Between These Two Places
by Jessica Lanay
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Everyone notices my knuckles. They notice them because my fingers are skinny and they pop at the joints. They notice them because I pick at the skin until the raw layers underneath are visible and red with wet sores. Most of the time I don’t even recall having this as a habit, then I put on hand sanitizer or wash my hands in hot water. The sting reminds me I’ve been chewing. My knuckles are open now as I grip the steering wheel. I want to go home. The inside of this car is cold and I am shivering a little, gnawing my teeth together to keep them from knocking. Deserts seem equally as brutal in the winter as they are in the summer. Maybe I don’t know about deserts, but perhaps winter is more brutal. Because nothing moves, nothing crawls out to help you die; everything is too preoccupied with its own warmth.
I am gripping the steering wheel, and I am willing myself to just go. Over the top of the plywood motel I can see the iron neck of an oil drill bobbing up and down in fake agreement with the earth it penetrates. I look into the rearview mirror. I search for him in the horizon that does not delineate between land and sky. The endless marbling of yellows, fuchsia, and brown messes with my depth perception. He always looks the way he looks in that one picture, the one we saved from Mother when she decided he was worth burning. He has one hand on his narrow hip, large aviator shades over his eyes, a long white ponytail, a bandana and some boots. No shirt. I imagine this was the time she fell in love with him and she’d snapped a picture. He stands everywhere, just like that, in his ghost outfit with a forever-burning cigarette. Because that is how I remember him.
In my dream you are standing. You have been here already, but this is a replay. It plays when I sleep. I dream of what you have already done. You are there at the edge and standing, looking with your wolf brown eyes down into the gulch where they lay. You are my identical twin, so I am standing at the hole too. They lay there for a long time. The only time that may have seemed longer than the time they laid there, was the time after their families realized they weren’t coming back. After all—we always seem to turn up, us girls who want to be free. I say we because I’m scared you’ll find me there one day, my knee bones fossilized up to my ribcage. But I can see your face from where I’m sleeping, and it hurts because I know you want to cry. I also know you won’t cry. Your long palms with the long fingers with the chewed up skin on the knuckles are hidden from the cold wind in your jacket pockets. Your hood hides part of your face. In this dream you are almost an angel, an angel that will not cry for me, but better, will search for me if I ever end up like them.
The look on your face is part confusion because you aren’t the kind of person to go unaccounted for. You want to know how these bones got here, how they became tossed about like dice or dominoes on a table. What kind of gamble was it? You want to know. But some of these girls called home every day too. I see the glint of water sliding around the curve of your bottom lid; it will not fall, but this is the thought that you have of me, of your fear. Somewhere out in a desert in New Mexico between an Apache res and a Navajo res, they were dumped one after the other. Their bones are a peaceful, mechanical, electrical hum of a mystery because there isn’t enough meat left to tell if they suffered or not. You inch near the edge of the now empty, dusty ravine. You slip at the edge of the dry river, your sneakers dig in, and your arms pinwheel, but you do not fall in. Here, in this dream, I am the sky. My ribs are open and covering you like the roof of a house. In this dream you are inside of me seeing this place. This place is inside of me. My heart is as white as the moon above you, and I am the sky. The blackness all around you. I am watching you, and this consumes my whole body. The weight of holding myself over you, being your sky, is frightening.
You step back quickly and walk until whatever is left in that gulch can’t see you. You walk back to the old Thunderbird that Dad left behind when he took his motorcycle and did not look back. You get in. It is warm now. You are no longer on the translucent cusp of death, living, snow and desert. You pick up a paper, an old newspaper clipping you printed and have been carrying around with you. The headline reads: Unseasonal Floods Unearth Bodies of 15 Females in Dry River. Further details let you know that they are all under the age of 18 and that they all look like us. Big black-brown wolf irises. Long black-mud hair parted down the middle. Red-clay colored, pottery smooth skin. Big, Chiclet teeth, white smiles.
I sit in front of the mirror picking out the white hairs from the silver handled brush my Momma gave me when I got married to him. The white hairs are metallic, the color I imagine a sickness would be. I press my index finger into my wrinkles. How did I get so tired all the time? I tell myself it was when he left. Or maybe I got scared into looking older when I thought I had put together the pieces of what he did. It was a simple brown envelope that someone left on the doorstep when the twins were about eleven. The return address had been scratched out with a black permanent marker. Inside was the article, his face so young and frightened and hung over. The pictures of the dead girls found in the ditch are stacked beneath his portrait. The paper says everything except that he did it definitively. I try not to think about it anymore. I just think of my girls. Think of the kind of mother I have been.
I never thought I wouldn’t be able to tell Clementine not to do something. But she left and then I found more metallic hairs. I just sit here and wait for them to return to my gravitational pull, just so they know they have somewhere to go. Shit, her sister Canary is the one who is always on the road, leaving—going away. Perhaps I am just too busy admiring my crazy daughter Canary to realize that she isn’t all that hard but running from the itch she inherited from her father. Clementine unnerves me. If their father was a moon, Canary would be from the bright side and Clementine would be from the dark side—indefinable, close-mouthed, resistant. She never speaks, Clemmy. I mean she speaks, but it is always in response and when she wants to say something she flexes her face in this way that hurts you. She hides her smile. I miss Canary more when she leaves because she has stories. Canary would come home for a spell and spend morning ’til night telling Clementine and me how Venice is really just like Venice on TV. How you really can take one of those little boats like a taxi practically everywhere.
My tips from the diner this week are pretty good. Whenever they would ask me for something when they were little, I would say, “Depends on my tips, girls.” I spread out the dollars with my fingers. Lots of tourists came whizzing through, and our diner is clean even though the one about five miles up has a bigger sign. Total this week in tips came to five hundred dollars to my usual two hundred or so. I just want one of them to come through the door and ask me for something so I can say, “Momma’s got it!” to make up for all the times I just nodded and then later pretended I forgot or didn’t hear them.
I told Clemmy not to take her ass out there chasing him. What for? What’s the purpose of chasing something that is gone? It just ain’t fair—how someone manages to get more love and attention after they’ve decided to say screw it. I’m here, but they seem to ignore what I want them to do. Stay. But my Momma begged me to stay too. On her knees she said, “Don’t marry him, sugar.” But I just laughed. I filled my fists with his long hair mixed with my long hair and hightailed it for the courthouse. And now no one knows where he is or exactly what he’s done.
I’d rather not know what Canary is doing, but I can’t help it. My mind tunes into her whenever she is awake, and I can see reruns while I sleep of what she’s done. Sometimes even who she’s done. It can be comforting; we can go months without seeing her and even though Mother doesn’t know that we can see each other like this, I always just console her, “Canary will be home soon. Please, relax. She isn’t dead.”
My mother is obsessed with missing women. About a month before our father left us for good when I was twelve, she came home from the diner with a stack of newspapers. She had a collection no one was allowed to touch in the extra room she called her “study.” For the last year she’d bring them home and sit down with them at the dinner table. My father never looked at them. He would shrug it off as a weird habit having to do with Mother’s photography. That day he walked over and looked at the papers. I never got to see them. But he just stared at her temple so hard I thought she would turn into sand. Then he went back to the sink to wash dishes. He barely moved. I wondered what the papers said. A month later he was gone.
Father was a lot like me, quiet and observant. He and I would sit together for hours in the backyard while he tinkered on his motorcycle, and I would hand him the tools he needed. I would kick my heels from the stool I sat on to whatever rock music we were listening to, copying how he bobbed his head. We would point to each other and jab our fingers on the lyrics that were our favorite. Other times he would watch me do my homework and point his thick finger at a math problem that I had gotten wrong, and I knew to try again. We were alike in the fact that we did not care whether or not people felt comfortable around us because there was not much to discern. We are owls. We are watchers. We survive this way. We fulfilled our own needs in our own ways. The needs that could not be fulfilled, well, who knew where they went.
The month that passed after he was gone was empty. I remember spending it staring at a white wall in an effort to disappear into it. Canary came into my room, shredding and grunting sounds were coming from the living room. In the living area there was Mother on the floor, her fingers wrenching photo corners from one another, even ripping through our faces when we were smaller. The one thing all of the photos had in common was that they included an image of my Father.
I stood behind Canary who just looked on, helpless. In her hands behind her back she flapped a picture back and forth of our father, the only one that would remain with us. I snatched it from her. We watched our mother rapidly dismember family photographs she had painstakingly snapped with an old camera, lovingly saved from an antique shop. We quietly walked under her heels as she took the newspapers and the torn photos into the backyard. She lit them up with orange and blue light that danced up into black smoke.
Clemmy, can you hear me? I know you miss me. I know you do. You are in the habit of missing things. I miss you too. Are you here, Clemmy? I know that you can see me when I am awake and you are sleeping and that I can see you when you are awake and I am sleeping. You know those stories I tell Momma ain’t true. Where I get money to go to Venice, Italy? I prefer to kick around in my own backyard. You may be familiar with the dirt, but you don’t know what’s in it, quartz or tiger’s eye, until you dig in it. Remember when you said you knew that I wasn’t in London but in Corpus?
We giggled under the covers last we were home together. Where am I now, huh? I know you’ve dreamed it. You said you saw me up on a stage in a spotlight moving my body like a worm out of dirt or a fish out of water, but slower. You said the music was heavy and you could see the nipple piercings that I didn’t tell you about. But yeah, that was me.
I hitched a ride out of Oklahoma with Al, you know, my redheaded friend. He had just got his junker running and he said, “Let’s go to the water,” so I said fine. It was a beautiful drive all the way down there, how everything looked like fresh sheets stacked on top of one another at sunup or sundown. His hand on my thigh felt heavy and humid, the car ain’t have air conditioner. I rode the whole way in my bikini top and jeans. You know Al likes me, and I needed a ride that wasn’t going to cost too much.
Once we were in Corpus he started talking about setting up in an apartment with his buddy. We were at a diner and he was staring at my eyes and lips as I ate my french fries when he said it, “We should move in together.” Then he went to the bathroom and I skedaddled. I was just marching down this long, one way street with my backpack when I heard a smooth voice say, “You need a job, gal!” I don’t mind dancing as long as no one touches me.
It was about a month of me staying in an extra room one of the girls had in her apartment. I paid her a little from my earnings each week, and she is a mothering type so hardly ever charged me for food. One morning she said, “If you bring a john, take him to the roof or somethin’, but not in here.” I wondered if that was where she takes them. It was beautiful out there. The stars look the same in the water as they do in the sky. But things didn’t work out for always. Al ended up finding me hiding in plain sight, and we got into it outside of the club. Funny how men think they own you because they did you a favor. Then the owner came out and knocked Al flat on his ass. About a week later he got to acting like I owed him too. I came home after that and said something stupid about Europe and Momma looked so proud. I saw that look you gave me across the table.
I had never seen Noel mad. Everything was always planted so deep in how quiet he was, and maybe still is. Reaching into him was almost like sticking your hand into some dark water. You could get pulled in, you could pull something out. That night he caught me with the paper I watched his back when he went stone silent at the sink. I couldn’t even hear his breathing. The paper was crumpling between my hands and Clementine’s brown eyes, brown like a bruised red flower, were on me. Almost accusing me. She dove her hands into the bubbling sink water with her father. Canary who was wearing her headphones just got up from the table. The chair squeaked over the tile. I cringed. The missing girl’s high school picture on the front cover of the newspaper from a nearby town made me feel as if I was the one who had disappeared her. On the second page was the start of an article about a motorcycle club brawl that happened around the time she went missing. The stories weren’t connected in the paper, but they were connected in my mind. It was Noel’s motorcycle club. He had gone with them to that town a few weeks before.
I put the girls to bed. They were spacy, silent, talking to each other like plants talk to one another, on a different frequency. Their eyes would lock around and over me, their face muscles would tighten and one would look away. Canary would clip her nail against her teeth as she bit them and the sound would make Clementine glare toward her and sigh heavily. They could have had separate rooms, but they ended up sleeping together. The extra room was where I kept my things, the newspapers, my photography, and my camera. I had a key to it. I had told the girls and Noel, “Ya’ll have your private spaces. I don’t interrupt your weird twin language, and I don’t go into the garage messing with your Daddy’s bike. So stay out.” The room had become a pocket of nothing in the middle of the house. The secret there was that newspaper I had received in the mail and all the other ones I collected. Maybe I wanted something to be wrong with Noel.
I leaned my shoulder against the girl’s bedroom door. I could hear them talking in their sleep together. I walked to my room and took out my key. The handle was broken, the center lock pushed out. I walked in and saw Noel standing with a screwdriver, his hands on his hips. I stepped backwards, but he whipped around and grabbed my wrist and yanked me into the room, kicking the door closed behind him. He was focused on the newspapers. He had spread them out, had been reading them. He gestured to them,
“What is all this, Shel?”
I froze against the wall. I thought of the girls in the ditch in New Mexico. The knife marks on their spine because their throats had been cut so deep. The slashes on their thighs. The bruising on their faces. I was shivering, “Please, Noel.”
“Please what, Shel? Please what?”
“S-someone sent a newspaper clipping…they said you skipped town after they questioned you.”
“I’m not doing this with you.”
“Doing what? Telling me the truth?”
“The truth about what!” He yelled as he stepped toward me, and I cowered, sunk down into the floor. His orange-brown irises seemed confused; he wasn’t looking at me as if he were looking at me. His long legs only had to take two strides to leave the room. Leave me there on the floor, tears drying out my lips.
The next morning, the lock was fixed and two new keys were lying on the dining room table. Noel didn’t leave on any motorcycle trips that month. He didn’t go anywhere but work or do anything until we woke up and there was nothing of his left in the house.
The lady at the library with her mile high beehive hair-do twitched her lips into a toot when I came through the doors. The town was so small that the public records department, the public library, and some of the police department records were all in the same early 20th century Spanish architecture building. She put her glasses up on her narrow nose and then took the trouble to look over them as I sat down at the computer nearest me. I was impressed that they had computers.
Her voice waned flatly toward me: “You need a card to get on that.”
“Is there a visitor’s pass? I don’t live here, I am just doing some research and passing through,” I said. I got up from my seat and walked over to her. I tried to smile as I wondered why her eyes kept searching my body as if a third arm was going to appear at any moment. She huffed, sucked her red lips, and then passed me a post-it note with a passcode scribbled on it. I stuck the post-it to my notepad, and she raised her eyebrow at my father’s name scrawled in my chicken-shit handwriting.
“Noel Luis Serasino…why you lookin’ him up?”
“Just—doin’ a little research, like I said.”
“Well you better not be for any big paper. We just got from under all that nonsense.”
I backed away from the counter and returned to the computer. Based on the librarian’s reaction I suppose that he must have been more like my sister than I thought. I got onto the computer and began searching his name through public records, looking for a birth certificate. Nothing. I searched only for the last name and came up with several hundred people with that last name but did not have enough information to know if they could have been siblings or cousins. We never asked anything like that. Everything we knew about our father was that he was our father, he worked at a garage, our mother hated that leather vest he wore, and he loved his bike. He disappeared. He seemed to not exist before us.
I only managed to guess to come to this town because I remembered snippets of conversations about my father being from near a reservation somewhere in New Mexico a ways away from Albuquerque. He gave up the name of the town after I pressed him for information as only a child could. The name of the town he gave, I assumed, was close to the town I was in. On my map is this town I am in now, Worthington, which rests between the two major reservations near by. But the town that Dad named to me was Cienfuegos. When I was driving down I didn’t see a sign for that place.
I thought about it and let it settle in my mind. I tried searching the databases for Cienfuegos and found an article. Cienfuegos became Worthington when Cienfuegos became flooded with people interested in one way or another with the murders. I tried public records with the name Cienfuegos. Some newspaper clippings popped up in chronological order that had been scanned into a database. I scroll through the articles, thinking that Noel should not be a popular name. Then I saw him. Younger, but it was him, with defined bones in his face, his black hair mussed about his cheeks, a mug shot. The headline read: Local Navajo Man Questioned In Possible Murder Investigation. I reached into my backpack and took out the last clipping that I found announcing the discovery of the bodies in the dry river that had flooded—the town there was listed as Cienfuegos. I scrolled through the multiple page article that articulated in no uncertain terms that my father had always been “in trouble” throughout his life. They attempted to contact a woman who is listed as his mother for commentary, but she had refused to say anything. I can almost laugh because my father would never hurt a fly. I’ve seen him break for clumsy armadillo crossing an empty highway. But then I remember all the images of missing girls my mother kept in lieu of the pictures that included him. I wondered how much of a coincidence it could be.
Our house is down a long, long road with other ranch style houses just like it. They are all the color of rice pudding. Ours is the jewel of the cul-de-sac because it has a huge mesquite tree in the front yard. As I near the house I can see the rusted red lawnmower outside. The fence into the backyard is cracked slightly. I figure Momma must be in the backyard. I push it open further to let myself in and there is nothing there but the dying grass. It didn’t ever seem to be like this before Dad left, but it might just be me. I adjust my duffle bag and walk up to the screen door and rap on the metal. I can see straight through to the living room and all of a sudden I see Momma’s head pop up. I laugh.
“Momma, it’s me. Don’t be scared.”
She charges the door, nearly knocking over a chair in the kitchen. She shoves back the screen and wraps her skinny arms around me tightly and I inhale her. She always smells dry and clean; she is still in her apron. Her paper-thin palms take my face into them like a warm mouth and feel over every line that is there. I want her to keep touching my face, but I pull away before she rubs the concealer off of the shiner I’m hiding with primer and make-up. I keep smiling. We go to the living room, and we both sit on the couch. I like to look at Momma because we are shaped like her: petite and slight in the joints with big round faces and wide smiles. But we have our Father’s hands and feet, his large dark eyes and lashes, his cheekbones. I use my hand to brush the wisps of Momma’s dark ringlets from her face. I want to put makeup on her; I want her to not look so tired.
“Your sister ain’t here.”
“I know.” I say.
“When are you two gonna let me in on these little secrets?”
“Momma, I just know she ain’t here because she’d never leave the dang back gate open like that.”
“Do you know what she is doing?” she presses, concerned.
“Who knows with Clementine. She is the one with the secrets.”
“She’s out searching for your Father, I think.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I don’t know. I feel it in my stomach. I had this dream that he was calling out to her and I was trying to keep her from going, but she just went. Then she calls to say she is in damn New Mexico.”
“Maybe she has a boyfriend finally…Okay. Okay. Don’t glare at me, damn.”
“I’m scared about what she is gonna find, Canary.”
“She has a right to look, Momma.”
“You don’t get it. You don’t understand why I ripped up those pictures.”
But I had already had the dream about the dead women. However off the cuff the connection was, we were looped into the strange orbit of it all. I always knew that Clementine would go looking for Dad. They were soulmates. An old boyfriend one time was talking over my head about this thing called harmony of the spheres. Whenever I recalled him rubbing my feet and telling me that, I think of Clementine and Dad. Humming at the same frequency, with that same animal simplicity and knowing.
I was staring off when I felt Mom grab my wrist and pull my hand into her lap. She rubbed my skin until it was hot and splotchy.
“Where have you been, Canary?”
This time I didn’t want to lie. I really didn’t. I wanted to tell the truth and perhaps get some clarity on that black eye I had. I decided that I wouldn’t lie, not all the way, and I shrugged and said, “Been in Wichita, Momma.”
“Wichita? What the hell you doing out there?”
“Visiting friends. It was just a small trip this time.”
Your cellphone isn’t working, so I’m calling this number at this hotel room you left me, Clemmy. I want to apologize; I don’t know what you’ve found. But don’t you think that one day goes by that I don’t question accusing your father. We were so young when we met. We were practically children. I knew your father wasn’t meant to stay put. I accepted that even when I found out I was pregnant with Canary and you only after a few weeks sleeping with him. You two and your damn secrets. Your grandma, on his side out there, Ms. Serasino, came to see you and Canary when you were born. I don’t think they were very close. Maybe I chose him because he was the opposite of my father, but I don’t know, not now. I always wanted to apologize to your sister and you for how he left, but I couldn’t stomach to tell you why. Your father got to be quieter and quieter over time. And then all of those girls, more than the fifteen in that ditch started just getting ate up into thin air. Every time he took a motorcycle trip or was out of town for a car show, another girl went missing, Clemmy. I lined up the dates when they went missing with the dates he was out of town. I checked the weather for tornadoes because maybe tornadoes had sucked up the bodies of those girls and then dumped them all in that hole out there in that dust. It ain’t safe where you are, Clemmy. People out there don’t want to hear or see nothing of your Daddy and that includes you. But maybe I’m wrong, Clemmy. Maybe I’m wrong. Please call me back, Clemmy. Clemmy…Clemmy…can you hear me? I know you’re there.
I spent the last week on the floor of my hotel room sorting through newspaper clippings about other Noel Serasinos that may have been my father. There was nothing, aside from some articles about biker fights that he had been named in and another article talking about how he was a person of interest connected to the mass grave findings that had disappeared. I even tried to see if I could get into the old police records and get a rap sheet for my father. That only resulted in them staring at me like I had an extra set of eyes and asking me specific questions like,
When did you last see him?
Are you related to him?
What do you want to know about him for?
You should stay away from him and tell us if you find him.
I left dizzy and my head hurt after all of the questions they asked. I ended up having to insist that I had made a mistake. I backed toward the door as three police officers mentioned how interested they were to speak with me some more about what I was looking for. I asked if Noel Serasino had been charged with anything. Was he wanted? They laughed and just said they would love to know what I knew. But that was why I was there because I didn’t know enough, not enough to find him and obviously neither did they.
Ms. Serasino’s trailer is sunk down a little more toward the ground on the left than the right. In my mind I keep juggling Ms. Serasino and grandma around. After I knock on the door, what do I say? Would she be offended if I used either? Or did it matter? What I have come to ask her is not exactly friendly, not exactly a topic I can imagine a mother wanting to mull over again. The car door slowly croons as I open it. I stand, one foot in and one foot out for a second, searching the trailer for lights. The window toward the front door glows blue from a television going inside. I slam the car shut and walk up some cinder blocks to the door where I knock on the metal. I hear a chair creek and a groan. In seconds the wide-shouldered body of a tall woman in jeans is standing in the doorway, her long hands in her pockets. She raises her eyebrow; I am stuck staring at her face. She is the mirror image of him, his female doppelganger sitting in a trailer watching “Geraldo.” She tilts her head to the side.
“Can I help you, girl?” she asks.
“I’m Clementine Serasino. You haven’t seen me since I was born.”
Her face becomes sallow; the glint in her irises becomes pale. She pushes open the screen door and stands aside. I hesitate as much as I feel the urge to run inside. I waver before crossing the threshold into the dim living room of the house. Her big, flat feet stroll into the kitchen where a bright naked bulb hangs down. I follow her there and stand across from her; my arms cross over my chest. She opens a beer for herself and then offers me a can, but I shake my head and say,
“No thank you. I have to drive back to the hotel.”
She nods and sips her beer. I can’t make out her age. She is older than fifty, but beyond that the strength in her shoulders and the straightness of her spine makes it hard to judge how old she may be. I feel like an infant as I look down at my dirty canvas shoes. I ask, “How old are you?”
“Well, your father is…around fifty now, which makes me about seventy-nine.”
“Did you know it was me?”
She doesn’t answer me. My palms are sweating and I wipe them down my jacket. I don’t know why I am here anymore; I’m not sure what I want. I feel like I had gone off to jump in a mud puddle and instead landed in a snake pit. I try a different question.
“Do you know where he is?”
She takes another long sip of her beer and then wiggles the empty can. She tosses out the can in the garbage before she leans over the sink and opens the window. When she speaks, her voice is even, calm, dissipating, like a soft rain.
“I haven’t heard from him in a while, Clementine. He called about a month after he left you girls. But that was years ago.”
“You mean he called you, and you didn’t think to call us and say where he went? Have you heard from him since?”
I try to hide the edge in my voice, the accusation. It never dawned on me that he would think that someone else was more important than us to contact, to tell where he was. I start picking the tiny snatches of skin my teeth have left behind at my knuckles. I realize she is watching me dig in my own skin. I watch her light a hand-rolled cigarette and sit up on the counter. I ask again,
“When was the last time you heard from him?”
She exhales some smoke.
“I heard from him about a year ago. He said he was doing some work out in North Dakota and that was it. I didn’t know it has been so long since you’d heard from him.”
The words are an itch in my throat. No matter how much I sniffle and scratch that itch, the question gurgles warmly from me. “Did he do it?”
Her eyes close like a cat’s does when you pet them, and she exhales again before rubbing her neck and shaking her head.
“Clementine. Your Papa and I have not had an easy go of it. We moved around a lot, and I didn’t want to raise him on a res. I did my best with him, and I think I raised a good man. In my mind, petty theft and bar fights just don’t add up to killing girls. Your Papa never had a mean bone in him. I never saw him hurt nothing and no one in my life.”
“But that isn’t an answer— Did he do it? If I were to look up missing girls in North Dakota would I find some from a year ago?”
“If you look up missing girls from where you were a year ago, I am sure you would find some.”
“That isn’t an answer either. Gramma, did he do it?”
The rims of her eyelids are holding back little tears. She shakes her head and sighs, her shoulders sag just a bit, and I can suddenly see flashes of her seventy-nine years in her. The air is vibrating, maybe with the electricity of the television or the power lines outside. It has been on my mind all day, the idea that when the search for my father went cold, so did the interest from the police in the girls. It seems he is their only option. The town had tried to erase them from the dirt and dislocate itself in paperwork. Same land, different signs, same bodies, but the dirt they were in is in a town that doesn’t exist anymore. I ask Gramma, “Why did they change the name of the town?”
“There were a lot of people coming around, sniffing, trying to do weird things at the gravesite of those ladies. A lot of people following me around. They ain’t changed it because of me. They changed it because they wanted to forget those bones.”
I want to ask more so I can know more, but I am sure I can’t take her through it all again. She asks if I am hungry and I shrug. She opens the fridge and takes out some fish she was planning to eat anyway or at least that is what she says. I sit on the couch in front of the TV, without saying a word as she cooks. I observe her body, how she moves, trying to soak up as much of him as I can while trying to see as much of her in me as I can find. We don’t make each other talk anymore, not about him again. We eat the sautéed fish with some rice and red beans. She asks me about myself, and I tell her about college, about working with Mother at the diner and about my dream to move out to California when I am done. When she smiles, I think I find the one thing about Canary and I that isn’t identical besides our attitudes. A part of her upper lip rises above her tooth when she grins, just a tiny little arch on the left side, the same as Canary. She lets me know that she is proud, that she wants me to come back with Canary when I can.
I stand over Momma as she sleeps. This is the first time I ever feel upset about leaving home. This time around I actually think about why I’m always leaving, what I’m searching for. Clementine can be here, she can be here and feel like somebody, but I can’t. She can say what she does, that she is going to college, that she has a plan. She can go sit at the little cafe and bookstore downtown and wave to her classmates and come home and take care of Momma. But the truth is that I am selfish. I don’t want a plan. I want to do the things I am doing and be invisible as much as I am seen. I can’t fuck like I want to here because then I’m the girl that has fucked every boy in town. I can’t drink here or do drugs here because then my mother becomes the mother of a drinker and a drugger. I can’t do the things I gotta do right now here. I can’t throw my trash around here. I can’t rut here and then disappear to another town.
Momma flinches in her sleep, and I wonder what she is dreaming about. She shows her teeth and clenches her fists, and I want to wake her and let her know I’m going. Even though I want to, something is telling me to stay, the way she is sleeping is telling me to stay. I pull the strap to my duffle bag over my head and cross it over my chest before walking slowly out of the room. I walk out to the front porch where a friend of mine, Suzette, is waiting for me in her car. She smears lipstick over her lips as if she was signing her signature and then looks over at me through her long, bushy blonde bangs. Wriggling her fingers at me she then calls out,
“You ready! I know a man in San Diego looking for some pretty girls to do some illegal things.”
I grin and run toward the old, topless Saab; the car was a brave old bitty. It has seen more than it probably cared to. In the passenger seat I feel the old excitement of going somewhere new come back to me. It feels lucky, like finding a penny from the year you were born. Suzette lifts her shades from over her eyes and looks at me curiously.
“You okay? Your smile seems sad.”
“I don’t know Sue, I think that after this I’m just gonna settle in and figure out something else to do.”
Suzette nods toward me as if she understands. She pulls off and I look behind me at the neighborhood. I want to remember every house’s color, whether the garage doors are up or not, if there are children outside. I don’t have a dream I am wildly chasing, like Suzette who wants to be an actress. I just have me wanting to be like a cloud, floating around all spread out without edges, heavy as a whale but still floating.
I woke up on the couch. It wasn’t dawn yet, and I realized that I had not seen you in my dream. I often can’t go a night without seeing you in my sleep, without you telling or showing me something about your life. The last few dreams I had, you were home. You were sliding around the house in Mother’s slippers in the kitchen, braiding up her hair and hounding her about what she was eating. You seemed happy, and I was happy that you were there with her while I am away. This is her first time being alone completely without the both of us. I know you’re not home anymore because even though I can’t see where you are, I am not dreaming you there, and I am scared, and I know it is time to come home. I left Grandma’s house but not without leaving a note telling her that I would be back soon. I mean that, I really do. I go outside and get in the car and drive back to the hotel, determined to leave that night. All I have in the car are the files I have on Dad, some clothes, my bag with my ID and money, but I still have clothes at the hotel.
When I get to the hotel the sun is cresting. I didn’t stop, there is a police car outside of my room, and no one is in it. From my windshield in the dark morning I can see circles of light bouncing behind the curtain of the window to where I had slept since I arrived. I circle the block and when they don’t leave, I just drive through town.
It doesn’t seem real anymore. The whole town seems as if it is made of cardboard cutouts or some middle school diorama. It seems strangely temporary and the once bright colors on the buildings have been faded to pastels by the sand and the sun. Nothing idles in the street but the air. In the windows of businesses there seem to be sweat stains in the shape of people on the curtains. The energy of someone having just left or just been in town is everywhere. A single light comes on in a window on the second story of a building. I hold my breath and drive a little faster. Maybe the town is Cienfuegos at night and Worthington during the day. Maybe it is lupine like that.
When the sun is finally midway up, I return to the room and the police car is gone. I leave the Thunderbird running and go into the room. I don’t check to see if anything is missing. They listened to Mother’s message. Everything that is mine that I see, I shove into a trash bag I get from the bathroom. I leave the key on the bed. I go back to the car.
In the driver’s seat I feel as if I am lost like a bookmark between the pages of something I never meant to start reading. I feel trapped between these two places, the place where these women died and Dad was raised and what they decided to name it. Like them I am no place and I can’t find you, so you are no place too, just like Dad is no place. I drive as fast as I can toward Mother. I hope she knows something about where you are. I hope you come to me again when I make it home.
Jessica Lanay is currently an MFA candidate in the poetry program at the University of Pittsburgh where she also is the Graduate Student Assistant at the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. She is a Callaloo and Cave Canem Fellow. Lanay’s writing is published in Acentos Review, Crab Fat Magazine, Five Quarterly, Sugar House Review, Salt Hill Journal, and forthcoming in TAYO Literary Journal, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Black Candies: A Journal of Literary Horror.