Fiction, Vol. 8.1, March 2014
Nervous and excited, his stomach a frenzy, Zack McAlester parked in the woman’s driveway. The sun had set behind him. The trees and parked cars along the road were colored with dull shades of purple and orange and blue. He waited. In his rearview mirror, on the far side of the street, lighted windows hovered within the darkened silhouettes of houses. He turned off the engine and lifted his waist off the seat, forcing the keys into his front pocket without getting out of the car. The porch lights in front of him glowed, lighting some of the peeling white paint from the facade of the old Cape Cod. Everything else was difficult to see now. The front yard was small. The radio still sang quietly until he opened the door, and for a brief moment, silenced the night.
The porch steps creaked when he ascended. He rang the doorbell and waited. She had called him, had invited him over; he’d never seen her house before, and he was already impressed. There was just the time they had met, leading to her car behind the coffee shop; and then the dinner he took her on, a nice, fancy, adult dinner. Three courses, a bottle of wine—he paid.
“Hello,” she said. She leaned on the half-open door, wearing torn jeans and a loose Red Sox T-shirt. She had freckles, burnt-orange hair with a few stray, gray strands peeking through that ran halfway down her back, and serious eyes. He loved her eyes—so intense and confident. She wasn’t wearing makeup that night, which he thought made her look better, more natural. “Come in,” she said, holding the door for him and watching him pass into her home.
The boy stood inside, in an open room with a couch and coffee table in the middle, surrounded by bookshelves along the edges. He slid his hands into his pockets and moved his keys between the fingers of his right hand. A blanket was strewn over the couch, crumpled; the coffee table covered with several closed photo albums. Old hardwood floors that hadn’t been sanded for some time, splinters raised along the edges. A rough rug centered the room, partially underneath the couch. The overhead light off, several lamps dimly lit the room. A record player in the far corner, speakers underneath, no music. A thin stream of smoke drifted up from a cigarette resting in an ash tray on the coffee table. Books littered the floor, a couple of them resting open, beside the couch, others stacked in different corners of the room. It smelt like his grandfather’s house, smoky and a little damp. Through the back window, and through the faint reflection of the room, an expanse of darkness: only a few, faint stars shining in the distance, past the dark of the woods.
“Sit down,” she said, running her hand along his back and stepping, barefoot, toward the couch. She brought the cigarette to her mouth and sat, tucking one leg underneath herself with the other resting on the floor. She sank into the couch. He walked toward her, sat with his hands on his lap, his feet on the floor, and looked over to her.
“Thanks for inviting me over, Margaret,” he said. “I like your place.”
“Stop,” she said. “It’s a mess. I haven’t taken very good care of it lately.” She propped her head up with her left hand, her left elbow on the back of the couch.
“No. It’s nice. A lot nicer than my place.”
“Don’t you live in a dorm? I hope it’s nicer than that.”
“No,” he said. “It’s not really a dorm. It’s on campus, but I live in an apartment with a couple friends of mine—a couple teammates. But this place is nice. This is really cozy. Comfortable.” He nodded and rested back into the couch some more.
“Well, I need to take better care of it. And it’s a little too much space for me now.” She ashed her cigarette into the tray. They sat there, him staring forward and her looking at him. He turned to her, saw her smiling, and he smiled and forced a laugh.
“The stuff with this election is pretty crazy,” he said.
“Oh,” she said. “I haven’t really been following it.”
“Well. I haven’t been following it as much either. But with all the candidates coming through here. It’s just kind of cool, seeing them all.”
“Who do you think should be President?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I mean, it’s so tough to tell, with politics these days. I don’t feel like we can trust anyone.”
She nodded. She agreed.
“I like you. You’re cute,” she said, and he laughed and she laughed. Then she put out her cigarette and leaned over to him, propping herself up on her knees, and kissed him, deeply. He sat there, his hands still in his lap while she cradled his head and pulled him toward her. Then she kissed his neck and collar bone and moved her hand over his stomach. “God, you’re fit,” she said, “I like that.”
While she caressed him, he looked over to the bookshelves; with the books were several picture frames, most of them face-down or turned away. But a few were visible; some were of older, pale men and women, a few of a young boy—some of just the boy, and one with him and Margaret.
“Who’s that?” he said, and she stopped kissing his stomach. She leaned back, both her feet underneath her backside, and she ran her hands through her hair. “Who’s that in those pictures? Is that your son?”
She bit her lip. Then she reached over to the table, tapped another cigarette out of the pack, and lit it. She offered him a cigarette but Zack didn’t smoke.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” she said.
“No,” he said and laughed. “I’m here—with you.”
“Oh. Right,” she said. “But have you ever had a girlfriend?” He nodded. “No. I mean a serious one?”
“I mean, there was—”
“Were you in love?”
“Were you in love?”
“I don’t know.”
She inhaled her cigarette, and he pulled his left calf onto his right knee. His back was straight, a little off the back cushion.
“How did it end?”
“Well, we just decided it wasn’t going to work out. It was a mutual thing.”
“Oh, Zack. You know that’s bullshit. It’s never mutual. People never decide to walk away from one another, mutually.” She inhaled deeply. “Someone is always abandoned. She broke up with you, right?”
“Yeah,” she said and nodded, turning from him, blowing smoke up into the room. “It hurts.” Her hands were smooth and pale, little blue veins visible on the back of them. She had long, skinny fingers. “It hurts.”
“So who’s that in the picture?”
“Do you want to take a bath?”
“Okay,” he said.
She sat on the edge of the tub, which rested in the middle of the bathroom. The bathroom was large with hardwood floors like the rest of the house. It was an old tub, a porcelain relic with feet that held it up off the floor. A single pipe ran up through a sloppily cut hole in the wooden slats and bent into a U-shape over the rounded edge. There was no curtain.
Margaret had taken off her pants. She slid her pale hand underneath the running water, feeling it, adjusting the handles—a little hot, a little cold—until it felt right. Then she placed a stopper in the drain and let the water rise. While she rested on the edge of the tub, her left hand glided over the surface of the rising water, first moving through the tumultuous churn of the stream falling from the spout into the tub, then over to the calm edge of the water on the far end. She had lit the bathroom with several candles. Zack liked it, but felt a little uneasy, and he wasn’t sure why.
Zack said, “Did he die?”
She looked up to him. Her eyes were sad, and she shook her head.
“Where is he? Should I worry about him coming—”
“No. You don’t have to worry. I don’t want to talk about my son,” she said.
Cold air whistled in through cracks in the floorboards.
“The water feels good,” she said. “Get in,” she said.
Zack walked toward the tub and pulled off his sweater and polo shirt; he removed his pants and underwear, and she watched him undress. He smiled and forced out a little laugh, but her face was very serious, so he stopped laughing.
“How does it feel?” she said.
“Good. Warm,” he said with his eyes closed. “Are you coming in?”
“Look, Margaret. I’m really sorry about—”
“Please stop,” she said. “I’m going to go out for a moment. I need to get some towels.”
“There are towels in here. They’re fine.”
“Clean ones. I’ll be right back.”
After she left the room, closing the door behind her, he looked down the length of the tub. Steam floated delicately above the calm surface. He sat, his upper half above the water. Slowly, he let himself slide down to the end of the tub, submerging, until he lay on his back, just his nose and eyes and mouth above the water. His arms and legs floated just below the surface, only his backside resting on the bottom of the tub. The light flickered, and everything was quiet with his ears underwater.
After closing the bathroom door, Margaret walked into the hallway, around the corner, and up the moaning stairs in the dark. She hadn’t been in the upstairs of her house for a week, since she had last done a full load of laundry. She walked to her son’s room and turned on the light. She hadn’t altered it. Posters of Dustin Pedroia and Carlton Fisk and Fenway Park were on the far wall, above the neatly made bed. The closet door was open: two dress shirts, a suit, a winter jacket, and many empty hangers dangling from the rod; on the floor of the closet, in an untouched pile, a baseball glove, unworn, size-11 baseball cleats, and underneath, two worn stuffed animals, a panda bear, and a tattered Goodnight Moon bunny in blue and white-striped pajamas. The dresser, each of the drawers open, stood on the opposite side of the room, still partially filled with boxer shorts, socks, T-shirts the same size as the one she wore.
She walked into the bedroom. It was very cold—colder than the hallway, even. She closed the drawers. She sniffled, and her arms shook. The bottom drawer stuck. She pushed harder, harder. Still, it wouldn’t move. Then, she kicked it and let out a yelp as she smacked the top of her right foot into the dark-stained wood drawer. Then she gave up on the drawer, walked to the closet, and pulled the unused, two-week old baseball equipment off of the stuffed bunny. She picked up the bunny and crawled into the sheets, pulling them up to her neck, and she wept at the pain in her foot and everything else. She forgot for a moment about Zack in the bath, but remembered after the pain subsided from a sharp pain to a dull ache.
She left her son’s room and then walked to the master bedroom. The bed was neatly made, the sheets and comforter tucked tightly underneath the mattress, throw pillows organized on top. She took off her shirt, her underwear, and threw them into the hamper. She opened her closet, neatly organized on the right side, empty on the left—even of hangers, as it had been vacant for some time. From the shelf above the clothing on her side of the closet, she grabbed two towels and pulled the bathrobe from the hook on the closet door, draping it over the towels in her arms.
She went back downstairs, placed the towels and bathrobe on the back of the couch, sat down, lit another cigarette, picked at two scabs on her left, inner bicep.
“Are you going to come in?” he said through the bathroom door.
“I’ll be in in a moment.”
“I think I’m going to come on out.”
“No. Stay in there. I want you to stay in there. I want you to be comfortable.”
“I’m coming on out.”
“No,” she said loudly and harshly, a scolding tone, the way a mother might. Then, softer, “No. No. Won’t you stay in the bath, just a little longer? I drew it up for you. Please, I want you to enjoy it.”
Hearing this, he sank back into the water. It began to chill some, and when he was uncomfortable, he stood up in the tub. He pulled the drain and reached for the towel that hung from the back of the bathroom door. It was damp. He pressed himself dry. He put his underwear and jeans on, leaving his shirt and sweater off, and left the bathroom to see the woman with her worn eyes lying back on the couch, her head propped up on the far armrest, naked, smoking a new cigarette. Her subtly orange hair was in a tangle above her head, a random confusion that looked intentionally styled. It made her look almost glamorous. He noticed that beneath her freckles, her skin was smooth and lightly tanned. The boy saw no nervousness in her face, in the way she carried herself, and it amazed him. Be hoped he appeared to be as calm.
Her left leg was on the couch, her foot sunk into the cushion, her leg bent, knee up in the air; her right foot on the floor, her legs slightly spread. He saw all of her.
He noticed the black, decaying, crusted round marks on her arm and some burnt marks on the upholstered couch. He decided to ignore those marks, and he looked down to her hips, noticing the sexy dip above her sharp pelvic bones that led to her slender waist.
“Sit close to me,” she said. He sat on the couch, his thigh against her left foot, his right foot on top of hers on the floor.
“Where are you from?” she said.
“St. Louis,” he said.
“That’s a long way from New Hampshire.”
“You must miss your parents.”
“Sometimes. But I like it up here. I’ve been here almost a year now, so it’s not that bad.”
“I’m sure they miss you.”
“I don’t know about that. We aren’t really that close. I may stay here for the summer; I’m not sure.”
“I’m sure: They miss you. You shouldn’t stay here for the summer. You should be with your mother—with your parents. Are they together?” He nodded, and she said, “You’re lucky.”
She blew smoke into the air, her lips barely apart, together at the corners of her mouth, the smoke almost fluid, floating upward, a subtle smile on her face, the cigarette above her head.
He said, “I hope it’s warm this spring. I’m kind of tired of this cold weather.”
“It’s always colder for longer than we expect up here. Every year,” she said. “Will you do something for me?”
“I need this.”
“Yeah. Of course.”
“Will you have sex with me?”
He laughed and smiled. Her face was unchanged.
“What?” he said.
“I really want you—I need you to fuck me.”
His smile fell away.
“Are you sure? Maybe we should just talk—”
“I don’t want to talk. I can’t talk any more—not tonight. Will you fuck me? I need to feel something, and I want you to do this for me. Can you do this for me?”
He crawled over to her and started kissing her mouth but she pushed his head into her neck. With her free hand, the one not still holding the cigarette, she reached down to his pants and started to unbuckle them. He helped her finish.
“Harder,” she said.
“Are you sure it’s okay?”
“Does it hurt?”
After they dressed in silence, they sat on each end of the couch. She wore her bathrobe, and he had put on his shirt and sweater. Zack looked at his phone to see the time. It was getting late.
“Are you going to leave?” she said.
“No, I don’t have to leave.”
“You can leave; it’s getting late. You probably have a lot of work tomorrow.” She rubbed her neck then ran her hands through her long hair. Her eyes were bloodshot. “Will you just stay a few more minutes?” She crawled to him and rested her head in his lap. He ran his hands through her uncombed hair, like a lover might, feeling the tangles separate as he pulled his hand back, over and over. Her head was on his right leg, and his left bounced up and down with rapid, little movements. She said, “I’m sorry for being short earlier.” She kissed his thigh. “I’m just so fucked up.”
“No. You’re fine,” he said.
“I’m not fine. I’ve just been messed up lately.”
It was getting later.
“I should probably leave soon—”
“Just another couple of minutes—let’s just stay like this for another couple of minutes,” she said.
“Okay,” he said, still petting her head. A little later, he said, “I should really get going; I have a test tomorrow.”
“Please don’t leave—not yet.” It sounded as though she were weeping softly into his lap.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“It’s nothing. Go. Maybe just wait a few more minutes,” she said, sniffling and sitting up. “No, you should go.” She stood up. She walked to the door. He stood up and followed her. “Do you want to stay the night?” she said, looking up at him. For the first time, he noticed that he was much taller than her, her head barely reaching his chin. Before he had arrived that night, in his imagination, he had thought of them as the same height. “I could make the bed up for both of us, and breakfast in the morning, early so you could get to everything on time.”
“I really should go,” he said.
“Yeah. Yes,” she said. “Go. Go.” She nodded as he kissed her goodbye and walked out the door.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said. And he did; he called her the next day, but she didn’t answer, so he called her the day after that. He went to her house, and she never came to the door. He tried calling her and texting her for the rest of the week. She never answered again, and after a little while, he stopped trying to reach her altogether.
Two weeks later, he found himself traveling to Cornell for his first baseball game of the season. He was talking to his teammates on the bus, telling them about her. “It was something else. It wasn’t just the sex. I’m serious. She was so, so hot. Beautiful, actually. We took a bath. Yeah, together. Shut up. Fuck you. It was just something more. She was so real. So, so real.”
He went on, trying to explain it, trying to put it into words that made sense. Soon, most of his teammates had turned their attention away from him. He tried to tell the person sitting next to him, then one of the players sitting in front of him, but they still didn’t understand, and what he decided was this: They couldn’t understand; they just weren’t able. He wasn’t the same as them, not anymore.
They won their game. Zack pitched quite well and was very proud of himself. On the bus ride home, he laughed a little to himself as he remembered how four hours earlier, he had been trying so hard to explain everything about Margaret to his teammates. Now that he felt so elated from his good game, Margaret had grown a little dimmer in his mind—a little less like the woman he was so sure he had shared a deep connection with, and more a distant memory. It became harder to recall the details about her. Maybe if he thought hard enough, he would remember her better.
Watching his teammates joke and laugh with each other, celebrating the win, he decided not to think of her anymore. He looked out the window, to the west. The sun was going down, but it still lit up the sky, reflecting off the clouds, the treetops, the mountains, and everything else that was out there for him to see.