Two months before my divorce was finalized, I purchased a used red Schwinn-Cross-fit and began riding the back roads veining Acheron County, VT each day. Though I imagined Genny pedaling with me, she remained in Brooklyn, and saw to the details of our disunion, as she had during our marriage. This both cushioned and augmented the immaturity I felt in returning (or ‘fleeing’ as she said later) to my parent’s home in rural New England.
I agreed with her in part. The principal of flight played a role in my decision to vacate the apartment in Brooklyn while she was at work, and move in with my parents. The evening before returning to Acheron, I’d arrived in New York from a fishing trip in Montana, expecting everything she’d revealed to me over the phone as I sat in the backyard of my brother’s house in Missoula, and later that day in a cigarette lounge at the Salt Lake City International Airport, might be obviated somehow by the reality of me returned, no longer a figment, or a theoretical problem. This wasn’t my first experience with stupid hope, but it was easily the most notable.
“I want to fill my apartment with art and philosophy students,” said Genny, as we faced each other like opposing warships across the Bosphorus of the living room. Behind her on the wall, the kitchen clock read 1AM. I thought: somewhere in the duplicitous airspace between Johnson Bell Airfield and JFK our domicile has suddenly become hers.
“That leaves very little room for me,” I said.
“I want to date,” she added, rather than agreeing.
“I’m trying not to vomit on anything we own mutually,” I replied, because I thought I might. Aside from ownership, other things had changed. The refrigerator had no food. It was unclear how Genny survived since my departure. The entire apartment, but the bathroom in particular, smelled like burnt hair and bleach, a corollary to the golden buzz cut she inflicted on herself after I’d left for Montana. My immediate thought upon seeing it was something about how terrible it looked, and then something about how different it looked, and then wondering if these two qualities were related. And the new sheets on our bed were surely a preparation of some kind, and obvious sign of trouble, not so much on the horizon, but arrived.
I closed my hands around her hands and said, “Please feel something,” which came out like the opposite of a command, and visually annoyed her. Emotional language is failing me, I thought. But I persisted, sensing this might be my final opportunity to make a fool of myself in this particular way. I leaned toward her, and rested my cheek against her cheek, smelling the unpleasant, bleach kit effluvium there, but searching out her odor beneath it, and repeated myself.
“It’s becoming annoying,” she said, drawing away, and dropping a record she knew I didn’t like on the turntable at her elbow. “You don’t love me, and therefore: we were never in love. But you can stay here for a few weeks. I’ll help you figure out what to do next. You’re going to make some girl so happy.”
“I want no part of your ridiculous lifestyle,” I said, or wish I had said at the time. In fact, I accepted this mutely, wondering if it might in fact be generous, and went to sleep in the factory fresh sheets not purchased for my benefit. She sat alone in the living room, warbling along to the record I didn’t like, as I squeezed a new pillow, wondering: how calm does she reasonably expect me to be in this situation? And thus, our final evening together concluded.
But when I imagined her riding beside me on her own bicycle, as we had the previous August during a vacation from New York, I invented, drafted, and refined each response from that evening, until it was as needlessly destructive, yet perversely satisfying, as tipping over a gravestone. I’m improving myself by doing this, I thought or wished, as a revenant Genny climbed the hill ahead of me, pedaling her bicycle in a polka-dot bikini as she had the summer before, and capping a pair sunglasses to leer at me from the acclivity’s pinnacle.
And even in this reimagined state, the buff buzz-cut was unfortunately present, the shock of seeing unmuted bad taste comingled with brazen certitude otherwise having somehow fixed this particular sartorial crudity forever in my memory of her. It seemed the haircut was immovable. But no matter, I thought, as I repeated, “I want no part of your ridiculous lifestyle,” liking the sound of this until I noticed Gary, my parent’s neighbor, staring at me beside his mailbox, and realizing I’d shouted it aloud. He dropped his eyes to his mail as I creaked past him on the bicycle, shuffling bills and catalogues like an overlarge deck of cards meant to produce not so much a trick, as an illusion of wellbeing.
“Well, sometimes it’s like that,” he said as I drew beside him, adding, “I got things that go bump in the night. Fireworks. You want to set these woods on fire like the good apostle Hank Williams once said, you come by later.”
“I’m not sure hillbilly shit is what I want right now, Gary.”
“You’re what? Thirty?”
“Twenty-eight. So, basically.”
“Well, it seems at basically thirty you’re living at home, meaning somewhere, a turd recently went oblong. I’d be deceiving us both if I told you just now is the first time I’ve heard you yelling at yourself on the road, so I’m assuming you’re not on vacation.”
“I can’t answer that question.”
“It’s not a question,” he said, slapping his mailbox shut, and walking back up his driveway. I think I have been not unkindly judged, I thought, watching his tall, gray back recede toward a yellow farmhouse in the middle distance.
Tracy sat with me on the lawn outside the Acheron Free Library, and we talked about it.
“She told you before you got on the plane.”
“That’s a cunt move.”
“I asked for it, Tracy. I knew something was wrong, and I wanted to explore it because that’s what adults are supposed to do.”
“Still a cunt move. I can say that.”
Yes, you can, and please do! I thought, examining the furrows of silver in the otherwise raven black mantel of curls crowning her head as it nodded kindly over the problem at hand. That much had changed. Please be cruel, I thought further. You are invited! I wanted to hear anger from other people on my behalf, because expressing it on my own felt cheap, and common. But basking in Tracy’s ire didn’t feel right either, so I moved directly into the apology I’d prepared as a pretext for asking her to meet me.
“I meant to say I’m so sorry,” I began, while thinking: You are still so beautiful, but trying to proceed as if this wasn’t a vector of some kind. “I understand how I made you feel now, or I think I do, at least. And I wouldn’t blame you if you found this situation gratifying on some level, but I felt like I at least owed you that much, even if it is ten years too late. I’m sorry, Tracy. I always thought what I did was shitty.”
“You didn’t do anything,” she said. “And I don’t enjoy this. What you said is totally unnecessary. Ten years is enough time for me to be okay with it, and you, maybe. What I can tell you is that it gets better slowly, and I’m less sorry for what happened than what’s going to happen. I have to go feed my neighbor’s horses.”
And she stood; a woman my age, on thin, strong legs, vaguely tan in a pair of cut-offs, replaced her sunglasses and gathered the book she’d been reading when we met earlier at Sacred Grounds: Coffee and Tea, something I hadn’t read and was thus intimidated by. And I realized if she left now, I would be alone with only dangerous thoughts, and stupid hope. I didn’t have a problem being alone until recently, and I only realized it was a problem when Tracy asked what I had been doing since arriving home a week ago, and I didn’t know how to answer. I couldn’t tell her that I’d spent hours pouring over reams of clinical texts my mother had given me, papers on narcissistic personality disorder and bipolar hypomania held over from the night classes she took to earn her counseling license. Or how I’d sat in a recliner in the living room as my father read an emotional abuse checklist aloud, emphasizing ‘idolization,’ devaluation,’ and ‘discarding,’ while I ate toast and watched a groundhog dishevel the garden through the picture window. Or how in the evenings, I would borrow their car and drive it between their house and a student bar in downtown Acheron while listening to Ray Price very loud, and wondering if I should kill myself, not because I was miserable exactly, but in order to secure some type of emotional neutrality from Genny, or at least even the gaming pitch, or field of battle, between us. Surely, my death will get her attention, I thought often, usually over a solitary glass of beer at the bar, and without the sort of intellectual removal that would allow me to pass off this particular comingling of dangerous thoughts and stupid hope as a thought experiment. I practiced looking emotionally available in the mirror behind the bar, and prayed that someone, other than the bartender, would ask how I was doing.
“Can I come?” I asked. I was worried that if Tracy left, I would spend that afternoon back on the bicycle, shouting at Genny’s ghost.
“Do you know how to take care of horses?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“Then I’d like that. We’ll take my car.”
The day was fairly brilliant for a ride out to her neighbor’s property in the hills above Acheron, with Mt. Abandon and Maybrick Peak overarching the valley on both flanks, and the sun warming the wooded hills as we passed beneath three covered bridges, and turned onto a two-track with a mailbox beside it. Tracy asked me why I didn’t stay in New York to figure it out, but then got out of the car to check the mail before I could answer.
“I never knew where to go in Brooklyn when things were good,” I said, when she returned. “New York is an interesting place. It actually becomes more alien and intimidating the longer you live there. I had just come from the airport, so going back was no problem. I didn’t have to pack anything. I just picked up the same bags, and called a car service, twelve hours after arriving. I unloaded souvenirs. That was it.”
“Twelve hours was long enough.”
“It felt interminable. I already bought the ticket before she showed me the drawings. I’ve never felt so justified in buying anything, other than maybe toothpaste, or bread.”
“Were they any good?”
“If I could answer that question fairly, I would probably still be in New York, allowing Genny to help me figure out what to do next.”
The drawings were portraits, several blind contours done by an ex-boyfriend she begun seeing while I was still snagging my casts in exposed cottonwood roots and sections of disused ranch fence hemming the Bitterroot. Edward, recently relocated to Brooklyn from some Midwestern backwater, made his presence known to us both shortly after erecting his easel in the middle floor of a palsied rowhouse in Bushwick. I could sense not seeing him was emotionally complicated for Genny, but relied on stupid hope to carry us through. But the morning after my arrival in New York, while purchasing a plane ticket at 7AM, I’d noticed her unguarded phone on the coffee table, and assumed that if perusing it wasn’t my right, it was at least a sort of vigilante obligation to both myself, and the more global idea of good faith. So I read the week’s worth of messages between them with one hand while buying a flight home with the other, wondering if Edward inviting Genny to lay in his hammock and watch Star Trek was part of the passion she’d mentioned our marriage lacked, but deciding that it couldn’t possibly be that easy. I could certainly install my own goddamn hammock, and though I hadn’t ever seen Star Trek, I could easily substitute something less tragically dorky and self-aware, like Fawlty Towers or Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And voila! True commitment and everlasting love. But no, I thought, as I read: ‘I just want to make art and have a family.’ Thank you, Edward. Message received the day before I called her from Missoula. A normal man doesn’t stand a chance against this particular brand of specious earnestness. I replaced the phone on the table though I felt like casting it out the window, and went back to bed, only to have Genny wake up two hours later, and show me the portraits she’d taken to keeping on her night table. When she told me much later that I couldn’t compete at the level she did, I thought of this moment, and mostly agreed.
“Cunt move,” muttered Tracy as she unlatched the door of the barn, and went inside. “If you want to hear me say I’m sorry for you, I won’t, because I honestly think you dodged a bullet. No, not a bullet. More like a cannonball. Or a warhead.”
“My father said the same thing about the bullet,” I said, standing beyond the horse’s paddock, and feeling very much a city mouse as she mixed their in the stable, and brought it outside, allowing the two huge, temperamental animals to nose the bowls from her hands, and patting their long noses with a sort of conjectural empathy. “In fact, he told me the other day that he thought she was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I’m still trying to understand whether or not to be proud of having reached that particular low point before thirty.”
“It would be harder at fifty,” said Tracy, as I watched her thin legs in their cut-offs walk up the hill toward the chicken coop. She switched off the fence, opened the coop to remove a few eggs, and lifted the galvanized waterer to see if it was empty. “You’re not ruined. You’ll be fine. Take these.”
She transferred some eggs cradled in her shirt to my own, and reengaged the fence. I felt glad to be useful, even if my utility was limited by urbanite nescience. I’d quit my job three days earlier, and rather than filling my workless hours with anything of value, I remained relatively sober and isolated in my parent’s house during the day, and stayed up late into the night, typing odd questions into an internet search engine in a kind of Quixotic validation relay. “Will my bipolar wife feel remorse?” or “Does a narcissist ever regret divorcing a good husband?” generated the sort of answers I expected, but discounted in favor of stupid hope.
As we drove back toward town, passing beneath the covered bridges, and through a curtain of humid air above Calvary Pond, I watched a man tubing along the surface behind a speedboat, a sort of recreation I never understood, but heard myself laugh when a swell pitched him into the wake. When was the last time I laughed? I asked myself, producing no definite answer, but noticing by Tracy’s expression before she turned back to the road that the sound of me enjoying myself seemed foreign to her as well, even in the space of the single morning and afternoon, now transitioning into evening, we’d spent together.
“There’s a taco truck that produces extraordinarily bad food, but it will be open if you’re hungry,” she said, as the car dropped onto pavement.
“I should eat,” I replied, which sounded somewhat grave, so I took her hand rather than trying to modify what I’d already said, and she allowed it.
“Now, now,” said Tracy, without pulling away. I sunk into the passenger seat, imagining myself as the only survivor of some calamity, the collapse of a building or derailment of a commuter train, buried for days beneath shattered bodies and failed infrastructure, but alive, and essentially unharmed. Comb the rubble away from my face, I thought, as I examined the horse dirt and chicken grit beneath Tracy’s fingernails.
Tim originally planned to run the cider press with a bicycle. He had enough chain to spin the cog attached to the grinding wheel, and six or seven people standing around the backyard of his house drinking beer in the rain, all of them willing to straddle the Huffy mounted in a plywood stand beside the press, and pedal through at least a bushel of apples apiece. But by the forth or fifth time the chain slipped off the cog, halting the grinder, and discouraging everyone; the person pedaling the bike, the person holding the handlebars to keep the entire contrivance from tipping over, and the two others using sections of two by four to tamp down the apples in the grinder, Tim disappeared into the some annex of the house, and returned a moment later with a six-pack and a crescent wrench. He handed the beer to me, returned the bike and the stand to the barn, and attached the wrench below the hub to make a sort of primitive crank.
“I suppose that’ll be how it is now,” he said, with the finality of a hangman. Beside a fire in the yard, a girl who lived in Tim’s basement sang ‘Cripple Creek’ and strummed a banjo, while two more of his housemates sat on stumps, scrubbing and coring apples, and tossing them into a bucket of water at the foot of the press. I helped spin the wrench, trying to appear as if all this campestral activity was normal for me. But the same sense of misplaced effort I’d felt a week earlier when I’d gone with Tracy to feed her neighbor’s horses remained, the sense of being both an impostor and a prodigal son. I’d grown up with Tim, and knew most of the people who’d come to help him make cider. We all wore Carhartt jeans, and Woolrich jackets. The apples I’d gathered that morning from the trees around my parent’s property were indistinguishable from the other bags and baskets of fruit sitting in the grass.
And yet, my mind settled on the figment of Genny standing just beyond the purview of firelight, as dusk imbued the sky above the treeline with a baleful placidity, and juice began to spill like dull blood from beneath the rim of the pressing tub. Though flames obscured her face, I detected a sneer, and a smudge of pale movement somewhere in the twilight, like the errant tail of skunk, and figured it was likely the immovable haircut helmeting her, rocking derisively in the gloom. Perhaps this bit of evil was what set me apart.
When we’d last spoken, Genny said the thing about competition, and then used the phrase ‘dating broadly’ to describe her activities since my departure a month earlier. I asked why she hadn’t divorced me yet. She said she was finished being my mom, and didn’t care enough to file the paperwork at the moment.
“But if you want it that bad,” she said further, “you can go to down to whatever Podunk county clerk or whatever you have way out there in the middle of fucking nowhere and file the papers yourself.”
I told her New York had ruined her, which may have been a lie, and tried not to remain jealous at her apparent rapid success on the open market.
“You’re angry because I’m happy,” she hissed into the phone, as I smoked furiously on my parent’s deck, and tapping my cigarette in a crystal ashtray my grandfather had brought with him from Poland after WWII. Good old Granddad, I thought, my ear growing hot against the receiver as my estranged wife shouted into it. He never liked you either. “When people ask, I tell them you moved away because you wanted to live somewhere else.”
“That’s usually why people move away.”
“I don’t say anything bad about you to people we know.”
“I tell them my wife kicked me out so she could pick up men on the internet.”
“Are you spying on me?”
“No,” I said, glumly, because even if it was true, enough information reached me through mutual friends in New York to make it seem like I was in fact snooping around in her business, even if I wasn’t. “How’s Edward?”
“I don’t see him anymore. I’m dating broadly.”
“I don’t understand how you can care so little for me that you would share that, ad nauseam.”
“Empathy comes from sexual intimacy,” said Genny. “And we were never sexually compatible, so that’s why I have no empathy.”
“I think empathy means something different than what you think it means,” I said, wondering if her statement was simply a refined version of what she’d said about us not being in love.
“When you start having great sex again, you’ll understand it.”
I considered human sacrifice. Throw Tracy in her face the way a marine uses a grenade to clear a tunnel. But what would that realistically earn me? No matter what I say or do, I thought, she’ll pretend she doesn’t care.
“Listen,” Genny began. “You don’t put yourself out there. You can’t compete at the level I compete. I’m not going to be your backwoods wife.”
When I finished sharing this with Tim after we’d bottled the two gallons of cider it took all day to press, he arranged his lawn chair to avoid the train of woodsmoke rising from the bonfire, and waited to respond while his roommate finished her eighteenth rehearsal of ‘Cripple Creek.’
Hey, I got a gal,
At the head of the creek,
And I’m going up to see her,
Bout three times a week.
Kisses on the mouth,
Just as sweet as any wine,
Wrap myself around her,
Like a sweet potato vine.
“It’s just so mean,” he murmured, balancing a mug of cider and a bottle of beer on the stump before him. “If someone said that to me, I’d assume they had a problem.”
“I thought it was bad when she told me about Edward,” I said. “Imagine this: your wife suddenly decides to leave you for an indigent visual artist who not only has manbreasts, but lactates. From now on, this is your competition. Man Milk Creamery, Brooklyn, NY.”
“You’re shitting me some, I think,” said Tim, as a car pulled into the driveway.
“I wish I was. It’s a side effect of the meds he abuses for a mood disorder he believes in, but doesn’t have. When she told me, I thought: I am truly shallow.”
“Maybe she just wants free cheese. That’s shallow. And this isn’t your problem. Whatever you think it says about you it actually says about her. Now, come say hello to Miranda.”
Tim stood to greet a single white female he’d warned me was coming over while we were still wrestling with the cider press, and who I was intimidated to find attractive, and approachable. We sat together as the fire burned low, and she listened to me spin an anachronic, and nearly incoherent oral summary of the two weeks I’d spent in Montana, while she spoke about bicycle tours she led in Colorado. I thought, You are so lovely, it frightens me. I hope you’re not offended when I ask you what you like to read instead of for your phone number. I imagined a cackle rising from the side of the fire where I knew Genny’s ghost had established a position. Hopefully, I thought as I looked into the calm, smooth, and earnest face of this high achieving, intelligent, 26 year old who had just revealed how much she enjoyed John McPhee. Hopefully, you’ll still be single when I stop imagining my ex-wife laughing at my limited progress with people like you.
It was unclear who excused him or herself first, but Miranda and I both left Tim’s house within five minutes of each other, which made for an awkward journey back to Acheron. I followed her in my parent’s car until it began to make me feel creepy, so I turned into a logging road and waited for her taillights to fade. Then I called Tracy.
“I have a gallon of fresh cider,” I said. “Do you have any rum?”
“I was sleeping. I have to work at 7AM.”
“I’ll be quiet.”
“Where are you now?”
“Nearby, though not so close that I can’t go home if it’s problematic.”
“My parents are at the lake,” she said, opening what sounded like a cabinet and shifting several bottles within it. “And there’s enough liquor here to probably kill us both.”
“I’ll see you in a moment,” I said, turning out of the logging road sharply enough to displace the beer I’d for some reason set in the console. How did that get there? I wondered, raising it from beneath the gas pedal, and dumping what remained down my throat. I tossed the container out the window as I muddled through the remaining night toward Tracy’s house, considering a quote from Thomas McGuane, and trying to apply it to myself: “My character . . . is composed almost strictly of things I hate in other people.”
Tracy was leaving. When we sat on the lawn outside the library, she told me about a job in Chicago, where she had family, and the possibility of a comfortable introduction to city life. She’d been living with her parents and saving money since May, and it was nearly time to go.
“I’ll miss the land, sure,” she said. “But it doesn’t change, and that’s good. The country is what makes me human. So I’ll be back. Will you?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I said, suddenly wishing I had a destination. I considered my recent life in Brooklyn, and tried to say something encouraging and relevant about urbanism that would belie the part of me screaming: I’ve just arrived here! And I’m wounded! Please don’t leave me!
But my life is an objective disaster. No need to share that with anyone, I thought, once again watching the emerging veins of white in Tracy’s hair as she sat in the grass beside me.
“There’s no reason you shouldn’t try something new,” I said through gritted teeth.
However, when I decamped at her family home following the cider pressing at Tim’s house, I wondered if perhaps I regularly overestimated my impact on the people around me. Her parent’s recently bought a lake house two hours north as a retirement present, and spent most of their time there. So the house in Acheron was often empty, except for Tracy. I couldn’t tell immediately whether she was happy to have any company at all, or mine in particular, and worried that in either case, I might be establishing the sort of dynamic that would be insuperable after her departure. But I decided she was too smart to spend time around someone who had nothing to offer except sad stories and stupid hope. I thought: I am not a dismal, passionless asteroid cruising toward a system of calm and happy planets, each with its own luminous future.
Or am I? I thought further, as we made a pagan sort of love the following evening beside a circle of river rock in her parent’s yard. Tracy constructed the fire pit as a Mother’s Day gift, and as we lay naked on a blanket beside it with wineglasses chiming in our hands, and cadets from the military academy across the river howling commands at each other late into the night, I used the phrase, ‘the good life’ to describe how I felt in that moment, and Tracy seemed to agree.
“I’ve become so used to thinking about kindness as compensatory,” I said, watching myself wilt in the firelight.
“What a horrible, inhuman thought,” replied Tracy. “Did she teach you that?”
“At a certain point, dividing her from New York became impossible. So: I don’t know.”
“What do you want to do?”
Strangely enough, I’d asked Miranda the same question the night at Tim’s house. She replied with a general statement about improving the lives of the people around her through some combination of cycling and sustainability. I didn’t understand what she meant, but I agreed with it.
“I want moments like what we’re experiencing now to be available to me,” I said. “I don’t ever want to be without them, if possible.”
Tracy drew close, and kissed my neck, and I kissed her mouth, worrying that I said the wrong thing, but noticing for the first moment since arriving in Acheron, that Genny’s ghost either wasn’t present, or was on momentary hiatus. Perhaps the body of the woman beside me has swallowed it, I thought, tracing her nudity wolfishly with the hand not holding my wineglass, and perhaps searching for the entrance to whatever shelter or sanctuary I’d discovered in it. Here, I can survive, I thought.
But when my father called the following morning to say that divorce papers had arrived in the mailbox, with, what he called, ‘very particular notes,’ Tracy had already left for work. I stood in the kitchen of her house, gripping the phone like the bottom rung of a siege ladder, expecting Greek Fire to engulf me at any moment. In other words: I felt exposed, another word for vulnerable, or: without shelter.
“This is actually good news,” said my father, in a measured voice, trying to gauge whether or not I agreed. “Ding dong, the witch is dead, and so forth.”
“She wasted no time, dad.”
“She never struck me as a time waster.”
“How should I feel?”
“How do you feel?”
“Do you need me to come pick you up?”
“How can you? Your car is here.”
“Well, if you need to, come home.”
“I may just stay here until Tracy returns.”
“Well, fine. But you need to have more than that, as I’m sure you know,” said my father, before hanging up.
In order to avoid alcohol, I locked myself out of the house, and sat by the duck pond in Tracy’s yard, watching lines of military cadets jog up down the train tracks beside the river, and smoking cigarettes until she came home. She was tired, but sat with me anyway as I cried like a circus clown into my t-shirt, and said something pathetic, and patently false, about losing my best friend.
“Fuck her,” said Tracy, not exactly wiping my tears, but placing her hands in a sort of grief bridle around my face. “It isn’t about you. It never was. Stop making it about you. That isn’t what you want. Look at me.”
And I did, realizing as our eyes met that something like love might exist between us someday, but the waters of whatever gulf separated us were presently far too occluded to accurately predict when this might be, and perhaps that was best. We had reached the edge of the same precipice, though on contradictory sides. Love cannot grow from desperation, I thought. Or can it? Stupid hope springs eternal.
“Listen,” said Tracy. “The weather turned up north. My parents called when I was on my way here. They’re coming back. You can still stay. They know what’s going on with you, and they don’t mind.”
“No,” I said. “Thank you. I’ll go. Can you let me in?”
Tracy followed me around the house as I both gathered my limited things, and did my best to tidy the rooms we’d shared. When I combed two used condoms from the night table into my hand, and then transferred these to my pocket, she began to say something, but stopped herself, as though not wishing to interfere with whatever ritual might be momentarily enervating me. We kissed beside my parent’s car, and she stood in the driveway as I drove down it, and out onto the road, not crying exactly, but gibbering, more or less, as Ray Price began to croon from the stereo, and light, autumnal rain pattered the windshield.
“I’m going home to sign papers,” I said aloud, drilling my gaze into the horizon for fear of seeing Genny in the passenger seat, the hornet-colored disaster crowning her head sagely nodding as I fulfilled the exact proportion of what she expected of me, or what I imagine she expected. At an uncertain point, it makes no difference.
“I want no part of your ridiculous lifestyle!” I declared once again, fishing my cigarettes from the console, and the lighter from my pocket, but rediscovering the two condoms instead, and somehow allowing this to surprise me.
“Good times gone by!” I shouted, rolling down the window, and throwing them from the car, just as the flashing lights of a police cruiser blossomed against the befogged rear window. A siren wailed in the evening as I pulled to a stop less than fifty yards from Tracy’s driveway, rolling my window back up without thinking, and then rolling it down once more as a pendulous, khaki gut filled the frame, and a hirsute knuckle knocked against the glass.
“See: I was going to pull you over for speeding,” said Officer Blivet, revealing his nameplate and badge number as he stooped to look at me. “But then I see you tossing what looks in all fairness like contraband out of this here vehicle, and I have to ask myself: does he really think I don’t have it all on the dash cam? Consider yourself under arrest, friend.”
“They were condoms, sir. Officer.”
“I’ve heard about that, so I’ll bet they were. Glad you didn’t decide to swallow them. But I appreciate you being honest about your particular mode of conveyance, and I can tell you right now: that will count for something in court. You help me, I help you. Quid poco, as they say . . . Speaking of which: you can get out of this car on your own like a big boy, or I can pull you through the open window. That’s your choice too, of course.”
“Please,” I said, aware of a lunatic note rising in my voice, but unable to smother it. “I have to go home and sign divorce papers. It isn’t an emergency, but it needs to happen in order for my life to feel as though it has value. And direction, of some kind.”
“That sounds like druggie talk to me. Why your eyes all red?”
“I’ve been crying since 9AM.”
“That’s a sad story. Out you go.”
Compliance is underestimated, I thought as I allowed myself to be handcuffed, and stuffed in the back of Officer Blivet’s cruiser, and then: obedience is not a virtue, but too late. If you allow someone to choose the direction of your life for you, I wondered, as the cruiser sped toward town. Then that’s still a choice, right? And he’s obviously excited. I’m apparently the catch of the day. That’s fine. I don’t want to disappoint anyone.
Blivet whistled a snatch of ‘Setting the Woods on Fire’ as he drove, which made for odd symmetry when we reached the jail beneath Acheron Town Hall, and he fished me from the back seat. Rather than asking for a phone call, or something to eat, I waltzed with him through paperwork and fingerprinting, feeling oddly happy to be in agreement with someone, even if it meant I would be jailed. I even thought of Edward and his breasts, abandoned by Genny too, it now seemed, with a measure of pity. That poor mutant, I thought, as Blivet took my arm, and led me to my cage.
I laid down on the stainless steel bunk bolted to the wall of the cell chosen for me, and fell almost immediately asleep. I could call and share this particular low point with Tracy, or my parents, I thought, as I tugged a rough wool blanket up beneath my chin. But if interpersonal pity has a limit, I will surely risk broaching it herein. No matter. If things don’t look better in the morning, there are options. I doubt I could hang myself with this blanket, but, at the very least, the corner of the bunk is sharp enough to bash my own head in, if need be. Life is about creating options, and seeing the best in everything. I’ve made progress.
Though I was comfortable with the idea of spending the night in jail, it only took four hours for Tracy’s father to show up with a deputy at his side to unlock the cage. He shook me awake, and asked me to follow him to his truck, the back of which was jammed with landscaping equipment.
“We’re trying to level out the yard up at the lake,” he said, starting the car. “It requires more time than I would normally care to give it. Are you hungry?”
“I think so.”
“Sounds like you’ve had a shit of a month.”
“In places. How did you know I was here?”
“Well, your car was left practically on my doorstep, and Blivet sent a couple deputies out to canvass the roadside and recover your contraband, as he says. Incidentally, they got you on littering, if anyone decides to run wild with it, but they won’t. They’re good guys. We all went to school together. And your dad called looking for you, so we managed to put it together. Nice to see you again, by the way.”
“I see. Thank you. You too.”
“If you decide you’re hungry, there’s dinner still out. Stay tonight, or go home, if you need to. Tracy was worried, so I think she’d like to know you’re okay. But do me a favor without me having to explain it. You’re both almost thirty, so my role here becomes unclear.”
“I understand,” I said, hoping I did, as we reached the house. Tracy was smoking a cigarette on the front steps with glass of red wine sitting beside her elbow, and she stood up when she heard the car.
The fireworks hung luminous and deep over the field behind Gary’s house, their echo fading against a palisade of wooded hills across the valley containing Acheron, and clarifying in some way the strains of Sibelius drifting from the back door he chose to leave open. The music reached Tracy and I beside the fire, and Gary when he returned to it, smelling like cordite and twirling a kitchen lighter around his index finger the way a child might spin a cap pistol before holstering it.
“I understand you had a run-in with Blivet a few nights back,” he said, easing himself onto a section of log beside the fire. “Rest assured, he won’t come up this way. The difficulty for him is in triangulating, as he might say, the point of origin for a rocket, and unless he’s willing to send a fellow up the fire tower on Mt. Abandon, which don’t seem practical at this time of night and what with his weight difficulty there’s no chance of him getting up there himself, he don’t have shit for proof. Besides, I knew him at school. They had to give him credit for being a crossing guard so he could finish on time.”
“Thanks for blowing shit up on my behalf, Gary,” I said, toeing a log into the fire.
“It isn’t necessarily for you, but I’m sure you see that occasionally it’s good to make noise, and put some color in the sky. Gets so you can see the stars better afterward, and appreciate them a bit different.”
“I never saw the stars in Brooklyn.”
“I would expect not.”
“Fire’s getting low,” said Tracy, standing up. We put on headlamps, and walked past the trees at the edge of the yard to a brushpile set back in the woods. She was leaving for Illinois the next morning, which confirmed something neither of us could explain, and had decided to leave alone for the time being. We worked silently in each other’s light, dragging stumps and branches out of the forest, and tossing them on the fire until it roared like an engine of rapine. Gary went inside, reappearing a moment later with a bottle of Rakia and three glasses, and arranged these on a stump as Tracy and I went into the woods for a final trip.
The battery on my light began to fail as we walked, and the bulb went out entirely by the time we reached the brushpile. I won’t let this stop me from contributing, I thought communistically, as I fumbled through the bracken, but Tracy reached for my hands.
“You found me in the dark,” I said, feeling suddenly like Prince Myshkin, and wondering if poetry in its most idiotic form arrives from a commingling of kindness and inattention.
“We don’t really need any more,” she said, holding them as though divining some neutral fortune. “I just came out here because I wanted to say I could forget about you, if that would make whatever you do next easier. I thought about you occasionally for a decade, and that was okay. That can happen again. It’s not meanness, on my part. I want to be kind to us both.”
“No. Please. No,” I said, drawing her into a somewhat frantic embrace. “I don’t want another unemotional parting in my life. Call me when you land, if possible. I probably won’t be sitting by the phone, but I’ll be close enough to know you called if I miss it. I will always get back to you.”
“I’d like that well enough,” she said. We released each other as though completing a dance, stepping backward and dropping our hands to our sides, neither bowing, but nearly. All this sounded a little flat to me, but it felt like practice for being a good future adult, or less of a fuckup, at any rate. Bittersweet is still somewhat sweet, I thought, or hoped, perhaps.
“There’s no safety in drinking alone!” shouted Gary from the direction of the house.
“Gary told my dad that a UFO followed him all the way home from downtown,” I said.
“He sold my dad sheet acid at the county harvest festival in 1983,” said Tracy. “Perhaps these stories are related.”
We tucked our negligible tinder beneath opposite arms in order to hold hands on our way back to the fire.