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Pickle's Progress

by Marcia Butler

Hardcover, 273 pages, Central Avenue Publishing, List Price: $27 |

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Pickle's Progress
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Marcia Butler

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NPR Summary

Over the course of five weeks, identical twin brothers, one wife, a dog, and a bereaved young woman collide with each other to comical and sometimes horrifying effect. Everything is questioned and tested as they jockey for position and try to maintain the status quo. Love is the poison, the antidote, the devil and, ultimately, the hero.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Pickle's Progress

Pickle's Progress

A Novel


Central Avenue Marketing Ltd.

Copyright © 2019 Marcia Butler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77168-154-4


Twenty bridges connect the island of Manhattan to the rest of the world. Only one spans westward over the Hudson River and spills onto the lip of America's heartland. Each year more than one hundred million vehicles make their way onto eight lanes on the upper level and six lanes on the lower level of the George Washington Bridge; travelling back and forth, surely in the name of a dollar, perhaps for some manner of love, maybe just for the view. And if cars and trucks aren't enough, walkers, runners, cyclists, skateboarders, birdwatchers and jumpers alike can also enjoy the scenery from the pathway known as the 'South Sidewalk.'

The eastbound on-ramp from Leonia, New Jersey offers a surprisingly short approach. Suddenly, as if from thin air, steel cables loom above, swinging like silver-spun jump ropes playing double-dutch over the cars. Massive and audacious, the bent cords ascend and seem to evaporate into a vaulted sky. On a misty night, the terra cotta buildings to the east, in Manhattan, appear as boxy smears of potter's clay, notched out with squares of glass, reflecting an occasional headlight hitting the mark. Whether a reveler returning from a late-night party, or a sleepy trucker clocking a twelve-hour overtime shift, the George Washington Bridge suspends many disparate lives during the early hours of a Sunday morning.

Karen and Stan McArdle pulled onto the George Washington Bridge, headed toward the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was just after three a.m. and they were cranky, probably because they were drunk. They'd stayed at the dinner party far too long and Karen had a few more cocktails than she'd needed, placing herself in that vulnerable corner where Stan could prick her with his epee of marital righteousness. That's just how their relationship felt — sharp and sometimes dangerous; yet strangely alive as they explored those moments when one or the other might lunge forward and twist that bright, cold metal a tad, then deftly retract the sword. The trick was to know how far to penetrate the dagger and for how long it should linger, but not bleed out the heart.

The urban élan of Manhattan still appealed to Karen and Stan while most of their friends had left years before, joining the ranks of "Leonia-Teaneck- Hackensack-Weehawken-Hoboken" converts. For a long time, Saturday night yuppie dinners had been the way they'd all managed to stay in touch. Recently though, the gatherings had felt more like a gloomy obligation. Their friends, now annoyingly sober, continued to pop out one indulged and irritating child after another. This was not a lifestyle trend Karen and Stan subscribed to.

Some might have considered them to be 'working' alcoholics, though Karen preferred the term 'highly functional'— certainly a few notches up from the category known as 'pre-Twelve Stepper'. At least, that's what she liked to believe. Labels didn't matter at this moment though, because Karen and Stan itched and scratched as they approached the bridge and that inevitable descent down a mountain of alcohol into a gully called 'hangover'.

Karen glanced at Stan, noticing a determined grimace on his face. "What? What's wrong now?"

"Don't ask me to go to these dreadful parties ever again. I'm done. Cooked. We've absolutely nothing in common with any of those dullards anymore. Zilch. The conversation? From diapers to college SAT's and back again. Numbing. I'm brain-dead just thinking about it. Okay?"

"Whatever. But yeah, you're right. It's gotten boring."

"Hallelujah. Finally we agree on something."

"Shut up. I just said I agree with you — that's a positive." Karen slid down in her seat with her fingers massaging her temples, attempting to head a migraine off at the pass.

The traffic proved light and as smooth as crushed velvet, the weather a depressing drizzle and Stan's classic thirty-year-old Volvo hummed, with over two hundred thousand miles under the hood. He usually kept well under the speed limit — an attempt to avoid cops who might pull them over and sniff the yet-to-be-metabolized vodka pooling in their gullets. But as they drove through the 5 mph E-Z Pass lane, Karen heard Stan gun the engine. She glanced at the speedometer: 30 mph. Gripping the steering wheel at ten and two, he began to count the cars passing on the left, ticking them off by lifting his fingers one at a time. At the count of ten, with all his digits floating in the air and using only his palms to steer, he curled his fingers back down and started over. Counting was just one of Stan's 'things'.

Karen raked her own fingers through her hair. Her eyes drooped as she mused about the remainder of the night ahead of them. At this pace, they'd be home in about ten minutes, the Volvo tucked snug in a nearby garage. A fight was then sure to erupt over who'd walk their dog. The Doodles could hold it like a flyweight champ, and a typical Saturday night found him holding a topped off bladder and pawing at the front door while his mommy and daddy sparred. A typical spat began with Stan slamming his keys on the foyer console, declaring, "I did it last night."

"But I did it last weekend — both days. Stan? Just take The Fucking Doodles out."

Stan would relent with, "Oh God." Or, "Why me?"

Tonight, Karen dreaded a rerun of their tired sitcom. She wanted to bank at least six hours of sleep because they'd made plans for a Sunday breakfast with Pickle to discuss the brownstone the three of them owned together. Details of the joint ownership had become a prickly point, and Stan's twin had demanded a sit-down. So, Karen made a tactical decision that when they returned home tonight she'd just take The Fucking Doodles out. One of them had to be somewhat coherent for the breakfast meeting.

Karen relaxed, satisfied with her pre-emptive concession. Her head lolled back and forth on the car headrest, the motion nicely paced, reminding her of the pulse in some music she couldn't quite name. Then there were the chunk- ker-chunks of the tires as they rolled over the regulated patches of asphalt repair, creating a jagged counterpoint. The two rhythmic worlds almost never synced up. But if she waited long enough, eventually, they did. Then she'd start over. It was a surefire way to get her head together, and for a few moments, she even forgot she was drunk.

Suddenly her pulse quickened; she opened her eyes — wary.

"Stan?"

His fingers continued to work the steering wheel and he didn't answer, still wrapped inside his universe of one through ten.

"Stan!"

"Huh? Whass wrong?"

"The oil."

"What oil?"

"The car oil — the slick theory. We just started levitating. I can feel it."

"Please. Silence — I'm begging you. I'm counting."

"No, listen. This is serious. Remember the oil slick theory? It's worse in the first two minutes of a rainfall and we've just entered minute number three."

"Now you're counting?"

"I have to. The cops. Plus, we might die."

Stan blew out a thin stream of air. "Jesus, Karen. I've never crashed the car, as you well know. Just close your eyes if you need to. Anyway, I noticed you went way over your martini limit tonight, so your perceptions are not, shall we say, to be trusted?"

"Ugh. You're disgusting. I hate you." Karen crunched further down in her seat, disheartened that she'd even engaged in the futile exchange. Stan always managed to trump her with some kind of straight flush.

He patted her hand. "The hate keeps us close, dearest. Just like the love. Right?"

"No comment," she hissed. But she let her eyelids drop again and took Stan's advice. Because she did trust him. With a brain born for calculation (even when they'd been drinking), he'd determined the travel distance when they'd first begun attending the stupid dinners in New Jersey. At just over six miles, door-to-door, Stan figured they could make it without being stopped for speeding, or getting into a crash due to the weather. Or the oil. Or the alcohol. That's what drunks did: they planned. And counted. And sometimes, they even prayed.

Karen saw Stan's fingers resume whatever it was they needed to do on the steering wheel. She drifted back to her tire-pulse samba (or was it a waltz?), waiting for that reassuring sync-up. She half-believed that the Volvo was gripping the road.

"Are you asleep yet?" He couldn't leave her alone.

Karen, irritated, grunted. She turned her body, sidled closer to Stan and considered an answer worthy of his idiotic question. "I thought you preferred me dead to the world. But since you ask, I was dreaming of someone."

"Who?"

"You sure you want to know?" She whispered into his ear.

"Shit. This is stupid." Without looking at her, Stan palmed Karen's forehead and pushed her back.

"No, you're stupid. And now I'm wide-awake, thanks so much, and a tad this side of sober. And that doesn't exactly feel good. Now slow the fuck down," Karen screamed.

"There's no one on the road, Karen. Calm down."

"That's not true; you've been counting the cars nonstop."

"My fingers have been working at a very. Slow. Pace. Pay attention."

"First you want me to sleep — now it's pay attention. Make up your mind. You're insane —" Karen broke off in mid-rant. "Stan. What's that?"

"What?" Stan looked in the wrong direction.

"Straight ahead!"

A woman was standing directly in front of them, perhaps five hundred yards ahead, with her hands at the sides of her face, mouth open, like the Edvard Munch painting.

"Jesus!" Stan jammed the brakes and the Volvo immediately spun out. Karen's oil theory held water after all because she felt the car skim the road, then pick up speed. Though no longer in control, Stan pumped the brake pedal anyway, and after performing a 360-degree pirouette, they bashed into the side guardrail. Neither had worn their seat belt and Karen's upper body flew squarely into Stan's. Their faces mashed together with a force that punched a unison grunt out of them.

The impact jostled Karen's senses — first, a throb at her gum line, and then a digging pain straight into her front teeth. She rimmed her lips with her tongue, tasting tin mingled with vodka breath. And then she heard herself begin to whimper — not only for her bloody mouth — but also because she was drunk and her heart couldn't quite bear the shame. But, just as quickly, things felt oddly serene — church-like — with only a rapping of gentle rain on the hood, puncturing the quiet of the car interior. Her world felt freshly precarious, as if the planet were indeed flat and teetered on a spiked axis. Karen was afraid of tipping over, terrified to even move, unsure of the damage to herself, Stan, and the woman outside. Yet, cars passed them at a good clip. The accident was apparently just a fender bender and not worthy of real concern.

She let her head drop and pressed her face into the crook of Stan's elbow; into the fabric creases of his dress shirt — that crisp white 100% cotton, usually ironed, by Stan, to within an inch of its life — now fully soaked with his dank sweat.

He whispered into her hair, "Karen? Tell me you're okay."

She felt tears springing but didn't want the vulnerability. "My mouth feels weird," she mumbled into his elbow.

Stan pushed her up and scrutinized her face.

"My God. Your front teeth are bloody."

Karen's eyes opened wide with astonishment. "Shit. Stan — I stabbed you with my teeth. I can see the dents."

Blood oozed from Stan's forehead, dribbling down along the creases of his nose, coagulating at his lips. Enamel to flesh — the irony was not lost on her — this accident had caused more physical contact than they'd managed in a long time. Stan tentatively prodded Karen's wobbly teeth and stroked the blond fuzz on her upper lip, then kissed her bloodied mouth. She didn't wince, but leaned forward, accepting the pain. For a few seconds, she forgot herself.

Just then the rain abated, and she heard a primitive sound outside the car.

"NOOOOOOO!"

It was an inhuman wail — one that would have been hard to identify in nature, if not for the fact that Karen could see the source. The Munch mouth produced the howl again.

"NOOOOOOO!"

Karen pushed away from Stan and climbed out of the car. She stumbled to her knees, momentarily forgetting how drunk she was. The front grill of the Volvo had been bashed in and steam pissed out from the bottom of the car. One of the tires was flat, and she was shocked at the extent of the damage. Then, running over to the woman, Karen grabbed her arms and shook her. "Stop! What happened? Are you all right?"

The woman wrenched herself from Karen's grasp and bent over, hugging her own waist. She aimed the next words straight into the asphalt. "Jacob — Jacob — Jacob."

Karen backed up, giving the woman some distance. "Okay, okay. But please. What's wrong? Just tell me what happened."

"He's gone. He jumped. He ran and went over the side." The woman spoke with almost no inflection, like she was reciting a grocery list.

"You mean somebody jumped off the fucking bridge? You're kidding me, right? Tell me this is a joke."

"No. No joke." The woman folded up and dropped to her knees.

Karen ran back to the car and thrust her torso into the passenger side window. Stan appeared to be asleep, or, perhaps he'd lost consciousness from the hit to his head. His toothy wound frightened Karen and she wished, for what seemed like the ten millionth time, that they were sober. Reaching over, she poked at his arm. "Stan."

He started awake, trying to reorient himself. "Wha?"

"Call your brother right now."

"Why?" He winced as he touched the gash on his forehead, then stared at the blood on his fingers.

"That woman says that a guy jumped off the South Sidewalk. Call him."

Stan shook his head back and forth, bewildered. "God sake, Karen. I'll just call 911."

"No. I want Pickle. He's close by. Plus, we've been drinking and I don't want this to get complicated. He'll know what to do."

"But he's in the City. We're in Jersey. He won't have jurisdiction."

"No, we just passed the state line — look."

Stan turned around. There it was behind them on the opposite side of the bridge roadway: "Welcome to New Jersey."

His head slowly bobbed in recognition. "Yeah, I see your point. Okay. Pickle."

Dragging her head and shoulders back out of the window, Karen turned to find the woman now propped against the guardrail, utterly still, with her legs stretched in front, her feet canted out in ballet first position. She was drenched, even with the light rain, so Karen surmised she must have been on the bridge for hours. The woman's inscrutable expression unnerved Karen. Crouching down, she tried to rouse her by seeking eye contact and gently shaking her shoulder. When she got no response, Karen put her arm around the woman, who'd then begun to moan, "Jacob." A goner, for sure.

"What happened? Miss, can you just tell me what happened?"

The woman looked up, stared at Karen for several seconds, then jerked her head to the side and dropped her eyes to the pavement in what Karen took for embarrassment. And with that gesture, Karen was instantly grateful because she realized she didn't want to know the answer. Any explanation would have been a falsehood, the reason surely unknowable. The kind of agony that might propel a man into the Hudson River stirred Karen in a place she could not acknowledge, and an awful gush of newly sobered reality pinched her heart. It was always strange, this spiked alertness, occurring on so many early mornings when nothing was certain and everything felt at risk. As she looked into this woman's face, she thought she recognized some aspect of herself, and Karen wondered how the hell she'd gotten to this place in her life.


(Continues...)