Birmingham Breakdown, by Tad Bartlett

Whatcha up to, kiddo?” Mom says. She’s standing outside my door. She won’t cross the threshold, won’t as much as poke her head into the room, unless I invite her in. I’m not sure whether to be glad for the sense of boundaries or offended that she’s scared of me.

“Mom, I’m almost twenty-four years old. Hardly your ‘kiddo,’ you know.” My suitcase is already packed, but it’s lying on the floor on the other side of my bed where she can’t see it.

“Do you want to come with me to get some lunch at the Diner?” Every Thursday Mom has sweet tea and meat-and-three with a clique of ladies from church.

“No thanks, Mom. Sounds like hell.” Mom’s probably not really scared of me, but just weary from my negativity. I can’t blame her, though sometimes I wonder at what I am, whether fear isn’t the right emotion after all.

“Joe! They’re nice women. They’ve loved you since you were little.”

“I don’t want to give them any fodder for their gossip circle, Mom. I know how this town works. I’ll make a PBJ.” I give her my calmest look.

“Well, I’m not leaving for another half-hour, so if you change your mind …,” and she’s already backing away from my doorway. She looks relieved. I would be.

Lotte jumped off the roof of the dorm building almost exactly three years ago, in the late spring of my junior year, down in Mobile. Dan graduated that year, a month later. Pretty much from the moment Lotte landed on that dark lawn below the dorm, Dan and I haven’t talked. I’ve been trying to get to the point where that isn’t excruciating.

Dan and I were already great friends before we met Lotte, but it was uneven, that friendship. I was trying to live up to him, and he was trying to teach me things. He brought me into the theater. He took me body surfing at midnight off Dauphin Island after rehearsals. We jousted over philosophy and art and music at cast parties or on road trips or in the quad after lunch, but there’d always been a little bit of me in his shadow. When Lotte came into our college my sophomore year, Dan’s junior year, and we all hit it off, fast, as friends. Something about that triangular strength stabilized things until Lotte and started messing around.

One night, flying high, I even proposed to her. It only lasted for a day or so, and actually woke us up to how foolish we were being. We called it off, patched things up with Dan, made a pact that our friendship was more important than anything else. Things good-intentioned college-aged kids say to each other when they think that their lives are full of possibilities.

So when Lotte and I struck things back up a year later, we tried to keep it secret from Dan. In some ways we tried to keep it secret from each other, make like we were just passing a good time, making each other feel nice, but that it wasn’t something more, wasn’t love. I even denied it, outright, to Lotte’s face, a mere hour before Dan found her crumpled body behind the dorm building. I wanted to tell Dan everything that night at the hospital where they’d brought Lotte and hooked her up to all those tubes, but I felt strangled by the guilt of it all.

When I got home to Meadowview a month later for the summer, I wrote Dan a letter, mailed it to his parents’ house in Prattville. I didn’t write the part about how I’d yelled at Lotte the night she jumped that I didn’t love her, but I did tell him the initial betrayal, the truth that I still loved Lotte and that I knew that played some part in fucking the three of us up. And if he’d written back, then I was going to tell him the rest of the truth, too, how I felt Lotte jumped off that roof because of me and how I just wanted to fix any part of that I could. But he didn’t respond. I waited all that summer for anything from him, but nothing.

It’s been three years, but I have to write him one more time, before I can let it go, before I can move forward.

I get out a sheet of paper. I write the date at the top of the page. 13 May 1996. I write Dear Dan, and then I stop.

* * *

I arrived in Birmingham in May 1994, a year after Lotte’s jump, straight up from Mobile after I graduated, behind the wheel of a small U-Haul truck. I pulled up to the apartment building perched high on Red Mountain looking out over downtown, unloaded everything, which wasn’t much, all except my bike, then coasted that U-Haul down the mountain on fumes and rolled on up into the lot of the gas station where I had to return it.

I smiled at the lady behind the counter, tossed her the keys, then grabbed my bike out of the back of the truck and walked it back up the mountain. That first summer in Birmingham was hot and hilly, and I walked my bike up roads quite a bit, until I got used to it.

My first night in the apartment in Birmingham, I stepped out onto the slim little balcony outside the sliding glass door from the living room and sat on a plastic chair with a cigarette burning in one hand and a juice tumbler filled with vodka in my other hand and looked out at the city. Waves of heat made the lights twinkle in the windows of the office buildings and medical complex on the valley floor of the main drag downtown. The roofs and trees closer up the mountainside were lit red from the WBRC-6 neon sign on the crest of the mountain a couple blocks behind my building. A breeze lifted out of the valley and set the leaves of the trees by the balcony to whispering.

I started work at a copy editing gig my college adviser had hooked me up with. An old buddy of his was a senior editor at one of the magazines for this publishing group, cooking and decorating tips and the kinds of essays that Southern ladies-who-lunch like to read about lemonade on porches, hound dogs. But when I got there, in this office park in a desolate stretch of warehouses, nondescript cubicle farms, and barbecue joints stuck between downtown and the first ring of suburbs, they told me the lifestyle magazine was all filled up with a couple new hires a week before, but that they had a need for a copy editor at a construction equipment trade magazine run by the same group three buildings down. So I started editing copy about wheel loaders and backhoes and hydraulic system preventive maintenance, and the occasional essay that general contractors like to read about pickup trucks and GPS and power tools.

I shared an office with another copy editor who had been there for three years already. She was kind of pretty and I would think about her sometimes at night out on my balcony but I never could entertain the thought of actually asking her out on a date or anything because her breath was something awful. Nobody hardly ever came into our office, just left new pages in the box attached to the wall outside our door. I didn’t mind that meant people would pretty much leave us alone.

I made it through my stacks of copy every day—articles, these list things barely converted from press releases, advertisements—and once a month the color keys and proof pages right before production. There was a new stack every morning that I whittled down to nothing by 5:30 every evening, then I would go to Alvin’s, a little bar in a grittier part of downtown. I drank pitchers of cheap beer and played pool on the crooked, torn-felt pool tables. I would usually drop a few bucks’ worth of quarters in the jukebox so I could sing to myself and not have to really talk to anyone if I didn’t want to, and I never wanted to.

But one evening at the end of that first summer, August suppertime sunshine streaming through the propped open door of the bar, a woman I’d never seen walked in. I was down to my pitcher’s last mug. I squinted up at her as she stood at the jukebox next to my table. A plain white v-necked T-shirt a size or two too big for her, paint-splattered jeans, brown hair back loose in a ponytail.

It had been quiet. My songs had all played, and most of the old gray-heads who I shared happy hour and the pool tables with had either left for their homes or settled down into a curmudgeons’ daze at the bar. Everyone had a cigarette lit.

She was unfazed by my watching her. She read carefully through the song list, then pressed the button to flip the pages of the display, going through each one before punching in her selections. I heard the CDs sorting in the machine, the mechanical click and whirr as one was pulled out and slotted into the player. The clanging, charging opening riff of a Pixies song started playing, and she smiled to herself before looking over at me.

Take a picture?” she said. But I didn’t mind the sarcasm, or that I’d been busted staring, because when she looked at me her eyes were oceanic and blue, even in that dark bar, and when she looked at me it was like Lotte looking at me. The last time I’d seen Lotte’s eyes, they were lifeless, drained, as Lotte lay comatose in that hospital room.

Uh, hey, yeah,” I stammered. “Want to play some pool?”

She thought for a second, then said, “Sure. My name’s Annie. You rack them while I get another pitcher.” She grabbed my empty pitcher and walked to the bar, her arms loose by her side. I was waking up, not from a nightmare, but from more than a year of deep nothing. My hands trembled as I racked the balls. I kept glancing up where Annie was standing at the bar, making sure she was still there, real.

She kicked my ass in three games of eight-ball while we drank from her pitcher. The sunlight drained from the doorway.

There’s this punk show at Sloss Furnace tonight,” she said as we sat back at my table finishing the beer. “You game?”

It was already pushing nine o’clock and I had another full day of copy editing the next day, but I was drunk and I had just turned twenty-two a couple weeks before and I was ready to follow Annie to the ends of the earth, or at least to the edge of downtown, where Sloss was located. It was an old pig iron foundry that had been converted into a concert venue. Lots of concrete and rusted metal and who knows what all buried in the ground under the weeds and broken beer bottles.

I threw my bike in the back of Annie’s hatchback and she drove us there. The show was already under way as we paid our five bucks and got our hands stamped at the entry gate, and we ran through a maze of broken sidewalk pathways to where the stage was set up under the old corrugated metal roof of the furnace. Annie dove straight into the whirling mass of the mosh pit, and I was right behind her, and we were a hundred-strong maelstrom of cocked elbows and swinging knees and ducked heads and jutted chins and boots and blood and teeth and bruises and yells and laughter.

After, we lay on the hood of Annie’s car looking up at a dark sky, our arms pressed together, and my heart and breathing slowed down.

You were kind of a maniac in that pit,” Annie said after we’d been lying quiet for a while.

I know it’ll sound weird,” I said, “but I’m just feeling so, I don’t know, alive all of a sudden.” I wanted to turn my head to the side and look at her, signal to her that this waking was to her credit, but fear kept my head looking straight above.

After a pause long enough I was certain I’d lost her by sounding like a doof, she said, “I get that. I can feel pretty numb sometimes, too. But something about this evening.”

Yeah,” I said. Her hand slid over onto mine, and she pushed herself up on one elbow and looked down at me. I was actually kind of happy there for what seemed like a good long while, what felt like it could stretch forever, starting that moment.

We went back to my place and got naked and drank some of my vodka and listened to my stereo and then shared a tall glass of water and went back and forth from my mattress where it lay on the floor in my bedroom, to the WBRC-6-lit balcony to smoke cigarettes, and we held each other and napped in the dark early morning and then stirred again to watch the sun rise over downtown and drink coffee before Annie left and I showered and went to work.

All that day I thought that this isn’t how it happened, that someone like Annie doesn’t just walk into my bar and I don’t just drink and dance and hit it off with her. But I pushed that thought down. Then we spent the whole weekend together, meeting after work at a Waffle House out in Hoover, going to a small club for another band, three dollars’ cover and bad drinks, then waking up in her apartment the next morning to go hike around on Oak Mountain south of town. And that thought about the impossibility of it all left me for months.

The cracks started to open up when the days were cold and at their shortest, the holidays bearing down. Annie was a studio art teacher at one of the private schools in the suburbs, so when school let out she left to go home for a couple weeks to visit her family in Macon. I didn’t go home to Meadowview, but stayed in Birmingham, alone. We were backed up at work, and I was helping fill in with copy editing for some of the other magazines in the group.

I didn’t bother with a Christmas tree, just me, but I did string lights around the sliding glass door in my living room. I hadn’t really felt the loneliness since August. Annie’s side of the mattress was cold, yet when I closed my eyes it was Lotte I saw, Lotte’s eyes, and I would feel her soft against me and then feel air falling fast on my skin, falling, and with a rush I would wake up, sweaty in my sheets.

After repeated nights of this, the thought began to gnaw at me that this was all I had coming for me, falling, that happiness wasn’t for me. With Annie not there, and Lotte returned to my thoughts at night, nobody could reassure me that I wasn’t trying to get away with a lie. A lie of happiness, of not being guilty. That whole holiday, the sun would never be up, would seem to never rise, only gray overcast gradually lightening outside my windows, and I would drink coffee and go to work under clouds, day after day.

By the time Annie returned at the beginning of January, I was a jittery shell. It was hard to look her in the eye, and after a week we were out at Alvin’s one night and she grabbed my shoulders roughly and shook me until I looked at her.

What?” I snapped.

What’s wrong with you? Are you tired of me? Have you been fucking around on me?” she asked.

No.” I tried to look down, but she put two fingers under my chin and lifted my face so I had to look at her, so I asked her, “Annie, what do you see in me? Tell me.”

I don’t have to see something in you,” she said. “It’s enough that we have fun together, that we enjoy music and beer and each other. Be happy with that, Joe Joe. But something else has gotten into you.” She let go of my shoulders and I turned to sit down at our table.

I lit a cigarette and gave it to her as she sat down, then I lit one for me. I stared at her for the first couple drags, saying nothing, and she watched me, waiting.

I need to tell you about something,” I said, and so I started telling her about Lotte and Dan and me.

After I was quiet for a moment in the tale, Annie asked, “So you think she jumped off that roof because of you?”

Well,” I said, and let the rest of the sentence go.

Don’t you think that’s a little conceited?” Her words were harsh, but her voice softened.

Of course it is,” I said, “and I’ve thought about that, too. I hope it is just that. But at the least, I know I screwed things up with Dan, too. Even if I’m not responsible for what Lotte did,” and then I just had no idea. It was easy to put the thoughts together in an intellectual way that everyone was making their own choices, causing their own damage, but at the heart of it, at the heart of me, I knew we were linked, and suspected I was the one who had torn those links.

Can you do anything about it now?” Annie asked, bringing me back up to the surface.

No.”

I’m with you, Joe. Don’t let something you can’t change come between that.”

That helped for awhile, and I was really doing better right on up through to when March opened up and the sun started to come out and there were hard buds and young leaves on the trees. But the dreams of Lotte came back every few nights, still, making this underside of dark to everything that I tried to conceal. The unexpectedness of Annie, and her solidity, and even the moments of outright joy, were friction against the dreams and the guilt. I couldn’t tell if it was all better or worse than the absolute numbness I’d been in before Annie woke me up.

It was as if Annie were a cruel joke, someone hired to prank me, to get me good and solidly in love, in her hands where she could crush me like Lotte had been crushed. Sometimes at night, I would come in from my balcony from having a smoke, and she would be on her phone on the futon in my living room, talking low, and she would glance sideways at me and say something else into the phone before hanging up. Or we would be out at a club and she would say she had to go to the bathroom and then a half-hour later I might find her standing outside talking to people I’d never met, and I’m sure all of it was innocent, but if I were particularly close to one of those Lotte-dream nights it would put me on edge. So I’d pour another drink and smoke some more cigarettes and we would either have sex or I would be unable to get it up and I would feel miserable.

But then sometimes would be OK, many times, really. And I could never know when the switch would flip. One night, late March, Annie decided to stay at her own apartment. It was actually fine, not altogether unusual. We’d had dinner together, and I’d told her this big long joke I’d ripped off from part of a Thomas Pynchon novel, a joke nobody ever laughed at, more an interminable story whose humor was in the interminability of it, about a boy born with a golden screw where his navel should have been and all the lengths he went to throughout his life to get rid of that screw, specialists, magic potions, until one day he found a plastic-handled screwdriver during a strange dream that removed the screw and he jumped up for joy only to have his ass fall off. And Annie laughed so hard and I felt so good, so when she said she had things to do around her apartment and I said, “That’s fine. I do, too,” it really was fine.

But that night, alone back at my apartment, I felt the darkness descend fast over my vision and over my heart. I’d stripped down to my boxers, wanting to feel the cool air on my skin, and I was out on the balcony, smoking, thinking about Annie and our good time at dinner, when I heard Lotte whisper to me in the young leaves and the breeze. “Fly,” she said. Clear as day, I heard her. I stood to listen closer, but couldn’t make sense out of the sounds of the wind in the trees, so I climbed up onto the railing, balancing there, Red Mountain falling steeply down below my feet and all of downtown spread out sparkling like a dying campfire.

I closed my eyes to it all and listened for Lotte’s voice, but she didn’t speak again and the quiet stabbed into me and I fell backwards onto the balcony and against the sliding door, cracking the glass with my head. I grabbed my head in my hands, and felt the warm stickiness of blood. I brought a hand back in front of my face and saw it wet and red. I stumbled inside. At my kitchen sink I filled a mixing bowl with water, leaned my head over the sink and poured the water over me. That’s when I heard her again, the voice, maybe it was Lotte or maybe it was Annie—it was all mixed up in my head, like the voices in anyone’s head—and she said to me, “Go over the mountain. Go, Joe.”

Annie lived not far over the crest of Red Mountain, and it made sense to go see her. I could warn her away from me, or maybe she could comfort me, make me better. I was in no shape to hop on my bike, so I walked out of my apartment and the couple blocks over to the Red Mountain Expressway. I could catch a bus or hop in a taxi or hitch a ride, I figured, but by the time I got to the expressway and crossed over onto the median, three lanes of honking, screaming traffic going one way and three more lanes streaming the other, I was so dazzled by the light and noise that I couldn’t think about any of that. I walked down the median, over the crest of the mountain and down the other side, toward Mountain Brook and Hoover. Sharp pebbles and broken glass cut at my feet. I tripped and fell, just catching myself with my hands, slicing my palms on the rough pavement.

As I got back to my feet, staring at my bloodied hands, I heard brakes screeching and was covered in flashing red and blue lights. I felt rough hands close on my arms. I tried to shrug them off, but they threw me to the ground. “I have to save her,” I tried to tell them. I don’t know who had called the cops, but maybe it was a good thing they did.

Annie came to see me the next day in the hospital. My parents had come up in the middle of the night and moved me into a private room from the ER. My mom was sitting in a chair between my bed and the window, harsh sunlight coming through it, when Annie walked in.

“Mom, please,” I said, nodding my head over at Annie. Mom looked at her, and I could tell she was trying to assess Annie, see if she had something to do with how I ended up there. “Just a couple minutes, Mom.”

She stood up, smoothed her hands down her blouse and pants, said, “I’ll go get a snack from the cafeteria. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Then she left without actually greeting Annie.

Annie stepped over to the side of the bed. She put her hand out toward mine as if she was going to hold it, but stopped short when she saw the I.V. tube sticking in it. Her hand rested awkwardly on the sheet next to mine. “So you going to be all right?”

Whatever they’ve got going into me,” I said, looking at the tubes, “I feel fine, like nothing really.” I made myself smile.

She smiled back, but it was so different than those smiles at Sloss or at the Waffle House or in the red glow on my apartment balcony. “God, you’re like a mummy.” I had bandages on my arms and hands, my feet, my head. “I can bring you something from your place, books or music or something.”

Hey,” I said, “let’s not do this. Neither one of us did something wrong here.” I could see a protest maybe starting to form on her lips, so I said, “I’m clearly just not able to do this right now.”

But maybe you will be. You’ll get out and you’ll be fine.”

I’ll get out and my parents will take me back to Meadowview, is what’s going to happen. So, let’s not do this.”

She turned and looked out the window. “OK,” she said.

OK.”

* * *

Mom was looking at me with that unblinking concern at breakfast again today. I hate that. I prefer Dad’s way of avoiding any eye contact at all, like last night, eating those hamburger steaks and mashed potatoes, his jaw working at it like it was the only thing he had to do in the whole world. Chewing and waiting for death, or for me to leave the house, whichever comes first. I’m not the easiest son, and I’m not making things any better, either. Probably ruining that damned idyllic small-town dream of his. I bet he’ll be happier when he gets home from the mill this evening and I’ve hit the road.

I’ve been long enough back in this town, a year almost; too long, really. We’re a profound disappointment to each other, this town and me. It got quieter and smaller since I was last here. It looks at me like I don’t belong here, like it barely tolerated me long enough for me to graduate and get out after high school. Then there were a couple summers home where I learned it was best to just do whatever summer job I had—down at the mill that one summer, the graveyard shift at the radio station another summer—but otherwise just stay to myself. I certainly wasn’t supposed to come back and live here, not all broken. That’s for sure.

There’s always one of three reactions from people in this town, none of whom are strangers because nobody’s a stranger here, for better or usually for worse. The first kind of reaction is from older white ladies, out at a restaurant or in the aisles of the grocery store. “Ohh, Joe,” they say, huge fake smiles plastered on their faces, their eyes wide and exaggerated like they’re talking to a baby, “How are you, dear? It’s so nice, you helping your folks out. We’re so glad to see you!”

The second kind of reaction is from the few people my age who will still look at me and talk to me. “Man, I always figured you was crazy,” they say. Every single one of them, without fail. And then maybe they realize what they’ve said and they always try to clean it up real fast, “You know, back in high school!” At least they’re shooting for honesty, so I cut them some slack.

The third reaction is the predominant one, though. They look around me or through me or in the other direction altogether. If they accidentally look at me, they wince and look down. Downtown, the few times I’ve had to go pick up my own prescriptions from the Rexall, I swear people actually cross the street when they see me.

When I first came home, I spent the days down in the creek bottom by the house, sitting on a log and listening to the water burble around soapstone rocks, watching the sunlight shift through the trees. When it turned to winter, though, when the leaves were all gone and I could see the neighborhood houses up on the rim of the gully the creek ran through, and they could see me, I just stayed in the house, in my room.

Mom comes back to my doorway. “Sure you don’t want to come, Joe?”

“I’m sure, Mom.” She turns to walk back down the hall to the door, but I call out to her. “Mom!”

She comes back to look at me. “Yes?”

I look for some words. I’m a little surprised I’d called out to her. “Thanks. You and Dad, these last few months. You know. Thanks.”

She screws up her face, like she might cry, but it resolves into a smile. “Of course, Joey.”

I know I’ve confused her, but as she walks back down the hall and I hear the front door slam, I know it’s the best I can say to her. I turn back to the page in front of me. Dear Dan, it still says.

I scratch out the Dear and complete the letter quickly:

Dear Dan,

Three years. How about that. Three years and not a peep from you. I don’t expect you even live by your parents anymore, but it’s the only place I have to mail this. Who knows where you are? I don’t care. Took three years for me to realize you didn’t, either.

Maybe that’s my fault. Or maybe it’s yours.

Joe

I can’t think of something better to say. I can’t capture it all. It’s not Dan’s fault, any of this. I don’t suppose it’s Lotte’s fault, either, or Annie’s, or even mine. And that’s why the doc my parents make me see once a month says he thinks I’m good to go now, why he says I’m better, because I don’t care whose fault this past is anymore. I stick Dan’s letter into the envelope and scrawl out his parents’ address on the front. I stick a stamp on it, grab my suitcase and head down the hall. I leave the letter in the mailbox, flip the flag up, then throw my suitcase in the trunk of the little beater car my folks got for me this year.

State highway 22 stretches south out of town. It’ll join up with state highway 5 in Safford, then U.S. highway 43 in Thomasville, everything draining me down toward Mobile. Then I’ll leave even the geography of my past behind. I’ll drive west on I-10. New Orleans? Maybe. Or Houston, San Antonio, Tucson, L.A., the ocean. It’s all ahead of me now.


Tad Bartlett’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in print or online at the Oxford American, The Carolina Quarterly, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Euphony Journal, The Writing Disorder, The Rappahannock Review, Bird’s Thumb, The Subtopian, and Double Dealer, among others. He’s earned an MFA in fiction at the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans; and is a graduate of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and Tulane University Law School. He is a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.

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