TSS Publishing

Short Story: ‘That Was Back Before, Of Course’ by Samuel Dodson

Samuel Dodson short story

Samuel Dodson is a twenty-something writer based in London. A graduate of the Warwick University Writing Programme, his stories and essays have been published in a number of literary magazines and anthologies, including by Litro and Almond Press, while his flash fiction has been shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction award and Bare Fiction prize. Currently working on his debut novel (who isn’t?), he is the founder of creative collective Nothing in the Rulebook and tweets as @instantidealism.


That was back before, of course

Samuel Dodson

 

Everyone always told them how alike they looked.

“You could be sisters,” they said.

“You must be related,” they insisted.

They were not sisters. They were not related. Lorrie Carver was best friends with Maxine Smart, but they hadn’t always been. They were born on different sides of the country, for starters. Then there was the business with Lorrie’s father and the other woman and the gun, and Lorrie had moved away with her mother. They moved to the town Maxine lived in with her parents, where there were no other women and no guns – or so Lorrie assumed – and met in school when they both turned up to class wearing identical outfits. They wore blue and yellow striped dresses that had little elephants on each side.

“We’re twins!” Maxine shouted excitedly as the two girls stood side by side and inspected themselves. “I think we ought to be best friends.”

Lorrie thought this was a mighty fine idea, too.

#

The two of them grew up together, hanging out after school near the old fairgrounds sharing packs of sherbet and dangling their feet over the edge of a bridge where the main road intersected with the old railway line. The old fairgrounds turned to shopping centres and the sherbet turned to packets of cigarettes stolen from Maxine’s father, but that spot by the bridge was theirs. They owned it. Perched on the edge, looking south, you could see the rusting rolling stock and railway carriages abandoned at the old station, and just beyond that, the fetid and murky waters of the Oily River.

Old timers who lived in their town used to say how the river used to have the clearest water you’d ever seen. So clear you could see trout and salmon swimming beneath the surface. Crayfish scuttling along the smooth pebbles. Dragonflies in the air between the water reeds.

“That’s how we got our name,” the old timers said. “Clearwater. The clearest water you ever saw. That was back before, of course.”

Now the river was polluted and brown, but it was also where everybody went. 

One night when they were out by the banks of the Oily River, Lorrie and Maxine got talking to two older boys who drove a car and played music from the stereo to get people dancing.

“You two look so alike, you know that, right.” One of the boys, Mark Dean, was saying.

“Maybe that’s just because we’re black, and you white boys can’t tell us apart,” Maxine suggested.

“That’s not – wait, now, that’s not what I meant, now.”

“She’s just teasing,” Lorrie said.

“But you do look so alike,” Mark went on. “Don’t they look alike, AC?”

AC was pushing a metal spike carefully into a lemonade bottle, trying to fashion a bong. He looked up and shrugged.

“Must be cousins or something from somewhere, at least.”

“Don’t you have anything else to say?” Maxine asked.

“Sure I do,” Mark said. “Do you smoke?”

Lorrie pulled on Maxine’s hand then, gesturing for them to move on. But Maxine wouldn’t budge. It seemed to Maxine that Mark was looking at her in the right kind of way.

#

Somehow that evening Lorrie got stuck with AC, the pair of them sitting on the bonnet of Mark Dean’s car while the Pleiades swarmed overhead. Lorrie remembered her grandfather taking her up to his converted attic and sitting her in front of an antique bronze telescope the old man had positioned in front of the window. He showed her how to gently place her eye in front of the telescope, and told her what she was looking at.

“That’s Mars,” he said. “The god of war.”

“It just looks like a smudge,” Lorrie said.

“Let me tell you a secret, darling, would you like that? Would you like me to tell you a secret?”

Lorrie nodded.

“It’s light,” her grandfather explained. “That’s all it is. The light comes from the sun, from the stars, and it reflects and illuminates everything it touches. Mars is red. Deep red. But we’d never know if it wasn’t for light. We’d just sit around in darkness. Blind.”

Sitting on that car bonnet, staring up at the stars while AC fiddled trying to make his bong, Lorrie traced the outlines of the constellations her grandfather taught her. She listened a while to nothing in particular, a scuffling animal against some old metal, perhaps. A glass bottle breaking, somewhere.

“Do you know much about the stars?” Lorrie asked AC.

AC looked at her. His eyes darted skyward for a moment, then he shrugged and went back to his DIY bong.

Lorrie sighed. Eventually she put a hand on his thigh and for a few moments he stopped trying to fashion a pipe out of an old car aerial, but when he was done he let out a small moan or gasp and picked up the lemonade bottle and car aerial again.

Lorrie blinked. She hopped off the bonnet and went to wash her hand in the river water.

As she walked toward the river, she passed an old railway signalman’s office and heard the sudden scurrying sound of an animal again, much closer this time. Lorrie paused. Then the unmistakeable noise of human voices carried to her, and Maxine emerged from behind the corner of the old office striding toward her. As she approached, she reached out and took hold of Lorrie’s hand in her own, striding past her and aiming to pull her along with her.

“Come on,” Maxine said. “We’re going. Let’s get out of here.”

Lorrie half stumbled backwards under the force of Maxine’s pulling. From the shadows, Mark Dean appeared, pushing something into his pocket.

Lorrie tripped on a dip in the ground and she spun around, facing forwards at last, half-jogging to keep up with Maxine.

“What’s this, Max?” She asked.

Maxine didn’t say anything. After they made perhaps fifty yards, they heard Mark Dean call out to them. His voice was still breaking and it lifted and fell in a ridiculous mixture of baritone and soprano.

“You pricktease!” He shouted. “You fucking black bitch!”

They both of them sped up then. Pieces of glass crunched beneath their feet until they came back upon the path that took them up to their bridge, and they almost fell onto the edge of it where they sat and held each other’s hands, Maxine leaning her head into Lorrie’s shoulder.

They sat in this way for a long while, and Lorrie thought Maxine might cry perhaps. But tears never came. Clouds rolled in, threatening rain and blocking out the stars.

Eventually, Maxine moved her head away from Lorrie’s shoulder. She looked up at her. She blinked. Then she said, “why is your hand so sticky?”

#

After that night Lorrie fretted things wouldn’t go back to how things were before. But it soon seemed that the world didn’t care about your personal tragedies half as much as you expect. Everyone still commented upon how much she and Maxine looked alike. Everyone still went to Oily River. She and Maxine carried on growing up, taking the same classes in school, sharing each other’s sweaters and dresses, dating and screwing the same guys.

They still went up to that spot on the bridge. Sometimes they sat there for hours listening to new music and watching the day fade.

“Isn’t it odd that nothing ever looks different with this place?” Lorrie asked once.

“How do you mean?”

“I mean this place, this view. It’s the same as it’s always been. You can sit here for days and there’s nothing new. Just more rust.”

#

Maxine got married before that Christmas, to a guy Lorrie had dated, too. Bernie was his name, and she went just fine with Maxine. He treated her okay and busted her chops a bit but Maxine needed that from time to time. They were good together, and Lorrie hung out at their place every chance she got. It made her feel older, having married friends. She went over there and Bernie would cook fish that he’d caught that weekend.

“Bernie, did you catch this fish in Oily River?” Lorrie would joke. She always made the same joke and Bernie’s eyes would widen and he’d shake his head and Maxine would reach over and squeeze Bernie’s knee and tell him not to worry, that the fish was good.

Sometimes then Maxine and Bernie would start making out and gazing into each other’s eyes for a while and Lorrie would have to excuse herself and sit on the toilet reading the back of medicine packets for a while until the coast was clear to go back in.

Eventually, Lorrie stopped going over so much. She would meet up with AC and they’d get stoned and make out for a while, or she’d just pick up some hash and take it out to the Oily River and share it around.

That summer, she entered a poem about the Oily River into a Clearwater Town arts fair and won first prize.

The poem was an ode to times gone by, the judges said. It was also about environmental protection. And it was about the town’s heritage.

Lorrie thought it was about love.

First Prize was a paid-for semester at an art school in London.

One semester in London led to another one, paid fully by the university, and then another and another. In three years Lorrie graduated, having broken the hearts of three boys and only falling in love twice, once with a sad young boy who hung himself on a Saturday afternoon while Lorrie was ice skating, and once with a British man called Thomas who wore tweed jackets and dropped ice cream on the new shoes she bought for her twenty-first birthday.

She had to come back, of course. She brought Thomas with her and he spoke ever so politely to her mother, who kept on hugging him and telling Lorrie not to let this one go, and that this one was a keeper, and all in all seemed so proud of Thomas that Lorrie realised she had to get out of there immediately.

The two of them inevitably wound up at Maxine and Bernie’s, drinking beer in the evenings and listening to records.

Bernie and Thomas got along fine, even if Bernie liked to talk about football and Thomas liked to talk about Dostoyevsky and abstract art. Still, they made it work okay. Sometimes Bernie would show Thomas his collection of fishing lures and Lorrie was thrilled when one night, after Thomas made a remark about casting technique, Bernie said the two of them should “hit up the river some time with a couple of beers, have some guy time.”

It was a nice time, but even in the middle of all that happiness, Lorrie kept looking at Maxine, thinking how much older she looked, a lot older than twenty-two. But she’d had three kids by then and was the manager at a busy Mexican restaurant in town and the owner only let her leave early on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

It was a Sunday the day it happened.

The men were out in the garage looking at fishing lures. The kids were watching TV. Lorrie and Maxine were sitting in the yard drinking beer and just relaxing.

Lorrie was doing most of the talking – things about London, Thomas’s book, music, people they knew, people Lorrie remembered from back before.

Maxine was staring at the kids’ paddling pool, or at the label of her beer. Lorrie was thinking how Maxine was getting to be deep, the way she stared so much and didn’t talk.

“Man, I could do with some pot again though,” she said at one point.

This seemed to pick Maxine up. “Pot?” she said. “You got some?”

“I wish,” Lorrie said.

Maxine slumped back down in her chair. She picked at the label of her beer bottle with her fingernail. The polish on her nails was chipped, Lorrie saw.

“You can’t get pot in London,” Lorrie said. “I mean, you can, but it’s pretty much nothing. There’s no point.”

Maxine went on picking at the corner of the label.

Then Lorrie said, “here, you don’t suppose AC is still around and dealing, do you? I bet that cat hasn’t changed his game in all this time.”

Maxine peeled the label off her beer bottle and tore it up into little pieces that floated onto her lap and stuck to her skirt. Then she lifted the bottle to her lips and drank the rest of it.

“Hey, how about we go on a little run?” She said.

“That sounds good to me,” Lorrie said. “Should we tell the guys?”

“No bother,” Maxine said. “Just a little run. Just to aerate a bit, you know? Get back to how it was before.”

“Sure,” Lorrie said, looking at the garage.

#

They took the main road out of Clearwater up into the hills, Maxine driving her new people carrier. The old European convertible sold for scrap long ago. The day was warming up and cold air blew out of the car’s air conditioning unit.

Lorrie went to wind the window down, longing to tilt her head back against the seat and close her eyes and feel the breeze against her cheek. But Maxine stopped her.

“You’ll let the warm air in,” she said.

“I thought we were aerating.”

“That’s what we’re doing,” she said.

There was a pause. Then Maxine laughed, shrugged, and said, “sorry, I’m being uptight. Wind the window down, go on.”

Lorrie bent forward and put on the car stereo instead, she turned up the volume to MAX, and then had to quickly turn it down again when Old McDonald had a farm came on screaming out of the speakers.

“Sorry,” Maxine shook her head. “Kids, you know.”

Lorrie laughed. She felt a whole lot better just to see Maxine brighten up.

“Sometimes you just gotta get out, you know?” Maxine said.

Lorrie understood.

“Let’s pick up,” Maxine said.

“Sounds good,” Lorrie said.

#

As they followed the tar road that circled around the town, Lorrie drifted back. She remembered sitting and feeling safe in her father’s big Chevy, driving around the lake in her hometown over and over again on the 4th July. The lake lay flat and silvery in the sun. She told her father she thought it was like a big mirror, and her father nodded along.

“Anybody can make a mistake,” he said after a time. Lorrie thought this was directed at her, meaning what she said about the lake being a mirror. So she was quiet and sat very still, staring down at the car’s ash tray, where her father’s war medals were placed along with some loose change.

“This is going to be something,” her father said. He kept on looking down at the glove compartment and tapping it with the back of his hand. Occasionally he’d even pinch the release clip together and hold it almost open between his fingertips. Then he’d let go of the clip and take his hand away and the glove compartment would still be closed.

They carried on circling the lake, driving past all the detached houses that fringed its waters.

“Sometimes, Lorrie, there are things, do you see?” Her father tapped the gas slightly, as the road rose up on a slight incline. “There are things a person can get used to, and some things they just can’t.”

Lorrie kept staring at the medals. After a while, she realised they were stopped. The car’s engine was still running, but they were pulled over beside the pavement, the indicator lights flashing. Lorrie looked out at the lake, and then at her father. He was himself staring up at the house they’d stopped besides. It was a light blue house with a nice lawn and big white bay windows.

“A person should be told about these things before, before they can get you,” her father said, putting his fingers to the glove compartment again. “It isn’t fair. They eat you up, these things. You sometimes don’t even notice them until you do and it’s too late – you can’t go back to how it was before. Goddam it! A person should know things, a person should be told. I wish someone had told me about these things the way I’m telling you, Lorrie, sweetheart. You know I love you, it’s because I love you I’m telling you this, understand? A person needs to learn about these things, you hear?”

Finally her father looked at her, and she at him. Her father had these great brown eyes that swam around his pupils. And in those pupils she could see herself, reflected, a twin sister in each eye.

“Granddaddy’s been teaching me about stars again,” she offered.

#

Back on the road coming into Clearwater, Maxine opened it up a little, doing little bursts of almost 100, braking gently as they came into some of the arcing bends that mirrored the movement of the Oily River, stretching out on the plain below.

There was something about the way the light was coming in that Lorrie hadn’t seen before. It glanced off the roiling water. It danced and sparkled. From where she sat, you couldn’t tell it was so murky and fetid.

It was as they came close to their old spot by the bridge that they saw them, the boys. And they were just that, boys. Maybe eighteen, nineteen at a stretch. They had that look about them, though, that Lorrie and Maxine recognised instantly.

“Look at that!” Maxine said, slowing. “Maybe we turn this into more than a pickup, what do you say?”

They drove on past the boys, around a bend. Then Maxine pulled up to a stop and said, “let’s go back and try it. Let’s do it.”

“Jesus,” Lorrie said. “I dunno.”

“Come on,” Maxine said. “I could use some. I could really use some.”

“Aren’t we just picking up?”

“Sure we’re picking up,” Maxine said. “But I could use something extra, too.”

“I don’t know,” Lorrie said again.

“For Christ sake.”

Lorrie looked at the clock on the dashboard of the car. She thought of the garage, the two husbands inside, trying to think of another thing to say about fishing lures. “You go,” she said. “I’ll stay with the car. I have a headache.”

“You don’t have a headache.”

“Sure I do. I’m drunk and I have a headache.”

“You’ll feel better for it.”

Lorrie crossed and uncrossed her legs. “I’m drunk,” she said again. This was enough for Maxine, who hooted and turned the car around. They came back around the corner slowly, Maxine winding her window down as they neared the boys.

The boys looked up at the car and then at each other. The one nearest the road was dark haired, tall and shaggy. The one further out was smaller, blond. They both wore shorts. It was hot.

“The tall one’s mine,” Maxine said.

Maxine pushed her head out of the open window and tipped her sunglasses onto the tip of her nose, looking out over the bridge at the dark-haired boy.

“Are you boys heading down to the Oily River?” Maxine asked them.

“Who wants to know?” the boy said.

“Call me Max,” Maxine said. “And you?”

The boy didn’t say anything. He turned his shoulder to the car, stepping toward his friend.

“That’s okay,” Maxine said. “We can be strangers if you like. It’s better that way, even.”

Maxine reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a compact. She tongued her lips, slowly. Lorrie stared at the soft tip of her tongue. The boys stared, too.

“Why don’t we go down to the riverside,” Maxine said. “Just the four of us. What do you say?”

“I’m not going anyplace with anybody,” the other boy said then. He was nervous. He had a sweet neck and thin collarbones arched out like wings.

“You know they didn’t always used to call it the Oily River, right?” Maxine said.

“Is that right?” The dark-haired boy said.

“Of course not, darling. Don’t they teach you anything in school these days?”

“I’m not at school.”

“No? And what about your little friend there?”

“We’re neither of us at school,” the boy said.

“Well it doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two, now, does it?” Maxine pressed. She laughed. She squeezed her shoulders in and her breasts bulged. “Why don’t we go down to the riverside and my friend here and I can teach you a thing or two.”

The smaller boy raised his head a touch, moving to say something to his buddy. But the dark-haired boy just nodded.

“Perfect!” Maxine shrilled. She pulled the car further over onto the side of the road, undid her seatbelt, popped the door and stepped out. Lorrie followed her. The four of them tracked around the bridge following the path down to the old train station. Maxine walked up ahead with the tall boy, talking about getting high, asking whether he had a girlfriend, brushing the skin of his thigh beneath his shorts with the back of her hand, touching the back of his hand with her fingers. Lorrie wondered whether the boy would notice her chipped nail polish.

As they neared the old railway signalman’s office, Maxine was talking about how she and Lorrie used to come down there to the river bank.

“Lorrie gave her first blowjob just over there,” she pointed out. “And behind there was where you could go if you wanted to – well, it’s probably where you go now, isn’t it?”

The boy hesitated. Before he could answer, Lorrie asked, “do you boys know AC?”

It was the first thing she’d said since they got out of the car.

“AC? Sure I do,” the blond boy said. “He’s Mark’s friend, right Jay? Isn’t he your brother’s friend? Always trying to sell these home-made bongs.”

Maxine blinked, tilted her head. She chose her next words very carefully. “Mark Dean, is that right?” She asked. “Is Mark Dean your brother?”

The tall boy nodded. His eyes seemed frightened, then, as though he felt he was on the verge of losing something.

“Well now, here’s an idea,” Maxine said. “Why don’t you go on and call up your brother. Get him down here. I think I’m onto something here.”

Lorrie wondered over toward the river while the tall boy made the call. She was thinking how quiet it all was. Then a small voice spoke up behind her.

“Did anyone ever tell you how much you and your sister look alike?” the blond boy asked. “You could be twins, you know. Though maybe you can see she’s a bit older, maybe.”

Lorrie didn’t turn around. She was looking at the light kicking off the ripples on the water. You could see it was brown now, up this close. But with the light there was something more to it. Then Lorrie realised how much the Oily River reminded her of her father’s eyes. She stepped up close to the water’s edge and crouched down. She stared at her liquid reflection.

Lorrie had just wanted to pick up and get high. She would have gone for a cigarette, at least. She could maybe have got off on giving the blond boy a hand job, and thinking about his smooth cock when she got back with Thomas and could take him to bed and put his hands behind his neck and put him deep inside of her. She could have just done with going back and fucking Thomas. On the other hand, it was okay if nothing happened after all.

She never knew what Maxine wanted. But it started the moment Mark Dean emerged from all the rust. Then it ended with a knife and the sound of something scraping against metal, some sound almost like an animal.

 

END


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