Dirt in the Blood
I need more dirt in my blood. At least, that's what my grandfather told me when I was seven, maybe eight, but I didn't remember that phrase until last Friday night when I saw a guy hit his girlfriend as she came out of the bathroom at Jackson's. It was a quick, mean slap, and then he dragged her out of the bar, past the doorman, by her wrist. It's been with me for a week now: You need more dirt in your blood. My grandfather said this to me because I was crying after he gave me what he called a frogger, a sharp pinch of the bicep that left a bluish-green bruise on my arm for days. This was before he died, back when he used to grill hamburgers and hotdogs by his swimming pool on summer afternoons, back when he felt it his duty to teach me and my brother how to toughen up as the meat hissed over the charcoal. What I remember even more than that pain, though, is looking at my grandfather's face, and then at his dark knees, as my vision grew blurry and the embarrassment began to seethe toward anger.
After the guy hit his girlfriend, he grabbed her arm, and I was close enough to watch his fingers slip down to her wrist. I watched her lock both of her knees and bend forward, causing her to take short little half-bursts of steps as he pulled her out. I watched the doorman look past them, back past me, back toward the bathrooms. And for a week now, I've seen myself saying Hey.
In better versions, I reach out and grab hold of her other hand, hero-like, but more often I simply picture myself yelling that word at him.
Hey, said loudly, isn't much—but it's something.
And if I said the girl was pretty, I know it shouldn't matter. But she was pretty, in the way girls are always pretty in April, dressed up in their sundresses and flaunting their new tans. I had noticed her earlier, wiping her lipstick smears off of a glass and smoking with her friends, laughing. My grandfather, I know, would have laid the guy out with a beer bottle across the forehead, regardless of how she looked. Just because, he'd say. Had to. He used to tell me stories of South Korean bars, during the war, when he and his buddies sat around all night laughing and drinking cheap scotch after a fight with some Australians or Frenchmen, not even bothering to clean up their bloody shirts and faces. He told me this like it was a kind of wisdom, the sure-fire knowledge of violence.
I did not go into the army. I went to college, two hours from my parents' house, and took pre-med classes: biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology. I learned how tendons can stretch and give, how bones can decalcify and bend, how a few loose molecules can change the composition of things. But I have never been as certain of what I know as my grandfather was.
That night, I drank two more beers with my friends, and then I called Anna, my fiancée, who might or might not still be in love with me. I did not tell her about the girl, or the guy. I told her I'd be home soon.
This morning, Anna and I are making the two-hour drive to my grandmother's house. We used to make this trip every few weeks, even though we knew that my family would ask us about marriage dates and talk about babies, but we haven't been in awhile. This weekend is Easter, so we are expected.
The drive is quiet as we coast down Black Mountain and into the Piedmont, my small Toyota swiveling along with the four-lane highway, the sun so bright you can almost believe that this year's slush is gone for good. We don't talk, don't even listen to the radio, really, although it's set to the local oldies rock station and has played quietly for the entire ride. Johnny Rivers's "Seventh Son" follows the Byrds and we lean with the curves and squint our eyes against the sunlight. We read every billboard. Anna used to love these trips.
At my grandmother's house, we know, she has stewed a large pot of pinto beans. There will be turkey and cornbread and greens with vinegar. Every member of my mother's side of the family will be there, four generations and growing. Every single one of them will ask us how we are doing.
When we pull into the driveway, Aunt Remmy is the first one to us, opening Anna's door before I've even taken my foot off the brake.
Annie, she says. We thought y'all might have turned around or something.
Anna just smiles at Aunt Remmy. Everyone in my family calls Anna Annie, although they are the only ones who do so. They make a fuss over her, which she is not used to because she is an only child from parents who were also only children. Easter dinner at her grandparents' house is just five of us sitting around a kitchen table—her mom, her grandparents, and us—no need for an extension board in the center of the table. They actually play background music, and you can hear the lyrics.
Once we step into my grandmother's house, the noise takes on weight. It pushes against us. There are kids, some of whose names I've forgotten, crying and pulling off their brightly-pasteled Easter outfits. There is laughter and the clanking of plates on tables being set for dinner, loud conversations about next year's high school football season. After we make the rounds— hugs for the women, handshakes for the men—Anna and I finally drop down on the couch and let the family whirl around us. I think foxhole, and almost whisper this to Anna because it's a running joke we have. In normal times, during stolen moments in the hallway or bathroom, we joke about the sound and energy vibrating through the house. Keep your head down, she told me last time we were here, as great-nieces and nephews and cousins ran between and around us. Just then, one of them—Remmy's grandson—launched himself onto my back. Incoming, Anna said. She was laughing.
I look over at Anna now on the couch and try to catch her eyes. Instead, she exhales like it's her first breath since pulling into the driveway.
When we used to make these trips, Anna and I arrived a little earlier so we could leave a little earlier. We did not drive all the way home. Instead, we found a motel on I-40, usually near Morganton, and spent the night touching each other in a foreign room. It felt more adult, more mature, to have an entire room to ourselves. But this was before everything else, back when we sweated against each other in dorm rooms or in our parents' living rooms, watching for car headlights to brighten the blinds. On those nights, in the hotel, we could pay attention. Recently, sex with Anna breaks my heart.
The men in my family have always been quick to play savior, quick to inflict justice. My Uncle Bobby once pulled a man from a Honda, and then hit him so hard that the man lost his tennis shoe. They were in the check-out line at Wal-Mart, and the guy was giving the cashier a hard time, telling her she looked sweet enough to taste, that he'd like to come back later and watch her leave the store, just to see her walk. She was a senior at our high school, just two years older than I was, and this crossed the line with Uncle Bobby. Plus, the man had his kids with him—two poor, snot-nosed little things, Uncle Bobby said.
Uncle Bobby paid for his hamburger meat, and then followed the man outside.
I didn't want to hit no guy with his kids watching, he told us later, when my father brought him home from the police station. But he was just sauntering out of that store, slick like, letting his kids follow him or not. Didn't even wait to see if the kids made it across the traffic lane okay—and they was young, too. Couldn't of been more than four or five.
I was sitting in the kitchen with my parents and my brother, listening to what happened, even though it was late. My dad and uncle had come in loud and sounding angry, but they were also laughing.
I shouted at the guy, Uncle Bobby said. Told him to watch his kids, they might get hit by a car.
The man said something back to him, but Bobby couldn't remember what it was.
I just thought about them kids, and that girl, and that bully look on the man's face, Uncle Bobby said. And I'm telling you, I just snapped. Couldn't help it.
Uncle Bobby had two priors for battery, so he spent a few months in jail, cleaning up roadsides, and everyone we knew said how unfair it was, and how he was such a good man to sacrifice himself like that. Women from our church brought him green-bean casserole and ham and peanut brittle on the day he got out. Uncle Bobby drank a few cups of Jim Beam and said he'd like to catch that guy out again, said he'd do the same thing. No questions asked. No regrets. Everyone sat outside on the porch that evening, dizzy with righteousness, laughing about that shoe.
Grant, my older brother, comes in from the back porch as soon as we are on the couch. He's two years older and forty pounds heavier than I am, and when he leans over to hug Anna, he lifts her off the couch an inch or two. She seems as light as the yellow sundress she's wearing, and I can see tan lines crisscrossing her back—the easy browning of her skin, except for the one patch on her left shoulder that won't tan anymore.
You doing good, kid? Grant asks me, and I nod.
Then he looks at Anna. How about you?
She says, Fine, and he clears his throat.
Good, then, he says. And then he looms over us, waiting for us to talk.
How's Linda? I ask.
He shakes his head, slow and exaggerated, and pinches his lips together. Hell if I know, he says. If you see her, ask her.
I know this means bad news, another episode.
She packed my bags, he says. Said it was my turn to leave. He laughs just then, and it sounds authentic, almost impressed. That woman, he says.
Anna and I do not ask any other questions.
I kicked the stove, Grant says anyway. Put my foot right through the damn glass, and the sumbitch was on. Got cut, burnt, and thrown out. Pretty good, huh?
He turns and walks away toward the kitchen as soon as he says this, and I look for a limp but don't see one.
Beside me, Anna looks at me for the first time since we've been inside, maybe for the first time all day. She raises her eyebrows just a hint. Neither of us even pretends like that could be us someday, that I would ever have that in me.
Two months ago, Anna was attacked in her driveway by a woman named Rhonda. She was big, nearly two-hundred pounds on a short frame, mid-forties. The police officer who sat in Anna's living room called Rhonda crazy. He said she didn't have a record or a motive. He said, best he could tell, Anna was there, and that's why it happened. Some sort of break. Sitting in Anna's living room, he tapped his pad and looked at us and shrugged. Rhonda, I thought, as if it were a word I'd never heard before.
When another squad car arrived, lights on but no sound, the first officer on scene met the newcomer at his car, smiling and talking about things we couldn't hear. Anna sat with a makeshift ice pack over her left eye, crushed ice in a washcloth, and just kind of stared at them out the window. After he came back inside, the officer told me to take Anna to the emergency room and asked if she wanted to press charges. Then he looked around the living room, as if careful not to take sides, and jotted a few more scribbles on his pathetic little pad, small enough to slip into his front shirt pocket.
That night, I told my dad about Anna's attack over the telephone, and both of my uncles and my brother called me within an hour. They wanted to load up a car and drive to our house. They wanted a name.
On the telephone, each time, I told them that everything was fine now, that everything was calm. I told them I had it all under control.
Later, after the hospital, as Anna was sleeping off two Percocet, I sat in the living room of her apartment, on the couch with the television off. I sat there in the paneled-wall darkness and stared at the ceiling, then at the TV, then at the raised condensation rings on the coffee table. And I imagined making that phone call again: Rhonda, I could say.
Do you really think he kicked the stove? Anna asks me. She leans in when she says this, and I can smell her wintergreen breath.
Probably, I say. Sounds like him.
She seems to think about this for a moment, and then leans back into the plush cushions of the couch. I want to ask her what she's thinking, but she leans forward and picks up the book on the coffee table in front of us—a photo album with pictures of my grandfather, young and lean-faced, taken during his tour in Korea. I've seen these pictures a thousand times, but I glance at them again in Anna's lap. My grandfather has used a ball-point pen to label most of them, so none of us will forget, and they are mostly photos taken just after battle. Above the photos, he's printed Osan, and Pusan, and other words that have faded or smudged. The strange thing is that in several of them, in the foreground of the grainy, cracked photos, there are lumps on the ground with soldiers standing over them. Dead Gook, the ink says. Or Chink. Or Me. And my grandfather looks into the camera, not smiling, but alive.
From somewhere behind us, Aunt Remmy says, You kids better find some food fast, and then she's in front of us, sitting down in a chair across from the couch, balancing a plate filled with a swirl of meats and creamed vegetables on her knees.
I stand up to help Anna off the couch, which is swallowing her, and I'll admit that what I think about just then is the girl from Jackson's. I remember walking out of Jackson's an hour later, nervous about a second chance, even though the parking lot was empty except for a few cars parked under the lampposts. And I remember how, as I drove home, I turned the radio up loud and told myself that he let her go once they were outside. How could he get her all the way to the car, get her inside the car? I told myself that they fought, loudly and publicly, until they were both standing in the street, too tired to fight anymore. I told myself that this was passion, and for a little while I almost made it a beautiful story.
Anna is in line behind Uncle Bobby, and I can see her ladle corn onto her plate. I am standing on the porch, smoking, looking in through the paned glass of the front door. She is looking down at the counter, not talking to people like she used to. She doesn't ask Uncle Bobby about his new girlfriend, or laugh at his inevitable dirty joke, and she doesn't ask if there is anything she can do to help my grandmother. These are the small things that make me watch her.
It's quiet out here, Grant says, and his sudden voice startles me. Give me one of those.
I hand him the pack of Marlboros from my pocket. Kids are out back with Remmy, I say, for no real reason, and then hold up a flame for him. He leans in until the tobacco snaps and smokes.
So many of ‘em anymore, I'm not sure they're all ours, he says, exhaling.
Above us, a tiny plane coasts through the white sky. Grant looks past me, through the door. She seems quiet today, he says.
I nod, but we aren't looking at each other. I'm looking at the plane, the slow illusion of floating.
It'll just take a little time, I guess, he says after another inhale. Two jets of smoke flow through his nostrils. She'll be back.
We can hear the kids in the backyard now, their voices bending around the corners of the house. They are with their parents, finding eggs in little pockets of grass or jammed between forks in the tree limbs. Some of these eggs won't be found until raccoons pry them loose, drawn in by the lingering rot. Grant and I take alternating puffs on our cigarettes and crane our necks toward the sky until our cigarettes are stubs. After a few minutes I take one last, hard pull on mine, but there isn't any tobacco left. Just the singed-chemical taste of the burning filter. So we snub them out with our toes and step back inside.
Ever since Rhonda, people will ask Anna if she is okay, and we both know what this means. It is not the polite, rhetorical How are you? It has a different tone. It rises. Everyone has that same tone. Sometimes, the person will look at me right after they've said it, as if Anna can't really give an answer. They will touch her on the arm, or put a hand on her shoulder or the small of her back.
Anna and I saw one of our friends in a seafood restaurant once, about a week after, and that was the first question she asked when she came up to our table. Anna's left cheek was still swollen then. How are you? Are you okay?
She looked at me, and then she shook her head. Well, we're always here if you need us, this lady said. You just let us know if there's anything we can do.
When she was gone, Anna looked up from her salad and let out a small laugh. I just smiled at her at first, because it wasn't funny, but once she started, she just kept laughing. Maybe because it was something to do. Maybe because there was nothing that could be done now, a week later at a seafood restaurant. She put her napkin to her mouth, and her eyes grew small and red. And I began laughing because I didn't want her to stop. It didn't last long, but while Anna was sitting there like that, her hands over her mouth, it was like I was holding my breath. She hadn't laughed in a week. And I told myself, She's okay, even though it wasn't that kind of laughter.
Sometimes, people say things like, If I'd have been there. But they never finish that sentence. So I still don't know how it is supposed to end, or what goes after that easy anger.
We eat outside under the screened-in porch, because it's quieter out here and my parents saved us a place. We haven't seen them very much in the last few months because they live here in the Western Carolina foothills, too. My entire family grew up here, planted roots, will stay here, right between the Appalachian Mountains and the ever swelling suburbs of Charlotte.
It's nice, for a little while anyway, to escape the living room and kitchen, to get away from the noise and heat of the conversations and cooking. As we eat our turkey and gravy and potatoes, my parents ask us questions, try to keep a conversation going so they can figure out if we are okay.
My mom asks how Anna likes my place, because they know she moved in after the attack, and I answer for her. It's everything we could have expected, I say. We're getting used to it. Anna smiles down at her plate, still on mute, still wading through the afternoon.
They ask about my job at the hospital, and I tell them it's going great. I tell them that although I've only been at Mission for six months, my reviews are as high as anyone's. My dad asks about medical school—the ultimate goal and the reason for the pre-qualification papers for a second mortgage that are sitting on his desk right now. He asks this as if it just occurred to him, like it isn't something that they worry about. Since I was in the second grade, they've wanted me to become a doctor. They want something better for their kids they've told us, although they can't ever tell me exactly what that is.
Maybe next year, I tell him. Maybe if I ace the MCAT. I've gotta figure out what I'm going to specialize in.
Both my mom and dad put a forkful of whatever in their mouth and smile at me. They don't care what kind of doctor.
What I don't tell my parents—and what I don't tell anyone—is that the lab I work in is one floor above the emergency room at Mission Hospital, so I see the patients who line the walls, sitting there with bloody shirts wrapped around their hands or ice packs jammed against their heads. I see the patients who are wheeled in through the doors by EMTs and have so much blood on their clothes that I can't make out where the wound might be. What I don't tell them is that, when I see these people, I no longer want to grab the sides of the carts from the EMTs and ask for the vitals. I no longer see myself yelling all of those words I've spent hours learning from flashcards. I no longer want to know their names.
We didn't know her name before. Rhonda. Even though she lived next door to Anna for longer than we'd been dating. The police officer called her crazy, which is not a word that helps, because I've seen Rhonda outside washing her Buick. I've seen her carry in groceries from the trunk of her car, six bags at a time, three in each hand, through the screened door to her apartment. I have seen her, one year ago, hunt for Easter eggs with her nieces.
Crazy is easy. It does not help, and it does not explain.
Because it was Rhonda who wrapped her fat arm around Anna's neck. It was Rhonda who shoved her onto the concrete hard enough to skin the flesh from her left shoulder. Rhonda climbed on top of Anna and jammed her knees up against her sides, pinning her arms and leaving her face open. Rhonda left bruises and welts so clear that they almost glow in the photos the police officer took after it was over. And it was Rhonda's name that Anna's neighbor said into my telephone, because I was not there, because I was someplace else, because I didn't know it was happening.
I want dirt.
I want mud in my veins thick enough to clog out everything in my head and force me to rely on the just and right violence of the heart.
Every Easter, my family reads the story of the crucifixion and resurrection after we've all eaten. Everyone sits in the living room and Uncle Bobby or my father—now that my grandfather is gone—reads a version of the story from a crinkled pamphlet that my grandfather kept in the back of his Bible. The story borrows from all of the gospels, beginning with the hard details of the cross and ending with Mary stunned by miracle.
After I help my mother carry everyone's plates into the kitchen, and help my grandmother load the dishwasher, I walk into the living room to try and find a seat. Anna is already sitting on the couch, between Grant and Uncle Bobby, and she's smiling, sinking into the soft cushions. And she is looking at the photos again, my relatives explaining each frame to her. Three months ago—two and a half—she would never have opened it a second time. She would have seen Gook, Chink, and closed the cover, bringing it up only on the ride home, killing time to Morganton. And I would have told her that it's just my family—You gotta understand, I would have said, back then the Chinese were the great red Satan, the people sending Soviet-made burp gun rounds over my grandfather's head. It's a different way of thinking. I wouldn't have expected her to accept this, wouldn't even have wanted her to, but I would have said it. And then the conversation would have turned to something else.
But something about the way she's listening, the way she's looking at the photos, makes me think she asked about them. Her smile is tight and frightening. And Bobby and Grant are happy to point out what they know, have gathered from my grandfather on long afternoons on the back porch.
Daejeon, Bobby is saying. Seems right, anyway. Our boys were pissed.
Look at all of 'em, Grant says. Look at that one. He points to a specific picture and the heads of the other two twist toward it.
I don't look or ask any questions. Instead, I find a place on the floor and lean back against the couch as my father begins to read the story over the consistent cries of the younger kids in the room. Words, like flashcards, flip through my head, and I try to push away the hard ones, like Hey, or Rhonda, or Sorry.
A few minutes later, Anna slides down to sit beside me, carefully pushing the photo album back into its place on the coffee table. My father's voice tries to carry over the cries of the kids, the air conditioner, the dishwasher whirring in the kitchen. And I try to listen to the words. Nearly halfway through the story, Anna leans over and puts her head on my shoulder. I can smell her shampoo, the faint, warm trace of her makeup, and for a moment, I let myself be pulled by the current of miracle: I let myself believe that she is happy, that she feels good and safe. And just for a moment, even my belief in the blood is as deep as my family's. I close my eyes against the sunlight breaking in through the windows, and I let myself see the images I've known since childhood: God waking up to take charge of His army, bright with anger, the promise of battle beating through the brand-new air.
-Joshua Canipe (from Trigger)