May 18, 2018
by Evan J. Coleman
He thrums the steering wheel with three fingers. It’s a familiar drum roll, a succession of triplets he’s used before to drown idling thoughts. The other hand, calloused with nails bitten short, turns the key to silence the hum of the engine.
In the ephemeral quiet, Dow notices—too late to remedy—the right wheels have ridden up onto the grass, causing the car’s center of gravity to tilt slightly toward the road along with the old dog drooling in the backseat, the hunting bag dark with blood, the sunflower shells scattered across his lap—each of them clinging to the seat’s fabric for fear of slipping.
“Come Sealy,” he says. He pulls the handle and lets the driver-side door fall open, feels his boots on the gravel.
The dog’s filmy eyes have followed the man for years now, taking in his mercurial moods with an old soul. She is accustomed to waiting for her name to sound, and now rises painfully, dutifully to the command.
Though Sealy’s whine threatens to open a soft trembling in him, Dow shrugs it off and opens the back door. Putting his arms beneath the dog’s matted underbelly and bringing her to his chest, he recalls how light she’d once been, how her hair had wound like clouds around his fingertips as a boy. Then, he releases her weight onto the roadside.
Unhooking her leash, Dow scratches the flattened ring of hair around her neck and stares down at the folds of her pink tongue panting with gratitude, at her dark eyes speckled with gray. He leans down to whisper an apology, or a bit of gratitude perhaps, but nothing that might justify leaving her here on the Appalachian roadside.
When the door of the McDonald’s opens, a breath of air conditioning trickles beneath his shirt, helping him to forget the layers of sweat beneath. He takes his place at the back of the cordoned-off line and studies the small Hispanic girl at the register. She has kind almond eyes and an honest smile—features that seem out of place here. Dow wonders how she is able to extend her gaze beyond the broken world marching before her each day, how she smiles at ugliness and thanks it for coming. He pictures her almond eyes widening as he pulls the hunting knife from his hip, of how quickly she would acquiesce to anything, to everything.
“Good morning, sir. May I take your order?”
He looks up. Above her on the screen, a dark liquid is being poured into a cup, frothing, spinning ice cubes in its wake.
“Yeah, lemme get a Number 1. And make it a large.”
“Sure thing.” She smiles. “That’ll be $7.45.”
Dow hands over the last two bills from his wallet—a ten and a tattered five—and tells her, “Keep it.” As her face hardens momentarily—revealing wary thoughts—Dow realizes that a padded bra and eyeliner have hidden her unblemished youth. She’s just a girl hiding in a woman’s guise. So why work here? He wonders, only to realize there’s nothing poetic in the answer: she is young, in need of money, and this is probably a job that defines her about as much as eating Big Macs defines him. Just a sliver of the server and the served, nothing and everything they’d ever know of each other.
* * *
When he was 16, Dow had taken his first “driving time” behind the sweaty wheel of a station wagon. To his right sat the instructor, saliva drying white at the corners of his mouth.
“Take a left at the light,” the man barked.
Dow had signaled and turned the wheel hand-over-hand across the intersection, his eyes favoring the gray-blue road before him to the van of children that hurtled towards the car. A sharp, fetid gasp. The car slammed to a stop. Dow’s heart forgot its pulse, once, twice, until it dawned on him that only the instructor’s reflexive break from the passenger seat had kept them from death; how all of the life hanging there between the two cars—the wide-eyed mother’s, her clueless children’s, Dow’s—was just a sliver away.
* * *
Placing his tray on an empty table, Dow jams a few salted fries into his mouth. He hears a baby wail in her mother’s arms and remembers reading somewhere that people don’t form memories for the first few years of childhood. He wonders how these years compare to drunken comas that turn days into weeks or weeks into months until the difference doesn’t seem to matter.
Since the moment he’d found his father curled up like a poisoned rat trembling on the family porch, a much younger Dow had been fascinated by drinking’s transformative powers. The darkness that bred the animal, that opened his pores and let desire seep through the walls of his skin. That fucking id. Dow shakes his head as he bites into his burger, feeling the warmth of the cheese and beef release a pocket of greasy pleasure in his mouth.
Mornings of rolling over to discover a woman—fat, thin, pale, a friend’s lover, whatever—in his bed; mornings of inexplicable bruises spattering his face and chest; of retching up strands of memory and watching them dissolve into blue-gray toilet water. It had felt almost liberating to cede this much control, to let his Dow-ness evolve as it pleased and play out each of the “what ifs” that had once rattled around his anxious dreams.
Across from him there is a blonde boy sitting quietly with his mother. The boy is twirling his action figure down from the table, playing out his death over and over. “Help me, heeelllp meeeee,” the boy says in a high-pitched voice while his mother studies the seeds on her bun with bloodshot eyes.
Suddenly, the pleading stops. The boy freezes. He stares back at Dow, letting the action figure clatter to the tiled floor and out of sight. Dow tightens. Stop looking. He can feel the boy’s eyes tracing the blue lump on his brow, following the cuts across his cheek from the lacerated swipe of nails. He feels their weight as they linger on the fresh wounds he’d almost left behind.
As the sirens sound, Dow thinks of walking over to the boy to tell him why it has all happened, to explain the things his mother will keep from him—the body bag in the truck, the blind dog waiting by the roadside, the reason for all of it. But instead, he finishes his fries, stabbing a fork into the last of the oily slivers as he stares at the boy’s action figure lying forgotten beneath the seat, beyond reach.
Dow places his hunting knife on the red tray and—lacing his fingers behind his head—rests his cheek on the table, closing his eyes before the doors can burst open. He pictures Sealy’s brown coat on the roadside, in the bed of a truck, in a small farmhouse next to an overgrown field. Inside there is an old man scratching her ears, calling her by a name that Dow has never heard before.
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