Black Hills

The last farmer in the county has cut his final harvest of hay. It sits in tightly rolled cylinders, drying or curing. Brad’s father would have known the proper term, but Brad drives a sedan, a Volvo with heated leather seats, and the finer points of farming are a bit of a mystery. The land—prime real-estate, really, just minutes from the highway—is slated for development. In another year, the fog will have to work its way into the cracks between the oversized “estate” homes instead of settling over the bare land like a meme. He has considered attending the estate auction, the dates are posted along the fence in child-like block letters. But if nothing else, Brad is practical: what use does a Senior Manager in a program office have for a 1974 John Deere tractor?

None, even if the thought of walking through the dusty barn, fingering rusty scythes and playing at American Gothic is strangely appealing. Deborah would want to come along in hopes of a find she could take to the Antiques Road Show. He doesn’t like the idea. Not of going himself, but of going as a couple. Imagining the interior of the weathered barn, the thin slices of light cutting through the dust in the air, seems like a shamed memory of childhood, one of those things you never speak of again, like playing kissey movies with your cousin.

Anyway, it isn’t so much about the secret as maintaining some semblance of independence: Yes, he is married and his life hasn’t been his own in decades, but he still has ownership. His private, inarticulate longing for an afternoon auction at the farm, a reason to believe that his individual identity is still intact, a handful of thoughts that Deb can’t intrude on.

Not that they have a terrible marriage. It is good enough to have survived a quarter of a century… They rarely fight about money or the kids or what color to paint the living room. Deb manages everything within the boundaries of their home and it works out okay.

Somehow, it has all worked out okay. When the local water authority decided to damn up a nearby creek to create a back-up reservoir, a county park emerged around them. With the instant equity a border on protected land provided, they expanded, remodeled and reworked their entire house until it resembled their marriage. Unspectacular but sturdy and expansive, with areas that are Deb’s domain where Brad rarely trespasses, and areas that belong to Brad, where Deb doesn’t even bother to vacuum. They know what to expect and can navigate the rooms in complete darkness when July thunderstorms bring the electricity lines down.

Deborah sorts out the details. Retirement investments, applications for the kid’s colleges, parent teacher conferences. And Brad leaves the house every morning at 7:30, drops a briefcase and a lunch bag onto the passenger seat of his sturdy Volvo, and backs slowly down their driveway.

The road Brad travels from home to office and back again is a source of pleasure. In the spring, trees heavy with pollen droop over it. In the winter, those same trees create a pattern of fracture against the deep blue of a January dusk, black nerves reaching for the setting sun. The road itself is poorly paved, but otherwise perfect. In no more than three minutes from “civilization” with its manufactured villages of national chain stores and their symmetrically gabled strip malls, suburbia gives way to its history: rural homes of no more than three bedrooms and 1.5 baths, nestled deep into their acre lots. The road winds a switchback deer path through the Black Hills until a quick corner opens up onto a bridge over the reservoir lake.

Cars park casually on the shoulder. People sit in folding lawn chairs and recline on the bridge, their poles tipped against the railing, their lines arcing against the breeze. And then the road closes again into a tunnel of trees. Brad doesn’t even need to watch for the “Not a Park Entrance: Residents Only” sign that designates the little road that meets their driveway half-way. He knows where his home is.

In the twenty minutes from home to the parking lot, Brad organizes himself for the day ahead. His team of twelve is growing: they had been eleven up until recently, when a second secretary became necessary just to keep up with the scheduling and paperwork. Trina is efficient and organized, but Brad has trouble looking at her.

He counted it as a blessing when she interviewed, her outmoded hair and hideous glasses. Even the limp flower hanging onto her lapel by a visible safety pin came as something of a relief. Here was a woman who could provide George—his star Program Manager—with support without the inevitable HR nightmare when George’s hands began to wander.

Which is worth it, even if Brad is perpetually embarrassed in her presence. Her laugh is so lusty and loud, a dirty laugh that seems better suited to the bedroom than a program office with responsibility for contracts worth millions of dollars. His mind inevitably turns to an inchoate vision of Trina engaged in the act, but he can never get past the strings of her hair hanging straight down her back, insufficient covering for the rolls that hang off of her spine like ropes of sausage hanging from a pole. His imagination usually grinds to a horrified halt right there.

On the drive home, Brad sorts through the day and tries to set it aside. Trina and the rest of his team are familiar, worrying about them is a habit that requires little attention. His newest colleague, Lily, is more of a challenge. She seems to have a single thing under control: It isn’t teamwork, it isn’t leadership, it isn’t motivating her team or meeting deadlines, it is making herself look good.

He puts his standby Fleetwood Mac CD on the stereo and tries not to think of his daughter’s embarrassment at his fluency in Fleetwood Mac lyrics, an effort that is usually sufficient to erase the worst of the work day.

And so it has been for nearly ten years, back and forth, the five working days and then two days on either end for easy morning sex and the strange taste of sweat in his mouth as he pushes the lawn mower from one end of the front lawn to the other. There is no reason to believe it will not continue, exactly the same, until retirement, with its promise of a gold watch and a comfortable pension. Minor office squabbles, the predictable rhythm of the house, after-dark lovemaking and first-thing Monday morning meetings.

Except that Lily isn’t content with keeping tabs on her own employees. She sends her favorite, the only one in her group that likes her, up and down the halls to track the comings and goings of his team. George mentioned it first, with an uncomfortable laugh and a small joke about how he keeps busy enough that he doesn’t need to fill his time watching other people. And then there was the meeting where she blind-sided a third colleague with an outburst over budget over-runs instead of discussing it with him in private first. Brad has caught Lily skulking around the break-room before, just out of sight of the gossiping minions. She startles, but does not explain or apologize.

Now, she raises her “concerns” in a staff meeting: Brad’s staff are reading erotica on company time. Were Brad paying sufficient attention, such ethical infringements would not be an issue in his team. Of course, she won’t name names. She doesn’t need to, the damage is done.

Brad spends the afternoon playing a sheepish Sherlock. George’s desk offers up nothing more exciting than a print out of movie times and confirmation of a flight to Los Vegas. Brad’s other employees’ desks boast nothing remarkable, at least not until he gets to Trina. He is reluctant to touch anything on Trina’s desk. Cooties, he thinks to himself, they never die. But it is there that the evidence is discovered: A soft-covered book with the spine well-cracked, entitled Nine Thighs, by Delilah Driver.

It must be good, to have her reading it so openly at work. Don’t most people have the sense to leave their pornography at home? Brad picks up the book and the bookmark drops out from between the pages. His recovery is anything but nonchalant, and he looks around to see who might have noticed his awkward crouch. With the bookmark in one hand and the book in the other, Brad tries to discern which pages were marked by the tasseled piece of card-stock. He flips through the book casually. The pages are dog-eared, and there is a photograph of the author printed in black and white on the inside back cover: Brad’s wife.

Only the force of habit propels Brad through the rest of his day. He shuffles the meetings off of his calendar one by one, dismisses the items on his list of things to do, just as he has done every day for years. At exactly four o’clock, he picks up his beige phone, which is yellowing at the edges, and calls Deborah to tell her he will be late. She wants him to bring basil home from the grocery store.

At five o’clock, Brad walks out of his office, down the unremarkable hall, past the inoffensive art and into the elevator. He tosses his briefcase onto the passenger seat of the Volvo, and drives himself to the nearest book store, one of those anonymous stores that pop up in strip malls all over the place, national in nature, with identical lay-outs no matter where the store is located.

Brad, of course, is unfamiliar. It takes him nearly twenty minutes of stumbling about before he finds the women’s studies section of the bookstore, and next to it, erotica. He does not read the titles, only the names. Driver is on the fourth shelf down from the top and there are nearly a dozen titles to choose from. He picks up Nine Thighs and heads directly for the cashier. Once back in the Volvo, he stuffs the book into his briefcase, and drives home.

The drive is automatic, right down to the part where he swings into the other lane to avoid the rough patches in the pavement. He can feel the book beside him, like a mosquito bite between toes. Brad forces himself to other topics of thought, like trying to remember the game statistics for the 1983 Stanley Cup playoffs. What would Gretzkey do? he thinks, and laughs a little. Maybe he will get a tee-shirt made: WWGD?

The next morning, his 8 o’clock meeting is a blur of ethics officers and the spluttering of Brad’s disbelieving Manager. It isn’t until 10:00 that Brad is alone with enough time to slip the “private conference” sign into the slot on the door and break the spine of Nine Thighs.

“She thinks about commenting on his speed as he takes the last corners before the road straightens onto the broad side of the lake, but the sock that is stuffed into her mouth makes all carping impossible. She watches the sun slipping into the water instead, relieved of the thinking role, sinking herself into the passive, expansive nature of water. They are headed into the hills, their hills, to the sacred space where the restraints she wears set her free. He turns to look at her, with the setting sun warming her face like an open-handed slap. She is impossibly lovely, when she is silent.”

Brad knows that stretch of road: it is the one that Deb always has something to say about, the same one he anticipates the whole drive home, his foot twitching for the gas pedal, the first open stretch for the Volvo’s six cylinders to stretch and hum at better than sixty miles an hour. Deb has no appreciation for the show of the Volvo’s power, only concern for what might happen if a policeman were to come upon them suddenly. He closes the book, afraid of what a continued reading may reveal: a hidden predilection for Sapphic encounters, a desire to see him trussed up and helpless as a thanksgiving turkey.

Driving home through the Black Hills he considers what exactly comprises normal. Does he put his briefcase away first, before kissing Deb or does he find Deb in the kitchen and greet her with a chaste kiss before leaving the briefcase propped against the island? Everything is new and strange. A week ago, Brad had no reason to suppose he might come home to find his wife dressed in stilettos, a feather boa and little else. Now, there is no telling what he will find. The proverbial pool boy, rubbing baby oil into Deb’s spine. Deborah opening up a plain box to reveal a sex swing, or a new whip, or handcuffs. Twenty five years, and Brad is suddenly married to a complete stranger.

He sits in the driveway for a minute, watching a fat cloud expand against the hills like shaving cream from a pressurized can. The trees have lost the urgent green of spring and have deepened into a darker shade that will turn into a riot of autumn fire momentarily. Brad wonders where Deb has been wandering: there is no doubt in his mind that there is a very real place tied to her S&M fantasy. He closes his eyes and sees her thumb running a lazy circle over rough bark, her eyes searching the clearing for a branch of the right height for handcuffs. He opens his eyes again, startled at the clarity of his imagination. This is no way to fake normal. He exhales carefully, picks up his briefcase and opens the car door.

The house smells of warm peanut butter, his favorite cookies are still steaming on their cooling racks. “Rough day?” she calls from the family room. “I guess” he answers, not wanting to commit to a strong position just yet.

Normal. Does he go upstairs and change, rifle through the mail, pour himself a drink? There is that bottle of Glenfiddich that they got in duty-free. Brad walks to the freezer and pauses. Is it possible that there may be something hidden, there behind the frozen peas? He can’t think of a sex toy that would benefit from time in the freezer, but it seems that his knowledge of the world isn’t quite as reliable as once believed. Still, if he is going to have that shot of whiskey, he will have to brave the freezer. He pulls the door open like the cops on TV do, suddenly, as if to surprise the inhabitants into submission. The frozen peas reveal nothing.

He tries a different tactic on the doors of the liquor cabinet: these, he opens slowly, in order to give the skeletons plenty of time to nestle back into the darkness. The whisky is right up front and Brad is generous in his pouring. He steps back with the nearly-full glass in his hand and almost falls over his briefcase. One of the latches pops open and Brad bends immediately to refasten the lock and reset the combination.

With the whisky in one hand and his briefcase in the other, he makes his way up the stairs and into their bedroom. Deb had insisted on the four-poster bed. All the better to restrain you with, my dear. Brad mouths the words silently, like a petulant six-year-old. And maybe she has one of those too; an erotic retelling of little Red Riding Hood and the dungeon-master Wolf. He loosens his tie and unbuttons the first two buttons of his shirt, then takes a deep gulp of the Glenfiddich. When he turns around again, she is standing in the doorway, her head resting on the frame. Brad jumps.

“Damn it Deb, you are supposed to make noise when you walk”

“Sorry, big man.”

She lets the words hang in the air. She hasn’t called him big man in years, not since the night they conceived Jack, their youngest. Brad’s blood responds, moving like sludge through his veins towards his cock.

“The kids are at homecoming” her words trail off. This might be a piece of information, it might be a come on.  Her voice is soft and suggestive, the “homecoming” intoned like a question. Whatever it is that put Brad’s response in slow motion shuts off. Suddenly he can feel his pulse in his balls.

In a single fluid motion, he pulls his tie from around his neck and stands there, slightly surprised at his own grace. He tosses back the last of his whiskey to recover, then speaks. “You know, I have a question I’ve been meaning to ask you.” His voice is low and purposeful. He licks the alcohol from his lips. “What made you choose this bed?”

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Black Hills

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