Mowers gnaw at the afternoon. Streets gory with red leaf light. Sprinklers noose shrubs. Comes a motorcycle, two riders, Florida plates, into the town. I and Ophelia beat to pieces by wind and three days of interstates. You see a yellow/green glow on yards and brick walks and porch pumpkins.
“In that corner place,” I scream and dip my helmet, “Guy comes home from work, 19maybelike46, house burnt to the ground.” I scream, “His mother, three babies, wife, barbecued!”
Ophelia screams, “I can’t hear anymore Bobby!”
I scream over my shoulder about the death house with the ivy but we’re inside helmets, plus all day engine howl and windblast, we are deafened.
Ophelia hugs for balance and screams, “But I’m saying how could it burn down? I see it!”
I scream,”That’s what they rebuilt where it was you’re seeing!”
We are on a wine-red Daytona in early October in Pennsylvania. We wear the shaped blue leathers with zippers. Blue leather with zippers. Easing along so slowly some rabbity girl on a Schwinn Lulu passes us with big ears, her legs cranking roundwork and she’s got the ballcap with ponytail ears.
Slide to the light. The town green is wide and divided by the intersection of Highway 281 and High Street. 19th Century churches and libraries and a school around the leafy grass. A vee of geese overhead. I torque around to look at Ophelia’s face, pinched into a kiss by the helmet padding.
Pieces of sunfire speckle the wall. Wedding chest. Pie safe. Long mirror, black walnut bar. Three locals want to talk about the bike or it’s just Ophelia in the sweaty tank top with leather jeans and green eyes they want. Our big helmets like second heads on the bar. Smells like old spirits here, cedar and malt, and roasted vittles from the dining room.
“What will that thing do? Be honest? Or put it like this. What have you done on her? Be honest,” says a man, this man with scars and gin.
I don’t honestly know but Ophelia goes, “He’s had it up to one hundred forty five. Two White Horse with Perrier.”
“Jesus Christ rules heaven and earth,” Scars goes.
“Two White Horse with Perrier, please? Bobby told me it felt like breaking the atom. Or popping the cheerleader’s cherry, he said.”
The men bark at Ophelia, who says to the bartender, “What’s your name? I’m sorry? Bill? Two White Horse with Perrier, Bill.”
Bill is really enjoying chewing gum and says all pepperminty, “I would think it would be scary. One hundred forty. Forty-five? Mary Queen of Heaven.”
Ophelia’s pants creak. I spread all ten fingers as wide apart as they will go.
The inn was built in 1788 and has an earth floor wine cellar, upstairs a check in desk beneath a corner of staircase, a bar, restaurant, kitchen, storerooms, freezer lockers, and from June through October, a garden restaurant and breakfast area, then rooms for weddings or meetings on the second floor, as well as guest rooms, a new section, new brick, with more overnight rooms, a walkover attachment to the old Griswold Hardware, more rooms on the third floor and on the top floor, attached by a DNA spiral iron staircase, a suite where my brother manages everything. My brother, Garth.
“Bring her over to sweat on me,” Garth says.
“Bill gave us some stiff ones,” Ophelia says.
“You’re giving me a stiff one, Oaf. Look at her! Bobby, look at her!”
“All right” I go.
“I want to eat dinner off those jeans.”
“No you don’t. I’m hot and drunk,” Ophelia says.
“You come ready to use!”
I say, “It’s not hot. It’s getting cold.”
“It’s I’m just drunk. Whewee fug.” Ophelia staggers a little to demonstrate.
“You luscious upright land mammal!” Garth says. “Brand me your slave for life!”
He’s in a pressed tattersall shirt, a blazer. Innkeeper gear. He has been tallying costs of restaurant ingredients he gets from the Amish market, he says, and taking reservations and blocking rooms and dates on his office Mac on his cherry desk.
His office up here is beautiful: wood and windows and brass.
“Our inn can boast that once George Washington did sleep here and so did Lana Turner and in the same room but I always joke not on the same night,” Garth says.
“Holy moly,” Ophelia says but I’ve told her this a thousand times and who Lana Turner was and about the cowboy actor Roy Rogers and his wife in the blue suite and later two governors and Bill Clinton and Garth Brooks and a writer named something. John something.
Now the pause is large. Garth breathes and gulps and jumps in: “Anyway, Bobby, you’re home or you aren’t home?”
“No. Coming home, Garth.”
“I’m afraid to ask. You’ll be my chef? Make me famous?”
“That’s how it looks.”
Garth removes his gold wire glasses and stands and cries tears. “Baby brother.”
“So anyway,” I go. You sort of tingle and buzz after all day riding. I do at least.
Garth points at his eyes. “Hey, Ophelia! Look! I’m crying. Shouldn’t you be comforting me? Big bosomy, comforty kissy hug? ‘Don’t cry, Garth.’ Isn’t that the drill?”
In our room, dark coming down, a pink lamp on, she says, “He’s so handsome. He is.”
She wants to know, now that she’s met Garth, more about his lover and his being gay. ”Who is it again?”
“Sven. You’ll like him. They’re discreet. Ultra code blue discreet. This is—“and I need to think. “Two like decades now.
She says, “Twenty years together?”
“I know. They’re both city council. Well, I mean, Sven’s the fucking mayor. Do you believe? And nobody knows?”
“That’s hilarious. It’s sweet I guess. But-”
“What?” And I probably sound furious or something.
“What is with all his talk? I’m like, privately, Garth, just try me or shut up!”
“I know I know I know. He always does that. I think my point is, he has to.”
Which is so hard to tell her about because she grew up in D.C. and then Boston.
“Hey.” I want to change gears. “Hey, bee- tee- double-you, where the fuck did you get one-hundred forty-five?”
She opens her mouth wide, eyes alight, nodding yes. “Huh? Huh? Next time you’re gonna be doing two-fucking-hundred.
Why not? It’s just vicarious. No, like, two- oh- three. You’ll be going two-hundred and three.”
Ophelia laughs and stretches and smells her underarm and shrugs and pulls up her hair up off her neck up into a nest on top of her head with her fingers interconnected through it.
“Okay, well,” I say.
“You told me so much. We Googled everything. I dreamed it—funny to dream a place you’ve never been and get so much right. “
I sit on the bed, now, looking probably mournful like a bad dog and it is gravely that I go, “We are here and this is as pretty as it gets here. No more white sands. Okay? Hot nights, seafood, palms. None of that. It gets cold and then colder and stays that way months and then it doesn’t get warm, it rains. We’ll have to sell the bike. We’ll have to be able to talk to each other, lots, because there is no one else. And I’m gonna be working ten, twelve hour days seven days a week because an inn? It never closes. Christmas Eve, New Year’s, your birthday, end of the world, we’re open. You can’t get mad at a customer and you can’t be too tired to make a bed. We’ll finally have some money but nothing to buy.”
“We talked all this out. I know, Bobby.”
But I won’t let her off. Telling her this and that. She’s at the window, hair up, hips canted, weight balanced on one boot.
Out the window, the city’s street lamps, which used to be gas lamps, which are strong and tree-looking iron, throw a small town kind of light, an upwash of light on the blond and violet leaves, the green leaves, the red leaves.
James Robison has published stories in The New Yorker, won a Whiting Grant for his short fiction and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his first novel, The Illustrator. His work has appeared previously in Corium Magazine, as well as Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and Grand Street, The Manchester Review, The Montreal Review,The Raleigh Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Scythe, and elsewhere. He has work forthcoming in The Northwest Review, Story Quarterly and elsewhere. He was 2011 Visiting Artist at The University of Southern Mississippi.
Art by Matty Byloos