Life was good: Domestic arrangement pleasant; kids and grandkids (for the moment) unworrisome; sky bright blue, wind zero. All of which was making her tense and restless. She knew the problem: She was addicted to fiction. She had been a compulsive reader from an early age, when she’d learned that if Nancy Drew and her friends were riding around killing time in her little red roadster, some thrilling mystery or crime was about to break the monotony. And when Alec Ramsey and the Black Stallion were hanging out on that desert island, some evil somebody would soon involve them in a deliciously dangerous adventure. Her fiction-saturated youth had led her to expect this predictable pattern in her own life.
In college, she majored in English—a logical choice, since she had read most of the books anyway—and she couldn’t add a column of three figures, so anything math-y was out. And in her classes, she learned about the structure of a story:
Introduction (the boring part, where you met the characters, and nothing was happening yet)
Rising Action (when the adventure began and things got exciting.
Climax (the very most exciting part)
Falling action (when the excitement gradually turned back to everyday life)
Conclusion (when the danger and excitement were over, and things began to get boring again)
(And if anyone should happen to ask—yes, she had noticed the sexual parallel. Enough said about that.)
It worked every time, so that years later, when she was reading Paradise Lost, she knew early on that Adam and Eve’s luxurious (and dull) life in that glorious garden was just a set-up for the climax– a thrilling confrontation with Satan-As-Snake.
Therefore, the stretch of 70-degree weather, the facts that she’d finally lost those two pesky pounds, her husband Stuart (the only theatre professor in the known world who owned—and used—4 shotguns, a crossbow, and a 400-dollar fly rod) had caught a 22-inch trout, and her grandchildren texted her occasionally were making her feel lethargic and droopy. She figured that if some rising action didn’t occur pretty soon, she’d have to get creative.
She was not courting disaster, or even waving at it. She did not want William Faulkner’s barn burning, or Truman Capote’s eye-witnessed hanging. The fiction she most enjoyed always offered, after the story reached its climax, what the literature books called a denouement, a resolution, and life would smooth out again. She had long ago explained to Stuart that she fully intended to die before he did, and she had made her son promise that nothing terrible would happen to him or his family until after they’d scattered her ashes. So she figured she’d averted real tragedy.
But right now, she needed a medium-sized complication that would relieve the pressure of contentment.
Which was why, on a gentle afternoon in mid-April, she was getting ready to take a short, semi-risky trip in a car that needed a check-up and an infusion from the gas pump, neither of which she intended to provide. She was going alone, except for Janie the dog, the most recent in a string of Chocolate Labs named for her mother, who might have appreciated the honor.
Janie jumped willingly into the back of her red Prius, eager for a run on the 80 acres east of town that she and Stuart had restored to Iowa’s native prairie—well, Stuart (in what was not a completely altruistic act, since pheasants and deer loved the place, especially in hunting season) had done the restoring—planting trees and mowing wonderful, winding paths through the Blue Stem and Indian Grass. She had applauded, appreciated, and enjoyed his efforts. In good weather, a trip to the prairie took 25 minutes and was as safe as houses. But over the last three days, rain—steady, serious, and straight down—had turned the dirt and gravel road to thick chocolate pudding, the kind that grabbed at your tires and pulled you toward the roadside ditches. And today, the Prius, always incongruous on county roads, would be particularly likely to slide head-first into one of those chasms .
Satisfied with these conditions, she backed out of the garage and headed east, Janie panting with anticipation.
Sure enough, the minute she left the pavement, she had to struggle to navigate the greasy road. She remembered the story, maybe apocryphal, of a farmer whose tractor had gotten so deeply stuck in his muddy bean field that he had to hire a helicopter to lift if out. She didn’t want all that drama or hoopla; she just needed something to break the monotonous continuity of pleasantness.
And so she drove slowly, checking the rearview mirrors to see what kind of ruts her car was leaving behind. When she approached the farmhouse about half-way between town and the prairie, the pony-sized Mastiff who guarded the place leapt out to chase (and kill) the Prius—as was his habit. And she stopped a couple of times to look at the B-level roads, where almost always, after a good rain, somebody had tested an all-wheel-drive or truck. That day, she spotted three good-old-boy vehicles stranded in the sludge.
She pulled her car onto the lip of the hard-to-see driveway that led to the prairie, got out to see if the rear was out of the road, and popped the back door to let out a wagging, wriggly Janie.
In fact, it was a glorious day. The ever-thirsty prairie grasses had sucked up the excess water and were beginning to show green, the sycamores and cottonwoods were sporting tiny, sticky buds, and, to the dog’s delight, pheasants and rabbits were everywhere. (She knew that Stuart would be pleased to hear of this bounty.) When they got back to the car, they were both tired and happy, which didn’t help a bit with her growing need for a ‘plot complication.’
And then, she started to back out. And her wheels began to spin. Experience—and Stuart—had taught her the trick of rocking forward and back, which this time didn’t help at all. So she crept the car down the slight incline, intending to turn around so the tires could find traction and propel her back onto the road. She managed the turn, and then realized the car was now sitting—and settling—in a muddy bog. She was stuck. Royally stuck. Oh well, she’d call Stuart, who was rehearsing his students for an upcoming play and wouldn’t welcome the interruption. But he would be kind, and he would bring his Ford 4-wheeler to unstick her car. Her phone was right inside the glove compart…NO. She had meant to bring it, had told herself to. But she could picture it, lying benignly on her desk, of absolutely no use to her now.
All right then, she’d walk to the farmhouse a couple of miles back. She knew the people slightly, and was pretty sure they’d help her—if they were home. She’d have the Mastiff to deal with, so she’d leave Janie in the car. Her dog cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “You stay,” she told her. “I’ll be back pretty soon.” She hoped she could keep her promise.
When she looked at her watch, it was later than she’d thought. There was only half a sun left on the horizon and the sky was pale baby blue. I’ll be walking down this road in the dark, she thought, to a farmhouse that may be empty, and I’ll be met by that giant beast with its mouth full of teeth. This may be turning into a steeper rising action than I need. This story could get really ugly.
Then she reviewed her options: 1. Stay in the car (uncomfortable, no food, no water, and Stuart wouldn’t be home till 10:00 or so) 2. Try to flag somebody down (there’d be little or no traffic on the road, especially in its present condition) 3. Walk to the house.
And, just like it happens in fiction, before she’d taken 5 slurpy steps, she heard, then saw, a beat-up, mud-covered truck coming down the hill to the east, traveling way too fast, swerving and sliding across the road. The motor sounded like a giant angry garbage disposal.
Unsure if she wanted to be rescued by the driver of this particular vehicle, but even less sure that she’d have another chance, she raised a tentative hand. When the driver hit the brakes, the truck traveled a good ten yards before stopping. Then the pickup zigzagged back to where she was standing. The driver stared at her with could have been a grin or a leer, then leaned over and rolled down the window on the passenger side. He had a kitchen match in the corner of his mouth, his hair hung down his neck in greasy points, and his feed cap read ‘Big Cock Country.’
“You in some kind of trouble, Little Lady?” he asked, then cleared his throat, reproducing the noise his truck had made, and turned to spit out his window.
Say ‘no,’ she told herself. Tell him Triple A is coming. But the sun was gone now, and the idea of the Mastiff coming for her in the dark made her nod her head.
He grinned (or something) again, then said “Well, let me jis get this hunk-a-junk off the highway and we’ll see if we can’t make us a plan.”
A plan? A plan for what, exactly? Almost all the people she knew or know of in her little Midwestern town and its surrounds were decent, capable, helpful folks. But Stuart sometimes confronted belligerent poachers on the prairie, and some people seemed to take real pleasure in strewing garbage and the occasional deer carcass up and down the country roads. And not too long ago, she and Stuart had stopped to investigate a small, intense fire at the turn-off to one of the B roads and discovered that the fuel was a collection of women’s fancy underwear. It seemed bizarre enough to merit a call to the sheriff, who said, “Yep, we have a pretty good idea what’s going on here. It’s a good thing you called.”
Was she about to be rescued by the man who had set that fire? And some part of her fiction-saturated mind told her that the action was rising with a vengeance.
When the man climbed out of his truck, she noticed a small Confederate flag sewn on the shoulder of his camo jacket. She wasn’t sure what such an emblem stood for here in Iowa, but she didn’t think it had to do with women’s rights and solar energy. He gave a derisive snort when he saw the Prius, then tapped on the window at Janie, who was pleading to be released.
“If you’ll give me the key to this little thing, I’ll see if I can get her out,” he said.
Was he going to drive off with her car and her dog?
But after backing up and taking a couple of runs at the gluey incline, he’d only mired the tires deeper.
“No go, Young Lady,” he told her. (She wasn’t sure which she disliked more—‘Young’ Lady or ‘Little’ Lady. She certainly wasn’t either of those things.)
And then he said, “So you just hop in my old jalopy and I’ll take you straight home.” She knew this could be the crucial line from a novel, the ‘no-turning-back’ moment, one that could lead directly to an especially gruesome climax. She decided she didn’t want to be in this story.
“Oh thanks,” she said, “but I can’t leave the dog. And I’m sure my husband (she emphasized the word) will come looking for me soon.”
“Lady,” he said, making the now-unmodified word sound like a threat, “you need to get in the truck. I’m not going to leave you out here in the dark. No telling who might come along. And bring the dog. I like her looks. I bet she hunts good.”
He opened the rear of the Prius and Janie jumped out, confused but excited. “Here,” he ordered, and she bounded into the back seat of the truck, settling down in a nest of tangled fishing line and Christmas-colored red, green, and yellow shot gun shells. Then he took her arm just above the elbow and half-led, half-pulled her to the passenger side. She had no choice but to get in. The cab smelled like cigarettes and gasoline.
She was as scared as she had ever been. She tried to become an observer, to think of herself as a character in one of James Lee Burke’s detective thrillers, but she realized that in those novels, the women in her situation usually ended up as bodies, or parts thereof. I could jump out the door, she thought, but that would leave Janie behind. And it would hurt. I could grab the steering wheel and send us into the ditch. That might knock him out. Then I could walk to town. Call the police. Save the town from a wave of kidnappings and murders. She liked this plan, except for the Mastiff. So instead, she began, ridiculously and desperately, to talk.
“Do you live around here,” she asked, in a voice that didn’t sound familiar.
“Do you farm?”
Then, “I can give you directions to my house.”
“Oh, I know right where you live, Mam.”
Good Lord, she thought, this is a plot. He’s planned this. He’s going to make me unlock the door, steal everything we own, and then…. She squeezed her eyes shut to block out the possibilities.
“And,” the driver said, “I bet you a Budweiser that dog of yours is named Janie.”
She realized they had left the muddy road and were now traveling on pavement. She could not imagine how he knew Janie’s name—or what that knowledge meant to her survival. She was sure he also knew her social security number and her mother’s middle name.
“See,” the now-chatty man explained, “I’ve been knowing Stuart for 20 years or so, and I figure that any Chocolate Lab he owns is gonna be named Janie. We’ve hunted together some, even shot a few pheasants on that property where your little car is half-buried. And I’ve told him about a couple of good trout streams up near Manchester. He’s a pretty awright guy for one a’ them college types. And here you are, Little Lady, right at your own front door.”
The plot she’d concocted had swerved so quickly that she hadn’t even realized they’d pulled up in her driveway. As the man talked, and the tension oozed out of her chest, she adjusted his role from villain to hero, and realized the climax was over and the action was starting to fall. For a brief, truly stupid moment, she was disappointed: the climax had lacked the necessary exquisite tension; the main character had gotten off too easy. Then, she offered to pay her driver for his trouble.
“Oh, you just tell Stuart he owes me one. I’ll call him before long and see’f he’ll let me shoot a deer off that land he owns south of town.” He reached into the back seat to rub Janie’s ears, then stretched across her to open the passenger door. “You take care, now,” he said. “Stay out of the mud.” Then he laughed and said, “Ya know, this is gonna make a pretty good story.”
Betty Moffett lives in Grinnell, Iowa, where she and her husband enjoy walking on their restored prairie with their dog, whose real name is Hyde, and playing with the Too Many String Band. After teaching for nearly 30 years in Grinnell College’s Writing Lab, Betty has turned her attention to her own work. Her stories have appeared in various magazines and journals, including BLUESTEM, THE MACGUFFIN, POYDRAS, THE BROADKILL REVIEW, THE WAPSIPINICON ALMANAC, and…THE DEAD MULE SCHOOL OF SOUTHERN LITERATURE! A collection of her short stories, COMING CLEAN, has been published by Ice Cube Press.
Feature image by Free Photos from Pixabay
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