably lives in a cardboard box somewhere, I thought, pulling my Marquis around to follow his Datsun.

We drove. Chased by the falling night, we weaved through town—the welcome guy taking the lead, me following and trying to remain discreet, like a spy shadowing an informant. Welcome, I kept humming as I tailed him down Main Street, past King’s, Sno Shak, the Stinker Station. Here comes the welcoming committee. Make way for the welcome wagon. It was a stupid thing to do, something for which Tam would have killed me. But I couldn’t help it. He’d driven me to the edge. I couldn’t endure further insult without settling the score. I had to expose the manic machine beneath that television stare and stupid “welcome.”


The stubby Datsun rattled west. I followed him past Volco, the gravel pits, past the interstate onramp and radio station into the sloped doldrums of the dairy farms. We drove in tandem, heir and assassin, shaman hermit and demon acolyte. After a few miles into the country, he turned left down a bumpy gravel road riddled with chuckholes. A quarter mile down the gravel road, he turned into a dirt driveway and parked next to a ramshackle trailer house. Figures, I thought, switching off my headlights and ignition. Wonder if a “Visitors Welcome” doormat is outside?

I slipped out, closed the door, and jogged down the road for a better look. The country silence roared in my ears. The night was warm. The sky was supersaturated with stars, bright and dusty, like spilled sugar. To the south, the canyon rim sprawled under circus tents of blue, white, and gold lights from the cities on the south side, each a futuristic weigh station from a useless legend. Crickets tuned their fiddles and chirped about a famine of dreams. The scent of alfalfa, mingled with diesel and ripe manure, shook vigor into my bones. The wind had ceased, so the sound of my feet on the

gravel echoed to the heavens. About fifty yards off, I scrambled over a barbed wire fence and half-ran, half-stumbled through the pasture that bordered his trailer.

As I bumbled over clods and furrows that threatened to snap my ankles, I chuckled to myself. It was so childish—what I was doing. Why couldn’t I just leave a poor man alone? But that’s what was so thrilling. Nobody had ever done, or would ever want to do, what I was doing. In the darkness of some rank cow pasture, I was making myself welcome on unpioneered social soil. I squatted down like an infantryman, tuning my cunning to the cricket radar, trying to be careful where I stepped and where I squatted.

One feeble window burned in the trailer house. The grimy glass stamped a cracked yellow square on the indigo night. Duct tape plastered the cracks in the window. What kind of a . . . I winced. Squinting, I watched his troll silhouette extricate itself from his dinosaur-egg Datsun. He got out using a series of practiced hitches, rests, and hoists, like an invalid about to drop his body into a wheelchair. He hobbled toward his trailer, doubled


over, rubbing his lower back. Not even the night could mask his telltale features: tree-stump frame, smashed wool hair, halting get-a-long gait. He crossed the front yard—two tire gouges through weeds—and ascended the steps. In the lightless surroundings, I spied other objects: battered garbage cans like reject cathedral bells, chewed-up radials, the abandoned fantasies of two rusted Chevy frames, bed springs and rotten mattresses. At his approach, two cats leaped from the porch over a potted sunflower. I shifted on my haunches. I was ready to scram and file the welcome guy episode in my past. But a bulldog curiosity had clamped on my arms and legs and wouldn’t let me budge.

He mounted the steps. The porch light flared on, and the world around the trailer caught fire. The squalor shone in its full glory. I shook my head. Cats swarmed around the porch like maggots: orange toms, graphite Persians, a ratty calico, a Manx with a hitman swagger. Empty cat food bags littered the lawn. For a moment, I was afraid I’d parked too close, that the light would expose my Marquis under its screen of decrepit willows. I glanced over and saw that it was safely out of range.

The trailer door opened. A woman emerged. She stood about his height, as gray as his shadow, just as plump. She was crammed in a sausage-skin floral dress whose Japanese waitress pattern, after many washes, had faded into the unpainted background of their final years together. And this would be Mrs. Welcome, I thought. Welcoming her man home. They stood face-to-face in a fluorescent dome of lapsed glory. Bugs whizzed around the shattered punch bowl of the porch light. The rotten steps threatened to crumble.

Then he did it.

The gun gesture.

At his wife.

I blinked. Blood flooded my temples. Then he mumbled something, and they disappeared inside. I sprang to attack position. Naw! I screamed inside, striding forward. I vaulted over the barbed wire fence. I crossed the gravel road and infiltrated the shattered sphere of jaundiced light. At first sight of me, the rabble of cutpurse cats scattered, and the light flicked off. No way, I objected to heaven. He did not just do the “welcome” to his wife! Who is


this freak? Before I knew it, I was perched on the trailer’s teetering front steps, rapping on the thin door, and hoping the stairs wouldn’t collapse to tinder.

She answered.

“Yes?” she asked, fatigued eyes peering through the damaged screen door. “Who are you?”

“Sorry,” I said. “Could I talk to your husband?”

“It’s late,” she said. “What do you want?”

“To talk to your husband,” I repeated, unable to hide my annoyance.

“Husband?”

“If you don’t mind.”

“My husband’s been—”

“What?”

“Who are you?”

“Nobody—who wants trouble. I just need—”

Then, a sloth-footed mirage of a man in stocking feet padded into the living room behind her. The

floor was cluttered with pans, motor oil cans, worn throw pillows, a dry boot like a discarded snakeskin.

“Awright!” I said, pointing past her. “Just wait.”

He glided closer. He looked at me over her shoulder. His wrinkled shirt was unbuttoned at his throat, the collar ringed with black grime. His smiley face button grinned at the moon.

“I don’t know you,” I said. “But you’ve got to stop welcoming me at Shop ‘n’ Save when you don’t mean it. So would you just stop it? Please?”

He stared through the dirty window of my body. The night had grown chilly. The cold pause whiffled like a curse down my back and arms. I was a cat that had lost its emergency spring mechanism. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. I felt sick and hungry. They stared at me. For a second, I thought they were going to welcome me in.

Instead, he smiled and did the gun motion.

“Welcome,” he said.

“You’re crazy!” I shouted, and the woman slammed the door.


This was the nightmare I saw while driving: all the way home, black hills, back road, nothing but untamed sky and the endlessness of galaxies and supernovas, the empty shelves of space. My space. As I drove, I couldn’t shake the feeling that no matter what I tried I would always be locked in an approach pattern toward my life, never allowed to arrive, that I would always find myself unwelcome no matter where I went, and all in the town in which I’d grown up. Every second in the car, I scoured the surrounding farms and landscape and stores and cut-rate houses and wondered if there couldn’t be a better place to live.

 

THREE

When I got home, Tam and Clystie were asleep. The next day was Sunday, and when I told Tam what I’d done, she had a flying fit. She even cried, and we started yelling at each other, which made Clystie squawl like a trapped raccoon. After a while, we calmed down, and Tam announced that I’d have to escort her to church, or else she’d never forgive me. Not wanting to make things worse—and not

thinking—I said I’d go. At the time, I would have said that church was for old women who needed to make their peace with God, not me. I was reluctant to go, but I didn’t want to make Tam angrier.

So I burrowed in my closet, found some khaki pants, a blue shirt, and a tie marbled with purple, orange, and green swordfish, just to spite her. Together, we walked the two blocks to church, across from BJ’s Used Auto and the R&B Drive-in, opposite Junction Park and Exscape Dance Club, where, according to the banner over the front entrance, local crowds had enjoyed country line dancing until midnight.

Funny thing was, I didn’t feel the least bit worried about being made to feel welcome at church, even though I’d never entered the building—I’d purposefully avoided it for as long as Tam and I had been married. I knew everyone was going to be turning doleful ecumenical eyes on me, like I was some kind of lost cause beyond the tattered pale of redemption. But for some reason, as I walked with Tam and Clystie to church, I whistled and smiled, hands looped in my pockets like Huck


Finn on a fishing trip. The closer we came, the more I felt I’d attended services since I was a small boy, as if I’d mixed the mortar, laid the brick, and written the text for the hymns.

At the entrance, a crowd of families clogged the doorways, like Black Friday shoppers. The men wore suits of navy blue and buff gray, the women pastel dresses and jangly jewelry. Children scampered around chairs and pews like house pets.

“Get back here!” parents called.

“No!” children cried.

For the most part, though, everyone looked happy. We filed in, and I began to feel like I should have explored the building years ago. Arm-in-arm, we shuffled through the noisy foyer. Tam beamed as if headlights were mounted on her forehead. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone. I saw some people I recognized, but I couldn’t latch on to names. I just grinned and made myself feel welcome, which wasn’t easy, considering the circumstances.

At the door to the chapel, an elderly Irish gentleman in a charcoal pinstripe suit greeted us.

He said his name was “Ian Kelly.” He shook our hands and presented us a Xeroxed copy of the worship service. With the verve of a runway model, Tam strode through the double doors and started toward the front. I grabbed her arm and yanked her back. I jerked my head toward the back pews. With a suspicious scowl, she relented.

As I sat there, listening to a silver-haired woman in an orchid-colored dress at the organ play such cryptic unfamiliar music, I wondered if I really belonged—anywhere. Then the music stopped and pulled me from my rapture. I gaped over the heads of men and women to the front of the chapel. At a microphone mounted on an adjustable pulpit, a middle-aged man in a dark chocolate suit, goatee, and Three Stooges tie, who another man referred to as “Skeeter,” announced that a man named Glen, who was one of their resident war veterans and who appeared to be the twin brother of the Shop ‘n’ Save welcome guy, would offer the invocation.

“As you all know,” Skeeter said with a trembling smile, “Glen is someone you can count on. He was unit chaplain in Korea, and they said he stayed at


his post, close to the front lines. Some of you remember—he welcomed troops to services, Bible in one hand, pistol in the other. When that hellbird shell screamed out of the sky—broke his body, put that plate in his head—Glen didn’t retreat. Broke his body, not his spirit.”

I gripped the pew cushion beneath my haunches. I stared at the podium. The man who Skeeter had called Glen approached the microphone. The organ music had ceased, but the martial chords of a doxology sung by fugitive bands of minor saints drummed in my temples as I observed Glen’s stutterstep walk, his stubborn cumulus hair, and directionless eyes—one drawn by a saintly gravity of purity to the horizon of history. And the prayer he gave. At least, I thought it was the prayer. He fired one imaginary handgun at the eastern half of the pews, his other gun at the western half.

“Welcome, welcome,” he said into the microphone. His voice echoed through the chapel.

The congregation, all except me, whispered back: “welcome, welcome.”

I can’t remember everything. And I can’t adequately describe what I feel when I talk about it. But I knew at that time that the group surrounding me possessed something I’d missed, some connection I’d never known, perhaps would never know. Alienated and welcomed home, I sat in the back pew with Tam’s hand crooked in my elbow and Clystie dozing like an orphan in my arms.

Unnoticed, I scrambled through the file in my mind. I wanted to torch the papers, the blotched and botched records, the distorted graphs and charts with my name, date, and performance on them, the ones that fluttered away as I reached but failed to grasp them. I was searching for one vital record I wanted to erase but couldn’t—the one that said the Shop ‘n’ Save welcome guy changed my life, the one that said exactly what it meant.

 

 

 

 

Copyright© Matthew James Babcock. White Whale Review, issue 2.2


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