Fall 2014

Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright



Fiction

Void of Course

Polly Buckingham


I drag the suitcase through the rainy street, cursing and muttering. It scratches and thumps on the pavement because one of the back wheels is busted. Henry’s carrying a laundry bag over his shoulder, and it’s got a lot more crap in it than the suitcase. I always pack too much when I visit home, but Henry hasn’t complained once. This is one night I’m glad he’s around. I wouldn’t have wanted to leave home alone, wouldn’t have wanted to be here by myself, on this rainy Seattle street, between the projects and downtown, cars spraying puddles onto sidewalks, old men screaming at themselves and junkies screaming at each other.

The rain comes down steadily. Is there a moon at all?  Maybe my sister could have warned me about this night, too.  She would have come up with some far out reason why I should have kept my mouth shut.  Of course, I probably wouldn’t have listened—I’d never listened before. So I wonder now why I keep expecting the faces of women on buses to be her face. Why I expect her deep voice to call to me from across an empty room. I expect her to find me in the street. “Angie," she’d say, “what are you doing?”

Henry says, “Let’s ride the bus."

“Why?” I ask. “We can’t go back to campus. The dorms are locked." 

“Because it’s dry.”

“And get dropped off in fucking nowhere?” If I’d been alone, I would have been crying. When you leave Thanksgiving dinner unfinished before your parents have the opportunity to kick you out, that’s what you do. You walk in the rain and cry. But if you have a soft boyfriend with you, a guy who’s been there whether you wanted him or not, then you’re mean. You can’t help it. You attack.

“We don’t have to get off,” Henry says.  “We could just ride the bus all night.” 

I stop, put the suitcase upright in the road, take my sore hand out of the loop handle, and shake it. “I didn’t know you could do that,” I say. Rain runs down my neck, under the collar of my jacket—no hood.

“I don’t know why you couldn’t,” Henry says.

“You done it before?” 

“Well, no.”  Henry rests his laundry bag on the curb. Water rolls down the sidewalk and separates on either side of the bag.   

“You’re getting everything wet.” I regret saying this immediately. After all, I’ve just learned the wrong words could have bigger consequences than you might expect. “Sorry,” I say. 

I read a poem about that. I was seeing this older guy at the time, and I sent it to him. It was about being careful what you say because, whoever the wise poet was, he said, “The darkness around us is deep.” That I remember. Don’t mince your words. It’s too important. He also said something about elephants in a row, but I can’t remember how that fits anymore.  Anyway, I sent it to Graham, this man, because I thought he wasn’t being so careful with his words, and because some nights I’d feel that darkness pressing in on us.

I look over at Henry, wet dark hair falling around his thin face and resting on his shoulders. That summer the darkness ate Graham and me. But I guess the poem got through to him because I finally got the real words. We were in that dreary motel room, the bed still undone and smelling of sex and sweat, the dark green paisley curtains drawn. The air conditioner rattled in the semi-dark. “I don’t love you,” he’d said, looking into my face which I knew to be expectant and hopeful.

“Anyway,” Henry says, “we could at least find a dry bus stop.” I lift the suitcase up over the
curb, and Henry leans forward and slings the laundry bag over his shoulder. Henry used to sling fish during the summers, and now’s he’s got a bad back. His legs are planted solidly on the rainy sidewalk.

The one remaining suitcase wheel spins sideways in the sidewalk cracks, and I curse as I pull it along. “Not so fast, Henry."

A large woman with a bloated face is leaning against a wall with a crushed cigarette in her fingers. “Light?” she says. A broken stream of water falls from the eaves and runs down her shoulder. “Sorry,” I say. But I dig a dollar out of my pocket. It rattles in the wind. In her eyes
are small round white street lights. “Go on,” she says after she’s taken my dollar. “Go on, now."

The lights of the city reflected against the dark clouds glow a pale yellow. I imagine myself
standing outside my parents’ living room, the window with its muted firelight, a pale yellow square. My parents’ house is warm. My mother has a plate of pumpkin pie in front of her.  My father is swishing cognac. My seat is empty, the chair pulled out from under the table,
askew.  My napkin on the plate soaks up cranberry sauce. Henry’s plate is on the kitchen counter beside the sink which is filled with dirty pots and pans.

I’d said the wrong thing. I said too much. I did not mean this to happen. Sometimes an insult doesn’t sound like an insult until it hangs in the air, above a quiet table, on a rainy night.  An insult is an insult when the forks stop clicking against the plates. And then there’s no turning back.

“What did you say?” my father said.

I couldn’t speak, not a word. Henry even was staring at me. “Please speak,” his quiet eyes said. “Please make this right.” I was struck with shyness, with this shifting inside. It is a matter, my dear, of knowing what we know, but knowing it harder. Some poet again, though
I don’t think that’s exactly how it goes. At this moment, I knew nothing. My mother began to weep. She dropped her face on the white table cloth and wept. We all heard.

“I...” I tried.

Henry touched my knee. I looked into his face, his solid, dark eyes, his sturdy gaze.

“We,” I reached for his hand under the table, “we have to leave now.” It was not what I had wanted to say.

Henry has stopped mid-block and is waiting for me. A woman in a halter top with a distended stomach walks past me jiggling. I watch her thin, bruised legs covered in goose pimples moving like a puppet whose puppeteer can’t quite get it right. The first e in Beer hangs upside down on a convenience store marquis. Its windows are barred and the red open sign is turned off.

My sister would have forgiven me for what I’d said tonight. And that’s maddening.  Because I don’t deserve to be forgiven. But Margie, for all her problems, never held anything against anyone. I have to give her that.

Margie was first hospitalized when I was twelve—the crowning incident was the night she left a high school dance and walked all night in the rain. When she came home the next morning, she claimed she’d found a dead child on the beach, but the nearest beach was 40 miles away, and there were no reports of dead children. Saturn, dragging the sun, she said, had lead her to Neptune’s little secret. When she returned from the hospital a week later, her face vacant and distant, I was filled with rage. She was wearing jeans and a Mexican tee-shirt with embroidered flowers. She was still thin, and to anyone else she probably looked like a hip teenager, her straight hair falling halfway down her back, her face distracted just enough to be attractive and mysterious. But to me she was the crazy girl who’d walked in a soaked white dress past all the houses of our neighborhood, block after block after block. She opened her arms to hug me.  Behind me I knew my mother was smiling like a doll,
smiling like nothing was wrong. She’d spent the morning baking ginger squares for Margie, as if she’d returned from getting a cast put on or getting a tooth pulled. Fury made me dizzy, it made black spots jump in front of my eyes, it made my legs weak.

“Don’t touch me!” I shrieked and ran into my bedroom and slammed the door.

Hours later, Margie knocked and I let her in. My face felt swollen from crying. She handed me a cigarette, and we crawled out on the roof and smoked. I’d never had one before. It was all she had to offer. “You can’t catch it, you know,” she said. And then we fell silent, the balls of our feet pressed against the slanted, tarry shingles, and we watched boys ride bicycles down the street.

The bus stop is at the end of the block. If I caught up to Henry, I’d ask him why the hell he wasn’t there keeping my shit dry. Thankfully, I’m back here, moving slowly through the rain, thinking about my sister, seeing her face in the faces of the homeless, in the windows of empty buildings. When you look into someone’s face, and they seem to look
right through you, are they seeing everything or nothing? Is it self-absorption or empathy? An old man is walking down the street shaking his fist at the night. To me it’s not okay to blame God—who I don’t believe in anyway—or some phase of the moon for your own issues. You should be held accountable, shouldn’t you?

My sister said, “Angie, the moon is void of course.” It was June of the summer before last.

“What?” I said. Behind her was a drawing of a bucket of blood with a moon and a black bat.

“Void of course, moving from one constellation to another, and in the meantime, nowhere.” Out her bedroom window, I could see the moon with one thin cloud crossing it. It was not nowhere to me. It was hanging in the sky. Perhaps it was my sister who was nowhere, her large face flushed with red splotches, her upper arms huge and limp in her yellow button up shirt she’d torn the sleeves off of. She was sitting cross legged on her bed. The blanket was on the ground, and the sheets were disheveled and covered with a thin layer of yellow pollen. She’d insisted on keeping her bed below the window and the screen off, even
though occasionally birds flew in, around and out. Some nights she’d screamed.

“Oh,” I said and looked skeptically into her big, slack face. Her eyes were shadowed and distant. I saw only what I saw every time I looked at her those last three months, those hot summer months, an impending fall, a fall like the fall of a drunk, his brain soaked in gin, who chokes on his last breath, the fall of an addict whose body shakes until it is forever still. The last sigh, the final spiral, the bottom of a murky ocean. The melted wax of Icarus’ fragile
wings.

“You don’t believe me. Look it up.”

I didn’t believe her. Not until recently when a girl at school who always wears black gave a report on the phases of the moon and talked about void of course. But by then it was too late, and anyway, it still didn’t mean I bought in—that I believed the phase, or in this case the lack of a phase, of the moon was an excuse for someone’s actions.

“You have to watch what you say. Move carefully. Don’t put yourself in any risky situations,” she’d said that night. “Eventually, it will pass.”

I think I will never reach the bus stop. Everything in the suitcase must be wet because it feels heavier each moment. I catch up to Henry and we walk side by side, not speaking, not
looking at each other. I’m thinking about my mother carrying the platter of turkey out to the table. She’s smiling. The room smells of mashed potatoes and meat, and candlelight flickers in the windows. It is as if nothing is missing, as if the pond ice broke and swallowed my sister, but the water froze right over it. Even my father seems no different than he did last Thanksgiving or the Thanksgiving before that. He puts the dark meat aside for me. “This leg’s a fat one,” he says and gives me his crooked, small smile. He’s wearing the red chamois Mom gave him for Christmas last year—in every way, he’s the gentle, appropriately
festive father. The sound of the rain and the sound of the traffic merge. Rain hangs off my eyelids, and everything looks blurry.

When I was six, my sister took me with her when she broke into a church. “I’ll crawl in and then open the door for you,” she said as we ducked in the bushes below a window, waiting for the headlights of a car to pass.

I watched her jeans and bare feet disappear beyond the window ledge and waited, pressed against the church’s stone wall. I counted to ten. Then I counted to ten again and again and again until the headlights of a car explored the wall, and I ducked into the bushes, my heart shifting and jumping inside me. I counted faster and faster. I counted cars by their headlights, I counted branches in the prickly bush surrounding me. The dirt was cold and wet on my bare legs. “Margie,” I whispered loudly, “Margie?” I could hear my own voice trembling. I put my thumb in my mouth and cried.

I don’t know how long I lay there, curled up, smelling the dirt, violently sucking my thumb and choking on my tears—an hour? two?—I knew it was too long. When she finally appeared from around the side of the building, her face was red and glistening, and she was wiping her nose with her sleeve. I leapt at her like a bear cub and grabbed her neck and wrapped
my legs around her body and wept into her shoulder. I smelled cigarette smoke and sweat. I hated her and I loved her, and I knew that. I was six, and I knew that.

Henry looks at me earnestly from the other side of the plexiglass of the bus stop. Oh, God.  Rain drips down the side of my face. I try unsuccessfully to blow hair out of my eyes. Now he’s feeling the bottom of the laundry bag to check how wet it is. Henry is not 40 years old, and he’s not married. He doesn’t hold my face in his big hands examining me as if I were a child. He doesn’t have big hands. He doesn’t own a house or even a car. He doesn’t rent motel rooms in the middle of the day or call home to check his message machine just after sex.

My sister didn’t have lovers—not at the end anyway. How could they have taken the buckets of blood? The Pentel crayons broken and scattered across the floor of her room, ground into
the carpets? How could they have taken the constant insistence in her face? Do you love me?  Do you love me?  The hours of crying. Does God love me? What house is the moon in? The cracks in my palms are too close together. Each obsession a delusion. How could they have dealt with that? They couldn’t have.

Henry’s my friend. We kiss. We sleep together. We love each other. Henry liked me when we were fifteen, even though the feeling hasn’t always been mutual. My father is pouring cognac. He’s says, “Wish the boy had stayed” and nothing else. Except he touches my mother’s arm as she’s picking up the gravy dish. She’s moving quickly and awkwardly, and the china rattles as she puts it down then leans into the cradle of his arm. His hand rests on her hipbone and he lays his cheek against her back.

“Angie?” I see Henry say, but I can’t hear him over the rain ringing around my ears. I stand on the other side of the plexiglass. It doesn’t seem right, being on the same side as him. “Now who’s getting things wet?” he says, stepping into the rain. The lights of the bus, like two blinding moons, light his face and hair.

“Fuck you,” I say, because there it is. Like, there’s my sister breaking the windows of the greenhouse. “There was a man!” she cried. “I had to let him out.” Adjusting meds doesn’t work if you bury them in the potted plants. I examined the triangles of shattered glass in the grass the next morning. My sister stood behind me with her hands on her big hips. There had been men in her life. I could see their faces in the pieces of glass: Mark who followed her throughout high school. He used to show up at our doorstep in medieval costumes. “Stop calling me your fucking princess!” she hollered one night and threw a pitcher of lemonade across the yard. It sailed through the yellow cone of porch light and fell into the dark, quiet grass. The rock she threw next just grazed Mark’s cheekbone. I saw him at the Renaissance Fair a year later, a faint scar running down his face. “Tell Margie I say Hi,” he’d said hopefully.

“Fine,” Henry says. “Get wet.”

I’ve offended him. So what.

He steps onto the bus. He’s cross. I’m cross. The suitcase is impossible to get up the steps. The bus driver glares at me. I can’t blame him. Truth is, if you didn’t know me, you might think I was homeless too, that I was as crazy as the woman in the tank top jiggling, that I’d flown off some invisible edge. I think of my sister walking in the rain through the neighborhood streetlights in her wet white dress.

Henry lets me have the window seat. Lights blink in and out and through the bus. All I hear is whirring. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m getting wise enough, given the course of the evening, to justkeep quiet. I feel Henry’s irritation, and I feel like I’m falling, like with Graham in the motel room, the lights from the parking lot turning the curtains yellow, his eyes closed on his middle-aged, businessman’s face, touching me and not seeing me, the gray angles at the corners of the window. I wanted to fall then, last summer. Fall away from my sister’s diminishing face. I rest my cheek against the window.
       
“Don’t speak,” my sister had said. “Shhhh,” she said. “Shhhhhhh.” She uncrossed her unshaven legs—the bottoms of her feet were black—tucked them under her flowered skirt, and drew her knees into her body as if she were small, which she wasn’t. “It’s void of course, when communicating goes all wrong."

I looked at the drawing of the bucket of blood hanging on her wall with a tack. My mother called it a candle in the moonlight. But my mother was wrong. I knew better. I knew my sister best. I saw the blood. I saw the bucket. I looked at my sister hugging her knees, the patches of sweat gathering around the rough edges of her shirt’s torn armpits. The fan blew dust up from the floor—I watched it spin in summer’s evening light. The phone rang.
   
It was the beginning of the summer, and all I knew of Graham were a couple cups of coffee in a cafe close to school, a suit, a turkey sandwich lunch, and finally a couple beers after school in a bar far out of my neighborhood, far out of his neighborhood, a bar with wood-paneled walls, a low ceiling like in a trailer and sticky tables, with posters of half-naked women emblazoned with beer logos on the bathroom walls and beer signs in every window. It was the bar where I’d scrawled my number on the back of a receipt.

“Don’t see him tonight, Angie,” she whispered. I wished I hadn’t told her anything. “Just wait. It will pass. Everything always does.”

I sat in the wooden folding chair, the one piece of furniture my sister brought with her when she returned home the last time. My mother said it looked trashy, but Margie’s face pulled so far away, that my mother took it back. “It’s lovely,” she’d said. “I’m so sorry, Dear.” My mother’s sunnyness had irritated me. It was as if she’d refused to see. Even my father had talked to Margie like she was a ten-year-old. And this somehow had made my parents complicit.

I put my elbows on my knees, my chin in my palms and listened to my sister. But it was more her voice I heard, and less what she said. It was at once familiar, and then so far away, muted as through a long dark tunnel, a place you wouldn’t dare follow. Hot air blew into my face. Behind Margie, the blue curtains billowed and fell. My hands were sticky. The moment seemed eternal. The phone rang again. I could feel my pulse keeping time. I could feel the dark coolness of the bar and the shock in my body when Graham had wrapped his hand around mine and around the crumpled phone number.

Bodies in sleeping bags are lines under the Yesler Bridge. Henry’s right. The bus is warm.  The floor heaters are turned on. The bus is mostly empty, and emptiness right now is relief. I push my knees against the seat in front of me, my feet resting on the suitcase. It’s Thanksgiving night. I’m on a bus headed nowhere, and my mother, I imagine, is sitting in my sister’s room.  Clothes and dirt, twigs, leaves, and pollen cover the floor. My mother sits on the dirt and the clothes. She doesn’t move a thing. The walls are filled with tacked pictures, ships sinking in red seas, a dead child on the shore, empty houses filled with strips of dusty light, a park bench and a garbage can, a blue temple with a white cross and a bird. A hopeful
candle in the moonlight.

My mother sits, and eventually, she leaves. And my father, then he is with her in the wide bed. They may not be speaking, but there they both are, together in the dark.

“Don’t answer it,” my sister said. Her drawings covered the walls. Dust shifted in the summer light. My sister’s arms in her sleeveless, button up shirt, were blotchy red and glistening. Armpit hair poked out from the torn cloth. I knew my sister was right even though it was hard
to look at her face bloated with meds, her newly large and clumsy body bruised from table corners and the edges of doors. The phone rang again, and I left the room.

That night I made love to Graham for the first time. It was like living out your meanest self, like trying to cry louder than your crying sister. I never even knew who he was. The sweat and the elation and the final tears were a roller coaster ride that only brought me closer to the things I feared. I was waving a fist at the sky, I was jiggling and jiggling hoping for stillness. I hated myself. He’d called me, and I had said yes. The moon was gone from the
sky as I climbed the motel steps.

I rest my face against Henry’s shoulder. Cautiously, he puts his arm around me. At first I’m angered by his shyness. But then I sink lower, my face inside his coat, against his shirt.  Thank God. How does meanness help anything? It is nothing more than isolationism and self-loathing. At least my mother had held herself together. At least she’d tried to make it easier on all of us.

I’d said the wrong thing. I know my parents didn’t lead my sister to her death. I knew it even as I said it. They hadn’t denied her illness. As I lean my cheek against Henry’s damp and beating chest, I know how they are just like me inside, holding each other in that quiet, dark house after the storm of Thanksgiving dinner had passed. Sometimes there really is no one to blame, not even yourself. I open my eyes cautiously, and look out the window but see only the blurry image of random lights through the glass, now foggy from our breath. I wipe away the steam with my sleeve and search the sky. A full moon is clear in the sky, poised between the lit edges of thick clouds, and I know it has slipped back into its proper course.




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