cambridge book review

And If It Be Mean

Norma Gay Prewett

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Prewett3

Photo: Norma Gay Prewett

“Hey, I’ve become homeless! By choice!” Rosie sang into the phone, her words making exclamation points. “But I’ve found a sleeping bag, and it’s red plaid, the warmest color,” she said, as if in all caps. On the other end of the phone line her sister Lana would be curled on the brocade loveseat where Lana and their brother, Max, had chatted over coffee during the brief months he had lived with Lana before his death. Rosie was being insensitive, since Lana shared with Rosie her daily struggles to keep her home ever since Lana’s last temp job went South, literally, to Mexico. But sometimes they buoyed each other up this way. Both had survived scares with a half-dozen deadly diseases—not hypochondriacal, but screwy and rare and symptom-based—in the same number of months and they were always over the top, at least figuratively. They perked pretty hard and high, as they often noted.

“Doubleya tea ef,” said Rosie, pronouncing each initial as if writing it on Facebook. She heard Lana clink the side of her coffee pot against the sink, though it did not make a breaking sound.

“Fudge,” Lana muttered, then, “Hold on.”

She had put the phone down. Rosie was on speaker—hollering into a cave.

“Didn’t break,” said Rosie. “Focus. Back to me here.” As she spoke, she packed the red plaid sleeping bag as if she were traveling to Europe instead of two measly hours away. Two hours and a lifetime, she thought, dramatically. She stuck a few clothes—warm, durable things—into the interior and intended to make a giant roll, like the scroll of a snail, on her back. She liked the image, along with the one of herself holding a gnarled walking stick with a bear whistle purchased on one of her recent trips with Lana to Sweet Springs, Arkansas, not far from where they had grown up. They took occasional “tour des morts”—death trips to visit their relatives’ graves. As she heard her sister prepare her end of the coffee ritual, Rosie realized that she needed coffee too—her last vice. She had given up a loved habit each decade since she turned forty—on her birthdays—smoking, drinking; fatty foods all had fallen and she mourned them as the Japanese do their aborted fetuses. Had even erected little monuments in the pet cemetery in the garden. She wondered what the new owner of her house and land would think upon discovering them.

The dear old house had sold nearly too quickly—before she could have misgivings, before the divorce was quite final. And her self-inflicted homelessness wasn’t quite real either. She had decided to front the wilderness and see “if it proved to be mean”—as her college idol Henry David Thoreau, the sour old bachelor, had said about his sojourn at Walden. While she was married, Rosie and her husband Sven had purchased a few acres smack in the midst of the rural Wisconsin coulees. Because they had made the youthful mistake of committing to rentals real estate, which now “owned” them in town, they had proudly refused to improve the cabin much, as though its inconvenience made it holier. Lana was in the process of shedding the rentals too—going down the road of trying to lighten her psychic load, as she considered it. It was really Rosie who loved the cabin. To Sven, it had been lean-to shelter between trout-fishing trips. Their son scorned it, a town kid all the way, and now, at 23, he was launched. Rosie was becoming inessential to anybody but Lana.

“Halloo-o-o-o-o?” Lana called into the phone. “Did you fall in?” She had caught Rosie using the john while phoning—something so coarse neither of them could even bear it in movies.

“Here!” said Rosie. “Hey, do you remember when I used to pilgrimage to Walden every year?” Those had been fine days, usually in Spring when she was visiting some boyfriend or other in Boston. Rosie had always taken the train, or to be Thoreauvian, it always took her. The Lakeshore Limited was a lot more elegant in those days and the whole thing was romance on the half-shell to her heaving heart. Daffodils would be just blooming in the soft seacoast winds, whereas they were months away in Wisconsin, so she always purchased a bunch, along with sandwiches and hot chocolate, to take to her traditional lunch with Henry. His part of the conversation was a bit muted, there in Sleepy Hollow cemetery, but she propped herself on his grave, his simple “rising in the ground” limestone headstone, and chatted him up. Generally, there had been pilgrims there before her, leaving their own tokens of love, since all of the Alcotts and many other luminaries were housed in their tombs all around. It was a celebrity cemetery.

“Did I ever tell you I think Alec was conceived there?” Rosie asked suddenly. She knew her sister was listening and hoped she was smiling what she teasingly called her “pickerel” smile. “Did I?”

“I recall that he was a little underwhelmed about the honor,” said Lana. “Didn’t you take him back there when he was five or six? You hadn’t even taken the poor kid to Disney World but expected him to be thrilled by a big old deserted pond and a replica shack?”

Rosie glanced at her watch. “I gotta run,” she said as she mulled over whether she was offended or not. They pushed each other’s buttons and refused to get too riled about anything short of outright hostility. As adults, Lana trailing Rosie by two years, they had fought and fallen out only once or twice that Rosie could recall, and the searing pain of her sister’s rejection had sent her to her bed. It was worse than any of Rosie’s string of men leaving her emotionally bereft. Lana was nearly, besides Rosie’s son, the only person left above ground that Rosie loved unconditionally, as the therapists say. Their family choir was thinning. They were now orphans, for instance, their parents having died within a year of each other.

Pausing halfway down the curving oak staircase, Rosie paused to peer past a stained-glass piece she and Lana had made together and hung there. She wondered whether to pack and move it. The closing for the new owners was nearing. Rosie would miss this view, which was regularly lauded with sunlight or shot through or chiarascuroed by mist, snow, rain. Now, it was deep November, a month she had never had any use for before, but which now gave her solace. It seemed fitting that her former husband of twenty-five years had dumped her in the Fall, the time she formerly would have been filled with anticipation, stocking her plaid pencil boxes and thermoses for the coming year of teaching, until that was yanked from beneath her by his insistence on her early retirement. He had promised in sickness or in health, but Rosie had never been totally healthy and so maybe Sven figured they were even. That Girl, his Lewinsky, his Jennifer, had come to her in the form of a photo on his iPhone. He was a wannabe photographer, so at first, having ironically borrowed his phone to call their child, Rosie casually thumbed through his photos just out of boredom. One showed a girl, much younger than Rosie, encased in gauzy light, studying, on a train. Okay, she had thought, just a “grab shot” as Sven called his furtive pics. Then, before he could grab the phone back, realizing his mistake too slowly for Rosie’s stiletto-like eyes, another shot of the same girl in his rented bedroom in Chicago. Here, he had posed her in exactly an attitude that Rosie had been posed in years before when they were courting—hair tossing, eyes slanted and narrowed, mouth slightly open. It was as if his parallel life—and they had known it would be a potential threat when he had been economically exiled to a city more than a hundred miles from their home to spend all weekdays, and some weekends, working—also included a surrogate her. It was all such a cliché—the midlife crisis and the younger, fertile, chippy.

“Fiddle-de-fucking-dee,” she said in her Scarlett voice, “I’ll fucking think about that tomorrow.” Or maybe never, she thought. Would never be too soon? Until the tenth of never… She went downstairs thinking, “The new me should abandon ‘Fuck.’” She had mused aloud to Alec one day, who had barely known his grandparents on her side, that the worst she ever heard come flying from either parent’s mouth was “dadgummit,” or occasionally “that stinkin’ thing.” These were euphemisms, of course, with the same cadence as the words they replaced, but as Southern Baptists, they would no more swear than they would tango. In Rosie and Sven’s modern, smart, sophisticated home, they swore like sailors, though generally keeping it in its place—the hearth, the bar, the cars. It was a habit—like eating the whole bag of Oreos—and Rosie needed to be mindful and shed it as she had shed other mindless habits. Maybe mindfulness to language was going to be her seventh-decade shedding. At any rate, there would be fewer opportunities to offend anyone. She imagined herself a self-sufficient hermit out there on the land, a female coot.

Rosie swung open the hen-house door slowly, amazed anew that she and a few determined Back-to-Earthers had managed to convince the city to let her have backyard chickens. The new owners were going to pull the coop down, but had given Rosie time to relocate the chickens. The cabin was the perfect place. Pullet Surprise, her Buff Orpington hen, was wary of change. Even when Rosie left the coop door wide open, Pullie stepped one dinosaurus claw over the sill at a time, glancing nervously back to the warmth of the 200-watt bulb that kept her and her water from freezing. Her sister-wives had all been predatored by some wily critter that had breached their security, violated their castle, in the night. Had it happened now, Rosie thought, during her own newly acquired self-sufficiency, she could have done battle with her shootin’ iron. One of the first things she had bought was a shotgun in prep for her new isolation. It terrified her, but she was not going out there without protection. Several trail cameras had now recorded what had just been a tantalizing rumor before—cougars were making a comeback in Wisconsin. Their ghostly lithe and perfect killing-machine bodies showed opaque but hard to believe, their eyes gleaming like the Tyger, Tyger in the forests of the night. Her cabin land—now it would be all hers—would have been her choice had she been the big cat. It had several ramshackle, but still sheltering outbuildings whose doors stood ajar as often as they were closed, and an overabundance of mice and groundhogs and any other game, a smorgasbord for even a lazy cat.

“Come on, Chickiepoo,” she warbled to her tidy little pet. “There are lots of you where we are going. It will be like homecoming for you.” Rosie nudged the hen’s soft bottom with her hand, trying to convince Pullie that the extra-large cat carrier was cozy, not scary. Soon she would have to stuff her in like laundry in a hamper, but preferred persuasion. This particular chicken had been Rosie’s “familiar” in the marriage, her folly barely indulged by her fastidious husband. While the hen was laying, she was tolerable, but Sven’s mantra had been, “If she ain’t layin’, she ain’t stayin’.” Even before the most unoriginal sin, Rosie had mulled that motto. Though of course Sven didn’t talk like that, being an educated Scandinavian, not the hillbilly stock she herself came from. He was uncomfortable with displays and flash. Sven drank to let himself flirt with people a little, whereas Rosie was all sparkle and outrageous behavior. Once, they thought it completed them. Now they saw, belatedly, that opposites collide, not attract, and the iPhone photos had sent them careening out of orbit one last time. But he had been good with finances—taking risks Rosie could never have taken because she distrusted stuff in equal measure to lusting after it. Never had a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of as a child, and now Rosie was conscious of how quickly things could dissolve and go up the chimney, down the spout, any other cliché that was worn out but had once been so true that everyone adopted it.

So they had acquired stuff—houses, autos, even a couple of sailboats, so that their life, like Sven, was big and heavy. When Rosie had taken her teaching job in Wisconsin, she mused, she, even tinier than she was now at five feet, 110 pounds, felt terrifically weighted down by the contents of the purple VW Microbus in which all of her earthly belongings had been packed. Two years later, she co-owned several properties which became for a while like the restraining garment people use for autistic children who feel out of control—weight like the body of the big man she had married. It had worked for a long time. Babies like to be swaddled, and now, it turns out, dogs can be covered with “thunder-shirts” so they feel safe in storms. Rosie just needed to be light again.

She patted the side of the Pathfinder, the sturdy good old Leatherstocking car/truck with 200,000 on her, and made her promise to get up those Amish hills one more time. Rosie animated her world, naming the unnamed—briefcases, cars, writing pens. She imagined she could hear trees mutter as they grew if she lay her head against them. And one talks to one’s friends.

* * *

After having driven most of the 100 miles, she topped the final hill and liked all she surveyed, as usual. Below her, the clotted, dotted, spotted Wisconsin dairyland dozed or maybe had not yet unfrozen from a chilly, leaf-twirling morning. Blue chicory and milkweed pods were frosted and bowed and seemingly as arthritic as she felt. The streams, being spring-fed, ran clear, black, and cold all year. She would have to ford one of these—an Irish ford it was called when you drove through water—to get into her land. The county had refused to let them bridge it, so having previously stayed there alone, at the first splat of rain, she had scurried like a goat to her car and crossed to the safe side. Rosie recalled how Sven had just shaken his head. He had seen her reduced to jelly by storms, practically frothing and bluing with fear. Now, though, she intended to hire a project out—a chopping of stairs up the long steep rocky bluff that backed the cabin and affixing of cable, a handhold, so that when the frequent flash floods boiled the mild stream like rolling thunderheads, she always had a magician’s trapdoor up to the highlands.

Sven had known that what could rear itself dramatically could also fall precipitously—that within an hour the former bubbly cheerleader of a creek could be a tsunami, and then subside to its former peppy self. She knew it in her head too, but not in her bones, not in her stomach. The creek was as treacherous as a person—she now knew quite a lot about what can lie beneath.

Smiling, since out here she was always smiling, Rosie lifted gear from the rear of the Pathfinder—the chicken carrier, a too-big chainsaw, barn boots, gloves of the silly gardening style, some late bulbs she wanted to plant since the squirrels and moles sometimes took three of four, her shotgun, heavy pack, and a gallon of water. Utensils, mostly blackened cast iron and sturdy stuff, were already stocked at the cabin. As she prepared to horse her goods and provisions onto the high porch, the first flakes of snow tipped her face back. Where aspen leaves had been, and where the thirteen sky-tapping hemlocks still glowered, now began the shivering silver of sleetish snow. It made her think of Christmas, which momentarily made her feel desolate—since she was now without plans that before had been assumed—but she shook it off. She was at the Piney Woods. Rosie forbade herself to look back or down. She was going to be always, as the crazy man who announced moon and planetary phases on the television said, “looking up.”

An hour later, there was a solid inch of real snow. But, okay, she had coaxed a one-match fire out of the red Vermont Castings stove, a skill Sven had taught her. Why was everything prefaced on Sven? Well, she reasoned, twenty-five years wouldn’t just vanish. But she would have to break that link like a coyote chewing off its foot—nah, more like an escaped slave hoisting her shackles onto a tree stump and lofting the ax again and again. “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” she warned herself. Rosie didn’t mind talking aloud, even singing aloud to herself, but she didn’t really laugh aloud for some reason. She wondered if she would become her grandmother, a true Ozark hill woman who had muttered like a nervous hen all day and night.

Rosie cut first one log and then another down to fit the tinier maw than the former fireplace had had. The fireplace had been excellent in every way except the practical way. Floor to ceiling, five feet across, made of fieldstone, it was straight out of central casting for a rustic cabin. But it sucked heat from the one-room cabin like someone huffing helium from a balloon and when, after ravaging floods had violated the cabin two years in a row and they had determined it needed to be hoisted, the fireplace had been a casualty.

Rosie had cried and had noticed that Sven had turned his back and busied himself as the house-movers raised the spikes of the Bobcat to pull the fireplace down. The tiny wood stove was a trooper. With the help of a heating blanket, she was toasty in a few minutes.

Then, the noises began, bringing memories down the stove pipe and dancing lewdly before her as she perched in her Amish rocker. She was suddenly ambushed by times when Sven and she had sat there, his wrapping her and himself in blankets, chaffing her feet in his hands, touching her hair. Her hair was true silver now—to the other woman’s chestnut curls. Rosie did not know whether she herself was still cute or not. Pictures shocked her as she saw her mother as an older woman staring back at her with her sweet Irish blue eyes and pretty skin, but also potbelly and Frida Kahlo brow. This new woman … well … Rosie slammed the open stove door with more vigor than necessary and settled in.

* * *

The following morning, she was feeling smug for having survived the cabin by herself with all its wild noises at night. During the day, the most she had ever seen roaming were a couple of twin deer that haunted these grounds, but at night it was Wild Kingdom out there. It had been this kind of ordinary day when Rosie first spotted the bootprints. Curiously, as fear sometimes does, her first thought was of the fake Santa bootprints Sven and she used to trump-up to convince their tiny son Alec that Old Saint Nick had visited and somehow shinnied down another skinny stove-pipe, leaving his plain print in the ashes. But her second thought was more sober—there had been someone since snowfall right outside her door as she slept. Was it hunting season? Yes, that was it, but no smart hunter would come right up to the door of another person’s cabin. Too many trigger-happy greenhorns out here. Since coming onto the land meant crossing icy, fast water, not too many lost travelers ever bothered. There were cottages up and down the road—much easier pickings. And, had her first premise been right, the land was clearly posted as being off-limits to hunters. Well … maybe the prints were those of the handyman, checking up on her. Maybe Hank the handyman. Yes.

Rosie passed the next day in town, a perfect Wisconsin small town named Bud, a name as curt and straightforward as the town itself had once been. It had been discovered now, much to the chagrin of older finders like herself. Newcomers were “cute-ing” it. The things some of them fled in cities were now here—the “shoppes” where stores once stood; niche-y markets instead of hardware stores. There were fewer milking implements in Elmer’s True Value and more art quilts. Was she getting crotchety, she wondered. After all, everybody but the Chippewa were fairly recent immigrants, even the Amish, here. It was a matter of degree. But along with progress and convenience came price hikes. The town was getting to be what the handyman Hank sometimes called “mighty spendy.” The word had been punctuated by a splat of chewing tobacco recently since his wife had laid into him about smoking, so he had begun to chew. (Rosie thought of her Dad’s witticism: Many men smoke, but Fu Manchu. Her head was like a gumball machine. The thoughts just dropped down on her tongue and rolled out of her mouth willy-nilly.) Inevitably, a Walmart superstore had swum into town thrashing its gigantic nasty tail of straightened-out roads and cropped-off hills behind it. Newcomers hated it and old-timers loved it. Just the opposite of the progression that was happening everywhere else. But the store had this shade of blue she wanted for her new abode. It seemed like a small sin.

Once inside, though, Rosie became drowned again in the sheer excess. Her new skin, her new self-reliance, suddenly seemed stingy, though she knew the pretty comforters and things were all made in China, probably by kids who could be poisoned by dyes so that she, lucky, lucky she, could buy, buy, buy.

She set the gallon of paint down and quickly strode out of the store. The friendly Newcomer Co-op would be more her speed. She had brought her knitting. She knew the locals still eyed her curiously, though she had connected on some level with many and a few knew her name. Hank’s wife worked here, but Rosie was not sure whether the woman liked her. Nobody knew where she fit, neither pig nor fish, and neither did she. Rosie dressed like a lumberjack, but sometimes drove a Saab. She had dirt on her boots, but also an expensive haircut. Her knitting wasn’t pretentious. Long scarves of garter stitch were all she had attempted. But the yarn was expensive—always pure wool.

By the time she got back to the land, she felt singed if not entirely burned out. The days ahead stretched at once glorious and foreboding. She suddenly recalled a short story she used to teach in which a young wife learns that her husband is dead and then that the death had been misreported—all during the space of an hour. In the story, the young woman dies of “the joy that kills.” Like her, Rosie was “free, free, free” and the thought frankly terrified her.

On a whim, since the night was drawing in and she wasn’t quite ready to abandon herself to the cabin and her friends the mice—and because she remembered that she had not fed Pullet Surprise after she had installed her in the out-building closest to the house—Rosie pulled the truck into the lean-to, but then walked back to visit the creek, a habit like vespers for her. Around the edges, ice had begun to creep like cataracts over the good eye of the water. Some looked cracked, as if weight had been upon it. “Deer,” she thought reasonably. But she began to back her body toward the cabin. When she heard a sudden buzzing, there was no way to fit the sound into her surroundings. Swinging about, realizing she had no weapon, she instinctively brought her hands up. The incongruity of the cell phone swinging around blinking and buzzing made Rosie cock her head like a spaniel. “What the what?” she muttered, proud of avoiding “fuck.” Then, as soon as she bent to pick it up, it hit the bank and slid into the churning water. Waterloo water. Her gullet and heart traded places as she felt the “sick with fear” that one reads about. It was not right. No place for this here. Her phone service had never stretched this far and she knew that anybody who knew the place knew that too. Rosie could not bear to open her back to the darkness while she fished the phone out, nor could she stand to leave it in. She settled on a crabbing, sideways motion, wetting her arm to the elbow, but securing the now-deceased mechanical.

Her progress the five feet or so to the comfortingly warm, popping, car was that kind of creepy movie moving. She slammed the door and locked all four. It was a rough and ready truck, but had power windows. Her arm had started to ache from cold and the slight rise that she usually took in one quick spurt to clear the creek in four-wheel drive was made difficult by a standing start and two inches of snow. But there were no tire-tracks other than her own. Still, she pulled as close to her makeshift coop as she could fit the car inside the shed and slipped out, leaving the comforting motor running with the headlights aimed. Stumbling, she discovered Pullet Surprise—dead at her feet. The hastily rigged warming light still shone like a benediction overhead and there was little blood. Rosie nudged her with her boot heel, starting to cry. A fox, a weasel, a dragon—she wasn’t farmer enough to know—had surgically taken Pullie’s head. She had heard that chimps when they fight frequently tear off the face as the thing that controls. And headhunters of course take that thing in which resides our power. Stupid thoughts and what if the thing still lurked here? She raised her foot to the high floorboards of the Pathfinder, grateful as she had ever been for normal technology, but not before she saw a single, still-slightly-smoking cigarette butt in the snow. Rosie tore sod driving to the house. She switched on the porch light and hurtled into the cabin, finding the key faster than ever before. Once, she had locked herself out by misplacing a key, so now always stationed one near the door—where any fool could find it.

With one sick thud, all four doors and the trunk locked from the jarring. The Pathfinder was still running with the car keys now locked inside. It had long been a problem with that car. A simple jarring of any kind would trip the automatic locks. It had been annoying at home, but at home, they had kept a second set of keys.

Rosie tantrumed. She screamed all the words she had resolved to cleanse from her new vocabulary. Crazily, she felt like hollering to the Universe, “You want another piece of me?” But she didn’t do that, needing to comfort herself as a newborn must learn to settle him- or herself down. Self-pity was a real spike-studded tiger pit for her. Passages from Hemingway, maudlin passages, not even his best, suggested themselves to her. “It kills us all. But if you are strong and brave it will kill you too, but be in no particular hurry about it.” Wasn’t even correct and she was none of those big things anyhow and this was her cabin and her land and three miles from town and she had a land-line, a life-line, after all. Oh em gee. Good grief. Except that she didn’t. Her neighbors were just across the road, but up a road so steep that she could barely navigate it in a car, by day, and could no more have trod up there now than she could fly over the moon, as her mother used to say. She had locked the gate and was sure they couldn’t know she was even there—so rarely did they visit—and then nearly never after the summer was over. They might see smoke from the fireplace, but like she and Sven, they were city people who had enough money to keep their cabin, but frequently traveled. The ugly white sixties wall-mount phone didn’t offer a dial-tone more than a second. Some bad movies really do come true. She remembered then. Before the fatal finding of the photos, Sven and Rosie had put the cabin phone on vacation mode.

Hands shaking, she found the Korbel far back in a corner of a cabinet where it’d been hidden from Alec and his pals, who were afraid of mice and would never grope back behind the traps. All of this could be explained, she explained to herself like a brain-injury patient. If her life were indeed a novel, it would all have a perfectly inevitable-seeming ending—once it was safely over and the blood pressure had returned to normal. The ice in the cube-making refrigerator—oh yes, they had some luxuries—let down suddenly and she felt a quick warm flash of urine break forth. Good God, how she wanted something as simple as a television, a radio, right then. Part of the idea had been to rid herself of what Faulkner called “the lifeless mechanicals” since Henry David, even if they had been invented, would have abjured them. What was it he said about clocks? She had brought the bible, Walden, with her. Maybe it was what she needed right now.

Did Thoreau drink? She thought not. He saw tobacco like the Native Americans, whom he respected, as a ritual, she believed. Well, I’m not him … he … or what the hell, she thought. Rosie had brought the squat, faceted Korbel bottle, a Christmas special bottling, with her and now tried to keep all sides of her body facing out as she made her Jack London fire. It leapt and she leapt. It bared its little oranged teeth at her, then sulked. “Stinker,” she said. Rosie threw the box of matches at the flame and it rose up and bit her. There were more matches. Weren’t there? The winking tinder had caught though and she fanned it quickly. Her toes and fingers ached. She felt in her pocket for another glove and found the doused cell phone.

A drink of liquid-fire brandy and she set the bottle down. This was a clean, if not particularly well-lighted place. Another indulgence was electricity, she supposed, and Rosie thanked herself that she had prevailed when Sven had wanted to put that utility on vacation mode too. She fumbled in the mouse-turdy drawer—show her the woman who can completely eradicate those little s.o.b.’s—for the hair-dryer. It was absurd to think that one can save a soused phone at all, much less after all this—how much she wasn’t sure, but a long—time. But it was a good, solid practical thing she could do to settle, settle, settle her twirling brain. She slipped the memory card out and dried that first. The phone was a cheaper model that probably—obviously—did the one thing phones are supposed to do much better than the Cadillac of phones she owned. The ones with apps to read her temperature, mix her drinks, hoe her garden, but which rarely performed the one task it was meant to do—make phone calls without dropping them.

Carefully, Rosie slipped the case apart and began gently driving the water droplets out. “Wait for it,” she murmured and realized her own voice comforted her somewhat—like the soft murmuring of her hen—oh, her hen. Well that, that was just Nature. Nature smoked cigarettes. She had crazy thoughts about DNA and actually entertained the momentary lunatic notion that she should go out there and grab that butt before the cold froze the saliva and rendered it … what? She had no idea, never listening in science class once things got hard. Inside the second tumble-down shed, the Pathfinder ceased running—out of gas. She missed the comforting, domestic, familiar sound terribly.

Her perfect plan, her sunny day plan, and oh how Henry David loved the sun as a symbol, had been to come here (“go there” at that time) and “front Nature.” Now, it appeared to have fronted her, but Korbel was giving her liquid courage and fire enough to front it back. Rosie put the cell phone back together as a clockmaker might. The only place a cell phone had ever worked on the land was out at the pole shed, while one touched metal like some crazed Ben Franklin. She pulled apart her crazy lace curtains. Now that the cabin was four feet off the ground and the windows another two feet up, it would be a bad tall dude indeed who could peer inside flat-footed, but the curtains gave her a good feeling. Nature might be red in tooth and claw, as she had just rediscovered, but she could at least put a nice blouse on her part of it. Man, she was getting slurry. That first little alcohol lift had blurred into slow motion bravura, the feeling at which she first had learned to stop and savor, then had unlearned it, then had quit after it had tipped her into situations she squirmed to recall, even fistfights.

She slipped into her parka—it had Nanook-like rabbit fur around the hood and cuffs—and grabbed the cop-grade flashlight, grasping the phone in her gloved other hand. It felt like safety—unless the intruder really were an animal. She looked at the shotgun, unloaded, and grasped it under her arm too.

The pole shed was always locked and stood one-hundred feet, she guessed, from the cabin. Congratulating herself on her drunken good memory, she felt for the keys before slamming shut the cabin door. She heard the wall phone plummet to the floor. Big deal, she thought. Useless mechanical.

It had snowed a little more since she had come home, but the night was blessed with a sun-like moon and the tall firs strangled the beams on the snow. It was pretty. Something small skated away from the light and she fought her instinct to slink back to the cabin. Rabbit, rabbit, Rosie thought. “The hare crept … something … through the frozen grass.” Whom would she call anyhow? Lana, of course. Or the owner of the phone? She reached the shed door and tugged it open. Smells, comforting smells of man-stuff—gasoline and oil and rope and such—greeted her and it felt almost like it did in the daytime. Then, she smelled another thing. It was cigarette smoke—recent cigarette smoke. It seemed insane to say so, but the final deal-breaker, more than the supposed infidelity with Sven, had been the damned cigarettes. The smell choked her now that she self-righteously did not smoke.

It is uncomfortable at least to feel the contradictions life is always strewing like candy-corn wrappers at a carnival and not want to say to this old crone Life, “Stop that. One feeling or the other, please.” Her Swiss Army knife, handy former husband who knew quality when he saw it with the broad and fatal exception of his new late middle-age squeeze, leapt to mind with concealed practical blade unsheathed. Had her heart been as weak as doctors for a while thought it might have been, this would have stretched its endurance to the limit. But Sven waited until she had stepped into the range of the motion light before coming out of the shadows. He stepped over to her, towering on purpose as she used to tease him, and with the trained hands of a former karate player, grabbed the shotgun barrel, which she had not the wit or quickness to train, and pointed it. Then, with his free arm, he swept her, not toward him, but aside.

Behind her, a cat, large as a St. Bernard, collapsed in the snow, Pullie’s little body in its jaws.

Nature is corny, but not perfect. Sven had arrived the night before, but knowing her fury, had not shown himself. He had camped, obviously, in the unheated shed, building a careful fire in a kettle grill they had kept there. The one window was slightly cracked to aerate the place and she took some quick satisfaction in knowing he had suffered in his work clothes—his junior executive suit covered only with a windbreaker. Now, when they should have climbed inside the warm Pathfinder, which he had discovered running and feared the first most obvious thing—her suicide—Rosie became furious instead. How could he risk her heart like that? What the hell and when and where? Sven waited her out as she sputtered terrified and furious accusations, shame-faced and barely breaking in—not defending himself.

Yes, he said, he had finally persuaded Lana to talk to him, but no, she had not ratted out any details. That, Sven said, he had put together by himself. He had tried to call, especially after he had dropped his loaner cell phone in the drive and somehow missed it when he went back to look. Sven had walked the three miles from and to town, cutting through the brush because, well, because Lana had let him know that his ex-wife was armed, actually. He had taught Rosie to shoot, but knew she was likely to panic. Sven had called the cell phone from the neighbors’ house. Then, well they both knew the rest. Except for the cougar, which was a bit of Disney thrown in by heavy-handed symbolist Nature, the rest was sort of pathetically typical. Husband leaves wife for newer model; newer model realizes husband is old guy after all; leaves husband. Husband has now lost everything—wife, house, respect for self. Starts up old bad habits again, but can’t quit the one that has become like inhale to exhale—the need to protect.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” said old Hank Thoreau. Rosie guessed she had too, but whereas Thoreau, like Sven, who went into the emotional wilderness somewhat outgunned, returned after proving himself for little more than a year, she surprised herself. Rosie had discovered that life could indeed be mean, but once you have boarded that train of doing without, it is hard to jump off. It seems that a woman, too, is made wealthy by what she can afford to do without.

__________

Norma Gay Prewett taught English for 34 years and recently became RETINO (retired in name only) from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is now free to do any dang thing she wants anytime she wants, but will probably continue to write, bike, quilt, keep her coop, and meditate at her retreat, Piney Wood Mews. She also co-produces Mindseye Radio, which airs first Fridays at 11 PM on WORT-FM or radio4all.net.

June 20, 2013 - Posted by | fiction, short story | , , , ,

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