“A final comfort that is small, but not cold: The heart is the only broken instrument that works.”
T. E. Kalem
It was late afternoon and the sun was beginning to drop lower on the horizon when Rachael walked to the highway and put out her thumb. She still wore her waitress uniform, the little white dress and black apron, but she’d taken off the clunky white saddle shoes that looked old fashioned but were comfortable. She stood on the side of the road in flip-flops, watching cars flash by. It usually didn’t take long to get a ride. She was young, petite and blonde. Even in the ugly waitress outfit, she attracted attention.
The week she moved back to town, she’d pulled out in front of a telephone truck. The angry driver told her, in no uncertain terms, that she was lucky to be alive. Sometimes she wasn’t so sure.
She had no money, no place to live and no way to get around. So she’d taken a waitress job at a seaside restaurant until she could find something better. Working constantly, she’d finally saved enough for a deposit on a crummy little apartment on the edge of the bay, and though it wasn’t much, it was still a lot better than the motel room she’d been living in since the wreck.
Of course, better days were coming. She’d been accepted to art school. Being an artist was never going to make her rich, but she didn’t care. At work, customers and staff loved her drawings. She drew little caricatures of people on restaurant napkins. Everyone laughed when she drew a picture of the manager, Michael, in his cowboy boots and the Stetson he always wore because he was too cool for school. Now all she had to do was wait for fall semester, and she’d feel like she had a reason for being on earth. Right now, she felt extraneous, like an extra toe.
Within minutes of sticking out her thumb, a blue Honda Civic slowed and pulled alongside her. “You want a ride?” someone asked. Maybe she ignored the flutter the voice gave her.
“Sure,” she answered, getting in the front seat without looking at the driver. Only after she’d buckled the seatbelt and turned towards him did she confirm that the man who’d stopped for her was the man who dumped her, her old boyfriend, Dennis.
“Hello, Dennis,” she said. Dennis Raymond Boyd. She used to write the name in her textbooks. Mrs. Dennis Raymond Boyd. Mrs. Rachael Boyd.
“What are you doing out here, yeah? You shouldn’t be hitchhiking. It’s dangerous.” So many voices – his soft, sexy voice, his angry voice, his disappointed voice. But she’d forgotten the self-righteous one.
She laughed. “This is how I get around.” No details. She wasn’t about to explain how she’d totaled her car.
“But what happens if someone picks you up who is, you know, dangerous?”
“Not really your problem, is it?”
“I can still worry about you as a friend.”
“Is that what we are?”
“You know what I mean,” he said. But no, she thought, I don’t know. “I didn’t realize you moved back to town.”
“I missed it here,” she said. “This is my home now.” She wondered if he would object. He always complained about outsiders moving to his beautiful beach town. “I tried to move back with my parents but I hate Raleigh. Every day I was gone I missed this place. All I could think of was, when can I get back?”
‘You know I’m dating someone else, yeah?”
She looked startled, then said quickly, “I do. I’m very happy for you.”
“And I’m glad you’re here. I want you to meet her.”
Magnanimous of you, she thought.
As they approached town she chatted about the restaurant where she worked. “I’m dating the manager,” she lied. “You’d like him, a nice guy named Michael.” Michael’s boyfriend, Jason, wouldn’t appreciate her usurping his lover. But whatever.
The news seemed to please Dennis, though. “I’m glad you found somebody new. I was worried about you. For a while there you seemed so, well –” she could feel it coming “so sad.”
“I was,” she agreed. “But I got over it. I’m very happy now.”
“This is where I turn off.” Dennis pulled over to the side of the road at an intersection. “I bought a little house out of the country.”
Her heart set like a stone. They’d always talked about buying a house in the country. “Did you get some land?”
“We’ve got 20 acres.” Rachael noted that we. “My girlfriend has a couple of horses. I’m not really into horses,” he added.
Dogs either, she thought. She had to give hers up when they lived together. If she had it to do all over again, she’d give up Dennis and keep the dogs. But hindsight is always 2020.
“Well,” she said, pushing the door open, “Good to see you again.”
She started to get out, but Dennis suddenly said, “Wait a minute. Let me give you a ride all the way to your house. I’d love to see where you live.”
Noooo, she shrieked internally. How bad was the apartment? She hadn’t done the dishes, she remembered that. And the bed was unmade. What else? What else?
Still, it would be nice to get a ride home all the way home and maybe, maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world that he knew where she lived. Maybe someday he would come and visit voluntarily.
“Okay.” She closed the car door again. “I live just off Orange Street.”
“That’s a nice area.”
When they turned onto the road where her apartment building was, he slowed. “It’s this old house up there,” she said, pointing. He pulled up in front of the two story wooden house and looked at silently. While there were nice houses in the area, this one had seen better days. The wooden house had been split into multiple apartments, and badly needed painting. The shutters listed sideways, the screens were split and patched. The front porch was up a set of five sagging steps. Her neighbor had put a wicker chair outside her apartment, but Rachael’s side of the porch was bare. “Thank you for the ride,” she said. Then on an impulse she could never explain she added, “Would you like to come in and have a cup of coffee?”
He hesitated a moment, then said, “Sure, I’d love to. Why not? I’d love to.” He parked the car and she led him up the steps to the apartment. She’d never noticed before how small it seemed, how empty. The kitchen opened into the living room, separated by a counter. She directed him to one of the barstools in front of the counter and went into the kitchen to plug in her second hand coffee pot. Sitting on the stool next to him, she leaned forward her elbows on the counter. “So,” she said, “How have you been?”
He looked around curiously, “Nice apartment,” he said, and she knew he was lying. The living room contained a small couch, a television and no other furniture. There was nothing on the walls. From where they were sitting, they had a direct view into the bedroom. He could see the unmade bed that took up most of the space, the open, chaotic closet. Well, she was busy. Working all the time. Trying to buy a car. And she hadn’t expected visitors, damnit.
Off the living room was a claustrophobic bathroom. She hoped he didn’t go have to use it. She hadn’t had time to clean it yet. The landlord had given her a discount on the promise that she’d clean the place up. But working so many hours, she hadn’t been able to do all she promised when she first moved in.
“This is interesting,” he said. “Good use of space.” She almost laughed at that. “So how have you been?”
She thought about telling him the truth. I have no life. I have no money. I have no friends. I wrecked my car and now I hitchhike back and forth to my crappy waitress job, but hey, other than that, everything is peachy.
But no, she wasn’t going to let him feel sorry for her. She’d made her decision. She was going to live here. She was going to get it together and make this her home. “I stay busy,” she said, as she poured him a cup of strong coffee. “My boyfriend and I like to go on camping trips. He owns a Winnebago.” She almost laughed at the thought of Michael in a Winnebago, Michael whose idea of roughing it was, “the Sheraton without the pool.”
She and Dennis had once talked about visiting Yellowstone National Park, camping out in the mountains.
As she expected, “That’s great,” Dennis responded. “Been to Yellowstone yet?”
“No, but we’re going next month. I’m so excited I can hardly wait.” She imagined herself leaping into the air, making little squeaking noises of delight. But that might be a bit much.
“Sounds wonderful.” Dennis sipped his coffee. She thought she heard a bit of wistfulness. He added, “Charlotte and I are supposed to go soon. I’m not sure when. She has a hard time getting off work.”
“Oh really. What does she do?”
“She’s a lawyer,” Dennis said. He blew on his coffee, avoiding her eyes.
Of course she is. Rachael remembered him berating her – when are you going to bring in more money? Why do I always have to pay for everything? Don’t you have any ambition?
“It’s not what you think,” Dennis added hurriedly. “She does whatever it’s called – not corporate law but the other – where she helps people.”
“Oh Dennis,’ Rachael said, “I knew you would never get together with a corporate lawyer.”
He laughed. “Yeah, I guess you know my type. Well.” He put the cup down. “I hate to drink and run but Charlotte is expecting me. We’ll have to get together sometime. Maybe you and – Michael, is it? You and Michael, can come to dinner sometime.”
“We’d like that,” she answered. She walked him to the door, all two steps, then stood on the porch, smiling as he drove away. As soon as the car was out of sight, she ran back into her apartment, ripped off the uniform and jumped in the shower. She hoped the neighbors couldn’t hear her shrieks. She stepped out of the mildewed stall, stood in front of the fogged-up mirror. She started to wipe it clean, hesitated.
In the steam she drew an ornate heart. Then her initials. And below that a question mark. She stared at the image for a long time, wiped it clean with a towel. She slipped into jeans and a t-shirt, then stretched out on the lumpy couch in the living room, and stared out the window where his car had been. It felt good to be lying still, to be motionless. Soon she would whirl like a dervish, keeping thoughts at bay. But for one minute, the setting sun streamed through the window, warming her. She glanced at the barren walls on either side of the window. She imagined a mural on the wall, the sun illuminating a small, ivy-covered house somewhere out in the country. Maybe a mountain rising beside the glass. Time to buy some art supplies. Get the place spruced up.
Wendy Thornton has been published in Epiphany, Riverteeth, Confluence, The MacGuffin, and many more. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been chosen many times as an editor’s pick on salon.com. She never gets tired of writing but does wish some of her stranger characters would leave her alone.
© 2012, Wendy Thornton