T.O. Connor is the author of Recipes for Endangered Species (Tarpaulin Sky Press) and teaches writing at University of Rio Grande/Rio Grande Community College. She lives in Athens, OH in the foothills of the Appalachians.
The suburban smells of oil and tools. The steering wheel is loose in J.D.’s hands. It feels as if we, J.D. and I, are floating overtop the muddy road, drifting without oars. We have two cases of beer in the back seat because that’s the only way they sell it in Western Pennsylvania: to alcoholics.
There’s a cliff edge on my side of the road. Far below is the riverbed where they found the dead body of a Girl Scout wedged between a boulder and a log. It was Halloween, a detail too unlikely to be untrue. She lingered with a broken rib through her chest for as long as thirty minutes. That’s the part that haunts me. When I die I don’t want to know it.
The back of the suburban slides out. The beer slides across the back seat. Sometimes you want a cigarette just because you fucking can.
“Am I scaring you?” My husband asks.
I wish I didn’t believe in God. I wish I’d slept around when I had the chance. I wish I had money for a dye-job I don’t do myself. That’s not true; I do have the money. There’s so much dirt pressed into my feet, my toenails look bruised. No one means for their life to be such a disappointment.
“Are you worried about the cliff?” I ask. Sometimes I mean it like Oh God I am really worried about the cliff. Sometimes I mean it like You should fucking be more goddamn worried about the goddamn cliff. Right now I mean it like Are you worried about the cliff? I need to hear J.D.'s voice, so I can decide how to feel.
“That?” J.D. takes his hand off the wheel to point at the cliff, a firebreak cleared all the way to the river. “My dad drove a Volkswagen down that hill for fun.” My quilt-sewing mother used to hunt rabbits in the Utah desert with a spotlight and a shotgun. Pow. Stringy guts and tufts of floating fur. Neither thing is imaginable.
Good God a wild turkey is mangy. Like a stray dog. I slap both hands onto the dash. J.D. turns the wheel too fast and we drift around the turkey, too far around the curve. “Shit,” he says. He wrestles with the steering wheel. The suburban slides around a point in space directly beneath my feet like a canoe in the eddy. Silent. Lazy.
Every crash happens in slow motion is what I’ve heard. Sunlight blinks on and off through the trees. It’s a strange feeling, like looking through polished glass. You can see your way through it but not your way out.
The back end of the suburban swings all the way around and slams into the side of the hill. My head jerks on my neck. We change direction violently. “Shit shit shit,” J.D. is yelling. I press hard into the dash. The force drags on my body like a wave. We float across the road closer to the cliff edge. I look down the firebreak and see nothing.
Do you think you’ll say I love you in the end? Is that the most important thing?
My husband presses his arm across my chest. To save me perhaps. My mother used to do that too.
The suburban slides over the edge, falling falling. There’s a loud noise like a train stopping on the tracks. The Suburban snags, hanging from its back wheels, branches pressed against the windshield.
The suburban drops another inch. J.D. whimpers and begins to cry—a soft, mewing sound. He reaches for me with both hands, pawing at my face like he’s trying to touch all of me at once. “I’m sorry,” he says. Actually, in the end, that’s the only important thing.
The suburban creaks, sinking. I fumble with his seat belt, then mine.
J.D. stomps at the door. The suburban lurches so sharply I grab handfuls of air. He kicks again, everything he’s got. The door lists open. He pulls me across the seat and up through the open space. We climb from limb to limb then land hard at the lip of the road.
It’s hard to know what to feel when you know what you should be feeling is something way bigger than what you are. I reach for J.D.’s hand. He laces our fingers together. The Suburban is beneath us, nose deep in pine. “Should I go back for the beer?” he asks. J.D. should floss his teeth and one of his nostrils is smaller than the other, but he makes me laugh when I don’t think I can. Love is not so easy to define.
“What now?” I ask.
It’s hard not to see the firebreak, hard not to see the dead Girl Scout’s body.
We skinny beneath a barbed wire fence on the other side of the road and find a deer trail. The light inside the trees is like stained glass. No, like underwater. In every goddamn movie, the girl sprains her ankle or loses a shoe. Go ahead, name one. I have two shoes but no fucking bug spray. It’s funny how soon you forget your luck unless it’s bad.
“I spent a whole winter chasing one of those around,” J.D. says, pointing. There’s a giant Brillo pad in the crook of a tree. That’s what it looks like. “Nothing else at the time seemed more important.” I didn’t know porcupines climbed trees. Not even a porcupine can decide even one goddamn sure thing about its life. The suburban’s not really J.D.’s fault but, let's face it, it always is.
“You could make a fortune scrapping these woods,” he says. J.D. tries to make the best of everything. “Miles of oil pipe all the way to the river.”
The pipes are like giant, rusty snakes in the bushes. Most of it is poison ivy.
As a kid, I got lost in the Louisiana woods for fun. It was hotter there. Stinging nettle and dewberry bushes. A walking stick to beat off the snakes. I’m still not the person I thought I was. Maybe no one ever is.
He smiles. The woods smell like oil and leaf rot. “There’s a four-wheeler trail just up ahead.”
“How do you know?”
Something moves in the bushes. It makes me nervous. “I wish we’d brought the beer,” I try to joke. But everyone knows that a joke is always an attack.
“I’ll go back,” J.D. says.
I slap two mosquitoes because he’s watching. “Don’t be a dick.”
Breaking through the trees to the trail is like waking up. I have to blink to see anything.
“I think I hit my head a little,” I say. Sometimes I just want my husband’s hands on me.
J.D. looks hurt. It's not what I meant for him to feel even if I probably did.
“It’s not your fault.” I step closer and he steps closer. Both of us want to be touched but we just stand there looking at each other not touching.
The bushes move on the other side of the road. The branches thrash. I don’t know if there are bears in Pennsylvania. I don’t know which way to go. J.D. moves in front of me. His shirt is dark with sweat.
A girl in an orange skirt comes out of the trees. She has a goat on a leash. Her belly is round. The goat nips at the grass beside the road. “Hi,” she says. She has cut her own bangs that’s how old she is. Five, maybe.
Deliverance, I think. I can’t pretend like I didn’t.
“Hi,” J.D. says. Then again, no one used to be afraid of clowns, either. It’s all about the context. “I like your goat.”
“Sherry B.” She tugs on the leash and the goat hops on its back legs. “C’mon girl,” the girl says in a high-pitched voice.
I look around for a house, a trailer, a tent or something.
“You alone?” J.D. asks.
“Where are your parents?” I ask, so he doesn’t sound so much like a pedophile.
“Bye,” the girl says. She waves like she’s catching and releasing a fly. The goat pulls on the leash. She has to run to catch up.
“Should we follow her?” I whisper.
“It’s the wrong way,” J.D. says to cover all his bases. “Just so you know.”
“Okay.” I think of the dead Girl Scout and not of bears. No, I think of both of them. But in that order. “We’ll hang back so she doesn’t think we’re kidnappers.”
J.D. laughs then thinks the better of it. “That’s not funny.”
We hear the screaming before we see the house. It’s set back from the road. Tar-paper and a metal roof. The windows are covered over with aluminum foil. There's a white range rusting on the porch. The grass is burnt to the ground. The girl tips her head from side to side, twisting her other hand like a baton. The goat rips a clump of clover out by the root.
“Let’s go,” my husband says.
“We can’t.” The screaming is violent. Things banging around inside the house. The girl bends over and pats the goat on the head.
“There's a semi-automatic in that house,” J.D. says. “Trust me.”
I don’t. Or I can’t. I’ve forgotten which thing is true.
The front door slams open. A skinny man, younger than I’d imagined, shirtless, his jeans hung low on his hips, lights a cigarette on the porch. He leans against the range and rubs the hand holding the cigarette over his shaved head. His tattoos are blue instead of black.
The goat takes the hem of the girl’s shirt between its lips and tugs, backing away. “Sherrie B,” the girl yells.
The man stands up, balancing his weight on both bare feet.
“Hey.” He points the cigarette at us and walks off the porch without looking down. “Who the fuck are you?”
J.D. raises both hands in surrender. The man is coming fast.
“Nobody, man,” my husband says. He shakes his head and looks at the ground. “Sorry, dude. Didn’t mean nothing.”
“Get the fuck off my property.” The man tosses the cigarette to the side. He’s close enough I can see his teeth. His eyes vibrate in their sockets; I don’t know how else to explain it.
“Yep.” My husband nods at his feet. He takes a step backwards, practically bowing, hands out as if for a vicious dog. “Let’s go,” he says to me. “You got it, man.” J.D. turns his chin.
“Are you that girl’s father?” I ask. The girl runs after the goat, her blond hair lifting and falling with every step.
The man turns in my direction, both arms out wide, hands open like Jesus is what I think first. “Why. You my fucking mom?” A snake runs up one arm, across his chest, and down the other.
J.D. grabs my wrist hard. “You’re right, man. Didn’t mean to bother you.” Sometimes I think I’m scared, but it’s always of all the wrong things. I don’t know when to look away. I don’t know when to look ahead.
The man follows us back to trees. We fast-walk until we can’t feel his eyes. The girl and her goat keep getting further away.
We walk a long way without seeing another thing. I’m sweating. I’m so goddamn thirsty. We’re still so far from anything like home. We scare a deer off the road. It kicks its back feet and leaps into the trees. I stop and hit my husband’s shoulder with the back of my hand. “How could you leave her there?” It’s like I’m actually myself but on reality TV. Just up ahead, there’s a mobile home, a mowed lawn the size of a football field. It looks clean. Safe. I can’t tell anymore.
“What did you want me to do?” he asks. It’s so easy for me to hurt him. I can’t tell which one of us is the more to blame.
Be a man, is what I want to say but it’s not a thing anyone can say anymore. “I don’t know.” I want to cry. I want to punch him. I want to make him hurt, too.
“Let him shoot you?”
“No,” I say, but what do I mean?
The door of the mobile home opens. A black dog bounds out. A fat woman, gray gym shorts and a baggy tank top, steps out behind it. The dog sprints across the mowed lawn, hackles raised.
“Hey,” my husband yells to the woman on the porch.
She rests one hand on the rail.
“Lady!” The dog lowers its head, advancing. “Call off your dog!”
The lady lights a cigarette. J.D. moves a step sideways and crouches low. His hands tremble. The dog, still far away but coming fast, growls and bares its teeth.
“Are you worried about the dog?” I ask.
Smoke twirls from the fat lady’s cigarette. She takes a drag and leans on the rail to watch.