Language of Desire
On the afternoon school bus, and without thinking about it, Larkin Brousseau ran a finger over the bump and down the crooked bony ridge. Sometimes she wondered if her nose had been broken when she was little—perhaps at the playground, or the neighbors’ trampoline—and no one at home had noticed. Or if they had noticed, they had figured, Hello, it’s a nose. It isn’t sliding off your face, or wrecking your mobility: it will heal by itself. People in her family rarely went to see the doctor. Why would you want to hear a doctor say, Sure enough you’ve got a broken toe/sore throat/bad cold/case of flu—that’ll be ninety-eight dollars.
Plus there was the sense of what God willed. God rarely required doctors, who were there to help you into this world, and sometimes to help you out of it. Handling the in-between was pretty much up to you. Not that the in-between didn’t count. Oh, it mattered—insofar as your personal priorities. Your obligation to faith and obedience. Larkin couldn’t really bring up the fact of the nose. Such a concession to vanity would highlight a character deficiency, a distortion of things that mattered.
And there were so many people worse off. Every day from the back of the bus drifted the odor of joints and cigarettes and sometimes burning hair and always something metallic, rain soaked. Blood. That was what she imagined it to be. It made her nauseous, but she left the back-of-the-bus crowd alone and they returned the favor. They weren’t the worst, anyway.
Worst was picking up Mickey Overby out on Rushton Road. Mickey was short and quiet. He didn’t seem to bother anyone, but no one on the bus ever let him sit down. A few times he had tried, got the edge of his hip onto a corner of vinyl, his feet splayed on the gritty rubber tread of the aisle as though to say, I’m not really in the seat. But someone—Teague Jolovich, a total jock, or Marcus Holski, a brainiac who used to go to Catholic school—someone like that would walk up to the seat where Mickey was perched and say nothing, just stare at the no smoking sign at the front of the bus like it meant something. Flick his eyes from the sign to the clear plastic cup in the holder, where the bus driver periodically dropped her cigarette butts.
And every time, Mickey would stand up, and Teague or Marcus or whoever it was would take that seat. No grin, no glance exchanged, just that straight-ahead stare. Mickey’s hair was soft and filmy in the back, bed-headed, stuck in clumps like a frowsy bottle brush. People called him “Sludge” as in Let’s go, Sludge, haul ass. High school was a horrible place full of horrible people who did horrible things to one another. This was Larkin’s thought.
Plus her skin was going schizoid. Breaking out in angry, wet-looking red cysts that throbbed. One on her cheek that burned if she lay a finger on her jaw. Two on the other cheek. One placed exactly between her eyebrows, like she’d pinned it on for decoration. And a smattering of others, in varying states of eruption and decay.
Earlier that day Larkin had joined six girls in the auditorium, skipping class and sharing fingerfuls of peanut butter straight up, from the jar, as they talked about big sex with the wrestling team. Michael, Dorian, Willis, Eddie, Falco, and Jarvis, sweaty, tight-skinned boys always hawking bubble-spiked loogies at the vents in the grass-trimmed, concrete foundation of the gymnasium. The girls jockeyed for revelation of the most telling details. The taste of mustard and Tootsie Pops when Eddie kissed. The licorice-veins on Dorian’s forearms and biceps. The sweet talk of Jarvis—“You, baby, you always the top of my list.” Listening, Larkin found she was touched with envy, but she also couldn’t quite believe what she heard. Then Lorri Sandmire said, Hey girls, did you know? She nearly punctured her plump lips with her teeth as she said it. Fucking clears the skin. She tipped the peanut butter jar toward Larkin. Honey, you’re not getting any.
At dinner, Larkin said to her sister Katrea—truly, she thought, with intent to be helpful—you have food on your face. Katrea looked up and said, Well, you have zits on yours.
Yet in the upshot, nightly before the mirror upstairs, Larkin could actually ignore all this. And if what she did was not exactly to ignore, then it was that she could talk herself out of the problem. Okay, I have six zits, the LAST six, the FINAL six, I bid you no welcome for the duration of your existence, and when you go, you are the END. Tell your friends to stay away. Bring no more.
Don’t let me get any more zits.
See. I’d be pretty. Look at my golden-brown eyes. My to-there lashes and caramel-colored hair. My distinctive nose. I am the color of a Keebler Honey Graham. Please, God, let me have beautiful, graham-cracker-colored skin. I’ll do good in this world every day.
She puckered her lips. The auditorium six were experts on beauty as well as sex. According to them, a girl could attain a dangerous pout by leading with the chin and saying, Wogan. Bizarre, I know! said the prettiest one, Audra. She had leaned in toward Larkin, her breath like sweet apples, and whispered confidentially, But models swear by it.
Wogan. Larkin said it to the mirror. Wogan, yes? She dispensed with the pout, lifted her arms like a dancer, and stepped toward the open window. Its filmy curtains fluttered, and she drew the word out, a call into the churning night. W-o-o-o-g-a-a-a-a-n-n-n-n.
Her voice on the breeze, but a cruel nothing from the velvet darkness. Instead, the triple-shaded, thrift-store lamp at her hip winked. It had a weakness in the wiring. Like her, the lamp was flawed but serviceable. Here Larkin indulged a fantasy, a fair one, and not without restraint: that wiring would jigger loose for good in three years’ time and burble up an orange flame that would catch a burlap window dressing in her own sophomore-year college sixplex. Surprising to note that the fabric will simply melt at first, curling upward until—pffft—gone, in the same way cotton candy disappears on a warm tongue. Then the building will hot rot from within and begin its accelerative collapse, flushing out the unscarred and undulating form of that same Lorri Sandmire, who will be living on the third floor and have made the unlucky choice of skipping her afternoon classes to grease the sheets with a married hubcap salesman named Brucey Wentworth, champion bowler of eleven perfect games at Friedly’s. They’ll escape, naked, screaming, to take cover in the rain-spattered, blue plastic tarp of a passing-by geologist, who unearths it from the sample-strewn bed of his pickup and apologizes for the shards of gypsum and calcite crystal that cling to the thready nubbled patches of white where blue has worn away, jabbing Lorri in all the wrong places. No one else at home.
Another wink. And Larkin breathed deep. She felt extravagant, expansive, bold enough to call again into the night, and again she went unanswered.
But though she could not have known it, the winking light in Larkin’s window found a target. It was picked up by seventeen-year-old Silas McInerney, who’d set up an impromptu camp in the forty-acre tree- and boulder-studded field to the north of Larkin’s house.
Silas was a young man of sober persuasion who answered the lamp’s anonymous and faraway wink with an arbitrary sequence of dots and dashes from his telescopic Mag flashlight. He drew the beams long on the dashes, made the dots especially sharp to account for what felt like a viscosity in the air. He shifted his knee, which had been grinding a rock into the yielding ground. Aaaah, better. A lone cricket chirped a plea, it seemed to Silas, for the peace of summer to linger, and he counted the number of chirps in a quarter minute, added forty to get the temperature. A trick he knew. He liked to guess the temperature, liked to figure the number of hours until sunrise. Eight and three-quarters. He appreciated knowing there were around twenty billion years to go until the earth cooled and imploded. A lot of time; not forever. Soil, grass, water, sky, all were touched, then, with some small measure of urgency, despite the warm blanket of darkness, heavy, complete except for Larkin’s lamp. Silas wondered idly—and, he thought, perhaps stupidly—about the distance between his light and the lamp, though he did not know it was a lamp. Did this distance have much effect on the light’s travel time? That answer, and so many more, he would have to look into.
He wanted to fuse his fascination with the obscure and the trivial with something more consequential, or at least more practical. To be part of arguments and issues of the world. This was best expressed by his desire to go to sea, perhaps to join the Navy, and learn to park a submarine, a slender tube of gunmetal steel and whirring props, in the deepest of the cloudy depths. There, he suspected thought could become distilled, the mind laid bare, stripped, essenced to its most durable minimums. He thought of surfacing, the whooshy animal sound of the sub breaking topside among the icebergs of the North Sea, or perhaps near the tip of India, where on the docks would wait a raucous boil of color and noise. His mouth watered as he pictured a yellow plate of curried potatoes, topped with petal shavings of curled cucumber and a dollop of oil-swirled yogurt. Served up by a lithe, careless, swivel-hipped young waitress with black eyes and skin the color of caramel.
Though high school had been lackluster (some spoke of him as a possible late bloomer, a kid who could go either way), the notion that he might be unsuccessful in the Navy, or whatever sharp-shot path he’d claim, never occurred to Silas. The wiry density of his limbs, the force and pull of his shoulders, the speed and pickup of his legs, his light and useful mind: he could have sensed the bright energy in these features individually and never understood them, but when he considered them together he believed that he was not mediocre. He had possibilities, despite so much outside evidence to the contrary: his smallish frame, his looks (certainly of no consequence), the persistent ignorance of girls and, more to the point, he felt, of teachers and counselors, who never once met with him to go over test scores or college apps.
He likewise did not have average desires. No. Since he could remember, his head had been filled instead with thoughts of slick, hard edges. The chrome-lined fins of classic cars, the cutting runners of bobsleds, even the beveled angles of unframed mirrors; and newly, lately, the compensating clefts and swellings of the outdoors—pockets and hills of loam, brooklets and streams, even the saucer-sized lacy faces of wild carrot in this untamed pasture, lit faintly by the moon. Camping was a new and surprising pleasure. Dot-dot-dash. Flash.
And the wind picked up an undertow of coming rain and sent a shushing breeze, tinged with bouquets of bunchgrass and poplar and catching him full on the face. Soft air. A fragrant, feminine wash of air, as warm and welcoming as the word air. The lamp’s light winked again, and Silas checked the tattered booklet of code he kept in his jeans pocket. What message could he send, to capture this night? What smoking candle? Propel. No. Cruise. Surely not. Finally, and laboriously, Silas constructed his message. Hurry, it said. Hurry.
Nothing from the distant lamp. Eventually, its light disappeared. Another mystery. And Silas’s surprise at the quick surge of gladness that gripped him across his shoulders and down his arms. This was what he had come for. With this, the empty fields had beckoned. He clicked off the Mag light and lifted his chin to the cloud-filled sky. Eyes closed, mouth open, he let the satin breeze wash over him.
At this moment, it did not occur to Silas to match his yearnings with anything, anyone female—the waitress, the bedroom lamp notwithstanding. To whom did such a connection occur? To his mother, Charmaine, who was awakened by the same gusty wind, perhaps the flash of lightning. Or the partnering low growl of thunder, which underscored the chime of silver pipettes that hung from gossamer threads on the gazebo beyond her patio. Charmaine, in a pink seersucker bathrobe, had been dozing in her bungalow on the other edge of town, about twenty miles south of Silas, soaking her feet in warm Palmolive and resting her head on a leather . . . a fragrant leather—oh, shit, it was her leather-covered Bible, catawampus on the thick round arm of her loveseat. Now its onionskin pages were crumpled and creased, the spine loose, nearly ruptured, and, what was almost worse, she had lost her place. Some backlit and holy passage in Numbers: sweet savours, ephahs and hins of beaten oil, bullocks, continual bread, censers, fleshhooks, badgers’ skins—the stuff of opulent dreams, into which she’ll never quite tumble the same way again. Her idea had been to use these lonesome evenings when Silas was on the prowl (this was where she made the feminine connection) to finally slog through the two testaments once and for all. Seized by a lasting impulse. After all, she’d long called herself a believer.
Could the litanous punishments and excesses of those books have explained the motivating force of Charmaine’s early life? It was fear. When Silas was born, she touched her lips to the rosy, velvet skin just past his forehead, where his baby pulse faintly throbbed. Up, down, up, down. Such a whisper-thin membrane. She murmured low, You’ll never play football, and you’ll never go to war. Wrong on the first count, touch and go on the second.
She married from fear of not being chosen. And that earnestness rightly killed her marriage. So she tells herself—lighten up, things are not so dour! But the reality is different. The reality is that her husband’s cruelty—often budding, but explainable in light of global warming, traffic, indigestion, crabgrass, and atm fees—finally . . . fully . . . flowered, with a cutting Monday night comment about deadbeat dads being a clear sight more honest than your goddamn suffering madonnas who made such a pageant of their bad choices. Charmaine looked at their baby, kicking away on a blanket spread over worn carpet. There’d been some ruckus earlier, and no shortage of mess and smell and noise and trouble. But just now his mouth popped open and shut in little oohs, and he worked them up into a cry of, well, there was no other word for it, it was a cry of joy, at the yellow circle of light on the ceiling, at the deep, shadowy corners, and at the sweet rapture of wanting to kick your leg, hard, like that, and that, yes, you are kicking it, nothing like it, this round-limbed, well-oiled body. What a relief, for Charmaine, to have found her line. By Thursday, she and Silas had moved to her mother’s. Eventually she could afford this small house.
Into which one man or another would, at long intervals, come for a time and then go. Yet not before his healing wonder at some untended feature. Her slender waist (average, at best). The crisp and oily brown edge of her German pancakes (“It’s in other counties, ma’am, that they call that burnt”). The roundness of her kneecaps (“Fits exactly in my palm”) and the arch of each bare foot (“Too pretty for words”—okay, she’ll give him that). She missed the particular heft and grapple of a drilling contractor from Baltimore who plied her with bad poetry, which she laughed at—and, because it was offered so frankly, came to appreciate. But not as much as she did his denim jacket, flannel-lined and never washed so the fabric felt like moleskin and buttery leather and carried the particular odor that was him: menthol cigarettes, beef jerky, the skin of a baseball, and, most especially, motor oil.
His name was Tom Tucker, which in itself could make her smile, and he finally did go for good: a job, a contract in deep Montana, where she did not follow. To be honest, she was not asked, and did not offer. It must be said that in unguarded moments, Charmaine had admitted the thought that he’d have been a good father to Silas. Over the course of several weeks, when Silas was about twelve, Tom had taught the boy to pitch. Charmaine watched from the kitchen window, through the slatted sides of the gazebo. Silas, sullen and unwilling at first, until he finally brought the ball down, and one merciful day she heard Tom say, Hey. Hey. That was okay. That was not bad. Charmaine could recall the sunlight, the brisk and easy voices. The comfort. She’d looked down at her hands in the soapy water. It was a thing with men, she knew—women with dishwater hands. A caretaking thing, a domestic power dynamic. Dishwater blonde. Soap bubbles as jewelry, or maybe as chains. She shook off the thought.
Still, such a pleasure, and not easily won: when she broke a pitcher, or ran out of dish soap, she could go buy more with money she’d earned herself. Her professional work was uninspiring; she kept books and prepared documents and proposals for a small commercial and clean-room architecture firm. But her salary had improved steadily, and she’d just had the house repainted. No debt. A well-maintained car in the driveway. Silas with new sneakers and a room with posters and a stereo and a clean, though secondhand, desk. She was sewing a flannel blanket for him to take camping, to line his sleeping bag with. Working on it an hour in the lamplight each evening.
These years later, it could still come as a surprise to Charmaine that she had, after all, made for them a life. Was there room in that life for Tom Tucker? The day of the pitching there was. Certainly some nights, God help her, there was. But no room, no time, no capacity in her for it to go bad. Fear was a preservative, after all. It had its blessings, along with its cost. It had its own sweet savour. The thought carried a touch of the obscene about it. What did Charmaine care? She slid her damp and softened feet into a pair of fuzzy pink slippers. She padded over to the closet. There in the back, obscured by the ironing board and Silas’s outgrown baseball uniform, hung Tom Tucker’s denim jacket.
Which she slipped on. She wrapped her arms around herself. The denim cuffs dangled down beyond her hands; it was like being hugged by an invisible man. Charmaine closed her eyes, thinking of the blind man’s game she had played with Silas when he was little. She inched her way through the maze of cozy living room furniture, to the French doors that opened onto the patio. Sweet savour, she whispered—and the sibilant sounds were borne away on the breeze, into the night and its slipstream, its trailing, filmy strands and strains of connection. Sweet savour, again—
And, really, this was what she might say to Larkin Brousseau if she could. If anyone could relieve the strange and pitiable, the unintelligible . . . yearnings . . . regrets . . . doubts that were to be found in the daylight way Larkin walked, the way she could drop her eyes and watch the ground, the way she tipped her shoulders forward. For how was somebody like unfortunate Mickey Overby, like Larkin, like any number of people, like she herself, Charmaine, and how she had seemed—how was a body to know she would survive?
Charmaine could guess. Charmaine, a witness, who’d seen how things that happen won’t be stopped, she could suppose. Silas, or someone equally untrammeled, unfettered, would let his assurance touch its match to Larkin’s (she, who’d just now watched his Morse sequence with a mild curiosity). He would give and take her love, he could coax her out of herself.
But even this—utterly human, and thus unreliable, as Charmaine well knew—even this was not necessary or requisite. All that seemed essential was the occasional cooling and unsettled night: the quivering hush of the fields, the trimmed grasses, the patchwork yards with their careful bark dust, their lucky garden gnomes and delicate chimes, the street lamps and the silver sky. The varied and transitory calls into the night. The lit and haunted language of mercy.