7.04 / April 2012

Blown

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Nothing beats the Everglades for swallowing a body. A life. It can ruminate for centuries on secrets taken whole. It can absorb the bitterness of treason, the gallstones of deceit. It devours castoffs, bolts down indiscretion. Its appetite is legendary, a burial ground for saints and sinners, the surefooted and the lost.

Still, Livvy knew the Glades were bound to spit her out.

She chose a house on stilts, deep in the cypress swamps, surrounded by sawgrass rivers. Late in the afternoons, with a glass of iced tea sweating beside her, she watched the drift of water lilies, white and spectral. Nearby in the humming quiet, Jason caught catfish, bass, and mullet. The back porch swayed with the currents. On the hardwood hammocks, she saw flamboyant orchids sprouting from decay. At night she caught the stare of a panther’s reflective eyes, the lithe fluidity of its body suspended like a skipped heartbeat, waiting.

Gators owned the landscape, the lines of sun and shadow. They were constant reminders of all those years with Cooper at her back. They had his lurking ferocity, his steadfast intensity of harm. Every day, she fingered a trigger, plotting the course of bullets aimed at flat reptilian heads.

She never took the shot. She wouldn’t risk drawing him to her, the report of a gun like a lure to the curious or the vengeful. She wouldn’t waste the bullets. She wouldn’t make it easy. Thousands of miles and years away and here she was, still snarled up in one man’s mythology, that hard-wrangled suspicion that Cooper couldn’t die.

“Everyone dies, honey,” Jason told her when she confessed. “The trick is to hold it off awhile. Just like we’re doin’.”

Livvy wasn’t sure she was holding anything at all, if she was holding back or holding on. She’d let Jason talk her into Key West, at first, into the lull of beaches and sunlight. That last stop on US1 was a haven built from salvaged wealth, shipwrecked boats, and Prohibition rum runners. For Livvy, its history shot off sparks. Maybe Key West could make the best of anything. Maybe, Livvy thought, even me. She talked herself into hope, but the wind still blew, tugging at the brown curls she had finally let grow, the ones that slipped so easily between Jason’s long, deft fingers in the night. The island’s skyline was pure exposure, making her a target for the wind and whatever it might bring.

Driving into the Glades, past lush greenery hatch-marked by alligator trails, Livvy understood that she was hiding deeper, but that she’d never get away. Wherever she had gone in life, the wind had followed, bringing its misfortunes. The greatest of those had always been Frank Cooper. Now, he was just waiting for her to surface.

Even the Glades were no match for that.

***

Livvy was fourteen when her mother died of cancer.

At the cemetery, there was no breeze, no lifting of the Texas summer heat. A refinery fire sent up acrid fumes. Clods of earth rained into the grave. When there was nothing left to toss but flowers, Livvy crushed a rose in her hand, gasping at the bite of thorns.

A month later she started ninth grade at the public school in Port Arthur. Her brothers had all graduated by then. They had refinery jobs, apartments, girlfriends, even children of their own. Livvy was the youngest by a half-dozen years, and the only girl besides. Her birth had been enough to rattle her mother into visions of a different future. She enrolled Livvy in private school, working six days a week to make the tuition. Every afternoon, Livvy sat beside her mother in the windowless refinery office, cobbling together a neat parade of A’s. They were supposed to take her someplace else, though she couldn’t imagine where.

“She’s gonna be spoilt,” her eldest brother said.

“What does it matter, so long as she goes?” their mother answered.

And then she died. Livvy couldn’t understand it, the sure suddenness of loss. Her mother had been wrong, wrong in her expectations, wrong in her imagining. After the funeral, she flicked a lighter on and off, watching flame bursts come and go. Then she burnt her tidy, stacked report cards and cast the ashes to the wind.

In the public school, Livvy was a transplant. Everyone else had been together since kindergarten. On a good day, she faded into the edges of hallways, school fields, and classrooms. Her brothers, haunted by their mother’s wishes, offered to pool their funds and put her back into private school. Livvy refused to go. In a place where no one knew you, it was easier to disappear.

Her father was a ghost already, dressed in flannel and denim. Years ago he had worked on Petronius, the world’s largest rig, a looming monolith in the middle of the Gulf, where nearly everything had the potential to explode. He came home from those stints full of the sea, telling tales of manta rays, dolphins, and sharks, tucking Livvy to bed with mermaids and serpents and gigantic sea squid.

He still worked the rigs, but not Petronius, and his stories had shrunk and faded until they were bare, skeletal things, hardly worth telling. During the weeks when he was off shore, Livvy was usually alone. Her brothers checked on her haphazardly, as you might tend a desert plant. Her neighbor, Mrs. Fillips, confused Livvy with her cats. She set out plates of tuna for dinner and packed canned sardines in Livvy’s lunch. Livvy learned how to cook macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, and beans. She opened cans of soup and ate her way through boxes of crackers. For lunch, she made peanut butter and jelly, feeding the oily sardines to strays behind the school.

Before her mother got sick, Livvy’s father took them fishing once a month, down on Old River Cove. They drove out early Saturday morning and sat all day, nestled in the conjunction of easy talk and easy silence. By dusk they always had a bucket full of redfish, flounder, and trout. Livvy rode home with her hand out the truck’s window, letting the blown breeze pass freely through her fingers, imagining pieces of herself cradled in the slipstream.

The fishing trips ended abruptly with her mother’s diagnosis. There were no more buckets full of silver fins. There were no more stories cast like a whipped line, light. Livvy stopped holding her hand out, open to the air. A steady quiet built upon itself until the afternoon when she came home to heavy, unbroken stillness, all the monitors turned off.

Her grief was pockmarked with loneliness. On the school grounds, she watched the wind, as if it could bring her some relief. She saw its tricks played out on street corners, at bus stops, and across the dusty schoolyard. She saw piles of leaves scattered, papers snatched, hair disarrayed. From the wind, she learned lightweight defiance and quiet irreverence and also the force of a howl. And then one day, the wind plucked Frank Cooper’s cigarette from his hand, rolled it across the pavement and lodged it beneath the toe of Livvy’s high-top sneaker.

Cooper took her fishing a few weeks later, on the last day of her ninth grade year. They didn’t go to Old River Cove, and Cooper had no stories, no packs of Oreos smuggled beneath her mother’s watchful eye. He had two six-packs of beer and a bag of chips. When they left with empty buckets in the full heat of the afternoon, Livvy was drunk. She kept her head turned into the wind on the way home and got sick down the side of the truck. Cooper kept on driving, laughing softly to himself.

He never took her fishing again. He drove her deep into the woods instead, into the stillness of sun filtered through leaves and an occasional snapping branch. Cooper smoked while Livvy stared out into shadows, her back against rough bark, tiny brown ants inspecting her freckles like a map.

When she turned sixteen halfway through her sophomore year, Cooper filled her slowly with triple sec under a renegade moon. Livvy watched the stars spin crazily in the sky. “Th’world’s too big,” she whispered. Cooper snorted. “It aint no bigger than us, Liv, stuck here, goin’ nowhere.” He looked at her long and hard then, as if he could see right through her. It made her dizzy, and Livvy closed her eyes.

Later, the bottle empty, Livvy watched the hazy sway of a naked light bulb as Cooper screwed her on the floor of his uncle’s trailer. Outside in the darkness, a coyote bared its throat. The sharp, yapping call was a halfway consolation.

Cooper graduated at the end of that year and shuffled through a trail of odd jobs that paid for groceries and beer. He disappeared for weeks at a time. With each abrupt departure, Livvy adjusted to the shape of his absence. Then just as the silence stopped humming, he would pull up in the light blue Malibu and wait for her to climb back inside. He would drive towards his uncle’s trailer with wind swirling through the open windows, buffeting the space between them. Livvy wondered where the air had been and whether or not there were traces of her in its broken, open grasp.

She filled out college applications in her guidance counselor’s living room one weekend when Cooper was away. As the acceptance letters came in, she tucked each one beneath a pile of books on her mother’s bedside table – Rilke and Wordsworth, Eudora Welty and Julia Child. Books no one had ever put away. When her father came home from the rig, he stood in front of her, letters shaking in his hands. “Jesus, Livvy. Your mom would be proud.” He hugged her tightly, breathlessly, as if she were the lottery itself.

Cooper didn’t say goodbye. Livvy wasn’t all that surprised.

Up in Colorado, the mountain air stole the breath from her lungs. The black letters in her textbooks swam, unmoored. The sky was low and suffocating, the mountains a tightened ring. The wind was sharp, relentless, always pushing south.

By December she had learned the hours of the library and dining hall, the rough rhythms of the campus. She knew the fraternity houses, the pizza parlors, the shadowed walkways to avoid. Her grades were mediocre and she had made a few lukewarm friends. When she came home on break, Livvy turned her face to the sun. She knew right then that she wasn’t going back.  As she lowered her eyes to the tarmac, there was Cooper. His cocked eyebrow and bent smile told Livvy he knew it too.

Her father put up a fight. “Goddamn it Livvy, you’re going back if I have to take you there myself,” he hollered into the night. But a week later he went back to the rig. Livvy moved into the trailer with Cooper after his uncle ended up in Beaumont Federal. She listened to the oldies station on the radio. She watched dragonflies dive at the scum on the pond. She read aloud from her mother’s books, each word carried away in a breeze. She tried not to wonder where Cooper got the money to pay for hot dogs and chili, milk and beer. But then, as the heat rose hard into summer, he told her.

“Fifty states, Liv. Fifty jobs in fifty states. We’ll see the world, all them places in your books.” He tossed a slim Keats at her, a smile broke open on his face. “No more shit holes and wasted time.” Cooper’s gesture took in the trailer, the pond, the whole of their world. He pulled out maps, newspaper clippings, video footage. Livvy nodded, coming to understand. While she had been learning trigonometry and European history, Cooper had been studying theft. “Easy as pie,” he said. “Nothin’ to it.”  He wanted a partner. He wanted her. “Fifty-fifty, down the middle. It’ll be a goddamn story we’ll write in those places. Legendary, that’s what. We’ll die knowing that we lived.”

The next morning, Cooper put a nine millimeter Beretta in her hand and led her into the woods. He stepped behind her, his chest taut along her back, his arms reaching forward to steady her aim. In Livvy’s ear, his whispered instructions played out like a lullaby. “Hold ‘er steady, yes, that’s it honey.” Livvy slipped into the rhythm of the blown breeze, letting it come and spin her round.

Two weeks later, he shoved their clothes into a nylon duffle bag. “Time to go,” he called back over his shoulder. Outside, he handed her a baseball cap, a bandana. He drove towards the Louisiana border with the radio turned low, the windows open. The wind pulled hard. Livvy kept her hands inside the car, one palm a loose cradle to the gun.

***

Deep in the Glades, Livvy tested the air, letting it run surreptitiously across her tongue, searching for traces of Texas dust, refinery oil, gunpowder. She watched gators crawl awkwardly across sand bars, their stomachs low, their tails dragging. She wasn’t fooled. She knew them, knew their speed, teeth that could cut through a turtle’s shell but couldn’t chew worth a damn. If gators caught something too big to swallow whole, they just pulled it under, dragged it down to deep water where the hide would rot and soften.

Then they dove, eating the remains.

***

In Louisiana, Cooper drove too fast. Livvy watched the road snake out behind them like a whipping cord.

Thirty miles past the border, he found the store he wanted. “Nothing close by, no neighbors to get curious. Just one chump up there behind the counter. Easy.” He didn’t look back. Livvy hesitated just long enough for Cooper to vanish down the lighted aisles. In the waistband of her jeans, the gun sat heavy and cold.

Cooper never guessed at half of what was Livvy. Her brothers had taught her lifetimes of delinquency. Of all those lessons, shooting was the least.

At a motel in Kansas, with several thefts behind her, Livvy flipped the gun back and forth between her palms. Cooper snorted laughter. “You know you aint never gonna use that, honey. It’s just a prop, make you look scarier than you are. Hell, I should take the bullets out just in case you shoot me by mistake.” He tossed a greasy wrapper at her head. Livvy didn’t even stand. She shot the mattress near his ass in one swift motion, all her brothers’ covert lessons suddenly unearthed. Cooper jumped up swearing. He punched her in the mouth and dragged her to the car. When her lip finally healed, it was hatched over by a thick, jagged scar, like lightning.

***

Down in the Glades, she fell in love with mangroves, with their wild, walking roots that flourished in brackish mire, taking the bitter and making it sweet.

There were still mangroves as far as Key West, their roots anchored in bedrock, ready for the hurricanes. There were alligators too, long snouts half hidden, biding time. Along the beaches and among the rocks, pelicans brought back strands of her father’s stories. “They’ll tear their own flesh to feed their young,” he had told her, “Give up their very own blood.” Churchgoers saw them as a symbol of Christ. Environmentalists held up pictures of the birds, slick with oil from Deepwater Horizon. For Livvy, they were caught somewhere in the middle, between the possibility of redemption and its failure.

***

Fifteen jobs without a hitch, and Livvy almost caught the rhythm. Cooper had emptied her gun in Kansas. Sometimes Livvy wondered if he thought she was the better shot, steadier in her aim. Certainly, she never missed, but, as far as she knew, neither did he.

Then, at a Quik Mart in Duluth, an old man panicked, waving his hands and shouting in Hindi. Cooper brought the butt of his gun down in a single smooth arc, and the old man crumpled like a puppet let loose. On the floor, a red pool widened. Cooper tossed Livvy the sack. “Fill ‘er up,” he laughed, snagging a pack of cigarettes from the rack above the counter.

After that, the rhythm quickened. In six months they covered the entire East coast plus the string of states that lingered at its back. From there they moved in apparent randomness from Idaho to South Dakota, Missouri to Utah, Arkansas to Arizona. Alaska was a problem Cooper solved by driving day and night until they got there. Back in Cali, Cooper scrounged enough cash to get them to Hawaii and back, just barely. Enough cash, Livvy supposed, to do something else entirely.

With only two states left, Cooper shot to kill. At a store near Gulfport, the clerk started crying about her kids, her dog, her mother in the hospital. She stuck her hands in her hair and prayed, spittle flying from her lips. When Cooper pulled the trigger, she fell back in a hard, muddled heap. After he’d stuffed the gun into his belt and filled the sack with cash, he grabbed a chocolate bar from the rack by the door. The bell jingled behind him.

They drove all night, crossing state lines in a pattern that only Cooper understood. For a week they camped in a backwater stretch of South Dakota. Finally, they drove dead south toward Texas. At the state line, the wind carried scents of sweet tea and cayenne, cattle and sheep. It bore the cry of football fans in the night, of rebels and outlaws and independence. Livvy decided to push her luck.

In Dallas they checked into a cheap motel in a neighborhood where no one looked too closely. Cooper drove in circles every night, searching for the perfect store, the perfect job. During the day, he slept, muttering in his sleep. Livvy offered to do the shopping, fingers crossed behind her back. Distracted and possessed, Cooper took the bait.

At first she was content to wander down supermarket aisles without Cooper by her side. She sat in coffee shops and watched the everyday lives of people passing by. She brought back bologna and bread, beer and chips. Cooper ate in silence, staring at the television. He went to bed with his clothes on, a gun loose in his hand.

Eventually she drifted into vintage markets and music stores, pawn shops and arcades. She didn’t risk buying anything more expensive than a cup of coffee. Carrying her mother like a skin-deep ghost, she trailed her hand along the cardboard spines of books. One day, her fingers snagged a single volume, The Wild Palms, and knocked it from the shelf. A tall man in a faded Longhorns sweatshirt knelt to pick it up. “No damage done,” he smiled. Behind gold-rimmed glasses, his eyes were a definite green, the color of maple leaves unfurling.

Livvy caught her breath. After so much voluntary silence, she fumbled for a casual greeting, a simple, innocuous smile. “Name’s Jason,” he said, and she felt his voice slip inside her like a misplaced longing. He held out his hand, and Livvy, all at once, forgot the many reasons why she shouldn’t.

It never would have worked in any other state, before any other job, but there, in Texas, Cooper was mesmerized by the final scene of the story he was writing. He didn’t see Livvy bend the tale.

She tucked Jason into spare moments collected like loose change. They met on park benches, in dark corners of restaurants, and, finally, in the dusty shelter of Jason’s matchbox apartment. She let him see her scars without flinching. He traced each jagged line and in his hands they were neither a roadmap nor a revelation. They were a part of her, and all he said was, “Beautiful.”

Later that same night, Livvy begged Cooper for a chance to see her father, coming close enough to threats that he backhanded her into the wall. In the end, disgusted by her brutal persistence, he slammed down a wad of five and ten dollar bills. It was just enough to get her to Port Arthur. And back.

The house was the same. Somehow, she had expected something different. In the driveway, her father’s truck sat, rusty and hang-dog as always. He was home from the rig. Livvy let out a low, soft exhalation. She hadn’t seen him in two years, not since the night of the Louisiana robbery. Now she found him asleep in the living room, one arm thrown wide. When he opened his eyes he said, “Livvy, honey. Are you hungry?” as if she had never been away.

He didn’t ask any questions. He didn’t call her brothers. He barbequed steaks on the grill, tossed a salad, poured their beer into glasses. After dinner they sat for a long time in the backyard, listening to the fire in the pit, the crackling of logs, the sizzle of heat. Bullfrogs and crickets took up the chorus. There were no stories of sharks and mermaids, swordfish and sea serpents. There were no stories at all.

The next morning, they sat in silence, drinking muddy coffee. Finally, her father sighed. He pulled a dingy envelope from his back pocket and slid it across the table. “Take it, Livvy. Take it and get out, like your momma always wanted.” Livvy opened the flap and flipped through the bills, ten thousand dollars in cash. Her father took her hand and squeezed it gently, a reminder and a plea. “Take it,” he repeated, and Livvy nodded, squeezing back.

She called Jason on his cell, counting each ring and praying. When he answered, she let out a quick burst of air like the backend of a sigh. Across the map splayed out in her mind, she fumbled through the cities she had robbed, the ones where Cooper might look first. “Meet me in Little Rock,” she said in a rush. Outside, the wind rattled the windows and blew in currents beneath the door.

She taught Jason how to shoot the Beretta in the middle of the Arkansas woods. He had terrible aim, too excited by the thrill of the report, as if life itself, the living of it, were just a game and shooting merely part of it. Her words, even her bruises, were not enough to steel him. “Fifty states,” Cooper had said. A declarative. She had skipped out before the last job, before Texas, the end of the tale. Cooper would not forgive.

They moved from state to state, always looking behind them. Everywhere, Livvy sniffed the air, looking for Cooper to touch down, the tip of the tornado that would wipe them all away. Sometimes they talked of Mexico, of New Zealand or Belize, someplace far away where Cooper might not follow. Instead they ended up in the Glades. Jason was mesmerized by gators, by those heavy jaws that could cradle eggs unbroken. Livvy could have told him something more about the beasts. As fast and fierce as they might be, they still can’t see what’s coming at their backs.

***

It took three years in the Everglades, a lifetime and a nothing.

The last time she saw Jason he had one hand draped across the airboat wheel, water rippling out behind him. Livvy could still feel the warmth of his lips on the curve of her shoulder. She sniffed the air out of habit, ran her hand through it, searching for traces of Cooper and finding only salt and fish and freedom.

Hours later she woke to a soft, persistent scratching at the corner of her mind. Small waves were lapping at the stilts. As the breeze shifted, the scent was unmistakable. She called out once, “Jason?”, knowing already that it wasn’t any good. The wind blew in uneven rhythms, a wavering slap and kiss.

Jason’s hand was balanced on the porch rail, his etched silver ring a blinding spark of daylight. In the water below, gators thrashed. No one would ever find the body, dragged under and consumed, one wrist empty, a bullet hole between the eyes. Deep green, they had been, startled with the luck of her, a choice Livvy never understood. The Glades had done their best, but the wind had betrayed her in the end, hiding Cooper in its folds.

In the swaying house on stilts, Livvy rifled through her bag for a pack of cigarettes, a lighter. She put on a pot of coffee, a rich Kona blend. The sun had set and the dark was close and deep. She could feel Cooper out there, watching, waiting, blood still flecked across the bristled hair of his arms. At the cracked Formica table, she cleaned her Beretta in tempo with a million clicking insects.

The window was cracked open, uncurtained, and a breeze tugged at the maps spread out on the table, the rising steam of coffee, the glow of Livvy’s cigarette. She could see nothing in the darkness outside, nothing but her own lit reflection cast against the glass. After everything, she’d been no more than a wave slapped against the beach, pulled by the wind and the moon’s gravity both, caught between forces, helpless.

And then, from a complicated distance, she caught her mother’s scolding, a sudden rift of truth. Even waves have their currents, their pull, their own ways to drag a body under. There is a difference between helpless and hapless, damaged and damned.

She could hear the gators below her, splitting cells of water. A night heron cried out its solitary hunger. For a long time, Livvy waited beneath the stark light of an unshaded bulb. The door opened as she had always known it would. She was not the same behind it. She was not what she expected. The Beretta lay sparked within her hand, bright and glittering, like a ghost’s memory unfurled. The wind caught a single report, carried it up and spread it out, blown.


Lisa Ahn writes literary fiction with threads of magical realism. Her short fiction has appeared in Toasted Cheese, Prick of the Spindle, and Spectra Magazine. She is also a contributing writer for Hippocampus Magazine and Real Zest, where she writes narrative nonfiction. An excerpt of her novel, Grace Blinks, was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Please visit her at http://lisaahn.com.
7.04 / April 2012

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