A Woolf in Vita's Clothing by Andrew Coburn

Two emotionally deadened misfits find themselves running away from everything except each other; by Andrew Coburn

Ten years ago a man named Benson married her and took her to North Dakota, where gigantic skies diminished her, winds haunted her, and winters oppressed her. Her only means of escape was a Greyhound bus. People in the town called it "riding the dog." She rode the dog to Chicago, arriving with forty-four dollars in her bag, which was a weight because much of it was in coin.

In a coffee shop she chose to sit beside a man who appealed to her in a comforting way. He had the sort of face, not entirely unattractive, that looked as if it wanted to be forgiven, the sin left to the imagination. At other moments, however, when he gazed at her over his coffee mug, she sensed something unexplained and inaccurate in his face.

Eating a blueberry muffin, the first food she'd had since boarding the bus, she said that the greatest loneliness in the world resides in North Dakota, the loneliness limitless in winter and hellish in summer. The roads, she said, were made for high speeds and suicides, the suicides usually called accidents.

"I've never been to North Dakota," he said.

She told him that her husband owned a stereo, which he tuned to farm reports in the morning and country music at night. Their only child, a son, she said, died before his second birthday. From her weighted bag she produced a color snapshot of the child.

Glancing at it politely, the man said off-handedly, "So, you've left your husband."

She returned the picture to her bag.

"You're a good-looking woman," he said, staring intently at her. "He might come looking for you."

"No. He won't do that."

"How can you be sure?"

"I'm sure," she said.

Later he took her to a hotel, where she soaked in a hot bath and then wrapped herself in a voluminous towel. He was sitting low in a chair and watching television news. Suddenly he gripped the arms of the chair and sat erect. "Jesus," he said. "That's you!"

She peered carefully and critically at the screen. "I wish they hadn't used that picture."

He was looking at her in a whole new way. The color in his face had risen. "Why did you do it?"

"Do you need to ask?"

He thought for a moment. "No, I guess not."

"Are you going to turn me in?"

He used the remote to kill the television. "I suppose I should, but I won't."

She let out a breath. "I don't know your name."

"Chuck," he said.

She held out a hand. "I'm Caroline."

During the night he woke with a start, raised himself on an elbow, and peered down at her in the light from the bathroom. In sleep she looked imaginary, a product of whatever dream she was dreaming.

In the morning he ordered breakfast for them through room service. She stayed in the bathroom until it was delivered. Over coffee he said, "You should dye your hair."

Her hair was very blond. "No, I like it as it is."

"Then tie it in a knot or something."

"Yes, I can do that."

"You can't stay in Chicago."

"I don't know where else to go."

The morning paper had come with their breakfast. He refrained from looking at it. "We'll think of something," he said, rising. His suitcase was of dark leather and fully packed. Hers was of cracked plastic and contained changes of underwear and little else. "We'll have to get you some different clothes," he said.

"Are you rich?"

"I have credit cards."

Her bag was on the dresser. He felt the weight of it when he moved it and wondered whether the weight was a gun. Opening it he saw a load of coins. He took out a handful for the maid.

She kept pace with the fast sidewalk crowd. Newly outfitted in navy and white--a jacket with outsize lapels and pockets, a blouse full of frills, and a skirt billowing from the hips--she came across as the sails and rigging of a slender ship braving rough waters. The eyes of a derelict went small looking at her.

She waited at a corner, where the air of traffic stood tall. The springtime sky had a summery touch. A crowd waiting to cross compacted around her and then, when the lights changed, hurried on without her. Presently Chuck arrived in a gray rental and flung open the passenger door.

"Get in."

Several blocks later they got snarled in a gridlock at an intersection. It was almost as if a malignant force were binding them in. She looked out her window at a man maneuvering a shopping carriage brimming with redeemable cans. She gazed past him to a window of dinette furniture.

"I was born in this city," she said.

"Do you have family here?"

"Nobody. My mother and father are dead."

"I like your outfit."

"It's not me," she said.

They did not speak again until they were free of the gridlock and nearing an artery that would take them out of the city. She said, "Where are we going?"

He said, "We'll know when we get there."

Road-weary, they checked into a motel off a highway in Indiana. Again she had a long hot soak in the tub, as if to steam away not only North Dakota but Chicago. When she emerged in one of his shirts, he was watching television, which did not surprise her.

"Was I on again?"

"Only for an instant," he said, viewing her with sober eyes. "You should've bought some jeans. We'll get you some in the next town."

"I'm running up a bill."

"I don't keep chits."

She stepped behind his chair and gazed down into his hair, which held a few threads of gray at the part. "Chuck," she said in a near whisper.

For a moment he did not respond. Then he did, quietly. "What?"

"You haven't told me anything about yourself."

When he closed his eyes and remained silent, she moved to the television and scrutinized the pay offerings. "They have dirty movies," she said. "I've never seen one."

"Do you want to?"

"No," she said.

In bed, the light in the bathroom left on, he made love to her with her consent but without her full attention. She would have rather turned over and gone to sleep. When he finished, she was wide awake. Lying on her side, facing him, she began talking about her husband, how she had managed it. He was sleeping, she said. When she cut his throat, she saw a quart of blood.

"I don't want to hear," he said.

"I'm sorry."

He lay still. "My wife is dead."

"Like my husband?"

"No, it was different."

She waited for him to go on, but he did not. Soon he was asleep, and eventually she drifted off. In a dream her husband's corpse came to life and went crazy over the condition it was in.

They stopped in a small town in Ohio for lunch. She had on a white blouse and jeans, and she wore her hair in a severe bun, which gave her face a broader definition. They lingered at the restaurant to the point that the other tables began to stand empty. Without prompting, he told her he had taught literature at Dartmouth College, where he had met his wife, a graduate student of uncommon abilities and diverse opinions.

"I knew you were educated," she said.

He sipped his coffee. "We were married twenty years."

"Did you love her?"

"Very much, but it's not clear whether she ever loved me."

"Did you have children?"

"Two boys, grown now. They hate me."

"Do they have reason?"

"They think so," he said and fell into one of his silences, which threatened the air between them.

"Please," she said, "tell me what's going on in your mind?"

"You don't want to know."

"But I do."

"A drama," he said, his tone turning light. "Vita Sackville-West, handsome in men's clothing, is having tea with Virginia Woolf. Virginia places a hand on Vita's trousered knee and says, 'I wish I had your balls.'"

"Are they real people?"

"They were real once. They're mythology now."

"I'm not sure what you're telling me."

"My wife left me for another woman."

The waitress dropped off the check. She wanted to pay it, but he took it from her and laid out a gilt credit card. She said, "Did you kill your wife?"

He smiled thinly through the dark of his face. "There were two trials, mistrials, deadlocked juries. They finally let me go."

"Tell me about your sons."

"I already have. They hate the ground I walk on. They testified against me. They raged at the district attorney when I was freed." Without warning one of his hands began to tremble. Instinctively she reached over to steady it, but he drew back. "It'll pass," he said.

The waitress processed the credit card and returned it. He scratched his name illegibly on the receipt and managed a smile. Moments later, from across the room, the waitress gave them a hard stare.

"Let's get out of here," he said.

Springtime sleet fell in upstate New York. Chuck squinted through the windshield, for the wipers were smearing what they plowed. On the interstate, after paying the toll with quarters from her bag, he drove at a moderate speed, and she counted mileposts along the way.

"Why are you doing this for me?" she asked. "You probably could get any woman. You don't need me."

"We need each other," he said. "I saw that right away."

Within the hour the sky cleared and the sun came out. The defroster had made the air in the car humid. Her white shirt felt clammy against her skin. She felt she had gone bad in it.

Chuck said, "How did you meet your husband?"

"He came to Chicago. He wore a tan suit. It was summer, and I was clerking in a convenience store."

"Why did you marry him?"

"He put his hand over his heart and said he loved me."

They passed a disabled car squatting in the breakdown lane. The sun, wheeling in and out of clouds, showed itself in momentary shocks, as if someone were shooting at them. She lowered the visor.

"When things went wrong at the farm he blamed me. Some things were my fault, but I did my best. He said my head was in the clouds."

Chuck's eye was in the rearview. "Reality craves fantasy."

"When the baby took sick he wouldn't call the doctor. He didn't believe in doctors, only in God. He was a church-goer. I'm sure all the people at the church hate me now."

"Yes, you can bet on it," he said abstractedly.

"Is something wrong?"

"There's a police car behind us."

"I'm not scared." She raised the visor. "Why aren't I, Chuck?"

"You haven't come down yet. In time you will, and then you'll be scared of yourself."

"How do you know?"

"I know," he said.

Watching starlings descend like a rock slide onto the grassy center strip, she thought of people at the church. The only one she would miss was eccentric Mrs. Hager, who wore wide-brimmed hats and smoked while she prayed.

Chuck's voice loosened. "It's gone," he said.

Turning, she glimpsed the state police cruiser veering around the curve of an exit ramp.

They checked into a motor inn in the Berkshires. He had bought her a nightgown with lace. Humid from her bath, her backside was a rosy glow inside the gown. She pulled at the elastic on his boxer shorts and let it snap against his skin.

"That hurt," he said.

She apologized in a soft voice. "That wasn't my intention."

From the bed they watched one of those movies, her idea. She thought it might be fun. A nun lifted her skirts and revealed long splendid legs. Then a man came into the picture. The mole on his back looked like a penny.

Chuck spoke in her ear. "Turn it off if it offends you."

"No," she said. "It's what people do."

He said, "There's nothing people won't do."

After the movie was over he propped himself on an elbow and seemed to find something wondrously pristine about her body, as if no hand other than her own had ever touched it. He bared her breasts appreciatively, as if removing gift apples from their tissue wrappings. Some women are unforgettable in their nakedness. He told her she was one of them.

After they made love they lay locked in the dying intensities, with neither wanting to let go. He stroked her hair. "I hope I'm wrong," he said, "but this may be our last night together."

She breathed up at him. "Why do you say that?"

"I've been foolish about money. It's added up to quite a bit. They're after me too."

She embraced him harder. "We've become close."

He said. "I love you, Caroline."

"Are we still in Massachusetts?" she asked.

"New Hampshire," he said.

Here in New England the sky seemed closer, the clouds pushed low, not at all like North Dakota where the heavens are gigantic, the clouds massive and aloof, and the emptiness awesome. She remembered storms so horrendous they threatened to crack the planet.

"Are you scared yet?" he asked.

"No," she said.

He was driving on back roads and finding excuses to stop in each small town they came to. The strong scent of potpourri issued from a gift shop. He went into it and bought her a silver bracelet, a perfect fit for her slim wrist. At a small shopping center he picked out a stylish trench coat with slash pockets and a wide belt. She looked quite nice in it.

"Why do you keep putting me in different clothes? Are you trying to make me someone else?"

"You are someone else," he said.

"I feel like I'm in the movies."

Back on the road she stretched her legs out as much as she could and dozed off. In a dream a fully uniformed police officer, the brightness of his brass vying with the shine of his leather, tapped her solidly on the shoulder and said, Are you Caroline Benson? Pointing at Chuck, she said, You'll have to ask him.

At nightfall he reached the end of the line, a town where landmarks evoked memories and raised ghosts. The Texaco station was a beacon. Blue neon burned over the doorway of Bill's Cafe, a hangout for rural riffraff. He could see into the drugstore, which was stuck in time. It had a marble soda fountain and round revolving seats. The soda jerk was in his nineties.

He drove through the center and past the lights of the library, where forsythia was in gushing bloom. Caroline sat with her head back and her eyes closed, but he knew she was not asleep. As he neared the far edge of town the roadside went wooded. Headlamps of an approaching car were pale strains adhering to nothing, and the car, which may have been a van, floated by without sound or shape, driverless for all he knew.

Warm air from the day clashed with the cold of evening, and swirls of mist ran yellow in the moonlight and hovered ghostly wherever the road dipped. He drove with a fear he might hit something, for the road was rerouting itself the way a river sometimes abandons its bed to make another. Then the road straightened, and he knew exactly where he was.

Caroline said, "Why are we stopping?"

"You grew up in Chicago," he said, "I grew up here."

He stepped from the car, waited while she buttoned her trench coat, and then gave her his arm. The moon irradiated a path that took them through the pinewood and the ring of peepers. A pond opened in front of them.

"I used to take my boys fishing here. We never caught anything but perch."

"I've never seen a perch," she said.

"They're not very big."

They stood at the edge of the pond, mist scaling off the surface, the moon mirrored on it. The moon fascinated him. It was a dead thing that looked alive on the water. It was gloom wearing bridal white. He said, "We grow, we reach a height, we contract, we die. Ever ask yourself why, Caroline?"

"Yes," she said. "When my mother died."

"Beautiful stars up there," he said, raising his eyes. "What we see as up could be down."

"How can we tell?"

"We can't. Think of God as a mathematical genius and a perverse toy-maker. Who else would have put worlds spinning on their axes? Leaves us not knowing which end is up."

"But he must have done it for a purpose."

"Pure amusement, Caroline."

"You're fooling me," she said. "Tell me what you really believe."

"At some point the universe will dissolve into an idea of itself, from which it evolved. Put another way, when God grows bored with his idea of us, we're finished."

She tightened her grip on his arm. "That can't be true."

"Truth is relative. A lie told in Chicago is gospel in North Dakota."

"You know so much."

He wanted to tell her that he knew nothing. He was a product of group therapy, disturbed strangers bathing in a communal pool of unhappiness polluted by self-pity, their troubles traced to others, not themselves, responsibility seldom mentioned.

Passing geese skimmed their shadows over the water and eclipsed the mirrored moon. Dark air currents carried the scent of pine. "I'm getting scared," Caroline said. The moisture of night sheathed her face the way it did apples in an orchard. "What's going to happen to me, Chuck?"

"We devise our own punishment. A woman I mentioned, Mrs. Woolf, waded into a pond like this one and never came out."

"I wouldn't want to do that."

"Nor would I," he said and led her from the water's edge.

In a country inn a mile from the pond she shrugged off the trench coat and said, "You were wrong. We have another night together."

"We got lucky," he said.

The room was unlike the others they had shared and gave her an uneasy sense of being back at the farm. The furniture could have been acquired from an old funeral home. A high-back chair stood somber and still, the arms rubbed smooth as if by grieving hands. A settee issued a prayerful air of rectitude. Decorous endtables and a dropleaf desk stood stolid. The only thing missing was a sampler on the wall.

"It's like you've brought me back," she said.

"I've brought us both back."


"We can face anything together."

In her mind the room was not here but where it should be. The sampler appeared on the wall. Fascination held her eyes open. A blink would have exploded the image.

"Yes," she said when he kissed her.

He undressed her and told her she was lovely everywhere. On the bed he kissed the soles of her feet. No man had ever done that to her before.

"Yes," she whispered. "I love you too."

They rose late and checked out after a slow breakfast. The air was warm, but the sky threatened. When they climbed into the car they saw sprinkles on the windshield. He did not drive far, only a few miles beyond the inn. Pulling over, a grove of birch and maple in sight, he let the car slow to a standstill.

A fine rain netted trees and veiled shrubs. The grass steamed and wet her shoes. Violets lay cool in their foliage. She hiked the collar of her trench coat and took his arm. He had on a nylon jacket and sturdier shoes.

"I used to bring the family here," he said. "Picnics."

In the grove they passed tables and benches. She could hear the light rain in the trees, the sound like metal points pricking the leaves, which were tender, not yet at full strength. There were trees in North Dakota, but she could not remember any of them.

Leaving the grove, they climbed over a low crumbling wall of unmortared stones and stepped into a meadow. A single leafless magnolia in full bloom gave her a sense of being a bride again. Beyond the meadow was a grassy hill, over which they saw a small slash of lightning. "This isn't the best place to be," he said.

"I don't mind, if you don't." She reached for his sleeve. "Do you believe in God, Chuck?"

"I don't believe anything can come from nothing, so there must've always been something. That's as far as my mind will take me."

"I believe there has to be something other."

"That's a whole new ballgame," he said and gazed toward the hill. "Will you climb it with me?"

The gray sky darkened as they crossed the meadow. The rain weighted their hair but not their steps. When she glanced at him, her smile resembled his, giving them a fleeting physical likeness. Seen from a distance, they looked cut from the same hide.

At a roll of thunder he glanced back as if something had been lost. She gazed ahead as if much were to be gained. On his mind were things no longer worth telling, on hers matters too complex to mention. He heard another roll of thunder and imagined it chasing him. She believed it was leading her. Climbing the hill, he believed nothing more was at stake, and she believed everything was. He expected to die and be nowhere. She anticipated an elsewhere.

At the top of the hill they held hands and let go at the vital moment. Surging from the sky like a white shark, the bolt of lightning struck her and missed him.

She had won. He had lost.

Driving back through the town, he considered seeing his sons but didn't want to shock them.

Later, the sun brilliant, an elderly couple with birding binoculars found her where she had fallen, her trench coat scorched black. Her bag, split open, was a spill of coins.

1 comment:

  1. In A Woolf in Vita's Clothing, Andrew has blended a very diverse range of emotion, scenarios, action, and a thoughtful, unique conclusion in this extremely well written tale. Excellent selection of prose to nail the emotional energy.