WHITEOUTS — Jason Kapcala
There’s slush around the tires, and Burl Ives is singing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” and Tessa rides shotgun in my brand new Dodge Charger. It’s a snub-nosed beast, a shark. Heated seats and mirrors, and fog lamps made for cutting through a slashing night storm, which is exactly what we’re doing, Tessa and me.
Sleet ticks off the windshield like white grains of rice, and Tessa presses both hands to the heater. She keeps looking over at me, or maybe she’s checking the odometer, counting how many miles we are from home. Her fingers are long, slender with knuckles like river rocks, and she laces them in front of her stomach. It’s a new gesture, one that’s become more common lately, yet it never fails to catch my attention. She’s always been skinny and, even though she’s almost into her second trimester, the little potbelly forming below her waistline is only noticeable when she’s naked.
Tessa’s a painter. A damn fine one, too. Her art hangs in households and businesses all across eastern Pennsylvania. She’s even had some modest success with the local mountain galleries. That’s where we’re returning from now.
“Lou, why do we do this?” she says, and I think, What? Take risks? Get caught in storms? Argue?
We’re rolling slow on a foot of powder, though the blizzard makes it feel like we’re accelerating out of control. The trees bend low on both sides of the road, boughs heavy and white, starting to crack under the slow, steady burden of winter. We’re the only people on the road except for the occasional night driver gliding past, phantom headlights illuminating the leather upholstery and the side of Tessa’s face. I put my arm around the back of her seat and say that all couples fight. It’s a part of life and marriage and love. It’s only natural when two people are so close.
“Don’t you mean when they’re in each other’s way?” Tessa asks, and I don’t deny it. We’ve danced this dance how many times?
A distant rumble, a rending noise, rolls around us, and for a moment the mountains to our west are illuminated pale blue. Lightning in a snowstorm. I’ve never seen anything like it—it’s one of those phenomena you hear of, but never expect to witness. Somehow, that fills me with hope. Here we are, the two of us, drifting together down unplowed roads, experiencing something rare. I look at Tessa and point to the windshield, but I know it’s only the frozen night that’s extraordinary and nothing more.
“We’re still happy, aren’t we?” I say. “Most of the time?”
A dog trots across the road. It looks over at us, tail low, eyes glowing white in the halogen headlight beams as it darts off into the woods. On the move. Homeless. If Tessa notices the mutt, she doesn’t say. She sits with her head down on the air vent, her cheek pressed against the window, hair veiling her face. “I don’t feel well,” she says, clutching her abdomen. She’s been having sharp pains off and on for the past few weeks. The doctor said it’s nothing to be concerned about, just a side effect of the pregnancy hormones leveling off. Still, she grips her seatbelt tight.
“Hold on. I’ll stop at the next gas station,” I say, rounding a bend, picking up speed. I lean forward and scan the sky for light—the moon, stars, another flash of lightning—but the air’s a slab of coal specked with dancing silver. That’s when I see the red pick-up pulling out in front of us, pulling into the side of us, its fender a snowflake’s width away from ours. I don’t even have time to curse. I’m on the brakes, hard, and we’re sliding forward, the anti-locks buzzing beneath the sole of my foot like a hornet’s nest, the tires digging in, throwing snow across the driver’s side window, licking the truck’s backwash. The red pickup performs a perfect 360-degree pirouette, one trip around the carousel, and keeps going right on up the hill, swerving a little. Its taillights bob and then disappear.
Tessa hums—a high-pitched, unhealthy sound, and for a moment, I sit frozen, white knuckled at the steering wheel. Burl Ives tells me to “have a cup of cheer,” and then I’m on the horn, blasting a futile G-flat at the night. Tessa’s head rests still cocked against the side window. “Lou,” she says, fogging the glass. “Don’t. Just please get us home. You don’t know who has a gun.”
I start to tell her how stupid that sounds, but catch myself for once. I’ve watched the local news. Maybe it isn’t that ridiculous.
When I pull into the BP service station, the snow has changed. There’s no more thunder, no more lightning. Big cotton ball flakes stick to the windows and melt away. Tessa slips out of the passenger seat, dashing from the car, from me, across the slick concrete toward the all-night mini-market. Her scarf trails her, and I’m struck by how beautiful she looks running away.
I wonder if the stress of the night has anything to do with her pain. Or if it’s the residual buildup from countless consecutive nights like this one—twenty-five minutes of mutual spitefulness followed by an hour of passive-aggressive silence. I want to follow her, but I don’t. I sit and watch the snow cover the windshield instead. Each flake landing beside the previous, and so on, sliding together in pairs and then larger pairs, until the whole world goes white and womblike and quiet, and I can see my breath touch the night.
I’m not sleeping, but my eyes are closed when Tessa taps on the window with her fingernails and startles me. Her nails so red I can almost feel them tracing their way down my spine. Her nose is red. Her eyes are red and stunned, but she isn’t crying.
I open the car door, and she grabs my hand, hauling me out of the seat with unfamiliar ferocity. The cold air burns my lungs. I reach to shut the door, but Tessa pulls me by my coat front, nearly dragging me away from the car as though it might explode any second. I’ve never seen her act with such urgency, not even when we used to make love. It scares me so much that I let her lead without saying anything.
The sleigh bells on the glass double-doors jingle, and an old woman looks up from behind the register. Tessa pulls me down an isle of canned meat product, beans, corn, carrots, peas, toward the bathrooms at the rear of the store. Her fingers vibrate on my coat like plucked guitar strings. She’s keyed up, shivering from the cold or from something else.
“What’s this?” I say, glancing back at the counter lady when Tessa opens the women’s restroom door. “Tessa. Are you kidding me?”
Tessa buries her face in the wool sleeve of my coat.
From where I stand, I can see that the bathroom, small and white—tiled, with a sink and a toilet. The water in the bowl appears reddish, and at first, I’m not entirely certain of what I’m looking at. It’s small and solid—the color of the faded grout between the floor tiles.
“It happened,” Tessa says, pressing herself even further into my side.
Her hair feels thin, like old paintbrush bristles when I touch it with my fingertips. I look down at the uneven zigzag part in the center of her scalp, notice the strands of gray there.
“Louis, what do we do?” she says.
But what can we do? There’s nothing to do. Logic and reason molder in situations like this. We knew the odds going into the pregnancy. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that we are standing in a dingy gas station bathroom just outside Mountainhome, PA, with a snowstorm breathing down our necks. Our options are few. And yet that thing in the bowl is not a dead goldfish. Not something to flush away and forget about. It’s not that simple.
I put my arm around Tessa and press my chin into her hair. I don’t even console her. I’m out of words. I exhale and every good thing I’ve imagined for us—everything possible and impossible, real or illusory—dissolves.
I’m not sure exactly what wakes me, but I know Tessa is gone. It’s been two weeks since the miscarriage, and she’s yet to sleep through an entire night. Beside me, the mattress still feels warm, the comforter thrown back, lights off in the bathroom.
I roll over and slide my feet into my slippers, throw my robe across my shoulders, and pad to the window. There’s nothing out there. Only amorphous night shapes and my reflection in the cold glass pane, so I let the blinds rattle back into position and shuffle to the stairs. Tessa isn’t down in the kitchen either, making tea or reading away insomnia. The stairs are black and empty. The hall doesn’t make a sound, other than the ticking of our grandfather clock, and I’m acutely aware that I am the only thing breathing in this house, which scares me into action. In a flash, I’m down the steps, tearing from room to room, not stopping to turn on lights until I reach the front door. Then I throw on the floods and illuminate the yard and Tessa lying in the snow, legs crossed demurely at the ankles, arms thrown out to her sides. Snow falls on her face, her stomach, her breasts, but there isn’t anything angelic about it. Nothing peaceful or playful when I pull her up into a sitting position and wrap my coat around her shoulders. She doesn’t catch flakes on her tongue or smile. This isn’t spontaneity. She only stares straight into the darkness and lets me lead her back inside.
I do my best to towel her off in the upstairs bathroom. Her skin feels cold to touch, stretched taut along her arms and back. I run a warm shower and tell her to stand under the spray. When she comes back into the bedroom a little while later, she doesn’t say a word. Instead, she flicks on the corner lamp and starts pulling clothing from our dresser. Shirts, socks, and the pillowy cotton underwear she’s been wearing lately. She packs quietly, resolutely, and when she’s finished and all her clothing has been stacked neatly in the imitation-leather suitcase I bought on our honeymoon, she flicks off the light and crawls back under the covers.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers into my back, wrapping her arms around waist. “I need to be alone.”
I think I know why people are dog-lovers and cat-lovers. Why they dote on even the ugliest animal or talk to their potted plants when no one is around. I’ve barely spoken with Tessa since she left. Sometimes, I go all weekend without hearing the sound of my own voice. Whenever I call, her sister, Julie, tells me that Tessa isn’t there. I never bother to ask, if she’s not there, then where is she?
Lately, I’ve been spending my Saturday mornings playing with the puppies at the nearest pet store, even though it means driving north to Lakeville, a jaunt that takes a little over an hour roundtrip on Old Route 209. Around these parts, the landmarks are few. The volunteer fire department is out here. So is that BP station with its green gasoline pumps and its dull white lights, which look olive under the awning at night. I go out of my way not to buy gas there now.
During my last call, I’d asked to visit my wife, an emasculating request to make of your sister-in-law.
“Maybe come the New Year,” Julie had said, keeper of the gate. “You can’t put a time frame on healing.”
In town, the road narrows to one lane, and the traffic picks up. Fortunately, the parking spaces in front of the pet shop are all empty, and I pull up right in front of the white and green-striped canopy and the large, yellow kennel-shaped sign that says, “The Doghouse.” I drop a quarter in the parking meter and pull my coat collar up.
Inside, the salesgirl lies on the wood-grain counter, stretched out holding a dachshund puppy in the air, her long legs unseasonably tan and dangling over the corner. Her frizzy red hair forms a starburst. She wears a black pencil skirt in spite of the cold weather and a purple cardigan with a nametag that reads Someone’s in the Doghouse. Welcome, My Name is Darcy. It’s the first time I’ve seen her so dressed up. Usually she wears faded jeans and a T-shirt with the name of the pet shop screen-printed across the back like the rest of the employees.
Over the past few weeks, she and I have come to an agreement. I show up just before noon and take a puppy into one of the Plexiglas boxes reserved for socializing. It’s a try-before-you-buy deal. I spend an hour stroking the animal, letting it chew my shoelaces and sniff the perimeter of the booth, and sometimes, if business is slow, Darcy will stand with a hand on the wall and watch us, telling me the life story of that week’s lucky contestant. I’m closing in on ten canines at this point, a different breed each week since Tessa left, but I’ve never mentioned actually purchasing a dog, and Darcy hasn’t brought it up since the first couple of visits. By now, she must have me pegged as a perpetual browser.
Today, Darcy is so preoccupied with the dachshund that she doesn’t even notice me at first. A more brazen me, one with less baggage and something feral to offer, would make her take notice. He’d hop right up onto that counter and stretch out on his back next to her. He’d let her rub his belly and scold him with those deep, dark eyes of hers, saying “Bad Lou. Bad, bad dog.” Instead, I lean over and fool with a rack of assorted metal chains, jingling them.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite pup enthusiast,” Darcy says, barely taking her eyes off the dachshund. One of her shoes teeters on her foot before falling to the floor. She doesn’t appear to be wearing toenail polish. Something about that gives me courage. She says, “What’s it I can do you for today, bub?”
“Who needs a little TLC?” I say, nodding toward the Plexiglas wall along the side of the shop where dozens of yapping, furry canines rehearse their most pitiful stares behind the bars of their stainless steel cages.
“Who doesn’t?” Darcy says, turning to me, and when she smiles her top lip all but disappears. I like her mouth and how she chews on her bottom lip when she talks and the tantalizing way it puffs back out, swollen. The act is pensive, distracted—not one of those faux-coy gestures I’ve come to expect from the libidinous, underfed secretaries I see whisking towers of cardstock and copy paper around the office.
“What about him?” I say, pointing to the wiggling animal in her hands. The little dog kicks its legs as if running and tries to lick her.
“Who? Snarlie?” she says, frowning as if this is the first time she has considered the matter. “I think you may be right.”
She sits up and spins on the countertop to face me, crossing one foot neatly over the other, and for the first time I notice the serious tingling at the back of my neck. “I’ll set you boys up in booth two,” she says, sliding off the counter and slipping the high-heel back on her foot before giving me a wink.
I follow her over to the “socialization pens” and press some hand sanitizer from the dispenser on the wall, just as I have every time since my first visit. Store policy, Darcy had explained. For the animals’ health and protection.
The booth isn’t much different from my cubicle at work, though it has a door on it, which Darcy opens with an after-you gesture. As I maneuver myself around her arm, I can’t help but notice she smells like dark roast coffee and dryer sheets—Starbucks meets Fluff-n-Fold. I sit down on the bench, and she hands me the dachshund puppy. She shuts the door, and I hold the dog out at arm’s length like a father encountering his infant’s first dirty diaper. I know how wooden I must seem, but it always takes me a few minutes to get used to this, to a creature that wants only to be fed and rubbed and entertained. And this dog, Snarlie, is already worked up and ready to play. He’s black and tan. Shorthaired. Streamlined and sleek as a seal. He cocks his head and makes a sneezing noise. Then he starts shimmying back and forth.
“Here, give him a treat,” Darcy says, holding out a mealy-looking biscuit with marrow- filling. Snarlie snatches the treat from her hand and crunches down hard, crumbs shooting from his mouth and sticking to his muzzle. Darcy is about to slip him another; she’s just pulling her hand from the bag when the dog pisses all over me. It’s like one of the fountains outside of the Bellagio where Tessa and I spent our first vacation together. The urine streams in a perfect arch from the now-still dog to the front of my chinos. You couldn’t have aimed a more accurate shot.
Darcy drops the bag of treats. She closes her eyes and nods her head a little, as though to say just your luck, bub. The dog hits the ground front paws first and immediately devours the spilled biscuits, licking his muzzle and sneering at me. “He hasn’t been housetrained,” Darcy says, disappearing to the front of the store and rushing back with a roll of paper towels.
While I dab at the dog pee on my trousers, the shop owner steps out of a white door at the back of the store marked “Staff Only.” He’s a big guy—at least three inches taller than I am—with a crew cut and a superhero chin and earrings in both ears. He hefts a 40-pound bag of kibble on his massive shoulder as though it weighs nothing and walks fast like he’s been in a hurry his entire life. “Darcy? You flirting with this guy or selling him a mutt or what?”
“We had a little accident,” she says, opening the cubical door and scooping Snarlie up in her arms.
“Look,” says Crew Cut, easing up next to the booth and pointing a finger at no one in particular. “I can handle all the Milk-bones with your teeth marks in them. And I can put up with you pointing the TV clicker at all the aquariums trying to figure out how to get Project Runway. But this?” He glances down into the cubicle at me, gives me the once over and shakes his head.
Darcy shoots me a sad-eyed glance. “Jesus Christ, give the guy a break, Carl,” she says. She narrows her eyes. “There’s no law against looking.”
“Listen, your highness, this ain’t a petting zoo,” he says. “If you’re fishing for a last minute New Year’s Eve date, give him directions to your boudoir, but get back to work.”
I look from Crew Cut to her and back again and whatever is passing between them is palpable. He’s being funny, but not really. She’s standing with her legs apart, hands on hips—a traditional Wonder Woman pose if I’ve ever seen one.
In that moment, I decide to purchase the dog. I’m one-hundred percent behind the decision. “I want this one,” I say. “The runt that whizzed all over me. I’ll take him.”
Crew Cut smirks. “Well, ring him up,” he says. Then he’s halfway across the room, exiting as suddenly as he appeared, with a slam that shakes the door on its hinges and starts the kenneled dogs barking.
“Nice guy,” I say. “He your boyfriend or something?”
At first, I’m not sure that Darcy heard me. She disappears inside the kennel area and returns the dog to his cage. Then she takes her time replacing the water and brushing turds down through a grate in the floor. I wonder if she refuses to sell me the dachshund. But when she comes out, she’s holding Snarlie in her arms. “Why would anyone date a guy who talks like that?” she says, and when I don’t respond, she adds, “Don’t worry about Carl. His bark is worse than his bite.”
It’s a terrible pun, shameful even, but it’s for my sake and I appreciate it. I reach out and touch her elbow—just a little—and I’m struck by just how foolishly glad I am to be with her right here right now. A feeling that doesn’t last long because she’s moving toward the front of the store, and I’m grabbing my coat to follow and looking to escape with what little dignity I have left.
At the register, I buy only the necessities—a food bowl, a collar, a leash—and Darcy bags the items. She hands me my receipt without a word and reaches for something behind the counter.
“It’s been lively,” I say, making my move for the door with Snarlie in tow. I’ve one foot out the exit when she stays me, pressing her hand hard against my shoulder and nearly toppling me into a can pyramid of Alpo. She pulls a spay-and-neuter flyer off the front-window display and scrawls on the back of it with a black sharpie marker.
I watch her scribble lines and circles and something that looks like a railroad track. She scratches a few arrows along the bottom for good measure and then writes street names beside some of the lines. She blows a strand of hair from her face and jams the cap back on the pen, stamping it tight against her hip. Then she folds the map once and presses it into my hand.
“Directions to my boudoir,” she says, and I like the way the word sounds in her mouth, deep-poured and plashy.
On the road from Lakeville, I think about the first time I met Tessa. Fishing. Her in old denims, me in running shorts and a ratty T-shirt. The pink buds of cherry blossoms sprouting along the banks of Grady’s Lake, and the way the breeze seemed to kick up everything around us—the dust, the red clover petals, her copper hair. The sizzle of her reel as she sat in a purple, sunless patch beneath concrete footbridge spanning the spillway. And how she hummed to herself as though she’d never have anywhere more important to be.
“There’s a deep hole right there,” she said, pointing past her reflection with her rod, a Shakespeare Ugly Stik outfitted with a cheap Zebco spinning reel. Strictly bargain bin. “I know there’s a big one down there. I just haven’t been able to catch him,” she said.
“How can you be sure?” I said.
“That’s where I’d hide if I were a fish,” she said, and with such confidence that I didn’t doubt her. Couldn’t. I knew deep below the surface of the water a monster lake trout suspended, or even a giant mud pout hunkered in the weeds with a whiskered grin. I knew because she knew.
The initial buzz of an invite to sit along the water’s edge. The spontaneity of a first kiss. The sensation of sunbeams warming concrete and skin. It’s a memory I like. One I wish I could relive over and again. But I know that isn’t possible.
I pull in front of the dingy white-shingled row home, and Julie meets me at the door.
“Tessa’s upstairs,” she says, barely stepping aside to let me enter.
The house smells like cinnamon. The stairs creak a little. I’m afraid to see Tessa—afraid of what she’ll say, and afraid of the awkward silence. When I reach her bedroom, I am struck by the urge to turn around and drive home. Instead, I knock twice. I hear a shuffling from behind the door, and then Tessa appears. She’s skinnier than she was, and she isn’t wearing make-up, but otherwise she looks healthy. She smiles a little and hugs me. She doesn’t look like someone suffering from depression, though I’m not really sure how depressed people are supposed to look.
There were signs, sure. Days when Tessa lingered in bed or cried for no reason. She had a habit of cleaning when she was stressed—sometimes the same room over and over again—and she lived in fear of life’s little messes. Crowded places were enough to get her leg thumping. But Tessa wasn’t like the people on the prescription drug commercials, sad looking and lethargic. She painted every day, pulling on an old Temple sweatshirt that used to be mine, and splashing, joyful colors on canvas. We never used the “D” word around our house.
“Sit with me, Lou,” she says, taking my hand and leading me over to the bed. I sit down on the quilted comforter, and Tessa crosses her arms below her breasts, inspects her sneakers. The room is spotless. Fresh vacuum tracks on the carpet. The bed corners neatly mitered. Not a dust mite to be seen. It smells strongly of lemon-scented Pledge.
Tessa picks a piece of lint from the comforter, and for the first time, I notice that, unlike me, she’s not wearing her wedding band. I scan the room until I spot the ring, sitting in the center of a doily atop an old bureau.
“Please, try to understand,” she says.
I do understand. I understand from the time it takes to kiss her goodbye, up until I climb back into the Charger and head for home. But somewhere between Allentown and Mount Pocono, I get angry. Really angry for the first time. I picture a future, Tessa talking to someone in a coffee shop or at an art gallery exhibit, saying, “That reminds me of a man I was once married to.” And that’s it for me. I have to pull over along the berm because my arms are shaking.
I get out of my car and walk along the roadside a bit. Take deep frozen breaths. Imagine going home and taking one of Tessa’s paintings down from the wall—one of those magnified still lifes, oil on canvas. Maybe the big orchid that hangs above what was once our bed—strictly Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s so enormous it would take my full arm span to dance it out into the living room. I picture Snarlie; he’s not used to being crated for so long and he practically prances at the door. I imagine holding him above the painting, maybe giving him a little shake, but it’s no use. The dog won’t pee.
When I make my way back to the car, I retrieve Darcy’s map from the glove compartment. Something inside me screams that I should just keep driving. Stick to my original plan—call Darcy later and pretend I’m too wrapped up with my work right now to start something, convince myself that I can’t find the place even though the little map she drew me is clear and so simple that a child could follow it. By the time I reach her exit, it’s late and the sun has already dipped below the ice, casting a thick orange hue on the face of the lake and outlining the frozen cattails in smudgy half-shadows. The crunch of my tires on her gravel driveway makes my stomach lurch.
It’s a lousy excuse for being chickenshit, but I’m well over thirty now and I haven’t been on a first date since 1996—a casualty of marriage and of being comfortable and in no dire need to impress Tessa, a woman now strangely absent from any future I can imagine. My knowledge when it comes to flirting and other rules of courtship is like an outdated farmer’s almanac—too precious to junk and yet no one knows quite what to do with it. If you asked me to write down everything I know about pursuing a woman like Darcy, I probably wouldn’t even need the other side of the cocktail napkin. Still, I know this much: I’m smitten, and it’s refreshing to admit it, even though I spent the entire drive making myself crazy, figuring out the odds and the probabilities, feeling guilty, losing faith and then pretending not to care.
On the porch, Darcy sits sidesaddle on the railing, her hands pulled into the sleeves of her sweater. “I’d about given up on you,” she says, crossing her ankles.
“This place is really out in the boonies,” I say. “But your map was perfect.” I hold up the bottle of Gentleman Jack I brought at the state store and dovetail into babbling about the drive and the weather, saying, “I really enjoyed the scenery. A real winter wonderland” and “I brought whiskey. I wasn’t sure what you were having for dinner. I thought the whiskey might be good since it’s been so cold and all—if you ask me, nothing beats a double neat when the mercury’s low.” As if to prove my point, I cross my arms in front of my chest.
Darcy nods and smiles. “I agree,” she says, hopping down onto the porch. I like how she stands on her tiptoes, arms crisscrossed above her head as she grabs the fretwork along the porch roof and arches herself out toward the yard and the dusk and me.
“Don’t just stand there. Come in,” she says when I reach the top step, but she doesn’t move and, for a moment, I think she’s going to force me to duck below her arm to step inside. Instead, she lets go of the joist with one hand and swings like a door opening on its hinges, beckoning me forward with her palm stretched flat toward the welcome mat.
Inside, she takes the whiskey from my hand and leads me into the small kitchen. “I hope you like fried chicken,” she says, twisting the corked cap off the bottle and expertly filling a rocks glass. The copper liquid rises up from the thick base, dark and spicy. Darcy lights a candle and makes a wide oval with her lips to blow out the match. She clinks her glass against mine and says, “Salud.” And there’s something exotic about it all—the way she pronounces the “S” like th, how the word sounds moist and alive on her lips, rippling through the kitchen.
Off in the distance something rumbles. Another freak winter electric storm climbing its way over the mountain? Is that even possible? I place my whiskey on the table and walk to the window. The moon has slipped behind a cloud, and I can barely make out the lines of her backyard. Sleet drums the glass and Darcy presses herself to my back, standing on her toes to see over my shoulder and sliding her hand along my elbow toward my stomach. The floor tilts on itself, and I half-turn, half-reach out to steady myself. Her hand meets mine in the darkness along the windowsill. She kneads the webbing between my thumb and forefinger and says, “You know all the body’s tension is bound up in the hands.”
“It makes sense,” I say, turning completely and letting her pull me close to her.
Darcy presses her cheek to mine, and I close my eyes, while outside the chains on a passing snowplow chatter and the sleet patters harder against the windowpane. Darcy’s mouth is light and warm on my neck, working that space between my collarbone and my Adam’s apple with soft, wet, eager sounds.
“You must be famished, bub,” she says, dropping down onto her heels before leading me back to the wooden table.
“I’m Lou, by the way,” I say, extending my hand as I take my seat.
It’s not very funny, but Darcy smirks a little and crosses her arms. “I saw your name on your credit card,” she says. “I wouldn’t have figured you for a Lou. You seem more like a Calvin.”
I sip my whiskey and watch her waltz to the stove, can hear the chicken legs crackling in the frying pan, the tangy aroma of buttermilk and oil making my mouth water. I rub my eyes with my fingers and watch her drain the drumsticks over a paper towel, the slight sway of her hips in that smoky kitchen also mouthwatering.
“Bon Appetite, monsieur,” Darcy says when she slides the plate of chicken toward the center of the table. I waste no time, dishing myself a healthy serving of chicken and mashed potatoes, and grabbing a biscuit. It’s as though I haven’t eaten in weeks, which might as well be true if you consider that I’ve been living on Swanson Hungry-Man dinners and grilled cheese since Tessa left.
I eat like a dog, holding the chicken between my thumb and forefinger and tearing bites of juicy white meat and breading from the bone, which maybe Darcy likes because every so often, she looks up from her plate and smiles.
“So what’s the verdict?” she says.
“I think I’m in love,” I say, wiping my mouth with a napkin and barely nudging my plate back.
Darcy nods toward the last of the mashed potatoes, and I shake my head. She lights a cigarette, the tip glowing in the dimmed light. If I were someone who believed in signs, I’d say that little cigarette is like a traffic light. It isn’t showing green, but it isn’t red either. It burns a brighter orange when she inhales. Proceed with caution. It’s hypnotic, and when Darcy reaches over and drums her fingertips on my thigh, every dormant part of me tingles back to life as though she’s leaned in close and blown spring air into my frozen lungs.
“You’ve been on my mind,” I say, fiddling with my collar.
“That makes two of us, Lou,” Darcy says.
She flicks on the small television set so we won’t miss the ball drop when it’s time. And we polish off another round of whiskeys. Then another.
Hours pass and we talk about our lives—she rubs my fingers and talks about her job and her family; I roll my glass between my hands and tell her about Snarlie and how we’ve grown quite attached to each other. Darcy takes our glasses to the sink. Leaning back against the cabinets, she watches me, squinting a little as though she’s surprised to find me still sitting there, as though she’s considering her next move. When she returns, she grabs my hand and leads me back to the bedroom.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, she runs her hand through my hair. She pulls my head toward her, pressing her cheek to my cheek. Her eyelashes flutter against mine, her breath hot on my neck, and then without much flourish we are kissing, the warm pink sliver of her tongue just barely brushing my lips. It’s a kiss full of hunger and heartache, and I want her right then. I’m seventeen again, horny, impetuous. This feels like the most significant moment of my life.
Our clothes come off piece by piece, slowly at first—a shirt lifted over a head, a belt pulled out through its loops—and then feverishly. The ceiling fan pushes dry air, fluttering the lace curtains, skittering over flesh and fabric, and I lower Darcy onto her back, kissing my way down from the ruby stud in her belly button. I press my body against hers like a pledge made over again and again and again. Darcy writhes, grabs fistfuls of the sheets, hooks her legs around me, and I work a path from her collarbone up the curve of her neck, ending behind her ear.
Evening rolls into night and the room cools. In bed, Darcy and I lie on our sides. Resting my hand on the arch of her hip, I tell her about my job, about how Tessa and I met. With heavy-lidded eyes, she talks about her ex-boyfriends, about losing her virginity when she was fifteen. Last year turns into this year. Then it is late, even for talk, and Darcy falls asleep. She snores a little into my shoulder, her leg thrown over my hip, and I think about what it means to be lying next to a gorgeous woman I barely know, considering how mixed-up and desolate my life has been lately. Snow piles up on the windowsill, and I think about whiteouts. And about Tessa. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve slept with anyone other than Tessa, and I can’t help but wonder what she’s doing right now. Is she in bed, too, reading a book? Or at her easel, painting? She could be lying between the thighs of a stranger.
The mercury is falling fast, and it’s making people do stupid things. According to the news, hot water heaters are blowing up all over Lakeville, pipes cracking like plastic drinking straws. I haven’t slept in days. The house is like an icebox, and I’ve just been lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, shivering, counting regrets instead of sheep, listening to Snarlie. He dozes like a baby. I mean it literally. Like a baby. Runs in his sleep as though he has no cares in the world.
I left the house today to pick up groceries. Driving into town, I pledged aloud to stop in and see Darcy. To offer some explanation. I haven’t spoken with her since the night at her house almost two weeks ago; I haven’t even called. I made it as far as the pet shop door this morning, and through the storefront window, I could see her, dog-faced and wounded, watching me. She crossed her arms below her breasts and pressed her lips tightly, and that was it. I turned and high-tailed it back to the car. Doing nothing has become my modus operandi.
Now, on my way to the IGA, I’m watching a kid standing on the seat of his motorcycle. No leathers. No helmet. It’s well below freezing and commuters on both sides of me shake their heads and give each other disgusted glances—glances that say, “We’re looking at a dead man.” Once I would have been right there with them, shaking my fist and cursing the stupidity of the internet generation, but lately, I haven’t seen much point in it. I fiddle with the radio, twisting the tuning knob from station to station, unsure of what I’m looking for: Kenny G—buzz. Some redneck singing about fighting the Al Qaeda—buzz. A radio-evangelist telling me how I can save my eternal soul—buzz, buzz, buzz.
The kid on the motorcycle crosses the intersection in front of us. He’s up on one foot now. He steers by shifting his body weight. Brown snow cakes his tires. One of the drivers honks at him. I don’t see what the big deal is. If the kid gets off on killing himself, what business of mine is it?
I don’t know why, but watching that kid, I’m hit by the sudden urge to piss someone off. When the light turns green, I gun it and cut off a guy in a rusted out Chevy Blazer. I see him there. There’s plenty of room, no cars in front of us for a half mile. There can be no mistaking my intentions. The driver leans on the horn—really giving it some elbow grease, as Tessa would say if she were here. I flip him off and cross another lane of traffic, veering into the supermarket parking lot.
When I glance in the rearview, the guy in the Blazer is still coming, tailing close on my bumper. It’s like a two-man funeral procession. Just him and me. Coasting through the lot at fifteen miles per hour. You couldn’t fit a suitcase between my back bumper and his front fender. Not even a miniature dachshund. I pull into a handicapped spot, and he parks behind me. Our cars form an L in the lot.
By the time he reaches my car, I’m out and standing. I’ve got hot sauce running through my arteries. My heart’s playing Herb Alpert on my ribcage. I haven’t felt this alive in months. The other guy is red-faced and wheezing clouds of cold air. A bear in a camouflaged hunting cap, he has small eyes set too close together and a nose that takes up most of his face.
“I want to talk to you about that little stunt you pulled,” he says. “I don’t know what your deal is, but you’re out there, cutting people off, flipping people off. Acting like a damned kid or something. We nearly had ourselves an accident.”
I nod slowly.
“I’m not an asshole, man. What you did is dangerous. I had to hit my brakes. I got cars behind me. The kid’s in the passenger seat. And then you’re flipping me off like I’m the one with the problem?”
I stare at him. He starts to say something else and I stop him. I say, “Let me save you the trouble. I don’t really give a damn. I mean, honest to God, it means nothing to me.”
The man takes off his cap, and then pulls it back down on his head again. He’s getting frustrated. He says, “Hey, don’t walk away from me, pal. We aren’t done here.”
But I’m on the move, already around the Charger and opening the trunk. His kid is peering out the window now, leaning across the driver’s seat, one hand on the steering wheel, trying to get a better look at the spectacle, while I rummage through the trunk. There’s some sort of inflatable tube back there. A car jack. A full-sized spare. Laundry bags. A collapsible snow-shovel. And the yellow DeWalt toolbox Tessa gave me for my birthday. It’s one of those big suckers. Weighs about a hundred pounds. The kind of box that holds everything under the sun. Tire gauges. Jumper cables. Ratchets. A socket wrench with a half-dozen attachments I’ve never used. I’m tossing tools around like it’s part of my juggling routine, while the guy in the hunting cap yammers away, saying something about dignity and acting your age.
“Look,” he says, putting his hands on his hips. “I’m being reasonable here. You’re on a slippery slope. You’re in a bad frame of mind.” He touches my shoulder, and I wonder what it takes to get some unfiltered, all-American rage out of this guy.
“Look,” I say. “If you’re so pissed off, do what guys like you do. Go home and take it out on your family.”
The man sniffs and rubs his nose. “You really think that’s funny?”
I shrug. From the passenger seat, the kid looks scared. Above his head, mounted on the ceiling is a gun rack holding a 12-gauge.
Dad’s about two seconds away from canning the nice-guy routine altogether. “Take it out on my family,” he says, putting one hand on the trunk lid. “Real classy. What makes you think you know so much about me? You don’t know the first thing.”
“What makes you think I want to know about you?” I say, turning. I toss my tools onto the littered, slushy parking lot: a screwdriver, a tape measure, a rubber mallet.
He grabs the sleeve of my coat, tries to spin me around. Something real is passing between us. When I find what I am looking for, I slam the trunk lid, and say, “Fuck off, bub.”
I hold the claw hammer down at my side. I growl. I mean business.
The grizzly in the hunting cap takes a step back, and I can tell from the look on his face that he doesn’t know what to make of any of this. So I point the hammer right at him. I’m hoping he’ll grab it, but the man only shakes his head and backpedals to his car.
“You’ve got a major dysfunction, buddy,” he says, one foot in his truck, one foot out. He stares at me like he wants to say something else, but his little marsupial brain obviously can’t keep pace. I wave the hammer and make a familiar hand motion, but the guy barely blinks.
From inside the cab, his son says something, but the man waves the idea away. He clenches his fists and unclenches them, and just when I think I’ve given him ample reason to step up and bestow upon me the world-class beating I deserve, he climbs back into his truck.
“Okay, kid,” he says. “Let’s go home to mom.” And together they drive off, the Blazer rattling away with a puff of blue smoke. Leave me standing there in the parking lot with a hammer in my hand and not a proverbial nail in sight.
When I get home, there’s a message on the answering machine from Julie. She says Tessa wants to talk. I listen to the message three times. Then I grab my keys and start for the door. I make it halfway across the room before I’m frozen in my shoes. Snarlie sits curled up in front of the sliding patio door, head down on his paws. The dark stain on the carpet tells the story.
I should be angry. I should scold him. Grab him by his muzzle and say, “Bad dog. Bad dog.” But I don’t.
Outside, kids yell and run around in the field between my house and my neighbor’s. I don’t know what kind of parents let their children out in temperatures like this. I don’t want to know. I put my keys back in the basket by the door. Then I erase my answering machine messages, flop down on the couch. There’s no way around it: I have a choice to make.
So here’s the question—it’s not rhetorical. You’re a married man, at least technically, creeping up on the age of forty, and your wife, a woman you’ve both adored and resented, wants to make amends. But on the other side of town, the most gorgeous creature you’ve ever touched is sitting in a pet shop, waiting for some explanation for why you gave her the old hit-and-run. If you want out, she might be your only chance. You aren’t getting any younger, and left to your own devices you make choices that can only be described using hand gestures and bird calls. Exhibit A: you bought a puppy out of spite. Exhibit B: you pick fights in the supermarket parking lot with total strangers. Need I go on?
You’re at a crossroads. So what’s the next move? (Remember, for full credit, you have to show all your work.)
You can pick those keys back up, act your age, be a husband, and go see your wife. Bring her home and try to salvage the life you’ve created together.
You can cash in your chips while you’re still ahead. Head north to Lakeville and apologize to Darcy, try to explain the little stunt you’ve pulled and plumb the depths of her youthful forgiveness.
You can stick to your M.O. and hope for a miracle. Perhaps things will settle themselves out. Go ahead, root around under the sink for that bucket and sponge. Focus on cleaning up the latest in life’s series of little accidents first.
Or, in true multiple-choice fashion, you can choose to do none of the above.
The clock is ticking, so what’s it going to be, bub?
I’ll give you a hint: There’s only one right answer. Of that much I’m sure.
Jason Kapcala lives in northern West Virginia along the Monongahela River. His writing has appeared in The Summerset Review, Prime Number, Four Way Review, Cleaver Magazine, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He is currently writing a novel about a small-time rock band from a ghost town in Pennsylvania.