words: Marla Cantrell
We are lying belly down on the fishing dock at Cedar Lake, our arms hanging over the edge, the tip ends of our fingers rippling the water. I’m wearing a red bikini, and my hair is up in a messy bun I worked on for an hour, not that Otis seems to notice. He’d been watching a TV show about a Canadian woman who got engaged ten times during World War II, before he called me and asked me spend the day with him. Every soldier the Canadian promised to marry died in the war. Otis says, “That woman was steeped in hope.”
“That woman was a harbinger of death,” I say, and Otis hits the water with his heel of his hand. “She surely was not. If you’d of watched the show, you’d know that.”
“I don’t see how ten boys dying has one lick of hope in it.”
Otis rolls onto his back, pushes the air out of his lungs, and then puts his big ole hands beneath his head. I sit up beside him. I can smell the lake water, below us, and on my hands, and in the air around us. Otis says, “Think what those last days would have been like if they hadn’t had her letters.”
“You never once wrote me a letter, and we’ve been going out for nearly a year.”
“Nola,” Otis says, “what would I say that I can’t tell you
I squint my eyes like I do when I don’t want to see the world the way it is. The edges of everything go hazy, and then I say, “You amaze me, Otis, you really do, but not in a good way.”
Cedar Lake is in a valley that catches every bit of cool air and holds it captive. Up on the ridge where I live, it’s scalding already. Otis brought a cooler with him and inside are a dozen Pabst Blue Ribbon beers. I take one out, pop the top, take a swig.
“I don’t know why we argue,” Otis says.
The boards on the dock are old and worn smooth and feel like cotton sheets straight from the clothesline. I set the beer down and lie down beside him. “Maybe we don’t like each other very much.”
Otis pulls me to him. “I like you just fine,” he says, and he takes off my sunglasses and kisses me until some old woman fishing out on the lake, calls from her boat, “For land’s sake, it’s broad daylight!”
On the way out, I sit beside Otis in his old Ford truck, so close our thighs touch. I’m thirty-five now, and I’ve been sidled up like this to one guy or another for nearly half my life.
The pickup windows are down, and the air in the valley smells like sour apple gum. I’ve driven as far away as Abilene, and I’ve never found this smell anywhere else. I lay my head on Otis’s shoulder, and he wraps his arm around me.
“When the Canadian lady wrote to her soldiers, she always started the letters with ‘My Dearest Someone.’” Otis has the words ‘heat lightning’ tattooed on his arm, the block letters following the bone from elbow to wrist. There was a local band named Heat Lightning he used to follow, and one night he got knee-walking drunk and went over to Ziggy’s Ink Palace. Heat Lightning hasn’t played in more than ten years. The lead singer preaches now at one of those churches without a denomination tied to it. It’s called Streets of Gold, or Highway to Heaven. Something like that.
“Those were different times,” I say.
“Every one of the guys asked for her picture. They trimmed the photos down and carried them in their cigarette cases. They carried the cases in the pocket closest to their hearts.”
“Was she beautiful?”
“She looked a lot like my Aunt Edna used to. Dark wavy hair. Green eyes a little too close together. But she had this smile that seemed like it covered the universe.”
We stop at Sonic and get a couple of corndogs and a tub of tater tots. I drink another beer, the can icy in my hand. We’re in a dry county in the middle of the afternoon, but what the hell. The carhop gives me a look, and I tip the can at her, like a salute. “Give her an extra dollar,” I say to Otis, and he does it and then laughs.
Otis eats the tater tots two at a time. “Most of the letters were sweet,” he says. “The soldiers told her she was swell, or that they’d gotten a radio and were listening to Bob Hope but thinking about her. But then, later, as they got closer to the end, they’d tell her things that gut-punched you. This one sergeant told her he dwelled in a world of death, and then he went on to describe it.” Otis shudders. ” He said he didn’t know how he’d live anymore with regular humanity, even if he did make it home.
“She wrote him back, and she told him that he would come home. She said she sat on her porch every evening, and she looked at the moon. She swore she could see the future in it. She said, ‘And there we are, around the kitchen table. You’ve gained twenty pounds since you came home. There’s a highchair beside you with the cutest little baby sitting in it. Looks just like you. Outside, the mailman is walking down the street, and he’s whistling because he doesn’t have one letter in his bag with bad news in it. And on the radio, Vera Lynn is singing “When the Lights Go On Again All over the World.”
Otis drips a packet of mustard on his corndog. “My granddaddy was in that war. My granddaddy near about raised me, what with Daddy taking off over the years, going to and fro, who knows where. If Granddaddy would’ve got killed, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t of known the best man I ever met.”
This may be the saddest date I’ve ever been on. I quit holding my stomach in. I reach behind the seat where I put my bag, and I slip on my T-shirt from Carrie Underwood’s last concert tour over my bikini.
“My grandpa was in World War II,” I say, and suddenly I can see the photos of him. He weighed one hundred and two pounds when he enlisted. He was seventeen. He ended up in Okinawa. I don’t know what he was like before, but life after was its own battleground.
“The world today,” Otis says, and then he stops. He dumps the corndog in the Sonic sack and I finish off my beer. Otis takes the can and crushes it like it’s nothing.
I look out the window at the advertisements that are up everywhere. Sonic is having a half-price shake special every evening after eight. A shake sounds good, like all that ice cream might fill the cavern that just opened up inside me. “Mama says she remembers when ISIS was just a kids show about an Egyptian super-hero. She’d watch her on Saturday mornings, a beautiful woman in a costume, doing what she could to save mankind.”
“I remember when you could go to the picture show without fearing a gunman might come in behind you.”
“Why do you think the Canadian kept promising her future
to the doomed?”
Otis taps his fingers on the driver’s doorframe. “World War II was everybody’s war. I think she was fighting it the best way she knew how.”
“Did she ever marry.”
Otis shakes his head no. “She ran a daycare. And wrote letters to the editor of the newspaper, asking people to be kind to one another.”
The world is at a tipping point. Both me and Otis know it. We watch the news together when I spend the night, the overly tan newswoman grim as she waits for the video to roll. In the last weeks, we’ve seen death come in waves, here at home and as far away as Turkey, and we’ve not even left Otis’s living room.
I squeeze his knee. “I get it now.”
“Good,” Otis says and touches my cheek.
“What do we do now?” I ask, and Otis seems to know what I mean.
“Watch this,” he says.
There’s a couple, maybe pushing sixty, sitting at the concrete table where pedestrians eat, sharing a kids’ meal. They look like trouble’s ridden on their backs for years. They have a dog with them, the kind of mutt you see in every shelter ad that’s ever been made. The dog, the man, the woman, look worn out. The woman slips the dog a french fry and rubs its ugly head.
Otis motions the carhop over. The girl has black hair and black nail polish and black eyeliner that rings her dark eyes. He pulls out the hundred dollar bill he keeps hidden behind his fishing license in his wallet, and he hands it over. It’s his emergency money. His safety net. He points. “Give this to that couple there,” he says, just don’t say who it come from.”
The girl looks at the couple and then she turns back and looks at us. “Why?” she asks. And Otis says, “We’re passing out hope today.”
“You meet all kinds,” The carhop says, as if Otis is crazy.
We watch as she takes the money to the table, holds it out like an offering. The couple look at one another, and then they lean in, asking questions, I’m sure, but the carhop just shakes her head, shrugs her shoulders. When the man takes the hundred-dollar bill, he pats the carhop’s shoulder. The dog gets up, struggling on shaky legs, and starts to circle the trio, its sorry tail wagging.
Otis starts the engine. The motor races and then settles down. Otis reaches for the gearshift but stops. He takes my hand in his, and we sit, here in this valley of hope. Outside, on the fringes of this place, sorrow waits, and trouble so big it can bust you apart. We all know it’s there, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to stop it.