The Upper Hand by Donna D. Vitucci
“Pauline's a woman can't be satisfied,” said his inner voice, but Jared aimed to try. His would topple all the other rickety-built love she'd known. In rubbing his forearm he smoothed down the caution prickling there. He could feel more pluck than luck funneling into this pursuit, and that was mighty okay. He'd run ahead blinded by his own devices before, hoping the woman would teach him lessons worth learning. Say knowledge was acquired; just say that. Where every woman whittled, shaped him a little more to the form Pauline wanted without even knowing her own wanting. He would show her, he would prove it, he was on the road to demonstration.
Flying west in the Pontiac across Kansas, he'd crossed two states and he was legal nowhere but Euphoria, Illinois.
If his brother had not been lost in Afghanistan, Sten would have said, “Shit, when did you ever tuck your tail to rules?”
It might play out badly, but before the bad there would be play, the rolling dice and the coming up short. If Jared drove fast and far enough, and put maximum miles between them, he might knot Pauline up with him for good. Or he could be snipping his future with garden shears.
His plan: go away and make her come back. Make her come back of her own accord, her mind doing the choosing. Jared would tell you, the heart hidden is the heart that's wanted. Or the old cliché about how distance conquers lovers. Distance was cement, it was super glue, and Jared intended slathering a ton along I- 70, where he knew, he just sensed, Pauline would wander in tracking him.
“You got to go away to get it,” Sten always said. “Pretend disinterest. It ain't an outright lie. It's weave and duck, it's strategy. The girl always comes around.”
Sten knew his birds and guns and shit, but his women advice hit short, or had in the past. Jared felt his brother's instincts deserved a second chance. Hence this flight.
His offenses had not been so criminal—only in the eyes of the state. The state, which would be hauling his ass back to Euphoria to stand handcuffed before the bench again.
“The law fucks with your life,” he yelled into the wind whaling through open windows at eighty-five miles an hour. Alone as far as the eye could see, he kicked it to ninety.
Hence the monotonous blur of agriculture, and a highway that encouraged visions. Flat made the land raise up and wave at him, it buckled under the weighty horizon. Nah, just storm ahead shoving columns of rain for Jared to penetrate. He blinked his itchy eyes and drove straight into the deluge.
If rain ruled forty days and nights who would he bring with him to help re-populate the world? In a word-- Pauline, Pauline, Pauline. He knew his ruling obsessions: when he wanted a woman he wanted her bad, he wanted her through and through, bad through, very very bad. Never wanted a woman as thoroughly and badly as he wanted Pauline. Of course he said that about every woman he'd ever loved, all the way back to his high school crush, Debra. Seemed his mistake lay in letting her know how crazy she made him. One night after coming off third shift at Providence South he told her about an unconscious girl whose condition would not vacate his mind.
“Working the air intake right next to her laying there on the ventilator. Car accident, somebody said. God, I don't want that to ever happen to you. You got to start following rules.”
“Listen to you, Jared,” she said, “going on about rules.”
He grabbed her shoulders and shook her a little. “Swear to me you'll buckle in from now on.”
“I'll do what I want.” Debra wiggled from his grasp, and high-pitch giggled. “And what I want right now is...” Then she unzipped his jeans, which was the principal distraction and reward in loving her. The way she made him feel so good, he forgot disasters on deserted roads and hospital hauntings. He was obsessed with her for all the wrong reasons; she was his means of forgetting.
During that summer when her cousin, Marnie, came to stay visit, Providence held their annual picnic.
“We can't go and not bring Marnie,” Deb said. “You got two arms.”
Marnie had been in town three days in which, already, Debra had molded to her like a twin. Debra said they slept in the same bed. Well, what eighteen year-old boy would not be rocked by that? The cousins giggled and squealed and leaped in their high heeled sandals as they moved across the parking lot, their arms linking Jared three-way in the middle. His feet barely touched the asphalt, borne along as he was by them. They were taking him to his own picnic, like a prized entry in a pie contest, like a piglet they'd raised.
“Double date, eh?” Mike Garsman declared when Jared introduced the girls. Mike, his supervisor from Maintenance, stood grilling burgers and dogs, wincing against the smoke and the sizzle. A grease-soiled chef's apron barely wrapped his gut. Jared especially sheltered Debra, to make clear the boundaries. He didn't care if the guy moved in on Marnie.
At the picnic he saw Debra and Mike with their heads together over beers. Employee picnics, when the beer flowed freely, extended from hot afternoon into dark muggy night. Everybody got a buzz, got sleepy, then went about acquiring that second buzz. Who knows how much they'd sucked down total? Jared wandered, not for the first time, off to the woods to piss. He might have taken the long way back, or got lost looking at ferns or the lattice work in the trees upwards with the moon behind. Either way, he approached Mike and Deb and she was scowling and pointing her beer bottle, the way Jared knew she'd use a prop to make her point. She'd pointed a few things out to him, his faults mostly. Such judgments floated through his soppy brain while he crunched moss and chickweed and mole tunnels under foot. Mike had a flat dirty way of talking, so Jared imagine he'd laid on Debra one too many sleazy jokes and she was rising at him in righteous
indignation. Her sweetnesses canceled out her sour. He didn't think about where was Marnie. He forgot Marnie completely, wrenched Debra away from Mike so fast she dropped the bottle and it smashed at their feet.
In the car he grilled her. “What did he say to you?”
“I don't know. Where were you?”
“What did he say, Deb?”
“I don't know... something smutty.”
“I don''t know.” Her voice went high and shrill. “Down in the garden, what did I do down in the garden.”
“What? What garden?”
She fell into the crying he knew was coming, and in between sobbing she said, “I wanted you there. I wanted you where I was, that's all. Where were you?”
Where was he? Where had he been? Jared was driving, he was steering the car right then and he shouldn't have been behind any wheel. And still they cruised on. The thought of sanity cruised on past; the regret, the fear, the logic all cruised on ahead of his head.
He said, “In the woods, taking a leak.” And then he remembered, like it was a dream, jerking off to a vision of Marnie under the trees. Imagining Marnie stripped and stippled by moonlight in front of him, too far away to touch and so he touched himself. But Marnie had never really been there.
Why didn't his body speak to hers anymore? He wanted to say this to Debra. They sat in the driveway of her parents' house. He bent to kiss her and she let him get closer than close, then ducked way. Bitch, always trying to prove she was in charge. So if she ducked, he would duck too, and he did.
They both tucked into themselves. Debra exploded out of the car and ran into the house.
Marnie said, “Whoa. Shit.”
She 'd been in the back seat the whole time, like contraband.
“Sorry we didn't stay for the fireworks,” Jared said.
She shrugged and he could smell her all woodsy and the fruit scent her hair expelled. “I'm not that wild about fireworks anyway. It was just something to do.”
“Got a light?” she said, angling with a cigarette from behind.
They went to to the backyard to smoke.
“Attentive--maybe it's one of my faults,” he told Marnie. “But I knew Mike pissed off Deb. I wanted to get to the source of it, to deck Mike if I needed, but more to soothe Debra. To show her that guy's mouth dredged the bottoms and wasn't nothing he said could be of any light or brightness or meaning for her to hold onto.”
“You're bugging the shit out of her, hounding her. The girl likes her secrets.”
“I'm trying to love her.”
“You're trying too hard.”
“I'm not trying at all.”
“Exactly. It's just the way you are.” Marnie sighed, like Jared was too hard for any girl to take. They sat on the topmost level of the picnic table, their feet resting on the bench for sitting, leaning forward, elbows on knees, all confident and careless, with Debra slammed inside for the night.
Marnie took his hand. “Deb needs to blow off some steam,” she said. “Just leave her alone. Tomorrow will be a different story. Meantime, why don't you “not try at all” with me?”
Sten's words about going off and returning, they seemed to apply, as did Marnie's hand
down the back of Jared's jeans in the good dark. She smelled citrus-ey. Jared thought of fish, how fish needs some lemon to cut its fishy smell and taste. He felt himself a water creature; they were way in the ocean deep, the world over their heads no consequence.
“Ain't that how love is?” he said into her open mouth, “how it sweeps over you, causing nothing but waves you gotta ride?”
“Mmm, hmm.” She hummed-kissed him, wrapping his tongue with hers, bait. The whole world was squirming, desirous. And he knew that woods scene earlier had been no drunk dream. Or this was dream, too. Either way he wasn't opening his eyes.
“A hummingbird is just a great big bee, a greater buzz,” she said.
Jared said, “I'll show you buzz.”
When Marnie left, he told Debra he regretted it thoroughly. That he thoroughly thoroughly loved her, loved her dearly, loved her madly badly, very very badly. She was the one, THE one. If she couldn't see that then she didn't see anything.
“Honey, listen to me,” he said. “My heart falling upon yours. I will always be falling in your direction.”
Sten had been wrong about how you could go away from love and the love comes back stronger. Such bullshit.
“I didn't say screw her cousin,” Sten said.
The girls might have been in cahoots. He took Sten's advice, twisted it and cast it in the ocean. He was casting and he was what had been cast. He'd fucked up.
When he knelt alone in the apartment and his bones on the beat-up, uncovered wood ached as much as his insides, he threw himself around at the end of a mad fisherman's line. Trying to catch some break, some fish, some ease off the hurt. He swallowed every pill in the place, and smoked whatever Sten had left behind. He knocked over furniture and appliances, his hands clutching at the ends of someone's ravaged arms. It was day and it was night and then it was day again. His mouth was where the fisherman's hook had landed--foul tasting and barbed. He managed to find the sink, to drink, to let water gush across his face and into his scalp. He felt it beading there, crawling through, the mice and the mites all in the roots. He used up the rest of the day cutting his long hair and shaving his head. It's a wonder he didn't slit his throat. Or cut off an ear. And mis-quoting Sir Thomas Wyatt—who even read, much less quoted, the Elizabethans?--he
muttered, “There heart, how like you this?”
Bald-headed, feeling mole-like and newly emerged, he grabbed what lay nearest, his jacket, slashed it with his knife. “How like you this? And this? And this?” His breath got absorbed by the effort. The apartment spun around him, a child's dizzy-in-the-dark game.
When he thought back on it, a memory now more than ten years old, Marnie and Debra merged into one she-devil woman, a goddess-conniver, the first love that breaks a guy, digs him deep, toughens him up. He cuts his teeth on her, right? Or she cuts hers on him, leaving a fissure whose edges may, with the right bravado and enough time, close over but never disappears. Harbored pain was what it was. Plenty of women since, but come the right one at the right time with her particular elbow into Jared's solar plexus and he'd be laid wide open.
“All your innards for the taking of her slap-happy beak,” Sten would say.
Beaks, like the cartoons Hekyl and Jekyl on the Saturday morning show they both, as boys, laughed over and imitated like little magpies. Their mom used to say: “Smart-alecky birds, I'd like to slap-happy them, slap them silly some's what I'd do.”
With cartoon magpies unreachable, Sten and Jarred were stand-ins. Mom's lickings turned them more smart-ass than any damned birds on a wire. That was in Pittsburgh, where they flew the coop, in the city on a river, industrial, mucky, and un-fucking-lucky. When Sten graduated vocational, he scored a welding job, got an apartment, sheltered Jarred there. They got out from under, yes, they did.
“Don't let anybody tell you it can't be done,” Sten said, “flipping a bad situation on its goddamned ear. You can do it yourself if you have to.”
And then Sten enlisted, joined the army, turned all governmental and patriotic, so's Jared had to swallow cold beer just to quell his vomit. Once his brother left, Jared drove west without stopping. First night brought him to Evansville-- new city, familiar river. Landscape and weather so akin to Pittsburgh it nearly pushed him back to the highway but he stayed two nights, three, four, and on into weeks, enrolled in community college to learn heating and A/C. Mom always said, above all, people need their heat. Even the two-years offered electives. He'd loved king and queen stories when he was a boy, knights and their jousting, so he signed up for Elizabethan Poetry, and you might have thought: what a mistake. But no, it slayed him. It torqued his heart and blew his mind. He suffered a breakdown.
Sten wrote enroute to Pakistan: “You were a time bomb waiting to go off, bro. Don't think it's your fault coz that pin was pulled long time ago.” The email arrived three weeks after Jared got out of what he jokingly called “the mental ward.” Two weeks after, Sten's communiques quit. Message lost for fourteen days?
All of this transpired on one side of the Wabash. Then Jared crossed the bridge into Illinois, coasting into Euphoria, the whole trip in his brother's Pontiac a sort of tribute to Sten, as he'd not be back to reclaim it.
Coming out of the rain, out of God's Colorado car wash, Jared saw pink, he saw lemon, he saw indigo in the sky.
He'd seen the way Pauline eyed his coat. She stroked his arm as if the suede were a pelt. Yes, she'd petted him. She set her fingers on the scars he'd sewn up. He fell for her the first minute he saw her at the Goodwill. And yes, he'd maneuvered to anchor the end of that sidewalk he knew she made part of her route. Don't call him stalker.
“Call me attentive,” he said to Pauline.
She raised her eyebrows to him where they stood paused at the edge of the gully, and said nothing, but he could tell she was assembling it all in her pretty little mind. She was building him before his very eyes, building him new. He'd been torn, limping ragged and piecemeal for so long, hunchback from a horror movie, hugging his broken parts, his heart tucked deep, an innermost plum pit. Like the rings of a tree trunk or the levels of the earth from crust down to magma, Jared carried his scars from the time of Debra and Saturday cartoons and Sten stepping in the way of Mom's half-ass smacks, when the two of them took whatever she doled out because they preferred her furor over her lassitude.
No son of Euphoria, son of nobody in the bleak Midwest. But he belonged to Pauline, who built him into a better man than he'd ever been. And Pauline belonged to Tom. Somebody always belonged to somebody else. Even Debra belonged to Marnie more than she had to Jared.
As excuse for not leaving her husband, at least not yet, Pauline said, “If someone's dangerous it doesn't matter that you let them say a few lines while you hold onto the lap of your skirt. Your skirt, like your tongue, is just something else to hold.”
Jared had seen and met Tom; Tom wasn't dangerous. Tom was a self-centered lout. Love was about having the upper hand. Jared thought of his mom's hard slap aiming down, and poor-boy-him froze to the spot, cognizant of approaching pain and no will to get from under before it hit. Yeah, the fucking upper hand. It had him.
Donna D. Vitucci raises funds for non-profits in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of print and online journals, including Hawaii Review, Meridian, Front Porch Journal, Storyglossia, Night Train, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Elimae, Word Riot, Dogzplot, Buffalo Carp, Juked, Freight Stories, Gargoyle, Hurricane Review, Faultline, turnrow, and Another Chicago Magazine.