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Fall and Winter 1992 (First Draft)

A fiction about older women

The fall and winter when I was 25 and my legs cracked against the pavement. I was working some of the dimmest jobs in human memory and my rent was $100 for a damp, cold house. I dug out old wells and cisterns for the township until the ground froze, then I took a job putting medicine bottles in trays.

Before the cisterns and the bottles I did brochure layout, point and click. But it was too much time in front of a screen, too much headspace. I was not thinking that year.

For a few weeks I even put the belt around my back and piled shelves at night at the supermarket, until three locals met me when I was coming in. One told me I had to go union or get my ass kicked. I quit, gave my belt to one of them like a champ conceding the title. The next week, I got the cistern job, because a friend was quitting it, tired of the shovel. He was moving to Arizona.

The supermarket gave me three days of orientation and a printed booklet with hygeine and politeness tips, but the cistern job training took ten seconds. The forty-year old man named Craig who paid me $7 an hour (under the table) said, "Shovels in the public garage. Here's the key. Go slow." He was some kind of inspector and he had access to old cisterns and wells on repossessed properties. I collected bottle glass for him from the digging; I learned that the best place to find old bottle glass is from old dumps. He sold the glass to an antique dealer in Rochester; there's a big market for it. Then he had a contractor fill in the cisterns with concrete, eliminating "danger of collapse." His brother was the contractor.

At night I'd drink at the biker bar, where there weren't any bikers, and watch the muscles on my arm pop up. In September I met a woman named Carrie. Her father left her some money and she was living in his old house, staying in her old bedroom. Maybe she was 42, but looked 10 years less. She had a job at the college library, $29K and benefits.

She invited me to dinner after spotting me in the library. Winters were cold there, and we started to talk. I didn't trust her, but she could cook, and we began to sit together on the sofa after the third meal, chicken and rice.

"You want to watch TV?" she said.

"No," I said. "I just like to talk."

"Good, me neither."

We did this too many weeks, playing at squeezing each other more after each dinner. Hands on shoulders, and then she leaned her head on my lap and said, "I wish you would take me."

I took a minute, suppressed a belch, and with a bottle of wine in me, shifted positions, unbuttoned her blouse and lifted her nipples into my mouth, then pushed my face into her round stomach and licked, long strokes, tongue in navel. I knelt between her legs. She worked her fingers through my hair, and into my ears, and I squirmed, rubbing my nose through white panties, under her lifted brown skirt.

You know what that's like. A few minutes, and the silence was soaking wet, so we took off our clothes for each other. She led me to the bed. It was in the back room, where the kitchen should have been. The next day she said, "I'm glad that happened," and made me eggs.

Love is not an interesting word, but I trusted her and took comfort waking up in her bed, the old blankets and quilts cool, gliding my hands between her legs on weekend mornings, flopping together under the frosted window, working out the knots in my shoulders. I could dig a cistern in 6 hours by then, but I ran out of cisterns when the ground froze. I found a job putting medicine bottles in trays.

They were treating the bottles 10,000 at a time in an 800 degree furnace, a few feet away from the loading station. My clothes were pinholed with splash burns, red marks all over my face and arms from splashing liquid salt. This was a step up, $12 an hour on a check, with a risk of death from burning. I would come home and treat the burns with something herbal she had in the kitchen, and we would go down on each other after dinner. We had Christmas together with her friends, and gave each other things we'd made. She wrote me a story, and I gave her a collection of rare bottles, a few hundred dollars worth. She put them in the window of the bedroom.

I wonder after seeing us together if people didn't assume I knew. They must have figured she had told me. We went to the three town diners, the movies, long drives, food shopping. We were no secret. I put my arm around her, and she felt proud to have this big shovel-bearer by her side. She was the recipe for me, the brown eyes and hair, the mind that scares those small towns. She was an expert in using her mouth, and liked my mouth applied. We would drive to the little Indian restaraunts in Rochester, and she knew what to order. She wore expensive breast-sweaters, long skirts, and owned no sweatpants.

One night in early February, snow hammering down, I got off work and came for dinner, and she had a guest already at the table. He was my age, and I saw on his face a nose exactly like hers, a little dent at the bottom. I felt a huge kick of jealousy, and wanted to leave right away. She introduced me as a student at the local university, her friend, and looked at me apologetically. She introduced her son back to me. His eyes were suspicious. I was a stranger, close to his age, competition. I felt bad for him. I wondered if someone had told him about myself and his mother. He was two years younger than I was.

We had dinner, and he and I talked. I told him I was taking a semester off and hanging around the town, supporting her lie. I was a History major, I said. I listened, sullen, as he told her about his father, somewhere in the midwest working for an oil company. He told me he hadn't seen his mother since high school, six years. He made it clear he didn't want me there; he thought I was some kind of surrogate son. He was leaving tomorrow.

The night went on, and I excused myself back to the $100 apartment, where I had no toothpaste, no shampoo, one rusty disposable razor. All the rest of back it in her bathroom.

She talked to me a minute on the porch before I left. You know what she said. She tried to kiss me, but I just pushed her off, and began the walk home, my legs kicking out without any thinking. I was doing a lot of walking around. After that she kept calling, but I kept my distance, politely, hanging up the phone when she began to cry. I said goodbye to her when I moved back here, back into the city, with fewer secrets and more women like her than I can count. When I knocked on her door to say goodbye she wanted me to stay for dinner, but I just shook her hand.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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