--MY LUNGS ARE THICK WITH SMOKE OF YOUR ABSENCE
On the Edge of the Canyon
Her text came through as a solitary word—Pink.
A bolt hit Garrett where he stood in his bedroom and he actually staggered off balance, heart somersaulting, electricity shooting through every extremity. Garrett started to write back but he was a jangle of nerves, his fingers shaking so bad that he kept punching the wrong keys.
Tilting his head to the ceiling, he felt dizzy and flushed.
He looked down at his phone again, praying he’d been hallucinating.
Pink as in positive. As in pregnant.
The band posters he’d so neatly pinned across his wall smeared and started to swirl and now maybe he was hallucinating. Chest tight, breath hard to take in, he told himself to settle down, not panic, think.
They’d only had sex without condoms that one time in the back of her SUV. He hadn’t used protection because he thought at Nancy’s age, fifty five, it wouldn’t be necessary.
And now she’d texted him with the results of her pregnancy test rather than calling. Just one word. What did that mean? Why not phone with news like that?
Maybe she was out with her husband. Maybe, like Garrett, the news had cut her in two and she wasn’t prepared to talk about it yet. Still he felt shunned, burned and abandoned by her brevity.
She was his chemistry teacher first semester. He’d found her attractive, like any other guy with a pair of eyes, but had no idea his allure would lead to an actual romance, to sex. The day they consummated their affair she tried to be cute and ironic saying they shared a certain chemistry. He fell in love, and fell hard.
Now Garrett took in a chest full of air, held it in, then blew it out. Into his phone he typed Please call me as soon as you can. He added a second Please then deleted it, realizing that would make him seem needy and desperate, juvenile, the very last thing he wanted Nancy to see him as.
He knew two girls his own age who’d gotten pregnant. One had a baby, the other didn’t. Clearly Nancy wouldn’t keep it. They’d talked about so many random subjects, everything from Middle East conflicts to gun control, but abortion had never come up.
Him a dad at age seventeen? It was impossible, wasn’t it?
Garrett paced around the outline of his bed, stepping on discarded clothes that were strewn everywhere. His foot got caught in the neck of a sweatshirt and he nearly tumbled, but went right on pacing.
When his phone buzzed, the vibration so startled Jarred that his hand jerked and the cell went flying, hitting a wall and trundling on the floor. He found it buried inside a pair of his boxer shorts.
But it wasn’t Nancy texting. Just his mom saying dinner was ready.
Garrett’s mouth tasted like a sandpit, gauzy and dry. Dylan had beer at his place, at Nancy’s, but Garrett couldn’t go over there until he heard from Nancy first. And then there was the matter of dinner waiting for him downstairs.
He paced some more, his mind a cauldron of dread, until his mother screamed about dinner.
At the table his mother sat opposite him, her fork upraised and pointed at him, appraising him as always, as if he was some stranger or an untrustworthy person.
Since Garrett’s father moved out a year ago, his mother’s evil side had sprouted freely, appearing without warning and often for no reason at all. It was preposterous to be frightened of your own mother when you were nearly an adult, yet Jarrrid was and perhaps in Nancy he saw not only an intelligent and beautiful woman, but also a mother without malice, a facsimile of a parent he wished he had. But no, it wasn’t that. He loved her. He---
“Eat!” His mother’s bark was a blow horn, ripping him from random thoughts, reminding him that there was more to be wary and worried about than Nancy’s text.
“My stomach’s upset,” Garrett said, jittery and anxious.
His mother reached below the table, producing a pack of cigarettes from her handbag. She tamped the pack and withdrew one and lit it with the lighter she always kept stationed beside her utensils at mealtime. Smoke swirled around her face like gauzy helixes.
“That’s not the only thing that’ll be upset if you don’t eat your dinner,” she said, as fissures of smoke danced out of her mouth.
Her hand slammed down on the table, making their plates and knives bounce.
“And put that damn phone away. It’s suppertime.”
He did as he was told, sat and decided he would eat as fast as he could, not thinking about what the food tasted like, chewing quickly, trying not to gag on the gluey carrots and potatoes, the cold slabs of pink ham.
“Some stomach ache,” his mother said, staring, smirking, not having touched any of her meal. Her eyes narrowed to snake slits, trying to skirt the cigarette smoke that shimmied against them. “When’s the last time your father called?”
“I don’t know,” Garrett said without looking up. His plate was nearly empty.
His mother’s fingernails, painted a wet black color and an inch long, tapped code against the edge of her plate. “Well, did he call in the last week?”
Garrett couldn’t remember. He didn’t want to think about that, not now. His mother’s interrogations, especially when it came to Garrett’s father, were a series of relentless questions, each one becoming more piercing, as if she were chucking darts or knives at him.
Garrett tried answering everything he knew she’d ask. “He called three days ago. We didn’t talk more than ten minutes or so. He asked about school, how my grades were. He asked about you. He said he hoped you were well.”
“Liar!” Again she slammed her hand on the table, sending several wilted peas bouncing off the edge.
“That’s what he said.”
“You father doesn’t give a rat’s ass about me.”
Garrett’s plate was empty and so he stood up. “Mom, I’ve got to go.”
“Sit your ass back down.”
He started to do as she’d commanded, then hesitated, meeting her eyes for the first time, eyes that looked like dead flies.
“Did you hear me? I’m giving you five seconds.”
Everything inside him was upended, topsy-turvy, on high alarm. To brazenly disobey her would mean a severe beating, but then again, it might just as well happen if he failed to answer her grilling the way she wanted.
Spittle clung to the crease of her mouth. One corn-colored tooth, sharp as a fang, hung down over her lower lip.
He darted away, out of the dining room and down the hall, everything a blur, flinging the door open, leaping down the porch steps, across the lawn, running down the sidewalk, running instead of risking being caught in the garage trying to get his car started.
He cut across backyards then through a park, picking up speed, not caring if gawking parents and their kids were alarmed by his brash intrusion. He ran another mile to a section of town where he knew his mother would never bother trolling and finally stopped to catch his breath.
His side ached. His knee was sore. He leaned over and threw up in a sunburned hedge. He retched and retched until what must have been his entire dinner spewed forth.
His mouth tasted foul. He felt dehydrated and dizzy, as if all he had to do was close his eyes, fall back and faint.
He did his best to regroup, checking his phone. Still no message from Nancy. That was rare. On the few occasions she failed to reply, Garrett couldn’t help but imagine it was because Nancy and her husband were having sex, though she’d said they hadn’t made love in over two years. He believed her, of course, was glad even, but the idea still dumbfounded him. Nancy was stunning, her body as fit as a woman in her twenties.
Holding his breath, Garrett punched keys on his phone.
Dylan answered on the first ring. “Yo.”
Garrett hadn’t thought ahead of what to say and he blanked. Initially, when they’d first become friends, conversations between he and Dylan flowed effortlessly, but of late, owing most likely to Garrett’s obsession with Nancy, things had been more stilted. A canyon existed between them, even if Dylan didn’t know it.
“Hey, dude, you there?”
“You always be thirsty, boy,” Dylan said, trying to sound hip, gangsta, always trying.
“Your folks home?”
“Rents?” Rents for parents.
“Just the bitch on the rag locked up in her hole.”
Garrett flinched. Dylan often disparaged his mother and Garrett couldn’t tell if Dylan really meant what he said or if it was just another way of him trying to come across as cool, the defiant teenage son.
“Your dad’s out?”
“Yeah. You keeping tabs now?”
Nancy was at home, alone except for Dylan, and she hadn’t bothered replying.
“Come on over. I just rolled a hella blunt.”
“Be there soon.”
It took Garrett far longer to get to Dylan’s than he’d expected. Exhausted and nervous he knocked on the door.
“Dude,” Dylan said, “where’s your car?”
“Are you nuts?” Dylan asked.
“Prolly.” Dylan’s eyes were bloodshot which meant Dylan had started on the weed without waiting for him.
“Your mom’s looking for you. She sounds remarkably pissed.”
“She wouldn’t believe you weren’t here. I even had to put my mom on the phone before she’d stop calling.”
That was a bizarre thought, Nancy talking to his Mom, and Garrett shook the image from his mind.
They walked up the stairs, Garrett taking in various family photographs that hung on the walls, his gut churning. In each Nancy looked naturally beautiful, and also happy.
As they passed the master bedroom, Garrett amplified his voice so Nancy would hear him, asking, “So how many times did my mom call?”
Dylan shot him a look which said why would you care?
His room was at the far end of the hall. An NWA poster was taped on the door at an angle. As they stepped inside, Dylan locked the door, something he always did, something Garrett would never be allowed to do at his home.
Dylan’s room was in disarray, resembling Garrett’s, only the desk was uncluttered with two hand rolled cigarettes and a lighter which was the same blood red color of his mother’s lighter. Loud ambient music played, a mix of tinkling wind chimes and some sort of animal snarling.
“What the hell are you listening to?”
“I’m off hip hop. This is fresh.”
Dylan stuffed a folded up towel against the bottom seam of the door and lit one of the cigarettes, inhaling mightily. Still holding the smoke in, he offered it to Garrett, saying “Here,” in a sharp squeak.
Dylan croaked, coughing and slapping his chest. “What?”
“I’ll take a beer if you have one.”
“Well, you look like hell man.”
“And you look stoned.”
Dylan offered a glassy-eyed smile and bent down by end of his bed where the mini cooler sat, fetching Garrett a can that was ice cold and dripping condensation.
Dylan plopped down on an oversized beanbag chair that was splotchy with stains and smelled like dirty socks. Garrett took the chair by the desk. He couldn’t stop thinking that Nancy was only a few yards away, down the hall, couldn’t stop wondering what she was doing and so he thought he’d just ask.
“What’s your mom up to?”
“She’s such a bitch.”
“Hey. Mine might be, but yours isn’t.”
“She’s only nice to her students. People don’t see the other side.”
“Yeah, like what?”
“All she does is nag, plus I’m positive she’s cheating on dad again.”
Garrett’s hear nearly ruptured. “Again?”
“She’s a slut.”
“God, lighten up already.”
“She slept with every guy in the last town we lived.”
“Sure,” Garrett said.
“Right, and how do you know that anyway?”
“Because she told me.”
Garrett was ready for Dylan to tell him he was joking. “Sure. You’re full of crap.”
“Dude, she did. It’s part the of steps.”
“Sex Addicts Anonymous. She’s one. At some point you have to come clean to ones you live with.”
“Wait, what’re you saying?”
“I still call her a whore. Fuck her, she thinks she has a disease. She’s just a sleaze. Hey that rhymes.”
The room was suddenly boiling, his body rocking, swaying, as if Garrett was standing on the edge of a canyon, wind trying to push him over.
“You swear everything you’re telling me is true?”
“Who would make up that stuff? It’s not exactly something you want to go bragging about.”
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I just did. And if it helps, it doesn’t make me feel any better.”
Now coils burned inside him, panic replaced instead by a seedling of rage which was sprouting and blooming through Garrett’s body at terrific speeds. He felt unhinged, as mired in quicksand, and so he blurted out, “I need to talk to her.”
Garrett got up and stood over Dylan, the muscles in Garrett’s neck taut, yet trembling. “I need you to promise me that you’ll stay here until I get back.”
Garrett thought about spitting in Dylan’s face but instead spat on the beanbag next to Dylan’s shoulder. “Say it. Say you promise.”
“Why? Why do you have to talk to my mom?”
Garrett reached down and grabbed Dylan’s shirt collar and yanked his face forward. “You fucking promise or I’ll beat you into hamburger.”
Dylan crossed his hands in front of his face in an X. “Fuck off, man. I didn’t do anything.”
“Promise, or I get started now.”
“All right. I promise. Whatever.”
Garrett released his grip but stood over Dylan a bit longer, pointing a finger at him. “I’m not fucking kidding.”
“What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Garrett spat again, this time hitting Dylan’s forehead. He left the room and strode down the hall and tapped on Nancy’s door and said for her to open up and when she didn’t respond he wrapped harder and screamed, “Open the fucking door or I swear I’ll kick it in.”
A second later Nancy cracked it open, whispering, “What’re you doing? You can’t be here.”
Garrett forced his way inside and pushed Nancy on the bed and was on top of her, pinning her wrists down.
“You’re hurting me. Please stop this.”
“Is it true? Are you really sleeping around with all these guys?”
“Were you, in the place you lived before?”
When her eyes flitted to the side, he knew the truth and the flames inside him leapt and it felt as if he was self-immolating. He felt like strangling her, hitting her, hurting a woman for once rather than having it be the other way around.
“Are you even pregnant, or is that a lie, too?”
“Garrett, please get off me.”
“I want an answer.”
“I want an answer.”
“I needed a little time to explain.”
“Explain what? Are you or aren’t you pregnant?”
“You’re really hurting me.”
“You wouldn’t even know what that felt like, real pain. Now answer me goddamn it.”
“Yes. Yes, I’m pregnant.”
“With my child?”
“With my child?”
Nancy shook her head.
“David and I, we’ve been trying to reconcile for a while now. I got pregnant before you, before us.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? You, you, you were kind to me, treated me nice, different. You let me tell you I loved you. You went down on me.”
“Unbelievable!” Dylan said, standing behind them in the doorway. “You’re both no-good whores.”
“I told you to stay in your room,” Garrett said, stepping off the bed. “You promised.”
“Yeah, well promises don’t seem to matter much to anyone around here.”
“I’ll kill you,” Garrett said, stepping forward. “I said I would.”
Dylan reached into his sweatshirt pocket and pulled out a pistol and aimed it at Garrett.
“Dad’s gun, sadly unused. Get down on your knees with your hands behind your back,” Dylan said to Garrett. “Now.”
“Dylan,” his mom said, “put the gun away.”
He shot her in quick succession, five or six times, her body flipping and twisting with each blast, the barrage lightning-quick.
Garrett sprang up and tackled Dylan by the knees. They scuffled, Garrett pinning Dylan against the dresser. A backboard mirror broke free from the bureau and shattered near their heads. A glass shard pinged off the floor and hit Dylan in the eye, blinding him. He stopped struggling and released his grip. The room became oddly quiet, just the sound of Garrett’s own breathing filling his ears.
“Go ahead,” he told Dylan. “Do it. Kill me, too.”
He heard the door close. Steps down a hallway. The door alarm bell tinging as it did whenever it was opened or closed.
He felt the quicksand tugging, pulling him down, but it was doing only slow work. Garrett ran his hands across the floor, feeling the chunks of shattered glass. When he found a large jagged piece he used it, slashing both his wrists, his throat.
Then he was transported to age seven, overlooking the Grand Canyon, Mom and Dad happy, still together, his mother saying, “It’s so beautiful, so peaceful. It would be a fine place to die.”