People burn cars out there. My father took us out there when I was 11 and we burned GranGran’s car, him shaking the lighter fluid over the hood and up against the sides like he was seasoning it, then he let me and Lily toss the lighter through the passenger window but we had to promise to run as soon as it left our hands. Less you want me to roll you in hot sauce and eat you like a crispy wing, you’ll run your little asses fast as you can. We kept our promise and felt the fire at our backs but didn’t get to see it start, when we turned around it was going like it’d been alive forever.
Later Lily asked me did I see the fire reflected in Pop’s glasses, did I see how it looked like millions of goldfish swimming up the lenses. You were watching the wrong fire, I told her. I beg to differ, she said. She’d heard this somewhere and had figured out a way to use it, I could tell by the smug way of her mouth and how she was exhaling through her nostrils.
Another thing to know about out there is there’s a pack of wild dogs that claim it as their home. The story is that a farmer loaded up his sheepdog and her puppies one day, drove out there and pushed them out of the truck because he couldn’t bear to drown them but he couldn’t afford to feed them either. People hear that story and get disgusted but some of these same people have driven the family dog out there and set it free to join the pack, Pop did that to Jinx but said it was good news, Jinx was with her own, was back roaming the desert sands the way God intended, and all I could think was how Jinx didn’t have that many teeth, who would soak her food in water so she could get it down? I’ve never seen the dogs but if you’re out there burning a car or anything else at night you can hear them barking in that wounded way, a whole choir of them sounding like they’re being kicked or shot with BB’s.
The point is Pop knew both of these things. A place where people come to burn cars, a place where abandoned dogs eat sand or each other, these are not comforting facts. But that did not matter to Pop. What mattered was tradition, albeit a tradition starting with me and Lily. This is your legacy, he shouted at us from inside the car. Your rite of passage. If you make it you will be men. If you don’t I’ll lickety-split a prayer for each of you come Sunday. Then he peeled out, left us coughing in his dust. Lily said, Don’t he know we’re girls? How are we supposed to become men then?
It didn’t take long for Lily to start crying. Some book she read described how an orange sun is the deadliest, how letting its rays coat your skin is akin to taking a lye shower, how the orange was from God’s bloody iris, when I asked her if that meant the sun was God’s eye and if so was he a Cyclops she slapped her own face, said she had itches under the skin, it was the orange rays coming for her. She took off running. I let her. In the flat desert I knew I could see her for miles.
Then I learned a third thing about out there. I was watching Lily run, her arms up to shield her, looking like a shimmering exaltation not a hundred feet in front of me. I looked down at something itching my calf and when I looked up Lily was gone. Wasn’t even a dustcloud in her wake. That’s the third thing. The desert is a warp master. Lily warped or I warped but either way the desert opened up its coatflap to take something in and when the coatflap closed again I was alone. I knew it wasn’t any use but you have to go through the motions when something shocking happens. I called Lily’s name. I spun around in place. I followed her footsteps but they petered out and I wondered if I was back where I started. I screamed for her till the sun came down, then I sat in the sand and watched the unlikely colors in the sky, the purple and the silver and the green and the white white line of the horizon which was the last to go.
The dark out there was a navy quilt sewn with pearl buttons. There was part of a moon wedged in the sky that gave off a dull glow. The dogs started around then, yelping and whining and getting closer and closer. I brought my knees up to my chest and concentrated on my shoes because I could see them, they were a fact, they were indisputable, I remembered putting them on in the morning, I remembered retying the laces after school, how they were black in their creases from when I jumped into the lake wearing them months before. A furry thing knocked against my back, knocked again, it was terrible in its boniness, it rubbed against me like a cat, a tongue swiped my arm, paws clawed at my legs, they were crying like they were trying to hold it in but couldn’t. They smelled like mothballs and corn chips and old blood.
Pop always talked about mirages, how they happen outside of the desert all the time, like television, like the produce aisle, like any woman in a wet swimming suit. What I noticed first was the black flickering, I wondered how I could see black flicker in all that dark, then my eyes saw the rest of it, saw the orange flames which formed the black flicker, saw them shooting up, undulating tall, saw the fire, saw the fire, saw the fire, and I ran to it.
The desert is a good lesson in life. It proves that what you want most will most likely stay out of reach. That fire was mine, was my love, was the breath in my lungsacks. I heard the dogs behind me singing their brutal chorus, I knew they remembered what it was to beg, that fire moving fast toward the end of the earth.
But out there is different from your typical desert. Because it was Pop burning up our car, drinking from a milk jug, Lily sleeping in the sand like a punished doll, and by the time I reached them the dogs were gone, weren’t making a peep. That Jinx you were running from, Pop asked, laughing wide. His glasses got the worst of the black flicker and I decided not to look at him directly, possibly forevermore. When Lily woke up we thumbed it home.
You wake up. Put just a t-shirt on because those jeans eat at your ass and it’s too early for that yet. You make what your daddy proudly called hillbilly coffee. You sneak a peek and that guy in your bed is moaning in his sleep, pointing his toes. His junk’s all shriveled and caught up in that black tangle. You think how if that were you you’d be more modest, even in your sleep. You think, I don’t believe I like this one very much. Then you remember putting your mouth on that thing, just for a second the night before, and how grateful he seemed, how his body instantly went from tense and strong to flop-relaxed and jelly, how that alarmed and disgusted you so you pretended it was just a stop on the way to kissing his lower abdomen. Now you rub your tongue against the roof of your mouth to equalize the bitter taste, a taste close to the one that time your mama boiled the hot dogs in the pot of de-limer your daddy was using, you only a couple bites in but sick for days. It was a accident, you tell people. You’d probably say that now should there be the same people in your house staring with you at this man with the thick rope chain around his neck and the missing molar. It was a accident. I needed a ride. You laugh to yourself, Lord did you ever need a ride.
And now the man is waking up, doing snow angels in your bed and yawning wide. You think, I should not allow him to see me standing in the doorway watching him. You think, that would give him some kind of wrong idea. But after he is done fisting the sleep from his eyes he sees you anyway. You think, let him. The man smiles, and maybe it’s not a missing molar, maybe it’s closer to the front than that. His hands are at his chest, scratching his nipple area. Girly, he says to you, I got me some morning wood. You see for yourself but it ain’t promising, looking like it’s on the other side of wilting. A lazy type of erection. You remember your daddy warning you about lazy men, saying Check the hands darlin, the uglier the better, your daddy missing the nails on both thumbs and always offering your mama his index finger to use as a nail file. You don’t remember the feel of this man’s hands. You couldn’t pull his hands from a police lineup. You say to the man, nodding toward that mess of a crotch: That ain’t much to write home about, but it is more like you’ve said it to the room and the room has soaked up your quiet tones and anyway the man is yawning again, doing that thing people do when they feel right at home, stretching and yawning something closer to a shout than a yawn.
There’s coffee, you say to the man in a louder voice. You want to get the ball rolling. You imagine yourself enjoying a quiet morning once the man has left, staying in your t-shirt until the late afternoon, and then who knows. Maybe dinner in front of the TV. Maybe a stop by the bar. It all seems like years in the future. You are pleased at the thought. The man starts playing with himself. The man is left-handed and this fact seems to render the man special somehow. You think the words Handicapped, Disabled, Special. No one in your family is left-handed. You realize that maybe you’ve only ever encountered left-handed people on the TV. Don’t drink coffee, the man says. I drink something else, and there’s that hole in the gums again, he has apparently said something suggestive to you but you’re having trouble picturing exactly what he means. You realize if he closed his mouth and his eyes you’d probably give him another go, due to that left-handedness. And maybe you’ve said that last thing out loud because his eyes snap shut and he purses his lips, his tongue roving around, but maybe that’s just his usual masturbating face. That hand gets faster, the flesh at his belly shuddering.
You are having a hard time with this man’s comfort level in a stranger’s house. It seems rude to you to feel so at home in a place that isn’t his home. But despite yourself you are turned on. You feel disgusted but inflamed. You tell yourself it’s that left hand. It’s downright exotic. In you go, your ankles cracking at the first few steps. You straddle the man, yank the crotch of your underwear over because getting them off would take forever and you barely have seconds before the magic of the moment would subside. The man pumps three times before pushing you off. Your underwear snaps to. The man says Hoo-eee. He wipes himself off on your top sheet but misses the dollop just under his chin.
You and the man lay there. You study the swollen corner of your ceiling, decide to pop it with a safety pin sometime soon. You wonder if that would be a big enough hole. The man gets up and in the blurry corner of your eye he is dressing himself. He goes into the kitchen and you hear him touching things in your refridge. He reappears in your doorway and you watch him unpeel a slice of cheese from its plastic sleeve, then mash it into a cube. You wonder if he is trying to fashion a new tooth. You got damn near fuckall to eat, young lady, the man says. Your daddy used to call you young lady when you were in trouble. You think, am I in trouble? The man walks over and kisses the air over your hairline, holding his crotch like it aches. The man says Damn, says your name, which you don’t remember telling him. When he is gone you think about getting dressed, calling someone, going into town. You think about doing a lot of things. Instead you lie in bed and listen to a neighbor down the road mowing his grass, the sound of that motor goddamn ripping you to shreds.