Wednesday, November 26, 2008
“You’ve never really told me,” F whispered, shifting her weight in my lap, the warmth of her soft breasts against my chest. My hands had traveled under the silk of her skirt, my fingers finding themselves beneath the elastic of her garters.
It was just after eleven. We were parked at a rest area on the Ohio Turnpike, not far from Cuyahoga Falls. It was a favorite spot for such a rendezvous. I’d treated her to a late dinner at Tarmonti’s, an Italian restaurant known for the dusty suit of armor that greeted customers in its lobby. It was our tenth anniversary. Ten months in each other’s company, a milestone that would have passed unrecognized if I had been at the wheel.
It was almost four weeks since we’d moved back to Ohio, from Pittsburgh. We’d found our little second-floor apartment in Canton two days before, only a mile from the street where F had grown up. I’d been scrubbing cars at her father’s used car dealership and had just cashed my first paycheck. We’d spent the first part of the day searching for a much-needed couch and were feeling positive about things. We were two adults in love, a real couple. It was a new situation for both of us but F seemed to be absorbing it in stride. I felt as if I were walking on the moon.
Coming out of the restaurant, she’d surprised me. She’d taken my hand and had run it against her thigh, letting me feel the ridge of what she had to explain was a garter. “Wow,” I’d whispered into her ear, my cheek lingering against hers in a sleepy, pleasant way. We made our way towards the pumpkin-colored ‘79 Pacer she’d secured from her father the week before. It was a hideous-looking car she’d nevertheless fallen in love with, naming it Cinderella, “Cindy” for short. “The panties and bra are leopard print,” she’d whispered in reply, her full lips almost touching mine. “Just like in the magazine, you bad German boy.” I blushed, recalling the old pin-up I’d gushed over a few days earlier, in an antique shop, how she’d teased me about my interest in bondage wear. We shared a wet kiss, before she made her way around to the driver’s side. “Let’s go and park somewhere,” she’d smiled, struggling with her keys at the finicky ignition. I’d suggested the tree-lined parking lot behind the city park. It was a dark and forlorn spot, about as private as one could want, but she had other plans. Pulling onto the turnpike entrance with a sly grin, one hand having settled on my thigh, she spoke in a firm, seductive voice, telling me things I’d never heard a girl say before. My ears went hot as she ferried us across the leaf-lined rest area blacktop. Before I knew it, the engine rattled to a stop and she was sliding herself upon me, crowding my face with her breasts. “You never really told me,” she repeated, my attention lost between the buttons of her blouse.
“Never really told you what?” I replied, letting my fingers inch upwards along her thighs, my wrists now passing under the garter elastic. She shifted again, making me wince in the moonlight, the weight of her wide and firm bottom threatening to snap the erection that had sprung to life even before the engine was quiet. Our lips met for the umpteenth time, our tongues gliding.
“Why you don’t have a license. It’s not because of epilepsy, is it? I mean, the test said you don’t have it.”
I pulled away from her mouth, my throat going dry. I lowered my forehead to her chest, breathing softly into the opening of the cotton blouse, which I’d begun to ungracefully part, struggling with the buttons. My heart began to pound. All at once I was laboring for air.
“T?” she whispered, taking my hair in her hand, stroking my forehead. “Are you OK?” I nodded weakly, not taking my face from her bosom. “No you’re not. I know you’re not. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I promise.”
“Uh-uh – something’s bothering you. Your heart is going like a jack hammer.”
“That’s because your butt’s in my lap!” I declared, laughing quickly, desperate to change the subject.
She worked at the part in my bangs, arranging it like a child might a doll’s, tenderly and methodically. “Tell me what’s wrong, T – please.”
I sighed. My erection had already disappeared. “Can we talk later?” I asked, sounding hurt.
“When?” she replied softly, putting her lips to my forehead, cooing.
“When we’re not in the car.”
Helmut had broken up with Bettina and had moved back to Cuyahoga Falls to help mother, taking the tiny room we used to share. This was during father’s first extended absence.
Cuyahoga Falls was a fairly non-descript place, not unlike so many small cities in Eastern Ohio. For every nail salon there was an auto body shop, and for every auto body shop there was a bar. It ambled along, neither noisy nor peaceful, a town with its fixtures, its regulars, a tight history of small to medium happenings. Its most appealing feature was the Cuyahoga River, which ran through the middle of town, along a series of descending twists and turns. This was the same river that famously caught fire in 1969, due to its intense pollution, but that was a good thirty miles north, near the Cleveland city limits.
Seeking work, father had brought us to this sleepy burgh in the late 70s. He’d been told the river created a lot of industry and there was always an open spot at one of the factories, be it the rubber plant, the glass works, or any number of the varied industrial fabricators that had established the modest city during the first half of the century. Unfortunately, like much of the information father managed to attach to his addled mind, this piece was a good decade out of date. The community we arrived to was now mostly residential, just beginning to acquire its commercial identity. The factories left standing along the crooked brown river were mostly empty shells, rusted catacombs of cobwebs and broken windows. The only full-time job father could scrounge up was a custodial position at the Cathedral of Tomorrow, a strange, round building sitting on the outskirts of the business district, one that Helmut and I, upon first viewing, decided was actually a secret UFO. We imagined all sorts of outrageous things were secretly going on in the late 50s concrete structure, the least of which was the villainous gathering of fuel in order to leave the Earth, accomplished by sucking out the fluid of the congregation’s brains. The church’s figurehead, a popular television evangelist with hair like Elvis Presley, was clearly the leader of this evil alien space ministry. These stories were hardly tolerated by father, who’d toss his slipper at us whenever he caught wind of the regularly growing narrative, one in which his part as nighttime superintendent was soon a key chapter. “Polishing the UFO” is how we referred to his occupation, the task that kept him away from the house from just after suppertime to the early hours of the morning, when we were dragging cobwebs about the tiny kitchen, trying to delay the rapidly-advancing school day.
“Your daddy cleans up brains?” queried Matthew, the precocious five year-old son of our immediate neighbor, on one of these slow, cold mornings, as Helmut and I occupied the front porch, me dreading the sound of the approaching school bus. Matthew asked this every time we began to spin our tales of alien subterfuge. His porch abutted ours, the walls of the two houses all but touching, leaving an alleyway no wider than a skateboard, a vertical gutter that had filled with stray bits of garbage over the years, leaving a knotted, fetid mass of paper and plastic that no one had ever ventured to clear out.
“Our daddy is a special agent, Matty, he works for the aliens. He cleans up all the brain juice that gets splattered on the floor,” explained Helmut, rolling a cigarette on the curled tip of his leather shoe. Little Matthew’s eyes widened.
“Why? It’s a trade off, dummy. He gets to go with them, of course, back to their planet – when they leave the Earth.”
I snickered, one eye on the thin black road that followed the Cuyahoga down to the brickyard, watching for the pick-up truck that brought father home each morning, from another long night scrubbing the halls of the television ministry. It usually arrived a few minutes before the bus. The street was a pothole-filled stretch that passed before the row of nearly identical, depressing houses, in the middle of which sat ours, nestled like a sickly scavenger among a wire of crows. The homes had been built a good sixty years before, to serve the workers of the now-abandoned brick factory. They remained at the mercy of a hillside choked with overgrown bramble and ancient apple trees with branches bent like witch’s fingers, which often came crashing down upon us in violent fall and winter storms.
“Do the aliens eat kid’s brains too, Hel-mat?”
“You bet they do. They like the brains of five year-old boys the best.”
Matthew squealed, clamping his hands over the top of his head. He jumped up from where he was sitting and hurried off down the porch steps, sprinting up his own, like he always did. He burst through his front door, slamming the screen behind him, screaming to his mother that “Mister Vojel” was going to eat his brains.
I gave Helmut a critical eye. “Maybe you shouldn’t have said that,” I offered, grinning. Helmut scowled, slipping his homemade cigarette between his lips.
“I don’t give a shit if father finds out, if that’s what you mean,” he replied, taking a small lighter from his shirt pocket. I turned away from his hard stare. He was eighteen and almost six foot two. He no longer ran from father. Just the day before he’d brushed right by him, straight out the door, ignoring father’s demands that he get back inside. They’d been arguing about was he was going to do with himself now that he had graduated high school. Helmut had no good plans and less ambition. “Why should I care what the neighbors think anyway? They talk about him all the time. They think he’s nuts,” he scoffed, wetting the end of his wobbly cigarette with his mouth.
I wanted to say he was only make things worse, but I couldn’t do it. “Can I have a puff?” I asked.
He snorted and laughed, getting up from the top of the steps, where he’d been sitting. “Piss off, Dodo! Get your own!” he declared, bounding from the rickety steps, heading off up the road, in the opposite direction from the old brickyard. I could only imagine what he was doing with his mornings, now that he was no longer required to board the old bus. I’m sure he would have happily slept in, but that would mean being home when father arrived.
A moment later, I heard the familiar knocking sound of father’s ride. I sat where I was and watched the rusty green truck weave towards me, like a fly with one wing, putting stitches along the faded yellow line in the middle of the road. It pulled up along the thin gravel strip between the road and the porch, groaning to a stop. I’d never seen it driven so poorly. Father slid from the passenger seat, holding his lunch box, his body as crooked as the apple trees behind the house. No words were exchanged between he and his workmate. The truck rolled off noisily, waking a dog three houses down. An angry voice hollered for it to shut up. The sun was just beginning to show itself behind the stand of maples beyond the stream across the way, appearing as a fluorescent white ball, cut by the spidery black veins of the leafless tree limbs in the steam rising from the damp morning ground. I instinctively sniffed at the air, catching the expected stale odor of whiskey, along with the remnants of Helmut’s lit cigarette.
Father hobbled up to the porch, not raising his head. He staggered at the first step, almost dropping the metal lunch box. He seemingly hadn’t noticed me until then. He looked up, giving me a scowl, just like Helmut’s. “Is your mother still sleeping?” he asked. I nodded yes. He grinned sloppily and pitched the empty box up onto the wooden porch. “Get your coat,” he coughed, fumbling in his pockets, muttering something under his breath. I hesitated, not understanding why. “Hurry!” he barked, shaking a bent cigarette, attempting to straighten it against the palm of his hand. I made my way into the house, wondering what was going on, dreading that he might have spotted Helmut heading off and wanted me to go and fetch him back.
The dollar cinema was empty but for F and I. I slumped deep into my seat, smelling the musty carpet, a toxic perfume of mildew and old popcorn.
“When we reached the turn after the tunnel by the old brickyard gate I could see the car sitting against the telephone pole. The front was peeled open like a banana. You could smell burnt rubber and gasoline from yards away. I then noticed the two shapes lying in the road, one set across the center line, the other stretched onto the shoulder.”
F murmured thoughtfully. A story flickered on the screen, ignored by all.
“What where they? Bits of the car?”
I didn’t answer.
I felt her warm hand taking mine, bringing it to her lap. She stroked the top, pressing softly at my knuckles.
“They were people,” I replied, my voice a hoarse whisper.
“Yeah. The driver and his passenger.”
“From the smashed car?”
I took a deep breath, feeling my arms and legs tingling, my heart ricocheting between its own beats. I knew my face was palsying, my mouth turned down at the sides, my eyes moistening. It was just like that morning, just the same. “I don’t – don’t want to do this anymore, F – sorry – I just can’t.” She took my hand in both of hers and squeezed it reassuringly.
“I think you should. I think you need to. Have you told anyone this before?”
I shook my head. Tears were now running down my cheeks. I began to sob. It was noisy, I couldn’t stop it. My eyes fluttered about the darkness surrounding us. I was relieved to see we were alone again. The only other person in the theater had left ten minutes ago.
“It’s OK. I’m here, we’re both safe together here. Please tell me – I want you to.”
I was breathing through my nose, biting my lip, forcing myself to go on. “Father was waving his arms about, the whole way down the road, telling me how the bodies flew out of the car. Like dolls, he said, they looked like two giant dolls, followed by bits of broken glass and a seat belt that reached outwards and then pulled back, like a slingshot. He said it all happened so fast but seemed so slow. It was early morning still and no one hardly ever drove along that way. Most people were still asleep. They hadn’t seen what caused the car to leave the road. It just swerved as it came towards them, out of the tunnel. Father’s co-worker managed to hit the brakes and pull over, even though I know he was as drunk as father. He wanted to get out and help the men but father told him no, that they had to drive on to the house and get help because they’d be arrested for driving intoxicated. This scared his friend, who abandoned father at the house. He must have seen Helmut up the road because he dragged me back with him, never even asking for Helmut. I remember feeling really dizzy the closer we got to the first man, the one lying over the line. He was wearing a brown jacket, corduroy, I think. That’s all I can remember. Father suddenly stuck out his arm and stopped me. Stay here, Totty, he said, stay right here. His voice was half-gone, all shredded and dry. I just stood there looking but not seeing anything. I heard father cough. It sounded like he was going to be sick. Follow me, Totty, he then said, but don’t look. I stumbled after him and I looked. I couldn’t help it. I just couldn’t – couldn’t…”
F lowered her head to my hand, pressing her cheek against it. “Go on, T, go on – you can tell me.”
“I know the man was dead, F, I know he was, even though it never said so in the paper. At least I can’t seem to remember ever reading it. I know he was dead because a big bit of his head wasn’t there – it was a few feet away, with hair on it.” I was breathing fast, my eyes closing about tears. It was all coming to me, flooding my emotions, taking me there, back to that twisting stretch of road.
“What the fuck did you look for? I told you not to look! Not to look! Not to fucking look!” screamed father. He was crying, his words coming out on great sobs. I moved towards him, away from the dead man. He was standing near the car, his red hands loose at his sides, as if he hadn’t any idea what to do. “I’m going to turn the motor off. Don’t move.”
“We should call the police,” I muttered, my thoughts racing, my eyes glued to the broken car, imagining it blowing up any moment, like they always seemed to do on television. “We should have called from home first.”
“You want your mother to wake up to this?” father yelled from the driver’s side. “We go down to the coffee shop and call – after I turn the motor off!”
The passenger door hung limply open, the seatbelt dangling to the ground like the tongue of a dead serpent. The window was shattered. There was dark red clotted along the frame. I buried my cold hands deep into the pockets of my jacket. I felt a coin nestled among the lint. I began to press it between my thumb and forefinger, over and over and over. I couldn’t stop it, it was purely reflexive.
“Stay right here!” father suddenly commanded, pointing to the ground at my feet, where I stood, just off the side of the road. “I’m going to call the police.”
“But – but I want to go with you – I don’t want to stay here. Please!”
“You stay here, damn it! You think I’m going to talk to the policemen like this?” he cried, pointing weakly to his mouth, the cracked lips that had been nursing a bottle less than half an hour before. “I call from the coffee shop! You show the police what has happened.” I began to blubber out in protest, my eyes red and stinging. He suddenly rushed at me, forcing me back against the now idle car. I hit with a painful crunch, broken glass under my feet. He held me by the collar of my jacket, pulling it up about my neck, making it hard to breathe. “You do NOT tell them I was ever here, you understand me? Never here! I am drinking coffee this morning! You walked along and found them – not me!” I began to cry, everything in me was coming undone. I begged him to take me with him, clawed at his arms, pulling on his dirty coat sleeves. He shoved me backwards, his eyes splintered red and wild. “You are nearly sixteen years, Totty Vogel – not five! Act like a man and do what I tell you! Do what I fucking TELL you!” Hearing him swear in English always seemed so much harsher. I could do nothing but relent. Crouching down against the car I watched him stagger off down the road, steam billowing around him as the waking sun made the glass strewn about my feet glisten. I wiped my sleeve at my eyes, swallowing hard, tasting salt. I was beyond terrified. I could feel my toes and my fingers, but they no longer seemed connected to me, it was as if I’d been filled with Novocain from my palms to the tops of my feet. I blinked, noting the warmth of the growing sun on my face. Then the strange sound hit my ears. It was low and soft, almost like someone talking to a young child or baby, a sort of cooing sound. I opened my eyes and saw him, the man, the one who had been thrown to the berm on the other side of the road. He was trying to sit upright, his back to me, his hands slapping at the ground as if he were blind. The cooing sound was coming from him.
I’m not sure how I managed to get to my own feet and cross over to where he was, but I did. I was compelled. I don’t think it was me, not my conscious self, that did it. Which is perhaps why I’ve never quite been able to recall everything. But I know I was there, putting my hands out to steady him as he toppled backwards. He couldn’t do any more than sit up. I can still see his thick, dark hair, an afro, huge about his shoulders. I just stared at it and watched as bright red bubbles began to appear amongst the tight curls. They poured out and soon were streaming from his hair, soaking the collar of his denim shirt, staining his back. I don’t know what I did next because I suddenly realized there was someone behind me, whispering gently into my ear, pulling me away from the injured man. I turned mutely, seeing the friendly face of my school bus driver. She said something, using my name, and smiled as she took my hand and offered it to a grinning older man. I remember seeing an empty school bus parked alongside the road and another car and then a man was hurrying across the road with a blanket, which was wrapped about the bleeding man. I looked to the middle of the road and saw someone else, kneeling, covering the other man with a plastic tarp.
“And that’s all I can remember – I promise.”
F pulled me to her lap, across the seat divider. She held me there awkwardly, for what felt like forever, just talking to me, repeating herself, telling me it was going to be alright, telling me how brave I was and how much she loved me. In the background I could hear the voices on the screen, a woman shouting at a man, a car speeding off, sad music playing, violins braying like lost sheep.