I needed to love so I chose the girl in the backyard who looked like my sister. I had been sitting on the couch watching TV and drinking since four. She lived in the trailer park behind my house and came over with a friend of mine and we all sat out back on plastic deck chairs. My back was sweating. The girl wore a short black skirt and her makeup was drawn in violent lines. When she talked everything tunneled around her. She made the night like day until everything went black. I swatted a mosquito on my arm. She was going to leave and I convinced her to stay. I remember my phone texting, blue and white bubbles. Her skin was velvety hot. I remember a yellow stain on the pillowcase. I remember her breathing, a whimper or a cry.
I wake up to my phone shuddering on the end table and playing the triad of chimes that is my alarm. To remember anything else would be like dragging the St. Joseph after the thaw. But violence resonates in the blood even when the mind allows it to slip away. Usually I can gulp down a few Advil with instant coffee and be fine and functional by noon. Today the hangover lives in my stomach and I shiver under wave after wave of cold sweat.
I call my sister. She’s the obedient child, the one who didn’t fight through the divorce to stay where she wanted to stay, who inherited some of dad’s ethic to pay another’s way so I can live this life in this house. He worked as a janitor in the rich high school by the water and then passed his nights as bar security; she works nine to five in advertising, which means she can work from eight until it’s dark.
“I’m working,” she says.
“You sound horrible.”
“I’m all right.”
“I’ll be there.”
The dog sits beside the bed watching. Floyd. The name was a joke but it suits him, a bushy German shepherd with a tail that rakes back and forth across the carpet. His eyes are credulous and he whines to be fed. I think I’m going to cry. I don’t, but my eyes water when I get up, and nobody watching could tell the difference. I buy his kibble in bulk and keep it in a twelve-gallon trash barrel in the shed. It smells like mildew and dried up oil. I feel an inclination to self-pity and snip it off before it has a chance to swell. No one else feels sorry for me. Once in the shed I forget the reason I came and go back into the house.
My sister came home from Georgia as soon as she finished school. She says she’s lucky to have the job and works it like she’s grateful. Most of my friends had to move west or east until they touched the ocean and couldn’t get any further away. Once they left I made worse friends, the ones I knew my whole life and never wanted to be around. Now I have my sister. She chose me.
I want to take Floyd for a walk but can’t push myself through the front door, so I let him out into the backyard. This house beside the trailer park is cheap: the grass grows in patches surrounded by tracts of rocky soil and detritus. A crosshatched wire fence that came with the house bulges in places. Floyd sniffs around the perimeter. Humidity hangs outside like a quilt. I seal the air conditioning inside the sliding glass door.
I take a shower and push down two pints of water and mix a cup of coffee before my sister arrives in the living room. She’s wearing her work clothes, long sleeved. Her eyes are dark and narrow. She smiles when she sees me in the kitchen with my coffee.
“You don’t look so bad,” she says.
“I’m all right, I said.”
“It’s happy hour downtown.”
We get into her silver Wrangler and drive. The sun bakes the new leather interior but hers isn’t the convertible kind where you can unzip the back windows and let the air in. She worries about the security. She turns the air conditioning on full blast but we arrive downtown before cold air overtakes the heat. She drives along the bluff and parks her car in one of the small parking lots just out of eyeshot of the beach.
“Are you hungry?” she asks. “There’s Chan’s.”
I shake my head. My stomach is still bloated.
“Shue’s?” she suggests, and I nod.
Shue’s has outdoor seating facing the Lake that isn’t full so early in the evening and we find a table with two facing stools. The usual people downtown who glance away when I make eye contact are still in the office. My sister orders a beer and I ask for water with a lemon.
“You’re going to make me drink alone?” she says. “I feel like an alcoholic.”
“I feel thirsty. I’m tired.”
“I worked all day.”
Sailboats float like clouds over the Lake. The beach is a pincushion of bright bathing suits, bodies bobbing over waves far out in the water. At the end of the pier tiny figures dive from the foot of the lighthouse.
“Have you seen if anybody’s died yet?” she asks.
“I don’t get the paper.”
“You don’t go on the internet? Don’t you check Facebook?”
“I heard that that new bar in the Arts District is looking for bartenders. Can you do that? I’m sorry,” she says. “Maybe this will be the year nobody dies.”
“I haven’t heard anything yet. But somebody always dies.”
We watch the people jump from the end of the pier and swim slowly around to the ladder fifteen feet from where the concrete ends and there is only water. It wouldn’t be dangerous but rocks line either side of the pier out to about five feet and some days the Lake has a strong riptide. I played a game when I was little on the computer where if you clicked the water at the beach the undertow carries you out to sea. I’ve never jumped off the pier, even when I went through school and everybody asked me to do it. The riptide kills you.
I don’t want to drink but I promised my sister. I order something when she orders her second and it does make me feel better. The constant sting in my lungs dulls and I don’t have to overexert myself to lay down my uncertainty about the night before. After only one drink my sister and I are smiling and looking out over the Lake.
“It’s good to be back,” she says.
“You’ve been back for years.”
“I can’t let myself forget.”
Call and response. Even though mom only ever went to court for my sister, her saying this makes me feel happy and smart for never having left. It’s one of the things we can say over and over without feeling like we’re faking anything.
She pays the bill and together we walk astride back to the car. She tightens her lips backing out and focuses on the road. I look out the window and say nothing because I’ve already said everything about the things that approach along the roadside at one time or another.
We drive south along the highway that follows the coastline and turn inland once it pulls away. We drive past square miles of farmland with power lines that hug dirt roads leading to garages. The air conditioner finally makes my skin cold and when I turn it down, my sister doesn’t turn her head.
“Do you have to work tomorrow?” I ask.
“It’s Tuesday tomorrow. What do you think?”
She turns back around and heads toward town. I can see that my sister is getting tired but it’s August and the sun still stands several tree-lengths above the horizon. She slows down on the road opposite a vineyard and pulls her car onto the grass. She takes out her keys and lays them in her lap.
“Well, I won’t make it to sunset,” she says. “This will have to do.”
The grape trellises are green with vines that wave their leaves in the wind. With the sun still so high in the sky, the light suggests afternoon. Only between the trees is there a tint of evening color.
“Somebody’s feeling pensive,” she says.
“You’re not saying anything.”
“There’s nothing there.”
“Why do you even try to keep secrets from me?”
“All right,” I say. “I was thinking about Mom and Dad.”
“Dad was too stupid for her.”
“You think so?”
“I used to think she was wrong for leaving. I obviously didn’t like it down there. But mom has interests. She likes gardening. She likes genealogy.”
“The daughter of some ancient king, or something.”
“Medieval,” she says. “Records get pretty sparse before then.”
“It’s easy when you’re just an actor in a movie.”
“She never could have stayed with him.”
“You don’t think it’s because of me?”
She scratches the inside of her wrist. She might be upset. “I did it as well.”
“But you didn’t want to.”
“Do you really believe that?” she says. “We were just little kids. Sometimes when a girl tells you okay, she means it.”
Sweat draws a line on her cheek. Before she went to Georgia she wore summer skirts and dresses that showed her skin bare. Maybe it was me who drowned her in these bolts of business suits. Maybe, but she doesn’t hate me for it; she’s here with me, breathing. The ditch dividing the road from the childless vineyard is still here and so is the forest and sun.
“You shouldn’t worry about everything so much,” my sister says.
“I don’t worry about everything.”
“Not everything matters.”
“Everything does matter.”
“Stop saying everything so much,” she says.
“Everything does matter, just not that much.”
“You say some of the stupidest things.”
“What if I did it again?”
The keys jingle in her hand. She starts the car and accidentally revs the engine in neutral before she pops it into drive. The car rabbit hops off the shoulder and onto the street.
“I’m not going through this with you.”
“She told me okay, I think.”
“What do you think happened between us all those years ago?”
“Mom and Dad thought it was something.”
“You’re right. Nothing at all happened.”
She takes me home in silence. “I’m so tired,” she says. “You’re being sensitive. Nothing matters so much.” She drives away.
I walk inside and Floyd is panting at the back door.
“Jesus,” I say.
I dash across the living room and let Floyd inside. The dog runs in and hops up on two back legs and tries to lick my face. Floyd looks nothing but happy. I go into the shed and even from there I can hear him whining for his still empty food bowl. I step on the pedal that opens the barrel full of kibble and scoop two full cups with a plastic drinking glass I leave partially buried inside. In the kitchen I crack an egg over the food while Floyd ties figure eights around my legs. I count to two while the sink runs hot water into the bowl and then microwave it for forty-five seconds. The dog is spoiled. He doesn’t eat without the fuss.
Floyd makes wet sounds in the kitchen. I sit down on the couch I sat on for so many hours yesterday and look under my left hand and find my phone. Maybe I can know if I decide to look through my texts, but even just picking up the phone and looking at the picture of Floyd on the background with a filter over it to look like a painting makes me want to throw up. If I don’t know and nothing happens then I can wad up all my throbbing questions and discard them somewhere in my body far away from my heart, squeeze them tight and small and hide them away inside my liver.
I think about drinking some of the beer I keep stocked in my refrigerator but decide against it. Often I make intelligent decisions such as these. Then I feel under my hand again and there is the phone and this time I force myself to look. I open my text messages but I didn’t send many texts at all except for something benign to my sister. There’s simply nothing there.
I think about when we were young. She’d always been a loyal friend and continued to be even afterwards—not after the divorce, not after the move, after the other thing; handfuls of afterwardses, barrels full of maybes, another maybe last night, maybe—unless I brought it up to try to talk with her about it, to ask if I had done anything, if she felt the hurt my blood registered having given. Then she would make her hands look like clenched teeth and ignore me, blushing bloody and shoving me away. But even that might not have happened; so little remains in my memory of so much. I am a good man. I am a good man. Maybe it would have been better for those girls if they had just died, or if I had just died, maybe. If we had slipped under rather than fighting for the surface. I wonder if it’s even fair to measure something like dying against something like suffering. At least I have known suffering. Everybody suffers. It’s amazing how even good men make so many other people suffer. Maybe.
I sit on the couch and listen to the kitchen. Floyd is making sounds like he’s eating, but he’s not. He finished his meal and now he’s only licking, trying to collect any little crumb he hasn’t yet consumed.