The long view.
Eyes. I couldn't live without my eyes. I really like seeing.
Or legs. Legs are important. They serve a function.
Ears are pretty useful, too.
I should back up to my question though. It's my question: What are you most afraid of losing?
Mom has every lamp in the room burning. A block of light glows on the trampled snow of our yard. I can see it through the window when she ducks her head to eat: outside, everything frozen except the light, the sky flat and slick like a photograph you could tear.
Someone. I look at her as I think it. But--nothing in her face, no change of expression, just the veins in her temples, and another vein bisecting her forehead.
Mom gets nervous because I'm scowling, so suddenly, out of fucking nowhere, she says, "Go on, Baby, show her your tattoo." He does. They both start laughing. She reaches over to fondle the tattoo, her fingers slick with orange pizza grease. He says, "Oh I love moms." And then he rips one. A decent mom with a cane would at least hit him for that.
I'm like, motherfucker. And then I'm like, oh.
What makes it extra crappy is I didn't get a warning. I had everything arranged. Angie, my ride to town, was already in the driveway when mom showed up, effervescent as Sprite, like, be my daughter, for one night, be my daughter. So I tried. But it was clear to me within five minutes that he was a genuine cretin. He smelled like an old couch. I'm like, I stayed home for this?
So maybe I stupidly hoped that Angie was being overprotective. She gave me a look as she backed out of the driveway. Her look said: This guy's a junkie. Angie owns the hoagie joint where I sometimes bunk out. She also runs drugs so things get around to the hoagie joint. Angie loves me. She loves me because I remind her of her sister, her little half-sister that they found last year overdosed in a car with a bagel-shaped screw-bruise on her lower back. (I look nothing like her half-sister. For one thing, the sister was missing an ear.) But I don't mind that Angie loves me kind of wrong. She feeds me, and gives me a place to sleep. She keeps an eye on my friends--Brian's a weirdo, but a clean one, she says. Maybe I hoped--but where's poor mom going to meet a non-dickhead around here? She has a fucking cane.
I don't have to stay. I could call Angie back. Or Brian, I could call Brian. I've never been to Brian's house but there's always a first time. I could even walk to town--it's far but not impossible. But the thought of calling, of stepping out the door into the rock-hard night and doing cop-detail while Angie makes her drops, of sleeping on a cot in a hoagie joint that smells like pickles and other hoagie shit--damn it, this is my house too. I have a right to be here. And if I walk to town I risk getting raped behind a snow bank, and, sorry, I'm just not up for that.
Mom's too busy laughing to stop me leaving the table.
I say, "I've got reading to do for school. Nice to meet you, Fuckwit. Happy farting."
I wish. Because after about half an hour they're not farting. They're screwing on the sofa in the next room. I can hear it through my door.
It's not too late to call Brian. But that would be asking for help. When you ask for help, that makes you dependent. I'm not my mom. I'm not dependent.
I'm like, okay. Be okay. It's just one night. One night. You have a radio and a shatterproof sense of humor. You can live with this for one damn night. It's fucking comedy if you think about it.
On second thought, don't think about it. Just turn on the radio.
So I turn my radio full blast on Good Time Oldies--screwing to La Bamba, who can't laugh at that?--and soldier on through Macbeth.
I have almost forgot the taste of fears
And then the radio signal fails. I have no idea why. It just fails. That's when I kind of lose it.
I mean I don't ask for much. Most nights I cook my own meals. I get my own rides to and from school, wherever else I need to go. I buy clothes with my own money, money I make working a job I got on my own, not one handed to me on a damn plate--I don't even get a fucking allowance. And mom's screwing this guy--this guy!--in the next room while I'm trying to do my homework so I'm not stuck in a shit town like she is when I'm old and my ass can't sell Jell-O to a grandpa. And right as mom is full-tilt screwing and the guy sounds like he's making a hernia and meanwhile Shakespeare is saying that, when you get down to it, life amounts to squat--when I really need those Good Time Oldies--all I get is static, a boatload of screaming, and my dog Nic going ape-shit outside about something that isn't there when I climb out the window to check.
I don't even know why I bother to check. Nothing's ever out here but dirty snow, some naked trees, and a huge moon watching the whole thing, all cool and remote, like an enormous fuck you from God.
And this eerie feeling of a hand about to land softly between my shoulder blades.
Jesus, what is that? What is that feeling?
I'm standing in the yard barefoot and bare-legged with this weird, outsized creepiness in my neck, unfounded in anything real, and something bizarre happening to the hair on my arms.
And then I hear my mom finish up Mister Hernia as he cries "Great balls of fire!" and I realize I haven't been able to feel my fingers for a while. I'm like, why am I standing here? How long have I been standing here?
Then Nic licks my knee, and I remember: she was barking.
I drop Nic through my window, climb in after her, and leave the window open so I can smoke a cigarette. I hear Mister Hernia pop a beer. One beer. He doesn't even get my mom a fucking beer.
It sucks when your mom's a slut. The whole thing sucks. Because she loves me, Angie won't say mom's a junkie, just that her boyfriends are. All of her boyfriends. Mom hides it at least, which I appreciate. I could check her legs while she sleeps. I could check her toes. But sluthood's one thing--who the hell wants hard evidence her mom's a junkie?
It wouldn't be so bad if she cared about things. Not in a Susan Sarandon kind of way. But I'll read a book, or I'll see a film at school, a weird film she's never heard of. Something I get. I'll want mom to get it, but she can't. Even if I made her watch it. If I made her watch it, it would just be so much bluish light bouncing around the skin of her face.
I wonder if Brian ever feels this way. Mis-gotten.
I'm in paintings. I'm what you might call a freelance muse for some local artists. When I'm smoking on the fire escape between sessions, I sometimes see Brian and his mom walking down Main Street--it's clear, even from the height of the fire escape, she is his mom. They never go into the gallery, but that's probably a good thing. I'm not afraid I'd fuck it up. It's just what would I say to Brian's mom in front of Brian?
"Now that was a hard pose. My ass kept falling asleep."
It's quiet in my house now. All the freight trains that pass in the night have passed. Mom and Mister Hernia are asleep on the couch. Nic is sleeping with me. I don't sleep much, which is a good thing. I always get my homework done.
Everyone in Macbeth who needs to die has, and it's just the wrap-up left.
Six o'clock on a Friday morning our house normally sounds like:
Plus, maybe, mom's boyfriend colliding with a wall after a long piss.
This morning is different. The radio is on in the kitchen. I hear frying. I hear the thump of mom's rubber-bottom cane on the linoleum as she beats along to the music. She cracks eggs on a pan. The toaster pops, startling her--her cane misses a beat. The heater is on, for once, and I'm thirsty, but I don't move because it all smells so homey and meaty and warm, so obscene.
Since when do we have eggs in this house? Since when do we have bacon?
I fell asleep with my face in Macbeth. I still have my face in it. The huge lines of print look like deep tillage for-
Since when do we have hash browns?
The pages against my cheek are damp because Nic, who also slept on the book, has night sweats. I like to think it's because she has good dreams, but probably she's diabetic. As if we could afford insulin. When I close the book, there's a wave where Banquo gets it. It smells like dog. I guess that fits.
Mom drops a dish. Sounds like a plate. She stomps the linoleum with her cane. Then she scrapes the plate into a metal dustpan and empties the pan into the trash. When she's done, she pours a cup of coffee and slurps it. She's probably wearing an apron, so the bacon doesn't melt her polyester robe when it spits.
As far as I'm aware--I'm pretty damn aware--I don't dream much. That's not to say I'm unimaginative. I'm plenty imaginative. But for the past week I've had this dream where I lose my legs from the knees down. I go to a ceramicist for replacements. I go to a mechanic. I get wooden legs from a carpenter, bread legs from a baker. I get the most beautiful blown glass legs--when I'm not wearing them, I fill them with freesia. Invariably something fucks me over. Rust. Termites. Mold. A rich tourist--from Connecticut, where else?--who wants my legs for a centerpiece. She beats me with her purse while her driver pries my calves from my knees with an ice scraper.
Jesus, how many eggs is mom cooking?
Mom recently dreamt that a giant asked her to slow dance in a field of boulders. Unsolicited, she told Mister Hernia about it. This was late last night, when they were getting up from the couch. By giant, she meant giant. In the dream, the sky is orange. The sun is in the west but the shadows of the boulders are angled wrong: they all point at her. The giant presents her with a corsage the size of a bus, made of orchids the size of armchairs. He sets the corsage down, it's like a tree collapsing--that's my simile. Mom climbs into the corsage so she can ride comfortably as the giant lifts her to his face. His breath smells like ass--mom's simile. A buzzard drops from the sky and lands in the corsage. Its tongue lolls and its eyes bleed. When mom knocks it out, it leaves a smear on the thick, ivory petals of the orchids.
"Dance with me," the giant says. The sun haloes his enormous head.
"How?" mom says. She looks up at him and sneezes. "How do I do it?"
Mister Hernia wondered what the hell was her point. I wondered too, and I'm not an imbecile. Poor mom. He must be a competent fuck, the trouble she's going through, prettying up the kitchen--she just swept up another broken plate. It doesn't hurt my feelings that the breakfast is for him. I have granola bars under my bed. I don't even like eggs. They smell.
I could storm in there--Where's my damn breakfast?--but that would push it over into the kind of TV where, in an hour, you're weeping into a sleeve of Chips Ahoy.
I should have called last night. Said fuck it and called--Hello, is this Brian?
And then what?
I decide to eat a granola bar. Then I read the nutrition facts.
You have to get out of bed sometime.
It won't make any difference how long I take, he'll be at the table all morning. He'll eat a lot. He'll want more coffee. He'll smoke. Mom, wearing high-heeled slippers with a cane, slicing a fucking banana into his cereal--watch, he won't even wash his face. Mom's stink all over him, and he won't even wash before he eats those eggs.
The light is gray and watery. I just want to take a shower.
Good morning, legs. Nice to see you again in this life.
Some girls my age look like women, bloated and saggy with stretch marks, but Brian said I look like a meerkat. We were reading a chapter on Africa in class, and there was a picture of a young meerkat gazing like a captain over the savanna. Brian nudged my arm: "That's you." After my shower, I give myself a quick inspection in the steamed-up window.
Okay. But a tough meerkat. A meerkat carved out of--something hard.
Mom's still cooking eggs. She must have cooked two dozen eggs already.
Rain, freezing rain, is falling. In the window, my stomach looks beaded. And then, as the steam clears, I notice tire tracks, new ones, barely filled with slush, sitting like a belt on my reflected hips. They are Mister Hernia's tracks. Mister Hernia's gone.
Mom's cane hangs on the oven door. The linoleum is smeared with ketchup and egg, and the whiskbroom is a clot of hash browns. I'm standing in the doorway but she's so busy she hasn't seen me. She hums as she breaks six eggs into a frying pan, scrambles them, and loads them onto a plate. She adds bacon, hash browns, ketchup--in the heat the ketchup bottle sweats. She frames the plate with triangles of toast. Holding it before her with one hand, she smiles. Then she opens her hand. The eggs and ketchup splatter up her shins. She laughs into her palm.
When she finally notices me her face falls. It really falls, into her hands.
"It's okay, mom," I say. "Let's sit down. I'm late but let's sit down. Are you thirsty?"
I touch the loose skin at the back of her arm. I bring my face close to her back--people do this with horses, when a horse is about to bolt. Her shoulder smells like Speed Stick. He must have held her as they fucked. At least he did that. Held her. She lifts her face from her palms and looks into them. In the center of each is a gray smudge the size of a silver dollar, from her mascara. She has a new tattoo on the underside of her right wrist. It's a lily.
"Mom," I say. "Mom, did you take anything? What did you take?"
A car pulls into the driveway. It's Maria, the school kitchen lady. I know that.
But what if it wasn't? What if it was--someone?
This someone and I, we could--I don't know, go out for pancakes. We could drive to Concord and get pancakes there. We could get carsick, stopping for pancakes, until we ran out of planet.
Then my brain downshifts.
"I'm going to school," I say. I take my hand from mom's arm. The sink is full of eggshells and dirty pans. As I'm drying my hands, something heavy hits the fridge a few inches from my head. It rolls in the ketchup. It's a grapefruit.
"I bought that for you," mom says. "Why didn't you eat it?"
She speaks loudly, with her whole mouth.
"It cost one dollar," mom says. "It's from Florida. I've been to Florida."
The heat is off. It's been off several minutes, I just noticed. In the cold light of the rainy morning, everything looks hard and permanent, like it's been glued in place, then shellacked.
Maria, the kitchen lady, honks in the driveway. Mom's hands fly to her hair--
"Mom, it isn't him. It's Maria. It's my ride to school."
You know where you tell someone to go fuck herself and she dies before you can take it back? I almost completely disbelieve in that. So I tell mom I love her. I make sure she hears it.
Brian is in my first period art class. He's in the room when I get there, at the window, watching the buses unload. His project, a clay bust of me, is already out on a table. My wire sculpture is also out, and my tools--he does this for me so I'll have the best tools. He's the only one around and he hasn't heard me yet, so I stand quietly in the doorway for a minute. It's nice to see him. He looks like his normal self: black boots, black jeans, black turtleneck--he's seventeen, and he wears black turtlenecks. His skin, in the weak light, looks so clean. When he turns around his eyes focus on me briefly before darting to the hall to see who else is coming.
Miss Szilveszter usually shows films while we work. You have to give it to her, she does try, but her choices are misguided. I like Miss Szilveszter. She doesn't wear dumb jewelry or too much purple, and because she's foreign and unhappy she's kind to Brian. But it's irritating that she doesn't see things coming. Last week she showed a film about Constantin Brancusi, and was completely blindsided by the Bran-Pussy joke.
Today the film is about an artist who grows gourds in the shapes of famous sculptures. First he procures a high-quality replica. Next he makes a plaster mold of the replica. When the plaster sets he forces an infant gourd through an opening at the bottom of the mold. As the gourd grows it fills the cavity left by the original. He demonstrates this technique using a miniature Venus de Milo. The level of detail is--well I don't believe in being amazed, especially over gourds. But those are some nipples.
"Jesus," Brian mutters. "You wonder what kind of porn that guy watches."
"Maternity porn," I say. "No question."
"I was thinking vegetable strap-ons. But I like your idea better."
"I like yours. Think of the fortune he'd make growing dildos."
"Do you think he's ever cast his own--actually, don't answer that," Brian says. "Don't move." He squints at a place just below my left ear, where my jaw and neck meet. He leans in. I'm wearing these dangly earrings I inherited from Grandma--she knew mom would sell them. With the handle of his modeling tool, Brian pulls a piece of my hair out of the earring then lifts the earring away from my neck. He sighs through his nose. I feel it on my cheek.
"Man, you are too complicated," he says.
"Can I get back to work?"
"In a minute," he says. "I need to get this part right."
He traces the angle of my jaw with the handle of his modeling tool.
"You know what might help?" I say.
"You not talking would be the biggest help."
He turns and places his hands on the clay neck of the bust. His fingers reach the base of the skull, where my hair is soft. He stares at me as he moves his hands over the clay. He slides his thumb down the clay throat, and I swallow.
He turns back to the bust. With a scraping tool, he deepens the hollow at the base of the throat, then buffs the surface of the clay with his thumb. He sits back and smiles at the bust. It's almost like being smiled at.
One day Brian will be able to ruin a woman's life. He will matter that much to her.
I ask him if he's ever wanted to hurt someone on purpose.
"Emotionally or physically?" he says.
"Not on purpose, no."
"If you decided you were going to--how would you decide to do that?"
"I don't hurt people."
"Pretend it's for a class. Ten things you'd consider when deciding how to hurt."
In the film, Mister Gourd runs his farmer's hand over Venus's wrist-sized, vegetable waist. Brian presses his thumb into the clay beneath the jaw.
"If you're looking for a pulse," I say.
"I thought I asked you not to talk."
Brian finds me during lunch. I'm in the art room because, modeling for the bust, I've gotten squat done on my own project. He hands me a piece of paper and sits down. As I read, he bends a scrap of copper wire with a pair of needle nose pliers.
Ten Things I Consider When Deciding How To Hurt:
1. Stay away from kids.
2. Don't hurt the aged or bona fide idiots.
3. You can't get back at the dead.
4. Or God.
5. Be sober when deciding as well as when hurting.
6. Don't mistake the need to hurt for a bad case of the blues.
7. It may be helpful to fast or go without sleep for a day.
8. Shouldn't be preemptive.
9. Or masturbatory.
10. Hurting and wounding are not the same thing. Nor is one a subclass of the other. A duck is a bird with a heavy body and short legs. A whale is a mammiform animal without hind feet. Although both spend a lot of time in water, they are not the same creature. A whale could eat you if it wanted.
"I didn't put this down," he adds, "but I'd feel less comfortable hurting a girl."
He looks at my wire figurine. I'm stuck on the head. I'm thinking of leaving it headless. Or affixing a knot of wire with a grape in it. In a few days the grape would fester--everyone's head has some kind of ooze in it. But I'd get a bad grade. While I was reading, Brian made a pair of lips with the copper wire. They're really good.
"Thanks," Brian says. "I've also been thinking--this really isn't about hurting but kind of." He lifts the wireman and holds it, pinched between his thumb and index finger, so that it is standing on the desk. He shuffles the wireman around the desk for a couple of seconds. Then he says, "Do you ever want to hang a big weight in someone's life? To see how they counterweigh you? I guess you could learn a lot by how a person counterweighs you in their life."
Grandpa was stationed in Mallorca during the war, and he bought these earrings from a gypsy. She's probably dead now, but I'll bet she was pretty, and I'll bet Grandpa ripped her off anyway. I don't know what to say about Brian's list or question, so I take out one of my earrings and hang it on the wireman's belt.
I say, "How's that for a big weight?"
Brian laughs, but the way you do when someone hits you for fun, too hard.
And as I watch him looking, it occurs to me: Brian thinks the wireman is him.
He's telling me Miss Szilveszter lets him bring tools home. He has a truck. He has a garage, a heated garage. If I want help with the head--but he understands if I'm busy.
"Tonight?" I say.
"If you have time."
I pick the earring off the belt. Brian turns his face away as I stretch my earlobe and push the post of the earring through the hole.
When I call mom to let her know she's on her own for the night, I hear sleep in her voice. It's four o'clock in the afternoon.
"I just had a dream," mom says. "You were in the bathtub. There was blood on your forehead, and in the soap dish. I tried to wipe it up with a towel, but the blood kept coming out of your forehead. You were alive, but you weren't talking. Not a damn word. So I couldn't talk. Neither of us talked. Everything was real bright and slow. I just kept wiping out the soap dish while you floated, bleeding from your head."
"It's okay," I say. "It was only a dream."
Mom says, "You were wearing a flannel shirt. You don't own flannel shirts." She pauses to yawn. Then she says, "I think you'd been shot. By whoever gave you the shirt." She sniffles into the receiver. "I feel bad," she says.
"You know what might make you feel better? Some citrus."
She sniffles again. I hear her wipe her nose. On the sleeve of her robe, probably.
"Citrus?" she says.
"Definitely. Have a grapefruit and a big glass of water."
She thinks for a few seconds.
"Your hair looked pretty this morning," she says. "That's one thing men love on a woman, long hair. And meatloaf, they love that too."
"They love meatloaf on a woman?"
She does some more thinking. Ninety percent of the time mom's incapable of making a point. Eventually, she gives up on whatever it was.
"I fucking hate grapefruits," she says.
We don't make it to Brian's heated garage, but it isn't my fault. We almost make it. After school Brian and I do some driving around, not touching each other except once when I poke him in the leg with a pen and another time when we both reach for the bag of Swedish Fish, not talking much either but that's okay, this being new territory for him--I'm pretty sure, the way he hugs his door, Brian's never had a girl in this truck. He's skittish in predictable ways I don't violate. He offers to put some music on, and I tell him his taste in music is good. This perks him up a whole lot. But when we pull into his street and there's his house, lit up in the early dusk like a ship, Brian hits the brakes and says, "Jesus, they're home," and the whole thing sours just like that.
"They told me they were going out," Brian says. "They said that this morning."
There are two windows at the front of the house. Curtains have been drawn over one. They glow like a cheek stretched over a flashlight. Through the uncurtained window, we can see Brian's mom standing over a chest of drawers, her back to us, sifting through a jewelry box. She's wearing a slip that's too big for her, and her hair is twisted up in a pink towel. We watch her pick thing after thing from the jewelry box and hold it up to a floor lamp. She's doing this quiet dance with her hips. When she finds a pair of earrings she likes, she twirls as she puts them on. In the butterfat light of the bedroom, swimming in her too-loose slip, her eyes now closed and her lips moving, she looks--
"She looks like she's wearing a giant shrimp on her head," Brian says.
In a different part of the house a light goes off. A few seconds later, Brian's dad--I assume it's Brian's dad--enters the room, sits on the bed, and looks at Brian's mom, who has stopped twirling and now stands facing him with her arms at her sides. It's comfortable in Brian's truck. He has a strong heater, and I wasn't kidding when I said I liked his music, and the mint he's sucking makes the air sweet. As I watch Brian's dad open his arms to Brian's mom I can't help thinking this is a nice place to be. But Brian's mom doesn't enter the arms. She turns back to the jewelry box and starts holding things up to the lamp again. Her back is lean and straight. Her neck curves like the throat of a vase. We watch Brian's dad plant his face into his hands. I ask Brian if everything's okay, and he says it beats the crap out of him.
"I meant you," I say. "Are you okay?"
"I'm pretty clearly one of two things," he says. "Okay. Not okay." He rolls the mint around in his mouth. "Either you know it, you'll figure it out," he says, "or you'll get bored and flip a coin."
The dad is on his feet now. He turns off the bedside lamp, then crosses the room and turns off the floor lamp. In the new dimness, we can still see them clearly as they circle each other like raccoons meeting by chance behind a dumpster--I'm sorry, was this your dumpster?--until then one of them finally gets a clue and shuts the other set of curtains.
Brian's quiet as he drives us out of his neighborhood and back toward town. The tape we're listening to finishes, and he doesn't put another one in. After a while I turn on the radio. It's the time of year when the man on the radio thinks everyone also doubts his existence. The press of old snow, the loud glare of the moon, sleet-downed power lines, heaving roads, eczema and a rotten-potato smell in his boots--it's all getting to the man on the radio, and because nothing goes better with white noise than distortion he's only playing industrial metal.
"Fuck this," Brian says after a few minutes. He turns the radio off. We pass a field with about twelve broken-down cars in it. We pass a church with a hand-painted sign that says Dogs are animals. There are no rocks in heaven either. We pass something large and dead on the road.
"Look," Brian says. "Someone's dog."
I reach under the seat for the box of tools and pull out a pair of scissors and a piece of paper. I fold the paper into an arrow and snip at it for a while, then open it and spread it on the dashboard. I put the scissors in my pocket.
"In case you are not having the best time I made you this snowflake," I say.
We drive in silence for a couple more miles. Then Brian says, "I'm tired."
Then he says, "By tired I mean--I mean in case you thought some other thing."
"What other thing?" I say.
He shrugs. "Like ready for bed or something. Like a come-on."
"That didn't even occur to me, so don't worry," I say. "I figure you'd go about it a lot better if that's what you were getting at. Not while driving this truck, for example."
I put my hand on the back of Brian's head and comb my fingers through his hair like I'm searching for the switch or button that will spring the locked cabinet of some ancient biological gift for stupidity, and he looks at himself in the rearview mirror as if making sure that really is my hand in his hair and not just a wish made physical. He glances at me without smiling, like my face is a list pinned to a wall, a list not of names but of nerves.
To ease the wait as Brian figures out what's going to happen now, I tell a story. I once lost two teeth in the lobby of a hospital while mom was getting her leg worked on. I was six, the lobby was burgundy, and my mouth was falling all over my shirt. Dad gave me half of his muffin to blot my gums. He was drinking something from a travel mug while eyeing a woman who paced chewing her thumb. When she began eating her hair, dad offered her the other half of his muffin. In her hand were pictures of boys, smiling bald boys with pale lips. I kept telling dad I was thirsty, but he didn't hear because of the woman, so I fainted briefly into a potted plant. When I came to, the woman was standing over me, fanning my face with the pamphlets.
"She's fine," dad said. "It's just her teeth. How are you?"
"Not good," the woman said. And then she said something about her niece, niece and God, fairness and hair, and how the hell do you explain chemo to a little girl?
Dad took a drink from his mug. "You can't," he said. "Anymore than I can explain why I'm looking at you and thinking could we be happy together? Because all of the time, no matter who it is, the answer is no."
We pass an old apple orchard. Its leafless, fruitless trees, thick-bodied and dark, remind me of Joan of Arc--a whole field of Joans--which is weird because normally when I look at trees I think, The earth mainlines light via trees. The world will end in an overdose of light. A scrap of cloud covers the moon, and the moon turns the cloud into a bruise. Everything I want to say to Brian is the wrong thing. I wish my mom didn't have a cane.
"You want to see some baby animals?" Brian says. "I know a barn in Putney we can break into where there are lots of baby animals. We can pet them and stuff. Or we can go to Shelburne Falls. You'll like it. There's this dam and under the dam there are all these glacial potholes the size of bathtubs. We can climb down there and build a fire." He smiles at the road. "There are ghosts in the potholes," he says. "Of people who jumped from the dam. I'll tell you about them when we get there."
"Can we stop for some marshmallows?" I say. "To feed these sad ghosts?"
But we don't make it to the potholes either. This is my fault, partially, though it's also true that when we finally get to Shelburne Falls we can't go down into the river bed because they've released the dam to relieve the pressure from this morning's rain and other melt water. On our way there, just outside of Greenfield, I see this four-story steel tower with a gift shop underneath. It's called The Long View. According to the sign you can see Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts from the top.
If you make it to the top. The tower's rusted in places, its paint is barely hanging on, and it lists slightly downhill like a giraffe about to kneel. Basically, it looks like a dare.
Not a dare: an opinion.
You have nothing to lose, observes The Long View.
But your breath.
"You want to see the states?" Brian says. He's looking over me at The Long View. Some thought, a big one, is pressing up on the veins of his forehead.
"I don't think so," I say.
"Are you afraid of heights or something?"
"If I'm honest I might be afraid of being pushed."
And Brian gives me this look that is like hearing a joke in a foreign language.
I'm smart. I know that about myself. That thing Brian said earlier about hanging a weight in someone's life. The heated garage, no one around. People leaping from a dam. Now the tower.
Brian plans to die tonight. We're on plan number three. I am in all of the plans.
There's a chain blocking the path to the tower and a gate at the tower's base. Brian helps me over the chain and opens the gate for me. He takes my hand. We start climbing like that, holding hands. The stairs are ice-glazed. When we get to the first landing, I see snow on the roof of the gift shop. We pause, and Brian slips his arm around my waist.
Then a little boy runs out of the shop.
"You're not supposed to go up there," he says. He ducks under the chain, jumps the gate, and begins climbing the stairs after us. He is about ten, and he has a four-inch blonde Mohawk. Brian meets him halfway down and holds out his hand. The boy takes it. His name is Pete.
"Cool hair, Pete," Brian says. "Can my friend touch it?"
I climb down to where they're standing. I almost fall once.
"Do it like this," Pete says. He takes my wrist and guides my hand over his ridgeline of hair. He looks up at me and grins. He smells like cigarettes.
"I've had it forever," he says.
Brian says, "So, Pete, do you want to show us how to get to the top?"
Pete can't. His mom says he can't. His mom says no one can. Ice.
I say, "Can my friend Brian touch your hair?"
Pete lets Brian touch his hair, but he doesn't help, he just stands there looking up at me. I ask him how much it costs to go to the top.
"Dollar," he says.
"Gosh, and I only have five dollars." I pull a five-dollar bill from my pocket and hold it out. He takes it but leaves his hand half-extended like he's waiting for a better deal or he's still thinking over whether five dollars and our company is worth being punished: some yelling, a smack upside the head, no cartoons. He looks back at the shop. A blue light flickers in the back room. His mom is watching Wheel of Fortune. I can hear the wheel.
"Hang on," Brian says. He reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a Polaroid camera--what he has planned for that I have no idea--and tells me to put my arm around Pete. When the film comes out he shows Pete how to shake it. In the picture, I look skeptical and Pete looks scared. I don't care what I look like but it bothers Pete that he looks scared.
"What if we went really quietly?" Brian says.
The states all look exactly the same. Pete points them out to us. I'm pretty sure he's making it up because he tells it differently each time I ask. Not that it matters. It's too dark to see much other than neon signs and headlights. Anyway, it's just land.
And where's his house?
Under our feet, he lives in the shop.
But his dad's house is over there, next to the Shell station.
And Pete's girlfriend? Where does she live?
"Where do you live?" Pete says.
It's pretty windy up here. Brian seems unable to touch me with Pete around so I'm on my own as far as hugs go.
"Are you okay?" Pete says to me.
"I could use a hot beverage right about now, actually."
"We've got Swiss Miss in shop," he says. "You wait. I'll bring you some. I guess you'll want some too," he says to Brian. "I think we have enough cups."
When I can't hear the bang of Pete's sneakers on the metal stairs of the tower anymore, I walk over to the rail--it is just a rail, no siding or chicken wire or anything else to hold you. After a minute or so, Brian touches my back, softly, between my shoulder blades. We look out over the states together. Then I look down. He looks too. We bend over the rail a little. His hand grows heavier.
People are always looking for bodies. You get lonely in a place where winter is long and there are so many old trees. You need a warm thing to lean against sometimes. You want to know if what hurts you hurts the same for everyone else, you want to know if it can hurt more. But it's not only live ones people look for. They look for the dead, the bodies of the dead. They look at photographs. They look at paintings. They slow down when they feel death coming in a book. When they get to the body, they crack open each word like a pistachio. You can't hate people for doing this. I mean I do it too.
But I've seen a real body. I was there when some guy--I think he was called Josh or approximately Josh--found Angie's halfsister in that car. I'd followed him from the hoagie joint to where the Ashuelot River grows thick and slow because I liked his laugh and it was sunny out and I was fifteen and bored. He whistled something happy as he walked up to the car and when he opened the door he kept whistling the same tune but it was like watching an old guy walk an empty leash. When dying, Angie's half-sister had smeared her face along the window before wedging it into the space between the headrest and the door. The sun was shining full on that window, and I could see the holes of her eye sockets in the smear. I don't remember walking up to the car or what Josh, who is now also dead, might have said to me before running into the woods, if he said, "You never saw me here. I was not here."
What I remember is how heavy the half-sister looked for so thin a girl. She was wearing a green bikini, and her skin was still filmed with sweat. Her hipbones were bruised like she'd been screwed against a table. There was this yellowish, lumpy knob, like the end of a spent candle, where her ear should've been. It was ugly, so I stared at it for a long time. It was ugly because it was part of her. She held a blue silk shirt that was discolored in the armpits, and the sweat from her hand had made a dark flower on the stomach. I took the shirt and wiped the smear from the window because I couldn't stand for Angie to see it. Then I threw the shirt into the river and went home.
What was the last thing she felt? It seems like the right thing to wonder about now. The softness of the shirt, the hot glass on her cheek, the seatbelt clasp poking into her thigh, a drop of water falling from her chin onto her chest, or something else I have no idea about? You're always near things like this, it just matters which way your head is turned.
All this is to say I don't have a great life. With the crap I've seen, things occur to me--out of nowhere sometimes--I wish didn't. But I've never been near suicide before. If someone asked me where in Suicide you could get a cup of coffee, a newspaper, where you could pray, I wouldn't be able to help. I turn my head and look at Brian, whose face is so close his nose hits me in the cheek. And I feel myself getting sadder and sadder and not the least bit in love. I like Brian. I don't really like that many people. Could we be happy together? Maybe. I haven't lived very long so I don't have a lot to go on when it comes to making those kinds of judgments. But I'm thinking if Brian's trying to die, even slightly, I should probably help. Make it nice. Make him comfortable and all. For Angie's half-sister, all alone in that car--I later found out that whoever bruised her might've saved her life, and I'm pretty sure it was approximately Josh, who wouldn't tell you the truth even if he wasn't dead, even if it saved a family, a town, a fucking million lives--it wasn't nice, you could tell by that wide-eyed smear screaming all the way down that window.
Do I want to hang a big weight in someone's life? Could I want that?
What I think is you have to be pretty dumb to just chuck yourself at someone. Because what if? What if someone won't counterweigh you? What if your timing's bad, or you pick the wrong someone? Or what if your timing and someone are right, but something's gone slippery in both your lives and it's like clutching at a soaped fish? A mess of what ifs. And, at the basement level, what if there is no counterweight for you? I keep trying to imagine what my counterweight could look like, but about the only thing that comes to mind is a small, moon-flooded room with a pile of keys in the middle of the floor and some boot prints that pass through the embrace of a pair of andirons into the ashdrifts of a hearth.
I have no idea what that's about. I read a lot. I probably read it somewhere.
The Long View stands on an overhang, which adds three stories to the drop. There aren't any trees at the bottom, just clean rocks of different shapes with snow in the gaps between them.
"We should probably do this now," I say. "I don't want Pete seeing this."
"Here?" Brian says, close to my ear. "Right now?"
"Might as well."
Brian steps back as I throw one leg over the rail. I sit astride the rail for a minute, watching my foot swing in the clear air. I think pretty soon I'll stop having those dreams about bread legs and basket legs and legs made out of glass with taps on the sides for milk and Hershey's syrup because my whole body will have to be replaced via dreaming and I won't be around to do it. Then I notice Brian hasn't moved.
I say, "Are you coming or what?"
He stays where he is. "I'm not sure I understand what's going on," he says.
"We're going over now," I say. "Over and--you know, down."
He puts his hands in his pockets.
"Come on," I say. "Pete will be back soon." When Brian doesn't move, I climb off the rail, walk over to him, and take his arm. He still won't move. I pull his arm. I grab his coat and pull harder, but he slips out of the coat so I throw the coat over the rail and go for his hair.
"We're going," I say, pulling him by the head toward the rail.
"Jesus," he says. "Stop it already. This isn't funny."
I give his hair a good yank. He falls into me and I catch him--he's skinny, it's like I'm hugging my own knees. I get him up against the rail and force his head over it.
"I can see your coat," I say. "Can you see it? It's on the rock that looks like a bear."
He digs his elbow into my chest and gets his knee on the rail, but I have one hand on the waist of his pants and my other hand on the back of his head. I get his torso over the rail.
"We're going," I say again. I hike my hips up onto the rail and grab him by the waist and twist him around so he's almost sitting on my lap. I start to tip. I let my head fall back. I feel us begin to go. My stomach gets light, and I relax a little bit so I can enjoy it. But Brian gets a hand free and grabs the rail, then he gets a leg free and--I don't know how--hooks it around my ribs and the next thing I know we're facedown on the platform. The scissors in my pocket clank against the metal. Before I can move, Brian turns me over and sits on my chest. I try to buck him off. I try to kick him. I spit at him but he's riding my chest so I can't get the spit beyond his knee. Then I get tired.
"Are you done yet?" he says.
"Yeah, I'm done."
"Good," he says. "I knew you were crazy but--I mean, Jesus."
He starts drumming his thumbs against my collarbones.
"What's on your mind?" I say.
I concentrate on the rhythm he's playing with his thumbs. I start to sing along.
"No," he says. "That's not it at all."
"You hate me."
"Nope. Very wrong. "
I fight a little more. The moon stares at me over his shoulder. Then I calm down for good.
"Are you sure you're done?"
"I'm sure," I say.
"Okay," he says. He taps my collarbones with his thumbs.
"The way I see it," he says, "you went nuts for a minute and you just happened to be in a bad setting. Warn me next time you feel a fit coming on and I'll tackle you right away." He sighs. "I kind of wish you hadn't thrown my coat, though."
"Sorry. I'll give you some money."
"Don't worry about it."
"It's no problem."
"Don't bother. Winter's almost over. Buy me something else if you want."
"You pick. Nothing alive."
He shifts his butt off my chest. His knee knocks the scissors out of my pocket.
"Did you have some plans for those?" he says.
"No plans. Unless you want to cut my hair or something."
He picks up the scissors and turns them so they throw shards of moonlight across the platform.
Could we be happy together, Brian?
If I was, like, nicer, could we be happy? If I kept our house clean and cooked well and, who knows, made us a kid or something, and you went to college and found a job and got us out of this land of cracked roads and frozen trash--could we be happy?
I know it's an iffy request, Brian. That's why I'm not making it out loud.
He reaches down and helps me sit up. He touches my chin with his thumb and holds me there a second. Then he reaches behind my neck and pulls my hair forward.
"Yeah, I kind of want to," he says.
So I let Brian cut my hair. He starts by twisting it all into a hank and shearing it off at the base of my skull. He picks it up and throws it over the rail. Then, beginning at the crown of my head, he pinches up sections and snips them off an inch from my scalp. My hair falls in chunks around us on the platform and blows away--neither of us tries to gather it up. Then he begins to clean up the back of my head. He's not good at this, but he is thorough. And he doesn't say anything at all, he just cuts and cuts. I don't say anything either. He is now cutting less than an inch from my scalp. He cuts the hair around my ears. He cuts my neck and doesn't apologize. I keep still, staring out at Massachusetts or New Hampshire or Vermont or wherever, listening to the grate of the scissors. My hands grow furry with hair. A tiny piece falls onto my bottom lip, and I leave it there. A chill has taken over my hips from sitting so long on the metal platform. Brian keeps snipping all over my scalp, randomly, like a bird snacking on a sandwich. I think now he is just making the sound in the air, a spell, making me a new different thing: his thing. And through the sharp music of this scissor spell, I hear Brian humming, a deep round hum, and then I notice other music, shrill, coming from the tower as the wind rips through it. And my mind goes further down, deep below the rocks where Brian's jacket is, and I imagine I hear the sun humming its way over Russia like a nectarine ripening on the dashboard of God's celestial Cadillac. I feel the press of Brian's hips on my upper back, and I lean into him. He stops snipping. I rest the back of my head against his belly. He puts the scissors down and places his hands in whatever hair I still have. He rubs my eyebrows with his middle fingers.
"I like your earrings," he says. "You look European."
"I'm learning French. I'm pretty bad at it, though."
"We should make up a language and tell people we're from Liechtenstein."
"Who the fuck knows what they speak in Liechtenstein, right?"
"Exactly. I think they speak German. But, like, ten people around here know that."
What would make a good temporary ending here is a snowstorm: small, delicate, frozen things falling lighter than sneezes in the background while I wait for Brian to finish cutting my hair. Falling, but not breaking, just joining up to make a new big white all around us. Which won't last, but will make everything look clean, at least for a couple of hours.
But I hear Pete's sneakers on the stairs. Already Brian's pocketing the scissors and backing away, away from this thing we made, on this frozen platform, wide open to the night. A thing he can't explain, and I can't back away from. It's my head.
Anyway, it's late March, and it probably won't snow anymore this year. That's pretty much okay with me. I mean what can I do about it? What can anybody do?
MEREDITH MARTINEZ has an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College. Her poems have appeared in Contrary Magazine and Dzanc Books' 2010 Best of the Web anthology. She lives in Phoenix, and is finishing her first novel.