We move on to Chapter 3, in which Ike’s prayers are answered… sort of. I’ve been noticing how short these chapters are, unsure if that’s a good thing or not. I can say that really long chapters irk me when I’m reading, but that could just be an attention issue on my part.
It’s been a lot of fun revisiting this story and these characters. I hope you are enjoying it, too. Thanks for reading!
“Young people everywhere have been allowed to choose between love and a garbage disposal unit. Everywhere they have chosen the garbage disposal unit.”- Guy Debord
One month (and three days) after moving into Casa Hector, Ike made his routine and almost unconscious check of his cell phone, only to stop this time, arrested by a text from Francie. The fact that he probably wasn’t breathing was a matter beyond his ability to care. Oddly, he hesitated. At the very hint of her, past, present and future merged in one wrenching, implosive ache. When it came to Francie, unfulfilled yearning had always been part of the package, a glitzy pink package sprinkled with glitter that shimmered like the overheated covers of Cosmo magazine.
Francie read Cosmo, of course—her favorite!—bought in the grocery checkout every month along with each of the tabloids—such was her sense of irony or camp or kitsch whatever it was she called it. She was always on about the horoscopes; she was an Aires, which was compatible with Libra, his sign, or so she said. Whatever. She used to read those things out of the magazines, late night in the studio, when coffee no longer worked and his head was only up because his hand held it there. Never once had it applied to the day he’d had, though she was always astonished by the so-called truth of hers.
Francie enjoyed reading the “How to Please Your Man” articles out loud, too, which usually succeeded in lifting his head better than the coffee did, though hearing that stuff made him so want to lay her out on the ratty studio couch that he got no work done. He used to fantasize about that a lot, though he never did anything about it; usually because there were others there in the studio working against deadlines or dead sleep on the couch themselves. There had been one, just one night, around three in the morning, right before Thanksgiving break Fourth Year, when he had his chance. Every minute that ticked by set his nerves on fire, affected his breathing, so obsessed he’d become with these Cosmo articles and that couch, which were really only the match that set off the firework of his desire for Francie’s body. The indecision, and a feeling disgustingly like timidity, pulled him back from every resolve to grab her fast and do it, and he hated himself for his weakness. In the end, he stared at his model and didn’t know what was wrong with it, giving up in disgust around five, forcing him to take it home over break to finish it. If that wasn’t depressing enough, Ang broke it while rough-housing with him on Thanksgiving Day, smashing most of the front elevation of the miniature house, but it was only then, when it was in matchsticks, that he was able to see what needed to be there, a vision blocked by the materiality of what had been before his eyes. He was so enormously relieved to have an answer that he picked his sister up and tossed her onto the twin bed in the corner, though it wasn’t until he bounced down beside her, laughing, that she was sure he wasn’t angry.
He lit up the phone and read the message.
Ike—Home this weekend. Can you come?—Francie
She sent it at some insane hour in the morning. It took all of 30 seconds for him to respond in the affirmative, adding “call me” at the end.
But she didn’t.
Instead, he got one more message, hours later. It was so short, it made him angry.
Sat at 10. F
Sure, she was texting, but why wouldn’t she call?
If he was willing to be honest, she was always like that. Take the Cosmo articles as an example: she read them to him in studio where he could do nothing about them, but try going for something she’d mentioned there and it was a flat, offended refusal. She accepted sex in the missionary position, though it felt at times like she didn’t even want to do that. Oral sex was a no. No no no no. Prearranged, in bed, clean sheets, after they’d both showered, night only, lights off. Maddening. How could she love him if she didn’t like to fuck? And what was with the Cosmo articles? They’d fought about it, about sex, over and over, the same fight, till he gave up trying to understand it. Her accusation: that he had mental problems, was a disgusting oversexed pervert, which she didn’t exactly say, though it was how he ended up feeling. His accusation—and it stung him now to know he’d actually said it to her—was that she was a frigid bitch who didn’t really love him. In the end, he’d accepted that her needs were, well, different, and that what he wanted overwhelmed her, scared her maybe, so he did his best to reign his desires in to her level. Because he really did love her.
All that rehearsed caution had been bad enough, but after all these weeks…
So on Saturday, before even a single bird began its yelling, Ike slipped behind the wheel of his pickup, holding his breath. Under a high, bright moon, he set off for Coudersport, a small town at the edge of state forests in northern Pennsylvania, famous for being the home of Eliot Ness, which meant that nothing had happened there worth remembering in the last 70 years. He’d driven the route so often he didn’t need a map; all he needed was a large coffee to go, which CoGo was willing to supply for a buck when he filled his gas tank.
It was relaxing to wind along deserted, country roads, headed for Punxatawny, his nose awake to fresh-cut hay and manured fields, pockets of fog clinging to the low places. Lulled by the swish of his tires on the road and the air rushing over his left elbow, his mind raced back to his favorite mental movie, My Life with Francie, rekindling the excitement he always felt around her. The last scenes, so vivid, mingled with the wooded lane beyond his windshield: the elation of graduation; the frantic partying; the haunting soundtrack that whispered that the good times with good friends were gone; the paralyzing fear of parting from Francie in those last thirty seconds as she hopped into her yellow convertible, dry-eyed and waving as Ike felt the urge to weep. During those last chaotic days, she had been constantly beside him, his arm around her waist, hers hooked over his shoulder, making herself the perfect picture of his life’s companion to everyone who saw them, captured for all eternity in various albums in the ether of Facebook. Seeing them now made him queasy, though he hadn’t minded at the time, other than the inescapable dread that this was his moment, the time to propose. But why rush? There was still plenty of time. He allowed the days to drift by, never taking that final step. Now, her long silence punished him.
Angling north on 119, Ike tracked closer to the green-carpeted mountains, the day fading vaguely up from night under heavy cloud cover. He yawned, reaching for his cold coffee, as a rabbit hopped cautiously into the road ahead of him, clearing the lane moments before his truck passed. Glancing in his mirror, he watched it get safely across. Perhaps it was heading where the road sign pointed:
Yeah, Bun, me too.
Paradise was definitely where he was headed: to Francie, to their dreams of a life together. Even during his interview at FKRS in Pittsburgh, he’d asked about the Newark office, as it was in his mind to transfer there as soon as there was an opening—Francie had her heart set on moving to New York. They’d dreamed together on the quad about the house they’d buy in Newark—a city on its way back, under the leadership of an admirable young mayor—about the night life of New York, and how successful they’d be. He’d always felt vaguely anxious after one of those conversations, though he was never quite able to say why. Ike had plenty of confidence as an architect and he was sure he and Francie would end up together, even if it might be a few months till he got transferred. Besides, she hadn’t landed a job yet. Their lives were still in flux.
At DuBois, Ike bought fuel for himself and his truck, then stretched his legs a bit. He had his own reason for a transfer to Newark, and that reason was Amanda Franklin, the FKRS partner who presided there. She had done all kinds of press-worthy jobs in the City—penthouse renovations, a pocket museum, high-end retail on Fifth Avenue, high-rise luxury condos—he’d photographed three of them last year on a weekend trip—an elegant, exuberant modernism that had won a long list of accolades and, it was rumored, had placed her on the short list for the Pritzker last year. Richard Rogers won instead. This year it was Jean Nouvel, one of Ike’s favorites. That was the stratosphere in which Amanda Franklin flew. He was desperate for a chance to work for someone like that.
The further north he drove, the darker it got. In the humid air, all the colors shifted toward blue; the shadowed black ribbon of road, the melancholy greens of corn fields, scrub and trees, the pressing, Atlantic gray of the fast-flying streamers of cloud. He memorized the details to describe to Francie, earth and air blended and liquid like a watercolor, though her paintings tended toward vivid, sun-bright tones. He’d long since given up serious drawing; she was the one with the exquisite hand, and though he had drawn a lot as a kid, once he got close with Francie, he had to have her respect, even admiration if that was possible, and the truth was she had more skill than he did. He didn’t grudge her talent, far from it, he bragged about her to anyone who would listen, but knowing he was not her match, he refused to compete. Quitter. That’s what his dad was always saying, and maybe he was right.
Bouncing along the rough road through Elk Country, the Allegheny a broad silver creek flashing off to the right, intimidating fir trees leaning out over the road, sporadic wind gusts rattled the chassis. A glance at the clock and at his trip meter told Ike he had to pick up speed. The pit stop had put him about half an hour behind schedule. After all this time, the last thing he wanted was to be late. He edged up to 60, grateful in the turns that there was no one on this stretch of road, all his senses alive for the sudden appearance of an elk as he careened through the wooded hills.
He never made it to Coudersport.
As he cleared the elk reserve, just before Sinnemahoning, in silence and without warning, the hulk of a pine tree crashed across the road, right in the path of his truck.
There was no time to react before he was on it, in it, every element of his immediate reality bursting apart. Ike was moving so fast, he crashed right through the tree and kept on going, wood flying across the road, in through the open window of the truck, shattering the windshield. One hard pump and then another, clear to the floor, told him he had no brakes. With steam boiling up from the crushed hood, he managed to skid his ailing vehicle into a guard rail, crunching in a scream of buckled metal as the truck ground to a stop. Lucky, too, or he’d have plummeted over a 70 foot drop. No more Duckworth.
He was minutes calming down. When he got out to assess the damage, his nose filled with blood and the sharp fumes of gasoline, the truck’s front end looked like a dog that got too close to a porcupine, pine limbs sticking out every which way; one had even driven itself through the engine block. He reached for his cell, only noticing then that his left arm, from elbow to wrist, was a lacerated mash. It didn’t matter; there was zero reception anyway.
A pickup with mismatched hood and doors swished up the hill in the other direction, ignoring Ike’s waving and yelling. That guy hit the tree, too. Ike spun fast, an arm tucked instinctively over his head, as the air turned into a sawmill, littering the roadway with more splinters. The rusty pickup merely added a few more scuffs to its battered finish.
The guy did pull over and give Ike a lift back to his place, a trailer set back off a dirt service road, where there was a phone. Ike called Francie to explain and wished he hadn’t.
Then he called Fred.
Next chapter here.