Bones. Bones, for the love of God, hurt. Bones stiff and tired like she’d been out all night. She’d managed it again, to up and land somewhere without remembering how. Shiny rows of cars, a parking lot. And she’s sweating on upholstery—could be a furnace, seems like. She runs her hand across the fabric of the empty driver’s seat, covered with crumbs, and suddenly she’s on a moving train.
Through the window she sees the green strip of passing trees and then the blue of a lake. A red-haired man sits beside her. He scribbles in his grid paper notebook and looks up to smile, then scribbles again. She opens the door to his sleeper car—nine feet by five feet, a flat mattress, sheets to tumble over. I’ve got a theory about you, the man says as her bare legs wrap around his waist. What’s that? she asks.
Swollen and aching legs. Legs that won’t answer. The seat’s reclined and she’s squinting her eyes at the sun glaring through the windshield. She’s smack dab back in a parking lot. And beyond, a big building. A bright red roof. Foodworld written on the sign in blurry letters. Must be a new grocer. Always something new these days. Always the noise of construction, buildings going up and up and up. A sweat droplet trickles down her neck as she squints under the onslaught of light that winks off the glass windshields. She tries to raise her hand to block the sun, but her shoulder sticks as if the joint needs buttering. She hears the crumple of paper bags and the throaty whine of a child—Dear Lord, is it her boy?
No one answers.
Nothing. She’d taught her son to be a good Southern child and answer his mother; he always does. She settles into her seat and thinks of silence and shade, amen, and then she’s riding in the stuffy compartment of a train—wheels screeching, the long hallway vibrating like a washing machine. The theory is, the red-haired man says, drawing her close, you think you’re in love. The red roof of her stop looms in the window while the man kisses her neck. But what you don’t know, he says, is that I am— Brakes screech, but the train itself seems oblivious to the cries of the railway engineer and instead speeds faster and faster before lurching off the track, shooting down a grassy slant in a rush of grease and fire and noise. The cars crumple one by one and her red-haired man pitches out the window. His leg severs to the bone, cut by glass and rail. The wreckage is so great it could be the Apocalypse, Jesus-come-again. Unscathed, she crawls out of a window and finds the man’s hand, clenches it in her own. Research question, he says. If I survive will you marry me? Her feet are shoeless.
Fat feet, numb feet. She reaches to poke the spider veins around her swollen ankles but her back catches and she can’t move. ‘Goodness’, she says, bent over in the car. ‘Give me a break’. She’s stuck, baking in the parking lot, blessed be, and hot. Hard to breathe hellfire-hot. When the pain eases, she opens the car door to a rush of hot air. Would be boiling air, were it water. She shuts the door and examines the situation. Where is she? She looks at the empty driver seat.
‘Independent variable one.’
She turns. In the backseat lies a detached leg. She gasps. The leg doesn’t move. She pokes it. It still doesn’t move. Plastic, praise Heaven.
‘Independent variable two’, she says. ‘I am the constant variable.’
She turns a knob by the steering wheel.
Heido ho, a voice blasts. Are you en route to the great white disco? Is your palette salivating, your eyes tearing, are you ante upped and ready for the final hour?
An old man raps on the window. She straightens as he swings open the door, his eyebrows like bridges.
‘Are you trying to suffocate?’ he asks.
‘I don’t believe in suicide, sir. Suicides go to hell.’
The old man’s face is wrinkled. In his arms he holds paper bags.
‘Pardon me, but who are you?’ she asks as he loads his bags into the back. The plastic leg wobbles. ‘I think I recognize you.’
The old man eases behind the wheel. His hands find her own and squeeze.
‘You’re that doctor on my soap.’
‘No’, he says, shaking his head. ‘But I brought you cookies.’ He pulls a box from a paper bag and opens it. Inside are speckled baked goods. Spots the color of eggplant.
‘Chocolate’, he says.
‘You must have the wrong car.’
‘The kind you used to make from scratch, Poppy. Remember those rows and rows of dough in the oven? The flour fights?’
She rubs her growling stomach—a pregnant belly. ‘I don’t know the last time I ate.’
‘This morning’, he says.
The old man’s rough hand finds her flinching cheek and then she’s holding her smooth-skinned baby boy against her face. Her daddy on the porch swing says, What a fine babba you have! She smooches Peter’s fat neck. Her husband stands, drawing a shadow across her red dress as he strokes her long black hair, then puts his hand into the pockets of his white lab coat. Best experiment I’ve ever been a part of, he says, kissing her on the top of the head. Daddy raps his fist on an opened Bible as the radio clicks on inside the house. All you faithful gents and ladies, all you fevered ladies and gents. Come and spill your gospel gobble! Inside momma’s wiping the wooden floors with lime, no longer angry because Peter was born less than nine months after the wedding. I listened to this radio show as a boy, her daddy says. She wipes the drool off Peter’s chin with her finger. Science and God, her daddy says, think they can ever be reconciled? Her husband shakes his head. If only we could observe the other side.
Her crooked, throbbing finger. Her finger with sunspots and wrinkles and cracks from dried skin. She wags it at an old man. ‘Please don’t touch me’, she says.
‘Crumb’, he says. ‘Sorry.’
He leans in, his hot breath on her cheek, his dry lips descending over her mouth.
‘Please!’ she shouts, turning away to wipe off her lips with the back of her hand. Flaky skin, blue veins. Between her knuckles are gorges. Gorges! Good God what happened?
‘Poppy, stop crying, it’s okay. Poppy! It’s okay, you’re fine—’
She turns on the radio. Loud.
Are you diving and jiving on this rollercoaster called life? Are you rambling and scrambling to get things figured out?
Every minute a minute older, the announcer yells. A minute older a minute closer. Ever feel like you’re searching? Searching high and low but you’re stuck on your caboose, your bling blang, your shaker shooker?
The old man tries to turn the keys, but his hands are trembling. Crispy-skinned hands like she’d set them on a platter to bake. She decides to be civil. ‘My daddy listens to this radio show’, she says.
The old man shakes his head sadly and his fingers clutch at her knee and then she’s bouncing drooling Peter on her lap. Her husband bites her pearl earring as he reaches under the hem of her dress. Glass clinks in his pocket, full of fauna-filled slides. In the yard are his cages. He tests his theories on rabbits. Every experiment is for the greater good, to prolong life; every problem can be solved with proper examination. She wants to let the rabbits loose. Can’t we get away from your dad for awhile? her husband whispers. Daddy lifts Peter from her arms. Can’t we leave the baby and do a little bedroom exploration? A little bodily experiment? She laughs. Not now, she says, and he licks her ear.
‘Stop!’ she yells as the old man rubs her earlobe. Her drooping earlobe. She feels the hot pang of a scab ripping off, and then an earring falls onto her lap. A gold clip-on. A clip-on! A pearl in the centre like a blank face.
‘What’s wrong, Poppy?’
She wants to go home. ‘Please take me home.’
‘We’re going home.’
Alleluia-praise-His-name. ‘To Somerville?’
‘There’s no one in Somerville for us anymore.’
You wanna get back to your roots?
She nods toward the radio. ‘Please.’
Well, I’ll tell you right now roots go in the ground, and honey, the ground is six feet in the wrong direction. You wanna go up the reverse water slide, up the Jesus slip suction, up up up to the place we all came from, to the place where we all swam together in a giant soup simmer, that soul farm in the sky—
Warm water rushes down her thighs. ‘Oh no, the baby!’ She breathes deep, she has done this before. Keep breathing. Breathe. Dear-God-send-a-doctor. Breathe!
‘Forgive me’, the old man says. ‘I forgot your bladder pants.’
The car door opens and Peter’s tyre swing knocks into her hip. He squeals with laughter. Mommy’s little piglet! she says. Little Peter piggy. She pinches his cheek while her husband bends over a picnic table, squinting at a roll of blueprints. Behind him is the shed full of rabbits and wood chips and in front of them is their plot of razed land where the bulldozer dozes, jaws to the sky, where daddy hammers with nails clenched in his teeth, listening to the radio hooked to an extension cord. Reckon we’ll finish soon? he yells. She nods and puts a cool glass of freshly squeezed lemonade to her lips.
Her chapped, bleeding lips. Drool runs from her mouth to her chin. She’d dozed off again. She straightens and swings open the car door, steps carefully onto the concrete. A heavy step. The pavement’s hot and slanting.
‘Need some help, ma'am?’
A boy with a buzz cut, only his hair’s dyed something unnatural—a blue-haired boy. Oh, dear. Plastic bags spiral in his hands.
‘I need a ride home, please.’
‘Never heard of it.’
The boy pulls something from his pocket. ‘Here, take this.’
He opens her palm but she drops the coins, shiny quarters and dimes, which clatter and spin on the pavement.
‘Please’, she says. ‘I have a son your age.’
The boy sighs. ‘I’ll get the store manager’, he says.
‘I feel so hot I just might faint.’
‘Alright’, he says. He points to a red truck. ‘I’ll turn the air on. You can sit inside and wait for me to come back.’
She hoists herself into the boy’s truck. Cups and bright wrappers and bottles clutter the floor. She settles into the seat cushion and then a firm hand is behind her neck and another under her knees, and then her red-haired husband’s carrying her to the room off the garage where he does his laboratory work.
He lays her flat on the workbench and a bulb flashes on, illuminating the tiled countertops lined with vials and glass jars, her naked body, bony hips and knees, specimens floating in murky water. She squints as each jar filled with who-knows-what becomes sharper in her vision and she sees four nails on a tiny rabbit paw. She shivers as her husband licks her pale breast.
Her breast, flat and sinking. Left breast tender. Right one gone, removed, sawed off, missing in action, Oh Lord! Her head spins. She hits a button on the boy’s dash and the radio flicks on.
The rush is to get back home, the announcer blares, the rush is to get back home, to skewer the tunnel and shim shim out to that Vegas in the sky, you jiving my gist, you humping my thump? If you’re stuck thinking about your hip hips that’s just the devil’s doing.
In the mirror, she sees an old man limping toward her, waving his arms.
‘Hey! Hey, Poppy!’
Oh-Grace-be-upon-her, just get her to Somerville.
She groans and heaves her fat leg over the console.
She puts the truck in reverse as her toes find the pedal and press and the old man yells—
Her head. Her head’s wet, wet from a bath, must be, and there are candles alight in her newly-painted bedroom as her husband spins her in his arms and then heaves her onto the bed. She slides off to the floor with the covers. He laughs and his tongue finds her toe. Oh! she shouts, squirming. We should be spending time with Peter! He’s leaving tomorrow! Her husband thrusts on top of her. I’m leaving tomorrow! he says. The convention, remember? He covers her in sheets.
Sheets pulled up to her chin. Her bruised chin, dear Lord. Watery faces swarm above and she blinks. There’s a wavering light. The old man’s face blurs overhead.
A needle hovers near her face, and then her husband clenches her arm so tightly it burns as he bends to pick up his briefcase on the driveway. A lone rabbit cage rattles by his feet—one flesh, one plastic. Peter’s in his navy blues, packing a duffle bag in the trunk. Across the street, daddy waves from his porch swing, a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. Poppy hears her mother coughing inside the house, mother hacking away. The spoonfuls of medicine and mashed food like she used to feed Peter no help. Have you seen her handkerchief? daddy shouts. Blood!
Blood. Blood. Blood draining into a bag hanging by her face. A slow trickle. A cold feeling in her veins. So cold, so very cold.
‘Ma'am, this’ll sting a bit.’
Poppy, are you waving? She nods and waves harder as the train lumbers down the track. Peter’s on the platform. Shiny buttons and white cuffs and his last name etched on a gold breastplate. Her son elbows his way out of line and runs toward her. He should be fine, her husband says, listing statistics. Loss of limb, loss of life. Daddy nods, Should be fine indeed. Amen to that. Hadn’t he said the same thing about her mother? Peter pulls her into a hug, so tall like her husband so her nose is at his armpit, smelling of sweat, and she holds him tighter and kisses him safe and blesses him, Oh please bless him! If she cradles him like an infant, might he reverse back to a baby, her little babba? Research question, her husband says. Are you going to let Pete catch his train? Her arms go limp.
Her heavy, tender arms. An old man pulls her out of a car and she sags into his chest. Her body feels so weak—it must have been the pregnancy.
‘Is the baby okay?’
‘Baby?’ The old man sighs. ‘Yes’, he says.
They walk slowly toward a small house with a stone pathway leading to a red door. Inside the hallway hang pictures of her family.
‘That’s my Petey’, she says. ‘That’s my boy. He’s spending the night at his grandpa’s. Are you a grandfather?’
‘No’, the old man says. His voice cracks. He leads her down a long hallway, to a room at the end.
‘My mother has a bedroom set like this.’
‘Yes’, the old man says, pushing her onto the mattress. ‘There, there, relax. You had an accident’.
‘An accident? Tell me, is my baby okay?’
But the old man shuffles out of the room. On her back she stares at a spinning fan.
It’s light and dark and light again and then she’s lying on a cot, a mattress?, as her lungs fill with air. Under the blanket she’s so cold that her teeth chatter and an old man, a nurse?, bends over her and pulls the sheets to her chin. She’s cold and shivering and full of research questions like what? and why? and where’s momma and daddy and Peter? and the nice old man in the white coat strokes her hair and wipes her damp forehead and she sighs out a long, even breath. The old man reaches for something and then she hears a voice. It sounds like Peter talking. Dear mom and daddy, You’ll be happy to know I’m bored to death out here. Nothing to do but wring the sweat out of our shirts. I dream of home nearly every night. Mostly of plates and plates of fried chicken. Or piles of sweet corn with a roof of butter. I wake up licking my lips. Seriously. Ma, you’d be scandalized by the food here. You’d scold them a good one if you could. Everything else is all right, though. The first day here our captain pulled out a marker and drew a bikini on a sock puppet. Made everybody laugh. Lucky there isn’t much to write about. They say we’ll be sent back pretty soon. Thanks for your letters, I got a heap of them delivered all at once. Felt like I was home again. With love, your favorite son (ha ha), Pete—
Light, everywhere. All she can see. Her eyes start to adjust. She finds herself staring at a row of florescent bulbs. She’s in a white room with a white ceiling. Somewhere far away she can hear the faint sounds of a radio. She tries to turn her head but there’s the sharp pinch of pain. The only color in the room is on the curtain in front of her. An inky blur of pinks and blues and greens. Without moving her gaze, she watches the colors on the curtain slowly form distinct shapes. A sailboat, a palm tree, a mermaid, an ice cream. The curtain flutters and then draws back.
A man wearing a white coat stands near the foot of her bed. He is fair-skinned, she sees, with light-colored hair. A young doctor. She struggles to sit up, to get a better look, but it hurts.
‘There, there’, he says. ‘Just relax.’ The doctor bends over her and smiles. He looks like her Peter. He looks so much like her Peter. Her eyes water.
‘You’ve had an accident’, he says. She notices the way he holds her hand when he tells her this. ‘We’re going to keep you here for a few more days, Poppy’, he says. He says other things, too, but she can only watch him. He tells her that she’ll be as comfortable as possible, that her husband will be back soon. When he’s finished talking, she’s still clutching his hand.
‘Any questions about your tests?’ he asks, leaning forward. ‘Any questions at all?’
Poppy tries to shake her head. There’s the shivery tug of a memory. She wants to hold onto him forever. She tightens her grip on his hand, she hugs it to her chest. Then, at last, she lets him go.
He turns to leave. ‘Your mother’, she says as he’s pulling the curtain shut, ‘your mother must be…’ He hovers, still listening. ‘So very—’ her voice breaks.
‘Shhh’, he tells her.
And then she says goodbye.