You need to be as tall as the trees in winter to catch the sun. Kay lifted Jamie high above her shoulders and her father’s words rang true as a single ray of light poked through the hills touching Jamie’s face. The cold bites you in the neck in these parts and Kay was forced to put Jamie down. Daughter looked at mother and cried.
The tomatoes are plain at this time of year. Kay slices, her back to the front door and a path that arcs into an orange sunset. Their cottage is apart from the others and Kay is alone with her three-year old. It needs to be this way, her eyes always wet. She swallows. Lumps. She’s had enough of them.
He wasn’t bad that man, until he parked two hundred dollars on the bedside table and left her. They had two nights and a child, except he didn’t know. The time was coming now, she knew it would start again. She looked at the tomatoes. Everything is plain at this time of year.
The mornings were quiet. Kay liked this. Before the trucks arrived. Before the earth shook and the cottage rattled and Jamie cried. Before the men arrived. When it was dark. She could peer into her heart and touch the universe.
The men came for work. It had been three years since they came for the women. The price of gas had shut down operations, now the price of gas brought the men back. They weren’t all bad the men, they would leave you two hundred dollars on a bedside table and never see you again.
He had a family. A wife. Two children. He omitted that the first night. And the second. On a quiet morning he would tell her and leave. Kay would never be with another man, she became smaller than an atom. She would peer into her heart and find nothing. You need to be as tall as the trees in winter to catch the sun.
They promised jobs for the men, a man promising to another man, then they brought in other men and disease. Her cousin got work in a gas station, the other men got paid. The gas went away and her cousin found a woman who didn’t want him and he was taken by violence and a police truck. They buried him two weeks later. Now the men were back but they wouldn’t take Kay.
Jamie lay asleep, her head filled with a bucket of dreams. Kay watched, floating away, thoughts of her and Jamie and a trip to the sea. She had never been to the ocean, or on a plane. She imagined a thousand miles over the mountains and the trees, beyond the elk and the moonlight, limestone and sand and a bottle blue sea.
They would chase seagulls and eat ice cream. They would hold hands and learn the smells and fall to its charms. The ocean. Kay longed its vast secrets. She saw her sleeping daughter and made a vow. They would leave this place.
It was fifteen miles to the clinic. Three days a week. It brought enough to afford crunchy peanut butter and toast. The gas company had reopened it -- only fair -- they had closed it, men in white coats escaping in a helicopter. Now the men were back but the illness had never went away. There were lumps of it.
Kay would drop Jamie off at her grandmother. She found it hard to face this woman. Grandmother knew her pain and the power of drink. She was sixty-three and had been to the ocean and told young Kay of stories that swirled in her head and gave her ideas. Grandmother had been to the ocean once. She had seen its freedom and experienced fear.
He was different. Gustav’s blue eyes sparkled with specks of pink and Kay found herself staring into them. It was his soul, not hers and she retreated. But he wouldn’t stop. He saw his frightened little mouse, a pretty little mouse, and wanted more. He would set a trap.
When the earth is on fire the mice will run. The question is where. He was different, he wasn’t like other men, not like the man who left two hundred dollars on a bedside table and left her. The man with white chicken skin, who chided her finger tips as they touched the middle of his back. Cold he said. You’re cold.
She needed to be cold. Her father had died in a fire. He went into a burning house to rescue a child and cremated himself. The child was playing in a field, safe as houses. He was an older man, twice the age of her mother when they married. Grandmother disapproved, but at twenty-one he was the only man who had never beaten her. Ten years later the fire took him. You have to be as tall as the trees in winter to catch the sun.
Her mother drowned in a boating accident a year later. That’s what they said. What they all knew was different. She had sunk under the weight of beer. She was as tall as a shrub.
Gustav returned to the clinic. From a minor nick to a sniffle and a cough, he would show up on the days Kay worked. He would shrug indifference to the doctors about his ailments. They were concerned about his bronchitis. That, he couldn’t fake.
Kay always looked away, a file, a form, a computer screen shielding her from his sea eyes. She would not be taken. No man would get in the way. She was going to the ocean. With Jamie. But there’s no accounting for vulnerability.
It started with a fight. Jamie wouldn’t eat her peanut butter toast. Jamie wouldn’t brush her teeth. Jamie wouldn’t get changed. She curled into a ball to fight her mother. She wasn’t going. It was shrieks to pierce eardrums. Kay felt trapped. She needed work, she needed to be there, she needed to be away from this. She needed to escape the relentlessness. It all came at once, life imploding around her. And she began a new lifetime of regrets.
Kay hauled Jamie from under the bed. The ferociousness struck Jamie mute. Her mother dressed her, washed her face, the toothbrush hurt. Jamie blanked. She was in a car. It smelled of rotting pears and engine oil. The trees blocked the sun, Fleetwood Mac roared, and the power of her mother’s braking and accelerating stole her heart. Kay would never get this moment back.
Men take what they want. They have no regrets. Gustav wanted Kay, he didn’t know why. You can’t help how you are pulled and to which part of the universe you are flung. Gustav got lucky. Today Kay looked up. He broke into a smile. So did she. They knew. She knew he thought she was prey. And today she wanted the attention. He couldn’t stop her going to the ocean, no man could, or so she thought.
The world outside was glum, cast in winter slosh and disposable coffee cups. He emptied her purse and saw her life fall on the table. He charmed her with magic tricks that didn’t work. He made her laugh. When he went to the bathroom silence drew her sadness. She hadn’t laughed with another adult in years. Jamie had never seen her mother laugh. Jamie. Kay packed her purse, the wasted birth control pills, old DQ napkins, two straws, a broken Mickey Mouse key fob, and loose change. She felt pathetic. Then he was back. Don’t go.
He came too fucking quickly. She thought it was something she could work with. It wasn’t love. It wasn’t sex. Sad man. Shame apparent. His charm exposed as a sham. The shabby motel of burnt orange curtains, old clock radio, and filter coffee needed a cigarette. Kay hadn’t smoked since before she was pregnant. She pulled on her boots and skirted across the road in fading light. It was warm, it was cold, it was wet and dirty with trucks and she bought a pack of twenty. Smoke them all she thought.
When she returned he was still there, no money on the bedside table. She smirked, she should have left him two hundred dollars. She should have. The destiny of charm and shame is loathing. And so it began, two people incapable of being loved, of falling in love. It was the story they shared and lacked the will to overcome. Kay looked into his eyes and the ocean became distant. If only she had said it out loud to her daughter. We are going to the ocean. But she hadn’t.
She was different. She couldn’t be taken. Kay might not be as tall as the trees in winter but she wasn’t a shrub, she would grow. Grandmother held her scorn when Kay returned for Jamie. She saw her granddaughter’s unkempt hair and cracked eyeliner and refused to give Kay the argument she needed. Sex, if you could call it that, and a pack of twenty wasn’t enough in the darkness.
Kay needed to unleash but there was no one available, save the three-year old attached to an inadequate booster seat. The music was soft as pillows on the journey home. Kay wanted to apologise, she ran it in her head over and over again. Jamie, do you remember this morning? Mommy didn’t mean it. To hurt you. You know that? You know I love you.
But she couldn’t. Her jaws tightened, her eyes swelled. She was crushed. It was a lie. She had to leave this place, flee, go to the ocean. Maybe without Jamie. She felt dirty. She began to cry. Kay needed to look her daughter in the eyes. All she had was a rear view mirror. She would wait until they were back. Yes, she could whisper to Jamie in her sleep, before the men came, before the earth shook, in the peace before dawn and tell her the truth. It would be too late. The car slipped from her control and flipped down a hill.