Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable
Loulie peeks out at the old woman from her position on the floor, her head between her knees, her legs scrunched up between her arms, her wrists tethered with the rope, chain and padlock, perched on the mattress hour after hour until her butt goes numb. The man thinks the old woman’s a ghost, but Loulie’s about decided she’s just an odd old woman with a humpback, a limp and a mask on that looks like a face, has all the right features and symmetry, but no face would be that frozen, no animation in it whatsoever. He calls her his mother the ghost, has conversations where he does both speaking parts, which makes Loulie wonder if the old woman speaks at all. If she does, perhaps that means she listens, and maybe when the man isn’t home Loulie could appeal to her, beg her to set her free. Loulie had pretty much given up, but now the old woman is around more; in fact, it seems like she may live here too, maybe in that back room Loulie’s never seen—no reason to take you in there, the man had said when he was showing her around the trailer like she was a guest here. Because Loulie won’t speak and the old woman doesn’t seem to either, it’s a strange household with the man, the halting way he talks like he might be a little retarded or something, speaking for them all.
Though sometimes Loulie wonders, does she even remember how? One day when the man wasn’t around Loulie opened her mouth just to try it out, a scream—she’d long since realized the trailer is too far away from anyone who might hear her—but just to give it a whirl, as her mom would say, and… nothing; it was like her voice was encased in ice, a glacial hardness that stuck in her throat and then the taste of bile when nothing came out.
She wishes she could stand up, just that, of her own free will, instead of only during her programmed bathroom breaks, a pee on demand sort of schedule that Loulie has taken to because she has no choice. Stand and stretch out her legs, her spine, which feel like they’re permanently bent now, curved like the shells the man displays on a shelf opposite her mattress, monuments whereas the rest of the room is a scatter of stuff: clothes tossed into a box in one corner; random dishes—clean though, she’d have to admit the man keeps the things they eat off of clean; a few books on the floor, Audubon guidebooks, insects, birds (he seems to like animals, does he imagine she is one, tied up, fed, led to perform her bodily functions like a dog?); some ancient National Geographic magazines; a makeshift desk with a panel of wood balanced upon concrete blocks, an old iMac on top; posters on the walls of nothing special, like the man just plucked them from a Hallmark store, laminated generic photographs, somebody’s idea of what people like—a squirrel on a birdbath, purple flowers in a field, a beach with footprints in the sand. This is Loulie’s world now.
Then, just like that she feels it, her blood, and with it the physical sense she gets of her mom, like they are connected by more than chromosomal materials, her flesh, her mother’s—Annalee, Annalee, Annalee. They used to get their periods together after Loulie first started hers in math class one day, thirteen years old and it made her weep, hunched over the toilet in the Lincoln Middle School Girls’ bathroom as if blood flowing out of her meant some kind of loss. That night Annalee made Loulie spaghetti, her favorite. You’re a woman now, her mom said proudly, like she had played some sort of essential role in it. Well, maybe she had, she was there anyway, in their little grey house that was clean and kept up; Annalee and Loulie would make a game of it on Saturdays, challenge each other to a race, vacuuming, dusting, toilet scrubbed, sinks, kitchen floor mopped, and whoever finished first got to pick out what they’d watch on television that night while the other ordered takeout, whatever the winner wanted, Chinese? Pizza?
It was a small life but a good fit and tears sting Loulie’s eyes, willing them not to fall, concentrate on the blood, she tells herself, what will she do about it? It stopped after he took her, the stress she figured, or maybe the food he fed her—what she managed to eat of it, which wasn’t much in the beginning. How long now? Weeks? Months? Years, even? No, not years because Loulie had devised a calendar of sorts, pulling splinters from the rotting wood off the window ledge into a pile on the floor under the molding and counting them; the problem being it’s only an accurate record of the days since Loulie started doing this, defined by the light and then the dark, the slant of the setting sun coming through the window above her was the cue to pick the splinter. But Loulie didn’t know how many had passed before this timekeeping, whether she’s even still fifteen years old. She might’ve had her birthday and will never know it, that she made it through another year. Annalee would’ve baked her a pan of fudge brownies, packing sixteen candles into one of them, flame like a tiny torch. Sweet sixteen.
Maybe her blood will rush out of her, fill the small room until they drown. The man told her he couldn’t swim. Matter of fact, like this is just the way it is. Mostly he doesn’t talk to her at all but when he does, it’s to confess something like this.
The man slides his key into the padlock, unchains Loulie, motioning her to follow. Loulie imagines for a moment running, but the man would catch her like he has every time she’s bolted; she doesn’t know if he’s really fast or she’s slowed that much, slumped upon the mattress day after day. Loulie shivers, blinks back her tears.
In the bathroom she soaks a washcloth in cold water then slides down her pants, the ones the man gave her to wear after her jeans were trashed from the oil in his shed, the time she tried to hide there. They’re khaki and the stain is obvious, shaped like a toddler’s hand, a smear of it like the kid had been finger painting and smacked its little hand against them.
When she emerges she sees the old woman lingering near the mattress. He’ll get you something to fix you up, the old woman says jerking her head at the stain. Her voice is like rust scraped off metal, and what startles all three of them when the rope is back around her wrists, the chain, click of the padlock, is that Loulie starts to laugh, a waterfall of it and she doesn’t know what she’s laughing at, nothing is at all funny, but gazing at the odd little ghost-woman, a kitchen witch who as it turns out does speak, she can’t seem to stop. The other side of this is tears; Loulie knows because it’s happened to her mom, laughing so hard then in almost the same breath, crying.
What’s wrong with her? The man stammers, his face the color of a tomato.
Release her arms and tether her ankle instead, the old woman instructs. She can’t get away so long as you have the key. She talks! Loulie thinks, and still can’t stop laughing. The man sticks his chin out, scowls. The old woman shakes a knotted finger at him. Never you mind, she says. You don’t make some concessions she’ll go mad! You hear her? Madness!
Loulie laughs until her throat burns, won’t look him in the eyes as he appraises her like she’s on display. OK, he says, OK, OK. Maybe you’d like to look out the window? he asks her, politely, as if this has been his idea from the start. Then he unlocks her wrists, securing the chain around her left ankle, sliding the mattress with her on it in the opposite direction so it’s sticking out from the wall and she’s on the other end. Loulie can see daylight, the afternoon sun slunk low behind a tree whose branches from this angle she can make out even through the frosted glass. She blinks at the light, the sun in an actual tree outside, its lines waving delicately in the foggy panel, like an abstract painting, she thinks, someone’s idea of a tree. She feels dazed, that sunstroke feeling when the afternoon is hot and you step into it for a moment from the cool dark of inside. She stops laughing as easily as it started, rubbing her wrists, her hands together, enjoying the simple pleasure of this, putting ones hands together then pulling them apart.
Since it’s become pretty clear Loulie won’t get to have a life of her own, she spends her days imagining her mom’s life, because here’s something else: if Annalee had made different choices, the way she told Loulie about making the right choices, in her own life—if Annalee had done that, probably she would never have come here at all, upstate New York with its promise of a good life for her and her child, a wholesome and satisfying one now gone to rack and ruin, Annalee said, what with the collapse of manufacturing, IBM pulling out, and before that Endicott-Johnson Shoes, which according to her mom might’ve been the last decent company in America, building nice little boxy houses for their employees, EJ houses they called them, medical care, retirement, a way of life that makes you proud living it, a product you felt good about making, a job with dignity, her mom said. The abandoned factory sits amid broken glass and brambles, busted out windows, a hulk of a building now home to bats and spiders and wasps nesting in the eaves. 2,100 laid off from Lockheed Martin, 274,000 private sector jobs lost in 2009, 43,000 factories moved to China in the last six years. How does Loulie know these numbers? Well it’s easy, she’s thinking like her mom now who after she lost her own job quoted these statistics; maybe she is her mom, because where else would Annalee want to be but with her daughter, right? Even if she believed her daughter was a bad girl who ran away with a drug dealer?
Oh, but here is a thought: if her mom had never moved from Longview at all, maybe Loulie would never have existed. If that were the case she wouldn’t be tied up on this dirty old mattress, fed three meals a day with an evening snack if she wants it, five bathroom visits—first thing in the morning, noon, mid-afternoon, early evening and right before sleep—a shower twice a week, the murmur of the TV never turned off like it’s a generator, something essential to running the trailer, and of course the perpetual drone from the highway near enough for Loulie to know it never stops, with its cars full of people going everywhere but here, and the freight trains that whistle by six times a day, twice in the morning (she knows it’s morning by the slope of the light pouring into the window, its color whiter, cleaner than the yellow afternoon), a little past noon, late afternoon and 8:00 in the evening (the man once said, that’s the 8:00 freight), then the last late at night, its mournful wail like everything else, passing her by—all of this is background now. Maybe her life is just background. Maybe she should’ve said yes to Troy-boy so she’d have her own memory at least, Troy-boy pushing her down, but tenderly, on the back seat that would smell of Fritos (what they’d snacked on driving from the school, Loulie’s last food as a free person), and the splif cut with crystal meth, ice (you can’t get addicted smoking it, he told her), the grey smoke curling around them and ever so gently he’d slip off her jeans, her panties, and she’d have the image now of something inside her, something that made her her, Louise-Annalee Cross, Loulie, with a heart, breasts, stomach, legs and the opening between them, flesh. Somebody. Her best friend Josie said it hurt the first time but even that would’ve been OK, because if you feel pain, you’re alive.
Annalee’s own mother lingered, Loulie’s grandmother, half alive and half not alive, the one time they visited in her Longview home and she was curled up like twine in a bed that looked like a mahogany sleigh. Been like this for months, Annalee’s brother’s wife said, belligerent since it was she who had to take care of her, what with her husband at work and the father-in-law dead and Annalee gallivanting about on the east coast. She slept twenty-three hours a day and the one hour when she was awake she didn’t care who Annalee was, who Loulie was—your granddaughter, Mom! A heart still beating, skin still warmed by the blood still flowing underneath, but retreated to some world in her head where she spoke to people the rest of them couldn’t see. I want my Mommy! her grandmother whimpered, staring blankly at Loulie perched on the edge of the bed where Annalee told her to sit, one leg bent and ready to spring.
That was the worst, Annalee said on the plane back, your own mother alive but out of reach. Loulie, who had felt like an intruder in her mom’s former home, stared out the window, the crops below in strange circles like they’d been stamped there, the backbone of distant mountains, flying out of what seemed to have been unending clouds in the northwest, headed home.
But Loulie does have a memory that’s hers alone! She scratches her ankle viciously, she’s taken to doing this, digging in over the bone where the skin is thin, where the rope is tied, and she makes it bleed, just a little—doesn’t want the man having to tend to it, put a bandage on, touching her. Sitting on the edge of her grandmother’s bed, her grandmother whose name was Ann, noticing one small, smooth and perfectly shaped foot that had snuck out of the covers, just one. Such a young looking foot on an old and ill person, and Loulie had badly wanted to touch that foot, rub it for her—wouldn’t that have felt nice? But she didn’t, her grandmother didn’t even know who she was. It’s the dementia, Annalee said. It’s gone and erased her. The last straw, her mom said.
Though she’d said it was the last straw when just a few weeks earlier she had discovered on some website that her name, Annalee, was way too similar to a Manga character named Annlee, bought by an American artist from a Japanese Manga agency, who made her “available” for other artists to work with. Bored, she had googled her own name and came up with this almost-match—did you mean Annlee? The thing about Annlee, besides her shadowy haired beauty, is that she’s an empty vessel, a shell, a ghost with giant, soulless holes for eyes and no inner life, to be filled with another’s story—any story!—depending on the whim of the artist. So given that bit of info, maybe her own erasure is about complete, Annalee told Loulie, with even the “a” from her name snubbed out. And the irony of it, her mom said, is her name really is Ann Lee, but separated, your basic paper factory worker name from Grandma Ann and Auntie Lee, her mother’s dead sister. Auntie Lee died from cancer, which in Longview back then was whispered, like some cancer-god might hear you say it and strike you with it too. Annalee shoved the two names together when she was eighteen and could get away with it, using the “a” to help it flow better. In those days, Annalee said, everything was about the flow.
Maybe the last straw was the article her mom read in The New York Times Magazine, then insisted Loulie read it too. It was about Annalee’s former employer, how they’ve been hard at work on a new machine that plays Jeopardy: Watson, the super-computer. IBM put a lot of resources into this one, the article said, maybe money it saved from Annalee’s own job and the jobs of hundreds of others when they downsized their Endicott, New York, plant. “It displayed a remarkable facility with cultural trivia,” said the article about Watson. “He plays to win,” lamented one of the whipped contestants. The computer scientist who created Watson said if he didn’t do it another scientist might, “and then bang, you are irrelevant!” he said.
So that’s it, her mom is irrelevant. Claimed to be a Systems Analyst but really she was just data entry. Anyone could do it. Anyone is doing it. Irrelevant.
Certainly it wasn’t the disappearance of her daughter. Annalee must’ve deserved that, after all, unsettled and undisciplined, used to sleep with anyone she liked—she told Loulie all about it—tracking them down like a hunt of some sort, in the bars, on the beach, under her dorm window, the street kid whistling at her and she lowers the strap on her purple jumpsuit, motions him up, for god’s sake! How could her mom expect just having a job you dressed up for might’ve made the difference?
Perhaps one day the little grey house’s front door is padlocked when her mom comes home: no rent, no roof, says the landlord’s note. Their electric would’ve been turned off weeks before and the summer burning down, not even a fan, so who the hell needs it, Annalee would think, hurling one of her shoes through that broken window in the bathroom the landlord never bothered to fix.
Maybe the last straw hasn’t even happened, maybe it’ll just keep getting worse. Loulie jams her forehead against her knees, bone on bone, rocks herself then bang, bone on bone again until she sees it: her mom walking the floodwall, one side the Susquehanna, brown and turbid, the other waving grasses and weeds, blue and yellow wildflowers with their assortments of bees and all manner of buzzing, diving things. One foot in front of the other, eyes on her feet, do not look down the bank in the brambly bushes where someone found the badly decomposed body of a twelve-year-old girl. Loulie remembers watching this news with her mom, Annalee shaking her head in that remote sort of disbelief—the horrible things that happen to other people…. No! Loulie up and left, that’s it, what her mom would think, and since the landlord padlocked the house so Annalee’s essentially homeless, it’s not like she’s got anything more to lose.
Maybe it really was her mom’s fault, stories about the wild child days, each tale ending with a danger and a moral, telling her daughter as a cautionary thing and the damn kid takes it as permission, a culture where things were not as they seemed and Loulie couldn’t recognize the truth in them, hanging out with that drug dealer boy. Crystal meth, another girl gone missing, the police would’ve shrugged.
Loulie watches an umbrella spider (she calls him that, his thread-thin shape like spines in a sheath of plastic) dangling from the stained ceiling above her mattress, a ladybug ambling blindly toward it from the other direction. Who will she root for? The spider has been there the longest—18 days according to Loulie’s splinter-calendar, so it has squatter rights, she supposes. But Loulie loves ladybugs, harbingers of winter, how they’d come into the little grey house every fall in droves and cluster in its corners, then one day they’d disappear. Occasionally she’d find one, sluggishly crawling on a window ledge or the bathroom floor when the weather outside turned unforgiving.
But wait! Competition today, Loulie’s spider spies another that has come out of nowhere, it seems, or out of Loulie’s vision anyway, into its territory. Her spider scrambles toward this intruder, then suddenly drops down on its web and snags, not the ladybug Loulie is relieved to see, but a fly. The other spider retreats, no fight today, and no ladybug for dessert, as she flares her spotted wings and flies away.
On an early morning walk last week Jones had a wonderful thing happen, the best thing that’s happened to him in a long time. He was on the path that leads around the field, the field maybe half a mile from his place, where a house once stood and a clay-red barn, acres of what used to be crops overgrown now since the house was foreclosed on a couple years back and the bank couldn’t sell it—who could afford a farm out here during these hard times? Though Jones liked to fantasize about it, growing his own food for the girl and his mother the ghost, and what they didn’t need he could sell, make money for all the other expenses, electric for the trailer, propane and whatnot. But if he could grow their food, maybe get some cows and chickens, have eggs and fresh milk—he couldn’t see himself slaughtering anything. It all seemed a little overwhelming though, as first he’d have to buy the land back from the bank, with the falling-apart barn still on it (a termite palace, his mother would call it). The house burnt down maybe a year or two ago, around the same time, give or take, that his mother’s had, so Jones figured the meth chefs had found their way in there too. Season of burnings, a rash of them, houses, trailers, trucks, overgrown yards where there’d been some sort of shed—the meth cookers were scouting out new digs as fast as they destroyed them.
But it made for a good place to walk, the field now filled with wild flowers and long grasses and paths through them where the rows for the crops must’ve been. He was strolling on a path, and all of a sudden from the rim of the woods beyond two little fawns came running toward him, twin fawns, bumping into each other in their haste to get to him, those spindly legs all akimbo and when they reached him they started rubbing their soft little heads against his pant-legs and Jones realized they must not see too good and thought he was their mother. That is until he reached down to pet them and they smelled the human on his hand, made that huff sound deer make warning each other of danger and bolted. It was a good thing God or whathaveyou did that, Jones figured, made the smell of a person an instinct to run, because Jones can’t think of anything in this world more threatening. The moment before they took off Jones touched one of their cold noses and had known for just a moment some sort of infinite trust they were placing in him, the trust of the weaker for the stronger, that the stronger would not hurt them, and he decided it was a sign, to take the Paro for the girl. He’d been considering that, weighing it against what he knew to be true: that stealing is wrong.
The Paro is the next cutest thing Jones has seen, second to those fawns. There’s a couple of them in the nursing home he sweeps out every Saturday, washes the floors, windows, things the regular janitor doesn’t have time to do and since the regular janitor is Todd, who used to work with him at the Giant and managed the trailer park Jones lived in for awhile, he’s hired Jones as a sub-contractor of sorts, Todd calls him—pays Jones so he can stay home that day, watch sports on TV and stick it to his wife, Todd said. Jones likes the sound of that, sub-contractor, like he’s doing something official. Todd told him not to tell Unemployment though or they’d cut his benefits, even if its just one day a week of pay. That’s how the government works, Todd said, it’s all or nothing. You want to be on the all end of things, he said.
The nursing home is called Willow Bend and it’s state run so it doesn’t have much, but some do-gooder donated a couple of the Paros to comfort the patients who have dementia, Todd told Jones. It looks like a baby seal, all white and furry with big black eyes and long eyelashes that blink when you pet it, makes trilling sounds and paddles its flippers, responds to your voice when you talk to it. It’s a robot, Todd said, and it makes folks who’ve got nobody, who don’t even know who they are anymore think something loves them. And when the battery runs down in two hours, the folks just think it’s gone to sleep and they curl up beside it. Todd shook his head, like maybe he thought the people who slept peacefully beside the Paro had been duped, but Jones thought it sounded kind of nice. He’d seen the wild look on some of their faces, how they didn’t even know where they were anymore, and the empty look others had like none of it matters, and what Jones was thinking was that maybe one of those Paros would help the girl, who also has this look, when she looks at him at all. His mother the ghost said she might be going crazy and he better consider letting her go. Think catch and release, his mother said, you just take her far away from here, like the Endless Mountains and release her there. When they find her they won’t know where she’s been, and she won’t have a clue neither. But all Jones could think about was the bad people who might find her, ones like the boy she was with in the car who would make her do things and Jones couldn’t allow that to happen. How could he live with himself if he did?
Did he steal the girl? Jones asked himself this, and the answer was clear: no, he did not. He rescued her. Maybe he could bring one of those Paros home for the girl.
But how to do that? Clearly if he asked to borrow one they wouldn’t let him, who was Jones? Just a guy who helps Todd on Saturdays. And Todd said robots aren’t cheap, that these are probably worth a chunk. Most folks slave their lives away, or they lose their jobs then slowly die, and if they get dementia their minds go mush and they wink out. No damn robot takes the edge off that, Todd said.
Still, fawns don’t come running toward humans thinking they can trust them, so it must’ve been a sign, Jones reminds himself. Perhaps if he has a good reason to take the Paro, to help the girl, then that negates the bad that is stealing. Maybe it makes it less of a steal and more just borrowing it, even though they wouldn’t know who was borrowing it, and when the girl got better he could bring it back to them, he would bring it back. He’ll sleep on it for a few nights, Jones decides, what his mother used to say when he needed to sort something out. Just sleep on it, she said.
He gazes at the girl now; he guesses she’s asleep. Since he tied her ankle instead of her wrists she’s taken to lying on her back and staring out the window. It’s frosted but there’s the strip at the top that’s clear, and one night when he thought she was most definitely asleep he lay quietly down beside her, careful not to touch her, his head on the pillow next to hers, so close he could smell his own shampoo’s minty scent, the shampoo he’d given her to use for her showers and he imagined what it would be like, knowing her this way, the scent of her hair, sleeping beside her every night. He didn’t close his eyes though as he was afraid he really would fall asleep and when she woke she’d panic thinking he’d done something to her. So instead he looked out the window. It was dark and he could make out a couple stars, little pricks of light through the clear part of the glass, just that. But it seemed like it could be enough.
Loulie is dreaming of the barn owl her mom found at the side of the road, Loulie a little girl, watching as Annalee gently picked it up, wrapping it in her own sweater which she had taken off, despite the chill in the air. It had been hit by a car and in real life Annalee cared for it only until the people from the Wildlife Center came and took it away a couple hours later, but in the dream her mom cares for it for days, maybe weeks, until the broken wings heal and Annalee says it’s time to set it free. So they do, into a line of trees Loulie doesn’t recognize, and as it flies up toward the highest branch suddenly a murder of crows zoom out of the trees, the air raw with their screeches, black shadows of their wings and they mob the owl, swooping down upon it as it falls to the ground. Annalee racing toward it with Loulie screaming at her to stop, the birds lifting off the owl, hovering over her mom.
Jones is a little irritated at his mother the ghost. Supposedly she died in that fire; the coroner gave him back some human remains, so charred from the explosion a court had to pronounce them hers. Jones was suspicious. They could’ve been hers along with the other meth cookers, since nobody claimed to even know those two let alone mourn their loss, but he buried them under that oak where she used to sit sometimes, daydreaming, she’d tell him, of Sam Shepherd. His mother had been in love with Sam Shepard ever since she saw him in some movie saving his family from a raging river, though he lost the farm and everything else. He had his principles and his priorities set straight, his mother said. She said the great tragedy of her life was never actually meeting Sam Shepard, because she was pretty sure if she had, that he would’ve fallen in love with her too. It’s the way things work, she told Jones, that we are destined to grow old living a parallel life apart from the one we should be living with. Jones glued a picture of Sam Shepherd snipped from People Magazine onto the urn, and if the other meth cookers were in there too, who knew what they dreamt about, or if they dreamt at all.
But now she’s back again and just as bossy, yammering about what Jones should do for the girl. He needs to help her, she insists, so why does she think the girl is here in the first place? I saved her! he tells his mother the ghost, and she says that’s all well and good but the girl is going nuts, and insanity is no saving grace, as if he didn’t know. He moved the mattress at his mother’s request, put the rope and chain around the girl’s ankle instead of her wrists; recently he even replaced the frosted glass with a regular pane (just a couple small nicks in it—he picked it up at the Salvage Yard), and now the girl stares out that window all the time, changing her position so her head is opposite and she’s gazing out, or right under it and she’s peering up. Either way she refuses to look at him.
Now his mother the ghost wants him to take her out for a walk. What is she, a dog? he asks his mother the ghost.
That girl needs fresh air, his mother says. She’s sitting at the Formica table glaring at him, or he assumes she’s glaring, as the expression on her face doesn’t change or even move, and it doesn’t much look like her face to begin with. But her posture, the steely pose of her spine, the darts of her shoulders, even the growl of her voice speaks to his mother’s former glare.
He remembers his walks with her, years before she was his mother the ghost, before she would’ve had anything to do with people who cook crystal methamphetamine. (They paid me for the use of my house, she told him—you try to make ends meet pulling double shifts when you’re my age.) Letting him lead her out into the darkness after she came home from work at the Night-Owl, watching fireflies like sparks on the long grass in their yard, which they left uncut as a haven for the flying, crawling, buzzing things he loved. Eventually she’d get sick of it and tell him he had to mow, which he did, his throat raw, nose running, snuffling it all up, thinking how he’s killing them—the beetles with their shiny green carapaces, columns of ants, things that jump and wing across the grass, cicadas, moths, even butterflies—he imagined all those beautiful little creatures churned up like colorful bits of confetti in the mower.
So maybe he could do it, take the girl out, particularly now since there’s nobody in the field, just the old barn caving back into the land. He could blindfold her and put duct tape over her mouth, not that anyone would hear her but just in case (it’s for her own good). Or they could go in the other direction to the old stone church. Jones can’t remember when it closed its doors, what was left of the congregation moved to the bigger Lutheran church in town. When he was thirteen, old enough where his mother took the late shift at the Night-Owl and didn’t worry about leaving him, Jones would eat whatever he could find, canned corn, a bologna sandwich, and later when the night wore down to the ticking of the furnace and he was afraid of the quiet, he’d go outside where it wasn’t the silence of walls, but a whole night full of living things, crickets, owls hooting, things rustling in the bushes, wild things and Jones was not afraid. He’d climb up on the roof of the old church and gaze out at the night, the river a dark slash on the horizon. ‘Roof Lutheran’ his mother called him when she discovered what he’d been doing, about the closest we’ll come to religion, she said. He hasn’t been to the church in a while. It had been for sale, but who’s going to buy a church, especially now when half the houses around it seemed to have been foreclosed on, abandoned, boarded up, or just plain falling apart because the folks who own them have no jobs.
Maybe he could bring the girl outside instead of giving her the Paro, because Willow Bend had started locking them up when they weren’t with a patient, and when they were Jones didn’t have the heart to take them away.
She remembers her mom giving her a model of a cardinal to assemble and paint—Loulie was eight years old, a rainy, dreary Sunday and Annalee says here’s something we can do. But it’s the royal we, as her mom used to describe the “we” who means “you,” and Loulie sat at the dining room table, which wasn’t technically a dining room table since the little grey house didn’t have a dining room, but her mom called it that, mahogany and scratched—she kept a paisley shawl over it. Annalee covered everything with old newspapers and gave Loulie a paint set in a tin tray that had all the primary colors plus a row of pastels, and a cup of water to wash the brushes in. You like birds, her mom said, handing her the pieces and the directions for snapping them together. Loulie spent hours on that model bird, trying to make it right, painting it scarlet with a black mask around its eyes and its beak, just like the instructions called for. When she was done she showed it to Annalee who cocked her head, not unlike a bird herself. It’s fine, she said, looks just like it does in real life. But why didn’t you try to create something new? A purple striped cardinal, or an orange and neon pink one. That’s what we have imaginations for.
The roar of the highway, always the roar of that highway—close enough to hear it but never see it and the people inside the cars on the highway can’t ever see her. Loulie’s peered out the window in the bathroom when he takes her for her shower, facing toward that sound, a rush of it going forward and another in the other direction, cars going east, west, but looking out that window all she sees are the woods. One of the times she tried to escape, she glanced around to get her bearings, to see which direction would be best, and she realized how isolated it was, this trailer, sitting on land outside of town like so many of them do, surrounded by woods, fields, hunkered down inside a valley, a hollow between those endless hills and what links them is the highway threading through.
From her mattress Loulie studies the trailer floor. She starts with the squares of linoleum the mattress is on and works out from there, each patch and what it contains, its own little world. The one closest to her left ankle, for instance, has a lightning shaped crack in the yellowing surface, what lightning might look like if you were drawing it coming out of the sky. But the sky in this world is tainted. It’s not blue, not white, not a nighttime darkness, this dingy yellow that might be beige, the color of sand? Of vomit? It’s the wrong color for a sky even if one did use their imagination. Let’s say you’re an artist, would you paint your sky the color of throw-up?
Loulie imagines following these squares if she were an ant; to move across them would be like moving through town, each one offering something, schools, a gym, maybe even a park of some sort. The next town over has grit in it, which might be crumbs from Loulie’s lunch when the man picked up her plate. He had given her a peanut butter sandwich and Loulie used to like peanut butter, in fact sometimes there’d be little else in the cupboards when Annalee had an especially long week at IBM and didn’t have time to market, so Loulie would ferret out the jar, pop in a spoon and dig. But things have lost their taste, or the tastes of the foods he gives her blends into each other, cancelling each other out so that sometimes it’s like she’s not even eating food. Today she spit the sandwich out because she had this horrible sensation that it was plastic or rubber or something inedible, and what was worse she couldn’t remember what these might feel like either, on her tongue, down her throat.
It’s peanut butter the man told her, as if she had asked. Did she? She can’t recall if her thoughts are sometime spoken, or whether she has lost the ability to speak entirely and talks only in her head. But then why would the man say that? Perhaps he can hear her thoughts? Maybe that’s what he’s doing right now, sprawled on that couch studying her like she’s the TV, pretending to watch the TV which is on at its usual drone, like insects buzzing around your ears—it doesn’t bother her as it’s the highway she listens to, everything moving that becomes the past, flowing away from her.
More and more Loulie’s been thinking about Troy-boy, her last connection to her former life, the last person she was with. She wonders whether he’s got a new girlfriend, someone who will let him do what he wants. Maybe Miriam Hopewell, that skanky girl he sold meth to sometimes. Loulie should’ve let him, but when he clamped her neck in a choke-hold and forced his tongue down her throat all the while glomming on to her boob like it was some kind of life-line, that freaked her out. So she kneed him where her mom said you go for a guy if he’s being fresh, and he let go of her, groaning, curled up like a question mark, and she bolted out of his car straight into the arms of this man who hoisted her into his car like she was a slab of something, forcing her down on the floor. She should’ve let Troy-boy strip off her jeans, her panties, and just kept doing those drugs, smoking that meth, she can see it now, the smoke curling over their heads, inhale, exhale, inhale; it could make it so she wouldn’t feel a thing.
Jones is thinking about insects. He likes their ordered world, and sometimes when things feel especially out of control in his he thinks of theirs instead. Their world is so much fuller, so much busier than what humans think of as their own world. The sky, for instance, what humans look at as being essentially empty, a wide space over their heads that allows rain or snow to fall on them or wind to blow, something to fly airplanes through to get from one place to another, is actually filled with insects. There are ladybugs at 6,000 feet above our heads, gnats at 7,000 feet and a spider was discovered at 15,000 feet in its web, drifting on a current of air. Theirs is a simpler world than ours, Jones thinks, because they don’t have memories. They just live every minute like it’s the first. And they don’t have to judge others, or know what is right or wrong and act on it. They just are. Jones envies that lightness. It’s a weight to try and do what is right, or to try keep others from doing wrong.
As a child Jones used to play with caterpillars, stuck them in tall glasses with foil on top, then watched them spin their cocoons and turn into butterflies. Then he’d let them go. But a man his mother brought home one night peeled the foil off Jones’ glasses, dumping his caterpillars onto the kitchen counter and laughed as they crawled around, his mother shrieking, pretending to be afraid. Jones gathered the caterpillars up after they had gone to bed, took them outside to the milkweed plants and set them free.
He stares at the girl who is staring at the floor. She reminds Jones of a caterpillar, the humpbacked way she sits into herself on the mattress. She could become a butterfly and then he’d let her go, if she had wings and could fly up into the sky where it’s safe.
Maybe it’s Annalee’s birthday today. Loulie remembers it was in August, and she thinks it must be August, the way the light is in the window, hard and long, a dusty, burdened red when the sun is going down. And it’s hot, so hot and breathless in the trailer Loulie sometimes imagines taking her clothes off, stretched out on the mattress in her bra and panties like it’s a bathing suit, like it’s nothing. Annalee would. Her mom talked about getting old but everywhere they went men stared at her. What’s fifty? Loulie probably won’t even make it to seventeen.
Maybe she meets up with some friends who take her out to celebrate, sing to her over a cake, coconut her mom’s favorite. Make a wish, a tan brunette says, and maybe her mom tells them she has nothing to wish for, even though, as Loulie imagines, she’s living out of the Plymouth since the landlord padlocked the little grey house. But they wouldn’t know this. And her daughter is gone, which she wouldn’t tell them either. It’s a celebration, after all. And there’s Annalee’s pride; she wouldn’t want them to pity her. That much, Loulie knows, is real.
What if they take her to a club, let’s say, the kind where the girls dance around poles—when her mom was a wild child she used to go there, she told Loulie, and it’s a fiftieth birthday after all. Aren’t you supposed to do something a little crazy? At first she’d been skeptical, watching the girls, the way that pole twirled would hardly feel stable at all. But they were good, her mom had told Loulie. Some had been real dancers; you could see it in their muscles, a kind of muscle memory for the dance. Maybe Annalee watches them twirl on the pole while the muscles do their thing, like the carousel poles in the park she used to take her daughter to, those green summer days. Would she remember how when the music began, little Loulie clutched at the horses rising up and down on the poles, her knuckles white as paste, as if falling from one would be the worst thing? Neither of them had a clue then what the worst thing was. Not even Annalee almost getting smothered in a van back when she used to hitchhike was worse than this. Hah, what do you know! Loulie’s one-upped her mom, after all.
They don’t think about the clothes they take off, her mom told her, just that their body looks good. And even if it doesn’t, the skin mottled in places, a little too much of it, it doesn’t matter. It’s a willingness to get naked that turns guys on (Troy-boy said that)—not how you look naked, just that you are.
As the birthday girl watches the women strut up to the center of the stage, shimmy out of their breakaway clothes, careful not to step on them in the jeweled stilettos, perhaps she is reminded of the little plastic heels she once gave her daughter, with straps around the ankles. And how she’d let Loulie dress up in Annalee’s own clothes, her grapefruit-pink lipstick, clip-on earrings, dragging about the little grey house in this get-up like it was her inheritance—the Annlee smile, a cavern, an emptiness.
Jones is finally doing it, what his mother the ghost has been nagging him about: taking the girl for a walk in the field, if for no other reason than to get away from his mother who’s permanent as a light fixture now, one you can’t switch off, telling him what to do about the girl who at last started talking, maybe so she could defend herself from what his mother deems best. I won’t go outside with him in the dark! The girl declared last night. She addresses the room like Jones isn’t in it, but she’s at least speaking.
The thing is, he saw something special a few days ago and then he saw it again yesterday, a new bird! He’s never seen a bird like this, its wings green with a pale yellow like pound cake, its head and throat a burnished gold, a white chest. The closest he could find to it on the Internet was a picture of a tropical finch, Palila, one of the Hawaiian honeycreeper birds. The website said it’s critically endangered. But what would it be doing 6,000 miles away in upstate New York, feeding at Jones’ feeder? Nervously, its shimmery little head popping about, glitter of its black eyes like shards of glass, peering all around as if he knows he’s the only one and therefore a target of some sort. According to the article, this bird could soon be extinct. It needs the mamane tree for sustenance, in a forest on the slopes of Mauna Kea, but these are also disappearing due to forest destruction and a prolonged drought. Which means it might soon be the last bird of its kind in the world, or else some sort of mutation and the beginning of a new species! Jones would like to figure out a way to keep it safe, but first he has to find out where it stays when it isn’t at the feeder, a nest of some sort? Jones thinks this must be a sign.
No one ever comes to the field but him, so even though it’s daylight nobody will see them. Still he insisted she be blindfolded; not sure why since no one seeing them means she won’t see anybody, but it seemed a prudent idea and so he tied a red checkered dish towel around her head, her wrists bound, and is now leading the girl into the field, clutching her arm, careful so she doesn’t trip on anything, the uneven ground, tangles of tree roots. It’s a hot afternoon, humid after the rainstorm last night and all manner of buzzing things are dive-bombing their heads and the girl shrieks, batting her tied-up hands at a horsefly that bit her neck. Get me out of this thing! She yells.
Do you mean the blindfold? Jones asks.
Duh! she says, and Jones smiles—it’s the first actual conversation they’ve had, him saying something, then her responding, and him responding to her, then she’s talking again—since he brought her to the trailer and she begged him to let her go. When she ran and he had to tie her up they had another conversation, but this was him talking to her, patiently explaining how it was for her own good.
I’ll take it off soon, Jones says. I want to show you something but we’re not there yet. He leads her deeper into the field, where there isn’t a path, into the middle where they’re having to part long grass, dodge creeping vines that hook around their knees and at one point the girl falls into him and for a moment he feels her body against his, her sweaty arm, her breast. His breath quickens and she must’ve heard the change in it as suddenly she stands still as rock. I won’t take another step until you take this thing off my eyes! And then, in almost the same breath—but quietly, her voice a whisper and wobbling such that Jones wonders if he heard her at all—she says, You ever kiss a girl?
Jones blushes, ignores the question (was it really a question?). Come on, he says, we’re almost there. I promise you’ll like it, he adds.
Take off this blindfold! I want to see what I’m stepping on. I won’t go another inch, I told you.
You should be grateful to be out of the trailer, he mutters, but he does it, unties the dishrag and her grey-green eyes stare into his. He expects her to look away, she never looks him in the eyes, but instead she inhales a shaky breath and steps closer to him. To avoid thinking about how close she is, he loosens the tie around one of her wrists, frees the hand, then binds her other wrist to his. He hopes she appreciates this. She’s trembling all over, the rope going taut with her tremors; like a high wire he thinks, like something very tiny could walk on it, crossing the space between them.
Well? You didn’t answer me. Have you? Kissed a girl? She’s watching him, her pupils large, her eyes seeming to lose focus, darting about, quick and grey as guppies, peering at things on all sides then back to his face. I’m just asking if you have, that’s all, she says, her voice squeaking high then cutting out.
I know where a nest is, he tells her, again ignoring the question; it’s in that oak tree in the middle of the field. It has baby robins in it. He’s thinking this sounds a little stupid and wishes his mother the ghost hadn’t suggested it; show her something special, she said. What does she think he is, a tour guide? Jones assumed the baby birds would be special enough, they are for him, but now the girl’s unbuttoning the top button on her shirt with her free hand, and she grabs his free hand, placing it against the flesh over her heart; he can feel it beating, erratic little pulses like something wounded. I’m a person! she whispers, sun shimmering down, the warmth of her, everything glowing as he yanks away, then the shock of the rope around his wrist snapping him back.
Loulie forces herself to look at him, crinkling her eyes, sun like a blade. Don’t you get it? she says, starting to cry, her lower lip quivering. Please hear me! I know you think you were saving me, you’ve said that over and over, but it’s not what you think. You say no, but maybe you don’t mean it. Or maybe you do. It’s not a clean-cut thing. It’s a lot messier than that. You can’t save a person from something they don’t even know if they want or not. Haven’t you ever felt that? Where someone wants you and you’re not sure if you want them, but maybe you do? Who made you God anyway? Who said it’s your job to save me, even if you could?
Jones thinks about this; could be his mother the ghost was right about the girl going crazy—she isn’t making a lot of sense. Then again, should he be listening to his mother the ghost? His mother believes she’s been resurrected from the meth-cooking explosion, set back down again for some purpose she can’t figure out. I ain’t no Jesus, she told Jones when finally he asked how it was she’s here, out of the ashes he buried under the oak, said a few words over, then brought his trailer to her land, collecting the small amount from her life insurance to hook it up. They wouldn’t pay a thing for me being alive, she told Jones, and what’s more would probably put me in jail. I ain’t no Jesus, she said again; I’m back but with scars all over.
The girl looks at Jones with drenched eyes, chewing on her lip. Don’t you want to see the nest? he asks her. Also there’s another bird that’s started coming around, a brand new bird, or one that belongs 6,000 miles away. Could be a migrant but I’ve never seen its species here. He just appeared one day, no others like him.
Answer me! she squeals, her voice shrill, slapping a gnat off her cheek. Haven’t you ever wanted someone who wanted you, then got confused about if you do or not?
Jones lowers his head. Nobody would want me, he says.
Loulie collapses on the ground, dragging Jones down with her. I just want my mom, that’s all I want! she sobs.
He puts his hand tentatively on her shoulder. The shirt is still unbuttoned and he can see the rounded tops of her breasts. It’s OK, he says. He had felt the need to say something; she’d been talking to him, after all, like he’s a real person. Jones kneels in front of her and carefully, hand shaking, secures her top button. Do you like butterflies? he asks. I know where there’s Monarchs. Edge of the field, where the milkweed grows. Their habitat’s disappearing where they migrate. And pesticides kill what they eat. In another decade there may be no more Monarch butterflies.
Loulie peers up at Jones, his brow crumpled like he’s feeling it too, the wreckage. She remembers again her grandmother lying helpless in that sleigh bed, and afterwards the plane ride with her mom. She just hangs on, Annalee said. She’s not alive, but she’s not not alive. We keep her like that so we don’t have to face the empty bed.
But we weren’t keeping her, Loulie thinks; we were flying home. She wondered why her grandmother didn’t do it, just fly away.
Gazing out the plane’s window at those snow-struck mountains, Loulie had imagined the valleys below them, fields and plains, rivers, highways, sprawling cities, their skyscrapers like beacons; the world she would be part of someday, adventures she’d have, people she would meet that were still only outlines of possibility, like ghosts. But not dead ones, the ones who hadn’t come alive yet in her life. Even Jones had been somewhere below her as Loulie flew into her future.
Her gaze is steady now, staring at Jones right in the eyes. I believe you about that bird, she says, the one you saw that shouldn’t be here. She inhales a full breath, exhales. Jones presses his hand against his face, sliding it over the smooth pane of his forehead, scratchy-rough of his cheeks, the hard knob of his nose, his mouth. He thinks about that bird. Why did it come here? Did the wind blow him here, a hurricane or a tropical storm? How will he survive their frozen winters? Or is this a new bird that no one but Jones has seen? Jones recalls a show on NOVA. He had it on to amuse the girl, but he got caught up when they said something about how most paleontologists regard birds as the last surviving dinosaur, the only ones to come out of the mass extinction and continue on. Maybe the bird is gaining strength at his feeder, storing up energy from the seed Jones puts there and soon he’ll be strong enough to fly away. Soon he’ll find his way home.
Jones stares into the waning afternoon toward the dark thatch of woods surrounding the field. Loulie follows his gaze, but she’s thinking about a different season, different year, the snow on the ground a salty, grainy white making it look more like a beach or a desert, someplace that was not here. She and her mom staring out from the little grey house and they saw two yearling deer standing in the winter-dried weeds at the edge of their yard, the same wheat shade as the late afternoon such that they seemed to merge with the dying light, tan stalks the same height as their tan necks, tan ears poking out of tassels that had already grown, turned green and were on the other side of things. The way they blended in made Loulie wonder if she was seeing them at all. But they were there, those calm, alert faces. Then they were gone, slipping into the woods beyond.