It’d been thirty years since Randy Clay had held Ida Wallace in his arms and four more hours would put him there once again. They’d found each other on social media, where every soft touch and foul line to the past can be found. He called her Tot the way he used to in high school, and she lit up like the county fair. Her cheekbones were as prominent as ever, and the touch of gray refined the natural beauty of her face. I’d love to see you, she typed when he suggested going for a visit.
Except for the addition of several stoplights, a rerouting of the main artery, and the appearance of numerous fast-food restaurants, Saudad looked exactly as he remembered it. The curving bridge over Turkey Creek still gave a view of the shrimp boats moored along the edges of Boggy Bayou. Doug’s Donuts, a narrow orange- and white-striped building was busy with people grabbing boxes of doughnuts and cartons of coffee. Past the climbing gravel road to the cemetery and the winding streets around the ballparks, he arrived at what used to be the Forty Winks motel. Its salmon cladding was now mahogany brown with teal trim and it was called the Southern Motel. The clerk slid the key across the counter.
Randy slid it back.
Twenty-three, he said.
The clerk lifted his head with an incomprehensible look. The key was on the counter between them.
No room, said the clerk.
The place wasn’t crowded. He smiled politely at the clerk.
You don’t understand, he said. I want room twenty-three.
He lifted the key and pointed at each slightly curled number on the tag.
Two. Three. Understand?
No room, said the clerk. His shoulders said, Take it or leave it.
He took it and saw that they’d knocked out rooms twenty-three through twenty-five and put in a pool. He stood looking at his drawn-out reflection in the still water. Don’t it beat all? He’d wanted to sit on the bed in room twenty-three and run his hand over the corded blanket and revive the feeling of that frosty night in February 1979, when he and Ida slipped out of the party after the district game, and he was grinning at her, telling her, Come on, come on, Tot, let’s go, and she had a sloe-eyed look and a dainty ivory overbite and a hand giving the back of his neck the loving squeeze. And they got out of there and into the room with pooled money. And it was going good and he unzipped her jeans and she zipped them back and sat up quick and the bed made a sound like the squeak of rubber soles on the basketball court. I’m on the rag, she said. He pulled her back down and told her it was OK and they kissed a while and they sort of looked at the ceiling for a while and they sat up on the edge of the bed and held hands for a while and maybe they said a few things and it was three a.m. and they went outside and the air was brisk and the stars were bright and after all of that. It wasn’t OK. They’d been going together most of the school year, and one moment they were something and the next they weren’t.
Room twelve felt wrong, or he felt wrong being in this room. Or he was exhausted from driving all night and had no idea what he felt. He drew the curtains tight and lay on the bed and stretched out his arm as if to hold Ida Wallace—and then he remembered she was no longer Ida Wallace but Ida McLeod, and she had two children, and what the hell was he doing here? His eyes were itching and burning and fatigue crash was on the way. Those crazy highway dreams of finishing what they had started began to splinter before his itchy, stinging eyes. Goddamn Wendy, his ex-wife, bumping him out of bed and into divorce court in a vicious whirl out of which she scored the Mediterranean with its barrel-tile roof and three-hundred-bottle walnut wood wine cellar, and all he got from her on her way out of court was a scornful whisper: Outclassed. Afterward he wound up in a cramped townhouse overlooking the St. Johns River. Three lonely, pissed-off years passed and he’d just about had it and one night a few weeks ago Ida’s online telling him that her husband’s like a roommate and why don’t they get together? Nathey’s Lounge is still here, she typed. She sent a smiley face with horns. That’s what he was doing here: hanging onto those red-hot horns.
Cattycorner to a dollar store with big orange letters and abutting Everson’s Hardware, Nathey’s stretched toward a hillside covered in kudzu. The lounge always had a low, sloping appearance, and the gutter at the far end had come halfway off. The door, a thick slab of chipped and peeling wood, was as old as prohibition and had a Judas Window that had long ago lost its utility, except as a conversation starter.
He arrived an hour early for some pre-game prep with various intoxicants. Coach had drilled it into him. Arrive early, leave late. He followed that dictum to a T. He sat at the far end of the bar so he could see her arriving. He was the only one there, except an old man at a table against the wall. From the bartender he learned that Nathey had sold the place years ago to someone who liked to surf and that Doug’s Donuts was also under new ownership. A couple came in and then a man that he’d recognize anywhere sat at the bar near a column of napkins and a bowl of matches. He moved toward the man, chanting, Le Roy, Le Roy, Le Roy.
Leroy Lemon turned and after a moment said, Randy Clay, what the hell you doing back in town?
I was about to ask you the same thing.
I never left, Leroy said.
What the hell. We all saw it, didn’t we? You had the shot and everyone figured you for the NBA, first round easy.
Leroy shook his head. I went on over to JuCo after my mom got sick and figured I’d improve myself, you know, stay sharp, but then I got cut from the team.
You got cut?
He laughed. Damn straight. He sipped from the tumbler. Just wasn’t good enough, and that’s the goddamn truth of it.
Not good enough. Hard to believe that.
Not even good enough for JuCo, said Leroy. Ain’t it something?
Ain’t it, though. We figured you and Chick Mathis for the NBA. All that speed and accuracy.
Yeah, Chick. He was damn good.
Leroy’s face darkened under the red track lights. You heard, right?
Randy shook his head.
Man, where you been? He signaled to the bartender, wiggled a finger over their glasses. About a year after graduation he was run over by a semi. Brain dead on the spot, but the body—you know that boy was tough—kept going three days more and then that was that.
A bit rattled, Randy said, And nobody told me.
Maybe you didn’t leave a number.
You think you can go on forever, don’t you?
Sure you do, said Leroy. But that clock’s always counting down.
He couldn’t remember if he and Ida had a countdown. They didn’t so much as break up as wear away, a sort of natural erosion like the shore along Boggy Bayou. All he knew was that he wanted to leave and right after graduation he wound up doing archival work in Jacksonville all the way across the state.
He was a buzzer beater, Randy said.
Chick? You know it. That boy could play it up and down.
Then Randy started laughing. Remember that game when Chick comes down the court in those silver shoes and next thing you know one’s come loose and it’s flying across the court like a jet fighter streaking through the air?
Leroy was in fits. Yeah, boy, that was Chick’s flying shoe all right, but mine was the silver.
That’s right. We were all laughing but that was you, that style you had.
We had us a time, didn’t we?
Randy looked at the clock. Fifteen minutes more but he was already looking around, hoping Ida might be early. A few tired professionals at a square table, the old man against the wall, watching them, and an easy twang from the speakers overhead. He looked at Leroy’s hands. Every crack and crevice was stained: the life line, the fate line, the heart line. Every one of them, like he’d soaked his hands all day in motor oil and it wasn’t going to come off. Randy wondered how things were but thought better about asking. And Leroy wasn’t asking, either, and he wasn’t going to tell anyway, about Wendy or anything else.
We had us a time, said Randy. You remember District against Godby?
Who can forget it? Leroy said, turning his glass. And Coach just going on about it. He in there at halftime screaming, You’re hill creatures, you’re goddamn hill creatures!
They were the best in the state that year, said Randy. Nobody thought we could beat them.
Not a soul.
And Coach had us do the four-corners, and Godby was fast.
They were bullets, said Leroy, and we was busting to run with them.
And Coach says slow it down, slow your skinny asses down.
Leroy laughed, holding the tumbler, swirling the liquid.
We’re telling Coach we can run with them, Leroy said. And Coach says, Keep your dignity, boys, ride it high, ride that donkey, ride it on up to heaven. What the hell?
He could say some things, couldn’t he?
Half the time I didn’t know what he was talking about, Leroy said.
And oh, man, that final second and Chick lofts the ball and nothing but. Nothing but—
And Randy smiled big and he was there, same as Leroy, and they were looking at the counter in silence for some time and at the whiskey in the glasses.
That’s too bad about Chick, said Randy.
Yeah, Leroy said. He looked at Randy. Bet you didn’t hear about Coach, neither.
Leroy motioned to the bartender and wiggled the finger.
Wasn’t a week before that I was fixing his car and he seemed fit, he seemed fine, he seemed straight. And don’t even ask, ’cause nobody knows the answer. I guess it’s like they say, when it’s your time, it’s your time.
I guess it is, said Randy, and looked at the clock.
Who you looking around for?
Ida Wallace. I mean, Ida McLeod.
That why you come here? Leroy was looking at him through the glass. Tell you what, he said, there’s some things you just don’t wanna know.
He told Leroy they’d been chatting online and things seemed good.
Leroy set the tumbler down. Not long after you left, she got into it bad, and ain’t nothing been good since. That husband of hers is one mean son of a bitch.
She told me about the husband.
I hate that you come all this way, he said, but she’s a little too desperate for what you got in mind. Just other day, she come to the car shop and I’m fixing it up and seeing how it is—nobody, not even her children got any respect for her. And you ain’t that sort of fella, so you see what I’m saying, right? You don’t mess around with another man’s fire. So maybe it’s all right if she don’t show up.
But he wanted to see her, or he wanted to see her the way he remembered her. He looked over the few patrons, the intimate gazes of the couples, the animated hands of the professionals, and he thought about Wendy. He’d been good with her and she still dumped him, and what the hell was he doing here? What sense did it all make? It was clear to him: He wanted Ida’s hand, that’s what he wanted. Wanted to grasp it and hold it firm. And even if it turned out to be a sad or deluded hand, it would still do as long as it gave him hope.
But then he looked around the nearly empty bar and it sort of came to him: she wasn’t going to show up. He excused himself.
Do what you got to do, said Leroy.
Randy texted Ida.
Was that tonight? she replied.
He was crushed; she knew it was tonight. He felt betrayed. How far he’d traveled to meet her. How much farther he would go. He did not try to convince her. He accepted the reasons why she couldn’t make it, knowing they were all lies. Yet, she ended by texting an emoji of what she felt, and this turned his heart into pulp. He stared at the emoji, a symbol of what they’d always shared with each other, even back in high school.
He was standing at the end of the bar. He looked at Leroy. He wouldn’t look over. He was being a true friend. We don’t gaze on the sorrows of another.
Randy flattened his hand against his chest, breathed as easy as he could. Their love had separated forty years ago in a motel room one chilly night but had never ended. For the rest of their lives they would always remember what had not happened that night.
He sat down next to Leroy.
Tell you what, Leroy said, after several minutes of silence, as he knocked Randy’s glass with his own. Let’s go on up and see Coach’s grave.
He got himself a town plot?
Sure do. It’s real nice up there this time of night. Right up off Ghost Hill.
That old Ghost Hill: You drive down to a stop sign and put the car in neutral and sit and wait and the car rolls back on up the hill. Gives you a spooky feeling the first time, but eventually you figure out it’s just an illusion caused by the slant of the crossing road at the stop sign.
The moonlight came fractured through the surrounding pines. Above, a fog of stars. Below, the crunch of gravel. A plastic bouquet of flowers in a green plastic cone lay on its side near Coach’s headstone. Randy knelt to upright it.
I was thinking, said Leroy, about the pre-game quiet. You know how it was when we’d be all dressed out in the locker room, the overripe smell, the thump of the crowd through the wall, and Coach come in and set his foot down on one of them benches and look us over, look us over with those tight, serious eyes of his, and no matter what else he might say, he’d always say, Boys, this ain’t no place for love, now go out and show ’em.
Coach could sure say some things, Randy said.
Sure he could, said Leroy. But that’s all done and over, man.
Off in the woods, a whip-poor-will kept calling, and Randy thought it was the loneliest sound he ever heard.
You ever get that moment you can’t figure out?
Always, Leroy said. And what you wanna do about it?
They returned to the truck. Leroy let it idle a while. A cool wind from the surrounding pines wended through the cab. The whip-poor-will kept at it.
I’ve been trying to figure it out, said Randy. It snuck up on me, you know? This feeling. What the hell am I doing here?
Ain’t nobody got that answer, said Leroy. His hand was easy over the wheel.
Randy couldn’t tell if the whip-poor-will was getting closer or moving off, or just sitting still, or if it mattered, but that bird had a name to beat all; its song was relentless.
Tell you what, Leroy. Let’s run on over to Ghost Hill. See if we can get that feeling again.
Sure, Leroy said. Sure. We could do that. But I’m telling you, man, it ain’t gonna get you no closer to anything.
Randy looked out into the darkness.
Don’t expect it will.
D. E. Lee’s short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Alligator Juniper, The Lindenwood
Review, Saw Palm, Broad River Review, and several others. Awards include Pushcart
Prize nominee, Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open, and finalist for the
2014 Nelson Algren Award. His novel, The Sky After Rain, was a finalist in the 2015
Permafrost Magazine’s book prize and was selected for the Brighthorse Books 2015