Denise punches radio stations with nails that match her lips. I look at my own nails, clear and unpolished.
“Deer.” Denise points out the front window.
I scan the treeline on both sides, look for a deer eating grass or waiting to cross. Then I see it, just short of the median, head yanked from its body and resting a few feet up the berm from the rest of the carcass. Bright pink blood pools on the pavement and loose meat hangs from both segments. I’ve seen dead deer before, contorted or crushed or one portion flattened and mutilated, but the head on the road has a round, black nose and alert-looking eyes under a light brown brow, and the body is full. Headless, it might still get up and bound into the trees.
I look away.
Denise adjusts the rearview mirror. “I’ve never seen anything like that. Wow. What do you think hit it?”
I tilt my head into the wind and laugh. “A fucking big truck.”
She looks at me, then changes the station again and sings along with a song. I close my eyes. The breeze fans my eyelashes and rakes my hair and I pretend the wind is Jake’s fingers tugging at the ends.
She says, “My mother in-law is coming over tonight before she leaves town.”
“Was she here? I didn’t see her in the hangar.”
“Oh, no. She didn’t get to come to the hangar. That’s a rule.” She lights a cigarette and uses her tongue, pointed and flexed, to remove congealed lipstick from the corners of her mouth, then opens her window and asks me to close mine. I crank the knob. “She actually waited at our house for me to get back and made a list on our grocery pad so I could send a proper care package. Then she made sure the shelves were dusted. She said, ‘You must keep the house immaculate.’ In case they come to tell me William’s dead, but she didn’t say that.” She flicks her cigarette outside and closes the window. “Too humid.” She turns on the air. “I don’t think they care what your house looks like, personally. Do you keep yours—” She taps the wheel. “Sorry.”
I wonder, anyway, what they would think of my apartment. Maybe she’s right. Maybe they wouldn’t notice or care. But, maybe they would. Maybe they’d eye the underwear on the floor, or Chancey’s vomit on the cat tree. Their first time doing it, their first time making that walk from the street to the front door, maybe they see nothing but the doorbell while they sturdy-up, prepare themselves for angry tears and wonder whether they’ll be able to push out that first word. When the door opens, maybe they stand there, their first time, and hope they don’t give in to nervous laughter. That they don’t stutter or, in a moment of freak empathy, cry.
But after the fourth or fifth time, maybe they notice the weeds alongside the driveway haven’t been pulled, that the yard isn’t taken care of nearly as well as Mrs. Smith’s, whose house they visited last week, and that some doors have doorbells and some have knockers and others have neither but are thin and hollow and sound like empty cigar boxes, clak, clak, clak—
“Which entrance?” Denise says.
—when they rap them with their knuckles.
The construction site looks vacant when I get there, so I park and—having given up on getting any more war news—sit back and change the radio station to something less dead-dog saaaaad. Scattered footprints flatten the patch of clay, such reddy-orange clay and so bright under my headlights, and what was this morning a popsicle-stick construction is evolving, growing. A toddler of a house. Sheets like corkboard fill the gaps between beams and I can see the makings of the cul-de-sac’s pattern: B, A, C, this one. I press the horn, forgetting it’s broken, then open the window and yell, “Cab!” It’s so dark out there.
I flip down the visor and turn on the roof light and check my hair in the mirror. Messy from the wind, and my face is pale, skim-milky. The gray under my eyes won’t be wiped away. Whatever prettiness there might have been is gone, long long gone, covered by hours and street grime. I scrub harder, until the skin turns red, then slap up the visor and watch the trailer and lock my doors, because who knows what lurks out there at the edges? I open the window again, scream “Cab!” and close it again and wait. The trailer door opens and a hand emerges from the darkness, one finger held up. Wait. I slide down the window again. “I have to go,” I yell, my voice frantic instead of strong, and he steps-one, steps-two down the stairs with his free hand clutching the railing, then staggers to the car with a beer can, his boots dragging through the clay.
He gets in and slams the door, slurps his beer. He smells, not like smoke but like the inside of a smoke-filled lung, like skin saturated with the straight nicotine of one hundred cigarettes, and when he turns toward me his head lolls like a baby’s. “Hi, beautiful,” he says, and his breath carries vomit.
Orange streetlights pass over the hood, the windshield, Donny’s hand. His fingers tap his thigh to the music on the radio. His other hand holds his beer against his stomach and the aluminum makes hollow popping sounds under clenching fingers. “Good day,” he says. “It was a good day. Sheathin’ today, trusses tomorrow.” He looks at me. “The roof.”
I nod and smile. “Right.” I turn up the radio.
“You’re very pretty,” he yells, and “very” and “pretty” run together to sound like “vurpurdy.” His head falls on a shoulder and he watches me.
“Thank you,” I yell.
“You don’t mean that.”
“Sure, I do,” I say.
He shakes his head. “Nah. You don’t mean it. You—hey, you wanna turn that down?”
I turn it down.
“Hurt your ears, that way, music so loud you can’t hear yourself talk or nothin’. What I was sayin’ was, you said, ‘Oh thank you, mister Donaldson,’ like you—you looked at me and saw…you didn’t look at me, but I saw your face, and you didn’t mean it. You said it like you’re a robot, or like you think I want to have sex with you just ’cause I say you’re pretty.”
“Like a robot?” But that is what I think when they’re drunk, when they slur Gee, honey, you must make a lotta tips, or You sure are a bitch, ain’t you? It’s what I think when they won’t just sit there and look straight out the window.
“A robot,” he says. “No emotions.” He pounds his chest. “You say thank you but you mean Fuck you, you old man, you pervert. Sure, I’m old. Older than you, seen stuff you’ll never see. But not old, not an old person. So what if I say you’re pretty?” He tips his can into his mouth, but it’s empty. He sets it on the floor and holds it between his feet. “You’re beautiful. What’s wrong with sayin’ that? It don’t mean I want to take you home, don’t even mean I like you. Everyone has beauty.” He presses his palm to his chest. “There’s beautiful people all over. It don’t mean Donny’s sayin’ ‘Fuck me’.”
“Okay. I get it.”
“It don’t mean I think you’re more beautiful than no one else. I knew this ugly woman once—no joke, she was damn ugly—but she was still the most beautiful person I ever met. Ever. You ain’t got nothin’ on her.” He shakes his head and picks up his can again, tries to drink from it, and puts it back between his feet. “Stop at that gas station there so I can get some beer.” He slides his window up and down. “If I’m to put up with this bullshit I need some beer.”
He pounds the armrest. “You don’t know what I seen, don’t know what kind of man I am, but you sit there and think I’m tryin’ to get you into my bed, just a kid. What’re you, twenty?”
“Twenty-six.” I pull in and park by the door.
“Don’t know nothin’. Don’t know me or what I seen and you think you can judge me. I’m old enough to be your daughter.”
Pretty Much True
Professor-turned-cab driver Mia Sharpe, while sinking into the numbing fear that she’ll never see her war fighting soul mate again, befriends a Vietnam veteran and a few bad habits as her once normal life becomes an exercise in long-distance relationship management, friendship avoidance, “couples” party handling, and war protest etiquette.
PRAISE FOR PRETTY MUCH TRUE
“Americans are getting a finer sense of who we are at an important time in our history because of the quality of literature from writers with voices calibrated to sing out our zeitgeist. And this novel by the grandly-talented Chris Jane delivers the best kind of fiction – a story suffused with a brightness that shines truer than the truth.” – James C. Moore, MSNBC commentator and author of The Rembrandt Bomb and co-author of the NYT-bestelling Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential
“One of the most powerful and brilliant books I have read in a long time. Make this the next book you read.” – Joseph Dilworth Jr., Pop Culture Zoo
“Hauntingly spare and shimmeringly powerful, Pretty Much True hurls you into a world you only think you know or understand and makes it living, breathing, and absolutely engrossing.” – Caroline Leavitt, NYT best selling author of Is This Tomorrow
“A powerful novel with wonderful echoes of Vietnam and our country’s tortured response to that war.” – Paul Griner, author of The German Woman
“In a style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s surreal narratives, Pretty Much True is a story revelatory of a side of war that often is overlooked.” – Lee Giguere, the Journal Inquirer
“Pretty Much True is a fascinating study of how the casualties of war extend far beyond the battlefield that is also incredibly funny in places. Great book.” – Russell Rowland, author of In Open Spaces and High and Inside
“There are few stories written from the point of view of a loved one back home waiting, and waiting some more, not knowing if or how the soldier will return home. Perhaps that’s because so few have found an interesting way to write such a story, but that has changed, thanks to Chris Jane.” – Carol Hoenig, The Huffington Post