Gestures and Lies
When am I ever going to wear these clothes I buy in unexpected rushes of vanity and blindness? Look at these clothes, what an assortment. What even exactly am I waiting for, a barn dance or a night at the Oscars? Some lecture at the Sorbonne where they can all applaud my integrity? Who am I kidding?
Make up your mind, you're a grown man. Make up your mind.
Bellevue, WA. 1979
He had been working on a house, he kind of entered into the deal before he really knew he was sick but he suspected something. Anyway, he was working on it, old hippie artistry combined with old hippie craft, and pretty soon they had something going. Some kids from UK heard about it, made a little half-hour film of this house that his wife got shown at the UK film department. We brought some champagne, sat in the lobby and he sat really frail but dandy in his white suit and panama hat. Long red beard and hair tied back, same as my first memory of him, riding along beside him in his old Ford pick-up, happy and proud and five years old, bare feet pressed against the windshield, translucent footprints against the glare. All of his friends came along to the show. I came along, some of my students showed up. They put an article in the Lexington papers, which appeared a couple of days later, and reading it that's how I knew what happened next, read about it over a plate of scrambled eggs.
When she drove him back from the hospital the last time he threw up a couple of times in the car, into one of those almost-translucent blue hospital bags they give you. She had brought along the bags, this wasn't anything unexpected and there was no shame in it. No apologies. He was too weak to really hold the edges of the thing with any certainty, the knuckles stood out against his tanned freckled hands. They'd been together for 54 years, and he insisted on wearing the Panama hat. When they pulled up to the house Bob Weir was parked in front of it, swear to God. Bob Weir behind the wheel of an old Honda Civic. She explained everything, he came in and they played for a little while. Bob slowed down but he kept up. Then he went upstairs to bed, and that's where he died.
Suicide to Try
As a young man you could always just pick up and run away, which is what he would routinely do. Just pack up his things in an old army bag and go. He ran away to Oregon and back, ran clear across the ocean to Spain. He used to pride himself on his inability to tolerate such conditions, couldn’t imagine ever becoming the type of man who would stick it out. He used to have nothing but contempt for such men. Now he couldn't run, he could barely walk. They were stuck together, him and these smilers, at least for the time being. No choice either side. But you couldn't trust these people. It'd be suicide to try.
Cars, Then Airports...
Powder Blue Buick
Charlie and Wade
“Cut it out.”
“I’m serious, you are. I tell everybody I know. Old Fatty’s a real hero. A prince among men. I’m damn proud to know you.”
Wade said nothing. Counting to ten, letting it pass. He had the Serenity Prayer wrapped so tight around his cerebral cortex this past week it would have taken dynamite to get it off. Would have taken more than this, anyway. This he’d heard before.
“We’ll be there soon enough.”
The clouds hung low and they’d been fighting the rain all the way down from Plattsburgh that morning. Wade had found his brother the night before. It had taken him most of the afternoon but it wasn’t tough. He knew the kind of places to look. Find the bus station, work his way out in concentric circles through every bar and waffle house until eventually he found Charlie hunched over his drink and his Chesterfields and never once surprised to see him. Didn’t matter where, all these River Valley towns had the same basic layout. The Four Roses in New Paltz, Ruby’s Tap in Maltaville. Wade always found him eventually. He was an old hand.
“Swear to God I don’t even recognize you anymore, Fatty. You look good.”
“I am good.”
“So I see. So I see. Used to be there was a time, you’d come crawling in all beat up. Just beat to shit. Worse than me, even.”
“You were your own worst enemy.”
“That was a long time ago, Charlie.”
“Amen to that, Brother. Amen to that.”
They were passing through familiar territory, though Wade couldn’t say he ever liked it much. They used to come up here when they were kids. Spend weekends driving up around the lakes, digging for arrow heads in the woods while their father sat in the car and smoked. Sayerville, Hastings, Granite Falls. This stretch of highway always got to Wade, even then. The way the trees seemed to close in around him. The way they always seemed to shut out the sun. Even in the back seat of their father’s Plymouth Valiant, his nose in a comic book and his brother asleep, Wade couldn’t wait to get through it.
“I guess when they sent you down they knew what they were doing, huh? Guess they had it all figured out. Would’ve loved to hear that conversation, all of you sitting around the kitchen table. Holding hands. Did they make you pray, Fatty? Would’ve loved to hear that. How’s old Lois doing, anyway? She still bat-shit crazy as ever?”
“She worries about you.”
“I doubt that, Wade. I doubt that sincerely.”
“Believe what you want.”
Charlie had a wife downstate who believed in angels and a daughter named Becca he never saw. Wade would get phone calls from them once in a while, every couple of months, usually about money they needed right away or legal threats they didn’t understand. They swung from one emergency to the next, and Wade avoided them as much as he decently could.
“Oh yeah? And what about you, Fatty?” Charlie turned to his brother, smiling. “You worry about me, too?”
“I try not to,” Wade said, shifting back into silence. Shifting his attention to the taillights in front of him.
“Goddamn,” Charlie said after a minute, turning away again. “Goddamn.”
There was a woman waiting for Wade back home, waiting for his phone call when this whole thing was over. Not that this was anything Wade was prepared to bring up now. There had been women before. Some serious. One he had even thought he’d marry, back before things got so out of hand. But that was Wade’s life, his business and his alone. Some things Charlie didn’t need to know. His new friend’s name was Anne and that was a phone call he was looking forward to making.
Charlie had a smell to him now, Wade couldn’t deny it. Something inside, something chemical. The kind of smell that doesn’t wash off. Thirty years more or less had taken its toll. Indestructible blue-eyed boy, trophies on the shelf. They grew up in the same bedroom and now Wade could barely stand it.
“Charlie…” he said, but Charlie had fallen asleep again already, head back and mouth open, a thousand miles away.
* * *
“Eat something, I’ve got money.”
“Not real hungry.”
And once Charlie started eating he couldn’t seem to stop. Strips of bacon and fat round sausages, mountains of hash browns and eggs over easy. Corned beef hash. Whole wheat toast and strawberry jelly. The waitress was keeping herself at a safe distance from him, clutching the laminated menus tight across her chest, handing the food over carefully when their orders came up. And she was right to be careful. Charlie had a way of just going off on people. You had to watch him, you always did. You’d be fine, everybody laughing and drinking and having fun, and he could just turn on a dime. Wade had seen some things. Broken glass and crying girls and blood. Wade had seen some terrible things around Charlie.
And it was only once they got out of the car, once they sat down surrounded by standard Saturday afternoon families, that Wade realized just how ragged his brother had become. Long hair matted back out of his red-rimmed eyes, accidental beard going gray. Fingernails dirty. Yellow, long and cracked. Old camouflage army jacket caked in dirt, ripped through at the collar. Painfully thin to look at. His brother looked savage, like something dragged out of the woods. Wade studied Charlie and Charlie looked away.
He had a bluebird tattooed to the web of skin between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, and that was new. That Wade hadn’t seen.
“Oh, yeah, you like that? That’s my little California bluebird.”
“San Francisco, yeah. Was living out there for a while.”
“I didn’t know that. When were you out there?”
“There’s some things you don’t know.”
The waitress came by with the coffee pot in her hand and Charlie pushed his cup across the table toward her. “Please,” he said.
“So how was San Francisco?”
“Well, nobody had flowers in their goddamn hair, if that’s what you mean.” Charlie shoveled in another forkful of hash, speared a triangle of toast into the yoke of his egg. “Complicated. San Francisco was complicated.”
Charlie looked up at him from across the table. He shook his head.
“You’re not really one for letting things lie, are you, Fatty?”
Wade tried to meet his brother’s stare, couldn’t. Charlie went back to his food.
“Anyway, not like it matters much. Six months later I was right back here, same old shit. And that part of the story you already know.”
Wade got the phone call three afternoons before, the phone call he used to get all the time but now only a couple of times a year. The heavy liquid voice of his brother drunk. Car towed in, police up his ass. Some new variation of the same basic theme. This time Glens Falls, and fast. Good old Fatty to the rescue. He’d explain when he saw him, and when he saw him he didn’t explain a thing. There’d be a time when the phone calls wouldn’t come at all anymore, and that’s how Wade would know.
“She’s, you know…” Wade shrugged. “She’s alright. I guess she’s alright.”
“Boyfriends, school? Stuff like that?”
The last time Wade saw his niece she was dressed all in black and he suspected she was high as a kite. Though it was hard to know what counted as high anymore. She was sitting on the couch next to Lois, black hood of her sweatshirt pulled up around her face, staring at the TV and flipping through the eight hundred channels they had without saying a word. For almost an hour Wade was in there with them, one channel after another and not a word. He saw her sometimes at the mall in Nanuet, hanging around the Wishing Well with a whole crew of kids that looked just like her. Big heavy boots laced up to their knees, black jeans and black sweatshirts and black hair hanging down over their eyes. Studs and nails poking out of their faces. And she either didn’t recognize Wade or pretended not to. Either one was fine by him.
“She’s sixteen, Charlie. Who knows how she is?”
* * *
“You know, Charlie, it’s not too late. It’s not too late to turn all this around.”
Charlie pushed his plate away from him and looked up across to his brother.
“Here we go,” he said.
“I’m serious, it’s not. I was worse, you said it yourself.”
“Wade? Wade, don’t start this shit.”
“Just hear me out.”
“I’ve…” And then Charlie slammed his palm down on the table so hard the silverware danced and the tables around them went silent.
“Come on, easy.”
“I heard you, Wade. Goddamn it, I heard you. Been listening to this same fucking Vince Lombardi shit for… Goddamn it, I heard you.”
“Ok, Ok. Eat your food, Charlie…”
“Goddamn it, Wade….”
“Calm down. Just calm down.”
Wade reached about halfway across the table, but then the waitress was there and Charlie pulled his arm back and Wade let it go.
“Is everything all right over here?”
Out in the grass margins of the parking lot Charlie puked up everything he had eaten. One hand up against a tree, his body fighting against itself. Wade sat behind the wheel of his car, waiting. Engine running, radio on low, looking away. When he was done, Charlie spit a couple of times to clear his mouth, then climbed into the car without a word. He was asleep almost immediately. Wade cracked a window open against the smell and pulled back out onto the highway.
* * *
Two kids in a room, seven and ten. One sick and scared, fever, hot and freezing cold. In bed for a week and not knowing what was what. Not knowing one day from another. His mother walking him to the bathroom and holding him shaking as he sat. He remembered the smell. Not knowing when he was awake and when he wasn’t. Faces coming to him, ceiling, in and out. Mother, father, doctor, ceiling. In and out. Mother, father. Cold palm against his forehead, rings colder than the rest. Shivering and shaking in his NFL pajamas. His brother gone and his parents terrified. Terrified for Wade, terrified for Charlie. Terrified the illness would spread. Forty years ago, and it felt like four hundred. Felt like a thousand. Another life, and two other people. Two other people, and both of them gone.
He kept a bed now, just in case. He knew the odds were stacked against it ever happening, but he kept a bed just in case. Clean sheets, a change of clothes, a list of people to call. That’s all it was, steps. You do this, you don’t do that. Steady steps in the right direction. Wade could help him if he ever got the chance, he knew the terrain. He had mapped out the terrain already.
* * *
“Up here’s good.”
“Here? Up where?”
Wade looked out through the windshield and there was nothing. Highway, trees, deep embankment. Somewhere south of Palatine, he wasn’t really sure. They hadn’t passed an exit for miles.
“Up here’s close enough.”
Another hour or two and they’d be home. The trees would give way to buildings again and the roads would widen out. Car lots and gigantic flags. They’d be back on terra firma, they’d be fine. But Wade knew better than to argue with his brother, so he slowed to a stop on the side of the road.
“Why don’t you come with me, Charlie? Check in, get cleaned up a little? See Becca, why not?” Wade stared out through the windshield, not daring to turn his head.
“I don’t think so, Wade.”
“A couple of days, why not?”
For a while Charlie didn’t say anything, but then finally he shook his head.
“I don’t think that’ll work. Thank you, though. No, this is fine.” Charlie opened the car door.
“At least let me at least take you into town.”
“I’m good, Fatty. I’m good.”
“You need some money, I guess?
Charlie said nothing. Looked down at the bluebird tattoo on his hand. Wade reached into his back pocket for his wallet.
“Well, shit Fatty, you know me…”
“Here, take it. It’s uh...” Wade took out everything but twenty dollars, folded it over and handed it to Charlie. “Not sure how much is there.”
Charlie nodded, saying nothing. He took the money and put it in the breast pocket of his camouflage jacket.
“I'll get you back.”
For a minute Wade thought he was going to run, but he just sat there, staring out through the windshield at the highway ahead.
“What’re you going to tell them?” He asked finally, looking up.
“What’s it matter? Tell them I couldn’t find you, I guess. Tell them something.”
Charlie opened the door again, and this time he climbed out.
“I’ll be seeing you, Charlie.”
“Don’t doubt it.”
Wade tooted the horn as he passed his brother on the side of the road, and Charlie shot up a little wave. A few seconds later he was gone.
Like a Train
He sat in the red naugahyde booth, pouring salt out all over his bacon and eggs, stirring sugar into his tea. Staring out wounded and amazed. This girl had hit directly home. She hit home in a way he hadn't wanted and couldn't have expected. He never saw it coming, and swore he would have run ten miles in the opposite direction if he had. This girl ran over him like a train.
He was looking worse for wear, no question. Long hair dirty and hanging loose, nails cracked and hands shaking, thin as a whippet. I saw the waitress sizing him up as she approached the table, the laminated menus held tight across her chest. He was sweating in the air-conditioned cool of the place, he was thumping the table with one knotty fist, and she didn't want any trouble. Last time I saw him alive.
Serious Girl, Pt. 1
Most of the others had thrown in the towel already, retreating into the relative safety of CNN and the hotel bar. They'd drink down huge glasses of cheap pilsner and local rum and watch looping reels of disaster footage until it was time to stagger back to their rooms upstairs. He could see why, he wasn't blind to the appeal of giving up, but he wasn't ready yet. So he zipped up his jacket and headed out the door.
The city had a real problem with fires, she explained. Every few blocks and there'd be another monument to some poor guy who went up in flames. She'd translate it for him and he'd do his best to keep up. The Catholics set fire to the Protestants over here, a few yards from where the Turkish t-shirt vendor was standing now. Down the street the police set fire to the Jews. The Nazis rolled in and set fire to pretty much everything on that side of the river and then the Russians came in and torched all the bridges. The Americans never set any fires, she told him. They never needed to.
She was tall and thinner than he could fathom. She had spent some time in Chicago a long time ago, she said, but she was too young to know what a long time was. She had a real flair for self-dramatization. She wore a blue raincoat and strange chunky shoes, made her eyes up like Cleopatra. She drank gin out of the bottle she carried around in her bag and he suspected she was insane. She had this way of keeping him at a distance without keeping him away. He knew what she was doing but he didn't quite know how, and he didn't mind as much as he might have. They met at the castle gates. Met where they first met, where they always met.
She had a brother. She had a mother. Had he ever been to Chicago? What was his wife like? He hadn't mentioned a wife. She reminded him of a girl he knew a long time ago. A girl he used to go to the movies with once upon a time. They'd sit in the back rows of Cinema Village, holding hands and sharing a pack of Camels. Back when things were like that. But that girl was as all-American as the day was long, Boston cheerleader with a broken nose, and this girl was anything but.
Her brothers stood together behind the screen door. Her mother screamed "GET DOWN!" and hid praying under the bed but she didn't she just stood there. Just stood there at the window upstairs. Stood there in the room where she grew up, where she hung posters on the wall, where she spent hours talking to her friends on the telephone, where she studied herself obsessed and uncomprehending in the mirror on the closet door. Room where she first let him in. She stood there with her white fingertips pressed up against the glass. Stood there staring down at him. Stood there still half asleep in her pajamas and she couldn't hardly breathe.
He saw her like she knew he would. His eyes stung, his heart kicked inside his chest hard, kicked inside one two three. He knew he was coming apart. He called out her name but the brothers inside just stared. Big country brothers one hand firm on the door. Now he was there he was lost, her mother still screaming from under the bed.
He blinked. Heard the screen door open and blinked again. He remembered the weight in his hand.
Good Job So Far
From "The Tourists"
“Another pint?” Howard leaned into the girls. “Can I buy you ladies another pint?”
“No, thanks,” said the darker one. “Thanks, we’re good.”
“Thanks though,” said the other one.
This was their only night in Dublin, their last night in Ireland, and Bill was glad. Howard was enjoying it, it was more Howard’s speed, but something about the place made Bill uneasy. He felt a little deaf here, like he was always just missing something.
The sun poured in through the windows, and the light made the pub look tatty and old. The walls were an ugly red, like fingernail polish. It was in all the tour books, they recommended the place for its preserved Georgian atmosphere, but it just depressed Bill.
“So what’re you ladies doing here?” Howard was asking them. “What’re you studying?”
“Anglo-Irish Literature,” the lighter one said. “Irish writers.”
“Joyce,” the darker one said. “Mostly Joyce.”
“Hey, that’s great,” Howard said. “That’s great. Can’t understand a word the guy says myself, but still…Cheers!”
Howard drank down his mostly empty pint and set the glass on the bar. He looked for the bartender.
“Are you planning on going back home?” Bill asked them.
“I am,” said the lighter one. “In the fall. But not Beth, she’s staying.”
The darker girl, Beth, nodded earnestly.
“I am home,” she said. “This is home.”
“Well…good luck,” said Bill.
The city looked damaged to him, and he couldn’t imagine anyone staying who could leave. He’d seen a lot of really fucked up kids, ugly beyond their years. He saw kids begging on the street. Everybody was wearing nylon track-suits and cheap gold plated jewelry. He saw lots of Chicago Bulls jerseys, number 23. These kids dressed like the inner city black kids back home, like rappers he saw on MTV. There were other jerseys for teams he didn’t know, Celtic, Newcastle, a lot of Manchester United. His younger daughter, Sarah, had asked him for a Manchester United shirt and a claddagh ring. He’d bought the ring.
Howard was telling the darker girl about Sligo, how they had just come from the “Wild West.” The darker girl smiled politely and nodded.
“That’s Yeats Country,” she said. “That’s where Yeats is buried.”
“That’s right. I believe I read that.”
“It’s beautiful up there.”
“It sure is. It sure is that.”
Howard signaled to the bartender for another round, and the two girls let him. He was hovering between the two girls and they had parted their barstools to make room for him. Bill was happy to stand off to one side.
They were from Toronto, they told Howard. Beth said she hated it there but Jenny said that she missed her folks. Beth rolled her eyes when Jenny said that, and the gesture just drove home how young these girls were.
“Here you are, Sir.” The bartender set down four new pints of Guinness on the counter and Howard paid him.
“We’re a couple of cowboys ourselves,” Howard said. “From out on the open range. Billy here’s from California and I’m from Texas.”
“Where in California?” Jenny asked Bill.
“Hollywood,” Howard jumped in.
“The San Fernando Valley,” Bill amended.
“Oh, I’d love to go there,” Jenny said. “I know it’s tacky, but I love all that stuff. The Chinese Theatre, the Walk of Fame. Star Maps. What do you do out there?”
“I’m an assistant school superintendent.” Bill said.
“Oh,” Jenny said. “Like High Schools?”
“Well, High Schools and other schools.”
“What do you do?” Beth asked Howard.
“Me? I’m a lawyer, oil and gas,” he answered. “I’m yuppie scum. I’m a capitalist pig. SOO-EEE!”
Howard laughed and the girls laughed with him. Beth rolled her eyes again.
After another two rounds the Canadian girls left and Bill was feeling a little sick. It had been a while since he’d eaten anything and this Guinness was giving him a headache. The pub had filled up considerably and the air was blue with cigarette smoke. It was starting to get dark outside.
Three months earlier, Bill had been watching a video with his wife when the phone rang. When he picked it up it was Howard, and Bill couldn’t have been more surprised.
His mom died, Howard said. He was drunk, Bill could hear it over the phone, and his mom had just died.
“Jesus, I’m sorry to hear that,” Bill said. His wife looked up at him, wondering what happened, and turned down the TV.
The point was, Howard went on, there was an inheritance. Nothing big, nothing lavish, but some. Let’s blow it, he said. Let’s go to Ireland. It’s time we took a trip to the old country. I’ll look up some relatives. C’mon.
Bill took the phone out to his deck and closed the glass door behind him.
“Howard…” he started in his reasonable voice, in the voice he used with his kids.
“Billy, come on, no shit it’ll be good. My treat.”
Bill could see the orange glow in the sky above Los Angeles. He tried to imagine where Howard was calling from. His living room, probably. In front of the tube, probably playing a western with the sound off. Bill leaned against the railing and watched the last traces of sunlight disappear in the West.
“I don’t know if I can just drop things, Howard.”
“A week, ten days, something like that. In and out. But come on, at least consider it.”
“I don’t know if I can consider it, Howard. This might be a bad time, we have budget meetings. I’ll have to think about it.”
“Exactly! That’s all I ask, think about it. When’s the last time you took a trip? I mean a real trip? What the hell, Billy, you’ve got summers off. Jesus, listen to yourself. Budget meetings. This is the time to act. LA’ll still be there when you get back. We’ll go drive around the countryside, drink whiskey, do all that shit. We’ll have a blast.”
He kept meaning to mention it to Catherine, to introduce it as one of crazy Howard’s crazy ideas, but he kept putting it off. Finally, a week after the phone call and late one night, Bill just said “Howard’s invited me to Ireland for a week. Whaddya think?”
“Soon,” he said. “I told him I’d think about it.”
“Well,” she said. “Why don’t you go?”
He had to admit he wanted to. He had been counting on Catherine to talk him out of it, and when she didn’t he had to admit he was tempted.
Howard grew up in East Texas while Bill grew up in Kentucky and only moved West later, in the late Seventies. They kept in touch in a casual way, a phone call every few months, an ironic postcard. Their intense friendship during and right after the war had simmered down over the years into something more manageable.
Back in Vietnam they both drank, they both drank a lot. It was something that bonded them together, even when everybody around them drank themselves into an uneasy and jittery sleep. Inevitably they’d end up the last two at the bottle or the warm case of beer. They’d sit and smoke and drink. They’d listen for explosions and hear only motor scooters zipping down the streets.
After they got home, Howard had a habit of going off. He’d smash up his house, he’d move without warning. He couldn’t blame the war. Howard and Bill spent Vietnam in offices, staying out of trouble. It was all paperwork and headaches. He didn’t know what it was. Bill worried about Howard. He hoped he would settle down, get married and have some kids. Come to ground in the same way Bill had.
But that didn’t happen. Instead Howard became very rich. His father had left him his firm, and to everybody’s surprise Howard was an excellent, cunning, lawyer. He never had the wife, or kids, but he did have a string of girlfriends that Bill and Catherine would sometimes meet. It was quite a life.
When they were in Sligo they found the family Howard was looking for, buried in a run-down plot in the ruins of an abbey. The plots were all around the ruins. The two men were surrounded by walls and walking on graves. Howard ran ahead like an excited school kid, checking the names on the tombstones and moving on to the next plot. Bill would lag behind and look at each one. He’d read off whole families buried beneath him, stretching back over long periods of time. Children, parents, grandparents. There were mementos on some of the plots, weathered beyond immediate recognition. Rosaries, coins, a walking cane. He’d look across the stones and see Howard leaping around like crazy, calling out names.
“O’Brien,” he’d yell. “McGoldrick. McTeirnan. Here it is, man! Holy Shit!”
They were staying in the Abbey Hotel that night, in separate but adjoining rooms. They’d been pretty lucky about that. In Dublin, though, they were sharing a room. They ate dinner there in the hotel bar that night. It was a nice surprise, they both had the lamb and it was delicious. Between the two of them they had managed to finish off two pints before the food had arrived, and finished off their third along with the dinner. They ordered coffee and sat at the table for a long time.
All through the meal Howard had been telling stories of his girlfriends and of their particular ways and habits. Bill had met a few of them in LA, when Howard was in on business. They were all young and stunning to look at, almost embarrassing to look at, actually, and they all disappeared after a year or so. Howard didn’t seem to mind this much.
“Suzi, she was a firecracker. She was a real handful.”
“I don’t think we met Suzi.”
“No, come to think of it, you probably didn’t. But I’ll tell you, Billy, she was a real handful all right. She was a marine biologist.”
“Shit yeah, in Texas. She was studying microbiotic shrimp in the Gulf. Something like 40,000 different kinds of microbiotic shrimp floating around out there. She was with some group out of LSU, typifying all these shrimp. Sounds boring, maybe, but I’ll tell you…” he leaned in across the table. “She was a wicked little thing.”
“Twenty-six years old, and full of imagination.”
Bill turned away from Howard’s leering face and looked around the bar. It was just about all old men, white haired and red faced old guys drinking and watching sports highlights on the TV.
“So what happened to Suzi?”
“Oh, shit, you know. Went back to New Orleans with her shrimp, I guess. Went back somewhere, anyway.”
“Just looking, Billy. Just lying in wait.”
That night Bill dreamed he was home in California and on his way to work. He was sitting behind the wheel of his Toyota, the radio was on, and he had just passed the Calabasas turn-off on 101. His briefcase sat on the passenger seat next to him. A big red and white Safeway truck was steaming along in the passing lane ahead of him, and a sporty little Volkswagen was cruising along beside. The sun was out and the sky was blue. It was springtime.
When the sporty little Volkswagen pulled up ahead of Bill’s little Toyota, he could see this was trouble. The road wasn’t too crowded, but crowded enough, and there was no room for rash little Grand Prix maneuvers. The truck wasn’t going to let the sporty little Volkswagen in, he couldn’t even see it. Bill thought to slow down his own car, to put as much room between himself and this jerk as possible.
The Volkswagen disappeared in front of the truck, and for the briefest of seconds Bill thought he’d made it. The first blush of relief came over him even as he heard the crushing sound of metal and cement. The truck just ate the little sporty Volkswagen up. He saw the sparks and the fire as the truck jackknifed in front of him. He saw other cars smash into the side of the truck and create a bigger wreck. Cars were smashing into each other at 70 miles an hour. Bill hit the brakes of his Toyota but he was still going fast, too fast to miss this, and so he did his best to brace himself against the oncoming impact. The last thing he saw before he woke up was a big black tire, soaring through the air towards him, spinning slowly against the clear blue sky.
San Francisco, 1989
Had all these Kerouac visions of the moment but when the moment came I was shocked, I was scared, and you were laughing but you were scared too. And that night we all got home safe, though we probably didn't deserve to. Drove back home with one eye squinted, radio on and all the windows down. Drove back home smelling the eucalyptus from the trees.
First Day Out
“No drinking. Is that going to be a problem?”
Mrs. Lopez sat at her desk, and Bobby sat in a cold metal chair across from her. Her desk was crowded with a computer, phone, and an overflow of paperwork. A clear plastic cube held pictures of her kids in their communion outfits. As she spoke she pointed her way through some Xeroxed forms with a ball-point pen. Bobby nodded along with each point she made.
“Yes, Ma'am. Not a problem.”
“You run into anybody from the past, anybody with a record? You call me. You talk to the police, about anything, speeding ticket or anything, you call me. You get arrested, detained, whatever, you call me. You don't call me, you'll be in violation of parole and you go back to jail. You're with me?”
“Here. Sign here.” She pointed to the Xeroxed photocopies and Bobby signed the forms.
“Listen to me,” she said, looking up at him from across the desk at him for the first time. “You get one chance, and I'm it. I've got a hundred and fifteen cases on my book, OK? I'm supposed to have sixty. So please, do not give me the opportunity to ship you back. Because I'll take it, believe me.”
“No, Ma'am. Absolutely.”
Mrs. Lopez took a second, looking over the forms one last time.
“OK. We'll see. Here...” She opened the bottom drawer of her desk and took out a disposable plastic piss-cup. “Down the hall to the right. You'll see where. Fill it up, hand it to the desk. I'll make some calls.”
Bobby took the cup.
When he died nobody touched the place. They boarded it up and they farmed it out and they burned all the maps. My father, my uncles, nobody wanted anything to do with it. Bad memories and worse dreams. Eventually the State of Tennessee reclaimed the place on back taxes, held the place in escrow. My wife and two sons bought it back from the state and they gave it back to me as a present. We drove down, I stepped inside, my knees were shaking.
10 cent Veteran's Day American flags and paper devil's masks, dog tags hanging from a string. Postcards from Texas and California, the alligator farm in St. Augustine. A jar full of pennies and a jar full of rocks. A rocking chair and an old floral-patterned sofa he must've used as a bed. I stand on the bare wood floor of the shack and I catalogue this stuff obsessively. Empty coke bottles all in a row and Ira Louvin's smiling face. Pocket knives and arrow heads. An unopened case of Dickel. Ball jars, tobacco tins, a butterfly in a small black frame. Election poster from 1954, John Cline County Sheriff.
I step outside and look at my rented car, two boys sleeping in the back seat and engine still ticking over in the heat. I close my eyes and listened to the burble of the McMinn River down below. Down below and far away.
Time Comes Faster Than Horses
The man steeped in closer and hit him a second time. He hit him harder.
“I said sit, goddamn it! Just sit!”
Their room was on the second floor. It was like every motel room Bill had ever been in, and he’d been in a few. Two double beds, TV, an untouched chest of drawers, a bible in a drawer beneath the reading light. A laminated menu from the coffee shop across the highway. Local map. There was a small window in the front by the door and another, much larger one in back. The front window overlooked the little horse-shoe shaped parking lot below, the swimming pool, the strip-mall across the highway. The back one aimed out at nothing but miles and miles of empty South Dakota nothing. Scrub land and brush and some mountains in the far distance, Bill didn’t know which ones. He thought maybe they were looking West but he really wasn’t sure.
They’d been in the room for two days now, two days, and Bill was trying to find the strength within himself to get moving again. He knew they had to, knew they still had a lot of ground left to cover. But every time he stared out that huge back window, at all that empty distance, he felt a weight come settling down upon him and he couldn’t find the energy to move, almost. Couldn’t find the energy to lift his arms.
His son Sam was oblivious to it. His son was only seven years old and anyway staying holed up in a motel room on the edge of Nowhere, S.D. made as much sense to him as anything else that had happened to him in the past few days. Kids are adaptable, Bill told himself, and normal was relative. So they watched a lot of TV, whatever Sam wanted to watch, and Bill watched a lot of his son.
Bill watched his son as he sat at the little round table beneath the big empty window, playing with a plastic bag full of little green soldiers Bill had picked up in a Texaco station along the way. He’d watch as one of the soldiers would line up a good shot. His son would let out a little diabolical laugh and say “I’ve got you now!” The other plastic soldier would cry out in anguish and surprise, sometimes even begging for his little soldier life, but Sam’s wars were merciless affairs, and begging did no good. Sam could keep one of these battles going for almost an hour, until all his plastic soldiers were spent. Then, almost immediately, he’d want to watch TV again.
“I’m bored,” he’d say.
The motel had a pool. The woman in the office made it clear that there wasn’t any lifeguard on duty, wasn’t any lifeguard at all, and the motel couldn’t be held responsible for anything that happened. But they were free to use it if they wanted.
“If you drown,” she said, “you drown on your own.”
Sam wanted, he wanted so bad he danced up and down where he stood, but Bill wasn’t so sure. The woman in the office made drowning sound almost routine, an everyday occurrence. She made it sound like a foregone conclusion.
“I know how,” the boy pleaded on the walk from the front office to the motel room. “We’ve been doing it in school. I don’t need water wings or anything. Come on, please?”
Bill kept walking, not meeting the boy’s pleas, the room key dangling in his hand. A shutter opened somewhere behind Bill’s eyes, quick and uninvited, and through it Bill could clearly see his son floating a few inches below the surface of the swimming pool water, eyes and mouth open and unmoving. He saw the boy’s blond hair rising and shifting in the rocking tide. He saw his skin, blue against the blue of the water. He saw his own heavy body crashing through the surface of the water, trying to reach his son but negligent and too late. Just as quickly, the shutter snapped closed, and Bill felt his head snap back.
“You don’t have a swimming suit,” Bill said.
“I could swim in my underwear,” his son said. “They’ve got Spiderman on them, nobody’d even notice. Come on, please? Please?”
“We’ll see,” he said. “Maybe later.”
“That means no,” Sam groaned, giving up for now. “Later always means no.”
Interstate 90, La Crosse to Buffalo, Wyoming. From there through Billings, Bozeman, Butte. Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, Seattle. Interstate 5 to Vancouver. Bill looked up from the atlas, sighed, and closed his eyes.
“She’s an Indian, I think,” the boy said, lining up his soldiers on the bed. A sniper was lying flat on the crest of a pillow, lining up to shoot an unsuspecting green radio man. The poor sap never saw it coming.
“The woman who gave us the keys. The woman in the office, the other night. I think she’s some kind of Indian.”
“Well, could be,” Bill said. “This is where they’re from.”
Bill didn’t know anything about Indians, and he couldn’t picture the woman in the office. They checked in two nights before and had hardly left the room since. Bill hadn’t wanted to look into anyone’s face straight on. It was dark when they checked in, they’d been driving since Rapid City, and Bill’s son was sound asleep in the seat beside him. His forehead was pressed up against the glass and his mouth was wide open. His dreams were a thousand miles away.
“It’s going to rain,” his son said. Looking out the huge rear window, Bill could see the rain coming in like an electric blue shroud. A quick flash of lightning cracked on the horizon, still too far for thunder, and the boy jumped. Bill looked from the sky to his son, and his son looked back at him. Bill knew he would never be able to live out here. He’d never get used to these skies, this distance. It wasn’t anything like Lexington. Here you could see what was coming a long way off, and there wasn’t a damn thing you could do.
“Let’s see if there’s anything on the TV.”
Bill had taken his son from elementary school four days before. He came bursting into the classroom a few minutes before the three o’clock bell with some wildly convoluted story for Miss McAlprine, a story so complicated with hospitals and grandparents and cars careening across the interstate median and anything else that popped into Bill’s sweaty fevered imagination that Miss McAlprine just stood there blinking as Bill hustled his son into his jacket and out the door.
“I’ll call the principal,” Bill offered, running out the door. “I’ll call her right now.”
By the time everybody caught on that something was amiss, by the time Bill’s ex-wife went to pick up Sam at the bus stop, by the time she called the Principal and the Principal called Ms. McAlprine and then the police, Bill had hoped to be forty miles down the road. That was the plan and that’s just how it happened.
That was four days ago and Bill told himself afterward that they’d be fine, just fine. But the truth was, now that Bill had taken the boy, he wasn’t sure what to do with him. He wasn’t sure what to do with either of them.
Radio news. The war. Cost of gas. Sports and China. Delegates and Super-Delegates and food riots in Haiti. South Dakota. The Corn Palace, Souix Falls, 300 Miles to Wall Drugs. The Black Hills, Mount Rushmore and Wounded Knee. South Dakota. He hadn’t been here in thirty years, easy, and he couldn’t wait to get through it. They were living on McDonald’s and Subway Sandwiches. It was like a vacation, he told his son. All bets were off. I love you, you know that? I love you. You don’t even know how much I love you.
“When my grandfather came home from the war my Dad didn’t even recognize him, didn’t know him at all. My Dad ran under the bed and couldn’t be coaxed out for hours.”
“Granddad?” Sam asked, and Bill shook his head.
“My grandfather. Your great-grandfather. You never met him.”
“Wait here, don’t move and don’t answer the door.”
“I mean it, not a soul. Fifteen minutes.”
“Okay,” the boy said, only half listening, tucked in and teeth brushed and not looking away from the TV screen as he said it. Bill paused for a second, then went out the door.
“I’ll be right back.”
Strip mall pizza. Shitty little strip mall bar like this in every town Bill ever lived in, tucked in between a grocery store and a card shop. Bright green neon shamrock in the window and Garth Brooks on the jukebox. Bill’s stomach had tightened as he walked past the place. God but he would’ve liked a drink. Just one, shot and a beer and a handful of popcorn. Feel that salty tang up at the back of his mouth, that welcome small explosion. Just to take himself away from himself a little bit.
But he kept walking, and soon he was past the urge.
“Baby, you don’t know.”
Bill heard the man before he saw him, deep ragged voice, tired and raw and trying to be soft. Bill was walking back along the motel walkway with the pizza and the cokes. The man himself was huge, country, all arms and shoulders and belly and neck. His thick black hair was oiled into a kind of 50’s DA. He stood at the motel door, one square hand resting gently on the jamb, and his voice rumbled out of him like a train.
“You just don’t.”
He stood with his forehead almost touching the locked door, almost whispering.
The window beside the motel room door was dark, and Bill wasn’t sure if there was anybody inside, if the man wasn’t pleading to an empty room. Bill edged his way to the outside border of the motel walkway as he passed, head down and eyes averted. The big man stopped talking suddenly and Bill could feel his attention on him, but Bill kept walking and soon he was at the door.
“You’re my moon in June, baby,” he heard the big man say. “You’re my heart and soul.”
The TV was still on by the time Bill was back with the food, but Sam was asleep. The TV was still on. Bill sat down on the bed next to the boy, always a little amazed at how quickly his son could be asleep, just dead to the world. One minute they’d be talking about school or Star Wars or something and the next minute Bill would be alone.
It was from a cartoon, he remembered. Some Walt Disney thing his son was watching, home sick from school one day. The Three Musketeers. Mickey was trapped and sentenced to die, waiting in his cell. Goofy and Donald were nowhere to be found. The bad guy, some kind of evil sheriff or something, is taunting Mickey in his final minutes, telling him that time comes faster than horses. Laughing cruelly as he says it.
Bill sat next to his son, watching the cartoon. He held his son’s feverish head in the palm of his hand, just like now or almost like now, and suddenly he had felt his whole life just slide away.
“Could I get waffles? And sausages?”
The next morning, pancakes at the coffee shop across the highway.
“And whipped cream on the waffles?”
Bill sat on his side of the formica table, newspaper unfolded in front of him, scanning the articles. The paper was concerned almost entirely with stabbings and car crashes, mostly in the dead of night. Today they would leave.
“Sure, whipped cream. Strawberries, why not? Shoot the moon.”
Bill ordered coffee for himself and scanned the paper. A woman found injured and unconscious, left for dead in the street. A nurses strike. A fire near the Governor’s Mansion. One page on horses, another page on weather. Church notes. Nothing about Bill, nothing about them.
“Time to hit the road, scooter. Today’s the day.”
“Where?” The boy looked up from his waffles, surprised.
“West,” Bill said. “I-90 West, more cowboys and Indians. I’ll show you on the map.”
“I’m not Scooter,” his son laughed.
“Well, you’re my Scooter,” he said, and the boy laughed again.
“A minute of your time?”
The man was waiting for them on the motel walkway, he was standing right there as they opened the motel room door, and Bill recognized him at once from the night before. He was dressed neat this morning, in a western shirt and a fresh pair of jeans, but his eyes were red and raw. He had his hair combed back from his forehead.
“It’s OK, son.” Bill smiled a little, nodded, and turned to the man. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I was wondering if you had seen someone belonging to me. She’s got red hair, about yea long. Woman at the front desk thought maybe you’d have seen her.”
“No, jeeze. Sorry.”
“It’s just the woman at the desk…”
“Afraid not,” Bill said, and he tried to edge his way around the man to open his motel door. “Sorry.”
“I’m asking nice, Sir,” the big man said, and his voice lowered as he said it. Bill froze up for a second, then he turned and smiled. “You notice I’m asking nice.”
“As you can see, my son and I…”
“Hey, I’ve got a son,” the big man said. “We’ve all got sons. That doesn’t mean you can’t help me out here. That doesn’t mean shit.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t think I can help you, sir. Simple mistake.” Bill offered his hand and what he hoped was a reassuring smile, but the big man just stared at him.
“Sir,” Bill said, and he did his best to lock the little man’s frantic eyes with his own steady gaze. He felt his smile stretch dead across his face. “Sir, you’re scaring my boy.”
The man came on him like a dark cloud, and Bill flinched. He kind of knew it was coming, but he flinched anyway, and something inside of his mind shut closed tight. A sudden pain rocketed through his left side, and he heard his son gasp.
“Not here,” Bill said, but it was too late for here, too late for now, and the Man struck him again. Harder than before. It was a pain like fire.
Bill heard glass shatter and guessed that that was the mirror over the dresser. He heard a dull thunk as the little round table fell to the floor. He felt the man’s boots connect with any exposed part of his own body and he heard a rib crack before he could feel the pain of it. The pain was general, it washed over him like a wave. One rib wouldn’t even make a difference.
Throughout it all, Bill could hear the big man sobbing above him. Hard wet spasms being yanked out of the man by force, almost. The man was crying like a child. That sound scared Bill the most. He saw him and then he heard him and then he heard nothing at all.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been lying there. He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling, and he knew he was hurt. Hurt worse than he’d ever been hurt in his life. Hurt beyond blood. He wasn’t sure he could feel his legs. His left side felt very far away.
“Hey, sir? Sir, are you OK?”
The woman from the front desk stood in the open doorway, the Indian woman, and his son hid behind her out in the hall.
“Yeah,” Bill said, still staring up at the ceiling. “I’ll be fine.”
“You don’t look fine, Sir. Excuse me for saying, but you don’t look fine at all.”
“We called the police. Should be here any minute.”
At the word “police”, something turned over in Bill. Turned over and settled, and then it was gone. He tried to shake his head, couldn’t.
“OK,” he said. “Good.”
The woman looked around the room, and shook her head sadly. “What happened to you, Sir? What happened in here?”
Bill knew he wouldn’t have much time once the police arrived, he didn’t think he could stand up anyway. But when he lifted his arm his son came around from behind the Indian woman and came down to him on the floor. His son put his thin arms around his father’s chest, put his face up close to his armpit, nuzzling in. Bill wrapped his own arm around the boy’s side. He felt the boy’s wet fear through his shirt. He felt it seep into his own skin.
“Shhh,” he said, rubbing the boy’s hair. “Shhh now.”
The Indian woman looked at them for a second, splayed out on the floor, and then she looked away.
“Let me get some ice,” she said quietly. “I’ll just get some ice.”
She left the door open and disappeared down the hallway, and Bill felt his son nuzzle in tighter. His forehead damp against his shirt, his breathing.
They lay together on the floor, very still.
Under the Arches
He wanted to be a painter but he didn't know where to start. He didn't know anyone. He'd take his cardboard portfolio around the city and stare into the windows of the Leo Castelli Gallery on East 77th. Once he saw Franz Kline standing on the corner of Waverly and Broadway, but he didn't dare approach the man. He didn't know what to say, and so he stood there as the lights changed and Kline made his way towards Washington Square. He set up a little easel in the kitchen of their apartment and found a job with the Brooklyn Department of Welfare. On Saturdays they'd walk along the East River, and on Sunday mornings he'd paint.
She missed Texas. She missed the hills, she missed her family. She had never seen junkies before and they scared her. She had never seen garbage piled high on the street. They didn't have a phone in the apartment, they didn't have a television. When he went to work she locked the door behind him. Most days she would go to the library opposite the park and read, it didn't matter what. She would spend whole afternoons in there, oblivious to the comings and goings of the people around her. At four-thirty she would head back to the apartment, doing her best to ignore the city that was so quickly closing in. And when she became pregnant she was terrified, and put off telling him for as long as she possibly could.
He walked. He walked all night and all the next day. He walked all over the city, Inwood and Washington Heights. South Street, Spanish Harlem, he walked through the gray areas between areas, places he didn't know and wouldn't see again. He walked and then he went back home to East 3rd Street and she let him in. They were trying to make it work.
Sitting in the passenger seat of Mike's old Toyota pick-up, the one he bought with the money his dad left him, and staring out the windshield at Petaluma Boulevard. Back in a place I never thought I'd be again. I'm trying to figure out what to do with my car keys even though the car's long gone. The car's history, which explains why Mike's been driving me all over Sonoma County for the past week while I try to pull myself together. I'm still carrying the keys around in my jacket pocket, though. Seems wrong somehow to throw them out.
A couple walks by and suddenly your face comes down on me with real force. Out of nowhere, clear as day. The slight curve of your nose, the lines at the corner of your mouth. I see your face silently as it goes through all its emotions, all its shapes, from miles and miles away. From twenty years back. It must be here, I don't know. It must be being back here.
As Mike gets back in the cab and starts the drive back towards San Anselmo, I'm still staring out the window at your eyes, the color of ginger. All that was just yesterday. In the life I was living yesterday.
New York, 1961
My dad left for New York in 1961, he took a Greyhound out of Lexington with a cardboard suitcase and a couple of art books he'd found somewhere around the UK campus. Names rattled around in his head the whole ride up. Paul Klee. Franz Kline. Rothko, Motherwell, de Kooning. His father, my grandfather, managed a Southern States feed co-op in Irishtown. He was a Kentucky Colonel, fought in the Ardennes. He sold salt licks and baling wire to Bluegrass farmers. He didn't know the first thing about Abstract Expressionism, had no interest in learning. Art, or at least his son's interest in art, was an embarrassment to him.
My dad found a two room apartment on Sullivan Street, bathroom in the kitchen and toilet down the hall, and took a job somewhere in the Garment District. He worked with Jewish girls from Brooklyn, Dominican guys from Queens. He heard Spanish being spoken for the first time in his life. Ate dinner in the Automat. Everything was new to him.
On Saturdays he'd try to paint something, but nothing came. He'd pore over his art books, bring back postcards from the Museum of Modern Art. He smoked, drank coffee, listened to the radio and he stared out his window at the traffic passing by. He rode the subways out to the ends of their lines. The L to Canarsie. The R to Coney Island. He'd sketch compulsively, trying to catch something, he didn't know what. On his 18th birthday he went to a bar and bought himself a beer.
He started coughing, he started coughing and he couldn't stop. When he starting bringing up blood he took the bus over to Bellevue, where a young doctor from somewhere told him he had double pneumonia. You need rest, the young doctor told him. You need fresh air. This city is not your friend.
Bright Day in May
Steve married Susan on a bright blue afternoon in the middle of May and she was already showing. Steve had wanted to elope, had wanted to just drive off somewhere in the middle of the night, but Susan couldn’t help mentioning that to her Mom and that was the end of that. So there everybody stood, on the flagstone steps of the Assembly of God and smiling into the camera. Susan looked pretty, everybody agreed, and Steve hadn’t seemed so happy in years. They made a handsome couple, they were going to be fine. Steve’s father got drunk at the reception and he couldn’t stop crying.
Before the ceremony Matt and his son took a spool of fishing line and tied an old pair of sneakers, some balloons and a couple of tin cans to the trailer hitch of Steve’s 86 Chevy shortbed, all spit-shined and gleaming. Matt’s wife and daughter were already inside the church with the rest. Even in the parking lot Matt could hear the organ, playing “Nearer My God to Thee”. Steve had parked in the shade of the elm trees, and black birds leapt from branch to branch above them as they crouched down together behind the truck. Matt tried not to get parking lot dirt on the knees of his suit.
Matt had written “Just Married” across the rear window in car-lot soap, and tied a long white ribbon around the antennae, the whole thing looked pretty good.
Matt’s son was seven years old, and buried deep in concentration. He jammed his tongue into the corner of his mouth as he threaded the fishing line through the holes in the trailer hitch and looped it around. His eyes darted across to his father as he started tying the knot, and Matt held back the urge to help him.
“Over and through,” he said. “That’s it.”
His son finished the knot and pulled the slack line as taut as he could before Matt finally helped him, trimming off the extra length with his pocket knife.
From inside the church the organ playing suddenly got louder and Matt stood up, holding out his open hand. His son took it, and together they headed off across the parking lot toward the church, the gravel crunching beneath their shoes.
Matt’s cousin died later that summer out on Hebron Valley Road. It was dark, the roads were wet, and he must’ve really been flying. He wrapped himself around a telephone pole in his girlfriend’s yellow Honda and his blood alcohol level was way off the charts. A couple of factory kids found him the next day at dawn. They were on their way to work, ran out of the car yelling, but there was nothing they could have done.
Highway Patrol got Matt’s number off of Billy’s cell-phone, which they found undamaged at his feet, on the floor of the car. His cousin had him in the address book, on speed dial or whatever it was called, and Matt was awake when they rang. It was six-thirty in the morning, the gray, pre-dawn light was beginning to seep in through his kitchen window. Apparently there were only a couple of numbers his cousin had bothered to save there in his phone, and Matt was the only one who answered. He talked to the tired-sounding woman on the other end of the line, thanked her for calling and said he’d take care of everything, then he called his boss and explained things. That’s fine, his boss said, take as much time as you need.
“What is it?”
“Billy,” Matt said. “I’ve got to go down to the hospital.”
His wife didn’t say anything for a minute, rolled over on her side in the bed.
“Don’t wake up the kids.”
As Matt drove to the hospital he tried to remember the last time he had seen his cousin, and he couldn’t. Last Christmas, the summer before, he couldn’t pin it down. It threw him a little, the way his number had popped up so readily in Billy’s cell-phone. Matt certainly didn’t have Billy’s number, wouldn’t have taken it on a bet. Thanksgiving, he decided. Must’ve been right around Thanksgiving sometime, ran into him pretty much by chance. Some restaurant downtown. Even if he couldn’t quite remember it, he could still imagine the scene pretty clearly. Billy red-faced and laughing too hard at his own stories, talking too loud at the bar. His wiry little girlfriend nervous behind him. Matt saying how good it was to see him again and looking for the door. Must’ve been Thanksgiving.
Billy had gone down to Florida not that long back, thought he’d go down there and make some money, never did say how. Get fat and happy, sit out in the sun. Drink Coronas and fish for Marlin all day, that was the plan. He was convinced a whole new life of ease was just down there waiting for him, that’s what he called it. All he had to do was go down and grab it. He was back home within the year and he’d gotten fat alright but Matt couldn’t say he seemed particularly happy. He’d brought the girlfriend back up with him, the thin nervous girl with the auburn hair. The girl with the yellow Honda.
Matt stood in the bright, empty lobby of the University Hospital, waiting for the receptionist to get off the phone. It was cold, and there was some kind of floral chemical smell they used that Matt couldn’t get out of his nose.
The woman behind the desk was rake-thin, and she sat at her desk with the ramrod straight posture of a classical pianist. Matt could see the bones moving around in her wrists as she typed something into her computer keyboard. She was dressed head-to-toe in purple, and her skin was the color of coal. Her hair swept up high above the sharp angles of her face. She wore one of those wrap-around microphone headsets and she was reading something into the little silver microphone at her mouth, a long string of numbers and letters Matt couldn’t begin to decipher. He could see the computer monitor reflected in the lenses of her purple-framed glasses as she read.
There was a huge flat-screen TV mounted to the waiting area wall, CNN showing a cluster of West Virginia coal miners standing together in a muddy field. The volume was off but Matt knew what was happening, the story had been on the news for a week. One of the miners had his arm slung over another one’s shoulder, and through their sunglasses they both looked mournfully down at the ground.
The only other people in the hospital lobby were an older couple sitting side-by-side in a row of empty chairs. They were dressed in a hurry, and they stared silently into the empty space ahead of them. The older man was having a tough time with whatever was going on. He’d open his mouth a little and let out a kind of low, shuddering moan. The woman reached across to him and put her hand on his knee, but otherwise they stayed as they were.
“Sir?” The receptionist called to him, and Matt turned.
He had taken in the room all at once. Florescent lights and tiled walls, a stainless steel table and a drain in the floor. A radio. The hospital attendant stood at a respectful distance as Matt stared down at his cousin, at what was left of him. It was even colder now, and the chemical smell was stronger.
“Take your time.”
Matt hadn’t known what to expect, but Billy’s face looked more or less the same, bruised and swollen but more or less the same. There was a fine mist of dried copper-red blood sprayed across his chest and collarbone, his hair was flattened down on one side. Matt guessed that the real damage was lower, under the sheet they used to cover the body. He just looked battered and empty. Tired. Matt stood there for a long minute, trying to think of something to say, something appropriate, but nothing came. There wasn’t anything left of his cousin at all.
“If you need another minute…”
“No, it’s OK. It’s him. Where do you need me to sign?”
He called his aunt from back in the hospital lobby, he was alone now, the older couple had gone and the receptionist’s chair was empty. Matt dialled up San Mateo directory information and in another minute he was talking to his mother’s sister, who’d given up on all of them and left for California years before. He could hear the TV on wherever she was, blasting away in the background.
“So?” she asked him after saying nothing for a long time. Her voice was a little slurred already. “So? You knew it was coming.”
In the background Matt could hear the TV pretty clearly. Too loud shouting and clapping, the sound of a studio audience baying out for blood. What time was it in California?
“Are you still there?”
There was no answer on the other end, but the TV audience kept shouting. Then his aunt hung up and the line went dead.
Susan in the kitchen, making her mother a cup of tea. Slicing the lemon the way she used to as a girl. Same paring knife, same chopping board. Waiting for the kettle to boil. She’d lost a lot of weight all of a sudden, was smoking too much. Her rings fit loose on her fingers. She couldn’t stand the smell of herself in the mornings anymore, the smell she got off her sheets when she first woke up. Steve said it was all her imagination but she didn’t believe him. She was worried she was sick. She went to the doctor but the doctor said no. Doctor said she needed rest, needed more iron in her diet. He wrote out a prescription that Susan carried around with her in her bag. The kitchen smelled like lemons.
From the next room Susan could hear the TV playing. She could hear her mother cooing into the blinking face of her own little baby girl. Who’s a good girl? You’re a good girl. Who’s a good girl? You’re a good girl. Susan stood on the linoleum where the sunlight hit the floor and listened. She closed her eyes.
Steve wouldn’t come back down here anymore. Wouldn’t come into the county at all if he didn’t have to. She tried to talk to him but he just said no. Didn’t want to bother anybody, didn’t want anybody bothering him. He could be like a wall sometimes, he’d get these ideas. Susan still came down most Saturdays, brought down the baby and sometimes took her mom out to lunch. Sometimes she stayed the night, it depended. She never mentioned Steve and when her mom brought it up she’d just ask How’s Steve and Susan would say He’s Fine. On Sunday afternoons, after the baby was in the car seat and Susan was ready to go home, her mom would fold forty dollars into the diaper bag and they let it go at that.
Matt poured a small shot of bourbon into the bottom of his coffee cup. The cup was a birthday present from his son, it had a baseball painted on the side of WORLD’S GREATEST DAD written in big bold letters. Matt had seen the mugs on sale at the mall downtown and guessed that’s where his son had found it.
He looked through the kitchen window at the scrubby yard outside. It was already raining lightly, rippling across the surface of the kiddie pool out there surrounded by toys. Bicycles and hula-hoops. A disconnected garden hose. He imagined his son in the pool, suspended just under the surface. Eyes closed, very still. Listening for something.
Matt drank down the whiskey and rinsed out his cup in the sink. Enough. He filled the cup with yesterday’s coffee and turned the radio on.
The long-haired man had been sitting at the counter for over an hour, the waitress told him. He had sat there stirring sugar into his coffee and drinking down glass after glass of ice water like he was on fire. The waitress knew right away that that man wasn’t right. She knew that just looking at him. He had that kind of pinwheel look in his eyes, and she’d seen that look before. There was something wrong with that man, she said again. Agitated. Nobody wanted to sit near him.
When the woman with the baby came in he was still sitting there and she was looking straight at him. She called out his name across the floor, everybody got real quiet but that long-haired man didn’t even turn his head. The woman with the baby started walking across to him and the waitress tried to stop her, she did. She got up real close and she knew something about these situations herself. She tried to stop her but the woman with the baby walked right past her. Walked straight up to the long-haired man.
Matt nodded. He nodded and he listened and he wished he was a long way away.
Well, the woman said his name again real soft and for a second the man didn’t do anything at all. Just drained down another glass of ice water and set it down real careful on the counter. Then he turned and he hit that woman as hard as he could. He used his fist on her and sent her reeling to the floor, still clutching that baby close to her chest. The long-haired man walked right out of the restaurant, nobody tried to stop him. Just disappeared out through the door. They were going to call the police but the woman with the baby said no. Whole thing happened about an hour ago, the waitress told him. Less. Certainly didn’t need that kind of thing in here.
Matt walked out, numb and heavy. He found Susan waiting for him in the passenger seat of her car, jiggling the baby up and down in her lap. He walked right past her and climbed into his own truck, parked out there on the edge of the gravel lot. He sat there for a long time, staring out through the windshield and the field beyond. He watched the starlings rise up out of the long grass. They rose up in small black clouds, twisted up and around each other, and then disappeared back into the grass again.