The man, Roger Gregory I later learn, drives home late. Middle aged, waistline exploding, hair thinning, marriage crumbling or perhaps ignorant of how close to the end the marriage is, he drives his Mustang with his windows up, A/C on full blast. A hurricane’s brewing—they’ll call it Matthew like you—in the Gulf, hundreds of miles south, but here it is heavy and humid even at 3:00 AM. Clouds reflect colored lights of the city. Gray reds and gray oranges and gray purples. Another night where the Braves blew the game late and lost in extras. Another beer that turned into many.
Maybe he tells himself, “No more nights like tonight.”
Maybe: “God, just get me home without getting pulled over by the cops and I swear.”
Maybe: “Hands on ten and two, keep the mustard straight and on the left.”
You know how this story ends. Your motorcycle idling in the turn lane. Do you dread home, me? Is that why you’ve taken the long way instead of cutting through deserted neighborhood streets? Or do you feel the buzz of another late night at work? The adrenaline of exhaustion. New bartenders and bar backs in need of your guidance, a last minute call in, Janet, with the sick child.
“That was a lie,” Janet tells me at a party months later.
“I don’t even have a kid,” Janet says.
“You couldn’t imagine how much that’s haunted me,” Janet says and drains her plastic glass of boxed red.
“I’ve been seeing a counselor ever since.”
“I’m getting better.”
“I hope you can understand, Greta.”
And what am I become if not a purveyor of dark mercies?
“What am I to you?” I asked. We sat at the kitchen table, you on your way to bed, me trying to get through a bowl of steel-cut oats. We’d gone almost a month inhabiting the same space without being of the same space.
“What am I to you?” I said, afraid you’d say I don’t know or worse.
Wrinkles formed along your forehead and vanished. You refused to return my gaze.
Here it comes, I thought. Here come those four words.
You said, “Greta.”
You said, “A tree.”
You said, “A quaking aspen, whose roots are intertwined.”
You said, “Please be patient. I promise this will get better.”
“I’m not a bad person,” Roger Gregory says. “I’ve just managed to make a real fuckup of my life.”
He knocked on the door this morning with a bouquet of Wal-Mart roses, price tag still attached. Thirteen dollars and a cent. I let him in, offered coffee. What else could I do?
“The next day,” Roger Gregory says, seated at your spot. “I allocated ten thousand dollars from my will for charity.”
“His face,” Roger Gregory says. “It will be forever tattooed on my mind.”
But he never saw you. Just pictures they published in the newspaper: your face smudged and fuzzy. (I pressed too hard against the paper and carried residue of you around for days.)
Roger Gregory says, “I’ll be a better person.”
Roger Gregory says, “Yes please, I’ll take a warmup.”
Roger Gregory says, “I’ve been wondering if he ever served me.”
Maybe you hum that Talking Heads song you say someone, usually some mopey, mid-twenties white guy plays at least one time per shift. Do you love it or hate it or even notice yourself doing it? Has the song grown so familiar it has seeped into your bloodstream, become part of your internal rhythms?
Maybe you listen to that UFO call-in show—did you have on headphones?—the one you started listening to as a joke, something ridiculous to break up the monotony of the everyday ridiculous but now listen to because of the sincerity of the callers, their conviction.
Maybe you just listen to the cicadas croak and buzz and remember the end of fourth grade, the spring of the seventeen-year cicadas, when the playground was covered with their hollowed exoskeletons and the girl you had a crush on, the girl every boy had a crush on, wore them on her shirt, in her hair.
Maybe you just count the seconds until green.
I said, “I’m sorry I’m not myself.”
This was to someone new, someone you wouldn’t approve of. Someone I wanted to open up to but couldn’t. I don’t remember his name. Gene? John? Hank? I’d invited him over, but when it came time to take off our clothes I stopped.
I said, “Will this ever pass?”
I said, “His name is, was Matthew.”
I said, “I tried his number six times today.”
I said, “His mailbox is full and I never figured out how to say it.”
“Hold on tight,” you said.
The motorcycle growled underneath us. You revved it a few times and then waited until it quieted down.
“Wrap your arms around my waist,” you said.
The road was dust. We shot down it and you took sharp turns that made my stomach clench. I loved the wind. I loved the way it made our shirts ripple.
“Wap wap wap,” said our shirts together.
We drove for hours. We drove back country roads, past old worn-out tobacco barns and cows chewing cud along the fencerow. Farmers waved at us. Kids threw footballs in the front yard. A few climbed trees. A few stopped and stared at us fly by.
You said, “I only ride like this on the weekends.”
You said, “Girl, you hot on my back.”
I said, “Boy, you better wait until we get back home.” I slipped my hand onto your crotch.
You said, “I’m not promising.”
The motorcycle groaned and kicked up gravel.
And in another story, we lunch by the creek and I say, “This must be the place.”
“If someone asks,” you say and take a bite of a crustless ham and cheese sandwich.
We lie right there in the sunlight and the grass rubs up and down my back, but I don’t care. Don’t care that my shirt will be stained green and brown, or that there is a tree root near the base of my neck that I keep rolling over, that will make me sore for days.
And we forget the words, forget most of the years, forget which stories we’ve told each other before so tell them all over again. The Christmas you spent in Albuquerque. The time I almost drowned out in Montana.
In another story, the Braves close out the ninth.
In another story, the game’s rained out altogether.
In another story, Roger Gregory waves his hands at the bartender, shakes his head.
“Early day tomorrow,” Roger Gregory says. “Need to go on ahead and close out.”
And you say, “Sorry, can’t cover tonight,” into the phone.
And Janet with no kids shows up ten minutes early to her shift.
And I have something better to say than “Get on if you’re going.”
In another story, I wait until you click the phone off, then pat the bed and say, “Come on back to me.”