by: Jon Krampner ((Header image by Jenna Martin.))
“Seems to me if you loved him, you’d let him reach for the stars.” A short story where the lengths one will go for their supposed true love is tested…
Marissa Carson came from an old Cheneyburg family — their hardware store, the largest in town, had provisioned pioneers on the Oregon Trail. The vice president of the senior class at Natrobara County High School, Marissa always managed to look elegant and poised, even now when she had removed her dress and laid it neatly against a tombstone in Cheneyburg Cemetery.
She lay in the arms of her boyfriend Jim Frissell. The editor of the NCHS student newspaper and a sometime practical joker, Jim had used his thick glasses both to set fire to pieces of paper on the school quad on sunny days and to study his way onto the honor roll and a scholarship at Princeton. He had just gotten the good news, and had texted Marissa to meet him at the cemetery, where they occasionally went at night even when there was nothing in particular to celebrate.
It was an early June evening, with the warm, dry air of the Wyoming high plains riding the breezes down from the north-facing slope of the plateau brooding over Cheneyburg. Lights from vacation cabins on the painted slopes mirrored the emerging stars. It would be one of their last nights together before Jim went away to college.
Just after ten o’clock, they were putting their clothes back on. Marissa had lapsed into silence after laughing at Jim’s imitation of their second-period geometry teacher. That was when they heard the voice.
“Just look at that hussy, will you!” a high-pitched woman’s voice said.
There was no one else around.
The voice had come from Jim’s direction, but lower down somehow, which was impossible, since he was lying on the ground. Assuming it was another of Jim’s imitations, Marissa ran her fingers through her long glossy brown hair and turned to him crossly.
“Your point being?”
Lolling against the adjoining tombstone in a post-coital haze, Jim looked as puzzled as she was.
“That wasn’t me, hon. I didn’t say a word.”
“So who was that?”
“Abner, that woman is a hussy! And right on your grave as well!”
“Why shouldn’t she enjoy herself, Julia? She’s still alive.”
The crickets had begun to chirp in the darkness. Feeling goosebumps only partly occasioned by the cooling night air, Jim looked at the inscription on the tombstone he lay in front of:
Julia Cowbert, 1822-1881
“Look,” Jim said to Marissa. The tombstone she was nestled in front of read:
Abner Cowbert, 1819-1876
I like it here and I ain’t going nowhere
“I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong,” the woman’s voice countered. “Parson Fletcher talked about women like that last Sun—”
“Julia, he hasn’t had anything to say in more than a hundred—“
“Scoot, young lady,” the woman’s voice said to Marissa. “Run along, now!”
Marissa looked at Jim sideways, not wanting to believe that what was happening was happening. She still wasn’t convinced he wasn’t pulling her leg.
“Why aren’t you hustling Jim off?” Marissa said, knowing sexism when she heard it, but not quite sure where to look.
“What man can resist the lures of a scarlet woman?”
“Oh for God’s sake, Julia.”
“Look, we’re sorry about ah, intruding you on like this,” Jim said, “but if we’d known you’d file a complaint, we’d have gone somewhere else. And you must have done this in your own time as well.”
“The young man has a point, Julia,” the man’s amused voice said, with a hollow, piped-in sound that reminded Jim of the PA system at Natrobara County High School.
“You never take my side,” the woman’s voice wailed. “I’m so alone!”
“How long were you married?” Marissa asked.
“Thirty-four years,” Julia said. “But it would have been longer if we’d made it to California.”
“Make one mistake and you’re never allowed to forget it.”
“What mistake?” Marissa asked.
“We were headed for the goldfields of California,” Abner said. “But we had to stop here, because…” his voice dropped off.
“Because one night a group of men in our wagon train got to playing poker around the campfire and Abner gambled away what was left of our grubstake. We were marooned.”
“That whiskey went to my head.”
“Still making excuses.”
“We’re dead, for the love of god! Can you not desist even now?”
“All my dreams turned to ashes.”
“We had a good life here. Our dry goods store kept people in the finery you didn’t need in a frontier outpost.”
“Least I could do in a Podunk town like this was try to make it look a little nicer.”
“Like an Easter Parade in New York City.”
“So what if I did?”
“We was known as the Battlin’ Cowberts,” Abner said, with what sounded to Jim like a trace of pride.
“Here they come again,” Julia added. “Stuff the cotton in your ears.”
“So why aren’t you…” Jim began. “Well, I know you’re dead and all. But why aren’t you dead?”
“What’s today?” Abner asked.
“That’s the anniversary.”
“Your wedding anniversary?” Marissa asked.
“Anniversary of that fatal poker game,” Abner said. “This happens to us every year.”
“You have to do this every year?”
“Until she can forgive me or I can make things right.”
“How would you do that?”
“You can take me out to California.”
“We’re dead, Julia. We’re not going anywhere.”
As the night air cooled, Jim put his arm around Marissa.
“Now you’re a pretty young lady and all,” Julia said with a twinge of envy, “but cavortin’ like that on our final resting places. Everything’s just so perfect for you…”
“I wouldn’t say everything’s perfect,” Jim said.
“What do you mean?” Julia asked hopefully.
“Yeah, what do you mean?” Marissa asked defensively.
“The Princeton thing,” Jim said.
“The Princeton thing?” Julia asked.
“Oh, right,” Marissa said.
“So tell us already,” Julia said.
“I have a full scholarship to Princeton in the fall,” Jim said. “Mari wants me to join her at the University of Wyoming.”
“Princeton!” Abner said. “There weren’t many of us from Boone’s Holler, Kentucky, that went to Princeton. Why’d you want to keep him from going there, young lady, seeing as how he don’t have to pay none for it?”
“Because I love him.”
“Seems to me if you loved him, you’d let him reach for the stars.”
“Seems to me that if you’d loved me, you wouldn’t have gambled our grubstake away at a drunken poker game.”
“Don’t ‘Now Julia, me,’ you reprobate…”
“We’ll still have Skype,” Jim said to Marissa. “Instagram. Phone calls. E-mails.”
“And just what are those things?” Abner asked.
“They’re…they’re…they’re kind of like our equivalent of the Pony Express,” Jim said.
“But we won’t have this,” Marissa said, nestling against him and grinning waggishly. She had been accepted at Rutgers, just down the New Jersey Turnpike from Princeton, but had chosen to stay in Cheneyburg at the request of her parents to help run the family hardware store.
“We will on vacations.”
“How often will that be?”
“I hope you don’t mind my asking,” Jim said to Abner, trying to change the subject, “but how could you blow it like that?”
“Well, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to go to California.”
“Now the truth comes out. Why not, you perfidious wretch?”
“Calm down, honey…”
“Don’t you ‘honey’ me neither!”
“You know what happened to the Sandersons,” he said. The Sandersons, also of Boone’s Hollow, had been ‘49ers. Luke Sanderson had sent a letter claiming he’d struck gold, but then they recieved another letter, this one from Mary. She said Luke had been murdered by robbers. Then a corrupt local judge said Luke’s claim wasn’t valid and Mary had lost everything.
“’Twouldn’ta happened to us.”
“How do you know? Anyway, this is beautiful country. Clean air, good people and no one’s gonna shoot us for our claim. I felt we could make a good life for ourselves here. And we did, ‘cept for all your complainin’.”
“So you did it because you loved her,” Jim said.
“But he lied to her,” Marissa replied.
“I know you liked this place,” Julia said. “But I never did take to it.”
“Least I didn’t wind up like Luke.”
“Knock it off, you two,” Marissa said.
“I can see how you wouldn’t be crazy about Cheneyburg,” Jim said. “We moved here five years ago from Asheville, North Carolina. My dad got a job as the maintenance supervisor of the oil refinery and we couldn’t pass up the money. But I’m still getting used to the place.”
“So you don’t like this godforsaken town either?”
“I miss Asheville,” Jim said to Julia. “Bluegrass music. Driving along rain-washed mountain roads with cloud banks floating along below you down in the valley…”
“But you like it better here because of me,” Marissa said, a statement that nonetheless had the intonation of a question.
“Of course,” Jim said, and Marissa beamed.
“I miss Boone’s Holler,” Julia said. “And I miss not getting to see California.”
“What’s so great about California?” Abner asked.
“The finery you don’t like in Cheneyburg woulda fit in just fine in San Francisco.”
“There ain’t no mining claims in San Francisco.”
“That’s where we’da moved after we struck it rich.”
“And what if we hadn’t?”
Julia paused, and Jim and Marissa realized she had never considered this possibility.
“You can talk as pretty as you please,” Julia said to Jim. “But you’re getting’ outta here and you’re leavin’ her behind.”
“I suppose so. But in four years, if she can still put up with me…”
“…if you haven’t run off with a Princeton girl with a trust fund.” Marissa said, her attempt at lightness not concealing an undertone of anxiety.
“I’ll come back and ask her to marry me.”
Marissa let that sink in.
“Is that a proposal?”
“Is that an acceptance?”
“Aw, ain’t that sweet,” Abner said.
“You’re a fine one to ask,” Julia replied.
“Would you rather be in San Francisco without Abner or here with him?” Marissa asked.
Again, Julia was stumped.
“How much time do I have to think about it?” she asked.
“All the time in the world,” Jim said.
“I wouldn’t think it was such a hard choice,” an obviously-miffed Abner said.
“I wouldn’t think so, either: the city of my dreams or the man who kept me from getting there because he staked it all on aces and queens when Phillip Jeffries from the wagon behind us held three jacks.”
“This isn’t looking good, Abner,” Jim said.
“Now, I won’t say you didn’t have your good points,” Julia said, “but that was a dang fool thing to do.”
“Honey, I’ve apologized till the cows come home.”
“Well, maybe you have at that.” Turning her attention back to Jim, Julia said, “Son, that was a right fine proposal, even if you came at it sideways.”
“Didn’t realize what I was doing until it was too late,” Jim smiled.
“That’s how it was with us,” Abner said. “I had just walked her home after a church social. Night had fallen on Boone’s Holler like a damp cloak and the thought of spendin’ the rest of my life without her just seemed too awful to think about, so I went down on my knee right there in the street…”
“And a horse ‘n’ buggy came by and splattered you with mud head to toe!”
It was the first time Jim and Marissa had heard Julia laugh.
“But I still proposed, and you still accepted.”
“Fool that I was!”
“Didn’t you like anything about Cheneyburg?” Marissa asked.
“Waal…In Boone’s Holler, we were nothin’ and nobody. Here, the mayor himself shopped in our store.”
“And we had a nice frame house downtown,” Abner added.
“With a good view of the plateau,” Julia said.
“And when you wasn’t givin’ me hell about California, we made a pretty good life for ourselves.”
“Waal…seein’ as how the young’uns have settled their affairs so nicely,” Julia started in.
“Yes?” Jim asked inquisitively.
“Yes?” Marissa asked hopefully.
“Yes?” Abner asked wearily.
“I forgive you, Abner.”
“Aw, honey, I’m so sorry.”
“I know you are.”
“Well, if you wasn’t the prettiest gal in Cheneyburg.”
“Now you tell me, you old reprobate.”
Marissa raised her eyes as if to tell Jim “we need to move along.”
“We’ll just leave you lovebirds alone,” Jim said. “That okay with you?”
But their spirits had returned to the earth and there was no answer. Hand in hand, Jim and Marissa walked out of the cemetery. They had a geometry test on Monday and still had a lot of studying to do.