The Inside-Out Woman
CHAPTER 6: MEMORIES
“Two weeks and look at it, a piece of shit.”
Billy surveyed the fire-orange Ford 250 pickup. A long, thick tree branch had crushed the walls of the cargo bed. It wasn’t pretty, especially on a new truck loaded with extras and prodigious chrome, but it wasn’t fatal.
“The damage appears repairable,” Billy said, crouching, peering underneath the truck’s bed. “Doesn’t seem to be any damage to the frame.” He ticked his tablet PC; used its camera to record pictures of the damage; switched between the truck, the tablet, and the customer, claimant is what he thought. “A week in a body shop and you’ll never know.”
“Easy for you to say. Shit, I’ll always fuckin’ know. Man, it was like … pristine. I mean, Christ, like virgin pussy, if you know what I mean. Like that. Now, you know, it’s like the old lady in there. Used. You know. Shit.”
And you’re such a prize, Billy thought, standing, rubbing the ache in his lower back, avoiding the man, the foul mouth, the rutted, bloated face, the belly protruding over the waistband, making an elaborate study of the tree’s exposed flesh where the limb had been attached.
“Could have been a lot worst, Mr. Pike,” though mister didn’t seem to fit the claimant. Asshole seemed more appropriate. Should have been worst, you asshole. Should have flattened your precious dick truck like a pancake. “Could have fallen on your home.”
“I could give a shit. A piece of crap. But my truck, my beautiful truck.” Mr. Pike thrust his arm, hand fisted but for his forefinger. “Fuck you, God, you miserable bastard.”
“Please, Mr. Pike, we don’t want to temp Him. One catastrophe is more than enough for the week.” Billy presented the tablet and stylus to him. “Look it over. Then sign here at the bottom and I’ll transmit your claim.”
Mr. Pike grabbed the tablet and stylus, stared obtusely at the screen, growled “Where?” three times, made his mark, and pushed both back at Billy.
Billy slid the tablet and stylus into the backpack he carried and removed a flyer. “Here are a few Knox County body shops we recommend.”
Mr. Pike snatched the flyer. “Yeah, sure. Thanks for nothing.”
“You’re welcome, sir,” which stung like a canker, “and here’s my card.” Another snatch. “If Old Northwest Insurance and Casualty can be of further assistance, just call the number on the card.”
In his car, Billy wanted to pull the phone from his pants pocket and call Iam back, but who knew how long he’d be on the phone. Better to save time and arrive home early to see firsthand what the problem was. If he had any hope of leaving tonight, he had to keep moving. Three more claims awaited him, each big, the next a house shorn of its roof and who knew what other damage, and certainly freighted with limitless emotion.
Writing claims in profusion was tedious and tiring but bearable. The emotion, the over abundant crop of suffering, of angst, of fright, of despair, these overwhelmed Billy. His skills at assessing, analyzing, and calculating were superb. Tears, sorrow, hopelessness, anger, resentment, spitefulness, and rudeness, these he found difficult to handle.
Iam, early in their marriage, said the name Brick fit him. When he objected, tried to show he was as warm as the next guy, she said it was an admirable quality. He was her brick when she needed it, whenever she required something solid to lean on. “Mr. Brick,” she said on their honeymoon, after they’d made love for the first time, the depth increased by the long deferral in deference to the rape she told him she suffered as a girl, “you’re my Sir Willy.” After inquiring about the origin of Sir Willy and she reminding him she once had a loving aunt who mothered her, protected her, and read to her, she giggled, “Whenever I need a brick, I’ll call you Willy,” frivolous, but he also serious.
Didn’t she say Willy earlier? He couldn’t recall. It had been a bizarre conversation, the confusion over the time, the weird pitch of her voice, tight, as if her vocal cords had been winched; and then calm, normal, as if maybe everything was as right as she’d said. She might be in one of her states, blackly sad for a period, then, suddenly, brightly happy, and then normal, a calm condition of reserve, or, sometimes he felt, restraint. She classified these bursts “spells” that afflicted her from time to time; nothing serious she’d been advised, just residue from the rape. That rape, it was a plague on them both; a horror, she termed it, too evil to recount whenever he offered to listen. “Please, Billy,” she’d demur. “Please.”
It couldn’t be Dominic and Dominica. They were cooperative, obedient children. She loved them. She was a wonder with them, too; he witnessed that himself; his parents commented often to him privately at his luck marrying a compassionate, lovely, levelheaded girl like Iam; and they marveled in her presence about how artfully she managed the children, the house, and Billy, who sometimes could seem disconnected.
His parents confided to her that when he was a boy and a young man they worried about him. His mother called him a backward child. Relating to women was difficult for him; he didn’t date; he didn’t attend his high school prom. They feared he’d never meet someone. Directed inwards, in other words, meaning he lacked social skills; he preferred being alone to work with his tools, on projects involving paper and computers and wood and the like, more than with people. The impression was he was a social hermit.
He knew his mother had discussed her concerns with Iam; Iam told him. He was a little of that, she’d rejoined in his defense, and she loved his stoic quality. Stoic. He adored her characterization of him. Stoic. The word fashioned him in his vision of a real man, a John Wayne kind of guy, a modern Spartan. She was adamant with his parents; he was the type she wanted: a brick, a man who wouldn’t fall apart in dicey situations, a man who wouldn’t burden her with emotional displays, a man she could count on, a man who kept his feelings to himself and who knew to put them on display sparingly when necessary. She’d experienced the other type, silly boys, Peter Pan men, and Billy was for her. He was tender and understanding when it counted, when she needed him to be.
Hashing, mulling, analyzing, he drove to the house without a roof. A few blocks away and easy to spot, it stood topless and forlorn amid houses the storm had capriciously skipped. He parked across the street and observed a couple picking through the debris, lugging small items, clothing and furnishings, to a van parked in the littered driveway. He muttered a brief prayer that the days had by now smoothed the sharp edges of the couple’s emotions, and noticed the woman hesitating letting go a box. From it jutted photo albums.
Was it the box? The box certainly raised questions in his mind, especially the pink envelopes and the newspaper clipping. He didn’t read the letters completely, merely pulled a few from their envelopes, glanced at them when Dominic showed him the mysterious box, and puzzled at the one still sealed. He devoted more time to the clipping, running his eyes up and down it, absorbing it. The contents of the box troubled him. He planned mentioning the box when Iam returned from her errands in Sullivan. Then the tornado struck in Knox County and he asked Dominic to find a safe place for the box until he got home. The box would be their secret until he had a chance to look over the items in it closely. Why the box should be a secret, he didn’t know.
The troubling aspect was he couldn’t match up what she’d told him about her life preceding Sullivan and the contents of the hidden box. The building, what was it? He’d seen plenty of hospitals and it certainly appeared to be one. But why save a photo of a hospital? Was it where she was born? Maybe where she was treated after the rape? Who saved pictures of hospitals, especially a building as gloomy as the monolith in the photo? And the women, who were they? Maybe the worn photo of the woman, whose face was smudged into inscrutability either by time and handling or maliciously erased, was important to her. Maybe the other in a pink dress, vintage in appearance and familiarly nagging, though at the moment he couldn’t place her, was the woman whose name he saw on the pink envelopes? Margaret. She never mentioned a Margaret, but perhaps it was her Aunt Margie? If so, why wouldn’t she show him the picture of the woman who raised her? Where were the pictures of her brother, her sister, her parents? The cup and saucer, the small box, were they heirlooms? Why wouldn’t she display them, if she cherished them? Most perplexing, though, was the newspaper clipping. MASS EXECUTION. What would she find interesting in such a tragedy to save it? What could it possibly mean to her?
Nothing in the box made sense when laid against her life. Her life was; well, truth was it was ordinary. Actually, when he weighed it carefully, it was ordinary and extraordinary. She’d had an older brother and a younger sister, Sammy and Ruth. Sammy was smart, who had been an achiever, but also a pesky wise guy who teased her incessantly. Ruth was a sweet little sister, who idolized Iam and emulated her big sister in every way. Often, she annoyed Iam with her adulatory pestering. But Iam loved her and Sammy regardless of their antics. Her father was hardworking, an insurance salesman who became an independent broker and started his own small agency. Iam didn’t seem to know anymore than the next person about insurance; however, what child would find insurance sales sufficiently exciting to delve into? Dominic and Dominica, when they were older, would probably nod off if he went on about his job. Her mother was beautiful and proper. She took pride in nurturing her children, loved her husband, and kept an ordered house. She devoted herself to it and the family, like his own mother.
The family’s sadness, however, struck Billy as extraordinary. Though he knew from his constant encounters with tragedy, some families suffered more than others, like the folks across the street, Iam’s bordered on unbelievable. She assured him that, no, no, it was painfully true. The family was taking him to his college located hours away in Maine. They planned to stay the night in the motel in Vermont, break up the drive, and have a little family vacation. Iam got sick and couldn’t go. Her Aunt Margie took care of her. Sammy had been a bit of a reckless driver; a typical boy, she said, who liked speed, who could be distracted. Maybe he was driving too fast, or the family was excited and he was devoting more attention to them than to the road. Whatever, nobody would ever know for sure. He didn’t see the crossing. It was night. It was chilly. The windows were up. It was a rural crossing without lights. It was the middle of the freight train. It was as good as a phantom, and silent, what with the windows up and the family talking excitedly about the college they would visit the next day. It didn’t happen often, but it happened from time to time. He drove into the train, and Iam lost her family. Extraordinary. Iam was a young woman, just 36, with no family, no relatives to speak of, not even Aunt Margie, who’d raised her. “Not really,” she said after their son’s birth, when he lamented her dearth of relations with whom to share their first joyful birth, “I have a family, Billy, the best family. You, Dominic, and my beautiful in-laws. It’s all the family I ever want.”
Billy discovered himself focused on the windshield, on a few specks marring it, splattered insects, murmuring that he mustn’t forget to stop at a service station and wash it before heading home, when he noticed the woman cradling the box of albums staring at him. She and, he assumed, her husband stood in a field of debris that miraculously, or oddly, littered no farther than the boundaries of their yard. Reflexively, he waved, raised his backpack for them to see, and held up a finger. “A minute,” he mouthed. He checked his watch. He’d been looking off into space for just a couple of minutes. Nothing strange in that, merely contemplating the scope of the disaster. He climbed from his car and toted his backpack over to the couple. They were the same age as his parents. They introduced themselves, the Benedicts, and he reciprocated, struggling to maintain a professional evenness. The destruction devastated the couple and underneath their politeness their tension and bottomless sorrow was unmistakable. Immediately, and for the time he was with them, he was uncomfortable.
When it was over, after he’d inspected the house, scrambled over furnishings reduced to trash, stood in the open air of the second floor, scribbled and ticked and photographed and scrolled for what seemed forever, and they’d signed the tablet, the woman thanked him and said, “I feel very fortunate, Mr. Brick.”
“Yes, Mrs. Benedict?”
Through the entire ordeal of his writing the claim, she’d clutched the box, brushing aside her husband’s several attempts at sharing the burden. Now, it appeared to Billy, she hugged the box.
“Yes, because the storm spared these.”
“Your photos, Mrs. Benedict?”
“My memories, Mr. Brick. My memories of the house and my family, of my life, our lives,” she said, as Mr. Benedict draped an arm around her. “It’s why I keep these, why I’m grateful, because they remind me of what is truly important to me.”
“Yes, Mrs. Benedict, I understand. I really do understand.”
He left them like that, side by side.
Starting the car and pulling away, he saw, finally, Mrs. Benedict allowed her husband to relieve her of the box and, almost imperceptivity, her shoulders heaved. The scene was too much for Billy and he drove away a little faster than normal for him.
He slowed when he turned onto the next block. He found he couldn’t concentrate on the road and parked. His own box, Iam’s box, preoccupied him. She saved the contents of the box because they were important to her. They were precious memories. She kept the box to not forget them, maybe to relive them. But why hide them? Why, when he asked about her life, she didn’t place the box in his lap and say, “These are my memories. These represent what is important to me, Billy. They are who I am.”
“I don’t know you, Iam, not fully,” he said into the air, “but I will.”
He couldn’t wait until tomorrow. No matter how late he finished, he would return home tonight. He was desperate to leave, to find out what had upset her to distraction, and to learn who Iam really was, to understand why the box was such a secret.
But his obsession and determination weren’t sufficient for him to start the car, not just yet, not with the newspaper clipping fogging his vision, not with it consuming him. By virtue of his ability, his “special gift” his mother called it, he vividly recalled each sensational revelation. Each sentence brought a new mystery, a new question demanding an answer. And there was the begging ultimate question he spoke to the windshield: “What does this Pater and Universal One have to do with my wife, with Iam?”