MAPS by Suzanne Barnecut
USUALLY THE POSTCARDS arrived from all over the country, a few per drive. John was dependable and surprising in the way that the seasons are. I’d come to love the afternoons, waiting for a glossy or weather-beaten card to arrive in the mail, bearing an image of some place I’d never been—usually a landmark or else a town I would never know existed. There were cities all over America, for example, named Paris—in Texas, and Tennessee and Virginia. He’d also sent cards from Intercourse, Pennsylvania and Eclectic, Alabama. On the backside there would be his small, awkward handwriting, rounded letters that slanted both to the right and left. I have to remind myself that there’s still time; he won’t be home for another five days.
In three years, I’ve filled several shoe boxes with John’s postcards and on slow days, while the late afternoon sun streams into the office, while Marisol naps, I re-read them. Some I know by heart. They are a photo album of places I haven’t been, but where, at least, I was thought of.
For example, from Ohio there’s a picture of deer feeding: Mercedes, he wrote, You’d like it here. There are woods and a world of stars—more than I’ve ever seen before and probably ever will again.
From Montana, where a rainbow stretched over the snow-capped Grand Tetons, he said: Mercedes, it’s so cold in the mornings I have to keep working the windshield wipers to fight the frost. The morning dew makes the world look as though it were washed clean. The day begins without any mistakes or regrets.
I’d come to expect the strange and unexpected things he sometimes wrote. I knew some poetry lived inside him.
Many of the postcards were of common things: small Midwestern city hall buildings, made of brick, and proud-looking Main Streets. From Northern California there were pictures of statuesque redwood trees and abandoned gold mining towns. The wild, wild west, he wrote, I’d have liked to have been there. Once he sent a picture of the Hollywood sign, but said the air was too smog-filled to see it, a ghastly yellow-gray.
From Florida he chose the NASA Space Center over the Florida Keys or Disneyworld—a photo of a shuttle at take-off, all fume and show. Can you imagine? he wrote. When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut. And from New Mexico, on the back of a picture of Ballet Folklórico dancers with their vibrant, embroidered dresses and layers of ruffled petticoats, he wrote only: Where are you from?
We never talked about the postcards. Any questions in them went unanswered. There was one, sent from Highway 66, after a long stretch of desert, of a rusted gas pump and old Coca-Cola sign outside an abandoned station. It was quintessential: a faded blue building under a vast blue sky. On the back John had written nothing. That was the only card he left blank and I spent days wondering what he’d meant, or was unable, to say.
My husband Marcos tolerates the postcards. I’ll say that. It’s a dismissive sort of tolerance. He knows they come, but maybe not how many or how often. He doesn’t ask to see them or what they say. I don’t hang them on the fridge.
It isn’t inappropriate, I don’t think. John began sending the postcards almost as soon as I hired him, and from the start they were addressed only to me. It seemed a little odd in the beginning, but hardly worth mentioning. What were they anyway? A piece of paper, a few words. Boredom makes people do strange things. I pictured him in a fuel station, idly thumbing through a rack: pictures of the tourist destinations he was passing from the highway. After pulling a card from its metal slot, to inspect some detail more closely, he’d place it on the counter and say, “I’ll take this too.”
Then what? I supposed he stared briefly at the card in the roadside motel I’d booked for him, absentmindedly propping it on the nightstand or the television, if the TV were not bolted to the ceiling. In the morning he might pick up the card, think for a moment, and write the first thing that came to mind. Looking for a post office would be something to occupy him as he passed through towns that were sometimes so small he would enter and leave them without knowing where he’d been. The mystery was in why he sent me that first card.
The first postcard was of a giant Paul Bunyan along State Highway 34 in Akeley, Minnesota. On the back he’d written: You won’t regret hiring me. Thank you. It was innocent and heartwarming. Only over time did the things he shared start to wander; each message like a single sentence in a long, unending letter.
We gave John a cross-country drive for his first move, to show him how solitary and rough life on the road could be, and to dissuade him from staying on. We weren’t hiring when he arrived on our doorstep as this stocky, freckled Irish boy, baseball cap in hand, hanging loose near his knee. He was twenty-six.
“I saw one of your trucks and looked you up in the phone book,” he said. From where he stood he was squinting into the sun, and I could see the outlines of the sunglasses that he must normally wear. “I didn’t know your office would be at your house. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said. I thought maybe he wanted to hire some movers, that he was a client. “How can I help?” I asked. Then he said he needed a job.
His eyes were a watery blue, almost gray, and he moved nervously back and forth on the step. He wore the sort of outfit college boys wear: a plaid collared shirt made of cotton, and the kind of sneakers meant for riding skateboards: flat and wide. I can’t explain it, but I felt somehow as though I already knew him. Not like déjà vu, like a moment that had happened before, but instead a familiarity, a pull in the heart that says, inexplicably, yes.
Marcos was furious, of course. “What were you thinking?” he asked. “I just turned down two guys last week. You have to call him back and tell him we don’t need any help. He’s not even family.”
It was true that until John we’d hired only family—my son Gabriel and our nephews Anthony and Ricardo, plus two guys who were more distantly related through marriages.
“I have a feeling about him,” I said.
It was hard to explain how difficult it was to make John go away, and why his persistence was appealing rather than something else—creepy, perhaps. I said no at first. There was something about John I reacted to, sure, but he wasn’t right for the job. He had other options. He’d offered a resume that, maybe from nerves, was bent in a few places. There was a college degree and work with the National Forestry Service. He was several hours now from where he’d grown up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By contrast, the Central Valley was all flat agricultural land and stupefying heat.
“This job is manual labor,” I warned. “It’s truck-driving.”
I knew first-hand that it would ruin his back, and turn him, prematurely, into a solitary, grumpy old man. I knew this because it was why we started our own business—so that Marcos could stop driving. He went to mechanic school and we took out a loan and bought our first 18-wheeler. It was the kind of risk that could end a marriage but now, all Marcos does is the maintenance. He spends his free days on the green and is home every night of the week. We have done well for ourselves: a new house with a four-car garage, plus another rented space for the semis. Our operation was still fairly small, but we offered full service, non-corporate relocations, anywhere in the country. With John I saw an opportunity: we wanted to certify one of our guys for the packing and crating of safes and pianos.
I gave John a second look and saw that he was muscular and able-bodied. He had a farmer’s tan from being out of doors, and against his pale skin the tan parts were reddened. The other boys would come to call him Casper.
“I’d like seeing more of the country,” he said. I saw something quiet and steady in him and by reflex, I thought: I’d like seeing more of the country, too.
So Marcos conceded—a trial and the piano certification. John readily agreed, although I guess I probably didn’t use those words—probationary—when I had him come by the next week for a map of his route and to learn all about the truck. The other reason Marcos gave in was that our son, Gabriel, who was twenty-two at the time, made no secret of his distaste for the moving business. He spoke, sometimes, about wanting to sell cell phone plans at the mall, about never having to lift anything heavy. If he’d gone out and gotten another job, Marcos would have let him off the hook; he was waiting for Gabriel to assert himself as a man. Instead he was the kind of boy who dressed a part he’d not yet grown into. He wore long-sleeved collared shirts, slacks and shiny black dress shoes, and wore his hair short and lightly waxed, like a movie star. He was so good-looking he’d already given me a granddaughter.
At first, what I liked about John was that he was new. He was not my husband or my son or any other family member I was expected to take care of. I could manage him in the normal way, highlighting routes on old maps that had been unfolded and stretched across our kitchen table a hundred times. When I called to see how a move was going, I knew there’d be no complaints, that he didn’t stop for breaks or leave cigarette burns on furniture.
It takes about nine days to travel the width of the country and back, driving eight hours per day. On that kind of drive I can expect anywhere from one to four postcards. Whenever he sent more than one, I knew he was lonely, or else that he had that filled-up feeling, a spilling over of having things to say. We’ve been so busy lately that there hadn’t been much time to wonder at the lack of mail. It only struck me on the fourth day that there wasn’t any.
I had two of our men doing a west coast move from Redding, California to the Northeast corner of Idaho, and Gabriel and my nephews had their hands full with local jobs—moves across town, from apartments to houses or back into apartments. It’s a hard time for a lot of people with all the foreclosures. Marcos has been keeping track. Houses are selling for less than a hundred thousand for three bedrooms, and we have been urging Gabriel to think about it. He talks, instead, of moving himself and Marisol to the bay, which I’m certain he can’t afford. People who have nothing are vacating the area, moving farther out into the desert or mountain foothills, while people with money are coming in from the city to buy the abandoned places at auction: for rentals, to make money. I feel sick about it, but there is also movement, and we are doing well. I asked John if he’d thought about buying a house here, nearby, but he said he didn’t think so. “It’s not the right time,” he said, even though it was a perfect time. He is twenty-nine now and should be thinking about roots.
On the fifth morning of John’s drive, before leaving Gabriel said, “Fuck this shit,” about nothing in particular.
“Language, mijo,” I said, gesturing toward Marisol, who was eating Cheerios in her high chair.
He left wearing chinos and steel-toe boots, and the black polo shirts with our motto: From East to West, and West to East, We’ll move you there! When he works, he slicks his hair straight back with a heavy pomade and looks like a cholo, like this is how the job makes him feel. He told me once, depending on where he went, he’d been called white-washed. It was one reason we’d moved from our old neighborhood. We wanted him to be away from the pressure of gangs, but it was like he was an actor when he worked for us, putting on a costume, adopting new mannerisms. I used to say he’d be a heart-breaker but it was my heart I must have been referring to. All he needed to say were the words: I don’t want this for myself. He needed to say it directly because Marcos wasn’t interested in hearing it from me.
Moving neighborhoods didn’t stop things from happening, but Marisol is an easy baby, calm and happy. She’s beautiful, too—all rose and taupe-colored, with wild, wispy hair. Gabriel has always been more temperamental and the girl he knocked up was the type who showed her mid-drift and had big, sprayed hair and long plastic claws with little rhinestones at the tips. She lined her eyes in heavy kohl and her belly button was pierced with a chain that went all the way around her waist. It was hard to tell what she really looked like underneath all the make-up. There were a lot of kids in the valley who wanted to look tough, but she was the kind of girl you’d call hard, and also—willing.
I caught them on an old futon in our garage. I told myself I intervened to save Gabriel the trouble of Marcos finding them, and when I pulled this girl off my son she was drunk or high, or both, and threw up.
We didn’t know she was pregnant until she showed up one day with early contractions. She looked like she hadn’t slept in a week and I was afraid to think about what she’d been doing to her body since we’d last seen her, what kind of baby we were going to be left with. Sometimes, though, life gives you a free pass, a gift. She stayed in the hospital two days, until her color was restored and she’d been fed an IV. She left Marisol there without looking back. All I know was that her name was Reina Salazar and that we have lost track of her.
One of my favorite postcards came from the Grand Canyon, which John pulled off his route to see. He’d gone off the radio for a bit and later I had to fudge a few of the details for Marcos—why John was half a day behind, why the mileage was a little higher. “There was a detour,” I said. “Some highway work.”
The picture was of orange rocks at sunset; a gorge, where a river, as thin as a thread, could barely be made out at the bottom. He’d scrawled on the back: It was really something. Magnificent. More than you could possibly expect from a very large hole in the ground.
Personally I found it unsettling, the way the earth could open and expose such large cracks. It was the one thing he really went on about when he got back home. “I can’t explain it,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing you have to see for yourself.” I wanted to see the canyon so that I could understand the magnitude of such an experience, of such a place. To stand there on the edge and to feel small, to feel my stomach drop as I bent over the railing.
“There was a railing?” I asked, feeling anxious as I thought about it.
He broke into an easy smile. “There was.”
It must give a person a sense of longevity, of the amount of time it takes to transform the sea into a dry, fiery canyon, a wasteland of beauty. When John talked about it, I almost felt like I had been there, and over the three years he’d worked for us, the more we talked, the more I pictured him there with me, us being able to turn to each other and say, “How?” or “Isn’t it amazing?”
His very next postcard said, instead of thank you: Sometimes you have to give yourself some time. Take two hours and forget the rest of the world, do what you want. Time is an enemy, it must be made up for. It is stolen, luxurious, and running out. I will admit, that card sent me into a kind of tizzy. Either he was justifying the small detours he would continue to take, or the message was for me, something he saw in my life that perhaps I was missing. I don’t even remember what was on the front of that card.
When I think of John, it isn’t sexual. It isn’t like I think about embracing him. There was one time when he entered my kitchen, his hair a little long and windblown, that I reached up and removed a leaf that was stuck there. As soon as I touched him, I pulled back, surprised by the intimacy of such a simple gesture. It was the naturalness of it that was startling, the way we each feel compelled to reach toward some people and not others.
It was the moment, perhaps, when something changed between us—when I saw myself, suddenly, as he must: a decade older—not really old enough to be his mother, but close enough. Like someone who is a friend but not a peer, who might give advice, but could be a lover. I didn’t expect or think that he was or could be attracted to me. I am short and dark, but not small, exactly. My hips have widened and softened. I have a long face, and large, purplish circles under my eyes that make me look tired even when I’m not. My nose would be called aquiline on a white woman, but it makes me look more indigenous than Mexican. Marcos used to call me, back in the day, his handsome wife.
When I reached toward John for that leaf in his hair, when my hand briefly touched his forehead, I’d probably received thirty or so postcards. It was enough that I’d paused at times to think about them, about why they were coming or what they meant, but not often and not even in the moment in which they arrived. I hardly knew what to do with the first bunch. I just read them quickly and stashed them away.
When, a day later, John didn’t immediately respond over the radio, my expectations rose, imagining the postcard from this haul was already on its way. I thought back to the Grand Canyon or a handful of other drives and wondered what caught his attention. I told Marcos I hadn’t heard from John, but that another trucker reported passing him, our concern only mild.
I knew that he should be passing through Wyoming after having been all the way to Brooklyn. I guessed at what the card would be of, and how well I could predict John by now. Perhaps it would be an image from Yellowstone, the famous geyser. Or maybe the picture would show the expanse of a green field, with roaming buffalo, or one of the iridescent, sulfurous pools so delicate and dangerous visitors had to walk on boardwalk paths and breathe, perhaps, into the necks of their sweaters. I thought about the postcard all day, and waited to check the mail until the day’s routines had passed and I could spend a moment alone.
Some of these details I read online. I tended, now, to do some research about where John was going. I had been thinking of buying him a digital camera for Christmas. As much as I liked his messages, I was starting to feel curious about the way that he saw the world. What did he actually see? Where would he focus the lens? I planned to write on the Christmas card: This is so I can see what you see, exactly as you see it.
The mail arrived between three and four in the afternoon. I heard the bulk of it drop from the slot in our garage door into the box I left on the floor. There was the heavy thud and the slap of the metal-hinged slot, and I left it there. For dinner I shredded a roasted chicken for pasta, and mixed a box of macaroni and cheese for Marisol. When I heard the slow shudder of the screen door, Marcos was home and suddenly behind me, his arms at my waist, his mouth on my neck. “Mercy,” he said, “Let’s make a baby.” He meant, of course, let’s do what it takes to make one. It was our joke, began once we knew we were done having children.
“You’re terrible,” I said, swatting him away. He was sweaty and carried a faint trace of freshly cut grass. His full head of black hair, graying now around his ears, was pushed down from the force of a ball cap. His lopsided smile made something inside me feel warm and incredibly lucky.
“Dinner will be soon,” I called after him, as he headed upstairs for a shower.
“I’ll be back for you.” He pretended to be some kind of menace, which made Marisol laugh.
Later, once the dishes were done and Marcos and Gabriel were busy watching a soccer game—the one thing they really enjoyed doing together—I was free to get the mail. The garage was like an oven, and in the quiet I could hear crickets and other whirring, buzzing insects. My star jasmine trellis, next to the window, released a sweetness into the night that lingered and permeated the air.
The mail was a smaller bundle than expected. I returned to the kitchen and poured myself a small glass of white wine, for the nerves and for sleep. For the most part, there were only bills. There were coupons from Trader Joe’s and Costco, and some cheap restaurant menus mimeographed and folded in half. A long thank you letter was enclosed in a pink scallop-edged envelope, from a family whose home was seized by the bank. We had given them a steep discount, and the letter said that when things got better, they’d call us again. It was sweet, but there was no postcard. I shook some wrinkled newsprint to make sure nothing had lodged within the pages and tried to push down the swell of disappointment.
Never once in all Marcos’ years of driving did he think to send me a postcard. It wasn’t fair, now, to compare him to John. Sometimes Marcos would bring me salt water taffy or jars of honey, something he’d seen along the way, small things that traveled well.
Meeting Marcos was also like meeting someone I already knew. Immediately I felt the promise of a new life in some other, more sun-drenched part of the state. I lived then in Tomales Bay, where it was foggy most of the year and smelled too much of sea life. My father was an oyster farmer, and Marcos was a truck driver. He was handsome and, like Gabriel, wore too much cologne, and his extra five years of life experience, his world-weariness, seemed exotic. We spent our first three years in a tiny apartment near Highway 99. It was hot and windy, and exhaust blew in through our windows and left trails of black soot. After a time, I was pregnant with Gabriel and alone, feeling petrified. Marcos called in from the road and complained of his sore back, of the constant vibration of the wheels on the road. “What about my sore back?” I’d say, cross with him. “Who is here to rub it?”
Marcos had never described the marvels of the road. Instead he’d tell me he worried about getting a flat or about some roughneck who’d called him a wetback, not even knowing what it meant. Not knowing, of course, that Marcos was born here, had not crossed a river into the states. He complained all the time that he hated driving trucks, but it was a living, and it was what his father had done, carting tomatoes from the valley to the rest of the state; everywhere he drove, leaving a trail of juice and the rotten smell of tomatoes stewing in the sun.
In hindsight I know our humble beginning together was often miserable. There were days I ached, unexpectedly, for the coast—for the overcast clouds and moist air, for the crippled appendages of the Cypress trees and the dank smell of the Redwoods. I missed the comfort and familiarity of my mother’s living room. I had taken one of her old couches and a few crochet tablecloths, but it was not the same. Our apartment was not yet a reflection of us, of our new life together. We had, like our parents before us, begun with hand-me-down furniture, ugly brown chairs made of tweed. We hated each second of being apart, living without air conditioning, and hearing our neighbors, speed addicts, scream and argue at three in the morning, throwing heavy objects against the wall. I felt sometimes as though my life was already over, that I had made all the wrong choices.
Yet with hindsight comes nostalgia for those days you can never get back. I also remembered the way our curtains looked, the color of persimmons, when the late afternoon sunlight poured through, translucent and warm, or how we went walking at dusk through orchards that didn’t belong to us, loving the change of scenery: trees as far as the eye could see, damp earth, ripened peaches. Making love in those orchards, one or two times, because we were young and enamored and for the thrill of trespassing. They were days I sometimes yearned for.
In bed, by the time we got there, we were tired and it was late. The playfulness of the early evening was gone although the soccer game had ended favorably. It surprised me only a little when Marcos asked, “Any word from John?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “He answered the dispatch.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
We were quiet a moment. There were exposed beams that stretched across our ceiling from which a fan quietly spun. Through the window there was the moon, a crescent, and a few still branches, waiting for a breeze. It was Marcos, actually, who taught me to talk to our house plants, to run my fingers through and over their leaves and appendages as though I were the wind.
“You have been distracted,” Marcos pressed.
“You don’t have to apologize.” He wrapped himself generously around me, transferring an overwhelming amount of body heat. “I know you care about him.”
I wondered at my transparency as Marcos drifted easily and quickly to sleep, unencumbered, it seemed, by anything. How it must appear unseemly: my interest in John’s friendship, and how one-sided. It could not be that John cared for me and yet the one time I voiced this to Marcos, he said with a conviction that pleased me, “I’m sure he wants to sleep with you.” When I protested and claimed to be too old and too ugly, Marcos said that I was insulting him. “You are my handsome wife,” he said, “and I love you.”
We have argued over John only a few times over the years. I have overstepped some lines of worry, at times, as though I were his mother, or else, an older, bossy sister. I once said that if John didn’t eventually quit, I was going to fire him. Marcos nearly choked on that. “Why would we fire him? Don’t be ridiculous. He can make his own choices.”
It was only that I was sure he was meant to be doing something else, somewhere else. “A person is not meant to do anything. They do what they do. You belong where you end up,” Marcos said. Whether or not it was coincidence, our business has done especially well since John arrived, but I felt, I think, as though we were meant to play a part in guiding him to his next destination.
In the morning, when I had John back on the radio, I asked him more about the move. I was not courageous enough to ask why there was no mail but pressed instead for small details: What was the couple like? Was the move difficult? How about their piano?
“The woman,” he said, mimicking well the woman I’d scheduled the job with over the phone, “is seeking a more pacific lifestyle.” He began laughing and I thought about this, about how he was driving to Los Angeles, and laughed too. “She’s high strung,” he said, “But not to worry. Everything is going well.”
“Of course,” I said. “I never worry about you.”
I thought then, with his easy way on the phone, that perhaps it was the fault of the post office. Perhaps my postcards were waylaid somewhere, which was why John did not act strangely. Again my hope was renewed. I had not felt this way since I was a teenager, concerned about whether I was liked or thought specially of, wondering what small thing might have changed between us so that the friendship appeared, suddenly, in jeopardy.
John’s most recent postcard was from Seattle, on an easy drive up and down the Pacific Northwest. It was one of those cards that had multiple pictures on it, split into four quadrants: the Space Needle, a house on the waterfront, Pike’s Place market, and the scaly head of a large fish. He wrote: You’d love the flower market here. Rows and rows of roses and gladiolas and things you’d know the name of, but I don’t.
It was a simple thing to say, and also true. I always had flowers around the house or office. I wished the postcard had been of the flower market so that I could see for myself.
Two months earlier, John joined our family for Easter dinner and brought with him a bouquet of peach-colored, lemony tulips, with red stripes and fringed edges—the French kind. He didn’t go home for any holidays except Christmas. His parents had moved from the outskirts of Reno to a fancy retirement community in Las Vegas. When I asked him to join our family for Easter dinner, I asked whether he was certain he wouldn’t rather be with his own family. His answer was, “They’re remodeling.”
He showed me a snapshot that his mother sent him of a great big house with a stone column entryway. It was the house his mother had always wanted after raising four boys in something much smaller, dealing with the snow each winter. I had imagined her wearing a tennis visor, being tanned and fit, perhaps with her sunglasses hanging from a chain around her neck, but another photo revealed a short, plump woman whose face was puffy and sallow, wearing a large floral shirt and pedal pusher pants. She was at least ten years older than I was, and I couldn’t imagine having a house as big as hers with no one to fill it, but then perhaps she was waiting for John to move closer, and for all her grandchildren to migrate south and fill the rooms with laughter. When I mentioned this, whether he might move to Las Vegas, he shook his head and said, “Never. I hate it there. Haven’t you heard that saying? ‘There’s only one city that builds landmarks on purpose.’”
About girls I didn’t ask much. I imagined there were women along the way, and I pictured him at times with someone sunny and Midwestern; a very pretty, athletic girl. I always thought of him with white women, younger than him, so it surprised me when he told me about his ex-girlfriend, two years older than him, who had dyed her hair black and had tattoos of flowers from her elbow to her wrist. It was this girl who’d brought him to the Central Valley. Or rather, whom he’d followed.
“Do you ever see her?” I asked.
He blushed and gave a wide, slow-spreading smile, reminding me of water. “I saw her once,” he said. “Not by accident.”
I said nothing, and smiled in the way that was meant to encourage more confidence.
“I broke my own rule. I always said that a good thing comes back around, based on something kind of stupid. My brother signed up for the Army once, and I was young, so I was really upset when he left for boot camp. He came home three weeks later because no one had ever noticed he was asthmatic.”
We were standing in my kitchen, drinking cold beers on a really hot afternoon. He’d come over to help Marcos with a truck and stayed on for dinner. “So, anyway,” he continued, “I just figured that the world had a way of correcting itself. Cindy and I had been together since I was fourteen. When it was over I didn’t really think it was over. I hadn’t really thought past not being with her. But after a few months I thought maybe she wasn’t coming back, so I went to her apartment to ask.”
“Then what? You can’t stop there,” I teased, feeling also embarrassed.
“Oh. That part is anti-climactic. She just said all the things people say. Basically, she met someone else. The worst part was I could hear noise in the background, the cupboards opening and closing, water from a faucet. Maybe it was a roommate making the noise, but probably it was him.”
He paused and then said, “We’ll always be friends though.”
I didn’t fully understand and prodded him for more details. She had come out for graduate school, it seemed, at Cal State University, Fresno. A week after they moved together, she asked him to find his own place. He gave her a few months of space, got hired by us, and then called on her.
“How are you still friends?”
“What I mean is, once you are friends with someone, you’re always friends. That doesn’t undo itself. I misinterpreted what happened with my brother, thinking I’d get her back. It was wishful thinking. But it’s more like things come and go, and maybe I’ll talk to her again or maybe I won’t, but not like I have bad feelings or don’t care.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, blushing. “You must think I’m so weird, asking you all this.”
“Mercedes,” he said. “I think you know me well enough by now. Weird is good. I like weird.”
Last year, I had John move my mother’s old upright piano to our house. My mother passed nearly ten years earlier and her piano sat unused in my father’s house, exposed to the salty, corrosive ocean air. I had this idea that we’d get it tuned and Marisol would learn to play. I was feeling emotional that day, and missing my mother. I thought of her sometimes when our customers said they had things of value and used words like “relics.” Usually they were referring to art, expensive objects that needed to be triple-wrapped, but I could see my mother, who had taught catechism at the small Catholic school, explaining that a relic was not just something old or valuable. A relic was associated with a saint or a martyr. It was of religious significance, and it was important to her that we didn’t remove the religion from things of significance. In our hallway, she had a little reliquary where the Virgin Mother and her flaming, immaculate heart, stood surrounded by pendants of saints, little charms that could be worn around the neck. They weren’t true relics—those were too hard to come by: teeth, bones, crosses touched by historical figures—but my mother would cut a lock of my own hair and lay it there next to a burning candle, alongside a silent, invisible prayer.
Her piano was an upright Steinway, the wood worn smooth. It was an expensive gift from the church when they purchased a new one. That was how much people had loved her. She played only simple tunes, using mostly one hand, but she was proud to have been musical. I liked it best when she sang Edelweiss, although most often it was hymns or songs that she sung in Spanish and I could only halfway understand. To sing, she used to say, was to pray three times over.
I drove with John down to Tomales Bay. It took a few hours and I’d been excited for the extended time alone although, on the way, it felt like he was more distant than when he was actually hundreds of miles away and much harder to reach. Instead of going deep, instead of really getting to know each other, or to say aloud that I appreciated his friendship, or even that I loved him and his postcards in some uncertain, undefined way, he explained in great detail how it was that pianos were moved, everything that he was going to do.
You lowered the lid, he said, if it was a grand, and removed the legs. For any piano, you secured anything that could lift—the top, the shield over the keys. Pianos weighed between 500 and 1300 pounds and inside there were over 1,000 moving parts. They were moved endways, not sideways. He would take the weight off the casters to allow the piano to roll, never lifting the instrument from the ground. Once we arrived, he explained all this again to my father, as though the drive had been a rehearsal. “Packing is key,” he said as he wrapped the piano with padding and quilted blankets. Sometimes pianos were encased in wood, like massive coffins the size of a small sailboat, although this time, the thick moving blankets were enough.
My father stood for a long time looking at the spot where the piano had been. On the drive home I was quiet. I fought a surprising urge to lean into John for comfort, as a safe haven because I felt sad, but instead I watched the ocean and then the farmland as it flashed by. Near the sea the fields were green. There were dairy farms and sheep, and some small wineries. As we neared home the landscape changed so that it was arid and flat, and fields would appear as sudden bursts of color, laid out in methodical, neat rows. I’d lived in the valley long enough to know by the smell when we passed cauliflower or cabbage, or when a field yielded onions or alfalfa.
Back at home, Marcos helped John roll the piano inside. I felt exhausted and deflated by the journey, both because I missed my mother and could see how old and frail my father was becoming, and because the time with John had been good but not spectacular. It made me feel as though I had imagined that I meant more to him than perhaps I actually did. Then John sat down and opened the lid and began to play. The piano was badly out of tune, and Marcos and I stood behind him, a little stunned, while Marisol leaned onto the piano bench next to John, wanting to reach the keys, sometimes hitting a single high note.
He was an accomplished player. There was some kind of deep concentration or fervor I’d seen in him before but not with regularity, or not in this way. “I had lessons,” he said, and shrugged, not elaborating. I thought of my mother as I stood there with Marcos’ hand on the small of my back, of her soft skin, her worn and veined hands, which mine were beginning to resemble.
When Marcos eventually walked away and out into the garage, I sat down next to John on the bench and listened. It was then that our shoulders pressed against each other. I watched his hands, in every way unlike my mothers or my own, as they moved over the ivory keys, almost without thought. His hands were thick and calloused, and yet capable. Though he was not tall, his reach easily spanned an octave. It was jarring to see such a large hand behave so delicately, to hear these haunting and melodic sounds in my home, making all the sounds that had come before seem quiet. He knew classical tunes, and then, eventually, some show tunes, The Entertainer. Marisol squealed and danced around the room and her laughter made it so that I wouldn’t weep.
My feelings were not entirely romantic, but they were there. I pictured his hands, suddenly, doing sexual things. I had never before let my imagination travel so far. As he played, I imagined bringing his face to my breasts, or kissing him, pulling on his soft lower lip with my teeth. I couldn’t bear to look over at him, but I thought of his high cheekbones, rose-tinted, appearing freshly scrubbed and breathless. I thought of his hands running up and down my hips the way that Marcos’ did, wondering how differently they would feel.
When he finally stopped playing he brought his hands down to rest on his lap, and we sat still, our elbows still connected. “That was beautiful,” I said, the words feeling strange in my mouth. “You never told us you could play.”
“I didn’t think to,” he said. We didn’t look at each other as we sat there, and when he stood up I saw how much he had grown, how broad his shoulders had become, how much less like a boy he was. A few weeks later he brought over a piano tuner and said, “Call it an early Christmas gift.”
When nine days had come and gone and John returned from the drive, after dropping the load at the ocean-front property and making the final stretch up Interstate 5, there had been no postcards. It was the first time in a little over three years. It was always conceivable that one day they would cease to arrive, but I had not anticipated the day would come so soon, or if not soon, then quickly. If this were not only a fluke, that day had come and gone with the last card he’d sent and I hadn’t even known.
I was at the kitchen sink washing dishes when John returned the truck. My hands were soapy and I wished I looked and felt a little better. I watched as he talked to Marcos a bit outside, and I panicked when at first he turned to leave and then panicked again when he turned and began walking toward the house. I wiped my palms on a towel, my heart drumming wildly, trying to seem occupied, as though I had not noticed him, and wanting to give him a welcoming hug and seem normal. I wondered if he was going to quit and felt at once the fear of losing something you haven’t quite grasped having.
It had been so easy to come upon a new friend after I’d reached a time in my life when I’d given up on new and unexpected relationships. To feel it fading or drifting was not easy. I wondered what I’d done wrong, how I had displeased him. I wondered who had replaced me. I knew there had been a kind of quiet devotion between John and I. What a gift it was to give another person your thoughts, and to listen quietly to whatever strange unedited thing they had to say. If John had found another person to listen, I knew that I could be sad for myself and also happy for him.
John came inside, smiling. I tried to give him a meaningful look, a questioning look. He seemed tired, but in good spirits. His eyes met mine and moved on, without avoidance and without significance.
“Stay for dinner?” Marcos asked.
I expected he would stay but he answered, “I’m beat, but thank you.”
Marcos pressed him for a few more details—a sound the truck made, had he stopped at the place with the good crawfish he’d told him about, and I stood with my back to them, listening for some sign or hint of anything about his drive, some hidden message to me, or an explanation. There was a yes, and a no, and a sound that was kind of like a rattle, but had stopped.
I quickly scheduled John on another drive, a shorter one, because I was so preoccupied and eager to know that nothing had changed between us. Then I passed my days in the regular ways, but they were long days of habit and repetition because, again, no mail arrived.
Marcos caught me looking through the postcards one afternoon. The boxes were out on the desktop, three of them, lids open. “He sent you all of those?” he asked.
“Well, most of them,” I lied, feeling an awful sickness in the pit of my stomach. I hoped Marcos would not read them. They were mine. I watched as his hands hovered over the boxes, but he did not reach in. “This explains so much.”
“Are you angry?”
“No,” he said, keeping his gaze on the boxes. “Should I be?”
I shook my head slowly, realizing what he was really asking: Had I been unfaithful? I was surprised that this had even been a question in his mind. “There are a lot of places a person can go,” I said. “I just like to look at them.” It felt silly to admit to myself that perhaps what I liked was not the sense of a larger world that the postcards spoke to, but simply the mystery and feeling of being somehow singled out.
Marcos only nodded and it seemed like enough. He left me to the postcards but I began to pack them away, feeling a knot of grief, and that feeling of uncertainty that comes each time the earth shifts in some imperceptible way.
SUZANNE BARNECUT lives and writes in San Francisco, where she is at work on a collection of short stories. She received an MFA from California College of the Arts, and is previously published in Beeswax Magazine and the Santa Clara Review.