THREE SUMMERS by James Pate
June 1997. A bag. A gun. A terrible deed planned.
GRETA WATCHES MICHAEL come into the room holding the paper bag. He places the bag on the coffee table. He sits next to her on the sofa and places a hand on her knee. She places her hand on top of his hand. He asks if she still wants to go through with what they had been talking about the night before. She says yes. The bag sits on the table with its opening twisted shut. She takes a takes a corner of the bag and lifts it and shakes. A gun falls out from the bag and lands on the table. Greta touches the handle and then the barrel. Her chest feels cold. Her chest feels like it is glowing with a cold blue light.
Michael takes another bag from the drawer by the sofa. He shakes it and a pipe falls into his palm. Soon they are smoking and staring at the bare walls and scuffed-up floorboards. Greta laughs and says, How did I get here? How did I get to this place? A year ago, she had been teaching at a high school. She’d liked her job and she’d liked her students. And now here she was, smoking crack at two in the afternoon. Michael leans forward. He asks if she blames him for getting her hooked on drugs again. Greta rubs the side of his face, running her fingers along his cheek and his beard.
By the time night is falling, they are in the kitchen, with the gun on the table between them. They discuss the plan. The liquor store stood alone on a corner near downtown Memphis. From there it was a short drive to the highway. Michael points to the map he’d made. It had been drawn on a paper towel. They go over everything from point A to point B. Greta will drive. She will wait in the parking lot with the motor running. Michael will carry out the actual robbery. When he runs from the front door, Greta will pull up quickly, and once he is in they’ll drive away and hide out in a cabin near Natchez for a few days. Greta takes the gun and runs the tip of the barrel along the streets on the map. Michael places his hand over her hand and says they shouldn’t touch the gun until it is time. Greta says it is already time. The seconds are ticking.
The morning of the hold-up, they sit in front of the television. They watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and smoke the last of their stash. As the closing credits appear on the screen, Greta says their plan could go horribly wrong. They should be prepared for that, she says. Michael stands and peers out the closed curtain. His face is lit by sunlight. He tells her he doesn’t know why she has to be so negative. Greta glares at him. She goes into the kitchen. It is dark. The lights in the overhead lamp have been out for days and the window is small and lets in little daylight. In the refrigerator, there is some very old Chinese take-out and a few dried-up oranges. There is also a jar of pickled okra. She takes the jar out and eats some of the okra over the sink. Michael comes in and sits at the table. He says he is sorry. He knows they should prepare for the worst. He knows they should prepare even for the absolute worst. Greta walks to him. She stares down into his gaunt face, with its heavy-lidded eyes. She says they might die that night. He nods. He says he knows. He places his hands flat on the table, the gun and map between them. She sits across from him. Together, they stare at the gun and map.
That afternoon, they take turns showering. Michael shaves and cuts his fingernails and Greta plucks her eyebrows and brushes her teeth. The toothpaste tastes strange to her. She has not brushed in days. In the bedroom is a huge pile of laundry. Greta starts to go through it, sniffing at the garments she picks up. There is a knock on the door. It is strong and persistent. Michael comes in from the bathroom, a towel around his waist and his long hair dripping. He says he is too nervous to talk to anyone. Greta answers the door. It is their landlord. He is a big man with a big beard. Today, he wears a Hawaiian shirt that fits tightly across his large belly. It has parrots and palm trees and dancing fruit. Greta smiles but he does not smile back. She knows he does not like her and Michael. She knows he knows how they live. She has seen the look on his face when they pass him in the courtyard with their greasy hair and bloodshot eyes.
He tells her he is going to Dallas, to visit his mother. He says he does not want any neighbors complaining about them while he is gone. No loud music in the middle of the night, he says. No asking other people in the building for a ride here or there, he explains. She smiles and she nods. She is thinking how she might not be alive by tomorrow and how if she is not alive tomorrow she will not be alive the day after that either. Don’t worry about us, she tells him. Her hand grips the doorknob.
June 2001. A beach. A foot covered in sand. A confession.
Greta stands on the beach. She wears a yellow summer dress and has a necklace of blue stones around her neck. Jeff approaches, carrying his shoes. When he is only a few feet away, she asks if he had a nice swim. He says yes. The water is still very cold but you get used to it, he tells her.
They walk up the steps leading off the beach and cross the street to the inn where they are staying and go inside. As he takes off his swimming trunks, she stands in the middle of the room and lights a cigarette. He stares at her as he dries off with a towel, rubbing his legs and backs and thighs. He asks her if something is wrong. She nods no. He says she seems upset. She picks a piece of ash from her lips and says she is fine.
They walk to a nearby restaurant and they sit outside, under an umbrella. Greta scoots her chair closer to Jeff and takes his hand. The two of them stare out at the water. They are in Saugatuck, Michigan. They have been here for two days and this is their last night. After this night, they will return to Chicago. Jeff will go back to his wife and his three teenage sons. He’ll go back to his dental practice in Andersonville, located above a busy deli on Clark Street. She will return to her empty apartment near the Argyle El stop, with its cracked windows and stained ceiling. She will go back to work as a cashier at a grocery store near her apartment. Greta squeezes his hand. I have something to tell you tonight, she tells him. Something I’ve wanted to tell you for a while. He kisses the back of her hand and says she can tell him anything.
After dinner, they go back to the beach. They walk holding hands and carrying their sandals. Once they arrive back in their room, they make love, their feet still covered in sand. By the time they are done, the sand in their sheets has spread over their bodies. Greta slowly gets up from the bed and puts on a robe and opens the window that faces the beach. The sound of cars and people walking by on the sidewalk below drifts into the room. Greta tells Jeff there is a specific reason why she was able to steer herself off of drugs and alcohol a few years ago. There was a specific event that caused her to find the inner resources she needed to stop drinking and popping pills and smoking crack. She says she was involved in a holdup. Her boyfriend at the time had been involved too. She had been the one to drive the car and he had been the one to carry the gun. The plan had fallen through, though. When she saw her boyfriend pull the gun on the cashier, she’d decided she couldn’t go through with the robbery. She’d driven away.
Jeff sits up in bed. She looks at him. He stares at the window behind her. Then he turns to her and asks, Did he go through with it?
She says no. When she drove out into the street, she’d heard him yelling at her to stop. In her rearview mirrors she saw him holding the empty bag and waving his gun, as if he’d forgotten he was holding it. She picked up speed. She did not look in the mirror again until she was miles away.
She walks over to Jeff. She places her hand on his shoulder. She says she never saw the boyfriend again. She had stopped in front of the apartment building, and had looked at the windows of the apartment she shared with Michael. They were dark, of course. Then she’d started the car again. She drove it all through the night, toward Chicago. It was her car anyway. She wasn’t taking anything from him. The next day, she was in Chicago, knocking on the door of her sister’s apartment.
The wind continues to blow into the room and fill it with the smell of the beach. Jeff asks if he is the first person she ever told about the holdup. She says yes, how could he tell? He says from the way say she spoke. It was like she was talking to a cop or a priest. Greta smiles and sits next to him and places his hand on the inside of her thigh. She tells him maybe it is a confession. She continues to smile. Are you going to turn me in? she asks.
He stares at her. He moves his head just enough to indicate no. Then he says, You know I’d never do that. You know I’m crazy about you.
They kiss and embrace and lean back across the bed. They lie on their backs. There is a ceiling fan above them. It has white blades and when the breeze from the window is strong enough it rotates an inch or two. Greta says she had called her boyfriend up a few times from Chicago, and had told him she was sorry, and had said she hoped he understood why she had done what she’d done. Usually their conversations were brisk. He would mumble yes and no and they would soon hang up. But once when she called, they fought, and he told her he did understand on one level. But one another level, he said, he felt she’d betrayed him. She’d left him out in the street, alone, and holding a gun. It was sheer fucking luck, he said, that he’d never been caught. He hadn’t taken any money. But they still could’ve put him away for years had they caught him, he told her.
Jeff asks, You in contact with him still?
No, she tells him. I knew his sister before I knew him, and she’s kept me up on what he’s been doing. It sounds like he’s really bad off now. He lives in a kind of crack house with his new girlfriend. She’s a crack whore. Or so Francesca tells me. Sometimes, not even Francesca can find him though. It’s like he falls right off the side of the world for weeks at a time. Then he’ll show up and get angry with her for worrying.
They stared at the fan. Eventually, Jeff said, Why are you telling me all this?
The fan doesn’t turn. There is no breeze coming in from the window. I think I want you to know how far gone I was at one point, she answers. I want you to know what I was willing to do. She stares at the fan. A certain amount of time passes, though she cannot tell if it is five minutes or fifty minutes. She rises up on her elbow. Jeff’s eyes are shut, his mouth open. There are lines around his eyes and his cottony hair is thin on his scalp. She does not know how old he is. She never asked. Ten years older than herself? Fifteen? She dresses in her summer dress and puts on her necklace. She takes a napkin from the table and scribbles a few words. She places the napkin under his hand. Then she opens the door and slips out.
June 2006. A call. A pool. A wall full of windows.
One night, Francesca calls her, and Greta can tell from her voice that she has been crying. Greta opens her kitchen door and paces back and forth along the deck as she listens to Francesca tell her that Michael was dead, and that his body had been found the day before in an abandoned house in the Highland Heights area of town.
The following day, Greta drives to Memphis. She gets a room at the Holiday Inn on Union Avenue. The next day she goes to the funeral, which is at St. Stephen’s Church. The service is not very crowded. Michael’s sister and nieces and his two aunts are there, plus about a dozen people who sit in the back in ragged clothes, and who leave before the final minutes of the Mass. At the cemetery there are the final prayers. The sun is hot and right above them and none of the tombstones appear to cast shade. As the crowd starts to disperse, Greta goes up to Francesca. They take each other’s hands. Greta is struck, once again, by how much Francesca resembles Michael. The same brown eyes and the same wide sensual mouth. Francesca asks her how long she is in town. For one more day, Greta says. Francesca asks, Let’s get together tomorrow night, just to talk. Would that be okay? Greta squeezes Francesca’s hand. She says it would certainly be okay.
The next day Greta visits a few friends she hasn’t seen in years. Then she spends the afternoon alone, reading magazines at a café and drinking several espressos. At nine, she is in the hotel restaurant, in a booth near the back. The place is mostly empty. Francesca arrives wearing the same black dress and black linen jacket she’d worn at the funeral. Her face looks worn and her eyes look tired. They talk about their jobs and Francesca tells her about a trip she’d made to Sicily recently to see the town where the family had come from. And then they talk about Michael. About his final weeks. Francesca says he’d had AIDS. He’d contracted it two or three years before. But it wasn’t the AIDS that had killed him, she says. It was a huge overdose that had done him in. An overdose so large the cops thought it must have been intentional.
Jesus, Greta whispers. She imagines him in his final hours. She sees him with his shirt off shooting up in a house without electricity and running water. It must have been sweltering. She’d read on the Internet that the temperature had been in the high nineties on the day he passed away.
Francesca looks out the window. She tears at the paper napkin in her fingers. She says, I came here to tell you something I’ve wanted to tell you for a while. She places the napkin pieces down. She exhales and says, I wish you’d never entered my brother’s life. You were like poison to him. She swallows and scratches the back of her hand and picks the napkin pieces back up. She begins to tear at them again. She tells her, I kind of hate you. I know I shouldn’t say such things. I know you didn’t kill him. But I do hate you. I can’t help myself. You were the one who started walking with him down a certain path.
Greta braces herself, expecting more. Francesca simply stares at her. Greta says, I never forced him to take drugs with me. I never held a gun to his head and forced him to do what I was doing. We did it together. We took those steps together.
The waiter approaches and gives them their drinks. They sit without speaking. They sit without drinking. Outside the window, traffic flows in the dark.
Greta says, I loved him.
Francesca says, You used to be a friend of mine. In some way, I think you still are. So I hope you don’t take it the wrong way when I say that type of love isn’t worth shit.
They sit without saying anything. They drink without saying anything. After ten minutes have gone by without a word, Greta stands and takes her purse from the booth and places a few bills on the table. She says, I don’t regret meeting Michael for a second. Not even tonight.
Francesca doesn’t say anything. She stands and hugs Greta in a surprisingly strong embrace. Then she sits back in the booth and turns back to the window.
Greta leaves the restaurant and makes her way to the pool at the back of the hotel. No one else is there. She sits in a pink plastic chair. She gazes at the water and at the back wall of the hotel. There are lights in some of the windows. There are figures moving behind some of the curtains. She smokes one cigarette after another. The ashtray on the plastic table beside her fills up with butts and ash. It grows later. The wind dies down. One by one, the lights in the windows facing the pool start to go out. But she remains by the pool, smoking. She remains after the windows are dark.
JAMES PATE is a fiction writer, poet, and experimental filmmaker who grew up and Memphis, spent many years in Chicago, and currently teaches creative writing at Shepherd University in West Virginia. His work has appeared storySouth, Harpur Palate, Berkeley Fiction Review, Black Warrior Review, Eclipse, and Cream City Review, among other places, and he has published a book of flash fiction called The Fassbinder Diaries (Civil Coping Mechanisms). He also writes for the arts blog Montevidayo.