Peaceful, Easy Feeling
There is no train, no cab service, and nothing within walking distance of Fargo’s Hector Airport but runway. You have to rent a car and so that’s what I did. Because of the car rental and not having any idea where I was going and the GPS in my phone also not having any idea at first where it was, the woman’s small voice inside the box shocked to find herself with so much open space to account for, I missed the church part of Jenny’s funeral. But I was the first one to the cemetery.
The wind snapped the pastor’s voice in the opposite direction from where I stood. I heard Amen and then he raised his arms. The thin pages of his Bible fluttered but he didn’t need them, he had the whole thing memorized. There were white roses on top of the casket and right before they lowered her down, as the pastor’s skinny voice was issuing the final Amen, a girl reached out and stole one. She ran through the crowd and out to the dirt driveway and threw the rose down and stomped on it. Everyone looked and then looked away. Jenny’s wife ran after her and grabbed the girl and held her close. Kids are resilient but not that resilient.
It’s rare you get to see exactly where a significant person in your life grew up and when you do you have to allow for how your projection of who they are never accounted for all of this. There’s a pool table in the basement of the house where Jenny grew up. A picnic table out back beside a pair of apple trees where people smoked cigarettes after the funeral and looked at the ground. I went out there and stood with them even though I don’t smoke anymore. I held a paper cup of coffee and burned a Camel down to its filter. Soft white clouds slinked above like enormous cruise ships. When I think of Jenny I think of Boston’s narrow streets and dark, tall brownstones. I think of her shoulders moving down Commonwealth Ave in a crowd, just a few paces ahead, turning into the Student Union, ordering a sandwich, opening a textbook, hunching against a wicked winter. The sky, when I think of Jenny, is almost always gray.
“So how’d you know her?”
The guy who gave me the cigarette stood beside me looking up. I dropped my empty cup and picked it up and dropped it again.
“Oh. From school. From Boston.”
“What’s your name?”
He shook his head. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“We didn’t keep in touch very well. How about you? How’d you know her?”
“I’m her brother.”
I thanked him again for the cigarette.
Inside, beside a phone with a long gnarled cord, was a program from the funeral. Jenny’s face was Xeroxed on a piece of paper folded to look like the brochure for a high school play. Inside was the twenty-third Psalm and the dates of her coming and going. She was thirty-eight when she died. I will be thirty-eight next month. My mother has already arranged to take me out to a Mexican restaurant to celebrate. I know, because I looked at the photos online, that Jenny celebrated her thirty-eighth birthday at a sushi restaurant in Petaluma, California with her wife and her wife’s daughter. I know that they had a wedding ceremony three years ago and that the daughter was old enough then to be a bridesmaid and not just a flower girl. Her dress was lavender.
“Well? Who wants in?” A woman showed up at the back door waving a bottle of gin, her eye makeup smeared from the corners of her eyes into her hair. I put the program down where I found it. She was like a pied piper leading everyone of a certain age down into the basement where we sat in a circle with our paper cups.
“I can’t even remember the first time I saw her,” the woman with the bottle said. Aside from Jenny’s brother, this woman had known Jenny the longest. “We knew each other before we even knew how to speak! She was like a sister to me.” People passed her their paper cups. She did not let go of the bottle. Jenny’s brother, Will, put his arm around the woman and said softly. Shala put her head on his shoulder.
I’m an unusual guy. I’ve been told this and it’s also something I just know, having lived with myself as myself for thirty-eight years. Also girlfriends have pointed it out, usually as they leave. Because for instance most people in this situation wouldn’t be in this situation. Most people would have stayed home and watched it all on their phones. And most people, if they were in this situation, probably wouldn’t say anything, given what thin tissue connected me to Jenny at all.
I opened my mouth and said, “I remember the first time I saw her. She was standing outside this club in Boston. In Cambridge, actually. She was there to see my friend’s band. It was cold and she wasn’t wearing any gloves. She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.”
The circle nodded. Shala smiled and the smile wavered until she broke down and cried again. I was someone who had said something touching.
“She was so beautiful,” someone else said, and there were murmurs of agreement. I passed Shala my empty cup and she filled it halfway. It was the good gin in the pale blue bottle, Bombay.
Jenny’s wife came down the stairs and went into the laundry room. Will got up and the circle shifted. In the laundry room you could hear her crying and his soothing turn into crying. Shala started to sputter again and there was an awkward shuffle of cups and legs and hands over faces. I got up and sat beside her and put my arm around her. Her body was thick inside a brown sweater with a drooping neck. Her thighs felt solid against mine. She was the most beautiful woman I had seen in a long time. Her sobs grew louder and her body shook, and I held her with both my arms. People left the circle. There was the feeling that maybe this was a very private moment for Shala and there I was, with my arms around her.
After a while she wiped her red face with her hands and sighed and said, “Oh,” over and over again in a way that made her sound very old.
“I hadn’t seen her in years,” Shala said. “Christmas cards. That’s it. Always told myself I would call but I hardly did.”
“I wish I’d kept in better touch, too.” I’d sent Jenny a message once, right after my next-to-last girlfriend broke up with me. Hey, you might remember me from Boston University! I’d thought for a long time what I might say next after that, but she never answered, so I never found out.
Shala stood up and walked towards the pool table and back again, past a dead-eyed TV and an arm chair and the taxidermy head of a buck hung on the wall. There was another buck over my head, too, their glassy eyes looking away from each other like maybe they were looking for the rest of their bodies, which were bloody and unmoving the last time they saw them.
“The thing is, I feel guilty,” Shala said.
She kept pacing and twisting her fingers together. I sat back in my suit jacket drinking the gin slow and watching Shala’s long flowered skirt sway around her legs. It was like she was an actress on a stage and I’d finally found my role in this little piece of theater. I was there to watch Shala come undone.
Someone came down the stairs with an empty paper cup and because I was in charge of the bottle at that point I poured him half a finger. Everyone had to drive. And there was this, too: she was drunk when she died and that’s why she died. Head on collision. She lost all control.
The guy thanked me and glanced at Shala, who stood in the middle of the room shredding a tissue, and it made me feel protective of her. I stared at him until he went back upstairs. Gin makes me heroic.
I stood up. “Hey. Let’s get some fresh air.”
Outside I sat on top of the picnic table and put my feet on the bench like I’d been sitting there that way my whole life. Shala kicked off her beige flats and walked through the cut grass to stroke the trunk of the tree. The apples were green. She pulled one from the branch, bit into it and spat it out. “Sour,” she said and chucked the aborted fruit under the clothesline.
“Not quite ripe.”
“Oh, I know.” She pulled her blond curls away from her forehead again and again. “Been eating these apples my whole life. She makes pies out of them. We used to chuck the rotten ones at each other. God, that was a long time ago. Decades. Who cares? Who gives a shit?” She wagged her head and kicked at the empty grass. “You spend your whole life, you think you have your whole life. Read all the advice. How to feel good about yourself . How to yoga. Know what I mean?”
I nodded. I walk on a treadmill three times a week for thirty minutes at a time. I keep a routine.
“And the whole time you’re doing all this planning and projecting you’re just bald-faced ignoring the fact that no matter what, you’re going to wind up dead.”
“Bald-faced.” I poured more gin into a cup and handed it to her.
“Thank you. It’s just every day we pretend like we don’t know the biggest fact about life.” I nodded. “Fuck it,” she said, “I’m eating a cupcake.”
She took the Bombay by the neck and I followed her to the kitchen table where she loaded up a large paper plate with chocolate chip cookies, a white iced cupcake, and a square of cinnamon bread glazed with brown sugar. We stood in the living room on shaggy avocado-colored carpet and ate. Two old women sat on a flowered sofa with tissues tucked into their watch bands. The sun warmed to a sudden shock of gold and for a few minutes the room felt holy and eternal and I felt vital and passing. It felt like we were all dust motes suspended in the sunbeams and I tried to think of a pretty way to put this to Shala, how we are all just specks of dust floating until we hit the ground, but I didn’t think it would help her crisis.
I put my arm around Shala’s waist, felt her wide body in this rich and certain light, and she cried again, softly, tears running noiselessly down her cheek. She leaned into me. The sun squeezed into a tight white point over the neighbor’s roof. I held up the bottle of gin. There was not much left.
“There’s a new place they built,” Shala said, “It’s in this strip of shops in the middle of nothing but the cheese sticks are good and there’s a bar.”
I took her by the hand.
Peaceful, Easy Feeling played from the instruments of a live band as we walked through the door. At a tall cocktail table, Shala ordered a White Russian and cheese sticks. I ordered a burger and Budweiser and didn’t say anything when Shala ate my French fries right off my plate. The band took a break. I watched them refill at the bar and walk outside to smoke.
“You know I used to be in a band.”
“You’re a singer?”
I shook my head. “I used to think you could get famous playing the banjo.”
Shala grinned and dragged a thick, soggy fry through a puddle of ketchup. It made me happy to see her eat my fries and I stopped eating them so she’d have more. “Oh, sure, I had big dreams like that. Me and Jenny were supposed to go to Minneapolis, you know. Do what, I don’t know.” She lifted a cheese stick. It drooped in the middle. “But at the last minute Jenny went to Boston. You bet I took it pretty serious at the time.” Shala picked up my hamburger, licked her finger and took a bite.
“Did you go anyway?”
She shook her head and answered with her mouth full. “I did. But you know my mother had breast cancer. She’s okay now. No, I live right around the corner from where I grew up. Mickey Mouse Lane.” I laughed and she looked at me. “Well that’s what it’s called.”
“Of course. Should we order more fries?”
“That’s really when it started. When we started losing touch. People change, sure. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. It had nothing to do with her being with girls.”
I didn’t know what I was thinking. I thought Shala looked drunk. She’d washed her eye makeup off in the bathroom and still had my burger in her hand.
“People hardly ever recognize how much they change. They think they’re the same person just getting older. But she’d come back and we’d visit for an hour, meanwhile her phone’s buzzing the whole time. Oh, sure, she was always nice, you bet. But when a person asks a question, you know, you expect them to listen to the answer. She never listened. Well what good is that?” She takes a bite of my burger. “You know I got so mad this one time,” Shala looked over both her shoulders as if Jenny’s ghost might drift up behind her, “I hid her on Facebook. Couldn’t see her stuff and she couldn’t see mine. And you know what? She never noticed I was missing. And now she’s dead.” Shala sat back, eyes wide, surprised all over again by the news.
The band shuffled back on stage and started up a song about watermelons. Out on the dance floor five women scampered into two neat lines to do a choreographed dance they didn’t invent but knew by heart. Shala got up and I thought she’d join them but instead she stood at the edge of the floor, eyes closed, moving her body however she wanted. She swung her hips right and left and bent low at the waist, crossed her elbows in front of her knees, all sorts of things. I tried to keep up but I get winded fast. The most exercise I ever get is at lunch when I walk across to the small manicured park they built out in front of the office complex. I find meaning there, watching the tucked bodies of ducks glide across the water. It is something where once there was nothing, just like everything else, just like the whole planet and universe and the space between me and Shala as we dance.
The band started up a slow number and Shala hung her arms around my neck. I put my hands on her wide fashion belt and we swayed without looking each other in the eye. When it was finally done I gathered Shala under one arm and guided her over to the bar to settle our tab.
“One more for the road?” Even though I didn’t think it was a good idea, I said okay.
The band played but no one danced. I looked over at Shala looking up at the football players on the flat screen TV and had the same feeling I have three-quarters of the way through every first date. I will never see this woman again. We didn’t say anything drinking our drinks and when we were done I refused her twenty-dollar bill and paid the bartender with a debit card. In the rental car she was adamant about the money, sticking it in the glove box which I had never even opened.
“Let me buy the drinks. Your best friend just died.”
“Your friend, too,” she said and I shook my head.
“We weren’t friends. She wouldn’t even remember me. We talked twice. But I remember her very well.”
“You came even though you didn’t know her?” Shala yawned.
“Is that crazy? I’ve never done anything like this before. But have you ever had one of those people who turned you around without knowing it? Whose mere presence flipped your poles? Do you know what I’m saying?” I looked out through the windshield at the faux brick siding of the strip of shops that included the bar and a chiropractor and a scrapbooking store. “I used to just see her around. Twenty years ago. I can’t believe it. Dining hall, on the street. Boston’s not big. We talked a couple of times. Anyway, she was just like this figure. You could call it a crush, sure. You know how it is when you’re eighteen. But seeing her always felt like some…affirmation of destiny. She gave me something to look forward to. It was like this secret thing between us. I never told anyone this, but I think I loved her. I mean then I know I thought I did but since then I’ve thought it was just infatuation. But now, hearing she died, I think I really did love her. This vision I had of her. I loved something.”
Shala snored lightly in the passenger seat. As to be expected.
I drove us back to Jenny’s house where I had no choice but to wake Shala up to tell me the rest of the way. She directed me around the corner to a house whose garage door was painted with the likenesses of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Their gloved hands rose up in the shine of the headlights, either to welcome us or stop us, their intent was unclear.
“I didn’t do it,” she said. “Bought the house this way. But I can’t paint over it, everyone in town knows it. It’s like an emblem. Or an icon or whatever. A landmark. I have a responsibility. I live on Mickey Mouse Lane.” I helped her out of the car and held her waist while she fumbled for her keys. Inside her house smelled of coffee and pine cleaner and blueberry muffins. I followed her through the dark. My knees hit a couch. She turned on a dim lamp and I looked around at the tidy living room, the bowl of potpourri on the coffee table, the yellow and white afghan folded into a triangle over the back of an armchair.
“This is nice,” I said.
Shala sighed and pulled me down to the couch and put her hand on my knee. “Oh well. It’s been a long day.” Then she leaned in and kissed me.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been with a woman, but I think it went okay. You can never really tell if the sounds a woman makes are real, but if she makes them at all, I take it as a good sign. Either something I did worked, or she at least likes me enough to want to make me think it did. Shala made all the right sounds and I was grateful.
We woke up at nine a. m. and Shala got up right away and made us coffee and warmed two blueberry muffins in the microwave. We ate them with butter at her kitchen table, daylight streaming in bright and unapologetic. Squirrels ran across her yard and we watched them and laughed at their fat tails and fearful hearts.
“Well I suppose.” I thumbed the final crumbs of breakfast and put them in my mouth. “I do have a plane to catch.”
Shala packed me another muffin in a brown paper bag and kissed me on the mouth at the door. “Going back to bed. I feel like hell. Jesus H.”
My head was pounding and my tongue tasted like the belly of a homeless dog. The muffin turned unpleasant tricks in my stomach. I stood there too long. Shala patted me on the shoulder. “You have a safe flight now.”
Driving towards Fargo I pretended this was normal. As if most mornings I kissed Shala goodbye and then drove into town to a cubicle in a flat, expanding Midwestern suburb. I pretended I had known Jenny all my life, that we’d sat beside one another in elementary school and there was even a rumor once that maybe she liked me. I pretended my life was something else entirely.
Up in the air I was glad to have the muffin, even if it wasn’t warm and tasted more like blueberry flavoring than actual blueberries than it had that morning. I missed it when it was gone.
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