You’d think the flat stretch of American highway across the western desert would be safe, but there’s a woman behind the wheel whose stories live inside her guts and muscle, the very ligaments and skin, stories that beat the blood from her toes all the way to the top of her head and flash warning signs like the ones she passes on the road.
DANGER. And Watch Out For FALLING ROCK.
A boy dies at exactly my age, one month past ten years old. We share a birthday, same day, same year.
Dad picked me up in the truck.
“Ronnie’s dead,” he said.
“Ronnie Smith?” I asked. He was my older sister’s age, a high school senior, the first and only Ronnie that came to mind. After all, Dad said “dead.”
I was one exact month past ten because I turned eleven on June 5th. And I was not the only one.
“No. Not him,” Dad said, making a slow left turn onto Washington Boulevard. He wiped one hand, then another, on his work jeans before he said, “Ronnie Droll.”
“Ronnie Droll?” my voice was small, or was it? I bet I was wearing the black culottes, the closest thing to pants our religion allowed girls to wear, and the Chinese top I loved so much. My hair was a long braid down my back.
Dad had just picked me up from a babysitting job where there were two Doberman Pinschers and they kind of scared me.
“Yes, Ronnie Droll,” Dad confirmed.
The air was a blue blank around us and the truck was floating in it while I tried to understand a world where Ronnie Droll wasn’t in it.
“He was riding his go-cart with a friend,” Dad went on, adjusting the rear view mirror a little, then clearing his throat. “They were going downhill and ran right out in front of a large truck. Instantly killed. Both of them.”
Ronnie was exactly one month past ten too, like me. We were born on the same day, a few hours apart our mothers figured. Ronnie was my astro twin.
And one month now past the age of ten, he was gone—and me? I was still alive. I was in the blue blank and the smooth air of the green GMC truck and I could smell the oil or the gas that must have been on my father’s fingers.
And Ronnie. Ronnie Droll was dead.
I remembered the last thing I’d said.
“You’re nothing but black magic.”
Because I was mad and we were fighting over turns on the trampoline, plus he was ignoring me, like I didn’t exist. It was the worst thing I could think of to say.
“You’re black magic,” that’s what I said.
And Ronnie, Ronnie Droll, was dead.
A girl imagines love in the form of violence because that’s what she knows. Thunderbird makes it go down easy for him, while the metallic taste of blood left in her mouth never quite goes away.
Greg is on the roof of the house on Willamette Street, the green Victorian where you rented an apartment, the one around back, up the rickety steps with the peeling paint.
Greg is on the roof with a chair. You don’t know where the chair came from or how Greg came to be perched precariously on it, rocking back in it, on the asphalt grey shingles of the slanted roof, on the flat part, but near the edge.
Greg is rocking in the chair on the roof. He has a bottle in his hand. He is bare chested and tan. The bottle swings lazily in his loose grip and he brings it up to his mouth like he’s king of the world and tilts his head back, drinks long, drinks hard. You know it’s T-bird because it’s cheap as shit and he drinks it all the time and the way he showed you with a slice of lemon to chase it down.
Greg is on the roof drinking his rotgut T-bird, yelling. Names, orders, you don’t know—something erased them all from your body and all you hear is the venom in the words and the hate and the way you know that soon, Greg will come down from the roof. That is, if he survives the way the chair scoots ever closer with his rocking to the edge. And you are eighteen and you don’t even know enough to want to see him fall. Instead you cry, beg, and plead to save him.
“Come down,” you say, your throat raw.
Greg is on the roof and the sun is sinking down before the green Victorian house on Willamette Street. The sky is turning red and the pink grey tinge of light that’s left as you squint up at him—throwing his blond head back to drink again—is fading.
And soon you know it will be dark.
And Greg, who’s on the roof, will come down somehow and find you.
There, near the tree, in your Navy bells and suede moccasins, your Empire-waisted blouse and long brown hair.
Greg who’s on the roof and drinking T-bird.
Greg, who says he loves you.
Greg will come down from the roof and grab you by the hair and he will kick and hit.
And he will hurt you.
A girl has a child. A child has a child. In labor from Saturday to Sunday, she pushes the fetal monitor aside, tears out the IV needle and starts to rise. A boy she met in a bowling alley, nowhere to be found.
“I’ve changed my mind,” she says. “I’m not going to do this.”
She is soothed and ushered back onto the gurney, the IV line fixed.
“Shhhh,” a nurse says. She wipes the girl’s face with a cold cloth.
Later, in delivery, a different nurse admonishes the girl, “You wanted this baby! Now you have it!”
The girl’s eyes glaze over.
This time, when she pulls the IV needle out it breaks in her arm and there’s blood.
But she is calm as she pulls the surgical hat and mask off the punitive nurse, who is sent out of the room.
Her arm is bloody and for a moment, she smiles, clutching the nurse’s cap in her fist.
Then she becomes the animal that knows what to do.
There is the family of origin, and fallen into the cave of those origins, is a daughter who does not know her mother—only the story of who she made from the fragments of a broken thing, broken by time and interlopers, predator stalkers and the lies they set like traps for foxes.
She won’t allow herself to come to know her now, only the mother she memorized as a child and then a teen and then the decades-long slow distance and the narrative of who she is and what that must make the mother. Has to make her.
Maybe there’s another narrative, but we get attached to the ones we know. I want a different role. And so—my hands tell me in the way they seek her face, in the shape of a prayer—must she.
In warrior pose, my arms spread in both directions. My hands reach as far as possible—all the way to the ends of my fingers. God reaching for Adam reaching for God in the Sistine Chapel. My hands reach and reach but it is hers to make the final stretch. Her reluctant small white hand—the one I held when she was small—reaches not at all, must come out from behind her back to meet its maker. Mother.
Daughter form, not a vessel for the lead weight of centuries or the clinking metal bones of a dead patriarchy but an alive thing. Alive.
What is it I, the mother, cannot see? You, my darling girl.
My blind spot.
Back on the long stretch, the American highway, a woman grips the steering wheel with both hands, hard, and, though she does not know what prayer is, exactly, her lips are moving.1
1. Reference to the line “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is” in Mary Oliver’s poem “Summer Day,” which the author originally read on her friend Anne’s shoulder, in the form of a tattoo.↩
Feature photo © Wayne d. Thompson.