by Martha Witt (Artwork by Iris Syzlack)
One hour after he gets to work, Carol Gaitskill asks him would he please build her a fire. No one would have guessed years back when he was in school with quiet, skinny Carol Ames that he'd be working for her one day. Now, she lives on those rolling acres that used to be the Millners' farm and that crowd with fog on winter mornings so, on a day like today, the horses grazing look sprung from legend. Had he known back then she'd be living like landed gentry with him on the payroll, well, high school would have been a different kind of place.
"Oh, hey there, Jake, could you come here a minute?" Carol calls to him just as he's beginning to re-gravel her driveway. He pitches out a cold handful of stones, rubs the fingers of his left hand, and looks up at her.
"Sure thing." He leans the sack of gravel against the garage door then mounts her porch steps. She pushes that door far wider than necessary for him to enter. "How can I help?" He observes those curls frosted the color of wood shavings and recalls that she'd been a brunette back in school.
"Sure is cold out there," she says, glancing at his hands. Jake doesn't wear gloves. "I know you're busy," she says, her eyes fixing now on his feet. Wearing jeans and a light green sweater hanging below her thighs, she stands barefoot on that blue carpet; the furniture in her entryway and large den is smooth and bare as a baby's behind. A hired woman cleans that house twice a week; besides, Carol Gaitskill's at home all day, and they've got no kids. Amy Deakins, now a pharmacist, told him that she'd filled a prescription for fertility pills for her a year ago. "She got the dream house, but not the kids," Amy said with a wink, as though he were somehow complicit. Jake didn't respond. He took Amy's jabber with a grain of salt. She'd say anything to keep him there talking a few more minutes, which is partly why he avoided the pharmacy. That and the fact he didn't believe in medicine. He believed in his own body's ability to triumph. Carol looked up. "I'm sorry to ask it of you, but I just love a good fire on a day like this." Her toenails peeking out like red seeds. There is a no-shoe policy in that house, and though he catches her looking back at his feet again, he is not a man to take off his boots. He wipes them on the mat a good full minute--the extent of what he'll accommodate foot-wise--then walks right on in thinking how Henry Gaitskill must slip off his Italian leather loafers before even crossing that welcome mat so he can pad across the carpet in his white socks. That house must be a good 3,000 square feet, with a huge bay window in the den, hardwood floors, and real art on the walls. The kitchen appliances are all brushed steel. There's really something messed up about the world, he thinks, when a man like Henry Gaitskill makes his money looking at women's private parts. Where was Henry Gaitskill from, anyway? Virginia? Pennsylvania? He came all the way down here, married Carol and now leaves her at home to go poking into one woman after another. Jake can't help but think that a payoff for wives is calculated into a gynecologist's salary. The accountant responsible for figuring out salaries must figure into his the exact chunk of change a woman needs to distract herself from the thought of her husband legally fingering other women, feeling their boobs at his leisure. Jake is old enough to suspect that those office visits are more intimate to a woman than sex--in the small rooms smelling of rubbing alcohol and new schoolbooks, secrets must pour. And the word vagina. Men don't say that word, so Henry had them beat from the get-go. That furry critter pricks its ears up at its Latin name, takes on airs, returns home demanding its proper treatment, so you're stuck with missionary-style because now you've got a vagina and a penis to contend with. And Tris wonders why he doesn't go to doctors.
Jake expects Carol to busy herself elsewhere while he builds her fire, but instead she takes a seat in one of those stuffed beige chairs. Out of politeness, he scoots around to face her before crouching and lifting each piece of wood individually to form a neat triangle. "So how's Tris?" she asks, placing one foot at a time on the footstool. Didn't women put their feet in stirrups when they went to one of those doctors? Henry probably expected it. Feet up must be habit for her. "How's Tris doing?" she asks more fully, as though he hadn't understood the first time. He notices that she isn't wearing any make-up and is toying with a foreign-looking emblem on a silver chain around her neck.
"Tris's all right. Still working at the restaurant," he tells her, feeling his shirt stretch to accommodate his movements, his back muscles useful as a plough horse's, but rarely tapped for their full strength, existing more for show, like a head of wavy hair or a set of perfect teeth. Jake figures Carol is treating herself to a man's body worth staring at. Something she's been deprived of her life long. That must be the reason for the fire-building, he figures; she's opted for a little happiness, and why shouldn't she, considering how her husband indulges?
"Tris grew up in Durham, right? You didn't know her folks?"
"No. They died in a fire before we ever met."
"Right. I never met Henry's folks either, though they're not dead. Just disapproving," Carol says, quiet and unsure, the way she might have sounded had she had the nerve to speak to him back in high school. "Her parents died in a house fire. I remember you saying that."
"Before I knew Tris," Jake says, not looking up. He stuffs more paper under the logs. "Back in '86."
"You know, there was a professor when I went to Duke. Professor Camden. In fact, that's how I met Henry. We both took his class. He was from up north. Boston." She draws in both knees, hugging them to her. "He and his wife died in a house fire in 1986 also."
"Really." Jake shakes his head. "Tris's last name's Carruthers. I doubt professors would've known her folks. Or Tris." He liked saying her name; it was pretty and had everything to do with her. "Her Daddy was originally from Cedar Grove when it was still all farm land over there. He worked maintenance at UNC when she was growing up," Jake says, poking at the wood. "Her Mama worked at Waffle House out on Highway 55 for a few years. Tris still has the uniform. It's from those days when they had the polyester apron and shirt attached. You remember eating at Waffle House back in the early 80's? It was better then, and cleaner, too. It's likely the case that her momma served me my first hangover breakfast." He and Carol rarely referred to their high school years. He suspects she thinks it embarrasses him to be working for her, though that isn't the case. Nevertheless, the silence around their common past has become habit. Jake whistles out a breath between the gap in his teeth.
Though he's been living with Tris only two years--has known her just three--she is familiar with all his signals. That whistling sound is the sign he is done talking. Of course, Carol has no clue; she scrunches her toes, observes him a little while longer, then goes on. "Professor Camden's wife was a powerhouse just like her husband, though you wouldn't have known it to look at her. She was a bird of a thing--light as air. I read one of her books in a Literature class." Jake crumples the newspapers into neat balls. In recompense for only half-listening, he'll build her a hallmark kind of fire that will last into the evening with no tending at all. She tells him, "People have all kinds of reactions to trauma."
Jake looks up and notices a bone on top of a book on the side table by her chair. The bone is dried and intact--a leg bone from a medium-sized animal. "It's a bad way to die," he remarks.
Carol's face is slender with the same high cheekbones she had as a girl and the same thin lips. He can't remember who her friends were back then; she was always quiet. In fact, the only memory about her that stands out is when the principal announced in the auditorium that she'd won a scholarship to Duke. He remembers her shaky voice in the microphone responding to some question the principal asked about her future studies, and he distinctly remembers thinking that her entire face could disappear in the palm of his hand.
She touches the book with her fingertips and frowns. "You ever notice that there's southern literature but no northern literature? People love to read about us southerners, and the more we act according to stereotype, the more they gobble that up, feel some sort of satisfaction, I guess." Carol smoothes a hand over her heart. "Church, country music, big men, sassy women, rickety houses with Snow White and her dwarves on the front lawn. Lots of beer. What do you think that's about?"
Jake pauses, one hand clutching a log. Just the other day, Tris asked him to set out a few statues of deer and elves on their lawn. He shrugs. "I don't read much." He strikes a match and holds it there a few seconds before lighting the newspaper. Neither of them speaks.
"You go to church, Jake?" she asks after a full minute. "Is Jesus your co-pilot?" She smiles at her feet; now he suspects she's flirting.
"No I don't," he says, sure to keep his eyes on the fire as it starts to take hold. "I never did go to church much." He'd chop more wood, fix a fence, Hell, even unclog her toilet with his bare hands rather than talk to her about books or house fires or Jesus. "I suppose you're a good southerner that way, though," he says.
"Well," she laughs, her left hand going up to push at a silver earring. "I'm a Buddhist. Recently, of course. You know Buddhism?" She arches her back the way a cat might if you ran a finger down its spine. "It's taken me months to say I'm a Buddhist, but I feel it's okay to let people know now since there's not a soul around here that doesn't let you know when they've been saved by the Lord."
"No, you can't escape Jesus," Jake agrees, smiling finally, relieved as he watches the burning paper. "Tris's always pushing me to go to church." Jake looks up, and there Carol is observing him like he's just revealed a sorrowful fact.
"You know," she says, "I knew it. I never took you for a Christian." She pauses, staring at her toes. He balls up a few newspapers--more sheets than necessary. He wishes she'd just stop talking. He doesn't mind if she sits there watching him, but he doesn't want to keep track of conversation. She slips her feet from the stool. "We grew up together, Jake Murphy," she says, leaning towards him like it's a secret. Crossing her arms in front of her, she adds, "In a way, we did." There goes the line he fancied they'd been so careful about crossing. He is the kind of man women flirt with, and he honestly doesn't mind her taking a crack at it. Better him than someone who would take advantage of the situation; he is decent. He is the kind who lets women have their say. He doesn't go laughing with the guys behind their backs or ignore or use them. No matter how ugly or gangly or low on the totem pole--not that Carol is any of these things--he believes a woman is entitled to her quota of giggles and batting eyelashes with an attractive man without being run to the ground for it. "I mean, not that we were ever in the same crowd back in school," she assures him. "But we come from the same roots, Jake. It's the way I am starting to see things now. Buddhism and all. The more experience we have of other people's growth, the more we become participants in their lives and, I guess, responsible in some way."
"I got no idea what you are talking about." Jake looks straight at her, his body like an enormous ship beneath him, a vessel he's ready to launch at any time.
Though it would only take two fingers to pick up that animal bone, she uses her entire hand to lift it as though engaging a live critter with claws and teeth.
"Buddhists hold the ideal of Bodhisattva when they meditate," she explains softly. "Since I am just beginning, I am training with an object." She opens her hand to reveal the bone. "The fundamental goal of my meditation is the cycle of life, welcoming each phase of the cycle with equal cheer." She tucks a lip under her front teeth. "We don't have to be what other people think we are."
"And what do people think you are?" Jake asks, slow-like, no harm meant. She sits back, stiffening in that chair like a banked fire, her hands actually clasping the arms as though her plane has started to nose-dive.
"In my case," she says with a half smile, as though it is the beginning of a complicated joke, "barren. That is what people think of me." Her eyes deviate from his face to his arms to his waistline. Her thin face reddens, and he swears he doesn't want her crying. So, because his body can hoist more than any day's demand has ever thrown his way, and because his muscles, honed and fed for five years now by working her land, always have plenty left over for lovemaking, he moves without hesitation to kneel beside her chair, reaches over and puts a hand on her knee. She leans down, her arm slipping over his back in a sloppy embrace. She rests against him a few seconds--a half-empty sack of grain slung over his shoulder. She gulps. "I only told you that because it's fair exchange for what else I'm going to tell you."
"What else?" he asks, retracting his hand, aware of the good, cinnamon-candle smell of her neck as she slides away. "You don't need to tell me anything more." He wants to go back to graveling. He does not want her confessions. He doesn't revel in leaving a trail of broken hearts.
"Just wait. I believe in fair exchanges," she says softly, moving to sit again, her hand pausing on the back of his shoulder where she must be amazed, after years with her doctor-husband, at the sexiness of not even coming close to covering his scapula; in fact, she could bury a forearm in his furrow of muscle back there. "I don't want things done the old way, to feel I have power over you because of what I am about to tell you. What I need to tell you." She pulls completely away so she is sitting straight in her chair, feet up like before. She is like Tris with her need to tell him things, and then repeating her sentences three different ways as though he didn't understand. Well, he is used to listening. "The point is that I am trying to resist the easy path. It's a new approach, Jake, and even like this, embracing you as I did, is not something I would have been open to before. I would have plain never let it happen, but I am letting things happen now because that is the process of becoming a full-fledged adult. That's what having a baby does for most women, breaks their worlds down, flips around all the big questions, and I want that, too, at this point in my life, with or without a child."
"Careful not to change one bullshit faith for another," he tells her, because he is not a kid anymore, and he knows how people go about building faith so it rests on some airtight logic that can be used to justify anything--warfare, greed, undying love. It's the last of these that concerns him, and it's not just doctors that can talk sense to women. In fact, he wouldn't change his life for a thousand medical degrees. He looks away, picks up the extra wood, and places it back in the bin with slow movements so as not to spook her. She is treading on thin ice.