A Hard Rain by Julia Campbell Johnson
Dinner was at six. Every afternoon my mother came home from work and cooked. I lay in front of the television while she opened cans, cut lettuce into salad, made sweet tea. She cooked our favorites—meat loaf, spaghetti—smells filling the whole house. It was our routine, false testimony that ours was a normal, happy household.
My father came home around five-thirty. Sometimes five minutes early, five minutes late. Sometimes five-forty came and no father. That’s when we started to worry. By five-forty-five, the knots had formed in our stomachs. With that, nothing on mother’s menu mattered.
She held off calling until six o’clock. Hands shaking, she pled, quiver in her voice, but we knew by then. It would be a night filled with shouted obscenities, slaps and chokeholds, of no sleep, of interrogation and shouting and music so loud we knew the neighbors would hear. He was coming home drunk.
We knew what to do. We ate quickly, cleaned up after. I grabbed my things left around from school—books, sweater, penny loafers kicked off—and went to my room. My mother retreated to her room so that, by the time he staggered through the door, the only thing lingering was the aroma of the dinner he’d missed.
In my room I stayed still, always with the hope that he’d forget about me. I cloistered there, as small as I could get, listening to the quiet before he stormed in, quiet interrupted only by the rhythm of my breathing and the song of the neighbor’s wind chimes. As the night wore on, there was no denying a madman was in the other room. I’d stay locked up in my room, later to find myself locked up on a hospital’s psychiatric ward.
My room was lavender, my favorite color, a girl’s color. For my twin beds my mother picked matching quilts with cheerfully flowered bedskirts. Degas’s ballerinas on the walls watched over me. In that room, I listened to my father screaming at my mother, listened to her sobbing as I waited for my turn. Alone in that room, a dove of mourning.
My father always remembered me. He called for me, releasing my mother to her room. Cold in my pajamas, I went. Always, never ever the thought I wouldn’t go. I sat adhered to the couch until he dismissed me in the early morning, like my mother, threatened, berated, emotionally beaten. His eyes red and rheumy, he could barely hold up his head. He would lean toward me, sitting on the edge of his chair like he was coming at me, his hand gathered into a fist.
He liked Eddy Arnold. It was the only record he had. When he was drunk he confiscated my record player and listen to it over and over, again and again, the volume turned up as loud as it would go. I knew the songs by heart—strains of torture, words of despair. Trapped in my room between turns, I tried to block it out, pillow over my head, suffocating, wondering if the night would ever pass. In the beginning, when I sat with him, I cried as I listened. I hated to, and I tried hard not to, because somehow he seemed to enjoy it. As the years passed, my tears dried up. Not that I was afraid to cry in front of him but because, like a prisoner accepts captivity, I had surrendered myself to him.
Please release me, let me go
I don’t love you anymore.
To waste our lives would be a sin
Release me and let me love again.
Eddy Arnold, “Eddy Arnold”
Eddie Miller, Robert Yount, composers
Sometimes he wavered between consciousness and stupor, so we had a sense of relief, only to be crushed when he’d get his second wind. At some point he passed out altogether, right there in his chair. For long moments strung together I held my breath, waiting, waiting. How long do you wait for a nightmare to end?
The day after he always promised, in his remorse, that he’d never drink again. He’d send me to my mother, to do his bidding, to explain to her about the promise. For the next few days, she started speaking to him, icy edge to her voice. Then when she felt she had punished him enough, she would warm up to him and things would get back to what we understood to be normal. Over and over we made our way through this cycle and each time he said he’d never do it again. Each time I believed him.
I learned to be quiet in my ways. Even when he was sober he was an angry man. So as much as I could I’d keep to my room. I could stay there all night if I needed to, padding silently down the hall to the bathroom. When I cleaned the kitchen after supper, I handled the plates, the glasses and pots carefully so I wouldn’t disturb him. I learned that to attract his attention made me his target. He’d bark at me to come change the channel, to refill his glass, to get the laundry basket out of his way. Even the cat restrained herself from going near him, stopping in the doorway on cautious paws before slipping behind his chair on her way to a hiding place in my room. I would meet her there when I’d finished my chores, ending the day with a quiet breath and the sound when my head found its pillow.
There came a time when I was big enough to receive a blow, old enough to be chased from the house, to be strangled. Every thought said not to sit and take it, yet I did, struggling with myself. But there was a difference. I reacted, engaging with him in shouting matches. He’d make a fist, shake it at me, let it go slack, clench it again, his arm unsteady.
Sometimes he wanted me to dance with him. He called for me, and I went, nightgown for a dress. He put one hand on my waist, take my hand in his. He’d take a step, then another, and another, until he was dancing there in the den in his shirt and boxer shorts. He warbled in my ear, and I could smell his oiliness. He pressed his face so close to mine his sweaty stubble scratched my cheek. He closed his eyes. Unsteady, he pressed into me and I pressed back, to keep us from falling.
The town was small and it was a short walk on our little street from my house to Mrs. Beasley’s, where I spent the hours my mother worked at the elementary school, the one I would someday attend. To get to her front door, I walked through a paradise of flowers and blooming trees, all contained by a white wooden fence. The latch was high on the gate, but my fingers could reach it, and every morning I opened it and began my day of grace.
She’d planted leggy irises, pink bumble peonies, lily of the valley tucked by the side porch. My favorite was the lilac bush—bundles of lavender blooms with a heady aroma. One of the delicate branches had escaped the fence and lobbed across it so I would get a sweet breath even before I opened the gate.
Every morning she took me to her kitchen window and pointed to the vine of bright blue morning glories out back, its flowers opened to a fresh day. Then when the afternoon was waning, she took me back and showed me the flowers closed up for the day, the sign my mother would be home from work. It was then she would send me home, never knowing what I would face there.
There was no vacation from my family. But that didn’t keep us at home. We usually spent our summers visiting family, so our dysfunction was compounded. The visits were predictable – siblings and cousins, graveyards, the old family homestead. And late nights of coffee and gossip. My father kept his temper in check – almost a guarantee that he would not drink. He demonstrated that at times he knew how a sane man should act.
My parents brought their troubles with us. These were the fights that were most personal, the ones that cut straight to the core of their differences, the biggest ones I ever saw, and over the most trivial topics: which restaurants would we choose? which stops for bathroom breaks? And the biggest of all – which motel?
My mother wanted to stay at Holiday Inn. My father thought it a waste of money. My mother wanted the pool. My father just wanted to sleep. This is how it always started. My mother worked with the skill of a surgeon. She knew exactly where to slice, and how frequently. Once she started she wouldn’t stop until she got her way. My father silent—it never failed. She always got her way.
Because we were with family, my parents’ roles were assigned – siblings, in-laws, cousins first removed. For the most part they behaved well. Even as my mother nagged, my father held it in. He held it until we were safely home, at which time he blew. He didn’t sober up for days, didn’t change his clothes, didn’t shower or sleep in his bed. He passed out in his chair, where he stayed planted until he was finished. These were the times when my mother pulled me out of the house and put me up with friends. I brought everything I might need with me, since I didn’t know how long I’d be gone. The more he drank, the longer I stayed. The more martyred my mother became.
As a teenager, when I could not bear it any longer, I convinced my parents to leave me behind. They didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t know about their trip. I could tell how well things had gone for them, though, by how long my father stayed drunk once they got home, and by how long my mother’s silence lasted.
The first time I stayed home, I had a few friends over for a party, and there were no consequences. After that, when my parents left town, word of parties at my house spread. All my friends and people I’d never met. Loud music and drinking. Bottles and cans in every room, a blender in the kitchen. Boys and girls making out in the bedrooms, playing strip poker in the living room, the room where my mother held her quiet bridge parties. I was never found out, though my father wondered once at the tire tracks on the front lawn.
Of all the times I was with David, we never once rented a motel room like most adulterous couples did. We were always satisfied in the back of David’s truck. But for my twentieth birthday he arranged for us to spend a night at the Howard Johnson’s in Salem, a motel cut into a mountainside in a town near my college. It would be the first full night we would spend together.
I turned off the car and looked into the black night in which I was immersed. In the distance the mountains were deep blue, a dark cloak draped over them. I looked around for a light, but there was none.
The plan was for him to arrive and check in early. I would follow after my last class. But car trouble on the way to meet him made me very late.
It was already dark when my car began making a noise so loud I had to pull off the interstate onto a deserted access road. I turned off the car and looked into the black night in which I was immersed. In the distance the mountains were deep blue, a dark cloak draped over them. I looked around for a light, but there was none. The ticking of the engine as it cooled and my own shallow breathing were the only sounds. The cold of November seeped in. I pulled my coat closer around me, blew warm breath on my fingers. I began to shiver, whether from the cold or the fear I could not have said.
Time passed – enough for my imagination to take hold. Then, welcome as the first star visible—the one you wish on—I saw lights appear in the darkness coming toward me. Headlights. A scene from my imagined catalogue of tragedies shook me. The tears I’d been fighting broke through, so that when the pick-up truck stopped beside me, my face was wet from them. The driver rolled down his window and I saw a clean-cut man, younger than David by the look of him. A woman sat by the other door, leaning forward to see me better. A girl with pigtails and ribbons was in her lap, and a boy with the same short haircut as the driver sat between them.
It was the innocence in the girl’s face that let me know I could trust them.
“My car’s broken down,” I said.
“I can see. You got a flat,” the driver said.
“I didn’t know a flat tire could make that much noise,” I said. I was relieved it was so simple a matter, though I had no idea how to change a tire myself.
“A flat can be a real big deal if you drive on it too far,” he said.
I nodded as if I knew this to be true.
“Did you drive on it far,” he said.
“No, just off the highway,” I said.
He nodded at me. “I can fix it for you,” he said. Then to the boy, “Jump back there in the bed.”
“I don’t want to put you to any trouble,” I said.
“It’s no problem,” he said. “Come on, get in.”
The woman and the girl scooted over to make room. I climbed into the cab. It was the first time I’d been inside a truck other than David’s.
He introduced himself as Troy, and his family—Sue Ann, his wife, and his children, Junior and Connie—short for Constance. They took me to their house—a small neat-as-a-pin place that looked just big enough for the four of them. It smelled like pot roast, and by her spotless kitchen I knew they’d already finished their supper. Sue Ann gave me a glass of sweet tea and offered to make me a sandwich, which I declined. We sat at the kitchen table with Connie, who didn’t take her eyes off me. Mother and daughter had the same honey-gold hair.
“I can’t thank you enough for stopping,” I said. “I don’t know what I’d have done.”
“We’re just glad we came along when we did. We were on our way to Wednesday night services,” Sue Ann said. She was wearing a familiar scent – sweet, like lilac.
“Gosh, that’s a beautiful ring,” she said. “You planning a big wedding?”
“No…I mean, we’re not planning anything yet,” I said.
“I just love weddings. Picking your colors, the showers, and the dress, of course,” she said.
I thought she must be remembering her own wedding. I smiled. I had no idea what to say. I could hardly tell her I’d gotten the ring from my married boyfriend. My right hand covered my left.
“Would you like to call him?” she said. “Your fiancé, I mean. Or anybody.”
“No,” I said, feeling uncomfortable and somehow trapped. Not that the people weren’t nice, but I felt the weight of the secret I held. In fact, I couldn’t have reached David if I’d wanted to. I had never called him. And I couldn’t call my parents. I was helpless, stranded in the country with a family of strangers.
Troy fixed my tire, and they sent me on my way. Looking back at them waving, breeze blowing Sue Ann’s hair, I had the feeling they’d been happy to have rescued a lost soul.
I was sure David would be worried about me, and there was no way I could tell him I was okay. I drove as fast as I thought safe, but I was still two hours late. By the time I stood in front of the door to our room, I was shaking with anxiety. I watched the hole in the door turn dark from David’s eye, and he opened it.
He was not worried. I hugged him, and his hands pried my arms away. Anger. I had never seen David angry before.
“Where in the hell have you been,” he said, glaring at me. His voice was low, but I thought he might explode at any moment. In the background the television was loud. He said he’d watched one hour-long show and then another—that long had he waited because I was so late.
I went into the room, speechless. All the way there I’d anticipated telling him about my ordeal. I felt a sense of isolation for the second time that night – a sense of being trapped.
I told him about the tire, about Troy and Sue Ann and their house and how I’d wished I could have called so he wouldn’t worry. But absurdly, he accused me of having concocted a story to cover up the fact that I met some guy named Troy and had sex with him. His anger surpassed suspicion, bringing him to the preposterous conclusion that I was guilty of this.
I had no idea how to handle his anger. I hadn’t imagined the need to give an accounting for what had been the most innocent of circumstances. I’d never had to give an accounting to him for anything. And as he was angry, so was I afraid. But there was something more I couldn’t put my finger on. I would learn later of his jealousy.
I pleaded with him. I said I’d never cheat on him, lie to him. He must know that. But I apologized anyway. Over and over I said I was sorry he’d had to wait. With despair I realized there was nothing I could say to satisfy him. I tried to take his hands, but he held them behind his back. I gave up.
I sat down in one of the two matching chairs at a small round table, still wearing my coat. I watched him pace around the room. Finally he stopped in front of me.
“Get up,” he said. He grabbed my arm, pulled me to my feet. He pushed my coat off my shoulders and pulled it away. He shoved me onto the bed, pulled off my shoes and jeans. With no will to resist, I let him. He slapped open his belt and lowered his pants. He pushed himself hard into me, no kissing, over and over, until he finished. He lay sweaty on top of me as I watched shadows from the television play around the room, the volume too loud for him to hear me cry.
He got up, and as if a strong wind had blown through, his dark mood was gone. He pulled a joint out of his pocket and we shared it, sitting side by side on the bed. I was relieved his anger had passed, but said nothing. David pulled his pants up, holding the joint with his lips, smoke escaping through his nostrils. Shaky, I got up and dressed. He handed me the joint, started talking about dinner. I breathed in deeply, blew out a steady lungful of smoke, though my hands were trembling.
The pot made us giggly, and my fear and disgust burrowed to a place deep inside me, deeper even than David had penetrated. We bundled up in our coats and gloves, but the cold didn’t bother us as we walked to the restaurant under the parking lot’s spotlights, arm in arm, as if we were the happiest of couples. And we did not care who saw us.
Seated in the restaurant, though, we couldn’t help looking around the room for people who might recognize us. There were none since we were far away from home. As it was our first outing in public, we had no ways. We were shy with each other. We scanned the menu and were awkward with the waitress who took our order. Chicken with rice and gravy for both of us. Apple pie for dessert. While we waited for our food, we spoke little, smiled much. My ring sparkled in the restaurant’s lights, and David caught me staring at it. He took my hand and held it until the food came. It was our first meal together.
After supper the restaurant cleared out, leaving us the last customers. We lingered over our coffee, held hands across the smooth table, while tired waitresses gathered in the back filling salt shakers.
David said it first.
“It would be nice to do this anytime we wanted,” he said.
“We could never do it at home,” I said.
“Yes, well we’d have to be out of town,” he said. “Like this.”
We were quiet for a spell, heard the waitresses laughing from the back.
“We could run away together,” he said, grinning.
Just then the waitress came with our check and the conversation ended. David paid, and we headed back to our room. We smoked another joint, the terror from before pushed down so far it seemed forgotten. We had sex again. Afterward David was silly. He jumped out of bed, still naked, pulled me up after him, and we danced around the room with reckless abandon.
I had the nightmare that night, the one I’d had off and on since I was a girl. It was always the same. The fair was coming to town, and I was going to go with my father. I was looking forward to riding the merry-go-round. He would hold me on the horse, music and lights all around us. But standing in front of my house waiting for him, I realized he had gone without me. I went to the neighbor’s house—no one home. I went from one end of the block to the other – over and over, growing more frantic as each moment passed. Finally, I went to the vacant house across the street, the one every child knew was haunted, with its broken windows that never offered light and its yard full of overgrown weeds. When I got there it was on fire—a big smoking rage of a fire. I was terrified. And then I woke up.
Every Wednesday evening my mother brought me to my father, still in my tights and ballet slippers, and she would have me demonstrate the steps I’d just learned in Miss Helen’s dance class. He watched me from his big chair, and I would perform for him.
Ballet lessons were fun. I went with my best friends and we made faces in the mirror at the barre and giggled until we were told to keep up with the others. Class was held at the Women’s Club – a building used so infrequently it was always cold. After our exercises, we set up metal chairs that clanged and clattered against one another, and we pressed ourselves into the cold seats.
Miss Helen would call each girl forward to demonstrate her progress. We watched and fidgeted, feet wrapped around the legs of the chairs. As we waited for our turns, the girls from the advanced class arrived. They put on their pointe shoes and went to the barre without being asked. They giggled too, though the sound of their voices mingling was different than the sound of ours. And it was impossible not to watch their bodies, so different than ours, with curves in places where ours were straight. I wondered if I’d ever look like that.
Our recitals were held in the auditorium at our town’s high school. We lined up in the cold hallway with the advanced class, waiting to go onstage. We wore our mothers’ make-up and look at ourselves in hand-held mirrors, first one way, then another. Some of the mothers walked the hallway giving us spritzes of hairspray. We shook, hugging ourselves to stave off both butterflies and cold.
As I grew, I asked for my own pointe shoes. I asked every year until finally Miss Helen said I was ready. At home in my room, I practiced putting them on, thrilled, as if I held a wonderful secret. I would stuff the toes with soft pads of pink lamb’s wool, wrap the ribbons around my ankles and tie them into bows.
I so wanted to be like the older girls. They had long hair that curled on their shoulders. I had short hair, as determined by my mother who said it was much easier to take care of. I hated my short hair. I knew, and everyone else did, that the way to tell girls from boys was by the hair.
Every Thursday night during the summer our town sponsored a dance in the high school gymnasium. Boys and girls from junior high went in their best summer clothes and gathered, boys on one side, girls on the other. At some point during the night, the more confident boys made their way across the gym floor and ask the girls to dance. Many of the boys were too afraid to ask, and they stood in groups of threes and fours, watching. Across the floor, most of the girls mingled and giggled with each other, sneaking looks at the boys. The shy girls sat on the bleachers, waiting.
There were so many girls—happy girls, pretty girls, girls who sang along with the music, girls with good skin, girls from both sides of the tracks. There were girls who flirted and knew just how long to hold a boy’s gaze before looking away. I was painfully self-conscious and fit into no particular group and for that reason I went outside to drink.
I’d been taking ballet lessons for five years when I went to my first Friday night dance. I had performed for many people in many settings – by my home’s lamplight and under a stage’s spotlight. So it was a wonder, when Randy Palmer made his way, hands in his pockets, across the floor and asked me to dance, a wonder I said no.
Sue Shimley was a graduate of Miss Helen’s advanced class. To win the Miss Montgomery County title in the local beauty pageant, she danced en pointe in a long, shimmering tutu. From there she went on to become first runner-up in the Miss Virginia pageant. Everyone said the judges had unfairly chosen another girl as the winner.
That same year, my father had business with a company on the outskirts of town. One day he took me with him. Miss Virginia was visiting our town for an appearance at a local car dealership. As my father and I were leaving, the beauty queen—in sash and crown—was in the parking lot, walking to the car that would take her away.
“Hello, Miss Virginia!” he shouted. I froze—an ice sculpture. I didn’t want to be seen by Miss Virginia, didn’t want such a lovely girl’s eyes to fall on me. I felt shame and for the first time jealousy, because she had my father’s approving attention.
One of the events marking the end of high school was the May Day Festival. To start the event, the boys and girls in the May Court danced in their tuxedos and formal dresses. Lucas Barber was president of the senior class that year, and he was my partner. He was a good class leader, but could not dance a step. On the day we practiced, I put one hand on his shoulder and laid my other hand in his. This was as much as he knew. I told him I’d teach him the steps.
We practiced over and over until he no longer stepped on my feet. He blushed the whole time. On the night of the event, Lucas and I had our dance under the dimmed lights and we sat together all evening, the dance being the only thing we had in common.
Years later, at a high school reunion, I saw Lucas again for the first time since we’d graduated. When we spotted one another, he walked over with his wife and, pulling the three of us close, said to her, “This is Julia, the one I told you about. She taught me how to dance.”
I wanted to be rescued. At college I had kinship with no one. I couldn’t count the things I’d lost, the things I’d given away, all because of my relationship with David. There were no more fraternity parties, no shared laughs with girls on my hall, no time with my piano teacher Dr. Cole. I no longer had any interest in football games or late night pizza runs. I had eliminated these things from my life and it had left me depressed. I found it impossible to concentrate during my classes. I rarely went to the music hall to practice and my lessons showed it. All I really had left were two bottles—one of Jim Beam, one of Valium—and the comfort that David had become. So when he schemed and plotted an escape plan that would take me away from my troubles, I let him lead me.
He planned everything. After he left his wife and children—after he’d thrown their lives back in their faces, after I’d broken my parents’ hearts, after all that we’d said and done, after all of it, we were on our way. We moved to Washington, DC, to a small apartment with tiny rooms, just outside the city in Virginia. We got jobs and rode the bus into the city every day. With the money David had saved up, we shopped for the things we needed. We stocked our kitchen with groceries and enjoyed the city’s night life with the new friends we partied with. And we had sex whenever we wanted, in our own bed.
For a time, I was happy in my room. But I chose a different life. I couldn’t see it then, but it was the root of my problems, the truth I wouldn’t face. I tried to cover up that pain with a man’s body, with his sex. Things of lust and not of love. And gradually I fooled myself into thinking that the lust was love. My heart for his body, my life for his mouth.
If only I’d had someone to advise me. But I made the decision on my own. I might have been taken by the hand and led back the way I’d come, back through the lushness of the road I’d taken, the road by which the sparkling waters ran. But then I’d have been confined to that first room, the room of innocence, where innocence was dangerous. I couldn’t go back to my people, our ways, to the room where the lights went off and on and I couldn’t reach the switch.
I take it back. I was never happy in that room.
I drove to the little town of Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, where David was waiting for me, just like we’d planned. The trip took me over the dangerous Gauley Mountain. It was thrilling to see his truck parked beside the small night club at the bottom, an outpost in a wild setting. A sign in the window flashed Shorty’s, off and on, off and on. I got out of my car and looked around. Behind the club were several small cabins situated on the banks of a little stream. The club itself was dark and crudely built. A wind at my back propelled me toward it. I smelled wood smoke, though I didn’t know where it was coming from.
David came out through a side door. His arms were outstretched and he had a big smile on his face. When he hugged me I smelled the alcohol on his breath. When he kissed me I knew the truth. While the flavor was not unwelcome to me, it was alarmingly unusual for him. David never drank. I took a step back to look at him, my eyes pleading, but the matter was already settled.
In remembering, I hear cars collide, train wheels screech, a hawk scream. But on that day, I chose not to listen. I followed David to our cabin, crossing a bridge over the stream. Because the bridge was narrow, I had to walk behind him, his hand holding mine. Inside the cabin had knotty pine paneling, a double bed with a frilly pink bedspread and two windows done up in white ruffled curtains. There was a small bathroom. The cabin was stuffy so I opened both windows, and a nice cross-breeze stirred the curtains.
David was all smiles. I put my arms around his neck but pulled away when he tried to kiss me. I looked him squarely in the eye. He hadn’t staggered or slurred his words, so I thought maybe his drinking would be okay. I had to think that.
He sat on the bed and pulled me to sit beside him, placed his hand on my thigh.
“This is where it all begins baby,” he said. He took my hand, kissed my palm.
We fell back onto the bed, didn’t bother with the quilt. After the sex we napped until dusk, when it was time to get ready for the party.
I put my suitcase on the bed and took out a clean pair of jeans and a shirt I’d thought would be sexy. David opened his bag, pulled a gun from inside it and placed it on the dresser. I had never seen a gun before, and I stared at it while he changed shirts.
“What’s that for?” I said.
“What? My piece?” He picked it up, held it out for me to see. “This is the place for it.”
There were men of all manner—short men and tall men, men dressed up and in work clothes. Men with slicked back hair and men who smelled from work. Men with beer bellies and men who were skinny. Men with wives at home and men with no one waiting for them at all. Men who were restless and discontent. Men longing for release from their lives. David seemed to know them all.
I’d seen clubs just like Shorty’s around the mountain town where I’d grown up, but I’d never been inside one. There was a bar with black vinyl padding along one wall. There was beer on tap, but most of the men brought their own liquor in brown paper bags which they handed to the bartender when they arrived. They would drink from their bottles throughout the night. Most of the tables and chairs had been moved against the wall to make a place for dancing. The floor was black and sticky, and the room was hazy with smoke.
The men introduced themselves to me with fire in their eyes, and I felt their lust. They wanted to dance with me, and I danced. They wanted to fetch me drinks, and I drank them. They wanted me to sit on their laps as they bounced their knees to the music, so I sat. I did these things willingly, because I wanted to please David, wanted him to be proud of me, and I thought for his friends to like me was the most important thing. And for them to like me, I had to act that way. I, the younger woman for whom he’d left his wife, the one who was his prize. And David, their savior of spirit, giving them vicarious life beyond their own.
As the night progressed, the club became so crowded it was impossible to see through the mass of men, and I realized at one point that I couldn’t find David, that I hadn’t danced with him at all. I made it to the bar, breathless from dancing with his friends. I asked for a beer and the bartender flirted with me. Openly, as though he didn’t care who saw him. He was younger than the rest, and handsome in a wild sort of way, and I remember thinking he seemed dangerous.
“Where’s your old man,” he asked me. He seemed amused.
“I don’t know,” I said, looking around the room.
“I’ve got a shot then,” he said.
“A shot?” I said.
“Nobody would miss us,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was joking.
“Well my boyfriend…I don’t think he’d like that.”
“We’ll be gone and back before he even notices you’re gone.”
“You’re pretty sure of yourself,” I said.
“State of mind, darlin’. State of mind,” he said.
Just then a man with greasy hair and a big belly came and asked for a drink from his bottle of Old Crow. The bartender turned his back to fix it. I could have left, but I waited. I wanted to. I wanted more of his talk.
With his fresh drink, the other man looked at me, gave his belly a shake in time with the music and walked away. He held his drink high in the air, and the crowd closed around him.
“Still here,” the bartender said. “You interested?”
“Maybe,” I said, realizing I was absurdly interested in his offer. “But willing to take the risk? I guess not.”
“Seems like you’re willing to take a mighty big risk, gonna shack with this guy. How do you know he won’t end up like them?” He nodded toward the crowd. “I don’t think they much care about their women.”
I was quiet. I looked at him, something in his eyes. I couldn’t look away.
“Yeah. You might wanna think about that.”
It happened ever so slightly, the turning of the crowd. Barely perceptible at first, one voice became a little louder, a little less jovial, then another, until gradually the group turned from a bunch of rowdy guys partying to a group of loud and angry men. The bartender pulled a shotgun from behind the bar, smoothly, as if he’d done it many times. The room went still. Looking around at the statues the men had become, I was acutely aware that I was the only woman in the room.
I still hadn’t seen David. Then, suddenly, he was there, grabbing my arm, pinching my skin. He pushed me toward the front entrance, through the crowd, as if he wanted to protect me. But then I saw the anger in his face. Now I recognized his jealousy. He didn’t look at me. He didn’t speak. He just kept pressing me through the crowd.
We left the bar by the front entrance. Outside the mountain air fell around us, free of cigarette smoke. The night was clear, the moon full. There was a wide and flickering array of stars, and the light of the parking lot cast such a glow that bits and pieces of the asphalt glittered. A car was parked in front, and a young woman with her hair in curlers sat on the curb, watching two children – a boy and a girl to tell by their pajamas, though they both had long stringy hair. They were running in circles around the small parking area, entertaining themselves, their voices whining in an attempt to mimic airplanes. The woman’s head was bent, and when she twisted around to look at us, her face was blank, with red circles around her eyes. She looked at us for only a moment, then turned back around. The children pushed at each other, the boy playing rough. He knocked his sister down, then resumed his flight. The girl started picking at the sparkling bits in the parking lot.
“Look, Mommy,” she said. “Pretty.”
The mother said nothing. The boy ran over and kicked his sister. But she didn’t cry, just gave a look toward her mother who was staring off into the trees.
David was so drunk he swayed under the lights on the porch, the light of the bar sign flashing off and on over our faces. After a moment he steadied himself, walked us back to our cabin, pulling me along behind him. The moonlight made a faint shimmer in the stream and I wondered incongruously if it flooded after a hard rain. We went inside our cabin. David slammed the door behind us.
When the worst of it was over, when David had passed out on the bed, lying next to him I could hear the water just outside, its slips and surges. It would follow its course all the way to the Shenandoah, where the river swallows it. But I was still there in the cottage. In the name of love, still. I held my breath, listening, listening to the language of God.