The publication of Arya Jenkins’ “FOOLISH LOVE” is the eleventh in a series of short stories she has been commissioned to write for Jerry Jazz Musician. For information about her series, please see our September 12, 2013 “Letter From the Publisher.”
For Ms. Jenkins’ introduction to her work, read “Coming to Jazz.”
That winter we lived among mice in the Berkshires, in a little cabin set not far from a large white clapboard house that belonged to the owner Betty, who was a widow. Two steps up to the cabin did nothing to keep the mice away. Their constant tweaking and bustle made me feel I was living in an indoor forest. Betty, who was a nice old lady, warned us. “You’ll never be able to keep the mice out. If you can stand them, the place is yours.”
We had come up to the Berkshires figuring we might have to rough it, but had no idea. Van and I had been together about two years then. The summer before we had been married on a beach in Provincetown by a drunken preacher who moonlighted as a cabaret singer. Two months after that, I miscarried. By the end of summer, we’d run up all the tabs we could in Brewster, where we lived in my apartment. The landlord had given me an ultimatum, but without jobs we couldn’t pay rent. It was time to split.
Seniority and the fact our one vehicle belonged to Van meant he made all the major decisions. It was his idea to get off the Cape to turn a page, maybe even get jobs offseason. I didn’t care much where we went as long as we were together. I’d spent my whole life babysitting and working my ass off, raising three younger brothers and a sister after our mom died of the big C. Our dad, a drunken sloth, had run away long before that. By the time I met Van, the twins were 17, living on their own, the older one, Chad, getting ready to join the navy. I’d been waitressing since I was 15. Van was my hard-earned vacation, although no one I knew at the time ever failed to point out what a fool I was leaving my job at The Sand Bar just because Van said so, so I could be there at his beck and call. Foolish love.
Van was an only child, raised among chickens, goats and pines on a New Hampshire farm. His parents were in their 40s when they had him, so he was spoiled. As an adult, he always came home. After college, he hitchhiked around Europe for a while, then came back to live with his parents, helping out a little, gardening and feeding animals, nothing that ever got to be routine. He didn’t strike out again until he was 30. He was 44 when I met him, 20 years my senior, and still getting an allowance from his folks.
I thanked my lucky stars when I met Van. The universe had finally delivered on my prayers for something better, someone who would appreciate me. My mother had died a few months before and I was feeling tired and old. First time I saw him he was sitting in a director’s chair at an outdoor art show in Wellfleet, wearing shades and drinking from a can of Coors in a paper bag. I knew it was Coors because the can was tall and in those days that was the only tall brand.
His seascapes were a little dull, but technically pretty good. Art had been my major at Cape Cod Community, so I wasn’t intimidated by him. One painting had a red barn in a field and I liked that one, probably because there was a human in it, a boy holding a stick. Later, I learned he’d done all the work years before when he was an art student. He just needed the money.
“Is that you?” I asked pointing at the dark haired kid in the barn painting, just to make conversation.
“Maybe,” he said and took a swig. Then we got to jawing.
He wasn’t like the older men I knew who grabbed me wherever whenever I passed by with a tray of drinks. Van was cool, longish hair, sun streaked. My roommate Shelly called him “sinister,” but I never paid attention to her or anybody’s opinion about him. I’d been telling myself I should be with somebody mature, who wasn’t a part of the bar scene. Of course Van drank more than all the guys I’d ever known put together, but there was no way for me to know that in the beginning. Coors and a Marlboro the minute his legs swung over the edge of the bed getting up, every day. Usually, we drank “rot gut” bourbon or whiskey, which Van liked. Whenever Van and I got together, booze was always there like an extra charge. I’d always loved drinking, but before Van it was mostly social, ales and shots of whatever friends did late nights at bars.
Even weekdays, Van couldn’t stay away, ringing my doorbell in the wee hours when it was still dark, even though my first shift started at seven. I’d open the door wearing nothing but a faded red and blue Sox t-shirt, rubbing my eyes, “what are you doing here?”
He’d lean against the door jamb, wreaking of booze, cigarettes and his salty male scent that I liked, his eyes slits from alcohol and desire. “Nothing baby. I just wanted to see the sun rise and there you are.” He’d take me in his arms and we’d make beautiful, tender love. Then I’d make him coffee.
He had a strong, broad chest and when I rested my head on it sometimes I placed my hand on the lower part of his sternum. My index and middle finger fit perfectly into the small dent in the middle, which I initially took to mean God wanted me to be there for him to protect his vulnerability, to complete him. That’s how I really thought in those days when my love of him increased my faith in everything and made me ridiculous to myself even then. Van liked falling asleep, my long hair twined in his hand like a stirrup so I couldn’t go anywhere. I should have known then we were headed for trouble.
Even though I let Van make all the major decisions, I spoke up when Betty warned us about the mice. Maybe this is a sign, I said. I’m not spending the winter killing anything but time. He knew I couldn’t tolerate seeing a dead thing. I wasn’t a Buddhist then, so it wasn’t quite about the killing yet. Van knew if we stayed, he would have to do something about the vermin. “Sheila, honey, I promise, you will never see a dead thing.” Well, he was almost right.
What I did see and hear each day and night was the sound of traps slapping shut and the sandwich bags in which they’d been placed racing around like strange entities over the crappy rug of the main room–surreal. One step up was a small, windowless kitchen and to its right, a compact bathroom. One step up from that was a square bedroom with a queen-sized bed, one small narrow dresser, and a two by two-foot TV, which sat at the foot of the bed and before an orangey curtain behind which was a closet barely deep enough to hide a person. I don’t know what we thought we would do in that place except drink, which was probably the point, although we did try having a life at first.
We found jobs together right away, Van as a chef and me waitressing at a big campground nearby. Van could flip eggs and flapjacks in a pan and look expert, but he wasn’t much of a cook. The restaurant was big but the rushes with polite people, so I thought we had a pretty good gig. Then, second or third week in, the manager caught Van filching a bottle of Jack Daniels and we both got the boot. Words spreads like fire in the biz, so we thought we’d try drinking fulltime after that, stuck in a cabin where the heat never went above 60-degrees in the coldest winter I remember in my lifetime.
One time I found on old pair of snowshoes in the closet Betty said we could keep. “Come on, let’s check out the woods. You wear one and I’ll wear the other,” said dumb ass. He broke his trying to force it on his big foot, stomping on it, and anyway while my snowshoe and Van’s snowshoe that he’d strapped on with packing tape stayed on the surface, our other boots sunk two feet into the snow. So we really couldn’t go far into the woods and besides were coughing our brains out from all our smoking and just that minor exertion. “Maybe we’ll spot some squirrels or rabbits or even a bear,” said Van. Wishful thinking.
One night, I went to take a pee, switched on the bathroom light and almost had a heart attack. There was a mouse dead on its side in the toilet bowl, one eye open staring up at me. I made Van wrap him in a rag and toss him in the outdoor bin. “No doubt that mouse committed suicide from the cold,” I said. In my mind’s eye, it was big enough to have been a rat.
On the Cape, I’d never thought much about winters, with my brothers and sister, and when they grew up and left, cousins, bar friends and their dramas to keep me going season to season, hot or cold, good or bad. Here, Van and I had only had each other. We drank more and fought more. Had it not been for the space of eternity between houses on Pleasant Street, the ironic name of the street where we lived, Betty and the rest of our neighbors would have had a good earful of our business. Maybe they did and I just don’t know it.
We got to drinking and fighting earlier and earlier in the day. We fought about old issues—no money, no work and how paranoid I had become, so paranoid I couldn’t leave the house and even had Van watch me take a pee whenever I could get him to because I was afraid I’d die if I was left alone. He would just look down at me shaking his head, like I was the most pathetic thing he’d ever seen. I was in a constant state of nerves from drinking, and since losing the baby, was convinced that if left alone, I would perish. It didn’t even make sense, but that didn’t matter to my feelings.
Maybe I wanted to die. There’s a saying in AA, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I was so messed up, and wanted Van, who was older and who should have known better, to make things right–which was like wishing for the impossible because the only thing Van cared about was Van. He was the first real narcissist I ever knew—good-looking, sexy, but selfish to the core. Once in a while his parents sent a small check, which he used for booze for himself. We were always scraping for groceries as all our money went to booze and cigs. Betty let me clean her three bathrooms once a week and Van shoveled snow from the paths leading to and from the cabin and her house, so we basically traded for rent.
Halfway through a half gallon of Tavola Red wine, or a pint of bourbon, Van would start. “Why can’t you get a job? I pay for everything. I got the wheels, I got the bucks. What do you have? I should pimp your ass. What else are you good for?”
“You’re the worse kind of white trash, pretending to be white trash when you’re nothing but a spoiled brat,” I told him. I laughed in his face, reminded him his money was his parent’s, his car was his parent’s and all he had was me and he should be grateful. Then I stopped bothering. Fighting with him wasn’t worth it. I let myself sink into the one comfortable chair in the main room, hid behind cigarette smoke, a drink or a book, sometimes all three. I just couldn’t wait for him to pass out. Once in a while, I niggled him. “Then why did you ever chase me in the first place?” He never had an answer for that, would just turn away, like he hadn’t heard. One night Van really struck low. “You worthless piece of shit, you can’t even be a mother.”
To which I responded by hurling the closest thing to me I could find, which turned out to be a Tavola Red bottle. I couldn’t even think straight. It was like I was defending my dead boy, Robbie, what I would have named our child. We drove to the hospital, or rather he did, with me at his side in his hand-me down Buick, mopping up blood from his head with one of his old shirts, trying to keep it off the seats. I told him I was sorry, although I wasn’t sure what for.
Van’s mouth cost him six stitches. We didn’t talk to each other for about a week after that. What was there to miss? All he did was play his records of Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and this new cat, Keith Jarrett, who was very inventive on the piano. Van loved jazz, and I dug it too, even though none of those cats touched my soul. Only Billie did. Van never played Billie, but I came upon her Lady Sings the Blues album in his stash one night when there was nothing I could do to fall asleep and he was out cold.
My one comfort was being alone at night, with pitch blackness blanketing the cabin. I preferred blackness any day to the sight of cold white space stretching to infinity. Darkness and night were familiar. With Van out of it, there was nothing but the crackling universe at hand. I felt freer and calmer then.
Bille confirmed for me what a terrible world it was. Her song, “Strange Fruit,” cut through me. There was someone whose race had suffered far more than anyone in mine ever could. There was real suffering and trouble in her voice. But the songs that really drew me to her were “God Bless the Child,” and “Good Morning Heartache.” Listening to them made me feel Billie and I were sisters, shared the same sorrows, and I did not feel alone. After I was done listening to Billie, done crying my eyes out over her beautiful voice and the awful state of the world, I would put the record back in its jacket and tuck it away back on the shelf. I didn’t want Van to know I had listened to it or even liked it. Billie was my secret.
It’s a good thing alcoholics forget so much that happens to them. I was in the worst shape of my life with Van in that cabin, where the only body heat I got was curling up next to him when we slept or he or I passed out or the rare times he was drunk and wanted to get it on, which was less and less because with each passing day he drank more, got drunk quicker and passed out sooner. He was stages ahead of me as a drunk, even though I couldn’t take it nearly as well physically. I spent half the time wanting to die from the pain of hangovers. There was so much alcohol in my system, I’d step out of a shower and 10 minutes later my waist-length hair would be dry, my alcohol-laden pores having absorbed all the moisture. I didn’t have to use a hairdryer until months after I got sober.
Van never seemed to suffer hangovers like me probably because he was always drunk. Even so, he found things to do with his hands, made himself at least a little useful, and wasn’t afraid like me of stepping out into the world. I had boomeranged from being one of the most productive people to being utterly useless. Really the only thing that soothed me was Billie. I wondered if Billie had ever seen such whiteness as this, like death, the end of everything, and thought what a fool I was to even consider she had not.
One night, Van started pelting me with questions—“Why are we here? Why are you with me? Why? Answer me.” I couldn’t. I didn’t even know what he was getting at. His wide eyes and tense body leaning toward me frightened me. Signs were all there he was about to blow a gasket, so I ran into the bedroom, which had no door to close. He followed of course, pushed me back on the bed, leaning over, his hands fists, mouth, a slash of rage, “Why? Why are we here? Why are you with me?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I haven’t done anything,” I kept trying to calm him. He growled, a deep, troubled, unforgiving sound. Turning as if to find some support for his anger, he gripped the heavy orangey curtain of our one bedroom window, tore it off its hooks and threw it over me and himself on top of it.
“Van, I can’t breathe.” I really couldn’t. I was sure he was out of his mind and didn’t know what he was doing. Wriggling, I managed to slip out from under him, off the bed, and back to the main room while he continued raging, arms splayed bearing down on the curtain as if it didn’t matter who was under it or even that there was nobody. It was just alcoholic madness needing to express itself. He was in a black out.
When he was functional, Van tinkered, repairing appliances, or lamps he’d broken during a fight the night before. He liked to sit with his penknife, carving things, boats, cars and crosses that sat unfinished on the windowsill. It was more than I could do–I, who at one point been able to hold down a job while raising four siblings as if they were my own. Where had that self gone?
I kept busy doing little insignificant things, making salads, soups, trying to read. Mostly, I stared aghast at the white world through the back picture window wondering what had become of us, of me. I remember once holding a paperback of Isak Dinesen’s Winter Tales open on my lap on the same page for a good hour unable to get beyond the first paragraph, my brain was so scrambled.
“I’m losing my mind, Van,” I said.
“And that’s news?”
We were so bored with one another, with drinking even, and our cold, static reality, which we could not escape. Everything indoors was brown, ossified, as we were. Brown mice. Brown bags enshrouding them. Old brown mangy rug. Brown table and chairs. Brown walls, shelves, books, and desk. Brown lamps, even their shades. Everything cheap, basic, plain, save the desk, which was not only functional but large, with deep drawers that sat empty. We dragged around heavy brown army blankets like old soldiers perambulating in a strange and foreign war. Our minds were brown too, soggy from drink, indulgence, stupefied by sameness, dullness, sadness. Somewhere beneath the brown architecture, hidden in the hollows of anger and horror, coursed sadness like a latent spring. Nothing was alive here but our voices and white cold out there, screaming.
And Billie’s voice? A dream of something possible, not quite here, a trace of the past, one soul’s anguish pointing to the future. Find a way to sing, it said. That’s the only way out of this prison.
Sensing or hearing our misery, and knowing we couldn’t afford to go out, Betty made the neighborly effort once a week to bring us homemade soup. One day she called to say she couldn’t bring soup over because she was sick. I told her not to worry and made pea soup for her instead, happy to be able to do her a favor. All it took were a few carrots, a chopped potato and some onion slivers. Pea soup was cheap and I made it often.
I felt reckless carrying over the pot with my brew over to Betty’s, walking that far from the cabin on my own. It felt like a bold move.
“Come in, child. Gracious, you’re blue. Look what you did. Oh, just look.” Betty clapped her little, immaculately-manicured hands with pink polish together with glee. In my excitement to show her what I had made, I raised the lid of the pot, but couldn’t manage a solid or steady grip with just one hand around the handle, I shook so badly. The whole thing crashed, spilling all over Betty’s beautiful, polished hardwood foyer floor. It could have been the pearl white shag rug of her living room, in which case she would surely not have forgiven me.
I spent the next half hour on my hands and knees with a roll of paper towels wiping up green slop while biting my upper lip to fight back tears while Betty kept repeating, “it’s all right, it’s the thought that matters,” in her sweet way. I knew soon as I left, she would get down on her hands and knees, sick and all, and get that floor really spanking clean. She must have known how miserable I felt because when I finally got up from the floor, she led me by the hand to a little bar in the next room and offered me some peach schnapps.
“Take this thimbleful. It’ll get you back in shape.” That’s what she called a shot and I took it, gladly. The bottle was a little less than half full and she offered it to me. “You and Van need it more than I do. To keep warm,” she added, as if explanation was necessary.
I kept the schnapps at the foot of the bed in one of my rubber boots. By then we were both hoarding booze, keeping it from one another. Whenever Van went to the liquor store, he always came back drunk. He kept a pint for himself under the car seat too.
One day I sat at the desk looking out the back window at white woods. Sometimes I sat there with a notebook and pen staring at the too bright page of the world wondering if I might ever be able to write a coherent thought or idea. All I could see was winter. I was crying silently, not wanting to let Van know I was crying because it would upset him. Anyway, while I sat there, miserable in my well of self-pity, a deer tiptoed out of the woods and sat or knelt by the cabin looking at me with the warmest, kindest eyes. We looked at one another for a while, then I went and got a couple of carrots from the only bag of anything I could find in the fridge and tossed them in the deer’s direction to thank him for his kindness. The next day the deer was still there, so I threw him the rest of the carrots. Van got pissed, saying why was I wasting our food on a sick deer, but I didn’t care.
The third day another deer was sitting with the first and there were four sets of eyes gazing at me pitifully asking me what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I took a good look at Van passed out at 10 in the morning, spilling out from the chair on which I normally sat reading. Empty Lite beer cans covered the shitty rug where more mice had died than soldiers in the Civil War. I made up my mind then, went to the phone book and called the first shrink my finger came upon and when Van woke up told him I had an appointment to get a prescription for Valium for us, knowing that would be the only way I’d get him to take me to see a doctor.
Dr. Paul — I don’t remember his last name — was a nice Jewish shrink who saw the situation right away and told me straight up if I didn’t stop drinking or get away from Van, I would probably die. “At the rate you’re going, you won’t see 30. You can’t be 100 pounds soaking wet,” he said. I hadn’t realized I’d been feeding Van most of what we ate and losing weight. I would probably have done anything to get away from the hellhole we had created, but I couldn’t do it alone. As they say in AA, I was ready to surrender.
Dr. Paul and I devised a plan, and one afternoon the following week he picked me up when Van was out shopping. I had started to stop drinking, taking only a couple of glasses of wine and Valium to get me to sleep at night and help me deal with withdrawal. It took less than five minutes to get everything I owned into a small knapsack, plus the Billie Holiday album, which I stole because it was the only thing Van owned that I felt really belonged to me.
I was so grateful to Dr. Paul for getting me into a halfway house, although the second day a bad case of DT’s, hallucinations and tremors sent me to the hospital for a while. Then it was back to rehab. I was so relieved to stop drinking. I knew Van wouldn’t chase after me once I was gone. I mean, why would he have bothered? Soon, I was waitressing again, little by little regaining my self respect and self esteem.
Looking back on that time, the feelings are all there, although I can hardly recall Van’s voice, his form, his tenderness, all obliterated by what happened during our season of discontent crushing love like a sledgehammer. He’s gone. But I remember Billie, her songs like flocks of geese disappearing into the empty sky, wings flapping in unison, warning of revolution. I remember her and the deer.
Arya F. Jenkins’s poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared recently in journals such as Agave Magazine, Brilliant Corners, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Cider Press Review, Dying Dahlia Review, The Feminist Wire, and Provincetown Arts Magazine. Her poetry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015. She writes jazz fiction for Jerry Jazz Musician, an online zine. Poetry is forthcoming in Sinister Wisdom. Her second poetry chapbook, Silence Has a Name, was recently published by Finishing Line Press