"West on N Road," by Jen Knox

Jen Knox

Jen Knox

Jen Knox writes and teaches fiction in San Antonio, Texas. Her writing appears in The Adirondack Review, Bound Off, Istanbul Review, Per Contra, and Room Magazine. Jen is currently writing a novel, and she recently released a chapbook of short stories, Don't Tease the Elephants, with Monkey Puzzle Press (2014).

West on N Road

Rattle walked the loop at sunrise and sunset. At dawn, he was quick-footed, ignoring joints that ached and scraped as though rusted. He pushed on, to the first big rock, shaking the bones and waking the tendons. The stiffness would ease after a quarter-mile.

Dusk was easier, a stroll. By this time the casual joggers, middle-aged scale watchers, and families with hyperactive children shared the path. In the summer, Rattle wore only his blue shorts. He was covered in tattoos, which had bled green from too many suns. Symbols for rebirth and movement, once penned on taut skin, were now shapes with rough outlines that allowed his loose skin to show through. He lived for and inside each symbol. Living inside of them gave him permission to ignore the rest of the world. Rattle’s stomach, still muscular behind the drooping, was covered in thick-lined inks for each of the places he lived. From the base of his back grew a leafless tree from which a tiny bird was flying. A snake coiled around his arm.

He was alone much of the time, living in a mobile by Blackfoot Lake—a space he rented for $300 a month with no contract. He worked odd jobs, painting and housework, some light construction here and there. He helped install a septic system to hold over his landlords when he was two months late on the rent; every now and again, he was asked to show up to clubs in Lincoln, where he would drink or walk around and talk up strangers who would ask him about his tattoos. This was a small town, 456 people last census, and it didn’t take much to be different.

“Why’d you get so many tattoos?” a boy asked at the last event, his eyes wide but his small hands curled in. He was a tough kid, Rattle could tell, just as he had been.

“I like to remember what happens,” Rattle told him. He thought a lot about the question after. It was the only time someone outright asked. Most would just stare, ask what one of them meant, or just say, “Nice tats.”

Rattle was accustomed to people staring or sneaking shots with their cellphones at the park. Children would point. In a way, he enjoyed their reactions. The people who pretended not to notice were most provoked by his appearance. They were the simple ones. If they looked especially avoidant, he’d bark or howl at them, summoning his inner wolf.

Having completed this loop around the same times every day for almost two months, there were fewer people to unsettle. The regulars waved, said hello. “Hey,” he’d say back, or he’d just nod. A runner with a soft build, probably mid-thirties, jogged directly toward him around dawn on a Saturday. She wore a lime green and pale purple get-up, cringe worthy and bright. There was no reason to wear such loud things here, if you asked Rattle. People didn’t need to further distinguish themselves from nature.

The woman stared at him, but not in the usual way. She was straining for breath and wanted to stop to walk, he could tell, but she was pushing through for some reason. Maybe she was afraid. She wasn’t fit enough to be training, excepting for a first race. It was when she was about to pass him that she picked up her knees and began to sprint. She stared directly into his eyes, a thing no one did—no matter how unimpressed—until she was behind him. He looked back and noticed that she, too, was looking back. She caught his eyes again in a predatory fashion. Rattle pulled on his long, white beard. The soft woman wanted something from him, but what? Since he had nothing to give, he decided to turn around and continue the loop the opposite direction.

Cirrus clouds, a spattering of them, were breaking further and making way for fatter, darker clouds. The sky before a storm had set the stage for so many decisions in Rattle’s life. But rain today was not the pleasure it once was. Rain every day, it seemed lately, and funnel clouds that people mistakenly called tornadoes had become nuisances. He welcomed nature in all her moody forms, but the mobile was leaking where the kitchen and living room met, and the mildew smell was becoming something he couldn’t ignore; he’d patched it a few times, but water still settled behind the siding, festering there. Rattle didn’t think much about the past on these walks, only the immediate future. The day ahead, as with most days—eggs, hash, painting, nap, roast beef sandwich (maybe toasted, maybe not), bike, club, beer, should-haves, head doctor’s number on the nightstand ignored, younger body beside him ignored—would, if he was lucky, end in peaceful rest.

He watched two cardinals flitting about, diving beneath branches and above the treetops. His newest fling, Irene, had asked what the tree and inky bird painted on his back meant, and he’d told her that from death comes life; he told the previous girlfriend it was about the connection of earth and sky. Two or three girlfriends back, he’d led someone to believe that the tattoo symbolized the slow growth of some folks and the ability of others to fly—this was most accurate, but when he said it, her face dropped as though she were hoping for something more optimistic.

The redhead was faster than her laborious breath suggested. She came up behind him just before he was able to finish the loop. As much as no one intimidated Rattle, the soft-bodied woman unsettled him. He made his way toward the mouth of the park, toward his bike, as she called out.

“You can’t hide forever.”

“Wrong guy,” he said, not loud enough for her to hear.

“You visited me. I was only a kid then. I think we can talk now. I think you owe me that.”

No one could simply leave things be anymore; everyone had to look up everything and everyone else on the internet, track them down, dissect their lives. The redhead, Elaine, was someone else’s daughter, a girl who had been mailing him gushy and angry letters over the last two years, but who had been raised well. They shared DNA, but that was it.

Rattle wished he could feel something. She jogged toward him, looking a little sore from the workout. “I knew it was you. I knew it. I hired help to find you, you know, you’re off the grid, and I wasn’t sure you were still alive. You look very alive. Why haven’t you answered my mail, email?”

He knew she would follow him. He put on his helmet and began to kick up gravel as she trailed behind in a rusted Jeep. When the bike ground to a halt a mile from the park, on the corner of N Road and 22nd, he noticed she was hesitating, thinking of driving off probably, and he wished she would follow the impulse. She wiped her eyes and put on a ball cap before exiting her car. “This is where you live, eh?” she said.

“I live on my bike. This is where I stay.”

“Those things terrify me. Is it a Harley?”

Rattle smiled with closed lips; his small teeth were rotting, something he often thought he’d go to Mexico to correct, then never did. “You get used to it,” he mumbled. “And then you love it. And no, no it is not. Come on if you gotta.”

“Glad you love something,” she said, making her way toward the front door, hesitant but determined. Rattle noticed the way his trailer was sinking into the ground—something he could see all the clearer through her eyes.

“I’m not here to unload on you, so you know. I came because Mom died.”

Rattle felt a pang as he brushed off a chair covered in a beige sheet, wondered how he should react. This sort of news never felt real when it arrived and yet if you didn’t cry or crack in half from emotion, people thought you were cold. He said, “Sorry to hear. She was a good woman.”

Elaine explained that Sophie’s car accident had killed her instantaneously. A truck had turned over, leaving three dead and one injured. “I heard the news report before I got the news, but I just knew that morning. I felt it coming.”

She said she had inherited a little land that Sophie never mentioned, a dilapidated farmhouse in Marquette that she had renovated and was now teaching yoga in. She said she was alone but not lonely, that she had only been curious to meet him and didn’t want much of anything but maybe the sludgy instant coffee she was offered. He didn’t volunteer anything about himself for the simple fact that there was nothing to tell.

Elaine was in pain right now, but she was doing well without him, better. And this was good, she was to remain elsewhere, flourishing, flying farther and farther from him so that he wouldn’t burden her as he aged—that would be unfair. “You’re a nice girl,” he said. “I am not much for satisfying curiosity. I’m just surviving. The bike, the club, my routines—I’m alone too, but it’s a good thing.”

“A life like a movie, right? The cool-guy loner? The rebel?”

“It’s not my movie,” he said. Rattle poured a small pot of boiling water over a heap of crystalized dark coffee. Elaine watched him closely.

“Yeah, okay,” she said. “Who wants responsibility?”

He remembered thinking about staying with Elaine’s mother as he watched her stomach swell, but it was a smoother ride without her. She’d accused him of not feeling emotions like other people, called him a sociopath, which he worried was true. He’d convinced himself that if he impregnated a woman, he was contributing something, fulfilling his mission, and he could then leave. He wouldn’t survive long for the world anyhow, he’d known that since he was a kid and his father died at 29. But the joke was on him; Rattle was alive and whole.

Elaine had written anger-seared letters before today, only one had been pleading. There were five in total. Most of the letters were addressed to the motorcycle club—the one thing he kept constant, and in a way he had enjoyed getting them, but he never imagined she’d show up in-person. She was Sophie’s kid through and through: thin nose, freckles dotting the apples of her cheeks. She asked him endless questions, such as why he didn’t have a TV. “No time, no desire.” Why didn’t he have anything in the fridge? “Tend to eat at the club.” Again: Why did he never write back?

After an uncomfortably long silence, Rattle offered his daughter more instant coffee. She wrote down the address of her new studio and told him it was nice to see him in person, she liked his tattoos.

Rattle tried to sneak in, but the door to the farmhouse creaked. He saw a pile of red and gold pillows and grabbed one, placing it by the door. Elaine’s eyes didn’t waver, didn’t settle on him. He sat cross-legged and inhaled, almost choking on the spicy, sweet incense. He listened to her directions, focused on his third eye.

Since their meeting in the park, Elaine wrote him twice. The first time, about a month after, she said she was pregnant and he should come meet her boyfriend to which Rattle drank a fifth and woke up in county. The second time, she said that her baby was due soon and her boyfriend had left. “Just like you.” She was persevering though, and his departure had led her to teach yoga to mothers-to-be, and she had found a community in turn. She wrote that she would be having a natural birth, “though I’m sure you don’t want to hear about that.” She invited him to visit.

Rattle had not been able to take his eyes off her signature in this last letter. “Your daughter,” she’d written. It was a plea. In that same week, he had offered to help out on a parking lot rehab project and saved the extra money he earned to come visit.

Rattle breathed deeply, as instructed, attempting to relax his thoughts, watch them go by but, inevitably, there was this nagging feeling that he had no way to make things right. Sat Nam, in and out. Focus on the core. Focus on the strength, the life force. There is only now. No past. No future. His body refused to soften.

Elaine taught the class how to breathe so deeply that the nourishment of oxygen would reach their toes, which would have been good for Rattle because his went numb from time to time, but he couldn’t manage a breath that deep. The meditation was a full two hours today, a once-a-month deal, and he wasn’t sure his legs were going to hold out like all these young women. His butt was propped up on a small red pillow, and there were a dozen other people sitting just like him in a stark room with large windows that looked out on a small garden with a sculpture of the Buddha in the middle next to a stone fountain. Breathe in: Sat, breathe out: Nam. Elaine told the class that yoga is the purest exercise in that it invites flow, thereby putting them all in touch with their true nature.

Despite the deep breaths, the peaceful room, the meditation seemed to wear on him. His thoughts were uncomfortable to watch. And with more than a half an hour to go, he quit. Elaine had given them permission, a few times, to leave early if need be. “Everyone has limits.”

Rattle glanced around at the room full of women. A few of them were watching as he shook his legs out and quietly walked to the door. It creaked again as he eased out. He felt a burning sensation on his back, then something like pin pricks—as though his tattoos were still being penned, and that feeling eased some with the fresh air. When he lit a cigarette, however, it returned and shot down his arms. That head doctor he went to one time said it was probably psychosomatic, all the emotions he couldn’t face were being internalized, manifesting themselves into physical pain.

“All illness is either guilt or longing,” she’d said. He decided he wouldn’t talk to her after that.

“All guilt is useless,” he told himself, countering the psychologist’s theory with his mother’s. He’d stolen a Cadbury Easter Egg, the sort with the milky middle that looked like a real egg, when he was seven. The guilt of it made his stomach hurt so badly that he couldn’t enjoy the egg, so he confessed the next morning over grits. “Guilt is useless,” she’d said. “Snap the fuck out of it. Now, eat your grits, and give me that candy. I love them things.” She smacked him then, palm to temple, hard enough to render splitting pain for days and seal her advice. He lay on the floor like he had so many times that day, willing himself to feel nothing.

He and his mother shared the same inclinations, he thought now. He could give life but not nurture it. He smoked four hand-rolled cigarettes and sat, shirtless, out front, until he heard Elaine’s voice. “Sat Nam,” she said, approaching him—all round shapes and red-orange hair. She had a mat rolled up under her arm, and she paused to say her goodbyes to the stream of women walking to their cars. These women smiled at Rattle but did not stare or look in awe; they looked at Elaine with pure admiration. He stared back, close-mouthed as he had at least four construction gigs worth of dental work to be done—the constant pain, he could live with, but he couldn’t stomach the embarrassment in front of what seemed Elaine’s congregation.

“The tattoo of the tree and the bird,” she said. “That me?”

His heart began to thrust toward his ribcage, and he repositioned as he answered. “Yeah, that’s you.”

Elaine looked slantwise, her face went blurry; Rattle felt a surge of liquid metal spread throughout his chest. He wondered if he’d been shot, and he tried to look around, but his neck was stiff atop his wilting body, and before he knew it he was on the ground.

Months passed before Rattle returned to the park. A mild heart attack, the doctors had said, and Elaine remained by his side, visiting daily. When he became strong enough, he reminded her that she had to think about her own life. “You have a business to run, so go on. Get. I’ve been through worse. I’ll call the club.”

The air, ever since the attack, felt anything but fresh. It became thick and sticky, and he cut across the path, heading to the street. Endless rows of corn led him and left him. His hips ached. Regret is useless, he reminded himself; nonetheless, he felt it there—something hard beneath his skin. His days had become longer, the walks no longer peaceful. Elaine messaged him when the baby was born. She said she would love for him to be a part of the girl’s life but she wouldn’t force it. A picture of a pink-cheeked chubby girl with green eyes and an indignant expression made Rattle chuckle a little.

He kept all of Elaine’s letters in a large, dark basket that he’d picked up at the thrift store. He read them all that night with whisky, then with beer. He read them again and again. He read them the next morning, over eggs. He put them in order from angry to sad, and started with angry, trying to feel something in return. He couldn’t, or so he told himself as his fragile heart swelled behind his ribs.

“Dear Elaine, I’m an empty old man,” he wrote sloppily at the top of a piece of notebook paper. He thought awhile, then added, “That emptiness stops with you.” He was proud of this line, felt it somewhat poetic for a guy who didn’t finish freshman year of high school. He would add more to it and mail it tomorrow, he thought, stumbling to get another beer, but instead it sat there. After work each day, he’d go to CVS and stand beneath the vent reading every single new baby greeting card, only to buy a pack of Nicorette or some pretzels instead.

Rattle began walking the loop three times a day. He barely noticed when people stopped or stared at him anymore. He found enough work to occupy most daylight hours, stayed busy with masonry and construction—anything he could find. He saved everything he could that summer to pay down his hospital bills, and found a dentist that would fit him with dentures and not lecture him about not going for the last ten years or flossing enough. After five seasons of taking every job he could, he packed his clothes, filling two trash bags and a backpack, and he set out to meet his granddaughter and find work closer to his daughter. It was a journey and a new start, and he felt much like he used to feel with a new pretty girl and a cold sixer in the bike storage—only this time he was an old man with tired eyes and fading tattoos.

He pulled up the bike and sat by an oak tree, watching a mother jog down the street with a stroller. He noticed how pristine the neighborhood was, how much trouble these people must go through to keep such perfect lawns. His legs were still vibrating as he walked to the door. He felt the weight of his age and the weakening of electricity in his veins. There was a toy lawnmower outside the door that would blow bubbles if pushed. He knocked, running his tongue over his new teeth.

Elaine’s eyes were flat when she opened the door; he wondered what he must look like to her now. He’d brought the letter, but his granddaughter was, what, a year old now? Older? He handed Elaine a small gold locket for the baby, whose name, she said, was Jane. “We call her Janie.”

She didn’t look at the engraved message. In fact, Elaine blocked the doorway like a bouncer. Just beyond her, he could make out child-proof plug coverings and the corner of a crib where two little feet in pink and white socks jerked around as though dancing. The pain and joy blasted his bones, feeling both restorative and deserved.

“I existed for you,” he wanted to tell Elaine. Instead, he handed her what he’d written and waited for her to speak.

She bowed her head. “I’m sorry, Rattle, but I can’t deal. Never knowing when you’ll respond or show up. I don’t want Janie to go through the same.” She paused but couldn’t bear the silence. “You look healthy though, and I’m so glad for that. I just can’t—rather, I don’t have the energy to keep reaching out. How about you do the reaching, and if you can do that, then we’ll let you in. How about that?”

Just after Janie’s second birthday, Elaine decided that the girl deserved to see her grandfather, if only once. Janie was as tall as Elaine’s hip now, and she stood gripping her mother’s belt loop as a woman named Mrs. Johnson, who lived a mile from Rattle’s old trailer, said, “Yeah, I saw him about a year ago last. He said something about returning to nature, then sped away westward down N Road on that loud bike, unsettling all kinds of gravel. I hate those bikes. He was headed toward the sunset like he was in a damn movie or something. Haven’t seen him since.” She dropped a cigarette and put it out with her bare heel.

Elaine thanked Mrs. Johnson, glanced down the road, the way her father had headed. She imagined him somewhere in a small tattoo shop, spending his hard-earned money on more ink, marking all the places he’d been so he didn’t have to bother with the memories. She imagined how much the needle must hurt as it pierces the skin. She lifted Janie, and those soft, chubby arms settled around her neck; the two of them headed east.