By Julianna Hurtado
My hand cradles Gene’s bottle of Fahrenheit, running low. I should stop using it to cover up the pot stench. It’s just what we always did, when he was there to curl up into me like a tabby cat, and ask that I brush my fingertips along the slopes and jetties of his back. So I kept using it, even after he died. I could buy more. It just doesn’t feel right. Not now.
The swing Gene built for the boys is taut from my weight. More creaks sent into daybreak and I think I hear something, someone taking notice. But of course there is no one. Our suburb has yet to wake. Right now it’s just the stoned widow, the cats stalking their owners homes, and children twitching from dreams. I take one last hit and flick the roach onto the grass, parched and awaiting dew. The swing—mine since the boys outgrew it—is the first thing Gene built when I got pregnant. No cradle, high chair, or rocking horse. A swing, with just one slab of mahogany for its seat. And when week-old Seth entered his fifth fussy night after coming home, Gene took that baby right out of my arms, high-tailed it for the swing, and planted his sleep-deprived ass. Not ten minutes later I looked out to see Seth’s eyelids pulled shut, his little body resting on Gene’s chest. The two of them, back and forth like a wind chime, nudged gently by the breeze.
I shimmy backwards and knead my toes into the brittle ground. The sky at dawn is the color of a loosely closed eyelid. Rose and peach stroke the sky, which any minute now, will let in the light. I press down on the nozzle. A pathetic spew of Gene’s cologne drizzles the space in front of me. I pick up my legs, letting go of my grip on the ground, and swing forward into eau de Gene. This is what I’ve come to. This is what happens when people, who made their scent painfully familiar, decide to off themselves.
Gabe found him. I changed shoes three times that afternoon. Spent half an hour parting my hair in the middle, near the middle, and to the side. Giving stern, sexy looks in the mirror. So when it was time to go, Gabe was the only one ready. He took it upon himself to grab the umbrella. So my youngest was the one who first saw his father, dead, crumpled in the closet with a leather belt fastened around his neck. Down the hall, wandering towards me, Gabe’s legs shook. He was a foal. Every step uncertain.
He was fourteen, at the time.
The smell was so wrong, an intruder to our nest, and unable to crawl its way out. I tried to keep from breathing it in. Only shallow inhales, that way, the memory of it wouldn’t stick. That’s what I was thinking as I walked through our room, the room where all four of us huddled through a tornado touching down in a neighboring town. The room where Gene spent nights crying for his father and I could do nothing but move the hair out of his eyes. My heart felt like it was trying to beat something out of me. I turned towards our closet. And at the sight of him, I fell to the floor. There he was, collapsed along the bed rock of our shoes, the heel of a black pump armed against his forehead. A thick red tributary ran down from his right temple, turning his shadowy face into a map of inlets. I looked into his eyes, opened, and strained from putting up a fight. I put a hand on his heart. Nothing to be felt, or heard. Just the sound of rain tapping our bedroom window, the trick of light in between. I felt the crawl of my blood and my mouth became desert dry. Gabe came in to the room, stood behind me, and said blankly “he didn’t tie it tight enough, I think your heel got him on the way down.” Gene continued to look at me, a posthumous continence of scorn. The bile—somewhat overdue—swam in reverse, my throat clenching just in time to run over to the window and inch it open. Once my head was out, I spilled my guts onto the waning shrubs. And then I cried. That was a year ago. Gabe hasn’t spoken since. In just a few hours he will wake up and immediately know what day it is. No one will have a choice.
* * *
“Hey, help me find my purse please?”
He rolls his eyes, jogs over to the kitchen. We’re late. I dust some color called “peony petal” onto my cheeks and watch him from my periphery. He knocks on the wall and holds up the bread so that I can see the archipelago of sour spots blooming along the crust.
“Oh god, throw that away.” He lifts up my purse with the other hand, walks over, and sets it down at my feet.
“Thank you, I’m almost done, wait by the car?”
Seth gets onto me for my clothes. At his graduation: “You were just mistaken for my girlfriend.” A whisper in my ear during his grandfather’s funeral service: “The minister hasn’t taken his eyes off you. He just said breast instead of lest.” I spill over my role as mother/wife because I don’t always wear a bra, shave my pits, or force my jeans to sit precisely on my waist. And, until he died, Gene and I would run through the house like children. Make out in the backyard like two teenagers who planned it. Sneak away during Seth’s football games, stand beneath the bleachers, and touch each other while popcorn, peanuts, and bits of trash were being dropped from above.
I don’t know how to please Seth. I tug at my blouse. Despite all of it, the whole fucking brunt of it, I have more growing up to do. And we all know it.
I chose the brown skirt I wore to Seth’s graduation, and even though it holds me together like a mermaid’s fin, it falls below the knee. But I can hear him now: “Geez mom, who are you trying to fool?”
I take a last look in the mirror and for a second I recognize her, the person I thought I was going to be for awhile longer. I stretch my back, give a slinky gesture to myself. She’s happy, that one. And boy, can she move.
Gabe stands by the car, reading It, his second Stephen King this month. The wind picks up. My auburn hair quivers like flames around my face before adhering to sticky lips, fresh from Carmex. As I fumble for the right key, I feel his eyes peek up from the scare tactics of Pennywise and watch another episode of my tripping grace. That grin again! I look back at him, grateful that I still manage to make him smile.
At first, none of us noticed he wasn’t talking. We weren’t doing much of it ourselves. When Gene died the world became more of a machine. Something ready-built, easy to figure out. We, as the family simply had to move through it. We gave up the money needed to bury him beside his father. We donated our house for an afternoon to be filled with the people we’ve become intertwined with. The ones also pretty messed up by it. The ones who brought food.
It was mostly reacting, nodding, getting through the lines of black ties and traffic. His teachers were the first to raise a question. Over phone calls they would trip over their words and mutter fading apologies.
“But the ‘not talking thing’, it’s really hard for us to get on.”
I bet it is, I would say, and just wait while they reached for a reason to end the call.
The calls stopped coming when they realized Gabe wasn’t stupid, he wasn’t neglecting his work, and that he could get by without saying anything. Make no mistake, I miss the sound of his voice, the gentle, sanguine insecurity of it. I even dream it. But we all have our ways, and often, I envy his.
“Take it all in, jerk.”
I walk over, put my hands on his cheeks and bring him forehead to forehead. We stay here. A single shape. I ask if he’s ready, and together we nod.
The drive to Huntsville State Penitentiary is three hours long, with one stop for lunch halfway in Corsicana. It is a perfect weather day, degrees suspended in a sweet 70, the sun giving us light but not making us sweat for it. Gabe slides into the passenger seat and immediately turns to the window. And there it is, Gene’s nose, Gene’s resting face, a look of tranquility and understated disappointment. That look would keep me guessing for the entirety of our marriage. What are you thinking? What’s wrong? How will I make it go away? Then I would kiss my husband because I could think of nothing better to do. I operated in a make believe world where kisses could actually absolve pain.
“Muah. Better now?”
Now I pace between two places, the need to do something, the inability to do anything, and a painful awareness of it. Seth, my first born, waits for us. I turn on the car. Somewhere a dog is barking. I breathe out and put the car in reverse.
They wanted to know if there were any signs. “Because we just can’t believe he would have done this, not our Gene, so full of light.” I was empty handed and expected to explain, to his mother and father, the history of sadness. Where do we begin? Gene endured everything. From watching women gather little herds of Mexican children into their tiny, economic homes, to cradling the empty Mockingbird nests our boys would find in the magnolia. It all came through, amplified. When they ask for signs, I have none. He never wavered in himself. It had to have been there all along.
A week before he died, Gene and I went through a small trauma together. A moment stamped into our lives that still, even now, is sensitive to touch. We were a little tipsy, but nothing too dangerous. We’ve been worse. Gene was at the wheel, and after I watched him miss the keyhole twice I had a look on my face. He caught it.
“Sweetheart, you need to relax.”
“Your lips are purple, you have that sheepy look about you.”
“I love you too.”
We pulled out of the driveway—fast—and up onto the curb. I gripped the bottom of my seat as the uneven alleyway bumped beneath. He grabbed my hand and kissed it, watching me as he did. Then, he took a quick turn to the right before shifting his eyes back onto the road. I caught the streak of yellow just before it disappeared beneath the Range Rover’s hood. Gene slammed on the brakes. Both of us silent, faces pale, listening for signs of life. Gene heard it whimper and that’s when we stepped out of the car.
The dog—a yellow lab—looked up at us not knowing what to do. He was such a creature. Gene knelt down beside him, took his heaving body into his own, and started stroking the bridge of his nose. I grabbed the tag, held the shallow etching up to the light, and read Samson. Samson’s eyes moved from us, to the empty street, and at his bloody paw. We watched his shame, nakedness, a childlike sense that something had gone invariably wrong. His tongue mechanically reached out from his mouth to lick my hand. That’s when I began to cry.
“Gene, what can we do?”
He raised his shoulders, he could only gaze up at me. The truth of it was he wanted me to tell him how to be a man. But there’s no way back from a point where life stops and accosts you. I was in no shape to rise to the occasion of handling life’s knotted strings. The intersection was clear, so we went. We hadn’t done anything wrong.
Two birds skipped upon the stagnant air, landing on the limbs tangled above us. Samson wiggled his body closer to us, looking for a mother. He was making a nest. We build homes up until the very end. We find a close source of light and plant ourselves for good. Samson stopped panting and allowed each breath to walk hand in hand. Slow, deliberate steps. Gene’s palm rested on Samson’s chest until he felt it had moved up and down for the last time. He coughed, we cried. I wrapped my arms around him and put my head up against his heart. His head shook back and forth.
“Ellie, I wish so many things.”
* * *
I-45 stretches out in front of us, the limb reaching across Texas, linking every major forgotten city. And Gabe hasn’t looked up from It. A marker reads that we’re ten miles north of Corsicana, almost time to stop for lunch. I look over. His bookmark, a newspaper clipping, hangs limp in between his thumb and forefinger. I watch as his eyes pick apart the ink on the page and wonder how easy it is for him to lose himself in it.
“We’re coming up to Corsicana, are you ready to eat?”
Gabe nods without looking up. I make a mental map of how to get to Jimmy’s Diner after the exit. The town of Corsicana is one giant square with Insurance companies, furniture stores, and post offices strewn on a grid around it. Midlevel sized trees are dispersed in between gas stations and Baptist churches. We pass a sign that says: “A righteous man has many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from all.”
Gene didn’t mess with religion. Sure, he would cry over baby birds and their tiny quivering hearts, but during the one church service my mother forced him to attend, he ending up leaving halfway, face red and sighs audible to the congregation bowed in prayer around him. To the boys, he was constantly reminding them how small they were. How vast and unaffected the universe went on without them. Once, to Gabe, he said that if he was a galaxy, he would make sure they each had planets of their own. A wink to me from the living room, and surely I rolled my eyes. That’s just how it went.
Gabe cleared his throat, making himself known while I pulled the curtain back on my memory. It’s not fair to him, that I keep disappearing, that sometimes I would rather abandon the responsibility of moving on and instead live in our catacombs where there are endless reels of our lives, pockets of scent, bits of laugh. I squeeze Gabe’s leg.
Jimmy’s Diner stands on the northeast corner of the square and looks out onto the statue of Jose Navarro. Navarro sits on a granite throne, bronze glinting in the light. We sit outside, on the patio, beneath the ratty tails of a red awning. Our server, remembers us from a few weeks ago, and a few weeks before that. He pats Gabe on the back and says he’ll be right back with some water. At the table next to ours, a young couple takes turns bouncing their baby boy. The mother, a brunette with fake gold strands of hair reflecting light along her roots, wags a stuffed koala next to his face. The baby crinkles his forehead and turns a scarlet glow. They touch noses. The cry, it seems, will be heard for miles.
Seth was born in the scorn of July, the tenth day in a row where one could cook over-easy eggs on the sidewalks. People feared fire. Cigarettes could no longer be flicked away while burning, red hot at the tip. Sprinkler systems needed timers installed so that lawns wouldn’t exceed their fill. My water broke midday. The fire never came. And when Gene held Seth in the crook of his arm for the first time, I watched as it—the grudge of his being—shifted back and out of the way. Gene bent down and buried his nose into the soft mold of Seth’s forehead. He breathed him in, and said
“Ellie, that smell.” He breathed him in and just held him, right there.
Gabe taps me on the shoulder and gives me the look of disapproval. It says: “Mom, stop staring at the baby.” I cross my eyes and bobble my head at him. My look says: “It’ just what us crazy mothers do.” The server comes back to get our order. I speak for both of us. Gabe fiddles with the newspaper clipping he’s used as a bookmark. It’s frail and thinning from touch.
We all knew something was going on with Seth, and now, I think Gene went through it too. And may have still been going through it during his twenties, into our marriage, and even after. Seth always came home angry, and during his junior year of high school, he began to boil. On an October afternoon I sat on the back porch steps with a brown blanket wrapped around my shoulders, the blanket Gene used to occasionally mope around in like a character straight out of Peanuts. I watched as Gene walked Seth out to the middle of the yard. He put a hand on his shoulder, tilted his head towards our beautiful, blonde-headed boy, and waited. To this day I have no idea what they talked about. It may have started out like this.
“Let me in.”
And after standing together in stillness Gene put both of his hands on Seth’s shoulders and stared at his son’s worn gait. I put my head in my hands. I wondered if any of us were going to make it. And he may have said,
“What’s going on,” but this time with more urgency, to make it clear that even though he doesn’t mean to, Seth was causing Gene to experience pain by keeping his windows shut. By not letting in the light. And to that, Seth may have told some story, given some reason for the feeling so difficult to carry or describe.
“This stupid guy at school wouldn’t leave this girl alone. She’s new, has a thick accent, middle eastern or something. And he just kept saying ‘Where’s your hijab? Where’s your hijab?’ And the girl, I think her name is Sari, just kept trying to get away from him. Then…then he put his hand on her hips. Just set it there. And they both looked at it, neither of them saying a word. And no one in the hall does anything. The teachers just kept looking at their watches and clicking their heels. And Sari, she just smiled. Because this asshole touched her, and even though he humiliated her, he still touched her. And everyone just kept doing what they do. And no one stopped and asked why, or if what they’re doing was right.”
And Gene, without knowing how he ended up making something like Seth, may have said
Then Gene wiped at his eyes and laughter erupted from his broad chest. Seth laid his head on his father’s shoulder, because even though it—this pang of being—wasn’t due to go away any time soon, he finally saw he wasn’t alone.
Our food is gone. To keep from getting tired, we grab two sodas on the way out of Jimmy’s. Instead of returning to It, Gabe rests his head against the window. I set my hand on top of his and leave it there.
* * *
“Ma’am, you’re going to have to remove all bits of jewelry.” The guard extends a plastic bin towards me as I fumble with antique hairpins. The metal detectors at Huntsville State Pen catch everything. Embarrassed, I continue to unload, setting my turquoise earrings and their offensive backs into the bin. The men watch. They make me feel dangerous. Gabe empties his pockets and retrieves something from the floor, to make sure it isn’t mistaken for trash, and shuffles past the guards. I reach for my jewelry. A mistake. The guard issues his arm to stop me.
“You get these when you leave.”
I brush the hair behind my ears, give a self-conscious tug at my blouse. I compose. Gabe gives a vigorous nod, it says: “come on mom, you know this, you’ve been through this before.” I take slow strides towards my son, grab his hand, and ignore the feeling of being monitored as we exit the security station. I think Gene’s voice; it’s what I do when I’m anxious. I mindfully sit in his lap and kiss the spot of cheek beneath his eye and beside the nose. He looks at me and says
“I’m the luckiest of them all.”
A buzzer signal us in. A woman, whose job is dispense sympathy to mothers and brothers like us, points to a table of cookies and brewed coffee.
“Help yourself, they’re getting him ready now.”
We find an empty table. At every sound of a door being opened, we dart our eyes over to the front of the room, we shift in our seats.
Seth has been in Hunstville State Pen for three months now. Three months ago, I came home to find him sitting on the couch with an almost empty liter of Evan Williams on the coffee table. His eyes were red shot. Thirsty capillaries which had burst and remained open. His head teetered upon its axis. I began to yell.
“Seth, you can’t fucking do this. You won’t be this way. Do it for him.”
Seth stood up—too fast—and fell down immediately. Frantically he crawled towards the wall that took 18 years to montage with pictures of our life. To get himself back up, he used the photos, pressing his palms onto sheets of glass nestled in their frames. Several of them came down from his weight. One by one, Seth’s graduation, Gabe’s first day home, our miserable camping trip, and my mother’s 75th landed with muffled thuds onto the carpet. No glass was broken in the process, just the small white squares of space becoming a multitude in place of what used to be there. I ran over to him, pried him off the wall, and tried to swaddle his moment of infancy. But Seth had been stronger than me for years. He broke away, and for the first time since Gene died, let out the rage.
“My father? The one who killed himself, who couldn’t love us enough to just stay the fuck alive?”
Seth shook his head; threw the thought away. He grabbed the keys, formally Gene’s, and took off. It was only half an hour before I received the call that affirmed the feeling—that acrid mother’s intuition. The one I had the minute he slammed the door. Girl, age 13, lives in the neighborhood. Neither of them saw it coming. One would need extensive surgery, but would be okay. The other, after showing no signs of injury, was put in handcuffs on the scene. In the news, his story appeared after a pet adoption event, a family of ducks being rescued from a garbage pit. A slow news day after all, so during the prime time slot, they reported his BAC to be three times the limit. Flashed his mug shot. Greasy blonde hair fell in the way of his eyes, his face infinitely punctuated with stubble. The spitting image of Gene.
They walk him out from behind a thick metal door. He scans the room, seems anxious while the guard leads him by the forearm. I give an audible ‘Seth’, and shoot my hand up in the air. My turn to be called on. He finds us. Then, his eyes shift from my eyes, down my skirt to my brown flip-flops, over to Gabe’s destroyed converse, and up to his Rangers baseball cap. This part, our essences, haven’t changed since he was put away. He smiles. We sit down and wait as he shuffles over. The chain connecting the two links around his ankles moves like a snake. The guard recites his line.
“You have one hour.”
Seth stands still, upright. I approach him like a basketball player on defense, arms open, shifting quickly from left to right. Seth leaks a smile from the right corner of his mouth and I take this as permission to bring him in, to hold him there. I sniff his hair, kiss his temples.
I say, “You smell so bad, I love you”, with his head pressed into the side of my face. Seth pulls away, and coughs out what I know to be his laugh. And how long had it been since he laughed? A day? A week? Since last time we came and giggled uncomfortably together? Gabe pats him on the shoulder, for everything he can’t say. Somehow it’s enough. Seth begins.
Gabe laughs, his head falling to rest on his hands. The newspaper clipping flits with the oscillating fan.
“It’s funny, I almost forgot what today was. I woke up knowing that it was important. I asked a guard for the date and he told me it didn’t matter, to get in line if I wanted to eat. So I ate, and waited, and sat quietly, and finally—finally I remembered. Smoke gone. I finally remembered today is the day dad killed himself.” He pauses. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to lead with that. It’s just, that’s what today is. I finally remembered.”
There is nothing for me to say, so I reinforce the silence. It should feel uncomfortable, but doesn’t. Because we all understand. Our prisons, though unregulated, regulate themselves. The house, my office, the hallways of Gabe’s school. We carry on as any self-preserving organism does, automatically, in order to not be swallowed by what we’ve been required to leave behind. Gabe clears his throat. He unfolds the clipping, presses out the creases with the palm of his hand. He points to the caption. “Family Waiting for the Smoke to Clear”. A still from the Iraq War. In it, two pair of ruddy feet—mother and son—standing inches apart as a cloud of smoke encroaches on both of their bodies. In the bend of the mother’s arm is the faint outline of a baby, its head peeking up over her shoulder, staring right in the direction of the photographer. Armed soldiers loom behind the smoke like watermarked ghosts. Seth and I move our eyes over the image. He uses the edge of his hand to move it closer to him and traces the heads, the guns, and the hem of the mother’s dress.
“Turn it over.”
Gabe turns it over. On the back, he has written What happens next??
Seth shakes his head, he looks to me for an answer. I have to tell them that it’s all going to be okay, even if I don’t believe it yet. Instead, we sit in silence, bewilderment seeping from us like tea leaves dunked in hot water. I put my hands on both of their heads and bring them in to me. We’re a triple spiral, the trinity upon a precipice. Around us, the impatient children tug at their parent’s sleeves and pant legs, begging to go home. It’ll be time to leave soon. But not just yet. For now, we stay.
Julianna Hurtado is a Texas transplant who now resides in New York City. She recently graduated from New York University where she studied the relationship between creativity, madness, and everything in between. Julianna is now pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Hunter College, where she belongs to a motorcycle gang of strange, incredible writers. In her free time, Julianna cooks indulgently, watercolors, and acts like a complete child.