He trailed a finger along the side of his truck, the dents and scratches and rust scars, the brands of over fifty years in the high desert. ’53 Chevy trucks that had been on the farm for generations have almost a life of their own, he thought, as he limned the rough metal surface like a blind man with Braille. Old trucks have seen the droughts and blizzards, the windstorms and prairie fires and deaths. They have cushioned girls losing their virginity under oak trees and autumn rains, embraced mothers hugging fitfully sleeping children with scarlet fever or colic, held men dying from equipment accidents. Later, like old men, they retire to rust in a barn with holes in the roof.
’53 Chevys can also provide a good front bumper to sit on. Jack did that. He sat on the front bumper and watched moths pitch head first into the extended bowl of a lighted kerosene lamp. A curl of black smoke rose from the flame to disperse like fading memories.
The music from his father’s last service drifted from a hundred feet away inside the house where Jack had been born, but Jack had left to come to the barn. Everyone acted respectful and consoling, and somehow, also strangling, although not from cause or consciousness, as though by hanging their grief on him they could return home having completed some duty. So Jack told his brother and sister that he was stepping out to the barn for a cigarette.
That had been an hour ago, before Jack had found the full pint of Bushmills hidden in a nook on the shelves above the workbench. He had blown off the dust and opened the bottle. The sweet aroma of potent whiskey drifted and mingled with the wet smells of the old barn, wood and dirt and hay and manure. The pint was now half-dead and three cigarettes and a roach lay ground into the frozen dirt floor at Jack’s feet.
“Do you mind if I stand out here with you for a moment,” asked Emily, “for a cigarette? Too many people in there.”
Earlier, when Jack had first seen Emily at the funeral, he had felt like it was the end of the school year with the summer ahead. Long days on the farm and too-short nights with her. But those memories had faded fifteen summers earlier, when he was finishing high school and she was returning from her first year in college. In between then and now, they had married and divorced.
“Pull up a bumper and join me,” he said with a smile, not unforced. He looked up at her through lidded eyes. My God, he thought, how can such a woman become more beautiful?
Emily blew into her hands to warm them. She did not smile back, but her face flushed and her eyes reflected the lamp’s glow.
Jack sighed and watched her through the cigarette smoke. She had not changed that much since he last saw her, and what had changed was for the better, even more strength. That seemed right for her.
“It’s all too sad inside,” she said, nodding in the direction of the house.
Her voice sent the sounds from inside the house into a blur of random notes. She remained clear to him through the drink and smoke and fog and years. He was watching her, and it seemed to him as though he had been watching her forever. Everything else ceased.
“I thought you quit drinking,” she said.
“I have,” he said, holding his cigarette tight between his lips and opening the bottle for another drink. “I thought you quit smoking.”
They laughed. It was not a forced laugh, especially given the circumstances, his father’s death, and their histories. He let her laugh echo in his mind. He had always liked hearing her laugh, but it surprised him that she would slip back and start smoking again.
Jack let his cigarette fall to the ground. He crushed it with the heel of his boot as he had the others. He drank. The whiskey tasted good. He placed the recapped bottle on the ground between his feet and looked again at the lamp and the moths darting toward its light.
“It’s been awhile since we’ve seen each other,” he said, his voice a little slurred.
“It has,” she said, nodding. “I’m glad I came today, except for why.”
Emily walked in front of Jack, between him and the kerosene lamp, and Jack followed her outline, smooth and gray against the amber light of the lamp. The flame of the lamp tilted slightly as she crossed her hand over its bowl when passing.
Jack closed his eyes and could still trace her outline. The first time they were together, when they had both lost their virginity, was quick and desperate. Inside of Emily, Jack had felt frightened and transparent. He remembered wondering if Emily had felt the same.
That first night, like this one, held a transient luminescence, moments too bright to be eclipsed yet too temporary.
“I still miss you, Emily,” he said. “Sometimes, in the mornings with the sun coming in the bedroom windows, I imagine a smooth hollow in the mattress where you lay, like you’re in the shower and just about to return to–”
She turned and looked at him, her arms tight across her chest. “Don’t, Jack.”
“I know.” He looked down again at the dirt between his boots, and he felt tired.
She moved over to the workbench and once again, Jack’s eyes followed her. She still walked with a careless ease as if she were nothing special and had nothing special to conceal, but she was and she did. Jack knew that in that moment as he had known that every time he had laid eyes on her.
Turning to lean against the bench, she smiled a half-smile, her public smile that seemed to come easy. Her face, while not pretty, was still beautiful and gentle as a glade of winter light on a living room floor. Her body, never tiny but always strong, still looked toned, and Jack knew that she kept care of herself. Her hair had etchings of gray, and a fan of tiny lines spread at the edges of her eyes when she smiled. He liked that.
He nodded his head. “I know,” he said again, mocking himself as he watched his hands shake. He held them tight against his legs and said, “It’s just that sometimes I forget how I should act. Tell me, what should I say?”
She moved her head to the side, then looked back at him over her shoulder with a hard, impatient stare. An errant strand of hair fell over her face and she left it there, looking at him through its veil. She pulled in a long breath from her cigarette, held it within her opened lips and let the smoke slide out, shook her head and looked away.
Black was never her best color, Jack remembered, but the gray of her dress made her shine in a temporal image, not outside of time and place but there in front of him, right now, blocking everything else.
He closed his eyes again and concentrated on the line of her neck and absence of perfume. She never wore perfume, and all Jack remembered smelling on her was her.
“I’m sorry about your father,” she said, “I know you didn’t love him but–” she let the last syllable trail off.
“I loved him,” he said. “I just didn’t like him and he felt the same. I think we even preferred it that way. One of the few relationships that I always knew where I stood.”
Jack watched her for a moment, waiting for her response. When it did not come, he felt angry.
He placed his elbows on his knees and swung his hands down like a pulley arm, picking up the whiskey bottle to hold in both hands, wondering if he should have another drink or go back to the wake.
A train passed in the distance, its rumble night music somewhere in the dark. He thought of all the nights he had lie awake listening to the trains on those tracks, thinking of destinations and futures that he never pursued. He listened hard as the train’s sound fell away into silence and the sounds of night increased.
Again, Jack traced his finger along the rusting valley edge of a deep scratch, up on the quarter panel near his shoulder. The oxidized burrs pulled at his fingertip. He no longer remembered how the scratch got there, a fence post or a tree.
He looked at the dusted cobwebs on the wall behind Emily and at the empty mud cups where the wall met the ceiling. There is a lot here, he thought, an old barn, an old dark heaven of age-faded wood and rusting box nails. He had left that world behind when he had left Emily. He had wandered away to a city to make money, and he had made money. He had left that city for another city and then another city and finally another. Each time he had made more money, and each time he had felt as though his soul was rotting.
He pulled a cigarette from the pack and pointed it over his shoulder at the house then at her, saying, “He was hard.”
Emily stepped back but did not respond. Jack was happy that she didn’t.
“Once I was working on this truck,” he said, “not my calling, as we know. But I was getting it, slow and with a lot of wasted effort. I asked him for a little help. He told me a man who can’t fix his own truck ain’t worth dick. He said I might just as well get a job digging ditches because anything else was out of my reach.”
“You didn’t do too bad for such a limited reach.”
“No. But I still can’t fix a damn truck. I can break things awful easy, though.” He laughed a little and looked at her and she smiled.
He tapped the filter end of his cigarette hard against the bumper, stood, braced himself against the truck’s hood, then walked to the bench. He put the whiskey bottle on the bench. An amber shadow danced in a loose circle on the wood behind the bottle. He stared at the dancing light, thinking he might divine a mystery in its movement.
“When I was about twelve,” he said, “I found a pair of my grandfather’s skis stuck back in one of these corners.” Jack waved his cigarette in front of him. He finally pulled it into his mouth without lighting it.
Emily faced him, her smile dissolving.
“They were wide as this bottle and as long as this bench. Hell, you could have covered some of the holes in the roof if you split them into shakes.”
Jack hated himself when he began falling into the slow drawl he and Emily had worked so hard during high school to lose. He hated it more because he knew that Emily never slid back in that way, although she was smoking cigarettes again, he remembered. So he rested for a second, lighting the cigarette from his father’s old Zippo, 90th Div engraved in the plate.
“The skis were carved on the tips,” he said, remembering the filigree of frost or leaves. “They were old, probably brought down before the turn of the century when my great-grandfather moved from Michigan. I decided to restore them, not to use, they’d have broken on the first slope, but just to have.”
He turned to face the bench and Emily. When she turned her head to look at him, he could only see a crescent of her face in the light. In that crescent was her eye, and in her eye he could see a moistness. She looked like she did in the summer nights they slept together, making love next to a banking fire, awkwardly grappling under wool blankets.
After the fire would burn down to coals, he would hold her tight and listen to the sounds of the Colorado plains. Crickets and coyotes and nighthawks and her breathing. Her breathing so full and mild that he could feel it and taste it.
“And?” she asked, her eyes moving from his eyes to his mouth and then back to his eyes.
“And I worked on those skis in the evenings and on weekends for a few weeks, sanding them down whenever I got some free time between chores and school. I had them laid out right here across the table. They reached all the way along here. I was about done sanding and was almost ready to refinish them when I came out here and they were gone.
“My father had taken a load to the dump in the back of that pickup. He had decided that I had taken enough time on the skis without finishing them, and it was about calving time and I might not be able to get back to the skis, so he threw them out.”
Jack wheeled and threw the whiskey bottle against the barn wall, then stumbled back against the truck. Emily flinched, as much from the quick movement, Jack knew, as from the expectation of glass shattering against the old wood. She pulled a hand across her mouth, and they both stood looking at each other and listening to the sounds of cars driving by on the gravel road.
Jack looked down and gently rapped the ball of his hand against his forehead, warning himself.
“He just threw them out,” he said.
“Did you ever say anything to him?”
“How, Jack? How could he have known if you didn’t say anything?”
“I didn’t need to. He knew I was mad. Anyway what good would it have done? They were gone…and we would have had another fight, but I could have killed him.”
“You never told me that.”
“You never told me a lot, Jack. A lot of your life was hidden. I wished you would have told me things like that.” She paused. “Hell, Jack, I was your wife.”
Her face flushed. She tried pulling another cigarette from the pack, but her fingers trembled too much, and she dropped the pack onto the table and rubbed her hands together. She jerked nervously at the piece of hair again having fallen across her forehead.
Jack smiled, pulled one from his pack, and offered it to her.
She looked at the cigarette.
“It’s just a Marlboro, babe.”
She took the cigarette between her first two fingers and brought it trembling to her lips. Jack flipped open the Zippo lid on the thigh of his jeans then drew the Zippo back up his thigh, lighting it. He held it cupped against the cigarette tip.
“Learned that from the old man,” he said, smiling.
“Your legacy, igniting lighters on your blue jeans?” she asked.
“Seems like it.”
“You picked up a few other things from your father.”
Jack looked at her with a shy pout like the kid who knows too much and wants others to see it without him saying.
“Such as?” he asked.
“Such as whiskey and whoring.”
He laughed, “I thought you got rid of me long ago.”
“Jack, getting rid of you is impossible. It seems like when I married you, I dropped a glass jar of marbles. I tried picking them all up when we divorced, but every now and then, when I haven’t thought of you for awhile, I find another marble hiding under the bed with the dust balls.”
“Dust balls? I don’t know if I like it, but I’ll take it.”
“It’s not a good place to be.”
“If I can’t be in the bed, I’ll be under it listening to the springs bounce.” He smiled at her. “They do bounce every now and then, don’t they?”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “You’ll never grow up.”
“Never planned to.”
He watched her smile fade into an introspective frown. “That gets old also,” she said.
He looked past the truck through the open door. Smoke from the fire inside the house drifted on the hint of a wind, the promise of a rising storm in the night. He suddenly felt remote and too small.
“You’re beautiful,” he said without looking at her. “Your dress, I mean. You look nice tonight.”
She looked down as if she had forgotten how she was dressed. “Thank you,” she said and smiled.
They both jerked when the screen door to the house slammed. Already people from inside the house were leaving. Car doors shut. A car started and left a little too quickly.
“I remember the first Valentine’s card you sent me,” Emily said. “It was wild flowers pressed and sewn onto cardboard. I still have it. Then you sent some card that had no writing inside, but you made up a poem for me. That last year we were together, you sent glossy cards with the sentiment stamped inside like a form letter. That’s when I knew it was over.”
“Because of a Valentine’s card?” Jack smiled a flat and hard smile between rage and laughter. “And all this time I thought it was because of that night I got drunk and spent with Jane Anne.”
“Oh, that was it also, but they’re the same thing.”
“Sleeping with Jane Anne was the same as sending you a store-bought card?”
“Actually, the card was worse.”
Jack looked up at her, his mouth open. He pretended it was on purpose by placing in the corner the cigarette he had been holding. He let the cigarette hang there with an inch of ash drooping from its end.
“I might have been able to forgive you for sleeping with a slut like Jane Ann,” she said and laughed.
Jack repeated, “Slut,” and laughed with her. The cigarette bobbed in the corner of his mouth like a broken tree limb, ashes falling and twirling to the ground.
She added, “That might have been too much also, but it was just physical. The card said that the gap between us was even wider. I cried over that stupid card. The next day, I called a lawyer.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“So you could send me a form card for making up? A cloudy photograph of flowers and your feeling neatly written in a nice machine script. ‘Dear Darling Wife, Please forgive me for what I have done. I did not mean it.’”
“You get the point, though?”
He took the cigarette from his lips and flicked it at the whiskey stain on the wall.
“You know,” he said, “if I could, I’d go back and change it all.”
“Then you would have made another mistake.”
“I’d still go back and if I couldn’t change it, I’d live it all again. Except,” feeling above his eye, “that bottle you cold-cocked me with.”
“I really slung that, didn’t I? It felt so good.”
“Maybe to you, and I hadn’t even finished it yet.”
A silence floated in from the dark. The remoteness returned. Emily pushed away from the bench. She kissed Jack. He leaned into her.
“I’ve got to go,” she said, holding his arms tight and pushing him to length. “I told my husband I’d be back early.”
“Tell the son-of-a-bitch ‘hi’ for me.”
“Sorry. I’ll walk you in.”
“No. My coat’s in the car. I’ll just leave.”
“Can I write?”
“No. It’s too tame. But I’d like to see you again and talk. It was nice hearing you talk. You never did enough of it when we were married.”
“I didn’t know I had to.”
Emily walked past the truck.
Jack listened to the sound of her car on the caliche road until it disappeared.
He remembered listening to the early morning sounds with Emily sleeping next to him. He would watch the morning sun and the only sound he wanted to hear was her breathing. That was how it was supposed to stay.
He thought he might go inside, steal a bottle of whiskey from the counter, and hide it for tomorrow. He decided he might try getting the truck running. He would not be going home for a few more days—lots of time to bust some knuckles. It’s a shame, he thought, to let that old truck, a warehouse of days and nights and people and times, just die.