WRITING

NOVELS
"Are the trees in the field humankind, to come under siege from you?"
A 2010 Lambda Literary Award finalist
Nonfiction
Essays in Honor of Jack L. Knowles
Published in Toronto's lesbian and gay biweekly.
Stories
"I almost ran over Lorraine. God, it felt good."
An excerpt from The Trees in the Field
Poetry

"The Fear of God"


I almost ran over Lorraine. God, it felt good. Afterwards, when I was home from church and cooking dinner and in general had awareness of my senses again, I realized that actually running over her would only have felt good for a second or two. But at the time, when I still had the chance, well, I will remember how that felt for a long time.

Lorraine was one of the few people I’ve ever met whom I disliked on sight. I’m rarely wrong in my first impressions of people, a fact I’m proud of. My husband is an example. Jerry was still a skinny kid when I met him in junior high, a pimply-faced schoolkid, but I liked him right off and I still do. Isn’t that funny? After all we’ve been through. I also thought he was the kind of man who would never risk his family by cheating on his wife, but I was wrong about that.

Lorraine showed up at the school bazaar that first day, meaning no good. School starts early around here, way too early if you ask me. It’s still hot in September, never mind August which is when the kids went back this last time. Our corn had not even come in. Jerry always plants white corn along with the tomatoes and zucchini. I’ve made many a meal out of them, and once the zucchini gets going, it won’t stop. Tastes like heaven at first and then after awhile, sweating away in the kitchen trying to can the stuff, well, I was ready to get rid of some.

So that’s what I took to the bazaar, which was in the musty downstairs of the elementary school and smelled like one hundred of my basement canning rooms. I’m no good at crafts, which was why I was working the garden booth. If I were buying fresh produce I would want to be outdoors, at that time of year, but everything was set up inside—the jail, where you go and sit behind fake bars for a little while in exchange for donating money, even the old car where you paid for the chance to hit it with a sledgehammer. Now I don’t understand that one, don’t approve of it at all, or raffle tickets either which is just gambling. So about the only thing I was fit to do was bring my tomatoes and my zucchini and set it all up in little baskets along with everybody else’s, and wait for the crowds.

I had brought as many of the vegetables as I thought we could get rid of. I realize a tomato is supposed to be a fruit, but you can’t convince anybody around here of that, it’s like evolution. Jerry helped me cart it in and then went off to the gym. He’d volunteered to help run a volleyball game for the kids while the bazaar was going on.

So up walks this short-haired woman, six feet tall if she’s a inch, and I thought Jerry’s sister was the tallest woman I’d ever known. “Excuse me,” she said. I’ll never forget how she said that “excuse me,” looking down like I was somebody’s little wife. “Can you please tell me which way the gymnasium is?” She said this big word, gymnasium, and you could tell by the way she said it that she was not from this part of the country and that she thought that made her special somehow, that she looked down on us too, just a bunch of hillbillies. I got that strong first impression.

But I said, not hateful at all, “That way,” and off she goes in her sweatsuit as if that were a way for a grown woman to dress in public. It’s one thing for little kids, they’re built for it, but a grown-up person should not be walking around in a sweatsuit ever. I thought, a Yankee is too good a word to describe this woman, she must be from out west somewhere. Maybe that’s the trend there, to look like a idiot.

Turned out she had a reason for dressing like that, though: she had volunteered to help with the volleyball game too. Which I only found out on our way home with the boys, twelve and thirteen and scowling, not wanting any part of their parents, and Jerry all enthusiastic saying that this Lorraine—she introduced herself to him, not to me of course—who had a daughter about the same age, had walked right in there and started telling the boys and girls what to do, as if she’d been coaching volleyball her whole life. The interesting thing, though, was this didn’t bother Jerry in the least. You would think a man would be put off by a woman coming in there and doing sports with the kids which, honestly, has never happened before, not in that gymnasium or anywhere in Poudre Valley for that matter. But Jerry was impressed. That’s the word he used, impressed. Said Lorraine knew what she was doing and it was kind of nice having a woman there, what with the girls and all. I had never thought about it that way, but being a man in these times, Jerry had. After he explained I sort of saw how he might have been looking at things.

So I put to one side my initial bad feeling about this woman and thought, so she has short hair. Very short, and with the sweatpants and all that might have meant something else that I wasn’t very comfortable with, but I didn’t see her as doing any harm. So she thought she owned the volleyball court, but who cared about that? Not me. I was relieved to think somebody else would help Jerry, because he loves to volunteer every time there’s anything to do with kids and sports. There are many things I’m not good at and sports is one of them.

Jerry got Lorraine to go along to a meeting for volunteer coaches, and the next thing you know they’re coaching together, a volleyball team for some of the young people, sponsored by the Civic Bank. The kids got uniforms and everything, which even our boys seemed happy enough to wear, and kids that age are self-conscious about everything. What everybody talked about however was having this woman as a coach. It’s rare enough even to have a woman teaching P. E. but for her to be telling kids what to do outside a class, and not just kids but boys, well, that was something. Jerry said it had to do with her being from California, where apparently women do everything—I didn’t even want to think about what that meant. I guess she was so used to doing things that way that she just up and volunteered, and whoever was in charge was too taken aback to stop her.

Every Saturday they would head off, Jerry and the boys and Lorraine, who they car pooled with—she was intent on driving half the time herself, wouldn’t let a man do everything for her, as she put it. And I was happy enough to have the whole afternoon to myself, which had not happened since the boys were born, at least. Probably since I married Jerry, because he was always wanting something or always hanging around—you know how men are. I began to look forward to volleyball almost as much as he seemed to. I got more done those days, sometimes, than I would all week, not having the constant interruptions.

Nobody ever said anything to me about it till one day when Vera, the old lady who’s lived down the road for as long as we’ve been here and more, born right there eighty years ago, Vera came down one Saturday evening after Lorraine had dropped off Jerry and the boys. They were in the bathroom getting washed but I hadn’t started supper yet. Vera came by to say how nice the weather was, really just to visit for a minute, and I always try and give time to a neighbor because I believe it comes back to you, the way I treat somebody today, I may need someone to pay attention to me when I’m old, which is not as far off as people like to think.

Anyway Vera said, “Oh, I saw Jerry’s sister a little while ago, I didn’t realize she was in town.” Because she always likes to know if we have relatives or anybody visiting, she doesn’t miss a thing, usually.

And I said, “Oh, Jerry’s sister isn’t here. That was Lorraine.” And you would think that Vera would say “Who’s Lorraine?” if she didn’t know, or if she did know say, “Oh, I know who you mean,” or something. But instead she got this worried look on her face, and didn’t say any more about it.

After that, I started wondering. Not that I suspected Jerry of doing anything wrong because, although I didn’t like to think about it, I had my suspicions of Lorraine already. But what I thought was different from what Vera may have been thinking. Vera would never think an un-Christian thought about anybody, that’s not part of her world, but I did live through the sixties and seventies, and I have heard of San Francisco. It had crossed my mind to wonder why a single woman, a single mother at that, would move to Poudre Valley of all places. I suppose she had family but I didn’t know her, and Jerry never said. But her having a daughter was what puzzled me. I mean she must have had a man at some time.

So after Vera came over I started looking a little more closely. This is not that big a town and if people were going to see things and say things, well, they were not all going to be as gracious as Vera and I certainly didn’t want them talking about me. So I would just watch, casual-like, whenever Lorraine would come over on her Saturdays to pick up the guys or drop them off, and I would notice little things, such as the week she went to straighten out the collar of Jerry’s golf shirt, which he can never keep straight so I stopped trying, or one time when she stopped her station wagon in the driveway and the boys came in all sweaty, but the two of them just sat there, talking away for I don’t know how long, and I was halfway through broiling the steaks before Jerry finally came in and had his shower, not saying one word out of the ordinary.

But that was the thing: it was right there in my own driveway, in front of my window where I could look at any moment, so I didn’t see it as out of the ordinary. And there wasn’t a word from the boys except how tired they were of playing volleyball and especially Lorraine, how she was always telling them what to do. They would say this to me, not to Jerry of course. And I took this as the usual kids complaining about organized activities and, in particular, boys complaining about a woman, so I didn’t pay much attention to them. Because the fact was, though I hardly spoke a word with her personally, I had to credit Lorraine with being her own person, not afraid to trespass where men were used to doing everything. And I kind of liked that.

I did not, however, like it well enough to give up my Saturday afternoons and go with them, even when Lorraine invited me. “Why don’t you come along,” she said, and patted me on the shoulder in this way that meant, “you poor thing, don’t get out much, do you?”

“Oh, I don’t play volleyball, Lorraine,” I said.

“Then you can sit and watch. We’re going to go bowling afterwards, everybody have a Coke. It’ll be fun.”

I doubted that, somehow, and I also wondered how come Jerry had not mentioned this extra event. Maybe he didn’t think I would notice them being two hours late or however long it was going to be. I certainly didn’t mind.

Well, two hours became four and they weren’t home, and I started getting worried. Being a mother, you know. It’s terrible but you always think of the worst thing that could possibly have happened, all of them dead in the road. That was the first time I actually allowed myself to imagine Lorraine dead from a car, and it frightened me a little, almost enjoying the idea. I just didn’t want it to be in the same car as them.

Still it wasn’t Jerry that I was worried about, other than being dead in a car crash. I did not want to think anything ugly. As I said, I’m rarely wrong about people, and I did not want to be wrong about him.

Anyway, they got home eventually, and nothing was said except that the next week, which was yesterday, instead of volleyball they were going on a hike because it was the very end of October and the weather would probably still be nice. “Lorraine wants you to come, too,” Jerry said, which I thought was funny. Not her wanting to be my friend but her having Jerry say so for her. At any rate, I’m no hiker, and going with them would have made me feel even weirder. Like I was a spy, like I didn’t trust them to behave on their own. Besides, I had really been enjoying the quiet. That day, before they were so late and I got to worrying, I’d put a whole new coat of paint on the porch. It needed it, too.

Well, it turned out to be more almost of a camping trip than a damn hike, and damn is not a word I use often. I don’t know what time they got home last night, but I was asleep on the couch, and in my nightgown which would have been embarrassing if Lorraine had had the nerve to be there. Fortunately or unfortunately, Jerry was driving. The boys came in all sullen and sleepy, so I wasn’t going to get anything out of them. Jerry was another story.

“Where the hell have you all been?”

He looked at me, blinking, like he couldn’t believe I said hell, but I had got going and wouldn’t stop. “Tell me what’s going on. You been hiking all these hours in the dark?”

“No,” he said, “we went by Lorraine’s and I—”

“You went by Lorraine’s when?”

“I don’t know what time it was. I wasn’t looking at my damn watch,” he said, and now he’s all smart-alecky, because we do not cuss one another in this house, never have.

“I’ll bet you weren’t. No, I’ll bet that is not where you were looking, Jerry.”

I did not know what to say to him. There was nothing obvious, like lipstick on his collar, but then I recalled that Lorraine did not wear lipstick. No makeup at all, and the thought of that made me a little crazy. “I can’t believe you have been running around with a woman, Jerry. I can’t believe it. Not even a woman but this, this—bulldyke—” I never said such words, not ever, but in a way that was what was bothering me worst of all. Not the shame of being cheated on or even being wrong about my husband, but the fact I couldn’t understand it. I mean she wasn’t even pretty, she did not look like the kind of woman any man would want to date. This is what hurt me worst at that moment.

Jerry said he was tired—I bet he was, too—and wouldn’t it be better to go to bed and talk about it tomorrow, meaning today. And I said no I was not going to bed, least of all with him, as mad as I was and as much as we had to deal with, we were going to hash it out right then. I told him I never wanted to see or hear of Lorraine again. He said fine but that didn’t mean he was going to quit the volleyball. Round and round we went like that for awhile, and we did eventually end up laying down in the same bed but I was still mad. Hadn’t anything been resolved.

So this morning, I got up early, which I hate to do, before Jerry was even awake, and I cooked breakfast which is very unusual in our house. I made bacon and pancakes and fed the boys when they came out smelling it, and I smiled. I smiled all the time till they went to brush their teeth and Jerry was still sitting at the table, and then I asked him, “Where does Lorraine go to church?”

He blinked at me again, that stupid way.

“Where does she go to church, Jerry? The woman must have a church.” And she must have, too, I’d never met anybody here who didn’t, California or no California. He muttered something about her being a Methodist. I knew it, that he knew which church, I mean. He knew everything about this woman.

I told Jerry I was going to the early service and I would see him at eleven. Maybe he thought I was going to confess my sins early, though I don’t know what I had to pray about, I wasn’t traipsing over to North Carolina with somebody’s husband that wasn’t mine. Last week Reverend Stokes had preached about the woman at the well, who had all those husbands and Jesus talked to her anyway. Peace in one’s heart, forgiveness, these were always big themes with Reverend Stokes. But this morning, I didn’t want to hear about forgiving. Not somebody who wouldn’t even say sorry to you.

I drove off in the usual direction down the road, the only way that leads to any town—the other way’s nothing but mountains. But instead of turning in at the Baptist church I kept on going, towards the Methodists. Just like Jerry to take up with a bulldyke, a Californian and a Methodist for the love of God. Methodists baptize babies and, if you ask me, that’s even worse than using real wine for communion.

I thought about leaving Jerry but knew I couldn’t do that. Apart from all the practical considerations, what was the point of leaving him to Lorraine? I might as well wrap him up and tie him with a damn bow. And here I was, cussing like that and on a Sunday morning when he, my own husband whatever I thought of him at this minute, believed me to be praying in church. God help me.

When I got to the Methodist church I pulled in the parking lot real slow, like a woman who doesn’t know how long the hood of her car is. But I didn’t see Lorraine anywhere. I did see Yvonne Snodgrass, the teacher my boys had for fourth grade. I’d forgotten she was a Methodist but at least she looked dressed up for church like a normal woman, and she had her husband with her—her own husband, not like that woman at the well. Lorraine, I expected to see in sweatpants. I’d never seen her in real clothes.

I sat parked about halfway back and watched people pull in and walk into the church. I figured this way I was equally close wherever she came in. If anybody passed by the car I acted like I was looking for something in the seat beside me. My Bible maybe. Though I don’t know how many Methodists take their own Bibles to church.

I didn’t see Lorraine pull in but I did see her, finally, walking from the rear of the parking lot towards the front of the church. I knew it was her because she was wearing slacks. Even her daughter was wearing a dress, and patent leather shoes. She was a little old for them but maybe she had small feet. I kind of forgot that the girl would be there, but at least there was no one else nearby. They were running late, needless to say.

I backed the car up gently, figuring I could cut her off before she got near the door. I was driving the car, not the minivan which she would have recognized from Jerry driving the kids in it. I sat still a minute, waiting for the daughter to get ahead of her—you know kids never want to be seen walking too close to their parents, like maybe they landed from space. When the two of them were several paces apart and Lorraine only about thirty feet away, I took my foot off the brake and hit the gas. I knew my reflexes were quick from all the times I’ve swerved on those narrow country roads, and I avoid the ditch every time. So I was never in any danger of hitting her, in fact I had my hand on the emergency brake, just in case.

But Lorraine didn’t know that, and when the car stopped she was close enough to lean over and put her hand on the car. As if she was going to stop it with that volleyball-spiking hand. She looked through the windshield and I swear, I could see the sweat beading on her un-madeup face. Unadulterated terror, which is pretty funny when you think about unadulterated. I mean where does a word like that come from? That look—well, Jerry hadn’t made me feel that good for a long old time.

I threw the car in reverse and backed up. Then I did a perfect three-point turn and spun out of the parking lot, so fast I reckon Lorraine’s head was still swivelling. I was laughing like the devil himself and I didn’t stop till I got to the Baptists. There was plenty of time till second service, so I sat and composed myself awhile. Then I went in, joined my boys in the fourth pew, didn’t say a word to Jerry about why I somehow felt the need to go to church twice in the same morning.

And later, when I was stirring the gravy and the roast was in the oven, I went over and over it in my mind and enjoyed it every time. Part of me even wishes I hadn’t hit the brake, had just kept going and took Lorraine right on back to California.

© 2009 J. E. Knowles