by Lorna Brown
His headlights illuminated her tall frame and dense stillness. Blonde hair hung over her shoulders and he noted the tatty jeans and the bag on her back before he turned off the engine and got out. Walking towards her, he detected no movement.
“Are you okay?” The query elicited no response, and he half expected her thin body to disappear with his touch, like old bones softening to dust. Instead she looked up and reached out, giving him no choice but to take the paper offered. His gaze brushed dark letters, the indistinct forms triggering the memory of his mother’s boney fingers prodding him.
“What do you want me to do with this?” His tone was abrupt and curt, but she didn’t seem to notice. Her attention was held in a space between them, and made him feel as there was someone else present, an extra person he couldn’t see.
“I don’t know.” Her gaze finally settled on him, “What’s your name?”
“Mine’s Lucia Cairns.” He had no idea why she was studying him as if she had laid herself bare. Her hand crawled to his. Her palm was warm, her fingertips cold, “Is it okay?”
“Yes,” he said softly, thinking she meant the hand on his.
“Where is it?” She asked hours later, when daylight clung onto truck windows.
“What?” he fumbled in answer, though he knew what she meant. He could feel the trace of the paper balled up in his hand, suffering, after she had asked. “Where are you going?” and “Can I get a ride?”
“Wisconsin.” He had answered. Then, “course, want anything?”
She followed his gaze to the store, and shook her head. Still he bought an extra bar, drinks, and two big bags of chips. All the while the paper was in his hand, rubbing against his nervousness, dollars taken out, change being given, then hands empty… like magic, a vanishing act, her paper on the floor, counter, or in the bin.
“The cert.” Cert brought him up short, made him nervous. “Where is it?” her voice had thinned, stretching out to reach him.
He shook his head, and wondered if a voice and fingers could be the same thing, but Lucia didn’t prod. She didn’t make him take the next exit, open the door and tell her to get the fuck out. She just sat back on her seat, and stared out at the headlights streaming ahead, as though afraid she might catch up to retreating darkness.
He drove through her smells and sounds, the light breathing of her sleep, the deep wakefulness of her thoughts, stopping for something to eat, a quick stretch of the legs and a wash. At night, he gave her the bed at the back, slept lying across the seats with his lumber jacket on top. Her scent made him moan in the dark, toss and turn, feel the sticky wetness in his hand.
She was quiet, inclined to fiddle with the radio and talk in dribs and drabs. He told her about the day he stood at the kitchen door, looking at his mother’s back and witnessing her elbows push against cotton, like bodies trying to ram open a door. He never considered it was his last day to observe her washing dishes and smoking. Her long arms dropped every few seconds, in order to dry her hands on a tea towel draped over the press door and lift the cigarette that had been wasting away on the ashtray.
His mother didn’t turn around, though she knew he was behind her. He could tell by the pulling back of bones and straightening of shoulders.
“I’m off.” Anderson said, “See you.” Be nice if that really was how it went, the confident son nodding nonchalantly, but the more he fought against his background, the more he remembered the boy with dark hair falling over his eyes and shoulders slumped, saying.
That boy left school without a high school diploma, and had to sit his CDL three times.
“Good luck out there.” The ensuing breath out his mother’s nose, even without the sarcastic edge let him know what she meant, “you’re not going to last.”
Six weeks later, with his body feeling like it was something he had to drag around with him, he docked his empty truck, grabbed his canvas bag, picked up his pay check, walked out of the gates and stood with the burden of realization weighing on his chest and his feet refusing to turn towards home.
He stayed in a friend’s house, and worried that his mother would ring the company to find out about her son. If she did that night, nobody told him, though the idea of her inquiry was like a cold breath on his neck and made him go to a trucking company in Ohio.
“Why?” Lucia asked, “What she do?”
He shrugged, remembering the arms hemming him in, fingers pointing at paper, attacking his shoulder and the whispers to his father at night, “I’ve done everything I can. He’s just plain stupid, that’s what he is.” But he couldn’t tell Lucia, it was too deeply ingrained in his gut, too painful to bring up.
There were four in her family, she told him, an older brother and her parents. She liked none of them and didn’t care when her mother kicked her out. “Why did she kick you out?” he asked, and the surprise in her silence pulled the music in and swallowed the clearing of his throat. She was staring at him as if in the dimming light he had the ability to transform, and he remembered the paper she gave him outside the store, and wondered what he should know.
“Because…” She whispered and then looked away. “I stayed with a friend, and her mother. They didn’t tell me to leave, but I knew they didn’t want me around anymore. Diane used to come straight home from school, but she stopped doing that, and her mother hardly talked to me as if she’d given about all she had. Suppose I can’t blame them.”
After days of travelling she said, “I need to get out of this truck, think we could stop for a night. Get a bed.” He glanced at her. She was leaning sideways. Blonde hair lay limp on her shoulders and her grey eyes were stark.
In a murky motel room with hard sheets and dripping taps, Lucia lay naked like an offering and he explored every inch, his fingertips giving way to a palm, his palm giving way to lips, until he couldn’t stand it anymore and needed to be inside her.
He couldn’t get enough of her after that. During the day, he’d breathe in their intimacy, and exhale his ache in run down motels where the carpet smelt of dried soap and the curtains were heavy with dust. Sometimes with daylight peeking in, he’d park and move beside her, touch her until he was ready to burst.
After five weeks of driving together and two weeks left of his haul, her bouts of nausea started and brought the fear into her eyes, and the thrashing of her hands. She tore at her face and belly, as if she was one of those Russian dolls his mother used to have in her sitting room. He hadn’t been back to his mother’s house in years, refusing to lay himself under her disappointed gaze, though he thought of her when Lucia clawed at herself. He thought of the way her long finger would reveal the dolls coming out of dolls, like girls coming out of girls, and preferred Lucia’s madness, which spread over them for days, to his mother’s focused and sane shake of head, her deliberate jabs for him to concentrate.
His mother never stopped trying to make him better, while Lucia’s bursts of anger dwindled to a trance-like state of fatigue. He had to leave her in a motel in Tucson for three days; made sure she had enough to eat and drink and took off to finish his haul. He sweated the whole time they were separated, picturing the room vacant and her walking aimlessly until the next driver came along, imagining another man inside her, feeling his baby, taking bits of him away.
He came back to her lying on the bed, scraps of wrappers thrown around her, her eyes half opened and staring at a tiny gap in the curtains that hadn’t been there when he left. With stale chips crackling under their weight, he promised he’d take care of her.
“I can’t do it again…” she whimpered.
“I know,” he said, thinking she meant the petrol smell of the truck that had made her gag, and the lolling sway of the leather seats that had been sprayed with vomit.
“We’ll get a place, rent something nice.”
They found a cute blue house, with windows on either side of the front door and small porch. Above, fitted into triangular space, their son’s bedroom window peeked out at the quiet street like a third eye. They were married in a registry office. He bought her a white summer dress, and wore new jeans and a shirt.
Anderson let Lucia take care of the contracts and bank accounts, let her settle them into this new town, while he continued to drive, though the long roads no longer brought comfort. He was haunted by the echo of her voice and the need of her skin. Finally after a few months, he found a job driving for the local mill, so he could witness his wife growing big with their child. Often he would come home, with saw dust sticking to his skin, to her lying curled up on the bed. “Lucia?” he would whisper, and receive the shallow breathing of sleep from a woman with her eyes wide open.
Though her body was growing, she grew less solid. Silences followed her around like a scent, so the night she leaned over him, her eyes glaring in the dark, her breath warm with pain, and told him, “baby’s coming,” he was as startled by her voice as much as the idea of the child being born.
Their son arrived after ten hours of silent labor. Pacing the hospital floors Anderson had longed for Lucia’s scream so he could be certain that she was not dissolving into the hospital bed, disappearing as her baby appeared.
“You have a beautiful healthy baby boy.” The nurse told him, all smiles and glistening eyes, and he wanted to ask about his wife but was too scared.
After three days Anderson brought his wife and son home. In the evening, he liked to sit with a beer and listen to the wood in their bedroom surrendering to Lucia’s weight and the groaning stair, under her feet, third from the bottom. Light footsteps brought her to him, as he slouched over the kitchen table. The floor was grey linoleum, dirty looking, no matter how much she cleaned it. He didn’t look up when she sat beside him and the fading light reached her joined hands. In the silence, she started twisting her wedding ring, a nervous habit she took up as soon as they were married.
“The night we met, what did you think?” Her grey eyes were seeking solace in the rhythmic twirling of a ring that reminded Anderson of Dorothy’s tapping of shoes. “Did you hate me?”
He didn’t know how to answer, yearned to walk out and never come back. He’d tried to leave her once, abandoned her in a shady motel with a bag of junk food and a hundred dollars, hoping she could be locked in the same place as his mother’s long fingers and thin mouth. But traces of Lucia went with him, her scent on his fingertips, the silence on his tongue. “Why would I hate you?”
“I couldn’t take care of her.” He shook his head, but he couldn’t stop her from talking about her baby girl who was born in the early hours of the morning with the sun shining through hospital windows and nobody by Lucia’s side. Her parents had locked her out of the house, and Diane’s mother had agreed to let her stay until she found her feet, but she found nothing but an overwhelming helplessness.
Her baby cried for hours during the night, and after four weeks she realized she couldn’t do it on her own, not the crying, the pulling, the tiredness.
“Funny”, Lucia told him, “she slept soundly the evening I packed our things, like she knew she was going on to better things.”
The baby’s name had been tucked in a small drawer on top of the dresser, a space that should have been used for a teenager’s jewelry or frivolous secrets. The birth cert was the last thing Lucia remembered, and she didn’t know what to do with it. If she put it in the bag with nappies and bottles, she might get arrested, but if she kept it she’d be reminded of Alice every day. Then, she believed she could forget her child’s name, carry on as if nothing had happened.
When Lucia stumbled out of the bedroom, with two bags over her shoulder and a baby wrapped in a blanket, Diane broke her gaze from the television to ask, ‘where you going?’
“Out,” Lucia mumbled.
Her friend shrugged, “okay”.
Diane’s mother said, “Close the door after you.”
Lucia picked a house on the other side of the tracks with two floors; a small patch of green bordered by trees, and lights shining from the living room. The door bell sounded shrill. She heard movement inside but was gone before the door opened, running blindly passed squat shops and quiet playgrounds, through cars parked on the curb, until there was nothing but patches of green cut by railroad track.
On the other side of the tracks, there were small houses with tumble down steps and relics of bikes thrown on their sides. On and on she walked, mindless with grief and worry until she came to the store, near the exit Anderson would take, and the light shone on the piece of paper she had forgotten was clutched in her hand.
When Lucia looked up from the kitchen table, Anderson got a glimpse of the woman she would be if regret had not reduced her to a wisp.
Still there was no sound from the baby upstairs, as if Lou was already that quiet boy who liked to hide in corners. Anderson remembers thinking of him then, and knows it was impossible, his wife’s expression had submerged him. Like a blind man grasping at features, his eyes tried to find the woman he knew. “I had no choice. I couldn’t take care of her.” Her head shook, “but you knew this, you had to have known, all this time, when you helped me, you knew what you were doing.”
“No,” he stammered.
“I saw you. You read those names, how can you say you didn’t.”
“I didn’t read anything,” he told her and rose, wanting to get away from the sudden limpness that disgusted him. He was still standing over her when she murmured, “I thought you were protecting me.”
Years later, when he had finally given up on Lucia and was driving long haul, he’d remember the fright and defiance in her eyes as his hand rose, buoyed by her selfishness, and their son’s piercing cry coming between them, and understand the moment she stood untouched was the moment he lost everything.
Lorna’s stories have appeared in Ideagems, Cigale, Inkwell and Quill and Downer magazine. Her book, ‘Distance between Lovers’ is due to be published early next year. At the moment she lives in Winchester, MA with her husband and three daughters.