‘Tiny Love: The Complete Stories,’ by Larry Brown: An Excerpt

[ Return to the review of “Tiny Love.” ]

It seemed to go on forever sometimes, the two of them sitting in the bathroom, because she could lean forward and turn on the faucet with her toes and let more hot water in, and Tiny would keep replenishing her drink, because it was a prelude to love. Once the bath was done and she was done and she said that she was ready, he would let the water out and dry her partially where she sat in the tub, because he didn’t want to pick her up while she was wet and risk dropping her, and she would lift her legs and let him dry her under each one, and he would carefully run the towel under and over everything involved, so that she would be dry, and safe to hold, and he would, once he was sure of this, bend once again and put his hands under her legs and behind her back and lift her up, and reposition her in the wheelchair, toss her little robe over her, and wheel her back to the bedroom.

He would kiss her and tell her how much he loved her before he took her out of the chair. There would be only a small lamp burning. She would nod and smile, holding out her empty glass, and he would hurry to make her another drink. He would bring it to her and sit beside her on the bed until she was ready, and then he would lift her out of the chair and put her on the bed and pull the covers up over her, so that she was not exposed, and undress quickly in one small dark corner of the room, and go to her, naked and fully engorged, and spread her thin withered thighs and get in between them and try to give her all the love he could feel.

It was dirty, dangerous work, and there was no way to get out of it, because once it started you were locked into a clock you had to punch into for forty hours a week, and that left no room for looking for other jobs, and Tiny never expected that his life would merit more than this anyway. He believed in Social Security and he believed that he would live a long and healthy life and he believed that his job was a form of security as solid as anything anybody could ever hope for. Sometimes he longed to drive the forklifts. Sometimes he longed to be the foreman over the assembly line where fifty people put stoves together and drilled holes with drills and inserted screws with air-driven screwdrivers and sent them on down the line, because the press department was too loud for talk and almost too loud for thought, but Tiny had only two thoughts anyway and they were, Lord, I love her, Kentucky Tavern.

He tried not to think about her too much when he was at work. He tried to think about his hands and where to keep them as the huge wheels turned and the die came down and shook the concrete floor where he stood on the skid with his cotton gloves and his rubber-suction-cup rod. There was two weeks’ vacation a year, time he usually spent in his garden, early in the spring when everything needed to be tended to, when the pole beans needed poles and the tomatoes needed staking and tying off, when the grass was coming strong in the watermelons and they needed a good hoeing out. If she was okay, or sleeping, sometimes he would fish, settled against a tree on the riverbank, a small can of worms beside him, the line lying slack in the slow, muddy river current, flotsam piled in the eddies, empty milk jugs and beer cans and tiny sticks and trash. But he thought of her even then, wondering if she was all right, if he should stop fishing and go see if she needed anything. The two weeks always overwhelmed him. Here were two whole weeks where almost anything might be accomplished, where a man might search out and find a better job, one that paid more money, that was not so dangerous and depressing, one that might allow him to buy a better car, new furniture, a motorized wheelchair, any number of things that might improve their lives. She had never been able to have any children and Tiny had accepted it early, but he still grieved in his heart for the loss of what might have been, children to come home to, to help with their homework, to take fishing. And there never seemed to be enough time in the two weeks to do all the things that needed doing. Each year he told himself that he was going to get ahold of a truck and some men to help him move the pianos out of the yard, but there were always other things to tend to, a coat of paint on the house, the reworking of her little flower gardens, and every afternoon the trip to town for the little half-pint bottle. She would not allow him to buy a fifth. She would say that she was not alcoholic and did not need a fifth. She would say that all she needed was a little half-pint. And Tiny never even thought, for a long while, of arguing with her. He loved her too much.

Sometimes Tiny fried the fish he caught, when he caught some, rolling the headless lengths of pink catfish flesh in yellow cornmeal and dropping them into hot grease and turning them with a fork until they were a nice, even brown. She would help him, sitting by the stove in her wheelchair, offering advice as to the doneness of each piece, chainsmoking and drinking her little drinks. Tiny knew that she didn’t have anything else to do, that she was lonely, that the drinks helped her cope with her life and her reluctance to walk. He dreaded the end of his vacation and the return to the brutalizing noise of the factory, the danger of losing his hands, the same cold, tired bologna sandwiches. He never complained, never regretted being saddled with her and his life, never asked the big Why? He enjoyed his two weeks off as best he could and when it was over went back to the thing that brought in his three dollars and sixty cents an hour.

Her liver was not in good shape and there were frequent trips to the doctor. There was no one else to take her and so Tiny would have to be excused from work for a few hours. The press-department foreman didn’t like it because then he had to pull somebody out of spot welding and put him on Tiny’s machine. Sometimes she would call the factory and ask for Tiny and somebody would have to come and get him, usually the press-department foreman, and he would never fail to tell Tiny that they weren’t paying him to talk on the phone. Tiny would nod his head and agree and thank the foreman and go into the foreman’s tiny office where the phone was lying on its side and he would listen to whatever his wife was telling him, nodding his head rapidly, trying to get off the phone as soon as possible, and it was always bad for him to have to go back out and tell the foreman that he needed a few hours off so he could take his wife to the doctor.

The foreman would more often than not get mad at him, and cuss, and then tell him to go on, but hurry up, goddamnit, and Tiny would rush to the time clock, punch out, rush home, load his wife up, rush to the doctor’s office, see the doctor, then rush back home and unload her, and rush back to the factory, where the foreman would be so mad he wouldn’t speak to him for the rest of the day. And anyway, after a trip to the doctor, there was never much left of the rest of the day. And after a trip to the doctor, Tiny could never stop thinking about what the doctor had said, because he always said the same things. He always told Tiny that her liver was in bad shape, that her drinking was going to kill her, and that Tiny had to stop buying it for her. After Tiny had pushed his wife back out to the waiting room, he and the doctor would have these small private conferences in the doctor’s office, behind a closed door. The doctor would say that he understood she had a need, but her liver was getting worse, and if she didn’t stop drinking, one day it was going to kill her. The doctor would say for Tiny to just stop buying it, but Tiny would shake his head and tell the doctor that he could hardly stand to do that, that she needed it, that she was lonely, that she would cry if he didn’t buy it for her, and that there were a lot of things he could stand but seeing her cry wasn’t one of them. Then the doctor would shake his own head and write a prescription and tear it off the little tablet and tell him a definite and somewhat huffy good-bye.

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