UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Paul Ashton drove slowly, following the cylindered sweep of headlights through the black, slashing rain. In the darkness,
In the passenger’s seat, Jennifer sat scrunched down, smelling of bourbon, her sodden hair looking like a coiled, furry animal burrowing into her hands. She wore a black dress, still wet with rain.
Paul squirmed in his seat, feeling the creeping itch of his own wet clothes. All day he’d been trying to find the young girl he once knew in this woman beside him, this woman who’d become such a stranger to him. During the last 20 years, he’d seen her no more than three times, although he sometimes talked to her on the phone when he called Cap. And each time, their conversations were formal and stilted, nothing more than small talk. But she never failed to stir up the ashes of their past in his gut, never failed to remind him of his own failure and stupidity.
Yet, Paul wondered if he would be talking to Jennifer again, because he wouldn’t be calling Cap. They’d just buried him, her husband and Paul’s best friend.
Although, the thought, perhaps the hope crossed his mind more than once in the last couple of days that they might talk again, on very different terms.
Years ago Jennifer rarely drank, but today she’d already been drinking when he met her at the church. At first he was afraid she would embarrass herself. Once, she stumbled as she rose to view Cap’s body, but nobody seemed to notice or appear to think it was anything but grief. Still, given the circumstances, he couldn’t blame her for being upset, or for drinking either.
Paul first noticed her the summer he turned 18. She was 17 and loved to ride her father’s mare across the hills and down-land meadows. One morning she rode into the yard of a house Paul and his father were roofing, her bottle-blonde hair shiny and waving in the cool and sunny air. Distracted, Paul hit his thumb twice, swearing loudly the first time, which made his father turn and give him a hard stare. Round and round she’d ridden, as if she were some demon hypnotist. But when he turned to open a new pack of roofing shingles, she disappeared.
Later that week he saw her in town, and before a month passed, they were meeting in her father’s ancient barn. Cap saw her with Paul for the first time at a local dance, and once Paul noticed the spark in Cap’s eyes, Paul danced with her the rest of the night himself, just to keep Cap away from her. Even though he and Cap shared almost everything, Paul didn’t intend to share Jennifer. So Cap watched from afar, moon-eyed and tongue-tied.
As a boy, Cap loved the water. Ironic that he’d drowned Saturday at Conklin’s Lake, where they used to spend so many hours fishing and swimming. Paul always felt that Cap might have been a fish in an earlier life, if he believed in such a thing.
“What happened?” Paul asked, barely able to recognize her voice when she’d called to tell him of Cap’s death. “He was a great swimmer.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think he was drinking.”
“Was anybody with him?”
“No. He was alone.”
“That doesn’t sound like Cap.”
There was a long silence and he could hear her breath.
“No,” she said finally.
Growing up, Cap had a small boat with a tiny motor that only worked on a schedule so erratic Paul could never fathom the timing. And even when it did work, they didn’t always have money for gas. Sometimes Jennifer would join them, but she’d never been much for fishing and would usually complain in ever escalating words and pitch until they headed back to shore, disgusted and vowing never to invite her again. But she was good at getting what she wanted, and what she wanted was all too frequently motivated by a whim or an assumption.
Once, she’d asked him to break into the tack room of a neighbor’s barn, because she said the man had stolen her favorite halter, the one she’d been using when she saw Paul for the first time. At first he refused, but she badgered him for a week until one night, about 2am, he and Cap drank a pint of bourbon and crept into the man’s barn, where they rummaged through halters of every shape and size hanging from a row of crooked nails. It was not there. The next morning, she told them that she’d found it in an unused stall in her father’s barn, two days earlier. “I told you I found it,” she’d said. “You just forgot.”
Her first job was selling women’s clothes in a department store in Clarkston, more than 30 miles away. And later, when she and Cap bought a failing furniture store in town, they built it into a stable business, not great, but one that provided a serviceable, if not always steady income.
Even after he and Jennifer broke up, Paul never figured Cap would end up marrying her. More to the point, he never figured she would marry Cap. Jennifer was pretty, in a single-minded, intense way. Usually she was the life of the party, but not in a care-free way, as someone swept up by a moment, but like an orchestra conductor, aloof and independent, always in control, even when she didn’t seem that way. She appeared to be easy-going, but her eyes gave her away. There was something dark and obsessive about them, something plucked from the nether regions of life and experience, something magnetic and repelling all at the same time.
Cap was fun to be around. A large man, not fat, but heavy nevertheless. A mop of dark, curly hair. He’d worn glasses since he was ten. He had a great sense of humor. He loved practical jokes, even when they were pulled on him. Everyone liked him. And he’d always hated to be alone. Back then, Paul thought Cap might have been a little too laid back for Jennifer, but clearly he’d been wrong. After he and Jennifer broke up, Paul received a postcard from Memphis where Cap and Jennifer had gone to get married. Their marriage shut the door on any chance for Paul to redeem himself, and it stunned him, even though he had not seen her in a long time. When he died, Cap and Jennifer had been married almost 18 years. And Paul had gone through a long succession of unsuccessful relationships.
Now, he was stuck here in this violent storm, driving Jennifer home, wondering how he’d been talked into this. Certainly it wasn’t the first time she’d talked him into something he hadn’t planned to do.
“I stayed in town with Alice Riggs,” she’d said when he arrived at the church, her words already thick. “You remember her don’t you? Used to be Alice Autry.”
“I think so,” he said.
“Her mother fell and broke her hip. She left me and went to catch a plane. Can you take me home?” She leaned forward, touching his arm. Her breath smelled like whiskey. Despite the distance in years, he could feel a stirring of the old connection.
“Sure,” he said. “But you’ll have to help me with the roads. I haven’t been there…” He hesitated. “In a long time.”
Right after the funeral, he’d popped a stick of gum into his mouth, and he just realized he’d been chewing in time to the thwack of windshield wipers. He stopped chewing, and then started again, this time to the off-beat.
He hadn’t been over these roads in 20 years. He was struggling to remember the way, especially in this rainstorm. Jennifer was in no shape to navigate.
“God, I hate storms!” she said, mumbling into her lap. “Why doesn’t it stop?”
“We’ll be there soon,” he said, hoping it was true. But since he didn’t know exactly where they were, he couldn’t be sure.
Outside, raindrops flew like rudderless bugs, striking the windshield, the road, the water-weighted trees, zipping like silvery comets in the shifting, amber headlights. Loose branches smacked the car like ghost-flung whips. Paul tried to recall the road the way it used to look when he knew every bump and gully, every curve, switch-backed and treacherous. But 20 years was a long time. Maybe too long. And nothing seemed familiar. In the past, he’d traveled this way many times, although he’d never done it in weather this bad.
Jennifer raised her head to the passenger’s window. She was heavier than the last time he’d seen her, six or seven years ago, when they’d all met in Asheville for supper. That night she’d been happy and playful as the girl he’d known so long ago, acting as if the in-between years didn’t exist. And of course Cap had been his usual laid-back self, constantly laughing and joking.
Jennifer’s mascara was smeared. Her hair, still dark-rooted and blonde, was short, not long and loose, the way she’d wore it then. Her hands were studded with a row of rings, making her fingers look like shiny, mismatched teeth. He didn’t remember that she liked rings so much.
Swaying, the car splashed through ruts of curdled mud. Paul’s jaws were tired from unstinted chewing, so he lodged the gum against his lip, feeling it settle like a hard, juiceless stone.
“It was a nice service,” he said. “Don’t you think?”
“Except for this damn storm,” she said.
“Yeah, except for the storm,” he repeated, recalling that he’d been startled by the storm too, by it’s speed and ferocity, while the little preacher standing by the gravesite, wearing a pressed black suit, talked faster and faster, wind whipping through the final retreat of mourners, the canvas tent flapping and broken flowers pin-wheeling across the rocky ground. One moment the sky was blue and tranquil, the trees and spindled branches ochred by sunlight. The next, black clouds rolling up and sweeping across the mountains like a horde of alien invaders.
Thunder crashed, rolling into the empty distance like a barrel over loose rocks. “Oh”, she squealed, shuddering.
Paul watched the headlights search for solid ground amid the unstable muck. He fought the windshield glare for snatches of bare dirt, hoping the runnels of black mire were actual road, not some formless trembling of dead leaves and rain-gouged sod, funneling into a tree or a rock. Or worse, off to the right, where the hillside dropped in forested darkness a hundred feet to the river. He nudged the gas, steering left.
To the east, lightening yellowed a patch of sky, backlighting the crooked branches. Causing them to leap out like x-rayed bones.
On the left, he spotted a Tulip Tree leaning over the road, a tree that looked like a bird ready to fly. He recognized that tree. “Damn,” he said, slewing the car in the mud. “We’re here.”
By the time they were half-way down the gravel drive, the rain stopped, as if they’d just driven out of a car wash. Paul could see a piece of western sky wrestling with itself, trying to get light and dark at the same time. In the headlights, the old farmhouse was pretty much the same, with added-on roofs, all angling in different directions. Originally built by Cap’s great-grandfather in the 1920’s, the porch roof sagged more than he remembered, although the paint looked new.
“Paul,” she said, her fingertips fluttering across his wrist like an invisible butterfly. “Come in …have a drink.”
Opening the car door, she got out, holding the frame for balance. Jennifer was gripping her purse in the other hand. Against a treeless scoop of sky, her movements were rounded, jerky. He was surprised by the way she’d been able to mask the effects of her drinking so far, as if she’d been holding herself together by sheer will. But now, she appeared to be on the verge of coming apart. Driving her home was one thing, but the thought of dealing with her grief was truly frightening, bringing back a surge of memory from their last day together, when she’d driven him away.
For years after they broke up, Paul harbored the hope that he might win her back, even after she and Cap got married. Over the years his hope atrophied, although it never completely disappeared. Now, after spending the day with her, he was still trying to understand and digest this new person who was so like the girl he once knew, yet so different.
“I ought to leave,” he said, wondering if that was really what he wanted. “I have to be at work early. Do you have anybody to stay with you tonight… a neighbor… somebody?”
“I’m okay,” she said. “But come in and have a drink.” Letting go of the door frame, she bent to rummage through her purse, extracting a set of keys, which she dropped. Stooping, she swayed as if she were about to fall.
Sighing, Paul got outside, circling the car. She smiled. “Just a little dizzy, that’s all. Have a drink with me,” she said. “Just one. I … I don’t want to be alone right now.”
He turned his head to spit the hardened lump of gum while he bent to retrieve the keys. “All right, Jen. One. Then I’ve got to go.”
He reached for her arm, but she shook her head. “I’m okay,” she said again, taking the keys.
He followed her up the steps, watching her hips fighting with the fabric of her dress. She tried the key. Metal scratched metal, there was a pause, and she turned, shrugging. “Here, you do it,” she said, looking exhausted.
Inside, she went into the bathroom and he sat on the sofa. It was faux leather and new. In the corner was a plush armchair, also new. The rest of the room was little changed, at least from what he remembered. The walls had been painted, but not recently. Over the fireplace mantle he recognized a picture of a sailing ship Cap’s father had hung there many years ago, now much faded. He ran his fingers over the sofa’s armrest, remembering the last time he’d been here, in this room. It was the fourth of July. He’d just turned twenty. He’d brought Jennifer to a party Cap had given when his parents had gone to Atlanta to see the Braves play the Mets, a game the Braves finally lost at 4am, in the 19th inning. Many times Paul tried to block out that day, but it haunted him still. He and Cap had been drinking for hours, and he could remember very little. Mostly it was the scene with the blonde girl whose name he couldn’t recall. And their kiss on the porch just as Jennifer walked out with a plate of brownies. “You asshole!” she’d screamed, throwing the plate, which detonated in clusters of flowered porcelain and broken brownies, the pieces catapulting end-over-end across the porch and through the railing slats. The next day she hung up on him when he called. When he finally saw her in the drug store a few days later, she teared up. “I hate you,” she’d said. “I never want to see you again.”
The walk down the porch steps that night seemed to take a year. As if the world had just been stripped away and he was left with no defense, trying to understand and negotiate this new environment in the way a turtle might, stripped of its shell in the midst of hungry predators.
For two days he hung out with Cap, drinking heavily. On the fifth day he left town.
Paul heard the toilet flush, the bathroom door open. Glasses tinkled in the kitchen. Gray light glowed in the front window, as if the glass were alive and pulsing and peering into the room.
The telephone rang. Twice. Then again.
“Phone,” he said loudly. The message clicked on and he heard Cap’s familiar voice asking the caller to leave a message. There was a slight hesitation, then a man’s voice he didn’t recognize: “Hey… uh, honey, you there? Um, well, I guess they buried … uh, him… so, uh, call me later, okay?”
Paul sat frozen, as if he didn’t have the power to move. Then he looked at the kitchen and saw Jennifer in the doorway, immobile, eyes wide. She moved forward slowly, ice rattling in a pair of glasses, one in each hand. She looked weak and tired and distracted. Her hair looked like she’d dried it with a towel.
“Oh God,” she said, staggering to the arm chair in the corner next to the cold fireplace. Liquor sloshed and spilled and she looked at it with surprise.
“I ought to go,” he said, rising. His pants and shirt were still damp and he wished he were in his own apartment, warm and dry and drinking his own beer. In fact he wished he were anywhere but here, with so much time to think and imagine on the long ride home.
“I loved you, you know,” she said, her voice mechanical.
He didn’t answer.
She drank from one of the glasses and her rings clinked against the side. “I just wanted to hurt you,” she said. “I didn’t want you to leave.”
Light from the kitchen spewed a yellow rectangle over the faded hardwood floor of the living room. The wall clock struck a half-hour chime. Otherwise, there was no sound. He moved toward the front door. “It’s late,” he said, making a show of looking at his watch.
She drank again, finishing one glass in a gulp and putting it on the arm of the chair where it toppled and hit the floor, shattering, glass and ice exploding in random pieces, intermingled and indistinguishable.
Surprised, he turned. She wasn’t looking at the damage. Her face was tight and pale and angled by shadows from the corner of the room. She closed her eyes.
“Cap found out, didn’t he?” he said. “And then decided he just couldn’t live with it.”
She opened her eyes.
“Did he tell you what he was going to do?” He waited a moment, watching her. Then: “No, of course he didn’t. He loved you too much.”
Outside, he felt cold. And by the time he left the porch, the wind was stirring rain from the nearby branches, scattering them like a baptism. He remembered the last time he’d gone down these steps, so long ago, leaving Jennifer behind, her anguished face frozen in his drunken mind. Now he was completely sober, and he could hear her drunken voice coming from inside the house, babbling. But he couldn’t distinguish the words.
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