40th Anniversary Feature: DELTA 88
By CHRISTOPHER CHAMBERS
BWR Editor, 1997-1999
One day Veronica told me she wanted to visit her boyfriend Geoffrey who was at that time incarcerated in Duluth. I had never met Geoffrey, who had, long before I met her, given Veronica a fur coat. I wasn’t looking to get tangled up in anything. I had met Veronica at a party. We’d been spending time, three-to-five months maybe, together. It was winter still, February, which in Minnesota is the cruelest month, no matter what you might have heard elsewhere. She managed a sushi bar downtown and was a tough cookie. She brought up the subject of Geoffrey only when she was angry. Then she would tell me he was the only man who had ever really understood her. He was the only man who had ever really loved her. The fur coat would then be cited as evidence of this. The fur coat was bona fide, pricey, full length, mink, or the like. I never asked what it was exactly, the exact species of pelt. I never claimed to understand her.
My uncle worked on a mink farm up north before his last run-in with the law. He told me about it once, the cages all in rows, the pervasive stench. After they skin the minks that are ready to be skinned, they grind up the resulting furless mink bodies and feed them to the other minks, those minks that are not yet ready to be skinned, I assume. The fur coat looked awfully good on her but I don’t believe I ever told her so. As a rule I tend to keep my mouth shut and let people think what they like.
So she wanted to visit her boyfriend in prison. Veronica did not own a car. She did not drive. She wanted me to drive her to Duluth in my Delta 88. She wanted me to drive her to the prison and wait outside while she went in and had this visit with Geoffrey. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about this. The Federal prison in which Geoffrey was incarcerated was maybe a hundred and fifty miles away. Was there a waiting room or would I have to wait in the parking lot? It was not sounding like my idea of a weekend, hours driving a two-lane highway through desolate barren farmland in the rustbucket Olds with its feeble heater, snow drifting across the road limiting visibility. I’d inherited the car from my uncle and it had been trustworthy. But I didn’t want to push it though too far. The car, my luck.
Veronica said she’d pay for gas and a hotel room. I was still ambivalent but I said all right. I still wondered. Should I feel jealous? Did I feel jealous? I thought maybe I did but I was a little jazzed too. It had been years since I’d visited anyone in prison, my uncle down in Stillwater, the state pen, maximum security. But I wouldn’t be going in and meeting the boyfriend. I wasn’t on the approved list of people who could go in and visit. Honestly, I was happy not to be on that list. I was more or less content to be under the radar.
In Duluth we checked into a Best Western with a bottle of gin and a bottle of tonic. We had no luggage, no limes. We went to our room. I turned on the TV and made drinks. We drank from plastic cups and lay on the bed for a while. I went into the bathroom where I caught sight of myself in the mirror. In that light I was not quite recognizable. When I came out of the bathroom Veronica was stretched out on the bed wearing only the fur coat. At this point I was glad I’d agreed to drive her to Duluth. Though the fur coat I could see was beginning to look a little rough, matted in places, not so much elegant any more as simply deceased. I didn’t dwell long on this line of thought but instead on Veronica and her amazing skin, her hair, and the rest.
Afterwards in bed she called Geoffrey at the prison to find out about visiting hours. I lay there quietly while she talked sweet to him. Our bare legs were still entangled. She was talking to Geoffrey. I was lying on my back with my hands behind my head, looking at the water-stained ceiling. I couldn’t make anything out. I’d heard he stood her up before he went away, that he spent his last weekend as a free man with a couple hookers and a pile of cocaine in a high-rise luxury suite. What had she done that weekend while Geoffrey was having his going away party with the hookers? It seemed impolite to ask.
She was still talking to him and I was watching The Big Sleep with the sound turned down low. Lauren Bacall, and everyone else it seemed, was smoking and I badly wanted a cigarette too. But I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to move. I did not want to completely untangle quite yet. I was waiting for Veronica to get off the phone. I was biding my time, I guess, waiting, without knowing it, for the end, the good-bye. It would all be over soon, Veronica and me, though I did not know this at the time. It seemed at the time, undressed and entangled at the Best Western, our bodies together, touching, our heartbeats, hers and mine, slowing in our chests, she curled beside me on her sad fur coat talking to Geoffrey, me watching Lauren Bacall smoke another cigarette, me craving a cigarette, me listening to her talk to Geoffrey in prison, and outside the window the gray February sky blanketing Duluth, it seemed at the time that it all might in fact go on indefinitely, Veronica and me, February, Duluth. At this point I was just waiting for Veronica to get off the phone.
Christopher Chambers is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Alabama and was editor of the Black Warrior Review from 1997 to 1999. He lives in New Orleans where he was editor of the New Orleans Review for twelve years. His work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, The Normal School, The Gettysburg Review, BOMB Magazine, Washington Square, sleepingfish, and elsewhere. A collection of his flash fiction entitled Delta 88 is rumored to be forthcoming from Split Oak Press.
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