My chest tightens as fire grazes Sam’s skin, but finally he tosses the match he’s let burn down in his fingers, and the pile of brush jumps into flames. Pockets of damp sap crackle and hiss.
We retrieve an armful each of empty aerosol cans from the silo, cans Sam stockpiled over many summers spent working at Ray’s Auto Body. He sets them down in a row and sits next to me in the dead weeds.
He’s hunched and quiet, his eyes glassy, his body tensed.
Sometimes I miss Sam, even when he’s right beside me. I don’t have the right, but I do.
“Teeth or hands?” I ask.
“Hands.” He’s been having these recurring dreams. In one, all his teeth fall out. In the other, he tries desperately to hold on to someone, but his hands are crushed, useless as empty gloves.
Sam is my brother, and he came home from Iraq with a face full of shrapnel. Hard pellets that look like blackheads cluster on his left cheek and spread in painful constellations across his neck, the skin crowded with shiny scar tissue. His body tries to expel what doesn’t belong. Jagged pieces pierce the skin from inside. It’s like the IED never stopped; it continues to explode from inside his face in excruciatingly slow motion. When it gets really bad, he slicks antibacterial ointment over the bleeding bumps and hides them under a cover of gauze.
“You know what I did over there, Gracie? I tried not to die. Day and night, I tried not to die.” He pulls up weeds as he speaks.
“What else could you have done?”
It’s not comfort he wants. He wants to rip open a space in this life that is wide enough for all the fury he feels, but there’s no where to put feelings that sharp. I don’t know how to make room for that anger any more than anyone else does, but I know this is what he needs. Our mother believes a person can heal by force of will. If only Sam would exert a little self-discipline, he could re-take his old life. I’m not sure we can fool ourselves, however hard we pretend.
Once I caught Sam with a look of concentration on his face, his fist held out before him, closed and squeezing. When he opened it, inside was a shard of shrapnel that had worked its way out of his cheek, its barb now buried back in the meat of him again. I got the rubbing alcohol. I pried loose the jagged metal, trying not to breathe as I swabbed away the blood. I tucked the piece of the bomb that had killed everyone else riding in his Bradley Fighting Vehicle out of sight in my pocket.
Later I looked at it in the light. It was shaped like a country whose name I didn’t know. I closed my hand tightly around it. The resulting cut healed, of course, left no trace on me.
Sam lives out here again with our mother, in this backwater place where there isn’t much to do besides burn things. He sleeps in his childhood bedroom, tossing in the narrow twin bed that hardly fits his adult body while the dormer ceiling, banded with glow-in-the-dark stars, presses down. I make the three-hour drive from the city to visit him and Mama every other weekend.
“You ready?” he asks me now. We stand, me in my sneakers; and Sam in his army-issued boots. We pick up as many aerosols as we can hold, and on the count of three, we toss them into the flames and I turn and run to take cover behind the door of the silo like we always do, but then I realize Sam is not beside me, he hasn’t moved, he hasn’t even taken a step back. The aerosol cans explode in the fire, and he just stands there while they slam into the sky, like he’s daring one to firebomb him in the face, like he’d like it to happen that way, and his expression is rapturous, the fire in the sky beyond him a beautiful thing.
I tell my mother about the articles I’ve been writing. I make it all up and it hollows me out to tell her lies, but I can’t help myself. The lies pour out of me in a chatty, cheerful voice. She thinks I write a column for the South Philly Review, my neighborhood’s newspaper. She thinks I write about park clean ups and new restaurant openings.
“Bring me clippings to pin to the fridge,” she says. “You never remember.”
“I will, Mama. I’m sorry.” A black feeling balloons in me. My mother wants me to be happy so badly she changes the subject whenever I vent the slightest frustration. I’ve been cut short so many times. When we talk now, I reflexively gloss over the true substance of my life. I want to ask her if I go running after something with my whole heart and don’t get it, what happens then? But she’d want to know what I was talking about and I’d have to detail to her all the ways in which I’m not the daughter she planned on. I’d have to tell her about my job. I’d have to tell her I’m in love with a girl.
She fixes me a bowl of soup, and I eat it slowly, though it’s getting late, and I have a long drive back to Philadelphia. The highways around here are dangerous at dusk, so empty you can press the pedal to the ground and fly forward without feeling like you’re going fast at all, but in the woods that sidle up to the shoulder, deer wait, ready to leap into your headlights and explode against your car’s windshield, as full as overripe fruit. I drive with my spine very stiff, and always my back aches when finally I’m cocooned in my bed. I feel like I’m waiting at the edge of something just as the deer do, like I’m just about to leap fully into my life, and either I’ll cross a threshold into some better version of myself, or something in me will burst apart, some essence leak away.
My roommate’s full name is Joanne Quinn Bellwin, and she wishes Quinn were her first name, because it’s more androgynous and unusual, but she says Joanne is too engrained; it’s how she thinks of herself, and so she’s stuck with it. Joanne is dear to me, and a mystery. She’s small and dark haired, with thick eyebrows she’s never once plucked and fine, downy hairs above her upper lip that are invisible except in bright daylight. I’m sometimes hounded by an insistent desire to touch her there, feel the peach fuzz of her face. She has a wide, warm smile, and thickly lashed eyes, and she smells of paint thinner and lavender soap. She moves quickly for such a small person, darting across rooms, striding across sidewalks, and she throws her hands around when she speaks, as if everything she says she must convey with the force of her whole body.
In her bedroom, Joanne paints urban landscapes of squalor and ruin. My favorite of her paintings shows a crumbling, derelict gas station in West Philly, the pavement oil-slicked, the pumps grimed over and flaking rust, and beyond them, the minimart with its bright blue signs and its boarded up windows. Looking at it, I can smell the gasoline-soaked asphalt, noxious and intoxicating.
Sometimes she takes me along when she scouts for locations to paint, her searches carrying her into neighborhoods a person might prefer not to walk through alone. The day we found that gas station, I watched Joanne snap pictures, brushing her shining hair away from her face with a distracted, impatient gesture. The thought of kissing her stirred through me, soft as a breeze. I imagined her body, the feel of it: pillowy in places and bony in others, all cushions and corners. I hadn’t done this before, fantasized about a woman. While she worked on that painting, she upended a Dixie cup full of the blue she used for the minimart. Now a small island of blue floats on the floorboards, and when I stop by her room, I stand in the middle of it, like I’ve found my place on a map of our secret life together, the life I imagine we share even though really, I’m Joanne’s roommate, nothing more.
She has a girlfriend already, Gwen, a skinny art student with her hair cut in a very precise bob, the bangs a perfectly straight line across her forehead. Our apartment is so small that when Gwen comes over, just three people makes it crowded, and I bump into things, bruise myself on the furniture as I skirt around the two of them.
Tonight, Gwen isn’t here. Joanne tells me she’s trying to finish some new work for her first solo show next month. I’m both pleased to have Joanne to myself and vexed to hear of Gwen’s accomplishment, though I can’t dispute her talent. She paints strange and gorgeous imaginary landscapes: green islands suspended from pale skies like ornaments hooked into the ether; aimless picket fences punctuating terraced hillsides like bared teeth; mountains dappled with gingham flags, the peaks knifing up into dark clouds.
“Maybe I should paint, too,” Joanne says. Gwen is three years younger than she is, and she’s already making a name for herself, while Joanne paints and paints, and no one sees the paintings. They lean in stacks against the walls of her room. The walkable space keeps shrinking.
“Work tomorrow. It’s Friday night. We should go out.” With some cajoling, I convince her.
We’re halfway to a bar with a beer list that can’t be contained on one sheet of paper, where good music is always playing a little too loudly, but then Joanne stops in her tracks and raises her arms, grinning.
“I know,” she says. “Let’s go see the go-go dancers at your bar.”
The bar where I work fills up with men whose gazes I’d avoid in the street. Sad and desperate men. I can tell she thinks this will be a fun adventure. I know better, but I’m helpless before Joanne’s desires, and soon we are stepping inside the Hothouse Lounge.
Elena and Yvonne dance to Metallica on pedestals behind the counter, orange stickers over their nipples instead of pasties, the same sort of stickers people label with prices and slap on broken blenders, old-fashioned TVs, and all the other careworn objects they offer up at sidewalk sales. Elena is cute and chubby; she dances with her eyes closed. Stretch marks branch in silver streaks across Yvonne’s belly. I wonder, as I always do, if these women like performing, or if the men’s stares feel like fishhooks in their skin. I never ask the dancers any questions. I’m supposed to be writing an article about them, about what it’s like for them to dance here and about their lives outside of this place. I pitched this story to a magazine, saying I’d go under cover as a dancer myself so I could see it all from the inside. The editor said, since I had no clips, I’d have to write it before he’d know if he wanted to run it. I came into the bar asking if they needed another dancer. The owner, an old Italian lady everyone calls Mom though she’s no one’s mother, looked me up and down and said, “Honey, no we don’t, but we could use a bartender.” She was right about me, that I’d die up there half naked in the light with all these sad, hard-drinking men gathered round to watch.
I can see Joanne is shocked by how dingy it is inside, the air stale from decades of smoking and the sweet and yeasty smell of spilled beer. We find an empty table and sit. She looks at the dancers in quick glances, like she doesn’t want to be caught staring.
I fetch us rum and cokes, which Nadine, who trained me, gives to me for free, waving away my money. “I can’t believe you work here,” Joanne says. She is waiting for me to explain myself. I don’t know how. Working is unavoidable. It’s the stuff our lives are made of, but I could be up in an air-conditioned cubicle in one of the skyscrapers in Center City, earning four times as much an hour. I could be doing something fit to go on a resume. I no longer type up notes when I get home, but I still call my bartending research. I can’t bear to think of it as just my job. A reporter needs to talk to people but I’m intimidated by the dancers I meant to write about, too timid to pry and too awkward to endear myself. I’m certain I want to be a journalist, but I still don’t know how to be the kind of person who goes after a story, who dives into a conversation, who wins a source’s trust. I’m unsuited to my own dream for myself.
I sip my sweet drink, and I tell Joanne how, out in the country, everyone knows everyone else, and rumors spread fast as the flu, but you don’t do your living in public. There is a privacy built into the spaces between houses that dissolves here in the city, where conversations float through shared walls, where windows stare into other homes’ windows, where people take buses and subways instead of climbing into the enclosed bubbles of cars. People startle me, and in the city their lives are right there to scrutinize. Their grievances, their kindnesses, their unfathomable choices. All I see and hear sets me to wondering. Wondering turns to writing, or it did anyway, and so here I am.
Joanne is not so different from me. She loves to know all the dirt on everyone, even strangers. She thinks of herself as a non-judgmental person, but she gossips with an unrestrained glee. “Tell me about your coworkers,” she says now. “Tell me what you’re going to write.” I talk about Antoinette, the owner we all know as “Mom,” how she’s 73, and I once saw her brandish a pool cue at the ex-boyfriend of one of the dancers when he came in and started making threats. “You got to treat my beautiful ladies with respect,” she said. “They dance for you, and you treat them right, and everybody’s happy. You want to be happy, don’t you?” The pool cue left a cluster of blue chalk marks on the front of his shirt.
“Being publicly dressed down by a fierce old lady gets people moving out the door,” I say. “I practically left too, Mom was so fearsome.”
Joanne laughs, her bright eyes tugging heat to my skin. I want to hold her gaze fast, so I tell her about Yvonne. I describe the tattoo of a bottle of Tabasco sauce she has on the small of her back, with HOT! written in all caps above it. Then I talk about Yvonne’s two-year-old son, and how Marcus’s father ditched them both for Yvonne’s younger cousin, and isn’t paying child support like he should. I would betray any confidence to entertain Joanne.
She starts telling me about the twin sisters she befriended when she worked at a bakery during high school, but right then my brother calls. He’s been so uncommunicative lately, I’m sure something is wrong.
He tells me he’s in the city.
“No. She bailed on me.”
Tricia is the widow of the man who’d been sitting next to Sam in the Bradley. Sam fixes things around her house, and drinks with her, and loves her, I think. They drink until they are sick as dogs, until Sam’s sweat is enough to knock a bystander into a black out drunkenness. And then they curl up like puppies, and Sam drifts into sleep and wakes up screaming, and Tricia throws him out, weeping. They have a screwed up interdependence. She looks at Sam, and she thinks why him and not Ryan?
“What are you up to?” he asks. “Can I come by your place?”
I tell him I’m out with a friend.
He hears something in my voice. “What kind of friend are we talking about here? I don’t want to be in the way if you’re on a date with some guy.”
I try to think what to say, and there’s a brief pause, a hiccup in the rhythm of our conversation. “I’m not out with a guy.”
“Well, where are you?”
My muscles ache suddenly, as if I’ve been exerting myself. I don’t want to give up this time in which Joanne is mine alone. I do though. I give it up. Barely ten minutes later, Sam pushes through the door. He crosses the room and heads right toward us, borrows an extra chair from our neighbor, sits, and stretches his long legs under the table. He glances around, eyeing everyone, and scoots his chair to the left so he can see the door. His face is creased across the forehead, and pale, and flecked with those hard bumps of metal. When he smiles at us, some of them create little divots, like misplaced dimples.
Sam was so close to dying. Shift him left or right during the blast, a few inches either way, and he’d be gone.
“This place is kind of a dump,” he says.
“I don’t know how she cares to come here every day,” Joanne says.
Sam looks at me.
I look away. “I tend bar here.” I think of my mother, waiting for those clippings I promised, and I envision myself cutting other people’s stories out of a newspaper, typing my own name in a matching font, taping this over the real byline, going to Kinko’s, and photocopying these lies into something that looks real enough to hand to her, and I feel so tired.
“No way.” He eyes Elena dancing. “Here? I thought you were doing some newspaper thing.”
Joanne reaches out under the table and squeezes my arm.
When I tell Sam Joanne’s a painter, he says he doesn’t understand art. “Why would you want to spend hours making something that has no use?” he asks her. “Isn’t the pleasure of making something the fact that when you’re done, you can do something with it?”
Joanne starts talking about how art explores what’s mysterious in life. “Art lets us perceive meaning in our experiences. Nothing else gives us that ability the way art does.” She keeps going, saying something about making the senses serve the mind, her hands up and emphatic as her words tumble together.
“I don’t feel like I’ve answered any questions about life by going to an art museum,” my brother says. “I really don’t.” I kick him under the table but he ignores me, a thing he’s always been good at.
Joanne bites her lip, irked. “The beholder has to be open to the art. Otherwise it is useless.” She finishes her drink, rises, and weaves through the tables to the bathroom, dark hair swaying down her back.
I glare at my brother. “Why do you have to ruin things?”
“People need to be honest with each other,” he says.
“Can’t you be honest in a kind way?”
“Do you really work here, Gracie?”
“Please don’t be honest about that to Mama.”
“No. You should though.”
He shifts in his chair, drumming a hand against his knee. His eyes coast around the room again, monitoring everyone’s position. “So much of what I see people doing with their days, it seems so pointless. If these people really knew that they could die at any moment, they wouldn’t be here in this shithole bar. You have to know it with your body, your cells.”
“I don’t think people can live like that.”
His restless hands go still in his lap. “I’m in trouble then.”
“Why don’t you ever talk about it?”
“We’re talking right now.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Talking doesn’t help anything.”
As a child, Sam had a shout always on his lips. His knees were perpetually scraped. He was forever ready to take a dare. He’d helped me egg Michael Jawlowski’s house after he called me an ass-faced slut in third grade, words I hadn’t understood but had recognized as terrible and wounding. He’d swum out into the center of a lake to rescue me when I’d climbed into a canoe while our mother’s back was turned and drifted away without a paddle. He’d been obsessed with magic tricks, and had amazed me when he made coins and rings and small pebbles disappear from his closed hand, so that for years, I was convinced he had the powers of a wizard. He’s not that headlong-leap-into-it boy anymore, but surely some of that person lives on inside him still. I want to pull those parts of him to the surface and make him remember. Or make him forget everything that came after. One of the two.
I bring up the vacation in Maine, ask if he remembers the lake.
“Yeah, sure. There were those huge spiders in the cottage we rented. Big as fists. You cried whenever you saw one.” He grins at me, still amused.
“Do you remember rescuing me?”
“From the spiders?”
No, I say, and I remind him of my daring escapade with the canoe, telling the story like it was hilarious, though it wasn’t. Before we’d gone on this vacation, I’d taken a few swimming lessons at the Y, but still I could hardly keep myself afloat in the warm water of a pool, let alone swim to shore through the murky chill of that lake. I sat gripping the metal rim of the canoe, staring out at the cottage and the floating dock as they shrank and the distance between me and shore swelled. Sam and my mother were so far off I was struck by the sudden fear that they were strangers, that I was utterly alone in the world. I’d never before been so aware of having an existence apart from my family members. My separateness shocked me. I don’t think I called out once.
My brother has no memory of any of this. “I vaguely remember canoeing around the lake,” he offers.
Sam is the one in the canoe now. He is looking across a gulf at his old life, and realizing his separateness from everything he’d known before he’d known war. I’d like to swim out to him. I’d like to drag him back.
Joanne returns with a fresh drink. She sits very primly in her chair. Sam is in a better mood now, and tells her stories of our antics as children, and after a bit, her shoulders relax. She still drinks her rum and coke fast though, like she needs to occupy her hands.
A man comes in. I notice him because he’s wearing all white: baggy white jeans, too-white sneakers, a huge white hoodie that pools around him. He slumps onto a barstool near us, right in front of Elena, and he stares at her bared stomach and her breasts. As if he feels me looking, he turns his head and he grins at me, revealing weird transparent teeth, his mouth stuffed with chips of ice. He raises a quarter, holds it up to shine in the haze of light and smoke. This man wants an audience. He keeps looking back and catching my eye. All at once, tipping his head back a little, he slings the quarter at Elena. The coin ricochets off her belly, clangs against the bar, drops to the ground, and rolls away through the forest of dirty sneakers and stool legs. Elena yelps and stops dancing, looking down at the red welt marking her.
“Hey!” Yvonne yells from the other end of the room. She sits, scoots on her butt to the edge of her pedestal, and swings her scary spiked boots down to the floor. She is around the counter and in the guy’s face in moments, fast even in towering heels. Elena stands on her pedestal, eyes wide, arms folded tight over her chest, while Yvonne beats at the guy’s ribcage with her fist. “You pig,” she says over and over. He’s got his hands raised, surrender style, and says, “Whoa, chill. Just tipping the lady.” Nadine is doing nothing but staring. It’s like she’s watching a television screen.
Even though I’m not working, I rise to help, because Mom’s not here tonight to swoop in with a pool cue and the Hothouse Lounge doesn’t employ a bouncer. I grab Yvonne’s wrist so she’ll stop pounding on the guy. The man, his lips pulled back to reveal those nasty teeth and his wet, gray gums, eyes me up and down and says to me, “Sweetie, you going to get up there and dance for me, too?”
My brother comes at him from behind me. He shoves him off his stool. For a second the man lays still, stunned to find himself on the floor. “What the hell?” he says. He hoists himself up. He dusts off his sleeves. The back of his white hoodie is grimy now, the butt of a cigarette stuck beneath his shoulder blade. Yvonne pulls free from my grip and puts her hands on her hips. In the back, the Vietnamese men circled around the pool table lean on their cues, watching, cigarettes smoldering between their fingers, and the patrons seated at the counter crane their heads. Nadine, too intent on our corner of the bar to take an order, holds a hand up to the oblivious customer asking for another drink.
“You’re talking some dumb shit,” my brother says. “I’ve got no patience for dumb shit.” Sam looks younger then before. The tension around his jaw has evaporated. He seems more relaxed now in a bar fight than when he is parked in front of Mama’s TV.
The man with the ugly teeth swings wildly, and it’s like all of us watching breathe in at the same time and hold that breath, that’s how still everyone goes. Sam doesn’t react to the man’s fist in his gut. He just stands there, braced, the hub our attention swirls around. And then my brother is all motion. He steps up and punches the man in the jaw. He tips his whole weight into it. It is only one punch, and it breaks the man’s face. He falls, and when he lands the air woofs out of his lungs. His nose leaks blood. Beaky before, it’s concave now, a comma. More blood dribbles from the corner of his mouth. Everyone is either staring, or carefully averting their eyes. The only sound is Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things” playing on the jukebox. The man lies there on the floor without moving, and I think, please don’t be dead. I squat next to him and hold my hand in front of his face, and I feel breath.
“I’m calling 911,” Nadine warns us from behind the bar. “You need to get out of here.” Joanne heads for the door, stumbling, tipsy. I tug my brother’s sleeve, pull him in the direction of the exit, and the three of us spill out onto Broad Street.
“You want to crash with us?” I ask Sam.
He’s panting, and when I touch his shoulder, he flinches. He shakes his head. “Better I just hit the road.”
“You were drinking. I’m not letting you drive all the way home right now.”
“Two beers,” he says. “I’m fine.” Sirens sound, their wail circling in on us. “We shouldn’t just stand here. My car’s right around the corner.”
We run. Joanne begins to laugh and soon I am laughing too, laughing so hard it’s difficult to keep moving. I didn’t know fear could feel like this. I clutch my stomach as we hurl ourselves into Sam’s beat-up Impala and he drives, keeping to the speed limit, one hand on the wheel and one arm resting on the frame of the open window. The wind the car’s movement stirs up sails around the interior, carrying all the smells of the city with it: meat on a grill, exhaust, the clean scent of dryer sheets. Joanne and I are crammed in the backseat, where Sam is enacting a small rebellion against the army’s orderliness, a hodgepodge of tools and trash taking up all the legroom. Our hair cyclones around our heads and our bellies ache from laughing, and all at once, with the warmth of Joanne’s leg pressed against my own, a great, invisible weight lifts from me in the breeze and is borne away.
When we reach our block, my brother parks, but he won’t get out of the car. He keeps shifting around in his seat, keyed up with leftover adrenalin. I tell him he should really crash on our couch, and he gives me a dead-fish stare. A couple passes on the sidewalk, arm-in-arm, and he mutters something about needing to get out of the city, “away from all these fucking people.”
Joanne stands so close to me, I can feel the heat coming off her body. Sam wants to be tearing down the highway in the dark, and I want to be alone with Joanne in our apartment, so though it’s clear Sam’s shaken up, I let him go.
“Your brother pulverized that guy,” Joanne says. “Did you see all that blood?” She leans on me going up the stairs, and I put a hand on her back, feel the swish of her hair across my knuckles. At the top of the stairs, in the landing in front of our door, she turns, reaches up, and touches my face. She says, “You’ve got a pretty face, Grace. You shouldn’t hide behind your bangs.” She smoothes my bangs to the side, and then half-falls half-leans toward me. She is so close, I can smell the faint odor of cigarettes that has entangled itself in her hair. I help her catch her balance, and I’m not sure what else to do or say, but then I do what I want: I kiss her. Her mouth tastes like alcohol and sugar. I pull her close and she is laughing wildly now, her mouth open and busy with its laughing when I kiss her again. Our teeth bump with a tiny click. I don’t know where to put my hands so I hold them in the air behind her, hovering and uncertain, and I press my mouth against hers, and for a moment she kisses me back. She sways, and steadies herself by grabbing my arm. She is too drunk. I pull out my keys, and she hangs on me while I open the door. She rubs her face against my shoulder, back and forth like a cat wanting to be rubbed.
Inside though, she groans and scrambles for the bathroom. I hear her vomiting. I get a glass of water for her from the kitchen and return to find her sprawled on the chipped tile floor by the toilet. I hold out the glass and she shakes her head, so I set it on the lip of the sink. “I’m fine,” she says. “Please go.” I back up and she pushes the door shut with one foot. She stays in there for a long time and she doesn’t open the door, so I go to bed without brushing my teeth. I lie under my covers hoping she will come into my room in the night and crawl into bed next to me, which I know she won’t do, and yet I keep picturing how it will happen, the longing so acute, I can’t sleep.
A set of elevated train tracks run above the city streets just a short walk from our apartment, and in the middle of the night, the whistle of the freight trains that rattle through is the loneliest sound to hear in the dark. I think of Joanne alone in her room and me alone in mine, and all the people alone in the boxes of their apartments all across this city, stacked on top of each other, each building attached to the next, connected but so separate. I look at the shadows of my furniture, and slowly, the outlines of my dresser and my tiny desk crisp up as light begins to creep into the sky and push through my curtains, and sometime after that, I finally drift off.
Joanne sleeps even later than I do. She comes into the kitchen with her hair flattened on one side and wild on the other and fills a mug with tap water. She drinks it intently, leaning back against the counter. She is still wearing the purple tank top she was wearing the night before. I ask her how she’s feeling and she shrugs. “I’ll live.”
I sip my coffee and burn my tongue.
“About last night,” she says, and stops. Jangly with nerves, I can’t help myself, and keep drinking my too-hot coffee. “Even if I weren’t dating someone, living together creates boundaries. I don’t know. I don’t know how to say what I’m trying to say.”
Her affection for Gwen is real, even though it may not last forever. I know that. I know kissing her was a trespass.
“We drank too much,” I say. “That’s all.”
“And there was a crazy fight.”
“Emotions were running high.”
“The circumstances don’t matter. That’s the thing.” Joanne makes an expression I find inscrutable, a mix of remorse and defiance maybe. She turns and refills her mug at the sink, and with her sharp shoulder blades pointing at me, she says, “Gwen asked me to move in with her. I told her no, but maybe it’s a good idea.” When she faces me, she’s holding the mug oddly, with both hands, as if it’s a prop and she is posing for a picture. Or as if holding onto this object is what is allowing her to stand upright, and she must grip it for dear life. “Maybe it would make things less complicated.” The coffee burns a hole in my gut. She starts talking faster. “I wouldn’t go right away. I’d help you find a new roommate first. I might even know someone who’s looking.”
“You should do what you want,” I say. This I didn’t expect. I sit at the table for a long time, and then I go back to my room and get ready for work, each action mechanical, requiring no thought, and only the most basic effort.
I’m behind the bar at the Hothouse Lounge when my phone buzzes in my pocket.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, because Mama sounds strange, rattled.
“I’m at the hospital,” she says.
My heart kicks in my chest. “What happened?”
“Sam burned his hands. It’s bad.”
Mama tells me how, when he got back to the house, Sam didn’t put himself to bed. No, he went to the silo, where he had a stash of fireworks, real ones, not homemade aerosol firecrackers but Smokin’ Aces and Moonshine Cocktails leftover from the Fourth. It was 3:00 in the morning, but something in him needed noise, and so he tore a hole in the quiet.
As Mama talks, I picture all that brilliant color flowering in the darkness. The smell of gunpowder drifting, the showers of embers falling, winking out, the staccato bursts of sound, not quite like gunfire, but close. I see Sam standing too near, reaching out a hand as if to pull those colored sparks from the air.
One of the fireworks slanted off toward the silo instead of up, banging as the flash powder ignited, spraying blue sparks as it collided with weathered wood. The silo caught at once, and Sam beat at the flames with his shirt, then his hands, but when the weeds in the field, withered by drought, went up with a sigh, he knew he couldn’t extinguish what he’d started. Fire crawled toward the house, gusted along by a westerly wind, and he raced the flames across the field, bursting in through the back door yelling for Mama, who was up already, awakened by the noise.
They watched the house burn. “It was eerie,” Mama says. “The house I lived in for twenty eight years on fire before my eyes.” By the time the fire trucks pulled up, there wasn’t much to save.
“Why did you wait so long to call?”
“I don’t know, Grace.” Mama sounds so tired.
“I’m coming,” I say. “I’ll meet you at the hospital.”
A terrible agitation takes hold of me. I retreat to the back room, the place where the dancers get ready, where we store packages of napkins and cases of beer. I should be gathering my things, but I just stand there. Yvonne has her son Marcus with her. “His daddy never came to pick him up like he said, so here I am, bringing my baby to work with me,” she says. “That man. Just about good for nothing.” She puts on lipstick. She does this so expertly, she doesn’t need a mirror. “Your brother really banged up that guy last night. He get into a lot of fights?”
“Not like that, but he’s a soldier. He just got back from Iraq.”
“He knows how to handle himself. It was kind of scary.”
My hands shake, so I stuff them in the pockets of my sweatshirt. “Can I ask you something, Yvonne?”
She looks at me expectantly, eyebrows arched in a go-onand-do-it way.
“Is it terrible dancing here? Do you hate it?”
“Hate’s a strong word,” she says. “It’s a temporary thing. I’m in school for my associate’s degree.” She pulls her son onto her lap, and he settles against her, running his toy sports car along her leg, making engine revving noises. “You’re the center of everyone’s attention. Sometimes that feels good. Other times, I try to feel nothing but the music, try to forget myself in the sound.”
I tell Yvonne I’m writing a magazine article about go-go dancers, that I’m doing research. Right now though, this isn’t research. I tell her that. This is something else.
She helps me get ready. She tells me to breathe slowly, reminds me to keep my eyes up, on the lights. To avoid faces, no matter what. As I pull off my sweatshirt, I tell myself it’ll just be for one song. Just three minutes.
I climb onto the pedestal in my bra and underwear, feeling just about as stupid as a person can feel. I realize too late I still have my socks on. Shabby socks, the heels worn thin—they surely ruin the look. Yvonne puts a Black Sabbath song on the jukebox. I told her I wanted to dance to something angry. I close my eyes. I see Sam, hands plunged in fire. The back of my throat burns. Maybe I’m trying to punish myself, shame myself, I don’t know. I feel like my body isn’t connected to me, like it’s an unflattering outfit I just happen to be wearing. Eyes shut, I pretend I’m alone in my bedroom, but I’m sick in the pit of my stomach, and can summon nothing of the abandon I feel when a song I love gets me dancing. Opening my eyes, seeing people stare up at me, is even worse. There is a man chewing gum with his mouth open, looking at my breasts. I can see the hairs on his knuckles, the spots on his fingers. Sam’s hands will be uglier than this man’s hands now. I look up at the lights. The song seems to go on and on. I can smell my own anxiety, the nervous sweat under my arms. My humiliation is like a hot, dark well opening inside me. I am falling and falling.
But then, some other emotion stirs. Alongside the mortification and fear, something else. This feeling has nothing to do with sex, with the men’s hungry looking. It rises through me, a feeling as though all the doors in the world have opened.
The song ends, but the feeling goes on.
I step down from the pedestal and return to the back room. I pull on my shirt and my jeans. I fish my keys from my purse.
At the hospital, the overhead lights are too bright. Sam’s hands are swaddled in gauze and lie at his sides, a plastic hospital bracelet clasped loosely around his left wrist. An IV pumps fluids into his blood. It’s like Sam’s body is something that doesn’t want to stay together, every muscle ready to tear, every bone ready to shatter, his skin ready to burn away, expose every nerve. He stirs at the sight of me, sighs, blinks slow blinks. He is swimming in morphine. I reach out, touch the scar tissue on his neck. I can feel all the hard bits that were once flying through the air. Sam looks hazily up at me, and then beyond, at the ceiling. The room feels cramped, like our worry is tightening the air around our faces.
I move away from the bedside to the window that overlooks a parking lot. The sky is still lit, and yet I see the moon, a white thumbprint on the blue. Sam once pointed out to me that Neil Armstrong’s footprints are still up there, a disturbance on the surface of the moon. In interviews Armstrong has said he wishes someone would go back and sweep them away. Don’t we all want to go back and sweep so many things away? I feel around in my purse for that twist of metal I kept, that I carry everywhere. The scar it gave my brother went all the way into him, deeper than flesh. He’ll carry that mark until the end, until he isn’t carrying anything any more.
I throw the piece of shrapnel away in the wastebasket in the corner. I just open my hand and let it go.
Kate Blakinger lives in Philadelphia with her husband and son. Her short stories have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Harpur Palate, The Iowa Review, and other magazines. She holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she received the Meijer Postgraduate Fellowship. She has also received fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, Jentel, the MacDowell Colony, and Penn State Altoona.