one : Rayelle
One of the twins has his mouth sewn shut. He drinks gin from a rocks glass through a skinny cocktail straw. His brother, beer from the tap. There are only four people in the bar and most of them are related—cousins, brothers, twins. Everyone, except me, and the bartender.
Behind the bar, a string of Christmas lights, multicolored and blinking, still hanging in June, above the top shelf of bottles. I watch the pattern, waiting for the regularity of a heartbeat, an even space between on and off, but it’s erratic. The door is open to the parking lot and a low evening sun, leaving a hot stripe on the black floor. I had driven out of the trailer park in a huff, windows down, radio blasting, fifty, sixty miles, almost to West Virginia. I stopped when I saw the rural Quonset hut bar, two cars and a dust devil in the parking lot. Dead on a Monday night.
A big woman who looks under thirty at the opposite end of the bar tells me about the twins’ accident. How they slid in the rain and the car launched into a field. One had to kick out the windshield to save the other. Out here, the roads slick with pebbles, raining down the mountain onto the road in a storm. It’s like driving on marbles.
He’d written their names in blood on the inside of the driver’s side window, in case they couldn’t get out. Brady and Jamie Wilkes. Like a premature headstone.
They might have been identical, but they weren’t anymore. Brady’s jaw was wired. Jamie’s wrist was broken.
You ever heard of such a thing? she asks me.
I have and I haven’t. Freak accidents happen all the time. A car off the road, a rock slide, a drowning. I ask the bartender for a whiskey sour. Two cherries. No orange.
He’s over fifty, looks ex-military in his haircut, his straight spine and precise movements, and his arms are sleeved with dense, colored tattoos. He makes the drink in a highball glass and lays it on a black napkin, then goes back to buffing beer glasses.
I sip and hand it back to him. Stronger, I say.
I guess you do what you have to, the woman says, for your siblings. She’s wearing a tank top, her shoulders padded and fleshy, her skin loose above the elbow.
I don’t have any siblings, I say.
Or your kids, she adds.
Or kids, I say.
I left because it was my birthday, and my mother asked me if I wanted a pool party. I think she thought it was funny, thought maybe now was the time to laugh about it and get over it. But I was turning twenty-three by myself, without a husband or a baby when I’d been well on the way to having both. I wanted her to shut up.
When I showed my license to the bartender, he said, Well, happy birthday to you, sweetheart.
I nearly put my head down and cried.
The one twin waves to the bartender for another gin. The TV plays a black-and-white movie with a lot of scenes with a man and a woman driving a car. The man, in a hat. The woman, blonde, and polished. The scenery behind them, trees, a long road in the country.
Earlier, I’d thought about careening off the road. About my Escort, with its rotting floorboards and bald tires. I wouldn’t have kicked my way out of a car that went flying. I wouldn’t have kicked my way out of anything. Instead, I imagine lying there still, broken. The breathing of a cornfield around me.
The woman at the other end says, Don’t drink ’til you puke, Brady, and laughs. That won’t be fun.
He shakes his head, slow. I wonder how much it hurts.
She hoists herself off the stool and rubs each of the twins’ shoulders as she goes past. I gotta get my kids, she says. Good night, Gil, she says to the bartender, and leans forward, pushing her boobs together, to kiss his cheek. On her legs, light capris that are tight below the knee, her calves blossoming out below.
You had dinner? Gil asks me.
I ask him to hold the sour and just give me a double bourbon. Two cherries.
No, I say. You got anything?
Not tonight, he says. He leans back on the register, a mirror behind shows his crew cut, thick all the way through, wiry and gray. Above the mirror, a pair of deer antlers with bright turquoise panties hanging on them. Where you from? he asks.
The twins play a miniature-sized game of checkers, the mute one stacking up his black king.
South Lake, I say.
That’s quite a ways, he says. He takes a glass out of a steaming tub under the bar and works at it with two towels, one in, one out. You got family out here? he asks.
I think about my mother, in South Lake, sitting at the end of a bar called the Coop, waving on another gin and tonic. No one would be there either. Just the bartender and my mother, baseball on TV, but muted.
And Chuck, stomping through the trailer, picking up the mail, a newspaper, the empties we left behind.
No, I say.
At one, the twins leave. I ask for another drink, even though my head feels tight, like someone stuffed it with electricity and it’s expanding. When I turn my head quickly, everything around me blurs, gold, red, green.
How you getting home? the bartender asks.
I’m not going home, I say.
I watch him wipe up, count out money, empty bottles into a bin in the back. He clicks the TV remote, and the screen goes off with a snap and a sparkle of color.
Well you know what they say, he offers.
I can’t stay here? It comes out way more bitchy than I intend.
What’s eating you? he says, his hands on my bare shoulders.
You are, I say.
Not a chance.
But he puts me in his car. I leave the Escort there, in the gravel lot, and he drives me about a mile away to a basement apartment, where I fall asleep under a multicolor afghan on a brown velour couch. The room, low and spinning. My feet, sticking out from under the blanket.
I throw up in the kitchen sink. A clean, white enamel sink with no dirty dishes, no coffee stains, no slices of lime dumped out of a drink. It was gleaming. And now, filled with acidy bourbon laced with cherry juice. It looks like I’m dying. I imagine it to be guts, blood, bone, coming out.
Oh Jesus, I say, and lean my head on the tile counter.
You got someone I should call? Gil says.
No. I’d left my phone in my car. Couldn’t find my way back to my car if I wanted to.
Sit down, he says, and hands me a glass of water he poured from the fridge. I’ll make you breakfast.
He puts on music, some old-sounding soul, and fries up potatoes and eggs and makes a full pot of strong coffee. I eat it all. After, we lie on the living room floor, underneath the fan, which thank God is off. I couldn’t take the spinning right now.
I look around the room. I’m sure he’s got someone else. Some good woman his own age. The kind who grazes his shoulder as she walks past, and doesn’t puke in his sink. One who kisses his neck, and hangs up his shirts. Who loves him, and doesn’t take any bullshit from anyone.
What are you going to do? he asks me, his head propped up on his hand, his elbow in the carpet.
I think about the car, deep in a field with nothing but cornstalks around me. About the sound of the motor dying down, of everything settling. A crow. I don’t answer him. Instead, I touch his wrist. There’s a tattoo of a snake, coiled and hissing, and above it an American flag. On the underside, a sailor girl, dark-haired and pouting, her lips red, her tits, busting out of her uniform.
You’re going to die like this, he says.
I shrug. I don’t believe it. I wrap my fingers around his wrist bone.
I could have killed you, he says. You could have killed yourself. People die from drinking, he says.
I pat my used-up, stretched-out belly. I’m too big to die from drinking, I say.
You could have killed someone else, he says.
Already have, I say.
That’s when he kisses me. Even when you think a guy is the kind to take care of you, let you sleep off a hangover and make you breakfast, he still wants to fuck you. He mumbles, Oh sugar, and leans over, his mouth on mine, and then all of him on me, right there on the carpet.
My mother always says she could write her life story on one side of a piece of paper because nothing interesting has ever happened to her, but it’s not true. It’s not true for anyone, it’s just the bullshit humility she puts out in the world. Poor me. Like she’s never had her heart broken or fallen so far she can’t get up without help standing, and walking again. Maybe it’s just that she assumes after all that no one really cares what happens to you.
When Summer died, I fell into a well of sadness that no one could pull me out of. I got up in the night, sleepless and restless, because I thought I heard Summer crying, would shuffle to a dark empty room and stand in the doorway, stunned I slept the rest of August, facedown in my old room in my mother’s trailer. I couldn’t stay in my own house anymore. My old room, hot and stale, the fan blowing dust around. I kept waiting for someone to come in, to sit with me, to stroke my hair. My mother, my stepdad, anyone. I was twenty-three, unwed, already the mother of a dead baby. I’d been investigated for nothing. Not particularly guilty is not a sentence anyone ever gets. I wanted someone to come pick me up.
Right before my birthday, my mother told me I’d better perk up.
I don’t know what in the hell you’re waiting for, she said.
But I felt leaden. Anchored to the bed. Weighed down, and sinking.
She stood in my bedroom doorway, her hair a flat and curly mess, up in a banana clip that was half falling out. Her shoulders looked small, her chest, sallow and sunken. She’s not a big person. Nothing like me. It’s like I didn’t even come from her.
She smoked a cigarette from a reservation pack, a long menthol light 100 not worth a damn thing they burn up so quickly. Her eyes squinted when she looked in at me, on my back, half covered.
Nobody wants a girl as sad as you, she said.
You can’t escape anything in a small town. The town knows everything, and not enough. All the guys you slept with, but not which ones you loved. It makes you up from pieces, glimpses of you seen around, at the firemen’s field days, the bar, the drive-thru. They know I’m Rayelle Reed. That I had a baby out of wedlock with the Baptist pastor’s son, and that the baby died. That my mother is Carleen Reed, and that they should stay off the roads when she’s driving her Grand Prix home from the Coop at 3:00 am, crooked, up the middle of Route 12.
If you’ve been in South Lake long enough, you know that both my mother and her sister, Teddy, each married a Reed boy and so the cousins between those two families are extra-related, like siblings.
Chuck is a Reed boy too. He gives me money almost every day. Sometimes a crisp twenty from the ATM, or whatever he has in his pocket, a wrinkled ten and five. Go do something, he’ll say, knowing my mother will be gone too. Most nights, guys buy my drinks for me. I keep a roll of unspent twenties saved up from all those nights of drinking for free, tucked in the top drawer of my dresser, underneath an old sweater from high school. I like to touch it sometimes, a soft roll of cash. To make sure it’s still there, but also because it feels like possibility to me. It feels like a way out.
On a night like this, the sun hangs low and orange over the lake like a burning disc. The heavy smell of the lake reaches all the way to town, hot, swampy, fishy. It’s a good night for trout, the water still and the fish restless, and if you have the patience to sit at the shore at dusk, they’ll jump right at you.
But I’m not looking to catch a fish.
I’m waiting for Chuck: my stepdad. My uncle. My dead dad’s brother. My mother’s live-in boyfriend. The man who raised me as his own when my real dad, Ray, dropped dead. Harsh, but he actually dropped into a recliner and died. I was just a baby, crawling around at a dead man’s feet.
He smells like the day. Like a last cigarette in the car, a little like the French fries he had with lunch. His boots are dirty from the plant floor. He gives me forty dollars without asking, and I go.
Outside, the light is weird. Heavy and warm. And, lately, there’s a feeling in my gut anytime I leave my room, or the trailer, or sometimes just sitting still in my car. It’s like someone cut the last cord that tethered me to shore and I’m just out there, spiraling into the deepest water, and I don’t mean in a boat, or even a canoe, something you could reasonably use to get somewhere. I mean it’s like I’m in a goddamn inner tube, floating in circles away from anything solid. Arms and legs, useless. Dangling over the side. Good only for sunburns, and the occasional sip from the bottle I brought with me.
For a while after I moved back home, I crept, reaching for the walls of any room I walked into. I couldn’t walk without bracing myself. But you can’t even get to the walls in my mother’s trailer. The baseboards are crowded with boxes full of papers and photos, laundry baskets of clean things that were never put away, cartons filled with beer bottles to take back, stacks of magazines or old newspapers. There’s nothing stable to hold on to, and I end up like a kid in the center of a pool, treading water, with her neck stretched, her breath fast, anxious to grab on to the side.
My cousin Khaki used to know the ways that people would die, just by looking at them. She’d see someone and get a flash, a feeling, and without much speculation, she’d blurt it out: Car accident. Pneumonia. Cancer. She said it came to her in a full-frame picture in her head. It started when we were small, Khaki just a pudge-faced six-year-old. She slept at our house when Teddy’s new baby was born. My mother always liked to see us girls together. We stayed out of her way, playing by ourselves, in the living room, in the backyard with the pines leaning over us, shushing.
In the morning, when the phone rang, Khaki said, The baby’s dead, before my mother even said hello. My mother slapped her clean across the face.
Don’t you ever say such a thing about your baby sister, she said. But Khaki was right. Dead of an infection, four days old.
My mother will tell you now, She was right. That little witch was right.
I wonder what Khaki would say if she saw me now.
I sit in the car. My head has a faint spinning feel to it, twingy at the temple. I can’t stay home, and I don’t want to go out. I follow the road out of the trailer park, to where it curves around the east end of the lake, the sunset coming off the water in blinding diamonds. I have all the cash with me. I go to find a motel.
I park outside of Pine Bluff Estates, the sign with the silhouette of a running horse, mane free. The building is mustard yellow with painted black doors that burn your hands when you touch them. It’s been converted into shitty apartments and efficiencies rented mostly to drunks and felons, dead-beat daddies out on parole. The whole thing sits sideways, perpendicular to the road and the lake, with the room closest to the water already taken. A man sits out front of the last door, his feet splayed on the sidewalk, his chair tilted to look at the lake.
The woman at the desk wears a salmon-pink velour track suit. Next to her, a brass birdcage with a huge parrot that bobs around on its perch. I ask if she can prorate me a room for half a week.
She looks over her glasses, bright blue readers that she wears on a chain.
You alone? she says.
At first, I take it to mean she can’t believe that a girl like me, young, blonde, full of promise and bounce, would walk in here without a guy, without a boyfriend in a hot car, or a motorcycle. And then I realize that she wonders about the other tenants, the addicts, the child molesters who aren’t allowed to live closer to the school. She doesn’t know if it’s safe for me to be alone.
But who would I have with me? I don’t have a husband, or a boyfriend. My daughter is dead. I say, It’s just me.
Maybe it’ll be the end of me. Strangulation, strange bed. Maybe that’ll be okay.
I fall asleep sitting up, with all the lights and the TV on, and wake up like that, sweating, with my back against a vinyl headboard that is screwed into the wall. The chintz-covered bed sways low in the middle, and I have to grab on to the nightstand to get up. I light a cigarette and pour a glass of wine from a cheap box of Chablis that sits on top of the air conditioner. The cup, flimsy and white, was in the room. It says Best Western on the side. The box is cold. The wine, room temperature and sweet, coating my teeth. My heart, so loud in my ears it takes a few swallows of wine and a few drags of cigarette to get my breathing right again. I down the cup and refill.
This is why I go out. Because alone, I wake up in panic, shaking and racing inside. I’d rather wake up in someone else’s bed, with the someone else still there. I turn my phone over to find the time. 3:00 am. No messages.
I’ll sleep when it’s light.
There’s always a guy. A guy who will buy my next drink, who’ll have another of whatever I’m having. Who will offer to walk out back to the deck or the beach, or even to lock the door of the men’s room while we’re inside.
Sometimes, early in the day, I walk into a bar a complete mess, like an open wound, guts falling out and trailing. Not ready for the small talk of flirting, not even made up. My lips dry and my hair tangled from driving with the windows down. Sometimes, I want to say to the guy next to me, Hey thanks, I’m having a double bourbon. Last summer, my daughter drowned because I wasn’t paying attention.
It would stop him cold. A quick tangle in the car, in the men’s room, on the beach, isn’t as enticing when the girl he thought was all legs and sunny curls begins to self-destruct right in front of him. When she becomes more than the curvy blonde veneer that drew him in. When her backstory is death and mourning, and more drinking. When he finds out that the only thing worse than a girl with a baby is a girl with a dead one.
He’d run. I would, if it was someone else’s story.
But again, I meet a guy in a bar. He comes in just after I do, which is early, even on a Sunday. There’s no football in June, and the working guys aren’t in at five. No one is, except this one big guy, coming through the door with the light behind him. He sits right next to me, even though the whole bar is empty. He has a flip-top spiral notepad in his shirt pocket, and a pen next to it. He wears a button-down cargo shirt, soft and brown, with blue jeans and Converse sneakers. I wonder if he’s taking measurements, or taking notes. The way he sits on the stool, our knees touch. He asks me what I’m drinking.
I’m not sure I’m in the mood. What are you drinking? I say.
He smirks and orders two shots of Cuervo, for himself. Then he orders beer and points at my wineglass and nods to the bartender to get me another. When the drinks come, he orders dinner, right there at the bar, burgers and fries for both of us and we eat side by side, elbow to elbow, and no one else comes in.
He has a face like a Saint Bernard, big and handsome and sad at the same time, even when he smiles. His cheeks, bigger than my hands. His hair, going gray. He seems familiar and, yet, not like anyone I’ve ever met in town before. He’s older than my usual delivery-truck-driving single daddy, and his eyes are different colors, different shapes. One is dark and muddy, the other, steel blue. The blue one is near me. It’s only when he turns to face me that I notice the other one. It’s slightly lazy.
When the bartender, who wears a bolo tie like an Indian’s, but is round and pink and bald like a baby, takes his plate, the guy leans over to eat the rest of my French fries. I swivel toward him, my knees against his thigh.
Tell me your name, I say. I can’t remember if he already said it.
He swigs. Leans on his elbow. Couper, he says. Couper Gale.
I pull my hair around to one side, stretch out a curl, and let it spring back. I washed it with motel shampoo right before I left, and it’s still wet underneath, the curls kinked up at my collarbone.
How do I know that for real? I say.
He slides out a credit card to pay and shows me the name on there: Couper A. Gale. Chase Visa.
You? he says.
I try quick to think of something fake, but all I come up with are stripper names: Candy, Crystal, Starla. I think, Chase Visa. He raises his eyebrows, waiting, moves his tongue around his teeth. His face breaks into a smile. Breaks. Not spreads, not eases. It cracks. Like it hurts him a little.
My name’s Rayelle, I tell him.
He says it back to me. I’ve never heard that name, he says.
It’s white trash, I say, the way you might say, It’s Polish, to explain an ethnic name. He rolls into a laugh.
How’d you get that name? he says. He taps a fingertip on my forearm, but he’s already got my full attention.
My dad’s name was Ray, I say. And he loved his Chevelle.
You were named after a car?
I told you it was white trash.
Goddamn, he chuckles.
How’d you get your name? I ask. This is not a bar conversation I’ve ever had. By now, we ought to be talking about my legs, and how they’ll look wrapped around his neck. When the bartender comes back, I watch Couper sign the receipt with big loopy writing, loose and upright.
It’s my grandmother’s maiden name, he says. Then he cups his hand on my knee and shakes it a little. Come outside with me, Rayelle, he says, trying it. He drags it out a little. A little hard on the yelle.
My mother always warned us about dusk. You can never believe anything you see. Dusk is when you could hit a deer with your car, or a kid on a bike. Twilight makes things look one way that then turn out to be another. The way my mother made it sound, all cars were actually trains, barreling toward you. All men, actually wolves, waiting to devour you. What did we know? Dusk was magical, and scary like a fairy tale. You might slip through to someplace else. You might disappear forever.
My mother would stand on the step and call out to where kids stood in the street, on roller skates, on bikes. Gathered at the stop sign, sneaking a smoke, or a swig from a plastic bottle of booze.
Rayelle Christine, she would call. It is dusk. Get your ass inside.
But lost and never found is pretty appealing right now. I might go far to lose this shadow. To walk out of my dead skin.
I light a cigarette just outside the bar door. This place belongs to a motel, a different one, not mine. A happy one with kids and aqua-blue doors. The parking lot is full of yellow street lamps, big like buckets, where bugs gather. They look like snow, like when you look out at the streetlight at night to see if it’s still coming down. The bugs just hover there, like a haze of snow. Couper walks off through the parking lot. It curves in front of all the rooms, nothing but beach and sky behind the motel. He walks backward for a bit, waiting for me to catch up. Then he turns and steps up onto the grass around the swimming pool.
The parking lot is fresh with blacktop and paint. The curbs sharp and white. A few cars are parked around the outside of the pool, and each room has a gold number on the door, and a pair of circular plastic chairs out front. No one’s in the pool, or outside at all. At the other end of the grass, there’s a white gate with a chained lock on it, and a hand-painted wooden sign: Pool Closes at Dusk. Couper lays both hands on the top rail of the fence.
I start to laugh. Really? I say.
Nine out of ten times, he says with a shrug, they don’t catch you.
It takes only a minute to get dark. Just like that, it’s over. The dangerous in-between of dusk. The pool is built into a mound of grass higher than the parking lot, but when you walk up the side, you can see it, a big kidney bean of water mirroring the sky, the moon and the lights from all around. The low drone of a motor.
You’ve done this ten times? I say.
He hooks the toe of his sneaker on the chain-link fence and, with more grace than I expect for a body that size, swings his leg over to the other side.
Not here, he says. Plus, it’d have to be more than ten times to be statistics. He unbuttons his shirt, his belly broad but taut, thatched with hair. Then he undoes his pants. He lays his clothes over a lounge chair while I finish my smoke with the fence still between us.
Come on, Rayelle, he says. He holds a hand out, still in his shorts.
I’ve never been good at resisting a dare.
Raised in Syracuse, New York, by an accordion virtuoso and a casket maker, Jennifer Pashley is the author of two short story collections, States and The Conjurer. Her stories have appeared widely, in journals like Mississippi Review, PANK, and SmokeLong Quarterly, and she has been awarded the Red Hen Prize for Fiction, the Mississippi Review Prize for fiction, and the Carve Magazine Esoteric Award for LGBT Fiction.