December 6, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Every Step and Sound Before the Silent Sea

By |2018-03-21T18:53:10+01:00February 5th, 2013|"Short Fiction"|
It was a flood and rain; it was our monsoon. It was huge — Old Faithful in the suburbs...

s was a lot of walks. We had it down, this town. The way by your house: out Maureen, across Patterson, down Mulqueeny, all over around the girl name streets, past all the rooted homes of friends we knew (all the Cameron David stories you’d tell, all the Kevin Ross and the Noel), out on Patterson again, and down it home. The way by mine: out the end, up on the bike path, down it to behind some creek or field or vineyard, always finding a dirt back road back to the path again and home. Always going out, always coming back. Always talking, always finding something else.

Remember the walk fight? I knew the way, I said. It’s over here. I promised it was cool, promised you a dock, the sweetest spot. Me traipsing so excited through the grass behind the corner where they grow the strawberries. A real dock, in our town. Can you believe it? You not even answering me and me not even hearing you not answer. Me imagining Louisiana or somewhere with a bayou or a bay — the gators floating in the swamp moss, or mussels clinging to the bottoms of the salty floats. No matter it would only be a concrete slab in our arroyo trickle, the normal rocks and minnows just a few and far between, a cattail maybe if the air was spring and flush enough. Still a kind of dock, an inland edge. Still couldn’t wait for you to see. And finally you letting out the breath that you’d held in, the fury you’d been curbing: you don’t know where you’re going, do you? It’s over here, I promise. I found it just the other day. You have no idea where we are. Sure I do. I knew exactly where we were. We were by the creek, by the dock. You don’t know where it is. When we finally got there you were too mad to even look, to care. I had meant to sit on it and talk and dream. Instead I stared there at the undammed water feeling guilt and bad for making you feel lost, and then we left, walked a straight line back to the main road home.

My walks were harder, off-terrain. Unequal ground for all. Yours we kept more straight and stable — all the neighborhood asphalt flat and fair for both our feet, unshoed in summer evenings and Vanned the school year through. I’d take the curb and you the gutter place, the line where tar and concrete meet, you a little pigeon-toed and me one foot right in front of the other, almost every heel right after every toe. Faster steps for me and slower ones for you, normal ones for you. The four or five or six or whatever inches there the sidewalk gave me making us a little more even, not too much still, me finally a normal height — still having to look up into your eyes, if I was going to, if I was going to not look at the ground and all the things around and down. You laughing at my wanting to be tall, my pleasedness at getting to be so for just some time before we sat or stood somewhere again. You’re so short, you said. You’re still not that tall. It was okay, just to feel like I was breathing the same air as you again. Breathing up and looking down and walking everywhere, feeling like the world.

It was our world. A cement bed and zoning spread, and all the quirks and secrets in the cracks between. We walked through all the breaks and lapses: step-crossed crumbling hand-made dams and picking up everything torn and tottered. If it was normal we left it alone-so many uncracked squares of pavement, so many fences without holes. If it had a rift or gap we had to see, had to look into and pick around. If it had grime or blood we had to stop and think and feel. If it had fur we made it ours, at least for the minute it took to say hello and pets. And so the broken sprinkler became the center of our lives and hearts: the gushing water rushing smooth and fatly-thin and shiny-fast over the sidewalk and the curb, the droplets falling hard and loud like some Niagara that we’d been to, so loud we had to yell, the jet-stream faucet shooting upside down and up and loud out of the maimed and plastic pipe stem, so loud and wet we had to play. It was a flood and rain; it was our monsoon. It was huge — Old Faithful in the suburbs, but never before and never again, if the city trucks could fix and help it. Once Faithful — fine with us. We couldn’t stop talking about it later, couldn’t stop feeling our wet feet warm in the sloshing puddle of grass-clipped mush, couldn’t not feel the thick drenched cotton on our backs even when we walked back and our shirts dried crusty to our chests. It was all we wanted to tell anyone: the sprinkler broke, by Tex Spruiell park, it was shooting like ten feet in the air. And home where no one cared — we sat up in your room and told it to ourselves.

Us was a lot of sitting, too. A lot of up there in your room not even doing anything hot or hard or racy-wrong, just sitting, twitching in a kind of first-love fidget, both us picking up everything we could up there and playing with it forever. Flipping pages of your books fast like wads of cash or decks of cards, turning trinkets upside-down and brushing off the dust, resettling them cleaner in their old spots on the shelves, counting coins and clicking pens, tracing fingers over shapes in stucco on the walls, tossing anything with a weight up and down and back and forth — all our kinds of catch. All the not-walking going somewhere walkish in there that way. Sometimes somewhere else: your porch, my porch, the hammock, trampoline; the sloping driveway, the curb. As many places to sit as there were to step, and always just as many things to see. More, sometimes, if we could get it still enough, if we could stop our jaws.

If we could stop our jaws it was always something good. Peace or power — a quiet time of cool together or some heaven-harsh display of sapien strength. This time: the death of ants. The WD-40 and a lighter. You and me both squatting on the curb like little boys just watching the line of them in the gutter crack ignite. Little boys, us, you and me, but me a girl. Me your girl, then. Another time: hunting frogs. A Maglite and a tiptoeing, a trek. A trying to keep quiet, trying to not make the telling underground-and-air vibrations that made the tadpoles squirm and hide, trying to keep the mouths there on our feet closed too; us freezing in tableau every time the croaking stopped and waiting there that way, the dew creeping up our legs and colding in the post-dusk chill, until their song would start again and set a sonic cover for our ambushing approach. And one more night: the way back from anywhere, any show or shore, both us spent of speech and satisfied just to sit and steer and hear and let the car purr its wheels the way back home.

The sapien strength, you want to know? The dying bugs, the shushing frogs, the gas moving from the tank into the speed of love. All of it. You know — something good. I thought it was.

Sometimes something good was something bad. Sometimes our jaws stopped was my jaw dropped and mad, my shocked. Sometimes it was a lazy day, a day on the green couch and Jake walking around with his big black slobbery head stuck on our knees and laps. The TV on, you finding things to see and share: you’ve never seen it? Nope. I can’t believe you’ve never seen it. We gotta watch it. Now? Today? Now. And then a thing like Edward Norton, who I love, his shaved head and fuzz-framed mouth spewing government politic right across the table and stabbing all their hearts in different ways; Edward Norton who I love. Edward Norton, his Nazied chest and needle-traced shoulderblades, his skinny-strong white legs in white white underpants stomping down the street absurd; Edward Norton and his gun and the black guy’s teeth against the curb, the curb… and to forget about the crushed skull, to forget about the molars and canines turned to slobbering bleeding dust inside the no-more mouth, inside the mashed tongue, I close my eyes and wonder about the scrape on the bottom of the chin, the red-skinned shallow-deep upside-down fresh rut from the short slide across the street edge there, the two-inch-quick squeezed-shift from the angle and the pressure and the fury and the speed. I don’t look and I pet Jake, I think about the sting, think I know my grass and rug and asphalt burns and that that’s the thing I can relate. That’s all I want to relate; that’s all I hope is there.

Something bad: The time she changed your fish. The fish I got you when you left for school. The Herbert. The Herbert was a different color. It was a different fish. You were in denial, or I was nuts. I wasn’t nuts — the Herbert was a different color. It was a different fish. Your mom had changed your fish, and you were in denial.

It was nice, I thought, and it was funny. Until you were red and I could hear your hurt. Until all of a sudden you couldn’t believe she bought a different fish, and I sat there couldn’t believing you hadn’t noticed until then. How could you not have noticed? It was a different fish. It wasn’t Herbert.

It was Herbert Two. Herbert II. I don’t know how we spelled it. “Herbert too” was how we said it, later. After upstairs. After crying.

I got you Herbert One for school — he was just Herbert then. A different color, not so blue. I had drawn on his bowl, made it cool. Made it less boring than glass. Gave him seaweed — made him think he was a shark. And he did. And now he was dead, now he was different.

I didn’t get it. You had looked at this fish every day for months. Fed him, I hoped. Pinched those little pellets one by one and dropped them taught onto the tense top of the water in the bowl. Watched him slowly turn and come around, watched him do that underwater fish-jump wiggle thing to snag the things like they were prey. How could you not have noticed? He was bluer, now. A different color, a different fish. It was just obvious, I thought, I had thought for days. I thought you thought so too. I thought you’d known for days, thought you thought that it was fine, thought you thought that it was funny, too.

I thought it was so nice, thought it was so funny. Funny she would do it, funny that you didn’t notice. How could you not have noticed? That was even funnier. It was just a fish. Just Herbert. It was fine, I thought, it was okay with me. She wasn’t sure it would be — that’s why she changed your fish, when she had found him dead. We didn’t find him dead. We had been out doing something else. Out walking on the sidewalk and the curb. Something else somewhere else, not there around to notice him different or dead. We don’t know how he’d died. Like fish die, I guess, in water. We didn’t find him dying — we found him different. I found him different right away. I thought you did too. I couldn’t believe you hadn’t noticed. It was so nice of her to think of that, to think of me. To think of you — to think you would be sad, because it was a fish I got for you. So nice of her to think that it was more than just a fish. So nice of her to think of us. It was so nice, so funny. Something good.

And then you yelled and turned and left. Stomped upstairs, Central cowering in the corner with his cat suspicion of it all as you ran past, me looking at your mom and shrugging “I don’t know” and getting off the wicker chair to follow suit and see.

You were so mad at her, so upset with all the lies. I was still confused: I thought it was so nice, so funny. I thought that it was something good. And it wasn’t. It was something bad. It was about the fish, it was about her and you, it was about her and your dad. It was about all the doing without telling, all the doing without talking. It was not a metaphor. How was it a metaphor? It was the real thing. It was her doing the wrong thing, the thing you didn’t want. Without talking, without asking, without you seeing.

Later, I thought: that was something good. After you letting me sit there with you in the quiet loud loud red wet rage. That you finally let me know. That you said a few small and helpless words up there instead of all the weapon ones downstairs. That you hadn’t noticed, that you finally had the sense and fit and stifled bawl. That you had anger there to curb at all.

Another something good: more peace. The curb again, the driveway where the ants had died. Lying there at angles and the pavement warm against our shirted backs. Heads apart together, not worrying about any sorts of dust in our hair or on our hands, and perking up to talk. How do you sit like that, I’d ask. How do you not? You propped up on your elbows like a lawn chair’s tilt kicked up, the under bar set firm into the closest plastic notch. Isn’t it uncomfortable? No, you’re crazy. Can’t you try? I’d try all the time, and something in my neck would pinch and burn. We had that talk a million times, one for every time we sat like that. And then that night a new talk: a thing in the shower, a sort of feeling you’d had. Something about God, a god. A moment where you got it, where you felt it. And It Will Be Alright. And it was.

Later, way later. Later away from you in all kinds of other states, states relational and nominal and geopolitical, I find this postcard. A picture you’d turned into a postcard and sent me sometime. A bunch of black men on it, gangsters or something walking up a city street and looking hard and tough. I want you to have this photo as a reminder of me, you’d written on the back. I didn’t need it but I had it. I remembered. It reminded me of you. It reminded me of Edward Norton, of San Francisco, and the stomp on the curb. It reminded me of the warm night on the driveway, and another one, a colder one: some night in a winter later, a winter in between that time and this one. One with a kind of fight out there in the rain. One with everything loud and wet again — real rain everywhere, pounding on the windows and the hoods of all the cars, sheeting off the roofy overhang in hard collected edgy bags, screaming down the drainpipes and scraping all their the insides with liquid sorts of fingernails. The water at our feet a rising puddle, a sky itself with all the splashes bouncing back and raining upwards from the ground. The whole driveway a shallow river sloping; the storm drain at the bottom swallowing it all. We were screaming over all of it, over all the wet and all the loud, over all the old love left and all the kinds of leaving. You: You don’t know what you’re doing! And me: I do, I do! I swear! I swore. I swore I knew.

The same rain, the same fight, and seconds later. He pulled up to the curb and everyone yelling. Me all wet and yelling shit, shit, shit and you all wet and yelling stay, stay and him dry there in the gray car, the window farthest from him down and yelling stop it, stop, come get in the car. All the rain and all the you keeping me from hearing anything but all the pulling eyes and that big, big haunt of guilt making me let go and take the river down into the unlocked door.

“I knew you were there. I just knew when you didn’t pick up your phone. I knew you were there.” What to say? I was in love with this one and I was in love with this one. The rain like that is best, worst. Everything so dirty and then everything so clean.

A summer later: last summer. More walks, night walks. Black widows everywhere, everywhere. The way by my house just wrought with them, like the sickest demon Easter Bunny came and wanted kids to die. In the bushes, at the poles, everything. We felt it was my fault. I hope I never get bit by a black widow, I’d said as were walking. And then you stopped and pointed: look! And there it was, the first one. You must have powers, you said. Say something about the lottery, about never dying. I did, quick, and one of those things never happened yet. The other — we’ll still have to find out later. But then, then, there were more spiders. Two ready on the bridge above the creek, one hidden in the thumbhole of some low-lying city-numbered panel, another potent on a splintered fence. Some hiding in the drainholes built into the curbs of yards with lawns, one dark and in the shadow of each and every streetlight sidelining the stretched roads home. All their spindly legs and shiny bodies, the young and old alike-the banded legs on babies and the bulbous backs of bigger, full-blown, husband-relieved ladies-all a threat now to our night, an unexpected obstacle with venom in its fangish veins. We let the panic take our awe and calm and started looking everywhere in strain, now worried for our flip-flopped feet and open toes, us imagining the kind of sting or numb to come.

Before any numb there was Jake dying. We took a big walk far away that day, drove a while out of town and hiked Mission Peak. Drove past a lot of home on the way out there, a lot of places where we’d walked all kinds of days before. Past Sycamore Park-we’d walked there a hundred times, once with turkeys, once with mushrooms, once with bikes, once with Jake and Dodger, once with bats; every time with ground squirrels squeaking-skeedling hole-to-hole at speeds of rodent swift. Past the ridge, where we’d watched the lady drive into the exit spikes — “Shit! Fucking shit!” — and her two front wheels deflate in instants, the whole car sink a few inches with the physics and her funny rage. Past Sunol, where your dad got married again after everything and I came and matched you on accident I swear, wore that rich deep purple and a new pair of heels and we danced and danced. Past 84, the road to school, the way we’d both taken thinking of each other all the way. A lot of steps to pass a lot of steps.

A lot of people there at Mission Peak that day, so many that the parking lot was full and we had to park on the street down the street, your car so low and the curb so high that the door scraped the sidewalk when I opened it, and I cringed until I realized that you hadn’t even noticed. You got out and the weight let up and then I got out too, took our water and we hit the uphill hard.

We didn’t stop the whole way up, not our legs and not our jaws. We passed all kinds of people — no one white in Fremont and everyone out here out to get their exercise for the week or for the day. We walked and walked and talked about it all, you and me these two white kids in all this everybody city, and all the thistling grass and all the skittering squirrels and all the upward slope and all the big big air, the view, the day all dry after we got above the fog and your big black dog not there, your big black dog in his last hours at home. Some things good and some things bad.

The last walk I remember. Me, just me, away again in all those states and ways, walking barefoot down the warm red path out to the edge of the sidewalk the night before, checking the webs in the curb and by the lamp for black widows, thinking of my toes, thinking of the sting and maybe the numb, all just to put the letter in the mailbox. The mailbox teeters. There is a beetle charging at me. He is big, black. The letter is a kind of love letter, the last kind.

Remember the other walk fight, the one away from both our homes? A different hike, early on. I didn’t know the way; we picked a path together. Me happy to be out in air, in nature, and talk talk talking about it all and everything. You so quiet. I noticed, tried to talk you out of it — Why aren’t you talking? And you said nothing — how I knew you were some kind of mad. Are you okay? I’m fine. Us both in sweat from the long steep dirt, me just tan again from genes but you red from the work of legs and epidermal pigment action. You’re red again, I said. You saying nothing back. Are you okay? And yes. One of the only times in the world you tried to make me stop talking; one of the only times I did. Soon enough I learn you’re mad it’s hard, the walk. You’re mad it’s uphill for so long and you’re mad you’re red and you’re mad I’m not, and you don’t want to go back now, we’re so far in. And I think that’s so dumb that then I’m mad, too, and we’re both quiet, you and me, nothing good or bad enough to break it. Not a sprinkler, not a fish. Not a spider, not a sin, not Jake. Just a walk, just a rock-dirt path and our suburban tennies barely holding up against the gravity and grit.

Until the sheep. Hundreds of the sheep. We turned the hairpin curve around the upper ridge and came into the higher hills, and saw them there, like Africa. All these big unfarmish things, these camel-colored unwhite curve-horned things with tawny wool and strongish limbs. It could not have been our town, the way they turned the temperate yellowed local knoll into some vast Saharan upland. It was another world. They shuffled forward as we walked without a single sonance down below, trotting first in halts and nervous ungulatory murmurs before they broke into a run. And then came the attack: the polarbearish thing, the furred white snarl of paws that shot from God-knows-where and blocked our way. You stepped in front of me and later I’d remember that, but then I knew that we were there to die. The little ones came after, the barky black-and-white things with short fur and rappy claws, and it was three to two there then, and us was two that wasn’t going to win. Us both frozen, a new chill creeping up our legs, the kind from in and not from out. Jaws stopped: bad for sure, maybe death. Out there in the quiet and the weird, these really rabid dogs and the sheep and walk gone wrong.

Thank God for the man. The man from nowhere. The dark-skinned man and his hand, his palm down and fingers out like stop, like shh, like some language we couldn’t have spoken to the things, just those fingers and a curbing and a calming, a choke collar of its own, a muzzle and a chiding and a call. The three dogs and the nowhere man heading back over the hill, back to somewhere. All the sheep so still, all to let us keep on by.

After that we couldn’t stop our jaws. It was something to talk about. What the hell and where the hell and why the hell and how the hell and all our ideas, all our maybes, all our thoughts and things on how they got there, what they were, what it all was, what if we’d died. And then that talk, those talks: who would have found us and when, and what they all might have said and done, and who’d speak at our funerals and who we’d leave our stuff to. Enough to talk about the whole rest of the walk, enough to talk about for all the other walks to come.

Down the hill there were the cows. Hundreds. Like the sheep, but flat and familiar, like our world, like our home. Hundreds of big black cows chewing cud and grass across the little valley and the path. At first we stopped, shaken from before, afraid of any kind of charge. Then one step, two. You first and me. They backed away, they split the path as we walked in — we split the path, like ag students in their own kind of Red Sea. They let us in, they let us back, they let us home.

And that was how it was, us. All the animals everywhere, and you and me just walking through.

Melissa Gutierrez is finishing her thesis at the University of Arizona Creative Writing MFA program. Find her on Twitter: @mmgutz.

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