LEAVE a city. Return to a city. A city takes no note of the motes that float across its wide blind eye.
Leave a small town. Return to a small town. A small town thrums like a spider’s string at the least passing breeze.
NEGOTIATIONS between J.’s uncle and the principal — with J. riding shotgun, silent save the odd nod or plausibly contrite monosyllable — resulted in J.’s reinstatement to his cohort despite the few days left on the academic calendar. Conditions, however, abounded. No more pranks. Sure. No more fights. Fine. No more cut classes. Right.
Garlands of stares and whispers adorned J.’s return. He wanted to tell them all to go take a flying Rimbaud at the moon but instead kept his head down through the quiet study periods and student presentations and screenings of Schindler’s List and Shakespeare in Love, the myriad tricks teachers used to drift across the finish line when their tanks had long since run dry. On the last day of classes, J.’s final exams and papers were returned with shrugs, eyerolls, and head shakes but — miracle of miracles — little enough red ink to stave off the threat of summer school.
Life Sanforized to the size of the diner, whose habitués welcomed J. back as one would a recrudescent rash. The first customer to speak to him — beyond rote recitations off the menu — was the dance instructor, who taught ballet, belly, bharatanatyam, cha-cha, disco, flamenco, foxtrot, jazz, jitterbug, kabuki, kathak, mambo, modern, quickstep, rumba, samba, step, swing, tango, tap, waltz, et cetera in an old small barn by the diner that also doubled as a meeting hall.
“M______, that’s an uncommon last name,” she said as J. refilled her coffee.
“Is it,” J. said.
“I knew a Charlie M______, ax man out of Boston. Used to jam in New York parks with George Jones.”
“Charlie certainly knew his way around an alto,” she muttered into her mug, her eyes distant and brows relevé.
J. ripped the receipt off his check pad. “Take your — ”
TIME: Summer. Not too long ago.
Place: A small town.
Dust off the sun. Toss it in a long arc from behind the church steeple early in the morning so it burns long and slow down upon the sere town. Let it smear the gloaming sky honey and mint and lavender when it finally drops behind the trees lining the edge of the park. Dust off the moon. Wrap it in a luminous haze and set it adrift among the stars. Flick the rainbow oscillations of the traffic light into the pooling shadows on streets sidewalks storefronts. Rattle an occasional nighttime storm through town. Crack the black clouds with lightning, set St. Elmo’s fire to the steeple, swelter the air with heavy velvet humidity that lingers long enough to bubble and steam under the next morning’s scalding dawn. Summer could always be here.
WHERE was Blue? Not at the diner not at the bakery not at the bus stop not at the soda shop not at the gas station not at the grocery store not at the antique store not at the video store not at the bookstore not at the pizzeria not at the lake not at the inn not at home.
The answer arrived in an exchange between the dance instructor and Blue’s neighbor while J. hunkered behind the counter, tucked into The 42nd Parallel and not trying to eavesdrop at all, not even a little bit. The dance instructor had received a postcard of the Washington Monument (“She knows I have a soft spot for obelisks”), the neighbor one of the Lincoln Memorial (“Whatta babe”). Blue was down in the District of Columbia for some junior leadership program until September. J. also learned — as the conversation shifted into a stage whisper — that Blue Sr. had not crossed the diner’s threshold since the night of the car crash, when she and J.’s uncle had clashed in the town square over Blue’s injury and J.’s responsibility. In sum, both uncle and nephew were bereft of Blues.
While the dance instructor and neighbor debated over the dessert menu, J. pinched between thumb and forefinger the postcard Blue never sent him. On the front, the neon Kramers storefront or the Dischord house or the parking garage where Woodward met Deep Throat. With his middle finger, J. flipped it over. Saw this and thought of you or Hope you’re having a great summer or Wish you were here.
On a napkin, J. wrote, crumpled up, and threw away his unsent reply.
Le seul vrai mot, c’est: reviens.
ON Wednesday, the Third of July, during a quiet spell between breakfast and lunch, the town selectman, an avuncular type in appearance if not disposition, stopped by the diner carrying a laundry basket piled high with bunting.
“What’s that,” J.’s uncle asked.
“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this.”
“What’s come to what?”
“This,” the selectman turned his head around in a wide arc, indicating the diner, “to this.” He shook the basket toward J.’s uncle, strangling its plastic handles with his fists. “Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, and you, unlike every other local business, have not one banner, ornament, ribbon, streamer, or spangle in your establishment to mark the occasion.”
“So I am offering to loan you some from my personal collection.”
“I thought the Fourth of July was canceled this year.”
“There were some concerns that our town’s humble yet vibrant celebration might present an inviting soft target for terrorist activity. But we cannot cower in fear — that’s exactly what those freedom-haters want. We must live our lives and hug our children. However, we also must not rest in waging the struggle for both freedom and security. To that end, I, along with a few other civic-minded volunteers, will be checking bags and monitoring crowds for any,” the selectman glanced askance at J., who was pouring salt out of a topless shaker onto the counter, “um, suspicious behavior.”
“Happy to hear my ears will not be denied the pleasure of the town orchestra’s singular rendition of ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever.’ But I’m still not going to clutter up my diner with a bunch of your secondhand crap.”
“Every Fourth of July, I ask you to put up some decorations, and every year, you reject my request with unnecessarily colorful language.”
“I do so cherish these little traditions of ours.”
“But given the significance of this Fourth of July, I thought even you might finally feel some patriotic stirrings in your heart.”
“Did you read yesterday’s paper?”
“I was a little busy with tomorrow’s preparations.”
“I did. Nasdaq’s down, Pete Gray passed away, a couple of drunk pilots were dragged out of a cockpit, the usual sort of stuff. But on the front page, above the fold, there was one article in particular that caught my attention: a satellite-guided two-thousand-pound bomb dropped from a B-52 wandered off course and killed forty people at a wedding party in Afghanistan, injured seventy more.”
The selectman stared into his basket.
“Maybe you should ask the survivors how they feel about the significance of this Fourth of July.”
“War is the health of the state,” J. muttered as he planted the shaker, top reaffixed, in the salt mound and, after some fiddling, balanced it at an angle on its faceted edge.
The selectman cast a long squint J.’s way before returning his attention to J.’s uncle. “I am simply requesting that for one day you show some pride in your country.”
“By plastering red, white, and blue junk all over my diner?”
“Our forefathers did not throw off the heavy yoke of British tyranny so that you could stand here today and mock their sacrifices.”
“Our forefathers? You mean the landed gentry and slaveowners whose high-minded ideals just happened to line up with their own financial self-interest?”
The selectman sighed, his shoulders slumped.
“Our forefathers who didn’t think Native Americans or slaves counted as ‘men’ in the supposedly self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal,’ to say nothing about, you know, women?”
J. began to whistle “La Marseillaise,” gently blowing the salt out from underneath the shaker until it was all gone save a line of crystals resting against the base, creating the illusion that the shaker was suspended at an impossible angle.
“Our forefathers who were actually terrified of a true revolution of the people?”
“Fine, you’ve made your point. I’m sorry I wasted your time and mine.”
J.’s uncle glared at the ceiling, shook his head as if rejecting the recommendation of some internal advisor, and threw his hands into the laundry basket, rummaging around the folderol until he eventually pulled out a single pallid palm-sized cardboard star. “Here, this,” he said. “I’ll put this up.”
“An excellent choice! Can I interest you in some stripes to complement that — ”
“Happy trails,” J.’s uncle said and ungently steered the selectman out the door.
“Sounded like a soliloquy out of People’s History,” J. said.
“That Zinn guy knows what he’s talking about.”
“Didn’t realize you were a fan.”
“Who do you think donated the library’s only copy?”
“Who do you think is the only person who’s ever checked it out?”
J.’s uncle almost smiled. “Nice trick,” he said, pointing at the shaker. “Now stop wasting my salt.”
A series of searing heat waves rippled through town, buckling roads, bursting water mains, swooning young and old alike.
“This is hell, eternal torment!” a customer cried, pouring a glass of water over his head while waiting for his chili.
“According to Dante, the deepest depth of hell is cold,” the minister said, one table over, his wilted clerical collar sprung loose to ventilate his vestments.
“No fire? No brimstone? I could have sworn that hell was lousy with fire and brimstone.”
“Not in the ninth circle, no. There, he posits a frozen lake, Cocytus, where the treacherous are trapped in ice according to their degree of betrayal: of family, community, guests, or benefactors.”
“What sorts of betrayals? Also, what’s brimstone?”
“Murders, mostly, and treason. Brimstone is sulfur.”
“A rough crowd and a foul rock.”
“Dante certainly thought so — on both counts, I believe — but per his Virgil, the path to heaven passes through hell.”
“We build our own hells,” J. said to the customer as he refilled the water glass. “Buy a box fan.”
LAMMASTIDE brought with it an agricultural festival that filled the town square, better in every measurable respect than a similar event in nearby Yonville, the selectman swore. Ivy festooned the gazebo, around which poles stood bearing dark-green pennants inscribed with the words “Trade,” “Agriculture,” “Industry,” and “The Arts” in glittering gold paint. A long rope on stakes delineated the informal corral into which livestock would be herded and judged by the grand panjandrums. Ribbons were awarded for the best oil cake, drainage, flax, and fertilizer.
J. sat on the sidewalk bench just outside the diner, where a slight breeze coming off the hills made the heat minutely more bearable, and flipped through the July/August issue of Punk Planet, ignoring as much as possible the slackjawed festivalgoers gawping in his general vicinity. Halfway through an interview with Jon Langford and Sally Timms of the Mekons — Langford was expressing what he considered to be the not very radical idea in any other century than this one and halfway through the last one that a person could make music for reasons other than to try and become famous and make money — an unfamiliar girl’s voice asked, “Whatcha reading?”
J. looked up and saw before him a bottle blonde with dulled eyes and an anemic pallor. She held aloft a large paper cone from which wafted a billow of pale pink cotton candy. He twisted his wrists, flattening the cover and angling it toward her, then returned his attention to the article.
The bench shifted as she sat down next to him. “We go to school together,” she said, her breath redolent of spearmint gum.
“Sorry for both of us.”
“I thought you left.”
“But now you’re back.”
“Why ask why?”
“Because you don’t seem to like it here.”
“Here doesn’t like me much, either.”
“So why not stay wherever you went?”
J. closed the magazine. “Had to learn an easy lesson the hard way.”
“Besos no son contratos.”
“It doesn’t sound as good in English.”
“I don’t like it here either.”
“Not much to like in this Iowa-stubborn town.”
“This is Connecticut.”
“So much the worse. At least Iowa has an excuse.”
She removed the gum from her mouth with a pinch of her thumb and forefinger, keeping it close by for redeployment, and inhaled a wisp of the spun sugar. “I wish I’d seen you yesterday,” she said and flicked the gum back into her mouth.
“It was my birthday yesterday. And if I’d seen you yesterday, you’d have to wish me a happy birthday.”
“And be nice to me.”
“Am I not being nice to you?”
“I can’t tell.”
“I’ll be nice to you.”
“Thanks. I’m a Leo. Like Madonna.”
“Are you like Romeo?”
“I’m more of a Mercutio.”
“‘A plague on both your houses.’”
She planted the gray wad of gum under the bench, squeezed the paper cone between her knees, and, with an approach that felt both practiced and mechanical, fastened her lips against his for a long slow cold kiss.
“Spearmint,” J. said.
She was a counter girl at the beauty shop on the far side of the square. She was the polar opposite, antimatter, bizarro, film negative of Blue. She was the gonest girl in town, Marti Robertson in Time magazine, an old modiste terminally world-wearied at sixteen. Her name wasn’t Ashen, but that was as good as any other.
J’ai vu ton mec avec une autre fille,
Il semblait dans un autre monde.
SOMETIMES, J. woke to the sound of thunder. He sat up, wondered how far off, hummed “The Wanderer,” and felt the night move.