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Burton Goble

Reunion

If this were not so
God wouldnt be God,
or Good,
God be with ye
means Good bye--

if it aint so
I'll make it so
by my Will.

--Jack Kerouac, Heaven 

For some reason, I didn't expect it to be so much work. But I'm here, and they are there, on the other side of the glass, pretending to talk about terms I can get if I give them a check for the whole amount. I mean, I came in here and told them I want to pay cash for this new car but they keep negotiating right through me. I carry the money; I play the game.

I've been here since two o'clock. The office is chilly. No afternoon sun climbs in through the glass walls stationed along the back area of the showroom. Teddy's office is a separate showroom unto itself with the customer stuck in the middle by stickpins of fluorescent lighting and gray swivel chairs. Glossy color photographs of new Toyota models hang without apparent pattern across the wall behind his desk. One of them highlights the truck I'm here to purchase. It's expensive, high-tech, over-decorated and baby blue. I try not to stare at it too long or too hard.

Gordon's truck, that old blue goat, is parked outside, facing direct rays from the low west sky. It rattles when I drive. It lurches when I stop. It's grown older than it should be. But I held onto it because holding onto it meant holding on to Gordon that much longer.

Teddy comes back into the room, closing the door gingerly behind him. His suit bares wrinkles up the back then stretches smooth against his football shoulders. Teddy went to elementary school with my son Joshua. It's been a long time since I saw him last and I keep looking for that boy in his face. I'm sure Joshua wouldn't approve of me dealing with him at all. Teddy was a classic bully, the playground monster who always had inexplicable grime painted across his knuckles. I never liked him, but we've found ourselves together here, in the showroom where I've come to trade in Gordon's truck.

"Now, Silvia. I think my managers have cleared me to offer you exactly the right deal for you, for that new 4-runner. I can get you an interest rate that won't even shave a hair off your savings."

"I told you I want to pay cash, Teddy."

"You don't want to do that, Silvia. You see, if you pay for it, like that," snaps his fingers. I look for mud grime, but he's too quick now. "You pay for it all at once and where's your money if something incredible happens? Hmm? Where are you going to find that money if, and I'm not saying something bad's going to happen. I mean worst case scenario. But your money would be burned." He grinds his teeth with that last word. "Inaccessible is what I mean. But if you take it out of here on a plan, and I'm telling you none of our customers ever got such a deal, then you have security."

I look at him with inanimate eyes. Reach down into my purse, open my wallet and run my fingers over the cashier's check from the insurance company. Sixty thousand dollars for Gordon's body. The check feels light and brittle, creases worked thin from repeated folding and unfolding at the breakfast table this morning. Teddy continues to talk, but I ignore the words. His collar looks tight, white cotton just a little tinged from washing without bleach in the water. I notice a patch of neglected beard just below his jaw line. It undulates on the fatty softness of his skin, little auburn hairs defying his demeanor to me.

Dead coffee sits in the styrofoam cup next to my key ring. Below the leather wallet and the check, dry flakes of tobacco sift and wait to be purged, getting caught under my fingernails. I used to carry Gordon's cigarettes for him. In this way, I helped him die.

Teddy's nervous enough to start skipping verbs. I just let him talk. Maybe growing up he never had anyone to listen to him. Outside, the old truck waits without mourning or complaining. It's ready for this change.

"I tell you what," I say, not sure if I'm interrupting him or saving him from himself. "Why don't you give me the keys to that new truck and let me drive it around a little, think about what you just told me."

"You're absolutely right, Silvia. Here I am like a jerk talking terms and you haven't even spun it around the block yet. I'll get those keys, for you, Silvia."

My name fits awkwardly in his elementary school mouth. He's a man now, about as old as Gordon was when we got married. But my name, my familiar name sounds almost like a sarcastic remark falling out of the bully of 5th grade.

-----

Gordon and I used to go driving. The sitters never knew this, but sometimes we hired them to stay with Joshua for an evening just because we felt like tracing miles in any direction. I guess we each had our reasons for moving. On full moon nights, we'd drive far outside the city and take side roads to hit the blackest night shade we could sink into. Then we'd crawl out of the cab and throw our blankets flat in the truck bed, uncork something expensive and red and just taste it slowly, coolly.

Gordon and I used to go like that. It was easier to be together that way, with a highway line telling us this way was right, this direction was the only true future. At home, we had drawers bulging with socks and underwear, notebooks of ideas stacked in piles beside the newspapers in our breakfast room, and bills mounting across kitchen counters like missionaries coming to convert us.

Driving was a separate conversion; nothing needed fixing on the road. Everything was laid perfectly, melodically in our shared shadow. After Gordon got sick, driving was our only way of making love. Even in that rickety, bolt-crazy pick-up, light danced around us in the wilderness edges of hope, tracing.

-----

Teddy walks with me onto the lot. We move easy past the blue goat. My purse feels heavy leaning on my hip, bouncing out with quick steps and crashing into my bone. I take it off of my shoulder, pull the wallet out, and hand the strap to Teddy.

"Hold this, will you?" He'll do anything I say. Power over another person, transferred with the roughed leather of a purse. I hold the money now, in a small blue wallet given to me for my birthday last year, from Gordon via Joshua who had found the gift box under a pile of stowed sweaters.

Teddy takes the purse and actually drapes it over his shoulder. He looks vulnerable that way. His lips soft in sunlight, pinked with silence.

-----

Joshua brought his blood home with him. Fourth grade shirt collars speckled brown from dried scrapes to the face. Fifth grade cuts and purple flowers on his forehead from crashing at the end of the slide. Sixth grade bloody nose that filled a bandanna with his blood. The Vice Principal told me Teddy Lightman was one of those kids who just couldn't be disciplined.

Eventually, they asked his parents to move him to another school. I remember walking into a parent-teacher night, meeting the Lightmans for the first time with Joshua cowering along the curve of my hip.

Mrs. Lightman had a green glow to her skin, her lips cracked and over lipsticked with rose. She shook my hand with a collection of bones held together by flaky skin. Green cover-up makeup formed disjointed halos around her left eye and the corner of her mouth. Blue peeked out shyly from one missed spot. That cruel telling blue of loud voices, bruised homes.

Her husband nodded and reached to touch Joshua on the head. I watched his hand snake out of his cardigan sleeve, thinking of the way Gordon severed the head of a snake with my shovel. My own hand went out, scooped and pointed like the metal of that shovel, to cut against the square of his wrist.

"Mr. Lightman, is your son here with you tonight?" I asked to distract him.

"Well actually, we got a call the other night at home saying our Ted wasn't exactly welcome here anymore. Mrs. Lightman and I wanted to have a word with his teachers, but we didn't want him running into any troubles," he winked at Joshua then, "or bad attitudes."

"It is unfortunate," I told them, meaning it as I spoke, "but I guess it's the best for everyone. Once Teddy gets into a new school, he can readjust, maybe even learn to like some of the other kids."

Mr. Lightman smiled. Not a real smile, but slid his mouth upside down so that it greeted me with a different, less revealing angle. "You can see it that way if it makes you feel better. But now I wonder: where is little Josh's father tonight? Sometimes, and our pastor tells us this is true, if a boy doesn't get what he needs from both parents, meaning he gets too much from the woman and not enough from the man, he end up, well, he cries a lot. He gets caught by the stronger boys. Don't you think? You have to guard against things like that in the world."

I looked down at Joshua, his thick lashes jutting out like awnings to catch an acid rain. I read the confusion in his lineless forehead, the shuffle in his feet as he moved closer inside my shadow. Then up, I turned my eyes on Mr. Lightman. His mouth retained its inverted curve with an inaccurate glue. I wondered what made him laugh when he was alone. What filled him with joy, what silliness bent him over in lighter moments. Then I looked at Mrs. Lightman, with her features masked by her own tired face. I felt my jaw go, teeth let go of each other. I could smell the soap rising from their body crevices, the sweet smell of scrubbed clean skin. They made me sad.

"Mr. Lightman, I hope Teddy's happy at the new school. I hope he has friends and a good life. If Gordon were here tonight he would wish the same." I stopped for a second, rifling through my soul for the words. The children's artwork had been pinned to the cork board beside us. Joshua's paper showed a man eating a bite of fire with a fork. An entire fire apple pie sat on a small table before him with apples designed precariously like little wick-lit bombs.

"We've always felt protective of Joshua, but at the same time we hope for good things to happen in Teddy's life. If Gordon were here, I guess he'd shake your hand and agree with you about some of the things you just said. But he can't be here tonight, Mr. Lightman. He's at home recovering from a radiation treatment he had this morning. He's healing his burns, Mr. Lightman, and he did so want to be here instead."

The Lightmans took it in as smoothly as I gave it out. What we said after I finished amounted to zero. We had passed each other's safe zones, climbed beyond those locked gates and we simply wanted to go out the way we came. Joshua shook Mr. Lightman's hand at my urging, but his lashes never rose farther than his knees. He was a hard man to like.

Teddy's own dark rectangle held space a few rows below Joshua's painting. As the Lightmans walked to the front of the room, I studied it a little closer. Brown night sky with yellow crayon stars above a black-leaf tree. A boy with red hands hung from a low branch of the tree, dangling himself over the sloping root hillside. The boy had no face, but the egg shape of his head was turned sideways, focused on a tiny house, almost impossible to see, perched on another twiggy branch. If you stared into the dark edges of the crayon painting long enough, it absorbed you totally. I thought Teddy may have saved himself by refusing to draw the eyes.

-----

Gordon's remissions kept him alive for seven more years after that. Mrs. Lightman evaporated slowly over time and Mr. Lightman moved into a trailer park with his younger brother. What happened to Teddy is what is happening to me now. Too much all-at-once. Too much self with no reflective glare to close up around.

He unlocks the driver's door and hands me the keys.

"Silvia, I really want you to think about what I said. I know you've got the money. I understand, and I'm a fool for not just jumping in and taking the sale. But please think about it. Think about Joshua or your house. If your money sits in this truck, it can't go anywhere. And you can't get to it if the worst happens. Even if it isn't the worst, it can be bad."

"To be honest, Teddy, I can't imagine the worst anymore. I spent all those years waiting for the worst, as you call it, to come around. I waited and waited until I almost hoped for it. You know, it kept me company at night when I couldn't sleep. But it isn't real, Teddy. And you can't protect yourself from the unreal, not with money and payment plans anyway." He bends his knees and bounces, plants two hands on the hood of the truck.

"Let's just take it out for a drive," he says without facing me. "I can't bullshit you. I can't talk to you like a customer." Teddy bounces some more on his heels, leans into the truck and laughs, short breathy sounds. "If you pay cash, you have a car and you're happy. You don't have to think about this place anymore. If you use one of our plans, we make more money on the interest and you get security. That's all I'm saying. That's all I'm going to say anyway."

He reaches his hand out, taps the key in my hand and winks a good salesman wink. My purse is still strapped around his shoulder, making him lopsided as he moves. Then he starts to walk around to the passenger side, planning to get in and ride with me.

"Teddy, if you don't mind I'd like to take it out on my own."

Caught off guard, his eyes absorb pink from his lips and turn violet in the shade. "It's funny," he says.

"What, Teddy?"

"Nobody calls me that. It's always Ted. You say Teddy, like that."

"Should I stop?"

"No. I don't mind. I guess I kind of like it. It's funny though."

Pink doubles over his face in thick blush coating. I ask him again if I can go alone on the test drive. He responds first with a scowl. Any other customer would hear no from that face, but he tilts a little in my favor. I don't mind his company, but I don't want him to speak any more. He lifts his hand to the air and pivots out of the shadow, leaving me alone.

Which is the way I end up on the road, driving into direct sun.

-----

I picked this truck from all the others because it had that same powder blue of the old blue goat. It shines more because the paint glaze hasn't been sanded down yet by weather and romance. Teddy filled me up with mileage charts and performance ratings, but those details mean little to me. I chose it because it was the only model that came in Gordon's blue.

Through the windshield I get shots of fake sky breaking up light before it hits the road. Wind cuts around the face of the truck easily and heavy tires roll without sounding through the interior. Silence wraps around me in invisible blankets, heating the cab of the truck so intensely I have to roll the window down and let in some noise.

Teddy said I should take it around the block. And it is a long city block, but I've gone farther. It feels wrong to turn around now, when the highway is here and the other cars all seem pointed quickly to some important western destination. I drive and drive with them. Gulp down sinking sun with long porous miles and stone flowers streaking past.

Twilight roars in through the half-mast window, noticing the gas gage for me. Nearly empty. I want to blame Teddy. He used to be an acceptable cause of discomfort for my family. But this empty tank is my own fault.

I pull the new blue goat off at the next exit, some hick town on the edge of our suburbia vines. My intentions are obvious; I need fuel to keep going. Yet I turn before I reach the row of gas stations with their sky scraping signs. I turn into a lot full of new, shimmering Toyotas.

A red cherry 4-runner is dancing with dusk in the center of the lot. Bright, functioning red, pulsing up the earth through its paint. The color almost cries for me, Joshua's blood. Gordon's wine in moonlight. My heart.

A middle-aged salesman opens my door and extends a hand for me. I take his support with my own window-tanned arm, looking into his face and realizing he is completely unfamiliar. I know nothing about him, not even a name.

"I'd like to buy that red 4-runner," I say in a shallow breath.

"That red one? I'll get the papers, then."

"I'd like to pay cash. Pay for it all at once."

"Well, I think that's a fine idea, then. Are you trading this one in?"

I look over the powder blue and sigh, picturing Teddy's dilemma, his leash loans and payment plans. He needs the connection to future, certainty that something will be there tomorrow, his path clarified in numbers. I suddenly want to go back and squeeze Teddy dry. I want to know what that pink tastes like on his mouth at this time of day.

"No, I can't trade this one."

The pink of words strung out of the heart. Forgotten reprimands, quiet nights without pain. That's what tastes good on Teddy. I touch the cherry red truck, smooth, solar-heated. My heart, alone, so easy to buy.

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