I had my own little bedroom at Darla and Lincoln’s place, but usually I fell asleep on the couch where I watched movies long after they had gone to bed. The first month I worked at the Video House, I took home three, sometimes four, movies every shift. I must have thought somehow I could forget my own story. More often than not, I’d wake up when the credits were rolling on the last movie, and then I couldn’t fall back to sleep. Lincoln always turned off the air conditioner at night to save on electricity, so I would walk outside where there was at least a breeze.
The apartment where my stepsister and her husband were living was above an antique shop on Main Street. The previous year the town had passed an ordinance giving investors tax incentives, and one by one, the facade front buildings were painted in bright colors with names like Colonial Yellow. During the day it was all patio music, chalked lunch specials, red and white awnings. But at night you could tell all the buildings hadn’t been fixed up yet, and neither had all the people. The streets were never empty, though. Couples embraced deep in the alleyways, and every so often the bravado of male voices would rise off the basketball courts across from the police station.
Some nights I walked uphill past the elementary school to the stretch of road that overlooks the ballpark. There was the smell of cut grass and the silhouettes of ball players leaning against open tailgates, even though their games must have ended hours earlier. Other times I walked toward the river and stood with my chest pressed against the cement railing on the bridge, watching the reflected street lights continually bend and disappear into the black water.
Surprisingly, no one spoke to me. Once, on a night when the wind was blowing trash across the sidewalk and blue lightning was forking over the mountains, Jeff Sweeney, the deputy sheriff, pulled up along side of me and said through the open window of his squad car, “Casey, they’re calling for a real bad one tonight. Maybe you ought to cut your walk short. Can I give you a ride back to your sister’s?” All those nights, he was the only one to ever say anything. But I realized, as we made our way back up Main Street in the quiet police cruiser, that people were watching and waiting to see if I was going to snap out of it.
Abandonment had led me to pass the summer with my sister. Darla found me in my underpants on the laundry room floor, clutching a bag of kitty litter as if I could no longer remember its purpose. I couldn’t tell her how long I’d been sitting like that, pressing my spine into the cool metal of the washing machine.
She scooped me up by the armpits the way I’ve seen soldiers do their comrades in black and white movies. “How long has he been gone?”
“Less than a week.”
Her hands stayed on my shoulders. “Casey, why didn’t you call us?”
I didn’t have an answer.
“Do you know how I found out?” she said. “Do you?”
I didn’t look at her.
“I found out in the teacher’s lounge. Amy Radabusch told me. ‘So,’ she says to me, ‘That Murkey boy finally ran off on your sister, huh? I knew he was no good.’” Darla took an empty duffel bag off the back of the door. “She had hired him to remodel her kitchen cabinets, and he left them half finished. Just stopped showing up.”
She started stuffing underwear and T-shirts into the bag. “What do you need for the next few days?” she asked. “We’ll send Lincoln back for the rest of your stuff.” Then, when she noticed I was just standing there, “What, Casey? What were you planning on doing? Just hanging out here and waiting? You can stay with us, or I’ll take you to Dad’s.”
I followed her through the house. She had the bag slung over her shoulder and the cat squirming under her arm. “Thank Christ he never married you,” she said. We were in the living room, the only room in the old farmhouse that Jackson and I had actually finished, but she rolled her eyes in a way that included the empty rooms around us with their half-sanded floor boards and stripped wallpaper, as well as the mess on the coffee table in front of us. Jackson had separated seeds onto a napkin and left a pile of rolling papers. “Now you can make a clean break from all this.”
My sister had left her six-year-olds with a substitute for the afternoon. That first week I rarely left the back bedroom of her apartment. I lay down as soon as we got there, and the cat circled into a little nest on the back of my legs as Darla pulled the door shut. That’s pretty much how we stayed for a week. When I awoke that first night, it was dark outside. I could hear the clink and splash of dishes moving in the sink and the quiet murmur of Darla and Lincoln’s voices.
I lay awake a long time, stretched out on top of the covers. I never knew my real father, and my mother left when I was ten, but suddenly I recalled her crouching next to me as I lay on my daybed. I could feel the hot itch of a rash on my neck and the heaviness of fever behind my eyes. She had placed a cool washcloth on my forehead and was trying to massage away my headache. My mother worked her way up my legs and then back out my arms, making tiny circles with her fingertips, whispering, “Your toes are warm and relaxed, your feet are warm and relaxed, your ankles are warm and relaxed…” My mind moved up and down my body so many times that night, turning her voice into a kind of mourning chant for Jackson.
I thought, “He will never touch you here again, he will never touch you here again…”
That week Darla dragged me up and to a shower once or twice, and Lincoln came home every day for lunch. He tried to make me eat deli sandwiches or canned soup. He told me, “Casey, if you need to talk to someone, we’ll pay for it.”
I stared at the soft lumps of carrot floating in the vegetable beef. That’s how everything felt, soft and shapeless. I couldn’t find the edges anymore.
It must have mystified Lincoln, that I could feel so much—feel to the point of physical exhaustion—when I was raised in the same house with Darla, who is always steady, always in control. He never met my mother. When his lunch hour was over, Lincoln rose from the table and rinsed his dishes. Once, as he was leaving, he stood behind my chair and set his hand on top of my head and sighed. His hand felt large and foreign and charged, like a kind of baptism. I thought about Jackson’s hands, his fingers almost as slender as mine, always splintered, the edges of his nails rough from work.
Finally, one night, I rose and slid open my window. The warm air sighed through the screen. I responded by leaving my bedroom and walking outside, still in pajama bottoms. I didn’t go far, just down Main Street to the car wash and then back up the alley, where I stood and stared at the rectangle of light that was my room. The cat was walking back and forth across the windowsill, pressing her fur against the screen. The next morning, I got up and had a bowl of cereal with Darla and Lincoln.
I wanted to give them something toward rent, and that meant finding a job. I’d never had a real job. Since I met Jackson I’d spent my days helping him. When he lined up a project, his friend Dane Shifflet would drive his big van down from Sandy Bottom, and they’d work sometimes from seven in the morning until eight at night. It was my job to drive out to Dean’s Hardware after tubs of nails and extra extension cords, or else to the 7-Eleven for Dr. Peppers, which is all they would drink when they were working. It was not uncommon for Dane to bring a girl along. During the summer he always had different people in and out of his cabin. I would sit with the other girl, or we would run sheets of extra fine sandpaper back and forth across base boarding or carved pieces that were to become the edging for new cabinets.
Usually Jackson didn’t have a project, though. He was fixing up the farmhouse his mother had left him, and sometimes we would work inside, but he spent most of his time out back. When we went for walks or took his boat to the river, we were always looking for the right wood, smooth slabs that had been bobbing in the water or lodged in the fields and half covered with leaves. He brought them into his studio where he carved them and, using all sorts of materials—river rocks, broken pop bottles, clothes hangers, old car parts—turned them into people or animals. Some of the pieces he sold in town, at Shelby Field Day or the Autumn Days Festival, but most of them he attached to the army of wooden creatures he was creating in the backyard. He had begun the project long before I met him, and over the years he carved an intricate arbor with a table and benches and two free standing towers that rise above the house. The structure became a kind of cocoon, encasing half the house and creaking with the weather. Once I saw the same couple in a car with out-of-state plates drive by three times in one afternoon, slowing down and craning their necks, leaning out windows with their chunky cameras. The Shenandoah Arts Guild did an article on Jackson, and they said the house is the most amazing example of contemporary folk art in the eastern United States.
Really, the only job experience I had was running after hardware and sodas. Darla suggested I ask about waiting tables. She made a killing doing that when she was in college. There are only two restaurants on Main Street, though: one sells Jackson’s sculptures, and he and Dane built the booths in the other. I wore one of the long, flowered skirts my sister teaches in, and took off up and down Main Street anyway. The owner of the antique store below the apartment told me he already had a high school girl helping him in the evenings. At the Shelby Area United Services Thrift Store, two old women were digging through a box of clothing and kitchen utensils someone had just dropped off. They told me all their workers were volunteers. At the top of the hill, I saw a help wanted sign in the window of The Video House, and I asked the owner, Mrs. Howdyshell, about it.
“I don’t know anything about a sign,” she said.
I pointed to the piece of notebook paper scotch-taped to the glass. Magic marker had bled through the back. “That’s Mr. Howdyshell,” she said. “He thinks if he gets someone else in here, he can talk me into a trip to Atlantic City.”
I stood there and smoothed my damp hands against the sides of Darla’s skirt.
Mrs. Howdyshell pointed to the TV mounted in the corner. Robert Redford was in a biplane, wearing aviator’s goggles, looking back one last time to Meryl Streep. “You can’t just hang out and watch movies here,” she said. “You might think that’s what we do, but this is a very complicated process goes on.”
I nodded my head.
“You have to keep careful track of what movies are checked out to which accounts.” She flipped open a stained three ring binder, and spun the pages of names around for me to read. “You know we don’t have those fancy cards like the do in Garrison.”
“I wouldn’t know how to work those anyway.” Although Garrison is less than 30 miles away, and many people have started running over there for groceries, it was rarer than once a month that Jackson and I made the drive.
“Your fella left last week, didn’t he?” Mrs. Howdyshell probably had a better idea where Jackson was than I did. “You living with your sister?” She snapped the notebook of names shut. “Well,” she said, “I guess if my husband is determined to hire somebody, you’ll do as good as anyone.”
We drove out to see Jed that Sunday, just like always. Lincoln took the long way out, east on 33, then looping around the back way by Dean Mountain. It’s a prettier drive, with grazing horses and farm ponds that reflect pieces of sky. But I know he just didn’t want to drive past the house. I turned toward it anyway when I stepped out of the car, knowing it was there past the cluster of trailers, the half mile of woods and corn fields. You can’t see the towers from Jed’s place, but I leaned into the breeze, imagining that I could hear the whining of the wood spiraling above the house. Some of the carvings, the ones emblazoned with glass shards and pieces of shell would be blinking in the afternoon sun.
Jed hugged me harder than usual. I could feel the pack of Winstons crinkle in the pocket of his uniform. Like a lot of men in town, Jed has worked at Walker, the muffler factory, for nearly 25 years. He wears his uniform even on the weekends. He spends most of his time working on a Chevy Corvair he keeps covered in the driveway. After lunch, there would be no sitting on the porch and watching Jackson’s back bending with his into the raised hood.
Jed still eats off the same table he and my mother bought when they first married. Its enameled surface has been scratched over the years, and the seats of the matching red vinyl chairs have sunken and hardened. If my mom had not left him, they surely would have another table, polished walnut with extensions that fold out for family Thanksgiving dinners. We took our seats while Darla slid a casserole dish covered with aluminum foil into the refrigerator. She always leaves Jed an extra dish to supplement the Sunday leftovers. Darla began to move her chair around the table like usual, then caught herself. There were only four of us now. I could see the aluminum lawn chair we usually set up across from my father for Jackson. It was still folded against the wall beneath the telephone.
After our meal I went outside with Jed while Darla and Lincoln loaded up the dishes. He sat down and lit a cigarette. He has one of those metal couches that move along a runner, a green and white old lady couch. He dropped his match into the empty flowerpot he keeps next to it for butts and ashes. He won’t use a lighter. I picked up a stick and began poking it around the leaves in one of the window wells the way I used to hunt salamanders.
“Are you okay over at your sister’s?” he asked.
“You can always come back here if you want.” He flicked ash off his cigarette.
When I met Jackson, I was still in high school. I never came home from our first date. Jackson dropped me off at school each morning in his same varnish-splattered pair of jeans. He asked me if there wasn’t someone I should call, and I said probably. But I just waited. By the time I had worked up the nerve to come back and explain to Jed, more than a week had passed and he had figured it all out through the rumor mill anyway. He turned off some part of himself to me then.
Jed formally adopted me when he married my mother. He used to take me fishing, and he taught me how to shoot. He would set aluminum cans along the fence posts. Darla’s aversion to these activities made me like them more. They were my secret alliance with Jed, the thing that made him my father, too.
He stared across the field, and the couch whined as he slid it slowly back and forth.
“I’m probably better off at Darla’s right now,” I said. “I found a job.”
“At the video store.” My voice was touched with pride, and when I heard it, it sounded silly. “Just a few evenings a week.”
“That Erma Howdyshell’s the biggest gossip in Rockingham County.”
I met Jackson Murkey half way through my senior year in high school. Jed had taken his truck to West Virginia for a long weekend of hunting, so I had to suffer riding the bus for two days. The older boys sat in the back. They slapped their hands against the seats in front of them and stabbed butterfly knives in and out of the spaces between their spread fingers, trying to see who could move the fastest. The bus lurched over the back roads like a wounded animal. Two boys sat behind me snickering. They were young enough that they had not stopped wearing their blue corduroy Future Farmers jackets. I thought I felt one of them pull my hair, but when I spun around they were looking at a weather map in an Earth Science textbook.
My hair is thick and wavy. It’s never been any use trying to comb it out straight. Darla says that when we were little my mother used to take us to the salon on Main Street, and her friend Janelle would trim all three of us in one afternoon. Jed always dropped us off at a beauty parlor in Garrison and watched television in the bar across the street. There were mottled gray floor tiles, and the whole place stank of chemicals. The woman who trimmed my hair had warm, fat hands. “Look at this hair,” she would call to the women flipping through magazines on the brown sofa. “Have you ever seen hair like this girl’s got?” My hair used to be bright red, but it darkened as I got older, and by high school it hung down to the waist of my jeans.
Once I got to school that day, I found a fishing bobber knotted in the back of my hair. It was twisted up so tight I couldn’t get it out. I went to the guidance counselor, and she told me I could leave in her car and go see a hair dresser if I wanted. She said she hoped they wouldn’t have to cut it. The stylist took one look at the mess on the back of my head and said she’d have to cut my hair at least to chin length. I told her to just take it all off then.
“Well, how do you want it styled?” She sighed and shook her head as she lifted little sections.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You decide.”
“Okay, let’s do a pixie.”
I didn’t freak out when I saw my hair hugging my face like a dark cap, but I could tell the stylist thought I was going to.
“Here’s some free hair pins,” she said when she was ringing me up. “You can pull the bangs over if you want.”
My new shadow looked strange as I walked through the faculty parking lot. I liked the way the sun felt on my neck. I felt lighter.
If it wasn’t for that fishing bobber, I might never have met Jackson. Months later he confessed it was my hair that first got his attention. He said I looked so different than the hundreds of other girls he had seen wander in and out of the building that afternoon. He was constructing a new trophy case next to the office, consulting figures he had recorded on a beat up notepad. He smiled at me the first time I walked by, and after I had signed in with the secretary, he called me over to where he was standing. His body was small and hard beneath a plain white T-shirt. His tool belt hung low around his waist.
“What’s your name?” he wanted to know.
“You go to school here?”
“How old are you?”
He kept looking back over his shoulder to see if the office secretary was watching us. He asked if he could take me on a date that night, and I wrote down directions to our place on his notepad. I had been on my share of dates. I got excited every time there was a school dance, told the right people so that whoever I wanted to ask me would find out, talked Jed into gowns that cost more than the money he had allotted. I knew this date would be different, though.
We went to the Country Kitchen. I ordered a 12 oz. rib eye, the kind with onion rings on top. I had missed lunch getting the haircut. Jackson acted surprised, but I could tell he liked the fact that I ordered real food. There were antique kerosene lanterns on each table, and the owner came by and lit ours. I could tell Jackson knew her by the way they laughed, but he didn’t introduce me.
“How old are you?” I had been scared to ask him before. He had real sideburns and the corners of his eyes crinkled a little when he laughed, but I didn’t think he was any older than my brother-in-law.
“26.” He looked at me and took a long sip of his beer. That was good, 26. That was younger than I thought.
I said, “Did you go to college?”
“Nope.” He slid his fingers up my hand, paused and smiled when he got to my class ring. It had a lavender stone and was engraved, a Trailblazer on one side and a volleyball on the other. “I was lucky,” he said. “I didn’t have to.”
“Why not?” I liked the way my exposed neck felt. I was somebody else.
“Well, my mother died of ovarian cancer several years ago, horrible stuff, but I’ve been able to get my own business going with what she left me.”
“Making trophy cases?”
“Among other things.” He laughed and brushed his hair out of his face. It was black and longer than mine. Suddenly I wondered if he might not be nervous. “I do carpentry projects, but I really consider myself an artist. I did all those.” He pointed to the sculptures hanging along the opposite wall and behind the bar. There was one in particular. It was a fish, over five feet long. Shards of colored glass scales sparkled in the lamplight. It was a fairytale fish. Wasn’t there a story with a fish who granted wishes?
“You didn’t make those.” I really didn’t believe him, and I wasn’t sure about his age either.
“I’ll show you,” he said.
Then he took me to the house. At first I thought he was taking me home, back to the trailer, but he pulled off the road too soon. We drove down a long gravel lane, and I started to be a little afraid. Still, I let him lead me up the porch and through the dark house. Inside it smelled like sawdust and varnish. “This isn’t even your house,” I whispered. “You’re just doing work here.”
He took something out of a closet. “You’ll see.”
We went straight through the back of the house, and when we were in the middle of the patio, he flipped a switch and decorative lights twinkled on above and all around. There was a maze of intricate carvings overhead—foxes and hawks and squirrels and others all suddenly watching us.
“It’s amazing.” I sank down on the flagstone. “I think I’ve seen this from the road, but I never knew what it was.”
He sat down beside me and covered us with a blanket. I let him kiss me for a long time. Insects hovered around the lights. He worked off some of my clothing, and I had to tell him no. But then hours later, because he had stopped before, I let him start again. I didn’t tell him it was my first time, but he must have known, the way I had to keep stopping and shifting and beginning again. We finally got to moving together beneath the blanket, and I felt like the two of us were an animal hatching out.
I had already decided to move in with Jackson by the time Jed returned from West Virginia, and I quit going to school a few weeks later. Jed wasn’t happy about the arrangement, but he didn’t pitch a fit or try to force me back. He had learned with my mother years ago that it backfires when you try to pressure people into making good decisions.
Darla and Lincoln said things every day.
It’s really all for the best. You can go back to school now.
That relationship became an addiction. You cut yourself off from everything you used to love.
That man was trash. He was a pothead. He had no idea what partnership means or commitment.
He could have ruined your life.
At work, Mrs. Howdyshell let me reorganize the shelves. I made a special display of old movies, and these were the ones I liked to take home the best. Black and white films where the actresses had penciled eyebrows and could cry, really cry, without messing up their faces. When I watched the end of Casablanca or Roman Holiday, I told myself that this is how it should be, that the final goodbye wasn’t always tragic, that sometimes even it wasn’t enough to cancel out what had been.
We took note of who checked out which movies, and, for Mrs. Howdyshell, it was like reading horoscopes. She knew who was having sex and who wasn’t, who was having a baby-sitter, who was having trouble at work, all by which movies they selected. Not many people took the old ones. They would come in and glance at the new arrivals, always picked over on a Saturday night. “Everything’s already gone,” they’d say. “I guess we’ll have to drive to Garrison.”
One customer did rent old movies and nothing else. Mrs. Howdyshell showed me his list, and it was impressive. At that time he had out Double Indemnity and A Streetcar Named Desire. His name was Stirling Norvell, not a local name, and he had only opened an account that summer. Curious, I checked the folder of membership agreements to get a look at his signature. It was sprawling and old-fashioned. Jackson always printed, and he only used capital letters. “Are you sure he’s a man?” I showed the paper to Mrs. Howdyshell.
“Yes, and he’s not bad-looking either,” she said. “He usually comes in early, so you’ve never seen him.”
When he finally came in, one afternoon in July, Mrs. Howdyshell hustled over to the counter to announce his arrival. I watched him move down my display. He picked up African Queen, then put it back. There were two videos tucked beneath his arm. He had light brown hair, a little sun-bleached, and the back of his neck and ears were burnt red, I guessed from driving a tractor.
When he arrived at the checkout, he placed Westside Story and Summer of ‘42 on the counter. “I want to return these two,” he said, “And I want to rent this one.” He looked back over his shoulder as if he might change his mind, then he set Double Indemnity next to the cash register.
“You checked this one out a few weeks ago,” I said as I recorded it again in the big notebook. “Fred MacMurray.”
“You’ve seen it?”
“One of my favorites.” I handed him his change, and he looked at me kind of funny before turning to go.
He returned in about half an hour to invite me to a Fourth of July cook-out that weekend. “Just as friends,” he said when I hesitated. “I’ve got a girlfriend back at school.”
Darla told me to wear my khaki pants because I don’t look so skinny in them. She tried to smooth down my hair, but it wouldn’t hold. “It looks a little fluffy,” she said after she had coated it with hairspray. “Now maybe you can grow it out again.” When I showed Jackson a picture of me with long hair, he said that I should keep it short. Hair that long looked white trash. Darla and Lincoln had taken to speaking about Jackson’s absence without mentioning him at all. Now you can concentrate on you. Now you have nothing to hold you back.
Stirling stepped inside to say hello to my sister and Lincoln. I wondered if the two of them would take advantage of being alone again in their apartment. Once a week or so, Darla made a big show of how tired she was at dinner. She took a long bath, then came out in her terrycloth robe to tell Lincoln it was time for bed. I knew she would reemerge from their room within the hour and slink into the bathroom, that I would hear the toilet flush and the faucet turn on. I always pretended to be asleep.
I had sliced a plate of fresh tomatoes from Jed’s garden. Stirling held the car door open for me to climb inside. I had expected a truck. All the men I knew drove trucks. Jackson had left in one with a boat trailer rattling behind it. Lincoln drove a Suburban. I had assumed Stirling was a farm hand, and I was right. Technically, he was doing an internship for his Agricultural Engineering major at Virginia Tech, but I was wrong about his wheels. He drove a blue sedan.
The year before Jackson and I had gone to a picnic at Dane’s cabin up in Sandy Bottom. We’d been dating about eight months. It was the only time he ever took me up there. The road was strewn with huge rocks like an empty creek bed, and I had to brace my palms against the dashboard. We started to see smaller cars parked over in the trees, guests who had given up and gotten out to walk. It was getting dark. Eventually the road leveled out and emptied us into a damp field, where we parked with others who had made it all the way up the mountain. Goats met us as we climbed down from the cab. They nibbled at the hem of my skirt, sniffed my sandals.
Dane’s cabin was more like a shack. It looked as if it began as an old aluminum RV, but it had been added onto again and again. Honeysuckle vines crawled up onto the roof. Some people milled around the front of the building and others clustered around three bonfires in an adjacent field. When we reached the fires, they were passing around a bong, and a girl in a gauzy halter top offered it to Jackson. She had loosened the straps so they hung way down off her shoulders. One of her nipples showed a little as she leaned forward.
“How about you, baby?” she asked me. Her eyes looked sleepy.
Jackson said, “No, thanks. We brought some stuff.” He took one of the cigarettes he had rolled earlier from his pocket and looked around for a lighter. That was the first time I realized he smoked pot. Until then I just thought he made his own cigarettes.
Dane had killed a goat and roasted it in a pit in the ground, but I couldn’t eat it, not with the other ones bleating and nosing our palms. Some of the guys said it was time for the fireworks, and they told us to turn and look down the hill. After the first explosion, we had to lie on the ground for the rest. They had fixed five-gallon propane tanks into homemade bombs. I lost Jackson in all the commotion, so I talked to the girl by the fire for a while. Her name was Promise, and she was learning to be a massage therapist.
I finally found Jackson inside the building. He was sitting on a lumpy futon with two girls. Promise had told me about this room. It was where Dane had used fluorescent paint on the ceiling to create the night sky during the summer solstice. One girl’s hand was draped across Jackson’s knee, moving along the inside of his thigh. “I want to go home,” I said, “Now.”
“Okay.” He moved the hand and set it on the cushion. “I’ve got a surprise for you first.” He rose and propelled me from the room with his hand on the small of my back. “Goodnight, ladies,” he called over his shoulder. On the backside of the house there was a screened porch where a litter of kittens squirmed inside a cardboard box. “Pick one out,” he said. I chose a gray and white one and inhaled the warm milk smell from his fur.
On the way to his cook out, Stirling tried to make nervous talk about movies, then work. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was his all-time favorite, and he was living in a guesthouse on a farm near Naked Creek. I felt sorry for him. Who knows what he had heard about me and Jackson? Finally we arrived at the Methodist Church, where there were two tables set up on the lawn. One was just for desserts. We placed my tomatoes on the other one, in the salad section, then Stirling introduced me to the farmer he was working with for the summer.
After dinner, Stirling got a softball game going with some of the kids, but I didn’t want to play. I sat on the grass and watched him run. He had taken off his loafers, and I liked the way his bare feet looked in the grass. He came and sat down with me when the families began dispersing to go watch the different fireworks displays. He asked if I wanted to go see the show on the hill in the park.
We got back in the car, and I was surprised but mostly happy when he drove me home. “Do you want to walk down toward the river?” he asked when we were parked at the curb. He had shut off the car. “I bet we can see some over the water.”
He took my hand as we walked, but I didn’t curve my fingers around his. I folded my arms across my chest when we got to the railing. The sky was full of popping and whizzing, and every now and then one cracked in just the right place so that we could see its color in the air and on the surface of the water. Every time he exhaled I could feel his breath against my neck, a quiet offer. I leaned over the water, thinking about that girl back at Virginia Tech. I had given Stirling my number when he asked me out, but I knew he wouldn’t call me again that summer, and I was glad. I was glad Jackson had left me because he loved me, not because he didn’t.
I asked Stirling why Breakfast at Tiffany’s was his favorite.
“It’s such a love story,” he said. “It makes me have faith that when people are really in love it will always work out.”
I didn’t tell him how that was complete horseshit.
I only went back to the house once, on a Sunday after we had eaten lunch with Jed and I had put away the clean dishes. I watched Darla and Lincoln through the kitchen window as they made their way across the garden. Lincoln held a plastic grocery bag filled with beans, and Darla was pointing out cucumbers that would make good pickles. When she knelt to pick the ones that were overripe or too large, her blond hair swung across her shoulders. Something about the ease with which she moved down the row suddenly repulsed me. She tossed the bad ones into the tall grass on the other side of the barbed wire fence. I turned and walked out of the trailer, past Jed and the greasy tools he had arranged on the ground.
A for sale sign was posted by the road, and I took a brochure from the plastic box. Own a home with a 140 year history. A handyman’s dream with a fantasy patio already completed. Grass had started to spread across the gravel lane, and the front fields were brambly and full of brown-eyed-susans. The turrets of the backyard structure rose like ramparts over the edge of the roof. I knew the door would be locked, but I tried it anyway. I sat down on the porch and stared down the road. Pretty soon I could see Lincoln’s Suburban coming up the hill out of the woods.
We didn’t know my mother was going to leave us. She went shopping on her day off and never came back, but she left a note for Jed and a note for each of us. I can remember things from when I was really little. I can remember when my mom and I lived alone and shared a bedroom with lilac wallpaper, but I can’t remember what my note said. Why wouldn’t I have held on to something like that? I’ve asked Darla what it said, and she says she can’t remember but probably the same stuff hers said.
I knew Jackson would leave eventually. In fact, I think he was preparing me for it all the time. We never used anything when we made love. He just pulled out and left a mess all over my belly, but a few months before he left he starting doing it inside me. He even positioned a pillow under my hips. We never talked about it, but I think he wanted me to get pregnant, so he could leave me with a part of himself. At the time I convinced myself it meant he wanted to marry me, but a part of me knew even then. I was disappointed every month to find the familiar stain there in my panties.
Toward the end of the summer, I started going to the Country Kitchen for pancakes in the morning. The fish was still there. Its price tag said nine hundred dollars. One by one the other sculptures came down from the wall, but the fish stayed. The owner must have known where to send the money. I guessed somewhere out west. Jackson always told me we’d go to New Mexico when he was talking like he’d take me along. I never thought about asking the owner for an address or even news about where he was, but I thought about shaking her and insisting she give me that fish.
One night at the end of August, Darla had to spend the evening at the elementary school for orientation and open house. Lincoln ordered a pizza, and we ate it at the table. I cleaned everything up, while he paid bills. Afterwards, I put in Picnic and lay down on the sofa, pulling the afghan over my legs. I had watched it the night before, and I knew how the girl would set out in the end after the guy who didn’t really deserve her. I liked it, because what would happen if she found him? Nothing, I thought as the cat walked back and forth beneath my outstretched hand. That’s what made it so good—even though it was over, it had been the real thing.
In a little while Lincoln came in and sat down on the other end of the couch. He pulled the blanket over his feet, and we watched the screen in silence. His feet were heavy and alive next to my legs. “Are you doing better, Casey?” he asked. “It seems like you are.”
I didn’t answer. “What was it about him?” he wanted to know. “What made you lose your head so much?”
Our calves were touching then, the top of his foot curling around the back of my thigh. All I had to do was move in his direction, crawl down the length of the couch, slide my hands into his sweatpants. I could see myself straddling him, his chest large and soft and pale beneath my fingers. In that moment, I knew I could make it happen. I could show everyone how hypocritical they all were, disintegrate their word loyalty. “I’m tired,” I said, scooping the cat up on my way to the bedroom, shutting the door behind me.
That weekend Darla and I finished the last of the canning. I sat at the table snapping pole beans from Jed’s garden, watching her lower a ring of tomato jars into the pressure cooker. She had turned down the thermostat, but the air was still hot and full of steam.
“Lincoln and I’ve been talking,” she said. “We were thinking maybe it’s time you looked into getting your own place.” She twisted the top into place and turned to face me. “We haven’t deposited any of your rent checks. We want you to take the money and use it for a down payment on a studio. You could live in Garrison if you’re really planning on going back to school.”
I had signed up at Blue Ridge Community College to take the test for my GED at the end of September. “All I’m saying,” she pulled out a chair and sat down beside me, “is that maybe you should start looking.”
The next week I dropped Jed off at Walker and took his truck. I had an interview at Blockbuster Video later that morning, but I stopped at the Valley Mall just as it opened and walked around a while. They had already put out the fall sweaters. I picked one that was red and cashmere. I wouldn’t even be able to wash it in the sink with shampoo, but I carried it back to the dressing room anyway, even though Jackson always said only whores wear red.
I unbuttoned my blouse, and draped it on a hook so it wouldn’t wrinkle. My shoulders were pale and only vaguely freckled. I realized I’d spent the whole summer inside. Suddenly I wanted to be fishing with Jed, wanted it so bad my throat hurt. I wanted the steady hum of the trawling motor propelling us slowly forward, wanted to watch the dragonflies land and, for a moment, balance on the edge of the boat.
I pulled the sweater over my head. It settled soft on my shoulders, the way my long hair used to. When I turned around there were three of me, an army facing off in the mirrors.
Julie Hensley grew up on a sheep farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and then traveled west, earning a MFA from Arizona State University. Now she makes her home in Kentucky with her husband (the writer R. Dean Johnson) and their two children. She is a core faculty member of the Bluegrass Writers Studio, the low-residency MFA program at Eastern Kentucky University. Hensley’s stories and poems have appeared in dozens of journals, most recently The Journal, Southern Review, 4ink7, New Madrid, and Blackbird. She is the author of a chapbook of poems, The Language of Horses (Finishing Line Press), and the poetry collection, Viable (Five Oaks Press). “Seeing Red” is included in the short story collection, Landfall: A Ring of Stories, winner the 2015 Ohio State University Non/fiction Prize (available from Ohio State University Press in May 2016).