Best of the Net 2016  

Love, Blue Glass, the Sky, Mine

The railroad boys are ghosts. They sit cross-legged on the tracks and stare into the sun, like they're waiting for some meaning to fall from the sky and tug their eyes open. Or closed, maybe. I don't know the faces of most of the boys, not anymore. The older ones go missing. Some of them simply grow up, cut their hair, get a real job, even, bring home a paycheck every month until no one can remember who they once were.

Then there are the other boys, the more tender-hearted ones. They get tired of the sitting and staring and waiting, so they lie down, with their legs still crossed in the dust, backs flat against the rails, and fall asleep.

But that doesn't happen as often as you might think. Most of the boys are patient; they wait for their lungs to cave in.

I once knew a boy, soft-spoken, with dark eyelashes long enough to wrap around a finger. His name was Zachary. He had a patch sewn onto his backpack that I admired. It said: I felt like destroying something beautiful. Hand-written in black sharpie.

"You got that line from a movie," I said.

"Maybe the movie got it from me," he said.

"It's based on a book, you know. You should read it."

He shrugged.

Under the sleeve of his T-shirt, I could make out the pink block letters etched neatly with a pin: M I N A.

Beneath his long lashes, Zachary's eyes were a deep mahogany.

* * * * *

As the two pills stumble down his throat, the boy imagines that one might say to the other, "What was the last book you read?" And the purple pill might answer, "I was only one hundred pages away from finishing Anna Karenina when I lost the book last Thursday." He imagines that the yellow pill might feel sorry for the purple one. It might offer words of understanding, a kind nod, concerned eyes. But then he remembers, no, they are only pills, and nobody ever finishes Anna Karenina anyway. Nobody but his father, who also read War and Peace. But his father doesn't count because he is dead now, and the boy knows that the accomplishments of the dead are always momentous and incomparable to anything of the living. They always have the advantage, don't they? The boy feels that this is unfair. He feels it especially at night, leaning out of windows in early October, without even a cigarette for company. When the wind blows, the leaves make watery shadows on the asphalt and it makes him feel weightless. He holds out his arms under the orange light of the streetlamps and watches them change into wings, gold-flecked and supple. Like stepping through a portal, he thinks. And this is why he takes the two pills each day. Swallows them dry. They keep him from leaning too far.

* * * * *

There are no sidewalks in the rich part of town. There are plenty of antique shops and French restaurants and high-netted golf courses. But no sidewalks. So it was easy for the boy to pull up his old station wagon close enough so I could almost smell his breath, bubblegum and toothpaste. He asked me if I wanted a ride home.

He was an older friend of Zachary's who still came to school. For us East Rail kids, that was something like a miracle. He'd been held back a few years, though, missed too many classes, so we ended up together in fourth period English. I liked the poem he wrote about the life of a car cigarette lighter. So I said sure, I could use a ride, but I don't want to go home yet.

We went to the public library instead and sat staring at the fish in the children's aquarium. I tried to remember his name.

"How's your sister?" he asked.

"Fine," I said.

"That's not why I'm doing this," he said.

"I know," I said.

He traced a finger over the glass of the aquarium, trying to get the fish to follow it. He had tiny wrists, smaller than mine, even.

"We used to have some goldfish," I said.

"Yeah?" he said.

"Yeah," I said, "I killed them. I've killed every pet I ever had."

"I can help you keep them alive," he said.

I smiled at his reflection in the glass. Then I remembered his name: Johnnie.

* * * * *

The one thing he owns that belonged to his father is a white handkerchief, embroidered in a script he can't read. And his mother tells him over and over again. He did it for mina, for you. But his mother, she is a white woman from a small town. She doesn't know what mina means any more than he does. And so he ponders the word, turns it around on his tongue and keeps it sewn to the roof of his mouth. He doesn't look up the word in a dictionary, the one book his father didn't read. Besides, he doesn't want to find truth in a dictionary, in a book written by men who killed his father.

Because his father was killed, the boy believes, and killed by men. And why shouldn't they be the same ones who write dictionaries?

But also, he wants to find that girl with the green scarves. The one named Meena who has eyes like his but prettier. Light blue. Or grey. He isn't sure. She must know what her name means.

* * * * *

I see Zachary again, much later, at a community art show. He's sitting alone on a high wall, long legs dangling over the neon graffiti, leaning forward on his knees. His eyes are downcast, but I can't see what he's looking for. The photograph cuts you off.

It's part of a collection called "East Rail, West Rail." And it's obvious where Zachary fits in. You can see it his in face, his skin pasty like papier-mâché, like that life-sized shark we built in the third grade. How it looked like a ghost before we painted it blue. Zachary is unpainted too, his skin so thin it's almost translucent. When I look closely, I can see the pink scar tissue that tattoos his arms in a secret language that maybe only Mina would understand. But I'm not Mina, so I leave to find my sister, to tell her that I'm done here. My purse is full of free sandwiches and we can leave now.

* * * * *

"Zachariah," she says. Her voice deep and clear, reminding him of the time he fell asleep by the storm drain, listening to the echoes in the tunnels beneath.

And he doesn't correct her about his name. Because Zachariah sounded right, like it belonged to him. Not like his father's Zakaria nor his mother's Zach.

So he tells her, this girl with the echoing voice, Meena, from the beginning of what he can remember. How his mother only slept with his father because she felt sorry for him. Because he seemed lonely and far from home. How she kept the baby, his mother did, only because she was still at St. Mary's, younger than he is now.

Then he tries to tell her about his father, his mildness, his books. The way he ate so delicately with his hands. But his father's face is lost to him, among the many faces of his mother's ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends. And he doesn't know which pair of eyes belonged to his father, which nose, which beard, which mouth. So he says the first thing that comes to mind, "My father is dead."

And she nods, yes, hers too.

He forgets to ask about her name.

* * * * *

Johnnie Walker Blue was in love with my sister. He had no other reason to cut his hair and go back to school. And I don't blame him, because my sister is beautiful. Even under the eyeliner and the red lipstick, her face is like a child's. She's been paying the rent with that perfect, child-like face since our grandmother died.

And Johnnie was one of the tender-hearted ones, wasn't suspended for drugs or gangs or anything else. Didn't even flunk out. He came to school as long as he could and then dropped out six months before a diploma. To support his mother, he said, the same woman who beat him every day because his father beat her. At first, I worried that Johnnie would have it in him too, from growing up that way. But he didn't. Maybe that's why he finally lay down on the tracks. He wasn't angry enough, couldn't count on that to pull him from day to day, parking lot to parking lot. And maybe the dust starts to weigh on your lungs after some time, makes it hard to take the next breath you need to take.

That night, the night that he quit waiting, Johnnie came to our apartment looking for my sister. To say goodbye to her, I guess.

"She's out," I said, "working."

He knew what I meant by that. What kind of work my sister did.

"Tell her I came by," he said.

"Okay," I said, "I will."

"How are your ducks?" he asked.

"They're alive," I said.

He smiled. "Be good," he said.

I blushed and closed the door.

The next morning I found my sister on the kitchen floor, kneeling with her head in the garbage.

"Food poisoning," she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her shirtsleeve. Her feet were red and swollen.

"You're pregnant," I said.

"No," she said, "I'm sick."

* * * * *

Even when he closes his eyes, the orange spot remains at the back of his eyelids, glowing hotly, burning into his mind like the broken headlights of his father's car. But no, it's a train this time. Like that night when Johnnie decided that he would walk to the tracks after dark. Which was forbidden. Not only by the law, but by the unspoken rule among the railroad boys that they would sleep in parking lots and basements and wherever else they could find concrete.

But this boy, this Johnnie Walker Blue, named after his father's favorite drink, he didn't have a place to sleep that night. Not even the parking lot where his father broke open a beer bottle, the same one he used on his wife, the boy's mother. And Johnnie doesn't like the taste of broken glass on his lips because it leaves the blood metallic somehow. So he goes back to the only place he knows. Walks out into the night, beyond the neon lights, beyond the library, to the edge of town where the sidewalks end. To the railroads. And his friend, the boy with the normal name, named after his mother's Bible, he follows Johnnie. Because he wants to know what it feels like, the taste and the smell, and mostly, he wants to see Johnnie die. But all he sees instead is the familiar orange light that makes him feel dizzy, inside out, like his eyes are closed when really they're open. And the spot only grows larger and larger, brighter and brighter, until he's falling upwards into the sky, into the sun. But when he stretches out his arms and tries to fly, it's Johnnie Walker's scream that pulls him down. That's what it felt like, like staring into the sun. And he doesn't know anymore, why he's leaning out of windows, or sitting in the dust, burning out his eyes.

* * * * *

Across the street, the neon lights flicker once, twice, three times. It must be a sign, I know, an omen. Will my sister return in three months? Three years? Three lifetimes later, maybe, when we're both reborn as fish in the children's aquarium? I don't think she'll remember me.

But three means something.

Zachary's father.

Johnnie Walker Blue.

And now the whole town is holding its breath, waiting for the last name to appear in the papers. I think that's why my sister brought me to the green pond behind the library. Maybe it was an sacrifice.

The neon lights glow steadily now. They remind me of the aquarium blue on Johnnie's face when I tried to tell him about the boy with the long eyelashes. About how beautiful he was. So beautiful that I wanted to kill him, because that would make him a part of me somehow, make his beauty mine too. And that's why I killed all those pets, I guess, by accident, because they were beautiful.

But all I got out was the part about the pets. So Johnnie took me to the duck pond behind the library and said I should adopt the ducklings there. Because they weren't really mine, he said, they couldn't die.

* * * * *

Late summer and a storm is coming. He feels it ripening everyday now, on the nape of his neck and the back of his knees. In places where the heat collects into seedlings of sweat and slides down to his toes. And he read in a book once about how mushrooms can grow in damp dark places, like between the toes or the armpits, or your crotch. But though his feet have been wet for days, it doesn't worry him anymore.

Meena doesn't mind because her hands and her feet are always slightly damp, and under her green scarves, her hair is wet too. It is long and curling and envelopes him like a cocoon. She smells like rain and sandalwood and it makes him feel more like his father to be with her, because Meena should have been his mother, he thinks, with her dark eyelashes and long, fragrant hair.

And it's Meena, not him, who asks first about the name, when she sees the pink scars on his skin.

So he shows her his father's handkerchief, asks her to read the word.

Love, she says, it means love.

"Love," he says, just to taste the word. But already he has decided that his father was a liar. Because mina, love, was the last reason to die.

* * * * *

I waited three days before returning alone to the green pond behind the library. By then, the ducklings were already embedded in the muddy banks, stripped of their feathers. I gathered as many as I could in my dress and carried them down the four blocks to my grandmother's old house. To bury in the front yard.

My sister was gone by then. She left the morning after we killed the baby ducklings.

"This is a lesson on equanimity," she had said.

And I didn't know how she learned such big words on the streets. But she said never mind about the words, because this was about survival.

She was gone a week after Johnnie died. Probably hitchhiked to the next town and the town after that and kept going until she forgot about the railroads and the neon lights and the broken glass in parking lots. And she wanted to forget about Johnnie too, I guess, because they found the remains of her baby in a shallow grave two towns over. A baby boy. They buried him in Johnnie's grave because everyone in town wanted to believe he was the father. Besides, no one could pay for another plot of land. I like to think the baby had mahogany eyes.

* * * * *

An angel spoke to him once, when he was too young to remember his age, five or six, he thinks. His mother had left him in the backseat of her boyfriend's car while she and the boyfriend rented a motel room, for what, they didn't say. But the problem was he needed to pee, really badly. So he climbs out of the car, even though his mother told him not to, and finds a hidden wall.

And when he looks up, he sees her sitting there, up on the wall, as if waiting for him all along with her wings and halo and white dress. And even though the bottoms of her feet are black with dust and her hair is knotted and tangled, he knows she is a real life angel. Because of her face.

I have a little sister your age, she said to him. She's real cute. And smart too.

But I want to kill her sometimes, the angel said, and I don't even know why.

Do you know what that feels like?

And he didn't know how to answer her then, six years old with urine seeping down his legs, to his worn-out shoes, dampening his socks.

So he runs away from her, the angel, and from the wall, runs past the parking lot, past the boyfriend's car and keeps running until his lungs cave in. When his father finds him later that night, curled up on the street by a storm drain, he holds his breath and pretends to be dead. But his father doesn't spank him or yell like the boy expected. His father doesn't say a word, just picks him up in his arms and carries him back to the parking lot where the boy's mother is waiting, crying into a white handkerchief.

–Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint (from Quarterly West)