Deflation

Fiction
Tara Kaprowy


Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The sun couldn’t reach inside the fire hall. John David, alone, eating watery chili and drinking sweet tea, felt the cool cement floor through his shoes. He sat at a long fold-out table that had been covered with a thin plastic tablecloth featuring veiny fall leaves. He wasn’t hungry, he’d filled up on a pancake breakfast at First Baptist that morning, but the thing to do was to finish the offering.

Finally, a lone square of chopped onion remained beached in his bowl, and he put down his plastic teaspoon, which was now stained orange. If he didn’t get moving, Humfleet would pin him down with a piece of red velvet.

He managed to avoid her and joined the group of volunteer firefighters standing outside the hall smoking. It was a pretty Kentucky afternoon in Pine Knot, the sun more golden than yellow. The fire hall faced the curvy road, which was banked by a wall of limestone that always looked wet.

John David joined Ron Townsend’s group, their beefy backs bent over to protect the flames of their Bics.

“Sure is a pretty day for a chili supper,” he commented, and Townsend nodded. “Reminds me of the kind of days when I used to go with my grandfather to the old homestead, visit the old cemetery. You know the one in Eubank?”

“Near the lake?”

“By the dam. Some of those stones date back to Civil War times. But still well maintained. Still well maintained.”

Townsend nodded as he inhaled, squinted as he let the smoke out. “Pretty spot.”

“Just goes to show that if you let people handle things themselves, they will,” John David said.

The comment referred to a recent vote denying county funds from being apportioned to cemeteries with less than a hundred plots. John David had voted to deny the money and he knew Townsend agreed with him.

“You’re damn right,” he said.

“That’s one thing we did right. Though I tell you, getting anything passed these days is a miracle. I mean, there’s a way to do things, manuals sent from the state, the whole bit. But Sparkman will come in and do things just how he likes. I mean, he will do things just how he damn well likes.”

More people were listening—now the wives had joined, almost all of them with their hair cut so it spiked up in the back. This group always showed up at the polls. John David switched the topic to zoning, how he’d confronted Sparkman on that, too, “because he’d tried to bully us again and I just wasn’t going to have it.” His speech rolled out of him so it was impossible to interrupt and not appear rude. It was a gift, his gab.

Humfleet came up to him and offered him the predicted block of cake.

“Honey, I’m no sweet eater. And anyway, if it gets any better than your chili, I don’t want to know about it.”

She smiled. He liked to think he was famous for his “honeys.” He held on to the “hon,” would cock his head, lower his jaw, before releasing the rest of the word. The overall effect could be construed as a mild admonishment, an inside joke, a prelude to some juicy gossip or just a feature of his charisma.

The men had had their smoke now and their kids were getting antsy in the driveway. He saw a boy pick up a handful of gravel as another boy danced around him, taunting. The boy cocked his hand over his shoulder, threatening the other, a few shards slipping out, but hesitated to fight his conscience before he released the rocks. The hesitation had given the other boy time to escape, and the gravel sprayed over the driveway, hitting nothing.

*

By the time John David pulled into his garage, it was dark. He’d attended two more events, the car show downtown and a fall festival at one of the elementary schools. He had three more weeks until the election, and though he was the incumbent for the sixth-district magistrate seat, he never let anything go to chance.

He could feel smoke and funnel cake grease on his skin. An orange cat greeted him with insistent meowing as he walked inside. As John David pulled off his shoes, the cat extended her front legs and made a ramp of her back to stretch it.

“Hello, Hester,” John David said, lifting the animal into his arms.

He deposited a can of Friskies onto a paper plate and went to turn on the shower. He was in the midst of renovation, the old pink tile stripped so now only ribbed cement remained on the walls. He bent over the pink sink to get a good look at his skin in the mirror. He could feel a cystic lump forming on his chin and pressed on it, feeling the pain from the build-up inside. He’d have to treat that before bed and first thing in the morning if he wanted to get a handle on it. He turned his head and examined the burgundy acne scars speckled along his jaw, passing the pads of two fingers very softly over them in a way meant to detect future eruptions but avoid contamination.

He was nearly 42 and, still, here he was, his skin at once inflamed and cratered.

Otherwise, he was attractive. He had kind, grey eyes, thick brown hair and his body was lean and fit. But he’d given up trying long ago. The stress of a first date would inevitably make his skin break out so that he’d have to suffer the humiliation of the woman across the table trying not to look. A few times, he’d gone on dates with women who’d also had an obvious deficit. His friend Cassidy had once set him up with a woman who sweated uncontrollably. Just past appetizers, amoeba-shaped stains had spread under her arms, so that by the time they reached dessert, she was forced to drastically restrain her hand gestures, pinning her upper arms against her body. She looked like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. He’d felt badly for, but disgusted by, her and was disappointed to learn he expected generosity from people that he, himself, did not possess.

No one was Jeannie anyway, so it didn’t matter.

He scrubbed his skin with sulfur wash thinking of her. They’d met sophomore year at Eastern Kentucky University, after mascot squad try-outs had narrowed down he and Jeannie as the two new Colonels. There were four members on the squad, each expected to spend about 100 hours a year inside the costume, which featured a giant head that looked much like Colonel Sanders and a maroon suit complete with frock coat and string tie.

John David had come into the try-out by accident, his roommate’s friend telling him he was the right size and it came with a partial scholarship. Jeannie had gone to every football and basketball game with her dad as a child and was fascinated by the Colonel.

In the costume, John David quickly learned he was no longer a shy, unappealing virgin. Instead, he was a beloved, silent jokester who wandered the aisles of the screaming stadium sliding down stair railings, stealing people’s popcorn, giving high fives to women sporting EKU tattoos on the apples of their cheeks.

Of the four students who played the Colonel, John David was the best at it, and Jeannie—blond, dimple cheeked, who had a habit of addressing people by their last names sports-team style—marveled at his natural talent as they sat over beers after the games. He loved her completely.

John David dried off and put on some track pants and an old, holey EKU T-shirt. He’d taped a new episode of Justified, and the new issue of his cycling magazine had come in. First though, he sat down and looked at his calendar, which featured space views taken from the Hubble telescope. He’d be free of commitments tomorrow, but Tuesday was Rotary in the morning and Wednesday was the Chamber luncheon. He’d need his game face on, something that was worth noting, but not really a hardship.

In the end, that’s the most important thing his time as a mascot had taught him. Even without the costume on, he had figured out how to become the embodiment of the Colonel: garrulous and likeable, but tactical, not easily interrupted. With two first names, not one.

When he returned to his hometown after college, armed with the degree he needed to take over his father’s accounting business, he perfected this public persona, surprising old friends and relatives with his new loquacious, down-homey confidence. Eventually, he discovered that the most natural place for the Colonel to shine was on the political stage. If he couldn’t have love, he could at least have power.

Hester, whom he’d inherited from his grandmother, jumped up as he sat and he scratched her back just above the base of her tail before she turned, once, twice, and finally settled on his lap in a curl much like that of a crescent roll.

It was, he decided, enough.

*

John David pulled up alongside the woman bent over the wheel in the Wendy’s parking lot. Her long brown hair whipped in the wind. The tire was a love handle puddled on the asphalt. The scent of fried meat hung in the air.

John David climbed out of his truck and pulled out the Colonel’s friendly voice.

“I’m not one to state the obvious, but it looks like you have yourself a bit of a problem,” he said and she looked over, surprised.

“I do,” she said.

He sat down on his haunches beside her. “Whewee, that’s a bad puncture.”

“I was lucky to pull in here. I was getting gas and was about to get back on the Interstate when the car suddenly starting shaking.”

Her accent was foreign. European.

“Hit a pothole or a curb?”

“No.”

“Maybe it was losing pressure for a while and suddenly just gave out. Well, let’s get you back on the road.”

She stood and she was tall. “I can’t ask you to do that.”

His answer was automatic, sounded as if it were coated in Teflon: “You don’t need to ask, ma’am. I’ve already offered.”

He smiled, looking at her briefly in the eyes for the first time. Her skin looked like cream.

He opened her trunk, which was filled with luggage.

“I’m going on a trip,” she said as they both pulled out the loaded bags. They were exceptionally heavy.

“These could be your problem,” he said. “An overloaded car is hard on the tires.”

As they stacked the luggage in the empty space beside them, cars inched forward to gain access to the drive-thru. It was nearly lunchtime and the Wendy’s always did a brisk business. Many people honked and waved at John David as they drove past. He was very aware that some of them were voters who would see him helping a stranded woman five days before the election.

He pushed the wrench with the palm of his hand to loosen the lug nuts and crawled underneath the old Civic to place the jack. He smelled grease, its bluntness, and thought of his dad. When he’d taught him the technique, his father had said there were two things never to be too busy for: stopping for a funeral procession and helping a woman on the side of the road.

“I still can’t believe you’re helping me,” the woman said. She wore a long, flowing dress, swirling with paisleys, and it swayed in the wind, so, from his vantage point, he could see her slim ankles. “It is making me wonder if I would help someone like this.”

“Honey, it’s no trouble,” he said. “I’m glad to do it. I would want someone to help my sister or my mother if they were in the same spot.”

He jacked up the car six inches. The wind had obscured the warmth of the day, and it took little for him to feel too hot in his jacket. He took it off and was about to put it in the truck.

“Here, let me hold it,” she said.

She folded the windbreaker over her arm and patted it once with her free, ringless hand. He removed the lug nuts and pulled off the defeated tire, replacing it with the spare.

“This will do you for a while, but you really should replace the tire. How far do you have to go?”

“I’m driving to Key West.”

He whistled loudly. “You’ll want to replace the spare before then. I can suggest somewhere here that will give you a good price, if you’d like. Where are you coming from?”

“New York,” she said.

He whistled again, a piercing crescendo that conveyed the enormity of her undertaking. He saw her wince in response to its sound.

“What is this town?” she asked.

“You’ve landed in Pine Knot,” he said, more quietly.

“Pine Knot,” she answered, as if trying out the words for the first time.

At that moment, someone honked from the drive-thru and John David looked up and waved. It was Don Marshall, owner of the car dealership.

“Whatcha got there?” he asked.

“Just doing my civic duty,” John David answered.

Dan honked his horn twice and John David waved again, a big, wide arc.

The woman looked at him, considering him thoughtfully. “Why don’t you let me take you to lunch? It’s the least I can do to repay you.”

“That’s not necessary.”

She nodded, deciding. “It is necessary.”

*

Frothy pies rotated in a glass display case at the entrance of Frisch’s Big Boy. The restaurant smelled of pork chops and gravy.

“It’s busy here,” the woman commented.

The room was mostly filled with grey-hairs sitting together having coffee or returning from picking up parlor dishes of Jell-O from the buffet. A decorated group of ladies with the Red Hat Society occupied a table of twelve in the center of the room. John David quickly said hello to several people before they sunk into a booth with brown, pleather seats, air exhaling from them in a swish.

“What’s good?”

“Well, it’s a burgers and fries kind of place. But there is the buffet too. Green beans, corn, mashed potatoes, stuff like that. Just simple country food.”

John David felt both embarrassed of the little restaurant—he could hear Crystal Gayle on the speakers—and loyal to it. He knew the woman would be out of place, but she’d asked for something more formal than Wendy’s, and there weren’t a lot of options in Pine Knot.

She ran her index finger down the laminated menu. Her nails were neatly filed, unpolished. He was very aware his forehead was in different stages of peeling from the medicine he took.

“I think I will have the Big Boy,” she announced and smiled. “When in Rome.” She pushed her hair over her shoulder in a wave. “Thank you again for helping me.”

“You don’t need to…”

“I understand it’s polite to decline thanks, but, yes, I do. I do need to thank you.”

He felt the discomfort that came from accepting the acknowledgement, like swimming up current. “Well, you’re welcome.”

She smiled and small wrinkles appeared beside her brown eyes. He guessed she was in her mid-40s.

“See? That wasn’t hard.”

“No, I suppose not.”

She was looking straight at him, her eyes wanting his to meet hers. It was hard for him to look back, feel her eyes assessing his face, and she seemed to know it, but didn’t mind insisting.

The waitress came to take their order, placing glasses of ice water on the table. She and John David had gone to high school together and she asked him how his mom was doing.

“She’s getting along OK,” he said, his voice booming suddenly. “Good days and bad days. You know how it is. Thank you for asking. I’ll be sure to tell her.”

“She was one of my favorite teachers.”

“She has a heart of gold, honey. She sure does.”

John David could see the waitress assessing the woman. When she left, the woman leaned in, her hands together and pinned between her chest and the table.

“She thinks we are on a date,” she said playfully.

John David took a sip of water, pushing a cube of ice against the roof of his mouth before he chewed it.

“You seem to know a lot of people,” she said.

“Yes, it’s part of my job. Well, not my job, really, but my second job. I’m a county magistrate.”

“Oh my. Are you up for election?”

“I am. It’s on Tuesday.”

“I see.”

She tapped her fingers on her lips. Karen Carpenter crooned.

“So, what’s bringing you to Key West?”

“It’s a long story,” she said. Her hand was around the red, pebbled plastic of the water glass and her skin was very white. She exhaled. “Actually, everything in my life is turning out to be a long story.”

“Well, everything in mine is short. So who’s ahead?”

He surprised himself by saying it. It was meant to be funny, but betrayed a wisp of bitterness that she latched onto immediately.

“Finally. I see you. Thank you for being honest.”

She told him she was leaving a lover, she used that word, and was headed south because she had a friend there. The man in New York had become too serious, was pushing her toward marriage. She didn’t want to stay with one person forever and he’d known that, she’d told him that, but, still, he was putting pressure on her.

“He had these big, thick wooden hangers, ones meant for suits. When he would get home from work, he would hang his pants on them, matching up the crease in each leg before folding them over on the rod. Then he would place his jacket on it. He would take off his shirt, but he would keep his socks, big, tall socks, on while he looked for the outfit he would change into.”

She looked at John David in a way that conveyed that she badly wanted him to understand. He did not; how else was the man supposed to undress? He considered laughing it off, politely telling her that men were clueless, as the women in town would expect him to say. But the thought of doing that suddenly tired him.

“I don’t understand what he did wrong,” he said.

“But it’s the same. Each day.”

“Everyone’s life is the same each day.”

“Not mine,” she said. “I couldn’t stand it.”

Their food arrived and he absorbed the idea that in an hour she’d be gone and that, for once, maybe ever, he could say anything.

“Well, was he a nice man? Was he good to you?”

“He was very nice. He is a good man. I do know that.”

“Is it possible you’re just spoiled then?”

She sat back against the booth, the pleather compressing. She knitted her hands together and put them under her chin. He expected her to be insulted and braced himself.

“Yes, maybe I am. That’s a good point.”

She examined her burger and bit into it, its height requiring her to open her mouth wide to accept it. The sandwich squeezed with her bite and gooey cheese dripped onto the plate. She wiped her hands on her dispenser napkin, which she’d unfolded and put on her lap.

“So now I’ve had a Big Boy,” she said smiling.

He watched her eat. He’d had no idea eating could be sexy.

“And what about you?” she said. “Do you have a lover?”

She asked it offhandedly, picking up the dropped cheese with the side of the burger. He wiped his mouth. He could feel anger swirling in a far-off place. She would have to know his answer. So was she laughing at him?

“No, ma’am.”

“Ma’am?” She laughed loudly. “Surely we aren’t going backwards.”

She held out her hand, wet from the meat of the burger, and he took it.

“I’m Marie.”

“I’m John David.”

“It’s nice to meet you. John. I’ve liked every John I’ve ever met.”

He didn’t correct her to tell her he used both names.

“So no wife? No girlfriend?”

He pinched his lips together and took another bite of his salad. But when she caught his eyes, he could see she was sincere.

“No, neither,” he said quietly. He looked around to see if anyone could hear them, but the noise from the red-hatted ladies was swallowing everything else in the room.

“So what is it? Are you shy?” she asked.

She raised her eyebrows in question, but it annoyed him, felt like goading. It occurred to him he could get up and leave and never see her again.

“Are you manipulative?” he responded instead.

She didn’t flinch. “I can be, but I am not being that now.”

“Well, you’re certainly steering this conversation.”

She dipped a French fry in her ketchup. “Ahh, but didn’t you manipulate me? Changing my tire to make yourself look good for your election?”

His fork paused in mid-air. “There is such a thing as doing the right thing.”

“It’s always motivated by something.”

“That doesn’t make your tire any less changed.”

“OK. Then me asking about your life. Your real life, and about you, none of the bullshit. That doesn’t make it unkind.”

He looked out the window, the trimmed boxwoods in the restaurant landscaping swaying as a unit. Beyond them stood the chubby statue of the Big Boy with his red-and-white checkered overalls, pompadour hair and 1950s optimism. She touched the pads of her fingers over his nails.

“You’re angry. I can see that you are. But why waste time being polite and saying nothing? Don’t you see? We have so much in common. I am running away and you are hiding. That is the same thing.

*

Marie ordered a milkshake for dessert and John David had a slice of pecan pie. She told him she’d come to New York from France to escape another lover. That was two years ago and her Visa was long expired.

As she spoke, about the waitress jobs and roommates she’d had, lifestyles that didn’t befit a woman of her age, John David watched her. Marie spoke often with her hands and, at one point, knocked over his cup of coffee. She didn’t clean the mess well, pulled out too many napkins from the dispenser and then left them in a wad on the side of the table, the still-fresh napkins eventually ruined because of the wet ones underneath.

Her life would always be untidy and unsteady, he decided. Here she was pouring her heart out to a stranger, something she could get away with because of her beauty; she knew men would listen. But then she asked him if he’d ever been in love.

“Once.”

He took a bite. “Pie’s good.”

She folded her hands on the table. “So? Once?”

“A girl in college. But it didn’t work out.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I never really told her. I mean, she might have known but if she did, she never told me.”

“Unrequited love is the most perfect love.”

“Except you don’t actually get to be happy.”

“Well, why didn’t you try for her?”

“It wasn’t a matter of not trying, it was probably a matter of not being wanted.” He gestured to his skin, something he had never done before.

She squinted, considering. “I’m not talking about getting her. I’m talking about risking.”

“I didn’t want to ruin the friendship.”

“Are you still even friends?”

“We lost touch.”

“Exactly.”

He felt a sudden shedding. She sipped her milkshake.

*

Marie kissed him on each cheek before getting into her car. She said she’d get her tire fixed when she got to Atlanta, though he doubted she would. She honked twice at him as she pulled away and he smiled at how American that was.

John David got into his truck. He had to pick up groceries at Walmart, and might as well get windshield washer fluid there while he was at it. He had to make a deposit at the bank. And Glen at Cumberland Appliance said they’d be willing to put up one of his election signs, so he needed to drop one by there.

He pulled out of the parking lot and turned left on Main Street. Then he imagined what music Marie would be listening to in her car. Probably something French. Or folksy—she seemed like the type. He rolled the window down and felt the wind on his scarred face.

pencil

Tara Kaprowy lives in Somerset, Ky., where she works as a journalist. She has had work published in North Dakota Quarterly. Email: tkaprowy[at]gmail.com

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