Rita Welty Bourke: The Leaning Volvo

The distinctive sound of the Volvo broadcasts news of its arrival. Jane Halsey Christianson looks up from her cutting board perched over the kitchen sink.
She watches the car roll down the gravel driveway, noticing that it lists slightly to one side. It dips a fender into the muddy waters of a chuckhole, drags its frame and other body parts up the other side, and proceeds into the parking area behind the house. Dripping dirty water, the car dies with a grateful sigh.
But not quite. Like some old reliquary unwilling to give up its saintly treasure, the Volvo strains and groans and then rights itself as Lieutenant Colonel Halen Christianson removes himself from the driver’s seat.
Jane’s husband, self-proclaimed genetic savior of the Halsey family, has come home: home from his weekly trip to the Payless Grocery Store; home to little Jane, twenty-five years a wife, twenty-four a mother, forty-two on the planet.
Jane stuffs carrot scrapings into the garbage disposal and turn on the switch. While the disposal grinds its meal, she washes and dries her hands.
Halen Christianson stands for a moment by the side of the Volvo, surveying tattered seat covers, worn floor mats, rubbish-strewn center cavity. Then he slams the door. “Janie Sue,” he calls, looking toward the trim ranch house. “Come out here and give me a hand.”
She slips on old mules, tightens the tie on her terry wrap, and heads out to where he waits. The coiled spring pulls the screen door shut behind her as she descends the wooden stairs. She winces when her feet hit the sharp stones in the driveway and wishes she’d taken time to grab her work shoes.
Hale leans against the Volvo, tapping out a drum beat on its roof. All his life, some sixty- odd years, he has looked much as he looks now: heavy-jowled; white-haired; oily- skinned. Even in childhood. Had Jane been around when he was born, she believes she could have picked him out of a crowded hospital nursery.
Ten years ago he began to shrink. Like a post-menopausal woman, he started losing height, a half-inch, then an inch at a time. The disks running down his back ground against one another, disintegrating, powdering into splinters that tortured him day and night, and finally dissolving, leaving bone to rub against bone. Hale has lost three full inches so far, though he still claims his teenage height of six-foot four.
Now he lumbers around to the back of the car, raises the trunk lid, and picks up two bags of groceries.
“Jane Halsey,” he calls again. “Come on out and help with the groceries.”
Jane is right behind him. “I’m here,” she says. She picks up the remaining sacks and follows Hale into the house.

* * *

“You’re killing me, Janie Sue,” Hale used to tell her. “You’re killing me with your cooking.”
“You don’t have to eat it, if you don’t want it,” she would reply. “No one’s forcing you.”
Jane empties the Payless grocery sacks onto the kitchen counter. She shoves frozen rib eyes, whole chickens, and hash browns into the freezer. She stacks canned soup and vegetables on the pantry shelf. She picks up a box of Raisin Bran and stops, thinking of her mother who lies in Green Acres Nursing Home, her bed rails covered with lambswool. Above her mother’s head is a wedding picture: Teresa Marie Halsey as a bride, white dress pulled up discreetly so she could see the stairs she was about to descend; flash of white thigh from a gust of wind that blew across the porch and billowed up under her dress. This instant recorded by the photographer would become the family’s favorite wedding photo. Six years ago Jane had Quik-tacked the picture to the wall above her mother’s bed. She’d wanted to remind the nursing staff that her mother had once been young and beautiful. Now Jane slides the Raisin Bran into the cupboard and closes the door.
She picks up a container of Soft Scrub. “Jesus Christ, Jane, can’t you at least clean the bathtub once in a while?” She remembers that snippet of conversation from years ago: eight-year-old Nina running into the kitchen, crying; “Mommie, what’s pubic hair? Daddy says there’s pubic hair in the bathtub.”
Jane brushed her fingertips across her daughter’s forehead. “Nothing, honey. You aren’t responsible. There are lots of grownups in this house.”
At the time, there were. Hale and Hank and Brent all lived at home. And Jane. Now there are only Hale and Jane.
Jane had borne two sons and was carrying her third child before she found a way around her pastor’s prohibitions and her husband’s demands. Her last baby, the only girl, she thought she didn’t want, until a few months after Nina was born. Then Jane began to understand that she finally had an ally in the house.
Jane’s oldest boy, Hank, has gone to a pauper’s grave. The boy was twenty-one when he died. Hale declined to pay for the funeral. The government would do it, he said. He knew about the government; he’d served twenty years.
Jane had wanted her son buried in one of the plots reserved for the two of them. Somewhere she’d heard of the European practice of putting husband and wife in the same plot; the first one to die went deep, the second one on top. But Hale refused, and Jane didn’t argue. She understood that her son, in death, needed to be as far away from his father as he had been in life.
Brent is gone, too. First to Seattle, then to parts unknown. Maybe Alaska. Maybe Canada. Maybe the South Seas.
Nina lives ten miles away, but it might as well be ten thousand. She never calls. They rarely talk.
It’s down to Jane and Hale.

* * *

“You’re killing me, Janie Sue,” Hale repeats later that evening. He slides a chunk of macadamia jam cake onto his plate. The cake sops up the grease from the fried chicken, milk from the burnt-flour gravy.
And you killed my son, she says silently. Eat up, Hale. Have another helping.
It is a thought she has only recently allowed into her mind, though she has felt it, deep inside, for a long time.
The awful picture of Hank, dead beneath the living room window, flashes across her brain, and Jane looks out into the darkness of the backyard. If the picture comes in the daytime, she often looks directly into the sun, knowing she is ruining her eyesight, but knowing, too, that it will burn the image out of her mind. The trade-off is worth it, Jane believes.
When dinner is done, Hale sits in the living room and reads the newspaper. Since their son died, Jane never goes into there if she can help it. She can’t walk into the room without looking out the side window. From the window she can see the lawn, though she can’t actually see the spot where she found her son. It is beneath the window, close to the house.
She’d come home from work early one night, and something made her walk around to the side of the house. She never knew what: an uneasy feeling; a broken branch on the tulip tree; a bit of debris on the fresh-mown grass. Maybe it was simply the moon, poised above the ridge of the distant mountains, inviting her to come close, to stay for a while. What she found was what was left of her first-born child. Hank Christianson.
Next spring she will work the flowerbed, if she can stand to do it. Pull out the weeds, sweep away the spider webs on the outside of the window. Plant some hollyhocks, maybe. Something that will grow tall. Cover the whole side of the house. Maybe.

* * *

Dinner over, dishes washed and set to drain in the sink, Jane dresses for her job as night clerk at the Newbern Holiday Inn. In her vanity mirror she catches a glimpse of the girl she used to be, before she married Hale. She moves close, wanting to connect with the lost nineteen-year-old, but the image fades. She applies heavy makeup, and tries out the smile she’ll use until quitting time.
She hears Hale call out to her as she closes the back door. “Jane Halsey,” he calls. She tiptoes across the darkened porch and down the stairs, wondering why it is always Jane Halsey, and never Jane Christianson.
Abandoning stealth when she reaches the landing, Jane hurries to the car, gets in, revs the engine. She zooms out the driveway, laying down a trail of blue smoke.
There’s nothing wrong with the engine, Hale says. The automatic choke causes her to burn a little oil when she first starts up.
Some hard, underneath part of the Volvo scrapes against the edge of the chuckhole, and Jane feels a sense of satisfaction. Take that, you piece of junk.
The Volvo drives differently when Jane is at the wheel. On the narrow road heading toward Dyersburg, Tennessee, she pulls the seat forward and leans back. She has to spread her legs wide and stretch in order to depress the accelerator. The car was built for long-legged Swedes, she once told Hale.
Volvos are the finest vehicles on the road, he responded.
This bit of information has become, over the years, his standard response to any comment she makes about the car. One day she plans a comeback. She can feel the words rising up inside her.
Maybe for you, Hale, but not for me. Or: So? Does that mean I have to drive one? Does it matter that I hate this car? That Hank drove it the day he died? Suppose the best doesn’t suit me? Suppose I want less than the best?
She glances at the dashboard clock, then presses hard on the accelerator. She’s doing fifty-five when she heads into the “S” curve at Harpers Mill. She hugs the inside, wrong side of the road on the left hand turn, then slides into the gravel on the right. She flies over the bridge at Monarch Gap, feeling a sweet pain in her stomach when the car momentarily leaves the road. At Fulton Run she tests her driving skill; the bridge walls are waist high, Hale’s waist, that is, and she stays close to the wall, expecting to feel the kiss of concrete in the steering wheel. On the way home she’ll try to shave the whiskers off the other side of the Volvo.
The car doesn’t list, like when Hale drives it. Still, Jane dreams of owning some sleek, sporty thing. A Thunderbird, maybe. Or a Celica. She pulls into the parking lot at the Holiday Inn, unbuckles the ill-fitting seat belt, and sits for a moment. She listens to the creaking, settling sounds of the car and wishes she had something else to drive. The Volvo seems like an old Edsel to her, though they quit making them years ago. Like the Edsel it is old and heavy, and it has that awful front grill. Volvo. Vulva. Too close.
They make the damn things to go two hundred, two hundred and fifty thousand miles. There are Volvos on the road with half a million miles on their odometers. Hale says he intends to drive it until it falls apart; Jane believes he aims to set a new mileage record.
She looks down the row of cars parked in front of the side-by-side rooms. A yellow Miata catches her eye. The color reminds her of the goldfinch who visits her bird feeder in the summertime. But even with its black convertible cap laid back and its passenger compartment open to the sky, it is too small for Hale. He wouldn’t fit.
But the yellow bird speaks to her.

* * *

Behind the counter at the Holiday Inn, Jane works mechanically, checking guests in, giving out keys and directions, suggesting restaurants and auto routes, late night drug stores and liquor marts. At eight o’clock her co-worker, Mr. Tatum, plugs his time card into the machine, sets it back in its pocket and leaves. By nine o’clock the hotel is full, Jane flips the switch that illuminates the “No Vacancy” sign.
There is the crackle of ice dropping into the bin of the ice machine, the hum of air conditioners, the pulsing music of some TV drama. Thursday night: E.R. Sirens wail, tires squeal, nurses and doctors yell for stretchers, medical equipment, personnel. When the phone rings Jane picks it up without looking away from the television screen.
She hears nothing on the other end, and she drops the phone back into its cradle. She wonders if it was Hale, checking up on her. When the phone rings again, Jane picks it up and holds it to her ear, but does not speak.
“Is Peachy there?” The voice is far-away, muffled.
“Peachy?” Jane isn’t sure she heard correctly. “Brent? Is that you?” She hears the click of the disconnect.
Peachy. Brent’s childhood name for his grandmother, Teresa Halsey. Yes, Peachy is alive, Jane could have said. But was it really Brent who was calling? And is Teresa Halsey really alive? The point is arguable.
Jane’s mother lies in her woolen bed. She wears diapers. She eats through a hole in her stomach, food hypodermically injected. The point is certainly arguable.
In the years since Brent disappeared, there have been several calls Jane suspects were from him. This is the first time he has ever spoken. She wonders if he’s in trouble. She feels a pull from this lost son.
She thinks of the Christmas and birthday presents stored on the closet shelf in Brent’s old room – the room he once shared with Hank. He was gone for three years before she stopped buying gifts for him.
Mother’s Days are the worst. On that second Sunday in May Jane stays close to the phone, waiting for it to ring, praying that Brent will call.
He never has. Her sons are lost to her. And even Nina is gone.

* * *

Jane takes a detour on her way home from her job. She drives the Volvo into town, past Haverty’s Furniture Store, the Exxon, the Seven-Eleven. She stops in front of Harper’s Used Cars. It is nearly 2 A.M.
Floodlights illuminate the car lot. The summer crop of night-flying insects disperses the light, and the air is heavy with mist. Jane looks at the parked cars, their front ends aimed at the street, their prices chalked on their windshields. She’d like something small. Maybe red.
Maybe she’ll frost her hair. Ash yellow, like the Miata at the hotel. Or maybe, just maybe, she’ll go red.
When she was young her hair had gleamed with copper highlights. Hale was willing to take on the red in her hair. After all his years in the military, it wasn’t something he couldn’t handle.
He had come to save her, he let it be known, from a drab life with one of the local dullards she’d let take her to proms and movies. Together they would have beautiful children who were strong and would grow in his image and one day make their country proud. As he had.
Jane had planned to go to nursing school. But there was Hale, wanting her, needing her, promising a good, solid life together. On the day he proposed she looked at that snapshot of her mother, Teresa in her wedding dress. It reminded Jane of the picture of Marilyn Monroe from The Seven Year Itch: Marilyn with her dress blown up by a blast of air from a subway vent, a teasing, oh-you-bad-boy look on her face.
Life with Hale seemed to hold such promise. But after Hank was born, and then Brent, it all dissolved. The little cherub boys she delivered were more Jane than Hale. They trembled when their father came into a room, and he hated that. Little sissies, he called them. It was as if he expected grown sons to leap from her womb and declare themselves ready to do his bidding. A boy who spent his free time composing love songs on his guitar, as Hank did, was not to be tolerated. A boy, like Brent, who refused to share Hale’s hunting trips, refused to watch the skinning and gutting of a deer, was worse than no boy at all.
Jane has given up wondering what she did wrong, what she could have done differently. She suspects some ancient, mythological, Oedipal thing was at work, but it was so far beneath the everyday flow of life, she has no desire to try to figure it out. And no patience. She feels no connection with her past life. Those first years of marriage were lived by someone else. The girl, Jane Halsey, is as gone as Marilyn in the publicity shot, or Teresa in the wedding picture.

* * *

The Volvo rocks gently with the idling of the engine, and Jane wonders how it would like the drive to Alaska. Up the Al-Can Highway, all the way to Anchorage. Gravel road, she’s heard, but you can do fifty miles an hour. Fly away like a goldfinch in winter.
Maybe she can find Brent. Maybe he needs her. She would like to know that he has warm, winter clothing, and enough to eat. She would at least like to know he is okay.
Hank is safe in his grave. Nina has her lover, and needs no one else. All three of Jane’s children have been able to get away, and she envies them that.
She would like to visit her mother one last time, and try to explain. But what difference would it make? In this quiet morning hour, with the mist nearly as thick as rain, it seems easier to send postcards from stops along the way. Let the nurses tack them up on the wall beside the leggy wedding picture.
Cracker Barrel has lovely maps. Simple ones, showing major highways and interstates, rivers, borders, and the locations of their restaurants.
She looks at the odometer. Mileage 85,798. She knows it is actually 185,798. Will it make 250,000? It’s early summer. Jane wonders if she could get there before dark. Alaskan dark, that is, which lasts twenty-four hours a day. The days get shorter and shorter after the equinox, until the sun disappears completely, leaving only a tinge of gold spilling over the horizon as the sun circles the globe, rotating around the lower forty-eight.
The faint, faraway sound of a train brings her back. She puts the car into gear and eases away from the curb, executing a U-turn in the deserted street. She heads toward home, crossing the bridge at Fulton Run, slowing as she nears Harpers Mill. She glances at her wristwatch, then at the dashboard.
Lit like an airplane cockpit, the dash displays tachometer, oil pressure gauge, speedometer, and various internationally marked lights and warning signals Jane has never quite figured out. The clock, centered beneath the rear view mirror, reads a digital 2:19 A.M. She’s right on time. The nightly ritual is in place.
The City of New Orleans, on its long, overnight haul from the Gulf of Mexico to Chicago, is due to barrel through Newbern in exactly five minutes. It left the Amtrak station in New Orleans at 2:15 P.M., about the time Jane was taking her macadamia jam cake out of the oven.
The train headed north, boring through Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and into Tennessee, plowing through delta country, pulling its load north, drifting farther and farther from the great river that divides the country. All the while it spewed black smoke into the air, some to settle on cities it passed through: Slidell; Hammond; McComb; Brookhaven; Hazelhurst; Jackson; Yazoo City; Greenwood; Memphis; Dyersburg; and some to waft down on the white blooms in the cotton fields along the way.
Jane cracks the car window and listens for the wail of the train. When she hears it again she inches forward, stopping thirty feet shy of the crossing. She sits in the Volvo, focusing on the curving tracks. When the train comes into view she waits for it to line up with the grove of cedar trees, then the railroad tool shed, then the Overhaltzer barn. The nose of the locomotive is one windshield inch past the farmhouse when she jams the accelerator to the floor. The car hesitates, then bursts forward toward the tracks.
The tachometer flies into the danger zone, odometer climbing nearly as fast. Zero to sixty to six seconds, Jane thinks, counting off the numbers in her mind. She feels the jolt of the railroad tracks, catches a whiff of diesel fuel, can nearly taste the surge of adrenaline.
She makes it across. Whistle clean. As she has every night. So far. But tonight something is different. She glances at the dashboard; the oil pressure gauge trembles inside its round, yellow-lit face. The needle wobbles, then starts a steady descent, like a Grand Canyon sunset. Down, down, down, it goes, heading for horizontal flat.
Jane instantly knows what has happened. A rail has slipped loose from its spikes, risen up out of its bed and punctured her oil pan.
She grips the steering wheel, knowing that for tonight, at least, her choices have narrowed. Home is three miles away. She watches the needle, thinking about the unlikely possibility the odometer will ever turn two hundred thousand, let alone a quarter of a mil. She wonders if Hale will try to find another Volvo, if this one dies, as it surely will.
The road is deserted. Lights from farmhouses dot the surrounding countryside, but none are close to the highway. She hears a faint, clicking noise that gets louder with each passing mile. She turns on the radio, finds a country station, and tries to ignore the sound. Home is so close.

* * *

Jane pulls into the driveway of the little ranch house, and her headlights sweep across the flowerbed where she found Hank, her first-born son, his face blown away by a shotgun blast. He’d sat among her flowers that last day of his life.
She parks the Volvo in its accustomed place behind the house, gets out and slams the door. When she steps away from the car she can feel the heat of the overheated engine spreading into the night. The noise of the motor, a clunking sound, continues.
He needs a car like this, she thinks, rubbing her breast where the seat belt has cut into it. He needed strong sons. And he needs a strong woman. Some great, big-boned, bovine woman who can sling great arms around him. Jane was never enough. Never could love him, like he needed to be loved. She’s served him for twenty-five years. But no more.
She walks into the house, into the living room. It feels cold. She switches on the light and notices the spider webs laced across the window. Tomorrow she will get a broom and sweep them away.
She has choices. There’s money she’s saved from her job and hidden away. Enough for a car of her own. She has maybe half a life yet to live. She turns out the light and goes into the bedroom.
Hale is asleep, his body curled oddly. Beneath the sheet he looks small, smaller than ever before. She undresses and climbs in beside him, careful to stay to her side of the bed.
And in its parking space behind the house, the Volvo lets go of its last few drops of blackened oil.

* * *



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