A Short Story by TA Barnes
The thing that saved that day fairly glowed out at her from the classified section of the magazine she trifled through in the hard plastic chair in the dentist’s waiting room.
Her eyes had tried to skim over it like all the rest of the boxed ads selling or persuading people like her to some action that would, with a money-back guarantee, elevate, save or satisfy even the most mundane or troubled or hopeless life.
The cynic in her made it easy to pass quickly over them, most of them, even as something else kept her looking.
She read it completely. Twice. Then flipped a page and let her eyes ramble until something stopped them. Nothing stopped them. Nothing made her think of something else and so she turned back the page and read it once more. Red Lodge, Montana. Where the heck was Red Lodge, Montana? For that matter, exactly where was Montana?
She loosed her phone from its ready pocket in the sassy flowered purse at her side, flipped to a map program, found Montana, found Red Lodge, looked for something big, some big city, some real city on the same screen. She made the screen smaller, found Boseman, found Billings, had she heard of them? She flipped and flipped the little screen until she arrived in Des Moines, calculated. Nine-hundred-ninety-eight miles. Fourteen-and-one-half hours of driving. Doable in a day.
They could save plane fare. Could they keep from crossing some point of no return locked together in the space of the car for fourteen hours?
She touched two fingers to her jaw, felt the loose teeth, glanced around the waiting room. Faces in phones, faces turned to the daytime talk show she had early on tuned out, faces staring blankly at their shoes or anywhere except at her. She read it again. It unnerved her a little. Somebody knew her. Somebody sent this to her, wrote this for her, put it in this magazine and placed it on the chair next to her where she would find it on this day, this day when she needed to find it, needed badly to find something to give her hope.
It was something like a bug might feel, pinned to a third grader’s collection sheet, examined, identified, known.
We know you, it said. Or that was how she took it. We know you and we can help. But you have to get here. You have to make an admission and you have to get him here with you.
Would he go for it? Could she persuade him? She would have to find other attractions emanating from Red Lodge, Montana to pull it off. How was the fishing there? Had she not heard somebody talk about world class fishing in Montana? That might be enough. If they added a day at the end for him to fish, that might be enough.
She could get the time, she thought, enough time to drive up there and spend the four days of resurrection promised by the ad, and one more fishing and one more driving home, renewed, animated, alive together in their new enthusiasm for each other devoid of fear, their renewed and desperately needed interest in each other, respect for each other. It would be fourteen hours of real talk, with plans to make and understandings to reach and misunderstandings to put way back behind them. It would be so much different from the first fourteen hours, the fourteen hours to get there.
How to get him in the car to start with? How to get them both through fourteen hours of nothing but themselves? The fishing. It gleamed like hope, like a set of tools handed a woman who must repair the dead engine of her plane at five thousand feet and plunging. The fishing might get him in the car. Could she bear 14 hours of a fishing guidebook on tape? Was there such a thing?
She raised her eyes again, cast about to be certain no one had hacked her thoughts and was grinning at her, supremely entertained. She felt foolish. This was her? This was really her? Conniving with herself from her stiff seat on the plastic chair in the damned dentist’s office as to how to lure him to Red Lodge, Montana and willing to consider his interests and only his, no matter how boring or brain-killing or disheartening or hope-deadening they might be to her? Fishing? Really?
She read it yet again. She studied each word, applied it to the sinking ship that was their marriage, to the other days, the early ones when it hadn’t been this way and neither of them would have believed it could get this way. They applied. Those stupid descriptions dripping with honey to catch flies like her applied. They knew her.
But maybe they could fix it.
If she could get him there. If they could agree to give it a shot and find a way to get through getting there and get through the jolts certain to be applied like shock therapy to each of them and their dying thing, maybe it could be fixed. This ad, it was a good one, she’d give them that, but it said it could be fixed and it said so in words she could almost believe.
She didn’t even know she wanted to believe. That was the point to which it had come. And that, she was sure, is a long way gone.
Someone called her last name and she looked up guilt-stricken, as though she’d been caught in an earnest and audible conversation with herself. She made her face smile back at the receptionist and stood, turning toward the wall so no one would see her tearing the ad from the magazine and stuffing it, nearly worn out by all her readings, into a pocket of the sassy purse, an expensive distraction that he thought frivolous and representative of things that really mattered to her.
She got herself through the morning without looking at it, pocketed away with its words of promise as though waiting to bring joy and colors and springtime back into a life turned gray too many seasons ago to want to remember.
She brought it out at lunchtime. With a shade of a smile and a steady hand she pushed it across the table past the salad and past the soup to Connie, the shade of the smile that Connie would see through but somehow made her feel a little less foolish for clutching at a hope, a little less pitiable for having to take an interest, even the passing interest she was prepared to present, in measures such as were promised in Red Lodge, Montana, where all you had to do was get there with the other member of your troubled union.
Connie read it carefully. Was this not why she was a close friend, well, the close friend in her life? Connie had a way of taking her seriously. She badly needed to be taken seriously at least once in a while, despite the echoes of her mother’s long-dead words, “Oh, Jane, don’t take yourself so seriously.”
She’d tried that, Mom, thanks very much. It didn’t work out so well.
“Do you think he would agree to it?”
“I don’t know.” She put the words out there the same as she would have thrown out a hand to protect from a fall. Was everything in her life automatic?
“Maybe. Probably not. I guess… I’m trying to decide how much trouble it would be worth to get him to agree with it. You know what I mean?”
Connie nodded. “You’ve gone to a lot of trouble for that man already, seems to me.”
“I’m not like you. I can’t throw him off like a torn blouse. I wasn’t raised that way. You mend things, right?”
“Nobody ever said you were raised right, darling.”
“Well, thank you for that. I’m trying for some help here, Con. I think this really might be the thing. It really might work. Did you read it?”
“I read it. ‘Bring back the fire.’ Hell, who wouldn’t go for that? But here’s the thing: the fire is what got you into it, how long now, six years? Fire is great but how long did it last? Through the honeymoon? All the way through?”
“Well, it couldn’t hurt to try to restore some of the feeling, the respect, the… hope. It says it can help the most troubled relationship.”
Connie set the crinkled ad on the table. She didn’t seem to want to meet Jane’s eyes. It seemed a long time before she came up with something to say and when she did it sucked.
“Jane, we don’t bullshit each other, right? Darling, I won’t say it can’t work. Hell, maybe he’ll get religion. That would work maybe. Or maybe he’ll have a near-death experience and wake up a changed and honest and loving man. Life is crazy, right? Maybe this could work.”
“But you don’t think so.”
“Right. I don’t think so. And truthfully, I don’t think the bastard deserves it.”
The sounds of the sidewalk café came down in the silence between them. The waiter approached and dodged quickly off at the look in Connie’s eye. The woman at the table next to them laughed almost beyond tolerance while the bass of some lowrider’s ride reached them faintly from down the street.
Connie finally stood up. “Back to work, I guess. But, here’s the thing: You need to do what you need to do. If you still want to try to make it work, if you want to try to put all that crap behind you and really believe the man loves you and can learn to treat you better, then you need to go for it. Whatever it takes. But try to live through it, okay?”
She pulled it out again after what sufficed as dinner, out on the apartment balcony where he wouldn’t be likely to follow. She read portions of it again, slowly.
“Relationship restoration can be difficult, painful. We approach it as though we are restoring the finest old priceless family heirloom. There are layers of grime to strip away, cracks and breaks to mend….”
Grime to strip away. That was one way to look at it. There was plenty of that, really, the little inconsiderate acts they began allowing themselves, the disillusions and eventual untruths that somewhere began driving a wedge between them, somewhere began building callouses and protective habits that made it increasingly difficult to be hurt. The grime was maybe manageable.
The cracks it mentioned, maybe they were the arguments, the shouting matches, the cruel, cruel words and days of silence that often followed. Did he even remember what most of them were about? She could not. Oh, something she might buy. Those were big ones. Or him ogling the waitress’s ass. She’d been right on that, though, about what it meant, where it could lead.
Still, the cracks could be filled. Maybe. If they tried. Both of them.
But the breaks. Her breath came hard just thinking about those. She knew what they were. He knew what they were. Neither of them was likely ever to forget those. Like broken bones they had crippled the union, stopped it cold where it lurched along like a wounded beast, stopped it and downed it and almost kept it from getting up.
When it did get up, it limped forward with bones that were not healed, that would have to be broken again and set by someone with a greater knowledge, a greater strength and a greater motivation than either of them seemed to have.
Could paying someone, even an expert someone, motivate them enough to mend those bones the way they would have to be mended to put the beast back on four legs and four legs strong move it forward?
They knew her.
That was the thing. They had handled hundreds of cases like hers and Mike’s. She and he were no one special, not unique, not beyond the help of experts. Were they?
Connie had said to go for it. She wouldn’t have told her that if she hadn’t thought there might be a chance. She just wasn’t sure about those broken bones.
But it was worth it. It was, wasn’t it? As long as there was a chance they could get back on track, shouldn’t she try? Wouldn’t she forever feel as though she had let herself down if she didn’t give it her best?
Hello, Mom—again. But Connie was wrong there, too. Mom might not have been perfect but she loved her daughter and passed along the best of what she had learned in a life that couldn’t have been easy.
The TV announcer’s voice reached her out on the balcony, high-pitched in excitement over something one of the teams did, one of the many teams that so clearly held so much more interest for her husband than did she.
She would think on it a bit more. Tonight was not the night to bring it up. They weren’t really talking tonight. They hadn’t quite gotten through that last time. Anyway, she would have to be careful about it, think about where to bring it up, maybe in a restaurant.
Geez, had it really come to that? He wouldn’t do it again, if she thought he would do it again, she’d be history, right? Right?
So she held onto it a little longer, slipping the crumpled paper that held the ray of hope into her pocket again and leaning her elbows on the railing of the balcony, looking out over the city’s lights to the dark beyond where anything was possible. She held onto it as a person might hold off checking her lottery numbers, to extend the time that winning still could be a possibility, still could be that lightning strike that would change her world.