Earworm

I

 

Merle Haggard was dead. The radio said so.

They played every song he ever wrote and some others that he didn’t; I pulled onto the Interstate. The next song came on and it was Merle with Teach Me To Forget. My phone rang, and I had to wonder if she wasn’t lying in bed listening to the same damn station.

I shut the radio off.

“It’s me,” she said.

“I’m almost to the bridge,” I told her.

“Do what you want”—and she hung up. I turned around and drove right back where I came from.

I parked around the corner from her place. She came out in a hurry, in a little black jacket with the hood pulled over her ears. We drove around awhile. I listened while she sang all the same tunes as Merle. She was lonely. She was all mixed up. She’d been drinking. And she couldn’t stop thinking about me. I did what I had to do about that. I drove straight across town and got a room for us at the Red Roof Inn.

We killed a six-pack of Miller, smoked cigarettes in silence. We left the TV on, but it was all happening to someone else. We were doomed—for all the usual reasons. She’d never leave him no matter how much she bitched.

Once we’d had enough, she slipped her ring back on. That was to let me now it was time to go. I checked out, dropped Isabella off at their apartment. Then I drove home and tried to remember to put everything back in the right place.

Madison never asked questions. She was silently building a case against me. I knew how it would turn out. One day, I’d come home and her bags would be packed. We used to laugh at anything, listen to all the same music. After a while, we started telling two different sides of the same story.

Isabella was like some strange hitchhiker I’d picked up in the middle of a storm. The road ahead was paved with black ice; we were hydroplaning. She asked me once, “Don’t you feel bad?” And I said, “Izzy, do it or don’t, but don’t feel bad.”

We were holding our breath like a couple of scared kids running through a graveyard.

 

 

II

 

Three weeks had passed since the Red Roof Inn. I still couldn’t get that song out of my head. I’d be watching TV or standing in line at the liquor store when I’d catch myself humming the melody. Maybe I breathed too deeply while a dead man was singing. Maybe she found somebody new to screw around with. You always want to believe you’re not so easy to forget.

One night, I dreamed I got a call. It was Isabella’s voice only she didn’t sound like herself. I drove out to her apartment; the place was dark. I knew it was a bad idea, but I went up and knocked on the door anyway. No answer. When I reached for the doorknob it burned my hand in a way. It was so hot I had to wrap my shirt around the knob to turn it. When I opened the door, the whole place went up in flames.

I stood there in the doorway watching everything burn. There was a bright flash, just like someone had taken a picture. Then I was standing alone in the ashes of my past life. It was the sort of dream that can turn a grown man into a nervous poodle.

Madison treated me like an antique chair she happened to bump into once in a while. She was waiting for something to happen, big enough to damn me. Everyday, she gave me more rope to hang myself with. I started driving by Isabella’s place late at night when all the lights were out. I wondered if she was lying awake in the dark, thinking about me. I’d smoke a few cigarettes and drive back across the bridge.

Living a lie is like wearing a uniform. It’s not you, but you do it everyday to get paid.

 

 

III

 

It was early May when I finally got the call. The sound of her voice was like the sun breaking through the clouds after a long spring rain. “Do you want to see me?” she said.

“Of course, I do, Isabella. I’ve been worried,” I said. “Why haven’t you called?”

“I’m calling now,” she said. “Meet me at Wyndham Garden in half an hour. I’ll be by the bar.” And then she was gone.

I tried to get tough. I swore up and down I wouldn’t go. But at 6:15, I pulled into the back lot at Wyndham Garden.

She had her hair pulled back. She was wearing a tight skirt and high heels. It was the most dressed up I’d ever seen her. Then again, in all of my memories of her, our clothes were on the floor.

We sat one seat apart at the bar, paid separately. I finished my third whiskey sour before the hour was up. When I left, I misplaced my spare room key on the empty seat in between us. Inside ten minutes she was in my arms again.

I must have dozed off. I woke up to Isabella’s hot breath on the back of my neck. “That was the last time,” she said. “You know that, don’t you?” That snapped me out of it. I sat straight up in bed.

“Hold on a minute, Izzy,” I said. “I know you’re scared.” She actually laughed. I went on anyway. “But let’s not make any rash decisions. Let’s just take some time apart. You call me when you’re ready.”

She said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m running out of excuses.”

I said, “Sure you can. We’re here now.”

“I’m married,” she said, “and there’s someone waiting at home for you, too.”

“That never stopped us before.” I tried a smile. She wasn’t having it.

“It’s really over this time,” she said.

“Izzy, calm down. Let’s first sit and talk about this.”

“I have a cab waiting outside.”

“Can’t you stay awhile?” I asked. “I want to hold you.”

“I’m sorry. I have to go,” she said. She slipped out of bed. I watched her dress. Every stitch on her back was a knife in my chest. When she got down to the high heels, I knew it was the end of the road.

 

In the morning I checked out of Wyndham Garden alone, and drove home to a place that didn’t exist. When I opened the door to our apartment, it was all gone, every trace of my life with Madison. All she left behind were a few empty hooks on the walls and a roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. Funny, how she chose that day to finally do something about it. I fixed a drink and sat in the kitchen. Losing Madison was one thing. But I wondered if I’d ever get that song out of my head.