He was sitting at the kitchen table at their place in Wabash City, gazing out the window at nothing, drinking a quart of beer and munching stale potato chips from the bag when Nola stepped through the door with her big blond hair and blue eye shadow. Jack liked the way she filled out her jeans and Harley-Davidson sweatshirt and he said, “Hey Babe,” with his mouth full. Then he noticed her tears.
“What’s the matter?”
“Well,” she said. “I’m pregnant.”
Jack’s stomach fluttered just like it used to back in junior high when they’d called his name over the school intercom—“Please report to the principal’s office.”
He said, “It’ll be alright.”
She shook her head and sobbed. “No, it won’t.”
“Oh now, come on.”
“They said there was no way I could carry the baby to full term.”
Nola dried her eyes and wiped her nose red with a wad of Kleenex as they sat on the couch with his arm hanging around her shoulder. Apparently there were various medical issues. She didn’t elaborate and he didn’t ask too many questions.
Jack assumed there would be more discussion later but there was none. And the next Thursday morning there he was driving her to the clinic in Fairview Heights. Secretly Jack wondered if the kid was even really his. He had suspected something going on between Nola and Randy Esel, a cokehead from Haruf, but he hated to accuse her of anything he didn’t know for sure. And now it seemed a little late for anything like that.
They parked down the street, then waded down the sidewalk through a herd of protesters. Jack said, “This is weird,” and wrapped his arm around Nola and pushed on through the crowd. There were a few little kids scattered around and he wondered why they weren’t in school.
A girl about twelve marched along with the mob, brandishing the sign, My Mom Was Pro-Life. Jack flipped her off and those close by gasped, although they did move out of his way. He felt bad about it later but decided it was best the girl learn at a young age that not everybody in the world had the luxury to agree with her mother.
He’d promised Nola he would not take off walking to the closest bar so he sat there in the claustrophobic waiting room, aimlessly flipping through old Time magazines as various patients came and went. Some chatted. Some argued. Others remained totally quiet. Some kept their eyes on the tile floor while a few seemed to stare at Jack, his long dark hair, his torn jeans and flannel shirt, his twenty-one-year-old face. Men and women of various ages and tax brackets. Mothers and daughters. Couples. Women with platonic friends to drive them home. Contrasting passengers all in the same boat.
He wondered how many of these people were lying about this to someone and contemplated Nola fabricating her medical problems simply because she did not want a baby. Or maybe she thought he hadn’t wanted to be a father. Or maybe she thought he wasn’t ready to be a father. Or maybe she was afraid Jack would eventually discover he wasn’t the father, then leave her to raise the child alone.
He wasn’t sure what to think or how to feel so he sat there quietly watching the other people come and go until finally Nola and a very large nurse appeared in the doorway.
The nurse said, “Are you her ride?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Want me to go get the truck?”
“No,” Nola said. “Let’s just get out of here.”
They slipped out the back where there was no one except a security guard smoking a cigarette.
Jack said, “You okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said.
They drove east down the highway, not speaking, merely listening to the radio and the wind whistling through the windows gapped opened a few inches though he tried desperately to think of something to say.
Finally he came up with, “Hungry?”
“Not really,” she said. “But I probably need to eat.”
“You wanna stop off somewhere and get a sandwich or something?”
“That’s fine.” She blinked and rubbed her eyes. “I’m just tired. They gave me a big blue downer.”
When she admitted ice cream sounded good he took the next exit and headed toward a Dairy Queen sign just up the road. A hawk perched on a highline pole frowned down upon them as two combines worked their way through the cornfields edging the city limits. Dust and red chaff hovered in the air above the farm machinery and long thick cobwebs drifted across the road. The town seemed isolated and somewhat artificial and Jack got the strange feeling he’d just driven onto a movie-set, inadvertently becoming a character in some low-budget horror film.
After the freckled red-haired girl with braces handed his food through the window, Jack pulled away, realizing he had to drive on into the northbound lane of traffic. He couldn’t just go back the way they’d come. So he ventured on into town, searching for a good spot to turn around and get back out onto the highway.
He noticed a young unkempt man selling paintings out in the grocery store parking lot. The gaudy black velvet type—unicorns and Elvis and islands of paradise—and suddenly Jack became transfixed. Intrigued by a not-even-close likeness of The King. He decided to turn around in this parking lot and cut left across a lane of traffic unaware of the other car until right before it slammed into them broadside.
Glass from Nola’s window splintered and glistened like rain in the sun and they spun around, sideways up onto the curb.
He shook it off and said, “You alright?”
“I think so,” she said. She had a cut on her arm, her peanut buster parfait plastered across the truck’s interior. Chili from his chilidog dripped from the cab lining and trailed down the red vinyl dash, mingling with the ice cream and fudge.
The guy selling paintings left his stand and jogged over to help them and a crowd formed, made up of inquisitive shoppers, housewives, senior citizens, and teenagers on the sidewalk.
The other driver, an elderly man wearing a knit cap and a yellow sports jacket, limped over to meet him halfway. Jack could see another old man in the passenger seat and asked, “Everybody alright?”
“I s’pose you don’t got no insurance,” the driver said.
“Don’t worry about it, Pops. This ain’t my first wreck.” Jack stepped over to the passenger window to check on the other man.
“Just bumped my head,” this old man said. “Pretty sure I’ll live.”
Later, after everyone but Jack was examined at the hospital, the police chief wrote Jack tickets for failure to yield to oncoming traffic and a couple other city code violations. Then he and Nola again headed east.
With a band-aid covering the cut on her arm, Nola dozed behind her sunglasses as they moved along Route 50. The bed of his truck sat three inches to the right of the cab, the frame bent so badly they seemed to be running down the road at a slight angle, and the wind gushed in where the passenger window once had been, scattering the tickets and her medical papers from the dash. They finally made it back to Wabash City an hour and a half later with their hair blown in knots.
He sighed and said, “Well, I gotta call that insurance guy.”
Without looking at him she said, “I think I need to be alone for a little while.”
“Well,” he said. “That’s okay. I might just drive out and see if Gibbons is at his shop or something. Have him look at the truck. The way that frame’s bent he’ll probably say she’s totaled out.”
“I’m gonna lay down for awhile.” Nola had to slam the truck door twice to get it to latch before she went on inside.
Jack contemplated hitting the bar but instead drove on past, on through town and on out into the country and down through the river bottoms. Out here the crops stood poor and withered and the roads rough with ruts. The breeze blowing in the broken window smelled like autumn as he parked on a rusty iron bridge tagged with teenage graffiti and stared down at the slow murky river water, wondering how much time he should kill before he went back to that house on the east edge of town.
When Jack finally returned it was dark and there were no lights on inside and outside under the porch light sat a little dog that he thought looked to be something of a terrier/blue healer mix. Jack sat down on the porch and rubbed the little dog’s head. “Well, I never was any good at naming anything, but if your name ain’t Jasper, it sure oughta be.”
Joey Dean Hale is a musician and writer in the St. Louis area. He received his MFA from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and has published stories in several magazines, including Fried Chicken and Coffee, Marco Polo Arts Mag, The Dying Goose, and Octave Magazine, which also has his song “High Noon” posted online. In September 2012 he was the featured writer in Penduline Press – Issue 6 “WTF.” Hale’s story “Access Closed” is forthcoming in the Bibliotekos Anthology Puzzles of Faith and Patterns of Doubt.