Joyland

The South |

What Will Make It Last

by Ashley Strosnider

edited by Eleanor Kriseman

The banks of the Mississippi were as long and brown and green from the window of the restaurant as they were from the window of the car when they’d driven across it on the highway, suspended some half mile above it. The side where the restaurant sat, and where the man and the woman sat inside it, was the side with all the history. The other side was only Illinois.

“Are you hungry?” the husband asked. He’d taken his hat off when they came inside, and his hair was pressed flat across his forehead where the sweaty brim had held it in place all afternoon.

“Of course I’m hungry,” she said. “That’s why we came to dinner.”

“I meant did you want an appetizer. Something to start?”

Something to start. It sounded hopeful. Like a beginning. “Yes,” she said. “That could be nice.” It wasn’t a nice restaurant, but it was clean. New. It was named after Mark Twain, like everything else in that little town on the river took its name from his name or the name of one of his books or one of his characters. It stood in an old building where a mill had once operated. The ceilings were high with room to breathe, and the ancient wooden floors gave just enough beneath their feet when they walked inside. Too-firm footing made her uneasy. She’d asked to sit by the window so there’d be something to look at. The restaurant was comfortable, and she was comfortable, and she watched the water rushing by, so fast it looked slow.

“I’m thinking we should try the fried spinach,” said her husband, who was always thinking something.

“I’ve never had that.”

“Exactly. Something new. That’s why we should try it.”

She didn’t really yearn for something new, for experiments, like he apparently did. “OK,” she said. “If that’s what you want.”

“I’m asking what you want,” he said, and she believed he thought that’s what he was asking.

Four years ago, they’d spent the holiday weekend in her hometown, over on the other side of a different river, where they stood in front of a trio of tall windows with glass stained blue and green and promised to love each other forever. Last night, on the steamboat dinner cruise, the cruise director, a young blonde who couldn’t have been more than twenty-two, told everyone it was their anniversary, and it had been close enough. All the strangers looked up from their green beans and clapped as her husband took her hand and they stood up. She waved a quiet little half-wave, blushing, and he leaned across the table to kiss her there, in front of everybody. She closed her eyes and offered him her cheek, sweet and demure—conservative, was all, not evasive—and then they sat down again to eat their green beans, too. She’d been surprised to see them on the boat, all those green beans laid out in a big silver serving tub with a little candle burning beneath it, smoke whisking out as if to keep mosquitos away. Green beans like a school cafeteria, like a Thursday night at summer camp, and a hill of white dinner rolls with little pats of butter wrapped up in gold foil. “I know it isn’t fancy,” the man had said. “But it’s kind of fun. Isn’t it fun? I’m glad we came.”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s nice to be here, all the way out here.” She’d been watching the big river crawl all the years her life had crisscrossed it—following a scholarship, following a dream, following her husband—and in all that time, she’d never realized how sublime it might be to join that current and ride it. The captain hugged the boat close to the bank where all the buildings stood, where, as she knew what the captain did, the water had dug a channel deep enough for the boat. But they actually wouldn’t have needed a channel that deep, she was surprised to learn. It was not a true steamboat at all. No paddlewheel slapping the water, turning and turning and thrusting them forward through friction. The stacks on the upper deck, huge white columns with black crowns pointed like a fleur de lis, were pure decoration, and beneath the click of metal scraping porcelain and under the hum of idle conversation, she could hear the boat’s engine purr like a Missouri Tiger. The opposite bank, that Illinois nothing, lay across a long stretch of water, and as the night turned darker, she watched the fog rise up in little silver curls.

When the fried spinach arrived, it did not come shoved into deep fried nuggets like she’d been expecting. Instead, it was paper thin and delicate, a pretty and delicious thing that disintegrated as soon as she touched it.

“It’s like eating butterfly wings,” she said, and her husband laughed.

“You have such a strange imagination,” he said.

“I thought it would be a beautiful thing to say.”

“It was,” he said. “I would have never thought of it. It was a beautiful thing to say.”

But his face looked sad, and so she stared out the windows, grateful for something new and beautiful to look at instead. She understood, for just a moment, how he must have felt when he looked away from her, looking for something beautiful.

Through the window and across an empty lot sat another restaurant, a squat and low-slung wooden thing with a sprawling porch and boarded-up windows. She wondered why it had closed, what had made the owners decide they couldn’t make it work any longer. When they had known it wouldn’t last. Behind that restaurant stood an old house, a big, tall, beautiful house, with a second-story porch clinging across the side that faced the river. On the porch, a woman stood, holding a glass of water she never took a sip from. The sun was going down, and she stood in the shadows, and for a moment, the woman in the restaurant thought she must be seeing things. Her imagination going strange again. Wind whipped through the porch woman’s hair, which hung long and gray down to her shoulders, and danced soft and wispy as dandelions in the sunset. A dress, old-fashioned with a ruffled collar that slipped off her shoulders exposing just the top of her swelling chest, clung close to her waist then swelled out around her hips. Delicate, it might have been lace or linen or only well-worn summer cotton, could have been any pastel color, maybe a light pink or sky blue or a sunny, summery yellow, but to the woman in the restaurant, it looked white and glowing like moonlight, lace like a wedding dress. The porch woman stood at a right angle to the river, staring straight at the restaurant, straight, thought the woman inside, at her.

“What should we drink?” her husband asked. “If we order two flights, we could try them all. Wouldn’t it be nice to try them all?”

“I don’t know,” said the woman. The beers, brewed in huge metal tubs in the same high-ceilinged room they sat in, all had ridiculous names, was what she thought at first. Huck Finn something, Becky Thatcher something, Injun Joe something, Jumping Frog something. You couldn’t throw a rock in this town without hitting Tom Sawyer or Calaveras County. But she thought again and decided instead that the names were a delight. The whole town’s commitment to its history, to the man who made up his own name, then made up stories to match it, who infused the place with a whole narrative history, even if it was a false one hung loosely on the bones of truth. She believed in the power of a story to make a thing true. She had already decided what she wanted. “What happens if you want the same ones I want,” she asked, “and I get stuck with one I know I won’t like?”

“Like what?” her husband asked. “These all sound great.”

“Like the four IPAs on here. You know I don’t like IPAs. Too bitter. I don’t want any of those.” Her husband was only good at sharing certain things. He was in a bad habit lately of taking what he wanted and sticking her with whatever was left.

“You can have first dibs. I’ll take the gross ones,” he said. “You know, I’d do that for you.” He was grinning, gaining steam. “I am willing to do that for you. I’ll drink the gross beers, so you won’t have to. Nothing bitter for you. Only all the sweetest ones for you, sweetheart.”

He was trying. She could see that. She said, “There’s no reason you should have to drink a gross beer neither of us even wants, just so we can say we tried them all.”

“Well, we can’t just order the exact same thing.”

“Why not?” she asked. What could be so wrong, she wondered, with wanting the exact same thing for once?

The ship, docked a few blocks up at the landing, gave three loud blasts, warning the sleepy town and any little boats out on the water that it was again embarking on that night’s installment of the rituals they’d enacted the evening before. The ship’s band had taken the stage as everyone was eating dessert, little brownies baked into little round ramekins, with a little dollop of whipped cream and a little slice of bright strawberry nestled into the white. When the plates were cleared, the band leader—an old man with the first real southern accent she’d heard in months, a drummer who sang, which surprised her—called their names again, and they made their way to a dance floor that had unrolled, a long vinyl checkerboard, where the buffet tables had stood moments before. They danced, rocking slowly alongside the other couples who’d been married for one, three, seven, nine, and twenty years, while the rest of the passengers sipped their drinks and laughed softly and glared congratulations and good wishes and envy at the dancers floating across the checkerboard floor that floated across the mighty Mississippi. The twentieth-anniversary couple, she learned later from the wife in the boat’s little pink bathroom, were locals. They’d been coming on this same cruise to celebrate every year for the past twenty years. “It’s the little rituals,” the old woman said, “that will make it last.”

In the back of the room, another woman stood in a white dress beside a man in a gray suit and a silly, old-fashioned hat, with a red flower on his lapel that matched the red flower in her hair all done up in curls. They did not walk to the front of the room with the rest of them but stood and swayed, side by side, close and quiet with arms around each other’s waists. The woman tried not to watch them, where they held each other there in that back corner in a new and private embrace. “Look,” whispered her husband whose hand squeezed the soft of her hip. “Look how old they are. Do you think it’s a second marriage?” But they didn’t look old at all, she thought, only beautiful, and she couldn’t stop watching them lean into one another, hope radiating off of them like smoke from a fire still burning.

“Do you see that woman?” she asked him.

“No,” he said. But his eyes were on her. For once he wasn’t looking past her. “It’s over. I promise you. I mean it.”

“No,” she said, and for once, that hadn’t been what she meant at all. “The woman on that porch. In the white dress. Do you see her too?”

He turned his head then, finally looking in the same direction she was looking, at the old house with the porch and the lone woman standing outside in the sunset breeze. “Yes,” he said, his voice quiet. “I see her.”

“Good,” she said. “I thought she might be a ghost.”

“Well,” her husband said, “just because I can see her too doesn’t mean she isn’t a ghost. I don’t think that’s how the laws of ghosthood work.”

They watched her together, sipping tiny sips from their tiny glasses. The woman on the porch was still, but she was no longer staring at them. She faced the river. A breeze stirred the hem of her dress, blowing it just above her knees, and a wind chime danced above her head. It might have sounded like the silverware clinking around them, a miniature descant rising somewhere above the slow bass rumble of the boat passing on the water.

Before dinner, they’d gone to Lover’s Leap. She’d wanted to walk. It was only a mile. But her husband pointed out that the streets didn’t have sidewalks. That cars wouldn’t be able to see them coming up the hill, around the bend. He was right. They climbed out of his truck at the top, then, having avoided that danger, and walked to the edge, where she should not have been surprised to see a fence. She hooked her fingers through its metal loops, hot to the touch, warmed by the late afternoon sun that drove a thin stream of sweat between her shoulder blades that tickled down the length of her spine. She looked through the fence, focused her eyes beyond it, and its metal cross-hatching became invisible where it stood between her and the white face of the bluff jutting out a few feet away.

“Is this from the books, too?” her husband asked.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “Or, I mean, it’s from lots of books. Everywhere there’s a rock like this, there’s a story like this.” The plaque said the rock had been there for centuries. The plaque said legend had it that a young Native American woman had fallen in love with the son of a chief from a warring tribe, and her father had not given his blessing to their union. He’d given chase, run the young man off the side of a cliff to put an end to their affair, and he’d been heartbroken when his young daughter, a princess in her own right, had leapt right off the side, too, following him even into death. She wondered which white man had made the stupid story up first.

“Tell me again why you wanted to come look at this?” asked her husband. The trip to Hannibal had been his idea, because he thought it sounded like the kind of thing she’d like, and he wasn’t wrong. She was surprised by his ability to know her like that, still. Just think of all those stories, he’d said. But he was right; the rock wasn’t in the books. The rock was something real, something that had come before Twain and would outlast him, too. She’d expected it to overhang the river, to be a place where a woman could throw herself down in the name of love, waiting for the water to rise up and greet her, the big muddy suck of it to pull her down like a hug, to carry her along all the way to the ocean where she’d be released, washed clean of the love that had driven her down, floating sodden and anonymous into some greater beyond. She could feel the water’s embrace, filthy from years of erosion, years of pollution, years of being beautiful only from far enough away. She could feel it, a strange and dangerous force folding her into itself, snaking into her ears, her nostrils, beneath her arms, between her fingers and toes, into the secret folds she carried pressed between her legs. She could imagine jumping into the water like that, in the name of love.

But it was not like that at all.

Here beneath the rock was just more land, the kind of land that must once have been under the river, when the river had been bigger and stronger and wider. The kind of land that had centuries of nutrients washed across it. The kind of land that should’ve been a field, where someone should have planted something new and alive by now. The kind of land you could only throw yourself into if you wanted your blood, once spilled, your flesh, once spoiled and melting off your bones, all ashes to ashes and dust to dust, to fertilize nothing more intentional than wildflowers.

“She can’t be a ghost,” her husband said, with a laugh that was not unkind. “Look. She’s holding a cell phone.” His eyes met hers again. “Now again, I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure that’s a rule. Ghosts can’t have cell phones.” He smiled.

She looked closely and saw that he was right. She watched the ghost woman’s hands clutching a little electronic square, fingers moving, tapping out a message into the ether.

“What do you think she’s doing?” she wondered. “Checking the weather? Writing an e-mail?” She took a sip of her beer and stopped herself from guessing: texting someone else’s husband.

“I think,” said her husband, whose voice went quiet again with a sincerity she almost couldn’t stand, “she’s telling her husband she forgives him. That she wants him to come home.”

The woman in the restaurant watched the woman on the porch. She was sure the ghost was a widow. Loss clung to the woman like an effervescent shroud, like something at once heavier and more intangible than she could image. The ghost’s husband would have been a one-time steamboat captain who’d drifted away and never come back. That woman would be waiting the whole rest of her afterlife for a lover who’d never come back to her.

“Here,” said her husband. He picked up the last piece of fried spinach, pinching it between his thumb and forefinger, and held it out to her. “You should have the last bite.”

When she took it from his fingers, it crackled, and a little sliver drifted to the plate, but the body of the leaf remained intact. She took his offering and raised it to her mouth, tasted it dissolving on her tongue like the round paper wafer at communion.

“We should learn to make this at home,” said her husband. “You know? I bet we could make it if we found the right recipe.”

“Yes,” the woman agreed, and her smile was not as big as the Mississippi, but it was not as empty as the Illinois on the other side. “I bet we could make it.”