FORGIVE ME THIS
“Forgive Me This” was a runner up in the 2016 Birdwhistle Prizes.
You stop at a gas station that glows in the valley like its own miniature city. A cement box of a store, a half-dozen pumps under light as bright as a morgue table. Constellations of moths beat themselves senseless beneath the standing roof.
You are driving – okay, your cousin Lynn is driving – from Portland to Bismarck. You’re on 90, somewhere between Coeur D’Alene and Missoula, and the night yawns ahead with nothing but the promise of more darkness, more fields of meager scattered lights on your peripheries. Salsa music ghosting through rips of static on the radio. Evangelical hollering. The same forty classic rock songs over and over again. You’ve lost your license to a DUI the year before and Lynn is going to drive you all the way there. You’re not close, you and Lynn, except you love her, you have for years. It is some vestige of your childhood, some holdover.
You are going home because your father’s house burned down yesterday. He is in a Bismarck hospital and it doesn’t look good for him. You cannot afford plane fare. (You also can’t afford to pay for gas, but Lynn doesn’t know this.) Inside your backpack are shirts and underwear, a coverless copy of Moby Dick you stole from the back of a friend’s toilet, and a glass jar filled with change, a jar that pulls at the straps of your pack, that weight being about the only comfort you have right now, that and the surety that there is at least a further ways to go before you have to move on to the next thing, the next gathering of new rooms and new decisions.
Halfway there, says Lynn. We’re making good time.
Lynn is five years younger than you. She dances at a club. No, she’s a stripper. What’s the right term? You want to ask her about it, try to seem knowledgeable, worldly, but you’re unsure which term she prefers. It seems important, that distinction. It’s quite a scandal in the family, Lynn’s job, which you think is funny, given how fractured and fucked up the rest of your family is. She is beautiful and tired and covered in an armada of stick and poke tattoos, and you have loved her since you were both children. She has always been fearless in ways that you are not. When she smokes and releases her cigarettes through the howling wedge of open window, they bounce in the road behind you and you watch sparks burst in your mirror. Dig, Lynn’s son, sweet and myopic and fragile in his huge eyeglasses, sleeps in the backseat but shifts awake when Lynn pulls into the gas station.
I’ll get the snacks, you get the gas, you say, turning your face away and peering at the glowing storefront. That sound okay? You try to keep your voice light. You turn and look at her.
Lynn pauses, blinks at you. Sure.
The nozzle notches into the tank and you see Lynn’s torso through the window, see the rips of fog from her mouth as she blows into her hands. You turn and wink at Dig as he stares back at you, his eyes owlish and huge behind his lenses. He is five. He doesn’t talk very much. Or maybe he talks all the time. You don’t really know. You don’t really know much of anything.
You want anything, bud?
You get out of the car. Lynn is frowning at the gas readout, notching the total in pennies.
Can he have a pop?
Sure, she says without looking at you.
You take your backpack inside, nod at the red-faced woman at the register. Should I leave this up here, you ask.
It’s fine, honey.
You wander the aisles, putting things in your pack. Pointless things. You pour two coffees, grab a Coke, a pair of cheap sunglasses for three dollars. You take out the jar, pour out a swath of change on the counter, pay in quarters. It phases the woman not at all. Your backpack is heavy with contraband. (An Evil Dan word if ever there was one.) Stupid things – cupcakes, lip balm, WD40. This feels somehow like you are balancing something out.
Lynn has parked the car and is talking to your aunt on her cell phone. Dig holds his pop in two hands when you lean in and hand it to him. Lynn stands there on a yellow parking block in front of the car, flexing her calves and standing on her toes. A man comes out and watches her as he gets into his truck and you look at him until he looks away. You open a Hostess pie and break it in half, lean in and hand it to Dig, then light a cigarette and lean against the door. You eat and smoke and Lynn shakes her head and says into the phone, We’ll make it. We’re making good time.
What does your heart do when you hear this?
She says, I know. I will.
She says, Okay, Momma.
She smiles and says, I love you too.
Well, and you are one of those shitty passengers that falls asleep and doesn’t keep the driver company. You don’t mean to, but you are tired. After Hillila kicked you out you’ve been couch-surfing and sleep is sometimes a fitful, fleeting thing. When Lynn’s mom called you on your cell phone to tell you your dad had fallen asleep with a cigarette, had burned his house down, you were sitting on Evil Dan’s couch (you know a lot of Dans: Dan Smith, Wheelchair Dan, Tattoo Dan, Married Dan, Evil Dan) and telling him that Hillila’s absence was like someone taking an ice cream scoop to your heart and removing the entire thing in one go. Then your phone buzzed in your pocket. You’d been staring at Evil Dan’s boa constrictor when you answered it. The snake was molting, and it looked fake, how symmetrical and lovely the sloughing skin was. Like bubble wrap! you thought. Your eyes when you answered the phone felt like they were coated in cement dust.
You talked for a minute with your aunt. And he’s burned real bad, she said. Real bad. All over.
The snake seemed like it was dead maybe.
Okay, you said.
She said, I’m real sorry, hon. And then she waited for you to say something, but what was there to say? How many times had he fallen asleep like that, cocooned in a fog of spent alcohol, only to have the cherry of his smoke burn his stomach, fall between his legs until he awoke bellowing and slapping at his thighs, his glass tumbling and rolling in circles on the floor? How many times?
They’re not – her voice caught, like the way a shirt could get snagged on fence wire – they’re not real sure he’ll make it, but you should probably come. You should come.
You didn’t want to tell your aunt you couldn’t drive anymore.
I’m not sure what your vehicle situation is, she said, as if she could read your mind, but Lynn could drive. It’s just that they don’t know if he’ll make it. They don’t know.
You never learned the snake’s name, but when you hung up it turned its head, tongue tasting the air.
So you fall asleep like a jerk, and you have a dream. Lynn wakes you up in the middle of it and you come awake knowing that you have cried out, made a noise. The radio is playing a song you remember from high school. You can’t take me, but I’ll go with you. It’s a bad song. Lights alongside the highway strobe past you, light up your legs and chest and then vanish behind you.
You were dreaming, Lynn says.
Dig says, You yelled. Real loud.
You sounded happy though, Lynn says, smiling.
Sorry. You scrub your face and your hands make a rasping noise along your whiskers. You look at the clock and are grateful at how little time has passed. How much further you have to go. You want to stay in this car forever, with the cousin you are in love with and her sweet son with the strap around his glasses. They love you the way family loves you – without reserve, without grace, like drinking a glass of water. The dream is a fading thing; it’s like sneaking your fingers under a piece of old wood and lifting, only you don’t want to lift it. It’s pointless. Nothing good will come from its examination.
Hillila was someone you met at church. Evil Dan would take you to a Catholic church up in Laurelhurst sometimes for Mass. You liked it. Another Evil Dan word: he called it interloping. He combed his hair and took out his pentagram earrings and you’d go on Saturday nights after a few beers. You liked the solemnity, the sense of ritual. The priest with his sing-song lamentations, the drifting tendrils of incense he pushed with the backs of his hands as he walked down the aisle chanting Latin. The choir sang above you, and the ceiling was high and everything was hushed and glowing, and when you leaned over and asked Evil Dan – who in his pastel shirt and tie really did look like a wholly new person (Stock Analyst Dan, maybe) – what that spot was above you where the choir sang, he told you it was actually called the choir.
Oh, you said.
Or the choir stalls, he added. Like a bathroom stall, you said, still a little drunk, and a lady in front of you turned around, frowning. Evil Dan winked at her and you belched behind your fist but it came out louder than you meant, and you heard someone laugh behind you and when you turned and looked, there she was. This blonde girl that would turn out to be Hillila, but you of course wouldn’t know that until after Mass when everyone was hanging out outside talking and did it really matter anyway? Was that what you wanted to spend your time thinking about? Here, in this car, when you haven’t felt safe or good in forever? When you can’t help but picture your father curled in a hospital bed, shrunken with heat, a charred collection of sticks in the shape of a man.
You arrive at a rest stop as dawn blues the tree line. The lawn beside the cement building is waterlogged and dotted with scraps of trash. Skeletal trees. Mist hugs the ground and dead leaves float in gasoline-blurred puddles. Everybody goes to the bathrooms. Dig takes your hand as you walk towards the men’s room and something in you tightens as clearly as if someone was working a ratchet inside your ribs.
Will you stand guard? Dig asks as he goes into a stall.
Sure, you say, and a trucker standing at a urinal smiles against the wall.
As you step out of the bathroom, you take Moby Dick out of your jacket and put it below the pocked and dented steel mirror. Your face in the mirror is funhouse distorted. You only look for a second.
Outside, the sun is burning through the morning clouds. Every blade of grass seems dotted with jewels.
I can’t believe I’m coming back here, Lynn says.
Me neither, you say.
It isn’t about the fists of your youth, the lurching zombie-stomp of the man’s footfalls as he tried to keep his balance, the blood that sometimes stippled his undershirts. The glassy way his eyes tried to lock on yours while his skull drifted like seaweed in a current. It was not the offhanded dismissiveness after you left home, the yawning silences. Closer perhaps was the casual cruelty of your phone calls, the way he would answer your talk of doing well in this new town with those little chuckles. Those derisive grunts, that way of decimating the conversation. That way of leveling you with just the hum of your shared history.
Don’t bullshit a bullshitter, he’d say. You and me are the same animal.
You are outside of town, onto Highway 94 now and traffic is good, traffic is really light. You are going fast, with the sun truly burning through scudded clouds and it’s when you see the cylinders of the Tesoro Refinery out the window, those sliver gleaming monoliths rising brutish from the ground – always the waypoint that home is near – that your heart thunders in your chest like God has reached down and squeezed.
Momma, Dig says, I have to go to the bathroom.
We’re almost there, bud, Lynn says. Can you hold it?
Dig thinks for a second and then says, Yes, I can hold it.
Telephone poles whicker past you. They look like spears driven into the earth.
Stop, you say.
Lynn looks at you.
Stop, you say again.
The wind rips at the door in your hands when you open it.
You dreamt of thin coffee served in flimsy pale cups. There were chairs with fabric seats and wooden arms. A painting of the ocean on the wall. A television was mounted high in the corner of the room and showed something anxiety-inducing – a nature show, or impossibly healthy people in advertisements for home exercise equipment. The nurse was pretty and sleepy – not Hillila, not Lynn – and smiled, really smiled, when she saw you.
You dreamt that you came to the Emergency Room clean-shaven and unworried.
As if it had been a whole different life.
He was in his bed, uninjured, and the light caught the clean lines of the bars caging him there. Keeping him safe. The blue veins in his hands, tubes notched in his elbows.
Machinery surrounded him but did not touch him.
And he smiled at you, he did, as you felt the warm rasp of his hand on the back of yours, and when you bent down and held him, you did it for love and not for duty.