UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
SHARON MAULDIN REYNOLDS
In The Foothills
Maurine extends the glass of wine, holding the golden liquid up to the light, feeling her lightly freckled bosom glow as it had when she drank half a bottle of sauvignon blanc one chilly California
“Len.” She says his name, fittingly plain, unpretentious. One syllable. “Len wrote that he wanted to build me a tower of stone, a place where I could be alone when I needed. He sent me a postcard of Hawk Tower, the one Robinson Jeffers built at Carmel for his wife, for Una. He understood me so well.”
The chronology of this episode in her life is a bit fuzzy, perhaps to Maurine as much as to the new friends she has invited to lunch on the veranda of a winery in Kentucky where she hands out samples on weekends. In another life, she might have considered them bourgeois, but loneliness has driven her to venues like the Newcomers Club, where she is regarded as something of an oddity, a single woman, an Aging Hippie with two grown children somewhere on Planet Earth. Yet her knowledge of wine, gleaned from a brief tenure at a California winery, has earned her a certain cachet.
“Len was actually from Minnesota,” she continues, encouraged by their apparent attentiveness. “He was born in a log cabin in northern Minnesota. He said that shaped his life. He thought of himself as a homesteader in California, out there on his little ranch in the foothills. Sure, he was an engineer by trade, an aerospace engineer, in fact. And yes, he did make machines that carried weapons of mass destruction. That would’ve bothered me in the sixties, but I was twenty years older when we met.”
They look at her over their glasses of wine, seeing a woman much like themselves, perhaps a bit Bohemian, maybe as young as sixty, carefully made up to conceal the acne scars from her youth. Her gray-streaked auburn hair lies in two coarse sheaths over her shoulders. She is somewhat large, nearly six feet tall, walks slowly and purposefully, one hand clasping a wrist over her stomach, shawls and scarves trailing .
“The homestead thing, that was a state of mind, more or less. You should’ve seen him then, a man of fifty, in his prime, with steel gray curls and furrows running down his cheeks like twin creek beds. Built like a lean bull. He couldn’t stop grinning when he picked me up at the airport, the first time we met in person. His teeth were so white, and he wore a cowboy hat. It was black.”
She remembers the hands, wide, with short, thick fingers, clean and smooth, one holding hers as they drove down a narrow dirt road in the pickup to his ranch. The feel of those fingers through hers, two separate hands locked in one prayer. The memory sends lightning between her ribs, down through her pelvis.
“This close,” she whispers, measuring a universe of love and loss between thumb and forefinger. “This close.”
The others frown sympathetically, shake their heads, purse their lips and are glad they have husbands. Maurine has told them she was married once and lived in a commune.
“I did not do drugs,” she’d said. “I smoked one joint in my life and almost burned down the house in the process, so I never did that again. I may have lived in a commune but I did not have multiple sex partners. I am also not a lesbian, as some people seem to think, just because I’m not with a man.”
No one really thinks Maurine is a druggie or a dyke. She has a long stern face and is often mistaken for a schoolteacher or a librarian, a misconception she never fails to correct in a withering tone: “I am a Ph.D. anthropologist.”
After getting her degree, she’d actually worked as a curator for a time at a museum in Rapid City. It was a two-day drive and a lifetime away from the Wisconsin commune where she’d last seen her son and daughter. By then, they were no longer hers, not really. They’d Reverted to Nature, become Enthralled with her husband’s lover, a woman named Rainbow of all things, much younger, almost a child herself. Maurine would awaken in the mornings at the commune in the room tacked onto the back of a rambling farmhouse to find the three of them gone, Theo, her husband, in Rainbow’s bed most likely, her son and daughter on a pile of blankets or straw, wherever they’d fallen asleep the night before.
She’d gathered them up one morning and driven back to town, to Eau Claire, on the pretext of visiting her sister-in-law, Gretchen. She planned to leave them there, just long enough to get her life back together and find a job.
“Thirty years is nothing. A long night’s sleep. Thirty years ago I was slim, not yet forty. But I felt old and ugly and fat. I felt overwhelmed and alone, even though I had a husband and children and people around me all day. I wanted to die.”
The others nod their heads in agreement. They know what it’s like to be lonely in marriage, to eat meals with another person in silence, to measure each breath in the bed beside you, perhaps even half hoping to hear the last one. Still, they are glad they have husbands who will from time to time take them to places like the Chicago Museum of Art, even consider an Alaskan cruise, though the husbands turn a deaf ear to requests like “one last view of Berlin.”
* * * *
Maurine had left her children, driving away from her sister-in-law’s in the dying light, with the sun shooting beams through the bare limbs of oak trees lining the quiet street, while they watched TV for the first time in over a year. She never even said good-bye because she meant to come back for them. The next day, Gretchen’s husband, Theo, drove straight to town through a blinding snowstorm with Rainbow to fetch the children.
“He sued for divorce, said I was an unfit mother because I deserted them. He kidnapped my children and turned them against me. When I called, he made my six-year-old daughter say she didn’t love me anymore and I wasn’t her mother. Rainbow was. Later, he went back to work at a law firm in D.C. Representing big tobacco, what else. Of course, his little Rainbow faded away.”
Maurine had finally given up trying to reconnect with her children.
“It was too painful,” she explains. “It was just easier to be in denial.”
Eventually, she’d also given up her career. There had been some disagreement with museum officials. She hadn’t worked as an anthropologist since.
“There were skulls, funerary objects. They didn’t belong there. They should’ve gone back to the tribes, at the very least included on inventories. They were lying there in metal cabinets, the spirits still attached to them. Everything I worked for all those years. I can’t talk about it. I really can’t. It’s too painful.”
A California dude and a highway conflagration, though, that was fair game for conversation.
“He certainly wasn’t a ‘dude,’” she says. “He thought people from Southern California were crazy. Northern California, that’s like a separate state. I felt protected there, in the foothills, on his ranch. Well, it wasn’t really a ranch in the real sense of the word. And it was only five acres. But it had been much larger, back when a Chinese family owned it. They had some kind of orchard.”
Their first morning together, he had taken her on a tour, shown her the shed and the bins where the Chinese family had stored the fruit. Some of their old tools were still hanging on the walls. It was like a museum in a way. She imagined opening one of the wooden bins, finding a skull inside.
Her listeners look at each other with sidelong glances. Wasn’t that a bit risky, they ask, staying way out there alone with a man she’d just met? They could never imagine running an ad in a lonely hearts column, much less having their photos on the Internet like some women did nowadays.
“I felt like I did know him. We’d been writing each other for months and talking on the phone every week. As soon as his divorce was final, he sent me a plane ticket to Sacramento for Christmas. Besides, my personals ad was in the New York Review of Books.”
She had been working in a gift shop up in the Black Hills after leaving the museum in Rapid, selling crystals and dream catchers and fake Indian crafts. The owner thought having an anthropologist lent some credibility to the place. Len’s letters, coming across the Continental Divide, carried with them the promise of a new life, away from the tourist families that reminded her of her children’s childhood, long lost to her.
“I wasn’t looking to be rescued. I didn’t ‘need’ a man. To take care of me. But I just wanted. Someone.”
The other women nod in agreement. They all have college degrees. Some still work in their chosen fields or sell real estate. They can take care of themselves, too. If anything should happen to their husbands.
In his letters, Len had spoken of watching the cloud formations over the Sierra Nevada foothills from his front porch, the meditative strains of The Lark Ascending playing in the background, wishing Maurine were there, sitting on his lap. But when she was there and tried sitting on his lap once as he listened to Madame Butterfly on his elaborate stereo system, he looked up at her with a forced smile, as if trying to remember who she was. She rose and went to the kitchen to begin preparing dinner, looking out at the fig trees while pounding chicken breasts flat. He did not come up behind her, encircling her waist with his arms. At night he did not hold her in the dark hours before dawn, so she slipped out of bed to pour herself a glass of vodka and orange juice.
“He liked to talk about crop circles. He believed in them, you know, believed they were messages from some alien race. He spoke at length about Ayn Rand. None of what he said was really clear to me. All that stuff about people acting from self-interest. It just seemed obvious.”
Finally, when they were getting dressed to go to his mother’s house on New Year’s Eve for dinner, she stood in the bathroom door watching him shave and asked, “What you said in your letters, about us, do you still want those things?”
He grimaced at his reflection in the mirror and clutched the towel wrapped around his waist.
“Things? What things?” He raised his chin, carefully slicing away shaving foam beside his grey mustache.
She wanted to say, “You sent me a picture of Hawk Tower. You wished me here and here I am.” But the words wouldn’t come. “Things. About us. You and me,” she said finally.
“I can’t think about that now. There are problems at work.” He turned on the water, flicking foam off the edge of the razor.“They’re laying people off at the plant. I don’t know if I’ll have a job after the holidays.”
It was the longest speech he’d made outside of holding forth on crop circles or Ayn Rand. At least things were out in the open, more or less, she thought, turning away so he wouldn’t see her tears.
Maurine doesn’t like to remember the rest of the evening, how she sat like a stone throughout dinner, steadily drinking champagne and watching Len play the Silver Screen version of Trivial Pursuit with his mother and other members of his family. A neighbor, some woman Len used to date in high school, had also come over. Maurine noticed how easily they laughed together over the game board. Just before midnight, she picked up her champagne glass and went out to stand alone in the backyard beneath the stars.
“What are you doing out here by yourself?” Len asked, coming up behind her, still not touching her.
On the way home, instead of holding hands as they had the first time she rode with him in his truck, they were silent. She decided to give him one more day, then she would leave, even though her return flight wasn’t until the following weekend.
“We both had a lot to drink that night and didn’t get up until noon,” Maurine says. “He was probably still hung over when he got on his motorcycle. He said he just felt like getting some fresh air. His mother called me that evening from the hospital. I guess he’d headed up into the mountains, where there’d been some snow overnight. Going around a curve, he hit an icy spot and skidded into an oncoming truck.”
She should’ve tried to stop him, knowing the alcohol in his system had made him sluggish. That’s what Len’s family had seemed to think. In the hospital, they turned their faces from her, his mother and older sister, united in their grief. His mother spoke to her only once: “What was he doing out there, on his motorcycle in that weather?”
Maurine could only shake her head, biting her lip, as she looked into the woman’s green eyes, so like Len’s. “I’m sorry. So sorry.”
She left the next morning, cashing in her airline ticket at the airport in Sacramento and renting a car. She drove for hours, threading her way through the foothills to the scenic little mountain town where Len had taken her soon after her arrival. At the small winery where she had experienced her first real wine tasting, Maurine picked out his favorite sauvignon blanc and drank half the bottle, sitting alone at a table by the fireplace.
“I didn’t go to Len’s funeral. I left that to his family. This was my way of mourning him, really, of celebrating his life,” she tells them. “And I wanted it all to mean something, my going out there. He died doing what he loved, riding free on his motorcycle. I felt his spirit nearby, like the Indians do, in the hills and in the trees. I felt I should be near him, at least for awhile. So I stayed until I knew he had traveled on to the next world. Then I came back East. It was time.”
Some of the women, made vulnerable perhaps by the wine, take out tissues and quietly dab their eyes. To have suffered so many losses. Her children, now this. How does she go on?
“I have my memories,” she says.
© 2004-2010 Underground Voices