By the time Lil dropped her balding boyfriend that kept a sort of rat-tail mullet when he chopped it off, Id come to grips with the situation. No more slobbery parties, no more rogue sex, no more frivolous spending. So we went to coffee near midnight in Spokane with my roommate, but for them it was just coffee.
When we picked her up, shed changed. Her head was lighter and the hair that trailed to her hips was now tickling her earlobes. She had died it a reddish color and wore a suit that made her look like Scully from the X-files. A little makeup accented her plain features and she proved more shapely than Id imagined her in her typical baggy jeans and shop shirt getup. I could smell her heat and a perfume she never wore around me.
After coffee we stopped by a sex shop because she wanted to look at the boas. The night was going bland and the drink was kicking in. She tried on a boa while my roommate watched and was looking at some lotions when I walked up to her and told her that I had to do something or else I would never get the guts to do it another time. She looked surprised, but didn't decline. So I walked up to her and shoved my hand up into her freshly-cut hair. Her skull fell back into the palm of my hand and she closed her eyes. I closed mine and pulled a handfull slightly. Her head bent to the pull and I let the short hairs trickle through my grip, slowly.
The night trickled on into morning in the same way. The hours passed and with each I was getting closer to my new shift, knowing that each hour lost would mean waking up would be that much more difficult. So I stayed awake. We did. And I left early while she slept. Whatever it was, we both needed it then and there and she called me the next day to leave a message that her pillow smelled like me and she just thought she'd let me know. Thanks. Bye.
I stopped at her house on the way home but she was gone. I left a note that said I didn't know what happened or why but if you want to keep this up to let me know. I'll be at home stop by if you want. Later.
She came by and we picked up where we left off on the couch until my roommate came out of his bedroom to get food. They exchanged an awkward hey and he went back the way he came with a cup of water and some corn and left us alone. I asked what it was all about and she said oh never mind and don't worry about it, he's just that way sometimes. She wanted to watch a movie so we picked one from his collection and played it. But we didn't watch. We talked about an old friend and the art classes we used to take together and how so much had changed since high school and there wasn't much hope of going back. I touched her and wondered why she looked so different and was she the same person I'd met that first day I moved here who wiped axle grease on her overalls before shook my hand in her father's auto repair shop.
We should go see him sometime, she says. Well, I'm sure I could take some time off next week. We could go then. Portland is really not that far from here, she said, we could drive. Yeah. I could use a road trip.
I picked her up a few days later early in the morning. I was used to seeing sunrise by now, but she was still groggy well into the trip. I had put two tower speakers from a home entertainment center in the back of the car because I didn't have a sub. We listened to her music, a concert of screaming women angry at men and men angry at women, with the mammoth wood-enclosed speakers wedged between our seats and our gear piled in the back. She told me about each singer, each song, the band, the drummers, the labels, the offshoots, and when she was done there was nothing left to talk about but us.
The car was cool earlier in the day, but without air conditioning the black interior quickly began to suck the sweat from us. A different kind of tear. She told me her family, the reason for hating men, some men, and where she wasn't sure she was going. I'd taken this road before, though. It was if I was on the other side of the Columbia River and could see across watching her drive past in the opposite direction. We sit in the moment when we recognize the other is looking just before we set our eyes back to the road and go our separate ways.
The road is bland between Kennewick and The Dalles but the music and conversation help to pass the time. Before long the scenery begins to change and the West Coast foliage trickles in at 65 miles per hour.
We found his house after accidentally going over the bridge to Portland and had to turn around and drive all the way back. Vancouver seemed like a green little liberal sanctuary and this old friend of ours seemed to be living up the life. He was a mailman when he wasn't trying to be a musician.
We surprised him on his front porch, Lil calling first to get the 'I wish you were here' conversation going. She said, well look out the window and there was silence. She said hello and he was at the door. He hadn't changed a bit since high school, still the tall, lean figure that lead singers in hard metal rock bands seemed to have. He kept pushing his bowl-cut hair out of his face when he talked, saying oh, man, this is so cool, I wasn't expecting this, I love you guys...
He invited us in and we sat in the living room listening to the latest CD he made. He had been saving up money and buying recording equipment a piece at a time. In high school everybody wanted to be a rock star, not a mailman. But he still went after it and his stuff wasn't all that bad, for having put it all together himself. He was staying with a friend of his that I didn't know. A few hours later she came home and a little boy walked up to me and asked who I was. He looked young and the woman told me he was, but he's treated like an adult here, not a child. I introduced myself and he said it's nice to meet you, mister. I held out my hand and he shifted the second-hand Power Ranger from one hand to the other and shook my hand with a firm grip for a kid.
That night we dressed up to go to Perkin's, a truck stop restaurant. They dressed up in clothes that he had lying around ready for an audition for the Rocky Horror Picture Show that he would later land a lead role in. Lil wore a boa. Nick wore a miniskirt and black panty hose and fingernail polish. I wondered if a truck stop was the right place to be going with this company, but Lil was excited. The night went on without incident and he reminded me who he was with little polite gestures like leaving a decent tip and going out of his way to thank the server on the way out even though she seemed to be trying to avoid him.
The next day we had to leave in the afternoon. So we lounged around and went outside where the sun was shining to help with yard work. The boy and I dug up some roots of a bush that had overgrown the plastic lining set as its barrier and he knelt on the balls of his feet like a pre-school catcher watching me strike at it with a dull handheld gardening spade. He looked up occasionally and asked if I needed help I said yeah, but I don't think you're strong enough, kiddo. He said I'll be the judge of that and I handed him the spade. It was as big as his arm and he jabbed at the root until it started to come loose. He said there, see, and handed it back to me. He walked away and came back with a three-pronged hand rake and started in the hole with me I'd whack it and pull on it while he raked the rocks out of the way. We eventually pulled it out and Lil took him away to run and play. She looked down at me and smiled and I held up the root and said we got it.
She appeared to be good with the kid, running and showing him this flower or that bug and I wondered why she stuck to such a rigid birth control regimen. She said it was because it lessened her pain but I wondered if there was something else going on and took it personally.
We left that night and Lil took a picture of Nick and me decked out in what looked like similar 1970s garb, my curly hair adding to the likelihood of being 20 years in the past. We made hand signals of peace and hang loose and the picture captured it forever.
The ride home was almost quiet, having listened to all of her music already and finally getting to one or two of my CDs, none of which had lyrics. Beyond a little rain the sky was clear and an indigo hue blew back the darkness to the south. She pulled out one of the books she brought along and told me about the poetry and stories it contained. She started reading one after another after a short pause between each poem. They were mostly personal and dealt with rape or loss of control. Then she read one that I listened to. The night came on at 65 miles per hour and by the time she read it the sky bore only stars between cloud cover and rain behind us.
The poem was a story about a mirror, about looking in and I asked her to read it again. The second time she read it I was back in Utah walking over to the mirror. She stopped and my eyes brimmed. I asked her to read it again and I was leaning up against the wooden table, seeing my tan eyes. She stopped, but it wasn't over and the table turned into the steering wheel. I told her to keep going with a shaky voice and she did. I saw my reflection and started to cry.
The conversation stopped and she didn't ask questions. I wiped my face with my front shirttail and I felt her looking at my stomach. Why don't we listen to one of your CDs I said. She said okay quietly and reached behind my seat for the book with pages of CDs. She said we'd listened to almost all of them and I said just go ahead and put one of those in again. It wouldn't hurt to listen to something twice.
We drove on passing under streetside lampposts going in and out of the dark but paving a path with the headlights. I watched the white lines approach, quicken and zip by next to me. Sometimes they disappeared under my hood to the beat, sometimes they were off. I started paying attention to the lyrics and wasn't as impressed as the first time I'd heard it with all the commentary that Lil added in. A state trooper passed and I watched for his brake lights in my rear-view mirror but he kept going. I said that's the first one I've seen this whole trip but realized I said it to myself as Lil had passed out in the passenger seat. We agreed to switch over in the tri-cities about a half-hour away and I was mad because I wanted to sleep. It was my turn.
We pulled into Kennewick and the streets were brighter. I called Dad to let him know where we were and he answered the phone in a gruff voice. I apologized for waking him up and he said no, no. I'll see you in a couple hours, bud. We got gas at the last station out of town and she looked over at me when I got back in the car and asked where are we. The tri-cities. She yawned and asked if I wanted her to drive. I said no, I'm fine, realizing I felt more comfortable not being alone but being left alone to think.
It was early morning when we got home and I didn't stay the night with her, but she didn't seem upset when I denied her offer. The next morning I turned on my cell phone and had three messages from my supervisor at work, an old guy who somehow found a way to change is hair color back to a light brown from the onslaught of white but managed to leave one spot the size of a quarter completely untouched just above and behind his left ear. The first message was that I was five minutes late, then 20, then an hour late and if you don't call in I'm just going to have to tell somebody you were sick he said. I looked at the handwritten schedule I'd composed from the printout sheet before I'd left for Nick's and it had nothing on it about work today until late afternoon. I planned on sleeping in and getting messages from women, not being called from work.
Daylight had cracked through my window and the shadow of a maple tree outside my window was waving at me like an old friend. I got up and took a shower and called him back. He said I was on the schedule, didn't I see the changes he made. I said no and that I was going off of the printout and that I'm supposed to be off until this afternoon. No, I need you to come in, that's why I wrote in a new schedule for you. I said fine and I'll be there in a few minutes.
I was upset and drove fast to work, mad that other people with normal jobs and normal lives and normal bosses were still sleeping or enjoying their morning coffee and smoking outside watching the trees that looked like old friends outside their windows.
When I got to work Adam was the first person I saw and he was getting a new battery from the metal case. I didn't say anything, nor did he. Standing next to him I saw all the LRTs were gone and said this is ridiculous. Adam said did he call you in, too, and I said yeah. Whats up with changing the schedule like that I asked. He said he was probably just on a power trip, but it's fucking bull shit. I had things to do this morning.
I imagined he'd probably have been sleeping in with Theresa if they'd made it that far outside of work, or at least taken her out to breakfast. But he wasn't one to wake her up at 4 a.m. for bacon and eggs at Flying J before he had to be at work. When the supervisor found out weeks after they'd begun dating that they'd been together he changed their schedules so they never worked together even though it never really interfered with their work. If anything it kept Adam alive and Theresa occupied. I said well there's not a whole hell of a lot I can do without a damn LRT. Adam pasted a close-lipped smile on his face and nodded. He looked up to see our supervisor coming our way and he walked in the opposite direction.
He lifted his eyebrows at me and I opened the case and waved him to look inside. He said what and when he saw what I was trying to show him he asked where they all went. I said well youll have to find me one quick or Im going home if there's no way I can do any work. He said no, you're on the schedule, you have to work and I wanted to say I wasn't on the schedule, I don't have to work.
As the work day went on John and I crossed paths time ad again, and with each he looked on as I walked past. The schedule wasn't something to be messed with. Later that morning I came to an Aisle where Adam was working and asked who else got screwed into work at the last minute. He said he was supposed to be off for three days after working 10 days straight. He and Theresa were going to see a concert and he was going to just miss work but her schedule got shifted, too, he said. This is, he says until the supervisor walks past and waits until far from sight, this is bull shit. He looked down at his LRT and pushed a few buttons. The machine beeped at him and he walked past me as I kept working and pushed the cart he was filling up to the sales floor.
We finished what we were working on slowly as the supervisor rushed around, hunched and poorly dyed. His holster swayed on his hip like a rabbit clinging to a belt loop when he walked, then he'd stop and pull out the machine, look at it, scan a box, look again, then take that microwave and put it on top of the cart he was pushing. He wheeled it around toward me and I looked down at my machine forgetting what I was doing. Something wrong here, soldier, says Jason, the stockroom manager and only person my supervisor groveled to. He pulled out a small plastic screwdriver from a toy set that was broken into on the sales floor and handed it to me. Here you go, that should fix it right up. He grinned and patted me on the back and put his hands on his hips. What you working on he asks and I tell him. He asked if I was at a place where I could stop to help him with a different batch so he could get some Kleenex on the floor. It was on sale or lots of people were getting sick or he just wanted something to keep him busy that didnt involve heavy lifting.
About a month ago he came up to me while I was working on a batch of bikes that I had to take down from shelves and store on a large wooden flat. He pressed his hand on the orange metal guide rail and asked what I knew about vasectomies. I told him absolutely everything there was to know and then I said oh, wait, no. I thought you said fly fishing. He laughed and said no, I'm serious, then gripped the flat and twisted at the metal with is palm. I shrugged and asked why and he told me his wife wanted him to get one and thought he'd ask. I paused, wondering why he'd want to hear from me and figured I may as well say something. Well, can you afford more kids running around I asked and he said well, not right now. And does she want to go through it again since she just had a baby a few weeks ago I asked and he said well, no, we weren't exactly planning that. And are you planning to be with anybody else I asked and he laughed and said no. Well, then, it seems you'd have to come up with some pretty strong reasons not to. But just remember that you have to make the choice together. He nodded and helped pull down a bike from an upper shelf.
I moved down the line and he stuck around. I wondered if he wasn't satisfied with the answer and after a few seconds of silence while I worked he said so I hear you have one coming yourself. I didn't look at him and said well, thats what I'm told. What, he asked, you don't think it's yours. I looked at him. He lifted his eyebrows and said, well, I wouldn't sign anything until you know for sure it is. I asked what he meant and he told me about a friend of his that went and got his girlfriend pregnant, or at least he thought he did, and they got married, the whole bit. But when the kid came it was a different color skin. He said he didn't know what happened after that, but last he knew he was paying child support for a kid that wasnt even his. I said huh, shit luck. He said yeah, well, just don't sign anything and walked off. Two weeks later he came in to work and the guys were joking with him asking if he'd help lift this TV or dining table or whatever heavy thing they could get their grips on and laugh as he looked down and shook his head. And they laughed and called him gimpy.
When I was done helping him with the batch he was about to push the flat out and stopped short to ask how I was, I'd been pretty quiet lately. I said yeah, I've just got stuff going on, you know, and he said yeah, I know. Well, he said, nothing to do but wait, I guess, and pushed the cart through the flimsy two-way doors between the stockroom and the sales floor.
I waited a second, then checked my watch realizing I only had a few minutes left of work and still wasn't done with the batch I'd started earlier. It was the last one left and when it was finished I'd overstayed my shift for almost 20 minutes. I milked it for a few minutes longer by dragging a broom around and getting water and as I opened the locked LRT cabinet my supervisor walked up and asked if I'd stay a little longer. I shook my head and watched the LRT in my hand as I put it back into one of the chargers inside the cabinet and unhooked the holster at my waist. He said he didn't think I'd want to, thanks for coming in today and I said yeah, you should probably tell people when their schedules change because I'd made plans based on the schedule I'd written down before I left days ago. You're lucky I was even in town. He said well. I'll see you tomorrow, I said and he said don't worry, I could have the day off if I wanted. I shook my head and said nah, I'll be here.
It was raining when I walked out and I walked to my car while others ran inside with jackets pulled over their heads. The water felt good on my back after work and I wanted desperately to take a shower with each drop that landed through my hair and cooled my scalp.
I stopped by my parents' house and Dad was outside smoking and pacing as he did with a ball cap on and a waterproof coat and gloves with the finger openings cut off. He lifted and arm and waved a hand like the tick of a clock, holding his cigarette between two of his fingers as I pulled in. The rain beating down on the tin carport sounded like someone was dropping an endless supply of nails into a coffee can.
I stepped out and stood with him while he smoked and he asked where my jacket was. I gestured a thumb toward my car and he laughed and said you're getting all wet and tousled my hair. You just get off work he said and I looked down at my red polo shirt and back and nodded. He nodded back and said he had to go to the store, Mom's at work, but would be back in a few hours. I said thats fine, I'm headed home anyway. How do you like living out he says and I say it's good and he nods with the last puff of his cigarette and flicks it while exhaling and squinting slightly as smokers do. I said well I guess I'd best be off and he said okay, bud, and patted my shoulder while reaching in his jean pockets for keys with the other hand.
We pulled out of the apartment complex at the same time, each of us taking a different direction on the divided roadway out front. I turned my radio up and window-wiped the splash from the car ahead of me and took a turn lane to take the long way home. The light in the turn lane was red but turned green shortly after I'd stopped. I sped out testing my tires and feeling secure though I would be humbled just moments later.
The two-lane road ahead winded left, then right sharply but I still took the turns at the posted speed limit. The road was empty on my side until a man in an old pickup pulled out of a hardware store just ahead. He didnt stop in the middle lane and I veered into the empty lane to my right as he pulled into my lane. But he kept sliding over and I sped up knowing he'd either crush my entire drivers' side or take out the back end and drove up onto the sidewalk to keep him from tearing off my fender completely. The impact made the car bounce as I drove inches from the display window of a lawnmower retailer. I pulled into the retailer's parking lot just ahead and realized I was panting. My white knuckles gained a little color as I relaxed but my face looked pale as I checked the rear view mirror expecting to see the flashing lights of a cop ready to take control.
I stepped out of the car and looked at the damage. It wasn't as bad as I thought. Missing tail light. Back panel bashed in just above the tire. I ran my fingers across the dents and twisted at the exposed bulbs of the tail light and dropped my arm to my side. The rain was lighter now and clouds were breaking in the distance but wouldn't come for some time. I walked back, past the retailer I came so close to earlier, looking for the missing parts and the truck was parked on the other side of the building. An older man in jeans and a button-up plaid shirt with mother of pearl buttons walked up to me saying something. I shook my head saying what and he said didn't you see my blinker, I had my blinker on the whole time.
I said, well, that doesn't give you the right to smash into somebody. I had the right of way, you're supposed to yield to me, and I asked for his insurance papers. He went back to his truck and got them out while I looked down the road we'd come from and saw tire tracks where I'd jumped the curb. He followed me back to my car saying he had his blinker on the whole time, didn't I see. I said no, hold on a second, and called the police on my cell phone. The dispatcher said there'd be someone there shortly. A half hour later an officer showed up and split us up into our cars. He talked to the old guy first and I stood outside my car, arms crossed in the rain, as Ryan drove by. He slowed like many of the other drivers and my phone rang shortly after he saw me and smiled. I answered and he was on the other line. Woah, dude, what happened. I got in a wreck, didn't you see I asked and he said yeah, but it was the other guy's fault. He said sure it was and laughed. He asked if I thought I'd need a tow and I told him it wasn't that bad. Just a few dents and nobody was hurt. He asked what the other guy's rig looked like and I said he only had a few paint scratches. Ryan laughed again and said it sucks to be you and I said yeah, well, I'm headed home after the cops are done here, so I guess I'll see you later.
The cop walked up as I hung up and asked what happened. I told him and showed him the tire tracks, which somehow remained through the rain. He nodded and asked if I was speeding and I told him I sped up to keep him from smashing into my whole side and he nodded again. He wrote something down on his notepad and went back into his patrol car and I watched as he talked on his radio and wrote some more. He came back out and said I was free to go, get my light fixed when I can and handed me something to sign. The words don't sign anything rung in my head and after making sure I wasn't signing anything away I gave it back to him and left for home.
Ryan wasn't back by the time I'd gotten home. I stripped down as I made my way to the bathroom and hung my doused shirt over the shower rod to dry and my pants on the tub. I turned the heater on and sat half-naked in a chair by my closet and cupped my hands over my face while I waited past the clicks and hum for the room to warm up to me.
I closed my eyes and leaned back with my legs stretched out in front. The remote to my stereo was on the floor next to me and I turned it on to a CD I had set to wake me up. In the other hand I held my phone and called Lil. She was just waking up and making toast and I told her I was jealous. She asked how was work and I said it sucked and told her about the accident. She said oh and wondered how bad the damage was but didn't ask any more questions. After I told her she said well, I guess I'll see you later and I said uh, okay, bye and hung up. I called Dad to let him know what happened and he asked if I was hurt. I smiled and said no, I'm fine, but my car's dented up a bit. Not bad, it still drives, it just looks a little banged up is all. He said well, bring it by in a while and Ill take a look and I said okay and dropped the phone after he hung up.
I reached over to the closed door from the chair and slid it open with a finger, then pulled at a pair of pants until they bent the wire hanger and came loose and fell to the ground while I held the other end.
I lifted them up off the floor and set them on my legs as if they'd mold themselves around me and fit without me having to move an inch. But they didn't. They just sat there and slid off of one of my shins so I bent to put them on. I stood reluctantly, swayed the pants around my hips and turned to the windowsill where sat the little objects that were what was left of my grandfathers. Reaching across to pick up the pipe I looked at my arm, the curve as my bicep molded into my lean forearm and wrist. I held it between my fingertips and the brown wooden base was lumpy and soft. It still smelled of his tobacco and I turned it in my hands. The mouthpiece was warn and had light bite marks in it from years of use even though it was changed out with several others. They probably smelled the same and I wondered if my aunt who took the rest ever holds hers close and smells it just because.
I set it back on its leather pouch on the sill and grabbed a small gold capsule with his initials on it and a douse of ash inside. I let it roll in my open palm and set it back. The sliding glass door in the kitchen shuts and I hear Ryan making footsteps over the linoleum. He walks past my room and says hey Speed Racer and sets an armload of ammunition down in his room and turns toward my room winding up in my doorway. He says so, I hear you got in a wreck and he starts laughing. I say yeah but I'm not laughing and he says oh mocking a whine and says it's okay.
So how bad is it he asks and I said didn't you see the whole taillight missing and the huge dent in the side. He said no and I said hold on, let me get a shirt on and I'll show you. We stood outside and the rain was coming down in mist droplets although I could see blue sky through the clouds in the distance. He said damn, he must have hit you pretty hard and I said yeah. He said he had his blinker on. Ryan laughed and asked what the hell was that supposed to mean and I said I don't know, that's all he said. He kept repeating it like it would make everything better. But I got his insurance information and I think he got a ticket. Damn straight he said and walked inside. I asked if he'd checked the mail yet today and he said no, he never checks it. He'd rather just wait until I bring it in and set it by his door. That'd be just fine. Thanks. And he patted me on the shoulder and laughed. I said ha ha and walked through the living room to the front door half relieved that he hadn't checked the mail yet. If I got the papers today I could still keep it from him, this proof that would only raise questions that I couldn't answer.
The tray clapped shut after I'd pulled a few letters and an ad magazine out. I flipped through the letters but saw nothing to be worried about and set the pile of mail on a small table in the hallway after picking my mail out. We got the electric bill I say and he says ooh, ooh, let me see and opens it with a pocket knife. I exhaled and set the mail down by my bed, relieved that it hadn't come, but knew I'd only have to take another chance at an unflinching mailbox tomorrow and the next day until it came.