Featured Prose: Amish in a Time of War by Lauren Groffby Megan Sexton · December 05, 2012
Amish in a Time of War, by Lauren Groff
Ten miles out of Lancaster, they slow to an idle behind a buggy that sends up plumes of horse-breath like a tiny locomotive. Charlie, who has told stories all day, is at last storied-out, and in the silence, Hannah looks out at the wintry fields. She feels that old icicle in her throat. This is a homecoming, of sorts, and her heart hurts, but she wants the squeeze and the burn. She wants the deep sadness.
Even as she watches for the hex signs on the barns, though, Hannah is acutely aware of the warmth rolling off Charlie, his sweet clean smell of something both chalky and fresh, something like damp limestone. In the beginning, this scent on a sweatshirt he’d left at her apartment could make even a dim San Francisco morning into something tender. Now, though, his scent—and the way that he, alone of all people in the world, could happily creep behind a buggy in a rental Pontiac made for speed—makes her think again of the applications. Secretly, as she has thought so often of them in the past few months. Now they are in the mail, now flapping like so many kraftpaper birds toward graduate school, eventually to take her away from this jolly, sweet man beside her. She feels the flutter in the gut, an overwhelming urge to throw her arms around his dear, thick neck. At the same time, she wants to put her foot on his and mash the car into the reflective triangle on the back of the buggy in front of them.
Oh, she thinks, helpless, and gets no further. For Charlie, whose hand is resting warm on her knee, who does not—could not—know about the applications, turns to her. She can feel the heat of his eyes on her cheek.
“Hanny?” Charlie says. He watches her turn her head, his mouth suddenly dry with love. He has to make this good, and so he begins to chuckle. “Hanny, your people are bloody brilliant. The road to Intercourse leads through Blue Ball. Genius,” and he laughs, and waits for Hannah to throw back her lovely blonde head and laugh with him. Making serious old Hanny laugh is better than a rich dessert after a healthy meal, better than beer, better than even sex. Well, he amends, some sex. Tired sex, angry sex, dutiful sex they sometimes have when they both realize it has been too long since the last time. Laugh, he commands in his head, but she doesn’t. She stares at him, with a trace of a smile, and waits for him to finish.
“Oh, Charlie,” she says, and that is all. She turns back to his window. He feels a little sick, and pulls a reckless pass around a curve that sends them roaring down a long, dark Pennsylvania Dutch road. In his imagination, some angry Amish man shakes his whip at their taillights as they go.
For a few miles, Hannah tries to concentrate, but already, Charlie’s joy has leaked into the broad world, casting a thin bright wash over the gloomy fields and sky. This is not at all what Hannah needs. She needs heavy, dark, dour, now. If she wanted cheer and light, she would have spent this weekend back home in Silicon Valley, where the sun has the weight of grace and the palm trees are frivolous, where even the glass on the sidewalks makes the concrete glitter like gold. Where there is money, money everywhere, even in Hannah’s own pockets, though she is only a bartender and not using her expensive education, even though she had always planned on being a college professor, and still holds this hope within her, returns at times to hold it like a glossy, brassy ball.
No. What Hannah needs at this point in her life is gravity, seriousness. She considers, and turns on the local public radio station. But it is filled with news of Iraqi war-dead, and that is much too serious, even for her, and she flicks it off. But Charlie flicks it back on eagerly, and then she flicks it off again with a little squeal, and he on again, and she off.
Charlie says with a sidelong look, “But, Hanny, it’s an amazing time for America—”
And Hannah says, “No, Charlie, don’t even think about it, I don’t want to hear it. No propaganda this weekend, please. I don’t even understand it. You’re a Brit, for God’s sakes.”
And Charlie says, “But, Hanny—”
And Hannah says, “No. No war. No Texas Neanderthals. And that means no stories about the Cowboys killing the Injuns. No little tales about medieval knights riding off to kill the Saracens, nothing so obvious as that, please.”
And so Charlie lets the whole issue go and slides his hand onto her knee. She moves her leg to let the hand flop about on the seat, but then grins at him begrudgingly and puts it back on her knee with a pat. Then Charlie, thinking that all is mended between them, begins to whistle his usual embroidered trills. Like some demented songbird, Hannah thinks.
But Charlie feels as if he must whistle because the land looks a little bleak to him: Apocalyptic, he wants to say, but he is so afraid of hurting his lovely Hanny that he does not say it. He had come home one day in November to find her at the computer, radiant. She turned around and her smile—trembling, brilliant—made his gut weak. They were spending New Year’s in Lancaster County, she said. She had been thinking of her grandmother, she said. How simple she was, how good. Pure. He had known that her father’s parents had once been Amish, though they had left, long ago. He had not given it much thought, though, had no idea how vibrantly Amishness lived in Hannah’s imagination, how fiercely she identified with the weird sect, until that moment in the blue light of the computer.
Now here they were after a long flight, during which Hannah delivered a mini-lecture about “her people,” even referring, over her glasses, to notes she’d written in the course of her research. She related the long emigration from Switzerland, the strange dress, how the Amish don’t believe in buttons or driving or war. How they don’t pay taxes. How they are often born with six fingers on one hand. How they believe in music without accompaniment, work all day long from the age of five, get together to build barns and make quilts because, for them, individuals are so much less important than the communities they all try to make as good and beautiful as possible. And she told Charlie, lips set in a thin prim line that made him think of a sexy librarian, not to make fun of the Amish. “Such jokes,” she said, “just aren’t funny.”
So Charlie, having had nothing to offer her in return, and struck cold by the fear that he was going to chuckle every time he saw a six-fingered hand, began to tell her stories until he had no stories left in him. Until he was, at last, squeezed dry. He told the one about his dad’s mate, Barry, a confirmed bachelor, who one night got himself pissed and fell in love with a stripper in Manchester and woke up the next morning and found himself married, and said, Well, she’s a lovely bird, anyhow, and they stayed together and now, twenty years later, they have five kids, and she’s become a television personality, and they just put in a hot tub in their deck. Then the one about his friend in the construction business, Chaco, who was kicked in the head by a mule as a boy, and had a bit of a wonky face because of it, but even so he got married to a girl in his village in Mexico, then stole over to California, then starved himself, practically, for three years to bring up his bride, and now they run a successful landscaping business together. The one about how . . . but Hannah sighed and put on her headphones, and closed her eyes and that was that. His mouth went dry.
Now, under the whistling issuing from his very own lips, he felt the spiny nature of their silence. And it was a relief for both when they came at last upon their pink Victorian bed and breakfast, its windows already honeyed with welcome in the dim midafternoon.
Now Charlie turns off the ignition in the gravel lot, pauses. He wants this to be sincere, and tries very hard to make himself serious, but Hannah is irritated: when he looks at her, his face is composed in a uniquely Charlie graveness that would be a grin on anyone else. “So sorry, my love,” he says. “I know this is a pilgrimage for you, for some reason, and I shall do my best to be respectful from now on.”
And Hannah sighs, looking at how the winter shines on his scalp, at the unapologetic monkeyness of him. She leaves him to struggle with the luggage and goes up, skirting the ice, to the porch. The front door opens with a great upswelling of cinnamon-scented heat, the hiss of a fire in the grate, the chime of real glass tinsel on the tree, still green a week past Christmas. There is a little tingle and she looks down to see an old Bassett hound with a sleighbell collar creeping toward her, so fat its sexless tits drag on the ground.
“Jesus,” she whispers as Charlie comes in with the luggage, smelling like a cigarette. She nudges the dog with her toe and it jiggles all over. “Shoot me if I ever look that bad.”
Charlie raises an eyebrow. “I would be more than happy to, my dove.” Then he goes to the fire and rubs his hands over its flames. She is dissatisfied, angry, and he doesn’t quite know why. He knows it is not funny, knows it will only irritate her, but still, he chortles, pointing toward the fire. “Look,” he says. “It’s not even a real fire. It’s gas. What a gas!”
And Hannah rings the bell on the front desk with a little more force.
At last, a door opens and there emerges from some dark place a gnomelike woman with hair so deeply hennaed that it glows purple. She is grinning, extending a plateful of cookies toward them, tottering forward on extremely stiletto heels.
Hannah blinks, confused. “Is this the Yoders’?” she says, watching the hair, the wrinkled chestflesh above the woman’s low neckline. Hannah had tried hard to select a real Amish bed and breakfast (Sleep under an authentic Amish quilt! The website had shouted, Enjoy our fine Amish breakfast!), but now she notices the electric lights, the nattering television at the end of the parlor, the unfortunate lady approaching her.
“Oh yes,” the woman says. “Welcome. Snickerdoodle?”
Hannah takes one, but doesn’t eat it. “But you’re not Amish?” she says.
“Oh, no,” the Yoder woman laughs. “My husband was, but I turned him to the dark side. Or from the dark side, depending.”
“Oh,” says Hannah. “Because I thought this was an Amish place. My grandparents were Amish, you see, two of them, and I came back to Lancaster County because I—” And here she pauses, because she isn’t quite sure how to finish the sentence; because I needed to? because I am living in California, of all places? because something bad is coming?
Charlie is smiling at Hannah, his head cocked, eager for the explanation, but Hannah is still deliberating. At last, the woman opens the registry and says, “Isn’t that interesting! So let’s see, you must be our last guests to arrive. Yes, the ‘Bundling’ Room.” She smacks a hand down on the page, caws and gives Hannah a salacious little wink.
Hannah is about to protest: No, I ordered the “Ausbund,” all gray and elegant with the faceless rag dolls on the walls and the four-poster bed, when Charlie steps up to the counter and says, “Yup, sounds like us. Yes, we are certainly the ‘Bundling,’” and he winks back at the woman and gives Hannah’s waist a little pinch and tickle. Lord almighty, a little comfort in this dry-as-scones place wouldn’t hurt them, he thinks. He grins at Hannah with his most dazzling grin, and so Hannah steps back and lets him take the room; it gives him so much joy; she has no fight in her right now. Charlie fills their names in the registry and hands over his credit card and chitchats with the female Yoder, who is visibly softened by his jollity. When he grabs their bags to heave them upstairs, the woman dips into the kitchen and comes back out with a cold bottle of champagne.
“For you two young lovebirds,” she says, a bit shyly. “Have yourselves a nice New Year’s Eve.” And though the champagne is wrong in so many ways, not least of which the mere idea of drinking in the land of her solemn ancestors, Hannah blushes at the woman’s kindness and thanks her. The cold of the bottle is beautiful in her palm. Even the hound looks less sinister now, and she stoops to pat it as she follows Charlie up the stairs.
“Oh, joy,” Charlie says softly when he sees the room. He drops the bags and leaps into a sound bellyflop off of the bed.
Hannah closes the door behind them and sits on the bed to watch him bounce around the room like a pink rubber ball. The man actually chortles at the velvet curtains and Emperor-sized mattress, rubs his face in the red silk pillows, leaps in lighthearted imitation of a little girl from window to window, clasping his hands to his cheeks.
“Golly,” he says, affecting a bad American accent. “Isn’t this beeyoutiful?”
How, Hannah wonders, looking at the not-so-discreet carving of the Kama Sutra on the bookshelves, did she end up in this room? Charlie tries to contort himself like the carved Lothario, humping the bedpost as if it were the double-jointed maiden. And how did she find herself with this man? A jokester! A Conservative, for God’s sake! She’d read avidly as a child, sent her allowance to Greenpeace to save whales, had perfect verbal scores on her SATs, knew how to sail and play golf. But, suddenly, there was Charlie, and here it is, over three years later, and not only is she no professor, but she doesn’t even have health care, she can’t read her college alumni magazine for the envy that chokes her when she sees how the investment bankers, graduate students, editors are rising so fast in their worlds. Three years laughing with Charlie, and she is nothing but a bartender, stuck in a job that pays too well to quit; three years in California, and she can barely see the once-upon-a-bookworm under the peroxided hair and chic makeup, under the foil she has become for Charlie’s elaborate jokes. She was the “who’s there” girl to his knock-knocks, the get-away driver for his April First gags at all his buddies’ houses. Last year, she sat in the car watching a camouflaged Charlie steal around their dark lawns, positioning pink plastic flamingos to peer creepily into every first-floor window, sliding a blow-up doll under their pool covers to look like a drowned body. She could hear him out there, chuckling softly to himself, and it was that muffled glee, not the jokes themselves, that made her laugh.
Now, Hannah watches him pop into the bathroom and feels incommensurably tired. It is impossible to think when Charlie is around, and when he isn’t around, lord knows, the bar is hardly a hotbed of intellectual stimulation. And even here, in the gray Amish winter, she is already having a hard time and, oh!, good grief, now Charlie is emerging from the bathroom, all pink and pearly-naked, the bottle of champagne frothing at his lips.
“Ho, ho,” he says. “Looks like we have ourselves a little Jacuzzi. Glorious. You must see it. Come along, dearheart, come along.”
“My people do not do Jacuzzis,” she says, but Charlie isn’t listening. He simply, right now, does not want to. He puts the bottle to Hannah’s lips so that she is forced to take a glug or let the liquid drip onto her gray cashmere cardigan. Then he scoops her up as if she is just a wee little thing, instead of the long and strong-boned girl she is. This always surprises her, Charlie’s unexpected iron under all his pudge, and she lets him carry her into the bathroom, where the tub is already roiling with steam and producing mad quantities of foam, as Charlie had squeezed an entire bottle of some liquid into it.
He sets her gently on the sink and unbuttons the top button of her cardigan, his lower lip caught in his teeth, intent.
She looks at him, at the shine on his large brow, the second chin pressed out against his neck. “Charlie,” she says.
“Hm?” he says, without looking at her, nimbly undoing the second, the third, the fourth buttons. And there it is again, that old stone in her stomach, and she struggles for a moment, and then he has her sweater off. And there is no way he could concentrate on words, now. “Oh,” he breathes at her bareness. “Oh, my Hanny. How I love you.”
She looks away from him. “Charlie, I didn’t come for this,” she says with difficulty, and he gives her a little twinkle and undoes her bra.
“I know,” he says, and takes off her high-heeled boots as if her feet are delicate as eggs. “But, my dear, please don’t take offense. You stink. Rotten. Awful. Lord almighty,” and he laughs and slides off her pants and thong in one go, then sets her down in the Jacuzzi.
The heat is breathtaking. Charlie smiles down at her before climbing in. And it is maybe the effect of the bubbles on her skin or maybe the champagne bubbles in her blood, or maybe even the way his body is turning red in certain funny places, something tickles her, and she laughs long and hard, and it does feel very nice, much like weeping.
Later, when Hannah curls on the bed and watches the plummy gray of the sunset, the crows like ellipses against the horizon, she listens to Charlie singing to himself in the bathroom, Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone, dum, dum dum, dum. He gives a little hiss when he pricks himself shaving. Hannah watches his reflection in the door mirror as he leans forward and tries to stanch the bloody spot, and she sees something in his intent face that she hasn’t seen for so long, for three years, since the day they met, on her first week in California. It was only her third shift at the bar, and at nine in the morning the door opened and in walked Charlie, pale and teary.
“We’re not open yet—” she began, a crate of hot glasses in her hands. He ignored her and kept walking.
“Turn on the television,” he said. When he saw she wasn’t going to do it, he stood on a stool and turned it on himself.
And there were the iconic images, the towers smoking, falling. She watched and the crate of glasses shattered in her hands, and Charlie put his head on his arms in the bar and wept. Then, head buried, he reached across the bar and into the well and took a bottle of what he imagined was vodka and poured it down his throat, though in reality it was industrial-strength cleaning fluid, and he actually gulped twice before she could unfreeze and drop the crate of glasses and knock the bottle from his hands.
Three weeks later, just out of the hospital and speaking in a hoarse whisper, Charlie came back to the bar. Sheepish, he held out a bouquet of sunflowers and asked her on a date.
“No,” she said. “You’re insane,” and she poured him a ginger ale and pretended to wash ashtrays in the sink. Every day for a month, he came back and asked and she said no, and he told her stories, first in the whisper, and then in his usual loud tone, stories about the Northern England town where he’d grown up, tales about the football team he played with in San Jose, how they were all Mexicans and so he had to learn the Spanish for penalties, anecdotes about everything under the sun. He even told her stories about herself, ending one with, You pretend you’re tough, but you’re really just a juicy, quivery pudding inside.
At the end of the month, when he came in with a handful of Calla lilies and asked again, she sighed and looked at him. “You only want to go out with me because I remind you of tragedy,” she said. “Otherwise you’re too light. You have no darkness in you, Charlie.”
“No,” he said. “You remind me of, I don’t know, resilience. Plus you’re fit. Beautiful girl, and you know it.” She looked at herself in the mirror behind the top-shelf gins, and right then she did know it, she saw herself all bosomy and dark of eye and pink of cheek.
“Well,” she said, not indelicately. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but that brings me to my next point. I mean, you’re like thirty-five and bald and a little chunky and I’m, well, you know. Twenty-two. Taller than you. We’re a total mismatch.”
“Saucy,” he said, and laughed outright. “I like that. I won’t hold your looks against you. And I’m only twenty-eight, by the way.”
“Well,” she said. “And you work construction.”
“And you’re a bartender. So what?”
She was stung and snapped, “Jesus Christ, just for now. I graduated from a college where they give night classes on how to manage your trust fund.”
“You have a trust fund?” He grinned. “Looking better and better to me.”
“No,” she said. “But I mean that I could get a really good job if I wanted to.”
“Oh, my sweet,” he said. “I will never hold you back. Feel free to be the breadwinner in our household.”
She sighed. He winked. She washed the glass in her hand for the fifth time. She dried her fingers on the towel. She took his glass from before him, refilled his beer.
He said, “Does this mean you’ll go out with me?”
And because she hated the way she had sounded, all haughty and snobbish and stupid and mean, and because she didn’t really believe what she was telling herself, you have to be cruel to be kind, she held her eyes shut for a few long seconds. “I suppose so,” she said.
“Fab,” he said. He slid from his stool, knelt on the ground, and grabbed her hand. “Will you, Hannah, I-don’t-know-your-last-name, marry me?”
She laughed and snatched her hand back. “No,” she said.
“No matter,” he said, still kneeling. “In precisely seven years from this date, we shall be bound in common law, anyway. From now on, I will call you my De Facto.” And though she believed, hoped, that he was joking, he actually did introduce her as his De Facto to his construction buddies who gave Charlie subtly impressed looks, and then to his soccer team of Mexicans, and to his biddy little parents in their twee cottage in a strip of similar cottages right on the moors when he took her to England to meet them.
For three years she has been Hannah, my De Facto. Even now, as he comes out of the bathroom with a small carnation of blood and tissue on his chin, he stops short and throws his arms into the air and looks at her curled like a nut on the bed and says, “Oh, my De Facto, I adore you.”
Charlie wants to plead. Talk to me, he wants to say. But he knows this is not the time, knows from long experience the ebb and tide of Hannah’s moods, and can tell she’s wallowing in something good right now, something dark and possibly pointy. And so he just gazes at her. “You look so beautiful tonight. Don’t change a whit,” he says, quietly.
She frowns at him. She says, “Charlie, I’m not wearing anything.”
“Exactly my point,” he says. “And though you know I love to see you in such a state, you better get dressed. I’m taking you out to dinner. Someplace gorgeous, just you wait.”
“We can eat gorgeously in Menlo Park,” she says. “I wanted something a little local.”
But he isn’t listening, and he gives her a funny chimp face, then does a cha-cha number, extricating a dress shirt and tie she’s never seen before from his suitcase. She stands, still feeling woozy from the champagne and the heat of the tub, and the simple pleasure in her loose body makes her also decide to dress up. What the hell, she thinks: she’d brought a pretty little black dress with strategic slits for cleavage and leggage, some glossy high heels and matching earrings, some silky stockings. She knew even at the time of packing that this was certainly against the whole point of her trip, but the idea of wearing such plumage among the drab-feathered Amish excited her. It was stupid, she knew, but thrilling. In the bathroom, she studies the dark new roots in her white-blonde hair; she is naturally brunette as they come, but tries to mask the darkness by brushing her bangs at a chic slant and putting on her reddest lipstick. Dazzle camouflage: a thing so bedecked that it is well hidden. A term she’d learned from a regular at the bar, an old Navyman.
When she comes out of the bathroom, Charlie is sitting on the bed with his back to her, slump-shouldered, staring downwards. He looks old, he looks tired, and so she says his name perhaps too loudly, and he turns, a bright smile on his face.“Hubba hubba,” he says, and swirls her jacket onto her shoulders and takes her arm gallantly, and they go out, down the stairs, past the parlor where another couple is sitting by the fake fire, their faces turned toward Hannah and Charlie as if in happy expectation of some distraction against the boredom of one another, against their revulsion of the leaking balloon of a dog, but neither Hannah nor Charlie want to stop and they go past the parlor and out the door into the winter, and over the slippery ice on the porch and toward the rental car where the cold air catches up to them and stings her legs and cheeks and knuckles and lungs, and she loves it. She has missed this, the painful cold, the angry bite. She missed the self-righteousness of it.
Charlie swears as he fumbles with the car keys, “Bollocks, frigid as witches’ tits,” and she laughs. But she stops laughing when they are inside and the heater is spitting cold air onto them, and he pulls out a handkerchief and wraps it around her eyes. “I want this place to be a surprise,” he says. “No peeking.”
“Is it far?” she says, groaning. She hates blindfolds, hates them, how they make a person suddenly submissive, how they stink of kidnappings, political detainees.
“No,” he says. He looks at her, and forgets to turn on the engine. He is glad for the blindfold: his hands are shaking. “It’s right around the corner. About five miles away.”
“God,” she says. “What’s the point of coming here if I don’t get to see where I am?”
“Don’t worry, my darling,” he says, and takes her hand and the car jerks into life, and they are moving. “I shall pass the time for you. Now, you have a choice. Either the news on the radio, or I tell you a story.”
“Story,” she says. “Duh.”
“All right,” he says. And so he tells the one he’d prepared, one he thought would impress Hannah with his knowledge. He’d spent hours on the Internet trying to find one esoteric enough for his lovely Hanny and stumbled upon the story of Tristan and Isolde. It is a love-story, he knows: Tristan, the knight, Isolde, the queen, married to King Mark. Tristan and Isolde drink a love potion, fall helplessly, forever, for one another. And he tells it beautifully, fills it with grace and humor, he tells it with great passion as he slides over these wintry roads, but, unfortunately, he doesn’t tell it completely. Charlie never actually made it to the end of the story. He assumes that the lovers will come out all right, as they usually do in the stories he likes best. In his version, there are no black sails, no suicides, only the love.
By now, they have arrived. He parks, he turns off the engine. “And they lived happily ever after,” Charlie says, whipping off the blindfold. Feeling chills, vaguely terrified.
Hannah blinks, and her mascaraed lashed uncrimp, and at first she sees only his grinning face. Then she sees the sign on the vast, warehousy restaurant: AMISH SMORGASBOARD, it reads. There are buggies in long lines by the door with an entire sea of cars surrounding them like some angry, invading force of chrome and glass.
“Smorgasboard isn’t even a German word,” she says, “it’s Swedish,” but Charlie is out of the car already, stamping his feet against the cold and sending up a cloud of breath toward the shivery moon. And so she, too, gets out, and picks over the parking lot sludge in her high heels.
She stops, just for a moment, shaking her head at the faded American flag bumper sticker on one buggy—they’re ubiquitous, those suckers— then hurries past to the door. Charlie opens to the plain lobby, and suddenly, they stand in a room full of people who look just like Hannah: pink-cheeked, and deep-eyed, and fair and tall and broadshouldered and strong-jawed. But the women sport strange bonnets and glasses, not contacts, unlike Hannah, and wear dark and ugly dresses with aprons, and are gabbing along in some language that Charlie winces at: it sounds like expectorating cats.
Hannah doesn’t see the women because her eye is caught by the men in the corner, all bearded and suspendered and looking far too jolly, yukking it up while waiting for a table. Beside her, Charlie gives a tiny hoot, but when Hannah turns to look at him, he rearranges his face for innocence, like a small boy caught stealing. “What?” he says.
“No,” she says. “Nothing,” then leaves him at the wall to put their name in for a table. It is only when she moves back through the crowd of women that she feels ashamed, her breasts too bare, the slit up the side of her leg way too high. Far too fleshy. Over-blonde, over-bright, and when she has made her way through the thicket and sees Charlie again, plump and smiling in the crowd, she feels a wash of relief.
But then there is a corresponding not-relief, for she sees at last the normal-looking families ranged on the benches around the circle of Amish, the little towheads in jeans and mothers with perms and holiday sweaters and tired-looking fathers with thinning hair. All gaping in at the little pulsing heart of Amish ladies as if they are performing a play for them, as if the normals are the visitors at some fascinating zoo and the Amish the broody bear cubs.
Something flips in Hannah, something pounds. She grabs Charlie’s arm and dives back into the center of the room. And she stands there, overtall, garish, but proud and silent until the masses of Amish and Mennonite around them move into the dining room and are replenished by more pouring in from the cold outside. Charlie watches her, amused, fighting the rising bubble of hilarity in his chest. He is afraid he will laugh, and his fear makes him want to laugh the more, because it is so utterly wrong, so entirely the last thing he should do.
When it is their time to eat, at last, Charlie looks at her, his eyes bright with mirth. “What was that all about?” he says as they walk to their little formica table.
“Nothing,” she says, still feeling virtuous.
“Right, nothing,” he says and grins at her. “You’re such a nut-job, Hanny.”
“Oh, get lost,” she says, putting his plate in his hand. “Meet you back here in five.” She moves to the buffet alone, swears that she can feel the gazes of a hundred Amish men on her rear. It feels wrong, as if she’s being stared at by blood kin, relatives, but when she turns around, it is only Charlie, walking behind her, looking at her with a twist to his lips that she knows well.
Charlie at the buffet sniffs at the dubious food. Fills his plate with slabs of something, mush of something else. Surrounds some meaty bit with red-dyed eggs. Frowns at the whole mess until Hannah returns to find him staring at a little gray lump on his overfull plate. “Oh my god,” she says, sitting down. “There are eight different types of applesauce. Five kinds of pork. Pickled everything. Eggs, beets, onions, pig feet. This is astounding. I haven’t eaten these things since my grandma died.”
“That’s great,” he says. “Fabulous. But, Hanny?” he picks up the gray lump with his fork. “I don’t think headcheese is actually cheese. It doesn’t taste like cheese. It tastes like, well, dead grandmother. Not yours, of course. A filthy one.”
“Really,” she says, noncommittal. But then she grins at him and he puts his fork down and grins back at her a little uncertainly, and a little crown of sweat comes out on his brow. Hannah laughs with pleasure and says, “This was a fantastic idea, Charlie. I had to admit I had my doubts, but this place is great.”
He looks around at the cafeteria-bland place, and sees the silent tables filled with dark-clad people hunched over their food, the steaming dun heaps on his own plate. He listens and hears the silence that in most restaurants would be music, and, over that, the munch of a hundred mouths that covers even the quiet conversations of the normals.
“I am so glad you like it,” he says. “Of course, I wanted to go to Vegas for New Year’s, but hell, no strippers and casinos can compare with this bounty of aesthetic delight.”
“Why?” she says. “Vegas? Icky.”
“Well,” he says, and picks up his fork again rather deliberately. Now, he tells himself. Or never. He slices the headcheese in two. “Because I wanted to get you liquored up and then take you to a little Elvis chapel and get hitched while you were still semi-out-of-your-mind enough to think it was a great idea.”
Hannah stops smiling. “You know what, Charlie?” she says, looking away from him. “You’re not always funny.”
“You know what, Hanny? I’m not always joking,” he says, and now Hannah looks back at him and sees, surprised, that he looks immensely sad. His hands are folded on the table and his eyelids drawn over his eyes. He is white, not his usual rosy pink.
“You’re serious,” she says.
“I have been since the moment I saw you. Hannah, my love. Will you be more than my De Facto?” His hand flutters and fumbles at his pants-pocket, and then he pulls out a small velvety box and opens it and puts it in her hand. He can’t hear a thing for the rush in his poor hot head. His hand, he sees, is remarkably steady. Charlie is acutely aware that the tableful of Amish beside him has stopped eating entirely and is watching, their faces bright and open.
But Hannah doesn’t look at the ring, she can’t, she closes the box with a snap and tightens his hand around it, and pushes the hand back at him.
“Oh, God, Charlie,” she says, sick. “Why do you have to do this this weekend?” She thrusts her soup and plate away from her. “Why this weekend?”
“Well,” he says. “I have my reasons.”
“Like goddamn what? What? I don’t understand why you need to do this now. Why now, of all times.” She takes shallow breaths to keep from swooning, to keep from throwing her fork in his face.
Charlie’s hand hovers for a moment over hers, then drops warm on it. “Fuck,” and he is serious, now. “I don’t know how to tell you this, Hanny. I’ve been trying to tell you since November, but I never can. I signed up to do some construction over in Iraq. I’m leaving in a week. It’s amazing money, six figures. I thought I’d do a year, and save up, and come back for a down payment on a house in Menlo Park, and then we could have our babies.”
“You did what?” she says, very softly. And then, “Our babies?”
“I know you don’t agree with the war,” he says. “I know you don’t believe in it. I know you think it’s idiotic. But this is win-win all around. I’ve wanted to do something ever since those fucking terrorists in New York, but I am too old for the military, and I only know how to build things. And I’ve been worrying ever since I met you how to keep you in the style you’re accustomed to. And this is the best option. One year isn’t so bad. I get two weeks in July and you can meet me in Paris. We can tear it up in Gay Paree, have the world’s most romantic two weeks. You’d like that. Use your French.” And then he makes a little face, the English Francophobe bred into him, the American macho hating those sissy frogs.
Hannah stares at him, and the room begins moving. She stares at him, and feels blood rushing to her face.
“Charlie,” she says, opening her purse and throwing an inch of ones on the table, her tip money, plenty to cover the uneaten food. “We have to go. I need to go. I need to get somewhere.” And then Hannah stands, dizzy, and storms away from the table, runs through the lobby and into the dark.
Charlie is left alone at the table. He stares at the untouched food. He folds his serviette neatly, tucks it beside his plate. Stands, but his legs are too weak for his weight, yet. He sits again. At the table next to him, the Amish family is flushed, all, their faces turned away. Such delicacy. Their avoidance feels intimate, like an embrace.
Outside, it has started to snow in great white chunks. Hannah feels the cold keenly, like so many Lilliputian spears, like so many whetted blades. Hannah cannot believe Charlie has not run out behind her, the way he is supposed to do. She shudders in the cold as a car filled with teenagers passes, slowly, slowly, the boys gaping at her, scrambling over the girls, who are still wearing the queer puffy-sleeved dresses, the bonnets like hot cross buns. The car slows to a stop, then goes into reverse for another look at her exposed legs, at the tarty makeup she wears. For a minute, Hannah waits for Charlie, but he doesn’t come.
Instead, a man with a full beard and that familiar Amish hat walks up from the parking lot, garbling into a cell phone. Hannah glares at him. He smiles back. “Fuck,” she hisses at him, half-under her breath. “Of fucking course you have a cell phone, you fucking hypocrite.”
The man’s eyes widen. He gazes at her. He looks at the cell phone in his hand, looks back at her, the slit in her dress, the dangle of her earrings, and says nothing at all.
That is when Charlie comes slowly out of the restaurant, carrying her coat, and tries to take her arm to help her across the sea of snow. But she shrugs it off violently and walks ahead of him to the car, where she stands shivering, sludge in her toes, until he puts out his cigarette and unlocks the doors. The car is warm inside, the inside of the windows only lightly laced with ice. She wants to scream.
Charlie drives slowly because the storm is worsening, fat flakes thick in the windshield, solid in the milky headlights. His best self handed back to him, as if it were nothing, a handful of dirt. In a few hours, he knows, the pain will begin. Now there is only a deep and awful silence in the car. And Hannah looks out the same window she looked through in the afternoon, but finds nothing there beyond the band of snow and road before them, no long-stretching fields covered in drifts, no barns warmed by cow-breath, no tidy little houses filled with solemn people who are reading prayer books in long nightgowns. Hannah can see them clearly in her mind’s eye, the blue heaps of sleeping children all in one bed, the interlocked hands of an old farmer and his wife under their layers of quilts as they sleep. But it is impossible in the little globe of car and light and snow to know if those simple people really exist in the near beyond, in the darkness, burrowing down somewhere out there, soft and solemn and plain and godly, somewhere in the snow.
Hannah thinks of what would happen if they awoke the next morning and snow was heaped like pillows against the bed and breakfast’s windows, and they couldn’t get out, they couldn’t get away, they couldn’t leave. Stuck together in that sexy Valentine of a room. She thinks of the big diamond sparkle she had caught in her peripheral vision as she shut the box and thrust it back at Charlie, and does not know if she would have any strength left to resist.
Now she turns to him. “Charlie,” she says.
“I know,” he says.
“You don’t,” she says, and there is the familiar cold in her throat, the familiar ache, that half-sneeze sob. Charlie’s face looks waxen in the light of the dashboard. He has undone his tie, and it hangs like a noose around his neck. “You don’t know, Charlie,” she says, again.
But Charlie does know, he does. He says, “I know. Hanny. I found your applications in your desk one night when you were at work. I know. I know. You’re going back to school. All East Coast. You’re leaving me, my dear De Facto.”
For a long time, she says nothing. Then, “If I get in.”
“Well, there’s that,” he says. The car skids a little on the turn up to the bed and breakfast, whines its way across the half-empty parking lot, most of the guests still out celebrating, and the engine goes off. They sit for a moment in the dark car, then open up the doors to the cold and go across the shadowy lot and onto the porch.
Into the warmth, hound woofing mustily from its nest near the fire. Up the hallway, lit by yellow nightlights. Into the vast, velvety room. They don’t even brush their teeth, they don’t even turn on the light. In the dark, they undress, and in the dark, climb into bed. Charlie turns on his side, away from her. Hannah stares at the shadowy ceiling. She hates herself, she hates herself. She has wounded him and doesn’t know how to stanch the hurt. Her hands finds his hip, but he rolls away from it, now and Hannah watches the folds on the back of his neck and has to keep herself from kissing them.
And in the silence now, the house is filled with the smallest noises, some mouse skittering in the pantry, a guest somewhere snoring, an icicle falling from an eave and ringing on the ground like crystal. Beside her, Charlie breathes, long and tense, for hours.
Then he says, voice muffled and sounding small and choked, “You planned this, didn’t you. This weekend was the end.”
She waits, lets the words circle in the room until the bitterness seems to shrivel and die out of them. Maybe, she thinks. Maybe not. She says, “I’m so sorry.”
Never in his life has Charlie felt like this. Not even that time in school when the boys, for no reason, turned on him. Kicking him until he spat teeth on the rugby pitch. Charlie imagines himself wandering out into the frigid night, half-naked, letting himself freeze to death. He can see himself frosty, blue, sculptural, in a supplicant’s pose in one of those vast and desolate fields. He knows: he knows. He has always known.
Hannah listens to him, waiting for the relaxation of his breath into sleep, and knows he is listening for hers. They are still awake much later, when the grandfather clock chimes midnight in the parlor below. Outside, there are sudden hoots down the road, four or five shouts of great hilarity, and the unmistakable sounds of rural celebration, a shotgun going off into the nighttime sky, some bullet speeding upward into the dropping snow, then slowing, stopping, arcing, falling, still hungry for a more solid target.
They listen until the shouts and shots stop and then wait for the voices to come back, for another round of gunshots. But there is nothing more.
And he says, his voice sounding small and choked, “You are young, my dove. And you want to be unhappy.”
And Hannah looks at the lump of him, dark against the lighter darkness of the window. She looks at him and wonders for the billionth time in their three long years together who, really, this man is. Who is this Charlie, who doesn’t recycle and sneaks cigarettes and has no education and watches too much television and likes Nascar and gets choked up about his adopted country and whistles a brocaded Star Spangled Banner on the pot and gives passionate speeches about fucking the terrorists up their arses and nuking them all to towelhead hell? Who is this man who talks too much and didn’t know not to tell his especially blue jokes at the dinner table the first time he met her puritanical and extremely liberal and workaholic Boston lawyer parents a few months ago at Thanksgiving; and her parents—who are not Amish, her father only raised by his ex-Amish parents—kept giving Hannah, their third child and the baby, quizzical glances from over their rapidly refilled glasses of wine; and later, when he had fallen into a turkey-coma on the living room couch, Hannah’s pale and high-powered Manhattan editor for an older sister, who had spent the evening laughing more than she had laughed in her life, times two, looked at Hannah, then at snoring Charlie, and whispered: well, he’s a little bit of a puppy, isn’t he? And her middle sister, PhD in Chemistry at age twenty-six, added: and about as smart, huh, and then both of her sisters laughed; and this was the worst, that Hannah laughed at him, too, at Charlie, this man who makes her too happy, maybe. Or maybe it is sad, too far from who she is meant to be; but no matter, for that night, she laughed at Charlie, the man who, right now in this warm bed, in this warm place, she knows has a kindness that is the only pure thing she has ever known, ever, in her life. And that it is insane to walk away from it. And, yet, she is going to.
So she lets him have this cruel thought about her. It may help him. It may help her. She says, “Maybe you’re right, Charlie.” And she presses her cold feet on his feet and her cold hands on his thickset back, spelling love into his flesh with the cold in her bones, until her extremities warm at last with his abundant warmth, until at some time that long, dark night, they fall asleep, just like that.
Published in Five Points Vol. 12.1