This week, as an end-of-summer treat, we present you three stories by The Common contributors originally published in our special Summer Fiction Issue. Enjoy!
Here, The Weather Is Lovely
My ex-boyfriend Carl used to say to me, Peg, we’re in a rut. He’d say, Let’s get out of West Texas, the park, this trailer. Let’s find ourselves a cabana on the beach somewhere, a god-damn sleeping bag, even. He’d gather his chin-length hair into a brief ponytail, and when he let it go, it would wing up around his face as if he were underwater. He’d say, Get your bag packed, Peg. We’re already halfway there.
For a while, I thought he was kidding around. I thought, He’s just being dramatic. But as the months went on, I came to know how much he hated it here, the wind, the red dirt on all the windowsills. He wanted the sun without the wind. He wanted rain and trees and the great blue ocean of his childhood. I get it. I even went along with it, smiling and nodding, saying, Oh, yes, it’s beautiful, Florida, I’m sure. If you like that kind of thing—everything so green and lush and the white, white sand for all those miles. But to me it seems showy, like the time I snuck into my parents’ bathroom and tried on all my mother’s makeup. The girl in the mirror was all lips and eyes and cheeks, but after a while, the colors faded, and there I was again, the same old Peg, freckles and a too-big nose. Those trees might look pretty in the daytime, I wanted to tell Carl, but when the sun goes down, they turn to shadows like anything else.
What Carl doesn’t realize is, I’ve lived in the park my whole life. I don’t tell many people this, because when I do, they frown and cock their heads and smile a smile that’s full of pity—all forehead and no teeth. But I don’t pity myself. This is my home. Here, when the wind blows at night, it sounds like my mother whispering in my ear. Here, I can see a thing coming for days.
My parents moved here before I was born, when they were both teenagers. When I was growing up, my father worked a roughneck job on a rig. My mother cashiered at the Stop & Shop on the corner. Neither had graduated from high school, but neither seemed to care. They’d left home in the middle of the night and had hitched across three states in the dark. Then, they didn’t have a plan or a destination, but when they saw the sun rise over the fields north of I-20, they both gasped at the colors. My mother said they’d never seen anything like it—the land so flat, the sky so big, and everything feathered in purple at the edges. Here the colors are brief. The horizon blushes and flares, and then it’s gone. You have to know where to look. You have to be paying attention. As soon as they saw it, my parents told the trucker they were riding with to let them off at the next exit, which happened to be down the road from here, so here is where they stayed.
They were in love, is the easiest way to say it. But it wasn’t the kind of love that regular people have, people with friends and hobbies and families to visit on weekends. Their only hobby was each other. And even when I was young, before I knew about all the forms our love can take, I knew their love was the strongest kind, and maybe the most dangerous, because it didn’t allow for anyone else—not even me, small as I was.
The most powerful memory I have of my childhood is the smell—the trash overflowing, the stagnant dishwater turned to oil slick, flies buzzing against the windowpanes. I remember coming home from school to find my mother still in her uniform, staring out the window, waiting for my father’s truck to come rattling down the caliche road. She would sit there for hours, dishes unwashed, dinner unstarted. It was as if she closed down when he wasn’t around, like a carnival packed up for the winter. She hid away all the best parts of her—her laugh, the funny voice she did for the local weatherman—and the rest of the world, which was only me, had to pick at her scraps like the sad birds by the dumpster who’d lost most of their wildness.
When she finally saw him, she’d jump from her chair and hurl herself out the front door and into his arms. He might not even make it out of his truck, but it didn’t matter. They’d stay like that for whole minutes, him with one foot on the ground, her with her legs around his waist, both of their mouths working up the flush that stained their necks and chests for hours, even after they came inside, even after my mother complained of the bruise on her back the steering wheel had made.
I don’t blame them, my parents. They’d rejected the old ways of being—the rules, the polite behavior—and there weren’t any models for the new way, which was love and only love. After me, my father went down to the clinic and got himself a vasectomy, and sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t because I was already taking them away from each other too much, me with my constant need. But I don’t harbor any ill will toward them. They were young, so much younger than I am now, and for the first time in their lives, they were free.
They lived here in the park until I was sixteen and they were twice that age, both of them still strong and lean, looking more like my siblings than my parents. I can’t say why they were out so late the night they died, why they were driving so fast on the wrong side of the road, or how what the police said can be true—that the headlights of my father’s truck were dark. I only know what I wasn’t supposed to see when they finally pried off the driver’s-side door: my mother had climbed atop my father in the driver’s seat and had wrapped her arms around his neck. Both of them were covered in blood and half-blackened by the fire. The other side of their bodies was flushed from the flames, their skin roasted red and bubbling up in places, as if the heat were coming from inside them, instead of out. I remember how beautiful the scene almost was, half of it dark, half of it wild with color like an unfinished painting. And I remember how mad I almost was, how, if I hadn’t been so busy with crying, I could have done some real screaming—the kind people hear and run away from, instead of toward.
Now the Stop & Shop is a 7-Eleven and the park is a whole lot shabbier and both of my parents are gone, but I’m still here. I run the park’s laundromat, the only building that isn’t on wheels. I Windex the big front windows and clean the lint from the traps and make sure no one sits on the washers. Once a week, I get paid in quarters, but quarters are fine—I like the weight of them in my pocket.
I never met a man I could love the way my mother loved my father, so I stopped looking. Sure, they come around. Carl was one of them. The day we met, he watched me stand on a stepladder to wash the windows, and I admit I put on a show, stretching to reach the streaks in the corners, working up a good sweat. But when he put down his basket and sidled up to me, asking could he buy me dinner, could he buy me a drink, I knew even then what he was really asking. His mouth said one thing, but his eyes said another. They said, Can I take you away from this place?
They said, You look like someone who needs saving.
It was tempting at first, Carl so good-looking with his long limbs and wide chest, his hair golden as a retriever’s and only just beginning to thin on top. But every time I packed a bag, every time Carl spread out the map on the kitchen table and began marking our route with his red-tipped pen, I felt a lump work itself free of my stomach and lodge in my throat. By the time he circled our destination in red, I had already slipped away to the bedroom to unpack my bag. Sometimes I had to bite my hand to keep from crying.
He stayed longer than I thought he would. Three months, six months, a year. But then one day a big dust storm blew down from the panhandle. For half an hour, we watched it crawl toward us, a wall of dirt the color of a bruise. I lay damp towels along the doorjambs and windowsills. I tied our patio furniture to the rail of the front steps with nylon rope and then brought the cushions inside. I held out a roll of masking tape to Carl and told him to tape down the kitchen cabinets, but he only stared at me. He’d been pacing—once around the coffee table, down the hall and back. His hair was wrestled into sweaty peaks.
When the storm hit, it rocked us onto two wheels and then slammed us back down again. All the unsecured cabinets loosed their contents. The kitchen light fixture swung on its chain and smashed into the wall, raining glass on our heads. Outside, we heard a tearing sound and looked out the window just in time to see our trailer’s rusty skirt skittering down the road. Carl disappeared to the bedroom, and when I found him, he was curled up in the bathtub with all the blankets from the laundry room piled on top of him. When I pulled back the corner of a quilt, his eyes darted around the room.
“It’s fine,” I said. “It’s over.” And then: “There’s bad weather everywhere, Carl. Snowstorms and earthquakes and avalanches. Even hurricanes. Why is this so much worse?”
He didn’t have to think long. “Back home, it builds,” he said. “For days, even a week. But here, it comes on so fast. It’s like a sucker punch. There’s no way to get out.”
I knew then that he wasn’t talking about the storm. “You could have left anytime you wanted,” I said.
“That’s not what I mean.”
But maybe what he meant is this: He didn’t want a way out until he knew there wasn’t one. He didn’t feel trapped until he actually was.
In the kitchen, everything was broken. I swept and bagged the glass, careful not to cut myself. When I looked up, Carl was standing at the door with his duffel thrown over his shoulder. Behind him, the sky was the faded yellow of a sepia photograph. Dust hung like fog above the road.
“This is no kind of life,” he said, and I could only think of my mother, how this was all she ever wanted, how it could be enough—this trailer, this place—if only you decided it was. He lingered at the door for longer than he needed, and I wanted to say, Don’t go—or leave if you’ve got to, just come back when you can. But the lump in my throat was there again, and I could only nod and brace myself for the slam of the screen door.
That was a year ago or more. For a while, he sent postcards—beach landscapes so blue they looked fake. I kept them on the refrigerator, but with the blue side down so I could see the delicate loops of his handwriting. Hope you are well, he wrote. Here, the weather is lovely. After a while, though, the postcards stopped coming, and I knew he’d found someone else, perhaps a girl in a ridiculous straw hat, something that would fly off her head in even the slightest breeze.
Today, a man came into the laundromat with a basket tucked under his arm. A little girl held fast to his pinky. They were just passing through, he said, on their way to the mountains, a father-daughter road trip. He smiled and then looked away. He ran his hands over his prickly beard. When the girl skipped off to watch the dryer spin their clothes, he picked a piece of lint from my T-shirt, and his hand lingered. He was handsome, this man. He seemed kind. I saw the curve of his neck, and I thought how easy it would be to lay my head there. But before he could tell me about the thin mountain air, how it turned your breath to clouds, or about the smell of pine trees at dawn—before he could offer me the cramped middle seat of his truck—I was up on my feet and striding hard across the dirt all the way to my front door.
Soon, it’ll get lonely here. I’ve seen enough TV to know. Sometimes at night, the wind blows so hard it seems angry, and I fear a dust storm might come and carry off this trailer. These wheels that never got any use will be the only thing left. Who will miss me if I’m not here tomorrow? I sometimes wonder. Who will wait for me by the window? But in the morning, the sun is so bright, and the wind is only enough to ruffle your hair, and I remember how the laundromat smells so clean, and I tell myself a love like my parents’ would only complicate things. You can’t love like that and not burn up. You can’t give yourself over if you ever want to see yourself again.
Lauri Anderson Alford‘s fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from Greensboro Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Carolina Quarterly, PANK, Memorious, and elsewhere.