City Paper is not for tourists
On Saturday Hal found himself in the Fort Valley cemetery, seated high on the slope in front of the stone double-heart that marked the Richters’ grave. Below him, the plain white steeple punched a hole in the clouds. Hal remembered Martha Richter sitting in the church pew near the front when he was a boy—it didn’t seem possible that she’d been dead 10 years. She and Mr. Richter had legendary screaming sessions near the end, which passed like thunderstorms.
Hal still wasn’t sure where Beth had gone. His best bets were her sister’s place in Mechanicsburg (Richmond was nearby) or with her friend Sylvia, who had always prodded Beth against Hal and his lifestyle. Sylvia had left Furnace and landed in Vienna because of her husband—they met on a bender in Atlantic City. Hal imagined Beth arriving at Sylvia’s split-level, looking down the suburban block and up at the willow oak branches as she got out of the car.
“It doesn’t matter where I am,” Beth said when she called. “I have a lot of thinking to go through. You’ve avoided talking about these things. Every time, you say I’m just complaining. So I’m thinking them through for myself.”
“What kind of things?” Hal said.
“Like, what we do every night. What we do every day. How long I’m going to put up with an ugly satellite dish and a hot drive to work every summer because we can’t afford to get the A/C fixed. Where we’re gonna live the rest of our lives—”
“These are things people talk about, Hal.”
“Not all at once.”
He’d been clutching the phone, staring at the veins in the kitchen countertop, stumped. He bit his lip and said, “So you want to come home and figure things out?”
Silence. Then: “Not yet.”
“Who are you talking to, young Hal?” Martha Richter asked with a laugh. He could hear her, clear as day.
The red and purple plastic flowers popped extra bright against the polished gray stone valentine of the Richters’ headstone. Hal’s parents were over in the corner, two small white bits of marble. It used to be that he pictured him and Beth ending up here. Not a long morbid thought, just for a brief, sweet second.
Beth was right, but she was also wrong, and both parts ate at him. An old pop song stuck in his head, a woman’s voice lilting, “Life is demanding, without understanding.”
He stood up and felt light-headed. For a moment he regretted coming, was sorry he hadn’t sold the Colt. Then he told himself it was a good sign, a lucky sign.
The rolling yellow arrow out front of the bingo hall, with lights around its edges, pointed gamely toward the building. Its lettering stayed constant, week to week: Bingo Saturdays. Early bird round starts at 3:45. He and Beth had come here probably 20 or 30 times over five years, always for the later rounds. For them it was a lark. Early birds didn’t have a life.
He pulled the car around back with a crunch of gravel, past the rows of tall Dodges and Fords crusted with bumper stickers, racks, and spotlights. These cars no longer felt friendly. Jerry Hoskins’ 4×4 was parked ass-out in the corner, where the gravel dissolved into weedy locust trees. Hal parked two spaces down. After 10 years in Furnace, his orange Colt was a joke.
With the sound of his own gravel footsteps crunching in his ears, he braced himself. Someone would ask about Beth.
Suddenly he was seized by the conviction that Beth was inside. This was where she could humiliate him without saying a word, just by appearing. Crazy, he thought. He looked around the lot again—her turtle (their tired joke about her Tercel) was nowhere in sight.
His hands and arms were starting to feel jittery, and a tightness moved into his chest. He told himself again that he had nothing to defend, even if she was there. She was the one who had left him. So why should he feel ashamed?
Just straighten up and breathe.
He walked around front and heard Frank’s voice calling “O-13” over the PA. Hal reached into his windbreaker and fished out the thick shaft of the marker. His lucky marker, he had joked with Beth. It had won him four specials that year.
His feet didn’t want to walk inside, but he pulled open the door. Frank’s voice blared out, “B-322. B-322.”
Hal scanned the crowd as he made his way past the concession counter to where Sandy sat at the page table. “We’re in the second game,” she told Hal with a worried look.
“So?” Hal said. He put down 15 dollars and grabbed his sheaf of pages, barely turning his head as he walked to the end of the one table where a handwritten No Smoking sign was taped.
In the corner of his eye he saw her at the third table, looking hard-bitten, her dark hair straight and harsh. (He once said she was a “country Patti Smith.”) She jabbed a cigarette at the edge of the plastic ashtray.
“Hey Hal.” Jerry sat across the table facing him, wearing the same ‘Old Glory’ cap he always did. As if. Hal lifted his fingers vaguely in greeting.
A rail-thin teenager in a navy VOLUNTEER FIREMAN shirt was roaming the tables, looking over shoulders.
Hal kept his eyes trained on his big page of bingo matrices. He peeled off the first one and crumpled it into the plastic bag taped to the table.
A white-haired woman at the next table leveled him with a look over her glasses.
Hal shifted in the folding chair, took a breath. Against the humiliation forcing his eyes down, he wanted to see who was there, who would be witnesses.
Pinky Thurman yelled “Bingo!” and the skinny kid fireman walked over to call back the numbers. Frank confirmed, “That’s a good bingo.” Hal looked up to see who Beth was with.
It took a minute for his eyes to adjust. The overhead lights made features fade and disappear, especially under baseball caps. Pinky was slapping his hands together. At first all Hal could tell was that the guy beside Beth was wearing a pea-green jacket and had a moustache.
Frank started calling the next game.
“Just call the numbers,” Jerry muttered, stretching his left leg stiffly, “not the letters.”
“Sssh!” hissed the woman behind Hal.
It irked him. “Can you believe who she come with?” he whispered. Maybe Jerry or the old woman would hear and look over at Beth, stare her down with disbelief.
The thing was, nobody seemed to have noticed. If they had, they’d decided to hang fire until the new guy showed himself one way or the other. Hal couldn’t see what the guy’s cap said, the lettering was a vibrating purple-green combo in the light from overhead. The guy was poring over his card like his pension rode on it.
“Just the goddamn numbers,” Jerry groaned, too self-absorbed to appreciate the drama happening around him. Here was a woman who’s come here with another man, Hal thought, after being away for two weeks. Then the husband walks in, eyes blazing, ready to burn the two of them, and all Jerry can take in is his Game 3 sheet.
When Hal first came back to Furnace, flush from construction jobs in D.C. and nights at clubs there, he brought Beth to the bingo games for an evening’s campy entertainment. He couldn’t remember how it felt anymore. He’d lost perspective on these people. And vice versa; they saw him as a regular, like themselves.
He looked up from his Game Three sheet, took another furtive glance around the hall. The board on the far wall was lit with the triple specials. The lanky fireman was sidling over to where a woman Hal didn’t recognize had yelled another bingo. Christ, everyone was lucky tonight.
Hard to believe that that kid was a fireman, plowing into burning houses to save children and pets. When he himself was 20, Hal had witnessed a house burning in Winchester. It was like a nuclear accident, so hot you stand in the street and feel like a kebab, and then a mother comes running up yelling, “My babies! My babies!” A heavyset guy in a bulky slicker bolts across the lawn without a thought, smashes in a window on the ground floor, and climbs in. Without thinking.
Hal couldn’t see this Halverston kid doing that.
“Hal, what’s up with you and Beth?” Jerry was blinking, rubbing his leg. It was the Game 3 stretch.
“Nothing,” Hal said.
Jerry read the body language, yawned and said, “Think I’ll get me a coke.” He walked over to the concession counter where the line was three deep. Hal still hadn’t seen her face, but Beth was still sitting in her place, and the guy in the cap hadn’t moved either.
Carol Rawlings, who sat behind Hal, stood up too. Without a word she patted his shoulder twice, and followed Jerry to the counter. This irritated Hal so much that he stood up.
Then he started over toward Beth, then slowed. He had no idea what he was going to say. This was a mistake. She was faster on her feet—going in unprepared was a bad idea.
He swung right and when he reached the wall, made for the men’s room.
He was an idiot, he said to the mirror over the sink, hands gripping the sides of the porcelain. He washed his hands. Grimaced again. Heard the next game starting. Crumpled the brown paper into the trash can.
He didn’t want to leave the men’s room. He wanted to be on the hill in the cemetery. Why did he ever come back to Furnace?
For her, he thought.
And what did she want now?
What stopped him? He couldn’t say. Why did anyone ever do anything? He pulled open the door and walked out. Saw tables full of people waiting to hear the numbers.
Hal walked to the table where Beth was sitting.
“Can we talk?” he said.
The guy in the baseball cap looked up.
The woman who was Beth snorted. “Hal, you’re something.” Then she wasn’t Beth—her voice was too hard, and he saw that she was a woman he had dated years ago, probably because she resembled Beth but she was a restaurant hostess in Fairfax, Kate Something. He didn’t say anything. The other guy’s dumb gaze infuriated him.
“Quiet please,” Mrs. Rogers said blandly. She was looking at Hal.
“Come outside,” Hal said.
“OK then,” not-Beth said grimly, rising.
The guy with her started to get up too. “It’s OK,” she said to him, flicking a cigarette against an ashtray. “He’s harmless.”
On the walk outside, the stupid Ace of Base song kept spiraling in Hal’s head: I saw the sign, and it opened up my mind! I saw the sign!
A pair of chimney swifts dipped across the gravel lot, pulled up, skittered up above the building.
His anger crested as they stopped. “How is it you just show up here?” he said. “How come you don’t call? Not even to tell me you’re back, for Christ’s sake!”
She shrugged. “Sorry, Hal. Here we are. What did you want to say?” Her chin jerked up and her cool brown eyes made like strangers to him. He had to look away at the chokeweed and locusts. Try to collect himself.
“I got a job in Front Royal,” he said. “Sales desk.” He shook his head and laughed. “That make you happy?”
She said nothing. He was afraid to look back at her face.
“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it? That I show initiative?” He kicked a pale rock toward the chokeweed. “Who’s the guy?”
“Just a friend. A friend of Sylvia’s. Hal, I’m moving to Vienna.”
“What? Wait.” He jammed his fists into his pockets, shifted to his right leg. The arrow sign in front of the hall pointed to where people were talking about them right now. “Did I tell you about my cooking? I got two new recipes,” he said. I’m doing as good as anyone could expect. It was hard to make himself say that, it was so obvious.
“Glad to hear it. I think it may be too late though,” she said.
“Horseshit.” It didn’t lead well to what he needed to say, but he went on: “I love you, you know.”
It sounded pleading. Shit!
Nothing. She was humming a low tune.
“Where does big boy live, anyway?” Hal asked.
“I told you. Vienna. You still don’t listen, do you?”
“You said he was a friend.”
With his back still to her, she started back toward the door. He wanted to leave space so it wouldn’t look like he was trailing her when he went back in. When he heard the door fall shut he counted to ten.
A few years ago when he was working construction sites in the city near Howard University—a string of cheap, low-lying public housing units they hollowed out and turned around fast—Hal had been hauling down 13th Street, late to get on site so he was taking a new way around a snarl of traffic, when suddenly he found himself in a vista at the top of a hill. He could see the spire and Capitol dome ahead, and off to the left, a ridge of Anacostia, and beyond, the flat Potomac running away south. It took his breath. In that moment the whole cityscape, it felt kin to the landscape in Furnace, looking across the valley. There was slope, and God’s hand.
He had taken Beth to that very street once, later. Didn’t say anything—he wanted it to take her by surprise the way it had done to him. It was a rare day for them to be in the city, and she was not entirely receptive. She was cranky. As they crested the hill and the view rose up, he saw in the corner of his eye that her face had opened, she looked around. But she said nothing.
When he walked inside, Frank’s voice was ringing: “G-8. G-8.”
Nobody looked up as Hal walked past their chairs until Bill Carpenter, who poked his nose up like a gopher, scanned left as if he was looking not at Hal but at something far away.
All this time, these people gave Hal no solace. Which was outrageous—he was the injured party. They were sheep, all of them.
He sat down and tore the Game 4 sheet into shreds.
“What’d you do that for?” said Jerry.
“Because I felt like it.”
“You made me miss hearing the numbers, Hal.”
“Well that’s too damn bad. My wife’s over there with someone else, Jerry. She’s moving away. My luck is shit. So what the fuck do I care about your numbers?”
Jerry swung around and looked over his shoulder at Beth and the guy with her. “You kidding me?” He squinted like he was reading the guy’s cap. “She’s here?”
“Bingo!” Carol Rogers cried.
As Kid Fireman slouched toward her to double-check her number sheet, Jerry Hoskins pushed his bulk out of his chair and headed toward not-Beth’s table.
“Jerry, sit down!” Hal croaked. He couldn’t look up. Instead, he dropped his lucky marker and crawled under the table to get it. He stayed crouched there, the table protectively over his head. He heard what sounded like two shouts, then Frank’s voice over the PA: “I’d like to remind everybody to please stay in your seats until the break. Jerry Hoskins, this means you. Jerry?”
Hal was under the table, surveying the low forest of shoes and chair legs, clutching the thick neon-green marker, admiring its design. It was like gripping hope and terror in his hand.
“That’s a good bingo,” Frank reported.
Jerry’s chair squealed against the floor and there came the thud of his body hitting it. “Jerry,” Hal whispered.
“You fool, Hal. That’s not her.”
Under the table, Hal bit his lip. He felt like he was coming undone.
“Let’s get you outta here, man,” Jerry said. “Come on.”
Hal shook his head, took the marker’s cap off, and replaced it twice more.
David Taylor is the author of Success: Stories (Washington Writers Publishing House), an award-winning fiction collection, and nonfiction books including Soul of a People (Wiley). He lives in D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @dataylor1.