“Nobody outside school would believe it,” Sarah said. She just finished telling me about the campus book burning. Outside her dorm window, two men in orange vests shoveled ash off the quad. I missed most of what happens after dark because I pour drinks at a repertory theater to cover tuition.
The night I met Sarah we made-out in the drama building bathroom. How she worked her hand inside my fly I’d never peg her for book-burner.
We were going to Maine for the weekend. But there was a test Monday, and she couldn’t find the book. There were clothes and notebooks, pens and underwear flying everywhere.
A mile outside Sarah’s hometown we pulled into a roadside diner for coffee. All the cigarettes burned a hole in my empty stomach. The booth in the back had a window looking onto the parking lot.
A waitress in a blue apron poured coffee. Sarah lit two cigarettes at once. The gesture was stolen from a Humphrey Bogart movie we liked. It had an efficiency in-keeping with our ambition.
A Harley-Davidson thundered into the lot. The man on the bike had gray, wind-swept hair and goggles.
“Don’t you ever wonder how long it takes getting all that leather laced and snapped? Exhausted thinking about it.” Sarah was in her sophomore slump—everything made her tired.
Bells rang above the man’s head coming in the door. He looked at the bells and shook his head.
Our waitress said, “Earl, that’s a pretty bike. But I’ve told you that before.” She stared out the window as she poured.
“I’m proud of it.”
Sarah leaned across the table. She said, “This is the spitting image of where I grew up. The exact picture.”
The man in the goggles asked the waitress about an after-church group she missed. She blamed the kids, the ex-husband. Of course, there was always work. “Food doesn't just grow on trees,” she said.
Sarah had both elbows on the table with her chin resting in the palms. She wanted me to know her father took care of her and her brother the years her mother took-off west, the desert. Her dad hammered into her head what a selfish bitch she was. How kids got in the way of all her dreams.
“What kind of things?” I said.
She shrugged. “They were high school sweethearts. When mom got knocked-up, they did the right thing. Skipped college.”
I heard all the words she said, but the conversation behind my head nagged for my attention. A man in Carhartts sidled into the booth with the biker. Earl and Carhartts talked about how good the waitress looked. Both men had dirt on the guy who divorced her.
It was tough keeping both conversations straight. When I picked up a couple lines from Sarah's story I missed a beat-change behind my head.
“Can you imagine half your life listening to your father tell you your mom had no interested in you?” Sarah scraped her fork across her plate fighting for an errant fleck of egg.
“You sure she won’t mind my being here?”
“Dad said all those years without kids kept her edges smooth.”
After burning half her books and C.D.s Sarah needed some non-judgmental space.
The big Colonial her mom owned had a bronze plaque hung by the door commemorating the first family who lived there.
Inside was the clean smell of emptiness and high ceilings. Dust mots twisted in the white, February light streamed through the large windows.
In the kitchen, she opened the refrigerator, which cast a different hue on the room. She drank orange juice from the box. She held it out if I wanted some.
Her room was decorated like a little girl’s room. The wallpaper had tiny, yellow flowers. The lampshade stenciled with bonneted girls blowing the seeds off dandelions.
She put her bag down beside the closet. She reached for mine and set it next to hers. My parents would never stand for an arrangement like this.
We stomped our feet on the porch. Tried to glean warmth from the glowing end of our cigarettes. Her kid brother clicked over the seams of the sidewalk on a skateboard. He was taller than I expected. Blond hair covered his eyes.
She dropped her cigarette standing, crushed it under her shoe.
“You drove up here today?” The kid said.
“Me and Bailey.”
“You Bailey?” The kid brother studied the smoke drifted off my cigarette.
“That’s me,” I said.
He didn’t seem to like the answer.
“You the one she told me about on the phone?”
“I have no idea.”
“Jimmy,” she said.
"Well, that’s nice.” The kid brother left.
With the kid gone, Sarah lit a fresh cigarette.
“Sorry about that.”
Every semester I became increasingly confused, uncertain. This was senior year.
In the evening, we watched a nature film about sharks. Sarah got off on predatory animals. The slaughter of so many seals intoxicated her.
The plan was dinner with her mom around six. The movie came on at seven-thirty. Her brother said, “She won’t show." He left to hang out with a girl.
Sarah stood at the bay window watching the street. The T.V. was off. The curtains clenched in her fist.
Every table in the restaurant had red and black checked tablecloths, candles burned. Her father took her when she was a girl.
Only two other couples dined, but the hostess sat us in the back. When the hostess noticed Sarah put cigarettes beside the polished silverware, she said, “You can’t smoke in here.”
“Yes.” The hostess emphasized her point by leaving the table.
“When I was a kid, nobody in town would stand for this. I remember one town went so far as to sue the state when they wanted to build a highway off-ramp. One of those quintessential Maine-towns people from New York take pictures off. They had no interested in making it any easier for people like that. That’s the Maine I remember. Where you did what you want.”
“I don’t think it’s your freedom they’re trampling on.”
“Like that school—rules, signing mission statements, pledging beliefs because God loves you so much it would make him sad you didn’t.”
In the morning, we found Jimmy downstairs eating cereal cross-legged in the middle of the kitchen table.
Sarah told him, “Morning.”
He looked up from his bowl.
Sarah asked, “Any mom?”
“She hardly ever comes home anymore,” Jimmy said as though Sarah should have known. He shoved a big spoonful in his mouth. Milk leaked out the corners when he chewed.
“What is it?”
“What’d’ya want me to say?”
“Fine,” Sarah said. She turned her attention to me. But when she spoke she was talking to her brother. “We’re going for breakfast.”
“Leave me one of them cigarettes.”
Sarah made a fist. I heard secondhand how she hit a girl once. Nearly knocked her teeth out. A story got out the victim and I went on a hike to Gull Pond. She punched her on a Friday in the campus coffee shop.
Her brother scooped cereal from his bowl and crammed it in his mouth.
Sarah rushed the door, leaving.
I dropped a couple smokes on the table. Painless simony before I hustled into the frigid morning.
We fell asleep after breakfast naked in the penitent winter light that fell through the window.
When I woke nothing in the room changed except the sun no longer touched our bodies.
Downstairs, the living room door was closed. I could hear Sarah and what must have been her mother. They were crying.
“That’s why I left Sarah,” her mother said.
I moved closer to the door so I could hear.
“I lived for three years in Jerome, Arizona. The whole town built on the steep face of a cliff. You could almost fall off the street if you stood too long in one place.
“I fell in love there. I fell in love with the man owned the only pizza shop in town. He was so skinny. So much pizza, never gained a pound. Whole three years I lived there we got on real well. Like I said, I loved him. Everything was aces until he wakes up one morning with a big idea. Let’s get married, that was his idea. He made a real proposal. One knee, the whole business. Sun setting off the deck of his pizza shop. You can’t imagine the sight. I don’t blame your dad for not proposing. We were in it. Sixteen. It was what we had to do. But with the pizza man, I didn’t owe him anything. He cried about it. If you ever decide to go through with it, put on the white dress. Know this: It’s not some pledge in front of people you know. It’s not about loving only one person. It’s accepting the guidelines.”
They were still talking but I walked away. On the front porch, I lit a cigarette.
That was when I saw Sarah’s kid brother running down the street. He moved so fast the blonde hair blew out of his face and I could see his eyes for the first time. The most frightened eyes I’d ever seen.
Then I saw what spooked him. Three guys ran best they could manage as fat as they were.
A large, red stain splattered across the front of the kid’s coat. Blood crusted under his nose and around his mouth.
I tossed my cigarette on the front lawn and stepped into the street. It didn’t seem right watching him from the steps.
He skidded on some loose gravel getting around behind me. His breath came in white billows. His face gleamed where the sweat crystalized on his face.
Sarah’s brother got out two words. One was kill. I looked from the kid back to the three men coming. No matter how lawless Sarah tried to paint Maine, nobody around here murdered anyone in the middle of the street.
The first man to reach me sucked the frosted air. “That your boy?”
“They were gonna tie me to a tree,” the kid said. “They’d have left me to freeze.”
By the man’s face, I knew the kid hadn’t lied.
Once lined side-by-side, the family resemblance marked them each. The youngest spoke up, “It’s to do with our sister.”
The other said again, “He’s gotta make this right.”
My dad wasn’t a fighter. He wasn’t much with his hands. He hated tools. On a Sunday Morning, two-hundred-and-fifty congregants listened for one sentence that would sustain them through a week of small failures.
“Abortions expensive,” another of the group said.
“How’ll he pay you tied to a tree?”
The three men looked from one to the other until they gave each other serious consideration.
The front door opened behind me.
Sarah’s mother stepped onto the porch with a shotgun. The kid scrambled up the steps and found safe haven in the shadow cast by the early descent of winter sun. Sarah’s mother cocked the rifle. I knew enough about guns the only reason to cock it was to expel an empty casing.
“We ain’t stepped foot on your land, ma’am.”
“We were just talking this out,” I said.
But she had the gun. The grand gesture was always simpler. Making a stand with a shotgun took a lot less patience than the unyielding tedium of changing diapers, following up on homework, the incessant reminder to use “please” and “thank you.”
On the drive back to school Sarah fretted about the book she was certain burned. There was no way to have the paper done in time.
I didn't have the heart to tell her no one ever burned books to purge sin. They burned them to keep illiterates trapped in the burden of their history.