The road was slender and empty. I remembered to turn on the headlights. The moon was down. The Mercury felt sluggish. That seemed appropriate to me for a dead woman's car, but when I was accelerating on the other side of Chalk, I realized that I had been driving with the emergency brake on.
I went all the way to Lake Merle. By the time I got to the broad, empty parking lot, there was a pervasive gray light. I pulled over next to a rusty trash barrel and rested my head on the steering wheel. Straightening up, I took a puff of asthma spray. My asthma had subsided, but I wanted to be sure of my breath.
There was a lime green pickup with a flag decal in one corner of the lot, but I felt alone in the world in a car filled with trash. Beyond the picnic shelters, the lake lapped at a red mud beach. I recognized this variation on the color of dirt from my childhood, but now it was almost lurid. I climbed out of the car, but bent back into it to clean.
I found a plastic bag from a shoe store and dragged mounds of old Kleenexes and advertising circulars into its mouth with a cheap wooden snow brush, which Ida -- my Aunt Frankie's lover, recently deceased -- had surely never used. It didn't snow much in Chalk, Texas. I started by putting the crushed cans aside for recycling, but a bitter impatience overcame me, and I dumped them into the barrel. I dug bottle caps from the musty carpet, and gathered old receipts that fluttered like moths when I tossed them into the trash.
I found three pencils, a cat's eye marble, a cloth-covered button, and two twenty-three-cent stamps, which I kept. I piled gritty coins on the asphalt by the back tire. As I worked, I had the feeling that I was burrowing closer to Ida. I got down to details, prying up the floor mats and shaking them out above the sparse grass at the edge of the lot. I picked dirt from the carpet with my fingertips. I knelt to run my hands between the seats.
Finally, I shut the door and leaned against the Mercury, grimy and spent. Feeling as if I needed a cleansing myself, I got up and headed towards the lake.
Lake Merle was so big that I couldn't see its opposite shore. There was a line of light at the horizon, throwing clouds into relief. The morning kept coming slowly, but it was already hot. I was tempted to go into the water, but down the beach I could see a fisherman making slow casts. I couldn't very well strip down to my underwear in front of him, and if I got my jeans wet, they would take a long time to dry.
I tried to protect my clothes from the red mud by sitting in the grass, but the chigger bites made me give that up. I took off my shoes and socks, tucked my asthma spray in one shoe for safekeeping, and dug my toes into the mud. The dark water pinked, then grayed. I watched the shifts in color with exhaustion, as if looking at tenderness with a cold eye. I thought of my love, Lilian, running at the ocean.
There was a beer tab near me, sharp edge up. I did the dangerous thing and buried it.
I was so tired, finally, that I simply lay back and let my head rest in the mud. The sky was scrolling into higher light. Frankie had driven me out to Ida's grave in Chalk Memory Gardens last week -- turned earth and a flat plaque, next to her husband. Very well-tended, just off the interstate. Only artificial flowers were allowed. Frankie brought convincing violets to crowd into the holder. She had spared some for the husband. Her eyes had looked raw.
I closed my own eyes and knew myself to be full of errors, unredeemed by the cleaning I had given the Mercury. A note, I thought. I should have left Frankie a note about borrowing the car. I should have stayed at the house and made everyone waffles. I dug my elbows into the mud, and let mistakes strain out of me: callow self-obsession, prudishness, theft, intolerance, and meanness. The mud softened, holding my shape. I sank into it, feeling deeply eased. I thought of the lake waiting for me, as if water waits.
My hand rested on the slightly damp, stretched cotton of my underpants under the waistband of my jeans. I had one knee bent, and one leg stretched towards the lake. I could hear it lapping. Then I heard the slap of footsteps coming towards me at a brisk pace.
I opened my eyes, but didn't turn. My bowels clenched. I was afraid to be stretched out in such a vulnerable position, so easy to see on the nearly empty beach. I crossed my legs at the ankles.
The footsteps came closer. It could be anyone, I thought: boys who hate fat women, with handfuls of rocks. A lady on her morning walk, seeing me as a thick pile of sloth. Someone without any interest in me, or else staring with fascination. It could be the Venus of Willendorf, stumping through mud on stone legs. It could be the fisherman on his way home. It could be a large dog.
It would have been easy and wise to turn my head to see who was coming, but I still didn't look. Instead, I settled my hips more deeply into the wet red dirt to let fear drain from me, too. I stretched my legs. My arms drifted up to rest on my breasts. My fingers were flat along the inner slopes. I lowered my eyes towards them, not craning to see. I was in the Venus position without the hollow to hold ashes. I had a belly, like the original. Nothing was missing.
The steps approached at a close distance. They slowed. I was observed. I sensed it like heat, but it didn't draw my attention. I was resting deeply. My lungs were quiet as I breathed into my shape. I curved both ways, towards sky and dirt. My flesh fell loosely over its scaffolding of bones. I met myself in mud. There was nothing more holy. The footsteps passed on.
After a time, I got to my feet and ran across the mud into the lake. The water was sultry. My feet sank into the soft, chunky bottom, so I kicked my legs out behind me, dropped my head, and swam hard away from the shore. When I got deep enough to tread water, I unfastened the zipper and worked out of the heavy jeans. After I tied them around my hips, I looked back at the beach.
There was a single figure walking, blocking the sun from his or her eyes, looking my way. I was too far out to see more.
I stretched back and floated, staring again at the sky. The water was murky and lukewarm. Lake weeds brushed my legs. My hair streamed away from my head in strands and clumps. My t-shirt billowed, stretched by the water. My underpants clung under my belly's crease. I was bathed by the lake's shifting hold. I could see my belly rising in the water like Lil's in the bathtub.
I dove backwards and surfaced again. This, finally, was what I wanted: to be drenched. I had thought I wanted stasis, old bonds, a place where I would be so familiar as to be unrecognizable, so I had come to Chalk to be the homely niece of a maiden aunt. I thought Lilian and sex would wait while I found my place in the natural order of an inherited landscape. Instead, I found sexuality as present as breath, and nothing simple about breathing. Fears and marvels rippled through me like swimming snakes.
Out there, my body listing with the current, I drifted from a grassy image of the memory gardens to the dead possum on cracked asphalt by the side of the road. Describing circles in the water with cupped hands, I thought that most fears came down to fear of death. Doing frog kicks, I knew I should be getting back with the Mercury. It was the way to help Frankie or at least do no harm. But my mind caught on the fact that boys screamed out of cars at me in response to an abundance of flesh. Fear of fat was fear of death. People who turned away at the sight of me could not turn from their own bodies, their own mortal softness, from the approach of their own sure deaths. I could not drive away from it, either. I arched, kicking lazily. We were all so scared of the flesh.
Lake Merle lulled me past the point of articulate thought. Water lapped at my neck. When I got out I would be a mess, I knew -- muddy, dripping, and facing complicated duties I had scrambled to avoid -- but for now I was in the belly of the world. I floated and almost slept.