Yellow leaves spun down and ticked softly on the porch. They covered plastic chairs and a dirty glass table, suggesting artful neglect. A broom with a splintered handle leaned against the railing, next to pieces of a red bird house that had fallen from the old oak. Light from the setting sun brushed the tips of the highest trees. The air, cold and still, drew the heat from Jim's bones. He tightened the string on his pullover, wiped his nose on his sleeve, wiped his sleeve on the back of his pants.
He heard gravel popping under tires, checked the door one last time – locked – and stepped down onto the driveway. Her car, somebody else driving. He dropped his gym bag and waited. The car backed into the turnaround and the driver cut the engine. A big guy got out. He was unshaven, wearing crusty jeans, an unbuttoned green flannel shirt over a hooded sweatshirt and grubby pumpkin colored work boots with the laces untied. The sweatshirt said "Harvard." Nobel Prize winner dressing down.
"Hey, Jim. Ed. Allie's brother. Remember me?"
"Yeah, well, she had to work, last minute. I said I would pick you up. You weren't answering your phone."
"Don't have a phone."
"There you go. I'll pop the trunk."
Jim stowed his bag, swept crumbs and dirt off the passenger seat with an equipment catalog, and rolled down the window to cut the booze sweat. Ice cubes with hollow centers bobbed around two beer cans in a cooler wedged between the seats.
"Help yourself. Happy Hour." Ed tapped the clock on the dash and turned toward him. Jim felt closed in, like a talking flannel air bag had just inflated next to him. "You really don't remember me?"
Jim closed his eyes, tried to reconcile the guy next to him with his memories. Chubby little kid, reindeer pajamas, one hand on his pecker, wouldn't piss and brush his teeth. He'd wanted to play with his train set all night while Jim was trying to get down with Allie under the Christmas tree. Allie's parents out all night, not with each other. Jim remembered crushing up sleeping pills in the kid's egg nog, enough to drop an uncooperative zoo animal. Remembered carrying him to his room and checking his breathing over and over. Both of them just boys, really. Allie already starting to show signs, getting anxious and paranoid whenever she was high. Later, Allie riding him as he tried to grab her swinging necklace, her Christmas present, his whole paycheck, between his teeth. Jesus, carrying that kid, his arms soft around Jim's neck, slipping his feet under the bedcovers, and then coming back down the hall to Allie's open robe – the perverse domesticity of the scene struck him now.
"Allie had to work?"
"Waiting tables. High dollar steakhouse, good tips. Asked me to pick you up. I moved some things around to get it done." Ed had his hand on the keys but didn't crank it, still looking at Jim.
Jim nodded, let a breath out. "I appreciate it."
Ed slapped him hard on the shoulder. "Glad to do it."
As they crunched down the driveway Jim slid lower in the seat and watched the house recede in the side mirror. Not his house anymore. He had left the keys on the kitchen table, on top of Carol's note that said "Leave keys." "Keys left," he had added, getting the last word for once. Ed was talking ...
"... Went through a split myself last year. Got weird at the end, we're sitting on the couch doing business, you know, contact numbers, PO boxes, bills. We start laughing. She puts her feet in my lap. Because we're the only two people who understand. Nobody else is inside it. You know what it's like?" He waited until Jim said what. "One of those old Samurai movies where the guys are slicing and dicing each other and they get tangled up face to face for a second and it's like, 'can you believe we're killing each other?' The last thing they have in common, right? I mean chopping somebody's head off, that's at least as personal as sex. Right?"
Mother of God, a long drive at rush hour with Mr. Miyagi. Jim rubbed his face.
"Ed, let's refill this cooler."
"Could use some gas, too."
Jim dug for his wallet.
Ed pulled into a gas station. The sky was dark now, but the parking lot was lit up so strong you thought you were being abducted by aliens. Jim went around back to the can. Two Harry Homeowner types were already waiting. He stepped out of the light to piss and almost rolled down a steep hill. "Son of a ..." He rocked on his heels, found his balance and waited for his eyes to adjust. Down below, fragmented by tree branches, square windows floated in space, some yellow, most blue and flickering. Car lights in parallel lines crossed at an intersection. One car turned into a cul-de-sac and then into a driveway, illuminating two fallen bicycles in the yard. He heard the thump of a car door. Dad's home, mom's home, hide the bong, fix a drink, feed the dog, nuke a pizza, sniff a shirt for tomorrow, and let the current drag you down the river. Jim aimed his stream down the hill, zipped up carefully when he was done, hunched over in the universal protective gesture. The two Harrys were glaring at him but he knew they would do the same thing when he was gone.
They drove west. Traffic thinned; abandoned wooden houses, country stores, and horse and cattle farms replaced the suburban fungus. The left headlight was out and the right one flickered every time they hit a bump. Jim drank between potholes. He squinted each time they passed a streetlamp, watching a single gold strand of light touch the hood and guide the car into the next dark patch, like Tarzan riding vines.
"So catch me up," said Ed.
"Ten years, one lesson, Ed. Every relationship is the goddamned Middle East."
"Lemme drink about that for a minute."
They laughed. Ed slapped one hand on the dash and turned a beer over into his mouth with the other. Jim thought about Carol's sleek friends, all the times he had drawn laughs sitting around the McMansion talking about his country roots, describing his home town as a fetal alcohol colony filled with hatchet-faced gun toting half wits. Lifestyles of the high caliber and low IQ. Now he was rolling back, drunk, broke, dismissed. Showing off the genuine mountain man got boring for Carol, and all of the others, right quick. He opened another beer. The shock of seeing Ed, now a behemoth, set him wondering about Allie. They had been sharing quite a few racy phone calls lately but he hadn't seen her in years. My God, what a luxurious, irresistible delusion, that the place you left is a closed book, all characters ageless, poised in mid stride, waiting patiently for your eyes and breath to move them again. All is forgiven as your high school sweetheart opens the door with a smile ...
Ed turned up the heat. Stale air blew in Jim's face. The windshield was fogged; Jim grabbed his sleeve with his fingers and pressed his forearm on the glass, rubbing it clear. Might as well be driving with your eyes closed. They cruised past the town limit sign.
"Temp's really dropping," Ed said.
"It's country dark, too."
"You doing all right, I can take the wheel if you ..."
Ed waved his hand. Jim moved around, trying to get some circulation back in his ass cheeks. He reached to unbuckle his seat belt. Ed looked at him.
"You need to stop, Jim?"
"What I'm asking ..."
"No, I mean stop the car."
"Are we dead?" Ed asked.
"You smell dead."
Jim looked out his side, where the window used to be. Most of it was in his lap, in tiny pieces, shining like dangerous candy. His ears were ringing and his neck hurt. Ed's voice sounded far away, something about his leg feels broken and it's getting ready to hurt real bad. Jim opened the door, shook glass out of his lap, and stepped into a ditch. His vision tunneled and his head sank, like somebody had turned the gravity dial up a few notches. He leaned against the car and worked his way around to Ed, who had pushed himself out the driver's side door and was sitting with his back against the door. Ed lit a fat blunt and passed it.
"What was that, a deer?" Jim asked.
"Looked like a bear."
"No way. You see it anywhere?"
"You're not supposed to swerve, just hit them straight on. Beats bouncing off trees like we did."
"Tad late with the driver's ed tip there, Jimbo."
"Yeah, well, give me your phone, I'll call 911."
Ed tapped his pockets, found the phone.
"We're not hurt bad enough, and my next DWI is a felony. I'm calling Barry. He drives a wrecker."
Jim decided not to argue. It was cold and the weed was kicking in. Ed was mumbling into the phone. Jim lay down on the ground, reminded himself that he would need his bag out of the trunk. More stars than sky out here, layer on layer. Deep in that infinite overlay of parallel universes, a smarter Jim had been spending a regretless chunk of the last ten years in a warm bed with Allie. Of course, in another minutely tilted universe the unluckiest of Jims had gotten his seat belt off and been launched through the windshield, courtesy of a parallel drunken Ed. Jim sat up.
He borrowed the keys and lifted his bag out of the trunk.
"How long is this guy gonna be?" asked Jim. Ed held up his hand.
"Alright, that's enough. Enough. Here's a question. You know what we used to call you?"
Jim didn't answer, hearing the change in Ed's tone.
"The man with the reverse Midas touch. Everything you touched turned to shit. Now not even one day passes and here we are, on the side of the road, and all you're worried about is your stuff and how long it's gonna be before you get back to screwing my sister's life up again. She's doing good by the way, much better without you. She's taking her up and down pills every day, working, and she's happy."
"How's this my fault? You wrecked Allie's car. How happy is she gonna be about that? And I didn't ask you to pick me up in the first place."
"I picked you up because my sister, who I care about, even though she has the piss poor sense to keep dealing with you, asked me to. That's what people do. Well, not people like you, but people like me. Because you needed my help. So answer me this, mister assholier than thou, what are you doing out here next to me freezing your nuts off?"
"Oh, how long you been saving that one, Fat Albert Einstein?"
Ed staggered to his feet and glared, looking all weed paranoid.
"I was planning to stomp you tomorrow, but now's good."
Jim took a step back. Then they were lit up. They turned and shielded their eyes as a tow truck rumbled up. Behind it was a patrol car.
The town cop walked up first. Barry got out of the tow truck and came over. He nodded toward the cop. "He saw me going out on the call." Another door slammed. Jim watched Allie slide out of the tow truck. "And so did she. She was still at work," said Barry, shrugging.
"Small town," Ed said.
"Curious inhabitants," Jim said.
The cop ran a flashlight beam up and down Jim and Ed and then pointed it inside the car. Ed leaned over and looked, like he was curious too.
"Open containers, and you both reek. Who was operating this vehicle?"
"Operating this vehicle," Jim echoed. The cop looked about twelve.
Allie was hugging a big down jacket around herself. Her thin legs stuck out, panty hose sagging around her knees. She swayed from exhaustion, her eyes closed, her face Kabuki white in the high beams. A tired face, but even so. Jim started toward her but she put her hand up and pointed her index finger at his face, eyes still shut tight.
"I was driving," Ed said.
"Oh, no, Eddy," he heard her whisper. She walked over to him and put her fist on his chest, punched him twice in slow motion. "No, no, no." Ed cupped her fist in his hands. Jim watched the two of them, in the road, bathed in bright cold light. It felt timeless, as if the world had spun away and left this afterimage.
He remembered Ed's round face bulging through the screen door when he would take Allie out. He would stand there, inconsolable, until she returned. Then Allie getting sick, Jim bailing when the choices seemed to be Allie screaming, hot as blue flame, or Allie zonked on meds, and finally Allie, who didn't understand, saying she understood, pleading over and over, "I'm still me, Jim" as he shook his head and drove off. Then the message from Ed, two weeks later: She stood in the road for four hours. You are a breathtaking asshole. Stay gone. All that had happened since he left now felt illusory; this was the story that would hound him until he finished it.
"Officer, don't listen to his drunk ass. I woke up driving and swerved off the road." Jim jangled the car keys. "Just glad nobody got hurt."
"You need to submit to a breath test and ..."
"No, none of that's gonna happen. We're all cold and tired, just put me in the back seat and let's go."
Allie pressed her face against the window, mouthed a thank you, blew out, and drew a heart where her breath left a mark. Ed stood back a few feet, smirked, and flipped him off. Jim leaned forward, felt the cuffs pull all the way up to his shoulders. He looked in the rear view mirror, made eye contact. "Hey, I think I know you. How about some heat back here, before I file a human rights complaint on your ass. Or even worse, I tell your mother." It would take a long time to make things right here, back home. Lying and smart mouthing a cop in the back of a patrol car, nursing a rapidly fading buzz, feeling the cuffs digging in; it seemed like an odd way to start on the righteous path. As they drove off he shifted his weight, turned toward the window and watched the dark scenery of town pass through her fading heart.