The Proposal
A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Mask"
Originally featured on 11-29-2006
As part of our series "Fall Stories"

She’s sitting in the backseat of the car, legs crossed and hanging foot tapping nervously against air, her diet cherry soda spilling over the lip of the can as the Jeep flies over a pothole.

“Sorry!” calls the driver over the roar of the air.

She can’t see much through the night air, only the headlights falling and rising on the pavement, and she wonders where the edge of the road is, if she is still in town, what is causing the strange buzzing sound in the back of the truck. She turns quickly, as if to look, which is impossible in the dark, and loses the sunglasses that were perched atop her head from the days strong sun.

She wishes the driver were playing music, or offering up some small talk. Instead he is silent and he has been since he threw her bag in the backseat with little regard for her warnings of the fragility of its contents.

“Whatcha got in there?” he’d asked, his eyes hard on hers, “bricks or something?” He hadn’t waited for a witty reply, had merely got into the drivers seat and turned on the truck, put it into first gear as she scrambled to get in.

Now they’d been driving for over two hours along Route 16, passing nothing but closed gas stations and plateaus which rise in the distance like slow dark waves.

She has a pad of paper in her hand, and she attempts to write, holding the paper down with one hand, writing letters slowly with the other, each bump in the road sending a black line up the page like a hanging post.

How did David talk her into this? She asks herself. She glances at the driver, one hand casually on the wheel, the other pulling on his thin moustache. He looks into the rear view mirror, catching her eye, she thinks, before looking away.

The moon is only a sliver, cutting into the black blue of the sky like a rounded sword. There are no clouds, just stars, emptied out onto the sky all at once.

She can picture David now, his eyes glinting like polished marbles, collar pressed and starched to the point of lethality, reeking of potential villainy, stifled only by his lowly position as an editor for a newspaper that covers more soccer games than wars, more PTA disputes than political scandals. No one knew quite where he came from, only that he had shown up driving the streets like he’d known them all his life.

He had snuck up behind her in the break room where she was refreshing her coffee for the third time, his sharp voice causing her body to swing towards him in a reactionary way to face him. He let his words out slowly like air from a balloon being pinched between two fingers.

“How do you feel about a long drive in the desert?”

“Am I driving?” she asked, “where am I going?”

“No. You’ll have a driver. And you’ll be going to Valle Vista—to Simon Breckner’s ranch.”

The Simon Breckner? The artist?” She narrowed her eyes, her heart beating faster, and she licks her lips, considers her options—which are non-existent, really, to anyone but a fool. Breckner was a legend, and hero of the West. He refused press of any kind, declined an interview with Rolling Stone, with Playboy. He didn’t want to be an artist people read about, he wanted people to find him by chance. He was a romantic figure, like the Count of Monte Cristo, a man living on the edge of the desert, hollowing out his place in time with silence. An interview with him could be the only career move she would need to make. She didn’t ask why me? because she didn’t want to know.

He raises his eyebrows, questioningly. She nods. The deal was set.

Now, her body rigid with goose bumps, tense like before the drop of a rollercoaster, the situation dangerous, in a controlled way—but what if the tracks have been bent somehow and the cars ride off into the sky…

Wait, he had said something, she realizes, as his eyes hold in the rear view mirror, not jeeringly, but expectantly.

“I’m sorry?” she yells.

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” he asks again, now both hands on the wheel. She shifts her feet, crushing some wrappers, she looks down to see the plastic wrap of Little Debbie-esque snacks littering the floor.

“Just a brother, but he died when I was very young.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he says, with what seems like true sympathy, not the kind most people spit out mechanically, a side effect of too much time spent perusing greeting cards.

“Well, I was very young, as I said, it didn’t affect me very much.”

“What a strange thing to say.” He flips up the lid of the console and fishes around for a while pulling out a can of MGD. He offers one to her, and she accepts.

“You can sit up here is the winds bothering you too much,” he offers, wiping the contents of the seat next to him with his hand quickly. A pen flies out the window and he snaps his fingers. He cracks the beer as she climbs into the front seat, steadying herself by sliding her hands along the frame of the car.

“That is better,” she says, her hair finally at rest, bumpy and thick when she pulls is back, smelling like desert air.

She opens her beer the cold foam spreading over the top of the can—she holds it out the window and the foam blows into oblivion. Now the edge of the road is apparent, though the white lines are worn and faded from the sun, the lack of attention. They have yet to meet another set of headlights.

“What do you know about Simon Breckner?” she asks, pen ready against pad.

“I don’t gossip,” he says, taking a long sip of MGD, resting the can in between his legs when he is done. He stares straight ahead, then over to her.

“You’re not a very good reporter,” he says, “aren’t you gonna try and get something out of me…work it Barbra Walters style, cunning like?” she reads a light grin on his face through the way the moonlight reflects off his moustache. She says nothing. Truth is, she never considered herself much of a journalist anyway. She would’ve rather bought some land in Utah and built a nice house, worked her own garden, made her own soap and caught her own fish—big, lively ones that would be frightening on the end of her fishing rod, wanting badly to pull her into the water and without any of the regret or guilt a human would have felt to make it worth while. Instead she was renting an apartment for three hundred dollars a month that didn’t even have a working stove, she had to kick it a good three times before the pilot light would start, and her window overlooked the local bar from which men would stumble out late into the night, shouting drunk about how their wives didn’t know shit, their bosses didn’t know shit, hell-nobody knew shit. She held the pillow over her ears, somehow found sleep, and would wake to the still heat as the sun beat in, she would eat her oatmeal and walk to work the two miles straight down Franklin Ave, walking past the shop windows where women and men sat behind counters, sucking in cigarettes, tipping white cups of coffee to their lips, clearing their throats of the night. It was a town because it was between two bigger towns on the way to a city. How she ended up there seemed a mystery now, seemed like something she might as well make up to make it more interesting than it likely was.

The air was getting colder as the night reached its fullest, the moon right overhead. She searched for a clock but finding none, she attempted to read her watch.

“It’s twelve-thirty.” The driver says, without even a glance in her direction. She puts her arm down in her lap, not wanting to be rude by second guessing. To her, the night looks endless, and time seemed an unlikely thing right now, as well the sun, morning in a bed in a house that wasn’t hers—maybe they would eat pancakes for breakfast, big cornbread ones with fresh syrup and slow melting butter…

She takes a drink from her can, and then another, trying to quench her appetite, though she could almost smell breakfast.

“You like working at that newspaper much?” he asks, in a way that infers he knows she doesn’t.

“More than I liked my last job,” she says, and to save him the trouble of asking what that last job was, she looks ahead, sighs and says “veterinarians assistant.” He makes a face and she nods.

“I’m not talking about cats and dogs. He was a farm vet. Horses, bison, goats and the like. I once had to stick a needle in a goats backside three times before it stuck! They’re so cute when they’re young too, with those big floppy ears and the way they look at you sideways,” she shakes her head. The driver finishes his beer, throws the can in the back with the Little Debbie wrappers and reached somewhere next to him and pulls out a freshie. He motions towards her but she’s nursing hers…with no food in her and all this excitement she doesn’t need any mishaps.

Finally, they turn, and now they travel along an unpaved road, plumes of thick red smoke behind them, made neon by the brake lights, the scent like that of old coins under her grandfathers bed, wrapped neatly in blue and green papers. It’s the iron in the soil, red-orangey stuff of the earth, in limestones, rust. Now she can see the lights of a house, five miles away maybe, a house sitting by itself in the middle of nowhere, it’s flood lights confusing for animals, a dot all alone from a satellite, hardly registering, but there.

The driver clears his throat and proclaims, “Home sweet home!” even though they continue to drive for ten more minutes or so, the loose roads making speed impossible. Rocks clank against the bottom of the truck, get spit out the back over the tires, fly off into the universe. There are little bits of grasses along the road, leaning towards it, as if welcoming. She tries to relax, tries to think of herself as a long-awaited guest, someone for whom the good scotch will be brought out. She tries to forget the room full of Breckner’s paintings she had seen at a gallery in Phoenix, the lines of people moving from one piece to another, the sense that she was in the presence of a genius.

When the truck stops and turns off, the silence makes her ears long for noise. The driver opens the door, a few empties coming out with him, his boots hitting the ground with a loud thud. Already the dust is catching up to them a bit, rising still above the road, like an explosion in standstill. She gets her bag, looks around, realizes she is out in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada with a man she hardly knows and one she has yet to meet. Her feet stop in their progression to the front door with this thought, she watches the driver make his way along the stepping stone path to he front entrance, a massive mahogany door with the details of a master carpenter. She looks to either side of her, and in each case there is darkness, except the possible watching eye of a coyote, but this is likely her imagination. The adrenaline pushes her forward, through the door, into the foyer, where the smell of cinnamon tickles her nose.

“Could go for a hot toddy,” the driver says, motioning for her to leave her bag on the floor. Following him through the hallway she gazes up a wide paintings of Breckner’s early period- women speaking low over coffee, sitting on street curbs, each done in a way that looks like he wasn’t paying attention to details, but just happened to include all the right ones. A pinky finger extended past the rim of the coffee cup, painted aqua, or a cut on an ankle, the sun hitting an exposed bit of the back…things of that nature. The walls were slate blue, and cool to the touch. The driver cleared his throat, waiting for her at the end of the hallway.

They entered into what had to be the main room, with impressively high ceilings, set at what seemed to be impossible angles, like an M.C. Escher drawing, with long triangular windows and thick mahogany beams lining the walls, every inch taken up with knick-knacks: salt and pepper shakers in the shape of chess pieces, old playing cards propped up against a row of shotgun shells, seashells, a deteriorated nutcracker in blue, the gold paint along the brim of his hat cracking, photos of cats, small sculptures of jungle animals, encased butterflies and bugs held down with pins, wings faded by sunlight.

She sucked her breath in when she comes upon a picture of her driver, a proud smile on his face, unidentifiable can of beer in his hand, leg thrown up upon the tire of an old Ford. It is held back against the wall by two vanished candlesticks.

“Hey this is you!” she says, somewhat happily, having found something familiar amidst the collection.

“My first truck,” he says, the smile from the picture duplicated.

“I used to drive for hours in that truck, trying to pick up girls…that’s how I met my ex-wife.” She nodded, with more appreciativeness than the average listener.

“Real firebrand that one,” he said, picking up a miniature golden deer statue and turning it around in his hand so that the antlers straddled his index finger.

“Wives are bad luck anyway,” he continued, setting down the deer, clearing his throat, looking at her like she’d just beat something out of him.

“So what about you…you’ve got death in your past, what else?”

She thinks, tries to think of tragedy. She remembers burying the dog, Domino (named after her fathers favorite game to play in his tent in Vietnam) in the backyard in her nightgown, sobbing into a kitchen towel that smelled like Bisquick, in a yard full of ponderosa pines and brown-yellow grasses; that year there were beetles and patches of the trees matched the ground. Her father had shot a rifle into the air three times and had spoken to god, asking why didn’t he take him instead? he was old—he had said, loudly, while the neighbors watched, shaking their heads maybe, or perhaps looking up to the clear blue skies, asking their own questions.

‘Don’t cry baby,’ her father had said to her, close-up, his wrinkles soft, tears in his own eyes.

“One death is enough for a lifetime,” she says, eyeing him. The silence moves around the room like a ghost. The driver has nothing to say, just stares at his hands, dry, perma-stained by inks. She sucks her breath in and feels her heart beat thicken.

“You’re Simon,” she says, with more confidence than she expected.

“I guess you’re not as bad a journalist as I thought.”

“Why didn’t you tell me who you were?” She asked, forgetting for a moment the pen and paper, the small recorder in her front pocket she had yet to turn on.

“I guess sometimes it’s just easier to wear a mask.” He says, and finding a chair to his liking, sits, and looks up at her.

“Well?” he asks, crossing a leg over the other and placing his fingertips together so that they form a V in front of his nose, “lets get on with it.”

She shifts her weight from one foot to the other, tensely. Looking up, she sees the head of a moose, two deer, a bison. Her mind feels blank, white.

“You hunt?” she asks, “does this inspire you?” to which he lets out a deep laugh.

“Have some whiskey,” he says, shooing her in the direction of a liquor cabinet kitty cornered at the far edge of the room, “maybe that’ll loosen you up.” She doesn’t budge. She is looking at the planks on the floor, wide, full of healthy pocks, signs of a warm year, or lots of rain, or not enough—something, a cry for help.

“Let me ask you some questions, help get things started. What do you remember about your brother, Nick…was that his name?” Her brain focuses, pulls for memories like hands through a junk drawer, she sits on an lone ottoman, puts down the now warm beer next to her.

“His name was George, after my father, and I can’t remember much.” This is the truth, there isn’t much there, mostly strays—a flash of his face when he moved the cereal box on the kitchen table, him standing at the top of the stairs in a pirate Halloween costume, a fake gold earring hanging from his ear, in his bare feet on the old shag carpeting, toes clutching the strands…

Suddenly, he is up, racing around the room. He tells her “don’t move,” and disappears into the darkness through the French doors leading outside, coming back moments later with his easel, shoelaces untied, eyes glazed over, a rabid dog, drugged.

“Shouldn’t you put something on the floor?” she asks. “Newspapers or something? Some rags?” He shakes his head, he is painting. He is painting her. Or he is painting something past her, so it seems, but he grunts when she moves, pulls the recorder from her pocket, presses play, slides it onto the floor halfway between them.

“Why did you come to the Renegade for an interview?” she asks, her voice strong and loud.

“I liked your story on the Massequah damn,” he said, squinting, “it showed a very strong character, an appreciation for natural beauty, and most importantly, a general and unwavering dislike and distrust of planning boards.”

“My story? My editor told me that if I ever wrote any more sentimental bullshit like that he’d throw me out on the street.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right…maybe you’re in need of a career change.”

“Why did you like it?” she asks, looking at Simon’s boots move back and forth slightly on the floor like a boxer, dirt clumping off…she wonders who cleans it up.

“Why? Hmmm…well I could tell right away that you were smart, or what I consider smart—uh, a sort of awareness of the right way, if you know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You asked the questions no one else thought of. Everybody wants development, because it brings money, recognition, tourism. You don’t, clearly.”

“So it was biased?”

“No—no. It was passionately argued, for once! It wasn’t just facts—it was words that were really coming out of someone, not just researched bullshit—god knows we all get enough regurgitation in the news these days. Some people can see a situation and understand it, others just find the conflicts and the resolution, however weak.”

“I liked it,” she says, “that article. It means a lot to me that someone like you appreciated it.”

“ Well maybe you should consider writing for someone who appreciates it,” Simon says, and she can almost see the smile, although his face is hidden.

“Maybe” she says, straightening, another grunt. She doesn’t want to look like she has bad posture.

“Whatcha gonna call this one?” she asks, still aware of the rolling tape in the recorder.

“I think I’ll call it…my new beer-wasting personal assistant, or something like that.” “Is that your version of a job offer?” she asks, incredulous. Now she wanted some whiskey.

“It is. You can live here, or there” he gestures off into the darkness, back to town, “I’m mostly gone…whether or not I’m here, and you’d have the Jeep to use, if you can handle its temper tantrums.”

Again, a choice that only a fool would consider the options to. To her, there is no point in thinking it over, she can see the road opening in front of her, already her apartment seems a relic, her job cartoonish. Her blood is moving quickly, like when one wakes up from a night in the woods and climbs out from the tent into the hard cold morning, the air biting at ankles, forcing life into slept in skin.

“Fine. I think I should finish the interview first, though, and maybe discuss the details.”

“You’ll get paid plenty,” he says, casually, “and I don’t talk to the press, so you might as well put that thing away and make yourself a hot toddy.”

 

 

Read More By Liz Varley

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Portland Fiction Project

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