The Best Short Story

Amy Unger's "Sweet Adeline"

As hard as he tried, Randy could not coax the smile from the pockets of his well-creased face. He could not recall any day in recent memory as fine as this one, so lovely and pink, cherry blossoms as thin as tissue caught in the folds of his Toyota’s tires as he careened around the labyrinth of dusty country roads. He had the windows down, and a warm April breeze was breathing through the haphazard patches of his hair. One of his arms was a sun-kissed triangle perched easily on the pickup’s door while the other was draped on top of the steering wheel, knuckles resting near the dash. His only regret was that he was not wearing a T-shirt. The red flannel he had tossed on that morning was already becoming dark with sweat. If he could do it over again, he would have worn a T-shirt, he thought, probably the green one. Adeline had once said she liked him in green.

“Absolutely incredible,” Randy said out loud, glancing toward Adeline in the passenger seat. “It won’t be like this for long—the weather. Soon the bugs’ll come, and the humidity. We won’t have many more days like this. Isn’t it beautiful, Adeline?”

She didn’t answer him. Her face was turned away from him so that he could see only the long, white curve of her neck and the delicate tips of her eyelashes. Her hands were folded awkwardly in her lap, fingers cupped and loose. In the rearview mirror Randy saw tufts of thin dust breaking apart behind the truck’s back end. They eclipsed trees and houses in a haze of muted color and another regret touched him—he wished the radio in the truck wasn’t broken. A song from the Boss would really hit the spot right about now, he thought, like maybe “Glory Days.” Yes, definitely “Glory Days.”

“Oh, Addy, sweet Adeline,” he teased her. “Never the talkative type.”

He brought one, coarse finger up to the softness of her cheek and rubbed it slowly, lovingly. He felt a twinge yawning in his abdomen. Fibers of a memory, a bad memory, fought to materialize in his mind. He saw Adeline, her back arched toward the ceiling, but he killed the thought before it could become real and laugh at him, stab him and make him bleed.

“No ma’am, never the talkative type,” he said again, brought his finger down, and chuckled. He couldn’t get over how good he felt. The sun was coming through the windshield in hot white streaks and the world was an endless array of opportunity spread out before him along the purple crown of the horizon. He thought he might not be able to stand it much longer; he feared the raw happiness around the center of his being might suddenly congeal and consume him like a disease. Perfection was so close, he mused, as close as the clusters of green leaves whipping at the side of his truck as he maneuvered around potholes and dips in the road. If he just reached outside he might be able to touch it, to hold it in his hands and feel it drip through his fingers.

All systems are go, he thought. “Roger that,” he said out loud, nodding his head and drumming his fingers to the Springsteen song in his head.

“Everything’s A-OK, Addy baby. Right, Adeline?” He alternated his attention between the lumpy terrain of the road and the molded interior of her left ear. A silver hoop bobbed wildly from its lobe.

He watched her without blinking, both hands gripping the worn leather of the steering wheel. Like always, his gaze projected a mixture of longing and fear. Adeline told him sometimes that he loved too much.

A snapshot suddenly flickered again in his mind, a strobe-light montage flashing behind his eyes of another man’s hands on Adeline. Rough, used hands with dirt lining the underside of the nails, hands not so very different from his own. The image sent him reeling; his head throbbed and his breath quickened. He underestimated the next curve in the road; the back of the truck skidded madly in the dirt. The tires screamed and spewed bits of rock and mud as he fought to keep the vehicle from overturning.

“Almost got us killed there, didn’t I, Addy?” Randy said when he was in control again. He tried to smile, but his face felt tired and rubbery. He brushed a curl of displaced hair out of his eyes with trembling fingers.

“No, no, no. Not gonna happen. Don’t worry, baby.” He shook his head violently from left to right, trying to purge the image from his mind. He again stole a glance at her. A few strands of her hair had come loose from her ponytail and were stretched across her face like the remnants of a spider’s web. Her head was now tilted sharply to the right, her cheek nearly resting on her shoulder. For the first time that afternoon he noticed that her feet were bare. What was the name of the man he had caught her with? He thought it might be Joe, or Mike or Rob. Something ordinary, he was sure of that.

Randy tried to remember the placidity he had basked in only moments before, but the vision of Adeline in bed with someone else kept winking at him, taunting him. He saw her sweaty and breathless, her legs tangled up in sheets that smelled like someone else. He thought wildly about slamming the truck into the next tree to shut up the buzz in his head. They would be torn to ribbons by the glass net of the windshield, ripped and bloody like a pair of gutted fish.

“That’s what you want, isn’t it, Adeline?” he said, his voice rising to a siren-like squeal. “That would be so easy. So, so easy.” He dug his fingernails into his forearm until red moons rose to the surface, and his breathing became slow and easy.

Then he turned his attention back to Adeline and smiled. Wide brims of sweat were inching down toward his belt from beneath his arms. His feet were throbbing inside of his work boots.

“I know it would be easy to give up, Addy,” he said, “it would be so easy. But you know I can’t. We’ve always been fighters, you and I. We’ll get through this together. Can you see the edge of town, Addy? It’s right there, right out behind those trees.”

Adeline did not follow the line of his finger out into the woods. She slumped deeper into the truck’s oatmeal tinted upholstery. Her knees knocked together with every pothole the truck stuttered past.

Randy brought the truck up to fourth gear and accelerated, bringing his foot down hard on the gas pedal. Adeline pitched forward in her seat, chest straining against the belt and head rushing toward the dashboard.

“Easy, Adeline,” Randy said, restraining her with his right arm. His hand nearly covered her entire face. “Don’t go gettin’ all jumpy on me now. Look, we’re here.”

Randy could see the speckled gray of the interstate in the clearing ahead of them, just beyond the alcoves of the maple trees that enclosed the town.

“It’s our Canaan, Addy baby,” Randy said, the sweaty smile back on his face. “Sweet Adeline. You never have any faith in me. But I got us here, didn’t I? This is the beginning for us. Our new life together.”

He rested his hand on her knee, moved his thumb along the side of her leg.

“Here we go, baby,” he whispered, his lips against the soft fiber of her hair.

The truck exploded out of the quiet jade of the trees and rattled into the wide, flat expanse of highway, and he was sure everything was going to work out. There had been doubts, yes, and fear even, but there was the road in front of them, their passage to a new life. True, they had to leave everything behind but Randy was sure it was worth it. He had already forgiven her. How could he not forgive her? She was his Adeline.

“A new beginning!” Randy said, and it was then that he saw them, the white and black police cars lined up like dominoes at the entrance to the interstate.

It only took an instant for the situation to register in Randy’s head, for the fear to rush into his gut like hot lava. He took his hand from Adeline’s knee and spun the truck around, tires screaming and hissing steam beneath them. They could go back, yes, back the way they came, he thought, back into the woods. There were other ways to go. There were so many other ways.

“More than one way to skin a cat, right, Addy baby?” he said, running his tongue over his lips. Her forehead slammed against the doorframe as they spun together.

But they were behind him, too, the police, funneling out of the clearing they had just come from like water rushing from a pipe. The cars came from all directions, screeching into place, fencing in the truck, basking it in a prism of red and blue flashes. They came on foot, too, darting out from behind the trees with the eyes of their guns staring at Randy, unblinking.

Randy watched the police swiftly encircle them in their web, each officer falling into place with the careful, rehearsed orchestration of a ballet. He nodded his head once, shut off the truck’s ignition and turned toward Adeline, who was now doubled over in her seat, her knuckles dangling above the floor. He put his hand on her back, where her shoulder blades jutted out like tiny wings. Blood had turned the white cotton of her sweatshirt a rusty brown.

“Well, Adeline, you know I tried,” he said softly. “Can’t anybody ever say I gave up. We almost made it, baby.”

Outside, someone, probably the police chief, Randy thought, was yelling into a bullhorn.

“Randy Deegan, step out of the truck with your hands above your head! Do not reach for anything in that truck or we will shoot you.”

Again Randy nodded. This scenario had weaved itself in his mind a hundred times in a hundred different ways since that morning, since he had pitched his smoking .45 into the woods and piled a semi-conscious Adeline into his truck. What he hadn’t anticipated was the sudden calm he felt. Why? It was better to know, he reasoned. It was always better to know. The months of following Adeline after work with his headlights turned off and imagining her with another man night after night while he sat in the dark blue of their kitchen waiting for her to come home had been more agonizing than the evening he had actually found her with Mike. That was his name—Mike. He was glad he had remembered. He knew it was something plain.

Yes, he was certain. It was always better to know.

Randy carefully lifted Adeline onto his lap. Her head rolled loose and heavy on her neck like a doll’s. The passenger seat was still wet with her blood. Bold streaks the color of copper ran down the plastic upholstery in thick stripes.

Again, from outside: “Get out of the truck Deegan! Right now or we will kill you!”

With Adeline’s head resting against his chest, Randy felt for the holes he had put in her lower back that morning. He found them near the waistband of her jeans, all three of them still leaking the remnants of her life. He hated that he had to ruin her to keep her.

“Get your hands above your head,” the police chief barked into his megaphone. “I mean it, Deegan! This is your last chance!”

Randy brought both of his legs down onto the pavement, cradling Adeline. Even now her lips were still a gorgeous pink, he thought, the color of the spring blossoms that had fallen all around them on their flight to freedom through the woods. He didn’t blame her anymore. How could anyone not want to love her, to touch her?

“Sweet, sweet Adeline,” he whispered into the flaxen mess of her hair.

He thought briefly that the gun barrels looked like a river of silver in the afternoon sun, a great gleaming river that stretched for miles. Was it possible that it might lead all the way back through the woods, back to the sagging little house he and Adeline had shared for so many years when they were younger and kinder and there was only the two of them and an infinite blanket of time? Yes, he would let the river take him there. Adeline was waiting for him in the backyard. He knew she would always wait for him in spite of everything. She would be spread out in the grass with her sandals off to the side, tossed under the shade of their gnarled old maple tree. He would go home and he would kiss her on the cheek and the neck while she giggled and closed her eyes. Yes, he would go home. For so long he had wanted to go home.

 

Prizes:

George S. Diamond Prizes
Beck Shakespeare Prize

English Prize
The Erskine Prize
Zinzendorf Prize
Beck Oratorial Prizes