He bought her a bottle of Jack at the 24-hour liquor store five blocks behind their high school in Sacramento. It was maybe three am and she’d run out of booze and was loitering around the parking lot with her girlfriends. Molly was going down on some guy behind the big green dumpster, and she was half-smoking/half-sleeping in the passenger seat of Molly’s blue Dodge, her back against the center console, her legs dangling out the door. She’d taken her boots off. The radio played The Cure, and her head felt warm and heavy.
He walked up, which was strange, because everyone in Sacramento had a car. She didn’t know him, but she knew he was older and that he’d gone to high school with her. She’d graduated two years ago and had briefly fucked off to Seattle, but college hadn’t really been for her.
“What’s good?” He asked her, and she took her cigarette from her lips to answer.
“Not much,” she said.
He was better looking than she remembered, if she could remember anything at all. His hair flopped brown and sweet over his forehead, and he wore thick glasses like a rockabilly kid from Silver Lake.
“Sounds about right,” he smiled. “I’m Al.”
“I know,” she said. “We went to school together.”
“What do you want?” he asked, and nodded to the empty half-pint by her feet.
“Whatever you’re buying.” She tilted her head to reveal her neck, which she knew was long, and pale, and appealing. She tugged her flowered dress over her legs a little.
“What’s your name?”
“Grace.” She tapped his leg with one of her bare toes. “Go.”
He came back with a bottle and took her by the hand and out of Molly’s Dodge. He walked her back to their high school and up onto the bleachers overlooking the football field and a portion of the city. She never put her boots on and he tugged at her long, tangled blond hair and told her he thought she was beautiful and messy and charming. They stayed awake until the sun came up, passing the bottle between them and falling in love.
+ + +
They moved to Florida because there was nothing left for them anywhere else, and his grandmother had left the house to them. It was a fixer-upper, so much was clear from the start, but Al thought it was worth it. Al thought it was a new start. Six years together in California was too many. Three years married was too many. He was over thirty and she was getting close. They still didn’t have children, and they probably never would.
She didn’t have a job, and Florida didn’t agree with her. The birds were strange and everywhere and one day there were peacocks in their yard that scared the living breath out of her. She nearly fainted when she pulled back the kitchen curtain to see them wandering around like they’d been there forever and she was the intruder. They held feathers high in the air, looking prettier and more placid than she ever did. Their little claws scrabbled over the broken down motorbike in their backyard. They shrieked, which made her anxious.
Then one day they were gone. Al dreamed of vultures replacing them, and they joked about those vultures just getting ready for when they finally died.
“Which couldn’t be too far off,” Al said. “Couldn’t be too far off at all.”
+ + +
Most days she didn’t get dressed. She drank coffee in a slip by the window in the kitchen, or sat on the three-legged sofa in the living room, her feet curled up under her, the wallpaper peeling off behind her.
Sometimes she walked down to the junkyard and looked at the garbage, and breathed in the smoke. He found her there, one evening on his way back from work, or wherever he went, and offered her a sip from the flask in his pocket.
She took the metal canister and finished it without asking first.
He touched her neck, her face. She said, “Oh, Al.”
And he fucked her against the back of his car at dusk, with the junkyard glowing behind them.
+ + +
In the morning, on a Sunday, she called her mother up in Boston and told her she was leaving, could she come up there and stay for a while. Maybe she could get a job, maybe she could finish college. She wasn’t 30 yet, and time was running out and Al was running thin. Air was running thin.
Her mother said no and she broke all the bottles. She gathered up the broken glass and the whole pieces, and mopped up the sprayed out liquid; dumped everything into a big black bag, the thick kind you could bury a body in. The thick kind they find prostitutes chopped up in. The thick kind.
+ + +
In the living room, with the radio blaring, Al looks at her like he’s going to tear her skin from her skin and then wear her body because he cannot get inside her; he cannot get inside her mind.
She kicks the ashtray over as she comes towards him, and he says, “Grace, Grace what will I do if I don’t have you?”
“Fuck you,” she says. “Fuck you and your cigarettes.”
He lights another and she feels this all consuming hurt. This burning madness. She feels like she’s throwing off sparks, like an open wire. A telephone wire out to kill children.
She lunges at him, and they go down, and they roll and roll. From the living room, clawing at each other into the bedroom. They knock the dresser over and a bottle of perfume falls hard on the back of her head.
“I never meant...” Al says, breathing hard. “I do love you. I’ll always love you.”
“Then love me,” she shouts, and pulls herself up. Leans her back against the leg of the bed, her aching head on the mattress.
He crawls to her, wraps a hand around her ankle. Curls himself against her side. Put his face in her neck, his lips on her collarbone. His breath smells like warmed vodka.
“I love you,” he says.
She sighs hard. Night comes to Tallahassee, and she’ll never find the strength to go.