Monday, July 02, 2007

"Under a Broken Sky"

Jack is a cold bastard, and he knows it. If the drinking hadn’t convinced him, running out on his wife when she found out about his affair was proof enough. But even a cold bastard can change – or so he hopes.

Here's a preview of "Under a Broken Sky":

Jack slammed on the brakes when he saw the snake in the road. He crept forward, the speedometer needle barely trembling, until the heat of his tires made the rattler see things in a different light. Jack watched as it slithered off the side of the road without a backward glance.

He looked at the watch on the dashboard. The crystal face was broken but the hands still worked just fine. It was two in the afternoon. He had half a tank of gas. He had two cigarettes, a bag of chips and one flat soda. He had six hours of road to cover. If he was lucky, he would make it in four.

He pressed on the gas pedal.

It had been six months since he had seen Hannah. It had been two months since the divorce papers found him somewhere in Oklahoma. He stuck them into his pocket without glancing at them and raised an eyebrow at the man who had delivered them. The officer had a gold badge on his lapel and a wide-brimmed hat that shadowed his eyes, but Jack didn’t need to see the disdain in them. He could feel it well enough.

He had waited almost a week to call, long enough time to leave no doubt that he had the papers, but short enough to let her know he actually did give a shit. Her voice was cool, too soft, too careful. He knew she was trying not to cry. He knew it as well as he knew her careful choice of words were for whoever was in the room with her, as if she didn’t want the new guy to know she was talking to the old one.

“Who is he?” he had asked, and in the one extra beat of silence, he knew she would lie to him. He hung up before he heard her do it. She would think he was angry, and he was, but not with her. He deserved the divorce, but he didn’t like the fact that he had turned her into a liar in the process.

He wondered who the guy was. What had her mother said about that new development? Her mother was always after Hannah to get Jack to straighten up and be a man and — his absolute favorite — stop drinking that beer. He started keeping a six-pack in the fridge just to spite her, and made a point of lying back on the couch and watching television when she came to visit, even if he had a dozen things to do out in the yard or the garage. Hannah chided him and said he was making it more difficult for her, and he supposed that was true, but his pride was louder than her protests.

His pride was louder than a lot of things.

He pushed the speedometer up to ninety and the old car rattled from every corner. The engine whined. He put his hand out the open window and let the wind blow it back.

Hannah wasn’t expecting him and that was good. He wanted to see her face when she realized he was back. The element of surprise worked in his favor, and her reaction would tell him whether there was a chance or not, no matter what her words said when he asked her.

Jack wasn’t entirely sure what had started the chain of events, but it didn’t really matter. What mattered was the way it had ended. Hannah had been acting all strange that day, making snide comments that Jack didn’t understand and really didn’t want to. While making dinner she had thrown a spoon into the sink so hard that it flew up onto the counter and cracked one of her porcelain soup bowls. She had buried her face in her hands for a moment and then turned around, but instead of sobbing, what came out was a screech of anger.

“You never change, Jack. You never change!”

She was right. He never did. They met and he fell in love and things were good for a while, then they married and things were even better. But Jack had somehow skipped that for better or for worse part. He always did have a problem with tuning out what he didn’t want to consider.

It wasn’t that anything had gone bad; it was just that it had gone stale. They had been together for ten years. It happens, his friends said. But that didn’t stop Jack from thinking of himself first instead of his union. When he ran into one of his ex-girlfriends at the bar after he told Hannah he was going to a friend’s house to watch the game on the big screen, he didn’t bother to push away her advances. That night he wound up in a hotel room with the ex while Hannah waited at home, thinking nothing was amiss.

He did it once, so he thought he could do it again. So he did. Dozens of times, and everyone at the bar was talking about it, but he never dreamed it would get around to Hannah.

That night, she threw their dinner at him. Her good pot roast, the kind with the thick gravy and every good vegetable from the garden, slid down the front of his body and dripped onto the floor. Then she threw the beers at him, one by one, and caught him upside the head with the last one just as he reached the car. It hurt like a son of a bitch, and when he yelled back at her she threw out the words whore and hotel and the one that made Jack’s world grind to a halt: divorce.

It was pretty clear that she knew.

Jack didn’t know where to go, so he just kept driving. He stopped at a gas station and threw his ruined shirt into the trash. His jeans were passable. He cleaned himself as best he could in the tiny bathroom that reeked of piss and stale vomit, and stared at himself in the dirty mirror.

When he took stock of what was in his wallet, things didn’t look good. He bought an overpriced shirt with a smiley face on it at the convenience store and broke his last twenty for a deck of smokes. Then he went to his ex-girlfriend’s house and bummed two hundred to get him out of town. He told her it was to buy a part for his old truck, to get it running again so he could give it to her. The truck had gone to a junkyard three years before, but she didn’t know that. He fucked her before he left.

He drove into Arkansas. Somehow he found himself in Oklahoma, then in Texas. He managed to get a job on a cattle ranch for a few weeks, and made enough money to get back up into Oklahoma, where he landed a job pulling black gold out of the ground. He thought he might never get the smell of oil out of his hair or the black of it out from under his fingernails. It seemed embedded in his skin.

But it was good for him. In the oil fields, he had time to think.

He wanted Hannah. Being away from her reminded him of the things that he loved about her in the first place, the reasons he had fallen in love. He remembered her soft and small hands, the smell of her good dinners on the stove, the way she packed a napkin in his lunch pail with a little note that made his coworkers tease him. He remembered the way she cursed when she tried to drive a stick shift for the first time, the raised eyebrows when she wanted to make a point, the music she played too loud and the way she danced to it when she thought no one was watching.

Where had it all gone? Ten years of marriage was a long time, but a woman who would stand by you for a decade was a blessing, not an excuse for doing shit you would regret. Hannah had put up with his cocky ways, his bad attitudes, his string of jobs that didn’t last more than a year at best, his reckless driving, even his outrageous flirting with her sister, though he had to do some fancy talking to get out of that one.

And yes, okay, fine — since he was being honest why not just go for the whole shebang? — he did drink too much. In the last year or so it had been too much whisky, but it always started with beer. He had been drinking too much beer since he was nine years old and started sneaking it from his dad’s cooler in the garage. It was true, and her mother was right about at least that much, so there.

Hannah knew her mother was right, but she stood up to her anyway. She gave Jack more chances than any man should have had. She believed in him. A woman like that was worth her weight in gold.

Then she filed for divorce.

And now someone else had her...

Read "Under a Broken Sky," the first of several stories about Jack, at Ruthie's Club.

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