by Nicole Hefner
She knocks harder the second time. Years ago Kirk would have answered if she hardly even tapped. The terracotta pots that line the porch are mostly cracked or busted. One of them holds a spindly spider plant, must be some sort of miracle; Kirk never had much luck keeping anything alive. The others hold nothing or a little bit of rainwater and some cigarette butts. She thinks she hears him say it's open, but she stands, her hands in her Levi pockets, and she stares back over her shoulder and up into the trees. There's an old plastic ghost tangled too high for anybody to bother with. She should go.
“I said it's open,” he says, opening the door.
Even when things were right between Kirk and Christine, they never got any good at hello or goodbye. They were better at the in-between. This afternoon she told her sister Laynie that she was just going out for a drive. And she meant to, really. She couldn't stand the antiseptic stench of the hospital anymore or the silence of the heart wing. All those tubes like jellyfish arms, the silver IV-stand decorated with scented-marker drawings by her niece, Bianca: jellybean leaves fell off chocolate trees, the lemon sun, a fading cherry “Smile Grandpa!”
She drove past the tiny county airport and down the street they lived on before their mother died, then up the road to where the high school used to be. She drove with her windows down, took long swigs of Diet Coke and thought she knew everybody she passed. The flat land that she dreamed of leaving while growing up is now stubbled with office supply stores, Outback Steakhouses, Bed, Bath & Beyonds.
“I wasn't expecting company,” Kirk says, wiping the counter with a sour dishtowel. She tells him she doesn't mind at all, promise, and they let themselves look at each other for a few seconds too long before he goes to the cabinet and takes out two tall caramel-colored glasses. He snaps the spine of the ice tray. Three cubes each, Jack, ginger ale. He doesn't ask if she wants it or if she wants anything else, just hands it to her. They still have not touched. “Heard about your dad.”
“Thanks.” She takes a sip, and the Jack burns deep going down. It's not like the watered-down Cosmos she drinks at O'Connell's, the limes she sucks till she gnaws at the rind. She doesn't want to talk about anything, about why she hasn't called or her dad's dry parted lips or the way Bianca plays Itsy-Bitsy Spider up his cracked arm and into his papery blue hospital sleeve. The second sip doesn't burn as much.
“I really am sorry, Christine.” In the doorway of the kitchen, a shadow falls in a diagonal over Kirk's face. The lines on his forehead have dug deep, and his dark blonde hair, though he still wears it longer than most men his age, has thinned a bit. Especially in the back. Not that he's all that old, eight years older than Christine. When they met it mattered more. He was twenty-three and worried about her being so young. Jailbait, he whispered into her smooth hair when she sat on the kitchen counter straddling him with her fifteen-year old legs. Dirty old man, she said and sucked his fingers one by one until he looked up towards the ceiling and closed his eyes.
Sixteen years later, a ventilator on the other side of town pushes air into and out of her father's lungs; she wipes the thin skin of her wrist over the wet ring her glass leaves on the counter and follows Kirk into the living room.
“I was just driving by,” she says. Kirk shuffles a deck of blue playing cards, his knuckles raw. His own father shot himself when Kirk was too young to understand why anyone would want to die. There are nights now when Christine in her far away apartment wakes up startled, knowing that Kirk has just slipped a bullet through the roof of his mouth or stepped off the chipped gray wooden chair in his kitchen. He holds up a card for Christine.
“Seven of hearts?”
“You suck.” He holds up another.
When Laynie called on Wednesday morning, Christine thought it was to tell her that Kirk was dead and ask her to come home for the funeral. She had rehearsed it in her mind: No, she really couldn't get away, she would say, something for a magazine, deadlines. On the day of the funeral she planned to sit on the floor near her only window with a bottle of something good, a jar of white asparagus and a bowl of French onion dip, crying and eating, busting her toe when she kicked the wall, balling up tissues, wanting to die, but Kirk was across from her holding a three of spades. It was her father, the man who always seemed like he would go on living--that chipped tooth laugh echoing--long after the rest of them had given up. Something with his heart, Laynie said, and Christine threw a few things into a bag and got a flight to Oklahoma City.
Outside, the sky readies itself for evening, releases the last bit of weak blue and lets its ink spread slow and smooth. Christine stares at the hollow space below Kirk's Adam's apple; she watches him swallow, wants to press her palm on his throat. They sit on the floor on either side of the glass coffee table. Christine picks at the paint of the gold-plated leg with her thumbnail. They preferred the floor to the couch, years ago, though she doesn't remember why; it's just where they ended up. Kitchen, then floor, later the bedroom where she traced her name over and over on his back. Love me, she would write with her fingernail--e on top of v on top of o and l. Getting up, Kirk makes a low, soft grunt; Christine says something about him being ancient, laughs.
She hears the ice cubes crack as he pours warm whiskey over them. “I should really be going,” she yells into the kitchen, but Kirk has turned on the water, is letting it scald his hands, breathes. When she was six years old, Christine's father took her on a camping trip. Laynie was about to be born, and the doctor had placed the girls' mother on bed rest. Christine spent long days sitting by the bed holding her mother's bloated hand, but then the grandmother came, and Christine and her father drove for what seemed like hours into the jagged Wichita mountains. “Used to be bigger than the Rockies,” her father told her, but millions of years of wind and rain, and they were hardly any taller than a water tower.
Christine remembers watching her father pitch the rust-colored tent in the dusk; she remembers twisting dirty wooden sticks into the soft pink of the hotdogs, but she has forgotten that on that trip, on a distant mountain, a little boy died after having been scared by a bear. Under the quarter moon, the smell of the fire still in her hair, she and her father sat listening to the radio when a woman with a scratchy voice gave the news of the boy who, while camping with his family, had come upon a bear and, after going into apparent cardiac arrest, had died. “Scared to death,” her father said, laughing. He growled, stuck his unshaven chin near Christine's ear. “Scared by a bear.”
“It's not funny,” she told him, and he looked down at her glassy gray eyes. He took a long pull from his flask then tried a smaller laugh and said he was sorry and they didn't need to worry about a thing.
“Besides,” he said, “There's no such thing as bears in Oklahoma.”
That night, Christine lay in her sleeping bag staring up through the thin canvas of the tent. When her eyes adjusted, she believed she could make out the stars. Her father's heavy breath grew damp, and finally she fell asleep, dreamed of floating out of her body, hovering just outside of the tent and listening to the howl of a faraway wolf.
“Why don't you come a little closer?” Christine asks Kirk. She pats the carpet beside her, the synthetic fabric stinging her hand, and he sits down with her, their backs against the couch. She puts her head on his familiar shoulder. “It's good to see you.” A train's horn blows. She had forgotten how comforting she finds the sound of a train horn blowing. Kirk smells of hand-rolled tobacco and dish soap.
“Why'd you come?”
“What? My dad's sick.” Christine scoots around to the other side of the table. She thinks she feels Kirk's hand reaching for her, but then she is facing him. “Let's play rummy.” She counts out eleven smooth cards for Kirk, ten for herself.
“Things have changed, Christine.”
“You're first,” she says. She pairs her eights, situates the ten of diamonds, jack of diamonds, king of diamonds, moves the extras to the left, ready to be discarded. Kirk, who has moved up to the couch, taps his small stack of cards on the glass table. Christine looks up towards the ceiling. “Everything seems the same to me.”
At the hospital yesterday afternoon, Christine had taken Bianca down to the cafeteria at lunchtime. They slid their brown plastic trays across the dull metal runner. Beef Stroganoff, syrupy peaches, overcooked green beans. Christine stared at the dirty crooked part of Bianca's hair. “Your mom didn't do such a good job on that pony tail.”
Bianca shrugged. The harsh light brought out the plum color of the three faint gumball-sized bruises that lined her wrist. “Do you think Grandpa's going to die?”
“I don't know.”
“Mom says everybody dies.”
Christine licked her thumb and smoothed out Bianca's eyebrows. “That's probably true,” she said. She fished out nickels from her red coin purse to pay the man whose dark under-eye circles seemed somehow to make his hairnet look less ridiculous. “Don't you think that's true?” she asked him, not wanting to be rude.
“You're a dime short,” he said.
He pointed to the change, pennies stacked ten high, quarters laid out in fours. “You can put the Jell-o back,” he said.
“For a dime?”
“Not my rules to break, lady.”
“My father is fucking dying.”
“It's a hospital,” he said. “Keep your voice down.”
Christine took Bianca's hand, left their food and the money, walked out twenty feet from the entrance of the massive hospital and lit a cigarette. She held it in her mouth while she opened a bag of pretzels from the plane.
“Mom says you don't want kids because you don't want to die.”
“Have a pretzel,” Christine said.
“Because your mom died.”
“Please be quiet for a minute.”
“It's just what mom said.”
“Bianca, listen, not everyone wants children.”
Salt clung to the corner of Bianca's perfect bowed mouth. She held a stick in her hand and drew a tic-tac-toe board in the red dirt. “But don't you?” she asked. Christine took the stick and drew an O in the middle square.
Christine picks up Kirk's discarded eight. The Jack is getting her right behind the eyes, in the back of her nose. “You should probably go,” Kirk says.
“Gin.” She lays down her hand.
“Really, Christine. I can't do this.”
Christine walks over to Kirk. She stands above him, straddles him, lowers herself down to whisper in his ear. “Can't do what? Get beat at rummy?” She kisses his neck, breathes open-mouthed onto the skin above his collar bone, “Can't do this?” She runs her lips to his sternum. “This?”
“Any of it,” he says, but he is almost silent. She unbuttons his shirt, kisses his chest.
“Any of it,” he says louder.
When they first met, all those years ago, Kirk had not known what to do with Christine's forwardness. Women his own age sat with their hands folded in their laps and asked him questions about growing up, about his family.
“Oh my god, I'm so sorry. How did he die?” they asked.
“Killed himself,” he told them. The women usually excused themselves to the lady's room and came back with too much lip gloss. Christine had been different.
Even though Kirk had promised himself never to get involved with a student, he knew from the first day of third period English that Christine wanted him. He didn't know that they would continue to date for eight years or that they would plan to leave town together, that he would decide not to go at the last minute and that she would leave anyway, but he knew, the fall light slanting through the thick chalk-dust, that he wanted her too.
He found himself growing quietly obsessed with Christine. He made a habit of not calling on her in class and giving her lower grades than she deserved, but when that didn't work he bought her a Dr. Pepper. He knew from the guidance counselor that her mother had passed away several years before and that her father was a heavy drinker so she took care of her younger sister. He tried not to think of her with the high school boys, their clumsy, dirty fingers clawing at her.
“You should just ring the bell, Mr. Quinn.”
Christine was sitting on top of his desk. It was after school, and she had stopped by on her way to drama club. She twirled the straw wrapper between her thumb and forefinger. Her denim skirt rode up her thigh, and the almost invisible blonde hairs on her leg reflected the late afternoon light. “When you drive by,” she said, “you should just ring the bell. My dad's always passed out till after dinner.”
“I was on my way to the gym.”
“Don't lie to me, Mr. Quinn.” Christine hopped off the desk and let her hand rest near the tiny green amphibian sewn into his shirt. “Ooh,” she said. “I'm scared of alligators.”
“How about this?” she asks. She reaches for the top button of his jeans.
“Christine, I'm serious. Stop.”
The streetlights turn on outside the house; their low hum floods the town. Christine looks toward the window, breathes, turns back, reaches.
“Please,” she says.
“Do you want me to beg? Is that it?”
“Goddamnit, Christine.” Somewhere over near the tracks, a dog howls; the rug burns the heels of Kirk's palms.
“Come on.” She grinds her hips into his, closes her eyes. “I need to feel something, Kirk. Feel you.”
Kirk takes her by her shoulders, squeezes them hard. “Look at me.”
“I need to feel you.”
Kirk shakes Christine harder. “Open your fucking eyes and look at me. I'm on meds, okay? Do you have to make me say it? I can't even get it up.”
“Yes, you can. You can. I know you can.”
“Get off me,” Kirk yells.
And then, Christine is flying. She is flying, and she is thinking, this is what it feels like to fly, if only for the fractured second between Kirk letting her go and her body crashing into the glass table, she is flying.
Later, in the emergency room, the physician will remove the largest pieces of glass--the ones lodged in the back of her skull and the wing of her shoulder blade--with forceps. He will prescribe antibiotics for prophylaxis and tell her that she has broken three ribs, but she is lucky, very lucky, he will say. Kirk will stand in the waiting room watching the hands of the clock not move as he tries to swallow the remains of his lukewarm coffee. Or he will slip through the revolving door, and Laynie will be at her bedside holding the bendy straw to Christine's lips and using her thumb to wipe away the watered-down orange juice that dribbles down Christine's chin while Bianca draws hundreds of roses for her. Deep into the night, at her father's request, the nurses will push Christine's bed into his ICU room. Side-by-side, they will wake, and in their paper gowns, watch reruns of the television shows they have always loved. The remote control will be in her father's left knotted hand, and in his right, surprisingly warm and dry hand will be Christine's hand.
But, of course, it can't really happen this way. Christine has never been lucky enough--or unlucky enough--for this sort of thing to happen. Luck simply isn't something she possesses; she earns what she earns and loses what she loses. Tonight, with that longed-for, and waited-for 8, she earns her Gin Rummy win, but she knows when to leave. She pulls the door shut tight and walks alone to her car. The night is as dark as she remembers it ever being. Hidden in the rustling trees are the stars, and they will stay there until she gets back to the main road where everything has been cut away.