It’s the first clear winter night in almost two weeks. I drive the streets into our valley community, 2003 Subaru Forester rattling with age and emptiness. Well, more like I’m driving down the one winding main street that slopes down a hill, flanked by cathedral-like ponderosas. A few side streets branch off to the market and the cluster of shops and the one or two churches that flank either side of the river. The outskirts, the hills beyond, my cabin, darkened rooms, and bills wait behind me, all splayed across the kitchen table. Power, water, a myriad of cards maxed out, in part due to my fondness for Fat Tire.
Papers wait to be graded on The Awakening and the symbolism of Edna wading into the ocean. Along with papers lie future complaints from parents. They’ll think, no doubt, I’m promoting suicide and child abandonment. These are parents who think that modern literature begins and ends with Huckleberry Finn. It’s a book about “gumption,” “initiative,” and “cunning,” according to one of the school board members, Mr. Crowman.
A lazy, racist book about all three things in my opinion.
I take to the streets nightly when the constraint of empty rooms and shadows are too much. More like I cruise up and down the street and back to my cabin five miles north. Sometimes drive a mile or two south of town, with pines and curving roads, an occasional motel with faded pink and white walls dotting the landscape. Sometimes, I go down by the river and watch the shadows deepen. But there’s something foreboding, especially these last weeks with ice all over it, the forward motion of things stalled. I imagine myself taking one small step, another, and falling anyway, a cracking sensation ending it in one fell swoop. It’s so easy for things to fall apart. One comment, one kiss-my-ass, one slammed fist on a desk, one interview, one person retreating from you and then another. Visions of teaching in hallowed halls, a future, book tours drying up. Now you’re relegated to teaching high school in a community where your anger is just one bubbling being among many. And you have no connections, no family here.
You took what you could.
I can’t think of all this tonight. Tonight must be different, this one clear night. I swing the wheel with precision, even as the car clatters away. It’s a clear night, and shadows are already shimmering, the sky awash in pink, peach, and lavender, puffed-up clouds proclaiming their position in the early evening sky. A full moon should be up at some point soon.
I tune the dial to the local station. The Eagles. I hate the Eagles. Especially “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Give me some Tchaikovsky, not that the Eagles aren’t talented. I just don’t like peaceful easy feelings, when Tchaikovsky can torment with wailing strings and elegiac notes.
Houses line either side of the sloping hill. There are rustic wood structures with front porches and old bikes, whitewashed places with onion-colored roofs and precise square windows. A couple trailers with crushed metal roofs and peeling paint. All bear flags, billowing in the early evening breeze.
I can only imagine the state of those places, the constraint of objects inside. In the cabins and whitewashed spaces, I imagine neat rustic furniture, even if it’s somewhat fake and contrived. In the trailers, I imagine faded sofas, plastic coffee tables. Wobbly divorced men and women splayed before TV screens, their blue shadows the only thing breaking through the spaces. I look at this all as if I’m a sort of narrator on a high, high plateau and maybe I am. I teach at the high school, but I’ve never been invited into any of these spaces in the year I’ve been here.
Never been invited to drink at those plastic coffee tables collapsing with Coors and flimsiness.
Never been asked how I’m doing, beyond the throwaway, “how you doin?” A question that requires only one answer, fine, fine.
Confession: I have several of those coffee tables myself. They’re flimsy, but they lack the expectation of a real coffee table, an oak or mahogany space, a space that calls out, requiring intimacy.
I swing the wheel, turn left into the market parking lot, half-empty save for a couple black and white Chevy Silverados, a Bronco with a back window replaced by a gaping hole. A Dodge Stratus that reminds me of a Will Ferrell skit on SNL. The market beckons a rustic structure with huge wooden columns and a sort of rustic pediment, with VALLEY MARKET festooned in white on a red background.
I park between the two Silverados. There’s something odd about parking a Subaru by itself. It draws attention, the energy of comments. And in this land of Chevys and Dodges, the comments wouldn’t be positive. I’ve garnered enough comments about my choice of Khakis and Polo shirts. They seemed collegiate, but even after I lost it all, I couldn’t discard them.
Out comes my shopping list, written in my precise cursive.
Might as well get some TV dinners, some Diet Pepsis. Some Fat Tires. I don’t drink Bud Light. It’s an almost tasteless experience. Give me rich amber ale, even if it is a little more expensive. Amber ale is something to relish, a sip, another, and a fleeting satisfaction hovering in the air above.
I could some crackers. Maybe some Triscuits. Garlic flavored ones. Expensive, but damn good.
From behind a grove of pines to the east of the market, a butter-colored light flickers. It twinkles, winks even. It comes from a large wooden house, something that looks almost palatial, at least from this distance. Then another one, another winking eye. This comes from a smaller cabin, almost like my own, even. It flickers, winks. And a third, although I cannot see the source of this one.
Welcome, welcome, the lights seem to whisper, flickering from across the expanse. It’s funny, but they’ve always been specks on a background before. Tiny little distant spaces. Yet, they seem so close tonight. So very close, as if they’re coming my way, arms stretching out. Come, come, come.
Soon the lights in the market lot there come on too, with a certain hum. They bathe the worn-out pavement and faded lines in golden shadows. Even the dumpster takes on a certain glow, stacked with a week’s worth of Bud Light cartons, Subway wrappers, Saltine knockoffs, and crumpled jerky.
The shadows deepen, the pink, peach, and lavender bursting in a sort of symphony now. More lights come on all over the community a procession beckoning, welcoming the night. Lights flicker from outside other shops, the hardware store, the little coffee shop. Doors start to shut and people come rushing into the night, little specks moving, moving.
A family comes rushing out to a white Silverado next to me. They carry copious amounts of bags. A portly mother, an equally portly father who looks disturbingly like Santa Claus. Or his twin. Then there’s a black-haired boy in a faded maroon Big Lebowski T-shirt and a girl with the same long nose and owl-like eyes, an older sister probably. They wear dirty sweatshirts and faded jeans, but stride with a certain grace I haven’t seen before, a contrast to the figures who waddle and slink in day after day. A laugh rises into the swath of night, not a cracked laugh, but something very, very real, gooselike, annoying, and beautiful. And then another. They speak words, but they’re low and murmured.
Maybe tonight they’re having a steak, a T-bone even. With veggies, perhaps. Maybe they’re treating themselves to one small, very sumptuous thing. Maybe they’re having a winter barbeque, saying heck with it, bills on hold for tonight. Maybe that’s all they need for now. Maybe it’s an impulse, or maybe it’s just the beauty of the night that’s taken hold.
And maybe they’ll watch something on Netflix. Or a DVD. Maybe something like Forrest Gump, something I love because it was the first real “adult” movie I saw. I was seven and I still remember the sense of wonderment about things. It was before I knew about sex, disease, war, all that.
They load the groceries into their truck with frenetic energy, flinging bags, left, right. Bodies brush against bodies. A father barks something about not fucking around, but the son, daughter, and wife laugh. Even the father joins in, before they resume their duties.
I guess here, tempers and humor go hand in hand.
“Someone’s in a mood,” the mother says.
“Well my life’s work isn’t loading groceries,” the father says and he laughs again.
The mother punches him on the shoulder and I think he smiles. A slow, easy gesture.
“Not too hard,” he says. “These shoulders are still in demand.”
“Oh yeah,” she says, and she makes a face. “Grade A-beef, baby.”
“Shut the fuck up,” the father says, tossing his head back.
I look ahead to the market entrance before they can see me. Even the store lights, white and sterile seem welcoming. A few figures move about.
I’ll get some fish fillets. No, I’ll get a steak tonight. Cook it, even if the sucker burns. The thought of a sizzling pan soothes me, the cadence filling dusty rooms. The motion of cutting a steak with purpose. A small piece, cut into another, and another. One piece at a time, until everything’s laid out. A small, good feast.
Maybe I’ll get a Merlot or a Malbec, something just a little bitter too. Bitter’s always been my go-to where wine is concerned.
And maybe I’ll imagine myself sitting down with someone, anyone. A friend, an acquaintance, someone. I would tell jokes about teaching English. Joke about how Michael Brown thought The Awakening was a porn novel and how they train students to use guns in school, yet deem Lord of The Flies too violent. I will gesture and make points with knives and forks in midair. My companion will laugh. Tell a story of his or her own. A rude customer, a rude student, something that one-ups my own. And maybe the companion will invite me to a party, a barbeque, something where I’ll stand on the periphery, but which I’ll accept. The periphery beats being off the grid altogether.
Cue the family flinging the last of the bags into the Silverado. The family piles into their truck, all assuming their positions. On come their lights. An engine sputters. The father swings the wheel, the truck moving past me without a glance, leaving me in a sea of exhaust.
I watch it roar out of the parking lot and back up the hill out of town. I look onto the horizon, trying to capture it through the pines, to capture its journey around each curve, each junction. But it’s gone.
I look back out into the sea of lights. Now, the whole community seems to be lit. Even lights glow from the church steeples.
All is well, the lights seem to whisper, while I sit behind the wheel, the engine still running, waiting for me to pull away, waiting for me to drive back, forward, somewhere. But somewhere, a family is on the way home with bags. When they get home, they’ll unload so much. Bags of meat, tomatoes, perhaps. Cases of Coors or Bud Light. They’ll fill once-empty spaces in pantries and shove other things into the fridge, old stained spaces covered up. They will talk of grade-A beef and youth, age and life, and expectations for their children.
Somewhere lies my cabin at the end of a country road, a place where people turn around and move forward. A space with dark rooms. Tonight, maybe I’ll turn on every light I can. Walk down the road and watch the butter-colored lamp snake through the pines. Will it welcome me too, my own light? Will it waver?
I get out. Stretch. Reach for the shadows and for those lights flickering. I reach and I reach. I wave to the few people streaming out, and smile, a thin little smile, but a real smile. They keep moving and moving and I walk into the store and grab the biggest cart, the engine still running outside, a distant hum.