In February, Angela found herself at the edge of the duck pond at Laurelhurst Park. The cold water was murky with breadcrumbs. A few bald mallards and Canada geese circled nearby, hopeful. Angela watched them until her vision blurred, then eased herself onto a bench under a fading blue and yellow pavilion, its concrete foundation dotted with swallow droppings. She closed her eyes, studied the red clouds on the insides of her lids. Her shoes, wet from the grass, flopped open in a V.
A jogger passed behind her, shoes loud on the gravel. Her cell phone rang once, and she turned it off without looking at the lit screen. She knew it was Danny, who’d call over and over, leaving at least one pissed off message and one apologetic message and maybe even one worried message. Where are you? Can we meet up? I’m sorry. She palmed the phone in her raincoat pocket, let her thumb tickle the buttons, but didn't turn it back on. Let him suffer, she thought. Let him call and get mad and figure out whose fault this really is.
It was beginning to drizzle again. The sky did not change, a cloudy ceiling shedding a gray glare that dulled the leaves, the birds, the worn toes of Angela's sneakers—the things that had shone that summer, when she'd been newly in love, sober for once, ready to start over. Now, Angela watched the wood table by the pond slowly absorb the spitting rain. The water drummed like fingertips, slowly peeling the weak paint from the wood.
“Excuse me,” said a voice. His hand was on the bench, and Angela's eyes swam up his wiry arm to his wide-set blue eyes. He had a mole hidden in one eyebrow, and it pulled his face into a disbelieving look.
“Do you have a light?”
She handed him her matches, smiled when he fumbled the tiny box. He looked familiar—the way all men looked familiar these days, interchangeable under dim tavern lights. “Trade you for a cigarette,” she said.
The smoke rose in weak columns, collecting in the struts of the roof.
“Nice accent. Atlanta?”
“Huh,” he said, handing the matches back. “You’re a long way from home.”
“Portland is home,” she said, trying to keep the slur out of her voice. She'd downed two Bloody Marys back at the diner, and they were hooking into her tongue, elongating her vowels and making her second-guess herself. “Do I know you?”
He sat at the opposite end of the bench, stretching his legs out as though warming them at an invisible fire. “Probably not.”
She leaned her chin on her fist. “I’ve seen you somewhere.”
“Maybe. I'm Roy.” He extended his hand, cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth. They shook, solemnly.
The gravel, dark gray, was turning to puddles, and the fractured pavilion window was dotted with water. A homeless man, wrapped in a soggy sleeping bag, staggered past. No shopping cart, not even a hand out for change. His hair, filthy and dreadlocked, protruded like angry thoughts from his head.
The phone twanged again, a single bright tone. She ignored it, crossed her arms.
That morning she couldn't find the toy-machine ring that Danny had given her, the one that left a graphite whisper on her finger. Not even a real diamond, and she'd had to put the coin in the machine herself. Insisting to her parents we’re engaged, we’re engaged. Though he hadn't proposed, even when she begged. And then waking up to find the ring was gone, as though Danny had somehow slipped it off her finger, thrown it away as easily as a penny. That's what started it. No ring. She wouldn't listen to his reasons for wanting to wait, as he put it. Another excuse to delay—when he knew how badly she needed to be loved, to prop herself up on somebody who cared. She drank too quickly while they argued. As usual. And he pretended nothing was wrong, even when she raised her voice and the other customers turned to look at them, the loud girl and her boyfriend who mopped his plate with a bite of pancake over and over, as though writing secret letters in the syrup. Their words were briars, just waiting for the opportunity to catch one another's clothes.
She chewed the cigarette, then ground the filter under her heel. She hadn't been hungover this morning, which seemed a good enough reason to keep drinking the way she had the night before. Danny had raised his eyebrows when she ordered the second Bloody Mary. And then he’d taken the car keys from her. She called him a motherfucker and kicked the driver's side door so hard it left a dent. She’d kicked Danny, too. He didn't dent but he bruised and swore. Faces in the diner window, watching them. You are such a crazy bitch, Angela, he hissed. How many messages had he left, she wondered.
“You waiting on somebody?” Roy asked.
“Just sitting.” She glanced at him. “Like you.”
“Hope you don’t mind the company,” he said.
She smiled, trying to look winning and cheeky. “Don’t mind, don’t matter.”
He turned away, expressionless. He wore black boots, the toes long and curved like hooves. A tattoo curled on his wrist, illegible—she blinked, trying to read the coiled letters, but he put his hands in his coat.
The ducks, discouraged by the rain, clustered on the small mound in the middle of the pond, finding shelter under the crippled willow tree and sprawling azaleas. Angela watched them settle into the mud, the females disappearing against the earth. The geese folded their long necks across their backs.
“You drink whiskey?” Roy asked. The flask's mouth opened towards her. She eyed the shiny stopper, Roy's clean fingernails, and coat cuff. “Good day for it.”
She glanced around, then took it from his hand. The taste stung her eyes, made her nostrils close in a gasp. “That’s good.”
She took three sips, keeping her eyes on the immovable clouds as she tipped her head back. After this, she might go to a bar. That meant she couldn't have any more than six sips of whiskey, maybe seven. Those, in combination with her double Bloody Mary from breakfast, might make her slur or stumble, which meant she wouldn't be able to buy anything stronger than iced tea anywhere else. It might be cheaper to just pick up a fifth of something at the liquor store near her apartment, hole up with a movie, and pass out. Get up in time for work tomorrow. But, she thought, scanning the well-dressed stranger, it might be easier to find trouble exactly where she was. Anyway, Danny was likely to be waiting for her, sitting on the stoop of her building, ready to yell the moment she appeared. She didn’t look forward to that, knew she couldn't take the criticism without more anesthetic. There were men everywhere she went, and they had money. And she needed something extra today, just to get her over the hump and sliding down into the February evening.
“Thank you,” she said, handing back the flask. Her elbows cushioned by the smooth armrest, the bones in her legs turning to liquid gold as the whiskey seeped through her.
“Sure,” Roy nodded, glancing at her. “Those ducks are going at it again.” There was a squabble, a flapping. One tumbled into the water.
“You come here a lot?” she asked. Watched him nurse the flask against the buttons of his shirt. The tattoo appearing, then receding under his cuff.
“Since November,” he said. “Usually there's no pretty girl to sit with, though.”
“Thank you,” she said, knowing that she was repeating herself as the words bumbled off her tongue. Pretty girl. She meant to ask if he always sat here, just as she meant to ask if he was done with the crossword puzzle so meticulously folded and peeking from his pocket with a ballpoint tucked beside it. She intended, whiskey at hand, to sit nearer to him and finish the crossword in a way that he would find charming, in a way that would entice him to take her home with or without knowing her name or anything about her, and she intended fervently in that moment as she saw his fine long-boned hands sliding over the stainless steel flask and his blue-fierce eyes and the scruff that only a hungover and single man's jaw can grow and the way his hips pressed into the wood on his side of the bench she wished to go home with him and lie on his pale-green sheets and watch the muffled shapes move across his ceiling and sleep with the taste of someone new in her mouth.
He drank again, nodded to the ducks. “Human company. You know.”
“Well, I’m not a regular,” she said, laughed too loudly at her own joke.
His mouth twitched, flattened. “November,” he said.
She touched her eyebrow, absentmindedly, the place where his mole burrowed into the dark hairs.
He said, “I used to bring flowers, but people would steal them. Kids. The ducks tore them up. So now it’s just the whiskey. You don’t mind, do you?”
He shifted his pointed boots again, crossing his ankles one way and another. She wished for another drink, but he cradled the flask to his chest and did not offer it. He kept his eyes on the pond, the rings spreading in the shallows, the ground filthy with seeds. His damp hair curled over his ears in dark flames, and she stared at him until her eyes watered. The cigarette smoke lingered in her nose, mixing with the brackish smell of the water, disintegrating mold.
“You didn’t hear about it, did you?” he asked. Her head snapped up—had she been dozing?
She rubbed her mouth, tried to catch up.
“There were fliers everywhere. And it was on the news. Tragedy, tragedy.” He squinted into the flask.
“Sorry.” She wanted to look interested, sympathetic. If the whiskey was not forthcoming, maybe he'd offer another cigarette.
“She drowned here,” he said. “Some family found her when they went to feed the ducks. Already half rotted.” He swigged. “I had to identify the body. Face gone, teeth showing through the skin. I shouldn’t have said that. Forget I said that.”
“Who?” Angela felt a surge of nausea. She bit her lip.
“Michelle, Ma Belle,” he sang, light and out of key. “My girlfriend. You didn't see her on the news?”
“Was there a—trial?”
“Suicide. She quit taking her meds, disappeared for a few days.” He pointed at the ducks. “They’re probably the only witnesses.”
She tried to focus, keeping her gaze on the folded crossword. The blue ink crawled across the paper, illegible. “Your girlfriend?”
“I visit almost every day,” he said. “She’d hate that.”
She watched him tap out another cigarette, roll it between his fingers so that the tobacco crackled in the paper. He touched the corner of his eye, shook his head.
“She hated me.”
A couple passed, sharing an oversized umbrella. Angela could hear their voices as though underwater, the vowels distorted.
“She was the one,” Roy said. He twiddled the stopper, this way and that. His eyes locked onto Angela's, so blue that she could barely breathe. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
Her head wobbled. Her phone vibrated in her pocket, and she clutched it, her hands shaking against its battery. “You loved her.”
“We drove each other crazy.” He lifted the flask to his lips, his jaw long and handsome. She watched him gray at the edges, her vision popping with stars.
She could understand what he meant, but the words skated over her slippery skull. She could have kissed him, tried to ease her pain against his. But he wouldn't give her the flask. His eyebrows drew together over his forehead, making the mole disappear with a look that said, You don't want to know how horrible we were. So she slapped her shoes down, hard enough to make her feet tingle. Make herself want to get away. It was hard to balance, her legs changing length on the uneven ground. As she walked away, she had the idea that he would be impressed with her and the way she could hold her liquor, the way she chose to apologize so kindly to him and offer her condolences. Maybe the glaring clouds would illuminate her paper-thin dress and cast strange shadows on her hair as she left, and he would run after her down the street and beg to take her home where there was a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator and a cat that would bump her with its tabby-scruff chin. She shouldered her purse and although she paused in the arch of the pavilion, ready to be admired, he did not try to stop her and when she turned on her cell phone she had six voicemails and they were all from Danny and her stomach, already brimming with alcohol and several bites of old breakfast, felt like a pit of lead.
“Hello?” she asked casually, holding the phone slightly away from her head. She stopped under the eaves of a brick building that used to be a bathhouse and was now a place where little girls learn to dance. She meant to sound pleasantly surprised.
“Where are you?” he asked. “I’ve been calling for two hours straight. Why didn’t you answer your phone?”
“Didn’t realize it was off,” she said. The rain spattered her face and she pressed her spine against the rough wall. Her tongue scraped her teeth, and even she could smell the booze, thick and rank as a lie. “I’m downtown.”
Her dress was getting damp, the flowers darkening on the fabric and sticking to her skin.
“You should go home. Get a cab.”
There was a long silence, then she heard the sparkwheel of his lighter and his breath, the smoke, crisp against the receiver. She slid down and sat on the sidewalk, politely tucking her feet in so that anyone could walk by. She wouldn’t be in the way. It was important to think of these things—they said a lot about a person.
She missed the South, in a wash of feelings that spread through her lungs like molasses. She missed the diners with ashtrays on the tables, bottomless cups of coffee. She missed the boys who wore their baseball hats backwards, held the door and offered a dip of their Skoal tobacco still warm from their backpockets. She missed living in a place where a good man might be hard to find, but not hard to keep once you had him.
“I thought we were going to get married,” she said. Her voice sticky. Her fingers soft from the rain, the white hands of a drowned woman.
He sighed again. The rain began in earnest. A taxi went by, its light off. She felt the water running down her hair and into her ears. It would saturate the phone, short out the battery. “Angela,” he said, and his voice was so distant, so reasonable, that she started to cry.
“Why not?” she moaned. “Why not?”
About the Author
Image: Laurelhurst Park, August ’09 [Detail edit by K+S] / 2009 / brx0 / CC via Flickr