I’d said the wrong thing, then Lynn said the wrong thing, and before we knew it flame was curling from the pan on the stove, smoke clinging to the air. She leapt for the lid to smother the fire, turning back to me but I had no words left. I couldn’t really remember what the argument was about, I only knew the grip of rage at my throat. I walked away. She called my name as I moved toward the door but didn’t follow.
Beads of rain rattled from the frame when I slammed the door, peppering my shoulders, cold on my face. The night was slick and oily, the rain indecisive. The glow from the streetlight had tangled itself in the trees. I stood on the porch, searching my lawn for something familiar.
It felt good to settle into the car and pull the door closed, its distinct click carving out a certain silence in the unnerving rhythm of the night. I didn’t put the key in the ignition just yet, wanting to avoid its incessant chime. I folded the keys onto the passenger seat, covering them with my hand.
The bitterness scorched through me. Not her bitterness, or ours; something older, scrubbed and claw-like, twisting down my arms and into my fingers, bringing its own responses from the shadows of a past I could no longer decipher. I pounded the heel of my hand at the steering wheel, once, twice, three times, until the sting became an ache rising into my arm.
I was hollowing to a singular note of emptiness, the plummet after rage and blame as adrenalin pulls away, leaving bruised flesh and raw bone. In the absence of rage there was nothing; nothing but the night around me, the night outside the car, beating its constant pulse. I rubbed my hand absently, the pain somehow soothing.
I didn’t want to see the house or the light in its windows, the slant of the sidewalk or the shrubs we’d planted in spring to frame it. My eyes lost focus in a kind of willful night blindness. I didn’t want to see the lawn unfolding to the road or her car silent next to mine or the large, plain pumpkin resting by the front door. I wanted to be free of the past, the clutch of it, and its blind recurrence. I didn’t want to feel the same feelings, think the same thoughts, contend with the cold darkness which always fell after our arguments.
Lynn’s perfume lingered in the car like a rootless memory, and it wasn’t simply the perfume itself, but its scent once it had become a part of her, after an hour or so on her skin. There was a slight spice, a certain citrus, and the smell of her hair when she was asleep at two in the morning. Recognizing this didn’t make me angry at her ghostly presence. It was more a sadness, an unarticulated loss, and the vague exhaustion one might feel at the thought of having to repeat a long journey.
I heard myself sigh. The sound bored me, the tone and the drama of the exhalation, and every faltering pressure framing it. My hands came to rest on top of the steering wheel, my fingers weighted, then curling slightly.
When they touched the underside something sparked, the tips completing a lost circuit, phantom voltage traveling the length of my spine to release a tiny synaptic warmth. Memory tumbled on sensation, side to side and back, never in a straight line, like a child randomly leaping one stone to another. I sank into it, the muscles of my back releasing into the seat, my heavy body receding, falling away, replaced by something smaller, more contained and ecstatic.
I’m bouncing at the knees, clutching the wheel, raising myself up then letting myself drop. I fall back and lurch forward, anchored by the steering column. I can’t be more than five, standing on my uncle’s legs before the wheel. His voice is close at my ear. Itchy excitement jangles my arms and legs as I struggle to listen, knowing it’s important.
“I’ll let you drive, but you gotta pay attention.”
I bounce on his thighs, bumping my head gently on the roof of the car, enjoying the muffled sound it makes, the tingle along my skull. He chuckles, releasing the handbrake. My hands lock at the top of the wheel while his hover near my waist, thumb and forefinger notched at the bottom, casually suggesting the direction of the car.
I remember the weight of the machine around me. The way the world opened to our motion, changing shape as we passed. The sunlight flickering along the windshield, the canopy of trees gliding by in reflection: green and yellow, blue, then green again. The sense of momentum, of flying, with my Uncle’s hands applying just enough pressure that everything felt dangerous, but not too dangerous.
Later that day, or the next day, or another year, I’m in the kitchen with Grammy Jane. She’s made a grilled cheese sandwich for me and I’m sitting at her sturdy oak table, straightening the sandwich on the plate after every bite, the buttery crumbs sticking to my fingers and my glass of milk when I replace it by the plate. She’s as sturdy as a post, planted at the kitchen sink, peering into the backyard, washing a spatula. It’s spring, I think, because it seems warm and the windows are cast in green. The light is high; sweeping past Grammy Jane from the back yard, filling the room around us.
She turns to me as if I’ve called her name. Her light blue eyes are deep-set and clear and she’s wiping her hands on her apron. My legs are dangling over the edge of the chair above the floor. I pick up my sandwich for another bite and she says, “You are my darling boy.”
Her glow passes through me. I remember kicking my legs out in the chair, rocking back and forth, looking toward her and taking another bite. I come into my body, filling it to bursting, something inside growing large to push against the very boundaries of skin. I kick my legs out, bouncing, and the chair rocks leg to leg on the linoleum floor. I chew my sandwich.
And, one night, not so very long ago: it’s two in the morning and Lynn thinks I’m asleep. She turns her body toward me in the bed. I can make out the glow of the clock over her shoulder, the numbers blue white and persistent, and the nest of her hair tousled by sleep. She rests on one arm, her loose hand pausing at the smoothed sheet an inch from my chest before touching me cautiously. She says, “I love you, Sam Lightner. You are the person I love in this world.” Her sleep-stained breath glances my forehead, her warmth soaking me beneath the shell of the blanket. She stares at me for perhaps five minutes, and I don’t dare move, then she kisses me lightly on the forehead so as not to wake me and turns away, sinking into sleep.
Grammy Jane tucks me into the spare bed at her house. I stayed for weeks that summer because they said mother was sick and needed quiet, and dad was away. Grammy Jane sits on the side of the bed. The room is dark but the door is open and the hall light is on, so a wedge of light spills by the bedposts, draping her lap. She’s told me a story of her childhood, of looking for a missing calf with her father, of holding his hand as they made their way down to the creek and feeling his pulse quicken along her fingertips when they heard the first plaintive bellow of the animal, of the way he tossed the calf around his neck, pinning its legs to both sides of his chest. They walked home like that, she bumping close beside him, he with the calf on his shoulders; the animal quiet now, found. She’d been proud of him, proud of his strength, his intelligence and compassion, and the pride came through in her story about a man I never knew.
After the story she sits silently for a time, remembering him perhaps, holding his presence vital within her. She turns toward me. My eyelids are heavy, my limbs melting into the clothesline smell of her sheets. I’m squirming in the bed, too exhausted to be sleepy, too stubborn to be quiet. Grammy Jane starts to talk again, only it doesn’t seem she’s talking to me, but to herself, or another figure in the room just beyond my vision. Her voice is low, more of a hum or a song. She talks about things I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter; it’s the slow intimacy of the moment that settles over me. Her fingers sweep the hair from my eyes and stroke my forehead; her fingers large and rough with work, smelling of flour and lemon and starch. I curl my body around hers on the bed, nestling into her back, and drift into the seat, behind the wheel, allowing something precious to fade and peering after it into a darkness.
All the time feeling I’m constantly looking in the wrong direction; as if I have a story I’ll never understand, apocryphal memories which refuse to cohere into narrative. They chart the features of another kind of history unfolding in the shadows, glimpsed but never clear. And what I remember is what I remember, whether it happened or not.
I turn the key and the headlights click off, leaving me with only the night. I pull them from the ignition and place them on the passenger seat, tenting my hand above them. The car settles itself to rest around me.
Lynn would be standing in the kitchen now, making a cup of tea, and the cat would be curling around her leg as he always did when she came to rest by the stove. She’d be staring off to the left, not quite toward the window. She’d pull the teapot from the flame just before it began to whistle, twining her fingers around the cup as soon as she deposited the teabag. She’d spiral into the armchair around her cup and the cat would settle into her lap.
Or, she might be coiled and seething, waiting for the sound of the turning lock to pounce with a harbored rage.
Or, she’d be propped in bed on four pillows, the comforter at her waist, book resting on her knees. Her cup would steam on the bedside table. Her glasses would be partway down her nose, her hair pulled back with a clip, two buttons of her pajama shirt unbuttoned, revealing just enough skin that I might stop when I enter the room and she might peer over the top of her glasses in my direction, the slightest smile curling at her lip.
I pull up the pictures as if they are snapshots in an album, or scenes where I linger just above the room. They’re dream images in which I watch myself. I pull them up. I let them go.
She died before I could get there. She’d managed to reach the phone, managed to call 911 and me, at home in my pajamas in front of the TV while her car lay crumpled and upside down in a shallow ravine. She’d managed to stay alive until the EMT’s arrived. But, she died waiting for them to cut the metal skin of the car away from her.
I stand in the wet, black grass, my slippers soaked, my raincoat whipping around my pajama pants. The night shudders pulses of blue and red, strobing the branches in the trees, the landscape unsure of its shape. The gash in the bank, the gnarled car. Voices run past in both directions, shouting, dragging themselves up and down the hill.
I drop to sit in the grass, eyes sliding over the blurred picture, returning to the car door and her limp hand then sliding away to the blinking trees and back to the car door, the EMT leaning in through the shattered windshield, pushing at the door inside with all his might, and I only know I’m alive by the weight of my body on the grass, the pulsing grind of the night around me, the hand of gravity forcing me farther downward, hard and unrelenting.
I have not moved her book from the bedside table. I keep her clothes, folded in the drawers. And now and then, in the morning at breakfast or late at night, I turn the phone in my hand for a moment or two before playing one of the last messages she left me. It’s unremarkable. It’s the one where she says: “I’ll be home in an hour or so. I’ll stop and pick up a few things for dinner.” It’s the one where she adds the casual “love you” in that tone we use when we feel something is commonplace and accepted.
I sit in the car, hands resting at the top of the wheel. I don’t want to see the light in the curtained windows, the shrubs along the walk rustling in the breeze. I don’t want to look. But I do. I stare through the fogging windshield toward the amber glow hanging in the living room drapes and the porch light Lynn had switched on eight months ago when I stormed from the house. I haven’t turned it off.
Now and then, when I climb into the car in the morning, I catch the scent of her, present for only an instant. Then, it’s lost.
But it’s enough. Enough to winnow some tiny pocket within me which allows breath. Enough to remember the laugh she saved for me, the silken lull just below her armpit, her hand finding mine across a table. Enough to remember the nights I fell asleep wrapped in the language of her body.
I’ve been driving for hours, going nowhere, passing the same familiar stops and landmarks of our history. The car warm now, comforting now, within the sea of night. I’d like to fold into the seat and sleep.
I close my eyes and Grammy Jane sits in the near dark at the head of my bed, stroking my hair in silence. The weeks at home before, the shouts and broken dishes, slide away. Her silence is a comfort. It contains.
I’d asked about Grandpa, what had happened to Grandpa.Curled within the cocoon of the sheets, it’s hard for me to distinguish the music of her silence from her voice. Suddenly she’s purring near me, her words low and calm as honey. She’s whispering, as if I might remember some phrase or another thirty two years later. There’s music in her voice and it seems I don’t hear words at all but a kind of slow and even exhalation. She’d been talking about Grandpa and now she was talking about something else. She tells me, “Praying is a way of knowing something, I guess. A way of saying something.” Her hand, wide and warm, rests on my shoulder, as other hands would. “It’s a way of being, when there ain’t nothin else.”
I get out of the car, closing the door softly behind me as if afraid of awakening someone. It’s two in the morning and the neighborhood is still, the houses lined blankly on both sides. The road is black and empty. I take two steps from the car and find it’s as far as I can go.
I’m looking up, directly into the giant pool of the sky. It’s dark and cold, the kind of cold which slips its own crystal tone into the air. The stars are rippling their pasts in my direction, and somewhere there, far into the darkness above me and nearly unnoticeable, there’s a sudden note of stillness. It’s a stillness which allows the planet to stop.
Lynn’s presence pours into me in a jolt with the chaos of weather. It’s a great roar, fully present at once, a thing my body can’t contain. She turns to me from the edge of the water, our eyes catch and she smiles. A hint of a smile, a ghost of a smile. Lynn says something to me. It doesn’t matter what. I take the form her voice allows.
Steve Mitchell has been a construction worker, cowboy, substitute teacher, chef, and has developed and managed a mental health program for the chronic mentally ill. His work has published fiction in The Southeast Review, Contrary, The North Carolina Literary Review and The Adirondack Review, among others. His short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is available from Press 53. He is a winner of the Lorian Hemingway International Short Story Prize and has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. Steve has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He is co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, North Carolina.