My husband Jack worked at the steel mill. The smell of diesel and sweat followed him home every afternoon like I once did, three years ago. He tucked his hands deep in his pockets the first time I saw him, so that I wouldn’t see the black half moons that wove under his fingernails.
Ashamed, he told me later.
Of what, I murmured into the back of his neck, taking in the smell of Farfield from his skin: Go-Jo soap, gasoline, and the mill. I grew up in Farfield. I visited the mill for the first time when I was seven and helped my dad scrub the grease out of his ragged hair when I was even younger. Blackness was a part of every man’s life in this town, much like the sins that transpired most nights, after the lights shut down, when I was curled into bed and my father was curled around another woman behind the shadowed trees of Foster’s Park.
Later, Jack told me that he scrubbed his hands raw that night. I can see him standing there, hands clasped around his small sink, feeling exhausted and ashamed in his apartment filled with books. He had rows and rows of them, like a tenuous second skin.
♦ ♦ ♦
The first time I stepped foot inside his house—our hands wound together, his sweat trapped between our palms—my eyes fixed on a tiny rip in the hem of my dress.
He kissed me.
He laughed too, the feel of his breath on my neck and the tiny clicks my fingers made the only sound as they slid down the spines.
I love his laugh. His mouth twitches up and his eyes drop down to meet mine and his whole body shakes. Sometimes I picture him laughing at the mill, shaking with such intensity that one day, when the power line above his head broke and sparks began to fly, the snake-like wire was drawn to him, dancing to the sound of his laughter. But then I picture him afterwards, like a broken wind-up doll, laughing and laughing on the ground, while everyone else at the mill stood in a circle and watched as the smell of diesel and depression overtook them once more.
♦ ♦ ♦
One month and then Jack was out of the hospital. Pressed against him, I could smell lavender soap and dead flowers. We walked slowly from the car to the front door of our apartment, his hand weighing down my shoulder. I’d gotten off early from my shift that day and bought one of those cold metal canes for him. That and some sunglasses.
He tried them on, and then he gently set the glasses beside him and frowned, his lips pressed together as he thought.
“Let’s get out of here, Gale. Just let go.” His lips were, thin, pretty, and so very close to the white foggy eyes that wouldn’t stop staring at me no matter how quiet I was.
♦ ♦ ♦
Back in our bedroom, I leaned in, arms resting on his legs, to kiss him. But then he looped his arms around my back, and said, “You’re beautiful,” his voice deep and rough, like the red earth that ran in cracked waves outside of Farfield.
“You can’t tell,” I replied, closing my eyes and running a finger from the corner of his eye and down his cheek.
His hands shook when he settled his fingers, like birds perched on a wire, on my face. They travelled slowly; criss-crossing over my skin, showing me that the face he saw in his mind was still there, imprinted on his fingertips. Up and down they went, tracing the outline of my lips and my nose like paintbrushes until finally his fingertips rested on my closed eyelids. We both sat there like that, darkness seen by darkness, for a long time. It was as if he was trying to carve out something that was lost, while I was still right there.
“I want to go.” His glassy eyes stared past my shoulder.
“I could read a book to you. Tell me which one you want and I’ll get it for you.” I stepped away from him and went to the wall of books across the room. “John said he’d drop those checks by.” I looked at his clean hands and then added. “They all miss you.”
“Gale.” He got up without his cane and stepped towards me, dust from his books rising into the air from the sudden jerk of my hand.
“Do you remember our first date?” I said.
“We should go find a house somewhere in Denton,” he said.
“You hid your hands.”
“I could find a job there, Gale.”
“Why were you ashamed?”
“There’s nothing keeping us here. You understand that, right? Nothing.”
“It was just dirt. You didn’t need to hide it.”
“Please put your glasses on. I can’t think.”
His fingers wrapped around the black glasses and he set them down. His eyes closed, the wrinkles on his face deepened, elongated.
After a while I stepped out of the bedroom, leaving him there with his glasses and his darkness.
I sat in one room of the apartment, my back pressed hard against the sofa, while Jack sat in the other, both of us counting moments by the clicks of the fan. Jack was waiting for me, waiting for some small sound, so I got up. But he couldn’t hear me, because the mill’s horn, signaling lunch, blew long and hard through the very walls of our house.
Mckenzie Hightower is a senior at the University of Notre Dame. She recently attended the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop and the New York State Summer Writers Institute this past July. Works from her unpublished short story collection, “We All Walk Away, But We Do Not Leave” have appeared in Bull Magazine: Men’s Fiction and are forthcoming in 30N. She has just accepted a Fulbright Student Fellowship and will be teaching English and creative writing in Poland for the next year.