Newton’s third law

Deborah Hendrick on Saturday, June 21st, 2008

It was cool and clear, a perfect October day in Houston. Darla enjoyed the yard work, mowing and cleaning out the flower beds, raking it all together in a tidy pile and sacking it for the trash. She borrowed lopping shears from the man next door and cut off some low branches in the tree over-hanging the driveway. Mike had complained about them scratching the top of his pickup.

Music floated over the neighborhood, from the nearby high school band in marching practice. Darla smiled, hearing the tom-tom drums and thought about football games and homecoming, with spicy-scented mums, cold and silky against her cheek. She’d worked up an appetite and though Mike insisted on big suppers, she was tired. She wanted chili and Fritos, with lots of grated cheese and fresh green onions to sprinkle on top.

Darla quickly showered and washed her hair, combing it into a sleek ponytail at the back of her head. Just a touch of mascara and lipstick. Soft old clothes now—a small T-shirt, once red now faded to coral, and gray jersey warm-up pants, cast-offs from Mike.

She made banana pudding first, carefully layering the vanilla wafers and sliced bananas with the pudding and whipped cream into a crystal trifle bowl, a wedding present rarely used. When the pot of chili was simmering, she measured out the dry ingredients for corn bread. She’d add the wet ingredients when she heard Mike’s pickup in the driveway. Twenty minutes to bake, just long enough for him to bathe, then sit down at the table at six o’clock on the dot, the way he wanted.

Mike brought home two old buddies—Tom and Richard the Yankee. They’d shown up at the shop just before closing time. The chili, hearty and fragrant, was a hit and Richard agreed with Darla that chili and Fritos were a perfect combination. Tom pretended to faint when she presented the picture-perfect banana pudding for dessert. It was a happy evening, full of stories and laughter as the old friends caught up with each other. Darla was secretly pleased that Mike drank very little the whole evening, and that the guys left at a decent hour.

On her way out of the kitchen, Mike grabbed Darla by the ponytail and slammed her face-first into the door jam. When she bounced back, he hit her square in the nose with his fist. The pain was white-hot and paralyzing. With each blow he yelled at her for embarrassing him in front of his friends.

For the crappy meal. “Damned pudding,” he screamed at her. “Babies and old women eat pudding,” For touching Richard’s food. The house was messy. She looked like a refugee and had acted like a tramp all evening, laughing at everything Richard said. His anger rolled off in waves, punctuated with blows to her breasts, back and thighs. As she curled herself into a ball, Mike kicked her in the head and on the soles of her feet and when he was done, he slammed out of the house, roaring off in his beautiful white pickup.

She crawled to the guest bathroom. He’d torn off her shirt and the pants were big enough to kick off. Darla let the cold shower spray away the blood and vomit, slobber and tears. Then she filled the tub with cold water and soaked until the water was room temperature.. Exhausted and shivering, she took a handful of aspirin, and filled two bags with ice.

Darla’s eyes were swollen shut when she woke up. She could open her left eye just a slit, enough to see her way to the kitchen. She refilled the ice bags and returned to the bathroom. From beneath the vanity she retrieved a nearly-empty pint of grain alcohol that she used to concoct her face lotion. With shuddering gulps, Darla drained the bottle then went back to bed, and put the ice bag on her face.

When she couldn’t feel her teeth with her tongue, and she could pinch her cheek and it didn’t hurt, Darla staggered back to the bathroom. She tore off long strips of surgical tape and stuck them to the edge of the counter, and found an old nose splint. She took two wooden tongue depressors and laid them along the sides of her nose, and pushed it back to the center of her face. She taped the nose splint down, then took another tongue depressor and splinted the little finger on her left hand.

Darla spent the rest of the day in bed. She thought about calling one of those shelters. She’d looked up the number before and saved it, because this wasn’t the first time he’d hit her. But if she left now, it wouldn’t be a surprise to Mike. And more than anything, she wanted to control her leaving, with a carefully thought-out departure when Mike would least expect it.

She made her plans. First thing, she would pack a small bag and stash it someplace where Mike wouldn’t find it, and she could grab it quickly. Then she would save money. Mike’s money, never let her forget. Oh yes, when she left Mike it would be on her terms, and when the time was right.

Hiding money turned into a game for Darla. It was almost too easy. Mike didn’t like checking accounts, so he gave her the same amount of cash each week for groceries and household expenses. As long as her frugality didn’t affect Mike, it was easy for her sock away the money. So she scrimped and saved, and sold off some of her things that Mike would never notice, like books and jewelry.

Darla prepared a second purse, and obtained a duplicate social security card and driver’s license, and she put money into it, sometimes only a few dollars at a time, and hid it with the bug-out bag, a backpack. She didn’t have a complete plan, but was trying to think of essentials.

For Christmas she bought Mike a super-detail auto cleaning for his pickup. He demanded to know how she paid for it, so she told him that she’d saved for it out of the household allowance. “For a stupid bitch,” he said, “that was pretty smart.” Mike still hit her occasionally, but not like October, because he’d noticed a change in her since then and while he couldn’t quite figure it out, he liked the new Darla.

June rolled around, and no one thought much about it when the rain came, because it rains all the time in Houston and just because Tropical Storm Allison had a name, it wasn’t a big deal. Darla took Mike to work that Friday morning, the only day he let her use the pickup for her weekly errands and shopping. By Friday evening, the waters were rapidly rising and the news people were out with their cameras and crews, telling people to stay home or where they were because the rain was still falling and the creeks and bayous were overflowing their banks. The streets, freeways, and underpasses were flooded and every TV station in town was airing videos of submerged cars. Picking up Mike from work would be a problem.

Darla crossed a low spot in the road, now flooded with water, barely making it to the other side. She stopped and checked for traffic both ways before hopping out with her backpack, and hid it in the bushes beside the road. She clambered back in, wedged her purse tight against the console, shifted into neutral and got out; she left the door open. Darla pushed hard against the fender, and the pickup began rolling backwards, down into the water. Slowly it filled with water and sank deeper, then drifted off the road and snagged on a culvert, water rushing over the hood.

Darla was soaked when she finally made it to the crowded truck stop, but so was everyone. She hitched a ride with a determined trucker heading north. Told him she’d lost her car in the water, but that she had to make it back to Dallas—said her husband would figure out what to do about the car. The truck driver stopped his big rig on the outskirts of the city, and Darla bought him a meal, thanked him for the ride and pretended to telephone for help.

After the trucker left, assured that help was on the way, she rented a room in a nearby motel. Darla stood for a long time in the steaming hot shower, washing away the grime. Then she fell into bed and slept until the next afternoon. Her backpack yielded clean but wrinkled clothes. Silk trousers and matching sweater in all-purpose taupe. When she finished making herself presentable, Darla walked across to the same restaurant where she and her rescuer had eaten at the night before.

Two cups of coffee left her ready to eat so she ordered a California burger, fat with thick slices of avocado. Mike hated avocados and made such a face when she ate them herself that she’d quit buying them.

The cashier ramped up the volume on the TV for the six o’clock news and they watched in silence at the top story, the flooding in Houston. It was eerie for Darla, seeing the familiar made unfamiliar by tons of water where it shouldn’t be.

The Dallas affiliate showed video from their sister station in Houston, of a screaming man, “My pickup! That’s my pickup!” Bystanders tried to hold him back, but he jumped into the water and swam through the swirling muck and debris to his pickup. He sank, and then surfaced again, clutching at the custom chrome headache rack on his beautiful pickup. The cameraman zoomed in on Mike’s angry face, then the pickup shifted, and the filthy waters sucked them under.

Topics: Short stories

2 Responses to “Newton’s third law”

Eric Says:
June 21st, 2008 at 9:41 pm

I read the first four stories and thought, “sweet…comfortable…” And then you sucker-punched me with this one.

Welcome back. I’ve missed your stories.

Deborah Hendrick Says:
June 23rd, 2008 at 7:33 am

Eric, I was going for “blind-sided,” but sucker-punched will do.

And thank you—it’s good to be back.


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