Internal Combustion

By

During the week I take my first steps, the tumors blooming in my grandfather’s skull knock him to the smoky carpet in my grandparents’ house. He will not get out of his wheelchair again, save for those times he can pull himself onto the toilet or into the bathtub.

I start talking late, making word-sounds with my throat long before I open my mouth. When my lips and tongue begin to unfreeze, the progression of brain cancer locks my grandfather’s jaw in place.

It happens over and over: I will gain one cognitive ability, and he will lose one. A man in a suburban tract house in Iowa is receding into himself, shrinking and fading. Four hundred miles away, a child is reaching for a cup.

My mother’s family is not superstitious, and suspicious of anything that can’t be accounted for, but everyone notices it. My aunt, hedging behind a beer and a cigarette, will say “It’s almost like his spirit is going into her.”

He dies when I am very young, and I don’t remember him at all.

*

My grandfather, George Hild, was a Hospital Corpsman in the Pacific theatre in World War II. After the bombing of Nagasaki, he landed on the shore in one of the first boats, as part of a unit tasked with building infrastructure to support the occupation. We have photographs: in one, five men in GI uniforms crowd for the camera, shirts unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up to their elbows. My grandfather, who is twenty, is leaning on the wooden railing of the bridge they built across the harbor. Some of the men are smiling.

Another photo shows the harbor and the hills, which are blasted and burned. Pieces of wood and debris float in the water; the remains of the buildings on the far shore look like a collapsed skeleton. A few men are lounging on a wooden platform, re-tying shoelaces or smoking cigarettes. Radiation is soaking into their bones.

*

He saves the pictures, but he comes home and never talks about it. He takes a job as a traveling shoe salesman, complete with company car and expense account, and a route with plenty of room for secrets. He blazes around in a seven-hundred-mile lightning orbit twice a week. Memorizes all the shortcuts, does anything to knock thirty seconds off his route. Once, in a busted river town in Missouri, he drives my parents through a hole in a fence, crossing the blacktop of an elementary school playground and cutting through an alley, so they wouldn’t have to wait at the red light on the corner. The alley is full of clotheslines, and house dresses and floral sheets brush the windshield and the roof. He cautions, “You can’t do this when school is in session.”

Even today, the first thing anyone ever says about him is, “He drove like a bat out of hell.”

He and my grandmother drink hard. She brings home huge plastic jugs of Scotch that they keep stashed next to the refrigerator, where the broom and the mop live. Sometimes when they crack into the bottle, they crack into each other, and my mother and my aunts and uncle wake up in the basement.

I’m sure he was relying on the whiskey long before the morphine drip arrived—the hot quick plunge, the spreading burst of numbness. When he is in his thirties, both of his lungs collapse, one after another in succession. When he is forty, all his teeth fall out.

I heard that everyone in his unit died of cancer, if they didn’t shoot themselves first.

*

As a kid, there’s a board game in my grandparents’ house that I’m terrified of, a puzzle on a rattling automatic timer. I can never put all the pieces together before time runs out, and with a microwave ding the box bursts, scattering pieces all around. Whenever there’s the promise of explosion in a cartoon—Tom and Jerry tossing a bomb back and forth, Wile E. Coyote eating fistfuls of gunpowder—I bury my head in the couch or run from the room. I read about Spontaneous Human Combustion in a library book and I live in fear of it for years—a sudden rush of unstoppable heat, and then you are aflame, and then you are nothing.

Now, however, I wake up and smear on a body-altering testosterone gel solution whose long-term effects are still unknown. The solution is alcohol-based, and so I’m not supposed to smoke, light a match, or turn on the stove for five minutes after I put it on, because I’ll be flammable. I’m also not supposed to hug anyone for an hour or so, to prevent accidentally transferring testosterone to someone else. My friends and I joke that masculinity has a half-life. We joke that I’m radioactive.

I have burned prairies as part of forest preserve management, scorched earth in order to let it heal and care for itself. I have stood in a dry gulch in a ten-foot wall of fire as a red shield rises on my chest and my hair kinks and knots into a fire crown. I plan to learn welding as a trade skill, to move inside seventy-five pounds of leather and metal in order to hold a spark so hot that it turns solid things to liquid, two pieces to one.

*

Maybe it took a fifth of Lord Calvert and teeth clattering into the bathroom sink to bring the war stories out. My mother says, “He only told this story once:” When they landed at Nagasaki, they were met on the shore by a group of men wielding machetes, who chased them back into the water.

I imagine that the men with machetes back the soldiers waist deep, chest deep into the water. My grandfather is holding the camera over his head, and briefly thinks of what a great picture it would make—but the camera’s not loaded.

I say, “Mom, if we don’t tell this story, these guys with machetes might disappear. Did they get a chance to tell their stories before they dropped dead of radiation poisoning? Did any of the other guys in Grandpa’s unit talk about this, ever? Is anyone left alive who remembers them?”

*

I make up lies about my family, to bridge the gaps between the things I’ve wrestled from them and the secrets they won’t talk about. I invent the stories they’ve worked hard to bury, which also happen to be the stories I need to live on. In my half-imagined family stories, my grandfather confronts my draft-dodging Quaker father, who he only knows as the longhair who’s dating his daughter. I imagine my dad would back my grandfather into a corner and leave him surprised to be sputtering platitudes about tradition and duty and honor—things I imagine my grandfather didn’t really believe, not particularly, but needed to claim in order to defend a point. I see them shouting. But they probably avoided each other in Midwestern silence until one of them died.

I have decided to make my grandfather the queer ancestor I’m supposed to have but don’t, because I look back at my family line and see no one else like me, as though I dropped out of the sky one day. I make him the door I have to walk through.

I imagine the mushroom cloud shadows him all the time. I imagine he gets the news about the other guys from his unit secondhand—mediated through Christmas letters and did-you-hear-abouts—that his fears grow with every new discovery about radiation poisoning, radiation sickness, cancer and leukemia. I imagine he feels guilt, over what his government did, over what he took part in. Maybe he feels he deserves it.

I imagine that, in the dark or bright of anonymous hotel rooms, on the highways long enough to feel like everything can be outrun, something was worked out.

*

I am thirty-three and driving through New Mexico, not far from where the first atomic bombs were tested, where locals have fought for recognition for radiation-related illnesses. Local lore has it that mutated creatures live in the canyons, running wild in bodies gone amok.

*

I am twenty-nine and teaching my partner’s kid, Sammy, how to drive—illegally, on a back country road. I tell Sammy that my grandfather taught me how to drive, tell the legend of the bat out of hell. For some reason I say this because it feels true—it explains the reason I scorch around the highways at night. As though he leaned over the seat and directed me as I learned how to ace other cars out on the highway, or cut across schoolyards.

The car swings wildly across the road as Sammy overcorrects every time. “I can’t do this,” they say. “I’m screwing everything up already.”

I lean over the seat. “See the edge of the headlights, up ahead? Point the car where you want to go.”

Sammy turns the wheel, and the car rights itself across the road. There’s the click of something being set right.

*

I am twenty-six and I am wearing other men’s clothes and trying on other men’s cologne and haircuts. I watch how other men walk, look people in the eye on the street, take up space, try to imitate the stance of their strides and the timbre of their voices. Everything about my supposedly true self comes secondhand. I drive from Los Feliz to West Hollywood once a month for a trans support group, to North Hollywood once a week to see a lousy therapist. At night, I drive, fast enough to leave fear and doubt behind, fast enough to feel this body fused with the energy and spirit of this forward motion, and this time, this road, it is mine, it is mine.

*

I am twenty-three and doing ninety miles an hour on a six-lane highway somewhere behind the Hayward fault line in the East Bay in the middle of the night. I am newly raped and part of me still can’t believe it, this feels less like a thing a person did to me and more like a garishly improbable thing that happened, something that dropped out of a sunny blue sky.

These night drives feel like I am circling circling circling something I can’t face, and it never goes away, but sometimes it fades into the distance a little, sometimes the whoosh of night air and the roar of the radio drowns it out, and some nights that’s good enough.

*

I am fifteen and a half. I finally have my learner’s permit, a half sheet of paper with my name and address stamped in black text. I adjust the driver’s seat of my mom’s car, change the angle of the rearview mirror, and put on my seat belt, like they showed us in Driver’s Ed.

Would it have been possible, even then, as I hold the steering wheel for the first time, to remember how it feels to push the engine, to roll, to swing around corners and cut through alleys?

I turn the key. A spark catches, and we are off.

***

Photographs provided courtesy of author.


Katherine Scott Nelson is a writer, editor, and ongoing experiment. They have an MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and their stories and essays have appeared in Ninth Letter, make/shift, Whiskey Island, and more. Their novella Have You Seen Me was published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Born and raised in the Rust Belt, Scott lives in southern California. Follow them on Twitter @KScottNelson. More from this author →