BY PATTY SOMLO
Copyright is held by the author.
JENNA LIFTED the first envelope above the bed and let the contents drift out. From piles scattered across the faded blue bedspread, she picked out a photo taken by her mom the night of the senior prom. Instead of a gown, Jenna had chosen a silver metallic dress whose hem brushed the top of her thigh.
Darrell hadn’t worn a tux. “Too stuffy,” he said, when he showed up in a pale grey suit that teased more blue out of his eyes.
Halfway through the first envelope, Jenna stopped. Time heals all, Jenna thought, reaching across the bed and twisting open the shades to let in more light. She recalled reading those words once, in a self-help book checked out of the library. At the time, Jenna didn’t believe she would ever heal.
The card from Jenna’s old friend Lilly had arrived just when the leaves began to turn and fall.
“He’s gone,” Lilly wrote. “Why don’t you come back? At least, come back for a visit.”
Jenna was standing at the front door, just inside the apartment, still slipping off a pair of backless clogs. Out loud, she whispered, Dead.
The room grew dark as she stepped inside. That’s when she realized. Lilly hadn’t even mentioned his name.
Jenna parked the car. Oak trees lined the street. Suddenly, she could smell smoke, sweet and dusty from burning dry leaves.
The houses looked as Jenna had recalled — white colonial, with red brick and carefully wrought columns. Elegant well-tended lawns led up to gleaming mahogany doors. She took a deep breath.
The sun had climbed higher. Between the trees, streaks of light now peeked out.
Jenna had grown up in this town. Across the street, up a narrow set of steep stairs, a tall white Victorian had housed the library. The sign out front was gone. A black metal mailbox hung next to the door.
How many times had she walked down this street, taken each tall step slowly, and opened the door, listening to the bells over the window shiver? The place smelled damp and was dark. To the right of the foyer, ancient as dust, the librarian sat, lit by a low lamp with a green glass shade. The librarian resembled Jenna’s Grandma Lizzie, her black silk dress buttoned to the neck, wearing shoes with square heels and long laces.
The next block over, downtown began. When Jenna was young, downtown had everything– shoes and clothes stores, a movie theatre that showed Saturday matinees for kids, and a soda fountain where Jenna and her friends crammed into booths for vanilla Cokes and French fries.
McCarthy’s Shoe Store sat on the corner, across from the bank. At the start of her junior year, Jenna gazed through the window at the penny loafers– navy blue, forest green, cordovan, and standard black and brown. Jenna’s mother would only buy her cheap imitations, sold in Gimbel’s bargain basement at the mall. Jenna saved her babysitting money and one afternoon, she asked Mr. McCarthy to bring out a cordovan pair in size six, for her to try on.
Jenna’s mother argued that the loafers sold at Gimbel’s for half the price were the same. Every girl at school, though, understood. The difference was the penny slot, a soft arc on the genuine Bass Weejun’s and a severe line straight across the imitations.
Jenna’s mother had opinions about Darrell too. He did not, her mother said, seem serious.
“I don’t want someone who’s serious all the time,” Jenna argued back.
Darrell was a foot taller than Jenna and slender. At parties, Darrell could balance a cup of beer in his right hand without losing a drop, while he and Jenna fast-danced or stepped up and back, doing the cha cha. Darrell’s eyes resembled a Husky’s, infinite and milky blue. All of Jenna’s friends agreed that Darrell was the cutest guy in the senior class. Best of all, he had dimples, and a dangerous grin.
Darrell and Jenna won Cutest Couple that year. The kids at school thought of them as one. At the diner on Route 38, everyone asked about Darrell as soon as Jenna arrived.
Two nights before, in the midst of getting ready for the trip, Jenna let herself look at the photographs. The woman at the shelter all those years back instructed Jenna how to pack them, carefully at night, when Darrell was gone. Jenna slipped the photos out, one by one, from behind the white glued-on corners. By month’s end, the pictures were safe, hidden in a canvas bag.
After she’d left, Jenna stacked the photographs in large manila envelopes and set them on her closet shelf. She feared she would go back if she ever slid them out.
“Have you thought about dating?” Dr. Goldfarb asked, one week after the grey December morning Jenna had the divorce papers served.
Jenna leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes, as she often did when Dr. Goldfarb asked a question. What she wanted was to stand on a beach, watch the waves roll in and walk, lost in the rhythm of each leg stepping forward, arms swinging loose, the waves circling and crashing, creating a background sound to her breath.
“No,” Jenna said, opening her eyes.
By the time Lilly’s letter arrived, Jenna had resigned herself to being alone.
Jenna made it through downtown and over to Woolman’s Lake, where she and Darrell skated when the surface froze solid.
“Brought a little somethin’ to keep us warm.”
She could picture Darrell next to her, his head bare, though the temperature hadn’t warmed above freezing. He’d lift the brown thermos from the deep slanted pockets of his tan jacket, twist the top loose and hold it in his left hand, as he used the right to pour. Jenna would take a sip, the coffee laced bitter with rum. One sip was more than enough.
The drinking came naturally to Darrell. Jenna didn’t question it or worry. Darrell was strong. In the end, Jenna turned out be the strong one.
Jenna made her way past the old wood-sided houses on the bad side of town. There used to be an old fish place here, where they bought bags of French fries, a quarter a bag. Gone now, Jenna could see.
“You’d better come get him.”
It was Harold on the other end of the line. Harold, who ever since grade school had wanted to be a cop. Harold had looked up to Darrell but now Harold was wiping Darrell’s vomit off the back seat of his police car.
Jenna drove the deserted streets. It was way past midnight, the traffic lights off. She didn’t stop at the blinking red ones. From experience, she knew no one was out.
“Hate to see him like this, Jenna,” Harold said, out of breath by the time he’d laid Darrell across the back seat of Jenna’s Ford. “Darrell don’t know when to quit.”
Jenna didn’t want to talk. Everybody in town knew. Yet, Jenna still clung to the belief that Darrell would stop.
“Thanks for your help, Harold.”
That night, Jenna left Darrell in the car. He’d be hung over and sick when he woke up. She would claim he’d been too heavy to lift. He’d get mad and hit her.
Jenna stepped into a shady spot at the bottom of the hill they referred to as the Mount. When Jenna was young, long before she’d fallen under the spell of Darrell Young’s smile, she loved to come up here and walk. Just walk. All by herself. Up the hill, under a covering of trees, collecting leaves that had fallen to the ground to press between wax paper in her science book, imagining she could keep them alive.
Something died, Jenna thought, as she reached the top and stepped out from under the trees. The well-trod path passed a line of low small gravestones to larger ones for the recently deceased. Something died with Darrell.
The sun climbed higher as Jenna made her way through the cemetery. They’d buried Jenna’s mother here on a bitter March afternoon, under a silver-white sky that looked like snow about to fall. At the thrift store, Jenna picked out a gray cotton knit skirt and top. There was nothing in black she could afford. The temperature hardly got above twenty. Jenna shivered as she stood next to the coffin, gripping the thin stem of a rose, red as her frigid hands.
Darrell started on beer before the funeral. Afterwards, he switched to Jack Daniels. It grew dark in the dining room, where Lilly had helped Jenna set out salads and casseroles, plates of home-baked brownies and sliced white bread brought by the neighbours and friends. Darrell’s insults were making everyone leave.
“Better get going before the snow starts,” Mr. McKenna said, while he kept his eyes pressed across the room on Darrell, talking loud. Mr. McKenna had lived next door to Jenna’s mother since before Jenna was born.
Darrell passed out on the couch while Jenna was spooning ambrosia and potato salad into Tupperware containers and sliding cold cuts into plastic bags. Jenna crept back to the silent bedroom. For the first time in years, she was alone, her mother gone. How might it feel now to go?
A thin line of grey-green mold framed the top of her mother’s gravestone. “He’s north of your mom,” Lilly wrote in her last letter. Jenna took her time. Even as she walked, Jenna asked herself if she wanted to go.
She followed the path, glancing at the inscriptions on the markers. Jenna might have known most of these people, if she’d stayed in town.
Handsome and popular, son of the town’s most successful businessman, Darrell was expected to take over his dad’s car dealership. People in town thought he might one day become mayor. Instead, Darrell drank and fought, long after passing the age when he should have stopped.
“It’s at the end of the row,” Lilly had said to make sure Jenna didn’t miss it.
And there it was. Darrell Young. The inscription said, A Toast.
Jenna waited for something. Sadness. Anger. Relief. She took a deep breath, as she would have done, sitting across from Dr. Goldfarb. Watch the breath, she reminded herself, and carried the breath in her mind through the lungs, down to the belly and back.
Regret. That’s what she would have said. In the movies, people always came to grave sites and communicated with the dead. If this were the movie of her life, what would Jenna say?
For the first time in years, Jenna could see Darrell in front of her. A strand of dark hair was blown across his forehead by the wind. Under the midday sun, his eyes flooded her with a longing she couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt.
At that moment, the gravestones and wind, trees and sun, along with every thought in her mind, disappeared. And Jenna was left with the memory of Darrell’s wild sweet grin, and a blessed forgiveness, that finally split open the crushing darkness she had been living within all these years.