Sorry Don't Suit me
By Tim Lane
The ground was drier than the flakes of tobacco leaf my grandfather used in his pipe when I first met you. You wore a t-shirt with Lewis and Clark College written on it. It was ancient, threadbare, older than you. You would attend in the fall and I could see the shape of your body through it. A magic trick to be sure. I was making Mr. Jones his authentic New York sub at the time. He had to tell me twice that he wanted more vinegar.
Later, I came up to you in the park. For sure it was you, no question there, who else would be reading out there, in the sun? It was so hot I kept tugging at the back hem of my Subway Sandwiches polo, peeling it off my back. You were licking ice-cream out of a cone like a cat laps milk in a bowl. A line of it sweated down your arm.
I kept my hands only halfway down my pockets, so they hung, hinged at the thumbs. I thought I looked like a movie poster. The hero in this story.
-Is it always like this around here?
You brushed the hair out of your eyes and you really did look like you were out of a movie. I swallowed hard. You had some eyes. Brown flecked with regal gold.
-I could show you some places that aren’t.
You stared me up and down, frank as someone shopping a new backhoe.
Then you tossed the rest of the cone into a trashcan, like it had tried but ultimately let you down.
We went walking around downtown as the night fell. We watched drunk people stumble from bars we were too young to go to. The moon slid down the Wallowa Mountains and straight onto your face.
-It’s not too bad, I said.
-Oh, I guess not, huh?
You laughed, I touched your elbow, and you touched my cheek.
Dust. That whole summer, dust. Riding around on your Daddy’s old Norton, you had to squint your eyes like the sun was coming. Engine loud enough to make talking impossible. But I didn’t need words. Everytime we got to talking for too long, yours against mine, I could almost see your form elongating into that of a migratory creature built for the skies, for far north, far south. This… all of this was just a waystation.
-You better bring her back positively brimming with gasoline and not a scratch on her, your father told me.
-Yes sir, I said.
We both played our parts. He was due to teach at our little college in the fall, the place I’d probably have to attend, seeing how everything was shaking out for me, and trying out being as tough as John Wayne. You laughed like he was joking, but who could tell? He was a man who always seemed angry. Maybe it was the move to the country or the sideways path of his career. He had friends, he liked to tell us, tenured at Yale.
Did you ever tell him we ran out of fuel outside of Burns and had to push the huge motorcycle five miles while cars screamed past, blaring warm air? I sweated rivers while you walked behind. You kept asking to help, but I wouldn't hear it. Wouldn’t say a word to you. It was my fault. I had drained the tank and drove with my fingers crossed. I hated to let you down and there was something inside me that wanted to punish you for doing it. I was surly, stubborn, white-knuckling the handlebars. Thirty minutes in, you ran ahead of me, daring me to catch you, come on, until I had to laugh with you.
-Don’t worry, you told me. This will make a good cocktail story someday. Pushing a motorcycle down a country road. God, I could almost sing it.
Who would you tell it to?
Your Mom used to get mad when I came in and forgot to take off my shoes.
You small-town kids don’t know anything sometimes, she said.
In my socks I could slip and slide around her white linoleum floor. I ran from the door to the dining room and started sliding at the kitchen sink. I cruised right into the back screen door and tumbled into the night.
One time I missed the door and crashed into the wall. Fell straight to my butt and the old clock came off the wall and into my head. Your Dad looked up from the book he was reading and shook his head.
-You are such a little kid, you told me when you were cleaning out the cut.
I didn’t say a word.
In the middle of July, with the dust and sun ticked like a beehive knocked loose, you had a friend visit. Her forehead went on up steep to her hairline like a miniature basalt mountain. She had a camera looped to her wrist and kept snapping pictures left and right. She talked like it was the best thing a person could do. I bet she chatted with herself in the shower.
You brought her to meet me at Subway. I couldn’t shake her hand because I had on plastic gloves covered in oil and lettuce juice. She took a picture of me behind the counter.
Is he for real? Because he is just so adorable. This whole town is. It’s like waking up in an issue of Life magazine.
I wondered if a pickle slice would stick to her face.
I tried to give you your sandwiches for free because you were my girl and she was your friend but your friend wouldn’t let me. She pressed crisp bills down on the counter.
-Consider it a tip.
After your friend got back in her black car and drove off with her hair and the Beatles blowing out the sunroof, I gave you a flower and we laid out in the city park with a towel over our mouths and noses to protect against the dust.
-You are the sweetest boy.
-Well just wrap me up and deliver me to Life magazine.
-What is your problem?
I rolled away from you. We were silent, just waiting for something to settle. Powdered milk stuck at the bottom of a glass and then me and you.
You kind of punched me in my side.
-What do you want?
-A sorry would be nice.
I took you to the Round Up but you wouldn’t go inside on account of what the dust had done to your dress. You didn’t want everyone to see you looking like you had just dug up turnips. That was what you said. I was annoyed and a little drunk besides.
-You’ve never dug a turnip in your life.
You walked away and I followed. We went past the parking lot and up the hill, halfway to the highway, cars flinging by. We sat and listened to the music seeping from the fairgrounds. I put my arm around your shoulder. You giggled and tickled me loose. I rolled down the hill a little and you tackled me.
-Wow, you’re pretty strong.
I smiled like I was selling toothpaste.
You wiped dirt off my face.
We started kissing. I could taste the dirt on your tongue. We got sweaty and the powder flying through the air stuck. Two cockroaches in a dustbin.
-I guess that will make a good cocktail story, I said when we got back to the car, our whole bodies feeling like the skin between your toes after you walk barefoot.
-A good cocktail story? Rolling in the dust below an interstate? Do you even know what a cocktail story is?
Your eyes were small ponds in your Sahara face. It would have been a fine story as far as I was concerned.
The whole state caught fire the next day. There was money to be made in firefighting and I’d long had my name on the list. I left to get my hands on some of the paper being thrown about.
-I don’t know why you have to run off and get killed, you told me.
-Fighting fires is good money.
-What about me?
-What do you think the money’s for?
Three weeks later I was running from a fire that had grown legs and was howling as the wind pushed up behind it like a dirty man sneaking a feel. Guys were dropping all around me, pulling out silver fire tents. Thin as tinfoil and meant to stop a whole storm, I took my chances on foot. Running along, the dry grasses snapping like sparks, I was doing okay. Feet thumping, I was thinking of your dirty white dress. I jumped up over a felled log, and I slipped right down its side. Stupid boots, too thick with dust.
I don’t remember much from the next few hours except it was hot. It was hot that whole summer. You had told me it was something about a freak jet stream. Heat clawing at my back. Climate catastrophe.
The next couple of weeks I spent in a hospital bed way south. I watched the bug zapper go crazy outside my window at night. My room was on the ground floor. My skin was scorching and what those bug zappers did to the flies was pretty much the only thing I could think of that would hurt as much. So I started a club. People Against Bug Zappers.
I thought of you a lot. You would have joined the club. I was sure of that.
My mom showed for a few days, but she spent most of the time out beneath the zapper, lighting up and talking to Ken, who was new to her but moving in soon. I couldn’t bear to talk to her much.
It rained a day before I checked out. It poured like the water running over the potatoes your mom washed the first time you brought me to dinner and she grilled me about if I planned to turn sandwich making into a career. The whole eastern part of the state drank its fill. It turned wet and green. The dust was gone. I took a Greyhound home. I went straight to your house.
I rubbed my face and dry skin flaked down like pipe ash. I looked like a TV monster.
When you saw my face you started to weep.
I wanted to apologize but you were hugging me and I couldn’t talk because I had no breath.
Tim Lane’s words have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Maudlin House, Tin House (online), and Monkey Bicycle among others. He lives in Portland, Oregon where he is a stay-at-home father for two boys. His novel, Rules for Becoming a Legend, is out now from Viking Press.
— Bill Gaythwaite
"People have always looked up to Glen ― in school, in sports, on the job. He knows he is endowed with something called leadership quality. He has courted this reputation, built it carefully, like a log cabin, but occasionally the obligation overwhelms him, and he feels up to his neck with it. It’s rather tiring to always be so dependable. "