|Image credit: Roman Kozhevnikov |
It’s the last walk of the night that makes my mind wander along with my body. The dogs relish an unencumbered path, stopping occasionally to watch their breath hang in the air, while the cold arrests our lungs.
It’s the cold and the quiet that make me think of another night.
A different cold. A different place.
A different time.
He drove north and swung right where the road dead-ended into a cornfield. Defrocked stalks jutted from the frozen earth in jagged, incongruous patterns—a life-size, child’s crayon depiction of the landscape. A cold 12-pack of Milwaukee’s “Beast” as we called the cheap, watery beer, slid along the seat between us. Pat reached over and grabbed a couple cans, then wedged the flimsy cardboard against the gear shift in his beat-up pickup. Michael Jackson’s voice rose softly in the background from a mixed tape that belonged to his sister. A product of our homogenous small town 1980’s coming of age, Pat, like many of us, was less Motown and more Metallica.
It was his idea to leave the party, after seeing me down two shots of Jägermeister in rapid succession and then respond to banal questions from a stranger. Loyal since our zit-covered, awkward-everything junior high days, Pat knew I didn’t play pickup games. He was a constant friend and defender, sometimes protecting me most from myself. Built like the defensive tackle he was, Pat got no arguments from anybody when he grabbed my hand and yanked me toward the door.
Where to? he asked, not waiting for a reply as he shoved the truck in gear and we rolled forward. With an absent wave of my hand that meant everything and nothing, we picked up speed. Across Brown Creek and past Grass Lake, up into Minnesota, we drove and barely spoke. It was one of those startling January nights that captures your lungs with the cold and delights your eyes with its stars. I rested my head against the window, cold despite the best efforts of the old truck’s heater. The cool glass on my cheek was a relief.
We crossed an interstate and continued north until we ran out of road again and Pat turned west toward the Dakotas. Neither of us had said much, just sipped beers and counted the miles in grain elevators that rose out of the nothingness like prairie lighthouses. I screwed my mouth together, chewing on my lower lip and losing the fight against emotions that came too easily when I thought about my mom—conjuring her cocoa butter scent, phantom feeling her arms reaching out to me.
The tears came then in ugly, sucking sobs and snot, and I pushed my palms practically through my eye sockets in a vain attempt to stop them. Pat tossed his nearly full beer can out the window, steering with his left hand and holding me with his right. When my gulps finally slowed, he stopped the truck, got out and walked to the opposite ditch to pee. I watched as he disappeared, my mind playing tricks with the fence posts and starlight, then got out of the truck myself.
I was splayed out on the gravel, looking at the sky when he came back. Lying beside me, he did his best to cover us with his letterman’s jacket, enveloping me with his arms as we stared upward.
I heard Pat breathe in then out and got used to his pattern, the occasional deep-belly breath filling the darkness void of crickets, honking geese, or other sounds of life.
“Do you think she’s really up there?” I asked finally.
He was quiet for another long moment.
“I don’t know. I guess so,” he finally said, leaning into me, putting his lips to my forehead. “I hope so.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”
We stayed huddled together on the ground until the cold finally made us numb to the wind. He hugged me and held me. The tears came again. And I was suddenly so tired.
“I’m here,” he said.
All I could do was nod into his shoulder.
“I’m here,” he repeated.
My mom was gone—in a single breath and for eternity.
I held onto Pat until I couldn’t anymore, and he gently nudged me back into the truck. He climbed back in and reached for my hand. We locked eyes for a beat, then another.
I turned back to the window as the truck groaned but turned over. We slow-rolled through a stop sign, then banked wide around a frozen lake where lanterns twinkled inside lonely ice houses, a few fishermen braving the early cold.
And Pat drove on.
Lisa Renze is a writer living in Indianapolis, and her stories have appeared in magazines including Indianapolis Monthly. Lisa has an MFA from Butler University, and she teaches journalism and coaches student media at Ball State University.