The Men in my Family
The men in my family are awful. They are hateful and loud. They are always there. They are like the second hand of the clock in my grandma's living room, which moves not in measured lurches with each second, but quietly and fluidly around the face of the clock sixty times each hour. They are never changing, always circling the same path.
Women fall in love with them anyway. They are good-looking, dark hair and blue eyes, most of them, strong hands and tanned forearms. Women get wrapped around them long before they realize they should get away. I think these men are like wolves, that they smell weakness, that once a woman's eyes go soft with love they taste it like blood. The one woman who managed to leave, my mother, I imagine she looks as if she is being chased through the woods walking through the grocery store, leaves caught in her hair, deep gouges around her mouth and eyes. The shadows of the trees are visible on her face still, the dark green cedar terror, the lichen-covered rocks of being alone.
I can remember the way my mama used to look sittin in the corner before she left. Her breath was loud and uneven, smoke curling up from her fingertips, like she was trying to disappear behind that smoke, like if she kept doing it the room would get hazy enough for her to escape, to fly out the window and over the hard clods of the fields and toward the sound of the train whistle off in the distance. Or maybe she just wanted to lay down, her body shored up by the sides of a pine box and sweet-smelling earth.
My mother became feral to outsmart him. She must have sniffed something in the air one day, something ancient, remembered the time before she was born. She remembered the rest of the world and could not forget again. She began taking walks at night, scenting the air, the dark cool water. Then one day she let forth a howl and was gone.
The other women cower when they hear her name. The memories of who they once were or could have been are gone. Their eyes are full of longing. They walk about in housecoats, fat legs hidden even in hot summer sun, sit in dim rooms watching television. They rise at five AM to go to work cleaning other people's houses and hotel rooms. They go to the cannery. They go to the checkout line. They go to sewing factories, their fingertips tough as leather, their tongues spiteful.
A new one joined the family only a few months ago. I can see my cousin's trailer from grandma's window when I eat my breakfast in the morning. The trailer is propped up by naked cinderblocks, hovering over a piece of land that has been planted in long rows of strawberries every year I can remember. Our grandpa sighs when he looks into his backyard and sees the pieces of land he has given to his children and grandchildren, the narrow homes that have arrived on the backs of flatbed trucks.
Benny's new wife is thin. She has long hair the color of the nuts on chestnut trees. He is full of nervous energy around her, watching carefully the glances she receives. He asks me if I would fuck her. I picture her naked hips and the skin of her thighs. I think of the soft mud that heavy rain makes of clay and wonder if they are as soft as that. "You know Benny, she's not really my type."
"You don't think she's good-lookin?"
"Oh, she's hot, just not my kind of hot."
He looks me up and down, taking in my boots and blue jeans. "I don't get you fuckin dykes," he says to me.
Crystal doesn't have the cowed look my aunts have. She's only nineteen. She doesn't have the soft look that comes with love, either. I spent the days before I finally met her wondering if I should tell her about Benny's last girlfriend, the one who emerged from the trailer half dead, eyes closed up and nose dripping, fingernails ripped off, her lung collapsed. Our grandpa drove her to the hospital, the girl curled up against the passenger window. No one spoke her name after that. When they did talk about it they talked about how the "poor little fella" might end up doing a few years in jail. "It's hard to know what to do with a woman when she gets drunk and won't shut up," our grandfather said. "Sometimes hittin them's the only way." After that I realized that the women who had married into my family were just a few steps up from the litters of kittens my uncle drowned in the creek each spring.
When I meet Crystal I am surprised. She is soft spoken. She doesn't have the same heavy drawl of almost everyone else that I know. She sits with her back straight and seems to care what she looks like. I can tell she doesn't like me much. She expects me to lean too close or to catch me looking at her ass in the reflection of the window.
I like to think that only Benny and his wife know about me, but the whole family does. Some Sundays my grandpa shakes me out of bed muttering about salvation and repentance. If I keep my eyes closed he goes away after only a few minutes, but I'll lay in bed awake until he leaves, the smell of baking biscuits in my nose, lay there until I hear his car start and roll out the gravel driveway.
It didn't happen because I didn't want to be like all the other woman I knew. It happened cause it was the way I was born. Maybe my heart is a different color, my blood a different shade of blue underneath the skin. My mother left before she found out I was wild in my own way. If she saw the ice blue of my eyes now, eight years later, surely she would recognize them as her own.
My aunts treat me the same way they would treat my mama if she ever came back. It's like there's a circle drawn around me that they're afraid to step into, like if they get too close they'll be touched by the same poison that has touched me. They talk loud about the Bible when they come to visit my grandma, loud enough for me to hear it if I'm sittin in the kitchen or out on the porch. They get quieter if I sit down in the room with them, like I might spit that poison straight at them. Grandma's the only one who don't treat me any different; I think she must have things of her own to keep secret.
Sometimes I tell myself I've got Benny to blame for this, but I know it ain't true. I told Benny when I was twelve that I thought about girls the same way as he did. When I told him I could see his dick getting hard in his jeans. Some guys can't get enough of thinking about two girls fucking. He was older than me and we snuck out to our grandpa's barn (the one he'd tear down a few years later so he could have more of a yard) to look at the porn magazines he kept in an old tackle box.
By the time we'd flip through one magazine Benny would have to undo his pants and go jack off in the corner, but those big breasts and used looking pussies never did much for me. I pretended to get hot over it so he wouldn't think I was lyin. Truth was I'd be more interested in what he was doing in the corner, the sound of his hand moving against his skin and the wet stuff that soaked up the dry, fine dust on the planks of the floor. It was something I'd never seen and didn't understand and that made it more exciting somehow than the naked, pink pussies stretched out and looking so much like my own.
I made Benny swear to secrecy when I told him. "I don't want Andy or James or any of the other cousins knowin," I said. "Don't want my dad to find out one night when everybody's drinkin. I don't know what he'll do to me. You can promise me that, can't you?" And Benny answered with a solemn nod, his eyes very dark and serious. "No, Anna, I won't tell a soul." So I told out in the middle of the woods, I told the thing that can get you beat up or even killed out in the country, the smell of cedar and the sound of quiet water all around us, the sunlight comin down in small patches on our face and hands.
I waited to see if he would tell, if the suspicion my family had regarded me with since mama had left would turn into something else. In only a few days their strained smiles disappeared; their lips became tight thin lines. They looked at me icily when I said hello to them. They had been waiting to see if I would be infected with something like the disease that had caused mama to leave. They stepped away as far as they could when they found out how much worse it was in me.
I never asked Benny why he told. I knew that the secret made him important while he was telling it, and I knew that was enough for him to break his promise. I understand that out in the mountains you cling to whatever you can. You do it because the only way to see the curve of the earth is to climb to the top. You can see the curve of the earth if you climb all the way to the top, because the sound of locusts and crickets and cicadas is louder than the sound of humanity. You do it because everyone up here is just waitin to die. The best ones have got God and the worst ones got the bottle. And then there's the ones like me. The ones who've got nothing.
The men in my family are awful. My dad sold some of his father's land after his parents told him they couldn't pay his bills anymore. He took the money, five thousand dollars, to a bar the same night, all the cash stuffed into his black wallet, and lost it. When he sobered up the next morning he flew into Benny's trailer and grabbed him out of bed, threatening to kill him if he didn't tell him what went with his money. Benny didn't know what he was talking about. Dad blacked his eye and threw him naked into the mud of his yard.
My dad went crazy after mama left him, but he went even crazier after that. That's why I moved in with his parents. He stays in the house I grew up in. It's right next door. The lights stay on all night. He emerges from time to time, his shirt filthy with tobacco spit, his skin oily and smelling like onions and beer. He threatened to track mama down and kill her for a while, but I knew he was too drunk to do anything. I also knew that if he came across mama she would turn on him and destroy him, leave him a mess of blackened bones. I never thought to ask what would happen to the men in my family without a woman to punch and prop them up until after mama left. I don't think my aunts thought of it, either. Do they look at my father now and see who their husbands, the ones who have terrorized and tormented them, the ones they have given the best years of their lives to, really are?
I want to ask Crystal why she's with Benny, if she's in love with him. She seems so normal, accustomed to the outside world in a way that no one here is. I close my eyes and try to see her in twenty years, and she does not look ruined like the rest of my aunts and cousins. Her legs have not grown to the width of small tree trunks; her face is remarkably unlined. I want to know why she is with him, if he has told her some big lie to keep her there.
One night while I am sitting in Benny's trailer he tells me he married Crystal for her money. "The bitch gets on my nerves a lot of the time. She's so goddamned young, but her dad's got money she's gonna get when he dies and now she's working forty hours a week. I sit back and let her bring home the paycheck."
"Is that a secret I oughta keep," I ask him, "or is it something for everyone to know?"
He smiles at me and whispers the mantra of all the men in my family, "That bitch couldn't leave me now even if she wanted to." He looks pleased with the words, as if he always keeps them close to his chest.
"Oh, dammit, Anna, you know I ain't gonna live off her forever. I want more than what she brings home. This is what I've been thinkin about lately, as a way to better myself." He pulls a shiny booklet from his coffee table and hands it to me. It is a course list for a school in Atlanta that teaches the business of funerals. "It ain't a morbid interest I got in this thing, but it seems like a good way to make money."
I think about him putting rouge on bodies, clothing them in best suits and dresses, selling coffins and flowers, making arrangements for guest books and food. "Which part of it do you want to do?" I ask him.
"Well, all of it. Whatever they're teachin them down there. I'll be done in two years, and then I'll make better money than anyone around here."
In the dim light of his living room, I start thinking back to when we were younger -- me twelve and him sixteen. When we was young, getting out was wrapped up in each other. We made all kinds of promises. Funny how family secrets are worse than secrets about people that ain't got the same blood as you. They seem darker, like if you could cut them open, they'd be filled with pure black blood. My mama became a secret like that after she left. And me and Benny, we have all kinds of things to hide from the rest of the family.
It started one day when we were out in the barn lookin at porno mags. When he got up to face the corner I asked him if he would let me see what he was doing. He didn't say anything, just unbuttoned his jeans and took his cock out. It was stiff and pointed toward his belly. I watched as he squeezed and pulled it, his breath coming louder and faster, his eyes closed. When the little spurt of come came out and hit the floor I knelt down to touch it. The stuff was viscous and awful.
"I want to see you do it," he said to me. At first I thought he meant he wanted me to touch his dick, tucked away again in his jeans. And then I realized that he wanted to watch me touch myself.
"You can't tell anyone," I said as I pushed my shorts down. I spread my legs out like the girls in the books, holding my hand so he could see every part of me. I closed my eyes and leaned my head back on the dusty floor. Before I knew it he was on top of me kissing me and then I felt his fingers on my cunt. I bucked against him and he fucked me like that, with one finger until I came. I'd given myself orgasms before but that one was different, different to feel like that with somebody breathing on top of you, the sweat from their forehead falling down and hitting you in the face.
Things was different between us after that. They were more urgent, like we had to get out of the mountains as soon as we could. We wanted to get out from under the family, get to someplace where no one would know the truth about us. For a while I forgot about mama and my aunts. I forgot about my father. I forgot about all the men in my family except for him.
Benny and I ran all around the hills that summer, damming up creeks and catching fish, fucking on the high green ridges. I fell in love with him, but I still thought about women. I told him I wanted to have a woman with him, at the same time. "I think I can find someone to do that," he said, "someone who don't know who you are."
A couple weeks went by before he brought it up again. "I found someone," he said. "Davis says I can borrow his car this weekend. I figured we'd drive up to Iron Mountain. There won't be anyone up there late at night."
"Who is she?" I asked.
"Just some girl I know from school, a girl that was after me all year. She was fallin all over herself cause I called her up in the middle of summer. I think she'll do just about anything I say."
I looked at him hard then, realizing that he used his looks for all kinds of things. He used them as weapons. He used them to make people feel special. That's what he'd done to me, made me feel like my feet weren't touching the earth cause he was so damned beautiful. Everyone looked at him, his dark hair and eyes, the straight nose and full lips. They looked at him like they could get some of that beauty for themselves just by being near him.
I met Amanda that Friday. She was pretty, long brown hair that went down her back. Benny picked me up with her already in the car so I sat in the back seat. She had both arms wrapped around the crook of his elbow. It was almost dark by the time we got there, the cicadas and lightnin bugs loud and bright.
You have to drive up up up to get to the top of Iron Mountain, have to point your car east towards North Carolina. The very top is at the state line. The ground is covered with pure green moss, thick like carpet, and cedar trees, their limbs jagged. There's big, round rocks everywhere, like there used to be a riverbed up there that dried up a long time ago.
We parked at a look-out, the moon half full. The air was colder up on the mountain, thinner and blacker. Benny pulled a fifth of whiskey from between the car seat and the door. I got scared when he brought it out, scared of going back down the mountain with him drunk. He untwisted the cap and gave the bottle to Amanda. She took a small drink and handed the bottle to me. When she turned her face towards me I saw that she was beautiful. My mind leapt at the thought of unbuttoning her jeans, at touching the smooth expanse of her back. I hardly noticed how the liquor burned. I gave the bottle back to Benny and for a moment the air was filled with the smell only of her.
Benny opened the driver side door and stepped out. The cool air came flooding in. I pushed the seat forward and climbed out, noticing for the first time in a long time how much taller he was than me. Amanda was almost as tall and I suddenly felt foolish. "Give me another drink," I said to him and he laughed. He looked back and forth at us cockily, Amanda leaning on the hood of the car, me holding that big bottle of whiskey. Behind his back lay all of the earth you could see from the top of Iron Mountain, black as pitch.
I felt like a pillar of stone beside her body, thick and roughly carved, as if my maker had stopped in the middle of shaping me and moved onto something else. My eyes searched her body as an object and as a thing I would eventually become. I wondered what was different between me and her and him. What was different that she and I leaned on the hood of his car feeling strange and ashamed as he stood with his back to the sky looking at us like he owned us.
There was a heat that came off of her when she looked at him, so sharp and dark that I did not quite understand it. I wanted to step in between the two of them, wanted that heat to be directed at me. It looked as fierce as the jagged points of the cedar trees that surrounded us. Benny stepped towards her when he saw it, leather jacket creaking. He lifted her all the way up on the hood of the car, spreading her legs with his torso. I watched as he kissed her, almost hairless knuckles holding onto the line of her jaw, long hair pushed back over her shoulders. I watched as he lay her backwards on the hood of the car, her thin stomach exposed to the air, body shuddering. He leaned over her, his unshaven chin grazing her neck, eliminating the memory of the night's conversation, eliminating even the sound of the wind. What happened after is completely silent.
Benny broke the kiss and stood up again, his hand still on her cheek. He motioned for me to come closer, to kiss her. Pale yellow smoke ignited in me. Her body, the same as mine but different, inspired both terror and awe. My desire to touch another woman was so great it was almost violent. Her eyes remained closed for an unknowable amount of time, closed until I pressed my lips against hers, my long hair brushing against her face. Her eyes sparked anger when she opened them, the flats of her palms striking my shoulders firmly, pushing me backwards. Benny stuck his foot out behind me and I fell into the dirt. Above me, their mouths moved in crazy ways, opening and closing senselessly, teeth flashing. He slipped his hand around her waist, the two of them still soundlessly laughing. The warmth from the whiskey was completely pushed out of my stomach. They got inside the car and I heard the door locks snap closed. I laid on the ground waiting to see if they would leave me. I laid there frozen for a few minutes, the silence finally broken by the sound of them fucking.
That was four years ago. Turned out he told Amanda he'd promised to look after his little cousin for the night. That was his way of endin it, of getting out of the circle of shame he had gotten himself into. After that the love I had for Benny turned into something else. I've carried it with me ever since, a hard kernel that, like a pearl, has grown larger and more perfect with each passing year. The vision of them laughing at me, the cold wind that swept the mountain for most of the night, the first time I thought of a woman, turning the pages of Leviticus, reading the same passages again and again, the strange secrets of his body. It is this shining perfect thing that lay at the center of my heart; it is the thing that will propel me out of the mountains, away from the cedars and their dark green terror.
For a few brief weeks at the age of twelve, I understood desperation. My love for him didn't disappear overnight; it was like molasses turning to sugar. It happened slowly, the smooth amber stuff turning hard and crystalline, eventually perfectly white. I thought of his skin all the time, the smell of him, the straight line of his nose. Still I did not talk to him or look at him when he entered a room. I put him in a glass jar and pushed him away.
I didn't start talking to Benny again until he dragged that trailer up on our grandparent's land. He had just turned twenty. After he did that I knew there was nothing left he could threaten me with, no way he could chip at the hard enamel of my heart. Sitting in his living room and listening to him talk about going to school to be an undertaker I knew that what he had done to me didn't matter anymore. I was leaving and he would stay forever, shadows settling around his mouth, crow's feet spreading from his eyes.
I want to ask him what he does with the enormous hours that make up his days, the course book hidden inside the coffee table, what he does to fill up time. I picture him rising and playing his guitar, eating a sandwich for lunch, watching TV, fucking his wife before he goes to sleep. I rarely see him out in his yard. I want to ask why he gets up in the morning at all.
Like my mother I feel hungry and ragged; I feel my teeth becoming sharper and sharper. I learned early on how meanness makes people smaller, how it twists their ambitions into nothing. I think of my dad on top of the hill, the lights shining far into the night, the sound of him crashing from one end of the house to the other. I imagine Benny arranging my father's funeral and then his own, days before he dies. I imagine the box he will put himself in, as ornate as he can afford, pall bearers with the same eyes as the rest of the men in my family. I imagine them all in the ground together.
At night the roads by our house disappear. They are gray ribbon in the moonlight; they are the color of grass in the blue light of early morning. The night air will coat your lungs like velvet if you breathe it deep enough. I think of my fist closing around the present, the past and future spilling out like ribbons from my closed palm. The past is short and crumpled, smudged and crinkled in some places. The other end of the ribbon is glistening and untouched, forty thousand miles of black highway.