Walter Inabinet stands in the center of his four-hundred-square-foot work space—a shingle-sided ex-slave cabin—conjuring up his alter persona, lowering his intelligence quotient, emptying his brain of any formal training he received in a tenth-grade art class. He waits for visions and the voice of God to tell him what to portray next. Since leaving his regular job selling pharmaceuticals four years earlier, Walter’s scrawled his new name, “Seldom,” daily, grown a beard, properly torn and smudged his clothes in a manner befitting a primitive artist, and sold enough flat paintings of the baby Elvis, the baby Jesus, the baby Henry Ford, and the baby Robert E. Lee to get his work inside art galleries across the Southeast and on the internet. He’s not had to withdraw money from his retirement accounts. Rather, he’s had time to perfect his accent, mannerisms, and squint. He’s learned to buy latex paint at the Habitat for Humanity thrift store and to gather tin after healthy windstorms.
Walter does not imagine that, at this moment, his wife, Emmie, hand-prints scurrilous and defamatory remarks about him on calendars. She works, selling calendars, at a place called Get a Date! that’s only open Thanksgiving to the end of January. She sells regular wall-hanging calendars with pictures of kittens, naked men, Vermont mountain scenes, naked women, Humane Society dogs, swimsuit models, teen-boy bands, teen-girl pop stars, Thoroughbred horses, the multicolored houses of Charleston’s Bay Street, and the diners of Route 66. She peddles word-a-days, crossword-a-days, horoscope-a-days, cartoon-a-days, find-your-spirit-a-days, cryptoquote-a-days, and regular generic desk calendars on her job, located a block off King Street in the fancy, tourist-ridden section of downtown Charleston. On each calendar she turns to April 15—the day her husband, Walter, quit his job in 1997 and became Seldom—and writes “Seldom Inabinet Is a Phony,” clearly, in indelible ink, hoping that whoever buys the calendar will notice it, keep the thought, and never buy primitive works from the man. On occasion, Emmie writes “Seldom Inabinet Ran Away from Wife, 1997” or “Seldom Inabinet Leaves Human Race, 1997.”
Emmie took the job because, as she told her increasingly distant husband, “I can’t count on you bringing in money like you used to when you lived by the vows we took.” At least once a week she says, “I loved you better when you were a drug dealer.”
In the center of his workspace, amid tin and plywood cutouts, waiting for the simplest of ideas, Seldom forgets about his wife. He looks out the window into a copse of pines that hides him from the subdivision where he sleeps most nights, a mile away. He walks to his workplace each morning, before daylight hits, before Emmie has time to remind him of the days when they could afford a new car biannually.
He’s about to replace a blade on the jigsaw when he hears someone shuffling up the gravel road. He expects it to be Junius, an old black man who brings discarded items for sale, the occasional stray dog, or trapped raccoons. Seldom hears “I need your help” from a woman, but no knock. “I need your help for my baby, sir.”
He opens the heart-pine door to find a disheveled woman he’s not seen before in these northern swamps of the county, a white woman aged anywhere from eighteen to forty. She holds a pre-toddler against her chest, wrapped in a thin, beige, cotton curtain. “Hey, come on in and get out of the outside.” He pulls her up the two-foot step.
“They say you can breathe on babies and rid the thrush,” she says. “My little girl’s got the thrush real bad.”
Thrush, Seldom thinks. Thresh? Thrash? “What?”
She tips forward and sticks her finger in the child’s mouth, pries its lower jaw open as if pressing a piano key. “It’s got bad,” she says. “I got some money. If you could breathe on her and fix it I’d be beholden.” She tilts her daughter’s head so Seldom can look down the girl’s throat.
Seldom knows that she’s not one of the art gallery owners visiting, hoping to buy work for a deal, wanting to go back to Atlanta with a story or two. He reverts to regular Walter Inabinet and says, “Jesus Christ, lady, you need to get your kid to a doctor.” The woman’s child’s throat looks as if someone poured Elmer’s glue down it. There are lesions on the mouth and lips, and when viewed from above it does not look dissimilar to squeezed milkweed, or a latex volcano. “Come on. I can run over to my house and get the car. I’ll take y’all to the emergency room or something.”
She pulls her baby back. “I ain’t got the money. They say you can breathe on people and cure their ills. They say you got a way with the thrush. And warts.”
Walter thinks it’s a prank—who speaks like this anymore outside of extras on The Real McCoys or The Andy Griffith Show? He says, “I think you might have the wrong address.” He tries to think of some codger up or down Pinkney Mill Road who might have compatible skills and/or breath. Inabinet wonders if one of his old pharmaceutical-salesman buddies drove this woman over and let her out of the car. “Let’s take this baby of yours to the hospital.”
“Breathe on my baby,” she says. “I don’t even have money for Gripe Water. Please just breathe on my baby.” While Walter stares at her the woman tears up, then screams so loudly that he wonders if his neighbors down the road can hear her: “Breathe on my baby! All’s I’m asking is for you to breathe on my baby!” She falls on the sawdust-covered floor of Seldom Inabinet’s visionary art workspace. “In the old days people breathed on babies without having to be ast,” she sobs out.
Seldom looks past her at a rusted blank tin cutout and sees a white circle in the spot where a mammal’s mouth goes. He thinks, They say I can breathe on people and cure them. He thinks, What the fuck’s Gripe Water?
Emmie took the job at Get a Date! in order to stick money in a savings account that garnered two-percent interest. Her husband supported the decision, seeing as she might be able to pilfer little things that would aid his primitive art: boxes, certainly, but also damaged spiral binders, Magic Markers, and cash register tapes. Early in their marriage, Emmie worked for one year as a high-school English teacher before she and Walter realized that he made enough money in pharmaceuticals to support both of them.
Emmie volunteered for the Humane Society soon thereafter, and drove into town to fix twenty-gallon cauldrons of potato soup at the food bank. She wrote members of Congress about recycling, air quality, and the changing roles of women in society.
Her life felt complete initially. Walter held her hand when they ventured out on walks. They talked of children, a house on the beach, retirement by the time Walter reached fifty. Emmie framed new pictures of them monthly down the hallway of their house. She didn’t say anything about how, increasingly, she skipped her volunteer work and returned to bed after Walter left for work. Emmie never mentioned how she turned to the Yellow Pages’ list of psychologists but never gathered enough courage to call. She read “Dear Abby,” flipped through cable channels in search of a segment that resembled her condition, and watched every talk show. As best that she could figure, she had postpartum depression without the baby. Each year Emmie thought, This will end when spring comes around. It’ll end in April. She thought of April as the only month of hope. They married in April, on a day that the local weatherman said might’ve been the most perfect day ever recorded in the history of the heavens.
Then in 1997 Walter quit. He took to primitive art for no logical reason, such as having God come down and tell him to construct simple pieces. Later on in life he would tell people that he had a dream, and in this dream he foresaw everybody in his life addicted to pharmaceuticals that never worked. He would tell people later, “I don’t think it costs more than a nickel to manufacture most pills that cost two bucks each. I couldn’t live with myself.”
Walter began his new life by sitting around his art shack trying out new names, starting with the Biblical: Moses, Nimrod, Nadab. He stood in front of a mirror and imagined introducing himself by country names: Lester, Jethro, Zeb.
“You’re seldom around here anymore,” Emmie said one late evening after Walter returned from a seminar, before he’d decided to let his wife in on his change of plans in regards to lifestyle. And he thought, I am Seldom around here. I am Seldom, around here. I am Seldom.
That afternoon, Emmie returns from a half day of work to find her husband holding a child that isn’t one of their nieces or nephews. He says, “Lookee here what I got,” and holds the baby out as if it were a medicine ball. “Lookee here.”
Emmie drags inside an eight-foot one-by-ten piece of yellow pine she found in the alley behind Get a Date! that she figured Seldom might use later. She says, “No.” She doesn’t say anything about how they can’t have children of their own. She doesn’t say anything about how they’d already decided not to adopt children. She says, “No, Walter. No, Seldom. Whichever.”
He stands up and joggles the woman’s baby on his hip. “It ain’t mine, or anything. The mother’s back there sleeping,” he says, jerking his head to the guest bedroom. “This isn’t like what it looks like, Emmie. Look at this.” He pulls the baby’s bottom lip down to show the thrush.
“There’s a woman sleeping in my house?” Emmie says.
Walter walks towards his wife. “The people around here are saying I can breathe on babies and heal them, I swear to God. They’re saying I can breathe on people and get their warts to fall off. Mark this day on your calendars, Emmie. That’s what they’re saying.” He bobs the baby up and down. “Her name’s Jeannie, just like the TV show. I got her to a doctor and they fixed her up with some penicillin.”
Emmie points to the bedroom and says, “Her mother’s in there?”
“Oh, she’s as country as they come, honey. Don’t worry. I was in the middle of painting a cutout of Adam with a snake and this woman knocked on the door. What could I do? I did what I could do. Listen, I know that they say I can breathe on people and cure them and all, but I thought a doctor might be the best option. To be honest, I’d never heard of anything called thrush.” He struts around with his not-baby cradled, acting the martyr.
Emmie holds out her arms for the child. She asks no more questions. “Thrush is a bird,” Emmie says. Holding the baby, she walks from the den and down the hallway. She sticks her head to the guest bedroom door, then knocks softly. Emmie opens the door as if expecting an anxious cur huddled against the wall, then swings it wide without holding the knob. “Where’d you put her?”
Walter looks at the window. It’s closed, but unlocked, and the screen’s been replaced haphazardly. “Man, this is like something out of Hollywood. She abandoned her kid with us.” He doesn’t say it in an excited tone. His eyes don’t widen like a community-theater actor trying to pull off incredulity.
Emmie says, “We better call the police, or the social-services people,” thinking about how she’ll have something new to write down on customers’ brand-new calendars. She hands Jeannie back over.
Walter doesn’t have a car seat. He lays out Jeannie on the back floorboard, then drives toward his work shack. The secondary road has no intersections for a mile either way, outside of old logging roads that dead-end into ex-swamps, trails manned only by illegal hunters and the deer they follow. He decides to drive five miles one way, then backtrack.
Jeannie’s mother sits on the front steps of Seldom’s shack, smoking a cigarette and looking away from Walter when he drives up. He closes the car door, then reopens it, rolls down every window, and leaves Jeannie in the back. “What’re you doing, woman? You can’t just abandon a baby like that. My wife’s calling the authorities.”
She blows a smoke ring unintentionally. “Maybe I wanted you to come back there and breathe on me. Maybe I got tired of waiting and let myself out to see if you cared.” She stands up. “Wife.”
“You’re damn right. She’s pissed off that I’d let a stranger in our house in the first place. Then you just take off. What the hell?”
Seldom would probably say, “Oh, she’s right in back here sleeping off thrush.” Walter says, “I don’t know what un-underpinned trailer you crawled out from, but we don’t think you’re the most suitable mother for that little girl. We’re going to let DSS decide what should happen to the baby.”
The mother seems unaffected by these pronouncements. She opens the unlocked door to Seldom’s workspace and jerks her head once. “What you make in here, anyways? I looked in and it looks like the work of the Devil to me. Maybe I ought to be the one calling po-lice on you.”
Walter walks up, reaches inside his building, pulls the door shut, and turns the lock. “Go on and get in the car. I’m taking you back to the house.”
The mother smiles; she has perfect round holes between each of her top teeth, as if carpenter bees set in and drilled between each space, halfway through one tooth and halfway through its next-door partner. Walter can only think about how she’d let out a strange whistle should she smile in a windstorm. “Sounds to me you could take a tonic of what water my baby girl needed. You come off a little bloated. Maybe we should’ve had you talk to that doctor too.” Jeannie’s mother nods her head up and down like a panting dog.
The baby lets out a noise that sounds as if she’s popped a giant mucus bubble. The mother looks towards the car. “I knowed you wouldn’t leave her there with a wife. You brought her along with you. That proves a little something.”
Walter squints. “What’s your name again?”
“I never told you my name. My name don’t matter none. Jeannie’s name matters, but not mine.”
A car slows on the road and turns down the pine-straw-strewn one-lane. Walter doesn’t turn to look. He figures it’s either Emmie in their other car, a sheriff’s deputy, or a social worker. “Mr. Seldom?” comes a voice, and Walter turns to see Margaret Flythe from the Margaret Flythe Gallery, a woman who buys Seldom’s cutouts for twenty-five dollars each and then sells them to wealthy Charlestonians for upwards of a hundred. She steps out of a new SUV. “I’ve come for another load. I’ve sold out what you gave me two months ago.”
Seldom says, “Hey, Ms. Flythe,” as slowly as he can, remembering to put on the aw-shucks drawl. “How you doing?”
“Well, I hate to bother you. I know how busy you are.”
“This here’s a model I got working for me,” Seldom says, pointing to Jeannie’s mother. “This is Jeannie’s mother.”
Margaret Flythe nods politely. She says, “Nice to meet you, Jeannie’s mother.”
“That’s all she goes by,” Seldom says. He unlocks the door to his shop. “I don’t know if I got anything you’ll find sightly, but go on in and pick up what you think other people might need.”
Margaret Flythe enters. Seldom looks at Jeannie’s mother with an eye that says, Don’t talk while she’s here.
Jeannie’s mother says, “Let me get on my way. I won’t say nothing if you let me on my way.”
Seldom raises his voice. “I’ll be in directly, Ms. Flythe,” then walks Jeannie’s mother to the car.
Emmie talks with a deputy in the driveway, then gets in the front seat of his cruiser with him. She says, “They’ve been gone more than an hour. I assume my husband has her down at his work.”
“Is your husband having an affair with this woman?” the deputy says. “I hate to be so callous, but a lot of times a man will make up a long-winded story like this only to fool his wife. Good Lord, I’ve seen men act and lie in ways that I can’t even mention to a beautiful woman.”
“No,” Emmie says. “My husband barely pays attention to me. He couldn’t handle a mistress.” She realizes how this sounds. “I mean, I come home all the time to find my husband alone. I come home early and I come home late. There’s no way.”
“I believe if I was your husband I’d be home all the time when you showed up.” He shakes his head slowly and offers a shy curl to his lips. “Now, exactly what does the woman look like?”
Emmie detects a slight blush on the officer’s skin. She thinks about how Walter showed such signs when they first dated. “I’ve never seen her. She was asleep in our guest bedroom, and then she went out the window.”
The deputy says, “Huh,” and follows Emmie’s finger to the right, out of their driveway. “Where do you work?”
Emmie looks straight ahead. “I work downtown at Get a Date! It’s a calendar store.”
“I’ve been there. I know it. When our chief retired we got him one of those gag calendars where every day says Saturday. The numbers are right, you know, but every day says Saturday.”
Emmie looks at his hair and notices how it’s perfect, maybe one centimeter all the way around. He looks as though he is carved exotic blond wood, she thinks. “We sell a lot of those. I bet if we stayed open year-round we’d sell a bunch to people in May or June, when teachers retire.”
The deputy wears a pistol on his right side. There’s a shotgun clamped upright to the dashboard. “I bought a few calendars for Christmas presents this year. You didn’t wait on me, though. I wouldn’t forget you.”
“My husband’s not having an affair, I promise. That’s all I have to say. To get back on subject,” Emmie says.
The deputy drives no more than twenty miles an hour and looks toward the right-hand ditch, as if for footprints. “You know your husband better than I do,” the deputy says. “Probably. I only know profiles of people. They teach us those kinds of things at the academy.” He makes no eye contact; he looks at the berm, using the heel of his left hand to move the steering wheel. “I don’t want you killing the messenger, but I’d bet my pension that he’s messing around. I’m sorry.”
Emmie’s chin quivers. “I’m so confused,” she says.
The deputy nods. “I’ve probably met half the women in this county. You’re the most stunning one I’ve encountered, confused or not.”
Two miles past Seldom’s shop Emmie learns that the deputy’s name is Loris Treen. She begins to cry, he pulls over and brings her torso into his, and he says for her to let it out. Her head’s against his right pectoral, an inch from his nametag. At first she flinches, but then she allows his right hand inside her panties, his middle finger moving in slow circles. Deputy Treen pulls back onto the asphalt and barely touches the accelerator. He looks forward. They pass Jeannie’s mother and Jeannie walking along the tree line, but both of them pretend not to see her. Emmie cries. The officer consoles her in his own way.
Seldom asks Margaret Flythe, “Have you ever heard of Gripe Water?”
She picks up, then sets down, an unfinished tin cutout that could either be Ronald Reagan or Gumby. “It’s a brand name. It’s given to babies with colic. Why do you ask?”
Seldom shuffles across his sawdust. He looks at a metal cutout and thinks how he’ll paint a circle of white in the middle of the head. “Gripe Water sounds political.”
Ms. Flythe sets aside two Adams, two Eves, a dozen baby Elvises, and a John the Baptist that Seldom made when he accidentally lost control of his tin snips. She reaches into her purse and says, “I’d like to get these, if three hundred and seventy-five dollars will be enough.”
He thinks about how it took about two hours’ work for fifteen pieces and that the paint didn’t cost two dollars. “I shore could use about four hundred, ma’am.”
From afar he thinks he hears his wife yell out. “Well, you got me,” Ms. Flythe says. She hands him three hundred-dollar bills and five twenties. “Now don’t you go drink this away or anything.”
Seldom runs his left hand through his hair and holds out his right. “No, I won’t. I might get my teeth fixed.”
Margaret Flythe holds what she’ll sell for upwards of two grand. “Mr. Seldom, as always, it’s good doing business with you. Have you ever thought about doing a series of conjoined twins? I think that would go over well. Or people with prehensile tails. There’s a family up near Darlington, you know, with tailbones sticking out of their backsides. We need to keep alive the folks we have living among us, it’s my belief. We have more Siamese twins born here than any other place in the world. At least that’s what I read.”
Seldom nods. “I’m pretty much consumed by that woman with the perfect holes between her teeth who just left. I got to get my drill working right to finish her off.” He thinks about how he needs to make life-size works concerning people that he helped to take Prozac, Xanax, Ritalin, Valium, and extra-strength Motrin back when he sold.
Margaret Flythe says, “I don’t see where you have any bad teeth, Seldom. Let me look at you smile.”
She sets her artworks down on the floor and reaches towards Seldom’s mouth, all thumbs and forefingers. She wants to pull back his lips. He says, “Don’t do that, ma’am.”
“I’m serious. I never thought about it before, but your teeth are strong.”
Because Seldom has never thought of Margaret Flythe in a sexual manner he holds two palms upward, as if for a shield. She presses her body against his and flips his upper lip back as if looking for a tattoo on his gums. Her breasts urge into his upper stomach, and from where he stands against the back wall Seldom can see where she needs to re-dye her off-red hair. He mumbles out, “I was borned with good teeth.”
“I’ve always been infatuated with creative people,” Margaret Flythe says, breathless, pulling Seldom’s zipper down. When she falls on her knees and Walter feels the building shake, he knows that he must go beneath it soon to reinforce the floorboards, the joists, the foundation that he stands upon more often than not.
Emmie takes her foot down from the spotlight attached to Loris Treen’s passenger door. She says, “It might not be how you got me to start thinking. My husband might be innocent.”
“No husband’s innocent,” the deputy says. “Believe me, that’s one thing I’ve learned on this job. I’ve been a cop for ten years. Before that I was in the Marines, over in Beaufort. I’ve learned some things I’m not proud to admit as true.”
Emmie pulls her panties up from her ankles. What the hell am I doing? she thinks. “You better turn around and go the other way. It’s obvious that this woman hasn’t gone this far.” For the first time she thinks about what would’ve happened had they driven by Walter.
Loris Treen hits the brake. He doesn’t turn one way or the other. “It’s kind of obvious that you’re in a bad marriage, and that you and I get along good, Emmie. It’s kind of obvious.” He lifts his right hand hard against her crotch. Then he releases, meaning to grab the back of Emmie’s neck. When Loris Treen tries to pull her face down into his lap, he pops her upper lip by accident.
Emmie says, “You son of a bitch.” She opens her car door and steps out.
“I didn’t mean to do that,” Loris Treen says through the window. “I swear to God.” He puts the patrol car in reverse and tries to keep up with Emmie, but she shoots off shoeless into the woods, running, holding her skirt with two hands in front of her. She thinks, This is not April, this is not April, this is not April—nothing else.
When she hits the stagnant water of a cold, shallow swamp, Emmie pulls her skirt higher, then looks for cypress knees and occasional rocks on which to take her from one point to the next, not thirty feet from the roadside.
Seldom makes admissions. “I’m not the person you think I am. To be honest, I have a college education.”
Margaret Flythe lifts her eyes. She shakes her head and gets off her knees. “You’re a phony primitive artist? Like Tubby Burt? Goddamn, Seldom, that makes you more important than ever. I swear to God.”
“I don’t want to be important, Ms. Flythe. I just wanted to make people laugh.”
She straightens her dress, shoos sawdust from her legs. She hands Seldom another hundred-dollar bill. “Let’s keep this between the two of us,” she says. “I mean, about you being a fake and all that.” She picks up her purchase. “I’m a writer, too, by the way. I’m betting that I could write Seldom’s life story one day, if you want. We could make some money, dear heart.”
Walter Inabinet thinks about his wife. He thinks, This is a day that shouldn’t have happened.
When Emmie passes Jeannie’s mother holding Jeannie, they look at each other as two specters might. Emmie’s farther in the swamp, choosing a makeshift trail that turns from creek bed to muck to flattened saw grass where deer bed down nightly. Jeannie’s mother carries the child as if she were a thin bag of gum erasers, closer to the drainage ditch on the side of the road. Emmie knows it’s the woman who escaped the house, but Jeannie’s mother thinks only that she’s finally met a woman worse off than herself.
“Tell me you’re not having an affair with my husband,” Emmie says from fifteen yards away. She stops and leans against a live oak. Her bare feet sink into what’s not mud or water, not dry land or the detritus of splintered limbs and fouled fern. “Or tell me that you are.”
Jeannie’s mother turns her baby away from the woman. “You live in the swamp? I ain’t never seen you.”
“You were at my house. Where’s Walter?”
“You the swamp witch they talk about? You the woman conjures up healing?” Emmie shakes her head; she shakes her head thinking about Walter, and about Loris Treen. “Are you the one they all talk about lives in the House of Fog over past Ringworm Creek?”
Emmie looks toward the road. She hears Officer Treen’s cruiser accelerate and imagines him driving hard towards nowhere, hoping that she doesn’t file a complaint. “You and your baby were at my house. You know that and I know that. Tell me where Walter is.”
Jeannie’s mother stares at Emmie, then looks down at her submerged feet. When she jerks her head, Emmie can’t tell if it means “back there” or if a bank of mosquitoes has risen. Jeannie’s mother walks away on a path that isn’t visible, recorded, or known to reptiles or mammals. When Emmie gets to the road she thinks she hears Jeannie’s mother call back, “No man knows where he’s going, either.”
Emmie shows up at Seldom’s shack looking much the same as Jeannie’s mother did. Emmie doesn’t so much collapse on the front step as give up completely, as if each muscle inside her frame relaxed. Walter sidles up to her and sits. He puts his arm across Emmie’s shoulders. “I take it you went looking in the swamp.”
His wife turns and buries her head into his left armpit. Although she has never been a deeply religious or philosophical person, Emmie says, “There are some things we cannot explain, right? There are some things we can’t figure out.”
“I’ve been back and forth to the house twice looking for you. Where’d you go? Did the cops ever show up?”
Emmie stands. “I’m sorry I complain all the time about you giving up a regular job.” She doesn’t say, “But I’ll quit,” or “You were right and I was wrong.”
“I know you’ve been shoving money into a bank account,” Walter says. “I don’t want you moving out, but I could probably understand.”
Emmie almost says, “I have something I need to tell you.” She turns her body ninety degrees and looks down the path. Instead, she says, “What a weird day. Here’s a day I might mark down on my own calendar, you know.”
Seldom wants to go back inside and work on a series of tin cutouts that incorporate conjoined babies with prehensile tails, white-white open mouths, and wedding bands on their ring fingers. He says, “Margaret Flythe showed up when I came back here looking for that woman. She bought four hundred dollars’ worth of shit.” He reaches in his front right pocket and pulls out the bills. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to open up an art gallery and sell work from Seldom. Goddamn. I could reinvent myself into some other visionary artists, too.”
Emmie says, “That’s not a bad idea. That’s not a bad idea until we get caught. Maybe later on after we’re both dead.”
In the distance, a feral cat screams. Sporadic traffic veers along the winding rough asphalt of Pinkney Mill Road. Walter Inabinet thinks about his wife on their April wedding day, and how she looked coming down the aisle, eyes filled with an exuberance known only to a woman wearing blinders to what pains may burble up into a marriage like swamp gas—or like a seer attuned to what catches a marriage on certain days, in time.