Dennis Vannatta


                When you meet somebody and wind up liking them better than you thought you would, it’s enough to make you wonder if that ol’ glass isn’t half full after all. It doesn’t happen often, though, and when it does you should cherish it—if cherish isn’t too corny a word to use. Now, why did I say that? I’m trying to be a person who can use a word like cherish without blushing, who can be sensitive and caring of others, because the kind I’ve guy I’ve been up to now hasn’t worked out too well for me. It’s tough going, though.
                It was a year ago today, July 4th, that I met Trent Ulmer. His wife, Dixie, worked at the Med Center with a lady I was seeing at the time, Gabrielle. Don’t recall her last name. We were going to have a barbecue at Gabrielle’s condo out on Highway 10. She didn’t break the news to me that she’d invited another couple until I was sitting there drinking my first beer, too late to bail out. Looking back, I think we were probably already on the downhill slide, and springing this other couple on me was Gabrielle’s way of letting me know she didn’t want to be alone with me. Maybe I’m wrong. That glass has always seemed half empty to me. Like I said, I’m fighting the dark side, but that dark side keeps fighting back.
                Gabrielle could tell I wasn’t crazy about the idea of having to socialize with complete strangers, but she told me I’d like the guy, Trent, a college professor. College professor!
                “A prof, huh? Hot dang, got hisself a whole bunch of that ejumacation, I bet.”
                As soon as I said it I knew I’d sounded like some redneck horse’s ass. Well, it’s true, my neck does get pretty red in my business, putting in new sidewalks and driveways for folks. I’m the owner, but I spend half my time out under the sun with the boys. I don’t apologize for my job. I like pouring concrete. You get finished and it’s all right there in front of you, good job or bad, you know it right away. No questions asked. If you work with people, now, you run into complications, a thing I don’t like.
                Anyway, because I was embarrassed at sounding like a jerk, I tried my best to be friendly when the other couple showed up. Turns out it wasn’t hard at all.
                The first thing Trent said after the introductions was, “Is this any way to treat a guest, Randal? I’ve been here close to twenty seconds already and I don’t see a single beer in my hand.”
                How could you be uncomfortable with a guy like that? We killed a solid hour just talking about beer. He’d spent a few years in the army—an officer, but I tried not to hold that against him. I never made it past Airman First Class and spent my entire tour in North Dakota first, then Alaska, then Greenland. I tell people I was in the Ice Force. Trent, though, was in Europe, Asia, all over, and had drunk beer in a lot of different countries, a thing I liked to hear about. I told him that if he’d promise to just lecture on beer, I’d take one of his courses.
                When we finished talking about beer, we turned to sports. Turns out Trent liked sports, too, so we were set.
                The girl’s were in the kitchen, didn’t seem to be bothered by us pretty much ignoring them. Probably should have taken that as another sign about where Gabrielle and I were headed. Nowhere.
                I really don’t remember much at all about Dixie that first day. Blonde, short but built. Not that I thought about the built part. When I’d hear a guy say the way he wanted to go was getting shot by a jealous husband, I’d say, “Welcome to it. I don’t want to get shot by anybody for anything.” Now, though, I don’t know. I’d like to see that woman worth taking a bullet for. What worries me is that maybe I already have and didn’t know it.
                The girls finished cooking, and we ate out on the balcony because we thought we might be able to see the fireworks display over in Maumelle. No such luck. It was hot out there, so the girls went back inside, and Trent and I started talking about fireworks. Trent was about my age, mid-thirties, and we sounded like a couple of old farts talking about the good ol’ days when we’d spend all day shooting off firecrackers, getting in bottle-rocket fights and such.
                “I remember when we were kids you couldn’t legally buy fireworks inside the Little Rock city limits,” Trent said. “Today, though, you can’t even buy them in Pulaski County.”
                “Not even in the county?”
                “Not in the whole goddamn county.”
                “That’s un-American.”
                I told him I knew for a fact you could still buy them in Saline County because we’d done a job in Benton last week and I’d passed a half-dozen stands on the way.
                “Let’s go buy some,” Trent said.
                “What, right now?”
                I said it’d probably be a half hour there and back, and he said we should be able to get another beer drunk in that time. I love this guy! I said to myself.
                “What about the women?” I said.
                “The women? What are we, men or mice?”
                We drove down to Saline County and bought firecrackers and rockets and Roman candles and didn’t even go back into the condo to say hi to the girls when we got back but shot everything off on the condo parking lot, keeping an eye out for the cops.
                I won’t lie, it was a pretty emotional experience for me because I started thinking about my dad. Every 4th we’d shoot fireworks off at night after my dad got home from work. My mom died when I was a little kid. I almost think I can remember her, but I may just be remembering my dad talking about her. Everybody always feels sorry for the kid in a situation like that, but I always felt sorriest for my dad. He was the one who carried her in his heart. He died when I was in North Dakota. They let me come home for his funeral.
                When Trent and I went back inside, I expected to catch hell from Gabrielle for being gone so long, but she didn’t bat an eye. Yeah yeah, another sign I should have picked up on, but I wasn’t as sensitive then as I am now.
                I checked out Dixie next. I figured she’d be giving poor ol’ Trent a dirty look. She was giving him a look, all right, but not a dirty one. It took me a long time to figure out what kind of look it was.

                I started seeing Gabrielle less and less after that. Not sure exactly why. I regret it now because she was a terrific lady, pretty as her name, smart, funny. Probably she wanted more of a commitment than I was ready to make. I was thirty-five then, and it seemed like the world was full of women just as hot as Gabrielle. Lose one, go down to Cajun’s or Smitty’s on Friday night and pick out another one, no problemo. Now I’m thirty-six and feel like I’m on the downhill side of something. I spend less time thinking about the new thing on Friday night and more time thinking about what I’ve lost out on. That list is pretty long.
                Anyway, at the same time I was seeing less of Gabrielle, I started seeing more of Trent. It started with Trent calling me about doing lunch because he’d heard from Gabrielle I guess that I had a job laying new sidewalks at that little strip mall across from the university. We ate at a Mexican place over there, me in my work clothes and sweat. I figured Trent’d be in a corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches and smoking a pipe—college professor—but he was dressed about like me, minus the sweat. We talked about Mexican food and sports, and the topic turned to golf. I’m a golf nut. I play a couple of times a week, more if things are slow on the job. Use Ping irons and Callaway woods, currently back to Titlelist Pro-V1s after trying Nike balls for a year. Like I said, a golf nut. Trent said he was so bad even duffers kept their distance so he wouldn’t contaminate their swings. I said let’s play sometime, just to be polite, because he’s right, it can mess up your game to play with somebody really godawful. Well, he was so bad that godawful wouldn’t have wanted to play with him, either, but he was so good-natured about it, I enjoyed myself. We started playing about once a week.
                As much as anything, I liked it when the golf was over with and we’d have a beer or two on the 19th hole and shoot the breeze. Just a couple of guys.
                One day he asked me how things were going with Gabrielle, and I said there wasn’t much going on there at all. He said he knew the feeling because that’s about how they were going with Dixie. I told him I was sorry to hear that and asked him if they were separated or something. He said no, he didn’t mean that but, well, it was a hard thing for one man to talk to another man about.
                For a crazy moment I thought he was going to tell me he was gay and had the hots for me, that the whole business—going out for fireworks, lunch, the golf—was all part of a plan to get close to me. But that, thank God, wasn’t it. No, his problem was he hadn’t been doing any good in the sack.
                “I haven’t been able to do a thing since I got back from Iraq,” he said.
                Jesus. I knew he’d spent several years in the army, had been all over, but I didn’t even remember him saying he’d been in Iraq. When was that, anyway? I recalled him talking about “last year” at the university, so he’d been in Little Rock at least a year going on two. It’d been that long since he’d had sex with his wife?
                “Were you . . . injured over there?” I asked. It was none of my business, but then he’d brought it up.
                “No. But I saw things over there . . . did things . . . . There’s a lot of guilt. I haven’t been any good for Dixie since I got back.”
                “Jesus. Have you seen anybody about it?”
                “You mean a shrink? No, I don’t have a lot of faith in the talking cure. I saw what I saw. I did what I did. Talking isn’t going to change a thing.”
                I didn’t know what he meant by that “talking cure” stuff. Probably some college professor shit.
                “Well, at least you talked to Dixie.”
                “No. Dixie is the one person I couldn’t possibly talk to about it.”
                “Trent, she’s your wife.”
                “Well, I haven’t been much of a husband.”
                “That exactly why you have to talk to her, man. Explain.”
                He shook his head. “Can’t possibly do it.”

                It was my idea to go talk to Dixie. Trent for sure didn’t suggest it and I don’t think even hinted it, but then I haven’t been the kind of person who cuts things fine enough to pick up on stuff like hints. I’ve probably missed out on a lot.
                I’ll say this: at the time I didn’t think I was doing anything Trent would have objected to.
                I remembered Trent saying that Dixie only worked half days now, mornings, so I figured there was a good chance I’d catch her at home in the afternoon. I was kind of hoping I’d miss her. I was nervous as hell. I’d never done anything like this before, this mission of mercy thing. At the same time it felt kind of good thinking about somebody other than myself for a change, so I forced myself to go through with it.
                Well, she was home, all right. As soon as she came to the door I just came out with it. Told her I wanted to talk to her about Trent, that he was a pretty unhappy guy, which would be no news flash to her, but there were things she didn’t know.
                She nodded like she’d been expecting something like this and said, “Maybe we could go get a cup of coffee.” She went back into the house to make a call, and then we drove over to this coffee house, Java Jive, in the Heights
                At Java Jive, Dixie drank tea made out of flowers and I drank a three-dollar cup of coffee. I cut to the chase. “Dixie, Trent’s real unhappy. I know I don’t have to tell you that. I feel bad about it because I think he’s a great guy and—“
                “Then maybe you should go live with him. It’s not all a merry-go-round for me, either.”
                “I know that, Dixie. I know the problem he’s been having. You know what I mean. Look, I’m the last one to be giving advice, but—“
                “How are things with Gabrielle these days, Randal?”
                I winced. “Not so good, Dixie, not so good.”
                “What happened there, Randal?”
                “To be honest with you, Dixie, I’m not really sure.”
                “That’s the sort of thing you should know, Randal.”
                She really threw me on that one. There are things that are true, and then there are things that are so true they knock the wind out of you. Why didn’t I know what went wrong between Gabrielle and me? But I wasn’t there to talk about me. I forced the conversation back to Trent.
                “You’re right, Dixie. The funny thing is right now I know more about your problem, yours and Trent’s, than I do about mine.”
                “Ah. You know all about us. How nice.”
                I’d sweated less pouring concrete in July.
                “I know Trent’s problem is that he feels guilty, that he saw things and did things he can’t get over, can’t quit thinking about, and it’s causing his other problems. You know what I’m talking about. Physical problems. Sexual. You know.”
                Dixie just smiled. She seemed to be enjoying this a lot more than I was.
                “Things he saw and did. What things, exactly?”
                “He didn’t get specific. I was in the Air Force when the first Iraqi thing was going on, but I didn’t get any closer than Greenland. I was a civilian by the time this latest shit started up. But I’ve seen news clips and read a little about it. I can use my imagination. Trent must have got into some terrible shit over there.”
                “Iraq? Randal,” Dixie said with a smile that looked like it was carved out of ice with a scalpel, “Trent never got closer to Iraq than Kaiserslautern, Germany. That’s where we met.”
                I was trying to think of what say, think of what to think, when she looked at her watch and said, “Come on. Time to go.”

                I pulled up to the curb in front of her house and waited for her to get out, but she said, “Come in, Randal. There’s something I want to show you.”
                I followed her in. Instead of turning toward the den, she led us the other way. I followed her into a bedroom.
                “Here’s where it all happens . . . or doesn’t happen,” she said.
                She sat down on the edge of the bed.
                “Dixie, I think I’d better be going,” I said.
                She held her hand out to me. “Come on,” she said. “Come on. . . Come on. . . Come on . . .”
                I’m six-one by two-hundred and pump iron four times a week down at Gold’s, but I’m a weak man. I took her hand.

                I’d go over there at 2:30 every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. She said Trent had classes then.
                I wasn’t proud of what I did. The only thing I’ll give myself credit for is that I never tried to justify or rationalize it, didn’t say, Well, I was only doing what Trent wasn’t man enough to do, or, Dixie wanted it as bad as I did, or, She came on to me first. I knew it was wrong and went ahead and did it, three times a week, 2:30 in the afternoon.
                Yeah, I felt bad about Trent, bad enough that I couldn’t face him anymore, but I won’t lie, I got a thrill out of doing it with another man’s wife. She got a thrill out of it, too, kind of kinky at that. We always had to do it on Trent’s side of the bed. Her idea. If I tried to draw her over to the other side, she’d pull away and say, “No, over here.” The only time we did it anywhere else was one time, well, they had this chest, I’d call it a cedar chest, along the wall on Trent’s side of the bed. Well, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
                It went on for months. Went on longer than Gabrielle and I were together. I’ve tried to remember if I was ever with a woman longer than I banged Dixie.
                Ouch. I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t want to make it sound dirty because it wasn’t, at least not all of it and not the most important part, for me anyway. The neatest thing was that I’d started out thinking that Dixie was a cold bitch and that we both were just out to take what we wanted, but I discovered that she was a really sweet person, sensitive. I’d like to think that she’d changed her mind about me, too. In fact, I’m sure she did. In the beginning I’d no sooner get through the door than she’d take me by the hand and pull me into the bedroom, and let the good times roll. After a few months, though, we’d talk a little, ask each other about our days and so forth. She even began to make us a cup of tea. I’d never drunk tea in my life except once in awhile iced, but I became a real fan of that Earl Grey. Dixie liked the herbal stuff. She tried to get me to drink it, but I told her it wasn’t my cup of tea, ha ha. I wouldn’t tell this to a bunch of guys over beers, but the truth is there were afternoons I would have taken a second cup of tea and skipped the bedroom. But after a little chit-chat and tea, Dixie would always start to get a little, oh, I don’t know, antsy or something, would look at her watch and then jump up and grab my hand and say, “Come on.”
                Was I falling in love with her? I think I was really attracted to the idea of falling in love with her. Is that the same thing? I guess that’s another thing I need to figure out.

                The affair or whatever you want to call it ended about a month ago, on June 7th.
                What happened that afternoon came as a big shock to me—the shock of my life, no question—but I shouldn’t have been so surprised. The signs, the clues were there. Like glancing through the university course schedule someone had left on the table at Supercuts and finding that all the classes Trent was listed as teaching were in the mornings. And one time turning the opposite way I usually did out of the cul-de-sac they lived on, trying to take a shortcut to the Lowe’s on Chenal, and seeing a car just like Trent’s parked about a block away. I didn’t give either one of them a second thought, though. I wasn’t the suspicious type, maybe because there’d never been anybody I cared about enough to get suspicious over.
                OK, no more dragging this out. You’ve already guessed the punch line to this traveling salesman joke, you’re already snickering. Probably I would be too if it’d been somebody else it happened to and I heard about it down a Smitty’s. You’re shittin’ me, man. What a hoot! But I don’t think there’s anything funny about it.
                We were in bed—or I should say on the bed. Just getting going good when I heard something in the closet. I stopped what I was doing and said, “What was that?” Dixie said it was just something falling in the closet. She kept her hair dryer on a hook in the closet, and sometimes it’d fall. But it didn’t sound like a hairdryer falling to me.
                I looked at the closet, the part I could see. Their master bedroom was set up funny. On the south side, at the foot of the bed, a wall ran three-quarters of the way across the room. On the other side of this wall was a vanity and double-sink and beyond that the full south wall with closets behind folding doors running its entire length. All the doors had louvered panels in them. The last door was the only one that could be seen from the bed—Trent’s side of the bed. I’d always wondered why they hadn’t replaced the missing louver in that door. It left a gap of about half an inch. I stared at the gap.
                “It was just the hair dryer falling,” Dixie said. “Things fall. Come on. . . Come on.”
                I got the hell out of there.

                I’ve had a tough month since then. I tried to just forget about it, but that didn’t work. Then I thought I’d make a joke of the whole thing. Along about then we finished up a parking lot job at that new Mexican restaurant down on Rebsamen—my first shot at asphalt work—and to celebrate I had the crew out to a picnic at Alsop Park, beer and grilled steaks. I told them the whole story, and they laughed and hooted all right, said, “You da man!” and “You dog, you,” stuff like that. The only one not laughing was me.
                I wasn’t mad at Trent and Dixie, not even if they’d rigged the whole thing from the beginning, drew me in like a spider into a web. Wait, that’s not right. Oh well, maybe it is. Maybe it was one spider getting drawn in by two other spiders. Aw, I don’t know. I just feel sorry for them. Me, too. I think people want love so much they lose their way searching for it. For awhile there I was lost right along with them. There are times I wish I still was.
                You know what I miss most? I miss drinking tea with Dixie. I’d drink my Earl Grey, and she’d drink her herbal tea, and later in the bedroom I’d taste it on her lips, that first kiss, and I’d pretend it wasn’t the first kiss before sex but the last kiss of the day, at night in bed, Goodnight, Sweetheart, and the next morning we’d get up and have breakfast, Corn Flakes and orange juice, and we’d tell each other to have a good day at work and be careful driving and, Oh, by the way, I may be a little late this afternoon because me and my buddy Trent are going to try to get in nine at Hindman. What a beautiful life that would have been.
                They’re the first people in my life I’ve missed in a long time, since my father, I guess. I remember the 4th of July when I was a kid, shooting off firecrackers and bottle rockets and cherry bombs during the day, and then my dad would come home tired from work but never too tired to take me out on the street after dark, and he’d set off fountains, I think they were called, these cones that’d shoot up fountains of sparks. Roman candles, too. He’d tell me to stand back because fireworks were dangerous even though I’d been blowing up gallon paint cans and stuff with cherry bombs before he got home. But I’d do what he said because even then I knew it was a good thing to have someone who cared about you.
                The only thing he’d let me do when I was a kid was hold sparklers. It’d be the last thing we’d do before we went back in. He’d light the sparklers, and we’d each hold one and holler, “Happy birthday, USA!”
                “Let’s spell it out,” my dad would always say, and he’d spell out U-S-A against the night sky. I’d sing out “USA,” too, but what I’d really spell was “Mama” and “Daddy” and then later when I started to notice the girls the name of whichever girl I currently had a crush on. I’d close my eyes and for the briefest moment see the letters still glowing brightly before they faded. It was so beautiful. Things are the most beautiful, I guess, right before they fade.

Dennis Vannatta has published stories in many magazines and anthologies, including Chariton Review, Boulevard, Antioch Review, and Pushcart XV, and four collections: This Time, This Place and Prayers for the Dead, both by White Pine Press, Lives of the Artists by Livingston Press, and Rockaway Children: Stories, by Rising Star Press. His novel, Around Centralia Square, was recently published by Cave Hollow Press.
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