Answer the following questions as honestly as you can. If you say no at any point, stop. You are not suited to pursue your MFA. If you say yes, continue on to the next question.
- Do you want to be surrounded by other writers of varying temperament, talents, and levels of dedication? Think carefully before you answer. That means people who might fall anywhere on the spectrum of mental well-being from moderately maladjusted to psychotic.
We’re writers. We haven’t necessarily had the best childhoods. We might be better at writing than we are at say, interacting with other humans.
We might also be beginners. We might start our stories with “The alarm clock went off.” We might have just graduated college and be stalling before getting a full-time job and so we might write our workshop drafts between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. the night before class. And we might not even feel bad about it.
If you can tolerate these possibilities, continue on to the next question. Because you will also find people in MFA programs who you recognize as kin–people who love the way words sound, who have grown up coveting their library card more than church, who will become some of your best friends or your worst enemies (note: sometimes, in writing programs, the enemies can be the most inspiring. Those you don’t like or envy or fear can push you to do better work).
- Are you capable of taking criticism of varying levels of sophistication on a weekly basis about the things you hold most dear?
You might have a fantasy that you’ll walk into a workshop and your professor will have brought along her own literary agent, who is dying to sign you based on your manuscript. Fellow writers will be so blown away by your work that they only have a few minor punctuation tweaks and maybe an idea for a different title (one without ellipses). The whole workshop will be a lovefest. No variation on this scenario will ever happen.
Workshops are designed to find the places where your writing falters, to pry apart the unconvincing scenes, to ask questions about the premise, the characters, the plot, and the ability of the writer to realistically render any experience.
And not all of it will be well-meaning. Some of your workshop participants will have spent a total of five minutes skimming your work and will say things like, “I feel like the main character should die in a car crash at the end.” If you can hold it together, workshops are also the place where people other than your mom will try to give you the best guidance they can to make your work better.
- Are you willing to sleep with poets? Unless you are otherwise partnered (and sometimes, even if you are), it is my experience (and scientific research backs me up) that you will be required to have sex with a minimum of two other writers, most likely poets.
You may also develop a slight drinking problem, and you will most certainly doubt your decision to put your life on hold during this time for your own selfishness and desire for fame. You might also meet your life partner, and/or your best friend, as well as a cadre of people willing to read your work at any time for the rest of your days.
And poets can be good in bed, if you can deal with the aftermath (such as hearing about the poet’s version of the experience at a public reading with 50 of your colleagues where your name and physical features have only been slightly altered).
- Are you at a place in your life where you can take two or three years off from the working world to focus on writing? You don’t have to be 23 to do this. You can have children, other debt, no money, angry family members who want you to go to law school, and you can still do it. I know people who have earned their degrees at all ages and under all kinds of life circumstances. Some of them have gone on to be professors; others have gone on to be bartenders. Some continue to write and get published. Others decide that the whole MFA thing was a phase. All leave with a graduate degree, debt, teaching experience, and a portfolio of work that they never would have otherwise written in that amount of time. The one thing—the main thing about writing programs—is that they force you to write. It is the only time in your life when writing what you love is your job, your singular focus, your daily chore, and possibly your salvation.
Have you said yes to all of the above? I left out some parts about sleepless nights, crying jags, difficulty in finding gainful employment after graduation, and the gnawing fear of failure.
And maybe, after all of this, you won’t believe me if I tell you that it was the best thing I ever did for myself and I miss it every day.
My advanced placement was bourbon
poured in a cough syrup bottle
I kept in my locker – amber in amber.
He said it first – spooktacular.
How spooky life became
as big men were shot down.
Conjugate a six ounce verb.
Conjugate this: our troubles come in tribes.
I expected it but she never threw up her arms
and cried, “Go, sell his bones.”
I crossed the dark floor stumbling
among the dead men.
The siege plowed through
seasons’ storehouses; engines
burned and rebuilt; a land seasoned with salt
sang dry-throated, a little cough, a chime.
I crisscrossed that darkened
room – always a night sea journey.
She gave me her hope which I gambled away,
gave me succor,
her delicate collarbone and thoroughbred ankles
to be bartered.
David P. Kozinski won the Delaware Literary Connection’s 2015 spring poetry contest. He received the Dogfish Head Poetry Prize, which included publication of his chapbook, Loopholes. Publications include Apiary, Cheat River Review, Fox Chase Review, glimmertrain.com, and Schuylkill Valley Journal. He has read at numerous venues in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
When we didn’t move to Philadelphia,
we didn’t buy the hanging flower basket
for the front stoop in Old City.
We didn’t ride bicycles to the market
and fill your basket with Roma tomatoes
and eggplant. You don’t like eggplant.
And you thought Philadelphia would lose
its lure if we had a mailbox, a sconce
in the foyer, stairs that creaked.
We kept our distance and bought a dog
in a small town beside railroad tracks
that haven’t railed trains in forty years.
It’s quiet beneath these stars.
And tonight on our walk, when you asked
if I had any regrets, I had already begun
writing a poem about hanging baskets
and a love that follows us
wherever we have and haven’t lived.
Wes Ward earned his MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. His poetry has appeared in North American Review, Sewanee Theological Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He was a finalist for the Bridport Prize in the UK. Wes teaches English and lives with his wife and children in Pennsylvania.
I point 6-year-old Joey’s attention to the lime-green
baby caterpillar curling itself along the sidewalk
in front of our homes, and before I take a second breath,
he lifts his miniature Nike and stamps the poor thing to goo,
spreads it from the bottom of his shoe to the curb, scraping
and scraping it away like Lady MacBeth unable to stop
washing her hands. But without her guilt. My horror is visceral
—it’s all I can do not to glare at him like a school marm
shaking a long finger. Then I recall summer nights
long ago—gaggles of kids on the block—allowed
to run free till parents called us in for baths. How many
fireflies we caught those nights, dropping them into glass jars,
holes poked by the boys with an ice pick into the tin lids.
They were the lucky ones. Others we stripped of their
tiny lamps, lined them around our fingers—brilliant rings
turning us into lords and ladies, queens and kings.
Bernadette McBride, author of two poetry collections, is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, was a second-place winner of the international Ray Bradbury Writing Award, and a finalist for the Robert Fraser Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in the UK, numerous U.S. journals, and on PRIs The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. She is poetry co-editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal and was the 2009 Bucks County Poet Laureate.
Time folds back and back on itself
like my uncle’s accordion
in our airless attic
pleated patterns create
shortcuts to the future
I tumble through trap
doors & silent tunnels
at the speed of light, arriving
breathless in a world
where our boots still crackle
pine needles & scales of sun still
float through dark branches
where we stop by a secluded stream
share sandwiches, apples, cookies &
I see you walking down West Ridge
A wooden box under your arm
I call out
I see you kneel & raise the lid
your back toward me
I see your shoulders shake
I hear the sound of a polka
played in a distant past
I can’t breathe in this airless place
I see you
Claire Scott is an award winning poet who has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. Her work has been accepted by the Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Healing Muse, and Vine Leaves Literary Journal among others. Her first book of poetry, Waiting to be Called, was published in 2015.
They cut the fog like ghosts
Their lives are lived too fast
to accurately photograph.
The list of “also ran” grows.
And soon almost new,
the almost men,
are men in the least,
men soon at the most
This, the earthly mist knows,
and even the end zone
can never hold them
Joe Bisicchia writes of our shared spiritual dynamic. An Honorable Mention recipient for the Fernando Rielo XXXII World Prize for Mystical Poetry, his works have appeared in various publications. The former TV host was born in Camden and grew up in South Philadelphia in the close orbit of Veterans Stadium.
Billy ends his marriage with a note that says it’s me, not you; you’re great, I’m not. He leaves it on the counter under a vanilla-scented candle along with his last paycheck. Then he waits across the street in his Dodge Dart until she comes home. When she spots him, he presses his palm against his window and takes off. He feels like he’s dropping off the lip of a quarry, streaming down, toes pointed, toward the waffled water. The impact comes later.
She was called Robyn even though her license said Mary Catherine. They lived near each other in a Tampa neighborhood bounded by auto dealerships, unregulated fabrication shops, and a spray of strip clubs that kept cars circulating in the streets 24/7. Robyn’s habitat since birth, the environmental jangle was her catalyst. Get up, get out, make it work. Billy, however, was a transplant. He had grown up inside an extended family of migrant harvesters, riding in the big combines and sleeping dorm-style in twenty-dollar-a-night motels. They moved with the weather until injury and exhaustion grounded his parents in Florida where they enrolled Billy in his first public school. The speed of moving objects and the density of human bodies felt to Billy like an angry thing. He didn’t like coming back to the same house every night. And there was never a spot where he could see straight ahead for more than an eighth of a mile.
Robyn’s suntan and creamy, extroverted smile felt to Billy like an unexpected gift. She was as sugary to him as canned peaches, and for reasons Billy never explored, she decided to hook herself to him. She taught him about sex, working through a menu of techniques from a book she said her mother had given to her. She told him what clothes to wear and steered him toward the easiest classes. Her attentions made Billy drowsy, dulling the edges so that nothing seemed dangerous.
When high school ran its course, Robyn announced their next step – marriage and a rental house in a less horrible neighborhood. It was then that Billy began to lose track of the horizon. Each ritual – engagement, bachelorette party, first apartment, salsa lessons – made Robyn stronger, more accomplished, more hopeful. Her expectations increased. It was like she was making their life into a how-to video with affirmations and crafty time-savers included at no extra cost. As she bloomed, Billy sagged, every day another brick in his backpack.
He found work at a dairy ten miles outside the city. He learned the big animals quickly. The cows seemed familiar to him, and the return to producing something with his hands was a relief. Billy could sense, however, that Robyn was not impressed. He watched her increase the pace of her extra-curricular activities, enrolling in classes and groups designed, she told him, to maximize her human potential.
“Honestly, Billy, what is it going to take?” she had said, turning both of her palms upwards on her thighs and blowing a bubble through her chewing gum. She was sitting cross-legged on the couch, studying for her real estate exam.
“What is your life plan?” She pushed her chin in his direction, as if to jab him. It was not the first time for this conversation.
It was also not the first time he had no answer.
Six days later, Billy drives north on a state highway into Wisconsin. Without warning, he comes upon a two-story wooden dollhouse sitting in the middle of the road. The structure is so unexpected that it does not register as an obstacle until the moment of impact. Immediately, the air fills with brightly painted balsa wood. Something lands on the windshield like a punch in the face. It is a little cloth man from the dollhouse. He’s wearing a white shirt with a tie painted on the front. The line of ink that was his smile has gotten smudged so that it looks like he’s blowing smoke against the glass. He looks like he’s thinking about something far away.
The little man remains fixed to the windshield, pasted down by the wind. Then Billy turns on the wipers and flicks him into the wind. The remains of the dollhouse resettle on the road like a box of broken pasta. There are no other cars on either side of the road. He presses down on the accelerator and the car shimmies back up to eighty-five. Billy feels lighter, as if his sinuses have cleared and a bolt of fresh air has hit his brain.
An hour later, Billy spots a cardboard sign wired to a pole at the side of the road.
Farm Hand Wanted
Billy checks the rearview, pumps his brakes, and makes the turn. Soon he spots a replica of the sign hanging from an apple tree in the front yard of a small dairy farm. He pulls in and unfolds out of the car.
A man appears from behind the barn. His swollen chest makes him look like an upright bull calf.
“You all hiring?” Billy’s voice is out of tune. He’s been chain-smoking straight through from Florida, trying to figure out what he is feeling.
“Just the one. You got experience?”
The man has gold, wire-rim glasses that cut into his cheeks. His eyes are grey-blue, but they are not synchronized. One drifts high and to the right. The other holds Billy in place like a hand to his throat.
“Most about all of it. I was at a commercial dairy in Florida.”
“We need another back,” the man says, listing closer to Billy. “I take care of the hay. Put up six thousand bails last season. The wife handles all the animals. That’s hers to tell.”
The man smells like licorice and tractor grease, and the tip of his tongue keeps showing, touching his upper lip as if to make sure it’s still there. He explains the salary and what else is included, which is a bed and three meals.
A woman appears on the porch of the house. She’s like an eclipse, blocking out the sun so that Billy feels the sudden urge to shut himself off completely and then start up again. He shakes himself, for a second. Her hair is trauma white, like it happened overnight. She opens a gap between her lips.
“I can do whatever,” Billy says.
In the silence, Billy watches a line of black birds follow each other down from the barn roof. They settle at the edge of the yard, watching.
“Okay. We’ll give it a go,” the man says, putting his hand out for Billy to shake. “She’ll show you where to be.”
The woman comes down off the porch. Billy picks up his duffle bag and follows her around the corner of the house to a tool shed set on concrete blocks. She takes the padlock from the hasp on the door and slips the metal tong into the waistband of her jeans. She opens the door and then stands aside, crossing her arms over her chest, and hitching one boot up against the wall.
“My name is Mitch.” It sounds to Billy like a name she’s just invented. She drops her arms and steps in front of him into the shed. She has a line of three black dots tattooed across the back of her neck.
Inside is a metal-frame cot with a cloth mattress and one blanket, a white plastic folding chair, a card table made of tin, and a bureau. An eighteen-pane window looks out over the laundry lines and back toward the house. It does not open. Etched on the walls with heavy black marker are the silhouettes of missing tools. Grass clippers, pruning shears, shovels, mallets and a perfect long row of wrenches in descending order by length. A column of dust floats up from the mattress.
“Thanks,” Billy says, setting his bag on the bed. Mitch presses her fingertips against the front of her thighs. There are vines on her silver belt buckle and she has a scar running across the back of her hand and on up her arm. It fades to a pink smear at her elbow.
“There’s a shower and a toilet over in the cow barn. That’ll be yours.”
The only breaths she takes are long slow pulls, like she’s drawing water up from the bottom of a well.
“Dinner’s at five-thirty so come on up just before,” she says. “And you should know, my husband, Thick, the one you just met. He doesn’t allow any smoking. Not anywhere.”
She stands in the doorway, drumming her fingers against the jam. Billy knows from the way her eyes flick from side to side that she hasn’t been following this rule.
“Okay. Got that.”
He watches her walk back over to the house, fixing the rhythm of her hips in his mind like a song.
II. House Rules
Billy sleeps until a spider crawls across the bridge of his nose and wakes him. He gets up and walks over to the hay barn. Thick is working at a bench, sharpening an individual knife from a cutter bar and sending a curtain of orange sparks onto the floor.
Above the bench–which stretches the entire length of the barn—are black and white photographs in flat wooden frames. All the photos are of shirtless young men, standing around in groups or sitting in rows on the link-belts of oversized army bulldozers. Even the ones who are smiling look lonely. In the backgrounds are droopy palm trees and great curls of barbed wire fencing. Billy feels assaulted by the faces and the shiny black pupils that appear to move as he moves. For some reason, Billy thinks these people don’t like it here on this barn wall.
“Korea. The DMZ. That’s where they put me,” Thick says. Billy flinches, surprised that Thick had even known he was standing there. Thick holds the cutter bar knife, a steel triangle with one sharp edge, and assesses his work with the ball of his left thumb.
“That’s right. We kept her clean, by god.” Thick explains how his company was responsible for keeping the jungle out of the no-man’s land between the north and the south. The heat was blast furnace hot and they had to keep the bulldozers working 24/7. The only reason he had to come home was that he took a bullet through his shoulder, and it got infected. He sets the knife on the bench in a line with several others.
“These were my boys. My men.”
Billy steps in closer to a cluster of smaller photos, each a portrait of one man. Thick advances suddenly, moving at a speed not consistent with his size, and sets himself between Billy and the photographs.
“These ones here. These are the ones that didn’t make it,” he says. A sour smell from Thick’s mouth hangs in the space between them. Thick presses his finger into the base of Billy’s throat, just below the Adam’s apple. Billy feels a blood-flush through his head. He can’t remember anyone touching him in this spot before.
“These aren’t decorations. These are for real.”
“Ah—” Billy tries to swallow, but Thick’s finger makes him gag.
Billy steps back, detaching. “I do.”
“Well some don’t. And that’s a big fucking problem.”
Thick takes a piece of cheesecloth from the front pocket of his overhauls and begins to clean the glass on the photographs. A smile spreads slowly across his face, and he continues to clean. Billy waits, unable to stop staring.
III. Fish on the Line
Nothing cuts through the smell of cow shit like smoke from a Marlboro Red. Billy knows. It has been one month now at the farm, but this is the first time he’s smelled it. He is mucking out. The smoke moves quickly through the barn and the cows pick up their heads, one-by-one down the line.
Billy follows the smell to Mitch, standing in a spot off the end of the barn, where the angle of the building and the height of the manure pile should have blocked the smell. Billy arrives just as she expels a great, grey cloud of smoke into the air above her head. She is swaying slightly from side to side.
“No shit. You want one?”
She lights his off the end of hers and then slides her free hand in behind her belt buckle. She is completely comfortable staring at him. She sucks on her cigarette, and the tobacco pops from the sudden rush of heat. After a long moment, she lets the smoke drift back out of her mouth.
“How you doing?” he asks. He’s not sure he wants to know.
She gives him the bones of her story. Mother dies early. Father gets violent. Younger sisters run away. Enter Thick Barston.
“Well—” she says, lighting up a second cigarette and sitting down in the short grass. He was twelve years her senior and had already been to Korea and back. He came to her house, a farm only fifteen miles from this one, with a load of firewood. He had not grown up in their town.
“I never saw a man move so gently. He stacked that wood like every stick was made of glass.”
“You’re talking about Thick?”
“Yeah. I know. Not now, but then. The thing of it was, you could tell he was holding back on something. Something awfully powerful.” She pulls again on the cigarette, closing her right eye against the smoke.
“My father said anyone with a name like Thick was a direct agent from hell. I was ready for a ticket to anywhere, if you know what I mean. A month after my not-so-sweet seventeen I married him at the county courthouse. Thick put on his uniform. We looked good.”
She flicks her cigarette butt high up over the crest of the manure pile – landing it on the backside in the slurry where Thick will not see it. She stands up and gives Billy her hand.
They go to Billy’s shed, and she pushes him onto the cot. Billy keeps one eye open, enough to see how Mitch pulls off her boots and pushes her jeans down to the floor. Her legs are forested with dark freckles, and her underwear is black. She smiles and frees herself from her shirt like it’s been bothering her all day.
“He’s gone to a swap meet,” she says, moving onto the bed and straddling his legs with hers. She pins his shoulders in place with her palms, digging her fingertips into the muscle tissue like she is wedging clay. He feels the skin of her thighs hugging his hips, her warm breath on the top of his head. She hangs her breasts over his eyes, blocking out the light. Her skin smells like cedar. She asks him if he wants to stop only after he is already inside her, and his fingers are locked around her shoulder blades. They breathe in sequence, trading off the stale oxygen in the shed, grinding against one another in bursts. She takes his face in her hands and steadies both of their heads, not breathing, moving only her hips and legs until everything washes together for Billy, and he lets go and slams the back of both hands against the plywood wall. When his eyes refocus, he sees the sweat on her chest and her dark nipples and the smooth line of her chin as she arches against him, holding it. Then she rocks forward and presses her face onto the sheet. Billy listens, trying to separate the cricket-roar outside from the buzzing inside his head that he thinks may be the feeling of not being alone.
A shiver pulses up from Billy’s ankles and travels through his butt, bouncing Mitch. She laughs and blows a deep breath against the edge of his ear.
“Still with us?” she says, sitting up, her hands flat on his chest.
Billy wants to say something to make her laugh, to show some mastery, but he can’t get his face to do anything other than smile. It’s as if he is ferociously drunk. She kisses him in the center of his forehead, like an old friend, and then rolls off and puts herself back together. She makes no effort to hide the process. Billy cannot think of anything he’d rather watch for the rest of his life. He puts his hands behind his head and relaxes the muscles in his shoulders and stomach and thighs in a way that feels entirely unfamiliar.
“Nice,” Mitch says, snapping the snap on her jeans. When she opens the shed door, the light explodes in her white hair like a flashbulb.
IV. No Worries
Mostly, Billy does not see the fights. But on this day, the last day of August when it feels as if the sun has not set for a week and the cows are so hot that Billy has given them a spray-down as they left the barn, he comes upon the scene in progress.
As he pulls open the screen door, he sees that the kitchen has been scrambled. Broken glass and dishes. Food sprawled over the linoleum. The overhead light, stripped of its shade, still swinging. The kitchen table is already turtled, legs in the air. The chairs stand by as awkward witnesses. Everything has come to rest in the place it should not be.
Thick raises his coffee mug, growling. He’s got it centered in his fleshy palm. The cords stand up on his neck. Mitch’s shoulders rise, shrinking the length of her neck. Thick fires, spitting as his arm rotates, and the cup explodes as a dark stain on the wall to the left of Mitch’s skull.
She does not move. Neither does Billy. Not until Thick whirls and plants both his hands on Billy’s chest, reversing him back out through the door and landing him butt down on the gravel path. There is a cut at the top of Thick’s cheek that looks like a coin slot.
Billy watches from the dirt as Thick swipes his left forearm backwards across Mitch’s face, bashing her toward the wall and out of Billy’s view. He drops his head onto ground. A sound like two fast trains passing in opposite directions boxes his ears. It is Thick, slamming the kitchen door and pounding by on his way to the barn.
When the ringing stops and the white spots leave his eyes, Billy stands and goes back into the kitchen. There is no one there. It’s just the wreckage, the part that Billy has seen before. He rebuilds what’s been undone. As he washes the wall with a wet rag, blending the stain in with the others, Billy fights with the image of Thick’s cocked arm and the low rumble of dumb animal pain still bouncing around the room. He feels it as he turns the overturned table back onto its legs. As he tucks in the chairs. As he gets a cup of coffee for himself and sits down to listen to his own breathing and see about the cut on the base of his palm.
Mitch reappears, tracing her fingers through her hair. Already there are bruises along her jawline. Dirty little clouds. She looks from point to point around the room.
“You get any breakfast,” she asks, pulling open the refrigerator door. Her voice is scratchy.
“I’m good. No worries,” Billy says, watching the dot dot dot on her neck.
“I’m not worried.”
The sliver of Billy that is not drugged by Mitch, the tiny part of him that still knows how to function without her forehead pressed against his or her fingers locked around his neck, is trying to send a message. There’s something to be done, something to learn. But then he feels it fade, dissolving away like a face in a dream that was so clear only moments ago.
V. Into the Woods
In mid-September, Thick leaves them overnight, saying that he will drive to a tractor fair outside Des Moines and then come back the next day. His announcement, made at the table during a silent dinner, produces a generalized bolt of static energy and fixes Billy’s eyes to his plate.
“That alright?” Thick says, drawing air in through his nose for an impossible number of seconds.
Billy and Mitch go to a park where the red pines are packed in so tight that they make for perpetual twilight at ground level. Mitch brings cold chicken, a block of cheese, and a six-pack. They go at each other once on the way and once in the needles under the blanket. Billy knows she prefers short, airless frenzies that drive everything out of his body and leave him flushed red. He tries to keep a hand on some part of her body as much as he possibly can.
They sit at the edge of the brook that runs through the center of the park. Her bare feet twitch in the water. Billy lays behind her, his legs wrapped up around her waist and his head on the ground. He is trying to see the sky. He can hear Mitch snapping twigs.
“Did you ever have a kid?” Billy asks. He regrets the question immediately.
“I had one that I lost. Late. Everything got fucked up.”
Billy comes up on one elbow and puts his hand on the middle of her back, his fingers split across the ridge of her spine.
“The hospital out here wasn’t ready for it, and they made some mistakes. They flew me to Chicago, but it was no use.”
She pulls her feet out of the water and twists around until she is lying next to him, talking into his chest.
“They said it wouldn’t be safe to try again.”
She has her hand on her belly, the veins showing through her skin. Billy knows she is telling him more than she wants to tell him. She rolls to her other side and Billy pins himself up against her back.
“Thick came to get me in the truck the next day. They wouldn’t let him on the helicopter.”
“I watched the doctor explain it to him in the hall. I swear, it was like the guy was having his own fucking surgery.” She kicks one leg out straight, knocking gravel into the stream.
“What do you mean?”
“That’s when he really went away.”
“He took it personally. It was not about me having my junk turned inside out. It was not about our kid. It was about the world having its last fucking laugh at poor old Thick. He never came into the room. He just waited in the hall until I was dressed.”
She arches her back and pushes up closer to him. Billy wraps one arm around her rib cage, his palm stretched across the griddle of her bones, and props his head up with the other. He works through all the things that he knows would be useless to say.
Then she tells him about the heart attacks, the first one coming less than a week after they came home from Chicago and before Mitch could even get up out of bed. Thick seized up on his tractor as he was coming into the yard. He slumped to the left and the big 6100 went to the right, peeling the porch completely off the house. Mitch popped her stitches at the sound.
“Now we’re up to six. In five years.”
“Jesus. How does he keep going?”
“Fear and meanness. The usual.”
Billy falls asleep with his hand cupped between her breast and the pine needles. When he wakes, it is nearly full dark. His wrist and shoulder throb from being clam-shelled on the ground. Mitch sits in the car with the doors open, smoking. Billy shivers from the cold. It’s the first time he’s done that since he arrived in Wisconsin.
VI. Just Do It
Billy comes awake like a pot getting dropped. He sits up on his single mattress and looks out the fixed-pane window of the shed. Through the glass, he sees Mitch lighting a cigarette. She cups the match against the wind with her boy-hands and then goes back to hanging the laundry, pinching the cigarette between her lips as she snaps sheets out into the wind.
The sun fills Billy’s shed more than it should and he knows he has overslept the milking. He also knows that if Mitch is smoking in the open air than Thick is gone. For the last week, since Thick came back from the tractor show towing a new mover-conditioner, Mitch has not visited him in his shed. Her smell in his blankets is getting weaker. Billy feels his stomach tighten in a familiar way.
He pulls on his jeans and a t-shirt and steps out of the shed. A white wall of sheets blocks his view of the house. He knocks his boots together to chase out the sac spiders, then pulls them on and goes up to the kitchen.
“He wants you to go up top and strip some old cutter bar that’s laying there in the weeds,” she tells him. She does not turn to look at him. She is working the stove. Eggs and bacon and fried toast in one pan. She has her hair pulled up in a halftwist. Her dot dot dot tattoo looks as if the black ink has been refreshed overnight.
“What is it?” he asks, but she does not reply.
He sits down and begins to ladle sugar into a cup of coffee he finds on the table. On this day, the kitchen feels unfamiliar to him, as if somehow the dimensions have been changed. She forks the food onto a paper plate and hands it to him, pinching out a smile that looks more like a reaction to a soft punch than anything inviting.
“You milked already?”
“Yeah. I was up.”
“Appreciate that. Sorry.”
She sits down with him and begins to sweep the table cover with the edge of her palm, brushing salt and sugar onto the floor.
“Just get to it, Billy. It’s not a good day. Better to just get it done.”
She drops her hand on his forearm and squeezes very hard. Then she pushes herself up from the table and walks out of the room. She has left the gas on under her pan. Billy turns it off. There are four angry ovals and a red smear on his arm.
Billy goes across the dooryard to the open-mouthed hay barn and finds the wrench and the mallet and an empty jumbo coffee can. He adds oil to the can. As he gathers his tools, he can feel the faces of the young men looking out at him from Thick’s army pictures. Billy has not noticed until now, examining each picture, that Thick himself is not in any of them. Up close, the faces of these boys show something that Billy reads as nausea, almost as if they know that they won’t want to be reminded, at some point in the future, that this was their life. In several shots, more than one guy is giving the finger to the camera. They all look like they are sixteen and sixty-six at the same time. He wonders if maybe it was actually one of these boys that put that bullet through Thick’s shoulder.
VII. Lucky Seven
Billy’s shirt is wet through and pasted to his stomach. He strips it off along with his boots before going into the shed and lying down on the cot like something that doesn’t care. He reviews his day. Worked in the weeds by the side of the road. Produced a pile of rusted nuts and cutter bar blades. They are badly pitted and no amount of Thick’s grinding wheel will ever bring them to true again. Billy has cut his knuckles and the back of his hands so many times that when he laces his fingers together and rests them on his bare chest, they stick together without Billy even trying.
He falls asleep almost immediately and dreams he is lying flat in a grave. It is nighttime and the earth is cool on his back. Mitch is kneeling on his chest and he can smell her sex. Her cropped white hair traps the moonlight. Just above them, at ground level, Thick sits in a folding chair eating mashed potatoes from the blade of a shovel. Robyn appears in pink shorts and a halter-top tied up in cheerleader form, tight under her breasts.
Robyn says seriously Billy?
Then Thick is talking to her, his hand on the back of her thigh. He has trouble learning a thing, don’t he?
Billy wants to say something to Mitch, but her face is hidden by the moon glare, and he doesn’t know what to say. He feels the edge of a question that has something to do with love and sacrifice, but it won’t turn into words that he can say out loud.
And then it is Thick on top of him, spread-eagled in a pattern that matches his own. Now, Thick’s face and belly and limbs are pressing down on Billy. He can only breathe short, careful breaths through his nostrils. All he can see are the soles of Mitch’s boots. They flash each time she knocks them together. She’s yelling lucky seven, lucky seven, lucky fucking seven.
VIII. The Call
Billy wakes up feeling misaligned, like something has been pulled out of him unevenly. Five-thirty now by his watch. The light outside is still bright, but the angle has shifted into something softer. He gets up, puts on a new shirt, and leaves the shed.
He finishes the evening milking and then crosses back to the kitchen where he finds only cold coffee. He takes down a pan from the rack on the wall and pours in the coffee, then lights the stove. He sits down at the table and waits.
The sound comes to him after the coffee is hot and he has fixed it with condensed milk. It comes to him like smoke from under a doorsill, a high-pitched grind that brings up the hairs on his arms. Billy hears it as either the tearing of metal or the choking of a small animal. Either way, it sounds to him like something that should only be heard right before death.
Billy follows the sound, walking into the front hallway. He has never been anywhere in the house other than the kitchen. He steps forward, anticipating an alarm. The sound stutters for a moment and then begins again. Billy feels it like a rod snapped against the back of his knees.
At the end of the hall, to the left, is a partially open door. When he gets to the door he looks in and sees Thick sitting naked on the side of the bed. The hair on his legs and thighs is as red as the rust on the cutter bar. He is holding his face in his hands and leaking a continuous stream of sound. His body casts a shadow on the floor that runs out the bedroom door and stops under Billy’s feet.
Mitch is there too, kneeling on the bed. She has one hand on her freckled thigh and the other on the center of Thick’s back. Her gray camisole is one that Billy has never seen. She is moving her hand very slowly over Thick’s skin. In the bedroom, her hair looks more blond than white. She is humming, one anchoring note that lives down below the cry coming from Thick.
When she looks up and sees Billy in the hallway, she does not seem surprised. She does not change the pattern of her hand or part her lips or stop humming. Instead, she looks at Billy in the same way she has when they have been tangled together on his cot, when they were straining into each other, and what Billy knows at that exact moment, widening his gaze to take in the both of them–blond-topped Mitch cupped around the red mass of Thick–is that they are a completed thing, an organism that doesn’t need–that doesn’t want–anything else.
Billy retreats back up the hallway, through the kitchen, and out the door. In the dooryard near the apple tree, Billy feels a new electrical current inside his body, as if a detached wire had just been soldered back onto its contact. The black birds, pecking at stones, take off as a group and resettle on ridgeline of the hay barn.
Billy drives the Dart fourteen hundred miles from Wisconsin to Florida, staying awake on an unbroken stream of coffee, chocolate bars and off-brand cigarettes. When he turns the engine off in Tampa, it ticks and pops.
At the dairy, the owners agree to take him back. They know he’s good with the cows. The guys on the line tell him that production fell after he left. That the farm manager was pissed and that they had to start pushing more grain and leaving the lights on for an extra hour to keep the volume up.
“That’s not how it’s done,” Billy says. They tease him like he’s the old guy, snapping his ass with their wet cow rags.
He finds a three-room cabin for rent. It sits as close as it can to the swamp in Lettuce Lake Park. The back porch is big enough for one person and a pair of boots. Billy can sit out there in the evening on a metal chair and smoke.
Billy goes to the bank and opens a savings account. He knows the woman who works the desk but he can’t remember if she and Robyn were friends or enemies. She has a dark spray of freckles across the tops of her cheeks that make her look like she’s wearing a veil. And that she knows things. The plaque on her desk says Ms. Lucy Block.
“You’re back?” she says, handing him the paperwork. She is smiling in an open-ended way and sitting up close to the edge of her desk. She has three gold bangles looped around her wrist.
“Ah, yeah. That’s right.”
“Where are you staying?”
“I’m out by the swamp.”
“It’s pretty out there,” Lucy says, leaning forward and looking at him. She laughs, quietly, then pushes a strand of her hair up off her face, tucking it behind her ear.
“Okay. Make sure to reset your password at the ATM. And you have my card, in the folder, if you have any questions. Or whatnot.”
“I do.” Billy takes in a big breath and smiles at Lucy Block. “Thank you.”
“Yeah. Absolutely. It’s nice to see you.”
Billy goes out into the sun and starts up the Dart. He holds the gas pedal to the floor and floods the carburetor with gas, imagining the chunks of soot being vaporized off the cylinder walls. Billy waits a moment for the car to calm down and then backs out into the street, puncturing the smog. He offers an apology, acknowledgement through the glass to no one in particular, his fingers in pistol formation, and heads on back to his swamp house with the radio up loud.
Now, Billy likes to sit on his back porch. Sometimes the herons come out of the swamp in pairs. They land on the tin roof over his head and pace around for a few beats. Billy listens to whatever they have to say. Then they take off, one behind the other, pushing into the sky with a slow flex of their blue-grey wings.
Charlie Watts was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up on the campus of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, and a family farm in Freedom, NH. He earned both his BFA (1986) and MFA (1992) from Brown University in Providence, RI. Charlie, who returned to writing in 2013 after a long detour into communications consulting, has published work in Clerestory Journal and Carve magazine. He also has work forthcoming on The Drum, an online audio journal, and Narrative magazine. His story, Arrangements, won the 2015 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Charlie was also a finalist in the 2016 Hemingway Shorts contest sponsored by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. He and his wife, a chaplain, have three grown children and live in Rhode Island and New Hampshire.
First, tell the gringo baseball player how your husband, Roberto, always knew he was going to die young. If he has no reaction, tell him about what was on the plane: fresh water, plantains, rolls of gauze, baby shoes, powdered milk. Hundreds and hundreds of chancletas. And even if he doesn’t ask, tell him those things were for the earthquake victims in Nicaragua. This player, Roberto’s teammate on the Pittsburgh Pirates, will look surprised, and you know it’s because he never bothered to ask where your husband traveled, why he’d go anywhere that wasn’t here. Take his hand, lead him away from the living room full of mourners, and out to the balcony where it’s quiet. Because he comes from a farming background, tell him about how Roberto cut sugar cane, all the places that hurt after hours bent like a curveball. Explain the first time you met, the first time you saw him play in Carolina, Puerto Rico. This was when he was skinny, palms full of splinters, hair combed out like thick black cotton.
It was a Sunday morning in June after church, 1949. The boys’ nice clothes—starched white shirts, navy pants ironed smooth, cloth ties—lay in neat piles on top of a piece of a tarp to keep them clean. They changed into their uniforms on the field behind the high school, the grass crisped from the summer sun. Sometimes you watched them, admired the folds of skin as they bent to pull up thin socks, the small bumps of their spines, how their chests, necks, and arms were different shades of brown. They were your patchwork boys and you loved their bodies leaping over each other, turning, and throwing balls like releasing prayers. You loved their blistered hands, the tight belts at their delicate waists, waists of boys not quite men yet, something fragile and in between.
Roberto was special, even at fifteen. In his eyes there was something good—not pure—but good. Eyes that had seen enough for two lifetimes, that had seen into the future. I won’t be here long; I need to hurry. But that would come later. For now, he was in front of you, and this was the day he would be signed. You wore a white lace dress and tight braids held in place with white ribbons, the frayed ends brushing your shoulder blades. Even though you knew your mother’d get mad, you took off your shoes and socks and leaned against the wooden fence next to all the boys from the barrio, watched Roberto step up to plate. He rolled his neck, tapped the bat against the inside of his shoes, old black trainers covered in orange dust. At the neck of his shirt were several holes; you wanted to put your fingers there, touch his skin.
The first swing was a strike, the second a foul ball, but the third? The third was mythic. The sharp crack, a sound that made both teams stand up in unison and Roberto’s team jump like children. Later, that sound was something you’d associate with love, then anger, and finally, an acute sense of drowning. But on that day, the crack shot ran through you and up your legs to the tips of your fingers, hands shaking as if it was you holding the bat. As he ran the bases he kept his face passive, and before he could put both feet on home plate his teammates lifted him to their shoulders. In the air he took a necklace out from under his shirt, a key on a thin strip of leather, and that’s when he looked right at you and brought the key to his lips: a promise of things to come, of leaving and returning home, of dreaming of this moment again and again.
Stop talking now and wait for his reaction. If he pats you on the shoulder and offers his condolences once again, shrug his hand away. You’re not looking for pity. Everyone sitting in your living room, standing in your kitchen, has bestowed pity. If he sighs and tries to give you money, politely decline and say you need to be by yourself. If his shoulders slump, if he has the face of a man who’s struck out with the bases loaded, take out the cigarettes, accept his light. He’ll ask, Do you think if he hadn’t come here he might still be alive?
There’s no way to know, you’ll say.
While you smoke, fast forward to the part about moving to America. This is where it gets interesting. (Yes, there are good stories from Montreal after he got signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but you really want to emphasize the America part.) Make the baseball player feel included, even though he never tried to include Roberto.
On April 17, 1955, Roberto made his debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates. You remember being confused when he told you that spring training was in Fort Myers, had to borrow a map to figure out where it was. Florida, you assumed, was a land of flowers, of hibiscuses and gardenias, roses and wild azaleas. You imagined Roberto and his teammates eating supper in delicate gardens, him practicing his English, admiring the burning sunsets. Of course, you could never have imagined what actually happened because he never told you, not until years after you’d already bought a nice house in Pittsburgh with air-conditioning, a room for the boys to grow up in. Years later, on the yellow couch in the living room, he put his head on your lap and reached for your emerald earrings, a wedding gift. The green reminds me of the grass in Florida. He told you about Fort Myers. He told you how he couldn’t stay in the hotel with his teammates because of his dark skin. How he had to live with a black family in Dunbar Heights. How he had to eat his meals on the bus when they were on the road. How once, he went inside to buy a Coca-Cola and was told they didn’t serve his kind before they kicked him out. They all watched. They all just ate and watched.
It was in Pittsburgh that you first learned about colors, about people crossing the street when you approached, what a rope really meant, how important hair was. You didn’t know what to do if you were neither color, if you could pass, if you’d ever want to.
Tell him about the party that was thrown for Roberto when he won MVP in 1966. The players, managers, and donors (all white), the waiters (all black). Roberto joked that he should join them in the kitchen. He was always joking, but you knew it bothered him, made him feel helpless. In Puerto Rico people didn’t see his skin, they saw him, the person; in America he had to start over, but with the weight of useless questions: Was he Caribbean? Latino? Black? Brown? Afro-Latino? When he was interviewed, reporters made fun of his English. In the papers, they quoted him word for word not because they cared about accuracy, but because they wanted to see him fail.
The party was a joke. Little pieces of cold vegetables, crystal glasses of flat champagne, dull, soft music. In Puerto Rico there would have been salsa music blasting, people sweating, pigs roasting, movement until the next morning, the smell of coal and pernil in the air. The gringo party was stiff, a show put on for the sake of the press and when Roberto was dragged into a photo op with the owner, you slipped off to the bathroom. Inside, everything was pink: the towels, soap, walls, even the toilet cover. You looked at yourself in the mirror, your almost straight hair, which was normally kinky, your tight dress that cost too much, the extra powder you applied to your face to get the right shade of light even though you hated yourself as you did it. Yes, it was hard for you too, hard to smile at people who looked over your shoulder, people who pressured you to speak English, cook casseroles, play cards in houses cleaned by people who looked like you, looked like your island.
Sometimes you wondered why he played baseball, why he put himself through the thousands of hours of training to have a chance at hitting a ball maybe twice out of ten times, three if he was good, four if he was fantastic. Where did the drive come from, especially in a place that didn’t see his abilities, preferred to pick at his accent and disdain his skin. What difference did it make if he could speak English when the game wasn’t in any language? These were questions you asked yourself when Roberto came home defeated or angry, when he wouldn’t eat the arroz con frijoles. Once, it was a cashier who wouldn’t touch his hand. Once it was a little boy in suspenders who spit on him. Once it was his own teammate, a man with hair the color of butter who stole his shoes and threw them into a toilet filled with his own shit.
At this, the baseball player will tell you he never did anything like that. That man was a coward, he says. He’ll touch your shoulder. You know that, right? Stay quiet. Look at the sunset. The sunsets in Pittsburgh are muted compared to Puerto Rico’s, and this is something that brings you a small peace. Tell the baseball player that it wasn’t always easy, but there were also happy moments, like your last trip together to Managua.
You went with Roberto during the Amateur World Series. When it was over, he took you to the market, several old buildings connected by walkways, where the breeze passed through in bursts. People stopped him, recognized his face from the newspapers and posters, wanted to shake his hand. He wasn’t a hero in Pittsburgh, but he was a hero in Puerto Rico, in Nicaragua. You stopped at every table, picked up a green tostone maker, which he bought, tasted a bit of farmer’s cheese, which he had sliced and wrapped for breakfast later in the hotel. When you lingered over a pair of earrings, wooden beads painted lavender, he carefully put them in your lobes. Roberto bent with you to smell tortillas, listened as you talked to the young girl fanning flies away from a bowl of chancho con yuca, fingertips stained red from achiote powder. She was pregnant, and you told her that you’d always wanted a girl. With a smile she said, “May the next one be a rose.” Someone turned on a radio, salsa, and Roberto touched your hips. “Dance with me, flor de miel.”
The baseball player knows what’s coming next. He excuses himself to get a plate of food and you wonder if it tastes like sandpaper to him like it does to you. When he comes back (if he comes back), tell him a secret: Twenty years earlier, on the exact same day of the plane crash, Roberto got into a bad car accident, was hit by a drunk driver, and almost died. The exact same day. If the baseball player shakes his head, shake yours, too. If he asks what it means, say, He never stood a chance.
It’s almost dark now. You feel an urgency to explain everything to this baseball player, to make him understand the life of the man he ignored, the man he left on the bus, the man he wouldn’t shower next to. You want him to understand that he’s going to live on for decades—not just his numbers, but the people he helped, the way he stared at the camera, eyes to lens. The man is gone but the legacy isn’t—his face will be painted on walls, body sculpted from stone, baseball cards pinned to bicycle spokes.
Let me talk, you say. Let me tell you about when I went back, after the earthquake, after the crash.
When you stepped off the plane it felt walking into an oven; the winter cold in your marrow thawed and melted out your pores, destroyed the face you’d carefully powdered. You travelled alone, headed straight to the market, and didn’t bother to check into the hotel. Cristobal, Roberto’s best friend, had decided to dive for his body and bring him home to Puerto Rico. You knew this was foolish, but you wouldn’t stop him. Grief for him was submerged, and for you it was hidden in a mess of blocks and cement, of what once stood. Every step was painful; you weren’t walking through the market but on top of it, stumbling over tables, pipes, limbs. Your hand instinctively reached out for Roberto’s, but where were they? Floating in the sea? Trapped inside the plane? Or maybe they were tucked beneath his head; maybe he was sleeping on an island, not dead at all, merely lost.
After Cristobal told you about the crash, you didn’t leave your room for a week. Your mother finally forced you to go to church and after praying and hymn-singing, wringing your hands with other women, eyes up to the sanctuary, there was still a discomfort in your chest. Despite the communal attempt to feel something like forgiveness, like acceptance, all you felt was a hard knot like a baseball in your throat. Cristobal wrote you a poem that you didn’t want and almost made you hate him for being alive instead of Roberto. A poem that he read on the radio while you, and the entire island, listened:
December 31, 1972
On this day we lost our brother.
Three days of long, hot
mourning in Puerto Rico.
Men sit around altars
of rum. Remember the days
he played pick-up games
with rocks? Remember
his favorite teams?
The Southern. Four Roses.
El Sur. Cuatro Rosas.
Women sit around altars
of sugar. Remember the days
he sewed shirts for his
his favorite foods?
Pork. Salt & mangoes.
Pernil. Mangos y sal.
Did he think of us before
the deep black? His body tangled
in the crew, powdered milk turning
the black gray. No white light.
Before the flight, Roberto told Vera:
“If there is one more delay, we’ll leave
this for tomorrow.”
“Si hay un retraso más, lo dejamos
para mañana, amor.”
You didn’t want a poem. You wanted justice, an explanation. How could the plane have gone down? Why was it so old? Why did the pilot come late? You stood and watched the four-engined, DC-7 piston-powered take off from San Juan, and then Cristobal drove you back to your mother’s house. The plane came down in heavy seas a mile and a half from shore. Hours later, Coast Guard planes circled the area, lit the sea up with flares searching for bodies. None were ever found. You wish it had been you instead, or that the plane had crashed on land. At least then you’d have a place to visit, leave flowers, a place to cry alone. Instead, Roberto was nowhere and everywhere at once, forever transient, forever in between.
But there you were in the market that once was, searching for the past in dust, breathing in the charred air. Cristobal was diving somewhere over the site of the crash right now. You thought of him, his hard skin, the tears in his eyes when he got the news. He was with you, the only one who really understood. The rest of the team would wait for the wake to pay their condolences, white men with short hair and tar-stained teeth. Had they bothered to ask about Puerto Rico when Roberto was alive? Why did they insist on calling him Bob? He hated when they called him Bob, when they made fun of the thickness of his hair and lips. They never deserved him.
After so much talking, you’re done. Tell the baseball player you’re tired, go back inside. Don’t listen to the string of platitudes, don’t feel the sympathetic shoulder squeezes, don’t look at the yellow couch. Instead, focus on the loud rush of water in your ears, the smell of salt. You’re sinking. In the kitchen don’t stop at the table stacked with food that makes you sick, American food with no real flavor. Mounds of mashed potatoes, creamy spinach that looks like mold, marshmallows so sweet they hurt your teeth. You don’t want this, don’t want their Jell-O, don’t want to sift through the plastic containers, return them to people who claim to feel your pain but know nothing about you, your life, your husband.
Go to the pantry. Turn on the lights, then turn them off and sit on the floor. It’s nice to be alone, no more nodding, no more fingers on your skin, no more gifts bought for proof. See? We’re sad, too. Lean back and spread your body over the tile floor. Forget about wrinkling your dress or smashing your hair. Slowly unbutton your shirt, put your hand over your heart, imagine it’s Roberto’s, imagine the scratch of callouses. Kick off your shoes. Don’t fall asleep and don’t think about the first time you saw him play because if you do, you might never come up again; you might just stay on this floor for the rest of your life.
When the baseball player knocks, don’t say anything. He’ll open the door slowly, stumble over your feet, and turn on the light. Seeing you on the floor breaks something in him, something he didn’t realize he was holding onto. He’ll start to cry. You’ll be tempted to comfort him. Don’t. Turn your head to the side, stare at the cans of garbanzos, the bags of cornmeal. Listen and don’t listen to the sounds of a grown man crying, the shuddering intake, the whimpers. Don’t ask who he’s crying for. You might not like the answer.
Dana De Greff grew up between Miami, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon and has taught English in Albacete, Spain and Patagonia, Chile. Currently, she is a Master in Fine Arts candidate in fiction at University of Miami. She also writes book reviews for The Miami Herald, is a freelance arts journalist, teaches poetry with O, Miami to children in Liberty City, and is working with Voice of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA/Voices) in community outreach.
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.