It was mid October when Stan found himself on the move again, towing a U-haul trailer through North Carolina and on to Virginia, destined for Maine. He had driven through the night and into morning, enjoying the calmness of the empty highway as it bent and bowed by small towns and hilly fields. These were the drives that Stan liked best. He felt unrushed, free to go as slow as he pleased, to savor what he suspected to be the last of such journeys. In Maine, a woman waited for him and for the ring he had promised her.
The Virginia border was an hour behind him when the traffic emerged, a body of short temper and patience that Stan felt no desire to be a part of. He ate breakfast at a diner in Richmond and watched the stream of work-bound men and women through picture frame glass, a cup of coffee in his hand. They seemed too young, like children who had wandered away from their parents’ grasp only to find themselves running libraries, selling cars, answering phones, too frightened or cowed to admit that there had been a mistake. Stan wondered if any of them would see him through the window or if they’d only notice their own reflection, their eyes shining with prospect. It had been men and women like them who had forced him to retire, their talk sweeter and outlook brighter, their presence too encompassing. From his forties into his late fifties he had managed a small brokerage firm in Atlanta. Now he did nothing.
The food was a disappointment. The eggs were overcooked, the bacon under, but he ate them without complaint and tipped well. This was his idea of grace. He drove on through the morning and into the afternoon, making a lunch out of a couple granola bars and a handful of cashews from a can he kept in the glove box. It felt good to make good time, and he admired his own restraint, though he could feel the beginnings of a shake in his legs, a touch of weakness in his grip. Pulling off now would be too costly; another hour lost to waitresses, booths that were made for two and people who would only look at him as long as he wasn’t looking back. No, at this rate he’d be in Scranton by evening, and that’s where he wanted to be. It had been there, more than forty years ago, that he and his first wife, Rachel, had wed, and thirty six since he’d been back.
The thought of visiting her had come to him as he had driven through South Carolina, the stillness of the night having given his mind ample room to wander. At first the idea had seemed impulsive, crazy, but he hadn’t been able to deny its appeal. Something had stirred inside of him, the itch of curiosity, and it was this compulsion that drove him as he steered onto the exit for Scranton. As his truck coasted down the ramp, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was a bug being sucked down a drain. That, even if he turned around now, the current was going to draw him back to this place and swallow him in its depths.
Stan didn’t recognize the town. He remembered flatness, simplicity, but all around him buildings rose into the evening sky, their shadows long cast. They weren’t the skyscrapers of Atlanta or New York, but the burgeoning offices and apartment complexes were enough to make him feel smaller than he had felt as a child. Every now and then he’d see something he remembered: the street corner where he had won his first fight, the one where he had lost the second and third, but these memories, once momentous, now seemed like marbles cast on the sidewalk. He turned down Lackawanna Avenue and drove past what used to be the Thrift Discount Center, now a Rite Aide. It was there he had had his first job and kissed his first woman, a girl named Debbie who chewed peppermints and had refused to call him anything other than Stanley. She meant nothing to him now, but there had been a time when he was convinced he would marry her, a time before he had known Rachel.
The sheer unlikelihood that Rachel still lived in town didn’t faze Stan. Though he could feel the sweat on his fingertips and chin, a calmness overtook him as he drove past the water tower and vacant lots. He recognized more and more, driving by the old homes and neighborhoods, the houses of friends he had used to know and women he once loved. He mused that, in his young life, it must have been his lot to love every woman. He had adored all of the girls in his high school, their differences in countenance and body thrilling him. Some even returned that affection, and it was times like those where he felt he had discovered a great secret, something dark, too great for any one man. It had scared him.
The house sat at the end of a long, oak-lined cul-de-sac. It startled Stan to see that it had grown, an addition sprouting from the left side, a two-car garage from the right. He had remembered it as quaint, cozy even, but now it appeared lifeless, its red shutters perfectly level and aligned. The lawn was as trim as the neighbors’–better than the neighbors’–and the rose bushes had bloomed brighter. Even the sun seemed to favor this house above all others, the gentle light of the early evening cradling it in its arms, the house that Stan had once called home.
He parked in the street. It would have been too brazen to park in the driveway, especially if it wasn’t Rachel who lived there now but a family he had never met. To him, it seemed impossible that the house could be Rachel’s. She had been simple, liked simple things, and the house spoke of complication, sophistication even. This house was not Rachel. Still, he decided that he would knock, to be sure that his suspicions were correct, and then leave.
The man who answered the door was lithe, skeletal, but tall. Stan had never considered himself short, had in fact been as tall or taller than any of the people he had worked with, but this man towered over him, the top of his head almost grazing the door frame. Opening the door seemed to be a struggle, and Stan watched the muscles of the man’s forearms as they tightened, as if the door had been hollowed out and filled with lead plates. He couldn’t have been older than fifty.
“Hi, sorry to bother you,” Stan said. The man now looked down at him.
“It’s no trouble. Can I help you?” the man said. His voice surprised Stan. It was gentle.
“I don’t think so. I used to know somebody who lived here but I think they’ve gone,” Stan said.
The man’s brow furrowed. “Are you looking for the McCafertys? They’re next door.”
“No, no. Her name was Rachel.”
At the mention of her name the man’s face began to sag. The corners of his mouth drooped. “So you don’t know,” he said.
The words came out quietly, somberly, and Stan could feel a rushing in his ears. All around him the world rustled in the breeze. The trees were swaying, the roses crumpling under the soft press of the wind, but all Stan felt was the concrete under the soles of his shoes.
“She died,” the man said. “Two years ago.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” Stan said. The words felt empty, an offering of something he didn’t have to give. Stan felt detached, as if it had been he who had delivered the bad news. His back ached, but his heart did not, and it was this coldness that bothered him as he watched the eyes of the man in the doorway. How dull they looked.
“Come in. I was just about to open a bottle,” the man said.
Stan followed him inside. The house was neat and clean, obsessively almost, as if every surface had been scrubbed and sprayed. Pictures hung on the walls but none were of Rachel. They were of young, smiling faces that bared their teeth at Stan as he passed through the foyer and into the living room. When the house had belonged to him, it had been a dusty, dimly lit place, but now no shadows hid in the corners. There were lamps everywhere. All of them were lit. The man pulled a bottle of whiskey and two tumblers from a glass cabinet in the dining room and motioned for Stan to have a seat in a large, overstuffed recliner.
“How did you know her?” Stan asked as he sat.
“She was my wife,” the man said, placing the bottle and tumblers on a glass coffee table. He poured the drinks with a steady hand, though the weight of the bottle seemed to be pulling him over.
“I’m sorry,” Stan said.
The man nodded. “ It’s Paul, by the way,” he said and handed Stan a glass.
“Stan,” he said.
Paul paused for a moment. “Stan Richardson?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Stan said. At first he had considered giving a fake name, to pretend to be an old friend, then excuse himself as soon as possible. But he was stubborn and unwilling to anger the dead. He had decided to face this head on, but he felt the first twinge of regret in his chest.
“So, you’re the boys’ father,” Paul said.
“That’s me,” Stan said. He didn’t want to think of his sons, Greg or Daniel. In his mind they were still nine and seven, watching him pack his truck, sobbing.
“Ain’t that something,” Paul said. He stepped toward Stan, as if to take the chair next to him, but instead walked across the room and sat down on a couch.
“Are they all right?” Stan asked. It was the wrong question, he knew, but he didn’t want to appear uncaring. He didn’t want to see himself in that light.
“They didn’t take it well,” Paul said.
“Of course,” Stan said.
The two men sat quietly for a moment. Stan could hear the barking of a dog and the wind whistling through the shutters, the hum of a dishwasher in the kitchen. All he wanted was to be out of there, driving into the night where no eyes watched him and nobody knew his name.
“You really screwed them up,” Paul said.
What surprised Stan was the lack of anger in the man’s voice. There was no outrage, no condescension, just sadness.
“It wasn’t supposed to be that way,” Stan said. He wondered why he had come, or rather why he now stayed. There was no retribution to be had or wrongs to right. It had been far too long for that, time burying it so deeply that he would never be able to reach. Paul downed what was left of his whiskey and got up to get another. Stan filled his glass.
“It was cancer, if you wanted to know,” Paul said, returning to his seat.
“Jesus. What kind?”
“Ovarian. They didn’t catch it until it was too late,” Paul said. He smiled. “Well, obviously.”
Stan didn’t know if he was allowed to laugh. “I wish I could have been there,” Stan said. Two years ago he had been wrapping up his divorce with Michelle, another chapter of his life he would rather have kept closed.
“It was better this way,” Paul said. “She went quietly.”
“Yeah,” Stan said. He knew he would have had nothing to offer, no words of comfort, or a kiss on the cheek. All it would have been was more pain, memories of the life she was about to leave behind.
“So, where are you headed with that?” Paul asked. He pointed a thumb out the window behind him, towards the truck and trailer. Stan explained his trip. The twenty years in Atlanta and the woman he had come to love in Maine. Her name was Trisha, a masseuse he had met while on vacation in Augusta.
“Well, she prefers ‘physical therapist,’” Stan said. He left out what would be considered less savory: that he had been married at the time. That she was almost twenty years his junior. That he had lied about being married before. He didn’t know how he felt about getting married again. It just seemed like the thing to do.
“You’ve been driving all day?” Paul asked.
“For the most part. Was hoping to spend the night somewhere around here and pick up again tomorrow,” Stan said. He realized how presumptive that would have sounded if it had been Rachel he was talking to now. How see-through and wrongheaded.
Paul seemed to study him for a moment, swirling the whiskey in his glass. “ You can stay here if you want. Not many nights I have a drinking buddy,” Paul said.
Stan wanted to say no. He felt like an intruder, barging his way back into a life he had no business being a part of, but there was a sincerity in Paul’s voice that made him feel responsible, a tired look in his eyes.
“All right,” Stan said.
Paul seemed to brighten at this and downed the last of his whiskey before getting another. They finished the bottle and Paul went down to the basement, returning with a glass jug of moonshine.
“Rachel loved this stuff. No idea why,” Paul said, but Stan knew. Her grandmother had told him in a faraway kitchen, almost half a century ago, about how she used to rub Rachel’s gums with moonshine while she was teething. She had boasted about how quickly it calmed her down, and Rachel had blushed, admitting that she still had a taste for it. He took a strange sense of pride in remembering this, as if in some way it vindicated him.
“We’ll do shots,” Stan said.
The night disappeared along with the liquor, the two of them going back and forth, shot for shot. Paul, despite his slight build, held it well, and Stan worried that he might lose the unspoken contest between them. He wanted to believe that he was made of strong stuff. That he was a real man’s man, but he could feel himself slipping, sinking deeper and deeper beneath the waves.
It was only when he was on the road again that Stan could begin to make sense of the night before. He had awoken around noon to an empty house and Paul’s car missing from the driveway. There had been no note or keepsake left behind for Stan’s benefit. No empty gesture to bring him comfort he didn’t need. It appeared as though Paul hadn’t thought about it at all, but had just returned to his routine. There had been some cold coffee in the pot and the last bit of eggs in the pan, but other than that, no indication that he had been there at all. At first Stan had thought about wandering about the house, to rummage through the rooms that he vaguely remembered, but realized that there was no memory of him left there, that forty years had swept him from the stoop like dust. It would have been a desperate act, to dig through the closets and crawlspaces, and so he decided to leave. All he left was a scrap of paper on the coffee table. “Don’t tell them I was here.”
The sun was shining as he left Scranton, just as it had the day he left thirty six years before. He hadn’t thought of turning back then and he didn’t now, content to disappear just as suddenly as he had come. There was nothing left for him in this town, and so he would forget it, just as he had forgotten so many people, so many places. By nightfall he would be in Maine, unpacking his life into a new house, though he doubted it would be his last.
Steve Hicks was born and raised in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh and is working on his first novel.