USGN, Chapter Three
USGN stands for Untitled Southern Gothic Novel. I can’t think of a title. If you’ve got any ideas, comment below!
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The table was set, lined with dishes of steaming food that looked like it came straight out of an illustration from Better Homes and Gardens. Skip straightened his tie and began tapping his foot. He was the only one at the table, standing in front of his place setting, patiently awaiting the arrival of his hosts. He watched as the amount of steam rising from each dish slowly began to lessen. His mouth was watering.
He decided to walk to the parlor and make himself another drink. Should he not be able to gain sustenance from food, he would get it from drink. Timing was not his strong suit. As soon as he began to pour his drink, he heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Once again, he measured his impoliteness against that of his hosts and decided to be shameless. He resumed pouring as Evelyn walked into the parlor.
“Would you mind pouring me one of those as well?” she asked. She looked stunning, in an emerald green, low-cut dress that draped to the floor.
“Of course,” Skip said to no one, as she had already begun walking towards the dining room. He grabbed another glass and matched the pour, then followed in her stead. “Dinner looks incredible,” he said as he handed her a glass and walked to his seat.
“You may sit,” she said, and she pulled her chair.
“Allow me,” Skip said.
“That’s quite all right,” Evelyn responded, and she folded her dress under her and sat down.
“Is Mr. Smith not joining us?”
Evelyn’s mouth twisted slightly.
“Come to think of it… did he ever arrive back? Is everything alright?”
“The business he had to manage in town was much more involved than we originally thought. Rather than going through the bother of going back and forth, we decided it was more economical for him to stay in a hotel for a night or two while it’s being managed. He does send his regards.”
“I’ll thank him when he returns.” He watched Evelyn’s face for a reaction, but she remained stoic as she took a sip from her glass.
“Bon appétit,” she said.
“Merci,” he responded. “Je vais.”
For the first few minutes of the meal, they ate in complete silence, other than the sounds of knives and forks hitting porcelain, glass touching the wooden table, and chewing mouth sounds. It was partially because it was the first full sit-down meal that Skip had eaten in over three days and he was mostly focused on getting food into his body, and partially because there was an awkward tension that held in the air between the two diners. Evelyn was the first one to break the silence.
“Florence is the best cook I’ve ever had. She’s been with us for almost five years. Is the food not delightful?”
Apart from the question that begged him to disagree, Skip concurred, with a mouthful of food. “Mmm.” He took a sip of the wine that they had already drunk half a decanter of.
“I’ve found it very difficult to retain staff that are as skilled as Florence as well as… discreet.”
Skip furrowed his brow. “Do you find it a necessity in staff to be discreet?”
“I don’t have a staff. I’m just a measly writer, after all.”
“Don’t be self-deprecating, Mr. Wilson. It isn’t becoming on you.”
“Fine. I am but a writer living a comfortable, yet modest existence.”
“That’s something to be proud of. Many writers never quite manage to break into any level of success that allows them a lifestyle such as yours.”
“Evelyn- may I call you Evelyn?”
“I think you know the answer to that, Skip.”
Skip chuckled. “I was hoping that due to our earlier conversation, the ice would now be completely broken, but I’m sensing that a layer of frost has settled over our previously warm report.”
Evelyn emitted a dramatic, performative sigh. “You know, you’re right. We’ve already had a properly lubricated introduction. Let’s drop the pretense then, shall we?”
Skip got the sense that dropping the pretense was really code for adding another, thicker layer of pretense atop their relationship. A layer that disguised itself as familiarity and friendliness.
“Well, we haven’t really gotten to know each other very well. How did you and Mr. Smith meet? What is his first name, by the way?”
“Skip, I hope that you can contextualize a women outside of her relationship with her husband. After all, it is only you and I here. Let’s keep things topical.”
“I’m ribbing you. Mostly.” Evelyn took another sizable sip of wine. “We’ve always known of each other, Mr. Smith and I. We’d see each other around at parties and gatherings, weddings and funerals and the like. I can’t say I ever paid him much attention. And then, as I’m sure you’ve heard, both of my parents died. The brakes went out on their car, and they were driving down a very steep hill… Afterwards, I was practically apoplectic. I didn’t leave the house for at least two months. Then, my friend Daisy came over and begged me to come out with her. I didn’t want to. If I put myself back there, in that frame of mind, I still don’t want to go… isn’t that silly? Anyway, she convinced me, mostly out of sheer insistence and a refusal to leave me alone, so I got dressed and we went.”
Skip watched her speak and was enamored. She had a magnetism about her that both drew him in, yet repelled him at the same time.
“It was the first time I really noticed him. Do you know what I mean?”
“Something about him. I made my way towards him, intent on appearing as though I weren’t, and then I turned around and faced the other way and introduced myself to another man. A few moments into our conversation, there was a tap on my shoulder. It was him. He said, ‘I heard what happened to you. I’m so sorry. I went through something similar two years ago. If there’s anything you need, I am happy to help.’ Not until we’d gone on a few dates did I learn that we didn’t go through something similar. We went through something that was eerily the same. He’d lost both of his parents in an instant. Some inebriated man in a fast car was driving without his lights, and swerved to hit them. He survived, of course, the drunk bastard. The event caused him to turn his life around. A spiritual renewal. He’s a priest at Saint John’s. Do you know the number of times he’s tried to apologize to my husband?”
Skip shook his head no.
“He comes here once a month. Once a month for the past three years. What is that.. thirty-six? Thirty-five. He hasn’t shown up yet. Can you believe that?”
“I… in a way, I can, but it is quite the story. How long after meeting Mr. Smith did you decide to marry?”
“We decided after a month, but he was insistent that we wait a year and then have a big wedding, a huge blowout kind of thing, but who are we trying to impress?”
“Did you catch any guff from anyone? From your… friends or anything?”
“Whose minds are we trying to soothe, to convince them of our own convictions? Certainly not our families.”
“Do you believe in God, Mr. Wilson?”
Skip’s heart sunk in his chest and began to beat there. He felt his face flash with heat. He’d never been asked such a question so abruptly and without any kind of warning. “I… I grew up in the church. Catholic. I haven’t been in a few years, but I… I get a sense that there is something more, or bigger, that we as humans most likely cannot conceive of. If you want to call that God, then, that’s…”
“Then it’s what?”
“Well, I… I call it God, sometimes.”
“You’re very brave, Mr. Wilson. Agnosticism isn’t something too common in the South. It’s almost as uncommon as Catholicism.” She smiled wryly and took another sip of wine.
“What about you? Do you believe in… in God?”
“There are two things a lady never reveals. Her age and her denomination.”
“Is that so?”
“I’m not sure, but it sounds good. Would you like some more wine, Mr. Wilson?”
“What happened to Skip?”
“God came into the room.”
Skip swallowed and gave a meager smile as Evelyn poured half of the wine into his glass, then the rest into hers.
“To God. Or whatever you want to call it.”
Skip felt uncomfortable, but he rose his glass, and took another sip. The rest of the dinner passed in relative silence, spotted with bouts of polite conversation, none of which reached to the depths they had touched before.
After the table had been cleared and they were left with only their nearly empty glasses, Evelyn spoke and said, “I wish my husband would have been here. I think you two would get along handily.”
“That would have been nice, but I did enjoy your company… For what it’s worth.”
“A moderate sum.” Evelyn stood up. “Well, I am off to bed. I shall see you in the morning. Breakfast is served at seven, on the dot.”
“Bright and early.”
“Are you a night owl, Mr. Wilson?”
“Only when it’s dark,” he said. He then felt a sense of shame, but he couldn’t tell if it was from trying to be clever and failing, or merely the effort of trying at all.
Skip finished off his wine, and his water, and started to clear his glasses, when Florence came out from the kitchen.
“Don’t worry about that, Mr. Wilson. I’ve got it.”
“Thank you.” He handed off his glasses and walked somewhat unevenly to the foyer. He was careful to hold the railing the entire way up the stairs, and when he got to his room, he removed only his pants, then climbed into bed and was out like a light.
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