The Friday after Marlene upped and went, Jamie Barton sat on an overturned barrel in the midst of the abandoned industrial park, feeling more lost than he had ever believed he could be. The bones of the dead factories—sagging asbestos and rusted iron spars—threw cold shadows onto the cracked concrete, loose bricks, and thin, black puddles that surrounded him. Scarcely twenty feet in front of him, a dozen kingfishers skimmed low over the chemical-streaked water in the culvert. He’d never seen even one kingfisher before; now there were a full dozen. If his heart hadn’t been broken, Jamie reckoned he might have been amazed.
The sky had been gray and wet until that moment, but as the kingfishers darted by, a crack of pale blue split the clouds. From each bird’s beak, something fell. Something that flashed silvery and sleek in the air before hitting the foamy, yellow water and slipping from sight.
Fish, Jamie thought, and then didn’t think much else for a while.
He’d had his first job over there, in the factory on the other side of the concrete culvert, sweeping metal turnings and oil from under the lathes, eight hours a day for $3.35 an hour. The factory had been closed these last four years, of course, left to decay like the rest of the industrial park, and the building had slumped into sad ruin. Its corrugated metal roof had collapsed, and black squares gaped where panels had fallen in. The walls were scrawled with graffiti; the doors had been boarded over, then later kicked in. Water pooled between the heaps of bricks and the rusting fossils of machinery.
Recession, the bosses had said as they’d closed it all down and driven away in their slick BMWs, leaving Jamie and two and a half thousand others with far more leisure time than any politician had ever promised. Truth was, Jamie had spent most of that time in one bar or another.
When he’d been twelve, Jenny Harris had shown him her bra. She’d done it in the shadow of the industrial park’s truck depot. Jamie had wanted to see what was under her bra, but she hadn’t let him see that until five years later. Once, he’d thought he would marry Jenny Harris. Then Marlene had come along, and he’d forgotten all about Jenny. Last Jamie had heard, Jenny had shown what was under her bra to one of the suits in a BMW and found her way right out of town.
Now Marlene was gone too. Fifteen damned years of graft and compromise, then bang! she was gone. He felt like a balloon with half its helium gone, limp and caught on thorns.
“You come here often?”
The voice had come from behind him. Jamie twisted his neck to see who had spoken. Sunlight had snuck in through that crack in the sky, so he had to squint to see.
A woman was standing there, looking down at him. She stepped around the barrel so he didn’t have to squint anymore. He guessed she was in her mid-forties, ten years older than Jamie. Maybe a bit more. She was wearing blue overalls. They were streaked with oil. The oil had gotten into her hair, too. Jamie figured her hair might be brown like old wood under that dirt, but he couldn’t quite tell. It hung loose and ragged to just below her neck.
“From time to time,” he said. “You?”
“Not for a while.” She lifted up a transparent plastic bag. He could see sandwiches neatly wrapped in waxed paper inside. “Mind if I join you?”
Jamie scooted along the barrel. “Please yourself.”
She sat close. Their hips just touched. She was soft beneath the overalls in a way that Marlene, with her four days a week down at the gym, never had been. A real woman, Jamie’s mother would have called this one. A woman who wasn’t afraid to put on a few honest pounds.
“I used to work around here,” the woman said by way of explanation. “Before your time, I’d guess.” She softened it with a smile.
“So where do you work now?” Jamie asked.
“Round about. I’m thinking about starting here again.”
Jamie frowned. “There’s work here?”
“God, yeah.” She unwrapped her sandwiches with hands that still showed oil beneath the fingernails, and offered him one. “Hungry?”
He was. He hadn’t eaten all week. He’d drunk a fair bit, but that didn’t fill a man’s stomach the same way.
Jamie took a bite. Cheese and pickle on white bread.
“The food of the gods,” he said.
“Cheap,” she said.
About a year after he and Marlene had married, Jamie had had a few too many to drink with the boys. Marlene had come in and found him draped across some blonde. He didn’t remember the blonde’s name, and wasn’t sure he’d ever known it.
“Give me a chance,” he’d whispered when he and Marlene had gotten home.
“A thousand chances,” she’d said, and kissed him.
He had thought that would be enough.
He’d never figured she would be counting.
Marlene had never done cheap. She worked hard for it, she’d said, so why should she do cheap?
She had worked hard. Plenty of work for a social security manager to do in this town. Plenty of broken people to pick up. Plenty who’d be right back down there again the next day. She must have gotten good with all that practice. “No, there’s no jobs. Here’s your check. It won’t take you far.” Far as the nearest bar, mostly.
Worst thing about it? Marlene had cared. She’d cared about every damned lost soul out there. It broke her heart every day. And the person who should have picked her up hadn’t been there. He’d been lost in a wilderness of bars.
Jamie hadn’t slept more than a wink in the five nights since Marlene had left. For fifteen years, he and Marlene had never spent even one night apart. An empty bed wasn’t a bed at all. It was just somewhere to lie and pray that the hole inside him would fill. The dark ceiling had become his most intimate companion.
Dawn touched the sky with a watercolor stroke of gray at six. Jamie levered himself upright, stopped off in the bathroom for a piss and a glass of water, then headed out along the dead streets. Marlene had taken the car when she’d gone.
“It hurts,” he whispered to the streets as he walked. The apartment blocks with their peeling paint and broken windows, the abandoned gas station, the McDonalds wrappers creeping like tumbleweed along the gutters, the rusting fence around the cracked basketball court, none of them disagreed. “Yeah,” they whispered. “It hurts. It hurts.”
Far away, a siren rose and fell. Jamie kept walking.
Even the bars were closed at this hour of the morning, neon dulled, signs tatty in the unkind dawn glow.
All that Jamie had ever had or been lay in a wasteland now; it called Jamie home.
He turned down River Street, then squeezed through the loose siding into the industrial park. Abandoned factories and warehouses loomed in the murk.
It was just light enough for Jamie to see where he was putting his feet. Within a couple of paces, he realized the ground was coated in moths, hundreds upon thousands upon millions of them, settled over every brick, every girder, ever stained patch of asphalt. They spun up where he stepped, before his feet could crush them, like snowflakes falling upwards.
The ground beneath his feet felt odd. He crouched. The ground was dusty and dry. He reached down and ran a finger over it, then lifted it to his lips. His tongue flicked over his finger. Dirt. And something else. Something sweet, like flowers. Pollen?
He stared at his finger. For a moment, it seemed like something alien. Then he shook his head, and moved on.
He reached the culvert and sat himself on the barrel. A halo of moths rose around him, then settled again further away. The barrel, too, was covered in the layer of dirt and pollen. Jamie took a deep breath. For the first time that he could recall, the air in this place wasn’t stagnant and laced with degraded oil. It was almost intoxicating.
The sun showed at last above the cluttered horizon. The moths rose like a lifted shroud with the first rays of sun. For a moment the air was dense with them. Then they were gone, as if a magician had snapped his fingers.
Jamie sat there, watching the islands of foam spin on the water as the culvert washed them down. Maybe it was his imagination, but the water didn’t seem so yellow today.
“You’re here early.”
This time, Jamie wasn’t surprised to see the woman standing in the sunlight.
“So are you.”
She seated herself next to him.
“I got the job,” she said.
“Tell me about it.”
She’d washed her hair last night. The oil streaks were gone. He hadn’t noticed before what great hair she had. She had lush, slipping waves of it that he could have lost his fingers in. There were touches of gray in it, but none of the dry brittleness age sometimes brought.
“So what’s the job?” Jamie asked.
“Clearing up this place.”
“On your own?”
She laughed. It was a deep, rich sound. It made him smile.
“God, no,” she said. “What do you take me for?”
He sighed. “So, any vacancies?”
She looked at him. Her eyes were the color of fresh earth. “Uh-uh. I’ll let you know if anything comes up, though.”
“Right.” He’d heard that enough times before. Sometimes they’d even meant it. Most times they’d meant “piss off.”
“Don’t look so down,” she said. “Might be I’ll put in a good word for you.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Say, you want to get some breakfast?”
She smiled again. It was good to see her smile. It made the day feel warmer. “Sure,” she said.
There was a mall a mile or so away. They walked there in the growing light and traffic. There wasn’t much open at the mall, just the diner, but that was what they wanted. They took a table by the window and waited for the waitress to come over.
“So, what are you doing hanging around that place?” she said. “Young guy like you ought to have better places than that to go.”
Jamie gazed down at the plastic tablecloth. “My wife left. Fifteen years and she left.”
“Only good things that ever happened to me happened in those factories.”
“You met Marlene there?”
Jamie looked up at her, a frown forming. “Yeah. She had a job in the office.”
The waitress approached, flipping open her pad.
“What’ll it be?”
She was tall in high heels, with bleached blonde hair piled above a tired face. Jamie thought he might have dated her back in high school, but he couldn’t be sure.
“A bagel and coffee,” he said. “Black.”
The waitress grunted and scribbled.
“I’ll have a glass of milk and chicken salad on nine-grain bread,” Jamie’s companion said.
“I don’t think they do that,” Jamie started to say, but the waitress had already closed her pad and was heading back to the bar.
“You’d be surprised what people will do if you ask.”
She might have showered and washed her hair, but there was still oil under her fingernails. Jamie remembered what that was like. The oil stuck deep in there and wouldn’t shift. He would have given anything for a job that dirtied his fingers. If he’d had that, maybe Marlene would have stayed.
“Tell me about her.”
Jamie blinked away tears. They were the first he’d shed for Marlene.
“I loved her,” he said through dry lips. “I loved her with everything I am. Now she’s gone, and I don’t think there’s anything left in me.”
“You know what, Jamie?” the woman said. “There’s two types of marriages. In one, everything you do and everything you are magnifies what the each of you is. Yeah, you make sacrifices. Yeah, you make compromises. But, afterwards, they leave both of you more. They make both of you more you.
“The other type”—she shook her head—”the other type, see, every time you make a sacrifice or compromise, it erases something of you. It diminishes you. After a while, there’s nothing of yourself truly left. It’s not because either of you is a bad person. It doesn’t mean you don’t love each other. It’s just the way it goes.
“I think you and Marlene, you had the second type of marriage. I think she knew it. She loved you all the way to the end. Still does. But I think she figured you could both only lose a thousand pieces of yourself before it was too much.”
“No,” Jamie whispered. “She loved me. She—”
“Ah, look.” The woman smiled. “Breakfast.”
She said grace over her chicken, head bowed, hands together. Jamie watched her face, his eyes dwelling on the lines, the roundness that was sinking into jowls, every pock and pore, the deep smile lines, the crow’s-feet around her eyes, the gray at her temples, every mark that love and life and laughter had set on her features. He watched and listened to her praying and thought, This is good. This is right.
She opened her eyes. “You eating or letting it spoil?”
Jamie took a bite, chewed. “You didn’t say grace with the sandwiches yesterday.”
She laughed. “I say it when I make them. It saves time.”
They ate in silence, chewing and swallowing, biting again. At length, it brought a degree of peace to Jamie. He couldn’t remember the last time he and Marlene had eaten together. Evenings, he’d been in the bar by the time Marlene got back. He’d rarely been awake when she left for work.
“When we were first married,” Jamie said, “we used to watch every crumb the other ate. I could have watched the way her lips moved when she chewed for hours.” He dropped his head.
The woman chewed, swallowed, and then wiped her mouth with a napkin.
“Have you ever watched when it rains hard on a pond?” she asked. “Every raindrop forms a bubble that floats on the surface of the water.”
“So?” Jamie said.
“We’re like those bubbles. All of us.”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
She leaned across the table and kissed him on the forehead. “Don’t worry about it.”
The kiss spread warmth through him. He felt his tense skin relax.
“Look,” she whispered.
Jamie twisted to follow where she was pointing. Out the window, in the washed morning sky, three tiny specks circled.
“Eagles,” she said.
“How can you tell?”
“Trust me.” She slid out from the table. “Want to go and see them?”
The eagles were circling in the breeze above the industrial park. In the fuller light, Jamie saw more clearly the thin layer that coated every surface, from the bent-backed roofs to the fractured pavement. It was fine, rich earth. He rubbed it between finger and thumb.
“You’d pay a fortune for a sack of stuff like this for your plants.”
The woman flashed him a wonderful smile.
“Isn’t it great?”
She looked up.
“The eagles are coming lower.”
Jamie tilted back his head. The eagles were enormous and lushly feathered. The sun glinted and slipped on their wings.
“Golden eagles,” the woman said.
“We don’t get golden eagles around here,” Jamie said. “Not that I’ve heard.”
“Uh-huh?” She looked delighted.
The eagles were clutching things in their claws. As they descended, they released their grips. Tiny shapes rained down and pattered onto the ground. Then the eagles were beating their wings and rising into the perfect sky.
Jamie knelt, picked up one of the shapes. “A seed,” he said.
“Strange days,” the woman said.
Jamie couldn’t have said he disagreed.
Sleep wouldn’t come. No matter how he lay or what he tried, Jamie remained exhaustedly awake.
“Let me sleep,” Jamie muttered in a voice that threatened to become a sob. “God, just let me sleep.”
He had loved her. She had left. Sleep would not come.
Eventually, Jamie hauled himself out of bed. The clock said twelve-thirty. He’d only been in bed for two hours. It felt like most of the night. He pulled on jeans and shoes, ran a hand through his hair, and headed out.
The night was humid, the air low and too close. He felt like his body wanted to sweat, but couldn’t.
A couple of blocks up, neon flickered. The bar was still open. There was nowhere else to go.
“Been a while,” the bartender said, as Jamie pulled up a stool.
“Two nights,” Jamie said. He’d been coming here a year, and he’d never learned the man’s name.
The bartender slid over a bottle. “Like I said. A while.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said. “What’s your name?”
The man frowned. “Tom. What’s it matter?”
“It doesn’t.” Jamie pushed himself off the stool and slapped a couple of dollars on the counter. “Take my advice, Tom. Don’t take anything for granted. You can think you know a person, then you find out you just don’t. Fifteen years, and you don’t know shit.”
“Whatever you say.”
“Yeah. Whatever I say.”
He carried his beer under the creaking ceiling fan to the corner table.
Bobby and Cole looked up as Jamie plumped himself onto the frayed stool at the end of the table. Bobby had been at school with Jamie. They’d chased after the same girls, maybe even caught the same ones, for all Jamie knew. Not that he did know. He himself had claimed to catch some who’d never even looked his way, and Bobby had been full of it since they were both eleven.
“Been a while,” Cole said. Cole he hadn’t met until the factory. Cole had worked on one of the machines near where Jamie swept. They’d discovered a shared love of Van Halen and Knight Rider. Knight Rider was long gone and Van Halen was a ghost of a joke, but in the last few years they’d found beer filled the gap pretty well.
“So what’s up?” Cole said. “Don’t tell me you’re still pining over Marlene? Listen to me. They come and they go. One’s pretty much like another, and there’s a hundred ‘nothers out there.”
Jamie’s hand froze to his bottle. A drop of dew touched his index finger, rolled over the knuckles. It seemed to take forever.
“You’re being a jerk,” Jamie whispered.
“No,” Bobby snapped, cracking his own bottle down on the plastic tabletop. “He’s not. He’s trying to help you.”
“Yeah. Help. Look, Jamie. Marlene’s gone. She ain’t coming back. You need to accept that.” Bobby turned his bottle in his hands. “Have you even looked at yourself recently?”
“You look like shit. You’re dirty. You’ve lost weight. You stink. It’s only been a week.”
Jamie swayed back on his stool. “I don’t have to listen to this.”
“Yeah, you do. You need to listen and you need to hear.”
After that, no one said anything for a while. Jamie drank his beer, but he didn’t taste it. They played some cards. Jamie couldn’t remember who won. He guessed it wasn’t him.
Some time later, Cole levered himself out. “Wife’s waiting.”
“Right,” Jamie said.
“Don’t stay too long,” Cole said. “Feels like rain’s coming. Maybe a storm. Air’s tight.”
“Maybe,” Jamie said. “But not yet.”
“Places like these,” the woman said, taking a bite of her sandwich. “They’re like a pin through the heart of a butterfly. They hold a town down. They kill it. A town can’t recover until you pull out the pin. Then it might fly again. It might live.”
They were sitting together on the barrel, staring across the culvert at the twisted metal and sagging factories. Everything was covered still by the thin layer of rich, brown earth, as though a sandstorm had blown in one night and dumped its cargo over the wasteland. If anything, the layer was deeper today. But there had been no storm. The air was heavy with unbroken humidity.
“Seems like it’s a tough pin to pull,” Jamie said. “Site like this, it’s not going anywhere.”
“Nah. See, you’d have to bring in the heavy equipment. You’d have to pull it all down and cart it away. Then you’d have to take out all the soil and replace it. Been a lot of chemicals spilled here. The ground’s poison, all the way down.”
The woman rolled her shoulders and gave him a grin. “Yeah, it’s some job.”
She swallowed the last of her sandwich, then brushed the crumbs from her lap. Jamie liked the way this woman moved. There was no prissy elegance to her, just like she wore no makeup. Everything about her was right-down-to-the-soil simple.
He caught himself staring at her and looked away. “I hope they’re paying you good.”
She didn’t answer.
Jamie pushed himself off the barrel and stretched. His eyes felt as heavy as iron balls. Even the beer hadn’t helped him sleep. He felt like one of those walking wounded, like the photos he’d seen in some magazine a couple of years back of men with shell shock, or like one of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead, the original black-and-white version, not the 1990 remake. This woman, he bet she slept like a baby.
He strolled over to the culvert, then stopped, frowning.
He must have been half-asleep all morning. He hadn’t even noticed the change.
The foam that had coated the thick water was gone. The yellow stain had washed away, and the water was as clear as a freshly cleaned window. Within it, tiny silver shapes flashed and darted.
“What?” the woman said, so close to Jamie’s shoulder he almost missed a breath. “You thought it would stay bad forever? You thought it’d never come clean?”
“No,” he said.
But he had. He’d been sure of it.
When there’d been the two of them in the apartment, it had been just the right size. Now Jamie was on his own, it was too damned small. He couldn’t walk half a dozen paces without coming up against a wall. Half a dozen paces, six seconds. Turn and back. Another six. Five times there, five times back, a minute. Just one stupid goddamned minute, until he wanted to scream and punch the door, and the goddamned night would never goddamned END.
Movement outside caught Jamie’s eye. The street seemed to ripple, like the wind over black grass. He stopped at the window, frowning. It was night, dark beneath heavy clouds, so it took his eyes a moment to adjust.
The street was alive. Hundreds—no, thousands—of creatures. Mice, rats, snakes, a pair of dogs, rabbits. All sorts. All of them flowing down the street like a drunkard’s dream.
Jamie grabbed up his jacket and took the stairs.
The beasts didn’t make much sound, just the tiny scrabble of claws on asphalt, the dry slither of scales, and the hush of fur. Jamie stood on the doorstep for a while, watching the flow slip by.
In due course, the flow thinned and trailed away, leaving a ragged tail: a fox tiptoeing past; a couple of nervous mice zigzagging along near the gutter; a three-legged dog; something furry that was God-knows-what. Jamie stepped out into the street and followed them, already sure of where they were going.
They were pressed up against the fence around the industrial park, milling around the gap. Jamie picked his way through them. They hurried and scurried away from his feet. Jamie saw a rattler among them. It curved lazily aside.
He grabbed hold of the siding and tugged. It creaked, then spanged open in a shower of rust. The flow resumed, and the animals swept through into the industrial park.
In the poor light, Jamie could only see the shift of bodies for a dozen feet or so before they blended into the night, but he could hear them beyond: little squeaks and barks and the ghost-call of a fox. From somewhere deep in the clutter of ruined factories, a wolf howled.
The animals were dropping things as they ran. A pine cone from a rat. A bundle of worms scattered from a raccoon’s mouth. Soil and seeds and dung, rotting leaves and twigs. Jamie walked through the detritus. It was soft and giving beneath his bare feet.
It took him a while to find the barrel by the culvert. It was almost buried in the gifts the creatures had left. In the end, he only found it because she was there.
Even in the dark, she looked glorious.
She smiled at him.
“You never told me your name,” Jamie said.
“No, I didn’t,” she said.
And that was that.
Jamie sat himself on the soil-covered barrel. Some creature had dropped moss on top of the soil. Jamie sank his fingers into it.
“Looks like your job’s nearly done.”
“Yep,” the woman said, settling herself next to him. “Nearly. By tomorrow, I reckon. If all goes well.”
“Don’t seem like you’ll have a problem.”
The woman smiled. “Still got the hard bit left to do. Or maybe the easy bit.”
Jamie sighed. In front of him, clean water washed through the culvert. The smell of fresh soil made the night air rich.
“She was perfect,” Jamie said. “Marlene was perfect.”
The woman got up, crouched in front of him, and took his hand. Jamie saw that her fingers were clean, even right under the nails.
“Yes, she was. But she wasn’t perfect for you.”
“I don’t think I can go on anymore,” Jamie said. He was too tired, too heavy inside.
The woman straightened. She unzipped her overalls and let them fall to the ground. She wasn’t wearing anything underneath. Jamie wasn’t surprised.
“You never cried for Marlene,” the woman said. “Not properly. You know that?”
She took him in her arms. She pulled him down onto the soft earth. His clothes loosened, then were gone. He rested his cheek on her left breast.
“Cry,” she said.
He did. He sobbed until the rain came down and thunder cracked the sky like an archangel’s sword. He cried until tears spattered his bare back and soaked the fresh ground. He cried, and when he was done, he was clean.
Jamie awoke in bright morning sunlight. He was lying, naked, in a field of flowers and fresh grass. Twenty feet beyond him, the culvert had become a bright stream. Pillowed beneath his head, the barrel was a fairy mound of lilies of the valley.
He squinted. A stag was bent over the stream, drinking. It lifted its head and watched him for a while. Then it leaped the stream and cantered around the small hill that had once been the factory where Jamie Barton had once earned three-thirty-five an hour, eight hours a day. Fresh-leaved saplings poked from the soil that covered it.
Jamie sat up. His clothes were lying on the grass. Reluctantly, he pulled them on. He realized he was smiling.
“You did well.”
Jamie turned. The woman was alive in the sunlight. It sliced gold through her hair, caressed warmth deep in her bare skin.
“I knew you would,” she said.
“Stay with me,” Jamie said desperately. “Stay with me.” He started towards her, hands reaching forward.
She gave him a sad smile. “That’s not the way the story goes.”
Jamie stopped still.
“What do you mean?”
“Bubbles on a pond,” she said, coming close to him. “You float around. Sometimes you touch and join for a while. Sometimes you drift apart. Some bubbles pop. New ones form. That’s the story the rain tells.”
Jamie looked down. His feet sank deep in the silky new grass. “And what happens when the rain ends?”
She shrugged. “It ends. But if we work hard, it won’t end anytime soon.”
Jamie took a breath, then looked up. “What now?”
She took a step and kissed him on his forehead. “There’s always work to do. There’s always another pin to pull, another heart to mend.” She stepped back again. “I said I would put in a good word for you. I did.”
Jamie turned from her and gazed out over the industrial park. If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought this had been wild forever, a corner of lush wilderness fenced off from the town. Where there had been concrete, there was now rich earth and grass, caught fresh in the morning sunlight. Where broken bricks had once piled over collapsed iron, carpets of flowers spilled. Jamie could smell something he thought might be wild garlic. Birds called in the chilly, damp air. Beyond the collapsed siding that surrounded the meadow, he saw windows opening in the nearby apartment blocks.
When he looked back, the woman was gone.
The streets were washed clean. The rain had swept away every trace of dirt and trash. Windows glittered in homes and shops. The air was as pure as spring in the mountains.
From an apartment, Jamie heard laughter.
A group of kids raced around the corner, shouting joy.
Around him, as he walked, the town came to life.
He walked until he reached the edge of town. There he waited until a truck came by. He thumbed a lift and climbed in.
“Nice-looking day,” the driver said.
“The best,” Jamie said with a smile.
“So, where you going?”
“Somewhere ugly,” Jamie said. “Anywhere.”