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

Tiny Love

Tiny was tiny, but he had a wife and he loved her. The love he had for her was a lot bigger than he was. He did it all for her, ate the bologna sandwiches, changed the flats on the side of the road in the cold winter evenings when the rain was coming down, worked in the danger of the factory. Especially the factory, where gigantic presses could smash his hands and crush them, make nubs of his fingers. The machines crashed and pounded, and the huge wheels at the tops of the presses turned, and Tiny slid his little piece of metal under the die and hooked both hands on the buttons, and the presses turned over and came down with unbelievable force and stamped out one part at a time. He hooked the part with a little rubber suction cup on a rod, drew it safely out of the way, and inserted another piece, inhaling the exhaust of the Towmotors while standing on a skid to raise himself up to the level where other men stood.

He smoked constantly, not looking around, always watching his hands and where they were, because he knew Sonny Jones and Duwayne Davis who worked in the stockroom with their nubbed and shortened hands, victims of the same machines he stood before. The young boys drove the forklifts with cigarettes dangling from their lips and threaded the forks of the lifts into the pallets with insolent skill, blue fumes roaring from the grilled exhausts in the back.

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Every afternoon Tiny spent his two dollars. Every day he drove by the liquor store, the last one on the way out of town, and picked up a half-pint of Four Roses or Heaven Hill or Old Grand-Dad or any of the other cheap and hangover-producing brands of whiskey, whichever one she had summoned from her bed that morning as he stood with his lunch sack in his hand at the bedroom door. All day he kept the name of that label in his head and that afternoon he fired up his rusty ’71 Ford Fairlane with the busted muffler and drove out of town with a smoke hanging from his lip, winter and summer, good times and bad, and stopped by the little store on the outskirts of town where he was a regular but unknown customer, a place run by college boys whose faces always changed, and there he would shuffle in and pick what she wanted from the shelf and produce his two dollars and change and take his bottle once they’d sacked it and move once again through the coming darkness toward his small house in the country, where he had a little vegetable garden, a car shed, some rusted and warped pianos sitting in the yard in a muddy collection like a neglected group of behemoths.

He would stop the car in the driveway and get out and grab his jacket and go in, pulling on the screen door, and there she would sit on the couch in front of the gray television screen, in her robe and her nightgown, her nicotine-stained fingers trembling, her mouth moving in the first tremblings of a smile, and Tiny would think, Lord, I love her. She would reach for him and the bottle at the same time, and Tiny knew that the hug she had for him was at once a hug for him and a hug for him for bringing the bottle, and he would bend and kiss her quickly and go to the kitchen and fix her a glass of Coke with ice so she could mix her first drink, and then he would sit down and she would begin to tell him about her day.

Men lost their hands in the presses. The presses were thirty feet high and they had wheels that were twelve feet in diameter, and they were made of iron and they weighed hundreds of tons, and a man’s hands were a small thing in the face of the quarter-inch thickness of metal parts the presses stamped out without stalling. A man had no power in the face of power like that. The press-department bosses looked sharply in the press department and watched where men put their hands and talked to them and measured small pieces of metal with micrometers and checked blueprints and eyed everything and ordered runs for the presses, and Tiny hooked both his hands on the buttons and watched the die come down and make another part. He hooked it with his little rubber-suction-cup rod and drew it out safely and inserted another piece. He leaned on his machine and thought, Lord, I love her, and the press came down and Tiny, locked in his lifetime’s work, watched his hands and where they were and rehearsed the name of that afternoon’s bottle in his mind.

He ate bologna sandwiches every day. It never changed. It was always bologna, and he bought a pound a week, seven slices, where Mr. Carlton Turner sliced it on his machine and where the people who lived in the community with Tiny and his wife knew him and knew that she drank. Tiny would always hang around the store for a while, looking lost, talking about the weather or whatever had just happened, and he would twist the neck of the paper sack that held the bologna tight around the small, cold mound of meat inside there, and he would tell everybody to just come on and go home with him. But nobody ever did. It was just something to say, like people in the country often say.

He fixed the bologna sandwiches in the kitchen each morning while she was sleeping, quiet in the kitchen with only the radio playing, two pieces of bread and mayonnaise, wrap it in waxed paper, put it in the sack. She hardly ever went anywhere. Her day began when his ended. She was articulate to the point of wittiness once she’d had her first drink, but he couldn’t sit up with her all night watching network television.

He ate the sandwich in the break room with one of those mixed soft drinks that came from machines that drop first the cup and then some ice and then several squirts of different liquids and finally fizz up the drink and click to signal when they are ready. He watched checkers games sometimes or just talked with other people about work or how the fish were biting or who had died, and he kept his eye on the phone booth and waited until almost everybody had headed back to punch in and then dashed to the booth to call her and speak to her for just a few moments. Sometimes she was up. Sometimes she wasn’t. He needed to hear her voice always. Sometimes he did. But sometimes he didn’t.

He’d try to get her out to go places with him, but she hardly ever would. She’d say she didn’t look right, or her hair wasn’t ready, or she hadn’t had a bath. He was sometimes only asking for her to go buy groceries with him. They couldn’t go dancing because she was semicrippled, from a car accident a long time ago. It wasn’t that she couldn’t actually walk. She actually could. She just preferred not to. Tiny had to help her bathe. He would roll her in her wheelchair with her thin legs crossed under a robe and lovingly draw a tub of warm water, testing it frequently with his hand, talking softly to her, making sure the water wasn’t too cold or too hot, and then together they would work her out of her robe and he would help her pull her arms out of the entrapments of the sleeves until she sat naked and pale and defenseless and semicrippled and slightly drunk in the chair, and he would slide his hands under her legs, feeling the movement of her loose skin under the slack muscles of her thighs, and lift her, gently, careful not to bump her, and pick her up, stand balanced with the precious weight of her in his arms, his hands cradling the soft, withered flesh of her back and legs, and lower her, gradually, slowly and carefully, almost herniating himself sometimes, into the warm water, and bring her an ashtray and replenish her drink, and he would sit there and bathe her back, her little sad and drooping breasts, and she would talk about David Letterman and what he’d said, and he would rinse her back slowly, lovingly, and try to fix her eyes with his eyes, and she would prattle on, the water cooling, her toes red and distorted and pruney.

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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.

Her health had never been good and it continued to get worse. She seemed to get weaker each year. And neither one of them was a spring chicken. She coughed badly from the cigarettes, and at night Tiny would sit on the bed with her and pat her back while she coughed herself into strangling fits and wheezing spells that he tried to cure by slapping her gently on the back. He’d hold her close and think, Lord, I love her, and then she’d ask for another drink and Tiny would get up and fix it. One time he told her that he wasn’t going to fix it, and she cried and immediately Tiny relented and fixed it. He sat there watching her drink it and wondered if he could bring himself to be strong enough to do what was best for her. He knew it wouldn’t be easy. He knew she’d cry. He didn’t know if he could take that or not. But the doctor knew what he was talking about. He was a doctor. He’d been to college and had learned all those things. And if he said it was killing her, then, by God, it was killing her, and he, Tiny, was the one who was doing it by buying it for her, so in a way, he was killing her, and if he kept buying it, and it did kill her, then what would he do? What would he do for love?

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