Authors: Laura Lee Smith
Tags: #Literary, #Family Life, #Fiction
They took a mortgage and closed on the first of November. Vera sent a gift of monogrammed tea towels but didn’t visit. “Daddy’s got the conference in Atlanta,” she said to Arla on the phone. “We leave tomorrow. I’ll call when we get back.” Arla hung up and looked at the tea towels. They were ecru linen with scalloped edges trimmed in blue floss. A scripted
was embroidered in the center of each towel. Arla remembered them as a thank-you gift to her father from a client. The
. She tucked them into one of the moving cartons.
The day they moved into the Utina house, as Dean and his brother Charlie worked their way through a cooler of Budweiser and a pickup-truck-size load of secondhand furniture, Arla gripped her cane and limped to the edge of the property, feeling like an old woman at eighteen. Her first day in her first home as a married woman. She should have been happy. Instead, she was tired.
Alone on the bank of the Intracoastal, she looked out at the water, at the straight powerful current, the brown churning swells. While the land was relatively clear from the house down to the steep sandy bank of the waterway, on either side of the property, the underbrush was thick and almost impenetrable. Knee-high leathery palmettos blanketed the ground. Above, the winding oaks were laced with Spanish moss and resurrection fern, forming deep shadowy tunnels, spaces that looked like curtained chambers.
Arla looked back, saw Dean on the porch with Charlie. They did not see Arla down by the water. She jabbed her cane and rustled the thick palmettos to her right. “Everybody out,” she said. “I’m coming in.”
She walked slowly, carefully, watching for snakes, picking her steps around the protruding roots of the oaks and cypress that lined the waterway, moving deeper into the scrub until Dean was just a distant voice on the porch, not visible at all. She kept moving. Banana spiders bobbed in webs, suspended across Arla’s path at eye level, and she raised her cane and moved the webs gently to the nearby trees. The water rushed by, twenty feet to her left, down a steep embankment encrusted with oyster shells and periwinkle snails.
She was alone. It was lovely in here. The hammock created a canopy above her head, long gray curtains of moss filtering the sun, a soft damp carpet of palms and oak leaves at her feet. Or, rather, her foot. One foot and one stump. She looked down at the stump, the once-white bandage wedged into an open sandal, now smudged with mud and dotted with sandspurs.
She walked on, five minutes, then ten. Something large and gray was parked under a tree, a stone or piece of wood, she could not tell, but it had a strangely uniform shape, too precise to be organic, almost hidden within a clump of palmettos. She poked at it with her cane. It was heavy, immovable, concrete. She whacked at the palmettos until they gave, pulled back the long fronds with her hands until she could see the stone, and her stomach jumped when she realized it was a grave marker, an inscription worn but readable across the front:
DRUSILLA JANE ASHBY, 1821–1883, UTINA
“Good Lord,” Arla said. “And who are you?”
She looked around, clearing the brush with her cane, sweeping a wide circle around the headstone, but she could find no others. The marker was alone. She sat on a red cedar log and regarded it. It was odd, such a thing here, on private land, in this thick scrub cove. Could it be a real gravesite? Was it a prank? Drusilla Jane. Arla stayed on the log for a long time, regarding the headstone. The afternoon grew cooler and quieter, and she was lost within herself until she heard Dean calling her name.
“No, of course you’re right,” she said to Drusilla, surprising herself by speaking out loud, realizing now that she’d been having an unconscious conversation with the headstone. With Drusilla. “That’s what I always say, too. Everything will be all right in the end. And if it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”
Arla stared at the headstone for another moment. “I’m glad I found you, Drusilla,” she said. “I’m sorry you’re here, but I’m glad I found you.” Then she stood and started back the way she had come. When she returned to the house, she found Dean and Charlie holding down lawn chairs on the back porch, a cooler of beer between them. Half the furniture still sat in the back of the truck. She said nothing to Dean or Charlie about the monument in the woods.
“Where you been?” Dean said. “We’re getting hungry.”
“You lookin’ good, Arla,” Charlie said, drunk. “You get sick of being married to my brother, you know where to find me.” Dean slapped him on the head and reached for another beer.
That night, she and Dean made love in the darkened bedroom. Arla ran her hands along Dean’s arms and across his back, and then she put her hands on his face, steadied him, tried to see in the faint light if his blue eyes were meeting hers, but he turned his head to the side and moved above her, breathing hard. “Dean,” she whispered. “Shhhh,” he said, and when he was finished he said nothing more and fell asleep. She pulled on her nightclothes, lay back, and blinked into shadows.
Then the terrible suspicion came to Arla again, as it had every night since the accident, but this time it was more than a suspicion. It was a conviction, a certainty, a truth as pure and unchangeable as gravity, and it was this: for the first time in her life, she was imperfect. And Dean, who had needed her for her perfection, would never need her again. It was so simple, so clear. He didn’t need her. She stared at the ceiling and marveled at the colossal power of this understanding, how she knew, right here on these musty sheets at the age of eighteen, that the life she had known was over, and that she was, after all those years and all that evidence pointing to the contrary, nothing special at all.
Later, as Dean slept, Arla walked to the bathroom and looped her cane over an exposed pipe near the bathtub. A November nor’easter was blowing in, and the drafts ran unchecked through the house. She thought of Drusilla Jane, out in the dark windy scrub, friendless, alone. She would go see her tomorrow. Nobody should be all alone. And then Arla sat down on the toilet, stared at the crotch of her underwear, where there should, by now, have been a blooming red stain, but where there was only fresh white cotton. She stood up and pressed the flat of her hand into the soft flesh of her belly, pressed deep in, searching, until she felt it—a tightening, a gathering, a beginning.
A scrub jay cried outside, frantic for territory, or for love. Frank Bravo turned over to squint at the clock on the bureau. It was 6:14
. Saturday. Fourth of July. The alarm would buzz at 6:30; he needed to get to the restaurant early to start prepping the holiday rush. But now he rolled back and stared at the ceiling, thinking of Elizabeth, about whom he’d just had a highly erotic dream. It wasn’t the sex that was lingering in the front of his brain, making his vision foggy and his chest warm. It was the prelude, where they’d met on a deserted high school football field—probably Utina High, come to think of it—in the rain, and they had taken each other’s hands and run up into the bleachers. It was the way they’d sat down, close together, only the bleachers had now turned into the inside of a truck cab, and Elizabeth was in the driver’s seat, and the rain pelted the windows, and everything smelled like jasmine. She’d turned to him. “It’s time,” she said. “We’ve waited long enough.” She brushed a wet strand of hair off his forehead. That was the part that stuck with him, that part just before the sex.
His brother Carson’s wife. Love, or territory. That was it, wasn’t it?
“Shit,” he said now. Gooch’s collar jingled lightly as he picked his head up off the bed to regard Frank. “I said ‘shit,’” Frank said. “But it didn’t concern you.” He thumped the dog’s back. “And what are you doing on the bed, anyway?” It was a rhetorical question. Gooch, all sixty muttish pounds of him, had been sleeping on the bed every night for the past nine years. Gooch put his head back down, sighed a huge dog sigh, a sound like air escaping from compression brakes.
The day’s first soft wash of light had begun to creep up the walls, and Frank waited for a moment, tried to let his eyes adjust. Outside the bedroom window, the jasmine
blooming. All of Utina was covered in it, in fact. Two miles away, at his mother Arla’s house, the jasmine had been snaking up across the spindly porch railings all spring, pushing against the downstairs windows, looking for entry. He needed to cut it back before it rotted the siding even more than it already was, but every time he mentioned it Arla objected. “Leave it,” she’d say. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s a nuisance,” he’d reply, but she’d swish her hands at him and not let him cut it.
“It belongs here,” she’d say.
At Frank’s house, too, the jasmine grew in thick clumps all around the yard, and the cloying scent was making its way inside this morning, even though he’d kept the windows closed and the air-conditioning running since late April, when the Florida heat had descended like a guillotine and settled in to make itself comfortable until, Frank was sure, at least November. He could remember Thanksgivings spent swimming in the Intracoastal Waterway behind his mother’s house, Christmases spent sitting on Arla’s porch in shorts and a T-shirt. Now he nudged Gooch to move over, then pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders, thanking whatever God there was, once again, for the advent of air-conditioning. Without it, Frank was pretty sure life wouldn’t be worth living. At least not life in Utina.
The red numbers on the clock glowed. Frank closed his eyes. A few more minutes. He tried to get back to the bleachers. The truck cab. Raindrops like diamonds on the windshield. But now came a new thought, a tiny nagging pull. The fryer. At Uncle Henry’s Bar & Grill. Had he turned it off when he left the restaurant last night? He’d never in his life forgotten to turn off the fryer, and why this possibility had suddenly occurred to him he could not say. But he’d definitely slid his hand along the side of the machine and thrown the switch, and then, as an added precaution, pulled the power cord from the outlet on the way out the door. He always did. Didn’t he? Oh, Jesus. He lay still, considered the implications of this.
The alarm finally buzzed. As his feet hit the wooden floor, the phone began to ring, and Frank was momentarily confused by the two competing noises. He swatted at the alarm to turn it off, then reached across the bureau and picked up the phone. “Hello?” he said.
It was Arla. He tensed, half-expecting her to report that the restaurant was indeed burning down. Given the proximity of Arla’s house to Uncle Henry’s, just a short walk through the woods, if the whole damn place burst into flames she’d be the first to know. But she made no mention of fire.
“It’s your sister,” she said. “She’s at it again, Frank. She’s on a tear.” Arla exhaled, out of breath, and Frank could picture his mother clomping through the old house with the cordless phone in one hand and her wooden cane in the other. A sound like furniture being dragged came through the phone.
“Good morning to you, too, Mom,” he said.
“Sofia!” Arla yelled, not bothering to move the mouthpiece away from her face so that the effect was something like a freight train hurtling through Frank’s head. “She’s after the Steinway, Frank,” she said. “You better come.”
He looked back over his shoulder at Gooch, who was now sitting up on the bed, all rumpled white fur and brown eyes. “Isn’t it a little early for this?” he said. He yawned. Gooch scratched his left ear, then stood, shook, and bounded off the bed toward the kitchen.
“Yes, it is,” Arla said. “And you can try explaining that to her when you get here.” More furniture dragging. A clanging piano chord. “Sofia!” she said. “You’ll break your fool back!”
The last, distant images of the dream with Elizabeth began to dissipate.
“It’s time,” she said. “We’ve waited long enough.”
Frank’s chest contracted again. He rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath, wondering if there was not, indeed, a faint tendril of smoke in the air. But it was only the jasmine—sweet, stubborn, and ubiquitous.
“I’ll be out in a bit, Mom,” he said. “Let me get some pants on.”
“Hurry, Frank,” she said. “My Lord. Do you know what it’s like to have to wake up to this lunacy?”
He started to tell her that he, did, actually, have some idea. But she’d already hung up.
The light was growing brighter over the tops of the pines when Frank stepped out onto his porch and waited for Gooch to finish his morning toilette. He debated how much he needed to rush this morning. Although he’d checked the sky for signs of smoke in the direction of Uncle Henry’s and had seen none, the problem of the fryer had not—in his mind—been adequately resolved. True, he could be relatively certain that the kitchen had not caught fire as of this moment. But if the fryer was still running from yesterday—he did a quick calculation—at least nineteen hours, that would make it—it could certainly overheat and spark a fire at any moment. And even if it didn’t actually burst into flames, the odor of overheated grease and burning built-up carbon was going to have stunk up the restaurant damn good. It would take all day to air it out, and it was Fourth of July, one of the restaurant’s busiest days of the year. He didn’t have all day.
“Pick up the pace, Gooch,” he said. Gooch glanced his way and walked farther out into the yard.