The Distance Between Here
and Elsewhere: Three Stories
by David Meischen
Crossing at the Light
Albert Decker and Grady Smith, July 14–15, 1965
Albert woke at 6:30, aware in the instant that it was Claude’s birthday. He made up the Murphy bed he’d slept in since 1934 and folded it back into the wall, bands of summer sun along the seams of the closed window blinds suspending the room in a glow that brightened perceptibly as he stood watching. He shared the little apartment—and the package store below—with his mother, his days dispensed behind the counter, selling liquor to the locals, inhaling the dust they trailed behind them as they browsed these narrow aisles, five thousand miles from the one place he could imagine inhabiting. Still, each morning until Mrs. Decker woke—each morning was his.
After a quick breakfast of toast and jam, Albert fetched his cosmetics case from the cabinet beneath the bathroom sink and flipped the switch for the makeup lights he’d had installed around the mirror. He didn’t like what he saw. He’d always enjoyed being slim, but the skin at his throat had begun to let go, a sag at his Adam’s apple the brightness exaggerated. Before attending to his face, he unfastened the top shirt button and laid his collar open to the burn scar—like the negative of a shadow across the left collarbone—a private reminder of his mother’s skillet, the frying grease splashed from it so many years ago that without the scar he might not credit memory.
He smoothed liquid foundation over the shadows beneath his eyes, still his best feature, set off by the wonderful lashes that Claude had so admired. He crimped them with his eyelash curler—no need for mascara—and then applied eyeliner, a thin, thin line of it. Finally, a dab of oily rouge massaged into the flesh of his cheeks until you wouldn’t know it wasn’t natural. Done, he leaned in and whispered his name, his breath fogging the mirror, whispered “Ahl-baíre,” his voice taking on a French accent, the only way he had pronounced his name since Claude first spoke it.
Fingernails were next. Albert took the cosmetics case and moved to the kitchen table. Yesterday morning he’d removed the polish he’d been using for years—almost clear, with just a hint of pearl. Last night he’d filed and buffed his nails, then massaged the cuticles, making of each nail a perfect oval. His hands were lovely still, the fingers long and slender, the skin smooth, with a smattering of faint, hardly noticeable liver spots.
He’d wanted something new for a while. A hint of color, perhaps, something to brighten the days. Three weeks ago—with Claude on his mind, the approaching birthday—he’d turned a page in one of his mail-order catalogs and there it was, a translucent nail polish quickened by a blush of coral. Nothing flashy. Flashy wasn’t his style.
Several months ago a stranger had come into the package store—wandered off the highway, apparently. Albert’s life was Nopalito and its residents, the boundaries they had negotiated over the years. The women—some of them, anyway—treated him like one of themselves; others, like an errant child with whom they had come to a grudging truce. The men were prone to smirks, the occasional wisecrack. Or clumsy silences, not knowing what to say or where to look. The children gave him a wide berth. His temper was legendary.
The stranger was something else again, a stunning specimen of a man, his cheeks darkened by the blue-black of four o’clock shadow, a way of carrying himself that said he was at home inside the body God had given him. Albert took in the boots, the hat, the fit of the man’s khakis.
“Good afternoon,” he said. “And welcome. You must be lost.” He was used to his voice, long since inured to the transformations it effected in men’s faces. The upper register came naturally to him—a lightness in his words, a whispery lilt.
“You sell rye?” the man asked.
“Feels cool in here. Your air conditioner running?”
By way of answer, the condenser turned on, a pitch beneath the fan whirring from the unit in the window.
“Well, then,” the man said. “I’m not lost.” For a leisurely half hour he wondered the aisles, pulling the occasional bottle from a shelf and seeming to study the label before he put it back. Between times his eyes were on Albert. At the end, with a pint on the counter between them, Albert let his patience off its tether.
“Surely you know that staring is rude.”
“Seems to me you’re asking for it. Made up like that.”
“I want to look my best. Same as you.” Sliding his fingertips along a shelf beneath the register, Albert flipped open the cigar box sitting there, and beneath an oiled cloth nestling in the box, touched his snub-nosed Smith & Wesson. The revolver’s heft, its cold, smooth surfaces, heartened him.
“You’ve got nerve,” the man said.
“In a place like this”—Albert glanced from the face before him to the front window, the dusty edges of the town beyond—“I’d drink up all the profits if I didn’t.”
The stranger laughed out loud. “You’re an odd one.”
“I suppose I am.”
“Gerald Hamilton,” the man said, extending his hand.
“Ahl-baíre” Albert took the man’s hand in his. “Ahl-baíre Decker.”
Gerald Hamilton screwed his eyebrows into a question.
“It’s a long story,” Albert said. “Perhaps another time.”
The man paid and left, his presence lingering as the afternoon slipped away, the gruff timbre of his voice rippling at the edges of hearing. It was the kind of voice that came to Albert sometimes in dreams. Odd dreams, these were, drained of motion, color, participants, reduced to the husk of a whisper in the dark, the prickle of whiskers at his earlobe. No words, at least none that he remembered waking.
The rare dream put him with Claude—the two of them at a sidewalk café near the Seine, a table between them and never alone, the cobblestone thick with strangers and their blurring words. Never did this clamor fade to the room on the Rue Saint-Jacques, as on the afternoon when Claude kissed Albert and led him to the bed, took off his clothes and touched him, touched him all over, nibbling at the skin of his throat and chest, his stomach and thighs—the first time he had come unabetted by dreams or his own right hand. And that smell at the back of his throat, that smell drenching the shadowed room.
His nails painted and dried, a second coat put on and dried, Albert took the stairs to the floor below. He was still not used to the open stairwell—no door at the top to unlock and lock behind him as he went down to look at his roses, no dark to descend, no locked door to negotiate when he reached the bottom. Both doors had been removed to make room for the chairlift he’d had installed early in the summer, after Mrs. Decker had announced her imminent retirement from the package store, the town beyond. Her bones, she’d said, her declining strength. She’d let him run the business.
He was doing that already, as he’d taken pains to remind her. He tended the store and ordered more of what they needed, restocked the shelves and kept the ledgers in order. He’d taken over in the kitchen forty years ago, did all the necessary shopping. Mrs. Decker went out exactly once a week—and only with Albert beside her. Vanity forbade the use of her cane outside the apartment, so she linked her arm in his and slowly, maddeningly, they attended to her social requirements.
His days were given to the store; at breakfast and after closing time, his mother’s company. Asleep, even—or waking in the night—he felt the weight of her presence a room beyond. The one time his mother took up the burden of herself was each afternoon after her nap, when she came downstairs to mind the store.
He’d had no intention of giving that up. He’d made phone calls, arranged for the chairlift to be installed. Mrs. Decker had the money, decades’ worth of oil royalties collecting interest at the bank. When the crew arrived from Corpus Christi, he got out her checkbook and faced her down. While the lift was going in, he arranged to have the apartment repapered and engaged painters for the woodwork. They were almost done, their tools and buckets stashed in the backroom that led from the package store to the yard. Albert crossed through the clutter and let himself out.
There wasn’t much of a yard—a wide flower bed that ran from the door to the storefront, a driveway paved with crushed rock, and the carport they’d added when Mrs. Decker turned fifty and bought the car that sat beneath it, a 1938 Bentley coupe.
The flower bed was ablaze with Albert’s roses—a dozen hardy vines, tea roses all, chosen for color and fragrance. Each morning of their bloom, he visited the roses.
He’d started them a decade ago, some months after the rough encounter he’d had in San Antonio, the terrible thing he might have done by way of recompense. The first had come from Grace Hoffman, a cutting she’d given him on a visit with his mother, who hadn’t wanted to leave him alone on a Sunday afternoon for fear he might harm himself in her absence. Mrs. Hoffman and his mother had wandered ahead of him, stopping to admire first one planting and then another.
Drifting, emptied out, Albert tipped his head to a cluster of blossoms and closed his eyes. In the moments that slipped away before he opened them again, he breathed among roses at the Tuilleries, a scented breeze fluttering at his collar while somewhere ahead Claude and his mother practice their charm on each other.
“Good morning!” A voice came from the street—Grady Smith, approaching Albert where he stood among his roses. The boy was like a colt, all bones and angles and unbalanced grace. He never stopped moving even when he was standing still, never stopped talking. He had lovely, curly, honey-blond hair—shorter than it ought to be, but his father was in charge of haircuts.
There wasn’t anyone the Smith boy wouldn’t talk to. Mrs. Decker’s word for him was fresh, by which she meant that somebody should have put a bit in the boy’s teeth by now.
“I’m on my way to work,” Grady said. “Spent the night at Granny Grace’s.”
“Mrs. Hoffman isn’t your grandmother.”
“She’s Janet’s. Janet got me invited. Her momma is my daddy’s sister—that’s how we’re cousins. Her daddy is Mrs. Hoffman’s son—he’s my uncle, but no, his mother isn’t really my grandmother.” The boy stopped and looked around, as if trying to get his bearings.
“It sounds confusing,” Albert said.
“Seems like all the folks I know in this town are either blood kin to me or blood kin to somebody I’m blood kin to.”
“I don’t have family here—anywhere, really, outside these walls.”
“When everybody’s kin, everybody knows everybody’s business.”
Albert smiled. “Now that I understand.”
“They mean well, though, the people who live here.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Ralph—he’s my brother—”
“I know who your brother is.”
“Ralph says somebody ought to be driving that car.” Grady pointed to the Bentley, which had been a riddle for the townspeople since the day it arrived at the package store.
“Everyone has ideas about the Bentley,” Albert said. “What is your opinion?”
“My momma would wallop me for sass, but why don’t you drive it?”
“I never learned to drive.”
“It’s a crime, Ralph says, for a car like that to sit there and rust.”
“The Bentley doesn’t have a speck of rust. Our mechanic takes it twice a month. He checks the tire pressure and keeps it tuned—whatever’s necessary. He even takes it for a spin.”
“Who’s your mechanic?”
“You should hear what Momma says about him.”
Albert was not surprised. Clayton Moore had made a second career of sniffing up skirts. Still, he was the best mechanic in the county, and Albert said as much to Grady, adding “The man has motor oil in his blood.”
“Sure is nice to look at,” Grady said. Then, as if recognizing the tug his voice had betrayed, he blushed to the roots of his hair.
“Yes,” said Albert. “I suppose he is.”
“Hey, what do you feed your roses?” the boy asked. “They’re about the prettiest I’ve seen.”
“Eggshells and banana peel.”
Grady put his nose to a whorl of petals. “Mmmmm,” he said.
“They were chosen for their bouquet,” Albert told him, saying boo-káy instead of bó-kay.
Grady scrunched his brow. “I thought a bouquet”—he followed Albert’s example—“was a bunch of flowers, you know, picked and put in a vase.”
“The French use it to describe the scent.”
“Where did you get them? Your roses?”
“Cuttings. This one your Granny Grace gave me.” Albert pointed to the cluster Grady had smelled. “The rest came from Miriam Koehn’s rose garden. Rupert let me take the cuttings after Miriam passed.”
“Know what I heard? I heard Mr. Koehn wooed Granny Grace when they were young. Don’t you love that word? Wooed? Momma says he’d marry her this afternoon if she’d say yes this morning. Evelyn—she’s my sister, I guess you know that too—Evelyn says it’s ridiculous at their age, all that love stuff.”
A bee buzzed past Albert’s ear and dived into a rose.
“Can you picture it?” Grady asked. “Mr. Koehn kissing Granny Grace?”
“Kissing is private. It’s not for us to judge.”
“Would you kiss someone? Now? Ten years from now?”
“What a person feels inside,” Albert said, “sometimes that doesn’t change with age. The heart wants what it wants.”
He’d been seventeen that summer with Claude, thirty-two before a man touched him again—a young soldier in transit six months after Pearl Harbor—an exchange of glances in the San Antonio bus station, two minutes against a downtown alley wall at three in the morning. In the years that followed, when the hunger was on him and would not be hushed, Albert took the bus to San Antonio perhaps a dozen times. He felt no shame afterwards on the bus ride south, but what happened with the men he met—it wasn’t what he wanted. The driver always woke him when they pulled up to the stop in Nopalito.
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