There are no waving torches or pitchforks when I cross the city line. I expect people to come banging in the doors of my car, police officers to demand that I pull over so they can handcuff me and march me immediately off to jail for my past crimes. They’ll find my bag of cash, of course, and it will take no time at all for them to concoct some story about how I must’ve knocked over a bank or taken advantage of someone in a desperate situation. Even if I could get Damien to back me up on the truth, they would just assume that I’d done something to convince him that paying me off was the best option.
Still, it doesn’t matter what I anticipate because none of it happens. The only thing to welcome back to the old town is the steady sound of rain splattering itself across the hood, roof, windshield of this car. It’s a piece of shit really, barely made it back here in two or three pieces, but it’s served its purpose. There’s a part of me just couldn’t justify spending that much money on a car that could get me to town and hold together if I wanted to keep driving off into nothing. I know that without some proper care in a garage, or in a parking lot if I can get the supplies myself, this thing is going to break down the first place I stop. And so be it, really. Wasn’t I trapped here once before? An escape wasn’t as difficult as I had always imagined it to be.
The old movie theater is still standing, much to my surprise. My internal autopilot is still strong after more than a decade of being away, guiding me to pull inelegantly into a parking space thanks to the sheets of rain pounding down as though a Hollywood stagehand is filling up a bucket and hoisting the contents at me. It feels appropriate as I kill the engine, listening to it drown. If it doesn’t start again when I get back inside, I could have a problem. Well, another one.
Still, I feel light when I open the driver’s side door and make a dash toward the entrance. The doors have changed; rather than being panes of glass that have been smashed in by young hooligans like the one I was once, there’s just one door that’s made of heavy wood and propped open inexpertly by a book that looks like it might slip at any given moment. It takes some willpower not to bend down and try to make out the title. Instead I step inside because there’s a light on and it’s dry while I’m dripping.
It’s the same and yet not at all. The lobby is still broad and spacious, graced with red velvet curtains and the most confusing carpet pattern that I have seen in my life. Still, there’s no marquee, no popcorn machine, no concession stand. In fact, there’s no indication that there’s any entertainment on offer here anymore. And yet…
“Did you want a room?”
The teenager who’s standing behind a desk where the ticket booth ought to be rolls her eyes as though I’m causing her physical pain with my slowness. I can’t blame her, of course. I’m some stranger who’s rolled in with the storm, dripping with rainwater and gawking in her lobby like it’s any business of mine to be here. “Do you want to get a room or not?”
“This is a hotel?”
“What’s it look like?”
“Well, a movie theater, to be honest with you.”
“It was, once upon a time.” She tells the story with some boredom, as though it’s just something that she heard as a myth rather than a fact. Of course, to her it would just be a story. I’m not eighteen anymore, and she’s nearly part of another generation rather than remembering what it was like to see the film cough to life and threaten to pull apart for the transition of every scene.
“I know it was. I used to…I’m from around here, originally. I moved away a long time ago.”
“Back visiting people then?” She sounds skeptical or bored, I can’t decide which, but it doesn’t exactly matter since she knows it has to be wrong. Why would I have to visit a hotel otherwise? And why wouldn’t I be tugging along a suitcase anyway?
Still, this is a convenient accident. “Just rediscovering my roots, I guess,” I tell her with an apologetic smile, hoping it comes across as sincere rather than creepy. She is, after all, quite young and quite alone.
If she’s intimidated, she doesn’t let on, instead turning the guest registry and passing me a pen. She doesn’t ask me for any cash or a check. God bless the small town mentality. It’s good to know that trust still exists in some isolated pockets of this country. “Do you have any preferences about your room? It’s not like we’re exactly booming in the business here.”
“As long as it’s just room for one, I’m not all that particular about my surroundings.”
“Then you’ll take room nine. When you go out, just make a right and keep going until you see it. Stay under the awning if you want to stay dry this time.” She swivels on her office hair and manages to yank the key down from its peg just by stretching her endless arm up in the air. Turning around, she holds it out to me with a stony face. “Do you have any idea how long you’ll be staying with us.”
“I’m afraid not. Can I pay by the day or week?”
“Come back in the morning and let me know which you think it’ll be. I’ll require payment then. Have a good night.” And then she’s disconnected from me, switching on a radio as some music I don’t even recognize comes over the airwaves. I think it’s called grunge.
“Good night to you too. See you in the morning.” I tip the keys to her like they’re a drink that I’m about to enjoy, but she’s already engrossed in some magazine that’s on her desk. I don’t mind all that much. It means that I can have a bit of privacy.
It’s surprising to me how quickly I’ve gotten used to being on my own. I was married for years, and yet we never really seemed to be together after all. We slept in the same bed, we had breakfast together, Karen fixed my lunches, but most of our hours were spent apart one way or another. She would read her Bible, I would scribble messages in my notebooks about something or another that I needed to remember in order to be a better employee, and we would fall asleep with different people in our minds and our arms tucked under our pillows rather than around one another.
If I load the film back into my memory, I know that I always capture Karen at the same moment in her life. Her hair is a dark chestnut, long and wavy and worn loose as the coils tumble down nearly to her waist. She turns those almond-shaped eyes to me and always seems to see through me. She’s never really worn lipstick except for the rare occasion of painting her lips red, and I always found it charming that whenever she’s made the effort, it’s been bold and obvious. She’s never been one to have makeup that just blends in and seems like a lack of effort. She’s tall, thin, but her curves are usually obscured by longer skirts and shapeless cardigans. I’ve always enjoyed this. That meant that I was the only one who was able to see how her waist dipped in and then eased out, how her breasts pressed confidently away from her chest and how she cocked her hips at just the right angle. It drove me crazy and sated me at the same time.
But of course she’s not going to be waiting for me when I get to the room. It’s strange how the inside of this place and then slipped divisions inside. There are no more velvet seats, no more remnants of people actually enjoying themselves. I can’t tell about the other rooms, but mine is a stark white with lights that glow yellow. Still that hideous carpet though. Did they find a way to match it? It seems brighter here somehow. I don’t know why anyone would ever want to do that. It’s a strange place to convert into a hotel, the sloped floors straightened out and the tall ceilings dropped to add extra floors. It’s like walking into history to find out all of my memories are wrong.
My stuff’s still out in the car, but I shrug out of my wet jacket and shoes and leave them by the radiator. I’m not sure if the heat will ever be on, but it feels like the logical place for them. Maybe they’ll get dry, or maybe I’ll get electrocuted. Sometimes you have to put your life into the capable, curious hands of fate.
The bed is hardly the most comfortable I’ve ever encountered, but considering I’ve been living on a couch, it’s really not so bad. It’s space to myself, anyway. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt comfortable with all this much space to myself, but I know that lingering in one place isn’t going to accomplish anything for me. Would Karen want me to have restful nights without her? It doesn’t matter what Karen would think. Karen’s gone. She’s in town, but that has nothing to do with me.
So none of this matters.
It’s a ridiculous conclusion to come to, but it’s the only one that really makes sense. She’s been living her life without me, and even if she’s asked Damien how I am, she can’t possibly be moved by my situation. If she’d heard about my suicide attempt, and I do doubt that he gave her the full picture on that one, she didn’t exactly rush to my side or even give me a call. In fact, she didn’t even give any indication that she knew I was alive.
Maybe I left her on her own too often, but that’s no reason to do the same to me now. It’s not proving a point. It’s not going to make life any easier. It doesn’t make her a bigger person, it just belittles what we had for that brief time that we shared with each other. I may have been a shitty husband, but at least I honored my vows and loved her forever. That’s more than she can say for herself. That’s what she promised in front of her God. What would He have to say about her behavior?
There’s no need for me to get frustrated about this now. I’ll look her up in the morning. In the duffel bag that’s sitting in the trunk of my car, I have the last address that Damien ever had for her. They’d even exchanged fucking Christmas cards every year, and I had no clue about it. Anyway, he was sure that he was going to be cut off the list after this. Even if nobody knew where I was going or what I was doing when I left town, it wouldn’t take long for the gossip to start and speculation to mount. And it wouldn’t be all that difficult to guess correctly.
My room is equipped with just the basics: an ugly television that looks older than anything else in this place, a dresser whose drawers I don’t exactly trust, a closet without a door for security purposes, and a nightstand with a lamp. I check the bottom drawer for a Bible, but there isn’t one. I wonder if this is a first. Instead it’s a phone book, proudly yellow and boldly announcing that it has more numbers than ever before. Are we all just getting more connected? Will there come a time when there’s no way we can even imagine unplugging from each other?
The telephone is a pale shade of mustard and covered in taped messages about the cost of local and long distance calls. I wonder how many times they’ve changed the rates and whether it’s reflected the economy or greed. I suppose in a way they’re the same.
My fingers find the digits on the phone from memory. I’m not sure that they’re even the right ones anymore, but there’s no reason for me to just sit here with the receiver in my hand, wondering what it is I can do with my time besides driving past the house and hoping that she hasn’t moved since December.
The ringing begins, and it’s comforting in a way. I can count the sounds, reduce them to numbers. One comes after another. It’s relaxing. One, then two, then three. Four is next, which is also two times two or two squared, which leads to fi—
My eyes well up at the sound of the voice because it’s not at all what I expect. Appearances change, sure, but unless someone’s a heavy smoker, you don’t really stop to consider how someone’s voice might evolve over the years. All I’ve had for years are memories, but even those haven’t acquired the dry crackle of a vinyl record no matter how many times I’ve taken the mental needle and applied it to the groove.
“Hi. It’s me. Dustin.”
There’s a tender gasp, and I hear the receiver fumble a bit before it finally aligned to a mouth again. “You son of a bitch,” comes the growl. “You think this is funny? I’m going to find out where you are, and then I’m going to find out who you are. And then…you should just hope that you’ve cleared out by then. That’s the only advice I’m going to give you.”
“But it’s really me.” My father has transformed into an old man in my absence. I guess that’s something that startles everyone eventually, the fact that our parents aren’t actually immortal, but I’m not sure if my awe comes form the fact that he’s aged or that he’s actually lived long enough to do so. “It’s Dustin, I swear to God.”
“This isn’t funny. I’m going to hang up now. I’m going to call the police, you fucking—“
“When I was a kid, I lived for books. You’d taken one of mine, a Curious George one, and you wedged it under your television stand because you’d built it and it wobbled a bit on the carpet in your bedroom. I hadn’t read the book, so I decided to snatch it out while you were at work.”
The story’s one that I’ve shared with people before because I fancied myself something precocious, but it’s not like any of those people were malicious enough to pretend to be me using that inside information. My father seems to understand this as he lets out a hesitant laugh. “I came home early to surprise your mom only to hear that crash as soon as I walked through the door.”
“You saw the TV on the bed and thought that I must’ve gotten crushed or decapitated, but I was bent over between the bed and the stand, holding onto my prize. I never actually got to read it, you know.”
“Yeah well, that’s what really happens when you’re curious.” He goes off into a coughing fit, and I wonder if he’s sitting next to a tank of oxygen or a half-finished bottle of beer. “I don’t really know what to say to you.”
“I don’t really know what I’m doing either. Every time that I picked up the phone to call, I’ve told myself that I should have a plan first.”
“You and your plans. You were always a schemer. Tell me, how have those plans treated you? Surely you aren’t just calling so you can get in some bragging.”
He doesn’t mean it maliciously. At least I think he doesn’t. Still, there’s something about age that makes people blunt in a way that will always sting. “Like shit,” I admit. There’s really no point in pretending, and if he wants me to feel any pain, he can just have this satisfaction.
He takes a long breath, and then I hear something in the background. Shouting, staged gunfire, the call of Indians in battle. He hasn’t talked to his son in more than a decade, and when he does, he can’t even be bothered to switch off his stupid Western program. Part of me wishes he would react with anger just to know I’m out there, but all I’ve ever had from him is apathy. “What about that girl you were crazy about?” he asks, just raising his voice to be heard over the television. “How is she?”
“She left.” I mean to add the word “me” to the sentence, but the two letters manage to wedge their way sideways in my throat. And she did leave, just told me off in front of everyone and then went home to improvise suitcases out of any bag possible. “She’s been gone quite a long time now.”
“Oh. Always thought she was the reason you couldn’t be bothered to talk to us. She always acted like she came from better stock.”
“Insulting her isn’t going to help,” I snap, and I regret it as soon as I speak. He’s just trying to show his support in his own fucked up way, and there’s no reason for me to defend Karen. Maybe he’s right and I was just too far in love to ever notice the way she treated anyone who wasn’t me. “I wish I’d never left with her. I wish I could have been patient.”
“Well, you can wish in one hand and shit in the other, then tell me which one fills up first.”
“Thanks, Dad. From the bottom of my heart.”
“You were never my son, you know. Didn’t you pay attention to the rumors at all? People talk because they have reason to. They were true. I gave you my name and my home, and then you just threw it all away the first chance you got. Now you call when everything’s gone to shit for you? It doesn’t work like that, kid. You don’t get any credit for lessons that are learned fifteen years too late. You can’t walk across a bridge you’ve already burnt.”
He doesn’t give me time to say goodbye before he’s gone, and I know this will be the last time we speak even if he manages to squeeze another thirty years out of his miserable, dried up husk of a body.
He’s right, of course. I’ve always assumed my way would be perfectly acceptable, and any time that I’ve encountered opposition, I’ve gladly been the asshole lashing out in ill-conceived self-righteousness. Since I’ve left, what have I accomplished? What is one thing I’ve gained that I haven’t lost through being a drunk, a fool, or both?
Pulling out the phone book, I skim the tiny print and dial again.
“Hi. It’s Dustin. You know, Dus—”
“I never thought I’d hear that voice again.”