by Sammi LaBue
I didn’t expect the car to give up so quickly even though I was warned. Paul told me every time I mentioned the trip that the car only looked nice, but wouldn’t make it down a dirt road. The tires couldn’t handle the terrain, he said, the transmission wasn’t up to par. And he was dizzy, and he was nauseous, and his head hurt anyway.
But the car lasted years after he did so I buckled him in and let my own seatbelt ding its warning, and I started the trip to his favorite place. The place he said he loved but never wanted to make the effort to get to.
Our wedding vows were short like our relationship. There was no dance; there were no toasts or even a wedding party; there was no poetry or personal notes of his affection for me. It was better that way, Paul had said, more genuine, not so fake.
In fact, that night he shared with me the only two intimacies I ever remember him relenting in our short lives together. Not embarrassing or unserious miscellany but things that were real and true and candid: a compliment and the submission of his favorite place in the world. An oasis, a pond sized lake at the base of great Mt. Katadhin, the final push of the Appalachian trail, where only the sounds of the cicadas and the loons could ever bother you. He’d given me vague directions and on the edge of sleep he promised me we would go there one day.
Holding Paul under one arm like a football to be delivered to the end zone, this lake that he supposedly loved, I lift the spare tire compartment with the other. I deserve the fact that there is nothing in the compartment. Unaware of road trip rules, I only packed one thing to eat for the journey, a ziplock of red grapes. I grab them and leave the engine on, the door open, the ding relentlessly dinging as I start down the dusty road in my flip-flops. This would happen. I deserve this.
I had no idea the east coast could even be this dusty. We’d lived together in Shuffle. Shuffle is a tiny town buried in the lushest hillsides of Jabs county Maine where lucky girls live with the lucky men who get to marry them. Lucky Paul. Lucky me. Lucky us.
We arrived in late May when everything was damp, even the carpet, even my face. Perched sleepily on our new toilet blurry eyed, having left my glasses on the nightstand, I pressed my toes into our new, damp bath mat, and a ladybug landed on my thigh. I immediately accepted this bug as fate. That is the way I am with things. Rash, rushed to make conclusions. Plucking the fruit before checking if it’s ripe. In this case, I’d decided good luck had come to welcome me. Then washing my hands another ladybug appeared in the sink basin. Reaching for the light switch, two more conversed politely while clinging to the wall. Lucky, lucky us.
There are no lady bugs on the walk to the lake, not much to see at all, a road that looks to fall off the planet in both directions, but suddenly from the thin beyond I see the top of a bug-red truck bumping gently in my direction. A huge red truck. With huge rearview mirror eyes and a sinisterly smiling grill. Suddenly, Paul’s urn feels awkward, my bag of grapes silly. There is dust in my hair, in my teeth, in my eyes, a film across my glasses.
This truck has no business stopping for me though, no reason not to continue on its way and only waste a moment concerned with this woman on the road. So I lift my chin up, keep my speed steady, but when I hear its engine rev, I do jump a little.
Considering the wrongs I’ve committed I have no real right to be afraid of a big red truck on a lonely dirt road. Paul was always the coward. Not me. No way. I was brave. I moved across the country for him. I agreed to a marriage based on three months of a relationship. I was eager and fresh and brave. But at the start of September when the moisture had left the air and the tips of the leaves just started to fade to brown, our fifth month married, eighth month together, Paul changed. He decided to grow old all at once. He treated our marriage like the final stages of Leukemia. He wouldn’t sleep with me. He began ignoring his diabetes and wouldn’t give himself insulin unless I packed it for him. He refused the help of a psychiatrist. He became angry. Volatile even. Throwing a pie plate full of rhubarb pie I made for a dinner party at the wall without letting me explain that I’d used a sugar supplement just for him.
It’s difficult to describe the actual timeline of our relationships dissent, but all I know is that after the wedding, his diagnosis, I never saw ladybugs in the bathroom again, only their sun-fried carcasses in unexpected places.
He was not only miserable. Not only depressed. Paul became both actively and passively suicidal. He found a way to sneak death into everything. A request to go out to dinner was answered by, “Ugh, kill me.” I can’t count the number of times instead of using words to describe his day he’d simply raise two fingers to his head, or his neck, or my least favorite, his mouth and pull the thumb trigger. The more I saw him pull the imaginary trigger, the more I could imagine it being a real one.
I knew even before he was dead that we’d never make it to the lake at the base of Mt. Katadhin. The more he threatened to kill himself in these pseudo-sarcastic ways, the more he became dead to me already. The more I wished he were actually dead.
Like a ruddy old hiker at the end of the Appalachian Trail, I thought for months, “I will summit this mountain, I will get past this marriage, I will find a way out.”
I brace myself for a wave of dust as the truck approaches. I quicken my pace. I consider dodging into the trees. Sweat begins to pool under my nose. I’m not feeling particularly social. As the truck passes me I’m momentarily relieved before it flips a U to travel in my direction.
“Car trouble?” The man asks hanging out the side of his red truck. He seems to be about my age, 42, but in better shape. He fills out his red flannel shirt annoyingly nicely. He wears large black sunglasses, a grown in beard nearly but not totally hiding a scar along his jawline.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Well, that’s nice to hear and all, but I didn’t ask about you. I asked about your car.” He seems to find this all very amusing. I don’t like it much when men find me amusing.
“I don’t mind walking.” I shoot him a glance, and hurry my stride. His window rolls up, and he accelerates away. My moment of relief is destroyed with the presence of his brake lights. He is stopping. He is getting out. I am forced to a halt, mouth open, pigeon toed, my sweaty grip slipping on the urn.
“It’s almost dusk, you know,” he says striding toward me, “Where you headed exactly?” He pushes his sunglasses to his forehead and looks at me with a Clint Eastwood peer.
“I’m taking my husband to Locaster Lake,” I remember myself. I am brave. I keep walking, truck man only a pace behind.
“He doesn’t look like he’s in very good shape. What’s happened to him?”
“Something like suicide,” I reply.
“What a shame. Sorry to hear. Lost my lady recently, myself.” He stops on that for a moment, then resumes. “Listen, I own a place on Locaster Lake, and I was just heading back there. Let me drop you off so you make it before sun down. Storms roll in quick around here. And dark comes even faster.”
I know all about darkness rolling in quickly. Like one evening, near the end of Paul, when I made a pasta dinner: I made it early, because Paul claimed to always be tired. He insisted on eating it in the living room. Watching him from the kitchen, the hot, cheesy pasta burned the skin off the roof of my mouth. Paul let a noodle drop from his fork sloppily onto the floor. He did not move. He did not ever move. I wondered if anyone would notice the damn difference if was dead already. The carpet was staining before my eyes.
It was irritating. It was all so damn irritating. And I was growing really tired of being so damn irritated. The darkness rolled in like one of these lakeside storms. I dropped my fork and went for a breath of air. I looked from our lovely front porch out onto our lovely street. I watched the sun dip into the horizon.
I fixed my glances on a few people still left spotting the neighborhood. I noticed a woman either fat-bellied or pregnant smoking a cigarette snuck behind the trashcans on the side of her house. A teenage couple arguing in a sedan at the dark end of the cul-de-sac. Two little boys who I thought were playing were actually lighting the hair of a Barbie doll on fire. This was not a place for lucky girls, I realized. This was hell.
I feel a raindrop hit my nose and snap back to the red truck man who is looking at me curiously and I’m unsure whether or not he can be trusted. There’s something caught behind his eyes, something murky, something that reminds me of my own gaze. A few more drops hit my glasses, and streaks of mud cloud my vision, convincing me to take the risk. Maybe I could benefit from the role of the victim.
“You know, I guess a ride wouldn’t be so bad.”
He opens the door for me and I hop in. We lurch forward literally leaving the Saab in the dust, and I grab ahold of the handle above my head.
“Name’s Nick,” he shouts at me.
“And him,” he slaps the urn with an open palm, the urn that I’d chosen like a soft serve flavor. It was called Vanilla Cream. When the mortician asked me to choose one I said, “Yes, sounds good. I’ll have that.”
“His name was Paul,” I answer.
“Bless his soul. And your heart, too.” Nick waves his ring finger at me. “I always have trouble talking about Caroline in the past tense. I call her my ‘lost lady.’”
I force a nod and drop my grape bag on the dashboard, enjoying the feeling of being driven. It had been a longer day than I’d imagined. I stare out the window until the trees passing become a reel of that dark night, the night that flipped by like the trees are now, when I realized I was trapped, when Paul left that damn noodle on the carpet, his bowl in the recliner, the TV on.
After he went to bed I stood by the window. In the darkened reflection, my eyes stared back at me from every direction. I called Catherine, a girlfriend, and asked her to come distract me. We giggled quietly in the kitchen, and I felt almost normal. The door to the bedroom opened and slammed, then the screen to the front porch.
When I entered the living room, I found the only gift Paul had ever given me: a way out. A post-it note on the door. It read, “I’m out of here. I’d rather die than listen to this.”
Things unraveled quickly, flip flip flipped from plan to fruition, because for me decisions don’t take long. I phoned Paul at work the next day. I told him we had mice. I told him to pick up some rat poison. I said it would work quicker. He did. I loaded it into his insulin needle with gloves on. He stuck himself in the veins with it. I convinced myself it was euthanasia. A favor to a miserable man.
The newspaper called it a tragic suicide. Rat poison receipt in his pocket, his prints on the box, on the needle, a suicide note still stuck to the door. I’m out of here. I’d rather die…
I was that old, crazed hiker, having thought for months, ”I will summit this mountain, I will end this marriage. I will end this man.” Then, standing in front of the mirror, against the wind at the end of the trail, having done the deed that haunted every night’s sleep, I thought the two words that would replace the haunting. “Now what?”
A year out of the woods, having gotten away with it, I still hate him. I still thank the man who cremated him and I still think he wanted to die, but I’m still stuck on that mountain. A mile high with nowhere to go. If I could just get further, higher. If only there was more trail, more for the hatred to fuel. But no. I’m a tired woman with hate in my heart, clouds in my eyes.
I need repentance. Not from him. It didn’t make any difference to him whether he were alive or dead, but to me. I decided to do one nice thing for him, fling his tired ashes into the lake, the only place he really loved. Then maybe I could start my way down to a new life.
I’m bumped to consciousness as we come to a halt and am startled to see those eyes again in the window’s reflection. Beyond them, the sun is settling down into a gorgeous glassy lake, its gold melting and spreading like a sugar cookie dipped in milk.
“There she is,” Nick says.
“It’s nearly dark,” I observe nervously, trying to sit up. Had he driven me on a long route? Had I fallen asleep while lost in thought?
“The days are getting shorter around here. I think you had a longer ways to go than you’d expected. Tell you what—let me feed you, give you a place to sleep. So you can give Paul a resting place in the morning.”
I stare out at the lake, feeling something other than hate, other than madness brew inside me. Fear. All those warnings of not taking rides from strangers seem to gain some footing all at once and a heavy hand of fright constricts my throat.
“It’s no trouble to me. Been feeling a little lonely out here lately,” he continues as he climbs out then comes around to open my door.
Accepting the dance with danger, hoping it will be a waltz toward redemption, I step out into the chilly night. The crickets and toads chirp and croak ferociously. A screen slams behind me, and my shoulders jump to my ears.
“You coming, Liddy?” he asks from beyond the slates, only his white teeth showing, the rest of him eaten in the darkness.
I climb the broken stairs and enter a very old cabin with tattered red curtains. He’s illuminating the room, lighting propane lamps one by one with safety matches. He feels me awkwardly in the doorway, and moves me onto a hideous couch with both his enormous hands on my much smaller shoulders. My eyes tear as I catch a whiff of something pungent, thick, and musty.
“Sit! Make yourself comfortable.” The dishes in the room rattle as he loafs away. The smell, like a meat locker, rises again.
Nick clangs around in the kitchen as I sit stiffly on the nubby couch where an orange-striped cat is purring halfway beneath; its tail swaying flag-like atop its proudly raised behind. I give a try at petting it but it retracts stiffly from under the couch revealing a lizard sticking halfway out of its mouth, kicking violently. The tabby slurps it up suddenly.
“How you doing out there?”
I jump again and knock my head against a shelf that rains dust and papers around me. The cat has disappeared.
“Just fine!” I call back, quickly trying to pile up fallen documents from who knows when. Pictures of Nick with a small but beautiful woman I assume to be his “lost lady” are among the mix. The back of a photo reads Nick and Caroline, Hamptons 2014. That wasn’t so long ago at all. Where is she now, I wonder? Was she brave like me? Was she doomed like Paul?
Soon, Nick emerges with a pot of red soup held with a potholder. His other hand wields a dripping spoon, sweat shining off his neck.
“Roast tomato soup! Grab a bowl.” He nods to the glass cabinet.
As I sit at the table I get another nauseating whiff of flesh, but there is no meat in the soup. He leaves and returns with a loaf of crusty bread as I examine the woman’s cardigan hanging on the chair behind me. “If you get chilly you’re welcome to wear that.”
“Oh, I’m comfortable, but thanks.”
His eyes wander to my pinpricked skin, hair sticking up at attention. “It was my wife’s,” he says, still looking at my arms.
“I-uh- I’m fine.”
Moments pass and neither of us have taken a bite of soup. I’m becoming more and more convinced that those whiffs are dead-wife whiffs, murdered body whiffs. I may have killed Paul, but I didn’t keep him around long enough to smell him. He’s probably been waiting around for someone like me. Naive, distracted. A victim.
He’s about to take the spoon to his mouth when the phone rings. He jumps a bit and tomato sauce splatters his hand.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry. Please eat.”
He planned this. He must have. Some lackey in the woods was told to call at this exact time, at precisely this moment so that I will take the first bite.
“Hm, wrong number” he returns suddenly, and I gasp. Frowning at my clean spoon he continues, “Relax Liddy, this place is a little old and creaky, but it’s pretty comfortable if you let it be.”
I let a smile break into my face, and to my relief he licks a little tomato soup off his hand. He begins eating like an animal, and I take a bite. God, I’m hungry, but then there it is again, that wafting smell. I set my spoon into the bowl.
“Is it awful? I tried her recipe, but it isn’t right, is it?” He slams his fist on the table, and I jump out of my chair.
He gets up after me, and I am suddenly pinned against the wooden wall. I wish I could condense and slip between the boards.
“Please Liddy, please will you just let me do this.” I close my eyes ready to be beaten, raped, maybe even killed. In a cruel twist of fate, the murderer will become the murdered. He wraps his arms around me, my glasses are knocked to the side compromising my focus, and I gasp as if being pulled underwater. My heart knocks against my throat, jumping to the surface to turn me inside out, to flip me from a killer to a corpse no better than the husband I made an empty body though certainly more deserving.
But then Nick’s arms stop their tugging and instead rest gently around me. It’s not a death grip. It’s a hug. And now he’s crying into my hair. Breathing it in and coughing it out.
“I just miss her so much, and you seem to be someone who could understand.”
“Me?” I say, muffled against his shoulder.
“You can’t let go of your husband’s ashes,” he sobs, pulls away, and points to Paul under my arm. I realize now his eyes are not crazy like mine. There is no psychosis behind his pupils, only suffocated tears. Only genuine grief.
The stink of death overwhelms my sinuses again, and I gag involuntarily.
“You can’t just keep her here, Nick!” I cover my nose.
“But, I can’t let her go.”
“But that smell! You’re sick! You’re horrible!”
He suddenly looks confused and stops crying. “It’s deer season,” he blurts after a sniff and a beat, “I-I wasn’t expecting company.” I offer no illumination in my face, only accusation. He grabs my wrist, wiping tears with his free hand, and bends to raise a door in the floor. Sulfuric, tangy stench wafts from the dimly lit basement.
“Go,” he says, suddenly angry, pointing to the ladder.
“You seem to be so keen on believing, why don’t you go and see the truth.”
I am trapped between him and the cellar door. I descend the ladder, keeping my eyes up at Nick rung by rung until my flip-flopped feet find the floor. I take a breath and turn to see a deer buck hanging from the ceiling above a drain in the floor.
“Deer season,” he repeats from above me. “I got him today. It gets very cold down there at night. Improves the taste to bring down its temperature before I’ll butcher him tomorrow.”
I am not a lucky girl. I am not a brave girl. I am a woman with crazy eyes, seeing what I want in others without realizing the evil is only within me. This man is not like me. He has lost his wife to the cruelties of the world, not the cruelty of himself. Our only commonality: we are hunters.
“Come on back up here,” he calls, the kindness returning to his voice, slathered with sympathy for a crazy old widow. “You’re just tired.” He shakes his head. “I’ve got a bed for you in the cabin next door.”
I imagine him walking me through the back of his cabin into the single-roomed place next door. I imagine him lighting the stove to warm me, handing me a blanket to comfort me while I sit small and silent on the bed. Treating me like a man does a lady, like a kind man does for a kind woman. I thought I might be tortured tonight, made the victim, but this, the idea of this unrelenting kindness, is much worse. I deserve the former.
He digs in a drawer for a broken in flannel shirt. “This one’s long enough to serve as a nightgown for you.” He smiles by the door. “I know it’s hard losing someone, but you’ll move on soon enough. We both will.”
“I killed him,” I admit with nothing left to lose, hoping for some kind of hate, some kind of punishment for my actions.
“Now, don’t say that,” he says, giving me the kind of look I’ve never given, a look of sympathy and regret. I hear the long wail of an owl hunting for prey and push past Nick to follow it out into the night. I lose my sandals somewhere along the way in the tall grass and run barefoot toward the water trying to shake the unbearable weight of his kindness. My blood pumps through my ears reminding me of the life I keep living though I don’t deserve it, and I stomp harder as if to shake it out.
As I lose sight of Nick I slow to the edge of the water that shines dark as the night sky. A cold breeze finds open skin on the small of my back, and my shoulders surrender to a shudder. I stand goose-fleshed, knees shaking and kneel to place my glasses on a nearby rock. Looking out blindly toward the call of a distressed loon, I’m reminded of that compliment, the one that Paul had given me on our wedding night.
After the talk of Locaster Lake, after the ceremonial missionary position, I had taken a shower and when I’d gotten out with makeup still settled beneath my eyes, my hair sopping wet, Paul came to hand me my glasses. As I peered at him through muddy sight he said I looked nicer without them.
I throw my arms up, still filled with hate after all these years, Paul between my two hands, and smash the urn on a pointed rock. Unceremoniously and without grace I tumble into the water after him. We dance for the first and last time.
My vision is blurred. I run into a jagged rock. I gasp in some lake water. I think of those grapes in the truck, sweet and cool from the night. My eyes close and I taste their nectar in the ashen water, doing what I’ve always done. This jumping. This rashness. Then pushing away. This tasting, but not truly seeing.