The task was simple: record an audiobook version of my second novel, Crash Bang Burn. I was ready. I had the equipment. I had emotional support. I had technical know-how. I even had a cup of tea.
Go ahead, Dawn. Mic is live. All ya gotta do is read your story in 3…2…1…
Three pages in? Yeah, no. The only thing crash-bang-burning was me. It wasn’t just hard. The soundproof booth became a fiery echo chamber of my own merciless stupidity. My words, my voice, and finally the entire summation of my life’s work: nothing was safe from the brimstone. I collapsed inward like a dying star, dabbing my tears on the print-outs.
Chris sat at the opposite mic, pensive as I withered. He told me to start smaller. Forget the audiobook. Read one paragraph of something else, something more accessible. So, I did. I picked one of the first essays I’d ever put on this blog, and read it aloud for him. What followed was a confessional about the futility (and irresistible possibility) of making art, raising children, and trying not to lose hope – while feeling stranded out here in the middle of nowhere.
I thought about all the other artists who, like me, were also not marketing and business geniuses. For me, the only thing more depressing than hearing another artist self-promote, was hearing myself do the same thing. But at a time and in a corner of the world when art is treated as insignificant, we outliers are often left to ponder the void.
“Why am I fucking HERE?” I asked Chris.
And he said: “That’s a good title.”
It’s not always easy to broadcast a snapshot of yourself wallowing in your deepest fears and frustrations. But I learned a lot and came out the other end feeling lighter and wiser – which is what I love so much about writing in the first place: absolution through confession.
I look forward to continuing the discussion. For now, here’s Chris and me in “Shipwrecked’ – the first episode of our podcast “Why Are We Here.”
When the judge handed down the sentence I thought, this it it. But it wasn’t. That was nothing, just a little deafening combustion, just a freight train warming up its engine. After all, I still believed in things; I still believed in my savior, in the appeal, in the last minute witness, in the long-suffering nature of justice. Until the day he visited me in prison and brought my kids and his smiling head – until that moment I believed.
But when I took in the sum total of their little faces – their wheat-colored hair, their scent, their clear eyes against the square dirty grids of cage upon cage upon cage – I could feel what five years meant. Five years in an iron box was the end of us, it was the end of me, it was all lines converging into a tunnel. It was a sentence of slow suffocation, stretched out for two thousand days. I froze in the oncoming light and the steel beast took me out.
I buckled to a knee on the visiting room floor. I was a girder laced with explosives or worse, maybe just one faulty piece of steel that collapses the whole bridge. I was making awful sounds too, like the life inside me was being squeezed out. I tried to resist that shrill tea kettle sound, I knew what waited on the other side if I gave in and let it all empty out.
So I struggled up off the cement and found a chair, so the watchers would think I’d tripped. I rested my guts against my elbows, kept my head bowed. Still the whining in my throat kept coming, a coward begging help from helpless children, from a godless God.
“I’m going to leave if you don’t stop,” my daughter scolded in my ear, sitting thigh to thigh with me. But in her solid flank I could feel the opposite was true, that she would stay no matter what I did, no matter how I embarrassed her or myself. She would join me in here if she could, make due with life in a cell if it meant we could be together.
Don’t believe your eyes, I wanted to tell her. Don’t believe this costume they’ve put me in, just try and feel what’s true if you can.
Behind us I could hear him joking with a fellow visitor about a chair. Maybe they’d sat in the wrong one, or taken his, something so forgettable and so stupid but enough for him to boom with laughter like life was just the funniest gosh darn thing. He was the consummate game player, he knew how to size up a room and sniff out a weak link, he knew how to nudge it onto center stage so no one would suspect it was him. After waiting so long to see me take a knee, to have a peek at me in shackles, he could barely contain his jangling keys, his metallic chuckle, his tourist joy. He had the best seat in the house after all, and two thousand in cash, and my kids on his arm like three sacks of souvenirs.
K. Dawn Goodwin’s new book, Crash Bang Burn is available now
Before dawn, Nathan was a speck at the top of a billboard, unfolding a McDonald’s ad in the spotlights. The cold wind billowed under the vinyl as he released it, threatening to bring it down onto the interstate 50 feet below and make I’m Lovin It the last thing some poor trucker would ever see.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he muttered at the icy gust, bracing the flimsy material in his cracked fingertips, hurrying to sink hooks and pump tension into the ratchet straps.
It was going to be a long day, but it wasn’t the work or the deep freeze that made him feel bitter. It was having nothing better at the end of it. When the sum total of his life became nothing more than signs along a highway, that’s when memories started leaking from their holding tanks and he’d think about things he didn’t want to. Like Ellie leaning into his chest that morning outside the diner. The way her cold cheek had felt against his neck, her bones giving way in his arms — the kisses melted his armor like wax against the sun. It was like she’d just returned. But that was impossible because they’d only just met.
He unfastened the clips and let the old pictures fall, one after the other, put up new ones and made his way on down the line. By noon he’d done ten installs and boxed up his feelings too, just squares on a conveyor belt en route to oblivion where they belonged. He ate lunch at the same drive-thru. He stopped at the same gas station on the way home, bought the same beer, listened to the same station. He parked his truck the same way, the floorboards creaking under the same step as he made his way up to his apartment.
It would’ve all been the same but his next door neighbor, an army man on permanent disability, burst out of his door when he heard Nathan’s footfalls.
“Hey man, what’s up?” the guy asked, already standing way too close.
Nathan set the twelve-pack down and slid his key into the lock.
“Hey,” he answered without looking up. It was the most he’d said to anyone all day. Maybe all week.
“Ain’t seen your girl come around lately. I thought she was moving in.”
“Nope,” he answered, keeping his back turned, hoping one syllable replies were sufficient warning.
“Oh, did y’all split? I did too. With my girlfriend. Women!”
Nathan didn’t say a word. He picked up the beer and pushed open his front door.
“Did you meet her online?” The man went on, undeterred. “ Cuz I saw her profile today. She was hot. What’s her name? I was gonna message her just to say hi but wasn’t sure if —”
Nathan crossed the threshold, turned, and kicked the door shut in the man’s face. He’d meant to say it was fine, have at it, knock yourself out. But his boot had moved first, deciding on its own that the days of being neighborly were over.
Inside his living room, the blinds were shut tight against the light. He never lifted them. He flicked on the stereo to fill the silence. In the kitchen sink there was one glass, on the counter one upturned plate on a towel. He slid the blue box into the empty fridge, took out another can. She’d left salt and pepper shakers on the counter and for some reason it suddenly bothered him, so he placed them inside one of his hundred empty kitchen cabinets, along with the thought of her, and closed the compartment. He opened another and took out a pill, just in case. Not likely to get that bad, but not likely to get very good either.
In the bedroom he pulled off his work boots, but instead of dropping them in their usual place he cocked back and hurled them in succession at the opposite wall. He sat down on the edge his bed, chest heaving slow. He plugged in his phone and scrolled silently as he drank. Beside him the lamp was dark. He looked up and stared at the wall. He needed to fuck so badly.
No, he couldn’t go to her. She wasn’t willing to give him any assurance, so why should he give her any back. He needed to go somewhere the opposite of her place, see the opposite of her face. He had to get out of this room, out of the grip of this feeling. And he had to do it now.
A hundred miles away, Ellie had just gotten home with her kids. Their heads came flooding back under her wing in a barrage of laughter and dirty backpacks. But her smile was hollow; she felt dead inside and out, a human statue with a phone fused into her right palm. She knew it was wrong to feel that way, to let it get in the way, but for now nothing short of amputation would make her let go of that fucking phone.
There was cooking and cleaning to do, little faces that needed to feel loved and cared for. But maybe she wasn’t doing it right because their hugs and their chatter didn’t make her feel loved at all. She saw only the lonely job ahead, an insurmountable ascent with no summit. The only love she could feel these days came in the shape of a text message. Love was backwards and upside down.
The kitchen had been the first thing to go. Papers, bags, clothes, extension cords, groceries – they’d remained wherever she’d dropped them. The trash overflowed. The closet door sagged on its broken hinge. It was suspended animation maybe, the dwelling of someone who’d stepped outside for just a second and gotten hit by a car. Or a sign.
For weeks she’d walked on a cloud, the house ship-shape, her heart in the pink – hanging up towels, snapping the sheets, painting her nails, cooking the rice – it was all neat and pretty. The routine wasn’t a routine at all when Nathan was in it.
You want me? he’d tease with that caramel voice, that curling grin, translucent eyes staring into hers on the pillow, his cinnamon skin between her white legs. Was it possible to come so much that it destroyed your life? It had; her body had reversed polarity. They’d met on a Friday and by that Wednesday food had become an afterthought. He was the main sustenance, her sites set on his scent like nectar. She’d plundered his cock like petals but it didn’t kill the longing, she only wanted him again when they were done. Eye to eye, in the inseparable throes, days disappeared. It felt like love. But how could it be. She didn’t know him at all.
My oh my, you’re so good looking, he sang to her at the kitchen table, strumming her guitar while she put away breakfast. ButI’ve not tasted all your cooking.
Who are you when we’re not fucking? She should’ve sang back, but was too out of it. His nails had felt so good going in her coffin. He’d been hammering them all night long.
Now the picture-perfect table where he’d sat like her own personal Blake Shelton was covered with melted ice cream. She put a sack and a plate down in the chocolate puddle because who cared. Both sides of the sink were a foot high with pots and pans, bowls squished together with stinky soggy sandwich blobs. The floor was so sticky the soles of her shoes peeled when she walked.
She receded to her bedroom so she could slip away under the blankets, back turned against the sights and sounds of the house, the phone in her right hand like an empty IV.
“Mommy you ok?” her seven year-old asked, peering into her cracked bedroom door. She lifted her face and nodded.
“Just not feeling well,” she told him, and he didn’t buy it. She hated that it had leaked into his life too. “Do you need anything?”
“What’s wrong,” he asked, hanging on the doorknob, uncertain. “Why are you crying?”
“I’m okay,” she said, but instead of being okay, she put her head down and slept.
She dreamed she’d fallen into the river and someone threw her a life-preserver. It wasn’t her life she was worried about though, it was that fucking phone. It lay before her on the float, impossibly dry and shiny and black and slim — she had to save it quick. But as she hoisted her weight it capsized and disappeared down into the dirty water. At first, utter panic — she’d never get his hello! But then relief, because if there was no hello, then there’d be no goodbye. There was freedom in being cut off.
At midnight Nathan was fucking some dark-haired girl from the bar. It was a relief to be thrusting out the aggravation, but it was proving to be its own kind of aggravation. Wasn’t much he could really do with this chick. Anything short of him doing all the work wasn’t really panning out.
“What?” he asked, trying to read her. Ellie always let loose. Ellie always let him know. Ellie and her stupid face. “You want me to stop?”
“No,” the girl giggled, a weird thing to do, weird like her perfume. His hands were all over her body, getting her off, but hers were limp and non-committal. The buzz was wearing off and he had work in the morning so he took over and jerked himself off. The rage was gone at least, and soon she would be too. He staggered to the shower, wondering if it was worth it. He lathered the soap in the warm water and scrubbed his dick down a little too thoroughly, got that perfume off his neck. He felt a little better, and a lot worse. He stepped out to dry off and glanced over Ellie’s bottles in the trash. She’d be jealous if she knew. Maybe she’d feel as miserable as he had. But it was her fault for not saying I love you, her fault that he’d shut down, her fault that he was killing pain with a subpar fuck.
He walked out to his truck in the pitch black rain and began the day like always. But he hadn’t gotten his feelings fastened down just yet. The water on his windshield made him think about that night in the woods, riding the mule with her into the river, the splash exploding like yellow fireworks in their headlights. The submerged engine had churned, nearly tipping. His friends had hopped out and pushed it to shore, but Ellie had gone streaking off into the dark, leaving a trail of jeans and underwear. He’d stumbled after her, peeling off his clothes and wading up to his knees in the current. He’d reached out to her bare, luminescent skin, pressed her goosebumps against his chest. When his friends flashed the brights on their naked bodies, she’d tried to hide but tripped instead and took them both down hard in the shallow water. He kept trying to get up, but she was laughing too hard. That was how he’d felt with her from day one: so happy he couldn’t stand. How can a man live like that, on his knees, clinging to someone who won’t ever let you get a hold.
He pulled his truck up to the base of another sign, took out the next box and climbed up into the dark, disappearing above the hiss of the wet highway.
Ellie was in her kitchen making dinner. In lieu of sex she had food; potatoes in heavy cream, a cherry pie the size of a human stomach — carbohydrates were the only thing that could counter the emptiness. She set dinner out for the children and then hunched at the stove like a bundled skeleton. She ate and ate and ate, and then looked at her needful phone, hollow eyed.
She scrolled through the punishing highlight reel on Facebook, reviewing the lives of better-adjusted mothers, intact families who preferred alternative schooling and organic dinners for their better-dressed children. They were traveling to Disney again.
She called her girlfriend.
“I’m in a slump,” she sniffled, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “I haven’t bathed. I look like a hobbit on meth. There’s a mountain of laundry that’s been on the couch so long it’s no longer clean. There are so many dirty dishes we actually ran out of dishes.”
“Oh girl listen,” her friend replied, “You’re not the only one. Just finding something to wear to the kids’ Christmas party is gonna be a chore, though I’m sure I could bring this house dress I’ve worn for the past 3 days as my plus one.”
“You make me feel better,” Ellie said. “There was half a stick of butter left out on the counter and I just wiped my bagel through it and ate it.”
“That’s not so bad.”
“Oh and a minute ago the mustard exploded on the back of a chair and I wiped my sandwich through that too. Incidentally, I found the package of ham under the table where the cat was licking it, and the cheese slices were in my purse. I just don’t give a fuck anymore. So long as I am eating.”
Her friend laughed. “What about my stained house dress?”
“Please, we both know I’m the official door greeter at the gates of hell.” Ellie paused. “But hey, you made me smile. I needed that.”
“No problem. What are fellow losers for?”
She hung up and considered the heads of her children eating dinner in front of the TV. She would go to them now, try and make up for it.
But at night, the thought of him with someone else made her pull the blankets over her head and cry. She wished she could call a timeout on her life, to put the whole act on pause, to stop all the pretending and the games and just lift the shade on all the illusions for one second – and see at last: what was the truth? And not for any magnanimous reason either, but just to know simply, had she ever mattered to him? Because how could she matter to herself if she hadn’t.
She drifted off, imagining she was walking through the dim hallway in his house. There was one glass in his kitchen sink. One plate drying on a towel. In his bedroom he was sleeping like he always did, on top of the bedspread like a permanent visitor, arms folded over his chest, huddled against the bedside table. It felt so good to see him. It felt so good to forget.
After work Nathan didn’t shower or change clothes. He felt dead inside but told himself he was just tired. He dozed off before twilight and dreamed she was standing in his bedroom doorway, whispering his name. It was such a relief, like none of the bad had ever happened. He lifted the blanket and she crawled in, facing him. He grunted with approval at her scent and her softness, her kisses crackling beneath his ear. He brought the cover up around her like wings, closed his eyes and hugged her tight. This was love, wasn’t it? Had to be. Couldn’t she feel it too? But she was wiggling out of her clothes, stroking his body into a silken barb, sliding onto him, stirring his breath. And suddenly, he wasn’t so sure.
I take pictures of pretty clouds because it’s easier than photographing what’s at eye level. I don’t want to put a camera in that woman’s face. She isn’t me, so she wouldn’t understand that sometimes I feel like I am her.
I parked my minivan in the Wal-Mart parking lot and stepped out, the hot wind rippling through my black sundress. It was really pretty – the dress, I mean – cut like a long sari with gold embroidery and feathered white panels. Sometimes a $30 dress can inoculate you to all the problems of the world, even with clashing plaid platform flip-flops, at least for three minutes or so.
I strode toward the bakery entrance; I was here to purchase light bulbs for a fish tank, and maybe a bag of oranges because I’d been fighting the flu. As I watched me and my flowing shadow pass over the oil stains like a low-lying cloud, I brushed too close to a car I thought was empty – a tiny gray coupe in the worst shape possible, something driven out of a nightmare or a junk lot, half its pieces missing and broken. It was double parked on the diagonal yellow stripes.
I didn’t know it was full of people until I was already upon it. Above the busted headlight I glimpsed the driver and realized she’d been watching me and my self-satisfied amble for quite a few car lengths. I diverted to give respectful distance to the nub of her rearview, but I was close enough to smell the stale upholstery, to touch duct tape holding her door together, the rust and the gashes and the mismatched paint. The engine was turned off, and the back window was closed. The glass reflected the passing orb of my T.J. Maxx purse, and also the faces of three babies inside – one sleeping in a hot car seat, two curly headed toddlers squirming in the sun beside her, an older one in the passenger seat. So many little bodies, like a pile of kittens nesting in trash, so trusting of the shitty world that apparently gave them life and nothing else.
The woman’s dark ponytail was gathered like a sheave of burned wheat. Maybe there was meth in her wiry arms, or desperation, how else could she let them all sit there in the baking sun, not going in the store but not leaving it either, not seeking shade or relief, just stalled out over a black puddle, hanging by a thread because death had not yet showed up. I didn’t just walk by her; I walked through her. I could feel her what the fuck, her must be nice, bitch and I entered the automatic doors of Wal-Mart still clinging to the squalor of those babies like a right hook in the gut. I slowed, as if to go back, but my heel wouldn’t turn.
What do you need? I would ask her.But I couldn’t ask her that.
It was this dress, my dress made it all wrong. It wasn’t the uniform of a fellow warrior, it was the beacon of naiveté, of free time and hobbies, of a non-addicted white girl who just paid $45 to have her oil changed AND her interior vacuumed.
Do you need any help? said the imaginary me, leaning in her car window with a sack of McDoubles and a mesh bag of Florida oranges. Here ya go, this should solve all your problems.
Who were they waiting for anyway, and would he kill me if I interceded into his demise? Maybe he’d follow me and rob me for drug money? Maybe she’d spit at me for daring to assume they were doing anything but being just fine, thank you.
But couldn’t I do something? I had $20 in cash.My minivan was clean and the AC worked and I had newish tires and a full tank. She could sleep in my bed and I could fill up the bath for her babies, I could pour their favorite cereal in the kitchen and make them feel what I sometimes felt when everybody was clean and fed and I had a quiet space to stir my tea: It’s all going to be alright.
But I kept walking straight, because it wasn’t going to be alright. I let her snap off behind me like a slingshot, out into the dusty broken-down distance, to a place I wouldn’t ever have to see or live in, because for some unknowable reason I was born here and she was born there, and that was a fact not made better by unwanted charity or free cheeseburgers. I bought a bag of oranges for myself instead and peeled one as I drove home. They smelled sweet and fresh, like forgiveness from a beautiful dying world.
At home, I hung up my dress, screwed the bulb in my daughter’s aquarium lid and watched her fish swim indifferently around in their dirty tank, their world now a much brighter shade of decay. I flipped the TV channels, pausing to watch a mother run to hug her small children, her edited happiness somehow coercing my tears– how good that must feel. I’ll take a happy feeling wherever I can get it, even a canned version. My life is full of dirty creature comforts, but my arms are well accustomed to a sterile kind of emptiness. A mother separated from her children is the cruelest kind of pain; a mother with no money to care for them is just as bad. A careless and cruel man well, he’s just par for the course. I’ve lived the former and grazed the latter, and my scarred up heart has a hair trigger response to the sound of a crying child, to a woman whose eyes tell you she is teetering at the end. I haunt the trenches where she is taking fire.
On a different evening, another young woman stood outside a different Wal-mart. I noticed her because her baby looked like my son— those fat little legs trying to stand, tiny hands grasping the edge of the cart like a captain on a sinking ship, it reminded me of those days back then, how hard it was. This was just a passing thought, and then I was onto the next thing.
But an hour and a half later, as I wheeled my weary bags back out the automatic doors, there she was. She was still there. Still there.
I slowed to do a double take. How could she still be here? It was almost 11:00 at night. The baby was wailing on her hip, poor tired thing. She was screaming into her cell phone, pacing, crying, while onlookers withdrew and whispered. In her cart was a new car seat wrapped in plastic. It was one thing to see an irate woman; another to see one so obviously desperate and struggling with a baby. Her distended stretch-marked belly hung over her jeans and drew my heart like a shield; the wounds of her birth were fresh and no one was protecting her, no one caring for her. I found myself staring at these bystanders, at their complete apathy and judgment, their pale unmoved faces like sacks of flesh in the sallow light, and suddenly it was just a microcosm of the entire earth, of humans who pick their teeth in amusement while a woman slides down the edge of a knife.
“Can I give you a ride?” I asked, pulling my cart alongside hers. My voice was submissive, offering no more than a sister in crime.
“No ma’am,” she sniffed.
She was so young. Not more than 19.
“You sure? I have a car seat. I have two.”
“Yes ma’am, no thank you. I just had to go and buy one.”
So I turned my back reluctantly, and retreated.
“Ma’am?” I glanced back to see her catching up with me, and my relief was palpable. “Actually, if you don’t mind?”
While she dried her tears we loaded my van and I cleared the junk off the passenger seat. I cooed to her son, though he would have none of me.
We drove in silence for a while, and she explained that her boyfriend took off with the groceries and the car, leaving her and the baby with nothing, and no way home.
“Why would he do that?” I asked.
“I went in the dressing room to try on some pants,” she said, dabbing at her eyes. “And he said I went in there to cheat on him.”
“What, with the baby?” I scoffed.
“I know right?” she laughed. “I love him, but he can be so…”
“Yeah, well,” I sighed, or growled, and then tried to soften it to a whisper. “Just so you know, he’s abusing you. Leaving you and the baby like that with no ride? That’s abuse.”
She said nothing, and I hoped it sunk into her arm like a needle. I pulled into the Best Western like she asked me to, and waited outside with the baby while she dragged the car seat into the lobby. I bounced him in my arms, trying to calm his crying. But he strained away from me, reaching his arms to the door where his mother’s shape had disappeared. He wanted her, only her. Only his mommy.
Sometimes I have a rabid need to to save every mother, to soothe her baby for her, to fix what can’t be fixed, to make right what can never be made right; I am besieged. But the babies don’t need my arms, they need hers, and her battle isn’t mine to fight. The only thing I can really do is see for her, to bear witness to every black stain underfoot in a Wal-mart parking lot, because each one is a mother’s leaking lifeline. I am beholden to her pain, but can only illuminate it from a distance. All I can do is know what it’s like. And in knowing, understand that I’ll never know how hard it really is.