He could barely see beyond the lights flickering frantically in his dashboard. His hands clenched tight at ten and two as he squinted through the rain battering I-55. Acres of corn and soy fields went by, and he felt himself sinking further into the past.
Eyes on the road, his thoughts drifted. Years had passed quickly in the city, and Mark had lost touch with all but a couple of old friends from home. At times, Mark wondered why the hell he’d hung out with these people. Their musical tastes and senses of humor hadn’t changed since high school. As for their politics, yeesh.
Piasa was a backward place. He recalled the blue collar types letting loose on weekends. He’d seen them at the bars, the bowling alleys, the “members-only” restaurants where all it took to be a member was the right skin color. . . Some of them burned through whole paychecks just on booze, wings, and smokes. They griped about women after their wallets and the lazy black fellas their bosses hired. Mark cringed at the jokes he used to laugh at. He could have been one of those guys. A few of his friends were beginning to look like them more and more.
A sheet of fog lifted, and Mark read the Piasa Heights welcome sign.
—Thirty-five thousand people my ass, he thought.
With all the factory closings, anyone with a brain had packed their bags.
Noticing the time, he headed straight down College Avenue at the intersection where a right turn would take him to his parents’ home. He was already late for meeting his friends and old girlfriend at the park.
—Good old Jill. What’s she up to these days?
His muscle memory navigated College—past the dental school, two churches, two gas stations, the laundromat at the corner of Main, the drug store at the corner of Washington, and, further down the hill, the high school—and he reminisced. The nights of riding around town with her, looking for trouble . . . throwing popcorn at the Ciné, now closed . . . making up nicknames for jocks and weirdos . . . the Parisian honeymoon they joked about and the blonde twins they said they’d raise.
Mark didn’t know why—he’d moved on to bigger and better things—but he wondered about Jill. Would she look the same, have the same easy smile—the same dolphin-squeak giggle? What did she think of him now? Would he have a chance with her again?
The park trail curved before him, and he jerked an eager right turn, speeding up the hill. He angled in next to a dust blue beater, facing a merry-go-round with chipped red paint, and threw the car in park.
The old meeting place. Odd that no one seemed to be around, though.
He stepped out, looked around. Besides a couple of kids on the swings, he saw no one.
—Where the hell is Jill . . . and everyone else? Guess they might be late, too.
Mark shut the car door and started for a bench, crime novel in hand. Eyes to the ground, he kicked a soda can from the gravel lot into a weed patch. He sat on a bench, opened the paperback before catching a glimpse of a familiar silhouette in the passenger seat of the Dodge.
Mark rubbed his eyes, strained them. Rubbed them again. Strained them harder.
It was Jill, alright.
Jill with her eyes closed. Jill with her hair up in pigtails. Arms embracing a man he had never seen. An older man—30, maybe 35? An older man whose tongue probed down her throat. Groping her in places Mark knew well.
An older man. A black man.
“What the fuck?” Mark growled. “That fucking . . . prick! That fucking . . .”
He could not say the word that echoed through him.
Mark felt around for something, anything. Stare still locked on Jill and the man, Mark’s grip locked on the paperback. Taking one last look at the author picture, he threw the book at the Dodge’s driver side window, stepped back in his car, and gulped from his flask. Whiskey streamed down his shirt.
The novel was crap anyway. He could predict the ending after the first chapter.
Mark cranked up the radio—hating the stranger, loathing himself. Don Henley drowned the sound of the man yelling and rapping on his window, and he drove away bawling.