Annie lifts her father's old binoculars off the porch. Out past the cornfield a lime-colored pickup idles in the fog of Mrs. Lanie's tangelo grove next door. The driver's side hangs open, but no one is behind the wheel. Clutter juts from the truck bed, vapor rises from the tailpipe. Annie knows most of Mrs. Lanie's pickers, but she doesn't know this truck.
A ridiculous thought occurs to her. Owen's come back. He's sneaking through the grove and coming around the back of the house to surprise her. He'll cup her eyes from behind and say something stupid like, “Guess who needs glasses?” Or “Who turned out the lights?”
It's early. She hasn't brushed her teeth or concealed her dark circles. She hasn't washed her hair or even pulled it back. The ropey ends catch on her mouth as she sips her coffee. She scans the grove for the shape of a person stealing tangelos. There's no one she can see.
The last thing Annie wants to do is think about Owen. But it's like one foot tumbling over a slippery edge of earth the way she unexpectedly falls again and again into the same opening. Her thoughts have become flimsy, sentimental, throwaway songs. Nursery rhymes. Where oh where have you gone?
Steam rises to her lashes from the coffee stalled at her lips. She lowers the cup and presses its warmth into her chest, into the pocket of chilled bare skin above the zipper of her fleece. It's not as if their five years together were perfect. They were riddled with rough patches, cruel things slipping from their mouths. She watches the fog shift over the field and remembers all those brassy, merciless words. No doubt she'd use them again, given the chance.
The problem is the nights she couldn't sleep for all the pleasure rushing through her. The malty scent of his skin, like freshly cut grain, something meant to be eaten. The feel of his cuff brushing her wrist made her greedy for sex and food and music to be played even louder. She'd spent years floundering in smoky, mediocre venues hoping for a crowd to show, and suddenly, here was her muse, her good luck charm, making her old hopes seem puny, amateurish in comparison to what she had with him.
She can't forget this is the porch where most of the songs for Gull on a Steeple were written. Detour the same old dog that howled at the harmonica. These Adirondack chairs the ones whose red paint Annie and Owen wore away from so much use. Annie circles the rings of coffee and wine with her finger, the oily bug spray sealed into the arms like evidence of mornings, evenings, late nights spent trying to get it right. He made an honest-to-God singer-songwriter out of her. She made a sought-after music producer out of him. Rolling Stone declared Gull on a Steeple “An instant classic filled with vivid tales of love and loss without the slightest hint of sentimentality.” Depression magazine claimed, “Annie Walsh's painful, clear-eyed, storied songs are woven with a voice reminiscent of the great Patsy Cline, Lucinda Williams, and Aimee Mann, all spun into one.” The comparisons flattered her for the first few minutes, but after that and ever since she's done nothing but worry about measuring up. Even when Entertainment Weekly came along and knocked her down to something of a Disney production, “A sprightly, nearly elfin frame that charms its way across the stage and into your heart.”
Now it's hard to even listen to music, let alone play it.
Cold fog quiets the birds and shifts like hot steam above Lake Winsor to the east. Minutes earlier hailstones sliced past Annie's bedroom window and skipped off the ground like pearls on concrete, escaping in all directions. The timer on the coffee pot had already gone off, and Annie dressed quickly in a fleece and jeans, her red rubber boots with the knobby black soles. She emerged onto the porch as if from a cave, coffee sloshing down her wrist, Detour stumbling at her heels the way old dogs do, scared old dogs, with no direction. Annie wanted the hail to prick her skin, to shake loose the stubborn reveries pinned behind her eyes. But in the time it took to pour coffee, the hail had already moved on.
She flips on the small radio she keeps on the porch. It's set to a station she found by accident at the end of the dial, thinking she was turning up the news. It runs crackly old serials where salesmen and seamstresses make their way through hard times-characters who do things that don't always make sense. But then you hear the backstory the next day, something to do with an aunt's dying wish, or an orphan on the side of the road whose true identity is just becoming clear. Today it's a butcher in New York and a young boy, his nephew, the son of a brother the man hates. He seems to love the boy in spite of this. “You remind me of me at your age,” the butcher says. The accents are a little overplayed.