Window down, radio playing, Aaron Tippen or something, low under the rush of the wind. John knew she was trouble, knew that feeling of an edge somewhere nearby, one he didn’t want to go over, drawing him. Concentration playing out in his grip on the wheel, one hand, keeping the left front tire exactly on the double yellow line.
"Popping in is fine," she had said, and he wished she hadn’t, when he asked her about bringing back that book. Not what a woman should say to him, not one who’s husband had just left, not one who had a whiney pale faced little girl clinging to her leg, some sticky treat clutched in her other hand, a tough woman about to fall. He didn’t want to ‘pop in’, didn’t even like her, really, she talked way to much, need spilling out like flesh from her too tight dress, need transformed by the latest self-help vocabulary into something much more intellectual, into words that said just the opposite.
He was tired. He flicked the cigarette out the window, watched it blossom into a shower of sparks in the rearview mirror, and thought, ‘I’ve been down this road too many times." He thought of the other times he’d ‘just popped in’, and hung on with an amazing persistence, and how, finding himself on the other side of what he’d thought he’d wanted he had to go and backfill, trying to make solid afterwards what should have come before. ‘Pouring the foundation after the walls are framed’, he said softly to himself.
But there was that damm book, Allison’s name written inside, sitting there on the seat beside him, and he watched his hand turn the wheel right, up away from the river and into town. A month ago it would have been pitch black now, the streetlights just coming on. He would be pulling in, parking diagonal across the street from Rosie’s. A warm yellow glow, soft light through the condensation in the front window would call him, and he would stop a minute before he walked in, looking up at the sky, taking in a sharp breath of air so cold it hurt, before pushing through the door and stepping inside.
Now, a fading evening, warm enough to keep the window down, it would have felt like a waste of time to be sitting over coffee and pie, talking with Burt and them guys about nothing. He felt exposed without the fogged up glass to let him feel far away as he stood gazing up. Looking for what? That feeling of alone, of being an outsider that can only come from the knowing he was just about to step in amongst friends. He told himself he would go check on the job-site, up by the school, see how the electricians had made out today. Told himself that, and though about Allison’s mouth, what it would be like to kiss.
Driving the long way around, he passed her house. Toys in the yard, a couple of flower pots spilling on the porch, he could see the worn spot on the lawn where Dan had kept his dogs tied before he left. A glimpse of tawny hair through the kitchen window, a flash of grace as she walked by with a plate. He could imagine her setting it down in front of the kid, and then, turning to him standing next to the stove, smiling. He could remember, when he’d heard that Dan had left, chewing over the ragged scraps of the story with Ely and Jess and whoever else was standing round, wanting to say ‘What I wonder is how he’d stayed with her so long," and holding back only out of respect for Jess’s friendship with Allison. Still, looking at the house, here, now, he could sense how it would be, felt his hand reaching over to slip into hers.
Feeling that as a pull that he could easily call caring, but maybe it wasn’t, John kept going. Coming from his belly, chest, though Burt always said it was coming from somewhere a little lower down. An excitement, a possibility about to turn real, a tender cradleing of something about to leap out. Reminded him of when Sandy left, though, when he was driving out on the highway at three in the morning, what was leaping out then was the possibility of head on into an overpass abutment.
Turning into the job-site, he parked behind Burt’s van. ‘Big fucking place’ he thought, ‘some people have too much money.’ Clattering across the tile in the entry way, half laid, he glanced in the kitchen for Burt, caught a flash of bare leg, dessert colored skirt, an imagined Allison walking in from the deck to greet him. Glanced down at his hand, saw he had grabbed the book when he’d gotten out of the truck.
Found Burt in the basement, head in the main panel, cursing. ‘Who ran this shit?’ he asked as John came down the stairs. John looked at what Burt was pointing at, a snarl, no slack in the wires coming into the box. He’d seen Burt’s work before, the feeds bent square, run tight as tracings on a circuit board. ‘That kid, I think, from the WorkIt Up program." "I’ve a mind to rip it all out, make him do it right’ Burt said, ‘but .. ‘ John felt a drifting in his chest, Burt’s words fading. Wondering exactly what it was he would have to rip out, and just how long it would take the bloody torn ends to knit back together, if they even would, to make a heart, or maybe just scar over, solid and stiff.
He saw Burt’s face looking at him, expectantly, waiting for an answer to a question he had just asked. "Shit, it don’t matter," John said, ‘you can deal with it tomorrow." Thinking that could cover just about anything. Burt, puzzled, looked at John. ‘You alright?" "Sure."
He starts to leave as Burt’s packing up his tools. Looks down at his hands, sees in them a half remembered dream of home. Sees in them a book. He turns back to Burt. "Here," he says, handing Burt the book, "It’s a good read. You can give it back to Allison when you’re done."