What we did that summer: we hung around torn-down barns and took photos of each other with that old camera and screwed them up after, with pen knives and Duct tape. We stole magazines, read them, shared them, returned them. We kissed on the elementary school playground. We lit half-smoked cigarettes in front of the convenience store, in front of the hardware store, in front of the dollar store.
I look back on that sometimes, but now Red’s in California, searching, burning, lost, and Mia and Mark are in Wisconsin with three kids, and Sandersson is I don’t know where, and look, I’m sitting in front of the Shell station, kicking a Sprite can between my feet, watching the rain turn to snow.
The cuffs of my jeans are damp, rimmed with salt. Taylor picks me up in her Volvo. It’s 2005. She wants something from somebody, somewhere; I didn’t ask, I don’t ask. It doesn’t matter. She said she’d drop me at home when it’s all done, whatever it is.
When I was little my parents would take my brother and me to a deli outside Hartford for fries and chocolate shakes on Sunday nights.
I tell Taylor. Maybe I’m hoping she and I will stop for dinner, somewhere warm, full of old people and young families and tin napkin dispensers and plain ashtrays and a jukebox at each red vinyl booth. But she keeps her hands on the wheel, says nothing. She’s not the nostalgic type. I didn’t think I was either, but god, something about cars driving slowly through the rain.
And anyway, it isn’t her nostalgia. It’s like a faded photo; It carries that weight, kind of, but for some people there’s no memory attached, just a distorted picture of a barn, or a family that was mine but not yours.
We head south, away from the college. There’s the mineral processing plant, there’s a duplex with a broken second-floor deck. A machine shop has a wreath on its garage door. As the drive steepens there’s a run of Victorians perched on a hill over the road, framed by leafless oaks. Taylor turns left into a long driveway. Across the way a tractor sits, running, by an immaculate barn.
She tells me to wait in the car, so I wait in the car. She takes the stairs carefully. I watch and think about playgrounds and dinosaurs and posters and cassettes, things I liked as a kid, stuffed animal whales and Magic 8-balls and Micro Machines, my Casio keyboard and Hungry Hungry Hippo and Michael Jordan magazine cutouts and Kurt Cobain and Rad Racer and my tan Wilson baseball glove wrapped in rubber bands, breaking in.
Three months ago, my parents and my brother got rear-ended at an intersection a few miles from here. My brother was driving. The report said his front wheel was turned so when the car hit him – upon impact – his Honda lurched diagonally into oncoming traffic. A tanker truck carrying milk. I was told all this in a phone call. Police called Taylor, then Taylor’s sister, who found me at someone’s apartment. It was late summer. They were headed up to find me, to get me, to bring me back, to take me home, or take me elsewhere, anywhere.
I remember being fascinated by train stories, hobos hitching rides, boxcars, conductor hats, coal smoke, vast open plains, sliver moons, cactus needles, coyotes. My dad would read them to me. He could do a loud whistle sound with his tongue pressed up against his top teeth.
But I didn’t go off the rails and this isn’t one of those high lonesome tales. I signed up for art school and went for a while, until I stopped. I worked in different kitchens: Hot Dog Ranch, the Pitcher’s Mound, some nicer ones like Yardbird and Olive, Extra Special, Mohawk. I did whatever was around, what a few cooks I had met were doing, and then I did more and by the time my parents heard, through whoever, by the time they knew enough to take me back, a year, two, then three, more, I was living in guest rooms, friends’ cars, squatting, impossible to find.
Taylor and I used to date, in high school. For about six months but I remember being happy, calm. We called each other. I had her number memorized: 236-0107. I still do. Before area codes, just cordless phones and long-distance charges when she left for college in Ohio.
Her story, how she landed in this town, a few blocks from me, is long, but it’s hers to tell, and anyway I don’t know all of it because I think the only way you can really understand something for sure is to be there when it’s happening, whatever it is.
We stopped dating just after 9/11. I had driven to see her the Saturday before. The same Honda but it was new, then. I stayed for a long weekend. We spent all day watching the news, drinking coffee, walking, thinking why, what if, when.
A few letters after that, back and forth. She came home for breaks, the usual. Nothing happened anymore. I finished high school and I told you the rest already.
At another Shell station Taylor tells me to wait until the female cashier is at the counter, to ask her for the Red Hots in the back, to give her this roll of cash.
“And say thank you,” Taylor tells me. “Like, mean it, say thank you and mean it when you tell her.”
“I don’t – I -”
“I know how you can be,” she says. “Just fake a smile, this is important.”
Maybe 20 minutes later and we haven’t really spoken, just listened to American Girl and that Joe Walsh song about having lots of money and not caring about anything.
She says, “You don’t –” and “It’s not something you should be –” but kind of fades off. And I look at her but don’t try to finish her thought. She says, “I don’t know why you’re blaming yourself.”
I work at the nail of my left thumb. It’s low and the cold stings the exposed skin. I manage to say, “I don’t know” and it’s not an answer, and I know that, and she knows that, but it’s enough of an answer to stop the conversation.
We stop halfway down Commercial Street, on the right. She parks, leaves it running, goes into an automotive parts store, comes back quickly.
If you want to know, ok, I don’t think I was always screwed up, or headed towards where I am now, this side-of-the-road life. I drank in friends’ basements, I threw up in friends’ cars. We all did. I never drove, though, and I was scared of pills and pipes and powders. Ok, there’s that, but I turned in my papers on time, got into Descartes and Vonnegut and Pink Floyd, went to proms, had conversations with teachers after class, listened to Pavement in carpeted basements, played varsity baseball.
Maybe I don’t know is the right answer, sometimes. I don’t know what got me here. I don’t know why I can’t get out of here. Is it something buried, the addictive tendency, something simmering and waiting for oxygen to burn? Is it like twigs and crushed newspaper, all pushed down, ready for a dose of lighter fluid?
Suburban childhood, potato chips, parents with insurance jobs, two cars, a VCR, grandparents, weekend movies and basketball practice and Hebrew school and skateboarding and then a few years pass and now I’m here. I don’t know.
We drive, it’s dark now. We’re past Bloomfield. “We’re going to do an errand before I take you home,” Taylor says, looking straight ahead. I don’t ask, but she keeps talking as if I did, as if she’s been waiting to tell someone.
“It’s not much but I volunteer at this soup kitchen in the South End. It’s not much, but my parents made us do it one year, like, maybe when we were in seventh grade, just dish out mashed potatoes and corn and whatever. I started coming on my own on college breaks.”
She smiles like this is the part in the movie where the snow swirls and the stars shine and a violin plays something light, distant and syrupy sweet. I want to tell her this won’t make me feel better, or grateful, that this isn’t a fucking movie. But she said she’d give me a ride home.
The soup kitchen is in a low building in the lot behind a yarn store. Across the street a lamp in a window, a stack of books. There’s a line of people, men mostly, some with heavy coats casting shadows in the headlights, some without.
Inside, the fluorescent lights remind me of elementary school. It’s quiet, too, mostly the sound of forks and plates. We serve everyone in line twice. The whole thing, the serving, waiting, serving, takes an hour. At 8:30 a bus pulls up and many of the eaters get on. We smoke a cigarette near the dumpster. As we’re leaving, a younger woman, red hair, tall, pale, knocks on Taylor’s window. The car’s still warming up.
“Give her the Red Hots bag,” Taylor says. She taps my left forearm. “The bag from the gas station, you have it, yeah?”
I reach under the seat, pass it to Taylor. “No,” she says, quietly. “Hand it to Sherri. Hand it to her, look her in the eye and say ‘Thank you.’”
A few months later Taylor would get arrested. Indicted as part of a network, someone in the supply chain moving all of it through Springfield and Hartford and Bloomfield and further south, Waterbury, Danbury, White Plains.
But at the time I thought she was teaching me a lesson. About empathy, that catchword. Like, doesn’t this make you feel better? This human connection, real people, suffering, the giving without taking. Gracious, selfless acts, saying thank you, being happy for the little things. Just the act of doing, doesn’t this make you better, shape your loss, put your loss into perspective?
She drops me off around 10:00. I don’t knock. It’s been a while. I open the door but don’t turn on any lights. I can walk through the house with my eyes closed and not bump into anything. Muscle memory, childhood nights. I own the house now, but I haven’t been back since.
I lock the door behind me, the chain and the deadbolt, and sit at the kitchen island my parents put in when I was in sixth grade. My dad built it on a sawhorse he kept in the backyard by the swings. I liked it, the four stools, always a bag of pretzels, a few oranges, iced tea. I sit there in the dark, looking out the window, looking into the den, looking at my hands, looking at the few shiny flecks in the smooth dark grain countertop. I see the spot in the backyard where the maple tree used to stand.
What can I do? There is so much. God there is always so fucking much.