by A. Lynn Kennedy
It was easier to stare at the fire than her.
A country song about goodbye played on the radio while the fire pit burned pieces of furniture. A chair leg. A cabinet door. A piece of fence.
Throw on a chunk of that redwood, someone said.
He tossed the board on the fire and settled into the canvas chair with a cold one in his hand. Beneath the new wood, the fire darkened and hid from its imposing girth and seniority. Safe within the shadows, he snuck a peek.
She sat in her chair with her legs crossed. Her face was cold, a look he knew too well. Pressed lips. Slitted eyes. Her toe tapped along with goodbye.
When he met her, she had blond hair down to her waist that shimmied as she danced beneath the neon lights. Now, it was short and black. The only thing he could expect from her was change. Minute to minute, he never knew who would be sitting next to him.
I think it’s time to stir the fire, someone said.
The poker was warm in his hand from the summer air that stuck to everything. He poked at the hiding flames to make them jump. They hovered by the sides of the pit and avoided his attempts to orchestrate them into a symphony. The redwood stagnated in the middle. A lump of untouched wood. He flipped the board over.
A couple gulps and the last of his summer-warmed beer was emptied. The others chatted about the trivialities of their world. He was in no mood for trivialities. Reaching his hand into the cooler of melting ice, its chill ran up his arm. With a crisp beer in his hand, he returned to his seat and watched the flames. It was easier than watching her.
His words hadn’t intended to sting. Somehow they always did. Sometimes she took a joke. Not this time. His joke made her smile disappear, the one he tried to ignite. He loved her smile. Sometimes shy. Sometimes full of joy. It was the kind of smile that made him feel as if he do no wrong. Conquer the world. It granted grace like a peasant passed by a queen. A token not bestowed on many. He’d watched others try to slink beside her with their chests puffed and words of valiant swords to prove their worthiness. All for one of her smiles. She faked it well with lips tight, but the token was never granted. He knew the difference. All you had to do was watch her eyebrows. Her ever skeptical eyebrows arched with insincerity. Despite their efforts, they all walked away defeated.
He knew their defeat too well. It was always a struggle to find the right words. So often he chose a joke mismatched with her mood. He’d given up trying to guess her moods. Yet, there were moments when the formalities of guard let down and her eyebrows relaxed. An honest smile.
Not that it mattered as the remnants of her life burned away in the fire. An old broken chair. The TV stand hacked apart. An odd side table. This was the one change he never expected. Different hair color. Living room a new shade. One week a gardener. Clothing designer the next, as she sat on her couch with a needle between her lips. Little changes were part of her charm. The charm he’d watched for years while she danced from one man to another. Years she never granted him hello. He’d hated her for that, but it didn’t stop him as he watched her on the dance floor with her arms turning to the beat, unaware of anyone watching.
It didn’t stop him from wishing he could run his hands down her body and feel her rise to meet him.
Not until the last broken heart did he break into her world with a soft shoulder and compassionate words. She crumbled into him with her fingernails rooted in his skin and tears soaking his shirt. The shirt she said was ugly because it was blue. His favorite color.
Little flames bubbled through cracks in the redwood. Charred black flakes blistered on top of the board. The fire turned blue and burned through the stagnation. He prodded the board with the poker to encourage submission. There was something settling about watching power submit.
She wasn’t the redwood. She wouldn’t submit tonight. Not with the way her chin tipped up and she stared at the blue flames. He would shrug her off like she didn’t matter. In the end, she didn’t. Not really. She was moving away. Her house had a “For Sale” sign announcing it to the world. She’d never told him. He learned it through gossip.
The same way he found out she loved him.
She was never happy here. Off on her adventures to one corner of the world or another, always seeking more. Better. Those were the words she used. A life that was hers without expectation. A place where she could be free from stagnation. A fresh start. Change. Home. She wanted a home.
He was never home enough for her.
He could go with her, but that would defeat the purpose of a fresh start. No point in carrying baggage from the past. Tattered, dirty baggage that she discarded because of a joke.
She cried and said she would miss him. That she loved him. Asked him to be with her until she left. He was crazy to say yes, but powerless to say no.
He watched the fire settle to burning embers that flickered against the trees. The air weighed on his shoulders, holding him to the ground as he took another gulp of beer and poked at the fire one more time. Chairs soon became vacant as their occupants waved goodbye and stumbled off for the night. The DJ on the radio played another slow, sad song. He must be feeling lonely too.
He knew she would miss this. Bonfires. Beer. The camaraderie of people that cared. He didn’t understand how she could want more. It was enough for him. Nights like these flickering with blue flames made the slavery of work tolerable. He hated his job as much as she. For him, it was enough to work and play and laugh with friends. Nothing was enough for her. She believed in making a difference. More. Better.
Somewhere out there, hours away from just enough.
I think it’s going to rain, someone said.
He threw another log on the fire, not ready to give up. Not ready to go home where he spent his nights with other girls to take away the lonely. Their names didn’t matte but they would be all he had soon. Someone made a joke and she smiled with her eyebrows raised. He thought better of adding to it. The last joke took away her smile.
He wondered if he could find another girl for the night.
The first drop hit his nose and he looked up through the trees. The clouds were pregnant and orange from the lights of town. It wouldn’t be long. She raised her hand to catch the drops that started to fall, and then laid her head back with her eyes closed. Her legs stretched in front of her while her hands lay flat to catch every drop. Her mouth spread wide in a smile. More visitors bid farewell, leaving them alone beside the fire. She laughed as the rain splashed on her face. Her tanned skin glistened in the firelight.
He never could pinpoint the strange things that made her smile.
“Do you want to get out of the rain?” He said.
“The flames are blue.” She pointed at the fire that had simmered to a deep blue flame, crackling in the rain, unwilling to submit.
“You hate blue.”
Rain pelted the windows between the windows rattling with the thunder. She listened for a pattern. She searched for patterns in everything. Paisley’s on draperies. The trumpet section in an orchestral piece. There was always a pattern. Except in nature and experimental jazz. She could never find the pattern. The rain played experimental jazz.
He was experimental jazz.
The clock read five thirty-seven. She crawled off the bare mattress and stepped over the carpet of clothes. By the flashes of lightening, she found a tee-shirt on pile and pulled it over her nakedness. He wouldn’t notice her absence. He never did. She dug out a cigarette from the smashed green package and left him sprawled on the bed.
In a few weeks, he could forget her all together.
She stepped outside and rain splashed her bare feet on the cold cement littered with beer cans and cigarette butts. After the rain, earthworms slinked among them until they dried up and died. Dead earthworms mortified her as a child when she spent hours trying to rescue each one, her hands streaked with dirt from their bellies. She eventually gave up. She couldn’t save them all.
She burned her hand on the Zippo and took a long drag from the menthol as she leaned against the door. Above her, the leaves shook with laughter as the wind tickled them. She envied them. She couldn’t remember how to laugh. It’d been too long. Instead, she sat at bonfires and listened to sexist jokes and trivial conversations. A wry smile was all she could manage.
That’s how she felt, like the puddles that would remain in the morning, waiting for change. Stagnation from which apathy oozed and she forgot how to laugh. Instead, she sucked on beer bottles every weekend until her eyes lost focus. Until the Monday morning alarm sent her to a job she performed asleep. Where customers rattled off the same tired jokes. Coworkers whispered about each other. She couldn’t participate with more than a grunt as she blinked for a few moments of escape. And the cycle repeated again.
She sucked on the cigarette hard until the filter collapsed between her fingers. Not for long. Change was
on its way, only a few weeks away when she’d pack her car with dishes, bedding, and clothes for change. Something different than the life she’d compromised in this dead town. Something more. Better. The need grew like the storm she’d watched all night, swelling until it covered the moon and stars above the flickering blue flames. She ignore the jokes and mundane conversation with her head back, watching the storm and wondering if the sky felt ready to burst. Like she felt.
Everything was ready. New job. New apartment. New life. Mere weeks until she evaporated into something different, like the puddles would beneath the heat of the sun. She dipped her foot into a puddle and let the rain splash her bare legs. A mini van slowed as it passed. The middle aged woman behind the wheel stared. She pulled the tee-shirt to her thighs and grinned. Probably inappropriate, standing in the rain wearing nothing but a tee-shirt, puffing a menthol on a driveway littered with cigarette butts and earthworms. She could imagine the conversation the woman would share at work. She’d heard those conversations many times. Idle gossip. It would have bothered her until she couldn’t fall back to sleep. That was before apathy oozed. Back when a mother with a mini van and 2.5 children were an aspiration. Because that’s what women do.
She’d decided that there was something inappropriate about their lives. But maybe that was apathy speaking.
As she took one last drag, she accepted the benefit of apathy, giving up the dreams of fulfilling expectations. She chose to create a life that fits. The only thing to decide was whether or not he fit. The pattern that couldn’t be found. The one who couldn’t say he loved her. Or even liked her. Tolerate was the word he used. Yet, the way he kissed her forehead or worried when she was mad. The way he lit up when she sat down beside him at the bonfire made her believe otherwise. His actions spoke, but she needed the words. Three words. She would change her mind and stay. Three words she believed he felt.
Maybe she just wanted to believe. Maybe, she was just another girl sneaking out of his bed for a cigarette in his tee-shirt.
The door opened behind her. “It’s raining out.” His eyes were half-closed with sleep.
“You’re getting wet. Come inside?”
She finished the last drag of her cigarette and tossed it among the earthworms that would be dead in the morning before following him back to bed.
The corn fields glowed red beneath the setting harvest sun. Dust spit beneath his wheels to the slow, sad guitar on his radio. He cracked open a beer and finished a swallow that tasted bitter. He wasn’t sure when beer started to taste bitter, but he didn’t care as he turned onto the county road where he could get lost among the fields and barbed wire fences. He drove into the sun and recited the rhyme he’d learned as a child. Red sky at morning, sailors warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight. They didn’t need a red sky at night. It’d been forty six days since the last rain. Every lawn in town was brown and the trees started to lose their leaves. The air tasted like dust with every breath, suffocating as he lit another menthol. Friday night and he was driving down country roads to no place in particular because he had no where to go. Bonfire season was canceled by the Fire Chief after a house south of town burnt to the ground. Soon, snow would fall and he’d be trapped inside. All he wanted was one last crackling fire with blue flames.
Forty six days since she drove away with her needs packed to the ceiling of her car. She’d spent one last night wrapped in his arms. Her tears wet his chest as her fingernails dug into his skin. She didn’t sleep much until her alarm rang at six. He heard it but it was easier to pretend. He kept his eyes closed while she draped her leg across his and tried to pull him close. Her lips made a trail of kisses from his shoulder, up his neck, across his cheek, until she stopped on his lips. He didn’t kiss her back. She whispered his name and her chest rose in a sigh but he wouldn’t open his eyes. He wouldn’t hold her as she laid her head on his shoulder and cried. As much as he wanted to pull her close and never let go, he was asleep. He needed her to believe that so that she would go.
Eventually, she did after one last trail of kisses. He could hear her sniffles as she walked out the door and closed it behind her. Only when she was gone, did he peek through the blinds. The nights’ storm settled to a mist. The fog engulfed her as she leaned into the back of the car, checking her things one more time, leaving only her long legs hanging from the backseat. Like she was almost gone. Then, she reemerged and stretched tall with her head back to catch the mist that blended with her tears. Mascara streaked her face.
He always told her she didn’t need it. She was a lucky one who looked better without but she never listened.
He never understood the things that made her smile.
When she opened her eyes, she looked directly at the window. He let the blinds snap shut and held his breath. If she’d seen him, he’d have to say goodbye and there was no point to that. He sat with his back to the wall until he heard her car engine turn over. He peeked again in time to see her back out of his driveway and disappeared in the misty morning.
There were no more bonfires. And no more her. It was fitting. There was something empty about a bonfire without her sitting with her legs crossed and her lips pursed as she stared at the blue flames, upset about something he did. Something empty about his bed without her legs entwined with his, so he stayed up through the nights, playing mindless games on the computer with a cigarette burning in the ashtray. It was easier than lying in the spot where she used to curl up with his pillows and giggle. She always took his side of the bed and stretched her arms wide to claim it until he tossed her to the other side. In the end, they shared because the rest of the bed didn’t matter. Now, it was all his and he didn’t want it.
Only a sliver of the sun peeked above the horizon. He turned onto a dirt road that led to a lake and pulled to a stop at the bank. One of many lost lakes no one ever visited, except for high school kids looking for a place to drink. Where he drank. The water receded, exposing a shore scattered with dead fish. He opened his tailgate and climbed to the pile of wood he’d stacked from home. The logs disturbed the dusty ground as they fell, one by one, on the ground. He arranged the logs with some old newspapers and lit a fire. With his cooler for a stool, he watched the flames jump and waited for blue. He looked at his phone and flipped through the numbers until he found hers. His finger hovered over the call button. Then, he tossed the phone on the ground beside him and stared at the dry lake.
Snow flakes fell fat outside her window. They glowed beneath the streetlamps and she watched them fall from her second hand couch. In her hands, she cradled a Budweiser that she’d been holding since she kicked off her snow packed boots. The beer went warm long ago but she didn’t care as she took the occasional absent-minded sip and let the taste linger on her lips. It tasted like him.
Her bag was packed by the door and the alarm was set for early so she could forge her way through the storm before darkness fell on the flat plains she used to call home.
A plaque above her door said Home Sweet Home. She’d found it at the Goodwill the same day she signed the lease for the one bedroom apartment that was supposed to be her home. As days rolled by, the words seemed trite, like Hello and I love you. Words people use to comfort themselves into contentment. She wasn’t sure what home was supposed to mean. She took another sip and shivered at the bitterness while gazing around her bare living room. One couch. A bookshelf. The small TV she never watched. The walls were empty, except the plaque above the door. A room that could hardly be described as home, even though she lived there.
Her mother’s two story house decorated in gaudy colored lights and the smell of her cookies wasn’t home either. Where knickknacks decorated shelves and pictures of her childhood painted the walls with her smiles. Where they would sit with hot chocolate after opening presents in front of the Christmas tree while carols played in the background. She would be there in twenty four hours, but it would never again be home.
Home. A place one belongs. It was the simplest definition she could find.
She felt homeless.
He always said she was the running kind. She never understood what he meant until that night, staring at the falling snow. Leaving is easy when you have no reason to stay. No home. He’d given her no reason. She saw his eyelids flicker when she kissed him goodbye. Felt his fingers twitch to hold her. He watched her drive away from behind the blinds. He couldn’t say goodbye. She didn’t hold it against him. He couldn’t say I love you either.
In twenty-four hours, after the happy family reunion, she would make her way to the Come-on In Bar where he’d be sitting at the same table telling the same jokes. He would hug her tight and long until he remembered other that people were watching. Then, he’d resume his act of not caring until they drove back to his place where cigarette butts and beer cans littered the driveway. In the dark of his room, he’d hold her close again and not let go. With her face pressed against his chest, it’d be as close as she felt to home.
People upgrade homes all the time. Wanting more. Better. She predicted there would come a day when she would leave behind this apartment. Even the plaque on the wall. Perhaps he was right. She was the running kind. Maybe just lost, searching for home.
Or maybe she’d found the better she was looking for. Life with no ties. No home. No him. Perhaps she saved herself from a stagnant life of mini vans and beer cans in the drive. When all you have to talk about is raunchy jokes and idle gossip. When apathy oozed like the sap from the wood in the fire. The sap that turned the flames blue.
She finished the beer in three swallows and set it on the floor. It would be good to see him again and lay in his arms. She longed to taste the menthol on his lips. It wouldn’t hurt leaving him again because she knew that she loved. Sometimes loving was enough. She pulled the blanket to her chin and listened for the sound of falling snow. The silence made her smile. She liked the pattern that it made.