By Jim Gish
It would just be enough, she thought to herself as she lay in the back seat of the car, it would just be enough if he would come back with a half ragged blanket and spread it over her legs and hum in that husky voice something off-key and nearly Irish. Because it was only a half of a hope, and half of a hope was always enough to keep going when you were lying in the back seat of an abandoned car, watching for the first flakes of snow and smelling the cold, dirty air, which seeped in around the windows. If he would just come back, and she could hear him break the seal on the bottle, and then he would cover her, and they would begin to talk in that steady, pointless way about all their shattered dreams which might just still come true tomorrow or next week or next month. Then the old pattern, such as it was, would congeal again into the mold of her life, which had been only starts and stops and sudden, abrupt turnings since she was thirteen and watched her father walk off into the woods with an axe, throwing up his hand to tell her, “Bye, Old beauty,” which he called her even at thirteen.
But he was a man with rotten luck, a sad man with rotten luck who just never came back, and she had no doubt that it was the jitter jump of an axe off a bad, sliced cut or the limb which hung there by a slender hope, jolted loose by his lusty blade, and just some more bad luck. Him out there, blooded and stunned and crawling into a deadfall like a wounded animal, thinking that he would get his breath here in a minute and get on back to her. But then, he forgot all of that in black rush of rain and fire and thunder so that as far as she could tell, he just never was found — so that she nearly starved waiting. Until her Aunt Tillie showed up with a court order, meaning to “take my sister’s child away from this horror of a man,” and then only to find out that the girl was there and the man was gone.
“We will leave him a note,” Aunt Tillie said, and they went bouncing out through those ruts and gravel and away from her father, leaving behind that shack in a clearing where she never went back, and he never came back. Although she never stopped waiting for him, thinking that the next day or the next, he would show up to claim her at Aunt Tillie’s, clean shaven with a new suit and a fine job selling encyclopedias or something like that, which he did not do.
The next man, too. One more loose gaited man with a slap sided smile who took her as his own and then forgot or wandered away in pursuit of God’s great bounty — into the woods or the next county or a California. All of them faithful as truth itself who just floundered away with the best of intentions, but dying anyway or following some wastrel dream and keeping her there near the back of his mind, meaning to go back and collect her. Except that time led on to time, and like this man she was waiting for now, each of those solemn and lovely men who said they would “face off the demons to make her happy” just lost the knack of themselves. Just lost the knack of finding their way back to her, and after a while, it seemed to her that she was the main cause, the thing that God thought was just expendable, God being, after all, just one more man who made her promises and then pulled them back.
So that lying here now, the snow falling heavily, and the man gone at least five hours, and her heart beating like a faint thread, the woman told herself that “everything comes to those who wait” and settled in, pulling the coat up around her. Herself so full of words and explanations and faint hope, not a note of spare surprise left to her now. Since she would just be here in the morning or not, and if she was, the man would probably come on back with his sad excuse, and she would rub his feet and place them next to her stomach. They would hold onto each other and shuffle to the park where the truck came with the red-faced man who gave them soup and bread and a scripture verse.
“Blue skies smiling at me, nothing but blue skies I can see,” she sang in a tuneless way, watching the whipping snow.
* * *
First, it was her mother’s face, which she had never seen except in a sepia print, fading out of a dream, and then it was the bitter cold wrapping around her, and then just the cold shock of morning. The sudden sunlight on the brilliant snow. Pushing up from the back seat, her eyes seeking some landmark in the whole thirsty city, something to mark as her own. And she could not half countenance it, what she saw then, him, the newest man, leaning against the car, hunched over a little, like he was studying the hood because he meant to paint it. When he looked up, just that fractured half second, his eyes caught upon hers, and he smiled like a maniac, smiled like the mad man which he certainly was.
“Old girl.” He formed the words with his mouth and threw one gloved hand up as though to invite her to the sun and the snow.
She was moving, her fingers and legs and whole self, moving in slow motion like one of those tumbly bugs that rolls clay an inch an hour. But she was radiant already again, lost in this man’s smile and his promise of the morning. Pushing around the coat, pawing at the door handle, at least two minutes worth of fiddle-faddling, he called it, that woman’s way of purchasing time on credit, so irrevocable and so nearly dream-like that it was a shock when she pushed open the door and smelled the sooty air, just a hint of something fried and delicious caught there on a waft of the wind.
“Old girl,” he said, now taking her hand. “I have had a hell of a night.”
His breath stinking of gin, his red gums receding along three front teeth.
“I slept like a dream-gaited child from Cork,” she told him, a joke they had between themselves.
“And you are a dream-gaited girl,” he assured her, “but we have got the morning before us to explicate our long night’s tragic lapses, haven’t we.”
It was not really a question, just a prelude to some great secret he would finally divulge, which would be so ordinary and plain that she would nearly laugh, but only nearly. Because his enthusiasm about some story he heard in a bar and about a chance he had to pick up a quick hundred dollars, which never panned out, had just enough clean edge to it and hope that she could never deflate him.
It is just us again together, she thought, catching a glimpse in the mirrored window of another car and trying not to jump in shock at the scarecrow figures and wispy white hair, which was also just them.
“Best not to look,” she told herself. “Best not to think about it now. Just an old jumpety-jumped up picture which ain’t in the least our souls, so it don’t spell nothing, really when you think about it.”
Seeing him smile was enough to nearly repair her. Seeing him hope about the next few hours, finding that wagon there close to the library. Hearing his stories of the nighttime after he left to look for that vagrant blanket, which she did not see a shred of when it was the reason he abandoned her to the cold night and left her to whatever creatures might have crawled out from behind the dumpsters or careened out of the allies.
“But they didn’t do that, now, did they?” He was famous for reminding her.
“You think I would leave you to the night’s vicissitudes,” he said the words like they were a wall he could hide behind, “think I would leave my lady without a spell I cast in the air about her carriage.”
Which Leona loved, the way he moved words around and acted like she was his princess in a fairy tale, and never mind living in the back seat of that car parked at the back of that junk yard. Because circumstances were always temporary, and the next week or the next month, he kept saying that their ship would come in, and they would live the high life again, although that implied that one had lived the high life at some point in the past, which Leona could not remember doing.
Then they were walking out along the fence toward the path along the river which led back to the city streets.
And while he talked on and on, inventing words in profusion, she thought of her life, lo, these many years.
She lived with that Aunt who used her like a dray horse and gave her scant rations and never even a sweet pat on the head, just lining up those chores and marking them off all day until she felt like Cinderella, except there was no ball and no coach and no magic.
Graduated in the middle of her class in that small town where no one had ever really known her or accepted her, just calling her “that girl from Water Street,” Water Street being a blight on the city. Those stiff necked girls and boisterous boys swarming around her every day at school, acting like she was invisible and something she cultivated because to be noticed was just an invitation to derision.
Then they graduated, and the superintendent mispronounced her name, and she fled the Aunt’s house one night at midnight, taking the Greyhound to Henderson and then on to Louisville. Just a slight weight of a girl with a frozen half smile, so completely uncertain of her next move that she tried to live in five-minute slices of confidence. Out at the Louisville station, not even out of the bus station before a dark haired woman from the Post House said to her as she sipped her Coke, clutching the paper with the want ads, “We got an opening. One of the girls quit last night and ran off with a sailor.”
So Providence smiled then, and she was fully employed as the dishwasher and the clean up girl, in that stiff blue and white uniform. Even renting a room from a lady who bought coffee at noon and who lived no more than two blocks from the Greyhound station. Such an auspicious beginning that she felt a core of blind faith grow in her that life was just waiting for you like Dale Carnagie said in that paperback book she stole from the high school library. Going every day to the station, cleaning and laughing with the black cook, Daphne, and the bus loaders who came through the back door to get free black coffee.
Then that St. Louis driver, Ted, took an interest in her and invited her back to his motel room one day, walking her along the sidewalks, telling her funny stories. Her sharp eye not spotting any ring, so that just going up to his room would be okay because he needed to change clothes because the Greyhound by-laws said that he could not walk around town in his uniform. In that gray, dirty room where he pushed her down onto the bed and shucked off her panties and said, even in the midst of that violent assault, “It will be all right” and “You are a good girl,” and then turned her back out on the street, telling her that he “would see her sometime.” Walking home in the twilight in such a daze of disbelief and shame and humiliation, thinking up improbable ways to avenge herself, thinking finally that she would go to the police.
Standing in the police station, where the sergeant looked at her with a skewed eye and quit writing midway through the third sentence. So that she finally quit talking.
“Get on out of here,” he said with his hoarse voice, smoking a cigar. “You think other girls have not tried to pull that old thing. You fall in love with the uniform, and then when he gives you what you ask for, you cry wolf. We don’t have time for that shit, Missy.”
Back in her room, defeated and stunned, crying for her father gone these many years away into the woods with his axe on his shoulder. Then five years go by like flittering, fluttering clouds which all amount to the same empty thing, and she is a colorless, fearful creature, not meeting people’s eyes, doing her job, walking home the same way to eat the same bologna sandwich. Sitting in front of a black and white TV and thinking that there were creatures at the bottom of the river, calling her name, and how she could go down there into the mud and float silently where no one looked at you or laughed at you or paid witness to your faults.
Until she had the very day fixed, and went for a whole week with a smile until the woman at the Post House said, “Are you getting some on the side?” or “Have you gone religious or something?” Thinking on that Friday night, after she treated herself to a steak dinner at the small Italian restaurant, after she drank three glasses of wine, that she would go back to her room and prop the note up there by the mirror and go down into the water and become one more fish in that school of happy fish, her hair floating in the lambent current.
Ordering that steak and sitting in her best dress, her mind already swimming there in the sweet silence, already gone over that line from here to there. Not even noticing the man at the third table who glanced at her and then glanced again.
“I did not order this fourth glass of wine,” she told the waiter.
“I know that,” he said, “but that man did.”
She looked into his dark eyes three tables away and gave away her resolve and the best part of her soul in one clear, long gaze so that all the rest of the evening at her table and then down the street and then up to his room was an improbable flower blooming about her. Upon the bed once more but this time, caught up in throes of ecstasy and watching that other shadow of the end of her life gone away in wisps until she could no longer remember that girl or that five years or any moment before just now when the man named Jonathan crooned to her about her fairy face and her elfin ears.
“Everything after that was gravy.” She remembered a waitress named Thelma who spoke of an evening with a well-muscled young man.
Love bloomed and then flowered, and in a thrice, she was standing at an altar with all these kind people behind her, his relatives and friends who welcomed her in as though she were a goddess groomed for this role. She moved with Jonathan, the artist and teacher, to a cottage outside the city, and she took up housekeeping in that sweet, little house. He drove a Chrysler and got her a Volkswagen. She fixed exquisite meals of fruit and cheese and bread and fine wine. Their friends and neighbors dropped by in the evenings, and then she found that she was pregnant. She had that child, a sprite named Lydia, who was a curly haired charmer, stealing hearts and nestling at her mother’s bosom each evening while she read Good Night, Moon and The Tatterberries Go Fishing. And there were evenings after Lydia was asleep, and her husband had finished laboring over body with cries of delight, that she lay abed, watching the stars and drifting clouds and thinking, “It is merely a dream, and I will awaken soon, but please, God, wait a bit longer.” Because she believed in him again now, a deity who visited upon us suffering until we were surfeited and then waved a wand in the air and thus wrought a Jonathan and a cottage and a Lydia and air like ambrosia, the sweetness of life full to the brim.
* * *
She had only learned to quit holding her breath when the dream expired on a spring evening seven years after it began only an hour before she gave herself to the river. Jonathan and Lydia had gone to the store because they wanted hot fudge sundaes for an evening snack, exactly the thing that she had never learned to believe in. Exactly the singular detail of wonder which Jonathan and Lydia had taught her, do not deny your next joy in this great and joyous infinitude.
Finished the dishes and then sat upon the porch, watching the drizzle, seeing the lights of a car approaching. Sighing to herself that they were back, and then that note of disquiet when she saw that it was a different set of lights. Then, oh, so quickly, a note of fear and then panic, the village police car. She quit rocking. She held her breath, and for a second, it came to her that on that night seven years before, it would have been better to complete that act, to go down and down into the watery grave where you could not be touched by pain and buffeted by sharp waves and the tides of grief.
It was over quickly. The earnest man with the red face, bending toward her solicitously, making noises with his mouth that could not be words because words could not kill, and she felt herself to be dead. A burned out wick of a human who shook her head as if that movement could change his words, could change the things he told her.
“In a light fog — another car speeding — across the center line. Tangled metal.” He said other things. Screams. Broken limbs and death, oh, death doubled. Gone, gone. All of the wonder fled in a moment of telling.
There were a few more days while she walked in a trance and spoke to people who spoke to her. She called undertakers and lawyers and insurance men and friends and relatives. In a quick slurry of events, all flowing together from the fountain of her life’s destruction. Listening to the first shovelful of dirt upon one coffin and then the other.
After that, she did not remember anything until she awakened in a motel three months later and saw the wreckage of wine bottles and smelled the unclean body of a man whose back was turned to her.
* * *
So that her life became merely a series of men, some kind and some cruel, who took her in and used her money for wine or whiskey or anything to kill the pain, anything to make her numb. For to be numb was to be insensible to memories that wracked her mind and body over and over. She cried for the loss of her husband and daughter. She cursed her luck that she had ever known them. She sat in bleared silence at a hundred cheap bars with worn linoleum on the floor and a multitude of names carved into the tables and heard thousands of doomed men speaking in tongues, rehearsing their stories of the apocalyptic events which brought them to this low state, endless recitations of reasons and excuses and verses from the Bible of idiot luck. All of them wronged and persecuted and flaming like desperate angels in the foul clutch of circumstance.
After a few years, all the money was gone, all the insurance money, all the money left from the sale of the house, all the emblems of respectability such as a house key and a banking account and permanent address. She lived in her car for a while, parked in municipal parking lots, back side roads off the city park. Then she sold that, too, and she and a man named Fred Rakestraw got three half gallons of vodka and rented a cheap room at the Hoosier Arms for most of a week while they lived on vodka and hamburgers.
She came to in an alley with the skull-busting headache and no Fred in sight, her purse rifled, and the only animating factor in her movements was an intense desire for sudden death.
But that also did not work because she flung herself from the third floor of a parking garage and ended up in a charity hospital with a broken leg, three broken ribs, and two black eyes.
“Lucky you hit that big pile of garage bags,” the ER doctor said, peering into her eyes with a light. “That broken your fall or you might have been dead.”
She saw a nurse bend to whisper to him, and she heard him say, “Really.”
When he came back to check her further, he did not speak to her anymore.
He spent his whole life trying to put people back together who had lived careless, stupid lives, but for those who took up bed space and his time after they had attempted their own self-destruction, he had no sympathy.
* * *
Now here she was, sixteen years later, miraculously still alive, who had thought she wanted nothing but death. Here she was with another sad, empty man with sad, empty promises who had taken her money the night before because he wanted to find her a blanket. Coming back ten hours later to a deserted car in the back of a junk yard, calling her his “beauty,” who had probably spent her few dollars in a bar, drinking shots of Old Repeater or Yellowstone.
“You idiot,” she said to herself with a half-smile, “and you have not mentioned that at all. You are just glad he came back. Glad that he is holding your hand, and you will get a hot dog and Kool Aid from the charity wagon.”
He reached up for a moment to push a gray curl back. They reached the library grounds and saw that they were tenth in line. They could smell the soup. The everyday citizens of the city swirled past them with hardly a glance. Those who noticed gave them that tight-lipped, censoring look that dismissed her and her man as creatures who had crawled up from the vermin pile to invade their space and steal their air.
“We ain’t but tenth, old sweetheart,” Nelson said, holding her hand again as though they were waiting in line at the county fair to ride the Ferris wheel.
Jim Gish is a writer, teacher, and counselor. His writing heroes include Faulkner, Joyce Carol Oates, and Eudora Welty. He has published in The MacGuffin, Litchfield Review and Eclectics, among others.