Fences

SouthernLit

words: Marla Cantrell
I’d been through a few men by then. Not so many as to cause a scandal, but enough. My best friend Jimmie Ann and I were lying on the dock trading stories, telling each other why our romances didn’t work out, starting in junior high. I’d talked so long, Jimmie Ann had thrown her forearm across her eyes, and she was breathing steady, so I thought she was asleep. I elbowed her. “I said that guy named Waylon, who drove the bread truck, didn’t believe Dorothy ever left Kansas! He thought Oz was nothing but a damn dream! Who could stay with a man like that!”

 

Jimmie Ann was a mother now, and recently divorced from Dave, a man so dull his idea of fun was caulking the cracks at every edge that butted together in their rickety house. They had a kid named Ford, and I loved him. Red-headed, fat, talked with a lisp. At four years old, he seemed about perfect to me.

 

“You won’t know a thing about love until you have a baby,” Jimmie Ann said.

 

I leaned up on my elbow. “I know plenty.” Jimmie Ann just shook her head.

 

The air was still and smelled like pine needles and the fish that swam beneath us in Silver Springs. Sweat dotted my forehead, my cleavage, the back of my neck.

 

We’d been coming here since we were babies, dipped in the water while wearing disposable diapers that swelled around our tiny bottoms. At sixteen, we’d smoked our first and last cigarette in the bathhouse. At twenty-one, I’d stood beside Jimmie Ann underneath the park’s big pavilion in a dress I’d gotten from T.J. Maxx and held her bouquet of wildflowers while she married Dave. She’d looked like a mermaid to me, all that long blonde wavy hair. The white dress that flared out at the bottom like fins. A year later, Ford was born.

 

Water lapped the shore. “Let’s go to lunch,” Jimmie Ann said.

 

We walked to the diner the size of a mini-van, and we ate the blackberry cobbler first. We ate the barbeque next. We had a bottle of Old Crow she’d snuck in, and we drained our water glasses and poured the booze.

 

The sun had loosened something in me. The liquor loosened something more. All my joints seemed soft. It was hard to sit up straight.

 

“I don’t like the days when Dave has Ford,” Jimmie Ann said. She looked out the rusted screen door.

 

“Dave’s good to him, though. Right?”

 

The other three tables were filled with teenagers. Kids with nothing else to do on a Tuesday afternoon in June. Jimmie Ann looked at her plate. “When we were married, all he ever did was fix the cracks in things. Hardly ever left the house. That caulk gun,” she said, shaking her head. “Now though. Now, he takes Ford to story hour at the library. Last week, they went to Lowe’s and built a bird feeder in one of those free classes they have.”

 

The one waitress, wearing a week’s worth of makeup, headed toward our table with a pitcher of water. “Top you off?” she asked, and Jimmie Ann and I both held our hands over our glasses. The waitress raised a drawn-on eyebrow, then turned away.

 

A long mirror ran along the opposite wall. I looked at my reflection. There were times I believed I was pretty. Now, though, my eyes seemed too big. My hair, dark as the devil’s breath, was a tumbleweed. My T-shirt was ripped under the arms and announced a 5K that was held six years before. On a city street, I’d probably be mistaken for homeless.

 

“You don’t want Dave to be a bad dad, do you?” I asked, and Jimmie Ann grabbed the check and headed for the register.

 

Outside, she said. “I just don’t want Dave to be better at this than I am.”

 

I touched Jimmie Ann’s shoulder. “Impossible,” I said. I’d seen her with Ford, her hand on his back as he slept, her eyes closing as she breathed in the smell of him. Her own mama wasn’t much to speak of, and her daddy had bounded the backyard fence one night when Jimmie Ann and I were in third grade, clearing it and then running into the night, away from everything he claimed to love.

 

There were pinecones beneath the blanket, and I shifted to get away from one. “I caught a glimpse of Dalton at Walmart the other night. He was cussing the self-checkout register. He still wears his jeans too tight. He still wears that ring on his index finger.”

 

“Nobody can work the self-checkout.”

 

“I should have married him,” I said.

 

“You should have married him.”

 

“But I didn’t.”

 

“No one else has either, as far as I know.”

 

Birds sang. The voices of kids splashing in the lake rose, a chorus of cheer. We fell asleep eventually, and when we woke the stars were out.

 

I love the damp of night. How a day can be blistering and the night cool. At night, in summer, the whole world changes. Jimmie Ann pointed to the moon, so close to full it seemed about to spill over. “Would you look at that,” she said. She checked her phone. “It’s after nine. Do you think it’s too late to call Dave and check on Ford?”

 

This hesitancy was new in her. Before the divorce, nothing would have stopped her from calling anybody she liked, anytime she wanted. I thought about her call to me at two in the morning a few years back. “I was just thinking about you,” she’d said, and when my heart stopped racing, I said, “You can’t call somebody before daybreak unless there’s an emergency.” And she’d said, “Sometimes thinking about somebody is an emergency!”

 

“He’s your kid,” I said then. “Call away.” I headed to the bathhouse to freshen up, using the light from my cellphone to
guide me.

 

When I got back, Jimmie Ann said, “Ford said he misses me.” She was smiling, that beauty-queen smile of hers. She picked up the blanket, shook it out. Under the moonlight, her hair shone.

 

In the car, she sat in the passenger seat, her hands folded in her lap. When we made it to the highway, she said, “Dave said he misses me too.”

 

“What does that mean?” I asked.

Jimmie Ann looked out the passenger window, and I glanced at her reflection. If she’d smiled, dimples would have shown. If she’d smiled wider, the small gap between her front teeth would have appeared. “I’m not sure what it means.”

 

“What do you want it to mean?”

 

Jimmie Ann wiped her eyes. “It’s hard not having a family. You grow up with a mama who disappears at all hours, who tells you when you’re ten that you’d better learn to cook if you want to eat.” She looked at me, her unhappiness a veil across her face. “You grow up with a daddy who literally jumps the fence to get away from you.”

 

I reached over and took her hand. At the next exit, I found a Wendy’s and pulled into the parking lot. I wrapped my arms around her. “You don’t know what it’s like,” she said, “to have a kid. I’m not trying to be mean, but you don’t.

 

“I thought I could leave Dave and keep Ford and everything would pretty much be the same. But I’ll go home tonight, and I’ll curl up in Ford’s empty bed, and I’ll feel so much guilt I’ll not be able to sleep.”

 

“Do you love Dave?”

 

Jimmie Ann sobbed. “Maybe,” she said. “Probably. I love the kind of daddy he’s turned out to be. I thought he’d let me have Ford, that he’d go on his way. When we were married, it kind of seemed like he wasn’t that interested. I guess losing Ford shook him up.”

 

I rubbed her back. “I’ve been drinking more than I should,” she said.

 

Her phone pinged. She pulled away from me and took the phone from her pocket. There was a message from Dave with a photo attached. Ford sat on his dad’s lap. He was dressed in pajamas with dinosaurs on them. The top had ridden up, and his moon of a belly showed. They both were smiling. Jimmie Ann held the phone, so I could see.

 

“I jumped the fence,” Jimmie Ann said. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

 

I wanted to tell her she had the right to be happy, that she had the right to find a man who made her want to rush home at night just to feel his arms around her. But then I saw the look on her face. “If you jumped the fence to get away, you could jump it to get back home,” I said.

 

Jimmie Ann took a choked breath. “You really think so?”

 

I pointed to her phone. “Tell Dave I’m dropping you off over at his place.”

 

Jimmie Ann sent the message. She pulled a brush from her bag and took care of her hair. In the dark, she put on lip gloss and perfume that smelled like honeysuckle. The Old Crow she tossed in the backseat.

 

When we pulled up to Dave’s duplex, the porch light was burning. He opened the front door before I could shut off my motor. As Jimmie Ann was opening her door, he was at my window. I rolled it down. “I don’t know what you said to her,” he said, “but thank you.”

 

They walked with their arms around each other until they reached the porch, then Dave bent to kiss her. I watched, feeling like I was losing her, like she was being swept into a current that would take her to another place entirely.

 

I sat in that drive for an hour at least. I watched as their shadows moved from window to window, and finally, I saw every light in the house go out.

 

In the car, I said aloud, “I’m twenty-six and I don’t know a thing about love.” And then I thought about Dalton. I remembered his breath on my neck. The way my heart sped up when he said my name. I still had his number in my phone. I found it, rehearsed what I was going to say. I’d tell him I’d been thinking about him in a way that seemed like a bonified emergency. He’d take a deep breath before he answered me, deciding. Who knew what could happen next.

 

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