There aren’t many AM stations on the air in Kansas at 3:00 in the morning. Sitting in his car with the motor idling outside the train depot in Topeka, Alan Butler was learning this from hard experience.
The best he could do was get one from somewhere back east. An all- night show for truckers, with ads for diesel parts, and weather reports up and down the interstates. Some DJ named Truckin’ Bob talking Southern and a lot of C&W music.Through the static, Alan could pick out the throaty voice of Patsy Cline and the lyrics.
“Pardon me if I’m sentimental when we say goodbye. Now and then there’s a fool such as I.”
He loved and hated that song. It was the one that he and Anne would dance to, harmonize to, whenever they went out to Mac’s Bar over in Rossville, which, near the end of their relationship hadn’t been that often. Still, he considered it theirs.The train was due in at 3:35, and it was now after four. Even with the heater going full blast, it was cold. January in Kansas could be a real ass-biter, especially before the sun came up. His ten-year-old New Yorker was not known for its dependability. He laughingly called it a Town Car, not a Lincoln, just a beater that you only dared take from one end of town to the other. And here he was, fifty miles from home, hoping to pick up his ex-girlfriend. He wished he knew whom to call to learn how far behind schedule the train was, but even if he knew the toll free number for Amtrak, he’d end up getting somebody in India who went by the name of Brian.
He could call Anne on the train, but he had left her number on the kitchen table back in Emmett. Besides, she was probably trying to sleeping, something impossible to do in coach. It was a long trip from Denver. No, nothing to do but wait. Far down the tracks, he thought he heard a train whistle. He clicked off the radio. It was either Anne’s train or a passing freight. He had fallen for the trick twice while waiting. Still, he didn’t want to take any chances.
Allan turned on the dome light and looked in the rearview mirror. He wasn’t real happy with what he saw. A man forty years old that looked fifty. A long face weathered from years of ranch work. His teeth a little discolored from years of smoking, although he had quit two years ago and was trying the whitening toothpaste that he had seen on late-night television infomercials. And graying hair, now sparse from the chemo. It wasn’t much of face to get a woman back with.
The train slowed, the screech of brakes drowning out any other noises available this time of the morning. There were a number of cars, baggage, dining, observation, that Alan didn’t pay attention to. His eyes were on the four coach cars in the middle. He wondered if she would really be on the train. After seven years would she recognize him? And, after all that had gone between them and now his illness, would she find him desirable?
The train came to a stop. From the second coach car, the conductor lowered the steps, and a woman climbed down, bag in hand. Even from a distance, Alan knew it was
Anne, thinner maybe, but with unmistakably long, auburn hair coming out of her winter hat and cascading down her back. He turned off the car, gave one last swipe at his uncooperative hair, not wanting to have any of it fall out onto his lap, and entered into the biting wind.
He met her half -way between the train and the parking lot.
“My God, it’s really you.”
“In the flesh. Were you expecting Angelina Jolie?”
Allen went to kiss her. She offered him her cheek. They embraced as well as they could with each wearing three layers of winter clothes.
“Jesus,’ she said. “I forget, is it always so cold here?”
He decided to keep it light. No need to give her reason for going back on the next train.
“Hell, this is summer. You’ve been getting soft out in Colorado.”
She took his arm to stay upright in the wind. “Please tell me you’re parked nearby.”
“Just a few yards over to the parking lot.”
He made sure to open the door for her, like he used to when she was his. She collapsed into the car, and he threw her bag into the back seat. He noticed, with a certain sadness, that she had only brought one, as if she wasn’t planning on staying long.
He started up the motor and turned the balky heater on full blast. “You hungry?”
“Starving. All I had from Denver to here was some fried chicken I packed before starting out. I wasn’t about to pay those fancy prices they charge on the train.”
He put the car into drive. “Then let’s get you some breakfast. Bacon and eggs sound okay?”
“Great, but what’s open this time of night in the boonies?”
The snow tires crunched gravel and bit into the road. “You forget about Roberta’s? That was always our place.”
She ignored the “our place” reference. “I remember it. But since when is Roberta’s open all night?”
“Since never,” he said. “But she opens up at five. It’ll be pretty much that by the time we get to Emmet. Hell, if we get there early enough the food might actually be fresh.”
She laughed despite her weariness. “Okay, let’s go.”
He worked his way out of Topeka and headed west on US 24 toward Silver Lake. Almost instantly, she was asleep, her head resting against the passenger door window. Out away from traffic, Alan kept looking over at her, partially to make sure she was really here. God, she’s beautiful, he thought. Older, of course, and her face with a few more lines, especially around the eyes. But her lips were red and full, and she still had that aura about her, the one he fell in love with the first time he saw her. He wished he could see her blue eyes, the pupils almost transparent when the sunlight was shining full on them. He wanted to kiss her awake, right then and there, but he knew that he didn’t dare.
He tried to remember what broke them up seven years ago. He always believed that if one person loved the other more than he was loved back, just the force of the feeling could keep them together. But with Anne, it hadn’t worked that way. It seemed like the more he tried to draw her to him, the more she moved away, like two magnets with the same polarity. Finally, she became so distant that she left on a night train to Denver. He never saw her again.
But he never stopped thinking of her, loving her. Even though she moved on with her life, he couldn’t. He stayed in Emmett simply because that was the last place that they had been together. And now she was back again. He realized it was only because he was sick and needed someone to take care of him. It didn’t make the cancer worth it, but it came close. At St. Mary’s, he turned north on State Road 23. There was little traffic this time of the morning. Any truckers were heading the other way toward Topeka. Alan kept his brights on to illuminate the darkened road. This was the time of day deer moved. It wouldn’t take much to have one slam into his windshield. Wouldn’t that be a joke? Man with cancer reuniting with old lover, killed by oncoming deer. Film at eleven. Next to him, Anne woke up and flexed the stiff shoulder she had been sleeping on.
“Jesus, where are we? We’ve been driving forever.”
“Just feels that way,” Alan said, trying to keep her spirits up. He didn’t want her having second thoughts. “We’re almost there. Twenty minutes out of Emmet.”
She rummaged in her purse and took out a cigarette. Alan noticed it hadn’t come from a pack but was loose in the bottom of her bag. He wondered if she had bummed it from someone on the train.
“Okay to smoke?” she asked, lighting up. She blew the smoke against the windshield. “So tell me, how bad is it? And for once, be honest.”
Alan stayed quiet for a good ten seconds, concentrating more on his thoughts than the road. “I don’t know,” he said, finally.
“You don’t know?” You have cancer. You’re set to take on experimental chemotherapy; stuff only tried on lab rats. How can you not know how sick you are?”
“I don’t know.” Whenever he was lost for words he would repeat the last thing he had said as if this would clear up the matter. It was a habit that had exasperated her when they were together.
“The doctor said I was sick. He said I needed this experimental treatment. He didn’t tell me how bad I was, and I didn’t ask.”
Anne took an extra long drag on her cigarette and slowly exhaled.
“Jesus,” she murmured.
Damn. He was starting off on the wrong foot even before they reached Emmett. “Look,” he said, “One thing I’ve learned through the years is to accept facts. Fact one, I’m sick. Facts two and three, I’m not a doctor, and my doctor says I need experimental chemo. Last fact, you’re here. That’s about all I need to know.”
She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “God knows I’ve missed you,” she said.
He smelled her strawberry perfume and felt her warmth on his check.
“Been right here the whole time,” he said.They pulled into the parking lot of Roberta’s Diner, walked inside and found a table. It wasn’t difficult, the place was nearly empty.The waitress came over. From her looks, it seemed to Alan that she had tumbled out of bed and came straight on the job.
“What’ll you have?” she asked like she really didn’t care.
Anne perused the menu. “I haven’t eaten a proper meal in two days. I could eat the whole left side of the menu.”
“Go ahead,” Alan said. “It’s on me.”
“No, I have to watch my girlish figure,” she giggled. “I’ll eat light. Stack of pancakes, bacon and two eggs over medium on the side.” The waitress turned toward Alan.
“Just coffee. Black.”
Anne looked up at him. “You aren’t eating much.”
He took a sip of ice water. “Damn chemo kills my appetite. Plus, I always feel like my mouth is full of cotton.”
She reached over the table and took his hands in hers and looked into his eyes. “Let me get a good look at you.” She studied his face. “You look like crap.”
He felt the softness of her hands and gently rubbed his thumb over her knuckle. “Got to admit, I’ve been better.”
“Then you really must be feeling bad,” she said. “All the years I’ve known you, I never heard you complain. You could be dying of a heart attack on the sidewalk and all you’d ask for is a glass of water.”
Their food came and Anne took back her hands. Mostly, they ate in silence, she her pancakes, he sipping his coffee and watching her. I could do this forever, he thought to himself.
Anne put down her fork. “Alan, I have to ask you this. Why did you call and ask me to come? I mean seven years is a long time.” He looked into his coffee and thought for a few seconds.
“You want the true answer or the semi- true answer?”
She laughed. “We haven’t seen each other for a long time. Lets start with the semi-true and work our way up.”
“Semi-true answer is I have to start experimental chemo at University Hospital over in Lawrence. They tell me I’m going to be pretty sick and I can’t drive myself there and home. I need somebody to help me. People in Emmett are just too busy with their own lives to cut out a swath of time for mine.”
“And the true reason?”
“I miss you.”
Anne frowned down at her eggs. “It’s been seven years, Alan. We all have to move on.”
“I miss you.” He was doing it again.
She pushed the plate away, unfinished. “Look, we’re going to have to deal with this. But right now, I’m just worn out. I need some sleep. I assume I’m staying at your place, at least for the time being, right? Can you just take me home?”
Alan loved that she used the word home, even if she really didn’t mean it that way. He paid the check, and they walked back to his car.
“How much longer?” she asked.
“You forgot after all these years? Seven miles over Park Road.”
Instantly, he regretted his words. If he wanted her to stay, he was going to have to learn not to push so hard.
They reached his place, got out of the car and walked up the drive.
Anne stepped inside and took a quick in -breath. “Pretty musty.”
Alan laughed. “Consider it Early American Bachelor.”
He threw her bag by the table. “The bedroom is all set up. Even changed the sheets. Talk about true love.”
He saw her face cloud over. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I set up the couch for me. You’ll have the bedroom to yourself.”
“Great. I really appreciate you coming to get me. I’m going to hit the sack. I’m exhausted.”
Within ten minutes, she was in bed. Alan took the couch but he found it impossible to sleep. It wasn’t just the chemo, which gave him insomnia. This was different. She was different. Her look, her smell, everything. In the next room. A world away. He fell asleep, dreaming badly, of Anne, hospitals, and medicine that doubled as poison. He felt a hand, Anne’s hand, shaking him awake.
“Alan, wake up. It’s Anne. I’ve been listening to you thrashing out here, moaning in your sleep. Night terrors my mother used to call it.” She gently pulled him into a sitting position. “Come to bed.”
She led him into the bedroom. ‘Now don’t get the wrong idea. No funny stuff and just for tonight. But it won’t hurt to have a body next to you for a change.” They crawled into bed, her back curled against his chest. “It’s all right. You can hold me. I don’t mind.”
Alan got up feeling well for the first time in months. He couldn’t remember the last time he slept so soundly. He looked at the clock radio. 1:00 PM. He could hear Anne rummaging in the kitchen. He got out of bed. Like usual, his head began clanging. The chemo kicking in for the day.
“Morning beautiful,” he mumbled. “You’re up early.”
She was on all fours opening and closing cupboards. “Only if you think of the afternoon as early. Where the hell’s the coffee?” She slammed a cabinet. “How do you live like this?”
He took a jar of instant out of a drawer and filled the kettle with water. “Sorry. I only have instant. Bachelors look for the easiest way for everything.”
She grabbed the jar and spooned out a tablespoon each into two cups. “That clinches it. After coffee, you leave, disappear until five o’clock.”
“Disappear?” he repeated. “Like, to where?”
“I really don’t care. Get a haircut. Go bowling. Hire a hooker. Just don’t come back until I’m finished cleaning this place. Christ, I don’t know how you men do it.”
A few minutes later Alan put on his heavy jacket and hat. “I’ll be back at five.”
“Not a minute before,” Anne said. “And bring your appetite. I’m cooking dinner.”
Alan came back exactly at five with a bottle of champagne. He poked his head into the kitchen. Anne had two pots bubbling on the stove and was draining spaghetti in a colander over the sink.
“Safe to come in? Christ, you’ve been busy. What’s for dinner?”
She looked up. “Hey. Didn’t hear you come in. Spaghetti and some bottled sauce you had in the cabinet. I tried to spice it up a bit. You sure don’t have much to eat around here.”
He gave her a kiss on the cheek. “I don’t eat much, especially since the chemo. Leftovers sometimes, but mostly takeout from over in Wamego.”
He looked around. “Geez, the place looks different.”
“Try clean,” Anne said. “ I have to give you credit, you don’t do things half-assed. You’re a first class slob. Do me a favor, okay. Try to keep it reasonably clean, at least for a week.”
She put the food on the table. “Let’s eat.”
Alan opened the champagne and poured it into two juice classes.
“Sorry. I don’t have regular wine glasses. Don’t get much company.” Anne took a sip of champagne, made a sour face and laughed.
“And you obviously don’t drink champagne often either. This stuff is awful. I guess Thursday was a good year.”
She doled out two big plates of pasta and sauce. “Dig in.”
They ate, in silence, the spaghetti, sauce, and remains of a loaf of week -old white bread he had in the refrigerator. Alan tried not to look too intently at her, not to push it, ruin the moment. She was so beautiful, even after all these years. If only he could get her to stay– stay forever– to pick up what they had so long ago. Maybe, just maybe it was possible, if only he could keep it together.
They finished dinner, and he got up to help her clear off the dishes. Anne was surprised. “You don’t need to do that,”
“That’s okay. I don’t mind. My mother raised a gentleman.”
She laughed. “Yeah, I forgot. You always helped with the dishes. I remember when you did it the first time you ate with my family. You started clearing the table, and my brothers signaled to each other that you were gay.”
“Maybe I am.”
Anne snorted. “Fat chance. You forget, I lived with you.”
She stood at the sink and started washing the dishes. Alan couldn’t decide if she was more beautiful from the front or the back.
He knew he shouldn’t do it, knew it was courting disaster, but it was almost like he was in one of his semi-dreams that the chemo gave him at night. He walked up from behind, put his arms around her waist and kissed her neck.
“God, Anne, I’ve missed you so much. Don’t you know I still love you?”
She started in surprise but recovered quickly. “Please, Alan. Don’t. You know that’s not why I came. We agreed to this over the phone.”
He let her go. “Yes, I know all that,” he said, in a hurt tone. “But now that you’re here, it’s hard. Tell me, don’t you feel it too, at least a bit?
She stayed at the sink her back to him. He couldn’t tell if she was crying.
“Yes. No. Jesus, I don’t know. Alan, I just got here, and I’m operating on something like five hours sleep.”
She turned to face him. “Look, you have to understand. I came here because you’re sick. To take care of you. Nothing more. You know how much I hated life here in Emmett. I felt trapped, like I was in prison.
“It’s been seven years,” she continued. “My life is tangled enough in Denver. I don’t need you to complicate it more.”
“Do you have someone back there? A lover?”
“Not exactly,” she said. “And there’s a kid involved. Like I said, it’s complicated.”
He sat down at the table, finished off his juice glass of champagne and refilled it. She was right. It did taste like crap.Anne finished drying the dishes. “I need a cigarette.”
She walked into the bedroom and came out with a slip of paper.
“I need you to do me a favor. Is the pharmacy over in St. Mary’s still open? ”
Alan was relieved to hear the change in her tone but surprised by the question.
“Yeah, it’s open ‘til eight or nine.”
“Great,” she said. “I got one of my allergy headaches and forgot to get this filled. Do you think you could run over to the drugstore for me?”
He put on his coat and hat. “I’ll try not to be long.”
She smiled, weakly. “Thanks. I appreciate it. But don’t be surprised if I’m asleep when you get back. I’m really whipped.”
It took an hour and a half for Alan to get the prescription filled and get back. He had been angry and impatient with the pharmacist. All the time in the drugstore, he could see Anne in bed with an allergy headache, suffering needlessly because everyone in Kansas was on slow time. For the first time in a long while he wondered why he stayed here, working the same job year after year. Maybe if he agreed to pack up, move to a big city like Denver, they could be together.
He arrived home and opened the front door. He didn’t want to wake her but he wanted to let her know that the medicine was available if she needed it. He thought about
knocking on the door and entering the bedroom but after the scene tonight at dinner, he wondered how she would react.
There was a note on the kitchen table pinned under the champagne bottle. He wondered if it might tell him what to do with the medicine, to wake her or let her sleep. He picked it up to read it better in the dim light.
God, I hate Dear John letters. They’re so overdramatic, like an old three-handkerchief movie. But to use an old cliché, it really is better this way.
I can’t stay. I think we both know that. It would make us both crazy. I do love you, just not in the way you want. I know you need someone to care for you, especially going over to Lawrence for your treatments. I took the liberty of using your phone and called the Methodist Church here in Emmett. I finally reached some lady who runs the Women’s Auxiliary. I told her of your needs, and she asked if you were a regular churchgoer. I told her the truth—I’m not sure you’ve been to church three times in your adult life—but she said, “What the hell,” (those were her exact words). They’ll cut you a break.
So, they’re going to drive you to and from your treatments and watch over you at home when you need them.
We both know this isn’t what you really want. You want us. But there can’t be any us, not the way you want it. You’ll only be hurt, and I’ll only feel guilty.
So, I’ve caught a ride to Topeka, and I’m going to take the train back to Denver. Please don’t be too mad at me. I know it stinks, me sneaking off like this, but I just didn’t have the courage for a confrontation.
You will always be in my thoughts and prayers.
That was it. Four paragraphs and she was gone forever.
He took the now useless prescription out of his pocket and put it on the table next to the note. Damn, but he wasn’t going to let it all die with a short note written in pencil.
He had to see her one last time. No confrontation, her mind was made up, that was plain. Just to see her, to get her in his mind’s eye. The one he would have to carry with him for the rest of his life.
He locked up, got in the New Yorker, and set a land speed record for getting to Topeka. He prayed he didn’t miss her before she caught the train. That, and for there to be no State Troopers out tonight. It took him only forty minutes. He pulled into the parking lot. Anne was sitting on the front step of the train station, freezing. He got out and walked up to her. She didn’t seem happy, either about seeing him or freezing in the January air.
“I could have told you that this is an unstaffed station. They keep it locked. You buy your ticket on the train.” She was shivering. “Alan, what are you doing here? Didn’t you read the note?”
“Loud and clear.” He lowered his voice almost to a whisper. “Look, I just wanted to say a proper goodbye. That’s all. No scene, no drama. But right now, all I want to do is get you out of the cold and into the warm car. I promise I won’t argue with you or try to change your mind. I just don’t want you catching pneumonia.”
She gave in and got in the car. Alan switched both the heater and blower on full. From the sound of the groan and whistle, the heating system of the old New Yorker was not happy about being tested. After a few minutes, the car began to warm up. Alan turned down the blower so he could be heard.
“How the hell did you get here anyway,” he asked. “I had the car.”
“Called a cab,” Anne said.
“Wait, let me get this straight. You took a cab all the away from Emmett to Topeka. That’s fifty miles. It must have cost you eighty dollars.”
“One-hundred with the tip,” she said.
He shook his head. “You must want to go home awful bad.”
“Alan, stop it,” she said, choking on her tears. “You know it’s not that. I don’t want to go. I have to go. And if you look at it with your head instead of your heart, you’d admit it, too.”
She took off her gloves and looked down at her hands. “I just can’t stay here and watch you die.”
“Everybody dies,” Alan said. “It’s a fact of life.”
“It’s not the cancer I’m talking about.”
Damn, he didn’t want to cry in front of her. That would seal it for sure.
“You don’t love me then? Even a little?”
She turned to him. “Of course, I love you. I’ve always loved you. Just not the way you need.” She heard a train. “Is that mine?”
Alan tried to look out the window that was fogging over from their breaths. “Yeah. Could be the eastbound Amtrak, but probably not. That one is the other people’s train. You’re headed west.” He reached into his back pocket, took out his wallet and gave her all the bills.
“You probably blew your whole wad on the taxi. Here, take this.”
Anne shook her head.
“Don’t be dumb,” Alan said. “You need money to eat, get home from the train station, whatever. Just take it. You spent enough getting to Kansas.” She took the money.
“I’ll send you a check as soon as I get home.”
“Whatever,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. One way or another, it’s fine.”
The train began to screech into the station. He took her bag sitting between them on the front seat, got out of the car and opened her door. They walked to the first available coach car. The conductor was waiting, looking at his watch, wanting to stay on schedule. Alan swung her bag up and started to help Anne up the three stairs to the railcar. She turned to kiss him, brought her lips to his ear so he could hear above the clamor.
“I love you,” she said. “I’ll always love you. Try to remember that.” Alan said nothing.
He watched her disappear into the coach car. The train began to move. He watched her mime goodbye from her window seat. The clacking of the wheels began in slow syncopation as the train moved, gathered up speed, and disappeared. Alan went back to the car. He started it and absentmindedly turned on the radio finding the same country and western music station he had on when he had picked her up. He drove off, west toward Emmett, with only the empty lyrics to lonely songs for company.