After the fire, even as the rain comes, a man will most miss what he never had.
A service had cleaned his condominium regularly but the place smelled uninhabited. Not musty or moldy, but a smell made of antiseptics and long stretches unbroken by presence. He had been away in a foreign country to work amongst the derricks and drills and the tools that draw oil from sand and water. He had been gone for an eternity of only months, and when he came back to the airless condominium, he had thought to himself that it was true, once you leave home you can never go back. After an absence any place looks like a hotel room. He took a strange satisfaction in this submission to conventional wisdom, in the way that people who do the wrong thing out of a desire to conform to the right idea justify themselves.
He deliberately and methodically unpacked his bags, hung up the shirts, pants, and filled the drawers with his other things. He wore the same cowboy boots he had worn when he left, the same boots that he had walked in working at those far-off places. He took the mail he had collected to a coffee shop down the street that had survived his absence.
He met her husband Tom before he had met her. Tom was a consultant to the company he worked for, a nervous man with a nervous laugh. After a team meeting the group went to a local place for pizza and beer and to watch football on TV. The beer was cold and the game ran in the background without sound, the lounge was too noisy for that. They watched and drank and talked and passed the time over red checkered tablecloths. The servers were all young women. Young women do their probationary period in the workforce in service industries. Then they are gone. They go on to better jobs, or to marriage and children, or something else, losing the uniforms and name tags to the past.
Tom saw him looking at the servers and without a hint of his usual nervousness told him, “It is true that all women are beautiful, each in her own way. The secret is in feminine proportion. A woman’s soul resides lower in her body than a man’s does. If you place your hand on her belly, below her navel where it rounds a little, you can feel the place. That gentle curve matches the curve of the horizon, and other permanent things. With the cup of your hand or even with both hands you can hold her gently there and feel that curve. This is her center of gravity, and that is why she is beautiful.”
It was an odd comment. The others had stopped to listen, and for a moment there was silence.
“So where is a man’s center of gravity? He asked Tom.
“Same place,” someone said, before Tom could say anything. They all laughed and went back to watching football.
Once at the coffee shop, he ordered the largest black coffee they would sell him and went through his mail. The caffeine eased into him. He liked mail, the speed and convenience of electronic documents were for another generation. The pace of written communication satisfied him. The letters of his own hand were printed now, deliberate lines born of the commercial literacy that comes from filling out forms and templates and logbooks. His cursive was lost to the past like the servers' name-tags. Handwriting, printing especially, is the speed of thought and not the speed of reaction, which is what electronic communication or even the telephone demands.
“I heard you were back in town.”
He looked up. The man was a friend from his company, an acquaintance. The best kinds of friends have less than real familiarity. They know enough to like you, but not enough to ascribe fault.
“Look, we’re having a few friends over. It’s the long weekend and we are going to burn something on the barbecue and have a few beers. You’re invited, and don’t say you’re not coming. Not many people – just company people but only the good ones – no auditors.”
They laughed at the shared joke. No auditors. Every tribe has some undesirables.
He gave his assurance, “I will be there.”
Coming back from the far-away places he had been working was a kind of immigration. He left one life, lived another, and then came back into a new one. Working abroad is a purgatory made bearable by an excess of remuneration. No one who has ever had to work away from their native land disrespects money. You only belong with those who live the same way.
His friend left and he finished his coffee. He went back to the condo and into the garage to see to his car. Stored for these many months under canvas like a sculpture, the steel of the door was cool to the touch. He had not driven the car in the months that he was gone but he set about to change the oil. Who changes their own oil these days? Cars have become the province of specialists. His car was vintage, black and chrome, and hand-fitted body panels. Collectors would argue for a car like this with passion and pay a premium to possess one. It was powered by a V8 with the strength that comes from size. Classic muscle-cars are, as a matter of design, built from an esthetic where form follows only the function of power and not of more subtle considerations. Power comes from an anabolic mass of cubic inches. It was made to run hard, not to glide through the air or to save trees; being so, it is sublime. This was the manifest destiny of the oil business; to provide the raw materials to pour an animated soul – a soul of fire - into something perfectly made to receive it.
In his garage with the radio on and some tools in his hands he was finally at home. The radio rock n’ rolled with songs made with six strings and black leather jackets. Rock n’ Roll is America’s gift to itself. The radio sang and the oil was changed and the car was dusted and ready to run.
Someday a man will invent a vehicle that runs on water. When this happens, other men will have to go forth and draw the water upon which it runs.
They had met at the office. She had come in to pick Tom up. Tom had complained all day about his car being in the shop and having to rely on her for transportation.
“So, you are Tom’s better half?” He asked her when she came in. “Look, I’ll never remember you by your name, so I’ll call you by your initials. Don’t mind. That’s how I remember people.”
He laughed when he said it.
She laughed back, “Just call me J.”
“J it is.”
This was their inside joke. Her name did not start with J. Inside jokes are dangerous. A private joke is a trust born from a particular affection that might precede love. She was wearing a dress, navy blue, with small white dots. Her hair was blond, a blond the color of honey and cinnamon, pulled back away from her face into a short ponytail.
She was so beautiful, her eyes so blue.
He stood still. He forgot to shake hands with her. She noticed and smiled and took his hand. Sometimes, only sometimes, someone else knows what you are thinking. Guard yourself. Love this person or stay away.
They made love only three times. Twice in his truck, his company truck, the first time parked in the rain in the back lot of a church. It was an old church with walls of quarried stone, a copper roof green with age, and stained-glass windows with images of saints. Trees screened the parking lot from most of the street and hid them from passers-by. They were alone. The saints in the windows looked into the church and away from them and for this she had laughed and said that they must be quiet, people might not see but the saints might hear. A man can say anything but shouldn’t, wives and mothers should but can’t. To speak is to confess. He fell in love in her, in complicity with silence.
He held her and they kissed, kissed hard, for a long time. They did not speak again. Their breath, heavy and deliberate, fogged up the windows of the truck and they marked this mist with the palms of their hands and the tips of their fingers as they came together, like people underwater, climbing one another to breathe, then sinking beneath the water and beneath each other to embrace again. When they were done, they got out of the truck and he stood behind her and held her. The rain poured over him, as hard as her kisses, and he was her shelter. Her back was towards him and she reached up and cradled him around his neck, reaching up and back with her arms, tilting her head to the side. He breathed in deeply the scent of her hair and held her, one hand high across her collarbone and the other low, below her waist, and he felt her center of gravity in the soft swell of her belly. She broke the embrace first and then walked to her car without looking back.
The last time they were together she came to him at the condominium. She did not speak. They made love without urgency, languid, silent even in the absence of the saints. She didn’t stay to sleep. In her absence he missed that. Strange, he thought, how a man misses something he has never had. He imagined her sleeping body next to him, dreaming her into the spring or fall when the outside air is cool and the windows are open to the night. There is a specific time in the morning, before sunrise but after first light, wherein the pale blue glow before dawn you can still see the brightest star. He imagined her in this light. He imagined waking to see her sleeping, sweet and dreamless, sunk into the bedding with the gravity particular to sleep.
He wanted to watch forever, but he felt this without understanding, or believing, that a moment is all you get. He imagined this moment and it was his favorite memory of her, an imaginary one, the one he returned to on sleepless nights spent on foreign soil. What did she look like sleeping? He knew because he believed he knew.
He drove to the barbecue in the heat of the late afternoon. It was a hot day but he drove with the air conditioning off. He liked it that way, hot, but with the windows rolled down, only the speed of the vehicle to make a breeze. He set the wine on the passenger seat, the bottle a dark red like death with a formal white label, brilliant in the sun. He rowed through the gears with easy precision. Given a choice he would always drive a standard. Manual transmissions were built for men like him. Now it is possible to have a computer shift a transmission at a perfect moment with accuracy that cannot be matched by any human hand but there are hands that crave the feeling of the shift and there should always be automobiles built for them.
When he got to the residence of his friend he parked, gliding easily between cars parked on the opposite side of the street. He took the wine and his keys across the street and up two steps at a time in the same boots he always wore . He let himself in, into an entryway floored in a laminate now popular. Shoes lined the walls of the entryway, but no boots. It was the social convention of his peers – you can wear good cowboy boots anywhere and your good boots are always welcome upon the expensive floors of the homes of your friends.
Once through the hallway, he went through the kitchen and into the backyard, where the late afternoon fiesta was held. The barbecue smelled of heat and smoke. The wives of his co-workers were all seated, their children playing around them on the grass. There is a particular self-sufficiency of the wives of men who work abroad, these women who must run a household by themselves. Everything proceeds according to a plan with wives, whereas their men labored far away without plans in the same sense but with strict adherence to process. So here it was that these women sat and talked amongst themselves, interrupted only by their children and by introductions, while the men congregated around the smoke of the fire and talked of their work or of golf or of cars.
He knew everyone there.
“Did you bring the car?”
He and his host shook hands again, right hands clasped and left arm holding the other man’s upper arm in the half-hug, half embrace that was the privilege of those who are friends more than colleagues.
“You know I did. If I could only drive it one day a year, it would be a day like this”.
“Let’s go have a look-see”.
The two walked out, back across the street to the car. The friend had brought two cans of beer with him, the cans still hanging in the plastic webbing of the six-pack.. Condensation gleamed on the cans and they sparkled in the sun. They got to the car and he popped open the hood and lifted it up. They drank and talked of chrome and cubic inches and the oil business that sustained them all.
Their beer done, so cold and good it tasted only like “more”, he brought the hood down with the hard and sharp sound of steel closing against steel. He could see back down the crescent and across to the front of the house and he could see her car parked. It was the same car that she had driven to the office to pick up Tom on the day that he had first seen her and could not touch her hand, and the same car that she had driven away from him in the rain, away from the church where the Saints had kept their faces turned. He knew it by shape and by form like he knew her by taste and by smell. He had not seen her go in.
“Shitty thing, what happened with Tom.” his friend interrupted. He had leaned back on his heels, rocking in the way that men with bad backs do.
“Yes.” he said, or thought, he couldn’t really hear himself speak, and he felt the saints turn their gaze upon him. He looked over at his friend and saw that the man was just stating a fact.
“No note. No reason. He just did it. You know, he wasn’t part of the company, old Tom, but he helped us get work. You don’t need me to tell you that. The kids are all right I guess, but it’s a helluva thing. The wives are still close with her. They rallied around her, took her in. She and the kids are here today. These women, they have their own rules and while you and I do what we do out in nowhere-land they just kind of stick together.”
His friend ran his hand over the car’s sheet metal, up and down each side, the rear quarters and the spoiler, and around the gentle perfection of the fender flares.
“Have I told you how much I love your car?”
“Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ! Did you see that?”
It was all he could hear. He had been in the corner with the directional drilling supervisor discussing the travel arrangements for the next job. He would be going far away and for the first time in a long time he had not wanted to go. He heard the voice, thin and hoarse, high-pitched with fear and surprise. He had seen accidents on drilling rigs before, and he knew the tone even if he didn’t know who was shouting. He thought that there had been an accident. Slowly, slowly at first he and the supervisor walked out of the office, gingerly, looking up and around as if expecting to be hit by something out of the sky. The release of adrenaline keyed by the voice was simultaneous in the two men, and each grew cold in their shirtsleeves and the flesh of their arms tightened.
Out in the office amongst the cubicles there were two groups of people. One, not so much a group but a set of individuals, had taken cover in their cubes, crouching behind chairs and partition walls. The second, the smaller group, crowded against the windows overlooking the parking lot. It was from this group that the shouts came from.
“What is it!” the supervisor shouted, moving through the crowd, “What is it?”
“Some fucking guy in a black rental car out there pulled up, got out with a double-barreled shotgun, walked up to the door, walked back to the car, and goddamn shot himself!”
The voice, the blasphemy, the commentary and the sole witness - he wouldn’t remember who it was. He knew all these people but he would not remember who said that. All he would remember is that even at that moment he had no idea who would do something like that. Who would shoot themselves in the company parking lot, on a warm day at noon in the light of the sun? What he would remember of that second in hindsight was that in that moment he was just stupid, so stupid. He had become a stone, unable to think. He got to the window and looked down at the car with its open door and the legs sticking out. Already there was blood pooling under the car door, human blood the color of which is unique and not red or purple or anything like. Those are adjectives for decoration, not mortality.
“It’s Tom,” the supervisor said, surprisingly level and calm, as if he had been confronted with the magical but had deciphered it back into the mundane. “Tom, a contractor. He helped us bid a few foreign jobs. What the hell?”
Everyone went down then, everyone except for him. The air soon filled with sirens. The police interviewed everyone in the building, but other than the announcer none had seen it as it happened. “Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ! Did you see that?” The man reiterated his own amazement like an echo.
When they came in, the supervisorgave a calm and flat description of the aftermath to the detective, as befits a supervisor. When it came his turn, he was not even asked so much as he was told. He listened to the detective repeat the other’s observations to which he merely nodded his assent.
The supervisor asked the police what or if they had found anything. “Not so far,” the cop said. Like all cops he sounded like he wasn’t saying anything in his official capacity but by his speech he conceded the definition of the case presented him. “We got a double barrel shotgun, an apparent suicide, and one shell left over. That’s efficiency. No note yet. The family is being advised. We’ll interview them too. No one here seemed to have a beef with him, no one knows anything.”
On the day he left for the faraway place he overheard someone say that Tom had billed the rental he drove to the company in his last invoice before he actually killed himself. Someone had raised the issue of declining the invoice but management stepped in and the company paid.
“Let’s go back in,” his friend said. “I’m hot and I’m thirsty.”
He could not respond. He looked at the other man for a sign. He tried but could not speak again. He thought of the rain running down the windows of his company truck in the parking lot of the church. He thought of the feel of his car’s shifter in his hand and the punch in the back when the four barrels of the carburetor opened up and of the kick of the clutch changing gears on the open road. He thought of the taste of the wine he had brought and he thought of the dress, blue and white, that she had been wearing the day he met her. He could not walk across that pavement, that lake of fire, to the door.
“I’m going to go now,” he said, his voice thin and weak. “I’m taking the car for a run out on the freeway.”
“The hell you are,” his friend said, not understanding at all in his generous mood, all cold beer on a hot day, good company, and good food. “You’ve been gone too damn long. Put in your time with the wives and with the boys. You can wear your boots in my house; we aren’t real formal around here.”
The reflection of the vehicles and the street from the plate glass windows of the house looked like the saints of the old church. Only now he was on the inside and they looked down upon him, their faces strange and their expressions impossible to decipher.
His friend, a big man and strong, put an arm around him, a hand on his shoulder and walked him up to the house. Her back was to him now, her hair still the color of honey and cinnamon and still drawn back in that ponytail. She was not wearing shoes and he could see how small she was..
“Hey, look what I found half-dead on the road” his friend shouted, overfull of happiness with the alcohol, the heat, and the company.
She turned to see him, her feet and arms bare and so tanned they were nearly the color of her hair. She is still beautiful, her eyes still blue. He keeps his hands at his sides.
“J” he said, or rather, he thought, and then “J”, and again “J”.
To speak is to confess.
He left the country three days after Tom killed himself. After the interviews with the police, he had not spoken to anyone at the company except the Supervisor, and then only to discuss the job. He got on a plane and he left.
He fell asleep on the flight and woke only when they landed. He woke to the sound of thunder and watched the rivulets of water running down the windows of the plane and he thought of her, of the quiet of the church parking lot and of her driving away without looking back, and how if he ever saw her again he would not let her go without looking. How he would hold her and call her J. She will always be beautiful, her eyes always the color of the sky before sunrise. He would not sleep again until she slept beside him and he could watch over her and see the rise and fall of her breath.