Construction Zone, by Harvey Sutlive.
Louis had Natalie's hybrid, just for the day. Where was the clock, he wondered, on the hybrid car dashboard. Picking up Natalie that was part of the deal. Yes he could drive faster, but she wouldn't be ready. Anyway, he wasn't late. They moved the Cartouche School out to the interstate, on Indian Grave Road. Natalie was subbing part-time at Cartouche. The best daycare in Marais, supposedly. They paid minimum wage. He hit a baseball, mentally, to change the subject. Children children, kids kids kids. She wanted that whole family thing to happen, a little too much obviously. All those tests… it was heartbreaking. And they tested him too. Whack off in this, a tech person demanded, and this guy held up a test tube, and explained what they — to change the subject, he hit a baseball.
Cartouche was in a blue metal building, on a wide scrubby lot, backing up to the interstate. Chain link fencing lined Indian Grave Road. Next door to Cartouche was a Holiness church in a similar blue metal building, and after that a precision machine shop.
Louis turned in the Cartouche parking lot — he parked fairly close to a squat boxy white truck. The sides of this truck opened with a crank. On the inside, a long-haired skinny kid was selling drinks and sandwiches. Some children and a teacher lined up to get food.
The front door of the Cartouche building opened. There was a chain link playspace in front of the building. Natalie came out — she spotted Louis and waved. Her hair was in a ponytail.
Her car windshield reflected the sunlight. Natalie could hardly make out Louis on the inside — he was grinning and waving at her from the driver’s seat — she wondered if his car was ready at the shop.
Natalie waved again and pointed and veered off toward the food truck. The teachers were passing food down to the kids. Jimmy, the guy in the truck, smiled and said hi.
Jimmy’s parents, Natalie already knew, owned three food trucks. Jimmy was working and living at home and saving his money. His girlfriend would soon do a study abroad year in Croatia. They were going to meet and travel. Natalie said hi to Jimmy — she told him what she wanted.
Louis stayed in the car. He watched and waited while Natalie dealt with the scrawny hippy kid in the food truck. The hybrid car was the size of a sleeping bag. Louis wiggled the hybrid car steering wheel. Natalie was pointing and talking to the kid. He grinned and bobbed his head.
He dumped some food in a wide foam cup and covered the cup with a plastic lid. He handed the cup to Natalie, and he smiled again, and he touched her hand, possessively, Louis thought. The other teacher said something, and Natalie laughed, and the kid laughed.
Louis turned on the windshield wipers in the hybrid car, for no reason really, to watch them go back and forth, while Natalie was chatting raptly with her hippie slave. Her hair at the back of her neck slipped out of her ponytail. She brushed back her hair with her hand. The kid still smiling and bobbing his head now handed her a spoon and a napkin.
Louis turned on the emergency flashers and the headlights as well in the hybrid car, and he punched the little wash button that was part of the wipers — the children by the food truck were watching — he waved to them — every single one was interested — the teacher blocked it out. Natalie glanced over and flashed a frown at the car or at Louis.
Before Marais, Louis and Natalie lived above Charleston, on the coast, but not always in one place, because they had a sailboat. They lived on the boat, and they mostly drove bicycles. Louis enjoyed that set-up. He liked living on a boat. He liked buoyancy.
Soapy water spattered over the hybrid car windshield. The wipers worked back and forth. Natalie and her hippy were blurry then clear, blurry then clear — now Natalie was facing him, finally — and walking to the car — Louis pushed open the passenger door.
"I'll drive," Natalie said automatically.
"I’ve got it. Eat your potato salad or whatever it is."
"Come on move,” she said. But she checked herself… she changed her mind. "OK you drive this time." She climbed in the little car and leaned sideways and kissed him.
"How was school?" he said. He studied her food container.
"Really great. They need me tomorrow. How was the restaurant?”
Louis pushed the car in gear and drove it out the parking lot. The hybrid car sounded like a vacuum cleaner buried underground. “How was the restaurant,” said Natalie, again.
Marais, thought Louis, yes, OK, it was in the mountains. It had a small college, plus a whitewater river. Marais was supposed to be nice. He and Natalie talked a lot before they decided they should move there.
It’s a great place for us, Natalie told Louis. It’s a great place for families. Natalie was from Marais. They found a broker for their sailboat.
The boat sold in two months. We're going to have kids Natalie kept repeating. She had thirty relatives in Marais. A small town is perfect for us she said firmly, over and over.
“Hello,” said Natalie from the passenger seat.
Marais had mountains, right so what, thought Louis. And the shitty little college. And a whitewater river, full of rocks.
With money from the boat, plus money from Louis's grandmother, after she died unfortunately, they moved to Marais. They started their own restaurant, which was Natalie’s idea. Louis was the manager of the restaurant.
“So how was the restaurant,” said Natalie.
The restaurant was her idea but now she was doing this daycare thing.
“Yo what about it,” said Natalie.
"It went well," said Louis.
They were exiting the busy section of Indian Grave Road by the interstate. They passed one last dental lab in a blue metal building.
"What time did you leave?" said Natalie.
Louis usually helped with prep every morning, and he ordered food for the following day, then he worked the register during lunch. Sometimes he did get a sub for the register, when he didn't feel like dealing with it.
Natalie eased the top off her food container and started to eat.
"What's that," said Louis. "It looks like blood."
"Gazpacho want some."
"Ugh." Louis was against bad copies of other people's food. They passed a mobile home park and a convenience store, and two chicken houses.
"Was the restaurant even open when you left today?” asked Natalie. “Why should the staff care about business if you don't?"
“I don’t care about business," said Louis. “I don’t give a shit about business.”
He was good, he felt, at going fishing. He was good at living on a boat. He liked living on a boat. He liked living on his grandmother's money, til it ran out.
Natalie stirred her soup — she glanced at Louis. His face was changing expression two or three times each second.
Natalie pulled her spoon out of her soup. Marais was stable and quiet, and the restaurant was doing well — it normalized their life. She wanted a family. And so did Louis, if he knew it or not.
She put her soup on the floor of the car, and squeezed Louis on the arm, and slipped over, and pressed against him and kissed him. His whole body was tense and hard — she relaxed against him for a second. They hadn't seen each other all day. It felt good to make contact.
Anyway she wanted to change the subject. She didn't get a decent break earlier, and here was this nice cool cup of soup — she preferred to eat in a quiet atmosphere. She grabbed Louis’s side gently with her fingers. He was putting on weight. "The restaurant doesn’t suit you," she murmured. "We have to find you a better job.” She slipped into her own seat again and picked up her soup.
The feeling of Natalie’s body on his body went all the way through Louis. "I don't want a better job," he said plaintively.
"Is your car ready?" she asked. He drove his grandmother’s old Mercedes. It was always breaking down.
They’d been together for ten years Louis realized… and he started thinking of the places they'd traveled… around the world really. Not sailing, but they did sail the east coast and Mexico… and they should sail around the world… Panama, to Australia… a lot of people did it — they should live near the water. They could get another boat, and get organized for a trip, and if they did get pregnant, they could fly...
"Hello," said Natalie. "Is-your-car-ready." She was eating her soup again.
"They said it would be. I have to call."
"I hope it is ready," said Natalie. She didn’t like it when he drove her car.
She doesn’t like it when I drive her car Louis complained to himself. She thought he wasn't careful, because he'd been in some wrecks. He’d never wrecked his grandmother’s car. He believed in regular, good cars, like his old Mercedes, not some fakey suv, or piece of shit hy...
"Judith called me," said Natalie. "Can you believe that? She wants us to make an appointment."
"I said I'd tell you.”
Louis squinted at the road through Natalie’s clean hybrid car windshield. Judith was some adoption advisor, down in Charlotte. Louis and Natalie were looking at adoption, possibly or maybe not. The past two years in Marais were a blur of tests, and adoption advisors, and Natalie's relatives. The whole kid thing was so huge, and Natalie's relatives — Louis hit a baseball.
He watched Natalie finish her soup. Her parents were older when she was born. They were really glad to have her. While she was a kid, they fussed about everything she did. Somebody held her all the time. Somebody talked to her all the time. She thought she knew everything. She had too much confidence really.
Her face was a little flushed, from remembering her wonderful childhood maybe, or from the soup, or maybe it was her birthday.
Natalie felt Louis check her out. She scraped the bottom of her container with her plastic spoon. She looked out the hybrid car passenger window. She tapped her spoon against the window glass. “Guess what else," she said.
"What," said Louis.
"Guess what Judith told me." Natalie pretended she was remembering — she looked at Louis and raised her eyebrows very slightly — she didn't want to bring him along too fast. "She didn't have any details really."
"What idea did she give you."
"She mentioned 'I might have a baby for you,' or something like that."
Natalie laughed, then she really did flush — she looked straight at Louis — he glanced at her for one split second – he looked straight ahead again at Indian Grave Road.
Natalie leaned back into her seat and stretched — she looked around the car. "Maybe she was just kidding around," she said.
"God," said Louis.
"Relax," said Natalie.
"How old is it."
"It is a boy. Two years old."
"Nothing's definite. I said I'd tell you." Natalie dropped her soup cup on the floor.
Louis pretended he had to really concentrate on driving. His peripheral vision was picking up Natalie. She was thinking, she was planning. She was in the passenger seat.
Yes in the parking lot, she said, You Drive, Louis reminded himself. She set him up to do life-changing decisions, plus drive the car. She thought of that ahead of time.
Too bad he confuses himself so easily Natalie was thinking.
Louis felt excited for some reason, and he felt… sexual interest, and he felt alarm — he hit a baseball.
He’ll figure it out, Natalie was telling herself. He’ll be a great parent. She noticed she felt like sleeping with him for some reason. "OK so how was work?" she said.
"It was fine. Everybody was there. The inspector came."
It was easy to talk. They eased back toward normal. Equilibrium returned though… they both felt something extra, some impulse, coming from somewhere… it was a physical thing.
That night they crawled in bed and Louis reached to the floor, and he yanked as usual on a yellow extension cord — the lights went out. After more than two years the renovation on their house was still unfinished — the bedroom upstairs was still a construction zone. They bumped each other and grabbed each other and kissed hard in the darkness.
God this is like — we don’t know each other Louis thought. Exciting, he told himself. He visualized graph paper with those regular wobbly lines, then a sharp spike. He started to make a few other comparisons, but that part of his brain was shut down, by Natalie, and some time went by.
They were sprawled afterwards on the bed in the dark room. Nothing happened to pull them back to their usual selves. Louis stretched a little against Natalie's body, and she pushed her head on his shoulder.
Natalie recognized… intimacy… being connected, through the skin, below laughing or arguing, below routines… with a small shock she remembered how quickly this feeling would go away.
We should be able to get to this she was thinking. We have to have it inside ourselves...
She knew that Louis was not asleep. She wondered what he might be feeling... they should mark this closeness, and remember it, and keep it alive…
Louis’s eyes had adjusted to the dark, and he knew… where they were, for one thing. And he knew what day it was. He could barely make out the outlines of the room — Natalie’s head was on his shoulder. He could see her profile and some of her outline under the covers.
Sailors in the Navy, after their eyes adjusted to the darkness — could see lights on the ocean from… miles away. If somebody lit a match on a ship, say to smoke a cigarette, another ship could fire ten torpedos right for that light. It happened in WWII. His grandmother gave him a giant illustrated Navy book for his birthday in ninth grade, and it covered the whole light thing, and radar and submarine warfare, and how they named battleships…
The skin on his face felt loose. His face muscles were tired. He’d been smiling all day, but now he was relaxed. He pinched the skin on the bridge of his nose. The skin on his face felt looser all the time.
That was bad. But he didn't feel bad. He didn't feel like… salmon, for example, on documentaries, on public TV — they swam up huge cold rivers some a shallow place, and they laid some eggs. Afterwards they flopped upside down in the shallow water — they breathed air — they fell apart in two hours. Noooo he felt too good for that. Besides he was a mammal. He hit a baseball.
"This is the conception," Natalie was telling herself. She was remembering her conversation with Judith, the adoption person. She was thinking of the two-year old. She and Judith had a long detailed talk. "This is the night we conceived him," she was telling herself.
"Sex is great, isn't it," Louis whispered. "Like now, when we're really together. Being alive is amazing. I mean… we could do anything, and it wouldn’t matter. Whatever happens is OK isn't it. Don't you think so? Within reason I mean."
He knew how reckless Natalie could be. Good God once... but increasingly he was noticing this great new feeling. He couldn't describe what it was.
"Hush," Natalie said. Her body was moving a little, and her arm floated in the air — Louis noticed distinctly… it wrapped over his shoulder — she put her face in his chest and pulled up to him.
In the dark he could make out the shape of her hair where it fell on her shoulder... he was seeing in the dark, since his eyes had adjusted.
Natalie's legs… felt good... after that Louis wasn't thinking anymore.
Harvey Sutlive's fiction has appeared in Offcourse Issues #20, #18, #17, #16 and #25, and #28 as well as in many other print and online publications.
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