How to Walk in the Dark
They burned what was left of her in Arthur’s backyard. It wasn’t nighttime. Someone walked a dog down the street. Someone pushed a stroller. “I can’t get the cookbook to burn right,” Arthur said. Joe watched as his neighbor and best friend took a long drink from something that almost certainly had alcohol in it. Arthur drew a breath in through his teeth before setting the glass down on the arm of his plastic lawn chair.
Joe took a can of WD-40 from Arthur’s feet and spread the pages of the cookbook like a fan in the fire-pit, being careful not to touch the smoldering bottle of coconut skin lotion—he never knew you could burn a bottle of lotion until that day. The flames were red, not orange, and lotion oozed slowly from the wounded bottle. Joe drenched the splayed pages of the book, then ignited them with a long lighter that was sitting on the cement-block perimeter.
“I didn’t realize you were an expert on book-burning, Joseph,” Arthur said. He lifted his glass in an approving gesture before taking another large sip. Joe pulled a similar plastic lawn chair over to the fire-pit, sat down, watched the pages of 50 Exciting Vegetarian Recipes curl and turn to a crumbly gray.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You know what you need?” Arthur said. “You need to meet a girl who says ‘I don’t know’ a lot.”
Joe laughed, realizing Arthur was trying to think about something other than Jamie and why she was gone.
“You’re always saying ‘I don’t know’ about something,” Arthur continued. “I guess. I mean, I don’t—”
Arthur shook his head slightly, grinning. “She left the pictures right where I would find them. She got in the shower and left them right there on her phone. Goddamn redneck too. I mean, I wouldn’t even be as mad if the guy was better looking than me. I’m not great, I know, but that piece of shit?”
Joe nodded. The spine of the cookbook finally buckled and fell into the cluster of ashes and half-burnt pages around it. “She’s gone now, anyway.”
The truth is Joe had met a girl who said ‘I don’t know a lot.’ He didn’t mention her at the time, because it didn’t seem appropriate. He couldn’t bring himself to go on about her when Arthur just saw his relationship of two years go down in a toxic blaze.
It had been nearly the end of the semester for Joe, and he had been friends with Evy for the majority of that semester since their meeting in class for the first time. As finals week grew closer and closer, though, he was concerned that they would go their separate ways—as people do at the end of semesters—and possibly not see each other again. He couldn’t bring himself to admit it to Arthur, but it had taken him weeks to come around to asking her out for more than a bagel at the campus café.
Joe and Evy were walking between buildings, their final classes having let out, in order to have lunch on campus a final time before summer.
“Hey, Evy?” Joe asked. “I know I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but what if I said I wanted to be more than friends?” She turned to him as they walked, the breeze scattering her hair across her face.
“What are we in, fifth grade?”
Joe’s face burned. All at once he wished he hadn’t opened his mouth and was relieved that he had—that he wasn’t just wishing he could say something to her.
“I’m just really not good at relationships,” Evy went on. “What happens if we break up? Things could get weird and I would hate that. Not that I’m a bad ex. I’m still friends with my exes.”
“Me too. I still keep in touch with a couple of mine.” Joe watched Evy’s hands—she was wringing them as they walked, wrapping her long fingers together then unwrapping them. “But wait a minute,” he said. “We haven’t even agreed to anything yet.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” she said, staring at the ground in front of them as they walked.
She didn’t give him an answer that day—said she would need a couple weeks to think about it. At this, Joe told himself to give up the whole thing altogether. Classes were over, and there were only two finals between him and the full force of summer. He was convinced that soon the only people he’d see on a regular basis were his dad, Arthur, and Little Nick.
The summer was shaped like a beer bottle, he decided. The beginning was quick and full of enthusiasm, a neck of cool amber, and the rest was wide and ponderous and full of empty spaces.
Joe had been working at Little Nick’s Landscaping for the past couple of weeks. Dropping him at a job near the center of the village, Nick lifted the steel grate that formed a ramp into his trailer and slammed the latch into place. He crushed what was left of his cigarette under a steel-toed boot. “Well, there ya go, Joey. I’ll seeya back here around four, alright? Should give ya time to get this mowed.”
“Yep, no problem.” As Little Nick’s Ford drove away, pebbles popping under its tires, Joe rode the mower over to the edge of the West Springs Commons. The Commons included a complex of doctor’s offices, a day-care center, and 14 apartment buildings. All were surrounded by wide, flat lawns that had grown significantly since he mowed them the previous week.
That summer was going to be different. Normally, Joe hated the summer, the brightness, the heat. He would step outside and the sun would fall on him like a twelve-pound hammer, and there would be that inescapable sensation in his head—the pressure, the thought: this summer will be the one that kills me. But that was all going to change. He’d do his work with a smile on his face, mow in neat, straight lines, south to north, north to south. Get up early every day, smile more, lose some weight. Stop feeling sorry for himself, stop wasting time.
He wasn’t sure how to do all of these things, but he could start with the straight lines. Joe accomplished this so well that he surprised himself. Some days, there is just nothing more beautiful than the way mower blades sweep the grass into alternating stripes of light green and dark green. From one end of the lawn, his passes were light-dark-light; from the other end, they were dark-light-dark. It all depended on where you stood while you admired the job. As if anyone but a lawnmower stood and admired the job of a lawnmower. But there he was being a downer again. Smile. Stay positive.
By four, Joe had finished. He was ready to stop imagining how dumb he looked bouncing around on the mower seat with a grin painted on his face. Little Nick pulled up in his Ford, twenty minutes late as usual, and rolled down the window. “Dude, I’m really sorry. Had to get the damn blades fixed on the other mower again.” Joe drove the mower onto the trailer and strained to lift the ramp up behind it and slide the pin into place.
“I’ll take ya home,” Nick said when Joe plopped down in the passenger seat. Joe noticed a glass pipe leaning in one of the cup holders and the smell of what Nick had been smoking in the air. He wondered why Nick couldn’t wait until he was home to smoke, and what would happen if a cop pulled them over. But Joe didn’t comment. The rivers of colors in the glasswork reminded him of the marbles he and Arthur used to play with as kids—a time before booze and broken hearts and rednecks, a time when nothing needed to be fixed. They’d roll the marbles along the grooves in the wooden picnic table in Joe’s backyard, pretending the glossy orbs were sentient. A marble’s worst fear was falling from the end of the table, off the track, off the edge of the world into whatever lay below. Joe thought how easily something like this could happen. It took so little effort to become lost.
Soon, the Ford pulled up in front of Joe’s house. Joe sat there for a moment, thinking Nick might pull out his wallet, pay him for at least some of the hours he had worked.
Nick seemed to notice that Joe wasn’t getting out yet. He scratched at the stubble on his cheek. “Joey, I feel like a jackass, but I don’t have the cash for ya right now. I’m gonna have to wait till I get paid to pay you this time. Is that okay?”
“Sure, man,” Joe said. “It’s not like I need it right this second anyway.” He smiled at Nick before getting out of the truck. Joe thought he had about enough money left in the bank to buy some beer, but that was about it.
When he got inside, he realized the house was empty—his dad still not home from work—and he stripped down to his boxers and lay on the floor in front of the small oscillating fan. It swept the air back and forth, and he thought his body must be radiating its own heat like a glowing iron or the embers in a dying fire.
Joe was back at the fire-pit, the lump of scorched plastic that was the lotion bottle still nestled in the ashes. Arthur stacked up thick dry logs of wood in the lawn nearby, then arranged a few of the logs in the pit with some kin- dling and began to start a fire. “I invited Denny to come down tonight—he’ll probably bring Maryanne. You’re obviously invited to stick around.”
Soon it was dark, and a respectable fire cracked in the pit sending embers drifting off into the night above. Joe wondered if the embers went dark when they got enough distance from the flames, or if they were just too far off to see.
Denny showed up then. He carried a bottle of Johnny Walker and Maryanne trailed along behind him. This was normal for Maryanne. It seemed to Joe that she’d been following Denny around since high school despite the fact that he often blew her off. Joe was used to seeing them together, and he figured Denny and Maryanne were also so used to being around each other that it wasn’t likely to change anytime too soon. “Hey, guys,” Denny said, drawing out his vowels to show he was excited to see them.
Once they all had a place to sit, the shots started. Joe did one, then two, then stopped, because moderation was one of his goals for the summer. He would avoid drinking too much, sleeping too little. Every little bit counted toward being a better person, the kind of person who loves the summer and the sun, smiles, and is comfortable whether he’s by himself or with others.
Denny and Maryanne didn’t ask about the absence of Jamie. They seemed content to sit on the opposite side of the fire, not really talking to one another but both doing something with their phones. Joe thought this was probably for the best since Arthur actually seemed relaxed—staring into the fire, drinking, laughing at the occasional joke one of them would make.
Arthur continued staring into the fire, but spoke in a voice just loud enough for Joe to hear. “She came over earlier.”
“What?” Joe said.
“We fucked and then she went home. We both agreed the fucking was worth it. She’s not my girlfriend.”
“That’s disgusting,” Joe said, not realizing what he was saying before it came out.
“What do you mean by that?” Arthur said.
“I mean, it’s disgusting how she treated you.”
“Yeah, whatever. I don’t know anyone else,” Arthur said.
Maryanne looked up, apparently catching bits of the conversation, but she didn’t say anything. Joe realized that he had just judged his friend, found it disgusting that he would still have sex with Jamie when she was probably seeing that other guy. Then Joe told himself that Arthur had good reasons for what he was doing, and that Joe couldn’t possibly understand, having never made a relationship last for even close to two years. “I know you think I shouldn’t,” Arthur added.
Joe propped his feet up on the perimeter of the fire-pit. Denny got up and walked inside for the bathroom as Maryanne drank another shot of the Johnny Walker.
“I love him, you know,” she said, gesturing toward the house with the empty shot glass, where Denny was. “I’ve loved him for years and it’s like he barely notices me. But I’m still here. He’ll come around eventually, maybe.” She put the glass down by the bottle and the fire danced in the reflection and in the golden liquid it held.
Joe wondered if he loved Evy. Was it love that made him feel so raw when one day after another went by without hearing anything from her? There’d been no text messages, no calls. He noticed a shred of paper in the bottom of the fire-pit—part of a list of ingredients next to a picture of something that looked like asparagus. He was amazed at how something so light and flammable could sit right in the midst of all that heat and avoid oblivion.
It wasn’t until the middle of June that Evy called. “Hey, you still haven’t seen the new Gatsby movie, have you?”