Authors: Justin Tussing
I said, “No one ever told me that.”
“You never met someone so in love with his own face.”
Pawpaw's only vanity was his hair, which he washed with Ivory soap and combed with coal tar. Hooking his hand around my elbow, he pulled me out of the bathroom.
I was in the kitchen watching Mary debone a chicken. She slid the blade under the skin, making quick, jabbing cuts. When the phone rang Mary indicated it with the point of the greasy knife.
The person on the other end of the line gave me simple instructions.
“Well,” said Mary, after I'd returned the handset to its cradle.
“I have to go out,” I said. “That was a girl.”
Mary dropped the knife in the sink. “It's a school night, you know.” She caught me by the shoulder and poked at my bangs with her fingernails. “Comb your hair first.”
I tried to appease her.
“Now you're making it worse.”
Pawpaw came in from the porch, a cigarette pinched dead in his fingers.
“Ask your grandson what he's up to.”
“I only came in to run interference for him.” He maneuvered himself between me and Mary. “Scoot, kiddo.”
It dawned on me, as I cut across the yard, that I was about to be dumped. Nothing else could demand such immediacy. I'd visited Alice's apartment six times. Twice she cooked me dinner. One time, when she was sick, we sat together on her little sofa. But she'd found the nerve and now it was up to me to put my head on the chopping block. It was sort of reassuring to be complicit. There was some honor to be mined. I jogged off, down the center of the street. I didn't get more than a few blocks before I was winded, but I didn't let it slow my pace.
Her schoolteacher car bore down on me. The jouncing suspension sent the headlights up and down, like the car was winking at me. She never slowed. At the last moment I had to dive for the curb.
There was a shrieking sound as she locked up the brakes. The car slid to a stop. I ran to the driver's door. She waved me to the other side. I ran around and got in.
“I can't believe this night,” she said. She'd been crying.
She wore this short corduroy skirt. I had seen her wear it before with fuzzy tights, but her legs were bare now. And her naked legs and the fact that she'd been crying were like two voices competing for my attention.
She ran a stop sign and then another.
I asked her to let me drive.
It was very nice to steer Alice's car. The wheel was warm where her hands had been. I wanted to stop the car and look at her, but I didn't think she would tolerate such scrutiny. In order to make the town as big as it could be, I followed the roads that paralleled the floodwall. Some of the seams in the cement seeped black water. The diesel engines powering the bilge pumps made a wall of sound.
I wracked my mind for a place better than this. I could drive her to her sister's in Chattanooga. Her sister lived with a dentist, Alice had told the class. They had a huge stereo. Their refrigerator housed nothing but leftovers from their favorite restaurants. Right outside their back door was an artificial lake that had been optimized for waterskiing. Taking Alice there might demonstrate my selfless heart. But I didn't want to stand beside things I couldn't afford. I didn't want to be measured against something like that.
Alice lifted my right hand from the steering wheel and pressed it against her cheek. “Do I feel hot to you?”
I held my hand against her forehead, then touched my own forehead. Then I smelled my hand. “I can't tell.”
“I took some aspirin earlier. I hoped it would make me tired.”
I concentrated on driving in a soothing way.
“I love that car,” Alice said as we drove past the police station. “It's like a big, black cat.”
She left a space for me to speak. I studied the blank expanse of the floodwall, searching for the thing to say.
Alice leaned the side of her face against the window. And it seemed something stood between us, too, something as transparent and unyielding.
I wanted to forgive her for what she was about to do. I felt that big.
She said, “Stop the car.”
The headlights reflected off a shallow puddle that hugged the base of the wall. Alice got out. She stuck her whole fist in her mouth, like a girl at a party trying to get attention.
Poking my head through her open door, I asked if she was okay.
She nodded and pushed her hand deeper into her mouth. Her eyes were bright. She coughed and coughed. Finally something came up.
I got out of the car and stood beside her.
There was a shiny mess on the pavementâsaliva, bile, and small pieces of chalk.
“Is that all aspirin?”
She put her hand back in her mouth. She spit some more up. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Her hand looked boiled.
We could hear the river sliding past on the other side of the floodwall. We were underneath the water and dry.
Alice turned to look at me. “I received an upsetting phone call.” Tendrils of hair glued themselves to the corner of her mouth.
Someone had died, I thought. That was it. Someone she loved maybe. She started shaking. I rubbed a palm against her spine.
“At some point he's just going to make up his mind and come down here.” Alice had left her door ajar and the light inside the car tried to coax us back.
“An old boyfriend?” I asked.
I don't remember saying anything, but Alice answered me nevertheless.
“Yes,” she said.
It was an awful revelation, but at least she hadn't dumped me. And then I realized she might dump me still.
“He threatened me.”
“How did he threaten you?” My voice was as empty as a parrot's.
“He occupies the moral high ground.” She walked away from the car. If we walked far enough, we'd end up back where we startedâthe floodwall would see to that.
“Did you cheat on him?”
“He would have preferred that. No, I decided I'd had enough. We'd been together three years and I couldn't bear the idea of another day with him. While he was off at work, I loaded all my things in my car. I taped a note to the bathroom mirror. But when I went outside, he was there.”
“You mean he was waiting for you?”
“He said he'd seen something in my eyes.”
I was jealous of anyone who knew her well enough to interpret her veiled intentions.
“He demanded an explanation. I had my keys in my hand, Thomas. I couldn't wait to leave. He snatched the keys and crammed them in his mouth. I guess he tried to swallow them. They got caught. He started coughing. I went inside and called an ambulance. I waited by the front door. A pair of police cars rolled up. By then he was curled up in the yard. The officers made sure he was breathing. They were ready to stab his neck with their tracheotomy kits. Then an ambulance arrived and the paramedics loaded him in back.”
I said, “I'm sorry.”
“I did everything I could to make it work, Thomas. But I saved myself. I can be cruel when I need to be now; that's what I learned from him. I went inside the house and got the spare set of keys.”
All along, in her empty apartment and her empty car, he had been the thing that was missing.
“Do you think he might show up?”
“I told him not to.”
It was clear to me that that would not be sufficient. Given the choice between not seeing her and seeing her displeasure, there was no choice. I didn't know much about love, but I knew that.
Alice said, “I want to go someplace he can't find me.” She turned the pockets of her skirt inside out.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
She didn't seem to hear me.
After tucking her pockets back in, she reached over and took my hand. “Gum,” she said.
“I'd protect you from him,” I said.
“Maybe, you would.”
I thought, I'll go with you, with nothing but the clothes on my back. Later you may run from me. If someone else is there to save you, it will fall on you to give that person some accounting of who I was. That will be your obligation. And though it's hardly possible, I would like to be that next person, too. I would like to save you over and over again. That's the type of life I wanted to lead when I was seventeen. We continued walking. Our shoulders bumped together. I lifted her hand and kissed it. “Do that again,” she said. I kissed her hand again. It was a long walk back to the car.
Cause and Effect
One moment the midnight black cruiser sat there, in front of the police station, under the floodlights, bigger than itself. And the next moment there was just the empty space where everyone expected the car to be, the floodlights drowning themselves in the night sky. There were no witnesses to that crime. And when, a few minutes later, the cruiser was driven into the most unforgiving thing in town, there were no witnesses then either.
While, formerly, the condition of the car might have been described as flawless or cherry, the impact was sufficient to render the vehicle totaled. The object the car had been run into: a blank span of floodwall.
The collision precipitated a series of notable events:
All the while, presumably, the river was rushing into town, carving channels and pulling down street signs, a viscous black wave poised to break through my bedroom window and flush me into the night. I'd heard about these sorts of things, how a flood has a tendency to strip the clothes from the bodies of its victims. I'd be bobbing through the neighborhood and then what? Left high and dry, or swept back out to the river when the waters retreated. The siren went on and on, reminding me of what was coming. I was seventeen. I didn't head to the cemetery. Instead I went to my parents' empty home. Around Alice, I was constantly afraid of doing something stupid, but now, alone, I could relax. I thought about Alice and her body and what we were doing together, with the pleasure of stepping back from it. Even with my eyes open, I saw Alice's nakedness.
When, many hours later, I woke up, the yard was still grass and shrubsânot liquid. The green-yellow buds on the forsythia poised to open. Though the siren still pleaded for my attention, I had stopped hearing it. It was supposed to be a school morning, but the vacant neighborhood gave me the impression that I needn't worry about that. I got into the shower, and while I was in there the siren finally stopped soundingâI didn't notice when it stopped as much as I sensed that there was no longer a need to ignore it. By the time I was dressed, families had started returning to their houses. Children with drowsy heads marched beside overloaded strollers. Excitable dogs nipped at their leashes. I saw cats cradled in arms and in sewing baskets, a few birds in cages. Some folks carried family Bibles and examples of atrocious art. The women wore their necklaces stacked and rings on every finger. Everyone was conspicuous for those things they valued most. Then this strange parade was down to the stragglers.
I saw Mary and Pawpaw walking arm and arm up the sidewalk. I watched them talk, the turn of their heads as they acknowledged each other. I waited on the front steps. Pawpaw looked older than I'd ever seen before, the grizzled white stubble on his loose neck, his tentative steps. Fran must have gone to the plant.
“Hi,” I said, offering neither alibi nor excuse.
Pawpaw reached down, covering the crown of my head with his hand, but didn't stop, went inside.
“Wait here,” said Mary. “I'm going to help your pawpaw and then I'm coming right back.”
It was almost a shame the wall hadn't come down, because if there had been some horrible accident, then they could have focused on that instead. I felt as though I had triggered the siren by climbing into Alice's bed.
A few minutes later Mary sat down beside me, took her shoes and socks off, and stretched her toes. No matter what she said, I would bear it. I'd never known her to be anything but fair.
“To wake up like that and find your son is not in his bed, I swear, Thomas, how do you think I felt? But at least you could have met us at the meet-up place. We all believed the stupid wall was coming down. You should have heard what those nitwits were saying. I've never known you to be selfish before. People asked me where you were. I told them that you were helping Fran. I lied because of you. Your mother is not a liar, Thomas, but you didn't leave me any choice.”