The last time I saw Jonathan, she said, was visiting hours. We were playing cards and by accident, he put his hands in his lap. So they strip searched him and threw him in solitary.
I am driving the spine of Lookout Mountain,
just me and the blinking cell towers;
my radio picks up static,
and signals from space,
and her voice:
He was 16 with a 30 year sentence. He didn’t know what that meant at first,
but after 4 weeks alone he did. And when the guards changed shifts
he hung himself.
I miss my turn. The GPS is possessed
the gold trees look grim, the road eerie, the engine hot.
Maybe my car is about to flame out. Will this be the last thing I see before I die? No? How about this?
I park and ascend the ridge on foot
as if I’m being timed or watched or pursued.
Great Eastern Trail, the sign says. Cherokee Falls.
Statute numbers warn the Stupid not to pass.
Once, the Cherokee slipped on dangerous rocks to their hearts content
made love in the pools illegally
and were sent packing to the barbwire.
I pass a church group, then a cereal box family
A white couple takes a selfie by the overlook did you get it?…take another
I close my eyes, wondering if he knows how much she hates him.
I leave their conversations far behind
Make way for me, winner of the Great Eastern Spitting Contest,
I am a coal furnace
that might explode
They slide the iron gates across the road at 10 pm
barring entry or exit.
I like this so much, I would extend the quarantine for a week
or the rest of my life if I could.
All around me, you gather in groups by your roaring fires;
Mine glows and dies, glows and dies, like a fever,
like a lone cell tower on the brink.
Searching the grass for more kindling, I find only spider eyes
reflecting light into prisms.
I talk to them like pets.
What does death feel like
when the steppers step on you?
When the trespassers bash their stupid heads
when they march you to Oklahoma
when they seal the penitentiary
and you cinch off your own neck but don’t die —
how bad does it get
before it gets better?
It’s bad, it’s a life of solitary confinement compressed into 7 seconds; I know because I punched through and got free of this place and found
that needing you is a lie I tell myself even on the other side.
I toss all night, I am cold, my eyes ache.
Orion makes his way across my zipper.
I dream that teenage boys undress me in my tent.
I dream that Jonathan is visiting from prison,
and as a courtesy would I please fuck him one last time,
before he transfers to maximum security.
I dream that I have just returned from Afghanistan
and strangers leave me fruit baskets,
my mother tells me she’s proud –
of course. I’m a glorious fighter, after all
though I can’t recall any combat.
I drive home
through the arid and ugly Georgia lowlands
an expanse of solitude and sadness.
A green Malibu with Chattooga plates pulls alongside
and I stare at Jonathan and me.
We are cat-eyed gorgeous drunks; we are redneck crazy;
better in still life than in real.
The DOT sign says, Historic Trail of Tears.
that must be it;
It must be pain that saturates the ground here
growing rich crops of cotton,
and meth heads,
and my love for you.
The radio is a nonstop corporate playlist. But I stay
because not even prayers rise here.
Around here men and lifted trucks were like kudzu. The only difference was, now she noticed every single one, every bed full of machinery, every drop of mud on the chrome. It made her swim with hope like poison.
It wouldn’t even be him driving it, just some camouflage lid helping himself to the tops of her thighs, as if sex was a drive-thru rodeo or a box of fries. She turned away, serious as a heart attack. Sex wasn’t like that for her, even if her favorite songs said it was. Sex was a stolen briefcase shackled to her arm, glowing like Marcellus Wallace’s soul. You didn’t want something like that falling into the wrong hands. You didn’t want the whole reign down with vengeance deal. Maybe that’s why she missed his truck so much, because she missed his heart. It’d been heavy like hers, heavy like a trapdoor. It had felt so good slipping through it into the dark, so familiar and breathless, like a ruse she’d planned herself.
Most of the time she didn’t make a peep, she went home and perched up high like a spider, watching the town from the rafters, sucking off the blood of her losses. Years of solitary spinning had left untold volumes on her desk, her routine, her whole heart like a dusty cocoon. Nothing in real life came close to her recollection of it.
So that’s where she stayed. Mostly.
If I were a boy, she thought, looking his picture over from head to toe,I’d wanna look like that. What an empty notion. Buthis original incoming message, his hello, how are you? was so innocuous,a bird on the other side of her window. Two different worlds pressed eye to eye for a half second, completely safe from one another. But suddenly there was movement in the outliers.
His messages came in reasonably, like rations, once a day. He was playful, had good manners, and was unwilling to come close. She liked that unwillingness best of all. That was what she was good at: laying out love like bait, measuring the quivering strands to a satellite and two million miles of outer space and back.
I’ve seen a lot of bad things at work, he typed. I’m a little gun-shy.
She soothed him with her smartphone and her shorthand, as if his shyness could be patiently cured, and he lured out over time, a controlled burn. But she noticed, not without concern, the way she leaned away from her loom to check her phone. One thing was certain, his gun-shy wasn’t like any kind she knew, the kind where you just flinch a little. His gun-shy involved actual guns, and sleeping with an eye trained on the clock and the door, a head full of violent ends, fists on flesh, fingers wrapped around his forearm like a slipping knot, blood spraying on his shirt. In his world, car roofs were peeled like open heart surgeries in the middle of a freeway. In his world, love wasn’t just hard, it was cataclysmic, and he beckoned like cornfield full of ghosts. But she didn’t want sex that ended in a bloodbath. She just wanted to know what he looked like in the sunlight. Someday. And right then, right in the middle of enjoying the neverness of someday, he was ready. To meet. The way gun-shy people do: In a Kroger parking lot.
She left the web, she left the loom, wrote Tennyson. She made three paces thro’ the room.
This is retarded, she thought, scrambling to go.
The first thing she noticed was the lift kit on his black pickup truck, like something out of Godzilla vs. The Tarantula. He’d parked it ass first so he could survey the parking lot from the all-seeing eye of his towering, tinted cab. Maybe that was his rafter. Or maybe he was a brown recluse type, wanting to see his victim without being seen. But how could you not be seen in that, the ridiculous toothy tread on those sick tires, extended shocks glinting like the ribs and tendons of a great shell-shocked beast.
Ohmygod, she thought, taking cover behind her steering wheel. One of those?
But too late, he was coming straight toward her, a thin man, shaved head, worn collared shirt and jeans, black sneakers with fluorescent laces. She couldn’t breathe, what was it, the shoes maybe, or the sunglasses. He was intended for someone else. A Scooby snack for the local pussy, for cute young girls full of sunshine and down-home. Not for spiders. But here he was anyway, with that fearless gait, like he was ready to burst right in and tear all the lattice work down, and offer himself as sustenance.
A few feet from impact, he lifted up his plastic shades and his eyes were all she could take in, the kindness in them so palpable it pinned her back with the force of an arrow, a gentle smile and worried, opposing lines on his brow. Wiry arms like driftwood that had baked dry in the wake of some tsunami, and all that were left now were tattoos like scars.
“I just shaved all my hair off,” he said, running his hand over the curve of his skull. He was tall, but bowed himself a little, as if eager to come down to whatever height was required. “I didn’t know what hell else to do with it.” His chest faced hers squarely, a socket you could plug into. He was so wiry-waisted that the breeze rippled his shirt near the belt.
“I like it,” she replied, grasping for an opener. A silence filler. “So. You live in the same county as the Grand Dragon. That’s gotta be a great feeling.”
“Yes, he lived not far from me. The old KKK headquarters.”
“Wait what?” Hot June wind tore across the black asphalt and blew her hair into her eyes like straw. She tried to part it with her hand. “I was just kidding. You mean that’s real? I thought the KKK was like rural legend.”
“It’s gone now. But you can still see the old sign. Actually, I was the one on call when their house caught fire.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said. Ma’am, she thought. Southern boys sure did know how to talk.
“Did everyone make it?” she asked, grinning.
“Dammit,” she kidded.
He looked away, stopping short of agreeing. His hands were on his hips.
“I don’t think like that. I’m trained to help everyone.”
She fell silent, soaking up the convergence of the two realities: one where she sat alone in her house, surmising about local life. The other where she intersected it like a bullet.
“I don’t know how I ended up out here,” he said finally, sweeping his hand over the whole town, as if it all just brought him down. “I’m not even from here.”
Her ears perked, now fully aware of the problem, other than his adorable bewilderment, like the south had him hostage. The actual problem wasn’t that, it was that minutes had turned into a half hour and they were still in the middle of a stupid parking lot, unable to follow protocol and just leave. She summed up the facts in her field of vision, eyes sweeping back and forth between the two: boy in the foreground, truck in the back. The front bumper had the plate of the fireman, the red stripe across the black rectangle. She’d seen countless plates around town — the Georgia dawgs, the Alabama whatevers — at least here was someone more interested in actual emergencies than staged ones. Someone who would run toward fire, while all the others ran away.
I’m a fire too, she thought. And there it was again, the sucking feeling in her chest, as if the doors were burgeoning and all the pressure and light on the outside was about to obliterate the seal.
“Well it was nice meeting you,” she heard herself say, eager to be good. She hugged his neck, all numb and nervous like. And then: 20 more minutes of small talk. It wasn’t the words that made it hard to leave. It was that exquisite feel of his presence, like honey and sunshine, all the things that spiders don’t need to be happy. It was all making her so happy. Happy like a fucking drug.
“Call me some time,” she said finally, “we should meet up.”
He smiled at the offer, but couldn’t be coaxed into agreeing to it. But whatever, she could wait. She drove home on the same road she’d driven for years, the straight shot, the one with no lefts or rights, and promptly took two wrong turns. In some right hand lane, blinker blinking, she forced herself to take stock. Okay, maybe this was cute. It was cute, right? Cute to get all flustered. But that’s how deadly things always started out: as super cute things, and then someone leans in to say awww and the next thing you know everybody is dead.
And that’s what she was doing one week later, sitting across a table from him at sunset, a string around her neck and tits pressed against the straps. It was macabre really, getting all pretty to get all dead.
“You got me.” he laughed, nodding at the outfit. “I ain’t going nowhere.”
“You like it?” she went back. “I call it stripper Barbie.”
Her heart was thrumming in a purse under the table, and above the tablecloth she was absorbing every last detail. He’d made her laugh more than once, and the sensation was so unfamiliar that her entire system recalibrated to receive more of this drug called hemakes me laaaaugh. But then, without warning, he switched over to a voice so quiet she had to strain forward in her chair. And all the laughing stopped. His stories dropped a wavelength and widened to a low level earthquake, to exploding meth labs, gunshots to the head, a trailer where a child had burned to death. His stories came in a torrent, one after the other. She could see it all too, his uniform rushing into black smoke, flames curling around the edges of a door, explosions imminent, more fearsome than the gates of her own heart. His was the world of actuals. Of actual pain, of actual work, of actual life. She could feel her life, so soft and virtual, disappearing in his stories, her eyes like two butterflies, wicking up the sweat and the mud under his tracks. He asked no questions about her, and even if he had, there was suddenly not much worth telling.
But it didn’t matter, because afterward he didn’t want to go home to his solitary confinement, and neither did she. He drove her through the town, around and around it in 10 mile increments, back and forth toward no particular destination. High above the cars, high on his deafening engine and his thudding bass, the clock scrolled forward to 2 am. She let her hand rest in the open window, the silk flying free. When was the last time she’d felt this at home? She couldn’t remember.
“Damn, this is nice,” he confessed. “Just being with you.”
“Same here,” she said, and their glances caught in the shadowy cab, and stuck.
A few days later, his truck was owning all the space in her driveway, sitting there like a mythical creature that needed hay or water. She came out the front door, squinting at it in the hot sun, knowing that this was somehow going to ratchet up everything until he disappeared, leaving nothing but blood and an oil stain. But for now, here he was, slim as a cross-tie, hard-boned as a piece of Georgia granite, walking toward her in a sleeveless shirt, shoulders popping like a teenage boy.
“Hi,” he said, bag in hand, smiling at her like he was her best friend or something. For a solitary moment she mistook him for a kindred spirit, miraculously unscathed from a trip that began halfway across the galaxy. He cut his eyes up and down her street, all the identical houses like cardboard cutouts, or a collage of a world he had heard about, but never known.
“People gonna be like, who that redneck?” His throaty laugh. His drawl had a lightness about it, like he was aware of it. Like he could lift it off anytime he wanted, maybe try on another. He did that sometimes, talked like a yankee, and it made her laugh. She took him inside, into her messy web of cords and laundry piles and anemic houseplants. She skated right over his disparaging self-appraisal, so endearing. Maybe it had been a warning, if only she hadn’t been so busy touching his skin, studying his tattoos like petroglyphs on a cave wall.
“What’s it say?” she asked, tilting her head to try and read the letters that scrolled down the length of his forearm. They were placed on the outside of his bone, as if to be read by an enemy in the final throes, right before the sword comes barreling down on your head.
“It’s a Psalm,” he said, suddenly earnest, and quiet.
“What’s the verse?” She mimicked his quiet now, eyes fluttering at this, the first of many impasses.
“The Lord Preserves me.” The quiet voice again, the one she almost couldn’t hear.
The Lord Preserves me, she thought, moving her fingers along the barbed font. Funny, seemed more like a warning than a blessing. It was all over him, this petrified tenderness. She moved to the firefighter tattoo, the whirling bladed insignia on the shoulders, then back up to the features of his stubbled face, back down again to scripture.
He went back outside he took the mower out of the bed of the truck, and showed her the hammer he used to drive the nails into the crossties when he worked railroad jobs. Almost the length of a man, he swung it high over his head and down into the green of her subdivision sod, good-natured entertainment for the privileged white people.
“An actual pickaxe!” she squealed, grasping the weight of the steel head. “Just like in minecraft.” There it was again: his life and hers, one real and one simulated, a disparity that could never be reconciled, but maybe it could. Maybe it could.
“On a job, we go through two a these a day,” he said, with that accent. “They just break.”
The thought of hammers breaking in his hands made her feel pain, like she wanted to own it by kissing him. She wanted to kiss him so bad.
But he’d come to mow the lawn as a favor. He didn’t know it was more than that to her. It was a sign. While he sweated back and forth through her yard, she paced in circles inside the house, wringing her hands around a rag, peeking through the blinds.
So sweet, she sighed, deeply perplexed.
Afterward he turned the mower upside down over a pan that she brought him, hot oil pouring out like cream soda. She crouched nearby to steady the sides, fascinated by all the boring mechanics of lawnmower maintenance, all the gears and drive shafts and bolts and springs that wouldn’t matter but for his human life, his sweet smile, the engine pieces in his arms that shone with stories, even if the roof above him was held together with his last piece of string. Droplets splattered, burning her bare legs but she didn’t move an inch. Another tiny sting, then another, and still: right there. Watching, awaiting further instructions.
That night the storms came, rain pouring into the open window. She laid under him, learning about his face. A first kiss and then another, his lips parted, setting history aside, allowing her to reach in. She thrashed like a filament while he pinned her wrists, eye to eye, downloading every detail until she couldn’t take anymore. The stubble on his face stung like needles, and she raked her lips across anyway, inviting more.
The rain came in sideways, filling up the oil pan until it overflowed the sides, seeping into the mossy ground outside the bedroom window. In the morning the blades of clover glistened like toxic gold, the ground saturated with the poison. She stood barefoot on the wet ground, looking at the oil spill, at the polluted green moss of her heart. Even the concrete foundation had soaked up the stain. The spiders didn’t stand a chance.
I get it, she thought, chest aching, black water coursing through her own veins. But that doesn’t mean I can fix it.
There’s a C-shaped stretch of highway that wraps around three sides of Carrollton. There is a neatly mowed median in the middle, guard rails and pine trees. There are a series of stoplights. There is a bridge. There is even a corresponding sky. These things never change. These things comprise the sum total of my world.
Where Newnan Street intersects this highway, there is a jail. I idle there at the red light and stare at it, transfixed. The green indicator in my dashboard flashes calmly west toward Wal-Mart, or east toward home. Route 16/27 lays directly ahead, but it can’t save me. I don’t go south anymore. All southbound roads contain the ghost of joy, the memory of speeding unbridled toward a low-hanging moon just over the next town. An escape hatch, an open window pulling in just enough wind and life to make me dream of that drive. I dream of it like a dying man.
No one is forcing me not to stay within my yellow lines. There is no string around my neck that keeps me swinging back and forth on my predetermined half moon of asphalt, and yet I do. It’s not that I’m not allowed to pass the jail and leave town anytime I want, it’s that I have no cause to — and it feels the same way. And there, the jail looms like a watchtower.
At least I don’t have a concrete ceiling. I can look up and take in the ambivalent and unchanging high-pressure cosmos as it parades past, suggesting that we are all truly free. All that hydrogen and oxygen. All the things you can’t reach when your feet are made of carbon, nailed to the earth.
The jail is a hive of towering containment and recycled air, with little slits punched in the side so all the stockpiled humans inside can peek out and see just enough of the world to stay sane. Jail, I say to myself, and shudder. Jail. I let the feel of the word resound inside my head, and all the while my blinker goes tick, tick, tick. Each beat, another year gone. Another year where I swore too, by this time next year, I’ll be free.
I imagine a prisoner looking down at me in my car, a faceless suburban packhorse. He doesn’t know that every time I pass by, I review his life all over again from the beginning. How does it feel to do time, to never be allowed to cross that line? Then I look around at my amber waves of dead fescue and shining sea of guard rails, and wonder how many trips around the sun I’ve spent making trips around the jail. The truth flashes, a solar flare of panic — just a touch. A core of rage that cools into a sinking feeling, and then, nothing but a grocery sack full of rocks.
I tore along the expanse of highway and let my car window down, like a stoma, to receive the warm dirty air of pines and gum trees and weeds growing along the guard rails. On the floorboards, my plastic bags chattered, the sediment stirred, the filaments of my hair lifting in the current. I leaned into the wind to taste the sweet aroma, but nothing came. I breathed in one more time, just to check.
This was the same stretch of highway where I’d chased his car that night, flying in tandem down four broad lanes, my four windows down, buzzing on the pleasant roar of tequila and wind and thumping bass. For miles I could smell the honeysuckle blooming in the darkness, washing and whipping over me in cool, fragrant waves. The black horizon glowed purple just above the treeline, his taillights pushing 90, darting past me in a diagonal line, tires tapping across massive plaques of smooth asphalt that shone under my headlights. My heart stroked the shadow of his speeding form, wondering if I would die from the sheer bliss of our impending sex, or maybe from an uncontrolled roll at the top of the exit ramp. Either way it was the perfect way to die, believing you might actually catch a thing that can never be yours.
Every year since then, the honeysuckle swelled again, marking the useless passage of time, her plain flowers unfurling and beckoning to me at the edge of my weedy yard, crowned with a plume of feathery bugs. Tethered to my bag of chips, to my hard drive, I’d sniff the breeze and drift outside onto the spongy earth, infusing the clean perfume into my lungs. That scent, the closest thing to my heart, the only remaining approximation of love. I’d breath her in deep, every spinning molecule, the stamen of my body arching upward like a broken satellite, avowing to transmit the southern sky forevermore, if for no one but myself.
The curve of your shoulder, he’d written. In my mind it was so soft your skin looked blurry like cotton.
I’d worn a Mexican blouse that night, I’d kept tugging it down to cover the rolling flesh of my belly. But above the table it slid down both my arms, and his shy smile undressed me, taking me in, his head cocked to the side like a man in love. In that look of his, all the ecstasy of being alive in early spring, and all the warnings of dying in late summer. The southbound lane to his arms was a stream of fresh ribbons, the northbound a mangle of knots that could never be undone.
She ended up being more imminent, more trustworthy, more constant than him. Her fibrous pistils were undeterred by my firing pistons, my trash wrappers, my smoking trail of gasoline. He left, but she came back. Each year without fanfare or fail, her fragrance marked the unresolved passage of my grief. She was the anniversary of silvery sun-soaked leaves that dissolved in the grinding gears of a chipper, the communion of lovemaking before years of solitary confinement.
Not yet, but soon, I’d lay in my dry empty bed, breathing her, taking in her scent again. She would seep into my cells on the open highway, unfurling, calling, until finally I’d rise and depart my dirty patch of carpet to investigate; wandering out through my rotten screen door to inhale and sniff, to pull her petals apart with my lips and drink, and find the exact taste of my own blood, still longing to know itself.