When his son Bill finally managed to come around two weeks after Lara’s funeral, Walter was perched at his usual spot now at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and settling into his grief.
“Look what the cat drug in,” Walter said. He knew he should be mad, should chastise Bill for disappearing after the funeral, but more than anything Walter was relieved to see him. Bill was wearing what Walter called his uniform: torn gray t-shirt, faded jeans, and grass-stained Reeboks. Who knows what Bill got up to most days, but he always looked rumpled and dusty, as though he’d been away traveling in some foreign lands.
“It was a nice Mass, wasn’t it?” Walter continued. “I think you mother would have been pleased with the turnout.” This was a lie, more for his own sake than Bill’s. Almost thirty years ago, when Bill was five, Lara had been in a car accident and killed a woman. Since then, she had hardly left the house on more than a few occasions a year. Lara would have most certainly hated the turnout and would have panicked at the sight of all those well-meaning people in their somber Sunday clothes.
Bill poured some coffee and sat down across from his father. “I’m sorry about not being around to help with stuff.” Bill stuttered over the “s” the way he did when he felt guilty or was worried. “It’s just. Well, I guess I got involved in some projects. Mimi was here, wasn’t she?”
“She was indeed.”
Mimi was Walter’s younger sister who had lived a rollicking life as a music teacher and single gal about town in Louisville after leaving Tennessee when Walter was still in college. Mimi made Bill nervous with her constant chatter about current events and the men she dated, some of whom, she implied, were married.
Seeing the stricken look forming on Bill’s face, Walter quickly allayed his fears. “You don’t have to worry—she went back to Louisville yesterday. I guess there’s still a few men round there that like the way her legs look enough to put up with her.”
When Bill was younger, Mimi would visit and insist he accompany her to Sunday brunch at the China Garden, in an attempt, she said, to bring him out of his shell. Every time, Mimi wrangled with the clueless waiters about her gluten-free diet. After she went back home, Bill would tell his father how he just wanted to slide under the table and disappear. He felt like everyone in the place was watching and making remarks under their breath. Back then, Walter had just chalked it up to the painful self-awareness of being a teenager.
“So, what are you up to?” Walter asked casually. At every meeting, Walter gathered information about the current state of his son’s life so he wouldn’t be blindsided by some new whim of Bill’s.
“Collecting around the neighborhood.” Among his many part-time jobs, Bill delivered the Ellington Tribune. He could not commit himself to a regular job, and did not have the patience or aptitude to work with the public or sit in a cubicle all day, so he found side lines here and there that kept him busy, even if they didn’t really pay the rent. Walter generally took care of that.
Bill fiddled with the coffee cup. He hadn’t looked Walter straight in the face yet. “No one is nice anymore.”
“That’s a pretty blanket statement.” Walter let out a bemused snort. It was one of the few moments of levity he’d experienced since the funeral. That and watching an oblivious Mimi warble show tunes at a spaghetti supper at St. Dominic’s as pained winces rippled across every face in the social hall.
“I mean in this neighborhood I deliver. Used to be these old women would invite me in, give me a piece of pie or something? Then they all died, I guess, because everyone is Mexican and this one house has a big dog, I call them devil dogs. It will stand there looking at me when I come to deliver. It just watches me and doesn’t bark, which scares me more than if it did. I asked them if they could keep him inside, but they said no. Very mean people.” Invariably, when Bill left a job, he told Walter that his employers were “mean people.” Walter could guess that they probably just became fed up with Bill’s erratic sense of time or his creative interpretation of simple directions. The paper route, though, had been a constant for Bill. He seemed to keep it up, whereas other jobs came and went, just like when he was young. One week it was stamp collecting, the next astronomy. A whole section of the attic was devoted to Bill’s aborted hobbies.
Walter got up from the table and began to get ready for lunch. He put his breakfast dishes in the sink and dumped the coffee grounds in the trash. “You’re not giving up the route, are you?”
Bill was watching Walter intently, and Walter hoped he was thinking seriously about the question, the ramifications of giving up the one job he did well.
“You know,” Bill said, “you really should start a compost pile. Like those grounds or egg shells or any little scraps—they make good fertilizer. I could do it for you.”
Walter opened the fridge and stared inside. There wasn’t one thing that appealed to him. It had been Lara who had the appetite, who grew softer and rounder year after year, encasing herself in a thick layer of cushioning. Conversely, he just became thinner and bonier, easy to bruise and break. “Do what you like. The yard is your province.”
“I’ve been looking on-line. There’s this organic farm in Colorado. Anyone can live there if they just do some work, pitch in and harvest and such. I was thinking about driving out there, seeing what it’s all about.”
So this was the new thing—organic farming. Walter closed the fridge with more force than he intended. He wasn’t hungry and didn’t have to make a pretense that he was. “You’re just going to drop everything and move? That’s sudden.”
“Guess so. I was thinking I needed a change anyway. And with Mom . . . I mean you don’t need me bothering you all the time.” Bill looked away. The warm early afternoon light washed over his face, made him look like an angelic boy again. Walter finally caught Bill’s eye momentarily, and there was something there that made Walter stop and grasp for something to hold.
“But you may not like this place. And what about your route?”
Bill avoided Walter’s gleaning stare, and got up to look out the back door into the shadows of the big oaks. “I guess I have gotten kinda tired of the route. You have to get up so early every day.” Now Bill was lying. He slept at tops four hours a night, sometimes not at all, and this had been his routine for years, as Walter well knew.
“Listen,” Walter said in his most reasonable voice. “What if someone could take the route over for a little while, hold it for you just in case?”
“I don’t think I know anyone who could do it.”
“What if I did it?” The notion came to him suddenly. Yes, he would do the paper route. He was awake at 4 am anyway most days, just lying in bed, the room a vault around him. Walter would do the route, and when Bill was tired of playing farmer, he’d come back and have his old job waiting. It was a good compromise. “Don’t go off half-cocked,” he told Bill. “Hedge your bets.”
Bill came the next morning to take Walter on a test run.
“Here is the list of customers.” Bill handed him a creased paper ripped from a notebook. “I also tried to draw you a map to show you the way I go.”
Walter looked at the crude but carefully labeled drawing and knew that Bill had spent hours on it.
They passed the high school with its strange cone-shaped system of roofs. Walter had taught Lara to drive in that very parking lot. For so long she had been sheltered by her family then Walter. They all pampered her and drove her around like a princess. Finally, Walter knew it was time when Bill was born. On the weekends, they would circle around the big empty lots while Bill snoozed in the back seat. Lara was a careful driver but also a very nervous one. She was constantly checking her mirrors, or touching random knobs to reassure herself. She held her breath when she put the brakes on, worried perhaps that this time they wouldn’t work. What if he had never taught her? What if he had just driven her to where she wanted to go when she asked him? How different things might have been.
They got onto Sevier Street and passed the apartments where Walter had spent his brief bachelorhood after moving out his parents’ house, after coming back from Knoxville with an accounting degree to work at Halloman just like his father.
“You see that pool there.” Walter pointed to the looming shadow of a high dive. “I used to do laps there before I even met your mother.”
Bill nodded, but kept his eyes focused ahead. The headlights burrowed into a darkness that seemed almost comforting to Walter. Dawn felt far away. It was good to be driving through these lonely streets with his son.
Then they were traveling in a neighborhood Walter no longer knew. It was not as nice as those above Watauga where Walter lived, but not as bad as those butting up to Halloman, the chemical plant that dominated the north side of town. Walter worked his whole adult life there. At one time it seemed everyone in Ellington worked for Halloman. Now half the big houses in Forest Hills were for sale, and recently Walter had heard about an old friend’s child, Tandy, who was laid off for no good reason at all. They had just come to get him in his office and escorted him out that very day.
“So, this is the drop,” Bill said and pulled up to a corner. Several bundles of papers were scattered about. A street light made a dull halo around them. Bill got out, popped his trunk, and began to rummage around. Walter stretched his legs, felt the morning cool in his bones. This was certainly Bill’s cup of tea. Dead quiet and absolutely no one about.
Walter began to notice Bill’s peculiarities when he was around the age of twelve. One night, after he helped Lara bathe, after the usual evening ordeal, he sat down in the den to have a drink. Somehow, he sensed that Bill was not in the house. He didn’t know how he knew this, but he stepped out on the front lawn and stood looking into the blank night. “Bill?” he called, softly at first, as though the neighbors might hear him, might swarm out of their houses accusing him of losing his son. Then louder: “Bill. Come home.” A noise came from above him, from the top of the magnolia. There was Bill, nestled in the darkness, one red Converse catching the light from the porch.
“What on earth? Come down here, son. Come down.”
“But I like it up here,” Bill said.
Walter came to expect these disappearances, but couldn’t help worrying. When he got older, Bill began to wander the streets at night, and sometimes Walter would awake with a start, find the empty bed, and go out searching in his car. Oftentimes, he didn’t find Bill, but in the morning Bill would always be there at the kitchen table reading the comics out loud to himself. Once, though, Walter was called down to the police station. There had been a burglary, and the patrol car pulled up beside Bill, who was on one of his usual rambles. The flashing strobe and the cops yelling scared him and he began to run. They chased after him, eventually finding him at a construction site. He had sprained his ankle jumping from a wall. When Walter got to the station, he found Bill curled into a ball, his eyes wild as any cornered animal. “Don’t let them eat me,” he kept saying. “Their teeth are sharp. So sharp.”
Walter wondered—not for the first or last time—how do you protect the people you love from the demons inside their heads?
Bill began to carefully roll the newspapers into slim batons, snapping a rubber band around them when he was done. “See, double twist it tight. Otherwise it’s hard to throw.” They shoveled the papers into a canvas sack that Bill slung over his shoulder, and they began to make their deliveries. The neighborhood sloped down gradually towards Center St, and once, as they rounded a corner, Walter could see the spires of the old St. Dominic’s, the church he’d been married in. Abandoned now. The stained glass windows were filled with holes made by vandals. The new church was up off the interstate to Knoxville. Walter had only been there once in the last year—for Lara’s funeral Mass. So many nice people who felt sorry for him, who probably thought, “Now he’s free.” They all told him how he was a saint on earth to take care of Lara the way he did. It was selfless. “You have to practice patience. You have to practice kindness,” Father Benoit said. “It doesn’t come naturally. But our brother Walter has a talent for it.”
When he found her that morning her skin had been cold as a plate left in the fridge. Something he’d forgotten. She died in the night while he was sleeping in another room. This had been their arrangement for almost thirty years, but near the end she had wanted him there again and he slept with her, feeling her weight beside him, the shudders her body made while dreaming. But that night he had fallen asleep on the couch, too exhausted to even get up after making dinner and cleaning up, after going through the constant battle of the pills that was the same every night, even if they were new pills for new ailments. “No, no,” she moaned. “They hurt to swallow.” She never got used to it. Always some pill or another and she never got used to it. He regretted so badly that he hadn’t woken up beside her that morning. So what did these people know or the doctors either? He had trusted them too much. The mind cannot cope with such a shock, they said after the accident. Guilt is the most powerful of emotions. The last few years when she abstained from her valium and her antidepressants, she became lucid. They held long, completely rational conversations. This was wonderful for Walter, but at a price. She was in pain all the time. But she chose the pain this time, and refused to be doped up. How she bore it, Walter didn’t know.
“This is the devil dog house,” Bill said, a trace of hesitation in his voice. He flicked the paper onto the sagging porch. The house rose above them, bigger than all the rest on the street, but also the worst kept. There were toys strewn around the yard, milk jugs and beer cans, a rake and some other tools left out to rust.
“Sloppy people,” Walter said.
“Come on,” “Bill said. “I don’t think it’s awake. Let’s go.”
Walter looked around for the dog, wondering if it was a figment of Bill’s imagination. Despite his meds, he still saw things at times. Walter began to wonder about these people, the husband who would let his wife and children live in such filth. Sharp tools to cut their feet; a dog that could easily turn on its owners and bite into delicate child haunch. Walter began to hate him a little, this man he was imagining, who probably sat down from work first thing every day and began drinking his beer.
“So,” Bill said, clearly relieved to be past the devil dog, “you think you can handle this? Because it’s okay if you don’t feel up to it. I don’t see why . . .” He trailed off and Walter could gather the gist of his thoughts. Bill believed, as usual, that this trip out to Colorado would be successful. He would have no reason to come back.
“It’s okay. I need something to do.” Walter was breathing a little heavy from all the walking, but he also felt something, not exhilaration exactly, but keenness in his physical sense of the world that he hadn’t felt in a while. There was something about being out before everyone else. Rags of mist hung in the street lights. Everyone in each house was at rest, at least for the moment.
“You won’t forget to call me, will you?” Walter said. “I want to know how you’re doing.”
“Sure, Pop. You bet.”
It was getting towards six now and they could hear an occasional car pass by on Center St. They only had a few more papers to deliver. Walter looked down for the spires of St. Dominic’s again, waited to hear the old bells ring, waited even though he knew they would not.
Walter worried about Bill. He worried that the old Subaru hatchback wouldn’t be up to the trip and would break down somewhere in the middle of the country, maybe on some desolate highway in Kansas, no one around who gave a damn, just shooshing corn and wheat. He worried that the people Bill was going to live with would make Bill feel stupid or burdensome. Although he hated to see his son fail, Walter found comfort with the thought that Bill would likely get tired of those people or they would get tired of him and he’d be back, sitting there at Walter’s kitchen table, just as he always eventually found his way home from his late night jaunts. He wanted Bill to come back on his own, in his own good time. The worst thing of all would be that he didn’t want to come back.
While Walter carried these fears around with him, he got up every morning to deliver the papers. They were always there, something that needed to be taken care of at least, and after a few days he got the route down and didn’t really look at Bill’s map anymore. By the end of the week, Walter was even tinkering with the route; he was discovering a whole new neighborhood. Something about being there in front of the people’s houses, dropping the paper softly on their stoops, made him feel close to them, almost like he was looking in on them in their sleep, as he had done so many years with Lara. Just standing there, listening to make sure everything was okay. If she was tossing and turning, murmuring loudly, he sat down on the bed beside her and placed his hand on her shoulder, as if to steady her from heaving in those unknown waters.
He never saw a sign of Bill’s devil dog. The house was still messy, but he could see no evidence of a dog—no dog house, or chains, or dog bowls on the porch. Perhaps the devil dog really was a creation of Bill’s mind and this worried him anew. Was he taking all his meds? Did the dosage need to be adjusted?
Finally, Bill called to say he had gotten there okay. Of course he had taken a roundabout way and gotten lost a few times, but Bill said he enjoyed the trip, had never imagined how flat certain parts of this country could be, and that the Smokies just couldn’t compare to the Rockies. “How are you making out with the paper?”
“Oh fine. Fine. No mishaps. No one has called complaining they didn’t get a paper as far as I know. One thing, though.” Walter paused, not sure how to broach the subject delicately. “I haven’t seen that dog of yours. I wonder why.”
“Well, you’re lucky then.”
“How many times did you see him?”
“I don’t know, Pop. A few. He scared me so I didn’t hang around hoping to see him, I’ll tell you that.”
“Sure, well maybe he ran away or something.” He couldn’t after all bring himself to ask. “Take care of yourself, son.”
Lara’s closet held traces of some feminine mélange of powder and flowery perfume, but also moth balls, the smell of age and disuse. Walter clicked on the light and stood there with a trash bag in his hand pondering what remained of his wife. She never got rid of anything, even the billowy summer dresses she no longer wore after the accident and couldn’t fit into regardless. Mostly there were muumuus, brightly colored and formless.
Back when Mimi was staying with him the week after the funeral, he’d made suggestions to her about going through Lara’s closet. Of course, Mimi completely misinterpreted his request. “Wally, I’ll look,” she said, “but it’s unlikely I’ll find a thing I can wear. You know I have a certain fashion sense and Lara, god bless her, had no one but you to please. And you’re so easy.” It was a particularly brutal assessment, and Walter didn’t pursue the conversation, didn’t try to make Mimi understand that all he really wanted her to do was carry everything of Lara’s away, to remove that burden from him at least.
Walter began to pile the contents of the closet on the bed. He planned to take it all down to the Salvation Army, but really, who would want any of these clothes? Aside from the muumuus, it was a time warp from the 50s and 60s. He held up a dress, richly patterned in turquoise with a black belt at the waist. Something about the dress seemed familiar, and yet it was far too tailored to be anything Lara had worn for years and years. He held it up and imagined her in it. He imagined her gliding out of some store—Taylor’s perhaps—and he was waiting there in the car the way he did. She stepped out of the dusky interior into the sunlight, hesitant as a fawn, and he felt the prick of disbelief then satisfaction that this slender creature was his wife. She smoothed her hands down her thighs and looked away shyly, knowing he was gazing at her. Then she glanced up at him and her mouth began to open as though she might call out to him, tease him, but all that came out was a piercing scream.
Walter dropped the dress on the floor. He knew now why it was so familiar.
He never could remember why she had wanted to go down to the bank that day. He took care of all the bills and made sure she had enough cash every week for groceries or anything else she wanted. Perhaps she was visiting a former co-worker. Maybe someone had gotten pregnant or married. He just didn’t pay attention because he was home from work with a summer cold. He felt like he was ten feet underwater. So he just nodded at whatever she said and asked her to hurry back before Bill got out of kindergarten. It couldn’t have been long, certainly no more than thirty minutes, but it had seemed like hours when the phone rang and he was told to come get his wife, that something had happened, a very bad accident. “She’s all right? Is she hurt?” Walter yelled. “Fine,” the man said. “Physically, she’s fine. Not a scratch. Just come down please.” Yes, physically she was fine, but when Walter saw her, he knew she had been changed somehow, that some part of her was lost.
“She put it in drive instead of reverse. It was just bad timing for that old woman to be walking out then.” Walter talked to the cop on the scene several times afterwards, trying to put it all together, because Lara wouldn’t say anything about it, could hardly make herself even open her mouth to eat for weeks. “The woman was pinned against the building,” the cop went on. “But here’s the thing, Mr. Tolliver, your wife kept gunning the accelerator. Maybe she just panicked. You see that with lady drivers. But it was strange. A manager from the bank had to pull her out of the car. He had to pull her foot off the gas.”
A few days later, Walter was delivering to the messy house and began to feel uneasy. It reminded him of some spooky mansion in a horror movie, like the house in Psycho. Walter never thought Bill capable of violence, but he secretly feared Bill could become like that young man, go really crazy and do something horrible without even realizing it. Walter shook these thoughts out of his mind and began walking down the street. He could hear a mockingbird somewhere about, and it reassured him. Then everything became completely still, so still that he stopped right in his tracks. He thought he heard a creak and then did hear the distinct sound of clicks padding behind him on the street. Slowly, he turned around and there was Bill’s dog, a large Doberman pinscher. Panic and relief began to well up inside him. Walter backed up slowly, unable to take his eyes off the dog.
“Don’t mind him. He’s a big pussycat,” said a voice that made Walter almost jump out of his skin.
“Good God,” he said and dropped the bag of papers. “You scared the hell out me.”
“Sorry,” said the man. He came out and stood beside his dog, which was now wiggling its butt and whining. “I don’t sleep so well these days. I really didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“Oh.” Walter was having a hard time finding his voice. He felt constricted, invaded by this unexpected man, a man who couldn’t keep his yard tidy, and would let his dog scare schizophrenics and old men.
“You’re not the same as the other fella,” the man continued.
“My son,” Walter said.
“Yeah, I tried to tell him Pooter here is harmless but he wasn’t having it.”
“Bill is afraid . . . My son is afraid of dogs.”
“Well, sure, I can understand that I guess. Looks can be deceiving sometimes. And sorry about the scare. I try to wait a few minutes before getting the paper. It’s hard, you know, when all you look forward to every day is a new job listing in the classifieds.”
“You lost your job?”
“Laid off from Halloman six months ago.”
“I’m sorry. That disappoints me. I worked there myself years ago.”
“Let me tell you, it’s not the same as when you were there. Loyalty’s not a word to be applied to business these days.” The man paused and gave Walter a half-smile. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re about the oldest paper boy I ever seen.”
“Ha, I guess so.” Walter picked up the sack and slung it around his shoulder. “I should finish making the rounds.”
Then the man went back into his house of disarray, his disheveled life. Walter turned to go, but couldn’t quite make himself move yet. A light flipped on, probably in the kitchen, and Walter could see the silhouette of him bent over, reading hungrily.
Over the next couple of weeks, Walter often stopped to chat with Pooter’s owner, whose name was Dale Pilgrim. Walter would ask how the job search was going, and Dale would launch into another litany about the loss of trust between corporations and their workers, about the loss of the community a place like Ellington once had. It became another addition to the routine. Each day, Walter seemed to stretch the route out longer and longer. He enjoyed his conversations with Dale and occasionally now he also ran into a mother walking her child to the bus top, or a few weary men coming off third shift. Walter would nod or wave, offer a cheery “Good Morning,” and in turn the people might wave back, sometimes watching him go with a puzzled look.
It’s possible that Walter could have gone on this way, finding solace in the present tense. But he soon realized that the past was always there, sitting on the corner waiting to be discovered.
“No one gives a shit, anymore,” Dale said that morning, a variation on his insistent theme. “I don’t know two folks on this street.”
“No one is nice anymore.” Walter tried to smile thoughtfully.
“You got that right. So you worked at Halloman, too, you said?”
“The only job I’ve ever had. Well, that and . . .” Walter stopped himself. Taking care of Lara and Bill was and wasn’t a job. But it was more than that. It was what had kept Walter going, the way the hope of a new listing in the classifieds got Dale up each morning. “These papers aren’t going to deliver themselves.” He picked up his sack, half full now, but the enjoyment for the work was gone, at least for today. He made the rest of his deliveries in a pall, finishing as a harsh sun crested the shabby group of buildings that formed the end boundary of the route.
Walter seemed to see the area for the first time. The windows were boarded up and pink paint hung loose like patches of desiccated skin. Yet he knew the place, or what it had once been: The Thunderbird Inn.
How had Walter not made the connection? Every day for months he’d seen it and hadn’t seen it, put it someplace his mind wouldn’t touch. Walter just stood there, pulled back to those first few years at Halloman, the ones before he met Lara.
He was working in an entry level accounting position in the same office as a classmate from UT, Sam Gibbon. Sam cracked his knuckles a lot and seemed to abhor every minute he spent there, would contrive any excuse to step out for a “breath of fresh air,” a joke Sam found constantly amusing because the air at Halloman was thick and rank.
“When we die,” Sam said, “the undertaker won’t have to do a thing because we’ll already be pickled.” It was Sam who tried to pull him out of his monkish existence and called him a mama’s boy for living at home. When Walter moved out, Sam said, “Now, we’re getting somewhere. The first step away from the nest is the hardest.” For a while Walter refused Sam’s offers to get a drink and was quite content to go home to his little apartment and read a paperback mystery or take a walk and then sit in the nearby park to watch the sun go down in a chemical blaze of purple and orange. There was a public pool across the street, and he took to swimming laps before he fixed dinner. The children’s squeals reverberated on the water, echoing through him as his long arms and legs pulled him across the length of the pool. The sounds washed through his consciousness, a murmur of pleasant chaos.
Then, not really knowing why, one night he did accept Sam Gibbons offer to “tie one on.” He found himself following Sam to an unfamiliar part of town and could barely contain his sense of panic when Sam pulled into the parking lot of the Thunderbird Inn, the location of all types of criminal behavior based on the frequency the name appeared in the paper.
“You’re sure about this?” Walter said.
“Hold on tight, brother. You’re in it now. No going back.” The bar was at the end of a long corridor that ran beside the front desk. Walter could hear a languid blues song playing and the room looked positively dank. Blue Christmas lights strung about the ceiling were the only source of light. Walter could make out an aquarium behind the bar which was filled not with water and swimming fish, but empty bottles of whiskey and vodka. The bar tender who took his order of rum and coke was a black man in a tuxedo who wore sunglasses and didn’t smile. The bar tender filled the glass full of liquor, and then spritzed a few drops of coke from the fountain as an afterthought.
“That’s what I like about this place,” said Sam. “They make a strong drink.”
Walter was not at all a drinker; he had been drunk only once in his life and the experience led him to avoid alcohol in general. But he needed something to get himself through this night, so he took two big gulps and choked down most of the rum. Just as he began to feel a bit warm around the edges, he noticed a woman sitting in a corner by herself. Walter could tell, even in the bar’s dimness, that she was very pretty, but also distant, annoyed. He heard a loud laugh followed by a few feminine titters. Walter realized the laugher was Sam, but had absolutely no interest in joining the conversation. He was drawn to the woman who looked so unhappy and out of place. He wouldn’t have had the courage to approach her if he wasn’t tipsy.
Lara sat rigid and prim as a school teacher in a Western, her back to the wall. She seemed to ignore her surroundings—the blue Christmas lights draped haphazardly above her; the strange silvery looking wall paper, which perhaps was embroidered by swirls of purple flowers; the dim people who moved and talked as though they were blind; the loud blues on the jukebox. Lara simply acted as though she was not part of the scene, which only heightened Walter’s curiosity. He found himself moving, almost as though he was rolling, until suddenly he was standing beside her. He had never done this before and could think of nothing better than to pretend to examine the wall paper, which was textured like velvet. Walter ran his hand along the wall.
“A-ha, just as I thought,” he said. The woman looked at him critically, but also with a vague interest, as though she wondered what kind of foolish thing he would say next to embarrass himself.
“Velveteen,” Walter continued. “Now that’s the mark of a high class establishment.” She began to look down, and Walter could tell she was trying to conceal a smile.
“I’m sure my date would agree,” she said. “He seems to be a regular.”
“I would never bring you to such a place if you were my date,” Walter said.
Bill called. He seemed down. Walter wondered if the wheels were about to fall off of the Colorado experiment. “I met a woman, Pop. She was nice for a while, but I don’t know. Sometimes she pretends like I’m not there and just walks on by. Is that some kind of hard to get deal?”
“No, she shouldn’t treat you like that,” Walter said, the usual fears building in him. “Otherwise, how are you getting along? How are the crops?”
“I don’t know. Broccoli is coming in good.” There was a long pause on the line. Bill had never been good at carrying on a conversation. He was never good at telling the important details, the things someone might really want to know. “Everything’s harder than I thought it would be, I guess.”
“That’s the way it goes sometimes. You just push on through.” Earlier that day, he’d gone into Lara’s bathroom. The tiles were Pepto-Bismol pink; it had been the style and he’d never thought to make a change. So much about their home, he was starting to realize, was frozen in time from the moment of the accident. In the cabinets, Walter found all of Lara’s drugs. The names of these drugs sounded like spells to him now, like some dark incantations. “I’ve been nothing but a chemistry experiment. And a failed one at that,” Lara had said during one of their last conversations.
“Maybe I should just come home,” Bill was saying. “The route’s pretty tough, I know. You could use a hand.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Walter said. “It’s growing on me. I’m making some new friends.”
“Really?” Bill said. “You’re okay?”
“Absolutely.” Walter covered the receiver and took a deep breath before putting the phone back to his ear. “I want you to stay out there. I want you to make a go of it. I want you to be happy.”