Tina’s watch said 5:45 a.m. Central time. Though it was an hour later at home, and Bill’s rigid morning routine would have him in the shower with his phone out of reach, she dialed his number.
“Hey,” she said wearily to his voicemail. “They extended the meeting another day. I can’t believe this.” She hoped her exasperated sigh sounded real. “I’ll be there as early as I can but I don’t know when, I’ve got to rebook my flight. I’m sorry. I’ll talk to you later. I love you.”
Arms folded, she looked out the hotel window at a crowded freeway and a low, murky sky. A few minutes earlier she’d felt sure of herself and her intentions. Now that she’d spoken the words, nothing seemed cut and dried.
The truth was that her meeting was over and she’d already rebooked. But instead of flying from Dallas-Fort Worth to Atlanta, her itinerary began with a 7:30 departure to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International, with an afternoon connection to Hartsfield-Jackson.
She could give Bill a fake update and go straight back but would be sorry, probably forever, if she didn’t make the detour. He’d never know the New Orleans leg and the rental car she’d drive in the city would be paid for out of her own pocket instead of her company’s pocket. She was already in Texas, and her destination lay between her and home.
Just yesterday she’d seen the Facebook post from Sally, a friend from undergrad school at Tulane: For all who know Matthew Doucet and his music, I have the sad news that his condition is grave. He is at home among family and friends and is at peace. Please send prayers his way. From the comments, Tina learned Matt had been fighting testicular cancer. She almost didn’t recognize his picture, which showed a deeply lined face and a beard he hadn’t had when they said goodbye.
Quickly checking her own face in the mirror, she didn’t see any new wrinkles, or any trace of grey in the copper-brown hair that fell just above her shoulders. She applied lipstick, checked her mascara for smudges, then sadly reminded herself this wasn’t a date.
On the shuttle bus, she sat checking her watch as rain spattered the windows and slowed traffic to a crawl. The airport people-mover wasn’t much faster, lurching between terminals while she tried to lean away from the hulking, clearly unshowered man next to her. She ran to the gate with her wheeled bag in tow and made it with minutes to spare. Luckily, the plane landed on time in New Orleans, where the Hertz counter wasn’t busy.
Tina had just pulled onto I-10 when Bill texted What’s going on? Gripping the wheel with one hand, she managed to type still in mtg with the other. She felt ashamed about both lying and texting at 65 miles an hour but couldn’t let her husband think anything was amiss. A visit to an old boyfriend, even one who was dying, could send their marriage back into the tailspin she’d been trying to pull it out of for the better part of a year.
She switched the radio to WWOZ and her worries dissolved as her fingers tapped along with the funky groove of the Neville Brothers on “Voodoo.” Images came rushing back as clear and bright as a summer constellation: the long, narrow bar in the Quarter where Matt had played for tourists on a postage-stamp stage; devouring beignets under the awning at the Café Du Monde; drinking at Tipitina’s all Saturday night and going back Sunday afternoon for the Cajun dance party; and their apartment in the Marigny, packed wall-to-wall in sweltering heat, music and laughter ringing down the alley. When the party guests had gone, their sweat-slick bodies rolled and tumbled in perfect time, collapsing in the morning light.
The Exit sign for the Lake Pontchartrain causeway pulled her back to the present. She headed north on the long bridge as the sun pushed through the clouds, its white-gold trail rippling across the flat blue water. The dashboard clock read 10:31, which meant she’d have plenty of time as long as she didn’t get lost looking for Matt’s house. Eyes on the road, she tried to think of all the things she wanted to say to him and could only imagine what she might hear in return.
They had met during her sophomore year at Tulane and split up when she returned to Atlanta for a business degree. When she left, she felt certain nothing remained unfinished between them, no wounds to heal or torches to carry. Now she and Bill had a great kid, a nice home, and until recently a happy partnership, which she was laboring to repair. Yet the thought of Matt being gone forever had tripped an emotional breaker, making her long for the closure that she’d never before thought she needed.
A whirl of misgivings trailed her to a bumpy street where sweetgums and tall pines towered over the homes. Like many of them, Matt’s place rested on blocks and wasn’t much wider than a shotgun house. The paint on the gabled porch was cracking and chipped, with a faded couch sitting under the front window. In the driveway was a red Ford pickup with a Certified Cajun bumper sticker.
Parked behind the truck, Tina feverishly debated whether to race back across the causeway and home. She’d messaged Sally that she was coming but didn’t know if Sally had told Matt. The last thing she wanted was to upset him. She didn’t know who else might be there, and if Bill found out…no, she’d come this far.
After switching off her phone so there’d be no interruptions, she walked slowly up the steps and rang the bell, the floorboards creaking as she shifted her feet. The door swung open, revealing a woman in a flowered housedress with long iron-grey hair. She stared uncertainly at Tina, who recognized her right away as Matt’s mother. “Dorothy, I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Tina, Tina Benton. Matt and I were together years ago.”
The older woman’s face softened. “I sure do remember you,” she said. “It’s been, Lord, I don’t know how long. How’d you find out?”
“On Facebook. It’s been about sixteen years.”
Dorothy nodded. “That’s right, you went home for more school. Well, that’s not here nor there. Come on in.” She led Tina past the living room, where an LSU banner hung above the mantel and a battered acoustic guitar rested on a stand. “It’s good you came now,” Dorothy said. “Mornins he’s okay talkin’ and bein’ around people but it takes all his strength and pretty soon he’s wore out.
And afternoons are when Lucy comes after she gets off work. She might not understand.”
“Is Lucy his wife?”
“Girlfriend. Real sweet to him but got a temper too.” They stopped at a half-open door with music playing inside. “Just so you understand, he’s in good spirits, considerin,’ but I can’t tell you how he’s gonna feel about this,” Dorothy said. “Wait a sec while I tell him.” Tina heard her say, “Matty? You got a visitor,” and after a short, muffled conversation she reappeared. “You can go in. I’ll leave you alone.”
Bracing herself, she slipped inside the small bedroom. Matt was sitting up in bed, an oxygen tube in his nose. His beard was gone, which made him look like his old self, but his skin was chalky, his deep brown hair ragged and sparse. The music, an unfamiliar zydeco-rock band, was coming from a tablet by the bed. The air smelled of the bayou, medicine, and sweat.
Their eyes met and Tina’s heart lit up, just like in the old days. “Hi, Matt,” she said hesitantly.
“Hey, girl. Wow, it’s been a while,” he replied hoarsely, raising himself off the pillows. When they embraced, the feel of his bony frame unnerved her and she eased him gently back down. “It’s great to see you,” he said. “How’d you happen to be here?”
“I was in Dallas for work and I’m on my way home. I would’ve come sooner but I didn’t know until yesterday,” she said, pulling a wicker chair next to the bed. “I’m sorry it took so long.”
Matt still had his big smile. “No problem. I’m happy you’re here now,” he said. “Some people won’t get close and I have to tell ‘em I’m not catchin.’” That made Tina smile too.
“So how you been, anyway?” he asked. “I heard you got married.”
She wondered where he heard it. “I did. We met in the MBA program at Georgia Tech. I’m in financial services and we live in Alpharetta.” Though she knew it shouldn’t after all these years, talking about her marriage with Matt seemed unnatural.
Matt nodded. “I was in Alpharetta for a gig once. You have any kids?”
“One. Her name’s Jenny and she’s in middle school.”
Matt beamed. “Probably beautiful like her mama.” Tina blushed and felt guilty about it.
“How about you?” she said, softly. “Did you get married?”
Matt looked down. “Yeah, and I shouldn’t have. We thought we had somethin’ special and what it turned out to be was trouble.
Thank God no babies.” He looked up at her with a little smile. “Hey, we had us a time.”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Tina said. “You took me to my first Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. And my second and third.”
Matt chuckled. “You were my number one fan. Probably the whole fan club.”
“We met when you were playing at Marge’s Lounge.” Tina was enjoying herself now. “A real dive.”
“Kinda like our apartment,” Matt said. “Remember those parties where the whole neighborhood came?”
She chuckled. “I can still feel the hangovers. I don’t know how I graduated.”
“And when we didn’t have the rent, I set my guitar case on the sidewalk down at Rampart and Dumaine and started singing. That case got full of money fast.” Matt fell silent for a moment, then added wryly, “It hasn’t been full since.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I had a little record deal but didn’t exactly light up the charts. Then the pandemic shut down a lot of joints I used to play.
Before I got sick, I was mostly painting houses and driving a school bus. Still had some gigs, though. One time I even auditioned for American Idol.”
“Hell yeah!” he said, his voice revived by the memory. “They had this big cattle call at the convention center, thousands of people. I told ‘em it was time they had a Cajun winner. I sang “You Used To Call Me,” and looked the woman judge, that dancer, right in the eye.” He fixed his neon blues on Tina and she couldn’t keep from melting again. “Man, I had her but the two dudes didn’t like me.
One said I sounded like some bar singer.” He laughed. “Well, duh!”
Tina laughed too, but a sudden fit of coughing shook Matt’s body. He propped himself up on an elbow, trying to clear his lungs, while Tina watched, alarmed and unsure what to do. Dorothy came in as the hacking stopped and Matt began taking shallow breaths. “You all right, Matty? You need water?”
“That’d be nice,” he said, struggling to get the words out. Dorothy took the pitcher from the nightstand as Tina thought guiltily that she should’ve gotten it herself. “Sorry ‘bout that,” Matt said. “Some days are worse than others.”
“That’s all right,” Tina said, and quickly added, “I know it’s not all right. I’m so sorry this had to happen, Matt.” Dorothy returned and filled a glass, which Matt took with a shaky hand. “Thanks, Mama,” he said as she walked out, shooting Tina a disapproving look on the way.
The silence made her heart sound like a bass drum. She knew it was time to leave him again. She just wasn’t sure she could trust her knees to lift her off the chair and her feet to carry her through the door. “I don’t want you to overdo it,” she said. “I guess I’d better get going.”
“I understand,” he said. “I’ll be all right.” As she leaned over the bed, their foreheads touching, he reached out and lightly stroked her hair. She hugged him fiercely, then looked deep into his blue eyes one last time. As she stepped away, he said, “Hey, you see those discs on the top shelf?” gesturing at a bookcase overflowing with CDs and vinyl. “That’s me and the band. Take one.”
Ready to collapse and knowing she couldn’t, Tina found her way to the porch where Dorothy was sitting with a cigarette. “I hope you had a good visit,” she said. “I see you got a souvenir,” pointing at the CD and smiling.
“I did. I haven’t heard him play in a long time.”
“It’s really good. It just didn’t sell. He worked so hard on it, too.”
“Who was his wife?”
“Her name was Lynn,” Dorothy said in disgust. “Didn’t last but a couple years. Said she got tired of havin’ no money and him bein’ in bars around other women. She knew all that when she married him.” Dorothy stubbed out her smoke. “Haven’t heard a peep out of her. I have to say, I didn’t expect you comin’ but I appreciate it.”
“I’m glad I got the chance,” Tina replied, a little uneasily. “It seemed like he was glad to see me.”
“Well, he was sorry to see you leave when you went back to school,” Dorothy said. Seeing the shock on her face, she took Tina’s hand. “I’m not tryin’ to make you feel bad, hon, ‘cause you shouldn’t. He knew you weren’t gonna stick around forever. He just took it hard.” Dorothy lowered her voice. “He’s never told me in so many words but I think there’s a song on that disc that’s about you. Track number four.”
Tina was thunderstruck. “Are you sure? I-I mean, was it me and not Lynn, or Lucy, or someone else?”
“Listen to it and make your own judgement,” Dorothy said. “I’d best get back in. You have a safe trip now.”
As she hurried to the airport, Tina thought about everything she’d told Bill, afraid she might’ve left clues or loose ends that would raise fresh suspicions. For perhaps the thousandth time, she told herself her transgression hadn’t been planned, that she’d harbored no intention of cheating on him that evening months ago. She and Rick, the former college basketball star who’d recently joined her team, were working late in hotel rooms far apart, Tina with a glass of room-service merlot on her desk. After a video call Rick texted Wish I had some of that wine! And without thinking, she answered Wish you were here to drink it with me.
The conversation quickly turned to “HOT!!!!,” “Ohhhhhh,” and much more. The next day they promised to never do it again, nor even think about taking things further. When they were back in the office a few weeks later, she mentioned—just casually, she thought—that her husband was out of town. That night her phone buzzed u up? In the morning, she left it on the bed while she showered and came out to find Bill, home early, glaring down at the screen.
“Ma’am? Ma’am, we’re not quite done.” Tina saw the rental-car clerk looking at her and realized she had drifted back in time to a crumbling apartment on Chartres Street. “I’m sorry,” she said as she signed the paperwork.
While she usually hated security lines, the rituals involving her purse, shoes, and jewelry gave her a welcome feeling of familiarity, a sense that this was just another trip. By the time she reached the gate and sank into a seat, she’d begun to breathe easy for the first time all day. She just had to commit one more deception by telling Bill she was finally on her way.
Her heart nearly stopped when she turned the phone on and saw a blizzard of messages and missed calls. Trembling, she dialed his cell. “Where’ve you been?” he yelled. “Jenny broke her wrist. I must’ve called forty times!”
“Oh my God oh God I’m so sorry. What happened? Is she all right?”
“She fell on the track in gym. It’s what they call a greenstick fracture, it’s not completely broken. The doctor put on a splint and it’ll be fine, but she’s pretty upset. Where were you?”
In the car she’d rehearsed every word. Now she couldn’t sound like it. “I just got to the airport. Did you get my message this morning?”
“Yeah,” Bill growled. He never used that tone. “So what happened after that?”
“I got tied up and didn’t have a chance to call. And forgot to charge my phone.” Don’t panic, she thought. “I didn’t know it was dead til a little while ago.”
A pause. Then, each word heavy and Arctic-cold, “Do you expect me to believe that crap?”
Say something. “Bill, it’s not crap. I had a really hectic day and just forgot. I—”
“Where have you been? While Jenny was in pain and I was going crazy. WHERE…WERE… YOU?”
As Tina recalled later, she could have shouted, “I was in a room with a bunch of idiots!” but she wasn’t built that way, didn’t have the strength to repeat the story forever. Her voice shaking, she began, “I went to see a sick friend.”
She had to talk uncomfortably loud to be heard over the crowd and the constant announcements from the airline. Again and again, she apologized for being out of touch, shuddering as she pictured Jenny’s fall. Bill listened without interrupting, which she hoped was a good sign, but when she finished, he snapped, “I don’t believe this. As if Rick wasn’t enough, now I find you’ve been wanting this loser all these years.”
“I did not want him!” she said, more heatedly than she’d intended. “I left him—I left, do you understand?—before I met you. It was over. It is over.”
“But you ran back there as soon as you got a chance. Who else have you been sneaking around with on these trips?”
“Darling, he was someone I was close to and he’s on his deathbed,” she said, doing her best to stay calm and contrite. “It wasn’t a rendezvous. Believe me, there was nothing romantic about it. Not at all.”
“Then why couldn’t you just tell me? Jesus, I’d have understood.” As furious as Bill was, he also sounded hurt. “You never mentioned this guy. I thought I knew everything.”
“I told you I’d been involved with someone while I was at Tulane. This ended a long time —” but he cut her off again. “Don’t you understand what this looks like, goddamn it?”
“Bill, please. I know I was stupid before and again today but I love you, you. No one else.”
“You swore you’d never lie to me, remember?” he screamed. “You fucking swore!” The line went dead and Tina covered her face with her hands just as the speaker crackled, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are ready to begin our boarding process.”
Tina closed the spreadsheet she was working on, then glanced around to be sure she was alone before beginning her new 5:30 ritual. Though the office was empty and quiet except for the rumble of traffic outside, the harsh lights made her feel like the world was watching when she slipped Matt’s CD into her computer. Like “You Used To Call Me,” the fourth track was a waltz with a melancholy fiddle and accordion, the kind of music that’d been heard in Louisiana for generations. Earbuds in, eyes closed, she listened to Matt’s gritty yet tender voice, and his words.
Oh, we danced all the days and we loved through the nights
I never believed we would part
I could fly like the eagles with you in my arms
But my wings are as broken as my heart
Tina had betrayed no grief or emotion when she learned soon after her trip that Matt had died. All she cared about was finding forgiveness from Jenny and especially Bill, whose anger had nearly driven her out of the house. By the time a fragile reconciliation took hold, she felt that she’d been through eons of relentless guilt and anxiety. It helped that Jenny’s arm healed fast and Rick was out of the picture for good, leaving without a word for a job in another city.
When she and Bill began sharing a bed again, the pieces of her well-crafted life were back in place. But there was Matt on the CD cover, waiting under an ancient, mossy tree, holding his old guitar and singing straight into her heart.
Oh mon chere, you were pretty, you were young, free and wild
I wonder where you’ve gone today
Are you loved, are you happy, do you still think of me?
Won’t you please come back home, come and stay?
Dave Swan is a former journalist and a lifelong writer. His stories have appeared in the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Close To The Bone, the Red Fez, Flora Fiction and elsewhere. He’s a member of the Atlanta Writers Club and helps manage their social media.