Evan Grady drove in under a threatening November sky. When he stepped from the car he felt a familiar quickening in the air—snow blowing in off Lake Michigan. Once it hit, they wouldn’t see green until spring.
Across the way, what appeared to be the same neon sign he remembered from years ago flashed the word “Rainbow” in colors across the spectrum. The owners hadn’t upgraded a thing. Potholes chunked up the parking lot and pink paint peeled from the walls of the cinderblock building that housed a pool hall, bowling alley, and bar. Rainbow remained Rosewood’s main source of entertainment. Visqueen patched a broken pane in the door. Probably some red-neck kicked through the glass.
Evan stepped inside, glad for the sudden warmth. Cigarette smoke hung shoulder-high and Eagles’ music, playing on an old-fashioned juke box, strained to be heard above the splatter of bowling pins and the crack of billiard balls. Out front, it was mostly teenagers. To the rear, in a dimly-lit room, working men and women hunkered over drinks, as if their glasses held a magical elixir that could restore prosperity and order to their lives.
“Grady,” a voice called out above the music and chatter.
It was Rusty Weber in jeans and boots. Long hair, tinged with the first traces of gray, sprouted from under his Cubs’ baseball cap. He’d never married and had the look of a single man. Underfed and in need of a shave, he sported a stain on his blue work shirt.
Evan made his way through the closely-crowded tables and chairs and took a seat on a stool. He thought he recognized some of the patrons, but couldn’t be sure. The vaguely familiar faces were more worn, more troubled than he remembered.
Rusty nodded to the untouched shot of Wild Turkey and Miller Lite waiting on the bar. They’d played high school ball together and kept in touch over the years with phone calls and the occasional bump and run. Rusty was the first person Evan called when he and Heather separated and he decided to leave the big firm in Chicago.
“Cheers,” Evan said, raising his shot glass. “It’s good to be home.”
Rusty raised his own glass. “Here’s to Rosewood,” he said. “Fucking home sweet home.”
“The first hit,” Rusty explained, “came when gas prices spiked. That shut down RV sales.”
The guy on Evan’s left, a white-haired stranger with teeth missing up front, put in his two cents. “Then the banks stopped loaning. Who pays cash for a double-wide?”
Evan listened as if this was news, but he’d heard it all before. That was one reason he’d returned to Rosewood. He believed there was financial opportunity amidst the ruin.
“The factories,” Rusty went on, “have been down since spring.”
“Those factories aren’t coming back,” Evan said. “Others will take their place, but things will never be the same.”
It wasn’t what Rusty wanted to hear. “They better come back. I’ve been outta work six months.”
“Get used to it,” Whitey told him. “You oughta look into computers.”
“What do you know?” Rusty said.
Whitey stared into his empty glass. “I gotta right.”
“Green,” Evan said, “is the wave of the future. Re-engineered factories. Motor homes that run on electricity.” It was his plan to resettle in Rosewood. He figured to hang out a shingle, take advantage of the foreclosures and bankruptcies, not to mention the repos and short sales. Then he’d ride the wave when the economy turned.
“Green,” Rusty spat the word like a curse. “They’ll always need a saw man. They’ll always need a guy to build cabinets.”
“Anyways,” Whitey said. He stood to leave and reached for his wallet.
Evan waved him off. “It’s all right. I got it.”
The old man patted Evan on the back. “Thanks.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” Rusty said.
“It’s all right,” Evan said. “I’ve I got yours, too.”
Evan hadn’t held a cue stick in years. In fact, he’d never been much of a player, lacking the stroke and temperament. Back in the day, though, Rusty had been a hustler. Good enough to win another man’s money, tough enough to take it from him.
“So,” Evan asked, “what happened to you and that girl from Edwardsburg? Cherry, I think it was.”
Rusty rested on a high stool along the wall. “Doing time in Rockville, her and some guy busted for running a meth lab.”
Evan missed his shot on the three and left Rusty straight in on the seven. “A meth lab?”
“Two houses on Jackson burned down last week.”
“That used to be a nice neighborhood.”
“Used to be. Black and brown now.”
“So, you’re not seeing anyone these days?”
Rusty chalked his cue stick blue and lined up the seven. “Not really.”
Evan checked his watch.”What time’s Amber stopping by?”
Rusty dropped the seven into the corner and shaped up on the four. “After she puts her kids to bed.”
“I still can’t believe it,” Evan said. “Amber and Red Slater.”
“Yeah, but she was all about you.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“You know her and Red split up, right? About three months ago.”
Evan knew. That was the other reason he’d come home. He wanted to see Amber again. “She could’ve done better than Red.”
Rusty pondered it. “He could’ve played big time college ball. He was better than the rest of us.”
“More raw talent, maybe, but he was a head case.”
“Well, he got Amber and you didn’t.”
Except they both knew there was more to it than that. She’d begged Evan not to go when he’d left her and Rosewood for college down state.
“So, how’s she look?” Evan asked. “I haven’t seen her since the reunion.”
“Amber?” Rusty said. “She looks good.”
Sometimes late at night, when he couldn’t sleep, Evan still thought about her, remembered her laid out on the backseat of his Competition Orange Mustang behind Rubio’s barn, blouse open, skirt hiked up over her hips.
“Well,” he said, “she was something back then.”
“Yeah,” Rusty said. “We all were.”
Evan felt a tug on his sleeve. “Hey, stranger.”
He recognized Amber’s voice before he saw her face. She tore off her stocking cap and shook loose her hair, still long and blonde like he remembered. She unzipped her coat and showed him a smile. He stood his cue against the wall and opened his arms wide.
“I need a hug,” he said.
She snuggled into his embrace. They still fit together like patterns on his grandmother’s quilts. She gave off a scent of Ivory soap and sighed when he squeezed. Underneath the jacket she wore a man’s flannel shirt and jeans. She’d put on a few pounds, but Rusty had it right. She still looked good, real good.
“I’m so glad to see you,” Evan told her.
“You shouldn’t have stayed away so long,” she said.
“I’m back now.”
“Definitely. You can count on it.”
“I hope so,” she said. “I really do.”
They stood off to the side, Amber between his legs, leaning back into his chest, his arms around her waist, and watched Rusty run out the table. It felt easy and right, just like the old days, just like nothing had changed, despite the time and distance.
Rusty hung around, tossing down Wild Turkey while Amber and Evan sipped beer and traded small talk. She worked as a secretary at the high school and lived rent-free in her parents’ lake cottage. One of her kids was going into junior high next year, the other entering third grade. Her younger sister had married a guy and moved to Florida. Her older brother, the last she’d heard, was living in Terre Haute. Evan listened before describing his plans for Rosewood. He liked the way Amber’s eyes widened when he talked.
After a while, Rusty stood and pulled on a worn and greasy parka. He said he’d best be heading out, said he’d see them around. Evan offered to pay his tab a second time, but Rusty wouldn’t allow it. He left a twenty on the table and a tip twice what he should have. He weaved out, unsteady between the tables and chairs.
“I’ll give you a call,” Evan hollered after him.
Rusty turned and pointed a finger at Amber. “Don’t stay out too late. You’ve got work tomorrow.”
When Rusty pushed through the door, Evan could make out snow falling, large fluffy flakes glimmering in the parking lot lights.
“You think he’s all right to drive?” he asked.
Amber shrugged. “It’s just him and the other drunks this time of night.”
She scooted her chair closer and put her hand on Evan’s knee. “He’s a mess since he lost his job. I’m lucky to have kept mine.”
There were crow’s feet around her azure eyes that hadn’t been there the last time he’d seen her. The top button on her shirt was open and Evan couldn’t help looking. He was pretty sure she knew what he was up to, but he didn’t care—and she didn’t seem to mind.
“At least I can start over,” he said. “What the hell’s Rusty going to do?”
“That’s just it. There’s nothing around here for him. Your plans sound really exciting, though. But then, you always had plans.”
She reached into her purse and took out a wallet. She showed him pictures of two squirrely looking kids, one a girl, the other a boy. “They’re good kids,” she said. “Tanner’s smart, really smart. Kelly, who knows?”
“They’re beautiful. I can see both you and Red in them.”
She put the pictures away. “Red,” she said with a sigh. “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
He put his hand on top of hers. “I was sorry to hear about your divorce.”
“Red was always one crazy idea after another. His last one was a toilet seat that automatically closed when he zipped up. Called it the ‘Wife Pleaser.’ He wanted to advertise on TV, manufacture in the garage. Special offer, $9.99, plus shipping and handling. But he never followed through. After they let him go at the factory, all he did was sit around and drink. I had to kick him out for the sake of the kids. Evan, you can’t imagine. These last few years, you can’t imagine.”
He gave her hand a squeeze. “I’m sorry, Amber. You deserved better.”
“I always thought it was going to be me and you.”
He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “I know. Everyone did.”
She pulled her hand away, reached into her purse again, and retrieved a pack of cigarettes. “Oh, that’s water over the dam. Anyway, Rusty said you’ve had your own share of ups and downs.”
He watched her light up, and tried not to flinch when the fog of smoke hit him in the face. He didn’t remember her being a smoker. “It’s behind me now,” he said. “We’re separated. Neither of us has filed, but you know how these things go. She’s moved back to Arizona to be close to her folks.”
Amber cocked an eyebrow. “Evan, you ever think about our baby?”
The truth was he’d thought about it more recently than back then. Amber had taken care of everything, leaving with a friend for the weekend and coming home to say the baby was gone. Only after he met Heather and they tried to have their own baby did he think about the baby he and Amber had given up.
“Sure,” he said. “I think about it now and then.”
“I always wonder if it was a boy or girl.”
“We were just kids.”
“I know, but I still wonder.”
Over her shoulder, he watched the bartender wipe down the bar and fold his towel. “Amber,” Evan said, “I missed you more than I realized.”
She gave him her old smile, her eyes shining. “I missed you, too, Evan. It’s funny how things work out.”
He leaned forward and kissed her. It was good, her lips soft and inviting. He ran a hand through her hair, pulled her face to his. He went hard when her tongue darted inside his mouth.
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
She bit her lower lip and slid off her bar stool. “I gotta pee.”
“Better take care of that.”
She drew hard on her cigarette before stubbing it out with quick hard jabs. She gave him another kiss, a peck on the cheek, and whispered in his ear. “My momma’s got the kids tonight, just so you know.”
He watched her cross the room, the roll and the sway. She still got to him, just like in the old days. There’d been other girls and women after Amber, but no one special, not until Heather came along. For a while, Heather had been the center around which everything in his universe turned. The guys at the office assumed that she’d cheated on him or he’d cheated on her, but it hadn’t been like that.
He’d lived and breathed his job—office politics and clients. Heather had managed projects for a consulting firm and wanted to get pregnant. They hadn’t failed for lack of trying, and he’d been willing to accept their inability to conceive as a sign that maybe it wasn’t meant to be. But not Heather. She’d had her heart set on being a mother no matter how many pills and shots and jacking off into plastic cups it took. By the time they’d succeeded in getting her pregnant they’d spun away from each other like planets out of orbit.
Now, out there in Phoenix, Heather’s womb held an embryo, bits and pieces of the two of them. The guys at the office called it a “starter marriage,” but it hadn’t felt like a starter marriage to him.
While waiting for Amber, Evan settled with the bartender. “Tequila Sunrise” played in the background, but Rainbow was mostly deserted.
Amber reappeared and slipped on her hat and coat. “C’mon,” she said. “I want to see the inside of your fancy silver car.”
“How you know I’ve got a fancy car?”
“That BMW with the Illinois plates has to be you.”
Outside, the snow had changed from fluff to tiny pellets that stung his face. It was really coming now, damn near a white-out. Three inches had accumulated already. If this kept up, they’d have a foot or more come morning. Amber clung to his arm as they tromped to his car. They were nearly there when Rusty called out. He stood, propped up by his blue pick-up, a bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand. He looked like an abominable snow man, big and hoary.
“You’ll freeze to death,” Evan said.
Rusty made a show of setting his bottle in the snow before crossing over to them. Amber’s grip tightened around Evan’s arm.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Rusty asked, looking at Amber.
“It’s a free country,” she said. “I can go where I want.”
“Yeah, I reckon you can,” Rusty said.
“What’s up, buddy?” Evan asked.
Rusty weaved in front of him. “Who’re you calling buddy? I’ve hardly heard from you in years.”
“That’s not right. You’re drunk, man.”
Rusty coughed, cleared his lungs, and spat into the snow. “So, you’re going with him?”
“Look,” Amber said, “that one night was a mistake. It didn’t mean anything.”
“It meant something to me.”
“Wait a minute,” Evan said. He could see what was going on. It made sense, he supposed, the two of them. He couldn’t blame anyone. It was just one of those things, except Amber was his girl. She’d always been his girl. Now that he was back in town, Rusty would have to step aside.
Amber tugged at his arm. “Don’t pay any attention to him.”
“Sure,” Rusty said. “He waltzes in after all this time, and it’s over between us. Shit, can’t you see? He’ll leave again the minute something better comes along.”
“Rusty,” Evan said, “you’re out of line.”
“Fuck you.” Rusty swung wildly and missed. He slipped and fell in the snow.
“Christ,” Evan said. He extended a hand, but Rusty slapped it away.
“Goddamnit, Amber. Goddamnit to hell,” Rusty said.
Evan could see he was crying now, a thirty-year-old man blubbering in the snow. Amber went around to the other side of the car. “C’mon, Evan, let’s go.”
“We can’t just leave him like this.”
Rusty made it to his feet, tried another punch, slipped and went down again. Then, on his hands and knees, he threw up at Evan’s feet, the stench and steam rising.
“What an asshole,” Amber said. “Can you believe that? He’s such a total fucking asshole.”
The words were harsh, as harsh as the snow and the cold. Evan had never even heard Amber swear, much less say something like that. He wished she hadn’t said it. “He’s not an asshole,” he said. “He’s just drunk.”
“Yeah, well, he’s drunk a lot.”
Rusty palmed a handful of snow and washed his face. “Fuck,” he said.
Evan reached out again, and this time Rusty took his hand. He was shaky but made it to his feet. “You all right?” Evan asked.
“I’m not so good.”
“We’ll get you straightened out.”
Rusty shook his head. “You shouldn’t be here, man. You should be in Arizona. You should be with Heather.”
The wind cut him. The snow caused his eyes to tear. Evan was thinking it never snowed in Phoenix. His unborn child would grow up in a flat, mauve desert surrounded by saguaro and cinnamon sand, never knowing the perfect purity of white snow. His beautiful wife would find another man under an unrelenting sun waving yellow through long, hot days.
“Evan, are you coming, or what?” Amber had one hand on her hip, the other on the door handle.
He turned away from Rusty, the guy who’d stayed behind, and then been left behind. He faced Amber, Red Slater’s ex-wife, the girl he’d let slip away, who was no longer that girl. Over her shoulder, across the parking lot, the Rainbow sign continued to flash, bathing them all in its eerie glow
Gary V. Powell’s stories have been widely published in both print and online literary journals including The Briar Cliff Review, The Thomas Wolfe Review, and Fiction 365. In addition, several of his stories have placed or been selected as finalists in national contests. His first novel, Lucky Bastard, is due out later this year with Main Street Rag Press. He lives near the shores of Lake Norman with his beautiful wife and amazing son.
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