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May 20, 2024


By Barry Udoff

When it gets this hot, the grass smells like Indiana. Before I lived there, all I knew about the place was that the 'Indy 500' ran there every Memorial Day. I have no idea why. The are reasons for everything, it's just that not all of them are good.

She had a good reason to move to Indiana. A university had given her a grant to do graduate work with a well-known Doctor of Psychology. I decided to go with her for a reason that was as bad as they come. I was going to Indiana because I didn't want to lose her.

I was just out of a college in California, the state where I had lived my whole life. Even though my reason for going to Indiana was terrible, my reason for leaving California made sense.

We left Los Angeles on a day in September when a wicked Santana wind was blowing so hot, it felt like your face was too close to a fire. Everything that fit into our old MGB came with us, everything now belonged to someone else. We drove the whole day and made about 300 miles. We stayed in a motel with a restaurant just off the highway.

After we ate, I called my mother from a pay phone. She, along with my brother and sister, disliked her from the beginning. From their point of view, she had interrupted my relationship with a woman whom they all loved and had hoped I would marry. They blamed it all on her, as if I was an innocent bystander. And now, under her spell, having no will of my own, she had stolen me away to a phone booth in the parking lot of a tattered motel on the windy edges of the Rocky Mountains. In 24 hours I would be on the far side. It would be a different time zone.

When I returned to our room, the lights were out and she was in bed with her back towards me. I flicked on the lights.

"Hey! Why'd you do that?" She was unconvincing as someone who had been awoken from sleep.

"Hey! It's 9:00 o clock. You're going to bed already?"

She turned towards me as if yanked by a rope.

"We've been driving all day, I'm tired. That OK with you?"

In the 10 months that we had been living together I'd never seen her this angry. "What's this about? You upset because I called my mom?"

It was my first thought and I trusted it. She had started the fight at a level so high there was little room left to escalate. She had to switch strategies or risk a nasty blow out that could end with a 300-mile drive back to LA.

She rose to her side, resting her head on her elbow, letting me see the thin straps of the blue silk lingerie I had bought her a few weeks after we had met. She smiled. "I'm sorry," she said. "Come to bed."

When we made love that night something was different. Not with me but with her. It took a while to understand why.

By the afternoon of the following day, the Rocky Mountains were looming before us. As they grew larger, we began to doubt if our old, overloaded MGB could make it to the top. The engine ran hot even on level ground. At the time, the British were making much better music than cars, but even if he got out and pushed, John Lennon himself couldn't be much help getting us over the hill. We made it as far as Pagosa Springs, Colorado, less then 20 miles short of the crest. The tow to the garage, the parts and labor took nearly half of our cash. At the time, credit cards were scarce and ATMs non-existent, so it really was half of everything we had. But we were on our way again, top down, nothing but wheat fields and sky.

We arrived at the university on a Saturday afternoon, a week before the new term began. The campus was built with gloomy red bricks held together with tired green ivy. She took an orientation tour for new students. I drove into town. It was about what I expected. A Main Street with a Woolworth's, a diner, and a drugstore, the rest, a clash of fast food restaurants and the storefronts of dry cleaners, travel agents and a barbershop. I decided to get my hair cut. The barber was a tall man with toupee and a stiff prosthetic left leg. He made jerky, lateral dips to reach my head, like the movement of a cast iron toy bank. It took less then five minutes to cut my hair. It looked like the 'Regular Boy's Haircut' I wore as a child. It featured a left side part and a right-flowing wave stuck in motion with thick, green gel. I knew it was a mistake.

We rented a small house close to the river. It was set on cinder blocks and wrapped in faded yellow vinyl siding. Inside, it was cramped and dark. There was a dampness that never let anything dry. It was hard to sleep with the cicadas chirping all night like so many phones left off the hook. But the worst was the TV reception, which was nearly extinct. I tried to watch The Watergate Hearing through the electronic haze. No wonder I was a little surprised when Nixon resigned.

I found a job with the university's printing and bindery department. It was housed in a long, narrow building, tossed like a rock far from site of the main campus. They put me in charge of a paper-folding machine, a job that required skills even higher then the ones I had lied about having. When it was operated by some one who knew how, it could take a poster-sized sheet of paper and fold it down into something not much bigger than a post card. It pounded loud and hard, hissing with each sheet of paper it folded. When I jammed it up, as often I did, everyone could hear that a member of the deafening chorus had dropped out. If it stayed out for more then a few minutes, some one always came over and helped. They were very patient with me. In six weeks or so I was approaching competency.

The people I worked with were mostly locals. Some were the sons and daughters of farmers who had sold their fields when the University began to grow. They saw me as a curiosity at first, an unbalanced character who had left mythical California to come to this place. A prisoner who broke back into jail. After a while, they let me fit in.

On our breaks, we'd sit on cardboard boxes stacked like a pyramid, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes as fast as we could. The guy who ran the fearsome paper-cutting machine always sat at the top. He had a chipped tooth and a flat top and cracked jokes with a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth. He was very mistrustful of the government and told me that the space walk and moon landing were both faked in a TV studio. He brought in a pulp science magazine that had pictures of how they had done it. I didn't put up much resistance. It was a university, dedicated to the free and open exchange of ideas.

She was spending 12 hours a day in the lab, Saturday she studied in the library, Sunday we did shopping and laundry. I came home from work with a locomotive running through my head. We didn't make love very much in Indiana, a misnomer, since by then, all we were having was occasional sex.

One night I visited her at the lab. Nearly every foot of it was stacked with wire cages inhabited by white mice. Their food pellets filled the place with the sweet smell of a freshly mown lawn. Her research grant involved the effects of alcoholism and she was conducting experiments using two groups of mice. One group was abstinent, drinking nothing but water. They all appeared to be dependable, lucid, upright citizens. The other group was allowed to drink gin and water cocktails, as many as they liked, never in danger of being Eighty Sixed.

The drinkers were nearly all bloated, with swollen pink feet barely able to reach the bottom of the cage. Their red day-glow eyes looked ready to pop out at any moment. They had apparently lost interest in food, as their dishes were nearly full. And while I don't know what a mouse on the make looks like, nobody here seemed interested in much more then another drink.

Another grad student had spotted her and trotted over to talk. She didn't make introductions, which relieved me of the obligation to shake his hand. There were multicolored stains on the cuffs of his white lab coat that I took for the heaving of half-loaded mice. He tried to speak first but she cut him off.

"Hey Martin! Why are you here so late? They cancel Star Trek?"

He ignored her insult. "Doc came by tonight," he said. It was a clumsy set up and she managed a disinterested reply.

"So, what's the news from the tower?"

"Well, I saw him looking at your data folder and heard him say to someone that you weren't getting the results he had expected."

Then, in the counterfeit sympathy of a rival added. " I thought you'd want to know."

She suppressed her facial reaction but I could tell she was gasping for air under the ice.

Later at home we talked about the conversation. Her entire body was shaking so she had pulled her knees up to her chin and was holding them tight trying to make it stop. She told me that this wasn't the first time the Doctor had expressed his desire that her results support his overall theory. No results, no theory. No theory, no publication No publication, you know the rest.

"He wants the data to come out his way. He doesn't care if it's right or not." She said it with ellipses and I tired to respond with something reassuring.

"Isn't there someone you can tell? What about the others in the lab."

It was useless reply, just above silence but enough to give her the illusion we were discussing her situation

"I can't say anything against him. He's a star. No one would believe me anyway." She wanted to be indignant but the ability to strike the pose had abandoned her.

I could have sat down and put an arm around her but knew it would be a pretense neither of us could stomach.

"What if you went to the university newspaper and told them how he manipulates data in his favor? What he's doing is government fraud."

It was hoary movie dialogue. I had found the bottom. My words were below the worth of silence, every one splitting the distance between how little I felt for her and absolute zero. She buried her face in her forearms. She didn't know how to cry. I was unashamed to be grateful.

A few weeks later we were driving along the River Road headed towards the university. A freezing wind was sneaking through the gaps in the convertible top. Both of us were in a disagreeable mood. A song came on the radio that I had once liked. The refrain was:

"I love you so. That's all I know"

Now it just burned through my ears, I punched the button to change the station much harder then was needed.

She asked me calmly why had I done it.

I told her "Because it was just a meaningless B.S. song."

She paused and looking out the windshield, said, "Not if it's true."

I let her words seep in then turned towards her. She was facing me now.

"I'm sorry," she said, "It just happened."

In sentences that always seem linked, I asked, "Who is he"?

To which she replied, "Just a guy, you don't know him"

I suddenly realized that I was driving the River Road at 70 miles per hour. I had no memory of driving during the entire conversation. Somehow, we weren't in a ditch.

I left Indiana three days later. I regretted not saying good-bye to my friends at work. They treated me well and I still know their faces if not their names. If she or I said spoke to each other at the airport, I don't remember what it was. I got drunk on the airplane and was happy to be on the way out. A friend picked me up at the L.A. airport. I was hung over and tired so we didn't talk very much.

She wrote me two letters in the months after I left. The first was full of self-pity. Her new boyfriend had left her and the Doctor was growing increasingly unhappy with her refusal to fake the results. By the second letter, everything had exploded. She had quit the university and the lab without notice, taking some data with her on the way out. Since the research was government funded, the FBI was informed when the Doctor reported what she had done. Later, two agents came to see me in L.A. They asked me if I knew where she might be. I told them as far as I knew, she was still living in the yellow house down by the river. I didn't know where she was but I was sure it wasn't there.

Article © Barry Udoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-10-08
Image(s) are public domain.
2 Reader Comments
Sheila strong
04:21:04 PM
Lovely story. Sad. Sweet. Slice of life. Strikes a chord. Didn’t this happen to all of us when we were young ?
Katie Nickas
11:51:24 PM
I grew up in Indiana. Something about the grounded character of this author's voice really hit home. I loved how he wove that throughout. Great story.
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