We drove north out of town, following the directions they gave us, and stopped at the side of the road where they said it happened. But we could find no signs. Nothing at all. There were no scraps of paper, no tire marks, no beaten down grass, no broken glass, no burn marks or ashes, no signs of any disturbance or anything unusual at all really. We picked up a few beer cans and some fast food litter to try to redeem the trip from total pointlessness. We debated a while if we should go back and ask for directions again or if perhaps we'd gotten the crossroads wrong, turned too soon or gone too far. In the end, we decided we didn't have time to try again so we drove away, leaving the tall cottonwoods rustling their leaves along on the far side of the ditch. We wondered aloud and privately if it really ever happened and then forced ourselves to change the subject and stop talking about it as we drove on the our next appointment.
Years later, I was driving that road on the way to visit a friend, when the fenceline cottonwoods rose into my view ahead. The early morning light sent shadows of them crossing the roadway and without meaning to, I slowed down as I neared the spot. And there in the tall ditch grasses, exactly where they'd said it would be, was everything we'd expected to find. The books were there, tumbled in the ditch, some lying open, their pages fluttering in the breeze. Black skid marks on the asphalt lead to tire tracks that flattened the grasses. Broken glass, the smell of gasoline and oil, a burned patch in the grass along the shoulder. Envelopes of guitar strings, business cards, matchbooks, a makeup case, CDs, your sunglasses, and folded roadmaps.
I looked up and down the road, but there were no cars, no other people. I started to gather up the books into a pile when a crow landed on the hood of my truck and two more landed on the center line of the pavement. They cawed and flicked and shook their wings and cocked their heads to stare at me. I looked down and the book in my hand was open to the photo of you, victorious and smiling, a strand of hair blown across your face, standing on the steps of the courthouse. I dropped to my knees and cried as I held the book to my heart. The crows cawed, flapped wings, rose and settled again together in a broken branch of the cottonwood trees.
In the end, I left everything there. I knew if I took more time to gather things up, if I picked up the books and straightened their pages and closed them and stacked them in my truck, that I would be late to see my friend. And what would I do with them, how would I explain them being there? What good could those things do me anyway; what use were they to me now? I drove away, leaving it all there, fluttering in the wind, catching and reflecting the sunlight.
I drove away and as I did, the crows dropped out of the tree and flew along and behind me for a ways before veering off into a valley to dive and tumble with each other until I had to leave sight of them to turn my eyes back to the road.
My friend was waiting on the porch, smiling, with a pitcher of lemonade for us to share and a vase of sparkling yellow roses, fresh with dew and glistening in light reflecting from the white of house walls. We talked a while, laughed, shared stories, joked. We talked about our plans, our hopes. Then I saw it there on the chair between us, your book, open, face down. She saw me looking at it and picked it up, closed it, and slid it onto her lap. She broke the silence that had settled upon us by offering me more lemonade, and we talked a while more, remembered, planned, laughed. Once, we sat silent for a while to watch a coal black cat walk the distance of her driveway, then double back and stalk a grasshopper that was sitting in the gravel. The grasshopper popped high over the cat's head at the last minute and the cat walked on as though nothing had happened. When I got up to leave, she stood to hug me goodbye and I saw that her lap was empty, the book not there. She smiled and walked me to the truck and hugged me once more before I drove away.
I miss you but I am not sure you are really gone.