She always threatened to kill herself. They’d get in fights and Patty’d say, “Someday you’ll be real sorry you said that!” or “How can you say that when you know what I could do to myself?” and then she’d slam the bedroom door and hunker down until she got too hungry to keep on. In these cases Cody tried to imagine Patty a teenager (the age she'd been when her uncle had done the unthinkable), and himself the grown adult, and then he imagined his body levitating a foot or two, the vantage he needed to look down upon Patty to see she was too childish to understand the power of words.
But if it weren't for the threats, Cody would’ve been a lot more surprised when she finally did swallow enough pills to put down an elephant. If he were pushed, Cody'd have to admit that yes, when he sometimes imagined an end between them, this way played as an option. If he were really pushed, he'd have to say he felt almost relieved now that the deed had finally been done. ‘Course he knew it sounded bad – to say he felt relieved that his girlfriend had finally killed herself was an awful thing to say – but it was true that something like a vice he'd felt pinned in had disappeared since the night Patty had done it for real. He could feel his blood moving again. He was glad not to hear any more talk of it – certainly it would be okay to admit that.
To her funeral he chose to drive the old Chevy she called charming. It was a ’57 he’d cobbled together when he was teenager, after his mother left the farm and his father spent days and nights roosting up in the old house, drinking whiskey and getting mean. He borrowed a friend’s suit for the funeral but wore his own tie, the blue one Patty picked out because, she'd said, “You never do know when you’ll need a nice tie.” He pulled into a convenience store to buy a bag of tobacco and some rolling papers on his way. He hadn’t smoked cigarettes in a long time – had actually gotten himself off the shit by buying the rollies. The idea was the effort of rolling his own cigarettes would slow down his consumption until he full-stopped, a trick he'd played upon himself with success. It had been a year or more since he'd smoked tobacco, but now, he figured, his girlfriend’s suicide was reason enough to start again.
He sat in the car. He rolled a cigarette. There was a draft coming through the window, one that smelled like trash, and he remembered a friend who'd said it was crazy how trash smelled the same wherever you went – in New York, Chicago, Davenport, Rome – trash all smelled the same, which meant all human consumption was roughly the same, which meant all humans were the same wherever you went. Since that statement Cody had found a renewed comfort in trash. He looked to the dumpster it was coming from. Sitting in front of it, sucking on a large straw from a cup around which she could barely fit one hand, was a teenage girl who could also be internationally recognized as trash: the greasy hair you might expect, the look of absence and boredom in the eyes, a longing there, an emptiness one could fill without too much effort.
He took his first glorious puff. To go off smokes with loose tobacco meant, methodically, that to go back on them with rollies was the right way of doing things. And Patty would have appreciated that. Well, appreciate may not be the right word, but she might've said it was cute. If he'd come home with a bag of tobacco and she’d caught him rolling one in the kitchen or smoking it out on the porch, she'd have opened the door and said something like, Real cute. She'd have known that starting with the rollies was step number one back to the big time, to smoking whole cartons inside the house.
Patty liked to summarize things. She had a keen intellect. She was her own bird. Upon meeting her up at the farm, Cody's father had said, “She sure is different!” after Patty had excused herself to use the bathroom down the hall. “Sure is different!” was something his father liked to say when presented with something he didn't approve of but had no control over, like when Cody grew a mullet during a metal phase. But Cody didn’t expect his father to approve of Patty. Sure, she’d been raised near their town – she was a Midwestern girl at heart – but she’d gone off to New York City after high school and had lived there for years to make a go at being a dancer – a dancer dancer, not a girl who works in a tittie bar. This gave Patty a certain air not found in local women.
Cody put the car into reverse, backed away from the wafts of trash. He waved to the lost girl, who waved back. He drove down Main Street to where the road opens up to a divided highway. He thought of Patty’s sister, Sheila, who had organized Patty's memorial service, had actually been a regular saint through the whole ordeal, as if it were a party she’d been planning for a long time.
He first met Sheila at Patty’s parents’ house. Cody had gone out to the backyard to smoke, he was sitting on a tire swing to get out of the mix for a minute, to do a mental check as to where he stood with the family and to absorb the unmentioned importance of having been invited to meet Patty’s parents in the first place. They'd only been dating for a few weeks, but everything between Patty and Cody had happened so fast. In the backyard, Cody was recapping the line of questioning he’d undergone at supper: how he’d decided on carpentry, whether he freelanced or worked for an outfit, what kind of schedule he kept, what kind of people he came from, that sort of deal. He thought he’d done well – he could see Patty’s dad had taken a shine to him, they both hunted in the same area and used the same meat locker. The night was clear. He wondered if he might catch sight of a shooting star or something, something to go back in to tell the crowd about while they sat around the table drinking Kahlúa and coffee, a beverage Patty’s dad had become the ambassador of after a trip up north. But then Sheila had to ruin things while he was outside, tapping his shoulder to ask if he really thought he was the only guy who’d been invited home to meet the parents? Cody said he never claimed to have been the first, never would.
“You didn’t notice how tired my parents look?” she asked. Of course he’d noticed – it wasn’t that he didn’t notice things, of course he noticed things – but he assumed they were tired for the same reasons everybody was: they were hard workers who'd had a long day. Patty’s mom had been working as a school secretary for years and God knows the kind of shit those ladies take; her dad was a foreman at the nearby refrigerator factory. News had hit that the factory would shut down in a year or less, so Cody knew the man carried something no one else at the table could understand completely. No one mentioned the plant during supper.
To Sheila he just said, “Well sure I noticed,” and then she launched into how he was about the eighteenth man Patty’d carted home and of course her parents were pretty tired of the whole dog-and-pony show by now, the niceties, the nice-to-meet-you’s. Did Cody really think he was the only one? It wouldn't be until much later that Cody would learn about the uncle – Patty's mother's brother – and what had happened between him and Patty. “Hold on now,” he said to Sheila, “I'm a bad guy 'cause I've fallen for Patty?”
The Chevy vibrated over rumble, the road came to a four-way stop where four cars slowed at once, no one knowing who approached first. He flashed his headlights to the driver across the way who seemed new at this; she didn't budge. Each driver on his left and his right sat high in their truck cabs, just staring at him. He waved his left arm out the side of his window in a “Come on!” kind of way to the woman driver across the intersection, but still she didn’t move. A few seconds passed and then all four vehicles charged ahead, everyone slamming their brakes – everyone but Cody. He drove straight through without looking, his foot pressed hard on the accelerator, his heart banging the backside of his ribcage.
He passed fields of corn, tall and verdant, even the ones with huge signs out front that read: Coming Soon: Home Depot! and Coming Soon: Super Target! The signs made him feel angry; they signaled the end of something beautiful, but he didn’t know who to blame for the impending loss. He wanted to blame the farmer for selling his land and then he considered that if even his own father had an opportunity to make a shit-ton of cash by selling just a smidgen, he couldn’t blame him. Cody knew the real folks to blame were the county council for drafting shitty zoning laws, but when he couldn’t remember a single council member’s name – let alone when elections were held – he felt a deeper, more inward burn.
Patty would have hated the signs. More to the point, she would've hated their outcome: the behemoths that would sprout in just a few months’ time. Patty needed the Midwest to stay like it had always been. She needed to keep hold of her naïve idea that this was prairie land, which meant denying what it actually was: part and parcel to a huge machinery otherwise known as agribusiness.
Patty liked to think of Midwesterners as real, she liked to think of the Midwest as grounded. At parties or picnics she'd say part of the reason she'd come back home was because New York wasn't grounded. “No land makes for a place with no center,” she'd say, making a fist with her right hand, pressing it to her sternum. She wasn't talking about a moral center necessarily, it was more, she'd say, that people were so clueless in New York. “New Yorkers are 'real' my ass!” and then everyone would toast to that. It was a popular line of thinking.
Sometimes, for emphasis, she’d tell a story about a caretaker she’d met somewhere in Pennsylvania who told her a story about how he spent a whole month a whole month clearing rocks out of a lawn because the woman who’d been renting the house for the summer was a New Yorker who'd been throwing the rocks out there for her dog for her dog. When the caretaker said, “Well ma’am, that sort of ruins the blade on my mower, the rocks in the yard,” the woman just said, “Well how should I know that? I’m a New Yorker! We don’t have yards!” And then the woman laughed the whole thing off while the caretaker just stood there with his hands jammed in his pockets.
At get-togethers, with old high school buddies and their wives circled around, when Patty would tell the caretaker story and others too about the price of rent, or how a regular old orange costs a dollar, or how Manhattan was basically a shopping mall now, or how the mayor had made the city an impossible place for the working class to live – Cody noticed a glow come over Patty, like a light had been switched on from within at the very mention of New York. It was extremely seductive. So much so that he felt himself completely pulled in, and even though he'd never once been to New York – hell, he'd hardly made it to Kansas City – it was as if he could see Patty more clearly in New York than he could the woman standing before him now. Patty was the poor and broken girl in the big city, shrunken by the concrete, walking to auditions with headshots in her purse. Cold wind lashed her pink face. Cody imagined Patty banging her radiator with a high heel shoe, he imagined the drunk and lonely boys she brought home after long nights, he imagined himself as one of them, the most special who ceased the tide of those who had come before. There he was: in New York, fucking Patty in a lofted bed, holding her, telling her it was going to be all right now that Cody had come. Cody had no idea if Patty had ever actually had a lofted bed.
But sometimes, like a year or so into the relationship, Patty's storytelling got to be too much, and when Cody watched her tell the stories – like the one about the guy with the lawnmower – he could almost picture what she looked like while listening to the caretaker tell it originally: in a bar probably, Patty nodding her head in a compassionate manner, siding with the man while hiding the fact that she lived in New York. Cody had watched Patty play these dual parts many times. One minute she was telling a story about walking down Fifth Avenue and literally running into Lauren Bacall; the next, she was telling a story about baiting bullheads at five o’clock in the morning with some old-timers, drinking Schlitz and talking God. With Patty everything was a story, everything was summary. Those fucking guys she fished with were no more real to her than Lauren Bacall. They were just another story she’d retell down the line.
But now, there was no more “down the line”. She’d never see the cornfield razed, that soil wasted and the cement walls constructed. She’d never see their banners along the highway screaming “Grand Opening!” without so much as a speck of shame.
Eighteen-wheelers gushed past the Chevy. And behind them, a floodgate of cars in a hurry to get home for Sunday roast. In the early days, soon after they met, he and Patty used to share a bottle of something and go for drives in the country in his pick-up truck. Inevitably they’d end up in a cornfield, fuck in the flatbed above the early corn, then go for ice cream at the Tasty Sweet on the way back into town. And the whole time Patty’d say, “Now this is living!”
And it was. She’d gotten a good job for good money producing shows at a local radio station. But then the living at home just wouldn’t do, so she moved in with Cody. Well that’s when the fissures started to show: her bouts with depression, to which Cody was no stranger himself. He knew what it was to get low, but no matter how hard he tried to make light of her dark days, Patty just couldn't lighten up. If he were pushed, if he were really pushed, he’d have to say these times were something of a comfort to him; he had to admit they kept him sealed to Patty. He liked having a sad person near him, if only to prove it was perfectly normal, that feeling fucked up wasn’t “different”.
Further on were three signs in a row: the first said Freedom!...paid for by the blood of Jesus Christ, the next said: Freedom!...paid for by the body of Jesus Christ, the third, up a little ways, was an advertisement for a church: Jesus’ Tabernacle …Freedom is only five miles away. Next to the lettering was the sun held by a palm with a stigmata, the sun’s rays beaming through the bloody hole, the idea being that Jesus’ suffering allows for glory in the world, or something to that effect.
Patty’s parents went to Jesus’ Tabernacle. It was where her funeral was about to be. Patty said that when she was a littler girl her parents hadn’t been so religious – and her father still wasn’t so much – but something had clicked inside her mother, and her father had to follow suit in order to keep the marriage afloat. Cody wasn't a hundred percent sure, but he figured the escape to Jesus' Tabernacle had something to do with Patty's uncle. He always wondered if her mother found God about the same time the uncle had fled the state. And then he wondered if the uncle would know Patty had died? He thought, however absurd, the man should be told. Hadn't he loved her, or at least tried? And then he pulled over to the side of the road, knowing he was sick to think the uncle had loved Patty. He turned off the engine.
He pulled out the bagged tobacco and rolled himself another cigarette. To his right was more corn, their stalks rubbing against themselves, making a soft swishing sound like Patty’s hair would make while she brushed it. He remembered he and Patty in the flatbed again, the way he’d put his palm under her head so it wouldn’t bang on the metal, and how she’d reached her arms out and grabbed hold of his forearms – how she'd held him there, steadied herself against his pushing. It was hard to explain, but something about the way she held onto him that one time, and looked up into his eyes, and how he was above her and looking down on her – well, it was a mutual acknowledgment they were making, it was an agreement that said, I will keep you safe from pain.
After that time, they didn’t go to the Tasty Sweet. Instead, Cody brought her to a spot off in the timber on his father’s land. A few minutes’ walk inside the timber was a bench he’d made himself when he was ten or so. It was on top of a ridge. Below you could see the pond and the goose houses he and his father had built when he was a boy – from the bench, in the spring, he used to watch geese come back to make their nests in the homes. Away in the farmhouse his parents would be at each other’s throats, but outside, up in the timber, Cody watched geese coexist. As a boy he thought, “See, it’s not so hard!” When he took Patty there, he told her all of this: the fights, his boyish escape. She held his hand and rest her head on his shoulder. She thanked him for sharing his bench with her and that was all she said, all she needed to say. To his relief, Cody never heard Patty retell this story.
Time passed. Months passed. Patty suffered worst in the winter, then dragged herself forth through the cruel month of March. But then April came and she started to regain herself like a stroke victim re-learning simple motor skills: this is how a face forms a smile. Summer came and with it were picnics, fairs, the re-opening of the town pool, festivals with all-you-can-eat sweetcorn.
Cody’s friend Fitz had a bowling party for his 35th birthday. Most of the couples had kids there, which Cody was sensitive about, for Patty. She was only a few weeks out of her slump, and with the hot weather came a new project: they’d started “trying”. At first, Cody hardly processed this “trying”; he thought of it as just the next thing a couple did. He'd even begun to think about engagement rings. But at the party he noticed Kay for the first time, Fitz's wife. She was holding their three-year-old daughter, Betsy. Cody watched Kay smile at Betsy and Betsy smile back; Kay tapped Betsy's nose, then Betsy tapped Kay's; they Eskimo kissed. It was a private world inhabited only by mother and daughter; Cody was made alien just by looking on. But then he saw Patty across the way, sitting on the other team's banquette. She was looking directly at him, watching him watch Kay and Betsy. Cody smiled at Patty, but Patty scowled back.
When they returned home from the party, Patty locked herself in the bathroom. Cody tried to think of what'd gone wrong. Was it because he was looking at Kay? It seemed impossible, there was nothing to it. Then he flashed to him and Fitz at the bar, flirting with the woman bartender, and he remembered some stupid joke Fitz made about blowjobs – but it was all done in fun, it wasn’t anything fatal. He knocked on the bathroom door. “Pats?” he started out quiet, “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said, even though he knew she wasn't.
“Pats?” he tried again. He’d had a low-grade headache for a few hours now and could feel his shoulder start to stiffen. It had been years since he’d tried to bowl.
“Seriously Cody,” she said, “Leave me alone.” He pressed his ear up to the door. He wondered if he heard the vanity open. Then he heard the water run and the sound of the toilet flushing. They were normal sounds.
He walked downstairs. The streetlight shone through the living room window, shedding a perfect square of pure white light onto the carpeted floor. He lay inside the intoxicating light. He rubbed his shoulder a minute and debated whether to turn on the TV to check the baseball scores, but the remote was way over on the TV stand. He felt drunk. Slowly, a rope tugged him beneath the surface into sleep.
He had a dream. Patty was a mom. But her daughter, who was also his, was actually Fitz and Kay's daughter, Betsy. Betsy was a baby again, and Patty held her on her hip while she walked from room to room through the house on her cell phone, talking shit about the fat pigs at the radio station, how everyone in town was too stupid to actually read a book, how Cody was nothing but a waste of space. Then Cody came home from work and when he walked through the front door, Betsy was standing in the front hall. She was in a diaper and barefoot. He opened his arms to her. “Betsy baby!” he called, but she snarled in return, the sound mushrooming into a giant roar, so massive it pushed Cody onto the floor. Patty would gain strength in motherhood, she would. She'd lord over him, turning even Betsy into a vicious cat. Then she'd fly back to her beloved New York. She'd run away just like his mother had.
Cody was alone, lying on the floor. He was a deflated balloon, wrinkled and blue with a red string still laughably attached to it.
Although he was just five miles from Jesus' Tabernacle, Cody felt very far from freedom. He started to cry even though he wasn’t sure, exactly, what he was crying about. Something about entrapment, something about finality, something about how fucking useless it all is. But really these were padded facsimiles of unmanageable feelings, the stuffed plush versions of savage animals raging within. He was crying for Patty, of course. It had all been for Patty. He put the cigarette to his mouth, however too wet to smoke. He threw it out the window.
He listened to the old car's random clinks under the hood. In stillness, his surroundings came alive: the locusts' winding maw inside the corn; the grasshoppers leaping from stalk to stalk; flies lumbering inside the car, butting their heads against the windshield, then stumbling back out as if they'd meant to go like that. Huge cumulus clouds barreled across the sky, hiding the sun then revealing it, shifting the daylight from very bright to very dark, bright to dark to bright again.
“Hey!” said a voice. Cody jumped. Someone was walking between the car and the cornfield. A girl poked her head through the passenger window, propped her forearms onto the door frame. It was the girl from the convenience store. She smiled, then looked over her left shoulder back to the road. Cody noticed the slick of skin dipping down between her new breasts, under her shirt. She looked back inside the car. “I seen you at the gas station, right?”
“Yeah,” he said, “I remember you.”
“It was nice of you to wave,” she said. “I like wavers.” She seemed out of breath. Cody looked into his rear view mirror. Anybody could come up now and see him pulled over, talking to the girl.
“You okay?” she asked. “You got car trouble?” He didn’t respond. She pulled her head out of the car, wiped her forehead with her shirt, forcing Cody to look away from her midriff. She put her face back into the car. “Hey so, I need a ride over to the interstate – just to the interstate where I can hitch another ride. You think you could take me there? If your car’s running okay?”
“I can’t,” he said, “I got somewhere to be.” He leaned to roll up the passenger window but then he stopped himself, realizing it was rude. He asked, “How’d you get this far, anyway?”
“Hitched. Only the last guy was headed to a funeral and said he couldn’t drive me no more.”
“Me too, I can’t neither. I got a funeral too.”
“Same one? Some girl who killed herself?”
He straightened, put his hands at ten and two. “More'n likely,” he said. Flicked the radio on. But since the car wasn't running, nothing played.
“Gawl,” she said, “I’m sorry for your loss. That’s what people say, right? ‘Sorry for your loss’?”
Turned the knob back to ‘off.’
“You knew her?”
Rubbed his eyes, looked at his watch. Already he was ten minutes late. By now Sheila'd be stroking her mother’s back while the woman cried hysterical and the preacher dug in on salvation and rest. Patty’s father'd be standing tall with his hands cupped in front of him, taking it harder than his exterior let on. Most likely some of Patty’s ex-boyfriends would be there; maybe some of her friends from New York City, too. All of them owning Patty in a way Cody never could.
He looked square at the girl, only the clouds overhead were passing too fast for him to see. Wasn't until the sky stayed dark that he could make out the girl's long mousy hair, her dry lips, how the bottom one had split. She couldn't have been a day over fourteen. He almost asked why she was hitching, but he'd learned too well the impenetrable boundaries to needing to flee. The interstate wasn’t so far. He could easily take her, then turn around. Wouldn’t take much time and besides, no telling what kind of scumbag might pick her up.
“Just to the interstate?” he asked.
“Yeah, just up a ways."
He leaned over to open the door. When she stepped in, he noticed her legs were scratched up and all's she was wearing were flip-flops. Anybody would've noticed that. “Cool car,” she said. He eased the Chevy back onto the road. As it picked up speed, pieces of the girl's hair got sucked out of the passenger window.
It wasn’t long before they passed the Tabernacle where folks were gathered for Patty. Cars packed inside the cemetery, in the parking lot, even pulled off onto the side of the road. It was a huge crowd that Cody knew was just as Patty would have wanted it, everyone crying over her dead body.
“Hey I bet that’s it,” the girl said, pointing with her thumb, “the girl’s funeral.”
He pressed hard on the accelerator to climb a stretch of hill. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the girl's chest rise and fall. She put her left hand flat onto the seat, edging into the space between them. He thought, I’ll just take this girl as far as she’s got to go or I’ll drop her wherever I want or I'll keep her as long as I need, on to Kansas City and to who knows where. Patty can't have it all. She can't have me too, crying alongside everybody else, ready to break into a Kum-ba-ya. It wasn’t that Cody didn't understand pain, he did. He did.