Still Life

by Franz Jørgen Neumann

The drives to Clayfield used to take only a few hours, back when Beth and Mira visited their husbands once a month. Now, nearly at the end of Dennis and Dylan’s eight-year sentences, neither woman lives in the same town anymore, and they must rise early in order to manage the trip to Clayfield in a day.

Beth picks up her daughter-in-law before dawn, the sky an ocher-to-indigo gradient that reminds Beth of the interior of a decorative bowl she keeps on her dining table. The ceramic piece holds peeked-at bills, house keys, coins and buttons, a matchbook, and whatever else can be emptied from a pocket. Here, that same gradient is uninterrupted, at least in the eastern sky.

“Pretty,” Beth says, but Mira has fallen back asleep, or pretends she has.

Beth and Mira have a tacit agreement to keep their husbands unaware of certain things. Beth hasn’t told Dennis she lost the house years ago. Mira, not asleep, knows that her mother-in-law currently lives with a younger man who is missing one arm from below the elbow, and that this truck belongs to him. Beth knows that her son is not the father of Mira’s toddler, a curly-haired rumpus who is, worse, not her grandchild. During those five months when Mira was showing, Beth told Dennis and Dylan that her car had been stolen and that they couldn’t visit Clayfield for a while. It was a kindness to Mira and Dylan, though when the men are released all the many kindnesses will shatter.

Never one for highways, Beth stays on the farm roads, straight and utilitarian. When they switch driving a couple of hours later, Mira obliges Beth and stays the course, trying not to mind when they get stuck behind a tractor. The women don’t talk about what life will be like once the men are released, which could come as early as the end of the year. They have wondered what it’d be like to pick up Dennis and Dylan in Clayfield when they get out, but head the opposite direction from home and start over fresh on all sides. Beth has also dreamt of a prison riot instigated by Dennis, which tacks another five years to his sentence. Mira has imagined Dylan coming out as gay. She pictures the moment: they hug, he gets into someone else’s car outside the prison gates, and drives off.

How easy it would be to stop making these now-seven-hour drives, these visits that consume every moment of an entire day, along with the weeks of thought that precede them. Mira told Beth that she wanted out a couple of years ago, but Beth, alarmed at the prospect of visiting Clayfield alone and having to perpetuate someone else’s deceptions on top of her own, told Mira she’d reveal Mira’s then-pregnancy. When Beth wanted to stop driving out last year, Mira, spitefully, said she’d blab about the men in Mira’s life. They’ve compromised and tapered their visits, though that has only turned their husbands into prolific letter writers. The men tell tales they’ve overheard. They tell stories of how much they love Mira, or Beth. Their words occasionally conjure, with acute specificity, scenes that make the women momentarily desirous, despite themselves. Beth tells Mira she never writes back. Mira says the same, which is the truth, for both of them, though neither believes the other.

After the incident out on the lake eight years ago—what the newspaper called “boat rage”—the love the women had for their husbands was blunted and reshaped, first by the incident, then by the hardships that followed. They hadn’t known that their husbands could be monsters, which is almost true. But now that the monsters are contrite and caged, the women have, on some visits, teased them, exploring the boundaries of visitor dress code. Beth has had her hair done the day before, curls spilling down toward cleavage. Mira has displayed enough tattooed leg to provoke an afterimage in Dylan’s blinking eyes. Once, at the corner of the visitation area, Dylan pleaded with her to lean forward and let him glimpse a single nipple, and she did. The monsters devour it all.

On other visits, the women dress down: hair mussed, faces clean, scuffed shoes—their natural selves. Sometimes they are sullen at Clayfield and say little, letting the men pity them for a change: the hours that Beth has to put in to save the house, the lament of the single-income earner, etcetera. The honesty of their husbands’ pity and regret makes the women love them again and know that their love is true—until the endless drive home returns them to places the men have never seen, homes with other men in them who are kinder by far, despite other flaws. Or homes not filled by any man at all for long spells, allowing the pleasantness of a weekend afternoon spent on a towel on a bit of lawn that needs mowing, the sun stunningly warm, and no one else to think about, not even themselves. Their only temporal worry is to avoid the bees, though the bees are too sugar-drunk to feel threatened, heaving themselves between flowering clover.

This trip out, the women don’t display an inch of skin. Beth and Mira are in coats and scarves, even in the truck. It’s a cold drive. The busted heater exhales as much warmth as the February sun. What they need now is distraction, but they’re too far from home for the radio to pick up the programmed stations. Beth’s fingers, crinkling in stiff leather gloves, play with the buttons on the CD player to see if the moisture that’s gotten in there has dissipated yet so they can listen to something, anything, even though it’s all her boyfriend’s music. In addition to the CDs lying loose in the pocket of the driver’s-side door, there are other small affordances in the truck that remind Beth of the man: the turning knob affixed to the wheel, the relocated shifter, a panel of buttons she doesn’t want to press in case they do something unexpected.

Beth and Mira talk about the weather, which isn’t looking good, then their health: remedies for sleeplessness, cures for winter’s curse of dry skin, ideas for helping Mira’s dog with his abandonment issues.

“Did I ever tell you how my parents left me and my brother in the city?” Beth says. “They gave us five bucks and told us to find our way back home. I was eight. My brother was six. Can you imagine? That’d be child endangerment today, though my parents said it was a survival lesson. They said they were trailing us the whole way.”

“Sounds familiar,” Mira says, though she doesn’t think she’s heard the story from Beth. Perhaps from Dylan. Or maybe it’s just a story that feels familiar because it’s adjacent to her own experiences these past eight years.

The CD player begins working. Beth turns down the music, but only a skosh. They stop for an early lunch. They eat at the same place every time, the same meal every time, though when they lived closer they’d arrive in time for breakfast. Now, though, they discover that the place is shuttered, empty, for lease. The cottonwoods are still around back by the gully, as big around as redwoods, though they look weary and saw-ready, now in winter. In the parking lot, a conspiracy of ravens bobs through the mist, a few sharpening their beaks against the damp asphalt. Beth and Mira climb out, stretch, and switch places in the truck, their movement causing the ravens to ponder them from a greater distance.

“I was starving,” Mira says, as though her hunger has gone away.

Impatient, Mira drives toward the interstate, which is fast and smooth, with well-lit restaurant signs marking every exit. There are so many places to choose from, they can’t decide where to stop, and so roll on and into the rain. The wiper blades make a discomforting rubbery throb and leave a shark-fin of windshield untouched. The visiting window at Clayfield begins in an hour, which is how long it takes before the first signs for the penitentiary begin appearing, something they’ve never seen before on the farm roads. It makes Mira feel as though the whole world knows where they’re headed.

The rain falls so heavily that they pull over to be safe, the wipers at their swiftest delivering not even a peek of anything that resembles the terrestrial. Five minutes. Ten. Mira is thinking how the delay is cutting into visitation time when they’re jolted from behind by a car, a cascade of movement that begins several cars back and which shoves them down the embankment. Mira stomps the brakes and the truck drifts, then faces back uphill, tires spinning. The CD player, mid-song, ejects its silver tongue all the way out to its pierced center.

The tow, when it’s finally their turn, won’t winch them out with them sitting in the truck, so they wait in the tow truck’s cab in their drenched coats and shoes, wet grass on their hands. It turns out they can still drive the truck; the dent in the bumper is minor and forgivable. They are lucky to be alive, they can say, when Beth’s boyfriend sees it. You should have seen the other cars, she can add. A patrolwoman with her hat wrapped in plastic kicks the sputtering flares off the roadway and the built-up traffic returns to all lanes of the highway. Beth, driving now, immediately returns them to the farm roads. They can still catch a half hour of visitation time.

It’s here, only a few miles from Clayfield, that a transformation usually occurs. Beth is still faithful to Dennis, still living in the house on Capri street where the water heater continues causing trouble; where Zoomer, their dog, is still loping about, despite being nineteen years old; where the pantry moths still haven’t been eradicated (the one single truth); where Beth still has her old job; where the bills still get paid; and where there’s still money in the vacation savings for when Dennis gets out. (Lawyers, and their fees, are never mentioned.) This regeneration of a world that has long since passed away is necessary for basic communication. Except that this time—wet, cold, tired, lucky to be uninjured—Beth drives away from Clayfield. She looks to Mira, who nods. Beth holds out her hand and Mira folds hers into Beth’s clasp and they stay like that for at least a mile until they’ve made it clear to each other that this is not a postponement of a visit, that a truce and an agreement have been reached.

“We’ll try for a two-for-one special from a lawyer,” Beth says, putting both hands back on the wheel.

Spoken aloud, the words make Mira tremble a little, even though she knows that now is the time, finally, belatedly, to end it. On the drive home, Mira shows Beth photos of her son, who turns two next month. Impossibly, the toddler looks like Beth’s mother as a child.

“You could come to the party,” Mira says.

“I’d like that,” Beth says, and pushes the CD back into the player, where it catches but won’t play.

Beth doesn’t offer to babysit, or ask for wallet-sized photos for her fridge, or wonder what the doctor says about the child’s development. Mira’s son is both a stranger’s child and a family ghost, even though she wishes him every bit of health and good fortune. She doesn’t even ask the name of the child’s father.

Here, in the soft realm of this truce, they find themselves with so much to say. They talk about their jobs. They talk about where they live, their favorite TV shows. They talk, even, of their new men, there over an early dinner in a restaurant on the way home, Beth’s treat. They talk of everything and everyone except for Dennis and Dylan. Beth knows that the men will say that she and Mira gave up nearly at the finish line, when really, as the men will discover, she and Mira abandoned the race before the first turn. Will Dylan understand that keeping the news of Mira’s pregnancy from him was for his own good? If her son tries hard enough, he should be able to see the mercy in not being told. In the restaurant, when Mira tells Beth that she knows she’s the one getting off easy, Beth understands that Mira isn’t talking about the bill there before her, the restaurant pen adding a generous smudge of a tip onto the curled receipt. Mira can leave the family; Beth will always have a damaged son.

They keep driving, finally out of the rain, the sun setting below the wet, bowing fields where it looks like giant animals have lain. The sunset gives off even warmer tones than it did at sunrise. Beth asks why that is, and together they muse that it’s all the dust and pollution and relative heat thickening the air, making something pretty of a spent day. But it has to be something else, too, since the day was cold, the air rain-rinsed. Above, a few scudding clouds have turned wholesome in the fading light. Below, the road they’re not obliged to travel again has a purple cast.

Hours later, Beth drops off Mira at an apartment block down the street from the house where she picked her up. They laugh at the subterfuge. At home, late, Beth turns on the lights. Her boyfriend has left a note about the remains of dinner in the fridge. At the dining table, she plucks out the bills from the bowl and tips into the trash the pennies, the safety pins, and the empty roll of stamps. In the sink, she bathes the ceramic gently until her fingertips run smoothly over the glazing. She dries the bowl and fills it with some fruit from the refrigerator—a few apples, two oranges, a lemon—before setting the arrangement on the dining table. From a distance, the bowl appears to hold wax fruit. But she knows it’s the real thing, out of the cold dark refrigerator, visible to the eye now where it’ll quickly ripen, or spoil.

 

Franz Jørgen Neumann’s stories have appeared in Colorado Review, The Southern Review, Passages North, Fugue, Confrontation, Water~Stone Review, and elsewhere, and can be read at storiesandnovels.com

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