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Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Autumn sobbed slowly as her husband’s lips moved in his slumber. The rain rolled down the window glass and the thunder grumbled throughout the night. He might not have heard her, were she to stay in bed. But she slipped away and down the stairs to weep in the bathroom with the tap running. Earl had always been a deep sleeper. He’d also always been a dim bulb, so he might not have caught on if he weren’t sleeping. Autumn loved him still. Earl was a good man, better than the man she had before Earl. Her jaw sat crooked and she wore her hair low to hide a cigar burn. Both were given to her by her ex-husband, Dale. Earl had been like a knight out of a fairy tale the way he’d taken her away from all of that.
He found her in a trailer park in the bad part of Louisville, sobbing over a baby in her belly. She’d thought about killing it, mostly because she had a dim hope of leaving Dale. She had no idea what would happen after she left. She had no money and had no real way of making it. She was young at the time, but she never thought she was pretty enough to be on stage, dancing for dollars. Even if she was, the thought of it seemed horrific.
Earl saw her there, behind her trailer, convulsing with tears. He had come over and given her his handkerchief. He was a quiet man. That’s what she first thought about him. That he was so very quiet and so very still.
“Can I ask what’s wrong, Darling?” He had asked. The question sounded so very nervous, but that was the only betrayal of his nerve. She made up a lie and assured him that she was fine, but Earl kept by her. Without thinking about it, she asked him inside for a cup of coffee. Dale would have beaten her black and blue for letting someone in while he was gone. Dale might have killed her. That was the type of man he was.
Earl sat across from her, sipping coffee from a chipped Mickey Mouse mug. His eyes rolled over her and Autumn started fussing with her sleeves, trying to hide bruises Dale had left. Earl might have already seen them, but he was good enough not tp say anything about it. The two of them made awkward conversation about Earl’s tour of duty in the army and Autumn’s favorite daytime shows.
At the end, Earl left the Mickey Mouse mug in the sink and walked out the door. Autumn felt a deep well of sorrow at that sight, because she had pretended for a few fleeting hours that she wasn’t with Dale in a small trailer. She pretended that she wouldn’t hear guns going off or prostitutes fighting over street corners. She pretended that she’d curl into the arms of a sober Earl rather than a drunken Dale. Him leaving, meant she had to stop pretending.
Earl came back around and he was careful not to show up when Dale was in and Autumn got to pretend a little more. Her Light and Dark husbands. One that was gentle and interested, that was kind and good. The other that was mean and bitter about the way life had turned out. By that time, she started to think of Dale as the other husband. The one she ended up with by some unlucky roll of the dices. Maybe all she had to do was roll again.
A confrontation came and Autumn had her opportunity. It occurred by accident. Somebody noticed the same man hanging around Dale’s trailer. Dale got wind and came home early, breaking the door open instead of opening it. Earl stood like he was expecting Dale to come. Autumn froze, understanding only that she was foolish to pretend. Her real husband was Dale and Dale would kill her for such flights of fantasy.
Earl put himself between Dale and Autumn. That’s how Autumn saw him, the man between her and her Darker husband. Dale was cursing and advancing, his fists balled tight enough to make diamonds. Dale played football in high school and still had a linebacker's size and weight. He fought similar to the way he played, using his weight to mow down his opponent. Instead of letting that happen, Earl got around him, which was impressive in the small space. Once he was behind, he hooked his arm around Dale’s neck and locked down. Earl was dangling off his shoulders and Dale was smashing him into the walls, shaking the entire trailer. When Earl realized Dale had too thick a neck to be choked out, he started ramming his knees into Dale’s kidneys.
Dale lost his balance and fell forward, smacking his head on a countertop. Earl fell with him, but wasn't hurt bad. Earl rose up off him, breathless and spitting blood. Dale was making angry groans, but looked too dazed to know who he was mad at. The trailer had been destroyed in the fight, everything was on the floor, cracked if not outright broken. Dale was writhing on the floor, slowly shifting the broken plates and mugs.
Earl offered his hand to Autumn, saying nothing but telling her everything. He was saying this was that time. This was when they left. But she hesitated, keeping her hands to her breast. Her eyes filled with horror and disbelief. The second she took Earl’s hand, Dale would see. He’d kill her. Dale had taken some sort of mythical status. Some inscrutable power that would never be broken, but might be coaxed somewhere near pacification.
“Autumn.” Earl had called, looking directing into her eyes. All at once, she wasn’t afraid and she took his hand. She’d been holding it in one way or another ever since. She gave birth to Dale’s child, a boy. She named him Earl Jr. and the boy called Earl Daddy in time. She’d knew happiness like she never known until that night went his lips parted in the darkness and he moaned the name, Jolene.
Earl took Autumn away and neither of them looked to see what happened to Dale. The few regrets Autumn had about running was that she’d left some of her Mama’s heirlooms and she figured that Dale probably smashed them. She would have nothing to pass on, herself. The two of them moved on further North and Earl took on a job at a factory making Auto Parts. It was a niche occupation for him, Earl being good with his hands and he seemed happy with what he did. In time, they found themselves in a picturesque house in a quiet neighborhood. But also, as time went by, Earl began to spend time by himself, staring off into the night. She’d sit by him and he wouldn’t object, but she never felt like he wanted her there. Then he moaned the name Jolene.
Jolene was the woman down the street from Autumn and Earl. Earl hadn’t noticed Jolene. More and more, Autumn began to notice that he was deliberately not noticing Jolene. She was a stunning little thing and it made no sense that she was where she was. A girl with a smile like hers needed to be on the television. With ivory skin like hers needed to be selling skin cream. With a body like hers needed to be drapeed in fine jewelry and expensive dresses. Instead she worked at a diner, making truckers and factory men fall in love. She seemed oblivious to it, too. She strung her long, auburn hair into loose ponytails and it’d flutter in her wake, compounding her unreality. She was a dream made flesh, but for Autumn, she was becoming a nightmare.
A mild attraction is normal in a married man. Autumn understood that, her concern laid with Jolene’s interest in Earl. She’d seen her million dollar smile. She’d seen her flash it at Earl more than once. She’d seen Jolene, even if Earl pretended not to.
But there was another thing. Earl was a good man and he was a reasonable handsome man. He was better than what Autumn expected to have. Earl had saved her in so many ways and she had a singular terrible thought. She thought that maybe Earl was in need of saving now. She thought that maybe Earl had fallen into a life he hadn’t expected, trying to save her. Maybe Earl deserved Jolene for being such a good man.
Autumn had heard something in Earl’s voice that she had seldom heard. When he whispered Jolene’s name in his sleep, Earl sounded happy. He was a lukewarm man on most days. Not cold, but he wasn’t the type to draw attention unless he had to. But she’d heard joy in his voice went he muttered Jolene. She imagined the two of them being by each other in the diner, being friendly. Earl seemed to be the loyal type of man. She wished he was the loyal type of man.
Autumn sat, drying her tears while the tap pounded into the basin. The sun was washing burnt orange through the high bathroom window. The night had been set a fire. Some apocalyptic flames were crawling all over her life and she felt like she was choking. A single tear rolled down her cheek, but she bit back the rest. She dipped her hands beneath the flowing waters and splashed herself. She stayed very still, with her hands on her face. She took her hands away from her face slowly and it was morning. It was just the sun rising over the world. She opened the door and returned to her bedroom. Earl was still sleeping and she slipped herself back into the bed.