Those water towers on the edges
of every rear-view mirror town, the hazy outline
of my grandmother's paintings when they were stolen from her walls—their yellowed frames etched by years of Pall Mall smoke-haze. Shadows
in photographs, the clinks of coins in a soda machine, creases
in the atlas my mother pulls out every time I move
so that she can follow my cross-country route, day by day,
at her kitchen table.
The sentence I overheard in the soda aisle,
a movie stub from last winter in my coat pocket,
the blue sweatshirt in my closet, the one I can't bring myself to wear.
The tired row of newspaper stands outside that Chicago café where commuters carrying briefcases and tote bags rushed to catch the Blue Line. Those commuters. Empty
downtown buildings, train tracks, Highway 84 to Lubbock—a road
I wore out in my twenties
every time I tried to unravel myself from that town.
The green-countered kitchen in Utah in the middle of those nights
I gripped a glass
to lean against the shudder of losing my grip.
The man who wanders the parking lot of the 7-11 here in Texas every morning begging for a couple of bucks before shrugging back into his Lexus and pulling away.
His threadbare loafers.
Every Out of Service bus that sped by my stop on State Street.
The blare of their inside lights, empty seats
All those curtain-less showers on moving days.
Scotch tape on an envelope's seal, the photographs
(his flannel-sleeved shoulder) in a suitcase.
A symphony conductor's extended bow,
a stranger's arm out a car window giving the go around signal,
mail addressed to the previous tenant.
The stut-stut-stuttering of my kitchen's fluorescents,
the sizzle at the end of a record's side,
the stillness of an empty swimming lane,
my every indecision.
A defunct drive-in (its overgrown weeds, missing letter marquees),
the thud of landing gear on late night flights,
the vacant apartment next door,
the empty husk of a payphone,
scratched lottery tickets in a liquor store lot, the way
any bartender sets down a napkin.
The back corner of that used bookstore in Denver where I once found
a stack of Sinatra biographies on a stool. Credits rolling in an empty theater,
a library elevator,
the wet cement of a sidewalk I step around, the click-click-
click of a lighter out of fluid.
The remembered rumble of his voice on the phone the night I followed
headlights through Boulder snow.
The avalanche of ice collapsing in the machine outside a motel room,
the open door
of a bar in the middle of the day—the way I peer in just for a moment—
the fragility of a phone book page.
Dusty wine bottles on bottom shelves.
The only letter (one folded page)
he wrote to me,
the one I am unable to find.
For weeks in the August heat, U-Hauls back into the apartment parking slots, crooked, their rickety ramps extending to stairwells and open doors before the roar of the roll up door. After all the trips of couch cushions, bed frames, and laundry baskets filled with shoes, I watch the trucks pull away (weighted down, already weary) and wish neighbors I've known only through nods or hellos—except the afternoon we all fastened flattened moving boxes to our windshields with duct tape before the hail storm—a good leaving.
Many, many times I've made the heavy pull out of a driveway or a parking lot. The one that stays with me is a dark and slow drive through Boulder snow.
I've packed boxes, the same ones I packed before, the ones with crushed corners and taped-over tape, the one labeled Pots and Pans, the one labeled Family Photos, and the suitcase I lug from city to city but rarely unzip because sifting through the photographs it holds—the books and letters buried at the bottom—are too much to bear.
We move and we take our lives, the ones we're leaving, the ones we've lost.
This morning, I passed a quiet, backed-into-the-slot U-Haul with an oversized painting of sea turtles on the side and wondered if somehow (somehow) it was the same truck I parked at a house in Utah I rented over the phone. For three years, that house felt empty, and on the afternoon I moved out, I leaned against a doorframe between the kitchen and living room and felt, for the first time, that I had been there.
In the bottom of that suitcase, photographs (flannel-sleeve shoulder, flip-flops and shorts in front of a Colorado bar) bury a book, a cassette tape, and an index card with names and phone numbers I'm sure have long been disconnected. On my last day of rehab, I sat inside a circle of addicts, and when the head counselor pressed record, each one took turns telling me who I had been to them, who I had become in those twenty-eight days, who I must be when I walked beyond the locked doors (the first man to leave rehab after I checked in hung himself three days later). The book a guide, the card a list of their names and numbers, and the tape a reminder, voices to listen to when the other voices come, the ones that tell me to drink. Drink more.
When I spot the man in the 7-11 parking lot, I am not the stranger who rushes by head down, and I am not the manager who throws the door open to wave him away. I am the woman with my hands gripping the steering wheel, unable to shake the days I dumped coins on the floor or fumbled through the pockets of every purse and coat. The rush of finding a quarter. The relief in gathering enough for one dusty bottle from a bottom shelf.
Not long after my grandmother (Jim Beam and Pall Malls) died, someone got into her house and took all of her paintings from the walls. Each room had at least one, still lifes or flowers, the largest one a canvas of dark red roses that framed the couch in the living room. I never saw her paint, only stood in front of an empty easel in a sun room once to wonder. She herself a still life, slouched in a gold chair etched with cigarette burns, the smoke from a cigarette spiraling into stiff air, a tumbler of liquor blooming on a table beside her. Most of her hours passed by staring into the distance, smoking, sipping. She stopped going out after the parking block she had installed in the garage failed to keep her from careening into the wall. After that, she'd fumble through her purse for a twenty, tell me to run down to the gas station for lottery tickets. Years later, a letter arrived from her lawyer stating that someone (unnamed) had returned the paintings. They're stacked in a corner of my mother's garage, dusty.
Since summer began, I sweep my apartment at least once a day. It's soothing, like swimming, moving through the water, my mind clear but for the counting—stroke stroke stroke stroke breathe.
This apartment with its hardwood floors. Sweep.
So many of my summers have ended with the sweeping of empty rooms, kitchen floors, and corners. On the morning I left Utah, the last thing I did before pulling out of the drive was sweep the front porch. I left the broom in the corner where I had found it three years before.
When I move, I pretend the last time I see people is not that at all.
See you tomorrow.
See you soon.
I don't want anyone to know I'm going.
See you next time. (This is what I tell clerks at coffee shops or convenience stores).
I don't know what it says about me that these are the people I miss most. When I left Chicago and paid for my last latté, my voice faltered in Thanks.
Such secrecy in my departures.
The last time I saw him he was getting on an elevator.
While movers loaded the last of the book boxes into the U-Haul outside my adobe house in New Mexico, I swept the pine floors of my living room then stood staring at what I had collected, thinking, this is what it means to leave.
The dust I collect here in my Texas apartment fine, like sand (even though I live five hours from the nearest ocean.) Maybe it's dust from another summer, the one when he and I stood in a Colorado river, sand swirling into a cloud before settling into us so that we would always carry each other across the distance. Maybe what I carry is the distance.
In one photograph of the two of us, we stand outside a bar, laughing, me in a blue sweatshirt.
Stroke stroke stroke stroke breathe.