Spring 2012 — THE POTOMAC

An Interlude
  Jeff Price

Light breeze when she steps out. A dog is yipping. From the direction of the water, voices. She can’t make out the words and tells herself she wouldn’t care if she could.

Over twenty-four hours asleep, dead to the world. Remembers nothing from the drive. Only: “Daddy, is this line safe?”

“Honey, it is.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s secure, Carly. I’m in a different office. What’s happened? Where are you?”

She had hitched a ride after getting rid of the car. Middle-aged man in a big rig, met her eyes when she leapt up into the cab and then didn’t look again. Asked almost nothing, questions delivered as observations. Small copper cross dangling on rosary beads from the volume knob. Wouldn’t take the three crumpled twenties she shook at him. Then the wait for her father’s arrival at the rest stop, countrified pop blaring from speakers above the fluorescently lit pumps impossible to tune out in her caffeine-addled desolation.

The wind picks up and through the branches of the overhead pines it pushes with whispered urgency. For a moment, she thinks of herself as a child in this place, enchanted and scampering, hiding things, jumping around corners to surprise summer playmates from up and down the beach. Down by the water, a bell’s dull clanging and the small crests the wind makes on the lake’s face.

In the kitchen, she is snacking from a sleeve of stale crackers when she hears her father enter the house. She swipes crumbs from the counter into a cupped hand and swiftly deposits them in the sink across the room. She turns the faucet: no water. The moment before he appears, she glances down at herself, the old pair of sweatpants, the hokey T–shirt—the lake town’s name in balloon lettering—that was laid out on the chest at the foot of the bed when she woke up.

His thin–on–top hair is combed to the right, as it has been for decades, when fuller, and he wears a ratty sweater accented with ancient paint flecks, likely recovered from a bottom drawer in the garage. On his feet, a polished pair of mahogany work loafers. Of course, he wouldn’t have gone home to pack clothes. He looks at her quietly, his features not accusatory.

“The drive here must have taken... fifteen hours?” she asks.

He sighs and looks away from her, steps over to the counter.

“These have expired.”

“I was hungry.”

“There are cold–cuts in the fridge.”

“I haven’t been eating animals of any kind. For about eight months.”

“You’re vegetarian now?” He puts the open sleeve of crackers back in the box and drops it in the wastebasket next to the kitchen counter.

“Chad doesn’t eat meat. So I stopped.”

“And if he jumped off a bridge?”

“That’d probably mean he was jumping after me, Daddy.”

He curls both hands around the counter behind him and looks at her squarely. His hair still thick at the ears, bushing out, and chin sharper than when she saw him last over a year ago. He has lost weight. She fidgets, running a hand behind her head through the short scruff of her hair.

“He was on the news. Chad was.”

“How is he?”

“They don’t tell you that. They just show you the young man in an orange jumpsuit so that you know he’s going to be behind bars for a while. They tell you what he did. Not how he is.” Speaking in his deepest voice, words painstakingly enunciated.

“But did they show his face?”

“You could see for yourself, if you wanted to. I’m sure the news cycle hasn’t molted yet. But, to me, he looked the way he always does: calm, reserved, like there’s somewhere else he’d rather be. I’m glad to know that it isn’t only our dinner table that has that effect on him.”

“Daddy...” she laughs in two short bursts even through a sheen of un-fallen tears, then wipes quickly at her eyes.

“You must not have slept for a week to sleep like that. I thought you were speaking to me once when we stopped. Talking in your sleep.”

“I hope I didn’t say anything embarrassing?”

His blue eyes, which had drifted off in the direction of a glass-encased tchotchke, catch hers again, eyebrows slanted, her father in his loafers. “You were worrying about Chad. But we’ve got to worry about you.”

She stands up very straight and widens her eyes at him, then looks down, and touches her cheek. Her fingertips wet.

Her father says, “I spoke to Bertram. If you turn yourself in-”

“I’m not turning myself in.”

“Carly. Just listen for a moment.”

“I’m not turning myself in, Daddy.”

“It hurts me to say this here but they are calling you and Chad terrorists.”

“We did not terrorize. We did not hurt anybody.”

“You did not hurt anybody, no.”

“It was only property damage. We destroyed capital. How can they call that terrorism?”

“Somebody could have been hurt. You could have been hurt. But that’s beside the point. The point is that if you turn yourself in now–”

“Daddy—just—no. I can’t do that. I’m not your little girl again because we’re here at the lake house. This is my life. I have beliefs of my own. There is what I will do to effect those beliefs and-”

“Honey, I don’t want to argue with you. I am telling you what I think is your best recourse.”

“I will not let fear of the consequences govern what I decide, OK? I am not turning myself in now because if they catch me later the sentence might be worse.”

He is shaking his head. “Where did you learn to be this willful?” he asks.

“Daddy, from you. I learned it from you.”

“I wish you would reconsider. We cannot stay here,” he says. “You cannot stay here.”

With her permission, he leaves. To make a few phone calls from a payphone in town, he says. To see about a different car. The water in the house has been shut off for the season, but the generator is back on, and there is a head of cauliflower in the fridge alongside the cold cuts and a carton of grape juice. She sections the cauliflower on a notched cutting board, the same one her grandfather prepared meals on when the retreat was his. The Tabasco is where she remembers it being, in the corner cabinet on the knee-level lazy Susan, the same bottle that has been there probably since her freshman year of college. She knows this because there was a time when this house meant everything to her and every little placement in it felt significant, but now she stands alongside that person, with her limited outlook, and watches skeptically. We invest in the familiar for lack of meaningful effect outside our postage stamp of personal dominion. If you are not willing to sacrifice for what you believe in, then the full scale of being alive, all the majesty there is to be found in the natural world, gets swallowed up in a Tabasco bottle, a silly trinket, familiar because of how unfamiliar everything else becomes.

She could look at the text message Chad sent that read, simply, GO, or others from before, but won’t: just sentimental tokens. The possibility of being separated is one they had discussed at length. She had not expected, like a little girl, to have to call her father, to drag her parents into this, but had not expected, either, to hear her name on the radio two states over, and so soon after his arrest, impelling her to ditch the car they had to be looking for, to wait until night to catch a ride.

On the porch she looks down to the lake. The sun has slipped behind a scrim of cloud. Her father didn’t mention it, but she is sure he would not want her outside. Odd that he wouldn’t have said something, though, conscientious as he is. Will he return with the sheriff in tow, a man they know by name? Her mother’s sunhat rests in a wicker duck-shaped basket beside the door.

She decides no, he wouldn’t, because, logically, why now if not earlier, and, irrationally, because she knows he loves her so much; is about to leave the porch but opens the door instead, grabs her mother’s sunhat and steps out. The cool breeze plays across her ankles as she descends the stone staircase to the dock. It is late September. Very few people live here year-round. She spots only one fishing boat on the water more than halfway across the lake. The brim of the sunhat undulates.

She steps out on to the dock, that familiar clanking reverb the turf-lined metal makes beneath her bare feet however much she tries to mute it. With the sun obscured, the surface of the water has darkened. She is looking for her silhouette, thinking of what she will write to Chad, when the yipping starts.

From the direction of the next–door neighbors’ tract of beach, a small dog is hyperactively advancing and retreating, its miniature chest thrown out. A Yorkie with a bow on its head. Has to be the Gustersons’ dog. She makes a beeline for the staircase.

She glances the twenty feet down the beach and sees on the grassy slope above the mild stone-lined escarpment a woman in a wheelchair. Her hair is blond–grey and she is wearing sunglasses. A light blanket covers her legs. From the beach, the dog keeps yipping, spastically turning in circles. Carly stops where she stands, not wanting to seem furtive, but the woman makes no overt sign of recognition.

It is Mrs. Gusterson, Gretta, whom Carly has not spoken to since college-age. Otis, she remembers hearing, passed away a few years ago.

Carly smiles tersely and waves.

Gretta shows her teeth and lifts her sunglasses. “They didn’t want to listen, but I told them where it ought to be,” she says.

“Pardon?” says Carly, pretending at an unfamiliar distance.

“I told them, I said, ‘Dears, there are only two ways to make this look right and one of them just won’t do.’”

“Yes. Well, great!” she says, starting back up the stairs.

“Tell your husband it was a real treat to speak with him this morning!”

“Oh, I will.” Glancing toward the garden that follows the Gustersons’ side of the fence, she spots a short plaster gnome leering, hands on his hips. The Yorkie stops yipping, then starts again.

Indoors, Carly sits on her grandfather’s old sofa. She lies back, covering her eyes. She imagines what she’ll say if her father arrives with the police. She listens for the pops and grind of tires on gravel.

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