A Short Story
BY CARSON RAY
Cadie Allen Merchant, my best friend, got married three weeks and two days after our high school graduation. The church pews were chained together with peach crepe paper. Cadie's dress was white satin, shin-length, with spaghetti straps. She wore the same cream pumps and eggshell-white pantyhose with three rhinestone teardrops on each ankle that she'd worn to our senior prom weeks earlier.
But Cadie didn't marry her prom date, J.R. Pittman, the boy she'd been going with since ninth grade. She didn't even tell J.R. she was getting married. "Serves him right," she told me. "Four years together and he never took me anywhere to eat that didn't have a drive-thru."
I followed Cadie down the narrow hall of her and her new husband's trailer. She opened a closet, revealing shelves of towels, washcloths, and sheets. "Then, I got off work one night, and this guy who'd just bought cigarettes asked me if I wanted to walk across the parking lot to Ryan's for dinner."
Cadie turned around, leaned on the door frame and propped her arm on the middle shelf. She looked like she was showcasing the closet, like a model from "The Price Is Right."
"So, before I knew it, this guy Michael was paying my way to the all-you-can-eat Megabar." She handed me a crisp pillowcase with pastel flowers on it. "This is my favorite set. My cousin gave it to me," she said.
I fingered the material and handed it back. Nineteen days after they met, Cadie and Michael got married. I didn't get to see Cadie marry Michael Merchant. I only got to see a few snapshots of the wedding that Cadie's mother had taken -- all excluding the groom -- when I returned. I'd been visiting relatives out West -- feeling the space of the desert for the first time -- while Cadie was at home falling in love and marrying Michael Merchant.
When I got back, Cadie promised I would've been her maid of honor had I been in town. But she and Michael couldn't wait for me to return. Michael was a painter, a house painter, and he told her that Gilbert, where we lived, had become a vinyl-siding town and that work for a traditional painter like himself was scant. They had to move on right after the wedding.
Cadie put the pillowcase back with its set and closed the door. "Come on, I'll show you the kitchen stuff. That's the best part," she said.
Having missed my best friend's wedding didn't bother me too much. Weddings are only worth the piece of cake you get at the reception. Since Cadie had frozen nearly half of hers, and I was sure to get a slice, I really didn't mind that I'd missed seeing her tie the knot with this strange man Michael. "Did Mama show you a picture of the cake?" Cadie took a plate from the cabinet. "It's been thawing all morning. I saved you a big piece with flowers."
She took a fork from a drawer, and lifted a piece of cake onto the plate with her hands.
"Thanks," I said, taking the plate and fork. "You're not eating any?" I sat at the veneer table, one side of which was pushed against the window.
"No -- makes my stomach uneasy." Cadie forced a laugh, short and cut off. Like a doctor ready for surgery, she held her hands palms up, bits of white, pink and yellow icing on her fingertips. "Must be the sugar."
"The only pictures I saw of the wedding were of you and your little sister," I said, sinking my fork into the cake.
"I know." Cadie spoke to me over her shoulder, rinsing her hands in the sink. "Mama left Michael out of the pictures on purpose. She denies it though. She wants to act like I ain't married. The whole time I was rushing around throwing the wedding together she kept whining about how I had no business getting married, especially to a man I just met."
Cadie turned off the water and faced me, drying her hands on a dish towel. "Mama knows nothing of romance. She said `Hasn't my life taught you anything?' But Mel, you should get married. It's better than Christmas. Seems every other day something new is in the mail. Dishes, towels, sheets."
I put a yellow rose in my mouth, nodding my head. The solid sugar oozed into a liquid. "Maybe after college. Maybe after I live by myself for a year or so I'll get married." I pushed my plate away to save the top layer of icing. "But by then, I'll have my own towels and sheets and dishes."
"But don't you want a honeymoon? Like a cruise to the Virgin Islands where the sand is white and the water clear blue?"
"You and Michael didn't go on a honeymoon." Maybe I sounded rude. I didn't mean to. I leaned back in my chair and felt its back give. The wood creaked.
"Yeah, but we will once he gets a job and we can save some money." I still hadn't met him, but when I called her from my uncle's in Nevada, Cadie had told me Michael was "27, tall, dark and handsome." She also said he had a scar across the bridge of his nose that made him look like a war hero.
I asked her if he'd ever been in a war, but she said no, he hadn't. She also told me he wouldn't tell her how he got the scar, only that it was in the past and unimportant.
"So when's he coming home? I have to register at 2:00." I had to sign up for classes at the College of Charleston.
Cadie and Michael moved from Gilbert to Goose Creek, about 25 interstate minutes outside of Charleston. Michael told Cadie that it would be good for his work if they lived near a historic place like Charleston because buildings were always being renovated.
"I'm not sure," Cadie said. "He's out looking for work. You'll come back when you're done, won't you? You can't leave town without meeting Michael." She hoisted herself onto the counter next to the sink, pulled out the utensil drawer beneath her, and rested her feet on its front panel.
"I can wait a few more minutes," I said, looking at my watch. I felt funny sitting there eating my best friend's wedding cake, knowing I was going off to college and she wasn't. Cadie and I had been in a lot of the same classes ever since we met in seventh grade geography class. She was the only one who knew the difference between Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City on the first day. And in high school she was in the Honor Society, not me. I was just lucky because my mom was more stubborn than Cadie's.
When I told Mama that maybe after all I wouldn't go to college, maybe I'd just work at Old Southern Yogurt until they made me manager, she calmly walked into my room, opened the top drawer of my dresser, and started tossing underwear over her shoulders. Purple, green, yellow, striped, and polka-dotted underwear bounced through the air like kernels in a popcorn machine.
Then, clenching the knobs on the second drawer and without turning around, she said, "Melissa Gregory, if you don't want to go to college, then fine. Pack your things and get out now because the sooner you find out how hard and miserable your life is going to be without at least a college education, the better." She brushed by at the doorway without looking me in the face.
Before I put all my underwear back in the drawer, I made up my mind to go to the College of Charleston for two reasons: I'd already been accepted, and it was in a pretty town a hundred miles away from Mama's little outbursts.
But Cadie's mom didn't have time to take a stand because she was always working at her job as a receptionist, or at her job as night watcher at an old-folks home. This situation left Cadie practically raising her little sister Amanda.
And Cadie still got good grades in school. But she told me school was just like another chore. So when our guidance counselor started handing out applications to colleges, Cadie handed them right back and said, "No thank you. I'm not going to college." Then she just walked out of the guidance office.
I felt sick. For the first time ever I couldn't finish a piece of wedding cake. A sugary gas was burning its way up my throat.
Cadie hopped down from the counter. She began to open cabinets. "Have I shown you my new electric skillet?" She took from a lower cabinet a white skillet with blue flowers on its sides.
"That's real nice," I said. "My mama had one just like it."
Cadie put the skillet back on its shelf. I covered my mouth and burped.
Cadie continued to open and close cabinets as she showed me all of her new 18-piece set of mauve Tupperware, her Corelle shatterproof dishes with tiny pink flowers circling the edges, her white plastic revolving spice caddy, and finally, her matching set of hand towels and oven mitts with cartoon cow faces on the front.
"I just love my new kitchen. You haven't told me you love our new place." Cadie was leaning on the stove, her hands placed wide apart at both sides. I imagined Bob Barker's voice in the background saying, "All this can be yours, if the price is right!"
Cadie's new place didn't look new to me. The kitchen was about six feet deep, filling one end of the single-wide. The oven and refrigerator were mold green. The cabinet doors had black plastic grates made to look like iron lace work at the center of their panels, which were covered with peeling, red sheets of plastic. The floor was linoleum -- imitation brick. I avoided Cadie's face and looked out the window at the trailer next door. I tried to imagine her and Michael sitting at the table eating dinner. Michael still had no face in my mind.
"Oh! I forgot to show you the set of knives." With both hands, Cadie lifted a wooden block from the counter, the black handles of six knives sticking out the top. She sat in the chair across from me, pulled out a small knife, and showed me its serrated edge.
"See, Michael says you can tell a good cutting knife by looking at its edges. Feel that."
She handed me the knife. I tapped the pad of my forefinger on its edge, and began to search for split ends in my hair.
"Did you read about that guy in Columbia stabbing his mother's girlfriend 27 times?" I said. Mama always posted articles like this on our refrigerator "to make me aware." At the end of each week she threw the articles away, starting over on Sunday. Cadie and I'd made a game out of changing the endings of the articles, imagining that the women, or girls, made the men pay and then escaped.
"No, I hadn't heard about that." Cadie took a deep breath and slowly let it go. "People are crazy. Why would someone do that?" She was setting each knife on the table.
"Stabbed her seven times in the face."
Cadie had placed the knives, smallest to largest, in front of her. She folded her hands on the table and looked out the window.
"I bet he raped her. Alive and dead."
"Yeah. I'd like to get hold of him." I pulled the blade flat between my forefinger and thumb. "First, I'd tie his wrists and ankles to the bed posts with pantyhose. Then, with sewing scissors, I'd cut away his clothes and snip his wrinkled, gray balls off. I'd spread the scissors wide open and hack off his wormy little penis."
Sunlight hit the knives and reflected bars of light across Cadie's face. "Yeah, then I'd take his bloody dick and his dripping balls and cram them into his mouth like I was stuffing a turkey," Cadie said. "He'd eat himself or choke. I'd take a rolling pin and bash his skull in until I could knead it like dough."
We giggled. Cadie looked out the window. She said, "You want a Pepsi?"
I couldn't wait for Michael. On the dirt road out the trailer park, I pulled over, the car leaning halfway into a ditch. I was going to be sick. I got out and walked around to the trunk, looked over my shoulder to check if anyone was going to see me. But all I saw were the narrow ends of trailers lined up across the road. Then I puked. Twice.
Still braced, with my hands on my knees, and shimmering puddle of wedding cake throw up at my feet, I looked across the ditch, over a barbed-wire fence to an open field. Patches of yellow wildflowers and weeds were swaying. The sky was innocent blue, free of clouds.
I started to cry. Then I started to whimper because I was such a big baby for looking at the sky and crying. It was just that I knew something was different between me and Cadie. I couldn't be happy for her. I hated her "new" trailer, I hated all her Wal-Mart wedding gifts, I even hated a man I'd never met for picking Cadie, when there were millions of other girls who would've done for him. And I hated the part of Cadie that played stupid, that didn't believe in herself enough to build her own life, that thought Michael was more able than she to find happiness.
"Michael doesn't even know where I am." Cadie's eyes were lidded, the Coke in her tumbler flat with Jack Daniels. It was my first night at college, and I'd invited her over to meet my roommates. We'd been drinking and listening to CDs for quite a while. My dorm was co-ed, and some of the guys on the floor above us were hanging out in our common. There was one in particular, Reynolds, whom Cadie'd been singling out for conversation, touching his knee, or arm, or hands every chance she got. This was the first I'd heard all night of Michael.
"Has no idea," she pulled out each word, playing with her necklace. Reynolds took the bait. "Who's Michael?"
"He's my husband." Cadie lurched forward and laughed, putting her hand on Reynolds' knee. "Don't tell me you didn't know I'm a married woman."
I wished she'd shut up. Reynolds raised his eyebrows and said, "Whoah." He looked at his friends, both sitting on the floor, both of whom were staring at Cadie. She just gave them a grin, and a little wave.
"I need another drink," Reynolds said. He stood from his chair next to Cadie and crossed the room to the kitchenette. I knew then I was going to throw up. I'd had enough drinks to get pretty drunk, but I wasn't having any fun. I felt nervous, and like I had to keep an eye on Cadie. I pushed myself up from the couch and wobbled a little. Someone asked if I was okay, and I said yeah, that I just had to use the little girls' room. In the bathroom, I closed the door and stood in the dark. I could hear footsteps in the hallway; someone had followed me.
"Hey, Mel, can I come in?" It was Cadie.
I sat on the floor next to the toilet, and laid my cheek on the cold, plastic seat. She opened the door, and the hall light shone in my eyes.
"You okay? You going to be sick?" she asked me. She came in and closed the door without turning on the light. The bathroom was real small, and I could hear the ice tinkle in Cadie's glass, could smell the liquor. That was all it took, because next thing I knew, I was holding my stomach and heaving over the toilet.
The whole time I was getting sick, Cadie kept talking about Reynolds "Reynolds is cute, Reynolds is nice, d'you think Reynolds likes me?" and I kept having these awful feelings of regret. I know part of it was just drunken regret, but it was also more. It was like I'd been saving for something all my life, and now I was finding out I might not get it. But worst of all, I didn't want Cadie anywhere near me. I felt dirty, and all I wanted was a bath, some quiet, and some air.
When I was finished, I reached up and flipped on the light. I noticed the black and white striped wallpaper. The bathroom seemed even smaller, the air even sicker.
Cadie poured her drink down the sink. Her face loomed in front of mine, her eyes weak and rimmed in read. "I'm going to be sick, too," she said.
The next day was the first day of class. When I got back to the dorm that afternoon, I called Cadie to see if she wanted to go to a party with me and my roommates. I know it seems like after the night we'd just had that I'd not invite Cadie back over right away. But I was feeling guilty, like I'd betrayed her, and even if she didn't know I felt that way, I wanted to make it up to her, to have her over so we could hang out and everything could get back to normal.
"I want to come but I'm sure Michael won't like it," she said. "He was mad when I got home last night."
"What does it matter if he likes it or not?" I was determined that Cadie go out with me. "It's not like he's your daddy -- your keeper." I sat at my desk, opening and closing the blinds, letting sharp light into the room, then quickly shutting it out.
"He's my husband, Mel. He might not want me getting drunk with a bunch of college guys."
"I didn't ask you so you could get drunk with college guys, Cadie. I asked you so you could hang out with me, your best friend."
Cadie didn't say anything. A car alarm went off outside. It sounded like the computerized bleeping PacMan makes when you lose.
"Come on, Cadie. Go. You know you want to."
"Okay, okay." Her voice was relieved and excited. "I'll go. I'll tell Michael when he gets home."
Around 7:00 that night, I was sitting with one of my roommates in the common watching TV when the phone rang. I answered it. It was Cadie, and she was crying. She kept on saying she was real sorry, over and over again, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, but could I come and get her?, that Michael'd punched her in the eye and pushed her against the wall. She was crying pretty bad. She said he'd stormed out, and to please come and get her before he came back. And to hurry, to please, please, hurry.
Late that night Cadie and I walked along the Battery. She carried Mace, and I carried a pull-string alarm. The moon was high and full, and we stood on the sidewalk overlooking the harbor, leaning with our forearms on the iron railing. Behind us were pyramids of cannonballs and Civil War cannon aimed towards the water. Small waves slapped and gurgled in the barnacles beneath us. I smelled salt and dead fish.
We'd already planned it. I'd take Cadie back to Goose Creek early in the morning, before my first class, and after Michael had have left for work. She'd pack up the rest of her clothes and as many of the wedding gifts as she could, so eventually she could sell them at the flea market. I'd get out of my last class at 3:00, drive out, and pick her up. Cadie said she'd be OK alone, that Michael never came home during the day.
"I told him I was leaving after he hit me," Cadie said. The breeze coming off the water blew her hair off her face and down her back. "And you know what he said? He said, `What do I care if a little bitch like you leaves me? Go off and marry some rich college boy, I don't give a shit.'"
Beneath Cadie's eye, over her cheek bone, there was a large plum-colored bruise. It was swollen and hard looking, pushing her eye slightly closed. "He said if I left him, he would get me," she said.
"What'd he mean, `get' you?" I was trying to be calm, to be a good friend and just listen. I imagined a tan fist with curly hair on the knuckles hitting Cadie's face. I wanted to see, at least in my mind, the face of this man I did not know, but I couldn't make him out, and I felt that gave him some kind of advantage.
Cadie didn't answer my question. She looked up at the sky, the moon shining on her face. A tear came out the corner of her eye, changed direction when it hit the lump on her cheek, and fell straight and fast off her face. I saw her jaw shift and stiffen. I put the alarm in my pocket and took my best friend's hand, not knowing what to say.
The next afternoon I parked behind a gray pick-up in front of Cadie's. I turned the ignition off, and through the screen door of the trailer, I could see a lamp's dim glow in the living room. It was hot and my hair was sticking to the back of my neck. I unlocked the door, got out the car and went inside without knocking.
I was already calling Cadie's name when I turned and saw her in the kitchen. She had her back to me and was at the sink, the water running, her elbows moving as if she were washing dishes. I asked her what she was doing and she said she was just cleaning up. Then she took a bottle of bleach from the counter and poured some of it onto a sponge. She put her hands back in the sink and I couldn't see what else she was doing.
Then I asked her where Michael was. She turned off the water, took a dish towel from the counter, and turned around. She was holding a knife with a black handle, and she began to wipe the blade with the towel. "Michael is in bed," she said.
I know now that is what she said to me then, but at that moment I barely heard her. It was Cadie's face. One side of her entire forehead was black and swollen, dried blood at the hairline. There was a large Band-Aid over her cheek, and her eye was now swollen completely shut. Her lips were swollen, too, a blood clot in the corner of her mouth.
I started to say something -- I don't know what I thought I was going to say -- but before I could form any words, Cadie was asking me to get her bags from the bedroom while she finished up in the kitchen. She spoke to me slowly, like it hurt to talk, and she didn't look me in the face. I could see then that Cadie was not really there. I mean, her body was there, but she wasn't. I think she was feeling the same thing as men who got drafted, who were carted up and shipped across the world must've felt. Because even if her body was home, she knew she was being ripped out of her normal life, being forced to fight some war. In her head, Cadie was already hearing foreign languages and seeing strange landscapes.
Standing in the bedroom doorway, the first thing I saw was a long dark stain on the bedspread. It was blood, of course. The body lay covered, in one long mound, the bedspread pulled tight over the entire bed. I thought I should feel sick. But the blood on the bedspread turned the pastel flowers in the pattern to deep, rich colors: purple, crimson, burnt orange, dark violet, black. The flowers were beautiful, and I did not feel sick.
Cadie and I sat in our nightgowns in the common of my dorm. Everyone else was asleep, and the lights were off. The TV flashed quick jerking shadows on the wall. We were watching the news. The anchorwoman said, "This morning in Dorchester County the body of a teenage girl was discovered in the woods off Highway 78. The only clothing on the body was a pair of pants pulled down around the ankles. The police department reports one bullet wound to the skull. Detectives have not confirmed sexual assault, nor a motive for the murder. The body has not been identified, and no suspects have been named."
The anchorwoman turned in her chair, looked into another camera. "Now TV 2's Steve Robbins will tell us about the warm weather to expect this weekend in Charleston. Will it be nice enough to take the sailboats out on the harbor, Steve?"
Cadie got up to change the station. While she was flipping through channels, she asked if I had nail scissors she could use. I went to the bedroom to get them. I walked back into the common and closed the bedroom door behind me. I sat on the couch and handed the scissors to Cadie. She took them and began to scrape beneath her fingernails.
I got up to check the door. It was unlocked. I turned the lock on the door knob. I turned the knob on the bolt. I put the chain in its latch and slid it across the metal.
Carson Ray is a Columbia native and a graduate of the College of Charleston.