I tend to prefer nonfiction, but every once in a while a story begs for truth on its own terms. Here’s a snippet from a rare fictional piece, Shelley Elena.
There’s a chocolate malt and a strawberry shake cradled into the cup holders of her inherited BMW. By far, the car is the nicest thing she owns and also the thing she cares least about. Besides, it’s technically her husbands, although he doesn’t mind her taking it for a ride, he probably doesn’t even remember she’s gone.
She told him she’d get shakes, but really it was the just barely summer heat that had begged Shelley to take a ride with the windows down. She should have stopped for ice cream on the way home, already the shakes are starting to sweat and drip, tempting the dogs to lap at the sides of the wax cups. Shelley rewards their efforts with a rough pat on the head and lets the sweat on her brow go, in some sort of sympathy with her drinks.
She turns on the radio, “Me and Bobby McGee” playing on the classic rock station. Catching a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror, she loses herself in visions of an aged Janis Joplin, her silver hair whirling in the wind as she speeds away and sings along.
20 minutes later she pulls alongside her house, a blue pre-fab in an overgrown field outside of Blackfoot, Idaho. The front lawn is littered with empty bathtubs the couple buys and sells to pay for spontaneous road trips around the state. They’ve never stood out to her before, but today they act like a frame, turning her double-wide life into something to look at. She looks through her porcelain edged masterpiece, backlit by the dusk, and flickering blue from the TV inside. For the first time, she’s surprised this is what she’s ended up with. Not bothered, just surprised. Without taking her eyes from the house, she steps on the gas and pulls into the gravel driveway.
In the car with the engine running, Shelley feels heavy, tired, but relieved to be home. Today passed without episode, today had been easy. The couple had long ago grown accustomed to their odd situation, opposite people whose psychoses forced a dangerous commonality on them both.
They’d met at a hunters lodge in southern Wyoming on the first day she’d dyed her hair to hide her silver highlights. It was Shelley’s night off, but she came into the dining room where she waited tables to steal a glass of wine before bed. She didn’t notice him sitting there, in the corner, getting drunk with his two sons. In a slurry of mixed up memories, he likes to say he told his boys that someday he’d marry that woman. Shelley only remembers the chemical smell of her hair dye mixing with the bitterness of her glass of cheap merlot.
Turning the keys in the ignition the car rumbles to a stop. She opens the door and her two dogs push and jump their way over and past her toward the front door.
Without the engine running, the country dusk buzzes with the sounds of the middle of nowhere: a vacant wind blowing over nothing worth noticing and the not so far off interstate humming just a bit louder than the crickets. She’s learned to call this sound silence. Soon enough it is broken, first by the car door slamming behind her and then by the cheery barking of the couple’s prized cocker spaniels. As she walks to let them in, she holds her breath, braces for their dash through the door, her hands holding tighter to the slippery waxed cups.
She puts the soupy shakes down on the kitchen table, takes off her purse and coat. She’s been daydreaming again and now there’s proof. Barking and jumping up to the table, the dogs don’t seem to mind. Shelley shushes them, looking apologetically at her husband who’s sitting quietly in front of the tv. He doesn’t flinch and so she stops trying, remembering that to him, she’s more like her dogs than her husband.
From where she stands she can barely see him from within the folds of his broken down armchair. She stares at him anyway, watching the light from the TV flicker through the backside of his glasses and over his scalp.
It’s the slow drip of the milkshakes onto the peeling linoleum floor that breaks her stare. “Shit,” she turns to pick up the drinks and stuffs them into the freezer.
“The milkshakes melted, Jerry.” Should she apologize, too?
“Sorry,” she adds.
He doesn’t say anything, letting the voices of Collector Value TV make conversation instead.
“Honey, did you hear me? The milkshakes will have to wait. I got sidetracked on the way home.”
While she talks, Shelley walks back into the TV room, bordered by display cases full of ceramic figurines and antique coins. Their presentation is meticulous, organized and perfectly clean, made to look even more sightly by the otherwise lopsided room that houses them. The walls are dappled primary blue and lie at an odd angle to the tan ceiling, giving everything the appearance of uneasy imminence. The house didn’t fit together, just like the couple, their collections, or their BMW. She keeps waiting for the whole thing to fall apart.
“Jerry, I’m talking to you,” Shelley says as she grabs his arm. “Jerry?”
His arm is cold. And stiff.
Grabbing the remote from his hand, Shelley sits down on the couch next to his armchair and changes the channel to the evening news to see that a tornado has just touched down in Nebraska, in a trailer park, just like her own, another one that’s all by itself in the middle of nowhere. She looks at her husband, dead, but no different than he was when she left him an hour ago.
Softly, she thumbs up the volume on the remote control until she can’t hear herself cry. Funny, she thinks to herself, she could have sworn she was happy.