A Novel

Chapter 18: Kiss Clasp, Clicked Close

Kathy waited at the bar, inside the Wagon Wheel. At the other end of the room, a country band was getting ready to play.

She thought about Fernando. She wondered what was going on in Chicago. She hadn't heard from Fernando since he left Elmville. That wasn't unusual. But she had become intensely curious about Delaney and Fernando and the Pedrosas, about Dearborn Capital, about it all. She felt that she was being used, and wondered if Fernando was being used as well, and if so, whether he knew that he was being used.

A woman in crimson pant suit enter the cocktail lounge.

Kathy looked at her watch: precisely eight o'clock.

The woman scanned the row of customers at the bar until her eyes fixed on Kathy's grey skirt.

Guessing that this woman must be Connie, Kathy acknowledged her with a hand wave.

The woman approached and cheerfully asked, "Are you Ms. Trimble?"

"Yes, and that must make you Mrs. Swinford." From the bar-stool beside her own, Kathy removed her purse, with which she had been saving the seat.

"I am, and please for the love of God call me Connie."

Kathy responded in kind, though less enthusiastically: "Yes, and you must call me Kathy."

Kathy expected Connie to order a glass of Chardonnay, and was surprised when she ordered a Gibson instead. Surprised even more when she lit a cigarette and offered the pack to Kathy, saying "Cigarette?"

"No, thanks." Kathy thought smoking a trashy habit, especially for women.

The country band began to play. If Kathy had known there was to be a country band, she would have suggested another place to meet. But then, when she suggested the Wagon Wheel, she hadn't seriously expected Connie to accept.

As soon as the bartender served the Gibson, Connie took a drink, and said, "I'm so happy you agreed to meet."

Kathy thought perhaps Connie's friendliness did, after all, have just a touch of the salesperson's falseness. But she said, "I'm glad I did too." Then, a little unsure what they could talk about, she said, "Sorry to have been so blunt on the phone about Mary Kay."

"Don't be. To be perfectly honest, I can barely stand the stuff myself."

Taken aback by this confession, Kathy said, "You're joking."

Connie looked Kathy in the eye, much of the cheerfulness gone from her face. She flicked ash from her cigarette, and said, "Am I? Maybe I am. But then why don't I wear the stuff myself?" She looked dreamily toward the liquor bottles arrayed against the back bar, and said, "EsteƩ Lauder is all I wear. It's my little secret, but I shop at the Bergner's in Peoria." Then, turning suddenly to Kathy, she asked, almost aggressively, "Haven't you ever had to sell something you don't believe in? A product you would never buy?"

"Well, no, I guess I never have," Kathy said, though as soon as she uttered the words she knew that she was lying. She deflected this moment of self-reflection by wondering why Connie would think the point significant.

"If you ever do, imagine doing it for twenty years, and then try to imagine what that would do to you. To your soul."

The conversation was becoming a little too intimate, and Kathy tried to change the subject. "So I keep hearing that your father is some kind of big shot around here. What does he do?"

Connie rolled her eyes, "If by 'around here' you mean the village of Tiskilwa, then yeah, I guess he is a big shot. But you'd have to have lived in a little town to understand how little that can mean, being a big shot in a place like Tiskilwa."

Connie's shifting manner—by turns flip and then grave, gracious and then irreverent—left Kathy feeling socially off-balance. She didn't know what to say, how to make small talk with this woman who seemed to repel every attempt at it.

Connie laughed and ordered another Gibson, before continuing, "But I'm proud to say my father is nothing like my husband, if Dick was the kind of person you were imagining when you said 'big shot'. Poor Dick—he puts up with hell from me, but somehow that doesn't make him any more likable, or even sympathetic. But my father, I guess—how would I describe him?—if you could take all my faults and turn them into talents, into strengths or virtues, that's my father. Not the opposite of me, but the successful realization of whatever qualities I have—qualities that I have turned to waste and worse; he turned them into strengths."

Kathy said, "I see," although she didn't. She felt the conversation had bottomed-out, and in record time too; she couldn't imagine where else it could go. The two sat quietly for a while, drinking their cocktails, and listening to the country band. A few people stopped to greet Connie—she seemed to be very well known, and well liked.

Turning again to Kathy, Connie said, "I guess I should clear the air a little. I do love my husband, in my own way, but I'd be surprised if you had a very high opinion of him. I know he can be a pompous ass. It wouldn't bother me in the least if you thought so. But like I said, he puts up with plenty from me. I guess I feel I owe it to him to play the good society wife every now and then."

The conversation made Kathy feel uncomfortable; she disliked all these unwanted confidences, and she wondered if Connie hadn't already been drinking before arriving at the Wagon Wheel:

Though not exactly making a fool of herself, Connie came on very strong—too strong, Kathy thought: she assumed an intimacy between them that did not exist, and that Kathy did not welcome. Connie opened herself up to Kathy in a way that Kathy found almost indecent.

Again, attempting to redirect the conversation toward small-talk, Kathy asked, "How's your cousin doing?"

Connie looked at her, over the rim of her glass, with bewilderment. "My cousin?"

"That boy who was beaten up so badly two days ago in Tiskilwa. I heard about it at work. People said he almost died."

"Oh him," she said with disgust. "That's not my cousin."

Upended again, the conversation seemed as if it would go nowhere. The evening had turned into something Kathy never expected. Would this woman say or do anything expected? Kathy began to doubt her own self-assurance, her belief in the power of social formalities to contain the ugliness of unwanted truth. She said, "He's not you cousin?"

"It's true. Of course, I could be lying to you, or other people could be lying to you. But he's not my cousin. I don't even know him."

"Why would you or anyone else lie about that?"

"Does the fact that you can't imagine a reason for the lie make it less likely to be one? I don't know. Maybe it was me who was lied to."

Kathy asked, "Who is he, then?"

Staring again toward the back bar, she said, "I don't know who he is; I only know one thing about him: he's trouble." Then, she coquettishly spelled out, "'t,' 'r,' 'o,' 'u,' 'b,' 'l,' 'e' with a capital 'T'. But all's fair around here, haven't you noticed? Touch something hot and you're likely to get burned. And nobody feels sorry for you, but they'll probably talk a lot about it."

Kathy sensed in Connie some depth of anger or injury that she couldn't begin to fathom. She said, "You don't seem very happy here. To be perfectly honest, I can't imagine how anyone could be happy living in a place like this. In such a small, isolated town."

"Towns come in sizes a lot smaller than this one, and then there are people who live in no town at all: just way out there in those cornfields, in a house, at the end of a long gravel drive, off a lonely county road that eventually connects to another county road that maybe connects to a state road that eventually connects to a town like this. Have you ever seen their grand front porches with front steps leading down to nothing, to a lawn? They have these beautiful front doors that nobody ever uses. Out there, they know what loneliness really is."

"I think I know what you mean. One night I drove out into the countryside, just to see what it was like, and found it both strange and horrifically familiar. Familiar because each field looked identical to the next. And not a person in sight for miles and miles. I thought, if my car breaks down, how in the world would I ever get back to town? Even if I had a telephone, how would I describe my location to anyone. I felt almost as if I'd be lost out there forever."

Connie said, "You could be, too. There're plenty of farmers' wives who are." She took a long drag off her cigarette. "People get lost so easily, and the bad thing about being lost is how helpless it makes you. I guess that's why we fall so easily for men. Something I've learned—maybe it's harder for girls grown up in the city to learn—that inside every man's head, is a grave. And it's either an empty grave, or it's a grave that already holds a body. Watch out for it—you'll see that it explains a lot about men. The empty graves are the dangerous ones."

Kathy thought, she's definitely drunk.

Again staring at the bar, as if addressing herself to the colorfol shelves of liquor rather than to Kathy, Connie said, "There's something I love about the nighttime this time of year, late summer, the heat and the humidity, every tree and plant and lawn green to the bursting point, and the darkness lying over it all, and the cicadas filling the air with their chirping, which comes in waves—it all makes me think of deepness, like the ocean, though I've never seen the ocean, but I was reading an article from Time magazine the other day, in my dentist's waiting room, and according to the article most of the oxygen in our atmosphere comes from plant life in the ocean, not from the trees or anything else on land. Nighttime this time of year is what I imagine the ocean to be like: unimaginably deep and filled with life. Drive out into the countryside tonight, if you can—the whole world is full-to-bursting with life."

Connie finished her drink, and said in the same cordial tone with which she had first greeted Kathy, "I think that I have exhausted your patience, as well as the one half an hour you said you would be free. I can't thank you enough for meeting me. I thought you'd be like a hero of mine, my favorite television character, Molly Dodd, but I see how unfair that was to you. How unfair I am to just about everybody. But I do wish you success with your work here in Elmville, and if you should ever reconsider your opinion of Mary Kay, do give me a call!"

Connie picked up her purse and left the cocktail lounge.