Seven weeks pregnant and nauseated enough to search for the women’s bathroom, Kristen sweats in the “Express—twenty items or less” line at the Susanville Walmart and tries to calm her stomach and mind; she regrets the Jack in the Box tacos she had for lunch, and her mind replays her answer to Wintric’s question about an abortion: “I don’t know.”
Married for two weeks, she wears a solitaire diamond ring and a silver wedding band, and while she hasn’t asked him, she guesses Wintric purchased the set from the same store where she now stands and vises down on the shopping cart’s handle. She’s still acclimating to the minor weight of the set and the protruding diamond, and the inside of her left-hand middle and pinkie fingers are sore from the new rub.
She swallows and fingers the sweat away from her face. She reaches into her purse and grabs the small plastic baggie of saltines she totes around, selects a cracker, and places it on her tongue.
Unloading her cart onto the conveyer belt, she surveys her soon-to-be purchases: a whistle, a gray T-shirt, a new sports bra, dry-erase markers, a dry-erase board with basketball court markings, an iron-on Coach logo, the Dead Rising video game, the latest People magazine, three gallons of milk, tortillas, instant coffee, deodorant, toothpaste, and athletic socks.
She guesses the Walmart checkout man is new, exhausted, or stupid, because he struggles to locate the barcode on everything he attempts to scan, and while she counts out her sixteen items before the plastic bar that separates her things from the cowboy-hatted man’s stuff in front of her, she realizes that the conveyer belt isn’t moving, that everything is taking too long for her trembling stomach and esophagus. After another cracker and two more minutes of nervous gulping, the cowboy has his total, and he reaches into his front jeans pocket and brandishes a leather-bound checkbook, then asks for a pen. These acts will delay her bathroom entrance by a minute, probably more.
Miraculously, the second saltine has helped, offering a sliver of reprieve—enough, she thinks, to get her through the check writing. She glances left, to the inviting stand of magazines and candy, and catches a photo of a sultry-grinned Fergie, light blue Cosmopolitan at the top, deep red “THE SEX HE WANTS” below. Next to Cosmopolitan, Time magazine, “LIFE IN HELL: A BAGHDAD DIARY.” Next to Time, GQ and a flirty-grinned Justin Timberlake, “THE PRIVATE LIFE OF JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE.”
Kristen pops another cracker. Her esophagus and stomach downshift from tremble to sway.
The checkout man offers an enthusiastic “Hi there,” smiles, and fumbles with the sports bra, turning the garment in his hands although the barcoded tag dangles near the clasp. Brand new, she thinks. Why in the world would they give him the express line?
When he fists the first gallon of milk, Kristen says, “It’s on the front.”
“Thanks,” he says, smirking with a hint of newfound annoyance. “What team?” he says, holding up the Coach logo.
“Basketball,” she says, swallowing a cracker. “Girl’s JV. Over in Chester.”
“The Chester Volcanoes,” he says. “Cool mascot.”
It’s then that she spots Marcus twenty feet from her, pushing a cart full of groceries toward the exit with his girlfriend, Stacey. Kristen lowers her head, then peeks back up. There’s no desire or longing, just a nervous wish to avoid eye contact. She’s heard that Marcus got on with Caltrans and is making good union money working on the paving crew, and there’s a town rumor that Stacey did time forsimple assault on a girl over in Greenville who called her a drunk Indian, which, as far as Kristen knows, is a fairly accurate description.
Occasionally Kristen sees Marcus’s blue Chevy truck rolling down Main Street in Chester, heading south to the aging, valley-bound highways, but he no longer shops at the Holiday market, where she still works, preferring, she’d guessed correctly, to make the forty-five-minute drive to this Walmart. Kristen watches them walk away, Stacey’s hand on Marcus’s back, her long black hair hanging down to the top of her jeans.
Kristen pays with cash and moves toward the exit, but pauses by stacks of on-sale bottled water, Lucky Charms, binders, and dog food. She doesn’t want to run into Marcus or Stacey returning their cart or discover that they’ve parked next to her, so she glances over at the bathroom entrance and grabs another saltine from her purse and peeks at a clock on the wall. She watches the second hand and decides to wait three minutes. She hears the old-man greeter welcoming people to the store, and she digs out her phone and sees the background photo of Wintric and her at a San Francisco Giants game.
Her father had given them the tickets for her birthday, five rows up from the Giants’ dugout. The Pirates intentionally walked Barry Bonds three times, but the afternoon was sunny and the stadium was even better than she had imagined, with the bay right there, the eastbound ocean breeze in her hair, and she and Wintric each downing two overpriced hot dogs before the fifth inning. In the phone’s background picture Wintric has his arm around her and she’s tucked into him, smiling under her black-and-orange-brimmed Giants hat. It was that night in an Oakland Holiday Inn Express, sunburned and exhausted and happy, that she became pregnant.
Kristen stands near the Walmart exit, one minute into her allotted three. She texts Wintric that she’s about to head home, that maybe they should order pizza for dinner. She knows he won’t see the text right away, as he’ll be finishing up splitting the pile of wood he hauled home yesterday. It was another example of his four-month roll of energy and optimism, which Kristen wants to believe can last forever, even if she talks herself into taking everything a day at a time.
When she took his last name it seemed like something she had known would always happen, something inescapable but comfortable. Already her new name sounds familiar: Kristen Ellis. She thinks of Wintric splitting the wood into fireplace-sized pieces, and she believes the war won’t live in him forever—at least not as it has—that there are too many things that happen in a life for the past always to live downstage. She believes that people are always someone different the next day. Already she sees Wintric anew as they laugh together watching Arrested Development, or as he hums while they walk along the boggy shore of Willow lake, or as he takes in the Chester Fourth of July parade, which she hopes one day he’ll walk in with the rest of the veterans.
Recently Wintric has replaced all the ceiling fans in their place, dropped down to two OxyContins a day, with plans to kick them altogether, and surprised Kristen with lunch—freshly made turkey sandwiches—a few times at work. She trusts these things are not signs, they aren’t teasers; this is who he is. Still, she understands days rarely pass by easily, regardless of his motivation. She navigates this world and lives through the days just as he does. In the past week she’s put in five thirteen-hour days at the Holiday supermarket, changed the oil in their car, and finished the sixth Harry Potter book, all under the stress of work as a new assistant manager at Holiday and the pressing debate of whether to keep this child.
Kristen swallows, her dry throat constricts, and she feels slightly dizzy. She walks over to the drinking fountain and sips, then tracks the clock’s second hand. At three minutes she makes her move outside, playfully scolding herself for her cowardice. She surveys the parking lot for Marcus’s truck, then watches the Chevy depart from the back of the lot by the Jack in the box.
The sun is hot on her body as she loads the items into her car’s empty back seat. She starts the car and turns onto the highway that will take her back to Chester. She rolls down Susanville’s main thoroughfare, aware that Marcus and Stacey are a few minutes in front of her, driving the same route home, and she can’t help but glance ahead to see if they’ve caught a red light, but there’s nothing.
During the drive home—up over Fredonyer Pass and down into the valleys outside Westwood—Kristen sips on a Coke, apprehensive that she’s catching up to them, so she keeps it at 50 mph and studies the road for a blue Chevy truck. Her nausea simmers and her right leg aches, and she turns off the one local radio station that plays top 40.
Up ahead she spots a dirt turnout she’s passed a hundred times on her way back and forth to Susanville and Reno, a turnout big enough for one of the few diesels that take this route. She grabs her right quad and steers her car to the turnoff. She gets out, stretches her leg, lifting her right ankle back toward her butt.
On the far edge of the turnout stands an old brick fireplace and chimney, the remnants of what Kristen guesses used to be a pioneer home. The ruin has always been a welcome sight for her, marking twenty minutes’ driving time left to Chester, but she’s never stopped here before, and she studies the old fireplace, clean from a recent rain, wondering why it was left intact. She looks south, across the valley, past grazing cattle, to the distant ridge line there, then to a hill in the otherwise flat meadow. She camped at the base of this hill once when she was twelve. Her father took her and one of her friends there and told them ghost stories and brought out kids’ bows and let them shoot arrows at the blackbirds that sat on the rotting fence posts. Kristen considers the outing: the absurdity of shooting arrows at birds that would leap away, then return to the same fence posts; losing all the arrows; the meandering cows; her earnest father and his ghost stories that scared no one. Her father, his gentle demeanor, his Sunday trips to the local Methodist church alone; her father, surprising Wintric and her with Giants tickets and a hotel in Oakland. When Kristen told her parents about her pregnancy a few nights ago, he begged her to keep the child, even though she hadn’t voiced any other plan.
Kristen stares at the hill and thinks of Marcus and Stacey hitting the Plumas County line, Wintric running the wood splitter in the back-yard heat, and this minuscule baby inside her—the only proof of its existence being two home pregnancy test results and nausea. She stares at the hill and hears the cows’ calls in the distance. Just before her cell phone rings, her father’s words return to her: “Keep the baby. Keep the baby.”
Wintric’s name appears on her phone, and she answers with “Hey, babe.” When he says, “You get Dead Rising?” she hears his drunk-drugged voice. Her feet and hands sting, and again she sees him at the controls of the wood splitter, the iron wedge driving through the large round, his sweat, his dirty shirt, pine chunks falling to the yard.
She says the two syllables hushed, detached, and a new vision arrives: Wintric on the couch, Halo 2 on the screen, a narcotic, lazy smile as he sips a fourth Coors light under a spinning ceiling fan. “Oh my God.”
“Baby, you on your way here? You on your way?”
Kristen bends over at the waist.
“Wintric,” she says. “What have you done? God. Shit. What—” “I’m sitting here. Where you?”
“What have you done?”
“Where you at, baby?”
She hears another “Baby?” and the hand holding the phone drops from her ear to her side. She sees herself in the doorway of their home, crossing the room to intoxicated Wintric, her arm reaching out to him, handing him the new video game, returning to the kitchen; she’s opening the refrigerator, placing the milk gallons on the center shelf. She’s leaning over the counter, watching Wintric’s joy as he picks up the game controller and hits start.
At the turnout a waft of manure hits Kristen and she walks over to the fireplace and reaches out and touches the bricks, pressing her left palm against the chimney. She glances at the square diamond in her ring and moves her ring finger. The bottom of her ring taps the bricks.
Kristen drafts ultimatums in her head—no more alcohol, no video games, rehab, time to cut out the drugs—but she can’t conjure a threat. She wouldn’t leave, it hasn’t gotten that bad, and really, has it been bad at all? It’s the first relapse in over four months. And what’s a relapse? Drunk at 2 p.m. on a Saturday? He’s not soaking in the tub fully dressed. He’s not running away or locking himself in the bedroom or pulling a gun or driving drunk. What is she worried about? Maybe his foot is killing him from the wood splitting. Maybe he split all the wood and threw back a couple waiting for her. She is later than she said she’d be.
After Kristen and Wintric’s engagement, her father took her aside and told her that she should never ask Wintric about the war, that there were no answers that would make sense, and besides, there was only one way to gauge if someone was ready for marriage: if he would still love his spouse after one of them had starting shitting their pants in old age. “I’m just waiting on your mother to start,” he said, with a raise of his eyebrows. The comment had made her laugh at the time, and though she couldn’t visualize an aged, pants-shitting Wintric or explain why she felt like he was the only one for her, she yearned to be with him and to care for him—she had as far back as she could remember. It was not a curse or a blessing or a surprise.
Kristen clutches her phone and the questions and guilt and rage invade. What if she hung up too soon? Wintric installed the ceiling fans and painted their bedroom a light blue for her. He danced at their back-yard wedding reception without a whisper of pain.
What makes it worse is that he won’t be upset with her.
He’s never upset with her. He never asks her to do anything for him. Calm down, she says to herself. The cattle graze in the meadow. The yellow grass. The ridge line in the distance. Almost home. This is the world she knows, but most of it she’s only driven through, and at the moment she’s not sure what she knows or wants or expects. The threat of beginnings gnaws at her. Is this the first in a series of drunken phone calls she’ll get from Wintric? What is her fault? What does he need to recover from? Will she always overreact? Has she now? What does she want?
She climbs back into the car and her chest tightens and the nausea expands someplace inside. She peers out the windshield and notices a new chip in the glass that will run on her come winter. Her eyes close, and she promises herself that when she opens them everything will still be there. In past moments of stress she’s always heard her mother’s motto that the only folks who experience real anxiety are the ones who don’t know when they’ll eat next. The perspective has always helped, but nausea isn’t just a state of mind. Her stomach clenches and opens, and she leans out of the car and throws up.
Kristen washes her mouth out with lukewarm Coke and spits. A minivan pulls into the turnout. In her rearview mirror she watches a boy jump out, look around, and scramble behind the fireplace. Soon a stream of pee appears from behind the bricks. She wants to look away, but the scene is fantastically bizarre, this fireplace springing a leak, cows in the background, her little hill and those damn blackbirds. She hears her laugh before she feels it, and she lets herself go and her laughter fills the car and she wipes at her eyes and tastes the Coke film. Soon the pee stream stops and the boy runs back to the van and hops in, and the van pulls back onto the road.
Kristen’s nerves ease momentarily, but she sits in the silent car and the worry creeps back in. she knows what she wants—she wants nothing else to change today. She wants no news or answers, big or small. Wintric hasn’t called back or texted, and she guesses that he’s already forgotten about her hang-up, is now fully reinvested in Halo 2, another half a beer down. She remembers that she gassed up in Susanville before heading to Walmart and she wonders how far she can drive on a tank. Where could she go where there’s no news?