Where I Want to Be
In regards to the old house, this is the outcome: a trial. And the fighting is really just over the skeleton of what we lost in the Old Waterman Canyon Fire. In regards to Danielle, my wife, well she passed not long before our house was taken up. She’s passed and I’ve accepted it. I’ve accepted that she will not be here with me, nor with the children. This is one of things you hear about when it happens to other people. When you hear about those people, they seem to recover okay. That’s the place I want to be in.
Even so, I need to say that I’ve been without her some seven months and two weeks. Three days too. At first, it was like she was still in the house, in the pictures, in the closet, everywhere. When the flames took the house, it was like the smoke pillars that hung around the neighborhood were even more of a reminder. But unlike the smoke, Danielle has a mother and a father. Well maybe God or whoever is the parent of the fire, but that’s something existential. I don’t know. Her parents, the Walnuts, like the nut they’re involved in my business.
See, the property was in Danielle’s name. We put it in her name because I had some bad credit.
The land is almost an acre, it seems bigger now though. The remains of the house were torn down by way of city ordinance. Now it just looks like a simple plot of earth and it’s spotted with glass and bricks. To me though, Danielle lives there. It’s like she’s alive in the place that was her garden, or where my stoop was. I know she isn’t, but I remember all of it when I see the bare land.
When I tried to tell the kids how I felt, they thought it was weird. They need their distance, their own mourning time.
The Walnut’s never did enjoy the thought of me being the sole link to their grandchildren after Danielle passed. My hands are rough and thick and the thought them being laid on her in an intimate way drove them into some dark place. I heard it once she, Mrs. Walnut or Bette as she liked to be called, was on the phone with some other blue hair and she described the level of sickness she felt knowing I was connected to her name. For Christ’s sake, me and her girl were married. We had kids and I put a ring on my wife’s finger and provided for her. I’ve always been faithful to Danielle, even now. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.
The Walnuts started sniffing around my affairs right after Danielle died. They knew the property was in her name. They knew we didn’t believe in wills. She didn’t. I don’t really care about these formal things one way or another. But they knew it wasn’t willed and they came after the property. Even the fire was an afterthought.
So one day I wake up to this knocking at the front door. I had been at my new place for a time.
But not long enough for someone to know where I am, minus the kids of course. They’re doing their own versions of family life in other cities and other states. I get out of bed, pop my knees, slap my belly and the like. These morning rituals make life feel worth it. After that I dress and go to the door. I see this kid on the other side. He’s just this weasel of a kid, maybe 20 and something years old. He’s fiddling around on the stoop. I can feel my chest.
I open the door up.
“Yeah?” I say.
“Mr. Harkin?” says the kid. “David Harkin?”
“Yeah,” I say. “What is it?”
He hands me a thick envelope. The manila folder feels like a sack of stones in my arms. It’s easier heavy, or I’m just that old.
“What is this,” I say.
The kid looks at me strange. His mouth is open like he’s going to say something important. He doesn’t. He steps away from me then turns and walks. He’s gone.
I push the door close and shut away the world. I open this envelope. It’s the papers, a lawsuit for the property. I don’t know what good they’re taking the land would do, but they’re making their bed with the decision.
There are a few lawyers I know from around. Calling them seems like the course my life is going down. I met one when Danielle died. She was a friend of hers from college. Maybe I’ll call her Jan, Joan, something like that. I have her number written down somewhere. I’m going to try and fight this.
That much is obvious to me. If I win, seeing that look on the Walnuts’ faces would be worth it enough.
If they are going to wage some war against me, I’m going to at least fight back. Even if I spend the insurance money on a lawyer, that’s enough. Danielle would like knowing I fought back. Maybe I’ll go look at the property later. I hope I find her there in the emptiness. I always do.
When I toss the folder on the wood table, it doesn’t make a sound. There is a heavy stillness to the room. With Danielle gone, the open space around me always seems bigger. She would deal with one of these types of crisis with a small smile, a quiet wave of her hand. Do I start to think about this as a crisis? There aren’t really big or wild things at stake like most crises. The kids are safe, which would make this an uncrisis to Danielle. She cared about them more than almost anything.
I shuffle around for my phone. The damn thing is stuck in my pocket like it always is. I need to sit. The cool of the wood chair feels real in my hand. The cool of the flat wood table feels smooth against my forearms. Hell, if this is what my life has come to I’m going to sit with my head in my hands until some sort of sunshine comes around.
Danielle used to come and find me like this after a sour day. She would come on the palms of her feet, not making a noise as she floated across the kitchen floor. Her hands would reach deep past the skin of my neck like she was plucking some chord inside my chest. Her touch was something mystic to me. The kids never got it when I tried to talk about it after she passed. They didn’t get the dimness of her touch. She had soft hands, Ted would say. But that’s all he could really articulate on the matter.
I sit at the table for a time, until something settles inside of me. I’m going to call my buddy Frank. He had a pretty sharp lawyer after he was served. I don’t think calling any of these women lawyers Danielle knew would do a thing for me one way or another. I don’t want to sit through those interactions with them as they let whatever knowledge of me by way of Danielle run through their heads.
She talked to this Jan woman when her and I lived apart for a few months. How would I go about that situation? A phone call? Email? Christ, I don’t even know how to use the computer my kids bought me. A handwritten letter maybe. I’m at something of a loss on this.
I wake up sometime past midnight. Or at least I think it’s around midnight. That’s a good, solid time to base my days around. Midnights and afternoons. These time markers have a definite passing to them. When I’m awake, the space between midnight and afternoon grows like a stretch of desert. I’m up hours and hours before noon. At times, the sun hasn’t woken up either. I fall asleep hours and hours after midnight.
I see Danielle in my dream. Usually, I throw myself up in a fit of nerves because I think she will be next to me. She never is. This time though, I see her in our old house. The place burns around her and the walls slip away. She wears the silk of her blouse she had on the first time we made love.
Something peels off her She calls out to me with her eyes. Maybe this was why I woke up. I know this image will never be.
My knees do this noise when I slip on my robe. It’s like I’m on autopilot, already walking out to the kitchen. I’m at the table. The manila folder is slight to the touch. There is conclusiveness in its smooth coating, like I’ve already lost the case.
The papers have my name in bold. Their name in bold.
Danielle’s name in bold isn’t the part that gets to me. It’s the fact they call her my exwife.
Like hell we weren’t married when she died. We weren’t even separate or fighting. Those last years together were like the first years of dating. Maybe she knew she was going to go?
They say cancer consumes the body’s right to live. Like a fire, it eats at the cells. Attacks the cells, like the doctor said. Danielle’s was of the pancreas. I didn’t even know what it was before hers was attacked by the cancer. Consumed. She went fast, like our house did. Three months. The doctors called that a fast one. A fast one, like it’s some kind of object that can be measured by speed.
Sometimes I want to go that fast—
But the house went in three or so hours. That’s what the neighbor told me. He watched from his own house, which was relieved of it’s own significant portions. Somehow, I see the neighbors lasting garage and my lone chimney as a testament to our collective failures as men. We were all unprepared.
I sign the papers, which say I will be in court on a certain day at a certain time. I’ll give those old bastards hell. If they think I’ll lay down and eat from their palms they’ve got another thing coming.
My heart stretches inside my chest. I should get some air.
I call Frank. We agree to meet at the cantina. He’s got his own legal things going on. Maybe he can give me insight.
In my room, I throw on some fresh jeans, a sweater. My boots are dirty, but they were a gift from Danielle. I pull them on too. Danielle looks at me from the full size mirror. There she is, pinned up in the right corner by a strip of tape. She is in her best dress, the floral one with a green hue. I called it her Macy’s dress. She bought it after seeing it on display. I took this picture on a Wednesday. I took this picture outside the Asian fish market on Tippecanoe. This is my favorite picture of her.
She looks at me, like she does when I see her in my dreams. Or if she comes to me when I’m driving. She can tell me I’m getting fat from her spot in the right corner of the mirror. She doesn’t have to lie. If I can see what I’m becoming, she can see it too.
The kids say I should take the picture down. Maybe put it in a frame or some place nice.
I’m out the door and heading to see Frank. I feel like he’s going to be depressed like he always is. I drive to see him anyway. The last conversation I had was with the kid who served me papers. It’s good to talk to people, Danielle would tell me, be social. I can’t be your everything, she would say, one day I’ll be gone.
How did she know?
I used to take this drive often. Before Danielle, when Frank and I drove this way every Friday night. We would park on top of Little Mountain Drive and look at the stars, chuck beer off the cliff, and yell into the emptiness. Now I just see smog and the lingering smoke that covers up everything beautiful.
The sky looks like a empty movie screen tonight, like a bright and interesting picture will pop up soon. I imagine I’m going to see giant faces with huge white mouths as I get further away from the smog.
I’ve been in the house too long.
My engine is on its last feet. This parking lot is on its last feet. A drink will put this business with the Walnuts to sleep for now. Everything feels like it’s on it’s last feet.
Inside the bar is the usual old business. Beer, sweat smell, bar hags, and Frank Allen sitting in his stool at the far right corner. He has Bob Seger going on the radio.
“Old man,” Frank says. “You’re looking terrible.”
“Hey asshole,” I say.
He gives me a beer. He places his hand on my shoulder. His grip has gotten weak. I can feel each dance and calloused mark like the roadmap of his decline. But still, it’s something familiar. These hands held my drunken body above porcelain toilets. This man held up my wife’s casket at the funeral.
“Good to see you,” he says.
“The kids?” he says.
“Ted lives with his girlfriend,” I say. “Shawna’s at college.”
The kids are 19 and 21 respectively. Frank knows the boy better than he does Shawna. But then again, most of us know him better than we know Shawna.
Shawna, my eldest, moved out when she was 17. She had the notion that she was something of a woman already. Danielle left Shawna with too many of her likenesses. I hadn’t heard from her in over a year before Danielle’s passing. I know they talked everyday, but that talk was secret a part of the female mystery.
“Ever getting things straight with Shawna?’ Frank asks.
“Not really,” I say. When my wife passed away, Shawna’s mother passed away, and the only thing that kept us in relations is gone.
“Shame,” he says. “She was a dear.”
“She’s somewhere else in life.”
Danielle was the reason Shawna and I forced ourselves to make conversation. She is my child, my first born, and I love her but it’s always been hard. Danielle knew how she worked. She did her best to get us to talk before Shawna moved out. Mostly it was Shawns and I throwing dumb words at a wall, hoping they would stick like some game show segment. Mostly though, our conversations fell flat.
I try not to indulge Frank in my issues with Shawna’s lifestyle and ‘roommate’. He pushes the subject once or twice more before letting it slip away. This is the bar life. This is what a widower is expected to do when the other things he is expected to do falls apart.
Frank and I are at the cantina late. We’re at the end of a growing day, a day without end or finality. We drink to problems neither of us knows how to face like men. We drink to bad backs and slipped disks. A few more beers and we go outside for a piss. We move through the wooden door like it’s the last threshold to the real world. My beer runs through me. In the open, under the smoke bombed sky, San Bernardino slips from me.
If the sun were anyone, it would be a dictator on a morning like this. Frank and I wake up in the back of his truck, laying on top of a spread out sleeping bag. Last night went to shit if my headache is correct. But hell, I can do this as a retired widower. Bette Walnut said retiring at 55 is unsavory. I’d like to see her live a little. Danielle’s life insurance plan takes care of the kids just fine. I’m sitting on a nice pot of retirement pension, savings and some money I have in the stocks. But the land will be the last I hear from Bette. Whatever the outcome, win or lose, that woman and her husband can go be of the dirt for all I care.
“Get up,” Frank says. “We’ve got goat’s stomach to eat.”
“Have your menudo,” I say. “I need coffee.”
Frank pulls himself up to the side panel of the truck bed. He perches over a toolbox and lights his cigarette.
“Honestly Dave,” Frank says. “How are you doing this?”
“Doing what?” I say. My stomach does aerobics.
“I just am.”
“You haven’t cried,” Frank says. “You haven’t cracked. What’s going on?”
“I’m dealing as it goes.”
“She’s gone Dave,” he says. “You have to accept it.”
“I do,” I say. ‘I accept it more than you know.”
“You don’t say her name out loud?” he says, his voice touching around me. His face is bright.
His mouth is open for the words to speed out.
Frank doesn’t talk at breakfast. He laps up his tripa and hominy like it’s the food of the gods.
These Aztec painting on the wall look real and terrifying. Him and I and our girls would come to this Mexican joint after drinking and dancing when we were young. We would meet up in the morning for breakfast the next day. I guess Frank can settle his two cents as much the kids can about Danielle’s passing. Him and his Lynn knew Danielle just as long as me.
Frank looks at me and says, “Don’t shine me off Dave.”
“You don’t talk,” he says.
“What the hell am I doing now?”
“Since it happened,” he says. “You talk less and less. Let it out man. Lynn worries about you. Your kids worry about you. Hell, I worry.”
He stirs his soup around, the red flakes of chili powder float to the top. He is quiet and I am quiet. We finish our meal in silence. I decide to call this lawyer woman that Danielle knew and get legal advice. Winning the land won’t bring my losses back from the dead. It won’t be the Lazarus act, but it’s something. I could use a little something these days. That’s where I want to be.
Michael Tesauro is Masters of Fine Arts Candidate living in Redlands, CA. He calls the Inland Empire his home. This, and the heat, are his inspiration. Other works can be found in the Wilderness House Review, the Sand Canyon Review, Carnival Literary Magazine, and quarterafter journal.