This is my life now, he thinks as he peers across the playground to his family, his wife laughing as she pushes their son in a swing. The day is tepid, the sky the color of a once white jersey now grizzled from over-wear. Weather like this reminds him of childhood summers vacationing in the countryside, but also of the day she left, so he thought at the time, for good. Back to California, to her music, to her favorite coffee house that served Thai iced tea, to her life Before Him.
Several months after she left, after wearing grooves into his copies of Blood on the Tracks and In the Wee Small Hours, he had finally picked up the guitar he’d been ignoring. He’d tuned up that old Martin and strummed three plaintive chords when he heard the knocking. No one ever visited. No one even called, except for his parents on his birthday and that was still half a year away. He opened the door and there she stood. With her ashy hair shorn short, she looked so much younger, like the girl in Paper Moon, a movie she had made him watch long ago. It was one of her favorites and he wondered if this had been her desired effect.
He can’t remember if she was crying or if she had said anything, just that he stood aside, let her come in. As he shut the door, he noticed there was no vehicle parked in the driveway. In the kitchen she made tea as though she had returned from a quick trip to the grocery store or the library. Something quotidian. Something they didn’t need to mention. That night he held her close, her body still familiar, but refused to sleep, fearing that upon waking he’d find her gone again. Gone as easily as she had arrived. But in the morning, she showered, dressed in one of his old work shirts, made breakfast and sat at the table with him.
When she spoke, she asked what he’d been working on. Musically, she meant. Could she hear? He sat with his guitar in his lap and strummed the same three chords as the day before.
After a few heady moments of silence, she said, “It’ll come back.”
He thought to ask about her music, was she working on anything new, but the thought of her being unaffected, able to go on, crushed him; he’d rather not know.
There were other things he wanted to ask her as well, but couldn’t. Wasn’t that part of the reason she had left in the first place? Or was it? He never knew. That was one of those questions he couldn’t ask. They surged through his mind, a flooding river of inquiries—Why did she return? Did she realize how much he had missed her? What was going to happen? Why did she cut her long, beautiful hair?—but being a dam, he held them back, caught them in his throat.
At night, still afraid to sleep, he watched the moon turn from new to full and back again. Fuzzy but otherwise easy days passed. Things remained uncontested, a soft speechlessness between them. The relief he felt at this, how grateful to her he was.
She had her cello shipped along with a few boxes of clothes, her journals, some books, her first editions, the ones she couldn’t live without. From California to Virginia, 2700 miles. A maddening trip when not broken down by stops along the way to play shows. He knew the route well: Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Louisville. The miles he put on rented vans following that line back and forth, touring. The last time was with her. They played in churches, art spaces, dive bars and feminist book shops, slept in the van at rest stops, the windows cracked to let in the different stately scents, bathed in gas station bathrooms, ate peanut butter and jelly. They were some of the best days of his life.
He could make a few phone calls, send a few emails. They could hit the road in a couple of months. After Sacramento, they could go up the coast. They could drive all the way to Alaska. He’d never seen the Northern Lights, but wanted to. What was to stop them? He would play the old songs. So what if the new ones weren’t coming? He had written enough in the past to survive on for a while. Besides, action begets motivation. It was time to stop sitting around drinking cups of her tea. Time to get out of the house. Time to go.
As he scoured his contact list, the computer glowing blue before him, a rough itinerary scrawled on a napkin next to him, she came out of the bathroom with a halo of emotion around her face. When she whispered that she was pregnant, he held her and asked, his breath in her hair, “What do you want to do?” To let her know she had options.
Pulling away, she looked up at him. “What do you mean?” she asked back. To let him know she didn’t. They didn’t. There were no options.
They both cried but he knew it was for very different reasons.
Fathering—a concept so foreign he couldn’t even mouth the word. What did he know about it? Hell, what did he know about being human? Most of life left him roiling and confused. The only thing he knew, the only thing he deeply and truly understood was music, pure sound. It was something he didn’t have to feed; it fed him. Not the playing—that he could, conceivably, take or leave—but his records, the songs, the vibrations. Even the static that filled the air when the country music station cut out during drives through the mountains soothed him.
The shock twisted into anger. Soon resentment enshrouded him. She didn’t expect to discuss this?
When she came to him, she offered only plans for the nursery, joy radiating from each word. “Pale yellow and turquoise are always nice together,” she said. “Oh, and we can paint the crib a glossy red for a pop of color. That’s gender neutral, right? And unexpected.”
He decided to send out his emails, make his phone calls anyway. He could hit the road alone.
When he informed her of his plans, she frowned. “You may want to start thinking about getting a real job,” she said and gestured toward the spare bedroom. “And I’m going to need your help here. I can’t do everything myself. Nine months is going to fly by.”
“I have a real job,” he asserted.
“One without insurance. What kind of job is that, especially now? Hospitals are expensive. Children are expensive.”
They were indeed, he thought. And more than he was willing to pay.
His booking agent friend called him at the end of the week. “Everything’s in motion. It’s better to do it when you have a new album to push, but you know that. We’ll make it work. Luck’s always been on our side.”
“This isn’t about getting lucky,” he said. “It’s about getting out.”
The moral high-ground had never been his preferred place to stand. He helped with the nursery, built the crib, drove her to her appointments with the obstetrician, but when the time came, he packed a bag, grabbed his guitar and amp and left without a word.
The five-week tour turned to ten, fifteen, twenty grueling weeks with him calling his agent from the backs of bars, begging him to do what he could to get something for the next night. He crashed on couches in drafty warehouses rented by swarms of kids twenty years younger than him, traveled the highways, then cut back around on the state roads, watching the towns and crowds get smaller and smaller. He knew he was too old to be doing this, but he wasn’t old enough to give up on his life, and that’s what going home now meant. If he just kept going, maybe he could outrun this mess. He ignored her calls, dismissed the pictures she sent of her standing in profile, her hands on her stomach. This wasn’t a miracle or exciting. That umbilical cord was little more than a noose around his neck.
Somewhere outside of El Paso he received her text, Going to the hospital. Having pains. With those words, he drove himself to the airport and got a ticket for the next flight to Roanoke. He’d come back for the van later. Or never. To hell with the van.
Arriving at the hospital while she was already in labor, he could do nothing but pace around the waiting room, clutching but not trying to read the only book he had had in his bag. After several blanched hours, the doctor appeared and told him to come meet his son.
“You came back,” she said, looking up from the smeary little creature cradled in her arms. Sweat and strain stained her face. “I didn’t expect you to.”
“Neither did I,” he admitted. “What did you name him?”
“I haven’t. It’s the one thing I failed to plan. Any ideas?”
He looked down at the book still gripped tight in his hand. Burning the Days. It wasn’t even an author he knew all that well, just something he pulled from a free bin at a used bookstore in Tampa. The shattered looking cover had appealed to him.
“Salter,” he said.
“The writer’s writer in a houseful of musicians,” she murmured, leaning back on her pillow. “I hope it doesn’t give him a complex.”
“Ex-musicians,” he corrected. “Time to get a real job.” He didn’t know what else he could do, but he’d figure it out. Action may beget motivation, but he was looking at all the motivation he needed.
Yet he couldn’t stay away from the sounds; they still fed and fueled him. The first night they brought Salter home, he recorded his cries. In his computer, he stretched them, looped them, layered and reversed them. He recorded his breathing, his burps, his laughter, his first words. He could listen to that particular track for days. “Da. Da.”
And now here he stands, his recorder in hand. He crosses the playground, highstepping over the discarded, abandoned sandbox toys and around the bright yellow twisting slide.
“Time to go?” she asks, reaching to stop the swing.
Salter looks up with his fat hazel eyes. “No, Dada!”
“No, keep going,” he instructs and hits record. With the creaking swing, the rustling wind and the sound of their laughter, he captures his best song yet.
Shae Krispinsky lives in Tampa, FL, where she plays in her band, …y los dos pistoles, contributes to Creative Loafing Tampa, blogs for ARTiculate Suncoast and The Burger Online, creates zines and is an aspiring crazy cat lady. Her writing has appeared in Clamp Magazine, The Fiddleback, Connotation Press and more.
© 2014, Shae Krispinsky