He called me from a payphone in New Hampshire. He didn’t like the mountains in New Hampshire. He didn’t realize there were so many of them or how they closed in on the village like a bully.
The kind of mountains that aren’t really mountains, he said. The kind you wouldn’t want to paint.
I don’t paint anymore, but he likes to believe I still paint, the way I like to believe he will make it big in L.A., so big he can come back here.
New HampshiretMassachussettsConnecticutNewYork and then Pennnnsssyyylllvaaaaaaannniiiaaaaaaa, he said. That’s what it felt like getting to Lancaster. There was nothing in Lancaster, he said. Except a buggy. It made him think. He had never once thought about the Amish, but now that he had, what the fuck? Why do they do that? The insides of the buggies looked cavernous, unsafe for the women, and who knew what kind of crimes were being committed inside those things.
In Lancaster, he stayed in a bed and breakfast. In the morning, a widowed Protestant served him eggs in the shape of a heart.
If I don’t make it out alive, he said when he called, bury me in my waders please.
I told him I wanted to be buried in bare feet. Just for future reference.
Noted, he said. But you’re safe and sound there. You’ll live forever there. Remember? Absolutely no crime!
Our mayor here in Elmswood recently put up a billboard on the side of I-90, the only highway that runs through our town, which says Elmswood: Absolutely No Crime! There was no more crime anymore, not by the school yard, no more crime by the barber shop. We didn’t know if this was true, but it seemed true. The only things that filled our police report in the Herald were things like: Thief Returns Elmswood Man’s Wallet After 27 years! And Efforts To Tranquilize Runaway Bull Backfire. Nothing happened here. Not really. This had always seemed like a good thing.
Akron, Ohio, the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous. And then Cincinnati. Honestly, he had expected Cincinnati to be more of a shit hole than it was. It was surprisingly nice, he said. The hotel was one hundred dollars, served warm cookies at night.
Hotel? I asked.
I needed to stretch my legs, he said.
Before he hung up, he told me that when they pulled into the station a man on roller-skates rolled up to the train window and threw a rock at it.
That’s what the crime is like here, he said.
This was how he spoke in Ohio. Like someone who had been to so many places, he had earned the right to be disappointed by the world. He had developed opinions, a joke for every state, which I never had, since I had never seen any of them besides Maine (and New Hampshire, once, by accident) and therefore, did not know what to appreciate and what to mock.
They? I asked. Who are you with?
Oh, just the other people on the train.
He sat next to a girl with dark hair and a pale face, he said, like the kind of person who was always on her way to a funeral. She reminded him of me.
Indiana was orange. The whole thing just looked so orange to him, he said. He had never seen a state so orange. Perhaps because he was so drunk. He had started drinking in Indiana because everything was so orange, or everything was so orange because he had been so drunk. Drinking, he said, has a way of making everything look the same color.
What color is it where you are? he asked.
It’s white, I lied.
He knows it’s black. In the winter, it’s always black here, when the grass is dead, and the snow has melted, and the dirt gathers at the edge of our streets and sticks like old blood to our boots, which are also black.
In St. Louis, you can get the best damn eggs Benedict you’ve ever had.
Though since these are the only eggs Benedict I’ve ever had, he said, some of the thrill is lost.
The eggs came recommended by the pale girl with dark hair. He didn’t tell me her name. I didn’t ask. She said, let’s go get some of the best eggs Benedict you ever had. She loved St. Louis, hated Kansas. She had a “thing” for dying cities. She liked abandoned mansions and residents who itched for a time long gone.
They’ll never get over that fucking World’s Fair, he said.
The train is leaving, he said. Which is good, considering St. Louis is the murder capital of the nation.
In Kansas, his voice was soft on the phone, as though we had just had sex and our noses were still touching. Ever since he told me he was leaving, we had made love slowly and softly. It felt nobler this way, proof that we had transformed from teenagers who fucked fast in clothes in the backs of cars into adults who slept naked on beds and loved each other more than anyone in the world had yet loved each other.
I couldn’t feel him cross the border from Kansas to Colorado. Only my grandmother and the military called that day, both of them with the same question. Are you ready to make something of your life?
For the rest of the day, I thought of all the things I could and could not be. A soldier. A mother. An astronaut. When the phone rang, I did not pick up. Standing for the phone made me feel like the phone was all I had, as though my hands and legs and face were now the phone’s.
I tried to remember what he looked like after a shower at night and the feel of my back against him in the morning, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t imagine what my mouth might look like to someone else. I could only imagine me far away from him, as something separate.
I can’t hear you, I said, when I finally spoke to him.
He was in Colorado. He bought me a bonnet from some woman in the store (what store, I didn’t bother asking, what woman? Stop using articles of speech that imply I am with you). She had told him it was the most beautiful bonnet they had, and he felt bad as soon as she said this, because buying it had only been a joke.
In Utah, they don’t report their income and they drive with whiskey in their coffee cups. Meth and stab wounds in the leg kind of shit. A school bus here, an unexpected kidnapping there. Criminals who didn’t have the guts to pull the trigger like in St. Louis, and didn’t have enough education for identity theft.
It all sounded like something someone else must have told him. I could tell, already, the things that were coming from him and the things that were coming from the girl.
What’s worse, you think, he said, losing your identity or getting a bullet in the brain?
This was confusing to me, I told him, since they kind of sound like the same thing.
Yeah, he said, but you feel a bullet in the brain. You don’t feel anything when you lose your identity.
Oh, I think you always feel something like that, I said.
In Vegas, it was boring, typical, exactly what you’d expect: whores, gamblers, guns. He didn’t much like the air in Vegas; it was heavy with expectation. Vegas, he said, always expects you to become the worst version of yourself and so everybody becomes the worst version of themselves.
He didn’t like expectations. He didn’t like tradition. He didn’t want to become a soldier. Was he kidding? His father asked. No, he wasn’t kidding. Did he love men? No, he didn’t love men. He loved me and he loved the movies and he loved the idea of pretending to be someone else. Always had.
Los Angeles: it’s a purse stolen from Nicholas Cage’s ex. A model burned by a gas grill. Property crime, up significantly. His watch, already stolen. Not like he minded, he says. Time always did make him feel like a slave.
In L.A., it was the heat that made the bad things happen. Not at all like the crime where you are, he said, where there is no crime. Absolutely no crime!
It’s only the cold you have to watch out for here. After a wild snowstorm, the police comb the coast for frozen bodies. This is, I told him, the worst kind of crime, when the villain never looks back or shows his face or leaves a fingerprint. When the ground rises and the sky sags and the wind passes through like a stranger in a speeding train that never stops.