An earlier version of “A Better Law of Gravity” appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Arts & Letters Journal of Contemporary Culture (Georgia College & State University) and is included in the collection The Beauty of Their Youth (Wolfson Press, 2020).
A Better Law of Gravity
[The old Frankie] agreed with Berenice about the main laws of her creation, but she added many things: an aeroplane and a motorcycle to each person, a world club with certificates and badges, and a better law of gravity.
—Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding
It was the summer after her first year of college, and FJ, who no longer wished to be called Frankie, was listless and blue. College had been disappointing, and home was worse. But then one morning things turned interesting.
It began, that crazy green August morning, when her sister-in-law Janice pulled into the driveway. She drove a Firebird, only a few years old. Jarvis’s new car.
“Mark my words, he’ll notice it’s gone well before he notices I’m gone,” Janice said that morning, twitching in neutral outside the little suburban house.
Aunt Pet was in the kitchen cutting up a chicken when FJ woke to the sound of the engine and walked outside. She was still in her gym shorts and ratty old T-shirt, sleep caked in the corners of her eyes, and she approached the Firebird tentatively, wondering who could be inside.
“Get in, squirt,” Janice said, “before the old battle-axe figures out who’s out here.”
And FJ had two thoughts in quick succession then. The first was that this must be what they meant about what happened when Janice didn’t take her medication. The second was just a fleeting picture, one that came to her from time to time that summer for no apparent reason: her roommate’s dried-up washcloth hanging on the rack on the back of the door of their freshman dorm room the preceding year. She climbed, barefoot and already sweating at nine in the morning, into the passenger seat of Jarvis’s new-to-him Firebird. And then they were gone.
“Just a blip on the screen, too fast for their old pansy-ass radar,” Janice was saying, whipping around a curve. She punched in the cigarette lighter and rummaged in her bag. “Here,” she said and handed the bag to FJ. “Get out my cigarettes. And help yourself.”
She will never call me Frankie, FJ thought, as they ripped out of the driveway. She doesn’t even know who I am right now.
Was it maturity on her part, that is the ability to see things more clearly, FJ wondered, glancing sideways at her sister-in-law, or did Janice look more desperate than desirable these days? Hadn’t she aged more than she should have since her wedding six years before? She’d grown bony and dark under the eyes and become a chain smoker with a harsh, hacking cough. “Jarvis says sometimes she forgets to take the medication and then they’ve got some trouble on their hands,” Aunt Pet said one night after dinner, to which FJ’s father had replied in his customary way, leaving the table and sitting down with his newspaper.
Still, despite a lingering sense that her father and her aunt had the idea something was wrong, FJ might have gone on seeing all of this as a side to Janice she’d simply had no reason to know about. Except for the conversation when they stopped later that morning for breakfast.
They were in a diner in a town that FJ didn’t know, and when she pulled her dusty bare feet up to hide them under her suntanned legs on the vinyl seat of their corner booth, she felt glad the place was filled with strangers.
It seemed like everyone, not just Janice, was smoking; the blinds were pulled against the white hot morning sun, and the smell of coffee and cigarettes and the buzz of conversation surrounded them in a pleasant, muffling cloud. The waitress brought tall glasses of water and filled the coffee cup that Janice had turned over before she’d even slid into her seat. FJ opened her menu and started to relax, thinking to herself that maybe she and her sister-in-law would start doing this more often, just head out on a Saturday morning every now and then for a nice drive and breakfast in a new town. Maybe they’d finally get to know each other a little better. FJ relished the idea of having this woman—the woman she’d so adored and dreamed of when she was a sad and troublesome child—as a friend. Maybe even a close one. But then they started talking.
What FJ said was “Well, it’s been some time since we’ve seen each other, Janice.”
And what Janice said went something like this: “Yes, yes, the little girl is gone and grown and aren’t we all glad of that? And well you thought it’d all come out different in the end and so did I but then the end has yet to come. And all of this”—she waved her hands around her face, the restaurant booth—“is all the same whatever time it is. We’re coming loose is all. We’re coming loose.” And she laughed and lit another cigarette, nearly dropping it, lit, in her purse when something else occurred to her. “But all’s not lost on the radar screen! We’ll keep on driving, driving, driving till his old rubber pecker gives up trying. Oh yes. Oh you thought, didn’t you, that it would be like Miss America in a bathing suit in the snow. A mountain in the snow. But it’s bloody. You are bloody. It comes out between the cracks. Slow like it’s melting.”
She leaned across the table then and FJ could smell her smoky coffee breath when she whispered, “Believe me. Just do believe me. You’re still just a little girl at heart, but you should know enough to believe me. Our blood is melting all the snow.”
And FJ didn’t know what to say to that so she picked up her menu, then thought of something and said, “Say Janice, you know I left the house without a dime. I didn’t know we were going out for breakfast.”
“Going out for breakfast! Is that what we’re doing?” Janice let out a whoop of laughter at the idea, and other people turned to stare. She reached in her bag and pulled out a man’s wallet.
“Taken care of. On me, on the house, on your brother’s goddamn blood-soaked house. It’s all the same, money. Where it comes from. Order what you want.” She shook a lit match at the menu. “Have an ice cream soda and a hamburger if you want! Out for breakfast!” She leaned back and dissolved in a fit of laughter.
FJ went ahead and ordered scrambled eggs, and she was a few bites into them when she again remembered her aunt’s remark about the medication. She thought about saying something, just a casual question about whether Janice needed to take any of her pills or anything, but just then Janice’s expression changed. The dim light of the diner seemed to be too much for her. She shielded her eyes with her hand and sank into the booth, and with a cigarette dangling from her lip she said in a whisper, “I guess you know he beats me up.” And FJ stopped eating and put down her fork.
Back in the car, FJ felt afraid for the first time that morning. It wasn’t Janice’s driving; they were cruising through the little town at a nice safe speed, and Janice seemed calmer than she’d been in the diner. But still, FJ had the feeling they were moving far too fast.
“If it’s all right by you, kiddo, I believe I’ll head back onto the highway. The American interstate system is a miracle, don’t you think? All those miles and miles of road and it’s up to you to keep it going. If you want to you can drive and drive forever. You never have to stop.”
FJ cleared her throat and started to speak but stopped. Then she opened her mouth again and said, “Well whaț about going to the bathroom?”
“Well, yes, the bathroom, gas—but then it’s all in your control. What I’m trying to say is, there is then no demonic red light or eighty-eight sided sign to flash in your face and terrorize you and say stop now, not when you want to or you need to, but right now.”
“True, true,” FJ nodded, very much wanting Janice not to get too excited.
“I don’t know about you but there is something about an eighty-eight sided, fire-engine red stop sign that can almost make me weep. Because I’m just afraid of what might happen.”
“If you stop, you mean?”
“Yes, if I stop. For too long.” Janice grabbed FJ’s hand then and held it. “There have been times, little one, when I have stopped my car at a red stop sign and just looked at it and thought to myself, well all right, I’ve stopped, and what now? I’ve just sat there at that stop sign feeling like I’ll never move again, and in fact I may not even remember how to breathe once I let out the breath I’m holding onto right now, and . . . .” Her eyes glazed over as her voice trailed away; she seemed to forget what she was saying.
Then suddenly Janice turned back to the road ahead. “Put it this way, squirt.” Her voice had more of its earlier edge, but she kept on holding FJ’s hand. “It’s important to keep moving. You’ve got to, if you want a chance at staying off their radar. Stay away from stop signs. They might look harmless but they’re wolves in sheep’s clothing. There for our safety my ass—they’re traps.”
And then there it was again, FJ’s roommate’s dried-out washcloth, dusty blue with frayed edges. FJ thought suddenly of Berenice and caught her breath. From the time they’d moved out of the house in town and Berenice had quit working for them, that year after the awful scene at the wedding and after her cousin John Henry died, the year FJ turned thirteen and left something behind, almost like an umbrella or a pair of gloves but harder to put a finger on than that, she’d hardly thought of Berenice and John Henry at all. She simply hadn’t let herself think of them.
But during the first semester of her freshman year of college she cried herself to sleep at night with a queer sort of longing for both of them, for the housekeeper from her childhood and a snot-nosed little boy with bad eyesight. They were all she had in the world, her audience and her counselors for all those endless summers until she turned twelve, until the summer when she threw herself at Janice and Jarvis’s feet after their wedding, begging them to take her with them, to take her anywhere—a scene so shameful to her that it seemed in the end there was nothing to do but turn thirteen and get on with things, to turn her back completely on the child she had been. On Berenice and John Henry. On all their talk and dreams. Even on her own name. She spent her high school years in hiding from the brazen, disgraced girl she’d been as Frankie, and then at seventeen enrolled, in a kind of sleepy fog, at the state university campus near her home.
Each morning that year, jerked back to the cold reality of her sterile freshman dorm room, she opened her eyes and stared straight ahead at that God-forsaken, dried-up washcloth. She had never seen her roommate actually carry the thing to the bathroom, though clearly it had been used at some point.
During the entire second semester she and her roommate might have spoken five sentences to each other. FJ finished the year with a C average and without ever calling Berenice, though she’d thought at times—often alone at breakfast in the early morning—of doing so. Now, at the beginning of August, it wasn’t clear whether her father would be paying for her to return to college, and it also wasn’t clear that FJ even wanted him to.
He beats her up, she thought then; she says he beats her up. And FJ wondered why it was that she believed this desperate, manic woman immediately, almost instinctively—that she didn’t have the slightest doubt that this was true.
Cars were speeding by them. FJ looked at the speedometer and saw that Janice, who was lost in some thought or another, was going twenty miles an hour. She squeezed Janice’s hand tighter and looked out her window at the patches of brown grass.
In her dreams of college she had walked from left to right on the movie screen of her mind, over lush green lawns and into ivy-covered buildings, to hear scintillating lectures about Michelangelo and Tennyson. But in fact the buildings were new and the desks were scratched with graffiti and she walked from right to left over hot concrete most of the time. In her classes she watched filmstrips and dozed. There was not a single college party—the boys all drunk and red-faced, the girls rolling their eyes and pretending to be stupid—that she’d enjoyed, and every time she went to the library she grew frightened for some reason, and she felt an overwhelming need to go to the bathroom.
Now she felt as unmoored and bewildered as she had ever been. For the time being though, sleeping late into the summer mornings and spending the afternoons on a chaise lounge in the back yard with a novel had been a way to forget about it all for a while. But now here was Janice, talking crazy and driving worse, bringing it all back with her eighty-eight-sided stop signs and her hacking smoker’s cough and a husband, FJ’s own brother, who beat her up. Yes, of course FJ knew what Janice was talking about. She’d been held up at one of those bright red road markers for the better part of a year.
Gradually she realized that Janice had begun to cry.
“What is it, Janice?” she asked her then. “Are you okay?” And she patted the hand that held her own.
But Janice yanked her hand free then and slapped the air where FJ’s hand had been, “No, I’m not all right, I’m loose as a goose, I’m a firecracker ready to go off, a loose cannon aimed at the outer zones of the universe. If I can just get there, if I can just fly a little farther out, I’ll be off their screens for good. You’ll see, kiddo, I’ll fly right off the map and then they’ll never get me back.”
“Who?” FJ asked, even though she knew Janice had to mean Jarvis. And for FJ there was her father, Aunt Pet. Everyone who seemed to like her best when she was quiet and out of the way. And hadn’t she once talked about a similar feeling with Berenice and John Henry, seated around the kitchen table with the playing cards spread out in front of them? Everybody feels caught, she had said that day (and she winced, remembering Berenice’s reply—“I’m caught worse than you is”). But to her it seemed more like everyone—and most of all she herself—was coming loose.
“All of them, the psychiatrists, your brother, my parents, the whole bloody shebang,” Janice said as she grabbed her open handbag off the floor. For another cigarette FJ assumed, but instead she pulled out a bottle of pills.
“It’s these, squirt. Watch out for these things.” She shook the brown bottle, rattling it in FJ’s face. “They’ll pin you down with these.” She threw the bottle in FJ’s lap.
“It’s this they’re after,” Janice went on, pointing at her right temple. “It’s the top that’s spinning up here, spinning so hot and fast they can’t get a hold on it, but not because they aren’t trying, oh no. I’m spinning right out of their grip but they’re desperate to get to that hot spot at the middle. The tropical zone. The psycho-tropics.”
Janice giggled then, pleased with her pun, and FJ laughed, too. “The psycho-tropics,” FJ repeated. “That’s clever.” She put the bottle of pills in her shorts pocket and said, “I hate to tell you this, Janice, but I have to pee.”
This was true, she did in fact have to pee, but besides that, FJ was getting very nervous. The more Janice talked about her spinning top of a mind the faster she drove. Yes, FJ did remember feeling loose, too, when she was a kid. But right now the fact remained that at the line about the psycho-tropics, FJ looked over to see the speedometer needle coursing well beyond the speed limit, to sixty, seventy, eighty, and beyond. And at that point she looked closely at Janice and admitted to herself that yes, in fact, she felt afraid of being as loose as that.
But by this time Janice was mumbling to herself—more about not stopping, about what might happen if she did—and it was clear she’d forgotten FJ was even in the car.
“Not this time!” she hissed as ashes from the cigarette at the corner of her mouth drifted onto her skin-tight T-shirt and the bare, downy skin of her arm.
“Not. This. Time.” By now her voice was barely above a whisper, but she pounded the steering wheel furiously with each word.
And even though Janice had taken her foot off the accelerator now and the speedometer needle was on its way back down, FJ knew that all she could do was close her eyes and brace herself, grit her teeth and hope for the best, because like it or not, Janice was flying somewhere else right then and it didn’t matter whose car it was or who was in it. So that when they rolled off the highway and finally smacked into a tree, the only thing that surprised FJ was the silence afterwards. In those silent seconds she had time somehow to think of Luxembourg, the time when Janice and Jarvis were going to be stationed in Luxembourg, and it was a pale, pale blue in her mind, cold blue like ice, and she had a picture of Janice in a blue dress and blue shoes, the palest baby blue—the same baby blue as FJ’s brand new set of Samsonite luggage, packed and piled in the corner by the door the night before she left for college, and the same sad baby blue, she realized then, as her roommate’s stiff, dry washcloth, hanging so forlornly on the back of their dorm room door. Still hanging there today for all she knew.
FJ heard a whimpering then and looked over to see Janice hunched over the steering wheel, her shoulders shaking, her long, thin arms covered with goose bumps. Sweaty wisps of hair curled over her ear and a faint blue vein showed through the soft skin at her temple. She looked, FJ thought, like a little girl.
“Janice?” FJ said.
Janice looked up at her and blinked. “He’s gonna kill me now,” she said. Her voice sounded small and hollow.
Later, when a policeman arrived, they sat on the slope above the road. Janice was still sniffling, and FJ stared at the crushed front end of her brother’s Firebird and tried to see the blue she’d seen before, but couldn’t. As the officer got out of his car and lumbered up the hillside she fingered the bottle of pills in her pocket.
He’d just opened his mouth to say something, probably to ask, “Y’all all right?” but before he could get a word in, FJ blurted out, “It’s all my fault. My daddy won’t let me get a driver’s license so I begged her to let me drive my brother’s car and now look at what I up and did.” And she shook her head and rolled her eyes and tried to look remorseful, but because she knew she’d long since lost the skill of lying like an actor on the stage, she finished up by burying her head in her arms, which she’d wrapped around her sweating knees.
The policeman didn’t say anything for a minute, and FJ could feel his and Janice’s bewildered eyes staring at her, but she kept her head down and her eyes closed until the policeman finally cleared his throat and said to Janice, “Well, all right then, ma’am, do you reckon we can find the registration and insurance and put in a call about this?”
For just a second Janice sat there, and then she pulled herself up to her knees. FJ turned her head a tiny bit and watched through squinted eyes as the policeman helped her up. Then, before she walked over to the car with him, Janice reached down and put her long, thin arms around the tight little ball FJ had made herself into, and she kissed FJ on the top of her head.
“Lovely little Frankie,” she breathed in FJ’s ear. And right then FJ felt strong enough to hold the whole world in place with her very own arms.
When they’d walked away to the car FJ pulled her head up ever so slightly and reached back into her pocket for the bottle of pills. She pulled off the top and poured them out there on the hill, and seeing those bright green pills in the red Georgia clay made her think of Christmas, of a whole other season in a whole other place, cold air and the smell of pine and the heat of a thousand or so candles. Christmas in Luxembourg maybe, or anywhere at all. She could go anywhere at all, she thought.
She smoothed two handfuls of dirt over the little pile of pills and pulled herself up from the ground then, and she walked over to join Janice and the policeman beside the Firebird. Seeing Jarvis’s new-to-him Firebird in such a state made her want to laugh. But remembering her role she held it in, and she worked to make her face look sorry.
Joyce Hinnefeld is the author of the short story collection Tell Me Everything and the novels In Hovering Flight and Stranger Here Below. Her new book, the story collection The Beauty of Their Youth, is the latest title in the Wolfson Press American Storytellers series. She is a Professor of English at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, where she directs the Moravian College Writers’ Conference. Learn more at her website and Facebook page.
Music by Catlofe