Mud Season, by Mary Pat Musick
Once again Annie peeked between the blinds, checked her watch, and frowned. He was still on Matt time. Another woman wouldn’t take him back. Eight months since he’d left for New York, and he hadn’t responded to her messages, until last week. When a car pull into the lane, Annie checked her face, applied more effort than while he was gone, opened the door before he reached it, and clung to him as though he was rescuing her from the edge of a cliff.
“Happy Birthday,” he said. Annie hadn’t made a deal of it, her 39th, yesterday. Strictly speaking, she was older than him, say by 8 or 11 years; she didn’t track that stuff.
“Place looks the same,” Matt said, walking in with his boots on, seemingly unaware of the refinished floors. Annie settled on the sofa. She crossed her legs, allowing her skirt to slip up her thigh, and patted the seat beside her. He looked around. “Where’s Tripod?” he asked. The dog hopped in from the kitchen. Matt flashed that full-faced smile of his, and rolled around on the floor with the dog, vanishing the time apart. “Looks like he’s doing okay.”
Annie locked her eyes on Matt, letting him reflect on the pain she suffered at his irresponsibility when he had taken her golden retriever on a run, and let the dog tangle with the neighbor’s tractor. After the amputation, the nickname, Tripod, had stuck. Matt looked away. He scratched behind the dog’s ears. “I miss you boy.”
“We missed you.” Annie stretched across the sofa. Hadn’t he once said that her legs seemed to go on forever?
“Jay, huh? We should get going,” he said. She had made dinner reservations at The River Inn, up in the village of Jay, site of their first dinner date.
Annie reached to the shelf above her parka, and pulled down her cashmere wrap. It was a cold night, but she’d be inside, except to dash in and out of the car.
He still walks as though there are coils in his boots, she thought, as Matt bounced down the path to the car, an older model Taurus that was pocked with nicks. “Nice Car,” she said.
“I was lucky to get it. Didn’t think a rental would be a problem.”
Same old planning deficit. Scary to think how he got along without her. “As long as the heater works,” she said, as she tossed his copy of Rolling Stone from the passenger seat to the back. She pulled her wrap tighter. It was five below.
“I don’t have a car anymore. Too much hassle. I use the subway.”
Annie didn’t like going under a street and forced to squeeze up against strange bodies so close that one couldn’t keep any secrets. She wouldn’t have to. Matt was back. She had won, but she would play nice; only boors gloat. “Did get out of the city at all?”
“Took the train to Jersey to see the folks.”
When he had taken Annie to meet his parents, she wore a red jacket that looked terrific on her, and she brought them jars of her homemade Vermont maple apple butter. They loved her. After she and Matt are married, she’ll be able to tolerate them, not unlike putting up with intermittent dieting.
Matt turned onto the highway. He fiddled with the car radio, turning it off when he couldn’t get a station. Poor guy, he’d been desensitized by sirens, jackhammers, roaring subways, honking horns, and loud people. Rural Vermont will be irresistible.
“My neighborhood has edgy galleries next to pierogi bakeries,” he said. He sounded proud as a new immigrant discovering life in America. Since when did he notice what was inside of galleries or bakeries?
In the past he had mentioned that she tended to control conversations, so now she listened as he rambled on about life in the city. An elderly Chinese man played ancient instruments in the subway. She could picture Matt, late for work, bent over asking the Chinaman what he was playing. Matt told her about clubs where he heard blues, rock, jazz, electronic, classical, whatever suited his mood. And she knew he was always in a music mood; to him life was a song. He needed her to ground him. One of the things they had argued over was his inability to pass up a concert or music festival. She preferred quiet evenings in the cabin. She had let him go to where there was all the music he could stand. Over saturation therapy had worked. He returned. Now they were on their way to one of the most romantic inns in Vermont. It had new owners, but they wouldn’t have messed with a sure thing.
“What have you been doing?” he asked, after his vacation monologue.
No much, she thought. She’d hadn’t even done a painting in months. “We’ve had a long ski season. Remember how you picked me up on a chair lift?”
“Oh Yeah?” he said.
They had been paired on a double lift. He told her that he rented a house, with another guy, over on Warren Road. The next morning, Annie was at that house. The roommate, Peter, his eyelids stuck together, let her in. “Go back to sleep,” she said. “I’m taking over the kitchen.” She baked cinnamon rolls while she squeezed oranges for juice, and started the sun dried tomato chicken sausages sizzling. She poured boiling water over fresh ground Italian roast into her French press. By the time the omelet ingredients were ready, Matt was sitting at the counter. She finished cooking, then kissed him. “Meet you at our chair lift next Saturday at noon,” she said. She was the better skier, but he more reckless. He moved into her cabin a month later.
The rental car had a lazy heating system. Annie crossed her arms and ran her hands up and down to stimulate circulation. “School’s going good. I have some awesome kids in my honors American history group.” This was weird; they were playing coy before they got to the rest of their lives discussion. But why? If he hadn’t planned to stay, he would have said he was up to get his stuff stored in the loft.
“Did you ever get together with Peter and Carrie?” she said, to show interest in his New York connections. Matt had held sessions at the cabin with his musician friends, a few guys, but Carrie tagged along with Peter. She could sing, but she dressed vintage, and the effect was not chic, just cheap.
“Peter lives over by Columbia and spends all his time on his program.” Matt fumbled again with the radio. “Carrie isn’t with him anymore.”
“I could see that coming before they moved there,” said Annie. “Remember the time she got on stage with Phish and swung her hair over her face, tossing it around like she was the drummer and her mop was providing the beat. Embarrassing.” Annie strung out the last word in singsong.
“Carrie and I have a gig every other Friday at a coffee house in Brooklyn. We started doing it for fun, but we get good tips and have a following.”
Annie thought she would compromise when he moves back; let him play at one of the pubs on Friday nights during ski season. She’d dress in jeans, a great sweater, and après’ ski boots, sit at the front table, sip wine, and watch as he played songs written for her.
“We do some jazz numbers that are…”
“I can see how the extra money came in handy when you lived in the city.”
“New sign,” said Matt. The River Inn sign had changed. It had inflated from a whisper to a roar–large, colorful, announcing that buses were welcomed. Annie shivered when she got out of the car, and ran to the front door. The wind had picked up, making her cashmere wrap tepid against the gusting cold. Inside, the dining room looked bright, too bright. The candles on the tables were gone, replaced by overhead lighting.
They ordered wine. She raised her glass. “To us,” she said. His eyes focused on the menu as if it was riveting reading, reminding her of their first dinner date. He was hesitant then too. She’d give him time. She might have rushed him a bit during their first affair, given his timid boyishness. After all, wasn’t that one of the things she found charming?
“There’s something I want to tell you,” he said.
A gust of winter blew through the dining room as the doors stayed open for a busload of Canadians arriving from a nearby ski area. Several tables around Annie and Matt were pushed together to make banquet-style seating. The new guests were several hours into après ski drinking. They sang in French and English, all of it thick as cheddar soup. Matt stopped talking. She wanted him to shout over them, to yell that he wanted to move back to the cabin forever. To hell with the smashed skiers, even if they heard him holler I love you. Instead, Annie and Matt picked through New England potpies. The Inn’s menu had changed under the new owners, along with the décor. Moose heads stared down from every wall, like a hunting lodge. It was as if they had wandered into the wrong restaurant.
One of the skiers staggered past their table and bumped it. Looking down at Annie, the man said, “Hey pretty, why don’t you sit with us?”
“Why don’t you keep going–empty that keg from your bladder,” said Matt.
The drunk reached over to hit Matt. Instead he landed his fist on a waiter who was trying to squeeze by with a tray of drinks. For a second, Annie was paralyzed. Then she shrieked as the drinks drenched her sweater, penetrated to her new French lace bra, and puddled on her lap. Chairs scraped, and neighboring diners tossed napkins to blot up the beer, and mulled wine and brandy that were marinating her. Wait staff rushed to help. Matt had to be pulled off the drunken skier and restrained by some Canadians. A waitress helped Annie, leading her to the restroom.
“You…you…hockey goon,” Annie yelled.
“Their all jerks,” the waitress told her. “Can’t settle their squabbles without fists.”
“My fiancé is not a jerk,” said Annie.
The waitress put her arm around Annie. “It’s terrible that you got dumped on.”
The hand drier and kitchen towels had modest effect. The waitress retrieved Annie’s purse so she could reapply her make up. Annie pulled back her damp hair and the waitress used her own clip to hold it. “Makes you look youthful,” she said. “Your fiancé will be amazed at how you cleaned up from that mess.” But Annie smelled like a leftover Oktoberfest.
Matt, standing near the front door, looked puzzled at his predicament, or was that disgust on his face? He held out her wrap, which also had caught some booze. The Inn hadn’t charged them for dinner, and presented a gift certificate for another meal. The ski club president gave her an address to send the dry cleaning bill. They were all terribly sorry. She let them fuss over her. She’d turn this disaster into an opportunity to show herself heroic, not let it spoil Matt’s homecoming. However, she scoffed at the gift certificate.
Matt didn’t turn onto the highway; instead he took the road over the mountain. They had gone that way a couple of times, but not at night, nor in the winter and she wanted to suggest that they take the longer route, but he had chosen the more romantic. No warmth was coming from the vents. She tried to adjust the heater. The engine light came on.
“Shit. Well, no place around here to take it this late. Good thing we’re going the shorter route.” She didn’t understand his reasoning, she frequently didn’t, but she was not going to come across as a bossy schoolteacher, as he had, on occasion, referred to her.
It was a clear night, free of the gauze of urban glare, a skyful of stars and an almost full moon compensated for the lack of lights from cabins, or farms, or any signs of civilization along the way up the mountain. They talked. Actually, Annie talked, sharing news of people Matt would recognize. But he didn’t acknowledge anything she said, until she told him that Dan, a guy that Matt had occasionally hung out with, had put up a barn.
“Did he get livestock?”
“I think he keeps equipment in it.”
“We need to talk,” he said.
Finally. Nothing in her life lived up to those first frenzied months together. Their love had needed a break, time to tame it. But they couldn’t let it end. After all, hoping for a replay of the extraordinary is why he goes to see the same musical acts; they can’t duplicate the first time thrill, but he’s bonded to the experience. She wants him back, but with less allegro, more andante. They need the life she carved out for them.
The car struggled, along with Matt, then stopped. He tried to restart it. Nothing, not a purr, not even that whinny noise came out.
“Let it rest a few minutes,” she said. He got out and opened the hood.
“Try again.” He instructed her this time. The engine was as silent as the Vermont night.
Neither of them remembered any houses on this road, or drives heading into the woods. It was narrow and rough, originally an old lumber road, barely paved-over, winding up and back down the mountain. People hiked it in summer, but no one would do that in winter.
He tried his cell phone. “Damn.”
“I knew there wouldn’t be service up here,” she said. He looked at her and sighed.
They sat in silence, watching the windows frost over, until he got out and opened the trunk. “No blankets. Nothing but the spare.” Matt was prepared for the outdoors with gloves, scarf, parka and lined boots. “I’ll walk back,” he said.
The Taurus was as comfy as a frozen food locker. Outside was colder. Going back made sense; it was about nine miles. “Moving would be best. I’ll go, too,” she said. Her leather boots were not insulated, but they were flat. She could walk the distance, if she didn’t become an icicle first.
He offered her his parka. Recalling that he had once told her that she was not rugged enough to live in these elements, she refused the offer. She did accept his wool scarf, and wrapped it around her damp hair, and part of her face. They walked, without talking, for about two miles. His stride was twice hers, and she tried to keep up, but she slowed to a stroll. “I’m not sure I can make it,” she said.
Matt grabbed her hand and kept her moving. “Remember the time we kayaked on the lake and we both tipped?” he said.
“You tipped your kayak first then turned mine when I tried to rescue you.” He hadn’t followed proper rescue procedures.
“Point is, we made it back okay,” he said. “How about the time we got lost in the woods on a hike over by Mad River, and it was getting dark. We followed the sound of mooing and found our way into a pasture.”
They debated who had decided the wrong turn on the trail. He had, she remembered.
“We didn’t end up spending the night in the woods,” said Matt
They went another couple of miles. Her pace was slow as a sloth, and she held onto his arm, shivering. “You shouldn’t have made me give up smoking. I’d have a lighter to start a fire,” he said.
“The wood’s too wet.” Everything was covered in large white mounds. “It won’t melt until mud season.” Her words slurred, like the drunk in the Inn.
Without asking this time, he took off his parka and switched with her wrap, which he tied around his head, talking like a polish woman in his Brooklyn neighborhood that sold him kielbasa. Annie smiled inside, but couldn’t make her mouth show it. They tried to trudge on, but her legs and feet were uncooperative. He pulled her next to him, and wrapped his arms around her, patting her body with small slaps. “Come on. We have to keep going. Hang in there. Stay with me Annie.” She couldn’t answer Her teeth chattered. She heard the truck coming before the headlights rounded the bend. Matt pulled her with him into the middle of the road, waving his free arm.
The driver stopped, listened to Matt, and motioned them to get in. Warm air, mixed with smells of maple and tobacco, circulated through the cab of the truck. The driver had a stubby beard and a creased face that looked to be about a hundred and six. Annie realized that she would not have stopped for him, and that thought made her uncomfortable. Matt gave directions to the cabin.
When they got to her place, she saw Matt shove money into the driver’s jacket. The old guy said, “You take care of the lady.” He said he would.
Matt carried Annie to her bed and pulled off her boots, and skirt, and sweater, now stiff with frozen liquor. He tucked the down comforter around her. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he held a mug while she sipped the tea he made for her. It was the way she liked it, with a drop of honey. When she finished, he undressed, let his clothes pile on the floor, went around to the other side of the bed, and slipped under the comforter. Still his side, she thought. His muscular frame warmed her. Sometime during the night their bodies remembered how they had desired each other.
When she awoke, it was almost noon. Matt and Tripod were gone. She brewed tea, put another log on the fire that he must have started, and curled herself into the comfy chair by the bay window. It was a handsome day, the kind that she wanted to recycle to use again and again. The view assembled two red dairy barns set in the valley as though arranged by an artist, with mountains in the back ground, not craggy ones, but civilized hills, rounded with age. She loved that this little slice of the world resisted change except for its seasonal décor. In the fall, the maples, aspen, and sycamores caused even the world-weary to pull over and look. The winter was crisp and bright and quiet, and the summers filled with flowers and berries.
When Matt moves back, he’ll serenade her as she cooks. When he chops wood, she’ll come behind him with a hug and a whisper to take a break. They’ll put a quilt in front of the fireplace and love each other exhausted.
The door burst open and Tripod bounded in, followed by Matt. “It’s warming up out there,” he said.
“Coffee?” she asked, as got up. There is more to say, much more, but for now, serving him coffee is enough, let the rest come out slowly. Savor it.
He shook his head. “Dan picked me up. I called him. Went to see his new barn. I have to get his truck back and he’ll drop me at the airport. How are you feeling?” He spoke rapidly, as though someone was waiting for him.
“The best I’ve felt in months.” Of course he has to give notice, settle things. She understands about that.
“Carrie and I are engaged.” He was still talking fast and she needed a second to grasp it.
He put his hands in his pockets, and his speech slowed a bit. “I didn’t plan on last night, you were,” he trailed off. “It just happened, but it doesn’t change things.”
She held onto the chair for a quiet minute, or two or three, while she translated his words into her reality. “We didn’t have any rules about when we were separated. But I forgive you.”
“Carrie and I are in love.”
“We’re in love.” She said it with enough force that it ricocheted around the room.
“I was clumsy about telling you. You know I’m not good at explaining feelings.”
“Ha. You don’t have to tell me what you’re not good at.”
They stood facing each other. She knew she’d gotten to him; there was still electricity between them. He blinked first. She straightened the couch cushions, picked up the tea mug, carried it to the kitchen, and dropped it into the sink. The handle broke off. It was her favorite mug.
“Shit,” she said.
He followed her. “I thought I’d tell you myself, and we could be, well, friendly.”
“We agreed to take a break while you tried out the city. Now you expect me to be your buddy while try out Carrie for Christ sake?”
Matt sighed, sounding as though he was letting out a last gasp. He turned and walked out.
After showering, and practicing her yoga routine, Annie cleaned the cabin. When she dusted the bookcase, she picked up a framed photo of Matt. He waved from a chairlift. Lost in her thoughts, she was startled when a chunk of snow fell from the roof of her cabin. The thaw would start soon, mud season, changing the landscape from a wonderland frozen in time, to gray muck. But that would be followed by a new freshness. By summer, that business with Carrie would dissolve. He’s having a bit of fling with the whole bohemian experience. He didn’t say goodbye. He left his stuff in the loft.
The city certainly fascinated him. Maybe his tastes had outgrown a rural village. Maybe she should offer to sacrifice for him next time, be generous, noble about giving in to his wishes. Hadn’t he encouraged her to move that time he told her that her world was limited, that her need to stay here kept her from the rest of her life?
The following week school closed due to flooding. Annie decided to paint. She pulled out her easel, and then stepped up to the loft to get a photo album of old pictures she kept to turn into paintings. Matt’s stuff was gone. “Dan’s barn,” she whispered.
She chose a photo of the cabin in summer, with columbine growing wild in yard, and the Green Mountains in the background earning their name. She clipped the photo to the easel, but didn’t look at it as she worked. Annie disappeared into the project, until Tripod nudged her of his need for a walk. She stepped back to look at the painting. It showed the cabin windows boarded, and the roof collapsed. The lone person depicted, the farmer next door, was clearing a path with a scythe.
“I’ll ride the subway to my new school,” she said to Tripod. Some women were too proud to admit when they needed to change. They couldn’t risk such honesty.
Mary Pat Musick lives and writes in Santa Cruz, CA. She was a gypsy until she discovered a land with artisan ice cream, chocolate, and wine. Now she takes breaks from sampling the native products to kayak in Monterey Bay and visit with otters and seals and pelicans, and sometimes the playful dauphins. Her short fiction and travel stories have appeared in several online and print magazines. She is not working on a novel.
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Tags: break ups, denial, mary pat musick, relationships