Flesh and Bone
By William L. Alton
Luminis Books Copyright © 2015 William Alton
All rights reserved.
The Night My Parents Split
Midnight. The Moon hangs like a hook in the sky. Clouds stream past, long, frayed strings. My parents sit in the kitchen talking. They're going through the papers that'll end their marriage. I haven't heard them talk like this in years. Divorce has brought them closer together. Their voices float through the house, but the words are just mumbled whispers. I stare out the window and wonder when they'll be done.
We had dinner together tonight, in the dining room, at the table. They sit in the dining room now and divvy up their lives.
After an hour or so, Dad leaves. I watch him through the window. He walks like a scarecrow down the driveway and leaves in his truck. I wonder where he'll go, but it doesn't matter. He's gone now and there's nothing I can do about it.
Mom comes and stands in the door of my room. The fire of her cigarette burns red and black and lights up her face when she breathes.
"He's not coming back, is he?" I ask.
"When will I see him again?"
"Soon," she says. "Soon, I hope."
She watches me for a second before turning away. That's what they all do when they don't know what to say. They turn away and leave. Someday, maybe I'll turn away too. Someday, I'll leave.
We gather everything in the living room. We take the pictures from the walls, the beds from the bedrooms, the clothes from the closets and stack them in boxes. Everything is bare and simple. Mom scrubs the walls while I go to my last day of school.
"Where you moving to?" my teacher asks.
"Pretty," she says.
After my last class, I stand out in the parking lot watching everyone come and go. No one stops to say anything. I'm alone already. It doesn't matter. None of this matters. Soon, I'll be somewhere new and nothing will be the same.
Desert turns to mountains. Valleys crease the ridges. Clouds snag on the pines and cedars like cotton caught in a comb.
The house is huge and red and surrounded by berry fields, pastures and forest. We stop and the windows stare down at me. I sit in the car and the house rises like a tombstone from the fields, a giant's grave.
"This is it," she says.
This is it. This is where she grew up. This is where her parents are. This is where we'll live from now on.
I close my eyes and imagine it. This is it. This is all there is.
Mom gets a job waiting tables. She works nights. Weekends, she tends bar.
"We need the money," she says. "We can't stay here forever."
I don't know. This seems like forever. Breakfast before the sun. Dinner after it sets.
She works too many hours and I go to school. The day is sliced into slivers of time. Nights, I lie in my bed and watch the cars on the road, counting them. One, two, three. They come and go, bright and loud. In the pasture next to the house, the cattle stand in the rain. Corn and peas grow in the truck garden. Out in the yard, a 'possum waddles through the mud, the grass.
We can't stay here forever. Where will we go? What will we do?
The barn stands in the tall grass on the other side of the fence. Behind the barn, the pig sty lies like an open wound at the edge of the woods. Sitting in the hayloft, I can see the pigs lying in the mud and shit, the trough pushed against the split rail fence. This is where I smoke. This is where I watch the world.
A creek lies at the bottom of the hill below the house. Stones are fuzzy with lichen and moss. Oaks and spruce, maples and elms rise up over me, over the green water. I have never been skinny dipping, but there's no one around.
Lying naked in the water, watching the speckled surface, the frogs and tadpoles flitting to the shallow edges of the little pool in which I baptize myself. The bottom is slimy and cold, but there are stones too. I come up to breathe. I rise like Aphrodite and stand in the rain, absolutely shivering. My bones ache with the wind. I light a cigarette. It's amazing how many sins can be washed away in the everyday gathering of water and light.
Morning whispers in without the sun. In the east, Mt. Hood stands like a giant broken tooth bathed in dawn's bloody light. Clouds thin the light, make it soft as silk. He comes to my room.
"Bill," Grandpa says. "There are chores."
Chores? I wash dishes after dinner. I take the garbage out. What could possibly need doing this early in the morning?
"You have five minutes," he says.
Jesus. I wait for a moment, but not too long. He scares me. I've heard tales of the beatings he used to lay on my mother and her mother. I dress and hurry through the kitchen where Grandma makes griddle cakes and eggs, biscuits and gravy.
Grandpa rolls a cigarette in the yard with its long, green grass. He takes me to his truck and shows me the buckets of slop. I have to carry them to the pigs behind the barn. They're heavy. The handles cut into my fingers. The slop sloshes onto my thighs. It smells of grease and mold. The pigs come grunting and squealing. I take the buckets to the barn and rinse them with the hose.
Now it's time to gather eggs. The coop smells of dust and shit. A plain bulb hangs on an exposed wire from the ceiling. The hens peck my hands while I steal their eggs.
Now it's time for breakfast. Mom's sleeping. She got home at three, maybe four, this morning. I don't want to be here. I want to go to someplace where no one bothers me.
"Pigs and chickens," Grandpa says. "Those are your chores. Don't forget."
I've decided I hate him a little.
First Day at School
Blue lockers along the creamy walls. Wooden doors stand open, waiting to swallow us whole. I've never been the new guy. I stand on the edge of the crowd and watch the people move past. No one watches me. They move around and no one notices me standing there, gray and faded.
At lunch, we talk about Whitman and Poe. We talk about writing and love. None of us knows anything about anything. We pretend to be bright and complex. After a burger and fries, we go out to the Pit and smoke cigarettes.
"Do you think he was gay?" Richie asks.
"Who?" John John asks.
"Does it matter?" John John asks.
"Faggots," Richie says. "Jesus."
"There's nothing to be afraid of," John John asks.
"I don't know," Richie says.
Me either. I don't know shit. Maybe faggots are scary. Maybe they want to take over the world. It doesn't matter. They can have it. Straights haven't done shit for it so far.
No one bothers me. John John tells me there are people, but I have yet to meet them. I go to class and stare at the teacher and wait for the bell to ring.
"Come out to the Pit at lunch," John John says.
Lunch comes and I eat a Salisbury steak and go to the Pit. The Pit is at the end of the school's third wing. It's not a pit really. Cars park along the street. A sidewalk goes behind the school to the Ag shop. People stand and smoke and talk. I have nothing to say. I light a cigarette.
John John brings out a pipe and passes it around. He calls me over.
"A little buzz for fifth period," he says.
The pot is a one hit wonder. It sears through my head and my eyes water and my head spins. Everyone smokes and talks.
"What's your name?" one of the girls asks.
"Do you like to eat pussy?" she asks.
How do I answer that? I've never done it before. I've sucked cock and figured that eating pussy would be completely different.
"Look at him blush," she says and laughs.
"Leave him be," John John says. "He's good folk."
They shake their heads and the bell rings and it's time to go in.
"I was just teasing you," the girl says.
"You'll get used to it," she says.
"My name's Tammy," she says and kisses me. She goes into the school and I stand there for a moment thinking maybe someday I'll get her into bed. Right now, though, I have Biology. Maybe I'll learn something about girls there.
It rains too much here. I haven't seen the sun in weeks. The ground is thick and soft. Grass gives way to mud. Moss grows on anything sitting still long enough, trees, stones, houses.
"Oregon winter," John John says.
He lives next door. He lets me fire his rifles. I don't hunt like he does. I'm good with cans and bottles in the dump by the creek, but not so much with squirrels or deer or anything living.
"We gotta eat," he says.
We walk through the pasture to his house. He's someone to talk to on the bus, on the weekend when there's no one else around.
"Watch out for my uncle," he says.
"Just watch out."
His mother stews a couple of rabbits for dinner. No one stays in the kitchen with her. She works alone, without noise or chatter. She likes things quiet.
"You in school?" his uncle asks.
Harold lives in a little room off the kitchen and smells of stale beer and chewing tobacco.
"You want a beer?" he asks.
He gets me one and I swallow a swallow and choke. It tastes like nothing I've tasted before.
"Make you a man," Harold says.
His smile is gap-toothed and yellow.
"You a virgin?" he asks.
"Leave him alone," John John says.
"He's not interested."
I don't know what it is I'm not interested in. I know nothing about these people. I don't know the answers to the questions, the things no one talks about.
Bekah's beautiful and popular. The guys gather around like a halo. They bring her things and try to make her laugh. I don't try to make her laugh. I keep away from her. She makes me nervous.
I only have one class with her and she sits across the room. She's so much more interesting than the teacher. I can't help but stare. I want to ask her out, but I don't have the guts. Girls make me shy and jittery.
Terry, the quarterback, knows what to say to her to make her smile. They've been going out for months. Still, I want her to like me. We've never spoken. Words are only so much air. How do you say 'I love you' to someone like that?
It comes down to what comes first and what comes next. I do my chores before walking down the road to the bus stop. I hate this rain, this wind. My fingers turn blue and white and ache as if they've been crushed. There is no blood flowing in my hands.
The bus is filled with people I don't know. I cannot smoke. I sit as far back as possible and stare out the window at the trees. They're starting to unfold their leaves. Fields filled with raspberries are beginning to blossom. Soon the bees will come. If the rain doesn't shut them down, that is.
When we get to school, I wait to be the last one off. I hate the crush. I hate the feel of people pressed against me, hurrying to unload.
Richie stands in the Pit smoking a cigarette, leaning against his Chevy's fender.
"Bill," he says.
We don't know each other well enough to talk about our lives. He's not very good looking and his knuckles are scarred from fighting. He scares me a little, but I act tough. It's important to seem like you can take care of yourself.
"Did you do the English homework?" he asks.
"Most of it."
"I'll give you twenty bucks to do mine."
I take the twenty and sit in his car diagramming sentences. John John comes and taps on the window.
"What're you doing?" he asks.
"You're going to get busted."
"He's paying me twenty bucks."
"Just make sure you change some of the answers," he says. "Nothing gets you busted faster than conformity."
I finish the homework and hand it to Richie. Richie tucks it into his bag and gives me a smoke.
"You're a smart fucker," he says.
"Not smart enough," I say.
The bell calls us to class. We grind our cigarettes out on the asphalt and file through the glass doors where everyone swirls like corpuscles through the halls. I sit in my class and stare out the window at the gulls wheeling in the ashy sky. It reminds me of a dream I had. It reminds me that sometimes, I too can rise into the sky. Not now, but later, maybe, I'll rise out of this sadness and into the light on the other side of the clouds.
My hands are hard and red from tilting the hay out of the loft. My hands are sore and crooked. The hay is for the cattle in the barnyard. The news says there might be snow this week. No one knows for certain. Feeding the cattle comes every day.
Rain seethes on the tin roof, whispering promises it can't keep. The wind is sharp as chipped glass. Rats rush from bale to bale. I light a cigarette, a bad idea with the hay lying dry all around, but I don't want to stand in the weather to smoke.
The cattle come and lower their heads to the hay piled in the yard. They pay no attention to me. I'm the hand of god. I bring them their hay and it doesn't matter how it gets there.
"Bill," Grandpa says. "You're going to burn the barn down."
I grind my cigarette out on the wooden floor.
"You know better than that," he says.
I hang my head. I have nothing to say. There are no excuses.
"The troughs are empty," he says.
There's a well on the side of the barn. You have to lower a bucket and pull it by hand. It's hard. I hate it.
"Go on now," he says.
The barnyard is thick with mud and cow shit. I fill the troughs and the cows push forward to get their share.
"You have school," Grandpa says from the loft.
I go to the house and change. I brush the smell of shit and hay and dirt from my hair and teeth. I walk down the road and wait for the bus to come for me. Rain makes me miserable. My bones ache. I imagine summer, heat, a blue sky and sunlight. I imagine rising and disappearing over the mountains. Someday I will vanish and no one will find me.
Remembering His Lips
Harold offers me a ride to school. The sun's just barely over the horizon. Trees stand like skeletons in the darkness, black on black. Riding beats standing at the bus stop.
"You want a cigarette?" he asks.
"I've got some."
"I have some pot if you want a sip before school," he says.
We pull into the woods and smoke the weed. Lights bury themselves in my eyes.
"Good shit," he says.
He kisses me on the cheek, his whiskers a rough whisper on my face.
"Have a good day," he says.
I float into the school, the walls bending around me, my face burning with the memory of his lips.
I'm more than a little high. Four Oxies, a bowl of weed and half a pint of two dollar wine. I stare through the window of Richie's car, my eyes focused on the tip of my nose, everything else fluid and blurred.
Richie cautiously aims the vehicle along the road out of town. Trees march past and fields stretch into the mountainous horizon. Staying in our lane is difficult.
"Jesus," Richie says. "Jesus. Jesus. Jesus."
We pull into the long driveway to my grandfather's house and the ruts rattle the car. When we stop, I sit and stare at the barn across the pasture and the cows and chickens in the fields. Rows and rows of berries march in straight lines to the edge of the woods.
"I have to go," Richie says.
"I don't know how I'm going to get home."
"Watch the fog line."
"That doesn't work," he says. "The fog line dances."
"Do your best."
I make it to the lawn and lie on the grass and try to drag the spinning, dipping world to a halt, but there is nothing I can do with the nausea. Somehow I make it to the verge and puke into the dormant rose bushes.
When the rain begins again, I stumble onto the porch and knock. I knock and knock and knock and Grandma opens the door.
"I need to lie down."
"Are you drunk?"
"I need to lie down."
She helps me to my room and pulls the blankets back. I fall onto the mattress. Grandma pulls my shoes off.
"We'll talk about this tomorrow," she says.
"There are rules," she says.
Yes. There are rules. I broke them all tonight. I'm paying for it now.
"What would your mother think?" Grandma asks.
I let the words flow over me, but they make no sense. It doesn't matter what anyone thinks. I'm too high to worry about these things. I'm too high to worry about anything but the quiet walls and the soft, warm mattress dancing and bending beneath me.
"Oh my," Grandma says. "Sleep on your stomach. You don't want to choke."
It wouldn't matter if I did right now. I cannot move or think and worry about anything but the particles of dust pressing down on me while I try to sleep. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Flesh and Bone by William L. Alton. Copyright © 2015 William Alton. Excerpted by permission of Luminis Books.
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