MONDAY: As the Tail-lights Disappear

BY JEFF DUPUIS

Copyright is held by the author.

DAVID WATCHED the snowflakes accumulate one atop another on the windshield of his car through the diner window. Heat rising off his plate of scrambled eggs and steak warmed his face. The waiting is the hardest part. It was just David, the waitress, the cook and three truckers arguing about football. Aside from the snow, the bus station lights, and the headlights that passed, everything outside was black. The snow was like a gossamer curtain, obscuring the bus station on the other side of the highway. David lifted up the stainless steel napkin dispenser and checked his reflection. He put it down and straightened his tie. His eyes followed every pair of headlights that penetrated the falling snow.

A bus pulled in, exhaling its passengers into the yellow glow of the sodium-vapour lights mounted on the concrete wall of the terminal. The travellers either stayed on the platform, waiting, or diffused into the parking lot, toward the line of tail-lights, waiting cars and waiting arms. One lone passenger dragged her suitcase through the salt and the snow and stood on the shoulder of the highway. After looking left then right then left again, and staring down the highway, she tucked her chin and ran across the street. David met her at the door, taking the suitcase handle and pointing to their booth.

“I’m starving,” Maryanne said, pulling the wool hat off her head, her curls falling every which way.

“You look beautiful,” David said, sliding the single-page, laminated menu across the Formica tabletop.

“No, I don’t,” she said.

“You do,” David said. “You do.”

He pulled up his sleeve and looked at the wristwatch his wife had given him four birthdays ago.

“What time is your next bus?”

“Three-thirty,” she said.

“I wish I could drive you.”

“I wish you could too.”

She looked up and smiled at him. The waitress came over, plucking the notepad from her apron and the pen from behind her ear. Maryanne ordered blueberry pancakes, with a side of sausages and a cup of coffee.

David reached across the table and took her hands in his. David leaned forward and held her cold fingers near his mouth, kissing them and exhaling on them. Her nails were cherry red, like the paint job on the sports car of an accountant undergoing a midlife crisis. David kissed each fingertip.

“I’ve missed you,” she said.

“I’ve missed you too. How are things?”

“The same. Too much of the same. I haven’t spent more than a week in my own bed this month.”

The waitress placed a cup of coffee before her, and beside it a saucer of milk and creamers. David watched Maryanne pour the sugar. She made tiny circles with her wrist and the white grains sprinkled down, landing in a swirl then dissolving on the coffee’s surface. David heard country music playing softly in the kitchen. He hadn’t noticed it until watching Maryanne’s ritualistic coffee preparation.

“How are Kim and Matt?” she asked, peeling the top off a creamer and pouring it in the same swirl motion.

David tripped over his own words. “Kim’s the goalie on the school soccer team. She’s convinced she’ll play in the World Cup one day. Matt’s still fixated with bugs — bees, ants, grasshoppers.”

“Is Kim excited about starting middle school?”

“She was, until she realized that the rest of the soccer team wouldn’t be going to the same school as her.”

“Do you have any pictures?”

David took the phone out, swiping carefully through the pictures he’d taken until he could find one with just the kids in it. He settled on a string of photos he’d taken in their backyard, the kids building snowmen and watching the cardinals and chickadees at the bird feeder.

“Kim is growing up so fast,” Maryanne said. “And Matt looks just like you.”

For years it was a forgone conclusion that she and David would get married and start a family. She wondered what their kids might have looked like. Their mothers sat around the living room, drinking tea and eating cookies, planning their wedding. But David’s mother died suddenly in his senior year and all her plans went with her.

“He has his mother’s eyes,” David said.

David checked his watch again. It was quarter to three. Sometimes they were lucky to be in the same town at the same time for two or three days in a row. They made love in their motel room with the TV on after a night at the bar. David thought about taking her to the backseat of his car, like he did when they were in high school. He looked at her across the table, sipping her coffee, and longed for the simplicity, the enchanted gravity that brought their bodies together and caused their clothes to fall away.

“Is she doing all right?” Maryanne said. “Allison, I mean.”

“Yeah, she’s fine. She got a promotion about two months ago. She’s the branch manager now.”

“Good for her.”

“Yeah.”

“I’d like to settle down like that one day.”

Maryanne’s food came. She drowned her pancakes in maple syrup and slapped a glob of ketchup out of the bottle for her sausages. David looked toward the door when he heard the door chimes, as though one of his and his wife’s friends might be wandering around here, in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, at three in the morning. It was a man, dressed like he was on a hunting trip. He blew into his hands and rubbed them together.

Maryanne looked tired, and he noticed how thin she was, how her brown eyes had begun to sink in their orbits. “Have you been sleeping?” he asked.

Maryanne smiled and David’s worries were swept away.

“You’re sweet,” she said. “I’m fine.”

“Good.”

“You look a little haggard yourself.”

“It’s the road,” he sighed. “It’s wearing me down. I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“Look at it this way, you still have all your hair and you haven’t grown fat,” Maryanne said. “That gives you a leg up on half the alumni Facebook group.”

David chuckled. It was funny how football-star muscle turned to fat, how golden blond hair that all the girls loved could fall out at age thirty. The junior varsity quarterback had turned into the uncle you only remember from old Polaroid photographs.

“You’re still the best-looking one,” she added.

That was her exact thought when she laid eyes on David again, years after his mother’s death and his father’s slow spiral into alcoholism. Their reunion wasn’t planned, it was just happenstance. The odds were astronomically against the two of them staying at Crosby’s Motor Inn in Apopka, Florida, miles away from the towns either of them called home. David had been married only two years then, Allison was pregnant with Kim, and David still called home two or three times a day when he was out on the road.

Then when he saw Maryanne sitting at the edge of the swimming pool, kicking her feet in the water, he thought he was dreaming. Then he thought he was mistaken as he saw the tattoo of feathered wings that stretched across her back. But it was her, in the flesh, and his phone calls home grew shorter as he met Maryanne for dinner and took her for drives down to the lake in the rental car. Maryanne saw the wedding band on David’s finger and didn’t ask about it until their last night together.

“I don’t know what I can say, I love her, I know I do. She was there for me…” David spoke as if to an audience on the other side of the dark motel room. The TV on the dresser was barely visible. Motorcycles tore up the highway. The sound of frogs filtered through the window screen.

“You don’t need to explain, I shouldn’t have asked. I should have let this go,” Maryanne said.

“No, you were right to ask. There’s just nothing I can say for myself.”

David was back on the road before breakfast. They made their goodbyes at the motel room door and David kissed Maryanne’s cheek and wished her well, the warmth of the Florida sun on the back of his neck. It felt final.

Then they both joined the Keystone Oaks High School alumni Facebook page and it started all over again.

David checked his watch a third time. A bus pulled into the station on the other side of the highway and both David and Maryanne looked over at it and hoped it wasn’t Maryanne’s bus. But it was.

“Half an hour,” he said.

They held hands across the table. The waitress removed the syrup-smeared plate from the edge of the table. David felt light, and young and carefree again, like junior year. He wanted another way to harness that feeling and keep it all the time.

“I’m thinking about taking a position overseas,” Maryanne said.

“Oh.”

David wasn’t so carefree any longer.

“Yes. I hate to tell you this way, but, you know, the clock is ticking.”

“Where?”

Maryanne had to think about it. She’d never been off the North American continent and knew that whatever she said, it might not stand up to scrutiny.

“Spain,” she said.

“Damn.”

He looked down the little hall that led to the washrooms and the back door.

“God damn,” he said.

“Nothing’s set in stone,” she said. “I wouldn’t have to travel so much.”

“We’d never see each other.”

“Well, it probably won’t happen,” she said. “Excuse me.”

Maryanne dug out her purse from beneath her parka, scarf and hat. She looked around for the washroom, then over her shoulder at the waitress. She always tried to pay the check, but David wouldn’t have it.

“Could I have the bill please?”

“It’s taken care of, ma’am.”

Maryanne turned to David.

“You didn’t,” she said. “You couldn’t have.”

“It’s done,” he said, pleased with himself.

“I have to make a trip to the ladies’ room,” Maryanne said.

In the washroom, she studied herself in the mirror, wondering what David saw that worried him. Then she ran the faucet. Taking the pills out of her purse, she took two and scooped water up in her hand to wash them down.

When Maryanne came back to the table, David had his coat on. He’d moved her suitcase over to his side of the table. Maryanne didn’t sit down, she finished the last sip of her coffee then started looping the scarf around her neck.

David carried her suitcase to his car, threw it in the trunk and drove across the highway to the bus station, his car’s heater up full blast. Maryanne touched the vents with her fingertips and felt the warm air roll over them. David tapped the knob and the radio turned on. He played a CD with their song on it, a CD he listened to on long drives between cities, between clients, between work and family.

There wasn’t enough time to play the whole song. David shut the car off and took Maryanne’s suitcase out of the trunk. She stood close, watching his face and watching her breath rise up toward it. She studied his face, every detail, wanting to remember how he looked in that moment and superimpose that image over all the distant memories of the boy she’d known. It wasn’t long before the driver lifted her suitcase, turned it on its side and slid in into the belly of the bus.

“You know I love you, right?” David said, pulling her in tight and kissing the side of her hat.

“I love you too,” she said.

Maybe if David knew, he’d leave Allison. Maryanne fantasized about David moving in to her apartment, holding her through the long nights and cooking her meals. The doctors said she’d have about two years, give or take. But where would that leave David, his life in shambles and kids that hated him?

As the bus pulled away from the terminal she waved at David, snow piling on his shoulders and in his hair. Maybe they’d have one, even two good nights together, glued to each other by sweat, watching TV and laughing. Then it would get too bad, her body would begin to consume itself slowly, cell by cell, and the only comfort she could imagine was the warmth of David’s hand on top of hers.

Without the sex this time, David felt no remorse. He didn’t think about showering and washing Maryanne off his skin before going home, watching the water carrying her essence circle the drain. As the tail-lights of the Greyhound bus disappeared down the highway, David felt happy. Maryanne’s smile always made him happy, it made the road easier to take.

5 comments

  1. Sue Brown

    I like your story very much. The quality of writing, including detail and word-choice (e.g. exhaling its passengers), brings it alive. It’s a poignant mix of naughtiness, nostalgia and sadness that many will relate to, at least in our fantasies.

  2. Mary Cudney

    So poignant and sad. I felt as though I was sitting at the cafe with David. The descriptions are amazing and the conversation is excellent at character revelation. Well done!

  3. Dave Moores

    Very good story, felt real.
    Couple of picky points: wish you hadn’t kept flipping the POV, and the ending felt like an unnecessary grab at the reader’s heartstrings.

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