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Authors: Carol Goodman

River Road

BOOK: River Road
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To my mother

CHAPTER
ONE

S
he came out of nowhere.

I was driving back from the faculty Christmas party. I'd had a couple glasses of wine but I wasn't drunk. Distracted, sure, what with Cressida dropping that bombshell and the scene with Ross, but not drunk.

I didn't see her. It was dusk, that dangerous hour when day slides into night and deer steal out of the woods. I've lived here long enough to know that. I've braked a hundred times to watch a doe lead her fawns safely across the road. A lot of people hate the deer. They eat their gardens and carry ticks. But I have always thought they were more beautiful than any garden I could grow and loved them for Emmy's sake, who thought they were as magical as unicorns.

It was on that blind curve just before Orchard Drive. Everyone takes it too fast. I, of all people, should have known that too, but I was distracted and my vision had gone blurry for a moment. I'd lifted my hand off the wheel to wipe my eyes and something hit the bumper. A horrible
thump
I felt in my chest. Then something white scrolling upward like a long scarf unraveling, its body weirdly elongated like one of those cave paintings from the South of France, a hunter's dream of a spirit deer flying across the cosmos—

But when it hit the windshield it was meat and blood and broken
glass and I was pulling blind to the shoulder and screaming NO NO NO NO as if I could unscroll time and undo what had happened even as I felt sure that I'd been on a collision course with that deer all day long. Maybe for my whole life.

I don't know how long I screamed and cried like that, probably only a minute, but when I stopped—
Get a grip, Nan!
—it was dark. I turned on the headlights and a half-crumbled stone wall reared up like a tombstone. My car was angled into a ditch, the front right tire lower than the left, the stone wall only inches from my bumper. If I'd braked a few seconds later I'd have gone straight into it. If the deer had leapt out a few feet farther—

The deer. Was it dead? It must be after that impact—

I started shaking again. I could still feel that horrible
thump
.

But what if it wasn't dead? What if it was lying hurt by the side of the road while I sat here feeling sorry for myself—

Get a grip, Nan!

I was still clutching the steering wheel. I felt a laugh bubbling behind my lips.
Typical, Nan, thinking you're still driving when you're stuck in a ditch
. Before the tears could come again I opened the door. The cold air was bracing.
It's supposed to go down to twenty degrees tonight.
Someone said that at the party. Dottie, it had been Dottie, department secretary and earth mother, always watching the weather from her office on the top floor of the Jewett Faculty Tower. Dottie always warned the students to be careful driving home. Her kind, dimpled face rose up in my mind.
Sure you're okay to drive home, Nan? I'm giving Leia a lift and you're on the way. You could come back tomorrow for your car.

If I'd taken her up on her offer I wouldn't have hit the deer. Maybe
she
would have hit it and then at least it wouldn't have been me.

I cringed at the meanness of the thought. Poor Dottie would be heartbroken if she hit a deer. She had an
I brake for leprechauns
bumper sticker on her ancient VW and posted notices of stray cats on her Facebook page.

Then again, Dottie would have braked for the deer sooner. And if she
had
hit it she'd already be out of the car looking for it and calling the animal rescue hotline, which she probably had programmed onto her phone.

I felt for my phone in my pocket. I could call someone—but who? Dottie? She was probably already home in bed in her flannel nightgown watching
Downton Abbey
reruns and sipping chamomile tea. Ross? His house was only ten minutes up the road. He'd still be up, cleaning up from the party, or perhaps sitting by the fireside with a few straggler students, regaling them with stories of his Harvard days and the famous writers he had known. Still, he'd come. I could imagine his deep, gravelly voice.
Of course we think the world of you, Nan. This wasn't personal.

No, not Ross. Cressida? Cressida's face swam into view, pity etched on her fine Nordic features, her shield-maiden braids bristling with indignation.
I'm so sorry, Nan, I tried everything I could but the committee went against you. If only you'd listened to me—
No, not Cressida. Not now.

I got out and wobbled on the uneven ground. I braced myself against the car. Had I hit my head? No, the air bag hadn't deployed. It hadn't been that hard an impact. Maybe the deer wasn't dead. Maybe it had run into the woods.

Wounded. Fragile legs broken. Crawling off to die.

I turned around slowly, looking north to where the road disappeared around the sharp bend and then south where it ran straight under tall sycamore trees between old dry-laid stone walls. Then I stared at the ditch where my car had come to rest, and the broken stone wall above it—and recognized just exactly where I was. There was the gatepost to the old Blackwell estate and the drive that climbed steeply through the orchard where deer came out at dusk to eat windblown apples. I'd watched them a hundred times from my own living room window and seen cars coming around the bend too fast, driving straight into the wall—

I shivered and stared back at the wall. Where it was broken someone had painted a white cross. In the spring there were daffodils here—

This place.
How many lives had it taken? I should have been driving slower. But there was nothing I could do now. I should have been watching, but the deer was probably okay. I should just go home. Get in bed in a flannel nightgown with a cup of chamomile tea like Dottie—only I'd add a shot of bourbon. I imagined telling Dottie tomorrow that I'd hit a deer. Her first question would be if I'd gone to look for it.

I turned away from the orchard and looked to the right into the woods. That's where the deer—
hurt, scared
—would have gone. I'd go into the woods a little ways. Just to make sure. If the deer was wounded it wouldn't have gone far. If I didn't find it that meant it was all right.

I climbed over the crumbling wall, tearing my stockings and scraping my hands on the rough, cold stones. My thin ballet flats sank into the deep leaf litter and my legs felt wobbly as I walked away from the wall and into the woods. Shock from the accident, I told myself, and from finding myself
here
.

Not from drinking too much. I'd only had a few. I certainly felt completely sober now. But it had been a long day. I'd given my last finals and held extended office hours for students handing in assignments. I'd had to listen to a dozen excuses for late papers: everything from failed printers and crashed hard drives to dead grandparents and bad breakups—a litany of chaos and drama presented as though no one had ever suffered as they had. If they had used half the creativity in the stories they handed in as they did in their excuses they'd be writing masterpieces, I'd wanted to say, but instead I had patiently repeated my late-paper policy and then granted them their extensions. They really did have chaotic lives, some of them. This semester's creative writing class in particular was a bit of a ragtag crew. The class almost hadn't run, but then Dottie had channeled a bunch of transfer students into it and recruited a few older students, like Leia, even though she was really too advanced for it. For which I was grateful—it wouldn't look great for the tenure committee if the class hadn't run—but transfer students were often . . .
volatile
.

There were the working-class kids from Newburgh and Fishkill who'd gone to community college first to save their parents the higher tuition at SUNY Acheron or to pull up their grades—and some valiant older students like Aleesha Williams, a single mom in her twenties who'd struggled up from the projects in Poughkeepsie and was trying to get a teaching degree. But there were also spoiled rich girls like Kelsey Manning, a media arts major from Long Island who'd asked if she could be excused from the final because she wanted to leave early for a ski trip to Vail (I told her no and saw Cressida, in her office across the hall, roll her eyes), and stoners like Troy Van Donk Jr., whose father ran Van's Auto over on 9G and who was spending a few semesters at Acheron dealing drugs to the rich kids from Long Island and sleeping with the Westchester girls hungry for some “real life” experience. He'd had the nerve to email for an extension because of “girlfriend trouble.” I'd had half a mind to fail him, but the truth was that even though some of the stories he wrote had a disturbing
violent
vein running through them, he was the best writer in the class. He'd been working on a satire of
The Odyssey
set in the dive bars and projects of Poughkeepsie that had been funny and promising. I wanted to see what he'd done with it.

Lady Bountiful, Evan used to call me.

You're too easy on them,
Cressida, whose office across the hall from mine gave her a ringside seat to my student conferences, always said.
You let them walk all over you
.

And it did take a lot out of me, listening to all those stories of heartache and calamity. Even the happy stories were draining—all those hopes and dreams for the future. All that faith that no matter what, things would work out. The last time a student had said to me that she knew everything would work out I had wanted to ask, “Why? Why do you think that?”

So when Leia Dawson came to see me at the end of the day I just couldn't take any more, even though she was my favorite student. My
prize
student. The one who reminded me of myself at her age. I'd had
her for Intro to Creative Writing her freshman year and Advanced Fiction Workshop her junior. Leia was the full package—bright, beautiful, talented—and kind to boot. She brought Dottie flowers on her birthday and baked madeleines for workshop when I told them about Proust. She'd taught creative writing in Acheron's Prison Initiative Program for the last two years. For some real life experience, she'd told me. I'd written her a recommendation for grad school and she'd gotten a full ride to Washington University's MFA program. She'd already published in a few journals and won the department's writing prize. Ross had gotten her an internship at his publisher for the summer. I fully expected to see her first novel in a couple of years—and knowing Leia she would remember me in the acknowledgments—but when I saw her hovering in the hallway outside my office I just didn't think I could take listening to more of her bright, shiny plans for the future.

“I've got to run home and change for the party!” I'd called over my shoulder as I passed her in the hallway. “Can we catch up there?”

But the only time I'd seen her at the party was in the kitchen, pouring a glass of wine for Ross when I'd tracked him down to ask him if it was true that I'd been denied tenure—

I stumbled over a rock and grabbed a pine trunk to steady myself.
Denied tenure
. The words thudded in my head with the same finality as the thud of the deer against my car. It wasn't just that I had been denied tenure, it was knowing that I'd have to
leave
. No one stayed on after being denied tenure. It was pathetic. I might even be fired. And then where would I go?

BOOK: River Road
5.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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