Like a Ghost Eating the Horizon
I sat in my car outside of Denise’s trailer, other trailers angled around it, one of which belonged to my brother. I was forty-five miles from anything but the people who populated this landscape of mute windows and stray animals wearing feral, thin faces. It was around 5 o’clock, and my vehicle hummed and settled into the January dust. My daughter, June, stirred and woke and the backseat’s stiff vinyl sang as she stretched her small body and yawned. My brother, Gus, had not contacted me in over a year, and I was convinced he never would, never again. It was as if he had vanished. There were rumors that he had moved to Mexico after committing a robbery, or he was in prison. His phone had been disconnected, and he didn’t respond to letters or emails. What I did eventually come to know was this: on December 10th of last year he left his trailer in Texas. It was filled with his belongings: his guns, his weed, his computer and bills, wallet, his pornography, cigarettes and struck matches. He had taken his truck, as it was only he and it which were missing. He didn’t leave a note for his family, me, our parents, but for the woman he had been seeing, Denise, and it only asked her to sell his guns and whatever else she could get money for. A year later, Denise called to tell me this only because she wanted to take my brother up on his offer in order to pay some hospital bills she had accrued when giving birth to her fifth child four years prior. I told Denise I would come to her town, my brother’s town, of Rusk, and see for myself what he had left behind. I asked her not to sell anything.
Denise stood before me, a short, sunken-cheeked woman in her mid to late forties. Her jaw and her mouth and the teeth inside it looked too large for the rest of her face. Her eyes sagged with methamphetamine use and nearly a lifetime of motherhood. I disliked her the moment we met. This had nothing to do with the person she was and who I did not yet know, only that she was the last person to see my brother, my brother who had disappeared a year prior and had left no note, not for me, his only sister and unconditional friend. I held Denise responsible for my brother’s leaving, and I dragged my fingers through my hair to inflict on myself some sensation of pain. I had never, not ever, been someone to pass judgment.
Denise hugged me when I walked into her trailer. Carpeted in a blackened, once tan and vigorous, shag rug, the smell of her life clung not only in the air but in the fibers of the floor, in its sticky residues, matted like a lap dog’s eyes. A spare bulb hung from the ceiling casting exaggerated shadows around Denise’s temples and cheekbones. Her ashtrays, of which there were at least five, overflowed with butts. One rested on the couch next to a pillow embroidered with a crude sunflower. A playpen, presumably for a small grandchild, rested in the middle of the floor, a foot of space between it and the couch, and another on its other side next to the wall. The walls, adorned with a 1960’s asbestos plaster, were stained and splintered with multiple coats of decayed, flaking paint. It was all the same as my brother’s first trailer, the one in which I had spent much of my childhood. My brother is twenty years older than me and is, in truth, my half-brother. We share a father. Denise and my brother had only been seeing each other for a few months before he disappeared, and now I took her hug with open but stiff arms, my face rigidly forward, my sight inhabiting space far beyond the window’s taped crack.
“Did you find the place okay, honey?”
“I did. It was about a six-hour drive, and June slept the entire time,” I replied.
June bit her fingernails so loudly that I swatted at her mouth without looking down. She was used to driving long distances, particularly to visit family, were it California or Texas or North Dakota or Kentucky, so the six-hour drive was not difficult for either of us.
“Oh baby! I didn’t know you brought your June-bug! Where is she?”
June, standing in plain sight next to me, said, “Nice to meet you.” Denise’s head collapsed forward and when her chin sunk into her neck, an egg of flesh, perhaps the only extra flesh on her entire body, bulged and shook ever so slightly. Denise bent down to June’s eye level, placing her palm on June’s cheek as if to apologize, Denise’s chin quivering and witnessing. Her stare broke open as if ants might crawl from beneath her skin. She was a nervous woman, sick with something that I could not name. She was very thin, crying at the sight of my young daughter, and shaking like she might not have it within herself to stop. June tugged at my skirt and looking into Denise’s wet eyes, asked, “Do you live here?”
In my late-teens and early twenties, my brother and I used to stand in the long, dirt driveway of our parent’s house, drinking beer and staring out at the lawn. We visited them together in the summers but seeing each other was really more significant. Sprinkler spigots pulsed around and around while the summer insects darted in and out of the water. He and I rarely even spoke at times such as this. To be honest, we had almost nothing in common except for our father. After June was born, she joined us in the driveway. First carried in my arms, then sitting upright on a blanket or propped on Gus’s hip, then climbing down his side and walking, then running, then swinging on her rope, higher and higher, her body growing longer and the sky less mysterious. The summer before he disappeared, I asked my brother if he would ever have children. Forty-two at the time, he said “Hell no, baby sister.” Just then, June screamed that something was stinging her inside her dress. My brother and I unzipped her and out fell two red and black wasps, landing dazed on the dirt. Gus smashed the first with his heavy boot, and I the second with my open hand. June didn’t scream much longer after my brother carried her inside, and we rubbed ointment on the two stings on her back. Later that night, after June had fallen well asleep from a dose of Benadryl and our parents had gone to bed, Gus and I drank more beer on the unlit front porch. He told me he was going to get up early to go hunting. He asked me if I wanted to come, and I said no, I don’t think so. He smoked his joint, its heavy smell reaching beyond the wet, black squares of neighbors’ lawns.
Denise escorted June and I into her small utility room where a box marked “Gus” sat in the corner. It was duct-taped shut and not too large. Denise cut it open with a house key, the noise startling and rough as if the cardboard, too, was sick. Inside it, a few of my brother’s things appeared before me: a wallet empty except for a few useless cards, a hairbrush, a toothbrush, a t-shirt, a porn magazine, an unmarked CD or DVD, an outdated cell phone, a pack of Menthols, some dimes and quarters, the letter he left (“Denise, sell what you want”), and an ashtray. June stuck her hand inside the box and pulled out a handful of pennies and nickels, gratified by her find.
“As you can see, he didn’t leave much,” Denise said.
“You told me he left behind several guns and a computer. What about his clothes? And his furniture, and the things that don’t fit inside this box?” I asked, my lips casting out the words as if they were the sharp husks of seeds.
“I sold what I could. He told me to.”
“So, why did you call me in the first place? Why did you ask me if you could sell his things when you already had?”
Denise looked more pitiful and paler than ever. Her face collapsed and her chin trembled, restricted and wrinkled. I stared at the edge of her face, and it stared back, her pores’ blank eyes embedded yet unavoidable. June dropped her fistful of coins on the floor and when they landed, they spun and scattered.
“How much money did you make?”
Denise put her hand to her forehead and said, “I can’t remember.”
My brother, had, in his time, done, or was the following things: borrowed twenty-thousand dollars from our father, was sixty-pounds overweight, spent three years in prison for committing armed robbery, tried to commit suicide three times, and said racist things despite his claims of not being a racist. And yet, somehow, Gus and I remained close. Before June was born, Gus and I picked Psylocybin mushrooms in the summertime. Originally, our plan for picking mushrooms involved driving out to our family’s farm, a twenty-acre field full of what were iris plantations, ruined peach trees, and old stock ponds that harbored alligators, one of which Gus had killed and tried to skin. My brother had broad thoughts about killing and decided that the whole carcass should be used in some way. By the end, he did not know what to do with the dead, six-foot alligator, let alone how to make anything out of it.
But when we didn’t find any mushrooms on our father’s acres, we lifted a wire that was cutting through some brush and pushed our way into the neighboring pasturage. Sunlight winged off a patch of water down the hill from where we were standing, an abundance of sweat coming off of Gus’s brow, and I thought he was as out of shape as I’d ever seen him.
“Gator over there,” he said.
I looked and saw nothing but was convinced after I heard a hard splash.
“Fuck you,” I said.
“I’ve got a nickel bag, and that was a gator,” he said.
“You’re a dumbfuck,” I said.
We remained there, near the water that was a small pond, yet buried deeply in weeds so nothing could see us or even find us. Gus and I smoked until the sun began to hum and birdsong filled our ears with words we couldn’t understand in our realer lives. When it was dark, we moved to a clearing to set up camp. I watched my brother in his silence build the largest fire I had ever seen, so much that it was as if part of the sun had fallen down to us, and Gus and I, our bodies, were like their own infinitesimal, orbiting planets. I slept in the truck that night and he on the ground outside. In my memory now, he looks like a god passed out there, as if untouchable, the world burning around him. In his truck, I fell asleep to the sight of a hula girl’s still hips on the dashboard, cold golden keys dangling from the ignition, and the sound of insects against little else.
June fell asleep on Denise’s couch while Denise disappeared into her bathroom for an hour. I didn’t want to wake her despite the dirty trailer and Denise’s smoke. I didn’t know where else to go, being far from any motel. If I lived a good part of my childhood in smoke and neglect, I knew June could make it one night. When Denise emerged, the sun had set. The day ended without anyone except for me making peace with it. Denise was hyper and wide-eyed. The backside of her hands and the skin on her face looked alike. Cracked, purple, and stung.
“I guess you’re going to need to stay the night, baby,” she said, not whispering, not even trying, not remembering what it was to be the caretaker of a small child. The playpen looked more and more like the ribs of a long-dead whale, and I wondered why it was even there.
“Where is your grandbaby? Grandson? Do your daughter, does he, live close?”
“No, baby, my grandson hasn’t been here for a few months. His mama thinks that her boyfriend took dirty pictures of me, but that never happened. I never even had sex with that man, much less let him take dirty pictures. Your brother never even did that, and we were pretty in love. Anyway, it’s because of all that my youngest kids were taken away by CPS, but I’ll get them back soon. I just have to get some money and do a bunch of court shit. Bullshit. It’s all bullshit.” On the words “sex” and “dirty” and “love,” Denise’s voice broke as if she was becoming sentimental again. Her face ticked, her hands wrung and rubbed their opposite wrists, thin as shadows, as the shadows of shadows they had starved to inside the trailer.
“When was the last time that you actually saw my brother, anyway?” I asked, trying to change the subject from Denise’s sex-life and estranged children and grandchildren.
“The last time? It’s hard to say. The morning after we had gone to the bar, and he said he was going to shower at his place next door. I think that’s the last time I actually saw him, but I was half asleep and hung-over, and we had been fighting the night before about something. I don’t remember much of that part. Whenever he got drunk he wanted to fight.”
“What about you? Did you fight too?” I asked.
“Oh God no, honey, never. Your brother was always bad like that, especially when he drank whiskey or smoked. You know how he was. He was fucking insane.” Denise said.
“Gus? Really? I never saw him smoke anything but weed, and when he drank, he was happy. He made jokes and laughed at everything. The most I ever saw him speak was when he drank whiskey. He only ever wanted everyone else to be fucked up too, so everyone could be happy, like him,” I said. I squinted. My lips remained parted after I was done speaking.
“Oh no, not Gus. That man got violent. You know he was in prison. How do you think he got there? He loved drugs, all of them. When he did them, when he drank, he was so mean.”
I thought about it for a second, and said, “With all due respect, Denise, I think my brother went to prison because he’s had a fucked up life. If he was crazy, it was because of the people around him.”
“Oh, honey, you don’t know the half of it.” Denise breathed her short cigarette and stared at me from a kitchen chair, resting her elbows on her knees, hunched forward, legs and feet spread apart so her underwear showed. But that, like every other part of her, was cast in shadow. I wanted to ignore her, but she stared, so I stared back, my face, relaxed and smooth, my eyes, like a deer’s against the flash of an unseeable source. I looked at June, who in her needed sleep, was also smoking this woman’s cigarettes, and I waved my hand in front of my face as if I had never in my life smoked a cigarette or done anything self-harming. I smiled ironically at Denise, and she clicked her tongue in her mouth and curled one side of her lips into a return look, a look that made me smile more viciously.
“Goodnight Meg. You know what tomorrow is, right?
“When we go try to find Gus.”
“How?” I refused to sound surprised.
“I have an idea,” Denise said. She scratched her face. Whatever pills she had taken or drugs she had smoked were making her itchy.
“But I’m going out for now, baby. See you in the morning, okay?”
I don’t think she meant to, but when Denise left, she slammed the front door. June stirred but did not wake up. Under my breath I cussed, and the trailer, lit only by the kitchen bulb, hummed its yellow answer. I fell asleep that night listening to a digital clock’s false heartbeat, wishing myself and my daughter away from this place, where my supposedly insane brother had once been and departed.
When I was four, our father’s ex-wife, Gus’s mother, stalked my father after their divorce was final. I vaguely remember handling a Valentine’s delicate paper, the scent and residue of perfumed powder left on my fingertips. It was signed, “Love, Kate.” I couldn’t read yet so my mother explained this to me. Not angry and not jealous, she was simply resigned to this woman’s behavior and fixation with my father. I will add that my mother’s name is Katherine. I must have said something like, “Oh, how nice!” thinking, maybe, that the Katherine before me and the Kate on the card were the same.
“Sure,” my mother said.
Sometime later, a few years later, Kate broke into our house and stole our father’s clothes. I was still a child when this happened but do remember a whirling canopy of police lights, and my mother with her arms crossed at the kitchen table. My father signed papers against a response car outside, and I watched him from the kitchen window. Thinking about it now, my mother should have been extremely relieved that my father was finally filing a restraining order, though her face was grave as she sat across from me.
Eventually, she spoke, “If she does this again, I’ll kill her.”
“Kill who?” I asked.
Some part of me still didn’t understand that my mother and this other woman were two different people, and my mother doesn’t know this, but that afternoon I disappeared into my room and hoped that my mother would stop speaking this way.
It was my brother who found me in my room.
“Baby sister, what’s wrong?”
“I’m afraid for Mom,” I said.
“Your Mom, why?” Gus asked
“I don’t think she’s very happy.”
“Don’t worry about your Mom. My Mother is the one with problems. It runs in the family. Your Mom will be better tomorrow.”
My brother was technically old enough to be my father, standing there in front of me, deeply worried about both his mother and me. He did not flinch or say anything more than needed. He never did, and I still to this day believe I knew always what he was thinking.
“Wake up, baby.” Denise stood above me, smoking.
It was early morning. June had moved in the night to lie beside me on the floor. Denise had put a blanket over us both. Her shirt was slipping off of her shoulder and her face was husked in the blue light. She looked even thinner this way. The space of the trailer inside the morning looked like it had swallowed us all.
“You want something to eat? I can go pick something up.”
“No, Denise, it’s okay.”
“Well, I need to talk to you.” She sat down on the floor. My face was inches away from her bare shins, scarred, bruised and pale. I don’t think Denise left her trailer except at night. Seeing her closer then, I understood she hadn’t gone to sleep. Her eyes were red from exhaustion and thirst. She was smudged: red lips, eyes, pink nose, tangled lank hair.
“I need to talk to you about finding your brother. I think he’s staying at a girl’s house in another town about three-hundred miles from here. A guy I know says he saw him in a bar there sitting next to the girl. The guy knows the girl from high school. He knows Gus from a construction job a few years back. The guy was in the town two weeks ago to work some more construction, but he says he didn’t see Gus there, only at the bar that one time.” Denise said. This was the first time she lowered her voice, but it wasn’t for June’s sake. It was like she was afraid of being truly heard.
“Well, I can drive there,” I didn’t want to ask questions. I didn’t want to hear Denise ramble about “a guy who knew this girl who was at a bar which is in this town.” I was only interested in the part about Gus, that he might be there, in this bar, with some girl, sitting across from some guy.
“Well I know this guy from high school, too.” she persisted, “and I know the girl too. She’s a year younger than me. She was a slut then. She graduated in nineteen-ninety-six,” Denise stopped speaking to take a drag off of her cigarette.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Me? I’m thirty-four. Why?”
“No reason,” I said. “That’s what I thought.”
But that is not what I had thought at all. Denise’s life had been harder than I first imagined, and her face was haggard beyond her age.
My brother’s mother died six years ago of cancer. My father didn’t attend the funeral for perhaps obvious reasons, plus they hadn’t spoken in at least five, maybe ten, years. After the restraining order was filed, they only saw each other at graduations, weddings, and other family gatherings. My father allowed this, even though Kate was legally required to stay away completely. Gus and I attended the funeral. I did not know his mother. Our father was most serious about keeping her away from me for fear she might abduct or hurt me, just to punish him for the divorce. Gus was a pallbearer, and I sat in the back of the chapel. My brother had been out of prison for only a few months, and his hair had barely grown back after shaving it every month for the past three years. He said his time in prison was “a bunch of bullshit” and that he was “innocent as fuck.” I never doubted or believed him, because I did not care what he had or hadn’t done. I only cared that his three-year absence had ended. Watching my brother carry the casket down the altar, I felt like the future was enacting itself, that my brother would be a pallbearer for years to come. Though this was his mother then, I was sure he would do the same for our father, and my own mother. The thought upset me, as if I was watching a movie which reminded me that people I loved most would grow old and sick. My mouth trembled uncontrollably and tears rushed down my face. I remember thinking if one can love the people they should hate, or those who estrange them, I do. I thought Gus’s mother deserved that much.
“Okay, Denise. I’ll drive, like I said.”
“Okay, baby. What about June-bug?” Denise asked, legitimately curious what we would do with my child during our time away.
“Well, June will come. She’ll be fine,” I said.
Denise registered this with a crooked and dismayed smile, biting her lower lip enough to brighten its color when she released it. “She won’t be bored?”
“No, I’ll stay in the car with her. If Gus really is wherever it is that we’re going, he’ll come out to the car to see us. You’re in charge of finding him.” I answered Denise as if she was right to ask about June, as if leaving her behind was actually an option.
I assigned Denise responsibility for Gus because it seemed that she wanted or needed it. June and I would be satisfied to sit in the car together, June perhaps sleeping in my lap, my own head leaning against the window, waiting for Denise to depart for or from the bar, to most likely confess that Gus was not there and no one had seen him or recognized his photograph. Denise was optimistic and childlike, energetic and sleepless, young and ancient inside her startled, exhausted skin.
“Well, baby, let’s get June-bug up and dressed. I’ll just grab some stuff and we can go,” her joints were audible as she rose and stretched her frail body upwards. She coughed. Her lungs sounded hurt. The noises of her bones moving and the clearing of her throat were ones of complaint and rebuttal, resignation and fatigue.
“Denise, it’s only six-thirty in the morning. You should get some sleep before we go anywhere. You look tired, and June didn’t fall asleep last night until at least ten o’clock.” I tried to speak quietly, trying not to wake June and to calm Denise who stood, mortician-like, above my reclined body, very dedicated to her idea.
“No, no!” she said. “The sooner we get out of here the sooner we’ll know something about Gus. I don’t need any sleep.”
Removing my arm from behind June’s head and slowly rising to a sitting position, I glanced at Denise’s bare feet and up her legs. I imagined them spread or squatting, five babies birthed from someplace beneath her skirt, someplace my brother had known intimately. Denise, a drug-user, a child locked in a dark closet, an unfit mother, devout and ecstatic for some grim fairytale in which my brother played a part, and I, and June, played some part as well.
“Denise, was Gus in trouble?”
“Baby, I don’t know. I don’t know a lot of things,” she said.
“Maybe that’s why he left. Because you didn’t know him . . . because you didn’t know. Go get some sleep. Try to rest for a few hours.” I said.
“I told you, I’m fine,” she answered.
Denise walked to the window and pulled up the blinds. Early light spilled across the carpet, and the shadows I had grown so used to in the night disappeared as if they had been hunted. Then June woke to Denise’s hand squealing as she wiped condensation from a pane of glass. Day erasing the night like a ghost eating the horizon.
“Mama,” she asked. “What time is it?”
“Time to rise and shine,” Denise said.
After Gus’s mother funeral, he and I drove to the country and onto our father’s land. My father, having met us outside of the cemetery, followed in his own truck. Gus and I drank from a bottle of bourbon and shared a cigarette.
My brother spoke. “What do we look like to dogs when we abandon them?”
It was posed as a fact less so than a question.
“Probably like we’re hurt,” I said.
“Probably,” Gus said.
It took an hour to get to the woods. My father carried a flashlight and beers. Gus set forth to carry his bourbon to the usual clearing, and I bundled firewood in my arms. The sun, about to set, turned the sky pink, and the trees stood black and sinewed against the cold canopy. My brother vanished on the trail to the campsite, and, at the time, I thought this was not my brother’s intention, but my own eyesight failing in the sunset. By the time I reached the clearing, Gus had gathered enough wood to barely start the fire, and behind the new flames, his silhouette flickered in and out of sight. Our father, a few paces behind me, had been quiet until then.
“Let’s leave him alone for a minute, Meg. Let’s gather some more wood.”
My father and I lingered behind, below the trees for nearly an hour. In the near dark, lit only by the fire fifty feet away, my brother accomplished total motionlessness except for sipping his fifth of bourbon. The gesture of his hand to his mouth was one I had seen before, and yet I recognized newness in my brother. What I thought of then as his simple grieving, I recognize now as my brother beginning to leave. My father and I approached Gus, both of us slapping him on his back, lovingly and hopefully.
“Like we must be hurt,” Gus said.
“What’s that?” my father asked.
“How dogs must feel about their owners, about us, when they see us driving away,” I said.
My father laughed, “Or maybe they feel like they’re free for the first time.”
“Whatever. You could be right,” Gus said.
There, on the night of my brother’s mother’s funeral, my father’s ex-wife’s funeral, I was an outsider. Unlike the men before me, I didn’t feel betrayed or free. I didn’t feel anything except for a desire to fall asleep and wake in the morning to the brother I had always known, one not so wholly treasoned against by death and departure. We watched the fire until it diminished, until smoke rose from the glowing orange residue of the matches and what they had made for each us.
Denise insisted on sitting in the backseat of the car with June, playing the role of a babysitter, or aunt or mother. She brushed her hair and put it into elaborate braids that made June look like a living doll. Denise applied lipstick and rouge to June’s lips and cheeks, and June giggled and smiled into a small hand mirror that Denise pulled from her purse.
“You look so pretty and grown up, June-bug,” Denise said in her loud voice.
I glanced at the two of them in my rearview mirror. Denise’s hollowed eyes cleared in the reflection, and she looked like the woman to whom my brother might have been attracted. Despite having not slept and treating her body so horribly, Denise looked almost nurtured, or childlike, pretty in the mirror’s smudged reflection.
“Alright, that’s enough make-up for now, ladies,” I said.
“Oh come on, Meg, we’re just having fun.” Denise chuckled, her wide mouth revealing big teeth.
“Yeah, Meg, it’s just for fun!” June laughed, mimicking Denise.
“Does anyone need to stop?” I asked.
“I do!” June yelled. “For ice cream!”
“Let’s stop then. Of course, we can get some ice cream, but only if you promise to go to the bathroom. I’m sure we all need to.”
“Okay, mama.” June said.
Denise remained silent but seemingly willing to take a short rest at the nearest exit. She rubbed her face with her palms, adjusting her greasy hair.
One of my brother’s many jobs was as a truck driver. Whenever I drove and stopped along the highway, I was reminded of him. Listening to the radio, the greatest hits or rock station, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee to stay awake. The gas station where Denise, June, and I stopped could have been one of a thousand, and probably was one, where Gus had stopped on his treks from Houston to Nashville. By then it was noon, and the fast food signs were lit, as were the beer signs.
“I’ll stay here,” Denise said, as June and I unbuckled ourselves and prepared to go inside.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Someone’s got to guard the car,” Denise answered.
I thought at the time that this was part of Denise’s character. Perhaps she was generally paranoid that someone might take her bag or break a car’s window. She stepped out of the car and slammed the door. Leaning against it, she lit a cigarette and inhaled, exhaled. Standing sideways, she all but went away from sight.
I ushered June into the bathroom where a scale prominently stood, blinking an arc of lights above a slot for coins. Know Your Weight, it read. June asked for a quarter and I obliged. Stepping onto the large, prophet-like machine, she looked like she might be preparing to receive a secret name.
“FORT-EEF-IVE-POUN,” the machine announced loudly.
“Just what I thought,” I said.
“Do I get anything from it?” June asked.
“No, sorry,” I answered.
After June and I were done in the restroom, we picked out an ice cream bar from the large freezer and waited in line to pay. June grew impatient and said she was going to wait in the car with Denise. Before I could catch her, she rushed out the automatic doors. Our car was parked directly in front of the store, and I could see June well. I watched for Denise to open the door, but she didn’t. June knocked a few times, looking in through the window, standing on her tip-toes. No more than thirty seconds from when she had rushed out of the store, she rushed back in.
“Denise and a man are in the backseat,” June said.
“And a man?” I asked.
“Yeah, and she’s hunched down.”
“Oh, really? Well, stay here and let’s pay for this ice cream!” I tried to compensate for whatever my young daughter had just seen by sounding joyful. June’s back turned to the automatic doors, I watched a man exit my car. I watched Denise adjust her hair and apply lipstick. When June and I had finally paid, the automatic doors opened for us as if we were burning alive and could not stop.
“Who was that man?” June asked Denise.
“How much did you get paid, Denise?” I was unable to stop myself from asking, even in front of June.
“Paid for what?” asked June.
“Get in the car, baby. Denise, ride in the front with me,” I spoke firmly. Denise sunk into the front seat and shut her door. I buckled June into her booster seat.
“Only two more hours now,” Denise said.
“I’m not calling the police in front of my daughter. Because of her, I can’t leave you here either. She would think I’m a monster. She would ask questions.” I whispered.
“Oh, baby, thank you.” Denise said. I did not care one way or the other. At that point, all I wanted was for her to be gone, but I felt compelled to get her where she needed to go, where she alleged my brother was. I didn’t believe anything she had told me, not after my daughter had seen her having sex in the back of my car. All I could think about was my brother, that, if had he been there, he wouldn’t have said a word. Not the brother I knew.
The last time that I spoke to Gus was over the phone a little over a year ago. The night before he had left a dozen messages on my voicemail saying that he was going to kill himself. When he was in high school, before I was born, he shot himself in the chest to apparently get the attention of his girlfriend who had been threatening to break up with him. Or so the story goes. I had seen the scar, near his heart, many times. Like most things my brother did or had done in my absence, I didn’t pay much attention. I was only happy that it was in the past, whatever it may have been. When I discovered Gus’s messages, I called his phone. After he didn’t answer, I called our father, who set forth driving to Rusk to investigate my brother’s trailer, the same he departed soon after. I called the Cherokee County police. They found my brother, awake but incoherent, in his trailer, surrounded by drugs, mostly meth, and empty bottles of liquor. That night, after a day in the hospital, Gus was arrested and taken to jail. From inside, he called me.
“You called the cops on me,” he said.
“I thought you were dead,” I said.
“Well, I’m not. I’m in jail.”
By the time we arrived in the town where my brother had apparently been spotted, it was nearly four o’clock in the afternoon, and the January sun was already going down. Denise had fallen asleep in the front and June in the backseat. Denise and I had not spoken since leaving the gas station. I glanced at June, asleep in the backseat, and nearly ran a stop sign. We were there.
“Denise, we’re here I guess,” I said.
“I know,” she answered, newly awake. “Just drive to the town square, about a mile up. The bar is there. I’ll ask the bartender if he knows anything. I’ll give the guy who saw Gus a call.”
The town’s population was 1,149 people. A sign hanging from the bar advertised this fact, as if it had not changed in years. The courthouse across the square was under construction after tornado damage, another sign advertised. The ground was blank with dry grass, punctuated only by an occasional scrap of trash. The town must have been quaint at one time. The derelict storefronts lining the town square were curly and Victorian beneath their rot. An abandoned stone fountain posed next to a statue of an old man, a mayor or past U.S. president I didn’t recognize. The interior of the car caught the reflection of leftover Christmas lights hanging from the bar awning.
Denise silently opened her door and disappeared into the bar. I felt as if I was floating above the town, June in my arms, gently hovering, vacantly witnessing, as if nothing of the scene had anything to do with me personally. I waited an hour for Denise. The sun descended completely somewhere far behind us. June awoke and rubbed her eyes, as if it could be anytime, night or early morning.
“You’ll be awake for a while,” I said.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Waiting for Denise. Here are some pretzels,” I handed her a bag.
“Christmas lights,” June said.
“Time for us to take ours down when we get home,” I said.
Denise emerged from the bar, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
“Oh honey, the bartender says he’s seen Gus. He might be here tonight.”
A man in his fifties exited the bar and approached Denise, planting his hand on her back. She was leaning forward through the open passenger side window.
“I’ll be right back, baby. This man is going to drive to where he thinks Gus has been staying,” Denise said.
“Okay Denise, be careful,” I said.
“Don’t worry about me, baby!” she answered.
Denise climbed into the man’s truck and slammed its heavy door. When they pulled into reverse, the tires squealed cinematically. Music played loudly. That was the last time I spoke to or saw Denise, watching her drive away from us and out of our lives indefinitely.
“Let’s go now,” I said.
“Can we eat dinner?” June asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“And then where we going?”
“To a motel, to get some sleep. I saw a sign for one twenty miles up the road.”
“And then where?”
“Tomorrow, we’ll go home.”
I glanced at June in the mirror. Her skin tic-tacked from sleep.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“For what?’ June asked.
I didn’t answer but watched the asphalt’s long yellow line, the road leaving beneath us and pursuing. A coyote lay dead off to the side and I glanced a living raccoon blindly following her own continuance. I asked myself the reason that we are made to try, and why people invented in the first place those high whistles that only some animals can hear. And then I thought about my brother, wherever he was, how he was at best an anonymous, dimmed pinhole in the night sky. I knew I would never see him again in body, not walking towards me, not up the driveway or through the pasture. I hoped he could see us then, driving away from the bar, away from Denise. I told June we would keep going to the next town, just twenty miles up the road, just a little farther away from wherever we were and would not ever be again. We passed a truck stop, and I wondered about the people inside. We passed a white motel sign blinking on and off like an apologetic eye.
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