The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: New Writers wanting Reviews
A college freshman on break travels to visit his first love, only to find that things change.

Submitted: August 22, 2017

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Submitted: August 22, 2017

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The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

The Greyhound station in Roanoke was just like the stop before in Charlottesville and the one in Harrisonburg before that – brick and concrete, sparse vending machine, sulfuric exhaust undulating from underneath the buses like the collective flatulence of so many sad passengers. Still, his breath quickened as he collected his duffel bag and walked onto the street. A single elm tree sat between the station and parking lot, its coppering leaves a near match for the city’s rusty brick facades. This was it.

She waited for him right beyond the tree, in blue jeans and a black fleece sweater, leaning on a newer white sedan. He noticed she’d cut her hair. It looked shorter but not short, waves of white blonde landing on her shoulders instead of rolling halfway down her back. He thought he should say something but couldn’t think of what. He liked her hair then, he liked her hair now. Besides, he could barely breathe.

“New shirt?” she asked, her hand smoothing out a line on his chest that reformed as soon as her hand fell away.

He shrugged. He’d changed at the last stop, disappointed to see that the wrinkle resistant dress shirt his mother sent him to college with couldn’t withstand the bus ride.

“You look cute,” she reassured him. “Like a travelling salesman.”

“It’s not the TTEAT,” he said, finally. “But at least it has long sleeves.”

“Ah, the t-shirt to end all t-shirts – I hope he’s safe.”

It was a thing they did, or a thing they’d done – naming everything, as if their exuberance for each other had animated every object in their path – t-shirts, pillows, canoes, tennis racquets all got names and backstories. They’d met that summer at camp, where he was a counselor and she guarded lives down at the lakefront. Every night for seven weeks, he’d waited until his last Webelo snored away in their cot, and snuck across the lawn to the Fishtank, her little cabin above the boathouse. They named it so because its windows overlooked the lake. In the daytime, any intrepid camper on a watercraft could see right into her room, but at night, it was their place.

“I can’t believe you came up on your fall break,” she said on the drive to campus. “I flew home for ours.”

He wanted to say, “I missed you” - but after her comment, it felt wrong, imbalanced somehow.

“I think the bus ride to Miami would have taken up my whole break,” he joked instead, then added, “besides, I wanted to see you.”

“This is it,” she said, pointing to the gated entrance of her college.

“It smells amazing here,” he said, unloading the bag from backseat. “I don’t think fall started at Carolina yet, unless it happened while I was on the bus.”

She laughed, and offered him a clinical pat on the shoulder.

“We just learned about this in biology,” she said. “What you smell is decay. Rot.”

In the parking lot, they passed three girls, and each knew her name and stopped to say hello.

“It’s so different here,” he said.

“Small, but I love it.”

“Walking around my campus is like being in Manhattan or something, surrounded by strangers.”

“Sounds lonely.”

“It’s just different,” he defended, but he thought she was right. Going to a state school in a state you’re not from wasn’t like being in a big city, it was like being a stranger in a small town.

She led him down a paved path, under a wooden walkway that connected two buildings, and into the grassy quad that housed the freshman dorms. They stopped under her dorm’s portico, and while she fumbled through a floral patterned tote bag for the key, he took her wrists gently into his hands and kissed her.

“Careful,” she warned, opening the door. “One thing about a small school, no privacy, everyone is watching.”

In her dorm room, they sat on the bottom bunk and he kissed her again. She let him. He looked at the collage of pictures taped to the wall behind the bed: her family, her and her date on prom night, the camp lifeguards posing in their suits, a state flag. He kissed her again, and she let him again, but instead of returning the kiss, she made fish lips and fluttered them around his mouth.

“Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss,” she mocked. “Good thing Becca is a field hockey.”

“Your roommate?” He asked.

“She’s was one of the top recruits in the country,” she said, checking her watch. “Maybe we can see her play.”

“What time was the game?”

“Match,” she corrected. “It started at three –we can still catch it.”

An hour later, they returned from the field hockey pitch, with a triumphant but unsatisfied Becca in tow. He milled around the common room while Becca showered and changed out of her dirty uniform. While he leafed through the old face books, wondering how a small a school had to be to fit everyone in one book, a young woman in a Hole t-shirt and black cardigan approached and asked his name.

“Are you visiting someone here?” She asked, introducing herself as the RA.

He gave her name, feeling a bit like he was facing a nightclub bouncer.

“And how long are you staying?”

“Sunday?”

She started to ask him something else, but instead turned and knocked on the girls’ door. The door opened, she entered and closed it behind her, but he tried to move close enough to eavesdrop. Inside, the voices were tense and murmured, occasionally he made out a familiar whine, plaintiff and edgy, but like a child. He remembered her throwing a fit once when they forced her to lifeguard in the rain.

After ten long minutes, the RA walked out, looked at him like she wanted to say something, but then walked down the hall. He knocked and then entered the room. Although her eyes were red and tear-stained, she leaned away from his consoling embrace.

“You can’t stay,” she said coldly.

“What? Why?”

“I got in trouble a few weeks ago, and can’t have any more guests.”

He wanted to ask more, but didn’t.

“I’ve got Jenny’s car for the weekend,” she said.

“We could drive to Carolina. The dorm is locked for break but I can sneak in.”

“Let’s drive to Barrister and go see Pete.”

“How far is that?” I asked. Pete was a mutual camp friend, who was a junior at a nearby college.

“Less than an hour,” she said. “I was only supposed to go to bus station, but Jenny is laid back.”

It was too cold for it, but they rode up to Pete’s with the windows down. He didn’t care – where he’d grown up, in South Florida, cold weather meant Christmas, and even though it was still October, the crisp tingle in his nostrils triggered a pleasant foreboding, like that dog he’d learned about in psych class. They stopped for gas and when she pointed out a display of Pumpkin beer, he bought a six-pack, hoping to impress her with the confident deployment of a fake ID.

“Leave it in the car,” she ordered when they pulled up to Pete’s fraternity house. “The booze practically flows from the faucets here.”

Pete met them on the porch of the house, sporting a beard he must have been growing since the summer started. The fraternity house was a Tudor mansion, as grand on the outside as a Scottish castle, but the inside smelled like mulch, the walls, furniture, and carpets all a similar shade of brown. He hadn’t been interested before, but he knew now when he got back to school he’d look into joining a fraternity, since he needed a place to go, to take her.

Pete summoned a pledge to take their drink order. He asked for a beer, she just said ‘the usual,’ and Pete told the pledge to bring two Bourbon and Gingers. He didn’t remember the two of them being so familiar at camp. Two of Pete’s frat brothers showed up, and whisked him away for a tour of the house, offering to connect him to the chapter back at his college. He watched from the corner of his eye as she and Pete stood under a portrait of Robert E. Lee and argued.

After he finished the beer, a pledge put a plastic cup full of whiskey and coke in his hand, but not a minute later a brother came by and yanked it away.

“The cops,” he said. “And the director of Greek affairs not long behind. If you’re not a Beta or their date – you need to go.”

He crossed the living room and found her, sitting next to Pete on a sofa and chatting with some brothers.

“We have to go,” he said.

She looked at Pete.

“We could probably hide him in a closet until they leave,” he said.

He looked at her like he might cry.

“We’ll go,” she said, getting up slowly. “I don’t know where.”

They walked back to the car in silence.

“Maybe we should just drive around for a while,” she said. “Until the raid is over.”

“No, I know where we should go.”

“Where?”

“Fishtank,” he said. “Camp Wandatalah.”

“For real?”

“For real,” he said, unsure about until the words came out.

He set off in a general west direction, while she consulted an atlas she found under the seat. It looked to be at least a five-hour drive. As they started to drive, the mood in the lifted, and she rubbed his shoulders while they reminisced. The sun went down and he drove through the dark while she fiddled endlessly with the radio, looking for a clear station. At one in the morning, with his lids growing heavy, he did the math and realized they were still a couple hours from camp. He pulled off the highway onto a shoulder marked “scenic overlook.”

“Mind if we pull over for a while?” He asked.

“Sure,” she said. “Pumpkin Ale?”

She grabbed the sixer from the backseat, and they exited the car and leaned against the front hood. It was too dark to see anything from the overlook.

“Shit,” he said, “they aren’t twist-off.”

“You don’t have a bottle opener on your key-chain? What kind of college boy are you?”

“I’ve got an idea,” he said, and went back to the car to grab something from his duffel bag.

“Macomber!” she squealed with delight when she saw him come back with his comb.

He pulled two beers from the six-back and popped the tops with the comb handle.

“Oh Francis,” she said, lovingly running the beat up black comb through her hair. “My hero.”

For a few minutes, they stood, close enough to keep each other warm, and drank their beers, too exhausted to speak.

“You know I know,” she said, finally breaking a contented silence.

“I wasn’t actually sure,” he said, his voice breaking. “I wanted to tell you, but I was afraid you wouldn’t let me come up.”

“I keep reminding myself that we never had any formal arrangement,” she said. “That’s how I found out – Pete assumed we’d broken when he told me he heard.”

“You’re right, we didn’t talk about rules,” he said. He wanted to her the entire truth, which was that she was wrong, this excuse was bullshit, and that he’d thought about her every day, was in love with her, and wished they had a formal arrangement.

“I was just a summer thing,” she said. “You can sleep with whoever you want to at school – even another lifeguard from camp.”

He wanted to her to say that he couldn’t – he’d come up here for that very reason. He wanted to explain that what happened wasn’t because there were no rules but in spite of it – he loved her but he was weak and lonely. He wanted to explain that but knew it wouldn’t convince her, that the weaker and more desperate she could see he was, the less she’d want him. Better for her just to think he was an asshole.

“I might as well tell you everything, too,” she said after a long pause, this one not so comfortable.

“Pete?”

“It isn’t something we planned.”

He wanted to scream, or cry, or ask for every detail, but he figured they were stuck in the Ford Taurus together for at least a few hundred miles in some direction.

“Let’s just get back in the car and try to sleep.”

He reclined the driver’s seat, and she laid down in the back, and somehow both were exhausted enough to fall asleep. He woke as dawn was breaking, and got out of the car to take leak, his pee steaming into the morning mist. When he got back to the car, she was sitting behind the wheel.

“Let’s just go,” she said. “We shouldn’t stay here any longer.”

He sat down in the passenger seat and looked at her. Even on a few hours’ sleep in the back a borrowed car, she was beautiful. He smelled like a bus station. She turned her head to look behind her, making sure they weren’t backing up onto a busy highway, but when she hit the gas, they both realized she’d forgotten to put the car in reverse. She slammed the brake, but the car slid forward, its front wheels rolling down an embankment in front of them.

She put the car in reverse, and pressed the pedal to the floor, but the back wheels only spun in place. They both jumped out to survey the damage. The car sat perched on the embankment, its front wheels hanging just a few inches up off the ground. Below it, the mountain dropped off precipitously, beyond it, a stunning profile of a mountain peak.

“No, no, no,” she sobbed, the first tears he’d seen her spill.

“Get back in,” he said, climbing down in front of the car.

She sat in the driver seat, and when he called out to her, gunned it in reverse. He plated his loafers firmly into the earth below him, and lay across the hood of the car, attempting to simultaneously press down and back on the hood of the car. As the front wheels began to make contact with the ground, they kicked the forest detritus up towards him, pummeling his face with pebbles and twigs.

She let off the gas.

“Are you ok,” she asked, her head peering out of the window.

“Gun it!” he screamed, tucking his head to avoid shrapnel. Within seconds, the tires caught and the car reversed up and out of the embankment. He climbed back up to the overlook and sat in the passenger seat.

“You’re bleeding,” she said, running a hand across his temple.

“It’s fine.”

She drove, and they were both so shook up from the mishap that neither paid much attention to where they were going. Sooner than he expected, she pulled off a familiar highway exit, and within minutes they were passing through the gates of Wandatalah. She lowered the car windows.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, pointing out the changing leaves. “I’ve never seen it in the fall.”

“It’s rot,” he reminded her.

“Yes,” she said. “But it’s our rot – that’s something, right?”


© Copyright 2018 ME Pesant. All rights reserved.

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