By Jack A. Urquhart ©2012
(Flash Fiction: 959 words)
It is the thought of your friend all alone that makes you brave the storm, the slipping sliding traffic.
Even though your wife objects.
“I’m sorry for him, Court. For both of them. That doesn’t mean you should go rushing to Paul’s rescue,” Linda warned. “It could be dangerous.”
Even now, chancing the traffic, the blowing snow, you aren’t certain that she’d meant the storm.
Linda is nothing if not subtle—never more than in pressing the home advantage.
“You haven’t forgotten Annie’s train tomorrow?”
Linda’s trump card is always your daughter. “She arrives at noon, remember?”
Of course, you do!
“I’ll be there,” you’ve assured her, choosing the words carefully.
That is because you haven’t told her everything—only the gist of your conversation with Paul’s wife. Yet somehow Linda seems to know more than you say.
“Those two have serious marital woes,” she’d opined. “It could be risky getting involved.”
Linda is right, no doubt. But it is too late for that.
Even Cori knows as much.
“Paul will be needing his friend now, Court—now that we’ve settled on divorce.” That is what she said in telephoning to report her husband gone missing. “There’s really no one else for him—now that his parents are gone.” Adoptive parents, she’d not needed to mention; you are familiar with Paul’s history.
“This won’t be easy. For any of us,” Cori added.
Surely an understatement.
“You’ll know where to find him?”
You do, of course—know the very hotel Paul will have chosen. Many times you’ve ‘found’ each other there—as Cori must know.
Perhaps Linda as well?
The snow is falling in great soggy clumps, like cotton balls, when you arrive, everything vanishing beneath a heavy winter batting. It is a wet cold, harsh for March. Cold that goes straight to the bone.
At no other time is the sweltering summer heat of the plains so favorably recalled: the dusty, nutty aroma of barreled grain in your father’s barn, the smell of souring silage, trodden hay. At no other time this inexplicable nostalgia for a good-riddance past. How thoroughly you’d thought to banish every memory when he died, selling the lot to the first bidder, certain it had all been a terrible mistake—not your intended life. Not your real home—the one waiting to be found.
Yet still—this longing.
Paul meets you at the door in his underwear, leads you into the dimly lit hotel room. Everywhere there is the detritus of a man adrift: garments and bath towels strewn helter-skelter, legal folders and take-out containers piled high on the bureau, the end tables, the lone armchair. There is only the TV’s cold, phosphorous glare. Even so, anyone could see the damage: Paul’s three-day growth, raccoon eyes, the rasp when he speaks.
“I thought I was lost.”
Absurd, then—your first words: “You’ve been smoking again, I see.”
What passes for a smile, his spot of laughter, breaks your heart.
“You’ve spoken with Cori,” he replies.
At the window, you join him to watch the snow.
“And Linda, she knows too?”
After all these months of prodding and dissembling, the same old question.
For a moment you consider your wife—miles removed. Linda will be straightening Annie’s room—verboten territory at any other time; perhaps worrying that the late snow will damage the lilac bushes only just now coming to bud. It pains you to recall the nest of ‘v’ shaped lines between her brows as you were leaving; and her eyes, those ever-green forests, keen with the knowledge of what winter can wreak.
“Yes,” you answer, certain at last. “Linda knows.”
A small sound, not laughter at all, terrible to hear, is Paul’s only preamble. “Then we are lost.”
His voice is coarse-grain sandpaper. The snow melting against the windowpane mirror streaks his face.
How could you not put your arms around him? Let your hands slide into the small of his back, slip ‘round under his t-shirt to find that little spare tire he complains about—the one no amount of exercise, the countless miles you’ve jogged, will deflate?
“Still got’em, the handles,” he says, laughing quietly into your shoulder. And then:
“Used to be—Cori would hold on tight when we made love,” he begins, his scruff chafing your neck. “She’d say, ‘I’m right here, Paul. Come! Find me!’ It’s no wonder—no wonder she was so unhappy,” he says pulling back to search your eyes. “When it was all I could do to grant half the request.”
It starts small, your laughter—falters, begins again, peters out as your foreheads touch. And yet, how good it is—a shred of levity, bawdiness amidst the wreckage, your bodies rocking in unison, aroused in spite of everything.
“We are foundlings, aren’t we? The two of us, lost souls?” Paul asks, his face hovering somewhere between relief and despair.
For a moment, you wonder.
But now is not the time for reticence.
“No,” you answer. “Not lost,” hoping it isn’t a lie.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Paul says, surprising you with a smile. “I’ve been so tired,” he says.
Later, drowsing abed, you strain to hear when he whispers against your arm: “What happens now?” he wants to know.
It is a worthy question.
You close your eyes, ponder the possibilities, the difficult certainties ahead. And for a moment—despair.
But then is not now.
In the meantime—comes…
The private atmosphere of spent bodies; the musky comfort of sweat-salted flesh; the harvest-home scent at the nape of your lover’s neck—warm, heady, malted as a basket of oats on a summer’s afternoon.
You wait for the answer to find you.
And it does.
“This is what happens,” you say, holding fast.