Jaimee Wriston Colbert
He's cruising along route 315 going nowhere, and there she is. Her thigh is what he notices about her first. Long, really long, in tight jeans, she's stuck it out then curved it in and around a utility pole like a backwards question mark. She's blond, same as his wife, only his wife's hair is short. Everything about his wife is short. This hair swirls out and about like an animal's tail, like something with a mind of its own.
As he lets up on the accelerator, braking, coaxing the Plymouth Fury to an easy stop beside the girl, she whips her arm behind her head and yanks at the hair, stretching it down in front of her neck like a shield. She leans into the window he rolls down, passenger's side, takes her sweet time about it too despite the line of cars building up behind him. "What do you want?" she asks, peering in at him like he's the one with no right to be here.
"Shit," he mutters. An ache of something neglected tugs at his groin. She's barely more than a kid. Her eyes burn with newness. "Excuse me, but do you or don't you need a ride? I thought you were hitchhiking." His voice seems strange, a sound apart from the rest of him. It's been awhile since he's spoken to anybody.
"Depends. If you're a weirdo or a creep, forget it. Are you some kind of pathetic loser?"
The driver of the car behind his leans on the horn. He flips him off in the rear-view, shaking his head, his own hair black as the road but for a slow creep of premature, just-over-thirty grey at his temples, and cut in an uneven line at his neck. He feels a surge of anger. The girl, the car behind him, it's like a conspiracy sometimes. "I didn't know hitchhikers were so bloody picky. Take a bus, why don't you?" A semi, emptied of its load, barrels by a warning. The horn-blaster behind him, white car, probably a BMW or a Volvo, is writing down his license plate, he'd just bet on it. The girl shrugs, opens the door and climbs into the car.
"My stepmother has this same damn car, same color and everything. Goes to show you can't escape. Just take me anywhere," she says as he forces the Fury back into traffic, out of the right lane, shooting into the left where things flow a little freer. "Anywhere that's away from here." She tosses her hair over the seat so it's drifting into the back of the car where recently his whole life had been kept, a bag with his toothbrush and shaving stuff, his sleeping bag, a spare clean shirt and HOLLYWOOD-the book he's been reading about a guy who doesn't live his life the normal way but people love him, he makes a movie the way he wants to make it, it's a success naturally, and he lives forever with lots of money.
His eyes leave the road for a second traveling quickly over the girl. Her hair is the color of the moon and just as showy. A hank of it has blown across his arm that rests tenuously on the seat near her shoulder. She's left the window open even though the wind has teeth and it's about to rain. Not a yellowy blond, he rolls his eyes, stares straight ahead at the street again; she's hardly a real blond at all.
"Can't you get off this damn highway? I hate this highway. My last ride was an asshole and he left me here." Her eyes, a pale shade of an almost yellow, search his profile. Like a cat's, he thinks. "I'm into your regular roads, country roads. I hate highways. On the mainland they go on forever."
"Where you from, Mars? You know," he starts, then tightens his lips. He remembers he didn't brush his teeth this morning. Does his breath stink? There was no fresh water in the park he stayed the night in, just a mud hole-Fishing Pond, the sign said. He shrugs. "Hell, how old are you anyway? I mean isn't this kind of thing pretty dangerous, you telling me to take back roads, away from civilization and all? Who am I? You don't know, I could be a mass murderer."
"Civilization, hah!" She throws back her head, her sleek neck long as a horse's. "Like isn't this Ohio? I got them mixed up in the maps we did in the fourth grade, Ohio and Iowa, four letter states in the middle of nowhere. Who cares anyway, what's the difference? I'm from Hawaii. The bars in Waikiki are open till four in the morning. That's civilization. Anyhow, I take rides from people all the time. Not everybody gets to drive their own Fury, you know."
"Right. So what. And you're too young for bars." He shakes his head. Why did he even stop? Not that he was going any place in particular, but this is supposed to give his afternoon meaning? He fiddle with the station tuner on the radio, sliding it up and down like scales, music, news, chatter, numbing and drab. He flips the power off.
"My father picked up someone in a bar. He brought her home and screwed her. I think he screwed her into something permanent, like maybe a socket because she's been with us ever since."
He smiles and sees she's smiling too, a little smirk. He feels that ache again, the stirring that starts deep in the pit of him, swells and announces itself proud as a flag. Something about the way she talks. Tough kid. He glances at her thighs, longer than his, longer than anyone's. "So what are you doing in Ohio if you hate it so much? You look like you should be in high school."
"School's bullshit. I'm going to stay with my mother. My real mother. She happens to live around here."
He maneuvers the Fury around a fallen tree branch. The roads away from the highway are rain-soaked, deeply pitted in places, the pavement may be as ancient as the trees. Not many trees though. Fields mostly, dull and beaten by winter, by constant rain. The sky is huge and grey as an old man's face, the grass bent and wheat colored. He takes his left hand off the steering wheel, laying it subtly upon his lap. He sees her, silver hair, legs wound around him tight as a vine. He'd be everything to her, lover, brother, though of course she can mean nothing to him. He means nothing. His loathing, his self-pity, this is what's alive in him. He'd put it in her, and then he'd be free.
She shuts her eyes, tilts her head back against the seat, its upholstery warm and familiar, rich thick smell of plastic. The motion of the car under her is the motion of the world around her. It jerks, it moans, it whines, it moves forward too slowly, like a breath, like a sigh, like something broken. It stops.
The car door slams, "I'll be right back" he tells her. The sudden quiet is like the silent place inside her, empty, waiting. "Iron crow," her mother's letter had said. "I've go this iron crow in my yard, Marnie, it's so quaint."
"Don't you know?" her father said to Marnie. "Your mother loves her things more than us." But this was the way they had talked about each other, her mother, her father. And then her mother was gone.
"Such a tiny yard, hardly a yard at all, life in a trailer park," said the letter. "No room for you, baby." A trailer, somewhere in central Ohio she wrote, no return address.
Iron crow? Marnie pops open her eyes as if one might be perched on his dashboard, cold metal stare, leadened feathers. The dog in the trailer next to hers barks all night long, the letter had complained. Marnie could hear her mother's voice underneath the scribbled, jubilant script, breathy, a final lingering sigh.
The man climbs back into the car, his face pink and mottled. "Sorry, I had to use a bathroom, a user-friendly bush as my wife used to say." Marnie stares at his hand as he shifts into first, reddish fingers, beefy and weathered like her father's. Her father's are sun-damaged from his years life guarding at Waimea Bay. That was when he was young, just a little older than Marnie is now. His last good years he told her once. Her own hands are smooth and long-fingered.
"You want to know something else? The woman my father keeps in our house doesn't let me keep pets. Not after the guinea pig incident, that's what she calls it. She marches into my room, doesn't even knock, says she wants to 'Throw open the windows to the ocean breeze.' Can you believe that? Like, we live on top of a volcano, not exactly prime beach-front you know? Then she says, she's got this shrieky, bitchy way of talking, "Your guinea pig's gonna be dead by next morning the way you keep its cage. Look at it! That cage is pure filth. Do you even feed it? What if I took care of you that way?' What a major bitch. Like I need her to take care of me? I call her The Sleaze."
"What's your name, anyway? Mine's Harold." He stares at Marnie, she knew he would. While she's been talking to him she's unsnapped three of the snaps on her jean jacket. She's wearing not a thing under it.
"Harold? As in Hark the Harold Angels Sing? They named you after a Christmas song. OK, so your last name is probably Carol. Cute, really cute."
He shakes his head, pulls at his chin, gazes fiercely at the road in front of him. "That's Harold, my name is Harold not herald. Don't they teach you to spell in your school? So what you're probably all of fifteen, huh?" He pushes the gear shift into third, accelerates, slips into fourth. "Now let me tell you something. I have no life," he says. "My wife's gone and she's got our apartment. I quit my job. There's nothing so-called respectable about me but I've never done a thing I can't at least live with myself about."
Marnie sticks her foot up on the dash, short black boot, candy-cane striped sock, drums her fingers against her knee cap to the tune of the rain that falls suddenly hard. "I'm seventeen," she says, "almost. Also I'm a model. Did you guess that? The woman my father keeps sent me on this shoot in San Francisco. My father said I was too young to go alone. She said don't be stupid. It was a fashion spread and the photographer kept feeling me up in the different outfits. He's 'arranging me,' he said. When it was over they took me to the airport, left me there and I cashed in my Honolulu ticket for a ticket to Columbus." She unsnaps the last snap on her jacket, pulls it wide open. "You want me, right? Go ahead, why the fuck not?"
The Fury veers toward a ditch at the side of the road, dips, bounces back. Marnie feels its return like a curse. One whole week, nights alone in grungy motels, days spent riding busses, hitchhiking through all those flat little towns in the middle of Ohio, all those trailer parks. In seven, maybe eight of them, she sees iron crows on yellow lawns, between patches of dirt, of dust, of mud, standing staunch and vacant-eyed like real birds, only who wants crows in the first place? And iron chipmunks, iron squirrels, deer, every other trailer's yard, even on top of a couple tinny roofs, there's imitation animal life. Nobody's heard of her mother. With the sleeve of her jacket Marnie swipes ferociously at the tears rolling down her cheeks onto her bare breasts.
"Maybe we should go find us a place to eat at," says Harold, his eyes fixed straight ahead on the road before them. "I'm starved."
"Well," says Harold, watching Marnie inhale a hamburger like it's her first or maybe her last meal of the month. He's taken her into Moynihan's, a little café in the middle of nowhere. Like a father he made her close up her jacket, comb her hair. A father, he thinks, that's what the others are thinking, starting from their tables at her, at him, then away again; old enough to be her father. He hates them, their smug, shut faces.
He imagines feeding Marnie until she's satiated and content. It would be dark when they go back outside, she'd lean against him as he leads her to the Plymouth, she'd be his willow and he her roots; he'd drive them to some park for the night that doesn't close its gates, that doesn't have gates. Some park that has water so he can brush his teeth.
Then he'd say something completely outrageous to her like, See this belt? He'd whip it off his pants in one slick movement, the strike of a snake. Hit me with it, OK? Something really outrageous so he can remember he's alive. A terrible taste swells into Harold's mouth, like his own food coming up again, like venom. He covers his lips with the napkin, bites down on his tongue until it bleeds.
He says to Marnie after a slug of coffee strong as tar, his second cup - she's attacking an ice cream sundae - "So, you got a boyfriend in Hawaii?"
Marnie snorts, slaps at a drift of snow-colored hair near her mouth that threatens to mingle with her ice cream. "Oh, yeah, lots. Hundreds. They all like me just a far as they can see me."
"That business in my car with your jacket? What was that all about?" He signals the waitress for more coffee, its bleak taste a punishment he no doubt deserves.
Marnie lowers her eyes. She slurps the remaining ice cream, mostly liquid, up with a straw, picks up the long-handled silver spoon, turns it against her tongue, sucks. He thinks about her long legs under the table almost touching his, her bony knees, her hair hanging down around her heart-shaped face. A sadness sweeps through him. "OK," he sighs. "So, what?"
"You mean this jacket?" says Marnie. "This fucking denim jacket belongs to The Sleaze, the woman my father keeps, my so-called stepmother. Yeah, well, isn't that what everybody sees when they look at me? I just figured it's what you wanted, that's the reason you picked me up."
Harold's face is hot. He stares at his fingers, stretching them out and around his coffee cup. The room they are in has dingy, colorless walls, and he sees himself blending into it perfectly, a part of its walls, its ceiling, space, air, its nothingness. "Why should you do what I want, if it's what I want?"
"So you'd help me."
"So you'd help me find my real mother. But, forget it, because I changed my mind anyway."
Harold cups his chin in his hands, it's scratchy, a two-day beard, nothing about him is fresh anymore. He closes his eyes. Last month it would have been his wife sitting across from him, her cold, vacant star never seeing him, always looking around, down, out any available window. "It's dead," she had said finally one night, handing him his suitcase the minute he got home from work. "I can't feel myself when I'm with you. I feel more looking at your dog than I do when I look at you, and your dog drives me crazy. Always shoveling his nose around the carpet, always smelling bad. But at least I feel something when I look at him."
That's when he quit everything - his job (it was a nothing job, an accountant keeping track of other people's money, nothing solid, nothing built, nothing gained beyond his paycheck), his friends (they were their friends, couples, a way to get through the weekends), even his dog (he left his dog with his wife!), just gave it all up. To prove…what? It seemed so pointless now. As though when one part of your life falls apart you can just shrug off all the rest to emerge clean and free as something else. What was he but the same old Harold without a life? "Sometimes I wish I at least had a kid," he says to Marnie. "I think I could have loved it. I'd have done a good job loving it. A kid makes a person more permanent."
Marnie's eyes, pale as the evening light, study Harold's face. "You know what?" She leans toward him. The smell of vanilla ice cream surrounds her like perfume. "You know what my mom used to call me when I was a baby? She used to call me Sweet Breath. Of course I don't remember, but she told me. She said she would throw me up in the air, to startle me because I cried a lot. Then after she got my attention, she'd hold me close. She said I had the sweetest breath. 'Like a brand new morning,' she said, 'like something perfect.'"
Harold takes Marnie's hand lightly in his. Her fingers are cold, and he feels bad about this. "Oh God, oh God, oh God," she says, wailing it, sort of matter-of-fact. "I hate modeling, could you guess that? I'm going to be anthropologist. I'll get to travel thousands of miles away and I'll dig up remnants."
"You know, things from the past, from people who lived hundreds and thousands of years ago."
Harold nods, solemnly.
"I'm not so dumb you know. People think because I look the way I do I'm lo lo. That means stupid in Hawaiian."
"Where do I take you now?" he asks. "I don't know where to take you."
Marnie shrugs. "To the airport, I guess. Can't wait to hear the bitching out I'll get from The Sleaze. I make a game of it. I count her words, take bets on how many she can spew before she has to inhale."
Harold hands the cashier his VISA, feelings a strange satisfaction at paying for Marnie's meal along with his. Like a father would. Outside in the parking lot he puts a tentative arm around her shoulders. She's taller than him and he laughs. Because he's the one who's leaning on her.
From The Climbing Tree : A Novel in Stories
Binghamton, New York
Professor in Creative Writing Program, SUNY Binghamton
TriQuarterly, Tampa Review, New Letters, Snake Nation Review, Ohio Short Fiction, Chaminade Review, Pacific Coast Journal,Natural Bridge,F. Magazine, Harpur Palate, Connecticut Review, Prairie Schooner
Sex, Salvation and the Automobile (Zephyr, 1994), Climbing the God Tree (Helicon Nine Editions, 1998)
Willa Cather Fiction Prize; Zephyr Publishing Prize; Delogue Award
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