East On 90, Turn Left At Caution

as published in Southern New Hampshire
University Journal

Wanneda Chestnutt was given a house full of bad memories and didn't know what to make of it.

She went into the house where Wray had died, into where the beds were still made, Wray's with the peach taffeta bedspread and the king-sized pillows, the other one in another room where her, Wray's daughter, Judee, had slept growing up, neat and untouched for so long. Everything else had been sold off with ‘the estate', except for some grease eroded pots and pans, some ugly ochre-colored coffee cups and two cocktail glasses with Wray's and Hazen's initials, HWP, P for Piver. In Wray's room a light from outside shown through an imitation stained-glass window, throwing a wheel of prime colors onto the carpet, no telling how long the light had been on. The house smelled rancid, as if it hadn't been opened in twenty five years, although Wray had just died; as if the windows never had been raised, twenty five years of exhale and inhale, toilet odors, cooking smells, Hazen's smoking, contention and dispute, love-making, all of it, she was sure, in the carpets or dripping down the walls with the condensation of mournful and sultry days in a long width of time. Inside, on the closet bars where clothes had been, hung wood moth-repellent wedges, and cushioned hangers, velvety as coffin lining.

Wanneda was in the house because it was hers now, hers because Wray had willed it to her along with Wray and Hazen's bed and headboard, the peach spread and king-sized pillows; Sonia Boone and Hilma Grice getting a bracelet apiece, a cocktail ring, and one of the three or four twenty-caret gold chains Wray had worn on her neck, Gradie Lee Mote getting a diamond watch. They had all sat in the lawyer's office, surprised and embarrassed when the will was read, never having been to anything like that, Lay Ward reading Wray's words and handing out the items in plastic zip-lock bags like they were science artifacts from the high school. When Lay came to Wanneda, he handed her a key and a deed, and she signed the paper like she would for a credit card purchase at the Wal-Mart.

"I never expected anything," she said, and the other women nodded in agreement, holding their plastic bags, Hilma Grice clearing her throat in a repeating high-pitched nervous manner that sounded like something from inside a video game room.

"Weelll," Lay said, in his way of drawing a word out like he did at church or the bank or anyplace else you'd run into him, "she was appreciative of your friendships, and this was her way of reciprocating"

Afterwards they'd stood outside, not knowing what to say, Wanneda, for herself, wondering if there hadn't been some kind of mistake.

"I hadn't seen her for months," Gradie Lee was the first one to break the silence.

"She was pissed off at me," Sonia Boone said. "Excuse my French."

Wanneda went through the house. She'd never had a house, not owned one. The will instructions said it was hers, period, taxes paid for a long time coming, insurance one-eighth of what her rent was for the small apartment she'd been in for a year on DeWitt Street. She went through the house thinking of Hazen, Hazen and Wray, remembering some of the holiday parties, remembered drinking out of the glasses in the kitchen, with the initials. She remembered Hazen pushing her into the coat closet at the entrance of the house, kissing her against the wall, bringing his hand up under her skirt before someone else had come to the door shaking off the rain that was coming down outside, spun like fine silvery thread through the pine trees. Hazen was just like that. There was always a Bonneville or a Buick Riviera parked outside his office late at night when he was there doing what he always said was extra work, Wray thinking whatever, or not thinking, everyone else thinking what they would, but never saying anything.

She guessed she'd move in, although looking at Wray and Hazen's big bed, she didn't know. On the carpet were still the marks where the television had been, and the night tables; there was a stain on a windowsill that looked like fingerprints of the bronze-tan color of Wray's make-up, another stain where it looked like Wray had spilled something, or Hazen had. She lifted the edge of the bedspread and then put it back, embarrassed to be looking at someone else's mattress.

She remembered them when they were young, Wray with her long blond hair and her lithe, deluxe legs. Hazen, just about the best looking man she had ever seen, one of those with too much style for any Podunk town, who had this one in the palm of his hand and knew it, wasn't anyone not in love with him, man or woman.

Jesus, she thought, what had she done? Was Wray in here with that goddamned light making those never-ending circles on the floor while she and Hazen were off somewhere, was their daughter sitting in her room trying to cope with her mother's terrible silence? And there Wanneda and Hazen were, she with her brassiere and underpants on the floor of one motel or the other, Hazen beside her, never saying her name, she remembered, just flashing his beautiful teeth like he did and rushing later, to go home. Wray never knew. She wouldn't have put two and two together on that one, put them together, Wanneda and Hazen, Wanneda being nothing special, she knew; well, they both knew, (who could hold a candle to Wray?) and anyway, a cousin, besides; her daddy and Wray's mother; and then being with Wray the next day to go shopping or smoke cigarettes at the Leevon's Kitchen in the morning to say ‘hey' to everyone, just hang around and smoke cigarettes and talk about nothing in particular. She wouldn't have put two and two together on that one.

Wanneda went back to her apartment and sat on the couch, picking up the phone after awhile.

"What should I do?" she asked her friend, Cynterria Tew.

"I don't know, she had said, her Appalachian drawl emphasizing the vowel in the last word. "It's a pretty house, I guess, with that big yard and all. What do you want to do?"

"I don't know," Wanneda had said, and then adding, "You know Hazen and I had that thing for awhile."

"You and everyone else," Cynterria said.

"I'm not too proud of it," Wanneda said.

"No," Cynterria had said, the vowel long again.

"It's got a lot of mold, the house," Wanneda said, after a silence. "It's creeping across that white carpet in the living room like it stops when you walk in and then continues at night right after you leave."

"Yuk," Cynterria said.

"And there are about a dozen dead roaches, or at least you think they're dead but if you brush by one, the legs move. I don't know if it's since she died, or what."

"Cripes," Cynterria said

"She starved herself to death, you know."

Cynterria was quiet for a long time. "Do you remember how she used to be real tan, had those long, beautiful legs?"

"Yeah," Wanneda said, "Hazen said she sat out in that back yard for hours, wouldn't come in."

"Would you?" Cynterria asked

"I'm not real proud of anything," Wanneda said.

"No," Cynterria said. "Well," she said after a long silence, "I guess you'll just have to go in there and clean it up."

"Pull up the carpets and everything," Wanneda said, "The smell is awful."

"Yay-ah," Cynterria answered.

"You wouldn't want to come with me, would you?"

"Noo," Cynterria, said, "Uh-uh."

Wanneda went back over to the house and went in. Walking through, she was beginning to envision her things there; get the carpets up, slap down some new paint. There wasn't anything like she had imagined before, memories don't drip off walls, she said to herself, for heaven's sake, don't rise like mist, from the floors. Dead is dead, gone is gone; Wray, Hazen, yesterday, the whole darned ball of wax. Where was Hazen, anyway? She had to stop and think. There had been a funeral, hadn't there, when she was in Albuquerque for those couple of years? She was standing in the kitchen and could not remember for the life of her any real facts about Hazen's death other than he was gone when she had come back; dead and buried, she had assumed, not just a little relieved.

"You and everyone else," she could hear Cynterria saying.

She could really hear Cynterria saying, "What are you talking about?!" when she called her, breathless and frightened, from her cellular telephone, to tell her there was a grave in the back yard.

"There is, I'm telling you! I walked out to check on some branches down from the pine trees with those last hurricane-force winds and there's a mound over in the far corner that is a grave. Where is Hazen, anyway? Did you go to his funeral?"

"No, I didn't, but everyone else did, I'm sure," Cynterria said.

"Do you actually know anyone who did?" Wanneda said.

"She didn't kill him and bury him in the back yard, if that's what you're thinking," Cynterria said, "but I know he's dead. He was killed in a car accident. I heard it from someone, but I forget who."

"But wasn't it out of town or something? Anyway, come over here and see what I'm talking about. There's a mound the size of a man and it's hidden behind a row of trees so you wouldn't notice, and I'll bet you can't come up with anyone who was at that funeral. And to tell you the truth, I would have killed the son-of-a-bitch, if he was mine."

"Don't be asinine," her friend Cynterria said. "Nobody's killed anybody. You've just got a guilty conscience. Go down to the court of records if you have to."

"I just wish you'd come over here," Wanneda said, "And hurry."

It wasn't easy for Cynterria to get over there fast, but she never let a little thing like that stop her, wheeling out to her van and launching herself up and behind the wheel, efficiently.

"Hell," she said when she'd got there, descending, graceful as a winged angel, then flipping out her chair, bracing it open and hoisting into it. "I'll humor you. Let's get this row on the shoad."

"Thanks, " Wanneda said to her. "I know I'm sounding crazy." They went across the back yard, Cynterria bumping and rolling over the pine needles and branches, her strong arms and hands taking her where Wanneda was headed. "You never should have messed with him, anyway, I told you that," she said.

They got to the rise of earth Wanneda was talking about, and Cynterria just looked at it. "Where do you see a grave?" she said. "It's nothing but a limb covered over." She broke a branch sticking off the side of a tree and prodded the ground with it, unearthing leaves and decayed wood, pine needles.

"It's the length of a man," Wanneda said.

"It's the length of a limb, Cynterria said.

"Well, come inside," Wanneda said, after she had felt foolish long enough.

"I hate that house, if you want to know," Cynterria said. "It's the saddest damned house I've ever been in. I've always hated it."

"Thanks, Wanneda said.

"I can't help it," Cynterria answered.

"Why did she give it to me?" Wanneda said.

"Because you're kin," her friend said, pulling herself back up into her van, "like everyone else around here."

"What about their daughter?" Wanneda asked and Cynterria just looked at her.

"Now, what on earth would she want with the fool thing?" she said.

Night was beginning to fall and Wanneda hadn't gone back into the house, night like water spilling down a window, thick and clamorous through the trees, gauzing the arc of lamp-lights like the swiping of a hand. She had watched Cynterria's van back away, the tires flipping up the gravel, the sound like rocks shifted inside a big fish bowl. Perspiration curved between her breasts and down her temples as she sat on the steps, not wanting to go in.

Finally she pushed the door open, the inside dark now. She groped for a light source, not finding one until she was past the living room and into the dining room where a light from outside on some kind of automatic yard switch illuminated things enough for her to see. Turning an inside light on, her hand came away moist and grimy from what looked like tobacco; smelled, vaguely of Wray's gardenia-scented perfume.

"Oh, God," she said, wiping her hand, "What next?"

The air-conditioning whipped on, pre-set for moisture control; it geared up and wheezed, and Wanneda wondered again if it was the same thirty-year-old air recycling, timeless and unceasing, around and around, Wray, Hazen, and Judee's.

There was a time when there would be a fire in the fireplace, the leaves turning color like they were now, or a new snow in the air. Hazen would be there, his good-looking, urbane self, Wray, dressed so beautifully, flawless with her clothes and jewelry, her luminous blonde hair. Four or five couples would be there, Judee, sometimes, quiet and well mannered, Wanneda and her husband then, Eston, others, some relatives. Or if it was summer, they all might have come from the beach, Hazen ordering in pork from Babb's Catering. Wanneda stopped and tried to note the cars back then, the ones in the driveway, and the ones, too, in Hazen's office driveway; who drove what, was there a Riviera or a Bonneville like everyone had talked about? But no, she thought those cars at Hazen's must have belonged to someone from Laurenton or Myersville, one of them, a woman with a black bouffant hair-do, she recalled someone saying, who waited underneath the evergreens by the street, waited outside the house with the car lights off until Hazen came out, excusing himself, likely, to his guests for having to finish up some late work; or to Wray and Judee at other times.

Hilda Grice wore her hair in a black bouffant then, when she was still Hilma Pittman, and she was from Myersville. And Gradie Lee Mote was at the house a couple of evenings with George Mote before they separated, kind of quiet and over in a corner by herself. "Oh, for God's sake," Wanneda said to herself, leaning against the refrigerator in the kitchen, "and you don't think Wray knew all along?" At her feet, a cockroach's legs groped sluggishly in the air suddenly, and Wanneda hurried away into another room.

She looked again at the bed, knowing that getting rid of the damned thing would be the first thing she'd do in the morning. The thought of Wray, anyway, so emaciated and unwilling to eat anything, she was told, being downtown recently, as frail as a dying breath, and then simply wasting away as if she had melted, was enough to make Wanneda want to burn the bed, drag the thing out into the backyard and set it on fire.

Behind her the door creaked closed and Wanneda fairly jumped out of her skin, and then: hadn't she opened the curtains, and why were they now drawn shut the way Wray would have had them at this time of night? She was frightening herself to the point of trembling.

"What is going on?" she said, trying to regain calm, telling herself it was ridiculous to be afraid of something that was not there, could not be there, there wasn't a thing to it; nothing in an empty house, her house, but that: nothing. Wray's room had a composed air, really, quiet and laid-back like Wray had always appeared. Looking around, Wanneda decided the wall color was subtle, elegant; the carpet and bedspread were beautiful, as were the drapes, which she of course, had closed. The light shining through the stained glass was tranquil, after all, though sad, she guessed. Wanneda could see herself there. It would be all right. She would accept Wray's gift, for whatever her reasons, and enjoy it.

She had turned off the overhead light and was lying on Wray's bed allowing the light from the window to quiet her. It radiated over the floor and around the room, imitating the movement of the leaves outside, an almost whispering wind, full of tearful and solemn words, she thought, old secrets and grievances from a very long time ago.

Lying there, she glanced toward an open closet and spotted something she hadn't noticed before, something taking up most of one of the upper shelves. She got off the bed and reached, but failed to grasp it, and finding a box full of what looked to be Judee's old school books, climbed onto them for a better look.

It was there before she knew what happened, falling veiled and horrible upon her, settling like a dozen bat-like creatures over her, reeking faintly but sickeningly of Wray's perfume.

"OH MY GOD!" she cried, stumbling backwards off Judee's books. "Oh God!" she cried again, long, white, terrible arm-like extremities reaching for her throat as she went down, entangling ghostly, tapered, vicious fingers in her hair as she tried to wrestle free.

"Stop! Oh, STOP, for Christ's SAKE!" Wanneda cried again, but something, a twisting, scaly something, wrapped itself around her legs, pitching her to the floor and onto the circle of colors which enveloped her against Wray and Hazen's carpet. "Oh, my," she moaned, "Oh, no. Oh, I'm so sorry. Really, I'm so, so sorry, Wray. It wasn't anything. You know how it is. Oh, God. He never even would look at me, Wray! It was just, oh, Christ, I don't know! I was just weak, Wray. Oh, I hate myself, hate myself!" And she wilted into a melted lump of a swoon, death itself, she was sure, suffocating her, Wray's terrible, dreadful sorrow and pain returning to repay her for the unforgivable thing she had done.

It was Wanneda's cell phone that woke her, finally, ringing muffled from a distant other-world she could not fathom, vibrating under her body after a while, she realized, as it rang and rang again. She managed a hand under herself, and brought the phone to her ear.


"Oh, my God, Cynterria, she . . . . got me, Wray came back . . . she . . she . ."

"I can't hear you," Cynterria said.

Wanneda clawed the repulsive shroud from her face and mouth, and sat up, recognizing Wray's wedding dress, the exquisite, old fashioned silk, lace, and button wedding dress she had been so unbelievably stunning in. It lay around Wanneda, white gardenias and filmy net torn and flung away. "Cynterria," she said, pushing herself to her knees, "I don't want the goddamned house. Did you hear what I said? Her damned wedding dress fell on me and I thought it was her. I thought she had come back! I thought she was here to get me for what I'd done! Cynterria, oh my God, I thought she had come back!"

Cynterria, on the other side of the phone line, was soundless, was listening but saying nothing. She was thinking about the time Hazen had come to her, had come way out there off the highway and into the boondocks to see her, come out when they hadn't even built the road up yet, when where she lived was not yet even a part of anything, when it was still the dirt road that led to the trailer-park where no one in town ever came out to; Hazen like that, no telling where he'd show up, and damned if it wasn't at her door, loaded when he got there, the way he had started getting toward the end, and still loaded when he left. But he told her how beautiful she was, how brave and decent, what a pretty face she had for a mobily challenged and yet so courageous girl, and he had taken her into his arms, and then the rest of it, his billfold falling out of his pants at some point, opening to Wray's photograph in that magnificent white wedding dress Wanneda was talking about. But for a minute she didn't feel like what she was in their eyes, all of them, or wasn't, was more like it, which was somebody's kin; that nice girl from nowhere, or somewhere else, anyway, someone's cousin maybe, but they weren't sure whose; who helped out with their kids at school sometimes; everyone kin to everyone else, around there, belonging from way back, their house or their parent's or their parent's parent's house over there behind the Hewett's or on that hundred acres behind the country club, or the tobacco fields, and so on, everybody's daddy this and mama that; nephew, niece, granddaddy; one family older than the other, richer than the next; or that's the way it seemed anyway, not that she had any problems with herself what-so-ever, liked herself just fine, thank you, was perfect in her own eyes, but it could get to you around there. You never could seem to measure up no matter what, no matter who you were or how nice or smart you were. They didn't like foreigners, down there. And they didn't do wheel chairs. And she must have been thinking that way back somewhere in her mind when Hazen showed up at her door. And she hadn't so much as given a second thought to Wray other than maybe thinking in the back of her mind somewhere, too, she was humiliated to admit now, about those wonderful and faultless legs Wray had, and how maybe Wray had never really had a care in her damned, charmed, unmarred life. Except for Hazen, of course. And she, Cynterria Tew, hadn't stopped Hazen when he kept drinking, hadn't even done that much, hadn't taken him home to Wray and Judee where he belonged, which would have been the right thing to do, which she would have done in any other situation; or picked up the phone to say that someone, anyone, the police, or Hilda Grice, or Sonia Boone, or one of their cousins, or nephews, or whatever relations, whoever, ought to help him get home, drunk as he was and unable to drive safely. She didn't know why, she just hadn't.

"I'm so ashamed . . . " Wanneda was saying.

"Well," Cynterria said, watching a rustle of flaxen leaves blow past her window. "You and everyone else."