Herman Wouk Is Still Alive
written by Stephen King and narrated by Brooke Bloom and Kathleen Chalfant

 

III. SITTING BEHIND THE WHEEL OF THE CHEVY EXPRESS VAN, BRENDA FEELS LIKE SHE’S IN THE COCKPIT OF A JET FIGHTER.

Everything is digital. There’s a satellite radio and a GPS screen. When she backs up, the GPS turns into a TV monitor, so you can see what’s behind you. Everything on the dashboard shines, that new-car smell fills the interior, and why not, with only seven hundred and fifty miles on the odometer? She has never in her life been behind the wheel of a motor vehicle with such low mileage. You can push buttons on the control stalk to show your average speed, how many miles per gallon you’re getting, and how many gallons you’ve got left. The engine makes hardly any noise at all. The seats up front are twin buckets, upholstered in bone white material that looks like leather. The shocks are like butter.

In back is a pop-down TV screen with a DVD player. The Little Mermaid won’t work because Truth, Jasmine’s three-year-old, spread peanut butter all over the disk at some point, but they are content with Shrek, even though all of them have seen it like a billion times. The thrill is watching it while they’re on the road! Driving! Freedom is asleep in her car seat between Freddy and Glory; Delight, Jasmine’s six-month-old, is asleep in Jaz’s lap, but the other five cram together in the two backseats, watching, entranced. Their mouths are hanging open. Jasmine’s Eddie is picking his nose and Eddie’s older sister, Rose Ellen, has got drool on her sharp little chin, but at least they are quiet and not beating away at each other for once. They are hypnotized.

Brenda should be happy. The kids are quiet, the road stretches ahead of her like an airport runway, she’s behind the wheel of a brand-new van, and the traffic is light once they leave Portland. The digital speedometer reads 70, and this baby hasn’t even broken a sweat. Nonetheless, that grayness has begun to creep over her again.

The van isn’t hers, after all. She’ll have to give it back. A foolish expense, really, because what’s at the far end of this trip? Mars Hill. Mars . . . fucking . . . Hill. Food brought in from the Round-Up, where she used to waitress when she was in high school and still had a figure. Hamburgers and fries covered with plastic wrap. The kids splashing in the pool before and maybe after. At least one of them will get hurt and bawl. Maybe more. Glory will complain that the water is too cold, even if it isn’t. Glory always complains. She will complain her whole life. Brenda hates that whining and likes to tell Glory it’s her father coming out . . . but the truth is the kid gets it from both sides. Poor kid. All of them, really. And the years stretch ahead, a march beneath a sun that never goes down.

She looks to her right, hoping Jasmine will say something funny and cheer her up, and is dismayed to see that Jaz is crying. Silent tears well up in her eyes and shine on her cheeks. In her lap, baby Delight sleeps on, sucking one of her fingers. It’s her comfort finger, and all blistered down the inside. Once Jaz slapped her good and hard when she saw Dee sticking it in her mouth, but what good is slapping a kid that’s only six months old? Might as well slap a door. But sometimes you do it. Sometimes you can’t help it. Sometimes you don’t want to help it. Brenda has done it herself.

“What’s wrong, girl?” Brenda asks.

“Nothing. Never mind me, just watch your driving.”

Behind them, Donkey says something funny to Shrek and some of the kids laugh. Not Glory, though; she’s nodding off.

“Come on, Jaz. Tell me. I’m your friend.”

“Nothing, I said.”

Jasmine leans over the sleeping infant. Delight’s baby seat is on the floor. Resting in it on a pile of diapers is the bottle of Allen’s they stopped for in South Portland, before hitting the turnpike. Jaz has only had a couple of sips, but this time she takes two good long swallows before putting the cap back on. The tears are still running down her cheeks.

“Nothing. Everything. Comes to the same either way you say it, that’s what I think.”

“Is it Tommy? Is it your bro?”

Jaz laughs angrily. “They’ll never give me a cent of that money, who’m I kidding? Ma’ll blame it on Dad because that’s easier for her, but she feels the same. It’ll mostly be gone, anyway. What about you? Will your folks really give you something?”

“Sure, I think so.”

Well. Yeah. Probably. Like forty dollars. A bag and a half’s worth of groceries. Two bags if she uses the coupons in Uncle Henry’s Swap Guide. Just the thought of flipping through that raggy little free magazine—the poor people’s Bible—and getting the ink on her fingers causes the grayness around her to thicken. The afternoon is beautiful, more like summer than September, but a world where you have to depend on Uncle Henry’s is a gray world. Brenda thinks, How did we end up with all these kids? Wasn’t I letting Mike Higgins cop a feel on me out behind the metal shop just yesterday?

“Bully for you,” Jasmine says, and snorks back tears. “My folks, they’ll have three new gasoline toys in the dooryard and then plead poverty. And do you know what my dad’ll say about the kids? ‘Don’t let em touch anything,’ that’s what he’ll say.”

“Maybe he’ll be different,” Brenda says. “Better.”

“He’s never different and he’s never better,” Jasmine says.

Rose Ellen is drifting off. She tries to put her head on her brother Eddie’s shoulder and he punches her in the arm. She rubs it and begins to snivel, but pretty soon she’s watching Shrek again. The drool is still on her chin. Brenda thinks it makes her look like an idiot, which she pretty close to is.

“I don’t know what to say,” Brenda says. “We’ll have some fun, anyway. Red Roof, girl! Swimming pool!”

“Yeah, and some guy knocking on the wall at one in the morning, telling me to shut my kid up. Like, you know, I want Dee awake in the middle of the night because all those stinkin teeth are coming in at once.”

She takes another slug from the coffee brandy bottle, then holds it out. Brenda knows better than to take it and risk her license, but no cops are in sight, and if she did lose her ticket, how much would she really be out? The car was Tim’s, he took it when he left, and it was half dead anyway, a Bondo-and-chickenwire special. No great loss there. Besides, there’s that grayness. She takes the bottle and tips it. Just a little sip, but the brandy’s warm and nice, a shaft of dark sunlight, so she takes another one.

“They’re closing the Roll Around at the end of the month,” Jasmine says, taking the bottle back.

“Jazzy, no!”

“Jazzy yes.” She stares straight ahead at the unrolling road. “Jack finally went broke. The writing’s been on the wall since last year. So there goes that ninety a week.” She drinks. In her lap, Delight stirs, then goes back to sleep with her comfort finger plugged in her gob. Where, Brenda thinks, some boy like Mike Higgins will want to put his dick not all that many years from now. And she’ll probably let him. I did. Jaz did too. It’s just how things go.

Behind them Princess Fiona is now saying something funny, but none of the kids laugh. They’re getting glassy, even Eddie and Freddy, names like a TV sitcom joke.

“The world is gray,” Brenda says. She didn’t know she was going to say those words until she hears them come out of her mouth.

Jasmine looks at her, surprised. “Sure,” she says. “Now you’re getting with the program.”

Brenda says, “Pass me that bottle.”

Jasmine does. Brenda drinks some more, then hands it back. “Okay, enough of that.”

Jasmine gives her her old sideways grin, the one Brenda remembers from study hall on Friday afternoons. It looks strange below her wet cheeks and bloodshot eyes. “You sure?”

Brenda doesn’t reply, but she pushes the accelerator a little deeper with her foot. Now the digital speedometer reads 80.

 

 

IV. “YOU FIRST,” PAULINE SAYS.

All at once she feels shy, afraid to hear her words coming out of Phil’s mouth, sure they will sound booming yet false, like dry thunder. But she has forgotten the difference between his public voice—declamatory and a little corny, like the voice of a movie attorney in a summing-up-to-the-jury scene—and the one he uses when he’s with just a friend or two (and hasn’t had anything to drink). It is a softer, kinder voice, and she is pleased to hear her poem coming out of his mouth. No, more than pleased. She is grateful. He makes it sound far better than it is.

  “Shadow-print the road

with black lipstick kisses.

Decaying snow in farmhouse fields

like cast-off bridal dresses.

The rising mist turns to gold dust.

The clouds boil apart in ragged tresses.

It bursts through!

For five seconds it could be summer

and I seventeen with flowers

folded in the apron of my dress.”

He puts the sheet down. She looks at him, smiling a little, but anxious. He nods his head. “It’s fine, dear,” he says. “Fine enough. Now you.”

She opens his steno pad, finds what appears to be the last poem, and pages through four or five scribbled drafts. She knows how he works and goes on until she comes to a version not in mostly illegible cursive but in small neat printing. She shows it to him. Phil nods, then turns to look at the turnpike. All of this is very nice, but they will have to go soon. They don’t want to be late.

He sees a bright red van coming. It’s going fast.

She begins.

 

 

V. BRENDA SEES A HORN OF PLENTY SPILLING ROTTEN FRUIT.

Yes, she thinks, that’s just about right. Thanksgiving for fools.

Freddy will go for a soldier and fight in foreign lands, the way Jasmine’s brother Tommy did. Jazzy’s boys, Eddie and Truth, will do the same. They’ll own muscle cars when and if they come home, always supposing gas is still available twenty years from now. And the girls? They’ll go with boys. They’ll give up their virginity while game shows play on TV. They’ll believe the boys who tell them they’ll pull out in time. They’ll have babies and fry meat in skillets and put on weight, same as she and Jaz did. They’ll smoke a little dope and eat a lot of ice cream—the cheap stuff from Walmart. Maybe not Rose Ellen, though. Something is wrong with Rose. She’ll still have drool on her sharp little chin when she’s in the eighth grade, same as now. The seven kids will beget seventeen, and the seventeen will beget seventy, and the seventy will beget two hundred. She can see a ragged fool’s parade marching into the future, some wearing jeans that show the ass of their underwear, some wearing heavy-metal tee-shirts, some wearing gravy-spotted waitress uniforms, some wearing stretch pants from Kmart that have little MADE IN PARAGUAY tags sewn into the seams of the roomy seats. She can see the mountain of Fisher-Price toys they will own and which will later be sold at yard sales (which was where they were bought in the first place). They will buy the products they see on TV and go in debt to the credit card companies, as she did . . . and will again, because the Pick-3 was a fluke and she knows it. Worse than a fluke, really: a tease. Life is a rusty hubcap lying in a ditch at the side of the road, and life goes on. She will never again feel like she’s sitting in the cockpit of a jet fighter. This is as good as it gets. There are no boats for nobody, and no camera is filming her life. This is reality, not a reality show.

Shrek is over and all the kids are asleep, even Eddie. Rose Ellen’s head is once more on Eddie’s shoulder. She’s snoring like an old woman. She has red marks on her arms, because sometimes she can’t stop scratching herself.

Jasmine screws the cap on the bottle of Allen’s and drops it back into the baby seat in the footwell. In a low voice she says, “When I was five, I believed in unicorns.”

“So did I,” Brenda says. “I wonder how fast this fucker goes.”

Jasmine looks at the road ahead. They flash past a blue sign that says REST AREA 1 MI. She sees no traffic northbound; both lanes are entirely theirs. “Let’s find out,” Jaz says.

The numbers on the speedometer dial rise from 80 to 85. Then 87. There’s still some room left between the accelerator pedal and the floor. All the kids are sleeping.

Here is the rest area, coming up fast. Brenda sees only one car in the parking lot. It looks like a fancy one, a Lincoln or maybe a Cadillac. I could have rented one of those, she thinks. I had enough money but too many kids. Couldn’t fit them all in. Story of her life, really.

She looks away from the road. She looks at her old friend from high school, who ended up living just one town away. Jaz is looking back at her. The van, now doing almost a hundred miles an hour, begins to drift.

Jasmine gives a small nod and then lifts Dee, cradling the baby against her big breasts. Dee’s still got her comfort finger in her mouth.

Brenda nods back. Then she pushes down harder with her foot, trying to find the van’s carpeted floor. It’s there, and she lays the accelerator pedal softly against it.

 

 

VI. “STOP, PAULIE, STOP.”

He reaches out and grabs her shoulder with his bony hand, startling her. She looks up from his poem (it is quite a bit longer than hers, but she’s reached the last dozen lines or so) and sees him staring at the turnpike. His mouth is open and behind his glasses his eyes appear to be bulging out almost far enough to touch the lenses. She follows his gaze in time to see a red van slide smoothly from the travel lane into the breakdown lane and from the breakdown lane across the rest area entrance ramp. It doesn’t turn in. It’s going far too fast to turn in. It crosses the ramp, doing at least ninety, and plows onto the slope just below them, where it hits a tree. He hears a loud, toneless bang and the sound of breaking glass. The windshield disintegrates; glass pebbles sparkle for a moment in the sun and she thinks—blasphemously—beautiful.

The tree shears the van into two ragged pieces. Something—Phil Henreid can’t bear to believe it’s a child—is flung high into the air and comes down in the grass. Then the van’s gas tank begins to burn, and Pauline screams.

He gets to his feet and runs down the slope, vaulting over the shakepole fence like the young man he once was. These days his failing heart is usually never far from his mind, but as he runs down to the burning pieces of the van, he never even thinks of it.

Cloud-shadows roll across the field, printing shadow-kisses on the hay and timothy. Wildflowers nod their heads.

Phil stops twenty yards from the burning remains, the heat baking his face. He sees what he knew he would see—no survivors—but he never imagined so many non-survivors. He sees blood on timothy and clover. He sees a shatter of taillight glass like a patch of strawberries. He sees a severed arm caught in a bush. In the flames he sees a melting baby seat. He sees shoes.

Pauline comes up beside him. She’s gasping for breath. The only thing wilder than her eyes is her hair.

“Don’t look,” he says.

“What’s that smell? Phil, what’s that smell?”

“Burning gas and rubber,” he says, although that’s probably not the smell she’s talking about. “Don’t look. Go back to the car and . . . do you have a cell phone?”

“Yes, of course I have a—”

“Go back and call 911. Don’t look at this. You don’t want to see this.”

He doesn’t want to see it either, but cannot look away. How many? He can see the bodies of at least three children and one adult—probably a woman, but he can’t be sure. Yet so many shoes . . . and he can see a DVD package with cartoon characters on it . . .

“What if I can’t get through?” she asks.

He points to the smoke. Then to the three or four cars that are already pulling over. “Getting through won’t matter,” he says, “but try.”

She starts to go, then turns back. She’s crying. “Phil . . . how many?”

“I don’t know. A lot. Maybe half a dozen. Go on, Paulie. Some of them might still be alive.”

“You know better,” she says through her sobs. “Damn thing was going six licks to the minute.”

She begins trudging back up the hill. Halfway to the rest area parking lot (more cars are pulling in now), a terrible idea crosses her mind and she looks back, sure she will see her old friend and lover lying in the grass himself. Perhaps unconscious, perhaps dead of a final thunderclap heart attack. But he’s on his feet, cautiously circling the blazing left half of the van. As she watches, he takes off his natty sport jacket with the patches on the elbows. He kneels and covers something with it. Either a small person or a part of a big person. Then he continues his circle.

Climbing the hill, she thinks that their lifelong efforts to make beauty out of words are an illusion. Either that or a joke played on children who have selfishly refused to grow up. Yes, probably that. Stupid selfish children like that, she thinks, deserve to be pranked.

As she reaches the parking lot, now gasping for breath, she sees the Times Arts & Leisure section flipping lazily through the grass on the breath of a light breeze and thinks, Never mind. Herman Wouk is still alive and writing a book about God’s language. Herman Wouk believes that the body weakens, but the words never do. So that’s all right, isn’t it?

A man and a woman rush up. The woman raises her own cell phone and takes a picture with it. Pauline Enslin observes this without much surprise. She supposes the woman will show it to friends later. Then they will have drinks and a meal and talk about the grace of God and how everything happens for a reason. God’s grace is a pretty cool concept. It stays intact every time it’s not you.

“What happened?” the man shouts into her face. “What in hell happened?”

Down below them a skinny old poet is happening. He has taken off his shirt to cover one of the other bodies. His ribs are a stack outlined against white skin. He kneels and spreads the shirt. He raises his arms into the sky, then lowers them and wraps them around his head.

Pauline is also a poet, and as such feels capable of answering the man in the language God speaks.

“What the fuck does it look like?” she says.

HTML style by Stephen Thomas, University of Adelaide

Modified by Skip for ESL Bits English Language Learning