Conowingo

By Jeff Richards

Dinner 

ictor meets Nancy at one of Walt and Harriet’s couples-only parties at their bungalow in Chevy Chase. She’s the only other single. Harriet and Walt don’t believe in odd numbers. “We want our guests to feel comfortable.” Until Nancy, Vic felt the opposite.

“I grew up in Conowingo near the power plant,” she says. “I wear sculptured nails, pluck my eyebrows, and tease my hair. There’s not an honest thing about me.” She’s dressed in a pink waitress uniform and black flats.

“I moved to this area two years ago and found a job answering phones. Now I’m a researcher. Next they’ll make me vice president because the boss adores blondes.”

“I’m sure he thinks you’re smart, too,” says Victor.

“Perhaps. But he passed over other women who are as smart and more experienced, but none of them are blonde.”

They spend most of the party on the back deck in the chill fall air while the other guests play charades before a warm fire in the living room.

“I’m college educated,” she says. “Sweetbriar, a finishing school for Southern belles. I didn’t fit in there. I majored in business.”

“I’m a CPA,” Victor informs her.

“You look like one.” Vic assumes she refers to his wire-rim glasses and bowtie.

“Harriet and I met at Camp Chesapeake years ago. She thought I was daring, the exact opposite of her. I tipped the sailboat over in the middle of the Bay and got everybody wet. I ran in front of the targets at the archery range. Moments after my mom left on Family Day that summer, I set a pile of dirty socks on fire in my cabin. I breathed the smoke in deeply, slipped into unconsciousness and was rudely awakened when they dragged me out.” She puts her hand on his knee. She wears about eight silver bracelets.

“I almost died.”

A sickly pale moon peers out from behind a cloud where it’s hidden most of the night. In this light Nancy seems like a ghost out of the fifties. Doris Day as a truck-stop waitress. He takes her hand.

He tells her that he and Walt were roommates in college in the early nineties. In the summer, they rafted down the Snake River and repelled El Capitan.  When they graduated, they moved to Bourbon Street. All their possessions were stolen—his CD collection, Walt’s desktop. They got into a bar fight.

“We decided to reform. Entered graduate school at the University of Maryland,” says Vic, pleased at his openness.  “Walt ended up marrying the principal’s daughter at the first firm he worked for. I work for one of the Big Fours, own a condo in Adams Morgan, a Subaru, and membership in a sports club where I play racquetball. I travel on business. I guess I’m an average guy.”

“Oh, come on, you don’t expect me to believe that,” says Nancy. “There must be something unusual about you.”

“Well,” says Vic, deciding to take a dive into the unknown, “my dad didn’t like it that I went to Maryland. He wanted me to get a law degree at Stanford, like him.”

Nancy kisses Victor, her touch feathery. He can barely feel the pressure on his lips. “I live on Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park, a few miles from here,” she says.

Victor drives Nancy home. She invites him in, fixes tea. They sit close together on a couch. “Do you hear anything?” she asks.

“No, I don’t.”

“Total silence is nice,” she says. “In Conowingo, where we live on the side of a hill that overlooks the dam, day and night you always hear either the water roar over the spillway or the low hum of the machinery. Got to the point where I heard it five miles off when I was at school.”

Victor spends the night in a room with a half-open door and, after they make love, he studies Nancy’s face, half in shadow, like an eclipsed moon. He wonders what kind of person she really is.

“What are you thinking?” asks Nancy.

“Oh, nothing,” he says.

“You can tell me,” says Nancy. “I want to hear about you.”

So he tells her that he grew up in a ranch house in the foothills that overlooked Boulder, Colorado and the plains.

“I could see all the way to Kansas.”

He says that sometimes when he was in bed at night after all the lights were out and he could hear his father snoring, he’d want to slip into his clothes, creep down the hallway and out the back door. “I’d hike up the mountain over the Continental Divide, down the western slope across the valley to the Wasatch Mountains and down the other side to Bonneville Flats or whatever the desert’s called there until I came to California.”

Nancy laughs. “You sound as crazy as me.”

“That’s my escape dream,” says Vic. “I have another one where I hide in the mountains in a cave because the Soviets have invaded and fenced in all the residents of Boulder. I vaguely remember a movie about this. Red Sunset, I think it’s called. In my dream, I sneak down to rescue a girl and take her up to my cave.”

“What do you do with her there?”

“You know,” says Vic.

“Yes,” says Nancy, leaning up on her elbow facing him in the bed so he can only see one of her tiny round breasts, the other’s in shadow. “You could rescue me.”

 

Lunch

Over lunch at the City Café, Vic insists that, “Nancy may appear strange on the surface, but deep down she’s a warmhearted person.”

Walt cuts into his mushroom crepe, more concerned about how busy he and Harriet were the day after the party searching for oak veneer end tables to match the couch they found at Ikea.

“I like Nancy an awful lot,” says Victor.

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” says Walt.  “By the way, did she tell you how she likes the silence?”

“Well, yes.”

“You can’t tell me that isn’t weird.”

“It’s weird if you didn’t understand where she grew up.”

“Okay, Victor, you can make excuses for her.”

“I’m not making excuses, Walt. I like her.”

“You shouldn’t,” says Walt, stabbing a piece of mushroom crepe and pointing it at his friend. The white sauce drips on the plate. “Her father ran away when she was a kid and, I think, it did something to her mind. Wait until she tells you. You’ll see.”

 

Dinner

Vic takes Nancy to dinner at Vidalia followed by a concert at the Kennedy Center. She wears a low-cut black cocktail dress with a satin belt and satin pumps, a veiled pillbox hat tilted smartly on her head. He takes her dancing at a fifties club. She’s in pink pedal pushers, saddle shoes, an oversized men’s dress shirt, and chews gum the whole time.

“I’m not what I appear to be,” she tells him. “Insanity runs in my family. My brother’s in and out of an institution in California because he won’t take his pills. My sister’s been released from a place in New Jersey. She suffers from postpartum depression.”

“I know about your father,” says Victor gently.

“You do. He is an engineer. He helped design the power plant.”

Vic invites her to his condo. She peers out his eighth floor window at the Washington Monument, and beyond that, the lights from Rosslyn that wink across the Potomac like a thousand pairs of sleepy eyes.

“This is wonderful,” she says. “When I was 12 my father took me to Washington to one of his conventions. He took me to dinner at the Mayflower, to a show at the National Theater, and the Ice Capades. It was just Dad and I. One night he ordered room service and we sat in front of a window that was high up like this one overlooking the whole town. I liked that.”

Victor wants to ask further questions about her father but decides not to. She seems so vulnerable standing there by the window, hugging herself.

The next day he calls up Harriet. “Don’t let Walt influence you. There’s nothing wrong with Nancy that a relationship with a nice person like you can’t cure.”

Victor falls in love with Nancy when he takes her to a ski resort in West Virginia though he’s not sure why. They spend the whole weekend in an A-frame with a huge thermo-glass window in the front that overlooks the lodge and ski slopes. They watch videos, build huge fires in the stone fireplace, which they stare at for hours on end. On Saturday afternoon it snows, and Nancy goes out on the porch in a cashmere sweater, her arms wrapped around her. “What do you hear?” she asks.

Though Victor’s in his down vest, he still feels cold. He sees the skiers winding down the slopes, waiting in line for the ski chairs, cars driving down the road, parking, people wandering in and out of the lodge and ski shop. But they’re too far away.

“Nothing,” he says, “I hear nothing.”

“Nor do I. Isn’t it nice?” The snow gets thicker, obscures the view of the lodge.

That night as they curl up on the sleep sofa in front of the fire, Victor tells Nancy about his family. “My parents got divorced when I was ten years old. Mom moved to Seattle with my older sister. I stayed in Boulder and visited Mom for a month in the summer. Sandy would visit us for Christmas every other year and during the summer.”

“Did you miss your mother?”

“Yeah, she’s not a bad person. She and Dad couldn’t get along.”

“My parents couldn’t get along either,” says Nancy, crossing her legs and staring fixedly at the fire. An ember pops. “Because Mom was always right. Always. So Dad found an engineering job in Nevada. We haven’t heard from him since. He might be dead for all we know.”

“I guess we share a lot in common,” says Vic hesitantly.

“Except that you got to stay with your father,” says Nancy. She stirs the fire with a stick, turns her head towards him. They kiss, then settle down to make love with a wild abandon that Victor has never experienced before.

In the morning he looks at her body, which is as white as the sheets on their bed. Her fingernails and toenails are painted purple; two of her silver bracelets have slid up her arm. She opens her eyes, which are like black coral so he can’t distinguish the pupils and she says, simply, “I love you.”

 

Lunch

“I’m busy all the time,” says Walt as he picks at his pasta seafood primavera at the Devon Grille. On a paper napkin, he draws the layout of the bathroom they’re remodeling in their home.

“We’re going to have a Jacuzzi, skylights, a walk-in shower. Kohler fixtures. The best that money can buy.”

“Walt, I’m crazy about Nancy. What do you think I ought to do?”

“Forget her. You need a sensible girl. I wouldn’t have let Harriet introduce you if I knew you planned to get serious.”

Victor picks at his seafood nachos with cheese. Walt says that it’s bad for him. All that cheese will raise his cholesterol level.

 

Dinner

In the spring, before one of Walt and Harriet’s couples-only soirees, Vic and Nancy have their first fight. He confronts Nancy about the mental state of her family.

“I want to know how you fit in the picture,” he demands.

They are in his condo, and she is standing at the window, looking out at the Washington Monument with its one blinking red eye. Victor is worried. They have been going out for almost a year and things are turning serious. He realizes the next step is to ask Nancy to marry him, and he needs to make the right decision.

“Do you want to know if I’m crazy like my sister and brother?” asks Nancy. He can tell that she is agitated. Maybe he’s pushing his luck.

“Well, I’m not sure if I suffer from postpartum depression since I have never had a baby. Nor do I think I’m like my brother. He has an eating disorder. And I don’t mean anorexia or bulimia. He weighs over four hundred pounds. I weigh in at 110. Maybe I’m bipolar. Maybe one moment I fly off to the moon like a rocket and the next I sink to the bottom of the ocean like the Titantic. What do you think?” She laughs, flops in a chair, and swivels around so she’s facing Vic.

“Or maybe you think I have a personality disorder,” she says, her fathomless, black, coral eyes flashing at him. “Why else would I dress up like a waitress one night, and a bobby-soxer the next?

“Please, Nancy. Don’t get overwrought.”

“Well, you want to know if I’m as crazy as everyone else in my family. You want to know if I’m worthy of you. That’s what I think.”

“Nancy, Nancy,” he says in a calm voice. “You’re worthy of me. It’s not that. I want you to talk. I want you to unburden yourself.”

“You’re not my psychiatrist.”

“I don’t want to be your psychiatrist.  I want to be your…” He can’t get the word out so he finds a convenient substitute.  “…friend.”

“Wow, friend. Like Walt and Harriet. Just what I need.”

Victor feels an ache in his chest bought on by the sarcasm of her remarks. How real she has become. This frightens him. He can’t think of how to respond so he says they’re late for the party.

They trudge out to the Subaru. Drive to her apartment where she changes into a black leotard. Black mini-skirt. Black tights. Black make-up. He wonders what kind of statement she is trying to make and realizes how little he really knows about this woman. But this doesn’t stop him from loving her. He senses that if he said something the heavy silence that has settled on them like an angry cloud would lift.

When they arrive at Walt and Harriet’s bungalow in Chevy Chase, the party is in full swing on the back deck of their house where Walt’s cooking baby-back ribs over a mesquite fire. He wears a Kiss the Chef apron, asks them whether they care for martinis or gin ‘n’ tonics, hands them a party plate of smoked cheese and Vienna sausages. In the background, Glenn Miller plays “That Old Black Magic,” two couples waltz, the rest gather in a semi-circle around the grill, Tricia and Zeb, Ed and Laura, Mary and Fred, Ted and Tina.

“It’s hard to believe but you’re the only unmarried couple here,” says Harriet. “As a matter of fact, with the exception of us and Ed and Laura, you’re the only ones without children. But guess what, Walt and I decided this morning to think about having children. Isn’t it wonderful.” They congratulate her.

Walt takes them up to see the bathroom that is finished except for a hole in a corner of the room.

“They’re bringing the Jacuzzi in on Monday.” He talks about the weight of the tub, with and without water, bearing walls, copper tubing, waste pipes, valves and fittings.

“I’m fascinated by the inner workings of things.”

When they go downstairs, the couples crowd around the dinning room table. Vic and Nancy sit next to Tricia who asks them if dating practices are still the same as when she was single.

“I hear a lot of singles screen their dates through private clubs.”

“Yeah,” says Fred, who’s on the other side of Tricia, “that’s how I met my wife. We saw each other on the internet before we even went out together. It cost us a bundle, but it was worth it in the end. Besides, I sold my membership to the guy who moved in after me at my group house.”

“You lived in a group house,” says Walt who sits across from them.  “Gawd, I’d hate that. Labeling yogurt containers, negotiating for bedrooms.”

Victor notices that Nancy downs one martini after another. She stares fixedly at her hands folded in her lap. “How are you feeling?” This is the first thing he has said to her all night and he’s feeling guilty.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” she says and pushes away from the table.

He wants to follow her but instead waits until dinner is over and follows the guests into the living room. They play charades. Nancy has been gone for half an hour and finally he can no longer stand it. He climbs the stairs and knocks on the bathroom door but doesn’t get a response. He hears water running, sniffling. He jiggles the door handle.

“Nancy, are you okay?” He waits a few more minutes. The sniffling has stopped as though she’s holding her breath. The water still runs. He breaks down the door.

Nancy sits on the toilet with the lid down. Her wrists are turned up under the water spigot. A tiny cut on the left wrist is seeping blood that mixes with the water in the bowl. A large kitchen knife rests on a soap dish. “I can’t do it,” she says, a pleading look in her eyes as though she wants Vic to tell her why she can’t.

“Jesus H. Christ,” says Walt who barges in behind Vic. He turns to Harriet.

“Would you get everyone the hell out of here,” he tells her. “The party’s ruined.”

 

Hospital

Vic visits Nancy at the psychiatric ward at Shady Grove Hospital where she seems preoccupied by perspective.

“There are people here far worse off then I am. That have been here five or six times. Who are serious about suicide.” She wears a cashmere sweater and a skirt embroidered with flowers. She insists that she must go home to her mother. Vic agrees to take her after she’s released to his custody.

They spend the night at her place packing.

“I’ll miss my job,” she says. She makes him promise to tell the boss that she’s physically ill and won’t return to work ever. She wraps her arms around herself tightly as though she’s either cold or giving herself a hug. She’s no longer the ghost of Doris Day as a truck-stop waitress. She has let her hair grow long, stringy — she is now a dirty blonde, a sixties character, perhaps Lisa in David and Lisa.

“You know it’s my turn now,” she says. “It was my brother’s and sister’s before. Now it’s my turn.”

 

Dinner

They drive north through Baltimore where they pick up Route 1, the main road forty years ago that now passes through desolate country with broken down motels and seedy wayside stands until they come out at the dam on the Susquehanna River. In Conowingo they take a two lane black top road that cuts through a forest and opens out at the top of a cliff that overlooks the river. They pull in the driveway of a white clapboard house with green shutters and window boxes full of flowers. A woman in a white uniform greets them at the door. “Mom’s a nurse, remember.”

Vic helps carry the luggage inside. He stays for a spaghetti dinner that the mother serves on paper plates. “I’m so busy that it’s difficult to do dishes all the time,” she says. “And with Nancy here it’ll be twice as busy.”

“I’m sorry, Mom,” says Nancy who picks at her food.

“Don’t you worry, darling,” says the mom in a soothing nurse like voice, “I don’t care. We’ll have a nice time together, won’t we Victor?”

“I’m sure of it,” says Vic who stares at his spaghetti and meatballs with green pepper specks. He dips the Italian bread in olive oil and listens to the silence.

“Conowingo is the perfect place for you to be,” says the mom. “It is so quiet and peaceful here in the woods…”

“Except for the dam,” says Nancy.

The mother laughs. “Oh, don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about anything. Everything will be fine if you do exactly as I tell you.” She smoothes her daughter’s hair. “I’m the nurse.”

Nancy looks pleadingly at Vic. She seems to be shrinking like Alice in Wonderland trying to make herself small enough to fit through the door that is too small for her.

“I truly appreciate your taking care of my daughter, Victor,” says the mother at last. She has the same pale skin as her daughter, but her eyes are gray. Blank like a dawn without sunlight. She takes him by the elbow and leads him to the front door. Her fingers feel like ice on his skin.

“But now,” she says, “my daughter has to be alone. She needs to heal.”

“I understand,” says Vic. “I have to get back to the office. It’s tax season.”

He shakes the mother’s hand and thanks her for the meal. He leans down and pecks the daughter on the cheek.

On his way to the bridge over the Susquehanna, he comes to an overlook and parks. He wants to hear the water roar over the spillway or the hum of the machinery. He hears nothing, a still twilight with the sun setting upriver casting long, twisted shadows from the bushes that hang over the cliffs. He thinks about that perfect morning in the mountains when Nancy opened her black coral, fathomless eyes and whispered, “I love you.” He thinks of what Harriet said, that there was nothing wrong with Nancy that a relationship with Vic can’t cure. For a moment what he wants to do is to forget the past, throw away his bowtie, drive his Subaru into the river, and like in his Red Sunset dream, sneak up to the house with the flowers in the window box, rescue Nancy, and take her to his cave far off in the mountains where no one can find them. Then he remembers what Walter said about how he needs a sensible girl. Without a glance back, Victor climbs in his car and drives across the bridge.

___

Jeff Richards’ fiction and essays have appeared in more than two dozen publications including North Dakota Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Compass Rose, River City, Gargoyle, The GSU Review, Phantasmagoria, Aethlon, Karamu, Radio Void, Weber Studies, The Houston Chronicle, and Zone 3. His work has also been included in two books of essays, Tales Out of School (Beacon Press) and Letters to Salinger (University of Wisconsin Press). He was fiction editor of the Washington Review and is currently a contributing writer to Blueswax, the online blues magazine.


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