Difficult

Picture 50by Frances Saux (’14)
From the Sarah Fontaine Unit

There’s a night I keep thinking about. It was years ago, so long ago I feel like I shouldn’t remember it as well as I do. That’s what’s strange about this story. Sometimes, during the slow parts of my shift at work, I close my eyes and I relive this night in my head, moment to moment, feeling the wind, not just the memory of the wind but the real, centuries-old wind that touched the back of my neck all that time ago. I mean I can really remember it like that. But maybe I should tell you that it only feels this clear because I haven’t changed much since that night. Proof is at work, when I’m daydreaming about it, my chest starts hurting. It feels a lot like looking in the mirror. Just so you know.

The story is this:

Back in high school, at a party, some kids locked me out while I was standing on the front steps. I’d just gone outside for a second, for some air. They crept up behind me and slammed the door before I could say anything. Then they shifted the bolt into place. For a while I just kept pushing and pulling the doorknob. A part of me hoped that the door had locked on accident. It just feels so terrible inside. After a minute, they spread the curtains and looked at me through the window, laughing into their hands like they couldn’t believe me. I thought of yelling at them. I thought I’d scare them into opening up, loving me.

They were not that kind of kid. I was not that kind of kid. Soon I felt myself starting to cry. I let go of the doorknob and turned around. I didn’t want them to see.

They’d locked someone else out too. He sat on the front steps, staring at his hands. I could see that his eyes were dry, but dry in that painful way where I knew he’d gotten so used to crying that he’d learned to cry a different way. We weren’t friends but I’d always felt okay around him. I knew we were similar in these kinds of way. For example, I knew he wasn’t going to college in the fall, either.

He looked up at me. “Well, we’d better walk to keep warm.”

There was a field behind the house, and we walked through it in silence. Instead of talking I pretended I was somewhere else. I don’t know where exactly. Just someplace different. I thought of how I was wearing a nice, white dress. Normally I didn’t wear dresses, but today I had. This hurt.

When we’d wandered deep into the field, he stopped walking.

“What?” I asked.

“Be quiet.”

“What is it?”

He pointed to something. I looked. It was a skunk. Then I saw another skunk. Then I saw skunks everywhere, like a chain reaction of sight. The whole field had filled with skunks. They’d come out at some point and we hadn’t realized. We both stood there, frozen. They crept around. It was too dark to really see them but we could hear them rustling the grass. We could find the white stripes, circling us like eels. We were scared.

“I can’t get sprayed,” he said.

“Me neither.”

We meant it. There was dignity involved. If you haven’t figured out, we were the kind of kids that didn’t have extra dignity to spare. I bet you that some of those people from the party would have run across the field naked, like into a dense cloud of spray, and it’d have been a funny story later. You’ve got to understand that wasn’t us at all. We didn’t have that luxury. To us it felt like we were in real, honest danger. They were everywhere.

“What do we do?” he said. He spoke softly, like he worried that the animals might overhear.

I didn’t know. I could see one of their snouts, sniffing ground near my leg, which started shaking from the effort it took not to move.

There was a tractor sort of nearby. I mean sort of because it was still distant enough to look small. But at least it was closer than the house. I pointed.

“If we can get there.”

“Okay.”

We moved towards it, holding hands and stepping only on the tips of our feet, and only on the places that looked unmistakably like dirt and not fur. But I could feel them moving as we moved. It made my legs shake until I thought I’d collapse. He, too, looked unstable. Halfway there, we developed this informal strategy for moving. Instead of looking at the ground, we looked at the tractor, finding places to put our feet through instinct instead of vision. It sounds like it wouldn’t work, but somehow this got us there. After a long time, we reached the tractor. We both sighed. I climbed up the steps and into the driver’s seat. He sat in the passenger seat next to me. We closed the doors and I held the door handle tight for a second, like I thought they’d try to come barging through.

I let go.

“What are we going to do?” I asked, my breath slowing down. “Do you think they’ll go away soon?”

“No,” he said. “We might be stuck here all night.”

It was cold. In the distance I could see rectangular lights, the windows of the house. They looked so solid. I wished they were the kind of thing I could have picked up and held to my chest. I said, quietly, “I hate this. I hate those bastards.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know. All of them.”

“You mean the skunks?”

That wasn’t what I’d meant, but once he said it, I understood he wasn’t going to acknowledge the thing that had happened with getting locked out. It makes sense. It reminds me of something people say about the guy who pushes the rock up the hill, like how if he decides he wants to keep pushing the rocks up the hill, if he makes that choice, then he is no longer trapped by his circumstances.

So I said yes. I said I hated those bastard skunks.

He looked at the house.

“Me too.”

Suddenly we had the same idea at the same time. We didn’t even look at each other, we just knew. I knew he knew because he sat up a little straighter. There was blood in my mouth from chewing my lip.

I felt around the tractor. Someone had left the key in there. When I turned it, the whole thing shook awake, less like a car than I’d expected, more like an animal. I tried the gas a bit, and we grunted forward. For some reason, with him sitting next to me, it didn’t feel like driving at all. What I mean is it didn’t feel like there was any sort of boundary between us and the world, sort of like we were the tractor, and like the tractor was a living thing. I pressed on the gas fast.

I said, “Tell me where you see them.”

He put his hands and forehead against the windshield, scanning the ground. Then he pointed. “There’s one. There.”

I chased it down. I could barely see it but my senses kicked in, tracking its movements the way a predator might, noticing even the smallest things like the shapes its muscles made, the little temporary bulges in its arms and legs and neck. We got right up close to it, so close that we couldn’t see it anymore. There’s was a moment of silence. Then we heard it crunch.

You’ve got to understand about that crunch. It marked the beginning of something different, something powerful. I tried to say something but my mouth didn’t feel human. I couldn’t talk but I could bare my teeth. He was grinning too, beside me. I swear I could see his heart moving up and down in his chest. Exhilarating.

Together we chased down all the skunks. We slaughtered them. I think of the crunching sound a lot. It’s a sound like something was chewing on the skunks, the most painful sound you could imagine. You know that thing where you hear your name called on the street, but no one’s there when you turn around? Well, instead of that, all the time, I hear this crunch. I hear it all the time. Don’t ask me what it’s like.

We chased anything that moved. It got to the point where we’d gotten all the skunks, or they’d all run away. Now we were just chasing the wind through the grass and we knew it.

But we felt so grand.

We didn’t talk about this later, we couldn’t. It got too hard. After that night, everything we’d both hated still remained unharmed. I could hear people in the hallways at school talking about the massacre they’d found on the field the next morning, rubble of guts thick enough to keep the grass lying flat against the earth. I didn’t see it but from what I heard, it was one of those sights.

But here’s the thing that makes this story difficult to tell. After that one moment of power, in the tractor, everything went back to how it had been before. For a few minutes I thought I’d leave a legacy on this town. I even maybe thought that years from now, people would be talking about what had happened to the skunks. But everyone forgot and I was still hopeless. Not hopeless. What are the words they used? Directionless. Unmotivated. No-good. A few months later we all graduated. I stayed around and watched as the whole town shrunk a size. That was about it. I wondered about that boy sometimes. I kept remembering:

After killing the skunks we’d fallen asleep together in his driveway. We’d parked the tractor and walked all the way back through the field, taking our time because now it felt like our field. When we got to his driveway we got preoccupied with looking at the stars, and somehow we just dozed off there, our arms touching.

Once, I think, I walked past his parent’s house to see if he was still living there. He wasn’t. He had left, escaped the town while he could. Smart kid.

Do you see yet why this story makes me sad? I haven’t really left the town since then. Look at my job. I’ve had it forever because after a while you get too worn out to really move. It’s the heat, I think. It sticks you in one place. Sometimes the only way I move all day is tapping my fingers against the cash register, pretending I can play the drums.

Interesting thing about drums, actually. I had this dream that I played drums for some famous band, except in the dream the band was only me, and he was the only one in all the audience. I started playing, but the tips of my drumsticks looked like hooves, and the wood became part of my arms, so instead of drumming I felt like I was running across the earth, changing from a person into something else, into a god with an animal’s body. I felt horns in my head, sweat as fur, all that.

He, too, was changing. He ripped off his shirt and gave a triumphant roar. Then he bent down and bit the edge of the stage. I grinned. We were reunited, us mighty beasts.

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