The britches of Madison County
Roberta fished in her purse for another stick of gum as Kissinger, her trusty old Lexus, shot down the gravel road, raising a dust plume like a dry land skier. Her destination was uncertain, but the thrill of flying down back roads was not, and for the time being it was enough. This current photographic assignment, commissioned by the makers of Guess What jeans, had kept her on the road for several days, prowling rural America to capture images of denims at work for a new ad campaign. Strange work, but Roberta was a professional. In fact, her work with pants had become her trademark. In one shot now widely recognized in the industry as a modern masterpiece, she captured a pair of chino cargo pants backlit by a sunset in Tanganyika in a photo that was rumored to have made the Land's Edge company over $22 mil in increased sales. And while the money was good, Roberta found more important the chance to express herself as an artist, one of the great trouser shootists of her time.
Passing a neat farmstead, Kissinger swerved in the loose gravel as Roberta braked, seeing an ideal shot just waiting for her. She slammed into reverse and headed up the drive, her right hand reaching automatically for her venerable Instamatic and a handful of flashcubes. She darted from the car and began framing her shot, expertly capturing the morning light dazzling off the rivets of the jeans. Then she was shooting, immersed in the poetry of pants and perspective; her gum snapping softly as her left hand automatically replaced flashcubes and film.
Frank grunted painfully as he plunged headfirst into the cavernous engine compartment of the old Chevrolet grain truck. While trying to get the starter lined up with the boltholes, he kept hearing strange noises - curious, but not alarming enough to justify the wrenching effort of becoming upright. He thought a car had pulled in the drive, but that would just be Sneeps, his neighbor. Then a series of quiet, almost familiar clicks, and the scuffling of gravel made him realize someone real was here.
Extracting himself took a few moments. He blinked at the bleary image slowly coming into focus in the bright summer sun. A strikingly attractive woman about his own age was slowly walking from side to side in front of the truck, taking photographs feverishly. "Can I help you?” Frank asked. She dropped her camera and smiled brilliantly, sunlight glinting off what Frank estimated was 15 to 20 thou of dental artistry. She was appealing in that superficial way Frank found intriguing.
"Roberta Trask," she said offering her hand. "I'm from New York, doing a shoot of men at work for a major jeans manufacturer. I hope you don't mind my photographing you just now, but the light and the composition were too perfect to wait."
"You were shooting me, leaning into the truck - from the rear?” he said uncertainly.
"Very impressive it was, too. You're not angry, are you?” She flashed him another brilliant smile.
Frank wasn't sure what he was. Even through the familiar odors of the shop, her perfume was wonderfully noticeable. Frank suddenly became uncomfortably aware that a beautiful stranger was taking pictures of his posterior. He also realized he was staring. "Where will these photos end up?", he asked, affecting some rural indifference.
"Mostly Eastern mags, like Fairly Vain, or New Yorkperson." she replied. "I doubt if your friends will see you - let alone recognize you, if that's what you're worried about".
"Doesn't bother me," he lied.
They chatted meaninglessly for a while, as Roberta took several more shots. At her request, Frank did some welding, trying hard not to remind himself where she was aiming. She talked a little about her work and the complexities of professional pants photography or "panting" as they called it in the industry. Then, in a fit of uncharacteristic boldness he never would understand, Frank blurted, "Would you care to stay for lunch?" He tried to forget that he had already taken into account the fact that his wife and children were gone, visiting Annette's sister in Chicago. Startled by his own words, he stood awkwardly, unsure of the response.
Roberta, more amused than surprised, hesitated only briefly before accepting. She had no schedule to keep, and Frank was an attractive man from any angle.
As they walked to the house, he explained nervously about his family, all the while trying to figure just exactly what he thought he was doing. Roberta listened and smiled from time to time. Luckily for Frank, Annette had left his favorite lunch already prepared - tuna salad. She often did when she was going to be gone, since Frank liked to eat it with peanut butter, a difficult meal for her to enjoy. Frank began to prepare the food as they talked quietly.
Roberta watched him move - powerfully, but clumsily - about the kitchen. The muscles of his tanned forearm flexed smoothly as he spread the peanut butter to the very edge of the bread in a thoroughness she found mesmerizing. He asked what she would like to drink, and when she asked for bottled spring water, he smiled and handed her a beer. "That's how it starts out, you know", he joked. They laughed together.
Frank could not stop asking himself, "What is happening?” as the lunch and conversation went on. He seemed to be trying to find some missing element for his life, and Roberta seemed to possess it. But what was it? He and Annette had a wonderful, exciting, and fulfilling marriage and career together on the farm. Their children were a joyful addition to this world. The farm was a struggle, but every now and then they made some progress. Frank was driven by a stronger and darker need, perhaps, than this rich life could supply. In a sudden epiphany, he realized it was a life too happy and fulfilling that burdened him. He had no great sorrow, no racking guilt, no hidden remorse. Oh sure, he wished he had planted deeper in 1990, and sold sooner in 1992, but his past contained no hint of profound regret from committing a Great Stupidity. Now as he looked at Roberta, he somehow knew she was a woman with whom he could do something very stupid. She was an animal he could not quite name, with a feline, feral grace like an...he'd just seen it on PBS...yeh, that's it - she was like an ocelot an awful lot.
Roberta watched Frank as she ate, talking of her work, her dreams, her travels, her clothes, her charge accounts, herself. She found Frank surprisingly astute, even urbane, and coupled with his rural animal magnetism and the faint smell of brake fluid, she found herself drawn to him. Then suddenly, as she reached for the jar of sweet relish, Frank did too, their hands touching on the cold wet glass.
Eyes met. Words failed. Pulses quickened. Breathing slowed. Mouths dried. Palms moistened. Possibilities spawned. Consequences loomed. Time stopped. Relish plummeted.
Frank knew from sad experience what pickle juice spills could become if you didn't clean them up in the first day or so. He rushed to the sink and, in a decision that would torment him for the rest of his life, defiantly chose the NOT-ON-THE-FLOOR Sponge. Turning his back on his wife's careful training, he mopped up the relish, and then shamefully threw the sponge in the trash to hide his guilt, already concocting a lame excuse involving the family dog as scapegoat. Roberta sensed his inner torture, and that she was the cause.
"I'd best leave", she said sadly. The previously sunny day now seemed dimmer, eclipsed by her clouded spirit. Abruptly she turned, kissed him fiercely on the lips, and whispered to him, her gentle tuna breath soft on his cheek, "Remember me, Frank. I am the ptarmigan and the interstate and all the ice cream you could ever eat."
Frank was stunned. (He'd always thought the "p" was silent.) How could he ever forget her? He looked down as he walked her to the car. Tears formed in his eyes while he ducked the gravel spray as she accelerated out the drive. Pausing at the road, she waved wistfully and was gone.
Frank flipped the welding helmet up to check his work. The last few weeks had been uncomfortable. While no one had initially recognized him when the photographs were published, he had forgotten about the truck license plates. Annette got the magazine from her sister and left it open on the coffee table, saying nothing. His friends, however, rapidly made him the literal butt of their jokes. Annette somehow never asked about that day, but from time to time she would glance at him and smile or chuckle for no apparent reason.
For the hundredth time, Frank went over to the field cultivator frame he had repaired that afternoon. Shiny, even beads, like a row of dimes formed every fillet. He had never welded so well before, and never would again. It was her.