Ballad of Jane | DeMisty D. Bellinger
Jane’s shoes were too tight. She smiled at her date, Edgar, who thought he knew everything, and aimed to tell her everything. They sat across from each other at a little bar table, on little bar chairs with bent cast iron backs, fashioned into crossing hearts. “That’s how they make wine foregoing the oak, it creates a fresher flavor,” he said. She smiled, she nodded, she let her shoes slip off her heels, she felt the flesh pulse out there. She’d need moleskin. “Some go in for that, but I like that muted, woody taste. More Old World, ain’t it?” he asked. He spoke with too much breath. She nodded.
“You like wine? What’s that you drinking? Very sweet, ain’t it?”
“I like my wine dry,” she said. “It’s a Malbec. Australia, of course.”
“Of course. Dry wine. I’ve figured you wetter.”
What? “What did you—”
“Your taste in wine.”
“It’s dry.” Her feet were killing her.
“You want another?”
“No. No thank you.” Jane turned away from him. She looked towards the bar. What were they doing at a bar?
“Did you like the movie?” her date, Edgar, asked.
And what grown man took his date to a movie? She shrugged.
“How long did you say you’ve been divorced?”
She sighed. She wanted to leave. She turned back towards Edgar. “A little over a year. Thirty-four days over a year. Three hundred ninety-nine days.”
“Almost four hundred.”
“And each of those days, I count as a blessing. Blessing’s not the right word. Whatever the word for it, I’m happy for them.”
“You could call Amanda Jackson irreconcilable. I don’t want to talk about that. Let’s talk about something else. You’ve never been married, so let’s not talk about that or why.”
“What should I talk about?”
What? “You talk about? You want to talk alone?”
“You want to get out of here?”
He grinned at her with one eyebrow raised. “Has it been four hundred days?”
She grinned back. “More than that.”
Jane felt too old for regrets. Edgar slept beside her with some contraption on his face, strapped around the back of his head, affixed to his nose and mouth. His chest sunk in, curly graying hairs concaved in denser darkness. And his belly was convex. Also hairy. She reached over him in his single bed and grabbed his pack of cigarettes. Menthol. She hadn’t smoked in over fifteen years and she never smoked menthol. Yet, she shook one out and found his lighter. She lit it and inhaled and exhaled quickly. Like riding a bike. She inhaled and took it in. Her head ballooned. Exhaled.
Scott, her son, probably wondered where she was, but Scott didn’t care. Who could blame him? He was fifteen and knew everything. Her ex-husband knew everything, too. She should get home to him, though. To Scott. Before the sun rose. She took in a few more drags of the cigarette then reached across Edgar and put it out in his ashtray.
“I will have to put those shoes back on,” she said.
In the parking lot of her apartment complex, Jane saw a squirrel and blue jay squaring off. Such a small plot of dirt. Spring mud, really. Little sprouts of grass, some yellowed grass, squirrel, bird, maybe a buried nut. The squirrel chattered as she knew squirrels do. The jay, too, made a noise. A high-pitched screech. It was unnerving.
At home, Scott was not sleeping. He was up playing video games online with millions of people he’d never know. The two, mother and son, grunted at each other. “You smell like a brewery,” he said. “You talk in clichés,” she said. “Did you eat anything?”
“I ordered a pizza.”
“You used my credit card?”
“I don’t have one of my own.”
“I don’t know how much I owe on that thing, Scott.”
“I didn’t leave my son at home with nothing to eat.”
“You could have called your dad.”
“Fuck my dad,” he said.
“Scott.” She had already taken her shoes off. She had already put her purse away and removed her pantyhose. She now stepped behind her son and petted his head.
“I hate that, Mom.”
“I know.” She continued to pet his head. “Is this all you did today?”
Later, she’ll sleep in her own bed, queen sized, which she had shared with her ex-husband. Four hundred days ago.
“If you get all A’s, we’ll go to Disneyland.”
“I’m too old for that.”
“Then we won’t go.”
“I’ll go. How would you pay for it?”
They ate cold cereal at the kitchen table. She closed her eyes and saw her bungalow only four blocks from the lake, with the long front yard and the big backyard. She saw her garden of wild flowers in front, the vegetables she grew out back, the apple tree, the pear tree. She opened her eyes and it was all gone. “If you get A’s and B’s, we’ll go camping.”
“Can I bring a friend?”
“You think you’re going camping, huh?”
“Ain’t no way I’m getting all A’s.”
“You can bring a friend camping, yes.”
She closed her eyes again and imagined her backyard. She grew peas there and snap beans. She grew tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers. Once, she had found a deer in her yard, munching on peas.
“Can I bring a girlfriend?”
“Of course not,” she said, eyes still closed.
Jane walked along the lake with a man called Bobby, but she wasn’t sure of his first name. His profile said it was Jonathan. His last name was listed as Piotrowski. She asked him about it and he said that his grandfather said he looked like a Bobby. “He said, pointing at me with his bent index finger, ‘You are so fat, you should be called Bobby.’” They both laughed.
“He didn’t say you look like a Bobby. He said you were fat. Oh, my God, you were fat?”
“I was. I was a one hundred and twenty pound eight year old. All of four feet or so, too.”
“I can’t see it. You’re so, you know, fit.”
“Yeah, well back then, I ate and ate, and you know Jane, I just sat. Cheese puffs, Oreos, and video games. And traditional foods, too; I ate pierogies by the handful.”
Jane laughed again. “You look great now.”
“Thanks. You’re not too bad yourself, of course.”
Jane said, “So, my lunch hour’s almost over. You think you want to do this? See each other for a date?”
“A real date?” He nodded his head. “This was nice.”
“But let’s not go to a movie,” she said.
Scott was petting some woman’s dog. Jane thought the woman was Amanda Jackson, but it was just another young woman with brick red hair and a round behind. “Hi,” Jane said.
“Hello,” the woman said. There was a long W at the end of that word. “You want to pet the dog, too?”
“No,” Jane said. “This is my son.”
The dog looked up at Jane. He looked confused. Its face and muzzle were surrounded by fur that radiated out like a lion’s mane. “It’s a chow,” Scott said.
It was full of fur.
“They fight in China,” the woman said. “Chow or chow chow. He’s my little Ookie Bear. That’s his name.”
“Come on, Scott. Let’s go home.”
“Excuse my mother. She only likes petting me.”
Scott was always on something electronic. Mostly, he was plugged into his phone, talking or listening to music. Even when he was playing games, he’d have his earphones on. They were retro-bulky and swallowed even his large ears.
In this way, the little apartment they shared became silent. The tinny noise from Scott’s phones, the steady breathing from Jane. Eventually, she began speaking aloud to herself. Little words at first. “huh.” “see.” “funny” “where?” “shit.” She spoke while doing things like reading or cooking. Then the single words grew to sentences. To conversations. Reading aloud was enjoyable.
Scott found her having a complete conversation: “Is that so? Looked like Amanda. In a way, every woman I know looks like Amanda.” She laughed. “I’m so fucked up. He’s so over me. Why am I still thinking about them? Is he even with Amanda anymore? But, you, Bobby’s nice. Fourth date since the divorce, first with Bobby. I don’t even know what to do on a date.”
She felt watched and looked up to see her son staring at her. Obviously, he was worried about her.
Jane wore comfortable shoes. They stayed tied securely to her feet as she ate her lobster roll. Across from her, Bobby told her a story about camping. He had encountered a frog on that trip. “A rabid frog,” he said.
“Frogs don’t get rabies,” she said.
“I know! But this frog, maybe he was on something. Maybe he licked himself!”
“You know frogs are supposed to run away, right?”
“You can hardly find them when you’re looking,” Jane said. “All croaks until you get near them.”
“Right! But this frog, he came after me.”
She giggled again and took another sip of her beer. “Too much of this and I won’t be any good shooting a paint gun.”
“You’ll be fine. You know, I ran from that frog?”
Scott had gotten three A’s, two B’s, and a B-. “I don’t know if we’ll camp with a minus on the card.”
“That’s not fair, Mom. You said nothing about the quality of the grade.”
“‘The quality of the grade’? Is that what we call plus and minuses now? Calm down. We’ll go camping.”
“Who are you taking with you?”
“Oh, great. The kid named after a city.”
“That’s not his real name.”
“What is his real name?”
“I don’t know. Del something. Delany, maybe? I don’t know.”
“Maybe I prefer Oakland. He can come along.”
“I’ll go call him.”
Jane was left alone at the kitchen/dining room table. She looked over Scott’s report card and was glad that her son was doing pretty well, much better than she did when she was fifteen. “I’ll have to call his father,” she said, and thinking it and saying it made her chest hurt. “But I had a good time with Bobby.” Welts from the paint gun hits were still on her skin in three places. She liked the pain and marks from the pellets. She considered them evidence of a good time. Jane stood up and retrieved the house phone, the line she wouldn’t kill yet because of its sure location if she had to dial 911. Why would she ever have to dial 911 was beyond her. “And aren’t cell phones good enough nowadays?” she asked.
She sat down with the cordless phone. Her thumb rubbed the rubber keys lightly. She hated calling her ex-husband, even for little things like sharing her son’s grades. But it was not exactly little; she would have to ask for money, too, for their camping trip. She assured herself that it was her right to the money, and he owed it to Scott, too. She dialed home.
“Jane,” he said. “What is it?”
“Hi, Christopher. How are you?”
“The sky is blue and the sun’s bright.”
“It is.” Tears that felt both fake and overly real fell. She didn’t sob. “Scott’s got his report card today.”
“B minus in government. Otherwise, all A’s and B’s. He got an A+ in pre-calc.”
“We should be proud.” She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “I can’t see how you can still stay in that house.”
“Of course, it’s I who was hurt there, not you.”
“Is there anything else, Jane?”
“I want to take him camping.”
“You need some money.”
“And you’re behind on child support. You should get him a present, too. I mean, he’s doing so well in math and he’s not even a senior yet.”
“Yeah. Want me to send it?”
“I’ll send Scott. Put it in an envelope.”
“Still won’t see me, huh?”
“There’s nothing else. Just that he’s got good grades and we need cash.”
“See you later, Jane.”
When she hung up, she let out a deep sob that involved her entire throat. Scott was in the kitchen again, perusing the contents of the cabinets, but he couldn’t possibly hear her with his earphones on.
There was a feral cat on the hood of the car. In the back seat, Scott sat with his friend Oakland, both plugged into their cell phones via headphones, both texting furiously. They couldn’t hear Jane’s command for them to get the cat off the car, so she had to take care of it herself. She shooed it with her hands, said, “Scat, cat, we’ve got to go.” She wanted to get there before four, but they’d have to leave immediately. She reached towards the cat and its fur fluffed out, visually expanding its size. It hissed, drawing its non-lips back from its teeth. Its eyes glowed.
“Whoa,” Jane said.
And the cat hissed again. Made a mad growl deep in its guts.
“Fuck,” Jane said.
She backed up and looked for something. She didn’t want to hurt it, only to scare it. She couldn’t blame it: it was a cold morning. It was still spring. The car hood was warm and the ca was still. The car was his, as far as the cat was concerned. “Okay, cat, you’re going to have to go. What’s here?”
She closed her eyes and saw her two car garage just four blocks from the lake. “Fuck.” On its walls, her ex-husband (“call him Christopher, damn it” she said) had nailed hooks onto the walls. On them, were the outside tools: rakes and shovels and brooms and ice scrapers. Here, there was nothing because it was an apartment complex. What does a tenant need with a shovel? A rake? “Four fucking blocks from Lake Drive!” she said. The cat growled again, a menacing purr.
“You need help with the cat, Mrs. Silver?”
“Ms. Silver. Sure, Oakland.”
Oakland took his chained wallet from his pocket. He swung it around, moving it above his head like a lasso. The cat followed the movement of the wallet with its face. It sat up on the hood on the car, its little faced circled slightly along with the wallet.
“Don’t hurt him.”
“You can call me Jane.”
Quickly, Oakland let the wallet drop near the cat. The chain made a shimmery noise. The cat snarled and jumped back, then down. It ran away, all claws out, still extra fluffy.
“Thank you, Oakland.”
“No problem,” he said. He went back into the car, the back seat. Jane breathed in deeply and joined the boys in the car, taking the wheel. Her lower back hurt and her stomach felt tight. “Shit,” she said, knowing what may be coming. She left the car and ran back to the house for tampons. Then, she ran back to the car and when she saw no cat, climbed back in behind the wheel. “Superior, here we come.”
By three o’clock they were nearing their camp site. “We are making awesome time,” Jane said to herself. Scott and Oakland were both asleep. By four o’clock, Jane was showing Oakland how to tie a fly on his rod. Scott had tried to show his friend, but he gave up in a fit of giggles.
“It’s not that hard,” Jane told the boy. “Look, don’t overthink it. First, take the backing and wrap it around the backing tool.”
“The backing tool?” Scott said.
“Well, what is it called?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Look, Oakland, wrap the backing about six or eight times around the tool here. This is a nail knot.”
“The tool?” Oakland asked.
“No, the kind of. . . just wrap it around.” Eventually, everyone’s line was ready and the trio fished. Their lines arced expertly across the sky, especially Jane’s, and everyone caught something. Oakland’s fish, a huge rainbow trout that was at least twenty-two inches long, was the biggest. They went back to camp and fried their fish up. They all three talked and laughed over dinner, then Scott and Oakland plugged themselves back in.
Before the sun went down entirely, Jane wanted to go for a walk. She grabbed her flashlight and waved at the boys until they noticed her, until they noticed that she was going away.
She wasn’t afraid of being alone. Actually, Jane felt rather at home camping. These woods she had visited many times in her past, with her father and with her own family when she was still with Christopher. Because she had known these grounds before Chris, she didn’t feel that it was something she couldn’t revisit. It wasn’t the home they bought together, it wasn’t their life they built together, it was these trees and waters that were here ages before her and would be there long after she would be gone. Her life mattered little there. She found this comforting.
Jane spied a neat little spot leaning downhill. She took down her pants to relieve herself. When she wiped, she was disappointed to see that she was on her period for sure. She believed blood attracted creatures, and the wrong type of creatures. She finished up and wiped her hands on the leaves around her. She continued to walk.
There was still plenty of light. The smell of the woods this time of year, between late spring and early summer, was loamy. Earthy. But there was the clean smell of running water, too, just thawed and cool. That far up north, between Wisconsin and Minnesota, the waters weren’t quite thawed all the way for the year because it was still pretty cold. Sometimes, you can see snow pockets, even this late in the season. There was something moving. With her? Near her? “Scott?” If it were Scott, he didn’t answer. And this moving thing’s tread was heavy. Even, but too quick for two feet. Jane heard steps like one, two, threefour; one, two, threefour. Her heart felt too big and too loud. Shh shh, she said to her heart. The blood coursing through her head. Shh shh. She stopped moving.
It stopped moving.
Quietly, quickly, Jane looked around. Up, down, everywhere. The leaves seemed too concealing, too conspiratorial. Why would they reveal one of their own, a creature of these woods? Jane was just a visitor who trumped around their grounds and stole their fish.
It moved again. One, two, threefour. Jane’s teeth chattered involuntarily and she ended that. She clamped her mouth shut. It was still moving. Away? Nearer? Oh, fuck, was she talking aloud? She was.
She turned and saw what she knew would be there. A bear. It was not fully grown, but it was no cub. It was a juvenile black bear. It was probably about two hundred, two hundred fifty pounds, which was at least one hundred pounds more than Jane. It had probably just been booted from the comfort of home by his mother because it was old enough to fend for himself. And he was very obviously an unhappy and hungry young bear. Its nostrils flared and it breathed in, breathed her in. Its ears were large and, more than likely, listening to her constant chatter.
It growled, his lips vibrating and showing her its gums and a flash of his teeth. It smelled her blood, she knew, and it heard her clumping through the forest and talking to herself. It roared. The force of it made her nearly empty bladder release more urine. Just more scent for him to mark her by. She thought about her situation and remembered advice. She lifted her body high, hands into claws, and screamed. It backed away a little, confused, but it came back, raising its black, shiny body on its hind paws and raised his own arms above his head. Roared.
Jane was no good. She cried now, sobbed. Her nose ran and she instinctively sniffled. The bear would not shut up. His fury reduced her, shook her, and shamed her. Finally, it grabbed Jane and violently shook her. She cried, calling her son’s name, calling her husband’s name, calling the name of every man she ever knew. Her father’s soon, whose name was Jessie, over and over, until it turned into Jesus.
The bear didn’t care. It shook her and roared into her face.
She pushed against the beast, blathering still. It took a stronger hold of her, wrapping his arms about her. She heard something snap and felt a pang in her right shoulder that brought little dancing rays of shooting light to her eyes. “Please,” she said. This was now her mantra, having left off from Jesus. The bear didn’t know ‘Please’ any more than he knew ‘Jesus.’ It squeezed more. He had stopped roaring, and now just kind of groaned into her face, her neck.
This could be nice, Jane thought, if it weren’t so violent. She let her body slacken, and the bear loosened up. “Isn’t it bear hugs we want from those we love the most?” The bear roared again, and then snorted. Jane didn’t react this time. She closed her eyes and remembered her mother comforting her after school, or embracing her to brace her for something painful, like a vaccination shot. She imagined her ex-husband, pre-Amanda Jackson, holding her. She wrapped her arms around the bear and leaned in. This, too, confused the bear and he relaxed a bit. But his primal needs reminded him why he was there, and he squeezed. Jane squeezed, too. “Christopher.”
The bear, not Christopher, pushed into Jane now with his paws, letting his claws dig into the flesh of her arm. She felt the hot blood make its way down her forearm, her hand. That frightened her, got her. She went limp with fear. She was going to die. The bear, reacting to Jane’s weight shifting, embraced her tighter to hold her up. His wet nose and fuzzy face was against her face, her jaw, her neck. What could be kinder, Jane thought, than a hug before dying?
DeMisty D. Bellinger-Delfeld teaches at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. She has an MFA in creative writing from Southampton College and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She received a fellowship to attend the Vermont Studio Center in 2015. You can find her recent work in Assay, Necessary Fiction, and Forklift, Ohio. Her website is at demistybellinger.com.