SUBMERGED
by Justin Carmickle

The phone call came in the afternoon and was urgent—an Illinois social worker informed me that my mother was dying from cirrhosis of the liver, that she was going quick. There was no living will, no DNR, and she was barely lucid. They wanted me to take responsibility as her only next of kin. There were decisions to be made: whether life support was to be considered, burial arrangements, and money. Always money. When I told her that I lived too far away, in Indiana, I knew she could hear the hollowness in my words. 

I worked in a hole in the wall called Wander Inn, bartending. The place was on the edge of a town, Loogootee, which I had only intended to pass through, but there was always some man to keep me interested. I used to get pissed when my boy Ian pointed out I moved in and out of relationships like a change of clothes. I used to raise hell about it. I don’t know why. I think it upset me because there was no denying it was all my carrying on that sent him to his father, to a calm sobriety he hadn’t gotten with me. Now, I look back and know there’s nothing to be ashamed or angry about, it’s just sad as hell. That’s all. 

But I know why I fell into the men and alcohol—we fall into the same habits and rituals of our parents. This made me happy Ian had gotten away. I wanted him to have a chance. When we first started seeing each other, Parker said, “I’m fine with all your drinking. I just don’t get why you need it.” I tried my hardest to keep it under control the nights I saw him. Other nights, I’d make an excuse, say I wanted to be alone, and then I’d really hit the bottle. My housemate Francisco would join in, saying he loved a woman who could handle her alcohol. I’d throw my head back and laugh at this, shake my hips and head to the old record turning in the corner. Drink raised over my head, I’d let the rhythm take me and begin to dance. Hell, I’d always liked to have a good time, and if Parker didn’t mind, why should I?  Then the phone call came and suddenly I wasn’t so sure. 

After I got the call about my mother I found Francisco in his bedroom. I knocked and stepped inside. He was lifting weights; the muscles in his arms looked like tennis balls rolling beneath skin. He replaced the curl bar, saw my face, and said, “Are you OK?”

“Come for a drive with me.” 

On the way out I grabbed a bottle of vodka from the freezer. Francisco raised his eyebrows at me. I tossed him the keys and said, “What? You’re driving.” 

I explained to Francisco about my mother. I also told him how she raised me in a small mill town in Illinois, where she stripped at a club during the night and waited tables at a diner on weekends. I told him, “She’s a drunk. I haven’t seen her in years. And now I wonder if that’s what my boy thinks of me.”
    
“Your mother was a stripper?”

“It’s not as glamorous as you might think.”

I had met Francisco the year before when he came into the bar, depressed after a breakup with a local boy, but pleased he’d dropped out of his college up North, the same one my boy attended. He was young, only twenty-two, and helped me pretend I too was still in my twenties. So, I told him he could crash at the house, that the company would be welcomed. A stranger wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever let into my life.

He was much too pretty for the bar, the town, and that’s how I first noticed him sitting in booth nine. He was a Latino boy with skin the color of almonds, liquid smooth, with these huge eyes so dark they almost looked like someone had taken them out and painted them black, then returned them. Though he liked men and was too young for me, I knew men and boys and women and girls all found him sexy. As I watched his confidence in his looks and movements, I wondered if my own son had turned into this sort of man. He and Ian were both gay, and sometimes I’d squint and imagine they were the same person. After my shifts I usually came back to the house and we would sit at the kitchen table with a drink, me listening as he handed me pieces of his story, many of which wouldn’t form an image of him until weeks, months later, as though he had given me the edges of a jigsaw puzzle, and then, piece by piece, the inside.

In the car, I continued talking about my mother. 

“It’s been years since I’ve seen her. I don’t really remember how long, exactly.” 

“Goddamn, that’s rough. If you want, I’ll drive with you out there so you can see her. Or bring her back here.”

“You’d do that?”

“Of course. She’s your madre.”

“Francisco,” I said, touching the back of his head. I swished the liquid in my glass and when the liquid stilled I could almost see myself there, reflected in the drink. 

Before he tried his hand at college for a few months, Francisco had lived in Southern California, and then Southern Arizona and New Mexico, where for a year he lived with and loved a boy who swallowed and hustled balloons of cocaine over the border. When I asked how he could love someone who did something so dangerous, he flailed his arms about like a preacher and laughed, said the boy had been his first and that he thought he could change him.

“The thing is, she never did anything for anyone but herself and her men,” I continued. I laughed to myself, and it reminded me of Francisco’s laugh. “It’s just funny, that’s all. It’s always the person that doesn’t care that you end up having to care for.”

I stared out the window. My son was off with his father, and was probably thinking his own mother had never done a thing for him. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and pictured my mother when she was young, and pretty. Right then I wanted to tell Francisco to turn the car around, that I needed to dial Ian and beg him to come home. “Ian,” I would say, “I’ll throw out all the booze. For you, I’ll do it, and all I want is for you to come to me. Will you go with me to the hospital?” But there was the chance he’d say something in that sarcastic tone he’d developed, and I couldn’t handle that.

Even though my vision was blurred from alcohol, that evening I drove out to Parker’s. I knocked on his door and simply said, “My mother, she’s dying.” I sat on the porch and watched him flip veggie burgers on the charcoal grill. He handed me a paper plate, bun, and burger. I placed the plate on the porch and pulled my lighter and cigarettes from my purse. I lit one. 

Parker Stevens drove for the local gypsum mine. He was a bear of a man, gruff spoken, chain-smoker, the sort you’d think had been born into his flannel. He wore his yellow hair in a ponytail that hung down his back like a fat banana and was so big he seemed always to be in the periphery of your vision. 

He had only said one thing about his ex leaving the entire time I’d known him. This was several weeks after we had started sleeping together. We were cuddling on his sofa, him sipping a beer—he slowed down on his drinking when his wife Diane walked out and left him to raise his son alone—and I was working on a pint of Red Eyes and orange juice. He leaned forward to the coffee table and mixed me another screwdriver, handed it to me. “My ex, Diane, she nearly took it all out of me. After she left, I thought I would die.” He took my hand.

“And now?”

He smiled. “Now I think I should kiss you and shut up before I become too sentimental.”

I laughed. “Too late for that.”

Often he stopped in and sat at the bar when I was working. He said he liked to see me in motion, that I was the best damned bartender he’d seen here in a long time. I had a trick I liked doing for my favorites: when four or so guys asked for a beer that wasn’t on tap, I’d clutch the beers to my chest with one arm and, in one quick motion, I’d snap the caps off all four with my free hand. Everyone would cheer and tip well. 

Now he was studying me.

“You shouldn’t have drove.”

“I made it, didn’t I?”

“I have bottles under the kitchen sink.” He returned a moment later, unscrewing the cap. “Do you want to talk?”

“Let me sit for a minute, OK?”

Parker handed me the water bottle. “Here, drink.”

“OK, a couple sips.”

For as long as I can remember, my mother always had a man: masculine men who wore Carhardts and sturdy work-boots, local men from the mill who took her out dancing and then back to her bed. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with these men watching as my mother practiced her dance moves, how she would call out to me to flip the record on the hi-fi. Her favorite to dance to was “Honky Tonk Woman.” She would dance to that boisterous song with a kind of energy I never saw when she wasn’t dancing. Singing along with the song, she would place a foot up on a chair and lean back, shaking her long hair and breasts. I grew to hate those songs. Other nights, after her shower, she would come into my room and lull me to sleep with the sound of her voice singing songs of love and hope as she lay curled beside me. 

By the time I turned fifteen she’d burned through three marriages, each of which concluded in a map of blue-green bruises. When I left at seventeen, she’d stood in the trailer doorway smoking, always, by then the friend and never the mother, and told me, “I’ve taught you all you need to know, Yolanda. Now don’t repeat my mistakes.” After that I would see her every few years, but not at all in the last seven or eight. When she wrote letters I would send short responses, claiming I was still on my first marriage, that Ian still lived with me. 

Parker went to the grill. “Burgers are almost done.” He crossed his arms. “Have you called your son?”
  
“No.”

“I think you should.”

I stood up and smiled at him, ran my hand along his big arm. I told him to hold on, went inside to the freezer and poured a drink from the bottle I kept there. I added a wedge of lemon I found in the bottom of the crisper. 

I told Parker the story using as few words as I could. He hovered, waiting to embrace me and brush away my tears. Finally, when I didn’t cry, he sat in the lawn chair next to me.

“Damn, girl.”

My mother used to call but came to be embarrassed by the sound of her own voice. It used to be an angel’s voice, really, but then it changed, became a growl. She took up writing letters. I had ideas of her, of who she’d been and of how she viewed motherhood. It had been so long since my own childhood that memories became twisted by my anger. I could take the most intimate memory of my childhood and warp it into something else I could blame my mother for. 

It was muggy out, about six o’clock. The sun was a warm, rich orange and beginning to set. I could hear the television coming from the living room, Parker’s ten-year-old son, David, glued to whatever was on. The boy had came onto the porch a moment before, stared at me and said, “You can watch TV with me. Anything you want.”

I smiled. “Sure, later.”

“My mom never watched TV with me, but Dad always does.” David turned his attention to his father. “I’m still hungry, Dad.”

“Sit tight and I’ll grill up another burger for you, buddy.”

“OK.” David glanced at me. “Later?”

“Absolutely. Just let me finish talking to your dad first.”

David smiled, returned to the house. I had forgotten how to be with kids. I wondered if this happened to everyone, or if I was missing something that remained with you, naturally. 

“Hey,” Parker said to me, “you need to see her before it’s too late,” 

“I’m not going back there, I’m not burying her. When I left, I swore I’d never go back.”

“She’s your mother.” Parker’s eyes were soft, wanting to hold me. He opened the grill and examined the fake meat, then closed it.

“I’ll be selfish this once.” I stared into the glass and was surprised to find only ice remained.

He leaned down and kissed me on my forehead. He returned to the grill and flipped the burgers a few more times, then called into the house for his son to come out and eat. “Actually,” I said. “Why don’t I take it to him? I bet he saved me a spot next to him, right in front of the TV.” We both laughed and agreed it was probably true, that he knew the best seat in the house. I rubbed my hand in small circles across Parker’s back and watched as he prepared his son’s plate, how he squirted the mustard so that it resembled a smiley face.

That night, Parker and I made love. The window remained open, letting cool country air kiss our bare bodies. No man had ever made love to me the way he did, with tenderness. Sure, my exes had been good, but their over-confidence annoyed me. Full of themselves, really. Trying too hard to get you off with them that you end up losing it. And that night he stayed over me afterwards, the moon purple across the side of his face. We stared at each other, his hands to my cheeks while I touched the silkiness of his ponytail, wondering if this was what it was like to be truly loved by a man. Afterwards, we lay listening to our own slowing breaths and heartbeats, and the rhythm of crickets. 

“Yolanda,” Parker gasped, his body still tight and trying to recover, “all I can do is think about us. About tomorrow, the day after that.”

I lay staring at the bedroom door, not speaking, barely breathing. I reached for the bottle of vodka and poured a couple fingers into a glass. I sat up and drank it down. It was warm in my throat. Back at the house, I had just a little left. I wondered if I could avoid the liquor store, if I could make this my last drink and make the drive to the woman I wanted to forget. If I pushed all the anger from my head, I knew it was what needed to happen. Forgiving her was impossible, but perhaps I could, needed, to let go of some of the hate. Making the drive would be a good start. 

“Hell, if I ever thought I’d feel this way about a woman again. Not after the separation I went through. But here I am.” He leaned onto his elbow and touched my hair.

“Put the alcohol away, and let’s have a serious conversation about us.”

Still I said nothing.

“So, that’s it? You don’t have anything at all to say?”

I leaned towards the nightstand and groped through the dark, grasping until I found a pack of cigarettes and my lighter. I handed him one, lit both, and took a long drag.

“Parker, can’t we just leave it at this? I think this is enough. I’ve got too much else to think about right now.”

“Let me help you through it.”

“Can you make my mother not die?” I ran my hands through my hair, picked up my cigarette and took another drag. “I’m stopping with the alcohol. I had my last drink tonight. Between that and my mother, I just can’t handle anything else.”

“I want to be there for you.”

“Francisco will help me. He’ll do whatever he can. Can you understand? When it’s over,
we’ll have a real conversation.”

“I want to look out for you.”

“Well, right now I need distance. I’m figuring it out little by little. And everything you and David went through with your ex, you don’t need this. Me being so flaky, I mean.”

“And still I’m willing to do it again.” He pulled on his briefs and stood at the window smoking. 

“I don’t want your help. That’s what my mother would do. Take from a man. And it made her nothing but weak. I can’t do that, not anymore.”

After a moment he slapped his palm against the wall, then again, each time the shockwaves making me flinch. 

“You’ll wake your son.” Already I was dressed, yanking my fingers through my hair. At the door, I lingered to stare at his bulk in the moonlit window. “If you want, tomorrow after work we’ll get pizza. David can play arcade games. It’ll be nice, and that’s all I can do now.”

“Will you go to Illinois?”

I had made up my mind, decided that even though my mother would never make the trip for me, I didn’t want to be that way. I had been selfish with my own son, something I could maybe fix one day, rather than ending up old and alone like her. But I knew I could be better now and needed to do what she would never do.

“I work tomorrow, so I’ll go the next day. I need to at least see her.” I slung my purse over my arm and left, lunging into the night that had grown colder now. The chill entered my chest, sharpened my senses, reminding me of the warmth I had just left.

I considered ending it with Parker, trying my hand at being single. That’s certainly something my mother had never considered. But he had a rolling laugh and knew what a broken heart was, so I decided to stick to the plan and keep him at arm’s length. I remembered our first date, when he talked about Native American religions. His understanding was pretty simple at best, but he seemed devoted to it. He’d said, “Everything is linked, you can’t tear a leaf from a tree without it someday coming back to you.” When I told Francisco that—after I’d humored Parker, cut out meats and let my red hair grow long, and was really starting to believe it myself—he told me what Parker believed was called “Chaos Theory,” and that it had nothing to do with spirituality. But here I was, thinking about a woman I’d believed I wanted to forget.

After my shift I met Parker at a little place called Fun Zone. They had pizza with the type of cheese that stretched and got on your chin, which David loved. He wiped his mouth on a napkin and said, “Can I have some quarters for the machines?”

“Sure, buddy,” Parker said.

“I’ve got it.” I put my hand over Parker’s. I rummaged in my purse and pulled out a five. “There’s a change machine. Spend the whole five, if you want.”

“OK, thanks.” David went across the room where they kept the machines.

“David is so easy to entertain, just like Ian at his age.” I watched David, who had already found another boy. “Glad he’s here.”

“He’s a good boy.”

“You hear from Diane yet?” Parker had been trying to get ahold of David’s mother; after two years he’d decided he would try to get real custody, would try to get some support. He said he wanted to get going on a college fund for him.

He sipped his iced tea and stared over at his son for a long time. “Nope.”

“I don’t know how people do it. Want something, then get it, then not want it anymore.”

“What do you want?”

“What do I want? Not sure there’s a point to that question. I’d just ruin it.”

“Damn, talk about pessimistic.” He put his arm around me, his muscles hard against my shoulder. “I want this, me and you, that boy, friends, good food. Hell, I want the good with the bad.”

“Maybe you have your head on straight. Maybe you know what you want.” I stared down at my hands in my lap.

“Well, hell, I’m fifty years old, I ought to know, right? And you ain’t getting any younger.”

I glared at him.

“Ah, hell.” He squeezed my shoulder. “You know what I mean. We like each other, yeah? There’s room in the house, you know. Got plenty of land, plenty of room.”

“Yes you do.”

“What do you say? I want you in that house with me.”

When I didn’t answer he rose from the table. “Suit yourself, Yolanda.” He walked toward David, stood behind him with his hands on David’s shoulders. For his tenth birthday I had taken Ian to a knockoff version of Chucky Cheese. A neighbor boy and his twin sister tagged along. At first, Ian straggled behind as the two kids ran around the place, inserting tokens into noisy machines. Then I noticed how the boy tired of his sister and yanked Ian to different machines, the boy punching Ian in the arm each time he got a string of tickets, both of them ignoring the sister. Ian smiled and fidgeted with his hands each time the boy touched him or even glanced his way. That evening Ian rode up front with me and the neighbor kids slept in the back. I drove with one hand, and with the other stroked and combed the back of Ian’s dirty blond hair.

I turned my head away from Parker and his son.

When I got up the next morning I found Francisco in the kitchen preparing breakfast. I planted myself at the table, sipping and hating the taste of orange juice without liquor. It had no kick. The glass shook in my hand. The house was noisy, or so it seemed as it hammered my head: the crack of eggs followed by a hiss as Francisco poured egg yolk and milk into a skillet, the churn and clank of the ice-maker filling his glass, the Joan Baez record that turned in the living room. I thought of that bit of vodka sitting calmly in the fridge, waiting for me to pounce. What would be the harm? Just a couple drinks to get me to Illinois. I could stop the next day. Instead, I just smoked and watched Francisco cook.

He asked if I wanted shredded cheese on the eggs, but I couldn’t concentrate enough to answer. I kept imagining how beautiful my mother had been, how men lusted for her when she danced. Then I could see her in the hospital, struggling to breathe. I thought of Ian and his hair, how it was thick as a mane. I wondered if he had a boy in his life. How old was he now? Nineteen. No, twenty. I watched Francisco and the sway of his hips to the beat, the way his wrist daintily twisted as he scrambled the eggs. He reminded me of Ian so much. Early sunlight broke through the venetian blinds and glimmered on the metal appliances. A long gulp and I was rid of the juice.

The image of my mother in that hospital, frightened as a child, kept sneaking into my head. I could see her in front of me, as though my kitchen had transformed into the hospital room. I saw the tubes running from her wrists. The oxygen mask clamped to her mouth and nose. The ventilator standing next to her. Like something from a sci-fi movie. A woman sunken in a bed, empty chairs at her bedside. Was there a roommate? The roommate probably had a wall of get-well-soon cards tacked up to the wall, sons and daughters and lovers visiting each hour. I hoped she was out of it, that she didn’t notice any of this.

More than anything I wanted to pick up the phone and call Ian, but I had no right to burden him with my problems. And I knew that when I heard his voice, an adult voice that was unfamiliar, I would feel like a shell of a woman.

“I said, do you want cheese?” Francisco repeated.

“What? Oh, no thanks.” Just the thought of cheese, or of any food, made me want to run to the toilet. “What time did you come in last night? I didn’t hear.”

“About midnight.” His face turned conspiratorial. “I drove up to Bloomington, met a very cute boy, or so I thought.” He placed one hand on his narrow hip, the other absently stirring the eggs. “So, there I am laying in his bed, arms behind my head, naked and waiting while he disappears into another room. Then all a sudden I hear this clicking noise. So guess what?”

I shrugged. “Tell me.”

“He walks back into the room totally naked except a pair of red stilettos!” Laughing, he waved the spatula at me. “I told Dorothy and her little red slippers goodbye and got the hell out of there.”

“Oh, Francisco,” I laughed.

“Parker called a bit ago.”

“What’d he want?”

“See how you were doing.”

“How am I doing?”

Francisco didn’t answer. He scraped egg onto our plates, salting and peppering both.

“So, how was your date? I mean, how was it hanging out with Parker and the kid?”

“Nice. Not all of us hate kids, Francisco.”

“I don’t hate them, I just prefer the company of those over eighteen.”

“Wonder why,” I said, laughing. “His son is strange to me. Ian was a quiet boy, like David, but in a different way. I knew he was gay when he was nine.”

“Wish someone had told me I was at nine.”

“He used to beg to wear my heels. Loved walking on the linoleum. I guess it was the noise they made.”

“When was the last time you two spoke?”

“Couple months ago. He seems busy with school.”

Francisco nodded. I think he could tell I wasn’t up to talking about it.

“Will you be ready to leave soon?” I asked. “We should get on the road.”

“Let me put the dishes away, then shower. Give me an hour.”

“You don’t work?”

“Took the day off.”

Still trying to distance myself from that freezer, I decided to keep busy with some housework, always something to do. I was cleaning the kitchen tile when the phone rang. For a moment, I remained kneeling near the sink, soapy scrub brush clinched in my hand. When the ringing continued, I wiped my hands on my jeans and went to the kitchen.

My mother had passed.

“How long ago?” I asked.

“About thirty minutes. She went peacefully in her sleep.”

I sank into a kitchen chair, my hands reaching for my cigarettes and lighter, then stopping.

“I don’t have the money. To bury her, I mean. She was living with a man before, I think.”

“You were the only person she listed. She never had visitors.”

“I don’t know what to do.” I flicked some tears from my eyes, sniffed.

“Arrangements can be made. There are people who can walk you through this—”

“There are?” I paused. “What was she like?"

“Excuse me?”

“Her appearance, I mean.”

“She was very sick.” There was hesitation. “Sadly, she was down to about ninety pounds. She had little appetite. Another day and we would have been forced to insert a feeding tube.”

“Ninety pounds,” I said. I imagined a concentration camp survivor or the corpse-like men with AIDS you used to see on TV. “I’ve never had to bury anyone.”

“There is also cremation, ma’am. And there will be the shipping, and the funeral service, if you chose to have one. I can give you some numbers to call.”

“She wouldn’t want to be burned. She’d want to be buried in the plot next to her parents.”

The woman’s questions continued to bleed through the phone. My responses were just more questions, and she must have thought I acted like a child. I promised to call right back and hung up. I sat at the table and just watched the rising sun through the venetian blinds.

I lit a cigarette and stared at the refrigerator, wondering exactly how much was left in that bottle of vodka. I had gone to the grocery three days before, a Monday, and had purchased a quart of Red Eyes, plus a half gallon of orange juice. I opened the freezer and saw there was maybe enough for three shots. There was nothing worse than having a few drinks when you really wanted that ninth or tenth, when it would be just enough.

Francisco entered the kitchen just as I was finishing the last of the booze. “Yolanda, what happened?”

“She’s dead.” I slid the empty bottle across the table. “Drive me into town.”

We got into the car, and I closed my eyes. “Talk, so I don’t have to. Tell me about work.”

Francisco had taken a job he hated, as a short-order cook at the local Mexican restaurant. Loogootee was a patchwork of run-down businesses, which Francisco navigated with one hand, his other moving about as he spoke.

“It’s fucking degrading.” Francisco’s hands lifted from his lap, cutting the air. “I’ve been in the States for years, but I’m working in that place, making food for white people who think I’m a spic who can’t speak a word of English.”

“It’s a job, Francisco, which don’t come easy. And it’s money.”

“Yeah, I don’t have anyone to spend it on, so there’s no point.”

“Turn on the radio, you’re getting me even more down.”

“You asked about my job.” He flipped the radio on, but continued, “The other day these kids were in there, I know one of them called me a ‘wetback’ when I turned my back to him. Funny thing is, I know more about American History and have a better grasp of English than him or any of his redneck buddies.”

When he found the classic rock station he began to hum along. I knew that one day he would meet a man or finally decide he did want to finish college. He would leave. I wondered what it would be like living alone again. I loved Francisco, but I knew it was something different, why I needed him around. He was easy, didn’t require the courage that I needed with Ian. Francisco took me as I came. But that was becoming too simple.

At the liquor store I sat three quarts of vodka on the counter. The cashier widened his eyes. “A party, Yolanda?”

“Wouldn’t call it that.” I swiped my credit card.

“Need some orange juice?”

“No, just the vodka and a carton of Menthols.”

I thought about the men in my mother’s life. The one that remained vivid in my memory was a clean, well-manicured man named Thomas. He managed the diner where my mother worked during weekends. I remember he wore short-sleeve button-ups tucked into ironed slacks. Once when we stayed the night at his tiny house, he showed me how to steam iron. He filled the cream and black iron with water and while the water warmed, he unfolded the padded ironing board and set it up in the center of the kitchen. He took one of his button-ups and spread it out on the table and said, “First, iron the back of the collar, that way the collar won’t show wrinkles on the top part that shows.” His hands were tiny. I thought the bones must have been as brittle and fine as those of a bird. I was about ten at the time and stood at his side, in awe because my own mother simply walked across the street from our trailer park and dumped all the clothes into the washer, inserted a couple quarters, and read magazines as the giant machine swished and spun. He continued his instruction, saying, “Iron the left front, the back, and then the right front. Then hang it up.”

Several weeks later I listened in disbelief from my bed as that man struck my mother and threw her against the walls of the living room. The owner of the diner had accused him of swiping money one night after closing, had threatened to phone the authorities. The next morning both my mother’s eyes were blacked, and she told me we would not be going to Thomas’s anymore. And that was that.

___

Francisco had passed, and I went outside to the car, carrying a bottle. I rested the bottle between my legs. Car in reverse, I pressed the gas and went rolling down the drive. The road into town and to Parker’s was mostly empty, so I wasn’t afraid. I had some things I wanted to say to him. It was nighttime and the air felt good. The trees around the house were gradually shaking their arms of their brown and orange coats, and I was thinking about what Parker had said about the leaf, and about all the change that would be coming my way.

Parker answered after the fifth knock, his hair hanging loose from its ponytail. “What are you doing? It’s two in the morning.”

“I didn’t want to be alone,” I said. “Francisco passed out.”

“You’re drunk.” He looked past me at the car. I followed his gaze, saw the headlights were still on.

“Don’t worry about the car.” I touched his arm. “Let me in.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, David is sleeping.” He stepped onto the porch, closing the door behind him. “I’ll drive you home. You can get the car in the morning.”

“She’s dead.”

“Oh, hell.” He took me in his arms. “I’m so sorry.”

“I fucking waited too long.”

“Shh, don’t think about it, girl. It’s cold out, we should go back inside and sleep, or get you back to your place.”

“I didn’t come here to sleep.” I kissed him. “Take me to bed.”

“You don’t need that, you need sleep.”

“You keep telling me what I need.” Suddenly I wanted another drink, but realized I had left the alcohol in the car. “Need my bottle.”

When I turned, he grabbed my arm, pulled me to him. “No more.”

“Showing your true colors?” I said, just for the hell of it.

He let go. “Goddamn it. I don’t get you.”

“I want fucked. I want another drink. Yeah, that sounds good.”

“Yolanda, please, let me get you some help or—”

“Oh, yes.” I slapped my forehead. “Help. I’m leaving because this is boring.”

I heard a small voice coming from the house, just beyond the screen door. I could barely make out David’s pajamas. “Dad, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, son, just go back to bed.” Parker leaned his hands on the porch rail. He was shaking. “Everything’s fine.”

“Yolanda?” David asked, stepping barefoot onto the porch. “Are you staying the night?”

“No, sweetie, I was just leaving.” I took a few steps across the porch toward the steps, then my feet tangled beneath me and I fell to my knees.

“Yolanda…” Parker reached to help me up.

I felt arms on both sides of me and shook them off, lurching to my feet with as much balance as I could muster. “Don’t touch me!” The porch was spinning around me and I stumbled backward, hitting something.

Then I heard crying.

David was on his back, near me, holding his elbow which had been scraped bloody in the fall. I glanced from him to Parker, then back to the crying child. I’d knocked him to the ground.

“I didn’t mean—”

“Don’t,” Parker said. “Just don’t.” He kneeled over his son, whispering to him and touching the elbow.

And then I was running back to the car, crying, locking myself in before he could stop me. I expected him to be there, beating on the window. But he was still on the porch, holding David now, carrying him into the house. I put the car in drive, made a turn and sped down the driveway. I don’t remember the actual drive. Next thing I knew, there I was, pulling into the drive at my house. I shut off the engine, gripped the door and pulled myself from the seat. I laughed and staggered toward the house, my limbs numb. Then I remembered the bottle, sitting in the floorboard. I returned to the car and grabbed the booze and took a big swig. It tasted good. My legs trembled, threatened to give out. A few feet from the car, I again stumbled to my knees, the vodka sloshing from the bottle, then the bottle slipping to the pavement, shattering.

___

Later, I woke Francisco, and told him what happened at Parker’s, how I’d hurt his son. Francisco led me to my bedroom, cradling three bottles of water in his arms that he insisted I immediately drink. We crawled into my queen bed and stacked up the gray pillows until they were a fluffy mountain, microwaved popcorn and half-heartedly watched a Lifetime movie. This wasn’t the first time we had done this. Nights when Francisco couldn’t find a hookup, we would get as intimate as a woman and gay man can. Many times before I had told him of my first kiss, men I had loved and then soon after hated, and others I had loved for years.

I was in shorts and a baggy T-shirt, Francisco in pajama pants and no shirt. We smoked and flicked the ash in the ashtray that rested on his chest. I knew bits and pieces of his life, and when added together, I felt I understood him well enough. There were parts missing—he had never spoken of his parents, nor of his home—but I was getting the idea.

“I was born in a village on the border, near Nogales. Just a bunch of shacks really, where kids run free like chickens. You can piss in the streets if you want, no one cares.” He rested an arm behind his head and let the cigarette dangle from a corner of his mouth. “I left and wound up in San Francisco. There was this guy, my neighbor in this rundown apartment building. He’s the one I lost it to. I was eighteen.” He laughed. “I still can’t believe it took me that long.”

“What happened to him?” I asked. I couldn’t recall whether he’d told me this before.

“I don’t know. We were together for almost two years and then, well, it did what relationships do— it got worse and worse until we couldn’t stand each other. Then I left.”

He was so stoic, and the light so dim, I could have easily missed the tear that brimmed and spilled from the corner of his eye, streaking down his skin and into the cup of his ear.

“Francisco,” I whispered and took his hand in mine, wiped the wetness with my other hand. “I just wonder who he,” and I paused, trying to form my thought, “you know, tells this to. When it doesn’t work with a boy, who does Ian tell?”

“I don’t know,” Francisco said softly.

I didn’t say anything more about Ian or Parker, what I’d done to them. I just studied Francisco’s profile as he stared at the muted T.V. I took the ashtray with the smoldering cigarette from his chest and placed it on the bedside table nearest me. I rested my head on his chest. There was more to say, but I didn’t know what, or how, and so I just stayed there.

“Would it help if you held me,” he asked.

So I did.

Moments later Francisco started to drift off, his head of dark curls turning to the right. “Francisco,” I said, shaking him awake. “I need a warm bath, but I don’t want to be alone.”

I sat on the edge of the bathtub and stared at myself in the floor-length mirror.  My make-up was gone, eyes puffy, my face scratched up. I could feel time and what comes with it creeping around my body, like a woman locked out of her home. What was I doing? I forced myself to think of Ian and Parker, but mostly Ian. When he was a boy he had loved me more than anything on Earth, would beg me to put on a dress and lipstick. And I would. I’d step from the bedroom and twirl, liking the way he clapped and said, “Oh.” He would place both of his hands on my face and say, “You’re beautiful.” He loved me still, though now what he had to say was much different.

Francisco was standing in the bathroom doorway. “You look like hell.”

“Wow, thanks. As though I don’t feel bad enough.”

“Want me to get some bath salts? Take a long, hot bath. That’s what my mother used to do when she was tired. Not that we had bath salts.”

“Yeah, that’d be good.”

Francisco rummaged through the cabinet and grabbed the salts. He motioned for me to stand, “Sit over on the toilet, let me run the water.”

I rose and went to the toilet. The seat was cold against my flesh. Francisco ran the water, putting his hand beneath it to test the warmth. He waited, then did it again.

“Don’t get it too warm,” I said. “Just so-so.”

“OK, I think it’s good.”

“You know,” I said, lifting my shirt over my head. “Ian was good at taking care of me.”

“He loves you.”

“And you?”

“Yes.” Francisco pushed my hair behind my ears. “Very much. Now get in.”

“You’re good, Francisco.” I got into the tub, sighed. “Feels great. Last time I saw Ian, he made me breakfast in bed. He had such a gentle look on his face, he looked so young, but so mature at the same time. I don’t know how that’s possible. That was five years ago.”

“A long time.” Francisco sat on the toilet.

“A long time.” I stared at him. “You remind me of him.”

“We look nothing alike.” Francisco laughed. “Not at all.”

“In other ways. I haven’t been a good mother. Oh, in the beginning, maybe I was, not that I can even remember that far back. I think he was happy, honestly. I was the good-looking mom with the handsome boy. Everyone said so. My mother never said ‘I love you’ or anything like that. Once, I asked her, I said ‘Mom, you never say you love me.’ And you know what she said? She looked at me, kind of shocked, I guess, and said ‘Yolanda, I always thought you assumed.’ Francisco, kids don’t assume such goddamn things, that’s ridiculous. So, when Ian was a little baby, I decided I wouldn’t be like that. Every time he left for school, I’d walk him out to the bus stop and say ‘I love you.’ Always.”

Francisco nodded.

“That other bottle in the freezer?”

“Yolanda…”

“Bring it to me.” When he hesitated I pursed my lips. “Do it.”

Francisco returned with the bottle, shaking his head. He leaned against the sink with his arms crossed but didn’t speak. I sat up in the tub, unscrewed the bottle. I raised it to my mouth, then my nose, and took a sniff. It was cold and smelled good. The bottle stung my wet hand. It felt heavy. I leaned over, tilted the bottle into the toilet. It hit the water with a splash. I sat the empty bottle on the floor and leaned back in the tub. I took a deep breath, submerged myself beneath the warm water. I kept my eyes open and tried to bring the room above me, Francisco, into focus.

But this is hard. Now my eyes are closed and I find I’m not in the room. I’m hearing my mother sing, next to me in bed. I feel my mother’s hand on my head, my hair sliding through her fingers as she sings to me. I’m with Ian, too, and though I can’t make out what we say, I can tell he isn’t angry, and this is a relief. He’s taller, his body filled out.  I know I can linger here, for a bit. I will stay here, lost in the moment.

 

 


 

 

Justin Carmickle is a first year doctoral student in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi.  Formerly an editor at Blackbird and The Conium Review, his fiction has received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s New Writers Award and appears or is forthcoming in Louisiana Literature, Jonathan, Midwestern Gothic, Rappahannock Review, and Mary: A Journal of New Writing.