“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” – John Milton
Lorrie Blue has been widowed for five years. She is bathed in sadness—a trigger to a relentless, dark hole, a vacuum of emptiness that won’t, can’t leave her. She is freshly arrived in Austin, Texas, where she will deliver a paper on a panel on the work of an obscure Russian poet, an émigré who writes in English, not Russian. She’s hoping simply being here in this city where she met her husband twenty-five years ago in the mid-seventies will somehow diminish the emptiness, fill the vacuum.
They found each other during her sophomore year at the University of Texas. He was five years older than she—a late bloomer, a wayward soul but sweet, kind, attentive. She attended a party on a Saturday night at an old house inhabited by a bunch of guys, students of varying ages. Although her roommate, Rita, introduced her to him, he didn’t talk to her. She didn’t talk to him. Rita told her she might like him, but after meeting him, she doubted it. His name was Bill—a solid, simple, unpretentious name. But he was clearly a dreamy fellow; a writer of poems, a drinker of beer, a smoker of way too many cigarettes, and a boy—a man—who couldn’t seem to finish his undergraduate degree. His hair was long, and it would have seemed longer if it weren’t so wavy and, at the ends, curly. It shone golden in the dim lights of the party. He sat in a corner near the stereo and silently changed discs—Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Moody Blues, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, a few Beatles. He also smoked, one cigarette after the next, his eyes creased as he hunched over himself, his hands busy between the cigarettes, the plastic cup filled with ever-flowing beer, and the shiny, black records.
Nothing about him appealed to her. He wasn’t cute, he didn’t speak, he didn’t smile, he didn’t move from his seat. But he looked at her and that look alone moved her. It made her think him beautiful somehow.
She was not much fun at the party. She was nursing a nasty cold, her nose stuffed up beyond tolerance, and she didn’t yet drink beer, plus she found cigarettes disgusting. All these years later she remembers nothing much about that party except how crummy she felt and how Bill appeared, crouched in his music-filled, smoke-soaked corner. In her memory, he is only vaguely present through the smoke, except, of course, for his eyes, which were clear and blue and pierced through her.
The day after the party, a Sunday, she returned to the house for dinner, as she and Rita were invited over by the guys who lived there. She knew Rita had been a real hit the night before, flirting and laughing and dancing and drinking. The guys wanted her back, and Lorrie Blue simply tagged along. It was a potluck, so “bring a dish” one of the guys told Rita when he called about three that afternoon. Rita whipped up a box of generic brand macaroni and cheese and off they went, grabbing extra sweaters as they dashed out the door. The guys’ house was old, ramshackle, drafty, and sparsely furnished. She and Rita lived in a little one-bedroom apartment, warm and cozy, in a large complex not too far from campus.
Rita pulled her blue Volkswagen Beetle into the driveway and reached for the mac and cheese. As Lorrie Blue grabbed the handle on the passenger door, she saw the kitchen door bolt open. One of the guys edged through the door onto the porch, a big duffle in his hand. Behind him shuffled Bill, his shoulders falling forward, his gaze cast down, his golden hair greasy and stringy. His coat was pulled up around his neck and he grasped the collar with his hands. Behind him walked another guy from the house who, as soon as he cleared the door, threw one arm around Bill and walked beside him. The three climbed into a red ’69 Gran Torino, Bill settling stiffly into the front passenger seat. He never looked up. He never saw the girls. He seemed stricken.
She and Rita watched as the Torino drove away, then they looked at each other, shrugged, and emerged from the VW, hurrying toward the kitchen door. Rita knocked, walking in before anyone came to the door. “Hey guys!” she called in her tiny, giddy voice, her curls bouncing, her brown eyes dancing with anticipation. “What’s going on?”
Mitchell stood by the stove, prying open can after can of Hy-Valu Steak and Potato Soup and pouring the contents into a big pot. “Bill’s dad died,” he said. “Some of the guys are driving him home to Tyler ‘cause he’s too freaked out to drive himself.”
“Oh, to-o-o-o-o-o-o sad,” Rita said, her cherry mouth forming into a big O on the t-o-o-o-o-o. Lorrie Blue said nothing, but she sensed a huge wave of something—some sort of feeling—for Bill rise up in her.
In the two weeks Bill was away for his father’s funeral and the accompanying mourning and recovery time with his family, Rita and Lorrie Blue became fixtures in the guys’ household. Every evening they rattled across town in the old VW (Nicodemus, Rita called it, because it was capable of consistent and continual revival), clasping a bag of chips or a six-pack of beer or something to contribute to the hodgepodge meals the guys created on a daily basis. Twelve young men lived in the house that semester, sharing six bedrooms. Mitchell was the ringleader, always experimenting in the kitchen, even if his experimentation consisted solely of a mixture of random cans of meats, vegetables, fish, and soups stirred together, stuffed in the oven, and called a casserole. Like Bill, he was older than the others, and he had a sense of responsibility in regard to organizing and feeding the household, as well as the numerous individuals any one of the inhabitants might bring home to dinner.
Although Mitchell and Bill were older than the other guys, they were not friends. Lorrie Blue understood this because Mitch voiced a certain disdain for Bill. He—Mitch—had served in Vietnam and been discharged due to an injury. That’s why he began college so late.
But Bill—well, Bill was just lazy, dreamy, and near useless. According to Mitchell, Bill’s dad, the dad who had just died, supported him so Bill didn’t have to work. As far as Mitch knew, Bill had never sullied those delicate hands of his with hard work. He was an English major and a Psychology minor, and he spent his days lying on his back, rarely going to class, reading Dostoevsky and Freud, strumming his guitar, and smoking and drinking. How was he going to get by now, now that his rich daddy had suddenly dropped dead? What now?
One day Rita suggested she and Lorrie Blue provide dinner for the gang. The truth was, although Rita flirted with them all, she had a thing for Mitch. Mitch, however, was the only one who had no interest in Rita. He behaved decently to her, but he wouldn’t flirt back. So, Rita wanted to impress him with her culinary skills, even though she had few such skills, and Lorrie Blue had even fewer. Lorrie could boil water for tea and instant coffee and open cans and dump them in pans. But that was it.
So, on a Sunday afternoon, two weeks after Bill had gone home for his father’s funeral, Rita and Lorrie Blue contemplated what they could possibly prepare for a dinner with the guys.
They finally settled on a tuna casserole and au gratin potatoes, all out of a box—many boxes in fact—but they stirred it up, baked it in Mitch’s borrowed casserole dishes, and hauled them all back across town.
Eight of the guys had set the table and were sitting around it, holding their knives in one fist, their forks in the other. As soon as the girls walked in, they banged their utensils on the table and chanted, “Din-ner! Din-ner! Din-ner! Din-ner!”
As the girls arranged the dishes, the guys laughed and brought out the beer. Lorrie Blue sat where she always sat—what had become her regular seat—and noticed that no one was sitting beside her. Amidst the hands and arms grabbing for food and the beer bottles clinking, she watched as Bill tentatively walked in, found the one empty chair and almost fell down next to her.
When she looked at him, hunger left her. He was rumpled, not clean, unshaven, and he smelled heavily of cigarettes and beer. His head hung between his shoulders and his eyes were glazed, dim. She could read nothing behind them. He didn’t look at her. He didn’t look at anyone.
It was a difficult meal to get through. Each time she glanced at Bill, her stomach flipped. He ate a few bites, someone pulled him another beer, and soon he left and went upstairs to his room.
The guys raved about the tuna and potatoes, then everyone dispersed—some to study, some to hang out on the front porch, some to return to campus. Rita was usually scooped up by at least one or two or three of the household, yet Mitch— who was primarily in charge of cleanup as well as meal preparation—never once sought her out. After clean-up, he retreated to his corner, his headphones and his books. Lorrie Blue almost always curled up on the worn-out couch with her studies. The guys were super nice to her, but no one gravitated toward her, except Mitch, and then only rarely, usually in the form of an order, “Help me wash dishes, Lorrie,” and little more. She didn’t mind. Rita was the star, and Lorrie Blue was content to not even twinkle. The couch corner was her safe, studious place.
But on this evening, the couch corner was not available. Although Bill had slithered off to his room before dinner was finished, sometime during clean-up he’d moved back downstairs and taken her corner. She stood, her arms full of books, and stared at him. She couldn’t help herself or her aggravation. She wished he’d go back to Tyler and leave her to her rowdy dinners with Rita and the guys and her quiet study time on the couch. This was her new routine and she liked it well enough. Bill didn’t factor into any of this.
Bill sat on the edge of the couch, staring through the French doors that led to a little side porch of the house. He was wrapped in his large down jacket, as if he were going out, and he smoked a cigarette, clouding the air around him. It was mid-February and a glum time of the year, even in Austin. Lorrie Blue wished Bill would pick himself up and walk away.
As if he knew her thoughts, or at least felt her glare, Bill abruptly stood, bent over to smash out his stub and looked at her. She saw a bit of light in his eyes, and this time she once more felt what must have been sympathy for him.
She spoke first. “So, you’re back?”
“Yeah,” he nodded, ducking his head.
“I’m real sorry about your dad,” she said, fishing for something, anything, to say.
“Yeah,” he repeated. “Thanks,” and he stumbled off, out the front door. She heard a car engine start, and she settled in her corner, still warm from Bill, and tried to concentrate on Wordsworth.
As the Texas winter softly turned into an early spring, Lorrie Blue continued to see Bill almost every time she and Rita went to the guys’ house for dinner. Rita’s interest in the guys steadily dwindled. Mitch was frustratingly unresponsive to her attention, and she wasn’t attracted, in a romantic sense, to the others, although they clearly were to her and consistently competed for her favor, even though she good-naturedly called them “my brothers” and ignored them more and more, stealing increasingly yearning glances at Mitch as they all sat nightly around the table. Then there was the standoff. At least, that’s how Lorrie thought of it. Mitch rose to clear dishes and Rita followed. “Want me to help with dishes, Mitch?” she asked. Mitchell, his arms filled with dirty plates, his back to Rita, slowly turned to face her. Lorrie noticed how they resembled one another—dark, curly hair, almost black eyes. Mitch took in a long breath. “NO!!” he shouted. Rita stepped back, stunned. Mitch swirled around and disappeared into the kitchen, and the guys still at the table promptly disappeared. Mitch stuck his head around the kitchen door. “Lorrie, come help me.” Rita lowered her eyes and Lorrie slowly walked to the kitchen, glancing back over her shoulder at Rita. It was then Lorrie was certain Mitch was interested, at least as much as Mitch was capable of being interested, not in Rita, but in her. Most evenings he made an effort to sit, if not next to her, then across from her at dinner. He engaged her in conversation, even occasionally asking her opinion about something. Yet the more questions Mitch had asked Lorrie, the quieter Rita had grown, until she rarely wanted to go to the guys’ house for dinner at all. And after this meal, after the standoff, she called it quits. Mitch didn’t want her, and she was done. And yet Lorrie still wanted to go. She enjoyed the blustery male company, she loved having a steady meal, she didn’t mind Mitch giving her a little extra attention, and she learned to like Bill. It wasn’t that he was hard to like. When he forgot his misery, he was funny and sort of cute in an unwashed, scraggly sort of way. He too almost always plopped down on one side of her at dinner, and sometimes he even managed to wash dishes beside her. “My mom says she loves washing the dishes,” he said. “She says she likes putting her hands in the warm, sudsy water.” Mitch was often on the other side of her, drying and putting away the dishes. But after dinner, when both she and Mitch retreated to their study corners, Bill sometimes hesitantly sat beside her on the couch with his guitar. He’d play a few chords, pluck a tune, hum, or whistle—nothing ostentatious, almost unnoticeable.
She found she even enjoyed his presence.
Mitch was definitely a young man of habit, and of organization, and—as he reiterated—promise. He was the organizer of the house. The house had been in Mitch’s family for many years. His folks had moved to a three-bedroom ranch in northwest Austin and left the place to Mitch to help defray his college costs and provide a place for him to live. He charged the guys a combined rental, utility, and grocery bill. Part of the bargain of living there was eating there and helping not only with the meal preparation and clean-up of the dinner dishes but also the cleanliness of the house itself. It was exceptionally clean, Lorrie noticed. Mitch had no tolerance for slackness. He interviewed potential renters and their parents as well, if necessary. After he received his B.S., he planned on law school, also at UT, so he figured he had at least three or four more years in the house, renting to young men who could exhibit at least a modicum of responsibility. He had no interest in renting to women, as he figured that would open an entire host of problems.
Lorrie Blue couldn’t decide if Mitch was a problem, or if Bill was a problem. Mitch was dark, handsome, self-assured, but aloof. Bill was plain, self-conscious, tender, transparent, and polite. He opened doors for her, he pulled out her chair for her at dinner.
But Mitch intrigued her.
Also, Rita had so wanted Mitch. She had wanted him badly, yet her strident attention toward him repelled him, so he had sat beside Lorrie and ignored Rita completely, to the point he had ceased to even acknowledge her presence.
And for that, Lorrie Blue thought him a jerk.
But he was also, well, mysterious.
So, in late March when Rita no longer wanted to go to the house, Lorrie was stranded, as she had no way to get there. Bill, understanding her dilemma, often swung by in his blue Chevy and picked her up. The first few times, when Mitch saw the two of them come through the kitchen door together, he grew cool and silent. He didn’t speak at dinner, didn’t ask Lorrie Blue a single question. But when he observed that nothing had changed between her and Bill, that evidently nothing grew between them, he resorted to his usual almost anti- or occasionally semi-social habits.
During Spring Break that year, Lorrie Blue found herself practically living at the house. Rita had gone home to Amarillo to her family for the vacation. Bill was around, of course, and Mitch was around too. It seemed peaceful somehow, with most of the guys away as well, and Lorrie Blue felt at home there. She also delighted in the neighborhood, Travis Heights, surrounding the house. The houses were old with large oaks and pecan trees everywhere. Stacy Park, with its spring-fed creek, cut right through the neighborhood and she loved walking there, either alone or with Bill, or with Mitch.
Mitch stepped up that week.
It began with Bill showing up at her apartment as usual to pick her up. But the second day, Mitch appeared instead. And he appeared every day thereafter, around one in the afternoon, to retrieve her and bring her to the house.
She slept late because she stayed up so late with Bill and Mitch, who sparred over who would take her home. At first their behavior amused her, then alarmed her. It also did not escape her notice that Bill, who often seemed annoyed by Mitch, never showed anger toward him, and yet Mitch brimmed over with both irritation and hostility toward Bill.
Most of the time, during that Spring Break week, Lorrie Blue peacefully walked and studied and napped. Sometimes she and Mitch and Bill, a threesome, went to a movie together, or to Zilker Park to play frisbee. One day they drove out to the Pedernales and walked along the river.
It seemed Mitch didn’t really want to do any of these things, but he did them because he didn’t want Lorrie Blue to be alone with Bill.
Bill, on the other hand, shrugged his shoulders when Mitch suggested he come along.
The Sunday night before Spring Break ended, after dinner, after dishes with Mitch rinsing and Bill drying while Lorrie washed, she retreated to her couch corner while Bill ran upstairs to retrieve his guitar.
Mitch marched into the living room, grabbed her by the wrist, pulled her from the couch as he flung open the French doors and all but dragged her out onto the side porch. With both of his hands, he pinned her against the side of the house, battening her wrists above her. Without stopping or hesitating, he kissed her—a hard, fiery, desperate kiss that not only took her breath away but also offended her.
She felt nailed to the wall. She couldn’t move. She didn’t want to cry out and she couldn’t push him away, but then he stopped, drew back, and let her go.
“Mitch…” she began. He stepped away. For once, Mitch looked confused, and hurt, and still—still—angry.
Lorrie Blue remembers this kiss now and how she labeled it an “assault” all those years ago. She flinches as she thinks of that word, “assault.” He didn’t assault her, in the true sense of that word. He simply became…insistent.
She never told Bill about the kiss, although after, even though she was shaken, she was still intrigued by Mitch. She understood, back then, that she feared Mitch. And she feared what she might feel for him.
So, she never told Bill a thing.
After Spring Break, Bill often dropped by Lorrie’s apartment an hour or so earlier than the proposed pick-up hour. He brought his guitar and sat, alone, on the little loveseat in Rita’s and Lorrie’s apartment, while they—usually just Lorrie Blue—studied or cleaned or talked on the phone, or something—anything—but pay attention to “poor old Bill,” as they called him. Also, Lorrie Blue took a job at the Dairy Queen on the Drag. She felt obligated to take this job because her father was grumbling about college expenses. She was nineteen years old, and she’d never really had a job, so her parents figured she should help pull her own weight before she graduated. Every phone call with her parents ended with a pause, then a question, “Found a job yet?”
Since the Dairy Queen was a long way from her place, Bill offered to pick her up and take her to work on Saturdays and Sundays, which were the only days she worked. Sometimes, he’d come into the shop in the middle of her shift and order a milkshake or a hamburger. “Poor old Bill has a crush on you,” Rita teased. “No, I don’t think so,” Lorrie Blue disagreed, vehemently shaking her head.
But she knew.
Meanwhile, Mitch reverted to his cool, confident, aloof demeanor, although he still sat on one side of Lorrie at dinner, while Bill sat on the other. He still rinsed or dried on one side of her, while Bill rinsed or dried on the other. She always washed.
Mitch, however, refrained from any more kisses, any more battles as to who would take her home at night, or suggestions of threesome activities. The semester was ending, and they were all busy—Mitch particularly too busy for matters of the heart.
Honestly, Lorrie Blue continued not to know what she felt about Mitch, or Bill for that matter. At the end of the semester, she planned to quit her Dairy Queen job and find a full-time office position for the summer. Bill’s freshly widowed mother and his younger brother and three little sisters would move to Austin in July, so Bill would leave the guys’ house and live with them, presumably to take on the role of “head of the household.” He thought he had another semester or two or three left in college, but he wasn’t sure. Bill was like that, of course. He never seemed sure of much, was often confounded by the pragmatic details of life, and really didn’t seem too concerned about them. On the other hand, Mitch worked hard, corralled the guys, and one night at dinner, asked those who were planning to renew their leases in late August, when the fall term began, to please raise their hands.
During finals week, Lorrie Blue crammed madly, not at her apartment, but at the guys’ house, after dinner. Mitch studied without breaks, but Bill took more breaks than he studied. Lorrie Blue was somewhere in between. When she took a break, Bill usually invited her out for a walk. It was warm and fragrant and gentle out, and Bill wore no shoes. His feet were almost black, but it didn’t bother him, so Lorrie Blue tried not to let it bother her.
They talked incessantly that week, mostly about Bill’s brilliant father and his weak but sweet and ineffectual mother. Lorrie Blue knew nothing about loss or grief or responsibility to others. It seemed to her it had been almost four months since Bill’s dad died in a hotel room in New York City, alone on a frosty February night (the night she met Bill for the first time at the party, in fact) and so Bill should be over it by now.
Mitch watched them leave together on these walks, but he didn’t say anything and, during that week, his attentions toward her grew less and less. She thought he was preoccupied with his work.
Most nights that week, Lorrie Blue stayed up half the night studying, so she slept on the tired couch near the drafty French doors in the house. Bill brought her coffee in the morning, and Mitch didn’t say a word. Then Bill took her home.
After finals week, before Bill arranged to return to Tyler to pack up his family, he asked Lorrie Blue if she’d like to go up to campus with him to check on their grades. At that time, grades were posted either outside the door of the classroom where the class had been held or outside the door of the professor’s office.
Bill and Lorrie ran all over campus that afternoon, finding his grades, finding hers. In their search, they continued their easy conversation, comfortable in the smooth compatibility that had arisen between them. That day, she noticed Bill was wearing shoes.
At the end of the afternoon, they sat on a bench outside of Parlin Hall. “Lorrie Blue,” he said simply, “I like you.”
“Well, I like you too, Bill,” she replied uncomfortably.
“No, I mean I like you,” Bill said.
Lorrie Blue was silent. “Friends, Bill,” she almost whispered. “We’re friends.”
“Well, could we be more than friends?”
Lorrie halted. She couldn’t imagine being more than friends with Bill. But he was sweet. “Well, could we just see?” she asked.
Bill jumped off the bench. “Let’s go on a date!” he said.
“Yeah, right now. Let’s go on a date to the Night Hawk. I’ll buy you dinner!”
There was nothing to do but pick herself off the bench and walk with Bill over to the Night Hawk, which perched near the corner of Guadalupe and Martin Luther King Boulevard. They sat in a low booth overlooking the Drag, as Guadalupe was known, and she somehow felt excited, although apprehensive, her palms sweaty, her hands trembling a bit. Bill was joyous. He kept gazing at her, proclaiming, “We’re on a date! We’re on a normal date!” They each ordered big, juicy hamburgers, the only kind Night Hawk served, and Bill had a beer, from which Lorrie Blue discreetly sipped, now that she’d learned to drink beer.
At the end of the meal, after the waitress left the ticket, Bill stood and reached into his pocket for his wallet. His pockets, front and back, were empty. He mumbled a little, blushed a lot, and then looked at Lorrie Blue apologetically.
“Got any money on you?” he asked.
She hesitated and looked at Bill, puzzled. “He’s a sweet boy,” she thought again. She also thought he was awfully rumpled, rather plain, seldom clean, and—according to the guys—son of a dead father who had been rolling in the dough. Yet he drove around with no driver’s license and no cash in his pocket. Lorrie Blue paid the tab. “At least you wore shoes today,” she muttered under her breath as they walked away from the Night Hawk and back up the Drag.
Soon after that first date, not the very next day, but the one after that, Bill left for Tyler. Lorrie Blue thought she’d feel sad, going to the guys’ house without Bill there, but she had no idea that she’d hardly go to the house at all, and that, without Bill, there was really no reason for her to be there. She did think it was Mitch’s chance to make his move free and clear if he wanted. She even tried to encourage him, although she was hesitant because of that one kiss. Part of her cautious encouragement was to call him and ask him to give her a ride over for dinner. Otherwise, she had to take a series of buses to get there or ride her bike through heavy traffic. At first, he agreed to pick her up, but only if she met him at the corner near the apartment complex. He was always in a rush, and she assumed he didn’t want to run the risk of seeing Rita. If Rita was around, she didn’t tell her Mitch was picking her up, but Rita knew. Rita knew there was no one but Mitch to pick her up, and she knew that the guys’ house was the only place Lorrie went in the evenings.
It was a long month. Lorrie Blue now worked a full-time, extra-help position as a file clerk at the Texas State Department of Public Welfare, in the middle of downtown Austin, across from a park with a cupola. Rita gave her a ride to town on some days; other days she rode the bus. It was a broiling summer, hotter than usual, but every morning she dressed up. For her first two years of college, she’d parted her hair down the middle, not bothered with a bra and worn only smock tops, jeans and desert boots. She found it an odd relief to wear short little dresses, hose and heels salvaged from her high school days and pull her long, chestnut tresses back into what she thought a sophisticated chignon.
Three quarters of the way through Bill’s month away, Mitch picked her up and drove, not to the house, but out of town.
“Where are we going, Mitch?” she asked, after he’d passed the Oltorf Street exit on I-35.
“I feel like a drive,” he said.
“But what about dinner?”
“No one’s around tonight. And whoever pops in can fend for himself.”
Lorrie Blue realized she was famished, eager to dig into one of Mitch’s rice or noodle casseroles. She smiled thinking how she’d really learned to appreciate a daily evening meal, just like at home.
She glanced over at Mitch. Although he was negotiating traffic south of Austin, there was a look of intention on his face that had nothing to do with the traffic.
“Mitch,” she said, not yet feeling alarmed, but thinking she might feel so, soon. “I’d like to go back to the house.”
“And I told you,” he snapped, “I want to take a drive.”
“On the interstate?” she asked, now feeling a hint of concern.
“On the interstate,” he replied, “and off the interstate.”
He turned his eyes from the road to look at her, and she saw that he was angry and wounded all at once. Alarm flooded her, but she said nothing.
They drove in silence. No radio. No conversation. At San Marcos, Mitch exited and followed a small winding road toward Wimberley. Almost an hour had passed before he drove down a dirt path to a rustic cottage beside a little pond.
“My family’s cabin,” he stated.
“Why are we here?” she asked. At this point she was gripping the side of the door, determined not to exit the car.
“I want to show it to you.”
“Is anybody here?”
“Nobody’s here. And nobody cares if I use it.”
Mitch grimaced. He pushed open his door, stormed out, and stomped toward the cabin. She didn’t move.
She’d known Mitch exactly as long as she’d known Bill. He ran the house efficiently, just as he ran his life. Not enigmatically, but economically, and he’d kissed her harshly, roughly that one time. But it had just been a kiss.
So why was she experiencing such fear now? He wanted to show her a place he loved, right? A place where he’d probably come as a kid, with his parents, right?
At the door to the cabin, he turned around. “Come on!” he ordered.
She stayed put. They stared at each other. She rolled up the window on the passenger side and looked straight ahead, away from him.
She heard him coming—a dry march through the grass, back onto the dirt drive, and she felt his presence on the other side of the passenger door. She thought she could have locked herself in, but of course she’d be stuck there, sweltering, suffocating eventually, and oh yeah, he had the keys to the car.
She noticed he hesitated before he opened the door. He grabbed her right wrist and dragged her from the car. He didn’t have to pull hard. She didn’t resist his pull. She thought he would force her to the door of the cottage, but instead he stood, holding her wrists together with one hand, cupping her chin with the other and turning her face to his own.
“Lorrie Blue,” he whispered.
His eyes were dark, almost black, and beneath them were charcoal-colored indentations. His eyebrows, also dark, curved down around his eyes. So close, he seemed not much more than a boy. She felt his breath on her face, and something rose up within her, a sadness replacing the fear, and a longing, not for Mitch, but for Bill.
Now, here in Austin, Lorrie Blue remembers that late summer afternoon with Mitch, and how that encounter made clear to her how she felt about Bill. But now, Bill is gone, and she wonders about Mitch. She wonders if he inherited that cabin she never entered because she told him softly but emphatically, “Take me home now.” He obeyed her and drove her back to Austin and back to the corner near her apartment complex. She never went to the house again because when Bill returned a week later, he brought his family with him and lived with them in a townhouse not too far from her.
She never saw Mitch again either. But years after she and Bill graduated, married, attended graduate school and had two children—a boy and a girl—and moved away to Ohio, where they both taught English at a university, Bill told her he’d run across an article in The New York Times about a hotshot Texas lawyer who’d won a major case against a corrupt oil man wannabe Texas politician. That lawyer was Mitch.
Lorrie Blue and Bill were married for nineteen years when he died, age forty-five, of a sudden heart attack, jogging to the track near the football field at the university where they both taught. Early in their life together, he’d forsaken beer, cigarettes, and red meat for red wine, daily runs, and vegetarianism.
None of it did any good. He died anyway, just as his father had done before him, at almost exactly the same age.
Now Lorrie Blue is forty-five years old herself, still teaching in Ohio—a long way from Texas— raising her children, both adolescents, alone.
She finds herself on the internet, looking up Mitch: Mitchell Boyer, Austin, Texas Attorney. She pulls up a line of entries. “Attorney Extraordinaire.” “Nails Slimey Oil Barren.” “Scary SOB.”
She reads a few of the articles and wonders if he’s married, and if so, if he and his wife have children. But she knows he’s not married, just as she knows that he was once, and that now he’s not, and that no, there are no children in his life.
The day before the conference ends, Lorrie Blue stands before the guys’ house on East Live Oak in Travis Heights in Austin, Texas. She presented her paper earlier in the day and so she now feels free to do as she pleases. She’s staying at a downtown hotel, the Driskill. She’s always wanted to stay at the Driskill. She and Bill used to laugh and assure each other they would return to Austin often in their later years and always, only stay at the Driskill.
Now she’s doing it, all on her own. She’s hardly slept since she’s been here. In fact, she’s hardly slept in five years.
She has rented a car, even though it is a luxury for her, and she’s made the rounds—the apartment complex where she and Rita lived, the townhouse where Bill lived with his family, the UT married student housing where she and Bill first lived together after they married, and the old house on Avenue F in Hyde Park where they lived in a one bedroom apartment and had their first child, both of them in graduate school at the time and dirt-poor.
She’s saved the guys’ house for last.
South Congress, just around the corner from the house, has changed. When Lorrie lived here, it was a long gray strip of liquor stores and pawn shops, not a place you’d want to be after dark.
But now it’s trendy. Interesting restaurants and specialty shops, as well as multiple musical venues, abound. The street is broad and filled, at any time of day, with people.
And the house has changed. It’s been nipped and tucked, tidied, painted, and the grounds landscaped. It now lodges an architectural firm. No one actually lives there. Lorrie opens the gate and almost tiptoes up the sidewalk, onto the front porch, and peers through the glass door. The hardwood floors gleam and she notes the wide front room has been divided into two rooms, a small alcove serving as a receptionist’s area, and a larger room to the side, through a door that’s closed. The receptionist sits at her desk, oblivious to her. Lorrie edges to the first of the front windows, peers in. The room has been transformed into a conference room, a large shiny table in the center and built-in bookshelves lining the far walls. In place of the old couch, a huge fern sprouts and billows up and over the door handle of the French doors opening to the side porch. She walks around to the side porch and stares at the place where Mitch pinned her to the wall and kissed her so severely.
She turns and hurries, almost running, off the porch, down the walk and around the corner back to South Congress where her rental car is parked by that cute little Italian restaurant.
Lorrie knows Mitch works downtown, partner of a huge law firm in one of those towering buildings that did not exist when she lived here twenty-five years ago.
She has his work number in her address book, and she’s looked him up, but his private number is not listed, and neither is his address.
She thinks briefly of heading out on I-35 toward Wimberley, but she knows she’d never be able to find the cabin she never entered.
And yet, she doesn’t know what to do in this city where she lived for so many years, but where she knows no one now.
The conference resumes after lunch, but she hasn’t had lunch and she doesn’t want to eat in one of these precious little South Congress restaurants alone.
She considers walking in on Mitch in his office, he and his surroundings full of such importance. And she thinks of Bill and what their life had been together and that he’s not here, that he’s gone.
She gets in the car, backs out onto Congress and begins to drive north, toward the Capital, up Congress Avenue. The lunch hour traffic is heavy, creeping, but it gives her opportunity to contemplate which, which tall building is the one that houses Mitch’s office, which holds Mitch, now fifty years old, so successful and so alive.
It is the last day of the conference. Her flight leaves at seven p.m. She’ll be in Cincinnati by ten, home by eleven. She contemplates changing her flight, just to have one more day and night here. But she has saturated herself in memories and she’s weary. It will be a relief to see the children, even though she’s certain they’ll be sleeping by the time she pulls into the drive. The graduate student who is staying with them will no doubt be sleeping as well and will probably stay the night anyway, so perhaps she should change her flight…
But no, she’s already checked out of the Driskill. She should just go.
Besides, why should she even want to stay?
She’s had her lunch, a quick bite at a coffee shop on the Drag. The Night Hawk is no longer there, torn down long ago, before she and Bill moved away, in fact. There’s a few panels she should attend this afternoon, but instead she climbs up the stairs of the Dobie Parking Garage, finds her car, gets in it, and drives downtown.
She parks in yet another parking garage and walks into the building connected to it—the building where Mitch has his offices. She rides the elevator to the tenth floor and in the open foyer takes a seat on one of the marble benches there, in full view of the elevators. It’s now one p.m. and she calculates Mitch will possibly soon return from a luncheon with a client, or an associate, or someone.
She doesn’t know what she’ll do if she sees him. She doesn’t know what he’ll do if he sees her, if he will recognize her. She opens The Austin American Statesman, which she has brought explicitly for this purpose, and loses herself behind the front page, peering over the top of it to evaluate who is exiting from the elevators.
The first time the elevator dings, she spies a man among a group of three or four other men who she thinks might be Mitch. His hair, salt and pepper, is slightly wavy, not curly as Mitch’s had been, but then that had been a long time ago. But this fellow is loquacious, gesturing and laughing, and she knows no number of years and accomplishment could affect this sort of transformation in Mitch.
The next man she notices is bald, his shiny pate sparkling as he reads through a file he holds in one hand, hobbling from the elevator toward his office, near where Lorrie is sitting. As he passes her, he glances at her and she’s certain. “Well, that’s not Mitch.”
She thinks she will sit there one hour, no more, but as the minutes creep past, her interest wanes. Each time the elevator dings arrival, she no longer looks up expectantly from the newspaper, which now actually does interest her. She ceases to consider every man leaving the elevator as Mitch, twenty-five years after she’d last seen him.
At ten minutes of two, she folds the paper and rises. She’s decided she can’t bear ten more minutes of this, and she feels extremely foolish, plus she’s suddenly missing her kids terribly. She’s even thinking that if she goes to the airport now, she can possibly catch an earlier flight home.
As she points her finger to press the down button, the elevator door opens, and a man steps off. His hair is dark, although not a curly mop. Still, it’s curly. His walk is a purposeful gait that calls up in her a rush of memory. She freezes as he turns, not noticing her, and heads down the corridor, not to Mitch’s suite of offices, but to another.
At the door, he slowly turns his face toward hers, over his shoulder, and looks at her. It is Mitch. No mistake. She tries to decide what to do next. Her finger is still on the elevator button, but the elevator from which Mitch exited has gone on to the next floor. She draws her hand down to her side, but he doesn’t fully turn around. He just gazes at her. Despite the years, she is certain he has recognized her as clearly as she has recognized him.
He swivels back to the door, pushes it open and walks away, the moment of knowing between them just that—a moment held still, then shattered and dispersed. Lost.
Lorrie raises one hand to the marble wall between the elevators and steadies herself. She thinks of Bill and wonders what pity he would have for her if he knew where she was, what she was doing right now. But of course, if he were on this earth and could know, she wouldn’t be here, stalking Mitch. She is embarrassed, feeling like a silly schoolgirl as she punches the down button.
It’s a long wait, too long. Before the elevator arrives, Mitch hastily exits the office he walked into and crosses diagonally across the foyer to his own.
Lorrie, half-turned to the elevator, watches him sideways. She senses him stop and turn partly toward her, hesitate, then turn back and pass through the door to his office, the door gently clicking behind him.
The elevator arrives, Lorrie Blue steps on and rides to ground level, where she enters the adjoining parking garage in which she finds her rental car, drives to the airport and catches an earlier flight, arriving in time to hug her children, eat a late-night snack with them, and send the graduate student home. The sadness still lolls within her, the vacuum still present, but somehow, she doesn’t care so much. She locks the doors of her house and opens the window in the bedroom, the soft breeze from the midnight, mid-western autumn evening drifting in, wrapping her up as she turns, sighs and sleeps the night through without once awakening until morning.