Where I’m Coming From
They had nothing to recommend one another by except where they’d come from, and as they both would have agreed, that wasn’t very much. They met at a Christmas party. Grover’s boss Mister Jamison had suggested he come because he didn’t have anywhere to go for Christmas. “It’ll be informal,” said Mister Jamison. “Just some friends and neighbors.”
She’d grown up in Dunsmuir, the next town over from Grover’s, but the towns were small enough that they were all considered part of the same community. She’d graduated a year earlier than Grover and their high school football teams had been rivals. During homecoming members of his class would drive over to her school and deface their mascot, burn an effigy in the middle of their football field, or some other small town ritual that couldn’t help but seem almost quaint here in the big city.
Grover brought a bottle of wine to the party. He’d decided he wasn’t going to go, and he wouldn’t have, but television was the same depressing holiday fare, It’s A Wonderful Life and Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown! and besides, his refrigerator was empty. He brought a bottle of wine and arrived an hour late hoping to find a corner to hide with his drink and little plate of food. Everyone was dressed in red sweaters. Mister Jamison was wearing a red sweater with little white snowflakes on it, and he was holding a cup of eggnog.
“Grover!” cried Mister Jamison when he saw him. He clapped him on the back with his free hand. “Glad you could make it!” he said. “Have you found the bar? The food?”
“Yes, thank you,” mumbled Grover. “I brought a bottle of wine.”
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Mister Jamison. He seemed to be in excellent spirits. “Have you tried the nog? It’s wonderful!”
Grover shook his head and nodded in a kind of evasive, noncommittal response, then feigned to see someone he knew—an overall empty gesture since Grover didn’t really know anyone. Mister Jamison however was already very drunk and he bought it, leaving Grover as he wished to be left, in peace.
Amanda was leaning dependently against the piano. They caught each other’s eye in the way that two people at a party where they know no one else might, recognizing in the other that selfsame look of helplessness. She was wearing a long black dress and she had a red scarf or shawl draped over her shoulders and when she heard Grover’s name, she laughed. Too bad, she thought. She could never date a Grover. She couldn’t say it with a straight face. She came from a family of practical jokers and she knew that an onslaught of small purplish toys at every gift-giving occasion was the least they would do. She laughed again, aloud this time, because she realized she was, only on her first glass of wine, a bit tipsy already to be forecasting years worth of practical jokes with a young man she had not yet shaken hands with. Ah, there. He had her hand now.
“How do you know Jamison?” he asked.
“I live just down the street,” she said.
“Aha,” he nodded, without even offering the conditions of his own acquaintance.
They continued to stand there staring at the pictures on the wall. Grover coughed, and Amanda took it as an opportunity to get a better look at him. The most striking aspect of his face was a three-inch scar that ran diagonally across his forehead. It wasn’t the scar itself that made it so noticeable to the viewer, but the way his face seemed to be molded around it, like a fetus from which all the tissue and organs have developed. Even his hair had been cut to obscure it, though when he was nervous, as he was now, he had a tendency to brush his hair back with the back of his hand. Grover finished his glass of wine and asked if he could get her anything.
“Sure, why not?” she shrugged. His name aside, she liked him. He seemed awkward, uncomfortable, which she took in these environs as a sign of authenticity.
Grover wasn’t sure how they’d gotten to talking about his hometown because it wasn’t something he was ever particularly keen on talking about; in fact usually he tried to avoid the subject altogether, but there they were. There was a picture on the wall of their host holding a giant steelhead trout and seeing this, Amanda made mention of how she and her dad used to go fishing along the Sacramento River, and before he could stop himself, out it came. “I know it,” he said. “I used to go there all the time.”
“Oh?” She was surprised. People from back home didn’t usually make it this far to the big city. “Are you from Dunsmuir?” she asked.
“Berryvale,” he answered, again before he could stop himself, before he could appreciate what was best for him and lie. He looked at her again. She was beautiful. Her hair, which would have hung just above shoulder length, had been tied into two small and very tight braids and seemed to have been done so not for the occasion so much as that her hair was now long enough to wear it up. He found it hard to believe someone so beautiful could have come from Siskiyou County.
“You don’t usually meet people here from back home,” she said.
He nodded and shifted his weight. “To be honest,” he frowned, “I have trouble meeting people at all.”
“Well, it’s a tough town to meet people,” she offered (generously, he thought). “Even around Christmas. Especially around Christmas, it seems. You’d think it’d be different, but—” she shrugged.
“No,” he shook his head. “The trouble’s with me. I’m no good at small talk.”
“What are you talking about?” she exclaimed. “What are we doing right now? This is small talk, isn’t it? Seems like you’re doing pretty well to me.”
“It’s not the same.”
“Listen,” she placed a hand on his arm. “How long have you been here? A year?”
“See? It takes time! These things don’t just happen overnight, you know. I remember when I first moved here I was terrified. I couldn’t talk to anyone for months, you know, but you have to have patience with these things. It’s not like back home.”
Grover nodded and drained the last of his wine. “I’ve got to tell you,” he said, “I’m dying for a cigarette. Do you smoke? Would you like to join me outside for a cigarette?”
Amanda smiled. “Sure, why not? I haven’t smoked since I was a teenager, but what the hell, right? It’s Christmas.”
“Let me just go get a refill and I’ll meet you out on the porch.”
Grover was glad he had come to the party. He liked this girl, liked her a lot in fact, and he didn’t know if it was because of or in spite of where she’d come from, but she’d been the first person he’d really talked to in months. He refilled his glass of wine and got another for Amanda and then, just as a show of how appreciative she’d made him feel, he walked up to Mister Jamison and thanked him, actually put his arm around his shoulder and thanked him, for such a wonderful party.
Mister Jamison looked down at him as if he had no idea where Grover had come from or what he was talking about, and Grover surmised that the high Mister Jamison had previously been under had worn out its welcome.
He found Amanda seated on a bench outside underneath the eaves. It had begun snowing again and she was looking out into the little copse of pine trees behind Jamison’s house, thinking how the darkness thickened underneath their boughs and what kind of barrier was created by the light that ended just beyond the porch.
He handed her her glass and took out a lighter and a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket. He cupped his hand over the flame to light her cigarette, and then without letting the fire die, he lit his own. He exhaled with great satisfaction.
“I was just thinking,” said Amanda, “you and I are about the same age, right? I used to know people who went to Berryvale High. We must have known some of the same people. And your name, Grover. A name like that isn’t so easily forgotten—I mean, Grover isn’t a terrifically common name, right? I hope you don’t think I’m prying by asking you this, but—”
She was aware that he had turned away, that he had shut off, and she cursed herself for speaking too soon. He’d made her comfortable, and she’d felt she could speak freely. He wasn’t looking at her anymore. He didn’t really seem to be looking at anything. “That was you, wasn’t it?” she asked. “Homecoming? The accident? That must have been terrible for you.”
Grover curled his mouth into something like a snarl, picked a grain of tobacco from his lip and flicked it out into the darkness. He turned back to her, all teeth, and chuckled. “That was a long time ago,” he said. “I’m surprised you know about that.”
“It’s a small world,” she said. “Especially coming from where we come from.”
He snorted. “Yeah,” he said, “small in all the wrong places.” She expected him to say something more, but he didn’t. He smoked his cigarette down to the end and then he threw it off into the snow. “You know what?” he said. “I should get going. I should go. It’s late.”
“But why?” Amanda squealed loudly. She looked very nearly hurt. “It’s only ten thirty!”
“No, I should go home. I have things to do tomorrow.”
“Listen, Grover. You don’t need to go. Let me tell you something, I—” She was going to tell him she had cried when she had read the story in the paper. It had been her first year away at college and she’d been having a tough time of it already, and then her mom had sent her the clipping with the note attached, “Hope it’s no one you know,” and she had burst into tears. She remembered the article’s tone had been cold, impersonal, and accusing at the same time; another high school car accident, another tragic example that these kids of ours just haven’t grown up enough to be out in the real world.
Grover smiled and shrugged. “Thank you for the conversation,” he said, making every strain toward formality. “I’ve enjoyed it.”
He tried to smile but all that came out was something like a scowl. “Goodnight,” he said. He stepped off the porch, favoring, almost imperceptibly, his right leg as he did so, before disappearing around the corner of the house.
Amanda watched him go. She looked back inside at all the people, at the party just reaching its peak, another carol belted out under the auspices of whiskey and wine. Her cigarette was very nearly burning the tips of her fingers and she dropped it, almost absentmindedly, onto the porch, crushed it with the toe of her heel, and decided she would call her mom the next morning. She would ask her what ever became of that boy, the one from the accident. She wouldn’t mention that she had met him here, here of all places. She wouldn’t want to worry her mother. Amanda stood up, picking up her glass, turned back to the house and went inside.
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Portland Fiction Project
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