He drove into her life.
There were a few dents in his doors and the exhaust pipe was about to fall off, but her front porch consisted of a broken, one-step stoop to a vintage trailer and a thirsty petunia, so no-one was lookin’ anyway.
Her door was creaking on its hinges. Hadn’t been oiled in a longtime. She didn’t even notice it anymore. She was too busy proppin’ up the warped ceiling of this tin can of a container, her last stop on the highway.
She wasn’t expecting company.
He wasn’t expecting to be invited in.
But that damn petunia had distracted him. It reminded him of some itchy moment in his past, his boyhood probably, when just that colour of just such a flower had given him hope.
She hadn’t watered it in awhile. She counted on rainwater, to tell the truth, to keep her natural world alive. Not that there was much of that around. That highway kicked up more dust than a bunny on an anthill and the scrub hereabouts pretty much summed up the gist of things. Not that she noticed. She was too preoccupied countin’ the last of the coins left in her piggybank – the one shaped like a heifer.
She heard him squeal to a stop.
It was hot outside and the windows were cracked open as far as she could prop them up. She got up from the 3-legged stool that leaned fretfully against the linoleum table and peered out.
Well, there he was, shuffling toward her, peeking into the shadow slantin’ onto the peeling aluminum siding, as though he’d find a clue in there somewhere but didn’t want to be caught lookin’.
She didn’t bother to run a comb through her hair or check the little, scratched mirror on the wall beside the outdated calendar with the picture of a horse on it – a big horse, brown and regal lookin’ – against the faded yellow of her tiny kitchen wall. She knew she’d just see a few more lines around her eyes, a few more grey hairs and what difference did it make. She wasn’t out to impress anybody. Those days were over. And anyway, who did he think he was, just drivin’ up here without warnin’.
Nevermind she didn’t have a phone.
Unexpected visitors can’t expect to have tea waitin’.
He tapped on the door and it swung back toward him with a tired limp. He caught it with one hand, gently tried to connect it to the doorframe, as if it would make a difference. Open or closed was all the same to her. If anything came in that didn’t belong there, it found its way out again pretty quick for lack of nourishment.
She didn’t have time for small talk.
When she saw his grin, she may have hoisted her bra strap up a bit when he glanced into the sound of a passing truck. But he wouldn’t have noticed anyway. When he looked back at her all he could see were her lips.
They stood for a while, just like that. Him with his hands in his pockets, nonchalant-like as though he had no better business in the world but to talk her up from her screen door.
For her part, she forgot to shut that little gate in front of her heart before they started chattin’ and damn, if all of a sudden she wasn’t sittin’ out on that stoop with the late sun glintin’ off her tired skin and she was laughin’!
He never let it show that he noticed. Nope. Like he wasn’t lookin’ atall. But he had by then memorized the shape of her neck and how many times she had to look away from his eyes.
She was itchin’ to touch the corners of his mouth where they turned up. There was mischief in that upswing and it wasn’t unkind.
He just played her along like that, makin’ her laugh and unloading all the ants and caterpillars and slugs tucked into the dark places of her little abode until the pink glint of the setting sun lit up the corners. That’s when they went inside. Somehow the dank edges had worn off and it felt kinda cozy in there now.
She let him sit beside her on the pullout and they never shut up. He just kept them chatterin’ on so she didn’t even notice he’d pulled right up and parked in the very core of her till it was too late. His old jalopy wasn’t goin’ anywhere and she was so gassed up she would’ve lit right up if he fired the ignition anyway.
So when it got dark in there, the sounds of the critters and wildlife prowling around the grounds around them didn’t scare her atall. There was enough moonlight that she could see him just fine. The irregular shape of his bones, the scar in his forehead, the strong jaw, the kindness in his eyes, if that’s what it was … and that mischief around his mouth that she fell in love with.
Until they got to talkin’ about family and what not. Then her grief overtook her like a tidal wave swallowing a clam. She got swept away back inside herself and the sparkle that had crept into her eyes went black.
He tried to backtrack but didn’t know where he’d gone off the rails.
Couldn’t ’ve been talking about that damn petunia could it? He’d remembered now what had so attracted his attention. It had been just such a flower and just such a colour that he’d picked to bring home to his ma when he was no higher’n the porch swing it was growing under. It was her birthday, the last one on which she’d ever set eyes on his dad. And she didn’t even trouble him about where he’d gotten it from. She just tucked it into the lamp beside her bed where it withered and drooped before the day was done. Not unlike the sad sight on the trailer’s stoop.
Maybe he’d sounded like he was feeling sorry for himself. Maybe that turned off her lights. Damn. Wouldn’t ya know. His goddamn sensitive side shows up and wham, everything goes bust. As usual.
He stood up to go, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave her sitttin’ in the dark like that. It spooked him. She curled up against the wall like the devil himself had sucked the life outta her and stole her through the window, leaving her little husk. Notta one gal shows up normal, he’s thinkin’. Notta one. Just when ya think the sun is finally shinin’ on you, ya get pulled up by the gouchies and smacked in the face. Godamnit! And his fist sent the water pitcher exploding in little green shards across the worn rug.
“You always do this’ he bellowed. “I start to trust you and then you shut down like a horse on tranquilizers. Always the same thing, over and over. Always puttin’ me down. You’re nothin’ but a …” and the lamp went flying and the table got thrown and the little thin trailer shook and rattled until her eyes showed back up.
Her arms stretched across her skinny self as she hid.
Her little voice, tinny with fright, pierced his rage. He found her crawlin’ up the wall trying to get away from him and he went cold.
What was he doin’? What the hell was he goin’ on about? How could this fragile little woman always be puttin’ him down, always the same thing over and over when he’d only just met her hours ago? Who did he think he was talkin’ to?
His remorse and confusion stumbled with him out the door, missing the broken step. He piled himself into his car, catching his pant leg in the door. But he didn’t drive off.
By the time dawn crowed her bones felt set like broken sticks. Her worn out soul crumbled into dust. Unable to stand, she crawled to the door and peered out through the grimy screen.
He was sittin’ behind the wheel, starin’ straight ahead. A hornet flapped itself against the windshield this way and that, trying to find a bit of air to catch on to. A streak of the rising sun hit the mirror and shot through his eyes, making him blink, so’s he saw her.
The screen door tilted toward him, creaking on its rusty hinge and the air, warm with the grit of highway, touched her cheek. She didn’t move as he opened the driver’s door. The bee buzzed past his ear in its fury to freedom.
He stood at the step, its splintered parts digging into the dry earth like a blunt knife. He kept his hands out of his pockets as he apologized – nothin’ was going to keep him from facing his mistake like a man. It must ’ve followed him like a dry wind, he said. The rage he’d bottled up all these years. He didn’t know he’d been carrying it. He didn’t know why it had to suddenly erupt now, onto her, an innocent in his life affairs. But he would get to the bottom of it. He would find a way to figure it out.
He stepped past her into the cool darkness and set the coffee table right. It was plastic and none the worse for wear. He found a broom and swept up the green shards of the pitcher, the spiky splinters of the light bulb, carefully picking out the smaller pieces from the worn rug so’s she wouldn’t catch a sliver unawares. He emptied it all into the can out front beside the car before filling a cup with water from the little basin in the narrow kitchen and taking it out to pour it gently into the crumbled earth around the parched petunia.
He’d half hoped it would straighten itself up and re-bloom right then and there but it remained bent, burdened by its weight of relentless sun and highway smut.
She witnessed all of this with her head goin’ one way and her heart another. She couldn’t make out if there was somethin’ about her that cracked a man open like that, while at the same time she didn’t know how to stop how she was feelin’ about him either. Maybe she didn’t have to? He had owned up to his behaviour. Hadn’t blamed her for it. And intended to do something about it. That was a switch.
By now the traffic had picked up across the way and they could’ve heard the clip of cars and heavy rumble of trucks if they’d thought to notice. But he was askin’ her now where she’d gone to the night before. Why had she shut down so hard it’d been like she’d left this life altogether. The petunia may have twitched some in that moment after its thirsty long drink, but he wasn’t lookin’ anymore. He was fixed on her full lips, on her dark hair with the streaks of silver shinin’ like moonbeams on a lake. On the shocking hurt that was trapped behind her eyes.
By the time she’d stammered out her story, she was prone on the hard earth, her body desperate for relief from its cool crust. But nothing can fix that kind of pain. That’s what happens when your children are stolen from you. Your body collapses ’cause all its shattered and broken and split parts are piercing every part of you. Every breath you take salts the wounds, so it gets so’s you can’t even breathe right.
Now, he knew a thing or two about hard times and hopelessness. But the thing about him was, he was hopelessly optimistic. As far as he was concerned, his new friend just needed a warrior by her side to keep her from giving up. All her strength had been beaten out of her. She needed some help. Her ex was in for big trouble.
So even though he was still shaky from his own outburst and the revelation he had achieved from it – not to mention he was hungrier than a rat in a desert – he managed to gather her rigid body in his arms and hold her till the paralyzed parts of her managed to crack some. Till the weeping wracked her body. Till she lay still and soft and finally looked him in the eye again. Till she realized she was hungrier than a cat in an empty alley.
And because that tired old pit stop had only crumbs and nothin’ left to satisfy, she let him tuck her into his old jalopy, the heifer – half full now ’stead of half empty – in her lap. They lit outta there, leaving the trailer for the next vagabond lookin’ for shelter.
They stopped and picked up a new calendar as they drove toward the sunset. One they could write plans on. But he figured that now she had her own real-life stallion, it was time for a new theme. They got one with pictures of Greece and Italy on it, ‘cause they figured, hell, if you’re going to go on a road trip, you might just as well fly.
The petunia, left heavy in his car’s exhaust, dropped her petals in one fell swoop, like death. Or relief.