We’d been playing pretend for almost a year and he still wouldn’t go back to his life. Meade wouldn’t acknowledge he had another life at all, though he’d bring me into it in ways, mentioning how Cole seemed to like me, driving me by the ranch where he and Cole and his wife had lived before the great domestic unraveling. Testing, I suppose, fantasizing—feeling at the edges to see how I might be assimilated into his greater life.
Meade was cleaning out my apartment cabinets and making lists of domestic goods he thought I needed. I found his possessiveness comforting, though I admitted that to no one.
He said, “You need paper towels.”
I said, “You have a wife who may or may not actually want a divorce.”
He touched his ear with his thumb, just the quickest gesture. I prided myself on being able to recognize his myriad ticks. He could have been brushing away a fruit fly, for whatever I didn’t have, I had fruit flies. We’d tossed all the produce weeks ago, and the flies still rose from the dark when we opened a drawer for a fork. A friend said to fill a mason jar an inch full with vinegar then make a funnel from a sheet of paper and slide the funnel into the jar. This paper chute was supposed to steer the flies to an acidic death. We’d filled the jar and it had sat on the counter for a week next to a piece of plain white paper. Neither of us seemed able to roll and insert the killing device.
Meade said, “You also need aluminum foil. Then we could save leftovers when we cook.”
It happened like that a lot—something I needed subtly moved into something for both of us.
“And a son,” I said. “You have a maybe wife and a son.”
“New dishtowels, too,” he said.
“Meade,” I said. The room was too quiet. I wished fruit flies made noise, like the blood-sluggish horse flies Meade had pointed out when he drove me to his ranch because he wanted to show me where he’d come from. “Where I’ll probably always be,” he’d said and ground a cigarette out in the gravel, got quiet under his moment of self-pity. I don’t think he’d had anything in mind but to show me that road and that house and let me feel that wind and see those rocky pastures after months meshed together on my floor and in my bed.
Cole would be getting out of school soon. He was the first one picked up in the mornings and the last one dropped off in the afternoons, and the bus ride home was nearly an hour long. That was one of about five facts Cole had shared with me the one time we’d met. Meade had called me at work and said, “Come to the Perkins up the highway for lunch. I got a surprise.” The surprise turned out to be an eleven year old boy, shaggy blond hair squirting out from below a Colorado Rockies cap, drinking a Cherry Coke through a straw, and looking very little like his father, whose face and body I knew well—the small brown eyes edged at their corners with crow’s feet, the acne scars along his shoulders, the ankle he’d dislocated twice being thrown from the same horse and which popped when he stood up, the huge calloused hands.
Cole had told me the ride wasn’t so bad in the afternoons. He enjoyed watching the other kids climb off the bus, liked waiting to see if they’d run up to their houses or skulk back with their heads hang-dog low, dreading it all.
In January and February, Meade drove the half-mile down to the head of the ranch road to meet the bus. “I walk it in December and March,” Cole had said. “December and March aren’t really winter. Dad says they’re like the preamble and the postscript.” I knew Meade was imagining me sitting beside him in the cab this winter, waiting at the end of a dead gravel road for a boy who was not my own.
“Meade,” I said, “I have to go to work.”
He closed the kitchen drawer and looked up at the window. We could see the brick side of St. Anthony’s with its red and gold stained glass windows. The clock on the church’s steeple face had been broken for two weeks now, and we’d spent a lot of afternoons speculating about when men would come with scaffolding to fix time. This was in between talking about when it would snow. Talking about that seemed easy still. Meade said it always snowed a little in October in Montana.
“I’m saying what if I don’t want all that,” I said.
He opened a cabinet and said, “It doesn’t change its being there.”
Then I walked out of the apartment, leaving Meade with the fruit flies and the view of St. Anthony’s. I was going to walk until my feet felt as cold as Cole’s stomping down that ranch road in December and March. And when I got home, I knew I’d find Meade on the thick brown rug in the living room with his feet up on the couch. Sometimes he was so much like a confused boy that I couldn’t look away from him.
Greg Brown‘s fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Epoch, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he lives in western Maine with his daughter and his partner and is working on a novel about family mythology, Penobscot Bay, native river rights, and a territorial lobstering feud.