Jenny Prior’s Jackie

Apr 7, 2016 by

Jenny Prior’s Jackie

Fiction

 

Devin takes us up to Mike’s cottage – Mike’s fucking cottage! – and I sit quietly in the passenger seat for most of the day-long drive, thinking about Jackie’s big round silent-film actress eyes, and how she could get people to complain about what was bothering her so she didn’t have to.

Is it safe to remember everything I can about Jackie? Maybe, since I didn’t see her sick, and we hadn’t been in contact for quite a while before she died, and there’s some emotional distance there. Whether it’s wise or not, I spend the hours making mental lists of the endearing and annoying and disturbing and cataclysmic things she did.

The car Devin rented is new and peppy and it covers the highways and then the bumpity-bump dirt roads recklessly, because he’s majorly speeding. I don’t nag him because he has enough to deal with, with me. But a couple of times I gently put my hand on his arm to let him know we’re going to plow into the car ahead if he doesn’t jam on the brakes.

“Evil Knievel, right?” he says when he does it the third time, and he leans in my direction so I’ll chuck his chin, forgiving him. I do and then feather-lightly, I kiss his cheek because his face is still there, even though I don’t want it to be.

We make a last stop at a diner in the absolute boonies to pee and smoke and get coffees, and not long after that the moon starts rising in a sky without many stars, even way out here where it’s usually a spectacular show. I roll down the window and breathe in the clean chilly late-August air, and the fir trees are thick and sweet all around us, and maybe I’ve been dwelling on Jackie too much because suddenly I’m mad at her as usual and I don’t understand: why why why can’t we turn around and go home and let everything just fade away?

“Dev, guess what? I’m done, let’s go back to the ranch.” I’m begging, but making it a joke.

“Oh sure,” he says, pretending he’s going to paw the wheel around and do a frantic U-ie.

“If the cottage isn’t mine, I don’t want to be there.”

“Hon,” he says warningly. “Don’t be weird again.”

“I’m worried about the cats. Let’s go back.”

“It’s an interesting invite. We’ve taken it.”

“I know he’s gonna end up saying something that makes me want to murder him,” I say.

“Your cousin’s the queen of the cat ladies and they love her and they’ll be fine,” Devin says, skirting back nicely.

“And she knows they’re our version of kids.” I play along for comfort.

“They’re having a total blast. She’s got them wearing like little hats and beads and stuff and they’re having a mardi gras.”

“I fuckin’ hate Jackie. I always did. I keep realizing.”

“Honey. She was your closest friend.”

“No, never.”

Devin and I haven’t been anywhere near here in twelve years, but he drives too fast, he drives confidently, probably even eagerly, with his memories of scoring two babes in this location even though one of them is recently dead, accelerating through the final, pebbly path in the midnight dark like he hasn’t missed a summer.

Mike reels out to greet us as we’re unloading our groceries onto the wraparound porch. He’s hammered and wearing only tightie-whities, his warm-weather partying style, with a pair of sunglasses from the day still up on his head. He grabs me around the waist from behind, snufflng into my neck like he’s half dog.

“Why are you fuckin’ always naked? It’s fuckin’ cold!” Devin laughs, giddy to be out of the car.

At thirty-eight, Mike has a paunch now, and it’s under-sunned. The summer we were twenty, his stomach was really flat and brown. Jackie and I were on the dock in our black bikinis, and I remember Jackie watching Mike bringing us down our beers in his stupid underwear, and she said, “I have the impulse to destroy.” Mike passed us the drinks, and then he kept staring at her all gaga, and Jackie said to me, “See what I mean?”

Jackie’s life and death are overfilled with men.

Except for a few fateful gaps, I’ve been there for most of the chronicles. From the boyfriends who cried and bargained on the phone, to the ones who went to Europe or Panama because they thought they could make her pine, to the prof who turned suicidal.

The ones I felt sorry for I told straight up that their pleas and their ploys would never work on Jackie. But none of them were into taking advice. Not the husband, or the common laws, Mike included.

And certainly not Devin.

With childlike energy, my husband is prancing around and shining a flashlight on the bag with some steaks and chops he’s excited about. Mike needs to be talked out of slapping them all on the ‘que pronto. I wander away from them, and I light a cigarette on the other side of the porch that shows off the sand and the dock and the shoreline and the water and the moon. I think of Jackie’s father, who once told me while we drove up here together that Jackie’s mom “used to be a good-looking woman.”

Mike is obnoxious, calling for his wife to get up, “Cara! Cara! CARA!”

I hiss, “Shhh, it’s too late,” around the corner, exhaling. I do not want to see Cara right now.

“AMY!” Mike is now yelling at me. “We’re skinnydipping before the night is over and you are not getting out of it! I know you’re still hot, baby, I saw that ass as you walked away!”

I stub out my cigarette and flick it away and walk back around. Devin is being subjected to one of Mike’s falsely urgent drunken monologues.

“I’m out, I’m tired,” I tell them.

Devin says, “Wait-wait? I need a scotch.”

“Yes!” Mike rushes in to prepare one.

I jump at the clap of door.

“Hon,” says Devin, kindly.

“You have to put our stuff away,” I say, finding one of my giant cans of beer that rolled free in the hatchback with all the crazy driving. It fizzes over my hands when I open it. “Fuck.”

“Poor dear,” Devin placates. He really wants me to stay up, although we both know I should go away to bed and get rested to be civil.

I say, “One drink at the dock. Meet me down there. I wish you could come alone.”

“Amy, hush.”

“Why isn’t this my cottage right now?”

“Because it just isn’t. Be cool please.”

I back away from his kiss.

The lake is glinting silver and moving in a supple way. I lift my face to the heavens, like city people who come to the country do, and settle into my Adirondack, the one whose arm I carved my initials into decades ago.

I’m starting to seethe, so I decide that for the purposes of this weekend, there never was a Jackie. All the boys, guys, and adult males who crashed in and out of here like waves over the years, their demeanours and social graces varying, but everyone with a collective agenda: I pretend their agenda was me.

But the fantasy isn’t working and my mood curdles further. Further still when Cara emerges, making her way carefully down the path with her flashlight, like she’s afraid she’ll fall. She doesn’t know this place in the blaring sunshine, never mind late-night. But it’s hers by ludicrous default. Who is she, even? Just the last in a line of lost souls Mike consoled himself with after Jackie left him.

“Hey there! Brrr!” Cara’s drowsy and yawning and wearing Mike’s hoodie over her pajamas, which drowns her miniature frame. True to her pious form of revelry, she has about three drops of white wine in one of Jackie’s mother’s heirloom glasses.

Fighting the urge to heckle and boo her I say, “Hey there, Cara.”

“It’s been too long! Like, Ian’s divorce party last year, right? I’m so glad you guys made it! We wanted to be sure you got up here during our first summer.”

“Mmmm, I bet.”

She’s hovering over me, thinking I’ll get up for a hug. When I don’t, there’s a stilted pause before she goes and fussily scrapes her chair into a perfect position for the lake view and a conversation.

But I don’t start one. I light a smoke and Cara frowns.

“What? Pregnant?” I point at her midsection with my cigarette.

“No! I mean, I doubt it! Do I look pregnant?” She smoothes down the front of the sweatshirt self-consciously, but it’s also clear she feels a zap of excitement, about her plans for the future.

“That thing you have on is huge. You could have a small civilization in there and no one could tell. Anyway, tick-tock, if it’s on your bucket list, or whatever.”

Cara clears her throat, suddenly wary of our interaction. “I’m just allergic – to smoke…” She laughs with relief at Mike’s deep, loud voice closing in on us from above.

“Me Tarzan!” He’s beating his still-bare chest, although he’s put on jeans and flipflops. His belly chub looks too solid, heart attack recipe. He and Devin lumber onto the dock and agree how goddamn stellar it is now that the stars are fully out.

“Indeed,” I say, and Devin winks at me to establish a connection, and to rein me in.

“Mike! You dumb-dumb, you need a shirt!” Cara’s only mock-scolding him, because she’s in the prime of loving her juvenile wildman. “You’ll catch your death!”

“Oh don’t do that now!” I sneer, and Devin says, “Hey Ames, are you down here being a super-sourpuss by any chance?” He fiddles with my ear.

“She’s tired from the trip,” Cara excuses. I sip my beer and ignore her.

“Yeah I almost killed us several times with my driving,” Devin reports happily. Except for his nervousness about me, he’s in a positively fantastic mood, with his quadruple scotch, and what amounts to a crowd of people around him in relation to our nonexistent social schedule at home.

My own state of mind is unturnaroundable. Why did I come here to witness Mike the fool as proprietor? I picture myself as completely solitary, hair flowing white and using a walking stick, ancient and scrabbling around here in the brush, residing over the wonderful and awful memories. My anger is reaching almost mystical proportions.

And Mike keeps making it worse. Now he’s practically on the lip of the dock, swaying and grinning and blocking the beauty.

I say, “Don’t fall now, achy.”

He sways. “Amy darlin’, when you’re fun, you’re fun, but when you’re not, you’re a bit of an unhinged crotch. Dev’, maybe take the lady to bed. But come back down when you’ve tired her out.”

“You’re so gross and uncouth,” I tell him.

“Oh you’re just pissed I got the cottage. You think I’m an idiot? Yeah-yeah, I know you’re all bent outta shape. But you listen to me, okay, you didn’t – ”

“What, have intercourse with her? So did a jillion other people.”

Mike’s bleary eyes sharpen. “Jackie and I were together for years.”

“Faithfully?”

“Oh shut up!”

“Devin was with her too. And he was first.”

“Devin was a fling!”

“Go ahead and keep telling yourself that.”

“Leave me out of it,” Devin protests. “Dude, get back from the water.”

“Sweetie, yeah.” Cara pulls him forward by his jean leg. “And, Amy,” she says, earnestly trying to peacekeep, “we’re building windmills in Tanzania with my church next spring, so you’re welcome be here for, like, as long as you – ”

We all interrupt at once, Mike saying, “No she isn’t,” and Devin says, “Ha, I forgot you guys have a touch of Jesus in you now,” and I say, “Building windmills: barf.”

Glaring, Mike says, “Rude. I shouldn’t have invited you. You’ve always been insane.”

“Then why did you? To show off.”

“This one,” he says, looking at Cara and thumbing at me, “I told you, this one always wanted everything Jackie had. And it was pathetic.”

“Oh, well, certainly not everything,” I say, and Devin thinks he can stop what’s coming and tries to grab at me, but it’s already over. It didn’t take me much, only a quick lunge out of my chair and one surprise shove on Mike’s clammy shoulder.

Watching him flail into the water, I consider the murky shallow bottom and the harmless carps with their open mouths, and then Jackie: how her little-girl laugh combined with her steeliness and her issues made her tantalizing, while I had no stamp of desirability, and was one-dimensional.

My ears are roaring as I stalk up the path. I don’t process what must be Mike’s thrashing around and possible rescue, if he’s drunk enough to need it. But eventually I do hear, “You dumb bitch!”

Nobody follows me back.

The inside of the cottage is so still and low-lit and unchanged that I calm down very quickly. Devin’s put our luggage in the room I’ve used since I was twelve years old. It’s on the main floor and tiny, with folksy little rugs on the walls and the floors, and it smells of woodchips and ash.

It occurs to me that if this cottage were all, all mine, like it should be, I’d reject the important upstairs bedrooms, and nestle in here.

Falling on the old mattress, staying on top of the musty quilt and only taking off my shoes, I sleep blankly.

Devin comes in when it’s already morning, he wakes me with his boozy vapours. Being overly used to me, he doesn’t seem angry about the incident. In fact he must have somewhat liked it. He wants to cuddle, and maybe more.

“Okay-okay,” I say, as a placeholder, but I stay curled on the far edge of the bed. Within ten seconds, I count, he passes out and I don’t have to do anything.

When I wake up fully a few hours later, I’m sure it’s past noon. There’s the eternally familiar sound and smell of eggs frying in a pan, because I’m right off the kitchen.

At what point in my life’s timeline is this even happening?

Devin’s awake too and staring at me, his hand brushing my hair out of my face.

I don’t want him, not one bit. But I help him progress from tenderness to erection to action, because even though he’s just Devin, and he’s terminally ordinary, he’s the one out of legions of contenders who chose me over Jackie.

Patiently, I let him have me. Because if I can get anything at all, here, in Jackie’s cottage, now Mike’s cottage, never mine: I’m grateful.

Jenny Prior’s novella Catholic Dreams is available at www.shortandenjoyable.com and her story “Clinic, Car, Couch” has been nominated by The Danforth Review for The Journey Prize.

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