When Elise couldn’t sleep, she carefully manipulated her grandmother’s floorboards, keeping in mind which one creaked the most as if she were traversing a minefield. She threw a winter coat over her nightgown and went walking under the sky of spilled stars. Here, engulfed in darkness, her internal darkness retreated; her mood lifted with the raw beauty of night. At the beach, the ocean was an invisible thing and treacherous without the moon but audible in its tumbling surf. The lobster boats droned offshore; it was comforting to know there were others out there. Elise sat in the cool sand and smoked, waiting for the harbinger of day, that blurred eye of God, to push tentatively in the East. Later, during study period, she would fall asleep at the brink of a dream, only to be wrenched back into wakefulness by the scrape of chairs preceding the second period bell.
She had not written one number, not one variable in her notebook and was already failing Mrs. Kanter’s pre-calculus class after three weeks of school. Instead, she doodled, and wrote lines that came to her head, inspired somewhat remotely by the classroom. The elfish teacher circulated the room to check on the progress of the other students, especially diligent in following the antics of parabolas. When Mrs. Kanter approached Elise, she noticed the doodles and the four-line poem:
Letters are squiggly
On black slate
Privilege to write there
Where the grown up lives
Our writing always looks
Slanted, going down
Like a fly
Mrs. Kanter inspected Elise’s notebook, read the poem and told her to go to the office— this class was for students who wanted to learn, not write drivel and daydream out the window. Elise unabashedly picked up her things, her books, her leather fringed purse and went out the door. She faced the long hall toward the principal’s office when she registered how the stairwell doors, freshly painted, were propped open some ten feet away. She went surreptitiously down the stairs and out a side door into the glorious October morning.
Elise walked nonchalantly down Ferncroft Road, passed the officer perched at the mouth of the school driveway, also daydreaming, and toward Willow Street, the route that would take her out of town. She kept her head down, noting pieces of chrome, the crunch of sandal on pebbles on asphalt, the sound of whirring cars, a dead hawk with its pure white breast ripped apart and wings frayed every which way. She had hitchhiked before with her friend Temesia; once they were picked up by a man with a wooden arm. He drove them from Magnolia Center to Gloucester in a pea green Mustang and Temesia cajoled him into telling the story about how he lost his arm by getting tangled up in his gear while fishing in the Georges Bank. Temesia was good that way, acting sweet and innocent and sometimes downright stupid to get what she wanted. From that day on she and Temesia hitchhiked nearly every day to Crane’s Beach, to Rockport, to Singing Beach. Familiar roads had become adventurous windings in the backseat of a stranger’s car.
Elise had known Temesia since they were both in the fourth grade. Her mother would find the girls dressing up Nana’s dogs and singing in Elise’s room or out in the yard with aster wreathes in their hair. At night, her mother would hear about the Old Sirs and the Lady Bells, stately firs and miniature mushrooms the girls had found and used in the stories of faeries they created. Elise liked Temesia because she was imaginative. As a young girl, Temesia believed in shy fairies that lived under rocks; you had to sit very still in order to see one out of the corner of your eye. She gave names to mushrooms, trees, and rocks and had a pet raccoon she nursed with a bottle when it was young. Temesia could climb a tree to the top and often had sap clumped in her hair. Once she had the idea of eating milk with a spoon and Elise could swear that the milk tasted like ice cream.
Temesia had a boyfriend now who was obsessed with her. His name was Rick Beaulieau, son of Richard Beaulieau, an insurance agent who had his office in the town, his name written on the glass window in gilded lettering. Elise loathed Rick. She loathed his lettered jacket, his tall lean frame, the slight gap between his front teeth when he laughed at something stupid, how he only adored Elise because she was Temesia’s best friend. She loathed the way Rick was always touching Temesia, stroking her hair, holding her hand, her elbow, her hip. But Rick wasn’t the only one Elise loathed. She loathed Mrs. Granger, Temesia’s mother who had always regarded Elise with what Nana referred to as a “hairy eyeball.” She too had become overly concerned with her daughter, the way she sat in chairs, how her hair looked, if there was dirt under her fingernails, because according to Mrs. Granger, Temesia was a lady now and needed to present herself accordingly, to secure a husband.
Elise knew it bothered her mother that she didn’t have a boyfriend of her own. Her mother often made comments about the boys in town, how Derek Coombs was making eyes at Elise at Crosby’s market. Elise scoffed. “Oh, okay. He’s not cool. You want a cool person,” her mother would say. Sometimes she would plead with her daughter, “Isn’t there anyone, Elise?” Her mother’s worried eyes made her feel as if she were doomed.
There was someone, Mr. Sullivan, her poetry teacher, the hippy Sullivan is what the kids called him. Elise thought of him when her mother asked about boys, but it wasn’t that she was infatuated with him or attracted to him; she sensed that perhaps she could talk to him, that he might have a clue about the undercurrents, the mechanisms, the agendas that made people act in certain ways. Hippy Sullivan had blond hair down past his ears, wore thick leather belts, bell-bottom jeans, and Jesus sandals. He brought in a braided rug and a lamp to cozy up his classroom and the students would laze on fat pillows reading Langston Hughes, Frost, Sexton. Elise wondered about hippy Sullivan’s body, his lovers, was enchanted by the way he looked up at the ceiling tiles and recited Yeats. She could see him with the poets themselves listening to jazz in someone’s basement, jugs of wine on the table, mystifying clouds of smoke, pillars of old tomes, faces torn up in laughter or tears. “The poet,” he said, “has a certain intimacy with life itself.”
Elise lived in the same house her grandfather built on ten acres of farmland, most of it grown in by deciduous trees and marked by boundaries permanently set in place by rock walls. The house itself was quite large with 19 rooms, each with a portrait of some distant ancestor dressed in the dark clothing and ethereal lace of the Puritan era. Nana would tell her the stories of the ancestors, light a candle, and open the window so that its flame elongated like a finger, pointing above Elise’s head to the portrait of Annabelle Bradstreet, a woman who lived alone in a root cellar in the woods and kept company with a pack of dogs. Elise was enamored by Nana’s stories of Annabelle, how she tore out her own hair to make poppets of her enemies, vexing them with unmentionable ailments. “Normal is boring,” Nana said, “Consider yourself lucky to have such genes.”
Elise’s grandmother, the renowned Margaret Bradstreet, was a statuesque, robust woman with shoulder length white hair secured off her face with gold bobby pins. She wore her dead husband’s flannel shirts because she couldn’t see giving them away if they kept her warm and fit her almost perfectly. When Elise and her brother arrived in Magnolia after their parents’ divorce, people went out of their way to say hello to Margaret Bradstreet’s grandchildren and make them feel welcome. Nana believed an idle mind was the devil’s workshop; she taught the children how to swim and sail, how to navigate the trails in the woods, grow a garden of herbs, play the piano. Life had a joyous rhythm when Nana was sane.
Junior year Elise changed her appearance. This was coincidental to the police arresting Nana for breaking into the Second Congregational Church at three in the morning one Sunday night. When Nana was admitted into the nursing home, Elise stopped wearing skirts and button down shirts and started wearing halter-tops and jeans she sewed herself. She strung beads in her hair and wore braids. Often she was sent home for the derogatory words she had written on the patches of her jeans, words from Janice Joplin songs, Allen Ginsberg poems, words like mouth-wracked battered bleak of brain, granite cocks and monstrous bombs. Elise had no political agenda; she was not out to offend anyone. She just liked the words and wanted to decorate herself with them. Temesia told her she was brave, an artist. Others, Rick, Mrs. Granger, teachers, classmates looked at her with their hairy eyeballs.
Elise’s anxiety of being caught dwindled with every step she took further out of town. Just past the cemetery on Main Street she swiftly turned around and stuck out her thumb to the oncoming car. Much to her surprise, the first car was her father’s 1960 Chevrolet Impala. It braked and pulled toward the side of the road and Elise felt her knees go weak. She approached the car tentatively and peered in at the man in a white t-shirt as he leaned over to roll down the passenger side window. Her mind played with the features of the man’s face and attempted to manipulate them.
“Where ya headed, darlin’?” the man asked.
“North,” Elise replied. “Newburyport.”
“Well that’s easy enough. Get in!”
The man had soft blue eyes and pockmarked skin. His hair was long, like hippy Sullivan’s, but the ink from his tattoos, faded so much so the images were unrecognizable, was an indication of age. Elise debated what to do while observing how the sun danced across the spotless cherry red of the car door. Her father used to wash and wax his car on the weekends when he was home; Elise remembered how he carefully soaped the white-walled tires, how the soap slid lovingly down that cherry red door onto the driveway and toward the drain in the street, a soft ooze of bubbles.
As a child, she believed her father lived a beautiful life somewhere else. She dreamed of finding him in the sliding dimensions of the dream world, in Europe, perhaps, where there were snow-topped mountains and small villages with quaint houses and shuttered windows. He would have another family, girls in pinafores, boys in blue knickers. His new wife, a Julie Andrews look-alike. And Elise would tell him how she was his daughter and that he had a son, Nathan, and a wife, Joan. But her father, always in his uniform, stately, and charming, would tell her it was impossible. She learned to think of him this way, after years of searching for him in the grocery store or the pharmacy, the mall, at the beach; the dream, although heartbreaking, presented an answer.
But when Roger came to the house dressed in khakis and a pullover, Elise thought he looked like something out of a JC Penny catalogue. His cologne filled the house. Nana’s dogs continuously sniffed his crotch and barked until they had to be turned out to the yard. Elise was annoyed at the way her father talked to her and her brother as if they were still in grade school. They went to pick apples, as a “family,” and she remembered her father on the pay phone afterward, talking to his second wife, entering dime after dime to prolong the call. It seemed ridiculous that he should come, that her mother should make him a meal, that Nana should leave so as to not give into the impulse to run him over with her truck. They sat in the dining room table, and her father tried his best to be cheerful. Both her parents were pathetically cheerful. Her father talked about the weather in Colorado, how it hadn’t rained in weeks. He sat in Nana’s chair going on and on about nothing and Elise thought about jock itch and hernias, constipation, and the runs—all of the unmentionables Annabelle Bradstreet inflicted on her enemies.
She grabbed the chrome handle and opened the door.
“Well, alright!” the blue-eyed man said and skid the tires, accelerating back onto the road. Elise felt suddenly alive as if she had stepped out of her life and into a film noir. “I’m headed up the coast. Got a cousin in Bangor,” the man said.
“Where did you get this car?” Elise asked.
Wind rushed through the car and reverberated like a jackhammer when the man accelerated onto the highway.
“What?” he shouted.
Elise shouted her question over the reverberating wind. The man howled and accelerated up to 80 miles an hour. Elise’s hair whipped at her face. She cranked up the window.
“Oh this was my uncle’s. He bought it at an auction somewhere’s in Dallas. He’s dead now.”
The man tells Elise his name is Andy. She tells the man her name is Sally. This is something she and Temesia always did, make up the false names to tell the drivers.
The man swiped his brow with his right shoulder, stared at Elise’s knees through the corners of his eyes. “Well shoot. Look at what I found on the side of the road,” he said, smacking the steering wheel. “How old are you, darlin’?”
“How old are you?” Elise asked.
“I asked you first.”
Elise smiled. Andy smacked the steering wheel again. She glanced at the watch on his arm, gold plated with a diamond chip in the middle and wondered if it was his uncle’s as well. Elise interpreted the configuration of the hands as 10:30. The bell to end pre-calculus class was going to ring in two minutes. She sat back and laughed. Andy glanced at her and back at the road. He laughed too, swiped his brow again with his shoulder. Elise stretched out her feet and threw her books onto the backseat where there was a duffel bag and a map book of the states.
“Damn, I like you!” Andy yelled.
“I like you too!” Elise yelled back.
“Listen Sal, if you got no plans, we could drive to Nova Scotia. What do you say?”
Elise thought of her mother, how she made suggestions. Elise, perhaps you should think about visiting some schools, or Elise, perhaps you should throw a sweater over that top. For the most part, Elise ignored her, but she hated herself for it. Her mother didn’t deserve half the shit life threw at her.
“I’ll take a rain check,” she said.
The motel room smelled of cigarettes and Lysol. Andy took out a bottle of Jack Daniels and fetched two Dixie cups from the bathroom. “Mother’s milk,” he said gulping down a Dixie shot. He went to the bathroom and closed the door. Elise had no interest in the hard liquor; she instead checked every drawer for remnants of patrons past, finding only the Gideon Bible. She sat on the edge of the bed, titillated, wondering how this day would end, what she would tell Temisia. The door of the bathroom opened again and Andy came barreling into the room without his shirt. He flexed his lean muscles for Elise. “Punch me,” he said. “Right in the pecs. Punch me hard. Go ahead.”
Elise clenched her fist and socked him one.
“You feel that? Do it again.” Elise hit him harder. He clenched his teeth and Elise laughed at his funny expression. He puffed out his breath and went back to the bathroom and shut the door again. Elise heard the cascade hit the toilet and the toilet flush. He turned on the faucet. She thought of the time she and Temesia locked themselves in the bathroom, stripped themselves of their clothes and pretended to pose nude for one another, like Playboy centerfolds. Temesia was the photographer first and then Elise was the photographer. She clicked an imaginary shutter on Temesia’s white, supple body. Afterward, they sat in the tub and Temesia asked Elise if she wanted her to kiss her like a boy. Elise had never been kissed on the mouth by anyone, then. She remembered just how it felt, the weight of Temesia’s body pressing down on her in the tub, how their skin touched, the gentle tap of her lips, like the petal to a flower folding. Temesia got up and put on her clothes afterward, as if nothing happened. Elise thought about that kiss for years.
Elise heard the shower run and Andy’s whistle rendition of “Man on the Run.” She accompanied it with the words in her head, got up and pulled back the cover of the bed exposing two pillows. The blanket was soft, a cranberry color to match the spread, the sheets white, perfectly wrapped around the mattress. Elise took off her jeans, shirt and bra and tucked herself in the tightly fitted sheet and blanket like a letter in an envelope. She closed her eyes and tried not to think of her mother.
Andy came out, a towel around his waist. He walked to the edge of the bed and sat. She looked at him through half-closed eyes. “Well look at you,” he said.
“Look at you,” she said.
He half-smiled, stood up and moved closer to her. He raised his hand to touch her, and picked up the strands of her hair and let them fall. Andy, dripping cool water onto the white, stalled. “You do have such fine hair,” he said. “Must take you a while to wash all of it.” He got up, ran his fingers through his wet hair, let the towel fall to the floor. Elise stared at his naked body as he moved about the room, his scrawny legs, his moon white ass, and half erect penis. “I need a cigarette,” he said. “You got one?”
“In my purse,” she said, “on the chair.”
He fumbled with the contents inside, wavering. “Front pocket,” Elise said.
“You girls with all your shit,” Andy said. He lost his balance for a moment and fell sideways onto the bed. The purse dropped and out came her book of poems crafted from the backs of cards, hole punched and fastened with her mother’s yarn. Andy grabbed the book, “what’s this, little girl, is this your diary?”
“No, give me that.”
“Can I read your diary, little girl,” Andy teased.
“It’s not a fucking diary,” Elise said.
“Whoa, there must be something good in here. Hot damn!”
“Give me it, goddamn it,” she said, lunging at him. He held the book above her head. Andy dodged Elise and fumbled through the pages, mocking her by reading some of the words. Elise leapt at him, tore the book from his hands, scratching the skin on his hand with her nails.
“You crazy little bitch,” Andy sneered. Her aggression brought his penis to a full erection and he pinned her on the bed. “What you gonna do now?” he said, gritting his teeth.
“You dumb hick,” Elise said.
The lids of Andy’s eyes lowered. He let her go, and she shimmied from beneath him. He got up, grabbed the towel from the floor, wrapped it around him and sat in the chair at the table with the half empty Jack Daniels bottle, balancing himself precariously on the back legs. “You hurt my feelings,” he said.
“You…hurt…my…feelings,” he repeated slowly. He pointed to his faded tattoo. “Honorable discharge!” he shouted, wavering and slurring his words, “You,” he pointed “wouldn’t know anything ’bout that, ’cause I reckon you ain’t honorable.”
Elise thought a second about being honorable. Her grandmother was honorable. Her mother was honorable. Her father was not honorable.
“You’re right,” she said. “I am not honorable. So what.”
“I know girls like you.”
“No you don’t. You don’t know at all. You don’t have the capacity to know. How someone who is not honorable may be a virgin.”
Andy came down hard on the four legs. “ A what?” he said.
“You heard me.”
“You don’t act like a virgin,” Andy said tentatively.
Elise stood up so that Andy had full view of her waif-like body, her small breasts. She pulled the locks of hair around her, like a shawl. Andy got up and pressed his face into her abdomen; she felt the scratch of his stubbled skin. He lifted her up, took two steps and fumbled with her onto the bed, ran his hand down the curve of her back. Terror shot up her spine like a flare. The cool of the water, she said to herself, the cool droplets of water. The smell of soap, of innocence. He fumbled for her panties, kissed her lips with too hungry a mouth, writhed with deadbeat breath, knocked at her like a blind mole. He collapsed moments later and lay upon her like a dead weight and started to doze. Elise rolled him over, watched his chest rise and fall for over an hour.
Elise waited patiently for a change, a signal that life continued even in the altered state, a signal to leave the place and go home. It took the pale diffusion of afternoon light coming through the crack in the curtain to rouse her. She rose, picked up her panties, bra and dusty jeans, her leather-fringed pocketbook and book of poetry, but before she left, she tore a page from her notebook and wrote a message: “No interest in Nova Scotia. How about Mexico?” She wrote her number on the back, folded the note and stuck it in the pocket of Andy’s Levis.
The sun lit up a new world.
Elise took out a perfectly good pen she found on the floor of the train and opened to the last page in her notebook. In it she captured the flock of words orbiting her mind:
Fresh eyes flash, take in unexceptional items
every banal thing has a name.
In the mind, a marble finds its grooved track
that same pathetic winding.
I get behind the wheel,
turn off toward Ferncroft.
yet, what I want lies beyond this
where righteous firs flank boreal routes-
and the sun rises.
(I shall dazzle myself with novelty
until novelty fades).
She pondered the use of parentheses. Without them, the poem seemed to end too abruptly. She put her pen down. The man next to her in a three-piece suit had his head on the windowpane, his paper collapsed in his lap. He was old, white and murmured between two fat pink lips as he slept. She pushed herself to think of another verse, but nothing came. The train rocked back and forth and the sleepy, dull-faced passengers jostled and swayed. She was awake, alive; the glaze of the stagnant self now had a hole blown through. She saw her new self, juxtaposed with the dull-faced passengers, with their bodies bobbing and shifting to the train’s rhythms. She would be nothing like these people.
Laurette Folk ‘s debut novel A Portal to Vibrancy (Big Table Publishing, 2014) is available at www.laurettefolk.com, local bookstores, and major online distributors. Ms. Folk received a semifinalist nomination and “Noted Writer” award from the Boston Fiction Festival; her fiction, essays, and poems have been published in upstreet, The Copperfield Review, Literary Mama, Boston Globe Magazine, Italian Americana, Talking Writing, elephant journal among many others. Ms. Folk is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing program, senior editor of The Compassion Anthology (www.compassionanthology.com), and blogger for Meditations and Reflections at www.meditationblog.blogspot.com.