Them

Published American Writing, 1992


I. 1956

He hadn't changed out of his clothes. He sat in a leather recliner, his dress shirt glaring white in the floor lamp's cone of light. He was wearing the clip‑on bow tie he considered irresistible to juries. The latest Sports Illustrated lay unopened in his lap. In front of him, the big television console was silenced. He looked at his wristwatch, then tongued the warm brandy, receiving the fumes in his eyes and nose. Above him, a child galloped the length of the hallway. From the kitchen he heard the sharp jangle of a silverware drawer, yanked open by her.

She dropped the silverware, hot from the dishwasher, into the drawer and slammed it. She worked artichoke leaves past the disposal's rubber petals with a sterling silver dinner fork. Water sprayed the gathered waist of her yellow dress. She twisted loose three ice cubes and plunked them into a lowball glass. She splashed bourbon to the top and rattled the glass, spilling it. She drank, trying to listen for a sound of him from the living room. She shoved plates, water beading off them, into the rack of the dishwasher. Turning, she saw him in the kitchen doorway, tapping a Camel out of a fresh pack, his eyes on the garage door. "Oh no you're not, goddamit!" she said. His lighter flamed and snapped shut. She let fly a Revere Ware saucepan, in the direction of the doorway yet not precisely at him.

He laughed and withdrew to the living room, positioning himself near the foyer. Under cover of the dishwasher's grind, he quietly opened the heavy front door and slipped outside. He cupped the cigarette, shielding its tiny red glow, and tracked soundlessly beneath the high kitchen window to the rear of the house. He backed the big silver car out of the garage and onto the paved circular driveway, satisfied he'd outmaneuvered her.

She thought she heard the car's engine beyond the splash of the wash cycle, and raced through the living room, out the front door, and into the path of his Continental. She threw herself down, full‑length across the driveway, just as his foot hit the accelerator. She lay there, billeted, awaiting him.

He saw her lovely body bloom yellow in his headlights. He whipped the wheel to the right, jumping the half‑moon of a curb, and rode out over the picturebook grass, holding steady toward the broad ditch beyond the irises. He remembered night flying in the Philippines, before the War, coming in too far down the runway once and jamming the brakes and flipping that poor little P‑26 tail‑over‑nose. He gunned the car, jumped the ditch, and snapped the wheel once again, skidding sideways onto the county road. Her recklessness excited him. He flew along toward town, relishing his desire for her.

II. 1964

She sat leaning on her elbows, her face close to the plate glass window. For a long time she had been staring at the swift grey river, coursing white now in the settling November twilight. On a gravel bar loomed massive equipment for ripping and dumping rock. Now the crane, conveyor belts and huge inverted bin disappeared in the darkness, and only the dinosaur-toothed shovel glowed yellow in the violet dusk. Between her elbows a double bourbon filled a pebbly-bottomed glass. She drew her finger down the side, parting the frost. She'd pictured the conviviality of the cocktail lounge, but now felt out of place. She didn't have to stay: she had a bottle in the car. In front of her, the owner, a big Bavarian man, lifted the candle from her table to light it. Avoiding conversation, she looked away from him.

He raised the scarlet globe, feeling beneath his fingers the white plastic net encasing it, and inserted a long match. No need to light the others -- she was his only customer so far. Lifting the hinged section of the bar, he stepped back onto the rubber mats that ran the length of his work area. In the corner, above the cash register, the wall-mounted TV was silent. The quiet was better. He'd known her husband, a lawyer, but not a snob like some of those bastards. She was young and the barman sympathized but he wouldn't intrude his remarks. He took three limes from the refrigerator and began slicing them on the cutting board near the blender. The phone rang, and he dried his hands on his apron. When he picked up the receiver, a child's voice asked politely for her.

She heard the phone behind the bar ring once and had a feeling. She drained the bourbon and pulled a wallet from her patent leather handbag, all the while watching the barman's face. He said something into the phone and then, exactly as she had foreseen, placed his hand over the receiver and silently mouthed a question. "I just left," she said decisively. She slipped a five dollar bill beneath the scalloped paper coaster weighted down by her empty glass. She gathered her coat and hurried out the back door of the lounge. Stepping across the gravel, she felt the first few drops of rain. She backed her gold Oldsmobile around in an arc and swiftly accelerated onto the blacktop. She noticed the state trooper parked across the road, but continued to gun it without concern for him.

He spotted the big gold car as it careened blindly onto the roadway, nosing across the yellow line. Beside him on the seat, a tuna sandwich lay wrapped in waxed paper, and between his knees he balanced a jumbo coffee with double cream from Bob's Drive-In. He momentarily thought of giving chase, but then the car's headlights blazed on and the car righted itself and picked up speed. This close to the State Capitol, no telling whom you might pull over in one of those big cars; he'd had to back down before. He unpleated the waxed paper and bit into the second lunch of his eight-hour shift. The driver of the big car turned off at Doaks Ferry Road without him ever getting a look at her.

She traveled along in the dark rain past high banks of scotch broom and dense, cresting blackberry vines. At the top of the hill, where the paved road ended in a T, she hesitated. Then she cranked the wheel to the left, away from the road that led to the judging child. Along the gravel ridge she rushed, paralleling the river road below, the rain steady now as she shimmied and slid west. She entered the cemetery between low brick gateposts capped with white masonry and followed the paved lane. On the far slope, she pulled alongside the rose bushes, set the hand brake, turned off the key. From its gritty hiding place under the passenger seat, she extracted the fifth of bourbon. She left the car, her patent leather high heels piercing the soft turf as she hurried toward him.

He had lain beneath the ground four months now, suffocated in white satin, clamped in an opulent casket, weighted down with earth. Formaldehyde filled his veins, denying him even the vitality of decay. Death had intercepted him in health and youth. He went from the courtroom to the hospital routinely, never admitting it was more than an inconvenient entry in a hectic calendar. Amidst the excessive choreography of doctors, nurses and technicians, he refused to believe he lay dying. He had made it a point to be brave and cocky for her.

She planted her feet where, in her imagination, he lay naked just beneath the sod. Twisting the cap off the bourbon, she waved the bottle. "It's me," she announced, then sank to her knees in the soaked grass. "Do you feel wet when it's raining?" she whispered. She tipped the bottle, pouring bourbon onto the grave. It was what she had wanted tonight, to enjoy a drink with him.

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