The Good Life _     _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _  Mark and Rebecca Spencer

 

 

TWENTY

        

     I jam wads of newspapers into garbage bags.  I strip the bed, leaving the mattress bare--lumpy-looking, gray.  I crush empty shoe boxes under my boots and fill bags with them.  My mind and my heart have shut down.  Vaguely, I am aware of the sounds of Lon and Jake working in other rooms.  I am a machine.   Bend , grab, stand, stuff.  Like baling hay. 

     Except when I baled hay--drove the hay baler through the fields or followed behind Daddy's wagon, tossing the bales onto it or tossing loose hay with a pitchfork up into the loft of the barn--I thought about things.  My mind was always working.  I

thought about train sets or pocket knives I longed for or worried about tests at school or relished the memory of a teacher smiling at me as she handed to me a test or a paper with gold stars on it and a bright red "A," or I daydreamed of smashing a bully's face or--when older--daydreamed about Meg or the curvaceous lines and glittering chrome of a 1948 Chrysler. 

     It wasn't just when I baled or pitched hay.  Much of farm work allowed for fantasy.  As long as it wasn't dangerous work--the manipulation of some machine or animal capable of ripping off my hand or another one of my toes or kicking me in the head--I could plan and dream, relish or worry.  When I was engaged to Meg, I relived in my mind good-night kisses, the feel of her cotton dresses, her clean smell.  I made plans for our life together.  A good life.

     After the day in the woods when Rose kissed me, I sometimes found myself thinking of her neck, her lips, her tongue, her perfume . . . .

     Now it is Rose's perfume that sets my mind into motion again.  My physical movements slow.  On the floor I have kicked over a small cut-glass bottle, a myriad of facets catching the light, the spilled perfume making a dark stain on the carpet.  I lift the bottle, the sides wet, the scent overwhelming.

     Here is Rose.  This perfume.  Something familiar from forty years ago. 

     For the first time amid all this mess, I have discovered the Rose I knew.  Now I can see the pores of her skin, the flakes of lipstick at the corner of her mouth.

     Lon has said I couldn't imagine how Chachi can make a man feel.  He's right. 

     I wonder now what love with Rose would have felt like.  I am almost certain that loving Rose would have been different from loving Meg.

     How precious would the act of burying my face in Rose's neck have become?  How would it have been to experience the scent of her daily?  What would I have found it to be worth--what hell would I have been willing to endure, what wrath of the world--if I had ever caressed her breasts, felt my belly against hers, heard the sounds she might have made close to my ear?

     I seldom saw her after that day in the woods.  Meg and I stopped going to church.  Within two years Rose left Reverend Rodney for the county judge and moved to the county seat, West Union , and lived in a big brick house with stepsons in their late teens.  The judge was six feet seven and had hair the color of steel.  His nickname was Mountain.  The Honorable Mountain

Monroe.  His boys were as tall as he was, and they were wild.  If they hadn't been judge's sons, they would have spent most of their teens in reformatories. 

     She stayed two years with the judge, during which time she miscarried twice and called the sheriff on the judge once for slapping her and a dozen times on the boys for target shooting with pistols at knickknacks inside the house. 

     The week after she moved out, both boys got killed along with another boy and three girls.  The boys' '49 Mercury missed a curve, flipped over the ditch, plowed through a farmer's barbed-wire fence, rolled four or five more times, and crashed into a sleeping cow. 

     The site became a local attraction for a few weeks.  People from all over the county and nearby counties went to see the skid marks, the mangled fence, the glass shards, beer bottles, and bloody cow parts.

     Mountain Monroe acted the way he remonstrated sniveling criminals to act in his courtroom--like a man.  He was in court the day after the accident.  The only sign of emotion--according to the story I heard at the slaughterhouse next time I sold some hogs--was that Mountain tapped his long, thick fingers more than usual and handed down particularly harsh sentences to the thieves and drunks and bar brawlers who stood before him.

     According to county folklore--that is, according to the gossipers at Lorene's--Mountain went to see Rose at her rented trailer house that evening and begged her on his knees to come back to him, that he was all alone now, to have sympathy for him in his bereavement.  After she told him she was sorry for him but couldn't live with him again, he went away for a couple of hours, then returned with a shotgun and threatened to blow her to Kingdom Come.  She said, "Go ahead, you old fool," staring him in the eyes.  His bushy gray eyebrows twitched, and he lowered the barrel of the shotgun, told her she was crazy, and went away.

     Three months later he was married to another woman young enough to be his daughter, almost his granddaughter.  I had had her in American history class just a couple of years before.  A pretty girl who smacked gum in class and made C's.  After graduation, she waited tables at Lorene's and served the judge chicken and dumplings with the comment that she hoped he liked her dumplings. 

     She got all his money three years later when he wrapped his lips around the barrel of his shotgun.  With his long arms, he didn't have any trouble with the trigger.

     I suppose Mountain gave Rose some money in the divorce settlement because as far as I know she never worked anywhere.  The trailer she rented was on a piece of land too rocky for the farmer who owned it to do anything with.  It was old man Sanders' land.  Sanders had goats out there for a while and the only llama in the county, but the llama disappeared one night.  Then he hauled a used trailer out to the site, put bricks under the tires, and set the hitch up on concrete blocks.  It was on a small rise above the dirt road.  The "For Rent" sign sat in one of the windows for a year before Rose left the judge.  Perhaps she had frequently driven past it in her Cadillac Coupe De Vile for that year, imagining a life alone there.

     After Rose moved there, I would drive past occasionally, running some errand.  I could say the dirt road was a short cut to Highway 33, but that would be a lie.  Weeds grew up around the trailer, but Rose had set some flower pots on the wooden steps in front of the door.  She'd gotten her Cadillac out of the divorce.  The Cadillac was always there by the trailer the times I drove past, mud caked on the fenders and grill.  Eventually, a wheel cover was missing, then one of the bullet shaped tail-lights was smashed. 

     I often imagined down shifting my pickup, easing off the road, shutting down the engine.  I saw myself getting out of the truck, climbing the rise, the sun glaring off the steel snail-shaped trailer so harshly I couldn't look at it.  I would have to be careful on the steps not to knock over the flower pots of tulips and daisies.  I would raise my fist and tap on the steel door, the glare making my eyes feel as if they were being burned out of their sockets. 

     Then there she would be, her blonde hair loose and around her shoulders, maybe wearing her pale blue dress.

     But the fantasy stopped there, and I never even slowed down when I drove past.  In fact, I would speed up.  Just thinking about stopping and seeing her made my heart race and sweat beads pop out on my forehead.  I would hurry on to complete my errand, my truck bed full of grain or lumber or fencing wire.  I was still working hard those years to pay off the debts from when Nick was born.

     Then I heard down at Lorene's that Rose had married a traveling salesman from Kansas who pedaled a variety of barbed-wire, standard and electrified, and that she was gone from Adams County, gone from Ohio, was somewhere in Kansas.

     And I thought that was that.  I thought I would never see her again and felt a certain relief.  I pushed her back in some dark place in my mind, and only occasionally did she float before me in a dream.

     When she returned seven years later, divorced again, I saw her on a street in Peebles one autumn day, the leaves red and yellow and gold and orange.  I was driving along, hauling nothing in my pickup but a briefcase full of papers I didn't feel like grading and my fishing gear and singing along with the radio I'd recently installed.  A Johnny Cash song was playing.  It had something to do with being in prison.

     I supposed she came back because her daughter was here. 

Anyway, there she was, walking with her head up, looking straight ahead.  In her mid-thirties now, she still had a trim figure, but her face looked hard.  The lines slanting down from her nose to the corners of her mouth had deepened.  Her hair, pulled back even more severely than when she was a preacher's wife, had streaks of gray.  I looked back, ran over the curb, and barely missed a tree.

     A few weeks later her picture was in the newspaper--standing at the side of the house she had moved into recently, this house I'm in now, one hand at her side, the other lifted and pointing at a shattered window, the window I'm looking out of at this moment.  In the picture she was eyeing the shattered window, and her lips were pursed in what looked like frustration.  She was thin, her hair pulled back but with loose frizzy strands.  Above the photo, a headline read, "Peebles woman shoots at would-be intruder."  The story was written by a former student of mine, a girl who had graduated at the top of the class of '66, had gone to Ohio University , and had returned to Adams County with a journalism degree and a Volkswagen covered with feminist, anti-war, and environmental bumper stickers. 

     "Rose Jernigan, a divorced woman living alone," the article read, "was forced to defend herself recently when a would-be intruder--perhaps a burglar and rapist, the resident speculated--attempted to enter her house through a window.  I wasn't going

to take any chances, Jernigan said.  I was hoping to blow his head off."

  

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