He had never before been moved by the news of a person’s death. His parents were both alive and able, as were his wife’s parents. His grandparents were dead, but why wouldn’t they be? He was young at the time of each of their deaths, younger than twelve for each, yet he was old enough to remember thinking that it was natural, if not obvious, that it would happen, that surely they should whither into nothingness, with their living skin already so wrinkled and spotted, their knuckles and backs curled and gnarled, their hair gone thin and colorless; news of their passing was the reiteration of a pre-existing fact. A little more than ten years ago, when he was seventeen, a close friend lost a sister in a car accident, and while he hated getting that news, it was less because of any sense of sympathy or grief than it was out of his own selfish discomfort when it came time to react; I’m sorry for your loss and my sympathies and she’s in a better place all seemed like terrible and disingenuous things to say, but there was nothing else to say, so he forced the words and felt cheap and empty while doing so. So, only in that self-centered way was he loath to have received the news.
However, when he was told that Lace was gone, and he was forced to reconcile the impossibility of it with the reality of the words spoken to him—what were the words now?—and combine that with his vivid memory of her, the poetry of her, the music of her, which came rushing back to him with the mention of her name, he could truthfully say that he’d never been so upended, never felt so halted, in all his life.
What were the words now? What was it that was said? For God’s sake, it was just moments ago and it was all missing already, passed by him without him thinking to seize it, and all that was left was the burning sensation on the front of every thought.
and you’ve got to be kidding and what do you mean and how did I not know this happened and no mistaking and how did I not know that it was going to happen
He’d been talking to this woman, this old friend of Lace’s, this woman to whom he hadn’t given a thought for years, and Lace’s name came up, and he asked after her, wondering what had happened to her in the years since he’d last seen her, and he received in return a look of puzzlement and ridicule, as if he had no business asking about Lace if he hadn’t known what happened. It was so many months ago! How dare he?
And he was hearing these words, this horrible news, and trying to form his own words, but all around was music and drinking and smoking and laughter, and he wanted those things to fade away and become background and leave him with this thoughts, but instead the distractions intensified and made it impossible to understand anything at all.
and please start over and please back up and pretend that I know nothing because I don’t and you’ve got to be kidding and how did I not know and why didn’t anybody say something sooner
Leading to this moment, he’d spent the night circling the room. He was pulled in by the faces he knew and he avoided the one’s he didn’t, because what if he was supposed have known them. That was until he came to this woman he once knew—what was her name?—and he spoke to her, and she told him about Lace, Lace who was killed in some treacherous accident on the other side of the country however many months ago.
Lace, who in his mind was still in his bed, where she said she never should have been, so many years ago, so many times, in his bed with long streaks of straight blond across his pillow and across her breasts, and smoke on her lips and blue in her eyes, and the window open and the early June air on their skin and the heat of their entwined bodies under the sheets. Softer, she said. Softer. Like the music of the ocean at night, Softer.
There must have have been so much to say, so much more to the story, but the version he received from this woman—yes, she was on the roof that night—seemed to suffer exhaustion, having been told too many times for the details or the emotion to have survived, and all that was left for him were the anemic facts. Lace had married Mark—as she’d seemed to know she was going to do, even so long ago—and they moved to Portland, and they set out one afternoon to go hiking and climbing and Lace fell from a ridge and that was all. That was all there was to be said about it. That’s what he was left with.
He released the woman who he once knew and whose name he no longer knew—yet she still knew to call him Miller—and he drifted around the party and drank so much so fast, and he gravitated to those who were familiar, but with everyone the conversation was the same, and he was received with uniform apprehension.
and did you hear and how could I not know and how could she not be helped and where is he her husband and where is her family and where is she and what is left and how could I not have known until now my God my fucking God how
Still, in all the confusion, in the whirlpool of people and apathy and ambiguity, he found himself caught in an eddy of profound certainty. If there was anything he knew now, though he’d never considered it before, it was that he was in love with a woman who was dead.
He drove home after the party, which he should not have done, and he put his cold and confused body into bed with his wife Emily, and he inched toward her heat. The familiar scent of her sleep filled him with guilt for having gone out without her, but he’d needed to do it.
They’d moved far out into the suburbs and lost touch with so many friends and social things because they thought that they’d finished with them. But he hadn’t finished. He wanted to see people he used to know and connect to other minds as he once did, to feel that symbiosis with everyone and everything around him. So an old friend, who still lived near the city, who still knew so many people, arranged the party. But all the faces there were changed and the people behind them were very different. Everyone was protective of themselves, and their collective freedoms and inhibitions had also been reduced, just as his had been. And there was the news of Lace, who was ripped from him, if she was ever his.
He didn’t sleep, but he watched Emily for hours while she slept, and he thought, without a shred of irony, that this was when he loved her the most. He was closest to her when it was quiet and still, when she couldn’t look away from him, when he could feel her without touching her, when miscommunication was impossible, and when the immediacy of any moment could not be the bane of their mutual meditation.
She would play when he asked her, but only when he asked, even though he knew that it gave her as much, if not more pleasure than it did him. So it was as if he was not making a request, but granting permission, and by forming the permission as a question, he was doing her the courtesy of removing the shame of her ego.
Her music was how they came to meet, when they were both twenty years old and living in flats on the east side of the city. He was home and it was late at night or early in the morning or whatever it was. Then there was music, live and in the distance, not loud, but permeating, carried down the road and through his open window like the smell of summer rain. So he and his roommate walked down the road and came to a home where three young women sat on the roof like sirens on a rock, two of them strumming guitars and all three of them singing and smiling and smoking. The two young men stood there and watched, drinking cans of beer from a box they’d carried along, and they raised their arms into the air and cheered, and the girls stopped singing and called down and told them to come up the back stairs and into the attic and through the window and out onto the roof, and that is where they met.
The girls were drinking wine and getting high and playing the roles of the bohemians that everyone wanted to be. The young man sat and watched and listened with so little to say himself because he felt out of his element, so outmatched in wit and ability that it was best for him to be silent, so that by way of not speaking he might say more.
Her sound was folksy and free and so feminine, and she played her instrument without ever looking at it, as if it was an extension of her, and it was. He was told to sing, too, but he didn’t, he couldn’t, because to participate would bring the moment crashing down around him.
She told him then that her name was Lace. He didn’t remember the names of the other two.
“What’s wrong with your fingers?”
“Nothing is wrong with them.”
“Why are the tips so hard? Are those blisters?”
He and Emily were sitting together at a retirement party for his boss, where they’d visited and mingled and now it was getting late and Emily was getting drunk and they were sitting alone and holding hands at a table in the corner. Emily was the one who got to drink, because it was she who didn’t know anyone and she who felt out of place and awkward, and it was he who didn’t want to drink with the people with whom he worked, because he was afraid of what he would say or what would be said of him. So Emily drank so that she could be loose and gregarious with her husband’s coworkers, and he did not so that he could be in control.
“They’re just callouses,” he said.
“Why do you have callouses?”
“They’re from playing guitar.”
“You’re joking …”
He just shrugged his shoulders.
“When have you been playing guitar? Where the hell did you get a guitar?”
“Keep it down.” She was going to get loud and careless with her tongue, he thought, because that’s what she did when she drank—that’s what anyone does when they drink—and he didn’t want anyone else to hear how they spoke to each other now. “I borrowed it.”
“A guy I work with. He’s got a couple of them.”
“Why the hell would you borrow a guitar? Why don’t I know this?”
“Is it important?”
“No, it’s just fucking weird.”
“Shh. It’s not weird. I just wanted to try to play. Maybe I didn’t tell you because you’d say it was weird.”
“It’s only weird because you didn’t tell me. Where do you play?”
“In the garage.”
“That’s fucking weird. I don’t care what you say. That’s fucking weird.”
They sat and the party thinned, then they stood and said their goodbyes, and he drove them both home in a mostly silent car. The party had been downtown and their home was west, and as they drove the traffic became lighter and the lights became fewer, until they were alone on dark roads.
“Everyone you introduced me to tonight was beautiful.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your friends. Most of them were women and they were all completely beautiful.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because it’s true. Should I not say it? Would you prefer that I not say it?”
“I just don’t know what you want me to say in response. Yes, some of them are very good looking.”
“They were all beautiful. And they all knew they were beautiful. And you know they’re all beautiful.”
“I guess they’re all beautiful people working there, aren’t they.”
“Oh no. No they’re not. Not all of them. Only the ones you’re friends with. Only the ones you introduced me to. Those are the beautiful ones. There were some very, very unattractive women there, too. Very homely. Very fat. But you’re not friends with them. You’re only friends with the ones that are beautiful.”
“I think you’re beautiful.”
“Okay. Right. Well, gosh, thanks a lot for that.”
Her name was Lacey, but she wanted to be called Lace. It was how she introduced herself. It was how she signed her name. “I was Lacey when I was twelve,” she said to him once.
It was after he’d called her Lacey.
He went to see Lace again the next night, the night after the roof, and that’s when she told him about Mark. She’d been with Mark for three years, since she was sixteen, and she was still with him, or so she said, even though he was living three hours away. Mark’s family was close with her family, and the two of them grew up together in that way that kids of close families do, like friends of friends but too young to know it, and when they were old enough they came together in that way that teenagers do, completely and obsessively. Together, they were all they had ever known. They grew up far north, and they came to the city together for University, too. But it was going to be summer now, and the semester was over, and he needed to go home to be with his family, and she’d found a job in the city, so for that time Lace was left there alone.
The young man sat on her bed and listened to her stories and listened to music with her, and she taught him to love Tracy Chapman and Leonard Cohen, and she told him what she heard in the music and he listened for it. They sat there and their legs were touching, their skin touching, and he looked at her feet, at her painted toes and the curve of her arches, and it meant something that she would be that way with him. He put his hand across her lap and pulled her into him, and he kissed her and pulled at her, and she told him he shouldn’t and that he needed to leave.
So he did.
The next night she called him on the phone late and woke him. Fifteen minutes later she was in his room. She’d brought her guitar with her.
He sat in bed with the computer on his lap and his wife sleeping beside him. He searched for information about Lace and her accident and about her life, and he did this on so many random nights, because he found solace in it, because knowing more, giving roots to his knowledge of her, slowed the erosion of his memories, and it made the two of them close again.
There were short articles in the Portland papers about the accident, and there was a photo of her, too, one that her family—one that Mark—probably gave them to run. The picture was from some formal event, not her wedding, but perhaps the wedding of someone else; she wore a strapless dress and a necklace and earrings and makeup, and it struck him as absurd, because he thought that that was not the way she’d want to be seen. It was not her. Her hair had been cut shorter than the way he remembered. Where her jewelry used to be made from beads and hemp, it was now metal and gems. Where her makeup used to be light and smoky, it was now red and garish. And there was something else missing, too. It was just a still image, just a moment in time, an instant, but in that instant he believed he heard the sound of her music stop.
Also in the picture someone had their arm around her, and on the edge of the photo was a sliver of that person’s face—an ear, a cheek—but the rest of them had been clipped off, tossed away by the news because they were not interesting. Probably because there were still alive. Probably because they had not fallen to their death from a rocky ledge and crushed themselves against the rocks below. It was probably Mark cut out of the picture.
And throughout all the articles, she was called “Lacey.”
For so many nights, the man was there in his bed, and he read the same articles over and over again until he’d exhausted their value to him, until he could squeeze no more from his memory and until she had no more life for him, and then there was nothing left. And he was there in his bed on so many nights with Emily at his side, and never once did he mention to her the name Lace.
She went to his house because that’s where she felt she wouldn’t be seen or reached by anyone. Night after night she stayed there, so reliably that she came to leave her guitar there when she left in the morning, having the full confidence of returning again that night.
They pushed his twin bed against the wall under his window, and they took out the screen so that they could see more clearly and so they could lie on the bed naked and put their feet out into the summer air, and they put an ashtray and a bottle of wine on the sill, and they drank and smoked and touched each other and kissed each other.
There was a night when she played a particular song; she was so involved in it that he couldn’t even be sure she knew he was there, and she sang it in that tired smoked voice of hers:
The bending of the sky
From end to end and then
The earth comes up to witness
And the sounds in the trees
Like time on its knees
And a shadow of you in the darkness
“Where does that come from?”
“I just wrote it a few days ago.”
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? Where did it come from?”
“It’s just a memory.”
“A memory of what?”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s not important.”
“Why write it if it’s not important?”
“I mean it’s not important to you.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because it’s true. It’s something very old. The thing itself doesn’t mean anything. You shouldn’t ask about it.”
“Then why don’t you write something about this? Write something you think matters to me.”
“No. Not now. Not for a while.”
“Why not now?”
“It’s better to write about memories. If I’m too close I use bad judgment. I need the meaningless words to fall away. If I leave enough time I forget everything that isn’t important and all I’m left with is the song.”
“A song that doesn’t matter.”
“I said it doesn’t matter to you.”
What it all came down to, the man had enough self-awareness to understand, was options. Lace had always been an option, if only because she had once been with him, if only by way of her beautiful life, if only by means of her continuing breath, she had been another place to go. But with her death came the realization that he had lost a chance to be someone other than who he was, and the person whom he had been when he was with her was who he desperately wanted to be. It didn’t matter that it had been years since he’d seen her, and it didn’t matter that it had been even longer since he’d touched her and she touched him.
Because a life without choices is a trap. How strong can a marriage be if there is no option for divorce? What good is faith if the thing to be believed is known true? He needed Lace to be alive again so that his decisions had meaning. Without her he was a slave.
There came a night in late July, a hot and clear night in the middle of the week, when he was home and in his room and expecting Lace, but she didn’t come, and she didn’t answer her phone, so he walked down the road to her home to see if her roommates knew where she was. From the road he could hear the music. It was not her music, but stereo music, and it was loud and pouring out of the open windows and onto the streets. He knocked and wasn’t heard and wasn’t surprised, so he went inside and there was Lace and her roommates and a man who he knew immediately to be Mark.
It was by instinct, not by recognition, that he knew Mark’s face. He’d never actually seen him before. There were pictures in Lace’s room that he refused to look at, and when Lace described him he refused to listen, but not because of anything to do with jealousy. Not at that time. Then it was more about pride, about the disgrace of having to acknowledge that he was a footnote, that someone else existed who could make him meaningless.
Lace had always said to him that she was confused, and that she was ready for change, and that she thought that she should leave Mark but she didn’t know when or how to do it, and that the man himself was at the heart of that confusion, that she’d met him and he planted this doubt in her about the relationship that she was in, and the doubt was growing and flowering. But there, while he was standing in that living room and looking at Lace and looking at Mark, there was nothing resembling confusion, even when the attention of everyone fell to him.
“Hey,” she said.
“Are you done with my guitar?”
“Ah, I’m not sure.”
“Mark, this is Miller, he lives down the road. Miller, that’s Mark.”
She’d cut him off before he could say anything stupid, anything that would incriminate her, and now she was calling him Miller, his last name, because it wasn’t at all personal, because it sounded like a nickname, the nickname of a girlfriend who drinks too much and weighs too much, not the name of someone whose bed you’ve shared and who you’ve taken inside you and to whom you’ve sung so many songs.
“I’d like to use it again tonight if that’s okay. That’s what I came to ask.”
“That’s fine, Miller. I won’t need it until tomorrow. Just don’t change the tuning; you break too many strings.”
“Have a beer, Miller,” Mark said. The can was in mid air and hurling toward him before he could answer.
“I don’t think so. Not tonight.”
“It’s okay,” Lace said. “Stay. Hang out awhile.”
And he did. The man stayed and drank and said very little while everyone else said so much and laughed so much, much like that first night on the roof, the man thought, when he found he was most comfortable when he didn’t speak, because it seemed that anything that he would say would be wrong, and that he would be better off by being the quiet guy, the guy who didn’t need to say anything because he had everything figured out, even though that wasn’t true at all.
So he was Miller for her.
He could see Mark from across the restaurant. It had been so many years since that night in Lace’s living room—was it seven years already? eight?—and it had been almost a full year since he’d seen that sliver of his face leached to the edge of the photo Lace, but it was definitely Mark.
The man was at a table with Emily, toward the rear of the dining area, but he was looking past her now, right at Mark, who was standing at the bar ordering drinks for himself and for a woman standing beside him. They were chatting, Mark and the woman, and they were smiling and touching hands, and the man was amazed by the scene.
“Who’s that?” said Emily.
“Who are you staring at?”
“I think I used to know that guy.”
“You’re not sure if you knew him or you’re not sure if it’s him?”
“What? No. Neither. I know it’s him but … never mind. It’s not important.”
“If it’s not important than why are you frustrated?”
“I just mean that it wouldn’t be important to you.”
He was there with Emily on their first night out and away from their baby who was two months old. His parents were in town for a weekend and they were watching the baby, and it was supposed to be healthy for the two of them to be away from their little boy for a night, and it was certainly healthy to be away from his parents, whose visits were so long and difficult, but so much had been made of getting out of the house together and being alone and being a couple again that it was not at all possible to meet either of their expectations, and their evening had quickly devolved into something obligatory and tiring. It was his night to drink, because Emily was nursing and could not. He did so anxiously and with a sort of internal fervor. He was trying to get somewhere inside himself, because he, though he loved his family and he loved his wife, had started to wish that he was able to use this time to spend by himself rather than with Emily, and he didn’t at all feel bad about it, because he had the sense that she wanted the same thing.
Now there was Mark in the same room with them, and he couldn’t stop thinking of the unlikelihood of that, and while his wife spoke he found himself missing significant portions of her words while he turned it all over in his mind. How was Mark here? He had lived here once before. For years he lived here. Then he moved away with Lace and Lace was smashed against the hard earth and became part of it, so Mark came back. Of course he did. Why wouldn’t he come back? Surely there was nothing left for him in Portland. So in that way it became obvious that he would be here.
Who was he with now? Who was he smiling with and touching and drinking with? They’d taken their drinks and went to a high table and stood next to each other.
“Can you check your phone?”
“I don’t want to miss a call from your parents. If we don’t hear it ring.”
“I’ve got it on vibrate.”
“Can you check anyway?”
“Yes, I can check.”
Obviously, Mark was dating again, already, and the man thought about how immediate it felt, and how disrespectful and distasteful it was to be carrying on as he was, and the posthumous indignity that Lace would suffer because of it. He saw that this woman that Mark was with looked nothing like Lace, and that idea froze him, and he wondered why he would have thought that she should, as if that was the only proper way for it to be.
Was this woman one of many? Was this the first time Mark had been out since the accident? Was he joined to this woman now, with her, with her at night and in the morning and connected in the expanse between? Or had he really been with her all along, for years, waiting for her, and losing Lace was the blessing for which he’d been praying and begging and hoping? Was it a relief to look down from that high trail along the coast, down over the edge and down to her bloodied and broken body?
To look at them now made it all seem likely.
The longer the man sat there and watched and seethed, the more he wanted to know. It began to seem within reason, completely justifiable, to stand and go to them and ask. He would walk up to the table where Mark and the woman were standing and he would ask Mark if he’d ever really loved Lace at all, or if he’d just been with her because it was convenient, because it was easier than getting out, because they had always been.
He stopped eating his food. He ordered another drink and finished it, and he could see that Emily was growing irritated, and that made him want even more to stand up and walk away, and he thought then that if he stood he really would go and talk to Mark. He’d walk up and say, Remember me? I’m Miller. And I fucked Lace because she wasn’t sure that she wanted you, but she went back to you anyway and she’s dead for it.
Just then, Mark turned from his table and walked to the rear of the restaurant, right past the man and Emily and down the hall to the restroom. And there was the chance. Right now, the man thought. Now.
He stood and told Emily that he’d be back in a minute. She looked at him as if to ask why, and he nodded toward the restroom as if to answer: a wordless exchange, free of the burden of explanation, and thus free of lies. When he started to walk he felt every drop he’d consumed fall into his legs and make them heavy and slanted, and he staggered for a moment trying to keep them under him. Still, he focused on the hallway, went toward it, then through it, then into the men’s room, and there was Mark, standing in relief of himself.
There was nobody else there with them. The two men were alone. There was every opportunity to step forward and open his mouth and speak, but it didn’t seem possible to talk, or even to begin. There was a complete loss of focus and balance, and he put a hand on the sink to steady himself. The room was a blur. If he could only open his mouth, he thought, open and say the first sentence, or just the first word, or only sound the first letter, it might all come rushing out.
He took a breath and stepped forward and said, “She wasn’t …” Then he froze.
Mark was still for a moment, then turned slowly and looked at him, studied him, then turned back to his business without so much as a blink of acknowledgment or recognition.
The man wanted to say more, but he didn’t, he couldn’t, because when Mark had turned and locked eyes with him for that brief moment, he somehow heard their entire exchange in a swirling rush of mad voices. All of the possible words between them, without ever being uttered or shouted, coursed through him. He heard himself say She wasn’t just for you, and She was mine once, too, and She wasn’t only yours, and Did you even care. And he heard Mark, who said Who the fuck are you, or She was never yours, Miller, or Yes, she told me she was with you, or It was me she died with.
And in hearing all those words, the relentless, contradicting echoes of them in his throbbing head, he felt the futility of everything, everything, everything come upon him.
and for what and for why and what is the point and the purpose and what am I doing and how could this happen and how do I not know and who am I and what do I want from this and to what end to what end to what end
Then, from inside the confusion came Mark’s voice. “What do you want?”
But the man didn’t know. How could he know? He remembered so little now, and he panicked again, and he only thought to ask, “Do you remember her at all?” And what an absurd thing to say.
Mark turned around and went to the sink and washed his hands, scrubbing hard and letting the water get as hot as possible, scalding, turning his skin red. The man watched him do this, watched the mirror above the sink steam over and their reflection sink into mist.
Then Mark answered. “I remember her dead eyes. By the time I could climb down to her, her eyes had been open into the sun for hours. Burning. And sand and dirt had blown into them and stuck to them. The back of her head was split, and everything around her was red and black from her, but I just focused on her eyes. Baked and brown. So, if you want to know, that’s what I remember about her now.”
While Mark spoke, the man saw those things, as well. There was truth and vividness in the words, and he was taken by them to that very place, so that he, too, was standing at the bottom of the cliff and looking over Mark’s shoulder into the empty, earthen wells where her eyes used to live but no longer did. There was no shine, no music in them, like two balls of dirty burlap pressed into a mound of cold flesh.
Then there were no more words between them; the only sound in the room was the water where Mark continued to wash. The man went there alongside Mark and put his hands in, and they stood there and washed together, their skin burning under the faucet, until neither one of them could tolerate it any longer. Then they both walked out without drying their hands or speaking another word to the other.
Seated again at the dinner table, the man looked down at his plate, so cold and stiff now, and he looked up at Emily, so much the same, so abandoned, and he looked around for Mark and the woman, but he did not see them. But in his mind, imposed over everything else, he saw Lace’s still and silent eyes.
“I can’t be here anymore,” he said, flexing his fingers, the skin over his knuckles tight and tender.
“I’m glad someone said it. What happened to your hands?”
“Nothing. I’m fine. But I want to go somewhere else.”
“Let’s go to the lake. Let’s go and just walk the beach.”
“Would that be okay?”
“Yes. I think so. Is it safe?”
“Yes. We did that once before. Years ago.”
“I don’t think we did. I don’t think I’ve been there at night.”
“But we were, weren’t we? Don’t you remember that night when we took off our shoes to walk in the sand, and we walked through the water? It was so cold. And when it was done we couldn’t find our shoes and we walked home with bare feet?”
“You must be thinking of someone else.”
“I don’t think that I am.”
“Maybe you’re right. I’m sorry.”
“But I am.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lee L. Krecklow is a fiction writer living in the Milwaukee area. His stories have appeared in The Madison Review and in Midwestern Gothic, and he recently completed work on a novel titled “Fiction.” You might find him lurking at www.leelkrecklow.com.