Editors' Choice 2006: Babies on Rafts by Lones Seiber
Babies on Rafts by Lones Seiber. Lones Seiber lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. His stories have appeared in GSU Review, Lynx Eye, and Thought. He won the 2005 GSU Review fiction contest and was awarded second place in the 2005 Leslie Garrett Fiction Contest for Tennessee writers. "Babies on Rafts" is an engaging story that skillfully combines character, language, and structure.
Babies on Rafts
Eugene is on his way to visit an old woman who won’t remember him, although she’s seen him each Tuesday for the past two years.
“If it be a son, then ye shall kill him; but if it be a daughter, then shall she live,” he whispers as he walks from the parking lot, as if sounding the troubling verse might purge it from his mind. A King James passage, a decree from Pharaoh, entangled with other thoughts, ones to be unraveled later tonight and organized into next Sunday’s sermon.
He passes beneath a black wrought iron arch bearing a plaque that reads: St. Mary’s Austin Health and Rehabilitation. It used to be called a nursing home; they all did, a change to imply hope, he assumes. And those inside: the sick, the crippled, the simple-minded, and the ones that for other reasons can’t be turned out, are residents now, not patients. Probably for the same reason.
He stands aside as four nurses crowd into the same elevator and with his hand prevents the door from closing until they’re safely inside. He smiles benevolently, passively, but no one seems to care. He senses a void, a spiritual emptiness, a need, a silent, plaintive cry, a call to service perhaps.
“God loves you,” he should say as he used to, fresh out of seminary, but he had soon tired of the looks, as if they thought him a fool, like some inarticulate zealot on an empty street corner preaching to a cat. He’s not a fool.
He stops at room 602 as he does each Tuesday. It’s the only room he will visit today. At times there have been as many as four. The old woman’s asleep. If she wakes up, she will confuse him with someone she met a long time back or someone she never knew at all. It’s as if her mind is a vase that someone dropped and put back together all wrong. He will ask about a family she doesn’t remember. He will ask if there’s anything she needs. She won’t know what to say. And he will pray the same prayer he always prays as the woman stares at him with a mindless grin. He will come again the next week and the week after that as a witness to her dissolution. Someday he will conduct her funeral, asserting, with one hand flat against the Bible, the other thrust overhead, that it is a time of celebration, not of mourning, but no one will celebrate. He will pray for her soul, shake a few hands, tell the grief-stricken to be strong, and then drive home alone.
The woman in 602 is eighty-five years old. Once he saw a picture of her when she was young; she must have been in her thirties. A diminutive woman, a beautiful woman, elegant looking even, with dark hair curling up on her shoulders, a whimsical, mischievous smile, and large eyes that reflected a haunting innocence, an innocence that caused his stomach to coil. He could not look at the picture for more than a moment; could not, and still cannot, reconcile the picture with the creature in the bed beside him clinging involuntarily to life. The woman’s son and daughter-in-law belong to Eugene’s church, but since she has been here, he rarely sees them, and never in church. Eugene had christened their daughter, had held her hand during a battle with pneumonia, praying for her recovery, prayers that her family claimed, at the time, brought her back. “From the brink,” the father said, his eyes red, the words broken. “If there’s ever anything….” And later, Eugene had been the one to whom she professed Christ as her Savior.
“Today my life begins,” she said that morning, kneeling, her eyes bright with that same troubling innocence he was to later see in her grandmother’s picture, her cheeks wet.
She’s in Seattle now. A continent away. Too young to be on her own. He doesn’t know why.
Eugene glances at his watch and at the wall clock. Fifteen minutes. He nudges the old woman’s shoulder, but her face wrinkles and she mutters something. She turns away from the touch without opening her eyes. He bows his head; his lips offer a silent prayer; and he leaves the room taking care not to bump the bed.
When he gets home at five, his wife is setting the table. She glances at him as she pushes the bangs off her forehead with the back of her wrist.
“Stuffed peppers, Caesar salad and rolls,” she says. “There’s chocolate cake if you want.”
She has her coat on. She turns her face away and tilts her head toward him. He kisses her on the cheek.
“You’re going out?” he says.
She nods. “Janet called. There’s a meeting over in Brentwood for overseas missions.”
“I hadn’t heard.”
“It just came up.”
“Be careful,” he says. “It’s staring to rain.”
“Emily’s already eaten. She’s in her room,” she says and goes into the kitchen wiping her hands with a towel. Her lips move silently. She seems in a hurry.
Emily is their seven-year-old adopted daughter. Their first child, a little girl, was stillborn. They had already picked a name. Catherine. The condolences and support and prayers of their parishioners had seemed to mute her anguish at first, but a miscarriage followed. And then another. More and more she began to isolate herself, sitting alone in church, politely deflecting any expression of sympathy.
“It’s as if they’re rubbing my nose in it,” she said.
When an attorney friend told them about Emily, who was four months old at the time, Eugene was ecstatic.
“Her mother’s given her up,” the man said. “I can pull some strings.”
His wife agreed but not with the enthusiasm Eugene had hoped for. She insisted that all the furniture be removed from the baby’s room and sold.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Eugene said.
“It was for Catherine,” she said. “We can have a yard sale.
Unable to persuade her, Eugene called Goodwill. Two men in a yellow truck hauled it away. One of them kept an unlighted cigar clenched between his teeth. He handed Eugene a form before they left.
“You can deduct from tax,” he said with a thick accent and an eager grin.
When his wife carried Emily into their house for the first time, she placed her in the crib and then sat in a chair by the window staring out at nothing he could see. She hummed a tune he couldn’t name and let the baby cry.
After dinner he clears the table, rinses the dishes and places them in the washer.
One night when his wife was away at one of her meetings, her friend Janet called.
“I thought she was with you,” Eugene said.
“Well, I….,” she began but did not finish the thought.
“I’ll have her call,” Eugene said finally when the silence became awkward.
“It’s not that important,” she said and tried to laugh about it.
He stood at the window for hours that night. He saw only himself, his face dotted with distant lights. When her car pulled into the drive and the headlights swept the lawn and house, he stepped away and clasped his hands together to stop them from trembling. He could have confronted her, but he didn’t. She would have explained it away, and he knew he would have believed her, would have had to believe no matter how implausible. Besides, she had come home.
“It’s enough,” he said aloud and climbed into bed, pretending to be asleep.
He stops at Emily’s room. She’s sitting in a chair in front of her computer, her feet dangling above the floor, swinging back and forth, ankles locked. He sees a familiar face on the screen. An animation.
“What is that?” he says.
“It’s new, Daddy,” she says and motions him in. She bounces on the chair and claps her hands. “It’s called Sim Jesus.”
Eugene smiles. The first miracle. The wedding at Cana.
“That’s amazing,” he says. “Looks so real.”
“I know,” she says. “You can change what happens.”
“How does it work?” Eugene says, transfixed.
She exits the scene and begins it again.
“It’s programmed like the Bible says,” she says. “If you let it run, it goes from the manger to the cross, but along the way it asks if you want to make changes. And then a new program begins. You can pick the direction, but not what happens. You never know where the change will lead Him.”
“So what’s happened?” Eugene says.
“After the changes you’ve made.”
She smiles sheepishly.
“I haven’t made any,” she says.
“I’m afraid to.”
Eugene bends down and kisses her cheek.
“It’s just a game,” he says and leaves the room.
He goes into his study and closes the door. He sits at his desk, clicks on the lamp and centers a legal pad on top. To the side, a picture of his wife and Emily. He stares long and often at the picture; his wife is smiling.
He has already composed most of Sunday’s sermon in his mind. It’s now a matter of organizing the mental fragments into an orderly and comprehensible speech.
“His children are far from safety; they shall be crushed at the gate without a rescuer,” he quotes aloud, staring at the blank pad. Job 5:4, he writes, and underlines. He scribbles the verse down and studies it for a moment but then lines through rescuer. “Protector,” he says and writes it in. “Who is your protector?” he says and then writes that down. He leans the chair back, staring at the pen that he rotates between his fingers. He hears no sounds in the house, nothing but the low, imbedded hum of machinery buried somewhere deep inside. Somewhere a ways off a dog barks. It does not sound aroused. The cry seems almost plaintive, and then it fades. Now and then shards of light from passing cars race around the room.
“Defender,” he says and hovers over the pad. He thinks of the tsunami that devastated the low and vulnerable nations in the Pacific the week before. He cannot forget the videos of the gigantic swell rushing inland and swallowing everything ahead of it, automobiles, houses, people even, thousands upon thousands, too many to count. He also remembers the story of a baby someone had placed atop a makeshift raft. It was found floating, alive, in the Indian Ocean several days later. A miracle, they said.
“Who is your defender?” he tries aloud and then lines out the previous theme and replaces it. At the time he wondered what had caused the normally tranquil ocean to turn killer like that. An earthquake out at sea, someone said, something about shifting plates miles beneath the surface. The explanation seemed so undramatic, almost benign, so unfitting an incident to have stopped so many lives.
He writes the word “defender” again, double lines under it and then encloses it with a circle. He opens his Bible but then shuts it again without flipping a page. He thinks of Moses, of his birth as told in the second chapter of Exodus, of his being placed aboard a raft to escape death, of his being discovered on the river’s bank by the daughter of the man who had decreed his death. A miracle, too? Of course. It is the kind of analogy he has been trained to create.
By ten he has written nothing else on the pad. His wife has not returned. He leaves the room and moves down the darkened hallway to where his daughter sleeps.
The screensaver of cartoon fish swimming past one another in their virtual aquarium illuminates the walls of her room. She doesn’t stir when he enters. He kneels beside her bed and gently pulls the comforter up to her neck as he has done since she was a baby, afraid of her catching a chill. He’s heard from those who are supposed to know that it cannot prevent one from becoming ill, even a child, but he does it just the same.
As a baby, her foot had been broken. That was before they brought her home. For some reason, it had not properly healed; Eugene never knew why, but he heard it was one of the reasons she had been placed in foster care. It prevented her from walking normally. A doctor advised him to bring her back in three or four years.
“She’ll probably outgrow it,” he had said then.
At five she still limped. The same doctor smiled and stroked her hair.
“There’s nothing I can do,” he said. “It could be worse.”
Emily jumped awkwardly in place and clapped her hands.
“Sucker!” she said and pointed at a clear glass bowl full of rainbow treats sitting on a shelf.
“And there’s nothing you can do,” he said as he returned with the bowl.
She has a red bow still in her hair that is twisted and hanging by a strand. He kneads her hair between his fingers. It seems fragile and new. He gently tugs the bow free and lays it on her dresser next to a stuffed, cloth doll with button eyes. The dresser is pink, and tiny like her. On top, a box full of cartoon character barrettes, a hairbrush with a clear green handle, and a lamp with a Pooh Bear shade. A plaid jumper is draped over a chair. The attorney told him that Emily has a brother and a sister, both of them older. Each had been placed in separate foster homes, so it’s something she won’t remember. Now she’s an only child, but someday she will have to be told.
He sits at the computer and for a few minutes watches the grinning fish painted in garish hues disappear and reemerge in the margins. He touches a key and then accesses Sim Jesus. The predictable drama unfolds. He deletes requests for change as they appear. When Jesus conducts The Sermon on the Mount, Eugene lip-syncs the dialogue.
“Your words show what is in your heart,” he whispers.
He watches a while longer and then begins fast forwarding, slowing now and then to orient himself, compressing years into seconds. He speeds past the conspiracy and the gathering in the Upper Room, but then he reverses, slowing, eventually stopping and resuming as Jesus enters Jerusalem for the final time. It is the Festival of Thin Bread. Jesus instructs Peter and John to follow a man carrying a jar of water.
“He will go into a house,” Jesus says. “It is where we will eat the Passover.”
Eugene slowly advances the frames and resumes normal speed as Jesus makes His way to the house that night where He will eat and drink with the disciples. As Jesus turns toward the house, a question appears on the screen. Yes or No, it asks. For several minutes Eugene studies the image: Jesus, one foot on the cobbled street, the other atop the first step. Eugene turns in the chair and looks at his daughter. She has kicked the cover off. One leg is straight, the other drawn up, foot against knee. One arm is bent up over her head. She looks as if she is dancing, frozen in the middle of a pirouette. She seems smaller than she did a few minutes before, vulnerable, even, but she is safe and warm.
Eugene turns back to the computer and selects No. Jesus turns away from the house. Eugene leans back, his arms folded across his stomach, and waits. The Savior steps out of the light, His sandaled feet moving quietly over the rounded stone streets, the hood on His tunic pulled low over His forehead, passing centurions and priests carrying lighted candles, but arousing no suspicions. No one recognizes Him. He looks no different from anyone else. He keeps to the shadows until He emerges into a large, open market place, in the center of the city, lighted fully by torches mounted in holders along the walls. Two donkeys wait obediently, wicker baskets slung over their sides. Jesus pauses, just for a moment, but in that moment He smiles, an ordinary smile of an ordinary man, but to Eugene, a smile of one reprieved, but not from having been spared the cross.
Eugene ends the program. He pushes the chair back and stands for a moment beside his daughter’s bed. He leans down and snugs the cover up under her chin once again. He lays his hand on her forehead. He thinks she feels a little warm, but then he thinks not. He isn’t sure. It could be nothing. Probably just his imagination. A mother would know for sure.
“If it be a son, then ye shall kill him, but if it be a daughter, then shall she live,” something inside reminds him, and then, like a sharp, relentless migraine, the unending screams of Hebrew babies being slain by Egyptian swords. But those anguished cries will remain just as they are: his personal demons. On Sunday he will speak of miracles and offer stories of babies on rafts. The people, his people will listen and believe. Some will nod and speak silently; others will proclaim: “Amen!”, while one old man with sunken cheeks will shake his hands overhead as if they’re wet. His people will sit in purple, padded pews inside a large comfortable room with doors securely closed and gold-leaf crosses spotted here and there along the walls. Crystal chandeliers will refract sunlight filtered through translucent windows mounted in the high, pitched ceiling. They will hear nothing but the isolated sound of his voice.
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Editor's Choice, 2006: Bat by Sallie Bingham
Bingham sends her story from New Mexico. Bingham has written three collections of short stories and five novels. Two of her short-shorts won Glimmer Train's contest. Her first book of poetry, The Hub of the Miracle, was published by Sunstone Press. Sarabands Books will bring out her next collection of short stories. The editors appreciate the mix of fantasy and reality in "Bat" and Bingham's skill in creating nuance and complex characterization.
"Help," the guest croaked in the night, and the dark corridors of the old house quickened. Wakened by his own voice, he sat up and looked around. The night was thick, without texture. Beyond the open window, a pale star gleamed.
Above his head, a dense shape shuttled through layers of darkness. The sound of wings whisked and whimpered as the shape crossed from corner to corner of the big bedroom. The guest turned on the lamp on its rickety stand and the creature swooped toward it. He saw its dark, delicately furred body.
He slid cautiously out of bed. All around him, the house livened; the artificial sunflowers that sprang rigid as swords from a bronze cauldron in the living room quivered; the dark, old red curtains that shielded windows from the midday sun stiffened; the boar's head over the front door lifted its bristling snout. For the first time in years, the house came alive as it had in the days of the family:
the signora, who now lived in an apartment on the coast; her mother, the collector of old lace whose portrait, in mid-century olives and tans, hung over the pool table; her father, whose funeral mass had been sung in the damp chapel where one electric light shone disconsolately; the children of the signora, now grown and gone their ways; the cooks and chambermaids and grooms, long since retreated to the graveyard in Mercatale. For nowadays the house was rented during the summer to strangers, and closed up the rest of the year. The strangers were mostly Americans, who paid good money. But all the ghosts had fled.
Even the darkness in the valley below the old house responded. The sheep sleeping in clumps guarded by snow-white Pyrenees stirred, and their bells clamored faintly; the big dogs raised their heads. Then the sheep subsided, the dogs rested their heads on their shaggy paws, and the valley, still again, condensed like a shallow dark pool.
In the bedroom next to the room where the guest had cried for help, a woman woke and raised her head. The call had already evaporated, yet she heard it with an inner ear once tuned to the calls of her children.
Resisting her instinct to respond, she lay rigid. Below her window, in the cypress, nameless birds moaned, fell silent and moaned again. Their cry was long and low, with a strangled ululation at the end--a cry, she tried to persuade herself, lying rigid, no more terrifying than the sound of Mohammed's rake on the gravel paths at breakfast time.
In that context, though, the guest's cry--her friend's, her almost-lover's--should have roused her to a response. Instead, she went on lying rigid, because any reaction, even a few whispered words of reassurance through the communicating door, would have ruptured the delicate membrane that kept them apart.
To be in the depths of the Tuscan countryside, half-terrified, half-enchanted by the cypress and the nameless birds, and yet to stay apart and alone in their separate, narrow beds, seemed a triumph of maturity; or perhaps of something else.
The calm enduringness, she thought, of that true tour de force, a life of freedom--a quotation from a writer she admired.
She and her guest were both consigned, he to a long-time come-and-go girlfriend (one of those part-time arrangements, she thought, that seem sturdier than a full time union), she to her grown children and their children. Besides, the scenes of frenzied anticipation and celebration they'd witnessed that day, sitting cramped on a high bleacher at the Palio in Siena, had forcibly reminded her of the foreignness of all emotional excess.
She had watched people patient as cattle, herded by the police behind wooden barricades. Now and then someone fainted in the heat and was carried away on an orange stretcher, odds and ends dangling. She had been shocked by the apparent callousness of this behavior as she'd been shocked by the hot, moist pressure of bodies as they'd made their way through the crowded streets.
During the race itself, horses flung themselves around the thick mass of people in the center of the square, throwing off jockeys like sticks--one was trampled right under their noses, then scooped up and hauled away on another orange stretcher. She'd felt, again, the utter foreignness of that fearful display; the velvet and ermine costumes, the silver armor and multicolored tights, even the exquisite Renaissance profiles of the parading men she photographed failed to soften the impact of the race itself, and she'd longed to escape as, the following night, she would long to escape--wipe out--her friend's cry.
Now this man, naked, pale in the darkness, was running after the bat, waving a towel (a thin, grainy Italian towel, he thought, feeling its texture as he ran), and eventually the bat, cornered, dropped onto a curtain and hung there, squeaking and showing its little fangs.
He approached it cautiously, snagged it in a corner of the towel and swiftly flung it out the window, towel and all. The towel fell on the grass Mohammed kept cut to the nub; the bat disappeared into the darkness.
The guest stood at the window for a moment. Then he shivered, hugged his arms, and hurried back to bed, slipping between the sheets like a fish.
Eventually the woman fell asleep too.
At breakfast, the guest explained without waiting to be asked that he'd called for help in the throes of a nightmare. Wakened, he had seen the bat, and dealt with it.
Only later, much later, after the red and pink geraniums in the stone basins outside the old house had been forgotten, after the old house, itself, had been forgotten, and the sound of Mohammed's rake on the gravel paths, and the clatter of wooden shutters, thrown open in the morning--only then the woman began to wonder about his cry.
Now they saw each other occasionally at the coffee shop in their artful little western town, or she dropped by his immaculate gallery to discuss her next show: watercolors of Italy, the tall, dark cypress, the glitter off the surface of Lake Trasimene.
"Were you calling for me, that night last August?" she asked almost a year later.
He paused before answering, choosing his words with care. "I really did have a nightmare," he said, "and there really was a bat."
"I'm sure there was," she said.
Recently she'd fallen in love with her eldest grandchild, a lean, tanned girl of three. Recently her life had begun to seem once again full to overflowing, as it had in the years when her children were small. They were the primary passion of her life, she knew, for lovers and even husbands faded in and out of her perspective but her children were always within view, although at a greater and greater distance. And so she was ready, now, to accept his explanation.
But he went on. "I remember I lay there in the dark, listening, after I woke myself up calling for help. I was embarrassed to have called out like that, but it did cross my mind that you might hear me, and come. Didn't you turn on your light?"
"No," she said, "but I heard. Why didn't you call me, directly?"
They were sitting in the courtyard of a coffee shop in bright, dry early winter sun.
"I didn't know what you wanted," he said.
"Did you know what you wanted?" she asked, and almost added, the calm enduringness...
He shook his head slowly. She nodded, accepting that as she was prepared to accept most things, now, in the frame of the facts of her life and the details of her long past.
There is only the past now, she thought. But at the same time, she remembered the way the old house had quickened at the sound of his cry.
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Editors' Choice, 2006: Esso by Lindsey Silken
Silken graduated from Connecticut College with a degree in English and studio art in 2004 and currently lives in the Boston area. She also studied fiction at the Skidmore College summer writers' seminar and the Sarah Lawrence summer writers' seminar. To support her writing, she does more writing as Senior Editor of JVibe. "Esso" is her first publication in fiction. The editors enjoyed the author's humor and her ability to plunge deeply into a few moments of love and lust.
I fell in love at an Esso station. I wasn't even supposed to be there. At the gas station or Wyoming to begin with. The boy was pumping gas. He had on jeans and no shirt and his hair was the color of sun-bleached wheat. Jackson was in the can. Now, I always thought women were the ones supposed to need pit stops, but I've found every man's got a feminine flaw. I do mean flaw because I like my men to look like men, act like men, talk like men. Sometimes it's physical — I've seen men with the most ladylike hands. Sometimes the flaw is in their personality. Nothing worse than a man fishing for compliments.
Jackson's one flaw was his girlish bladder. Luckily, he drove a pickup and that balanced things out well enough. Course no man does drive anything but a truck in those parts. His old rusting Ford was hot where I leaned on the passenger door. It was a shiny navy blue the day his old man bought it. A dusty grey the day he handed it down to Jackson. And that day in Wyoming it looked like a map of the world — rust-orange continents in a sea of paint.
It was four o'clock and the sun still burned — I could already feel it making a line on my thighs below my cutoffs. I had long sticks of legs in those days, still do I suppose. The boy I was watching was filling someone else's tank the next lane over and I could watch without him seeing. I wanted to touch the sweat on his back. His muscles were relaxed and the way he picked up the gas hose — weightless, and eased it into the car, so calm, it was like there wasn't anything else to do in the world. He moved like he knew, somehow, that whatever came next, it would end up okay.
That day at the Esso station was almost as hot as the day I fell in the pond out behind the house and Jackson was there to save me. Course I didn't need saving. Not really. Only it was such a hot day, I'd just been saying how I thought I might faint and Jackson wasn't taking no chances. He wasn't afraid, just didn't like to sit around wondering what if. What if I couldn't swim good enough? What if I was the only person who would ever really understand him? No regrets was the way with Jackson. Not on anything. And it was no different with me. He didn't wait around after school when we were kids, while we went riding in the old pickup, and later, drinking in the loft of the barn. Soon as he realized what he felt, he came and told me before I had the sense to wonder if I felt it too. He didn't really tell me, but one night he dropped me off — past my curfew like usual. He looked at me across the seat like a blind man just got his sight. One time later, when he was drunk and stupid in a way I couldn't refuse, he told me I had eyes to blind. They're green. Jackson called them emerald, though I don't think that's it. They look brighter on account of how nothing else stands out. My face is too thin, and my breasts look like someone else's on my diving board body. So I don't have to be told my eyes are the only thing saves me disappearing altogether. Maybe it was my green eyes sealed things in Jackson's head that night when he sat there imagining how our lives would be. He slid across the seat, put his hand on my neck like it was a thing belonged to him and kissed me. Just like that.
The sun was laying itself on the ground like it couldn't hold itself up in the sky. Like it fell there. And you could feel the weight of it splashing on the cars, the dirt, the tops of your feet. Cars going by on the highway looked like they were floating over the glossy pavement. There was a woman in the driver's seat of the car the boy was leaning on, wearing big sunglasses and hair that was too bright to be a real color. She was maybe forty-five and definitely not from Wyoming. That hair all done up like a truffle. I could see the rock on her finger all the way from where I was. She was probably some lawyer's wife out in Fremont, just passing through like us.
I watched as the boy put the lock on the handle of the gas hose and leaned on the back of her car like it was his car, like he wasn't at a gas station at all but standing by a river. He crossed his arms over his bare chest, the same as I was doing over my white sleeveless right across the lane. Now the boy was facing me and had me smack in his eye line before I had the chance to do anything about it.
But, see, there's rules about this stuff — attraction. I may have been eighteen and on my first boyfriend, unless you count sixth grade and no one does. But I'd spent three of those years dating Jackson, and I'd learned a thing or two. One of the rules I like best goes that when you're already with somebody it's not such a thing to be staring at somebody else. You can knock your head up high and hold your gaze because whether he knows it or not, you're with somebody. You're just looking. You're not buying, see, and they don't need to worry you're imagining birthdays and anniversaries and "I do's" in your head. You're just thinking about the way their tanned shoulders might feel under your fingertips. What it might be like to stare into their eyes instead of the ones you've bout memorized you've seen em so many times.
And that's why, when the boy turned toward me and saw my goofy-ass gaze, I didn't need to lower my eyes. I was just looking. Just looking is in the safe zone. But really, it was at that moment, in the very heat of it, that I could actually feel some part of me leave my body and go fall in love.
I still think that if the boy had gotten up from that car, walked toward me, his hair like wheat hanging into his eyes, and taken me away, to well, anywhere really, I might have gone. I was just looking, but I think at some point, when you look so long, it turns into something else. Maybe I would have gone right with him and not looked back. What had I ever done? Who had I ever met? But that's not how it happened. Because that's when Jackson came back from the can.
Once high school was over, Jackson decided it wasn't right for us to stay right there in Red Cloud — by default he said. Maybe we'd like it better in California. I don't think he had any idea what California was about, probably didn't even have a picture of it in his head except to know it was far from Nebraska, far from his old man. And I knew it might be my only chance to see something outside of cornfields and grass. We both had our reasons, only I think Jackson figured when we got there, that would be it. We'd set up our life, have jobs, a wedding, kids. I would soften the blow of starting from scratch. But that's it, that's all I ever wanted — a blow. California meant art and skyscrapers with walls of windows and people who knew things about life. By this time I had enough sense to know that I wasn't in love with Jackson, but California. The word rolled around in my mind like ice in whiskey.
I'd almost forgotten Jackson was there at all. The smell of diesel, the tar-melting heat, and my head was up in the clouds. I wondered as I saw him walking toward me with his easy stride, his muscles visible beneath his shirt — what would have happened if we'd never gotten together. Would I still be walking the streets of Red Cloud, Nebraska? Would I even realize that I was still walking the streets of Red Cloud? I figured by the time we got to California, Jackson would see what was what. I didn't know all how this was gonna happen except that Jackson couldn't be that thick. I'm not saying I was mean to him — nothing like that. No, I took care of him and he did the same. We had enough passion. Not mountains, but enough. But he had to know this wasn't it.
Protecting me made Jackson feel right. Like if I was okay, he'd be okay too. I remember years back we'd all been on Bryant's Pass, out past town where no one came by. That was where we did our drinking and our groping in the night, and no one cared much if they even knew. Anyway, it was Breck Sansome took my hand when Jackson was checking out Kevin's new pickup, and pulled me way out into the dark field. It was the kind of black you couldn't see past the range of the headlights we'd left on. The kind of dark that inhaled secrets. We'd no more than caught our breath, and I'd only the time to tell Breck — just what did he think he was doing, that when Jackson found out he'd have one fist down his throat and the other in his gut — when there comes Jackson towards us steaming like a tractor. Breck took one look and ran like anything, but it was no good. Jackson's not huge, just average, but man, he was in shape. He gave Breck a thirty second lead and had him on the ground in ninety. Breck was on crutches all that summer and didn't so much as look at me after that.
So here was Jackson walking from the can to the car where I was leaning all puppy-eyed, only this boy, this Esso-station-pumping-boy didn't realize it. Or he hadn't seen that Jackson was with me. So he kept on looking my way, smiling the most beautiful smile I've seen any time before or after. Looking back, I don't think he was even smiling at all. His lips were closed in this peaceful way like he understood something, like he knew what there was to come, and the smile was just in his eyes and the corners of his mouth. He glowed. And I was glued on him like he was a fan in that heat. I saw Jackson coming closer but I couldn't take my eyes off this boy. I can still feel the heat of it when I close my eyes. From where I stood, the yellow and brown of the mountains in the distance formed chubby bodies from an ancient time, maybe to protect us when our time came. I wondered if Jackson felt protected.
I knew what was going to happen at that Esso station only I couldn't stop it. That's what happens when you slip and fall and down you go into love itself. It was too late. Like poison. The boy was bigger than Jackson, but didn't look the type to enjoy a fight. Jackson was the type to start a fight, but he also knew when to end one. So there was Jackson twenty feet away when he realized I wasn't just waiting for him. He looked from me to the boy, from the boy to me. The boy caught on at that point and looked at Jackson. I remember him smiling at Jackson.
This bit Jackson like anything. But then Jackson looked back at me. And stopped. The three of us just stood there, Jackson trying to figure out what was going on and what he was supposed to do about it, me wondering just why any of this had to matter anyway, and the boy standing there really smiling by now like wasn't this all a great joke.
And then something seemed to click inside Jackson. He stood there almost a minute, squinting into the sun, sweat forming on his forehead, under his thick dark hair. And then he took a look at the boy like it was nothing, kept walking up to me at the car. He stopped in front of me, close, put his hands on my hips and looked at me our eyes an inch apart. Like the day he first kissed me in his truck, only this time, instead of finding something new, it was like he lost something real important and thought maybe he'd find it there. I suppose he did find it though, because then he kissed me. Long. His mouth was slippery. I could smell the sun on his face. There were little beads of sweat on his burnt nose. He had a real good nose with a bump right at the top from breaking it when he was a kid. It made him look boyish. I was sweaty too and his smell seemed good to me. And then he ran his hand down my neck, down my shoulder, down my arm.
He walked around to the other side of the car without saying a word, and I was left facing a boy I did not know at an Esso station in a place I'd never been. He was still smiling, but not the grin — that smile like before, smiling at the world. Then he nodded a few times, to himself, not to me, a silent beat going on in his head, and turned around to take the hose out of the gas tank.
I turned around too, and saw Jackson in the driver's seat. I got in, and he handed me a Coke I hadn't noticed before. His hand was shaking, just barely, but like he was trying to control it. Like if I didn't take that Coke he might just lose it. I never feared Jackson until that moment. "Gotta hydrate on a day like this," he said in a serious voice I did not recognize, watching me, holding out the can. I took it, looked at it like I'd never seen pop before. When I realized what I was holding, I cracked it open and took a slow drink. I didn't know until the cold can touched my lips how thirsty I was. It tasted like it always had since I was a kid, like I expected and knew it would. I looked out at the fat giants in the distance, beckoning us closer. The road melting slowly. When I was done, I held it out to Jackson and he turned just his head to me.
What he said next was not a kind thing. Only he said it kindly. "You never did, Lana, so don't start now." I rested the Coke on my knee and leaned my head on the back of my seat, looked out at the miles ahead of us, more to go than we'd covered so far.
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