My new book Nights Without Rain contains 50 brief stories, and this is the newest story of the bunch and the last one added before publication. Signed copies of the book are available and you can find both print and digital versions at Amazon. I hope you enjoy!
Ages of Us
Incandescent afterglow 3 a.m. where the streetlights stain brick walls and dumpsters yellow, orange, filthy neon silent in the southern nights, cigarette ash on my shirt, on the floor, out the door to the broken pavement where the wind carries everything away in time, nothing really yours, never will be mine. I cannot afford a motel room and I cannot afford to call her again. All that is left is the rest of her cigarettes in this pack that I’m burning through one by one and the single REM cassette she left in the dash radio, Dead Letter Office.
It plays on near-muted repeat, insufficient willpower to turn it off, up, or change anything. Drinking Jameson dregs from a pocket bottle all the way down until it’s just the taste of glass on my lips, dull and bitter. Held up to the light, the bottle reflects a dead street, a blurry line in the sand, empty hours approaching 4 a.m., dawn, and whatever comes after.
It was the long drive through Vermont that started it all, a silver creek running along the back dirt road to an A-frame she knew was empty for the summer. We stayed a week, driving into town to find food and liquor and things to talk about.
We met at a party in the town of Hudson and decided to drive north, easy as that.
Want to go for a drive?
And the days took hold, along with black flies that swarmed our eyes during long walks through the forest, but at night they disappeared as we’d slip into that silver water rushing, stony footholds, orchestral turmoil, sweet and daring, holding hands to keep balance. Nocturnal extravagance in the earthen pitch of night. Wet as all things when they begin.
A derelict honeymoon of stupid love.
She began smoking again in Nashville after some good panhandling and stealing quarters from pool tables. We both had the look now, dark rings under our eyes at all hours, unshakable desires that glued our piecemeal existence to one another. We would take the money and feed jukeboxes up and down the back streets where the tourists fade to distant shadows and blinking lights. Her weight against my weight as she played all her favorites: Dead Letter Office, Chronic Town, Life’s Rich Pageant, Document...
She ran her finger down through the condensation along the side of my glass of whiskey and anointed my forehead with a thick bead of water, a blessing. “St. James of New York,” she said, and I asked, “Patron Saint of…?”
In the neon dim of the bar we would pray over glasses and bottles and jostle elbows among rising plumes of smoke and circular stains of dampness on bar tops. Halos cast aside by long dead sinners and saviors. Holy nights of music and her finger wet with condensation, her lips a eucharist I gratefully accepted and returned with all the fumbling grace I could muster, leaning into the night and neon of the bar. We ate the music and stole any drinks we could scrounge up, leftovers, free popcorn at this bar, peanuts at that one. We slept in a parking lot down by the river with legs entwined and music whispering from the dash. She was never far from music, never far from the home we built within one another.
Outside the car the remains of her cigarettes scattered as the wind carried everything away in its own good time.
“Going west is going home,” she said, “all of us going home.”
In Tujunga, CA we ate at diners and would watch for unattended tips left too long on tables, coffee going cold. We got by like that, but by that point our silence with each other stung and we worked that pain like a tongue into a dead tooth stinging long and deep and undeniably pleasurable despite the gutting pain. There was a bar there with red leather booths that opened at ten in the morning and we’d go, play pool, watch the TV showing black and white movies with LuBelle the bartender on weekday mornings.
It was nearby in Montrose where she met the country club chef, tall and rangy and funny, so it wasn’t long before we lost track of one another. The west held little else for me despite the months I spent holding on to any scrap of life that tumbled by, and when I heard she was not long for this world I tried to find her again. But the nurses said she only cried when they told her I was outside waiting, and they would not allow me through.
I like to think that whatever remained of her after the ravenous transition of her body ascended into the fog and warm California nights, thick with condensation and holy silence. I like to think she rose northward beyond Los Padres and Morro Bay, beyond the Big Sur wilderness and the aimless seagulls calling her death song, flying in damp rings in the sky, the lights of Monterrey and Santa Cruz like distant bar signs, calling us home.
But not my home yet. We had lost something at every dot on the map when we headed west, so I headed east, hoping to find a few of those pieces along the way. But whatever I found only made the loss hurt more, made the glaring absence in the passenger seat just goddamn intolerable.
Now, through the blur of windshield rain, the lampposts all catch fire and explode in the 5 a.m. light. The Jacksonville dawn edging on, dashboard clock dead, instincts ticking that internal clock toward the last grain of sand. I’m sobering up now and thinking maybe I’ll drive until I find a boat ramp and roll this old Honda into the sea to find what the land and all its cities have kept for itself all these years, jealous of all us wanderers and what we seek.
I’ll go down there into another age, down into the cool deep, where the holy jukebox music cannot go, where the fire cannot follow. It might be worth it to find her again, and it couldn’t be any worse than this chronic sort of life without.