You can probably picture the little nowhere town of Westfield, New Hampshire, with its trailer parks, abandoned factories and half-empty apartment buildings, thrown down like a doormat in a valley just northeast of the White Mountains. When I got to town, pear-shaped Jenny with the criss-cross eyes, Westfield was cold, hushed and January empty, and I was on the run from ghosts of my own in my Maine coast hometown—a miscarriage, a screwed-up family life, two or three worthless ex-boyfriends and their bearded lookalikes perched on every barstool.
My ex-boss helped me get the job as assistant manager at the Westfield KwikStop. During those first long winter nights I used to watch the KwikStop sign across the Town Common through the bedroom window in my second floor apartment. My clientele at the KwikStop consisted mainly of dirty-haired mountain man types in plaid flannel, EBT moms in pink sweatpants, wild country kids with dirty cheeks and camo PJs. I came to work in jeans and Patriots sweatshirts, with my hair clipped on top of my head, sold them their beer, cigarettes, candy bars and lottery tickets, and tried my best to follow the town gossip.
But I really didn’t start to feel like a part of their lives until spring came and my customers starting arriving in mud-splattered pickups with fishing gear in the back, and I met my future husband Boyd.
Boyd Patterson: dark and lanky, six-three at least, all bony knees and stubble and shoulder blades. I’m thinking of the fishing hole on the Dump Road, out on the Flats where the stream widens out and gets slow. When Boyd and I were first getting to know each other we went there on spring and summer evenings and set up our gear near the wild rose bushes. Rods, reels, tackle box—a few old lures, but usually just crawlers. The way I remember it was usually a warm summer night, a light wind, not too buggy. We’d sit there casting, waiting, reeling in, maybe with a radio playing soft, whatever was on OKQ at the time—long lanky shaggy Boyd in his fishing jeans and old t-shirt, and me usually feeling squat and lumpy in a tank-top and ball cap, maybe in shorts if I was feeling confident enough to show my legs, the wild rose scent drifting our way every so often when the breeze picked up.
After we’d been seeing each other for a few months Boyd took me by the hand one day and said, “Hey Baby, I need to show you something.” He led me up a path from the edge of the parking area, up an overgrown railroad track and an old logging road. At the top we looked out over a secret silver rippling pond and a field of goldenrod out past it, and he smiled, like this was the present he’d saved just for me.
That was the first time he told me he loved me. “Baby, you’re so sexy,” he even said that, which at the time I think he meant. He kissed me on the forehead and asked me, “Well, what do you think?”—because he thought we probably ought to get married.
When he talked about Cheryl Pelling she was usually just one of the boys, the one girl who just so happened to get mixed into his shop stories otherwise starring Donny Washburn, Ed Shelton and Charley Varney. She was a long, bony red-head thing, usually kept her hair pinned in a pile under a ball cap, worked at the auto shop where he was working before I met him; drank the sludgy shop coffee, swore, swapped dirty stories, took smoke breaks with the guys by the dumpster out back in the middle of January. Kept the books, ordered parts, did oil changes and helped switch out tires when she needed to; came out at the end of the day with her long forearms streaked with grease up to her elbows.
“Screw that, I’m not putting up with it,” was the way Boyd said she talked. Flicking her cigarette over the dumpster into a snowbank. “I told that piece of shit he was bullshit and walked away.”
“We had some good times together, she got along real well with all us guys,” was how Boyd put it.
We made it through one, two, three years of marriage and I bet he might’ve mentioned her only seven or eight times, but if he wasn’t careful his eyes sparkled when he talked about the times they’d had together: cracking each other up mimicking their uptight boss’s nerdy ways; half-assed singalongs to country hits on the crappy radio in the shop breakroom.
“We were just stupid together sometimes, that’s all; we were fun.” Tall freckle-faced wild child with grease under her nails, that’s how I pictured her: scraggly hair tied back with a rubber band, long pale face, driving drunk, working the gas with her feet in flip-flops, toenails painted chipped pink and purple. Cheryl Pelling the tomboy, all the guys’ best friend.
“It never was anything real serious, I guess,” Boyd explained once, “you couldn’t really say that. She was a lot of fun to be around though, and the guys down at the shop really missed her when she moved out West.”
The day he found out she was dead he came home with his face all white like he was coming down with the stomach flu.
“What’s the matter, Boyd?”
“Nothing—just found out this girl, this person I used to know was just found out… They just found her. They just found out she died.”
“Oh my God, who?”
“You know that girl Cheryl Pelling I used to know? That I talk about from time to time? Her.”
We sat at the table in our little trailer kitchen and Boyd told me what he’d heard. In my mind I set the scene: the end of the work day at a factory in a little town in northern California; a lonely highway winding through some flats, a blue mountain in the distance, country music on the radio; her little blue Fiat coming flying around a corner, some old guy half-blind t-boning her at an intersection; long tall Cheryl broken to pieces, a boyfriend maybe with a salt and pepper goatee waiting for her at his apartment while what was left of her body went up in flames in a ditch.
“She’s just too young for it,” Boyd was saying. “She’s just too young.” His eyes were pink around the edges, like they were itchy and he’d been rubbing them, and he kept fumbling around with things in his pockets—keys, cigarettes—like he wasn’t sure what he should be doing with his hands. “The guys are kinda shook up. It makes you think, you know?”
“That’s so horrible Boyd.”
He just sat there and let me hold him and waited for it, whatever he thought was going to come, and all I did was stroke his head, lean in snug against his narrow bony chest and close my eyes.
They shipped her body back East and had the service in Westfield. I’d never seen Boyd say much of anything at any funeral we’d been to before, but at Pinter’s Funeral Home that day he had something to say to everyone: the tall sandy-haired brother with the freckled nose; the younger girls, who I guess were all some type of cousin; the older generation, mainly aunts. Boyd shook the brother’s hand and said something to him softly, shaking his head; he gave all the younger cousins quick hugs and patted their backs at the end. A couple of the older ladies held onto him for a while and dabbed at their eyes after he moved away.
The conversation was similar each time, like I guess it always is. “Sorry to hear, she was such a good kid, so sorry for your loss.” Some of them smiled when they saw him, some reached out to touch him, some didn’t know what to say; some didn’t seem to know him. “She was a good egg,” he told someone, “she was a good girl.”
Later he went back to her brother with the shop guys and swapped some stories that had them all chuckling and shaking their heads. “I used to work with her, she was a lot of fun,” he said to a couple different people. “When something like this happens, it really makes you wonder.”
At the front of the room they had three big easels with pictures of her: a freckle-faced bucktooth girl in a blue dress with her hair in pigtails; a high school grad in a cap and gown, with something wild in her eyes; and another more recent, tall and calm in a peach dress, maybe a bridesmaid at someone’s wedding, but with that same wild rare thing in her eyes.
Boyd stayed clear altogether. Once or twice I thought I saw him sneak a look at them, as if he was afraid of getting caught somehow. But no matter what anyone had to say about them, in all three pictures I had to admit she was beautiful.
Ed Shelton and his girlfriend Sadie came out to the trailer that weekend; we bought pizza, chips, dips, a couple thirty-racks, played a few hands of cards. Ed and Sadie were talking on about how they met, the crazy times they’d had, drinking it up like they were eighteen again, outrunning the cops through the woods out of a busted party—young love, that was the gist of it, weren’t we so happy when we were young and first in love?
I admit it, I’d had a few, I was sick and tired of Ed acting like he was the only one in the room whose love felt like it was one of a kind. “Oh, I know what you’re talking about, Ed. I used to hassle Boyd down at the KwikStop about buying cigarettes. ‘Quit buying those cancer sticks,’ I used to tell him. Right Boyd? And I could tell by the twinkle in his eye that he was interested.”
“That was it.”
I scrunched in close to him. “It took him an hour to buy a pack of gum. He’d just hang around my register trying to come up with small talk. I knew right then and there he was taking a shining to me.”
“Ha ha Boyd,” Sheila said, “I can just picture that.”
I grabbed his arm. “And it was like you guys said, it was crazy times for a while. I remember walking up this really cool kind of secret path Boyd took me up to—it leads off from this fishing hole we know. We were laughing and holding hands and all that, and just the view up there was so amazing…”
Boyd nodded and pulled away, leaning back in his chair and smiling to himself. “Yeah that spot really is beautiful. You can see quite a ways from there on a clear day.”
He got up, went out to the kitchen to refill the chip bowl, came back over, sat down and grabbed himself a handful. “I remember the first time Cheryl brought me up there. We were drinking from this thermos she brought, who knows what kind of concoction she had going in there. It was a sunny beautiful day, but there was a breeze—and shit, we were drinking, we were drugging, she had these little blue pills, God knows what they were, she dissolved ‘em up in our drinks, and when we got to the top I felt the breeze, I can’t explain it now, my whole body felt like it wanted to melt into the sky.” He looked away. “Crazy, coulda overdosed for all I know, I didn’t know what was in it. But she was just that way.”
“She did that stuff with a lot of guys you know,” Ed said.
“I heard about it.”
“Not saying you guys didn’t have something nice going, that’s just the way she was.”
“I figured it out. I knew about it.”
Ed shrugged and grabbed another slice of pizza. “Didn’t mean any offence.”
“Well I really wasn’t saying anything like that anyway.” Boyd didn’t look at anyone when he got up again and headed to the bathroom. “I was just saying we had some good times too.”
Boyd started spending more and more time fishing by himself, heading out to the fishing hole on the Flats right after work with his gear, the radio and a twelve-pack, never answering my calls because he claimed there wasn’t any cell reception out there, coming home tipsy afterward with no fish at all, trying to eat his dinner with wormy fingers he couldn’t seem to clean right.
“Jesus Boyd, at least wash your hands for God’s sake!”
“Oh, okay Baby, okay.”
“That’s disgusting, you can’t be eating your food like that!”
When he got back from the bathroom with his hands clean he still had the same faraway look in his eye while I was spooning out his tuna casserole, like he still had songs playing in his head that he’d been listening to all night on the radio.
“Things okay out there tonight?” I asked him.
“Yeah they weren’t biting too much tonight. Got a couple of shiners that’s all. Threw ‘em all back. Pretty nice night out though, not too hot.”
Pretty nice night. Another night I got a call about nine or so and it was Boyd, drunk as hell, Boyd with great reception down at the Flats all of a sudden because there he was in my ear, “Hey Baby, can you come pick me up? We gotta leave the truck here tonight Baby, we’ll lock it up tight, I’m too drunk to drive.”
That just so happened to be the night I’d done myself up in something sexy, curled my hair, had a drink or too myself. He didn’t seem to notice when I got there in my little Dodge, he just tumbled into the passenger’s seat, but when we got home and we helped each other inside—I wasn’t too steady on my feet either—he was so happy. “Oh Baby, thanks for driving Baby, I’m just too drunk for that, thank you.”
I was drunk enough myself that I wanted to light into him when we got inside. He fell back into a kitchen chair and I thought about letting him have it while I was helping him off with his boots. “What the hell, Boyd? What’s up? Talk, you little shit! Talk, God damn it! What’s a matter, cat got your tongue?”
But I didn’t, no. And he didn’t say much, didn’t say anything really, a little murmur-mumble, trying to convince me there wasn’t anything to worry about. “I’m sorry Baby, just tired that’s all, work and everything, just drank too much that’s all…”
“Oh for God’s sake, Boyd, don’t give me that look, I’m almost as drunk as you are.”
Oh yeah that was me, I wanted to go on and on, “What’s wrong, there’s nothing wrong is there, what is it?”, curls in my hair and all, sexy nightie on, now with a hoodie pulled on top of it. When I helped him to the bedroom he just took me in his long skinny arms and kissed my forehead, kissed my nose, kissed my temple like he was so sorry, like I was his little sister. And in the morning when the sun came up—and doesn’t it always seem to?—we were both hungover.
That was a few weeks ago. One night recently we were sitting on the deck behind the trailer, drinking. I was sitting there on one of the sticky plastic deck chairs, sweating, one fat leg crossed over the other, thinking, Is this really where we are now? Do we have to get drunk now to even face each other? Is this where it’s at?—let me just get drunk as hell one night after another and see if you care, and if you do, fuck you, and if you don’t, fuck you.
“So why did she leave you Boyd?” I asked him finally. “Cause that’s what happened, no? She left you right?”
“That’s not even how it was between us. That’s not how it broke down.”
“’Cause I’m sorry, but I don’t see it happening any other way.
“I don’t want to fight about it.”
“I don’t see you leaving her.”
He finished off his beer and brushed past me. “I said I wasn’t gonna talk about it.”
“You’re just drunk Jen.”
He did, but he came back out in a couple minutes with two more beers, kept one himself, handed me the other and went right ahead and sat down beside me.
“You’re still in love with her right? I mean, if she was alive and she was around here still, you’d be at her place right now.”
“Said I wasn’t gonna talk about it.”
“But it’s true, right.”
“You’re not thinking about it the right way.”
He didn’t have anything else to say. It was getting dark anyway. He went back in not too long after that, but I stayed out there late; I stayed out until the mosquitos were biting and the bats were flitting around gobbling them all up. When I finally went in, Boyd was already in bed; he was snoring under his sheet when I went in the bedroom. After a while I washed up and changed and joined him. Every so often as the night went on there’d be a sort of whimper in between the snores, and he’d flinch, like a puppy does when it’s having a dream. All night long he kept making the same sounds, I’d never heard them before, soft cries coming from such a tall man, like the shivering moans of a shipwrecked teenage boy.
I don’t think he knew I’d been out to the shed that afternoon, looking for the yard rake. On one of the shelves he had coffee cans filled with bolts and screws and brackets, and tucked behind one of these was an old envelope with a few pictures of him and Cheryl, hugging and laughing, whooping it up for the camera, one at a bar somewhere, one at a beach, some at Westfield hangouts with people I recognized.
On the back of the envelope were a few things Boyd had written out in blue ballpoint in his scratchy slanted handwriting:
Smell behind her ear—lemons.
Favorite food—burgers. Spicy stuff.
Her favorite colors—pink, purple. Irises—favorite flowers.
Favorite songs—mostly old Country. Alabama, Allmans. Line dancing.
She’s buried at the Pinewood Cemetery. It’s a small cemetery at the foot of Balsam Hill, off the curvy little road behind the KwikStop, across the bridge past the preschool and the old mill. It’s pretty out there; there’s a lower level beside a perfectly oval pond, a clump of headstones in front of a group of giant pines. In July it’s green, it’s peaceful, the pond ripples silver on sunny days.
Who knows how many visitors she gets, how many other Westfield guys know irises were her favorites. I can’t help it, I imagine them coming down to visit her on their lunch breaks, leaving her miniature pink wine bottles, Budweiser bottle caps, bright red packs of Marlboros. Strong guys, good with their hands, the type that was always drawn to her, with grease under their fingernails and sawdust in their hair. Before they head back to work they take just a minute to leave her something special and make sure the flowers are watered, and though their big clumsy hearts are broken they still smile when they think of her.