A Dry and Dusty Home by T.C. McCarthy
The smell of barbecue reminded him of Michael, and of the juniper bush that had fallen on him after the chopper crash so that in the end it looked like a garnish.
"I'm hungry," said Wendy. A minute later she waved her hand in his face. "Hello? Are you there?"
Tyler nodded, then lied. "Yeah. I'm hungry too."
"You think too much, you've changed. How long are you back for?"
"It doesn't really matter."
When the waiter came she handed him the menu. "Pulled pork, sweet tea."
"I..." Tyler thought for a moment. "Want the same." Another lie. He'd already lost five pounds during the last week and wasn't hungry, wouldn't touch the food even though he remembered that he'd once tried to have some shipped over. Once.
"I bet you haven't had Macon's in a long time, I don't know how you could do without it. What the heck do they eat over there anyway? Jenny Gerlach said they eat sheep's eyes--"
"Same shit we eat here." Tyler didn't want to talk about eyes. "Nobody eats sheep's eyes, Wendy."
"I might. I eat lots of things. Sheep's eyes can't be that bad. Out west they eat bull's balls, and if you think about what's in sausage--"
"OK, you caught me. Yeah, they eat the things, and next time I come back I'll bring you some sheep's eyes with a bag full of heroin and a burqa."
Wendy glared at him. "You're an asshole." She grabbed the sweet tea when it came and sucked on her straw before smiling again. "Everyone was asking about you for a while, like you were a rock star or something. But nobody asks anymore."
Sweet tea was different, sweet tea he could handle and Tyler drained it in a few seconds, holding the cup up to ask for more.
Wendy pretended to fix her hair. "She's coming. Said she'd be here ten minutes ago, maybe her car broke down. You've been gone for almost a year, you know."
"I know." He was about to ask why it mattered how long he'd been gone when the urge passed because something else occurred to Tyler. The smell had changed. A diesel truck downshifted as it came into town and someone had opened the restaurant's front door to let everything in on a breeze from the river, bringing the backwash of another memory. Of road trips and too much dust so that Tyler thought he'd choke while trying to breathe through a wet bandana. He grinned at Michael. That was before the crash when the only things they worried about were boils from slamming their asses on the wooden benches as trucks bounced over dirt roads, in and out of nowhere. The rocket went between them. It grazed Michael's helmet, leaving a black streak, and singed the tips of Tyler's eyebrows in a way that made them both feel lucky, not scared, made them laugh when everyone started firing into the mountains . . .
"Christ," said Wendy, "if you'd rather stare at the wall, I can leave."
Tyler shook his head. "No. I want to be here. Michael said to say hi."
"What, he told you that in a sťance?"
"No. Before the crash. He knew I'd get back before he would."
Wendy bit her lip. "I don't miss him."
"I do. Sometimes."
"I don't. If I didn't have pictures I wouldn't even remember what he looked like. Did he tell you he cheated on me in high-school?"
Tyler pulled out a tin of Copenhagen. "That's important."
"You can't do that shit in front of me."
He opened the can, pinched some, and stuffed the tobacco
in his lower lip. "I can dip where I want to."
"You are such a redneck. Michael was too. If you spit anywhere near me I swear to God I'll throw my tea on you."
Tyler swallowed. "Where's Stacy?"
Now Wendy looked nervous. "She isn't coming."
The waiter appeared out of nowhere and lowered the plates to the table, and Tyler felt dizzy with the sight of it. When Wendy picked up the sauce and squeezed, it sent a streamer of red to mix with a mound of shredded pork, and he grabbed the table with both hands, trying to steady himself so that he wouldn't lose it. He'd get high later. Whack it up, stick it in, and catch the train to getting fucked, forget about all of it because once he cruised it was like the world became one of those butter mints; it just melted away, all sweet and then gone. Wendy wasn't even there -- didn't really exist. She was a shadow, a recorded message left to remind Tyler that he'd once thought slipping his hand under Stacy's panties had seemed more exciting than walking on the moon, more important than just smoking a cigarette with Michael and watching the dust storms roll in.
"Aren't you eating?" Wendy asked.
"I'm not hungry anymore. She isnít coming?"
She shook her head and Tyler thought he saw a look of pity on her face, but doubted it. He hadn't seen pity in a long time. "She met someone. It's why she hasn't written you in a couple of months. Don't get angry, Ty, she feels awful about it."
"I'm not angry." He got up to leave and smiled.
"Are you sure?" Wendy's face had gone white, and Tyler saw she was scared. "Why are you leaving? You won't find her."
"I'm not going to find her, and I'm leaving because I'm not hungry. And I really don't care about you or Stacy, or high school."
Tyler headed for the door after dropping a twenty on the table, but turned at the last second. "And Michael didn't tell me to say hi, I lied about that too. Fuck it. Fuck you."
The breeze outside said fall, cool and dry, all of summer's humidity spent. Tyler closed his eyes. When he opened them he saw the gas station across the street and stared at it, trying to figure out what was different because he swore that something had changed. Maybe the sign.
A passing cop noticed him. "They painted the pumps."
"You're wondering what's different, right? I did too. Stared at the damn station for ten minutes before it hit me." The man shook his head and sighed. "Boy who owns it says that he painted them tan because that way you can't see the dirt so much. Can you believe that crap? Nobody paints gas pumps tan."
When the cop walked away, Tyler laughed. "Yes they do. I know a place where they do because they made me and Michael paint the pumps tan too."
There was just enough time; he'd shoot up and Greyhound it back to Charleston to make the next transport out, sleep all the way to Bagram.
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