by Anne Leigh Parrish
The party was at Jackson’s place, at the end of an unpaved road, on the eastern tip of the island. In good weather, it was a forty-five-minute drive from town. The weather wasn’t good. The rain had fallen for three days, sometimes turning lighter, even to a drizzle, but never once letting up.
People said Jackson was staring to lose it out there in that old shack he’d been renovating for the last nine months. When he tore the walls down to the studs, it had been spring. Now New Year’s was barely behind them.
It was Susan’s doing. She’d seen him in town and corralled him for a cup of coffee. She loved looking at his working man’s hands around the mug he didn’t drink from, as if its sole purpose was to provide warmth. She offered to handle everything—all the food and booze. She’d bring some tapes she’d just recorded of her all-girl Blue Grass band, “The Willows.” At that, Jackson focused on his scarred thumb. Blue Grass wasn’t really his thing.
Cara’s truck bumped up the road, the rain in the headlights so thick it looked like snow.
Drake was at the wheel. He insisted on driving. She was no good at it, he said, not on a road like this. Plus, the transmission was going. Hadn’t she said she was going to get it fixed?
The edge in his voice matched the one in her heart. He’d been difficult lately. Regrets about choices made, paths not taken, had surfaced again. He admitted as much, and offered quick, curt apologies, then ran his hand through her hair. He didn’t do that now, because the road required both on the wheel.
A darting deer caused him to swerve. He couldn’t correct before sliding into the ditch.
“I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“Can you get out?”
The screaming spin of the tires said they were stuck.
It was only about another quarter of a mile. They’d have to go on foot. She’d dressed for the weather, he hadn’t. He wore a natty sport coat that had belonged to his father, a tweed monster with suede patches on the elbows. He had a thing about his father, not a good thing, in Cara’s opinion, because the guy was cold, harsh, and disconnected, all traits Drake readily agreed he possessed, yet somehow longed to emulate. His jeans were new, bought off island a few weeks before, along with the wingtips that made him slip with every other step. She offered to go ahead and see if someone at the house could drive back down and pick him up.
“It’s too cold out here,” he said.
“You could sit in the cab, with the heat on.”
“Well, come on, then.”
Her boots had thick ridged soles that gripped the rocky wet surface. She slowed her pace to match his. He took her arm to keep from falling. They’d left the bottle of wine in the truck.
“Why didn’t you remember?” he asked.
“Why didn’t you?”
“You were the one who suggested bringing it.”
The wind was bitter. She gave him her scarf. The weight of her coat, and the incline of the road, made her sweat. Underneath she had on a pretty black sweater with lace at the collar. The silver earrings, pressed uncomfortably inside her knit hat, were new, a Christmas gift from Drake, bought from a catalog, replicas of a Navajo design. Drake enjoyed Native American art. He longed for the deserts of New Mexico as an antidote to the Northwest winters. Cara didn’t want to travel. She was happy right where she was.
The road switched back. The rain fell at a hard slant. Drake lowered his head and pressed on. He wasn’t slipping anymore. He went faster, outpacing her. She struggled to keep up.
The string of lights nailed to the eaves of Jackson’s house swayed in the wind, giving an impression of a ship bobbing on a swell. The windows were bright. Condensation dulled the panes, making the movement of people within remote, even ghostly.
The living room was full of smiling people, some playing a board game set up on the coffee table. The man rolling the dice was Cara and Drake’s neighbor. He nodded at them, then blew into his fist for luck. Drake went down the hall to the dining room and put his jacket and Cara’s scarf on the back of a chair, occupied by Lila, the woman who ran the hardware store. She was in her seventies, and known to drink like it was last call. On the table before her was an empty shot glass and a bottle of Bourbon.
Cara stayed behind. She removed her hat and put it in the pocket of her coat. All the pegs in the hall by the front door were already full, so she draped the coat over the round top of the newel post at the bottom of the stairs. A toilet flushed on the floor above, and Jackson came down slowly, with a heavy step, holding the rail as if he might fall.
“I thought maybe you weren’t coming,” he said.
“We ran into a ditch.”
“Down the road.”
Jackson nodded. He looked her in the eye.
“You’ve been busy,” Cara said.
“Yeah. Stove finally got here. Just put her in yesterday.”
It was red enamel, and replaced an old black one that had leaked smoke into the room the last time Cara visited, right before Christmas. She’d brought him out some banana bread. They’d known each other casually for years. That day they’d spent almost an hour talking, she assumed because he was glad for the break in his solitude, though he hadn’t seemed needy at all, just pleasant. At home, Drake had asked why her sweater smelled funny. She said there’d been a bonfire on the green by the farmer’s market.
Music came up. “The Allman Brothers,” Cara thought. She wasn’t sure. But yes, she recognized them now. One had just died.
Jackson seemed inspired by the song. His body loosened.
“Nice sweater,” he said.
She brought her hand to the lace along her collar bone. “Thanks.”
He turned away, and went into the dining room. She followed him. Drake was seated at the table, talking to Susan’s husband, a round little man who prepared tax returns.
“The guy never earned a cent in his life. He inherited his father’s real estate business,” Drake said. Every other day he ranted about the President. Cara had stopped pointing out that Drake himself lived on the proceeds of a trust fund established by his own father years before. Not having to work was supposed to let him find a way to be useful in the world. He’d volunteered at a food bank, a homeless shelter on the mainland, had started to get a degree in education so he could teach math in an elementary school, then had some sort of a run-in with one the professors, with whom Cara was certain he’d had a fling. The woman was married, the husband probably found out. Drake never re-enrolled, or looked into transferring to another college to finish the degree. That had been three years before. Since then he’d tried his hand at poetry, churned out a slim volume of work that was heavily metaphorical, usually with some reference to war, destruction, or human bondage. No publisher had offered him a contract, though he’d submitted it widely. Cara ran a flower store she’d inherited from her mother, who’d died of breast cancer at the age of 44. Cara hadn’t realized how lonely she’d been, how much she wanted to find a home in the heart of another, until the day Drake wandered through the door, looking for a simple bouquet for the woman he was then seeing. His pursuit of Cara was swift and merciless. He said she’d swept him off her feet.
It was he who’d done the sweeping. That passion had given way to a gentle affability mixed with minor annoyance. He made her feel old. She wasn’t old.
She poured herself a glass of wine from the open bottles on the sideboard. The wine was fruity, which she didn’t care for, so she put down the glass, took another, and sampled the next bottle in line. The vintage was better, deeper, earthier. It warmed her.
Susan was next to her, saying she should try one of the deviled eggs. Susan only came up to Cara’s shoulder. She was in her sixties, and wanted to be everyone’s mom. She’d pressed her warmth and caring on Cara after her mother died, and Cara hadn’t had it in her to accept.
Cara passed on the eggs, then plunged a carrot stick into a small dish of creamy dip. The dip was lovely, but she wasn’t hungry, and tossed the uneaten part of the carrot into the deep kitchen sink. She hoped Jackson wouldn’t mind. That’s the kind of thing Drake complained about when she did it at home.
The talk at the table became friendlier, with laughter and smiles. Drake was the center of it.
He liked lots of people around.
She liked having only one person around.
On the screened-in back porch, Jackson sat in a rocking chair, gazing into the woods beyond the glow of his outside light. The porch wasn’t heated, and he wore a heavy coat he must have kept out there for that very reason. A glass of liquor was in his hand. He turned at the sound of her approach, and nodded to the empty rocker next to him.
He handed her a blanket from a neatly folded stack under the window. She wrapped it around her shoulders. He offered her a sip of his drink. She lifted her glass to show she was still working through the wine.
The muffled sounds of conversation reached them through the closed door. Cara heard Drake’s voice, though she couldn’t make out his words. She wondered if he had noticed her absence.
“So, you escaped,” she said.
“Yeah. I’m not much of a party person.”
They drank. In the dining room, a plate crashed to the floor, followed by swearing in a female voice, Lila’s probably. Jackson didn’t get up to see what was going on. For the moment, he’d ceded his home to the invaders.
“Any improvement?” he asked.
“Maybe it’s time.”
Cara said nothing. It was hard to think about.
Laughter came in bursts.
“Here, sit next to me!” someone said.
There followed the sound of a chair being moved across the floor. Cara hoped it didn’t mar the wood. That would be a shame, though Jackson was a practical person, and wouldn’t see it that way. He’d just fix it.
“A forest at night is a hell of a beautiful thing,” he said.
“You ever wander around out there, in the dark?”
“Not for a long time.”
“We could now, if it weren’t so wet and cold.”
“I can handle wet and cold.”
He looked at her for a long moment.
“Go get your coat. Meet me outside,” he said.
Cara removed the blanket. Drake was still talking to Susan’s husband. Susan was a few feet away, at the CD player on the kitchen counter, inserting a new disc. The tight, twangy melody of her bluegrass followed Cara down the hall, where the board game was still going strong.
The rain had topped. Silver clouds raced overhead, revealing, then concealing, a gibbous moon. Jackson came out the door leading from the porch, and down the set of wooden steps.
Her eyes adjusted to the night quickly. The path was smooth and she knew he’d been working on it, removing rocks and loose branches. She didn’t know where it led. He walked ahead of her, and looked back over over his shoulder often. The path curved, climbed, and descended next to a stream. Here, Jackson stopped. They listened to the water, the rustle of evergreen branches, and the rapid scurry of some creature in the brush.
He rubbed his hands bare hands together. He stopped and gathered her in his arms. His lips on hers were cold, his tongue was warm. He was so much taller than she, eight inches or more, that he sheltered her against a sudden rush of wind that caused the forest to move as one. She leaned in closer, holding him with all her strength. Her ear was pressed to his chest. She heard his heart beat.
“Well, I supposed we should be getting back,” he said.
They pulled apart. They went slowly, though the cold was now penetrating. The party had amped up. Susan’s joyful music flowed forth. Figures passed before the bright windows. One was alone, motionless. It was Drake, looking out into the yard. Cara stopped. Jackson did, too. They were a few feet away from the point where they’d be seen.
“Do you want to go in the back way?” he asked.
“No point in trying to sneak by. He knows I’m out here.”
“Okay, if you’re sure.”
She took Jackson’s hand, and went forward, into the light.