Before that October morning on the front steps, sunlight slanting down hot in a season long since gone cold enough that everyone had put away summer things, he’d taken his coffee with milk and sugar. As she shooed him out to the porch, the screen door slapping shut behind him, she breathed his name—despite how people in stories or life said to “breathe” their words set eyes to roll, she did breathe them, many times with a little chuckle at the end—so he turned to hear what she would say.
For a moment—one of those moments no one believes pass anymore, unmeasurable lengths of time cynics know have always existed only in the imaginations of those privileged to exercise them or delusional enough to believe they each “have” one—she said nothing, smiled her laconic smile, and held his gaze. He heard children’s cries from the vacant lot half a block away; the neighborhood had made a playground. He smelled the bread she’d put in the toaster, the butter spitting under the frying eggs, the coffee perking in the battered tin pot, the acrid aroma of browning grass, the yeasty salt his having eaten her had left in his beard.
“How you like your coffee?” She asked, pressing one finger into the screen. “I always have mine black.”
“Black and strong,” he said.
“Be right out,” she said, skipping—he still feels a jolt of surprise when he remembers it (just yesterday as he sliced apple chunks into his oatmeal, the time before that two or—who knows?—five years ago as he tightened the screws on a door hinge), surprise mingled with suspicion-shading-to-aversion at what seemed the staged playfulness of it—back through the dim living room into the kitchen.
She brought their plates out first, setting them on the top step, leaning down to kiss him before leaving to fetch the coffee. Each held thick pieces of toast slathered with butter, two slices of tomato, two over-easy eggs, and a sprig of parsley. He leaned against the railing, curls of peeling brown paint crunching under his bare soles. Invisible birds tittered and tweeted beneath the weeping willow in the next yard while three sparrows (he guessed) enjoyed an inscrutable breakfast not ten feet from where he sat, hopping from the curb to the lawn’s edge and back again. Three doors closer to the ramshackle playground where a game of kickball had developed, kids screaming and flailing about in the dusty sunlight, an obese woman in a bright yellow, quilted housecoat descended her front steps, dragging a rake.
The screen door squeaked as she backed out, a mug of coffee steaming in each hand. “Janine,” he said, taking in her peasant skirt, muslin blouse, anklet with its single, tiny bell, the loose braid draped halfway down her back. Impossible to credit now the sensation of saying her name, the steam curling off the coffee, the way she turned the handle of one mug toward him.
“Mike,” she said, chuckling as she settled herself against the railing opposite. “Here we are.”
He scratched his beard and nodded, picked up a piece of toast and took a bite. He loved her. He had already suffered a sleepless night during which visions of Janine in a wedding dress soaked through him like summer rain, and this just two days after they’d met playing pinball at Cascarelli’s, all the imponderable gods of chance be praised. A week after that, a night in the cold attic, her brother and his wife at their hunting camp near Grayling, Janine a wandering spirit, or so she’d said as they canoodled on the settee in front of the wood stove before she led him up the narrow stairs.
Now this, an hour—maybe less—of ease, transparency, let’s even risk the word “communion.” That’s how things happened then. You just knew. No, more than that (my God, people once said and thought without irony and in so many words “You just knew”)—love seized you, its grip tightening around your neck till it forced you to speak what seemed the bedrock truth of existence, no, what the bedrock truth of existence was, a thing that, once uttered, would stay so. Such things then didn’t just happen in songs or movies fit only to mock—if you can remember songs and movies that spoke of answered letters, sighs, and strolls in the moonlight.
Ah, but the world is a cauldron, life an abattoir, hope a mirage. And so it came to pass that ten days after they’d each drained the dregs of their second mug of thick black coffee on the porch of a borrowed house near the end of an October morning, Mike Pelfry slid into the Blackstone’s most private booth bearing a pitcher of Stroh’s and two iced mugs. As he poured, Janine Martin smiled beatifically, fingering the Thai coin she’d fashioned into a pendant. Mike slid a mug across the table, leaned over it, and kissed her. “I love you,” he said.
The exhalation that carried those words through the air hadn’t entirely subsided before he realized—and not for the first time, for he had suffered such seizures on three previous occasions (four if we count the crazy Christian back in Buena)—Janine was lost to him. Her face had already taken on the expression of steely gentleness he would soon come to loathe as he flogged himself through the ritual humiliations he’d later forget for years at a time, and when he did remember, he’d ruefully shake his head, the musk perfume she’d dab behind each ear wafting to him across the years.
Whenever he’d made a fool of himself, Mike Pelfry had done it well, and every time, he knew what he’d done and what it meant. People were like that then.
John Repp grew up near the Palace Depression in Vineland, New Jersey and has lived for many years in Erie, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Fat Jersey Blues, published in 2014 by the University of Akron Press.