The Autumnal Itch

by Theresa C.

Deirdre didn’t like Miami, or the apartment. She really didn’t like the man who lived in the apartment – at least, not anymore. She packed her toothbrush, her laptop, and a bag full of clothes before sneaking away in the middle of the night, heading North with the top down on her Jeep and her hair tucked into a baseball cap.

When she left, she always left at night—when the roads were empty and it seemed like she could be anywhere at all by morning. There was no traffic to slow her down and interesting people loitered in the truck stops and convenience stores. Once she met a female Elvis impersonator in Indiana—a reverse drag queen of sorts. Most importantly, she could see the lights of the next city before she saw the city itself. It was easier to fall in love with a place in the dark, when its lights twinkled like the stars they were trying to replace and the grime got lost in the shadows.

She wore her traveling clothes whenever she headed off in search of a new home. Her favorite jeans—worn at the seams and faded on the thighs, with paint on the rear pocket from her only foray into home decorating—and a white shirt made up her standard traveling outfit. She figured it was appropriate attire, no matter what city she ended up in. Playing in her Jeep was a tape someone had given her in San Francisco, saying only that it was “good road music.” As it turned out, that person had been right.

On the road, heading up through the tedious state of Florida, Deirdre wasn’t sure where she was going. The American South had not agreed with her. She liked wearing sweaters too much to stay in Miami, and with the summer coming to a close, she thought she might like to spend the fall back home in New England.

Maybe she could even get Red Sox tickets and go to a game or two before the season ended. There was nothing like a walk along the Charles with a crisp October wind kicking up a cyclone of autumn leaves around your feet—except maybe for a post-game celebration in a pub.

She was somewhere in the Carolinas before she decided to stop for breakfast and a few hours of shut-eye. A place called Pearl’s appeared on the side of the road, sandwiched between a row of houses and an old mill. Deirdre pulled into the parking lot, jumping out of the Jeep for the first time in hours. She bent at the waist and touched her toes before reaching over her head and arching her back. 

Lying by the curb, just a few feet from Pearl’s front door was a skinny dog, with an orange face, and a speckled white and gray body that caught Deirdre’s eye. The dog lifted its head to look at her and beat its tail against the curb but didn’t get up.

“Mornin’,” said the woman behind the counter as Deirdre made her way into the diner.

“Good morning,” Deirdre answered, glancing at the menu above the woman’s head.

“What can I do ya for?”

“Can I have a bagel and a chai tea?” Deirdre asked, not having located either item on the menu.

“A bagel and a what now?”

“A chai tea.”

“Sorry, hun. Hate to disappoint a customer but the closest we got is a glazed donut ‘n a plain ol’ tea.”

“Well, then, I guess that will have to do,” she said cheerfully.

“Alright then, one donut and a tea coming up.”

“Can I have plenty of milk and sugar in the tea please?”

“Sure thing, doll.”

Deirdre liked the lady behind the counter, whose nametag said that she was Rhoda, not Pearl. She was plump and actually seemed pleased to be helping someone—not like the apathetic staff of Starbucks across the country, serving coffee to the desiccated masses. Rhoda had a round face, the kind that never seems to fall prey to wrinkles thanks to an abundance of cheek fat.

Deirdre watched the dog through Pearl’s glass door. It chewed incessantly at its paw, and Deirdre noticed that though the dog had lovely coloring, its fur was matted and dirty.

“Is that your dog?” Deirdre asked Rhoda.

“What dog?”

“That one there?” Deirdre pointed to the curbside.

“Oh, no ma’am. That’s Ruth. She’s no one’s really. Couple people ‘round here tried to take her in but she didn’t want much to do with it.  She’s nice though. We give her scraps when we can.”

“She’s kind of sad looking.”

“I think she’s lonely. Dog without a home is a sad thing.”

Deirdre grunted, contemplating the dog. She wasn’t sure an animal could be lonely.

“Last people tried to take her in, put a collar on her, and she went berserk. Tore up their livin’ room. They kicked her out after that. That’ll be two dollars and fifty cents, Sugar,” Rhoda said, pushing the tea and donut across the counter.

Deirdre gave Rhoda three dollars and took a sip of her tea.

“Is there a motel to stay anywhere around here? I’ve been driving all night.”

“There’s a little place just round the bend. Don’t look like much but it’s clean. My sister’s the maid.”

“That’s good enough for me. Thanks for the grub,” Deirdre said, leaving an extra dollar on the counter for Rhoda.

Outside, she stopped by the curb. The dog rolled over onto its side, and let Deirdre scratch her ear.

“Well, hey there, Ruth. You sure are a pretty girl. Look at those eyes,” she said to the dog, which had one blue and one brown eye. She tore a chunk off of her donut and fed it to the dog before heading back toward the Jeep. Ruth watched as Deirdre walked away and got into her faded blue Jeep and then drove off down the road to the Slow Creek Motel.

Rhoda was right: the rooms were clean. Deirdre noticed that the tub was spotless as she ran a bath and that even the sheets smelled freshly laundered. Standing in front of the mirrored closet doors, Deirdre dropped her pants and peeled off her shirt, which had begun to stick to her somewhere in Georgia. She wriggled out of her bra and stood in front of the mirror, staring at herself in only a pair of white, lacy underwear she bought while she was living in Albuquerque a few years back.

Deirdre was always long and lean, with solid legs and a flat stomach. Once her high school’s star soccer player, Deirdre had not lost her figure almost 15 years after graduation. She still had the slim hips and the unblemished midriff of a childless woman. Her breasts, never having known the burden of feeding a child, were round and perky—still filled with potential. Her auburn hair was a mess after a long night, spent hidden under a baseball cap and her eyes—the most impossible shade of blue—were bleary and aching for a good rest.

In the bathroom, she turned off the faucet and slid into the warm water. She held her breath as she sunk under, opening her eyes and watching as her hair rose to the surface, floating like seaweed in an ocean of bathwater. The bathroom light glared down like an angry fluorescent sun, and suddenly, Deirdre wondered, for the first time, what Carlos might be thinking back in Miami.

When he woke up to find all of her things gone, what did he think? He hadn’t called her cell phone—or maybe she just didn’t get reception out in Slow Creek. He probably wouldn’t call. He’d been expecting her to disappear for weeks. She saw how scared he looked every time she left the apartment and knew he was only pretending to be sleeping when she came home late. 

Poor Carlos; she felt sorry for him. They’d had a few good times together. But once the fun was over, she realized she didn’t really like him. His nose bothered her and she didn’t like his sleek black furniture. He had some sort of financial job. She had no idea what he really did and that bothered her. Deidre liked men who produced something—who had something other than a paycheck to prove that they had a job. So, she’d left poor Carlos, who clearly adored her—who had put up with her bullshit for months, even though he knew she would probably leave no matter how he tried to convince her to stay. She’d ditched poor Carlos, who had slept beside her every night for months, like a brother. She’d dumped poor Carlos after months of nothing but chaste kisses. Poor Carlos.

***

It was dark when Deirdre woke up. She put on her jeans and a fresh white t-shirt before heading to the front office to check out. She tossed her bag into the back of her Jeep and shuffled toward the office.

Pushing open the door, she startled the kid behind the desk. He nearly fell out of his chair as he took his feet off the desk and rushed to turn down the volume on the little black and white television.

“I haven’t seen one of those in years,” Deirdre said, looking the boy in his bloodshot eyes.

“One of what?”

“Those,” she pointed at the television. “A black and white T.V.,” she added, when the boy still failed to understand her.

“Oh, yeah…”

“Jesus kid, can I get some of whatever you’re smoking?”

“ Pardon?”

“Don’t worry. What’s your name?”

“Travis.”

“Well, Travis, you’re obviously pretty stoned right now. And I need to check out because I have another long night of driving ahead of me, and I wouldn’t mind a little of whatever you’re smoking to make the drive a little less tedious.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, c’mon Trav,” she said, lifting herself up onto the counter and looking over the desk. “There right there. That’s a giant bag of weed.”

“Are you a cop?”

“No, I’m Deirdre Fox, room five and I want to check out—and I’d like a quick smoke… If you don’t mind sharing.”

“Alright, I guess,” Travis said, reluctantly, pulling out the pipe he had been smoking from and packing a fresh bowl. Deirdre sat down on the small sofa in the office, which appeared to be much older than Travis. He came around to the front, sat beside her and passed the bowl.

“So, where you from?”

“Originally?”

“I guess.”

“Massachusetts.”

“That’s a long way from here.”

“How old are you, Travis?” Deirdre asked, looking the shaggy haired boy in the face. He reminded her of the boy she’d dated in high school. He was beautiful, with chestnut brown hair and hazel eyes. Deirdre wondered what his story was. He looked like he had been an athlete but maybe his pot habit had gotten in the way, and he was left behind when everyone else went off to college.

“Nineteen.”

“Do you go to college?”

“No one ‘round here goes to college, ma’am.”

“Don’t call me ma’am. It makes me feel old.”

Oddly enough, she didn’t feel much older than Travis—not now that she was high, anyway. For a moment, she almost wished she were back in high school—dribbling the ball up and down the field every autumn day after school, winning the State Championships and leading poor Cameron Ingleside around by the nose. Maybe, “by the balls” was more accurate.

“You look just like my high school boyfriend.”

Deirdre wasn’t surprised when Travis kissed her but she was surprised that she kissed him back. Before she knew it, she was stoned and being felt up by a 19-year-old boy on a dirty couch in a motel. For some reason, she didn’t even feel bad about it. Why should she? She figured if it weren’t her, it would be some poor girl from down the road who would end up pregnant. So, as Travis—who had the arms of a boy who hauled farm equipment for most of his life—slid her favorite jeans off of her, Deirdre didn’t stop him. Instead, she wrapped her legs around him and admired how hard his stomach was—like an underwear model.

It was quick but it was enough, and though her high was gone, Deirdre was relaxed and ready for the long migration.

“Where are you going?” Travis asked as Deirdre stood up, leaving him on the couch, embarrassed by his nakedness. She stood in front of him, statuesque—more beautiful than any woman he thought he had ever seen—and he admired her peaches and cream complexion, the freckles on her shoulders, as she put her clothes back on.

“I don’t know,” she said. “North.”

“Can I come?” He looked desperate, bored—like he would have gone anywhere with anyone who happened to stop into the office that night.

“Sorry, Travis, but this is a solo trip.” As she pulled on her t-shirt she felt the urge to get out as fast as she could.

“But my friends are never going to believe me.”

“So don’t tell them,” she whispered, winking and disappearing out of the door. She marched back across the parking lot, refreshed. She looked at her feet as she crossed the dusty lot—the chipped polish on her toenails looking back up at her—and climbed, absent-mindedly into her Jeep.

She sat for a moment in the driver’s seat, thinking about this bizarre town where she had met a pleasant woman named Rhoda, a lonely dog named Ruth, and the virile young Travis. Deirdre lifted her head a bit at the sound of footsteps, dreading having to tell the sweet boy to buzz off.

She jumped, her heart beating in her throat, as a set of eyes appeared above the door of her Jeep and a furry creature found its way into her passenger’s seat.

“Holy shit,” she yelled, fumbling for the handle on her door. But it wasn’t a bear or werewolf, or whatever it was she expected. It was Ruth, who appeared to be grinning.

“Jesus Ruth, you scared the crap out of me!” Deirdre yelled, as though the dog understood. She laid her hand above her left breast, wondering if the dog might have given her a heart attack. “Well, c’mon, get out.”

Deirdre leaned across the Jeep, opening the door.

“C’mon. Shoo! Shoo!” she said, waving her hand at the dog. “Ruth, please. I have to go.”

The dog didn’t budge. She just stared at Deirdre, panting and smiling.

“Alright, damn it, you can come but it’s not my fault if you get lost in Baltimore.”

Deirdre headed toward I-95 with a passenger named Ruth, who didn’t like collars and needed her fur combed.


By day, Theresa is the editor of two magazines. By night she a reader and writer of books, NPR addict, and avid gardener. This story is the first chapter of an unfinished book. You can find her at Writer.Editor.Storyteller. 

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