|Apr/May 2014 Fiction|
Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream
I'm etching a hard line east out of the city on an empty, divided highway where the shoulders fall off so hard there is nothing but the highway lit by the headlights before me. Occasionally the cast of a mild hill looms, occasional pine boughs sweep low aside. Nothing's moving.
Now the form of a deer appears at the dim end of the hi-beam's span. A rangy, yearling doe bounding absurdly down the yellow painted line, hoofing it dead ahead toward the mouth of an old iron bridge. A black flash of panic in a backward glance, she pitches sharp to the right, smack into my path, and I'm hard on the brakes and swerving away but too late. The bumper's crammed up beneath her, driving her, the nose of the truck under her now, and for a moment she's all in the air, her body twisted over the hood, and as I slow quickly, she flails hard and rights herself, plants heavy on her back springs, and she's a pure picture of violence; she launches over the bridge rail, irrevocably into the void.
I slam it down into low, pull off, and grab a light from the box in the bed, clamber gingerly on my backside down the crude slope of the ravine into which she leapt. Water over stones and her broken body. Too far fallen. Her bones shattered. Incurable, as with the pelt. Who contends with fragments? Climb back up the hill.
No radio here. Song-parts wash, static-shrouded. A sea-sickened hissing within, noise in the signal without. It's Buck Owens, then nothing. Paranoid ramblings about carcinogens on an AM frequency. Aspartame, chromium-6. How many can be listening? As good as between stars, it's just a handful of atoms out here. A hard wind whistling off the lip of the quarter glass. Dim sheen in the mirrors. Waves rolling wild. Poor girl. Let her lie behind, out of what's new. Now is not again. The road doesn't change. It's complicit in this newness, and I am new upon it driving.
Hours pass just so.
I pull up in front of a house with a number, ten in the morning, a brittle, mid-March quiet Sunday, ring the bell and wait. It's a small place: brick, pinkish, pale, and tidy. A watered lawn. Early '80s construction. A working-class modesty-to-pride ratio. Feels like everywhere. No one comes. I slump down into a plastic chair on the porch and, breathing in the vacant blue sky, soon doze.
A battered pewter Corolla is pulling up in the driveway over lengthened shadows. Steve hollers out WELL LOOK WHO MADE IT! from the passenger window.
It's been a while. Maybe three Christmases. He looks like clean living. Me, more like someone painted a face on some driftwood. Barb gets the baby out of the backseat and walks up in front of the porch slowly, offishly.
He asks what time I arrived, what route I took. We don't go back any further than that, standing out here in the yard.
Barb keeps a distance, squinting into sunlight. Comes not even under the porch-roof, but she checks with her toes against its shadow-line. Something's pulled back around those eyes. I feel her willfully distorting me, scissoring me with lashes. Her mouth suspends over her pale blue top like a meteor bursting through an atmosphere. Yes, I remember now. This illegible constellation. Or, unfollowable, at any rate. She mews with the child. Coming here, I've made a mistake.
The baby is almost hypothetical. I don't know how people manage such things, but they've managed. Perhaps it's more common than I realize. It's beautiful. We take turns talking at it as it doles out happy garble, repeating its newfound consonants. Six months in and nonsensically gregarious: a fine line between laughing and crying. Already at home in the world.
After minutes of this, Barb says she's starving and leads us in.
Within, the house is molten with peach light. Pre-dusk torch light. It's thick in pools on the floor. Painted porcelain redbirds burn alive in a curio. The vacuum has carved long isosceletic shards everywhere in the plush. Backgammon, then, I suggest. Steve can't laugh.
Shoes off at the door, rhetorical.
No baby lives here surely. It appears unlivedin. Where toys? A museum without exhibit.
Barb points me to the bar, then sets round to lumping up a bowl of canned chicken salad. She pushes a sleeve of saltines my way and says there's juice if anyone's thirsty. Steve takes the baby to another room for a diaper change.
Watching Barb, I know better than to think. Or say. The oven clock declares it's well past three now. Mayonnaise, pepper, a chopped celery stalk. Dull alchemy. Keeps her eyes down.
Steve returns, and I speak up, how I would've expected that they'd already eaten, after church.
Barb looks up sharply at me and says that's what this is.
Lie aching, junkless and thus not sleeping. Or else, after sufficient indisposition, I'm up. In briefs, filling a mason jar at the Britta, fridge door open wide. Deliberate footfalls come hushing down the hall. It could only be her there now in the doorway, a pale, barefoot apparition in a fern-colored chemise, nipples pert and thighs flexed in the lowlight. Hell. Hello.
Water please she says, pushing a mug into my free hand and glaring. It's cold in this light. I pour hastily and spill some down front. She scoffs a laugh and asks my Easter plans.
I shut the door too hard. No, I don't think—
She's crocodile-still and close. I'm pinned. She reaches in across my chest, pulls the door, and takes the pitcher back out, flips the cap up in the sink and hits the tap.
This is one of those chances, she says. You don't get too many. You recognize. The Call.
When's Easter I say. Then she slams the pitcher into my chest and an upsurge of water slaps across my face.
Jesus. I say, then she says.
Steve's on Spring Break. We mow a couple of neighborhood lawns before noon Monday, the first of the season. As we hoist the mower back into the bed after the second job, he asks about Marie. I tell him a little about the thing with her and Danny the Greek and he just shakes his head. I leave out the part about going to her mother's house last week in the middle of the night looking for her and finding his van there parked out front, and how I rang and rang but no one would answer until at last her mother came out, and she had tears in her eyes and clucked at me piteously a few times, and then how she wouldn't say anything but my name. How she repeated it over and over, like it meant something awful. I don't tell him all of that, but I do tell him that it's done now and there's no going back.
Bad news he says. Danny the fucking Greek. She should know better. Dude was such a meathead. He beat the shit out of me at a Hall and Oates show at the Starplex when I was a freshman. For no reason whatsoever. Plus he was like twice my size. I was still a solid year outside puberty then, going to concerts with older cousins. That's probably why he ambushed me. Anyway, what monster could be violent to that music? I think he hit me twice, put my lights out. My first fight, if you wanna call it that. He didn't try and start anything with you, did he?
No, but he probably would've if he had the chance, I lie. I ask Steve if he feels like a beer. He considers, then says no can do and gets in the truck.
We work the garden the rest of the afternoon. A sunny spot over in the south sideyard, he's got eight straw bales he's been soaking mornings. To facilitate their decomposition. He's been at it better than a week. Said their temp got up to over a 115 degrees earlier. Too hot for the young'uns. But now it's safe, so we trench the bales and supplant their cores with soil, humus, vermiculite. Inadvertent permaculture erupts between the rows: I sow peas, onions, cabbage, greens. Barb's already done the preliminary tilling and weeding. Steve says brisk mornings she bundles baby up like a little Swede, and he's content just to hang while she works.
Tuesday I walk the thoroughfare and ask for work at a couple of gas stations. No dice. In the afternoon we picnic at the lake. It's a windless day.
Wednesday night. The aisles are flooded; the flood, divided. We don't sit in the back.
SOME SPEAK THE NAME, a crushed voice cries out brightly. Some speak the NAME. Have you heard it? Have you heard the name, spoken? Have you heard the name, just spoken? Spoken out like a, like a... like a word? It's not a word, my friends. OH NO, not a tall. You be careful, friend, you with your tongue. It's no word; it's a way. It's the way. His. Way. Away away. Away away away away away away AWAY! WAY out there. I've heard 'em. In the street. There. And everwhere. And I know it when I hear it. Do you? They speak it, but they don't know it. They know not what. They don't know! They spit it out. Cain't hear no MU-SIC. Don't know they're singin'. Haven't the faintest what lives in their mouths just as they breathe it out: JESUS! Jay-sus!
Don't spit it out. Don't spit it! Let it swish around in there like... like a... Listerine. Hold it in. Hold it in and burn it clean! You don't want no contest with THAT ONE. Oh no, not with the SON. Consider your curses. You spit 'em out. He spits in dirt. Spits right in my eyes. And now? Now I see. Spat the lukewarm outta his mouth. Friends, he brought back Lazarus. Remember ol' Lazarus. Think he can't get to you? An' member the widow's only boy. This MAN'S got COM-MERCE with the DEAD. Truck with 'em. Careful, friends. Think on that. Think on the name. Out of your mouth. Out of his mouth. Think of Old Moses, pleading God. For the sake of a leper. For the pitiful sake of a leper. Make 'em white as snow, Lord. Unclean, unclean, unclean. You know Moses? Holy Moses, the good man. Well he's in Heaven now. Who's gonna plead your case down here now? IT'S A DIRTY WORLD DOWN HERE, BROTHER. Do you know Moses, brother? Do you know Jesus? Do you pray?
Then a HALLIELOO brother, from down front.
Preach points at the hollerer and belts out WE KNOW HIM! Breathe him in. JESUS! Get the Spirit, brother! Hallieloo-yo-self.
He skips down the pulpit with lithe little Jagger steps, sweeping the mic cord over a plastic philodendron without a glance. He puts a hand up on the responder's head and seems to squeeze him red. Like he's trying to summon a horn out of the man's skull. The blood-pressure in this place. He keeps stroking it up, cock-wise, all the while menacing a flat, dead-eyed stare. He's hard-kneading like a kitten on a pressed sheet. Now apparently satisfied, Preach relents, and the men begin to dance and shout together, spinning down the pew with glee. Little girl-like. So fanciful. Everyone's clapping at a good clip now, and the music's gotten really raucous, and Preach is up in the microphone, wreaking mad beauty into a doting flow. Back on Moses. I keep thinking he's gonna stroke out. Everyone's red in the face now—the Spirit is up. A Pentecostal scat-mosh breaks down-front. The drums are wild, the bass, throbbing. A granny wails on the Hammond, her tight bun bobbing to the syncopated rhythm. Surfing the pulse.
It's a white people party except for one sitting alone on the outer edge of the mass, an ancient looking black woman. Singular. But really everyone is, amid such mayhem. She's really feeling it, swaying to and fro, pulling at her shawl fervently.
Now the intensity recedes. The band cools into a mild trance hemmed with garish rolls of tambourine debris and weepy voice-over rasps declaring joy and devotion unadulterated. Me, I'm standing very still. We've been here ages. I see that Steve and Barb have begun to shuffle together out into the central aisle, down the slaughter-chute, down the throat of the sanctuary. He keeps a hand on her as they sway and chant their way to the pulpit.
Someone now lays a hand on my back. A small hand. A young woman endenimed. I DON'T KNOW HIM LORD, she says. I don't know him, but you do.
She's shivering affectedly. I put a hand on her shoulder and she quietly asks my name. She keeps her eyes closed. A casual chat emerges beneath the tumult of the service. We exchange samples of back-story the way people sometimes do when they meet in a bar. It passes for prayer.
Tamara may be younger than she looks, but she looks alright to me. Thin and pale and home-schoolish. See where she has cultivated something. Something that wins over her skittish self-consciousness. It's apparent. Like a park squirrel accustomed to being fed by strangers.
She says she knows Steve and Barb. Says she sometimes works the nursery; she gushes at mention of the baby. I'm relieved that she doesn't say that Steve's her algebra teacher. She can't be seventeen. Lord. Dead ends everywhere. Even in life are we in the midst of it, mind you. Her hand is firm upon my back, unmoved and searing through my shirt. We're just praying here, keep still. I ask her if she knows where I can find work. If I can do anything for her.
She smiles sort of wryly and says Papa's got a man. Dent. He does everything. Could prolly work with him.
Dent? Yep. I'll get you his number.
His place is rough. Rotted out bungalow. He's on the porch, pouring Evan Williams into an RC Cola can when I pull up into his sand. He grins with gaps and says Hidey.
Says ain't no more pop as he hands me the bottle. That's fine, thanks.
Then straight away he's outlining the mission. Brother Bill'll pay us to work on this here pick'em up of his. Brother Bill? Preacher man. Preach. Pays sevem an hour. He's alright. Bout as slick as a canned ham, but he's alright.
The truck is an old Chevy with a lot of cancer. Together we find top dead center, stab a new HEI into it. Plug-hole tissue test to find compression stroke, rotor pointed just past 6:00. It drops home, and we cap it, gap the plugs, install new wires. Set the timing. She fires, rough and smoky. Listen at that would ye, he says, fingering the throttle.
He stays up top tinkering with the carb and vacuum lines. I spend the afternoon grinding rust off the frame. All the while he's muttering drunkenly about anything. I hear less than half of what he says and understand less than half of what I hear.
The bed's off, the hood's up. We adhere to no logical order of operations. What's it to me, working for a drunk working for a charlatan.
Getting on to dusk, Tamara kicks up into the yard. She's traded in the longskirt for summerier attire. Seems at ease, more relaxed here than in the sanctuary. But the same semi-feral light flickers beneath her hazel.
How's the bums?
Dent's head appears around the edge of the hood. Hey girl. Then to me: Let's call it. I done had all the fun I can stand for one day. We can get back on it tomorrie. Come around when ye will.
Tamara gives my arm a tug and points her chin down the road.
We set off walking into the decay of the neighborhood, cut through a long wooded lot, and emerge beside a K-Mart parking-lot.
We cross there and then climb the embankment of an overpass. Train-tracks. Each of us on a rail, we proceed haltingly, she in her youth and I in my whiskey. Soon we've fallen against each other enough that her shoulder stays fast against my arm. We embrace as we walk across an old bridge over a dry creek-bed. We stop and lie down together between the rails.