A Way of Life

Sharon was afraid to get out of the car. Where the hell was he? She scanned the field and the forest that lay beyond. She was also afraid to stay in the car. Over thirty minutes had passed. The sun moved toward the horizon. It didn’t take half an hour to pee.

She finally climbed out and slammed the door, brambles catching at the lavender of her bridesmaid’s dress as she trudged toward the woods. Sharon already knew there would be another field beyond the trees. That would be the lay of the land. She’d grown up in this part of the country. It was her home. And his.

Sharon sighted Dale crouched in the field on the other side, the tall grasses up to his head. The white of the dress shirt he’d worn to her sister’s wedding that afternoon made him clearly discernible, a sitting duck.

She walked up softly. Like an Indian or a pioneer, Sharon grimaced to herself, so silent and practiced in the ways of the forest. She sat down cross-legged behind her husband to wait.

An accident. Dale had sworn it had been an accident. His turn to walk point, but he and his buddy had been drinking, out carousing the night before. Norm, that was his buddy from New York City, and Dale had never known anyone from New York City, had never known anyone from the East Coast. Had never been to the East Coast himself. Had never been anywhere really—the Yellowstone National Park once on a family vacation—until Vietnam. Norm, on the other hand, had been lots of places, though Illinois certainly had not been one of them.

Sharon studied the back of her husband’s head. She breathed and listened for his breath. She tried to follow his line of vision.

The story of Norm was only one in a string of drunken stories. Sharon knew she was probably a terrible person because she couldn’t always keep Norm straight from Bill or Bill straight from Jake or from someone else. But it had been Dale’s turn to walk point that night when Norm had tired of carrying the radio, and the two had actually switched duties. It had been Norm and not Dale then who had fallen into the trap. Norm who had not come back.

Sharon tried to reposition herself so that she could stretch out one leg. Dale had drunk a lot at the wedding this afternoon too, and she was afraid.

One year ago this month had been the first time she’d made more money than Dale. She’d come home the day after pay day to find her suitcases out on the front step, but then Dale didn’t make any sense because after she’d gone in anyway to hang up her coat before facing the onslaught, he’d closed the door of the bedroom and dragged the dining room table across it to lock her inside. Her husband had sat drinking in his orange beanbag chair while watching an old movie, W.C. Fields and Mae West in “My Little Chickadee.”

Two birds broke from the cover of the grass and Dale moved. So did Sharon. Deer. She was slightly nearsighted, but thought she saw a deer at the edge of the trees, its coloring such perfect camouflage.

She had finally had to take this tiny file from her key chain to saw through the window screen, a painfully slow process, and once she’d gotten the hole big enough to tear further for an escape, Sharon had suddenly wondered if she should. Escape to where? She was home. Midnight approaching and work the next day, she’d kneeled on the floor to speak though the crack underneath the door. Begged until Dale had finally opened the door himself.

Her husband was still again today, crouched. He was watching what she thought was a deer.

Before he’d gone into the service, she and Dale had been newlyweds, just out of high school and the two of them would sit and talk in their front porch swing. About their families, the day’s work. She’d assumed they’d have children after he got back. Funny that they’d talked about his getting back from Vietnam even before he’d gone.

How can you tell a sister? A breeze blew across Sharon’s face now, and she saw that it caught Dale’s shirt sleeve, the thin cloth bent in softly against his too lean arms.

“I can’t come to the engagement party, Janet. Can you believe it, I can’t even sit up right now! Yes, I have pills for the pain. A nasty twist, but the doctor says my back will clear up in a few days.”

Sharon had told her sister, Janet, she’d fallen down the stairs.

Sharon now watched the sun sink further. The deer apparently had melted back into the trees. She contemplated the places along Dale’s spine where her hand would fit if she touched him, if she stroked her husband’s back.

After he’d thrown her down the steps, he’d gathered her up in his arms and carried her out to the car, and then when they’d gotten there, from the car all the way into the hospital. He had cried, sobbed uncontrollably the whole way, there and back.

Her sister had gotten married then this afternoon. She and Dale had been married four years now, and how much longer to go?

Dale rose up full length, and Sharon fought the desire to rise too. Her husband stood, but still looked off toward the horizon where the sun threatened to set now, and Sharon could well picture this man lifting a rifle to his shoulder, sighting, firing. Perhaps what he saw was the retarded boy even now. The slow little boy he’d befriended and the one then used by the other side, a poor little boy who ran toward the company carrying grenades. Presents for his friends, and had it been Dale then who’d aimed?”

Sharon had been careful though. She was convinced she could probably keep the job she’d taken, and she could still be as good a wife as before. She’d never stayed late for work or never gone out with her girlfriends. She’d made sure to call if she had to run an errand on the way home. She fixed dinner and then kept it warm if he’d decided to go out. You never knew when the front door opened, “Honey, I’m home.” Turn slowly and decide; was it Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? Who was home?

Now, Sharon sat still while Dale turned. The Midwestern sun hovered. She’d already had the experience of waking in the middle of the night to find her husband looming over her in the dark, his hands around her neck.

“Dale?” Sharon called her husband by name. So hard, she thought. Peace was so very, very hard.

Each watched the other.