Liza, Milwaukee, 1980
You never met the kid? Liza must have been pregnant when you left. A girl, beautiful, with a round little head and big big eyes. They named her Rita, at first as a joke and then for real. They’d never bothered to get married. Used the money Liza’s parents sent for the wedding to buy a car. And they used to sit around that kitchen with the peeling wallpaper and laugh about all the cash the rest of us all shelled out getting married. The rest of who? None of us was married. None of us had kids. They were the first. Fuck it, Moe would say, the kid on his knee, a little angel wrapped in a purple snowsuit, what I could do with all the money you clowns use to get married. We were all twenty-four, twenty-five. I was teaching rhetoric at UWM. Liza had all that hair then, practically down to her waist. Hair was all over that apartment. You’d be eating and a long strand would be in the spaghetti. It happened maybe a year or two after you moved away and stopped calling any of us anymore. We wondered about you, for a while. But the truth is you were a footnote, no offense. It was Liza. Liza and Moe. My god was I jealous. Sometimes I think I willed it. I remember thinking at the time—I was harsh and stupid and jealous—All utopias eat themselves alive. Like that one they tried to make out in New Harmony, Indiana. All those idealists out there in the corn. So much hope they must have choked on it. Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe Liza just choked on it. All that laughing and all us friends, that crumbling old apartment on Collier Avenue. Moe once blew an entire paycheck on tools, good tools. He said there was no sense buying tools that weren’t going to outlast you, and he’d spend weekends shuffling around the apartment in baggy jeans and a loose tool belt, hammers banging against his thigh, drilling things that didn’t need drilling. And Liza laughing the way she did, without smiling, and actually doing things that needed to be done like re-plastering. She was a rich kid, but for some reason she knew how to do things. Then Rita. And us falling over backwards to bring the kid homemade presents. Because weren’t we all artists? Diane painted a mural in her honor in the bathroom, Virgin Mary in Brewer’s hat. Jim and Nancy built a train that went up and down the banister. I climbed on the roof, did a handstand, and recited Winne-the-Pooh. Every weekend there was something, a concert, a performance, a happening. And then Liza—
People didn’t know what to make of it. It made no sense. I kept my mouth shut at the time, hope eating away at me. As if what, I believed in my gut that she’d turn my way? That she’d say say actually, it’s you, the mediocre poet—
Maybe she just felt swamped by it all. Maybe it all got to be so much that the future wasn’t the future anymore, it was now, and I think Liza especially felt like she needed some other reason to live another day. You remember her? How you’d be talking to her and she’d be laughing without smiling and then her eyes would sort of drift away. Follow me? Maybe I’m wrong. There’s probably something I don’t know. Something nobody knows. But one day, this is how Moe told it, she scooped up the kid and danced her across the kitchen. Then, the kid in her arms, she went over and kissed Moe on the forehead. Something she’d done a thousand times. Oh, Liza, all that hair. You remember? He was at the kitchen table eating a cold slice of pizza from the day before. But he said later he knew something. He didn’t know what he knew, but something came into his head that she was asking forgiveness for something she hadn’t done yet. Or maybe it didn’t happen that way at all. Maybe she didn’t kiss his forehead. Maybe, the kid in her arms, she only looked at him with a kind of sad exhilaration he’d never seen on her face before. I’ve heard once people make a decision like that—
Fuck it, all I know is he said he knew. That’s what he told me anyway. I was never that close to Moe. I was in awe of him, in awe of his luck, but we never really talked. He moved to Chicago with the kid. Suburbs somewhere. Haven’t heard from him in years. And the kid must be—what?—twenty-five by now? Christ, no, Jesus, older—
Peter Orner is the author of four books of fiction, most recently the story collection Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, a New York Times Editor’s Choice book. A new book of essays, Am I Alone Here?, will be out in November, 2016. Orner lives in San Francisco and Bolinas, California.