Jean lingered in Tyler’s, a music shop with a bar in the front. Used guitars and banjoes, all for sale, hung along the wall by their necks, their wood darkened in patches where fingers had strummed, tuning knobs like toy screws wanting to be twisted. She resisted the urge to touch them.
Perched on a corner stool, Jean worked on her blog for NYC Tourist, which paid well and gave her the most assignments. She wasn’t going to fall apart. But on her tablet, words marched around one another like ants, and she couldn’t focus beyond her sadness and fatigue. She stared out the window, watched the afternoon light crawl over the storefront glass, the green steeple of a church pointed up over the nearby warehouse. Since last week, she’d only eaten French fries and saltine crackers, and she was getting skinny. Dan had left and hadn’t spoken to her since their last blow-out a week before she moved out, and her new apartment was still in boxes. Still, she usually slept heavily, awakened only by the light through her curtainless window.
What she needed now was more beer to counteract the headache coming on, and she asked the bartender for another bottle. A complicated dream the night before had seemed to require a lot of energy—had she been running through tar to get to the end of it? Strangely, it wasn’t about Dan, but Walser, her first boyfriend still back in Texas.
She thought of the first time she’d tasted Lone Star with him, when they were fourteen, and how it stung in the back of her throat like choked-on tears or snot.
“Here you go,” said the bartender. “You local?” he said.
“Yeah, I’m just around the block.”
He nodded. His long sideburns curled against his smile, which was so wide it must have unnerved most people. He looked like one of her cousins from Beaumont. The beer made her less tired. The night before, she’d sat up, rubbed her eyes, and there was the specter of Walser—he’d loped long-armed through an igloo that was also a car that became a train. Strange to be dreaming of him, the joke she told at parties about her small-town Texas teendom—his overcompensating black truck, his Wrangler jeans, the menthol Skoal pouched in the side of his cheek, how she’d lost her virginity to him under a pool table. She couldn’t have stayed with Walser, but what she’d never told Dan (or anyone) was that Walser was the closest she’d ever come to giving up the life she had for another one.
A song was playing now, a voice like her Great-Uncle Carson’s—warbly, high-pitched, spirited—singing: Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down. Tyler’s worn wood and country music felt familiar; it belonged to a part of her family in Schiner who they’d almost never visited.
That song had been haunting her, playing on a loop every time she came into the bar.
“Who is that?” Jean asked the bartender, who didn’t seem to hear. The man sitting next to her had a red beard, pot belly, and a high pale forehead with springs of hair that pushed up in a tangled crown.
“Oh, that’s Brother Claude Ely,” he said. “You like miracle stories?”
Well, I look way down the river, and what do you think I seen? I seen a band of angels. They’re comin’ after me. She pictured the angels, transparent and nearly colorless angry faces, racing like clouds toward her.
The fat man with a beard seemed a little too friendly, as if he needed an audience. “He could play all right, without any lessons or training.” When he was twelve years old, the man told her, Brother Ely contracted tuberculosis, and his family expected him to die. Instead, he picked up the guitar and started playing gospel music.
“Huh,” said Jean. She didn’t like the way he leaned so close that the sleeve of his black tee shirt rubbed against her arm. People’s insistence on miracles always made God seem even more far-fetched. A miracle was a delusion played out in the mind of the person who needed it too badly.
“They called him the Gospel Ranger,” the man said. He toasted the roof with his whiskey. “You believe that?”
There were cracks and holes in Brother Ely’s voice and what might have been faith rattling around like something caged. The bartender said, “Maybe if I’d almost died, I’d want to be certain of God too. I’d want to be certain about a lot of things.”
“I’ve been certain,” Jean said. She remembered the creek where they used to park Walser’s truck and make out. She remembered the time he’d taught her to drive with a stick shift, how it felt nearly violent to move the gears, how tall she felt up in the driver’s seat of the cab. And then she thought of Dan. “But when I’m certain, I’m always wrong.”
Because her parents were worried, and they didn’t understand why Dan had ended it, they came to visit her in the new place. Jean cooked them dinner. She set the table with the juice glasses printed with bright daisies and a tiny icon for CITGO gasoline. She’d bought them at the thrift store the day before.
“They used to give these away at the gas station.” Her mother held up her glass of wine. “It makes me sad to see them again.”
“Why?” Jean said. They were stylish and rare, but her mom wouldn’t have known that.
“My folks worked so hard to get away from cheap things like this. And here you go, bringing them back, the damn yellow daisies.”
After dinner, Jean put on a record she’d picked out at Tyler’s, an old Stanley Brothers.
“The problem with country music is it’s so easy to make fun of,” her dad said. He picked up the record cover. “I mean, look at this guy.” He pointed to Ralph Stanley, his goofy smile, white pants pulled up over his belly.
Jean had read the liner notes, how hard times forced them to quit music for a while and work for the Ford Motor Company; Ralph’s serious car accident in 1951 that almost ended his career; Carter’s untimely death at the age of 41. She felt so protective of them, their voices vulnerable and close. She doubted Ralph would have called his survival of that awful wreck a miracle. She could hear in his voice that he was more of a realist.
“You can make fun of anything,” she said. *
Her parents had not liked Walser either.
When he was 12, his mother died of breast cancer, and a year later, his dad met a new German wife at the church he attended alone, without his sons. It was the sort of church where, back in the day, Brother Ely might have held a gospel sing. They still spoke in tongues; they handled snakes.
Every Sunday while his parents were at church, she and Walser had lain in the dark of his bedroom, watching the tiny green light on his clock radio blink up and down, a signal. On his dresser, car keys, a waterproof watch. Walser said he wasn’t a believer, but she’d had the feeling that he lived in a constant state of waiting, for what she wasn’t sure.
That ranch house had a nut-colored brick front, with a door hidden to the side of the porch. In the living room, there had always been an ironing board and an iron set up in front of the TV, and a picture of a giant Jesus knocking on the tiny side of a skyscraper. Back then, these objects had loomed large with meaning, not in themselves, but because she usually saw them just after they’d had sex.
Recently, she’d heard that Walser had become an alcoholic, that he had trouble holding down a job, and someone saw him waiting tables at a cheap Mexican restaurant.
She was still losing weight, and had not spoken to Dan for two weeks. Her friends told her she looked great, invited her to parties in Bushwick and to the movies at Film Forum, and sometimes she went, to prove to herself that she could. At Tyler’s, she was often the only one at the bar, but she could write there, or she sat watching the sales clerk polish the bodies of the used guitars. In the songs she liked best, she could hear a crackle in the recording, the ghostly revolution of the disk. Late in the afternoon, when the bartender went out to smoke, she would stand right next to the speaker to be close to the voices, which seemed to be holding something in safekeeping for her, a key to her aloneness, a hammer to smash it. She knew it made her look strange but she didn’t care. The fat man with the red beard was nearly always there, eager to tell her another story. Last time it was about a woman who’d been “medically dead” who’d seen a burst of light and a kind, dark-skinned face. She knew the figure as her father, though he’d been pale and blond when he was still alive. And then the doctors revived her. “She said she’d been so at peace, she wished they’d left her alone. But it just wasn’t her time.”
“You seem to have a lot of stories like that one,” said Jean.
He nodded. “They come to me, from all over.”
Jean opened her computer and tried to work. It was the only way she could avoid his talking to her more, even when she sat all the way across the bar.
Walser was still in her dreams, but, like the father in the dying woman’s vision—he didn’t always look like himself.
The last time she saw him in the flesh (home for Christmas, when she was still in her twenties), they sat in his black truck one night, talking as friends, but he had his hand on her thigh. That night, she’d almost let something happen—though she was put off by his moustache. They were talking about Karen, someone they’d both known in high school, who, after her father’s death from liver cancer, had started witnessing to people in shopping malls. She handed out pamphlets with Biblical messages and asked people if they’d been saved. Jean remembered when they were twelve, and Walser’s mother had lain on the couch, emaciated and gray from her breast cancer, how afraid Jean had been to look at her, and how Walser had kissed and hugged his mother casually, as he always had.
“I did hear that Karen found Jesus,” said Jean, breezily, lighting her cigarette.
She’d expected Walser to say something sarcastic—he’d have turned and walked in the other direction if he’d seen Karen at the mall. But he pulled his hand away and turned off the radio. “I know you’re goddamned smart,” he said. “But when did you get to be so mean?” In that moment the asphalt beneath the car seemed to shift, and he became a stranger. It made her wonder what was true in anything she’d ever known about him.
Outside her new apartment, trucks barreled past as loud as trains. Her street was close to the expressway, traffic rhythms like a rough ocean, and once in a while a semi trundled too fast between the parked cars, so the walls and the ceiling shook.
One room was still in boxes, and she wasted time searching for the box marked “clothes” or “pots” and unpacked the sweater or skillet she needed, and left the rest. She was too tired to bother, even though she slept deeply each night, with wild branching electric dreams that lingered after she woke. Walser on fire. Walser falling from the roof of a tall building. Walser and her in a crowded boxcar headed to ovens, but then they escape through a hole he cuts in the roof of the train with his finger.
One afternoon she was working on a blog piece about tourist sites in Greenwich Village, but she couldn’t stop her hands from trembling on the keyboard. She heard a crash of metal outside and ran down the stairs and out the door to see what it was. The street was empty. Chained bicycles guarded the curb. The leafy branches swayed on the trees. Lids hung loose on full garbage pails.
Dan had emailed her: “I don’t feel like talking so stop texting me. I’m still pissed as hell and don’t know what I might say. I lied to you that night, sure, but you deserved it.”
Jean turned back to her building too quickly. Her knees buckled as she fell and banged her chin on the sidewalk and scraped up the side of her face. As she struggled to stand, a woman walked by on the other side of the street with her two Dobermans.
Her head felt heavy and fragile, and she didn’t know where else to go. She limped over to Tyler’s. The bar was packed and noisy, and entering the sudden dimness, she couldn’t see. Over the speakers, Brother Ely sang, “Meet me in the middle of the air.” It was a moment before she touched her face and realized she was bleeding. A stranger came toward her, holding out his hand. “Hey,” he said. “What happened to you?”
René Steinke’s most recent novel, Friendswood, was named one of National Public Radio’s Great Reads of 2014. Her previous novel, Holy Skirts, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her first novel is The Fires. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, O Magazine, Salon, Bookforum, and in anthologies. She is the former editor of The Literary Review, where she remains editor-at-large. She is currently the director of the MFA program in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in Brooklyn.
“Walser on Fire” was originally published in Street Cred (TLR, 2015).