STUBBORN VOWS

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

“Did I wake you?”

 

“No.”

 

“Good.”

 

“You still there?”

 

“Yes. I’m sorry. I’m just . . . You must be tired, Jape. I’ll call later, maybe tonight, before you—”

 

“Reina.”

 

“I know, I know, I just . . . I don’t have the right, Jape. Every morning I call, and you—”

 

“Reina.”

 

“I’m sorry, Jape.”

 

“It’s okay. I’m awake.”

 

               • – •

 

The forklift idled behind him, gurgling propane. Jape grabbed a 30-pack case of beer cans off the top of the stack and swung it down onto the pallet. Building the first block always took a few extra minutes of thought. After that it was easier; just build the next block the reverse of the last. But to build the first you had to remember the pattern.

 

Stroh’s 30-packs were arranged in a five-block: two vertical next to three horizontal. The 24-packs were a six-block: two horizontal rows of three. Twelve-packs were a seven-block: two vertical rows of two, one horizontal row of three. Stacked in the right way, alternating the pattern to make the stack more stable, the cases of beer formed perfectly square pallets.

 

When Jape first started working at Martin’s Distributing, he’d forget which pattern went with which size case. Too embarrassed to ask one of the older guys, he’d try to puzzle it out for himself, sliding cases back and forth on the pallet, trying to make them square up. He could never quite get it. He wondered whose job it was at the brewery to come up with the block patterns. Was it the fork lift guys? Or was it some scientist type in a white coat with a clipboard? Maybe there was a kind of math you used, something you punched into a calculator and it laid it right out for you. Just how smart did you have to be to make tidy squares out of rectangular cases of beer? Just how smart did you have to be to make things come together perfectly?

 

Smarter than Jape, that was for sure.

 

               • – •

 

“They still treating you okay?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“What time did you get home?”

 

“Four, four-thirty.”

 

“Oh, Jape.”

 

“You get used to it.”

 

“You must be exhausted. Why are you still up?”

 

“You know. It takes a while to relax. You get wound up.”

 

“You weren’t waiting up for me, were you? I don’t have to call every morning. I can call later on or—”

 

“I wasn’t waiting for you. I’m just . . . winding down.”

 

               • – •

 

Jape tucked a corner of the stretch wrap between the first and second row of the pallet. Then he lifted the three-foot long roll of green wrap and began circling the pallet. The cardboard burned against his fingers as he let the tube spin free in his hands, the plastic buzzing like a pissed-off hornet as it peeled off. When he reached the corner of the pallet, he clamped down on the roll with his thumbs so he could pull the plastic tight.

 

The wrap kept the beer from sliding off the pallet. You needed to wrap it up enough to withstand the bouncing around it would get in the back of the delivery truck, but if you wrapped it up too much, the drivers couldn’t get at the cases fast enough and they’d bitch to Tom, the warehouse manager, when they got back late from their run. Tom would then fix you with a look when you punched in later that night. Tom was ex-Army, a retired noncom. He didn’t figure he had to do much more than give you a look. He was right.

 

Jape liked to wrap around a pallet ten times—six up and then four down. That seemed about the right amount to him. So far, he hadn’t heard any complaints that his pallets were tumbling over on the road or proving too much of a chore for the drivers to break down. Like the block patterns, that was a science too, he figured. How do you wrap something up tight enough to keep it together without being so tight that it was more trouble than it was worth?

 

He had that figured out—for plastic wraps and pallets, at least.

 

               • – •

 

“I’m going out tonight.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“With somebody.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Jape . . .”

 

“It’s okay.”

 

“I don’t know why I’m telling you. I know you don’t want to know, but—”

 

“It’s okay.”

 

“Stop saying that! It’s not okay! I don’t want to have to tell you every time I go out with someone when I know you don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to have to call you every morning when I know you’re trying to sleep!”

 

“Then don’t.”

 

“Jape . . .”

 

“You don’t have to. It’s okay. I’m okay.”

 

“Oh, Jape. What are you going to do? Sweetie, what are you going to do?”

 

               • – •

 

The fork lift coughed, stalled, caught a spark, coughed again, and died. Jape let down the pallet with a hiss of hydraulics until it was resting on the concrete floor. He jumped down from the lift and walked behind it. He unfastened the metal straps that held down the propane tank and loosened the hose clamp until it spit off the nozzle. Jape walked down the warehouse aisle until he found a handcart resting up against a pallet of Beck’s Dark. He wheeled the cart back to the lift and threw the empty propane tank onto it.

 

Two tanks of propane a night. Six nights a week. Fifty weeks a year. Six hundred tanks of propane. Six hundred times a year Jape would have to pull an empty tank off the fork lift, wheel it back to the tank pen, exchange it for a full one, wheel it back to the spent lift, clamp it on, hook the hose up to it, and twist the valve open. Six hundred tanks of propane he’d wheel around the sun back to where he started the year before. Six hundred tanks of propane filling the year up to its brim year. Six hundred propane tanks stretching toward his grave.

 

And every Tuesday, Jape had to help unload the propane truck when it backed a fresh supply of tanks up to the dock.

 

               • – •

 

“Are you there, Jape?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I should let you go.”

 

“Sorry, I’m just . . .”

 

“Go to sleep, Jape.”

 

“I don’t want to sleep.”

 

“You have to sleep, Jape.”

 

“I’m just going to wake up again.”

 

“Yes. And get out of bed. And shower. And eat. And go to work. And come back home. That’s your life.”

 

“Yeah. That’s it.”

 

“I’m sorry, Jape.”

 

“You’ll call me?”

 

“Tomorrow?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Yes, Jape. I’ll call you. That’s your life too. Isn’t it?”

 

               • – •

 

“We’re back. It’s 7:45 and with us now in the studio kitchen is celebrity chef Julius Rothenberg. Julius, what will you be cooking up for us this morning?”

 

The TV was blurring, going black. Jape gave his head a brisk shake. His eyelids popped open. He blinked them three times quickly and then stretched them wide. He yawned. His hand pawed blindly over the bed sheet. Finding the remote control, he stabbed the Mute button. He checked the digital clock on the bedside table. Quarter of eight already. His eyes slipped from the clock to the phone. Reina wasn’t going to call. Time for bed.

 

He swung his legs over the side of the mattress. He lifted one foot to his knee. With a hooked thumb, he pulled the two socks—he doubled them up to keep his steel-toed boots fitting snug; they blistered his instep if he didn’t—down over his heel and slid them off. He lowered his foot and raised the other one. He slid those socks off and then flung both pairs through the open closet door into the laundry basket.

 

He stood on the cranberry-colored carpet and slid his jeans down. He pulled one foot free and then with the other kicked the jeans into the closet. Change tumbled from a pocket and bounced on the carpet. Three quarters, a dime and a nickel. Jape sighed. If the break truck guy was going to charge a buck for a cup of coffee, couldn’t he do it after tax? He bent down. On his hands and knees, he hunted down each coin. He stood and dropped them on the dresser, next to his car keys and his watch.

 

Jape stepped over to the closed window blinds and bent the plastic slats down. No new cars in the parking lot. No new paint on the peeling “Fairway Estates” sign.  (“Freeway Estates” he heard a kid with a goatee and a basketball jersey in the laundry room call it once. His girl, too thin, too tired, didn’t laugh.) The sky was a dirty grey, but no rain was falling to wash it clean.

 

He let the blinds snap back. He could still hear the moan of traffic. The Nineties—I-690, I-490, I-90—met not more than a half-mile away to tie a black bow over the St. Anthony River. All night the propane engine of his fork lift sputtered at him. All day he slept next to a six-lane lullaby. If he ever got trapped in a sound-proof room, he’d go crazy from the quiet of it.

 

He turned away from the window. The glow of the TV kept the room from slipping fully beneath the dark. Jape reached back to grab his t-shirt at the shoulders. He tugged it over his head. With his arms stretched full and the collar wedged under his nose, the phone rang. Jape froze. The phone rang a second time. A third. Jape pulled his head out, jerked the shirt off his arms, and let it fall to the floor. He dived across the bed. His hand smacked down on the receiver. He yanked it to his ear.

 

“Hello.”

 

“Did I wake you?”

 

“No.”

 

“Good.”

 

There was a pause. There was always a pause. Because there wasn’t anything to say. He spent every night, as he maneuvered his lift through the maze of pallets, trying to think of something to say. Some nights he would decide to say, “I can change.” But she had never asked him to change. Some nights he would decide on, “We were happy.” But she had never said they weren’t. Tonight he had decided on, “Those things aren’t important.” But he didn’t say it. Because she believed with all her heart that they were. And he couldn’t give them to her.

 

There was nothing to say, but that never kept them from talking.

 

“So how was last night?”

 

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have . . . I shouldn’t have told you I was going out last night.”

 

“It’s okay.”

 

A healthy baby. A comfortable house for the healthy baby. A safe street for the comfortable house. These were the things she wanted. She couldn’t say why she wanted them. Every woman wanted them, she explained. It was how their hearts were balanced. Without these things to prop them, their hearts just kept leaning, leaning, threatening to topple. She loved him, they had a happy life. But in the night, in the dark, while he was sleeping, she was clutching the sheets, in terror of toppling over.

 

“It’s not okay, but . . .”

 

“What?”

 

“Last night . . . something happened.”

 

“What happened?”

 

“Jape, it’s okay. It’s just that . . . It’s a little weird.”

 

“What happened?”

 

Jape worked hard. But it was never going to happen for him. He knew that. His old man had worked hard his whole life, working the line at the Delco plant. He made only 20 grand more than Jape did now. His dad’s bad back was going to put him on disability soon. Jape’s mom had started working at the local Wal-Mart to build up some money before it did.

 

None of it was a surprise to Reina. She had known what she had. She had known Jape since high school, had loved him since she first saw him, first saw him walking in the halls, walking quiet, his eyes squinting at the tiles on the ceiling, like they puzzled him somehow. She liked how small he was, she told him, how he kept his hair short. It was like there wasn’t a wasted piece of him.

 

“The . . . the guy I went out with . . .”

 

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

 

“Jape, I’m fine. I can’t tell you about this if—”

 

“Okay. I’m sorry. But you’re okay, right?”

 

When she finally made her move, Jape fell for her like it was the only thing he was ever meant for. He loved her in every way he could think of. He gutted out high school, graduated, got the job in the warehouse, gave her every cent. And she loved him back with a love so easy, so complete, sometimes he had to hide from it, pretend he had an errand to do or something to fix in the basement, until he had the strength to stand before it and accept it as his.

 

“I’m fine. Really. It was just . . . something weird that happened.”

 

“What happened?”

 

“The guy . . . the guy I was out with . . . He took off. In the middle of dinner. He got this call on his cell, and . . . and he answered it, and then he said he had to go.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“I know. Guys use calls to get out of a bad date. Not that is was a date, really, but . . . , But that’s not the weird part. When I got home, I was taking my makeup out of my purse, and I found . . .”

 

And then one night he had come home from work, and she was sitting on the couch. She had been crying, he could tell, but now her eyes were dry. He had to leave, she said. What do you mean? They couldn’t be together anymore, she said. Why not? We’ll never have more than this, she said. What else do you want? It’s not for me, she said. It’s not about what I want, she tried again. You don’t love me? And then her tears returned. I love you, Jape. I love you more than I’ll ever love anyone. But you have to leave.

 

So he did.

 

“What?”

 

“I think it’s drugs.”

 

“Drugs?”

 

“Or, I don’t know, it might not be drugs. It’s metal, a canister, like a toothbrush holder except steel or something.  But it’s not mine. Somebody put it in my purse, and I think maybe it could have been that guy. Gavin. Jape, I can’t have this in my house. I have to go to work, but I can’t have this in my house. I don’t know what it is and—”

 

“Reina.”

 

“What if he comes looking for it, Jape? What if someone comes looking for it and I’m—”

 

He left because she asked him to, because he loved her, because he loved her like it was the only thing he was ever meant for.

 

“Reina. It’s okay”

 

“Jape, I don’t know what to do.”

 

“It’s okay. I’ll come and get it.”

 

“I’m scared, Jape . . . I’m really—”

 

“I’ll come and get it, Reina. Leave it on your table. I’ll come and get it as soon as I’m dressed. I promise.”

 

“Jape, I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s okay.”

 

“Thank you, Jape. I’m so . . . Thank you.”

 

She hung up. He put the phone back on the cradle. He wrested the remote control out from beneath his leg and flicked the TV off. He stared at his shirt on the floor.

 

The only thing.

 

               • – •

 

The 280ZX whined down 690. The radio was off. Jape felt like he should think, and the morning DJs would try to keep him from doing anything but. St. Anthony slogged muddily along on one side of him while the plants belched and puffed on the other. Jape felt like he should think, but he didn’t know about what.

 

John Paul, do you take Reina Isabella to be your lawfully wedded wife?

 

Wasn’t that the trouble though? If he only knew how to think, if he only knew what other people, successful people, spent their day thinking about, he’d be successful too, right?

 

To live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony?

 

Maybe he had it wrong. Maybe the successful people didn’t spend their day thinking. Maybe thinking just got in the way. Weren’t all the athletes always excusing away a slump by saying they were thinking too much?

 

Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health?

 

Jape should have been as rich as any ballplayer then. He never caught himself thinking all that often. Sitting on a forklift, stacking up cases of beer, wrapping up pallets, that needed hardly any thinking at all. And when something did come up and stump you, it was better just to ask Tom or one of the older guys for the answer. They’d done all that thinking already.

 

For richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sadness and in joy?

 

But without any thinking, all Jape’s brain had left to do was remember. Sometimes he could convince it to remember stuff that didn’t matter. High school hockey games. Sitcom plots. His dad’s Sunday suit.

 

To cherish and continually bestow upon her your heart’s deepest devotion?

 

But most of the time all his brain wanted to remember was Reina. It wanted to remember her wavy black hair tickling his stomach as she slept on his shoulder. It wanted to remember her brown eyes burrowing into his, chasing him down, cornering him, forcing him to look back into hers and the love that was waiting there for him. It wanted to remember her hand taking hold of his while they sat on the couch watching some history show on PBS, her thumb toying with his wedding ring.

 

Forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto her as long as you both shall live?

 

His memories were like pointless promises, like stubborn vows. They were made in the heat of a moment that had long gone cold, but they had been made. They weren’t worth anything to anyone anymore, but they had been made. They blocked him in, kept him caged up, but they had been made.

 

Jape had made his promises, had spoken his vows. And he didn’t know how to forget them. Maybe the successful people weren’t good at thinking. Maybe they were just good at forgetting. How easy it all must be if you could make a promise and forget it as soon as the words left your mouth.

 

The 280ZX whined down 690, pointed toward another pointless promise.