Right of Way

Right of Way

by Kate Sheckler

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Words her mother repeated so often that Holly cannot think of them without hearing her mother’s tone, the inflection of superior wisdom shaping each rounded vowel and clipping the T at the end with decision and a sure knowledge of the meaning of those two words – wrong/right. For Holly, it’s a distinction that is never obvious, one that hides behind details each of which changes the picture suggesting options and alternative views, details that remind Holly of all the reasons things have turned out the way they have – so it is with indecision that she stands at this counter covered with melamine, cool, chipped, and engrained with grime. She considers the embedded pattern of grunge as if it holds an encoded message, some decisive statement that offers an opinion on this thing she is about to do. But the grub gray lines, set permanently in the textured surface, offer nothing, and she turns her attention to the papers waiting for a signature. Her signature. Holly Baxter nee Holly Meredith. The forms sit, flat and unobtrusive, yet still Holly can feel their pressure and bites her lip, wincing as the cut opens again with an additional tearing of the delicate skin. The salt metallic of blood on the tip of her tongue, she considers the papers once more. Black and white, they offer no middle ground.

As always, Holly sees only shades of gray. Which choice is right – which wrong? To sign? Not to sign? It’s a question over which her mother would not have hesitated, but for her mother such information seemed to have been handed down from some cache to which Holly has no access; she has always supposed that access would arrive with age. It hasn’t. Even now, at 42, Holly has not found that hidden store of “wisdom,” that firm stance, that solid understanding of her position on earth. Still – some things are clear. The cut lip is definitely wrong. As is the spectrum of purples, greens and black that mottle her skin, but if you look carefully at those bruises you can see the shape of Harry’s hand, and that hand is not bad – well – at least not all bad. The world agrees that Harry Baxter’s hand is a good thing. Just look at the prices his paintings garner.

And, after all, it has been Harry’s hand that has been there all these years since that first time when, from amidst the gang of hikers, he had picked her out. There on that mountain it had been Harry’s hand that had reached out to help her up the first scramble of rocks; had tugged her over the ridge halfway up the back slope of Mount Juno; had shared a sandwich while, with sweeps that brought everything into focus, it had outlined the spring mix of cool purples and hot whites of the flowers and melting snow that filled their view. It had been his hand firm in the middle of her back that had encouraged her as she pushed the aching muscles in her legs to climb those last few feet of the mountain where waited that wonderful sense of accomplishment. Joyous at the ability of her 20-year-old body, she remembers grasping that hand in an epiphany of pounding blood, surging oxygen levels and wonder as she had gazed straight down at the toy town thousands of feet below–remembers her gasp as Harry had let go her fingers and raised that hand to lift her chin for their first kiss there on that mountaintop. And it had been Harry’s hand that had held her own, firm and confident, as they had approached her parents only a month later, those fingers that spread to enclose Joelle’s newborn skull, unsupported by her fragile stem of a neck, and brought Holly to peaks of delight and ecstasy on countless occasions. Harry’s hand wrong? . . .doubtless, it has been right so many times.

On the far side of the counter is a bulletin board, and Holly considers its fraying notices announcing policy changes, schedule adjustments, what to recycle – what not. She notes the buzz of a fluorescent bulb gone bad and looks into the eyes of a clerk who has no opinion about whether or not Holly should sign the paper before her. The lip is oozing slightly – the skin below wet and tender.

Jane thinks she should sign. Jane – whose tension Holly can feel although their bodies are at least a foot apart, who always has an opinion about what it is that Holly should do, has always had an opinion about every part of Holly’s life, every move that Holly has made since the girls’ first meeting in high school – says Harry is a bastard. It’s a point that’s hard to argue. Some days he is. Yesterday he was; the day before that as well. And the day before that. . .?

And in fact . . . he wasn’t a bastard that first time his open palm had caught her cheek. Holly had been so surprised that she’d not even been hurt – and Harry? – Harry had been confused and so very sorry. He had cupped her chin, kissed the spot that would turn the mottled purple she has grown so used to and cried – the tears wetting her own cheek pressed against his.

It had been nearly a year before it had happened again. And in between that hand had gardened, played tennis and brushed out Joelle’s oh-so easily tangled curls, closed around Holly’s own hand as they walked down streets and drawn yet another portrait in charcoal – one of Holly rocking Joelle to sleep.

Of all the beautiful pictures Harry’s hands create, it is the portraits of herself that Holly loves best. Each one offers a new angle, a new chink through which to glimpse a different surprise – shows her things about herself that she never imagined could be true. They make visible a beauty, a tenderness, a soulful quality that Holly had never considered as existing within her own body and brain. They offer information for which she has no other source. They define who she is.

Or they did.

Now it is the bruises that speak. If Harry drew her now, the picture would be different. Swollen and black, her face might not earn the high price Harry’s work generally does – might not appropriately adorn the houses of his rich clients – might not be accepted at the elegant gallery he prefers.

The ridges of the cheap ballpoint press into Holly’s fingers as she turns it in a slow spiral. Even that small pressure leaves a mark; her skin, almost transparent, flushes and pales so easily that it shows everything immediately – everything that brushes by, touches or affects her. Like Harry. And when she signs these papers? Who will affect her then? The buzz of the fluorescent bulb rises and Jane says something that Holly does not catch. Instead it is breathing she hears, soft and quick, like some small animal, trapped and frightened. Her new being? No longer lover, artist model, mother – who will she be with Joelle gone west and Harry refused? Who will she be when she is not Harry Baxter’s wife, the mother of his child?

Jane Shepard’s friend?

She has been Jane’s friend for even longer than she has been Harry’s wife. It is not an improvement. No. It is no step up to be Holly Meredith, Jane Shepard’s pretty friend, compliant and cheerful, always happy, a good listener and ready when called. The lines may not be drawn with charcoal, but still – they define.

“Holly!”

The tone of Jane’s voice has never wavered – is the same as it was when they were 14. That first day when, as the new girl, Holly had sat down in the seat next to Jane, it had been with delight that she had heard her name spoken with such confidence, such possession. “Holly Meredith.” The lips of the neatly coiffed and carefully dressed blond girl had formed the letters, tasting the name. The blue eyes, hard and cool as aquamarine, had considered Holly’s soft brown hair and blushing cheeks. Even then Holly had somehow known that the consideration was moot; the decision had already been made. Those lips, pink and perfect, had slipped into a smile, corners tucked with satisfaction. “You are going to be my friend, Holly Meredith.” And so it had been. And so it is.

“Holly! Sign the papers.”

She must sign. Yes, she must. For she does finally understand that all the other things that Harry’s hands do are cancelled out by this one act that he repeats over and over again. If two wrongs don’t make a right, than what do dozens of wrongs make?

And this act she is about to commit? This signing of papers is not a wrong, despite the lessons her mother had ground out, lessons about marriage, first and foremost – and unending; lessons about women and men, and how each fit into the world; lessons about how much space, love. . .air had been allotted to Holly. No. Her mother’s ability to influence and define ended long ago. Harry’s – for a reason that Holly does not understand – ended yesterday as she’d watched his closed fist approach her face, felt it crack the high cheek bone he had stroked on that mountain top. Ended there and then with that one action, the click of the adjusting world almost audible.

“Holly.” Jane is frowning, the crease between her eyebrows deep, threatening to bring those brows crashing together. It is a flag – a warning that Holly recognizes, a sign that the words may begin – words that command, order, set things in the correct position, and burn, a napalm flood that lays waste to everything in its path. The bright pink in the centre of Jane’s cheeks should also be noted – another flag. “Holly, do I have to put a mirror in front of you? Do I have to show you what he’s done to you?”

The years have not treated Jane kindly; her face once smooth and implacable has hardened. It has taken more effort to influence life than Jane has planned for, more energy than budgeted to make things conform to the required shape. The need for that effort is now etched on Jane’s face, lines permanent and unchangeable, as if carved in . . . Holly used to think “marble”–but no, not marble – maybe granite? Maybe cement. Like those shoes – the ones gangsters talk about. The ones that drag you down to the bottom of rivers.

“Goddamn it Holly, just sign.” Jane’s voice is deeper, gravely, and Holly – pen already lifted – pauses and turns to see the patches of red tattooed across Jane’s cheeks. Red/white, red/white. As she watches, a scarlet flush Holly knows well pours across the white skin, a dangerous tide. “For God’s sake Holly, for once in your life don’t be the fucking idiot you are – sign the papers.”

Another click.

Once again Holly hears the sodden crunch of the fist making contact with her cheek, and it is as if, in reaching her, that fist has shattered the frosted glass through which Holly has viewed a blurred world. There is a new light. . .it sparkles, defining lines she has never before seen. It illuminates, shimmers brightly, and she is dazzled by what she can now observe – Jane’s clenched lips, red face – Jane’s. . .wish?. . .demand that Holly do as she is told – Jane’s desire to ensure that Holly is separate from Harry – from everyone. . .because. . .? Because.

Wrong – Harry’s fist is wrong – Jane’s words, wrong. Two wrongs. Two wrongs make – not a right, certainly not a right – but perhaps. . .an opening. Harry’s dark eyes, Jane’s blue – the pictures combine, the voices meld. Holly considers the woman beside her before turning to the counter. For the last time, she writes out the name that she will never use again – Holly . . .Meredith . . . Baxter. Like ropes falling away, the words slip off the end of her pen to be left behind, replaced by something – someone – new.

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