When my sister calls to tell me about the wedding, the whole town smells like smoke – the farmers are burning their fields and the scent carries for miles.
I live here:
Turn away from Main Street, cross the railroad tracks and pass the cemetery, pass a few empty office buildings and the crisp angular bank, turn again and drive all the way down the street until it turns to gravel, up until you see tracks again, curving behind people’s yards, and my house is the small brown one with the broken porch swing.
I had been pushing Claire when she was seven and I was seventeen and the chain snapped. My father didn’t like to fix things he didn’t break. He always said there’s no such thing as accidents. What he meant was, be careful enough and prevent the problem before it happens, before it has any chance of happening. The year the swing broke was the year he left us.
It was the year I didn’t apply to college. It was the year I walked Claire to school in the mornings and started working at the diner. It was the year my mother didn’t leave the house except to buy frozen pizzas and instant cinnamon rolls. A warm salty pizza smell always lingered in the house.
She didn’t kill herself and she didn’t go away. She stayed just the same until the heart attack. I never would have guessed it is possible to die just by staying still.
Now, I am forty and nothing has changed except that Claire lives in the next state over. Here, where I am, is just one small part of the whole Midwest, weighed down flat and empty, gray and aged like a worn piece of newsprint, whole words faded to just ink – farmhouse, road sign, cemetery trees – splotches we move back and forth between, over and over.
Work has been slow today, just the regulars. Secretly, I do not mind my job. It seems like the sort of thing I should not like, the kind of thing I should want to escape from. There is something comforting to me about carrying warm meals from the same kitchen counter to the same elderly couple, the same police officer, every day. We’re not on a first name basis, we’re not friends, and this is how I like it. I give them plates of heaping french fries and bowls of lemon rice soup, and the smell of things heated-through and the setting it down for somebody else is familiar yet distant, makes me feel strangely full.
There is one man I do know. His name is Keith and we live on the same street. He comes in Sunday afternoons for coffee and the breakfast buffet after church. Like me, he has never been married. Unlike me, he doesn’t want to be. I want to be married to him, but he only wants to talk about people who should never get married. Fags, he calls them. God is angry at them, he will mutter while buttering his toast or cutting into a piece of ham. I don’t know if he’s saying this to me, or just saying it. Sometimes I wonder if he is angry out of shame, because he is one of them. On a Sunday five years ago he dropped his fork and we both leaned down to pick it up, and I swear our lips almost touched. We were so close, but he pulled away. I’ve thought for some time now that both Claire and I are doomed to never be touched.
Today, Claire calls to tell me she is in love.
“With who?” I ask.
“Don’t laugh. Please, Jen. I’m serious.”
“Of course I won’t laugh. Who is he?”
“It’s not a he. It’s a Ferris wheel. And it’s a she.”
She has married the Seville Park Ferris Wheel. The rest of the park has been torn away, but this one structure remains, abandoned, no longer rideable. I tell her it’s impossible. I ask for an explanation. She tells me she has always felt this way about objects, that the curve of a piece of metal turns her on, sends a rush through her like she’s never felt with a person. She tells me she likes to touch places where the paint has chipped, to brush her body up against empty seats at night, when they are all alone. She says that sometimes, when they touch, she can tell the exact moment the wheel undresses itself, that she can touch her finger ever-so-lightly to the cream colored metal rod and dirt and paint comes off onto her hands. She says loneliness has a smell. And she says their souls match.
I try to imagine Claire, her tall scrawny frame in a denim skirt and Mickey Mouse t-shirt rubbing up against a sad old Ferris wheel, but I just can’t. I can drive, that is what I can do. I can drive and I can smell the burning fields. A train is coming and the guardrails lower before me; I’m a few seconds too late.
“Could you love a train?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe I could. But right now I’m in love with Sevy. We had a wedding. It was small – just Jim – he performed the commitment ceremony, besides him it was just Sevy and me.”
“Claire.” I say her name, soft and solemn, like it’s a trick.
“Jen.” She pauses, “I’m not hurting anyone.”
You’re hurting me. I almost say it. You’ll never know what’s it’s like to be with someone. I almost say that, too. But then I remember I have never been in love. No. I’ve never been loved back.
I tell her I will call her later. Part of me is close to saying congratulations, but I can’t, not even sarcastically. I watch the train move across Main Street – car after car full of coal or corn or anything else, for all I know. Like a tower or a carnival ride or corn from a field, Keith will never love me back. Maybe he loves objects, I think, but I know he probably loves men or women or both, just not me. As I wait, I think about hopping on the train, going for a ride somewhere. I don’t think about doing it, just the idea of it. The train stops and begins to back up. It’s going so slowly, I really could.
When I sit still, I am floating yet heavy. I feel both ways – empty and unsure, steady and wholly here. In all my years of working at the diner, I have never dropped a plate. Never spilled a cup. I am careful and mechanical as I step across the level tile floor. Doing the same thing every day is the closest thing to sitting still completely, even while moving from table to table, from room to room.
The smell of the fields makes me think of a burning house – about the family on the news one evening, somewhere in my childhood. They didn’t die from the fire itself, but from breathing in all the smoke. The father survived, was shown being wheeled away on a stretcher in the night air in front of the firemen with their hoses. When the ambulance left with him inside, I asked my mother where he would live when he got well again. My mother was wearing a summer dress – the last time I remember her looking young, not that it was the last time she ever did. He’ll probably have to stay in a hotel, she told me, then maybe he’ll get himself an apartment.
Finally, the train is gone. I look into the rear view mirror at the few cars behind me, then at myself, looking back. Sometimes, at the right times, when the light is softer because the sun is down or I’ve just turned off a lamp, I think that I am beautiful. That this face, my face, hasn’t been quite so worn through. There are less lines in the dark. And my burn scar looks like a shadow.
One morning at work, when Keith wasn’t there, I saw every face as an insect: beady and angular, always tingling, slightly shaking. Local news the night prior had mentioned something about how our tongues are forever moving in our mouths, as long as we’re alive. That was the morning a man passed out face down into his steak and eggs.
When I get home I google falling in love with Ferris wheels and ride love. I don’t find much, except that ride is a complicated word. It could mean to be carried or conveyed, as in a vehicle or on horseback. It could mean to travel over a surface. It could mean to move by way of intangible force, as if on water. It could mean to be contingent; depend. It could mean to continue without interference. Example: let the matter ride. It could mean to work or move from the proper place, especially on the body. Example: pants that ride up. All of these things mean something different from one another.
When I walk into my bedroom, I am walking into my mother’s life. Where she spent her life, I mean – or most of it, far as I can remember. Her things hang around: stationary and pillboxes on top of the dresser, the lamp passed down from her grandmother with a base composed of two figurines dancing with locked arms, romance novels on the top shelf in the closet. Now I sleep here, because it is the biggest room in the house. And there is a television set I can fall asleep to.
The air is thick tonight, the house stuffy. I open the window to let the room breathe. Inside the closet, I grab one of my mother’s house-dresses and put it on to sleep in. She was sizes larger than me, but had cut the tags out of everything she owned. The airy cotton flows away from my body, as if repelled. Single piercing sounds come suddenly from outside, one after another – fireworks or gunshots. Or maybe a train, except I’ve heard trains come through here so many years there’s no way one could make a brand new sound. Or maybe someone on the train. It still smells like smoke outside, but it will probably be gone when I wake up.
Instead of staying up and watching the news, tonight I will go right to bed. Tomorrow is Sunday and Keith will be there. He will sip his coffee without looking up. He will be wearing a tie and his hair will be falling into his eyes. He will smooth his fingers over the edge of his tie, right where his stomach begins to round out. He will bite his lip – his mind someplace else entirely. I will hope he is looking at me in his mind, fitting me into whatever place he imagines, whatever place he must be yearning for.
I lied a little, about never being touched. Once, a boy put his arms around me and we slept like that; our breathing patterns matched. It was after church one afternoon, before I couldn’t sleep on the right side of my face because it hurt, and because every time I even tried I felt my father’s grasp on my ponytail pounding my cheek to the inside of the oven. It turned out this boy was in love with my friend, Jamie, and I just happened to be there. Jamie was making breakfast and he came over to hang out before work at the Dairy Queen, and I was sleeping in her bed, so he slept too. He was one of those boys who liked to touch everyone. When I got up I tried to lie across his chest, but his beating heart scared me. It sounded like something ready to pop out, a steady machine. But it was alive. His shirt smelled like the grass outside.
I lay myself down over the covers instead of under them – the room is still warm. I drift in and out of dreams, into them then into the darkness of my and my mother’s bedroom then back again. In this dream I am standing in the kitchen, drinking ice-cold water from a tall glass. It is early in the morning, I know this somehow, and in the half-light, not quite dawn, Claire comes down in her nightgown. Trains go by in the backyard; the kitchen smells like cinnamon rolls. No one else is in the room but us.
Then I wake up and see the same wooden dresser I always see, the same pincushion with a rainbow of needles staggered out of the base.
Then, in this dream, or is it a memory – Claire is caressing the flat surface of a kitchen stool. Our ages have changed. Before she was thirty and now she is a teenager. Here, I already know she will marry a carnival ride.
Then I am awake and I forget the dream altogether.
Then Claire is a young girl; it is just us in the kitchen and she is spinning an old globe. I put my hair in a ponytail and take a tray of cinnamon rolls out of the oven.
“Where would you like to live, if you could live anywhere?”
“Everywhere,” she says. She closes her eyes and points her finger – it lands on the Pacific Ocean.
“That is a good choice.”
It is morning, really morning. I am awake, groaning as I reach an arm over to turn off the morning news reporter on my clock radio alarm. The window is still open and the covers are bunched up at my feet. I don’t smell the fields anymore, or anything else.
Coffee is something that no one else in my family ever drank, just me. I make it sometimes, when I need to wake up and can’t wait until work. This morning is a coffee morning.
Alone, standing here like this, pouring water into the coffee maker, I consider the chain. I consider Claire, her news. The wedding.
Today, I think, I will fix the chain.
I go outside in my mother’s housedress and consider it all over again – all of it. I pick up the swing, chain and all, and walk it around the house, into the backyard. Facing it away from the back patio, I position it just in front of the tracks – like a ghost bench for a stop the train no longer makes.
On my way to work, to Keith, I listen to the radio announcer talk about why fields are burned: to make way for new crops to grow.
I look into the rear view mirror:
Under every surface there is something else – usually the same thing as before, but different. Under ground, more ground. Under skin, more skin.