This is an excerpt from Lowlands, a novel in progress.
What was this AA thing about guilt and forgiveness, the mysterious transformation from resentment and fear to serenity and amends? Robert had taught the Big Book’s line on it to his sponsees, but it still confounded him. He could not figure it out for himself, for Maylin and Cynthia. Jessica, Leah. Much less with Phil, who’d left Maylin to drown.
The fury he’d felt during his failed attempt to confront Phil just days before had calmed, and after the meeting, he went back to the hospital. This time, he parked and sat in the truck with the window down, and he noticed everything: the dusk, the daytime birds going to roost in the trees, and the night insects winding up. And he thought about her. How free he was to open the door and go where he wanted while Maylin had drowned in Phil’s truck.
The automatic doors sighed open for him and he stepped into the lobby. A woman behind the curved prow of the reception desk did not look up, but a uniformed security guard standing against the wall gazed at him.
“Can I help you?” the woman said.
Robert leaned on the tall counter and asked for Phil Maser’s room number. She looked it up, told him, and warned that visiting ended soon.
He moved down the chilly corridor in his stained T-shirt, work boots, and jeans, feeling like a walking stump, a dumb, handless animal, left knee catching and belt cutting into his belly. Feeling old because Phil and Maylin were so young.
An elevator, a hallway. He passed a corral of workstations where nurses talked and typed, faces lit by blue screens. Then he was at the door.
Phil lay under a sheet in the high hospital bed, eyes closed. A fluorescent light behind his head threw shadows on his face. Dark bruises ringed his eyes and crossed the bridge of his nose. His beard had grown out, and his hair was unwashed. One arm was wrapped in a bulky bandage from fingers to elbow. His other arm was bare, scratched and bruised, an IV taped to the back of his hand.
Robert knocked once on the doorframe. “Can I come in?”
Phil roused and blinked. “Oh, it’s you. Yeah.”
The bed buzzed and levitated Phil’s upper body, like a boat lift. He looked at Robert, his glassy eyes and expression slack with narcotics.
Robert sat in the chair beside the bed, knees shaking, his hands cold, and forced out the words he should say and not the other things — you were drunk, why did you do it, couldn’t you save her?
“I’m sorry this happened. Just, sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too. Are you OK?”
Robert folded, sobbed. When he regained control he looked up at Phil, a perfect rendering of the cartoon Coyote after an explosion. He wanted to laugh.
“You look terrible, man!”
“So do you.” Phil tried to smile.
Neither of them spoke for a few moments. Robert stood up. “Take care,” was all he could think to say.
On the way home, he leaned out the window into the humid night wind and listened to the truck’s low-pitched Tuvan throat song harmonizing with the doppler rise and fall of insects in the ditches and hovering woods. This time, when he got home, he would tell Cynthia about seeing Phil and the regret he’d felt during the meeting — not about his secret shame, that day with Jessica and what happened to Maylin. Not that. He wanted her to understand and let him back into her heart.
Suddenly, a deer flashed at the side of the road and leaped in front of the truck, missing it by inches. The truck idled at an angle in the middle of the deserted road, headlights staring. He rested his forehead on the steering wheel and wept again, surprised that there was more inside him. The pain of weeping was terrible, as bad as any bone he’d ever broken.
He thought, this is defeat, a surrender I never knew I could feel. Now that it was out, he was afraid it would never stop, and it would carry him to the end of the world.
He pulled up the hem of his T-shirt to wipe his face. The dash lights glowed and crickets sang their stream of consciousness from every direction. An eggshell moon stood above the tree line in the east.
Out there in the dark along a hedgerow, the lucky deer zig-zagged on its impossibly thin legs, big-eyed and alert for the kind of danger it could understand, with just two strategies to face it — run, or keep perfectly still.
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