Southern Bodies

Blaine Ely Click to

website-pictureBlaine Ely holds both a BA in English from Western Kentucky University and an MA in English from Auburn University.  In addition, his work has appeared in Ninth Letter and Zephyrus.  He is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Oregon.

The day after they scrape Eadie Pollard off the limestone two hundred feet below High Bridge, I walk the whole uphill mile to the Dixon Texaco and stop. Wiping sweat off my face, straddling cracked asphalt, I stand miniature under that big Texaco star and look straight up at the thing. Straining my neck. Those Texaco letters faded pink and curling at their edges like dead skin; the sign’s weight creaking in slow wind like some giant oak. I’m not going in, not even planning to. But I stand there for what feels like forever thinking about Lee—her probably sitting tanned and legs crossed on the Texaco’s stained counter. Her probably in there all alone.

I’m still standing out there alone between rows of rusted pumps when I hear the bell chime. See the door swing open. Watch Lee’s scarecrow shadow stop right next to the big star’s. She lifts a pack of Marlboros to her mouth, tears the plastic with vampire-white teeth.

“Been looking for you,” she says, that same tank top tight around her. That always-blue bikini underneath.

She cups a sideways flame, breathes in, and with her smoke swirling around me, I’m even sucking some of it in, letting it sting in my throat. I look up at my reflection in her glasses, at myself contorted and bulging in their lenses. My face something huge, almost alien.

“I’m guessing you heard,” she says.

I look down, away from her standing there, and feel that weird guilt twist around inside me. It wedges itself deep in my gut, presses like a fist into it, and I listen to her call it a shame, saying how terrible the whole thing was. How she can’t believe the poor girl was down there for maybe even weeks before anyone found her. That with it being so hot and all, and her down there cooking like thawed meat on those rocks. And that everyone’s saying it was Eadie’s own fault. That she did it herself.

Lee drops her cigarette, lets it go half-smoked. “You coming in?” she says.

Following her over these weeds pushing up through cracks in the concrete, through these pumps with counters stuck on old numbers, I’m thinking hard about Eadie. About the shape of her. The way she must have looked. And I’m wondering if any rust was still on her hands, or if what was left of the skin on her fingers was still cut from gripping the rail. Surely they checked, I’m thinking. Surely that’s how they knew.

Lee holds the door nearly all the way open and with the box fans blowing, with their air humming, she hops onto the counter first thing. Already she’s leaning over a lottery ticket, scraping rows of those metallic boxes with the dime between her fingers. “You knew her, didn’t you?” she says, lifting up the ticket, examining it. She tosses it into a heap of them and rips a row of fresh ones from the big dispenser. “Like, pretty close?”

Leaning against the counter, half-spinning a rack of cassettes with my fingers, I’m picturing that steeple—it pointed straight up and tall as the arms of trees, birds up there dodging its cross, and I imagine the church below it with doors swinging open, gushing people in bright clothes like a wound ripped open. The man up there with hair like shining metal. His suit coffin black. Standing there smiling and shaking every one of those hands.

“Yeah,” I say, seeing Eadie there in front of me—her sitting Indian-style deep in the woods and peeling the sleeve of her jacket up both arms. The bruises on her like tiny planets.

Lee pushes a ticket my way on the counter and looks right at me. I tell her how I’ve never really been that lucky, how I doubt I’d ever be, but she slides a penny out of the plastic donation thing anyway and slaps it hard on the table. “Scratch,” she says.

I’d heard it at school that same day. Reggie telling me right there in the cafeteria that his cousin was the one that had found her. That he’d been walking the rocks since the water was low, everything so dry. He’d walked right up on her and thought at first that she wasn’t even human. That she was some animal drowned from back when there was water.

I’m trying to picture this, what was left of her. What it was Reggie’s cousin saw. But Lee’s already ripped her last roll of tickets and she’s bent over them like she’s working on some small machine, scraping at them still and telling me about Harlan. About how he owns the place, how they’re related. About how he fills up jars with these pills he gets with fake prescriptions and hauls them by the truckload across the county’s line. How he let the gas pumps dry up years ago.

She’s still telling me all this when headlights grow big from the dusk outside and throw themselves through the glass, over the aisles. Lighting the whole place up, making it glow. And when the truck outside stops its rattle, Lee’s hushed. With its door creaking open, her voice is barely anything, telling me that we can meet outside, that she’ll be out in a minute. Then the sound of that little bell above the door. Of pointed boots clicking tile. It’s then that Lee nods outside and I turn to go, his smell like burnt wood. His arm brushing mine. I push against the doors without even looking, stopping at the pumps and turning to watch her there through the glass with her keys clinched tight in a fist and the man’s beard almost against her. She tries to push past him, even with him pulling, with his hand like rope around her arm, and when she finally does, when she’s free from his grip, he just stands there statue-like and facing the door, outside. Just standing there like that and watching the back of her.

She walks by me quick, offering a ride over her shoulder. Faking some weird kind of laugh and saying that it sure beats hoofing it, that a ride sure beats all that way in the dark. Then I’m following behind her and climbing into her Jeep, asking if it was him. If that was Harlan. But she just cradles the rearview with the inside of her hand and pulls it close to her face, staring straight into it and opening her mouth a little, smearing streaks of mascara across the bones of her cheeks, under each eye. She looks at me with still some of those charcoal stains down her face, saying: “Don’t have any plans, do you?” and turning the key, pressing hard on the clutch.

I crank down on the window, move the lever in circles with it squealing and rolling the glass slow. The air outside leaking in—this kind you can feel warm and like a hundred pounds in your lungs. This kind that slows everything down to a crawl.

“Plans?” I say.

Cobain’s voice howls static through the Jeep’s speakers and I realize with it fading in, out, that we’re driving away from my house. Away even from town. I start to say something, to ask about it at least, but what’s left of the light from the sun’s bleeding through the trees in these little bits and pieces, and Lee’s turning the wheel, following the highway through the woods where it snakewinds up to the top and rolls itself like black carpet onto what I know is High Bridge.

“It’d be weird to stop, right?” she’s saying.

Still the whine of the music, that heavy sound of a guitar, and I’m asking her what she means. If she’s talking about Eadie. She nods her head yes, doesn’t even turn it. And with that knot tied in my stomach I wonder again about Eadie, about her hands on the rail. Her fingers around the rust of it. I imagine her leaning over, looking down all the way. Squinting to see the bottom of her two hundred feet.

Lee drives the bridge’s length and turns into an opening off to the side—a road that works its way down and after a while fades to gravel, dried mud. We follow it as far as it goes, until it opens into a clearing and dead-ends at the bank under these huge tops of trees, all the kudzu. Down here where it’s darker—hard to see even.

She shuts off the engine and we both climb out, her keys like copper pennies on the floorboard’s metal. Then just the moaning of cicadas. The sloshing of a bottle she pulls from under her seat. She walks out in front with it, smiling at me and holding the thing up like a kind of trophy. “Stole it,” she says, still swinging it by its throat, walking already toward the water. She says to me, to no one really: “The fucking creep,” and walks out to where the trees open up at the bank like the mouth of a cathedral—the entrance to some pale and dried up apocalypse with rocks bone white and puddles of dying river scattered across it all like the left-behind of some weak storm. Like the clouds didn’t have enough in them. The main stream flowing through it like syrup, winding thin and shrunken through the middle, and Lee’s already sitting above it, her legs together like a queen on top of the limestone. I climb it and scoot close and she hands me the bottle, cap already gone. I’m tracing the raised parts of it with my finger, getting a good feel for its weight. My hand fits perfect around the curve of its neck.

“Jesus,” she says. “Just drink it.”

I try and laugh and tilt it back without thinking, hear the stuff echo inside the glass. It slides warm into my gut and she’s already taking it back, downing another swig.

She winces a little, shows her teeth. “The fucking creep,” she says.

The bottle’s almost empty when the moon’s over us dead center, and with the landscape soaked in bright dark Lee’s sliding a lighter from the pocket of her shorts, leaning hunched over and getting a flame first try. She sucks some of it in. That sound of burning.

“He does things, you know.” She arches her neck a little and breathes out, the smoke leaking from her like an engine dying. “Like, things to me.”

I ask who, already knowing the answer, remembering Harlan’s face pressed almost against hers and his mouth moving in words I couldn’t make out. I keep this image there, hold onto it, and try to make myself upset. Telling myself that I’m here for some kind of reason, that I should right some kind of wrong.

“Him. Harlan. Dad. Whatever.”

But sitting where I am, with the light like it is, I can see perfectly her tattoo—this moon skinny and waning and etched like a hieroglyphic into her shoulder. The way it hangs on her, bends with her shape, it looks almost like ink still wet, and I’m imagining the black of it dripping, leaking like water through Harlan’s fingers. His hands huge and gripping the tan of her skin like a motorcycle’s throttle.

“Did it to Mom too,” she says. “It’s why she ran off in the first place.”

I push the thought away and reach toward her, thinking for a second about grabbing her hand, lacing fingers. Telling her about Eadie, about the man with slicked hair. About railings, Reggie’s cousin. How these bodies, they find their way down here all time. But my hand finds the bottle instead, prying it from her grip, and I turn it upside down before the words can even come out.

She drops her cigarette and falls rockheavy onto my shoulder. And almost reading my mind she’s asking if I ever wonder what it feels like. With the sweat of her wet against my neck, she’s asking about dying. About the feeling of it. “You know,” she says. “Like Eadie.”

I look out through the trees, at the outline of High Bridge stretched across everything, and think about how small she must have looked up there. How at that high the bottom must not even look real.

“That moment you just feel nothing,” Lee says. She falls from my shoulder, in almost slow motion, with her arms dropping slack. Her eyes already shut. “Then never waking up.”

I drain the bottle and pitch it high behind me. Hear the thud of it punching earth. I look down at Lee, at her just lying there, chest rising and falling like something artificial. Like some kind of doll. Her body laid out and limp and spread on the rock like wet laundry, surrendering out here under hardwoods, the limestone piles. The weeds that choke everything. And I know no one’s watching. I know that sounds out here can lose themselves in the nothing and that even spilling yourself on these rocks would probably only be loud for a few seconds.

I reach over and pull a strand of blond from her cheek and run my hand down the side of her face, around her jaw. Feeling the bone of it. Then I lean over, looking down, and see the robin egg freckles under her makeup, feel her breath like steam on my face. I hold my head still to keep it from spinning and hover over her real slow until I feel her there. Until my mouth sticks to hers like flytrap paper. Until I taste her air in my throat. And under these stars as big as the Texaco’s, her hips come to life. Out here in the quiet of this used-to-be river, she presses against me and her legs tie around me in knots. Her nails dragging my skin like keys cutting clear coat. And the whole time I’m on top of this girl playing Eadie, this almost-carcass on the peak of these rocks, I’m thinking about impact. Bones hitting bottom. Reggie’s cousin kicking buzzards, the birds taking pieces right out of her. Chunks like your fist, Reggie had said, telling me this the way he’d tell anything else. Nothing scared anywhere on his face. Just talking instead like someone mentioning the weather.