It started the day she opened the paper and saw Ralphie Pruett's father. She knew then that she was alive only because she had said no to him, and so he went and got some other woman and killed her instead.
The paper was in the staff room, left over from the teachers at lunch. June spread it out flat on the table and looked at it. She started to reach for a cigarette, but she was in school and so she stopped herself. She had finished her shift and was ready to go home. She took her apron off while she read the article.
His name was Ronald Pruett. He had killed the girl last Wednesday; on Saturday the body had been found, and he had been arrested. The article didn't say where the girl's body was when they found it. Sometimes, June thought, it's a shallow grave and sometimes it's a place like the garage. She thought of her own garage with its concrete floor. You couldn't very well bury someone in a garage like that. And she got sidetracked and stuck on the idea of the garage, the dark garage full of old dirty things, plastic gallon containers of automotive fluid, old lamps and broken appliances, and an old car or two. She was stuck there. She didn't think of the girl, Vernay Hanks, yet. Vernay was just a waitress at Darrel's Hamburgers, although they weren't really called waitresses, just a girl who needed a ride.
She folded up her apron and put it away. She grabbed her pocketbook and walked out the back door. She walked through the empty playground, through the parking lot and to her car; the car that broke down over on Jackson Street last Wednesday. Jackson Street was named after Andrew Jackson who had his belts made from the skin of Indians: an obsessive thought she never failed to have whenever she heard his name, a monster. The old fuel pump went out right there on that street with the unfortunate name, and then Ralphie's father stopped.
He had a blue pickup with mag wheels and a beige fender where it had been replaced and they had used the wrong color. He stopped and offered her a ride. He was just as nice as could be. She couldn't place him right away, and then she did, from when he waited in the hallway for Ralphie after school sometimes. She usually said yes when people insisted, but that day she didn't.
He had gotten out of his truck and looked under her hood. They were on a street with big, old, well-built houses: houses that people used to know how to make before the dark ages when everyone forgot what they knew, or just didn't care about it anymore. June had never been inside one of those houses. No one she knew lived here. None of the students lived here. None of the teachers. The Pruetts, of course, didn't live here.
Ralphie's father had left his truck running, like he was in too big a hurry to turn it off, and from the sound of it, that truck needed a muffler.
When someone stops to help with your car, it's hard not to feel obligated to watch what they are doing, June thought. You feel you should watch even if you don't know a thing about it or care. She had tried to tear her eyes away from the houses and aim them instead beneath her hood, where the father of one of the students, she hadn't remembered which one yet, twisted and pulled and wiggled his hands around.
One of the houses had its blinds up and the lights on. She could see the dining room table from where she stood. She could see a chandelier, a wooden high chair, a tall vase of flowers, a silver candlestick holder, a painting on the wall. June wanted to walk up the steps and open the front door to that house. She wanted to go inside and sit at the table. She wanted to light the candle and sit in one of the wooden chairs, waiting for dinner. She wanted to hold the baby on her lap.
She thought about when she was young and might have married someone who could have given her a house like this one. She might have married Sean Callahan who had his own airplane, but she didn't.
June didn't like conflict. If pressed she'd usually say yes, but she hadn't said yes to Sean, and she didn't say yes to Mr. Pruett either, even though he had been so nice and then so insistent. She didn't want a ride. Truly. She wanted to walk along Jackson Street in the late afternoon, by herself. She would walk into downtown and catch a bus.
June wasn't a dreamy woman, and she wasn't restless, and June loved her husband, Bill. Bill, I love you so I always will. It was an old Laura Nyro song. June could never say the name of her husband without thinking of it, another obsessive thought but this time harmless. Sometimes she'd sing it to him, and she meant it. Bill.
If June ever imagined having a different kind of life, it was always with Bill. Remembering it now, it seemed that she had had a strange feeling that day. She had felt oddly alive in those moments, standing by the car, strangely excited, almost as if something in her knew how close she was to the end. It stood right there. A fork in the road had been reached, and she had been only one misstep away from a grave in someone's garage.
People came into the kitchen, a teacher, an assistant. The custodian came in, and usually she would talk to him, but that day she didn't. Ralphie's father was a secret, and he would be a secret until the moment she told Bill, and then finally she would know what it meant. She would know by what she felt when she said it, by how it sounded to her, by what he said back, and by what she said back again. Until then it was a mystery.
June drove home from work telling herself, I was lucky. It could have been me, but it wasn't. She didn't let herself think of the other woman. She had skimmed that part of the article. It had been that woman instead of her, and she was glad, there was no getting around it. She was glad to be alive driving her car down the road with the sky above her, with her arms and legs and her whole body, breathing and sitting and looking, feeling and thinking. The nuns used to say that the body is a temple, and that seemed right to June. Her body was a temple, and it was alive; but the other woman, her body was lying on a slab somewhere. It was in a drawer in a cold room; it had a tag tied around the toe, or maybe that was only in the movies. It could have been me, June thought, and she began to shake.
Bill had left a roach in June's ashtray, which in plain English meant the leftover end of a marijuana cigarette, and she lit it. She smoked it even though she had just come from work, which was at a school, and was still in her work frame of mind, which was wholesome, more or less. When you work in a grade school, you become wholesome, and you say oh my goodness when you're excited, instead of Jesus Christ, and you stop saying shit and goddamn it altogether, June thought.
Ralphie's father had kept asking, and she had kept saying no. She had been pretty far from home, and it was almost dusk. Maybe she would have relented finally, but then a woman came out of one of the houses. She walked down the stairs toward her car. She said hello to them, and she looked at them both. She had spent enough time there to identify Mr. Pruett in a police lineup, maybe, although identifying people for the police is harder than you might think, June had heard. The mind doesn't like a vacuum. If there's a blank, the mind will fill it in. If you don't remember a nose, the mind will find one for you and stick it there and that nose, which is something the mind made up itself and should recognize as a lie, will be as true to the mind as the honest to God truth. Why take a chance, Ronald Pruett must have thought, when there are so many other women everywhere? Maybe I'll go by Darrel's Hamburgers instead.
Ralphie Pruett was pale and skinny. He was a mean boy. You knew what kind of man he'd grow up to be, but you couldn't hold that against him. So far he was just little, six years old. He had tiny perfect ears and little fingers that clutched his plastic food tray and then reached to put corn dogs on it, and other things that would kill you.
Somewhere in the food that Ralphie Pruett ate there were remnants of real food. There was a pig, and corn that grew in a field. And somewhere in Ralphie was the perfect being that we all are. In Ralphie, with his dirty fingernails, his sallow skin, waxy ears, whiny voice, and wary eyes, his shoving and his thickness -- somewhere there was the boy he could have been if someone loved him and gave him something decent to eat every now and then. It's surprising, June had thought more than once, how little is actually required.
Before you work at a school, you think you know what children are. You think children have small worries, sleep at night in warm beds with stuffed animals, eat meals at a table with their families, have fathers and mothers who love them. Before you work at a school, you think you know what parents are. You imagine parents like your own parents: not perfect, but people who fed you and cared if you did your homework, people who made sure the bills were paid and there was a refrigerator in the house, with food.
Usually on her way home from work, June listened to the news, but today she didn't think she could bear it: every day some new disaster, as if she was suddenly in a Doris Lessing novel, one of her series about the end of civilization. Just when it seemed that nothing else could go wrong, it did, and now there was the war. The kids talked about it all the time. "We are winning," they told her. They had heard this at home, she knew -- but how could anyone call what was happening in Iraq winning? Unless it was a killing contest. If it was a killing contest, they were winning hands down. She thought, The only thing that stands between me and the world is Bill. She would tell him that when he got home.
June put on the music station, and Steve Earle was singing a song he had written about capital punishment.
Send my Bible home to mama
Call her every now and then
June had mixed feelings about capital punishment. When a man in Portland killed a six-year-old boy, she was for it, but when she listened to Steve Earle sing his song, she was against it.
People said that anybody could be redeemed, but June didn't believe that. Maybe, she thought, a man doesn't deserve to be redeemed. Maybe sometimes he just goes too far. Maybe sometimes a man gets to be like a mad dog; the best you can do is take him out back and shoot him, that's all.
June thought of Mr. Pruett, and she wondered if he could be redeemed. She wondered what he had thought after he killed the woman. What had he done next? Did he just go in and wash his hands and eat dinner? She thought of the politicians who chose war, knowing what it meant: murder and mayhem, blood, guts, horror, and death. They chose war and then talked about it on TV in their clean white shirts, smiling, and then the next minute sat down to eat dinner. No one blamed them for being cold-blooded.
She tried to remember exactly what Ralphie's father had looked like, where he had stood, how he had moved, what he had said, everything about him, no matter how small. She tried to find some clue, but she couldn't. You'd think if you stood right next to someone who was prepared to strangle you, you'd notice something out of place. People reveal small things about themselves in countless ways, June thought, but somehow she had stood next to Ralphie's father, with his unspeakable plans, and she had only thought of her car. She had tried to be polite and helpful. She had thought of the street where they stood and the houses nearby. She had felt oddly alive, but what kind of clue was that?
June parked her car and ran up the front steps and into her house. She was barely in the door when she started telling Bill the story. The paper said he had strangled her. June hadn't even taken her coat off. She stood in the kitchen doorway, talking quickly, barely seeing him. She watched his hands, as they covered a dish of pasta salad with foil. She had been talking, but now she stopped. She had only gotten to the part where the woman in a red coat had come out of her house and seen them both looking into the engine of her car.
She wondered about the red coat. Was it something real from that day, or something her imagination had inserted? She wanted to tell it all, everything she could remember, plus everything she remembered but might have only imagined. She stood in the doorway and looked at the yellow daffodils on the table and relayed the story to Bill, but Bill exclaimed, "Wait a minute, baby! Just hold on a minute!"
He said she needed to calm down. Calm down, relax. She was all wound up. He put the bowl of pasta in the refrigerator and turned to her. Was she sure it was the same man? Was she positive? It was the same day? "Oh, my God." He pulled her to him, saying, "There, there, shhh, it will be all right. Never take a ride from someone you don't know, June." He was just glad she was safe. He put his finger to her lips and said, "What do you think, it's your fault the other girl was killed?" He said, "Things happen, and we don't know why." He said, "Come here, baby. Come here," and he put his arms around her, and she leaned into his chest. If anybody ever touched her, he'd kill them.
She wanted to tell the whole story from the beginning to the middle to the end. She sat down at the kitchen table and started again, with the woman in the coat. He sat across from her, listening. He was a good listener. He let her talk. She knew he had to go to work soon, but he didn't look at his watch. When she was finished, he told her she ought to call her friend Louise. "Don't sit around here, being morbid. Go have some fun." He always thought she should go have fun, whatever that meant.
"I don't want to have fun!"
She followed him into the bedroom, and he got ready for work. June sat on the bed, watching him dress. He wore good black pants and a white shirt to work even though he was the cook, the chef, back in the kitchen where no one saw him.
Bill was a handsome man. He was tall, 6'2", and muscular. He had thick black hair and dark eyes, long eyelashes, and broad, capable hands, cooking hands, he called them. He was the kind of man women liked to talk to, a man who knew how to listen. He came from Chicago. His mother was Italian, and his father was a bricklayer. Bill was dark like his mother, and strong like his father. He was raised Catholic like June, but he had never believed it, not for one minute.
June's own father was dead, and her mother was still back in Greenville, South Carolina. June had one brother, but he was in Texas. She had always wanted a big family, like the other kids at school. She went to Catholic school, Holy Rosary -- Holy Roller, they had called it, for a joke. The other kids had big families, a child in every grade it seemed like, but for June there was just her and her brother.
Bill and June had been married ten years, but she liked to watch him, and she liked to hear what he had to say. If she was in a crowded room and someone was talking to her, it didn't matter who that person was, if she heard Bill's voice, she strained to hear what he was saying.
He buttoned his shirt, watching her. Then suddenly he thought about the dead girl and said, "Fucking nuts out there. I'd like to get my hands on them."
June liked to sit outside on the back steps but it was just April, and the days were still too cold so, after Bill left for work, she sat at the kitchen table. He had made dinner for her, and it was in the refrigerator. It was conventional wisdom that plumbers' wives could never get their plumbing fixed and the families of construction workers lived in half-built homes. Whatever your husband did at work, you couldn't expect him to do it around the house. But Bill loved to cook for her. He loved to feed her, and he loved to watch her eat. In a few more years they would both be fat.
She drank a glass of red wine and looked out the window. It had been a dry spring, but the days had been cloudy and often a thick, wet fog had settled over the town. Oregon needed rain, everyone said, but June hated the rain. It had been sunny the day Ralphie's father had stopped -- a good day for walking. If it had been raining, if there had been clouds or fog, would she have taken the ride?
June looked out the window at the house next door. The neighbors had been fighting, but that night they were quiet.
Her friend Louise called, but June didn't say anything about Ralphie's father. She locked the door and sat on the couch, but she didn't turn on the TV or read. She sat quietly, and she did not think morbid thoughts about being buried in a garage with old tires. She didn't think of the dead woman or Ralphie's father, although something in her kept trying to bring them to mind.
Some people said everything happened for the best, but June didn't believe that, not for a minute. People said everything happens the way it should, but that wasn't true either. People said all kinds of things, but it was only to hide from facts, and June didn't want to hide from facts. She told herself that the opportunity for pain in the past and in the future was limitless, but that we need to look at what is here, right now, that's all.
June looked around the room. She was sitting on an old purple velvet couch. The floors were wood. The walls were pale yellow, a warm color, and the ceiling was white. The ceiling was high. It was an old duplex, and the couple next door had just moved in and they fought. The TV was across from her. She had picked daffodils the day before and set a bouquet in a mason jar on the coffee table. Yellow was her favorite color but it hadn't always been. She wasn't going to think of anything in the past, even if it was just what her favorite color had been. She looked at the flowers. She breathed in and out.
Copyright © 2006 by Allison Clement