Excerpt: Douglas Light’s WHERE NIGHT STOPS

By  |  0 Comments

Where Night Stops

BY DOUGLAS LIGHT

The bartender sets a new drink before her. She hits the fresh drink hard, taking most of it down in a swallow.

Then she gets up, ambles off to the bathroom.

I check the time. The meeting’s set for noon, three-plus hours off.

The Germans have a chess term. Zugzwang. It’s when neither player can move without landing in grave danger. It’s when both players find themselves in a fucked situation.

Is it possible that an event becomes inevitable only after the fact, only after the disaster’s struck and the damage is done? It’s obvious to me now that something awful had been building for the last four years. The road behind me is littered with signs I couldn’t see as I passed them. Stop before it ends badly, they warned. Stop before you get killed.

Now, in the middle of the mess I made, I have to find a way out.

The woman straddles the stool. Her hands are dripping wet. “They’re out of paper towels,” she says, then, “Ask me a question.”

“What’s your name?”

“No, I mean a real question. Ask me something real.” She grasps her glass with both hands.

I think. “Have you ever been in love?”

“Yes,” she says. “What about you?”

Sarah comes to mind. I remember all the things that started out good, which I turned bad. “No.”

“You’ve never been in love?”

“Well, it seemed like love at the time, but then, after…” I let it drop.

She smiles, showing teeth uneven but lovely. “Have you noticed that people in love always describe love like it’s—” Breaking off, she looks lost for a moment. “I don’t know. They describe it like it were a thing, something you can hold or touch or put on the shelf for display. And yet they never can give a clear description of this thing.” Her voice lifts then drops like lapping waves. “I probably sound like an idiot for saying it, but love isn’t an object, it’s an action. A verb, not a noun,” she says, digging her nail into the scarred wood of the bar. “You know, I’ve been married three times.” She corrects herself quickly. “No, only twice. I’ve been married only twice. And all my men I met here.”

“In Charm’s?”

She nods, touches the bar. “I was married to him.” She points out another spot. “And him.”

It takes me a moment to realize she’s pointing to names carved into the bar in block letters. MASON the first one reads. MASON reads the second.

“You were married to the same guy twice?”

“Two different guys,” she says. “Same name.”

“Uncommon name.”

“Uncommon men.” She swivels around on the stool to search the photos on the wall, then points. “That’s Mason One,” she says, getting up to touch a photo showing the back of a man’s head. Black hair, slightly wavy. “And that’s Mason Two.” She moves to set her fingertips on another. This one smiles at the camera. Young, large eyes, dark skin. And wavy black hair, like the other Mason.

The photos could be a front and back shot of the same person.

Names. A person is bound tight by a name from the moment of birth. It breaks down the bones of a man’s being, forces him into its own form. Manners, sensibilities, even a person’s face is shaped by the sound of the name he’s given. They form the person. Ashleys are always Ashleys, while Andrews are Andrews.

And Masons are Masons.

I am my name.

“Are you still married?” I ask.

She sits back on the stool and tilts her head slightly, giving me a look.

“I lost Mason One,” she says, making it sound like she gambled him away. “Lost him in the Persian Gulf. I used to say the Iraq War but it confused people. They’d ask, ‘The first or the last?’ And I’d have to explain it was the middle one. Operation Desert Fox. 1998,” she says. “Most don’t remember it even happening. The people who do usually try to correct me. ‘Just six days of bombing,’ they say.” She drinks. “It was an action, they say, not a war. They tell me I lost Mason One to an action.” She runs her hand over her forehead like she’s trying to rub away a memory. “I lost Mason Two, too.”

I wait for more. There is no more. I sip my drink. “How?”

“I’d like to say it was to another woman,” she says. “At least with another woman, I could have fought for him, made my case. But it wasn’t a woman. It was Bear Claws.” She pauses. “The pastries. Mason’s Hoosier Bear Claws! ‘Don’t let the breakfast growl getcha!’” A strange giggle bubbles up from her throat.

I’ve had Mason’s Hoosier Bear Claws. A bibbed, smiling bear on the wrapper. We sold them in the gas station where I used to work a few years ago. They are good in a bad way. They make you feel sick but you can’t stop eating them. “That’s your Mason?”

“That was my Mason,” she says, finishing her drink. “My Mason Two. The king of the Bear Claws. And for a while,” she says, “I was queen.”

A silence settles. Then a jangle of keys. The bartender heads down to our end and sets a new drink before her without a word—her third. She swizzles the fresh drink with her straw. “I’m being unfair. It wasn’t Bear Claws I lost him to,” she says. “It was Indiana that took him. And it was all my fault.” A sip of gin. “I talked him into moving there after we married so he could open up a pastry factory. Cheap land. Middle of American. Great for shipping.” She lifts her hand, lets it drop. “We had a nice house, nice friends. Really, we had a nice life. But after two years—” She breaks off, takes another swallow. “Have you ever been to Indiana?”

“I’ve been.” It’s the one place I’ve been arrested.

“Miserable place, right? It’s like being caught at the edge of a sneeze. A constant, awful feeling of wanting to do something you can’t seem to make yourself do,” she says, her brow wrinkling. “Indiana is waiting for something you know can’t happen.”

“What did you expect to happen?”

She lifts her hands, empty. “Life. Or something. Anything. Shit, I don’t know. I was just circling stuff I wanted in catalogues with no money in the bank. It was just a bunch of expecting, hoping, wishing. I honestly believed,” she says, “that just being with Mason Two would be enough. That was happiness. Having Mason Two would make everything all right. I’d change. I could make myself into something.”

She leans to me. “Know what sucks?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer. “We are born complete. Can’t change. You realize that, don’t you? We’re stuck with who we are.”

“People can change.” I’ve seen them change, right before my eyes. It isn’t pretty. “Situations shape a person.”

“We can’t change,” she says again. “Situations only show different bits of a person. Like turning a statue around so the light hits it another way. The statue doesn’t change. Nothing changes. You’re just seeing it differently.” Her gaze flickers to the far end of the bar, her attention caught.

I turn, expecting to see someone I don’t want to see. But there’s no one there. It’s just us.

“You’ve never done anything of importance.” Her voice is like paper catching fire.

“I’m twenty-two.”

“And soon you’ll be thirty. And then forty. And then so on,” she says, then swiftly leans in to press her lips to mine. Her kiss tastes like quinine and cayenne pepper. It heats and sickens me.

Breaking, she says, “I don’t want to be alone right now. I don’t think I can live with being alone right now.”

I know this for what it is. A request. A proposition.

“Okay,” I say, flagging the bartender to have him call a car. “Let’s go.”

____________________________________________________

Douglas Light is the author of Girls in Trouble, which won the 2010 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. He co-wrote The Trouble with Bliss, the screen adaptation of his debut novel East Fifth Bliss. His work has appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading anthologies.

Buy Where Night Stops HERE or order it from your favorite independent bookstore.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply