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James Was Here

July 18, 1993|ELIZABETH TALLENT | Elizabeth Tallent wrote "James Was Here," she says, because she was "really interested in that sense of American maleness connected to the West and with the prerogatives of maleness that are no longer right. It matters that 'James' takes place in Santa Fe; it's not New York City." Tallent, who teaches English and writing at UC Davis, moved to Northern California four years ago and now lives in Little River near Mendocino. Her third collection of stories, "Honey," which includes "James," will be out in November from Knopf. "It's very much New Mexico, about the nature of intrusion," she says. "I was thinking a lot about boundaries and metaphors for that. It's about relationships, about people who were immigrants and about really adult compromises."

Five, a number of brothers that had to make or break her. They live, she's told James, in a couple of trailers on land they inherited when their folks died in a car crash. Strictly speaking, the six of them own a small piece of land each. If they divided it up, none of them would actually own enough land to put a trailer on--thus, togetherness. She's told James of ex-girlfriends driving out late at night to discover only Tina will come to the door or sit at the kitchen table with them while they cry. She's told James she's learned from experience not to wake any of her brothers, no matter how the girlfriends plead. None of her brothers knows how to be any consolation, Tina's said.

James reads want ads, finding nothing worth circling. He got his contractor's license last spring, but it hasn't meant what he'd hoped it would mean, constant work. Mist blossoms on the window over his cup, erased by instant glassy cold when he lifts the cup, his freshened coffee hot as fever, the glass alive with reflections, a brilliant, shifty collage of outside and in--the salt and pepper shakers suspended over a distant mesa, a shard of James' forehead with little rivers coursing down it. A radio tower signal blinks interestingly from within the salt. Tina stops at his table as she's leaving. "Raining good, huh? Finally."

"It needs to keep raining, not drift off somewhere else."

"I know I'm supposed to hope for that, but it messes up our road. You didn't eat much." She takes his plate, though it's another trip to the kitchen for her, and the dollar from under the salt shaker.

"Tell your little girl 'Feel better' from me, OK?"

"If she knew who you were."

"You never mention me?" He sounds hurt; he tries to invest less in "Never?" And fails. "But I'm in your life every morning. Right here every morning--if I wasn't, you'd miss me."

She handles this as five brothers have taught her to, winsomely, giving him time to get it together. "Are you going to be gone?"

He's not her responsibility, so why does it take his shaking his head no to free her of this conversation?

"Then I won't miss you." She smiles at him steadily, her smile losing certainty because she wants to be, then is, out of there.

James sticks around until her old Camaro, juiced up by one of the brothers in celebration of a little sister's beauty, jars across the potholed parking lot. Its taillights burn in brief reckoning, it cuts across the Santa Fe-ward traffic, and she tucks the Camaro between two semis in the northbound frenzy, the second trucker leaning vengefully on his horn, James whistling under his breath, the taillights that are \o7 Tina\f7 shut off from view and carried away. Leaning on his elbows he tries the funnies, but without her this could be anywhere, spread newspapers and smeared plates, or nowhere, with nowhere's neon-ringed clock and the apocalyptic desert sunsets that appear paint-by-number but aren't, nowhere's Muzak, nowhere's regulars, nowhere's truckers whose brooding gazes have traded an external, verifiable broken yellow line for an inner one--stroke of yellow, tick of black, stroke of yellow--real enough to undulate, climb hills, pass through woods. James stands and the gun slides downward like a bolt, the punctual end to daydreams. To the hand that seeks it out it's reality, chill and shapely, persistent, intelligently receiving the hand that closes around it, offering a beautiful handhold.

James walks a self-conscious, self-fearful walk toward the cash register, negotiating with himself for reasonableness. After such long dislike, it's a pleasure to carry a threat toward Harry, and he doesn't want this to be too much of a good thing, he doesn't want to go astray. A heavy-hipped waitress, standing out of James' way, rests against a table, and her bottom, faced toward James, is so humanly beautiful it calms him, it lets him say to himself softly enough, \o7 This is crazy. \f7 Behind the glass counter, big slabs of breast under a completely buttoned-up cowboy shirt, straw-pale hair oiled to keep to his scalp, the half-moons for close reading etched in his bifocal lenses, is Harry, Harry taking note of James, James choosing two mints from the dish, Harry telling James, "Nickel each."

James, incredulous: "Can't be."

"It's sad."

James says, "Is Tina going to keep working after she's married?"

"Has she told me? I warned her I need some notice, too."

On the spur of the moment James says, "A pack of Marlboros. No. Yeah."

"Which?"

"Give me the cigarettes."

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