Jana Martin

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.

Virginie, real­ly?”

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?”

Brad Paisley.”

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?”

What?”

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.

What?”

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.