Pack All Your Pretty Things
Friday night and the library seemed empty—the students all out at bars or parties seeking answers to questions no book could teach them. Virginia smiled at the two thin-voiced librarians gossiping behind the circulation desk. “We close at ten, dear,” one said. A clock on the wall behind her showed five past nine. Virginia nodded and disappeared into the stacks. The book-lined shelves calmed her. Occasionally she peered through the gaps to the other side where the titles were too small to read—the hardbacks a random series of blues and blacks, reds and grays with a steady row of white-taped call numbers running across their spines like a low fence.
Virginia reached a nook with table and chairs where she took off her boots, continued barefoot across the carpet like a specter. She made her way to the fine art section, sat cross-legged in the aisle, and pulled at random from the shelves. Sometimes she found the remnants of an earlier visit—a receipt, a note with errands never completed, the cellophane from a pack of cigarettes. These traces of her life marked pages she’d meant to find again. She left them because she wasn’t trusted to take books home; she left them because she wasn’t a student.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa, Coliseum, and Notre Dame greeted her from the pages of a volume on European architecture. If Virginia stared at the photos long enough and then closed her eyes, she could almost imagine herself there, could almost make the streets come alive. She liked to think the innocent bystanders caught by the photographer weren’t that different from her, that they just happened to live in Rome or Paris and she just happened to live in Kentucky. As she studied a photo of Dover Castle, Virginia pulled a penknife and square of cardboard from her bag and started cutting.
Virginia stole from the books reluctantly. Repentantly. But her need to hold these places, these buildings, these masterpieces, to own memories of the lives she’d never lead, overcame any guilt. The cuttings were like vacation photos. With them, Virginia could pretend she was the sort of person who strolled through museums and made smart comments about the art on the walls, could conjure new friends to share this life with—airy girls with sun-reddened hair, boys with tanned skin and swimming muscles—stylish friends who’d invite her for drinks at their seaside cottages or shabby-chic city apartments.
Virginia took Trafalgar Square and London Bridge; she took the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. She placed each carefully in her bag so that they would not crumble or fold. Later she would sketch them, giving attention to smallest details of construction, until she was satisfied. In this way she constructed, bit-by-bit, a collage she intended to ink on her body. The tattoo would span her back, run over her shoulder and down one arm. She constantly rearranged the design, redrew its parts. She imagined the Eiffel Tower the centerpiece, took it out entirely; added an Italian fishing village on the verge of falling into the sea, replaced it with a medieval castle. She waited for the day the collage would feel done, the day it would be good enough to make permanent.
When she’d first started coming to the library, Virginia had hungered for paintings. She found large volumes containing the greatest works by the most famous artists. Some of them were pieces she knew—the Mona Lisa, Starry Night—but most had been new. A landscape by El Greco had reminded her of her hometown. The gray, boiling skies, the falling apart buildings. Endless hills. Virginia couldn’t tell if the sun was getting ready to fight through that apocalyptic sky or if the town was waiting to be swallowed by the dark. Later she’d found a painting of two lovers so knit they shared a single body. Virginia thought that was the kind of love for her, but a couple months and a few bad experiences later, she came across the painting again and began to wonder if maybe the woman was trapped, if maybe she was trying to pull away from the man too late.
Virginia was slicing around the Acropolis when she heard footsteps and pocketed the knife just in time to see pair of brown leather shoes slapped by khaki cuffs round the corner. “Oh, excuse me,” the boy said. Virginia had seen him before—flipping through piles of books with disinterest, pausing occasionally to read a few lines. They’d shared glances but never spoken. At least once she’d driven home thinking about him. “What are you reading?” He caught a glimpse of the still open book. “Greece,” he said before she’d had the chance to answer. “I went there a couple summers ago for camp. But it wasn’t campy.” He laughed. “All the buildings are this…” He paused. “This dusty white. Not that that makes sense. But it’s beautiful.” Virginia closed the book and put it back on the shelf. The boy reached his hand down. “Julian,” he said.
He had deep-set eyes and a crooked front tooth. A couple blemishes around his mouth blended with the pink of his skin. He wasn’t handsome so much as confident—a confidence apparent in the wispy hair he didn’t consider important enough to comb. There were freckles along his hand, freckles like her own. “I’m Virginia,” she said.
He helped her to her feet, then leaned down to pick up her bag. The cutout pictures were in plain view and she made to stop him, but he took her arm and slid his hand up, lifting the bangles that ringed her wrist. “Let me,” he said and handed her the bag. She pulled it over her shoulder.
“Have you ever been to Greece?” he asked.
Virginia rolled her eyes and laughed. “I’ve never left Kentucky.”
“That’s funny,” he said. “Given your name. I’d never been to Kentucky until college. I’d say it’s on par with Greece, though. More mountains, less sea. The women here are prettier.”
Julian let out a deep, dramatic exhale. “Oh good,” he said. “You looked terrified when I walked up. I worried you thought I was a monster. Do I look like a monster?”
“No.” She dug her bare toes in the carpet. “You look like a guy named Julian.”
He smiled back. “And you look like a Virginia.” He pointed to her boots in the aisle. “You lost your shoes, Virginia.” He let his fingers run over the spines of books, barely touching them, and brought that hand to her shoulder. “Maybe you’d like to put them on and let me buy you a drink.”
He was tall, and she liked his bent smile, the way he talked, but college boys never ended up treating Virginia the way she wanted to be treated.
“The library is closing,” he said. “Just one drink.”
She nodded. “One drink.”
They walked lockstep down the college’s pebble paths. Julian’s arm brushed playfully against hers, and for once Virginia felt like she belonged among the stone buildings and clipped grass. Night settled over them and the church bells chiming ten stretched over the conversation of a passing couple. Wide-trunked trees with ancient, twisted limbs blocked the orange glow from a row of lamps and a soft mist began to fall. As they passed through the chipped stone arch that separated campus from the town, Julian touched an obelisk in the center of the path. It was a ritual among the students, and for the first time, Virginia deigned to touch the stone as well. It was damp and left a bit of wet at her fingertips.
Julian talked. About himself mostly. Where he came from. His family. He spoke with an ease that Virginia found strange. He was a boy with nothing to hide, and she was a girl well practiced in deceit. He came from up north, Ohio to be exact, some place outside Cleveland where it snowed too much and the football team always lost. His father was a lawyer, which Julian thought boring. Julian made video art and when Virginia said, “Like movies?” he answered, “Kind of.” His father had met his mother at this very college. Dad was a bookworm, mom a volleyball player. Julian figured he was destined to come here and his younger brother would follow him, and their sons would follow them, and so on and so forth for the rest of time. The story felt rehearsed, like he’d told a thousand times.
When they were outside the bar, he asked Virginia about herself. She pulled a cigarette from her pack and he was quick to light it for her. She mentioned growing up in Peanut Butter—the small town where she still lived—but left out the details. She told him she dreamed of leaving, mostly.
“So you don’t go to school here?” he asked.
“No,” she admitted. “I don’t.” She waited for him to find an excuse to ditch out on the drink.
“Well, you should,” he said. “None of the idiots I know would spend Friday night in the library.” He took her cigarette in his fingers and held it lightly for a drag. When he blew out, he pursed his lips in a dramatic way that she would have mocked in one of her friends back home. “Peanut Butter,” he said, as if trying to remember a face. “I’ve seen it on the map. I mean, it sounds familiar, of course.” The mist turned into a soft rain, and he tossed her cigarette to the ground. “Let’s go inside and have that drink.” Julian took her arm, and Virginia pulled back just long enough to stamp the butt of the cigarette with her boot.
The bartenders worked down the row of college students like farmers filling troughs, while the jukebox blared a mix of Rolling Stones and Dirty South rap. Laughter rose into the air and hovered there. The only way to be heard was to shout or lean close. Julian put an arm around Virginia’s waist. He had long fingers, and she could imagine a stronger version of him ringing her and lifting her into his arms. She raised herself to his ear and whispered, “It’s busy.” He pulled her tight and called out to a bartender, “A couple glasses of red. Cabernet.” Then to Virginia, “Is Cabernet okay?” She nodded and started to think of various compliments she might give the wine.
He led her to a wooden booth and helped her from her coat, hung it on a hook like it was something fashionable and not Wal-Mart generic. Across from one another, they spoke mainly in glances. “This is good,” Virginia said, lifting the wine glass.
“I thought you’d like it,” he said. “In Greece they drink Ouzo, which tastes like licorice. It’s clear like vodka, but if you pour it on ice, it turns milky white.”
She asked him to tell her more but he had a way of making Greece seem boring. He said it wasn’t much different from any place else. Then he listed other places that weren’t all that great. Spain. Italy. France. Maybe he did it for her benefit, to tell her she wasn’t missing out, but that’s not what Virginia wanted to hear. She wanted to hear those places were better than she could imagine; she wanted them to be dreams she’d not yet had.
She smiled weakly and took another drink. This seemed to please Julian and his hand ventured across to table to hers. “You really are beautiful. And that name. Do people call you Ginny?”
“It was my mom’s name.”
“A family name. Mine too.” He tossed his head, his hair rising and falling back in place, the same exact disheveled as before. “My name’s less unique though. Julian Clay. The fourth. My brother, he’s named Meredith.”
“That’s a girl’s name, right?”
“Most people think so but it’s both. And I wish it were mine. There are no other Meredith Clays in the family. My brother is free to be whomever he wants. But me? I’m trapped. Just another Julian Clay in a long line of Julian Clays.”
“And I’m just Virginia from Peanut Butter.”
“I guess we’re two peas in a pod,” Julian said and laughed.
His hand squeezed hers as the bar’s door flung open, and the rain, which had started to fall in slanted sheets, pushed onto the floor. Two boys and a woman followed just as the song on the jukebox ended. The woman’s thin yellow hair was matted with wet and flashes of scalp showed beneath. Mascara ran down her face, falling into the hollows of her cheeks. She’d been a beauty once and still had hints. Virginia knew her—Lila McCann, or Mrs. Walter McCann, or her friend Thomas’ mom, depending on who was asking. Lila wiped the black from her face with a coat sleeve and threw her arms around the boys. “Lead me to the bar, gentlemen,” she called out. Some of the students snickered. Others turned their eyes away. “And take a lady’s coat,” she instructed as she slipped it off. Beneath, she wore a floral print dress with thin straps that rested loosely on her shoulders.
A new song started on the jukebox, and Julian pulled his hand from Virginia’s to wave at the two boys with Lila. They answered him with head nods and eyes rolls. “Those scoundrels,” Julian said. “She’s a hot mess tonight.”
“I know her,” Virginia said.
“Oh, everyone knows her,” Julian answered.
“No,” Virginia insisted. “I know her. She’s from my hometown.”
“Oh.” For the first time Julian looked unsure of what to say; he chanced touching Virginia’s leg beneath the table and said, “I guess everyone’s entitled to a little fun, right?”
“She’s my friend’s mom.” Virginia sat up in the booth and pulled her leg back. “And she’s married.”
“Lots of people are married.”
Virginia rolled her eyes and Julian flashed his smile again. In the silence that followed, he stared at her—her eyes, her mouth, her neck. He wanted what he saw. He wanted it so bad he couldn’t hide it, and he was worried it was slipping away. “I’m not married,” he said. Virginia had seen that look before, and she realized he was just another boy, a boy that wanted to tear her clothes off and fuck her and tell stories about it. And if she let him, he was going to fuck her right the fuck up.
Virginia tossed back her wine. “I need to talk to Lila,” she said.
“Come on now.” Julian tried to sound the way he did when he talked about Greece or his family or his art, but he couldn’t manage. He whined. He was still a work in progress. He needed experiences and he needed girls like Virginia to provide them. His was false longing—part of a game she’d played before, a game she’d won and lost, and that had started to bore her.
“It really was a good wine,” Virginia said. She made her way to Lila, who had two elbows on the bar, booze in her glass, and a boy on each side. “I need ice,” Lila said to one boy and then the other. “I need ice,” she said to the bartender, who graciously dropped a couple cubes in her glass. “Thanks, honey.” Her voice was booze-fueled sultry.
“Mrs. McCann.” Virginia touched Lila’s shoulder and slid between her and one of the boys. He kept his feet rooted and let Virginia’s ass rest against his thigh, which he pushed against ever so lightly. “Mrs. McCann,” she said again, louder.
“Oh my God,” Lila exclaimed. “Ginny Hardesty. In all the bars in all the world.” She hugged Virginia. The eyes of the boy not pressed against Virginia’s backside sized her up. His fingers drummed the bar next to Lila’s drink. All manner of plans were stirring. “What are you doing here?” Lila asked. And then, “Have you met Mitchell and Donald?” And then, “They are, I mean … goodness, Virginia, you have turned into the most beautiful woman.” Lila ran a clumsy hand through Virginia’s hair. “I bet you have to beat them away with a stick. I bet my Thomas—” She paused as Julian walked up to the bar. Virginia felt cornered.
“Everything all right?” Julian asked.
Lila turned and said, “Well, I swear, if it isn’t Julian Clay? Virginia are you with this one ‘cause if you are, well, he’s just the sweetest … why, he’s the reason I needed to get two lesser—no offense boys—but Julian—”
“Hi Lila,” Julian said, as if they were well-acquainted. Virginia was disgusted. “Why don’t you leave Lila with me and Virginia,” he said to the other boys. “It looks like she’s had a long night.” The boy behind Virginia eased away from her backside slowly while the other’s face turned pouty. Julian clapped him on the back and sent him towards a couple girls their own age, girls in sweaters Virginia recognized from catalogues.
Lila stood open-mouthed, ready to protest, but all she managed was a breathy, “My boys.” Neither of them bothered saying goodbye.
Julian took Lila’s hand and led her to the booth. Virginia followed.
“I need take her home,” Virginia said.
“She’s fine,” Julian said. “She’s been worse.”
“And you would know?”
“Everybody knows,” he said matter-of-factly. His voice was tinged with something approaching pity.
“What are you lovebirds talking about?” Lila slurred.
“Oh, nothing, Mrs. McCann,” Virginia said. “Julian’s just a friend.”
“If he was my friend, I’d make him more than that.” Lila made an obvious wink and Julian gave her a thin smile in return. Virginia stifled the impulse to punch him in his sandy nose. She wondered what Thomas was up to while his mother flirted with boys his age. She imagined him at home playing video games, bet that his dad was on a business trip to help pay for the gaudy, heart-shaped jewelry he gave Lila and that made the other wives in Peanut Butter jealous. Virginia couldn’t manage much sympathy for Mr. McCann, but Thomas … thinking about him made her terribly sad and made her wish she was back in Peanut Butter drinking Black Label and listening to the crickets chirp.
Julian reached his hand across the table towards her, but Virginia let it wither alone. “Are you all right?” he asked.
Lila put her head on the table.
Virginia shook her head. “I suppose you think this is okay, too.”
“She doesn’t have to ruin our night. She’s a grown woman.”
Virginia couldn’t picture Greece or Ouzo or dusty buildings, but she could picture Julian and his buddies passing Lila around like spare change, could picture them drawing straws to see who got to bank on that sadness. She could picture Julian putting an arm around Lila and pulling her close and pressing his tongue in her mouth until she kissed back. Maybe he was right. Maybe life didn’t change from place to place. Maybe no matter where they went or whom they met, women like her and Lila would be playthings for men, things to be handed off when the boredom set in.
“I’ll get us a couple more drinks,” Julian said and stood up.
Virginia saw her opportunity and took it. She pulled Lila from the booth, threw her cheap coat around the woman’s shoulders, and led her out into the rain.
“Where’re we going?” Lila mumbled.
“No,” Lila crooned, letting the vowel go on and on.
“Please, Mrs. McCann,” Virginia pleaded, pulling Lila by the arm towards her beat-down Buick as if leading a stubborn mare.
“You are just the prettiest thing,” Lila said and put her arms around Virginia, then kissed her on the cheek. “You remind me of me.” She tried to kiss her on the lips, but Virginia turned her head away and kept them moving towards the Buick. Julian bounded out of the bar and called Virginia’s name. She paused, as if from instinct, and Lila moved in for another kiss. Her lips were parted. Rainwater trickled into her open mouth. “Just kiss me, Virginia,” she slurred. “I just want to be kissed.” Virginia watched Julian come towards them. She was better than him. More capable of love. And so she did what Lila asked. She leaned in and offered her a kiss that set her own heart in motion.
“What the fuck?” Julian sputtered as he reached them.
“We’re going home,” Virginia said.
“With each other?”
Virginia didn’t respond. She guided the suddenly docile Lila to the passenger’s seat and closed the door.
“Virginia, what did I do?” Julian asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“You don’t like me?” He stood in the rain without his coat. He was nearly everything she’d once imagined a boy could be. Tall, confident, smart. Devoted. It wasn’t enough.
“I don’t like where you’re from,” she said.
As she opened the driver’s side door, he grabbed it dramatically, and she let him have his face-saving moment. “You’re crazy,” he said. “You’re both fucking crazy. A drunk woman and girl who steals pictures out of books. You deserve each other.”
When he let go, Virginia pulled the door shut and drove away, barely able to make out Julian’s rain blurred figure in red glow of her brake lights. Lila put her hand on Virginia’s thigh.
“No,” Virginia told her. “It’s not like that, Mrs. McCann.”
Lila rolled her head back in the seat. “I need a cigarette,” she said.
“In my bag.”
Lila spilled the contents on the car’s floor. The book cuttings fell onto the wet floormats. “I’m sorry,” Lila said. “I’m a klutz tonight.” She picked up the pictures. Virginia sighed and looked back at the gray road, her headlights smothered by the thickening fog. Lila lit a cigarette and cracked the window. She shuffled the pictures and tried to wipe the damp from them.
“I stole those,” Virginia said.
“I know, honey. I can tell pictures from a book well enough.”
Virginia passed a semi struggling up a hill.
“I’ve been here,” Lila said, holding up a photo of the Arc de Triomphe. “I made Walter take me to Paris for our honeymoon.”
Virginia was unsure whether she believed her or not.
“Walter didn’t like it, but I thought France was wonderful. I wore one of those funny hats that you tilt on the side of your head.” Lila drew on the cigarette. “Most afternoons I’d leave Walter sulking in the hotel and find a café. Like clockwork a Frenchman would come buy me a glass of wine and make conversation in broken English. I guess even then I knew Walter wasn’t the man for me, but here we are, all these years later. Same Lila. Same Walter.” She tossed the cigarette, rolled up the window, and rested her head against it.
Virginia wanted to ask Lila how it felt being treated like trash by those college boys and didn’t she feel terrible getting caught by her son’s friend, but maybe Virginia already knew the answers to those questions and maybe the answers didn’t matter anyway.
By the time they reached the turn-off for Peanut Butter, Lila had fallen asleep, her chest rising and falling with shallow breath. Barely in her grasp, the photo of the Arc de Triomphe fluttered in the wind from Virginia’s open window. Had she been alone, Virginia would have driven home, but something about Lila, something about having a passenger, made her bold. She passed the exit and kept going, followed her headlights and not much else. Mile markers passed and signs for roads she’d never traveled, and though Lila gave a soft snore of protest, she did not wake. Virginia didn’t know where they’d end up or what they’d do when they got there, but if they kept going they’d cross rivers and mountains and discover what lay beyond.
Jesse Donaldson was born and raised in Kentucky and is a graduate of The Michener Center for Writers. He has worked as a groundskeeper for the Houston Astros, a maintenance man, and a professor, and his work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Little Star, and The Oxford American. His novel The More They Disappear is forthcoming from Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.