—for River Nienow
We are still alive. That was our final saving grace, and we repeated it to ourselves like children fresh awake from a nightmare who swear again and again that they do not believe in ghosts. People told us we were no longer young enough to be so stupid, that we had no respect for each other, for ourselves, for the value of a dollar, for the value of a day’s work. They weren’t wrong. We didn’t have children or nice clothes. We thought of America as a 70 degree day in October—as in, we liked it, but it didn’t belong to us, and we felt no desire to harp on its virtues. Religion was something that happened to other people. Even the most spiritual of us loved God like He was a drunk, artsy uncle. He could be truly inspiring or he could ruin Christmas by making it all about Himself, but either way, we didn’t take Him seriously. Most of our miracles felt as useless as the multiplying loaves and fishes, the long-burning Jew oil, or any other Biblical phenomenon determined to show us that God can be replaced by a coupon from the Sunday Supersaver. For every leper with his dick reattached, you have three instances Jesus Christ, Bargain-Hunter, saying, “You bring us the water, we’ll turn it into a bottle of wine, free of charge!” We grew up without fear, and that taught us we deserved happiness. Now we couldn’t unlearn.
But then came the funeral, and after that, the eulogy.
We had just dropped the clay on Harmony Dulles’s non-child and were consoling her over scotch and turkey rolls when we heard about the robbery. It was Meander Casey, the father/non-father, who told us about the bust-in, his words slow and slurry, mayonnaise on his cheek, chin, and cellphone. “That’s Lina,” he said, his voice rising like he was setting up a joke. “Her place got turnt over.”
What he meant was a prowler broke into Angelina and Dirk Henson’s house and left it in shambles. I’d studied Meander all afternoon, because on a day like that, I had no idea how to react, and I figured the father/non-father might offer some clue. But he sleepwalked through it all.
Harmony was in tatters by then, not even crying words but sounds, holding her hands in front of her chest like she was squeezing a small child by the ears. We wanted to take care of her, but this wasn’t a grief we understood. Her own mother fought against having a service, because she didn’t like the politics of grieving a fetus like a child.
Now her mother stayed on the porch, smoking cigarettes and humoring the rest of the family, the ones of her generation. She looked at Harmony like she was a punished child going through a tantrum, but so did we all.
We put Harmony to bed, then climbed into Thomas the Prophet’s van and went to the newly burgled Henson house. Inside, Lina was weeping as hard as Harmony had been. I expected a sad smile and a palm waved over the mess. Her grief should be formed as a question, as if to say, On this of all days?
The thieves had taken nothing, only broken the furniture. One window was stoved in, and another crashed out like the burglar was having too much fun hearing glass shatter to use the door. They smashed the TV and the dirty dishes, and left the front door open so their cats could escape. The refrigerator was unplugged, and a pound of ground chuck was dragged from the freezer and shoved under the sofa cushions.
Ruby Stanford came in behind the rest of us, swinging a loaf of pumpernickel by the plastic tail. “This was at Harmony’s, but she said she didn’t care.”
Lina nodded at the bread like it had asked a question. She ducked her head and when she looked up again, her eyes were clear. “Let me make you something.” Her cheeks looked as red and nobbled as her knuckles, but her voice stayed steady. “We have ham, I think. And mustard.”
Ruby shook her head.
“My house is clean normally. Tell them,” Lina said to me. “Tell them it’s not like this. I keep it neat.”
Dirk Henson, Lina’s husband, stepped over the shards of glass and went to his liquor cabinet. For as long as I’ve known him, he drank Hendrick’s gin like a diabetic takes insulin: two large glasses a day, cut with nothing but olive juice, Tabasco, and ice, and he never seemed to enjoy a sip. He poured three drinks, and handed one to me and one to Thomas the Prophet. “Come on, boys,” he said, spreading his enormous arms out wide and pushing us toward the porch. “Let’s go test the weather.” None of us wanted a drink, not even Dirk, but on a day like today, with one sadness swallowing another, it felt right to confuse our spirits and our penance.
Once we were outside, Dirk lit a small cigar and shook his head. “What’re you going to do?” He gnawed off the end of the cigar and spit it out the side of his mouth. “Honestly, what are you going to do? We got dead neverborns on one end of town, and we got some junkie asshole, probably too coked up to count his own fingers without using his fingers, come bust up my house over here.” He lifted his glass. “Today is a day built by motherfuckers.”
For her baby shower, I gave Harmony Dulles a sterling silver dog-whistle. Meander Casey loved that because it was further proof that I was a fuck-up beyond all salvation. “Babies like rattles, bells, stuff you can hear. Dogs don’t even like dog whistles.”
“Whistles are shiny,” Ruby Stanford said. “Babies like shiny things.” She was the funniest person I knew, but she’d put herself on a conversational diet as of late. When she didn’t work as the receptionist at her cousin’s tire and rim shop, she strode onto every open stage available and tried her hand at observational comedy. But there were many comics and few people willing to pay for jokes. So at the suggestion of Thomas the Prophet, she turned herself into an unending gimmick. Onstage or off, she would only say what she observed, never anything else.
“You want comedy?” Thomas said, rubbing his palms together at the thought of it. “There it is, smack dab in the everyday. None of that, ‘You ever noticed’ shit, no more chatter, just bam, the world as it’s in front of you.”
I thought she’d swear off it in a few days, but Ruby took to the suggestion like a dedicated soldier. It reignited her interest in comedy, but it left me cold, with “Whistles are shiny” being the sort of joke she now made.
I explained baby showers weren’t for the baby but the mother. Every UK Wildcat Onesie or Rolling Stones rattle was just another comment on Harmony and her tastes. And what did Harmony love more in this world than that crippled mastiff, Boswell? I thought I was swaying them, but at the apex of my speech, Meander snuck behind me and blew the whistle, sending Boswell in a full sprint in my direction. He lunged at me, knocking me backward into the end table, overturning half the gifts and a carafe of sangria. My vision was clouded, I felt the dog’s tongue brushing over my cheeks, and I heard the peals of laughter from everyone—even from Harmony, whose carpet was soaking up the red drink. She knew Meander’s sense of love and his sense of humor were big and uncomplicated. He liked messes, things out of order, pies in the face and people falling when they were meant to stand. Meander was our maestro of pain and him knocking me over in mid-plea for understanding was his way of saying I Love You, not just to me, but to the day, to Harmony, to the unborn.
Lina called me to say there was a complication with the pregnancy. Harmony and Ruby were painting the spare room when Harmony put her hand on her third rib. “Not the stomach?” I asked Ruby when I got to the hospital. “I’d have thought it was the stomach.” I learned to talk like this with Ruby since she began Thomas’s experiment. She couldn’t start sentences with ‘I’d have thought’ or say what she wondered or feared, so I filled in the blank spots around her reconstruction.
“She was digging in her rib,” Ruby said. “Working her elbow back and forth.” When Ruby started telling stories, she swiveled her head from side to side, making her tangled knots of hair shoot back and forth. I don’t know if she did this to size up the room or if it was a ceremonial tic, but it made her look thinner and wilder than when her face stayed still. “She still had her paintbrush held in front of her. There were these drops of paint on the thigh of her jeans, orange paint.”
“Blood.” Everyone in the waiting room looked at me. “I bet at first you thought it was blood.”
“She digs in her side, but she kept complaining about her back,” Ruby said. “‘My back, oh God, my back.’ I was like, ‘You know where your back is, honey? You’re close, but it’s a little farther behind you.’” Her tone had grown funny again. “Her hand inched back and back and shot out to the tip of her stomach. I was nodding along, saying, ‘Warmer, warmer, oh you’re so close.’ Then she kneels down, puts both hands on her head and throws up in the paint bucket.”
It’s kicking. That’s what she thought. She spent the last six months cataloging every muffled thump in her tummy, so when she felt the pain in her back, the nausea slipping up her throat, she must have thought it was kicking. Maybe it was breeched and tapping her spine, or maybe it was climbing up her esophagus like a beanstalk.
When we heard that the child wasn’t coming out alive, I went to the parking lot to smoke a cigarette with Lina. Her hair was uneven, tucked neatly behind her right ear, but shoved in front of the left side of her face, making her look young and boyish. She kept her lips slightly parted and her middle-forehead crinkled like she’d taken in an eyeful of sun. Whatever expression she displayed was both transparent and wrong. She put her palm flat on my chest where my top button should be, and she cupped her fingertips over my collarbone like she was trying to peel me. Suddenly, she stopped, put both hands up in confusion, and then hugged me. I knew without looking that Dirk was walking behind us. She knew how to hide without hiding. There were lots of reasons friends would hug, particularly in a hospital parking lot.
When we talked about each other, we exaggerated. That’s what Thomas the Prophet said, and he was right and wrong in the way the dogmatic always are. He meant our inflated speech outlined the hollowness at our centers. “Who are we?” he said, breadcrumbs spattering off his chapped lips. “Really, who are we? We can’t just be your typical collection of shitheads, thrown together by the same strand of coincidence that put everybody everywhere.” He said every sentence like he was speaking either in a pulpit or while standing on a bar table. “No, we alone tricked the cosmic lottery into putting the greatest, slyest, bastardest, and brightest in the same place and the same time. You ever squint in the mirror to make yourself look better? Same thing happens when we talk to each other.” He ran his tongue over the jagged part of his front tooth. “Anything to make believe we’re not just DNA.”
He was right, but it didn’t matter. No one cared about that sort of exaggeration. If we didn’t stretch the truth, why bother speaking? Why not just look and wonder and bite your lip?
Lina was the opposite. The only things she expected from me were simple truths, she said. But that was a joke too, because all we had were secrets at this point. Sometimes we wouldn’t speak at all, replacing our words with the sound of her bra strap snapping against her shoulder. Most of our afternoons together, I spent checking her alarm clock three times a minute or straining to listen for Dirk’s LeSabre rolling across the gravel in her driveway. We don’t bother ourselves with truth or exaggeration when we’re scared.
We called Thomas Thomas the Prophet because of his endless pronouncements, spoken with the cocksure fury of a Pentecostal elbow deep in snake. He declared himself an unsleeping enemy of anonymity, of dying before you made this world stand up and take notice. Fighting was his religion. Whatever offended the righteous was righteous.
Recently, he’d volunteered to become the head of the local chapter of the Jews for Jesus. That in itself was okay. Kentucky was a border state, neutral in the Civil War, so it seemed right that our Jews couldn’t decide whether they wanted to be on their own side. But he stayed out in front of local churches and synagogues with fliers that read, “Jews For Jesus: We Killed Him For Your Sins.”
A Christian woman smacked him with her purse, two squarebeards spat on his feet, but Thomas loved it. “Imagine the day your holy service leads into your local brawl,” he said. “Couldn’t you then believe the world’s gone crazy?” I didn’t see how it profited a man to instigate war between the uncircumcised and the aerodynamic, but Thomas wasn’t interested in profit, only blood.
Every weekday afternoon, from eleven-thirty until they kicked him off the property, Thomas planted himself in front of a different local business and worked as a human version of the inflatable advertising man. He wore a sign around his neck, stood in front of their door, and waved his arms up and down like he was being shot through with helium. He honestly thought of it as his job.
Finally, he wrote to the CIA. Everyone knows it’s a crime to say you want to kill the president, he said, but is it legal to say you want to rape the president? He followed that with a letter to the governor of Kentucky, saying “Don’t worry, I checked with the CIA re: your question about raping the president. I’ll let you know what they say.” He signed both of these letters Milo Byars, Esq. Milo Byars is me.
That’s what mattered. It’s not that we exaggerated; it’s that we became our exaggerations. We welded ourselves to our images, and now we could no longer tell the difference. Our conversations felt like shadows speaking to shadows, reacting only as we were meant to react.
On the morning of the service, I saw Ruby smoking a cigarette and drinking Sprite out of a clear plastic cup. They’d asked her to eulogize the vegetable. That’s how we talked about the baby in the hours after it died. Vegetable because it was both alive and not. We meant it like a sick human, but soon each of us imagined the kid to be a cartoon vegetable. I pictured him as a tiny bushel of Brussels sprouts, the plastic sealed tight on top, keeping his freshness in. Meander saw his child as an artichoke, small and round with his heart in his center. Thomas the Prophet said he was snow peas, his unformed insides stacked one on top of another, covered by sweet translucent skin.
I squatted next to Ruby on the curb, but regretted it as soon as I felt my stomach push against my suit jacket. This was the first time I’d worn this suit since Lina and Dirk’s wedding two years before, and only when I kept my back perfectly straight did the clothes fit without straining.
She tipped her glass to me. “I thought this was water. It isn’t water.”
I fished a pack of cigarettes out of my pocket. “Don’t be nervous. You’ll be fine.”
The flame of her cigarette went dark, and the butt trembled in the fat part of her lips, but she didn’t reach for her lighter.
“What are you doing this say-what-you-see shit for?” I reached for her chin, but she bucked at the last second, and I grazed her ear. “Prophet’s just teasing you with it. You can imagine some stuff. This isn’t comedy.”
“That jacket’s too tight on you.”
I lit her cigarette. “What if you had a dream? And you described that dream just bang-bang-bang true?”
She blew out a smoke ring and watched it disappear over my hair. “Fuck you.”
“That’s a start.” I reached for her elbow, but she pulled away.
No one cried during the service except for Harmony, Meander, Lina, and Harmony’s mother. When Ruby came up to the stage, I had to look at my feet. She couldn’t shake the preacher’s hand. She couldn’t hug Harmony’s brother who spoke before her. It was part of the act, I thought from the back pew. Even skin on skin, the closest abstraction we have, must have felt like a moist towelette smacking her across the shoulder.
“I’ve known Harmony for a long time now,” she said, clutching both forearms against her chest. “She met Meander through me when I dated his brother Miller. After a month, Miller and I couldn’t stand each other, and I dumped a pail of garbage on his car, but Harmony and Meander stayed together. Many people tell me I should not think of that as a personal accomplishment.”
The audience laughed because they were primed to laugh—because it was Ruby and why else would anyone stand up and talk to this sham tragedy—but I knew the speaking drained her. Just lie, I thought. You’re already lying, so just lie: couldn’t stand, personal accomplishment. These weren’t real, but no one was confused. Even calling him Meander wasn’t true—his Christian name is Leander, but we nicknamed him because he was always late and slow. Just embrace the lie. There was another world aside from the apparent one.
“Many months ago, I danced with Harmony to what I don’t remember,” she said. “A Sam Cooke song, one I’ve never heard again. I put her hand in my hand and locked my fingers in her fingers. She’s left handed and I’m right, so when it came time to spin, we got confused and had to pirouette, one under the other’s elbows, then regrab each other at the forearm. One time, she spun me and launched me catty-corner, with her hand on my back, and I thought I’d fall, but Meander caught me in mid-stride. His hands are bigger. His fingers come down most of the way past my wrists. I enjoyed what he smelled like.”
Smelled like, I thought. Canned steak stew when he’d been home and grass seed and insecticide and band-aids when he’d been out with his brother.
“I remember the radio,” she said. “Not the song—not exactly—but I remember the radio. The screws had come loose on the label, and it hung across the dial, diagonal, top left to lower right. And the plug, it barely hung in the socket. It sparked once or twice, but neither of us were scared.” She shook her head. “I wasn’t scared.”
The dance happened in the same room, I thought. The same one where Harmony first doubled over and clutched her stomach. Was it still half painted, the last brush line turned to a check when Ruby first heard her friend cough out in pain?
“Today we put something in the ground,” Ruby said. “He was the son of Meander Casey and Harmony Dulles, but he never tasted the air. There’s air all around us. How does that even happen? I am speaking. I am occupying air. You are listening. You are occupying air. This is the part where we are still alive. We are still using our air.”
That afternoon as we stood on the front yard of his wrecked house, Dirk Henson stayed positive. “It’s only stuff,” he kept saying. “I can get more stuff from the stuff fairy.” But as the sunlight thinned, what started out as bewilderment turned to irritation. “Why not take something? Anything? I’d rather someone steal my car than key it.” He had a high, puzzled voice, and, no matter his mood, he sounded like he was trying not to laugh. That bothered Lina.
“One more round, boys,” Dirk said, turning his gin glass over to show it was empty. It was nearly sunset at that point. “We’re going to have us one more round.” Thomas and I tried to beg off, but he was stating a fact, not asking a question.
The second we were alone, Thomas turned toward me. I wanted to be inside with the women, but I couldn’t move.
Everyone knew except Dirk, and he only didn’t know because he refused to believe. I saw him tense when I was around. It hadn’t reached his shoulders or his conscious thought. One day he’d know, and he’d remember this time, the drinks in his yard, the burying of Harmony Dulles’s vegetable, in a sourer flavor.
When I felt guilt, I felt guilt for that. I thought we had freedom with each other, all of us together, but Dirk showed me I was wrong. Angelina the dancer, the easy weeper, the fire-breathing spotlight, was so slippery with her emotions that the rest of us saw her as an open invitation. We could take from her what we wanted. Dirk not only accepted that in her, he cultivated it. I figured he’d think of me as another of her moods. But now, when the stomach knew what the imagination did not, I saw how much he feared Lina disintegrating out of his life. Even if he did forgive us, we were stealing his memories.
We ended it, over and over. “Not in the cards this time,” I told her, like there was another life that would treat us better.
“Can’t win them all,” she said, her fingers spreading on my knee. “Can’t even try.”
Lina saw herself as a pirate general. I said I saw myself as a Pirate shortstop, but she wasn’t joking. It wasn’t that the pirates stole, but that they flew their own flag. “Not the boats, the swashbuckle, the rum, or that yo-ho-ho stuff. It’s them yelling about it.”
Don’t be a general, I thought. You’re no more in control over these times than the mapmaker is of the coastline. If we’re pirates at all, it’s because there’s no one to look aghast at our pride, no one to count how much we’ve stolen.
I hit Lina when she asked me to hit her, which Dirk never did. I cracked her knuckles and ground my elbow into her shoulder blade. She liked me to choke her. I thought it was for the pain, but it was for the markings. This was her way of telling him. Look at these small cuts, the little welts you wouldn’t bother yourself with—someone will always go further than you.
The night before the funeral, Lina and Dirk stayed at Harmony’s house, holding her hand and brushing back her hair, wet with tears, from her cheeks. I was there with Thomas the Prophet, bringing them cold cuts and wine.
The connection between Lina and Harmony was simple, direct, and complete. There was no room for the subtlety or innuendo I’d made myself believe infused her every move. This was the side of her I’d never see, not on those squirreled-away afternoons, not ever. And it happened in front of me—when she brushed by, she smelled familiar, even as she looked so alien. By the time we left, I could barely keep it together. I passed it off on leftover sadness for the dead baby, but Thomas knew better. He handed me a coffee cup of merlot that he’d stolen as he left. As he drove off, he asked me, “What is it with her?”
“Who?” I took a gulp of wine.
He took a sharp right, making the merlot spill onto my knees. “You want me to say her name?”
“Does everybody know?”
“I do. Ruby. Meander, I think. Pretty much everyone except Dirk, and maybe Harmony. But that’s just because she’s been busy being such a dedicated mom.”
“Take me there. I mean, now.”
“Do you have a key?”
I shook my head. “You can come with me. I just want to be there.”
“This isn’t smart, pal.”
Lina and Dirk weren’t coming home that night, and no one we knew lived close. I wanted that first breath of stale air, the sort that makes me feel at home, no matter whose house I’m storming into. When we got there, I jimmied the front door open with one of her garden trowels left over in the begonias.
“This is the first time I’ve been here at night,” Thomas said as he walked inside. “I’ve been here when the sun was shining, but it feels different in the dark.” He picked up one of Lina and Dirk’s wedding photos and stared at it like it was a 3-D picture.
I grabbed a beer from the fridge and tossed it to Thomas. “You think they count these beers? They come home tomorrow, and see it’s missing, what do they think?”
“They think nothing,” Thomas said. “They’re thinking about their friend’s dead kid, and why you’re too subsumed with your own bullshit to think of it along with them.”
I grabbed a beer for myself and sat on the couch next to Thomas. He had a thin, wolfish face that, when he was worried, puckered and twitched like a kid trying to whistle.
“Are you getting it?” he said. “Whatever it is we’re here for?”
“It doesn’t feel strange,” I said. “More like walking into a hotel. It’s neat and clean, and I know it’s not mine, but there’s nothing trying to keep me out.”
“You and your mojo shit.” He licked around the lip of his bottle. “Always looking for ghosts or Gods or whatever gets you off the hook.”
I shook my head and took a drink. “That greeting card talk about house and home, it’s not true. Homes don’t care if we leave, and they don’t welcome us back.”
“I’m sorry that a greeting card lied to you.”
“You know it’s over? Me and Lina.”
“You were at the wedding,” he said. “You heard them take those vows. I sat next to you.”
“It’s done already, all right?”
“Where are we?”
I reached into the couch cushions and fished out the remote control. I placed it on my knee, and we watched the blank TV screen in front of us for the next fifteen minutes, staring at our own reflections, wondering if that’s what we looked like every night in our living rooms.
“One more?” I said, tapping the bottom of my bottle.
“Train’s leaving,” he said. “Come with me or figure your own way home.”
I crossed my legs and watched him leave. It was cold tonight, but as remote as this area felt, it was only a three-mile walk to downtown. One more beer wouldn’t hurt.
I looked at the pictures on their refrigerator. One snapshot must have been from when they first met, because her hair was cut like a cadet. When she smiled, she had a dimple on her cheek that brushed up against Dirk’s wide hillbilly sideburn.
I put my hand on their cutting board and grabbed their bread knife. I put the dull side against my wrist, the cold of the blade making my hairs stand up before I brushed them down again. No one likes pain, I thought. Some people just don’t mind it.
I nestled the blade against the left side of my middle finger. It wasn’t to hurt, only to tingle. I pierced the tip of my fingerprint, but the slice was too thin. I dragged it down, lengthwise, to the knuckle. That time I felt it, less as a cutting and more as a puddling wetness under my palm as the blood spread, and then I did it again to my ring finger. Maybe she could see it and know. I was here, and I have your secret.
When Meander told us Lina’s house was robbed, I thought he was confused. Broken into, sure, but nothing was taken. Then when I saw the damage, my first thought was, Did I?
How could I explain it wasn’t me? Not this time. I used the door, not the windows. I hurt myself, not the furniture. But even I doubted my story.
“Taking the beer wasn’t enough?” Thomas said when the front door closed. “Had to put your signature on it”
“What’d you leave the gin glasses untouched for? Just so he’d pour us a drink?”
“Knock it off.” I felt myself tearing up. “I’ll fuck you up right now.”
He looked up at the house and nodded. “I don’t know exactly how it is you two make each other so happy.”
“Try me,” I said. “Say it again.”
“I said it already. Three times.”
“I didn’t.” I stuck the tip of my shoe in a snakehole. “I left right after you left.”
“Remember last night, when you said it was over between the two of you? And you asked me to believe that?”
“I didn’t.” But as I said it, I saw him flinch, and I knew someone was behind me. Me saying ‘I didn’t’ must’ve sounded like a confession. It was Dirk, I figured, hunched over, straining so as not to spill three drinks, trying to make sense of this unhappy secret. But when I turned, I saw it was Ruby, come to check on the men. The wind blew her hair and her jacket, and to see her face so still, while the rest of her ruffled from right to left made me shrivel inside.
When Dirk finally did come out, his hands cupped over the glasses, my cheeks were wet. Dirk reared up in surprise, and looked us all over. “I didn’t know you were out here, Ruby. Take mine.”
We each took our glasses but kept them at our sides. “So is she in there alone?” I said. “Is she sleeping?”
“Relax,” Dirk said. “Have a drink. It’s just a day. Someone will make us a new one.”
It was long dark before we left. Lina stayed in her room, occasionally calling out to her husband to come tend to her. Once, after Dirk disappeared for twenty minutes, we realized he wasn’t coming back. It was just Ruby, Thomas, me, and a bunch of gin that we didn’t want. It used to be fun, having more company and liquor than we wanted. All of us operated at the same rhythm then and didn’t mind sharing space. The stakes were low, and we had plenty of time. Thomas swallowed his drink, laid the glass on the front lawn, and nodded goodbye. Ruby and I left a minute later in the opposite direction.
After a few blocks, I told her to follow me. She didn’t want to go, at least not without knowing why or where, but she didn’t question me. This time it wasn’t part of her observational game—she was just too tired to say anything but yes.
We both walked slowly, her trailing two steps behind. I wanted to reach back and offer my hand, but I didn’t. It was too much like talk, and I didn’t even want to hint at breaking the silence.
Ruby and I grew up together, and I always thought she’d be the last picture in my head before I die. Even as the rest of my memory blanched, I’d have the remaining colors cling to her form for one final blast of comfort. She never said anything about Lina, but I knew it scared her, how easily we could blow up our circle of friends and how neither of us seemed to care.
There’s a small creek on the east side of Orman Park that feels like the darkest part of the city. The light poles are still there, but the bulbs burnt out years ago. Sometimes the high school kids went there to get high or dunk their feet in the water, but outside of their lighters, it stayed black except for the fireflies. The darker the night, the louder the water sounded.
We’d walked for twenty-five minutes until we reached the docks. She grabbed me by the shoulder to hold me back and then whispered behind me. “Why? Why are we here?”
I didn’t know how to respond—it felt too abstract a question for her to ask—so I put my hand across her knuckles and shook my head. “Take a seat.” I sat on the edge of the dock and put my face forward into the breeze. There was cut grass on the wind and pollen in my eyes, and I felt Ruby’s hand on the curve of my spine.
In her fingers, I thought. In her tears, the brush of her shirt-cuff against my wrist—this is how she says the unseen world. “You did well today,” I sad. “It’s not easy eulogizing something you’ve never seen.”
“This wood is scratchy,” she said. “I don’t want to get a splinter.”
I’ll be your other, I almost said to Ruby. I’ll be the questions you can’t ask, the thoughts you are slowly extinguishing. You be facts, and I’ll be speculation. I pictured the child we could have, the difference between her mother and father bisecting her face, as obviously as if she had one eye brown and one eye green. Where did I come from? she’d ask. And while Ruby would show her a chart of fallopian tubes and talk about Lamaze class, I’d take her back to where she began. You started with a desire, you started with a blink of pain I saw in your mother’s twisted mouth, wetted with spit and loosed makeup as she stammered for the right words.
“People think I did it, don’t they? Lina’s?”
She looked at her fingernails.
“Come on, say it. I’m not asking you to think, just say. Has anyone talked to you? Tell me that at least.”
“What’s that mean?” I said. “Prophet knows dick. If he did what you did, just said what he’s sure of, I guarantee he wouldn’t say I did it.”
She reached down and grabbed my wrist and brought it up to my nose. “You have scratches on your hand.”
“Something cut you.” She smacked the plank we sat on. “Two of your fingers are cut.” She took off her necklace, laid it between us, and punched it slow and steady.
“What’re you doing? Talk to me.”
“That glass was broken by something. I don’t know what.”
“Bullshit,” I said “So I used one hand? On everything? It didn’t strike me to hit one piece of glass with another piece of glass? Use my elbow maybe?”
She smiled, but she didn’t mean it.
“I’m going to tell you something I never told you before.”
“I don’t want to hear your secrets.”
“You do,” I said. “You don’t want to hear my confessions, but you want my secrets. We talk to each other constantly, tell the same five stories again and again, just in the hope we’ll hear some secrets.”
She put her hand over her face.
“Confessions are me and Lina. And it’s over and it’s not, but I didn’t do it last night. Do you believe me?”
“Thanks for your secret.”
“A secret’s different,” I said. “A secret bonds the teller and the listener, so it’s a burden hearing it. Confessions go all over the place. Secrets are direct.”
“I don’t like this.”
I don’t like you, she meant. And that’s okay. We’re not supposed to like each other or anyone else. We only run into one another.
“I wish she was younger,” I said. “High school young. Middle school maybe.” I wiped my nose with the back of my hand. “I subbed at Dunbar for a month last year. I taught at that Korean camp last summer. I’ve been around kids.”
“This doesn’t make sense to me.”
“That I can resist,” I said. “You look at these girls and some are pretty, and they know it. They know it, and soon you know it, and they’re working themselves out on you, learning how to flirt, figuring out how to get what they deserve.”
“No,” I said. “It’s me looking and seeing, same as you, same as them. Some teachers, some uncles, some whoevers, they fail at that, but I didn’t.”
I meant to shake my head, but I stayed still and felt the wind blow my collar against my neck. “That’s a temptation I know I can resist. Each one of those girls, I’d think, You’ll never know how lucky you are that it was me who met you, me who could have loved you, but didn’t. I know how to resist.”
She locked her hands together around her knees.
When we were young, Ruby and I, we would come here in the early nighttime, back when the night held meaning for us. We both had curfews—hers an hour later than mine—but back when the trees were thick, this dock could lull us into believing we were in the darkest corner of Kentucky. Is there a black that goes beyond pitch? We don’t imagine darkness coming in degrees, but there must be a shade of black that outpaces what we see when we close our eyes. Even Harmony’s vegetable couldn’t grasp it, not yet, because he’d never seen light. There’s faith in that—cold faith, but it’s manageable. We still go on, maybe even to something as familiar as the lack of light.
Ruby was crying. I wanted to reach for her, to press the back of my fingernails against the side of her neck and feel her slink away. It was as close as I could come to halving the distance between the way we now speak.
Grant me one more miracle. That’s all I hoped to say. The unreal is always with us, in our muscles and our irises, so can’t you indulge me one more miracle? Maybe one day we’ll have to say goodbye to each other, maybe even say goodbye to the dark, but not yet.
Believe me. I was there last night, I slammed doors, I made noise I should’ve left to the silence, I wiped my bloody finger on the cutting board, but I left the house clean. Someone else, a stranger, with no motivation but to destroy, came in behind me. That can happen—it’s just as crazy as if someone had come behind him and mended all the pieces together, but it can happen. First, you must believe what you don’t believe.
The two of us looked up at the sky. Between us, even the moonlight is an intruder.
We are still alive.
Willie Davis is the winner of The Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize (judged by Zadie Smith) and The Katherine Anne Porter Prize (judged by Amy Hempel). His fiction has appeared in The Guardian, The Kenyon Review, Urbanite, and storySouth, among other places. He is currently a fellow of the Kentucky Arts Council.