A Man Like Him
I could run off with a man like him, just like that, if he only asks. Early-twenties, neat haircut, with hands calloused and stained as a turtle shell. His factory embroidered nametag reads Gus. I watch him lean over the hood of my car, listening for the noise that’s startled me not once, but five times when I’ve driven from here, my hometown, to the place I should be living, Mountain Lake—which really, of course, is an oversized pond.
I wait for Gus to ask me my name, since I already know his. When he comes into the glassed-in waiting room, I scoot to the edge of my seat, lifting the corners of my mouth.
Gus looks up from his clipboard, so I ask, “Yes?”
“Your air filter,” he says, and he holds it up so the whole waiting room can see. He demonstrates with salesman motions that the blackened filter has run its course. He’s something like a doctor, stringing up my murky smoker’s lung as proof of damage. But I cannot afford the good doctor’s advice.
“Thanks but no thanks,” I say, and Gus walks out, without hesitation, like he knew I was the type to turn him down. Still, I follow Gus out to the garage because he has yet to tell me what’s wrong with my two door coupe, my bed on wheels, the car that’s supposed to go 225,000 miles—though I hope for more.
“One thing’s for sure,” says Gus. “Your timing belt needs to be replaced. Not too cheap, I’m afraid.”
Gus notices what I’m wearing, then—a gray T-shirt and patched jeans—and runs his hand through his hair as if his sympathy for me has just caught on.
“Tell you what,” he says, “why don’t I brew a fresh pot of coffee and you sit down in that waiting room and watch all the daytime television you can stomach. I’ll get you out of here as soon as I can.”
“That’s kind, Gus. But how long can it last?”
“The belt? Weeks at least, maybe months. Though you might be stretching your luck.”
I could tell Gus I live on luck, on stars, on predictions of the weather, but I only light a cigarette with one hand before reaching out and shaking his. “Well thanks,” I say. “I’ll take it from here.” I shut the hood myself and, since the keys are already in the ignition, there’s no need for me to barter with Gus for a favor or a freebie or a second look. He could be one of the ones I see again, in town at the Penny Pub or far south at Mountain Lake, taking a load off. Or, he could be a different sort, one of the married ones, with two darling kids, and a mortgage. The married ones are the ones I hate to take on. They never last. And isn’t forever what all the able girls are looking for?
Mountain Lake is pond-like for many reasons. It’s the drought that’s shrunk it and shaped it like a fist. The water discharge is monitored in real-time, at cubic feet per second. For the last two months, I’ve checked the levels every time I’ve been in town, which for a hometown, is more than homey. On Radford Street, there’s a coffee shop where you can sit and read their newspapers without buying a thing. The counter waitress never looks up from her cell phone. Sometimes a computer in the corner opens up. Nobody cares if you watch boxing or porn or vampire movies on mute. As long as you’re quiet you can stay.
If I find the people who employee the water-level monitors, I will take that job and keep it, my lifelong. The rise, the fall.
The great rise, the great fall.
Mountain Lake is also pond-like because it’s sectioned off. If you don’t own one of the five-bedroom luxuries or Cape Cods along the perimeter or have a motorboat that’ll take you to the lake’s center, you’re access to the lake is public access.
Wading in the public swim section, I let a familiar scene play out again. It's a mom who's pointing me out to other moms, trying to hide her finger under her floppy hat. I know who they see. I’m not the Jennifer Grey of the present, the one who guest stars on TV sitcoms and won the grand prize on Dancing with the Stars. I’m the Jennifer Grey of yesteryear, when as Baby she moved in sync with Johnny Castle in front of a gaping crowd. The reason these moms see the resemblance isn’t because it’s so uncanny, although it is. The reason is because the film is naturally on everyone’s mind: Dirty Dancing was filmed here.
This mistaken identity is not why I yearn to live at Mountain Lake. You can exhaust more than one lifetime in the shadows.
It’s the water that’s got me hooked: how it stretches across the land, how it attracts civilization, how it surrounds me when I submerge, never flinching, never parting, always overwhelming. It’s the person who knows me best.
I wade into the public swim section every chance I get. There is no beach smell here, but the mud on the lake’s floor feels almost like an ocean’s sand: flush, eccentric, moveable. The trick is to stir up the mud with your feet. And when it rises to the surface, wringing the water brown, you know you’re getting the whole place, the good and the bad, all at once, as beautiful as any man who falls to the heat of the moment, who says he can’t live without you.
Michelle Dove is a graduate of the MFA program at American University, where she received the Myra Sklarew Award in prose. She's recipient of the John Steinbeck Award for the Short Story and the Fiction Prize from Style Weekly. Her work has appeared in PANK Magazine and online at Juked, and will appear in Amazing Graces, an anthology forthcoming from Paycock Press. She resides in Washington, D.C.
Pic courtesy of newflux