He has never touched her before. She doesn't have time to sort through her feelings about it now. She can do that later. He is a nice man, really. Bud, who has been dead exactly four months, would have been swearing like a sailor's parrot as she fumbled and failed at the wheel of this smelly, loud machine.
No. That isn't quite right--Bud never would have even tried to teach her how to drive his '63 Ford with a three-speed on the column.
"It's a three-on-the-tree," Frank said two months ago when he agreed to give her driving lessons.
"What tree?" she asked.
Frank's eyes did a quick spin around her dimly lit living room and answered, "You should get you a little car with an automatic. Automatic transmission."
They sat across from each other, he on the sofa with the quilt covering the worn-through places; she in her faded wing-back; Bud's lounger empty, the top stained from his hair oil, the shabby arms darkened from his sweat.
"A little car? Well, I . . . I would like that, but . . . I can't."
"Bud left no . . . very little . . . ."
"Oh." Frank was staring at Bud's lounger, the shape of Bud's ass permanent in the cushion.
"This place. The truck. The animals . . . which I sold already. The tractor and . . . ."
Frank grimaced and nodded hard. He understood. She was struggling to understand the check book and the insurance policies and the loans--and she couldn't drive, had no way to get groceries, no way to see the doctor about chest pains, shortness of breath, sore throat. Sixty years of marriage, and what did Bud ever teach her or do to prepare her for . . . this? She couldn't think of a thing. The John Deere tractor sat in the barn without an alternator.
"But I do insist on paying you," she said with a decisive nod.
Frank frowned and tried to wave away the business deal. He was the driver-education and English teacher at the local high school for forty-five years in addition to working his farm.
She stared at him, didn't blink. "Five dollars a lesson. I insist."
Frank stared at her, nodded, stood to go. "Don't you worry. We'll get you driving that truck." His dentures clicked.
The truck lurches forward, then dies and starts rolling back. Barbed-wire and fence posts slip past with gathering speed.
"Put the brake on. Brake!"
It suddenly dawns on her that she is pumping the clutch, but it's too late. With a jerk, the steering wheel escapes from her hands like a mad snake. The truck veers to the right.
"Keep her straight!" Frank grabs the steering wheel with his left hand.
But one of the truck's rear tires drops into the ditch, the jolt snapping her head back against the seat. Then the dead truck lists suddenly so that she ends up in Frank's lap.
Air whistles through his dentures. "It's okay," he groans. "I think I can get her out." She struggles back to her side of the truck, pulling on the steering wheel. He pushes the passenger door open, drops to the ground.
Ethel gets out on the driver's side, the ancient door screeching like a Banshee. It seems a long drop, and she almost twists her ankle, but Frank is there and catches her around the waist, holds her, looks into her eyes. She straightens up, and the cold wind bites her face hard, drying the sweat on her forehead and the tears that suddenly come.
Still a crybaby.
Her chest feels full, as if she'd swallowed creek water again. She did learn to swim after the initial failure--and loved it–-but this struggle with the truck has been going on for nearly two months, and she feels like the stupidest woman alive.
"You don't need to be out here, Ethel," Frank says, his voice husky.
As he helps her back up into the truck cab, his fingertips brush her rear end. Her caboose, Bud used to call it. Get your scrawny caboose over here, girl. Yeah. You are so pretty. He'd be looking at her butt, not her face, when he said it, and that always bothered her, but she'd be glad to prance around naked all day for Bud if he'd just come back to life and drive this truck for her again, the way he did all those years.
Her chest hurting, she stares at the fence posts supporting strings of barbed wire and capped by clumps of snow. Her boundaries have always been clear, and she has lived with a sense of peace if not much else. She has put up preserves, fed chickens, cooked, mopped floors, mended clothes, reared a son. It has been a life without . . . without monsters, she tells herself. Until now. This truck--dark green, almost black like the big flies she swats endlessly in the heat of summer--is a monster. Foam belches out of the vinyl upholstery. Smoke spews from its rear. She can grab a fat hen by its neck, press it against a tree stump, slam the heavy hatchet down and not think twice about the fountain of blood. She has always been a tough woman, she assures herself. Practical. A farmer's wife. But this truck . . . .
Frank gets in, starts the engine, eases up on the clutch, rocks the truck gently with expertise, whispering to it as if it were a woman he wanted, all the while biting his lip, a canine revealed like a little fang, and then the truck is back up on the road, and they ascend the hill smoothly.
After he shifts into third gear, Frank reaches over and puts his hand on her knee again.
"We've been seeing a lot of each other lately, Ethel, and I–-"
"We've gotten to know each other--"
"If you got--"
"Frank. Move your hand. Please."
He removes it, seems not to know what to do with it, lets it hover between them, finally lets it drop, his wrist on the inside of his thigh, his long fingers dangling between his legs.
He drives slowly, clears his throat. There's a click from his mouth but no words. Then, "How long now since Bud . . . ?"
"Seems like yesterday."
"But really months."
"Everything seems like yesterday. Fifty years ago seems like yesterday."
"And at our age, time is precious." He clears his throat. "'Had we but world enough and time . . . this coyness, lady, were no crime . . . .'"
"What? Are you all right, Frank?"
"It's a poem."
"Oh. A poem. Bud liked limericks. Dirty, every one of them."
Suddenly, she sees Bud slouched dead in front of the TV. He had been watching "Bay Watch."
They're at Frank's property line, and he slows, shifts down, and points. "I'm putting in alfalfa in that field there come spring. It's been fallow too long."
Ethel nods. "That's nice." She hopes there will be no more poetry. It does nothing but confuse her.
Frank stops at the entrance of his driveway, sits there surveying his place. White-painted, two-story brick house. Bright red barn. Fences straight. Ethel knows he wants her to admire it all, but she doesn't say anything. Her and Bud's farm is down below in Love Hollow, and the barn is about to fall over. When she feels Frank staring at her, she says, "I need to get home now." She looks straight ahead at the well-pump in front of his house.
Frank backs up, and they descend toward her place, the fence posts and their barbed wire and their snow caps passing slowly.
Coming near her driveway, she glances at the sad barn and then looks beyond it at Bud's trash heap. Rusty cans, bed springs, ashes, soot-blackened light bulbs.
Near the trash heap are all the vehicles–-eight of them--Bud ever owned, rusting away, including the 1933 Chevy pick-up, in the cab of which she surrendered to Bud sixty years ago. Wooden side rails and a wooden gear-shift knob. She was seventeen. July night and she hadn't stopped sweating for a month, hadn't stopped thinking about Bud's hard kisses that not quite hurt her mouth. Bud was lean then and had dark blue eyes like a clear October morning sky. She had only one more year of school if she wanted to finish. Clouds thickened above the Chevy, the stars gone, the fields lost in the new deep darkness. Then lightning flashed.
So she had to marry him. It was probably just as well. She had wanted to do things–-though she can't remember now what they were. A long life has taught her that either people never get what they want or they do but are disappointed. And she had learned that after the initial soaring of love it became a hollow, a place that enclosed you and made you feel all kinds of ways.
Still, a person has to go through the motions of deciding what she wants. She looks at Frank. "I didn't mean a little while ago that your poem was dirty. I know you've got a good education and read a lot and all. What was it? Time and the world? It didn't sound like a limerick."
"Oh, it gets plenty dirty enough for some people. 'Into ashes all my lust . . . .'"
They come to her mailbox, "BU & ETH L MCC Y," the silver and black stick-on letters peeling off. Frank pulls through the opening in the fence and says, "Through the iron gates of life . . . ."
Ethel figures it's part of the poem or some other poem.
"You're too smart for me, Frank."
In front of her two-bedroom clapboard, Frank pulls on the parking brake, then touches her liver-spotted hand.
She looks out at the bleak scene, feeling his touch. "Here it is the second of March and no sign of spring," she says.
He starts to speak, hesitates, then finally says, "You know . . . if you got . . . married again–-"
Ethel jerks her arm away and shoves open the passenger door. Frank has gotten out, too, and she looks across the battered hood of the truck at him. His eyes look like a young man's, a boy's even. She realizes that she's acting like he asked her to get naked for him or to touch his willy. The wind lifts and twirls dry leaves. Small trees bow low. The big trees shudder, fight back. In a way, he did ask her to touch his willy.
He says something, but the wind blows his words away.
Then he nods, touches the bill of his red baseball cap, and walks, head down, toward his own old pick-up, which is clean and well cared for. He climbs in, and it starts up without a fuss, doesn't smoke or shudder or squeal.
His wife died three years ago, Ethel calculates. Maybe in three years she'll want to get married again. But probably not. More likely, she figures, frowning, she'll be . . . ashes.
She climbs the porch steps, her thigh aching.
Inside, she hangs up her coat in the cloak closet in the mud room back of the kitchen, catches sight of her reflection in one of the window panes of the back door.
She's an old troll.
As a girl, she spent hours staring at herself in mirrors.
She remembers. Remembers. Time enough and the world.
She smooths her flower-print skirt, straightens her stockings, hesitates, but then moves her trembling hand across her thigh, slowly, and through the quarter-inch split in the silk, touches her cold old flesh.
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