By Molly McNett
Sometimes I must get out of the house and its “chronic angers,” as the poet Robert Hayden put it. This particular night I fought with my husband—about what? I never remember—and slammed the door at eight-thirty, just after the kids were in bed. I was still nursing. And I was so heavy, thirty pounds overweight, although the baby was six months old already.
Was it dark? I think so. Or it became dark as I walked. The road is a natural place to be alone here, in rural Illinois. There are only animals, and their pastures—no people, no houses in sight. I seemed to be stirring the hot afternoon with the new evening as I walked: My face was warm and my hands were cold, and I could feel these opposing currents moving.
A hawk gave a raspy cry and swooped down from a tree, and then it was quiet. A deer jumped up from a bush in front of me, straight up over the fence and into the soybeans. She took three nearly vertical jumps and stopped, the soybeans up to her neck. She made a pretty picture frozen there in profile, with the fireflies lighting quietly all over the field. I watched them for a while. If I wanted to explain to a deaf person what music was like, I thought, I would show them this field. All these sweet, tiny lights, holding and releasing together or in turn, the whole field a silent polyphony. I was pleased with myself for thinking of this. I stood there watching and being pleased with myself.
A truck came by. I heard it approach from behind, and I stepped off the road, waiting for the noise to go away, to continue my walk. But after it passed, it circled back and pulled up alongside me. A man rolled down the window.
“Yes,” I said, but I was startled, like the deer. I was half a mile from home. And it was dark.
“I thought you was someone I knew,” said the man. He sighed. “I thought you might be someone I knew.”
Whiskey on his breath. He was maybe sixty. No beard but unshaven. There was a gun on a rack behind the front seat: a hunting rifle. And behind it, the outline of a pissing Calvin on the window.
“This gal I’m looking for … She’s my wife’s daughter, but she run away from her dad and then come to my wife and me and she run away from us then, eleven days ago. There from a distance, I thought you was her.”
He’ll ask if you need a ride, I told myself. Say no, emphatically. Don’t act afraid.
“Did you call the police?”
“Oh, hell, they can’t do anything—she’s eighteen.”
His truck is idling noisily. Then he shuts it off, which makes me nervous. I ask, “What happened?”
“I tried to lay down the law on her. I says, you’ll be home at such-and- such an hour and you won’t have them friends of yours in my house or drugs and whatnot. I love you like a father, and if he don’t lay down the law, then I will.”
His “such-and-such a time” makes it all a little spurious. I have kids. I would never say their bedtime is “such-and-such a time.” It’s eight-thirty.
“You know what she resembles? Sophia Loren.”
I had no image of a young Sophia Loren, only someone matronly, an older “classy lady” whose picture I sometimes saw in women’s magazines in articles about How to Care for Skin at Every Age, along with maybe Catherine Deneuve, or Julie Christie.
He put his elbow on the window and leaned out.
“Why are you out so late?” It sounded like “slate.” Why are you out slate.
“I have a baby,” I said. “I can’t get away any other time.”
This was true: I could hardly get out of the house. I was trapped there. Suddenly I felt I’d confessed something terribly intimate. If he asked me to elaborate I might begin to cry— how important it seems, the fact that you are fat, at a time like this. Everything you say feels like an apology. Everything that happens interpreted through this layer of belly fat, ass fat, huge quaky boob fat.
But he didn’t notice. His eyes were squeezed shut, and he was shaking, softly. And maybe because my own misery had come to the surface, I felt I knew something about him, and why he cried. He was in love with his own stepdaughter. So he was not only drunk, but maybe crazy. Or dangerous. And the nearest house was my own, now half a mile away.
“She’s wild,” he sobbed. “I told her, I got to look after you like your own father would. I got to lay down the law. But them friends of hers … You can’t hold her down. You can’t tame her.”
I am disgusted by him. He is old, and grizzled, and drunk, and in love with a teenager. And yet his face is pitiful. His jowls hang down like some sad dog’s.
Just because you are not attractive doesn’t make you less susceptible to beauty: That is something the young imagine. My breasts are grossly heavy, my legs and face are swollen, but underneath these things I am the same person. I watch men and think of them in the same way I always have, because all love is a dream, whether it is manifest in your own flesh, or not. Even now I am dreaming that I can be mistaken for a young Sophia Loren—at least, on a dark night.
“That’s too bad,” I said to the man. Sometimes you just need to say it. I’m in love with my stepdaughter. I’m trapped in my own house.
He started up his truck and drove off, and I walked home, thinking that it’s hard to predict when people will find something in common. It might only be the fact that we are alive, of the same species, on a road at night. A road where everything is quiet, except for the high trilling of the frogs. A bull in the field with his low, gasping inhale. Coyotes, who sound dangerously close, their voices circling: Here I am, I’m coming, choose me.
Author’s Note: Sometimes walking is the only way to be alone. And it’s a fine one, easy to see as a metaphor, since you walk away from your life as you do it. For me, I’m walking away from my family who needs me, and my house which needs me, to a place where I am only myself for a little while, where I can have a different vantage on the day, or the argument, and so on. If I am angry when I begin to walk, I usually don’t return that way.
Molly McNett lives with her husband, son, and daughter on a farm in northern Illinois. Her writing has appeared in The Best American Non-required Reading, as well as many literary journals. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Brain, Child (Winter 2008)
photo credit: life.time.com