Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The Die is Cast

 

 

I didn’t really get to know the Kruegers until a couple of weeks after I’d arrived at the RV campground. They’d been working at the nearby super-warehouse since early fall, and I’d only been in the park since Thanksgiving, when I’d heard about the big seasonal hiring push. Our RV spots were next to one another out in that southeastern Kansas scrubland along the Oklahoma border under power lines that hummed at night. Everyone in the campground was there for the seasonal work, and many of us were on a sort of “camper force” circuit of the country. We were all seniors, most having been reduced to that way of life by losses during the recession. Amazon was a big recruiter and had their fulfillment centers scattered all over, but there were more and more companies doing the same thing. The Kruegers had been chasing jobs in their RV for five years, and I’d been at it for almost that long. They both appeared to be in their mid-sixties, and I was approaching seventy.

 

Les and Marge Krueger had a big Winnebago that had seen better days. Mine was an ancient Airstream tag-along that I unhooked from my pick-up truck so I could use it to get to work. Most folks in self-contained units like theirs took the warehouse bus for that commute; it stopped on the road right in front the campground host’s mobile home. I offered them a ride one morning as they were walking to the bus stop in the rain, and they had me over for dinner that same night in return. That’s when we started to become more than just passing neighbors.

 

That first night, I brought flowers, and Marge arranged them in a tall glass, then opened cans of corn beef hash and green beans that she started heating on the stove. While we waited, we sat around their little Formica table under the galley ceiling light and drank beer. They’d told me a bit about their circumstances on the ride to the warehouse that morning, but Les was ready to share more as soon as we were seated.

 

“Yeah, we lost just about everything in ’09. The nest egg we’d been investing for years went belly-up in six months, and a couple years later, we still owed more on the house than it was worth.”He shook his head and tilted back his can of beer. He was a big, heavyset man with a stubble of gray on his face and a bit more on his head.

 

“Pfft,” Marge said. She looked at me with green eyes and made a motion with her fingers like something was going up in smoke. She was thick around the middle, but was still attractive. Her dyed hair looked like it had once been auburn.

 

“Never thought that would be possible,” Les continued. “Both of us had only worked hourly jobs all our lives, so we had no pension beyond Social Security. Heard about these temporary warehouse gigs, sold what we could, bought this piece of crap, turned in the house keys to the bank, and have been on the move ever since.”He leveled me with a gaze and took another gulp. “How about you?”

 

I shrugged. “Pretty much the same. Not a whole lot different.” 

 

He nodded. “I saw your license plate. California home?”

 

“Used to be.” 

 

“Wife?”Marge asked.

 

“Used to have one of those, too.”I took a long pull from the beer myself.

 

I felt Marge studying me. The sound of a television came from another camper. Les finished his beer and shook the can. It had begun to rain again lightly. Marge squeezed past him and began stirring the pots on the stove. He reached beyond her, opened the refrigerator, and took out two more beers. He slid one my way. I still had half of my first one left. I’d noticed two squashed cans on the counter behind his head when I’d come in.

 

“Damn it, woman,” he said. “Turn down the heat on those pots and get back here. We’re in no rush. Where we got to go?”

 

When he popped his new can open, I saw Marge close her eyes and purse her lips, turned away from him, at the stove.

 

*  *  *

 

At the warehouse, I worked as a “picker”, which meant that I walked through the endless aisles of shelves with a double-tiered cart accumulating items that had been ordered, scanning them and putting them in plastic totes for packing and shipping. Les had the same job, but in a different part of the warehouse. Marge worked boxing items as a “packer”, taping the boxes and slapping on address labels, then sending them down a conveyer belt for shipping; she worked in the same section I did, but on the floor above me. During that seasonal push, we were all on first shift, ten hours a day, six days a week.

 

The morning after we had dinner, Marge and I waved or nodded to each other several times when I passed below her in the warehouse. I came across her again in the cafeteria during my morning break. She gestured me over to the table where she sat after I got coffee from the vending machine.

 

I settled down across from her and she raised her own steaming paper cup as if to toast. “Hello there,” she said and smiled.

 

“Good morning. Thanks again for dinner.” 

 

She nodded slowly, her smile remaining. “Sure. Thanks for the flowers.” 

 

I shrugged. “Been a while since I’ve been invited for a meal. Wasn’t sure what to bring.” 

 

“Well, they’re lovely.” 

 

I shrugged again. “You guys turn in pretty quick after I left?”

 

“I did. Les stayed up for a nightcap. Or two, maybe three.” 

 

“He sure can put them away.” 

 

“That he can.” 

 

I tried smiling, too, and nodding. We both sipped from our cups until she asked, “So what happened with your wife?”

 

I paused, then said, “Traded me in for a better model.” 

 

“How long ago?”

 

I raised my eyebrows, considering. “Dozen or so years.” 

 

We looked at each other for a long moment. Marge finally said, “She made a mistake. I wouldn’t have done that. Thoughtful, nice-looking man like you.” 

 

I turned up my palms and could feel color rising up my neck. I held her gaze for another few seconds, then glanced at my watch and said, “Well, better head back. Walk a few more miles.” 

 

She chuckled. “Les has to ice his knees every night after work.” 

 

“Yeah, no fun getting old.” 

 

“Guess we just have to make the most of whatever time we got left.” 

 

“I suppose so.”She was studying me again like the night before. I stood up. I’d only taken a few sips of coffee and still had half of my break left.

 

Marge said, “I’ll look for you at lunch.” 

 

“Les join you for that?”

 

“Not usually.” 

 

I nodded. “All right.” 

 

I turned quickly and left. I’d brought my lunch and ate it sitting on an empty upturned tote in one of the aisles furthest away from the cafeteria.

 

 

*  *  *

 

That night, I was awakened by shouting from their camper. I’d heard their raised voices before, but never that late or loud. Marge’s was the more severe of the two. My bedside clock showed that it was after midnight. I glanced out my window and saw the same light on over their table. A moment later, an empty can clanked off a wall inside, then the camper door opened with a bang, and Marge emerged in a bathrobe and slippers. She slammed the door closed, and I watched her stomp out along the narrow gravel roadway that separated campers. Her hair was piled up on her head. She stopped under the eave lights at the cement block restrooms, took a pack of cigarettes out of her robe pocket, and lit one. I’d never seen her smoke before. I watched her for a while, her arms folded tight across her chest, her face hard, one foot tapping, then laid back and stared at the ceiling.

 

*  *  *

 

The next day, I was sent to a different section of the warehouse to “stow”, which essentially meant stocking shelves. I was away from both Marge and Les, and that was fine with me. The place was almost a city block wide and long, so it wasn’t hard to avoid crossing paths with them. I didn’t see either of them again until a couple of nights later when I returned from the grocery store. Les was sitting outside his camper under its tattered awning in one of two folding lawn chairs holding a can of beer. A hibachi glowed red in the darkness in front of him and there was a small cooler next to his chair. By the time I’d gotten out of the truck with my shopping bag, he’d already taken a new can out of the cooler, opened it, and was holding it out towards me.

 

“Here,” he said. “Take a load off.”

 

“I’d better put these groceries away.”

 

“Hell, they won’t spoil in this cold.”  His breath came in short cloud bursts. He gestured with the hand holding the new beer towards the empty chair. “Sit down.”

 

His face was in shadows from the interior light of the camper. I could hear the shower running behind him inside. I turned the collar of my coat up under my ears, put the bag down next to the empty chair, and lowered myself into it.

 

“There you go,” he said and handed me the beer.

 

We both took swallows and then he looked up into the wide, black sky that was full of stars. I followed his gaze.”  Nice night,” he said. “Peaceful.”

 

I nodded, though he was still staring above him. He looked back at me and said, “I grilled us up some wieners for dinner, but we already ate. Might have some more I could put on, if you want me to go look.”

 

“Thanks, no. I ate in town.”

 

The wires above us made their steady hum, and an owl hooted somewhere out in the dark scrubland. Les turned towards the sound.”  Not much to look at here,” he said.  “Least not to my taste. You ever been to central Tennessee?  We did a turn there last spring. Now that’s pretty country. Green, rolling hills, lots of lakes.”

 

I said, “Never been.” 

 

“You should someday. Worth the trip.” 

 

I watched him take another swallow from his can. He zipped his plaid fur-lined jacket up closer to his chin. I heard the shower turn off inside their camper.

 

I asked, “Where’s home for you two?”

 

“Ohio.”  It came out in a kind of grunt. “Outside Cleveland. Marge and I met in high school there.” 

 

“No kidding.” 

 

“Yup. Nearly fifty years ago. Been together ever since.” 

 

He knocked off the last of his beer, dropped it in the cooler, and opened another. Marge’s voice came from inside, singing an old ballad off key. I imagined her toweling herself off in there. Les chuckled and said, “She’s not much of a singer or a cook. Can’t sew worth a damn either. But she’s stuck in there with me through thick and thin. Mostly thin.” 

 

I nodded some more, and wondered where my ex-wife was at that moment. I hadn’t heard from her since our divorce over a decade before. The coals in the hibachi threw a little heat against our ankles. A train passed off across the scrubland on the way to its nightly freight stop in town.

 

*  *  *

 

The next day was Sunday. After breakfast, I drove into town, found a church, and sat through the service until the pastor called for sinners to come up to the altar to repent. I left then through a side door and drove out into the country. The sky was a solid sheet of gray, and a cold breeze tossed the bare branches on trees and whatever dry grass was left in the fields. My back ached, but I drove for about an hour until I came upon a wide stream lined with cottonwoods. I got out, sat on the bank, and tossed sticks in the slow, brown current. I thought about my early years working as a teacher’s aide near Fresno where most of the students were children of migrant farmworkers, and how my own life had become not too much different than theirs. I thought about the irony of that at nearly seventy years old. I wondered again why my ex-wife and I never started a family. I thought about the Kruegers. I thought about loneliness, where my next destination might be, the years ahead.

 

Back in town, I lingered at a used bookstore and bought a few titles I didn’t have. I got back to my camper after four. The gloaming’s falling light had already begun. When I got inside, I started the kettle and dropped a teabag and spoon in a mug. After the tea was made, I put on a classical CD at low volume, stretched out on my couch seat propped against pillows, and began to read one of the books I’d bought.

 

About a half-hour later, there was a soft knock on the door. I frowned, carried my mug over, and opened it. Marge stood on the step holding a paper plate of cookies covered with cellophane.

 

She said, “Was making these. Thought I’d bring you a few.” 

 

I took them from her with my free hand and said, “Thanks.” 

 

“That cinnamon tea?”

 

I nodded.

 

“Smells good. Have enough for two?”

 

I swallowed and glanced beyond her at their camper. No movement or sound came from it. It looked like she’d put on a little make-up and lipstick. When she tilted her head looking at me, her eyes seemed both injured and hopeful.

 

I stepped to the side and said, “Sure, come on in.” 

 

She sat where my feet had been and looked around the interior while I got the burner going again under the kettle.

 

“Boy,” she said. “You keep this place neat.” 

 

“Pretty much have to, as small as it is.” 

 

She gestured to the books that lined most of the shelves and counters.”You read all of those?”

 

I shrugged and said, “That’s how I fill most of my free time.” 

 

She picked up the book I’d been reading, looked at the cover, then at me.

 

“Detective mystery,” I said. “I like those best.” 

 

“Why?”

 

I shrugged again. “I can lose myself in them, I guess. Try to figure out the crime before it’s solved at the end.” 

She nodded. “I wish I had a hobby like that, where you can forget things.” 

 

Whatever perfume she’d put on hung in that cramped space. We looked at each other for a moment until the kettle began to whistle. I prepared the mug, brought it over to the table, and handed it to her. I sat down with a space between us. She took a sip and said, “Yum.” 

 

“Where’s Les?”

 

“Oh, he went off to a bar with a guy from a few campers up. Left about noon, so he should be pretty well-oiled by now.” 

 

To be doing something, I stirred the tea bag I’d left in my mug with the spoon. I heard her take another sip.

 

I said, “Cookies look good.” 

 

“They’re nothing special. Just that packaged kind in little squares you can buy from the refrigerator case. Don’t look too close at the bottoms; they’re a little burnt.” 

 

“It was nice of you.”I looked over at her.“I appreciate it.” 

 

“Want one?” she asked.

 

She reached across the table to the plate and the sleeve on her sweater moved up her arm revealing a bruise in the shape of fingertips on her wrist. She closed her other hand over the mark just as the sound of slamming truck doors came from nearby. Two male voices followed, jeering and laughing. One of them was Les’.

 

Marge stood up quickly and said, “I need to go.” 

 

She was out the door before I could reply. I heard her hurried footsteps cross the few feet of gravel, and her RV door open and close. I listened to the jeering and laughter escalate and watched the curl of steam lift from her mug on the table. The men’s voices approached until a fist pounded on my camper door, and then it opened. Les’ beefy face appeared in the opening along with another man’s.

 

“This is Dale,” he announced. “We met a guy at a bar in town sold us tickets to a dinner with live music at the VFW Hall. Dale and his wife, Marge and me. Bought you one, too. Starts in a little while.” 

 

“I don’t know,” I said. “Work tomorrow.” 

 

“We’ll only stay a few hours.” 

 

The other man nodded and grinned. Their eyes were red-rimmed, and I could smell the beer on them. I gestured with my mug and said, “I was already sort of settling in for the night.” 

 

“Come on,” Les growled. “Truth is we need you to drive. Can’t all fit in Dale’s truck.” 

 

“Well,” I said and blew out a breath.

 

“That’s the way.”  Les grinned. “Don’t have to dress fancy. Meet you outside in twenty minutes.” 

 

The door closed behind them. They exchanged another remark I couldn’t hear clearly and a bark of laughter, then Dale’s footsteps headed back the way they’d come, and I heard Les go into his RV. I stared down at the table. If Les had noticed the two mugs there, he’d given no indication of it.

 

*  *  *

 

Dale’s wife drove the two of them in their truck, and Marge and Les rode with me. Marge sat squeezed between us, and I was aware of her thigh against mine. She’d put on more perfume along with turquoise earrings that matched a short necklace. She wore a blue dress under a matching sweater. Les had wetted and combed his hair; neither he or I had changed clothes.

 

The VFW Hall was on the edge of town not far from the warehouse. The parking lot to the side of it was nearly full of vehicles, and we were lucky to find an empty table near the dance floor inside. A five-piece group with a woman singer played country-western music from a little bandstand, and a long bar filled most of the wall opposite. There were pool and shuffleboard tables in one corner and a buffet had been set up against the far wall. Les went to get beers from the bar while the rest of us headed to the buffet line.

 

The food was good and the band was all right, too. I sat between the two couples while Dale and his wife told me about their travels, which pretty much mirrored the Kruegers’ and my own. I figured them for about my age. Dale’s wife seemed to have a smile fixed permanently on her face. Every so often, Dale would say something that Les would chide and they’d both chortle. The place was loud with voices and music. By the time we finished eating, the dance floor had begun to fill.

 

Dale’s wife moved her head to the music, then reached towards her husband and said, “Dance with me.” 

 

He shook his head. “You know I can’t dance.” 

 

Marge gestured with her head to Les and said, “This one neither.” 

 

Les nodded and pointed at Dale. “Bet I can kick your ass in shuffleboard, though.” 

 

“Come on, big guy.”   Dale said, grinning. He stood up. “Prove it.” 

I watched them head off with their beers, then fingered my bottle between the two women and listened to the band. When the music changed, Dale’s wife said, “I love this song.”  She took my arm. “Don’t tell me you’re not a dancer either.” 

 

“Not much of one.” 

 

She stood and kept her hand on my arm. Her smile was still there. “Come on,” she told me. “Let’s go.” 

 

She led me into the edge of the crowd and we began to dance. I moved clumsily, but she didn’t seem to care. She kept looking happily over my shoulder at the woman singing. I searched for Dale and Les and saw them at the bar clinking full shot glasses. When I glanced at Marge, she was looking directly at me, a small, sad smile creasing her lips.

 

After the song, we sat back down, and the music slowed. Marge put her hand on top of mine and said, “My turn.” 

 

I let her take my hand. She led me deep into the throng on the dance floor, it seemed, intentionally. She kept one hand holding mine and put the other around my neck. I watched her close her eyes and press her cheek against my chest. I put my free hand as lightly as I could on the small of her back, and we began moving very slowly. Her hair grazed my chin, and my nose filled with the smell of her shampoo and perfume. I heard her sigh. She felt soft. Her breasts pushed against me. I wanted to bury my face in her hair, in her neck. Instead, I stared at the corner of the room where Les and Dale played shuffleboard with their backs to us. Even if they’d been facing us, I didn’t think they could have distinguished us in the dancing crowd.

 

Afterwards, I pretended to need to use the restroom, then wandered over to watch Dale and Les play shuffleboard. Dale introduced me to the man they’d bought the tickets from when he came by with fresh beers for the three of them. I declined his offer to buy me one, then leaned against the bar listening to him ramble on about growing up nearby, his time in the Vietnam War, the farm he was forced to sell off little by little over the years. I waited until they’d finished the round before insisting that I needed to head back to the campground.

 

About halfway there, I heard Les begin to snore. I kept my eyes on the taillights of Dale’s truck in front of me. A few moments later, I felt Marge rest her head against my shoulder. A flush spread up through me. I stared straight ahead and tried not to move. I wasn’t sure if she’d fallen asleep, too. Her breathing had slowed and deepened, but I didn’t think she had. When I pulled the truck in front of my camper, she straightened before Les woke up.

 

There was no shouting from their camper after the lights shut off. Before getting into bed, I took my Bible out of the nightstand and opened it to the old photo I kept inside of my ex-wife and me on our honeymoon. In it, we were standing against the railing of a bridge with our arms around each other, squinting smiles into the sun. I ran my fingertip across it, then replaced it, and turned off the light. I lay back, listened to the electric wires hum, and waited for sleep to come.

 

*  *  *

 

The next day, I gladly took the offer of overtime hours at the warehouse for the final push towards Christmas. I stopped each night afterwards in town for dinner, which meant I didn’t arrive back at my camper until after nine. There was usually only the one galley light on at the Kruegers then, and I got into bed as quickly as I could. I didn’t hear any late-night shouting from them again until mid-week. When I did, I put the pillow over my head, but I could still hear their camper door bang open and closed and Marge’s footsteps hurry off towards the restrooms. I closed my eyes tight, but couldn’t shake away the vision of the marks on her wrist.

 

*  *  *

 

The following night, I passed Les as he was putting a garbage bag in the community trash canwhen I pulled up to my camper. I waited until he came abreast of me, gathering my nerve, before I got out of my truck.

 

He stopped and said, “Hey, neighbor.” 

 

“Evening.” 

 

“Looks like you’ve been working the overtime.” 

 

I nodded.

 

He shook his head. “My knees just can’t take it.” 

 

I nodded some more. He looked up at the cloudless sky and said, “Feels like it might snow.” 

 

“Listen,” I said, “I heard a commotion from your place last night pretty late. Heard that same thing before.” 

 

He lowered his eyes slowly until they met mine.“Just a little fuss. Sorry if it woke you.” 

 

I nodded more, then said, “So, maybe you should kind of ease up on the drinking, you know, help avoid that happening.” 

 

He looked at me evenly, his eyes narrowing. I held his stare, but saw his hands ball into fists. He said, “So, maybe you should mind your own business.” 

 

We stared at each other for another long moment while the wires hummed above us before I walked past him to my camper.

 

 

*  *  *

 

It did snow a little that night. A dusting of white covered everything, but it was more than two inches thick by the time I left the warehouse that night. I lingered over dinner in town, then took a long walk along the deserted streets before heading back to the campground just before ten. My gut clenched a little when I saw the same single light in the Kruegers’ camper. I got into bed and tried to read myself to sleep. A wind had come up, blowing snow, but I could still hear the first shout when it came about twenty minutes later. I sat up straight as they intensified in anger. Then there was loud thump, followed by crying, and I pulled off the covers and put my feet on the floor. I heard their camper door bang open and closed, but no sound of footsteps in the snow. After a moment, my own camper door opened and closed quietly, and I could see the silhouette of Marge in her bathrobe and slippers down the short hall in my galley. She was rubbing one of her hips.

 

She sniffed loudly, then said, “I just need to stay for little while. He’ll pass out soon.” 

 

I said, “Sure.” 

 

“Please don’t get up, but turn out the light. He might see it and wonder.” 

 

I switched off the bedside lamp, and the place went completely dark. The wind began to howl, rattling my bedroom window.

 

“There’s an afghan on the couch,” I said into the darkness.“Pull that over you and sit down.” 

 

I heard her make those movements, then sniff again, and begin to whimper. I listened to her for a few moments, then said, “You’ve got to do something to make it stop.” 

 

Her crying continued, but she didn’t respond. I let another moment pass before saying, “He hurt you again, didn’t he?”

 

No sound came from her except the sniffing and whimpering. When that slowed, she blew her nose and said, “Please lie down and go to sleep. Will you please do that?”

 

I sat staring into the darkness, listening to the whirling snow blow against the side of the camper and the rattling window. When the wind slowed, the hum of the wires outside was barely audible. No sound came from the galley. I thought that she’d perhaps curled up and gone to sleep herself. I hoped so. I got back under the covers and lowered my head onto the pillow.

 

*  *  *

 

My alarm clock woke me, and I opened my eyes to gray morning light. I sat upright and looked down the hall. Except for the crumpled afghan, the couch was empty. I got out of bed and went into the galley. No one was there, but there was a note from her on the table written on a scrap of paper I’d been using as a bookmark. It said: “Take me away from him, away from this. I’ll go anywhere with you.” 

I lowered the note slowly to my side and looked outside. The snow had stopped, and their RV sat dark and still. I glanced at the clock over the stove and knew that the time had already passed when they needed to leave to catch the warehouse bus. I read the note again, then stood blinking and staring outside. The campground host passed by outside in the gravel lane pushing a snow blower. I waited until he had turned the corner and the sound of it had died away to get dressed for work myself.

 

*  *  *

 

While I stocked shelves, I thought about little else than Marge, the note, and what might lie ahead. I thought about her misery. I thought about the way she’d smelled and felt on the dance floor. I thought about when my wife had left me to go away with another man, and I thought about what remained of my shaky faith. I wondered how many years I had left; a kind of dread spread over me when I did. I thought about right and wrong, and how the lines blur between them.

 

At lunch, I looked for Marge in the cafeteria, but didn’t see her. I ate and watched for her, then walked to her work station; no one was there. She could have eaten elsewhere, been off thinking herself, or she may have been looking for me, too. I had no way of knowing. Finally, I hurried through the long aisles back to my portion of the warehouse before my lunch break ended.

 

After work, I didn’t stop in town for dinner. It didn’t look like it had snowed much more since the morning, but it began again as I drove through the darkness back to the campground. I didn’t know exactly what I’d do or say when I got there, but my heart and breathing quickened the closer I got. The snow had begun swirling when I entered the campground, so it wasn’t until I was twenty feet away that I could make out the Kruegers’ empty camper spot as my headlights swept across it. Something fell in me like a rock dropped in a deep, deep well. I’d begun to sweat in spite of the cold. A thin layer of snow showed the distinct outline where their RV had been.

 

I turned off the engine, got out of the truck, and walked over slowly to the spot where their lawn chairs had sat. There were two spent cigarette butts there in the snow. I stepped over to my locked camper door and searched around it, but found no note.

 

The campground host came by, walking his dog. I asked him what he knew about the Kruegers leaving.

 

“Not much,” he said. “Saw them go by about ten. Les gave a sort of wave; she didn’t.”  He shrugged. “They were paid up until the end of the month, so maybe they were heading somewhere for the holidays.” 

 

“Did you see what direction they went?”

 

“Nope.” 

 

I watched him disappear into the night. The snow began blowing sideways, and I just stood in it under the humming wires, shaking my head back and forth. There was no place to go, nothing I could do. They could have headed anywhere. They were long gone. Nothing could be done about it. The future would be what it would be. I was alone again in the world, that place I knew so well, that place we all are in the end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Cass has had over 175 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as December, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. His children’s book, Sam, is scheduled for release in April 2020. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at GlimmerTrain and Black Hill Press, received a couple of Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain. org and The Examined Life Journal.