She had the kind of looks that you hide behind. He never had the time. She wrote his phone number in lipstick on the driver’s side window of her dad’s Buick. He told her, “When I get you back to my place, I’m going to make a mess out of your hair.” His hotplate was heating up some stew just for two. He should’ve told her that he needed her, but instead he just said, “Let’s have a beer.” After a few more she was wishing that her car weren’t so far away, but when he held her it was always that time of year to be leaving. Soon it was back to, “I wish I would’ve stayed here tomorrow. I wish I weren’t still here yesterday.” Then the expenses started piling up, the movers arrived before they were expected, and she went the way of silent shorts and cassette tapes. He resuscitated his beat-up tuba from the attic and hefted it out to the porch where he started playing a sloppy and somber rendition of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. It rained and rained. That’s all it ever seemed to do for a while. He got high on oven cleaner. He spent a whole night vomiting. He drank whisky with ice, and then ran out of ice, so he bought more whisky. He smoked cigarettes until his teeth and fingers showed it, until his face was sallow and gaunt and leathery with wear. He ran through his entire record collection as loud as his stereo could take. The neighbors complained and complained. The cops came by and told him to keep it down. He told them he would. Food didn’t taste right. He stopped eating. It became a long while since he’d let anyone touch him. His skin prickled and itched and burned. The shower water was always either too hot or too cold. He stopped showering. He stopped shaving. He stopped caring about what it meant to be himself. He sold his car for a box of Christmas tree ornaments. He kept all the drapes closed. He drank until he passed out, and when he woke he started up with whatever was left in the bottle, again. Numb and alone, he grew anxious of leaving his house, of even crossing the street or taking in the mail. The oaks and maples lining the block lost their leaves, their gnarled branches poking through gray evenings like crippled and starved fingers under the streetlights’ globs of dull orange that saddled into sad arcs wending and scuffling along the pavement’s shoddy strip. Everything was bare and desolate, and he wanted to hear chipped harmonicas and beer-drunk brass bands and the berated crunch and crash of stepped-on cymbals and the borborygmic sound that garbage trucks make when they’re compacting trash and the soft sound her lilting and tipsy voice used to make when it said his name. He stopped answering his phone, then he got rid of it altogether. He didn’t want to be bothered by anyone. He just wanted to be left alone. The weeks thrashed by and skewered him with guilt and desperation. Then it was months. And when he woke up way too early to be alive one morning, it was a new year, and there was no one there to ring it in with, no one to share a time with, to kiss and make up. His lawn had gone to weeds. He lay there on New Year’s Day, on his kitchen floor, wishing he were on a jangly bed in a basement room in some small Nebraska town with a girl who maybe wanted to know him just a little better and her tabby named Jones who’d lick at their toes as they slept and stay just as long as anything could. Nausea bit at him and boiled in his gut like he’d taken shrapnel the night before. The warped ceiling was crying through varicose-vein cracks, suddenly, with a flurry of drips from the bathroom above, and he felt the same, that sting in his eyes that would never quite go away; and he lay there on the cold tiles and he thought about her and he thought about her and he thought about her and then he stopped thinking and, somehow, got up and went outside. It was a crisp and bitter morning, the sky low and crumbling with coal-smudged clouds, cold and hard and slippery with dew. He was barefoot and the cement scratched at his calloused feet. There wasn’t a bird or even a fly around to feel sorry for him. He thought about how bad most people’s grammar was, and about how it didn’t matter to them, and about how he hated how much it mattered to him that it didn’t matter to them, or anyone other than himself, finally coming to the sentimental conclusion, out loud for nobody to hear: “I wish I were in a subjunctive mood.” He picked up his battered tuba with its dented valves and wrecked belt, the mouthpiece all twisted, chipped and peeling; and he played a song she used to love, just like him; and she no longer ever would, and that was okay. And he played that beat-to-hell tuba as loud and long as he could. The sun came up, all golden and heaving and dripping with sweat, and he played this beautiful and deranged and sad song, and he played feverishly and out-of-tune, and his tuba made a terrible and wonderful sound, and he played and played until he forgot what it was like to breathe. And then he did.

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