“The Broken Place” was published
in The Cortland Review in November 2015.
A blackpick-up was parked haphazardly across three spaces in the store’s parking lot, the motor idling. The driver lingered at the wheel, very still, as if trying to gather himself. Dearnon, who’d been watching since the truck pulled in, put his newspaper down. The morning was cloudless, crisp, the kind of April day that can force a man to wonder about chances. He hadn’t had a customer all day, and he wished this one would either come in or leave already. The driver cut the engine but rested his arms over the top of the steering wheel, still not ready to get out. In the bed of the truck sat what appeared to be a huge telescope. Dearnon had never seen anything like it before.
The driver’s door opened and the man stepped down. He was big, unsteady on his feet. He took small, heavy steps toward the entrance, as if uncertain whether the pavement would hold him. He wore a black shirt, black jeans, boots worn down from wandering. Thinning, strawberry blond hair was tied back in a ponytail. He opened the door of the shop without noticing Dearnon and looked toward the counter. Dearnon winced secretly at the paltry offerings: some stray beef jerkies in a display box, misshapen and gray; an empty rack meant for gum. The man’s shirt was darkened with sweat, even on this mild day. He made it to the counter, leaned his weight against it. Something was wrong.
“Can I help you, buddy?”
“Hope so.” He had a broad, friendly face, good looking. He placed his hands, palms down, on the counter. “In a bit of a fix.” He leaned forward heavily. Whiteness mottled the freckled skin on the backs of his hands and his face was sickly pale. Dearnon worried he might be about to topple. The man tried to speak again but had trouble forming the words this time.
“What’s up?” said Dearnon.
“Comin right up.”
Dearnon retreated to the back of the store, where he kept the drinks refrigerated. There was plenty of beer but only two bottles of orange juice left. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d placed a juice order. He took them both and headed back to the counter, but he couldn’t see the customer. He hadn’t heard the door so he didn’t think he’d left. Hurrying to the front, he felt slightly out of breath. He was gaining weight.
The big man had slid to the floor, sat leaning against the counter, knees up, head in his hands.
“You okay, fella?”
The man was barely able to raise his head. Dearnon opened the bottle of orange juice and leaned over him to offer it, but the man was too weak to hold the bottle so the storekeeper went down to the floor, braced the back of the man’s head in his hand and put the bottle to his lips. He took some in, although most of it dribbled onto his shirt. Dearnon pulled out a shirttail to wipe the man’s chin.
“Maybe I better call Dr. Randall. He’s not far from here.”
The man shook his head.
“Want to come take a seat in the back?” Dearnon slept most nights there these days, not bothering to go home. The dog was gone now too.
“In a minute,” the man said. He closed his eyes and let himself relax into Dearnon’s arms. This caught Dearnon off guard, and he didn’t like it. Thoughts of the baby forced their way in, that same raw vulnerability. He shut his eyes, tried to remember when the Lakers’ next game was, what he was going to tell the bank about the overdue payments, anything that would shut out the pink blankets and the crystal blue eyes. He’d never wanted the baby, made that plain right away. They were good together, fun. When Irene went ahead and had it anyway, he didn’t complain, but he didn’t understand, and he didn’t talk much anymore. Their life became a different place, and he didn’t know the language. All that mattered was the regimen of feeding and caring, except he didn’t care, not the way he was supposed to, not until she got sick.
He looked down at his customer’s face, but felt wrong about witnessing a thing like this, when a man’s body betrays him. Dearnon settled himself down with him against the counter, tried to relax, but he was getting worried, wondered if he should get up and call a doctor. Then the big man stirred, raised his head, able to sip more of the juice as Dearnon held it for him. “I took some insulin. It’ll kick in.”
“Diabetes?” Dearnon said.
The man nodded and they sat quiet for a few minutes.
“You give all your customers this kind of service?”
“Not a problem.” Dearnon saw they were about the same age, mid-forties.
“Is there anyone I can call for you?”
“Not a soul.” Dearnon thought he heard the customer chuckle.
They listened to the trucks on the road, relentless, making their way south. Dearnon couldn’t remember the last time he’d just sat with someone, not
without some expectation involved, some unspoken obligation.
“I’m Ed. Ed O’Brien,” said the customer, offering his hand.
“Marty Dearnon.” He shook his hand. The man wore no wedding ring, and Dearnon wondered if he too was on his own.
“Is that a telescope in the truck?”
“Yup. That’s Girlfriend.” He took the bottle from Dearnon’s hand, put it to his lips.
“You an astronomer or something?”
“Eclipse chaser. I was up in Montana. It was a beaut.”
“You seen a lot of em?”
“They don’t exactly happen in the neighborhood. I guess you travel all over the place?”
“Yeah, you have to get on the road. I got hooked back in 1990. That summer was the first one I paid any real attention to, but I didn’t see the total, wasn’t in the right place. So I started to make it my business to get to whatever place had the best view.”
Dearnon chuckled. “I knew a guy once who visited every major league baseball field in the country.”
“I’ve got some unbelievable pictures. Saw one in Siberia, one in Bucharest. That was the best one.”
“Why? Clear shot?”
“That, yeah. And I got to watch it with a woman I cared about.” O’Brien lifted the bottle and Dearnon watched the rest of the liquid empty out.
O’Brien nodded. “I ought to be used to these spells by now.”
“Maybe the docs need to adjust your meds.” Dearnon’s uncle had been diabetic, and he had asked him once if he could watch the injection. “Next time,” he said. But the man was dead by then.
“Let’s just say I don’t always stick with the program.”
Dearnon heard the rebellion in O’Brien’s voice, the unwillingness to play by the rules. It was a dangerous way to go, but he couldn’t fault him for it.
He just shook his head.
“Every time things go haywire, I wonder if it’s curtains,” said O’Brien. “But things always settle down.”
“Where you headed now? Home?”
“Not yet.” He put the bottle down.
“Where is home anyway?”
“Good question,” said O’Brien, with a bit of a laugh. “New Jersey, not far from Princeton.”
“I been on that turnpike. After the army.”
“Well, don’t let that fool you. It’s a pretty place really.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay. You own this place?” O’Brien looked at the shelves, and Dearnon wished he had a way to explain why they were mostly bare.
“The bank owns it really.”
“Still, it’s yours to run. That’s something.” His glance took the place in again. The lower shelves near where they sat held only a few boxes of Cheerios, one tipped on its side, and odd jars of relish and cans of peas. “Just open up?”
Dearnon grinned then, letting it in, the time that had passed already. “Six years.” He looked around the store, wondering again if he should have bought those shelves at that auction when he had the chance. He had an urge to defend himself somehow, make it clear that things could have been different. Business had been good in the beginning. But a business like this takes time, energy. You have to want it. Before long all they wanted was a doctor who could tell them what was wrong. Dearnon said nothing, and O’Brien stopped the questions, as if he understood there would be no neat explanation for the state of things here, that the reasons were still too raw.
“So where’s the next eclipse?”
“Is that woman going to watch it with you?’ O’Brien’s face changed, and Dearnon wished he could take back the question.
“She’s not interested.” O’Brien took a deep breath, trying to sit up straighter, but it was a struggle. He looked out into the parking lot, as if frustrated, eager to move on. “Things get pretty quiet here.”
“Business comes in spurts, I guess.” But it didn’t. It hardly came at all anymore. Some days he didn’t bother opening up. He had to sell the place, but he couldn’t seem to part with it. It had become his hideout. Customers were an intrusion. A year ago, he’d dismantled the bell that announced an entry.
O’Brien didn’t challenge him.
“I’m thinking about selling.”
“Yeah, maybe a new location,” said O’Brien. “One of those strip malls where you can get some run-off business.”
From where they were sitting, Dearnon could see the dust that had balled up under the lowest shelves, and he felt oddly embarrassed, as if it could still matter. When he first opened the place, he’d polished the wood floors on his knees. He was fanatical about offering special cheeses, breads you couldn’t find that easily.
O’Brien gazed at the bottle in his hand, almost as if he expected to find some kind of answer in it. “It didn’t have to be this way,” he said, and for a crazy moment Dearnon wondered if the man was reading his mind.
He remembered the casseroles Irene left him in the fridge, how much that had angered him, as if feeding him made her any less gone. He left them out for the dog. “Yeah,” he told O’Brien. “I know what you mean,” but Dearnon never did figure out what he could have done differently, what would have been good enough, or even why he didn’t at least try to talk to her. He looked out through the glass of the front door into the parking lot. He could see the telescope in the truck, the huge metallic blue barrel reflecting the sunlight. He wondered what it would be like to be able to cart around the thing you needed most in the world.
“So you gonna be there?” Dearnon said.
“Got nowhere else to be.”
“How long since you seen her?” Later, Dearnon wondered why he didn’t stop there, at a point where he would have understood nothing more about this man. Or about himself.
“Two years,” said O’Brien.
Hardly enough time to forget what she smelled like. Dearnon didn’t need to know any more than that, because all endings were made of the same stuff. A silence too long. A bed too big. “Ever try to reach her?”
O’Brien looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes ago.”
“She says it won’t work, not now.” Dearnon wondered if it was about his illness, but he waited for more, realizing he wanted a different answer, a different ending. A car pulled up outside, but then moved on, as if the driver saw she had arrived at the wrong place. Good, Dearnon thought. He didn’t want to get up.
“She had this odd thing she did.” Dearnon listened, not surprised that the things the man would remember would be the things he couldn’t make sense of.
“After we had a fight, she’d call me to see if I got home okay. Every time. I completely forgot about that, till just recently.” Dearnon knew that letting shit like that back in wasn’t good. “I wasted all that time.” He understood then that O’Brien was probably very ill, and that he knew it.
He opened the other bottle of juice, took a slug and passed it to O’Brien, who downed the rest and sat up straighter. “What do I owe you for these?”
Dearnon laughed. “On the house.” He sat up, but reluctantly. He didn’t want the man to leave. The last time he’d exchanged this many words with anyone he was explaining himself to a nurse from intensive care who wanted to see ID before she’d let him near his daughter. The child crying out to him made no difference to her.
O’Brien got to his feet, still unsteady but better than before. He gathered his things and Dearnon was struck by how purposeful he seemed, checking his watch, asking how much time it was likely to take to get to Laramie.
“Three hours, easy. You sure you don’t want to rest up, eat something?” But Dearnon could see the man was gone already, his mind on the road.
O’Brien thanked him, said he’d be fine. He adjusted the straps of his heavy backpack, extended his hand. Dearnon shook it. There was no more to say. He watched him go out the door. A few steps before he reached the truck, he hesitated, and Dearnon thought he was going to turn around. But he kept going, opened the tailgate, searched for something.
He wanted to call to him, but he stopped himself. He looked down at where they’d been sitting, let his thoughts go where they shouldn’t. He fought them off, concentrated instead on the stranger’s truck backing up, turning smoothly to protect its cargo, then moving with only the barest hesitation back onto the road.
When there was no more to see, Dearnon locked the door, so he wouldn’t be disturbed. He walked to the back, moved the newspapers off his bunk and sat down, picked up the phone. The number came to him with no effort at all. The rings were insistent, shrill. He wished he could stifle the sounds, keep them from making so much out of this. The hello was small, tentative, as if she’d recognized the number. He didn’t speak, and she hung up.
He said the number aloud, as if testing it, and this time the sequence began playing tricks on him. Maybe that wasn’t the number. Maybe that wasn’t her.