Driving back to Boston, I tried not to think about it so much. The night was cooler now, and Frannie and I took turns fussing with the air vents and the heater settings, countering each other’s last adjustment like chess players making bold, unanswerable moves. Usually, this game is just annoying enough to help me stay awake during these late-night drives from Providence, but tonight I didn’t need the aggravation.
Underneath a highway light stanchion on I-95 somewhere south of Walpole, a car had pulled over in the breakdown lane, its bumper jacked up, the rear left tire presumably flat. A skinny guy wearing his baseball cap reversed sat slumped against the fenders, disconsolate, spinning the cross-shaped tire iron on the blacktop before him. His girlfriend stood as far as she dared out in the travel lane, her thumb up. The halogen glare from above made them seem like actors on a stage. As I passed them by, I noticed in the rear-view mirror that, instead of her thumb, the woman’s middle finger was now raised.
The evening had been going so well. Beers and burgers at the Trinity Brewhouse, the Sox rallying past the Orioles in the eighth inning on the TV over the bar. Mary told us all about her writer’s retreat out in the Pacific Northwest: two weeks alone in a decommissioned fire tower at the edge of the Cascades Range. After our meal, and more rounds of IPA than were advisable — especially for Frannie and me, who have the longest drive — we wandered down by the Providence River to take in Waterfire.
The city’s riverside festival is our customary nightcap at these annual reunions of the old gang. The illumination was in full bloom. Dories loaded with firewood moved funereally from pyre to pyre along the middle of the channel, slowing down every hundred feet or so to allow their crew members to pitch fresh logs onto each blaze. A Puccini aria, impossibly sad, played through loudspeakers along the path on both sides of the river, and we joined the throngs who shuffled along, blinking amid the wood smoke.
The narrowness of the path naturally forced us to walk in pairs, and I fell in alongside Carl.
Thirteen years ago, we’d all been working at a daily newspaper in a depressed mill town just north of Providence, and like young journalists everywhere, we were mostly single, mostly transplants from other parts of the country. We worked and drank together, a close-knit hive of people whose jobs gave them daily immediate access to the sordid and the ridiculous. Deadline pressure and unreasonable bosses drove us to huddle late most nights at The Last Call, Leo’s, Hope’s — any number of watering holes that made a living from people like us who couldn’t bear the prospect of going home. One by one, the years eventually peeled us off from the newspaper — and from each other — and sent us to various other workplaces, situations, whatever. I guess you could say these were advancements for us: Mostly we’re wealthier now, more respectable, but each of us is cognizant of what we’ve lost from that era, and so we value these annual reunions, where for one night at least, we get to relate to each other in a way we no longer can to anyone else.
Of all of us, Carl has lived the hardest over the years: a whisky-soaked careening through a series of jobs and marriages that finally ended up in Maine with an early-morning collision with the publisher in the parking lot of the small-town paper where he worked the police beat. Clearly shit-faced, he’d been fired on the spot and had to be restrained from knocking the guy down by the very cop he’d just been drinking with at an Elks’ hall two doors down. Carl is sober now. He moved back to Providence and sells solar panels to homeowners, cold-calling seniors and housewives in the Benefit Street historic district. We get together every couple of years to take in a ballgame at Fenway.
As we walked along, Carl pulled me aside so he could light a cigarette, smoking being the one vice he’d clung to militantly so as to be able to ditch the others. As he let out a deep drag, he elbowed me in the side and stuck out his chin toward two women in front of us who were holding hands and kissing like it was New Year’s Eve.
“Really, Benny?” Carl said under his breath, raising his eyebrows meaningfully. “They have to do this here?” It’s part of his shtick — to be blatantly politically incorrect, so as to get a rise out of me — or anyone else he knows to be a flaming liberal about such matters. It’s only half-serious — if that, even. It’s just his perverse way of engaging with the world, and you either hate it or laugh at it. I’m of the latter camp, which explains why we’re still pals after all these years.
I gave him the old roll-of-the-eyes, which is all he really wants. The roll-of-the-eyes means: I acknowledge your impishness, I accept it, even, but you’re not drawing me into this swordfight, buddy.
We walked on, talking about all the parts of each other’s lives we have only a passing interest in. Crossing Canal Street, we wandered the fringes of the Rhode Island School of Design campus, and then stopped to watch the “gargoyles,” the statuesque street performers covered in gray body paint who, with their resemblance to the flying monkeys of “The Wizard of Oz,’’ charm passersby into tossing a dollar or two into their tip box. A dark-haired woman posed for a selfie with one of them, and she must have jogged a memory in both of us because I wasn’t surprised when, after we resumed walking, Carl asked if I ever heard from Melanie anymore.
“Actually, no,” I said. “It’s been years. Last I heard she’d moved out west. Portland, Seattle, that area.”
Melanie is one of the gang — or was, I should say. We’ve all lost track of her. But back then, she and I were close: best friends, in fact. I thought Carl might say he was surprised to hear that we’d drifted so far apart, but he was going somewhere else with this.
“Good.” He dropped his cigarette on the sidewalk and scuffed it with his boot. “Because now I can tell you: Melanie and I used to have a thing. Did you even know that?” He watched my face.
“A thing?” I said dully.
“Yup. Like in, hiding the salami, slow dancing, the old in-out…?” Finally he said simply: “We were sleeping together.”
I must have looked as shocked as I felt, because he smirked with the triumph of a magician.
“But you hated each other!” I stammered.
This wasn’t quite true, but Carl knew exactly what I meant, and so would any member of our old gang. Carl and Melanie were notorious for their quarrels back then. These were always instigated by Carl, with his trademark habit of blurting out something outrageous. Melanie would unfailingly take up the challenge, and the back-and-forth between them sometimes got so bitter that I often thought Melanie would throw her beer in Carl’s face.
“Yes, and that’s what made the sex so good,” Carl said. He seemed a bit amazed at this himself. “I can tell you all this now that I know you two aren’t in touch anymore.”
I stopped and pulled him aside.
“And this was…. How long did this go on?”
“Over a year, maybe a year and a half.” He lit another cigarette. “And I’ve always thought she might have told you. Huh. You really had no idea?”
No. I really had no idea. And even now I couldn’t wrap my head around it. My face must have told him all this because he went on.
“From day one, she insisted we had to keep it a secret,” Carl said. “Pissed me off, that part. What am I, chopped liver, right? But I did it, Benny, I did it. Quiet as the fucking grave, that’s me.” He leaned over the railing and spat into the river.
I could tell he was still in a bad place with all this, his having been a guilty pleasure, one that had to be hidden, as if Melanie had been a vegetarian who gorged on double bacon cheeseburgers when no one was looking. But I couldn’t buck him up, because I couldn’t get past the effect Carl’s story had on me. Like I said, Melanie and I had been close: I had, for instance, helped her move her ex’s stuff out to the curb after they broke up. Another thing: When one or the other of us went on a date with someone else, we would often meet later in the evening for a beer to share the gory details with each other. Hell, we had been so close back then that almost everyone in our gang assumed we were sleeping together. How could I not have known about Melanie’s thing with Carl? How could she not have told me?
The others caught up with us just then, and we drifted into reminiscences about the changes Providence had seen since our glory days here. The river itself, holding the crowds in thrall as it blazed and smoked beneath us, had back then been mostly covered up with access ramps and plazas. Only in the past decade had the city fathers ripped up the concrete and steel to expose the currents to the light of day. This was a good thing, everyone agreed — everyone except Carl and me, whose thoughts were still mired in our interrupted conversation.
Finally Frannie asked if I was ready to hit the road. I was.
As we drove now through Sharon, I could see rising ahead of us the dark mass of Great Blue Hill, its telltale weather tower outlined against the hazy aura of Boston behind it. Soon we entered the spiral of the cloverleaf that spun us off eastward onto Route 128, and from there onto Chickatawbut Road, our route home. The road bisects the Blue Hills Reservation through the thick woods of what they call the Broken Hills, and we were surrounded by darkness. I glanced toward Frannie and saw that she had fallen asleep.
Up ahead something large scurried across the road at the edge of my headlights and disappeared near the reservoir on my right. I pulled off the road into the small parking lot near the water and kept my lights on for a minute or so, but I couldn’t see whatever it was. Shutting off the engine, I got out of the car quietly to keep from waking Frannie. A picnic table stood along the gravelly edge of the reservoir and I sat on its wide top, resting my feet on the bench. The surface of the reservoir was completely still.
What a chump I was back then. It was clear now. Everything I thought I knew had been bullshit. Well, maybe not everything, but then here’s the thing that shook me: How could you tell? How could anyone ever tell? The two friends I had been closest to had kept a huge part of their lives secret from me, and I hadn’t had a clue.
And why, of all people, for Christ sake, why Carl?
Someone had left an assortment of small stones atop the table, laid out in some sort of pattern that I couldn’t decipher. I swept them up into my left palm and began throwing them, one by one, into the water. They landed with the small gulps of some nocturnal creature. There was just enough moonlight to distinguish one of the pebbles in my hand as an almost perfect oval, pearl white, a kind of small moon itself. I tucked it in my pocket with my keys.
When I was a boy, my father would take me on long walks in the woods behind the incinerator, as far as the municipal pool and back again. In those days I had a penchant for finding small pure-white stones, and like a dog with a bone I’d bring them back to him to admire. My father would always greet each find enthusiastically, telling me he could get five cents apiece for perfect white stones like these. He’d pocket all my treasures and, a week or so later, present to me with great ceremony a handful of change, my prized reward.
One day, the city tore down some derelict houses across the street from ours and built a school there. This was to be my new school, once it was finished, and I was keenly interested in it, as was my father. He and I regularly watched the progress of the construction from our front porch. In its final phases, the school roof was completely covered with a thin layer of small white stones, thousands of them. Watching the workers rake them out evenly across the slightly pitched roof, my mind swirled with thoughts, and I suppose my father’s did too, but he never commented on the stones, and neither did I. Perhaps I sensed, for the first time in my young existence, that there were things in life one should just let be.
I was about to scoop up some more pebbles when a police cruiser pulled up behind me. The cop walked up to my side of the car. His flashlight was held at shoulder level and its beam danced over me and then toward Frannie, who woke up with a start.
“Everything OK here?”
I took a few steps toward him. “We’re fine, officer. I was just taking a break. You know, call of nature.”
“Are you all right, ma’am?” The flashlight beam moved across Frannie toward the glove compartment, then toward the rear seat and back again.
“Uh, yeah, sure,” Frannie said, still a bit disoriented.
“All right then.” The flashlight beam moved to my chest and stayed there. “I want you to move along now, folks. This lot’s closed at night, OK?”
“Sure thing, officer. Good night.”
I climbed in beside Frannie. When we heard the officer’s car door close, she said, “What the hell, Ben? Where are we?”
“Don’t worry about it. I had to stop and pee. We’ll be home in 10 minutes.”
I drove slowly through the dark until the lights of Quincy came into view.
Looking over at Frannie, I said, “So…. Carl told me that he and Melanie had an affair way back when.”
She was absolutely still for a minute. Then she rolled down her window and held her open hand out in the breeze. “Yeah, I know.” She stared at her hand, turning it this way and that. “Carl told me.”
“He told you? When was this?”
She turned to me; her smile seemed a little sad, and guilty. “I don’t know, a couple of years ago, maybe.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Easy!’’ Frannie gripped the dashboard and leaned into her right foot. “Watch the road, will you?”
I swerved back into my lane and waited a moment. “So?”
“Well, Carl asked me not to tell you —”
“Oh for Christ sake, Frannie —’’
“— and, because I know you.”
“Meaning… what, exactly?”
“Meaning: How did you feel when Carl told you tonight?”
“Like crap. What do you think?”
“Exactly. So, you see.”
We pulled into our driveway. Inside, Frannie paid the babysitter and I went upstairs. I pushed open the door to our son’s room. A Tintin book lay on the bed next to him, as did a flashlight that was still lit. I turned it off and stood quietly over him long enough to be sure he wasn’t simply pretending to be asleep.
On the nightstand was his stack of trading cards: not baseball cards like we’d all had when I was a boy but Magic cards, full of planeswalkers and shapeshifters and other creatures that he and his pals obsess and quarrel over. Next to his cards was a shallow bowl full of white stones. I took the pebble I’d found at the reservoir and added it to his collection, then closed the door quietly behind me.
In our bedroom Frannie was shimmying into one of my old cotton T-shirts. She crawled under the bedsheet and watched me undress. “That boy OK?”
“Seemed fine to me.” I lay on my side and let her spoon up to me from behind. “Reading in bed again but he’s asleep now. Costing us a fortune in flashlight batteries, and he thinks he’s fooling us.”
Frannie rubbed my head lightly and rhythmically, the way I like.
“Little does he know, right?” she said softly, the last words dissolving into a yawn. She fell asleep within a minute, as she always manages to do.
That passage is not so easy for me, and so I lay there for a long while. I thought of that ragged form that had dashed past my high beams back on Chickatawbut. I tried to imagine such beasts that prowl the Broken Hills: a coyote, maybe, or some feral dog, eking out its existence each night scouring the dark woods for sustenance and sex. What kind of animal makes its way in the dark, dimly sensing in the brush its next meal or a receptive partner and stumbling after it, all ignorant of the real world? What kind of life is that?
About the Author: David Desjardins is a journalist with roots in Rhode Island, having worked at The Boston Globe and other newspapers. His short story “Song of Norway” was published in the spring 2017 edition of Red Savina Review, and his short story “The Sixth Game” appeared in the anthology Further Fenway Fiction.