Winter 2007, Volume 23.2
The Companion of Our Dreams
William Woolfitt has worked at summer camps, taught writing and computer literacy, been a youth group leader, shoveled sand, cleaned mansions, and made wine in West Virginia, Texas, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. His poems have appeared in Pinyon, North Dakota Quarterly, Permafrost, Creosote, Blue Mesa Review, and Shenandoah. This is his first short story to be published in a major literary magazine. Read poetry by William Woolfitt previously published in Weber Studies: Vol. 21.1.
"Are you sure you want to?" Mack said.
"I think it’s time to leave Montezuma," I said.
We always exchanged information at a quarter till eight, he spreading peanut butter and jam on half a loaf of bread, hermeneutically sealing a banana in plastic wrap so it wouldn’t pollute the rest of his lunch with its sugary essence, sweet enough to gag on. He buttoned his quilted flannel jacket and went out the door at ten till eight every morning, five or six times a week, precise as a palace guard, loyal as a cuckoo clock. His shop was between a pizzeria and a deli, but he always made his own lunch.
"I don’t want you paying December rent," he said, cutting into eighths the lemon meringue pie that Dora brought over the night before.
"It’s the least I can do." I turned on the kettle.
Mack was getting married, and I was moving out, even though Dora’s internship as a middle school guidance counselor would end in five months and they had somewhere to go then, and I had nowhere to go now. It would be a Christmas wedding, during her break from school, the church decorated with poinsettias and tinsel, a heavy red globular candle at the center of each table and clothespin angels to hold the name cards. I had volunteered to move out. Mack and Dora had parallel experiences if not common ground, but maybe in the end that was all you really needed, if you were tired of waiting, ready to cash in your cards and cut your losses. That was my bitter thought, and at the same time, I didn’t mean what I was thinking; I was a two-headed monster, a shouting match between spite and good wishes. She worked with kids; he was a volunteer tutor and mentor in an after-school program, which was how they met. He worked as a furniture maker; she liked making small crafts, things that could be sewn or glued or stenciled. His grandparents, who died before he was born, were German immigrants who raised a peach orchard near Fredericksburg, Texas. Her grandfather had an apple orchard in Washington; her great-uncle had also lived and worked there, but he was dead now, and they were moving into his empty house when school let out. Mack was going to learn apple cultivation from Dora’s grandfather. She intended to substitute teach the first year, so that she and Mack would have plenty of time together; then she was going to get back into counseling. I didn’t know what I was going to get back into.
The first thing to go had been the fake bamboo blinds that hung over our kitchen windows. Mack and I lived in a tri-level ski chalet that looked like a genie’s bottle from the outside, with a small kitchen partly underground, a larger living room overhanging that, then tapering up into a bedroom that was even smaller than the kitchen. Our landlord had said we could do as we saw fit with any of the furniture and dishes and miscellaneous junk that was there when we moved in, but I thought Dora was going overboard. The kitchen had an electric stove and a woodstove. The chimney of the woodstove rose through the middle of the chalet, and there was a rusty spiral staircase in one corner. Dora thought the kitchen needed more light, and she had made burlap curtains with rocking horses stenciled on them.
She came over on Saturdays to cook breakfast for Mack before he went to work. She used to leave when he did. But now that they were engaged, she had taken it upon herself to fix up our place.
"You’ll see a lot better from now on," she said.
"Hmmm," I said. I had tea and fire and the paper; I liked to ease my way into the day, slowly, quietly, curled up in the rattan nest chair.
"Know what I’m going to do with these blinds?"
"Burn them?" I said.
"Soak them in water, get the wood pliable again. See if I can weave a basket."
Mack worked a lot more than I did, so there were a few chores I tried to do regularly, as a matter of principle. I made the fire every morning; I swept the hearth; I pilfered the day-old newspapers of large cities from the coffeehouse down the street.
Dora wore overalls and Mack’s long underwear shirts. She was tall, bowlegged, her long pony-tailed hair the color of a golden retriever’s, her forehead wrinkled as she squinted at her work, tape measure or straight pins in her mouth. Actually it was a lie to tell myself that there was anything ill-formed or dog-like about her, a misrepresentation, like a photo retoucher adding just a drop of green to the skin of a face to make it look sickly. She rode horses, but her legs were straight and strong. And her hair was beautiful, I could almost say like a rich butterscotch candy—in fact all of her was beautiful, much more so than either of Mack’s previous girlfriends.
But I could feel her eyes drilling holes in me, and all over the room. Those curtain-making Saturdays were the first I’d been alone with her. She sang under her breath as she worked. I couldn’t make out the words. I didn’t want to. She was outgoing, brash at times, especially if she were drunk. Another lie—I’d seen her drunk exactly once. Mack and I were the quiet types, lost in thought, his orderly and serious, mine a random whirl. I had always thought there was something wrong with me before I knew Mack, thought I should try to be more socially aggressive. He made me think it was okay to be the way I was. But I didn’t know about him and Dora, didn’t know who had gone after whom. Mack could hold his end of a conversation if he really wanted to; he was better than me at most of life’s tasks.
After hanging her curtains, Dora showed up the next Saturday with buckets of paint, all set to tackle the living room. She pried loose the dark faux wood paneling, scraped away the tatters of flocked crimson wallpaper. She said she was going to paint the walls, one wall cream, the next wall oyster, then cream again, and the last wall oyster, to create a lighter, airier mood.
I tried to stay out of her way. I made tea, ate a piece of dry toast, fed the advertisements to the fire, poked the logs. I had worked two days that week, pouring chocolate into molds shaped like bells and pine trees, packing and shipping the mail orders, gift wrapping two dollars extra. I had decided to read the great Russian novels, the longer the better, checked out half a dozen, abandoned the project one chapter in. Every nail she yanked loose screamed in pain. I hoped the landlord didn’t walk in; then I hoped he did. He was deaf, old, erratic; he might scream at Dora for remodeling without his consent; he might scream at her just for being there.
I was stuck on nine across, earthenware pots, and fifty-two down, clingy seedpods. The scratching of her razor blade sounded like an animal trapped in the walls. Every strip of paneling splintered in Dora’s capable hands. Soon she would be down here trying to stick her scraps in my fire. I was a bit possessive when it came to the fire; I knew what it needed, and I made a game of seeing how long the fire would last before I had to feed it again.
"You have plans next Saturday?" Dora said, snapping me from my crossword puzzle reverie, standing over me, cracking her knuckles, flexing her forearms.
"I might have to work," I said. "I don’t always know in advance."
"I can bring an extra brush. Another set of hands, make it go twice as fast."
"If I were good at painting, don’t you think I would have gotten that job with the painter long-term?"
"I could pay you if that’s what you want," said Dora, sliding the burlap curtains a hairbreadth to make them perfectly even. "Or you could think of it as a wedding present for Mack and me."
The posters in our bedroom were the next to go. Mine was Flannery O’Connor on the front steps of her farmhouse, ankles crossed, crutches crossed, a peacock on the banister behind her. Mack’s was Jewel in a light blue blouse, hair pulled back, top buttons undone, a bit of cleavage revealed, the words pieces of you at the bottom of the poster referring to her first album. Every night when we went to bed, Mack said, "Goodnight hottie; goodnight bird lady," and then to me he said, "Goodnight Aaron." I suspected the worst, thought Dora had destroyed the companions of our dreams. But then I found them under our bunk bed, rolled safely inside cardboard tubes.
Mack and Dora would be good together, and I told myself I wouldn’t resent them. Mack was the most truthful and considerate friend I’d ever had, but always in a practical way. His kindnesses weren’t lavish; he wouldn’t go out of his way to confront you with a truth you didn’t want to hear, unless he really thought you’d be better off hearing it. He worked hard, saved hard, played hard. We gave each other support and space, although sometimes it wasn’t easy for me to balance between the two, to know which he needed more of. In sixteen months, I had been a part-time dishwasher, painter, firewood stacker, and toilet cleaner. A conservation group paid me to weed certain fields and embankments running along dirt roads, to uproot toadflax and bindweed and seal them in heavy-duty garbage bags. After that, I worked at a store called The Chocolate Baby, where I learned all about truffles and stick crPmes and meltaways, dipping and molding chocolates, Belgian lace and semisweet. I spent a lot of time looking for odd jobs, and when I did have one, I worried that I would lose it. I didn’t have energy for much else. Unlike Mack and Dora, who were always on the go, who skied and played racquetball, and snow-shoed or cross-country skied to remote mountain huts on the Saturdays when Mack didn’t have to work.
I hated the weather in Montezuma, and I ignored it as much as I could. A lot of snow, a lot of bitter temperatures, some variations, but all I knew was that my coat never seemed warm enough, my face and hands got chapped, and my feet got wet if I wore the wrong shoes. I had never tried skiing. I liked building fires, and driving the cold away, though most people told me that was a poor reason to live in the mountains.
I did help Dora paint the living room. She assigned me the buckets of oyster paint. I thought it looked pukey when I first rolled it on, better after it dried.
The bunk bed went during the first week of December. Dora had bought a queen-sized bed with a brass headboard, and it filled most of the bedroom that Mack and I had shared. One wall of our room was a wooden shelving unit, asymmetrical, higgledy-piggledy, some of its cubbies trapezoids or isosceles triangles. Mack volunteered to sleep on the living room sofa. I said the last place I wanted to sleep was the marriage bed, and he said he didn’t want to sleep in it without Dora. So we both camped out in the living room the last ten days. Sometimes he and Dora disappeared upstairs for hours at a time.
For their engagement, Mack had given Dora a princess-cut aquamarine, in a ring of white gold with floral scrollwork and filigrees. He found it at an antique store. Her birthday was in March, aquamarine her birthstone. I had gone with him to Denver, copied a list of antique and secondhand stores from the phone book, drawn stars on a city map to show where the stores were. While he drove, I figured out the most efficient way to get from one store to another.
"One-of-a-kind, and a good price," he said. "It’s freaking sweet. Don’t you think?" I nodded, gave him the thumbs up. They both wanted to save money so that they could travel around the world. And I thought it would be a good test for Dora—could she truly appreciate him, or was she run-of-the-mill, hankering for a giant diamond like just about every other bride-to-be?
I never found out the results of that test, of course. I wasn’t there when he proposed. Maybe she talked about her ring in the presence of other women, maybe there was some momentary catch in her voice when she told them she loved the ring. I would never know.
I had never planned to stay in Montezuma. I was driving west to see a new ocean. That was the only plan I had, Colorado one more state for my car to devour. But I got off the interstate; a hunch told me it was a good exit, and sure enough, jackpot. I parked my car in the lot between the recreation center and the Historic Mint Steakhouse. My legs were putty from hours behind the wheel. I was thinking, shower first, soak in the hot tub, then check out the "all-u-can-eat" salad bar promised by the sign at the Mint.
The hot tub was lukewarm, and the showers were full of fat naked hairy men, laughing, sparring, jolly as a barbershop quartet. I splashed some water on my face at the sink, crossed the lot, went into the Mint, learned that it was all-u-can-eat prime rib night too, an hour wait for a table. I grabbed a cinnamon-flavored toothpick, went back to my car. The ignition clicked. The power windows wouldn’t budge. I opened the door, and there was no chime warning me not to lock my key in. Dead car, dead as dandruff, dead as dust bunnies, that fast for my luck to change. I had barely let it out of my sight, thirty minutes tops, my beige 1992 Dodge Spirit sedan with a trunk rack. I briefly considered getting my bag and walking west without the car. The Rockies were tall, craggy, covered with snow and patches of scrub that stuck out of the snow. Getting past the mountains would be the hardest part. Then I remembered I didn’t have a backpack, just a mess of clothes, books, maps. You might say I had left in kind of a hurry. So I called a tow truck. This guy towed me to Montezuma Tire and Oil, and I kept composing in my head what I would tell Sabrina about my breakdown day. I hadn’t written a word of the journey yet, but all along there had been a scroll in my brain spinning with my car’s odometer, and even now without it. Those were the days when I still thought my life could be one long travelogue for Sabrina.
And then I decided I didn’t want to lie about any of it. I had lied to Sabrina before. I told her I’d gotten a favorable evaluation, true, and been hired for another season with Try, Try Again, also true. She had stared at me like antennas were growing from my forehead. She asked if I were falling in love with her, staying in West Virginia just to be close to her, and I said, "Absolutely not." As if I had any hope of fooling a mind reader, she was so good at intuiting and discerning. And she was good at canoeing and hiking; she was the one who had gotten me started loving the outdoors. She asked the tough questions that felt like hammer blows at first, but were building me back together in the long run. I was ashamed of the truth about me before I met her, that I changed college majors and jobs like some people change coffee filters, that I could fall in love with a person and not say beans about it for years. I felt like she understood me right from the start. I had seen this girl with a baseball cap pulled low over her eyes, with chain chew on her legs—scabs from road biking mishaps. She was putting up a sign about a day excursion to Valley Falls. That was Sabrina. She saw me eying the sign and invited me home for supper. She fixed a huge pot of couscous, had some other people over. I don’t remember the classes I took that semester, only Sabrina and her friends and all those one-pot suppers.
So it would be truer to say that my luck had started changing before I ever got to Montezuma. The engine sounded funny when I drove through the Eisenhower Tunnels at Loveland Pass, but I hoped for the best. I let my car coast downhill to the first exit, wondered if I would have to use the runaway truck ramp. I wasn’t sure if it really was dead, or dying, or if it was only my mind inventing another calamity. And I was broke before I was broken-down. I had to sneak past the vigilant front desk girl at the rec center to avoid paying the single visit fee, and I had been planning on the salad bar because I thought I could blend in with the honest customers, pass myself off as the guy from some other waitress’s section. It was that, or make a run for the leftovers before the bus boys got to them.
Montezuma Tire and Oil was run by a middle-aged woman in a sequined cocktail dress and high heels. She was barking at one of her mechanics, having a separate disagreement with the speaker phone, plucking off her fake red fingernails and dropping them into a baby food jar. I told her I didn’t have any money, and she said she needed someone to type bills and answer the phone. I said I was ready to bid adieu to my beige 1992 Dodge Spirit sedan with a trunk rack. She said, "Come back Monday at eight if you change your mind; now clear out so I can put on my grease monkey duds."
And it would be truer to say that my leaving Try, Try Again was dazed, spur of the moment, woozy, not necessarily hurried. I was alone in my room in Staff Housing, and I couldn’t hear anything except all the angry and defiant and confused voices of the adjudicated and addicted teenagers I had been backpacking with for the last eleven days. And I couldn’t see anything but the smoke of the affirmation campfire I’d gone to the night before, and the tears spilling from my eyes. I grabbed my stuff and got in my car and started driving, and the next thing I knew, my hands weren’t shaking anymore and I was crossing the Mississippi. There was nowhere for me to go, so I kept driving.
I went into a church across the road from Montezuma Tire and Oil, lined up behind some people like I knew what I was doing, followed them into the basement, then the meatless spaghetti sauce line. Saturdays were spaghetti nights at this church: my kind of religion. The pasta was mushy, but I was too hungry to care. I told myself to be sure to choose the line on the right next Saturday, so that I could get meatballs too. There was a guy tacking an index card to a bulletin board. Roommate Wanted. That was Mack. He stood off to the side while I stared at the sign, and when it dawned on me that here was someone maybe even more reluctant than me to make the first move, I took a deep breath, counted to ten, and introduced myself.
Two nights before the wedding was the last time the three of us hung out at the chalet. We played dominoes and kept score; we had pretzels and pale ale. Our couch was gone, hauled to the dump by Mack and Dora earlier that day, so we sat on the floor. The dominoes spread around us like the arms of a giant spider. Dora sat between Mack’s knees, not saying anything, unusual for her. I blew into my bottle to hear the one low resonant note it could make.
So finally Mack spoke. "You know you’re always welcome to come back here and visit us."
It was the first time either of them had made the vaguest reference to what would happen to me after I moved out.
"Who says I’m going anywhere?" I said, just to be difficult.
"It’ll be good for you," said Dora.
And once again, no curiosity, no interest in my plans.
"What’s that supposed to mean?" I said.
Dora played the double eight. "It’s good to be self-reliant," she said, carefully, gently, like a mother telling her son that his goldfish has died.
"It’s good to get your game on." Mack grinned, gave me a light punch in the shoulder.
The dominoes clacked against the wooden floor. Dora had pulled up the musty turquoise shag carpet, continuing the war on soft surfaces that she had begun when she took down the flocked wallpaper. I blew into my bottle again. I waited until Dora got up and went to the bathroom. "Is that what you really think?" I said. "That I can’t live by myself?"
"I think you lived here as long as you did partly because you couldn’t think of anything better," said Mack.
I wanted to say that I thought he was getting married because he couldn’t wait for anything better. My tongue was twisting inside my mouth, ready to fire.
Dora came back and stacked her dominoes into a pyramid. Finally, Mack tried once more to ease the silence.
"So I’ve been reading about apple grafting."
"Yeah?" I said.
"Tell him about how you put a branch on a new tree," said Dora.
"Where the branch joins the trunk, the graft union, you have to cover it with wax or tape to keep it from desiccating."
"Show me someday," I said. I meant it as a dare.
To hear Dora and Mack talk, you would think I was a clinger, a burr, a Wacky Wall Walker—one of those squishy blue octopuses that came in Rice Krispie boxes and oozed its way down whatever wall you threw it against.
They didn’t know the first thing about me.
And how could two people on the verge of spending the rest of their lives together say anything to me about self-reliance? I had been alone all my life. I wanted them to see me at nine when I hid behind the bushes when the bus came, skipping school so that I could clean the kitchen floor, wipe up the globs of oatmeal, gather the broken dishes, the dented tray, the peels and pith and flesh of oranges, because I thought that would make my mother and father happy again. She would know from then on that fresh-squeezed juice could not appease him. And I wanted Mack and Dora to see me in high school, the games of silence, the vows of invisibility, eating on my feet in the cafeteria so I wouldn’t have to join a table, last pick for lab partner and gym class kickball team, the solitude that kept me safe. And then college, on the other end of the state from my parents so that I wouldn’t have to see them every weekend, large and public, the cheapest one I could find, and I pinched every penny I could to have a single room. The last thing I wanted was a roommate who would find out what a freak I was. And what a long thaw those four years were, until finally I met Sabrina in my senior year. She brought my ice age to an end. I was the wooly mammoth encased in ice, an inch of tusk sticking out, until Sabrina chiseled me free. No more glaciers to hide behind. For good, I hoped.
I hadn’t seen her since I moved to Montezuma. The last time I heard from her, she was returning an ornate ten-pound chocolate cross I sent her for Easter. "I can’t accept a gift tainted by innocent blood," her note said. "Most of the chocolate in this country comes from beans harvested by slave children in the Ivory Coast." Before that, she had told me she couldn’t be friends with a guy who had fallen in love with her; she said it ruined everything, her feelings weren’t the same.
As for Mack, there was the story of Isabelle, the girl who moved away his freshman year of high school, and later on transferred to his college. She dated him three years, then announced that she wasn’t ready for a serious relationship after all, wanted her twenties to be about meeting a lot of different guys. She told Mack she’d never kissed anyone else, and she would always wonder what she had missed if she didn’t try.
So maybe that was why I wanted to hate Dora: misery loves company. Before she came along, emptiness was a bond for Mack and me to share. We were the ones who had loved and lost. And now I would have to heal the ache by myself. But maybe that would always be the case, maybe people could help each other only so much. There were some things that required two or more people—pinochle, square dancing, the Heimlich maneuver—and some that you had to do by yourself.
There was one best man and one maid of honor, how Dora wanted it. Mack’s older brother, Dora’s best friend from first grade. Dora said there were too many other possibilities—cousins, college pals, church friends—so it was easier to choose only one. Mack said that the price of renting a tuxedo was outrageous, they were wearing tuxes only to appease Dora’s mother. He said his brother had made a pile of money in real estate, let him be the best man, it didn’t mean that much anyway. I couldn’t have agreed more, about the tuxedos anyway. I would be leaving Montezuma the same way I got there, broke, or more so, and totally assetless, since my beige 1992 Dodge Spirit sedan with a trunk rack was long gone.
A week after the wedding, Mack and Dora invited me over for dinner. I had been sleeping in the basement of a girl who worked at The Chocolate Baby. I was leaving on the bus the next day. Mack had smashed his thumb at work, and Dora asked me to help her assemble a glider rocker that was one of their wedding gifts. They planned to keep it by the woodstove, partners with the nest chair. I had given them a set of stainless steel measuring cups, as well as a membership in the Chocolate-of-the-Month Club, a different sweet sent to them from my store each month for the first year of their marriage.
Mack was itching to lend us his good hand, but Dora told him to take it easy.
"Can you do much at the shop?" I said.
"One-handed sand jobs," said Mack. "Sweep the sawdust."
We didn’t need power tools for the rocker, just a screwdriver and a monkey wrench. Mack iced his thumb. Dora made me sit in the rocker first, and when she saw my feet planted on the floor, she told me to rock. So the honors of the maiden voyage were all mine. I had an irrational fear that the rocker would collapse from the slightest movement, Goldilocks demolishing Baby Bear’s chair, and that Mack’s parting memory of me would be that I botched whatever I got my hands on.
The rocker held, but it squeaked. Mack went to find his can of spray lubricant. Dora showed me the wedding pictures. We drank coffee, and then it was ten o’clock, time for me to go.
"It was good living with you," said Mack.
Dora said that I was important to them, and that we should keep in touch.
"You know me," I said. "I stick like glue."
I sat in my grandmother’s basement in West Virginia and sorted potatoes with her, most of them the size of marbles and golf balls and chicken eggs, some gnarled, some scarred with black lines where the spade had gashed them. I asked her if she still wanted me to drive her to the store, and did she want me to take her car to the garage and have it inspected. We cut the potatoes into seed pieces, each piece with two eyes, and she told me that these were the descendants of potatoes that my grandfather had planted. She asked me if I had written to Mack since he sent me a postcard. I told her about the apple orchard where he and Dora would live. She told me about the first Golden Delicious tree, discovered on a hillside farm in Odessa, in the next county over from us, and how the farmer built a cage of wood and wire, and rigged it with alarms to keep the thieves away. She was almost ninety, and almost blind. I was going to help her put out her garden so that my lazy cousins wouldn’t have to leave their Tarzan novels and Dukes of Hazzard reruns and internet chat rooms. I had time.