Everything was there but the meaning.
Every few seconds was like dropping from a dream.
Out the car window, three or four miles away to the east, a water tower over the neighboring town. To the west, not so far, maybe a mile or so, a grain elevator the color of cold dishwater. The sun, softened, stretched shadows towards the encroaching darkness, and mosquitos and gnat clouds pestered the outfielders into episodic spasms. Every now and then, one of the boys would slap at the back of a lifted leg or wave his folded glove to the side of an ear, but they were never gone for long. Pretty soon they were buzzing around his head again, insistent as angels. Ice cubes jostled inside the used Big Gulp cup my cousin was handing back.
“It’s a little heavy on the vodka.”
“It’s cool.” I took a sip through the red plastic straw, bits of pulp catching on the inside. I was sitting in the back seat of her car while her son, Chance, a nine-year-old second baseman so stingy with his swings he mostly drew walks, played baseball. My cousin and her husband sat up front. Her girls, seven and three, had joined the pack of younger sibs at the playground near the water fountains. The adults, she had told her girls, needed “alone time.” We had already smoked one bowl, and I was surprised when she wordlessly loaded another, but I kept my silence.
They lived in the kind of small-town where you could walk out to the corner and see the Kansas wheat fields that hemmed you in whichever direction you looked. It was a part of the country where, no matter how barren the field or lonely the road from which you gazed, you could orient yourself by finding the water towers and grain elevators that pinned down the towns and marked out the tracks. Mountains were a half-day’s drive to the west, forests a fantastical rumor, a windbreak writ large. The land stretched far beyond the forever you told one another you could see, the horizon just a line marking where your eyesight failed.
"Keep an eye on the girls, would ya? That’s all I need is them catching me. Chance already sizes me up like he’s a county attorney.” I could tell it was her favorite story. A couple months ago, Chance told his teacher that he wanted to grow up to be a lawyer so he could “help people like my mom.” She thought it was hilarious—my cousin, not the teacher. It was one of the first things she told me when they picked me up at the interstate truck stop where I was dropped off, ten minutes up the highway from their house. Then she told me again the next day as we sipped beers after lunch, the kids playing on a ripped slip-n-slide, runoff water creating a muddy soup of their front yard. She took a hit from her pipe and, to the best of her ability, discreetly blew the smoke towards her latter-day husband, who was comically trying to shovel the smoke out the passenger-side window, doing what he could to keep it from blowing towards the stands. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to be funny, so I didn’t want to laugh. It was hard to tell if the sounds he was making were light laughter or if he was just running out of breath. He looked like he was splashing baby shampoo off the back of an imaginary newborn. I had met him only once, full of fog at the reception of another cousin’s wedding; when you grew up Mexican Catholic, you were always meeting someone’s someone at a cousin’s wedding. This one, though, was unexpected, like something you’d discover nesting in the wood pile. She half-turned to hand the pipe back.
“No, I’m good,” I said, looking out the window, listening for the cicadas even though I knew it was too early in the summer. The town was small enough to be picturesque if there was anything there you would want to see in a picture, but unless you’d been bled or bruised there, married or buried, unless it was frosted, in other words, with the kind of sentimental attachment you would find in a Rockwell or a Kinkade, it was dull as daytime MTV. I had only been there three days, but it already felt too long. My eyes drifted down to the little post of door lock, a sad sentry; someone had been chipping away the silver enamel that covered it. I could imagine the kid thumb, the acidic gaze, wheat fields and cottonwoods skimming past the window, noise from the front seat trying to break through the hum of the tires, parents laughing or bickering about god knows what.
In the golden-hued days of not knowing any better, my cousin had been my north star. Four years older, she had done everything first and had made everything seem cool. That was her gift growing up, a very local, completely familial, minor western Nebraska teen goddess who bestowed to us younger cousins equal dollops of despair and hope, often in the same remark. She handed down to us books and records, shepherded us from Partridge Family’s Greatest Hits to The Doors, from Ramona to Go Ask Alice. We felt happily salvageable around her.
Her kryptonite, though, was impatience, a desperate need to escape without the requisite imagination to make her escape productive. Soon there was a baby, then a teen husband, then another baby, and finally an ex- with a ten-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute. She was a divorced mother of two at not quite twenty, fading in and out of focus, a topic of weekend whispers, a dinner table rumor, pin-balling for years up and down the plains, sometimes dragging her kids along and sometimes dropping them with a relative, sometimes showing up for holidays when not expected and sometimes not showing after promising she would, finally ending up in Kansas, falling through the hole in the center of the country. By that time, I had left for college and had pretty much dropped even the pretense of trying to stay in touch, until out of the blue she called. Through the vines of gossip that tangled our family together, she had heard I was pulling a Kerouac and hitting the road, and she wanted me to swing by for a few days. The fact that once again I was dropping out and running away may have led her to believe we had more in common than the accident of birth and an ethno-cultural tendency for early, diet-related death. This was a bad idea. I knew now. Well, admitted now. Another bad idea—one after the next. With the right kind of string, I could make a necklace of the bad ideas lately.
“The other parents won’t say anything?” Billy Ray Cyrus started playing on the all-hits, all-the-time radio. Over in the stands, the flock of local women still wore their hair puffy, probably the same way they wore it in high school in the mid-80s, though some had accepted their fates and cut it short like their mothers. The men were mostly in seed caps or cowboy hats, a smattering of K-State or NASCAR caps mixed in. Most had their hair cropped short and face shaved clean, but there were also a few mullets and handle-bar moustaches. Only one old dude had truly long hair, a rolled-up blue bandana snaking around his forehead like a fallen halo in a Kris Kristofferson song. For the most part, though, it was as if the 90s hadn’t quite yet happened—no shaggy, long hair, no beards or goatees, no piercings that I could see, or tribal tattoos, no consciously worn flannel or torn blue jeans, no Doc Martens or holey Chuck Taylors, no retro tie-dye or alpaca wool caps. Staring at them from the back of the car, my black Chucks rooting among the floor trash and my Mother Love Bone t-shirt reeking of weed, I felt suddenly alone, unexpectedly missing the reassuring uniformity of a grungy college town.
“People keep to themselves around here,” she answered to the question I had forgotten I asked. “Besides, they think we’re dope fiends anyway. They’re pretty nice in public, but you can see it in their eyes. ” Every now and then, she still talked like a character from one of the Dragnet episodes we used to watch on WGN after school. Her husband perked up.
“Long as you keep to yourself, it’s live and let live. Shit, I grew up here all my life. In a small town like this, nobody has any secrets, but nobody broadcasts them out loud, either. You just kind of do your own thing.” He reached down over and started messing with the radio dial just as the Red Hot Chili Peppers came on. I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure why the Chili Peppers were singing suicide ballads. It was like Anthony Kiedis had written a Terry Jacks song. The cuz-in-law was oblivious, though; he was looking for Paul Harvey.
The shadows continued to pull away as Paul Harvey’s familiar cadence filled the car, explaining the world, telling us the rest of the story. I leaned into the booster seat, my elbow touching a red plastic ring that looked like a chew toy. I wasn’t sure if it belonged to the baby or the dog; they may have shared it. The seat’s thin padding seemed comforting as a shrug. Family residue littered the floor—stray Cheerios, a shoe-impressed McDonald’s bag, an oily Gooch cap, a sheet of Chance’s math homework, complete, but not graded, probably forgotten. I wondered how long it would take to walk to the highway if I said to hell with my backpack and just left then. But I knew I wouldn’t.
Nobody talked for what seemed like forever, but the weed had sent me deep in the time-distortion field so who knows. I had forgotten my watch to keep track. We just sat there stoned, startling ourselves into remembering to watch the game now and then, swatting at the insects and taking occasional sips off the screwdrivers as Paul Harvey chewed up and regurgitated the news, as if our minds were nests of baby birds, helpless to understand what’s going on in the world without his care. The bud extinguished, she had rolled down her window and poked out her left elbow, right hand resting on the screwdriver in the old 7-11 cup nestled in the tear on the vinyl seat. I hated that they washed their 7-11 cups, lids, and straws for occasions like this. He sat beside her like a thin, bony pondfrog, right hand dangling a cigarette out his window, left arm perched on the back of the seat, his own old 7-11 cup sweating ice between his legs. His right hand was battered from labor and was the color of a raw lamb chop.
I took a long, slow sip from my cup and tried hard not to wonder what I was doing here, sitting in a 1979 Impala with my cousin and her spouse, insubstantial as silhouettes, smoking pot and drinking vodka at the one event her son had for that week, a mere thirty-yard strip of overwatered park grass away from the rest of their community—their neighbors and the people who checked their groceries and worked at their bank and sold them the gas they needed for the endless to and fro of parenting. The people who ran the community center and delivered their mail, who worked at the library and the swimming pool and fixed the roads, who ran the town government and the dwindling VFW and the café where everybody passed through at least a couple times a week, if for nothing else than a cup of Maxwell House and a plateful of gossip. People who set irrigation pipes and drove tractors down highways, right-side wheels on the shoulder to make it easier for cars to pass. These people who were their friends, to the extent they had friends, people who defined adulthood in my cousin’s children’s eyes.
As I sat there, picking at the white strings straining over the hole in the left knee of my jeans, I thought of her kids and their friends, kids who might one day be a first kiss, or who in a decade or so might relieve them of their virginity, or who might cheat off them in school or die stupidly and be their first funeral or break their hearts in so many other ways because we’re human and we might not know much but we do know how to break hearts. Kids who would become teens with them, who would spend long nights on the dirt roads outside of town, lying on a car hood, watching the stars, drinking cheap beer and devising ways to get the hell out, just like we did. Kids who were still kids, kids who didn’t realize that the paper boat they launched down the creek was a played-out metaphor for life, their hopes a soggy mush they would carry till their death. As the sounds of the game played out in the distant outside, I thought of Langland contemplating the field full of folk and turning to Holy Church for an explanation of how things got so bad, while through the speakers buried under the dash of the Impala’s rear windshield, Paul Harvey’s voice droned on, sounding like a patrician uncle on Thanksgiving, talking through a football game, his mind gently soured by years of bargain scotch in high-backed chairs.
“I have to tell you something,” she said. I glanced up at mirror. She had her sunglasses on, big and pink and way too young for someone her age. Her husband didn’t flinch, just snored lightly. “You have to keep it secret, though. I don’t want anyone to know. I’m still working through it with my counselor.”
I tensed up. We both knew whatever it was, I couldn’t help.
“Do you remember my dad?”
“Uncle Ernie? Not really. Just remember him dying.” Actually, not even that. What I remembered was being in her room and her telling me he was dead, that there would be a funeral. I think I was sitting on the floor. I was little, four, maybe.
“Ernie used to come into my room. Ernie did stuff to me when my mom was at work.”
“You remember this?” I heard myself speak, my finger trying to tangle itself in the knee hole of my jeans. I looked to the back of her husband’s head. It was leaning back against the doorframe, baseball chatter wafting through his hair. I was pissed that he passed out. I needed someone else to do the talking. Through the window, to his left, something was moving towards the windbreak; a tabby, too well-fed for a stray, was slouching his way towards the line of trees and brush just past the right field fence.
“I’m starting to. I’ve sublimed a lot. Right now I mostly remember him in the doorway, just this shadow with the hall light behind him. I’m not exactly…the thing is, I have this feeling. Deep down, I know he did sick things, like they talk about on the news.” She started crying.
“Your mom didn’t know?”
“I don’t know. She’d deny it anyway—you know how she is.” It was quiet again for a while, except for the baseball game noises and her sniffling and the local farm report. I took another sip from my cup. Finally, she said quietly, “I don’t know if it matters. I mean, really. I don’t know what happened exactly, and if it did…shit, he’s dead anyway. Would it make any difference if it did?”
“I don’t know.” The cat had disappeared, probably hunting something small. She kept crying, not theatrically or anything, not creating a scene; I was thankful for that anyway. She just kind of let it spill out like a bottle that’s tipped over on the carpet and everyone’s too lazy to do anything about. After a few minutes it passed. She just sniffled once in a while and kind of dabbed her cheeks dry with the shoulder of her t-shirt.
“I can drive if you want.” She shook her head no.
“I’ll be alright. See if there’s an old McDonald’s napkin or something back there. I need to blow my nose.”
And we never talked about it again.
It was hard to say what it meant. It was hard to tell if it happened. It used to be witches and devils would come in the night, crawl into bed, pleasure themselves with their victims’ carnality, succubus and incubus, fallen angels and vampires emerging from curtains to take you while you slept. Who doesn’t, at some point, imagine the bed a latent coffin? Who doesn’t know the panic, rising from deep in the back of the brain, as you realize the vulnerability of sleep, your father’s hand pushing back your hair, your mother softly shushing you to unconsciousness, her tone no different from that of a serial killer affectionately bleeding you of life. When we got space-agey, the demons became UFOs, plucking us from the terra firma into their whirling machines in the sky, opening up our helpless bodies, prodding, provoking, implanting. Their strange instruments; their long, hairless fingers, stiff as bone, moving over and into our bodies, cracking open places we didn’t know were there. And now it’s ourselves. The fearful realization that we were the monsters all along, that we carry the unhuman within us, and that even our own minds will betray us given half a chance, become the predator’s accomplice. And having grown up in the 60s and 70s, having grown up on sex and drugs and stories of Satan writing Led Zep songs and starting brand-name product lines and hippies crawling through the canyons at night and Jonestown nutbags passing out cups of Kool-Aid, and now so many of us parents ourselves, suddenly parents at a time when economic necessity demands we give our children over to strangers, every day, every morning, dress them up and drop them off, at a time when there’s so many stories on TV and in the papers, when it’s on evening news and Geraldo and Time Magazine’s cover, when science tells us that even if you don’t remember anything happening, it doesn’t mean nothing happened, the mind’s ability to tuck away the bad and hide it with the trash like an embarrassed girl’s tampon, in this world, how do you know nothing happened to you, nothing’s happening to your kids, everything’s normal, all systems go, with your kid’s daycare in the rearview mirror, pulling away, and the only childhood memory you’re sure of is your eyelids finally surrendering to sleep, the flickering stream of TV light from the living room, the voice of a young Johnny Carson pushing itself through the cracked door of your bedroom?
Who’s to say what did or did not happen?
And what happens when you say?
It was getting late. A last lazy fly ball was hit out to center, caught, and the game was, so simply, done. The boys gathered for a few minutes for a cup of Gatorade, a slice of fruit pizza, and a pep talk from the coach. As the team broke up, Chance lingered with his friends, laughing as one pantomimed a poorly played groundball. He shot over a few glances, trying to stay as long as he dared. He wanted to grow up to be a lawyer, my cousin had told me a few days before, laughing, so he could help people like her. The other parents waited around the edge of the cluster of boys, patiently exchanging words about the weather and the crop futures and next week’s game. We sat quietly until the girls got to the car, walking arm in arm. My cousin’s husband, once again among the quick, sunglasses now in place, steadied himself on the car door as the older daughter shimmied into middle of the front seat; the younger one, chatty and loud, crawled up and plopped down into her booster seat beside me, oblivious to the chew toy under her butt.
Once he saw his sisters in place and knew it was inevitable, Chance started to make his way over, slowly, as if working against the wrong end of a magnet. Even at his age, you could see he would be an average baseball player, but I had been too, and I knew why he loved it anyway. It didn’t brook complications. Standing in the batter’s box, your only worry was to keep the ball between the lines, one pulling to the right from home to the fence, the other to the left. In that moment, as the pitcher contorted his entire body in order to swing his one ball-hand towards you, all of existence, everything that was, is, and ever shall be, depended on you, depended on your patience in letting the ball come to you and on your quickness in meeting that ball with the meat of the bat. If everything worked out right, in a split second smaller than a soul, you heard the holy ping that meant the ball would sail over the fence, between the two lines. Straight run to first, hard left to second, hard left to third, hard left home. Nothing more simple, nothing more straight.
Underneath the girl chatter, I heard my cousin’s voice, quiet as telepathy. “I just want a good life for them.”
“You do what you can.” It was all I could say. As true as anything, I guess.
Chance got into the car, gave me a sheepish smile and a half-hearted high-five over his half-sister’s knees, happy that his team had won and happy that I was visiting, but still betrayed. He knew what bloodshot eyes and OJ in Big Gulp cups signified. The girls, bruised legs and pointy elbows, flip flops and dandelions in their hair, worked hard and loud to get their parents to swing by Dairy Queen on the way home. The sun had slid into the endless fields of wheat west of us, our failures both legion and insignificant in the whirligig of time. Setting a course for the county’s one DQ, my cousin, my hero, lurched her used used car through the parking lot’s last pot hole and on to the highway, unsteadily negotiating her way between the lines that defined the road home.