By June Calender
I drove four hours across Nebraska and into Colorado. I drove through driving rain, leaving—escaping—as always the place I grew up. The windshield wipers, on high speed, hissed and thunked rhythmically nearly hypnotizing me. The arrow straight highway took me toward the mountains in Colorado, which I knew were a bastion on the horizon, but I could not see them in the gray murkiness of the late afternoon. The amber lights of the car created a yellowish space into which I drove. I thought of the puppy pee I had cleaned yesterday on the cracked, ugly linoleum of the old house I hoped I had visited for the last time. I knew I had reached the mountains as I felt the road rising. My mood rose too. Home was ahead; Raoul expected me and would hold my hands as I relived the last few days.
I focused on Aunt Geneva sitting at the kitchen table cuddling the cute but un-housebroken puppy. She had moved there after Gramma died. “I’ll miss him,” she said.
“Like a hole in the head,” I mumbled.
She made kissy sounds to the puppy, a brown mutt she rescued from drowning when John Fowler stopped on the way to town. He was going to toss the pup off the bridge as he drove over. I thought she was ignoring me on purpose, but then she said, “It’s been hard living with Chet after I was so happy with Tom.”
“You’re a saint,” I said. Tom died in a nasty tractor accident nearly five years ago. I remember Aunt Geneva’s almost catatonic stiffness as we waited for Tom’s funeral to begin. Thirty-seven years of love were clenched inside the vault of her motionless body.
They were childhood sweethearts. I always thought the warmth between them was like sorghum molasses on baking powder biscuits, in contrast to the dry toast blandness between my parents. For the last three years, she had been living with her weird brother in that sad old house that needed so many repairs. Uncle Chet was the reason I had left the state the minute I graduated from high school, the reason I went back only for funerals. I had been inclined not to go to his, but I wanted to see him dead and buried.
I also wanted to hug Aunt Geneva and wish her good luck in selling the house, preferably to someone who would tear it down and build something decent on what was left of the farm. She planned to move to Arizona where a widowed friend wanted her to share a condo. It’s beyond me how she could have lived in that same house with Uncle Chet, even if he was her “baby brother.” The warmth in that phrase was once upon a time only in the voice of Gramma, who told people, even when Chet was a grown man, “Baby Brother is a little slow.” To have lived with him for three years made Aunt Geneva something like a martyr in my book.
I had thought I would feel lighter, happier, on the drive home, but driving in bad weather always made me tense. My hands were tight on the steering wheel. Every so often, I took one hand off the wheel and shook it like a dog shakes off water after a swim. I hunched and flexed my shoulders. I tried to breathe deeply and slowly but I couldn’t concentrate on breathing. My mind kept going back to that house and the short funeral. The minister didn’t bother talking about Chet; he took the opportunity to offer his fundamentalist views on the brevity of life on this earth and the infinity of the life hereafter. Eternal damnation, I thought, but the preacher stopped short of spelling that out. It’s possible he didn’t know Chet at all, but Aunt Geneva attended his sermons regularly. Maybe Chet did too, for all I knew. I didn’t know anything about his day-to-day life. I didn’t want to know. I was glad to see an open casket, glad to see he was really dead. My mind was full of medieval superstitions from seeing trailers for horror movies that I never went to. Drive a stake through his heart, I thought. Be sure he’s dead.
The wan light between the land and the heavy aluminum lid of low clouds disappeared rapidly. Soon I was driving in complete darkness. The road was getting higher. The fog became so thick it blotted out both sides of the two-lane highway. I had to drive by the white stripe on the outside and the dashed, but often double, line in the middle of the road. There had been very little traffic all day, now there was none. I was alone in the ever-denser fog. I did not dare go more than twenty miles an hour for fear of losing one of the lines by which I drove. God forbid I should hit a deer or a coyote.
I reached the flashing yellow light where another sometimes busy two-lane road crossed. I was only fifteen miles from the turn off that would take me to the cabin where Raoul expected me. I hoped I would be able to see the mailbox, which was on the left side of the road. I had tried to phone him when the fog closed in, but I’d forgotten to recharge the phone’s battery. Raoul is the kind of intellectual rarely in touch with reality. He would sit in a yellow circle of light, his laptop on his knees, the table beside him covered with books, pondering the choice of words as he translated American poetry into Spanish. He might not even be aware of the weather conditions. I don’t know why I love him, maybe because he’s not like anyone in my family. He mumbles lines of poetry in Spanish to me when we make love. I don’t speak Spanish; I really can’t tell if he loves me. Right then, I wanted to be in that room with him more than anything. I wanted to be out of the car, in a place full of objects clearly visible in the lamplight. I drove steadily but slowed to fifteen miles an hour and then to ten.
Shouldn’t I be near the turn? Oh, God! A left-hand turn, how will I find it? The center stripe and the right edge are my guides. I could not see the white stripe outside of the other left lane. Should I drive on the left side of the road? What if there’s another car and I’m in the wrong lane? What should I do? For the first time, I was not merely tired and tense from driving, I was growing frightened. I knew this road well in normal light. Even on a moonless night, I never doubted I’d see our mailbox in my headlights. But now I felt as if I could have been in Inner Mongolia or outer space. I might have gone past our road already. Should I turn around and drive slowly on the other side? Why didn’t I look at the mileage when I came to the blinking yellow light? I’d lost all sense of distance. My throat was getting tight, I felt like a child who wanted to cry, “Mommy!”
Then I saw a figure standing in the road, right on the centerline, arms waving. The tall, gaunt figure reminded me of Uncle Chet. The arms flailed at me in that uncoordinated way he moved. Then he stepped right in front of my car. I hit the brakes and gripped the steering wheel like a shield. It was Uncle Chet, younger, much younger than the man in the coffin. The tip of his tongue slowly licked his bottom lip as it had when I was twelve, and he stared at me with his misty, hungry eyes.
I stared back as I had then, when I could only look at his eyes as I tried not to feel what his hands were doing. They caught what I called my secret place as if it were an apple he was plucking off the tree…then I felt…I could not remember. I remember only his eyes and the tip of his tongue slowly crawling along his lower lip like a slug on a flower petal. I don’t know how long I stared at those eyes, but slowly they were replaced by closed eyelids in a wrinkled face beneath tufted eyebrows; the mist around him became the cheap lavender satin he lay on…but still, the figure stood there in the headlights refusing to let me pass. “Goddammit, it’s late, I’ve got to get home. What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I said. I might have spoken aloud. Or maybe not. My cold fear had turned to sweating anger dampening my forehead. I turned the car’s heater to A/C. I lowered the window and ordered, “Get in this car! Get in this car and apologize you shit-eating sonofabitch.” I’m sure I changed the heater, sure I opened the window and shouted at him.
The stooped, aging man I had last spoken to four years ago when my grandmother died was sitting in the seat next to me, his head down, his chin nearly on his chest, exactly as I had seen him during Gramma’s funeral service. Yes, he had been a pallbearer, but this was how I remembered him until I saw him today in his coffin. “Look at me!” I commanded. “Look at me! …Uncle Chet, you hear me?”
He looked at me from beneath those old man’s eyebrows. His neck was ugly as a plucked chicken’s neck. His Adam’s apple looked like a cancerous growth as he swallowed. “Do you remember what you did to me?” He just looked at me. “You remember. Some part of that half-educated, selfish brain remembers when you came into my bedroom when I was staying with Gramma.”
“Just getting titties,” he whispered.
“That’s right. And you were always hugging me, rubbing against me.”
“You were the prettiest girl in three counties.”
“That’s what you always said.”
“You grinned when I said that. You laughed your twinkly laugh. Teasing me.”
“I never teased you.”
“You teased me. You rubbed against me when I rubbed against you.”
“I did not.”
I turned the A/C off and closed the car window. The sweat on my forehead and in my armpits felt clammy. ” …maybe a little bit.”
“You DID. You liked me.”
“You had no right—”
“I’m a man.”
“You were a man then too and I was a child. People don’t do that to children.”
“You were not a baby. You had titties.”
“I was twelve. You just came in and grabbed me.”
“You were so pretty.”
I was sweating again. I held down the button for the window. “YOU RAPED ME!”
He looked out the windshield then his head dropped. “I didn’t rape you.”
“YOU RAPED ME, YOU BASTARD!”
“I couldn’t help myself…” He slumped down, shrinking against the upholstery.
“Weren’t you ever sorry?”
“You went away.”
“Damned right I went away.”
“I dreamed about you.”
“I hated you. I was so glad to see you dead and put in the ground. Good riddance to a pile of shit—that’s what I was thinking while the preacher was saying those endless prayers.”
“I was not a bad man…” He looked at me sideways, just a moment and then looked away.
“You made me feel dirty and ugly and used. I dressed in overalls so no one else would want me like that.”
“I tried to live an honest life. I wasn’t very good at things, but I paid my bills. I never cheated people. I did the best I could.” He sat up a little straighter. “The minister said I was a good member of the community.”
“I confessed my sins.”
“To God. I asked God to forgive my trespasses.”
“You should have asked me, I’m the one. Were there others?”
He shrugged. “I tried to live a Christian life. I tried…it wasn’t easy…life wasn’t easy…don’t you know that?”
“I’ve known that since I was twelve.”
“I…I didn’t mean to…to make you hate me. You were just so pretty…I didn’t have any girlfriends…I was shy…girls scared me. They never were friendly to me. You were the only one who ever flirted with me.”
I was beginning to shiver. I closed the window and flipped on the heat. “I didn’t flirt with you.”
“You did. I remember.”
“I didn’t flirt.”
“Women never did…like me much. It was a lonely life I lived.”
“God was punishing you.”
He shrugged. He was a pathetic figure sitting there, shrinking, sinking into the old gray suit that he was buried in. I could see the flowers, not many.
Aunt Geneva sniffed a little as we walked away from the gravesite. She said, “I’m the last one. Your mother’s gone and now Chet’s gone… He’s been a comfort to me. I’ll have to sell the horses. He was a wonder with horses and dogs. I know you didn’t like him, but he was a good man. Not as bright as most…handicapped. I guess nowadays we might say he was autistic.”
“I don’t think he was,” I said. But I had heard her say “artistic.” I thought of the little cedar jewelry boxes he made by the dozens in the workshop in a corner of the barn. After he sanded and varnished them, Gramma would line the boxes with velvet or satin and sell them from a card table at the end of the driveway. As the conversation replayed in my mind, Uncle Chet was fading. I could see through him. Maybe he was artistic and never had the chance to make anything more complicated than the cedar boxes. What did I really know about him? I had nursed my hate and disgust.
“Go away,” I said to the remnant of a man sitting there. “Go wherever…it is the dead go. Into the fog…”
“I loved horses and dogs and Geneva…and you,” he said very softly.
He looked at me, his eyes became young, his face became a young man’s face with a cowlick of light brown hair that fell over his forehead and nearly into his right eye. He was looking at me sitting on the swing on the porch of Gramma’s house; he was sitting on the floor not far away. He said, “I see London, I see France…” He laughed. I laughed and did not change the way I was sitting. We were looking at each other, laughing and laughing. Until he was barely there and I was still stopped in the road, sweating and cold, unable to see three feet ahead of the car.
At the edge of my awareness, a ghostly light glanced off the rearview mirror. Then I looked and saw it in the outside mirror also. It moved in jerks, it drew my attention away from Uncle Chet, although I could still feel the laughter on my face. The light was not another car. It was a real light, it seemed to be approaching from behind more rapidly now. Should I start the car, drive away? I didn’t dare drive fast…I wasn’t at all sure where I was. Was the drive to our house near? Had I passed it? There wasn’t another house for nearly a mile after ours and it was down an even longer drive. I felt a cold, paralyzing fear that was entirely different from the shock I’d felt when I saw Uncle Chet waving me down. My throat constricted. I don’t think I was breathing. I willed my foot to press the gas pedal. I began to ease the car along. The light bounced closer.
“Stop! Janet, stop!”
I stopped. All the fear dissolved in a gush of relief. Raoul was knocking on the window beside me. “It’s me.” I pushed the button for the window. He leaned in. “Janet!” He kissed me then gasped for breath. “Thank god you stopped. I’ve been trying to catch up with you since you passed the drive.”
I pulled his face to mine; his lips were warm and soft.
June Calender retired from a playwriting career in NYC to move to Cape Cod and write a much researched biography of a traveler to Tibet. She also writes poetry, fiction, and travel essays. She teaches writing to adults at the Academy for Lifelong Learning at Cape Cod Community College and edits is annual anthology.