By Maggie Slepian
I was at a stoplight, the one that never seems to be green no matter which direction you come from. It was the part of town where the radio comes in clear, and the air was the kind of hot that feels heavy in your throat. I missed that stoplight every day, going east to work with the sun flashing off my bug-streaked windshield, and heading west at night, the glare level with my eyes, throwing yellow-white blurs where the road should be.
She was waiting at the crosswalk, looking at a piece of paper creased in her hand. The dust-blown breeze caught the side of her skirt and lifted it in a slow wave.
The light flicked green. The song ended. She stepped down from the curb.
My heart felt like it was going to jackhammer out of my chest and my palms got a burning sweat spreading from my gut like a sick buzz. I pulled into the dirt lot across the road and turned the key, listening to the tired tick of the engine.
Her garden had died the summer before; the first one either of us had tried to grow. We were just renting the house, but the landlord gave me permission to build a garden bed as long as it didn’t attract rabbits. Radishes, chives, and zucchini do well in the Northern Rockies, she told me. The best time to plant is the end of May, after the last frost. She bent over the kitchen table and dug her thumbnail into the chipped groove from that time I didn’t use a cutting board. She flipped open the library book and pointed to the chart marking what plants do best in our region. There weren’t many. Short growing season, unforgiving. We didn’t know what we were doing, so it never really stood a chance.
She had been doing it more and more. She thought I didn’t see when she stopped in a doorway or the middle of the room and looked ahead like she was seeing something through the wall. A hole opened in my chest every time I saw her standing like that. Growing a garden would give her something to think about, and it was a project I would do well helping with. I built the box, and she shoveled out the two yards of dirt sagging the bed of my pickup. We planted it together, stretched string to mark the sections. Zucchini needed the most room, chives didn’t need much at all. She had dirt smudged on her nose and she smiled as she dug her hands into the crumbly soil. I felt a lightness in my chest, like a burst of stale air from a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.
By late August, her garden had sprouted, then died without giving up a single radish or zucchini. A bug, I told her as we looked down at the sprouts, all dead or dying, the soil littered with small leaves. Mites must have eaten the roots. She stood looking down at the shriveled radish leaves and a tiny bulge that might have been the start of a blossom on a snap pea vine.
I didn’t see her in the house when I got home from work the next day. I checked each room until I found her standing on the back porch, looking down at the garden box. I tried to keep my breath quiet so she wouldn’t hear the nervousness that made my throat dry, imagining things that sent black spots blocking my eyes. I cleared my throat. “Would you want to go dancing tonight? At the Old Faithful?”
“No. I need to wake up early to dig up my garden. Everything is dead.“ She was still facing the yard, the 5:30 shadows crawling diagonally down the side of the house, slicing her back almost perfectly in half.
“I can take the day off tomorrow and help pull everything up. I think we’re supposed to cover the soil with a tarp so it’s ok for next season.” I pushed down a hot coal in my stomach as she tensed and shifted away. I wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her, pull her around so she wouldn’t have a choice but to face me. It felt like an empty contest with no winner—she wouldn’t turn around until I left, and I wouldn’t leave. I stood looking at the back of her neck for so long that the shadows moved down her spine, and it suddenly became real important that I didn’t stay to watch them hit the ground. I went into the house.
I found her in the bedroom later, a closed book next to her hand, curtains pulled down to block the last yellow shreds of light scraping through the window.
“I’m still thinking about going to the Old Faithful. That band you like is playing—we don’t have to dance if you don’t want to.”
“I have a headache. You should go though.” Her voice was half hidden by her arm flung over her face.
“Alright, you need anything?” Please look at me. No answer, head shake so small the hair splashed out on the pillow didn’t move.
The Old Faithful was busy for a Wednesday and I had to pay my dues before the bartender sloshed my beer across the counter. I pushed a five at him. “No tab.”
The bar was three-deep with girls in summer dresses, hair hanging down like curtains. I grabbed my beer and kept my head down, edging towards a table in the back, open because of its proximity to the swinging kitchen door. Waitresses flitted in and out, holding trays high above their heads, weaving back and forth around the tables. Most had worked there since high school; one had a kid who came to work with her some nights. He sat on a bar stool with a pack of crayons, hunched over the pages of a dinosaur coloring book. The noise of the bar didn’t seem to bother him, and the bartender passed him sticky red cherries every time he passed the boy’s bent shoulders.
The band took their final slugs of beer and climbed back onto the small stage, ducking their heads under guitar straps and adjusting the mic stands. The song they played was one I recognized, as did most everyone else. Before the first chorus, every table near me sat empty and the dance floor was a blur of bodies, girls getting spun out and pulled back in time to the music. A guy I recognized from town bumped my chair as he followed a girl towards the dance floor.
“Hey sorry man—didn’t spill your beer, did I?” He clapped my shoulder and winked, following the girl onto the crowded dance floor. I was the only person left in the section. Scattered pint glasses and dirty napkins left an uneven landscape on the tables, the chairs around me crooked and empty.
I ducked my head as a waitress turned the corner. The music rose like an oncoming train and I felt like I was taking up too much space sitting alone at the table. I kept my eyes on the floor as I pushed my seat in and headed towards the front porch. Nobody said anything to me but I felt my face get hot as I crossed the bar.
The days were still hot as hell, but the spike of fall hung in the air after the sun went down. Late August is when the West goes up in flames, and a breeze from the north brought the sharp smell of burning plains from a hundred miles away. Smoke must have been in the air when we first met, because it made my heart hurt in a way nothing else could.
This wasn’t the first time she didn’t want to go dancing, but it was the last time I asked.
We met at the Old Faithful. I was there with my buddies from work, she was there with another guy. I’d seen her around town and thought she was real pretty. She smiled at me from across the bar, the guy she was with ignoring her and waving his sloshing beer in the air. I didn’t smile back but felt my face turn red; I must have been staring without noticing.
I ran into her all over town after that. In line at the grocery store, filling up at the gas station. Maybe I’d always seen her around, just hadn’t noticed.
I never could think of anything to say to her. I saw her a few more times at the Old Faithful with that same guy, and then one night she was there alone. She sat at the bar, talking with the bartender and ignoring the guys who tried to buy her a drink. I was getting heckled pretty bad by my work buddies at that point, and when I saw her there alone, I switched from beer to whiskey. There was no band that night, but the jukebox was pretty good., so I waited until song came on
I wouldn’t embarrass myself dancing to, and shoved my chair back.
My voice left me as soon as I reached her barstool. I hadn’t thought about the fact that I didn’t know her name.
“Uh,” I cleared my throat and almost choked. She turned around and pushed her hair behind her ear, she was half smiling and probably laughing at me in her head.
“Will… would you… I know this song I can dance to it.” It wasn’t really a sentence, but she’d been waiting for it and hopped off her stool.
I didn’t bring her to my parents until after I’d given her a ring, after I knew her favorite order at all the diners, how she took her coffee, that she had a baby brother who didn’t live to see a year old. She wanted to be a teacher, wanted to help kids, wanted a family of her own. Wanted to move out of town and live on a farm with chickens and a swing set in the yard. I promised she’d have everything that she wanted and it made my heart hurt.
My dad was a drunk and my mom spent her days sad and quiet. They lived barely an hour away but I hadn’t seen them since the last branding.
Her eyes were blurry with joy and the flash of light reflecting off the diamond chip on her hand. She’d met my parents once before in passing, before we even held hands in public and I didn’t know how to introduce her.
She spent the branding day on the porch with the other women, fitting into their group like she’d been going to brandings for years. I pushed calves, grinning up at her and giving her a wave every time I caught her eye. She brought me a beer and kissed my cheek.
My dad waited till the afternoon to shake her hand, then stood in stiff silence until a rowdy yell from the fire pit gave him a reason to hurry off and join the ranchers watching the air ripple around the glowing irons.
At night, we passed around a plate of Rocky Mountain oysters. We told her she’d be part of the club if she ate one. Eyes squeezed shut, she nearly swallowed it whole, reaching right away for the nearest can of beer abandoned at our feet. The whoops and cheers made her laugh so hard she had tears running down her cheeks. I wanted to marry her right then and there.
The fire burned late into the night, mingled with drunken guffaws and calves bawling for their mothers.The day had been long but she was still fresh as anything. A smudge of dirt streaked across her high-boned cheek, a wisp of hair that had come untucked stuck to the corner of her lip. I clinked cans with whoever was standing next to me and tried to head her off as she walked to where my dad stood at the edge of fire, mustache drooping over a lip packed fat with tobacco.
She stood next to him for a moment, brought her beer to her lips without taking a drink. She didn’t seem sure whether she should speak, or let him talk first. When he finally said something, like a can of gravel being shaken in your ear, she seemed startled. I stood close to her, taking a pull of flat beer and trying to relax my shoulders. He was already talking and I had to work hard to hear him.
“You know he ain’t right, don’t you?” my dad growled, not taking his eyes off the fire.
The beer turned in my stomach.
“Sorry?” She kept a smile on and leaned in closer.
“He ain’t right. Not put together right.” Her smile faltered but she held it, nodding without understanding.
“That’s enough dad,” I said, trying to keep my voice low and quiet. He didn’t look at me, but turned his head and spat into the fire.
“Come on, we’re going home.” I held her hand tight to stop mine from shaking. My dad’s voice pounded in my ears.
The bang of the door snapped me back to the Old Faithful’s front porch, tapping the Copenhagen can I didn’t remember pulling out of my pocket. With a flurry of high voices and flash of skin, three women clattered down the stairs, hands fluttering, blowing kisses, straightening dresses. They went in three different directions like the wind had blown them apart, voices dissolving into the distant screech of a train and the background of crickets.
A car door slammed and one of them came back into focus through the dark parking lot, crunching over the gravel with the wobbly but determined gait of someone who’s had a few drinks and is wearing uncomfortable shoes. She strode up the porch steps and leaned against the railing, facing me and crossed her ankles.
“Got a light?”
“No ma’am I don’t smoke.” She raised up an eyebrow and looked at the Copenhagen can still flipping through my fingers.
“You don’t want this stuff. It’s the devil. Wish to god I’d never started.”
“I can handle it,” she said, eyebrow raised and a with a smile that made my stomach tie in a knot. I put a pinch in my lip and held the can out, but she grinned and waved it away.
“I just wanted to see if you’d give it over.” I pulled the can back and stuck it in my pocket, face burning.
“Well ok, I don’t know what you’re getting at but if you want some it’s alright with me.” She laced her fingers through her hair and pulled it high on her head, twisting a hair tie around and flipping the hair from side to side until it was secured in place, a dark brown rope falling past her shoulders.
“You going inside?” She asked, pushing herself off the railing. I hooked a finger into my lip and flicked out the chew.
The band was in the middle of a song and the dance floor was shoulder-to-shoulder, people swaying in place, two-step stunted by the packed floor. The beer-heavy air hit me and it was hard to breathe. Her fingers were laced through my right hand, and I followed the curve of her hip into the crowd. The music flooded me and I felt like laughing or crying or maybe both. She spun in a half circle and faced me, crooked grin, hair swinging. One more spin and I pulled her in, grasped her other hand and started a two-step. As I closed my hand around hers, she pulled back, eyes wide.
“You’re married?” She mouthed over the music, lifting my hand up to show me my own gold band snugged around my finger. I tried to pull away, bust through the crowd, and go home before I could feel worse, but she tugged it back and grinned, lifting a shoulder in a careless shrug. I folded my hand into the curve of her lower back, felt the swell of her moving under the thin dress.
I tried to close the door quietly but the latch stuck, rattling the knob that I could never get to tighten right. The rhythm of her breathing shuddered out of syncsynch. My pillow was still on the couch from the night before, but I would have to take a blanket from the bed.
I stood at the edge of the bed and held my breath, waiting for her to say something.
“You awake?” I finally whispered. The fan whirred and I thought I heard her sit up, but the tiny swell of blanket never moved. I knew better than to touch her, every time I did—near her, in the bed, close to her at all—made her think about what we couldn’t have. It would send that dead look to her eyes, her mouth set in a thin line, shadows creasing her forehead. She didn’t answer. I grabbed a plaid blanket from the end of the bed and sank onto the couch.
She was gone by the end of the summer, the real end. After the fires have burned out, but the trees have turned the colors of the flames so the hills still look on fire. The elk scream in the canyon, the air is sharp.
I don’t want to paint her badly. She never did anything like throw a plate into a wall, slam doors, yell at me. She just slowly turned inside out until one day she sat in a kitchen chair, smaller than I’d ever seen her. She spoke into her lap, said she didn’t want to try anymore. There was something wrong with us, and she felt broken whenever she looked at me. I told her I understood, that I wasn’t going to fight her. I’d told her I was sorry so many times the words came out like powdered rust. She knew it wasn’t my fault, that it was just the way I was made. I’d done the best I could. Sometimes you just lose.
I spend most of my days alone now; I think that breaking someone else would do me in for good. I still go dancing at the Old Faithful but I don’t want to start anything new. Don’t want to tell someone else that I’m not all complete.
I thought about what would happen if I came up behind her in the pharmacy, touched her shoulder. She might walking down an aisle, or waiting in line at the checkout. She would be surprised, recognize me in the time it took to finish turning her head. She’d take my face in and I’d be smiling, making sure of it. That’s where my movie reel froze and I knew I wasn’t getting out of the truck.
The door to the pharmacy opened and my heart hit the back of my throat. I waited for her thin wrist to hold the door open, for the flare of a skirt caught by the wind. I let my breath out as a stooped man stepped slowly outside, putting his weight on a cane before easing down the step. Unable to hold the door and steady himself at the same time, it hit his shoulder as he took an unsteady step. He tripped, caught himself, and shuffled towards the crosswalk. The door stayed closed behind him.
The engine had cooled, but the hot air in the cab was dry in my throat, settling like a weight on my shoulders. I rolled the window down, the crank sticking at the top of every turn. I turned the key, heard the clatter as the engine came back to life. I pulled out slow enough I didn’t kick any dust up, and drove west.
About the Author:
Maggie Slepian is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Bozeman, Montana with her cat Heisenberg. She spends her summers climbing, mountain biking, and backpacking, and her winters catching up on work and teaching her cat how to walk on a leash.