An insane wind was sweeping across Route 18 and roaring into Saukfield. Marcie’s hair―shorter and bluer than it ought to be from a recent cut ’n’ dye at Hair Bear―was still wet from her shower a half-hour ago. She pulled up the cowl of her Packers hoodie and yanked the drawstring. The hood tightened around her face like a scrunchie. On a cold Wisconsin morning in mid-November, Mars Meechum determined there were two types of boyfriends. First, those who were supportive and protective of their girlfriends’ friends whose own relationships had hit a bad patch, trial separation, or divorce. Although, Marcie realized, as an eighteen-year-old she didn’t really have any divorced friends. Her two married friends―Amy L., née J., and Peggy G., née R.―had moved with their husbands to bigger Wisconsin towns, couldn’t move away fast enough it seemed. (Liz M.’s pregnancy was more dire than marriage or divorce, but not really relevant to the problem at hand since Liz’s boyfriend, not of his own accord, had been sent to live with grandparents in another state.) Marcie’s parents aside, divorce wasn’t the point. The focus of her thoughts was on the second type of boyfriend.
Torleif, for example.
A boyfriend like Tor, rather than being supportive and protective of his girlfriend’s friend―Renée Connor, say―whose heart was broken, or, at least, badly bruised, chooses instead to hit on said girlfriend’s friend. The thing about Torleif, as boyfriends go, is that Tor was a boyfriend with a car. A rusted-out red Corvette that reeked of weed and Tor’s late-night pizza deliveries for Sporty’s. Marcie’s dad replaced the muffler for free, although not without a reprimand: “No vehicle deserves this kind of neglect. Pimp your ride, knucklehead.” Marcie didn’t agree with her father about a lot of things, but he was right about Tor’s sad-ass Corvette, and she said as much to Tor. Truth was, as easy as sitting down you could punch your foot through the front passenger-seat floor panel. As fed up as Marcie was with Torleif, and as disdainful as she was of the shitty Corvette, she nevertheless wished she’d kept her mouth shut for convenience sake.
Because here she was walking the two miles from the trailer park to her cashier’s gig at the Pig. Not running late, mind you. Today she woke up when it was still dark outside, when her mother left to drive forty miles to her new job at the Home Depot in Liberty.
“We’ll see how long I last,” her mother said. Meaning: “Until someone smells pot on me.”
Marcie decided against asking her mother to drop her off early at the Curve Cafe across the intersection from Piggly Wiggly in Saukfield. Good plan if it weren’t for the hunters and the truck drivers and Lonny the cook egging one another on to see who could make the lamest comment about her hair. (Typically, “Is that Ty-D-Bol blue?” and “Mornin’, Mama Smurf!”) Now that her father worked as a mechanic at the Ford dealership in Madison, instead of Saukfield Motors, where everyone in town used to be afraid of him, even his boss, it was open season on mocking Gil Meechum’s daughter.
Roadside gravel popped beneath her sneakers. Cars whipped by emboldened by 55 mph speed-limit signs. A quarter-mile closer to town the signs abruptly shifted to 35, then 20, and finally 15 where Main Street fronted the elementary school. Saukfield sheriffs had come and gone over the years, but no one ever slowed down. Not until they had no choice but to slam on the brakes for Fenton Finke, the school crossing-guard with the damaged left leg. Maybe he was an Iraq war vet, as one rumor claimed. Or maybe he’d been clipped by a malicious Saukfield driver. Fenton liked to stand in the middle of the road like a scarecrow on a pike windmilling his arms. Marcie knew for a fact that some of her friends, and even some of her friends’ parents, sped up just for the opportunity to see the crazy arm-spinning business.
Marcie could see Angel Mount Community Church ahead, at the top of the hill. She thought: What about Pastor Dale Sebring? Pastor Dale, as he preferred to be called in his push for youthful converts, and, Marcie surmised, to deflect attention away from his middle-age comb-over. He listened to rock music, actual rock music not Christian rock music, but it tended to be dour “serious” bands from the pastor’s 1990s college and seminary years: way too much U2 and R.E.M. and Pearl Jam. His sparkly always-washed silver Ford Fiesta was parked in the driveway of the modest brick residence next door to the church. Marcie felt it was admirable that the pastor projected self-control and moral goodness. At the same time, it seemed he was too quick to label such behavior as Christian. When, in reality, it was little more than restraint of some kind. Holding back.
Pastor Dale was wound tight.
She remembered the occasion last year when Torleif was high as shit and everyone including Pastor Dale knew Tor was high as shit. Goofing around in the rectory kitchen. He was supposed to be helping to set up for a potluck. Tor spilled a big urn of hot coffee and scalded his arm. And, can you believe it, the ankles of Pastor Dale’s wife, Susan. Her ankles! Pastor Dale ran to Susan and was all like, “Sweetie, sweetie, are you all right?” Susan was holding onto the counter and swooning like she was going to drop to the floor. The pastor said to Marcie, “Quick, please, a washcloth with cold water. And some ice. Hurry, Marcie.” All the while Torleif was standing there with his beet-red arm smoldering like an autumn bonfire or ribs hot off the grill.
Marcie froze, wanting to help Torleif.
“Marcie, get a move on,” said the pastor, frowning, his lower lip quivering and his eyes twitching. Pastor Dale was punishing Torleif by pretending Tor wasn’t in the room. Worse, he was demanding that Marcie do the same. Passive-aggressive is what her mother called it whenever Marcie let her mom’s anger rise and rise while Marcie just closed her eyes and cranked Say Anything or The Gaslight Anthem on her Droid.
Forever after, it was a tiresome refrain from Torry: “I can’t believe you didn’t help me that time when I was on fire, Mars.”
“Jesus, Tor,” she’d say, even though she felt horribly, terribly guilty. Guiltier than the worst kind of hellfire Pastor Dale could dish out to his congregation. (“The Devil pleases. And then it’s too late.”) “You weren’t on fire, Torry, your arm was just sort of smoking a little bit.”
“Where there’s smoke, babe …”
Marcie kicked a crumpled Mountain Dew can. It skittered ahead of her and spun onto the highway.
“Fuck you, Torry.”
And just as quickly, but more to herself, almost inside her head like a brain-whisper, she added: “And fuck you, Rennie.”
The clattering Mountain Dew can zigged and zagged beneath and around several passing cars and a school bus and made its way across the road and into a ditch.
Let’s face it: Renée Connor was not guiltless. She flirted with Tor right in front of everybody. Right in front of Mars. Rennie ran through boyfriends like toilet paper. Her latest, Michael Cleary, who had a decent job at Safety-Lok Storage, got tired of the nonsense. Marcie thought: I’m tired of the nonsense too. After all, she recommended Rennie for a job at the Pig. Which Rennie turned down. For what? For a full-time job stealing boyfriends, that’s what. Everything could be summed up in the sign Marcie saw last weekend at the Occupy Madison rally when she was in the city visiting her father: “Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit.”
* * *
Home Depot at midday is a cruise ship if you squint your eyes after smoking half a joint during your lunch break. An aisle of gleaming overlit bathroom vanities your own private stateroom. Fat shopping carts big as lifeboats. Your orange apron an uninflated life jacket. Not the most stylish clerking apparel. Unless, of course, you’re drowning. And isn’t she? She’d known better jobs. Better lives. She and Gil took a honeymoon cruise 19 years ago. Down the California coast. Snorkeling off Catalina Island. Gil looked good in a wetsuit. Cock bulging beneath black rubber like a conch. If not a better life, it was theoretically the promise of a better life. Here, she feels discarded somehow. Sinking in brakish waters. Today, her first day, Cheryl Meechum, née Halvorsen, is stocking shelves in paint supplies.
* * *
The Fiesta refused to start. Unconscionable that the residence was without a garage. Susan once told him he needed to be more forceful about having one built.
“The church owes you a garage,” she said.
Pastor Dale Sebring was grateful for small favors. Like the fact that the “angry mechanic” no longer worked at Saukfield Motors. Gil Meechum had the ruddy complexion of a snowmobiling alcoholic and was given to remarks like, “Forgive me, Pastor, but your Fiesta is a piece of shit. It’s a clown car.”
“I’ve driven this car for ten years, Gil.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
Many times since then the pastor rehearsed retroactively what he might have said in response to Gil’s sneering effrontery. Am I paying you to insult me? To insult my car? Where’s the upside to that transaction?
Shut up and fix the car, please.
Pastor Dale took a deep breath as he pumped the gas petal one last time and turned the ignition. There was a crackle, then silence. Was that a puff of smoke from under the hood?
Jesus Cocksucking Motherfucking Christ.
Anxiety and resentment had lately been spilling into his life. Feelings the pastor was not proud of harboring. He’d been alarmed enough to seek secular therapy: A quieting of the mind in the form of relaxation techniques from a sixty-something Saukfield aromatherapist and former flight attendant named Connie Boone. Copies of her brochure, “Connie Nose Best,” were thumbtacked to the community bulletin board at the Saukfield library. Mostly, Pastor Dale was aroused by the 1960s photo of a much younger Connie Boone outfitted in vintage “friendly skies” regalia on the brochure cover.
“The sweet smell of serenity,” she told him a week ago at his first appointment, “is a jetstream less traveled.”
He was dying for coffee but Connie Boone served only herbal tea. Her office was in the unfinished basement of her cluttered Saukfield home. Exposed furnace and water heater. Fluorescent grow-light fixture suspended over a Ping-Pong tabletop of flower boxes. Something fulsome and leafy beneath a clouded tarp. Connie Boone was gnomish with sun-weathered skin. Dressed in denim and flannel like a gardener. Hair gossamer white and brushed straight back like a windstorm’s reckoning. She lit a scented candle labeled Chocolate Mousse.
“Where is God?” he impulsively asked her as a kind of test question.
“In the coming days God will reintroduce Himself to you as an irresistible craving,” Connie Boone promised. “Take a deep breath. What do you smell?”
“Try again,” she said. “Close your eyes. Breathe.”
He squinted but thought better of closing his eyes. Peeking again at the candle’s label, he said, “Chocolate Mousse?”
“That’s right. You’re flying First Class, Padre.”
Hunched in the front seat of his expired Fiesta, the pastor closed his eyes. Woodsmoke. A calming scent of neighborhood woodsmoke. Breathing deeply, he felt himself calming down and wondered if this was a residual benefit of aromatherapy kicking in: the sudden awareness or even conjuring of comforting aromas. Woodsmoke. He reached into the glovebox and retrieved Susan’s knit Packers ear band.
He’d be walking into town.
It wasn’t a profound realization, the pastor knew, but it nonetheless seemed all but set in stone: marriage doesn’t placate sexual desire. The affair was behind him. Julie Fortune was gone from Saukfield, a college graduate settled in Chicago as a designer for a boutique housewares startup. Not that long ago, when Julie was a UW-Whitewater freshman, she’d shared with him some of the fabric designs she created for pillowcases and cloth napkins: a repeating army of whimsical space aliens, an elegant interlocking Escher-like pattern of sandhill cranes. Something of Julie’s pleasing soulful beauty seemed reflected in her work. The symmetry bespoke grace and quiet reflection, qualities that Pastor Dale Sebring felt his own life lacked. His wife, Susan Sebring, née Barsotti, came from a large Milwaukee family and was already an aunt several times over. It was only natural that she desired a family of her own. The pastor made no apologies for his conviction that children would bring chaos and ruin to their lives. He said to Susan: “If you spent the time I’ve spent with the dissolute teenagers of Saukfield, you’d share my concern for the future of the human species. Remember the stoner who splashed two gallons of hot coffee on your ankles? He’s the best and the brightest.”
Julie Fortune wasn’t the least interested in domesticity. Except as product design. She built her surroundings on absences, empty spaces, which she said kept her sane and helped her to concentrate on her work. Probably why, he suspected, she needed to leave him. Leave Saukfield. “Travel light,” Julie Fortune advised him. Pastor Dale prayed for guidance as he stretched his wife’s ear band over his head and caught an unexpectedly comforting whiff of Susan Sebring’s shampoo and sweat.
* * *
Gil Meechum’s girlfriend Patty Randolph drove a blaze orange Mustang. The car was six years old. Patty was thirty-four, managed a trio of strip-mall carpet stores around the Madison area called The Remnant Hut. Her bobbed auburn hair shimmered like Turtle Wax. First time he saw her, Gil was walking through the maintenance garage waiting area, where mechanics were forbidden. Patty was reading a Kindle and eating a bag of popcorn from the dealership showroom. She was wearing tight bluejeans and a corduroy jacket. Six weeks later she returned for a new set of tires. Patty had been hesitant about spending the money on tires last time. A close call on an icy street convinced her otherwise. Gil recognized the car—who wouldn’t?—when Patty again pulled into the dealership. Back he went to the waiting room. Let them fire me if they want to, he thought. His fingernails were clean. Carried his own tube of Greeze-Out hand-cleaner with him always. It had a citrous and vanilla dreamsicle smell that made him think of Patty Randolph’s blaze orange Mustang.
They exchanged cell numbers.
Patty Randolph was a pothead like Cheryl. Which is why Gil was ransacking the trailer in Saukfield looking for his ex-wife’s stash. Trying to be quick about it. Needed to be back at the Madison dealership by nine a.m. He’d borrowed Patty’s Mustang, which was getting a brake job today. All the usual hiding places in the old trailer, however, were now turning up empty. Bolster pillow in the bedroom. Wall panel behind the bathroom mirror. And the place, where, he and Cheryl used to laugh, Marcie would never look: under the sink with the cleaning supplies.
This left Gil with two choices. Call/text Cheryl on her cell. She would know instantly what Gil was up to. The other option was to stop at the Pig and sugar-talk his daughter, who was particularly immune to sugar-talk. Like her father, Mars wasn’t herself a smoker. Her boyfriend Torleif lived for pot. Mars would give her father that wounded look of deep disappointment. Reminding him of every petty power play he ever tried to inflict on his daughter and his wife.
* * *
She (the housewares designer) tells him (the adulterous pastor) that a love affair is like an artwork-in-progress: There comes a time when you have to step away from the canvas. Sometimes go to the other room. Or out onto the balcony.
“Or move to Chicago?” the adulterous pastor says to the housewares designer.
“Kinda, yeah,” says the housewares designer, her face assuming an all-purpose emoticon frown.
“Not a lot of balconies in Saukfield, that’s for sure,” the adulterous pastor says.
“Don’t take it so personally,” says the housewares designer. She laughs with genuine warmth. Like a distant cousin wishing him Merry Christmas. “Successful art,” says the housewares designer, “strives for the impersonal gesture.”
Like kitchen wallpaper, the adulterous pastor wants to say.
* * *
At the bottom of the hill the wind nearly swept Pastor Dale Sebring onto the highway. He hugged the church’s curbside mailbox for ballast.
A hooded figure was walking toward him along the side of the road. A young woman.
“Don’t you recognize me?” she said.
“Sure,” he said. He didn’t.
She pushed back the monkish cowl and a burst of blue popped up like candy in a Pez dispenser.
“Mars,” she said.
“Ha!” was all the pastor could think to say. Something between a mirthless laugh and a throat-clearing.
What happened next happened so fast that when Pastor Dale Sebring reflected on the incident later, it seemed less like a dream than a flashily edited online commercial for a sports car or a high-powered energy drink. There were tires skidding to a stop. A hallucinogenic orange Mustang. Gil Meechum kicking over the Angel Mount mailbox (already wobbly and requiring zero strength to topple). Telling his daughter, “Get in the car.” Mars hangdog and obedient. The sulfurous stink of exhaust fumes.