Independence day — Mark Roy Long

This is what happened that one night the first summer we were together. We were in the bedroom with the door shut and lights off. Then there was this banging sound as if someone was trying to wrench open the back door. It was hard to make out exactly. She elbowed me—hard—in the ribs.

“Check it out,” she said.

“You know,” I said, “it’s him.”

“You’re the man,” she said.

I said, “He didn’t want to kill you.”

There was a louder thumping like heavy footsteps moving through the house.

Without waiting, I pushed open the nearest bedroom window and, in my underwear, barefoot, dropped down into the backyard.

Through the window frame her face was a pale blob looking down at me with a dark “O” for a mouth.

We met years earlier, right out of high school, but then went off to different places to do different things before winding up in the same town living on the same street. Her husband worked forty miles away, and so he was up early and home late. First, we hung out a little, then a lot. Sometimes in the afternoon we played trivia on the big screen TV in the bar across the street from the college. Sometimes we’d head back to her house. She railed about art and politics and the state of the culture in general. While she carried on, I drank my beer, leaning back in the rickety wooden chair next to the butcher block that took up one corner of the kitchen. Sometimes she came to the shack I soon moved to outside of town. We sat in lawn chairs out in the pasture that surrounded it, blasting the stereo with all the windows and doors open. She always had to head back around five to beat her husband home. She’d take a quick shower, brush her teeth, get dinner going. She’d be back in wife mode. I told a friend of mine: She didn’t have any problems except for being married.

One afternoon, after things had progressed, I was working on the big Scag I used to mow yards now and again. I was at her uncle’s place on the farm her family’s dairy had been on. One of the drive belts had slipped off so I had to unbolt the housing to get it threaded right. Years later—long after the uncle had endured a divorce of his own followed by a heart attack, stroke, and eventual death (it was, they said, from a broken heart)—we bought the house and the acreage it was on. The house got pushed down and buried in a pit dug by a big backhoe, and we built our own dream house to live in happily ever after, at least for a while. But on that afternoon it was all years in the future. I was just a guy working on a mower who looked up to discover her then-husband parked at the foot of the caliche driveway in the white Civic I was more used to seeing her in.

He got out and walked my way.

I drifted backward to the tailgate of my truck where, in the bed and out of his sight, there was a crescent wrench as long as my forearm.

“There are,” he said, “consequences for what you have done.”

“Is that so,” I said.

He walked to the back of the Honda and pulled a 12-gauge pump shotgun out of the trunk.

My brain ginned up a million spur-of-the moment plans that, no matter how I worked the angles in my mind, all ended alike: me on my back in the tall grass wheezing my life away with a sucking chest wound looking at the clear blue summer sky until everything went black.

He repeated, “There are consequences for what you have done.”

I waited for him to chamber a round or raise the barrel so I could chunk the wrench gripped in my hand at his head and run in the opposite direction as fast as I could before the shotgun blast.

He said, “You cannot expect to get away with ruining everything like you have done.”

Stone-faced, he stared through me while I thought some more about the blue sky and the sucking chest wound. I couldn’t tell you—not then nor now—what sort of look was on my face but, as he stood there, it must’ve satisfied him. He put the shotgun back in the trunk and, without another word, got in the car and drove away.

A week or two after that I was firmly planted with her in their raggedy American Craftsman bungalow with the rotting front porch, the fridge that needed a chair pushed against it to keep the doors closed, and a clutch of window units that slowly died, one by one, over the next year. He wanted to get back together but she wasn’t having it. Then they had to talk through lawyers the rest of the way. She figured he’d gotten it all out of his system and wouldn’t be around again. Then that summer night came when we heard someone breaking into the house.

When we finally did get married, neither of us saw the need for a big family affair. The license was good for ninety days, and we’d had it for a few weeks. She called me at work on a Friday morning—back when for a while I had a full-time job—to tell me to take the afternoon off, that she’d made an appointment with the justice of the peace at the courthouse.

“I told you,” she said, “I’m not in this to play house.”

“Well then,” I said. “I’ll be seeing you.”

She picked me up in the parking lot outside my job. The car stereo was playing The Beatles 1 CD. The sports jacket I never wore was hanging in the back. We stopped at the HEB on the way so I could buy a bottle of champagne. We found a parking spot on the street right outside the courthouse. Inside, the couple in front of us—a middle-aged Hispanic man and woman—was just finishing getting married. There were four or five people with them.

When our turn came, her and me and the JP were the only ones in the courtroom. He said some words. My chest was tight. Her eyes were wet and a few tears rolled down one cheek. The JP said some more words about God and man and bonds that will not be torn asunder. I felt like I was floating; I felt like I was about to collapse. Then it was over and we kissed each other. He hugged her, shook my hand, and wished us the best of luck. Later, when she told the story, she said I was crying too but I didn’t remember it that way.

She drove the car to the city park, to a high cliff—Lovers’ Leap—overlooking the Brazos River far below. I opened the champagne. We took turns taking deep drinks out of it, passing it back and forth. We looked at the horizon far away. We looked at each other. We held hands. We kissed. The sun went down and the landscape spread out in front of us began to go gray and then black. On our way back down, I switched the car’s stereo to the local rock station which was playing AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and that made us laugh.

We went to the liquor store two blocks from our house to get more champagne and maybe a bottle of rum. The two guys who worked there—Tony and Sammy—were so excited we’d gotten married that they made us wait while Tony drove home to get his camera. He took our only wedding photos: the two of us standing in front of a Jack Daniels’ display with a TV mounted on the wall in the background where a guy on an episode of Cops was clutching the bars of his jail cell. It was a great day, a really great day. The greatest ever. It was the day where I was so happy I couldn’t imagine ever feeling unhappy again.

I’ll say this: We took our best run at it. Eventually, though, everything was broken and nobody could fix anything. By then, the whole thing was a pretty sorry affair. She lived in our dream house at her family’s farm. Now it was her dream house. I lived at the house in town with a chair shoved against the fridge to keep it shut. More often than I cared to, I found myself thinking back to that vision of a sucking chest wound and the clear blue sky. He had been right: There were consequences for what we had done.

Anyway, that one night the first summer we were together.

In the backyard, I tried stealthily to creep around to the side of the house to see if I could spot her soon-to-be ex’s car. But, for some reason, the booming footsteps were even louder and coming faster outside than when I was in the house. A boom followed by a flash in the sky caught my attention, and I looked up.

Fireworks.

It was fireworks: the Fourth of July fireworks show at the city park on the river a mile away. I was barefoot. I was in my underwear. I felt stupid. But alive. Stupid and alive was a pretty good combination, all things considered. I called up into the window—it was too high to climb back into—but there was no answer.

Given my state of undress, I had to do more creeping around the house to the screened-in back porch. The door was unlatched, but inside that the kitchen door was locked. I knocked lightly on it. There were no lights on and no sound from inside the house. I knocked again.

“Hey,” I said. I called out her name.

There was silence, only the slowing sound of fireworks dying out in the distance.

“Hey,” I said, louder.

The light came on the kitchen and shone from under the door.

Footsteps came up to the other side of the door from me.

“Who is it?” she said.

“It’s me,” I said. “It wasn’t him at all. It was just fireworks down at the park. It’s the Fourth of July.”

And then nothing happened.

I understood she was not going to let me in. I had revealed too much about myself. I wasn’t the kind of guy she could be with. I was just guy standing in his underwear on a dark porch on the wrong side of a locked door. Maybe, I considered, I was not the kind of guy anybody could be with.

Then the lock on the door turned and she opened it and relief was on her face and we stepped into each other’s arms and laughed and kissed and laughed and kissed some more.

At least, that’s what happened that one night.


Mark Roy Long lives in Waco, Texas. He writes inconsequential things and retweets Internet ephemera on Twitter as @markroylong.

Image: Fireworks, © Tom Childers, Creative Commons