“Lost River” by Jane Olmsted

 

She didn’t need to tell him how wrong she’d been or apologize for never calling. She needn’t explain how she’d been busy, first going to school, then working at the hospital. He didn’t want her to call out of guilt or pity or even nostalgia. In fact, she didn’t need to say anything. The call would come, and though silence would meet his “hello?” it wouldn’t be the dead silence of an empty line, but rather the silence of Cecily holding the mouthpiece away from her mouth so he wouldn’t hear her breathing. He’d say, “If you want me to come over now, just hang up.”

Five years ago, roughly if not surprisingly, they’d gone down in flames. The actual burning of the house had been her fault, and leaving her on the lawn after he’d pulled her out unconscious—that had been his fault. She’d already told him it was over. Sleeping with his cousin Josh had been her way of proving it. Since the house belonged to Josh and it was his lab that blew, neither of them had been charged. At Josh’s funeral, the casket was closed. The other users came to pay their respects, making connections in the parking lot on their way out. Derek sat in the back row, a human mummy from the waist up. No one approached him.

Returning home to Morgantown, he stayed in the back room of his parents’ house for six weeks. Shattered was the word his mother used. His face oozed where he’d torn the bandages away, then scabbed and finally closed up. He spent the next month listening
to their rock collection, emerging only to eat and mow the lawn.

“Guess I’ll go back to school,” he told them one morning. He’d returned to Western, where he spent the next two years lifting his 1.9, notch by notch. He burrowed into schoolwork the way an addict hunkers down with a pipe, saying this is all that matters.

He worked in the Education Office and ended up with four top-notch references, including one from the dean, which got him a job in town right after graduation. For his junior and senior years, he pulled a 4.0, which one of his professors encouraged him to include on his resume, next to his overall. “I see it every so often,” he said, “But never so dramatically as your transcript. It’s like there’s a dividing line between your sophomore and junior year.”

Derek just nodded. There’d been a line all right. A lot of lines.

It wasn’t as if he thought about Cecily every day, except recently, oddly, making him hunger for her all over again. At first, missing her had been a cement block that he’d carried—in his stomach, across his shoulders, between his legs, balanced on his head, in his throat. By sheer will he had levered her away, gritting his teeth through over-work and driving out the voices under headphones. It was three years since she’d told him never to call again and two years since that brief glimpse in Kroger’s, where she bent over the scanner checking her purchases, and he passed with his cart, turning once, twice, three times to look, almost stopping.

Recently, he felt launched him from his apartment, like being shot from a canon, to the streets of downtown Bowling Green. And whenever he left home, rocketing into the streets, he found himself pacing. He counted how many steps it took to get from one corner to the next. Leaning against a telephone pole, he told himself that passersby assumed he was waiting for his ride. He watched people pull up to the 12th Street stoplight, speed on. They glanced over at him, some nodded, lifted fingers from the steering wheel.

One night he threw his dirty clothes into a basket and headed for the Laundromat. As he stepped inside. the same long-limbed girl he’d seen at the library, at Bread & Bagels, even waiting at the stoplight, cast him a surprised look and left. Last week, taking the long way home to his apartment on Chestnut Street, he’d seen her emerge from the 440 Main bar. It was a rainy night, and a streetlight caught her friends in a yellow smear. In the middle she was blue, rising, a trick of the watery light. They stood beneath the overhang, laughing, then she lifted the hood of her sweatshirt and ran to her car. He’d followed her to her apartment on 11th Street. She paused before she entered and looked over her shoulder at him, as he crept past. Now he stepped back outside and lit a cigarette. She pulled out, one taillight winking. He went to the vending machines and ate a candy bar, then another. He didn’t stop until he ran out of money, then folded his clothes and went home.

That night he’d drunk more than usual, sipping Maker’s Mark and flipping back and forth, Gunsmoke/The Daily Show, Gunsmoke/Insomnia.

When he stood up too quickly, he fell over the coffee table and cut his shin along a newly splintered edge. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and watched the drops of blood track through the hairs on his leg, then rush over the anklebone and drip to the porcelain.

Like this, they had sat on the edge of the bathtub, laughing at how water slopped over the edge when they slid in together, almost emptying it. She looped her arms around his neck and pulled him to her, sliding her tongue, impossibly long, into his mouth.

His third graders were beside themselves as they lined up behind the guide, two rows of parted blond, brown, black, and red heads.

“Mr. Thompson, is our school named after Lost River Cave?”

He gave her the look. “Now, Lucy, we talked about that yesterday.”

He knuckled her cornrows and she grinned up at him, her smile taking up the most of the lower half of her face, parenthetical with two familiar dimples.

“Mr. Thompson?” Her small hand tugged at his elbow. “Are you going to wear your life jacket?”

“It’s only four feet deep. The water would only come up to here.”

Satisfied, she loosened her grip. “Will you sit by me?”

No one else was clamoring for his attention, so he nodded.

The path to the cave entrance led them past a blue hole, Ripley’s shortest river, running only 400 feet to the cave entrance. Once believed to be over 400 feet deep, the pool was actually only ten feet deep, linked with the underground river, where a current once pulled in a wagon, a team of horses, a soldier.

The guide’s voice got low and he looked around, as if he didn’t want anyone else to hear. “In a similar incident three soldiers went swimming, one didn’t come back, and his two friends, one by one, dove in to see what they could grab hold of. They were never seen again.” Forty round eyes met his.

“Is that how come they call it the Lost River, ‘cause of people getting lost?”

The guide turned a page in his mental notes. “Late in the 18th century, some people found sawdust that was dumped into the water here in a pond about three miles away. That’s when they realized there had to be an underground river connecting the ponds all along.”

Lucy peered over the railing, into the greenish blue water.

“It don’t look anything special,” she said. “Looks like my grandma’s pond.”

“I don’t care what it looks like. You wouldn’t see me dive in after they didn’t come up!”

This was met with a chorus of “Me neither” and “That’s straight” and “I would . . . for a million dollars.”

Getting them into the life jackets took almost twenty minutes of checking, wandering, taking off, putting back on, and finally loading into the boat.

Almost immediately, they had to duck their heads as the boat floated beneath a slab of lowered ceiling. Derek could see a series of cracks, inches deep, cut through the surface. They had the fresh look of something about to give. Lucy’s elbow gouged into his thigh as she leaned forward. “Tell me when it’s over,” she said and buried her head in her hands. The ceiling lowered silently, but personally, toward him, and he pressed his face between his knees and told himself the distant grinding wasn’t real. As he tilted his head to see how much longer before they cleared the ceiling, Lucy’s puffy braid brush against his mouth. A clutch of panic rose in his throat. He pushed her until she lifted her elbow and her head dipped away. He gulped as a rush of air met his lungs. Then the boat slid out from under the slab and they entered a large cavern, the ceiling a reassuring sixty feet above. Lights set up along the walls showed different formations and tiny streams of water that fed the
underground river. They all sat up, a collective sigh shimmering across the water to the cave walls and back.

He felt sick to his stomach.

A voice, under his left arm: “It smells funny, don’t you think?”

“Smells like a outhouse to me.”

The guide pointed out a drapery formation. His words swung in meaningless echoes, and the children’s comments bounced off the walls. They had opinions about everything, the temperature of the water, cool, not cold, the scummy green and yellow mineral formations dripping off the walls. How scary it was, and dark.

“Keep your voices down. Let’s hear what he’s saying,” Derek said, his own voice lost, someone else’s, as soon as it crossed his lips. There was a momentary dip in the volume.

“Thank you. Now, kids, I don’t want you to worry, but if a drop of water falls on you and
it’s cold, that’s called a cave kiss. If it’s warm, it’s called a bat kiss.”

“Oooh, gross. Are there really bats in here?”

“Yes, and if you follow my flashlight, you’ll see one right now.”

“Is he going to suck our blood?”

“No, that’s only in the movies. Bats are shy creatures. They help control the insect
population.”

“I’d like to take some of them bats to my house to eat lady bugs.”

“Do you have a lot of lady bugs?” the guide asked.

“They infestate our house all the time, especially in the spring.”

Lucy raised her voice, “Mr. Thompson says they ain’t lady bugs. Don’t you, Mr.
Thompson? They’re Mexican bean beetles.  Ladybugs are red, and these are yellow,
and they have exactly 16 black dots on their back.”

A wave of déjà vu washed over him—Cecily sitting beside him on the hard metal seat,
her arm reaching behind him and her fingers playing his ribs. “Isn’t that right, Derek?”
she was saying, trying to get him to talk. He could even smell her hair, a hint of
rosemary cutting through the damp cave air.

In truth, that last night she’d been so high she didn’t know who she was, kept saying,
“What’s my name? I can’t remember,” then laughing and chanting “fuck me, whoever I
am,” moving from Derek to Josh to whoever else had shown up, back to Derek. At some
point, she disappeared, probably passed out or ranting in the woods, then returned
towards morning when everyone had finally crashed. Down in the basement, she stuffed
Sudafed backings and empty containers of acetone, toluene, and Coleman fuel, into a
trash bag. Leaving a trail of lighter fluid, she had almost reached the top of the stairs.
The explosion knocked her out of the basement and toppled her into the kitchen. Derek
woke with burning lungs when he heard the scream of a cat cornered in the next room.
He watched it leap through one flame into another. Fire slapped the doorway, and
beyond, the kitchen careened away. He lurched forward, saw her sleeping, legs
cockeyed and her head bent to her shoulder and wedged between the floor and the
bottom of the cabinet. The kitchen was already beginning to fold into the basement, as
he pulled her out. Once outside, he saw a shadow moving in the living room, where Josh
had sealed himself, after doing loud things with Cecily that Derek had run from, ready to
kill Josh or himself or Cecily.

He staggered to the window and threw a brick. It bounced off, then a small hole
appeared and a crack. Sucked out of the sudden opening of air, smoke rushed to fill the
window, dark brown and gray, swirling, before the window shattered, and Derek fell
back. When he came to, his face felt on fire, but when he ran his fingers over his cheek,
they came away with blood and a shard of glass. He put both hands to his face, felt the
rough edges of a dozen pieces of glass, realized he was seeing out of only one eye. He
must have been unconscious for only a moment, because although the smoke had
cleared from the window, in its place a row of orange flames was just beginning to
dance. The room where Josh wavered, a smoky shadow, had devoured him. Behind
Derek, Cecily slept under the tree, her face flickering orange, and beyond, the sound of
sirens poured over the hills. A voice—hers, his, no one’s—sent him back to the woods,
run, run.

Back at school, Lucy ran up to him, something clenched in her fist. He was standing next
to the line of buses waiting to take the children home.

“Here you go, Mr. Thompson, I got this for you.”

She opened her hand and turned a jagged piece of scuffed and glittering mineral onto
his outstretched palm. He thanked her and slipped it into his shirt pocket, then hurried to
the back of the line to keep two boys from shoving their way into a fistfight. He clenched
his teeth. “Now why do you two want to go and spoil a nice day, huh?” His voice, louder
and harsher than he’d intended, surprised the children. “He started it,” they both
insisted, but climbed meekly into the bus, Derek on their heels. He got them seated, one
in back, one in the middle, and was moving back to the front of the bus, when he heard
Lucy’s voice.

“I’m going to marry Mr. Thompson some day when I get old enough.”

“How old do you have to be?” asked her seatmate.

“I’ll be sixteen and he’ll be twenty-five. That’s how old he is, I know, because I saw a
birthday card on his desk, and it said ‘Happy 25th Birthday.’”

“When you turn sixteen he’ll be forty-two or something. You can’t just freeze him till you
get old enough, Lucy. That’s retarded.”

She looked out the window, then turned back, her face lit. “Then we’ll move to Iran. Mr.
Thompson says that they lowered the marriage age down to nine.”

She caught his eyes and blushed so deeply that her brown skin took on a rosy glow
across her cheekbones. She turned to the window. He pretended not to notice.
Pulling onto Morgantown Road from the Natcher Parkway, he caught up with one of the
buses as it turned on its flashers. He waited behind the red blinking lights and extended
stop sign and looked around. It was a bright day, a stunning contrast to the darkness of
the cave, where he had—what, lost it? He shrugged it off, but the feeling of suffocation
was still fresh, and he again felt the impulse to gag. He pulled down the visor and lifted
his head so he could see the skinny legs of three girls pile out. They ran across the
road and raced up a long, paved driveway that led to a house and barn, tucked behind
a row of houses that sat closer to the road. They were older girls than his students,
longer limbed, faster, louder (well, maybe not that). He saw the driver in the gray
Mustang facing the bus in the next lane duck his head for a moment, then a fourth girl,
moving slowly, stepped across the yellow line, her arms hugging a book to her chest.
Even before he saw the Mustang leap forward and fling her back toward the bus, his
hand was on the door handle. The bus driver and the Mustang driver met him at her
side.

“Oh, sweet Jesus, I didn’t see her.”

Derek knelt beside Lucy as he pulled his cell phone off his belt, his fingers fumbling with
the 9-1-1. She watched him, her eyes darting from him to the knees of the other two.
“Where’s my mommy?”

He looked toward the house, where the three older girls had headed. Beyond them, the
front door of their house flew open and a large woman bolted down the steps. The girls
looked at her, then back toward the bus. One of them ran toward her. The other two
dropped their book bags and galloped to the bus.

“She’s coming, you just sit tight.”

The driver danced from foot to foot and clutched his hands under his armpits. “Is she
going to be okay?” Derek felt a wave of pity for him, though the bus driver snarled,
“She’d be a lot better if you hadn’t of run into her.”

Lucy tried to look past Derek, toward home. “Mommy,” she cried, and it seemed to
Derek that her voice had thinned.

When Mrs. Jackson fell to her knees beside Lucy, Derek leaned back to give them room.
“I can’t sit up. But it don’t hurt.”

Lucy’s mother looked around as though trying to decide which of the three men could
answer the unspoken question in her face. “There’s an ambulance on the way,” Derek
said. “I’ll be glad to go with her, if you want, or if you need someone to stay with your
other girls.”

The three girls clustered behind their mother. One of them leaned over and began
patting Lucy’s head.

The boy wiped his eyes. Mrs. Jackson looked up at him.

“You do this to my child?”

“I don’t know how it happened. I was changing a CD and the car just jumped.”

“You’re in deep shit,” the bus driver muttered. Behind him, the children had all piled to
the side of the bus and were staring out the windows. One boy called out, “It’s that guy’s
fault in the gray car,” and Derek held his finger up to his lips.

Mrs. Jackson turned back to Lucy and gently felt along her legs. “I don’t think these are
broke. I don’t think this is. Squeeze my hands, Lucy,” she ordered. Lucy shrank under
her bulk.

“You say you can’t sit up, Lucy?”

“What?” she seemed not to understand the question. She struggled with her tongue,
then said, “I swam to the deep end, where the bats live, Ma, but the river was lost. And
the ceiling was falling but Mr. Thompson held it up.”

“Where’d the car hit her?” She looked up at the boy.

“Her back,” he said.

“Well, then, we won’t try to move you, sugar. Those EMS folks will do that. You cold or
anything?” Lucy looked at her wide-eyed, not answering.

“I’ve got a blanket in my trunk,” the boy said. When he returned, he knelt down and
handed it to the mother.

Lucy’s skin seemed ashen, Derek thought. She stared at him and he smiled, but her
expression didn’t change. Her eyes had thickened, then they rolled back and her legs
started to shake.

“Oh, baby, what you go and do that for? Lucy! Lucy!”

Mrs. Jackson lowered her body over her, warming her or holding her still, Derek couldn’t
tell. He looked away as sirens screamed, and a police car came to a stop beside them,
then the ambulance.

He sat in the only extra chair, next to Mrs. Jackson.

Lucy’s color had returned, though she lay unmoving, her thin brown arms resting on top of the white sheets and her face covered with a mask. Tubes reached from her right arm under the flowered hospital gown to her chest.

Mrs. Jackson kept her eyes on Lucy, as though she was speaking to her. “They saw something in the x-rays. Why do you suppose the doctor would say he was surprised she never had a broken bone before today? Did it seem like she got hit hard enough to break her pelvis?”

“I really don’t know. It happened so fast.”

“Do you suppose that boy’s foot slipped off the brake when he went digging through his CDs and hit the gas pedal? That ever happen to you?”

“I rolled into another car once, sitting at a stop light. I was taking off my sweatshirt.”

“Well, when I put on the brakes they stay on.” She paused for a minute, then tapped his arm with the back of her hand, “Sometimes it feels like all I do is ride those brakes. Know what I mean?”

She stood and stretched her back. “I work in this hospital,” she said. “Up on the sixth floor, psychiatric. I have been so lucky. This is the first time any of my children has had to go to the emergency room. I been dreading the day, but you don’t wake up every day and think, this is the day something bad is going to happen.”

“No, you’d be scared all the time.”

“I wake up every morning and get my four girls ready for school. And I just trust the Lord to watch over them. They look like stair steps when you
stand them next to each other. One every two years for eight years. Lucy’s my baby.”

“I like Lucy.”

“Well, she likes you, too. It’s Mr. Thompson said this, Mr. Thompson said that. Truth be told, I was getting a little tired of you.”

“I think she wants to marry me.”

She laughed. “Now that sounds like Lucille. It surely does.” Tears seeped from her eyes. “Mr. Thompson—”

“Derek.”

“Derek, Lucy’s Daddy left at Christmas, and it’s been . . . rough on her.”

“You think that’s why—?”

“That’s why she wasn’t paying attention when she crossed the road, you know? I bet that’s the last thing she had going through her head, before that car hit her. Excuse me, Mr. Thompson, while I get aholt of myself.”

A nurse appeared at the doorway, saw Mrs. Jackson with a Kleenex and made her voice gentle. “We’re going to move her up to IC now, Mrs. Jackson. Sir.”

They followed the nurse and Lucy into the elevator and then into the IC unit, to one of the last rooms. “I like this,” Mrs. Jackson said. “It will be quieter for her back here.” Then she leaned toward Derek and whispered, “Less trouble for her to get into when she’s up and around.”

An hour passed, and when he looked up at Mrs. Jackson, he saw that she’d been watching him.

“You don’t have to stay any longer. You can check back any time.”

“I’ll stay awhile yet.”

She nodded and they went back to sitting in silence. Twice, a nurse came by and took Lucy’s vitals. He yawned, suddenly so tired he could barely keep his eyes open—the smells, the dull hum in the walls, voices from the hallway, disembodied laughter from the nurses’ station—together, a narcotic.

After the fire, he’d gone to another room, on another floor, where he’d spent two days, sick to his stomach. During that time his face had been worked on three times. Although he’d intended to run into the woods and then away, he wound up on the same county road that the police took as they led the ambulance away from the burning house. He overheard them in the ER, standing outside his room. They were telling the nurse how they found him.

“He looked like Freddy Kruger coming toward us, walking down the middle of the road. We pulled over and he was talking crazy. I waved the ambulance down and Bennie there took one look at him and put him in the back with the girl.”

The nurse spoke: “We’re pulling the shards we can see out. He’s been real still, just stares at the ceiling. If you push down on a piece he just clenches his jaw.”

He felt a tear escape his eye and roll down his cheek.

“You all right, child?”

He nodded and sat up straighter. “Bad memories is all.”

“You been here before?”

He reached up and touched a scar on his chin, his right cheekbone, his forehead, over his left eye.

“Did you walk into a glass door or something? My cousin did that. Wasn’t as lucky as you though.”

“No, it was more like a window coming out to meet me.”

“You mean an explosion?”

He nodded and looked out the door toward the nurses’ station. He felt his mouth drop. “And right out there is the person who almost died with me.”

He stood, knocking the chair back. He straightened it and stepped to the corner of the room. Mrs. Jackson leaned over so she could see into the hall.

“Well, if you’re talking about the pretty brown-haired girl with those big round glasses, she’s heading this way.”

“Don’t tell her I’m here.”

He slipped into the bathroom, where he could hear their voices through the door. “There’s a new shift coming on and I’m one of the nurses. My name’s Cecily. How’s she doing?”

There was more, but he couldn’t catch their words. Someone rapped at the door. “Derek? The coast is clear.”

He pulled the chair back into the corner and sat down.

“Old girlfriend?”

“We got into a lot of trouble together, you can’t begin to imagine, and she doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

Lucy’s hand moved and Derek pointed to her. Mrs. Jackson leaned over. “Hey there. How’re you doing, baby?”

She opened her eyes and tried to smile. “My head hurts.”

“Did you see Mr. Thompson here? He’s been waiting the whole time. Come here, Mr. Thompson, and say hello.” She stepped back to allow Derek room to stand next to the bed.

Lucy’s face lit up momentarily when she saw him, then she turned away. “I thought you didn’t like me no more. I made you embarrassed.”

“Nah, nothing like that. I’m proud of you.”

“And this lady here is one of your nurses. Her name is Miss Cecily, and she and Mr. Thompson are old friends, isn’t that right?” she spoke directly to Cecily.

Cecily’s eyes widened and the color went out of her face. She had stepped back, the desire to flee written across her face.

“Mr. Thompson is my teacher,” Lucy explained. “Do you still have that gem I gave you, Mr. Thompson? You put it in your pocket up there.”

He patted the pocket, felt the lump, and reached in.

“I thought maybe you could hang it in a window or something.”

“That’s a good idea. In fact, maybe we can do that right now. Is there a piece of string we could use?” Mrs. Jackson looked pointedly at Cecily.

“I think I can find some thread,” she murmured.

Touching her hand as he took the thread from her sent a jolt through him. He wished he could see if she’d been affected, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the sight of his fingers fumbling with the thread. He could feel her watching.

He laughed. “I can’t get my fingers to work.” He handed it to Mrs. Jackson. She had no problem getting a knot around the rock and a length for hanging it. She handed it back to him.

He tied the end around the bottom of the raised shade. The rock hung down, catching the light.

They all turned to look at Lucy, but she was asleep.

“Well, then, I guess that’s it for now.” Cecily turned to go.

Mrs. Jackson reached for her hand. “I reckon you have a break sometime and wouldn’t mind taking Mr. Thompson here down to the cafeteria for something to eat and some coffee, now would you?”

She flushed, then nodded and gave Mrs. Jackson a tight smile. “Sure, I can do that. If you’re here that long,” she added, glancing his way. “I wouldn’t want to keep you waiting.”

“Oh, he’s not going anywhere. Are you, Mr. Thompson. He wants to make sure my Lucy’s going to be okay.”
“I didn’t know you were working in intensive care,” he said, after they’d gone through the line and picked up a slice of lasagna for him and a chef’s salad for her.

“I wouldn’t expect you to know much about me anymore.”

“I’m surprised they hired someone with your record, what with all the narcotics around here.”

“My police record is sealed. Look, if you have something to say, here’s your chance. But I won’t talk about the past.”

“Are you seeing anyone?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“Why are you so mad at me?”

She sighed and stabbed a fork into her salad. When she spoke this time, her voice quavered. “I’m not mad at you per se, I’m just not interested in reconnecting with old acquaintances from my miserable youth.”

“Acquaintance. That’s one word for it, I guess.”

He worked at dissecting the lasagna. She pushed a tomato around with her fork.

“Can I tell you something without you walking away or getting sore?” He watched her eyes for another sign of alarm.

“I’ve grown up, Derek, I don’t think anything you say can undo me.”

“You’re undoing me right now, and I don’t care if you know that.”

“Are you trying to tell me you’re still in love with me? You shouldn’t be. Why do you want to hang on to something that—” She closed her eyes, looking for the word, “—that old?”

“Maybe I don’t want to. Maybe I’d be happy as a lark if I could just erase you from my mind. Maybe I’d like to start over with some girl with a pretty face and a nice personality, but I’ve got this little problem. Every time I go out with someone who matches that description, I get bored. I get annoyed. It’s like I can’t get close to anyone.”

“And that’s my fault?”

He shoved the plate to the other end of the table, reached across the space, and pulled her hand toward him. She resisted but he held on.

“I haven’t touched anything for five years, Cecily. Well, maybe alcohol, every so often. If I see someone from the old crowd I turn and go the other way. I put myself through school and have a good job now, where these cute little kids look up to me. That little girl upstairs would rather sit by me than any of her classmates, and when I’m swamped with work and she pulls on my arm to get my attention, it’s like I set myself to the side, on a shelf. Because that’s what it feels like to be there for someone.”

“That’s very touching.”

“I’d forgotten how cynical you are.”

“I’m glad you pulled yourself together, I really am. I’m still doing it, every day. No matter what you say, you were never that bad off. You look back at us and things get a soft focus and they start playing violins, or some shit. I look back at us and I feel a fist around my throat.”

He felt like a balloon the day after the party, floating around the empty room, four feet above the floor, and sinking lower. He looked down at the top of her head as he stood. He could see by the set of her jaw that she was listening.

“I know you, Cecily, better than you know yourself. You don’t like me saying that. But all I’m saying is that there came a day when I looked into your heart and saw something so beautiful I couldn’t breathe. We screwed it up, and I’m not saying who did worse, but if you tried, you might see that you can be around me and not go back to the way things were. You might see why I’m willing to stand here humiliating myself. . . . I’m going back up to see Lucy now, and then I’m going home. I’m in the book. The ball’s in your court.”

His heart pounded as he raced to the elevator. “You’re my man of few words,” she used to say. Hadn’t he shown her another side, just now? Except for that line about the ball in her court. Maybe the one about looking into her heart and seeing something beautiful. She hated sayings like that. He, on the other hand, seemed unable to resist them. Just don’t do it, she used to say. You deserve a broken jaw today. I’m not worth it.

Still, it had felt good. He walked back into Lucy’s room smiling.

“You look like you just won the lottery.”

“Has she woken up again?”

“Nah, but she’s sleeping good. They’re going to wheel in something for me to lie down on. You go on now, you been here for hours. I know a young, good-looking man like you has got to have plenty of pretty girls wondering where you are.”

“Don’t be too sure, Mrs. Jackson.”

She stood as he approached to give her a hug. “You’re a real gentleman, sure enough,” she said, squeezing his back. Tears stood in her eyes. “I can see why my daughter thinks so highly of you.”

The 440 Main bar was long and dark. The ironwork tables had been moved out front, facing Fountain Square. He left a note on his
apartment door, indicating where he was, just as he’d done every night for the past week. There had been no phone messages, no calls, and he’d stopped looking. But he couldn’t stay there, either, oppressed by his things, with the spring breezes drawing him out. He watched people drive by, looking for a parking spot, watched them approach, then go inside, watched them leave, some of them wavering as they stepped back to their cars, watched them drive away.

The blue-rising girl with the long hair drove by, and their eyes met. She parked. She stepped out of her car, tossed her head as though she was doing a commercial for Pepsi-Cola. Her steps were long and purposeful. She glanced at him as she passed, but didn’t stop. Several minutes later she re-emerged with a tall drink.

“Do you care if I join you?”

He pushed a chair from the table with his foot and gestured for her to take it.

“I’ve been seeing you around a lot lately. You followed me the other day, weren’t you?”

“I was curious.”

“Are you a sicko?”

“Nope. Are you disappointed?”

“A little. What happened to your face?”

“I got jilted.”

“That’s happened to me before, too. But it didn’t have that effect on my face.”

“You sure about that?” He reached over and drew a line down her cheek. “Because I’m pretty sure I see a pale line right here, running down from the corner of your eye.”

“You’re kind of poetic, aren’t you? Are you a student?”

“I’m a teacher. Third graders.”

“I’m a grad student. I live on 11th Street. But I guess you know that already.” She smiled and said hello to someone passing by.

He tapped the knuckles of her hand. “You don’t know what you’re getting into, do you?”

“Not really. Do you?”

“You want to go for a walk?”

Her hand was warm and dry, her bones long. Her fingers curled around his. Twice she bumped into him and apologized, saying she had a habit of listing whenever she walked next to someone. Her eyes caught the streetlights as they passed under them and she looked up. When they turned off of Chestnut, his street, onto 11th, she stopped. “We got here fast.”

He thought, I’ll kiss her and if that’s okay, I’ll stay. He could feel her heart hammering against his chest, her breath against his mouth. He liked it that she was as tall as he was.

“I’m scared,” she murmured. “I don’t even know you.”

“If you want, I’ll leave. Give me your number and I’ll call you next week.”

“I’m scared you won’t.”

“Are you always this scared?”

“I’m never this scared.”

He spoke into her ear, “How about if we walk back to 440 and get our cars. I’ll drive slow, and if you want, you can follow me. I live on Chestnut. You can come see my apartment. I’ll cook you some linguini. We’ll eat. Then you can go. It will be normal, you’ll see.”

“I never liked normal, but it doesn’t sound too bad, the way you describe it.”

When they reached her car, he said, “Do you ever test the future, to see if it’s going to measure up?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, I haven’t been very good at it lately.” He laughed. “In fact, I suck at it. But, for instance, if the second kiss is better than the first, then you’ll follow me to my place. If it’s not, then we’ll call it quits. Before we even get started.”

She thought about it a moment, then said, “Like the other day when you drove past and looked at me and I recognized you from the
Laundromat, I thought, ‘If his brake lights go on, that means he’s going to come by and see me. But if they don’t, I’ll never see him again.’”

“You’re not very good at this either.”

“Maybe we just haven’t been doing it right.” She leaned against him.

Aside from the intoxication he felt when her mouth opened to his—that was worth the price of admission—it would be nice to open up the other way, to place his words next to the words of someone else, someone in the flesh, who liked to be touched. Someone who looked at him and saw more than ruin.

Besides, waiting was for the birds.

 

Jane Olmsted teaches at Western Kentucky University.  She is co-editor of the Kentucky Feminist Writers Series.  Their latest volume, I to I:Life Writing by Kentucky Feminists was published in November, 2004. Ms. Olmsted’s writing has appeared in Poetry Northwest, Nimrod, Kalliope, Beloit Fiction Journal, The Louisville Review, Slow Trains, and A Kentucky Christmas. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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