by Jared Hegwood
Beth squeezes Charlie's hand when she sees her father's name on the tombstone. An ant bed has come up against it, obscuring the date of his death. She takes off one of her heels, balances against Charlie and knocks some dirt away. Ants erupt from a thousand small holes. Hard dirt is still caked in the carved numbers. "I swear," she says to him. "Gimme a pen so I can clean it out."
"I don't have a pen."
"Bullshit. When we left that Exxon this morning you were saying you had taken that lady's pen." Beth snaps her fingers. "Come on, boy."
"Christ's sake. It's a good one." He hands it to her.
It's February. The bare trees sectioning off the graveyard from the pasture are frozen with ice. There is only one cloud overhead, the sort of cloud so big that it might have killed the dinosaurs.
"Jesus-fucking-Christ with the ants," Beth says.
She scrapes at the headstone with the pen. "My dad," she says. "I
remember when, the morning he left my mother. It was my sister's
birthday. Hm." Beth stops scraping for a minute, taps the end of the
pen against the headstone. "I woke up and my mother, in her
showercap, was crying on her knees. I picked her up, took her to her
room. I remember thinking how pathetic it was. I don't mean to be
mean, but that's how it was."
Charlie leans against a tombstone.
"Please don't do that," Beth says.
There's no else around other than a flock of sparrows that set down in a corner of the graveyard for just a moment, before bouncing to a power line, then off to somewhere else.
I'm in a long-term relationship, the longest one of any of my friends really. My friends are they're more concerned with their art, they pal around, go get drinks afterward. Hipster types. Not that I mind that; they're my friends. I'd like to be a hipster. We have a good time together. But it's always sort of tough, you know, because these long term relationships, for all the strength that's added, that you're given it, ah, it pulls you out of things too. Makes you unavailable. For all the talk about okay, I'm married. A year I've been married to Beth, my wife. She's a fantastic lady. Smart, God, she's smart. She's a writer. Beautiful. Funny. Doesn't take shit. She'll ride and ride and ride her way to a check in the `win column.' But she doesn't like to do that stuff, the showings, symposiums. She's very `to herself.' You can admire something like that.
They drive the winding turns through Smith County's backyard. Beth lights a cigarette. They pass a pasture where brown and white horses graze. One sleeps under a tree.
"I feel ashamed about my father," Beth says. "Or rather, about how I treated him. We packed up everything he hadn't taken with him. Most of it in black garbage bags. Then we went to the zoo. Two weeks later, my sister and I met him at our grandmother's and we weren't having the best talk. I can't even remember what we were talking about, but it was getting all heated and I stood up at one point, made fists. I can't remember a thing about it and I look back thinking about how my father was probably doing his absolute best to explain to us how things would be from then on, the impossibilities of explaining things properly. But, I poisoned myself to him and pushed him away. Later, we, well- we didn't patch things up, but we talked. I wanted to be part of his life. I wanted to make that effort.
"But still something was lost. You can't come back from that."
Charlie stares ahead. The world blurs past him while he avoids rain-worn potholes. "Are you hungry now? Do you want to stop in that little town or do you want to wait a while?"
"We can stop in an hour or so, at a Hardee's or something." He clears his throat. "I told you how hard driving it would be." Beth reaches behind her seat and pulls out a pair of jeans. She shimmies her skirt past her hips. "It's hard, sitting there holding someone's hands through all the tubes, trying to warm his little puffy fingertips, and the backs of his hands are riddled with IV holes and bruised and it's all tape and wires and tubes. I just held his hands and cried. I tried to read a book to him, but I couldn't stop crying."
Beth fishes a phone out of her purse and starts dialing. "Hello? Tommy?"
This morning I was coming into the motel and there was this couple, a white boy with spiky blue hair and a black FUBU jersey. He was sitting on the curb with his Asian girlfriend. Maybe they're sixteen? Her hair was blue, too. He's wearing finger-cut biker gloves and holds one of her hands in both of his and it's -- well, it's just plain sad. She's crying, but real quietly. So, she used her free hand to pull grass out of the ground. I felt really sorry for that girl.
I feel like an asshole though I know that there isn't any real reason. She didn't notice me. I was anonymous and invisible. But there she was, hurting and I couldn't help. I didn't want to be an asshole so I went inside, left things as they were.
I try to imagine Charlie's face on the girl and how he might look if I sat him down like that. Would he even look at me? Would he yell, or cry? If he cried, what would I do?
Mississippi can be beautiful in the winter. It's a hard look, but its there and when you take yourself away from it, that's when you first miss it, realize you've seen it in the first place. The trees, the slate-gray sky, etc, etc. Realized how beautiful the starkness of it was all along. Really, it was.
When I was a little girl, my girlfriends and I would run through the pastures that surrounded my house, jump on the frosted hay bales, play `save the world' with a volleyball, treat cowpies like landmines. I'd kiss Jimmy-Wayne who lived in a trailer that stank like chickenhouses. There was a dog one October, a huge thing like a Great Dane or somesuch, that had gotten hit by a car, staggered into the ditch in front of my house and died. It was a fucking monster.
All the things that happen to dead dogs still did, but a cold front came two days later and a freeze set in, preserving the rot. Every morning, I'd see the dog while I waited for the bus and every morning it inched a little further towards dust.
Charlie, he -- we live in the same house, watch the same television, love the same dog. I tried to write about it once.
Charlie looks through the small bags of nuts, unable to choose between the salted sunflower seeds and wasabi peanuts. He takes the peanuts and puts them in his front pocket, looks over at the counter person, a teenage girl more interested in her crossword puzzle than anything else. He takes a few more packs of peanuts, takes some ephedra asthma tablets.
Beth steps out of the gas station's restroom. "You want something to drink," she asks and walks over to the cooler. "What do you want to do tonight?" Charlie asks. "You want to go to Little Tokyo and get some sushi? I've a crazy need for roe right now. Anything covered in roe. We can stop by Blockbuster or something. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That'd be fun."
He steps behind her, puts his arms around her, starts a two-step.
Beth puts her arms behind her back, around him, rocks with him. "Let me get my drink, Silly."
"Okay, okay," he says. "I'm stepping in here for a minute. But I'm holding you to the Massacre. The Maaaasacre." Charlie pantomimes a chainsaw, pulls at an invisible ripcord. "Vrrrrrn, vrrrrn! Vrrrrrn!"
Inside the restroom is a condom and aspirin dispenser, crooked on the yellow cinderblock wall. A sticker of a young woman on a bed, reaching down between her legs, down behind the "ADULT NOVELTY Not Meant for Sexual Protection!" blurb. Charlie stares at it, the face of the woman, with sloppy yellow curls on her shoulders, how her eyes are closed, how she sucks on the pinky finger of her free hand. Charlie can imagine the little girl face in the woman, wonders how she got there, where she is now. How could this be even remotely what she wanted for herself?
Walking out, wiping his hands on his jeans, Charlie finds Beth helping the girl at the counter with the crossword.
"Fat blank: 1972 film," Beth says.
"Who does --" the counter girl flips to see the front of her book. "Will Shortz think does these books? 1972 film? Who -- "
"Four letters. I think it might be `Fat City.' I've heard that somewhere before."
"No, no. Look at 15-Down," points the counter girl. She punctuates every word with a ball-point pen.
"Fuck 15-Down. It's `Fat City,'" Beth says.
I've been emailing this girl, Sarah, back and forth for a while. It just started, I can't remember how. She's a junior editor for a semi-regular art review I sometimes submit to. We don't talk about cheating; don't talk about love or being lonely. I don't know if she's single, married, widowed. I don't know if she's straight. We just talk about art, who's showing where. We talk about where we live, the problems with it. The future of things.
The thing about Tommy is that he's so different from Charlie. Tommy's my editor and he's a very brilliant man. Not that Charlie's dumb or something. He has an incredible artistic intelligence. Charlie, I mean. Not Tommy. Though, yes, Tommy has an incred--- ah, fuck.
Tommy and I do yardwork on Wednesdays, like tomorrow, while Charlie teaches his figure class at the junior college. We've started a small garden in the back yard. Ten yards squared or so. Last week we burned away the dry grass, to help restore nutrients. The chaff, that's what that stuff is called. Because of the weather and Spring still two months off, we're only weeding right now. But it's good work for the conversations that we have. I pull, he pulls. He talks about how my book is going, asks me how I feel it should go. This is the third book he's handled for me. It's amazing how well he knows what I'm trying to accomplish, and the direction I should take to get there. Once, I called up to complain about -- We've had sex, yes. I don't want to call it making love. That sort of thing has always sounded trite to me. Making love. Sounds like an excuse. `Oh, it's okay, we were making love.' It didn't feel like that.
He wouldn't make a good husband. I can tell. I wouldn't want his children either.
Charlie, he knows when to shut up. When I need my space. He knows my favorite TV shows. He puts my glasses where I can find them in the morning.
I think Tommy might do that sort of stuff. I don't know for sure, is the thing.
Neither has said a word until Charlie offers, "Be cheered by the wine of possibility. I read that in a book once." Beth replies, "'When Tito dies, this will all fall apart.' I read that once."
"Jesus, that's cryptic."
"And true, it turned out. Where are we?"
"I'd forgotten how ugly it could be." Beth leans into the back of the passenger seat, stretches her legs, her arms over her head. "Want me to drive," she asks.
"No, I'm good. The heater's drying my eyes out, but I'm not sleepy."
"Sure. Sure," Beth yawns. "We'll get home?"
"About nine. Plenty of time to get dinner somewhere."
"And Texas Chainsaw."
Charlie smiles to himself. Two teenage boys pass them in a mud splattered jeep. "And Texas Chainsaw."
Their car slides into an entrance ramp onto the interstate. As Charlie guns the gas, the yellow dashes of the road stream into one continuous streak. Beth has the seat reclined; watches the graffitied streets slowly fade into a black and brown sea of farmland, trees and peanut fields.
Charlie sings with the radio.
A dream I had: I'm in space and I'm passing over North America, walking some five miles above the Earth, tethered by a hundred-and-fifty-foot cord to a billion dollars worth of space shuttle. Everything is black; the Sun is behind the Earth. Beth is in Illinois, below my left toe, in Champagne, probably at lunch, probably at Gus' playing solitaire. And a few inches away from her, in St. Louis, Sarah is on her porch, where she always is, smoking her pipe, rubbing her toes in the hush of her farm, watching the corn change color.
Suddenly, this sharp voice crackles into my ear-piece. The Sun is about to top the horizon, it says, and I should close my visor, get in soon, if I don't want to fry up like a curl of bacon. Instead, I cut my cord, a tangle of wires and feeding tubes. Some electrical wiring sparks, but quickly dies in the cold. This is also how my waste leaves, and as I float away, shit follows me like an ugly gray connect-the-dots in space. I turn back towards the Earth, angle myself downward, like Superman flying home to Lois Lane. I can't remember if there was anything else. The funny thing about my dream is that I could give a shit about space. Honestly, I could.
A blind slope near a Texaco. A large yard with several hundred-year-old trees. An ice patch. A wood-paneled station wagon. Pulls out in front of. In the fucking left lane of all places. Yank. Beth's hand on Charlie's lap. Charlie's arm against Beth's chest. Across the right lane's traffic safely though no one will realize this until later. Into the yard. Spin into a rain-soaked yard. Only glimpses of trees. In a moment of improbable mathematical brilliance, Charlie calculates which tree the car will crash into, killing him. Bites his tongue. Radio. Paul Simon. Beth pisses herself. A curled knot on that tree. The water bill, unpaid.
The accident was much of an event, you know? So there wasn't much call for what I said afterwards. We spun off the road, into the mud, spun into the mud, bogged down before we even got close to the trees. It's no miracle or anything. And I can't say, looking back on the whole thing that I was afraid for my life. I wasn't afraid of anything at that moment, really, wasn't cognizant of anything. It's like when someone's choking in the middle of a restaurant and some people just gape, but some people get to business. The stone up, do the thing. I think it was something like that. That adrenaline, how it makes your senses really sharp. You see things coming at you from all sides, but none of them really worry you. It's just, "Get through this moment."
So, I'm embarrassed. Though I think I meant what I said.
A fat, older man comes stumbling out of the house, barefoot and in coveralls. He has a cap that says `Barry Allen Trucking.' "Motherfucker!" he says, pointing at the gashes cut into the yard. "Motherfucker!"
Beth and Charlie look at each other. Charlie unbuckles his belt, reaches over to Beth's far shoulder. "Are you okay?"
"Promise me you'll never leave me," Beth says.
The old man shrieks. "You hit my motherfucking dog!"
I think about all the outs she's given me over the years. From when we were dating, then the engagement, the day before the day. Twice she left me. For a day or so. Once she came back, upset. The other time I did, but I would have the first time around too if she hadn't caught me first. Once, we were sitting on the floor of the kitchen, going over the invitations, placing people at tables and she asked me again if this was what I wanted; the marriage, she meant. We were living together. I was honest with her. I said that I was nervous, this wasn't even the sort of thing that I imagined I'd put together for myself and, maybe it might be better to postpone everything indefinitely. She broke down. Started saying that I didn't love her, that I had never loved her. I tried to reach over to her, hold her let her cry, but that's the wrong thing to do. Women don't want to be touched at those moments, especially not by the guy. I didn't know that and just grabbed her and held her close, told her I didn't mean it, that I was just scared (I was), could she please stop crying? But then I started crying, too. I don't know if it's because I was afraid to hurt her or if I really was upset at what I said. Or if I was crying for myself, because I would never accept what it would take to get out. She'd never speak to me again and, honestly, I never want that. It's the sort of thing you can't come back from.