by Nancy Antle
Jack was walking down the twisty two-lane in the foothills of the Ozarks, against the traffic like he was supposed to, even though very few cars travelled that particular stretch of highway. He was trying to make his way into town to get himself some beer. He’d downed the last one in his ice chest about an hour ago and he didn’t think he could make it the rest of the long, sweltering day without something to fortify him. His daughter, who he lived with, had refused to take him to town. He could still hear her shrill voice, so much like her mother’s, lecturing him about how irresponsible he was and how she wasn’t going to help him kill himself.
When he heard the car coming towards him, he was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. He didn’t have time to look up and find it with what vision he had left before it whooshed by him blaring the horn. The smart thing might have been to bail into the ravine next to the road but he hadn’t really had time to react. Probably a good thing. Sure as shit he’d have broken something or impaled himself on a sapling.
His old dog, Tate, a terrier, yipped a belated warning bark, as the car’s tires screeched around the bend. Not long after, Jack heard the hum of an engine coming down the road behind him on the other side. He kept on walking, but hoped maybe the car held someone he knew who would give him a lift. The car slowed to his pace and a woman’s voice called to him from across the road.
“Hey! You know I nearly hit you?” she said.
“Just trying to get to town get some beer,” Jack said. “But, thank you for turning around to tell me I’m in the way.”
“Town’s nearly five miles. Maybe you should figure out a way to get there without walking in the road. You’re gonna get yourself killed.”
He squinted trying to see the face behind her voice. There was something familiar about it. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. It had been over thirty years for God’s sake.
“How about you give me a ride to town?” he said. “Seeing as how you’re so worried about me’n all.”
“Are you a serial killer?” she said.
He chuckled. “I’m not, but I suppose that’s what they all say.”
“Can’t you just walk through the woods or something?”
“Lady, I can barely see well enough to follow the road.”
“Well, shit…” she said, more to herself than him, it seemed.
He squinted uselessly again. He still couldn’t see her face. “Beverly?” he said.
She was silent for a moment. All he could hear was the idling car and the call of a crow in the trees.
“Do I know you?” she asked.
He crossed the road hoping she wouldn’t speed off. “It’s Jack,” he said.
She gasped. “Oh, my God!”
“Kind of ironic, huh?” he said. Ironic that she’d almost killed him twice, now.
“I can’t believe it,” she said
He could see her more clearly once he was close-up. She was looking at him, smiling – something he’d imagined for a long time. He smiled back.
“Get your butt in here,” she said. “Before you get us both run over.”
Jack felt his way along the hood of the car to the passenger side door and opened it. Tate jumped in without being invited and Jack followed.
“I cannot believe this,” she said again.
He couldn’t either. She had been his future. The woman he planned to marry even though he never told her. He’d often thought if he hadn’t been such a chicken shit he would have asked her and life would have been better. He’d hoped for this kind of meeting one day but in his imagination, it was better than this. He was cleaned up, wearing nice clothes, his good boots. This was not the way he wanted her to see him.
He fastened his seat belt while she peeled out, heading back to town – back to where she’d just come from. He turned to look at her through the narrow hole of his vision. He couldn’t get over how much she looked the same and he told her so. She tried to return the compliment but he knew she was just being nice seeing as how he’d gained fifty pounds and his hair was gray. At least she didn’t seem fazed by his scruffy state.
He was surprised how quickly they fell into a long-ago pattern; how natural their conversation was as if they’d been out of touch only a day or so. There was the old familiar rush of lapping up each other’s words as if they were thirsty – asking questions, interrupting for more details.
Jack told her about his two failed marriages and his three grown kids; his retirement from the military on account of his retinitis pigmentosa.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Tunnel vision. At least that’s what they called it when my daddy had it.”
“It is – your vision kind of closes up – slowly over time.”
Talking about his disease always made him uncomfortable but, luckily, she was in a hurry to tell him about her life so he didn’t have to figure out how to change the subject. Beverly’d recently gotten a divorce, thank God there were no kids; been working as a librarian in a middle school in LA for twenty years; was in Tulsa for a conference and drove out to see her old hometown; a trip down memory lane.
“Why the hell would you want to remember this God-awful place?” Jack hoped maybe she was looking for him. But he was also thinking about the paper mill that had shut down leaving behind an empty shell; the boarded-up businesses on Main; and of course, all the people out of work, trying to get by anyway they could. All changes that had happened after she was years gone.
“It wasn’t so God-awful when we were young was it?” she asked.
He sighed. “Hard to remember.” He cleared his throat in the long pause, then hurried to ask her more about her life in California. What was her commute like? Was the smog still bad? Did she miss the seasons? He’d been close to where she lived when he was in the service so at least he had a clue what questions to ask.
As she answered, her voice faded, and Jack quit listening, feeling himself pressed into the car seat, pulled into it by the weight of the past calling him back. There was the time they took the dune buggy his father helped him build all over the back roads, up and down, until they got lost in the boonies, far away from anyone they knew. There was the time they went to the horror movie and couldn’t quit talking about how terrified they were for months after. There was the time they swam in Blue Hole in March, teeth chattering as they ran back to his car, wrapping up in threadbare beach towels, blasting the heater. And, always, always there were the hours spent sitting on the hood of her car, staring at the stars, talking, never once considering how small and insignificant they were to the universe.
Jack felt the silence wrap around them like the suffocating heat outside. He knew she was looking at him, that he’d missed a question.
“Sorry,” he said. “I must’ve spaced out.” He adjusted the shoulder harness on the seatbelt that was choking him then patted Tate’s head.
“Guess you didn’t really want to hear all that,” she said.
“No, I do. Really. My mind wanders. Sorry.”
She laughed. “It’s okay. My mind wanders all over creation sometimes.”
She flipped on the radio. A twangy country song that Jack was not familiar with filled the space. She turned it off again.
“So, tell me more about your retini…your tunnel vision. There’s nothing the doctor’s can do?”
“Not a thing. It’s genetic.” He didn’t want to talk about it. Didn’t want to dwell on what the future held for him. That was part of Beverly he’d forgotten; how her curiosity made her cold – oblivious to any pain she might be causing with her questions.
“How much can you see right now?” she pressed on.
“I don’t know.” He sighed. “I guess about the size of dime.”
“And it will get worse?”
“What are you going to do?”
He snorted. “I’m just gonna keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope I don’t get run over by something I don’t see coming.”
“Haha,” she said.
They reached the intersection and the four way stop sign.
“Where do you want me to take you?” she asked.
“The Qwik Trip on Main is fine. They always have Coors.”
She drove slowly to the end of the street and parked the car in front of the store.
“Thanks for the lift,” Jack said. “I appreciate it.”
“I’m going in too,” Beverly said. “I need a bag of chips or something. I’m starved. I can drive you back?”
“Sure,” Jack said, fighting to keep his voice even. “I’d appreciate that.” He climbed out with Tate in his arms. His hands shook as he tied him to the bench in front with the leash he pulled from his pocket.
The ice, cold air inside made Jack shudder. He threaded his way through the maze of aisles until he stood in front of the refrigerator case searching for the beer he wanted.
“Let me.” Beverly’s voice was suddenly beside him again. One of the glass doors sucked open. “Coors, right? I’ll take it up for you.”
He grabbed another box and followed her to the register where they clunked the boxes of cans onto the counter next to her chips and Coke.
“Is this all together?” the clerk asked.
“No. Separate,” Beverly said, pushing her stuff to one side.
Jack blinked back the sting in his eyes and sweat slipped down the middle of his back. The cash register dinged and he fumbled with his billfold, passing the guy a couple of twenties. The clerk put his change into his upturned palm and he stuffed it into his pocket.
“Crap,” Beverly said. “I forgot to get some Advil. Here’s my keys if you want to put your beer in the car. I’ll be out in a minute.”
He nodded and went back into the heat of the day shocked again by the change in temperature. He put his beer on the rear floor of the car then returned for his dog. In a few minutes, Beverly emerged with a blast of cold air while he was still beside Tate, fumbling with his leash. She crouched next to him and he smelled her perfume – some kind of flowers and spice. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed before. Her fingers touched his where he held the knot and he pulled his hand back.
“Got it,” she said, standing. “C’mon, I’ll take you home.”
They drove back the way they’d come, Jack navigating. Even though he couldn’t see much of anything, he remembered how to get where he needed to be. He directed her to a side road and then another one that ran along a creek under the dogwoods.
“You can let me out right here,” he said. “Anywhere.”
“You sure?” She put her foot on the brake and the car came to a soft stop. “I don’t mind taking you all the way to your house.”
“That’s okay. My daughter’s place is way back there. Not much more than a cow path the rest of the way. It could do a number on your car. Besides I’m not going all the way home with the beer.”
“Can’t listen to my daughter lecture me.” He cleared his throat. “I have an ice chest in the woods where I keep it. I’ll go there and have a few, then head home.”
“That sounds lonely…” Her words hung between them.
He remembered these kinds of conversations – the hints – never asking for something outright – saying what she really meant. He didn’t take the bait. Didn’t even bother to answer her. He took no pleasure in not inviting her – but what would be the point of having a beer together? Just get his hopes up before she disappeared again and left him with a different incarnation of her lodged in his head for another decade until dementia saved him.
God, he’d thought about her so often over the years. Some weeks, months, he’d thought of little else. Now here she was in the flesh, so much like she used to be, and yet, different. He knew it would be stupid to ask her to stay.
“Well, I hope your daughter won’t be too pissed at you,” she said.
“I’m used to it.”
“And, I’m glad I ran into you – so to speak.” She laughed.
Jack undid his seatbelt, opened the car door and Tate hopped out. As Jack turned to get out himself, Beverly put a cool hand on his arm. He stared at her long white fingers on his tanned skin and felt an ache in his chest. She didn’t say anything else and what he could see of her blurred as he slid out. He waved, a brief flap of his hand, like the wing of a bird, and tried to smile but felt maybe he failed. Then he and Tate walked into the woods.
It wasn’t until he was all the way to his ice chest that he realized he’d forgotten the beer. He stopped, cocked his head toward the highway, straining, hoping to hear her coming back to him. Water gurgled in the creek and grasshoppers chirred in the underbrush and after a time she was there too.
Nancy Antle received her MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction from Southern CT State University in 2013. Prior to that she wrote books, stories and poems for children and young adults for thirty years and was published by Dial, Viking and Cricket Magazine. She is mostly writing for an older audience now and her short stories have been published by Noctua Revew, CT Review, The Los Angeles Review of LA and Drunk Monkeys. She was a volunteer writing mentor for seven years with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project via online workshops. She has also taught fiction writing at SCSU, The Mark Twain House Museum and online for the Gotham Writer’s Workshop.