Sometimes I Can Hear Myself Crying

There’s an old blue F-150 in the lot, with the tailgate down and a big crack in the windshield. Joey comes out, wiping his hands on a shop towel. He takes the box of donuts from me and looks inside. “Max is gonna be late,” he says. “His kid missed the bus again. And there’s some woman in your office.”

Some woman, he says. It’s his slang, but he nailed the truth with it. I don’t recognize her at first. From behind, in my visitor chair, she’s just another customer. It isn’t until I walk past her to my desk and turn that I know who “some woman” is.

She still has that smile, those lips, those eyes—fragments that are burned into my memory, unerasable flickers that have lasted almost fifteen years. She might be Joey’s “some woman” but she’s no longer that woman. Her jeans are faded, frayed at the cuffs. Her canvas shoes are green and soiled and her fingernails are clipped, with no polish. There’s no trace of makeup, and straight brown hair, silver-streaked. I can see squint-wrinkles, big smile marks—she is happy. Once “some woman” would have been fashionably dressed, maybe in designer jeans and a crisp, tailored button-down blouse instead of a faded sweatshirt with a cartoon duck on it. In those days she wasn’t happy.

“How have you been?” we say in unison, and laugh, making nervous noises. She stands, her arms come up, and we fold into one another. I go away briefly, and I hear my breath whistle out my nose, as if I have relaxed at last, after an endless wait. The earth inches another fraction in its rotation as I begin to feel calmed in the warmth of her body against mine. She smells clean but mysterious, like a hint of cardamom. The perfume scent I remember, some forgotten brand I bought her, is not there.

I stall, holding on, looking at her face, prolonging contact, watching her eyes search mine. Words seem wrong. Empty, polite, fatuous language—you look great, how did you find me, fill me in, what a nice surprise—seems too empty, too ordinary, an insult to the moment. Our silence carries enough information, maybe too much.

My mind is unwinding its sluggish reels, pushing me back, giving me flickering glimpses of her in those months we had. I see her head thrown back, her breasts lifted, a flush on her chest, as her stomach folds in small convulsions. I see her lips, puffy from my hard kisses. I see her over me, under me, surrounding me.

I see us fucking. It was what we did. It was all we did. Simple fucking. We were only animals. That was it, we thought. Until one day we found out it wasn’t just fucking. Until one day, when my guard was down, I revealed just what she was giving to me, what I needed—and then I knew the same thing had happened to her. Suddenly fucking was only part of the glue. Suddenly we wanted to walk in the rain together, or sit on a park bench and watch the sky go by and envy the flowers for their happiness. Suddenly we wanted to give, not take. But give was something we could not do.

“Is that your truck out there?” I ask, still stalling, walking behind my desk to hide a little.

“It needs a new head gasket.” She grins again and sits back down. “I hope you’re not too expensive.”

Price was never important before, when she had that little red car. Her hair was short and tinted then, curled and stylish. Then her skin was machine-tanned, carefully made up; not weather-tanned and scrubbed. Money didn’t matter to her in those days, the days when she would ride my cock and come so hard it would make me jealous.

My mind is filled with questions. What had happened while I was gone? “I’ll make a good price for you,” I say. “How did you know I was back?”

“You’re a famous author. A celebrity like you can’t just sneak into town.”

I’m also broke and recovering, but I don’t say that. She probably knows that part too. Everybody does. “Famous. A load of crap,” I say. “What about you?”

She gives a smile. “I’m on my own now,” she says.

Joey appears in the doorway. “Somebody’s here for the lady,” he says, pointing with his head.

Judith grins at me. “That’s my daughter. Sorry, but I have to go now, or I’ll make her late for work.” She stands. “I’ll call you about the truck.”

I stand, trying to keep up, trying to be polite, but she’s already gone, just that quickly.

Joey watches her go. “You know her?”

“Once,” I say, realizing Joey would have been just a kid then. I am still behind my desk, locked in place like a gatepost. I sit again as Joey goes back to the grease rack. I spend a few minutes wondering if I should have apologized.

* * *

If you don’t bother saying goodbye, the mechanical parts are easy. Pack, get in the car, drive. I did that. I eased out of town in the dark like a skulking thief. I drove past their house that night and stopped at the end of the long driveway. It had just snowed and the world had that gentle, content quiet that comes after a snow. There were a few lights on in the house, spilling out and making the snow glitter, and even in the crisp cold there was a warm, safe feeling. I wanted to escape the snow, the cold, the industry and its gray skies; trading it for the soft, warm silence of the south—another myth I wanted to believe. She would be safe where she was. She and her children would be safe. Her husband would take good care of them. They had security. They had plenty of money.

I had none of that. I had only one thing to give her.

I can still remember, and my mind fills up with it as I sit at my desk, letting the memories in: She would come so hard it was almost frightening. It was always best for her when she was astride me because she could control things, and it was best for me that way because I could see and appreciate what was happening with her, taking my own pleasure in what little I had to give her. Sometimes when it was approaching, she would gasp, taking in air sharply as if afraid of what was about to happen. It was like the sound of fear a person might make when death is approaching, just cresting the hill. Her body would go rigid and she would lift her hands the way babies do when they’ve just started walking, and her eyes would close and the first spasm would slam into her and make her grunt as if she had been punched in the gut—and her mouth would fall open and her face would slacken and her stomach would clench and her shoulders would tremble and her arms would tuck down against her ribs, pressing her breasts together—and she would begin to shake. I would feel her convulse on my cock and the tremors would start, transmitting the rhythm of her ecstasy to me so powerfully I could only hope to cling to some fragment of the memory as I was swept into her undertow, swirled and tumbled, jolted; compelled to erupt suddenly, involuntarily, violently into her, air ejecting through my clenching throat in a death-like groan as my passion, triggered by hers, was amplified by hers.

My memories of these physical things are strong: they are unforgettable. But memories of feelings aren’t the same thing as actual feelings. The memories fade faster. And when you turn around to look back, to refresh your memories, you find the feelings are still there, but they’ve gotten a little different. So every time I looked back I got over her a little more, and every time I looked forward I got fucked up a little more.

And all at once she’s back in my life.

I get up and go to start on the truck, thinking about how I almost laughed when she told me I’m famous. I am a joke and everybody knows it.

* * *

She crosses her legs. I can see that there’s actually a little mud on her shoes, old mud that has dried and anchored itself. They’re functional shoes, like the ones I wear for my work: sturdy, comfortable, not fashionable. They’re the kind of shoes she wouldn’t have even considered when I knew her before.

Suddenly I see how beautiful she really is. She has become the person she wants to be.

She inspects the bill and writes a check, not speaking. She hands me the check and our fingers touch. “You’re not going to succeed in this business, Rafer. You don’t charge enough.”

“I’ll get by,” I say. “Listen–”

“I was really nervous, coming here,” she says, in a hurry, as if she hasn’t heard me trying to speak myself, trying to work up my apology. “I didn’t know if you would hate me. There was so much anger in your first books; I was afraid it was about me, or that I caused it.”

“That’s not the way it works,” I say. “I write to keep the voices in my head quiet. Sometimes, at night, they would talk to me about you. But a lot of the time, in the dark, I could only hear myself crying. That anger was about me. I was never angry at you.”

Joey has the grease gun going. He’s a virtuoso with it, and the pop-hiss sounds fill the air. Judith gets up and closes the door. I know Joey and Max will huddle. The last time the door to my office was closed was when I fired Alex for stealing a tire.

“Tell me about your life,” she says, sitting back down in the chair. “You’re so secretive! I never knew you were a writer. Any woman would want to think she was the cause of your passion. I have wanted to tell people about us, you know.” Her smile is tentative, as if she’s confessing more than she intended.

“I hate writing,” I say, staring at my desk. “But you already know about me if you read the papers. I made money, and then I fucked up.”

She doesn’t answer, and when I look up I see tears in her eyes. “You didn’t do that to me,” I say. “I did it to myself. I made all the choices. Most of the time I wasn’t writing, I was bleeding, spilling my guts, ripping things out of myself and putting them on paper.”

I hear my words floating out into the air, but I see alarm and more tears in her eyes and my mind is screaming at me: Shut the fuck up! You’re trying to hurt her again! So I do. “It wasn’t about you,” I mutter. “I was just a mess. But I figured it out, I wrote, I got drunk. Then I got over it and bought this place. Now I fix cars and trucks, and I write a little at night.” I am trying to sound cheerful. “So tell me what’s up with you. I’m more interested in what happened to you. You’re the real mystery here.”

She wipes her eyes and grins a little nervously. “Well, I still like to think it was my fault. A girl can always hope she ruined some nice guy’s life,” she says, looking sly. I laugh, but my throat is tight and I wonder if she can tell. Even my dense brain can figure out what is happening, that we have reached a detente of sorts, that we have agreed to forget about things we could never have controlled anyway.

“We did our best,” I say.

She smiles for a few seconds. “My life hasn’t been glamorous at all,” she says. “There was a terrible automobile accident, about two years after you left. He was drunk, but thank God no other cars were involved. It was a terrible time, and the worst part was how the children suffered. I used the insurance money to do something crazy: I bought an orchard. I raise apples now; the kids call me Mommy Appleseed.”

She’s smiling; she seems happy. But my mind has fogged up again with grief, with pain for her—and with guilt. I can only stare at her face, her smile, her large brown fawn-eyes—how could I have forgotten these eyes?—and search for the words that will tell her what I feel. Could I have helped? How will I ever know? The truth is that I hadn’t been there, hadn’t helped.

Judith sees the emotions washing across my face. With a sudden look of concern she stands, comes to me. I get out of my chair to meet her as her hands come up to cradle my face. Her fingers and palms are rough; her lips are soft. I pull her to me by the waist and hold her head against tight my shoulder. In my imagination I can hear the sounds again, the sounds of the halting, choking way I would cry, if I were crying, if I could ever let myself cry.

She breaks, moves away, turning. She stops at the door. “I’m so sorry, Rafer. About everything. I really am.” I see tears again.

“So am I,” I say, struggling with my voice. I follow her out into the bay where her truck is.

She sees the stove in the corner. It is one of those stainless steel commercial things, with big burners and a hood. “What’s this?” she asks.

“My pride and joy. I got it at a bankruptcy auction. A restaurant went bust.”

“What’s it doing here in the garage?”

“I cook breakfast Saturday mornings. You know, eggs, French toast, bacon, hashed browns. The employees, some customers, some old friends come by. I’m even teaching them to enjoy grits.”

She gets in her truck and looks at the stove for a few seconds and then grins at me. “Are ladies invited?”

Joey leers at me as she pulls out on the highway. All I can do is smile.

© 2002 Sidney Durham. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written

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