He is in bed, listening for the 4:40 train. It is the first train of the morning. He listens because then he will know there is no chance to return to sleep. At 4:40, he may get up and make coffee. Or he may lay in bed, needing to piss but not wanting to move, because he may not want to disturb her, and because it is so cold. He waits, in the narrow bed, his back against the wall, listening to the wind and watching the walls. An alley light and an oak tree create a dazzling grim dancehall effect on the walls through the unshaded window above.
His feet are cold, even in heavy gray workmen’s socks. The room is cold, uninsulated, stripped of plaster down to the old slats, an abandoned project. The mattress lies on the cold floor, which is nothing but subflooring, a different project. Waiting for those projects is a still-packaged boxspring, leaning in the corner, a beer bottle sitting next to it on an exposed two by four. When the walls are finished, and the floor is finished, and a new mattress is purchased, then the boxspring will be able to come out. There is an unevenly closed window high above him, and the cold slides in the window and down the wall and settles along his back and rolls over him. He hears leaves scuttle along the gravel of the tracks outside.
It is cold even under two scratchy army blankets and a moldy-smelling crocheted throw. Damn laundromat. He has kept his turtleneck and flannel shirt on. He should have kept his jeans on, he thinks. She is in two pairs of sweatpants, a t-shirt, a sweatshirt. The throw should be between the blankets, he thinks, to trap any warm air. She turns out of her spoon and faces him and then tucks the top of her head under his chin under the blankets. She pulls her knees up under her sweatshirt. She clings to him like this, like a joey. She is tiny like a child, and gives off little heat. Her cold feet find their way between his legs, almost in his crotch. She has pulled off her socks.
“Aaa,” like the a in cat, he says. “That’s cold!”
He waits for her, but this is all she has. He holds her to his chest, maybe a little too tightly–a child’s giant carnival prize. She is asleep.
He likes the image of himself as a child, holding her like that. The boxspring leans on its elbow in the corner, a beer in its hand, and watches with a smirk.
Are you okay?
Are you cold?
A little cold.
It won’t be long.
I keep thinking I hear it.
You pulled your socks off.
You always do that.
What time is it, he wonders. He could use a town crier right now. Four o’clock and all’s well, cried the watchman. Is it four o’clock? Is all well? He doesn’t know where this comes from. Paul Revere? The Colonials, surely, had criers and watchmen. Were these the same thing? He thinks that being a watchman would be too much responsibility for one man, staying awake every night without fail, keeping the time right, watching for fires and horse thieves and King Philips’ aggrieved Indians waging mayhem and taking hostages. He imagines one man, in charge of crying for a whole town. Too much.
But Paul Revere was a full century later than those Indian wars. Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, which took place on April 18, 1775. Poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1861. Under the aging chestnut tree, The village smithy stands. By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wig-wam of Nokomis, Daughter of the moon, Nokomis. The Gitchee Gumee is Lake Superior. Elm trees were mostly wiped out by Dutch elm disease after World War II. The elm beetle is from the Netherlands; the disease is from Asia; together, they stripped suburbia naked when it most wanted to be modestly clothed.
But he is confusing the elm tree with the chestnut tree, where the village smithy will forever stand because he does not remember Longfellow’s following lines. The boxspring looks at him accusingly, knowing too well the misfortune of being left incomplete around here. Chestnut trees are susceptible to blight, he now recalls. He’d always preferred the more melancholy, mourning Longfellow: In the long, sleepless watches of the night. Another night watcher.
Damn, it’s cold, he thinks, and such odd details and memories surface in this cold insomnia. If he is lucky, they will remain small and inconsequential.
Are you sure?
You have to be sure. It won’t be long.
Only if you are. Are you?
I can’t go back. I can’t live without you.
We can run.
Shhhh. I can’t run. But you… you should go, you should go, you have to go… go!
No, stop. Stop moving. Stop it! Shhh. It’s okay. I want this. I want to. Please. … Please.
He is still in bed. The cold still falls down the wall. It still settles along his back, even under the covers. It is seeping into him. He has to move.
He starts to move.
“Mmmph. Don’ gettup.” Her hands are balled up in the ends of her sleeves; her arms and tiny fists are tucked between their chests. She must be freezing to death.
“I can’t sleep,” he says.
“Mmmph.” She untucks herself and turns, digging her elbow in. He wonders if she knows she does this. He wonders what he does. He must do something annoying or painful. So many years, and he has no idea. It’s probably something far worse than an elbow. But this… relationship, this partnership, this unmarried marriage, wasn’t supposed to be. He mostly dismissed the early days, then months, then years. They were so unsuited to each other. It was wrong to keep coming back. It wasn’t fair, that string of one-night stands as courtship, until it was too late and it was unfair to not keep coming back. Another failure of inattention. Another indictment of neglect. She deserves better.
She ventures a slim arm up and onto a table. He loves her arms, lithe without being bony, instead pleasantly muscled. A gold bangle falls to her elbow, the only gift of any small worth he’s ever given her. She turns on the clock radio. The once-magic half-numbers have long stopped flipping to keep time except, ghostlike, every few days when no one is looking. Time ever stumbles on. He thinks of the bottles that litter the floor, for him to stumble on. The a.m. station is all conspiracy theories and weirdos until 5. Reincarnation. Insurrection. Alien abduction. She does not try to change the station, instead pulling her arm back in quickly. She has always seemed tolerant of the a.m. drone, which helps to dampen his thoughts. News will break in at the top or bottom of the hour, and he will know what time it is. There has been no train, but he can feel it is still a little early. The leaves whip along the empty tracks.
Are you comfortable?
Do you have your pillow?
Am I holding you too tight?
Let me put my arm under your pillow. It will help.
It won’t be long.
She has pulled her arms out of their sleeves and has crossed them under her breasts. One of his hands has found its way over and around her to the warmth of his armpit. The other has slipped low on her belly, where he runs his fingers across the raised scars. He can tell she is awake now from her breathing, but being awake is not bothering her. He knows not to talk to her right now, when he is full of thoughts and she seems empty. He used to try to talk to her, and her silence would make him angry. Now he just doesn’t talk.
There are a number of scars just above the pubis, one on top of the next. The first was an emergency, from bone to bone. He thought she would die. This first baby that would die and nearly kill her too was big and violent in its reckless will to live. The second was an emergency also, but this next baby was so very small, and so very dead. It had tried to kill her from the inside with its rot. It came even closer than the first. They had to go in again shortly after, a third scar. There would be no more, scars or babies.
He had cried both times, of course, at first trying to hide it but it was no use. He remembers how the last time they’d changed one of her wristbands from pink to white when they moved her to the regular hospital wing. Damn thoughts. The larger nuggets rising to the surface and lingering.
The Brazil Nut Effect, also known as granular convection. When disturbed, granular material will move in convection patterns similar to liquids. The larger granules will eventually rise to the top and stay there unless there is some violent shaking. Brazil nuts in the can of mixed nuts; boulders in the new subdivision.
There had been a miscarriage, too, in the fall of their first year of college. Since there is no visible scar, and it was so long ago, he remembers it less often. He had cried then, too, just a little–just his nature. She had not, that he knew of. They barely knew each other then. Nonetheless, each knew they were both relieved. He used to wonder sometimes if he had killed their next babies with his near glee at the earliest one’s demise. His younger self protests: he had his whole life in front of him. So did she. They were young and smart, and this was just a fling–a first fling, at that–with someone pretty and drunk at a party. Most likely she was pregnant before their first breakfast together. There were to be more flings, more school, true loves, careers, marriages, real babies and families to come. Who could blame a fellow, or a gal, for feeling that a bullet had been dodged? It should have been a sign.
They abandoned school one at a time, each in a fog of drink and the delayed adolescence of Generation X. Each promised to return, and meant it.
They abandoned everything else, piece by piece, later on, without much noticing, returning only to each other.
Where is the note?
On a stump on the path. They’ll find it.
Did you say to call mom?
I guess it’s only fair.
Did you say about the train guy? About how it’s not his fault?
I hate that he is going to feel bad.
It’s almost time.
Do I feel it? … Do I feel it?
She never talks about any of it. Never has, not once. She just clings to him. He can believe she doesn’t think of it at all. Sometimes, like now, lying awake, he almost hates her for this. He wants her to think about it; he wants her to talk about it; he wants her to grieve with him, as many times as he needs to. That’s what he wants.
But she lets him trace around the layers of ugly scar with his rough forefinger, and fondle and pet, and after a while he will lay his hand upon her belly, and she will put a hand on top of his. Sometimes, her birdlike lungs take in a little extra air as if to sigh, and, like now, she falls asleep.
He remembers the train. There is no falling asleep anyway.
Am I holding you too tight?
Do you feel it?
Yes. Yes, yes.
The train doesn’t come. The radio has the reason at 5am, when the local news goes live. A developing situation on the north end, traffic being diverted.
“Apparently two people have been hit by a train. We don’t have any details on the victims or cause as yet, but with a two-mile crime scene you can guess what the traffic’s gonna be–might want to put some extra coffee in the to-go mug.”
He waits, but nothing more. She might be asleep. He stirs a bit, testing the cold.
It is her turn to wait.
She turns to him, lifts her head and kisses his chin.
He doesn’t feel like it. He feels a little sick. But he does, anyway. She doesn’t ask for much. She never has.
The boxspring in the corner leers.
Now hot, but shivering, too, he wonders if he can leave the bed, and if he should. She is cool by comparison, and almost powder-dry, a Southern belle on a summer day. The wind picks up and whistles through the gap in the window. He should put a sock in the crack, later. He should try to remember.
“Just getting this in, an update on that situation on the north end with two persons struck by a train. The man and a woman have been identified as a local sex offender and his younger sister, who was… oh. Ah, his victim. It seems that… ah… he was facing prison on charges related to parole violations and apparent re-offense. In a note left nearby the two explained that they were choosing to take their lives.”
“Jesus,” he says.
She kisses his damp collarbone, inhales his scent and holds her breath.
“Again, traffic is affected. I’m passing this off to you, my friend.”
“Right-o, Johnny-o. Like a hot potato. Wowza. So, traffic is already snarled all over the west end, with four crossings involved in that, um, tragic scene. You’re going to want to head out of the neighborhoods AWAY from the tracks and your normal crossing, and catch an alternate to the south closer to downtown.”
“Jesus Christ,” he says again.
He thinks he hears a quick intake of breath.
So he waits. Nothing. But she is not asleep.
Her ear is pressed to his chest, her face turned up to his. Her skin is still smooth; her hair is still soft.
He feels her pressing, hard, against his chest. He tries to breathe with her, but it is like hyperventilating. He breathes at half her rate, but it is forced. He does not get enough oxygen. He is trapped against the cold wall, listening to the winter leaves scuttle down the empty tracks, louder than their breathing, louder than the radio. He has to piss.
He thinks to himself that she must be trapped, too, or she would have left long ago.
“If you’re coming from the north, it’s longer than usual. If you’re just waking up, a train… incident… has left almost two miles of evidence for authorities to assess, involving several interconnected crossings. Any updates on when that mess will be cleaned up, Johnny?”
He frees a hand to wipe at his eyes. He has been weeping-not-weeping for the better part of half an hour.
“I have to get up. … I can’t stay like this. … I’m dying, here.”
“They’re laughing at them. It’s not right.”
He is surprised. Did she ever hear the radio?
“They shouldn’t laugh.”
He is taken aback. He tries to think if he has ever heard her comment about the radio.
She says, “It was wrong of them to laugh. It wasn’t their place. It was personal. He should have read it first, and kept his tongue. I know it’s 5am, but these are supposed to be professionals.”
Pro-fes-sion-als. In between each well-enunciated syllable is a small, controlled breath.
“We all have our… failings,” she says. “They don’t need to be broadcast and snickered at.”
He looks down to see her face; it is contorted, fighting contortion, doubling up on its effort for control. She tucks her chin and turns her head down. “We all make our decisions. We all lie in our beds.”
There is the sound of a single sob and suddenly he is trying to push her away, he doesn’t know why, maybe to see her, maybe to escape, and she is clinging to him harder, her forehead on his windpipe, so close and tight that she is choking him, and he pushes harder, a hand on each shoulder, and it doesn’t take much.
He wants to see her face. He thought he’d heard an accusation. He wants to see it.
Her lip quivers, but her eyes are dry.
“It was not–their–place,” she says. “There is such a thing as–as discretion.” He feels her struggling with every muscle in her body to regain control. He looks at her dry eyes; her powder-dry skin. He is shivering and sweating. “Discretion. Those poor people clearly had no control over their… Circumstance. Maybe at one time. But not now. It became destiny. These things happen. It’s not funny.”
He is not used to her having an opinion. Or an emotion, for that matter. He is angry at her for this sudden revelation, though he’s not sure why. He starts to mount an argument, and a counterargument. But what about? The suicides? The morning DJ and his traffic sidekick? He feels… defensive. That is what he feels.
He wants to fight. But he waits.
And she waits. Nothing. So she finishes what she started to say, even though it has caught her by surprise and confused her. She is never confused. Except now she is. She has started something; she decides to finish.
“Those people… those poor people. Only they know what choices put them there. Only them. Now only God knows.” A phrase she has never before uttered. She does not especially believe in God. “But they should not be shamed by someone else. Their shame is their own. Their truth is their own. They own it. Those men were laughing.”
She takes a deep breath into small lungs, and it hurts like the hardest exercise, but it feels good, and it helps.
“Their shame is not,” she says, as she finally realizes what she means, “for public consumption. It is for them. To do with what they wish.”
By the time she says this, she has almost regained control. She closes her eyes briefly, and opens them. The room shimmers, but she does not cry. She can feel that her forehead is smooth again. She sucks in her lips, as to refresh lipstick, and she feels her mouth return to its regular position. Only her voice is still tight. “People should be allowed the dignity of their shame. They sacrifice for it. It might be,” and here she swallows, ratcheting down that last unruly muscle, “It might be the only thing they have. Everyone has his or her own burden. It’s not right to put someone else’s on display, no matter how awful or spectacular. I hope they helped each other carry their burdens. I hope they were able to share…”
She wants more closure, but she is done.
She waits, for herself, mostly. But there is nothing more to say.
Despite her heat, the cold glides over and around and between them, and she wonders what she has done by giving in to impulse. He has pushed her away, and looks at her and avoids looking at her at the same time. What she has said is too intimate. It cuts too deep, and of course he felt it. He is so easily wounded.
What have I done, she thinks. He is all I have.
She doesn’t know what else to say; and he’s never understood her silence, and she’s never tried to explain; and now after twenty years of love and damage she has raised up her cross to bear and asked him to take it, with explanation as stripped and unfinished as this room. This was not fair of her, she thinks. He is confused. He has never handled confusion well.
And she knows he thinks she is cold; she is not. Or maybe she is, she thinks, but what is the point of constant sorrow, and of repeatedly opening wounds that have healed, even if imperfectly.
He has never helped her carry a burden, too wrapped up in his own griefs.
But then, he has let her put her hands around his neck, and picked her up. He has carried her on his back. He has grabbed her hands and swung her in circles and made her feel weightless. He has carried her high above the crowd on his shoulders, like a carnival prize, and she has liked that feeling, enough to stay when the time was right to leave, and enough to stay long after she should have.
He is watching her. She doesn’t know what her face may say. She is well aware she can be stone-faced. And he’s never been able to read her. She watches his face, in constant motion, all tics and distortions. She wonders, again, what she has done by saying too much. There are consequences for everything.
She tests him, carefully. She pulls herself a little closer. He does not push her back. She feels the cold dampness on his collarbone with her lips. She smells him, complicated and unclean with the sweat of sex and insomnia and last night’s liquor. She breathes deeply, of this damaged love she has known for so long. She wants to measure how much it has changed. She thinks perhaps it is safe–she is safe–and she turns her back to him and gently tucks herself against him. She likes how she fits into him this way; she likes the word spoon. She tries to distribute her warmth to him as she cools.
And finally–what she has been waiting for but never wants from him–his rough fingers on the scars, those shameful places where she has failed but not died. They are still sensitive, even painful, even after so long. She has asked the doctor about this repeatedly, to which he has said, with little concern, “It happens sometimes,” and recommended a new salve or gel or balm. She distracts herself trying to remember the names of the latest ones… basoscar… mederase… scarbegone…
She waits, as long as she can bear, and then waits more. She hears the train, the cadence of the wheels unfamiliar, with more whistles than usual, and slow. She makes herself wait, rough fingers on raised flesh and bare nerves, while it passes. She lets him grieve again, and more. His grief will never end. The boxspring leans wearily in the corner, willing to support them both, if they ever get around to letting it. Whistles blow, ties rumble, wheels squeal.
Finally only the leaves scuttle down the gravel and the light plays on the naked walls and the cold slides in the window and settles over them like a blanket, pushing them down, pushing them together. And when the pain of her scars is too fierce, she takes his rough warm hand. She takes his hand, and she lays it on her belly, and covers it with her own. No words.
What is there to say? What is there to say, except the truth again?
She does not sleep.
“Our lead story at six, truly tragic. Two people, struck by a train this morning in the north end suburbs. Both are reported deceased, and authorities say their initial investigation is that the engineer is not at fault. They are looking to wrap things up this morning. Traffic’s been a mess, but should be back to normal well before afternoon rush, which is good news if you live anywhere in the area.”
“That is good news, Johnny. What else have you got this morning?”
She reaches up and turns off the radio. He is finally asleep.
~ Greta Ode ~
Table of Contents
Not Richard Rolle
Not McMurtry, and Not McCarthy
Not Safe for Work