In the dark blue space between night and morning, Kendra is biking to work in Philadelphia when she sees a flatbed truck, carrying a single steel coil, fueling up at the all-night Sunoco station on Baltimore Avenue. The coil is a giant roll of duct tape, its silver layers wound so tight it looks solid, rising six feet tall, and secured with heavy chains. It sits exactly in the middle of the trailer, loaded eye-to-the-side, as if it could roll right down and off the flatbed. There are words, truckers’ words, for this particular way of hauling a coil, but Kendra can’t remember them. What she remembers is the weekend she rode through Tennessee in her father’s orange Freightliner Cascadia to deliver a coil just like this one. The memory is six years old, but she is always finding reasons for it.
It’s afternoon when the memory begins, and the truck is on the Tennessee side of Bristol, moving south on I-81. Kendra is sixteen; home is still Viney Mountain, West Virginia. Her father, Dude, picked up in Richmond and is delivering in Little Rock, which put home right on the way, but Kendra knows it was her mom who insisted that Dude stop and get her. The other night, Kendra’s mom was on the phone with Nina Daniels for two hours. This isn’t unusual per se—Kendra’s parents sometimes go over to the Daniels’ farmhouse on the site of the old commune to smoke weed and debate natural childbirth and the rising up of the Appalachian people—but there was something different about that conversation, the way Kendra’s mom held the phone upright and slightly away from her ear, or the way she stood over the sink and looked out the window at the round pen though it was empty of horses. Nina Daniels knows that her daughter Carla and Kendra have begun fucking each other in Carla’s room on Friday nights by the light of the plastic lamppost in the Daniels’ front yard, and now Kendra’s mom knows it too. There are queers in Viney—Bundy’s daughter Martha, who comes past on Saturday mornings to trim the trees threatening his trailer, and Lyle and Bob, who run the store at the Y. But ever since Carla convinced Kendra to hold that séance in the woods a few years back, Kendra’s mom has been finding reasons not to have Carla over to their house, and has more than once said that there is some death in her, something wrong, though she can’t find the words to say exactly what.
The March sun is visible behind the white sky but does not shine through, and there is still patchy snow on the ground beyond the guardrails. Kendra can’t get used to how, in the cab of the Freightliner, it seems they are not on the road but perched above it. She keeps putting a pen on the dash and watching it roll back from the vibration of the engine, keeps watching Dude’s green Coleman thermos rattle against its jumbo cup holder, keeps adjusting her air-powered leather passenger seat depending on the car they’re passing so she can get the best view inside it.
“There’s art to being a trucker,” Dude is saying. He’s only six months done with trucker school and has a new student’s enthusiasm. “It’s not like music, but it’s there just the same.” Dude’s fingers tap the wheel, which is big as a pizza. Dude wears dark jeans and a clean white T-shirt from the packs of three Kendra’s mother buys at the beginning of each month and keeps in the hall closet.
Dude goes on. “They told me in school: Any fool can point this truck down the road. The trick comes in anticipating.”
“Anticipating what?” Kendra lowers her chair to get a look into a white lowrider.
“Don’t just look at the car in front of you. That car’s important, because it’s the one that’s gonna get squashed underneath you if something happens, but there’s only so much you can do about that. Concentrate on the cars up ahead of that first one. Look at the eighth car, and the sixth, and the third. What will they do, when push comes to shove?”
From this height, the people inside the cars look like figures from the museum dioramas Kendra saw the month before in Charleston: a wide green Cadillac contains a white-haired couple in matching sunglasses, him driving, her blowing her nose into a tissue. A Dodge Titan houses a horseman in jeans and a baseball cap, eating from a bag of potato chips on the dash and pulling a trailer with a single Palomino inside. A red Prius holds a college girl wearing a purple shirt; the back seat is folded down to accommodate the laundry hamper and plastic crates of books and what Kendra thinks is a big soft case for an upright bass. Her skirt has hiked up, and Kendra can see her knees and the place where her thighs come together. When the woman looks up and sees Kendra staring, she speeds up, stubborn, refusing to be passed, so Dude shifts into twelfth, then thirteenth, and finally does pass her. He stays in the left lane, though there is no one to pass now.
“What would they say in truck school about riding left?” Kendra wants to know.
“They’d hate it,” Dude says. “But they don’t know about fun.”
Kendra is hungry, and she looks around for what Dude has on hand. The cab has been vacuumed so recently that Kendra can see the faint lines on the floor mats and velour seats where Dude ran the coin-operated nozzle. It smells like bananas, which sit in the sleeper in a paper sack on top of his blue cooler. Inside the cooler is four days’ worth of ground beef, goat cheese, several gallons of water, Ball jars of tomato sauce, and green beans in brine. Kendra opens one of the jars and begins munching on a dilly bean.
“Satisfactory,” Kendra says. “At least we won’t starve.”
“You have Nina and Carla to thank for those,” he says. “Nina brought them over this morning.”
Kendra pops the rest of the bean into her mouth.
“How is Carla?” Dude says. “Your mother said she was getting into trouble at school, refusing to eat. Shoved a teacher into a locker?”
Kendra has never lied to Dude; he’s been away too much this past year to make it necessary. There is nothing fundamentally altered about Carla since Dude saw her last year—she is still small, still wears her blond hair in two French braids. In the afternoons she can still be found gunning her four-wheeler towards a pile of extra doors behind the Daniels’ tool shed. She still raises one eyebrow when someone says something she knows is wrong, especially a teacher, like, Oh really? She still stays up most nights reading until four in the morning. Except that recently, on Fridays, she will put down a plastic-covered book from the Viney Public Library and say to Kendra, You’re doing it again.
What? Kendra asks.
I’m not—I’m playing this banjo.
I won’t, then.
But then Carla will roll onto her hip and say, Poor Kendra, what are we going to do with you? And she will take Kendra’s hand and put it between her legs.
“I don’t know, really,” Kendra says. “The same.”
Kendra looks at the coil’s shiny surface in her passenger-side mirror.
“What’s it made of?”
“Forty-four. Had one last week that was more, maybe forty-eight thousand. They said, Take chains, in Richmond. But I think chains are weaker than straps.”
“What’s it for?”
“Building parts, car parts. Anywhere you see steel. Instruments too. Get the banjo.”
Kendra knows if she gets the banjo, Dude will make her play it. She feels a heaviness set in at the thought of the metallic sound the instrument makes, a sound that her mother can’t hear anymore without covering her ears. The sound doesn’t sound like her father, it is her father, or rather her father’s absence—the sound that means he’s got another gig and is walking out the door.
Kendra ducks her head so she can walk back into the sleeper. Already she’s almost as tall as Dude—people are always commenting on it: so tall, they say, so tall for a girl. She pulls Dude’s banjo out from underneath the fold-away bed and unbuckles the hard black case. The instrument’s heavy wood back clunks her armrest as she sits again. The strings ring out.
“That needs tuned,” Dude says.
“You have a tuner back there?”
“Use your ear.”
Kendra picks the fifth string, the high G, once, twice, three times, tuning it up slowly, careful not to move the peg too fast and break the string, which is thin as dental floss. She knows it’s still not right. She picks it once more.
“Higher,” Dude says, so Kendra tweaks the peg and picks it again. “More,” Dude says, making a thumbs-up with his right hand and moving it up towards the roof of the cab. Kendra picks the string again, and Dude gives a stationary thumbs-up. They repeat this for the four remaining strings.
“Play something,” Dude says.
Dude presses the button on the CD player, and a male-female duo sings a new version of an old song. “I played with this couple at a stop in Newton, Kansas,” Dude says. “It was July, and they were deadheading in a dairy reefer on their way back home. They invited everyone in the lot to come into their container and cool off for a few minutes. We filled it with bodies.” He nods to the stereo. “They gave this to me free.”
Kendra listens, but she doesn’t think it’s anything special.
“Play that back to me,” Dude says, dialing the volume way down. Kendra plays the song, pinching her thumb and forefinger at the same time so the top and bottom strings ring out together.
“Good,” Dude says. “Play it faster now.”
Kendra does. “Good,” Dude says. “Now try lifting up your index finger when you play the—”
“No.” Dude looks over quickly again, then back to the road. “I can’t right now, but later.” Kendra plays the chorus of the song again, then tries a verse. Dude hits the brake then, and Kendra looks up hard, but she can’t see anything. She doesn’t want the lesson to end, she realizes; her brain has clicked over from a daughter’s resentment to a musician’s hunger.
“Up ahead,” Dude says.
Traffic is slowing. They pass a lit flare, then another, and two cop cars are parked in the left lane, funneling traffic to the right. As they advance, foot by foot, Kendra can see the air over the grassy median rippling. A fire engine comes flashing along the shoulder on Dude’s side and rushes on ahead. Dude is riding the brake, the truck lurches, then stops again and again, and Kendra can see it now, the fire whipping the windshield and front grate of the Dodge Titan, the hoses of water thick as fence posts pointed at the truck, the black smoke rising. The Palomino, somehow free, runs jagged in the median, still wearing a padded warming blanket. The blanket is on fire, and its tail and mane too. A man in a thick yellow plastic suit points a rifle at the horse as it runs.
“Look away,” Dude says. When the rifle goes off, the horse bolts hard in the truck’s direction of traffic, then the man fires again, and twice more. The horse stops, stumbles, then stands again, its feet splayed. It doesn’t try to run again, only faces traffic, knock-kneed as a schoolgirl. Then, it pitches head-first into the grass.
“Kendra, look away!” Dude yells, so she does. She looks again into the passenger-side mirror at the coil, at the beveled timber coil rack and the nylon straps, and wonders again how a tray of aluminum and wheels could carry forty-four thousand pounds of anything. Then the truck shudders and booms forward, Dude is shifting again, they’re picking up speed, then cruising, the mountains disappearing behind them, the road flattening, and the sky opening up.
“It’s a good thing he had a gun,” Dude says. “That’s one good thing about it.”
They drive west on I-40. Kendra smushes her nose into the glass of the window. She wants to roll it down so she can see the new country better, but she knows that will let in too much wind. What is the word for the feeling when you don’t care where you go as long as it is somewhere that is not home and as long as you are in motion? Her father would know, Kendra thinks, but she doesn’t want to look away from the window to ask. The space beyond the interstate has become a flat plain from which rise tall metal poles of varying heights—a flashing screen on which three white bowling pins get knocked down again and again by the white outline of a black bowling ball, a chicken in a chef’s hat, a green dollar sign that Kendra watches in its moment of clicking on for the night. As the lights of Knoxville retreat, peeling message boards rise big and close: YOUR AD HERE; 865–JESUS 4U; a boy and a girl holding hands on a bed, the caption reading FOR WHAT I WANT I CAN WAIT.
“We’re almost there,” Dude says.
“Just a quick stop, the best music venue in town. Tune the banjo again.”
Dude knows a guy who will let him leave the truck in his lot for a few hours. But when they get there, the guy’s full and not budging, so Dude drives on to a Flying J truck stop, parks in the darkest spot he can find, next to guys catching naps. He seems nervous as he pulls a tarp over the coil.
“Are you sure it’s OK to leave it like this?” Kendra wants to know. She offers to stay behind and sit with the coil. A night of eating fast food in the truck sounds fine, good actually, compared with what will surely be the production of her father and his music people. They will all want to shake his hand, and he will like it too much, and the whole thing will embarrass Kendra, as it always does. For her the music is private, for him it’s public, and this need for other people to watch him, and in so doing make him real, feels weak, even revolting to Kendra. But Dude just makes a face and puts an arm around her shoulder and pulls her to the edge of the road where the lights are brighter.
They take a taxi into Nashville. It begins to rain, hard, and the cab slows, the driver talking to himself in some other language—no, talking into a small rectangle of plastic like a flash drive clipped to his earlobe. Kendra rubs the cuff of her shirt over the blue vinyl of the taxi’s seat and watches as the floodlights on the highway are out-brighted by office buildings—every floor illuminated, every room, movie theaters whose offerings tick by like breaking news, 9:00, 9:10, 9:20. She can’t believe how often a new movie is beginning.
“Goddamn,” Dude says, looking out his window. The banjo sits between them in its case. “What a waste of light,” he says. “Goddamn,” he says again, and wipes the sleeve of his Pendleton coat across his eyes.
The cab driver lets them out onto a wet parking lot with a row of open dumpsters. Dude opens an unmarked door, and Kendra follows him down a hallway with a black and white checked linoleum floor that ends in another door, its handle round and gold as a bauble. There is music behind it. Kendra can hear the mandolin first, playing the kickoff for a song she knows. It plays each of the three high intro notes quick across its pair of strings, then the guitar enters on the downstroke, and she can hear the singer breathing in, and hear the space into which he will sing.
To a pedestrian crossing the South Street Bridge in Philadelphia, Kendra looks like any other biking commuter, her ponytail crushed beneath her helmet, her hands clutching the tight straps of her JanSport backpack, her long legs on either side of the high cross bar, the toes of her sneakers just touching the ground as she waits for the light to turn. But Kendra is thinking about walking down that hallway after her father with something like the anticipation she felt watching Carla Daniels reading on her bed those Friday nights, them both knowing what was still to come. It is this moment of walking, more than any other from the memory, that Kendra lingers over. She stops at it, presses rewind, replays it. She walks again down the hallway towards the muted music. The next lines would be the chorus, Oh come angel band, come and around me stand, oh bear me away on your snow white wings, to my immortal home, which would repeat and ruin all that was particular and open in the verse. In the next frame of the memory, Dude will twist the gold handle and the door will open and there will be the scene, mundane and human and the beginning of the end of everything Kendra could possibly assign to the category “family,” which is just another way of saying the people with whom nothing needs explaining. But not yet. She’s still walking, walking that hallway. As the light turns green and Kendra stands, then presses down on the pedals, she is aware of her crotch making contact, again and again, with the seat of the bike.
The door opens. Inside, bright lights from fluorescent panels, a shiny gymnasium floor, a room too big for what it contains, the song goes on, it’s tight, these people have played with each other before. A young woman in a purple shirt with chin-length black hair on the upright bass; a thick man, mid-fifties maybe, wearing a Van Reenen’s Repairs cap, on rhythm guitar; a guy in a Hokies sweatshirt on banjo; and the mandolin player and singer, early forties, Hawaiian shirt, blond hair to the first button. They are on the inside. On the outside layer is an old man on backup guitar, a young boy holding a fiddle but not playing it, and two older women in twin sets. Dude walks around the group to where there is a pile of instrument cases next to a white collapsible table that offers a few bowls of chips and pretzels, a plate of cookies, a gallon of ginger ale, and a mason jar of corn liquor with strawberries floating at the bottom. Kendra follows. The mandolin player juts out his leg, and the group does the chorus the last time around, and then the mandolin player sets down his instrument and hugs Dude to him.
“I wish I would’ve known Dude Mikesell was coming,” the mandolin player says. “I would have made some more calls.”
The bass player looks at Kendra then, and Kendra’s face floods with hot blood—the college girl in the red car.
“You’re too kind,” Dude says, “entirely too kind. It’s our pleasure to be here. This is my daughter. This is Kendra.”
The guy in the Hokies sweatshirt gets up from his chair.
“No, no,” says Dude, but he is already relaxing his legs to take the seat. Hokie goes off to find a new chair. Dude scoots the chair closer to the center of the action and checks the banjo’s tuning.
“Good,” he says, to Kendra.
The mandolin player suggests a song, not one of the true classics, but a safe choice just the same. Dude reaches into his jeans for his capo, jingling coins.
And they play. Kendra leans against the snack table and watches Dude get ready for his break, watches him thinking about what licks he will do. When the bass player calls out for a banjo break, Dude is prepared. Kendra watches Dude’s fingers, and she picks along in the air, one beat behind.
When they stop for drinks, Dude takes the bass player under his arm.
“Kendra,” Dude says, waving her over. “Lana.”
Lana grabs Kendra’s hand and drags her arm side to side. Kendra looks at Lana’s eyes, does not let her gaze lower to the purple shirt with its nice V and shapely breasts, which are pale and slightly freckled.
“Lana goes to Vanderbilt,” Dude says. “She was my student at Tree Gap last year.”
“We had some fun,” Lana says.
“You’re doing that thing again where you pull the string straight on,” Dude says. “Use the side of your finger. It’ll hurt less.”
“You’re right,” Lana says, putting her hand out so Dude can demonstrate on it. “I know,” she says, “I know, I know.”
The mandolin player calls for Dude, wagging the jar of liquor. “I can’t,” Dude says, miming driving the big wheel of the truck as he crosses the room.
“So, you’re in what, twelfth grade?” Lana says. She smoothes a fat tendril of thick black hair behind her ear.
“I’ve been to Viney,” Lana says. “In the summer, for the classes with your dad. It’s pretty there. That was a good summer,” Lana says. “A lonely summer but a good summer.” Her voice is packed with something, and she’s quiet, like Kendra should know what it is. “You planning to stay there after you graduate?”
“Sure,” Kendra says. “Why not?”
“And do what?”
“I don’t know. Play music maybe.”
“What else can you do? There’s got to be something else.”
“Not really,” Kendra says.
Lana smiles, then doesn’t. Her hand disappears into the pretzels. She puts a handful into her mouth and chews them dryly, then sips from her red plastic cup. “You won’t be there,” Lana says finally. “Not in fifty years. Not in ten. I’d bet my bass on it.”
The room is very loud—metal chair legs are scraping across the linoleum and bottles are being unscrewed and dropped.
“What kind of a thing is that to say?” Kendra says. “That’s a shitty thing to say.”
Lana’s eyes are small, and she blinks them more than most people. She brings the hand not holding her drink to her hip and dips her pretty shoulder.
“Sorry,” Lana says, but she doesn’t seem it.
“I have people,” Kendra says finally. “I’m not lonely.” She pauses, deciding. “I have someone.”
Lana clicks her tongue like a gun cocking. “My mistake,” she says, and then she’s gone, clinking her cup against Dude’s and speaking loudly of other things.
“How about Kendra playing one?” the mandolin player says, once they’re all settled back into their chairs.
“Absolutely,” Dude says, already taking the banjo around his shoulders and motioning Kendra forward. “Here,” he says, giving it to her. “Sit.”
Kendra holds the banjo, which feels heavy. It must be fifty pounds. She notices she feels heavy in her body when she holds it, feels weighed down in a way that is a burden but also a grounding, wonders about the negative flavor the word heavy carries when heaviness has mostly always felt to her like a comfort. She calls the song she played in the truck.
“You sing too,” she says to Dude. Kendra begins, playing a simple kickoff. The mandolin comes in, then the guitar; last is Lana, following reluctantly, a little too slow, but when she gets it right, there is the song, in the heavy up-and-down thunk of the bass, and Kendra and Dude sing it and sing it again.
Back in the truck, Dude says, “So. We had fun. But we’re behind now, and the weather’s only going to get worse. Must put pedal to metal. Take the sleeper,” he says. “Your mother will kill me if I keep you up all night.”
Kendra tries to sleep, and half succeeds. She thinks of weight and pounds, pounds and weight, how Carla Daniels is shrinking, 115 pounds, 104 pounds, ninety-eight pounds. Kendra is running in the woods, away from Carla Daniels. Carla is trying to climb aboard Kendra’s back—she wants a piggyback ride. Carry me, Carla says. Please. She’s doe-eyed, suggestive as the bass player. There is Carla’s little body, her rounded shoulders, the way she looks when she is on top of Kendra, riding Kendra’s hand, Kendra not sure if Carla is going to cry or come or punch her, which she has done once or twice. Kendra can never tell what Carla will do until after she has done it and sometimes not even then, can never tell if Carla sees the pile of doors by the shed or not, when she guns the four-wheeler towards them, she leans her body into the crash, keeps her eyes open as she crashes; Carla gets up, dusts herself off, turns to the side, sucking in her stomach in jean shorts, she disappears, she’s so thin, she laughs, she doubles over, Carla’s head is upside down, her white-blonde hair spreading over her grey flannel sheets, Carla’s forehead and nose covered by the sheet, eyes drawn on her upside-down chin in sharpie, mouth singing, My baloney has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R, my baloney has a second name, Kendra pulling the sheet off and making a tent over Carla, rolling Carla up, a babushka, a burrito, Carla rolling off the bed onto the floor, Carla laughing and laughing.
Kendra wakes up rolling—she rolls off the bed and slams face-first into the hard cooler. When she lifts her head, they’re on a steep downhill stretch.
“Jesus, I’m sorry,” Dude says, “I tried to ride that curve out but had to throw the brake. You OK?”
She says she is, though her head pulses, once, then a second time, hard. She crawls her way up to the passenger seat. The truck slows, then accelerates again, jerking forward as it starts an uphill grade.
The sound comes first. It is like the sound a wine bottle makes when it rolls slowly towards the edge of a table, except louder, much louder. Kendra can hear the revolutions, the same piece of surface hitting new ground again and again, and then she sees it in the side window. The coil unfurls as it rolls, leaving behind a thin layer of metal, and then there is a terrible moment when the coil isn’t rolling anymore, it hovers for a minute, it is still, if only technically, on the flatbed. And then it drops from sight and there is a boom so loud, so compact and total, it fills the cab like a physical thing; Kendra can feel the windows and windshield of the cab wobble in their sockets. And then the road is veering off to the right and the median is coming up and slowing, the truck slows, then stops, and Dude is out of the truck, his door banging against the cab but not latching closed.
Kendra puts her feet on the road. It’s sleeting; the day is beginning across the opposite lanes of road going north. There are no headlights coming on their side— that is one good thing about it. Kendra walks, passing the place where the coil fell, smashing in the blacktop and freeing a big chunk of road down to the rebar. Kendra wobbles it with her foot. There are pieces of the layer that broke off in both lanes and along the left-hand shoulder. The coil sits nestled in the middle of the median at the lowest point in its dip, a few revolutions of sheet steel unwound and crushed beneath it.
Kendra goes back to the truck, looks around in the cabinet over the sleeper bed until she finds flares. Dude is clearing the lanes, tossing the broken bits down into the median. Dude is speaking into his cell phone.
“I’m done,” Dude says into the phone. “I’m so done, I need a new word for it.”
Back in the truck, they wait. For roadside assistance to come, and for whatever will come next. Dude runs his hands over his denimed thighs.
“The company gave me this phone, and I liked having it. It made it easier to call you,” he says. He picks up and puts his cell phone down in the console over and over again.
“I’ve had a lot of jobs, and I was bad at all of them.”
“That’s not true,” Kendra says.
“It is,” Dude says. “But it’s OK. I don’t want to work anymore. Working isn’t what I want to do.”
When the sleet hits the windshield, it breaks into icy granules.
“I’ve messed this all up. This trip was supposed to be about me and you. Your mom is worried about you. Your mom wanted me to talk to you about Carla,” Dude says after a while. “She wanted me to tell you that you don’t want to walk the way Carla is going.”
“What way is that?” Kendra wants to know.
The phone between them is dark and smudged from where Dude’s thumbs were.
“Walk some other way,” Dude says. “Can you do that?”
“No,” Kendra says.
So Kendra tries. But it takes six years. On Mr. Ansel’s bus, the number three, Kendra watches Carla’s head bang against the glass of the bus window as she sleeps through the hour-and-a-half drive from their mountain to the high school. In parenting class, Kendra hands Carla a plastic baby from the clear crate of babies, and she is the only one who doesn’t laugh when Carla throws it across the room, hitting her assigned partner, Randy, in the head as he is tightening the laces on his boots. Carla still calls, and sometimes they still kiss and fall asleep together. Sometimes more—once in Kendra’s pickup at a party on the low water bridge after graduation, and again two years later when Carla discovers tequila. When Carla’s senior portraits arrive in the mail, the same photo in triplicates, Kendra takes one and sticks it into her wallet, and there it stays until she is persuaded, at gunpoint in Philadelphia, to give it up.
Dude sells his truck and uses the money to buy a small hatchback. No one knows where he goes. Festivals maybe—he has a loose band he tours with—but Kendra never knows for sure where he is unless he calls from a pay phone. What is the word for when your people give up on fighting for you to stay? Kendra could feel the shift in the way the kitchen window was often open after that, letting the wind into the house. Her mom too was always in motion, never standing by the kitchen sink anymore but always moving through a room to get to the outside. She started training horses again in the round pen behind their house. From her bedroom, Kendra’s soundtrack became the beat of Rowdy the Palomino’s lead hoof in the dirt, then the other three coming quick behind—STEP step step step—and the syncopation of her mom’s voice weaving between them, her voice speaking to Rowdy and then to some other horse, saying Go on, go on, go on.
“She’s in bed,” Randy says, a cop now, on the Saturday afternoon when Kendra comes to their house to tell Carla she is leaving Viney Mountain.
“Already?” Kendra asks.
“Still,” Randy says, and Kendra thinks she hears something like real tenderness in his voice. “Leaving?” he says, touching Kendra on the arm. “Well, buena suerte!” He has been listening to Spanish language tapes in his patrol car so he can understand the people who have moved into the apartment complex in town. “That means goodbye and good luck.”
Carla is under the covers, reading a Joyce Carol Oates hardcover and smoking weed. The thin straps of her stretchy tank top hug the jut of her collar bones, and her skin is pale in some places and red in others. She gives Kendra a high-five of greeting, then ashes her joint in a Diet Coke can on the floor; when she does, Kendra can see a bruise the size of a baseball on her back.
“Oh, that?” Carla says. “I asked Randy to hit me, but he’s got no power.” She bites away a smile.
Kendra sits facing Carla, her ass on the footboard and her feet on the mattress.
“Philadelphia,” Carla says. She doesn’t say it like a question, but more like an interesting fact, a curiosity.
Kendra’s whole skin prickles, her throat, her scalp; this is what Carla does to her. Philadelphia is seven hours and thirteen minutes, or 385 miles, away. She doesn’t want to cry, a thing Carla hates more than anything, so she asks Carla questions and listens to her answers.
“What are you reading?”
“What’s it about?”
“Rich people who get bored and kill themselves.”
“Didn’t you like it?” Kendra asks, after she’s asked every other question. They’ve never used the words sex, girlfriends, relationship.
Carla sniffs the air sharply, closes her book and puts it aside, then sniffs again.
“I liked it,” Carla says. She picks up the book again and waves it in the air as if they are discussing it instead. She pushes her white-blonde hair back from her cheeks with her whole palm and looks out the window.
This is what she was to me, Kendra thinks now, as she bikes. It’s a line from a poem one of her housemates has been reading. She didn’t like the poem that much when the girl pushed the book at her and told her to read it, but now it plays over and over again in Kendra’s mind alongside and underneath the memory like its soundtrack.
“I liked it a lot,” Carla said finally. “But so what?”
Kendra locks her bike outside the underground train station in Philadelphia’s business district and takes the stairs down to the coffee kiosk. She is filling a large white cup with Tanzanian Peaberry and asking men in identical suits and Bluetooth headsets, Can I get something started for you, sir?, when the busker with the clear banjo walks by and sets up against a dirty pole. He starts playing, badly, and the song is “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and Kendra is slammed again with the fact that she left her banjo, a shitty one that Dude bought her as a kid that she never played, on her bed back home in Viney, and then the trucking term for hauling a coil eye-to-the-side comes back to her.
Suicide-loaded. Kendra wants to say the words out loud and for someone in Philadelphia to know what she means. She wants one person in this lovely and ridiculous city to hear how, after the highway patrol came, and a small crane was towed in to remove the coil, and the sleet turned to snow, how much harder it was for Dude to drive the Freightliner back to West Virginia than it had been for him to drive it across Tennessee, now that the trailer was just a weightless piece of aluminum swaying and skidding across the wet road. She wonders if anyone would get it: how fatal a machine the truck had seemed to her then, without those pounds of tightly wound steel, without any cargo at all to carry.
Emma Copley Eisenberg is a writer of fiction and nonfiction based in West Philadelphia. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, The Los Angeles Review of Books, AGNI, Guernica, ZYZZYVA No Tokens, and other publications. She is the recipient of honors and residencies from Tin House Summer Workshop, the Turkey Land Cove Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and Lambda Literary. Her first book, The Third Rainbow Girl, is forthcoming from Hachette in 2019.