Somewhere just south of a dream I woke and rolled over and looked across the beige carpet and the dresser lined with photos of my wife’s mother and sisters.
Outside the morning light was blue. I’d never believed light could achieve such a color, although I’d read about it only the week before in a novel written by a man named Petterson.
I turned and stretched out an arm. There was a depression in the mattress, still warm.
Small scratchings began to filter through the quiet. I bent my neck and peered through the dimness. My wife was in our closet, pulling a blouse off a hanger. She had not turned on the overhead and there was something ghostlike in her movements, as if she had been there once but moved on, leaving behind only an outline of herself.
Three times a year my wife arose early. Christmas, New Years, and the Fourth of July, the day she left for her annual two week reunion with her mother and sister. The first couple of years after we got married I’d gone with her to Indianapolis. Found out I couldn’t get along with her sister. After a few years my wife quit asking.
When she was gone I tried never to think about Indianapolis or her sister. I struggled to keep my body moving and my mind still. Empty hours play hell with a man’s mind.
I watched my wife button up her blouse. Then I got up and started a pot of coffee. While it was dripping, I carried her suitcases out to the car and put them in the trunk. Mist still hung in the tops of the maples and I could hear birds.
With my hand on the trunk lid, I stood looking across my yard and the street to my neighbor’s houses. In the mist the houses looked strange, deformed, each an island, separate and distinct from the next. There were days I felt that separated.
When I stepped back into the kitchen she was standing just inside the door. Her eyes were tracking around the room, like she was recording inventory. After a few seconds those eyes found my face and she smiled.
“You’ve already taken the suitcases out?”
She turned and walked back into the bedroom. Then I heard her heels clicking across the living room floor. I poured myself a cup of coffee.
“Well, I don’t think I’ve forgotten anything.”
“Your mom or sister will have anything you’ve forgotten,” I said.
“Probably so,” she said and took a deep breath. She let it out slowly and crossed the kitchen and gave me a hug.
Bones poked at me beneath the blouse. Since the first of the year she’d been losing weight. I didn’t think she was trying. I worried some about that, and maybe she did too. She hadn’t talked as much, either, although I formed the impression that she wanted to say something. But then, my impressions aren’t always accurate.
Some spring evenings she just sat in her chair with a book open on her lap, only she wasn’t looking at the pages. Her eyes were open, but glassy, like maybe she was seeing something, only not in that room. Or maybe that was another of my faulty impressions.
I kissed the side of her neck. She was wearing the perfume I’d bought her last Christmas. Her hair was stiff, scratchy.
“Be careful,” I murmured against her neck.
“Always,” she said and twisted her body so that we came apart, awkwardly, like two strangers still dancing after the music stopped.
She glanced at her watch. “I’ve got to go.”
I nodded and drank coffee. It scalded my tongue.
“I’ll walk you to the car,” I mumbled out of the side of my mouth.
We stepped out into the morning and walked to her car without speaking. I opened the door and we stood staring at each other. I needed to do something with my hands. I put them on the door. The metal was cool.
My wife’s lips came apart as though she was going to say something, but she closed them again without speaking. For months she’d been doing that, and I wondered what she wanted to say, and what was holding her back. She had nice lips; they were one of her best features, and I wished she would use them more, in different ways.
There was a silence in the morning that seemed oppressive and I tried to think of something to say against it. But my wife pressed her palm against my cheek and bent and slipped behind the wheel.
“Be safe,” I said.
She gave me a smile, running her fingers along the steering wheel. “Take care of yourself. Call if you need me.”
I nodded and she twisted the key. The motor hummed to life, cracking the silence, but I didn’t close the door. I could tell from her face that she expected me to, but something inside me was reluctant.
“Well, I’d better go,” she said, glancing at the mirror and fluffing her hair. Her hair looked fine to me. She always took pains with the way she presented herself to the world.
“Right,” I said, and shut the door and stepped back. She backed slowly down the driveway. My wife is a careful driver.
The street was empty and she paused for a second after backing and waved. I waved back and for a moment we were again two people doing the same thing in the same moment. Then she shifted into drive and rolled north, past the Gilmore’s and the Henry’s and the Longmeyer’s. The last thing I saw were her taillights as she made the curve and headed toward I-71.
I stood there in the stillness, staring at where she had been, until I wondered if any of the neighbors were watching. Then I turned and walked back to the house. For some reason, this time I cut across the grass time. It was still damp with dew and the tops of my shoes sparkled when the sunlight struck them.
The quiet in the kitchen felt heavy and this morning I didn’t feel up to bearing it. I turned on the radio, volume down low so that all I could hear was the murmur of voices connected by strands of music.
I fixed myself a piece of toast and another cup of coffee and ate standing at the counter, staring out into morning, thinking about my wife and what I would do today and when the grass would need mowing again.
While I was drinking my third cup of coffee the light changed and I sensed something shift inside me. A sepia restlessness rushed through me and I poured the rest of my coffee down the sink and went and put on a clean shirt.
I parked in the Galt House garage. Even after the florescent lighting, I blinked as I stepped out onto Fourth Street. Before climbing the slope, I turned and walked down a flight of steps and strolled along the Belvedere, past the Belle Of Louisville floating at anchor and a faded, bronze historical marker and two inert bodies.
One was a man asleep under yesterday’s Courier-Journal. All I could see were his feet and face. A big toe stuck out of one red hiking sock. Scruff covered the jaw line of his lean face. Something in the set of his face, maybe the way his nose jutted out above a narrow upper lip, reminded me of the man I’d seen in the morning mirror.
Beside me, the Ohio River flowed lower than usual for early July. Here at Louisville the Ohio is a broad, dark river, the surface often dotted with debris. Today the surface sparkled and the Indiana bank seemed only a strong swim away. Back in high school I’d been a good swimmer. For a moment I was tempted.
But who did I think I was fooling?
North of forty, I hadn’t been swimming, even in a pool, in ten years. I walked to the end of the Belvedere, turned and retraced my steps. No matter what anyone might have offered me, I couldn’t swear exactly why I undertaken this walk. It just felt like a journey I needed to make today.
The riverfront was strangely quiet. After all, today was the 4th and the city always put on a big fireworks display. Then I realized that it was still early morning and I was out of synch with the world. My wife was driving to Indianapolis and I was walking by empty boats and people who had, at least temporarily, vacated their lives.
I took the stairs two at a time and began the short climb. Fourth Street Live was vacant except for a flock of pigeons that rose and whirled skyward, screeching. Sunlight glittered off plate glass. My mind was jumpy and I concentrated on my steps. The urge to walk was strong, bordering on need. All my life I’d been prone to urges. Surely, giving in one day couldn’t hurt.
By the time I passed the Brown Hotel I’d settled into a rhythm and my mind had settled down. The heat had begun to build and sweat coated my back. A set of steps flanked an office building at the university, and I climbed up and sat on the top one.
Twenty some years ago I’d sat on this very step, dreaming a young man’s dreams. Where had they gone? That, I thought, was a good question, and at the same time an unpleasant one.
Fourth Street was empty in both directions. The entire world seemed asleep. I didn’t mind. Pushing myself off the top step I went down the others and started marching east, leaving those foolish dreams behind once again.
In a few blocks I was walking down cracked sidewalks and trees grew along the sidewalks and in the yards that fronted old houses and it was cooler under the shade and my muscles were loose and I felt twenty years younger. That was only another illusion, but, for a change, a pleasant one.
By noon I was deep into Old Louisville and my legs were tiring. A small park lounged across the street and the shade was piled deep and there were benches. I jogged across Fourth Street and sat down on a bench. An ancient oak sheltered the bench. The bench needed painting. Squirrels chased each other along the oak branches and I could hear birds calling to one another.
An empty cab rolled by, followed by a black kid on a bicycle. Dressed in biking attire, he was pedaling hard, head down, legs pumping. Muscles in his legs looked sculpted and I fondled my pot gut, wondering if I’d ever been in that shape. It was discouraging to think about how much I’d changed and how few of the changes were positive. When a man started depressing himself that was a bad sign. Biting my upper lip, I closed my eyes and thought about my wife.
She ought to have made it to her mother’s by now and I could picture the trio as clearly as if I were there. They’d be sitting in the living room, having a drink, chattering away; all of them talking at once and laughing and giggling and saying words they wouldn’t say around men. Part of the talk would be about me, and that part wouldn’t be good. Her sister and I had never hit it off. Something in the chemistry wasn’t right, or maybe I reminded her of somebody. Years ago, I’d quit trying to figure it out. Quitting was just easier sometimes.
The promised heat had arrived and the cicadas had started to hum and my eyelids felt heavy, almost feverish, and I remembered how early I’d come awake and let my eyes close. It felt pleasant to sit in the shade with my eyes closed and not have to worry about whether I was doing or saying something that would anger someone.
I jerked awake, feeling I’d missed something important. Dream fragments gnawed at my brain, but I pushed off the bench and started plodding on down Fourth. My leg muscles had tightened up as I dozed and I moved awkwardly now.
As if I was peeping out from behind drapes in the brownstone apartments across the street, I could see myself, a man slipping into middle-age who has walked too far.
I kept on walking though, maybe out of stubbornness, or maybe pride, tinged with desire. Maybe I was trying to prove something, if only to myself.
Two blocks later I spotted a corner grocery store. Through the screen door I could see a Hispanic man behind a counter. I pushed the door open and a bell tinkled above me.
An old-fashioned meat case sat next to the brass cash register and I bought a bologna sandwich with cheese and mayo and a coke in a bottle. I carried them outside. At the end of the block there was a bus-stop bench and I walked on and sat down on the bench, just like I was waiting for my bus. While I ate, I toyed with the idea of taking the first TARC bus that stopped.
Halfway through my sandwich, two Asian women came and sat down on the bench. At first they just snuck covert glances, giving me the impression that I was a disturbing presence. In a few minutes they started talking in soft, sibilant, sing-song voices. As they talked, Fourth Street grew strange. I’d grown up a few blocks down the street, but it wasn’t the same. Without finishing my sandwich, I got up, nodded at the women, and started walking again. My old house had been in the next block. It was gone, razed. Except for weeds and an abandoned bicycle, the lot was empty. No use stopping. Nothing I cared to see.
The 4th of July and I both grew older and hotter. In the middle of the afternoon I happened on a sandlot baseball game. Boys were playing on a regulation field, but they had no uniforms or umpires. I climbed up in the stands and watched a few innings.
By the time I left, the air was growing dusky. Probably, I should have turned back and headed for my car, but while I was sitting in the stands I remembered that Rebecca Jane Miller’s house was only three or four blocks further east. Our senior year in high school we’d dated steady.
I’d been crazy about her. I knew it was foolish, but I wondered if she still lived in the old red-brick with the glassed-in front porch. How many nights had we sat on that glider, moving back and forth, watching the cars roll by, wondering where they were going and where we would go?
And where had we gone? Another question I couldn’t answer.
Under the trees it was growing dark and people were stepping out on their porches. Houses and faces swam back to me out of murky past. The house on the corner had belonged to the old German, Hersheimer. And the bungalow across the street had been Mrs. Janzen’s. She’d been our Senior English teacher. Ancient then, with a neck that wobbled like a turkey’s and thinning hair, surely she was dead now.
I had played pick-up football with the brothers who lived in the brown two-story. The older one had been named Mike. Couldn’t remember what they called the younger one, some sort of nickname, like Speedy, or Buzz. I’d heard he got killed in a car crash off of Dixie Highway a few years ago.
Rebecca’s house was in the next block and I forced my aching legs to move faster. The air had gone dead quiet, turning the color of overripe plums. Music floated on the air, punctuated with the laughter of women. The smell of burning charcoal was strong.
The front porch of Rebecca’s old place was visible now. Something about it looked different and it took me half a block to figure out what. The glass was gone and somebody had built wooden ramps, the kind people in wheelchairs use, on either end. Music drifted to me from that porch, so sweet and slow that it put me in mind of molasses, but with an underlying, pulsing rhythm that seemed to be slow boiling all that stickiness. Something in the music made me doubt that she lived there anymore.
Next door to what had been Rebecca’s house, a calico cat watched me from under a yellow porch light. In the darker shadows under a redbud, fireflies were lighting on and off. I didn’t remember the tree. Instead, it seemed to me her mother had grown roses there. Grown roses and cooked pot roast and smoked one cigarette after supper; that was all I could remember of Mrs. Miller. Funny, I thought, how the mind works, or fails.
I’d seen that woman almost every day for close to two years and that was all I could remember. You’d think I’d recall something else, say the color of her eyes. But I couldn’t even swear she had eyes. I could picture Rebecca’s father’s face. He’d grown a mustache and worked at the Ford Plant. Maybe he smelled faintly of Old Spice, or maybe that had been my dad.
I was tired and part of me wanted to turn at the calico cat and head home. But I’d come this far. Besides, my wife had once told her sister that I never finished anything.
By now she and her mother and sister would be high on cocktails and talk. They would call a cab and go to a little cafe they all liked. Salads made with lettuces and greens that looked like they had grown up through cracks in the sidewalk. They would drink wine with supper and make up lives for the other customers. Harmless enough, I suppose, but that sort of pretending got on my nerves.
For a step or two I wondered if she was thinking of me since I was thinking of her. I’d read about such things happening. Experts had a name for such events; the word synchronicity kept circling in my brain.
Then a pickup swung wide at the corner and its lights swept the porch and my mind shifted.
A black woman sat in an Adirondack chair in the corner closest to me. Her skin was so dark that I hadn’t noticed her in the shadows. She had a glass in one hand and was staring at me. Her eyes put me in mind of the calico cat.
Off to her right I could see the front door was open. Colored lights pulsated slowly somewhere inside, casting enough light for me to make out the narrow hallway. Seeing that hallway, I remembered that Mr. Miller had hung a deer head in that hallway. He’d shot the deer one fall near Ft. Knox and had the head mounted. The glassy eyes seemed to follow me wherever I went in the house. For years that glassy-eyed head had haunted me.
It wasn’t there now. A large mirror reflected the throbbing lights and fragments of furniture in another room, arms of chairs, the back of a love seat, a floor lamp with a beaded shade. They were in what had been the living room, where the television played every night.
“Evening,” the woman said. Her voice was low-pitched, smoky.
“Hello,” I said, wishing I’d turned around an hour before. A long walk loomed before me and I felt like an old man, aging quickly.
“You like what you see?”
“Sorry,” I said, “didn’t mean to stare. It’s just that I used to know the people who lived here. Name was Miller. They had a girl my age. Don’t suppose you’d happen to know what happened to them?”
The woman laughed down in her throat. “No sir, I sure don’t. Bought this place off my cousin, Iona Grimsley. She got the cancer and couldn’t keep it up after that no-account husband of hers ran off to Pittsburg. Pittsburg of all places. Can you imagine?”
“People do strange things,” I said.
“Ain’t that the truth,” the woman said. “Specially, in my experience, men.”
Lifting her glass, she drank slowly, barely sipping. Watching her drink made me thirsty.
“So no, I don’t know the people you’re looking for, Mister, but I’m female and, I’d judge, about your age. Want to come up and talk?” She waggled her glass at me.
“Oh, I couldn’t impose.”
“Wouldn’t be no imposition. I’m just sitting here, having me an aperitif, as they say, waiting for the partying to start.”
“Guess they’ll set them off about nine o’clock,” I said, turning and looking back the way I’d come.
“Wasn’t talking about no fireworks,” the woman said, shifting forward in her chair, thrusting her body into the sallow light spilling out onto the porch. At the sound of her voice I turned back to face the porch.
My eyes had adjusted to the changing light and I could see that she was a big woman, round all over, wearing a light colored dress that was cut low in the front and highlighted her darkness.
“Why don’t you come on up for a minute?” She let her head fall back, showing me her elegant neck. “We could talk some, pass the time. ”
I didn’t respond right away, except to peer back at the cat. It had hopped up on the railing and was staring at me across the gathering darkness. Everybody seemed to be watching me; maybe the night was growing eyes.
“Oh, come on up, man, I won’t bite.” She laughed again. She had a nice laugh, honest and thick, like it came from a happy place. Not like certain other laughs I knew.
“Least I won’t bite real hard.” She laughed again and then raised the glass to her lips and I walked up the ramp knowing she was eyeing me over the top of the glass.
She had long legs and they stretched out so that I had to step over them in order to step onto the porch. I caught a whiff of alcohol and lilacs and musk and I felt something stir deep inside.
I’d figured there would be other chairs, but the only other place to sit on the porch was an old-fashioned swing. It creaked as I eased down. Years had passed since I’d been on a porch swing and for a minute I just sat trying to remember the last time. Then I pushed with my feet and the chain groaned and I swung out towards her and then back.
“People call me Gypsy,” she said with her head turned toward Fourth Street.
I drug the soles of my shoes across the floorboards. When the swing stopped moving, I said, “Because you move around a lot?”
The woman turned and shook her head and smiled. She a nice smile, friendly like a dog’s. It made me feel welcome. She pushed her glass at me through the darkness and I took it. For a second I hesitated, but then I saw her watching me and I lifted the glass and took a slug. It burned going down. She nodded and smiled and nodded, and watching her I remembered the little bobbing dolls my Uncle Lou always stuck in the back window of his Oldsmobile. I handed her glass back to her and our fingers touched.
“No,” she said, “I’ve lived in Louisville my whole life, although I’ve spent time in a lot of different houses. Grew up over in Portland. You know where that is, I suppose. No, folks call me Gypsy because when I was a young girl I could tell their fortunes. People come from all over, Elizabethtown, Bowling Green, Owensboro, jest to let me predict what was a coming in their lives. Was always right, too.”
“What did you use?” I asked to make conversation and keep my mind from drifting too far. “Crystal ball? Tea leaves?”
Her dark hair moved as she shook it. “Unnuh; I always just leaned in real close to ’em and looked real deep into their eyes until I got my visions.”
The muscles in my legs had started to cramp and I bent down and rubbed them. Leaves had blown in onto the floor of the porch and there were empty beer bottles spiderwebbed in the corners. A wrinkled Ebony lay underneath a potted fern sitting on a wooden stand. The legs of the stand looked rickety.
“Yes, honey, my visions. Back in the day I could see a man’s future as clearly as I could see the old Man-in-the-Moon. Leastways before…”
Her voice died off then and I could hear children calling out to each from down the block and the voices took me back twenty-five years and they sounded so much the same and yet so different that for a few seconds I ached all over like I had a bad case of the flu.
“Oh, but you don’t wanna hear about them old days, them bad old days, do you? No indeed, you put me in mind of the sort of gentleman who has come a long way to find something. Yes sir, you strike me as a man what’s been looking for something for a long time without finding it. Sorta like one of them old explorers we read about in our History books, way back in school.”
She brushed hair off her forehead. Her dark eyes moved like disturbed water.
“Always like to read about them cause they lived such exciting lives. Only trouble I ever had was remembering their names. Funny that, cause I was a good student when I tried, and when I showed up for class. Only one I ever could recall was the one they named a car after. Now what was that name? Oh yes, Desoto. Yes indeed, Desoto. Now that was a fine car. Remember one of my first gentlemen callers had one. Green it was.” She sighed, “Old car sure enough, but it ran fine and had a great big back seat.”
She paused then and my head came up and I studied the side of her face through a curtain of dark hair that moved almost imperceptibly in the light breeze that had started up, carrying the scent of Mimosa blossoms and dust and the smell of water striking hot concrete where the guy next door was watering his lawn.
Bones and flesh seemed to have rearranged themselves in fixed positions, as though they had formerly been thrust into unnatural alignments and settled back into more familiar postures. Then I shifted my head and a Kabuki mask seemed to wrap itself around her profile.
She didn’t say anything. Night sounds began to fill the void. Out in the grass crickets chirped and birds stirred restlessly in the thickly-leaved branches of an old gum tree that leaned precariously over the porch.
Across the street somebody turned on a radio. Dance music that had been old when I had been young drifted to me and in my imagination a lonely woman waltzed around her spotless kitchen with a worn broom and a dream that died hard.
Without warning the opening salvo of fireworks cracked the thin shell of evening and her head came up, turning, and she smiled at me. The mask had slipped away. She had one gold tooth.
“Now where was we?” she murmured. “Forgive me, but sometimes I drift off. Melancholy, you see. Been afflicted with it ever since…” Her voice tailed off again.
I had the feeling that I was supposed to say something, but I wasn’t sure what. I’d never been any good at reading minds, certainly not a woman’s.
The stops and starts of conversation were rubbing against my nerves. The warm purpling darkness seemed to call for an easy, mellow, smoothness. I spoke into the uncomfortable silence.
“Ever since what?”
The woman stood up then. She was taller and broader than she had appeared in the chair, massive in the dark, a greater darkness than I had expected, blending with the night until they promised to become one.
“Since I lost the sight.” She bent at the waist and pressed her face at me through the dimness. The night grew pungent with the aromas of whiskey and stale perfume. Wind brushed cool against my face.
“I don’t talk about this, see. Makes me real sad. But there’s something about you makes me want to talk. Maybe it’s your face, it being sorta lonely looking and all, or maybe it’s because you used to come here to see that Miller girl. Makes you like family in a way. Long, lost cousin, maybe?” She shrugged. Her chest rose and fell as if something elemental was shifting inside her.
“Anyway, I lost the sight when I lost my baby. Started out loving young, too young most would say, and maybe they’re right. Got pregnant and scared and made a decision I’ve regretted for over thirty years.”
She tilted her head and the lights from the house pulsed against her blackness. “Thirty years, that’s a long time to regret a thing, don’t you agree?”
“Sure seems like it,” I said.
“Thirty years of regret, my my my. One lousy weekend trip to Chicago to see a lousy old doctor and I lost my baby and my visions.”
Something small and alive rustled in the dry grass. Then she shivered and said, “Oh, what the hell. No use living in the past. Mistakes is mistakes and gone and done is gone and done. Gypsy says you’ve come here to party. Know by looking you’ve walked a long way. Come on inside now and party, won’t you? No charge tonight honey, it’s the Fourth of July and Gypsy’s got the blue lonesomes. Holidays are always hard on a lonely girl.”
I didn’t answer her. Wasn’t sure what my answer would be.
I hadn’t planned anything. Not even the long walk. The whole day seemed to have taken shape without my permission. The woman smiled at me and winked. I tried to remember the last time a woman had winked at me.
“Gypsy needs to freshen her drink. Come on in and I’ll fix you one. Sure looks to me like you’ve walked a long way. Man who takes a long walk needs a good, stiff drink, I always say. Come on inside. I’m going to switch over to some dance music. Do you like to dance? You look like a dancing man to me. Or maybe you’re too tired?”
I started to say something but my throat wasn’t working quite right. I swallowed and tried again.
“You go ahead. I may join you in a minute.”
She smiled again and the gold tooth glittered against the darkness. Then she moved past me, running a finger along the side of my face. Her finger was smooth, her body moved in an uncertain rhythm, half a dance, half a trance. She whispered something, but the night swallowed her words.
I watched her enter the house. Her scent lingered. Seconds later dance music drifted through the open window, the same tune that was playing across the street. Maybe, I said to myself and the calico cat, the whole world was going to dance tonight. Maybe I should dance.
I sat swinging slowly, watching the lights come on up and down the street. A few blocks away a siren wailed. Perhaps someone was dying, I thought, or being born. People die, things die.
Or, I wondered, staring at the outlines of the trees and the houses and the telephone poles and the cars at the curb, does anything every really cease to exist? Perhaps their images linger on forever, growing an infinitesimal fraction dimmer every day until everyone who ever saw them even once is dead and those image memories no longer signify.
All I had to do was squint my eyes almost closed and hold my breath and it was like I’d never left Fourth Street and never grown old and Rebecca Jane Miller was waiting for me with sweet lips and sweeter lies.
Out to the west, down by the Ohio, the fireworks had commenced. Blue and gold candelabras cascaded down the sky. Colors seemed to hang forever over the Ohio, over Indiana, over the Midwest flowing flat and smooth like a great river of earth all the way to the High Plains and beyond to the Rocky Mountains. The whole country seemed to be unfolding before me in the spangled dark and I thought about my wife in Indiana and what she might be doing.
She and her sister and her mother were probably sitting in her mother’s tiny little living room, smoking filtered cigarettes, drinking white wine, and talking. They loved to talk about their day, what and whom they had seen. And who had done what to or with someone else’s wife or husband. The three of them talked about game shows and shoes and dogs they had owned and men they wished they had known. They loved to talk. They talked away hours solving the world’s problems or creating problems for people they felt, quite sincerely, deserved them.
Maybe my wife needed that talking, I thought. At best, I was a man given to long silences. Some nights, especially when the snow piled up on the frozen ground like pale ashes, my wife said I brooded. Some nights I made an effort. Maybe not often enough. Hard for me to judge.
They talked, especially her sister, about family members. They could certainly say hurting words. But then, maybe I’d said a few of those myself.
Her sister, though, had talked about me the way hard-boned people talk about a mangy dog one night when she thought I was asleep. I had heard her.
Guess we just naturally disliked each other, sort of a reverse mutual admiration society. That last visit I made to Indianapolis I made with my wife, I’d heard her sister talk about me and then I had listened to the laughter and then the silence. Vowed never to go back. I’m not a man who forgives easily, or forgets. That was one vow I had kept.
Vows were only words unless you kept them. At least that’s what I told myself as I sat on Rebecca Jane Miller’s old porch, swinging back and forth, watching the western sky turn green and red, then blue, listening to the old, sad, slowdance music. Now and then the woman with the gold tooth who called herself Gypsy and had once seen visions sang softly. I couldn’t quite make out the words, but the tune made my heart twist in on itself.
I thought about my wife, and wondered.
My legs ached from walking and I recognized I was no longer young and Rebecca Jane Miller was never again going to wait for me, or dance with me, or kiss my hungry mouth.
A couple passed walking and their voices carried in the darkness. They were talking about moving to Cleveland. They never knew I was there deep in the shadows, eavesdropping on them, on Fourth Street, on the world.
I wondered if other men sat in the shadows on other porches all across America, wondering where their lives had gone, wondering when they had lost control, wondering why the dreams had died.
Fireflies flickered coded messages out on the lawn. Next door, the calico cat roused himself and meandered, stiff-tailed, down the steps and vanished. Cars rolled by, their taillights red in their wake. A phone rang nearby, twice. My stomach growled a little and I realized I’d missed supper. My pulse throbbed in my temples. I could sense the night growing old around me.
Inside the music changed and I heard the woman named Gypsy call for me. It was nice to be wanted, if only to dance away the blue hours.
A dog barked, and was answered by another.
The velocity of the wind increased and I could smell rain off in the distance. Maybe it was raining in Indianapolis. Maybe it was going to rain all over the world.
The entire western sky exploded into a crazy-quilt American Flag.
Horns blew over in the next street and a great barrage of firecrackers blasted whatever remained of the quiet.
I thought about Rebecca Jane Miller, and wished her well, wherever the hell she was.
I thought about my wife and Indianapolis and wished them both sweet dreams. Maybe she was doing the same for me. Maybe.
My leg muscles throbbed. Forty years and a long walk can age a man.
Maybe, I thought, I’d better dance while I still could.
When the western sky was black and empty, I pushed myself out of the swing and walked inside. The music had changed again and this song I knew. It was the kind that made your heart hurt. I couldn’t see the woman who they called Gypsy. But I could hear her crying softly in another room.
My brain was pounding against the walls of my skull. I thought about my wife. My legs felt like they belonged to an old fighter who had gone one round too many.
I wished she had spoken this morning, said what she had been trying to say for months.
One of us should have spoken.
Firecrackers were exploding all along my old Fourth Street. My head ached and my insides were trembling.
Telling myself it was just that I was tired, I started walking toward the crying. The day had been long and the night stretched out before me like an ebony snake. I’d made a long walk. What were a few more steps? Just a few steps, that was all.
I knew I was lying. I walked to the edge of a door that opened into a greater darkness. After a minute I could make out a bed and a body, face down, on the bed. The music was soft and low, blending with the darkness until they were one.
I turned and went and sat down on the loveseat across the room from the mirror. Lights pulsated, dancing with one another in the mirror. Behind the colored lights a man started at me. His face looked tired, used up, and his eyes were like hard, hollow glass. I could see all the way to the bottom of those eyes.
When I got tired of looking into those eyes I stood up. The man in the mirror stood up, too. There were words I wanted to say to the woman known as Gypsy, but none of them seemed to me like they would make any difference to either one of us. Besides, I had a long walk ahead of me.
Walking down that old familiar hall I wondered one last time about Gypsy and Rebecca Jane Miller and then my wife in Indianapolis. Then I stepped out on the porch and went down the stairs and into the darkness.