In the beginning, it came to him like mail. Irregular, arriving unexpectedly. A postage mark of an idea: fuzzy but legible.
The first time it found him, he was filling the van’s gas tank, leaning his head against the glass in the sliding door, feeling the weather on his skin. That time, he blamed its arrival on the heat, blasting him after so much air-conditioned climate control as he drove the long road home from the office. He shook his head, to clear it. These days, it comes like a campaign, beckons like a seasoned salesman. He takes comfort in its doggedness, its relentless tug. As he shovels snow, cuts the grass, locks the door, turns off the porch light, it is there, ringing with familiarity and promise: Mister, this could be you… It asks him to imagine, and he does. Kentucky, it sings, Kentucky. Kentucky, with racehorses behind white fences grazing on turf the colour of farm playsets. A fascination from days when things were saved in shoeboxes: marbles and coloured elastics, baseball cards that might still some day be valuable. Little figures with manes tossing, legs stretched to a gallop. He can almost see the ridges where the plastic cooled at the top of the horses’ perfect, uniform backs.
He could start school again, make himself a new man, or a man at least. Change his name to something with weight, but without history. Invent initials that others would fill in with appropriate secondary letters, which he would decline to explain.
People do this, he knows. Draft dodgers, wayward husbands, reluctant citizens, freeing their April days from forms and threats of late payments. People just close their doors one day and decide not to open them up again. They step out. They say they’re going to the corner store for cigarettes and they never come back. He tries to imagine someone making an escape with the things his wife sends him for: toilet paper, coffee, loaves of pre-sliced bread. He pictures the bread bags heating up as he heads south, little beads of sweat inside the plastic, threatening to burst as they spoil.
Last fall, he took up smoking.
He loves the ritual of the red pull tab that cuts through the cellophane wrapper. He practises in private, welcoming the burn into his lungs. Cultivates his craving.
On Monday, his friends come to barbecue. He imagines them making up the pieces of a glossy, cardboard picture, ready to assemble with their sunscreen and macaroni salad, bottles of warm beer sunk into ice chips in plastic. Children launch themselves off the deck into the flat, narrow yard, shrieking at the sprinkler’s pressure; the men wave beers in front of golf shirts; the women’s laughter jigsaws together, one woman’s giggle attaching to another’s squeal. School tomorrow. School? No one wants to talk about school. Across the deck, cork-soled sandals waft the accumulated smells of other summers.
He stands too close to the grill, taking responsibility for its escaping heat. As if he could remember when men like him would mine the coal, shovel it into furnaces, ignite the world.
He says, Remind me again how you like it done?
The dusk rubs out the children’s edges, then absorbs the whiteness of their skin. Someone pours another glass.
We should go.
The words are a song, a round no one knows how to finish. He hears it prodded forward with a fiddle’s bow, an invitation, and then the banjo’s wavering reply. He hears its echo, threading through a gulch between Appalachian ridges.
A child presents him with a towel. Her hair is dripping down her back and onto the deck. Her lips are blue from a day of running through the water, for staying wet after the sun went down.
God, wrap her up, would you?
Maybe all the children look that way, he thinks, in the wash of the bug light that snaps and singes at the night.
Their guests are gone, and now he’s holding a dishtowel, looking out at the empty deck. Minutes ago, friends were bringing in the glasses, folding up the deck chairs for the night. His wife is wiping the kitchen table, her long hair falling across her face as she scrubs at something that spilled there earlier in the evening, unrecognizable now.
Do you ever feel like your future is already behind you? he asks.
She turns to him, head tilted. The look on her face reminds him that once the thought was new to him. It occurs to him that maybe this was all he needed, to hear an answer to this foreign question in a voice he knows well. He stands very still, watching her mouth open, waiting for a sound to match. It will come. He will wait, and it will come.
There is a crash behind him, a jug cracking against the floor. He sees his wife’s eyes flick toward the distance over his shoulder, her eyebrows pulling together, her mouth stretching in the direction of consonants and vowels that collide to create his daughter’s name.
She jostles him as she passes and in the moment when her face is level with his, he sees that the flesh around her mouth stays tugged into the last word that left her lips. Grooves have formed there. A decade’s worth of erosion on her skin.
And now she is on her knees, sponging at the white lake on the white tile, waving their daughter away from the fragments.
There will be signs. There will be exit numbers. There will be places where, re-entering the highway, he might hesitate, remembering which way he’d planned to travel.
He doesn’t wait to be asked. He takes his keys and says he’s going out for milk.
Miranda Hill’s debut story collection, Sleeping Funny, was recently published.