The Stories I Do Not Know For Sure
When I first meet David, he’s wearing a NASCAR jacket, black with patches as bright as a carnival. I’ve just left a full-time job to live with my husband Tony, and I am an adjunct again. Even the copy machine suspects my credibility. I glance at the paper spilling into the feed tray. In Illinois I always feel as if I am in someone’s way.
“NASCAR fan?” I ask.
He’s a giant, with thick white hair, reserved blue eyes, a quiet dignity. Growing up, my next-door neighbors congregated every weekend for NASCAR. My mother cultivated the tree line, but I loved the distant roar of the cars, the gentle swish of beer cans opening. Why did no one ever gather on our porch? Why was my family so quiet and furtive?
“Thrift store,” David laughs. “Who knew Illinois would be so cold?”
The smell of the ink hovers ghostlike around us. It is cold here, and I nod.
David and I have both started teaching in the English department where my husband works. David is full-time, but on a temporary contract. We’re both new and confused and on trial.
“He founded MacWorld Magazine in Australia,” Tony says with the reverence he reserves for technology. “I think he believes teaching will be relaxing, like a working retirement.”
“He’ll change his mind on that pretty quickly,” I say, and we laugh.
But earlier that day I passed David’s classroom, recognized his slumped students, his anxious eyes. I could see myself in his posture, one foot canted toward the door. Who were these people: all staring and striving and wanting? The story of this town is that it started as a graveyard. The Illiniwek tribes refused to live here but traveled for miles to bury their dead. Then the settlers came and did the same. As a consequence, there are bones, human bones, buried deep below everything.
In February, David invites Tony and me over to watch the Oscars. He and his wife, Sandra, live on the edge of town in the conference center hotel, still thick with the smell of former bustle, the bank gatherings and agricultural forums. Now, when the rooms are full, they are full with the fringes: paranormal experts, psychics, faith healers. The mildewed pool is always dark and flat and empty. David and Sandra have two rooms and two massive dogs: a sweet black lab and a blue-eyed husky that growls perpetually. We don’t pet her. We don’t make sudden moves. Sandra is also a giant, with dyed maroon hair, smoky eye makeup, and an Australian accent that cuts through noise like a scythe. On television, James Franco and Anne Hathaway fish for laughter, and even Tony has to fight for his voice amid Sandra’s commentary. Wedged between them on the flimsy hotel couch, I sip my cosmopolitan in the barrage of their words. This is how it will always be when we visit them, a war of perspectives and sound that sometimes has us all talking at once, so loudly that afterwards my shoulders and throat ache with the effort of it, and it’s unclear if anyone has heard anything at all.
David and Sandra have just moved from California, and they’ve come with nothing because the storage unit containing their possessions burned to the ground. Sandra shows her new online purchases—a pink wicker elephant, a pair of Korean marionettes, a wine decanter embossed with occult symbols—while David tells the story of things that were lost—signed first editions, box sets of their favorite films, crystal dishes, a Marilyn Monroe issue of Playboy found tucked inside the wall of their San Francisco apartment. They’ve replaced the hotel television with their own giant screen, have filled the media cabinet with discount movies from Wal-Mart and the dollar store. With them, I am always admiring, always marveling, always nodding in sympathy, always drinking too many too-strong drinks until my head is thick with the ghosts from their past.
Afterwards, Tony and I sit in the car in the hotel parking lot and listen to our ears ring. Beyond the curtains we watch the shadows of David and Sandra shifting in their room, aware, maybe, of our headlights cutting in on them.
“That’s the funny thing about a destroyed storage unit.” Tony says.
I nod. It could contain anything.
We do not become best friends, or even good friends, but when they invite us we often accept. Sandra works from her hotel room at a nebulous technology job that has something to do with virus protection and the government, something classified and secret. Often she cannot leave the room because she’s on government alert, or else she’s working overtime to “give the guys a break.” She makes dinner for us in the hotel toaster oven: hamburgers on bagels instead of buns, baked potatoes, lamb. The dogs beg and whine.
“I bought these online,” Sandra says, holding up a garbage bag. “Would you like one?”
When I look inside, the bag is filled with stuffed Alf dolls. I’ve never seen so many Alfs in one place.
“We used to know the man who did the voice for Alf, when we lived in L.A. and knew people in the industry,” Sandra says. I choose an Alf and draw him into my lap.
Sandra has a habit of one-upping stories. She’s been a model, been an actress, known all kinds of famous people. She once had cancer and received a Siberian husky as a gift from the Starlight Foundation. If I mention a band, she will describe how she was once a singer. If Tony mentions a celebrity, she’s met that celebrity. Years later, my sister will draw me a comic in which Sandra makes outrageous claims. “You’re at the neurologist’s? I used to be a neurologist. You’re on the moon? I used to be the moon.”
“She might be a spy or she might be nothing,” Tony says when we’re home and I’m nestling Alf into our pantry. Tony’s losing patience with our evenings in their hotel room, with their fantastical stories, as rhythmic as incantations.
“We should keep a list of their stories,” I say. The truth is, I am never in my right mind when it comes to stories. I linger too long in unsavory places, call telephone numbers better thrown away. Alf looks worried next to the canned tomatoes. I smile at him as the pantry door squeaks closed.
If they are lying, they are skilled liars, confident, detailed, and quick, skilled at avoiding contradictions. Looking back, I’m sure they must have seen right through us, that people like that could look straight into the heart of a person like me. This isn’t to say that we never swapped slop