|I knew the question was coming, it was just a matter of time.
“Why did you buy the hide-a-bed?” My wife Beth and I were sitting in Walt and Edna’s Truck Stop around midnight, on a Friday in June. We had been to a beer joint called Danceland with another couple, after I’d played a softball game. We hadn’t done any dancing, and not just because I still had my uniform and sneakers on. Beth wanted to stop for coffee. As if she had questions to ask.
“For an extra place to sleep,” I said. I had bought the bed two days before and had it put in the basement rec room. I hadn’t slept in it yet, but when I got home that night I planned to start using it, and let Beth have the bed in the bedroom to herself from now on.
“For who?” she said.
I wanted to wait and tell her on the way home. “Not sure yet,” I said.
She dragged on her cigarette. “Still a little drunk?” she said.
I took a sip of my coffee, holding the cup carefully with both hands. I wasn’t drunk. I was faking. That was a first. For the last ten years I had been trying to fake being sober.
“Having trouble holding the cup?” she said.
I let my left hand flop in my lap, and took another sip, slurping the coffee and spilling some on my chin deliberately.
“I didn’t have more than four or five,” I said.
“Sure,” she said, “and how about the shots of whiskey?”
“Just a couple.” The shots, all three of them, had gone under the table when Beth and the others weren’t looking. As far as the beers were concerned, Danceland was a very crowded place with live, honky-tonk music. I just took the cans one at a time back to the restroom and emptied them and filled them up with water. I hadn’t had any beer during the game either, just pretended to sip on one, which was not exactly a habit for me. If I was drunk on anything, it was water.
The waitress came over.
“Did you want to order something?” she said.
“No thanks,” Beth said. “Just coffee.”
The waitress wrote out the bill, put it on the table, said thank you and left. “I will stop, you know,” I said.
“I should leave you,” Beth said. I wasn’t sure if it was the hide-a-bed or the booze that made her say that. She put her cigarette out and picked up her pack on the table. She lit another one. The waitress came by and gave us a refill.
“So you’re thinking about divorce again,” I said, knowing it was probably the last thing she was thinking about. Beth had talked like this before when I was drunk. How many times she had said the same thing when I was too drunk to understand her, I’ll never know.
Beth dragged on her cigarette and looked at a foursome leaving their booth across from us.
“That’s why you wanted to stop for coffee. Right?” I said. I kept blinking, and swaying my head a little. She looked away.
“That’s what you wanted to tell me, right?” I put my cup to my lips, deliberately spilling some coffee on my shirt. I wanted out of this marriage, period. The last kid, Jonathan, had just graduated from high school two weeks before, and I had been promising myself for at least three years that when that happened, I’d leave.
I hadn’t yet told her flat-out, but I had dropped some hints. To tell the truth, I didn’t love her anymore. I hadn’t loved her for so long that it was hard to believe that I ever did love her. This was the first night of the beginning of my freedom.
“Every time I want to have a little fun and drink a few beers you get all agitated,” I said.
Beth sipped on her coffee and smoked.
“I told you, I’m not drunk,” I said. I slurred my words, and kept blinking.
“Look in the mirror,” she said. I’m a good actor, and God knows I’d been drunk enough times in my life to know how a drunk guy acted. But this was it. This was the night I would stop drinking for good. I turned my face to the mirror beside me, and brushed my hair back and wiped off my mouth.
“I’m sober; look,” I said. I saw her face in the mirror looking at me. I made a funny face by grabbing my cheeks with both hands and sticking my tongue out. What really felt strange is that I was telling a flat-out truth. I was sober.
“It’s not funny,” Beth said.
I kept making the funny face. There was nothing that made her madder than humor when she was serious. But I wasn’t in a humorous mood either. It’s just that it was hard to keep a straight face around Beth when she was serious.
“Let’s go,” she said.
“Do you still love me?” I said. It was a sincere question, but I couldn’t say it sincerely because I was supposed to be drunk, and I still had that goofy look on my face.
Beth picked up her purse and cigarettes and started to get up.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.” I picked up the bill and started to stand up. I suddenly faked dizziness, and caught myself as if I was falling. I braced myself on the cold Formica table with the same hand holding the bill.
“Let’s go,” I said. I righted myself and gave her the bill. We walked up to the cashier and Beth pulled a dollar out of her purse and gave it to the woman, who had bluish hair, in a bun, and bluish lipstick.
“The rest is the tip,” Beth said.
“Thank you,” said the cashier, smiling. “Come again.”
“Thank you,” Beth said, and when I came to the door I didn’t open it for her but just opened it and walked out in front of her. That might’ve been the first time in 26 years together that I did that, drunk or sober.
Beth was driving. She always insisted on driving when I was drunk. I took a beer out the sack on the floor, the only beer I’d brought, and popped the tab. I was in the habit of having one or two on the way home. She hated me drinking in the car, but at least I wasn’t driving. She was taking the highway, about a 45-minute drive.
“Come on,” I said, “let’s take the shortcut.”
“It’s too wet,” she said. “It’s been raining, or don’t you remember?”
“It’s not too wet,” I said. “And you’re not the one who’s got to get up at seven to go to work. It was a short rain, anyway.” I knew it was wet but I honestly figured we could make it, and it would cut the time in half, even on unpaved roads. And there was a full moon, so it was fairly light out. Besides, it would be easier to bring up the hide-a-bed on a back road than on the comfortable highway. I wasn’t going into the shop the next morning. I was going to see a woman named Joyce Kirby in Rock Rapids. But the real reason I wanted to take the shortcut was because I wanted Beth to be able to get us over the hills and home safe. I wanted her to know that she could do it.
“Come on,” I said. “No big deal.”
After the stoplight she turned left onto the roller-coaster hills, the short-cut, which was through Devil’s Hollow.
“No big deal,” I said, and pretended to sip on the beer.
The first hill was the least steep of the three. But none of them were as steep as they were when we were in high school 25 years ago. We used to go there for joy rides and the Lovers’ Lane in the Hollow. On the night before Homecoming in our junior year, four of us, Beth and myself, a good friend, Gary, and his girlfriend, came roaring down the last hill and when we got to the fork in the road, Gary, who was driving, was trying to show off by making a hard right without letting up on the gas and we barrelled through the barbed-wire fence and rolled three times, ending up in a pasture, upside down. I cracked a rib, Gary broke his collarbone when he was thrown out and landed on a fence post, but the girls, for some reason, came out okay, not even bruises. This road was clay. Loess, they call it. It’s an ash left over from the glaciers thousands of years ago. You can’t pave it or even put gravel on it. When it gets real wet it turns into muck.
As long as Beth stayed in the center of the road we were okay, but if she veered slightly one way or the other, the car started to slide. It was wetter than I thought it would be. I knew we might be in for a rough night.
“Just stay in the center,” I said. “And don’t go too slow or you won’t make it to the top of the hill.” I was sure she thought I was sobering up fast.
As soon as we got to the top and started down, she tested the brakes. I could tell she was scared, but she was doing her best not to show it.
“Easy on the brakes,” I said. “We’ll be in the ditch if you go heavy on the brakes.”
Then I said: “The hide-a-bed is for me to sleep in.”
She kept her eye on the road and didn’t say anything. It was a good time to bring up the hide-a-bed because she was so occupied by the driving. I could make my point and there wasn’t much she could come back with.
“I want to sleep in my own bed from now on,” I said.
She looked at me, and then back to the road. In that glimpse, the moonlight caught her face. It was wet and shiny. I knew she was hurt. In a way, I hated to see her in this situation, not being able to do much or even say much, because I was absolutely serious and she knew it. We had been married a long time and at one time I loved her. And I knew she probably still loved me, and as far as she was concerned, we would stick it out together to the very end, no matter what.
Looking at her, I noticed that she hadn’t changed much over the years. I always thought she was goodlooking, and she still was, after 26 years and four kids. She hadn’t put on more than a few pounds since high school, when she was a cheerleader and Homecoming Queen, and I was an all-state baseball and football player, and Homecoming King. She didn’t have the double chin of her sister, who was two years younger. I was the one who had done the changing.
“We’ll put it in the extra bedroom,” she said, “and when there’s company they can sleep there.” She said this very calmly and at a perfect time, just as we were over the crest of the hill and starting down. I could see the slickness of the road because of the moonlight.
There were two reasons why I was faking drunkenness. First, because I wanted to give her a reason to live without me, and being an alcoholic, which I had been for 10 years, was a damned good reason. And second, because I could say things to her when I was drunk that I couldn’t say to her when I was sober. I know it sounds strange, but she took me more at my word whenever I was drunk, even if she didn’t let on that she did.
The fact is, I was quitting, cold turkey, mainly for the reason that Joyce didn’t allow it. The only way I could end up with Joyce, if that was who I was going to end up with, was to stay away from booze. The sacrifice was worth it. But it wasn’t just Joyce. I wanted to change my life, to begin over, without Beth and without booze.
“You heard me,” I said. “I will sleep in the hide-a-bed.”
She didn’t respond, just looked straight ahead. She could disarm me so easily by ignoring me. That was one of the things that I never could get used to about Beth. I’ll admit that it gave her a lot of power whenever she did that. She knew she could do it and she didn’t hesitate when she was on the defensive.
I felt the wheels slipping again.
“Just go easy, in the middle,” I said. “And I know you heard what I said about the hide-a-bed.” I pretended to sip on my beer, but made sure I didn’t swallow any. It wasn’t simply that I was leaving Beth for a younger woman. The fact was that I was falling in love with another woman who happened to be 33, which is 13 years younger than both of us, and who just happened to be very pretty.
We were in the valley now, and moving a little faster to gain speed for the next hill. We passed the dead end road to Lover’s Lane. I wondered if Beth was thinking about all the times we had taken that road. I was, but I didn’t act like it. You can’t deny the good times in a long relationship, no matter what the final outcome is.
“One down, two to go,” I said. The fact that I had gotten off the subject of the hide-a-bed might’ve made her feel as if she’d lost the argument. She was mad and scared at the same time.
I felt the hate in her silence. Beth could say more without using words than any person I’ve ever known. She didn’t like driving at night, let alone on these muddy hills, even though there was a moon shining. But I think that, subconsciously, she was showing me that she could do it, in spite of me—even to spite me. That was good, because, above all, I wanted her to be independent as well as tough-minded. I wanted her to be able to take us home, by herself.
The second hill was the steepest of the three. We began to climb, this time about ten miles an hour faster.
“Just keep to the middle and keep your steady speed,” I said.
Then she surprised me. “You can sleep in your goddamn hide-a-bed until you rot,” she said, “and you can have your goddamn divorce too.”
I had nothing to say to that. Never in 26 years of marriage had I heard her say the word “goddamn,” and here it was, twice in the same sentence. All I could do was keep my eyes on the road. When we were about 50 feet from the top, a deer leaped across the road into the Hollow. She jerked the steering wheel to the left, and then back to the right, and we began to slide.
The car straightened out, though, and we reached the top. She applied the brakes a little and I looked down the hill. The road looked even slicker.
“I can’t do this,” she said, speaking to herself more than to me.
“Just keep it slow and steady,” I said. “No problem.”
“And you don’t have to pretend you’re drunk around me, either,” she said. Again, I kept looking straight ahead, with an open, full can of beer in my hand. What could I say?
We started down, and immediately began to slide to our right. l grabbed the steering wheel with my left hand, but we were going and there was absolutely nothing to do but ride it out, and to make the slide as comfortable as possible. We landed level but sideways in the ditch about half-way down the hill. l opened the window and tossed my can of beer into the weeds above the bank.
“Fuck,” I said.
“I hate you,” she said.
“Take it easy,” I said. “Turn off the engine.” I got out and walked around the car, slipping in the mud. My sneakers quickly became caked up with clay, as well as the bottoms of my white uniform pants. I opened the door on the driver’s side. I told Beth to move over and got in and started it up. My shoes were so muddy I could barely feel the accelerator. I rocked the car a little, but it was obvious that it wasn’t going to do any good. The ditch wasn’t deep, but it was all mud. And yet the car did move, both forward and backward, so I figured I could have Beth get behind the wheel and I could push.
“Okay,” I said. “You drive. I want you to rock the car like I just did, and I’ll push.” The car was a Plymouth Valiant, only a two-door, four-cylinder, and not too heavy. I rolled the window down and got out.
“Now just keep rocking it,” I said, and went around to the back fender.
When Beth gave it a little gas I started pushing, but I couldn’t get a good footing in the mud, and the back bumper was almost against the side of the bank. The car was an automatic so it was easy to rock. But she didn’t get the hang of it, the rhythm, and every time we got enough momentum to get the car going forward, she didn’t know how to take advantage of it, and so it wasn’t going to work.
“Wait a minute, stop!” I yelled, and she quit and I went around to her side.
It was no use trying to explain what she needed to do. If you haven’t done it before, it’s hard to learn the first time, especially in these conditions.
“You get out and I’ll see if I can rock it out of here,” I said.
“You want me to push?” she asked.
“Just go back there,” I said, “and when I get up enough speed to go forward onto the road, push hard and maybe we can get out of here.”
She got out and went behind the car. Then I thought about it again and got out and went back and showed her how to stand to the side of the car, not behind the wheels, and when I had enough momentum going back and forth, to listen for me to yell, and then to push on the fender and I’d gun it and maybe we could make it onto the road. It was worth trying. I wasn’t too keen on sitting in the car all night, or walking out of there in that mud.
Then I got in and started rocking, and got into a good rhythm. That’s when everything started to go wrong. Just as I felt the car had gone as far backward as it could go, I yelled out, “Push!” which is when I heard Beth scream. I hit the brake, but the car kept sliding backward, maybe a foot or so more. I put it in park, pulled the emergency brake, jumped out and ran back to see what had happened.
Beth was under the car and her legs were sticking out. I thought I could hear her choking. I got down on hands and knees in the mud and looked. The back wheel was on her neck. I tried to push the car off but couldn’t get any leverage between the bumper and the bank. I ran and got in again and put the car in drive and tried to ease forward, but it wouldn’t budge. I started to panic. I got out and ran back and tried my damnedest to push the car ahead. I almost blacked out pushing so hard. I kept slipping in the mud and I fell down several times. There was no way I could get any leverage to push. Even if I could’ve I’m not sure I was strong enough because the car was resting at a steep angle in the ditch.
On my chest, I started to talk to Beth, but I couldn’t hear any response. I screamed at her to make her speak, but she said nothing. I thought she was knocked out. Then I realized that, even though her legs stuck out from under the car as if she was on her back, she was face-down in the mud. Her neck had to be twisted, and pinned down between the wheel and the bank. I screamed at her, but she said nothing. I stuck my face as close as I could get it and screamed, pleaded with her to say something. I listened for breathing but I couldn’t hear any.
I got up and grabbed the key out of the ignition and opened the trunk and took out the jack but realized that it wouldn’t work in this mud, so I started running, figuring I could find somebody to help me. I ran down the hill, falling and sliding, splashing in puddles, my sneakers and uniform soaked and full of mud. I ran up the road hoping to find a house. I hadn’t been in the hills for years and didn’t know where anybody lived. Then I found a driveway and started up it toward a house. I heard dogs suddenly barking, and when I got closer I started to yell at them and at anybody in the house, to try to wake them up. There were no lights on, but the moonlight made it easy to see. Two German Shepherds came busting around the house and charged me, but I reached the porch door and opened it and got inside before they caught me. I yelled and pounded on the door, which was locked. Nobody was home or they would’ve answered by now. I kept banging on the door, and after about a half a minute I grabbed a snow shovel off the wall and smashed through the door window and opened the door by unlocking the chain and turning the knob on the inside.
I went in, stomping on the floor, yelling at the same time and looking for a phone, which was in the living room. I called 911. I told the calm female voice about the accident, and to please get an ambulance out to Devil’s Hollow, the roller-coaster hills–over the second hill, I told her. She said an ambulance would be on the way, and to try to find somebody else to help close by, and I hung up and took off.
I rushed out of the house, knowing the dogs, who hadn’t let up, would be there to meet me. On the porch I grabbed the snow shovel again and started howling in a deep voice as I opened the door, and when I saw them coming at me I swung the shovel back and forth as hard as I could, trying to wade through them, and hit the smaller one on the back. He yelped and the bigger one lunged at my leg and I kicked free and took a swing and hit him too, in the face, with the blade of the shovel. They both were yelping and backed off and I got the hell out of there and ran down the road and up the hill, slipping and sliding in my thick, cotton uniform and half-skating on the clay, climbing sometimes on all fours, all the while thinking that Beth was actually dead, that there was nothing that could be done. I knew it was useless trying to find another house. When I came to the car and went around in back and dropped to my chest again, I couldn’t hear anything except my own breathing. I held my breath a long time. Nothing. She was dead, no doubt with a broken neck.
“Beth,” I kept saying, “are you okay?” No answer. I pushed and jerked the fender but I wasn’t strong enough. I tried every angle, did everything I could think of. Then I stopped.
I sat down on the road until I got my breath back. I could feel my heart racing. After a few minutes I went over to look for the beer can. Somehow, like a miracle, it had landed standing up, and it was still full. I brought it back to the car and set it on the roof. I wanted to see if I could just stand there on the road and calm down. Just simply stand there waiting for the ambulance, and not have to drink anything.
It was quiet and clear out. The moon and stars were big and close, and I felt like I was standing inside a huge bowl of the Milky Way. After about 15 minutes I heard a siren, and then I waited until I saw the flashing red light at the top of the hill. I grabbed that beer and fired it, like a softball from center field, as far as I could into Devil’s Hollow.