Night Vision by Jeanette Topar
The sun hadn’t shone for weeks; it made Mona edgy. Every day since the beginning of June had threatened rain, but rain never came. Just clouds. Her husband, unlike Mona, didn’t get down about insubstantial things like cloudy days. “But doesn’t it bother you?” she asked, knowing it was useless to prod Wayne.
“It’s weather,” he said, as they drove home from the mall. “Beyond our control, so why worry?”
Everything was so, so, straightforward for him. “I wish the weather were as predictable as you,” Mona said, trying to smooth some of the frizz back under her hair band. Humidity was winning these days in the lifelong battle she waged with her shoulder-length curls.
“I take that as a compliment,” Wayne said.
“That’s good,” Mona said. As irritated as she was with her hair—and her husband sometimes—Mona had never considered getting rid of either of them. She had no intention of surrendering to the low-maintenance, short haircut so many women her age wore. Wayne had dubbed the bristly cut, “the woodchuckie.” Mona had to admit there was a resemblance between the pelt of the groundhogs that waddled along the roads where they lived, and that hairstyle. Wayne’s observations made her laugh; that was one reason she’d kept him around for the past twenty-five years.
The weather or the mall had given Mona a headache; she’d found no new items of clothing she wanted to buy, though she lingered at the raincoats and tried on several pairs of waterproof boots. The only purchases either of them had made were two large Jamba Juices, and she’d dripped some of the neon orange-colored drink on her summer white capris. She thought about home. She would fix them gin and tonics, lots of ice and fresh slices of lime, a generous pour of gin. Take a couple of Tylenol.
The car radio droned something classical. Mona knew little about that sort of music, but remained vaguely entertained by it because Wayne liked it. The violins sounded screechy to her. It was a program broadcast live all the way from Venice, Italy, from the band that played to patrons at the outdoor Café Florian in Saint Mark’s Square. It would be well after midnight there. Mona could hear the clink of wine glasses and setting of espresso cups onto saucers in the background. She listened for the lapping of the waves in the Grand Canal. It was unbelievable to her now, that she and Wayne had been there one summer, just before Wayne accepted a humanities professorship at the college where he still worked. How long ago had it been? They’d sat at that same café, maybe heard some of the same musicians. Did musicians work the same job that long? Were those musicians even still alive? Mona had wanted to dance to the music then, in the center of the piazza. Wayne wasn’t interested in twirling around in the midst of the crowd. Half the world had seemed crammed into the famous square, “Europe’s Living Room.” Late that night, after the band had packed up and the tourists had mostly gone to bed, Wayne took her hand. He led her back through the piazza and they’d waltzed along the colonnade of the Doge’s Palace.
“Puccini,” said Wayne, anticipating her question as the music on the radio reached a crescendo. It was true: Mona did always ask what was playing, no matter how many times Wayne told her. She could never remember the composers’ names.
“Ah,” Mona said, though still reluctant to admit Wayne had the upper hand. She felt him glance over at her but averted her face to conceal any uncertainty in her response. “That’s right,” she said.
The station faded out as they drove up and down the hills toward home.
Mona didn’t like this long stretch of road between the mall and their house. She looked forward to getting back to the glow of their small town. People gathered, laughing and drinking in the few lively restaurants on the main street. In spite of the sparse population, the university town supported several thriving businesses, including Plein Air, the small art gallery that Mona owned. She’d never managed to convince some of the customers that “Plein” did not rhyme with “spleen.” Wealthy parents of the college students, most of them from the New Jersey suburbs, expressed a taste for the local artists Mona represented. Landscapes, inspired by the rolling hills of the Pennsylvania farmland, sold extremely well.
It comforted Mona to see her reflection edged with Wayne’s profile as she stared out the car window. Beyond, the countryside was growing dark. The restaurants of their town should have appeared by now. Instead their old Toyota was weaving, winding, climbing in the fading light. She spotted, in the distance, the white steeple of the church not far from their house. It was well-lit and bright on the horizon. She lost sight of it as they turned up another road, twisting in another direction.
Wayne was taking one of his detours.
“This way takes twice as long,” Mona complained. She didn’t know what way they were going. She’d never had much sense of direction and was even more easily disoriented these days. All the little-known side roads, once Iroquois paths, had lost their logic and usefulness at least a century ago. If she didn’t follow the same route every time, navigation was like a game of blind man’s bluff for her.
“We’re almost there,” said Wayne.
Mona had little sense of direction, but Wayne had even less sense of time. They’d probably be driving around for another hour, headed who knows where.
“Now where?” she asked, annoyed.
Wayne was silent. Mona wasn’t sure if he’d heard her. Perhaps he was thinking, or wishing she paid more attention when she herself drove. She, in turn, was wishing he wasn’t in the habit of taking such a long time to answer questions. Often times, he’d tell her he’d already answered when she was certain he hadn’t. And when he did answer, he rarely answered directly. She’d learned to be patient. Patient enough, anyway. Ask him where he’d put the paper towels and he’d tell how he’d bought a double-roll package at Wal-Mart, got quite a bargain, and handed the clerk a ten-dollar bill; she’d given him change for a twenty and he told her so and they had a lengthy chat about how bad they’d been in third-grade math. Mona didn’t get a paper towel until the sticky tea she’d spilled had run off the counter and splattered all over the floor.
“Just another five minutes,” Wayne said now.
Mona sighed. She could make out the shapes of black trees surrounding them but nothing more.
“I like to take different ways,” he explained, as if she didn’t know. “It’s more interesting.”
Sometimes she wondered if they hadn’t moved to the country just so he could constantly test her sense of direction. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to get into a disagreement now, even a small one. She didn’t want to add to her uneasiness.
“We might see some night critters out here,” Wayne continued. He was like a child when he caught a glimpse of a fox or a raccoon on these dark, less-traveled roads. “Remember when we saw that possum last week?”
Mona did remember. She couldn’t tell what the thing was at first, stock-still in their headlights. It was like that with all the animals they spotted during these drives. Poor possum. It must have been in shock, so suddenly illuminated, but its pointy, pale face showed no such emotion. It stood in the middle of the road, interrupted in its late-night scurry, with an expression of unblinking vacancy. It seemed to have no idea where it was, or which way to turn, left or right, to get off the road. It stared directly at her as though recognizing her from some previous incarnation.
“That possum scared me,” Mona said.
“Everything scares you lately.” Wayne peered into the road.
“No it doesn’t,” she said.
“You always say the opposite of what I say,” he said.
“No I don’t,” she said.
“All of a sudden, you’re afraid to drive.” Wayne tapped his thumbs on the steering wheel.
“I’ve lost my night vision,” she said.
“You barely drive during the day either.” Wayne glanced over at her again.
“Keep your eyes on the road,” Mona said. She was glad now she hadn’t mentioned something else that had frightened her earlier that day when she’d taken a walk. Wayne would have made a big deal out of that too, and it was really nothing. She’d had to pass close by a dead animal, so as not to walk down the middle of the road and end up getting run over herself. Roadkill was a common sight out in the country. She’d seen such things dozens of times. Smelled them too. This animal was long dead and desiccated; it didn’t have that sharp metallic odor that went right to the back of her tongue and made her gag, the bitter crawl of decay she felt along the sides of her mouth. The sun had purified what was left of the carcass; flies weren’t even bothering with it. It was like a piece of taxidermy, sanitized, and stiff, posed awkwardly against its will. All she saw was bone and a small tuft of fur. Not even bone, but several curving claws, like little polished meat hooks, pointing to the sky. She’d stopped and looked a long time, trying to figure out what it once had been.
“And now Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto Number Two in G Minor,” said the host on the public radio station, just fading back in. Ahead was Seven Stars, an even smaller town than the one near Mona and Wayne’s house. “It should have been called, ‘Seven People,’” Wayne had joked after coming across it on one of his meanderings. Mona only recognized it by the single light strung high on a telephone pole, housed in a tin shade. It sent a chilled pool of intensity onto the crossroads. There was Hookey’s Bar, an “open” sign hung in the window, though it had closed years ago. The porch sagged and the loose spokes in the railing protruded like a mouthful of bad teeth. Even if Hookey’s were still in operation tonight, she would not have suggested they stop. She could tell, when they first came across it years ago, that Hookey’s was not the kind of place to relax and chat. It was a place to drink; that was all. Cold beers or shots of whiskey, straight up. It was the kind of place whose clientele stopped in on their way to work for a quick one in the morning, and again on their way home—if they could hold a job—to linger as late as they could afford.
Almost everyone in what was left of the town was asleep at 9:30. A shade in one window was not quite pulled all the way down; an inch-wide flicker of pale blue showed underneath, someone watching television. The cars parked outside the houses looked more abandoned than the town; one had two flat tires. Another slumped in a side yard, weeds sprouting up around it. It was easy to imagine, with the peeling, whitewashed wooden buildings and tangled drape of telephone wires overhead, that they’d been transported back in time, and that this pocket of time had been preserved like a photograph from a history book, in white, silver, black, and gray. It was so still. They could have danced in the middle of the crossroads and not disturbed a soul.
“I don’t like coming through here,” Mona said. “It creeps me out.”
“This is the road.” Wayne was all calm and reason. “This is where it goes.”
“Just five more minutes, right?” she said.
It took all of thirty seconds to drive through Seven Stars. They were headed back to the main road.
As they turned the last curve, a flash of color exploded before them and rushed toward the headlights. Wayne swerved the car sharply to the right, and something streaked along the driver’s side. They hadn’t hit it, whatever it was. He eased to a stop.
“A deer?” Mona asked. The sudden burst of something alive, golden yellow, had come right at them.
“A dog,” Wayne said, looking in the rearview mirror. “Yep, there he goes. Running along down the road. A retriever, I think.”
Mona turned to see a fluffy tail bouncing away into the night.
“You and your damn ‘looking for possums,’ driving around all over the place when all I want is to go home,” Mona said. “Move over.”
“What? What for?”
“Just move over, goddam you,” Mona said. “Give me the wheel.”
Wayne obediently got out of the car and went around to the passenger side. For a minute Mona thought of locking the door and driving off without him, just leaving him standing there. That would teach him. She’d been patient long enough.
Wayne got back in the car and Mona sped off, flooring the gas pedal. She was determined to get home as fast as she could.
“Take it easy Mona,” said Wayne.
“You could have killed that dog, you and your stupid driving around in the dark.”
“But I didn’t,” Wayne said. Wayne was a good driver. Never had an accident in his life. Mona didn’t care. She drove on, headed for home, and she wasn’t about to ask Wayne which way that was.
“You never think ahead. You never think what could happen.” Mona gripped the wheel so hard she felt like she could yank it right out.
How would it have changed the next hours if they’d hit that dog? Would they have been able to gather it up in their arms and get it into the backseat? It would bleed all over the upholstery. They could get that green tablecloth they kept in the trunk for impromptu picnics, though they hadn’t had a picnic in years. Cover the seat. The dog would be in pain, and if it were conscious it could bite them. They were out of cell phone range. They couldn’t call around for a pet ambulance; they didn’t know any vets, and certainly none that would answer the phone this late. They’d have been up all night for sure, trying to find someone to treat the dog, or trying to keep it alive until morning. There would have been blood everywhere. They’d never be able to clean the car. They’d never be able to forget the sight of the injured dog.
If only there had been moonlight, Mona might have recognized which way to turn.
“Oh shit. Oh shit. What are we doing here?” Mona slammed on the brakes hard enough for the back end of the Toyota to spin around and almost finish off what was left of Hookey’s front porch.
They were back in Seven Stars. The last blue glow from any television was gone. The only light was a cold yellow slice from the tin shade overhead. Mona threw open the car door. She got out and walked around the front of the Toyota and plopped down on the hood. Wayne scrambled out and sat beside her.
“Darn it, Wayne, I’m sorry,” Mona said. She wasn’t angry anymore. “I got us right back where we started.”
“It’s not such a bad thing, is it?” asked Wayne.
An aria floated from the radio and into the night.
“Look up,” Wayne said. The sky was impossibly black. Little by little a few stars shone through the clouds.
Mona didn’t look up. Instead she looked over at her husband beside her. They reclined next to each other on the hood of the car, feeling the warmth of the engine on their backs, and listened to the music playing from so far away.
“I know this one,” Mona said.
© Jeanette Topar, 2012
Jeanette Topar writes short stories and lives in New York City. Her work has appeared in regional and national magazines, including the Greensboro Review. She is also a playwright, and her plays have won national competitions. She has an MFA from Rutgers-Newark where she studied with Jayne Anne Phillips, Alice Elliott Dark, and Akhil Sharma. She is not working on a novel.
Night Vision was read by Denise Poirier on 5th September 2012