Here’s what the guy I don’t live with anymore said: “Charlene, if you could only imagine yourself as a feral, teeth-bearing, timber wolf bitch in heat, then you and me—we’d be a whole lot better suited.” His name is Paulie. The same as the brother-in-law in the Rocky films, and even on our honeymoon to Nova Scotia I refused to get down on all fours, and snarl and snap and then howl back at him the deep pleasure he insisted this eye-to-the-keyhole brand of copulation would be.
We’d splurged on the poor man’s version of a bridal suite, and when he grabbed and attempted to force me down onto the wall-to-wall pea-green shag, I said, “This is grounds for divorce, you know?” and he said back, “Yeah, if you’re the husband it sure the fuck is.”
He’d been downing Kamikazes and doing bong hits—which excuses nothing—and I flashed that instant on how our vows had been so entirely misinterpreted, and in my mind already null and void for as long as we both shall live. And that at some undetermined future date I would sign and serve him with walking papers, and skip town well in advance of all the predictable fireworks.
The man whose bed I’m currently sleeping in has no clue that I’m still legally wed or, for that matter, that I ever was. Or that a fifty-fifty split of everything that Paulie and I own jointly wouldn’t buy me fifteen minutes on Dream Street. How I’ve even gotten this far I don’t know, the rust-riddled gmc three-quarter-ton pickup in need of a ring job and a tread-bearing set of tires, and headlights that don’t strobe or short out on the potholes and washboards and frost heaves. The truck is in Paulie’s name alone, and insofar as he is by nature ornery and vengeful, and because he always reverts to form, he has undoubtedly reported the vehicle stolen. Right, some choice he hung on me: grand theft auto or miraculously grow myself a set of wings for my unmapped, zigzag getaway to wherever two seventy-five and change would land me.
Vermont tags, and so I said, “Montpelier,” when in fact the driveway I slowly backed out of almost two months ago is just outside of Bellows Falls. Lying is not habitual with me, though it is my theory that any potential love arrangement that can’t bear a certain degree of deception was never in the first place meant to be. Not that love or longing or even the vague yearning after is what’s at stake here because it isn’t. The plan is simply to hole up, for as long as need be, and attempt to reset and regain my bearings. No rush or panic, and trust me when I say that any slew-footed private eye who can track me here is worth his weight in minks and sables.
“Fair enough, but why Carp Lake of all places?” Grove asked, and my instinct was to lower the coffeepot onto the Formica tabletop, and slide right up tight to him on the midnight-blue vinyl of that back corner-booth seat where he used to sit near closing, and plant a kiss smack-dab on his lips and whisper, “You. You’re the reason.” Instead I said, “Why not?” and poured him another warm-up on the house, and look where I am now, safely tucked under an elk hide that must weigh a full forty pounds, the fur thick and fist-deep and shiny. Grove says that smoothing out the bed each morning is like petting a large headless mammal, which I deemed insensitive and tasteless and perhaps even cruel. Notwithstanding that whenever he touches me like that my flesh goes all quivery under his fingertips turned soft as lambskin, as soft as angel’s breath at the base of my neck.
He claims that there are only three seasons in northern Michigan: July, August, and winter. Endless subantarctic windchills, he says, and whiteouts and the county roads impassable for days on end. No mail, schools shut down, and no place to escape without a dog team and a sled, and I thought, perfect.
A single February, he insists, can last a full year. For some people, half a lifetime, and even in the sack his blue-black hair appears windswept whenever I wake next to him, his head sometimes sideways on my lower abdomen. Other times in the drowse between sleeping and waking I’ll reach into that empty space where, out of habit, I already expect him to be. Then open my eyes to find him fully clothed, and staring down like he’s surprised to find me there. His cheeks as red as if he’s just stepped inside from the cold outdoors after casting and casting his fly line into those blind, predawn hours of darkness.
Unlike me, he’s currently unemployed. But in three weeks, he says—on the trout opener—he’ll resume guiding again. Just last night he got up and cracked the bedroom window an inch or two so that I could hear the water eddy and flow around that wide sweep in the horseshoe bend just upriver from us. Or he’ll say, “Hey, Charlene, look,” and in a certain slant of early morning light those two gigantic weeping willows that lean out over the far bank glow iridescent, like lemons. Right, spring hopes eternal, and yesterday, like magic, the first of the dive-bombing kingfishers arrived.
I’ve only ever fished with night crawlers or miniature marshmallows on a bare hook, and a bell sinker to carry the bait down and out away from the shore. For bullheads or suckers, lazy, good-for-nothing pig-eyed bottom-feeders, as Darrell, my stepfather at the time, referred to them, and he sure never contemplated paying anyone to lead us anywhere. He wouldn’t even tell my mom where we were going. “Our secret spot,” he’d say, and no, she couldn’t tag along, not then, not ever, and he’d quick-wink over at me. I was thirteen, primetime jailbait in skin-fitting Levi’s cutoffs, my first bra front-hooked and lacy and shiny black. Sometimes on those hot, humid afternoons I’d say to him, “It’s no different than a bikini top,” and unbutton my shirt and sit there half-unclad while he chain-smoked, his narrow eyes bead-hard on me. Like a gar pike, or what I conjured a barracuda to be. Not so different but even more intense and concentrated than when he tied up a tire swing in our backyard a few years earlier, needing approval from me, as I’d overheard my mom say to him, now that he was going to be my father.
As part of our Just Say No education we’d previewed half a dozen perv films in homeroom, which we referred to as C Block, all gray concrete walls and those heavy, steamy, yeasty-smelling canvas green shades yanked tight to the sills. Although Darrell possessed certain key slimeball tendencies, he never so much as copped a feel or moved on me in any overt physical way. Except for one time to tuck a loose strand of hair behind my ear, and so I never ratted him out to my mom or to anyone. And, just like with Paulie and me, they’re no longer an item anymore, his current whereabouts also unknown, or so my mom in her moods is, to this day, prone to convey.
Grove is nothing like Darrell or Paulie. Everything neat and tidy, and when I first inquired as to his line of work, he said, “Dining on the fly. Strictly an under-the-table, word-of-mouth operation,” and I thought, okay, fine, but factor in his Better Homes & Gardens kitchen, and fancy-ass drift boat, and French wine by the case and it all points to some fatter scratch elsewhere.
Drugs. Reverse alimony. Insurance fraud that I’d heard Paulie, and his Saturday afternoon chug-a-lugging buddies, gas on about. Working up their slow, predictable fury and daydreaming aloud how just one fucking sweet-deal windfall of a scam would instantly transform them into blue bloods. Kings of the trailer park, as they said. Failing that, they were what they were, and that was my immediate take—my indoctrinated frame of reference towards the male species by and large. But Grove’s cover? “A moderate trust,” he said, more question than statement, as if appealing to my compassion to buy into whatever he was selling, and I thought, Say again? I thought, Get screwed royally more than a time or two it behooves a woman on the loose to scrutinize the motives of any man. And that includes even a charmer as handsome and suave and soft-spoken as Grove.
“No, no, no,” he said, as if reading my mind. “Not that kind of trust. An inheritance.” As if to corroborate the claim, he showed me the ornate, bowlegged cherry wood leather-top desk on which he ties flies in his shop out back. They’re intricate and gorgeous and now and again he’ll hold one out to me in the shallow pool of his palm, and whisper its Latin name: Isonychia, he’ll say. Hexagenia libata. Ephemerella dorothea.
In grade school, I sat for awhile in the second row of desks next to a boy from Brazil, whose name I can’t anymore recall, and whose seat, one day, went unoccupied, and stayed that way for the remainder of the school year. Olive skin, eyes oval and dark brown like fresh roasted almonds, and I swear Grove could be that kid grown up, his teeth even straighter and whiter now, the moist-looking lips, the remote wry smile. Quite possibly someone who, a few generations removed, might actually have been connected to the ruling class, and his life out here in the boonies some oddball remnant of a more glamorous and pedigreed past.
A college degree in entomology, Grove said, and after looking it up in the dictionary I better comprehend why he examines so carefully the submerged stones he lifts from the riverbed, turning them over and over in his hands. He makes sketches and takes meticulous notes in his daybooks on what he sees. “In English?” I said, and he said back, “Hellgrammites. Nymphs. Midges. Insect larvae,” the water samples he collects in tiny glass tubes literally teeming with invisible protozoa come to life under the intense magnification of his microscope. “Incredible,” I said, as in, Holy Mary Mother if that constitutes scholarship, then maybe higher education is not, after all, as my mom maintained, just another impossible wide-eyed pipe dream. “Listen to me, Miss Cum Laude. Forget about the I.V. Leagues, okay?”
“Ivy Leagues,” I corrected. “Like on vines and archways and courtyards,” and she said back, “Beauty school, Charlene. Go there and call it college if need be. Think hair,” she said. “Think manicures and blush and mascara,” which struck me as unenlightened and haughty and hopefully untrue.
My teachers all concurred that I was plenty bright enough. A regular fucking brainiac, as Paulie used to describe me. A potential star pupil who loved to read, but nothing by the book, so to speak, meaning nothing that was ever assigned. And why would I with a career three-point-five average? I’d even taken the sat and scored nationally in the top twenty percentile on the verbal. Somewhere in my old room at my mom’s house I’ve still got that number two pencil I used to blacken those oblong bubbles. Plus my high school diploma.
Grove, naturally, isn’t privy to any of this. He never pushes or pries and neither do I and so, at least in the short-term, our hidden private selves are therefore impossible to trace. All secrets aside, what’s obvious to both of us is this: that I am all legs, disproportionate as a cricket, and that the hem of my tight-fitting waitress uniform quits a good six inches shy of my knees. I have witnessed men jolted back alive when I’ve slow-turned and walked away after taking their orders. It’s a walk I perfected in front of the full-length mirror behind my parents’ closet door, as if my career path had been determined when I was maybe ten or eleven, already a showgirl of sorts in my mom’s lilac lipstick and three-inch heels. All prettied-up and the mirror two-way, I imagined, and men of all ages huddled up there, mouths agape and heavy breathing and gawking back at me all alone in the bedroom, the sky above the house about to crack wide open all thunder and rumble and hellfire.
Yes, me, Charlene St. Ours. That’s my maiden name, reclaimed and, as my real dad used to say, a name as pure and precious as poured silver. St. Ours, as if a single patron was watching over us, the guardian saint of dreams, he said, except that hardly ever seemed the case, and no doubt goes a long way towards explaining how I hooked up with Paulie in the first place. That and dumb judgment and being seventeen at the time, salvation an am tuner cranked to live concerts and a misunderstood fellow sufferer with a pilfered six-pack and a set of wheels and some vague, dense concept of our impending, preordained glory.
My dad believed that the true worth of any life was how well you survived your own worst human share of it, and not how you warded it off, which, he contended was impossible so why even try. And, all things being unequal, here I am more than a tad weary. Beaten up and down and sideways, but intact enough at twenty-four to believe, against the odds, that the happier outcome the human heart was meant to act on is still possible, maybe. If that includes toughing it out for tips at the Day-Runner for awhile, so be it. I mean—could be it’s as simple as that: We do what we do. We let down our hair, lips slightly parted, and undress like those goddesses men believe us to be in the early winter dusk, and like I said about certain mirrors, we sometimes believe in that image, too.
So yes, I’ve consciously withheld from Grove any exacting, incriminating personal details. My hapless, head-on, rent-to-own wreck of a marriage, for starters. Paulie either sucking down beers or passed out cold or gone off to the dog track in some last ditch to resurrect our bankrupt spirits.
It’s sad but true that I’ve viewed more of this wide world than I’d like to admit from the tin-hooch roof of a house trailer with parchment plastic window curtains, and russet-colored dollar-a-yard carpeting already worn through to the floorboards. Where, in the summer months, Paulie stashes a grill and a Styrofoam cooler of Hamm’s on ice. And refers to the two wooden pallets and makeshift planking that he hauled up there as our—ready for this?—portico. Don’t ask me from where in his limited vocabulary he exhumed that gem, but I quote: “Charlene. Go ahead climb that ladder, Princess, and plant your deadfall of a fanny on our frigging, brand-new private portico, for which we owe nobody, not one thin goddamn dime.”
“Judas Priest” was my initial take as I ascended and sat down on the ripped and battered Naugahyde recliner. The sky blinding and peacock-blue above as if Paulie had, in a sudden rush or brainstorm, positioned us that much closer to the Almighty himself, the arc of our lives suddenly all faith, and mirth, and sunshine and bells.
A eureka moment if ever there was one: this was my future, already rooted out and picked over, the reek of methane in the wrong wind direction wafting in continuous waves from the landfill that abutted us. So pungent sometimes, I wondered why, when Paulie torched a bone or a cigarette, that the entire mobile home park didn’t instantly incinerate in a single sonic-boom bomb burst of apocalyptic white light.
Last night was my first night off in almost a week, and so Grove cooked and served me dinner, an entrée of venison medallions, so tender I had to resist swallowing each bite whole. Followed by flaming crème de something or other for dessert. He’s got a stand-up, double door stainless steel freezer packed with wild game, each vacuum-sealed, see-through packet labeled and dated. And a smokehouse out back and half a dozen stump seats arranged around a fire pit. To entertain his wilderness-seeking fat-cat clients, he says, with Cutty Sark or cognac. Coffee and sambuca. Hand-wrapped Cuban cigars. Which I suppose accounts for the humidor, the first I’d ever laid eyes on and perhaps, in context, a minor eccentricity after all.
There are enough books stacked on the living room shelves to rival my hometown library: Thinking Like a Mountain—that’s a title which struck a nerve. So I started reading. And ever since, whenever a cloudbank in a particular shape rolls in, I imagine snowcapped peaks, and canyon passes where a train keeps wending through the switchbacks, a man and a woman meeting by chance for the first time late at night in the dining car. Not entirely unlike Grove and me, not if you blur your vision and ignore the smell of pork ribs and burgers and deep fry, the spat and sizzle of the grill, the Wurlitzer’s ancient and scratchy 45’s.
I suppose this merely confirms what my dad always said about me: “A dreamer is what you are,” as if this constituted a virtue among virtues. “Never lose that, Charlene. Never, ever give it up. Make it all real, it’s ruined. Remember—there’s always a quiet, unviolated place inside your mind somewhere. Find it and go there,” he said. “No matter what,” as if by merely closing my eyes I might dispense a few minutes’ worth of hope and gladness against the world’s cruel design to devour alive the entire tribe of have-nots like us.
He worked at the foundry—his face deep copper-colored in all seasons. Except for around his eyes, the infernal lava-like boil and swirl of the forges impossible to look into without double-ply, black-lens safety goggles. Often his lips got so badly blistered he’d press them ever so lightly to his boilersuit sleeve before kissing my mom. I don’t know why but I intuited that moment of pain as true love, which it turned out over time not to be, and so I remain thankful that they never hazarded any other offspring. Ditto that for me who hasn’t so far birthed or aborted any either. That, too, got to be an issue with Paulie who, because we hadn’t yet—his exact phrasing again—“made us a little monkey,” accused me of secretly using birth control. For the public record, I did, and do, distributed free at the county health clinic.
Fortunately, Grove is on the same wavelength about that. We’ve been together for exactly twenty-two days and nobody here is laying claim or talking family or long-term anything, riding instead on primal scream and without any mention whatsoever of where the potential holy mess that great sex between complete strangers can sometimes lead. Ask my dad who left with a woman half his age and whom my mom still refers to as that little zip of a slut with the tight ass crack and the high-rise plastic tits. He promised support payments but nothing legally deeded, and so you can figure in two seconds flat the upshot of that.
“Because it’s all I can afford for now,” I’d told Grove. “That’s why.” Referencing the unnamed, slashed-rate four-unit hovel of a motel. Whitewashed plasterboard walls and ceiling, a stubby pull-chain and a forty-watt bare lightbulb. One dinky window beside the hollow-core front door, where I’d been slumming, broke and depressed and convinced that I’d run through my life savings only to end up in a dive more dismal and claustrophobic than our faded pink coffin of a house trailer. No phone or tv, and someone’s abandoned black slip still hanging on a single dowel in the tiniest closet I’d ever seen. And to top it off, a mattress that smelled like straw and dried pee.
“No better than sheep sheds nailed together,” Grove said. “That’s all they are. And I don’t intend to intrude on your personal space, but hey, listen. That’s no place for a person to try and survive for more than a night or two.”
That’s when he offered to let me crash at his cabin until I got back on my feet, and to his invitation I all but broke down sobbing when I said, “Yes, please. Thank you.” No set timetable, he said, and rent free and best of all no questions asked. Plus all the high-ticket cuisine that my growling, flat young on-the-run stomach desired. Once every two months he drives south all the way to Traverse City to stock up, and when we sat down to that first candlelit dinner I could name maybe half of what I was lifting to my mouth.
I swear all I ever inherited in this life was a palate for Chef Boyardee Beefaroni and such. Birds Eye frozen, corn dogs, and canned chili. Simply Asia minus the soy—a direct heir to those half-starved forebears of leftover mash-and-scarf. That and my dad’s slight overbite, and that barely visible bluish tint of his inner eyelids, by far my single most exotic feature. But not yet my mom’s fallen thighs—knock on wood—and Grove’s sure not shy about kissing me down there and higher. Whatever my tastes and from wherever on this earth I hail—causing my muscles all the way down to my toes to go taut and hungry and hot-wired as molten fire.
“Y’know, of course,” Gina says, and pauses and I think, No, I honest-to-God don’t, but it doesn’t matter one way or the other because here we go again. Round and round on another after-hours speed rap check-in of my misinformed emotions. “Women end up alone and snowbound here’s what happens first thing,” she says. “They go stupid, and then downright loony. Get a glimpse of him a few days grizzled and it’s no secret that he’s been down and around that proverbial bend more than a time or two.”
“Maybe I get the vapors for older boatmen,” I say. “And who’s snowbound anymore? I can hightail out of here anytime, if and when I choose.” What I keep to myself is that the thought has seized hold more and more with every passing night, my few belongings stuffed in a pillowcase and already in the pickup.
Gina nods and takes a deep slow drag, the doors to both rest-rooms propped open and the undiluted smell of industrial-grade toilet bowl cleaner thicker than the smoke of her cigarette. Which, in the neon of the houselights dimmed down, turns a pale, murky, eerie-green when she exhales slow motion through her nostrils and mouth.
It’s almost the witching hour and we’re the only ones in the restaurant, having wiped down counters and tabletops, vacuumed, refilled the ketchups. Marking time as Gina, the native martyr who’s never in any hurry to leave, says. Yeah, sit long enough time gets earlier is her take, but I don’t buy into a single disappearing second of it. She’s got two out-of-the house kids, a daughter and a son. Long goners, as she calls them, off and running from one next mess to another. And, God forbid, no man on-site or lurking anywhere on the shadowy periphery. Precisely the way she prefers it without any hassles or obligations or the mistrial, as she says, that “to love and cherish” and all that commitment bullshit turns out to be.
Her feet are propped up on the opposite booth seat, right next to me, the soles of her shoes gum rubber, her ankles plumped-out and veiny. Her eyes, too, all glassy and half-lidded in their sockets, and I envision if she were to close them, that she’d nod instantly off, and wake and rise minutes before first light to start the coffee brewing again, her seventh consecutive double shift this week. A menu that never changes and that I memorized in less than fifteen minutes so I could clock through the routine with my mind leaping ahead toward other things. Like the new moon, and the next time it’s full Grove promises—weather permitting—that he’ll slow-float me downriver so I can observe the swirls of monster browns turned carnivore and rising for injured bats or mice or voles. He ties those, too, with deer hair and hackle, their eyes sad and oversized, and their tiny pointed ears so soft and real-looking I want to carry them into a field, miles removed from any waterway, and let them go.
“It’s all illusion,” Gina says, and points through the thick plate-glass window to the twenty-four-hour 7-Eleven across the street lighted up like a mackerel sky. “Where even the First Lady at this hour is as ordinary and tragic as the rest of us. At this hour, Charlene, everybody’s heart hurts. Present company, no exception and don’t pretend otherwise, or you wouldn’t be sitting here in the first place.”
The smoke rings she blows widen and break around me like the outlines of mottled, slow-fluttering oval green mirrors, and for a few seconds I’m staring not at Gina but at my own face, ghostlike and pockmarked and reflected back in the sudden time warp of twenty-five or thirty years. I’m talking freaky, turn-and-flee kind of special effects right out of Poltergeist.
“Wait, wait, wait, just hold on one second,” Gina says. “Excuse me, but I’m confused. Now tell me again what it is you’re going to miss most on your way out? If and when you go.”
Attitude aside, Gina’s okay but Venus flytrap all the way when it comes to late-night one-on-ones, where she’s forever throwing down on me like this with questions and innuendo calculated pretty much to tick me off. Never one moment’s tired silence to offset the running commentary. Like my mom at her nosiest, sleuthing-around worst used to do. “Just wait, you’ll see,” but what I need is to get gone from here where I’ve force-smiled and small-talked and balanced overloaded trays until my arms and jaw and brainwaves ached. Odds are that Grove will be awake, the woodstove aglow, like always, and the elk hide folded back on the king-size goose down mattress. Feathers below, pelts above, but I don’t want to confide or bitch-snipe another opening for Gina to crawl through and prolong the conversation.
“The way he washes and hand dries and stacks the dishes,” I say, “that’s what I’ll miss most,” as if Grove were the busboy who we split our tips with. The one who is eighteen and married and hitchhikes to work and back. A father already, another on the way. A sweet, sweet-faced kid who, first thing he does after taking off his coat and hat, folds a white dish towel lengthwise and drapes it over his left shoulder. Like he’s about to back step away from the scalding trough of the soak sink and instead burp and rock an infant right there, in the rising steam and clot of the kitchen.
His wife, who I’ve met one time only, bears a fair likeness to the baby-sitter my mom used to hire to watch me, oftentimes while she sat alone for hours in her Cutlass Supreme, parked in our driveway of spurge and flowering, impossible-to-kill spiky yellow weeds. She was always perfume laden and her sleeveless dress open-backed and front-sided with all the wrong kind of cleavage. Even her fake eyelashes and earrings drooped too low, as if her entire wardrobe was a fashion statement about gravity and early middle age and being suddenly single again and nowhere to go. Only her teased dark strands spiraled upward from their roots into a teased and hair-sprayed beehive of sticky platinum blonde.
She’d start the engine and a few seconds later shut it off. Take another belt of Bicardi straight from the pint bottle and chain-smoke, the dome light on and then not and the tail fire of her cigarette butts arcing out into the blacked-up night like a spray of tiny meteors. I’d watch from the living-room window, waving every ten or so minutes to try and summon her back inside, her entire body doing that shuddery thing that meant she was crying big-time again. And my dad’s cryptic parting words to us on his way out a couple months earlier? “She’ll adapt,” he’d said about me. “Both of you will, just give it time.” But no place inside me ever came close to accommodating his absence or my mom’s chronic and forever deepening despair. “No, not a divorce,” she said, “an annulment. Do you even understand what he’s asking for, Charlene? What the word means? That we never happened. Never were. Not for one crummy disappearing day of our lives together did any of this matter.” “So cruel,” she said. “So goddamn godless and beyond belief pitiful and downright cruel. And what did we ever do to deserve this?” “What?” she said, as if I might on the spot hatch some fairy-tale scheme that would somehow make her lonely, self-loathing life a tad bit easier. No kidding, I should have taken a vow right then and there to never, ever marry or fall in love.
“Mm-hm. Feature that,” Gina says, and instead of stubbing out her Parliament in the plastic ashtray, she stands the cigarette on end on the tabletop between us, like a fat blown-out birthday candle. Even her lipstick smear on the recessed filter is flecked green. “Knocks himself out on the domestic front, does he?”
“That’s him all over,” I say. “Times ten.” And I flutter my eyelashes and without another word I grab my coat and scarf and long-stride out into the rear parking lot, the spare front door key to the cabin in my apron pocket. Along with my paycheck and a folded-in-half paper-clipped wad of maybe fifty tip bucks, not a single crisp, recently minted bill among them. Slave wage but livable under the ongoing arrangement, whereby I spring for pretty much nothing other than my own gasoline and motor oil. And those few privacy items for “the lady of the cabin” as Gina has taken to calling me.
Never to her but in large measure, I admit that she’s not entirely mistaken. I am, for better or worse, a kept woman, living for a change free of repossessors and delinquent bills, and monthly phone threats to cut off the heat and electricity. Under those circumstances, name me one woman who wouldn’t have deferred a history that resembles in any way where I’ve come from? Grove’s not only content with, but determined not to amend a single thing. Sometimes a part of me wishes he would, although I guess the ban on heavy lifting those hidden mangles and menaces of our concealed histories still stands. Two nights ago, I inadvertently mentioned x or y—don’t ask me what, I sure wasn’t consciously revealing any hard-luck misadventure of who I was—and Grove interrupted mid-sentence, silently pressing his index finger to his lips, and slow-shaking his head from side to side. Reminding me once again that we existed aware of each other not in the moment gone or about to be, but rather fixed in the continuous, present moment only, unaware of any shared or separate past translating into a future we or us.
So I just nodded and lay back down. Because we were already in bed—Grove positioned below waist-level—I spread my thighs even wider. Knees up and pelvis flung forward, and after almost a month of rough-tugging and teeth and scratch marks I faked an orgasm first touch of his tongue. “Yes,” he whispered. Meaning, me, Baby-Cakes. Meaning, Darling-Heart, Starlet Lover, that mystery woman I used to imagine fulfilling forever every man’s wildest dream-fantasies and desires.
The night is cold but no snow and glittering constellations galore, an intermittent flare pulsing beyond the trees. So far so good, I guess. After all, the engine turns over and catches first try. The idle rough, plus a flaming acetylene-blue backfire or two, but when I hit the light switch, even that row of orange operas on the front lip of the cab blinks on. Grove has rewired the pickup from beezer to back end, a phrase I liked and hooted at when he first used it. He’s also replaced the four baldies with retreads from the auto pound, as if they, too, had been free-for-the-adopting discards caged right along with all the lost or runaway or cast-off kitties and pooches.
Included in the emergency survival pack that he assembled for me is a heavy black billy club of a flashlight that holds six batteries. Plus a couple of Mars bars and a cell phone in the glove compartment in case of breakdowns, the roads to the cabin mostly two-track and sometimes snow-sealed or choked out by drifts or fallen limbs and no way to turn around. “Yes, by all means, in April. Nobody’s home free yet,” as Grove continues to tell me, the swollen eyes of winterkill deer, the delicacy of ravens and crows and those bald, redheaded, hook-beaked, blood-faced turkey vultures, their wings stretched wide against wherever the barren white sky either ends or begins.
He reminds me that a snap freeze can claim your toes or fingertips. I take heed but wish on nights like this that something like love suddenly discovered might supersede the routines of survival: Get safely back and get laid. Go to sleep. Morning coffee together while watching the purple ripples on the river so perfectly tuned but the music dialed down to zero.
“And furthermore, Charlene,”—I hear my mom’s voice—“these men, they’re not worth the self-abuse it takes to finally hate them. I’m sorry if this sounds harsh but you listen to me. You mark my words.” Involuntarily I imagine her in her nightgown and socks. Standing and rocking on the balls of her feet in the late-night tv’s grainy, dulled-out bluish light, and that duct-taped, single-antenna portable telephone in one hand, the postcard I sent her a couple of weeks ago in the other.
As I turn left onto Route 3, in the opposite direction of the cabin, I consider giving her a late-night call just to say that I’m still alive and okay and maintaining a low profile until the divorce is final.
Around the moon a halo of frost, but the windshield is clear and the gas tank nearly full. There’s a sign for Good Hart, and what’s left of the snow burns almost incandescent along the ditch line, the trees strung out in silhouette for as far as I can see. “You’ll be years getting there,” my dad liked to say, “but that’s okay,” and I’d nod like I understood as he walked straight away from me into the darkness. Where he’d stop finally and light those sparklers he always kept on hand in every season. A ritual he’d perform whenever I asked and, from that same paced-off distance, he’d dazzle me with crazy-angled loops of fire.
Had Grove in a sudden turn of mind even halfway considered my life worth telling, I might have mentioned that the zigzag wing-light was so bright it turned that part of the field behind our house silver. Like an angel was out there dancing under the dome of the sky. I lean forward, and lost somewhere up there in the night swirl is the Lute-Bearer and the Fair Star of the Waters, but in what direction I haven’t a clue, and the pickup at such low speeds tends to stall out anyhow.
As I hit the gas and high beams the double thud of tires across the railroad tracks reminds me of a heartbeat, and I grip the steering wheel hard against that chronic and violent shimmy as if to hold the pickup from shaking apart. Not until the speedometer’s glow-green needle exceeds fifty-five does the world appear quiet and calm again. I crack the window barely an inch. And, for one brief disappearing second before that first sharp dip in the road, the power lines gleam in the rearview like harp strings.