Have out our true identity? I could hazard
an answer now, if you're still asking.
Woodland Mills, Tennessee
Today I didn't leave the bed. I stayed there all day. Remember when we used to do that on hot days and just make love and sleep? I miss those days. I miss you beside me. I can't sleep in our room anymore. It's too hard always thinking you're not where you should be, with me. I just stare up at the ceiling and imagine all of the terrible things that might happen to you, because we're in the war now. I heard it on the radio two days ago.
All the husbands are following your example. They're leaving. They're going off to fight for something or other. I swear, there isn't a man left in this town, and all of these women left to their own devices, well it's just a disaster waiting to happen. You wouldn't believe the gossip! Yesterday I heard that Mary Jane, you remember her, was caught with her skirts up behind Charlie's Grocery store. You won't guess who she was with either. The bag boy! That pimply faced rug-a-muffin. I nearly died laughing. But listen to me. I'm almost as bad as my grandmother was.
There just isn't much else to do around here anymore. I listen to all the gossip now just to keep sane, to feel a little less lonely. It helps until night time.
Sarah Pickett is pregnant again. I don't know how she does it, poor thing. She waddles around town with all of her children behind her like little ducklings. The oldest boy has become quite the hellion. He reminds me a lot of someone. You perhaps. Or maybe more of Rafe.
What do you think of us having a baby someday? We've never really talked about it, but I wish we'd gotten started before you left, because then at least I would have had some part of you to hold onto. Not that I'd be a good mother. We both know I can hardly take care of myself. Still, it might be nice, don't you think? A baby. Our baby. What would we name it? Would you want a boy or a girl? I think a boy would be better. Girls are too much trouble. They're always sneaking off with boys to the barn in the middle of the night. I'd know, wouldn't I? But you were pretty persuasive back then. Oh, you sure knew how to sweet talk, Mr. Walker.
A girl would be fine too. We could name her after your mother. Or mine. Or both. Caroline Constance Walker. That sounds sort of nice, don't you think? If we had a boy, I'd let you name him. A father should always name his son, I suppose. But look at me, I'm rambling on about babies. We have plenty of time to think about all of that when you come home.
So come home. Please. I'm still waiting, Flyboy. I'll wait until the sun burns out if I have to.
I've left footprints in the dust that covers our room; mine and Alva's room. In her letters she confessed that she couldn't sleep here alone. Now I'm lying in our bed and I understand what she meant. It is difficult. I can't stop tossing and turning. I can't stop thinking about how we used to be happy here. This was our bed. This is where I should be holding her after having been gone for so long, but nothing's gone like it should have. We're all wrong. We're all messed up.
I clamber out of our bed and reach under it for the chest that Alva used to keep there. She hasn't moved it. I heft it onto the bed and sit with my bare feet in the dust, tapping my fingers against the cedar. There's no lock. She trusted me enough to never open it. She said there were certain things she needed to keep to herself, certain things that she needed to belong to her alone, and I never thought about what she kept inside. We're all entitled to a few secrets. At least that's what I used to believe, but now I want to know. What else has she kept from me? What else don't I know about her, apart from everything?
The chest hasn't been opened in a while. I can tell by how the lid sticks. It clicks when I push it open. The hinges creak, but I don't look inside yet. I run my fingers along the rough wood and the hand-carved designs. Her father made this a long time ago. He made it for her mother as a wedding present, because he had nothing more to offer than the work of his own hands. That's the way Alva told me about it. She always made things sound prettier than they really were. Well, she used to. The woman who I saw today didn't seem like the type for pretty words. The woman who answered that front door wasn't the same one I married. Then again, I suppose I'm not the same man.
Alva looked tired. I wonder if I do too. I keep re-playing everything she said to me. What did you want me to do? Waste my life waiting on you… Is that what I wanted? She promised she would. She promised she'd wait for me until the sun burned out. I suppose we both made a lot of promises we didn't keep. To honor and cherish. To love until death do us part. Maybe we both did die. The people who we used to be.
And you're my husband. Or did you forget? I forgot. I forgot until she swung open that front door. I forgot until I realized just how much she hates me now. And a part of me must hate her too. My pride is in pieces. This whole goddamn town must know that she cheated. How could they not, when she's walking around with another man's baby swelling inside of her? She betrayed me. Of all the things I thought might happen when I came home, this wasn't one of them.
Yet how can I blame her, when everything she said was true? I was the one who stopped writing. I was the one who left. I was the one who fell in love with another woman. We're both sinners. It's just easier to be angry with her than face my own guilt. After all, I was in the thick of a war. If she cared about me wouldn't she have waited like she promised? She was supposed to be mine. She is mine. Damn her.
I plunge my hand into the darkness of the chest, into the darkness of my wife's secrets. It might as well all be out in the open now. What does it matter if I break her trust now? I think we're a little bit past trust.
The first thing I touch is small and cold. I hold it up into the moonlight striping through the open window, even though I knew what it was before I could see it. Alva's wedding ring. It's heavy in the palm of my hand. I remember when it used to shine. Now it's dull. She hasn't worn it in a long time. I wonder just how long. Then I think about my wedding ring, in an envelope, at the bottom of my unpacked things, where it's been since Evelyn came along. Did Alva hide hers when she found someone new too? Is this her great secret; our marriage? Me.
I throw the ring across the room. It clings against the wall. I hear it roll into a dusty corner of the room, lost, and I don't care about what else she's hiding in her damned trunk. I slam it closed and push it back under the bed, before leaving the room. I can't be in there any longer. I can't be alone with the memories of us, when there is no us anymore, but those memories are everywhere in this house, even in the kitchen, where I end up.
Alva must have been washing dishes when I knocked on the door. They're still in the sink. I pick out a chipped plate. I remember the day she dropped it. She dropped things all of the time. With the rag she left on the counter, I dry the plate. I finish the job she started, because it feels good to do something useful with my hands, something that doesn't involve guns. When I'm done and the dishes are all put away, I fill up a glass with water from the faucet.
"You're gonna want something stronger than that." Dad stands in the darkened doorway, a bottle of whiskey in hand. Is the glass half full or empty? For us, it's empty. He collapses at the table.
"Bring over a glass," he orders. Who am I to refuse? I can't remember a time he was sober. Now I'm starting to understand why. With two glasses I join him. We don't bother turning on the lights. It's better this way. We can't see how old we both are.
"Well, you didn't die," Dad states, like a commonplace thing, like a comment on the weather. He takes a swig, before nudging the bottle to me. I didn't need to bring the glasses. We don't bother with them. We pass the bottle back and forth, silent, remembering that time has passed between us as well. I haven't spoken to my father sense the day I left. I think I hated him then, for being a drunken bastard. Now I know he's just another man ruined by war. We all leave singing and young. We come home tired and speechless. If we come home at all.
"Congratulations," Dad says through a burp, lifting the whiskey bottle.
"Winning." I know what he means, but I don't feel like I've won anything. He drinks. I drink.
"You know, when I came home, yer mama was waiting on the front porch. I don't think she left the whole time I's gone." He wipes the back of his mouth with his sleeve. I can feel the whiskey warm and bubbling in my stomach and head. Dad hasn't mentioned my mother, not once since we buried her. She died when I was seven years old. Most people around here say of a broken heart. Some think he killed her, but my father never laid a hand on Mama. He loved her. He loved her even through the booze. I was the one who knew the backside of his fist.
"Yeah, yer mama was a good woman." And I know what he isn't saying. Mama was a good woman. Alva isn't. It isn't news to me. He's always hated her. He wouldn't even come to the wedding. Instead he drank himself into a stupor.
"You heard us?" I ask, thinking about my fight with Alva.
"Son, the whole town heard you. Good riddance, I say." Another swig. He isn't sharing anymore, but I feel too sick to drink now. "Warned you not to marry that German whore and I was right, wasn't I?"
"But you never listened to yer old man. Now look at'cha. Yer pretty, lil' wife done fucked everyone in town. Cold banging the-"
"Enough," I snap. Enough. He laughs, like this is some kind of joke, not my life falling apart. Dad leans across the table, grinning in the dark, and a thought hits me all of a sudden. Alva stayed with him. She could have thrown him out. God knows he probably gave her Hell, but she didn't. She took care of him, my father, despite how much he's always hated her. Despite that he's never once, not a single goddamned time, addressed Alva by her name. She's always been the German whore to him, always been the Kraut. Old prejudices never die I suppose, but Alva doesn't hold grudges that way. She was always too forgiving. She always let herself get hurt because of it.
"So when you gonna sign those divorce papers? No one would blame you for em'." Divorce? I hadn't even considered. It seems the logical thing and Dad's right, no one would condemn me for leaving her. They probably expect it. But divorce? Where would she go? No one in this town would take her in. Maybe Rafe, but she couldn't stay there forever, not when he's about to marry…marry Evelyn. And the baby? They wouldn't survive.
I think of the wedding ring in Alva's cedar chest. I think of the day I slipped it onto her finger and made all of those promises. I take you, Alva Clare Eichel, to be my wedded wife. To have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, and this is certainly worse. This is certainly not what either of us had planned on that day, all of those years ago, when we were different people, but life, I suppose, isn't as easy as we used to think it was either, when love and long summers were all we needed. But Alva took care of my drunken, spiteful, impossible father. I can only think of one reason why she would do that…some part of her still belongs to me. Some part of her was always waiting and I'm tired of breaking my promises.
"Well?" Dad presses. "Go as soon as you can. Tomorrow even."
"No?" I stand with my mind made up.
"No, pa. I won't divorce her." Because I'm not the coward he is and I won't lose myself in a bottle. I won't push aside the world just because it hurts.
"Whaddya mean you won't divorce her?" Dad tries, and fails, to stand. His fury sparks in the dark, but I'm already walking away, and he's too drunk to follow.
"She doesn't love you, Danny!" he yells after me. Maybe she doesn't. Judging by the way of things, I highly doubt she even likes me. Then again I guess I stopped loving her a long time ago too. Probably first. It doesn't change the promises we made. She's still my wife. I abandoned her once. I won't do it again.
I couldn't sleep. The baby is restless. I think it understands sometimes what's going on out here. Or maybe it just feels that I'm restless too. The crickets sing while I rock back and forth, trying to put the baby to sleep, and the stars don't shine on me through the roof of Rafe's front porch. The moon doesn't shine on me.
Strange how I thought I was lonely before with Danny gone and now that he's back I feel even more alone. Even the baby wants to leave me. It's kicking something fierce. I think it's trying to escape and I can't blame it. Still I hug my stomach, because it's the only thing I have to hold onto as the tears I've been fighting finally win the war and march single file down my cheeks.
I start thinking about where I'm going to go, how I'm supposed to raise this baby on my own, an unwed and disgraced mother. I start thinking about how hopeless everything is and I can't breathe. There's nothing I can do. Move to the city. Find a job. Struggle to raise this baby alone, when no one taught me how to be a mother. And worst of all I want Danny, because he's the only person in this damned world who's ever been able to save me, then I remember those days are over. Danny's made his decision. What did I honestly expect? That he would forgive me, ridiculous. Did I think he'd help me raise a child that isn't even his?
I remember when we were happy, the two of us, and we agreed that if we ever had a girl, we'd name her after our mothers. Caroline Constance. I stroke my stomach, wondering what I'll name this baby, wondering if it's a girl, wondering how different things would have been if it was Danny's. Then I remember, I always remember, that he stopped writing. He doesn't love me. I don't love him. Anything we had is gone, including dreams of a happy future together, and I can't breathe again until I feel warm hands on my cheeks.
"Al," Rafe croons, kneeling in front of me. "Don't cry, sweetheart, he'll come around. He just needs time." I shake my head so hard it makes my neck hurt. I push Rafe away. I push everyone away it seems.
"He won't," I say. Wiping my sore eyes on my sleeve, I look past Rafe into the shadowy cornfield. Danny's house is just on the other side. I first met him in that cornfield. I fell for him, literally, that day so long ago and he'd been the one crying then.
"He hates me," I mutter. Rafe steps to the edge of the porch and leans over the rail, his back to me.
"Danny could never hate you. Damnit, Al, he fell in love with you the first time he saw you."
"Actually he pushed me into the dirt." The memory brings a faint smile to my lips. The first smile in a long time. Rafe turns just in time to see, before it fades.
"That's just how boys are," Rafe says, grinning. He looks just like the boy that used to tease me, the boy that always got me into trouble. God, I missed him. There was never a time I couldn't count on Rafe. Even today, when I showed up at his front door after five years, a pregnant mess, he took me in, no questions asked. That's just the kind of man Rafe is, a good man, a good friend.
"Things have changed." I hold my baby tighter. "We've changed." Rafe crouches in front of me again. He rests his hands over mine. The baby kicks and he smiles.
"Yeah, you have put on a little weight," Rafe chuckles. I can't help but smile again. It's weak, but it's a start. Rafe kisses my knuckles. He needs a shave. Judging by the circles under his eyes, he needs sleep as well. I can't even begin to imagine what he's been through, what he's seen. I can't believe that my Rafe, my best friend, has been to war. He's killed husbands, brothers, and fathers. There's blood on the hands that hold mine. I can't believe that my husband is just the same.
"Rafe," I murmur, holding his hands tighter. "What am I going to do?"
"You're going to talk to Danny." He untangles his fingers from mine gently and stands. I blink up at him, confused.
"You're so sure he'll come," I snap. "But he won't. I know he won't."
"Really? Then what's he doing in my front yard?"
"What?" I stand as quickly as I can, which isn't very quick at all, and look around Rafe. Sure enough, Danny's just emerged from the cornfield. He's strolling towards us, still a few feet away, his shadow stretching ahead of him with more confidence than his body.
"I'll give you two some privacy." Rafe slips back inside the house, before I can beg him to stay.