Coke Ovens by Emily Masters
Ethan is hooting and hollering just as loud as the rest of the crowd as the pride and joy of the county, the high school football team, runs onto the field, but Shelby Beth Kane remains withdrawn, cheering only enough to make sure Ethan doesn’t suspect anything of her. Their friends come bounding over, and she has just enough time to force a smile with her crooked teeth that, for some reason, everyone finds endearing. She nibbles on her gothic, black-painted nails as her best friend Katie waltzes up to them grinning.
Shelby has been like this for weeks now, tiptoeing around because she is scared of what will happen when Ethan finds out, because he will, of course, find out. That’s how things are in a town as small as Tracy City, Tennessee. When you’re related to almost everyone and know everyone else in the town by name, it is impossible to keep a secret for long. Sometimes it seems as if even the wind bears the secrets of the place, passing them on and spreading them like wildfire.
That Saturday night, she had hid out inside the old coke ovens at Grundy Lakes. They were left over from when Grundy was a real coal mining county, and most men, including her great-grandfather, worked tirelessly in the mines or at the ovens tending fires to turn coal into cleaner-burning coke fuel. Usually a family girl, her daddy’s pride and joy, and an avid church-goer, Shelby decided to let loose and go to one of the wild high school parties in the woods out by the lakes. Now, she’s ashamed of how she betrayed their trust.
Her best friend, Katie, a regular partier, invited her there saying she absolutely had to experience a party before she graduated high school. And, anyway, Shelby was curious about the hoopla. So they snuck out the window of Katie’s house on down the road from the lakes. They picked their way through the woods to the party already littered with bottles of Burnett’s vodka that tastes like rubbing alcohol and can after can of cheap Bud Light. A few of their friends were already well on their way to blackout drunk.
Shelby turned to Katie. “I’m so glad Ethan is away this weekend with his youth group. I know he wouldn’t be cool with me out partying, and I just want to live a little. I need to branch out and spend time with other people since he’s leaving for college next year.”
“Where is he going to go?”
“Probably the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He doesn’t want to go too far away, but it’s been his dream to live in the city. I know it’s stupid, but I feel like he’s leaving me behind.”
Brandon, the quarterback on the football team, met them as they walked into the thick of the party. Katie’s boyfriend, Jason, who played wide receiver was by his side. They handed the girls shots of Fireball whiskey before there was even time to think, and Jason whisked Katie off to another group of friends. Before Shelby knew it, she was starting to stumble around with knees like jelly. Without really knowing what was going on, Shelby ended up with Brandon separated from the rest of the group secluded in a coke oven hollowed out of a hill.
The light took on a hazy quality as the drinks went to her head and Brandon’s face loomed just inches from her own. His boozy breath tickled her face, and she scrunched her nose against the stench. The last thing she could remember was his lips crushing into hers, made sloppy with their drunken stupor, and the scent of dirt and dried leaves hitting her as Brandon pushed her to lie on the ground.
Sunday morning, Shelby woke to find herself shirtless with her pants unbuttoned and Brandon’s arm draped over her. The day was getting on, sunlight filtering through the leaves of the trees onto her sleep caked eyes. The events of last night came trickling back into focus as she realized where she was. She stiffened, heart racing. How had she ended up here? She shoved Brandon’s arm off of her and took off in a panic to make sure Katie was okay, but Katie was nowhere to be found. She must have gone back to the house already, typical of her not to warn Shelby. Shelby panicked. Maybe it was better if Katie didn’t see her right now, anyway. Her stomach was roiling, and her inner turbulence was roaring in her ears. All she wanted right now was to be alone and to get away from here, away from Brandon. She got dressed quietly, hands trembling, and walked back to her car at Katie’s house feeling shaken and scared. She got in to her car with a whimper of defeat and left without saying goodbye.
It’s a mistake she has been turning around and around in her head until it makes her nauseous. Not a day has gone by when she hasn’t tasted the metallic twinge of regret. There have been times when she has even contemplated telling Ethan herself, but she isn’t sure what to say. She loves him, but if he doesn’t know, it might be better. Soon he’ll be leaving for college anyway, so there isn’t any real reason to hurt him by letting him know she went behind his back. On the other hand, she feels like she needs to tell someone to get this off her chest. It’s eating her alive, and maybe Ethan has the right to know. The cheering from the stands knocks her out of her thoughts, snapping her back to reality. The smell of hotdogs, and the setting sun glinting in her eyes snapped her back to reality. She realized that the wind had picked up and it was turning into a chilly night.
Her breath catches with familiar fear, and shame turns her pale skin red like a beet. She can’t help but be glad Ethan is not looking at her because if he was he’d see right through her.
“Later, babe. The game is just now getting intense,” he says. “I’ll bet we’re about to score. We’ll talk about it later, I promise.”
She knows, though, that by the time the game is over, she will have lost her nerve, and her apology will be temporarily swallowed again. She would give anything to change the events of that night. Her breath catches with familiar fear, and shame turns her pale skin red like a beet. She can’t help but be glad Ethan is not looking at her because if he was he’d see right through her. After three years together, even the smallest difference in her countenance can betray her thoughts.
With two minutes left before halftime, Shelby gets sucked into the drama of the game. Their boys are trying unsuccessfully to get past the defense of the Sequatchie County Indians, their sworn rivals. The crowd leans in with bated breath as Brandon cocks his arm back to throw on the fourth down. As Jacob catches it and runs, no one breathes, but the second he makes it to the end zone, they are all on their feet screaming with excitement.
As the football players run off the field for halftime, Brandon catches her eye, and she glances down at her feet with shame. She hears the cheerleaders chanting and watches as they perform a difficult stunt, throwing the flyer high in the air. Shelby marvels at the amount of trust it must take for the flyer to be so willing and enthusiastic about this. At this point, she doesn’t know if she will ever be able to fully trust someone again.
“Do you want anything from the concession stand?” Ethan asks, shaking her from her trance.
“Yes, but tonight I’m buying. You treat me too well.”
“What do you mean?” Ethan says. “You know I’d do anything for you.”
“That’s exactly what I mean!” Shelby says. “I don’t deserve how good you are to me. I’m not a saint, you know. I’ve made mistakes.”
“Shelby, I don’t know what has you in this mood, but I’m paying for your meal and that’s that. You know how I feel about paying for my girl.”
Shelby stops before the argument escalates, taking in a deep cleansing breath. It would not be right to take out her anger at herself on Ethan who really does take good care of her. She often feels like he puts in way more effort than she does, and she isn’t sure how she feels about him leaving for college. How does he manage to do it? Does he not realize how big of a mistake she has made? She realizes that of course he doesn’t because she hasn’t told him. She knows she has to soon.
Ethan comes walking back from the concession stand holding two burgers and a Snickers, her favorite. One of the halftime songs, “Country Girl (Shake it for Me)” by Luke Bryan, is blaring over the speakers. She realizes that if she doesn’t start acting more cheerful soon, Ethan will catch on to her unusual mood. She gets up and starts twisting around, dancing to the popular country tune. Usually Ethan would jump in and join her, or at least poke fun at her love of ‘new country,’ but tonight he just goes and sits down on the bleachers without meeting her eye. She stops mid-dance wondering what is wrong but in the split second it takes her to roll the thought over in her head, the truth of the matter hits her in the gut with the force of a baseball bat.
He knows. She can tell by the set jut of his jaw and the steely look hardening his eyes the color of a stormy sky. She’s seen this look before and knows he is trying to hold it together, trying not to let his hurt show in front of everyone, trying to pretend everything is okay. She creeps over and lowers herself to the bleachers a couple inches away from him. He immediately tenses up as she reaches her hand over to rest on his shoulder.
“Shelby, stop, just don’t do this,” he chokes, “I can’t do this right now. Not here. Not with so many people around. I don’t know how you could do this to me. I can’t believe you let me find out from one of my friends at a damn football game. Just watch the game and don’t talk to me.”
Shelby opens and closes her mouth, grasping for words like a fish out of water gasping desperately for air.
Ethan’s granny, the daughter of one of the old coal miners, spots them from where she is sitting and beams with teeth yellowed by coffee hour after church every Wednesday and Sunday. She waddles over, giving each of them a big hug and her customary greeting, “How are y’all love birds doin’?” She obviously hasn’t caught the tension pulling like a rubber band between them, ready to snap.
“We’re fine, Granny,” Ethan snaps back, disregarding his usual respectful countenance toward his elders.
“Well…” Granny says, a bit taken aback, “y’all coming by my house for Sunday brunch after the service?”
“We’ll think about it. Shelby may not be up for it.”
“Granny,” Shelby says, “We’ll do our best. You know how I love your mashed potatoes.” She manages to cover the fact that something is wrong between her and Ethan, thank goodness. She doesn’t think she could bear if Granny were to get upset over this.
“Alright. Y’all have a good evening and stay safe you hear?”
The crisp fall air nips Shelby’s nose turning it pink. She shivers, wishing that Ethan would put his arm around her the way he usually would, wishing she could say or do something to express how sorry she is, although she is not really sure if she should even be sorry at all. Every time she tries to remember exactly what happened, she finds herself drawing a blank. She did drink quite a bit, but not enough to black out. It would have had to have been a lot for her to agree to something that would hurt Ethan. She can’t help feeling that there was some foul play involved.
Her confusion makes tears prick her eyes, but she knows she can’t cry. It would only serve to make Ethan mad. He deserves the time to have his own pain without trying to deal with hers, too. She only wishes she knew exactly what happened. If she could only figure that out then maybe she would be able to find the words to explain everything to Ethan.
“Touchdown, and your Yellow Jackets win!” she hears the announcer scream as the game timer winds down to zero.
The crowd does their traditional storm of the field in celebration, but Ethan takes her by the arm and marches her directly to his truck with the paint peeling from the hood. She wonders if this will be her last ride in it, if after tonight he will ever speak to her again, let alone drive her places. He slams the driver’s side door shut, making Shelby jump. If she didn’t know him better, she’d probably be scared right now, but she knows he would never hurt a hair on her head. He cranks down the windows letting the cold breeze whip at their faces, the band’s rendition of the Alma Mater drifting to them on the wind.
Taking a sharp right out of the high school parking lot, Ethan whips his old Ford, beat up from too much rough housing, past L&L gas station and takes another jerky right, blowing through the only red light in Tracy City without a second glance. Shelby grips the seat hard trying not to show her fear at his recklessness.
“Ethan, will you please pull over?” she asks. “I need to talk to you about all this. I know you’re hurt, but we can’t just keep on driving. That’s not going to help anything.”
“And you think sleeping with the fucking quarterback on the football team helps things in our relationship?!” he snaps back.
“Of course I don’t, Ethan. That’s what I need to talk to you about. I don’t think I made the decision to sleep with him. It happened while I was too drunk to remember anything at all.”
“Shelby, are you trying to tell me that he forced you?”
“I don’t…” she started, “I don’t know. I honestly have no idea what happened. No matter how hard I try to remember, I can’t seem to recall the events of that night. That’s why I haven’t said anything. I can’t even explain it to myself. I feel bad enough for that, and the fact that I cheated on you after three years makes it that much harder for me. I’ve been living in shame and fear ever since I woke up that morning.”
She sees him tense up, his knuckles white on the steering wheel. The heat of his anger fills the car, boiling over like the soup beans in his Granny’s kitchen on a Sunday afternoon. Seeing that he still cares about her enough to be angry at Brandon is enough to break through the stress and emotions she’s been bottling up since that night. She hangs her head so that her flaming red hair shields her face, and the tears begin to flow, the droplets soaking the skirt of her pink eyelet dress.
Ethan’s hand reaches over to rest on the small of her back, and the truck slows to a halt pulled to the side of the road by the little community benches where people often sit for lunch on a nice day. Shelby hears the cicadas chirping from the woods nearby, and a chill tingles down her spine. Unbuckling, Ethan pulls her into his plaid-shirted chest, holding her and waiting for the tears to subside. She hears the tapping of his cowboy boots on the plastic floorboard mingling with the rumbling of the engine and can tell he feels uncomfortable. Shelby takes heaving breaths trying to calm herself down enough to speak, but again she chokes on the words. She doesn’t know how to feel now that that night is out in the open.
“I’m…” she starts, “I’m so so sorry. For everything.”
“Babe,” he says, “I’m sorry this happened to you. It hurts me that this happened, but it hurts me even more to see you hurting this way. I wish you had never gone to that stupid party. You know how I feel about things like that, but you still should have at least told me. The parties out by the lakes are too wild, and, maybe, if you had stayed home, you wouldn’t have ended up like this.”
“Do you forgive me?” she asks. “Can you forgive me?”
His silence after this question is enough that she knows the answer. The knowledge fills her lungs, and she suddenly knows how her great-grandfather must have felt breathing in the coal dust from the mines. She has known since she saw his face that he would not be able to handle this but has been unwilling to admit it to herself. She should never have gone to this stupid party, should never have put their relationship at risk over such a trivial event. Amazing how something as simple as a party can alter a relationship between people so dramatically, can alter your sense of self.
At least for now though, he still holds her. She breathes in his familiar Old Spice cologne and knows something in their relationship has changed the same way she knew when it was going to rain by the way the leaves on the trees would flip over on their bellies. He rocks her back and forth as she is hit with a renewed wave of racking sobs. Clinging to this moment in his arms, she can almost pretend that nothing ever happened and that everything is back to normal, but too soon she feels him shift his weight and move his hand to the keys cranking on the engine and getting them rolling back toward her house.
She sits up reluctantly, allowing him to buckle his seatbelt and put his hands on the wheel. They take off down the road in silence driving past The Lunch Box, La Ranchera, and Hardbodies Fitness before they finally reach Littell Lake Drive. As Ethan pulls the truck into her driveway, Shelby thinks this has somehow been both the longest and shortest drive of her life. She wishes she could stay with him forever but is glad to be out of the horrible silence weighing between them like a cinder block wall.
She struggles with the clasp of her seatbelt, hands trembling. When she finally hears it click open, she turns to the car door and eases it open, trying to avoid the creak that always sighs from the old metal. She steps out of the truck, pausing only to cast one last look at Ethan, drinking him in, and then slams the car door with a thud of finality. She begins walking toward the front door of her house, and by the time she turns around, the old Ford is already driving away.
She stands there watching the headlights fade away to blackness. As Shelby looks up, she realizes she is nothing, completely insignificant in the grand scheme of things, insignificant to the one person she thought she truly needed. She gets an overwhelming desire to have her old self back, the one that was unused, pure, honest. She jumps in her car and takes off driving the five minutes it takes to get to the lakes, making the sharp turn across from the old Save-a-Lot to get to the coke ovens.
She climbs out of her car and picks her way over to the ovens. She finds the one she wants, the one from that night and lies down in it with her face pointed to the stars.