Winter 1994, Volume 11.1
Fiction

PHILIP TATE
Beside Her

Some days I could fly. I gave my mind a little twist, a little knock, let my eyes cloud over, and then I was up there with the birds, then beyond the birds into the cumulus, the stratocumulus, the icy cirrus, with water freezing on my glasses and with the ground so far down the fields made nice squares: green; brown; a dry, tilled gray. Then I soared above the clouds into the sunlight, and my back turned so quickly hot I could feel myself curling away from it. At that altitude the sun was full and strong and whiter than I had ever seen it, far too white to bear. Other days I couldn't lift my feet off the ground; I couldn't get my ass out of bed; I couldn't steer my thoughts off my little sister, Earline. Jesus. Lie in bed and smell Yourself. Think tomorrow will be different, that this is someone else's life.

All winter I had waited. I let myself rot and stink, and I only went near the shower once, and that was only to look. I waited until everyone was gone, then pushed the curtain aside. It was not as I had imagined: dust coated the bottom and the faucets, and a half dozen bugs had died near the drain, but it looked like a bathtub, that's all, not a shrine. I had imagined something far worse: the watery outline of Earline, filmy traces curling out from where her head had been.

A week later I looked again. More bugs had died. Their bleached carcasses gathered near the drain, and a few hung onto the tile and the sides of the tub, still hanging like their death had been incomplete. A gust from the window would finish them off, as would a big commotion.

When I went into the bathroom I opened the window, but every time my father went in he closed it. "Who's opening the god damn window!" he screamed through the house. I imagined piss splashing on the floor, even onto his bare feet.

Some days I burrowed. There is nothing wrong with dirt, or deep, cold shade, or having the patience to inch along behind worms. I burrowed near trees, where white, hairy roots sometimes blocked my digging, then gave way. Then I burrowed on to find more of them because I liked the feel of them dragging across my face. It was black down there, but it wasn't so bad. Moles burrowed too, and sometimes I came across one of their tunnels and followed it, letting my face push easily through the airy spaces.

After a few months the tub became a dry, dusty place, and with no water the bugs stopped going there and dying, so from one week to the next it looked the same. On the edge there was a single black streak, which I wondered about for a long time, then decided that it came from someone's boot, maybe the fireman's, maybe my father's shoe when everyone was going crazy and screaming: It's too late! It isn't too late!

When anyone asked me anything at school, I said, "Yes." If they asked me how I was, I said, "Yes," and if they asked me to go sit somewhere else because they couldn't stand my stench, I said the same thing. That part was really easy. I could think anything I wanted, but I didn't have to think for them because I already knew the answer. If someone I used to hang out with, like Lonny, asked me what the shit was going on, I only had to say, "Yes." And when he was gone I would think, "Yes, what the shit's going on?"

They laughed behind my back, pointed secretly and turned away. They sent me to detention, to the nurse, to the counselor, to the principal; they sent me everywhere they could think of to make me say something else or to take a bath. They wrote my parents, then called them. They set up meetings. But my father was like me, in that respect, because he said he would go to their meetings ("Sure, why not?") then hang up and say, "God damn the bastards," and forget about it.

I used to tell Earline that trees were dirt. "What else would they come from?" I asked her, then we got down on the ground and dug up some of their roots. "Look," I said, "there's nothing else here." She was going on three, and she would believe anything. She believed in Christmas, in Easter, that no harm could come to her.

Through the summer I couldn't stand myself and I couldn't stand my parents. None of us could stand each other. We ate at different times so we wouldn't have to look at each other across the table. My mother said it was not the way we should be living, but then she went off to eat by herself and cry, while my father sat in the living room with the television too loud and I went out to the backyard to wait until they were done. All the time we were fighting, all of us, but maybe it wasn't just that. Maybe it was the smell of us. Maybe the smell of bodies does something to your head. In the summer we were awful, and if I got within a few feet of either one of them I wanted to gag. If I raised my arm to get something from the cabinet I held my breath. And I tried to keep moving, because of the odors that rose from me. It's not true that you get used to it. In the universe most things can drift around and not be so absolute; they can be bad or good, depending on the light they're in, depending on their positions. But some things are certain, and you can separate them out, like life and death.

At night I rubbed my rolled-up shirt into my armpits until they bled, then turned the shirt inside-out and rubbed it again on my crotch. If there was still a clean corner or sleeve I rubbed my feet, the back side of my knees. My father screamed and cursed water. "Why?" he howled, sometimes in the middle of the night as he rose up from a dream. But then he would deny it. He would not drink water; he would not touch it; he would not mention it except to say that it was the worst thing in the universe.

Earline would believe anything, but only if you said it right. If you told her something wrong, like a lie, she would laugh. I once told her that I was a pilot. We were watching a jet go over, and I told her that I could fly, even held my arms out like wings, but she laughed, because the jet looked so small and far away, and there I was beside her.

Most of the summer my mother sat on the porch smoking. She did nothing else; she sat and smoked and watched the traffic on the highway a mile over. She blew long streams of smoke into the space between her knees, her lips making a tight little 0. Every day she sat there, even when it rained. Her hair was dark and oily and lay back tightly against her head.

I asked her if this was forever.

She shook her head. "Have you ever seen anything that was forever?" she said. "Name one thing that's forever."

I took a cigarette from her pack and lit it. I had never smoked before, but she seemed not to notice, even when I coughed and coughed and tears gathered in my eyes. It was late in the afternoon and there was a steady line of cars on the highway, all of them gray and luminous, their bright colors lost to the distance. I wanted to say something to her, but she was blowing another stream of smoke and her lips were in that 0.

I ate my chicken in the living room. I had a wing and a thigh, and I shook pepper onto them until they were black. The front door was open and a little wind was blowing in, and when it blew past me the air smelled fresher than any I remembered. I smelled fall coming. I smelled the falling leaves, their damp corky smell, and I smelled the water in the cool air. When the wind blew in the door I smelled all the things outside. I had learned to eat holding my arms in close. Even when I drank milk I raised the glass and tilted it back without having to raise my arm.

My father came in and sat in the chair opposite the television. He sat with his plate in his lap, eating, while I sat on the couch.

"I can't stand it anymore," I said.

He tore strips of chicken loose with his fork, then looked at the television as if he were angry at it: the news was on and a clean - immaculate woman was talking about a flood in Texas, tallying up the dead, then saying that many people had been saved, that they were taken away in boats. The river had risen up in less than an hour and left its banks, and the pictures were of people on the tops of their houses waiting for motorboats to come for them, which the woman said had already happened. But there were bodies tangled up in brush and thickets along the river, and all kinds of animals were waiting in the high places to be rescued. Chickens were in trees, cows were on roofs. All up and down the river the moocows were waiting for someone to come along.

"What could it hurt?" I said.

He continued to ignore me, but I could see the stiff way he began to chew.

"I'm going to take a bath," I said.

He watched the television for a minute more, until the news of the flood was over, then put his plate down, wiped his hands on his pants, walked over to me and slapped me hard on the side of my face. My plate fell to the floor and I fell backwards on the couch. Then he went back to his chair and picked up his chicken, biting and gnawing to get it all off the bone. I lay on the couch with my eyes on the television, somehow stuck there, wondering how the moocows had done it, got up there on that roof, and what did they think? Did they think someone would come along in a stupid boat?

At night I could fly over the town and see the light beaming in circles from the streetlights. I could see the cars on the highway with their rigid yellowish cones in front, and I could see the squares of light coming from the windows of the houses.

That night I flew so high I could see beyond the edge of the earth, even imagined the dark bank of clouds way out there was winter, inching and notching toward us. I flew over the city to the west, then dropped down and followed the old road out past the refinery and the golf course to the cemetery, and there I circled not far above the trees, where the air smelled like pine. For a long time I looped and soared, then dropped down and landed running on my feet. Gravity felt strange, after leaving it behind for so long, and I went right away to sit by a tree.

Beneath the tree it was especially dark, as if even at night it could cast a shadow. For a while I sat there, breathing the cool, clean air, then got up and began to walk, because it seemed that I had not landed in the right place. I thought Earline was over there, beyond the cottonwoods. I walked over the hill and through the trees and then stopped. I could see nothing but the gray imaginations of the path, and then I could see nothing at all. She was here, I knew, somewhere close. I sat down near a marker I found with the toe of my shoe, then ran my fingers over the carved letters, but I was no good at deciphering. "This must be close," I said, surprising myself with my voice in such a quiet place, then I said, "Hey, it's me."

And I thought that she said, "Hey, it's me," back.

"I was just out flying around," I said.

"I smell something awful. Have you got something dead?"

"No."

"Then what is it?"

"It's me."

Earline sniffed, then sniffed again, and I felt sorry for her for having to smell me. "You smell like something rotting," she said, "dead and rotting," then she said something else I couldn't hear, and was then quiet, and when I asked her questions I heard nothing back. I asked her if she was still three years old, or if she was still growing, and I asked her if she could see me. I got up and walked around, thinking that I needed to be closer to her, or to align myself the way you do a radio, but I kept asking her questions and she wouldn't answer, and after a long time I walked back down the path toward town. Every now and then I said, "Hey, it's me. Earline? It's me."

Then I ran. I wanted to fly again, to get up there into the cold air, but when I jumped up nothing happened; I fell to my feet. I jumped again, then again, running as hard as I could, with the wind blowing past me as it always had, as I imagined everything that I had always imagined, but I couldn't get off the ground.

I lay down, tired and winded, with my face against the dirt. For a long time I lay there, thinking that I was beneath it, down there in the dark. The

I got up, having gone nowhere, and I had got nothing but dirty.

At the edge of the cemetery a giant elm grew, its limbs twisting up against the sky the way fingers might. The trunk was so huge I couldn't get a grip at first, but eventually I climbed up to the first limb, then to another and I kept climbing until the limbs turned small and flexible and I felt myself bouncing up and down from nothing but the beating of my heart. I sat near the trunk, watching out over the cemetery to the west, where lightning occasionally flashed, until the bolts were stronger and closer, and then thunder shook the tree.

And it began to rain, lightly, then stronger, until the rain blinded me to everything except the lights of the city and of the few cars out on the highway. I stood in the top of the tree on that tiny, slick limb, letting the rain fall on me and over me in its cold way, until I was freezing and shaking, shivering from the black cold rain, and the tree was swaying from the wind and the weight of all that water. I thought of falling, crashing into the wet earth head first, and I thought of falling and landing on my back, my face; I thought of my death a dozen ways, with the cold rain washing over me, washing me, cleaning me.

But then it was over. The rain stopped, the sky cleared, and the sun began to rise. And the air smelled of nothing but air and water. In the low, rising sun, puddles lay shining everywhere, all still and silver like lakes, and water was running here and there, streaming the way it would in rivers. There was water everywhere, but the storm was over, and I was clean. I turned my back to the sun, then watched my shadow and the shadow of the tree stretch out across the hills. I stood up on the limb and inched away from the trunk, steadying myself at first with one hand, then with nothing but my wavering sense of balance. Then I held my arms out and waited, teetering in the top of that tree the way you would after a flood.