by Fae Dremock
I left the car alongside the shoreline, wheels in mud up to the hubcaps. I like to think it’s still there, rusted out metal on the shore of a dried-up lake. I hiked hours that night, just at the edge of high wild grass that rustled dry as it brushed against my thighs in the dark. I found my way back into town under a new moon with no flashlight, and never a sense of direction, and all the anger I could muster about not being pure white. I hated who I was, hated my parents and grandparents, who hadn’t had the sense to stay where they were born. Hated that I was out here walking back to a place I wanted so badly to leave, all because I had stolen an old car that died when I drove on the back roads of the lakeshore. I had made the decision to drive out onto the flats of the lake and leave it there, but the mud of the bank grabbed at the car, and I sat behind the wheel so full of anger at the shade of my skin. And the fact that I was female. Hatred is hard. The police made that clear. There was a time when I thought they were cool, though, with their silence and their guns and their sense of control.
Maybe it began in eighth grade. Fourteen years old with a father who talked of men strung up by wire by the North Koreans — just me, a black friend, watching his hands as he explained wires around balls and how they tightened. Or maybe it began before that, four years old fishing alone with my father, worms on a safety pin rusted out in its crotch, the worm dry and sizzling on the foam on the river, me and my father rewriting son and father, only I was a girl,
with no easy tree to go behind, and yet always I could watch a golden waterfall from where I was. I knew his difference before I knew my own, and when did I first shove my bed against my bedroom door? and when did he cut a square hole into a wall above the bed? A hole one foot square. a hole to climb through, to climb out from. Or maybe it began when a neighbor explained that a good education meant becoming white. Or when I first saw a cross burning in front of a house. Or the week the police entered the wrong house and killed the children, the grandmother, the dog, then planted guns and drugs.
The week the police massacred a family on a quiet street, I stole that car and drove off to the dry lake ten miles outside of town. I sat on the warm hood of the car, gloved hands leaving streaks on the glass. My father had worked in a stable growing up, sang on a radio station sometimes, just like that. Enlisted in the army to get away into Korea. He never had a chance. Gypsy. My uncle said he came back dark and twisty. He chased me once when I was four, a branch of thorns hitting my legs as I ran. On vacations always he and I fished along the riverbed, my mother too until she fell in into water over her head and he would have let her drown, he said, but I was there. I learned from him the meanness. And I learned from him the need to have people think you are good despite everything.
I had known the grandmother they shot, and the baby. It never returns again, that sense of safety you thought you had.
There was a drug lab on the corner. It stayed there, safe on the corner. There was nowhere else to go for the rest of us. There was church, with its white priest who hated us. There was the protestant plumber behind us who blew his brains out a year later. There were the dogs who found him.
The woman across the street had men. Extra men. At first just the one, then on Easter the husband found out, and there was a knife fight, and a lot of screaming and some blood, stitches in white thread that the nurse put in her arm. Nothing serious — and for a while the only noticeable sex on the street occurred between dogs. Then her son started bringing friends home. I don’t think anyone wanted to notice. I mean they were white, they were groomed, and they kept the noise down. And not one of them drove over a child. Or called the police. Just boys at play, if anyone said anything at all.
I snuck out at night a lot, I hauled the bed in front of the bedroom door and out the back window I went. I liked going over the fences where there were no dogs, and I kept going as far away as I could get. It’s not that I alone was invisible. We all were. Close your eyes, look away. Hide in the trees and watch the cars. And keep your eyes open for the white guys in loud sedans, and engines racing, sudden knives. And of course, the cops.
I had a knife stuck in the seam of my jacket that I mostly used for carving my name into trees, tires, and once along the side of a car. Dark red paint, long scar. Everyone holds a grudge. I went by Jack in private, so that’s what I wrote into his leg the night he came after me.
But I’ve lost track of my tale, so let’s begin that night, the night the plumber killed himself in his van, the night the dogs nosed open the door, the night the police showed up in riot gear and rubber coats and everyone was on the street in the shadows, under the street light, in the bushes by their houses, or like us kids, sitting not twenty feet away from the open door, the cops with floodlights, the yellow and green bits everywhere. There were sirens for a while, then just the flashing lights from cars, and somewhere a radio playing country music that no one saw fit to turn off. I stood on the corner in the glare by the rest of the kids, but I was different. I was holding onto his son, who wanted to get free, and I remember, being someone else that night, no idea where his mom was, but I kept him from looking there, inside that van or on that asphalt or at those messy stained dogs for what seemed hours until an adult I had never seen came and took him from me, this small kid who understood and yet didn’t, who had just lost his house, his family, his father that night at about seven. It took them that long to realize what the shots had meant. You could say it changed me. And I thought it did, but then I was only a kid.
I was born on the lawn of a burning hospital. Yet I can remember the flames and the night sky, and my grandmother’s hands. I was thin, and long, and weightless, with more hair than face. Or so my grandmother tells me, for it is through her eyes that I know my life. We were Hispanic, or at last half of us were. My father was Roma, far removed from his family. And cruel, unlike his brothers who told me stories of the dead, who rode on the backs of ants and termites, and
slept in our closets. My grandmother, my abuelita, kept a rifle at her side. The kids were mostly gringos. Just niños in torn pants. Tough, with tanned arms and long, worn belts, oversized pants, and broken in shoes that flopped when they walked or made them mince until they could break them in. I sat at her table and peeled potatoes, pulled the strings off green beans. Abuelita, tell me a story.
What I remember: a piece of hardened wood like stone. From a boat, she said, the one I sailed on to get here. across tide and mountain, water and sand. A boat that floats and sinks and rises up from storms like a tornado on the plains. It had landed here, she said, just there at the foot of that pinon, and once we were off, it began to shrink, all the way down to this in my hand. And she showed me the tiny streams of cabins, the remnants of steam, the bumps and ridges of the people who died coming over and in that first year here. She put the piece of wood on the table between us. Watch it, she said, as you peel. Watch it. It is full of people and will fly away with them if we’re not careful. I sat there watching and dreaming up the people she had told me about — but killing them off like ants, if truth be told. Later when her third husband died, I wrote to her about staying alive. I never heard from her, until she broke her hip and came to live with my mother.
I was only a kid. Mud girl. At night I dreamed of spiders, tarantulas on wire. The devil’s game. That’s what we called the nightmares— the knife fights, the chains, the jacked-up cars, the scars.
That night we stayed out under the streetlight. We wanted the gun. There were three of us, Juan, 16, my cousin, 13, and me. My no-name cousin had no name, not then, not when they buried him. You will think I’m full of death, what I tell you, but we died every day. See a doctor — no money, hungry — go to prison. Steal from the wrong man — bleed out on the street, gamble — shoot yourself in the head in the back of a van. My no name cousin was born under a wretched oak, fell under some crazy drunk’s wheels chasing him down, just for a word he said. A word we heard. The guy ran him over, took off. So yeah, people die here. Only a decade later did I realize you don’t die like us. Juan became white John. My father tried to kill him once, but he became a cop. And he has killed us. Many of us, or so I once thought.
My father? My father was a no-name. Woman, he’d say, get me a beer. Girl, he say, come here. This is family life. Normal family, normal home, normal mother, loving dad. Dead dogs.
The one thing I wanted was to leave. In a car.
All that’s left is the weather. And the women like me, who turn. Hot and dry and funnel clouds that rain fish, or turtles, or falling cars. Small knifes of brick, a tire iron.
And so hot the worms dehydrate on the sidewalk, the eggs fry. The tar from streetlights melts and runs in rivers through the streets, coating tires and shoes and paws of wild dogs.
Until pandemic cuts, Fae Gallegos Dremock was an Assistant Professor in Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College. She holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Southern Mississippi/Center for Writers, an M.A. in History of Science, Medicine, and Technology from UW-Madison, and an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins. A native of Texas and an intermittent resident of Madison, Wisconsin, she has lived and worked in Paris, Copenhagen, and Cairo. Her poetry chapbook, And the Baby Gods Sprout Like Milkweed, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2014. Her short story “Open at the Throat” won an AWP Intro Journals Award in 2014, and her fiction has been published in Artful Dodge and New World Writing, among others.