I’m hammered drunk after I see the banker, and my brother calls to say that preacher’s on TV again. You know, he says, the slapper. I flip around until I find him, and he’s so ridiculous and rotten he actually has money in his name. Hallelujah, he’s saying, Jesus gonna give you all this. He stood Abraham atop the mount and told him far as your eye can see. That’s yours. My brother’s laughing. I stand up, nearly kick the dog trying to get by her, and pour another drink. Come back and turn the TV off and pick the phone back up. He’s still laughing. The sunset burns the fields and forests and streams and sky dead, glints off the black screen of my set. I squint against it a little. So what do you see? he wants to know. I swirl my glass and look, but it’s all behind me. I tell him it’s over.
She lied about the Louisiana Purchase. Van Buren, she said, or Jackson. She knew the difference, had to, and that’s where things turned south. We spent weeks crisscrossing ploughed and flooded fields between Shreveport and Baton Rouge. Each morning her father sent new maps, the names of real-estate agents with put-on Cajun accents, and instructions to visit hamlets where they bred certain coon dogs or brewed a particular liquor. We woke, brayed against the day stumbled against the light. Every drained-clear catfish farm and leveed out backwater patch of land promised a fortune, but we couldn’t be sure. We kept driving.
Jackson was the Devil you left alone because he bartered for what you had to have. I never said that to her, because she must have known. When we reached New Orleans and the end of it all we stood in his rainy, empty square, and she talked about his defeating the British in 1815, war already over. All the motions of life and death, conflict and demise, carried out for nothing. Made him a saint. Isn’t that how it goes, she asked me, and I agreed that it was exactly how it went. We stood there as long as we could and left no different than we had been, headed the same direction. The rain grew steadier and blew in with the taste of salt and a darker day still ahead.
I couldn’t have told you the first thing about Van Buren. Neither could she.
In this other life she takes up the guitar and gunsmithing. She buys a Gibson with a faded and chipping sunburst finish, replaces the pickups and joins a bluesy band. She tells them they sound like they’re playing Aerosmith and Zep but slowed down too much. They’re in Mississippi, so she expects someone to notice. In and out of dives and honky-tonks up and down the Delta no one ever says a word. She trades the Gibson for an old Strat in Hattiesburg and starts pushing for clean, fast riffs. Her tall, black boots settle into that alluvial clay. She struggles free and leaves in the night.
Out the coast pushing toward Houston, she buys her first pistol. It’s a slim, silver Ruger she marries to six rounds at a time, and she takes to center mass like her birthright. That’s why women so dangerous with a gun, the man in the shop tells her when she exits the range. You girls line it up and squeeze and don’t think nothing of it. Husband comes home late, rattles around and startles in the dark, and bang. He’s dead.
She shakes a little with his storytelling, but in this other life she’s not the sort to care. A couple years later she thinks of going north again and winds up along the bank of a windswept and frozen city flatter than she can spread her hand. She climbs the steps of the tallest tower she can find and looks over the land. Turrets of God and steeples of men, sleeping gables and tireless cornices. She hasn’t come as far as she thinks, maybe. She tiptoes onto the rail of her perch and looks harder, strains. She takes up fortunetelling and calligraphy. She studies birdwatching and astronomy. Out there around her the world shifts all about. She’s very still.
A small red hatchback skids through the curve in front of our house, what they might call a drift in a certain kind of movie, and then it shoots on into our rainy neighborhood. Like an arrow or a bomb, an argument of dream that won’t fade. You’re still at work. Kids safely at school. I’ve demolished our home top to bottom, or at least I’ve cleared clothes and papers and bottles and dishes and mess from every surface at every height. You won’t recognize the place. I wash all the towels and sheets and go for groceries. I’ll grill tonight. Out in the traffic, in the cold and wet and the world a little too slow between afternoon and evening, I think about that other car and lean onto my own gas pedal. My rear tires spin a moment and the catch, no drift or slide beyond stop and go for me. Later I retell the whole story on your wall. A little red car spinning by . . . It wheeled and went . . . I can’t find a video that suits me, to show you what I mean. It’s all Hollywood and drama, fake. I tell you all I’ve done, all I’ve tried to do. What you’ll see now and what you can expect. I can’t say it will be perfect, but I can say that I <3 you. I <3 you with all my <3. Everything will be okay.
She watches him cross the yard to the small garden edging the pasture but doesn’t have the energy to chase this time. He drops among the tomatoes and scoots, an enormous rushing baby. At least he’s half dressed. Soon his bare arms and legs and chest turn chalky brown. He shifts against the sun so she sees his profile and holds his fingertips to his lips and licks. That reddish clay enters and fills him, and then he rounds the tomatoes, past the yellow and green squashes to disappear in a square of sunflowers.She lights a cigarette and walks her mind through each room of the house. There are dishes in the kitchen and his bedroom, laundry, a sticky spot on the hardwood before his recliner. That she hasn’t figured out yet. It’s caught a little dust, fuzz or lint floated from the air. At first she thought ice cream, he’ll sometimes get himself ice cream from the freezer, but it’s clear and scentless and she can’t imagine. Maybe some new part of him melted loose of his body, something else he leaves for her to bend and kneel and curate with cleaner and effort and love. It’s close, small, but she can’t move from the couch. She won’t. Out the window he reappears, head bobbing red and nervous through the low-cropped fescue. He’s cleared the single string of electrified wire, still probably running hot—who’d have thought to unplug the box?—though there are no more cows to enclose, nothing to catch him unawares and pin his skull between ribs and wooden corral rail. Addle him forever or make him something new. Soon he’s veering from sight, the woods and creek and neighbors’ farms beyond, but even if she rises now she knows there’s nothing she can do.
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