The Procedure



      The office is fifteen feet square, separate from the operations section of the lumber yard and mill where Tommy Sewell is half-owner.  Tommy paid for the building's construction and furnishings out of his own pocket.  Carl Fraley, his partner, agreed to the new building only because the mill required a larger finish planer, and the best place to install it was where Tommy's office used to be.

The office is heavily insulated.  So long as the door's closed, the sound of trucks delivering raw logs or picking up finished lumber is only distant vibration.  There's a window in each wall, and long before anyone arrives, Tommy knows they're coming.  Dark plastic film covers each pane of glass.  From the mill yard the windows are a black cipher, but Tommy can see out just fine.

So there's no surprise when Carl opens the door and admits the roar of machines and the shouted voices of their operators.  Tommy's been watching Carl ever since he left the mill.  "You still taking the Adkins girl to Lexington?"  Carl asks when he's closed off the noise.

Tommy nods.

Carl - and Marcie Adkins - are the only people who know Tommy won't be alone when he goes out of town later.  Tommy's wife thinks he's meeting a purchasing agent from a store chain that might buy thousands of two-by-fours next year.  He'd told Cora Sue about a dinner with enough drinking he won't be in any shape to drive home, so it's an overnight trip.

Carl comes to stand by Tommy's desk, stares pointedly at a framed photograph at the edge of the blotter.  "You're risking a lot," he says, still looking at the fifteen-year-old Olan Mills pose.

The kids were sixteen, thirteen and ten when it was taken.  Now the boys are raising their own families.  Carla's twenty-five and a grad student at the University of Louisville.  In the picture, Cora Sue's hair cascades below her shoulders, and she smiles the confidence of a woman men turn their heads to watch.  Around the time Cora Sue and Tommy stopped making love and settled for going through the motions of sex every couple of weeks, she got her hair cut short.

"Cora Sue'll leave if she finds out what you've done," Carl says.

Tommy shrugs, looks past his partner to the window, watches a truck head out, loaded with hundreds of freshly milled boards.  He knows Carl's right.  With the kids gone, Tommy doesn't understand why Cora Sue's still with him.  Taking a girl a year younger than his daughter to Lexington might be enough to wreck what's left of his marriage.

"I don't get it.  You're acting crazy."  Carl scowls, shakes his head.  "You're fixing to throw your whole life away for a little bit of strange."

Tommy leans back into the embrace of his high-backed executive chair, puts his hands behind his head, and forces a smile.  "Nothing's gonna happen, Carl," he says.

Carl turns to go, stops by the door to face the desk again.  "Just don't do something stupid, tear up everything over a piece of young pussy."

Tommy's sure Carl isn't worried about the health of anyone's marriage.  It's the lumber yard that concerns him, the impact of a divorce settlement on their partnership.  Cora Sue would wind up owning a piece of the business, and her association with Carl would never be as functional as what the two men have built over two and a half decades.

Still smiling, Tommy says "Really, Carl, it'll be okay."

When his partner's gone and the noise from outside fades, Tommy reaches into his desk drawer, rummages through a pile of compact discs.  He puts one in his computer's CD player, and as the sounds of Cajun accordion swell and fill from the speakers, stands to dance a passable two-step by himself, locking the office door as he spins by it.

Occasionally glancing out his windows, Tommy dances through three songs.  For a man who's forty pounds overweight, he displays an unlikely grace.  During a waltz he thinks about a long ago evening in a New Orleans bar.

A married lady danced with him all night, disappearing right before closing.  There are several compact discs in the desk drawer to remind him of the lady and the night, but Tommy's never again danced with a partner to the sounds of a Cajun band.

At four o'clock he puts the CD away, turns off the computer, and leaves the office.  His Explorer's just outside the door, baking in the sun since lunch.  Tommy turns all the air conditioning vents toward the driver's seat before steering through the rutted, muddy yard.  Near the gate he passes Carl, deep in conversation with one of their workers.  Tommy lifts his hand in a wave, and when he reaches highway blacktop, shifts the SUV out of four wheel drive.

He drives the length of Midland, toward the interstate.  The college town has grown since Tommy was a boy, but it still takes only a few minutes to get past all of downtown.  A mile and a half east of the I-64 turn-off he stops at the bookstore where Cora Sue's worked since their daughter graduated high school.

He finds his wife stocking shelves.  On Thursdays, U.P.S. delivers cases of new books from the store's distributor, and it's Cora Sue's busiest shift of the week.  She glances briefly at Tommy when he comes to stand close to her, then turns back to an open box of Steven King's latest.  "You leaving?" she asks.

Tommy nods, though Cora doesn't look at him again, can't see the gesture.  "I'm meeting that buyer at eight.  I want to get checked into a room first."

His wife turns from the shelves to plant a dry kiss on his cheek.  "Have a nice time."

"Sure you don't want to go?"  Tommy puts his hands on Cora Sue's waist.

She shakes her head, as he knew she would.  "Lumber and shipping schedules are boring."  Facing the shelves again, she moves forward just enough to step away from his hands.

Tommy watches her for a piece of time, though he's been dismissed.  He thinks about offering to buy the bookstore again.  They could afford it, and the store's a money-maker.  But the last time he mentioned such a plan, Cora Sue looked at him with wide eyes and asked, "Why would I want to do that?"

Her response surprised Tommy.  Cora Sue forever complains about Ralph Conley's poor management.  Tommy was sure his wife would welcome a chance to show her boss the door, change things to suit her own notions of how books and greeting cards should be sold.

Leaving the store he wonders if, for Cora Sue, the bookstore is the equivalent of his office at the mill, a safe, comfortable place for passing time when there's no place else to be.  Maybe she waltzes carts piled with books like he dances solo in his office.

Outside, he has to wait for a delivery truck to move, and fools with the Explorer's air conditioning again before heading out of town. Near the interstate ramp he turns into the parking lot of a Lee's Fried Chicken.  Even before he sets the brake, Marcie runs out the restaurant door to climb in beside him.

Fastening her seat belt, the much younger woman smiles at him briefly, then sighs.  "Tracey Whitman wanted to stay and see who I was sneaking off with.  I thought I'd never get her to leave."

Tommy glaces around the parking lot, wondering what kind of car Marcie's friend drives.

"She's not here," Marcie reassures him.  "I called her at home about ten minutes ago and spoke to her, just to make sure."  Marcie twists in the seat to face her boss, arms folded across her chest.  "Why's it so cold in here?"

Nipples swell against Marcie's blouse, visible even through her brassiere.  Tommy thinks he ought to feel guilty for looking.  The fact he doesn't seems worse than the looking itself.  "You sure you want to go through with this?" he asks, though at the parking lot exit he doesn't hesitate before steering toward I-64.

"As sure as I'll ever be about anything."  Marcie's voice is hardly more than a whisper.

The clean, subtle scent of her perfume reaches across the Explorer, and Tommy takes a deep breath, holds it a few seconds.  There's a trace of Marcie in his lungs now, molecules that were recently on her skin.  He feels himself blush, his face hot despite the air conditioner.

Marcie's worked at the lumber yard since she graduated from high school, but Tommy's known her much longer.  When she was seven or eight years old he owned a trailer park at the edge of Midland, where her parents were tenants.  Marcie's father was a truck driver, and Tommy can vaguely recall a skinny little girl standing near the coffin, after the accident.  Her mother worked in the mill offices for a time, and he remembers Lou saying something about a daughter going to live with a grandmother in an adjacent county.

The day Marcie came asking for a job, years after her mother left for better pay at the jeans factory, Tommy was halfway through the interview before realizing the young woman nervously answering his questions was Lou's skinny daughter.  The week they worked late hours together, getting the mill's tax papers ready for the accountant, Tommy fell in love with Marcie.

Fell in something anyway.

Marcie Adkins was bright, quickly grasping how the tax forms had to be organized, what mattered and what didn't.  And she was a talker, telling him all about herself.

She lived with her grandmother, a life-long Pentecostal whose house was just across the Hawkes County line, a woman who disapproved of Marcie's working.  The old woman didn't understand why the girl didn't marry one of several interested young men who called every night to ask her out.  And Granny didn't see a reason for Marcie to go to college, even if they'd been able to afford it.

With a fifty-cent-an-hour raise, Tommy made Marcie his "assistant," which only meant she carried stacks of paper between the mill and his office.  She carried papers and they talked, spending more and more time together.  Tommy considered moving a desk for her into his retreat, but Marcie's eyes flinched the day he mentioned it.

That year was a boom time in the lumber business, and it wasn't hard to talk Carl into reimbursing employees for college courses, even giving them time off to attend classes.  A few signed up for computer workshops at the college on the hill behind town. Marcie finished a degree in accounting.

Tommy's proud of his "assistant," proud of what he's done for her.  He was the one who told her she was smart and attractive, who reminded her she needed to see the world beyond Midland, Kentucky, the one who made college possible.  He glories in her change, from a bashful girl who giggled when someone older addressed her directly, into a confident young woman.

He's sure Marcie doesn't know she so often fills his mind.  Rare times he touches his wife's doughy flesh, Tommy pretends his hands are on the younger woman's taut body.  He adores Marcie, and if in some of his fantasies she reciprocates, in real life he does nothing, says nothing that would expose his feelings.

When she got pregnant, Tommy lent Marcie five hundred dollars, and let her use his office phone to make an appointment at a Lexington women's clinic.  After the call he suggested she might not want to drive herself, that staying overnight before "the procedure" was a good idea.  He was surprised she agreed.

Marcie reports plenty of details about her personal life, but never allows Tommy to be part of anything that happens away from the mill.  He knows things about her friend Tracey, and about Jimmy, the baby's father, but wouldn't recognize either of them on the street.

"You care if I play some music?"  Marcie asks after ten silent interstate miles.

Tommy shrugs, but shivers inwardly at the sounds from the car's speakers, hip-hop, rap, house music, whatever it is.  He can't tell the difference.  Marcie's music grates on Tommy's soul and in ten minutes he reaches for the volume control.

"We're staying at the Ramada," he says.  "They've got room service there, so we won't have to go out for anything."  When Marcie doesn't speak, he adds, "We could go out if you wanted to."

"Doesn't matter."  She points at a sign indicating a rest area.  "Could you stop, let me change clothes?"

While Marcie goes inside the brick building in the middle of the rest area Tommy shuts the radio off.  There are CDs in the glove box, folky stuff and old time string bands, but that kind of music bothers Marcie as much as her rap music disturbs Tommy.

When Marcie comes back she's transformed.  Tommy's grown used to the way the girl placates her over-Jesused grandmother.  Each morning Marcie leaves the old woman's house wearing anklelength dresses and the pinned hair of a Pentecostal maiden.  She carries a change of clothes in a huge purse, and remakes herself at work.  Evenings she reverses the process.

When he picked her up, she'd worn a long dark skirt with a sleeved white blouse, black hair rounded high on her head.  At the rest area Marcie's put on a much shorter bright blue dress that leaves her arms bare, and loose hair hangs almost to her waist.  Other young women at the mill laugh at Marcie's costume changes, but Tommy finds the transformations endearing.

He stops once at a fast food restaurant for a cup of coffee to go, and they talk about out-of-town job offers that'll be forthcoming, now that Marcie has her degree.  When she turns the radio on again, she finds a public radio station's violins, recites facts about the composer from a music appreciation class.  Tommy smiles as he listens, contrasting the Marcie talking about a long-dead German musician with the bashful child who walked into his office to ask for a job.

There's a problem at the Ramada.  The hotel has over-booked, and the only room available is a single with two double beds, rather than the connecting rooms Tommy requested.  A convention in town will make finding other accommodations difficult, if not impossible.

"It's okay," he tells Marcie when he comes out to the car.  "We'll find something else even if we have to go all the way to Winchester."

"Let's stay," she counters.  "I'm tired of riding."  She looks past him, making up her mind about something.  "Besides, I'd just as soon not be by myself tonight.">

Tommy checks them in, finds a parking place and carries the bags inside.  Once in the room he can't be still, bustles around turning on lamps, adjusting the ventilation, unpacking and hanging his clothes from the recessed rack by the door.  When there's nothing else to do, the beds in the center of the room loom big as barges.

Bashful as a high school boy, Tommy retreats to the toilet, opens his fly and feels a hot blush in his face as he realizes the noise will be heard beyond the door.  Coming back into the room he can't look at Marcie.

"Which bed do you want?" she asks, and when Tommy tells her it doesn't matter, she pulls the spread down on the one nearest the door.  "I'm going to take a nap."

Tommy nods.  "Want me to go someplace while you sleep?  I could go to the lounge."

Marcie's brown eyes seem to be asking for something.  Tommy would trade the world to know what it is because he'd give her anything, everything.  She lies down, modestly pulls the spread over her legs.  "Maybe you could stay?  Watch TV or something?"

Tommy fiddles with the remote control until he finds CNN, then tours the room, turning off lights he's just turned on.  A talking head on the television makes noises about stock market scandals, and Tommy adjusts the volume until the electronic voice is hardly a whisper, no louder than Marcie's faint snore.  He closes his eyes and feels something he can't put a name to, an emotional fumbling that brings tears to his eyes.  He fights to keep his breathing from giving his feelings away.

Tommy feels foolish, clumsy and awkward, entirely aware his life is a total waste, a vast emptiness.  He can't imagine suicide, but wishes some quick, painless disease would come for him.  After a time he turns his thoughts toward the white beach fantasy.

He pictures tropical sand white as rock salt, gritty and hot against his skin.  A small blue sailboat is anchored just off the beach, under a searing sun unlike any that ever hung over Hawkes County Kentucky.  Marcie's stretched out beside him, a tiny bathing suit emphasizing long legs, perfect skin and flowing black hair.  As Tommy drifts into a light doze, dream-Marcie's hand finds his own, entwines her fingers in his, and for dream-Tommy everything is fine with the world.

He wakes to Marcie's hand on his shoulder, shaking him.  "Are you all right?"  She sounds frightened.  "You were making noises in your sleep, like you were crying."

As Tommy sits up in the bed Marcie takes a backward step.  The bathroom light is on, and he can see his watch.  It's almost nine o'clock, he's hungry and sleep-stupid.  "It's okay," he says.  "Just a dream."

Marcie sits on the other bed.  "I decided I'd like to go out, if that's okay," she tells him.  "Someplace where I won't think about tomorrow morning."

"Okay." Tommy goes to the bathroom, leaves the door open while he splashes water in his face.

"I'm not really hungry though."  Marcie comes to stand in the doorway.  "I ate in Midland, remember?  Pick someplace you like."  Tommy towels water off his face and wishes he had the nerve to squeeze past Marcie.  The doorway's narrow enough their bodies would touch.

He hates wearing suits, but Tommy's brought one.  Otherwise Cora Sue might have been suspicious.  He resigns himself to a necktie and coat for the evening.  "A dress-up place?"

Marcie nods.  "Real fancy, maybe."

It's awkward, changing clothes in the bathroom, and when it's Marcie's turn to dress, Tommy says he'll meet her in the lounge by the lobby.  He has two double bloody marys while he waits, and when he mentions dinner, the bartender suggests an expensive seafood restaurant not far away.  Tommy's back is to the door, but the bartender's appreciative leer tells him when Marcie comes into the lounge.

Turning to look, Tommy feels his own eyes grow wide.  Marcie's put on a simple strapless black gown, the sort of dress he never expected to see her wear.  Her hair's become a complicated braid, she wears tiny diamond earrings, and a small gold cross is suspended from a delicate chain at her neck.

Marcie crosses the room confidently, but when Tommy continues to stare she flushes from her shoulders to her eyebrows.

"What?" she asks, like a child afraid she's done something wrong.

"Nothing," he tells her.  "It's just that you're so beautiful."

Marcie flushes a darker shade.  "It's only a used dress," she says.  "I found it in a thrift shop when I went to Dayton last year with my aunt."

Tommy breaks off his staring and notices others in the lounge looking in their direction.  Some of the men glance away from the young woman to study him appraisingly.  Basking in their envy is a sweet sort of sin.

"Can I have a drink?" Marcie asks.

"What would you like?" Tommy says.  "Champagne?"

She shakes her head.  "I had that once.  I want something new."  She nods toward his glass.  "What're you drinking?"

"A bloody mary."

When Tommy extends his glass Marcie sips delicately through the straw, wrinkling her nose.  "Tastes like tomato juice with pepper," she says.  "What else do they have?"

Tommy waves to the bartender.  "'Nother of these for me," he tells the man.  "And could you bring a . . ." He thinks a moment.  "She'll have a white russian," he decides, and leads Marcie to a table.

When they're settled in and their order is delivered, Marcie tastes her drink and laughs.  "You're fooling me, right?"

"What do you mean?"  Tommy's very happy.  The percolation of alcohol through his bloodstream is a wonderful sensation.

"I wanted a drink, and this is like, I don't know, chocolate milk."

"Vodka, Kaluha, and cream," he tells her, then has to explain what Kaluha is.  "Those things are a whole lot stouter than they taste.  You need to be careful with them."

"No kidding?"  Marcie raises her glass and drains it.  "Is that being careful?" she asks, and laughs.

It's the first time she's laughed since they left Midland.  Tommy laughs too, and orders more drinks.  They go down fast, and he decides he doesn't trust himself to drive them to the restaurant.  When he comes back to the table after asking the bartender to call a taxi, he says.  "I told Cora Sue I'd get too drunk to drive."

"Did I get you drunk?" Marcie teases, and laughs again.  "What did your wife say?"  She poses this second question in a sober, serious tone.

Tommy raises his eyebrows, sighs.  "Not much."

"You must have a really good marriage," Marcie says, stirring her drink with a plastic straw.

"Why do you say that?"  Tommy couldn't have been more surprised if Marcie had told him she could fly.

"You're able to be honest with her.  She let you bring me over here."

Tommy wants to lie, or at least leave the misunderstanding alone, but the alcohol won't let him be quiet.  "Cora Sue doesn't know you're with me."

"She doesn't?"

He shakes his head.

Marcie doesn't say anything else until the bartender tells them the cab's waiting, just sits playing with the straw and her third drink.  Before they go she hurriedly finishes it.

She's slightly over-dressed for the restaurant, and Tommy's aware of stares from other tables.  The men look at him jealously, but the sidelong glances of the women are hostile.  Sweet sin, he tells himself.

Dinner turns into a somewhat giddy few minutes when Tommy orders more drinks, convincing Marcie a bloody mary might go better with seafood than another white russian.  "That or white wine, maybe beer," he adds.

"Can't stand the taste of beer," she tells him, leaning over the table as though telling him a secret.  "Jimmy drinks a lot of it but when I tried it once I threw up."  As Marcie giggles Tommy notices her eyes are a bit glazed.

He orders shrimp, though he doesn't eat much, and convinces Marcie to try a raw oyster.  To his surprise she likes them, and orders six of her own.  Tommy hasn't had so much fun at a meal in years, and he's sorry when the waiter brings the check, pointedly looking toward the entrance where there's a long line.

He gives the waiter a credit card, and while waiting for the signature form to be brought back, Tommy tells Marcie that in New Orleans they could get a couple of drinks to go.  "Just ask for a ‘go cup' is all we'd have to do," he says, and feels like a world traveler.  Or at least a man who's been someplace other than Hawkes County.

Tommy wonders what Marcie would say if she knew he'd never spent so much as an entire week of his life outside Midland, Kentucky.  He's over fifty, and has never been away from home so long as a week.

When the taxi comes Tommy puts his hand on Marcie as he guides her toward the vehicle.  The connection from the small of her back to his palm burns hot as the sun on his fantasy beach.  He wishes she'd stumble, catch her heel in the sidewalk and pitch backward so he could catch her in his arms.  He wishes she'd stumble, but if she did Tommy knows he'd say things he can't imagine Marcie wants to hear.

Once the taxi's moving, Tommy's good mood evaporates, and he leans into the seat, letting his head fall backward, the quick, painless disease fantasy flickering again.  Something fast, something to save him from feeling so often old, so often foolish, so often alone.  He's dozing, almost ready to invoke the beach and the blue sailboat when a happy squeak from Marcie brings him awake.

"I wanna stop there," she says.  "Really.  I wanna go in and see that place.  Please?"

Tommy raises his head, sees Marcie's already ordered the cab to pull over.  Not quite awake, he gives the driver a twenty and waves off his change.  The taxi pulls away, and he acquiesces to Marcie's tug on his arm.

"Can we go in?" she asks.  "Just for a little while?  I wanna see what they do in there."

Tommy looks around, sees they're on New Circle Road someplace.  Still sleep-fogged, he looks up at the words "LIVE NUDE GIRLS" outlined in neon overhead, then looks quickly away, tries to find what Marcie wanted to stop for even as she pulls him through the strip joint's door.

"Jimmy and his buddies come to these places all the time."  Marcie has to shout above the blaring music.  Her eyes are bright and happy and she's grinning.  "He thinks I don't know but I do.  I want to see what goes on here."

Tommy lets himself be pulled deeper into the darkness beyond the bar's entrance, and as the door swings shut he makes Marcie stop so his eyes can adjust.  The place is all black light and mirrors over three small stages, naked women on each of them.  On the center stage a platinum blonde hangs off a brass pole that belongs in a firehouse, hangs from it backward, and she's utterly naked.

Marcie's pulling at him again, until they're at a table and she's shouting drink orders at a woman whose breasts are exposed.  Tommy blushes but Marcie only laughs and puts her mouth close to his ear to shout "I always wanted to come in one of these places but never ever thought I'd get to."

Tommy thinks he ought to say something, but can't, and contents himself with watching Marcie finish her drink while he's still paying for it.  Looking at Marcie is easier than looking at their waitress, or the naked women on the stages.  When he hollers a question Marcie nods and he orders another drink.

Later, when Tommy thinks about the time he and Marcie spent inside the bar, he can't recall what happened in any sort of linear fashion.  His memory is a series of disconnected images, and he has no idea which came first, last or in the middle.  He remembers switching to bourbon and Coke when the bloody mary he ordered tasted rancid and looked awful.

Every time he orders a drink for himself, Marcie's ready too, and asks the waitress for "something different" each time.  Her drinks come in different colors, some in two or three layers of color.  Marcie swallows them quickly, and he remembers her saying over and over she didn't know liquor could taste like candy.

There's a time when a dancer's sitting next to Marcie, the women's heads close together in a female conspiracy, and Marcie asks for twenty dollars.  As one of the naked women straddles his knees he realizes Marcie's bought him one of the "lap dances" advertised by a flashing marquee over the bar.

The young woman gyrates on his legs the length of one song from too loud speakers.  The experience is supposed to be erotic, but even when the dancer leans so far forward her breasts graze Tommy's face, he thinks only about how foolish he must appear.

When he looks at Marcie she's laughing and mouths something he can't hear, something he thinks is meant to encourage him.  He has no idea what she wants him to do though.

He remembers stumbling to the men's room, which is surprisingly clean, and empty.  Standing over the urinal he thinks for a while he might get sick, wonders if the bar will evict him if he throws up, but the feeling passes.  Zipping his trousers Tommy leans forward until his forehead is against the cool tile of the wall, wishes he was anyplace but where he is.

Later he somehow came to be standing at the bar, going through the motions of conversation with a man his own age without ever hearing one word of what was said.  He's aware of being helped into a cab, but the ride is a blank, and then he's leaning on Marcie as she guides him to their room.

When he wakes in the near-total darkness of the room, mouth dry, head ringing with hangover percussion, it takes a while to remember he's at the Ramada.  The curtain is drawn, slivers of bright sunshine spiking into the room, making his head ache.  The bed next to him is empty, and the bathroom door is ajar.  He's alone.

He lurches out of bed, stands unsteadily over the toilet as his bladder empties, and doesn't see the note taped to the mirror until he's flushed and turned toward the door.  "I called Jimmy, and he's going to the clinic with me," Tommy reads.  "I don't think I'm coming back to work at the mill.  Jimmy wants me to move to Lexington.  I'll call you tomorrow."  There are circles over each i in the note, and Marcie's drawn a heart around her signature.

Tommy stumbles to the bed, lies in darkness with one arm over his eyes, and believes he might cry.  He thinks about a beach with white sand, a blue sailboat, and fast acting diseases.
 

~ end ~

 


 
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