By Jason Primm
Paul looked out the window at the dirty white tiles of the Lincoln Tunnel. He tried to guess the point that they would be under the river and wondered how deep they were. The Trailways bus climbed out of the tunnel and into the confusion surrounding it. Every mile from New York brought a little more peace until he was looking at cows on bald hills and tractors parked beside rows of beans and corn.
His kids and ex-wife were going to pick him up at the Ithaca Bus Station. This was his first trip there. His children had ridden this same bus route to see him one weekend a month over the year since the doors were last fantastically slammed and the paperwork finalized on the divorce. He didn’t know much about Penny’s love life. It wasn’t any of his business. He wasn’t going up to win her back. He was going because it was his fiftieth birthday, and his daughters wanted to throw him a party.
His phone whinnied. It was his daughter texting that they would be a few minutes late to pick him up.
K, double ice cream cone. Bloop.
Race car, race car, trophy, she texted back.
He looked at the elderly Chinese lady next to him. Her mouth was agape, and she was making a gurgling snore, the Agatha Christie book in her hands still open. As small as she was, he couldn’t get by her. He hated to wake her. He watched her face as it ran through the emotions of a dream. She smiled and lifted her hands to her cheeks. Her eyes popped open, and she was scared. She didn’t know where she was.
“It’s okay. You’re on the bus to Ithaca,” he said.
She nodded wearily. She didn’t want to leave where she was before. She slid over to let him by. He walked down the narrow corridor, using the seat backs to right himself.
In Ithaca, the bus went up and down some steep hills. The road ran parallel to a small creek full of large boulders. His youngest daughter, Frances, had told him to look for waterfalls. He finally saw one, a thin stream of water dropping thirty feet into a round basin. She had also told him something that he knew but hadn’t thought about. She was reading The Odyssey in school. Ithaca was the city to which Odysseus returned.
“Is it good?” he asked her on the phone the night before.
“Some of it.”
“What’s your favorite part?”
“When they stick the giant in the eye.”
“Yeah. That’s mine, too. What didn’t you like about it?”
“I just don’t understand what’s taking the guy so long.”
“Well, they didn’t have airplanes like now. They had to row the boat or wait for the wind.”
“I know all that. He just doesn’t seem to be in any hurry.”
Paul climbed down from the bus with the rest of the riders. They were mostly college kids. Their parents were waiting in station wagons. In a few well choreographed moments, like the movements of the giant cuckoo clocks in Munich, there were hugs, hatchbacks, door slams, and then they were all gone. He was the only one left as the bus pulled out. Just like Penny, he thought and carried his duffle bag over to the supermarket. It was full of organic produce and the cashiers were all old New York hippies. In the checkout lane, instead of People and the National Enquirer, there were CD’s from local artists, earnest hopeful people holding acoustic guitars on the covers. He bought a six pack of beer and sat down to wait for his family. He started to open a beer, and a pony-tailed hippie sweeping up pointed at the sign apologizing to him for not allowing beer at their picnic tables. Paul nodded, but something must have sparked the hippie’s anti-establishment streak, because he came back with a brown paper bag. Paul stopped with the one beer. He needed a cushion for the blow of seeing her again, but he didn’t want anything too buried to make it back to the surface.
They pulled up in the blue Volvo station wagon that he’d picked out ten years ago. The girls got out and hugged him. It had only been a month since he had seen them last, but he was shocked at how tall they seemed. At fourteen and eleven, Mary and Frances were almost his size. Penny smiled but stayed in the car. Mary leaned in and whispered into his ear, “Mom quit drinking. She goes to meetings and everything.”
“Got it,” he whispered back before calling to Penny, “Would you please pop the trunk?”
He put his duffle bag in and got into the front seat.
“You forgot your beer.”
“It’s not mine.”
“It’s okay, Paul.”
She held up a poker chip with the number 100 on it. “You can’t turn fifty without at least a beer in your system.”
He looked back at his daughter, Mary, and shrugged. He put the six pack in the trunk. It was a short quiet drive to the white two story house halfway up the hill above Lake Cayuga.
“It’s a work in progress,” Penny said.
They had just moved from an apartment in downtown Ithaca out to this house on the edge of Trumansburg. The front yard was torn up and the front door had no stoop under it. She was having trouble with the contractor who started the job but had gone AWOL halfway through the project.
Paul stopped at the backdoor, “Where’s Phil?”
Frances pointed to the small fountain in the backyard, “We spread his ashes there.”
“He had cancer, and the vet said that he was in a lot of pain,” Penny explained.
“I wish you had told me.”
“I couldn’t talk to anybody when it happened.”
He thought about the last time he had walked his elderly blind pug and the dog trying to support himself on his lame hind quarters. He looked at the big backyard and was happy at the thought of the old dog getting a taste of country life before he croaked.
“Sure is pretty back there.”
“He used to like to sit by the fountain.”
The dog bed was still there in the shade.
“I want to show you the house,” Frances said, taking his hand.
“Voila, the living room, and that’s my new guitar,” she said pointing to the Martin on the guitar stand.
“That’s a nice one. You must have been a very good girl.”
“Tony gave it to me,” and realizing that the information might hurt her father added, “It was an extra one.”
Paul nodded. “Whose trophies?”
“I got that one for being on the basketball team. And the other one is Mom’s.”
“What’s her trophy for?”
“Roses. She entered them into a contest.”
He turned back towards Penny, “That’s cool.”
“It was just the town fair.”
They went up stairs.
Frances stood at the top of the stairs, “Mommy’s room, my room, Mary’s room, and your room.”
She skipped Mommy’s room but opened Mary’s door and her own door and then the guest room door. He recognized the bed immediately. Even made, he could still see the depression in the middle where the old mattress had fallen in on itself. The window looked over the backyard and up an overgrown hill. At the very back of the yard, he could make out the remains of old swing set.
When he came back down, Penny and Mary were sitting together on the couch. They looked nervous. Frances was oblivious to the adult topography that the rest of them were navigating. She was just happy to see him.
“Why don’t you take your Dad down to the lake?”
They crossed the street and went behind the neighbor’s house, joining a trail that went down to Lake Cayuga. Party barges trolled by, and they walked until they got to a pier with a hut serving drinks and soft serve ice cream. The bartender said hello and in unison the girls answered, “Hi Mr. Richardson.” Paul looked at the empty stools around the bar and wondered how often Penny had come here before she got on the wagon.
They sat on a bench and watched the sun get lower.
“How’s school, Frances?”
“It’s okay,” she said, but Paul knew the truth. She had straight C’s and some of the other girls were picking on her.
“How about you, Mary?”
“It’s good this year.” Penny had told him that she had her first boyfriend and her mood changed like the clouds.
“How about you, Dad? How are you doing?”
He wasn’t going to say that he was a little lonely or that he woke up with a hangover because he drank three whiskeys out of boredom in the dark watching television.
“I’m good. I’m really happy to be here.”
They went back to the house, and Paul washed his face and laid in his old bed for a few minutes.
Penny knocked on the door and opened it about a foot. From the hallway, she asked,”Hungry?”
“When you’re done resting, we’ll go into town and get some burgers.”
“I’m done. Let’s go.”
On the way, the girls pointed out their schools. The buildings weren’t as pretty as their Brooklyn schools, but they were surrounded by ball fields and tracks. The downtown was small, some restaurants and bars, a shop that sold stationery and knitting supplies. They went to The Falls, a bar and grill decorated with historical photographs of the area. There was one of a smiling Theodore Roosevelt in swim trunks jumping into the pool at the foot of a waterfall.
Penny leaned over, “The only things any good here are the burgers and the peach cobbler.“
They placed their orders with a woman in her sixties with bright orange hair.
“She seemed a little mean,” Paul said.
“I guess she can be. She owns the place.”
“She’s friends with Tony,” Frances said.
“ Frances!” Mary covered her eyes.
“Tony is my ex-boyfriend, and this is a very small town,” Penny said.
After they finished their burgers, they ordered peach cobbler a la mode. When it came out, everyone but Penny had two large scoops of vanilla ice cream.
“Sorry Honey, we ran out.”
Paul traded plates with her, mouthing silently, when the owner turned to another table, Wow.
The peach cobbler was delicious. He left a big tip, an extra ten percent to not feel guilty about hating the orange haired woman’s guts. Full and sleepy, they rode the long way by the water. The moon was low and large. He looked at the one in the sky and then the wavering one in the water. This beauty felt like a kind of luck to him. The car turned away from the water and up the hill towards the house. About a quarter mile from the house, three deer, one of them a fawn, jumped into the road, stood still for a millisecond before they leapt back into the bushes. Penny hit the brakes, and the car slid forward.
“Shit,” Paul said.
“They were trying to commit deer-o-cide,” Frances said.
“Is everyone, okay?” Penny asked.
“I bit my tongue,” Mary said with her mouth half-closed.
“There’s some napkins in the glove compartment.” Penny said.
Paul handed them back to his daughter, and they drove the remaining distance slowly. In the kitchen, Penny looked at Mary’s tongue, shining the light from an iPhone into her mouth, and Paul stood to the side worried.
“I know, Mom. I already told you it was. ”
Penny followed Mary upstairs, and Paul went outside for a warm beer from the remnants of the six pack that he had hidden behind the garage. He sat by the fountain and looked at the old dog bed. He picked it up and smelled it and closed his eyes. For a moment, the old pug and his sickly sweet animal smell was with him. He opened his eyes when he heard the truck pull into the driveway and watched a drunk man, about his age and height stumble out, right himself and begin an unsteady walk towards the front door. The man was confused that there was no stoop. He knocked on the bottom of the door. Paul went back into the house. Penny was in the kitchen with both hands on the island making long exaggerated breaths to calm down.
“It’s my Ex.”
“Do you want me to tell him to go?”
“No, I have to talk to him. I broke up with him by text.”
“Brave new world.”
“Don’t give me any shit. I need you to understand what’s going on here.”
Penny opened the front door and looked down at Tony. Paul sat at the kitchen table and listened.
“Where are the goddamn steps?”
“I don’t know. The guy won’t answer my calls.”
“Fucking Curtis. I can talk to him.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“But, I know where he is.”
“What are you doing here?”
Mary came down the stairs and took Paul’s hand, “Tony’s a nice guy. She’ll be okay.”
They went upstairs and watched one of their favorite TV programs, American Ninja Warrior, people running an impossible obstacle course, swinging on ropes, dropping into the water when their grips give out. After a quarter of an hour, Penny came in, her eyes were red and her face was covered with the red splotches that appear when she got emotional.
“Paul, I need you to drive him home. He can barely stand.”
Paul sighed and put on his shoes.
“I’m sorry.” She put the keys in his hand and went into her room, shutting the door.
“Do you want us to go?” Frances asked.
“No. Stay here. Tell me what happens with Grandpa Ninja.”
Paul went out the back door and walked around to the front yard to where Tony was sitting in the grass with the heels of his hands over his eyes.
“Hi Tony. I’m going to drive you home.”
“She asked me.”
“What a coward.”
Paul let that statement stay in the air a moment until it put some distance between them and pushed on. “We gotta go, man.”
“Yeah, I’m ready. I’d like to get the hell away from here but things are kind of spinning. I think I’m going to be sick.”
“We can keep the window rolled down.”
Paul reached his hand down, and Tony looked at it a moment before waving it away.
“I got it.”
Tony rolled over on his stomach, pushed up to his knees and after a pause, stood up and started towards the passenger side of Penny’s car. A few times, his hands shot out from his sides like tightrope walkers do to regain balance. Paul started the car and rolled down all the windows. Tony got in and reached out to close the door, but stopped and put his hands in his lap.
“You ready? You feel okay?”
He didn’t say anything, and Paul looked up at the bedroom window where Mary and Frances were watching. Tony kept looking straight ahead.
“You’re going to have to direct me.”
Tony pointed towards the lake, and Paul, figuring he wasn’t going to get much more than that for now, started down the hill.
“Can you tell me one thing?” Tony asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Just one thing and I’ll shut up.
“How come you broke up?”
“Long marriage. We grew apart.”
“Okay,” Paul said, turning the wheel sharply to keep from missing the turn.
“She didn’t have a good reason for me,” Tony said.
“Sometimes people don’t.”
“One of the only things you don’t have to have a good reason for.”
“You should though.”
“Are we getting close?” Paul asked.
“Take the next right, and it’s just a little ways. Did she say something, tell you anything about me?”
“I don’t ask about her love life. I know one thing though. She’s in A.A. and you showed up drunk.”
“I wouldn’t have been there sober. Besides booze isn’t her problem.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Not my place.”
“She showed me her 100 day chip.”
“Mary told me Penny quit drinking.”
“Yeah, they recommended that.”
“This is a stupid fucking game. Gambling? Sex?”
“Don’t be an idiot. Not A.A., N.A.”
“She says it started when she hurt her back.”
Paul thought a few years back to when she wrecked her bike because she wouldn’t run over a turtle. She couldn’t get out of bed for a week. That summer was the start of a long stretch of bad luck, of the wind in their faces, sunburns, dropped beers, parking tickets, burst pipes, layoffs. They rarely fucked and when they did, there was nothing he could do right. Every suggestion, every move, seemed to work counter to a script that only existed in her head.
“I didn’t know it was a problem when we started going out,” Tony said. “A beer and one of her pills and the boat out in the middle of the lake. It was something new.”
How could I have missed this, Paul asked himself. There were a few nights that got out of hand, nights that she pulled him from bar to bar and they ended up in the back of a cab yelling at each other before she closed her eyes and went to sleep as gently as a baby.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I don’t know. I thought you’d know it all anyway. Hey, turn here.”
He pulled into the parking lot of the Falls and put the car in park.
“What the fuck? You’re already drunk.”
“I live behind the place. Let me buy you a beer.”
It wasn’t a straight line, but Tony looked like he would be okay walking across the parking lot to the bar. Besides, once that bar door closed, he was the town of Trumansburg’s problem. Tony looked back and gave him a thumbs up sign with both hands. Alone again, Paul got out of the car and sat on the hood. The crickets were loud, and fireflies were rising and falling around him. He considered what his evening would have been like back in Brooklyn. Maybe a beer on the way home and Thai food at the kitchen table with the laptop streaming TV. It would have been a long night either way. He got back in the car and started out of the parking lot when the door of the restaurant opened. The orange haired lady was pushing Tony out of the bar and screaming at him to fuck off somewhere else. She stopped when she saw Paul. Tony put a hand up towards Paul like he was hailing a cab. The sign on top of the restaurant switched off.
“Aren’t you going home?”
“You don’t live at the bar?”
“It’s back towards Penny’s.”
“Okay, but I’m not driving you back to her house. I’ll let you off in the middle of woods before that happens.”
Paul went back the way he came and asked for directions again when they got to the lake.
“You know we look just like each other. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“It makes me feel replaceable. Like the inside doesn’t matter.”
“Lots of guys look like us.”
“When she decided to go cold turkey, she asked me to do something for her. For a week, I was with her every second. To make sure I understood, she walked me through the house and showed me all the places she ever hid pills. I even sat with her in the toilet. How many guys would’ve done that?”
Paul knew now why things didn’t work out between them. Penny was out of secrets. He let Tony out of the car and spun out of the gravel driveway. He wasn’t mad at Tony, but he knew he should be mad at something. A few stones ricocheted off the mail box at the end of the drive. Paul imagined them knocking the red flag down. Back at the house, Penny was waiting for him, her legs dangling where the stoop should have been. He walked up to Penny, and she handed him a cupcake.
“What’s that for?”
“How’s it feel?”
“I’ll put a brave face on for the kids tomorrow.”
“Good. Mary made a three tier cake.”
Ten years ago, Paul would have put two hands on the wood and pushed himself up onto the landing. By not trying, he kept the illusion that he might still be able to do it. He went around and through the house before sitting next to her. Penny was different than she had been in the hour that he had left her. Contentment seemed to have replaced nervousness. She put her hand on his thigh above his knee, a touch between a pat and a squeeze, a place on the body between friendship and sex. It was too dark to look at her eyes, to see if they were too bright, if her pupils were small or large. He knew Tony was a better person. Paul would care tomorrow if she had taken something, but at that moment, he knew everything would be better if she were a little high.
“I guess Tony told you some stuff.”
“A few things.”
“You seeing anybody?”
“Are you having fun?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s the problem?”
“They want me to be better than I am.”
“Poor Paul. That’s one thing that’ll never happen with me.”
He put his hand on her knee, and she kissed him. There was whiskey and cigarettes on her breath.
“You taste like college,” he said.
Paul followed her up the stairs of her new house. He wondered how much of the work Tony had done. When they finished and she was sleeping, he stuck his head out of the window and heard a snuffling noise, an animal nosing through the trash cans. It sounded like his old pug. Whatever it was got frustrated, and he heard the metal lid of the can hit the ground and spin to a stop. He went back to his room and answered a text from a woman that he was supposed to see tomorrow night. The gears of his Brooklyn life were still turning whether he was there or not.
Everyone slept late the next morning. There wasn’t enough time to have lunch anywhere, so Penny made grilled cheese sandwiches. Mary brought the cake out, and they sang. Paul blew out the five candles. Before the last wisps of smoke made it to the ceiling, with cake still in their mouths, they ran out to the car.
“C’mon, c’mon,” Penny said.
When the one red light in Trumansburg turned against them, Penny looked both ways and gunned it through the intersection. They made it to the station in time to see the bus pull out.
“Damn, what do we do now?” Paul said.
“We’ll catch it at the next stop,” Penny replied.
It was an adventure now, and everyone in the car was giddy with the chase. They caught up with the bus at Ithaca College. He gave the girls hugs. Penny’s hug was a little longer. She whispered into his ear, “Here’s something for the ride. I had to get it out of the house.”
She slid something into his back pocket.
He got in the back of a line of college students holding pillows and backpacks. He turned around to wave again, but they were gone. He handed the driver a printout of his ticket and threw his bag into the hold.
He picked a seat near the front and took the pill out of his back pocket, swallowing it without water. He fell asleep immediately and settled into a dream. In the dream, he was annoyed that it was taking so long for the bus to start. He kept looking at his phone for the time, calculating how much later into New York they would arrive. He had to be somewhere though he couldn’t remember where. Finally, the driver untied the ropes, and the three soldiers who had been leaning against a tree put their wine skin aside and with a yell, pushed the ship off the sandy bank into the river. It drifted sideways until it caught the current. The driver gave some orders, and the sails were unfurled, hung limp a moment and filled with wind. Paul didn’t wake until the bus pulled into Port Authority.