Sarah couldn’t help but think that even at the age of twenty-four, Jesse bore the exact shape of a grizzly. He was bushy-haired and barrel-chested, with thick forearms and a belly like the bulge of an old-fashioned cash register, stopped short at the belt.
Most days in town, you could find him sitting on the overturned, sun-bleached canoe that had been in front of the general store for as long as anyone could remember, playing his dad’s old banjo and making small talk with the men who’d come down to town pretending to need a torque wrench when all they really needed was some time away from the ferreting attentions of their wives. Jesse could be counted on to offer a cigarette and by the end of it, the man would feel better, touching the lid of his cap as he shuffled on in to the store, or sometimes just heading slowly right back to his truck. The ladies just smiled at his compliments. “Hey, Jesse,” they’d say, and the tempo of a skirt’s swish might speed or slow to match up with whatever little riff he plucked out for them as they passed.
But here he was on Sarah’s couch, shirtless and passed out, face down, thick arms stretched out above him, the rest of him under a sandy old Mexican blanket she normally kept in the back of her car for picnics or trips to the beach. Prone like that, and flattened out because his gut nestled invisibly down into the cushions, he looked almost normal size—but his black, metal-toed boots, lined up tidily next to him, heels tucked up against the couch corner, were huge. He was one of those men you simply couldn’t reconcile with the child version of him in a family photo, and it was nearly impossible to look at his face now and sketch in the features of the boy he had been.
He hadn’t been a kid when he pulled that baby from the car on fire. People in town were wrong about that when they always said just a kid, he was just a kid. He’d been nineteen and that’s not a kid. She’d known him then, she supposed she’d known him always, and he wasn’t. In lots of places she knew about, nineteen was a father’s age, and maybe that’s what made him so able to do it without even hesitating. But whatever was or wasn’t in him that day, a burly kid out front of the hardware store loading peat or chicken feed into your truck, it wasn’t in this soft, sleeping man anymore.
From the doorway, in her mind, she crossed to him and sat on the low table beside him, leaned in, letting the backs of her fingers run gently down the beard on his cheek, across to where his hair curled at the spot behind his ear, and up around the back of his neck.
In town, they said he hadn’t been able to unbuckle the carseat, had nearly caught fire himself trying, and finally just took hold and ripped the thing right out of that stupid hot pink car, the whole thing, and the section of seat it was attached to. One rumor said he’d scooped that baby boy right out even though he was already burning, and when they got to the hospital, Jesse and that baby had been nearly seared together, and the baby had stopped crying before they even got there.
Jesse must have felt her looking at him, because without even twitching or stretching, he was awake. Eyes open, bloodshot but clear. “C’mere,” he said without lifting his head. He pulled an arm down and patted the coffee table. She hesitated. “I always wanted to sleep on your couch,” he smiled, then pushed himself up onto his elbow. She went, she sat. The gentle intimacy of a morning let him touch her leg then, and let her let him, until he touched the end of the little cotton belt of her dress. She could smell the beach on her old blanket, but beyond that, what his neck would smell like if she were to rest her face there, and she could guess at the strength he would put into looping a forearm behind the small of her back, if he ever did. She could also guess at the softness that would come over him if she were to lay down with him there. She knew about the things that come out of men when you lie down with them in a cotton dress, when you let them touch your body on the outside of the dress, not because there’s sex there but because there’s sadness.