(Page 3 of 5)
They ate an early dinner at the gourmet restaurant three doors down from the lunch tavern. Only the folding chairs were a disappointment. It was still light enough for a stroll afterwards. The B&B owner said they needed shoes to walk in the creek, and a row of mangled sneakers stood in a tight row on the back stoop. Helen wouldn’t consider slipping her foot into one. The creek didn’t feel that warm when she dipped her fingers anyway. Better than the air, but still only tepid. The yard, the whole town stunk of sulfur.
She had assumed Hank would make a pass at her in the room, but they’d done that already, which was fine. He dug a book from his suitcase and settled on the bed to read, still in his shoes. One of the heels left a dark streak on the spread.
“What’s that?” Helen asked.
He flipped the cover as though uncertain. “I found it on the shelves out there.”
“But you put it in our bag?”
“It’s just some old paperback. Look at it, it’s falling apart.” He yanked a wad of yellowed pages from the spine and slotted them back. “Go find something for yourself.” He gestured with his chin at the closed door. Helen had already changed into her nightgown, her good one with the lace and cleavage.
“I’m not decent,” she said.
Hank said nothing. He was reading.
She brushed her teeth, scrubbed and moisturized her face, with bathroom door open at her back. At home she always locked it, ever since Brian had blundered in that time, both of them mortified by her half-nakedness. She had asked Hank if they should buy a book for him, before Brian started middle school, but Hank laughed it off. Boys figured that stuff out on their own—though of course he would be there if Brian had any questions. Helen’s own mother had done less, promised her that she would know when she was ready, when she was in love, it would change everything. But nothing had changed, not until Brian. It didn’t matter what he did, what he deserved or did not deserve, Helen was required to love him. The cut on her temple had required four stitches. She drove herself to the ER, shouting at Hank to shut up, to stop trying to touch her, she was fine, it didn’t matter.
When Helen woke the next morning, the antique tub was rumbling with water and Hank was on the floor doing push-ups in his underwear. Normally he grunted behind the door, but this bathroom was too small. The first ten he performed expertly, spine and hips flush, his chin and the bulge of his briefs grazing the floorboards in unison. The next ten required a slight but noticeable effort. He exhaled the numbers then sucked them back in. Twenty-one through thirty were work. He groaned, then paused, groaned louder, then paused longer. His face was red and veined, and his left arm trembled. Every morning he did this. He sometimes masturbated in the shower, but he had no idea that she overheard. The grunts were similar, the long straining rumble in his throat. The last ten she couldn’t watch.
They had strawberry pancakes with the owner and a married couple, the only other guests. The young wife asked about ghosts, but the owner could report no personal experiences. Hank was curious about the foundation and got the owner talking family history while Helen went upstairs to pack. If they were going to swim together, they had to hurry. The spring pools were segregated after eleven o’clock. Suits optional.
She collected her toiletries and set the zippered bag on the sink edge for Hank to brush his teeth. His laundry sat in a pile in a corner by the tub, and she balled it with her own. When she stuffed the soft mass into his empty half of the suitcase, her fingers brushed something thin and cardboard. She pulled out a postcard, blinked at the colonnade and logo, before turning it over. She was sitting on the edge of the chair when he came in.
“Hank?” she said.
He saw the card in her hand and rubbed his mouth. He took a series of deep breaths.
“It was stuck to the back of one of the bills. I was going to show it to you in the car on the way home. I didn’t want to ruin your weekend.”
Helen nodded, and then Hank nodded again. The door was open behind him.
“Look, I know it’s upsetting, but you don’t have to worry. I’m handling it. I’m going to call him when we get home.”
“Do you think Brian knows who sent it?”
Hank exhaled hard through his nose. “I imagine he does.”
Helen was studying the photograph, the way the colors had been artificially brightened, flattened, to resemble a painting. “Well, you should still get a list of names from him.” The shreds of a cloud in the corner she hadn’t noticed before. “That way,” she said, “her parents can’t claim she was targeted.” She turned the card over again and held it to her face to read the postmark. It was a regular stamp, an American flag, wind-wrinkled. “Maybe the dean can get exam books or something to compare handwriting?” She was pretending not to see Hank, how the hinge of his jaw kept slipping open.
“Helen. I don’t — what does … ”
She rubbed her thumb across the ink, across the word son, but it didn’t smear. “The school has a responsibility to us, Hank. They have an honor code down there.” She checked her skin anyway, for any hint of blue. “She’s probably going to get thrown out.”
“For getting raped?
Now she was looking around the room, at the fireplace, the bed, at how she had pulled her side of the spread neat. Hank’s was a jumble.
“For libel.” Her eyes wandered the pattern of the bedspread, the jagged florals in alternating purples. “You should phone our lawyer when we get home.” Her gaze kept sinking, to the spread hem, the floorboards, to her lap. “The one you used to badger the neighbors about property line infringements?” The fabric of her denim skit blurred, reformed, blurred.
Hank blinked, held his lids tight for an instant. She knew he was deciding which emotion to use. “Helen,” he said. It was his empathic voice.
She stood and shoved the postcard at him, stabbed it at his rising hands. “What if she goes to the administration? Or the police? She obviously can’t prove anything, but that won’t stop her from ruining Brian’s reputation. This is his future, Hank.”
He grabbed the postcard where she slapped it against his chest. “But we don’t even know — ”
“You’re going to let that little—” Helen’s open hands swirled beside her head. “Cunt,” she said. It wasn’t the perfect word, and it formed awkwardly in her mouth, but she wanted to shock him, to slap reason into someone. “Some little cunt defames Brian to his own mother, and you, you want to protect her?”
Her hands were hot, her whole body. She didn’t want to be here, in this room, anywhere.
When Hank didn’t say anything, she seized and stuffed the rest of the laundry into his half of the suitcase. The boards creaked where he paced in place. She breathed shallowly, watching the movements of her arms, her hands, the way the joints of her fingers bent and straightened. She picked things up. She placed them in the bag. She pictured where each would go when she got home.