It hit him earlier that day, the loneliness. It does every now and then. Things get quiet, the house gets dark. He talks to walls, televisions, poor old mirrors. A sorry figure.
Other times, he gets along just fine by himself. Takes up time, stays on the go. Sometimes, he even likes it better. But when he gets hit, he feels every inch of emptiness in space. 46.1 billion light-years of all alone. It's a particular type of sadness. And it will never end.
Or that's what it says.
Bottles. Bottles everywhere. No surprise there. He usually drinks through it, up in the godforsaken watches of the night. He remembers what his mother used to do with her loneliness. His father wasn't around, so who would blame her? He certainly didn't. It was her pain to deal with. Every ounce. He understood that then. It wasn't to hurt him, it was to stop hurting herself.
At least for the passing. Moment.
He used to fight it. Had a nerve once. He'd float up and down the main drag, haunt bars, keep company with other shadows. It hardly worked. He felt like he was spying on people most of the time. Many nights, he didn't say more than five words.
But this one night...
There was a woman, Grace. She looked plain, guileless. He could tell her hair was slightly matted. She had it up in a knot on her head most of the time, but when she took it down, he could tell. It moved all together, like one big pain. Alone.
He loved her. He thinks so.
They met at the Foxhole, a dive bar with cheap drinks. Two for a beer. He was on his fourth when she sat beside him. They watched the news. The Foxhole always plays the news. There was a high-speed chase earlier that day a few towns over. An exciting start to the relationship. Or an omen.
The whole thing lasted two weeks. Grace liked James enough. At least, he thought so. He also thought she found him sickening. He'd never know which one it was.
They spent every other night together. Thursday at her place, Saturday at his. She'd wake up to James outlining her back tattoo with his finger. A sun and moon. Stars.
She was just off a breakup, she told him one night.
"I'm sorry," he said. He touched her hair. It was down, actually. She'd brushed it. He was making her better. No, it wasn't him. Maybe she was seeing a second guy. Or maybe she was getting ready to take off, meet someone else.
"How things go, "she said, playing with her nose ring. One of her tics. She couldn't help it. She still loved him.
The guy's name was Gus. Gus and Grace. He thought that sounded better than Grace and James did. He even told her that. He told her he was surprised she hadn't run for the hills yet. That most women did. That even his mother gave him up for lost.
That was all a lie. There weren't other women. If there were, he assumed they would run. That's why he said it. He wanted Grace to tell him he was crazy, they were crazy.
His mother did say things now and then. That he wasn't going anywhere, wasn't changing anything. He thought he might be able to get some sympathy. Boy with neglectful, abusive mother. A mother who slept with every man she ever met. He didn't get that far into detail. He wanted to but didn't. Nothing goes as planned.
Anyway, that night was the last night. Grace took him at his word. Or maybe, she took his advice. The advice he didn't know he gave. Ran for the hills. He hasn't seen her in months, but sometimes he goes by the dive bar where they met and rakes the room "discreetly." He thinks he's being discreet. If you saw him, you'd know he was looking. Desperately looking. Guilty. Back at the scene of the crime. The injuries, for good.
One night, he swore she was in there. It was a few weeks ago. He was almost positive. Her copper hair, shorter now. Silky. A leather jacket. It was only the back of her head, but he recognized it. He'd seen it many times—during sex, when she'd lean over his cooktop to light her cigarettes. It was her, he swore.
He went to the bathroom to get himself together, tuck in his shirt, drink. Went back out, and the bird had flown. A runaway from love. But he wouldn't chase her. No, he refused.
There's a knock at the door. He doesn't answer. He just made a start on breakfast.
It's 5:00 p.m.
Knocks again. Who is it? His mother? Probably. Sometimes, when he gets hit like this, she stops by to check on him. She never really thinks he'll off himself, but occasionally, if she lets her mind go too long on the idea, she reaches out. Calls. Knocks. Mothers worry.
He puts toast on a paper towel and trudges to the door. Looks out the window. It's a man with a camera and another man in front of him with a microphone.
He undoes the latch very slowly. Did his mother do something? His father? He hadn't seen his father since he was five, but he knows the man had been to jail before.
"Can I help you?"
"James Smith?" the man with the microphone asks. He has very tight, clear skin. It almost looks like wax.
The man mumbles something into an earpiece. Something like, it's him. It's him.
"James, I'm Rick with the Center News on channel 4. Can I ask you about last night?"
He hears the bacon snapping in the kitchen.
"Yes, last night... Mr. Dayna?"
People start gathering near the front lawn. Whispering, pointing, smiling.
Rick mumbles something else to his camera guy. Something like, roll the tapes. Roll.
"I'm here with James Smith from Laurel Lake. The man who, last night, saved a man with Alzheimer's wandering from the town's residential care facility. The man who does not even remember his own name remembered yours. James Smith, how do you feel?"
He's speechless for at least a minute. The interviewer doesn't seem upset or surprised. He waits. After all, he did show up out of nowhere. James figures they can cut this part out. Can they cut this part out? Who are these people? Who's Mr. Dayna? He ought to say something.
"James, what did you do when you saw Mr. Dayna?"
More people gather around his lawn. Recording, watching.
"Just one second," James says. He runs inside to shut the bacon off. The pan is black, and the kitchen is filled with smoke. He opens a window and runs back to the front door.
"I- when I saw Mr.- the man... I was obviously worried. So I brought him back to the residential facility."
"Nurses said they couldn't find you when they finally got to Mr. Dayna. Why didn't you stay?"
"You know, I- My. Dayna suddenly didn't recognize me. I didn't want to upset him. I just left him my name. I'm surprised he remembered."
"We're going to break, but we'll be right back with the local hero, James Smith."
"Would you excuse me?" he says. He closes the door and hurries to the bathroom.
"Okay, speed up," he says to himself in the mirror. The bathroom is in disarray, but eventually, he finds his shaving cream, deodorant, toothbrush.
When he's ready, he sneaks out the back door and into his car. Lights a cigarette. Drives.
When he got to Foxhole, he sees her right away. She's with someone. What are the odds?
"Hey, put that out!" the bartender yells.
James realizes he still has the cigarette in his hand, smoldering. He walks up to the table. He needs to know.
She turned. It was her.
"Um, James... Hi."
"Did you see the TV?"
He looks at the TV by the bar. Looks back at her. She's been turned away this whole time. She didn't see it.
"What- what TV? What do you mean?"
"Who's this?" James asks.
Grace blushes. She's dressed from tip to toe. Her hair is perfect. Her makeup, perfect. Everything in her eyes again.
She streaks her arm across the table. The sound.
"This is Gus. I told you about Gus, right?"
James shudders. Gus. Gus? It hits him again. The room gets quiet.
"Hey," Gus says. He's facing the bar where the TV is. "Are you the dude who saved Mr. Dayna?"
James has already blocked everything out. He turns and walks from the Foxhole in a smoke. The world clouds over. He walks. Not knowing anything, not knowing anyone.