Edmund Sandoval lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in the minnesota review, The Common, Fourteen Hills, and Mud Season Review, among others. He earned his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Actual Real Letters
But not tonight, tired today. The air dusty spider web tufting from attic lumber. Smell of crushed cicada shell, grass, other. I’ve got a face for nothing. There isn’t any cost in that. Not in the short run. There’s the moon, hiking up like a mom on a hill, slow and steady and overwarm and a little breathless, but still moving and then there, eager. All that sudden light you knew was coming, making the black leaves green for a spell, and slight shadows where there weren’t any before. There’s mine, spilling down the porch stairs and onto the walkup where the dog lays and pants and scratches in the day.
The dog was a mistake. He’s a good boy, but he’s not right for me. He’s got his issues. I can see them coming a mile away. I hit him once. Stunned him on the low back, just where the tail sprouts. How he went into a sit. Just like that. Standing then pow then sitting. Thought it was a bug sting. How he U’d around and chewed at the point where I clocked him, those little front teeth nibbling away. We sleep in the same bed when she’s not around. And when she is, he warms the floor, cocks his head when the springs curse and jumble.
When he ran off, I watched him go, his stiff hind legs toggling back and forth. Fine, I yelled after him. See if you don’t come back! Of course he did. Circle of fur on the welcome mat, brambles and burr seeds woven into his hide, tick the size of a hailstone poking out of his ear.
When I think of my brother. When I think of us as kids. When I recall how I took a knife to him and how he just moved his fork through his food with his eyes closed. And how we drove together to the land that wasn’t ours.
She’s got the cards out and is bridging them between her hands then making them dance on the table. Her fingers are short but deft. We’ve got a glass bottle out and the bubbles are hitting surface and popping. She said we should pretend being high rollers. That the cola was some fancy wine. That we were playing cash games. Ok, I said, then I’ll bet the limit, and pushed across my pile of pennies and nickels.
What’s it matter? Brother’s in Montana now, anyway. Or is it Wyoming. Or is it Missouri. Same kind of look to the land from what I know. Long weeds and gray rocks jutting through it, and emptiness, and clouds. Gave up the short weeds and red stones and cloudless skies of New Mexico. That bowl of sky. Long curve of mountain road, rusted guardrail, mile marker dappled with birdshot. That rounded valley where we’d struck out then.
She’d written me actual real letters, with glossy photos between the trifolds leftover from the envelopes they were sent in.
When I drink my cola, when I’m partway through the swallow, I try to dredge up some other taste beyond sugar. It’s hard being dry. I read that this wasn’t the way you had to do it. That there was research that made it fine to go back in but slower, without the heavy foot. But she insists. Says you said so. And I did say so. I get up for another bottle, twist the cap, and pour it out. I’m gaining weight with all this sugar and ice. I say let’s just call it was it is.
About those three years. Flatbacked in the dark and on the floor, receiver volume between the thumb and forefinger, up and down with the swells, the ceiling rotating, a heaviness between the shoulders and gut.
And she in the bed, the lights off, rustle of sheets heard through the heat register. What could she have been mouthing? I didn’t adjust, kept on humming and turning the dial, patient enough to watch the dark crystallize, no other choice.
This was her handwriting. Like a song sung in a car when you’re alone on the road. Nothing held back. The joy, the communion of voices. On those letters, is what I mean.
Sometimes the pictures weren’t even of her. A set of potted plants, some old timer with a cane and a belt. Or were of her but weren’t of all of her. That one with the lens an inch from her skin. Could have been the top of her thigh. Could have been a splotch of dirt.
The dog tripped running down the hill. Tumbled and went ass over tea kettle. When he got back on his legs, his snout was red and dusty. I went up to him and he licked my palm and when he did a tooth came out. It was yellow as beach sand. I held it up to him and he sniffed it, then went for my arm, licked the sweat that was beading there. He left his spit and blood, and seemed happy. He panted. I put his tooth in my pocket. But then I took it out. Looked at it again. It was aged, like an old tree.
I can’t get any cards to make a hand so I bluff and bluff again. I smile when I do. Or set my face and stare off. Sometimes she calls. Mostly she folds. And sighs. And says why’d you do that? Gotta pay to play, I say. There’s water on the table from the glasses. I clap my thigh and the dog comes over. You old son of a bitch. It goes into a yoga pose and stretches its shoulders. Just like my brother did in the morning on the dirt when the sun was just a pool of colors and not an actual round thing.
We don’t touch much, like older couples. Our parents. Whatever there is, it’s cursory. Like pledging the flag in the morning, putting on your seatbelt. But that wasn’t everything. Like with everything, there was more. There was talk. And walks. There was silence and driving here and there, errands, movies. Also. Also there was the grab and clasp, the spasm, the heat drawn out and left to dissipate, the air churning, the headiness after the sudden crash and slam and fall over. And. Also there were fights. And things thrown, and oaths spewed. The tabletop whose salt and pepper shakers shook with a slammed fist, a point made muted by the bang.
I say I’m tired and we put up the cards and rinse the glasses. We do our teeth and use the bathroom. I open the door and the dog goes out and runs around, back and forth against the side of the fence that faces the brighter stars, the fading moon. He stops all the while to raise a leg, to sniff at his earlier remnants. I’ve got my brush out of doors, out here, and spit the white foam into the bushes then call him over with a whistle and he’s slow in coming over.
It’s when he nudges my thigh with his head that I feel the need to do something heroic.
She didn’t ever come and visit. She called from Colorado. Said she’d had it. What’s another thousand miles, I tried to reason to her. I’ll pay for the gas. But it’s not that, she said. It’s the road. It’s sad. It’s boring. I hate it. I hung up on her then threw the phone across the room and chased after it and kicked it after it hit the wall. It didn’t matter.
Usually we lay in bed. We lay in bed and I wait until she nods off. I lay there too like I’m sleeping. And then I wait. I watch the sky’s light on the horizon aperture down to nothing. Then I wait some more. It’s when her twitches are gone and her breathing evens out that I get up and head into the bathroom. I’ve got it down so the dog doesn’t wake. Or if he does, I’ve taught him this signal to shut the fuck up and stay put.
Sometimes I fall asleep and when I wake up with the sun and the gray sky and her lumped next to me I think: why not this every time. And the day goes as it goes. And there is no bad feeling in the body. There is hope. The light continues to brighten. The air smells as it does. I feel that I can be healthy and hale and respectable. That the excuses will dissipate. But then there’s the night. The empty expanse of dark. What to fill it with. Why not?
What did we manage to do? What did we accomplish? While we were out there. Moved some dirt around. Picked some crop. Went a little hungry until we didn’t. Skimmed rocks smooth. Built fires and danced around them, drunk and happy, then miserable and alone with the sky up there, crushed gypsum up there, glittering and bright.
It’s nice watching her work the cards. When she’s doing it. I forget about the weight behind my shoulder blades. The thickness in my neck. I just watch. Entranced as a boy watching an amateur magician. Except she’s not desperate or anything. She’s just doing it in her loose jeans and old t-shirt and pulled back hair at our table with our dog rolled up like a rug at our feet. She’s just doing it and the sound is like a gaggle of moths lifting off all at once. Soft paper and dust and all their waving antennae.
When I told him she wasn’t coming is when he slugged me. Told me I told you so. I should’ve absorbed it. Let it wake me up. But I didn’t. I came back with all I had. It felt good, doing that. Gears loosened and with so little oil. How they clicked into place. Just moving along. Dumbly. The passage of time as always. And then the two of us arguing over the ice, who had the worser shiner, the knuckle most contorted.
In the bathroom I draw the water from the tap and unlid the mouthwash. I take a gulp and swish it around then drink it down. Then I have a sip from the tap. Then I take another drink. It’s orange flavor mouthwash and I pretend it’s Fanta. Orange Crush. That R.E.M. song. I’ve got my spine, wheels in slush. And so on. I sit on the can and wait for my belly to warm. I reach back and hit the handle. It’s a bad joke. Then I have another.
Instead of getting in bed I give the dog the signal to follow me down the stairs. He’s up and then he’s giving a stretch then thinking twice about the expedition but I give him the signal again and he’s clattering down the stairwell, nails clicking all the way. Partway down I slip and then I’m on my haunches with the dog looking back over his shoulder. His eyes are two coins fresh out of the foundry.
I let the plan crystallize as we walk down the empty road. It won’t be hard. He romps through thicket and sprints around, stops to yawn and scratch and stretch. I give a whoop and take off down the road. I weave back and forth and holler loud. The dog catches up with me and then he’s passing me and I stop abruptly in the road and let myself tumble and then he’s covering me with his tongue and his bad-smelling breath. Sorry, pal, I say but it’s like I’m saying all the good things that ever were or anything or nothing.
Maybe we should steal shit and sell it, my brother says when the engine finally fell out the chassis. We were five months behind when the don’t give a shit owner woke up and felt his coin purse lighter than it ought to be. Sure. Why not. Make our own luck. See what there is when the cards fall. Grin either way. Shrug our shoulders and say: It happens.
So we drove our shared car to the warehouses forty miles from our fields and sit there with the engine idling and then not to save gas. We think. Then we palm the door handles and pull back and put our feet on the ground, the upholstery and springs and cushioning breathing and sighing with relief. We get out and test the chain link fence for weight. We climb up it and down it and then back over again. The next morning we’re driving to the town with a bus stop and I’m buying a postcard and telling her I’m coming back and my brother fronting me the bucks for the bus ticket and us hugging like a couple of brothers and socking each other on the shoulders and saying how one of us ought to call mom and dad and tell them how we fucked it up just like they said we would.
We veer into the forest. We don’t go far. The dog is close to me. He’s nervy. I’m nervy. The trees look weird and ominous. Full of goblins. And birds and squirrels and bugs nestled in the warm folds of bark.
I stop and crouch down and the dog is in my face with its tongue. I untie each shoe then pull the strings through the loopholes. It’s a satisfying feeling, the woven cloth sliding over the metal. So little resistance save the lace against itself. A good tension. The dog is intrigued and paws at the laces and I tell him to stay put.
Sometimes she wakes when I’m in the bathroom and she comes to the door and knocks and says are you alright in there and I say yes and manhandle the toilet paper in its holder and say almost finished, don’t come in, thinking, how’s my voice, how’s it sound, and when I open the door she’s back asleep, at peace, and I slide atop the sheets and blankets so I don’t disturb her.
When the bus pulls into our town she’s there with her car and her hands are crossed across her chest and her back is against the brick of the station wall that looks out onto the street. She’s doing her lazy cowboy and her straw hat’s at an angle and if she smoked she would be smoking but she’s not so she’s not. I’ve got her photos in my pocket. They beacon away, thrumming against my thigh.
My brother doesn’t call or write. I look him up online and read what’s he’s up to. Nothing too serious. Nothing to keep him off the planet for long. He’s got a pic or two out there. One with him skinny and tan and a ukelele and both his feet off the ground. The other where he’s got this little baby gal in his arms. His eyes are closed and his mouth is pursed like how it is when he’s humming or about to sing. The kid is holding her toes. They both look so happy.
We knew happiness and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. So I can storm into the house with my story about the dog. How he got spooked and ran off. How I kept up with him for the first fifty yards until he peeled off into the woods. How I went headlong after him, calling his name. Praying that he wouldn’t get far. That he’d come to my voice. Because he trusted me and didn’t like the emptiness of the woods. The scariness that lived within them.
I clamber up the stairs and shake her awake. I’m excited. I smell like dirt. I smell like alcohol. I shouldn’t be excited. I remember too late. I change course. I put a well full of water in my throat. I try it out. While I’m trying it out is when I notice she’s already awake. Maybe been awake. The whole time all the while. I say the dog got loose. Say he’s run off into the night.
We hold hands in the woods. We stumble and trip. Our flashlight beams go haywire over the branches and leaves. We yell the dog’s name. It bounds over everything. The stars winkle like always. We feel hope. We feel desperation and sadness. I don’t say anything. I say nothing. For awhile I say nothing some more. It’s when she’s dumb with sadness that I admit everything. When I finish, she doesn’t say anything. She’s asleep. And lovely. And innocent. I get in the bed think nothing of the clatter of plastic on the floor. The waves within lull me to sleep and we’re next to each other, touching and warm.
The dog’s got the double knots frayed to thread when I get to him. He sees me and it’s just savior, savior, savior. Here to save me. He breaks free and is cowered next to me like that. Okay, pal. Okay, pal, I say. I kneel and embrace him and he’s a vibrating coil. I give him a peck on the head. I unloop my shoelaces from his neck and toss them far and he watches them wobble through the air.
He stays to my side. My hombre. We walk through the woods. I say let’s rest and he assents. I rub his neck. It’s a good thing. It’s a good thing to let something go. This is something realized too late.