“Late for the Sky” | Fort Collins, Colorado, 1999
I go back to this basement apartment, the one beneath the blue house on Stover Street, where “awake again I can't pretend and I know I'm alone and close to the end of the feeling we've known.” I sit at the end of the futon, the golden ellipse of Chardonnay in a glass. Another bottle opened after he has gone to bed. CD cases scattered on the living room floor, the green glow from the stereo a hush. I’m “drifting alone through the night,” staring at the space where the tile of the kitchen meets the carpet, thinking of the frail line between the life I’m sharing and the life I want but can’t name. The curled cord dangles from the wall phone, silent, the way it will be after he packs up his truck in a month while it snows. I set my glass under the faucet and watch the hot water erase the evidence of every sip before easing myself back “into the bed where we both lie.” The lights of passing cars scan the wall like a Xerox machine. He turns over in sleep, sighs.
“Fountain of Sorrow” | Stillwater, Oklahoma, 1996
Another year, another man, this one calling to say he found the For Rent sign in my yard. The distance between us had set in and settled, a “loneliness springing up….like a fountain from a pool.” And I didn’t know what to do but move away from it. That last night, he sat on the edge of my scratchy brown couch, his left knee bouncing. I handed him a Bud Dry, watched him prop the bottle on his knee as if to steady it. Around us, the truth of taped boxes. We sat close in the low lamplight, and he kept one hand on the bottle and the other holding his bowed head. “What I was seeing wasn't what was happening at all.” And I wouldn’t see it for years, not until he asked to meet, to count it as the first mistake that left him with the “hollow sound of [his] own steps in flight.” I can still see him waving big in the parking lot, smiling, the way he does in the photograph I keep in the bottom of a suitcase. A month later, a stranger found his body on the side of a biking trail in Houston. I carry the loneliness now, and “[He] could be laughing at me, [he’s] got the right. But [he goes] on smiling so clear and so bright.”
“Farther On” | Canton, New York, 2012
I once taught at a small university in northern New York, and there, I met an accomplished man, that year’s Visiting Writer. He lived in a corner house that came with the position, a two-story white clapboard. Many afternoons, I took long walks through the Adirondacks with his curly-haired, graceful wife. When I’d pick her up, he’d step away from his writing room on the second floor and perch on the top step, stroke his trim gray beard while she bundled up against the cold. Often, they’d have me and my young daughter over for dinner, and after the wine had been emptied and the dishwasher churned, he would pass through my recent pages. His pencil marks on each one. He dismissed my writing about my daughter’s father, the man I shared the basement apartment with, the man who came back before leaving again for good. “He left, he doesn’t get to be written about,” he’d scoff while the candlelight flickered in his glasses. One night, he showed my daughter how to cast a fly rod in their living room. Always on those evenings, a Jackson Browne CD on the stereo in the dining room. We’d sit around the table, speaking our disappointments, our desires toward the distance. “They were cutting from stone some dreams of their own but they listened to mine anyway.” We write letters now, look over each other’s shoulders from somewhere farther on.
“The Late Show” | South Fork, Colorado, 2001
Let’s just say a stranger and I skipped rocks in the rain, the river passing us like a bus we had just missed. It was July, a month after I learned I was pregnant, when I drove through the smell of sweet pine to visit a friend. Her neighbor with a beard and a blue shirt stepped into the house and introduced himself. (Long ago.) On the rocky bank of the river, he and I skipped smooth, flat stones into the current. Let’s just say we talked about water, where it goes, if it’s different in Colorado than in Texas. Soon we were too soaked to stay outside, so we hid away on his front porch for the rest of the afternoon. (You know it’s useless to pretend.) I have thought of him many times, his blue shirt, his beard, his long hair in my hands. Maybe I needed to know what I would choose if another reality came into view, like a gas station on a long, empty road. (You’d never know.) I haven’t seen him since that day, when the rain let up and the sun reminded us of people beyond his front porch, when he forced himself to drive at least twenty towns down the road. That night, I snuck back to stand in front of his house, imagined the sound of his truck door shutting. This is the man I always want to go back for, to find “standing in the window.”
“The Road and the Sky” | Stillwater, Oklahoma, 1995
It had always been a dream of his to leave the Wormy Dog Saloon and end up in Mexico, so when he leaned into me around midnight and asked if I wanted to go to Matamoros, I said yes. Five hours before, he had picked me up for our first date, and after buck burgers and beer, we’d wandered over to the Dog before leaving it for Mexico. “All I want to do is ride.” Noon the next day, I sped us toward a gulf hidden behind a gray curtain. “Now can you see those dark clouds gathering up ahead?” We drove toward the darkness, feeling with every mile we were approaching the gates of a carnival that had just left town. But when we crossed the border, all the gloom disappeared with tequila and tacos, gift-shop sombreros and the giddiness of having run away. That night, I stepped off a curb in flip-flops, splashed through deep puddles of leftover rain. When someone called to tell me years later he had been found in Houston, I learned not to “think it won't happen just because it hasn't happened yet.”
“For A Dancer” | Boulder, Colorado, 2002
It’s raining here, too, and I’m standing in a coffee shop in Boulder, Colorado, where the woman behind the counter hands me the hot water for my tea, her smooth brown hair falling to shoulder. I’m wearing the brown corduroy overalls I wore every day during the last two months of my pregnancy, and I ask her the story of her name, printed on her apron. Her father, in 1971, had left New Jersey bound for the freedom of the open west in his white VW van, his wife in the passenger seat. The van made it as far as Boulder, so that’s where they had lived ever since, where he drove a taxi to make a living. He named her “Dancer,” for the song. She remembers riding next to him on the nights she had trouble sleeping, the passengers speaking from the backseat, the shadow of his profile against the dark. When I found out I was having a girl, I thought for a time about naming her Dancer, then thought better of it. I didn’t want my daughter to have someone else’s name, someone else’s story. She had her own. I named her Indie. (The world keeps turning around and around.)
“Walking Slow” | Mesquite, Texas, 2015
I run the streets “through my old neighborhood.” Most of my friends moved away or left in other ways years ago, so I run through memory—where Steve Baker’s white pickup sits outside his house, before the year he gambled his way into a debt he didn’t want to come back from. I pass Denise’s house and the afternoon her father dropped dead at his desk from a heart attack and the Saturday, decades later, when her brother, only twenty-two, did the same on a running trail. I run by Leslie’s front porch and the night we all thought she ran away until someone found her on her front porch, hiding. We were all hiding back then, maybe from all that unknowing of youth that bears down, too sudden and too long. I take the extra blocks to Tracy’s. Her parents moved south years ago, their house on the corner a different color from the cream her father repainted every other summer. I once asked if she wanted me to take a photograph of it. She said no need, it holds no meaning for her, nor does the town. But “I'm puttin' down my left foot. I'm puttin' down my right foot. I got a thing or two to say before I walk on by.” Running this sidewalk, I’m seventeen, sitting outside her house in my red Cavalier Z 24, the wine coolers we’ll drink tonight in the trunk of my car.
“Before the Deluge” | Anywhere, Anytime
Somewhere there’s a bar with Jackson Browne on the jukebox, and shadows lean on stools with their backs to the door. I walk in, squint against the darkness and find them all. As each song slides to the next, the man who left us huddles at the bar in a flannel shirt. He empties his beer, stands, then turns toward the back door and walks out. The writer and his wife pour wine from a shared bottle in a corner booth, a fountain pen and a sheet of beige stationery on the table. The man I went to Mexico with waves from behind a pool table just before he drops the 4 ball in the side pocket, a move I watched him do many afternoons at the Dog. He’s got a pitcher of Bud Dry on a near table and motions for me to grab a glass. Steve, Denise, Leslie, and Tracy sit around the curve of the bar, looking like they did in 1988, before life didn’t turn out the way they thought it would, the way it never does for any of us. Still, they’re tossing their heads back in laughter. Dancer’s dad sits in his taxi out front in case any of us needs help finding our way home. And the bearded man, the one with the long hair and the blue shirt, he’s leaning against the jukebox to select the next song. Indie sings along.