One month alone, and Jesse was still getting used to things. He was filling a saucepan for tea—Anna hadn’t let him take the kettle—and when he touched the stove and the faucet at the same time, he got a jolt up his arm. His arm jerked back and the saucepan flew off the stove and clanged on the kitchen floor. The old heap must have been ungrounded. Jesse swore. He curled into a corner of the kitchen floor and rubbed his aching arm. His heart thumped a fast, funny beat.
Anna and Henry were playing in the vacant lot outside. Through the window, Jesse could hear their laughter as they, unaware of his accident, chased a neighbor’s cat around. Anna had brought Henry’s overnight bag and his teddy bear, and now Jesse wished Anna would just bring in Henry, say her goodbyes, and leave. The oven contained a cake for Henry’s birthday, and Jesse figured that he and Henry would eat it all themselves. Jesse had never baked a cake before, and the kitchen smelled surprisingly good, but he didn’t want to touch the oven again. How to get the cake out…
A young woman came down the fire escape outside his window. Jesse saw her bare feet picking spots on the iron grate. The woman peeked in the window, her fingers folding around the sash. She said she lived upstairs. She had heard all the clatter. Was anything wrong? Jesse sat up from the floor and kneeled, still gripping his arm. The woman climbed in the window.
She helped him wipe the water off the floor. She wore a sundress, yellow with red polka dots. The hem of her dress skimmed the wet floor as she squatted down. Her feet left small wet prints on the old linoleum. She tucked back her hair, looked up from the puddle of water, and said her name was Jessie. Same as his. They laughed about that. She wiped the floor.
She asked, “So what’s your major?” She looked at Jesse and waited for his answer. She had beautiful brown eyes.
Jesse shook his head and held up his hand. “Uh, parenting.”
“You don’t go to the U?”
“No, but obviously you do.”
The young woman smiled. She stood, gathered the ends of her skirt, and climbed out the window. Her arched feet stepped over a dish of cat food on the landing, and she was gone. Jesse’s hands trembled. He left the saucepan in the sink. He didn’t want tea anymore. He was shaking. His body remembered the stove.
She tucked back her hair, looked up from the puddle of water, and said her name was Jessie. Same as his. They laughed about that.From the kitchen window, Jesse watched Anna and Henry chasing the cat in wide circles in the grass. The sun cast long shadows across the vacant lot. Fairy rings had sprouted in the open spaces, but college students had worn a path among them. Cars whizzed by. Jesse saw the pink sunset, and he heard his son’s laughter and Anna’s voice, and from the upstairs apartment window he heard dishwater splashing, and the girl, Jessie, singing a tune, “One, two, three, four…” From another window came the sounds of a couple having sex. Jesse closed his eyes for five long seconds. His heart still rattled about.
Wearing a hot-mitt, and using just one hand so as not to complete a circuit, Jesse opened the oven and took out his son’s cake. His hands were shaking as he spread a can of green frosting. Henry had asked for green. The frosting melted on the hot cake, pooling along the edge of the pan. Should have let it cool. Anna would remark about that. She should have left already. He stuck four candles in. Bought them himself. He had never bought birthday candles before. He didn’t know where to put the extra candles. Hadn’t thought of that. A drawer? Above the stove? Fucking stove.
Matches. He had forgotten matches. The neighbor, Jessie, maybe she had some. He wiped his hands on a towel, lifted the cake, and climbed out to the fire-escape landing. Climbing the stairs he heard Jessie on the phone, her voice through her kitchen window talking and laughing, “Dude, that’s so awesome!” Never mind. He turned back, stepped over the dish of cat food, and carried the unlit birthday cake down the iron stairs to his wife and son.
Long light combed through the grass. It was end-of-summer light. End-of-a-good-day light. The sun lit the cottonwood leaves, and the empty lot glowed with pink light through the leaves. Jesse was happy to have this light. Every night, sitting on his fire escape and watching the pink light, he didn’t have to explain anything to anyone, which meant he didn’t explain anything hurtful or bad. The night would come later, hard and alone, but evening was a beautiful time if you could stand the cold. It was always cold. It was Missoula, the northern Rockies, and it was always cold in the evening. You wore a sweater. Anna was wearing a blue sweater. She looked good in a sweater.
Jesse’s little boy was chasing the cat around the lot. Anna sat at a picnic table that the college students had dragged over from a city park. The long light of a Montana summer evening made Anna’s skin look pink and warm. She was drinking wine from one of Jesse’s plastic cups. She frowned as Jesse laid the cake on the table.
“It’s not lit,” she said in her slow sleepy voice. She wasn’t mad.
“I don’t have matches.”
“Jesus, Jess.” She dug through her purse and found a lighter.
“What the fuck,” he said.
“None of your business.”
“So if my son starts smoking and dies of cancer, can I never forgive you?”
Jesse took the lighter and tried to light the candles on the cake. His hands still shook, and the flame danced around the wick. “Uh, I got a little jolt from the stove.”
“The stove? What about Henry?”
“He’ll be fine as long as he’s not grounded when he touches it.”
“Oh good, explain that to a four-year-old.”
“The knobs are just his height too. It’s a funky old—”
“I don’t like it. I don’t like any of this.”
“He likes it. I like it. He likes the fire escape, and the Murphy bed, and he likes that stray kitty. Besides, it’s only for a while.”
“Until I-don’t-know. Heck, I haven’t even told you about the airshaft. See, there’s this little door that—”
“No.” Anna put her hands over her face.
“Sorry about what, Jess?”
Jesse sat at the picnic table, and Henry ran over and sat in his lap. They sang Happy Birthday and ate warm pieces of cake. Green frosting stuck on their fingers. Jesse’s heart slowed to a placid pace.
Henry asked why he was getting this second birthday cake.
Anna stepped away from the table. Her face shone in the light. Her shoulders were tight. Her jaw was tight. She must have been cold. Jesse scooted from under Henry’s weight and went over to stand by Anna.
Anna stared into the pink sun, then she looked down. Her sleepy voice. “He thinks I’m spending the night too.”
“You didn’t tell him?”
“He wouldn’t come if he knew.”
“What the fuck. This is my night. My first night. His and mine.”
“There’ll be hitches. It’s okay. I can take him home. I got nothing else to do.”
They walked farther into the grass and into the light. It was cold. Arms touching.
“Damn it, Anna. This is a fucking undermine.”
“Okay, I’ll stay and tuck him in. When he’s asleep, I’ll leave. We’ll put him in the bed and hope he doesn’t wander out and touch the stove or fall down the airshaft or climb the fire escape. Happy now?”
“And then I’ll go, okay?” Anna started to cry but the muscles in her face fought it back.
Behind them came a clatter. The neighbor girl, Jessie, stood on the fire escape. She was putting out a fresh bowl for the cat. She wore an Icelandic sweater over her sundress. It was cold in Missoula. She understood this. She was smoking a cigarette on her landing. So she did have matches. Didn’t matter anymore. That’s the way it was.
“Look at the light.” Jesse was pointing at the apartments. He was thinking about the light on the girl’s long loose hair.
Anna’s voice. “So Jess, I was thinking….”
“About his preschool…”
“Sure. But just look at the sunlight. It’s only for a moment.”
“Listen to me.”
“Okay, I’ll stay and tuck him in. When he’s asleep, I’ll leave. We’ll put him in the bed and hope he doesn’t wander out and touch the stove or fall down the airshaft or climb the fire escape. Happy now?”Jesse didn’t listen. He ran back to the picnic table and played with his little boy. Crumbs and frosting smeared Henry’s face: Forget about cleaning that up. They chased the cat. The cat was just a kitten and it stayed close to them, but when Henry and Jesse began chasing each other the cat lost interest, ran through the bushes, and was gone. No matter. Jesse picked up his boy and swung him around and around, matting down the grass. All the things he had wanted from life felt like they weren’t going to happen now. Where could life go? It didn’t matter. They played in the small empty lot and hid in the grass. The cars hissed by.
Two girls came around the front of the apartments and across the worn path. One of them stepped off the path and bent over a fairy ring, picking flowers with her right hand while her left hand held back her hair. The other girl knelt beside her and picked flowers too. They spoke Ukrainian or Russian. The girls stood close, touching. Each girl held a fist of weedy flowers and tucked them into the other’s hair.
“What are you looking at?” Anna stepped up to Jesse and Henry.
“They’re Pentacostal, or something. Their fathers won’t let them see boys. They touch each other because that’s all they have.”
Anna snared Henry in her arms. “Seems to be a lot of pretty co-eds here.” She wiped Henry’s face with a cloth. She looked tired. She still had her ring on. Her fingers looked old.
Henry said, “What’s a co-ed, mommy?”
“Um, I don’t know, a girl.”
“Your mom was a co-ed.”
Anna kicked Jessie.
“A beautiful co-ed.”
Anna laughed and rolled her eyes. She took the wine bottle and refilled her plastic cup. Jesse sat with Anna on the picnic table and drank wine and watched Henry spend all his playful energy running around. Get him good and tired before bed.
Henry stopped and watched them. Puzzled.
“It’s short for co-educational.”
Henry cackled but surely did not understand. Oh well. This would be all right. But it would not be all right. That’s what the marriage counselor had warned. It would not be all right, but what could you do? Poor Henry.
Jesse led Anna and Henry in. They climbed the fire escape, left the cake and the wine on the fire-escape landing, and entered through the window. Inside, while Anna tidied up the kitchen, Jesse tried to demonstrate that he could get it right: changing Henry into a pull-up, brushing his teeth, helping him go pee, singing all the right songs. Henry found the airshaft’s little door right away, but Jesse blocked it with the heaviest box he could find. Good thing he hadn’t unpacked the boxes. Henry bounced on the bed and asked about his mom. Jesse said she was cleaning dishes.
“This is a mess,” she yelled in. “You need some paper for the cabinets. You just do.”
Henry kept bouncing on the bed.
Anna came into the main room. Jesse and Henry began a tug-of-war with the Murphy bed, pushing and pulling the bed into the wall and out again.
“He’ll squish his fingers!”
“Everyone likes it.”
“Everyone? I didn’t know you had so many friends in bed.”
“Knock it off, Anna.”
A voice came from the kitchen. The girl, Jessie, had come into Jesse’s apartment from the fire escape. She peeked around the corner, smiled, and held up Jesse’s serving spoon inquiringly. Then she was gone. Scampered away. Her footsteps made little pings on the iron landing.
“What was that all about?”
Jesse opened his mouth to say something, but there were no words. It was nothing, a neighbor girl borrowing a serving spoon, and there were no words for something when it was nothing. He held his son tight and rolled on his back.
“I said, Who was that? Your concubine?”
“I think her name’s Jessie. She goes to the U and—”
“What the fuck is this place?”
“Well, there’s a ton of students, okay? She’s borrowing a spoon. A spoon. She’s probably stoned, watching TV, munching Häagen-Dazs, getting fat.”
“I guess.” He and Henry rolled the other way.
“Don’t ‘I guess’ me. You know it. How many other hotties live here?”
“What’s a hottie, Dad?”
“Will you just get on with things? I’ll wait outside.” Jesse climbed off the bed, into the kitchen, and out to the fire escape. He drank wine from the bottle and dangled his legs into the last violet light before dark.
The key to happiness was the light. The last light. It was private, and he wished Anna would go. She was in there, putting Henry down, and he wished to sit alone and say nothing and watch the light’s slender swords slide between the cottonwood leaves, longer, longer, until the night allowed the dark to stay. Loneliness would set in, but Anna would be somewhere else. He could handle loneliness alone. With her it would be too much to bear. He closed his eyes.
Jesse opened his mouth to say something, but there were no words. It was nothing, a neighbor girl borrowing a serving spoon, and there were no words for something when it was nothing.They had been fixing up a rough-timber house on five acres along the Clark Fork. It backed against the river. Half their property was flooded in the spring, but the house was above the water line, and it was beautiful. Swallows nested in the eaves, and at night they circled over the water. Every night, Jesse drank wine in the kitchen and listened to the river whispering. Through the small kitchen window he would watch the swallows fly their long circles. The low sunlight made the fog pink and glowing, and that window became a little box of color, and Jesse swore on the light through that small window: He was going to replace that window with something big. Then Anna would come back from her shift at the hospital. They’d sit in their kitchen and gaze at the small window and think different thoughts. They fought about money and time, and after Anna stormed off, Jesse had sat in the long slow fading light and knew it was over. When the darkness was so complete that the window shrank to nothing, Jesse wandered into the bedroom and the bright light. Anna busied herself knitting. Jesse dreamed of a happier time. He closed his eyes and dreamed of it hard. He couldn’t tell her. There wasn’t supposed to be a time happier than this.
A police car zoomed down the avenue. Everything that was wrong seemed far away.
The Ukrainian girls were sitting at the picnic table, kicking each other’s feet. A man’s voice yelled from a block away. It was time to go. They leaned close and walked the worn path. Their arms brushed. They got to the sidewalk, but they couldn’t hug, and intimacy had to be a game that meant nothing, one of them wrestling and tugging and falling into the other, then giggling and helping her up and smoothing her long hair, and then it was over. One girl ran, her hair lifting back. The other girl ran too, far from this, her fingers clenched around her hair.
Anna came out. The fire escape rang with her steps. She took the bottle of wine and poured two cups, and together they sat on the fire escape and drank the wine. Someone in the apartments was playing Bob Marley.
“I should go.”
Anna looked at the wine bottle. “I have to drive. That fucking house.”
“You going to sell it?”
“Did he tell you we saw a cougar? Your little boy saw a cougar. I didn’t believe it until I went out there and saw the tracks by the swing set.”
Jesse poured himself more wine. Plastic cup.
“It’s going to be so dark. I hate that. I hate that house. I hate it there.”
“You should get a gun.”
“Just be civil. This is good wine. Like in Taos. Remember?”
“Yeah.” She poured another cup.
“So, you were saying about his preschool…”
“Shut up about his preschool. I’ll just send you the bill.”
They ate cake. They drank wine. It was cold, and they sat close together.
Anna said, “What the hell are you going to do, Jesse?”
“You know. This is what I do.”
“And it’s fucked.”
“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
“Fuck you.” She leaned against him.
Her arm felt warm against his, and it felt familiar, and her shoulder fit the way it always did, and her sweater hugged her body the same as always too. Jesse put his arm around her, and her shoulders tensed, then gave, and her head rested on his chest. She was close and warm. She didn’t say anything.
The purple sky of a long northern summer evening held out.
They leaned in and kissed. He pushed back her hair.
“No. No. Don’t say anything.”
They fought about money and time, and after Anna stormed off, Jesse had sat in the long slow fading light and knew it was over.
* * *
They fucked like old times. They moved Henry’s little body to the Goodwill sofa, and they fucked on the bed that folded into a wall. Fucking was always something good that they had. They knew how to be tender. Maybe they were used to being cruel, but they put that aside, and they spent the little tenderness that was left. They knew how to please each other decently. The right touches down the muscles along the spine. Finding the contours of the hip bones and pressing together. And all the time, Jesse knew that there would be another girl, someday, but there would never be this. There would never be this again. Did Anna know it too? You didn’t ask those things. They nestled together long after any hope was left, but Montana summer nights did not last long, and dawn was already seeping into the room, and Anna’s wavy hair was tangled, and she pushed it back with the heel of her palm and squinted at the bluing sky. They woke up adrift in the middle of the bed.
Jesse and Anna didn’t say anything. A long time ago, words had broken the ice, opened the heart. Standing beneath aspens on a hike in Taos, Jesse had told her, “You are so beautiful.” She had said, “No, you’re beautiful.” But this time, it would not be words. There was nothing to explain. When the only choice lay in deciding who would break whose heart, you didn’t say anything.
It was Jesse’s turn. He got up. The air against his skin felt cold. The wall hummed with water in the pipes. Someone was singing and taking a bath. You could hear it through the airshaft, a Joni Mitchell tune. Jesse looked at Anna. She looked at him the way she always did in the morning, a smile, only today it was wry and pained.
Jesse went to the window. There was the long lovely light, from the east this time, the shadows slicing the other way. Last week he had seen a coyote. The fairy rings, heavy with dew, slumped over. The Ukrainian girls were in the lot. They sat on the cold wet edge of the picnic table, shoulders touching. They each wore a T-shirt and shorts, and they must have been cold. Later they would leave, and Henry and Jesse would play in the grass. Hide-and-seek and fairy villages. They’d have a picnic. Then the long shadows Jesse loved best would collapse across the grass, and Anna would come back to pick up Henry, and Jesse would watch the sunset alone and make his life go far, far away. He turned.
“This is my time,” he said. “So go.”
“I am going. You don’t tell me.” Anna shoved her hair back and looked around the bed for her clothes.
“I am.” She yelled.
Henry began to stir.
“He can’t hear me.” She gathered up her things, shuffled to the bathroom.
“Shh… just shh.” Jesse looked away. Don’t say anything. Make it hurt less. When you break a heart, don’t say a thing. Jesse put on shorts and a yellow New Mexico T-shirt. Anna emerged from the bathroom and left quietly. The front door made a soft click.
As the sunrise lit up the room, a girl’s singing floated from the airshaft. A new tune that Jesse did not know. Henry woke up, and he and Jesse played on the bed. Jesse served leftover cake for breakfast. Henry kneeled on a chair at the table and ate two pieces of cake. Small pieces. The bare bright light cut through the trees on the eastern side of the lot. The bare light of a hot day.
A girl passed the window. Those slender feet again. Jessie. She wore a baseball T-shirt and a printed Indian skirt. Wet hair. She peeked in, her fingers on the sash.
“Good morning, Jessie. This is my son, Henry.”
Jessie peeked into the main room and smiled sweetly at the boy. Henry did not look up from his cake.
“Hey, Henry. My name’s Jessie too.” She turned. “I brought back your serving spoon. I’m sorry. I’m still getting set up.”
She leaned against the kitchen counter. “Have you seen my kitty? He didn’t come in last night.”
“Not since then. Do you want some breakfast?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” The girl looked down. She fidgeted her bare feet. She finger-combed her wet hair.
“Please. We have cake.”
“Don’t say anything. Just eat.”
She smiled. She looked down again, but only for a moment. She looked at Jesse, resting her eyes there, and she smiled. Jesse didn’t know what to say. He liked her, but come on… He wanted to tell her there would be sorrow, hope and abundant sorrow, and someday she would understand. But not today. He wanted to tell her about the light, the beautiful light in the evening, but he did not. He didn’t want words for anything, gazing at the pretty girl who smiled back at him the longest time. She was not shy, but maybe a little, because she kept combing her fingers through her wet hair, and her bare wet feet shifted around, but her gaze was solid on his eyes—until she rested her wet hand on that funky old stove and it happened, the electricity, 220 volts, hard and sharp, seized her muscles and shook her, and she twisted away.
She cried. She sank down, her body balling up, her skirt sticking to her wet skinny legs. She was trembling from her fingertips to her spine.
Jesse kneeled and held her. Henry came running as far as the doorway and watched. “Stay back!” Jesse yelled. He held the wet barefoot girl and stroked her long wet hair, and it took all his strength to say, “Shh.” His breath was spent and dry when he tried to say, “The light in the evening.” And when the girl looked up at him confused as a child, Jesse didn’t have enough breath to whisper, “Don’t say anything.”