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Authors: Melanie Rae Thon

In This Light (12 page)

BOOK: In This Light
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Then I was a girl, twelve years old, too big for my father’s lap. I dove from the cliffs into the lake. I told myself the shapes waffling near the bottom were only stones.

I played a game in the woods with my friend Jean. We shot each other with sticks and fell down in the snow. We lay side by side, not breathing. My chest felt brittle as glass. If I touched my ribs, I thought I’d splinter in the cold. The first one to move was the guilty father. The first one to speak had to beg forgiveness of the dead son.

I worked for the doctor’s wife now. My mother’s words hissed against those walls. I knew the shame she felt, how she hated that house, seeing it so close, getting down on her knees to wax its floors, how she thought it was wrong for an old man like my father to shovel a young man’s snow.

But Daddy was glad the snow belonged to someone else. That doctor had nothing my father wanted to own. He said,
The cherry trees, they break your heart.
He meant something always went wrong: thunderstorms in July; cold wind from Canada; drought. I remember hail falling like a rain of stones, ripe fruit torn from trees. I remember brilliant sunlight after the storm, glowing ice and purple cherries splattered on the ground. My father knelt in the orchard, trying to gather the fruit that was still whole.

Then I was sixteen, almost a woman. I went to public school. I knew everything now. I refused to go to mass with my father. I said I believed in Jesus but not in God. I said if the father had seen what he’d done to his child, he would have turned the gun on himself. I thought of the nuns, my small hands, the sting of wood across my palms. I remembered their habits, rustling cloth, those sounds, murmurs above me, that false pity,
poor child
, how they judged me for what my mother had done.

I knew now why my mother had to go. How she must have despised the clump and drag of my father’s steps in the hall, the weight of him at the table, the slope of his shoulders, the sorrow of his smell too close. He couldn’t dance. Never drank. Old man, she said, and he was. Smoking was his only vice, Lucky Strikes, two packs a day, minus the ones I stole.

He tried not to look at me too hard. I was like her. He saw Noelle when I crossed my legs or lit my cigarette from a flame on the stove.

He gave me what I wanted—the keys to his truck, money for gas and movies, money for mascara, a down vest, a cotton blouse so light it felt like gauze. He thought if I had these things I wouldn’t be tempted to steal. He thought I wouldn’t envy the doctor’s wife for her ruby earrings or her tiny cups rimmed with gold. Still, I took things from her, small things she didn’t need: a letter opener with a silver blade and a handle carved of bone; a silk camisole; oily beads of soap that dissolved in my bathwater and smelled of lilac. I lay in the tub, dizzy with myself. The dangerous knife lay hidden, wrapped in underwear at the bottom of my drawer. Next to my skin, the ivory silk of the camisole was soft and forbidden, everything in me my father couldn’t control.

The same boys who’d chased me down the gully took me and Jean to the drive-in movies in their Mustangs and Darts. Those altar boys and thieves who’d stolen my butterfly barrette pleaded with me now:
Just once, Ada—I promise I won’t tell.

I heard Jean in the backseat, going too far.

Afterward, I held her tight and rocked. Her skin smelled of sweet wine. I said,
You’ll be okay. I promise, you will.

I am a woman now, remembering. I live in a trailer, smaller than my father’s cottage. I am his daughter after all: there’s nothing I want to own. I drive an old Ford. I keep a pint of whiskey in the glovebox, two nips of tequila in my purse. I don’t think I know as much as I used to know. I sit in the car with my lights off and watch my father, the slow shape of him swimming through the murky light of his little house. He’s no longer fat and thin. It scares me, the way he is thin alone. He’s had two heart attacks. His gallbladder and one testicle are gone. In January, the doctors in Spokane opened his chest to take pieces of his lungs. Still he smokes. He’s seventy-six. He says,
Why stop now?

I smoke too, watching him. I drink. I tell myself I’m too drunk to knock at the door, too drunk to drive home.

In the grass behind my father’s cottage, a green truck sits without tires, sinking into the ground. If I close my eyes and touch its fender, I can feel everything: each shard, the headlight shattering, the stained-glass windows bursting at last, the white feet of all the saints splintering, slicing through a man’s clothes.

Twenty-one years since that night, but if I lie down beside that truck, I can feel every stone of a black road.

Fourth of July, 1971. This is how the night began, with my small lies, with tepid bathwater and the smell of lilac— with ivory silk under ivory gauze—with the letter opener slipped in my purse. I was thinking of the gully long before, believing I was big enough to protect myself.

Jean and I knew other boys now. Boys who crashed parties in the borderlands at the edge of every town.

I asked my father for the truck. I promised:
Jean’s house, then up the lake to Bigfork to see the fireworks and nowhere else.
I said,
Yes, straight home.
I twisted my hair around my finger, remembering my mother in a yellow dress, lying to my father and me, standing just like this, all her weight on one foot, leaning against the frame of this door.

We drove south instead of north. A week before, two boys in a parking lot had offered rum and let us sit in the backseat of their car. They said,
Come to the reservation if you want to see real fireworks.

We scrambled down a gulch to a pond. Dusk already and there were maybe forty kids at the shore.

We were white girls, the only ones.

Jean had three six-packs, two to drink and one to share. I had a pint of vodka and a quart of orange juice, a jar to shake them up. But the Indian kids were drinking pink gasoline—Hawaiian Punch and ethanol—chasing it down with bottles of Thunderbird. They had boxes full of firecrackers, homemade rockets and shooting stars. They had crazyhorses that streaked across the sky. Crazy, they said, because they fooled you every time: you never knew where they were going to go.

The sky sparked. Stars fell into the pond and sizzled out. We looked for the boys, the ones who’d invited us, but there were too many dressed the same, in blue jeans and plaid shirts, too many cowboy hats pulled down.

One boy hung on to a torch until his whole body glowed. I saw white teeth, slash of red shirt, denim jacket open down the front. I thought,
He wants to burn.
But he whooped, tossed the flare in time. It spiraled toward the pond, shooting flames back into the boxes up the shore. Firecrackers popped like guns; red comets soared; crazy-horses zigzagged along the beach, across the water, into the crowd.

The boy was gone.

In the blasts of light, I saw fragments of bodies, scorched earth, people running up the hill, people falling, arms and legs in the flickering grass, one hand raised, three heads rolling, and then the strangest noise: giggles rippling, a chorus of girls.

They called to the boy, their voices like their laughter, a thin, fluttery sound.
They sang his name across the water.

Then I was lying in the grass with that boy. Cold stars swirled in the hole of the sky. In the weird silence, bodies mended; bodies became shape and shadow; pieces were found. Flame became pink gasoline guzzled down. Gunfire turned to curse and moan.

This boy was the only one I wanted, the brave one, the crazy one, the one who blazed out. He rose up from the water, red shirt soaked, jacket torn off. I said,
You were something
, and he sat down. Now I was wet too, my clothes and hair dripping, as if he’d taken me into the sky, as if we’d both fallen into the pond.

I whispered his name,
, hummed it like the girls, but soft. He said,
Call me Yellow Dog.

My purse was gone, the letter opener and my keys lost. The boy kept drinking that pink gasoline and I wondered how he’d die, if he’d go blind on ethanol or catch fire and drown. I’d heard stories my whole life. The Indians were always killing themselves: leaping off bridges, inhaling ammonia, stepping in front of trucks. Barefoot girls with bruised faces wandered into the snow and lay down till the snow melted around them, till it froze hard.

But tonight this boy was strong.

Tonight this boy could not be killed by gas or flame or gun.

He had a stone in his pocket, small and smooth, like a bird’s egg and almost blue. He let me touch it. He said it got heavy sometimes. He said,
That’s when I watch my back— that’s how I know.
I kissed him. I put my tongue deep in his mouth. I said,
How much does it weigh now?
And he said,
Baby, it’s dragging me down.

My clothes dried stiff with mud. I remember grabbing his coarse braid, how it seemed alive, how I wanted it for myself. I thought I’d snip it off when he passed out. His hands were down my cutoff jeans. He knew my thoughts exactly. He whispered,
I’ll slit your throat.
I let his long hair go. His body on me was heavy now. I thought he must be afraid. I thought it must be the stone. He held me down in the dirt, pressed hard: he wanted to stop my breath; he wanted to squeeze the blood from my heart. I clutched his wrists. I said,

I imagined my father pacing the house, that sound in the hall. I heard my own lies spit back at me, felt them twist around bare skin, a burning rope.

I remember ramming my knee into the boy’s crotch, his yelp and curse, me rolling free. I called to Jean, heard her blurred answer rise up from distant ground.

I remember crawling, scraping my knees, feeling for my purse in the grass. Then he was on me, tugging at my unzipped jeans, wrenching my arm. He said,
I could break every bone.
But he didn’t. He stood up, this Niles, this Yellow Dog. He said,
Go home.

He was the one to find my purse. He took the letter opener, licked the silver blade, slid it under his belt. He dropped my keys beside me. He said,
I could have thrown these in the water.
He said,
I didn’t. You know why? Because I want your white ass gone.

When I looked up, the stars above him spun.

I yelled Jean’s name again. I said,
Are you okay?
And she said,
Fuck you—go.

I staggered up the hill. I saw my father at the kitchen table, his head in his hands. I heard every word of his prayers as if I were some terrible god. I felt that tightness in my chest, his body. I felt my left leg giving out.

I saw what he saw, my mother’s yellow dress, me standing in the door. I smelled his cigarettes. He said,
The cherry trees, they break your heart.

I drove up that road through the reservation, my mother’s laughter floating through the open windows of the truck. She made me dizzy, all that dancing—I felt myself pulled forward, twirled, pushed back, hard.

The lights of the steeple still burned. I was Noelle, the same kind of woman, a girl who couldn’t stand up by herself. I wanted to weep for my father. I wanted not to be drunk when I got home, not to smell of boy’s sweat, sulfur and crushed lilacs, mud. I wanted to stop feeling hair between my fingers, to stop feeling hands slipping under my clothes.

The dogs on the roof growled. All the white plaster deer surged toward the road. Wind on my face blew cold.

Past the Church of the Good Shepherd, a hundred pairs of eyes watched from the woods, all the living deer hidden between trees along this road. I practiced lies to tell when I got home. I thought, My mother and i, we’re blood and bone. I saw how every lie would be undone. I watched a dark man wrap his arms around my pale mother and spin her into a funnel of smoke.

Then he was there, that very man, rising up in a swirl of dust at the side of the road—a vision, a ghost, weaving in front of me. Then he was real, a body in dark clothes.

There was no time for a drunken girl to stop.

No time to lift my heavy foot from the gas.

I saw his body fly, then fall.

I saw the thickness of it, as if for a moment the whole night gathered in one place to become that man, my mother’s lover. A door opened at the back of a bar in Paradise. His body filled that space, so black even the stars went out.

I am a woman now, remembering. I am a woman drinking whiskey in a cold car, watching the lights in my father’s house. I am a woman who wants to open his door in time, to find her father there and tell.

Twenty-one years since I met Vincent Blew on that road, twenty-one years, and I swear, even now, when I touch my bare skin, when I smell lilacs, I can feel him, how warm he was, how his skin became my shadow, how I wear it still.

He was just another drunken Indian trying to find his way home. After he met me, he hid his body in the tall grass all night and the next day. Almost dusk before he was found. There was time for a smashed headlight to be reassembled. Time for a dented fender to be pounded out and dabbed with fresh green paint. Time for a girl to sober up. Time for lies to be retold. Here, behind my father’s cottage, I can feel the body of the truck, that fender, the edges of the paint, how it chipped and peeled, how the cracks filled with rust.

I waited for two men in boots and mirrored glasses to come for me, to take me to a room, close the door, to ask me questions in voices too low for my father to hear, to urge and probe, to promise no one would hurt me if I simply told the truth.

No hurt.

But no one asked.

And no one told.

I wanted them to come. I thought their questions would feel like love, that relentless desire to know.

I waited for them.

I’m waiting now.

I know the man on the road that night was not my mother’s lover. He was Vincent Blew. He was mine alone.

He lies down beside me in my narrow bed. I think it is the bed my father built. The smell of pine breaks my heart. He touches me in my sleep, traces the cage of my ribs. He says,
You remind me of somebody.
He wets one finger and carves a line down the center of my body, throat to crotch. He says,
This is the line only I can cross.
He lays his head in the hollow of my pelvis. He says,
Yes, I remember you, every bone.

BOOK: In This Light
3.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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