The Best Years
First, there was the word
and the word was good.
Ethereal ephemera in the apocryphal autumn
When he was talking about what he thought
“Don’t say tenebrous when you mean dark” Brenda Sieczkowski
The sun goes down so early,
As I sat in the ugliest love seat (in name only)
Surrounded by a glowing screen, empty cans
Cluttered windowsill choked with wires
Looking out at a lifeless world, dulled
By a half-assed attempt at winter.
Lonesome is the only word.
It’s times like this,
You miss people.
“Sometimes I feel like a fucking spam e-mail.”
Words become reality, prophetic lamentations.
They found him face down in his own vomit.
The lounge was as good a place to die in the mud as any.
I saw him a few days later
A gay black and white patchwork
(Shining, despite the overcast sky
A single chink forced through the front)
Draped itself over his skeletal frame
That blanket will save him.
89 Volvo on highway 22 Westbound,
the start to a yuppie country song.
Her half tank-roared
Wild lament of
a lost soul
When the needle pointed accusingly at E
She steamed empty
beside a lake
against the shore
A buck knife held limply – a cold hand
The cry still echoing against the cliffs
Miles away, it woke me from my slee
A floating head blocked the orange
Light that shined on my sleep filled eyes.
Another crisis, real and yet less fathomable
The knife had a different target to hunt now.
I wished I was still dreaming.
Running – locked legs – yelping
White puff dingy with mud
Tufts of hair abandoned on briars.
The years are longer for some,
and we leave the best behind
she cries in her sleep
hard to tell
pull the drapes
oxygen blanket settled
hates the light
going on 25! %
the gurgles are hopeful
made it past the 50! %
passing 75! %
the habit of a windmill
rub her age spots to remind her
quietly waiting for the swallow and fade
I’m just so tired
she mumbles into a spoonful of eggs
you have to time these things correctly
use forgetfulness against her
just try the peaches
one taste of the grits
you like the bread, remember?
Every bite is the first bite
or the last.
“Life is like baseball, Colleen.”
Her father was full of useless metaphors. They had a tendency toward sports or astronomy, merely making them more worthless to her.
“Sometimes you strike out, but you just have to keep playing-” a long sip of beer interrupted the follow-through of his adverb. For a man with so much taste, he truly did himself a disservice by nursing that can of Miller Lite.
“Thanks, dad,” Colleen said as she reached for the bottle of red wine.
She tipped the neck of the bottle against the clear glass to make an impression of class. Her class was rudely disrupted by a maroon puddle she left on the kitchen table. As Colleen stood up to grab a paper towel her father continued.
“Sometimes you get a little dirt on your white pants, but you just gotta dust them off and keep going.” He took another swig, “maybe it just isn’t written in the stars for you.”
This wasn’t her first strike, though. It wasn’t even her third. As she entered her fourth month in her father’s makeshift basement room, Colleen was coming into a sick realization beneath those moist pipes: she would settle here.
Settling was a game Colleen knew well. She had first learned to play when she was six, packing a hot pink suitcase at 3am. She hated hot pink but no one had ever asked her opinion, just as her father never asked her opinion about leaving home. He never asked her about the stained one-bedroom apartment and Colleen didn’t ask for the restless neighborhood across the bridge. She didn’t ask for the late night homeschool lessons from a dad who should have stuck to welding. Colleen learned early on how to accept what was given, and when she was given a paint roller for her birthday, she painted her new room blue.
“One job interview is nothing, baby girl,” her father cried out over the Cash-4-Gold theme song playing on the television.
Ca-Ca-Cash for your old junk, bring it to us who would have thunk…
“I must have sat through ten interviews before I landed this gig at Lowe’s. Just give it time!”
Colleen’s fingers rubbed her eyelids and stars danced across her iris’s. “This was the seventh interview, dad.”
“They don’t know what they’re missing out on, peanut. A pretty girl like you…”
Games were harder for girls. Colleen was always picked last in elementary school for her stubby legs and pigeon toes. As her legs grew longer, she would leave for school with a tangled mane and beer-stained t-shirts her father passed down when his belly expanded.
“You look beautiful,” he’d say with his nose in the newspaper.
She never asked him how she looked, but the only other person to tell her that was the homeless trumpet player on 100th and 3rd, so she believed him. As Colleen’s body grew, being picked last grew to never being picked at all. She tried to keep puberty from happening with duct tape bras and toilet paper wads, hoping if she hid everything long enough it would go away. It never went away, and Colleen settled for womanhood. It made her father distant; he felt inadequate. He felt like he could no longer provide for her, and he felt wrong when people would see them around the city together. Her father ran to his work, and Colleen ran to Kurt.
“Seventh interview? Don’t fret, peanut. There are 9 innings in a game, remember?”
Nine months. Kurt was gone by the sixth and Colleen was stuck with a pulsing basketball belly. Without a mother, she had never quite gained the maternal instinct; the example set for her never painted a beautiful picture and she had seen a pamphlet at the clinic about alternatives. The couple first on the waitlist was a pretentious pair out of the upper East side: she wore pearls and he donned a collared shirt with a silly emblem on the pocket. They smiled a lot and told her about the plans they had for the baby’s room.
Colleen stared at the glass of red wine and made small circles with her wrist, letting the liquid lick the rim. As her eyes blurred to the maroon, a drop of condensation splashed in to the glass. Her line of sight moved upwards to the moist pipes above her, then back to the glass. Colleen tilted the clear glass to her lips and she sipped, and sipped, and sipped.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when we lost her. It was a gradual, sneaking thing, like watching our little brother grow up. One day I looked up to find him rising miles above me, without any realization that he had been growing at all. It seems most things in life happen this way- things are rarely so immediate and life changing as people often make them out to be. Life is more of a steady lull, all the tediousness of everyday clouding your vision until you have no idea as to how you got to be where you are, only that you had kept your legs moving. This was no different. My sister Anna was a slow motion disappearing act, little pieces of herself leaving- pieces so small that their absence was unnoticeable at first, like the way she would ruffle our brother’s hair in the mornings, or the big, genuine, hearty laugh she reserved for our dad’s worst jokes. She shed these pieces of herself like dust behind her, until there was nothing left at all.
Our town grew up around a great expanse of lake, so deep and wide that it was nearly impossible to see the thin, blue, water-colored line of the other side that separated sky from glinting water. Anna and I shared a bedroom with single window facing the lake. In the summers we would creep through the window on to the overhang of the roof, tracing the line of the opposite shore with our finger. Sometimes the lake seemed so wide that we forgot it was a lake at all, instead believing was an entire ocean, that the other side of the world was lay just barely visible to us, calling out our names. We had never been to the other side, our father’s boat was old and seemingly pieced together by wishful thinking alone, good only for daytime outings and recreational fishing trips. Anna liked to tell me how it was exactly the same on the other side as it was here, only a little backwards. She described it as a kind of funhouse mirror, that there was another me and there’s another her, but all a little wrong in a way, like being inside a dream. She would tell me these things in the same way she would tell me about her math grades or the boy who wouldn’t stop calling, no hesitation or hitch in her voice that would give her away. I knew well enough that it wasn’t true- but for whatever reason, when I would look out at the expanse, I only saw this other me, terrified in the idea of her existence.
My sister did not swim. All the children in our area swam practically from birth. There had been a long history of drowning from the very beginnings of our town, so swimming safety was always prioritized. But Anna never swam. She would wail anytime my parents brought her towards the water, refusing even to drop in a single toe. While my parents were at first concerned, they decided that a child so instinctively fearful of water would never go near enough to be in danger of drowning anyway. When we were younger, she would get teased for her refusal to get into the water, but when she was older it no longer seemed to matter. She would lay by the edge, browning her forever perfectly tanned legs and making it seem as if swimming was the most juvenile thing in the world. Other girls, girls who had before taunted her, flocked around Anna, shrieking when a little brother or other such creature would splash water in their direction, reading magazines and spraying lemon juice in their hair to lighten it in the sun. But I loved to swim- something I never really grew out of like a lot of the girls my age. My favorite days were when my dad would take us out on his boat, out to where the lake seemed to be infinitely deep, where I could dive without ever touching the bottom. I would dare myself to dive as deeply as possible, to try to reach its deepest point and bring up a little sand to show to my father. But sinking below, the water turns colder and colder and the sun starts to slip away. At the furthest depths, it is only darkness and deafening silence. I would kick my legs as hard as possible, sure that this time, I wouldn’t make it back to the surface. My sister once in cruelty told me that there were sirens living at the darkest depths, ready to snatch up little girls like me, to drag them under, never to return. I remembered shouting back that she was only telling stories because she couldn’t swim before diving back under, ashamed at the fact that I had kept my eyes clamped shut, for fear of seeing a flick of a mermaid’s tail, or pale hands reaching out to me from the depths of the lake.
After Anna’s disappearance, people liked to say how she was different in a way, that she was never good at being young. This wasn’t exactly true. Youth was Anna’s best quality. She did it better than anyone I knew. My transition into young adulthood was marred by grasshopper legs and hunched shoulders, knobby knees and nervous, toothy, braces-filled smiles. Anna floated into adolescence like The Birth of Venus, beautiful and miraculous. Other kids in town would grow quiet whenever she came near, a palpable, heavy sense of equal parts awe and envy. It wasn’t just her beauty, which certainly didn’t hurt- but what they really seemed to ache for, what I myself ached for, was her ease. She walked in her skin as if it was the most effortless thing in the world. After her disappearance, people described watching as if they were watching someone swim through the air, muted and graceful, suspended in slow motion, her hair floating around her face as if it were pulled by unseen watery currents. I think when people said that she was never really good at being young, what they meant was that she was too good, that she was unnatural somehow in this effortlessness, this smooth ascent into adulthood. And maybe that’s why it took us all so long to see she was leaving us. The warning signs were never there.
It was in my fifteenth summer that my sister and I diverged. We had been almost inseparable until that summer, but then something shifted. While my sister grew into near mythological status in the town, I began to grow inward and silent. I sought out the places where no one would find me. I read and swam and daydreamed and hid from the world. My sister glittered and shone, forever followed by long strings of the envious and the heartbroken, by awe and longing. But, what I then thought of as two separate paths, I have now begun to think of as one, simply different manifestations of the same goal. It was in this summer, the one where I believed my sister to be rising to greet the world that she actually receded. It was then that we started to loose her. It was little absences that I noticed first. She stopped asking for me to braid her hair at night. She no longer crawled into my bed during the long thunderstorms that rolled in the heat of summer, when the wind and rain would shake the windowpane, when thunder drowned out the sounds of our breathing. Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night to find her bed empty. On these nights, I would stay up to witness her creep back in in the early dawn, her shoes leaving puddles on the wooden floor, trailing in the earthy smell of mud and lake water. I never asked where she went. I’m not sure why I never wondered, at least not until it was too late. I think a part of me resented her, her secrets and her ease, the life she seemed to be living. I had always felt suspended inside of my own head, as if I were sitting in a train car, looking out to see the world rushing by me, damned to be always slightly removed. My sister, on the other hand, was all action. At that time, I felt she did not shy away from the world as I did. And maybe this is why I didn’t wonder, because it was too painful to watch her live in a way that felt I couldn’t. She felt destined to me, to everyone, for bigger things. That’s what I believed that summer to be at the time, a way hurdling herself towards the sun. What had always seemed so far away and incomprehensible to me, like that thin water-colored line of the other side of the lake, was a part of my sister’s reality, an otherness she seemed to be running towards. And so I let her run.
The summer had come to its peak when my sister left us for good, like an overripe fruit, beautiful and full and sweet, but quickly fleeting. It had been the kind of day where you can sense fall waiting in the eves, a certain smell of decay clinging to the cool of the late evening. My sister had been leaving almost every night by that time, coming home just before the sky turned pink and the lights in our parents bedroom flickered on. This night was no different. I lay on my side, and watched her bed as sky outside our window begins to lighten. I watched as the birds begin to sing and as the sounds of my parents making breakfast in the kitchen rose, as the sunlight poured down the floorboards of our bedroom, slipping over the empty space where she was supposed to be sleeping. I watched as the morning lengthened, until it was morning no longer, and I knew she was gone.
They found my father’s boat in the middle of the lake, much farther than any of us had ever traveled before. The motor had given out, as my father had always predicted would happen if any of us tried to venture out too far. From that point, from the dead center of the lake, you could see clearly to the other side. It rose like some great phantom from the water, black forests and distant mountains identical to the ones that spread themselves across our own shoreline. From that middle point, you could not tell the difference between them and us. There was no other side, just a trick, and illusion, a perfect-mirrored reflection. They found my father’s boat in the middle of the lake, but my sister was nowhere to be found. They only found her jacket and a towel, folded neatly on the center bench, as if waiting for her when she would emerge from the lake again.
My sister has been gone now for two years and I am the same age as she was when she left us. There is a bodiless grave in a meadow near the shoreline, and a tree planted in her honor at the high school, complete with a wooden bench with a shiny plaque underneath. Closure, they said. But for me, this has never been enough. I feel my sister as if we are still connected, some strange invisible line cast out into the lake, out to the land that rises opposite us. I still trace that blue line separating land from water of the other side, but now, instead of seeing a backwards world, I only see Ana, living another sort of life, one where she and I could be different, where she is united with that strange other version of herself. Now, when I dive deep into the lake, I keep my eyes wide open, unafraid, searching for the beautiful face of my sister, for a glimpse of the flick of her tail, hair waving around her like sea grass, pale hands reaching out to me, welcoming me home.
Betty Joe walked out the door of her daddy’s gas station and the sun shot down on her like a spotlight. The air was hot and still. She sat down on the step in front of the door and played with her hands and tapped her feet. The sun was on the side of the sky, beaming down hard on her and the dirt parking lot. The empty parking lot was connected to a beat-up highway that disappeared into the horizon in both directions. The only things you could see from her spot on the step were two filling stations in the lot, some corn across the road and a big field next door full of long grass. Betty Joe squinted down at her hands. A rusty sign creaked above her. Joseph’s Gas & Market.
“Hey Betty Joe,” said her daddy from inside.
She ran back inside. The dangling Joseph’s sign whipped behind her. The air inside was suffocating. There were a couple rows of food. Sweaty refrigerators lined the walls. Her daddy was behind the counter, sort of crouched around a shaky old fan.
He looked up from his newspaper. “What time is it?”
She pulled a brown wristwatch up to her face then looked up to her daddy and put four fingers in the air.
“Okay.” He wiped the sweat off his forehead. “I need to go up to the house for a couple minutes. You alright here?”
Betty Joe was eleven years old. She was wearing dirty white tennis shoes, blue jeans and a big white t-shirt with a blurred, red racecar and “DAYTONA 1979” in big black letters on it. She had short brown hair that never got in her eyes. She liked looking at the sky and working the gas pump.
She walked back outside and sat down on the step. Her daddy yelled good-bye and walked through the back door of the station whistling a tune. She sat with her hands in her lap and watched the sun fall down with a hard squint. She did a lot of thinking and a lot of counting. Every day in her head she counted how many cars came by the station. Today was forty-four.
Exactly thirty-two minutes later – she had just checked her watch – a gust of wind swept through and jolted her. She sat up. A car was coming down the road. As it got closer, Betty Joe saw it was a white pick-up with the windows rolled down. The truck turned into the station lot and a cloud of dirt erupted from the tires. It pulled next to filling station number two and stopped. Its white paint shot the sunlight off it like a mirror. The man inside turned off the truck and climbed out. Didn’t roll the windows up. He slicked the ass of his torn up blue jeans and tipped his black hat to Betty Joe, shielding the sun with her pale little hand. He made his way over. He was old-looking and had a thick, white mustache that looked like a rattlesnake. He had massive boots whose spurs jingled and jangled with every step. Betty Joe saw he was hobbling a bit, but she didn’t think anything of it. He didn’t seem to either.
The rusty gas station sign above her waved in the sudden wind. The tall grass flowed in the neighboring field.
“Afternoon, miss.” He stopped about ten feet from her and wiped the sweat from his face with a sleeve. “How’s things?”
“I’m alright,” said Betty Joe. “Sun’s big today.”
“Sure is,” he said. He pointed at the building behind her. “This your station?” He grinned.
“My daddy’s.” She smiled big back.
“You think your daddy could get me some gas?”
She shook her head. “He’s up at the house. But I can do that.”
She stood up and flattened her jeans.
He handed her two twenties and sat down on the curb.
Betty Joe skipped inside. The hanging Joseph’s sign swung with the door. She clicked some buttons behind the counter, put the two bills in the register and skipped back outside to the pump. She opened up the truck’s tank, took out the nozzle and pulled up the lever. She walked back to the tank and pushed the nozzle in. She squeezed the handle and felt the gas start flowing into the tank.
After five minutes of standing there and squeezing, the gas stopped and Betty Joe pulled out the nozzle. She went to put the nozzle back and the lever snapped down hard into her arm. She jumped back quietly and the hose fell to the ground. She looked at her arm. There was a cut just above her wrist about two inches long and already bleeding badly. Breathless, she walked over to the curb. When she got close enough the man saw the blood, yelled Oh Shit and did a hobble run to his truck. His spurs jangled. Betty Joe sat down on the curb and stared at the red. It was dripping onto the dirt and her blue jeans.
The man came back with a rag and threw it over the cut. He put the rag in her hands. “Press down on it.”
She pressed. “It hurts.”
“It hurts bad.” Now she was breathing heavy.
“You’re gonna be okay.” He sat down next to her. “I’m Paul. Okay?”
“Okay.” She grimaced. “Hi I’m Betty Joe.”
“Do you need me to go get your daddy?”
“Have you got hurt like this before?”
“Not like this I haven’t.”
“Is it bad?”
She nodded. “But I’ll be okay I think. Like you said.”
“Okay. Try to slow down your breathing.” He turned away and looked out. “You’re very brave miss.”
“Thank you.” She turned away with him.
They sat in silence looking at the truck and the nozzle in the dirt. Betty Joe held the rag on her arm. It hurt, but not as much as she’d thought it would. And there was something calm about the old man.
She turned back to him. “You don’t have to stay if you don’t wanna.”
He looked at her. “I’m not gonna leave you til you stop bleeding. Or if your daddy comes back.”
Betty Joe leaned back and gave the best smile she could. “It might be a while.”
Betty Joe was bleeding badly but the cloth was working. She winced up at the man. He was staring across the road. She turned back and stared with him. Another gust of wind hit and the pain started to go away. They sat there just breathing and listening. She could hear the hum of her daddy’s fan inside. Every once in a while, in the corner of her eye, she saw the man biting his nails. After about ten quiet minutes the pain was almost gone. She started to feel comfortable again and her breathing slowed down.
The man seemed to notice and broke the quiet. “Have you ever watched The Shining?” He was still staring off.
Betty Joe looked at him. “What’s that?”
“Nevermind. It’s an old movie.”
She sat up. “What’s it about?”
“How old are you?”
“Eleven, huh.” He looked at her. “What’s your favorite movie?”
“I like Gremlins.” She grinned.
“I asked you first!”
“Nevermind,” he said. “I can’t tell a eleven year old about The Shining.”
“Okay.” She squinted. “Tell me about something else then.”
“What you mean?”
“Tell me a story or something.” She held up her arm. “I’m still bleeding.”
He laughed. “You’re a smart little shit.”
She grinned again. “I’m waiting.”
“You’re putting me on the spot.”
“I didn’t put you anywhere!”
“Okay, okay. Let me think for a second.”
Betty Joe rolled her eyes.
He snapped his fingers and pointed to her. “Okay! I’ll tell you about the first time I remember gettin hurt bad. Just like you today.”
She carefully turned her whole body to him and crossed her legs. The grass next door was whistling.
“I was at a horse race with my family.” He looked back at the corn across the street and leaned forward. “I forgot most of that day. Actually all I remember is a couple seconds. I was probably about your age, maybe younger. I was going around the stadium and there was this flight of stairs and I started walking down. Don’t remember where I was coming from or where I was going. All I remember is somehow tripping and falling down the whole thing. I smacked on the ground and my whole leg was red. Had to go to the hospital. Missed the rest of the horse race.” He looked at her. “Not much of a story.”
“You don’t know why you were going down the stairs?”
“Guess I forgot.”
“That’s not a good reason.”
“I think it is.”
“I haven’t forgot anything about just now.”
He smiled to himself. “That so?”
She nodded firmly. “Do you think you could remember if you tried hard enough?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t even remember the horses?”
The man didn’t say anything. He started drawing in the dirt with his finger.
Betty Joe uncrossed her legs and turned back facing the parking lot. “Well is your leg okay now?”
“Oh it’s fine. Not a scar or nothing.”
“Is that why you limp all the time?”
“No, no. That’s from something else.”
“Do you think I’m gonna get a scar?”
“Maybe. Not for certain.”
“It hurt pretty bad.”
He looked up from the dirt. “Seems that way.”
They looked down at the dirt together. The sun was shooting down so hard they had to squint. The Joseph’s sign waved in the wind above them. Betty Joe squeezed the bloody cloth around her arm and tapped on the ground with her foot. The grass next door was dancing and whistling.
He drew a circle in the dirt with his finger and looked at her. “Please don’t ask your daddy about The Shining.”
“I wasn’t gonna.” She looked down at the rag, then looked up at him. “I think I’m done bleeding now.”
“Alright.” The old man stood up and looked down at her. “You can keep that rag.”
He turned around and started walking to his truck. The field of grass next door swelled in the wind.
Betty Joe stood up. “Where are you going?”
He turned around and put his hands on his hips. “My truck.” He was staring off above her but he was smiling.
She smiled back.
He looked down at his boots. “I’m going to California.”
“I don’t think I ever been there.”
“You’d likely know if you had.”
Betty Joe looked at the bloody dirt under her feet then squinted at him. “Are you gonna forget about me like you forgot about those horses?”
He laughed to himself and looked at her. “You don’t got much to remember, do you?”
She looked at him with bright eyes.
He waved Bye, then turned around and walked to his truck. He pulled the lever down, picked the nozzle up off the ground and shoved it back into its place. Betty Joe tapped her foot on the dirt and watched him.
He opened his truck door and looked at her one more time. “You better wash your arm off or something.” He climbed into his seat and closed the door. The engine roared and the truck started moving. The tires picked up dirt and threw it in the air. He blew his horn at her, and then he turned onto the highway and drove away.
Betty Joe was sitting on the curb again now and could see his shiny truck even when it was at least a mile away. Kept her eyes on it as long as she could. She could hear her daddy’s fan still shaking inside.
She tapped her tennis shoes on the dirt and tapped and tapped. The wind was gone now but the sun was still shining hard. She put her hands in her lap and whistled along with the rusty sign swinging above her. She and the grass next door never knew anything else.