The pieces of his past that he shares with me are blades of glass. I store every shard under my skin.
They cut us both when he touches me.
The only lights were ours. We were going as fast as that truck could take us.
She was sleeping in the floorboard of a U-Haul packed with everything we had. Our dogs slept on the seat with me. I'd driven the whole way.
I couldn't see her down there in the floor. But after five years you know a person by the rise and fall of their breath. In the pitch black I could make out the rise of her hips from memory, barely tucked into the space under the dashboard.
The U-Haul had a governor. I could only go so fast.
I changed radio stations, but it was no use. We were barreling through the middle of Montana at 2 a.m. I could make out parts of a passionate sermon on an AM station and there was the faintest hint of an Oldies station, but the only thing that came in clearly on the radio was a call-in show featuring a silky voiced DJ named Delilah who played love songs people called to dedicate to others they hoped might be listening.
Phil Collins sang "One More Night," and I tried to remember the last time I grabbed the hips tucked under the dashboard, willing slopes I could sink fingertips well into. All I could remember was the pull of her skin against my palms as she moved away, the tap of steely lips tapped against my forehead.
One of the dogs yawned. The high school girl called Delilah to say how much she loved her boyfriend and requested "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" for him. And I laughed, tickled at the idea that this teenager could feel like a woman, much less a natural one. I imagined this school girl's next phone call to Delilah, her voice thin with devastation.
I drove and drove miles and miles, always exactly as fast as I could. Darkness was everywhere. I was amazed at the near absence of street lights. Ours was the only vehicle on the road for such long stretches of time that a nagging fear began to creep into my throat from my gut: What would happen if I lost control and flipped this truck? Who would save us?
I gave both dogs long scratches behind each ear. Delilah was now playing Celine Dion, but it was no use trying to try tuning into anything else.
She hadn't moved in what seemed like an hour or more. She was an amazingly heavy sleeper who could nap upright in a pinch, and often did. She regularly fell asleep mere hours after waking in the morning.
I hurled the truck through darkness, vast blackness that felt thick. It felt like moving through a vat of oil the color of midnight. I began to feel suspended, numb in my body, separate from myself. The only lights were ours, and they shot through the night like lasers, cutting through the cloak of darkness, allowing me to ride the void going as fast as I could.
I can't say when it became imperative that I stop the truck. Something happened, though, and I had to. It became so obvious, so simple: Stop. Get out.
I pulled my foot off the accelerator. The one with the limit. The one that would only let me go so fast. The truck began to slow. I found the shoulder of the road wide and safe to park. I brought everything to a stop.
The dogs stirred. The black one snuffed and the blonde one licked my hand and nuzzled her snout against my thigh. I didn't pet her. She slid her head off my lap and filled the cab with a sigh and settled back into sleep. The blonde one takes after her mama.
I couldn't look into the floorboard. It was too dark to see her, anyway.
I had to go. I had to go out into the total darkness.
Turning off the headlights with a click turned on a canopy of stars. I could see space fires, many of them long since burned out, through the glass. There was a perfect windshield-sized portion of sparkle and wonder.
Delilah promised Michael MacDonald, so I turned the truck's engine off. I sat still and closed my eyes.
I could hear her breath filling up the car, a cadence that can only be achieved in the paralyzing depths of intense sleep, so I opened the driver's side door. I saw my hand opening the handle as if it was a scene from a movie. My gut guided me out of the truck.
The dogs immediately leapt to their feet and even then she did not wake. I thought they'd whine when I closed the door after slipping out. Not a peep. They may have been looking out the window after me. I don't know; I didn't look back.
The crunch of my shoes on the gravel was the loudest thing I'd ever heard. Each step sounded like bones and glass and precious things breaking.
I moved in the direction of what I knew to be a pasture. I floated, my hands groping the space in front of me. Soon my feet met soft grass and my footsteps no longer made a sound.
I don't know how far I walked before I decided to plant my feet and look into the sky. I let my neck relax and the weight of my skull sink back and let my mouth hang open and tried to see as many stars at once as I possibly could.
A fat star, wobbly and weak, caught my attention out of the millions staring down on me. It was smiling, I would swear it to this day. It pulled me and I followed. I walked and walked and walked in the darkness, the pitch black of night enveloping me like velvet, soft and welcoming and new. It was an inky void you could sink your fingertips into.
So, I walked and walked and walked in the darkness until morning, when I walked some more. I walked so far that it became necessary for her do some of the driving. I walked so far she had to find a different apartment and put the dogs in daycare because she works so much to forget. I walked so far that it became necessary for her to tell people that I was gone, I'd disappeared.
Dad was drunk that night, like most nights. He woke me just after midnight, just after all the bars near his office close.
"Get up, boy."
He voice was a hushed whiskey roar.
"Get up. I'm gonna show you how to scare the shit out of an entire neighborhood."
He sure enough scared the shit out of me most of the time. He began drinking upon rising every morning, pouring vodka and orange juice into a tall travel tumbler. After work he'd head straight to one of two bars near his office: either the dark wood and velvet-paned place with live jazz and willing older women or the dive bar, but only when he'd spent too much at the first.
Then he'd come home and frighten his family.
"Put your shoes on, boy."
I grabbed my sneakers instead of slippers, because I was afraid we'd have to run.
"We are going to hear some screaming tonight."
We made our way to the valley, where all the new parents lived. He wanted to make sure babies were woken.
"Get in the fucking car, kid."
I hated riding with him when he was this wasted, but I hated even more what happened when I didn't.
I left my pajamas on but grabbed my raincoat, the one with the hood. Last time I got soaked to the bone.
He snatched me by the hood of the jacket just as I'd pulled it on and hurled me toward the carport. He grabbed my sister's softball bat on the way to the truck.
He had The Eagles blaring "Take It Easy" in the cab of the pick-up. My dad started laughing as he squealed backwards out of our driveway and up the cul-de-sac and out onto the main road. I swear to God, when that man laughs it'll turn your blood into ice.
"The whole goddamn Valley is going to get it tonight, boy."
He was going 70 on a stretch of road that was marked 35. I held on to the side of the seat and closed my eyes and hoped he wouldn't look over to see me doing that. He parked at the edge of the quiet neighborhood and revved his engine. He revved it loud while he laughed.
Then I saw it. I saw him try to mask a yawn. He was laughing that maniacal laugh, but his eyelids were heavy. I unclenched the fists from the seat beneath me. He hadn't been able to find any more booze in the house. He was finally wearing down.
"Go on, boy."
He wanted me to do it. I knew it was bound to happen eventually. Knew it since I turned 12.
I stared down at my plaid pajama pants and my running shoes. And I thought about it for a minute. I thought about whether I could do it. I knew right away I couldn't, but I sat staring at my shoes trying to make my hand open the door.
But he passed out. I looked up from my feet to see his head slumped back and his mouth hanging wide. He always passed out if he couldn't keep drinking, the only thing that ever spared any of us.
I walked back. Took about an hour. I got back and mom was up, sitting in her robe, sitting staring at the television that wasn't on. She saw me come in, I know she saw me, but she didn't move. She'd wait for dad.
I crawled into bed and made shadow puppets on the wall until the sun came up.
The house was swarming with serious-looking strangers who moved with urgency, though all they seemed to be doing was waiting. There had been nurses at our home for weeks, ever since Grandfather was moved from the hospital into our spare bedroom. But this was different. Suddenly strangers were milling about in pockets across the house. One of them wore a priest's collar even though my parents had never taken us to mass.
"Go into your room and play. And shut the door. Go on."
My mother's request was not urging, it was a demand.
I went and took my brother with me, but I made sure to slam the door a little, just loud enough for all those strangers to notice.
My brother and I shared a bedroom, even though there were three. My mother insisted on keeping a spare room for guests no matter how many times I pleaded for a room to call my own. We never had any guests.
The strangers in the house didn't bother my brother. He didn't notice the puffiness of Dad's eyes. He also never heard the late-night moans, when the morphine had worn off, coming from the spare bedroom.
"Let's play this."
My brother Ace dragged a tattered board game from the shelves, each corner of the box rounded and frayed with time.
"I don't want to play." I didn't want to play because Mom told us to go play.
Ace lifted the lid of the box, grabbed the small plastic bag of playing parts and began counting the pieces inside. "One. Two. Three. Four…"
He was counting for no good reason. He could only count to seven or eight, so when he got to seven or eight he'd start over again at one. I considered urging him on to nine and ten, but only he would be praised for it later.
I took the board from the box and smoothed it onto the floor. The tall threads of the carpeting made for an unstable surface, a soft, fragile base. There was a tangle of paths your little plastic car could take.
"Let's play!," Ace clapped. I refused just to upset him.
While he cried on his bunk I grabbed tracing paper and a pencil from my backpack. I placed the transparent paper over the playing board and traced the outlines of the make believe roads. While I moved the pencil over the paper I heard my mother tell my father she'd make the arrangements. Then she told him to quit the crying, Ace might hear.
[photo by Chris Orbz]
The tree behind the gate is still leafless despite the frilly green dresses of its sisters. It stands naked, frail and shamed, as it has every year since she was born.
Seeing it bare out there every year, day after day, tears Mindy's heart to little bits. Sometimes she breaks into the yard next door, shimmying over the locked iron gate and climbs up the bare tree's crumbling trunk and hugs its craggy necks.
Her parents always change the subject when she brings up the strange tree. Science is her worst subject, but she knows that Spring means flowering and budding of life, and that tree has never done either. It just stands there, dead.
"Get away from the window, Mindy. Shoo. Go play with your sister in your room." Her mother was always telling her to get out of the window, always telling her to go play with her sister.
The younger sibling is all big rosy cheeks and shiny hair and a laugh like a bubbling fountain. Mindy finds her in their shared bedroom melting crayons onto poster board with a hairdryer.
"Does the weirdo tree not want to play with weirdo Mindy right now?" her sister said never looking up from the puddle of hot colored wax she is creating with full-blast high setting.
Mindy drops to her knees and watches her sister make her liquidy Crayola art that will dry into something their father will praise endlessly and perhaps even frame and hang in his dingy office at the insurance company. She watched the purple wax spray and land in fat dots on the warping cardboard and planned how she'd go out later after everyone was asleep and pick the lock on the iron gate to the yard next door and go give the tree a gentle stroking, a few reassuring pats, then sleep beneath it for a bit until she could sense the sun coming up through closed eyelids.
I remembered her because of her hair. It was almost purple, a deep wine color, the result of years of boxed dye that promised auburn red.
That day she wore a sharp, black suit neatly tailored for her trim figure, which stood out amongst the hooded sweatshirts and stiff, white Reeboks. She moved like syrup and barely ate.
When she was seated in my section again, not more than two weeks later, her suit was a deep navy, her hair still a shock of ruby strands, frayed at their ends. When I approached I immediately recognized her. She dripped over the booth, the tabletop, the menu. Her eyes were locked on her companion.
"Nice seeing you again." I said it without thinking.
Her body, every inch of it, become rigid. Her breathing halted for an obvious second. Her gaze fell from his face to the fork near her hand.
Then she caught herself and looked up at me. Her glare seared, but she worked laquered lips into a smile that contradicted angry eyes. She barely, almost imperecptibly, shook her head no.
"What wines do you have by the glass?," she asked. Her voice was a honey-coated thorn. "I'm looking for red."
[photo byjenny downing]
She found the cat in the clover. It was on its side, its mouth agape, its tiny flanks rising and falling, but only faintly. The cat was barely alive. It's eyes were caked and completely sealed with crust.
She couldn't leave it there to gradually waste in a slow death. But she was terrified to pick up the cat; it looked so broken.
The cat was completely black from the top of its head to the tip of its tail. Its hair was sleek under the blaring of the August sun. Its back leg twitched and it sent her into hysterics right there in the field behind her grandfather's barn.
She'd spent hours that afternoon searching in the clover for those with four leaves. She thought if she found a four-leaf clover that it would be a good thing to give to a boy. That way they could have something to talk about. He could get to know her beyond her fire red hair.
Instead she found a dying cat in the clover. She would not give the dying cat to a boy. She also would not pick it up and carry it. She just couldn't bring her arms down to scoop it up, afraid that if she did the black cat would die against her chest. She was supposed to go to church choir practice later that day, and her shirt would smell like slow death. She'd be covered in black fuzz.Its breathing grew more shallow and more labored. She contemplated crushing its skull in an act of brave mercy, but she was wearing jelly shoes, the kind you can feel rocks through.
She left the cat there that afternoon. She went to choir practice. She did not talk to any boys there. She went to ice cream with the youth pastor and turned in early. She counted the triangles in her bedroom created from intersections of door frames and ceiling seams and tried not to think about the black cat.
She slept so soundly that she woke even before her mother came to shake her awake. She slipped out in her nightgown and walked the half mile to her grandfather's barn and out into the field where there could always be a few four-leaf clovers.
There was no cat there, dead, dying or otherwise. She thought at first it was that she couldn't remember where she left the cat, but her grandfather's farm is not so big, and this field in particular was just a small patch. She combed the clover wet with dew with her slippered feet.
It was nowhere. She knew it because she looked and looked. Nausea swept over her. She bent at the waist, put her hands on her knees and stared at green swimming beneath her. She began to vomit in vibrants sheets of pink. As she heaved, her breath ragged and desperate, she saw one clover with four leaves, drenched.
This is a writing exercise. It is 100 words exactly:
That beach was different from the soft, silky beaches of the Gulf of my youth. Beneath freshly painted feet were rocks, smooth and gray. The sun shone off nothing.
I watched his fingers press strings against the neck. Calloused fingertips made music for two people he'd give skin for and me. I watched him ignore lapping ocean waters met by startling cliffs and burrow instead into sounds.
He cooked over that fire with such care. He poured wine, equal amounts, into red plastic cups. My invitation suddenly came wrapped in gold, shiny paper and my name became written in cursive.
This is a writing exercise. It is 100 words exactly:
She tried not to say "I miss you." His t-shirt smelled like a meadow, she remembered that. His sideways smile, his mouth a perfect triangle to the right, she remembered that. The way he looked above her, she remembered that.
When he ran to the corner store as the guy was pulling the grate down over the doorway and shimmied underneath and found the Lemonheads in ten seconds flat and bought two boxes because she said they gave her superpowers she knew.
His crooked smile filled the video chat box in her monitor. She rolled a candy on her tongue.