Joyland

The South |

Roadrunning

by Emma Smith-Stevens

We were always uneasy in the old place, a trailer we stayed in on the half-acre behind my boss’ house. There was almost always a dog chained to the water spigot on the side of the house. It took me a while to notice that every week or two the dog was a different dog. There was another dog, too, one they let live inside. I’d hear him barking when my boss had a visitor or the mailman came by, but I never saw him.

John and I moved there when I saw an ad in the local paper for a live-in position. We’d been driving through town, not sure where we were going, broke. Only once I got the job did we discover that it was more of a live-out-back position, out in back of a two-bedroom ranch-style home. There was the man, Brian, who had hired me, and there was his sister, Melody. It was my duty to sit with her, to make sure she got some sun and took her pills. According to Brian, the state hospital never should have let her go. I needed the money so I kept my mouth shut, but it seemed to me like Melody would probably be just fine on her own.

I realized the dogs chained to the spigot were for fighting after we’d been in the trailer for about a month. It was the Fourth of July. John had fallen asleep with the TV and I had forgotten what day it was. It wasn’t until I heard the whirrs and crack of fireworks that I remembered the holiday. I said, “Hey, John,” but he buried his face in the cushions of the foldout. I went outside to see if I could glimpse anything. Every few seconds a glow appeared behind the mountains. The sound carried better than I would have imagined, maybe because there were no other noises. Then, all at once another sound came, woven like a braid, screams into whistles, rough and wet. It built up, developing into two clear voices. I’d like to think I would’ve called the police if we’d had a phone. But the truth was I needed to keep that job. John hadn’t found any work. Later that night someone screwed the hose into the spigot and fed it through the little window, down into the basement of the house. I could hear water spatter against concrete. I didn’t hear any more dogs that night.

One night after six weeks or so of living in that place, I ran through a thunderstorm with groceries from our car to the trailer, and the moment I entered I smelled dog shit. I looked all around at the carpet, then down at my own feet.

“Goddamn.” I took off my flip-flop and turned it upside down, like I didn’t already know what shit looked like.

“They don’t respect their property,” said John. “And God help those animals.”

He got up to fetch some paper towels and I went outside, into the warm rain.

I was leaning over the spigot cleaning my shoe when Melody gave me a fright. She tapped on my shoulder, two hard jabs and I spun around. “My brother,” she said, and I said, “Your brother what, honey?” and she said, “I think he died today, Kathy.”

She took me into the house, which was filthy as ever. I followed her into the guts of it, stepping over milk crates, and soda cans, and dead batteries. She led me down rickety stairs, too widely spaced for safety, into a mildewed basement. I thought of the dogs—the one I’d always heard barking in the house, and the ones I knew were fighting—but there were none to be seen. Just a stain on the floor, but it was too dark to tell what kind. Melody pointed into the corner and I looked. Brian was folded like an empty sack by the window.

“Is he breathing?” I asked.

“He went to work today,” said Melody.

“Did you check if he’s breathing?”

“Our mom lives in Arizona. But Brian don’t speak to her no more.”

As I walked slowly towards him, lightening flashed and I saw the burn mark on his hand and a little black stripe on the concrete by his feet. His chest was still.

“Should we call her?” I asked. My heart felt like it was trying to claw its way through my ribs. I had never seen someone dead, other than in a hospital bed or a church.

“We don’t speak to her no more.”

“OK,” I said.

I took Melody back to our trailer. I had to wake John, because he had fallen asleep with the TV. I left her there and took the car, and drove to the payphone at the gas station. The ambulance and I got to the house at the same time. I took the EMTs to the basement and showed them Brian. One of the EMTs walked over slowly, studying his surroundings. Up and down he looked.

“Lightening hit the spigot, up above the window.”

“He must’ve been closing it for the rain,” I said, in a strange lazy way.

“He’s breathing,” said the EMT.

*

The hospital said they’d be keeping Brian for a long time, so a social worker came by to check on Melody. I vouched for her, saying I would keep an eye, even though nobody was around to pay me. I liked Melody. Sometimes I thought she was simple, because she hardly said anything, and her expressions didn’t always match her words. Other times she would say one thing or another, something short and sweet so I knew she was getting more than she let on. Her mind was always in ten different directions, and after a while of her fretting and loosing sleep over her lump of a brother, I let John give her some pot. It calmed her right down. It got to be a thing, the two of them sitting on the step of the trailer with the door open and music playing inside, smoking a joint and talking about Star Wars, or the new guy who took Brian’s job managing the diner, or how sometimes a rainstorm can be so close you can see the drops but you’re not in it.

A couple days after Brian’s accident, I decided to clean his house so Melody didn’t have to live in a pigsty. But I gave up when I got to the bathroom, and just told her to come stay with us. She’d been asking anyway. She got scared at night, of the mice in the walls and the Spanish moss brushing against her window. She thought it sounded like someone was painting her windows while she lay in bed. And then, she said, she was afraid that she’d wake up in the morning and find the house a different color, and everything changed, and Brian wouldn’t recognize it when he came back home. And with windows painted over, and the doors painted shut, she wouldn’t see him standing there. And nothing would open to let her out, for air, or light, or sound. Melody wanted to sleep like a camper on our floor, in a sleeping bag. I asked John, and he said fine, he didn’t care. She set up right next to our bed.

John took the car every day, looking for work in town. For all the traveling we’d done, back when we were young and following the Dead, and in the last few years chasing work, it seemed like we put more miles on that car than ever. Every day, there it was, our old blue beater in the driveway, fifteen years of memories. I heard a song once that said: “And if it’s all for nothing, all the roadrunning, all the roadrunning’s been in vain.” I thought of that song whenever I remembered our travels, from Florida to Georgia, and all the way up to Maryland and back down to Louisiana. And I thought about it when I heard the car’s engine sputter down and John’s steps, heels first, too slow and heavy for good news.

Without agreeing upon it with words, we knew there were things we couldn’t talk about in front of Melody, and what to do with her became one of them. One night we took her to the diner because it was her twenty-third birthday, and we left her inside with ice cream to go get some air.

“We need to do something,” John said through the side of his teeth, lighting a cigarette.

“I know.”

“You have to start looking for work,” he said.

“I know it, but Melody—“

“I know. Well, I’ve thought it over. No one seems to need their refrigerator fixed, or their air conditioner, or their stove. This is some kind of magic town. Doesn’t have a decent bar, but damn it, Kathy, seems like they have the best appliances on God’s great earth.”

“I can’t just leave her. They’ve got court papers that say she’s got to be looked after. I don’t believe it, but that’s not the point.”

“That’s what I’m getting at,” John said. “I’ll sit with Melody. I’ll keep an eye on her. I don’t mind it. She’s different, that’s for sure, but she’s not half bad to talk to.”

“You’d better watch it, smoking that stuff with her. I don’t care if you do it, but just watch it.”

“We’ll go back in, and you talk to the new manager. He’s a friend of Brian’s. He knows you’ve been good to Melody. He’ll give you a job.”

“All right, John. All right,” I said, sighing, opening the door. Melody was sitting at the counter with her back to us. When we got to her, she grinned, offering me a lick at her spoon, dripping with fudge.

The new manager told me there were no day shifts for me, so I worked nights. I’d come home to find John sitting on the steps of the trailer, smoking, and Melody asleep in her purple sleeping bag next to the foldout. I hoped he was thinking about me, missing the touch we had before we shared out sleeping space. One night I walked up to him, tired as hell, and he grabbed my hand and spun me like a dancer, and then kissed me. It seemed to me that his body had gone somewhere the last few years, and he’d found it while I’d been out using mine up, dishing out greasy plates to truckers. I let his tongue in my mouth, and I felt silver light from my belly button rushing down.

*

The sun was coming up one morning as I was driving home. I pulled the car down the dirt path round the back of the house and pulled up by the trailer. John was standing there leaning against it, raking his thick fingers through his hair. He had no cigarette lit, but I could see three or four butts by his right boot, flattened in the dirt. The sky was like the center of a cut peach, orange and pink with a jagged rim of darkness.

“Hey, Kathy,” he said, pulling a Doral out of the pack with his teeth.

“Well hey, John,” I said. He was acting funny, standing like he was waiting for something to happen that he might need to do something heroic about real fast.

“I was thinking,” he said.

“Well now, that’s where the problem is.” I was so tired I could hardly stand, and so I stood next to him, leaning my back on the baby blue side of the trailer.

“I got worried about you tonight.” He lit a match and held it to his cigarette, inhaling hard.

“What for? I told you I’d be working.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s just that I don’t like you driving in the dark.”

“Why’s that?”

“I always worry about you and you know it.”

“Sure I do.”    

“I’m going to drive you to work from now on,” John said. “It’s safer.”

“I don’t need it, baby, but I love you for it.” I stood up on my toes and tried to kiss him. He ducked away.

“Listen, then, would you? I’m going to drive you to work from now on. And that way, I can use the car if I have to. If there’s an emergency. And I’ll be there to pick you up.”

“John, what kind of emergencies happen in the middle of the night?”

“The worst kinds, Kathy.”

Thin yellow light went all over up in the sky, but nothing got clearer. When I looked to John, he just blew smoke and stared at the road without blinking.

*

Brian woke up in the middle of the night, couldn’t talk, couldn’t swallow. They left the tube in his mouth to suck his saliva after they took out the one for breathing. I got the news at work one night, and when I got home in the morning, John and I took Melody down to see him. All the drive there, she had questions. Was he the same? Did he ask about her? Did he say where her dog was?

“Your dog.” I said. It’d started as a question, but I realized halfway through that I didn’t want to ask it.

“Yeah, Major. Brain named him that, because he’s a major pain. Says he’s useless but let me keep him anyhow.” She stopped there, and I could tell by the way her eyes froze up that she was on to the something else. She was in the back and John was driving.

John and I hadn’t talked about the dogs since Brian had the accident. No use, I figured. No use bringing things up that were over and done. John lit a cigarette, turned on the radio, and poked Melody in the shoulder. She jumped in her seat, and then we all laughed.

After she visited her brother, Melody fell into her sickness. Back when it was just me and her during the days, she’d told me how it could be. She said it was like the whole world turned into a TV, and the people were just things, not people. I thought how lonely that must feel, to be the only one left living, to know that the people and their sounds aren’t even new—that they traveled in on a wire. I figured if it ever happened, I would be able to convince her that I was real. I figured Brian and doctors and the people she’d known probably never did simple things like touch her hand, tell her the bad things weren’t true, and the people—the ones who’d always been there—were where the truth was at.

But when the sickness came, she wouldn’t talk to me or let me near enough to touch her. Sometimes I’d catch her eating strange things: ants, her own eyelashes, torn-off bits of a grocery receipt. She kept us up at night with whispers and soft cries that sounded like hiccups. I used to give her space, thinking that she ought to have some dignified privacy. Now I half-slept like a new mother. She’d only take her pills if John fed them to her, put them in her open mouth and held a Coke can to her lips. I watched him do it, part of me thinking what a good dad he’d be, part of me feeling like I was loosing something, not sure what.

*

I’d been off work and waiting for John for forty minutes before I agreed to let the night cook give me a lift home. He was a kid, on summer break before his senior year, working for college money. The type that can’t wait to get the hell out of town, and everybody knows he’ll pull it off. He was ambitious, which was why it always cracked me up that he had a thing for me. He was seventeen, wanting to be something in the world. I’d known exactly what I’d wanted to be when I was his age—a singer like Carol King. I wrote songs and sang them outside shows, but I just kept spinning out, I guess, and ended up with the Dead, and eventually with John.

The boy was asking me all kinds of silly things, all the ride home. What was New York City like? Atlanta? Miami? Did I go to this or that museum? Had I ever eaten sushi? Meanwhile I’m thinking to myself, how come I don’t get mad when John pulls this kind of stunt, forgetting to come get me? Probably he fell asleep, I thought, and didn’t wake up in time. It’s just that I loved John for being laid back and easy-going, and for riding life like a long, slow train, and I couldn’t hate him for why I loved him.

The whole sun was up when the boy dropped me off. The trailer was empty. I got scared, wondering if John had to take Melody to the hospital because she’d lost her mind completely, or maybe Brian had died. The car was there, and so I pictured ambulances and police cars.

I was standing outside, trying to puzzle out how I would get to the gas station to use a phone when I heard tires crunching up the drive. At first I figured it might be a cop, someone coming to tell me what’d happened. Then I thought, well, it might just be the kid, the cook, come back to ask me something else, with all his questions and sweaty excitement. A new black pickup rolled up slow and then stopped, so close to where I stood it made me nervous. A man got out, wearing blue jeans and a clean white undershirt. His hair was like an oil-slicked baby seal in the pamphlets that Green Peace used to hand out at concerts.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m looking to speak with Brian.” His face was boney and pock marked, but his voice was buttery, and I had to remind myself not to believe the calm it tried to sell me.

“He’s not around,” I said. “I can tell him you came by.”

“Don’t tell me he ain’t around. It’s five thirty in the AM, and he’s around, so.”

“He’s in the hospital, sick.”

“What’s wrong with him?

“Got struck by lightening.”

“Bullshit.” He spit at the dirt.

“He did.” I was trying to inch myself towards the door of the trailer, but he walked over and leaned against it.

“Well your friend Brian—“

“He’s my boss.”

“Your boss Brian sold me a dog, goddamn useless.” His face was red and his nostrils flared with each word. He was jumpy and his fingers moved at his sides like he was playing piano. “Fuck it.”

“Well, why don’t I just go inside and see if—“

“See if nothing, miss. Where does he keep them?”

“What?” I asked, but I knew what he meant.

“The dogs.”

“There’s no dogs here, man.” I felt eighteen, for some reason, as if reenacting that stoned, easy way that I used to have would calm down the whole rest of the world.

A flash of something went over the man’s face, and he started towards the house. He walked like a bull, ripping up some muddy patches, bits of grass stuck to his boots.

“My boyfriend will be back any minute,” I said, but he kept going. The door was locked. He told me to get the key, and I got the key.

I stood outside the house, waiting. There was a crash inside, and my heart stopped, and there was John coming out the front door. My heart started. And then there was Melody, pressing a sheet against her bare skin and my heart stopped again. We all stood there, stiff. John and Melody blinked in the light and no one said anything. The man emerged carrying a TV with a clock radio balanced on top of it. I wasn’t afraid anymore.

“Tell Brian that piece of shit went down in less then a minute,” he said, and got in his truck and left.

“What’s he talking about?” Melody asked, breathing in the grit kicked up by the spin of tires.

I knew he was talking about Major, and I knew that Melody should never know. I also knew that I should be mad at John, but I wasn’t. I wanted to but I couldn’t. All the times I should’ve been mad—the jobs he didn’t get, the excuses, the girls—they all grew a face, and that face looked like Melody. She was sick, little and sweet. She was innocent, like a martyr’s got to be.

“Tell me,” she said. “What went down in less than a minute?”

The name of her dead dog came out of my mouth a cold, wet hiss: “Major.”

I saw no use arguing with John about him and Melody, no point dwelling on what’s done with. This wasn’t my town. I’d move on. I’d drive to the diner, and keep going. I wouldn’t worry too much about John. Soon enough someone would need their appliances fixed, and he would find work. Because things have got to break sometime.