It Was So Long Ago
Editor’s Choice Prize
Amber Krieger’s award-winning fiction has appeared in The Adirondack Review, cream city review, elimae, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter.
Henry can still feel the pressure under his tires. Remember the cracking on his window, the thumping, the wondering. Once, when he was a small child, his father had hit a deer and it was like that—so sudden, so un-undoable. So completely over. His father had said, this is sad, and I didn’t want to hit that deer, but this is God’s will. When Henry, an agnostic, thought about the deer as an adult, he thought, it was natural selection. And later, after he hit the man, he thought the same thing.
They’d had to move, of course: they’d started their life over, hadn’t told anyone. Who would you tell? It was too painful being in the same town, driving past the memorial every day. At first he thought he should stay as a kind of penance, but the fact was, the man was walking in the road in the complete dark, and was probably drunk, while he, Henry, was sober, young, not tired, alert, a careful driver. He simply did not see him until it was too late.
At least it wasn’t a woman, a pregnant woman, or a teenage girl, her whole life spread before her.
He hasn’t said anything to Helen. She would tell him they are past that. “Oh, Henry,” she’d say. “It was so many years ago.” Fifty years ago, in fact. They are past it. He was past it. But these days, especially in the morning, when he has sorted the newspaper and settled into his chair by the window with the front page, Metro and Arts sections in a neat stack on his lap, his coffee cooling on the table next to him, more than anything, he wants to shut his eyes against the sun and think about it again.
Helen calls at 10:30 and 12:00 and sometimes 2:00. At 10:30, she asks, “Did you eat your breakfast?” He never eats breakfast anymore. His stomach is too tight in the morning. He lies and says that he has and then he tells her he’s going to do some email today. He doesn’t like to lie to his wife, so after he puts down the phone he gets up and goes into the room they use for an office and a guest room and a TV room and turns on his computer. It has a new wide monitor that Jeannie bought them last time she was home. “It’s going to give you a much clearer picture,” she’d explained, on her knees under his desk, hooking up the wires. “Pass me that plug now.” Her hand stuck up through the hole he’d cut out of the desk for just this purpose. He set the plug into her hand and for a second was reminded of when she was a toddler, how they would play that game with the shapes over and over again. She always wanted to fill each slot in order. She’d hold out her hand and if he handed her the wrong shape, she wouldn’t get upset and throw it like some kids, she’d just keep holding her hand out with the piece on it, with that look that said, even then, come on, do you really think I don’t know this square isn’t going to fit into that circle?
“The other cord, now.”
When she came out from under the desk her face was flushed. She was wearing her hair long again, with short bangs. He didn’t think this was the style now, but it was good for her.
“How’s—” He searched his mind for the name of a boyfriend or friend or something that was important to her. “Your job these days? Is that going all right?”
“My job? It’s fine. Just the same. You know.”
He did know, even though he didn’t have the foggiest notion of what she did. She’d explained it once, and there had been a letter she’d shown him, an offer letter with a long title and a description of duties, but what did these things mean? They were important things, and her title included “Manager,” and her starting salary was $120,000 plus benefits and bonuses, etc., etc., and my god that must have been six years ago now, and so if it was good, if it made her happy, then that was all he needed to know.
Henry signs in and opens his email program. As usual, it’s been about a month since the last time he checked email, so there are a good deal of messages to answer, and a good deal more to ignore. He resists the temptation to open the one about erectile dysfunction. He opens a joke from a colleague and then a message from an old student, Victor Barnes. They’d kept in touch over the years. The message says, “Dear Dr. Skinner, I’d like you to join my circle of friends on Connectmate, so we can stay in touch more easily.”
He follows the link and a page opens with a form asking him to fill out his name and address and choose a username and password. He doesn’t want to do these things, but he will, for Victor. As always, he uses “Jeannie” for his password. When he’s done, a message tells him he can now look at Victor’s page. He clicks OK and finds himself looking at a photo of his old student sitting on a beach with his wife. Their skin is a deep woody brown, their hair thin and white. Who are these old people? Is it possible that they are ten years younger than himself? When he reads a book, or the paper, he doesn’t feel that old. There are some other photos, Victor’s children and grandchildren. A big, fine-looking family.
He clicks the X in the corner of the window like Jeannie has shown him but a message appears. “Are you sure you want to leave? You haven’t filled out your profile.”
Another form. More questions. Movies, books, music he likes. A quote that inspires him. An important experience. Who wants to know these things? He types: When I was twenty-five, I ran over a man on a country road. This experience has shaped my entire life. But the thing is, it hadn’t. Yes, it was bad at first. They’d had to leave their friends and families. They were small town people and it was hard being alone in a city. He didn’t drive for four years. He took the bus to the colleges where he taught a class or two a semester, sometimes teaching six different classes at three or four different colleges, until he’d finally been hired by the university. Those were the same years that Helen was working on her master’s at night, before Jeannie came and their careers started. He spent hours on the bus. Looking at all those people. He made himself look into their eyes and sometimes he would wake up in the night to find Helen straddling his shaking body, her hand cupped over his mouth and her lips cool against his temple. And then there were years and years when he didn’t think of it at all.
The phone rings. Is it noon already?
Helen says, “Go for a walk, Henry.”
He shuts down the computer, finds a cardigan and a scarf, double-locks the front door, walks across the dry summer lawn. And then he is the man by the side of the road. It’s daytime, and he’s walking on the shoulder, not in the lane. He’s alert and sober. But he feels like he is the man. The man, he’s always called him in his mind, because at first, they didn’t know who the man was. But they had identified him eventually. Parker, the woman officer had said. Is that his first name or last name? Helen asked. I don’t know. She didn’t tell you? I didn’t ask. Still, she should have told you. Maybe she did. He thinks about stepping out in front of one of these cars. He could walk around a bend and lie down and they might not even realize they’d hit something. A small bump, a piece of debris in the road.
Henry steps off the shoulder and cuts through the brush by the side of the road and then he is on the trail, a swath of woods running northeast through the city and up into the hills. The trail is uneven and each time he steps into a low spot he feels like he is going to topple over. When he was younger, Henry used to run in these woods. On a good day he could go from their house all the way to the botanical gardens, darting in between traffic when he came to a road, once running right out in front of a bus to keep his pace. Now, he cuts across the trail to a grassy park with picnic tables and a concrete loop, where he usually walks.
There are a lot of people in the park. A girl in tiny black shorts roller blading. A man sitting on a bench, looking at his phone. Three teenagers doing chin-ups on a high bar at the new exercise station. Everyone strung with little white wires. He pats his pocket to make sure he’s brought his cell phone and then takes it out to make sure it’s on. Helen doesn’t like it when he leaves it at home.
The old couple are here. Old couple. That word again. This woman, a Filipina he thinks, and this man, white with white hair and a constellation of moles and freckles on his forehead, can’t be any older than him. But he has always thought of them that way. They sit, as always, on the last bench on the loop, he in a navy suit, she in a long flowered dress and a little black hat that’s pinned to her glossy black hair. The man has his head back and looks like he might be asleep, but he is not. They are both watching the sign they have placed on the other side of the path. Today it says, “Are we living in the last days?” And smaller, “Ask me how you can still be saved.” Next to it is a small stand containing two Bibles and a thick stack of Watchtower brochures. They don’t look at Henry as he walks by. They watch their sign and wait.
Henry walks the loop five times. It’s not a very big loop, but it makes him tired. The girl on the rollerblades passes him 18 times and each time, he watches the way her buttocks tighten as she pushes herself forward. It gives him a little boost to get through the next section of his walk. When he is done walking, he takes a seat on a bench next to another man. It takes him a moment to realize that he has sat next to the Jehovah’s Witness. The woman must have gone to the bathroom. Up close, the moles and freckles on the man’s forehead look alive, like a fungus growing across his face. They are a deep black color and Henry wonders if the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in medicine, and if this man should have his face examined by a doctor.
“Are you ready to be saved?” the man asks. He doesn’t turn toward Henry when he speaks.
“I’m just taking a break.” Henry puts his hands on the bench to push himself up, but he can’t make his legs stand. “I’ll be gone in a moment.”
“A moment is all it takes. To be free of your past.” Did he emphasize “your”? The man turns and looks Henry so deeply in the eyes that he wonders if this man knows his story, has always known his story, has been sitting here every day for the past twenty years, just waiting for Henry to sit on this bench. “Tell me,” the man says. “I want to know about you.”
When I was twenty-five … The words play in Henry’s mind like a mantra. The man nods as if he has said them out loud. His pupils are a crisp blue but the veins around them are pink and there is a soft glob of yellow pus in the corner of one eye. Henry looks into those eyes and thinks that this is like a Twilight Zone episode, and if that were the case, then this man would be the man.
“Are you all right?” the man says. His lips are cracked at the centers and they are trembling, or maybe those are Henry’s eyes.
“Parker?” Henry says. He can almost hear Rod Serling’s voice explaining what is happening to him, but he can’t make out the words. He reaches a hand out toward the man.
“All you all right, Parker?” the man says. He shuffles some papers in his lap. Gives Henry a brochure. “I’ll be right back, Parker. You sit here. I’m going to get my wife.”
Henry watches the man walk away and then looks down at the brochure. It shows three people standing together. They have long feathered hair, even the men, and there is something unnatural about the way they are looking at each other. They are smiling too hard. The text says, “We are interested in YOU.” For the first time in weeks, Henry feels the urge to laugh. It fills him like a nervousness and he covers his mouth with one hand and grips the bench with the other and feels the shudder of it pass through his chest. The man is standing outside the bathroom. His wife comes out with a long sheet of paper towel and while he talks, she wipes her hands over and over and then she looks up at him and crumples it into a ball and clasps it to her heart. The girl on the rollerblades approaches. Henry stands, and when she passes, he follows. He ignores the calls of the man. Parker. Parker. On his way out of the park, he drops the brochure into the trash.
Henry takes a different way home, through a neighborhood where he doesn’t have to walk by the side of the road. The houses here are small but well-kept. There is one house in particular that he likes to see. It is stucco, painted yellow, and there are lots of large-leaved tropical-looking plants in the yard. There is a row of birds of paradise in front of the house, their blue beaks brilliant against the yellow. There are bright red flowers spilling down the outer wall of the carport. This is the kind of place we would live in if we had stayed home, he thinks. Not these flowers, not these colors, but this feeling.
He is almost to his house when Helen calls.
“How was your walk?” she says.
“Fine.” He stops so he doesn’t sound out of breath. “Just the same as always.”
“I’m leaving a little early today,” she says.
“That’s good.” He pictures her in her office at the bank, her neck bent to cradle the black plastic receiver between her ear and shoulder. “Do you need anything? Something from the store? Milk?”
“Okay. Yes. Some milk would be good.”
“I’ll get it for you.” It’s only a few extra blocks to the store. “I’ll get it now.”
There is a burst of static on the line and they both wait for it to clear.
When it’s gone, she says, “Henry,” and he wants to say, “I know,” but he lets her finish: “Be careful.”
As always, he says, “I will.”
Henry closes the phone and puts it in his cardigan pocket. The sun is high in the sky, and the houses, the street, even the trees have a bleached look. A mailman approaches, pulls a stack of letters from his bag and flips through them as he turns onto the walkway of the next home.