Fiction 2011 / Volume 41

Phipp — Susan Taylor Chehak

When Jackson Bale crossed the line to collide head-on with a ten ton semi-trailer truck on a Tuesday evening early in November, I was the one who stood up first at the emergency meeting and volunteered to go out to the farmhouse to feed the dog and bring it to the school for Jack’s widow to take with her, back to the hometown in Iowa where his mother was waiting, where the funeral services were to be held, and where he would be buried in a plot near the ground that already held the remnants of his grandparents and his dad. Although there might have been some murmurs of doubt that floated around the room, no one had the nerve to flat out look me in the eye and tell me no, I was not the one to go. So I drove Charlie’s old blue Volvo station wagon out there first thing in the morning, and I took my time with it, creeping along slowly—as if I believed that my own extreme caution could make a difference and bring a change to what was already over with.and done.

I went by way of the Ridge Road, following along the same path that Jack himself had taken the night before, and I knew at just which of the curves the accident had occurred, because although his mangled Jeep was towed off almost immediately after his body had been extracted from it, the semi had to be left where it was until a special wrecker could be called. The windows

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of the cab were scarred with frost, and it was severed from its trailer, which lay overturned nearby. I noticed that an arrangement of orange and blue carnations had already been fastened to a standing portion of the toppled fence, adding an uneasy splash of color to the grimmer background of the fallow field that rolls off downhill toward the creek, and I knew that just as soon as the whole story of what had happened got out, there would be plenty of other lookie-loos showing up to ogle the sight firsthand and imagine the flash and burn.

As for me, I sucked in my breath and kept my eyes on the road, until the familiar sight of his name stenciled in black letters on the metal mailbox at the end of the driveway popped up to knock the air back into me and burn my cheeks just like a full hand smack to the face. Although there weren’t any other cars around, still I went to the trouble to put on the blinker, signaling my intention well before I turned the Volvo in toward his house. Julia had left the front porch light on, but its otherwise welcoming glow was washed out and made feeble now by the dazzle of early morning sun already reflecting off the thin unbroken surface of that season’s first sticking snow.

I took my time crossing the span of space between Charlie’s car and Jack’s front door, moving at the same slow and careful pace that I’d already been keeping, hands in my coat pockets and head bowed. The last thing anybody needed now was for me to lose my footing, slip and fall and crack my head. So focused was my attention on the cautious placement of my feet that I was all the way up to the door before I saw the black coonhound shivering on the stone stoop. He had been there for a while, waiting for someone like me to come along and let him in, unaware of how his world had been forever changed while he was out nosing around in the woods all night, the way hounds do. Or maybe he did understand everything after all, because he took one look at me, raised his head, and howled.

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I was busy fumbling for the key that Mrs. Ayer had given me to get in. My hands were cold and stiff and would not cooperate with my will—I should have worn gloves. The dog had pulled himself up to his feet, but the wag of his tail seemed pensive. The key wouldn’t turn, and he whined at me as I fiddled with it, so I stopped struggling for a moment and blew on my fingers to warm them. I took a deep breath to calm myself down, then turned back to the door again to work the key more slowly now, until at last the lock gave way, and the bolt slid out and then I was able, finally, to let myself in.

The hound glided past me toward the kitchen where he knew his dish was, but I lingered in the doorway for a second, looking into the main room of the house, taking in the evidence of the life that had so recently been carried on there as if it might go on like that forever. Jack’s chair on one side of the fireplace and Julia’s on the other. Magazines piled on the coffee table, a book lying open on the floor, the cracked red leather of the couch, and the bright green and yellow of an afghan thrown across its back. A still life composition of chess board, stereo speakers, television set, coffee mug, whiskey glass, potted plant. The this and that of the here and now that got me to thinking some more about the impermanence of all things in general.

I was not a stranger to the place. I knew my way around that house, inside and out, upstairs and down, but I had never had the occasion to be there on my own—not without Charlie first and not without Jack later—and anyway at that moment I would rather not have had a reason to remember how, on the eve of Charlie’s deployment, Jack had stopped me in that doorway right there and, laughing, kissed me on the mouth for all to see. He was only trying to make the point that Charlie had a choice, but there it was—the silky brush of Jack’s lips across mine, the grit of his whiskered chin against mine, the smell of scotch and tobacco on his breath mingling with the same on mine—and I kept going back to the pang of that first touch, even after

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they brought Charlie back home to us ten months later, all the way up until Jack’s sudden and surprising engagement to Julia Radler last year, which was designed to put an end to it, once and for all.

But there I was again, stepping into that house and taking note of how the place had changed since those earlier days when none of us knew anything about what was going to happen to us next. This was not the home of a man all on his own anymore—special touches here and there told that. Desperado had come to his senses, and now there was a bowl of red apples on the table, a bunch of wildflowers in a milky blue vase, whimsical little crystal figurines gleaming on a glass shelf near the window.

The brass clock on the mantel chimed eight times, which meant that the morning chapel service would be starting up over at Stanley Hall, and I was glad to be here and not there as the girls filed in and jostled each other for a seat in the pews, their combined smell of wet wool and citrus shampoo, coconut lip gloss and patchouli perfume filling the air while Velma Bale hammered out something desperately cheerful up front on the baby grand.

It would be up to Dean Bradley then to break the news to the girls, although some of them would no doubt have heard some bits and pieces of the story already. Amanda Wirth, whose father was a state trooper, for example. And what word they had would have spread quickly from one girl to the next, warped into a mystery as it traveled among them in a hiss of whispers. Some would have had the presence of mind to compare the stories they were telling, testing the details to determine what was true and what was not, but even they would have had to take it as a bad sign that Mr. Bale’s car was not to be found in its assigned space in the parking lot this morning. That he hadn’t been seen in his office or in the hallways as usual earlier. That he wasn’t sitting in what was his customary place up on the dais now, and that the piano prelude

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was too loud and had been going on for too long, until finally Dean Bradley bustles in from the wings and moves to the lectern, where she taps the microphone with a finger, takes a breath, and solemnly eyes the assembled girls, who have all stopped talking and stopped breathing and gone still.

She wouldn’t mince her words, that is not her style. Mr. Bale has been involved in an accident, she would be telling them, and at first they’d be thinking that was it, and he was all right after all, he was hurt, maybe, he was in the hospital even, and that was bad, but it was not the worst that could be. They would be waiting for her to tell them that the rumors were only that, but then when she goes on and confirms the truth, her voice hitching as she says the words out loud—Dean Bradley, who Charlie had named Her Majesty the Imperious Snow Queen because of the halo of white hair and the broad square shoulders, the unwavering gaze and the hard cold set of her jaw—when she seems to sob the words that tell them Jack is dead, then this will be what finally sets the girls off, and after that, pandemonium.

Some of them will react with anger, first. There will be cries of disbelief and bursts of tears, screams, explosive sobs. Dr. Larsen will have to be brought in, and Father Stephens will be there too. Classes will be cancelled—no geometry or biology or English lit today. Instead, the talk is going to have to be of Heaven and Hell, the Here and the Hereafter, and God’s Will or Man’s Fate, the ineluctable force that physics has on flesh. The flag at the edge of the Oval will be lowered to half-mast again. Some of the girls will beg to be allowed to go home, and arrangements are going to have to be made to accommodate them in that.

Even my most tentative movement into that room seemed to create too much of a ruckus in the stillness—as I reached across his chair to turn off a reading lamp, the air was disturbed by my presence, and dust motes swirled near the window where the sun had begun to break in

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through the curtains. So I moved slowly and I kept my head low, as I crossed the room and made my way up the stairs.

The master bedroom is in the far back corner of Jack’s house; its high windows overlook the grassy yard with its dilapidated barn to one side and the acres of woodland that spread out on beyond. The closet door was open, revealing Julia’s bright clothes on one side and Jack’s familiar shirts and pants and jackets on the other, with his heavy shoes paired side by side on the floor below them. A pink silk robe that I hadn’t seen before hung from a hook on the back of the door.

The sight of the unmade bed against the far wall felt like a violation of another kind, but I spent some time putting it to right, carefully folding the edge of the sheet back over the top of the taut blanket and placing the pillows just so, as in a hospital or a hotel, as if it were just some random place for any stranger to come along and lay his head down for a while. When I was finished with this chore, I turned back to the closet to have one last look at Jack’s things, as a way of saying good-bye to all that, I guess. I poked at the shoulder of a wool tweed sport coat and watched the sleeve swing as if there were some life in it, and then I stooped and slipped my hands down into the cool void of his tooled leather boots. I held them like that as if I were holding him, but it wasn’t so. I lifted them up then set them down again beside a pair of Julia’s red satin flats. I stepped back to consider the effect of this—it looked like something of an apology, to my eye. I closed the closet door on the whole thing then, once and for all, and if I was feeling anything like a sting of tears just then, I quickly blinked them away. I had no right or reason in the world to be grieving for this man that I was not supposed to know.

Over at Stanley Hall, a policeman was posted just outside the iron gates, and a local news van was lurking at the curb across the street. I gave the officer my name and told him what I was

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there for, showed him my driver’s license and all that other rigmarole, then waited for him to call somebody on his radio and get some kind of an okay before he would consent to open the gate and wave me in. From there I followed the long driveway that wound down through the woods and then opened up onto the grassy Oval at the end. The lot was full, so I had to park the Volvo next to the trash bins behind the Dining Hall.

I was aware of what I looked like to the two girls who were sharing a smoke in the woods and watching me as I started climbing up toward the Main Building at the far side of the Oval. Thin and tall and pale, I am not much to look at, but I do take up space. My hair is yellow and straight, neatly trimmed and only just beginning to recede. My eyes are soft—hazel gray or green or brown or blue, depending upon what else is going on around me. I know that to some of the girls in my classes I am a tragic figure—maybe even, from a distance, Byronesque. To others, I’m just another creep in a long black coat. I have the kind of face that people often say they think they’ve seen before. I am always reminding somebody of someone else that they know better than they know me. To the parents I am Mr. Phillips, but the girls all call me Phipp.

As I headed toward Main Hall, I thought of Jack crossing the campus just as I was doing then, striding the footpath with his hound at my heels. I was trying to summon up the sound of him calling to it, or of anybody else ever saying its name, but I couldn’t hear the word in my mind. I stopped and checked his tag. Pal. His name was Pal, and when I said it he looked at me like he was waiting for me to tell him something more, but I had nothing.

Dean Bradley was not in her office, but Mrs. Ayer was at her desk as usual. She was busy typing something, and very serious about it, hunched over her keyboard and pecking at it, stopping to give the screen an abrupt quizzical squint, then right back at it again. The most important work in the world, it must have been. I had to cough into my fist before she became

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aware of me standing there. Her face was round and flat, her eyes agog behind her glasses and her mouth a rosy wrinkled pucker, drawn tight as a cat’s asshole. I gave her the house key and had planned to offer to hang on to the dog until Julia returned, but just then the phone rang, and Mrs. Ayer put up a finger to hush me as she reached to answer it. When I let go of his leash, the hound crossed the hall to nose and paw at Jack’s office door, and I thought it best that I back off then and let someone else look after him now.

The girls were still there when I got back to the car. They saw that I was watching them watching me, but there was no reason for them to care. They waved to me, said something to each other, and then headed off arm in arm deeper into the woods, toward the bluff, which has a spectacular view of the river but is strictly off limits even for the seniors, without a chaperone. I might have called them back, but I knew they were unlikely to heed whatever I could have found it in myself to tell them. They had nothing to fear from me. They would know that all bets are off, and there are not going to be any demerits or detentions handed out for whatever anyone might decide to do now. There isn’t much safety to be had anywhere anymore, not that I can see, and they are young enough still to think that the view alone is worth whatever risk it will take to get there to see it for themselves.

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