by Robert Shelton
Two winters ago I kept finding the same picture in my tent. I was still camped under the highway then. The picture was a portrait, the old kind, like you used to pick up from the drugstore and stash inside a shoebox. It would announce itself from under my sleeping bag, or beneath a puddle of melted snow. I don’t remember saving it on purpose. I suppose I must have though. From a flat square scrap of color she stared straight back at me, daring me to come closer, hooking into the connection we used to share. Even today the sight of her makes me take a long deep breath, involuntary. She rattles my heart for a second, in that old, good grateful way.
The picture is my only surviving relic from that time when I could feel her gravity but had no clue as to any of the rest of her. Back then we shared a beautifully sustainable alcoholism that had me kneeling at her feet between classes. We slept on sofa cushions in the Classics building on her office floor. Around January one of us upped the ante on our means of getting high together, and it escalated from drink to something vascular. Something for which we could not invent a proper ending. After finals my Amtrak ticket back across Nebraska shriveled on her desk beneath a bent-back spoon. When I failed to show up at home, my parents did the math from across the prairie and had me shipped north to be locked up and repaired.
After I got out I called her from a pay phone and she got me a job. My sponsor gave his approval, and I began my new life standing on a scaffold against the east wall of my old dormitory, repointing the brickwork for the summer recruiting season. Like any good country club, the University spared no expense on masonry or shrubs. The work was just the thing I needed. Every morning I climbed the platform and set the bucket at my feet. My trowel kept a slow shooshing beat, scraping loose the post-withdrawal throb. My sins fell off me in eight-hour chunks.
At quitting time I tucked the trowel behind a bush and crossed the campus. When I passed her office window the sunlight bounced my own face back at me. The student load was light in summer but they still animated the place. Hips and elbows queued up at the west-end dining hall, a gaggle of happy chatter. On Fridays you could feel that thin old promise of connection, of what would one day grow to be a night well lived. Beyond the water tower and out past Woke House, my path toward home dropped me into the river valley, where it was a different scene: Big grain trucks plied their trade on Water Street, hauling corn from fields to silos; crawling tangent to our ivy playground because the river gave them no place else to go.
The halfway house released me to a second-floor hotel room. Between there and campus was a state-run liquor store where Night Trains and Wild Irish Roses sent forth their telepathic magic. I gave them a wide sidelong berth, head down, and watched my own two feet climb the steps to the balcony outside my room. For an entire week of evenings I sat on the edge of my bed, staring through the window at the sunset coloring the gray cement on the school’s Gothic chapel tower. At night my mind would hop the railing and roam the campus, bringing back hallucinations from my former classmates, radiant creatures who had somehow managed to solve the problem of becoming a person. Their lives and means of happiness played back to me upon my eyelid wall. They mocked me as a shadow.
“Your body’s tolerance will be lower,” the detox crew had warned me. But that’s only half the seesaw. My tolerance was down so my receptiveness was way up. I could feel from all that dry time that the first toe back into the pool would be a blessing. In a late-June thunderstorm I left the scaffold standing empty and sheltered in the Classics building outside her office door. She let me in without a smile. My recidivism was complete.
I spent the night at her place most of July. In August she went to Europe to meet her husband. I let myself into her apartment but it wasn’t the same. Sunlight made the place look bigger. Without their normal clutter the nightstands looked wider than before, full of empty space. It took me a second to notice. She’d taken the needles with her.
That was when I knew for sure. She had made good her escape, and I felt glad for her. I called to ask if I could stay there awhile and she said sure. I knew I couldn’t follow her. My home was someplace else. But for half that month I slept in our old room and for three nights I had her dreams.
Robert Shelton is a writer living in western New York. His fiction and nonfiction have been featured in Howling Mad Review and at Rochester Spoken Word’s Speak Easy events, where he is a regular contributor. Or was, until public speaking before live audiences ceased. When such happenings resume, you can find him reading his nonfiction at Rochester’s upcoming Listen To Your Mother show as a 2020-2021 cast member.