Careful NegotiationsNatalie Sypolt
You hadn’t meant for it to happen the first time, and you certainly hadn’t meant for it to happen the next two, three. He would show up in your yard, sometimes holding a bottle of cheap wine from the Gas-and-Go, always with a crooked smile on his face. He was just there and you couldn’t say no, so you’d push the dogs into the spare room and let him come in. Even when he lit up a joint in your bedroom and you had to leave because of your asthma. Even when he drank too much. Even though you saw his kids in school nearly every day.
“Everyone knows,” Corrine said to you one night, months later, after she’d had too many drinks at the Egg. “You’re a god-dammed fool.”
“I know,” you said. This was not the kind of woman you were, but when Walker came into your yard, none of that mattered.
Lesson 8: Make it matter.
It’s hard to say how long you would have let it go on if not for the explosion—not some external blast, but an internal wake-up call in the form of a cyst, bursting. You’d been having some discomfort, but thought it was just cramps, until the ache turned to pains and the blood came, not a lot, but spots on the sheets and Walker jumped up as though you were infectious. The pain was so strong that your breath caught and he thought you’d stopped breathing. He was grabbing for his clothes and when you reached for him, he screamed.
He helped you dress and put you in his truck. You let your head fall onto his shoulder as he drove, ran every stop sign. “Jesus,” he kept saying under his breath. “Jesus Christ almighty.”
He carried you into the Emergency Room, yelling for someone to get the fuck out there, to do their god-dammed jobs. It was like a scene from a movie, and you let the pain pour over you. The nurse brought a wheelchair and tried to hand Walker a clipboard of forms.
“I can’t,” you heard him say as they wheeled you away. “I don’t know nothing.”
He didn’t stay.
Your problem was common really. Most women, it turns out, have the little pea-sized invaders growing on their ovaries and they never cause any problems. Sometimes they twist, the doctors told you, and sometimes they burst. They were not impressed by your condition. It was nothing particularly exotic or bloody or, as it turns out, even life-threatening. They gave you nice pain medication through an IV and looked at your insides with a sonogram, not searching for a baby, but for internal bleeding, more cysts, maybe other things that they didn’t explain.
You were moved to a real room. Your parents came, and Corrine, and later Luann. You only stayed overnight. Your father kept asking if you could still have children. That’s when you realized why Walker ran. He’d thought you’d been losing a baby, his baby. If you had been losing a baby, you wouldn’t have wanted to have been losing it alone. That was when you were done.
Lesson 9: Dreams are nice, but real men are necessary in times of emergency.
After the hospital, you didn’t see Walker for two weeks, and then he appeared on your front step, empty-handed, completely sober.
“You okay?” he asked. You looked at one another through the screen door.
“You scared me real good,” he said. “And the thing is, Hazel, you’ve always been too good for me. You’re a good girl.”
“Am I?” you asked.
He nodded. “You are, and I ain’t no good for anybody. I’d kiss you goodbye, but then I might not ever leave.” He turned to leave, face like a hound dog.
“I’m not sorry!” you said, quickly.
He stopped, so you knew that he’d heard you, but he didn’t turn around. He just raised his arm in a sort of wave and walked out the gate.
When he was in his truck and pulling away, you let your dogs out. They’d been barking and pushing at your legs the whole time. They went right to where Walker had been standing and traced his path to the gate, noses to the ground, tails in the air and alert. Then they trotted back to you, happy, as though they’d finally treed their prey, chased the threat away.
Lesson 10: Things that start easy rarely end that way. Be prepared for breakage.
Sam Crystal, in the Egg, tanned so brown and hair bleached from the sun. He looks better than Walker ever did, even with the scars on his neck and chest from the war. Especially with the scars. You wait until your friends leave, and he’s sitting alone at the bar. You buy him a beer, and push yourself up onto the stool.
“You probably don’t remember me,” you say. He smiles and says that sure he does. You think it’s just a line, until he says your name.
“You look good,” he says. Later he’ll tell you that all he really remembers about you from high school is that you had crazy red hair that stuck up in all directions.
When Sam says to you that he doesn’t cheat on his wife, nod. The next time you see him, he’ll say it again, and you’ll nod again, but he won’t sound as sure. And then one day when you’re sitting on your front porch, his truck drives past. On the way back by, he stops in front of your gate. He sits there for five minutes before getting out and letting the gate swing open.
“Make sure to shut that,” you say. “Don’t want the dogs to get out.” You expect barking, growling, maybe even an ankle nip as they did with Walker, but with Sam, they both trot up to him, tails wagging. He bends down to scratch them and Hester presents her belly. Dim licks his hand.
You only know that Sam is like a firefly and he’s calling for you. His light is beautiful and tragic and you are drawn to it, like you always were. Things that were wrong before are being made right now. He seems surprised every time he comes to you, like he doesn’t understand why he’s there, but you’ve been waiting all along.
Lesson 11: Learn from the first time. Do it better.
Keep it quiet. Sam comes to your house or you drive out of the county to meet at a motel. Make sure no one knows. Don’t tell Luann. Don’t tell your sister. Don’t give anyone reason to tell Sam about your time with Walker, years before. Learn Sam’s wife’s hours at the hospital where she works. Make yourself available when he can be available. Make things as easy as you can.
One evening at the Tally Ho-tel, Sam asks if you knew Walker in the years since high school. He’s worn out from work, lying in bed beside you. The only light is coming through the windows, a strange yellow-orange after-thunderstorm glow.
“Not really,” you say. Sam couldn’t forgive himself for not seeing Walker before he died, for missing his funeral, even though he’d been a world away in Afghanistan when Walker got sick.
Don’t tell him that before Walker had died, you’d driven your car to the mouth of Crystal Holler and parked in a pull-off spot. You’d walked the rest of the way down, following the dirt road. It was early—you’d taken the day off—so most of those who worked were gone and those who didn’t were still asleep. Andy and Solomon, Walker’s boys, were at school. As you neared the brown and white trailer you knew was his, you slowed down and waited to see if there was any movement before creeping around the side to where Walker’s old red truck was parked. The little blue compact—Janey’s car—was gone. You thought she still worked in the cafeteria at the nursing home, but it had been so long, you weren’t sure.
A scraggly tabby cat came shooting out the door as you creaked it open. The room was dark and the whole place had a sour smell, like old food and sweat. Bedrooms were always at the ends of trailers, so you made your way through the cluttered living room and down the narrow hallway. Even in full morning, not much light reached the holler, and even less into this trailer. You banged your leg on something, a little stand with a white vase on top, and the vase toppled over.
“Who’s there?” Walker’s voice, only weaker, thinner, came from the end of the hallway.
You didn’t answer, but when he saw you push open the bedroom door, he didn’t look surprised. “Hey, Holly,” he said, smiling. You’d never known that he’d realized his mistake that first night you were together. “Nice tits.”
“Thanks, asshole,” you said and made your way to the bed. As cluttered as the rest of the house was, this room was surprisingly clean and tidy. Walker lay in the bed, small inside the pillows and blankets. An artificially sweet smell, one of those plug-in air fresheners, had gotten stronger closer to the bed. “You look like hell,” you said and he laughed.
“Yeah, well, still better looking than them ugly sons of bitches you been seeing. Clay Stone? His mama don’t even think he’s pretty.” You raised your eyebrows.
You sat down on the edge of his bed, easy.
“I guess I probably shouldn’t have come here,” you said. “I don’t know why I did.” Walker grabbed your hand, tight. His skin was clammy, and your hand slipped in his when he tried to pull you closer to him. You saw him then, really saw him, and your breath caught at the look of his face. Paper-thin skin and dark under his eyes. You’d heard people talk about the shadow of death, but hadn’t known what they meant until right then.
“You came to say good-bye,” he said, his voice a husky whisper. His eyes were intense, boring into you.
“I thought maybe I’d come and pick up a little,” you said. “But it looks good in here. I guess Janey is taking good care of you.”
“Shit,” he said. “My boys take care of me.” You were surprised. You saw the boys at school sometimes, knew that they both often skipped. They always looked tough, angry. “It’s a hell of a thing,” Walker says. “Having to rely on your boys like that. I can’t even worsh myself.”
“Walker, maybe I should go. I don’t want to cause trouble. If somebody saw me here—” You started to move, suddenly feeling like the air in the trailer was too thick to breathe, wanting only to get out.
“Getting too real for you, Hazel?”
“What do you mean?”
“You and me, we ain’t really that different. Running and standing still. That’s us. Afraid of our own shadow.”
“You’re talking out of your head, Walker,” you said, but goosebumps rose up all over your arms.
Walker shrugged. “Maybe. It don’t matter, Hazel.” Walker touched your hand again, flicked his eyes from the ceiling, to your face, and back. “I’m sorry I left you in the hospital that night. I never told you that.”
“It’s okay,” you said. You leaned down and gently kissed his dry, dry lips. “Can I stay for a while?”
You went to the little bathroom and found the plastic pan and sponge. You filled it with warm water and carried it into the bedroom. You pulled the comforter from the bed and helped Walker push himself up so you could rub the sponge over his naked chest, arms, shoulders. When your grandmother had been dying, the only thing she said gave her any relief was being rubbed with warm water.
You draped a towel over his lap and pulled off his pajama pants. As you dragged the sponge up and down his legs, you talked about high school, how beautiful he’d been, how jealous you’d been when he would pick up Corrine and take her parking down by the river.
This body was so different from the one you had known. So thin and pale. If you talked enough, you could make yourself believe that this was any man who you were helping and not a man you’d had in your bed, who maybe you’d loved.
When you were done, you helped Walker into a chair. As you stripped the bed, you saw the weariness in his face, not just from the movement to the chair, but a deeper, longer look of tired.
When Walker was back in the bed, looking tired, but peaceful, you started to leave. “Stay,” he said. “Just for a little bit?” He opened his arms to you. You kicked off your shoes, crawled into the bed beside him. You laid your head on his chest and he sighed. Long after his breathing had become regular and you knew he was asleep, you lay there, your ear pressed to him, listening to the continuing beat of his heart.
Lesson 12: A heart is a fragile, failing thing. A heart cannot be trusted or relied upon. When Sam tells you that you’ve got his heart, tell him that it’s not his heart you want.
Life is a series of careful negotiations. No one wants to be alone. This, really, is what you’re afraid of. Life is deciding how much you’ll give to get, what you’ll do, what you’ll sacrifice for mother, sister, child, friend, lover, so that they’ll agree to stay. Some people are better at these negotiations than others. You’re learning.
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