box of jars

The Next Town Over
anna ziegler

The woman in question never hesitates to pick up the phone when something is bothering her. She's an only child and not particularly close to her parents; in the same way she has many good friends but no best friend. She talks most to Hayley, even though it's long distance. Hayley's married and the mother of daughters. When Hayley speaks to her she's careful not to assume too much and careful, also, not to seem condescending. The woman in question isn't married and hasn't had many lovers. She's thirty-four and inexperienced.

The man in question works nights. He enjoys fly-fishing and quiet afternoons, the lake he grew up on in summertime. The man in question is a man of the natural world. His favorite memory of childhood is standing with his brothers at the top of Mount Washington in January in what he likes to say was "a mighty cold wind." The man in question is not a man of many words.

The woman in question has never cross-country-skied. She has never snow-boarded or ice-skated or wind-surfed or sky-dived. She hasn't done many things that involve hyphens, or falling.

The man in question was married once. He was even a father, though, according to him, "I ain't one now."

The woman in question isn't very tall. She isn't very quiet either and can frequently fall prone to fits of giggling. She follows three television shows at one time and can be heard uttering the term "devastated" to describe her emotional state if she misses one. The woman in question doesn't understand how to use a DVR and refuses to learn about the Internet. "Oh that thing," she calls it.

The man in question has no hobbies, only "life pursuits." One of them is to play many instruments well. Another is to fall in love.

The woman in question is still embarrassed about wetting the bed one night at sleep-away camp during a dream in which she was being chased by bulls. The next morning, five girls crowded around her cot, holding their noses. One said, "you stink." It is this incident that she cites when explaining why she doesn't think the world is fair, or just.

The man in question took a poetry course once at a school for continuing adult education. He never went to college, or more specifically, he never finished. In the poetry course, his professor was a man his age with much more hair and too many questions. "How should we interpret this line?" he asked over and over again. One day, in the middle of the discussion of a poem by Frost, the man in question stood up and said, "the hell if I know," and walked out.

The woman in question is not stupid.

Neither is the man in question.

The woman in question doesn't think much about what she wears. In the morning, she puts on one of ten or so possible outfits. They all consist of a skirt that falls below the knee, a collared blouse, and a cardigan. No one at work has ever complained about her attire and this is pleasing, especially since a girl named Louise was fired for dressing inappropriately.

The man in question has two brothers, Jake and Dave. They don't live close by. Dave walks with a limp for which the man in question feels responsible. Jake is married to a woman he knocked up; the wedding took place before the baby was born and then the baby died at birth. Above all other things, the man in question misses his brothers.

The woman in question sometimes goes to bars on her own, even though she's seen movies in which women at bars alone are subject to events beyond their control. Still she likes the friendliness of bartenders and the way, at closing time, the lights go out—simple. In summer, she'll take a book and a pack of cigarettes and finish both while sitting outside at a picnic table in front of McKay's.

The man in question doesn't smoke. He once did, but his ex-wife found it irritating before she began to find him irritating. He quit for her and now begrudgingly wonders if she saved his life.

The last time the woman in question called Hayley, Hayley was in the middle of changing a diaper. "Let me call you back," she said, but the woman in question wouldn't have it. "It's fine," she said, "I'll catch you another time."

Surprisingly, the man in question has never flown in an airplane. He's terrified of them, the way they streak across the sky like birds or gods or apparitions. The way magic must come into play. Maybe once he read a story about a crash and it stayed with him. He doesn't know.

The woman in question daydreams about being pregnant. She sometimes catches herself with her eyes closed picturing the deep closeness of a womb, the darkness, the roaring sound of a heartbeat from miles away. She is not as solitary as she seems. At least twice a week, she sees friends; they go drinking or to the movies. Sometimes they smoke pot.

The man in question works as the night custodian at a local elementary school. Sometimes he wanders the halls staring at pictures by children he will never meet. Hannah, 5th grade; Joel, 5th grade. A girl named Sophie (4th grade) always draws kites and dragons. But mostly there are common themes: family, pets, war.

The woman in question would like to lose a few pounds. Not too many but enough so that she could wear her skirts from college. There's one in particular that she misses, a white one with brown flowers and light blue trim.

When it rains, the man in question sleeps late. He knows it's arbitrary, but to him it's as good a reason as any. He's not a religious man, but he does respect the natural world. He believes in signs.

The woman in question went to the small college where she now works. That's where she met Hayley even though Hayley up and moved to Minnesota. "Why are you leaving me?" she asked when she heard the news. She was drunk and beside herself. "I'm not leaving you," Hayley said, "I just want to go somewhere else."

The man in question was not granted custody of his son because he had a tendency towards unruly behavior, according to the judge. This behavior consisted of verbal abuse (it's documented that he once told his own child to "shut up") and throwing a pot across an empty room.

The woman in question has an extensive library. Her books cover three walls of a sizeable room. One wall is devoted to poetry—her favorites include Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. "The Wasteland," when first read in college, struck her as impossibly sad whereas now it just seems true.

The man in question lives inland but finds himself in Bar Harbor on a quiet summer evening. He doesn't have to work tonight because the school is undergoing renovations. He buys himself a Guinness and sits out by the water, remembering things.

The woman in question is tired. Last night she stayed up late reading the letters of E.B. White. One in particular stayed with her—a letter to his stepson, an editor at The New Yorker after White stopped working there. She can't recall the exact wording, but the line she liked had to do with sticking to your guns and not letting the world dismay you. She liked it for its concision and the implicit acknowledgement that the world is indeed a dismaying place. The woman in question is about to go home and sleep when a coworker, Marcia, invites her out for a drink.

At the bar, the man in question orders a second Guinness. Why not feel it a little tonight, he thinks. Why not?

Marcia and a few others, including the woman in question, choose a table outside. Carla, their supervisor, offers to buy the first round of drinks. When she leaves, the remaining women put their heads together and discuss the run in Carla's stocking, her bad breath, her lisp. The woman in question wonders aloud if Carla is happy.

The man in question stands, stretching his legs. It's been a while since he's spent a night like this, alone and by the water. He remembers how, when he was married, his wife insisted they go out once a week, just the two of them. They'd go to restaurants, to bars, to bowling alleys, to community theaters. They may have even been here once or twice. He remembers how he dreaded those nights and at some point realized he was not and had never been in love.

Lust is a strange thing. It takes people by surprise. It is not unlike an empty sky across which suddenly darts a swiftly moving airplane. It comes and then goes and then is gone.

The woman in question notices the man in question first. He is standing by the water. He has strong calves, muscled. His back is to her. The hem of his shorts is frayed and he wears socks under sandals, the way her father used to, to which her mother would chide, "Harry, must you?"

The man in question returns to the bar for a third beer. The woman next to him has awful breath so he takes a step to the side. She orders a round of Miller Lites "for the ladies." The man in question wonders what kind of ladies these are. He orders his drink and wobbles a little as he walks.

The woman in question remembers being nine and drawing a picture on the front porch. The wind is blowing. The stone holding her paper down isn't enough and the paper blows away, her little masterpiece adrift now on the front lawn. She runs to retrieve it as it floats but she trips on the steps, gashing her chin on the slate and pebbles of the walkway. She screams and screams but no one comes. Finally, she walks inside, wounded, and sees her parents in the kitchen. At first she thinks they're fighting but it turns out they're making love.

The man in question studies the table of women.

The woman in question thinks he looks like a younger Harrison Ford, or maybe Clint Eastwood. Either way, he's craggy, rugged.

The man in question recognizes that he's being watched. The woman in question is attractive with round cheeks and the kind of eyes that shouldn't get hidden behind glasses. He likes the red of her cardigan, the way it looks against the light, which is fading quickly. The man in question knows that if there's one thing he's learned, it's that every day ends.

About a year ago, the woman in question complained to Hayley that she'd screwed up a date with a perfectly eligible man. "What'd you do?" Hayley asked. "I stared at him," she admitted, "I couldn't stop looking."

The man in question hasn't dated since the breakup of his marriage. In fact he's been known to curse women over the phone to his brothers. They try to settle him down. "Don't worry—you'll feel differently eventually. Don't worry—you won't always work nights. You'll go to college; your life will change." When he hangs up, he feels the pressure of a thousand mistakes.

The woman in question thinks, "fuck it."

The man in question isn't surprised so much as flattered. He's feeling his drink now and wonders if that third beer was yet another in a long series of bad decisions.

The woman in question says "hello." She wants to be simple, direct. She doesn't want to play games. The last time she enjoyed a game she was thirteen and beat her father at chess.

"Hello," the man in question returns.

It's one of those nights where the moon is visible before darkness falls.

For a few moments they stand in it, neither knowing what to say.

"Are you waiting for someone?" she asks.

"No," he says.

"Oh," she says. She seems for a moment pleased. A whisper of a smile. A quiet illumination like lightning in the next town over.

"You're with friends?"

At first she doesn't know to whom he refers. She looks around and focuses again on the table of women. Right now they are staring at her and speaking softly; surely they are being unkind.

"Yes, well—coworkers."

And of course, if he could, the man in question would take this woman's arm.

Of course, if she could, the woman in question would ask for this man's number.

Instead, for the moment, they stand together while the outdoor tables at McKay's fill up and a blinking light up above—a plane, perhaps, or a dying star— reminds each of them, separately, of everything they are, and aren't.