Summer has not yet fully crashed into us, but already the sun lifts like steam over the creek bed. I suppose the land will shut down one day, and everything will float away, rude of my history and prickling sins. But, Jesus, this sunrise, these soft handfuls of clouds and wet bowed lights: where do I stand now?
I saw her in that moment, a dull résumé of obscurity and omission. Her hair cut short by dull blades, bourboned coffee cup on an uneven picnic table, an overturned diaper bag by her feet, spilling out cigarettes and Tic Tacs and dollar store lube. There were healing razor lines on her forearms, and scrawls on her thigh, a graffiti’d fa-la of punk and blue ink coiling on her calf, twining down to her ankle. A map of sorts, for the illiterate or lazy, those too incurious to ask. She was still a work in progress, she might have said, with freckles on her nose that went deeper than just skin, but no one asked about the girl she was. They saw those lines and spirals, sensual scribbles that meant something to someone, and they thought they had her figured out. The lines were a rough sketch of her life; esoteric more than erotic, really, but no one wanted to translate the scripture. I wanted to know, but I would never ask, and she would never tell.
You said our wedding rings should be shoelaces. I suggested dandelion chains, but your idea seemed better. So the dandelions, and a few yellow-wearing ants, became your bouquet. You said you didn’t mind. I placed the bunch under your chin, and you asked if the reflection on your skin was the color of butter. It said it was, and it was.
There was no ceremony, no preacher or guests, just you and me and the juncos and the plovers and whatever creatures showed up but declined to chase us away. It was a pretty day, full of air and whispery sounds. You said it was as if we drew ourselves into a coloring book and July crayoned us in.
We were without guile, you and I, guilt, or greed. We said our I do’s on a rough swath of buffalo grass, you giggling, me stammering, neither of us paying any mind to what this was supposed to mean. Maybe it seemed a bit pagan, making up our vows as we went along, but we spoke as seriously as we could, and the words splashed on us like rain water as we tried to say everything we felt, everything we hoped. I know I felt a shiver when we tied the laces around each other’s finger. I think you did, too.
“I do,” you said.
“I do,” said I.
And you at seventy-seven and me at eighty-three, we probably should know better. And so we do, but this we shall finish.
This is a place of unremarkable geometry, of hand hewn beams and reclaimed cabinets, of cotton curtains and poplin tablecloths.There are stout lines built around her silly feminine froth. You might savvy her girlish moods: the bright New Orleans yellow in the hallway, or maybe the baby doll figurines on the bookcase. But don’t forget, this is my home, and it is a place of unremarkable cruelties.
There are stains in my study that look like ketchup, but are not. There are sudden movements that turn on all the security lights.There is a smell that is barely masked by the nine dollar dirt that feeds her windowsill herbs.
I’ve heard all these sounds before, but this one is closer, and I know why. There is a man on the other side of the door, limping, wet from the chase. He beats on the glass with the heel of his hand. I turn on the porch light because I know. I’ve been expecting him for twenty years, back from a time when my life was fraying. He took the left road and I took the right. I don’t want to see him now — for us to see each other, really — but his t-shirt is torn from armpit to belly, and I swore to him. He is older now, of course he is, but his eyes still show his fury, and mine have turned soft and careless.
“Richard,” was the only word he had to say, and I knew it was time.
Can you imagine the doubt on their faces when I tell them?
Happy birthday, you old bastards, I’ll sing, and it’ll knock the bejesus out of them. They’re brothers of long-dead other mothers. That’s their in-joke, their hashtag, their pathetic frame of reference.
Oh, I’ll sing, but they’ll barely hear me. They’ll be waiting for the echos to catch up. They’ll be thinking about their measured ex-wives, or that deliciously wounded every-second-Tuesday lover, and all those wonderfully generic gals who sang said-song in an oven-warmed kitchen, or around a Comfort Inn pressboard desk. Oh, and there was cake and ice cream and I.W. Harper bourbon for later, and maybe, just maybe, a few more years left in the tank.
Oh, these boys will laugh about it in the daylight, sure, but at night, when the lamps are dimmed, all those doubts will prop their eyes open for a helluva long evening.
They are old men, and they look to me for reassurance. Do they think I can free them of age? As long as their boyhood faces are still reflected back at them, yeah; yeah, I’m sure they do. They’ll act wounded, but they’re still – still! – suspicious of their mortality.
What do they see in the mirror? The messy drift of eyebrows, the musty, uneven stubble on their cheeks, the dark scars under their throats? Ha! I think they see their boyhood. Boyhoods that are unfairly hidden by low-watt bulbs, indignant shadows, jaded sleep, cataracts, horror.
Happy Birthday, I’ll sing. I always wonder if I’m being too cruel. But you know, deep down, I think they know. And they know who I am. That’s my in-joke, and it’s one they’ll never get.