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Authors: Greg Jackson

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BOOK: Prodigals
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The hopeless things we want to know. I try again in the bookstore. I ask Amy, Why now? as though she can tell me something meaningful about where, in the fluid process, sentiment hardens into conviction, decision into action, or molten spirit into the rock of belief.

It wasn't like that, she says. It was like … You know when you're on the phone with someone you're into, and you don't even realize you're speaking in this weird, airy voice? It was like that. Like realizing I was speaking in a weird voice and stopping. Returning to my normal voice.

She looks at the open book in her lap. There is a little universe inside it, wonderfully still.

But how do you know? I say. How do you know which is which?

She considers this. I guess you don't, she says. One just feels more natural. Other answers begin to make more sense.

Uh-huh, I say. Uh-huh. And only now do I wonder: What is an answer? What satisfies us?

How did her parents take it, I ask. Dad threw up, she says. She stares straight ahead. But you know, we took the boat out the other night, just the two of us. We'd been fighting for days and we went out on the lake at dusk. We didn't say anything, just held hands. And I kept thinking, In a way I should be dead to him. If I'm serious, I should be a little dead. But we just sat there watching the mist rise off the lake.

I don't know what I saw then. What I see now is the twilit lake, soot clouds in the distance, sky that faint humid orange blur it could be some summer nights, a burning calico, heat rising from the water like the ghost life within it. I see Amy staring out into the dim luster at the edges of enveloping shadow, like out there somewhere are the small girls we once were, without a hard decision to our name, tottering happily after a mindless joy, and I think, Those poor, unready girls!

Are we ever prepared for the things we find ourselves incapable of agreeing to or helpless to pursue? Our twelfth-grade English teacher, Mr. Gerard, liked to say that you hate what reveals the part of you you hope to hide and love what reveals the heroic part of you looking for its cause. And who would say that, say a thing like that to teenagers, already riven with the bladelike purity of our desires? But we loved him for it, for telling us what we already believed.

Hey, guess what? I say. I stopped spelling my name with the
i
. You stopped … Amy looks at me, perplexed, her confusion melting slowly into a concerned and even delicate understanding. And as I watch it settle over her, I am brought back to the last Y.G. trip we took as seniors, when hiking in the Ozarks that hot, bright day, in the sunshine and scented air, I sensed my feelings for Amy slip into a higher register, on the order of righteousness or selfless virtue, when even the need of them, crippling and illicit—illicit in God's eyes—seemed to me as natural as the day itself, the trees and scattered light, the birds in the wind-shaken trees, when high in the mountains where the breeze swept the humidity from the air I confessed myself to Amy.

I love you too, Jessie, she said—that same look.

But no, no, you have come too far to be misunderstood. No, Amy, you say, and you explain.

And she listens, with patience and sympathy, so much it makes you
sick
. Because even then you know where these things stand next to lust.

(II)

A few years later I am moving to Baltimore—

No. Let's try something different. Step back, get outside my head. If Amy's reinventions make a mess of the perspective, shivering it glasslike in a cheap cubism, can we say that my constancy deserves no less? Can we grant that if there is no clean angle in on my friend, there isn't one in on me either? Yes? From the top then.

A few years later
Jesse
is moving to Baltimore.

How's that?

A short young woman stands in a hallway. She has just arrived. She wears her hair shorn close, a faint rip-curl at the front, a black tank top, shorts. Dirtied brass numbers call out the apartments, the corridor steeped in a residuum of cigarettes and takeout. It is summer, hot. She shrugs under the weight of her bags. Sweat blossoms on her body in the stillness. The woman who finally opens the door is Dot, she explains, Amy's roommate and a fellow student in the literature program. Amy will be back in a little bit. Jesse sets her stuff down, the duffel bag, the painting she made Amy as a gift. It is of a naked woman in the woods, wearing the bloodied head of a slaughtered stag. This is Jesse's idea of a joke.

Or no. She may not intend it as a joke. She may intend it as a provocation. She may intend it as a Serious Work of Art. We just can't say. These are the things the facts omit, the things you can't know from the outside.

Jesse and Amy last saw each other when Amy came home for Easter. That's a certifiable fact. They met for coffee and strolled through Retford until the rain came up and forced them under the gazebo on the green. It was very pretty there, the leaves of cloud admitting a flush of light into the rain.

Are you sure you want to be here? Amy said. Retford, I mean.

No, Jesse said. She told people she was there for her mother now that her father had left, but all she said to Amy was, No, I'm sure I don't.

I don't miss it, Amy said. I keep thinking I should, but I don't feel like myself here anymore. She watched Jesse light a cigarette. You're going to leave then?

The rain tapered, the sound of it hitting a bulkhead coming slower, heavier. A breeze picked up. Drops trembled everywhere in the wind. Jesse tapped the ash on the railing and shrugged. How's grad school?

Amazing, Amy said. No, really. It's like whole
worlds
have opened up.

You like it in Baltimore?

I do. Amy seemed to place the words at careful intervals on the air. She smiled. I like never having to explain myself.

It was after Amy left the church that Jesse returned to college and began tearing the last remnants of pretense from her life. At times she felt she had seen the tape of her childhood run backwards, until there the two of them were, frozen where they had begun. And if you ran the tape now would things unfold as they had before? You could lose a lot of time wondering. Better to leave it alone. Did people really change or were parts of them suppressed while other parts were allowed to grow? Jesse decided she didn't care—couldn't care. Fuck identity, fuck self-expression. Live, look, listen, be. Don't apologize. That most of all. This is what she tells Dot and Amy that first night in the Hampden dive.

It reminds me of this D. Z. Phillips thing, Dot says. How we need to move from a hermeneutics of suspicion to a hermeneutics of contemplation.

Uh-huh. And what on earth does that mean? says Jesse.

Dot blinks at her. He's talking about what it means to understand something, Amy says. Different modes of inquiry.

Modes of inquiry, Jesse says.

Yes, Amy says. How do we understand something? By picking it apart or considering it altogether? For example.

I don't understand anything, Jesse says. Starting with this conversation.

Yes, you do, says Amy.

Jesse smiles. No, I don't. It's nice of you to say, but I don't. Because where do you begin and end, right? There's that rubber spider above the bar. Okay. What's it doing there? You could say a lot of things. You could say they put it up for Halloween and kept it. You could say a child glued it together in Malaysia or wherever and it was shipped here to be sold in drugstores. You could say we find spiders creepy because they bite us, or look weird, I don't know, or that we think it's hip to put things where they don't belong for whatever reason. Or— You get the point.

But there you go, says Dot.

Where? says Jesse. I don't want to go anywhere. I'm tired.

Dot smiles. She'd do well in grad school.

No, sorry, Jesse says. No. I could never spend all that time worrying about what mode of inquiry I was using.

Don't you though already? says Amy. She stares into the Christmas lights that hang from the wall. I mean, I think about why I'm in grad school. I think, Here we are brought up being told all truth and meaning can be found in one book. What if I've just added lots of other books?

That's a bit glib, though, isn't it? says Dot.

Is it? I didn't mean it be.

Dot turns to Jesse. You were brought up religious too then?

Jesse finishes her beer. I think of it as a very narrow literary education, she says.

And they laugh—they laugh!—and Jesse would cast the world in bronze right then to keep it still.

Smoking outside she makes eyes with a tall woman. The woman has dark hair and broad pale cheeks. She holds Jesse's look a beat past comfort, turns, spits.

You don't do that so good, Jesse says, hacking up phlegm and spitting herself. The woman looks on behind impassive eyes. Boredom hungering after unlikely surprise. This is what Jesse sees dancing in the dark light of her pupil.

But I can spit farther, the woman says.

I'd like to see that.

They take turns spitting and spit until their mouths are dry. Tell me your name and I'll buy you a drink, Jesse says.

I'm not telling you my name.

I'll call you Randi then.

Fuck off, the woman says, smiling.

Jesse flicks her cigarette. Bye forever … Randi.

We were just saying how it's like that whole ‘religion without God' thing, Dot says when Jesse sits back down. You know, what's-his-name's?

No.

Oh, never mind.

Sorry, I don't mean to be an asshole. It just feels like intellectual masturbation to me.

So?

So I guess I never came jacking off that way.

Dot looks right at her. Oh yes, you have.

It is a flash like the unbending of time's clenched fist in which Jesse sees it, the hours laid out before her, half lost to the shadows of drink, some zealous making out in a doorframe, arms lifted to ease a passage of shirts, the emigration of clothes from body to floor, new skin—all that is waiting for them back home in a chapter of the night breached by visions. Cigarette smoke drifts in tendrils to the streetlamps. Midges play in the hot dirty air. And how many nights like this must a life contain, spent half waiting to be caught up in urgencies we can't invent?

But of course waking in Dot's bed the next morning, it is Amy Jesse imagines beside her, among the tangles of thrown sheet. If she could stop right then and disinvest Amy of demure mystery, the innuendo of beatitude, this would be a different story. A happier one perhaps, if she could rebuff the small imaginary production in which she rolls over to Amy—Amy asleep, with her head cradled in her arms, kinked hair falling at her shoulders, heavy, graceful curve of her ass to the ceiling—and kisses her shoulders, telling her she's sorry as she comes awake.

About what?

I acted like I didn't understand you last night when I did. I don't know why I did that.

And what had Amy said? There's a bit of cruelty in every judgment, don't you think? Don't you think every judgment enacts a kind of violence on the world?

Enacts violence on the world … Jesse had said, like she were confused, which she doesn't understand because of course she
knew
, of course she
thought
. When were we not violence to one another? Her father's ungiving silence, Amy's unreachable heart. Marissa in college, who after months of ardent fucking introduced Jesse to her parents as a friend. Jesse's mother, lit on wine, so
sad
, so
scared
Jesse would have no one to protect her and would never know the joy of having a family of her own.
This
sort of joy, Ma? Her mother was not a stupid or an ignorant woman. From within the grip of what elect delusion did she speak? Through the kaleidoscope of what half-turn disarrangement of truth?

But Jesse had pretended Amy had lost her.

How's your sex life? she'd said.

Ha, what sex life, Amy said.

And how funny now to think back to a night like that and remember that they had no idea what came next, that they sat in the bar happy enough to let the blank nothing of the future open out before them like a landscape in the process of being drawn. That in that moment, before the night collapsed into nothingness, into three still images perhaps, into itself and other nights just like it, they let themselves believe that for its very vividness, for its
particularity
, it might never end. But there was so much still to happen. This was before Amy had been touched or loved. Before her family shook apart after her father's affair with an elder's wife—an unconsummated intimacy, not unlike prayer—and he was driven from the church he'd built. Before Jesse's mother got cancer (breast, she is fine). Before Amy dropped out of school and disappeared into the revolutionary politics that would consume the rest of her youth and Jesse took the job as office manager at the start-up clothing company in Baltimore, painting in what free time she had left. She had a dog, Peter, and a girlfriend, Sally. On good days it seemed she had grown old enough to feel at home in her skin. She considered her friend sometimes and wondered how much thought one ought to give to the way one lived. Then she thought that only Amy knew.

I was a child raised by wolves, she tells Sally one nothing October day. They are on a beach in Delaware, the ocean wrought and glinting. In grays and browns the day presents as grades of rupture, bands of oblivion unfolding outward—the sky, the water, the sand, the sedge. The thought settles over Jesse in the absence of other thoughts: there is nowhere else she needs to be.

Later she will think how foolish our dreams of arrival are. How many times must we say to ourselves, Maybe this is it, maybe the struggle is over, when we are only on the vast crescent of an expansive boredom, some beach in Delaware with our back to the sea?

Peter runs after a flight of sandpipers that rise into the air like spangled filaments after light.

Everyone thinks they were raised by wolves, Sally says.

BOOK: Prodigals
3.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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