< why don't you say you don't know?
Oil refineries, in the distance, let off tall, smiling flames. I can’t say what they’re burning. And when I ask Rick what it is, he says he has no idea either, but the flames sure are big, he says, aren’t they.
Yeah, I say, big. Even though they look small, this is just because they are far away. They are such a deep red that they are almost invisible. They lick at the sky. They dance. They could kill me. They compete with the lights of the town, down in the valley, which are mostly from truck stops and a couple of casinos. One park. One bowling alley. A general store and a beverage shop. I wonder if our town is for business or pleasure. What anyone is supposed to do with their time. I wonder if whatever is burned, whatever makes those great columns of fire, so far away, is really useless, or if it is simply easier to waste. Too cumbersome to store or ship. It lives and dies here, whatever it is. Whatever damp, dark place it comes from. However embarrassing it is for humans to admit that they’ve made it; that it is theirs. Rick turns on the radio, which doesn’t work, though I would have told him to turn it off anyway. I would have put my hand over his on the knob and pressed. I could have told him it that wouldn’t work before he even turned it on. I could say everything about the car, his father’s, with the umbral burn like a ghost above the cigarette lighter, with its abraded stick-shift knob whose positions you had to know, with its wide, flat bench seat in the back. There was a time, I think, when Rick wouldn’t have even tried to turn the radio on. Listen to the night air, I would have suggested instead. Listen to me. We might hear an owl, a cougar, or a siren, from the town. If we were to hear a siren, I would say, we could try to follow the siren through the valley—try to trace its corresponding frantic little light making rights and lefts on the grid in the mud. It would be easy, because what little trees there were were sick, and thin. Unclimbable. Water starved. And then we would try to guess who it was for. Gus? I would ask. And Rick would ask me if Gus was still alive, confusion on his voice, still boyish, like mine, and I would say of course. I think. I saw him just last week. I think. But, that was last summer, I would remember. When my sister got sick. When the community above-ground pool broke in the night and the water rushed everywhere. I think. I do not have a memory of Gus’s girlfriend, in her flower-embroidered jean pants, in her starchy white blouse, leaning over his coffin. I do not remember her wailing. I would remember something like that. So he must not be gone. No one can disappear without a trace like that, I hope. No one can just burn up. I really didn’t know, then, who it could be, I would say. In the ambulance. Being pounded back to life. Kissed by an oxygen mask. Dying for real, where people forget their decency to save you, and hurt you to within an inch of your life so that they can stitch back whatever part of your soul was leaving. I believe in the soul. I believe in God, in a way, despite it all. I believe that when a doctor in an ambulance strips off your clothes it is a type of love. What if it was Megan, he would ask, and I would punch his arm, running up against his dense muscle. Feeling my hand stop at him. The solid silence around which he was sheathed, like a glove. His future, in whatever variety of hard labor paid okay and gave him the freedom he so often talked to me about wanting. How he wouldn’t look at me when I took my shirt off. Except once, when he pointed out a chest hair. When he said, rubbing his chin, that he had already begun having to shave. When we were young enough that our bodies looked the same. Before I could never catch up. Pass the cigarette. Discuss the flames. Don’t look at me. It’s easy. The town is dying, he’d say, smoke encircling his head, bleeding from his arched lips, curling at the top of the car like an injured dog. As if he wasn’t twenty, strong, good looking, a quick talker. As if he couldn’t throw away everything, still. As if he couldn’t still get drunk enough to kiss me. And what do you know about death! I would ask—I would punch, scratch, kick, bite, and want—you don’t even know what is burning, down there, in the valley. You don’t even know.