Read by Sarah Feathers
By the time I knew what a boy was good for, my family had left upstate New York for a place out west where nothing rots too well and even the fence posts bleach like bone. The hills around our new house were studded with prickly pear and a cactus some mean somebody decided to call ‘teddy bear.’ Shade was hard to come by. Although we’d moved to Wintersburg, it seemed like winter never came. Not like the ones I’d known, anyway. No snow to silence the low hum of a place. No salt on the roads to rust paint off the cars.
Something else I learned? There was a boy around town. Big black eyes like a colt I knew once. He wore dusty blue jeans and a straw hat that would have made anyone else look a fool. His name was Tyler. He had something in his mouth all the time, but never words – a toothpick, a hangnail, or one of his Uncle Tom’s cigarettes. The first time I heard him say anything, it wasn’t much at all. You’re not from here, are you. The way he said it, it wasn’t a question.
Sometime that March, when the willow catkins swelled up with pollen, I damn near ran over Tyler while I was out for a run along Salt Creek. He pulled a twig from a young cottonwood. It bobbed up and down between his lips as he chewed. I watched its end move in tiny circles like a moth moves round a bulb. Tyler nodded to me without looking up. There were beads of blood on his chest and arms. They swelled up just like the catkins, growing big but never bursting.
“Mesquite get you?” I asked. I pointed towards the mesquite bosque that grew in a thick curtain of thorns on the far side of the water.
He nodded again and pressed at the twig with his tongue.
“There’s a path cleared through there, you know,” I said.
Tyler scratched at one of his cuts and a thin line of red filled the space below his fingernail. He toed a dirt clod and then went in the direction of the trail. I don’t know why, but I followed after him. He didn’t look back at me. He didn’t look sideways, either. Not even when a cloud of sparrows erupted from the scrub hard enough to blow a gust of wind past his face.
“Lets me know I’m still here,” Tyler said, out of nowhere.
I slowed down, startled, I think, by the sound of him making words.
“I come out here every once in a while. Take off my shirt and walk where the branches are low. Reminds me where I am.”
I thought about asking just what he meant, but then decided against it. He was moving fast. I took extra steps to keep up.
I surprised myself when I came up close to Tyler and laid my hand flat against his arm. I was more surprised when he didn’t flinch, and instead just looked at me like he was seeing a monsoon break the sky for the first time. I drew my hand back once I realized what I’d done, and once I’d seen those eyes of his looking at me that way. I might’ve apologized, but it’s hard to remember. I was stunned. I stayed right where I was when he started walking again. I stood there dumb as a tree stump, looking over and over at the palm of my hand, speckled red with his blood. The same red as rust, or slickrock.
I still remember seeing Tyler undressed for the first time. He held himself up real straight and tall. Not a lick of shyness to him, except maybe something in the way he smoked his cigarette. The way he chewed on the filter a little, so the end was wet when I took it from him. We were in the tack house at his uncle’s place and I could hear the horses outside, shaking flies off their backs. I sat in one of the empty saddles slung over a wooden rail and watched him fold and unfold his bare arms while I smoked his Camel to its end.
“Now you,” he said.
I blushed, but came down off of the saddle as smooth as I could and put my bare toes into a pile of straw. My knees felt unsteady and I bent them a few times to make sure they’d hold. I can’t remember ever being so nervous. I wound up tugging my clothes off like I was in a hurry. Even though it was plenty warm in the tack house, my skin puckered into goose bumps before my shirt even reached the floor. The whole ordeal couldn’t have been very sexy, but Tyler didn’t seem to mind.
I walked home that night with stiff legs and the image of Tyler, back in his Wrangler’s, sprawled out and snoring on top of a straw bale. At some point during the evening, a prickle of hay had gotten caught in the elastic waistband of my panties. It scratched me raw by the time I made it back to the house. Left a mark.
When Tyler finally told me, it was that time of year when the clouds bunched up like sheets every morning and the hills were turning winter-brown. His daddy was sick. Not the kind of sick that knocks you off your feet for a week or two, but by the end you’re no worse for the wear. Tyler’s daddy was the kind of sick that no one talks about in a town like Wintersburg.
Must be something in the water, someone would say now and then. And it was. It was in the dry, dusty soil, too, which is why everyone and their cattle got nervous every time the wind came up.
There were nights Tyler and I fell asleep at his uncle’s place, loose straw pulled over the top of us to keep warm. He’d started having nightmares, bad ones that sent his legs kicking like a spooked rabbit before he’d gulp air and jerk awake.
He dreamt that his daddy walked around with no clothes on, his skin translucent, pink and blue. The bones underneath were too big for him. They jumbled together and scraped and knocked. Sometimes, Tyler told me, his daddy would take a deep breath and the sound that it made was just like wind chimes.
The dreams kept up until Tyler’s face became all sharp angles and deep pockets filled with shadow. If he wasn’t smoking, he wrung his hands. If he didn’t do that, he picked up rocks and squeezed them in his fists until his knuckles flashed red and white. He held those rocks like he was ready to use them as weapons if he had to. It got to be that his gaze darted around a lot, never settling on any one thing for more than a few seconds. Every so often, though, he’d stare. I never could tell what it was he saw. The space between things, maybe. The air. Sometimes it looked to me like he was seeing ghosts.
Wind chimes. Tyler said this one afternoon as he tossed me a copy of the photo his mama had sent out with the Christmas cards. His daddy sat in a wicker chair flanked on either side by his wife and son. He looked like the desert he lived in. Like he would blow apart into all his separate pieces if you stood him outside in a breeze.
Tyler’s daddy died on the first day of spring. There was water running in all the arroyos that year. Cold water that made your ankles and toes ache when you waded through it.
No one said anything about it then or since, but Tyler wasn’t at the funeral. He’d gone to the bar the night before. There wasn’t a soul there who didn’t recognize him, which I guess is why nobody stopped him from drinking the way he did. It must have broken his mama’s heart. She didn’t eat for almost two weeks, just sipped on tea in the mornings and gin in the afternoons. Poor woman. I heard she was out cold by sundown, sweating awful dreams into the sofa.
The people who were at the bar that night said Tyler took off a little after one with his shirt wadded up and hanging from his back pocket. Before he left he’d been stumbling back and forth across the room, grabbing someone by the shoulders every few minutes and pushing his face into theirs. He was shouting. Where am I? Where am I? Where am I? No matter what anybody told him, he kept asking just the same.
It was April sixth, my seventeenth birthday, the first time I did it. I followed Salt Creek to a part of the bosque where the crowns of the mesquite trees were so well tangled that the light underneath them was thin, even at noon. A hard wind bullied the uppermost canopy into a coarse kind of music, as though nearby a group of men were clapping rocks and spinning rainsticks. I pulled off my shirt, left it folded neatly on the dirt, and wove a path between the trees. I let the low branches rake across my skin. The feeling was like ten-thousand beestings.
Back then, I went out there wanting to find out if I was afraid. Afraid of what, I didn’t know, and it didn’t really seem to matter. Without Tyler, I felt lost. I only saw him twice after his daddy died. Both times he reeked of alcohol and was as stiff and as silent as the day I first met him.
Looking back on it all, I’d say I went to the bosque because I wanted to belong to a place that broke skin and bone; a place that left scars and built up the heart like ironwood. Maybe that kind of place hadn’t saved Tyler in the end, but at the time, I wasn’t ready to think that maybe it wouldn’t still save me.
© Jessica Roth, 2012
Jessica Roth lives in central Arizona where she writes stories that should be poems and poems that should be stories, instead of working on her first novel. Her words have appeared in Alligator Juniper and CT Review. She will start her MFA at Boise State University this fall.