COVER SHORT STORY- 20 Minutes' Clarity
This story took second place in the Hook's short story contest earlier this year, judged by John Grisham. "I laughed with the first sentence and almost cried with the last," said Grisham of "20 Minutes of Clarity."
In their first conjugal visit, Ray couldn't get it up, so they talked, uneasily at first, for most of the hour granted them. The privacy unnerved him, and he said so. He hadn't been alone or unobserved for three months, since the day of his sentencing. The trailer had no windows and just the one door from which the lock mechanism had been removed, the hole stuffed with a soft rust-colored rag. On the dresser beside the bed was a clock radio that clicked the next minute into being, and across from it, a sink with a mirror. Beside the sink sat the smallest toilet either of them had ever seen.
The walls were walnut veneer, dark and buckling in places, and so thin they could hear the footsteps of the guards on the gravel just outside. But for a chair to throw their clothes over, that was it for furnishings. The bed was single; lying on their sides, squeezing close together, they barely fit. Not to touch each other in several places– at the shoulder, hip, thigh– was impossible. His feet hung uncomfortably (and, she thought, comically) over the far end, though she dare not laugh.
She was angry at him, but right now he needed her support, and they had the kids to consider. And he couldn't get it up. So she swallowed her anger and thought about what she had to tell him, and what she ought to find out, in the next fifty minutes.
She smelled different, he said out of the blue, like a schoolteacher, and she'd cut her hair too short, and colored it a Raggedy Ann red. She'd put on a few pounds. Well, Kelly said, sassing him right back, you're a sight for sore eyes, too.
He'd bulked up pumping iron– there was nothing else to do but read old magazines in the library, he said, except join the Jesus freaks or watch ESPN fourteen hours a day like a sports zombie. His glistening head was shaved clean. He smelled of soap and toothpaste and not much else. But for the dumb jokes and the fact that he'd screwed up so badly once again, she wasn't sure it was him lying there, and she told him so.
You changed too, you know, she said, adding, You're hard as a rock.
Except where it counts, he said. It surprised Ray, how easy his shy wife was with the nudity in the odd little space, how quickly she'd shed her clothes. She had come all this way just to let him have some normal sex with her, and yet she didn't blame him when he couldn't perform. He owed her big-time.
I didn't mean that, she was quick to say. You got a new body. It's...
Her old favorite word, back in the day. Car won't start in the Wal-Mart lot on Black Friday, freaky-deaky. Junior's gym teacher is busted for pot, freaky-deaky. Ain't it freaky-deaky, kids, how you daddy always knows exactly the one thing to do to piss me off royally, and then he goes and does it. Again. Ain't it freaky-deaky!
I was going to say swollen, she replied. It's like you sucked in this great big breath of air and you can't blow it out. He explained again. There ain't nothin' else to do but hit the gym or walk in circles around the yard like a caged dog, and the big bad dudes leave you alone if they respect you.
Are there fights? She was afraid to ask, but had to; she had to know what he was facing.
I seen two. One was two pussies, scratching and bitin' like alley cats. The other was the real thing. One old boy's still in the infirmary with a busted jaw. I mind my own business, I'm okay.
You ever talk to anybody, like a friend? she asked, but he ignored the question. I don't guess there's like a counselor or anybody, she said, pushing the point. This time, she was determined that Ray receive all the services promised by the state, including group counseling. He had to change from the inside out, she was sure of that.
His last incarceration left him sick, busted, and brooding. Kentucky ought to do better, this was the 21st century, Ray wasn't a killer or a rapist. Frustrated by his dogged silence, she turned on the radio to static but quickly found a crackly AM country and western station. She recognized the ballad and hummed along for a moment. Weeping guitars, a rock 'n roll beat, satin-smooth harmonies– he groaned in disgust, so she turned down the volume.
John Ruemmler is a name familiar to some Hook readers. The local writer, who works at Crutchfield Corporation, has entered almost all our previous contests, having been a runner-up in 2004 with his touching story, "A Day Without Weather." (He also won first-place in 1996, with "Carter," in the local fiction contest our editor ran at a prior newspaper.)
Ruemmler first submitted this year's winning story to last year's contest. "On a whim, I sent the same story in," he says, "and after not winning then, this year it was a nice surprise to hear such kind words from Mr. G., who knows something about writing."
He's referring to judge Grisham's comment, "I laughed with the first sentence and almost cried with the last." Grisham, whose novels, mostly legal thrillers, have an uncanny way of eventually becoming Hollywood hits, also called the setting "so visual I can see it on the screen."
Such words are especially encouraging to Ruemmler since he's currently working on a movie to enter in the Virginia Governor's Screenwriting Award competition. Adam and Steve is the tentative title of a romantic comedy about two men who plan a ceremony to celebrate seven years together and the complications that ensue. It's no coincidence that his entry comes in a year when Virginia passed a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as "a union between one man and one woman," he says.
Ruemmler, an lllinois native who has lived in Charlottesville for 25 years, now considers the town home. "I'm an Illini by birth, a New Yorker by temperament, and a Virginian by God," he says. What does the 50-something father of two plan to do with his winnings? Probably blow the money on "liquor and smokes" he says, adding that the one thing he's not going to do is repeat the mistake he made with his first-prize winnings.
"I decided to spend all that money on a full body wax," he jokes. "That's something I'll never do again."–Rosalind Warfield-Brown
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
What passes for music these days, he said in a lamentable tone. Where's Hank Williams? Where's Loretta Lynn? Where's Ferlin Husky?
Dead, old and dead, she said. Gone.
Remember when country singers looked bad and sang good? he snapped. What the hell happened?
I don't know, she said, MTV, CMT. Money, mostly.
From nearby came an unmistakable cluster of muffled thumps, then the cries and pleading groans of a man and a woman furiously coupling. With the radio turned low, they could almost hear them breathe. The rhythm picked up, the bed rattled, and something fell to the floor.
Here comes the Oh Gods and the yesses and all the cussin', Kelly said, and sure enough, the man called out to the Almighty in a deep baritone, and his mate replied in the age-old affirmative, Oh, God! Yeah, yeah!
It's almost comical, Kelly said. She glanced over and caught him taking in her breasts, which weren't bad for 32 years old, two kids, no time for aerobics, and no money for the day spa.
You look fine, he said too fast.
Cursing freely, the couple in the next trailer were building to a climax. Kelly and Ray waited as if they'd paid for the show.
He's in for murder, Ray joked. I hope she makes it out of the trailer alive.
She turned up the radio. In the back of her mind, she wondered how badly he needed to get off, and if her love– whatever that meant when you were far away from each other and pretty much out of touch for months at a stretch– would see him through the next 15 months.
The radio ran a couple of commercials, one for a tanning spa and another for the local pet food distributor, then the DJ announced a contest. One thousand dollars to the lucky caller with the right bumper sticker who could name the song and the artist in the next 97 seconds.
What would you do with a thousand dollars? she asked as a familiar Alan Jackson song came on.
I'd blow it on weed unless you got a hold of it first.
Well, you ain't nothing' if you ain't honest, she had to admit. This was progress– in the Bad Old Days, Ray was a Liar with a capital L. He lied for no reason and for good reason.
Where you goin', Ray? (It was after midnight on a cold November night.) Hollywood. They're makin' a movie of my life, and it's starrin' me and Julie Roberts.
And a family classic often told:
His boss on the phone: Why didn't you call in sick to work?
Ray: I was too sick to call in sick.
Instead of lecturing him (which never worked), Kelly recounted stories of the children in school and at their activities. Junior's Pee-wee football heroics, Brittainy's Brownies sleepover at the Science Museum, the dog choked on a tennis ball and almost died, her mother was scheduled for hernia surgery in a month. He hadn't asked about any of it, but she had learned that he didn't always know how to ask.
So what do I have to worry about, she asked. Tell me, honest.
He took a long time to answer. They were both waiting for the polite knock at the door, the first call. Neither one wanted to be the first to check the time on the clock.
Well, I'd appreciate it if you don't sleep with my brother, he joked. She snorted and slapped him on the bicep before squeezing it. The muscle felt like bronze. How hard was he inside, she wondered, how could she find out without asking.
Member that first apartment we had, in Ashland?
Apartment, hell, he snorted, it was a room. We shared the bath with that old Italian dishwasher who was always trying to get a look at you in the altogether.
He was a horny old fart. He must've busted in on me a hundred times while I was soakin in the tub. What was it he always said?
I'mma so sorry, little lady!
Yeah, sorry he didn't take a picture! Hey, maybe I should bring a picture of my mother to hang on the wall, she teased. That'll get you going.
I'll be doing life, you show up with that–
She sends her... whatever it is mothers-in-law send when they told you so.
It's a good thing she ain't into voodoo, he said, grimacing. I'd be in the grave.
She's a good Christian woman, Ray, you know that. She prays for you. She watches the kids so I can come see you. She don't complain.
I know, I know. She thinks I'm the devil, is all.
She never said that. She thinks you follow the devil, but she also thinks you ain't smart enough to lead. It's kind of a compliment if you think about it.
Sometimes it seemed that their brand of teasing was all that had carried them through fourteen years of marriage, two separations, and now his eighteen months in the penitentiary. They could always laugh. Down and out in Louisville, homeless for a month and living in the van on the outskirts of Lexington, sleeping for weeks at a time in the Carter Caves (Like Indians, he said; No, like bears, she insisted), dodging the law and skunks and pneumonia.
They lived like outlaws for a while, like their ancestors. It was crazy fun, they were smoking good dope they grew and harvested and brought to market, but Kelly didn't want to return to that lifestyle, ever.
Thanks to her mother, she had a good job at a bank and gave her heart and soul to the kids. She was the treasurer of the PTO. Back before their daddy was incarcerated, before Kelly got work and begged her mother for a loan, the kids thought their parents were nuts, laughing like maniacs in a 3-D cartoon when they all should've been crying and begging the county for food stamps and free milk.
Instead, Ray turned to dealing, and now here they were, husband and wife of fourteen years, joined at the hip in a ten-by-twelve conjugal trailer wondering how hard this was going to be and if they were really up for it.
She spit in her hand and got him going, but when she tried to climb on top, he held her back.
You ain't gonna dump me for some Pedro or Leroy, are you? she asked, looking hard into his eyes.
I don't know nobody by that name.
Way back in the early crazy days before kids, the only time she could talk sense to him was right after he came. She had about twenty minutes, she figured out over a very difficult first year of marriage, to make her case before he got up and put on his jeans and wandered out the door to get into more trouble.
For a Truett from Cumberland County, Ray was a good man. He hailed from a long line of car thieves and liars and even a murderer or two, including his daddy, who shot their mother when he caught her in bed with an itinerant snake-handling preacher from Big Bone Lick. (He spared the preacher's life but shot him once in the thigh, just to hear him cuss.)
For a Truett, Ray was the cream of a ruined crop. He held a job from time to time and didn't always drink up his paycheck, and he wasn't the worst father in the world. He never hit her or the kids, and one time out of two, he made it to parent-teacher conferences at school, sober. He was a sweet, sappy, funny drunk, and the kids loved him, drunk or sober. That was enough for Kelly, who'd married a two-timer, and before that, right out of high school, a closet homosexual who blamed her for their lackluster love life. Mercifully, no children emerged from either union, though she had some great stories saved up to tell the kids when they got older.
Sorry about not bein' in the mood, he said. It's this... whole scene.
She help up a hand, then waved it in a slow downward arc. This ain't exactly the Marriott.
It's different, being a man inside, he said.
Bein' stupid, you mean, she joked.
What's funny, he said, they show movies Friday and Saturday nights, and they cut out all the sex but leave in all the violence. Far as I know, ain't nobody inside for loving too much. They make us pick up cigarette butts all over the field. It's a bitch. Everybody smokes. I cut the grass once in a while, it's cool. I pretend I'm home in the yard.
It's a big yard, she said, twisting his wedding band on his finger, an old intimate gesture.
Full of ugly men.
A loud knock at the door came a moment later.
Five minutes! the guard called out.
You ain't trying' to take my ring off, are you?
Just making' sure it fits. She kissed him on the cheek, he kissed her back, and in an instant he was inside her, and before she could move her hips, he came with a shudder and a blush.
That was just like high school, she said, chewing on his ear lobe.
Not my high school, he lamented. Can you come next month? He sounded desperate, even to himself, and feared the tone of his voice.
It's two hundred miles, Ray, she whispered. It's gas money.
I know, I know.
I used up all my days off. I'm supposed to be sick in bed right now.
And I'm supposed to be dead, baby. Miracles happen.
Not to people like us.
It's a miracle you're here right now.
That simple sentence– and the conviction he'd put behind it– touched her, turned her. She laid her hand across his chest and felt his ribs. He'd broken two in a motorcycle crash years back. Here lay the old Ray, tender and foolish, and easily broken.
I'll be back, she sighed, reaching for her bra.
You know where to find me, he said.
On the long drive home, she tuned in some old-time music, and of all songs, Patsy Cline singing "Crazy." She had to laugh before she started crying.