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Squinting my eyes at the sudden brightness, I could see Thomas through the window. He was washing the dishes, bleary-eyed and trembling carelessly. I turned the brass doorknob that he always left unlocked with my hand warm inside my oversized fleece sweatshirt. The door creaked slightly, welcoming me with a friendly moan after twelve long years. “Hey.”
He raised his eyes and turned off the faucet, steam rising in swirls from the water that had not yet been gulped down by the drain. “Hey.” His coolness was astonishing, but it soothed the nervous feeling in my stomach away, just the mollification I needed. There was a strong scent of alcohol, perhaps rum and Coke, on his breath. He wiped his hands on the bleach-stained pants I had accidentally ruined so long ago in an attempt to sanitize his bathroom, known for walls stained with black-mold and God knows what else. “What’s goin’ on?” he said, without so much as a look of wonder in his eyes.
“Oh, nothing, uh . . . “
“C’mon, you can sit. Make yourself at home. I see you’ve got a baby in your belly.” He glanced at my bulging pregnant stomach and pulled a wooden chair from his cluttered little table, letting it make a scrape scrape scraping sound on the linoleum floor.
As I took a seat, I spoke. “Mark and Dickey thought I’d come down here. They said . . . you . . . like your cup of tea.” (Although I didn’t say so, I had known something serious must have been going on with Thomas, because Dickey and Mark were no angels themselves.)
“Hey, Janie, you want something to drink?”
“Uh . . . no, thanks, I don’t think I should what with the baby and all.”
“Oh, no, sorry, Janie. I meant, like tea or coffee. You know, like you’re supposed to offer company.”
“Oh, I’ll have a cup of tea. Thanks.”
I watched Thomas’s clumsy motions as he reached up into his cabinet to get a cup, then waited for the tea to boil. At that moment, I almost wished I could be like the tea pot. Remember that old preschool song? I just wanted to be able to screech and hiss as loud as I wanted, but best of all, everyone around me would understand what I was trying to signal them to.
Once we were situated with our tea, we sat for a few minutes, each of us simultaneously sipping from his dirty old mugs with the remnants of bread crumbs and dead flies and just about everything else under the sun encrusted on the interiors. As we sat there, Thomas remained relaxed and I remained nervous and jittery.
I needed to say more to him, yet no further words could fall from my chapped lips, which my now seemingly essential biting didn’t help. I had said what I needed to say—that he should stop drinking—and he had resisted me. Thomas understood what he was doing to himself, yet he masked his understanding with a sort of feigned ignorance. Such was an ignorance that no friend of his dared question, for this would result not only in his frustration, but in that of the cautioner, too.
As a disruption to the awkward silence lingering in the quickly chilling air, Thomas stood up, and, without a word, proceeded nonchalantly across his kitchen and to the door. I followed him, simply by instinct, and before I knew it I was riding shotgun in his old rusted-out pick-up.
I guess I forgot how beautiful the seashore was, not having been there in so many years, preoccupied as I was with my husband and oncoming baby. I caught glimpses of teeny-boppers—the kind that I once was and my child would become—attempting to persuade grumpy managers to let them into closing stores. I took a nostalgic look about me, hoping -- or was I worrying? -- that someone I had known over a decade ago may see me in the car and greet me. It really depended on who it was.
The sun fell behind the old pub Barefoot Joe’s, leaving my sweatshirt dappled with incandescent oranges splotches, sifted out from the darkening tree-leaf drainers. I finally began to relax. I found myself fiddling with the beige stuffing protruding from a hole in the worn leather seat, and finally boiled up enough courage to say something. “So. What’ve you been doing around here?”
“Not much. I really don’t know what those guys’ problems are. I mean, why do they give a damn what I do?”
I kind of coughed and looked out the window, not wanting to answer, not wanting to speak the truth that was pushing down of me so heavily, so heavily I thought I would collapse under its weight. I exhaled lightly on the window, and stared at the fresh mist. I figured I would signal to Thomas in the only way I could, and scribbled “don’t die,” with my pinky in the perspiring patch of glass, then exhaled quickly again, so he wouldn’t see.
Two weeks later, the phone rang.
“Hey, uh, Janie?”
“Oh, Dickey! Great to talk to you! How are things?”
“Not too hot. Listen, Janie. I gotta tell you something. But it’s really bad. I mean, don’t have a heart attack, alright?”
I braced myself for a heart attack, then said “Alright. Shoot”
“You know Thomas? He . . . he died.” Dickey hesitated. “They found him in his driveway. He’d been drinking, and Mark dropped him off at his house. He didn’t think to watch him go up the walk. Some guy found him when he was walking his dog. Alcohol poisoning, they say it was. We weren’t gonna tell ya, ‘cause you’re pregnant and all, but we knew you were gonna see it in the paper tomorrow morning anyway.”
I hung up the phone. All in vain.
Hoffman Estates, Illinois
La Vergne, Tennessee
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