We had a roofing job in Eureka Springs. Stupid name for a town. It’s up in the top corner of Arkansas, almost in Missouri, stuck in this Ozark gulley, every street a downward spiral. There are no grids in Eureka. It’s all very disorienting. Following the Steel Cloud into town, I got lost right away.
I was back working for Billy. He’d moved up in the roofing world and was doing hotels, re-tarring and re-gravelling, and we kept doing these little trips out from Dallas. I’d go with him and we’d hire a bunch of hands wherever we ended up. We’d do a week in Galveston, two days back home, a week over in Bossier City, four days back home. He just kept coming up with the jobs, each building’s super letting us know about a buddy he had.
Back in Dallas, Billy had his old lady and a kid in school, though it didn’t seem to slow him down in the social department. I had Elise, who was always asking how long I’d be gone, but it was only ever a few days. When roofing jobs dried up in the winter, I’d sub around the local middle schools. Elise didn’t like it, the unpredictability, but it wasn’t like we ever went hungry.
We were there to re-tar this old hotel downtown. I’d gotten lost but before long I saw the Steel Cloud parked in front of what I assumed was the hotel. It was the only building tall enough to disappear into the fog. I asked a bell-hop and he said they were on the roof giving it the once over.
Up top was in bad shape, beyond patching. Apparently, it’d started leaking all over a wedding party in the ballroom in September and that was just it. Billy was laying it on Ralph, the day manager, even though the contract was already sewn up. Billy marched off square footage, called me over and said, “This here is my lieutenant Mr. Thomas,” and generally made tar sound complex. I played obedient second-in-command, which was basically why he kept hiring me.
The good thing about the job was that they gave us rooms in the hotel—no more sleeping in the van. It was October and slow. Billy and I each had our own suite, which meant I had a little living room with a table and a couch and my own coffee maker and mini-fridge. Ralph said we could just charge whatever to our rooms, but Billy gave me the eye. He said he was off to find some hands and that we’d start tomorrow straight up like normal and that I should go enjoy myself. But not too.
It was about six when we all got settled in. Billy left me standing there in front of the old hotel, driving off in the Steel Cloud to god knows where. Ralph was shrugging into his rain jacket, heading home, and saw the Porsche pull away.
“Must be nice,” he said.
“Don’t you know it,” I said back.
All that was left was for me to do was find somewhere to eat. The weird mountain road slanted down under my feet. It was like I was back in geometry class, but trapped inside some shape. The town was like a game of Tetris with the staggers. The roads split at strange angles, and spade-like sides of buildings suddenly came at you. There was a restaurant up on the second floor, and I could hear laughter and someone playing the guitar and singing that Daniel song by what’s his name. The queer with the glasses. Don’t have it.
I went walking uphill on the main drag, and the sidewalks were full of people, mostly old couples—ladies pulling their husbands through the streets, all of them in white sneakers. I’d walk up to a restaurant, look in the window, but inside I’d see nothing but shoulders, so I kept walking.
I decided I needed more cigarettes, so I hiked on down to the truck. On the way I passed by this pizza place with an awning and an Arkansas flag and a little rainbow flag. No one in there. Across the street was an Indian food place, but I’d only had Indian once before. I’d enjoyed it, but I didn’t know what anything was called. Elise had ordered everything for me. Lord knows when she’d become such an expert. Kept walking down hill, feeling the gravity pull at my shins. A little mountain creek ran behind the shops to my right. I have to admit it was charming in a way. There were ice creams shops and fudge shops every block or so. Lots of clumsily hand-done signs and flyers everywhere. Come see the Eureka Sings production of The Little Foxes! This Thursday! That type of thing. I passed a guitar shop, stopped and looked in the window. The brown backsides of acoustic guitars hung floating from the wall. The sign said closed but inside an old man with too much beard sat with a guitar, pointing to the guitar of another man, telling him where to put his fingers. They started strumming together and I walked on, not wanting to interrupt with my staring.
Got to the van, pulled out my cigarettes from the glove box. Van was mostly empty now that all the gear was on the roof. Just a sleeping bag and a lantern and a milk crate of parts. It looked like a box of metal corners. I began to walk back uphill the way I came, puffing along, moving slower now. The day was heavily cloudy and all the buildings in the town looked like cookie dough—beige and unfinished. But the colors of the shops stood out. There was another quilt shop with a little rainbow flag. It was like the town would not be battened down by weather or geography or nothing. I blamed this on the tourists, who apparently was this town’s thing. The student was chopping regularly away at his guitar when I came back by, though I couldn’t tell what song he was playing.
Elton John, that’s the guy.
I was coming back up the hill where I would turn to get back to the hotel, and there was the pizza place and the Indian place. I went for the pizza.
Inside was lots of green vinyl and televisions. I sat down and started looking over the menu, and went through it almost three times when I saw the lady up at the counter. She was looking at me, regarding me like an animal.
“You ordering or just here for the TV?”
“Ordering,” I said.
“Well come on up.”
I ordered a medium with pepperoni, black olives, and artichoke hearts.
“Mmm,” she said. “Yummy. You must be from some place else.”
“You could say that.”
“That’ll be eight dollars. You want to drink? Which state?
“Huh? Yeah, large Sprite.”
“Oh, originally? Out west somewhere. One of the boxy ones.”
She smiled. She was a tall gal, not that pretty, with a plain evenly wrinkled face and large teeth, the kind you’d keep inside your smile. She had long graying blonde hair that she held in a low pony tail. She wore a T-shirt that said Eureka! It sure beats the shit out of Hot Springs.
“Be about ten minutes. You eating here?”
“Yeah,” I said, taking my change. I pulled a paper from the stack near the register. I saw another lady spreading out my cheese, like she was sprinkling dust. She took the pizza board and walked over to a big metal box, and pulled down one of the horizontal drawers and slid the pizza in place. She was shorter, wide hipped with iron grey hair, cut high and tight like she was a fresh recruit, but it was hiply gelled into little frozen waves. She pulled a cigarette from behind her ear and nodded at the lady who had taken my order and then disappeared in the back.
I sat down with my paper but couldn’t concentrate from watching the weather on TV. They were saying some big storm was on its way in, moving over from Oklahoma going to hit Arkansas around eight. I had to remind myself what state I was in. Right as the weatherman was saying that the station had us covered, a wind swept downhill outside the open door and the lights in the restaurant hiccupped. I checked my watch: 7:40. I went back up to the register. The tall one was standing there with her paper tented out in front of her. She folded down a corner at my approach.
“Is there any way I can get that to go,” I asked.
“Get it any way you want it,” she said.
“Great, thanks.” She walked over to the oven, pulled on the thin door and peered in. “Three minutes,” she said.
“What brings you to Eureka?”
“Roofing. I’m working up at the hotel.”
“Which one? The Crescent or the Basin Park.”
“I don’t know. The tall one.”
“Oh, the Basin Park. The one just up the hill.”
“Used to work there.”
“Oh yeah, everybody’s worked there. They come to town and work with at the Basin Park, or at the Crescent, or at the hospital. Ain’t nowhere else to work in town.”
“Up until they quit and open up their own shop.”
“Yeah? I noticed there were lots of shops around.”
“The tourists love it. Ain’t nobody in this own actually from this town.”
“Where you from?”
“From way they hell down in Hilo.”
“What brought you here?”
“Who can remember? Peace of mind? Been here almost twelve years.”
There was something about this woman. There was an openness to her that comforted me. It wasn’t sexual. It wasn’t maternal. Occasionally, I find this rapport with older women, women I don’t find attractive necessarily and yet who I can talk with. And I enjoy talking with them because our talk feels free, cleansed of the hormones that clog almost all my other conversations, not excluding those with Elise.
“This your little store?”
“Yep. You got it. We been in business just over a year now.”
Right then the other woman walked by the open doorway carrying a large plastic jug of something. She didn’t stop.
“Started cleaning rooms up at the hotel. Then worked the front desk, night manager, saved up enough and we bought this building. Took a while to figure out what we wanted to do with it.”
“You could have opened a fudge shop.”
“Too much fudge in this town already,” she said smiling.
She went back to the oven and pulled open the door, and pulled out the disc of my pizza. She slid it into a box with an aggressive, expert casualness.
“You want peppers and shit?” she said.
“All right. You come back tomorrow after the storm, have a beer.”
Two slices down I walked into the hotel, and I was immediately flagged down by the kid at the front desk. Hadn’t been there a day yet and already they knew me by sight. He said he had a message for me. So chewing on my third slice, I unfolded the pink piece of paper on top of the pizza box as I rode the elevator up to my room. My plan was to buy two cokes from the machine and mix it with the bottle of Evan Williams I had in my bag, ride this storm out in style. The message was from Elise. The little “please call” box was checked and in the open, free response area it said, “You forgot your cell phone again.”
The storm front hit as soon as I got up to my room. Started watching some movie on the television but the screen kept turning jagged whenever the wind picked up. I think it was one the National Lampoon Vacation ones. I never understood why they were called that.
Finally, at about ten, after the storm had raged and settled and raged and settled, and I’d finished the pizza and one of the Cokes, I decided to call Elise back.
“Some people might be about to go to bed, you know,” she said.
“Since when do you go to bed this early?”
“Since when do you care what time I go to bed?”
“Look, I’m sorry. I’ve been working.”
“At ten at night? It’s raining over there. I know this. You didn’t go to Mars, you know.”
“The red planet.”
“So what you were out partying with Billy until all hours?”
“What did you have?”
“What did you have?”
“I knew you’d say that.”
“Don’t say it with such exhaustion.”
“I’m not exhausted.”
“You sound exhausted,” she said.
“You sound exhausted.”
“Well I have a perfectly good reason to be.”
“I do, too.”
“Look, are we going to talk like this all night?”
Just then the line stuttered and went to dial tone. Even though I knew what was going on I kept calling her name Elise? Elise? Elise? over and over, though I also kept telling myself to just shut up and call her back.
“You didn’t have to hang up on me,” she said.
“I didn’t hang up. Something with my …”
“Calm down. It was just a joke.”
“I don’t want to fight,” I said.
“We’re not fighting. We’re just shaking it out.”
“What does that mean?”
“You know, like when athletes finish doing something, they shake their arms out? Shake shake shake.”
“I’ve never done that,” I said.
“Like when we watched the Olympics. The runners?”
“Okay, I remember.”
“See? No big deal.”
“Well what do we have to shake out?” I said.
“I don’t know. You tell me. You’re the one that up and ran to Arkansas.”
“I didn’t run. I just took a job with Billy.”
“I take jobs with Billy all the time.”
“Yes, but usually there’s like a note or we talk or you know, you tell me before you split.”
“I told you …”
“Yeah, you like shouted it as the car was speeding away.”
“I did not.”
“Okay, look, how are things?”
“Things are great. Things are pregnant.”
“Things thinks they are pregnant. Things are growing big and round and like Saturn.”
“What? Wait, what did you just say to me?”
The power stream shuddered and dimmed, the caterpillar of snow descended diagonally across the screen of my television, the entire room hiccupped and my phone went dead again.
“Goddamn fucking hick town,” I said when she picked up.
“I’m pregnant,” she said. “I’m pregnant, Tommy.”
“How can you be pregnant?”
“Really, they didn’t teach you this.”
“No, I mean, you know what I mean.”
“Look it happens. It can happen. It has happened.”
“But I thought you were on the pill.”
“I am. Well, I was.”
“You got off the pill? When? Weren’t you going to tell me?”
“I got off yesterday when I found out I was pregnant.”
“Because if you stay on the pill when you’re pregnant, you fuck them up. You give them like horns and shit.”
“Oh, Jesus, Thomas, yes, really.”
“But before …”
“Before I was on the pill. Remember, every day. That little damn hockey disc.”
“Then I mean, I understand, but how then did—”
“I don’t know,” she said, sighing into the phone, sounding genuinely confused by it all. “Maybe it was the antibiotics a couple of weeks ago.”
“The anti what?” I said.
“The antibiotics I got for the sinus infection.”
“They can do this?”
“Yeah, they can.”
“But did we even?”
“There’s no one else.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Let’s just say I could feel where you were going.”
“Alright sorry, jeez.”
“I’m not feeling so well.”
“I can tell.”
“Sympathy, Thomas, what I need at this moment is a mountain of sympathy.”
“Okay, sorry. What did the doctor say?”
I waited for her to speak, and I kept waiting and nothing, and then I suddenly realized that the phone was dead again.
“I haven’t been to the doctor yet,” she said when I got her back on the phone.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I haven’t been yet. I did the stick.”
“You peed on the stick?”
“Well, then, I mean, I’m not trying to discredit you or anything, but we don’t really know what we’re talking about yet. You got to go to the doctor. You just did the little pee stick.”
“I peed on three of them.”
“Well, that fine. I’m not …”
“Yes, you are. Yes, you are. You are saying …”
“I’m not saying anything. I just think we need to confirm.”
“Confirm the pregnancy. How many weeks along? Do you know that?”
“I think three.”
“Okay, that’s fine, but we need to confirm everything. Why three?”
“That’s just sort of my hunch.”
“Well how late are you?”
“Well technically I’m not late yet.”
“What do you mean ‘technically’?”
“I mean that I’m supposed to start tomorrow.”
“You mean you’re not even late.”
“Yes, technically as of now I am not officially late. But the stick says.”
Well why did you even take the stick if that—”
“I had a hunch okay? I had a hunch in my fucking pregnant belly okay? Women just know.”
“I know. I heard you. Okay.”
“I had a feeling about the antibiotics,” she said.
“Why did you say anything before we—”
“I forgot, okay?”
“Jesus, don’t get hysterical.”
“Do not use that word. Whatever you do, do not use that word around me ever again. Do I make myself clear?”
“Now, I don’t like talking about all this over the phone any more than you do, but what would you have me do?”
“Well you could wait until I got home.”
“And when is that going to be?”
My mind went numb. I was looking out the window at the rain falling in the street light and the leaves of the trees shuddering intermittently into the light, like the branches were trying to shake off the rain. For a moment, I couldn’t get back to the room where I was. I had no idea how long it would take to do the roof upstairs.
“It’s raining here,” I said.
“I already knew that part, Thomas.”
The next day it was still raining, but one of those deceptive sprinkles, where you think it’s really nothing but as soon as you get out in it, you seem to be covered in needles of water. The town was back alive, its tourist blood flowing. Old ladies hauled their husbands up and down the sidewalks, the little rainbow flags beckoned, and the cute bubbling stream from the day before now had real violence too it. All around us gravity was having its way. The sidewalks were moated with rainwater, too fast and deep to walk through.
After coffee and a muffin from one of the cute spots down the street, I got up to the roof. The new hands were there, standing stoically in the rain and smoking, but there was not a thing to do, and Billy was pissed. He paced around on his cell phone despite the rain. I worried that he might get electrocuted but I wasn’t the type of person to say anything. Finally, after like an hour of this, he told me to go downstairs and tell the manager the day was a bust.
I rode down the elevator next to a couple of guests, dripping the whole time and trying not to look dangerous. Something about construction or repair just makes people nervous.
Ralph was easy. He seemed to like me for a reason I couldn’t fathom.
“Yeah, I figured,” he said, sitting in his chair and playing on the computer, its blue glow lighting up his big glasses. “We gotta just hang on until this thing passes. Probably tomorrow sometime. Look, there was something I wanted to discuss with you. I mean I could talk about it with Billy but it’s about this weekend.”
I had the feeling that Ralph disliked Billy. Billy was one of those people who unnerved some people. Well, most people really. There was nothing visibly wrong with him, but he had a slick confidence that creeped people out. He could stand there and compliment your car, go on and on about it, and fill you with the notion that he was about to steal it with your wife inside.
“Do y’all want cash or is a check okay?”
I answered without really thinking about it.
“Cash, definitely. We need it to pay the hands. If we don’t pay them daily, they’ll skip out on us. Then we’re back on square one, picking up Mexicans every morning. Got to keep them faithful.”
“I figured as much. Okay, so y’all have today’s and then I was thinking. I was thinking of paying the rest tomorrow before I split for the weekend.”
“Don’t come back in on the weekends?”
“Not if I don’t need to. I’m sure you understand. And I sure as hell ain’t going to let Kenny have all that cash. You met Kenny?”
“Yeah, well, you will this weekend. Saturday manager. Couldn’t wipe his ass without pulling a muscle.”
“That’s fine. I’ll double check with Billy.”
“Yeah. Okay. I guess that’ll be fine,” he said. “Tell him I’ll have the money tomorrow afternoon. Y’all be tarring by then?”
“Yeah, if this stupid weather cooperates.”
“What did he say?” Billy asked when I got back upstairs.
“He says cool. Get to it when we get to it.”
“Yeah? Want his money back?”
“Huh, no. Nothing about that.”
“Cool. He say anything else?”
“Nah, he was busy. Cool with all of it.”
Billy smiled for the first time that day, almost invisible under all that rain and his ball cap. “Cool deal,” he said.
After grabbing a cigarette from the communal pack we’d kept in the shed, he called the Mexicans still standing still in the rain over toward the edge of the roof.
“Hola, viejos. Aqui venido. We’re completo hoy. Siesta all day, comprende? Mañana morning, bright and early. Bring a friend, mas o manos? Amiga de la roofer? Comprende?”
The Mexicans nodded in unison, and Billy slid one of them a fold of money. He looked at it for a second, made some mute gesture toward his friend, and they trudged away.
“I got enough for one more day of that,” he said.
“It’ll let up. I watched the weather this morning.”
“Since when did you become mister weatherman?”
“Since you brought me out to the Big Rock Candy Mountain, sir.”
He laughed and lit his cigarette, and said, “Well that settles it.”
“I’m heading to Little Rock.”
“Got some business there.”
“Yeah, more tars jobs?”
“Tar pit more like it.”
“Figure it out.”
“I’ll be back Sunday.”
“Sunday, what I’ll do until?”
“You know what to do.”
“Do you know what to do? You know how to do this? That’s why I brought you, right?”
“Yeah, I know what to do. I know how to roof.”
“Good. That Ralph off this weekend, right?”
“Yeah, some weekender is coming in. Kenny.”
“Right, good. You just keep your nose straight. Don’t drink too much. Hire another hand if you need to but no more than four. Five would be just greedy. Here.”
He reached back in his coat and pulled out the rest of his cash, tightened up in one his daughter’s hair bands, handed it over to me.
“You make that work, however possible. I don’t want any calls from you begging.”
“Hey, we’re set. Weather’ll clear out this afternoon. You come back Sunday we’ll be packing up and loading out Monday by lunch with cash in hand.”
“Good. I comprende that.”
“You lining up some work down in Little Rock?” I don’t know why I was pressing him that morning.
“Let’s just say I’ve got a solo gig there for the time being,” he said. And with that he blew out smoke that got caught between us in the rain. And he looked at me from under the brow of his cap with a plain male frankness. I hate to say that, but there was something male about it. It was some kind of straight-on preverbal male communion, out there in the smoke and rain. It was a look that said, shut up with your goddamn questions.
So I shut up.
The rest of the day was like my own personal vacation in Eureka. I went for an early lunch at the pizza place. The tall blonde was there again, and she sat down and ate across from me. Said was better to eat early before the nurses came. Her name was Serena. Said every Friday was Nurse Day and all the ones from the hospital would twaddle on down. Her partner came by later, her name was Tracy, and it finally dawned on me that they were together. I’m cool with that. I never worried about what other people did to each other, but I didn’t see it at first. Anyway, they told me that if I had the day I really should drive around and look at the scenery. They said stay away from all the old lady shops unless I needed a quilt for my lady back home. But I said no thanks. We’re all full up on quilts. I asked them about the guitar shop, and they said yeah that was Tex and he was legit, been there longer than anyone.
“Is he a native?”
“Heck no. He’s from Vermont.”
They said after that come back for dinner. It was lasagna night.
“Y’all do lasagna?”
“We’re not just a pizza joint,” Tracy said.
“What if I want to see some of the other nightlife in your fine town?”
Well that’s fine, they said, but don’t go drinking on an empty stomach.
And so I trouped on down to the van. I passed by the guitar shop but it was closed with a little clock that said he’d be back at 2:20. I bought a carton of cigarettes to share with the hands (one of Billy’s secrets). It was still raining a little but I managed to find my way out of the gully and got on the Pig Trail, which turned out to be really Highway 23. I rode for a little while with the horizon jumping up and down.
Finally, I just pulled the car over at this little lookout point and I got out and lit a cigarette and stood for a while. It was more than beautiful, the way the trees all ran up and down the hills in their fall colors. I was above everything, looking down on the hilltops and down there it looked like some great crumbled rusty machine, all quilted together. The rain had stopped and there was a pleasant chill to the air, a coldness brought in on the storm’s heels. I could tell it would clear up the next day and that we’d have three days of hard work ahead of us without Billy to make people nervous. I finished my cigarette and started another. There was nowhere to sit down so I just kept standing but didn’t seem to mind. The wind was free and light like it was finally done with summer, and it pushed me gently to the edge, and the crumple quilted surface of the treetops bowling out below me made me feel like I could fall into them. I thought about lasagna night and having a beer with Serena and Tracy. It was so wonderful in that moment feeling that I had nowhere to be, no one I was supposed to call. The next cigarette was already gone, so quick, and it seemed wasteful to start another right away. I couldn’t chain smoke like I was 20 anymore. I stood out there just breathing for another five minutes before I got self-conscious.
I drove back into town and found my hotel parking lot and began to trudge back up the hill. The guitar guy was back in the store, standing at the register reading a Thomas Harris book, and I came in and said, can you give me a lesson?
A cowbell clunked to announce my entrance.
“You buy a guitar, I’ll give you a lesson,” he said.
“I don’t want a guitar.”
“You know Tracy and Serena up at the pizza place? They’re old friends of mine. I’m new to town and they said you were the man to see.”
“That a fact?”
“You bet,” I said.
“Well,” he said, sliding a guitar pick inside his paperback to mark his place, “let’s go pick you out something.”
And we spent the next hour huddled together, each on stools as he tried to teach me an E chord and then a G chord. We started on D but then his next lesson came. My fingertips were stinging raw, like they’d each been individually scorched. But I didn’t want to leave. There was something about strumming out that E that felt so good despite the pain, like a big twanging exhale.
“You come back tomorrow I’ll teach you ‘Margaritaville’,” Tex said.
“I need to buy a guitar?”
“We’ll work on that.”
Back at the pizza place that night, I had lasagna, and I told Tracy and Serena about my day. They were right proud, and I was proud telling them. It was strange being so proud in front of them. Tracy would get up and tend to the ovens while I was talking. A bowling league had come through and set up in the restaurant, all wearing identical pink shirts, snap buttons with short sleeves. They must have won because they were loud and kept toting pitchers out to the tables, two at the time. I was eating up near the register, almost like the help.
“Tourists,” Serena said. “From Little Rock.”
“My boss is in Little Rock,” I said.
“Everyone is in Little Rock. It’s where everyone wants to be.”
“Well you’re the first. Where do you want to be, then?”
I didn’t know but I was on my second plate of lasagna and third beer, and my belly had this radiating, warm fullness to it, and I just wanted to bring everyone together, the bowlers, Serena and Tracy, and make a giant guitar out of them and strum them over and over.
Then I went back to the hotel and stayed up watching Law and Order reruns until Elise called at ten-thirty.
“I’m not pregnant.”
“I’m not pregnant.”
“What do you mean you’re not pregnant?”
“Just what I said. It’s a no go. I’m without child.”
“I know, I know. I went to the doctor.”
“Yes, already. What, now you’re mad I went to the doctor too fast? Yesterday you were all go to the doctor.”
“It’s just I didn’t think …”
“I thought maybe you’d wait until I got back home.”
“Well sorry to disappoint you.”
“I’m not disappointed, it’s just—”
“You’re not disappoint I’m without child.”
“No, I’m disappointed it’s just—”
“This—it’s happened so fast.”
“Tell me about it. So when are you coming home?”
“I don’t know.”
“You have a ballpark?”
“Ballpark four days.”
“Four day ballpark.”
“Can you live with that?”
“I guess. What’s your next job?”
“Don’t have one yet. Billy’s scouting work in Little Rock.”
“Great. What’s with all this Arkansas work?”
“I don’t know. He’s got a thing for Arkansas.”
“Thing. Fling’s more like it. You alone in there?”
“Just me and the mini-fridge and Law and Order.”
“Come home soon.”
“I want to have a baby now.”
“I understand that.”
“I don’t think you do, but that’s okay. I don’t need you to understand.”
“You just need me to like donate.”
“Yes. But there are other reasons I need you too.”
“Well that’s comforting,” I said.
The next day we were back at work, and I was playing foreman. The hands brought somebody’s brother and the three of them made quick work of the scraping, and by ten they were heating tar and getting everything ready. The smell was already thick in my nose. I was in the readjustment period where the smell comes back at you and takes over every thought. After a day or so it just becomes background, but there is always the first day of having to stomach it once again. I was pre-embarrassed about lunch, what Serena and Tracy would think with me coming down the hill smelling like turd.
And that got me to thinking. Why was I embarrassed about what they thought of me? I hardly knew these people. But as the morning wore on, and I stood there and smoked, I couldn’t shake it, this sudden caring about how I smelled and knowing that I smelled worse the longer I stood up there. Suddenly everything seemed too tight, from the cigarettes to the tar to the coveralls I was wearing.
I decided to go downstairs and check on the money. I hollered at the hands, who kept on pouring, and rode the elevator down to the lobby. The whole way I could feel people leaning away from me, the smell pushing them, disgusting. I was disgusted myself for the first time I could remember.
“Here you go,” Ralph said.
“Thanks for this.”
“Hey, sure. Makes it easier on me. Now I don’t have to worry about Kenny screwing things up. He’ll be around this afternoon. I’m probably about to cut out myself. Y’all got everything you need?”
“Oh yeah. No worries. We’re pouring steady now.”
“Billy being cool?”
“Cool as a cucumber.”
“Good. I didn’t see him out this morning, wondered if he maybe had too much to drink.”
“Nah. He was up there. Maybe had coffee in his room. We’ve got suites,” I said, stupidly.
“Probably right. So listen, y’all be careful.”
“Sure thing. Them hands are tight.”
“Those people up there speeka da English?”
“They do all right.”
I stood there too long. The conversation was over and I knew it, could feel it, but for some reason I stayed still, like I wanted him to bless me or something. Maybe it was the lying about Billy, though I don’t know why that would have caught me up. Billy was just Billy. Who cared if he wasn’t around. Though if he was around, let’s be honest, I wouldn’t have done what I did. Maybe I was feeling some pre-guilt. I swear I hadn’t even thought of it yet but maybe my body could feel it, could smell the crime coming off of me like that tar.
Because what happened was I rode the elevator back up to the roof, the fat envelope of cash in my inside pocket, and I got out to the shed and lit another cigarette. The Mexicans were still at it. It was coming up on lunch break, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go back to the pizza place smelling like tar. And I couldn’t stand there for the rest of the day pretending to be the boss. And what was most frightening was that I realized that I couldn’t talk to Elise again. The thought of having to talk to her on the phone again that night and the night after and deal with her spastic charm—I couldn’t do it. And to go back home and hash out all of that crap with the pregnancy, to figure out if she was pregnant or not, or if she was faking and why, and did she really want to have a child and when did this come up, when did she realize this. I knew what she would say anyway.
“I don’t know. It struck me right as I was telling you that I wasn’t pregnant. I realized that I actually did want to be pregnant.”
Which was fine for her, but it wasn’t fine with me. I could see that. The tar was spreading and settling, cooling steadily, and the roof on this old hotel would be like new in two days, ready for another twenty years of rainfall. And that’s how I started to think of my own life at that moment, that after so many years of one thing, a man had to make changes, a man had to revisit the surface of his life and check for leaks.
And so I knew what to do. I took out the cash Billy had given me and stuffed it in the communal cigarette carton. That still left Ralph’s envelope completely untouched. Screw Billy. He would do the same to me, I thought. I waved over to the Mexicans, indicated I was going to take a piss. They’d find their money. That was never a problem.
And then I rode down the elevator, swung by my room and got out of my jump suit and back into my regular Wranglers. Threw my shit into my bag and took the stairs down. No sight of Ralph. I walked quickly down the street, the fat envelope of money in my coat pocket, heavy and grimy. I passed the pizza place, just now opening up for lunch. I wanted to stop in and tell them goodbye, tell them everything, but I knew better. It was better to disappear suddenly from their view. Besides, I couldn’t settle there. I needed to find my own somewhere new.
I kept walking down the hill, spotting the van in the distance. Billy could get another for cheap. It wasn’t like I was stealing his little Porsche. I stopped for a moment, wondering if I was really about to do this, all the complications it would bring. Would Billy come after me for nine grand and an old Volkswagen van with 200 plus miles on it? I was standing in front of the guitar store. Inside Tex was leaning into the counter, almost done now with that Thomas Harris novel. The cowbell on the door clunked as I entered.
“Back for more, eh,” he said, not looking up.
“Back for that guitar,” I said.
I sped down the Pig Trail, the wave of the horizon whooshing by, and I made my way through the Ozark National Forest as fast as I could. I just knew that I was about to see some patrolmen peek over the hill behind me and flip his lights. But instead it was just me and all that gravity, all those irregular lines. As soon as I got up any speed, I was braking hard to keep it on the blacktop. All the van’s ingredients shifted with every turn, the sleeping bag rolling like a tumbleweed, the milk crate of metal corners sliding back and forth. To keep my guitar from getting hurt, I sat it upright in the passenger’s seat and strapped the seatbelt across its big belly. I made it to the interstate and got through Little Rock without too much thinking, even though Billy was there somewhere in its hills, humping someone, the Steel Cloud parked out front. Really more than anything he would probably be proud of me. He’d write it off, insurance would pick it up. I was ashamed of what Ralph would think, but this seemed like worrying about Serena not liking my tar smell. Since when do I care what these people think? These strangers? What about what I think of myself?
After Little Rock, I fell into silence and simply drove, making sure not to speed. I was going to be fine. I stayed this way until I hit Memphis. It was the bridge that did it. As I came up its incline, the illuminated M-of its lights shook; I’d somehow caught up to that front that had come through Eureka. The wind descended and shook the van as I slowly made my way up the bridge. I could see the outline of downtown in the distance but only as a dense rectangular shadow in the gray half-light. It was somewhere around dinnertime. My plan was to get all the way to Chattanooga before settling in.
I got up under that glow of the De Soto Bridge, under its arc of light bulbs, and all that light made me feel a bit more safe—a bit more like I wasn’t about to get flung off into the river for what I’d done. And it was just then, under that light that I saw the sign across the river, the red electronic sign stuck on some building downtown: The Birthplace of Rock and Roll. And that’s what broke me down, made me see what I was really doing to Elise.
It had all happened by now: the Mexicans would have discovered their money, rifling for the cigarettes after lunch. By now Kenny the idiot weekender would have figured out that I’d flaked, when all the noise from the roof had stopped hours too early. By now he would have called Ralph and Ralph would have called Billy, and Billy—emerging from God knows what scenario—would have called my cell phone, which was sitting on the kitchen counter back in Dallas, right where I’d left it on purpose. I was tired of talking to Elise even before I’d left for the job. I wasn’t planning on leaving her. I had never thought about it before, but then there you go.
By now she knew. Only six hours ago everything was normal, but by now she had to know. She would have picked up my cell phone, and Billy and her would have had the strangest conversation. Full of confusion and explanation. It probably took them a half an hour to figure out what I’d done.
And what exactly had I done? Only what every man has a right to do, at least two or three times in his life, and that’s start over. Find a new spot on the map and make himself up from scratch. I didn’t know that then. In fact, running across that bridge and seeing that sign, it felt like a true Sign—like God had come down to let me know that Elise really was pregnant.
There was some meandering before I got all the way to the coast. Some false starts. I stayed around east Tennessee and the Carolinas for six months, just bouncing around, working day labor. I turned myself back into a hand, taking daily bits of cash and cigarettes, making friends with the Mexicans where I could find them, speaking their language, helping them find the work that was out there. I’d stay a week in the same place but no longer. I was laying low until I felt the fog had cleared.
No one came for me. That’s how I knew she wasn’t really pregnant. If that was the case, she would have really found me. If it were true, she would have gone hysterical.
Now, all this time later, I’m not proud I did it, but I understand why. You’ve got to protect yourself. That’s what I learned in Eureka. You’ve got to clear out a new space for yourself, not box yourself in, patch your leaks, find your true home. That’s what Serena and Tracy had done, probably what Tex had done too. Everybody’s got that right. You’ve got it, too, if you want it.