I pretended that I was going to work. My wife Abby said she had meetings all day and would be home late. “Sorry, Chinese food again. Spicy chicken rolls. You can live off those, right?”
She flipped me an envelope.
“Mortgage. The post office is on your way to work.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “We need to get with the times and have it auto-deducted.”
“I don’t like automatic payments,” she said. “Shit always happens and it screws up the entire account, and then we end up paying more than we should’ve.”
Her hair looked lighter, a whitish blond when she moved under the lights.
Eleven hundred dollars for the mortgage, gone. The universe hated me.
Rhonda from Human Resources handed me my last paycheck. She smiled and told me to have a good day and “good luck to me.” The entire department was being shifted to Thailand. I didn’t want to keep it a secret. I had to tell Abby. I would go to the diner to have coffee, draft a resume on my laptop.
We lived outside of Colorado Springs, in the small town of Meridian Pointe. 23,000 population, the last I’d heard. In the 1980s, it had been over thirty thousand, with jobs and a way of life that felt inexplicably nice, as if good things lie ahead for everyone. The autumn morning was warm enough to wear a short-sleeved shirt without a jacket, but I kept on my gray blazer. I kept hearing Abby’s black heels nick against the hardwood floors this morning. A certain strain wedged between us, and I could not explain why or how we had become two people who no longer felt connected or interested in each other.
Rumors floated around that her company might be laying off, but she insisted that her job was secure, fine. Abby worked as a manager for a local pet-food and supply company. They covered most of Central and Eastern Colorado.
I dropped the mortgage envelope into the mailbox and watched a cluster of geese near a retention pond fly off, low and skimming the water. On my way to the other side of town, toward the diner, I locked eyes with a hitchhiker at the top of the hill. She was sitting on her duffel bag, resting, and what appeared to be finishing a cigarette. She wore sunglasses over her head, stared at me as I drove by. The girl looked young, early twenties, maybe, and her cheeks flushed in the ray of sun, her hair the color of copper. She probably thought that I had money because of my Lexus, but it was an older model and had lots of miles. I stopped the car and thought about it, how she might need a ride, which was unlike me to give a damn. I put the car in reverse, rolled down my window.
“Hey, where you headed?” I asked.
She pointed toward town.
“Bus stop,” she said. “A trucker dropped me off about a half mile at the 70 Exit ramp.”
“If you need a lift, I could—”
“No, I’m fine,” she stammered.
She craned her head down. As I drove toward the diner, I glanced in the rearview and noticed that she continued her slow walk, almost hugging the guardrail. I pulled off to the shoulder of the road and stuck my head out and waved her to come on. She jogged toward my car. I turned up the music and it felt weird that I was about to pick up a hitcher, or in some circles a “transient.” I knew it was risky and dangerous, but she looked like a harmless kid. I wondered about her life and where she was going, and maybe I could help her, buy her breakfast or get her a coffee at the diner.
When she got to my car I told her, “Look, I’m no psycho. I just lost my job. Kind of bummed. Need someone to talk to.”
“That sucks,” she said, closing the passenger door. “Yeah, you seem cool. Just drop me off at the bus station, alright?”
“Adam, by the way,” I said, putting my hand out. She did not shake my hand and leaned forward and tied her shoelace.
“Don’t judge,” she said. “These are men’s boots. Actually, they belong to my ex-boyfriend.”
“These?” she said, lifting her foot into the air, and let out a laugh.
“Oh, I didn’t notice. Sorry. So what town you going?”
“Denver. Got a new gig there. I’m originally from California. Redlands. Parents moved to Grand Junction when I was nine.”
She glanced down the empty road and raised her hand to her face and tilted her sunglasses over her head. You could feel the heat around the windshield and it wasn’t even noon.
“Crystal,” she said, and we shook hands.
I noticed that her left eye seemed bigger than her other and had a different shade of color. It looked emerald green and didn’t focus normally, which it occurred to me that it was not real. “You hungry?” I asked.
She shook her head yes.
“There’s a diner across from the bus station. We can go there for a quick bite, if you want. Or just coffee. Doesn’t matter to me. Either way. I have nothing else to do. I didn’t tell my wife about me being laid off from my company. Kind of scared to.”
“I don’t know. It’s like we’re no longer lovers. Telling her would compound everything and I really don’t want to deal with it.”
“I can understand.”
I saw Crystal’s tattoo, an S on her shoulder. Her skin was clear, and she looked healthy despite the circumstances. She had a small nose ring and let her duffel bag rest against the inside of her legs.
“You girls today,” I said, “with your tattoos and jewelry. Adds flavor. Highlights your personality.”
“Damn right,” said Crystal.
Her nails were painted dark purple.
“We’re ballin’ bitches these days, Adam. Hyped millennials. Ha-ha! Take it you must be a Gen-Xer?”
“That would be accurate,” I said. “Over forty.”
“Wow, can’t imagine.”
“What’s in Denver?” I asked. “Besides work? Any relatives?”
She turned at me as if I’d just asked the dumbest question.
“No relatives there. Mom passed away a few years ago. Dad moved back to California. Somewhere up north. We have not spoken to each other in three years. It’s all right, I get by. I’m an erotic dancer, and for the record, I’m no criminal or druggie. No heroin bullshit that’s going around, or meth. Although, an occasional oxy helps me get through a rough day, helps ease the bad molar that needs a crown. Are you judging me? Don’t act like you’ve never been to gentlemen’s clubs, Adam. You seem like a red-blooded American male and had your adventures in your heyday.”
I smiled and pulled into the parking lot of the diner.
“I have. It’s been a while,” I said. “After you get married and hit forty, most of your old friends have scattered. It’s hard to meet new people when you’re an adult, and most of your time is consumed working all day. No children. Thank God.”
She turned up the radio volume.
“Holy crap! I like this band. Gets me pumped. You like Reptile Moon? You’re cooler than I thought, Adam. I’m going to have a good day now after hearing this.”
“My fav band,” I said. “Hell, anything remotely beyond the grunge-rock and Hip-Hop sound of my era and I’m totally lost who the bands are today. What do you want to eat?”
“I’ll have some biscuits and gravy. Maybe bacon and eggs, but not big on bacon that much. Hey, speaking of eggs, you know what the truck driver out of Grand Junction told me?”
“He told me that you have to eventually embrace your life, no matter what you did or didn’t do. There’s no turning back. He said he was fifty-three. He had a giant forehead, thinning-gray hair, and his eyes… he looked broken in many ways. He told me you have to crack eggs in life, meaning to take risks, and he said that you have to make the best out of it, even if they turn out scrambled or runny.”
“Good analogy,” I said.
Reptile Moon still played through the dash speakers. The music reminded me of when Abby and I went to see them play last summer near Colorado Springs. It was the last time that we felt like we had a good time together and felt in love and in sync with each other.
The way the light hit the side of Crystal’s face, she looked older now, more feminine.
“I’m originally from Illinois,” I said. “If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?”
“A Midwest guy,” she said. “I would have guessed that. Twenty-three. I’m getting up there.”
“Really?” I said. “I thought maybe nineteen, twenty.”
“I get that sometimes. I wish that I could go back and make better decisions, like many of us. Funny how that works in life, huh? But I’m a big girl. I’ll be twenty-four next month. Did you make decent money at your gig?”
“I did. Worked in I.T.”
“What is I.T.?”
“Information Technology. Worked on the software side.”
“Oh yeah. I knew that. Man, my brain has been on a thousand different things.”
We went inside the diner and a waitress seated us.
“Regular coffee,” I said.
“Same here,” said Crystal. “Piping hot. Hold the Bailey’s.”
I glanced at her with a smirk. We laughed. The waitress grinned, scratching at her chin with the end of her pen cap.
“Thanks for the lift, Adam. I know I shouldn’t be hitching rides. But I’m careful. Really, I am. I got this in case—”
She flipped out her driver’s license and a knife clanked to the floor.
“It’s more of a souvenir, then a knife for protection. It’s got a dull blade. Old school, huh?”
“Where did you get it?” I asked.
“Ex-boyfriend, Shelby. He had it since middle school, stole it from his brother’s friend, I think. It’s been around the block. Kind’a like yourself, right?”
“Hardly,” I said.
“So you said you and your wife don’t have any children? Why not?”
“No, we don’t.”
“Oh, sorry. Was that, uh, too personal?”
“At our ages now?” I said. “Really? I mean we tried. Gave up on it. I got snipped three years ago. You know, the whole—?”
“Yeah, yeah. Men are doing that more. I think it’s good. It’s a hell of a lot easier for men to get that done than for women getting their tubes tied, or uterus removed.”
“I can’t imagine,” I said. “Anyway, a lot of it has to do with Abby’s family’s genetic history. Her brother’s son died of leukemia, and her sister’s child was born with Down’s. She’s had a genetic screen and there’s a sixty slash forty chance that she could carry Huntington’s to her offspring. Her mother had it and died four years ago. Rough stuff.”
“A neurological malfunction. Affects the muscles. Leads to early dementia. It’s only inherited. Symptoms usually show up in your late thirties. Sometimes later. Obviously, no cure.”
“Damn. So, I could have it and not know unless I get a genetic screen? Or it hits me in my thirties?”
“Yup. Meaning that you had the gene carried down to you but it hasn’t been activated to be symptomatic. Pretty scary, huh? But that’s how genes work. I’ve read up on it. And most cancer is like that too. Either you inherit it to be activated later or the environment triggers it in your cells. In some ways, we all sitting ducks when it comes to that.”
She looked out the window and pressed her teeth gently to her lips.
“You’re probably wondering about this,” she said, pointing at her eye.
“I wasn’t going to say anything, Crystal.”
“I was five, playing around with other kids and ran around the corner of the house and smacked straight into a fence post that had a piece of wood sticking out. It clipped my eyeball and ripped through the flesh around it. The surgeons did a good job, the best they could back then. They could not save my eye, so part of it is glass and part natural. I was lucky, though. Could have bled out.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It doesn’t look that bad.”
“You know, you have a young face. I would have guessed you were mid-thirties.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, taking a sip of my coffee.
We both ordered biscuits and gravy and talked about finding work and the thrill of “not knowing,” which of course to me felt like a total meltdown but not for Crystal. In a way, I wished that I was young again, had my life to do over. Our youth is temporary; our lives scant from one moment to the next.
“Listen,” said Crystal, tapping her fingernail against her coffee cup. “I had a miscarriage when I was sixteen. Sometimes I wonder what could have been, but this is my reality. I really think when one makes a decision, you shouldn’t second guess it.”
“You’re right. Stand by it. Live up to it.”
She tilted her coffee cup against her lip and wiped her mouth with her napkin. She pulled out a lighter and thumbed-clicked it, the sound echoing. Abby had smoked when we first met.
“No smoking in here? Has Meridian Pointe gone nutty like the rest of America?” Crystal asked. “All these laws and shit? No wonder people want to strangle and shoot each other.”
“Local township wants to ban it,” I said. “Kind of funny, they want to ban cigarettes, but you can buy all the medical pot you want.”
“The smoke won’t bother you?”
“You care? I didn’t sense that from you, Crystal. Have at it. We’re all going to die, sooner or never.”
“Sooner or never? I like that. Sounds like something that Shelby might have said.”
“I’m going to the restroom,” I said. “Be right back.”
“Take one for the skipper,” she said. “Shelby used to say that. Ha!”
“What? I think your boyfriend made that one up.”
“Ex, thank you very much. Shelby’s in Portland, Oregon. We don’t speak. Before I quit Facebook, he’d rub it in with his new girlfriend and show off how awesome their life is, posting photos. Fuck all that!”
“Well, good,” I said. “Looks like you’ve moved on from him.”
“Maybe. It’s hard, though, after being with someone for a while.”
At that moment, I realized it was weird for me to be sitting at a booth with a stranger when I was supposed to be at work. What if one of Abby’s friends walked in? What if someone that I knew saw me with this girl? What if she ended up dead in Denver and the surveillance cameras pinned me the last person to be with her? I could hear the whispers: “I saw Adam having breakfast with that dead young woman.”
Then the other side of me said fuck it and who cares. In ten years, I could be struck down with leukemia; I could be crushed to death by a jacked-knifed semi on snowy I-70 while going to my new I.T. job that paid twenty thousand dollars less because foreign workers have disrupted the income ratio. Hell, I could be shot next month by a psychopath whose only motive was to release his repression of radical religion. I could be cut down to nothing—for people to read my online obit and say to themselves: “Yeah, I remember that guy. ‘R.I.P., Adam Bartlett.’”
“Adam Bartlett, 44, went to be in the exact same state of reality before he was born.”
Crystal chewed on the end of her straw. I got back from the bathroom and pulled out my wallet to pay for our breakfast. I was going home, had built up the courage to tell Abby about being unemployed now, whenever she got home I would to her. Layoffs happen; there was no point acting chickenshit anymore.
“Here you go,” I said, and handed Crystal five twenties. “For your ride to Denver and to help with food. A hundred dollars obviously won’t get you much these days.”
“What? No, Adam. You don’t need to do that.”
“I want to. Please take it.”
“You need that money too,” she said. “Being out of work now.”
“I’ll be fine. Got a little saved.”
“Thanks. And thanks for breakfast, Daddo.”
She shrugged her shoulders. As we walked outside and back to my car, I saw a large shadow figure overhead. At first, I thought it was a drone. The military ran tests a few miles north, but it was a large hawk, flying low and right over our heads. The hawk’s wings stretched like a prehistoric creature; its head larger than any bird that I had ever seen.
“Weird bird,” remarked Crystal. “You know, I saw one earlier when I was walking off the exit ramp. It could be the same bird. Strange world, huh? Spectacularly weird. Well, Adam, thank you again for the ride to the bus stop and breakfast, and for the money. Nice meeting you.”
She reached forward and we both hugged, as though we could be old siblings who hadn’t seen each other for decades. Her tattoo of S registered in my brain that it stood for her ex-boyfriend Shelby. The grayish ink showing on her outstretched arms.
“And hey, I’m sure your wife will understand. Just tell her, Adam. Don’t repress stuff. Women hate it when men keep secrets, and then the secrets end up causing more problems. That kind of distrust is a hell of all itself. And yeah, I guess we women do it too. Keep secrets from lovers, and we shouldn’t.”
“Good advice. You’re spot on and wise for being just twenty-three, Crystal. Take care of yourself in Denver.”
I watched her go across the parking lot and around the side of the bus station. I would never see her again. In twenty years, she’d be close to my age. Time had a way of going by faster every year, and what to make of that?
On the way home, I kept thinking that the hawk was following me, waiting until I stopped and was within the crosshairs of the kill, the attack.
I turned up Reptile Moon. The rhythm and the pulse of the music energized me.
When I got home, I heard the continuation of other music playing on the stereo in the bedroom.
“Abby?” I said, walking down the hallway.
How odd. I’d noticed her car slightly parked crooked in the driveway before I walked inside. I noticed another vehicle that was parked along the road in front of our house—a maroon Chevy Impala. I slowly pushed open the bedroom door. Bed covers moved, and that was when I saw her, Abby half naked with another person; they curled in the sheets, sliding off their bodies. We looked at each other and didn’t say anything. The man had a scruff of beard, not much younger than me or maybe even my age. A slight pause from Abby, and I heard her exhale an exasperated breath and she said hesitantly: “You’re home? Adam?”
I closed my eyes for a few seconds to soak in what was happening. I walked down the hallway and plopped into the couch cushions. A few minutes later they both walked into the living room. I did not know who the man was. He glanced at me and just stood there for a few seconds, looking down at me, and then he mumbled something under his breath and walked out. He held, what looked like his laptop bag.
Abby bumped around in the kitchen. I heard ice clank into a glass, the opening and closing of the fridge door, the thump of the Jack Daniels bottle hitting the counter.
“I’m glad,” she said. “Glad you didn’t freak out and go crazy.”
“No,” I said. “Of course not. How long? And you know exactly what I mean.”
“Adam, you and I—it’s complicated. I don’t know, maybe a month, maybe two. I’m sorry. I just—”
“Stop,” I said. “Just stop.”
“I didn’t know you were coming home. Why aren’t you at work?”
“I’m not there anymore,” I said. “Besides, I cheated on you today.”
“With a stranger, a hitchhiker off I-70.”
Abby began to laugh, a tickled forced laugh from the bottom of her lungs.
“Okay, I get it,” she said. “I’m the asshole. Go ahead, say it.”
“Her name’s Crystal. She’s going to Denver. We had breakfast at the diner.”
“Really? And what happened at work?”
“Thailand happened. I.T. staff moving there. And soon, the dissolution of our marriage.”
“Okay, Adam. Let me pour you a drink. I’ll fix you a whiskey on the rocks and we can be the adults that we are and discuss this without any provocation, shouting, or with profanity at each other, okay?”
I could see her shadow from the corner of my eye. I did not want to look at her pouring my whiskey. I imagined Crystal on the Greyhound and could see her riding with her headphones, listening to Reptile Moon. She’d get to Denver and live out her life.
She brought me my drink. We discussed our marriage, where we were going, what led up to this, and I was fine, really, I was glad that this was over. I was cool with it. I knew this moment would not last and there would be another moment of intoxicating stress and exhilarations, moments of joy, tears in my life, and it would all slowly drift away.