The Ballad of Donald & Lydia
This story was inspired by the song "Donald and Lydia" by John Prine. Full lyrics can be found here.
Chorus from the song: But dreaming just comes natural Like the first breath from a baby, Like sunshine feeding daisies, Like the love hidden deep in your heart.
Lydia: "Fi' dollars worth," he muttered, and tossed a bill on the counter.
Lydia took a good look at the kid while she scooped his quarters out of the till. He was only about 13, but wore a weary expression to impress his friends. Lydia smacked her gum and took note of the grime on his neck and the beginnings of a hole in the shoulder seam of his black Metallica t-shirt.
His mama sure didn't take very good care of him, she thought. She wanted to reach across and take a spit-dampened hanky to the corner of his mouth, where ketchup from the hot dog he'd eaten, probably his only meal that day, was caked and drying. She wanted to enfold him in her arms and cuddle him and make everything okay, but she knew she'd get nothing but squirms and protests in return. Probably a few choice swearwords too.
She abandoned the fantasy and wondered idly where he got the money to play pinball all day. Probably sold drugs down to the public school, she thought, and handed the quarters over.
The kid never even turned his head in her direction. Didn't even check that she'd given him the right change for his five as he hurried back to his friends. Didn't even think enough of her to consider that she might try to rip him off. Lydia slumped back onto her stool and spat her gum into the trash. It stuck to the plastic liner and hung there.
And why should he look at her, she asked herself looking down. All she saw were her massive breasts, covered by a clean but thinning cotton blouse, her belly and her knees. No lap, she joked to herself for the thousandth time. Hey look ma! That lady's got no lap!
Lydia sighed and opened a bag of Cheetohs, waiting for the next quarter-hound to come along and ignore her. The pinball machines were all busy tonight and their clamor filled the room, making her ears ring. She felt the familiar beginnings of one of her headaches at the base of her skull. Everyone seemed to be occupied for the time being, so Lydia indulged herself in some people-watching. Why not? No one ever seemed to notice the way she stared.
Over at the pool tables, the captain of the high school football team was teaching his new girlfriend, a complete bimbo in Lydia's opinion, how to play. She didn't care about pool, that much was obvious. She had too many buttons undone, and her skirt kept hiking up just enough to show her crotch whenever she bent over to try a shot. Pink nylon panties. Lydia guessed they probably had "Tuesday" embroidered on them, even though it was Saturday - mint green. Regardless of what day it was, her boyfriend was quite aware of those panties, judging by the way he kept backing away from the table to get a better view while she showed off for him.
At the other table, the local pool shark was collecting money from the small crowd that had gathered there. You'd think they'd know by now that he was a small-town Minnesota Fats and could make any trick shot he said he could make. That had to be the third time that dough-head in the hunting cap had lost a dollar over that penny-on-the-eight-ball trick. He must think it was special effects or something. People in hick towns were so dumb.
Over in the corner, where they thought she couldn't see, the pool hall manager's 16-year-old son was trying to jam his tongue down Michelle Ferguson's throat, while simultaneously seeing how far down her pants he could get his hand. They were first cousins. Lydia balled up a Golden Dragon Gardens take-out menu and threw it at them, hitting the young groper square in the balls. He squeaked and got his hand caught as he tried to pull it out of Michelle's pants. Michelle swatted at him and ran off to the ladies' room while stud-boy shot Lydia the bird and sauntered away. It was the most attention Lydia had got all night.
Lydia took a small amount of pleasure in knowing that no one would ever know what she was thinking about them, or about herself, for that matter. She hid her thoughts like a cat. Her eyes were sheltered by her round cheeks, but the thoughts they harboured were really concealed by the world's indifference to a fat girl. She tried to be proud of her inscrutability, but now and then, when she wasn't paying attention, she would realize that she wished someone would notice her and wonder what she was thinking. Maybe even ask.
At four o'clock she took the plastic bag from the trash can and carried it out behind the pool hall to drop it in the dumpster. It had been filled with wet-naps, but in spite of all the times she cleaned her fingers, they were still stained black from all the quarters she'd handled. She couldn't wait to get home and soak her fingers in liquid soap. It was Saturday, and for once she didn't have to work on Sunday. She bought some cookies and soda on her way home and locked herself in her bedroom with them while her parents watched a re-run of Kojak downstairs.
It was too early for anything good to be on TV, so she pulled a Romance magazine out of the stack by her bed and flipped through it while the radio sputtered country tunes and ads for Billy-Ray's Fine Used Cars - "C'mon in for a Fine Deal on all your used car needs!"
Lydia heard cars coming and going on the street. The evening sun cast burnt umber shadows of trees and passing kids' bicycles on the pavement. Mr. Furguson yelled at Michelle to get in the house goddamit, it's suppertime. Lydia knew the pool hall would be busy tonight and toyed with the idea of going back, just to see if she could help. She'd read all those articles before and there weren't going to be any good movies on that night. She looked out the window for the umpteenth time and wondered why it felt like Sunday in her bedroom, when Saturday afternoon was winding into Saturday night outside.
Donald: Most of the other grunts were already snoring. They'd just got in from a 20-mile slog through the mud with full packs and loaded weapons. In the rain. Shit, this wasn't like the ads on TV, thought Donald, as he rolled over for the tenth time in five minutes. There's no fucking life like it, all right.
His feet were doing a slow burn, his back hurt every time he took a breath, and his balls, wet all day and probably growing some kind of creeping mould, itched like a sonofabitch. And the fucking lights were still on. Glaring right in his top-bunk face like he really needed further torture. Goddam army had to follow a schedule no matter what.
He rolled over again, his arm flopping listlessly on the perfectly smooth mattress. His hand bounced back up a bit and then settled on the bunk. He looked at the clock. Again. Only 8:52. Another 8 fucking minutes before they'd turn off the christly lights.
And then it started. Just like every goddam night for the past three weeks. The furtive little squeak and jiggle from below that meant that his bunk-mate was jerking off again. Donald couldn't stand it any more.
"For the love-a Christ, Hoskins, you fucking pervert would ya quit that and go to sleep?! I'm sick of listening to you jack off every night!"
"Shut up you asshole!" someone yelled, and a soggy boot came sailing through the air, bouncing off the wall next to Donald's head.
With a disgusted grunt, Donald swung his skinny legs over the edge of the bunk and hopped down to the floor, hissing at the pain that zinged up his legs when he landed. He shot a loud fart in Hoskins' direction and then shuffled carefully toward the latrine. The lights were still on.
The latrine was at the other end of the barracks and Donald had to pass by all the sleeping soldiers to get there. He tried not to look at them, to give them the privacy he so badly craved, but sometimes it was impossible.
It was impossible not to notice one young PFC rocking back and forth in his lower bunk, trying to put himself to sleep after suffering another day of humiliation and abuse from the Drill Sergeant. His "Jew-Boy" looks and unhardened body made him the butt of jokes and taunts.
Impossible not to see, a little further on, the sparkling gaze that followed him from a top bunk as he passed. Donald actually caught a whiff of cologne. An erection tented the boy's blanket and his toes wiggled in greeting. Donald pretended not to notice. He'd been pretending not to notice those eyes on him ever since the first day of basic training.
Another pair of eyes watched Donald from the other side of the room. Buck. That's all anyone called him. Even the Sarge. Buck horked and worked up a gob of spit and Donald braced himself. But Buck just chuckled cruelly and spat into the garbage can next to his bed. A small wet clang as it hit the metal.
Finally he reached the latrine, pulled down his shorts and sat. He sighed with relief for the small measure of privacy and quiet he'd found. He waited for his body to take care of business, but nothing happened. False alarm. Paid my dime and only farted, thought Donald with a weak smile. He ran a hand over his bristly head and sighed again, closing his eyes.
Suddenly the lights went out and he was left in the dark. But he didn't move. He didn't want to go back out into that room full of snoring, farting, exhausted men. He didn't want to climb back into his bunk and feel that wobble he felt every night, the wobble that got worse and worse, the squeak that got louder and louder, until finally Hoskins would grunt softly and roll over to go to sleep, leaving Donald lying there hoping no one thought it was him who'd been jerking off.
His bones hurt. His skull hurt. His teeth hurt. He leaned forward, elbows on knees, and dangled his hands between his legs. His shorts hung around his ankles and his glazed, weary eyes stared through the ceiling. He tried to shut out the sounds of snores from the next room. Concentrated on an oblong of light that slowly moved across the ceiling. The MPs doing their rounds in a jeep. Wished for candlelight and wine and a soft round woman.
And with no one there to soothe him, no warm encircling arms or gentle voice to tell him everything would be okay, his mind drifted up, through the square of light and into the welcoming sky. His right hand slipped along his thigh and found the stirring between his legs.
He concentrated on that woman, that lush abundant woman who only existed now in patches of light on the ceiling or in the reflections in mud puddles that danced to the rhythm of soldiers' boots . The whore who liked him best and let him go first. The one who had pretended not to know there were a half dozen PFCs waiting in the next room. The whore with the belly he lay upon like a pillow and the breasts that almost smothered him as he sank into her well-tilled furrow and spilled his virgin seed.
The barracks slipped away. He was only 18 and there was a roomful of strange men out there who didn't give a fuck about him.
Lydia: They didn't need anyone at the pool hall. Sounded like they thought she was nuts for even asking. Lydia hung up the phone and started back up the stairs.
"Hey, Lyd. Get me a beer. Cold ones are in the crisper." Her father sounded half-snapped already. He'd probably be asleep before he finished his next can.
Lydia popped the beer open and set it on her father's TV tray before heading back up the stairs. She went slowly and took a deep breath at the top before continuing on to her room. It was almost nine and she'd done nothing since getting home but flip through magazines and stare out the window.
She picked some lint off the dust ruffle on her bed. She straightened the ill-fitting crocheted cover on the tissue box. She switched off the bedside lamp and let the darkness flood into her eyes for a moment before taking her place in the old rocking chair by the window.
It was dark outside, the streetlights illuminated small dramas each time someone passed through their glow walking a dog or wandering aimlessly. Lydia rocked slowly and made up a story about the young couple who paused below the lamp at the end of her driveway. They kissed and giggled for a moment. She smiled and sighed as she watched them, but after a moment her smile faded and a familiar sadness began to spread through her solar plexus. She rocked a little faster for a while until the feeling passed. The couple drifted away and Lydia's gaze slid up the lamp-pole and fixed on the steady white light that made all the deep black night around it seem so much deeper and blacker.
She rested her head on the knitted pillow tied with neat bows to the back of her chair. She lifted one cushiony thigh over the armrest and slid forward a little, resting her other foot on the end of her bed. Here in the dark she could watch and do whatever she wanted and no one would ever know. Just like they never knew what she thought, they would never know what she did here some nights, when the sky was deep and the streetlight shone like a doorway to another world. Her fingers slipped up her thigh, her silky bounteous thigh, and played a while in the soft curls at her center. The light filled her eyes and her nighttime lover slowly formed in the blackness beyond.
Donald no longer felt the toilet under his thighs. The whore was gone, the barracks was gone. He was floating, each stroke of his hand propelling him further into the sky, over mountains and streams that shimmered and invited. He felt warmth all around him, an embrace that engulfed him.
Lydia sighed and rocked and stroked and her lover took shape in the stars and enticed her out of her dingy little bedroom. His long arms reached out and she rose a little higher to him and she was like a cloud, soft and billowy. He sank into her, smiling his gangly smile, wrapping his long limbs around her, and the two of them were like rope and cotton balls, each giving form to the other.
They were soft breezes and warm rain and they fed each other with soft warm kisses like daisies feeding on sunshine. They fit together like God's sweetest angels, as easily as raindrops trickle down the crease of a smile, as naturally as a baby's first breath.
The valleys and mountains felt Donald and Lydia that night. Streams sparkled more brightly in the starlight after their shadow passed. The grasses quivered with their breath and the dew of their passion caused tiny seeds to burst with life. The earth was witness and the sky was shelter for two lovers, strangers who met in dreams and sighs from ten miles and a million wishes away.