I just walked to the bedroom we shared, lay down in the bed we slept in together. When Delia was determined to have her way, she brought up the apartment. I wasn’t on the lease. Technically I didn’t pay rent. But I’d lived there for six months, ever since I met Delia.
So we were at the station, waiting on The Carolinian. Delia was on the phone to Roseanne, who wasn’t answering.
The train pulled into the station, screeching and huffing. I could not believe the size of it. I guess I never will. Yellow eyes peering out from a grimy silver face. Bizarre angular nose, cars of corrugated steel. It was funny the way people who got off the train looked up and down the tracks, like even they could not believe a train station could be so empty. Like they were expecting a brass band. Delia stood, looking for her sister.
“I thought you said she was on The Carolinian?” Secretly I was relieved.
“I did.” Delia was looking at her phone, texting something furiously.
The Carolinian pulled away, breaks blowing, wheels scraping on the track. I went to wait in the car while Delia talked to the attendant. Fifteen minutes later she came to the car. “She fell asleep. She missed her stop. We have to drive to Charlotte to get her.”
That meant I had to drive to Charlotte. Delia didn’t have a car. She never remembered that when she criticized me about the apartment, how I never paid my share. She never remembered I drove her all over this goddamn town.
The sky was clear out on the interstate. I forget how much I like to drive at night, the stars expanding into unfathomable horizons, the air brisk and clean in my nose. I like to watch the lights of planes streaking across the sky. I like to listen to low voices on the radio murmuring of serious and difficult things.
Roseanne was waiting for us at the Amtrak station in Charlotte. She was sitting in one of those plastic molded chairs, looking at something on her phone. “What took you so long?” she said, and I could tell she wasn’t kidding. Her hair was the same as Delia’s, same color, same cut. Her face and eyes were the same. But she weighed twice as much as Delia, with a thick roll of fat around her belly, fat pooling on her ankles and thighs.
I’m not going to lie to you. The first thing I thought about was whether Delia would look like that someday.
Roseanne was hungry, so we took her to IHOP. She ordered a stack of pancakes with strawberry topping; Delia ordered the same. I drank coffee. I wasn’t feeling hungry. Roseanne kept looking at me sourly. “What church do you go to?” she asked.
I waited for Delia to say something. She didn’t. “We don’t go to church,” I said.
“I go to church,” Delia said, even though she never did.
“How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Roseanne was shoveling pancakes into her mouth while she talked. Strawberry juice pooled on her plate like the blood of her savior.
“What is that supposed to mean?” I was getting ticked.
Roseanne looked at Delia. They exchanged something with their eyes.
We drove back to our apartment. While Roseanne was in the bathroom Delia handed me a pillow. “I think you should sleep on the sofa.”
“Tonight? Or as long as she’s here?”
She wouldn’t answer the question.
I lay down on the sofa; Roseanne and Delia stayed in our room. My room. I could hear them talking deep into the night. I went to sleep to the sound of their voices rising and falling in a familiar cadence, the sound of incantations.
When I woke Delia was looking down at me. “I think you should find somewhere else to stay for a while,” she said. She wasn’t even sorry about it.
“Don’t worry. I’m already gone.”
Later, after I packed everything into my duffel, after I drove around all day, and after I got drunk at Keegan’s, I thought of something my uncle used to say. “Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much? Stop this day and night with me and you shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books.”
It was something I wanted to say to Delia.
I didn’t know where to go so I ended up back at the station, watching the freights blow by. The night was empty, and I was alone. I felt uneasy. Somewhere, in the distance, The Carolinian moaned.
Interlude: Frankie’s Gun
That night he watches a movie with his wife until almost eleven. “Francis, come here,” she says as he is cleaning up the kitchen, preparing for bed. “Something’s happened.”
Light from police sirens fills the foyer of their house, bathing the woman in blue strobing light. She is standing at the front door, peering through the glass panes. The street is filled with police cars. Police cars blocking the intersection with Lee Street. A police car at the other end of the block, parked perpendicular, sealing the street.
The first thing he notices is a police officer wrapping yellow “Caution” tape through the crepe myrtle trees across the street. He works calmly, almost wearily.
“Look,” she says. “Do you think he’s dead?”
His eyes travel to where her voice leads him, the front porch of the tiny yellow cottage across the street. A large male body lays on it, palms up, head out of sight, pointing toward the door. Death emanates from it like infinity emanates from a star.
On her knees, leaning over the body, a young woman performs CPR. He first saw the young woman on the porch a few days before, the cottage home to an ever-revolving cast of itinerant young people. A man, her husband or boyfriend, stands above them, his back to the wall, watching her pump the dead man’s chest with a slack calm. Two police officers, a man and a woman, stand in the yard of the cottage on the concrete walk, watching the woman work.
“Do you think it’s that guy?”
He knows whom she means. The obese one. Of the house’s ever-changing inhabitants, he seems a constant, a benign, mild-mannered young man in his early twenties, unemployed. By his own admission, in his few brief conversations with Francis, he mostly spends his days playing video games.
“I don’t know.” The body on the porch looks more athletic, less rotund. But at this angle it is impossible to tell, his head hidden, the blue light painting everyone in shadows of blue and black. “Maybe.” He can easily imagine that young man having a heart attack. Less likely, though, that he would extricate himself from his video game to step onto the porch to die.
The question will go unanswered for now. They watch until an ambulance arrives, parking in the middle of the intersection, their street, their neighborhood, now a police state. The paramedics roll a stretcher up the walk, the watching police officers parting for it languidly. Only with the arrival of the paramedics does the young woman arise from her futile task, rushing to embrace the young man, who accepts her vaguely, almost indifferently. Only then, at the young woman’s moment of surrender and grief, does Francis feel voyeuristic and cheap.
“I’m going to go on up.” He starts to climb the stairs, his wife still at the glass, face half-lit blue.
“What about Alexander?” she says without taking her eyes away from the door. “What will we tell him in the morning?”
“I don’t know,” Francis admits. “We’ll have to see.”
He spent the winter at an old farm house on Buddy Hoffner’s farm in Millbridge, at the end of a dirt road. Just two rooms and a toilet. Hot plate and a kitchen sink. Wood stove that barely kept the place warm. At night you could hear the wind coming through the cracks in the walls, the coyotes calling to each other on distant fields.
It was the kind of place where it was OK to be lonely or alone. There wasn’t any TV. No other houses around for what seemed like miles. Some nights he listened to the Tar Heels on the radio. Some nights he drank and drifted in his dreams.
On a Tuesday evening in early March he went for a walk along the creek. The weather was unusually warm. Thunderheads ascended over the fields as he returned home, the air grown heavy and kinetic. Tiny raindrops pecked at his face. He returned to the house to cook his supper, franks and baked beans on the hot plate, his last bottle of cold Bud Light from the cooler on the porch. As he stirred the beans the thunder intensified, deep, agitated rumblings, distant collisions of explosive expansions of air.
Rain tapped at the roof, lightly at first, then louder, harder, as if in a rush to return to the earth. He put the beans on low and went to the front porch to watch the rain splash in the yard, sheets of it rolling in across the Technicolor green fields painted with winter rye.
The thunder descended, moved closer, as if seeking him, loud cracks shaking the thin window panes. Lightning reached down toward the horizon of fields, followed by a sharp, rattling crack. The rain was pounding, pounding on the yard, pounding on the tiny house, delicate with wear and age, pounding on the fields and the trees and the sky. Streams of water red from clay furrowed the yard. Great clouds of mist, the water overcoming the land, rose from the ground and took the shape of ghosts. Sharecroppers and baseball-capped farmers on tractors, Confederate soldiers, dust bowl drifters, all of them marching across the yard, passing through him as he watched them emerge and float through the mist.
A bolt of lightning struck an oak tree in the field. He watched the spindle split the sky, split the branches and the trunk with a fiery crack,the smell of burning wood already filling the air.