By Max Hipp
At Uptown Cups, Elle explains I’m never there for her. I’m only interested in my imagination. I don’t know how to be present.
She works at the mayor’s office and I snuck into city hall the other night through the propped-open smoker’s door, on a hunch. I heard her throaty moans. Echoes of skin slapping bare skin.
“Also,” she says, “you never hear a word I say.”
This conversation makes me wish I could saddle up a palomino and kick a dust trail. I’m no cowboy, but I want to ride toward fierce horizons.
She says, “I’ve tried this every which way. I’ve really been trying. But I feel like you’re not trying at all.”
I imagine her in the apartment across town, resenting me for still being in the house we bought together. Every morning I journal about the anger, about her and the mayor. I’m trying to write a novel about it, which abates the anger not one bit.
“I think we’re in the end stage,” she says.
“Sounds like cancer,” I say.
“It sure does.”
I was raised by Southern Baptists to fake nice until death, but it feels like nothing should end until I tell her off. Just when I’m about to do it, a man flings open the coffee shop door beside our table. He’s in faded saggy jeans with a plaid button-down opened halfway to reveal a smooth chest in a haphazard, non-erotic way.
“My mama died,” he says, his voice a thick twang. “I haven’t eaten in three days.” A few fat tears plop into Elle’s purse. “To tell you the god’s truth, I was thinking about killing myself.”
I know about grief. If I can’t save my marriage, I can still do good, I think. Maybe prevent a suicide.
“Let’s go outside a minute,” I say.
Elle gasps. “We’re in the middle of something. This conversation needs closure.”
On the sidewalk, women glide by in yoga pants as the small man cries among the boutiques and law firms. His name is Ernest. He found his mother dead. Part of him wants to kill himself to be with her.
“That would create problems for people who love and need you,” I say, feeling wise, tending someone else’s life.
“I got kids,” he nods. Then he says, “What I need is a drank.”
He stinks like a brewery already, though I’m not judging.
I pluck a five-dollar bill from my wallet. “I’ve got my wife at the coffee shop or I’d join you.” I want a beer but remember Elle’s constant disappointment. Somehow my marital transgressions seem more problematic than hers. During fights, I used to blast off down country roads in a Chrysler LeBaron, my phone lighting up from the floorboard.
“You don’t understand.” He starts crying again. “Don’t nobody understand.”
I ask if he has family to call. He dials his sister. I back far enough off to eavesdrop while providing the illusion of privacy. He tells her about suicide and not eating for three days. He explains he’ll wait on a bench by the bank then hangs up, cries again.
I grab his shoulder.
He puts his arms around my neck. “Can I hold you a minute?”
I’ve never held a crying man. I worry how we’ll look from a passing car. And how will it look? A man in need held by a man who hears his every word.
I embrace Ernest while he bawls on my shoulder. His knees buckle and I hold him tighter. If only Elle could see me—present with this stranger. I glance at the coffee shop window but her face and hair are a blond blur. She always says crying is weakness. I don’t mean to talk bad about her, but she’s obsessed with heated leather car seats and alpha males and will retreat to her bedroom to vibrate herself on the highest setting.
He asks, “Could you hold me up?” Before I answer, he pretzels his legs around my waist and hangs like a child, heavy and cumbersome. His scalp smells like earwax, but I can take it.
Delighted shoppers carry bags out of Miss Behavin’.
Ernest climbs down, straightens his shirt. “I need me a drank. That’ll help.” He asks for my number, but his phone screen is dark. He swipes up anyway. “It was on three percent,” he says. “Must’ve died.”
It crosses my mind he’s faked the conversation with his sister to ditch me after getting drink money. I don’t want to believe it. Don’t want to be so skeptical of humanity.
He dredges a pen from his back pocket. I duck into the Blind Pig for a copy of the local rag, write my number and circle it.
“It’s going to get better. You just need family right now.”
He thanks me. Small and frail, he shuffles into the bar.
From the sidewalk outside the coffee shop, Elle’s profile is in the window. She sits up straighter when I’m not around. There’s a pleasant curve in the small of her back. Whenever I approach she hunches her shoulders. She scowls creases into her forehead.
As I descend the Blind Pig stairs into cool AC, I feel some creature leap off my chest and flap away. My lungs breathe a hundred years younger.
Ernest grips a High Life at the bar like it’s giving him heat. He spots me. “There he is!”
Here I am. A good man who once loved Jesus, Elvis, Reagan, and John Wayne. But what you love rides off. It fords technicolor rivers without you.
“This is my pal,” Ernest explains to the bartender.
I grab a stool, order a PBR tallboy. “How long until your sister gets here?”
“Who?” he asks.
Max Hipp lives in North MS and has a short story collection forthcoming from Cool Dog Sound. @maxissippi on IG & bluesky. @maximumevil on whatever twitter is now.