Your Sunny Day
My smart foodie boyfriend Hans and I were working side by side in his uncle’s Williamsburg restaurant — Das Lokal with a k — a Euro-Southwestern farm to table nouvelle thing. And I really thought I had it pretty good: a sweet little apartment, a little life. I admit it, at that point six months ago, I was entertaining thoughts: on my 27th birthday we would decide to move in together, even use the M word, you know, mutually. But one Friday dinner rush, we were frantically plating up jicama purée over bratwurst slivers — not easy. And my spoon hand was cramping, I couldn’t quite keep up, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to share a place and not have to work this hard just to make rent?” And Hans threw his spoon into the bowl of jicama glop and blurted out that my very presence in his life filled him with Herzogian dread.
“Herzogian?” I said, spooning more stuff as plates slid our way and I slid into shock. “Warner Herzog? Or some other food person Herzog?”
“It’s Werner,” he said, no – kind of bellowed — right there in the steamy kitchen, and tore off his apron, and stooped out of the doorway and vanished. And later his Uncle Klaus said, “Yah, this is sorry for you, yah.” And I was out.
My friend Cynthia had moved upstate with this guy who did hair and wore a man-bun, and they had this baby, Phoenix Joe, and I called her, crying, and she said, “Fuck Hans Herzog.” I said, “Well, it’s actually Hans and Herzog.” But in terms of general sympathy she was right there. I gave up my apartment, got on a rumbly bus and landed in their guest room. To my parents’ continuing disappointment, I found a waitress job in a local diner — a giant, bright place — and told them I thought I’d stay a while. My parents had been hoping that heartbreak would be the final push I needed to give up my “aimless” phase and go to graduate school. But I still had no idea what I’d study — semiotics? Cultural history? — pretty expensive investment for a non-career — and my recent Plan B concept of opening a German expressionist breakfast joint called Mein Hans was so transparently conceived. My parents suggested law, since I can’t stop arguing. “You mean arguing with you,” I countered. Which shut them up for a while.
I spent my birthday morning with Cynthia, her man bun and the baby. Their gift to me was a thrift store gold and red afghan that smelled like bubble gum, so ugly it was beautiful, but by the time I showed up for work I was feeling low. A really good looking guy, farmy looking, maybe 28, 29, 32, walked into the diner, sat down in my area and ordered two cheeseburgers deluxes. “Deluxes,” he said.
His hair was kind of a light coffee color, neatly cut, sort of 40s style, though now I think the style reference was just an accident, and he had maple syrup colored eyes.
“I think that deluxe word stays the same,” I said, kind of nicely, and he found it cute. He ordered the same thing on nights 2 through 12, the whole deluxe interchange frittering around us. We learned each other’s names: “Cort, really?” I said.
“I’m not,” I said.
And he said, “I bet.”
And I said, “I meant I’m not French.”
And he said, “Well, that either.”
Night 13, he dabbed his lips with a napkin, sat up straight, and said, “Could I ask you for your number?” And I said, “if you do, make it deluxe.”
Misinterpreting my silly remark as a challenge, he made his case: he was honest, liked simple things, which he was certain I’d find refreshing — I’d told him a bit about what sent me up this way. For recreation, he liked to go for long drives with the radio on. “Some people just put it on, but I really listen,” he said. Also, he liked get his lady chocolates and flowers, and to slow dance — to the radio. Always paid with cash. “I don’t really need to be sold,” I said. “You came in on my birthday after all. Let’s just try it out.”
“I like radio too,” I told him as we sat in his old truck in the diner parking lot. “College stations, esoterica, lesser-known grunge-era bands, certain speed metal, 60s tv theme music.” I told him about my friend Cynthia’s old radio show, before her whole Earth-mama transformation. It was called Thigh Boots: she played the Meters, Nancy Sinatra, Elvis Costello, Elvis — any song with a shoe reference.
“Elvis,” he said. “My grandma likes Elvis.”
I said, actually Carl Perkins wrote that song.
“What song?” He said but then he kissed me, and who wrote it, who sung it — didn’t matter.
A girl deserves a good time, I decided. He made these ordinary things so — deluxe. Missionary position: he propped himself in a one-armed pushup and held me close with the other and his neck smelled like flannel and gasoline. I spent that weekend in his little rented house in a haze. We restored ourselves on boxed macaroni and cheese, which I had never realized tasted so sweet. “That Herzog, what a bastard,” he said. “That someone would treat you that way.”
All week I floated around the diner, serving up eggs over easy, ham hash, spaghetti with chicken. Mom’s advice? “Return home immediately, all is forgiven.” Cynthia’s: “When in the country, date the country, it worked for me.”
“You’re not dating,” I said to her: “you and man bun are pretty much married, and you came up here together.”
“Just go with it,” she said.
Again, despite inaccuracies, so generally supportive. And why bother slicing an apple when you can just take a bite?
On the way to meet his parents the next Friday, Cort said he wanted to take me Sunday driving. “But we’re driving now,” I said.
“No,” he said. “Really driving, listening to the radio and everything.”
“Sure,” I said, “great.” I thought, this is the real thing: like Norman Rockwell, football, apple pie. He says lady. “Tell me more about yourself,” I said. I was thinking that if I hadn’t come up here, I’d never even know this really existed, and there was something in that. Also, what if it made me happy?
There was part of the road with no houses, just long fields of old, gnarled trees. He said his last name, Cortland, was really like the apple, which was actually cultivated nearby. Cort Davis Cortland the Second.
“I thought Cortland apples were from Cortland New York,” I said.
“That’s what they want you to think,” he said.
And yes football: tight end. And he had plans to buy when he settled down. Never wanted to live anywhere else. Possibly had Native American blood, on his mother’s side. Had an accident chopping wood that split his thumbnail, and that’s why it was striped.
“Looks exotic, like you’re part animal,” I said, touching it.
“Maybe I am,” he said.
His parents’ house was a big white box. The windows had awnings like green eyelids. Unlike my own mother, who can’t boil an egg, his mother won champion deep-dish pie four summers running at the same county fair.
“What’s the winning secret?” I asked her over dinner (fried chicken, mashed potatoes).
She looked at me, straight-faced. “Only use Cortland apples,” she said.
Cort showed me around her house, all decorated in an apple theme: apple throw pillows on the plaid couch, apple and gingham check curtains. All neat as a pin. Also unlike my parents, his parents seemed very proud of him. “We like seeing our Cort with a smile on his face,” they said, and he blushed. His mother asked me, politely, how long I’d been a waitress.
“Oh,” I said, “it’s just a job,” which I could see confused her. So I went on a bit about how I was avoiding going to grad school, things like that, and watched her glaze over.
“Well, the pie’s ready,” she said, hot-mitts holding out a deep dish.
“And what a pie it is,” I said.
Cort’s job was road evaluating at the Ford dealership’s personal truck division, which I didn’t even know was a job. Sunday morning, we drove over there and he said, “Pick a truck, any truck.” I pointed to a big red pickup, gleaming at the end of a row. “F-250 with eco boost,” he said. “Nice pick.”
“Beginner’s luck,” I said, though I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.
Inside it had that smell, which he said they actually spray into the upholstery. It did not take long to understand the erotic appeal of bench seats, of sitting close with a big American engine thrumming underneath. I inhaled his soap and sweat smell as he pointed out the console, the radio. “Serius XM satellite radio really is the only way to experience country,” he said, as if it was just a thing to say. He seemed to be trying to set a mood, make an introduction, so I let him. He wheeled through the chain link gate and out onto the Sunday-empty road and said, “So. Let’s get that country music going.”
“I like country too,” I said. “Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash. All that twangy stuff.”
“I mean new country,” he said.
A song came on with a plaintive man’s voice, a playful song about someone who seemed to want to check his date for ticks.
“He’s asking if he can check her for ticks?” I said.
“Well they’ve been rolling in a field,” he said, “so it would be appropriate. This was a monster hit.”
The idea was making me a little shuddery — I’m not really big on bugs.
“Why’d he bring her to a field if he knew there were ticks?”
He said, “It’s just meant to be clever.”
“And who is this singing?”
“Paisley? That’s his real name?”
“Sure is,” he said, tapping the beat, kind of, on the steering wheel as we zoomed onto the highway.
The thing about beginner’s luck: it’s at the beginning. Cynthia high-fived me every time I got back from a drive with Cort, my head spinning from all the miles we covered, because that’s all we did — go for drives in these un-owned, immaculate Ford pickup trucks, eat some food at one end, then turn around and go home. Sometimes I stayed at his place, and we did the push-up thing. I realized I’d been seeing him about as long as I’d lived up here, and I was already starting to think I maybe needed to slow down. Meanwhile he was always there with a bouquet. My city girl, he began to call me. My sunny day.
“Why sunny day?” I said, feeling darker all the time.
“You’ll see,” he said.
I’m not sure what it was coming over me, except it did. I thought maybe I was getting a little bored, even though I didn’t want to. I just wanted to relax. And it made me feel bad. But I couldn’t figure out a way to slow it down. There he was, always, ready for another drive. I was kind of in over my head and under my head at the same time.
It was an Indian summer kind of day, sort of itchy, a day that reminded me of college, of being somewhere you know you’re going to learn something great, of paper and books, none of which was in the plan for the day. He must have sensed something in me, because he seemed to be trying to come up with a good plan. “I know. Let’s go get ice cream,” he finally said. When I didn’t want to pick a truck, he went ahead and picked one. I didn’t want to pick a truck because I’d realized they were all the same, all got about 8 miles a gallon, very not earth friendly, but I didn’t say any of that. And the one he picked: an F-350, it was big enough to pull a house.
“How can this be a personal truck?” I said, climbing up into this gigantic spaceship of a cab. “What’s personal about it?”
“Blake Shelton has one of these,” he said, and he set up the radio and said, “Baby, want to hit that power boost for us?”
“So there’s eco boost, and there’s power boost?” I said, and could feel I was getting tetchy. “And who’s Blake Shelton?”
Cort tilted his head and kind of squinted at me. “So you don’t have your — this isn’t your month thing — Do you?” he said.
“My what?” I said.
We went quiet and threaded north on the usual route up through the dairy farms to the small town where the ice cream place is. The ice cream place isn’t actually a special ice cream place at all: it’s just a Carvel that he said he really likes. And suddenly, a song came on that made him go, “Wait, here it is, listen!” And he turned it up really loud. “This is it,” he said, “this is Blake Shelton, who is married to Miranda Lambert now. And this is the very song that makes me think of you.”
And there it was: a guy singing a milky melody about a sunny day. And I said, “Wait — let me hear it,” and he turned it up even more:
You’ll be my sunny day, I’ll be your shade tree
You’ll be my honeysuckle, I’ll be your honey bee
“Hey, that’s kind of clever,” I said, more like yelled, since Cort kept cranking it louder.
“You have no idea how much I’ve wanted you to hear this,” he said.
“Really,” I said.
“That’s one of his 9 top ten hits! You like it?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Man, what a relief,” he said. “Because I really think this is our special song.”
He sung along tunelessly, playing his fingers up and down my thigh, which was ticklish, and we listened together, or more like I watched him listen. As he sang, he sort of hooked his upper lip into a kind of snarl, and his front teeth stuck out. And suddenly, I was looking at this guy entirely differently. But here I was in this giant truck with him, barreling up to the middle of nowhere, and he was saying he was going to buy me the CD with that song on it so we could listen over and over, and talk about it all we wanted. He said, “I like CDs, for the physical-ness of them. Soon as we finish our ice cream, we’ll play the arcade and then go buy it, there’s a video store there, and they sell music.”
He was so happy. I felt terrible. And I thought, I need to cut this guy loose so he can go find someone nicer than I am, before I’m not nice at all.
The truth is, country music has a lot of the same chords as say, punk rock. Just without any anger. Or maybe there is anger in country, but it’s aimed at anything that seems raw and un-slick and un-American, like punk rock. The last chorus of that Blake Shelton song was just like the first: no different, not faster, not louder, but I think the idea was that you’d know the chorus by then and could sing along and be happy about it. Just drink the punch, sign on the dotted line: Here, here, here, and here. I wondered if that’s what Cort thought life was supposed to be: just nice, over and over again. At the Carvel, he strode up to the counter to order his usual, a pistachio sundae. The pistachio sauce was a strangely perfect bright green, like jicama purée mixed with neon.
“There is no such food in nature that is really that color,” I said.
He held out his spoon, dripping with the stuff, and pointed it at me. “Try some,” he said, but I shook my head.
“So Blake and Miranda are married,” I said, wanting to talk about something real, something to do with real people.
He said, “Their love story is legendary.”
“Legendary,” I said.
“Blake Shelton was a tall Oklahoma hillbilly hell-raiser who was finally tamed in the arms of Miranda Lambert, a little Texas firecracker with a heart of gold,” Cort said. “And the thing is, they both have ranches, and love to have fun and hunt, and just kick back and relax. How they have so many hits, both together and apart, it boggles the mind.”
I was watching a couple in the corner, each one spreading off the chair, solemnly, joylessly inhaling thick white shakes as they faced each other.
“I don’t think love is really like that,” I said.
“With Blake and Miranda it is,” Cort said. “They fell madly in love in front of millions while singing a duet on television, and that was that. They sung together and it was love at first sight.”
“But they must have rehearsed,” I said.
“What does that have to do with it?” he said, putting down his spoon. “Really, I mean, are you trying to pick a fight?”
“No,” I said.
He was sitting there, waiting for some kind of release.
“You go play the arcade,” I said, “I’ll just sit here a moment.”
On a wall marked Music in the video store was a shelf full of country CDs, and there was a whole row of Blake Shelton, which Cort leafed through like an expert, zipping out the right one. In the parking lot, before we got back into the truck, he presented it to me, wrapped in the store bag. “I want you to promise you’ll keep it forever,” he said, “and it will always make you think of me.”
“Sounds fateful,” I said.
We drove back south, the sky not quite as blue as before, and he put on the song. “Okay,” he said. “So now why don’t you tell me what you think.”
“What I think?”
“What you really think. I want to know.”
“Okay,” I said, and waited a beat or two.
“Go ahead,” he said, watching the road. There was a silver truck in front of us with pin-up mudflaps, an even bigger pickup than this one.
“Is the song about her?” I said.
“Maybe generally,” he said.
“And what if you go below the surface?”
“What do you mean, surface?” he said.
“Do you think Blake Shelton is aware of the plight of honeybees right now?”
“Everyone knows they’re dying. By the millions. The population is being utterly wiped out.”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s just an expression.”
“Even just in terms of — the picture of it, even on that level. It’s sort of phallic,” I said.
“The honeybee goes into the honeysuckle.”
“Well, it’s supposed to be sexy.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Do you need to take everything apart like this?” he said.
“Given that he’s calling her his honeysuckle there’s a certain amount of taking apart they do actually intend you to do, because otherwise it isn’t sexy.”
“So just do that part,” he said. “Just do what they mean you to do, and don’t take it any farther. Just enjoy it.”
“I don’t think I can,” I said.
I said, “You asked me what I thought, so what you’re having me do is actually take apart this country song, so I have to really do it. Deconstruct it. Because sunny day and shade tree don’t work for me, symbolically. You know why?”
“Why,” he said. He was driving a little close to the truck, a little heavy on the gas, two hands on the wheel, mouth set a little hard.
“Because what does a sunny day care for a shade tree? I mean, one is kind of straight and so I guess it’s kind of like a penis. And one is spread out so that’s sort of like a woman, if that’s missionary position. But it’s creatures that need the tree, and the reason creatures needs the tree is to escape the sun.”
“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about,” Cort said, as he checked his speed, and the silver truck pulled away. “But where I come from, if you construct something, if you build it, you don’t take it apart. You don’t de-construct it.”
It’s a good thing the seats in those Ford trucks are so comfortable, because we had a really long drive back. And so to bring things back around to something he’d want to talk about, I asked Cort if he thought he might wind up buying an F-250, or would an F-150 be better.
“I’m not as dumb as you think I am,” he said. “I just let myself dream a little.”
“I get it,” I said.
I’m back in the city now. I was getting a coffee to go at the bodega when the TV on the counter had the news that Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert were getting divorced. Something about playing around, about dishonesty, the price of fame, some PR line about how they’re each coping in their own way. I wanted to call Cort, just to get his take on it. He’d probably say what he’d heard on the radio, as he was driving up to get his ice cream sundae at the Carvel. He’d say: “It’s tragic, really. They were the first couple of country. But love is like a flower. You have to water it, or it wilts.”
The very last time we saw each other, Cort said, “I think I was your revenge from all that other mess. But that’s all right with me.” He said, “You’re beautiful, but you think too much, and you’re not very nice. But I wish you the best.”
Cynthia found some photo he’d tagged online with the words, meet my new driving buddy, and told me it was a girl with big blond hair, a very pointy chin and a wide face. I said, “That’s just what Miranda Lambert looks like.” It took me a while to get that honeybee song out of my head, and I still think about it, how it was far too easy for me to turn those words inside out. And what if I was just a little more of the kind of person who doesn’t do that?
Even in the park today, on the way to the restaurant where I work now, the sun was setting, the sycamore trees turning into shadows, and I realized that without the light to pass between their branches, they were just dull and thick shapes. The truth is this: To be a shade tree who lives with a sunny day would actually make one’s purpose in life harder. Because you’d always want to spread your branches out farther, and grow taller, and bigger, if you were the only tree. And there might be times you felt a sunburn roiling up all your fibrous parts and stirring up your chlorophyll, because that sunny day was being so damn sunny. And there might be times you wished there was another tree around, just to help cut the load down.
I looked up the story of Blake and Miranda one day and found out something else: the song they’d sung when they’d purportedly fallen in love was about Oklahoma, and that Blake was actually married to someone else at the time, and it all made sense. Imagine a bare field out in Oklahoma on a blazingly sunny day, with one lone tree. It’s Oklahoma, so there are horses. Two horses. They swish their tails against the flies, trying to keep out of the sun, huddled under that one lone tree. And the sun is blasting down on their hindquarters, because the tree doesn’t fully cover them, but the tree tries its best.
Bear with me here: if the tree in the song is actually Blake Shelton, and the sunny day in the song — if you read into it with the subjectivity of a willing fan — is Miranda Lambert, then I could very well see the tree actually telling the sunny day to simmer down. And I want to say, No, sunny day, don’t simmer down at all. Promise me.
Jana Martin is the author of Russian Lover and Other Stories (Yeti Books / VerseChorus Press) and numerous books of nonfiction, including Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (Abbeville Press), Great Inventions, Good Intentions (Chronicle Books) and Scarlett Saves Her Family (Simon & Schuster). Her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Five Points, Mississippi Review online, Spork, Willow Springs, and Turnstile and other places. She’s written for The New York Times and Marie Claire, is a regular book reviewer for Chronogram, and is one of the editors of The Weeklings, an online magazine devoted to the long-form essay. She lives in Woodstock, New York.