He stared down at the shirt in his hands – the once stiff denim was worn, a loose thread telling the tale of several chilly summer evenings, a pocket flap coming away at one corner. Only a couple of the buttons still matched. It was the kind of item people would toss away at the last minute, an afterthought. But it was here.
The spring breeze snaked over Bill’s cheeks, through his hair. The sun was getting low in the sky after only three hours of driving. He’d set off later than he’d wanted to. The morning had been spent pulling weeds, hanging laundry, refilling sugar bowls while Cathy was at her friend’s. Somehow, he hadn’t been able to tear himself away at the last minute, even though he’d spent the last thirty-one years dreaming of doing exactly that.
The only other car at the rest stop was an old Chevrolet with a fine coating of red dust on the sides. Beyond the single pump stood a small shack of a coffee shop, a faded cartoon rooster announcing the specials on the front sign. He could see someone in there, chatting with a woman behind the counter. The woman was laughing. He dumped the shirt on the backseat where he’d found it, next to the suitcases and cardboard boxes that had become the sum of his life thus far.
Filling up the tank, he did some calculations. At least another four hours to his brother’s place demanded a piss stop, a cup of coffee for the road. A sandwich if they had it. He made to go inside but resisted at the door. This was the kind of area where strangers made road talk, lifted their index fingers from the steering wheel as they passed each other – the country driver’s wave. Years selling fertilizer and soil nutrients had made him savvy to the quirks of the southwest, the little idiosyncrasies of the road. Bill had nothing he wanted to say.
As he turned to leave he heard the woman greet him. Too late.
Inside, he ordered coffee, nodded at the other traveler. He made a beeline for the seat at the far side of the counter, reconsidered, took a closer one instead. Ever dutiful, even with strangers. The waitress rewarded him with a slice of pie and continued her conversation with the other guy. They both seemed to have picked up that he wanted to be left alone. Either that, or they didn’t give a shit. He briefly pondered which was better.
Cathy had made apple pie like this only last week. No, hers had always been slightly gummy, the filling too sparse. He had eaten it without comment for just over three decades. Now, chewing on this vastly superior pie, he wondered why he had never said anything to her about it. A twinge in his chest told him to stop thinking. Stop remembering.
All that mattered was now. Now and the day after. Finish the pie, get to Frank’s, live your life for you and you only.
As he was looking at a road map he became aware that the man was looking at him. Bill fixed his gaze on a small collection of contours, willing the stranger to leave him alone until it became obvious what he was doing. He looked up, struggling to keep his mouth from twitching at the corner, a betrayal of resignation.
“Where you headed?” the guy’s face was open and friendly. Bill had thought him much older, in his sixties. Up close, however, he guessed him to be only a couple of years older than himself, only with thinner hair.
“Just outside Boulder.” Light, noncommittal.
The man brightened. “Not Firestone?”
“Nope, Lyons.” Bill didn’t understand why people became animated at the prospect of sharing familiar places, as if comparing notes on everyday small towns somehow unlocked hidden understanding. Where was the excitement in the familiar?
“Too bad. Interstate 76?”
“There’s a faster way. Let me see that map?” The guy scooted closer and took a pen from his shirt pocket. He scrawled lines on a napkin. “This is State Highway 7, see?” He drew a long snake down the middle. “The twenty-five. Easier to cut straight across.” He signaled to the waitress. “Could I get another refill, Deb?”
Bill looked down at the man as he explained various routes and shortcuts that Bill would forget the moment he walked out the door. He looked at him, looked at his wedding ring, and knew immediately what kind of person this was. This was the kind of guy who asked strangers for help with crossword puzzles. The kind who threw impromptu barbecues when the neighbors’ kids came home from college because his own kids were long gone and didn’t give a crap about him anymore. The kind who sat around and chatted with the wait-staff at roadside diners because the conversation had dried up between him and his wife the moment the dog had died. He could have been this guy, if he hadn’t gotten out when he did.
“So you’ll probably want to make a stopover there.” The guy put the pen away, a crude tapestry of napkins at his elbow.
“Thanks.” Bill drained his coffee and began folding the map away. He stood up to leave.
If the stranger was put out by his abruptness he was good at concealing it. A quick quirk of the space between sparse eyebrows. “Well now,” he said, putting out a hand, “safe driving.”
Bill reciprocated. It occurred to him that he had never shaken hands with someone without learning their name. That sense of duty struck again. “Bill,” he said.
“Steve. You should drop by Firestone sometime. Nice town.”
“You live there?”
“Yeah.” There was an earnestness to Steve’s face that irritated Bill more than it should have. He saw the darkness there in an instant, recognized the strains of a well-concealed familial situation that only the initiated few could notice. He saw it all.
“Oh. Well,” Bill put down some notes and pocketed the change. He was becoming restless, eager to get on the road and out of here. Free man, baby. “See you around.” The door squeaked on its hinges.
Back behind the wheel, Bill ignored the missed call notification on his phone and congratulated himself on making the right choice.
Frank’s house was spacious and Bill was glad to have an entire room to himself. No sleeping on couches. Frank and Lily were hardly at home as it was – they were still venturing into retirement and spent their time at lodges, friends’ ranches, the odd trip to the Rockies or even Vegas with their kids, grandkids.
Lily had been all pursed lips and meaningful glares when Bill had shown up. The body language between her and Frank had been unusually stilted – the sign of a recent argument. She had shown him to his room but left the bedding in the closet, put no flowers in the vase on the windowsill. He’d heard her hissing at Frank (“-if he thinks I’m going to take his side over hers….”) behind the closed door. The girls had been close.
The weeks had passed quickly. Now Bill lay in bed, watching the sycamores shed their leaves outside. His own house wasn’t even half the size of this one, and definitely didn’t have trees in the garden. From where he lay a kite could be seen peeping from the branches, a great-nephew’s recent failed voyage. This house, this whole space, was designed with kids in mind. Here, kids weren’t afterthoughts, but the main event. He thought back to the phone call from the day before.
“Come home, Dad,” Cody’s voice had sounded tired, older than his thirty years.
Bill had been looking at fertilizer samples from his boss. Now the case lay open on the floor, sachets spilling out onto the wood.
“Your mother alright? Getting the checks?”
“She misses you. It’s been – what, two months now?”
Bill’s son was a social worker all the way over in New Jersey, working with inner-city kids whose daddies didn’t love them. Cody was a good kid. He phoned his mom every weekend, had come down to see them every couple of months. Or rather, to see Cathy. Bill had never really had that play-catch-in-the-yard relationship with him. Now Cody was helping children find new people to care for them, and taking them away from the ones that didn’t.
Bill had tried to stall. “Big houses out here, Cody. About time you started thinking about getting settled down, too.” He was aware of how ridiculous he sounded.
A bitter laugh. “Dad, really?”
“It’s not the same. It’s different with your mom and me.”
Silence. The grave listening of someone who had heard the same words many times, from blacks, whites, alcoholics, schizophrenics, pedophiles.
“Dad, tons of guys go through this. It’s normal at your age-”
A flash of fireworks behind his eyes. Bill gripped the phone tighter.
“You listen Cody. I was young when… You were…”
He had almost said it out loud. An accident. He paused, shocked at how close he had come to saying the ugly truth, the root of it all. “But I did what I was supposed to. I did good by you. And your mom.”
More silence. Bill struggled, composed himself. “You know? I had stuff I wanted to do too.” His voice softened at the end, sounded almost pleading despite himself.
Finally Cody spoke. “Well, I guess you’d better go and do that, hadn’t you?” he said softly, then a click and nothing else. Bill stared at the samples, at the flowerless vase, and told himself he was doing the right thing.
Winter came, bringing with it some of the worst snows Lyons had seen for a while. Bill helped around the house, shoveled snow so Lily could back her car out. Her lip curling had gradually thawed to aloof tolerance. She sometimes packed a lunch for him when he went out to farms, home centers, clients. He would often catch her eyes on him as he turned soil over in the yard, arms crossed, her phone in her hand. He knew whom she had just been speaking to, but he never asked any questions. Nor did she tell him any details.
A few days short of Christmas Eve he rediscovered the denim shirt in the back of his car. It had dropped down to the floor and lain forgotten for the best part of eight months. He gave it a cursory sniff before he was aware of what he was doing. For a second he smelled Cathy’s white musk perfume, even though she hadn’t worn that brand for many years. He put the shirt on the backseat and began his drive back to Frank’s.
Bill let his mind wander as evening set in, bathing the road in milky blue light. Headlights from passing vehicles became watchful, wide-open eyes. Watchful, but not menacing. He felt that he was being smiled at by cars that seemed to have faces, which somehow was far more alienating than any scowl. Bill knew that this wasn’t possible, that deep down he knew that he was the problem, not the smile itself. His own shadows reduced sunflowers to weeds and greetings to curses. Friendly words of advice were a hindrance to escape from. He recalled the last time he had felt that way. He turned off to the right instead of going straight.
The WELCOME TO FIRESTONE sign was brightly colored and flanked by snow-covered spruces. The streets were almost empty. Two children tramped through slush with their mother, gloves bouncing from sleeves. A snowman smiled benignly at him from a front yard.
He drove around for a while. He had to admit that the Steve guy was right – it was a nice town, although it lacked the relative opulence of Lyons. There was something in its simplicity that was charming. The houses were small, their Christmas decorations cheery. The best way he could describe it was sincere – if towns were capable of being sincere. He wondered which home was Steve’s, if the family inside missed Steve when he was helping out travelers at rest stops.
Firestone was a lot like his own town. He had considered it cramped, claustrophobic, a necessity instead of a choice. He had never believed that people lived in this kind of place because they wanted to. Now the warm glow from the houses and taverns seemed to be gently scolding him, telling him otherwise.
Was his own house decorated this year? Would Cathy have bothered, now that she lived alone? He remembered the time he had grunted when she had shown him a new star for the tree. The time she’d shyly pointed at the fake mistletoe she’d taped to the living room doorframe when Cody was six. He remembered how he’d turned back to the television and then wished he hadn’t remembered.
It was then that he saw the Chevy parked out front of a modest little house. He saw Steve laying down salt on the driveway. The house had a yellow door. Bill’s old house had had a yellow door. In the porch light, Steve didn’t look so old, his balding head covered with a knit cap. He paused in his work to wipe at his face. Bill stared into the yellow of the living room window, saw a woman watching TV. He looked into the window and wondered if the woman was happy. He looked at Steve to see if he was happy and saw that Steve was looking right at him.
He got the hell out of there.
Bill spent Christmas Day playing with his great-nephews and nieces in the snow. He had felt awkward at first, almost hearing the creak of his limbs, limbs that had thrown no snowballs and built no snowmen for decades. Now, fairy lights twinkling in the sycamore branches, he thought of Cody. How Cody had stared in astonishment at the whiteness of the yard, had screamed uncontrollably when Bill had put snow in his mittened hand. How he had clutched his mother’s hair and turned his red little face to her jacket. He thought of the collapsing igloo they had built together, when the concept of family was still new to them all. Over the following years, Bill’s igloos had reduced in size then disappeared altogether.
That year, even Lily grudgingly admitted that the fat, cheery snowman in the backyard was the best they’d seen in a long time.
The snow thawed. Slushy lakes formed on lawns all over the neighborhood, providing additional chores for the men in the households. Bill wondered how the garden back home looked, if anyone was caring for it. He thought of old Steve over in Firestone, salting away.
Frank and he had gone out for drinks with a few of Frank’s old office buddies the night before. He had told himself he was enjoying himself, had gotten worse for wear while checking his phone, a habit he had developed over the past few weeks. There were no missed calls, no messages.
He had thrown up in the restroom, steeled himself against the wall and thought of how he had held Cathy’s hair out of the way when she was in the throes of morning sickness, like a good husband was supposed to do. He had leaned against the tiles, cellphone in hand. His thumb had hovered over the first digit but did not press down. Frank had come to fetch him a few minutes later.
Now he was back at the little rest stop with the rooster sign, looking around and feeling the effects that alcohol brings to those in their fifties. He had half expected to see the dusty Chevy, and was surprised at his disappointment that it wasn’t there. Without fully understanding what was propelling him forward, he entered the coffee shop.
No Steve guy this time, but what was her name – Deb – nodded at him. If she recognized him she didn’t let on. He removed his jacket and asked for coffee and pie.
Country music played in the background. He picked at the pie, thought of Cathy and imagined it was hers. Deb was bent over a newspaper behind the counter. She was somewhere between forty and forty-five, the concentration marring her features into another five years or so. He wondered if she was doing a crossword, and if he should offer help. Another of the odd thoughts he’d been having lately.
Two customers entered, a couple in their thirties. They only stayed long enough to ask directions and stock up on water. Bill watched them leave and listened to the music for a bit longer. Ten more minutes passed. Deb was still reading the paper when he got up to pay.
“No Steve today?” The words were out before he knew he’d spoken them.
Deb seemed to regard him properly for the first time since he came in. She paused in handing him his change, her eyebrows furrowed.
“It’s just that… I got the impression he came in a lot.” He felt the heat on his face. And I need to ask him some stuff, he added silently. He could feel Deb trying to place him, searching his face for familiarity. He took the change from her outstretched hand. “I came in last year and I…” She continued to stare at him. He gave up and headed for the door.
“It was in the news,” Deb had both hands on the counter, her eyes watchful. “Just after New Year.”
Bill suddenly had an image in his mind, an image of a circle made of scribbled lines that span around and around without stopping, getting bigger and bigger and sucking bits of houses, debris and scraps of paper into it like a tornado. But the room stayed still. He shook the thought away and cleared his throat. “How?”
“In his garage. Things weren’t… His wife wanted a divorce.” Deb lowered her face, as if ashamed at giving away Steve’s secrets. Bill nodded dumbly.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, and he was. He left.
He sat in his car for a long time and tried to feel surprised, then tried to feel surprised that he wasn’t surprised. He stared at his reflection in the rearview mirror, all the lines there. Had Steve sat staring at his reflection, counting his lines to pass the time as the fumes engulfed him in the confines of the garage? Had he sat there remembering every neglected chore, every forgotten kiss goodnight, and tallied them all up against himself? Had his wife cried when she found him, or was it a neighbor who rang her doorbell, interrupting her favorite show, or a phone conversation with a girlfriend? Did she cry?
Would Cathy cry?
Bill looked at the dime-store shirt on the backseat, grabbed it and held it up. In that moment it lost the frayed edges and he saw Cathy in it, her hair golden and still long as she posed for a photograph in her mother’s yard, the last few buttons undone to accommodate the bump underneath. He remembered the day she had stolen it from his closet and how he’d feigned indignation. How he had marveled at how she looked in it before the enormity of their permanence had set in. He looked at the shirt and saw how stupid young men could be. He looked at the crumpled up shirt and felt the dread that only comes with knowing you have made a mistake.
Back at Frank’s, he sat on the front porch with the shirt in his lap and waited for Lily to come home from the nursing home she volunteered at sometimes. It grew dark.
“I was only twenty one,” he addressed the sycamores in the yard.
Lily’s car pulled into the driveway. She got out, stood in front of him and waited. Bill looked up at her.
“I was only twenty one,” he said. She nodded and walked past him to open the door, led him to the living room and the phone. He dialed.
“I was only twenty one,” he said into the receiver. Silence on the other end. Bill ignored the circle doodles in his brain, the slight buzzing sound they made as they rotated. He waited for the click and dead tone that signified the end.
Finally Cathy spoke. “I was only eighteen,” she said. But she didn’t hang up.
From the doorway, Lily smiled.
Bill’s house had a yellow door. He always salted the driveway and he always kissed his wife goodnight.
Written in the midst of a smalltown USA fetish around 2012. I still like this story. I like Bill. He’s going through a stage of reinvention, and doing a bad job of it. We’ve all been Bills.