The rain crashed against the windshield of the old Lincoln Continental so violently that the sound nearly drowned out “The Old Rugged Cross,” which was playing at top volume on the radio. Karl Feller, with his eyes in a squint and his jaw set tight, drove down a county road he had driven all his life, though he could not see where he was going. And though the windshield wipers could not keep up with the rate that the rain was falling, Karl still felt fairly certain that he and his wife were about two hills away from the high water crossing at Fiddler Creek.
“Myrtle, I reckon we oughta turn around,” he said, his long, thin fingers clutching the steering wheel.
His wife, in a pink chiffon dress and costume pearls, twisted her lips slightly.
“We can’t turn around. We have to go to church.”
“We may have to watch church on TV this morning.”
“You just don’t want to go to church. You’ll use any excuse you can find so you don’t have to go to church.”
“There you are. Cussing on your way to the House of the Lord. That’s a good example for your granddaughters.”
“They ain’t in the car.”
“No, they’re not. But that’s no excuse. You should drive as if Jesus and your granddaughters were all riding in the backseat.”
Although he didn’t say it, Karl didn’t think he had enough seatbelts in the backseat for three granddaughters and Christ Almighty. But, then, he figured that if Christ wanted to ride with them, he’d do a loaves and fishes style trick and provide enough seatbelts for everybody.
“I’m ready to get to church and see our granddaughters in their cute little dresses we got them. I bet they all look so sweet,” Myrtle said.
“I bet they do. But I think Fiddler Creek may be too high to cross.”
“We can’t miss church on Easter Sunday.”
“If we cain’t get across the creek, then I reckon we don’t have no choice.”
The car glided down the second hill, where Karl could see a yellow diamond-shaped road sign that he knew warned of high water, though he could not read the sign for the downpour. At the low spot at the bottom, where they always had to watch for deer when driving at night, there was a stream now coursing across the road.
“Easter or no Easter, that water’s traveling pretty damn fast,” Karl said.
“We have to go see those babies. And what would people think if we missed church on Easter Sunday?”
“Today they’d think we were sensible.”
“Drive, Karl. We’re going to be late.”
Karl stopped on the road just shy of the moving water. He turned on his hazards so no one would hit them in the ass-end. Then he pulled at his clip-on tie like he was struggling to breathe. Although he often tugged at his tie, Karl enjoyed wearing one to church on Sunday mornings because it made him look important, like the bosses in the air-conditioned office up at the rock quarry where he worked until finally retiring eight years ago. At this point, Karl thought about removing his tie, but he figured that would piss Myrtle off. She would, without a doubt, use it to further her case about him not wanting to go to church.
Karl wished he would have gotten Myrtle under control fifty years ago, but he never did. He had always let her run over him. When he thought about it, he figured he had allowed her to behave that way because she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and he never wanted to lose her at any cost, even if that cost sometimes included his dignity. He had been in love with her for more than five decades, and she had doled out her love like treats for a dog, little bites at a time, which left him constantly hungry, constantly starving for her love and her body. Yet she doled out those favors, that affection, at close enough intervals to keep him nearby. And when he was not at work, he never wanted her out of his sight, though still she did as she pleased.
Karl had let her throw dinner plates at him, had let her tell him what she was and was not going to do, despite the fact that she had no money or connections. All she had was her beauty and her will, and somehow that was enough. When they met, she was wearing a tow sack dress that her mother had made her, and now she had a closet full of fine, beautiful clothes. She had dresses and slacks and all kinds of accessories, clothes he had spent lots of money on, and though he was glad to have given her what he had given her, still he found it hard. She always seemed to want more than he could ever give. And yet he had given her all of the material things she asked for, a diamond ring so big that it intimidated other women, and men as well, and a brick house with an above-ground swimming pool, and that was not everything. None of it was sustainable, though it had somehow been sustained for years and years.
But then, maybe his allowing her to run over him had nothing to do with her beauty or her will, Karl thought. Maybe it was because he had lost both of his parents during the Depression and was raised by his aunt and uncle, which had always left him feeling like a walking imposition, a person for whom assertiveness could only lead to trouble. Even today he avoided conflict the best he could, though it was perhaps just a habit left over from his precarious childhood. Back when he was a boy, he was always the outsider in any dispute, even if he was blood kin. His cousins’ parents would hardly be backing him in an argument against their own children. And he knew that his aunt and uncle had taken him on, grimly, out of a sense of duty, and though he had not always felt loved, he had been fed, and that was enough for a child born in the years when red dust rose like a storm.
“I’m turning around,” Karl said, putting the car in reverse.
Myrtle reached for his shoulder.
“I will not cross the Jordan alone,” Myrtle said.
“That ain’t no Jordan. It’s just Fiddler Creek. And only a fool would cross it running that high.”
“The girls will be so disappointed if we don’t make it to church. Drive.”
“I ain’t driving.”
Karl looked into the rearview mirror hoping no one would hit them in the tail-end and ruin his Silver Star Medal license plate, which was, in his opinion, the only good result of the war he had fought.
“Myrtle, we done been married fifty years, and I have always done what you want me to do, but I don’t think it’s wise to drive through this high water.”
The radio played “I’m Coming Home,” and Karl changed the station for the first time in what must have been ten years. He didn’t know how he’d listened to those same damn church songs for so long.
“What will people think?” Myrtle asked.
“From what I can tell, the Lord ain’t willing, and the creek’s done rose. And hell, I don’t much care what people think either way.”
“They’ll take note. I just know they will.”
No, they won’t, Karl thought. They won’t care, and if they do care they aren’t worth worrying about anyway. They are dull, shallow, and narrow-minded. Such people will always find something to gossip about, be it his breath, his boots, or the feisty mare he could never seem to handle.
But he did hold the reins. He held the reins when it mattered. He held the reins when she threatened divorce two decades ago. He held the reins when she stomped and cried about wanting to change bankers. He held the reins when their youngest daughter became pregnant and wanted them to let her and her dope-smoking hippie boyfriend live there at the house until they got on their feet. Karl never let that happen, nor would he ever. He was not going to support some sandal-wearing candy-ass who was not man enough to solve the problems he had made for himself. That just was not the way Karl thought.
“Drive, Karl,” Myrtle said.
Still, people always thought Myrtle wore the denim. They thought she made the decisions, and Karl resented it. He resented it. And he resented the hateful glances she gave him in public, with him too considerate to tell her to go to hell. She had always been that way. He never liked to argue with other people around, so she had run over him in public although he held his own at home. He resented that. He truly resented it. He would give her what she wanted. He would give her what she deserved, and he did not give a damn if it was short-sighted. He would just drive into the floodwater. He would just drive into the stream, and if they made it across, that would be fine. It would be as if the car had been baptized in Fiddler Creek. And if they didn’t make it across, then he had made the choice to be washed downstream.
“Drive, Karl,” Myrtle said.
And so he drove. He drove slowly, and though he soon found himself pressing hard on the gas, the car was already afloat and traveling along the newborn river past cypress and cedar and oak. The car was moving quickly, and water was now entering the cab, the world outside the windows bobbing and bucking as the town car traveled with the wild current, the smell of gasoline from the flooded engine thick in the air as the water filled the floorboard and quickly rose up to the couple’s knees as they sat strapped to the upholstered seats.
“Why did you go?” Myrtle screamed. “Why did you listen to me?”
“I did what you asked me to do,” Karl said. “And nothing more.”
The water, cool and fast, filled the car as it sunk.