"Let's fuck," Steve said lazily, slipping his hand over her far breast, fingering its nipple.
They lay in the darkness. The creek to their left looked a black path through the thick cattails and purple loosestrife, both colorless in the moonlight. To their right lay darkness. In the day, there'd be a slice of blue where the bridge divided and then a rectangle of bright light further on. In the night it was just black.
"I'm tired of sex," she replied irritably, pushing his hand away, "You know what day yesterday was?"
A truck could be heard in the distance. Its headlights danced crazily on the oak trees which stood on the high ground beyond the bridge. Its Doppler shifting roar engulfed them.
"The day before today," he sighed, slipping his hand down over her stomach, veering over the hard bone of her hip, back over her thigh and down into her pubic hair, finally coming to rest, cupping her sex.
"Did anyone remember the date? Did my Mom? Did she even think of me like once? How about my sister? Huh? Did she?"
"Your Mom's getting up there," he said, his middle finger finding her moist little spot and caressing it lightly.
"I am so not in the mood." She took his hand and plopped it down on his cock. "And when you get old you're supposed to have trouble forming new memories, not hanging onto old ones."
"And your sister's daughter just had a baby. Your sister has plenty on her mind."
"My Mom has no trouble remembering that! She talks about nothing else at the Senior Center. She sits in the craft room and knits booties and bores all the other seniors to tears about her great granddaughter. She's one eighth related to her. I'm one half. She should be remembering her own daughter."
"That baby has one crucial advantage over you," he whispered, putting his hand back on her knee and leaning over and kissing her neck. "Let's fuck, it passes the time."
"Screw you," she said jumping up, banging her head on the low steal of the bridge's understructure.
He laughed easily. "Wish you'd act on that thought, honey. But I'm equally happy to sleep."
He watched as her dim form picked its way off the cement, down the thorny dirt path to the water. He could just faintly see her in the mist and moonlight. He could hear the splash as she slid into where the water pooled, waist deep. He idly rubbed his cock where it lay half erect against his belly. He watched her pale form splashing water under her arms and onto her face. A car whined overhead. She climbed back up into the darkness. She bent and picked up some bit of clothing. From the way she twisted he knew it was her bra. When she was dressed, he said lazily, "My Mom remembered, she called my brother from Florida, she said, 'If it wasn't for that little tramp my Stevey would be alive today.'"
"Asshole," she replied.
With a chuckle he closed his eyes and dropped off to sleep.
The garage lights of the house on his right flicked on, his dog setting off its motion sensors as she trotted along at the end of her flexi-leash. In the yard to his left a large billowing orange pumpkin softly whirred to itself, its jaws stupidly gaping. Inside those jaws two small white plastic ghosts slowly revolved around an invisible center. The house on the corner displayed an inflated pumpkin too and a large white smiling ghost and a swaying green and purple witch.
His dog paused and stuck her nose into some dry leaves. He hauled on the leash with a muttered, "Stop it!" She had a habit of consuming disgusting rubbish and then throwing it up later, all over the rug.
It was 5:30 on Columbus Day morning. The air was crisp and cool. A scattering of sturdy suburban stars glinted in the clear sky, overcoming the nearby streetlights, the lights from the interstate interchange a mile a way, the quarter moon, and the glow of the city to the north. He could make out Orion in the southwest sky and if he concentrated he could just see the faint glitter of the sword. The horizon to the east held just the faintest yellow green promise of coming erasure.
The flashing red and white lights of an early plane crossed near the moon. He could just hear the whisper of its roar, the airport was quite some distance away.
He had to get to work, Columbus Day not being one of his company's holidays. He liked to get to work early, the first hour or so when it was just him, a single island of light in a dark line of cubes, was the best.
At the corner he and the dog crossed North St and walked up the drive and into the Oak Hill Cemetery. The grass and the gravestones and the trees and the winding drive were all various shades of gray. A thin gray mist hung low over the ground.
Next to a few of the graves faint red lights gleamed. These would shine for a week or so until their AAA batteries gave out and people forgot to replace them. On holidays people would remember and the early morning cemetery would be dotted here and there with pinpricks of light, eclipsed now and then as he walked by trees and stones.
As this was by far the nicest place to walk his dog, he was often in the cemetery. He didn't need the light of day to know that the dim obelisk on his left was for a Colonel James Rutledge, of the 5th Ohio, died April 6, 1862. Or that the granite boulder on his right marked a Thomas Worth, died December 5, 1918 and that the little rocks clustered around it each bore just one name: "Gertrude - wife," "Jane - daughter", "Lydia - daughter", "Thomas - son", "Susan - mother".
With more light, you'd be able to see little flags stuck in the ground, signaling some stones as special, marking the dead who'd served. Sometimes the cord of his dog's leash would catch and snap one of these and he'd guiltily bend and stuff its stump back into the dirt.
He turned onto a path that circled under some trees and around a low boggy pond. It was even darker here and he could only tell where the path was by its extra emptiness, the absence of the vague shapes of trees and graves, and the feel of the gravel under his shoes.
From the bog rose the delicate last whiff of Concord grapes. Their vines lay tangled deep in a riot of thorny blackberry bushes. He'd only managed to get at one bunch when he'd tried a couple weeks before. In August, he and his dog'd spent a peaceful summer hour or two picking the blackberries. He'd dropped his into a tupperware container, from habit really, as there was no one else at home to eat them on ice cream or cereal, she'd just selfishly swallowed hers, her lips carefully pulled way back to avoid the thorns, daintily biting the berries where they hung.
On the hill to his left lay the oldest graves, dating to 1815 when the first settlers'd arrived. The stones were slate and even if it were noon, you couldn't read them due to time and acid rain.
He passed a newish section, the stones polished granite. Here one of the little red lights glowed. Dawn coupled with its dim light let him make out the inscription: "Little Sarah, January 11, 2005 - August 24, 2005, Never Ending Kisses". A small wrought iron trellis had been pushed into the dirt beside the stone, from it hung in ziplock plastic bags: a stuffed bunny, a closed board book, a tiny pair of feet-in pajamas, and a set of wind chimes which dinged softly in the slight breeze. Fresh cut flowers arranged in a plastic pumpkin had been added as a seasonal touch. Several pots of vigorously blooming chrysanthemums sat in front of the stone. One of the cemetery's wooden benches had been shifted so it was next to the path, just beside the grave.
He and his dog followed the path back to the drive. The cemetery's main field stretched flat before him. He could see the inflated witch and the pumpkin and the loopily grinning ghost, shrunk but not improved by distance. The lights of a car, probably the newspaper deliverer, slid along North St, slowing in front of several of the houses. The band of dawn in the east was noticeably brighter, more yellow.
"Pretty isn't it."
The voice startled him. He saw that a young woman sat on one of the stones, one of the ones with a little American flag stuck next to it. His dog approached her, tail wagging, stretching the flexi-leash.
"Well, hello there," she said to the dog, holding out her hand in a friendly fashion.
"It is pretty," he said.
They remained quiet, the girl scratching behind his dog's ears. "Look," she said suddenly, "An owl."
Indeed he did see something gray float silently across his vision, vanishing as if it'd never been into the line of trees on a little hill on the left.
"I saw deer grazing up there one morning," he said, "Dart saw them too. Snapped her damn collar when she went after them."
"I'm sure she enjoyed herself."
"Yeah," he said, remembering her frantic yips of joy as she'd vanished in hot pursuit.
"Come on Dart," he called to the dog, but she paid him no mind.
The girl said, "You know, that stupid ghost over there doesn't add anything. I could like really do without it. Why put out something mass-produced, like made by the million in China, that everyone else has?"
"And that's ugly to boot."
"Yup. Come November, the witch will change into a football player; the ghost, a turkey; and the pumpkin will become I don't know what."
"Maybe a sales item."
"Right. At Christmas, there'll be a Santa, a snowman and an elf. At Easter there'll be a pink rabbit, and a couple eggs. It's disgusting. And while I'm complaining, I'll mention that I don't really like the grave lights either. What's up with them? Do the dead need help seeing where they're going? I don't think so. And, I can hardly wait for young Sarah to get a younger sister. If they put out a Christmas tree again this year, I swear I'm gonna take matters into my own hands."
Her voice, which in the dimness was her most pronounced feature was light, attractive and ironical. He could see that she wore jeans and a light jacket of a dark color. Her hair dark, colorless yet in the morning gloom.
"Still, it's a pretty morning."
"Yes," he agreed.
"Imagine though, if old Ichabod Crane should find himself here, what would he think when he saw that ghost and witch, and those grave lights! They'd sure scare the bejesus out of him. He'd like take to his heels in earnest."
"He was on horseback I think."
"Whatever." She went back to looking out over the cemetery.
"Come on, Dart," he called to his dog. She was staring into a tree, fancying she could hear some awakening squirrels.
Then the girl said, "This place just makes me sad. It's an oubliette. A place to be forgotten."
"With all the names? I'd say just the reverse."
"Right, a name and two dates, neither of which found the person at anything like their best."
"This is my fa..., my grandfather's grave," she patted the granite under her, "See the child's flag? He was in the army in Sicily and Italy. In a tank. After the war he went to college. He taught high school chemistry and physics the rest of his life. I, I mean my mother had him, she said he was a good teacher. He never went into a VFW or American Legion once. It was teaching he was proud of, that and being the music director at church. He played the organ and directed the choir. What do people think when they walk by? 'There lies a soldier' if anything."
"You remember him," he said.
She glanced at him through the corners of her eyes, her lips forming just the slightest of smiles. His eyes met hers and he felt warmed.
"In time though, only the lie will remain."
"Come on, Dart," he called, this time tugging hard on the leash. He nearly fell over as she came easily, trotting ahead as if moving on'd been her idea and he was the reluctant one.
The grass had become faintly green, the trees slightly yellow and gold and brown. Only one of the stars, a planet probably, remained visible, the rest of the sky had been swept clean. The mist was now pure white. Soon it too would thin and vanish.
When he turned and looked back, he saw the girl walking the other way, toward the Main St entrance. On the far side of Main St he could see the "24x7", a convenience store with a drive-in window for coffee and donuts. A few early pickup trucks were waiting, in an hour the line would be obstructing the street.
He admired the way she walked and wondered what she was doing out and about so early. A strange one, he thought. He shook his head to clear it and started walking toward home again. He remembered that last glance, the sort of glance you longed to get from a pretty girl, that you got maybe once in a lifetime.
His once'd come from someone he'd likely never see again.
Just then his dog finally squatted and put the grass to the use God intended and he had to busy himself pulling a plastic bag from his pocket, bending and picking up after her. It occurred to him that the sight of a citizen stooping behind his dog would be as unsettling to the old time settlers as ghostly grave lights.
An hour or so later he stood in the doorway of one of the coveted window cubes. He sipped his coffee, looking out at the parking lot. Though the sun was now a good foot above the horizon, their offices faced west so the line of trees beside the drive was brightly lit but the office interior was still dim. Behind him, in the center aisle, his cube's work light gleamed.
He thought of the girl. How unexpected their conversation had been. He tried to avoid thinking of the email he'd gotten from his younger son Thad, sent at 1AM, "Pop, wont b bk 4 thxgvng. wd b 2 weerd." He would be by himself on Thanksgiving.
The overhead lights flicked on, accompanied by their strangely loud hum. The lights and especially the hum annoyed him, though he knew that he would soon cease to hear the later.
"You make the coffee for a change?" Chuck called out, slinging his laptop bag into his cube.
"Nah," he returned, lying as he always made the first pot, "There was still plenty of Friday's last batch left. I just put it back on the burner. Saving money for the company."
"You're full of shit like always," Chuck said a moment later, coming out of the kitchen sipping from his mug.
After a moment Chuck said, "You know, you don't look so good. You're not coming down with something are you?"
"Maybe," he replied.
"Then thanks for coming in, man, you know how the air circulates in this place! We'll all be sick tomorrow cause'a you."
He turned, faked blowing toward his fellow worker, then said, "I'd better be getting back to work."
Attendance at the lunch table later was sparse, just he and two other guys. Most of his fellows'd taken the day as a vacation day or declared it a floating holiday, you got two.
Usually he just let the lunch conversation flow over him, not understanding references to television or movies and being uninterested in sports.
Today he got asked, "So how are you and your wife surviving the empty nest?"
He didn't respond. He wasn't paying attention. He felt sad and was trying to remember the girl's face in the gathering light and her voice.
"Hello! Are you there?"
"I was wondering how you and your wife were surviving with no kids at home?"
"Just fine," he answered, "In a lot of ways it's not so different from last year. Every year you see less and less of them."
"Sounds nice," his questioner, Chuck, sighed, "Mine're all over me when I'm home."
"They soon get over being three and six."
"Your kids coming home for Thanksgiving?"
"The younger guy, Thad is. His older brother's going to his girlfriend's family in Atlanta."
"He thinks so."
"It'll be just the three of you?"
"Lot's of left-overs then."
"Nah. I found this site on the web. You can order these frozen turkey chicks. At three weeks each's just the right size for one person. Makes a very festive serving too."
"Yeah. It's like each of you is the family patriarch, carving his own big bird."
"You're kidding right?"
"The beauty is they only take 10 minutes to roast. We can sleep in. Up at 11:45 and still serve at 12:30. They come with a complementary magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers for the wishbones."
For most of the afternoon he sat still in his cube, hardly thinking. He thought about the girl in the dawn light, thought about her voice, thought about how she'd looked walking away, what her little smile and eyes had looked like.
She kept him from thinking of his kids, his wife, and the fiction he maintained at work about his wife and about his younger boy now too.
On the way home that afternoon he stopped to buy milk at the "24x7", the convenience store on Main St, across from the cemetery. They charged a dollar less a gallon than the supermarkets. When his two kids'd been home and they'd been putting away a gallon a day, that dollar'd been important. Now not so much.
The girl stood behind the register. It was quite a shock to see how pretty she was. Pale skin with dark arching eyebrows over bright brown eyes, a slight band of freckles on her cheeks. It was all he could do to walk past her and back to the refrigerators for the milk. He felt confident she wouldn't recognize him. He certainly wouldn't say anything.
A gray haired woman, roughly his own age, was at the register before him, buying a package of Pampers. She looked a bit familiar, possibly the mother of one of his sons' friends, or maybe he'd seen her at school band concerts or drama club performances.
He thought the girl looked a little tense as she made change. The woman said to the girl, "Do I know you?"
The girl shook her head.
"Maybe you know my daughter, Susan? She was Susan Westerly? Now Susan Highgartener. No? She was class of 2001."
The girl said briefly, "Wasn't my year."
"Oh well, these are for her new baby. My granddaughter! She called and said she was about running out."
The woman laughed, "See you," she said automatically and took her purchase. Turning she glanced at him without interest. She showed no sign of recognition. He felt a bit of loneliness. Despite having lived in that town for 20 years, it was rare that he ran into anyone he knew and then it was usually some parent from when his kids were little, with whom there'd been exchanged play dates. Most often he couldn't remember their names.
"Well, if it isn't my fellow restless spirit," the girl greeted him as he placed the plastic quart on the counter.
He felt a surge of stupid gratitude.
"Will that be all? We do sell the inflatable lawn ornaments, you know. The variety pack gets you like not only Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, BUT NOW, Valentine's day and President's day as well. A cupid, a condom, and a Bush." She paused, "One of those is a joke," she grinned, "That'll be 75 cents."
"Hello?" she asked when he just stood there.
The door swung open, sounding the bell, and a pair of young guys came in, their van sat idling in the parking lot, "Arnold & Sons" over "Plumbing, Heating and Cooling". Their eyes lit up at the sight of her. One nudged the other.
He pulled himself together. "That's it, thanks," he said, reaching into his pocket for the change. As he paid, his hand touched hers for just an instant.
The two guys approached the counter, each with a six pack. "Give me a pack of Marlboros and five Mega Millions. I'm feeling lucky."
"If you were really lucky, one would do," she observed, then "Bye!" she called to him as he pushed out of the door into the bright fall sunshine.
He unlocked the door to his dim silent house. All was quiet for a moment, then there was the sound of frantic paws on the stairs, pounding like rain on a car. Dart banged into him with her forepaws and then began spinning in a tight circle at his feet, trembling with joy. Looking at her, he remembered how not that long ago his two boys, maybe 4 and 7, would sit in the grass by the drive at about the time he was likely to drive up from work. How they'd at first try to be cool, standing side by side by the car door, saying a solemn "Hi Dad", then they'd break down and be all over him.