This one that starts just above the bottom crease of my thumb and halfway crosses the meat of the palm, I got this on a bridge over the Snake River in Burley. We were in this little park by the river with a few dusty cottonwoods and some stringy uncut grass and nowhere to pee. The ground was hard and the garbage cans overflowed with garbage. Just 18, me and Craig, out of high school since May, and sitting in this park eating bologna sandwiches we kiped from a neighborhood grocery that had all the front windows blackened just to help you feel trapped in hard luck.
We'd gone up there to find a job together, probably bucking hay, but it seemed like nobody was working, not us, not Craig's sister Colleen, who we were staying with in a crackerbox house, and most of the time not her husband Brian. He worked for a week at a hardware store and got fired at the end. No problem, he wouldn't have shown up on Monday. A couple of weeks later a job at a junk storesame outcome. Most of the money, including the money he stole from the places he worked, went on drugs for him, and ditto the change from selling weed in front of the courthouse, except what went for cigarettes. When wasn't he smoking except when he hit up enough reds to knock himself out? Being around him when he was better than half-awake was like having a Brillo pad in your shorts. The guy was a bee sting, a grating gear, a hole in a parka.
Uncomfortable summer setting out. Craig's '65 Mustang was pretty but barely ran, and we were packed in a house smaller than a sock drawer, with pillows and blue lights for furniture, blue light posters on the walls, Baby Billy toddling around in droopy diapers and saying "Buckballs!" and mostly he was the only one getting a laugh. Every morning and every night the needle and the spoon and the yellow rubber tube and Brian going from one thing to another, but an asshole either way. Craig and I had to share a bed in one of the two tiny bedrooms, which was embarrassing and uncomfortable. Craig was bigger than me, so I took the side next to the wall so I wouldn't end up on the floor. I think we both missed a lot of sleep trying not to snug up or accidentally touch under the covers. That often made us cranky with each other during the day.
The summer you graduate is supposed to be a point of reference for your life. I'll remember it for Brian's blood going up the needle and for the cut on my hand, also bloody. Brian disappeared long ago. He used to pull some crap. Like the time back down in Salt Lake he took 400 bucks to score smack for some out-of-town junkies and it went up his own arm instead and for months someone else had to drive him around so he could sit low in the back seat.
Eventually, though, you know, he goes up to Twin Falls, a stringy-haired bastard but no hippie. His best friend up there from reform school days, Hemingway, was what a hippie turns into when he pushes through every door he comes to, when he takes "if it feels good..." as doctrine. He was useless and unfit for sympathy, but he knew how many reds were enough and Brian never did. Brian never did because, I think, the one that got him started was the one who should have been teaching him right from wrong and drawing the line. Brian goes up to see Hemingway, to rip him off, and disappears into the jaws of destiny. No one heard from him again or tried to find him, and no evidence of him ever turned up. We never heard from Hemingway either, but we figured he had no reason to get in touch with us.
So we are eating these sandwiches, and this car of Mexicans drives in and parks. A Chevy, older than Craig's Mustang, but shinier and cleaner, and probably because there are no Spanish stations in Burley the Carpenter's are singing "Close to You" as they have been all day every day just to make one month seem like two. Family piles out, family plusa pregnant lady holding an infant, and three men. Very unlike us besides the obvious, because they had work, judging from how dark they were and from the ropey muscles in their necks and hands, but they were out today on an outing with Kentucky Fried Chicken and a case of beer.
"That's something to make someone happy" I say. "A day off if you've got a job. And to show off that you are a man. That one, he's the dad." I pointed with my eyes to the one who smiled when the other guys cut up. Craig gets philosophical too and starts running through all the Mexican slurs he knows, starting with bean bandit, but I have half-Mexican cousins and say, "Cut it out, please, dammit." Does he cut it out? He keeps going, looking at me like what he's saying is about me. "Be a jerk," I said and walked away.
I didn't get far. The Snake is pretty wide, and I got about halfway across the bridge looking down at the giant carps gasping out of the muddy water in the shadow of the bridge, I guess for the mosquitoes and midges, I don't know. They reminded me of inmates of an asylum or the damned in hell crowding at the gates. I had my hand on the rail and felt something and looked at my hand and saw it was bleeding. The cut went all the way to the muscle and looked awful, the skin parted and the blood rivered across the palm and down my wrist. It didn't hurt, or I was too surprised to feel it hurt. But of the things I'm scared to lose, one is blood. The sight of it is not the problem, but the idea of leaking the thing that is, you know, the scientific part of life, that worries me. I recognized that fear in me the time or two I watched Brian hit up, but this was worse. If I had run I would have panicked, so I went walking fast back to Craig and said, "Take me somewhere quick to get this thing fixed up."
He hands me a rag to hold tight against my wound and takes me to Donna, Brian's sister, because she will know what to do. For some reason everybody is over there. She lives in a real house, not a crackerbox. It's old and needs painting and is run down like the rest of the houses on the block, but it's a real house, and she's got kids and a husband with a job. Big, mean-looking guy with a beard whose name I forget and whose path you wouldn't want to cross on an ugly day. Bad luck to broken mirrors I told Craig the first time I met him. But even he is standing there with Colleen and Brian and all the kids gawking at the blood dripping on the kitchen linoleum.
I was still being quiet about it, and Colleen takes me in hand, so to speak, and says, "No one will think you are a baby if you yell out, and it's going to hurt like hell, so go ahead if you need to."
I didn't need to. I said I would yell if it hurt, but it didn't hurt and I didn't yell. Even when she cleaned it with Merthiolate it didn't hurt. The idea of leaking out like a punctured beach toy was scary and absurd. Pain would have been too real and couldn't connect with that picture. Everyone was waiting for a reaction, but I couldn't offer one.
So it was quiet between us. Then, because my hand led to her hand and her hand led to her arm, scarred up the inside along the veins, she caught me looking, but instead of telling me to mind my own business she just says, "When I got kids I got smart."
She patched me up. Should have got stitches, but I survived without them and nothing fell off. She said, "I like your nerve."
While I was getting patched and the bleeding was over and I was looking at her arms, I thought about her dad, the one that got them going the wrong way, and, knowing nothing about him, thought about what I didn't know about him, thought about how everybody who marries in love gets married with innocent hopes. And then he's got these two kids, Donna and Brian, and then after a while and for reasons open to any guess he isn't fit to be husband or dad, man or beast. Was it a course he was already on? Or did he find himself needing such extreme comfort that he would go out on this kind of shaky limb to find it? Maybe it was just the curiosity that killed the cat. It is possible to know too much depending on how you know it. So he is gone and back and gone for longer and longer until he is mostly gone. But then he comes back one day when the kids are teenagers, old enough to be friends with. He is out of jail or at a pause between golden junkie schemes, and he wants them to come see him at his motel so he can show them something. It is this one thing he can do for these two kids he is the father of and who he wants to love him. It is something he can do for them since he has never shared any other happiness with them....
After we got home to the crackerbox, Craig drove back to the bridge and found the razorblade someone had scotch taped to the bottom of the rail. Strange thought, the vampire fish gaping to be fed that way. But it didn't matter to me by then. My hand was all wrapped and I'd gone kind of pale and a little bit trembly. Craig called me a wuss.
About the Author
Born in Utah and raised there and in Idaho, Reed Richards attended Brigham Young University and Vanderbilt. Though he took a few creative writing classes along the way, the only one he found truly useful was a summer workshop at the University of Utah, where the poetry section was headed by Galway Kinnell. Difficult to please, Kinnell nonetheless admired Richards' work, and Richards has been writing ever since: "When you are 17 and someone like Galway Kinnell likes your poem, you think you might be a writer some day." Richards has lived in Nashville since 1985 and works in development at Vanderbilt. He tied for second place in the Scene's 2001 poetry contest and won first place in 2002. In addition to winning second place in the fiction contest this year, he is also a finalist in the personal essay division. He lives in Inglewood, where he is "personal assistant to a cat."
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