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Elizabeth Cox has an extraordinary talent for inhabiting her characters and capturing place, sense, and time. This commanding group of stories will prove unforgettable.
The Third of July
The night kept up one of those almost-silent rains until dawn, and now the mist rose and leaves showed their waxy shine. Nadine combed her hair but decided not to wash it. She pulled on her skirt and the blouse with cornflowers, and put away the pile of sewing she had promised to finish before tomorrow. Nadine was a seamstress. People brought their clothes to her to hem and make alterations.
Today was the third of July. Harold had left early for the field and would work late so he could take off all day on the Fourth. Nadine prepared a lunch for herself and another one for Miss Penny. Two days a week she took lunch to Miss Penny, and she would take it today. The old woman was like a mother to Nadine, ever since the year her own mother died, when she was nineteen. The year Bill was born too early. She put chicken salad and sliced tomatoes in a small basket made by Bill when he was six years old. She placed two pears inside and thought of the day he had handed it to her.
Nadine Colby had been married for thirty years, but on this morning she wrote a note to Harold after he left. Dear Harold, I have rented an apartment in Mebane and if you want to see me you can call and ask to come by. Things cannot go on as they have. She signed it Love.
A shaft of sunlight moved into the bedroom as Nadine packed her bags and put them into the car. She had already paid a month's rent for an apartment ten miles away in Mebane. Her sister lived nearby, but Nadine did not like her brother-in-law, so the apartment was a perfect alternative.
She left the note in a conspicuous place on the counter. Harold would see it when he came in. She fixed somedinner that could be heated up-a plate of meat loaf, potatoes, and creamed corn. Nadine wondered now if he would still take the whole next day off.
Her reason for leaving was based on one small happening: Harold came in one night, and though she knew who it was when he got out of the truck and started toward the house, Nadine thought he was someone different. His hair stuck up on one side, and he carried his cap, which he usually wore into the house and threw down on the hall table. But on this particular evening she thought he was a stranger, someone coming with bad news-telling her Harold was dead, or hurt. She imagined herself falling into the arms of this stranger and letting him hold her. All of these thoughts came in a few moments while Harold opened the door and said, "Whoa! It's hot!" Then she recognized his voice.
That night Nadine couldn't sleep. She lay next to Harold beneath the sheet and wondered how her life would be without him. If she left, it would have to be quickly and quietly, as though there had been a murder she could do nothing about.
He was foreign to her now, as was Bill. Her son was thirty and had been the reason they got married. Harold and Nadine had planned to have four children, though Bill was the only one.
The last time he came home Nadine said, "You don't look a thing like your daddy anymore, you know that?" She picked him up at the airport on Easter weekend. "Not a thing like him. And you used to favor him so strong."
"Lotta changes" was all Bill said.
"No one but me would know you was even kin."
Bill rode next to his mother with his long legs cramped in front of him. He had offered to drive, but Nadine insisted on doing so herself. She wore a navy-blue dress with a large white pin at her bosom, bought especially for Bill's visit. She felt pretty as she drove him home.
Bill was a salesman for MetroLife Insurance Company, and he had purchased this car for his parents-a Chrysler New Yorker. He had driven it into the driveway one Saturday and said it was theirs. Everyone in town knew Bill was wealthy and that he had bought them a car.
Their son came home on the Fourth. He also made regular visits for Christmas and Easter, but this year he would not come in July. Nadine told him he was getting stingy, though she meant self-centered. She had loved telling people how Bill always spent certain days with them and how she could count on him. But now Bill lived with a woman executive in his insurance company, and they were going off somewhere for the Fourth.
"I don't know what's going to happen if that woman gets pregnant," Nadine told Harold.
"They'll probably get married, like we did." Harold didn't think things had changed all that much, but he remembered when Nadine had seemed soft. Her softness had unraveled with the years, and he felt left with just a thin wire of who she was. But he never mentioned it. He loved his wife, even her sharp tongue. And he loved the way she sometimes exploded with laughter at something funny he said.
Yesterday, at breakfast, Harold read the paper and Nadine stared at the page that blocked his face. She imagined how he might speak to her, if he knew she was going to leave. Nadine, he spoke in her mind, don't leave. Please don't. He would beg. He would kiss her, then kiss her again, hard.
Yesterday, when he put down the paper, he asked, "What're we gonna do on the Fourth?"
Nadine didn't know at the moment how much she wanted out. She did not want to spend the Fourth of July with him. She would write a note on the third and let him go. As she thought of it, she felt like the ghost of someone, more than a real person.
"Anything," she said.
Harold kissed her cheek and left for the field.
Nadine washed the dishes and poured the rest of her coffee into the azalea bushes. She wanted to pick up the dry cleaning in town before going to Miss Penny's house.
She had not gone five miles before coming upon an accident. A Ford station wagon had speeded past her only a few minutes before, and Nadine marveled at how this grief might have been her own. When she arrived at the wreck there was still a vibrancy lingering, as after a bell.
The car collided with a truck carrying chickens. It was the kind of crash that occurs in movies, where an audience roars with laughter as some fat farmer gets out stomping the ground and flapping his arms and elbows about-moving as the chickens themselves might move.
She hoped to see that now, even looked for someone to climb out of that screaming chicken truck, but as she drew closer she saw the driver tucked over the wheel. The station wagon's front end looked crumpled and the man driving had been thrown clear. He lay sprawled in the road. Nadine heard him groan for help and felt glad the car had not been her own.
She looked both ways for help, but no one was coming in either direction. She could not hurry toward the accident, her arms and legs felt like rubber bands. The man in the road was barely conscious. She stood over him, then squatted and placed her fingers on the pulse of his neck. She had seen this done on TV.
"My family," the man said. It was a question. He pointed toward the car as though he thought maybe Nadine hadn't noticed it yet. His head lay turned at a peculiar angle.
"Quiet now. You lie quiet." She patted the man's shoulder as if he had a contagious disease, then she moved back. He pointed again to the car. There was no sign of blood and Nadine hoped he was all right. "I'll check them for you," she said. The man seemed grateful to her and closed his eyes.
The man in the truck was slumped at the wheel. Four crates of chickens had fallen onto the hood. One of the chickens flapped around, but less now. There were more crates in the ditch where others squawked and fought to get free.
She heard another sound, which came from the car. Gurgling. A woman weighing almost three hundred pounds lay across the backseat. She had been sleeping when the accident occurred. Her head was on a pillow and she lay covered with a lightweight blanket, which was soaked with blood. Nadine, who always turned away from such sights on TV or in a movie, opened the car door.
The woman was drowning; the gurgling noise came from her own throat, which lay exposed by a low-neck dress, her skin white, supple. Nadine ducked into the backseat to help, and she thought how this woman must be about her own age. The effort for breath came closer now. But the woman's hands jerked as a child's does in deep sleep, and the top of her head was pushed askew, so that it hung precariously like a lady's small hat about to fall off.
Without even thinking, Nadine reached two fingers into the woman's throat and began to dig out debris. She dug again and again as though she were clearing out the hole of a sink. The woman began to cough and as she did her eyes opened-unseeing.
Nadine could see the place where the forehead split. She reached to put it straight, and the man from the road called out again about his family. Nadine said, "They're fine. You be quiet now." It was the calmest voice she had ever heard. She continued to clean the woman's throat, making her cough a few more times before the breathing came back. "You'll be all right," she told the woman, in case she could hear.
A young boy in the front seat curled slightly forward. About sixteen, Nadine thought. She got out to open the other car door, wiping her hands on her skirt. Some of the chickens wrestled free of their crates and walked around in the road. Another one had flown to a low branch. She glanced to the man at the wheel of the truck. He still hadn't moved. She wished he would.
She searched the highway, but there was no sign of help. As she opened the front car door, she expected to find the boy as she had found the woman, but only a small amount of blood trickled onto his shirt and pants. The dashboard had struck his chest, and he leaned forward onto it like a mannequin. He wore shorts and his strong legs had planted themselves to the floor as he braced for the impact. His arms caught the dashboard, but had fallen to his side as the dashboard caught him. The windshield had shattered and coated him with a shower of glass that spread as fine as Christmas glitter. Nadine wondered if he had ever played football.
When she looked up, she could see Emmett Walker coming across the field. She felt happy to see him, though she did not usually wish to see Emmett. In fact, she went out of her way to avoid him. Emmett wore coveralls and his red hair was almost completely gray. His arms and face, though, still showed his freckles from boyhood. Once, for three weeks, Nadine and Emmett had been sweethearts. Nadine could not imagine that now.
"I heard the crash from the field," he said. "Are they all dead?" He stared at the boy's shimmering back.
"Seems so" was what Nadine said, forgetting about the man in the road. She held her mouth as though it were full of food, then pointed to the woman in the backseat. Emmett peered through the window without commenting.
He turned to the chicken truck. "What about him?"
"I don't know." They walked toward the truck. Nadine wondered if she would be left here all day with Emmett and what she would do. They had seen each other in town, and at gatherings spoke pleasantly. Now they were suddenly talking in concerned tones and moving together as parents through a room full of sick children.
Emmett pried open the door of the truck. The man's face was hidden by the horn, but his eyes were open and his lips moved in an effort to speak.
"Listen," said Emmett, and he put his head closer to the steering wheel. "He's not moving. Something's wrong with his neck."
They went to each of the bodies, Nadine speaking low, explaining. But as she started to open the door of the car where the woman lay, they heard a siren approaching. Emmett put his hand on Nadine's shoulder and pointed to the ambulance coming over a far hill, arriving more slowly than the siren made it seem.
"I called the hospital," Emmett said.
Nadine went to stand beside the man in the road. He began to scream the name of his wife: "Mamie, Mamie!"
"Shhh," she told him. The ambulance driver and his attendant secured the stretcher beneath him, then called for Emmett's help. The man asked again about his family, and Nadine said not to worry. "Everything will be taken care of now."
"Somebody's still in the truck," Emmett said, and pointed to the tucked figure. "He's not moving." The attendant nodded and motioned toward the car, as if asking a question. Emmett shook his head and the driver reached into the backseat to check the woman's pulse. He stared boldly at the odd hairline.
"She's still alive," he said to Emmett.
Emmett peered through the window expecting-he didn't know what-maybe for the woman to sit up and say something.
"Wouldn't be, though." The driver directed his eyes toward Emmett. "Who did this? You?" The floor was full of Nadine's work.
Emmett looked at Nadine. She had her back to them as though the whole scene were something she had not yet witnessed.
"Hey, lady. You do this?"
She retreated the way a child does who has been reprimanded, her tongue in her cheek, worried. She nodded and held their admiration, then walked toward them, fragile and blue as smoke.
"Well, you saved her life, lady." He spoke softly and to the side, so that only Nadine could hear him, then he amended his statement. "Might have saved her life."
It took all three of them to lift the woman from the car, then Nadine stood back as they tore the front seat apart, trying to pull the boy from the dashboard. She wished she knew his name and hoped she had saved Mamie's life. They placed the son and the father in the back of the ambulance and Mamie next to them. The man from the chicken truck was strapped near the front. Everyone looked dead.
As the ambulance disappeared, Nadine and Emmett stood beside each other. What followed was a silence as pure as that between lovers. Then Emmett faced Nadine and she turned to Emmett, and they resembled people who see their reflections in a mirror, slouched in a way they never imagined themselves.
Nadine opened her mouth and said, "I hope that woman lives. You think she will?" She wondered if she should take Emmett's hand or touch him, but didn't.
"Yes." He went to the truck, where chickens were scattered in the road. They had stopped their squawking. One was still in the tree. "I'll drive these over to Hardison's Poultry." He pulled the crates together. "What's left of them." He picked up the crates from the road and climbed into the truck. He turned the key several times before hearing it catch. As he drove off, he waved good-bye and Nadine waved back. She walked to the car and checked the salad. It was still cool.
Miss Penny was watching TV when Nadine arrived. She didn't hear the knock on the door, so Nadine walked in and called to her. Miss Penny was folding towels and placing each one beside the chair, fixing them like small bales of hay about to be stored in a barn. She was watching a game show.
When she lifted her head to respond to Nadine's voice, the pupils of her eyes were large and gave an expression of spectral intensity-hollow, not sad. A cataract operation had made them sensitive to light, so the blinds and drapes were pulled. The room, after the full sunlight of the road, seemed to Nadine unusually dark.
"I'll put this in the kitchen." Nadine patted Miss Penny's chair as she walked by. She wanted to scrub her hands and wipe her skirt clean.
"There's a man on here who'll win ten thousand dollars if he can answer this last question," Miss Penny said. Nadine took it as a silencing. The TV blared the question and the announcer declared him winner. Bells rang, people clapped and cried, and Miss Penny told her, "I could've won me ten thousand dollars." She pushed herself from the chair to go to the kitchen.
"Don't know what you'd do with it," said Nadine. She watched the old woman hobble to the kitchen and fall into a chair.
"I'd buy me something."
"Don't know what you need to buy." Nadine spooned salad onto plates and set two places at the table. Her tongue felt dry and she asked Miss Penny if there was some iced tea. Miss Penny pointed to a pitcher. She always made tea and took out the ice trays before Nadine arrived, but today Nadine was two hours late and the ice was mostly water. She put the slivers that remained into the tea and sipped it.
"I had the right answer," Miss Penny persisted. She tasted the salad, and Nadine gave her a napkin.
"You can't spend the money you have now, let alone ten thousand dollars." They helped themselves to the tomatoes. "What would you spend it on?"
"I'd pay somebody to look after my dogs."
"You don't have any dogs," said Nadine, "and don't need any."
"I would if I had all that money." Miss Penny's words, though simple, were true. "I'd need a lot of things." She thought for a moment, chewing her food with meticulous care. "I'd get some dogs. Not the regular kind, but show dogs. The ones you can train and take to shows."
"You'd like that?" Nadine asked, surprised to learn of a new interest held by a woman she had known as long as she could remember. She had thought there were no more surprises left between them.
"Show dogs." Miss Penny's face flushed at the thought of it. "I always have wanted to do something like that."
Nadine wished to say something about the accident, to tell someone what she had done and how she wasn't afraid to see Emmett anymore. "There was a wreck," she began, and leaned across the table so Miss Penny could hear. "Over near Hardison's Poultry. A truck ran into a station wagon. The whole family got hurt." Miss Penny reached for more slices of tomato. Her face had not yet lost its flush. "It was pretty bad," Nadine said. "A man and his wife, a boy about sixteen."
"Their son about sixteen." Nadine spoke louder. "He was killed right off, but the man might live, and the woman-" She stopped leaning and slumped back. "I don't know about the woman, though." Nadine's gaze shifted to something outside the window.
"Ten thousand dollars," Miss Penny said. Her voice emphasized each word equally.
From the kitchen window Nadine could see bags of web in the crab apple trees. "Tomorrow's the Fourth of July," she told Miss Penny. Neither of them turned away from the window.
Nadine washed a few dishes and put away the towels into the hall cabinet. She decided not to go to Mebane but to go back home. "I'll put these pears in the refrigerator." She held up the pears. Miss Penny's eyes unclouded and hardened clear as stones.
On her way home, she picked up the dry cleaning and stopped at the pet shop to look at dogs not yet full-grown. On Tuesday she would buy one and take it to Miss Penny. He would outlive her by six years.
The note to Harold had not been touched, but she left it propped against the sugar jar. The house looked older now. Each object seemed to have a separate life of its own. When Nadine saw herself in the mirror over the fireplace, she became aware of the frame around her face.
She called the hospital, but the line was busy. She had already unpacked her bag and put the clothes into drawers where they had been-her blouses, her good blue dress, two nightgowns, a sweater, four pairs of shoes. She put her umbrella in the hall closet and went to sit across from the large picture window.
Twilight made the room silver, drapes shimmering like creek water. The late sun dropped halfway from sight, going down behind the trees like some wild head, and Nadine wondered if everyone wished for life to be different.
When the phone rang, it was Emmett. She heard his voice, and her mouth worked itself into a smile. He called to tell her about Mamie and Robert Harkins. "The man will live," he said. "And the woman, she'll live too." For a moment Nadine could not even straighten her legs. "But that boy, he didn't make it. He was dead when we saw him."
"What about the man in the truck?"
"His back was broke, and some ribs. But he's all right, or will be." Emmett coughed as though he didn't have much to say but wanted to think of something. "The truck driver was Buck Hardison's nephew."
"Why, I think I know him," Nadine said. "I think I met him once when he was a little boy." She wanted the conversation to go on, and she thanked Emmett, so he said she was welcome. "You were fine to help," she told him through the silence in the cord. "I mean, really," and she spoke as if trying to convince him of something important.
"Well," said Emmett.
Nadine watched the sun go all the way down and wondered if Emmett had turned to see out his own window. "It's getting dark," she said.
When they hung up, Nadine sat until she could see nothing but her own reflection in the window, and the reflection of the lamp beside her. Harold would be in soon. She decided to wash her hair. She was bending her head over the sink and rinsing for the second time when she heard him.
She wrapped her hair in a towel and went to the kitchen. Harold held the note that Nadine had not thrown out. He held it but didn't say anything.
"You want something to eat?" she asked him.
Harold said he did.
Nadine did not get the covered plate of meat loaf and creamed corn. Instead, she took out some flounder and began to prepare it for baking with lemon and butter. She cut up new potatoes to go with it and told Harold about the wreck.
She told about the man, the boy, and the woman she saved, the truck driver who was Buck Hardison's nephew. She told him she had seen Emmett and how they had worked together. Her telling went from the time she took out the fish, cooked it, to when she sat down with Harold to eat.
The note lay on the counter as they talked. Harold had carefully placed it next to the sugar, facedown. He listened attentively and ate everything Nadine put before him. When she was through washing the dishes, he walked up behind her to turn her around. He slowly unwrapped the towel from her head. Her hair was damp and frizzy, and he rubbed it dry with his hands.