I’ve known Sue Ellen for half my life, since she befriended me on the first day of school when no one else would. She’s the only girl from high school I’m still friends with today. So I can tell something is bothering her. Right now, she looks at me, but she sees something else, something way off that may not even exist. I’m sure her mood has to do with Burt Galloway, her most recent, sometime boyfriend. Burt is a former sales representative at Rutledge and Sons, her family’s furniture plant. Last week, he was promoted to associate vice president of marketing. It’s a position he’s intelligent enough to do well with, but Mr. Rutledge would have never chosen him if Sue Ellen hadn’t finagled it.
Burt is a handsome man with blond hair that he keeps just long enough to be ruffled by the wind and still look fashionable. He’s got a square jaw and a strong, naturally athletic body. If I had to find fault, any fault, with Burt Galloway, it might be that his nose is too small. I like a nose on a man that announces itself. But regardless of his nose, Burt is the kind of man I can’t help but be attracted to. He’s different from most of Sue Ellen’s other guys, the best of the lot I think.
She looks over her glass at me, and I can tell she’s ready to slide into that state of half-drunkenness she loves. It’s a look I’ve seen on her face so often I’ve become accustomed to it. She has always been the one in the crowd who just had to have one more drink, after one-too-many.
Burt has gone outside with Woody to grill the shrimp for supper. I see them through my kitchen window, which is partly open to let in the warm spring day. Burt takes a seat in one of the big wooden Adirondack chairs. I have to force myself to stop staring at his blue eyes, and when I do turn away, I realize Woody is watching me. When our eyes meet, he winks, the same way he did ten years ago, and I know he has already forgotten our fight and my promise from ten minutes before to leave him.
Woody is tall and wiry, but he has put on some weight since we got married five years ago this June. It’s not Woody’s extra pounds that bother me so much as his attitude. He refuses to ever go to the gym with me because he is so damn, completely content with himself. He is still handsome, but when I look at him tonight, wearing a sloppy camouflage tee shirt I should throw away, I can only see a man who is too fond of his beer and easy living. If anything, he is just too satisfied about life in general.
Then, I’m reminded of why I was drawn to Woody to begin with. Growing up, my mother was never satisfied, especially with me, and I found Woody to be simple and uncomplicated and unwavering in his affection. He was a reliable escape from that other life, and when he winks at me like that, when he forgives and forgets so easily, it makes me ashamed of myself.
Then, just as quickly, something happens, and I’m mad all over again. This time, it’s him putting on a show for Burt, pretending to have grilling secrets. If it weren’t for me, Woody would let everything burn. It’s one of the typical, unnecessary things he says that drives me crazy. Like when he tells somebody—anybody who will listen—that we’re going to start a family soon. That’s what I heard him tell his dad, who called last night from Key West. He has retired to fish and drink and serve as a forerunner for Woody’s own lack of desire.
“We’ll definitely come down this summer because next year will be too hard when the baby’s here,” Woody said. “Yeah, we’re going to get you a grandbaby.” Afterwards, when I objected, Woody said, real seriously, “Calm down. Relax. I’m willing to do my part.”
I reminded him that his part is easy. “But as long as you’re willing to do your part, I guess it’ll be all right,” I said
Burt and Woody talk about March Madness. Their laughter reminds me of summertime, of white caps blowing across Norris Lake. The two men have only met a handful of times, but they talk without pause about basketball and what teams they’ve picked to make it to the Final Four. Their voices rise. They argue about players and coaches and teams, becoming comfortable in a matter of minutes. I marvel at this ability men have to live so gracefully in a completely superficial moment, managing to clasp onto basketball and ignore and forsake all the bad that has happened to them in their day, even every serious problem in their lives. Listening to them playfully argue, no one would ever guess that an hour earlier I had threatened to bludgeon Woody with a heavy, green-marbled, antique glass elephant. Neither would anyone believe that Burt has any idea of what’s going on with Sue Ellen, although I suspect he does.
“This wine is great,” Sue Ellen says, as if she has finally absorbed enough alcohol to taste it for the first time. She is clumsy as she leans against the kitchen’s island. “Can I have some more?” she asks, but more wine splashes into her glass before I can answer.
She pours from a bottle of vibrant red Shiraz. I chose it especially to go with watercress Woody and I gathered from the creek behind our house. I’ve cut up a mixture of citrus fruit to pour over the watercress. The shrimp Woody is grilling is supposed to bring out the earthy flavor of the Australian grapes. Sue Ellen studies the image of the kangaroo drawn on the wine’s label. It was one of the featured wines I read about in last month’s Country Goblet. “This bottle is among our favorites from all the recently discovered Aussie vineyards,” the article read. “This full-bodied Shiraz is perfect to sip slowly, to be savored.” But Sue Ellen gulps it down like the Lord Jesus made it himself. Too quickly, her glass is empty again, and I realize she has managed at last to pull that magic switch inside herself, ready to let out whatever is on her mind.
“Last night,” she starts, “I had that dream about Mitch. That same dream I have over and over.” She falls onto a bar stool like she weighs twice as much as she really does, and a little of her wine splashes out of her glass. I wipe it up with the dish towel in my hand before Sue Ellen even notices it and before I think about whether the stain will wash out or not.
Mitch is the other man in Sue Ellen’s life. The one she can’t seem to quit no matter how many times she tries.
Sue tells me the dream again, even though I have heard it so many times I could easily tell it to her. They were in her old apartment on Todd Street. Not the duplex she lived in first, but the townhouse on the corner. Mitch was waiting for her when she got home from work. She couldn’t see him, but in her mind, she knew he was there, picturing him somewhere just a little further beyond her. The door from the kitchen to the back patio was open. The light from outside poured in like a flood. Sue Ellen could see bits of freshly cut grass blown on the cement. She walked outside into the grass, overtaken by the brightness, and called Mitch’s name. But he didn’t answer. No one did. And somehow, she knew he was gone, and she knew it was her fault. She turned to go back inside into the empty house. Grass clippings trailed behind her on the linoleum. I can picture the images as if I had seen it in a film.
“Every time I have that dream, I wake up devastated all over again,” she says. “It’s the worst feeling in the world, to lie in bed, alone, surrounded by the darkness. Or worse, to lie there with Burt still asleep beside me because I can’t wake him up and tell him about it. I always feel so hopeless after that dream.”
Even when she’s had too much to drink, Sue Ellen’s eyes are usually as strong and determined as a lioness. But now they are big and soft like a cow’s. Her body seems limp.
“And then at lunch, I saw Mitch in the IGA.” She takes another long drink and begins to come alive again. “I was at the deli, and I saw him standing at the meat counter. I couldn’t believe it was him, at first, but he grabbed a pack of ground beef and turned straight toward me. He looked just the same. His hair and eyes were all wild like he had just climbed the mountain and seen God. That’s how he always looks in my dream, too.” Her finger traces the rim of her glass in a continuous, unending circle. She stares deep in the design of my kitchen counter, seeing something that is evident to her alone.
“He’s only been gone for three months,” I remind her. “Less than.”
“Yeah, but he went all prodigal. You never know what kind of effect that can have on a man.”
I roll my eyes at her. “Prodigal? He went to Cincinnati to work for his cousin, putting up drywall. And he only did that because you chose Burt instead of him, and he couldn’t stand it.”
“You’ve never liked Mitch, and I don’t know why.” In that instant, Sue Ellen’s voice is full of venom, and for the first time this evening, she looks at me clearly.
“Mitch was fine when we were in high school, but we’re adults now. You are all grown up. But Mitch has never grown up. And he never will. You’re going to be the president of a furniture company one day. Mitch is always going to be hanging drywall.”
“So he works hard? What’s wrong with that?” Her back straightens, and a little of the lioness reappears in her eyes. “What makes you think I want a damn paper pusher anyway?”
“Listen to yourself. You drink too much as it is, and you’re worse when you’re with Mitch.”
“Don’t be so critical. What do you even care? It’s not your life. You’ve already got what the rest of us are still looking for.”
Is this really what she and everyone else is looking for: Woody and this house and this valley and a job where I spend my days splitting up families—really what she and everyone else is looking for? I’m not sure which of us should be more disappointed, so I say nothing.
“Anyway, he’s moving back to Harrogate. We talked and talked, and then he asked if he could call me. We’ve played phone tag all day, and I’m supposed to call him back at 6:30.”
“It’s 6:32 now,” I say, looking at the clock and wondering if Woody is paying any attention to the shrimp.
“I’ve got to call him then. Right now,” she says, and she digs in her purse for her cell phone.
“Good Lord, Sue Ellen. Why? Why in God’s name would you call Mitch? Burt is sitting right outside, and you two are perfect together. You made a decision three months ago. Why is it so hard to stick with it?”
“Could you live with making the wrong choice?” Sue Ellen asks. “If you knew in your heart that Woody wasn’t really the one? Wouldn’t you owe it to yourself to try to be happy?” It always amazes me that Sue Ellen makes the most sense when she’s drunk.
Instead of answering, I look outside; past our yard, Cumberland Mountain marches into the distance. Above it, the sky is changing from orange and pink to purple. I can see the Cumberland Gap and below it, where the ridges of Poor Valley bump into Cumberland Mountain. Those old mountains are beautiful, but they are also giant walls holding the world back. Some mornings, that old piece of rock seems dead and unmoving, and I have to remind myself that it is still a living, breathing beast. I have to have faith that there is life and growth and change even when I can’t see it.
Burt has rolled up his shirt sleeves, enjoying the spring warmth even though the sun is going down and it will be completely dark in a few minutes. Woody takes the shrimp off the grill, and Sue Ellen calls Mitch on her cell phone. I give a look and point to the window to indicate that the boys are coming inside. She scampers across the kitchen floor barefooted—her shoes abandoned where she was sitting—and closes the bathroom door just as Woody and Burt come inside.
“Sue’s gone to the bathroom,” I announce awkwardly even though no one has asked. “She’ll be right back.”
I’ve never been a convincing liar, a quality Woody says should have kept me from practicing law. He thinks bad lawyer jokes are funny.
“Even though your wife’s a lawyer?” I say.
“Especially because my wife’s a lawyer,” he says.
I carry four plates of watercress salad to the table and return to the stove to dish the rice and mixed vegetables. Woody picks up the open bottle of Shiraz, realizes it’s empty and goes to the refrigerator for a beer instead.
“Let’s go ahead and sit down,” I say. We pass around the dishes of food and pile up our plates. Burt’s eyes keep darting down the hallway where I can hear the indistinct murmur of Sue Ellen’s voice. I’m sure he can too. I push the food around on my plate and try not to look at Burt. I try not to listen to Woody, who is still talking about college basketball and stops talking only long enough to bite the tails off his shrimp.
Sue Ellen’s clandestine agendas always make me nervous. I never know what to expect, and I feel complicit even when I’m not. Does she want me to cover for her or is it one of those times she feels above hiding.
Finally, she emerges, her face flushed. “C’mon Burt. We’ve got to go.” Her fingers rub through her curly hair as her eyes move across every surface of the room to avoid any faces.
Burt’s head jerks sideways. He looks like he’s not sure if he should be confused or cross.
“We haven’t eaten yet,” I say. Somehow, I feel like my marriage—my entire life—depends on keeping Sue Ellen from leaving.
“I was just on the phone with work. There’s some mix up with the Armitage accounts, and I’ve got to go straighten it out.”
“Sit down, Sue. Don’t be rude,” says Burt. His blue eyes have turned cold and sharp, and I realize he knows what is happening. He knows Sue Ellen well enough to recognize when she is up to her tricks. It’s another reason he is so good for her. “There’s nothing about the Armitage accounts that can’t wait an hour.” He wipes his mouth with a napkin and then places it back on his lap. “Now sit down and eat. Please.” Even when he’s angry, he retains his posture and good manners.
“There’s no time. We’ve got to go.” She dances around the room, finishes her glass of wine and looks for her keys. She finds her shoes, struggles to fit in them and then stumbles.
“Do you really have to go, Sue?” I ask. When I hear myself speak, I realize there is a nervous tension in my voice.
“Thanks for everything, guys. Sorry we have to run.”
“Can I talk to you for a minute before you go?” I stand up and move around the table closer to her, but she continues to ignore me completely.
“Burt! I’m serious. I have to go right now!”
“You need to be really sure you want to go before I get up from this table,” Burt says. There is no anger in his voice, and in that moment, I realize how alike he and Woody really are. If Sue Ellen told Burt she would marry him, he would say okay. If I told Woody I was leaving him, he would say okay. Are there any men left who give a fuck about anything? And then, I think about Mitch, Sue Ellen’s other man. Out of the three of them, Mitch is the one who would fight back. If he were standing in Burt’s Italian loafers at this moment, he’d flip the table on its back. He’d tear the kitchen apart before he let Sue Ellen leave.
Woody would never flip a table or throw a plate or do anything dramatic. Even ten years ago, he just took life as it came, and I think that’s why I fell for him. I had enough drama at home with my mother. She was never happy, but Woody always was and completely satisfied. He was steady in a storm, and I loved him for that. I loved him for that until I didn’t. Until I forgot how much I had once hungered for his reserve and calm. Until being easygoing started to feel like he didn’t care at all.
“Good lord! Don’t argue with me,” Sue Ellen says. Her voice sounds strained, as though she can’t stand having to explain this one more time.
“Sue Ellen, don’t leave,” I say. I want to tell her to take a long look at Burt. He is a man with intelligence and a future. I want her to think what she would be giving up, and I want her to ask herself if she would really be happier with Mitch.
Instead of saying any of this, I find that I’ve left the table. My hand finds its way around the neck of the empty Shiraz bottle on the counter. I slam it against the kitchen counter. For the briefest of seconds, I imagine the bottom will break free, and it will become a weapon with sharp pointed teeth I can hold up to Sue Ellen’s neck. I will use it to threaten her, to make her sit down and eat every bite on her plate until she really thinks about what she’s doing.
I feel prepared to kick Sue Ellen’s ass. But the bottle—solid, heavy and almost the same color of green as the elephant I had threatened Woody with earlier—just makes a dull thud. It is a demoralizing sound, nothing in the flat ring but disappointment. I hit the counter twice more before I grow frustrated and give up. I had expected so much more.
“Damn it!” I yell. “How hard is it to break a stupid wine bottle?”
Sue Ellen is still. Burt stands now, probably waiting for someone to address my madness. His eyes are wide and unsure of what will happen next. Even Woody seems vaguely surprised, his fork momentarily pausing in mid-air. He walks over to me and takes the bottle out of my hand, and then he holds me, his arms wrapping around me. It is probably the strongest reaction he has given me in years, but I can’t think about that now. I say to Sue Ellen, “Please don’t go. Think about this.”
“I don’t have a choice,” she says, and she starts to the front door. “I have to do this.”
Burt downs what is left of his wine and follows.
Woody says goodbye. He loosens his grip on me, and I follow Sue Ellen and Burt out of the front door.
“Start the jeep, honey,” she orders Burt, and he moves to comply. “Thanks again. The wine was great. You’ll have to remind me what kind it is later.” We watch Burt climb in the jeep, and I’m at a loss for words. “I’ll call you later and tell you everything.” She whispers even though Burt can’t hear us any longer. She hugs me before she runs down the walk and climbs into the passenger side. I am incredibly grateful not to be either one of the people in that jeep.
Maybe, someday, I will leave Woody, not just threaten it. Maybe I will mean it when I say I want a divorce, or maybe this is a decision that I’ll have to make every day of my life. But tonight, I know that I will go back inside, and we will finish our supper, and later we will climb into bed together. Tonight, I feel easier in that knowledge.
The jeep’s headlights flash on, and they drive away. I feel Woody inside our house, waiting for me to come back. I’m very aware of how quickly it has become dark. This is the twilight time, when everything that should be sharp and beautiful is vague and obscure. I look past my yard and over the neighbors’ roofs to where I know the mountains are. They have almost disappeared, already faded into the night sky, but they are there. The mountains are there.