The raccoon’s eyes were boring through my head, even after my tires had defeated him. Not again—why was it the raccoons? I dragged on my wilting cigarette. I kicked him good night, and slammed my car door to begin the journey to my lodgings. I didn’t know where I was, but I longed for my bed.
I submitted to tunes of the past. Morrissey led to Bowie so I wept, which took me up I-95 and let the eyelids drop as I creaked the grey Chevy into the garage. My neighbor who doesn’t sleep or perhaps doesn’t exist—or can’t, I don’t know—is rocking without melody on her porch chair, on our shared porch.
“Evening, ma’am.” I coo and bow my head, nearly tripping as my boot catches on the nails convulsing out of the wooden boards.
“You, you are always up, and it’s never to any good.” Her eyes didn’t move from an implacable stain in the distance. Tracing the projected line, I saw tree branches wave condescendingly. Ignorant to my nighttime design, they’d taunt me with their omniscience.
I crumpled up to the second floor apartment, wondering how my back twitched the same way I wondered how my hair turned gray, so goddamned early in life. Maybe it’s because the Lord meant it to be late in my life, even though I felt I was just beginning. I guess, I’d felt more like I was ending for quite a while. Maybe always. But always is a notch below forever, and the ideas were both meant to be executed, not contemplated, by humanity.
Shuffling up the creaky stairs, I stuck my keys in the latch and quenched my unholy desire to feign nonexistence.
“Oh, honey, we’re gonna have fun today! We’d better, ‘cause you promised me!” Gem’s eyelashes caress me awake, adorning my ears.
She emits the lingering scent of tobacco and maple syrup, the colors our Tennessee rays smoothed into her skin, her hair.
“Mmm, morning, sugar,” I mumble into her cheek, reaching for my own thin stick of cancer. “We’re going fishin’ today, right? I know I said we would this weekend. Marty lent me his map when we were exitin’ the docks yesterday, told me bout this real silent path. Soon, it’ll echo with you and me, just my little girl and myself.”
“Oooh, yes!” No matter how early it was, she knew how to squeak. “I’ll walk on down to the store to buy some cold cuts for the bread. Eddie, get showered, baby. You’re sweaty.”
Gem tossed off our white bed sheets, leapt up with that energy of hers, and molded into worn jeans. I couldn’t tire of those jiggling thighs. I heard her muffled “good morning” to Bess, surely still rocking out there.
Ash drooling from my mouth, I went to the bathroom. My frail figure felt heavier than usual. I didn’t have to do much for my boxers to shrug off of me, rejecting their role of clinging to my bones. In the shower, I ran my fingers over a rugged complexion, relentlessly freckled from the same star that made my beloved glow. I liked to think about those freckles, how I had earned those marks. When I got to work at the reservoir before the sun’s rising, I told its elevation to thank my affected pores for allotting it the task. My freckles granted the sun a purpose, that thing which many a man would ache for. On the boat with Marty, searching for bass and hoping for catfish, I’d detect my patches blooming, and I’d thank God for reminding me of loss, reminding me that I am mortal.
With each Tuesday shift’s conclusion, I’d commence my repayment in the form of worldly alms. I’d tell Marty go on ahead, grumble about going to piss, and sidle up to my poplar tree, Misty. Then I’d peel off a portion of her bark, and with it dig out a fingernail-sized mass of cells from the edge of my neck’s hairline, from under my feet, from my inner thighs. Sites Gem wouldn’t be keen on scrutinizing. At Misty’s base, I’d bury my oblation.
“Don’t think I ain’t grateful, Lord. I’m returnin’ to you, bit by bit, and don’t you think I forgot it.”
I bathed in joyful images of the day’s future. Gem, being busy at Leila’s, rarely made it over to Kentucky Lake, my reservoir, to witness its shiny waters go opaque. It was even better than the beginnings of the days, because this was a quiet that conquered. It had no predilections. We were the ones waiting on it.
Gem could take a break today. I don’t know how that woman doesn’t snap. Upon meeting eight years ago, I thought it might be what ushered a twenty-year-old lady through the restlessness of the age. I thought that sewing and stitching and mending those garments was assuaging her frantic brain. I was wrong. That was merely Gem. She was aware, satisfied like you’ve never seen. She reminded me that feeling alright doesn’t have to be a sin, and that the winnings we get warrant celebration.
After four months of consecrated pleasure, I escorted her down to Louisiana to ask her Granddad to marry us, him being a pastor and her last living relative. I don’t know who was boo-hooing most during the affair, out of those two. It was her divinity that shielded my ruinous heart eternally from the gun.
We got our gear into the truck and lunged north. Buchanan’s condensed, we could have walked. Seeing as there were those sandwiches and iced beers, and Gem was wearing this pretty blue skirt she had sewn herself just for the occasion, I deemed it proper to include the truck.
“Baby, you know I ain’t been down to Kentucky with you in almost two years?” Gem was vibrating, toying with my right hand beside me.
“I know it too well. We’re fixin’ that now, though, sugar.”
The desperation that lies in Saturday morning molecules, ripe in its insecurity, bristled my sideburns. Senses stuck out the window, the earth was reverberating around us.
“You know, I miss you the nights you get too drunk to drive home. I wish I could come to get you. You know I would if I had somebody’s car to be usin’. Miss Leila likes me at the shop promptly, anyhow, and I know that old woman won’t admit it for the life of her, but she needs me there. Especially after Ginger’s going back to her folks’, and all. But I want you to know I worry, baby. And I’m so glad to be going to this place that means nearly as much to you as I do, your lil’ old lady,” Gem squeezed me, effervescent.
A dream of fur squandered by gravel panged at my skull, intruding reality’s separateness. What’s love for a killer? A paradox, for there can be no murder without it.
“I know, Gem, I know that woman does, for the life of her. But Gem, Gem I come home to you every night. I know sometimes we’re both too damned weary to kiss each other prior to makin’ reverie’s acquaintance, but you know I’d never rest, I could never rest, without you.”
Gem knew how to be dramatic, and it upset me in spirit to hear her prattling like I didn’t care.
“Honey, at least one night a week I don’t see you. And you get such grim reception on that phone of yours I stopped botherin’ trying to call from our landline. Costs us better, anyway, but…”
“Gem,” I pierced into her words, something in me curling unpleasantly at the disconcerting accusations. “I come home to you. I know things could be better sometimes, but I’m beside you every evening! Why are you lookin’ to brand me with such distress? We’re ‘bout to be there anyway. Calm down, sugar.”
Fresh, sour Lake Kentucky air bowed before us.
“Eddie, you must be mad. You ain’t even showed up til’ five and a quarter this morning! I ain’t say nothin’, ‘cause it was Friday night and all, and I know you and Marty and Steve and them like to blow off your steam. Oh, I know you work hard, too, baby…”
Gem was really starting to bug me out, and I got this sticky feeling in my gut. I turned us into the lake and put the car in park, switched off the engine.
“Gem, I’m tellin’ you, I come home to you every night of the week, every single night, before it’s midnight, so we can’t go and call it morning, can we? It’s been a real strange year, we’re smack in the middle of the second decade of the second millennium since Jesus H. Christ Himself roamed the land, and you remember what I told you my pops used to say about twos, you recall about the demon that likes his doubles, don’t you? Three is God’s lie. Sweetheart, I know I been workin’ heaps these last few months, but this Saturday is for us, just us, just me and my girl! Let’s not write a whole drama, Gem, okay? Let’s go fish, let’s go give those suckers a run for their money. C’mon and get Marty’s map out now. We’ll see if that sonofabitch made good for something, for once, now won’t we, sugar?”
I exerted all my efforts into a forced smile but I think it came out twisted. Gem looked at me, contorted. I grabbed her face and smushed our lips close. She pulled back, being hunky-dory with me again, being the shine that our planet had relinquished. It was because of her, she had stolen it. Whatever she was on about, Gem would let up. She was patient with me. She needed this relaxation, too. We used to be experts at escaping together, and I craved her enlightenment’s restoration.
The gaps in time’s passing can be replenished, but their shadows will hurt when you least expect it, like they did on that peachy day.
“It’s June, ain’t you always say that June was best for the extra fat bass?” Gem was brushing off her skirt. I snatched our rods, the bait, and the cooler.
“Yes, ma’am! That’s my girl. It’s nearin’ noon now, plenty of time left to scoop up some dinner. We’ll follow the map to this dock and get to it.”
I pulled at her waist firmly, how she liked, and patted her bum. She was bouncing again, down the trail.
The dock glided into view, a bit mossy. Gem laid out her yellow blanket, tender from use. We were inhaling the lake, leaning against the wooden pegs at the brink of its surface. Kentucky Lake employed me, but it housed me, too. Home. It was vastly capacious. God could openly ridicule all of your puniness. He wouldn’t dare laugh at Gem, though. She was like Him. In their presence, I was cleansed, shrouded in authentic warmth.
“Oh, I love you, I adore you, Eddie! I love coming back here, knowing that it didn’t go and get too much different. The wind smells like your shirts do. I know why you feel like yourself here, I can see it on your brow. You’ll get another leopard scar today, on that spotty mug. The brightness is so much. Touch it!”
Gem, my nervous system, and I, her Ophelia.
“Like no other man has ever, I love, and it is all for you, Gem, the jewel of God that He has gifted me. If you should ever try to leave me, you could be confident to find me with the critters at the bottom of this lake. ‘Cept it wouldn’t be home, no more. I’d be in a Godless place.”
Gem started kissing me on my shoulders and collarbone, tipping up her toes to consume my face, as she did when she got flustered like this.
“Don’t talk like that, Eddie! You’re gonna lay me down me with your words. I ain’t goin’ nowhere. Lemme get us a beer, baby, before we eat some lunch. Then you can help me cast out that line. I got the fancy turkey, by the way! I was plannin’ to let you taste it and be surprised yourself, but I don’t wanna wait any longer to see your mood grow feathery!”
Before I could say anything soft and sweet, how she liked, her knees bent to the blanket, keeping her vow. Gray and red flashed across my mind, halting attention. Exquisite suffering, how I have pined for it! Can I drown, can I finally gulp hypoxia?
I hazed my eyes over the pool, feeling calm in my throat. I heard Gem fiddling with the cooler’s broken lid. Then I heard her make this awesome shriek.
“Eddie! What the hell is this?!”
I stopped, though, in the middle of spinning towards my baby and her yellow blanket. She was holding up a lifeless raccoon by his tail, soaked in bravery. The light gilded her extra then, I swear. She really was my angel. She was like God.
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