There’s a fire somewhere over the ridgeline and the river hasn’t frozen like it usually does this time of year and the line at Fred and Willow’s Sundries and Forevers is backed up all the way to Molly, doll 33 of 250 ever made. They still inventory everything by hand, going in and out.
Ethan’s buying a necklace, Item #75468. He’s already late to dinner. It will be obvious he’s forgotten the anniversary and just stopped at the antique store on the way there (he left his house on the east side of town at exactly their reservation time) to try and get a gift. Old things seem more thoughtful than new ones. If you pluck something old out of forgottenness, it shows you have cared enough to return, to revisit, to revitalize that thing and say: there is still value here. As if to say: There is something others missed that only I can see, and I have seen it, and I would like to try again. To bring the past back to the present.
If Claire dumps Ethan tonight it will not be the first time. At the front of the line, something prompts the clerk to make a call on a landline phone the color of a dirty old wallet. “I know what she’s saying,” the clerk says. “But that doesn’t make it true.”
There was the time with the dog grieving process where he had been unhelpful (her word) and the thing with the car and the time Claire said Ethan was responsible for Jackie the Lizard’s untimely death (who is responsible for knowing everything that will or will not kill a lizard?) and the time on the park bench in the morning and the issue over how to pack the car for the trip (that was actually about the fact that they still hadn’t moved in together, then or now) and the summer they both had busy jobs and surely some other time Ethan’s forgotten.
“Well then what percentage? Because tell you what I know it isn’t thirty-five off like she says. And it’s nothing in the system,” the clerk says.
Ethan jams the necklace into his jacket pocket. It is a metal locket painted red like lips, split in the middle with a stiff hinge so you have to pry the two halves apart like you’re taking foil-wrapped chocolate from a dog’s mouth. The paint is chipped and uneven. It’s been redone a few times. The inside is just regular silver. You can see a deformed version of yourself if you squint hard enough from far enough away. It should be filled with little silver teeth instead, Ethan thinks, and then he makes eye contact with the camera above the door and reflexively puts his hand up in front of his face and keeps walking, stops walking, reconsiders, drops his hand from his face and looks as normal as possible. His face reddens when he pushes through the door and hits the air outside. It is cold, and he realizes that putting his hand up is a little bit of an admission of guilt. He could have just walked out. He decides not to text Claire to let her know he will be late. He will show up with a smile as if he is on time. Maybe they’ll both be able to just pretend.
When Ethan gets to Sugarsteak’s (the best dinner steak on the east side of the midtown rivulet!), he sits dark in the car and plans what to say. The neon is already on and everything is tinged red and white. Should he pretend to have gotten the reservation time wrong? Wouldn’t work, he made the reservation and told her what time. Apologize? Maybe he’ll lead with the gift. I waited in line for an hour, he’ll say. A thing that could have been true under different circumstances. Maybe say nothing. Order a big, mid-priced bottle of wine and fold that into the gift. Dinner, drink, necklace, silence. I just couldn’t come until everything was perfect, he’d say. Tell her about the ankle-deep rejected outfits on his bedroom floor. That he just couldn’t show up until he looked like he deserved to be eating with someone like her. He is wearing a denim jacket and puddle-stained sneakers. Maybe he’ll run home, change, come back. It makes him even later. But the story would work. Ethan wonders if Claire is worried about him. Maybe he’s dead in a ditch, she’s thinking. Driving too fast to come and find her. Love-addled into a telephone pole or a roadside calvary. But when he checks his phone, there is nothing but fire and wind notifications. If you’re worried someone’s dead, you would probably text, at least. The fire is on the ridgeline now, the sky smoked in half like a child’s hand-drawn landscape split lengthwise by a forest of triangles.
When the host tells him that actually no, he’s not late, no one ever showed up for that particular reservation at all and the table’s already given away and they won’t have a single table free for at least twenty minutes though, of course, he’s welcome to wait at the bar, Ethan drives away without argument. The foothills fixed in the middle of his windshield forever in front of him. Spare clouds hang like nets in the sky above. On the radio, they are talking about the fire, which is still hovering on the ridge, as if it will decide on its own whether to sweep down toward the plain and the town, as if it makes the decision on its own and is just waiting for more information. As if the wind and the dry conditions and the Industrial Revolution and every preceding event that brought it to the ridgeline in the first place have not already decided whether it will throw itself over or not. Instead, smoldering, eating itself to keep burning at all. Someone must have camped in the wrong place, they are saying. Or tossed a lit cigarette carelessly. Or fireworks. Or some dumb party idea, or maybe lightning, though it is true that it is nearly never just lightning. There is almost always blame to give out, and now there is a commercial break for renter’s insurance.
Ethan’s phone flashes in the cupholder and he takes his eyes off the road. It is just another warning about the fire. They are not evacuating, yet. Go about your normal business. He feels the wheel wiggle as he drifts between lanes, but he is alone on the road and so there are no consequences. He thinks of what he would say to Claire on the phone. Nothing important reveals itself to him. At the most important of moments, he knows, he will find the right thing to say. He dials Claire’s number and listens to it ring until he reaches her voicemail.
“Hi, it’s Ethan. I’m calling because I wanted to just say that we did have dinner plans tonight and the waiter said, well, I was there and you weren’t and I just thought that was odd. You know, I put some thought, and I don’t know what all this is about but. My parents used to wash my mouth with soap when I would say anything wrong and I think we should think about that more. Like, I was trained to really think everything through so I don’t know why all of a sudden I need the right thing to say at all times with no notice. One time, I actually remember, it was a bunch of times, and sometimes they wouldn’t have a bar of soap because everyone used body wash and so it would be a Dixie cup and liquid soap like dish soap and I would have to rinse until I could just drink water from the cup. Which of course, if you tried to do that today? Boy! I say all that to say, of course, I would want to hear from you and that’s about it. Have a nice night.”
When he gets home, everything is quiet. He guides the door shut and hangs the necklace on the doorknob, where it is so small and silver where the paint has rubbed away that it is forgotten for many days. The fire quits just on the ridgeline and everyone in town, later, will talk about how bad it could have been. But it wasn’t. That night, not even Ethan’s neighbors hear him come in.