Fiction

An Excerpt from
OLYMPUS, TX

  • Photo courtesy of George Thomas.

Read Part 1 of Olympus, TX

Though March lacks the money to buy a car, he walks onto the lot of Olympus’s sole car dealership unworried. Because of certain connections and levels of indebtedness that March had never desired to learn, any member of Peter’s family could get a car off the lot whenever they needed it. Which, of course, wasn’t often—Olympus being the type of place where you drive a car until the fender falls off, then duct tape it back on, and drive it until the engine finally explodes in such a way that fixing it defies financial logic. March had gotten his first vehicle here and driven that truck for over fifteen years, until he traded it for the ill-fated black truck. March could see the top of the owner’s head, cowboy-hatted, coming towards him, possessing that instinct of all car salesman to sense a potential customer in their vicinity. As the man rounds the row of Suburbans, he stops short at the sight of March and his dogs, perfectly centered in the aisle.

Lionel looks distinctly unhappy to see him. It’s not just that an Eberhardt means a loss instead of a profit for him. Lionel’s also friends with Hap and gets a good deal on any bodywork he needs.

Thinking briefly of June, March decides to make this painless for the man, even though it isn’t necessary; Lionel is so beholden to Peter, March doesn’t have to be nice to get what he needs. “Lionel,” says March, nodding. He reaches his arms back to briefly touch each dog on middle of their spines. They obediently lie down on the paved lot.

Lionel touches the brim of his hat in greeting, allows a smile, and relaxes into his suit jacket. He is already sweating from the midday heat. “Been a long time. Your old truck finally give up the ghost?”

“Traded it in up north. Needed something with four-wheel drive for the snow. Think it wound up with an old lady who only drove to the store when the roads were nice.” March knows that Lionel has a weird attachment to all his cars, likes to see them around town, likes to see them well-used. When Lionel flinches, March fights twin feelings: satisfaction in saying one of the few things that would gall the man most, and a little guilt for not acting as he had intended. It could have been worse. March could’ve alluded to the truck’s failings in some way. But still, it had been enough to suck all ease from the conversation.

“Don’t know why anyone would choose to go up north, anyway,” says Lionel. March begins to protest, but he is cut off. “I know it’s the west, but it’s still north of here.”

March takes a breath and adjusts his tone. “Guess both me and the truck were out of our natural element. Anyway, I was hoping you could set me up with a new mode of transportation.”

“Don’t know what we’d have that’d suit you,” Lionel says as he surveys the rows and rows of shiny vehicles.

March takes a second breath, preparing for the effort the coming niceness would take. “You know I don’t want to take advantage of your kindness. I’ve got a perfectly good truck out at my parents’ place, less than two years old. It’s got some . . . cosmetic issues, but the engine’s fine. I’m sure you could get it towed to Hap’s and he’d fix it up good as new, free of charge.”

“Would he, now?” Lionel looks understandably skeptical.

“He would, no questions asked. He’s the one who caused the cosmetic damage. You might ask him to paint it, too. Fucker’s black and hot.”

This seems to satisfy Lionel. “I think I can help you out. Guess you need something to carry the dogs in? I’ve got an almost new Suburban. Take out the back seat and they’d have plenty of room. I have a new truck I could part with, too, but it’s white. Doesn’t seem like white is really your style.”

March thought for a moment. They dogs were big fans of the truck and the breeze. Besides, if he was changing his behavior a bit, maybe a color change, even if too brutally obvious, would be nice. “The truck would be perfect. Do me a favor? Wait until this evening to get the car picked up. I’ll need to swing back by this afternoon to get some stuff out of it.” The men shake hands. Though Lionel looks like he would have rather parted with the Suburban, he gives up the keys willingly.

Without the ramp, March has to lift the dogs’ back ends up to the truck for them. It isn’t too much for him, despite their two hundred-pound bulks, but he knows the dogs think it undignified. They avoid making eye contact with him in protest, and now March is covered in dog hair, though he can’t bring himself to ask Lionel for a lint brush.

Once in the truck, having pulled out of the lot and onto the street, March finds himself driving to Hap’s shop. He can’t articulate to himself why, either. He parks half a block away, wanting to approach unseen, and walks up—empty lots on one side, a cow pasture on the other, an apartment complex on the far side of the pasture. He’s consciously trying not to skulk. Once he spots the unmistakable, slightly hunched form of his brother, welding mask on and sparks flying, he turns and walks away.

Back inside the truck, March inhales the new car smell and tells himself that what he is planning is not what he had been thinking all along. Before Hap’s, before Lionel, before he even told Artie to take him to town. It is what he had started thinking as soon as he saw Hap, is probably the one thing responsible for his delay of rage this morning. He wants to see Vera, wants it so much that it blots out any other want—food, drink, his mother’s approval. Why he didn’t want to as soon as he got back to town, he can’t say. The fact that Hap triggered it might be troubling to a man who wants to dwell on his motivations, but March is not that man. It’s hard enough to try and do the right thing, or what he envisions is June’s “right thing,” without getting into all the complications of motivations. But then, how could he say he had been trying to do the right thing when he’s now about to do the one thing she has asked him not to do?

But she wouldn’t have to know. He could revert back to the system that had served he and Vera well for many undetected months. Her and Hap’s place didn’t have close neighbors. He can pull up behind the house where the car is hidden from the road. The dogs know the routine, would remember it surely, and would simply camp out under the big oak tree by the house’s back porch. And besides, he tells himself, he isn’t going to have sex with her. Perhaps he just wants to make sure she is OK. Perhaps he wants to apologize for taking off and leaving her in a world of crap. Not that she would have gone with him if he had invited her.

Vera is beautiful. This is the biggest understatement March can conceive of. She is so beautiful that it dwarfs every other trait she has, leaving them insignificant. It not that she isn’t smart or funny or interesting. She is. But her beauty is so great there probably isn’t a man alive that could elaborate on her personality. It’s impossible to get that far. March thinks even Hap can’t get past it.

If the men had bothered to ask women, which they didn’t, they could have learned more about Vera’s personality. Even the ones who count her a friend, like Artie, would not heap praise upon her. But they understand that Vera’s vanity, and her petulance if she doesn’t get her own way, are not her fault. If they had been treated identically, it was likely they would be near as bad.

He drives out of town, then turns to reach Vera’s house indirectly, using barely paved back roads. He keeps telling himself that if no one finds out, there will be no harm in it. For a moment he marvels at how easy infidelity must be in cities, where you can pass one hundred people and know none of them. How had he not exploited this perk while in Ruidoso, a town overrun by tourists? Why had he only needed anonymity in a town where it did not, could not, exist? In Olympus, if one person saw you doing something even remotely out of the ordinary, the whole town would know about it in eight hours. A flat tire, even a trip to the post office, anything seen by at least one person had a high probability of being pieced into some story of a person’s day, told to spouses, friends, the bartender.

March takes the dirt road that runs parallel to Vera’s house, and, at the appropriate time, turns and heads through the field of scrabble, through her twin rows of lime trees, up to the back porch. If he leaves tracks, they will be washed away by the thunderstorm that March can feel coming. The air hasn’t turned yet and there is no smell of rain, but off to the west lies a pile of grayness, headed this way. He just has to make sure he leaves before it has rained too long, and while it is still raining. Good to have a reason to leave, an added impetus to keep him out of trouble.

He gets out of the truck, lets the dogs free. They immediately go to marking territories before settling into the shade. Vera comes onto the back porch, has heard the truck. She looks unsurprised but not particularly happy. Arlo had once explained to March that a large part of Vera’s appeal lay in symmetry. That if you cut her face in half and simply mirrored one side, she’d look exactly the same, whereas most people would look quite different. Why exactly that’s powerful is beyond March, but he does feel its power. Vera’s hair is wet, parted down the center. It hangs in clumps of curls, reaching down to well past her waist. She has on a robe, even though they aren’t too far from lunchtime, and no shoes.

“I wanted to see how you were.” March has regained his voice but stays still under the oak tree.

“And how do I appear?” she asks, without inflection.

“Dangerous. I’ve already forgotten all my good intentions.”

“If you’re taking to good intentions, that’s sure a disappointment. People should stay in character.” She turns and walks back inside the house. March follows; he can’t help it. He follows her back, follows her into the kitchen. It feels as if he has never left town, like he has spent the past two years just walking behind her, waiting for her to turn around. He won’t let himself look at the pieces of Hap scattered around the kitchen—the metal kitchen table, the hand-tiled mosaics between the counter tops and cabinets. Vera opens the fridge door, leans down and obstructs his view of her.

“Guess you thought I’d be by sooner—since I’ve been back in town awhile.”

“Have you?” she says. March can hear her moving bottles around, an irritable clinking. “I never thought you’d leave in the first place, so why bother trying to guess when you might appear in the future?”

“How are things? Between you and Hap? I saw him this morning and he still seemed pretty angry.”

She stands up and looks at him over the top of the fridge door. “What did he do?”

“Just a little damage to my car. But still, surprising for Hap. I wouldn’t have left, maybe, if I’d known—” March doesn’t finish the sentence because it doesn’t feel true. He would have left no matter how angry Hap might have been at Vera.

“He started off pissed. Of course. But his embarrassing me like that, in front of his family, I think he thought it was enough. Then once I threatened to leave, to follow you to wherever you had gone, he spent the next six months trying to make it up to me.” She pauses, just long enough for March to wonder what it would have been like if she had followed him. Then she adds, “Idle threats work well on Hap.”

A curious wailing comes from the back of the house, and March shifts around in alarm. Vera brushes past him and comes back with a large baby boy, dark curling hair and his mother’s lips. She pauses in the doorway to the kitchen, then turns her back again, and he again follows her, this time to the living room. “Sit,” she tells March, so he sits on the couch beside her. She shifts her robe open and the boy, already quiet, latches on.

March is hit with a powerful feeling, one that has nothing to do with the child, and it shames him. He ignores it and leans in to look at the boy’s face. “Is he?” But he couldn’t be. Someone would have told him. Artie, at least.

“Yours? Takes after you, doesn’t he? Although, he also could just be taking after his grandfather. Hap is convinced he’s the father, and I think that’s most important. He says the baby has his ears, which is true. But they’re June’s ears, too. Convenient, sleeping with brothers. Or inconvenient, depending on which side you take.” She cups her hand around the boy’s head, smiling a new smile at him, one March has never seen before.

“But who do you think?”

“I don’t care to. If grows up impetuous and irritable, then he can be taking after me as well as you. And if he turns out nice, then it could just be all the time spent with Hap. Covered on all bases. I like mystery. I’ve got no problem with negative capability.” She laughs, but March is too distracted by the nearness of Vera to concentrate on their conversation.

March gently touches the boy’s head. He is about to ask the baby’s name, but instead he pulls back the other side of Vera’s robe.

Vera sighs and leans into his waiting hand. “Where are your good intentions now?”

“I can’t keep them around you.”

“Don’t flatter me, March. You can’t keep them around anyone.” She says, “I guess we deserve each other,” but she doesn’t look happy as she says it.

March leans over and kisses her, but when he feels the baby squirming against his ribs, he pulls back and remembers himself. Vera gets up and pulls a crocheted blanket off what March had thought was a table, revealing a playpen. She sets the baby down and turns around to face March.

“I’m going to go,” he says. He even stands. Outside, the clouds have rolled in and the room is getting darker and darker. Vera goes over to a window and opens it, inhaling. The smell of the coming rain soaks into the room. She walks back over.

“Are you?” Her long leg emerges from out of her robe, and she uses her foot to shove magazines off the coffee table in front of March.

“It’s only going to cause more trouble. We don’t need more trouble.” But March doesn’t move, stays standing across from her.

“I’m seeing to my birth control with renewed vigor,” she says, putting one foot up on the table, a flash of thigh visible before she steps up on the table. She is now taller than him. Outside, there is a flash of lightning. March counts in his head—one, two, three. Vera unties the sash on her robe—four, five, six. She let the robe fall open, exposing a three-inch-wide strip of herself from neck to feet—seven, eight, nine. The robe drops to the table and the house rattles from the thunder that comes right after.

“Big storm, big thunder,” says Vera. March guesses they have a good ten minutes before the rain even starts to fall. He circles his arm around her waist, lifts her up and back with him to the couch.