[img_assist|nid=670|title=Balloon by Sarah Barr © 2006|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=166]When my husband called the other day, I thought there was an emergency. We’d only talked once in the five months since we’d been separated.
“It’s about our son, David,” Frank said, as if I might not recall the name of our only child.
“Wait,” I said. “Have you been drinking?” It was one in the afternoon, a Saturday.
“I got a post card from him today,” Frank said. “He’s not in college any more.”
“What?” I said. “Where is he?”
“What are you talking about?” I said. David was supposed to be in Santa Cruz. He’d picked that school to be near good surfing—and to be far from us. I didn’t think he knew anyone in the Midwest.
“You won’t believe it,” Frank said, “unless you see the card yourself.” Then he asked if we could meet.
First, I thought it was a trick, to see me again, but I realized Frank was speaking in his monotone voice—and he’d never lied to me in that voice.
I said I couldn’t meet until Monday, and only during my lunch hour. Frank said he’d pick me up and we could go to that diner off route 7, not far from the bank where I’d been working since I left him.
Monday was a very hot day, and I was sweating as I waited for him. When I opened the passenger door, Frank’s truck smelled of cigarettes, burned oil, and sweat—his sweat, which isn’t an altogether bad smell. He leaned over to hug me, but I clasped his hand instead. “Thanks for picking me up,” I said, and closed the door.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
I wanted to see the postcard right away, but I didn’t ask. I figured if we talked about it now, in the truck, what would we have to talk about at the diner? So I sat there, taking in Frank’s scent—the good, bad, and indifference of it—and when we came to a red light, I reapplied some lipstick using the visor mirror.
At the diner, we sat across from each other, in a booth covered with worn orange vinyl. Before he took the menu from the waitress’ thin white hand, Frank asked her for a Pabst on tap. Then he glanced at me with an expression that held a hundred messages, as clear as if they were telegrams pasted to the skin of his face: It’s just one beer. It goes well with lunch. It’s my first drink of the day. It’s in my nature. It’s nice to see you. I know you don’t like this. What are you going to say? You’ve never stopped judging me.
It was as if our whole twenty years together flickered in that single glance. I stared at him hard, waiting for him to look back up at me, but he squinted out the diner window at his truck.
“You left your lipstick on the dashboard,” he said. “It’s getting hot.”
“It’ll be okay,” I said.
“I suppose it’s designed not to melt,” he said. “I mean, it holds up to the heat of your lips.” He reached out his hand.
I smiled a little, to let him know I wasn’t upset by his gesture, but I wasn’t going to fall for it either. Then I opened the menu and flipped past the breakfast section to the sandwiches and light fare.
Frank seemed to understand and grinned.
[img_assist|nid=669|title=Creation by Hal Robinson © 2007|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=151|height=104]The waitress returned. She was young, barely old enough to be carrying the beer in her hand. She held the mug with nervous attention, as though it had a physics all its own, and when she set it down, it rocked a little. A splash of foamy liquid tipped over the lip of the mug.
“Sorry about that,” she said.
I could see Frank’s eyes taking in the loss, then I watched as he bent his head down and licked the side.
The waitress turned to me. “I’m sorry ma’am, did you want something to drink?”
I could have gotten upset, having been over-shadowed by my husband like that, but I knew she’d simply been taken in by the force of Frank’s will. I had to forgive her: I had let it happen to me for years.
“I’ll have iced tea,” I said.
“Iced tea?” The waitress looked as though I had spoken a foreign word.
“Yes,” I said. “Unless you only serve alcoholic drinks.” I looked at Frank.
“No, ma’am,” she said. “But our ice machine is frozen. I mean broken. We’re having some ice delivered but…” She paused. “I can get you tea, it just won’t have much ice.”
“The beer’s nice and cold,” Frank said, grinning.
He knows I never drink; a half of glass of wine at Christmas does me in.
“The keg’s in the cooler,” the waitress said to my husband. “So is the tea, now,” she said turning to me. “But the ice is something separate.”
Frank nodded at her in sympathy. I remembered then how kind he could be, and suddenly felt pleased to see him again.
“Just give me whatever ice you can,” I said.
She nodded, relieved. “And you, sir? Another beer?”
I glanced down at Frank’s mug. It was empty, except for the film that clung to the glass, marking the last circle of liquid. In less than two minutes he had drunk the whole thing. I looked at Frank, who seemed now as distant from me as the North Pole.
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll have another one.”
As the waitress left, I reminded her, “And the tea.”
After we got our drinks and ordered food, Frank and I were suddenly alone, like so many nights we’d spent at our dining room table, with Frank on his way to being drunk.
“So, what’s this postcard all about?” I said, trying to sound cheery. “Where’d you say David was? Iowa?”
“Well,” he said, “I’ll tell you.” He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a wrinkled card. “I thought we could, you know, experience this together.” He handed it to me.
On the picture side was a drawing of a huge white tent with dozens of brightly dressed people and animals peeping out from the center flap. “Arco’s Circus of Wonders?” I said, reading the banner over the tent. “What in the world is this?”
“ Read the back,” Frank said, taking another swallow of beer.
I flipped the card over and read David’s jagged scrawl. It said he had dropped out of UCSC last semester, learned how to swallow fire, and had joined an experimental circus. “Is this real?” I asked Frank.
“ Seems to be,” he said. “Dave was never one to play practical jokes.”
Yes, I thought. I had noticed this, too, though Frank and I had never talked about it. I wondered what else we had each come to understand on our own.
“Okay,” I said slowly, “so our son’s dropped out of school and joined a circus.” I couldn’t help but laugh. It seemed too preposterous to be true.
Frank also laughed. “You have to admit,” he said. “It’s not every day that real life things happen to us.”
Soon, we were both laughing hard. It felt like when we’d first met—but I wasn’t sure I wanted that now. I raised my glass to my face and took a sip of tea. The three pieces of ice that had been in it had already melted away.
“ Do you see why I wanted to show it to you?” Frank said. “You probably thought I was up to something.”
“ No,” I lied. “I just wasn’t sure why we would have to meet.”
“ Oh, I see,” he said and raised his mug, though it was empty.
I twirled the postcard slowly in my hands, as if it might reveal something more. Was this the last I would hear of my son? Or would there be another card a year from now, telling us he was on a fishing boat in Alaska or had married a woman in Baja? In a way, nothing would surprise me. David had been away for three years and had rarely come home. Really, he had left us long ago. He hadn’t even called after I’d left the message at his dorm about the separation.
Though I had worked on it for over twenty years, I suddenly had no family. Or if I did, it was right here in front of me—this man and his beer.
Working at the bank had taught me one thing: most people—nearly all—do not drink throughout the day. They come in and do their business sober. I’d gotten saddled with an exception—and though I’d found the strength to finally leave Frank, I knew he would never leave me—not my body, or my memory. And what else of me was there?
After five months apart, here he was, across an empty Formica table from me. And wasn’t the present the most weighty evidence the world ever offered?
The waitress came with our food. It was a relief to concentrate on something besides this man who was still my husband and this post card which was my son.
She paused before Frank and after a quick glance at me, asked, “Another beer?”
“ Why not?” he said. “Our son has joined a circus. We need to celebrate.”
She smiled politely and left.
“This is your last one,” I said to Frank, “or I’m not getting in the truck.”
He smiled. “I knew you’d eventually make some comment.”
“ It’s not about you,” I said. “It’s about my limits.”
“ Okay,” he said. “Whatever. But I know my limits, too. I’m not going to do anything foolish.” Then he looked down and concentrated on his food.
Frank was nearly done with his burger by the time the waitress came back with his third beer. He took a sip and said, “Ah.”
I’d hardly touched my BLT. I kept thinking about David. “He’s gone,” I finally said. Frank kept eating. “And it’s because of you,” I added.
Frank looked up at me then.
“It’s not my fault,” he said, without taking his eyes off me. He spoke in that familiar monotone voice.
“You believe that,” I said, “but you’re wrong.”
Frank shook his head and said, “Let’s not talk about this. I want to have a nice lunch.” Then he got up. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
I was suddenly alone at the table. I looked over at Frank’s empty, ketchup-smeared plate. He always ate so fast. I stared then at the tiny bubbles forming inside his mug. I drew it over to my side of the table, feeling the coldness of the glass handle—far colder than my plastic tea tumbler.
Then I lifted the mug to my lips—and because I needed to take something from him, I tilted it up high. The liquid at first tasted sweet and salty. Then it felt like a trip to some place unbelievably cold—the Arctic, perhaps. It burned with cold and carbon dioxide, and quenched the burning at the same time, like a river wrapped in fire. I gulped it down until there was nothing left. Then I set the mug on the table and leaned back.
As the rush of alcohol washed up over my brain, I sat there, looking around the diner, as though I had entered a new world. My body began to tingle. The waitress, far off, seemed like a figurine. And David, it seemed then, was no more than a small bundle of memories I’d been clutching on to for far too long.
I leaned back further against the booth, and let my shoulders drop. Everything felt both exciting and calm. My iced tea, which I’d barely touched, looked now surprisingly like beer. And as I poured it into Frank’s empty mug and scooted it over to his side, I began to understand how he could feel such love for this liquid, for what it could do. Nathan Long has worked in Story Quarterly, Glimmer Train, Indiana Review, and other journals. He teaches creative writing at Richard Stockton College in NJ and lives in Germantown.