giving up the ghost
“Look, Frank, trick-or-treaters,” Carrie said, breaking the silence of the last half hour. “What are they doing all the way out here?”
“Here” was a country back road, eastern Alabama. Halloween, 1980.
“Those aren’t trick-or-treaters,” Frank said, easing the truck onto the sandy shoulder of the road. Up ahead, flipped on its side, half on the shoulder and half in the ditch, was a red-and-white-striped GMC Jimmy, one taillight blinking off and on, a maniacal, fluttering eye. Behind them, perhaps twenty feet, a knot of people huddled on the side of the road, not moving.
“Maybe we should drive on to the bait shop,” Frank said. “Call the police from the pay phone.” He had heard stories of people faking accidents in order to rob or rape unsuspecting Good Samaritans, and he couldn’t help but wonder if this was it, the night a knife slid across his throat or, worse, Carrie’s. The night everything was written out for them. The next morning, a work crew or a vagrant searching for aluminum cans would find their naked bodies on the side of the road, half-covered in wet pine needles, red clay.
“What’s your problem?” Carrie snapped. She opened her door, slid from the truck. “They might be hurt. Don’t just sit there.”
The first thing he noticed when he opened his own door was the smell, hovering and sweet, like just bloomed honeysuckles. That mixed with gasoline and burnt rubber.
“Are y’all all right?” Carrie half yelled at the still unmoving knot behind them, but she stayed close to the truck.
A man, maybe forty, with pulpy, torn lips, finally loped over, extending his hand to Frank in a strange semblance of formality. He had hair cropped so short it had no color, light eyes to match. He wore an unbuttoned Hawaiian covered with little monkeys surfing. Behind him trailed a young woman and a small girl, just past toddler. Both of their faces were pretty banged up. They rushed toward Carrie as though they knew her, began clutching at her arms in a panic until Carrie awkwardly embraced them.
“You’re the third car to come through here,” the man said, grinding the heels of his boots into the grainy road. “No one else would stop. No one. Who could see two hurt girls and keep going?” He tugged a hand through his short hair, revealing a bloody forehead. “I just don’t get it anymore, man. The big IT. You know what I mean?” He began crying, heaving gasps that horrified Frank. The man was shit-faced.
The woman had two-toned hair the yellow and copper of poor white, and she wailed in response, pressed her face against Carrie’s leather jacket. “I think they’re more scared than hurt,” Carrie said to no one in particular.
When the man reached for his wife, she pulled away. “My face, you idiot.” Her fingers moved over her cheeks as if she could piece it back together. “I’ve told you a thousand times. A thousand. Slow. Down.” The little girl clamped her eyes shut and didn’t make a sound. She wore a striped leotard, one foot bare, the other in a tiny ballet slipper, the remnants of her Halloween costume, a bumblebee.
“That car flew out of fucking nowhere,” the man said, suddenly angry. When he yelled, he sprayed blood instead of spit. He slammed a fist into his palm. “Nowhere.” His wife and kid tried to burrow holes into Carrie with their faces; they seemed familiar with his anger.
“What car?” Frank said. He’d assumed that it was a one-car accident, a drunk man overcompensating for veering off the road, something anyone could do, including Frank, who’d had a beer or two himself that night.
The man pointed behind them, into the fringe of woods off the oncoming lane.
“You checked it out?” Frank asked. The man stared at his boots, shook his head no. The woman began whimpering, soft and wet.
Frank looked to where the man had pointed. There, some fifty feet away, as bright as the harvest moon that lit the night, was a yellow Camaro, its front crushed against an oak like crumpled paper. Glass and bits of metal glittered against the asphalt. There was no reasonable explanation for how he could have not noticed it until that moment, and he could hear the refrain Carrie had been saying lately: You only see what you want to see, Frank. That’s your problem.
“You stay here,” Frank said to Carrie. “Wave anyone down who passes. Ask if they have a CB radio.”
It’s strange, but on his walk over to the Camaro, this was what he thought: What a lovely night! How could anything so violent happen on such a night? It was still and pleasant, warm for late October, and if he tilted his head back, he could see nothing but blue-black and stars. When he approached the car, he saw a teenage girl in a black leather dress, the bottom half of her body still in the driver’s seat, her trunk slung out the opened door into the thick brush, her long blond hair tangled with debris, her face pale and still as the night. In such a dramatic position, she was bizarrely beautiful.
The girl looked dead, but to be sure, he knelt, placed his finger against her neck for a pulse. Her skin felt silky, soft. From the looks of her, she was the kind to pamper it, to spread creamy lotion over her neck, arms, elbows, chest. He held his finger there for a full minute before he felt a flicker, soft as eyelashes.
Frank cannot help but ask himself now, Should he have pulled her from the car? Would it have somehow made a difference, maybe lessen the loss of blood? What if he had pulled her from the car and jostled something vital, paralyzing her for life? Would he have received a phone call by now cursing him for his incompetence, blaming him for her wretched existence?
“Well?” Carrie yelled, impatient. “What’s going on?”
“It’s a girl,” Frank said. “She’s hurt. Bad.” He was grate- ful that the Camaro and the trees blocked Carrie’s view, grateful that she would not have to witness the girl’s suffering.
At the sound of his voice, the girl’s eyes popped open like an actress in a horror flick. “Hi,” he said, as if they were meeting at a cocktail party. He took one of her hands in his. She wore a silver ring on each finger, gypsyish, a peculiarity he imagined some boy in her life found endearing. Her hand was cold, limp. He rubbed it as if he were warming a child’s hand after a winter’s day outside. He whispered all the things he thought you were supposed to say when someone was in anguish. Then he said nothing.
It’s not quiet, death. Frank knows this now. Not like they tell you sometimes in books or on TV. Tales of people slipping from this world to the next like we slip in and out of clothes, just a change, another world, a light in a tunnel, perhaps, weightlessness, something like peace. The girl whispered things he never imagined himself whispering when he thought of his own death, something he had done compulsively in the year before he found her on that Halloween night in 1980. He imagined declarations, secrets revealed, illumination of spiritual truths. Instead, small things gurgled from her throat: the name of her kitten, the boy she had a crush on, the color of her bedroom. But it was not painless, the giving up of these details. She choked. She clawed. She wept.
“Whoa. That’s bad. She alive?”
Frank looked up to see a red-bearded man in a camouflage jacket standing over him. The man’s face was grooved, aged, the skin thick. Frank hadn’t noticed anyone approach. The man reached for the girl, put his finger against her neck. “She’s dead, sure enough. I already radioed in the accident, but I can’t be around when the cops get here.” The man turned, and without a backward glance, walked away.
All of it took maybe ten minutes.
After the man left, Frank could not seem to make himself walk back to the group he heard murmuring off in the distance. And then he thought, What if her parents had been notified? This was a small town. Many people had CB radios in their homes. What if her parents had heard the man call in the accident and recognized the description of the car? What if they were on their way to the scene right now? No parent should see a child like this.
He reached into the Camaro as best as he could and tugged at the hem of the girl’s leather dress, attempting to cover the white expanse of her thin thighs. He picked the leaves from her golden hair and smoothed it from her forehead, easing it behind ears studded with silver crosses, then decided that her hair would look better falling in soft waves around her face, so he arranged it that way. He licked his fingers, wiped the mud and streaks of blood from her cheeks, and marveled that there was hardly a scratch on her face, that the only visible injury appeared to be to her chest; and before he could stop himself, he reached for her wound, the exact point where the steering wheel had hit, and put his hand against her heart, perhaps not believing it could stop so easily.
She wore a gold locket, a delicate, heart-shaped thing, hard under his fingers, still warm with her body heat. He stared at it for a moment, flipping it over and over in his hand like a worry stone, studied the inscription on the back: On your sweet sixteen, Forever our baby girl. Still kneeling, he unhooked the locket from around her neck and wedged it into his pocket, wiping her blood on his jeans.
When Frank thinks of this moment now, he remembers that he saw everything by the light of the moon. But he wor- ries that he might have made parts of it up, and it’s a thing like getting something wrong that haunts him, not ever truly knowing what’s real and what’s not.
Later, after they’d waited with the couple and their daughter for the ambulance and answered all the questions for the police, Frank and Carrie finally started the drive to their cabin for what they’d hoped would be a few days of quiet.
“You know what makes me sick?” Carrie said. “That drunk might as well have put a gun to that teenager’s head and shot her. And more than likely, nothing will happen to him.”
It was true. Back then, no one paid much attention to drunk drivers. Everyone carried coolers on their floorboards, wrapped beer cans in fake Coke covers as disguises. Frank had done it a hundred times, and he would do it again, although he told himself differently that night.
“And who would drive drunk with a beautiful little girl in the car?” Carrie said. “What kind of father would do that? What kind? They don’t deserve that little girl.”
Frank turned on the radio so he wouldn’t have to talk or think. An old country ballad about a man who drinks a woman up to a ten in a honky-tonk.
“You know what else?” Carrie said a few minutes later, turning down the radio. Her face shone in the moon’s glare. She was trying not to cry, something Frank wished he hadn’t noticed, because now he would have to deal with it, and he didn’t know how. Her voice lowered in a way that let Frank know she expected absolution. “I didn’t really want to touch that girl and woman because they were all covered in blood and I have on my new leather blazer. I didn’t want them to ruin it.” She began sobbing, pulling at her blazer, slapping her chest like a madwoman. “Can you believe that? What kind of person thinks that kind of thing?”
Then later, “Frank? Why does life have to be so relentlessly cyclical? Why can’t we move in some other direction? Why?”
That Saturday at the cabin, Frank and Carrie sunbathed naked on their front porch, skinny-dipped in the chilly waters of the lake. They drank screwdrivers and daiquiris, danced to Pink Floyd and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and made love on the deck, on the boat, on the picnic table, anywhere that prohibited honest intimacy.
Neither Carrie nor Frank mentioned the accident, but it was there, always, the understanding of the brevity of things, the knowledge that there would be no eternity of lovemaking, of dancing drunkenly on the front porch. To Frank, it felt like a lie, this performance of carefree love, so he laughed the loudest, danced the longest, and reached for Carrie’s body as soon as his pulse slowed from their previous bout of lovemaking, telling himself there was only this, the here and now: Carrie’s mouth, Carrie’s thrumming heart.
Saturday evening, the night was unseasonably warm, the low-slung moon covered in clouds, and still half-drunk from sun and booze, they decided to grill steaks. Carrie wore only a bathrobe. She sat in a patio chair sipping a glass of wine, her heels cocked on the porch railing so that her satin robe spilled open. Her long legs, her breasts, the stretch of her neck, incandescent in the moonlight. Sitting as she was, staring into the distance, she seemed to Frank inaccessible and far away, a stranger, someone else’s wife, and he couldn’t quite remember how they’d gotten here, to this porch in Alabama, grilling steaks.
Carrie lit a cigarette, blew a delicate stream of smoke. “I’m not ovulating, you know. I just wanted you to know that. All the sex—it was just that. No ulterior motives.” She turned to him where he stood over the grill, nervously flipping the steaks from one side to the other, and waited.
“That’s good,” he said. “I appreciate that. You telling me.” But even as he said it, he worried that it wouldn’t be enough, that nothing he said would ever be enough again.
Carrie had miscarried at seven months, a baby haphazardly conceived one drunken night, a pregnancy that had launched their marriage into unexpected, terrifying territory. Carrie had been devastated by the loss. Partially, Frank suspected, because she had been slightly relieved when she miscarried and was horrified by her response.
After the funeral, things got ugly. They named the baby Mary Grace, and Carrie talked about her constantly, as though if she referenced Mary Grace enough, she could create a history for their daughter. The doctor gave Carrie pills to dry up her milk, but she wouldn’t take them, and for a week or so there were bottles and cans and bowls of pumped breast milk everywhere, the smell sour and intolerable. Carrie walked around the house in the dirty pink pajamas, her belly rounded, her hands cupped around her breasts. Watching her sit in the empty nursery in his grandmother’s rocking chair, a suction cup on her breast, her rocking and staring and crying, made Frank fist-through-the-wall angry. Not at Carrie, but at something he couldn’t put a name to, which made it even worse for her because she couldn’t tell the difference.
When the doctor gave them the thumbs-up a year ago, Carrie refused to discuss the possibility that maybe a baby was not the best thing with Frank just starting a new landscaping business. Instead, as if having a family had always been the plan, the miscarriage merely an obstacle, she began trying with the discipline of a soldier to get pregnant, and failed, and therefore was failing life in general, and because of this failure, resenting Frank. Frank, who had seemed untouched by the miscarriage, who had returned to work the next day, where he met with a carefully casual rich man in khakis to talk about how to landscape his summer home’s front yard, how to make it a work of art.
But Carrie was mellow tonight, introspective and thoughtful, and she did not attack Frank, just sat and smoked and watched the cloud-muted moon heft itself into the vault of the sky.
“Why don’t you grab a plate?” Frank asked. “I think these are almost ready.” He wore his Kiss the Cook apron, big red lips seared across his abdomen. He puckered his own mouth at Carrie, and she waved her hand at him to stop.
“Do you wonder about her?” Carried asked, not moving toward the kitchen. She crushed out her cigarette, fumbled with the pack, then pulled out another and lit it. “Who she was? What she was like?”
“The baby?” Frank asked, flipping the steaks again. “Sure,” he said, which was only a half lie, because he had thought about it after the baby had died. In fact, he was so concerned by his detached response when Carrie had called him at work and told him that the baby had no heartbeat, that he’d forced himself to sit in the hospital waiting room and visualize it, his dead child floating in his wife’s belly. The exact moment the baby’s heart stopped, where he and Carrie might have been—watching Alien at the theater, eating hamburgers at the Dairy Queen. But for the most part, the sorrow always felt manufactured and remote.
“No,” Carrie snapped. “The girl from last night.”
Frank felt dizzy again, the same light-headed feeling he’d had kneeling over the girl’s body. “Vivian,” he said softly. “She said her name was Vivian.”
“What did she say? She told you her name. She must have said something else.” Carrie fumbled with her robe, tugging it over her breasts. She wore the studied expression of indifference of a woman trying not to look too interested in information that she was uncertain she had any right to know. It reminded Frank of the one time he had cheated on her in college—her slowly emerging questions, her masochistic desire to learn every detail, location, position, what was whispered during and after, if he had held the woman in the afterglow, shared a late night snack, a glass of water. Frank suspected that for Carrie, the sex wasn’t as much of a betrayal as the possibility that he’d given something of himself to another, something he’d been holding back from her.
What he hadn’t told Carrie: He and the other woman, a girl from class he’d run into at a local bar, stayed up all night singing Bob Dylan songs and drinking shots of tequila; just before dawn they’d made love again, then driven over to the Theta Chi house and lobbed golf balls at the windows because the girl’s ex-boyfriend lived there and he was an asshole; later, they’d eaten breakfast at the Waffle House. The girl wore a T-shirt Carrie had left over at his apartment. This had excited him somehow, watching the girl nibble on her biscuit and talk about her ex while wearing Carrie’s shirt, It’s All a Matter of Perspective printed across her breasts.
“That was it,” Frank said. “Just her name.” He waved the fork like a wand, grinned. “Voilà! Done. Now where’s that plate?”
“I’m not hungry,” Carrie said. She lowered her legs from the railing and stood up, drained the last of her wine, snatched the pack of cigarettes, and went into the house, turning off the kitchen and porch lights, leaving Frank standing in the dark.
The Tuesday after the accident, Frank asked his secretary to cancel his appointments and headed out for Alexander City, where he parked his truck across the street from the graveyard. He counted over a hundred mourners in attendance and tried to match the names he’d read in the obituary to faces. Lois Brown, the mother, wore hot pink. William Brown, the father, wore a navy suit and an old Vegas-style hat. The sister, a plump, red-faced preadolescent, threw a lily on the casket, then wailed, very theatrical. The brother looked like every other pissed-off teenager. They sang “Amazing Grace,” “Peace in the Valley,” and “Just as I Am.” The preacher offered dozens of platitudes, empty words Frank guessed Vivian would have hated.
About an hour after the cemetery cleared, Frank finally got out of his truck and walked on the tender grass path, covered in constellations of fresh red clay footprints, to the burial site. A mound of flowers curved over Vivian’s grave. There were dozens of stuffed animals holding hearts in their various paws, photos of her with her friends, and handwritten letters in loopy script. Frank kept one. Dear Viv, I know we grew apart this year because of me getting the cheerleading spot and stuff, but I thought you were awesome and you should’ve made the squad and I just cannot believe you died. Ms. Mise’s first period class won’t be the same without you. BFF, Penelope.
Vivian didn’t have a tombstone yet, just a tiny metal marker, 3356L. They’d placed her under a huge oak, and Frank thought it nice. A girl who wore jewelry and lotion and soft leather dresses would appreciate a thing of beauty.
“Man, she was one crazy chick,” said a voice from behind him. “But you had to love her. You couldn’t not love her.”
Frank turned to see a slight young man, eighteen at most, his body pulled long and lean from nervousness, dark hair to his bony shoulder blades, a concert T-shirt with a band’s name Frank didn’t recognize.
“Sure,” Frank said, annoyed at the intrusion. But he couldn’t help but wonder why this boy was here now, hiding like him from the rest of the mourners, willing to talk to a stranger about a girl he seemingly loved. Then he smelled the alcohol. Saw the boy sway, fight to stand straight.
The teenager collapsed to his knees beside Frank, growled, cupped a handful of red dirt from near the grave, slung it across the graveyard, a gesture that came off more as an appropriation of grief than actual emotion. Most of the dirt ended up on Frank’s face.
“We were supposed to be on a date,” the boy said, his dark eyes watering. “We were supposed to be together, but I was a fucking idiot and started some shit and now look.” He tapped a Marlboro out of a crushed pack and lit it, sucking hard. He pulled a Budweiser from his jacket pocket, cracked it open, took a long drink, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“You want a beer?” he said. “I got a whole case in my car.”
“I found her,” Frank said softly. “At the wreck. I found her there.”
“Yeah,” Frank said. “But I knew her before then.” The last part slipped out, and strangely, felt true enough. Besides, perhaps he knew Vivian better than anyone. Perhaps what she’d offered him the night she died was the core of herself, what she wanted left behind. It made sense, really, and once Frank thought it, it became true.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked, suspicious. He stood up, towered.
“Frank. Frank King.”
“She never mentioned a Frank. And the papers said a stranger found her.”
“What do the papers know?”
“Where’d you meet?” the kid said.
Frank realized that to this boy, he must seem old, an impossibility in Vivian’s world, and for some reason this made him angry or sad or lonely.
“Out,” he said. “We talked about things. Lots of things.”
“You fuck her?” the boy said, his voice rising. “Because if you fucked her, I’m going to need to know, you know?”
“It wasn’t like that,” Frank said.
The kid looked soft for a second, vulnerable. Then, “Can you show me where it happened? You know, where she died?”
They walked in silence to the boy’s beat-up Volvo, probably his mother’s old car pool hand-me-down, and Frank waited while the kid unlocked his trunk, pulled out a case of Budweiser.
The boy finally offered a name when he slid with his case of beer into Frank’s truck, immediately flipping the radio stations. Keith.
“Nice stereo,” Keith said. “I’m saving up for some twelve-inch woofers myself. I want people to hear me coming.” Frank thought it might be a good idea for the world at large to have a warning of Keith’s arrival.
“You mind if we make a detour?” Frank said, swinging the truck in front of the pay phone at the gas station a few blocks from the graveyard. He pulled the keys from the ignition, just in case Keith was the kind of person he suspected he was.
Keith shrugged. “I got a lifetime,” he said, unsmiling.
Lois Brown greeted Frank at the door in a hot pink jumpsuit, which she smoothed over her hips compulsively. There were a few people still milling around from the funeral in the kitchen, probably freezing casseroles and hams and cakes. Kids screamed from somewhere. When Frank called from the gas station to see if Mrs. Brown wanted to meet with him, she told him to come right over. Keith opted to wait in the car. Bad blood, he’d said.
“It drove Vivian crazy,” Mrs. Brown said, fluttering her hand at nothing in particular. “All the pink.” She was seated across from Frank in the formal living room. The floor was pink marble, the décor as ornate as a French palace. The rest of the enormous house, at least what Frank had seen, had been decorated in tasteful neutrals.
“This was the only room William would let me have my way with,” Mrs. Brown explained. She smiled sadly. The skin beneath her eyes was the color of an old bruise. She looked to be heavily medicated. “Pink. It’s just my thing.”
“It’s very nice.” If Mrs. Brown heard him, she gave no indication.
“My whole life I was in love with the South,” she continued. “I was raised in Connecticut, but I never felt at home there.” She twirled a lock of blond hair, thin as cirrus clouds. She had an angry red sore at the base of her thumb. “I saw Gone With the Wind a thousand times. At least.” She sighed. “When the Tarleton twins died in the war, God, I cried.” Without warning, she got down on her little pink knees, started clawing in the Oriental carpet, held up a fake handful of dirt, said in a deadpan, lackluster voice, “As God is my witness.”
Mr. Brown stuck his balding head in the door. “Everything okay in here?” He had the veranda porch accent of old money.
Mrs. Brown waved him away. “He hates it when I do that,” she said, climbing back on the couch, completely demure. “That’s where Vivian got her name, the movie.” She smoothed her hands repeatedly over her hips and thighs, and Frank tried to imagine the Vivian he knew living in this house with this woman.
“Is Mr. Brown joining us?” Frank asked.
“Emotion gives him the hives.” She snorted. “Cool as a cucumber. Cold as ice.”
Frank smiled. Fingered a pink embroidered flower on the sofa pillow.
“They were just babies,” she said. “Just babies.”
“Who?” Frank said, confused.
“The Tarleton twins,” she said. “So sad.” She shook her head as if remembering long-ago lost loves. “Everybody at home laughed at me, said all I’d find down here were rednecks and racists, but I thought it was magical. Then some white-trash drunk runs down my daughter, and no one is going to do a damn thing about it. They think I don’t know, but I saw the Jimmy. I went to the wreck yard. I saw the beer cans.”
She stood up, began pumping around the room in her hot pink stilettos, gouging at the sore place on her hand. Then Mrs. Brown was in front of Frank, kneeling, her twitching hands on his knees. “What did she say about me?” Mrs. Brown asked. “Was she in pain?” Mrs. Brown asked. “Did she pray?” Mrs. Brown asked.
Frank lied when necessary, when the truth would have been too harsh, but for the most part he told her everything he could remember, down to the turn of Vivian’s body, the way she squeezed his hand right before she went. When he finished, he felt strangely exhilarated, as if he had run a great distance. But Vivian’s mother appeared more devastated than comforted by what he’d told her, and he thought, How stupid. Stupid Frank. He’d never get it right.
“Mrs. Brown?” he said, his hands covering hers on his knees. “Would you mind if I saw her room? I feel close to her, somehow, you know?”
Vivian’s room was painted a deep purple, the bedspread black velvet. Band posters papered the walls, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd. A delicate Oriental umbrella hung upside down from the ceiling. The room smelled thick, like cigarette smoke and too many perfume samples from fashion magazines.
Mrs. Brown sat down delicately on the bed; her face buckled. “This is the first time I’ve been able to come in here since we heard,” she said. She waved a hand at the walls. “Eggplant. I always hated this room. What teenage girl wants an eggplant-and-black bedroom?” Her pink shoulders began quaking.
Frank experienced a sudden, terrifying desire, saw an image of him pressing his mouth against Mrs. Brown’s cool white neck, of taking those fidgeting fingers into his mouth and sucking them, one by one, of laying her gently down on that black velvet spread and loving her in a way he suspected she had not been loved in some time. At least he could give her that.
But of course, he only sat beside her, put his hand on hers, then removed it. They rested there for a while like old friends, comfortable in their separate silences, their separate grief.
“Crazier than her daughter, huh?” Keith said when Frank got back to the truck. Keith had his feet hanging out of the rolled-down window, his seat reclined as far back as it would go. “Me and Mrs. B, there ain’t no love lost there.”
They started out for the wreck site, almost fifteen miles outside of town. No one knew why Vivian was driving on such a secluded road by herself that night.
“It was because of me. She was mad at me,” Keith insisted, digging in his coat. “Mind if I smoke?”
“You together long?” Frank asked.
“Off and on,” Keith said, hacking. He failed to mention that what he was smoking was dope. “You want a hit?” He offered the joint to Frank.
Half-stoned, the drive felt endless. The road wound around the lake, glimpses of the sun reflecting off the water as blindingly sharp as opening a bar door to morning after an all-night binge.
“So did y’all have plans?” Frank asked. “You and Vivian. It’s good to have a plan.” Frank was stoned.
“Sure,” Keith said. “We had plans. Everyone has plans. You got tweezers or something? This thing’s getting hot.” Frank motioned at the glove compartment, and Keith fished around until he found one of Carrie’s barrettes and fastened it onto the end of the joint, then lifted the makeshift roach clip for Frank’s approval. “Like Bond, dude, 007. You make do with what you’ve got.”
Frank laughed, reached for the roach.
“Prom,” Keith said, releasing a mouthful of captive smoke. “We were going to prom together in April. Viv was going to wear a tux. She liked to stir things up. And then maybe community college for a year before transferring up to Tuscaloosa. Get an apartment. Get married. She wanted to study psychology. Wanted to work with fucked-up kids with fucked-up parents. Viv was cool that way. Always thinking about kids and animals and bullshit. I mean, you met her parents. It ain’t hard to figure out why.”
Frank knew Vivian and Keith would have never attended college together, that Keith, a reckless country boy who would end up at the mill or behind a gas station counter, was the kind of high school love always better left behind, and girls like Vivian understood this intuitively. There would have been no apartment, no marriage. Maybe the prom, maybe afterward an evening of drunken promises whispered in a room in the tiny motel near town where teenage lovers have shared details of unforgeable, improbable dreams for decades. And then Vivian would have left to attend school, and with her parents’ money, not at some community college. And maybe she would have written Keith a few times, called him drunk after a party or her first college heartbreak, told him that she missed him, that she wished he were there. But that wouldn’t have been true, exactly. Frank wanted to tell Keith all of this, wanted to tell the boy that growing to an age where you understand plans are almost useless things is a kind of death in itself; but he lacked the courage or the cruelty to do it.
“I was going to be a musician, like Dylan or Garcia,” Frank said instead. “My wife wanted to be a painter. Abstract. Picasso-like. Fragmentation and alienation. She was good. We were going to travel around the world. Then maybe, around forty, adopt a bunch of orphans from China or Africa.”
He grabbed a beer from Keith’s stash on the floorboard, cracked it open, and took a long swallow, his mouth and throat parched from the dope. Then he thought of Vivian and handed his beer to Keith.
“But now I design yards for rich fuckers on the lake. Build piers and porches for extra cash. And Carrie does portraits of family pets. You see what I’m trying to tell you?”
“I hate Dylan,” Keith said. “And the Dead. All that hopeful, handholding shit. They don’t get it, you know what I mean?”
He turned up the radio. Black Sabbath’s “Wicked World” blared.
The world today has such a wicked face . . .
“This,” Keith said, banging his head. “This is all there is.”
Frank turned down the radio, irritated. Irritated that Vivian would have wasted her time on this boy, a loser any girl with good sense would avoid.
A few minutes later, Frank eased off the shoulder at the same spot from Halloween. He’d stopped by the accident several times since it had happened, examined every piece of grass, every pinecone, knelt where he had knelt beside Vivian. And then he’d wept, replaying that night, pressing Vivian’s locket against his chest, which he’d worn under his clothes since he’d read her obituary on Sunday.
“Where?” Keith said. Frank pointed into the fringe of trees where a scattering of flowers had been left. The Camaro’s skid marks were still visible.
Excerpted from Our Former Lives in Art by Jennifer S. Davis. Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer Davis. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.