Disclaimers: See Part 1
A Special Note to Our Readers: Hoosier Daddy is a work in progress. You will likely notice a few inconsistencies here and there as you make your way through the online version of the story. We have made some tweaks and subtle adjustments to the plot, most specifically to timelines. For this, we ask your indulgence, and promise that in the final, published version of the book, everything will make sense. If not, we reserve the right to blame our editor.
Disclaimers: None. All of the characters are ours.
Violence/Sex: No violence, but some quirky sexual encounters and lots of big trucks. This story does involve a consensual, loving and romantic relationship between two adult women. It's not graphic, but if sexual encounters in bathrooms or behind lemon shake-up stands offend you, you may want to consider another story selection -- or at least one that isn't set in Indiana.
We would love to know what you think, and can be reached at email@example.com , firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/maxine.redwood or http://www.facebook.com/ann.mcman or http://www.facebook.com/SalemWest.411 .
Copyright: Ann McMan and Salem West, April 2013. All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any format without the prior express permission of the authors.
“What is it?” El looked over at me from the driver's seat of her SUV. We had just left the VFW parking lot and were headed west on Broadway.
“I left my backpack inside the hall.”
“Do we need to go back, so you can get your keys?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Not unless you mind dropping me at home instead of back at Hoosier Daddy?”
“Of course I don't mind taking you home. But don't you want to get your truck?”
“No. It'll be fine there overnight. T-Bomb can give me a ride to work in the morning.”
I thought about the unopened letter inside the backpack. That could wait until the morning, too. I wasn't even sure I wanted to read it then.
“House keys?” El asked.
I looked at her.
“Let me guess. You don't lock your house?”
“I lock the front door,” I said, defensively.
“Is there a back door?”
“But you don't lock it?”
I shook my head.
She laughed. “Indiana. Main Street of the Midwest.”
“Don't forget I have a dog,” I reminded her.
“Oh. Well. Then I'm certain potential thieves would avoid plundering your place for fear of being licked to death.”
“Who takes care of him during the day?” she asked.
“You mean, when he isn't out at Grammy's?”
“He's kind of on auto pilot. I have a screened porch, and he can get out into the yard from there.”
“Don't you worry about him when it's this hot?”
“He's got a dog door into the house.” I studied her with interest. “Why all this concern about Fritz?”
She shrugged. “I like dogs.”
“Yeah, well it appears to be a mutual admiration society.”
El gave me a confused look, and then rolled her eyes. “Oh. You mean Lucille?”
“Yeah. That seems like a love affair for the ages.”
“Unrequited, I assure you.”
“You don't find his attachment…appealing?”
“No,” she replied. “I don't find his flatulence appealing.”
“Although,” she continued, “Aunt Jackie has been pestering me to take one of his puppies.”
“The Jack Affs?” I asked. “Seriously? Are you thinking about it?”
“Only in the throes of delusion,” she said. “There's no way I can have a dog with the life I lead.”
“That's too bad. You're missing out on a lot.”
It took her a minute to reply.
“I know.” I thought she sounded sad.
We approached the intersection at US 41.
“Which way do we go?” she asked.
I was tempted to say she could take me anywhere she wanted. Instead I told her to continue on straight.
“I live in Owensville,” I explained. “We go about another five miles or so, and take a left at the blinking light. It's about a fifteen minute drive to my house—are you sure you don't mind going that far out of your way?”
“I don't mind a bit,” El replied. “Maybe you can lend me a pair of pants.”
“Sure. But you'll probably have to roll the legs up.”
“That's okay. I'd rather be compared to Ellie May Clampett than Ermaline.”
I stifled a laugh. “I'm really sorry about your pants.”
“It's all right. I'll keep them as a memento of our night of almost passion.”
“Well. It did sort of end just as things got interesting.”
“No kidding. That seems to be a pattern for us.” I paused. “I'm…uh…”
She looked over at me. “You're what?”
“I wanted to ask…if the burning stopped?”
El laughed out loud. “Yes…it was overwhelmed pretty quickly by the onset of mortification.”
“I know that always works for me.”
“Oh, really?” El asked. “You have prior experience with hot sauce?”
“No,” I said quickly. “That isn't what I meant….”
El looked at me over the rims of her glasses. I thought it was charming that she had to wear them to drive at night. They made her look downright professorial—which I now knew was not a stretch for her.
“Oh,” I said. “You were teasing.”
“Sometimes I have a hard time telling the difference.”
“I know. It's really sweet.”
I felt shy and embarrassed by her comment. I tried to cover it up by being glib.
“Sweet is always the thing I go for when I'm trying to impress a woman.”
“Ah, but that's not how it works. It's not trying to impress that makes you sweet.”
“I'm very good at my craft.”
El gave me a look that could only be called sultry. “I know I have only limited experience, but I'd have to agree with you about that.”
That response didn't help ease my embarrassment. Fortunately, we'd reached the turnoff for Owensville. “Left turn up here,” I pointed toward the blinking light ahead of us. I was grateful to have a reason to change the subject.
“It's a good thing they put this flashing light here. All these roads look exactly the same.”
“Trust me. When you grow up out here, they kind of are. No matter which way you go, you seem to end up right back where you started.”
We were now rolling through another sea of cornfields. They flanked the road on either side, and were only disrupted now and then by an occasional fencerow or lone stand of trees. At night, the gray strip of road seemed narrower. It was like driving through a leafy tunnel. The full moon was waning, but it was still bright and high on the horizon. It made the winding rows of corn look soft and deep.
“I'm always amazed by how much space there is out here. I can't get used to it.”
I studied her profile. It looked blue and white—a combined trick of the moonlight and the gauges on the dashboard. Her hair was still wet, just like most of the rest of her. It was amazing how soaked we both got in such a short space of time. I thought again about the ruined, tiny sink. El had hastily tossed it into the back of her SUV before we left the parking lot.
“What are we gonna do about that sink?” I asked, jerking my thumb toward the cargo area.
“Oh, god.” El waved a hand. “I don't know. Pick up a new one, I guess. Where's the nearest plumbing supply store?”
“Menard's…back in Princeton. We can get one there.”
“I suppose we should pay to have the wall fixed, too?”
“Yeah. I don't imagine they're too happy with us right now.”
“You think?” El chuckled. “A hall containing about two hundred people, all swilling beer and iced tea, and we take one of the two bathrooms offline? Why would they be upset about a little thing like that?”
“I think they have other restrooms in the bar area.”
El glanced over at me with an amused expression. “Are you always this literal?”
I sighed. “Unfortunately, yes.”
She reached over and patted my leg. “Not to worry. This is why god created expense accounts.”
“For real?” I was having a hard time ignoring El's hand, which still rested on my soggy thigh.
“They wouldn't question an expense like this?”
She looked at me over the rims of her glasses again. I decided right then that this little head duck gesture was my new favorite thing about her. Well…maybe my second favorite thing. Her hand on my leg was feeling pretty good, too.
“Buying a new sink for the local VFW wouldn't even make the top ten on the UAW's list of absurd reimbursement requests.”
“Really?” I was intrigued now. “What does make the list?”
“Let's see…if memory serves, we once paid to replace the carpet in the banquet room of a Holiday Inn outside Wentzville, Missouri.”
“It was a food fight on an apocalyptic scale.” El waved her hand dismissively, and returned it to the steering wheel. The spot where it had been resting on my leg still felt warm. “We were doing a multimedia presentation and had a good-sized crowd. Things were going well until some pipe fitters got into a shouting match with the catering staff.”
That wasn't hard to imagine. Most of the pipe fitters I knew were a pretty burly lot. “Were they defending their right to be there, listening to your treasonous rhetoric?”
El laughed. “Not so much. They were defending their right to raid the service area, and help themselves to more fried chicken livers.”
“Yeah. You haven't lived until you've tried to wash that mess out of your hair.”
It was my turn to laugh. “So my bout with the tartar sauce was kind of pro forma for you?”
“Oh, I wouldn't say that.”
Her voice had taken on that sultry timbre again.
I mentally cleared my throat. “So, what else is on the list?”
“Hmmmm. Well. There was the time Tony paid for a shift foreman's girlfriend to have a boob job.”
“Are you kidding me?”
She shook her head. “Nope. I think they classified that one as ‘operational enhancements to the physical plant.'”
El was looking out her driver's side window. “Hey? Tell me something.”
“What are those funky-looking, mechanical things that randomly appear in the middle of these fields?”
“What mechanical things?” I wasn't sure I understood what she was talking about.
“Back there.” She gestured over her shoulder. “We just passed one. They're all over the place out here. They look like little metal horses or something.”
“Oh. You mean the pump jacks.”
“Yeah. They're oil wells. Those are the pumping stations.”
“Oil wells?” she asked.
“In the middle of corn fields?”
I nodded again.
“But I saw one back in town, behind a Free Methodist church.”
“I don't get it. How much oil could there possibly be in Indiana?”
“More than you might expect,” I explained. “Back in the early eighties, when oil prices were so high, a lot of people out here used the income from those wells to put their kids through college.”
“Really? Does everybody out here have them?”
“Not everybody. But a lot do. Oil companies manage them for groups of owners. They pump it out, and divide any profits on a percentage basis between the various landowners. Most of the oil fields straddle property lines.”
“So it's like Indiana's version of OPEC?”
“Sort of. But with fewer wars and less interesting head gear.”
“Well, you certainly have the same climactic conditions.”
“Not for long. Wait another month or two until this place turns into the Midwestern equivalent of Yakutia.”
“Oh, do not even try to talk to me about winter here.” She looked over at me. “Ever been to Buffalo in February?”
I pretended to think about it. “No…but I kinda like the music.”
El rolled her eyes. “And Grammy likes the spicy wings….”
The mention of spicy chicken caused my bravado to evaporate like drops of rain on hot asphalt. Lucky for me, we had reached the outskirts of Owensville. A few ragtag looking buildings began to dot the roadside. They gave way to clusters of small homes.
I pointed ahead. “Behold, Owensville.”
The town looked better at night. It occurred to me to that everything in Indiana looked better at night. Less depressed. More lush. Even graceful. Probably, that was because I was trying so hard to see it the way El saw it. And, somehow, El saw the unspoiled raw beauty of a landscape that had long since grown dull and lifeless for me—like a photograph that had slowly lost its color over the years, and faded into a muted mass of gray.
“This is really charming,” she said.
It sounded like she meant it. I looked out my window at the abandoned gas station on the corner. “Charming” wasn't a word I would have chosen to describe the entrance to Owensville.
“Turn right at the next intersection after the Methodist Church,” I said. “Stay on 65.”
We were in what passed for the center of town now. A small strip center on the right had battered aluminum awnings and several empty storefronts. But the Dollar General was still doing a robust business.
“Turn left here,” I said. “On Main Street. It's only three blocks. On the right, after the funeral home.”
As we got closer to my house, I began to doubt the wisdom of letting El bring me home. It wasn't that I was embarrassed about her seeing my place, it was more that this trip was like crossing some kind of inviolate boundary—even more than the one we'd crossed when El came to Grammy Mann's for pot roast and rhubarb pie. I thought again about the letter from Don K. I was glad it wasn't in the car with us, writhing around on the back seat like the garter snake some kids once tossed into my truck at the Quik-Stop. It didn't belong there—just like I was beginning to believe that I didn't belong here. Not anymore.
“This is it,” I said. “On the right.”
El turned her blinker on and pulled over next to the curb.
“Oh, Friday Jill,” she said. “This is your house?”
I could hear Fritz barking. It sounded like he was on the back porch. I was surprised he wasn't already in the side yard, investigating this potential threat. Apparently, El's canine magic continued.
El hadn't shut the engine off.
“Do you want to come inside?” I asked.
To be fair, I wasn't really sure how I wanted her to respond. I thought about that famous quote. The one about there only being two things in life to fear: not getting what you wanted, or getting what you wanted. Right then for me, it was pretty even money on either result.
El turned off the engine, and I knew right away that I did want her to come inside with me. I wanted that more than anything.
“I'd like that,” she said.
Fritz stopped barking and came around the side of the house to greet us. He was prancing back and forth along the low, iron fence with his tail wagging. El and I got out of the SUV and made our way down the sidewalk toward my small front porch. She took a quick detour to walk over and greet Fritz.
“Hello there, handsome,” she cooed. “Aren't you a good boy?”
Fritz was standing on his hind legs, licking El's face. I walked over to join them.
“Let's go in this way.” I unhitched the gate that led into the back yard.
El was studying the outside of my small house.
“I love all the roof lines. It looks so gothic. How old is this house?”
“I think it was built sometime in the early 1900s. It's one of the older homes in town. I was lucky to get it.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“About six years. “I've been working on it pretty much nonstop. It wasn't in the best shape.”
El shook her head. “It certainly looks great now.”
I led the way to the back porch. “Trust me. It's a work in progress. I still have a lot of work left to do on the interior.”
“Are you doing it all yourself?”
“As much as I can. There are some things I can't do—like wiring and plumbing.”
El laughed. “Right. I think you've demonstrated your lack of proficiency with plumbing.”
“Hey. That wasn't just my fault. As I recall, you were present, too. Besides…I never said I wasn't good at demolition.”
Fritz followed us onto the back porch. I held open the door that led inside to the tiny mudroom and the kitchen beyond. I was pretty proud of the kitchen. I had torn out the old one, which had really been more like a lean-to, and rebuilt it all from scratch. I scoured around for quite a while before finding old pine cabinet doors with unglazed glass windows at an estate auction in Fort Branch. I'd been able to repurpose them all in here. They were narrow, tall doors that reached all the way to the ceiling. I had left them mostly unfinished, sanding off the rough spots but leaving all the various undercoats of paint showing through in places. The doors had, at various times, been painted yellow, blue, and white, and I decided I liked the muted patina of all three colors. The base cabinets were solid white. So were the appliances. I had refinished the pine floors and they were now a soft gold color, speckled here and there with black dots left by the nails that once held the old linoleum in place.
El was staring at the kitchen with an open mouth.
“You did this yourself?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Mostly.”
She was looking at the ceiling. “Is that real bead board?”
I nodded. “I pretty much had to do that. The old ceiling had those cellulose tiles, and they were pretty stained and awful looking. The roof used to leak back here…there was quite a bit of water damage above the dropped ceiling when I tore it out.”
El was shaking her head. “This is just gorgeous. How on earth did you figure out how to do all of this?”
“It wasn't all that hard. It was mostly undoing what had been done over the years. I really just took it back to the way it likely was when it was built—I mean, except for obvious things like newer appliances and better wiring.”
“The countertops look like concrete.”
I smiled. “Good guess. I actually thought about that, but opted for quartz instead.” I ran the flat of my hand along one of the surfaces. “I didn't realize that a lot of people have concrete allergies—not something you probably want to take a chance on in your kitchen. So I picked a color that looked a lot like cement.” I looked at her. “Once they were installed, I was afraid that maybe they looked too….” I didn't know what word to use.
“Butch?” El suggested.
I laughed. “Exactly.”
“They don't at all. They look perfect.”
“So I don't need to hang my tool belt in here?”
“Do you have a tool belt?”
“Of course. Don't you?”
She seemed to consider that. “Not the last time I looked.”
I leaned against the sink. “What kind of union do you belong to, anyway?”
“Are we speaking literally or metaphorically?”
I smiled at her. “Yes.”
“Okay. I guess I belong to the ‘I'm not a real straight woman, but I play one on TV' union.”
I was intrigued. “So nobody at work knows your gay?”
“Tony knows. A few others do. I generally don't advertise it all that much. It's a lot simpler that way.”
“Forgive me for saying this, but you didn't really try to disguise it when we first met.”
“You were different.”
My reflexive response to comments like that was to want to change the subject, but I didn't. Maybe being on my own turf allowed me to feel braver and less tentative.
“What made me different?”
El looked amused. “Explaining that would be a longer conversation.”
“Longer than what?”
She glanced down at her soggy ensemble. “Longer than I want to have while standing here in wet clothes.”
I wasn't at all sure if she intended for that to sound provocative. But to be fair, I had to admit that El could read from the Yellow Pages, and I'd probably think it was erotic poetry.
“I can take care of that,” I said. “Let me give you something else to wear.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Does it involve a tool belt?”
“Not unless you want it to.”
“I think I'll pass.” She stared at me for a moment. “Okay, dry clothes would be great.”
I led her out of the kitchen and through the dining room toward the front of the house. It took me a moment to realize that she wasn't keeping up with me. When I turned around, she was standing in the middle of the dining room shaking her head.
“What is it?” I asked.
“This place just gets better and better,” she said.
“I'm really glad you like it. Sometimes I think I'll never get it finished.”
She gestured toward the row of oak chairs that were still missing their seat bottoms.
“What are those?”
I sighed. “I foolishly bought those thinking I could learn how to re-cane the seats.” I pointed at the one I had been working on with Grammy. “You can see that I don't have any real skill in this area.”
El walked over to examine it. “I don't know…it doesn't look too bad.” She tipped it over. “You just need to tuck these longer ends in better before you clip off the shorter reeds.”
I was dumbfounded. “Are you kidding me?”
“What?” she set the chair down.
“You know how to do this?”
I had a hard time not blurting out the words, “Marry me.” How was it possible that El, a hard-nosed UAW agitator, knew how to do something this folksy and antiquated?
“How on earth did you learn to do that?” I asked.
She laughed. “When you grow up in a blue collar family with six kids, you lean how to fix things that are broken.”
“I guess I missed a lot being an only child.”
“I don't know,” she looked me over. “You don't seem to have fared too badly.”
“Now you're just flattering me.”
She smiled. “Pretty much.”
There was that panicked feeling again. I wanted to kick myself. Here I was, finally, in my own home with someone who was smart, funny, high functioning, and, as far as I knew, unattached. And she seemed to be telegraphing her interest in me. And as if that uncommon combination of attributes wasn't enough, she was drop-dead gorgeous, too. Things like this just didn't happen. Not a Thursday night in Owensville, Indiana—and not ever to me.
Maybe T-Bomb was right. Maybe it was time for me to get my head out of my ass and do something about it. I took a step toward her.
“El,” I said.
“Friday Jill,” she said.
Then the phone rang.
I closed my eyes. It rang again…then again. There was something annoyingly familiar about the persistence of the rings. It could only be one person.
I sighed and walked over to where the phone sat on my desk in the living room.
“Hey? Friday?” It was T-Bomb. “You left your backpack at the VFW. I called your cell phone seven times until I figured out it was in the dern backpack. Luanne fished it out and showed it to me. I didn't hear that stupid ‘Give Me Back That Filet-O-Fish' ring tone goin' off like crazy in there.”
“I know. I'll get it from you in the morning, if that's okay?”
“I was gonna ask if you needed me to pick you up. I figured El DeBarge wouldn't drop you off at Hoosier Daddy since you didn't have your keys.”
“No. She brought me home.”
“She did?” She tried to muffle the speaker on her phone while she talked to somebody else. “ El DeBarge took her home ,” she whispered.
I sighed. “T-Bomb?” I said. There was no answer. “T-Bomb?” I repeated.
“What?” she came back on the line.
“I can hear you talking to somebody. Who's there with you?”
“Well, dern,” she said. “It's just me and Luanne. Is El DeBarge still there with you?”
“Yes.” I saw no reason to lie to her—she'd probably just drive by the house to check if I said no.
I heard her whispering again. “ El DeBarge is still there .”
“T-Bomb?” I called out. “You don't need to whisper. I already know Luanne is there.”
“Hey?” She was back on the line. “Luanne wants to know what you two are gonna do with that sink?”
“Why? Does she need one for something?”
“Yeah. She says that Jay's been wantin' one to put on the back porch for cleanin' fish.”
I sighed. “Tell her she can have it.”
“She says the post commander was hoppin' mad when he saw that bathroom.”
“I know. We're going to pay to get it all fixed.”
I heard muffled talking in the background again.
“Hey?” T-Bomb continued. “She says to tell you that your Grammy won that dern swimmin' pool.”
“She did?” I was shocked. It was hard to imagine Grammy with an above ground, Esther Williams pool. Although I figured Fritz would probably love it.
“Yeah.” T-Bomb was talking again. “But she don't want it. She traded with Ermaline.”
“What did Ermaline win?”
“Them garden gnomes. But she said they already had a set, and she really wanted that swimmin' pool.”
I was confused. “What's Grammy going to do with a set of paramilitary garden gnomes?”
T-Bomb cackled. “Nothin'. She traded them with Wynona Miles, who got the free anal gland thing from that place out in Poseyville. She don't have a dog no more since Buster got hit by that bookmobile last year.”
I'd had about enough of this conversation. “I'm hanging up now, T-Bomb.”
“Tell that El DeBarge you snore!”
I could hear her laughing as she hung up her phone. I held the receiver against my chest for a moment before returning it to its cradle.
El was watching me with an amused expression.
“T-Bomb,” I explained.
“I gathered as much,” she replied.
“So. About those dry clothes….”
She nodded. “Right behind you.”
She followed me across the living room and up the stairs that led to my bedroom. Fritz trotted along behind us. I noticed that he was sticking pretty close to El's heels.
My house was really just a story and a half. The upstairs area housed only one bedroom and a small bathroom. But the space was homey and inviting with a bank of three windows that overlooked the street in front of the house. I actually had another bedroom on the main floor, but that one I kept set up as a guest room. It was important for me to have a space that might be suitable for Grammy, if she ever got to the point that she didn't feel comfortable staying alone out in the country.
El was looking around the room with interest.
“I like this,” she said. “It's very spare. Almost Amish.”
I laughed out loud. “Amish? Is that code for ‘undecorated'?”
“No, smartass. I meant it as a compliment. I really like the simplicity of the colors and the furniture.”
“Well, Grammy gets the credit for that. This was all her stuff.” I pointed at the bed, which, mercifully, I had remembered to make up that morning before I left the house. “The quilt was made by her mother. That's partly why the colors are so faded.”
“It's beautiful.” El looked at me. “I like your house. It's a lot like you.”
“A work in progress?” I asked.
El shook her head. “No. Open. Uncluttered. Balanced.” She smiled. “Nice to look at.”
I knew I was blushing. “Thanks. Although I don't know of anyone else who would say my life is uncluttered.”
“I wasn't talking about relationships.”
“Neither was I.”
“That's good to know.”
“How about you?” I asked.
She looked confused. “What about me?”
“Is your life uncluttered, too?”
“Oh.” She gave me a small smile. “Yes. For some time now.”
“I guess that's also good to know.”
El laughed. “Why are we acting like two kids, passing notes in homeroom?”
I looked around the room. “Because it's late, we're both soaking wet, and we're standing here in the middle of my bedroom without a chaperone.”
She looked down at Fritz, who was sprawled out at her feet. “What about him?”
“He doesn't count.”
“Are you scared?”
I nodded. “Shitless. How about you?”
“I'd say that ‘shitless' about covers it for me, too.”
“I don't want to be scared, El.”
“Neither do I.”
“So where does that leave us?”
She shrugged and ran her hand along the oak footboard of my bed. “Soaking wet and standing in the middle of your bedroom without a chaperone.”
“I'm sorry. I don't know what else to say.”
I sighed. “This is one for the record books. An agitator who doesn't know what to say.”
“Well…we are better known for being people of action.”
“At least that's something. What would a person of action do right now?”
El gave me an ironic look.
“Besides that ,” I added.
El laughed. “I think you should lend me something dry to wear, and take a shower to wash that mess out of your hair.”
“Agreed.” I walked toward my dresser. “Will you wait for me?”
She nodded again. “Sure. Fritz can keep me company.”
“He'd like that.” I pulled a red t-shirt and a faded pair of gym shorts out of a drawer and held them out to her. “These will be too big, but I suppose you can make do.”
El took them from me. She unfolded the shirt and held it up to examine it.
“Screaming Eagles?” she asked.
“My alma mater,” I explained. “Very exclusive.”
She smiled and draped the shirt over her arm. “Come on, Fritz.” She patted a hand on her thigh. “Let's go downstairs and wait on mommy.”
Fritz got to his feet and followed her toward the stairs with his tail wagging. I watched them go.
“Help yourself to anything you want to drink,” I called after her. “There's beer in the icebox or wine in the rack on the counter.”
“I'll figure it out,” she answered. She and Fritz were already halfway down the stairs.
I stood rooted to my spot in the middle of the room, trying to make sense out of everything that had happened that day, and how it had all ended up with me about to take a shower while El reposed someplace downstairs with Fritz.
I gave up and headed for the bathroom. I knew there'd be plenty of time later to for me to pour over events and get even more confused. These days, that was just about the only thing in life I could count on.
Ella Fitzgerald was singing about falling leaves and sycamore trees.
I paused at the bottom of the steps. Moonlight in…Owensville?
It didn't have quite the same magic.
I walked toward the silvery sound. El and Fritz were on the back porch. El had changed, and was draped across the swing in a heartland parody of an art master's odalisque—all except for the baggy shorts and the Screaming Eagles t-shirt. It didn't matter. She still looked pretty mesmerizing. If Menard's had been able to put a photo of her in their Sunday newspaper ad, they'd have sold out of porch swings five minutes after opening the store.
Fritz was splayed out on the rug at her feet, happily munching away on a rawhide bone.
I stood in the doorway and watched them. Maybe I was wrong? Moonlight in Owensville did seem to have some magic.
El looked over and saw me standing there, staring at her.
“I hope you don't mind,” she said, gesturing at her bare feet. “I made myself comfortable.”
I walked over to join her. “I don't mind at all.” I didn't see any kind of beverage on the table in front of her. “Didn't you want anything to drink?”
“I thought I'd wait and see what you were in the mood for.”
The buzz I'd had earlier in the evening had long since evaporated. I thought I'd probably be safe to indulge in something else.
“Do you like wine?” I asked.
“Not as much as I like five dollar pitchers of Old Style.”
El rolled her eyes. “No. Not really . Of course I like wine, goofball.”
“I guess I did it again.”
“Did what again?”
I waved a hand in frustration. “That… thing . You know….”
El seemed to be enjoying my discomfort. “I can think of several things I'd like to have you do again—but I'm hoping none of them would make you this nervous.”
“You think this is funny, don't you?”
“Let's see,” El sat up and pivoted her legs around so she could stand up. “ Yes. Pretty much.” She smiled up at me. “I think I know why you're in so much distress.”
I kind of doubted it. “You do?”
“Of course. It's the elephants.”
Elephants? I looked around the room. “What elephants?”
El shook her head. “Oh, lord. You really are that literal, aren't you?”
“I thought we'd already established that.”
El got to her feet and took hold of my hand. “Come on. Show me your wine stash.”
I still felt like I was paying catch up. El was leading me into the kitchen. “What elephants?” I muttered.
“In the room, Friday Jill. The elephants in the room .” She looked at me over her shoulder. “You know…the ones we haven't talked about.”
“Oh. Those elephants.”
“As opposed to which other ones?” she asked. “Or are you going to try to tell me they're indigenous to southern Indiana, too?”
I shook my head. “No. Not the last time I checked.”
El was now perusing my modest wine stash.
“You think we have elephants?” I asked her.
She was holding a bottle of red zinfandel. “Only about as many as there were in A Passage to India .”
That was one of my favorite books. “I only remember one elephant in that.”
“It only takes one.”
I pointed at the bottle she was holding. “Is that the one you want?”
“Maybe. I'm not sure yet.” She slid it back into its spot and pulled out another bottle to examine.
“Oh, I like this one.”
It was a pinot, and one of my favorites.
“I do, too.”
She handed it to me. “Sold.”
I took it from her. “It's not the good one.”
“Are there bad ones?”
I shrugged. “More expensive ones.”
“That doesn't make this one bad.”
“No…just cheaper.” I turned the bottle over and read the label. “I'd say that this one is about the third rung on the MacMurray Ranch ladder.”
El crossed her arms. “Funny. I'd never have pegged you as a wine drinker.”
“I dunno. Maybe because I've only ever seen you drink beer.”
I smiled. “Have you ever looked at Aunt Jackie's wine list?”
“She has a wine list?”
“Oh, yeah. But it's only about three or four boxes long.”
El laughed. “Okay. I see your point.”
“Wanna take this back to the porch?”
“That'd be nice. We can join Fritz…and the elephant.”
“Maybe we should take four glasses?”
“I don't think so.”
I opened a drawer and pulled out my corkscrew. “Wanna grab the glasses? They're in that cabinet over there next to the icebox.”
El walked over to the cabinet and opened the tall door. She pulled out a glass and held it up the light. “These are beautiful. What are they?”
“They were Grammy's.”
“They look like old Tiffin glass.”
“I think that's right. I think they were wedding gifts. Most of them came from the Montgomery Ward catalog.” I smiled, remembering when Grammy gave them all to me. “Half of them were still in the gift boxes. She never used them, as far as I can remember. She always said they didn't hold enough iced tea to suit her. So she gave them to me a couple of years ago.”
“There must be a dozen of them in here.”
“Sixteen, actually. Isn't it strange to think that service for twelve used to be the norm?”
El laughed. “Not in my family. We bought everything by the dozen.”
“I keep forgetting that you have so many siblings.”
“I wish I could.”
We walked back out to the porch. El sat down on the swing again, but this time, she left space for me to sit beside her. I took the hint.
“You didn't like being part of a big family?” I started to open the wine.
“It wasn't so much that,” El explained. “It was more the total lack of anonymity. I always felt exposed—like I was living my life through all of them. Even in school, I was viewed as a subset of my brothers and sisters.” She shrugged her narrow shoulders. “I was like the human embodiment of whatever lurked beyond the ellipsis at the end of the family sentence.”
“Is that why you don't live near any of them?” I asked.
“It's why I don't live anyplace.”
“Because you want to be anonymous?”
“I used to think so.”
I handed her a glass of wine. “But you don't want to be anonymous now?”
El gazed back at me for a moment. “Not right now. No.”
I knew we were treading on dangerous ground, but I didn't really care. I held up my glass.
“Here's to discovering…” I searched for the right toast. “Happier punctuation marks?”
El laughed and clinked rims. “I'll drink to that.”
We tried the wine.
El gave a little moan. The sound of it stretched across the swing and vibrated along a path that ended up someplace near my toes.
“Good?” I asked.
“Oh, god. Yes.” El tipped her head back against the swing. “I am so tired.”
“You talk like you're a zillion years old.”
“Sometimes it feels like it.”
The music changed. Ella became someone else. It was a bluesy sound—edgier, with more overtones of swing. Like Bessie Smith on steroids.
“Who's that?” I asked.
El looked over toward the table where I kept my iPod dock. “The music?”
“It sounds like the Red Hot Skillet Lickers.”
She laughed. “Lavay Smith. They're a San Francisco band.”
I listened for a moment. “I like it.”
“I can't take credit for it. It's Pandora.”
“How did you manage that?” I asked.
“It was easy. I saw your dock over there and just stuck my phone on it. I hope you don't mind.”
“I don't mind at all. But how'd you figure out my password?”
She smiled. “I didn't have to. I was able to connect to an open network.”
“You found an open network?”
“Apparently. I think it belongs to someone named Eubanks?”
“Eubanks.” I thought about that. “You mean Uebinger? ”
“Yes—that was it.”
“Really?” I shook my head in wonder. “Lurleen Uebinger has Wi-Fi?”
“Is that a surprise?”
“Yeah. I didn't even know she had indoor plumbing.”
“You think I'm kidding, but I'm not. You'd be amazed by how a lot of people out here still live.”
“No I wouldn't,” El set her wine glass down. “I've worked in some areas that would make Gibson County look like Manhattan's gold coast.”
“America's auto workers,” I mused. “Overpaid, but still underprivileged.”
“Ain't that the truth?” she quipped.
“It sounds depressing.”
“It is,” she agreed.
“So why do you keep doing it?”
She gave me an amused look. “Doing what?”
She sighed. “I honestly don't know.”
We sat quietly for minute or so, just listening to the music. The Skillet Lickers were racing toward a rollicking finish. At our feet, an oblivious Fritz continued munching on his chew bone. This one still looked mostly intact. Grammy must have hooked him up with it when she dropped him off earlier, on her way to the fish fry.
“Why'd you leave Ithaca?”
El looked at me in surprise. I hadn't meant to just blurt the question out like that.
“I'm sorry if that's too personal,” I added quickly.
“It's fine.” She touched my knee with her hand. “You can ask me anything.”
I could tell by her expression that she was being sincere.
“Okay,” I said.
“Why did I leave Ithaca?” she repeated. She picked up her drink but didn't sip from it. Instead, she gently twirled it, causing the purple red liquid inside to swirl and coat the sides of the glass. She held it up in front of her face and looked at me through the lines of receding color. “Nice legs for a third rung,” she mused.
Of course, it was impossible for me not to drop my gaze from her glass to her other set of legs—the set that would inhabit the top rung on any scale.
She caught me staring. I looked up at her with what I was certain was a guilty expression. But her gray eyes were anything but accusing. They were translucent. Open.
“The short answer would be to say I left after the divorce. End of story.”
Divorce? El had been married?
“What would the long answer be?” I asked.
El looked dubious. “You really want to hear it?”
She sighed and slumped a bit lower into the swing. “It was an old story. He was a professor of mine—one of my dissertation advisers, actually. It was wholly inappropriate. But then, so was I. I was running pretty hard and fast in those days—away from everything and toward nothing…except what I thought everyone wanted me to do.”
“What was that?”
“Get married and make babies, of course. Catholic family. Remember?”
“Well,” she sighed. “I got it half right.”
“What do you mean?”
“I managed to snag a man, but he was more than twenty-five years my senior. That kind of took the whole ‘let's get pregnant' thing off the table.” She smiled. “That part actually worked very well for me. In retrospect, I realized that I chose him very carefully. Besides, Ivor already had kids who were nearly my age. It wasn't something he was interested in, either.”
“Oh. Yes.” She laughed. “Ivor Halvorsen. A luminary in international labor relations. He was a visiting professor at Cornell.”
I was still trying to wrap myself around the revelation that El had been married. To a man. To Ivor .
“Are you all right?” El's hand touched my leg again. I wasn't aware that I had been staring off into space.
“I'm sorry. I'm fine. I was just…”
“Trying to imagine me married?” she asked.
“You never thought about it?”
“For myself?” I pointed a finger at my chest. “God, no. I have a hard time even committing to buy a dozen eggs.”
El laughed out loud.
“You find that humorous?”
“And profound. Believe me…there are a lot of similarities.”
“Both are extremely fragile. A lack of moderation with either can ruin your health. They each begin to stink without proper care.”
I was incredulous. “You're awfully good at making lists.”
“I'm a Leo. It's what we do.”
I shook my head. “I'm a Libra.”
“Ah. See? That explains everything.”
She waved a hand didactically. It was easy to imagine her in front of a classroom. “Of course. Libras are indecisive and incapable of commitment.”
“That's not true. We're people who crave balance.”
“Oh, horse hockey. Libras are wimps who won't go left or right because they're terrified of making the wrong decision.”
“See? Balance .”
“See? Paralysis .”
I huffed. “Leos are bullies.”
“No. Leos are leaders.”
“We're not ‘bullies.' We just have the ability to present compelling arguments for whatever we want to do.”
It was my turn to laugh out loud. “Must be nice.”
“Sometimes it is,” she agreed.
“Well, clearly, as a person incapable of decisiveness, I wouldn't know.”
“Don't worry.” El bumped my shoulder. “You're trainable.”
“I hope so.” I drained my wine glass and reached for the bottle. “My track record hasn't been the greatest.”
El held out her glass. I topped it off, then refilled my own.
“Are we talking about relationships again?” she asked.
“Do you have to ask?”
“Apparently. You still haven't told me who ‘Misty Ann' is.”
“She's no one.” I felt bad about the words as soon as they left my mouth. “That's not true. She's…fine. I just made a bad decision and got involved with someone I shouldn't have.”
“We've all done that.”
“Yeah? Well I've sort of elevated it to an art form.”
I shrugged. “I don't know. I guess I'm afraid of getting hurt.”
“Don't these ‘bad decisions' ever end up hurting you?”
I looked at her. “They all do.”
El chewed the inside of her cheek. “Then it sounds like your strategy isn't working very well.”
“You might say that.”
“Maybe it's time to try a different approach?”
I thought about a variety of different approaches I could try right then, but opted to sip from my wine glass instead. El was right. Libras are wimps.
“What approach?” I asked her. “I don't think marriage would work out for me.”
“I wasn't thinking about marriage,” she replied. “And by the way—marriage didn't work out so well for me, either.”
“We lasted about two years. Barely. Turns out he was gay, and so was I. The difference was that he knew it and I didn't.”
I was confused by her explanation, and it must have showed on my face.
“Ivor wasn't looking for a wife—he was looking for a companion. He knew I was gay long before I did. I suppose he thought it was an arrangement that would work well for each of us.” She shrugged. “Our relationship was never sexual…that should've been a clue for me. But frankly,” she looked at me, “I was just relieved that it wasn't something he seemed to be interested in.”
“How did you….” I wasn't sure how to finish my question.
“Figure it out?” El asked.
She sighed. “We were friends with another couple—both professors. They had an ‘open' relationship…not uncommon at Cornell. She was only too happy to help me find my way.” She raised an eyebrow. “See? I told you that you weren't the only one who made bad decisions.”
“Yeah. Believe me…I couldn't get out of Ithaca fast enough. And to be fair, I really wasn't cut out for life in the classroom. I needed more real world experience. I wanted to do more than just talk about labor relations. I wanted to make a difference—not just spend my days deconstructing failed case histories on a white board, for a roomful of bored twenty-somethings.”
“So you became an agitator.”
She held up an index finger. “A divorced agitator.”
“Who likes girls?” I asked.
“Who likes a certain girl,” she added. “A lot.”
There we were again. Right back where we started. It was the same place El and I always ended up: the center point of our circle.
I looked down at my lap. I knew El was waiting for me to say something, but I was too afraid of saying the wrong thing…or the right thing.
“Does that scare you?” El's voice was soft. I barely heard it above the music. It was Bobby Darin now…searching for happiness beyond the sea.
Things didn't work out so well for him, either….
“Friday Jill?” El asked.
I looked up at her. “Yes,” I said. “It scares the piss out of me.”
“Why?” She touched my hand.
“Because you're leaving.”
“I can come back,” she said.
She looked confused. “Why do you say that?”
“Oh, come on, El.” I waved a hand in frustration. “Who comes back to Indiana? This is a place people leave—not a place people stay.”
“I don't count.”
El squeezed my hand. “To me, you do.”
I sighed, knowing it sounded every bit as morose as I felt. “It's a losing proposition, El.”
“Why do you say that? We wouldn't be the first two people to deal with distance as a relationship factor.”
“It's not just the distance. I work in a truck factory, El. You're a labor organizer.” I paused. “Anything about those two facts seem at all irreconcilable to you?”
“Not really. You forget: I live in a world where ‘irreconcilable differences' is a starting point for negotiation.”
I had to laugh at that one, even though I knew I was sinking deeper into the mire of hopelessness.
“There's no arguing with you.”
El smiled. “That's the first sensible thing you've said.”
I shook my head. “What makes you so sure this can work?”
“What makes you so sure it can't?”
“Because things like this don't happen to me.”
El looked confused. “Things like what?”
“Things like you.”
El sat there quietly for a moment, then reached up and pulled out the gaping neck of my Screaming Eagles t-shirt. She tucked her chin back and took a long look inside.
“Nope,” she said. “It's me, all right. Nobody else in here.” She released the shirt. “Sorry. Looks like things like me can happen to you.”
“No.” She held up a hand. “Stop trying to end this before it even gets started. You've been like someone on a seesaw—one minute you're up, the next you're down. It's making me crazy.” She set her wine glass down and moved closer. “And it's a colossal waste of time.”
Her proximity was causing all kinds of signal flares to ignite. Sparks were flying off in all directions. But what were they warning against? And instead of running for cover, why did I suddenly have a desire to join in, fire up a few more, and sit back to watch the show? Already the patterns of light were spectacular.
El was kissing my neck. I closed my eyes and watched as an endless cascade of blue and white flowers blazed and exploded against the night sky inside my head.
I remembered the very first time I saw fireworks at the Princeton fairgrounds. T-Bomb and I were lying on an old army surplus blanket that Grammy had spread out over the stiff grass. It was the fourth of July, and everything around us was alive with color and flashes of light. The loud booms went on and on. The hot summer sky was transformed into an electric canvas, painted by a thousand different brushes. It glowed and vibrated. We were positive that the ground beneath our backs would be changed forever—that so much color and light falling to earth would have to transform the monotonous miles of cornfields into something magical. Something extraordinary.
The fireworks emanating from El were just as sensational. Just as new and exotic. They held just as much mystery and promise. I turned my head and began my own exploration. This time, it was slower and more deliberate. Not fast or frenzied. There was no threat of discovery, no insistent interruption looming on the other side of the door—and no gauntlet of staring eyes to frame a path of retreat. And, remarkably, we weren't soaking wet—at least, not on the outside. The slow river of lost hope and longing that moved through my darkest places was overflowing its banks. I was in the midst of a millennial flood, and I knew it. It had never been like this for me. I didn't recognize the sensations because they'd never been part of my canon of experience. I couldn't call them by name or understand how they fit together. But what I could see and understand was that all of my empty places were filling up with something warm and solid. Shadowy images that had always been incomplete were gaining contours—coalescing into things I recognized. I could see people walking, and they no longer looked like trees.
That was the moment when everything changed for me. I drew back and held El's face between my hands.
“I can see you,” I said.
It was that simple.
She smiled at me. It was that small smile of hers—the one you might miss if you weren't looking for it. But I was looking. And finally, I was seeing.
She pressed her face into my hands.
“Thank god,” she said.
I kissed her forehead. “Stay with me.”
I realized after I said the words that I meant them in every sense. I wanted her to stay. Tonight. Tomorrow. A thousand tomorrows.
She didn't reply. But I felt the subtle movement of her head as she nodded.
Fritz chose that moment to decide that his night was at its end. He climbed to his feet and rested his chin on El's knee.
“He wants his bedtime walk,” I explained.
El patted his head as he panted against her leg. “Okay,” she said.
“Want to join us?” I asked.
She nodded. “Yes.”
We untangled ourselves and stood up. Fritz was already dancing beneath the hook where I kept his leash. El slipped her shoes back on and joined me at the door. I took hold of her hand, and we followed Fritz out into the balmy, blue and white night.
To Be Continued…
Return to the Academy