Isabel DeBre

Night Driving

I look at Helen in the front seat and remember the way we spoke about our loves, our complexes. Sitting on her porch in South Illinois, we used to drink Canada Dry and pretend to live in Canada. I think of the colors we didn’t know hid in the sky—all that red. The way she laughed with her hair thrown back, the brown strands sticking to her lips. I remember the smoking, the standing up in the backs of pick-up trucks shrieking, the parties with someone else’s friends. I miss mostly the things that used to be forbidden, how as teenagers, we would hide our Knob Creek and cigarettes under my aunt’s porch. The cigarettes would sag from the dew, and we would sneak back to our separate homes with shoes soaked, smelling recklessly of cheap tobacco. Not much has changed in twenty years except for our lives and our bodies. 

Now we’re driving in her Lexus, big enough to fit the kids she doesn’t have. Her GPS tells her to turn right. All of a sudden she’s forty and likes to know where she’s going. 

 “You knew me better than anyone,” I say.

Her lips purse at the past tense. As we speed down Mulholland Drive, I can’t help but feel how it’s inevitable—her auto insurance, her husband the Hollywood producer, the pair of yellow lines separating her path from the opposite. 

“How’s Tom?”                                                                                                     

I watch her mouth laugh.  “How’s Tom,” she repeats. “You should ask him. You’re pretty.” 

She looks fragile, crawling gingerly into the turns. On the Illinois roads she used to sweep through night and day as if they were the same. 

“Look,” she says, pointing off the cliff’s edge. “Bet you don’t have that in Vermont.” City lights blur across the dark valley. “Remember your parakeet that could sing the first nine notes of ‘Goodnight Sweetheart?’” 

“Aw, Lenny.” The bird, always bored and overheated, died after a week. 

She rolls down her window. Tom hovers, unanswered. But when traffic light changes she says, “He was a cold man. Too many veins in his neck.” She closes her eyes, a momentary shutting out. “Remember when my wedding boat was caught in a whirlpool?” The party boat swirled in the water. The bridesmaids screamed and the spray soaked her dress. “I knew it was a sign,” she says, the lines in her chin quivering like they did at graduation. I notice her wedding ring on her index finger. “I just knew it.”   

The light falls, fading to gray and then lavender. It’s quiet and I want to talk but she doesn’t ask if my Vermont cabin gets lonely, or about the sales of my pastoral poetry. The cabernet and bread from our Italian dinner sit heavily in the pit of my stomach, as though I’d swallowed something that was making itself permanent.  

“They warned me the current was unreliable,” she say."

“They said treacherous.”

She slows the car as we descend. “Remember frolicking in the summer at Oberlin? And Rodger’s Dance Hall where we dressed up as Marie Antoinette to be funny? Remember getting drunk with my cousin where the old iron furnaces were?” Her face is flushed. She seems to be receiving these fragments out of some deep vacuum of nervous exhaustion, transmitting them in a voice soft and oddly confidential. 

“Where were the furnaces?” I forget these things but she doesn’t answer. I want to ask if she remembers Emily Dickinson’s epitaph—Called Back. Called back to the grind, Helen said at school. Called back the spirits, she said at our séances. Called back, call back, back again, she promised in my yearbook. 

We pull into her driveway, curling around a plot of dead trees. 

 “You’re welcome inside,” she says, “I know you have your book tour and you’re not here to see me, but—” A light turns on in the kitchen. Inside, a shadow stirs. “Tom,” she whispers. She puts her hand on my arm so I know not to speak. 

“He’s raiding the damn place,” she says. “That’s stealing. Right? That’s stealing.” Her mouth is moving but her body is very still. “My coffee grinder.”

“Helen, we should go.” 

“Go? This is my home.” Now her hands are shaking, a self-contained California earthquake. The night smells like fire—prickling, dense.

I squeeze her fingers, but they aren’t warm anymore. “Let me drive. I want to see your neighborhood, show me your neighborhood.” 

We climb over each other in the smoky darkness, she smells of river mist, our limbs tangling, the buckle of my sandal catching the cloth of her dress. It’s like the way things used to be, all those years ago, when we slept in the same bed during the dim, dragging winter.  

 “Watch out—new driver on the road!” I say, tapping the pedals, “Which one’s the brake again?”

 Helen shrieks, smiling for the first time tonight. I press hard on the gas, and we lurch into the dark. 

“Screw you!” Helen yells out the window, and we burst into laughter. 

Joni Mitchell comes on the radio singing “Case of You.” I turn the dials to keep her voice from fading. 

The wind pushes through the car with watery-eyed, thrashing gusts. “I drew a map of Canada…Oh Canadaaa!” 

There is no moon tonight, and I see two falling stars in the course of the drive, trailing overhead like loose sparks, trackless as they flutter and go out. I call Helen’s attention to them, pointing up to show her where to look.

“Remember when we drove without headlights at night in your dad’s Dodge?” she says. 

“I remember—” driving in the dark more than losing my virginity. The Smiths whispered about suicide. The night surged until I surrendered. As a teenager it seemed so necessary, when any mutiny, no matter how fragile, was a heroic act. 

“We’re such bitter hags,” Helen says. 

I laugh, then catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror. It looks old, with too much makeup. I feel stuck, waiting for the future like it’s a dance partner at prom. When I glance over at Helen, she smiles. I know that smile. It was her smile when she bought a popcorn popper for her dorm room and then stared numbly at all the things, so many things. I know what I have to do. In Mulholland Park, a man kicks up dust and stares out at the city’s red noise. 

“Let’s do it,” I say suddenly, switch off the headlights. 

 “Wait, Edith—” her voice urgent like a touch. 

As we fly down the hill, the road in front of us blackens. It is not an ordinary darkness. It is like the darkness in dreams, richer and deeper, more pure and complete than anything we can see. We are speeding but I feel us floating. The air erases us line by line until we are each just separate shrieks—Helen and I—the faint blue outlines of bodies. “Faster, faster!” she yells. Wind pulls at the trees and my dress. The engine rumbles like music, like the Illinois wake sloshing toward the shore. We fall, fall, and I don’t want to stop, forgetful as if into sleep. My eyes ache from folding back the heavy blackness. My chest thunders, lungs stiffen, bones press together like hardened lips. I think I might solidify—a dark, permanent mass, all the spaces filling in. A hymn lands on my lips: “Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin.”

Suddenly, a bump. A thud. Like a creature caught beneath the chassis. Helen screams. I swerve.

I reach for her hand but miss it in the darkness.

“The lights.” Her voice quivers.

I breathe, pray for abandoned furniture or a paper box or equipment fallen from a gardener’s pick-up, and switch on the headlights. There’s just asphalt, with painted lines and puddles from the morning rain. I get out of the car, my heart pulsing as I look under. 

Only shrunken leaves stick like fists to the tire treads. I wait for hurt animal noises—clucking, desperate trilling, dragging.

Nothing. 

Helen slides out of her seat.

“Let’s leave,” she says, looking around. “Nothing here.” In her voice there is something I don’t quite want to recognize: a forced gaiety, sprightliness.

“Did you feel it?” I ask.

“Yes but —”

“We ran over something live.”

“No, stop, we don’t know that. It was probably a bump in the road—”

“Are there animals around here?”

“Mostly raccoons—” She sounds haggard. “Never mind.”

She gets in the driver’s seat and turns on the headlights. The engine hums. In the dark, I move toward the car, my steps heavy like last heartbeats.

 

That night in my Santa Monica hotel I can’t sleep. My scalp itches. The room is the color of Helen’s old ranch house near the Illinois riverbank. Outside a homeless man rattles his shopping cart. Waves crash. I wake again and again with that feeling, a slow, greasy feeling at the back of the neck. The same feeling I had when my mother died all those years ago and I was alone, wandering around the nurses’ station, wondering where she had gone.

In the morning Helen doesn’t call. I tell myself it’s because she has to deal with divorce papers. I dress and drive to my book signing. In the audience are ten empty chairs, Jeanie, my Oberlin friend who owns the shop and got me the gig, as well as a hairy college student sitting with her legs crossed and an appreciative old woman with pink lipstick on her teeth. When I read I hear my voice shaking. The old woman looks like Helen for a second when she turns her head. That thump, that thing. It curls into the spaces between my words. It sticks in my throat as sludge and mire, brown, humid air. I try to swallow but it chokes me. I stop after muttering two poems, even though I told Jeanie I’d read seven. I wonder: how do I keep surviving? Jeanie claps softly, and the others look perplexed. She makes an announcement about summer releases, and summons me to sign books at a card table. I walk out the back door. Slumping against the stucco, I take out a cigarette. It feels natural—the drawing, pulling, mouth and lungs—at once reckless and careful. Last night’s thump throbs inside my stomach. Jeanie comes out the door and sits next to me, folding her freckled legs on the pavement.  “Why did you come all the way to L.A.?” she asks, moving closer, “Because if it was for that performance—”

“What was wrong with that performance?”

“Oh, nothing. I’m just surprised—rather, flattered—that a few unintelligible words at my bookstore would be worth an $800 plane ticket and weeklong hotel stay.” 

“Helen paid.” I wipe the sweat under my eyes, smearing mascara. “I came to see you and Helen. I’m at this place in my life—”

“Edith, sweetheart.”

I curl into her lap. She purrs like an animal. I think of Helen before everything changed. At night she would leap into the town river, squealing. She would tell me ghost stories on the levee, whispering into the windless dark. I last saw her at her wedding where I threw rice and ate coleslaw, said I’d call back, back again. I remember our ride last night, how it’s a congregation of memory and people keep leaving.

Five days pass. I try to mark the time by the color of the air in my hotel room, the way the wallpaper turns grainy and unfocused before the morning has quite taken shape. I wonder what is happening, this jittery pang, this hole. I sit on a park bench next to a panhandler with a dog. His sign says: Anything Helps.

The night before my plane leaves for Burlington, I’m packing when my hotel room phone rings.

“Jesusmaryandjoseph.” I know the voice like it’s my own. “I got it wrong. Your bird sang ‘All Through the Night’ not ‘Goodnight Sweetheart.’”

“I know. Lenny liked Lauper.”

“And I made up the part about the iron furnaces.” Her words run together like dripping paint. “And I’m sorry I dropped out of Oberlin to marry Tom and never called back.” It’s quiet for a few moments but the kind of quiet I don’t want to shake. “How are you?” she says. She’s slurring her speech and for the first time I miss her. A stereo blares in the background. Don McLean or Jimmy Webb.

“Where are you?”                                                                                

"A bar…the corner of Broadway…”

 

When I pull up to the street, there she is, leaning against a lamppost, her brown hair plastered in strings across her face, all that red rushing to her eyes. She mouths to the music. I get out of the car and it’s colder than I thought. I smell whiskey as I move toward her.

“You’re barefoot,” I say.

 “Actually, I’m Helen.”

 “Edith.” I shake her hand. My fingers curl into hers. “Would you like me to take you home, Helen?”

“What a gallant offer,” she says like an old British man. We laugh and lean into each other. “I guess it’s been a long time since anybody walked me anywhere, Edith.”

We move from streetlamp to streetlamp, passing dumpsters where restaurants leave fruit peels and bread for stray starving things.

As we walk, I catch our reflections in a shop window—bodies bound together between belts and purses. I watch us stumbling out of a bar, as though that’s something we do on a Saturday night. In the dark, I let myself forget. I reach for Helen’s elbow when she almost falls. 

 

Isabel DeBre is a 2014 Young Arts Winner in fiction, one of 170 artists selected for recognition from over 10,000 applicants. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in PholyphonyBRICKrhetoric, and the Young Writers Anthology: Racing Toward Dawn. She has received a Gold Key from Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for her fiction, and first place in the Renee Duke Poets for Human Rights Award. She is currently a high-school senior at Malborough School and will be attending Brown University in the fall of 2014. 

Posted on May 14, 2015 .