Gladys Knows

by Jim Henry


Gladys curses her mother under her breath as she pushes a lawnmower across the grass. Eddie, her brother, always makes such straight lines, and yet to do so seems impossible.

The heat is unbearable and Gladys has a hangover.

She needs a cigarette -- badly. At the end of every line she stops, sweating, and surveys the strip she's just mowed, invariably finding that she has wavered. Every time. Looking back over the half yard she's done it looks like it was cut by a drunk, a madman, a retard.

Gladys laughs to herself. The grass will need to be emptied soon, before another line is done. Her brastrap is giving her a rash.

In the back yard the Capp twins are digging in the pile of topsoil left by the nursery the weekend before. Gladys sighs thinking that it'll have to be loaded into the wheelbarrow and spread around the yard into all the various beds her mother dug last weekend with one of the men from The Raw Deal, the bar her father had owned. His name was Jaime and he smoked cigars and worked with no shirt on. He was one of the many men that had been coming over lately.

Like most of them, lately, he was not one of the men from the funeral. This is Gladys' main frame of reference with the men that come over for her mother: ones she remembers from the funeral, and ones she doesn't.

Gladys dumps the grass clippings and heads over to see what the Capp twins are doing in the dirt. They are secretive little boys about ten years old who live two houses down. They never dress alike and hate to be thought of as special because of their twinness.

She asks them what they are doing, bent over and smiling her biggest smile. The boys twist their heads up to look at her, squinting into the sun.

"Mind your own business Barf-bag!" One of them says and they snicker and go back to their digging.

Back in the front yard Gladys is again appalled at her inability to cut even one straight line. The mailman drives by and honks at her as she stands with her hands on her hips regarding her massacre. Billy Walker from up the street walks by -- a mess of greasy hair, torn jeans and nose rings -- sucking on a popsicle and stops to stare at her staring at the grass.

"It's a matter of where you look," he says, coming across the lawn. "If you look directly in front of you as you go, you'll never cut in a straight line. You've got to look to the end of the yard and navigate yourself there."

Gladys tells Billy to fuck off and he shakes his head as if to laugh, the popsicle stifling any noise. Gladys despises Billy Walker, even though they once had ended up practically fucking out in the woods after a bottle of gin.

"I'm just trying to pass on the wisdom of the suburban sages. Grass cutting is an art, my little Gladys." He grins, knowingly. He begins again. "Like fellatio, it only seems easy. Doing it right requires skill."

Gladys says nothing.

The fellatio remark sets her heart pounding. Billy must know that she and Maddox -- one of Billy's good friends and Gladys' boyfriend -- had a fight last night because Maddox wanted to come in her mouth. She wouldn't let him, though, because she knew he'd screwed Emma after the bonfire the week before. It ended up being a big scene; bigger than it needed to be anyway, and Maddox had almost hit her. He must've told Billy all about it.

Gladys imagines with disgust the conversation that must've been.

She glares at Billy, who takes the popsicle out of his mouth and then shoves it back in... takes it out... shoves it back in... out... in. A disgusting leer creeps across his face and then he turns to leave, rolling his head back and cackling.

Gladys re-attaches the bag to the side of the lawn mower and pulls the starter. It takes her a couple of strenuous tugs but finally it starts and she turns back to face the yard. She takes a deep breath and then remembers she'd meant to smoke a cigarette after dumping the clippings but that "Barf-bag" remark from the Capp twins made her forget.


At dinner Gladys sits in silence while her brother asks their mother if he can bring his new girlfriend over to watch a movie on the VCR.

Mrs. Laker sniffs her peas and says it is a strange time of the year for canned peas. Eddie asks again about his girlfriend, would it be all right if she came over and they watched a movie. "All right?" she says, dramatically arching her eyebrows, pursing her great, painted lips. "All right!? What, so I suppose you can fuck her on the couch. I know what you kids do. Little swine."

Gladys watches Eddie's face recoil from the encounter. She wonders what he expects. It is best not to even mention girlfriends or boyfriends to their mother. The thing to do is to just bring them over and let her make her scene and then have it done with. Once she's done with that you can rely on her to disappear into her room for a good long cry. Although lately she's been calling The Raw Deal; "For company," as she says, "a widow needs that now and then."

This is her new thing. Any time of the day or night these men come banging into the house, usually drunk, and they just go right up to her room. Sometimes they stop on their way out and smile at Gladys. Some of them she knows, most she doesn't.

"Well, so I guess it'll be okay then?" Eddie says.

Gladys wonders why he persists.

"Okay? Okay? Since when does anything have to be okay with me around here? Since when has anybody in this house given a good goddamn what I have to say about anything? Bring her over. Screw on the kitchen table for all I care."

Gladys gets desert from the freezer after dinner. It's some ice cream and cookies her mother mixed together in a fit of inspiration that afternoon after Gladys finished the yard. She'd found her mother in the kitchen in a baggy pair of gym shorts and a white v-necked tee shirt with no bra, sitting at the table in front of a two gallon jug of vanilla ice cream and two open packs of Oreos. She was mixing them together in a small Rubbermaid bucket. "What would be better?" She said, her eyes thrilled, her hands a sticky mess. "Try and think of one thing better than ice-cream and Oreos together." She said, "just one." Then she went back to mixing it all together with wild abandon.

Gladys was picking up some Oreo wrappings when a man came out of the living room in his underwear. He was holding a basketball tightly to his chest. "Shit," he said. He bounced the basketball once. Gladys glared at him and her mother sucked on her fingers, turning from one to the other. The man bounced the basketball one more time and turned and left.

Eddie whistles as he does the dishes and Gladys dries. She wants to ask him how he always gets the lines so straight when he cuts the grass. Upstairs their mother is singing "High Hopes" at the top of her lungs while rearranging furniture. After dinner she said that it was time to shake up her life with a little redecorating.

"Do you suppose someday she'll just drop dead?" Eddie asks as he rinses the soap out of an ice cream dish.

Gladys doesn't understand. Everyone drops dead.

"I mean, do you think she'll just run out of energy some day and just stop, like a toy that runs out of batteries or something like that?"

Gladys says she supposes so.

"I picture it sometimes. She'll be going on a rampage, or moving some furniture, or, I don't know, something, one of her things and then she'll just stop, stand straight up, smile once... and then just fall down dead. Just like that. It'll all be over."

Gladys is about to tell her brother that he is dreaming, that in the real world people don't just disappear, they linger, they annoy, they take their time exiting. And it's almost never on cue. But then her mother appears, leaping down the steps. She comes bounding into the kitchen, singing, "everyone knows an ant ... can't... move a rubber tree plant.. but he's got high hopes, he's got high hopes."

She starts dancing around the kitchen table, one hand on her hip, one arched over her head, spinning herself like a music box ballerina, "He's got high apple pie in the sky hopes." Finally she sits down -- collapses, really -- at the table and sighs a tremendous sigh that leaves her limp and crumpled.

She breathes heavily a few times, pushing the hair from her face. Finally she speaks. "I hate this fucking world," she says, and starts crying, "I hate it more than either of you could ever imagine." Eddie slowly turns the water off -- "More then you could imagine in your wildest dreams" -- leaving the house in absolute silence.

He and Gladys slowly walk toward their mother, slumped in the chair. As they inch their way across the soiled linoleum, looking back and forth at each other, just as they approach her, she bites her lower lip, lifts her head and says, "Is there anymore ice cream?"


Maddox picks Gladys up in his fathers Cadillac. He is all dressed up and has a flower in his lapel and a corsage in a box.

Gladys is surprised, shows it.

"We're going ballroom dancing." He says, pulling out of the driveway.

Ballroom dancing?

"That's right, m'lady, ballroom dancing."

Gladys doesn't know how to ballroom dance.

"There's nothing to it. Besides, the man leads."

Gladys is wearing jeans?

"Fear not."

They get onto the highway and Maddox pulls out a tape and pops it into the stereo. His father's Cadillac has a great stereo system with speakers all over the place and a graphic equalizer built into the dash. (His father is a lawyer and the local judge.) The tape is opera, which at first makes Gladys laugh, but then she sits and listens to it, a soprano with piano accompaniment, and she feels herself relax.

It starts to rain and the drops have a hypnotic effect as she stretches out in the vast American expanse of front seat. She hugs herself into the velour upholstered seat and marvels at the feeling of flight the car offers.

Maddox lights a joint and hands it to her. She inhales deeply and feels the warmth of it in her head. He turns the music up and the car seems to speed up with it. She looks out the window and sees that they are weaving through traffic like magic, like a video game. Lights fly by to the left and to the right, cars part in anticipation of them. It looks as effortless as a walk in the park, and yet they are in two tons of steel and glass.

This feeling of wellness stays with Gladys through most of the joint -- through three arias, the beauty of which brings tears to her eyes, makes her spine tingle in a way that reminds her of coming. She feels herself gliding through an unreality as pure as light, as soft as a dream. Even the rhythm of her breathing is harmonious and magical.

Air tastes like sugar, her blood pulses through her veins like the clearest of crystal streams. Her hair feels like silk. The world speeds by like a light show. The world has become a light show, as harmless and distant as a laser light show at a planetarium.

She looks over at Maddox and feels a tremendous love for him. She wishes she had let him come in her mouth -- he gets such a charge out of it. So what if she couldn't figure out why it mattered where he came, if it was in or out or on or behind or, who cared, really. The things we let distract us, she thinks, the things we let ourselves be derailed by! She'd let him come in her mouth, she thinks, staring enraptured at him, on main street at noon if it would make him happy.

She stares at the side of his face, lit by the halogen street lamps, and her heart pounds for him. The world is perfectly tuned, spinning just as it should. Precisely right. Why had they fought? Just go with it, she thinks, just let it be.


But, then, slowly at first, the old familiar anxiety creeps up on her. (She knew it would happen. For months now pot had been making her paranoid.) Suddenly, the shrill screaming voice of the singer begins to grate on every nerve in her body, she feels seasick from the motion of the speeding car. She sees her entire life as one long perilous journey leading up to this one incomprehensibly senseless moment, speeding like lunatics toward a "ball" of some sort -- whoever heard of a "ball?"

It is absolutely obvious to her: this is how she will die. It all makes the most perfect sense. Every minute of her long and tortured existence has been leading to this one moment. Her entire history reveals itself to her; it spreads back behind her like a thin, winding path barricaded on each side by tall, sheer walls precluding deviation of any sort. Her death is upon her, her fate is sealed, as it always had been. What a fool she'd been not to know it!

Her body tightens into a knot. She can barely breathe. She pulls her limbs into herself desperately gasping for air.

A scream builds inside her. She feels it starting as a tiny, shrill plea in the bottoms of her feet. And then it builds. And it builds. By the time it has reached her knees it has become a screech, then it becomes an operatic howl, a desperate guttural cry, a tremendous scathing wail, an inhuman, no a superhuman fantastic scream.

She feels it leaving her mouth against her will, it seems to shatter the interior of the car as it comes, bursting forth. A lifetime's worth of suppressed screams, all of them at once, every scream she never dared scream all her life long, looses itself upon the interior of Maddox's father's speeding Cadillac.

There are immediate results.

Maddox himself picks up the howl, like a contagion. He somehow loses control of the car in the course of his own screaming. Suddenly they are spinning in the rain, the car is spinning uncontrollably across the four-lane highway. They scream and scream. Death is imminent and now both of them know it, so they scream some more. All around them events slow unnaturally.

It was like watching yourself on TV, they will both recount later, it was like watching a movie.

They spin to a stop in the grass between the highways' north and south sides. They are unhurt. The car is undamaged. They are out of breath.

"Jesus Fucking Christ," Maddox says, "what the hell was that scream for?"

Gladys can barely open her mouth.

"Jesus Fucking Christ. I think I shit my pants." He is gasping desperately, his eyes so wide it looks to Gladys like they might jump out of his head. "This suit is a rental!"

Gladys notices a foul odor.


The Ballroom, a rented party hall really, is decorated with crepe paper and balloons. A spinning mirrored ball hangs from the ceiling. Punch is served by old ladies in taffeta gowns. Maddox and Gladys are the only people under twenty in the entire ballroom. They are the only people under forty. It turns out it is an event to raise money for an animal shelter the police department has put on. Maddox's father, as the local judge, got tickets but at the last minute couldn't go because of diarrhea. (Maddox hadn't shit his pants after all.)

Gladys refuses to dance most of the night. She stands in a corner and watches Maddox go from one person to the next, shaking hands, patting shoulders, flirting with old ladies. He will be a politician someday, she thinks. Good family connections, good looks, broad shoulders.

He says he is going to study political science, then law. "I'm a good catch," he told her one night in the back of his car. Gladys was staring off into space, winding and unwinding her brastrap around her middle finger.

Gladys wasn't aware of having cast a line.


A woman named Chartreuse eventually takes it upon herself to talk to Gladys. It is late and the crowd has thinned out. The band looks bored.

Gladys notices the saxophonist checking his watch. A woman in the corner opposite Gladys, with a crowd of leering men encircling her, is drunkenly trying to recount the Ten Commandments. "Thou shalt not covet..." she keeps saying and then giggling.

Chartreuse comes over and shakes Gladys' hand through a white glove, "How do you do?" she asks.

Gladys nods unconvincingly. They introduce themselves and then Chartreuse tells her that she knew her father many years before. "He used to date my Maggie," she says. "This was before he met your mother, of course. He was on the football team. Did you know that?"

Gladys knows.

"Of course you would. He was a fine young man. Very polite, well dressed. Like men were back then. He and my Maggie used to go to the drive-in, to the raceway, picnics. That sort of thing. A very innocent time. Seems almost comical now." Chartreuse looks thoughtfully skyward and continues, "I saw a boy yesterday walking down the street with a red mohawk and rings pierced through his cheeks."

Gladys smiles. That is Jimmy; an actual suburban heroin user.

Chartreuse shrieks. "My God! Heroin? Really?"

Gladys nods, pleased to have shocked this annoying woman.

"He injects heroin? With needles?"

Gladys laughs.

"Here in Province? Well, you see what I mean. It was a different world not so many years ago. Your father was a good man."

Gladys thinks about her father, the man that took Chartreuse's Maggie to the drive-in and on picnics. She sees them living in slow motion and soft focus, in a world lit like a douche commercial.

"How long's it been now?" Chartreuse asks, fidgeting as people do, Gladys has learned, when asking about the dead.

"Three years," Gladys says, imagining the spinning pages of a calendar flying off into empty black space.

"To lose someone in a murder is an awful thing. I can't begin to understand what your family must've gone through. And to think it was for, what -- what did they get?"

"Forty-six dollars," Gladys recites. People usually act as if it would somehow make sense (or be at least in accordance with their view of the world) if her father's killers had at least stolen some serious money before shooting his squarely in the head, twice. As if a higher figure would allow them a better nights' sleep as they fooled themselves into the believing that the world makes anything even closely resembling sense.

"Forty-six dollars. Hmmh."

Gladys spots Maddox waving to her from a circle of policemen. When he catches her eye he motions for her to come over. Relieved, she tells Chartreuse her boyfriend beckons.

She looks over toward Maddox and says, very impressed, "Maddox Haines, very good. A girl could do worse."

Gladys shows surprise.

Chartreuse stands up and dusts off her gown. "I always make it a point to tell the young that everything changes. They always seem so sure it won't. That they already know everything. But things change, my dear. Soon much of what you think and feel will be just a memory, a hazy memory. You'll have trouble remembering what it was that you feel so passionately now. About everything."

Gladys has nothing to say.

Chartreuse goes on, patting Gladys' shoulder and smiling broadly. "Many people are crushed by life, a woman my age has seen a lot of people utterly deflated by it" she says. "We shouldn't judge them, though it seems easy. I knew your mother too. She was actually friends with my Maggie at one time. This is a small town."

Gladys imagines its smallness, pretends she is looking at it from above, all the aluminum houses sitting on square plots of green, her yard with its crooked lines.

"To my mind," Chartreuse continues, "that we can even go on, at times, is a miracle. Truly. Up there with walking on water and all that rubbish. That we even find the strength to just go on."


On the way home Maddox teasingly complains that the wife of a politician is supposed to be sociable. "Mix!" he tells her, "Even if you think everybody's an asshole, it's still better to talk to an asshole than to just sit by yourself."

In her defense Gladys says she'd had a lovely talk with Chartreuse.

"She's a nut."

They listen to opera again but don't smoke any pot. When they pass where they'd spun out Gladys feels a chill in her chest. She puts her hand on Maddox's thigh, asks to lie down, she just wants to lie down.

"Whatever," he says.

Gladys moves the arm rest and lays her head across the seat onto his thigh. She watches the sky stream past through the windshield and thinks again of flight. She tries to make herself feel the sensation like before, the feeling of everything going smoothly, of the universe being in order. Her head spins, however, and she has to close her eyes.

She turns on her side and strokes Maddox's calf. At home her mother will have some man over. Eddie'll be with his new girlfriend watching one of his super-violent movies. Maybe that is the universe being in order, she thinks. Maybe the universe has no choice but to be in order. Maybe we have a faulty conception of what order is; if we just looked differently and expected something else, not necessarily something less, we'd be okay. She shifts herself a little bit, trying to imagine this new way of looking at things, trying to imagine a Gladys who knows, and yet isn't affected. Maddox begins stroking her hair and fidgeting slightly on the seat. He delicately traces a finger along the line of her jaw and beside her other cheek Gladys feels Maddox getting erect.

Copyright © 1998
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Cover of episode 14