In the hay gold dusk of late spring, Don Lowry takes his usual walk through town and out to the fields beyond it. In the newly turned black earth, he smells energy and promise, which buoys him in a way he has not felt buoyed in some time, and he feels, along with the whole twitching prairie, as if he is on the verge of something either beautiful or terrible. It is always hard for him to know which. And this is why, while walking home, when he sees a woman, her body sprawled beneath a thick, scabbed-up sycamore at the darkening edge of Merrill Park, he believes that she’s fallen from a high bough.
Don stops at the edge of the park, reaching for his phone to call 911. But he does not bring his phone on these walks; his wife has urged him not to—he works too much, he has chest pains at night, and his face is often lit by a screen—and so he cannot call anyone. From this downhill angle, it’s unknowable: has the woman in fact fallen from the tree or has she been injured or beaten in some way? But as he approaches her, it seems as if she is simply sprawled there for the pleasure of it, for the soft grass and a few stars salting the darkening sky and the moon, an icy coin.
For a moment, he wants to lie down next to her and whisper her name.
It surprises him that he knows her name: Amelia Benitez-Coors, or ABC, as she’s called. He knows her name, and her nickname, in the strange, osmotic way people in a small town know things about perfect strangers; he knows some of her story: she had left the college a year before, and had gone off for a few months, and then, last fall when the leaves turned, she arrived in town again on a red bus from Omaha, to live with and care for the widow Ruth Manetti, whose lawn Don had cut as a teenager, twenty-five years before.
He looks at her form—peaceful, not bleeding or twisted in any way. She wears old jeans and a tight, gray WHERE THE HELL IS GRINNELL T-shirt, and she is barefoot, a hint of her midriff showing, her earth black hair thick and wavy and her skin an olive tone, deepened by sun.
Suddenly, she coughs, the wet hack of a summer cold, and opens her eyes.
Don steps back, as if she has caught fire.
“Were you watching me?” she asks.
“I was just making sure you were okay,” he says, but he’s been caught. He’s lingered too long on the midriff and the diamond stud in the navel, the bare feet with painted toes and a silver ring on the third right one.
She props up on her elbows and says, “Don Lowry!”
He steps back a foot or two.
“Are you okay?” Don asks.
“Do you need anything?” he says. “I’m sorry, I thought you were—”
“You’re Don Lowry!” she says.
This is something that happens. Don’s picture is on business cards and FOR SALE signs and flyers all over town. He’s recognized.
“It’s your business!” she says, this woman, ABC, and sits up now and reaches a hand up toward him. He takes it, helps her to her feet. He is taller than she is, but not by as much as he expects. She is uphill from him, on a small slope, which gives her an extra inch or two. It’s easy to look right into her eyes.
“It’s your business!” she says again, and her dark eyes lock on to his, which is exactly what he wants.
Don has a slogan: “It’s your home, but it’s my business!” Now he is embarrassed by it. Also embarrassing: the sweat stains on his light blue golf shirt, the ill-fitting Walmart khakis, his newly formed gut, his hairline, the pen in his pocket, the permanent name tag, his thirty-eight years on earth. He lets himself look at her again. He looks at her legs, then at the soft fullness of the flesh under her thin T-shirt and begins to feel the first sin of middle age, which is self-pity.
“Yes, that’s me,” he says.
“Get high with me, Don Lowry.”
A full-tailed orange cat struts his way across the park and the crows of some distant tree go crazy.
“I need someone to get high with me,” she says. “Someone I don’t know.”
“Do you know anything about me?” she says.
“You’re not special,” he says, without meaning to, but that’s the thrumming phrase in his inner ear and it comes out, the involuntary catharsis of a phrase he’s been thinking all week, all afternoon, his whole walk.
“Ha!” she blurts out.
“I mean, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that. I meant me. I’m not special.”
“Perhaps you’ve been sent here for this very purpose?” she says.
“To get high?” Don asks.
“Isn’t this a magical night?” she says. “Is it too early for fireflies? Because I just saw some! I think.”
“Or did you mean,” Don says, “that my purpose here is to tell you that you’re not special?”
“I live over on Broad,” she says as if no questions have been presented, and begins to walk away from him. The back of her T-shirt reads: WHO THE HELL CARES?
“I know,” he says, catching up to her. “The Manetti place.”
“Will you be funny?” she says.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Why?”
“Just be funny when you’re stoned, Don Lowry,” she says. “Okay?”
Among his friends at the chamber of commerce, Don Lowry is known as a funny man, a teller of jokes. He always has three new jokes memorized—he does this every Sunday night. But now, those jokes leave him. It’s as if he’s never told a joke in his life. Jokeless, he walks alongside her anyway.
Later, after six or seven beers, and two joints, and a feeling as if he is being lifted out of his life into some other separate plane where nothing familiar exists, Don Lowry—that’s how she refers to him the whole night: first name, last name—is drifting off into sleep, slung into a hammock on the second-floor sleeping porch, and he hears a voice, her voice, of course it must be, but he is not sure if he is dreaming or not dreaming when he hears a whispered moan in his ear: Don Lowry, by the end of this summer, I’m going to be dead.