Hard Little Shadows in the Early Morning Sunlight
Alan swerved hard across the path of a semi, prompting a horn blast from the driver perched behind the truck's wide eyes that flooded the car with an angry stare. Leaving the interstate was a last-minute decision—giving in to some urge toward the dim farmland that unfolded behind a shabby-looking restaurant a few miles inside the Virginia state line. As he coasted down the ramp, Alan was surprised that the sun was already shooting pink cracks into clouds along the horizon. He must have become hypnotized by the long night of gray highway he had crumbled under the wheels.
Turning into the diner's parking lot, he thought of the way dawn came to his and Gail's bedroom back in Dallas. There was a plain square mirror mounted on the back of the dresser across the room from their bed, a cold eye never blinking. Alan was a poor sleeper and knew a lot about the sights and sounds of their apartment during the long hours with little numbers. He always woke before Gail, and he lay many mornings watching their paired reflections grow more detailed and lifelike in the mirror, as daylight nudged into the room and tried to persuade him that the furniture and bookshelves were real. Sometimes Gail lay flat on her back, hardly breathing, hands crossed over her chest, unnerving him with the depth of her sleep. Other times she snuggled up to him on her side, breath pleasantly live and rough against his shoulder, restless in the last half-hour before waking, murmuring half-intelligible fragments of dream talk.
She had wanted to make the trip with him, and he had rejected the idea, hurting her, he could tell, and sorry for it, but not changing his mind. She pointed out that they had lived together for almost two years, had even talked about marriage, and that she wanted to be there when he needed her, whenever and wherever that might be. He stopped himself from pointing out that all the talk about marriage had been Gail's.
Wanted to be there, she had repeated, cutting in when he attempted a reply beginning with, "You don't have to do that." It wasn't because she had to.
"You may need me," she said, a naked undertone in her voice.
Alan refused. His excuse, that his family hadn't met her and he didn't want to introduce her during such a difficult time, fell flat even to his own ears, and she had turned away without answering.
He only knew for sure that he wanted to be alone on the long overnight drive, hundreds of miles of highway visited in the early a.m. by himself and the lonely semis dragging their whirlpools of wind that rocked his car as they lumbered by. It was like being at the edge of the world.
Alan sat in the car for a minute, hoping he wouldn't be so tired after having some breakfast and a break from the road. The funeral was not until evening. Still, he should push on the last fifty or sixty miles and be with his mother and sisters. The interment would be the next day, and he would not be staying after. He had not been home for years.
Alan had stopped once in the night to cry, hot tears surprising him as they tracked down his cheeks, his breath like a hard ball he was trying to work up through his throat. He had pulled over into I-40's emergency lane and wept there, cars and trucks zooming by a few feet away. Now he felt flat and emptied, his eyes grainy, as if they had sand under the lids. He knew that closing them would bring nothing back to him except the road markings rushing up to crouch under the car.
He yawned and ground his fists into his eyes. There was a small, crisp sound, like rubbing dry lichen from the side of a boulder, and smears of dark dust on the backs of his hands. He swiveled the rearview around to look and saw that his eyelashes had crumbled away, his eyes red-rimmed and naked and like someone else's.
Alan carries his best memory of childhood with him like a creased photograph in the back of his wallet. He has forgotten everything else.
He is four years old, maybe five. His father comes home from a two-week drinking spree and wakes him in the middle of the night, barging into his room like a wild bear and scooping little Alan up in his arms. Alan blinks at the light, unable to understand what is going on, but not frightened, pressing into his father's broad chest and carried along in the strong arms and the smell of beer and sour breath. His father steps deliberately, carefully down the stairs, Alan's mother following in her nightgown, urging caution in a hard whisper.
Though Christmas has been over for a week, there is a big tree in the living room, shining full of colored lights, wrapped gifts piled under its branches. When his father sets him down, Alan can only stand there in his pajamas, staring, enraptured. There had been no tree when he went to bed a few hours earlier, so his father must have come home and done it all while Alan slept. His mother, working double shifts or sleeping away her days off with the help of pills, hasn't even told him that it was Christmas, though he has known and fiercely guarded the secret, sensing that sharing the knowledge would sadden her for reasons he doesn't understand.
"Go on," his father says, giving Alan a clumsy push toward the gifts. "Open them. They're all for you."
Outside, he was shocked by the cold. He had been closed up in the car since stopping for gas in Tennessee and had not noticed the change in the weather as he drove north, heater vents purring. The surrounding trees and fields had been stripped of green for the season, a skeletal landscape he had forgotten during the Texas winters. The wind slicing across the restaurant's parking lot smelled like snow. His long shadow swung dizzily from his feet as he walked under arc lights toward the door. A half-moon on the horizon blinked when the wind swayed a branch across it.
Inside the restaurant, the smell of breakfast was fried grease and coffee. He chose a table by the window and looked around. Truckers and farmers, local people mixed with those drifting in off the interstate, were eating together, their reflections fading from the windows as the sky brightened.
The waitress came to Alan's table, pulling her order pad from a pocket of her apron. She wasn't wearing a real uniform, just a sweatshirt and jeans under the silly apron patterned in pink and white checks with a lace border. She was about 40, worn-looking. She wasn't chewing gum, but Alan wished she were. That would have completed an image he carried in his head of the middle-aged waitress slogging through the overnight shift.
"Hi," she said. "What can I get for you?"
Alan wondered if he was hungry. He ordered two eggs, bacon, and toast.
"And coffee," he said. "Please, lots of coffee."
When she came back with his food, he made a point of noticing the nameplate pinned to her apron. It paid to notice names.
"Thank you, Elaine," he said, wanting to talk. "Been here all night?"
"Honey, I never leave. Been here all night with another shift to go." She smiled, despite her fatigue. It made her pretty and young for a moment. Then, really seeing him now, she looked too long at his face, two tiny creases of frown line appearing at the sides of her mouth.
She turned away.
As he ate, Alan imagined it might be possible for him to abandon his trip and stay there. Not in the restaurant, of course, but in some little town not far away. He could get a job and rent a house, be one of the local people who nodded at each other as they entered or left the room, one of the men the waitresses knew by name. He would let the years settle on him like soft snow.
Biting down on a forkful of bacon and scrambled egg, Alan felt a dark flash of pain shoot from his jaw up the right side of his face. He probed with his tongue, and spat a thin string of blood and two molars out onto his plate, one with a gray lump of metallic filling in a hollow. He put a finger in his mouth and felt the remaining teeth one by one. They all wobbled.
Alan left a good tip for Elaine beside his plate. He pushed out through the doors and felt the early morning air on his face. The eastern sky glowed. Runners of fog like long white tongues were pulling back into hollows. He noticed a telephone booth in the corner of the parking lot and went over, rehearsing the number.
Alan heard the telephone ringing halfway across the country and thought of the still-dark mirror watching Gail stir and reach across his empty half of the bed. Her voice would be throaty and puzzled, half afraid, that anyone was calling so early. He was trying to hold on to her details.
"Hello," Gail said.
Through the phone, Alan sensed the bedroom tensing around her as she waited for someone to answer. He opened his mouth but had no voice.
"Alan . . . ?" she whispered, his name small and alien in the black circle of the telephone receiver.
Gail sobbed once, and the telephone clicked into a dial tone. Alan felt her dissolving, hundreds of miles distant, her body breaking up into minute whirls of mist and melting into the air. He leaned his head against the cool glass of the booth for a full minute. Something thumped into the coin return. Dully, Alan opened the return, and the little finger from his right hand dropped out onto his palm, its chipped nail pointing at him in accusation. It must have fallen into the slot when he was putting money in the phone. Alan hadn't even noticed it was missing. He touched the exposed white ball of the joint where the finger had been attached and decided it would not fit back on, so he left it there in the booth.
He felt he could simply fold up on the ground and sleep for days. Instead, he wandered around behind the restaurant, where the fields opened up. Winter birds peeled away from a tree and twirled acrobatically. Sunlight shimmered now across the sky like wind on a puddle, illuminating the assemblage of discarded objects at the edge of the field, rocks of different sizes, cigarette butts, a bloody knife, a doll's head, a soiled and rain-swollen paperback whose title he couldn't read. Each object had its own hard little shadow, dark as ink, like nicks or tears scattered in the landscape, reminders that the night would be coming back.
He picked up one of the shadows and cradled it like a piece of broken black mirror, studying his reflection on its surface. The shadow huddled into Alan's warmth. He set it down, and it chirped contentedly and pressed against the side of his shoe for a moment before scurrying off through weeds to hide in the lee of a stone. Alan gazed out across the field, shading his eyes. He couldn't see the other side, only a few bare treetops, waving for help where they were drowning in fog. He started walking.
James Owens's stories have appeared in The Nautilus Engine and The Harrow, and two collections of his poems were published in 2007. He lives in La Porte, Ind. He writes a lot. When he isn't writing, he sometimes does other things.