Annie DeWitt


We Did Not Toil

 

We had taken to fighting outside near bodies of water. Often we went to the lake where you docked your boat. When we fought in the house, the neighbors complained of the rising pitch of our voices. The lake, we found, absorbed the brunt of our yelling, so that by the time the words reached us our insults had been reduced to the warbles of birds.

I sat at the end of the dock. My legs hung over the edge far enough that my feet disappeared into the lake. It was September. Across the water, the leaves were changing. The hairs on my leg stood on end.

“Four years from now. You’re in bar,” you said. “I walk in. You are not alone.”

“Neither are you,” I said.

“He’s queer,” you said.

I replied, “She’s pretty.”

We worked from a script crafted in variation:

“She’s pretty,” I’d say on line at the post office, as a girl ten years my junior passed us in a short pink shift.

“Four years from now, she’s in a bar,” I’d joke.

“She’s not alone,” you’d say.

“I’d walk in,” I’d reply. “She is pretty.”

During the winter when the water froze, we met once a week at The Road House, a dimly lit singles bar just off the highway. We ate Shepherd’s Pie which the waitress served in a small white casserole dish. After dinner, if we were still thirsty, we went out to the parking lot and sat in the flatbed of your truck, drank wine coolers and forties under opposing blankets. We liked to sit there in the silent, listening to people’s conversations as they exited the bar, waiting for someone to suggest we go home with them.  
Some nights we drove around pretending to look for movies.

“You used to enjoy a good Blockbuster,” you’d say as we scanned the neon marquee.

“We’ve seen them all,” I’d say.

Once we’d put cities between us, we met halfway at Harry’s, a truck stop just off the highway. We kept to these appointments under the guise of guilt or necessity – “This came in the mail for you.” “The bank called.” “They must not have your address.” We went to the truck stop because it was clean and brightly lit. Our checks glowed under the glare of the lights. Everyone could see us looking young again.

Most nights, after we ran out of updates, our conversations consisted of listing our losses. There was inventory. We’d planned ahead. Professions. Places to visit. Types of jams with which to stock a bombshelter. Names of Children.

“Yves.”

“Apricot.”

“Aaron.”

“Argentina.”

“Lithuania.”

“Lingonberry.”

“Lulu.”

“You keep, Lulu,” you said.

I painted my lips in the mirror over the booth while you paid the bill.

When I see you now, coming around the corner, I think of those nights in the back of your truck.

“Four years from now, you’re in a bar,” I call to you.

“What happened in Spain?” you say.

Clearing my throat, I shuffle through our various scripts.

***

This is how it would read in the retelling:

You see me across the street, four years later. I am walking west. You are headed east. You stop, call over you shoulder after we have already passed, “What happened in Spain?” I turn my body half towards you. You laugh, “It has only been four years since I last laid you.” “I have short legs, terrible fright,” I say as I turn around.

***

This is how it would read in the retelling:

“What happened in Spain?” you text me. Or perhaps it is somewhere in an email – and there is something about short skirts and lack of water.

I am drunk on Sangria. Laying on a rooftop in Granada with my head in an ashtray. The smell of frying beans and steaming rice floats up through an open window.

“I will forget you,” I remember yelling over the noise of the bar the night we first met.

The bar was dark. The walls were wooden. Perhaps you misheard it.

***

This is how it would read in the retelling:

“I remember the day we rehearsed this,” you shout. Your voice propels itself like a plane taking off from a marsh. (Perhaps you did hear me – the bar was not that dark. There was not so much wood.)

***

This is how it would read in the retelling:

“What happened in Spain?”

I turn. Full frontal, “Do you remember the pool?”

“Yes,” you say.

You lie.

“So you were there that night?” I pause.

“Yes,” you say.

You say, “Hey, Champ, I couldn’t expect you to remember.”

***

This is how it would read in the retelling:

“Do you remember the pool?”

“Yes,” you say.

(You lie.)

“So you were there that night?” (I remember the warmth of a hand on my shoulder).

“Yes,” you say. “I couldn’t expect you to remember.”

“You were there that night?” I repeat. (You used to say that I often repeated the obvious.)

“Yes,” you say. “I took a late night flight. I had to see you.”

(I feel the weight of the hand on my shoulder moving down to unbutton my dress.)

“I walked into the bar and asked you if that seat was taken.”

The man walked over. I remember him – the weight of his voice. How he smelled like brick when he laid me, how he pinned my wrists behind my head.

“That was you?” I step backwards in the street and shade my eyes.

“Wasn’t it?” you smile. “Isn’t that how it happened?”

***

The small, white-washed bar sat on the corner of the street the night I arrived in Spain. It was dusk by the time I decided to pull over. The redness of the soil reflected off the road and onto the bar’s dimly lit windows. A thin layer of sand dispersed across my windshield when I pulled up in my rusty blue rental car. The car was the agency’s smallest. It had no rear seat. The leather burnt the back of my legs in the sun.

I put back enough beers that night that the buzzing in my head made me light on my feet. When I spoke, I remember thinking I was giving off steam, like a dishwasher in the summer after it has been run.

As the man approached me, I leaned into my chair until I could feel the steel backs of the buttons on my dress pressing into my skin.

“A wolf tree stands alone in a field,” I said as he placed his hand on my shoulder.

That night as we exited the hotel room, all I could remember of it was the sight of the man’s knee splayed sideways across the white sheet of the rented bed.

After returning the key to the woman behind the desk, we crawled into the little blue car like old people – dried up from too many rounds of gin.

As I made my way down the mountain toward the city of Madrid, winding my way through the little towns, the man sat on the hood of the car. I drove slowly. The man counted the lights in the windows as we passed. At a stop sign, he stood up on the hood and took himself out for a piss. As I watched him reach down to unburden, I thought of what you said that last morning in our kitchen, “Chase nature and it comes back galloping.” We were not runners. We did not toil.

“How can you be sure? In the darkness. An unfamiliar bar after too much drink,” you say now four years later. Your voice is husky, like the salt has begun to rise.

When I turn to you, I say, “Watching him through the windshield, I realized I couldn’t love anyone who cared enough to look back.”

***

This is how it would read in the retelling:

You see me across the street. I am walking west. You are headed east. You stop me, call over you shoulder after we have already passed.

“What happened in Spain?” you say.

Your hair is balding now. You walk more slowly. I have learned to shuffle my weight from foot to foot.

“I was run over by a bull,” I say, more like a question. The way the child that you have now looks up at you when she has wet the bed.

You look at me the way you did the weekend your father died and I drove up to the wake in my pink pickup.

Even four years later, I feel the hairs on my legs stand on end.

“Hey, Champ,” you say, more quiet now. “Hey, Champ. I flew there to see you.”

“Was that you?” I ask.

I put my hand up to my eyes to shade them from the sun.

“Different place,” you had always said. “Perhaps we could be different people.”

***

The man rolled off the hood of the car at the filling station outside the city. As he waved over his shoulder and took off down the road, I thought, for an instant, that his gait looked familiar. I knew him from the back.

The attendant at the station filled the leaky radiator in the rental car with a gallon of water. I sat on an old, red milk crate next to the pump and smoked a cigarette while he worked. The sun was just coming up. The heat was already on us.

I watched as the attendant bent under my hood. A pool of sweat formed at the base of his neck and ran under his collar. As the moisture soaked through the back of his shirt, a stain spread across his shoulders.

In the field behind the station, a woman, his wife I supposed, was feeding a flock of squawking chickens, grabbing handfuls of corn from her pocket, spreading her seed around. She was wearing a bonnet and long dress which dragged behind her in the dirt.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked when the attendant had finished.

He waved away the bill I had in my hand.

“Good enough to get home,” he nodded, inserting the keys into the ignition.

When the car finally started, startled by the sound of my engine, his wife looked up at us from across the field. A flock of feathered bodies crowded around her feet. A cloud of dust gathered behind her as she started to run.