Bullet in Tennessee

This was how it ended.

People found comfort in the fact that it was “meant” to come down to a blood-spattered backseat of a grim new-model Chevy with a hood bent like a crocodile muzzle, to a hole in your delicate, mysterious brain; what better way to exorcise genius?

The note that they found on you was addressed to your sister, “whom [you] loved.” It wasn’t meant to dismiss your parents, this note, it was borne out of your love of precision.

Your parents lived mostly in their thoughts: somehow managing to talk above your head even when you became a head taller than both of them, or else lapsing into “cool” phases, offering you wine and unsolicited advice about condoms. Your sister was near and keen, mouth hanging open in wonder at everything you did: college math in the seventh grade, tae kwan do black belt, balancing a spoon on your nose and explaining stochastic differential equations at the same time.

You dutifully went on double-dates with me, knowing that my best friend Ruth pressured me to “not just be the freaking third-wheel all the time.” For Ruth’s benefit, you brushed strands of hair out of my face and, with a look of desperate teenage longing, whispered things in my ear:

“I like hot-dogs.”

“Let’s go to the duck-pond and throw rocks.”

“The atom is mostly empty space, but you’re the finest empty space there is.”

My parents became bored with taking me to tae kwan do lessons you and I had shared, and I waited until they would get bored with me hanging around the house in the evenings, so that I could then extort money for a new activity. You were appalled by my lack of dedication.

“It’s genetic,” I said.

You respected genetics. You were already studying them in dizzying detail, while the rest of us were drawing crude approximations of DNA.

It was around that time that you also started silently hitting classroom walls, denting the costly plaster. You were kicking doors so hard that they came off their hinges. So far, your masterful displays of rage were acted out solely at the expense of inanimate objects, but how long would that have lasted?

After school let out, they put you in a clinic upstate. You asked to see your sister. They told you she was at camp, but I saw her that summer, walking around the mall wearing black eyeliner and not a whole lot else, looking confused. She asked me where the food court was and didn’t recognize me, even though I said her name.

I didn’t know about the clinic, I thought you were at summer school, but when Ruth came back from France in August, she told me about it. I thought she would gloat, but France had changed her. She sat by the pool and painted her toenails and said, between expert brush-strokes, that some men could bench-press a gorilla and still would not be fit enough for the most ordinary tasks in the world, such as acting normal.

That week, your mother cornered me at the pharmacy and bullied me into “a grown-up lunch.” We sat inside the cool semi-darkness of a place that had live piano at all times of day, and her striking beauty made the men at nearby tables pause with their sandwiches halfway to their mouths.

“Boys can be fragile.” Had she also just come back from France?

“Especially when they’re having their initial sexual experiences,” she continued, a “cool mom” out in full force.

“That may be the case, but I don’t think I have anything to do with it.” I hated to contradict her. I wasn’t sure how she would react. My own parents were moody when contradicted: sometimes they would shrug, sometimes shout.

She smiled.

“I won’t tell your family, honey.”

“But we’re friends.”

“No one is merely friends at your age. At least one party is romantically involved.”

“Well, that party is not him.” I wanted to cheer her up, but her face crumpled.

She was upset because I wasn’t sleeping with you, her son. It perplexed me. At school, we were told that sex before marriage was wrong, and while it was not quite on the same scale as murder, it was pretty much as bad as drunk driving. Few of us believed that in all honesty, but we expected adults to keep up the pretense.

After you came back from your clinic, you successfully avoided me for most of autumn. I thought about you, but also felt vaguely insulted, by your reticence, by that lunch where my feelings were drudged up only to be dismissed like overcooked prawns. I supplanted you with math tests and lunchroom dramas, getting a learner’s permit and keeping Ruth’s friendship – she took to using words like “cyberpunk,” and treating me like a slightly frustrating child. I made a new friend, but lost her when it was discovered that I didn’t fit into Baptist pot-lucks and had no interest in joining the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, mostly on account of not being an athlete.

There were evenings when I traced your phone number with my fingers on the buttons. The fingers never quite forgot it, but I knew that all I’d get on the other line would be someone else. Or else, it would be a bad imitation of you, infuriatingly polite, “really sorry,” and “very busy.”

At the height of Christmas shopping season, I spotted you outside of the department store, clenching and unclenching your reddened fingers. I expected you to walk away as you often did when we crossed paths in the neighborhood, but you didn’t. Perhaps you were too cold to move. Or else, waiting for someone.

I made some pointless remark about the weather.

“I’d rather be freezing here than sweating in there,” you jerked your chin toward the store. I re-discovered the mole beneath the corner of your mouth. I could have mapped your body, those parts of it that had been available to me, in my sleep, once.

“I heard you’ve been having problems.” Side-stepping the subject would have been like trying to drive around a barreling hurricane.

“It’s nothing out of the ordinary. My paternal grandfather had manic depression.”

“Oh.”

You offered no further news or explanations. Hurricane successfully avoided in favor of placid nuclear winter.

I sat down my shopping bags and blew on my hands. Wordlessly, you took my hands and breathed your hot breath on them, remarking, “this winter really is colder than usual,” as if you were a TV weather prognosticator and not the man holding my hands next to his lips.

“I love, um, track. I’ve decided.” I said. “Think I’m going to join. Training starts in February.”

You shrugged. You didn’t believe in my ability to dedicate myself to anything. But you believed in genetics.

“I’ve got my full license now,” you said. “I’m planning a road trip out West. In the summer. You interested? You can bring Ruth, but she can’t smoke in the car.”

I imagined the three of us: Ruth in the back reading a book, me operating the radio, hunting down good songs on the FM band, you with your strong hands on the steering wheel. No parents, but, somehow, we’d manage to have plenty of money. I could feel the wind flapping in my hair, I could smell the asphalt in the heat. I could conjure up the minute details: the ninja ornament Ruth would stick onto the scratched-up dashboard, the smell of your aftershave still fresh from a morning spent in some motel with dead leaves in the pool and a desk clerk with shifty eyes.

I could feel the warmth of your body through your jeans when I put my head in your lap, and I could hear Ruth screeching at me to “freaking stop it” from the back.

I still see snatches of that roadtrip. They come up on me in moments between sleeping and waking, when I’m not entirely sure where I am in space and time, and anything is possible, if not probable.

***

I saw your sister a few years ago. I was back in town on account of my parents’ separation, shuffling between my childhood home and the hotel suite my father had been kicked out to.

That evening, my father sent me to the grocery store to buy beer. I wasn’t technically of legal age to buy it, but he insisted, and he was an injured party, and I couldn’t say no.

I was trying to make a quick exit, not easy with a twelve-pack in your arms, when I saw her by the florist’s stand. She was holding a bouquet of roses of such a dark hue they appeared almost black. She recognized me this time, and cheerfully invited me to visit your grave as if she were inviting me for a barbecue.

“Sure,” I said. It was ridiculous, this idea, because you weren’t there, couldn’t be there, not with that red dirt shoved on top of you and that unmemorable memorial plate, but I would play along. “I have to see, though. My parents are in the middle of a, well, thing. But I’ll give you my number and…”

“Do you blame me for it?” She interrupted, casually. She was scratching her shin and fingering her roses.

“It” was you in the back of that Chevy with a bullet punched into your head, with your precious blood pooling on the cheap upholstery.

It was in the heat of late August, the flies settling within the hour, I am sure. There was probably a storm rumbling down the Appalachians, there were a lot of storms that summer, after the drought. They would find you after it passed, parked next to an abandoned gas station, a shadow in the backseat drawing the eyes of a young policeman probably thinking he was about to come upon a couple making out.

Why did you go to Tennessee? People said that you were going to see your cousins. I know that you were set on driving out West, just like you said you would, but alone.

You had your grandfather’s gun with you all along. Did you intend to use it from the start? Or did you bring it with you just in case and decided on it later? Was there a particular quality to the air, something imperceptible to all other motorists, those who didn’t score off the charts, who didn’t smash up the curve – something to tip the scales? Was it the billboards advertising Jesus or some version thereof? The reproachful eyes of a hitchhiker on the shoulder?

“Do you blame me for it?” She repeated. She had her fingers closed around my wrist now, and was looking at me in an oddly self-satisfied way. The florist was watching us, waiting to see if anything exciting would happen.

“Of course not, Angelina.” The way I said it made it seem as though I was convincing myself as well as her.

“You thought he was really something, didn’t you?”

There was no right answer.

“He was a selfish prick,” she said calmly, and let go of my wrist. ” ‘To Angelina, whom I loved.’ What the hell did he think he was doing? I think they were glad when I flunked out, all things considered.”

“Flunked out of what?” I had no idea. “Angelina, I’m sure they didn’t…”

“They blame me. Like everyone else. Like you.” She shrugged, thrust the bouquet back at the florist, and walked away.

“Miss!” The florist called eagerly, “you paid for that, you know!”

“I’ll take it,” I said. I tried to hunt your sister down in the parking lot, but she was already gone, and there was rain coming in.

I put the flowers in the coffee-pot back at the hotel, and my father looked visibly touched. He didn’t need to know where they came from.

That night, I got hammered at Ruth’s place with Ruth and her boyfriend: a guy with long, guru-like hair who managed a video-game store and moonlighted as a psychic. “There are such things as friendly ghosts, you know,” he said. Ruth said, “freaking hell, baby, don’t get her excited,” as if I were a fussy toddler getting ready for bedtime.

We watched Bruce Lee movies until a sopping summer dawn rose over the city, and I fell asleep on the futon. I dreamed that I was an old woman, waking up from a dream of her younger self, of blood pumping merrily again through plumped flesh. I was running through the front yard of my parents’ house, and, at the same time, experiencing free-fall through air and the summer grass and the clay soil, the atoms of my body arranging and re-arranging themselves, swooshing past through the empty space that made up everything. I was giddy with anticipation for what was waiting for me: something amorphous and warm, a promise of fingers, a blurry horizon under the swift rays of the sun.

***

The last time I saw you was at my last track-meet of the season that year. I finished the 800, the final race of the day. I didn’t do half bad, but was still muttering about quitting between heaving breaths. I always did this when I walked back from the finish line, past the stands. It gave me some comfort, this futile grumbling. I knew I wouldn’t quit, because when I ran, my mind, in turn, ran clear.

You emerged from the stands, clapping your hands over your head, the way that no-one claps after a high school 800 race, varsity or not. You were wearing a sleeveless shirt of the variety that was usually hidden underneath a tae kwan do uniform, and the ropes of your muscle under your spring-pale skin were like marble in the sun. My teammates and my rivals stopped and stared as you came down; their expressions were the same, and I could not have told them apart in that moment.

You put an arm around my sweaty shoulders and whispered hotly in my ear, your fingers in my hair, the hair that my coach was telling me to cut on account of some aerodynamics theory of hers I never quite warmed up to.

I remember: It smelled like Carolina honeysuckle and the crumb rubber of the track, and I took the thick, shimmering air in with big gasps. The setting sun was in my eyes, they were beginning to run, and your face trembled through my gold-flecked tears. Your thumb strayed to the tender muscle near my shoulder-blade, my back arching as if at the push of a button, and your breath tickled my cheek when you laughed.

I remember the words that you said to me.

I said them to myself when we took State in the following year, and I said them on the day that I drove Ruth to her abortion and ate ice cream with her afterward. I whispered them into cracked mirrors at parties in strange houses. When the Fellowship of Christian Athletes came out to Hilton Head for a weekend, I wrote them with my big toe on beach sand – after getting drunk in a dune and having a conversation with a blurry someone leaning over my left shoulder.

You alone know when I will say them for the last time.

For Matthew.

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12 thoughts on “Bullet in Tennessee

  1. This is beautifully written. I was just a bit worried until I saw your Creative Commons badge. I would hate to see your work stolen by a lesser writer.

  2. Thank you, love. My best friend is an IP lawyer.

    So if any would-be plagiarizers are reading this… you have been duly warned.

    Oh, and this story doesn’t yet feel finished to me. But I needed to put it out there, so I could at least put it out of my mind. It’s been driving me kind of batty.

  3. Wow. I got to the end and wanted to know what the words were but then it isn’t the words so much as who spoke them. Great story Natalia.

  4. Hey, Natalia. I linked to this story, I hope you don’t mind. It’s so powerful, and the way you tell it just killed me. This is so beautiful and sad and…ugh. I can’t even express it. Thank you!

  5. Of course I don’t mind, J. Like I said, it’s a work in progress, but it’s been haunting me for days (or, actually, years, but I don’t think I knew it), so I had to set it down in some fashion for now, just to be able to go on with my life at the present and do my job. And the songs you have up there are absolutely beautiful.

    I actually had a very clear idea of what the guy said to the narrator at the end, when she saw him for the last time. But then, eventually, it became clear that a) it didn’t matter to the narrative as a whole, and b) there are these mysteries about this guy that I wanted intact.

    Not because I want to deny them to anyone reading this, but rather, because, think we’ve all had at least one person say something important and even life-changing to us, and that was what I was trying, in a small way, to capture here. A common denominator.

    (Wow, I never try to explain my writing like this – this is a first, I think)

  6. “I actually had a very clear idea of what the guy said to the narrator at the end”

    As a reader, i do too. Just on the odds of it, I’d be willing to bet that we aren’t thinking of the same phrase…but that’s not a bad thing.

  7. very interesting.

    John

    [you don’t need to put the link to your website AGAIN. I’ll let this one slide, because I can sympathize with wanting to promote one’s site… plus… celebrity look-alike’s? I am IMPRESSED by the Dolly Patron one, personally… There’s something post-modern and glorious about it all. – Natalia]

  8. I absolutely loved this. Trying to find better words to express what I mean, but that’ll have to do.

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