I'm in the process of shipping everything back to California, which is just a joyous exercise of going through a year or so of my life and deciding what's necessary and what's not (and finding all of my art from the year! that's kind of cool, at least). I'm also trying to see all of the friends I've made here (many of whom aren't going to be back in Chicago before I leave) before I ship out west again, and doing all the shit I meant to do here but hadn't gotten around to (midnight showing of Jurassic Park at the Music Box! So [pre]historic of me). This clearly means that a) my days have no structure and b) I'm a little stressed which in turn means b.1) I'm fighting waves of moodiness every couple of days! Bleh.
But on the upside, all of those things mean that I've been spending my evenings writing! Writing a lot! Yesterday I wrote for about six hours straight! I'm crazy! Aah!
...Yeah so anyways, here's the rest of that story I posted a couple of days ago. A few notes on it, since I haven't spent too much time polishing it yet:
1) My characters seem to have developed accents through the course of this one. The more I built the setting, the more I felt like they needed to be rougher, and more country or some such. I'll fix it in editing.
2) Abraham came out of nowhere. I was agonizing over where to carry the story next after Jess' mother leaves for a couple of days, and my options were a) Leave Jess alone, and maybe have her die (You people know how my writing goes!) or b) introduce another character. I didn't want it to be Bill. It would have been interesting, I'm sure, but it would have defeated the purpose. And so I was thinking, "Who the hell would a woman like Jess ever commune with? She's miserable and she hates everyone." Answer: A LOVER! Everyone likes sex, antisocial or otherwise! God, Kristi, you're a genius. But seriously, I'm not actually sure if I'm a genius (hurr hurr) because I'm thinking now I might like it better if I left Jess alone...but then, when I tried to leave her alone, she didn't do anything but wallow. And that didn't seem like a sustainable story.
3) Abraham bugs me and I think I'm going to tweak his character pretty significantly. He's kind of a pansy, and he's acting so cliche I kind of toyed with the idea of killing him off (why is that my solution to everything damnit).
4) Yes, I left the quotation marks out on purpose. I'm ~*~EXPERIMENTING~*~. Tell me what you think it does to the flow of the story and such. Is it confusing as hell? I hope not. That would suck. I guess I could always add hyphens to denote dialogue, but I don't like it as much. The point is the minimalism, and the detachment imposed on human interaction.
Anyhow. Here's the first full draft for your consumption.
But he’s here, isn’t he?
But he was just gone, wasn’t he?
Well, yes. And the water outside glanced meanly at the sun, which stared into the tall eyes of the woman answering in two words. He was gone, again, and she (his wife) didn’t particularly enjoy nosy people probing her about it. There was the expectation of an explanation, a spreading of palms and a laugh. Maybe a roll of the old green eyes, and a shake of the head, hair growing spitefully white in streaks following. She gave neither of these, instead letting her face fall closed. It was easier to shut these annoyances off than to let the interaction flow the way they’d been learning since they all’d emerged, beating their hearts and wailing loudly, from their mothers’ contracting wombs.
Jess, you’re alone too much up here.
Oh? She wasn’t too concerned about that, but her name provoked a response. She clenched her jaws closed, to retract the small admission of participation.
What if you were attacked or got hurt?
By what, Mama?
The older woman shrugged, her hair long ago whitened like the valley sun unmoving above her shoulders. They weren’t in the valley. Mother was visiting.
Anything might attack a woman alone.
Jess grew tired of these insistences: a woman alone was more susceptible than a man alone, a woman alone might fall down and then she’d have to lie there and die but a man might pick himself up, or heroically crawl for help. Mother wouldn’t have said such things about Bill being home alone. She sighed and stood up, lifting her sweating glass of lemonade off the table.
Mama, I’m going inside.
I’ll stay out here. Lake’s nice today. There’s a good—
Come inside later. It’s hot out here. And keep drinking that glass, alright? The door swung shut behind her, rattling indecisively to usher the taller woman inside. Mother, left outside, put her sunglasses back on and resumed her passive study of the lake.
Behind the door (and a slight left down a short hallway), Jess pushed the glass of ice across a smooth countertop and pressed her palms into its cool trail. Bill used to make her lemonade, on summer days when she was younger and working outside—never constrained to womanly work, gardening or lazily manicuring the juniper bushes that rimmed their front yard, but pitching the gaps in the small rowboat Bill built, trimming large arms from the trees and hauling the broken branches on her own scratched and sweating back. The light would play across her strawberry blonde hair then, she imagined, dusty and mangled by the breeze off of the lake. Bill wasn’t home now, and as a manner of habit hardly ever was. Jess bit her lip and supposed that the days of working for small treats were over.
She walked past herself in the hall mirror and sat on their bed, feeling weighted. The days that had passed since he’d left this time—Just going Somewhere, darlin’—were without number or consequence to his wife. Thirty-three years was too long to count on. Her palms against her forehead still had the moisture from the glass; she expected more coolness from the clinging water. The obnoxious tepidness stirred her to get up, suddenly—away from the bed and its hot heavy sheets and untraceable memories. With her hands cradling each other, Jess swept her way back into the kitchen. The blue jeans she wore as a remnant mannerism from her more labored days slid unevenly over her legs in the thinness of the foothill heat.
Jess, there’s a few of those turkey vultures circling out here.
Her daughter ignored her; turkey vultures were always circling in the hills. It was certainly nothing new to the older woman, either, having lived her long life in the valley between (by very definition) two sets of foothills. And so she only knocked on the wooden frame of the screen door as she slid past. Her mother turned her head, just slightly, eyes ripe with cataracts sweltering in the afternoon heat.
Dinner was a silent affair on most nights, as Jess dined with the owls and crickets alone. She sat on the wooden porch, built high up over the hill’s steep grade, and stared down the path to the water intently. Coyotes scurried through the sticky grasses with their odd, flatish or globular leaves and raccoons’ eyes vibrated through the dark. But this evening, the spell of predators and night-prey—and what, after all, would choose to be a thing of prey at night?—was broken by her mother’s presence.
Jess was never one to mind silence, even in company. It was just her way. But her mother—somehow so different in manner from offspring, by some vast disconnect that Jess could not quite pinpoint despite the screwing of eyes and the twisting of lips—was awkward with silences, treating them with the clumsy care of a well-meaning child handling an infant. She watched her daughter stare down into the receding dark of that hill, which they both knew damn well ended in blacker lake water at the edge of the property (invisible to them from up here, in the night), anxiously waiting for some change in constitution. The way she studied, how her eyes narrowed slightly whenever Jess shifted or sighed, one might assume the daughter’s silence had some meaning. Perhaps to her mother it did; but for Jess, this was another lovely night of total solitude, broken by the unmentionable fact that she was not, in actuality, alone.
When will Bill be coming back, dear? The question caused Jess to unceremoniously drop her fork, and it clattered hollowly on the wood of the table. (Bill made that table years ago, right after the old one went out.) She lifted her eyes with some deliberation at her mother.
I don’t know, Mama. Her finality was emphatic; her mother ignored it.
He ought to not leave his woman alone so often, I think.
Who belongs to whom?
You’re his wife, dear.
He’s my husband.
He’s never here to be your husband, but you’re always waiting around to be his wife.
Jess placed her hands on the table and stood violently.
Who the fuck is waiting, Mama?
The two women stared at each other: one with shock and the other with raucous indignation.
I’m not about to lay down and die because Bill ain’t here! This is my house much as it’s his. I worked the land more than he did, even, and he just raised the goddamn animals! Her eyes glowered through a shade of dark at the elderly woman who, suddenly, looked worn—so worn—and she faltered, sat back down, picked her fork up. A stretch of silence following was unbearable even for Jess, whose mind wouldn’t concentrate to be quiet. The two resumed eating and waited.
Finally: But he’s still your husband, Jessie.
Jess would have stood again, angry, but for the papery tone of her mother’s voice and, loathsomely, the truth of the sentiment.
Yeah, Mama. I know.
Where does he go all these times? And Jess had already fixed her attention back to the thick black of the hillside, quieted for the remainder of the meal. Her mother eventually retired her ambitions of conversation and joined in her daughter’s uneasy sentinel watching.
After dinner, the two women sat again on the back porch, staring blankly into the nothingness both. Jess’ mother looked to her child every few minutes, confirming she hadn’t been spirited away or turned into a soft scent in the air.
Baby, I know you don’t like my asking. Her mother paused, took a sip of the bitter ale they’d found in the house. And I know I’ve asked before. But really, I mean it: where does Bill go?
Jess took a long pull from her own bottle, and felt the beer’s acridity lingering uncomfortably on the roof of her mouth.
I guess I don’t really know.
Why, doesn’t he tell you?
And you don’t ask?
It was an odd thing to say, Jess thought. She scoffed slightly into her bottle and gulped the rest mightily, slamming the cheap glass onto the table as she swallowed.
Because Daddy wasn’t trouble, right Ma?
Now, Jess. You know I—
What do I know, Mama? I know you haven’t got the right to tell me how to be married. And I know I don’t know where Bill goes, and I know that I don’t care. Wherever it is, he never spends my money and I don’t have to clean up after him.
Your dignity, baby.
If he’s buying whores I’m too old and too isolated up here for it to matter any. I don’t have a reputation to look out for.
That’s not what I was suggesting. Not at all. Both women quieted again, backing off of their posts until the hard tension flooding the air receded, carried away by a wisp of breeze to the lake. Jess sighed.
Look, Ma, I don’t mean anything by it. I know you don’t want me to be like you, but Bill doesn’t treat me bad. He just doesn’t treat me any way anymore, and it’s too late in my life for me to bother fixin’ it. By the time I fix it I’ll be almost gone, I’d think.
You should finish your life happy.
Well, yes. Jess pressed the middles of her fingers up to her closed eyes and rubbed softly. Ideally, Mama, we would all finish our lives happy. But that ain’t happening, looks like.
You love him still?
No, Mama. Jess laughed softly, replacing her hands on the table. Not for a long while. Her mother looked stricken, and Jess felt inexplicably guilty. Well, how long did you love Dad? What did you expect?
I loved your daddy to the last, Jessie.
Now why’d you do a thing like that? Her mother’s mouth tightened, barely perceptible in the midst of her wrinkles.
I wanted to finish life happy.
Being hit and cheated on would make the sternest of women happy.
If you had children, you’d get it.
Get how complicated it is to be abused by someone who made the only thing you have left? Mama, I don’t think I want that. She watched her mother eye the rim of her beer as she spun the bottle in slow circles on the table.
Well, Jessie, you always were the cruel one.
Jess watched her mother’s tears crawl from those foggy blue eyes and make patterns on the oak where they fell. She turned her head. The line of the hills where they began to blend into night sky was barely visible in the dark. Whimpers rose and fell softly from across the table; Jess thought of what she might say whenever Bill finally came home. (Mama came and she thinks you shouldn’t be leaving me alone. Mama is worried about me, Bill. Mama is concerned I don’t love you. You know I don’t love you anymore, right? And how long has it been for you?)
The morning next, Jess woke up on the old sofa and remembered her mother would be leaving soon. She felt a peace, like the house was emptying of the other presence already, and brushed the folk quilts off her body. Briefly she looked into the kitchen, just across a small bar on the other side of the room, and noticed her mother was not cooking. The expectation had manifested itself without any real prompting from her, and the graying woman felt a lazy moment of amusement. She stood.
Mama. Mama, ‘salmost nine. She pushed the door to the guest room open and found it empty, the used sheets neatly folded at the foot of the now-bare mattress. Her eyes fell to the door from the guest room out to the porch, slightly open at the bottom (that damn frame had been sticking for years). Mama, ‘bout time for breakfast now. What d’you want me to make?
The elderly woman turned her head just barely, a small smile on her face. For once, Jess could not read the look on her mother’s face.
Jessie, you’re a smart girl.
The compliment gave the younger of the two pause; it was hardly without reason that her mother would say such a thing. She made no response, and waited for her mother’s thought to play itself to its end.
You gotta leave with me, Jess. The woman in question raised her eyebrow at her mother, standing on the porch and looking over the lake, speaking with strange authority. She couldn’t find it in herself to trust this, and watched like a deer in the brush, sheltered in the doorframe from her mother’s new proposition.
Mama, I don’t—
You can’t stay here! Baby, I could hardly sleep last night, thinking of my only daughter alone out here. Jess put a hand on her thin hip, covered only by the white cotton of her undergarments, and stared hard over her mother’s shoulder.
Mama, what you expect would happen? Nobody lives a long life that ends perfectly. I’ll live a while yet up here, Bill won’t be around much.
Nobody likes to eat breakfast alone.
Those things don’t matter to me anymore, Mama.
What do you have then?
I got this lake and I got a lifetime of pride that wouldn’t mind some breaking down before I go. Her mother eyed her hard, slipping away from the railing of the porch and towards her daughter.
You don’t have a thing in this world for you, Jessie. Not one thing. Just a strong head that tells you it’s okay to not have anything, that’s all.
Jess grinned at her mother.
‘Bout time you started going home now, ain’t it, Ma? Valley’s calling you.
Her mother, indignant, stopped just short of her daughter’s face—so much like her own but for the wrinkles.
Jessie, these hills’re gonna end you. And it will be your own doing. Can’t blame Bill, can’t blame me. You’ll be the only one left here.
Jess examined her mother coolly.
Don’t forget your coat, Ma. And the older woman stormed into the house, gathering her things. Leaning over the railing, Jess could just see the little boat rocking against a few wakes, buffeted against the shore and clicking, over the tops of Manzanita trees. The trees were her favorite, and grew everywhere up here in the hills. A large, sturdy one, nearest the porch, was hosting the thick coil of a rattler under its twisting roots. The front door slammed and Jess waited for the noise of her mother’s car. It dozed into existence and got quieter as it moved down the road; Jess rubbed her temples softly. Today the lake was calm. The splintering wood of the railing dug into her hard palms: time to sand the surface, refinish it.
Breakfast was no longer interesting to Jess, as she could feel now the weight of the tension on her bones and nestled, even, deep in her gut. The turkey vultures made frenzied circles in her peripheral vision. Things were always dying, she supposed, so the raptors were always scouting. The sun tired her in its crest over the hills; she walked into the house.
Her happiness was not up for discussion. She thought she had made that perfectly clear, to her mother and anyone else who might have asked after her marriage. Being married was a matter of comfort, a structure meant to make her and whomever she married secure; happiness was one’s own matter, married or no. She opened the dining room window and sat at the table with the breeze, clamoring through the loose screen in conversation. In the early evening, she thought she might go out on the boat on the lake, catch a rainbow for dinner, then come back and maybe trim a few of the magnolias out front. They were getting unruly in the midsummer heat, when their keeper’s own limbs (she hated to admit it) grew lazy and often put off the burdens of manual labor indefinitely. But still, the audacious white blooms settled themselves softly on waxy leaves, growing untamed without her. It seemed to Jess that she wouldn’t have the heart to trim them today, when the white reflected the sun like that—pulsating like that, like the valley. That white was the flowers’ own bold assertion of their youth; she didn’t have the spite in her heart yet to destroy anything that wanted to be young and alive.
A truck clattered to a stop in her driveway. Her hands found the table, pushed her fragile weight up just slowly. Not Bill, no; surely not yet. It wasn’t his way to come back from wherever he went while she was feeling heavy and lonely. The papery white of the curtain was easily removed the window, making clear her visitor: Abraham. Her breath heaved quietly from her lips even as her eyes closed, and from the outside of the house the curtain fluttered back to touch its frame, inside, just obscured by the afternoon light on the glass.
Abraham, what brings you to this side of the lake? A pair of heavy leather boots fell to the driveway’s gravel. She knew precisely what he was here for, but it was unexpected, and it made her nervous. Now would be a time Bill might resolutely decide to pick up and come home to his wife, just now.
You. Jess put a hand on her hip, the linen beneath heating up in the wake of her pressure.
And what makes you think I’m available for you?
He squinted his eyes at her, his smile turning crooked and boyish. A charming man, a man whose hands had seen hard toil for his entire life—Abraham, a regular cowboy. Jess chuckled slightly to herself before allowing her face, again, to fall closed. Encouraging him didn’t seem a helpful thing for her now.
Jessie, don’t play games with me. You don’t gotta be ashamed of it.
Bill could come home any time. You know that. The man, taller even than her, scoffed and swiped a match on her porch railing. He lit his cigarette.
Bill’s a goddamned fool. And you know that.
You be careful how you talk about a lady’s husband, Abraham.
I’ll say it again and I’ll say it until I’m dead, lady. Your husband Bill is a fucking fool. He up and leaves you behind all the time. You think it’d be his place to blame you if you go ahead and decide you’re gonna live your life out with me?
Jess stared hard at him, an expression that couldn’t quite be a scowl.
You know what I have to say about that. Abraham took a drag on his cigarette, the strength of the tobacco filling the air between their steady positions.
Yeah, and I still think it’s bull. You don’t got any husband left to lose, Jess.
Goddamn the damned house!
Jess stared at him plainly, trying to affect a calm she had to struggle to hold. He rarely got angry.
Really, Jess. Just goddamn it. My house is fine, and we’re both lonely. Jess braced herself for something she could sense—and feel with her toes on the porch’s wood, somehow. Her eyes looked down at his arm as it roped its way around her waist.
I love you, Jessie. She tilted her face, slight and drained, upward. They were words she hadn’t really listened to in a long while, nor had she recently been grateful to hear them; her mother, Bill—people whose declarations of love meant they wanted something, or felt they had something to uphold. That thought perched in her mind: she could see herself, now, fleeing with Abraham. There would be few things she would want to take from here, and it would all be as simple as writing a note for Bill, whenever he finally got himself home: There’s nothing left of you for me to leave behind. Just that, just simple like that. One sentence, simple. There’s nothing left. And it would be true.
Jess pressed her head against Abraham’s collarbone and let the idea roll around through her body. A thought she hesitated to speak: I love Abraham, I do.
You couldn’t marry me, Abraham. I’m done with marrying.
I won’t let it worry me. There was something in his voice—a little relieved, a little wanting. She hadn’t returned the expression of love. She turned in his arms and leaned her head back on his shoulder.
I’m too old to start this again now.
We’re both too old, Jess. And frankly, I don’t care.
You sound like a kid.
I feel like a kid.
Then maybe we shouldn’t be making grown-up decisions like this. I already got married when I was a kid, and look what it’s gotten me.
You know I’ll treat you better. I already treat you better.
That’s not it, Abraham, and you know it.
Jess, you aren’t happy. You need me to treat you right. Jess turned herself back around in his arms and imagined Bill’s truck rambling up the driveway, seeing his wife in the arms of another man—a handsomer, leaner, more passionate man—and was struck with the vile surety that he would simply push past the two into the house. Nausea fled from her stomach halfway up her throat; she suppressed it mightily.
Need you to treat me right, you think? Her eyes beat a hard well into his eyes, which fell swiftly to apprehension.
Yeah, Jess. And I can see your indignation, and I know you don’t want to need a man, but it ain’t like that.
What’s it like, then?
It’s like…. Jess’ eyes traced a line on the horizon, now far from the sun as the day sank into low evening. She waited for him to finish. It’s like you can’t be alone any more. I can’t watch you be alone any more, because Bill is just going to keep leaving and coming back and leaving again. Someday, Jessie, someday he’ll die out there.
Jess felt her body aching, in sorrow of some sort she couldn't pin down. Her concentration fell again to the horizon as she staved it off.
You listen to me. Look at me, Jess. Bill will just stop coming back someday and you won’t even know the difference until you die waiting. No one’ll be there to mourn you but me, okay? But I’ll still mourn for you. You feel like you got nothing left but that ain’t it. I’m here and I love you more’n Bill ever will, or did.
Jess was silent for a long time.
What d’you want from me, Abraham?
Come with me, now. Come with me now and we’ll make it.
That what you came here for? Abraham held her shoulders, gently, his hair being ruffled by the wind. The way he looked at her was almost hurting, and Jess felt a vein of guilt cry its way through her. She staunched it before it made its way into an apology in her mouth.
Well, Jesus, I just came here to be with you, but the conversation seems to have swung to declarations.
Do you mean them?
Of course I do. I’ve been thinking them for a while now, at that.
That you want me to run off like a stupid girl?
That I want you to spend whatever life we've left with me.
What a funny thought. We don’t have that much life left to spend.
Abraham crushed the filter of his cigarette beneath his boot. And either you can spend it here waiting for a husband who’s never gonna be a husband to you or do right by you, or you can come with me.
Jess tired of the conversation. Being asked to run away from a thirty-year marriage, no matter how torn and disused, was a juvenile thought—Abraham was following the same impulse that probably made Bill leave all those times. Her body cooled in the wake of that thought. She turned her face from his and pushed herself away, walking back towards the front door frame. There she stood, leaning. Abraham looked hurt and Jess felt superior to him, his needs and his loneliness.
The only thing’s gonna make me lonely is if I have somebody to miss, Abraham. And who says you ain’t gonna do the same damn thing in a couple of years?
Abraham’s face had turned somber and his body swayed slightly with the force of a breeze off the lake.
Who’m I to trust you? Bill was a good man when I married him thirty years ago, and now I have nothing but you. She swallowed. You and your damn dreams of taking me away. When’s being the white knight gonna run out of appeal for you? A year? Two? Five? Maybe ten, and I know we got ten years of life left in us yet. So it’ll just be going bad when we’re about to die.
Jess, this isn’t just your stubbornness.
You’re goddamn right it isn’t.
What’re you scared of?
Starting this whole damn thing over again.
You can’t promise me that.
I am promising you.
You’re just as much a fool as Bill then, Abraham. And with that the man in question, foolishly, pushed her with softness into the house and closed the door, kissing her with lips that had been pressed hard together. The sheets of the bed Jess had not lately shared with her erstwhile husband were rolled and placed into disarray, and as Abraham made love to her he told her he was never thought a fool and never had in all his life been such a fool for a woman. Jess’ thinness rocked beneath him, cradled in the gestural warmth. And what was sex, now, but a gesture? Abraham’s deep wildness, spinning a slow record of passion from his fingers as he grazed along her body, moved her in ways she did not expect and could not comprehend. Stillness overtook them. Abraham held her hand beside her, sprawled away from her in the heat, and whispered summers to her through the evening air.
I love you, Abraham. You know I do.
I know, Jessie.
You expect me to come away with you?
I don’t expect a thing of you, except that you do what you need to be happy. Are you happy here, Jess?
I don’t know.
A fool can tell you aren’t. Jess grinned at him in the soft light, and curled her body towards his.
But Abraham, you are a fool, remember? He closed his fingers tightly around her hand.
Please, Jessie. I know I can take good care of you. Outside the window, a great horned howled, and Jess stretched herself back out on her back to its song.
I can’t even take good care of me, Abraham. I can’t leave what I spent my life leading up to. It might be an awful ending, but it’s the one I chose.
Why’s it too late to change it?
Because I spent more’n fifty years preparing for this.
For dying alone and quiet?
Some of us were meant for that, Abraham. It’s how I picked.
You married Bill thinking you’d end up sad and alone? Jess laughed aloud, and Abraham’s eyebrows bent downward. She shook her head.
Not at all. I thought I’d be happy, like any other young wife. But somewhere along the line things just didn’t go that way. And I’ve made years of decisions to keep it up. Backing off to be happy all of a sudden just seems selfish.
Abraham, I can’t leave Bill.
Bill’s left you, Jess. You don’t have that choice.
I’m gonna make it anyways.
Abraham got up and dressed, his words having fled him. Jess watched him, thinking it was probably hard to run out of words to say to the person you love. She wouldn’t have known. Sleep didn’t make its way to her that night.
The next morning, as Jess woke and dressed and made her tea alone, she bathed in the sun’s warmth through the windows. The corpse of an old Manzanita twisted its grayed branches out to the lake, a perch for a large mourning dove that emitted a low cry from its silhouette in the face of the eastern sunlight. Jess carried herself to the porch out back, hanging over the hill to the lake, and grasped the wooden rail softly, softly. Dew still clung in the pores of the wood, and she felt its moisture soothe her calloused hands. The dove cried again. Across the lake, another responded. The aging woman, a faint frown on her face, thought she heard the rumble of her husband’s truck. The wind blew the sound into nothing, never to return, and she settled onto her elbows. It was her fault, being here in the sun and alone as the dove on the circling, dead branch. She might have gone with Abraham, who was right: someday, Bill would not return. Intrinsically she was aware that this was a true thing, and that when it occurred, she would maybe feel finally burdened by her solitude. But for now, it was a peace to be freed from the blinding pressure to feel love in a marriage tied only by the leftover knots of years and emotions long gone.
Jess turned her head from the hot light of the sun, still leaning over the dampness of the railing she and Bill built in the beginning—and she alone kept up now—and watched the lake rise up again against its shore, beating back its motionlessness with constant movement. She sank against the bars without knowing why, her back to that hard void sun, and closed her eyes, silhouetted and listening to the dove crying alone; now, alone.