The name floated to him.
Rather than summon, the sound of the voice conjured a brief vision of his mother. Propping the screen door open with her hip, she stood in the rear entrance of his childhood home while his diaper-clad little brother crawled between her legs to the the top of the porch steps. She scowled, her face aflame. That anger reached out through the years to drag him across the yard, to curse him for the ashtray left flipped under the coffee table, for the SpaghettiOs glued to the kitchen floor, for the nine volt battery sunk to the bottom of the toilet bowl.
He blinked. Still in a daze. He tried to bring himself into focus. The clinic’s reception desk, the parking lot beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows of the vestibule, the specific shapes and features of the other patients seated in the waiting area all fell into place. And, the name.
“Yeah. Here. That’s me.” He stood.
It was not really him. That was the name his mother had given him, and the name she had used to scold. It was the name his teachers had called from their roll books and the name he gave for a policeman to scribble on his notepad. It was a name he might hide from or hide behind, but not the name he inhabited. Rusty was the skin molded to his bones. Rusty was the hoarse echoing in his chest when he laughed and the creases in his face when he made his look hard. Rusty was the still tired body that did not want to get out of bed before sunrise and the worn out body that collapsed into the covers again at night. It was Rusty who had been staring through the windows, trying to forget the physical complaint that had brought him to the clinic. It was Rusty who scuffed his heels on the carpet as he followed the woman who had called him through the door from the waiting area into the more dimly lit corridors.
“Step up here, and we’ll get some stats.” The woman stopped and pointed to a scale which jutted from the wall.
With his eyes finally having adjusted from looking out of the vestibule windows, Rusty felt a pang of anxiety at seeing the woman’s face more clearly when she turned. Her straight black hair was pulled back from her forehead to reveal the flawless brown skin of her brow. Her eyes seemed impossibly bright given the soft lighting of the passageway. Despite her serious expression, he realized she must not have been very long out of medical school. Suddenly embarrassed that she might suspect him of checking her out, Rusty looked down at his boots.
“Have you used the bathroom in the last hour?”
“Yeah. The lady at the desk up there said not to, but I did anyway. I’ll definitely have to again though. That’s what’s… Well, you know.” Rusty put one foot on the scale. Its platform shimmied and he hesitated before transferring the rest of his weight. “I kind of always have to. That’s pretty much why I’m here.”
“We would have gotten a better sample if you had waited, but…” The woman paused to adjust the balances on the scale then, in a less sober tone, continued, “But, when nature calls, right?”
Rusty mumbled and nodded, too preoccupied with trying to detect an accent in her speech to offer a reply with more wit.
“Two hundred seventeen, and sixty-nine and three quarters,” she said and marked the numbers for his weight and height on her chart. “Ok, let’s go back to a room.”
The woman led him deeper into the building. The examination room at which they finally arrived had laminated anatomy posters pinned to the walls. The cartoonish quality of their illustrations led Rusty to wonder if she had taken him to a room normally intended for children. He lingered near the doorway until she indicated for him to sit on the exam table.
“Ok, we’ll just start with a few questions.”
“Should I let you know, if… You know. If I have have to?”
“Do you think you will?”
“It just comes on me all at once. So probably.”
“About how often, ten times a day? More? Or less?”
“I don’t count. But probably more. Like every hour. Or more. But maybe less. Like I said, it just hits me. I can’t really hold it. I work outside and I always got to run off to some bushes or something, depending where we’re at.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“Landscaping. Lawns and stuff.”
“No wonder you’re so tanned.”
Her eyes met his and she arched an eyebrow in way that, in concert with their plucked perfect proportion, gave him the impression that she could have just as easily chosen to act in a medical soap opera as to end up in this room, with him, talking about how often he had to piss. He broke her gaze and shook his head.
“Yeah, most of my family’s pretty white. I mean, they don’t tan like… I mean…”
“I’m nurse Fischer by the way. I don’t think I introduced myself. It’s been a crazy morning.”
“It’s okay, I’m pretty bad with names anyway. But...” He stopped himself.
To continue, to say that he would remember hers would have sounded too much like flirting. His face flushed. Shifting his eyes, they fell on a half filled jar of Dum Dums lollipops set out on the counter to his left. His color deepened.
She went on to explain that she was a nurse practitioner and that whether or not Rusty needed to see a doctor would depend on the test results from his sample. The tentative relaxing of his nerves was spoiled completely when she asked him to describe his symptoms. Flustered, wondering why he could not just leave the sample and be on his way, he stuttered a reiteration of his constant need to urinate. Assuring him she was already aware of that, Nurse Fischer wanted to know about his other symptoms.
Rusty’s mouth felt dry as it formed words like itch and tingle and sting. He heard himself describe the sensation that felt something like having an insect crawl into the tip of his penis, where it had either entered mistakenly and become lost, or invaded with the intent to make a nest and lay its eggs, all the while not believing he could will himself to say such things aloud, to a stranger. Sometimes it felt as though the eggs had hatched and the entire brood of invaders was moving around in there, further multiplying. Rusty’s toes curled. The paper unspooled over the exam table crinkled as he gripped its edge. Nurse Fischer kept her pen poised against her clipboard. Her considered nods seemed only to give credibility to Rusty’s fear. He felt himself being pulled into the anxiety of his many nights lying awake, trying and failing to ignore the twinges in his groin, to convince himself the sensations were a trick of the mind, to separate the swirl of imaginations, amplified during the gloaming between wakefulness and slumber, from the fevered creeping of his flesh, the latter shackled by the gravity of the bedclothes and snared in a network of nerves and capillaries while the former seemed increasingly unable to gain purchase in anything tangible, thinking into being its own prison. Having become lost in his own account, Rusty barely heard the nurse ask about his sexual function. Maybe he did not want to hear it.
During the past couple of weeks he had barely seen his girlfriend. The last time they had tried to have sex they were both too drunk to really go about it properly. Nor had they been enough impassioned to sustain interest after his lumbering away to use the bathroom. Rusty told the nurse these things, but withheld the confession of his habit, his need, of masturbating into the toilet every morning. For him, even more than taking a piss, bringing himself to climax was the sweetest relief. He imagined it to be like the intoxication and anguish of huffing the very cosmic ether which fuels the heavens. It felt like that, a momentary untethering from the most real things he knew. By the time he finished, his skin was pallid and covered in sweat. He felt weightless. Better.
Nurse Fischer, unsmiling, again raised an eyebrow. “Do you experience any difficulty getting an erection?”
After noting his answer, she continued, “Ok, now we can do the exam and get a sample.”
“What exam? You mean, like pee in a cup?”
“Not a urine sample. I’m going to take a swab. That’s why it would have been better if you had waited to use the bathroom. Urine flushes the urethra. That’s why you feel the frequent need to urinate. Your body’s trying to purge itself.”
“Swab?” He could barely pronounce the word.
“It’ll be quick. Just hop down here and pull down your pants.”
Rusty fumbled with his zipper, worrying that he might become aroused. However, when Nurse Fischer reached for and rolled his penis between her latex covered thumb and index finger, the only throbbing he felt occurred in his ears. His pulse seemed at that moment to resonate with the frequencies of the florescent lights and the subsonic thrum of the building’s heating and air-conditioning system. The nurse pinched the glans of his penis and inserted the downy bulb of a long, blue plastic, cotton tipped swab into his urethral opening. Rusty’s breathing stopped. The humming in his ears probed into each cell, then each atom, of his body, shaking free their nuclear bonds and allowing them to be enveloped and charged by the room’s light.
He could not see or hear or feel. A lifetime could have passed, a galaxy expired, a breath. When the nurse released him and stood, he numbly smacked his tongue on the roof his mouth. He was aware that she was speaking but not able to understand her words. The first sense to fully return was taste. His saliva, redolent of a skunky beer, caused him to cringe.
“The exam’s finished, you can get dressed again.”
Nurse Fischer set a sealed vile containing the swab on the counter and looked at Rusty directly. “You can pull your pants up now.”
“Oh. Right. Good. We’re done.”
“Almost. There are a few other things I need to ask you.”
“I think I told you it all.” He was still standing and, having fastened he jeans, could not decide what to do with his hands.
“Have you been sexually active with anyone other than your girlfriend?”
“We live together. I mean, like I said, things aren’t great between us. But I haven’t cheated, if that’s what you’re saying.”
“So your girlfriend has been your only partner, say, in the last four months? Or, since the symptoms you’re experiencing.” Her tone implied something further.
Rusty resisted acknowledging it. “Me and Roxanne…It’s been like two years. Since we moved in together.”
“I know these are personal questions. But, they are important.” Nurse Fischer had retrieved her clipboard, though instead of taking notes she folded her hands and pressed it flat against her lap. “Do you use a condom when you’re with your girlfriend? Every time?”
“She’s on the pill, so yeah. I mean no. No. We don’t… Is it...” He tried to steel himself but spittle had begun to leak from the corner of his mouth. His hand shook when he raised it to wipe his lips. “So this is… You mean, like it’s bad? Like real bad? Like AIDS?”
“Oh, no.” Nurse Fischer sounded as shocked as he did. Then, quickly regaining herself, she said, “With the symptoms you’re presenting, it looks like a bacterial infection. It’s likely it could be Chlamydia, that’s an unfortunately common kind of bacterial infection. It’s sexually transmitted. Chlamydia. It’s something which still needs to be taken very seriously, but it’s treatable with an antibiotic.”
“So it’s not… I thought I was… Roxanne.” Again he dragged his hand across his mouth. “So you can get rid of it?”
After coming out of the pharmacy, Rusty had decided it would be best to sit in the car and wait. If he had to go, he could use the bathroom in the Wendy’s at the other end of the parking lot. He twisted the car’s rearview mirror in order to inspect his face but looked only long enough to know he did not like what was reflected there. He reached for the two liter Pepsi bottle he had purchased, unscrewed the cap then took long, gulping chugs which caused the bottle’s plastic to buckle and cave. On the verge of coughing, he stopped, replaced the cap and wedged the bottle between his thighs. He dumped the prescription vial out of the pharmacy bag onto the passenger seat. Looking from the vial to the mirror again, he gave the details of his face closer consideration. His skin, shaven specifically for his visit to the clinic, looked waxy. His eyes were red and too wide open, almost psychotic.
His expression, no matter how he contorted his mouth or squinted, looked foreign to him.
He blinked the image away and drank more soda.
Less than a dozen cars were scattered between where he was parked and the fast-food restaurant. On the street beyond, a few more cars waited at an intersection for the light to change. Over the tops of the single story store fronts along the strip, a hill, thick with trees well past the primacy of their autumnal hues, formed a dark barrier from which dusk seemed to never fully escape. The postcard moment is brief, maybe just one golden afternoon. Unless expertly framed, its edges will always be intruded upon by sagging utility wires, a fading billboard, the bleeding glow of hamburger marquees and discount neons, and highway bridges spray-painted with obscenities and names for those loved and those lost. Above the hill, the evening star flickered. For Rusty it brought to mind a solitary lit window in a far off, empty house. He imagined coming to the house’s door, entering the darkened downstairs and climbing the steps to a bedroom. The lonely light, no brighter despite his being closer to it, leaked from the cracks around the door and its jam. He did not have to open the door to know he would recognize all of the clothes on the floor, not quite forming a pile, the bureau whose drawer always hung open, or the two tumblers, filmed by sweaty palms, sitting on the nightstand. Rusty reached over and rattled the vial of antibiotic, as if wanting to scramble the memories and the betrayals shut behind that door.
He tried to reimagine the room as it would be with his and Roxanne’s possessions removed.
He saw a torn, empty envelope that had drifted under where the bed used to be. He counted the bottle caps which had been hoarded by the dust bunnies. He picked at the plaster where the doorknob had banged repeatedly against the wall. He looked out of the window to the star, now joined by a few others. Soon the one lit window would be no more distinguished than any other.
Rusty dropped the pills back onto the seat and reached into his pocket for his cellphone. He scrolled through the saved numbers until Roxanne’s was highlighted. He held his thumb against the button to call but did not press. It would be better to confront her in person when she came home from work, after the rash of stars had spread across the entire black body of the sky. Looking again into the rearview mirror, he decided the redness of his eyes was not a result of the sleepless paranoia centered on some alien thing had burrowed into his body, nor his anger that she had cheated. At least it was not only those things.
When the red and blue lights of the police cruiser first flashed through the front window of their apartment, the oscillating colors caused unfamiliar, menacing shadows to leap up the wall of the living room. It took Rusty a few seconds to realize those sights were not connected to the sound of their neighbor’s television blaring on the other side of the wall.
Roxanne folded her arms over her chest. The look on her face changed from disdainful to something resembling a plea, a transformation which Rusty suspected to be more of an illusion performed by the sudden circus of the lights than any genuine change in mood.
Turning toward the door, he noticed the neighbor’s tv had suddenly become less audible but was uncertain if it was because of their turning down the volume or his increased feeling of being untethered from the moment, the way he imagined it might feel to slip free from the tug of the earth, no longer pinned to its mass nor confined within its orbit. He could barely feel his hand on the knob as he opened the front door, or his feet on the steps as he descended to the sidewalk.
Two police officers had emerged from the cruiser. They adjusted their belts and zipped up their jackets as if they were actors making final tweaks to their costumes before stepping onto the stage. Upon seeing Rusty, the officer who had been driving charged around the vehicle to meet him. Clearly, the office did not interpret his role as that of an easygoing character.
“We have a complaint about a domestic disturbance.”
“Yeah, well, it’s nothing,” said Rusty. “We’re just…”
“Is that your wife.” The officer motioned toward Roxanne, who had stepped onto the porch.
“Yeah. I mean, no. Girlfriend… We’re definitely not…”
The other officer brushed past Rusty and approached Roxanne.
“What’s the trouble here?” The remaining officer narrowed his eyes. “Has there been any violence?”
“No. I never hit her. Never.”
“The complaint was about a domestic disturbance.”
“It’s just an argument.” Rusty glanced to his neighbors’ side of the duplex. “Maybe we got a little carried away, raising our voices. Both of us…”
“And you didn’t hit her, or push her around? Have you been drinking?”
“No. Like I said, never. Honest. And no drinking.” He raised his hands in an attempt to show his lack of malice. They felt unattached from his body.
“You think it’s ok to carry on like this, disturbing the whole neighborhood with your business?”
“No.” Rusty shot another glance at the neighbors’ side of the house. “We was just…”
“I don’t want to hear about it.” The officer pointed at Rusty. “The decent people in this community don’t want to hear it either.”
Rusty huffed and shook his head.
“You’re sure she’s not going to say you assaulted her in anyway?”
“She won’t because I didn’t.”
The officer drew his lips into a tight, flat line and looked past Rusty toward the porch. Rusty studied the man's broad face. He had a thick neck which bloated where the collar of his uniform barely buttoned about it. Rusty then turned and looked at the porch. The other officer had his thumbs hooked into his belt as he spoke to Roxanne. With her arms still folded, she nodded at what the officer said. A strand of hair fell over her forehead and she vehemently twitched her neck to flick it clear. The red and blue police lights made her face look swollen and monstrously bruised. Rusty turned back to the officer, knowing that he must look similarly deformed.
“Am I being charged or something?”
“You just answer my questions. We’ve had a complaint, so I want to make sure there aren’t any problems. That there aren't going to be any problems, and that your wife is going to be safe.”
The officer fixed him with a leaden gaze.
A gust of wind sailed through the neighborhood. Rusty stuffed his hands into his pockets and clenched his arms against his sides. The chill returned all of his senses back to the moment, back to his earthbound body. He ground his teeth in annoyance, but also felt somewhat relieved, concluding that being made to stand in the cold, wearing only a t-shirt, was the most punishment the police were going to mete.
“You two live here together?”
“I guess. For now anyway. So yeah.”
“Is she going to be safe if the two of you stay here together?”
“We’re just fighting… I mean arguing. I hear the neighbors when they’re going at it, but I...”
“This isn’t about what anybody else does.”
There was a night when Rusty would have been ready to make a scene with the officers. He would have cuffed their ears with Randal when they asked for his name. He would have made his belligerence the flexed muscle of the story he would later tell about himself. On this night, however, Rusty only dropped his eyes to where he could watch the strobing emergency lights beat inconsequently against the officer’s black patent boots. He answered the questions he had to and stood there silently otherwise. The other officer came down from the porch and, after a moment in which he and his partner seemed to be weighing whether or not their own tale of the night might be more interesting if they apprehended Rusty, they turned toward the cruiser.
“Nobody wants to hear your business. Decent folks are trying to enjoy the peace of their own homes,” said the officer who had been dealing with Rusty. He stood by the driver side door and, before lowering himself to the seat, added, “You don’t want me coming back here.”
Shivering from the cold, Rusty watched the police cruiser pull away from the curb and creep to the end of the block. Its swirling lights still colored the intersection even after the car had disappeared around the corner. When at last they too faded, the darkness left behind was barely held at bay by the few working street lamps and porch lights of the neighborhood. Roxanne had already gone back inside. Whoever had come to their windows to gawk at the spectacle had nothing left to see but the stray leaves being swept and joylessly turned by the wind.
Rusty found Roxanne sitting on the couch facing the blank tv screen. When their eyes met, she hugged her thick arms tighter about herself. He felt a smile begin to ratchet his expression. Roxanne was in no way amused.
Rusty shrugged. Not knowing to whom she referred, he figured her sentiment could be fairly applied to everybody.
“I don’t need this shit anyway. That’s why I went...” She stopped and glared when she noticed his smile was unfading.
He let her see it.
“Fuck you. Fuck you.”
“Me?” Rusty feigned a laugh, but his smile melted behind the attempt. “There really ain’t much more to say, as far as I’m concerned. That’s at least something we can definitely agree on.”
“Isn’t that a surprise.”
He shook his head and looked away.
“I don’t know why you’re being all smug. You know this isn’t all on me. I can’t just sit here and take it, I have to fend for myself.”
“Really? You don’t think you deserve a little more of the blame?”
“No. Because you aren’t so innocent either,” she said.
He looked back at her, again hair had fallen across her face and again she jerked her head to flick it away. “You can make any excuses you want. It don’t matter now.”
“Yeah, you wouldn't ever take real responsibility anyway. You never do. I know you like to play dumb and innocent. Those are exactly the games I’m sick of dealing with. So fuck you.”
“You want this to be my fault?”
Roxanne responded with a gesture that indicated she thought Rusty was asking questions of the obvious.
Knowing where a continued attempt at conversation would lead, Rusty said nothing more and went into the kitchen. As he felt around in the darkness to grab his coat from the back of a chair, one of their cats pounced from the table to the floor. It disappeared into the shadows before he was able to identify which one of the two that they owned it was. Pulling on his coat, Rusty wondered if and how the cats would remember this night, if the police lights flashing through the window had been anything more than a brief, unexplainable invasion, or what portent, if any, they would ascribe such a visitation to their fate. Though he and Roxanne had not yet said so, he knew neither of them would be staying. The cats would be abducted from this small existence and taken to a whole new world, foreign in its features but familiarly homely nonetheless.
Roxanne fixed her eyes on Rusty when he returned to the living room. “Where are you going?”
“I’m...” He trailed off, not really having an answer.
The thought of leaving for good crossed his mind. He scanned the clawed and pilled upholstery of the couch, the lusterless varnish of the coffee table, and the dirty dishes and stained, crumpled coupon circulars upon it. He crossed the carpet, following the threadbare path worn into it to the front door. Trying to decide whether there was anything he should take with him, he made a rapid inventory of the items spread throughout the apartment he could rightly consider his possessions. They made a paltry list: a box of DVDs, a rumpled wardrobe that could be easily replaced, if not upgraded, by a trip to Salvation Army, paintbrushes sticking out of a can from which the turpentine had long ago evaporated. He placed his hand on the doorknob and looked back at Roxanne. He saw the sadness to which her pretenses of anger were pinned. At one time, he had thought they would make a stalwart pair like the kind of family who farms a rough piece of land for a living of potatoes or works a long shift at a mill before coming home to eat meatloaf and boiled broccoli.
Maybe they could have won the lottery. It had been her sturdiness which attracted him. It was her toughness which allowed her to not seem to care when he opened the door and stepped out.
Rusty drove along Market Street, where, two weeks earlier, he had almost caused an accident while attempting to turn across traffic into the strip mall. There had been a screeching of tires and a horn blaring as he powered the rest of the way through the turn, and a moment during which he had made the briefest possible eye contact with the woman driving the oncoming car. That fraction of a second had been enough for him to see her mouth gaped and her shoulders raised around her neck as she forced her hand against the center of the steering wheel. Rusty’s own right hand had been similarly pressed into his groin. He had not stopped until his car was slanted across two spaces in front of the McDonald’s. Nor had he looked over his shoulder to see if she was still stopped in the street when he ran, doubled over, from his car to the restaurant’s door. Now, as the spot of the near-collision receded in his mirror, he imagined how things might have played out had their vehicles actually collided. He wondered if he would have been able to stand still enough to come up with an excuse for the crinkled fenders and shattered glass at their feet, or if bodily function would overridden any of the other indignities of the situation. Rusty took pleasure imagining what the look on the woman’s face would have been had he abandoned her to the dented cars and ran to the McDonald’s bathroom, or had he just let go and pissed his pants in her full view. His smile did not last. He could not hold to such happy fantasies. Escaping one disaster seemed to do little to rescue his cause. He felt as though he were a plastic soldier whose bedspread battlefield had been gripped by the hand of an impatient mother and whipped into the air. The only consolation was the thought that there might be an advantage to being of such an expendable rank as he occupied in life. No one would notice if he was a casualty or survivor. No one would notice if he continued the fight or decided to sneak off alone into the wilderness or made camp with the enemy. No one would know how to name his traumas when they found him discarded under the bed, rather the traumas would be the name for him.
Driving further along Market Street, Rusty passed a large house which had been converted into a suite of dentists’ offices. The broad lawn upon which it sat was busy with a landscaping crew, all of whom, as far as he could see, looked Hispanic. They were blowing away the last leaves from the red oak stretching over one corner of the yard and cleaning dead stalks and vines from the pointedly colorless flower beds at the other. Though it was not the company for which he worked, Rusty recognized the name on the sides of the truck and hitch parked along the street. The last conversation Rusty had had with his boss, Rob Bartlett, ended with vague excuses about having fewer clients and needing to save capital in order to upgrade some of the older equipment. Before hanging up, Rob had speculated there would still be some work through the autumn but gave no dates and made no promises. When his boss had failed to bring up anything about the snow season, Rusty had not bothered to ask. Thinking of all the times he had ducked into the bushes in the preceding weeks, it could not be counted as a surprise that he had not gotten any word since.
Rusty turned off Market Street into the Lowe’s parking lot. Behind the squat, hulking building, a line of dark hills, bunched up against the horizon and ragged with bare trees, tore at the cloudless sky. Inside, the vault of the retailer’s ceiling, garlanded with cobwebs and tangled by various ducts and conduits, was a dismal contrast. Heading past a floor display of snowblowers, Rusty stopped when he heard a familiar voice call his name.
He turned to see Wayne van Huyten approaching from the end of the lighting and electrical fixtures aisle.
“Rusty,” Wayne repeated. “Hey, man.”
A couple of years prior, Rusty and Wayne had worked together painting houses, long hours in the sun that left them with little more than sun-bleached, tedious stories not worth telling or remembering. Standing before Rusty, Wayne wore a vest which designated him as a store employee and through which his amply round gut poked. It looked as though his paunch might be rubbed for a bit of good luck, if not also for the mans own more lickerish fortune. Wayne's smile, just as Rusty recalled it, suggested the tendency toward the latter.
“How’s it going? What you been up to? I haven't seen you.”
“Funny you should ask.”
“You still with Bartlett, one of his crews?”
“Yeah. But I ain’t so sure now. Rob said there’d be stuff, but… ” Rusty finished with a shrug.
“I hear you. They say it’s supposed to be a snowy winter though.”
“Maybe. I don’t know how much I trust them kinds of predictions. But it could be. Who knows?” Rusty paused, giving them each a moment to consider how knowable the future could ever be and the events, seemingly always beyond control, that determined it. “I guess it don’t matter anyhow. Rob was saying about cutting back and all.”
“I bet. Maybe cutting back on you. Them guys are all hiring Mexicans or whatever.” Wayne shifted his weight and his expression became markedly uncharitable.
“Yeah, we had a few of them guys. I think from Guatemala. But they seemed cool. I didn’t actually talk to them much. Just about work or things like that. There's probably less clients, too.”
“Yeah, that’s how it is. There’s been less people coming in here. But I don’t mind, you know, long as I keep on the schedule.”
“Well, whatever happens, Rob can do it without me. I’m thinking about heading out of here.”
During their time working together Wayne had displayed a certain brashness, often coming to a job in the morning raspy with a hangover, his cheeks like the skin of a plum, taught and red as much from an excess of what some consider sin as from the shining sun.
His features had since softened. His color had drained, and with it the smoldering energy of his voice.
“Like, out of town? Where to? You still with that Dorset girl?”
“Roxanne. That’s actually kind of why I’m here. We split up last week. She’s packing her stuff in boxes right now.” Rusty looked away, not sure how deep into the details of the situation he wanted to dig. “Man, sometimes you don’t know ’til it’s actually over that it was already over.”
“That’s…Sorry, man. If it’s…” Wayne twisted his lips into a confused expression. “I can get you boxes from in back if you need.”
Rusty let out a short burst of laughter. “I don’t mean it that way. Just the opposite. I mean, it’s like you just put up with all this shit all the time. Girlfriend. Job. Having enough money for gas and whatever. Then when it’s over you’re just like, ‘What was I even thinking?’ You're just so numb to it. It's like it could have been anybody doing that shit. It's all just a game, but ain’t nobody winning.”
“Yeah, man. Sometimes it’s like that.” Perhaps Wayne knew better.
“Right. Anyway, I’m not here for boxes. I got to fix the bathroom door. I need to get all the deposit back. She ain’t going to fix it, even though she’s the one who broke it. She don’t care. But I’ll need that money.”
“You got something lined up? You said something about heading out of town?” Wayne’s voice was growing increasingly tentative and it occurred to Rusty that he might be wary of being asked a favor.
“Yeah. Maybe my brother’s place. There’s a trailer in back of his house there that’s in pretty decent shape. Livable. He said I could stay there and fix it up. There’s one of them Walmart distribution centers down there. He says they’re always hiring. So I can probably get a job. Or one of them shale gas companies. They’re all over down there.”
“Where’s that?” asked Wayne, sounding more at ease.
“Pennsylvania. They ship all over from there. I can probably get a job, at least through Christmas.”
“Yeah, yeah. I think I know where you’re talking about. Some of them guys that drive trucks for here have some pretty crazy stories about driving in Pennsylvania.”
“Yeah. I mean driving at night and seeing stuff.” The tone of Wayne’s voice lowered, but its intensity increased. “Like seeing lights in the sky. UFOs.”
“No, really. Not just one guy either. Lots of guys say it. They say it’s all along this one stretch, it’s like pretty famous, or notorious, or whatever. Lots of guys say it. They’re on the road all the time.” Wayne nodded slowly as he spoke, becoming entranced by his own account. “There’s no towns around, or any of them little airports, or anything. I mean, I don’t know if they’re from outer space. But some of them guys, a lot of them, they swear it. They say how they’re changing color and moving in all different directions, way too fast to be anything normal. At least not normal from earth.”
Wayne had sidled adjacent to Rusty so that they were both looking down an aisle of shelving brackets toward the back of the store. A feeling of vertigo crept up Rusty’s spine. When he tried to picture the things Wayne described he only saw the Earth receding away from him, as if he had been taken on board one of the spacecraft and could do nothing but watch as the world he knew, and by which he knew himself, narrowed to no more than a pinprick of light.
“If it was just one guy, I’d say he was full of it, but…” Wayne trailed off and looked over at Rusty.
“Huh, well I’ll keep an eye open. I never heard my brother say anything.”
Taking a step away from Wayne, Rusty tried to remember if his friend had told any such tales in the moments when they had descended their ladders to eat lunch. The entirety of his recollection of their days on jobs together was comprised merely of vaporous chatter and chipped and curled laughter, anecdotes reeking of paint thinner, sweat soaking the seat and thighs of his pants, eyes itching from the spores of the fungal infested molding under the eves, the finer details of which had been obscured by too many layers of paint.
“Well, I should get back to work. Good seeing you. We should get a beer before you take off.”
Rusty watched Wayne saunter away then went to find what he needed to fix the bathroom door.
By the time Rusty returned to the house Roxanne had already brought out to the porch, and left at the top of the steps, a cardboard box with a cutting board protruding from its open top. Waiting for her to reemerge, he sat in the car for a minute and regarded the condition of the place he had been calling home. One half of the building was painted a soft blue that, if it were not so sun-baked with soot, could possibly have matched the sky on a bright, budding April day. The other half, where Rusty and Roxanne lived, was painted a pale yellow that, in the places where it had not flaked away completely, had through the years soured to take on a jaundiced patina which was far removed from its original jonquil blush.
When they had moved there, Rusty wondered why the landlord would want to paint the two halves separately, but after becoming familiar with the couple who occupied the other half of the building he decided that such decisions must be made to appease neighboring tenants’ senses of territorial sovereignty. Another possibility was that two colors simply made it easier for someone who did not really care otherwise to tell people apart. The blue side couple was married and expecting a child. The wife was a substitute teacher in the public schools and the husband worked for a company which required him to wear khaki pants and a polo shirt. They left the tv on until late, probably falling asleep on the couch.
Nearly every evening, at about ten minutes past seven, Rusty heard the clatter of dishes in their sink. Often the smell of herbs and browned onions still lingered in the air. Sometimes they shouted, but only the bluntest curses were intelligible through the wall. Feet might be heard stomping up the stairs but, when the row subsided, only the muddled droning of their tv endured. It had never occurred to Rusty to call the police. Such domestic quarrels posed no threat of spilling beyond the border of their walls or the bounds of what could be expected of people who had to live together, no matter how spitefully maintained. Whatever proximity he and his neighbors shared, Rusty knew the courses of their lives were not likely to align. He might pass any of the people who lived on his street and never know much more about them than the car they drove or the repair of their house, whether it resembled his duplex or one of the single family homes that probably had hallways and bathtubs on the first floor, whether their lawns were high with weeds still defiantly green for the time of year, or if they were undergoing a metamorphosis marked by stacks of lumber in their side yards and spindly young roses flanking their stoops and new shingles challenging the elements to come.
Rusty got out of his car when Roxanne came through the front door. She gave him her version of a hard look, then set the box she was carrying next to the one containing the cutting board. Without speaking, she turned and went back inside. Rusty leaned against the door of his car. He felt no particular desire to rush into the fray.
A moment later Roxanne, this time empty handed, stormed back onto the porch and proclaimed, “I’m taking the couch.”
“I’m taking everything. I’m done after this.”
“How’s it going to fit?” Rusty shifted and settled more heavily against his car, wanting to play it cool, but also too tired to make any more of a stand.
“I’m the one who picked it out.” She crossed her arms.
Rusty did not respond.
“Anyway, I’m taking it.”
He nodded towards her car. “I’m just saying, that couch won’t fit.”
“I got someone to help.”
“Who? Carlos?” Saying the name caused his throat to tighten.
“No.” Her reply snapped like a match being struck.
Rusty took a breath and let the light of the sun, precariously warm at its late autumn zenith, sink into his cheeks. “So? All I want to do is fix that door.”
“You got your stuff out of the bathroom yet?”
“I’m doing the kitchen first. I’ll get to the the bathroom.” Weariness betrayed her flamed-out hostility. “Don’t worry about it.”
Rusty sensed apprehension in her demeanor, though he did not trouble himself to ponder its cause. Before either of them had a chance to say anything further, the blue side neighbors’ door opened and the wife stepped onto the porch. Descending the steps, her determination to not look in their direction was evident in the rigidity of her neck and shoulders. Regardless, Rusty nodded at her and affected his best sardonic smile. The woman, dressed in black spandex pants and a white sweater which was stretched tight enough to reveal her distended belly button, held fast to her aversion. He watched her get into her car. As she pulled onto the street and drove past, Rusty figured that she might finally allow herself to behold them in her rearview mirror and sigh some bit of relief at the hope of it being the last time she would ever have the opportunity to do so. As Rusty watched the car to the end of the block, he wondered how glad Roxanne would be to see him go. When he looked back up at her, she was holding him in a gaze that was at once accusing and wounded. Of the people to whom he might have to say goodbye when he finally left town, he doubted there were many who would really care. He considered the questions they might feel obliged to ask, and what version of his story he would be compelled to tell. He thought of meeting Wayne at a bar, how he would rush through certain details of the breakup until, as the number of beers consumed liberated his more hopeful inclinations, choosing instead to describe the little trailer behind his brother’s house. Rusty could picture its beige vinyl siding, the ornamental brown shutters, and the slanted steps leading to a storm door which had been reduced to nothing but a battered frame on rickety hinges. He saw it in wintertime, snow piled on the roof and hung in the broad boughs of the copse of hemlock in front of which it sat. Rusty might admit to Wayne how cold it could get, then quickly add how easy it would be to install a wood stove. He only had to make a hole in the roof for the flue, gird its exterior portion with some flashing, and line the floor and the wall inside with salvaged bricks to buffer them and hold the heat. He would sit in a cozy chair, listening to the snap and hiss of the last log, a sound like a stylus stuck in a record’s final grove, as he drifted toward sleep. Rusty smelled the ash of the next morning as his mind poked through the stove’s gray drift, searching for the fierce orange hearts of the embers. They glowed like a treasure. He wanted to keep it for himself. He would not tell Wayne about his plans for the trailer. He would not even call him to meet up for a beer. Saying goodbye makes an implicit promise to remember. Rusty was content to give his own last look in the rearview mirror as he drove away, then let himself forget.
When he returned his attention to the porch, Roxanne was coming through the door carrying her stand mixer, its power cord haphazardly wrapped around the motor housing so that the plug at the end dangled near her knees. When she set it down the mixing bowl bounced loose and spun precariously near to the edge of the top step. She watched the bowl without making any move to save it from going over, as if she knew all along that entropy would prevent its escape.
“You staying here then?”
Rusty did not answer.
“Well, I’m taking the bed, too. Obviously.” She drew her words out, daring him to challenge her. When he did not, she continued, “Anyway, if you’re staying, you’ll be sleeping on the floor. I’m not leaving anything after tonight. Today, I mean.”
He still did not respond.
“How long are you staying then?” Again a note of misgiving prevailed in her voice. “You still thinking about your brother’s?”
Wanting to hold to the idea that his future would be his alone, Rusty looked purposefully down the street. It felt good to give no account. When he looked back to the porch, Roxanne had pushed her hands under the hem of her oversized green sweater and planted them on her hips. It occurred to Rusty that maybe it was not herself for whom she was worried. Not being prepared for the possibility of accepting compassion, his reflexive shunning of it spoiled his humor.
“It doesn’t matter to me. Either way.” She started to turn toward the door and added, “I don’t even know why I should care.”
After lingering on the sidewalk for another minute, Rusty finally ventured inside. The wreckage of the apartment was beyond what his imagination could have mustered. Clothes, dragged from the bedroom upstairs, formed what looked to be the ideal habitat for a colony of rodents, the cushions of the couch were flung against the wall next to the door and all of the detritus that had fallen through their cracks was dumped onto the carpet, creating a line that resembled the ridge of polluted seaweed which marks the apex of a disastrous tide. The tv was gone but the stand, though askew and glazed with a dust which could not be dispersed by blowing, remained. The wall was streaked by water stains which looked symptomatic of some poisoned organ’s festering. The notion of sleeping on the floor suddenly lost its winsomely spiteful charm.
Roxanne, carrying a box which rattled with cooking implements, entered the room and said, “So?”
“How long you staying?”
She responded in kind.
“Why do you even have all that stuff? When do you ever cook?”
Rusty fixed his gaze on two empty pizza boxes which sat splayed beside the tv stand.
“Whatever. They always put me on nights now.” She pushed past him and stood by the closed front door. “It’s my stuff anyway. What do you care?”
Roxanne hoisted the box higher against her stomach and sighed.
Rusty made a point of letting his eyes once more wander over the room while she waited. He twisted his toe into the carpet, almost believing he might fall through, as if even the floorboards and foundation had rotted away. At last he relented and reached for the doorknob.
“You already take care of the cats?” he asked.
“Yeah. They’re totally freaked out.”
Rusty had crossed the state line about twenty minutes after sunset. Driving west, there remained a single sliver of twilight at which to aim as the day’s final darkness hunted his taillights. Eventually the slopes of a ridge crowded closer to the road, forming a colorless mass which obscured the firmament altogether. He squinted into the wedge of the world projected from his headlights. He felt as though he was always on the verge of entering a space that had previously only existed in a dream, or a memory unmoored from the temporal anchor of his gray matter and slipped into the stream of the future into which he wanted to be speeding. His car plumbed still deeper into the darkness. He drove, less and less able to locate himself either within his thoughts or the terrain.
The road emerged from the ridge and descended into a valley. Soon he began to pass houses. Each was set back from the road as well as away from one another, in some instances separated by expanses of fields and in others by belts of brambly woods. The majority of the homes were decked with Christmas lights which, whether blinking intermittently or shining persistently, looked pale and doleful and gave an altogether bleak account of themselves in the vastness of their surroundings. Looking out at them, Rusty meditated on the ascetic pride of the many-hours-long afternoons spent perched atop the windswept roofs, the coaxing and sermonizing done to get adolescent sons and daughters onto the lawn for the first lighting, the belief that every hardship of the previous year could be mended, if even for just one night, by such a ritual display. It touched him. Each colored light was a dim star transmitting its own existence. Each house formed a small galaxy. All of them together flickered an ephemeral cosmos into being. Maybe visitors from far off worlds traveled across the universe simply to see such lights. Maybe they had no more interest in the intelligence behind the colored displays than the retired couples, who trekked every October through the Adirondacks, took in what lay beneath that leafy show. Maybe it was enough for them to know some other life was out there, just as intricate and tenuous and beyond meaning.
As Rusty drove on, the landscape ahead of him gathered again into hills. An irradiated artery pulsed across their base and bled into his line of vision. It illuminated a length of the road from where it emerged around the eastern bend to where it sank into the forest of the west. Getting closer, he was able to make out the tiny orange pixels that traced the edges of the trailers of the big rigs which, blasting cones of white light before them, barreled back and forth along the interstate. Though he had crossed over from New York nearly an hour ago, it was only upon seeing the highway that he felt he had truly entered Pennsylvania, the state of all night hauls and darknesses as opaque as the rent tires littering the berm and cool forests spiced with an incense of burning brakes and diesel exhaust.
The westbound big rigs blazed into the bottom of the draw, where the access ramp for the secondary road on which Rusty drove connected to the highway. They then groaned and rattled, their ferocity suddenly truncated by gravity, their engines struggling against the incline of the next grade. Rusty slowed at the top of the ramp and twisted to look over his shoulder for a chance to usurp a few feet of space amidst the throng. He came to a nearly complete stop where the lanes converged then gunned the car’s engine. His right tire sprayed gravel. His rear windshield filled with light. The staccato rage of jake brakes drummed against his ears. For a moment the entire breadth of his existence reduced to that light and sound. Everything became fluid. The steering wheel melted away. His foot, pressing down on the accelerator, met no resistance from the floorboard. His body slid back into the car seat like a sweet, fatty morsel down a hungry throat. As he had at the clinic, he felt as though every particle of his body was made diffuse in the light.
An hour and a half later, he turned off the interstate onto a country road. Out of the berm on either side rose large trees whose bare branches formed a baroque lattice upon which the night sky seemed to cling and its stars to blossom. Further along, he passed a farm bounded by a broad planked, white fence. Thinking of the three or four horses who probably grazed in the pasture which it enclosed, Rusty remembered his mother taking him and his brother to the fair. As his hand traced the curve of the steering wheel, he recalled the prickly feeling of the hay bails, the rough lumber construction of the pens, and the fervid tongues of the stock as they reached their snouts through the slats to lick funnel cake sugar from between his fingers. He switched off the radio and rolled down his window half an inch in the hope of hearing the whisper of a pasture stream or getting a whiff of the smoke which rolled out from the fireplace chimney of the out of sight farmhouse.
Rusty knew the outlying country did not look so different from where he had lived most of his life in New York, but he could not help the feeling that his brother had somehow lucked out by moving. He pictured a honey-gold meadow where he and other men, with smiles of satisfaction beaming from beneath the brims of their caps, would toss bails of hay into the bed of a trailer. Afterward they would toast bottles of beer made radiant by a low slung sun. Rusty shook his head, recognizing the scene as an advertisement which played frequently on television. During his boyhood, his fantasies had come from movies. In his favorite role-play, he had been a spy, his missions and elaborate cover stories always changing, sometimes steeling cigarettes from his mother’s purse to barter in a Siberian prison, sometimes dropping an explosive charge into the toilet in order to cause a distraction while he made his getaway, sometimes striding through a casino and brazenly laying his last chip in the full view of his nemesis. He watched the wheel spin. The ball bounced in and out of the slots, tantalizingly close to the big payoff. The road dipped. The car rumbled across an iron bridge then climbed sharply for fifty yards up a hill. Driving alone through the darkness, Rusty permitted himself to cling to that child gambler’s certainty of there still being some play in the odds, of his number being destined yet to come up.
The land flattened at the crest of the hill. The road bisected a newly sprouting forest, a first generation of trees filling in after a timber or mining operation. His car’s headlights silvered their slender trunks and the underside of their twiggy canopy. At that moment, a light in the sky, to the right of the road, brighter than any of the other stars, caught Rusty’s attention. He took a hand from the steering wheel and rubbed his eyes, not trusting what he saw. He tried to gauge the light’s size and distance by the tops of the trees, but it defied context. It appeared to be both stationary and heading directly toward him in the same instant. He stopped the car in the middle of the road. The light began to swell and elongate.
He felt as though his body, the car, and all of the surrounding woods were being sucked into it, like his lungs might collapsed for want of oxygen. The light swallowed the whole sky. All darkness and shadow, the very forms of things, trees and car and body, were at once banished from existence.
By the time he blinked, blackness had reclaimed the night. Yet in it, vanishing so quickly he could not be sure if it was truly as he perceived, he made out two smaller, glowing spheres. They broke, in opposite directions, parallel to the horizon. He gasped, unable to decide if they had been a figment conjured to fill the gap of the initial object’s sudden disappearance, or remnants of its brilliance burned into his retina, or if they really were fragments, embers blowing themselves out after the heavens’ inferno. The car had stalled. Rusty's spine twitched as if he were lurching back from the edge of sleep. He realized neither of his hands were on the steering wheel. One clutched at the collar of his coat and the other pressed to the cool glass of the driver side window. He brought them together on his face, rubbed them up over it and through his hair then let them remain on top of his head. He sucked wantonly for air and it tasted to him of the crystalline frost that tinged the outermost edges of the fallen leaves. Rusty wondered what would have happened if the light had taken him. Or, if it actually had and then returned him. How long could he have been gone? A life could have begun, a galaxy been born. A breath.
C.A. Demi is a writer currently living in Providence. He has recently been published in White Wall Review, Rock Salt Journal, and American Fiction 17 published by New Rivers Press, among other places. Craig has also received the honor of being named for a Fellowship Award in fiction by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. In addition to short fiction, he is at work on a novel set in the forests and steel and coal towns of his native Pennsylvania.